Monday, December 24, 2012

Get Your Stocking Stuffer

Fire up your Kindle! It's time to download your Christmas short story! Where else can you get this many laughs and still get change back from your dollar? Click now to download!

It's the Trial of the Century, as prosecutor Nicholas Scratch presents his case against Santa Claus. An irreverent short story by Keith B. Darrell. 3,690 words.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Betrayed By My Kindle Fire!

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last confession, I mean, blog post. In my defense, it has been a prolific two weeks. I've learned to hate the Kindle Fire I had grown to love and to complete a NaNoWriMo experience without ever having participated in it. And I've done something I’m really proud of, even though it’s left me a bit sad.

You may recall, last year I bought a Kindle Fire. It took me a while to warm to it, especially since no one had explained to me what an app was. But eventually, I found myself dragging my Kindle around like Linus and his security blanket.  
My relationship with my Kindle Fire really took off when I discovered I could create and load my own eBooks onto it, and then edit them right on the Kindle. No more printing out reams of manuscripts and replacing the outrageously expensive printer cartridges. Plus, it had the added advantage of displaying the work in progress exactly as it would appear in published eBook form. What a fantastic editing tool. Can you blame me for falling in love with my Kindle Fire?

Of course, like all relationships, we hit a snag. This is where NaNoWriMo comes in. For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is an annual event where writers attempt to write an entire novel in one month –  November, to be specific. I've always eschewed NaNoWriMo on the premise that it is impossible to write a novel in 30 days, or at least a well-written one. But something happened this November. Perhaps I discovered my muse, in the form of an electronic tablet. Maybe she was intent on proving her worth to me so I wouldn't replace the superannuated electronic muse with the newly released Kindle Fire HD. Whatever the cause, the Kindle Fire and I developed a synergy that led to a fecundity never before experienced: I penned more than 65,000 words that month, including a new short story and completing my novel (Amazing what you can do when you put off blogging).

I was amazed, gobsmacked even. It WAS possible to write a novel you could be proud of in 30 days. Of course, I still wanted to go back and do some editing, proofread for typos, and tweak a few lines. Over the next few days, my Kindle Fire lit up, pleased to see me, as I logged on and made my corrections. Instead of transferring my changes to the manuscript on my computer each night, as had been my practice, I decided to wait until I had made all my changes to the novel on the Kindle Fire.

On the third night, I set my Kindle Fire down for a break and when I returned, I decided to transfer my changes up until that point to my computer. I turned on my wonderful Kindle Fire, my loyal, dependable, and reliable writing companion. I clicked on ‘notes’ and… nothing. All my notes had vanished. I stared in disbelief at the heartless bitch. “How could you betray me?”

As with all breakups, I devolved through the five stages of grief: Denial – “No, you couldn't have deleted three days of work!”  Anger– “Damn it, you deleted three days of work!”  Bargaining – “I’ll buy you a new cover if you show me where you've hidden my work.”  Depression – “There’s no way I can recreate all that work!”  Acceptance – “I’m screwed!” 

I called Amazon. There must be a way to recover my work, I thought, knowing nothing is truly ever deleted from a hard drive. After an hour and a half, we discovered what had happened. My Kindle Fire had been unfaithful. When I had set her down and turned my back, she had gone online to “synch”. Apparently, Kindles synch with Amazon’s server to match the data on the device with the data the user has uploaded to Amazon’s server. There was just one flaw with this explanation: I had never uploaded anything to the server. “That’s the problem, sir,” the polite young techie explained. It was trying to sync with something that wasn't there, so the notes file defaulted to a blank file.”

“Blank?” I asked. “As in empty, totally devoid of the heart and soul I had poured into it these past three days?”

“Yes sir.”

“How do I get it back?” I asked, with about as much hope as a forlorn maiden inquiring how to regain her virginity.

“If you had uploaded a backup to our server, we could have restored the backup, but since you never uploaded anything, there’s nothing to restore.”

“What about the original file? Isn't that still on the Kindle hard drive?”

“No sir, the attempted synching overwrote that file and replaced it with the empty one.”

I hung up the phone and turned on my faithless electronic muse. I shall spare you, dear reader, the unpleasant description of what followed. Suffice it to say, gorilla glass is NOT bullet-proof.

No one said being a writer was easy. I rolled up my sleeves and returned to my keyboard. My computer forgave my dalliance with the tablet and welcomed me back. She responded to the gentle tapping of my fingertips as I spent the next three days plumbing the depths of my eidetic memory and recreating the first three days of revisions. On the seventh day, I rested. I saw what I had written, and it was good. I had completed my novel and I was proud of it, as one would be with any achievement, yet my sense of accomplishment was tinged with the sadness that inevitably accompanies the completion of a project one has enjoyed working on for a long time. For although it only took 30 days to finish, this book wraps up the first story arc in the Halos & Horns fantasy saga that began four years ago. More on that in my next blog.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Powerball Fever

It's Wednesday, and while that day is celebrated in offices around the world as “hump day”, here at Chez Keith it is better known by the appellation “garbage night”, for this is the day that heralds the weekly chore of lugging the trash to the curb – although, in truth, the plastic bag is seldom heavy enough to be “lugged”, the curb is a mere five feet away, and while ostensibly still a “chore”, the task requires more thought than effort. But today is also lottery night, and with the Powerball Jackpot having surpassed the half-billion dollar mark, Wednesday night has taken on an entirely new dimension.

I decided to throw my hat into the ring. I searched the Internet to learn where I could purchase lottery tickets. The better question, it seems, would have been Where can't lottery tickets be purchased? In a land where one can search in vain for affordable health care or an honest politician, lottery tickets were literally available on every street corner.

My next obstacle was the cost. I had no idea what these pieces of blue sky sold for, and wondered if I had enough change in my pocket. I was surprised to learn Powerball tickets cost $2 a piece. This presented a budgetary quandary – it would mean forgoing my nightly Cadbury Dark Chocolate candy bar. Besides the obvious pleasure of enjoying one of the most important food groups, a single Cadbury Dark Chocolate bar provides 100% of the minimum daily requirement of chocolate. Purchasing a lottery ticket would entail sacrificing my health and nutritional needs, but so be it.

