Friday, December 30, 2011

The Tale of a Dormouse

For many years, whenever I would stop off at the local Starbucks, I could count on seeing Dormouse squirreled away at one of the tables in the rear of the coffee shop, tapping away on her laptop as she sipped her Frappuccino. Her name wasn’t Dormouse, of course. But as she slid her straw through her rodent-like buck teeth and torpidly dragged her fingers across her keyboard, pausing to stare up with her beady eyes and bushy coiffure, she struck me not as the middle-aged woman who had introduced herself as Doris one winter day, but rather as a dormouse, seeking sanctuary from the world in the recesses of a suburban coffee shop.

Doris had worked for many years for a large corporation that one day decided it needed to become a much smaller corporation, and on that day, like many of her coworkers, Doris found herself banking a generous severance check and contemplating her future. Her job search proved futile, as her former employer’s competitors were also downsizing for the recession. Not that Doris needed the income; her husband, a plastic surgeon, provided quite well for them. But Doris felt awkward whenever anyone asked what she did for a living. “Housewife” conjured memories of her mother, she felt too young to be “retired”, and “unemployed” made her feel like a discarded failure.

So, Doris fled her suburban prison each morning and drove to her “office” at Starbucks, where she would begin her day with a steaming cup of Joe, flip open her laptop, and morph into Dormouse. As the day progressed, her hot coffees were replaced by chilled Frappuccinos and patrons would admire her diligence. Some regulars would even strike up a conversation, asking what she did for a living (perhaps curious she seemed to reside at the Starbucks). Dormouse would smile, point to her laptop, and reply, “I’m a writer.”

Dormouse never showed her writing to anyone. It would never be read or published. Dormouse had never trained to be a writer. Her spelling was poor and her grammar worse. She had no clue as to diction (word choice), punctuation, plotting, characterization, or any of the skills necessary to become a writer. But that didn’t matter, because no one was ever going to read the words Dormouse painfully contorted into sentences. What mattered, to her, was she felt she had a purpose in life. She was not unemployed. She was not retired. She was not a housewife waiting dutifully for her husband to return home from work. She was a writer, a calling that placed her in the esteemed company of wordsmiths like Hemingway and Shaw.

Except Dormouse wasn’t a Hemingway or a Shaw, or even a hack. She didn’t have a natural talent or flair for writing, nor had she honed her craft, as I and other writers had over many decades. She had never done the hard preparatory work of studying literature and grammar. She had never suffered the abuse of writing instructors dissecting her work like a biology lab frog and grimacing at the remains. She had never experienced the daily grind of an editor slicing her story with a red pen until it bled like a murder victim and then stating he’d run the story only because they hadn’t sold enough ads to fill the page. In short, Dormouse hadn’t paid her dues or learned her craft. She was not truly a writer; to be generous, she was a creative typist.

I would cringe whenever a Starbucks patron said, “Oh, you’re a writer, too, just like Doris.” I’d glance at the dormouse squirreled away in the corner, and force a polite smile. Doris was a lovely lady who had found a sense of identity and purpose, albeit in an ill-fitting metaphorical suit. Her illusory vocation as a writer was harmless, so long as she never shared her writing with anyone. I wondered how bad her writing might be, were I ever bold enough to sneak a peek at her laptop.

One day, I found out. Dormouse discovered e-books and, using Starbuck’s WiFi, uploaded her book right from her table. As I feared, it was dreadful. Amateurish. Unprofessional on every level, from writing to editing to production. Yet Dormouse was proud. She was vindicated. Now she was “published.” Dormouse flashed me a self-satisfied smile. “Now, I’m an author, like you.”

I sipped my Frappuccino and gazed across the coffee shop. My eyes fell on dozens of dormice, tapping away on laptops. I felt a pang of sympathy for the readers. How would they differentiate between creative typists and writers in an e-world where anyone could proclaim herself an author?  As the slush pile moves online, will we reach a point where self-published dreck proliferates so rapidly it becomes the new standard? Will the next generation, raised on a diet of unprofessional writing, be incapable of telling the difference between good and bad writing? A young woman across from me flipped the page on her paperback edition of “Twilight”. Perhaps it was already too late.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Breaking News! - Cheetah is Dead!

Cheetah is dead.

Best known as Tarzan's chimpanzee companion in a host of Johnny Weissmuller films, the chimp had retired to Florida decades ago to live out his Golden Years. The actor died at the age of 80, in bed at the Florida sanctuary where he had lived since retiring in 1960.