Next, I had to choose the numbers. I had researched this online, as well, and found “expert advice” advising me to avoid 3, 7, and 14 because those numbers won most often and were chosen frequently, and would likely lead to my having to share my $650 million winnings with others. I pondered the warped logic of why it would be better to choose losing numbers and keep nothing all for myself than to select numbers that might actually appear on the winning ticket, even if it meant receiving a paltry $325 million. It seemed to me, I could do quite well with only $325 million. In fact, $1 million would improve my circumstances considerably, but apparently this was chicken scratch to the Internet guru.

The online expert also recommended buying lots of tickets because that would increase the chances of winning. I suppose, were this a question on a statistics exam, I would have to agree the odds might be nudged infinitesimally, but real life doesn’t work that way. The odds of winning are calculated at 175 million –to-one. Now, I know my math is off, but if I wanted to knock those odds down to the odds of an all-or-none coin toss, how many tickets would I have to buy? 80 million? At $2 a piece. And then, I ‘d still have a 50-50 chance of walking home without a dime. No, random means random. I think I’ll have just as much luck as anyone else if I buy one ticket. The guy in front of me buying 100 tickets and I will have one thing in common tomorrow—neither of us will be $650 million richer, but I’ll only be $2 poorer.

Of course, if I did win the lottery, I would soon be approached by long-lost friends who suddenly added me to their Christmas lists, distant relatives who discovered me via genealogy software, and enough charitable donation seekers to make a pack of Girl Scouts armed with cookies seem a welcome sight. Most lottery winners end up losing friends, squandering the money, finding new (or expanding on existing) vices like alcohol and hookers, committing suicide, or even being murdered.

I stared at my winning lottery ticket. (I’ve learned that every lottery purchaser believes he or she has acquired the holy grail, that single slip of paper that will ensure a “happily ever after”). I tucked it neatly in the plastic bag, tied the drawstrings, and lugged the garbage bag to the curb, secure in the knowledge that I had won the Powerball lottery and had emerged unscathed.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Elephant in the Bubble

The Elephant in the Bubble - Part Two

If America's decline began with Fox News permeating its airwaves, it was exacerbated by the "perfect storm" of talk radio and the creation of the Internet. These three outlets became ubiquitous throughout American society: Everyone was online, watched TV, and listened to the radio in their cars.

As music migrated to the FM band, AM stations, seeking a product to draw listeners, stumbled onto the concept of talk radio. It was cheap to produce (one blowhard and one microphone) and easy to create controversy -- attracting attention and listeners, which translated into ratings and advertising dollars. Invariably, the most ardent listeners turned out to be the angry right-wing, so naturally the radio stations pandered to that audience, launching the careers of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck, and Laura Schlessinger, among other conservative talk show hosts.

The Internet, meanwhile, allowed anyone to create a Website and fill it with their opinions or what they claim to be facts -- without the traditional journalistic filters of fact-checking editors or journalistic responsibility. Because of the great weight of the printed word, many believe anything in writing to be true; hence the meme, "I read it on the Internet; it must be true."

This trifecta, this unholy triad of Fox News, conservative talk radio, and the Internet, spawned two phenomena: the Echo Chamber and the Bubble.

The way humans form opinions is to receive information from a variety of sources, evaluate the data for relevance and veracity, discard what they deem irrelevant or untrue, and finally accept what remains. Often, they are presented with two or more opposing conclusions and must reach their own conclusions after careful perusal and analysis of the evidence. This process necessitates an openness to receiving new information. For example, if Helen is short-tempered and moody when you meet her, you might conclude she is not a nice person. However, after a friend informs you Helen is under tremendous stress because she is going through a bitter divorce, her son is dying of leukemia, and she has recently lost her job, your brain will process this new information and cause you to re-evaluate your initial conclusion.

When we limit the flow of information to only one source, we exclude the possibility of new information being presented by others. We also eliminate the presentation of conflicting data. This creates a "bubble" insulating us from outside sources of information. In our bubble, we hear the same data on TV from Fox News; from talk radio; and from others sharing these views gathering on, and posting to, conservative Websites. Soon, it becomes easy to believe everyone lives in the same bubble, because everyone you see on TV, listen to on radio, and talk to online agrees on the same talking points. In fact, because the same talking points are regurgitated among the unholy triad, it generates an Echo Chamber, constantly repeating and reinforcing these messages. As Marshall McLuhan said,  "The medium is the message."

This is why so many Republicans -- including Mitt Romney himself -- were shocked when Barack Obama won re-election. They lived in the bubble and believed the artificial reality that had been created within it. In the bubble, the Kenyan-born, Socialist president had been destined to lose by a landslide to Romney. Data from outside the bubble was ignored or dismissed. But as the Coyote taught us in those old Road Runner cartoons, you can ignore the law of gravity by running off the cliff, but gravity still exists, whether or not you choose to accept it.

"The Elephant in the Bubble" isn't an attack on Republicans or the Right Wing. Had Murdoch swung left, it could well have been the liberal segment of American politics that fell victim to the phenomenon. Instead, it is an indictment on the corruption of the state of what passes for journalism today and the gullibility of Americans. As H. L. Mencken said, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Murdoch knew this.

It is a perfectly valid choice to be a member of any political party or affiliation that represents your beliefs, be it Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Tea Party, Progressive, Liberal, Moderate, Conservative, or Green Party. I might disagree with your opinions, but I respect individuals who have studied the issues, analyzed the facts from a variety of sources, and drawn their own conclusion because such people care about the issues that affect their country and their fellow citizens. What I don't respect, and will continue to rail against, are individuals and organizations that propagate misinformation and propaganda, either by design or ignorance, parroting talking points without acknowledging and considering facts from outside the Bubble to inform their opinions. As Harlan Ellison said, "You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant."

Thus, our current social and political divide, which has split families and set brother against brother with passions not felt since the Civil War, is a wholly artificial creation with its roots in greed. The only hope to reverse America's decline is to tune out the propaganda that serves only to enrich plutocrats like Murdoch, educate ourselves with facts derived from a myriad of legitimate sources  instead of talking point or political propaganda, and then work together -- with the same spirit of unity we employed to climb out of the Great Depression, to win WWII, and to put a man on the moon -- and rebuild our country and restore its preeminence.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Elephant Man Cometh

The Elephant in the Bubble - Part One

Whoever controls the public's access to information can shape it, and thus controls public opinion. America's decline began in 1996 with Keith Rupert Murdoch's introduction of FOX News to American television.