"It is with great sadness that the community has lost a dear friend and family member on December 24, 2011," the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Florida announced on its Web site. The 80-year-old chimp was as remarkable for his longevity as he was for his acting, as the average lifespan of a wild chimpanzee is said to be 45 years.

Although he never won an Academy Award, Cheetah often overshadowed performances by his co-stars, Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, all of whom he outlived. Cheetah's childhood friend Johnny Sheffield, who played Tarzan and Jane's son "Boy" in the movies, died a year earlier. Cheetah co-starred in such classic jungle fare as "Tarzan the Ape Man" (1932) and "Tarzan and His Mate" (1934).

Friends at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary say Mr. Cheetah loved finger-painting and watching football, according to the Tampa Tribune, a local newspaper. A sanctuary volunteer was quoted as saying, "When he didn't like somebody or something that was going on, he would pick up some poop and throw it at them. He could get you at 30 feet with bars in between."

The former movie star was also noted for his ability to "walk upright with a straight back like a human," which set him apart not only from his peers at the sanctuary but also from many of his contemporaries at a nearby Century Village.

While he had many understudies for his role as Tarzan's simian companion who also appeared in the films, Mr. Cheetah steadfastly dismissed rumors through the years that his was a composite role created through the use of numerous animal actors. "Those lightweights could barely peel a banana," he was once quoted telling Variety.

Ironically, the character of Cheetah never appeared in any of Edgar Rice Burroughs' the two dozen Tarzan novels. In fact, no chimpanzees did, although in the novels Tarzan did swing through the trees with a monkey named Nkima as an occasional companion.

The flag outside the Chiquita Banana company flew at half mast today, in honor of the late actor.

Mr. Cheetah and his family in happier times.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Death of the Pony Express

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" reads the inscription on the James Farley New York City post office. Herodotus penned those words describing the expedition of the Greeks against the Persians around 500 B.C, but the saying has become synonymous with the U.S. postal service. Nothing can impede delivery of the U.S. mail… except a Republican Congress hell-bent on destroying it.

Everyone gripes about the post office, but I find it to be an amazingly efficient operation. Even as a child, I was awed by the notion that I could drop a letter into a metal box on my street corner and a few days later it would be delivered anywhere in the world.  The postal service will deliver a letter to the North Pole; by mule to an Indian reservation at the foot of the Grand Canyon; to an inmate at a maximum security prison; to the Alaskan tundra, by parachute; by hovercrafts, and through pneumatic tubes. And it does so for mere pocket change (six cents when I was a boy, 45 cents in 2012).

In the 1970s, the Postal Reorganization Act converted the U.S. Post Office Department into the U.S. Postal Service, making it a quasi-governmental organization. Since then, it has been self-supporting. Not a single dime of taxpayer money is spent on the postal system! All of its revenue comes from the sale of stamps and related products. For the most part, it has been profitable. It is also the country’s second largest employer (Wal*Mart is number one), has the largest fleet of vehicles on the planet, and processes 40% of the world’s mail.

Even with e-mail, online bill paying, and private competitors like FedEx, UPS, and DHL, the U.S. Postal Service performs a vital function. Its mandate demands it service everywhere in the nation… especially places its competitors refuse to service because they find it unprofitable to do so.

Yet today, the postal service is near bankruptcy and facing unnecessary Draconian cost-cutting measures: closure of half of its mail processing facilities; closing between 3,700 and 15,000 post offices; ending Saturday delivery; and firing tens of thousands of employees. That’s right: the Republican Congress thinks forcing the nation’s second largest employer to fire tens of thousands of employees in a depression is a good idea. Those jobless employees will not be spending their paychecks next year, further reducing the amount of money circulating in the economy. The merchants, doctors, lawyers, and others they would have paid will have less income to pay their employees and keep their businesses going.

So why is this necessary? The postal service was profitable -- during the worst recession in 80 years, from 2007 to 2010, the postal service turned a net operational profit of $611 million -- until the Republican 109th Congress decided it was so profitable that it should prefund its employee retirement accounts… for the next 75 years! Say what? Congress demanded the postal service build up a retirement reserve fund that would cover health benefits for the next 75 years, and gave the postal system only 10 years to fund it. A near impossible burden for any business in the best of times. Need I add, these past few years have been far from the best of times?

That unnecessary financial obligation forced on it by Congress accounts for 84% of the postal service’s shortfall. This is a manufactured crisis created by a Bush era 2006 law passed by the Republican Congress, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act which forces the postal service to put aside billions of dollars to pay for the health benefits of employees it hasn't even hired yet, something no other government or private corporation is required to do! Without this stupid law, the USPS would not be nearly bankrupt… it would have a $1.5 billion profit!

Annoyed? You should be.   Apathetic? Leave now.   Angry enough to tell your senators and representatives you want them to rescind this insane statute and allow the USPS to operate as it had prior to 2006? Then click here to contact your Congressman. The U.S. Postal Service has a long and proud history, dating back to Benjamin Franklin (the first Postmaster General) and the days of the Pony Express carrying mail by horseback in relays to stations across the prairies, plains, deserts, and mountains of the Western United States. Then again, they shoot horses, don't they? 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Blistering Barnacles!"

I read Steven Spielberg is releasing a Tintin movie. Film adaptations seldom live up to their source material, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Tintin was a childhood friend and I look forward to reuniting with him.

I first encountered Tintin in the pages of Children’sDigest. Every month, an issue of the digest-sized magazine would arrive in my mailbox, filled with puzzles, games, and stories but the first feature I would turn to was the Tintin comic strip. Belgian artist Georges Remi, under the pen name Hergé, created Tintin in 1929. What made Tintin a brilliant strip loved worldwide was a combination of clean artwork, quirky characters, and good storytelling that included a balanced mix of humor and adventure.

Tintin was a teenaged newspaper reporter who appeared in about two dozen books (what we would call graphic novels today) that have been translated into dozens of languages and sold worldwide for decades. Some of these stories were serialized in the now defunct Children’s Digest. Tintin was idealistic and inquisitive, traits most boy could relate to, and which often led him into trouble and adventure.

Tintin’s assignments took him all over the world, under the sea, and even to the moon! Tintin’s character was clever but somewhat bland, yet his adventures were enlivened by his unusual coterie. His entourage included the cantankerous, usually drunk and short-tempered Captain Haddock uttering pseudo-curses like "Blistering barnacles!"; the addlebrained and hard-of-hearing inventor Professor Cuthbert Calculus continually mishearing what others said; the incompetent, derby-wearing twin detectives Thomson and Thompson (who can be distinguished by the fact one lacks a ‘p’ in his name); and his faithful dog, Snowy, a whisky-drinking white fox terrier. Each adventure added quirky guest stars to the cast.

In many ways, Tintin served as an inspiration for my own Halos & Horns series. It’s easy to watch archangel Gabriel berating demon Lucifer as he taps into his cask of Merlin ale and conjure visions of the Boy Scoutish Tintin lambasting the whisky-chugging Captain Haddock. Like Hergé, I blend humor with adventure and drama. Halos & Horns has some very funny scenes and lines, but it is not strictly a humor series, any more than it is straight drama, or an action-adventure saga, but rather a blend of all three. Following Hergé’s lead, I’ve packed Halos & Horns with a variety of quirky characters embroiled in adventures across several locales, finding themselves in both dramatic and humorous situations. I hope my characters and stories prove as enduring… and endearing… as his have.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Worth A Second Look

In a previous post, I told you about the eStorybooks that were selling well. Today, I'd like to shine the spotlight on three of my favorite short stories that have been neglected by Kindle purchasers.

The plot: Reporter Sylvia Bartow has only one hour to make sense of the patchwork quilt of interviews that has consumed the past three months of her life, as she waits to interview condemned killer Max Crenshaw - one hour before the hangman's noose silences his lips forever. Is it time enough to unravel the truth, and to learn the secret of the Butterfly Lady? 

Why I like it: I used a unique storytelling technique. As the reporter waits to meet the condemned prisoner, her mind flashes back through a series of interviews she conducted with different individuals about the case. The flashbacks are presented  as vignettes told by the interviewee from their point of view. There is some foreshadowing that portends the surprise ending.

Next, is Kil-ger.

The plot: If you're a SF post-apocalyptic fan, this one will be a treat for you. By day, Kyle Marsden leads an idyllic life in the suburbs with his wife and daughter. But at night, Kyle slips into a post-apocalyptic world gone mad - populated by animalistic ravers who rape and plunder at will; joyriders, scion of society's elite who kill for sport to relieve their boredom; and rogue cybernetic mercenaries called Kil-gers. But what happens when Kyle's nightmares merge with his idyllic existence?

Why I like it: Again, the storytelling technique stands out. Kil-ger was a challenge to write because the story transitions multiple times between two time periods with two very different moods. The trick was to maintain a smooth flowing story while the reader -- through the protagonist -- undergoes a jarring change in surroundings from idyllic suburbia to post-apocalyptic madness and back. The surprise ending leaves the reader pondering how far man's humanity can be stretched before it is lost.