Murdoch's motivation has always been power and money, not political ideology. Had he thought he could make more money by introducing a left-wing propaganda network instead of a right-wing one, he would have. After all, this is the man who backed the Australian Labor Party on a social platform that included universal free health care and free education for all Australian citizens. Murdoch's forays into journalism had been limited to tabloid trash and titillation, scandal and sensationalism, and manipulation of public opinion. Anything other than what Jack Webb used to intone as "Just the facts, ma'am."

His tentacles are far-reaching. In his native Australia: The Adelaide News, The Sunday Times, The Daily Mirror, The Herald and Weekly Times, and a host of other tabloids; in New Zealand: The Dominion, The Australian, The Daily Telegraph; in Great Britain: The Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times, and satellite network Sky Television; in Italy, controlling interest in satellite television Sky Italia; in Hong Kong, Star TV (broadcasting from Hong Kong to India, China, Japan, and more than 30 Asian countries); in the United States: The San Antonio Express-News, The New York Post, an interest in 20th Century Fox, and Metromedia television stations which became the basis of the Fox Broadcasting Company. Murdoch also owns the Website and magazine The Weekly Standard, 34% of Direct TV's parent company, and the Fox movie studio. Oh, and he bought Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, and SmartMoney.

Rupert Murdoch is obviously an opinion shaper. But while there have always been newspaper magnates -- on a significantly smaller scale, such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer -- who attempted to manipulate public opinion on their editorial pages, Murdoch has gone further, manipulating public opinion through the presentation of the news itself, and then by presenting commentary and analysis as news, and finally by offering fantasy as fact. But it was Fox News, in combination with two other forces, that split the American social and political fabric in a way not seen since the Civil War. I'll talk about that in my next post.

Next: "The Elephant in the Bubble - Part Two"

Friday, November 23, 2012

Kids Say the Darndest Things

I hope everyone reading this in America had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and for those of you elsewhere unfamiliar with our holiday, it's like Christmas without the presents but with twice the food.

I've just returned from Thanksgiving dinner, where my precocious eight-year-old niece asked, "Uncle Keith, are you still being an author?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Are you still writing books?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Are you famous yet?" she asked.

I shook my head. "Nope."

She placed her hands on her hips and sternly asked, "How many years have you been doing this?"

That kid's going to make someone a fine ex-wife, in about 20 years.  ;)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Hate and Loathing in America

I've been observing a disturbing trend this week on social media. My personal Facebook page (not the public one you guys see) has been flooded with an outpouring of post-election hate. What's particularly disturbing, is this hate speech is coming from my personal friends (people I know and like), and friends of theirs (their social circles).

One man complained "the government should not spend money on useless minorities." The man's uncle, my friend, reminded his nephew that he was gay, and thus one of those "useless minorities."

One friend commented on a post quoting 18th century philosopher and economist Adam Smith with the pithy reply: "Sounds like jew propaganda to me." The two-page quote about economics never mentioned religion. But why pass up an opportunity to bring in an anti-Semitic remark in a discussion about money?

A friend of mine asked: "Dow down over 300 points... what happened?" Based on my experience as a former stockbroker and having earned an MBA from one of the nation's top MBA schools, I gave a reasoned, non-political  response: "European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said the debt crisis is starting to hurt Germany (the lynchpin holding up the EU economy). Add to that Apple's continued descent into bear territory (more than 20% decline from $703 to $563 in one month) and uncertainty about the so-called "fiscal cliff" and traders are bailing out of long positions. I expect a few rocky months ahead with some good buying opportunities on the dips and a rebound in early 2013." His friends chimed in with more simplistic, Tea Party-like (but incorrect)  response : "Wrong guy won." and "Wrong guy won - an understatement at best."

This kind of thinking is called a syllogism: a type of logical argument in which the conclusion is inferred from two events: Obama was re-elected and the stock market fell. But it is also what's called a logical fallacy because there is no evidence to connect the two unrelated events (for example, if Obama as president were bad for the Dow, it would not have doubled during the first four years of his presidency, so if anything, his retention as president should be viewed as favorable for the Dow's prospects), while there is evidence pointing to the true causes of the market decline. We call such evidence "facts". People who make emotion-based arguments (haters) ignore facts (logic). And when you present them with the facts, they tune it out. I'll discuss this tuning out of reality in my next post. But for now, I think we have to ask why there is so much more hate and ignorance rising to the surface of the American zeitgeist.

Another friend said "I did something I've never done before here on Facebook -- I unfriended four people." He explained he disliked the "level of discourse, whether in anger because a candidate lost or whether in trash talking mode because a candidate we like won" that appeared on his Facebook news feed from his friends. As I've stated, I, too, am disturbed by this. But, as a journalist, I find it troubling to censor the speech of others simply because I do not agree with it or find it offensive. If it turns out my friends are not the people I thought they were, but instead, indeed carry such hate in their hearts, then I shall delete them as friends both from Facebook and from my life. But venting from a passionately held political belief is different from racist, anti-Semitic, or homophobic remarks.

I replied: "I haven't defriended anyone based on their political beliefs, although I have hidden some of the feeds of some of the more abusive friends, and I have blocked some friends from reading my feed because I knew they are so far from my views that my political posts during the campaign would disturb them. I don't mind political debate and I appreciate those with different views from my own, but there is a segment of the population that is divorced from reality, living in a bubble/echo chamber where only their own views are heard and reinforced, and when you try to have a discussion you are met with rattled off talking points or arguments ad hominem (because they are low information viewers/voters lacking an understanding of the issues, relying on simplistic unfeasible platitudes and solutions to complex problems)."

I added: "As a journalist, I recoil from the idea of shutting off someone's speech just because I don't agree with it or find it offensive. Let them post their rants and whining and most readers will draw their own conclusions. They only make themselves look bad."

One friend of a friend responded "Facebook is my living room, in a sense. I take umbrage to irrational rants stuck in my face (news feed). I invited these friends in... When someone displays what I consider to be irrational or mean-spirited rants within my news feed, I'm not obligated to be fair to them. I'm not running a newspaper here or a government; if I want to unfriend someone, I have that option, and I can show them to the door."