The last one for today is The Encounter.

The plot: An elderly man, armed only with his wits, confronts an gun-wielding young man burglarizing his home.

Why I like it: The plot is what makes The Encounter exceptional. It's plotted like a two-man play. The Encounter is an intellectual thriller. An old man is trapped in his home by an armed punk a third his age. He can't expect outside help and he cannot physically overpower the thug. His only hope for survival is to outwit his younger, stronger opponent. With only two characters and one setting (a kitchen), the dialogue and interaction form the basis of this riveting thriller.

I like to think each of my stories is unique in some way. These three tales stand out because of the level of writing styles employed. I hope you'll give them a try. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Big Brother is Watching What You're Watching

The Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 makes it illegal to disclose which videotapes an individual has rented, unless he or she has given informed, written consent at the time the disclosure is sought.

This means you can rent a copy of Lesbians in Leather Bondage from your local video store, mail order vendor, or Web site and not worry your prim and proper neighbors will give you awkward glances at the supermarket (so long as you’ve kept the volume down; walls being thin, of course).

More importantly, it also means the government will not have access to which videos you watch, or which books you buy online or borrow from libraries. Big Brother will not be able to demand a list of what media you are reading, viewing, and listening to. This harkens back to the days when the government spied on citizens to ferret out Communists within American society. In the 1950s, American citizens were punished for their political beliefs. Blacklists were drawn up to deny work to writers and actors based on their political ideology. The government realized it could discern what you believed based on what you read.

Congress even set up the House UnAmerican ActivitiesCommittee to interrogate leading citizens for any inkling they may have read the “wrong” books and periodicals, or listened to the “wrong” ideas advanced by those espousing opposing ideologies. Careers were ruined. Lives were shattered. It was the greatest witch hunt since the days of Salem. Massachusetts, where in 1692, hundreds of American citizens were tried for allegedly practicing witchcraft and 20 were executed. In the 1950s, witches had a new appellation: Communists.

When America regained its collective senses, it realized the Founders had drafted the Constitution with an inherent right of privacy, necessary to secure all the other rights the document bestowed. The right to privacy, free from government intrusion, was a prerequisite to independent thought and the formation of opinions and beliefs.

Privacy is an individual right and the decision to relinquish one’s privacy should always rest with the individual, not the government or profit-oriented businesses. If you want to share every aspect of your life – where you are, what you do, what you are reading or viewing – with the world on Twitter or Facebook, that is your choice… but no one else’s.

Netflix is backing a bill in Congress that would amend the Video Privacy Protection Act. If the video streaming corporation gets its way, Facebook users will be able to see which movies their friends and family are viewing. The bill allows consumers to give one-time blanket consent online for a company to share their viewing habits continuously. That’s right: one mouse click to relinquish your privacy forever. And guess what? The bill passed the House of Representatives last week (December 6, 2011). It now awaits passage in the Senate and then the president’s signature to become law.

This is corporate greed at its worst, eroding our civil liberties in the quest for more profits. If the Senate passes the bill as currently written, the revised law would vitiate your control over information collected about you while empowering corporations to develop and share detailed customer profiles.

Ignore this blog and let another of your civil liberties disappear. Or preserve your rights with a single mouse click by contacting your U.S. senators and telling them to vote against the amendment.

(For more information on the right of privacy and the Video Privacy Protection Act, refer to my book, Issues in Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law, 6th ed.).

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Banned By The BBC?

This month marked the return of Nicola Stapleton to EastEnders after a 17-year absence, resuming the role of Mandy Salter

The former “wild child” returns as a stripper. She certainly looks a lot, ahem... different, from how I remembered her, so I hopped into my time machine (YouTube, for the uninitiated), and found this clip of her from 1992 

in which teenage Mandy lets slip the phrase “a bunch of wankers acting like Cockneys.” I was surprised at the number of YouTuber comments expressing shock that line had slipped past the BBC censors.

No, it’s not what you think. Get your minds out of the gutter so mine can float by. The term cockney refers to working class Londoners who have a distinctive accent and dialect. It’s a perfectly benign term. However, the BBC has described “wanker” as “moderately offensive” and in  2000, a British research study ranked wanker as the fourth most severe pejorative in the English language (which I have to question, as I’m sure I’ve been called at least a dozen worse words).

A wanker is British slang for a loser or layabout  -- one who makes as little effort as he can possibly get away with, and wastes his time… how shall I put this politely… wanking a certain bodily appendage.