I can appreciate the frustration of internalizing what some of our friends are posting. But, if these are indeed one's friends (and not merely strangers bearing the appellation of "friend"), are we not obligated to be fair to our friends? If you "unfriend" every friend who says something you don't want to hear, you will eventually find yourself with no friends at all. Sometimes, the best friends are those who tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear.

I believe it is important to discuss and debate issues of public concern. Such debate may be robust and passionate. The intent should be not to "win" an argument (which Dale Carnegie teaches us is impossible) but to educate the other person as to your viewpoint and try to open his mind a crack for him to consider the subject from your point of view, so he will be receptive to learning new facts that might later alter his position. Such discourse should not include argument ad hominem (personal attacks) or hate speech against specific groups of people. Instead, it should be an intellectual exchange of ideas -- some accepted and others rejected -- that ends with both sides remaining friends, who simply choose to disagree on certain matters.

Over my lifetime, I have engaged in numerous robust and passionate debates with friends from different cultures, different countries and political systems, different religions, different races, different sexuality, and who were proponents of political and economic theories vastly different from my own. I've disagreed with many, learned from many, and in some cases, changed my initial conceptions. But even when my friends expressed views at polar opposites to my own, I never disowned them as friends. At times, I might have questioned their fundamental intelligence or mental stability based on their statements, but never their friendship. Because, as an old cartoon of a skunk once put it, "a friend is someone who knows all your flaws... and likes you anyway."

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What's Next? Accountability

The election is over. We, the American people, have elected a president, a Senate, and a House of Representatives. Tonight, there will be victory celebrations and the champagne will be flowing, and that is as it should be. But tomorrow, we must roll up our sleeves and get to work. Not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans; not as partisans, but as patriots. We must work together; Congress and the president must work together because the task we face is monumental.

It’s time for the politicians to put aside partisan politics and become statesmen. We face serious problems as a nation, and as individual citizens – the time for childish partisan games has ended. We must hold every member of Congress – Democrat or Republican, regardless of party affiliation – responsible. As voters, we can no longer tolerate purposeful lack of cooperation by any elected official. We have elected them to serve the public good; they had damn well better do it this time, for we will hold them accountable.

The “economic cliff” looms. The tax code must be completely rewritten. ObamaCare must be transformed into a single payer “Medicare for All” healthcare system. America’s infrastructure (roads, bridges, public transportation) must be rebuilt. America’s once robust manufacturing base must be reconstructed. Voting reform is needed: eight-hour lines at the polls are unacceptable. Climate change must be seriously addressed, not debated. Education must be a priority, not only emphasizing science and technology, but also history, literature, English, and the arts. Financial and consumer regulations must be revamped and enforced. Congress must pass President Obama’s American Jobs Act and put Americans back to work. Congress and the president must work together and take a page out of FDR’s book, bringing back the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Civil Works Administration, the Federal Art Project, the Federal Works Agency, the Federal Writers' Project, the National Recovery Administration, the National Youth Administration, the Public Works Administration, and the Works Project Administration. These programs pulled us out of the Great Depression; they can do it again.

Political cooperation is not a choice; it is a necessity. We need to do this to save our country, and to show the next generation that, once again, public service is a sacred trust and those we elect to lead us are not the buffoons and clowns we have seen on the national stage of late, but honest, well-intentioned, men and women committed to working together for the common good. That’s how it used to be; that’s how it should be; and that is how we must demand that it become once again.

We must hold the feet of those elected today to the fire. Their free ride is over. It’s time for them to get to work and for us to hold them accountable from this day forward.

Monday, November 5, 2012

It's Morning in America - Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!

It’s morning in America. Wednesday, November 6th, 2012 – The Day After. When you awaken, the election will be over. What will life be like?

If you’re a woman and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you will have to work harder than your male coworker to get the same paycheck. Birth control may be limited or banned. Abortion will be illegal in most states and having one or aiding someone in getting an abortion will place you in prison. On the other hand, rape – once a capital offense – will now be relegated to misdemeanor status… provided it is even a “legitimate” rape, and not a “gift from God”.  In those few states not outlawing abortion, you will be required to undergo an invasive vaginal ultrasound procedure before being allowed to proceed. In other states, if you are raped, you might be forced to give birth to the child and grant your rapist access to the child.

If you’re a senior citizen or disabled and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you will no longer be able to rely on the security of government-backed Medicare. You will get a coupon book with vouchers, allowing you to buy private insurance, assuming you can find an insurer willing to write a policy for an 80-year-old.

If you’re a person with pre-existing conditions and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you will discover ObamaCare has been repealed and so has your insurance coverage.

If you’re a minority, especially black or Hispanic, and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you will discover Republican efforts at voter suppression of this growing demographic hostile to their interests were merely a prelude to complete disenfranchisement of minority voters. Can poll taxes and literacy tests to vote be far behind?

If you’re gay or lesbian, and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you will find homosexuality is once again classified as a mental disorder, and you will be ostracized as child molesters presently are. There will be no gay marriage or civil unions, no gays in the military, and no gay rights.

If you’re a student, and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, your student loan guarantees will vanish and your prospects for higher education will diminish, if you lack wealthy parents.

If you belong to a union, and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you might find your union no longer exists. But that’s all right, because your job might not be there either.

If you’re a young person, and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, get ready to visit new lands, meet new people, and kill them. America will likely be invested in new neo-con wars that will require bringing back the draft to restock the nation’s depleted military forces.

If you’re an investor, and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you’ll be surprised to learn the economy is once again in freefall, as it turns out while a vulture capitalist might know how to make himself wealthy by buying and disassembling businesses, turning a nation’s economy around is an entirely different matter, requiring a completely different skill set, which Romney lacks.

If you aspire to future wealth and see Romney as the key to achieving it, when you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you will be disappointed to learn the billionaires’ club has not reserved a space for you and that Mitt and his "Old Money" friends, while smiling and thanking you for your vote, will look down on you with the same disdain they reserve for the nouveau riche.

But wait! It’s morning in America, but it’s Tuesday, November 5th. There's still time to make a difference. In 2000, a mere 527 votes determined who would sit in the White House and be “the decider” when it came to handling the economy, going to war, and reacting to terrorism or hurricanes. Think what America might have looked like had 528 more people voted. When the alarm clock rings on election morning, it truly is sounding an alarm. Will you answer it, or do you have something more important to do? VOTE the Democratic ticket on November 6th. Vote for your Democratic senator, your democratic representative, your Democratic governor, and for President Obama.

I’m Keith B. Darrell and I approve this message.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Halloween Treat: What to Read at The Witching Hour

What better reading material for Halloween than witches, vampires, werewolves, and demons? Now is the perfect time to start reading my Halos and Horns saga, before the final volume in the four-book arc is published in 2013. The story takes place in a magic-filled, supernatural reality and is told in episodic fiction. Each chapter is a complete tale, like a TV episode, but read in context with the other chapters, a larger story unfolds, making each book like a TV show season. The first four books form a complete story arc, introducing readers to the "Halos & Horns" universe.

Book One, Paved With Good Intentions, introduces some of the main characters: Gabriel, an archangel; Lucifer, a trickster demon; Samantha Twitch, a secretary and witch; Mordred, a warlock and illegitimate son of Morgana le Fay and King Arthur; Detective Mordecai, a hardboiled Las Vegas cop; Kennedy, a hooker with a heart; Sharon, a Jewish vampire (crosses don't bother her) and her vampiric entourage: scatterbrained BFF Pandora; claustrophobic and clumsy Claude, who eschews coffins as too confining; eternally 10-year-old vampire Artemus; and cold-blooded ex-KGB operative Valentina. We wrap up with a "Who's your daddy?" cliffhanger.

Book Two, And A Child Shall Lead Them, unveils the secret existence of the Dark Gods and their ominous plans to return to our realm. Heaven and Hell must join forces in an attempt to prevent the Dark Gods' return. One result of the Dark Gods creating a breach between our dimension and theirs is the release of Lilith, a powerful, child-killing demoness. Along the way, we meet Kita, a kitsune (Japanese fox spirit), several hypnalises (women who turn into man-eating snakes); and visit a lot of unusual places: the Dreamscape (a realm of dreams); Thenesia (an ancient land of barbarians, wizards, and kings); the 1940s; England, Japan, the Middle East, and even Heaven. We wrap up with the most shocking cliffhanger ever written. Really.

Book Three, To Hell In A Handbasket, delves into the backgrounds of some of the major characters. We meet Samantha's sisters, two witches who share a secret connection with her; see Gabriel and Lucifer's unlikely career changes; discover a startling secret about the Mordecai family; follow the adventures of two strange little girls in Japan, one a despicable changeling and the other a hypnalis; attend a trial by a tribe of Gypsy werewolves; learn the untold origin of the sorceress Morgana le Fay; embark on the prelude to a war between the Light and Dark Fae; meet Paige Turner, author of the dreadful "Nightfall" vampire novels, who has been targeted by the savage Empusae, flame-haired vampiric demons and, apparently, pissed off literary critics who complain "Real Vampires Don't Twinkle"; follow Lucifer's political ascension and Gabriel's moral ascension through Hell; and watch Detective Mordecai confronted with an impossible choice. We wrap up with a murder, a kidnapping, a bloodthirsty rebellion, and a shocking ending (admittedly, nothing could match Book Two's cliffhanger, but this comes close).

Book Four, The Witches' Cauldron, begins with the death of a major character, and ties up subplots involving those strange little girls in Japan; the deadly Empusae; the Mordecai family and its secrets; the dysfunctional Twitch sisters and their secret; Morgana's journey from innocent little girl to Fae and sorceress, to Dark Fae, and finally to evil mistress of malevolence; teen witch Emma's arrival in 17th century Salem; Gabriel and Asmodeus' showdown with the demon usurper Baphomet’s legions; Lucifer's judgment by a tribunal of the Fates; a funeral and a wedding; and the fates of Morgana le Fay, Damien, Emma, Samantha, Drusilla, Calliope, Lucifer, and Gabriel. Hint: some of them aren't going to make it to the next arc.

In 2014, it's on to "Fangs & Fur", the second arc, which delves deeper into our world of vampires and werewolves. The first tale focuses on ditzy vamp Pandora, revealing her origins and the truth behind her "psychic bond" with Sharon (disclosed way back in Paved With Good Intentions). It's all connected; each arc is part of one big universe and each chapter of this episodic fiction is a jigsaw piece of the puzzle. The series is, at times, humorous, poignant, adventurous, dramatic, and action-filled. The first three books are available in softcover and on Kindle.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Banned Words for 2012

I realize we must all endure certain annoyances during the campaign season -- robocalls, ugly yard signs, and a mailbox stuffed with unwanted campaign flyers -- but I must draw the line at the butchery of our language. As a wordsmith, words are my bread and butter, so I can only react with horror at some of the new words and phrases spawned by the 2012 campaign. What's most jarring is commentators insist on repeating and overusing these words, ad nauseum. For example:

"Unpack":  (verb)  Used to refer to the dissection or analysis of a political plan. Unless there is a suitcase in the same room, do not use this word.

"Optics": (noun)  Used to refer to the way a candidate or his surroundings look on television. This word should only be use when discussing the branch of physics that studies the physical properties of light.

"Litigate" (verb)  Used to refer to a discussion or argument of a political point. Unless this argument is taking place in a courtroom, do not use this word.

"Etch-A-Sketch moment" used to refer to a candidate flip-flopping on a position. Do not use this phrase unless you are holding an Etch-A-Sketch.

Attention all Republicans: "Democrat" is a noun (i.e., a thing), meaning a person belonging to the Democratic Party. If used to describe a party or policy, the word is "Democratic", an adjective (i.e., a word that describes things). Notice how every Republican insists on saying "the Democrat party". This goes back to 2000, when they used the word in subliminal advertising, focusing on the "rat" ending, in an attempt to turn voters off DemocRATS.

"Percent": Enough already with the "one percent", the "99 percent", the "47 percent"...  we all know Americans are bad at math, anyway.

"Game Changer":  An event that affects the momentum of a political race, based on the book "Game Change", about the Palin pick for the McCain ticket in 2008. Note to political pundits: Not every event is a "game changer".