In my novel Paved With Good Intentions, the demon Lucifer and angel Gabriel (disguised as a demon) have snuck into Hell to search for Chrysanthemum when they stumble upon a group of demons having tea (picture the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Hell). Lucifer hastily introduces his friend, struggling to create a demonic name and function for the disguised angel:

“May I present my friend, um… er… Wanker, the demon of masturbation!”

Gabriel momentarily looked askance at Lucifer, then extended his hand before quickly withdrawing it, sensing his hosts’ reluctance to shake hands with the demon of masturbation.

American readers don't get the joke and British readers will be offended. I guess that scene has killed my chances of ever seeing Halos & Horns adapted by the BBC. Sigh. (Of course, there is always ITV…) Meantime, I’ll have to settle for watching Nicola Stapleton playing a skimpily clad stripper on Eastenders. I’m such a wanker.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Looking for the Perfect Holiday Gift?

Wondering what Lucifer is planning on giving Samantha for Christmas? Maybe an engagement ring? Or possibly this lovely Halos & Horns logo necklace! It's the latest addition to our line of Amber Ware available through our affiliation with the good folks at Cafe Press. You can see the entire line of Amber Ware (and we'll be adding to it regularly) at the Amber CafePress store or by clicking the Amber Ware tab at the top of my blog.

(Now you can let that special angel in your life know she's in your thoughts... even your naughty ones! And read Halos & Horns, Book 2: And A Child Shall Lead Them, to see what Lucifer actually gives Samantha for Christmas!)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Kindle Fire

I took the plunge on Black Friday and purchased a Kindle Fire. I'll report back periodically on my impressions. So far, I'm disappointed with the limited allotment of storage space -- roughly 6 GBs. Amazon counters music and videos can be streamed from the cloud, but I presume one would need to be within WiFi range. Also, the concept of storing other data, like documents, on someone else's server raises privacy concerns.

U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass), a trailblazer in Internet law, is asking Amazon for details on how Kindle Fire user data is collected, stored, and used. We all know customer information (demographics and buying habits) is the new currency of the Information Age. Kindle Fire's proprietary Silk browser splits page rendering between the device and Amazon's cloud-based AWS servers. Markey said he is concerned about Amazon's capability "to collect and utilize an extraordinary amount of information about its users' Internet surfing and buying habits."

Amazon counters "customers have the option to turn off the cloud acceleration feature of Silk. In that 'off cloud' mode, Web pages go directly to a user's device rather than pass through AWS servers, and customers still enjoy a good browsing experience."

All well and good, but I've read that on three different Web sites, none of which explain HOW to turn off the cloud acceleration feature. (Yes, the default is set to spy mode).

So here's how you do it. From the Kindle Fire home screen, tap the Web tab. The Amazon Silk web browser launches. At the bottom of the browser, tap the menu button, then tap Settings. Scroll to Accelerate Page Loading and uncheck the box. If you later decide you want Amazon honcho Jeff Bezos as your Big Brother, just recheck the box.

As for the Kindle Fire, the screen is absolutely beautiful, although I'm still having trouble with the touchscreen. Either it requires multiple taps to perform the desired action, or else a mere accidental brush will send me on a journey through Kindle land. Setting up Internet connectivity was an unsuccessful three hour ordeal, made palatable by a lovely young Amazon support rep (Hi Brianna!). I later figured out the key was to whitelist the Kindle's Mac ID on my router. Brianna told me I get a free month of Amazon Prime, but frankly I don't see the appeal. It gives me two-day shipping on books and selected free streaming videos. If I want a book shipped faster than the usual 3-day USPS (which is quite sufficient in most cases), I'll just download the e-book version. Other than "How to Stop a Plumbing Leak", there aren't many books I can't wait three days for. As I told Brianna, "I'm sitting in front of a 60" plasma TV; why would I want to watch movies on a tiny Kindle screen?"

My impression, so far, is the Kindle Fire exists as a tool for Amazon to sell product to Fire owners. Other tablets may be better for general use. But for reading e-books, it excels. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Internet Law In India

Just found out about this nice book review from India of Issues in Internet LawIt concludes by saying "Such a book would be immensely helpful if introduced in the curriculum of Indian schools. It would help young students obtain an insight into the dynamic jurisprudence of Internet law. With the number of India’s Internet users increasing, it is imperative that schools adopt this book in a way which would help young students gain knowledge about the various issues involving the Internet."

The book review, by Rodney D. Ryder, appeared in the Indian Journal of Intellectual Property Law last year but I only learned of it this week. News travels slower from across the world, lol.