"Throw someone under the bus":  meaning to sacrifice someone else to save oneself. This cliche has gotten old really fast. Besides, political betrayal is a daily occurrence in Washington. We're lucky the political parties haven't both adopted the Greyhound as their mascot.

"Job creator" and "Class warfare" are two more clichéd phrases that can also be swept into the dustbin.

"Man cave":  (noun) used to refer to a room designated to be used as a man's personal area for hobbies and leisure activities. Admittedly, this word has no relevance to politics, but it still irks me, as it connotes a derogatory caveman stereotype toward males.

"Romnesia":  O.K., this one's kind of cute. On the stump, Obama said: "If you come down with a case of Romnesia, and you can't seem to remember the policies that are still on your website or the promises you have made over the six years you have been running for president, here is the good news: ObamaCare covers pre-existing conditions. We can fix you up. We've got a cure." But beware: Romnesia is an FTD -- a Fox Transmitted Disease. You can catch it by viewing the Fox News Channel.

"Binders full of women":  Seriously, Mitt Romney still uses binders? You might recall, at the second debate, Romney told how he tried to bring women into his cabinet while governor of Massachusetts: "I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks?' And they brought us whole binders full of women."

And don't even ask me about the new word "vajazzle" -- I won't go there!

(And yes, I've deliberately inserted clichés in this post).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

On the Warpath

A Native American website is trying to stir up controversy over a t-shirt marketed by apparel retailer The Gap that bears two words: "Manifest Destiny." These Indians are on the warpath over the shirt, denouncing it as emblematic of racism and genocide, suggesting the Gap release a "Final Solution" shirt, as well. The article is accompanied by an image of a shirt with the phrase and a picture of what looks like Prussian soldiers posing by a mass grave (presumably meant to be the US Army burying Indians). Further down in the article, the author admits this is not the actual Gap T-shirt, but rather, "something i made to show what i see" (sic), quoting Steven Paul Judd, who had placed the image on his Facebook page. The real shirt has no images, only two words.

While I have been a lifelong defender of American Indians, long before it was politically correct to do so, I think this is, in Joe Biden's words, a bunch of malarkey. It's a classic example of the liberal spin machine going into overdrive in an attempt to redefine history in the name of political correctness. Every schoolchild read American history textbooks with a chapter on Manifest Destiny, of which PBS says: "No nation ever existed without some sense of national destiny or purpose. Manifest Destiny — a phrase used by leaders and politicians in the 1840s to explain continental expansion by the United States — revitalized a sense of 'mission' or national destiny for many Americans."

Without a sense of Manifest Destiny, American pioneers would not have ventured forth into horrible conditions, across deserts and swamps in nothing more than tarp covered wagons and hope of building a new life in a new land. Without Manifest Destiny, America would not exist. The United States would not have claimed Oregon, annexed Texas or spread west to California. We might still be a nation of 13 colonies had we ignored Horace Greeley's advice to "Go West, young man".

American expansion led to conflict with indigenous Indian tribes and there was brutality on both sides. The U.S. government broke every treaty it made with the tribes and legislation such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was reprehensible. President Andrew Jackson's defiance of the Supreme Court's decision in Worcester v. Georgia is as inexcusable as it is was illegal, and the deaths resulting from "The Trail of Tears" following the Act were tragic. But the myth of the "Noble Savage" has been overblown by Hollywood and the liberal media. Many Indian tribes were equally savage, attacking and slaughtering innocent settlers and pioneers. There was plenty of blood spilled and inhumanity exhibited by both sides. The fact the white man ultimately won does not absolve the Indians of their share of the carnage.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Monroe "it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent". Historian Robert Johannsen cited Abraham Lincoln's interpretation of the Civil War as a struggle to determine if any nation with democratic ideals could survive, "the most enduring statement of America's Manifest Destiny and mission". To reinterpret the phrase "Manifest Destiny" through a politically correct, revisionist lens is disingenuous, to publish a photograph of an offensive shirt that was not the one marketed by the retailer but was merely "what their shirt means to me" is not only disingenuous but misleading, and to compare Manifest Destiny to the Holocaust shows a lack of understanding of either, and is more offensive than anything written on a Gap T-shirt.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Bravest Girl in the World

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.

Malala Yousufzai, in 2009, aged 11: "I don't mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education. And I'm afraid of no one."
When she was 11, Malala wrote a diary, reminiscent of Anne Frank's, about Taliban atrocities. She wrote pseudonymously and the BBC published her blog. The Taliban had announced a ban on girls' education and destroyed 150 schools. Malala wrote she was "afraid going to school because the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools."  More than half of her classmates dropped out, a few relocating with their families to other regions. The Pakistani Taliban continued to bomb hundreds of schools, mostly for girls, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where Malala lived.

When the Taliban was routed from the region in 2009 by a major military operation, Malala was able to reveal her true identity as the blogger who had told the world about the Taliban's imposition of harsh Islamic law on her village, as seen through a child's eyes. A Dutch organization named her as an International Children’s Peace Prize finalist for "her bravery in standing up for girls’ education rights amid rising fundamentalism when few others in Pakistan would do so." The girl whose blog promoted literacy and peace was honored by the Pakistani government with a national peace prize.

When she began her diary, Malala wanted to go to school to become a doctor; three years later, she had changed her mind. She now wants to become a politician when she grows up, to help lead her people into a better society.

Yesterday, 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.

Across Pakistan, school children are holding prayer vigils for Malala, who at this moment lies in critical condition. Many Pakistanis, including political leaders, have expressed outrage over the assassination attempt on the ninth grader, but their religious leaders are silent. Clerics seldom criticize such attacks for fear of alienating their conservative followers or provoking reprisal from the Taliban. Citing Malala's words, a Taliban spokesman said, "She considers President Obama as her ideal leader. Malala is the symbol of the infidels and obscenity.” He added, chillingly, if she survived, the Taliban would try to  kill her again.

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. This is the world around you. There are things happening in places you've never heard of, from the Congo and Haiti, to Pakistan. Unimaginable things. Freedom isn't free; it's earned -- over and over again. This 14-year-old girl was lauded for her bravery in standing up for the right of girls to receive an education, amid rising fundamentalism, when few Pakistani adults would do so; as a result, the Taliban shot her on her school bus to send a clear message of intimidation. But we can never allow ourselves to be intimidated. Speaking out may cause you to become alienated, lose some friends, or possibly your life. But remaining silent in the face of evil leads to worse consequences. As Edmund Burke said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." So speak up when you see something wrong. Speak loudly and clearly. Post it. Share it. Spread the word. That's why I write blogs like this one. First, you must inform people before you can rally them to act. Malala Yousafzai is a model for us all.

Malala Yousafzai

UPDATE #1: Malala remains in intensive care at a military hospital in Peshawar, recovering from surgery to remove a bullet lodged near her shoulder, where it had moved after entering her head. Doctors describe her condition as critical and the next 48 hours as crucial. Although preparations were made to fly her abroad, a military source reported she was unfit to travel.

"In attacking Malala, the terrorist has failed to grasp that she is not only an individual, but an icon of courage and hope who vindicates the great sacrifices that the people of Swat and the nation gave, for wresting the valley from the scourge of terrorism," Pakistan's top military officer, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said.

President Barack Obama called the attack as "barbaric" and offered air ambulance services. White House press secretary Jay Carney said U.S. forces stand  ready to offer transport and treatment to Malala Yousafzai.

More news, photos, and video.

UPDATE #2: Malala was flown to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England.  On October 19, her doctors said she can now stand for the first time since the attack and is communicating by writing. A tube in her trachea prevents her from speaking, at present. She wanted the photo below to be published. She is aware of the worldwide attention her shooting has received and wanted to thank people for their support.

The bullet did not penetrate her skull. Instead, it entered her head near her left eyebrow, then traveled under the skin surface  down the side of her head and neck. Shock waves from the bullet shattered a bone in her skull, and fragments were driven into her brain. She will need reconstructive surgery to repair the damaged part of her skull and possibly her jaw.

Her doctor said, "She seems to be able to understand; she has some memory.... She's able to stand. She's got motor control, so she's able to write."

The Taliban still insists it will kill Malala. They fear a 14-year-old girl because she dares to speak out and write. In contrast, Malala, the bravest girl in the world, continues to write, even from her hospital bed, unintimidated by these murderous scum.

Now, I will warn the Taliban: If you are successful in your promise to kill Malala, the civilized world -- from which you have removed yourselves by this and previous actions -- will not rest until the Taliban itself is eradicated from the face of the Earth. You have not silenced the truth; you have unleashed it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Wishing Well

In my previous post, I revealed a technique I've offered many times to writing groups I've led to help overcome writer's block: Find an unusual or inspirational piece of artwork -- it can be a drawing, photograph, or painting -- and create a story behind the image. You can find inspirational artwork in magazines or through an image search on Google. It's a fun exercise that will stimulate your imagination and boost your creativity. Here's a fun piece of flash fiction I did for this image below:

The Wishing Well

Jimmy and Tommy raced across the electron field. They ran several kilometers until they passed the remains of the Arcturian spacecraft that had crashed onto their planet decades before either of the boys had been born. They reached the abandoned, dilapidated shack where the crash’s sole survivor had lived out his days, before dying alone and undiscovered, in the wooden hovel.

“The bucket’s still where we left it,” Timmy cried out.

“Of course it is, you geezbar,” Tommy replied. “No one ever comes out here.”

“Tie the rope to it and we can lower it into the hole again.”

“Where do you think the hole leads to?” Tommy asked, as he knotted the rope around the metal pail.

Jimmy shrugged and his antennae bent 90 degrees. “Beats me. Maybe it goes to the core of the planet.”

“But what about all the neat stuff we’ve pulled back?”

“Yeah, that’s true. Every time we’ve lowered it, it seems to land somewhere different.”

“I think it’s a hole in the space-time continuum. We studied that in school last week.” He pointed to the alien skeleton seated in a rickety wood rocking chair in the corner. “I bet he was stranded here but found a way to cut a hole into wherever he came from and get stuff from back home.”

 “There’s only one way to find out,” Jimmy concluded. “One us will sit on the bucket and the other can lower him down.”

Tommy shuffled his feet and his tail twitched, sweeping away the nearby electrons. “I don’t know about that, Jimmy. Unless you want to go down and I’ll lower the rope.”

Now it was Jimmy’s turn to be uneasy. “What if there’re monsters down there? What if the rope breaks? You should be the one to sit on the pail – you’re lighter.”

Tommy shook his head. “Nah, let’s go play in the quantum matter particles instead. They raced out the door of the dilapidated shack, leaving the ancient explorer alone with his last, tenuous link to Earth.

©2011 Keith B. Darrell

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Remedy For Writer's Block

When people learn I'm a writer, one of the first questions they're bound to ask is, "Where do you get your ideas?" I smile coyly, replying, "From the idea store on 45th and Main Street." The truth is, my mind is usually racing with more ideas than I can develop into stories. But I have friends who are also writers and many complain of writer's block. One technique I've offered them is to find an unusual or inspirational piece of artwork -- it can be a drawing, photograph, or painting -- and create a story behind the image. I've done this many times with writing groups I've led and even the most stymied wordsmith among them has emerged with a short story they have been justifiably proud of.

You can find inspirational artwork in magazines or through an image search on Google. I prefer surreal scenes, but any image will do. My audio post a while back, "The Library of Trees", was inspired by an image I stumbled across on the Web. Below is another flash fiction piece I wrote, using the image below for inspiration. If you're an aspiring writer, try this technique yourself.

The Lady Or The Tiger

He really meant it this time. Colt Taylor knew Pamela had grown tired of the broken promises. She didn’t understand how hard it was for him to turn his back on his racing. It had been his passion from the time he built his first go-kart. Twenty years later, the thrill of reaching greater and greater velocities in top sports cars was a singular passion that he could never share with his girlfriend.

Pamela only saw the danger. Sure, fiery crashes happened, but that was part of the thrill. To risk death, only to walk away unscathed to face it another day, was part of the attraction. She just didn’t understand. But he had promised her the Monte Carlo Grand Prix would be his last race. And he meant it. Until the telegram arrived inviting them to spend the weekend in Greece.

Artemis Stravokanis, a Greek tycoon with his own island, was sponsoring the world’s most exclusive auto race. Colt’s reputation had preceded him – Stravokanis had singled him out to drive the Tiger X10 – the one-of-a-kind racecar that only an enthusiast with unlimited funds like Artemis Stravokanis could conceive, let alone construct. Any driver would give his eye teeth for a few minutes behind its wheel. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Pamela had to understand. 

But Colt knew how much Pamela hated his racing; how she feared for his safety each time he got behind the wheel. It was the sole point of contention in what otherwise had been the perfect relationship Colt had searched for his entire life. He recalled her threat to leave him forever unless he abandoned racing. She waited for him on the shore of the tropical paradise that was the Stravokanis estate; poised on a tree limb, her nude form bathing in the moonlight. He gazed and the sleek curves of her body, and then at the sleek lines of the Tiger X10. He knew he could only choose one.

©2011 Keith B. Darrell

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Democracy: Does One Size Fit All?

Two US embassies were attacked on September 11, 2012. Reuters reported an American staff member of the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi was killed after armed gunmen attacked the compound. They were "protesting" a film being produced in the United States. Earlier in the day, Egyptian protestors scaled the U.S. embassy walls and tore down the American flag and burned it, complaining of a US film they said insulted the prophet Mohammad. Gunmen fired on the embassy while others lobbed homemade bombs into the compound, causing several explosions and fires. The protestors in both cases had seen a 14-minute trailer for the film posted on YouTube.

These events call into question the fundamental premise democracy is a good form of government for all. Americans cheered as these same crowds in Libya and Egypt overthrew their dictators; and in many cases, like Iraq, the American government has overthrown dictators and brought democracy to the people. But this begs the question: Are these people ready for democracy? What if their choice is the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Qaeda? We assume dictators are inherently bad and democracy is good. But what happens when people, when allowed to choose their leaders --  because of their culture or religion -- select radical, militant extremists?

Qatar has been ruled as an absolute monarchy by one family since the mid-19th century. It has the world's highest GDP per capita. Wages are high, health care and education are free, and there are no taxes (Qatar runs on huge oil revenues and a small population of 300,000). Qatar has been a mediator, promoting peace in the Middle East, including in Western Sahara, Yemen, the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict, Indonesia, Somalia, Darfur, and Lebanon. Women may vote and run for public office. Would Qatar function better as a democracy?

Even America is not truly a democracy; it is a republic. Our founders foresaw the dangers of democracy and placed limitations on our system of government, such as the Electoral College (That's why, when you vote for president this November, you are not casting a direct vote for a candidate, as you would in a true democracy, but rather a vote for your state’s entitled allotment of the Electoral College's 538 electors). So should America be "exporting" democracy when clearly one size does not fit all? What works well for us as a system of governance might not work as well for other cultures; in fact, it might be downright dangerous.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

This Is Not A Book Review. Really.

"What the heck is your blog about?" I'm often asked. "How come it doesn't look anything like an author's blog? Why don't you write book reviews?"

All good questions, so let me start with the first. As I wrote in my initial post, the entire concept of blogging makes no sense to me. At best, it's a hubristic exercise in conceit and vanity for the undeserving to lay claim to their promised 15 Minutes of Fame; at worst, it is the verbal equivalent of littering on the information superhighway. Nonetheless, I have been shanghaied into the Blogosphere and accepted my fate as a reluctant blogger. (Read that first blog post for the details). In that post, I agreed to write a blog as long as I could write about any topic I wished. My blog has been a mix of social commentary, personal observations, and occasional updates on my books. But no book reviews.

So, I was surprised when one individual asked if he could "write a guest post on my political blog". I informed him, while I had a blog, it was not a political blog. He had mistaken my social commentary as partisan ranting. (Sure, I'll print guest posts, but not partisan diatribes. Here, we stick to issues, not talking points). Others have asked why I don't write book reviews. The answer's simple: I'm not qualified to be a book reviewer. As an author, I write books; I'll leave the reviewing to trained professional reviewers at the New York Times Book Review or to the amateur wannabe reviewers posting third-grade book reports labeled as "book reviews" on Amazon and in countless "book blogs". The closest I've come to penning any reviews has been a movie review of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton's Dark Shadows remake (Dark Shadows being a subject in which I have decades of expertise) and the entire month I devoted to The Top TV Dramas You've Never Seen. I hope I never shirk from my commitment to quality blogging and resort to printing a trivial book review, but I would be remiss if I did not pass on the occasional tidbit to my loyal blog readers when I stumble across something they might enjoy reading. And that brings me to the subject of today's blog.

I'm in the process of reading DC's Sugar and Spike Archives, Volume One. Did I write "reading"? Change that to savoring. This is a long awaited treat that is truly for all ages. The stories are written and drawn by the legendary Sheldon Mayer, who was also responsible for one of my favorite comic books, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (Hint: DC, republish Mayer's Rudolph stories in a deluxe archive edition and I'll even pre-order it!). Mayer's Rudolph was a masterpiece, due primarily to the incredible anthropomorphic artistic expressions he gave to the various reindeer. It's taken me years to acquire most of the original comics, which were published from around 1950 to 1963. Mayer was also responsible for another childhood favorite, The Three Mouseketeers (picture mice wielding sewing needles as swords). I could devote an entire post to the genius of Sheldon Mayer -- writer, artist and editor -- but for now, I wish to focus on Sugar and Spike.

Sugar and Spike are are toddlers who communicate with each other through baby talk -- a language grownups cannot understand. Likewise, they are clueless about ordinary English. The stories are written and drawn from the toddlers' perspectives: the artwork shows the world at Sugar and Spike's eye level, so expect to see a lot of grownup knees and feet but few adult faces; and the stories are written employing "kid logic". My favorite example is when Sugar, the little girl, tells her friend Spike, the little boy, she has discovered a magic grownup phrase that will get them out of trouble no matter what mischief they've been up to. Sugar demonstrates by yanking a tablecloth off a table, shattering several dishes, and swinging on some curtains, causing the curtain rod to fly off the wall. A visiting neighbor responds to the crashes but when she enters the room, Sugar gazes up innocently and utters the magic grownup words "I sowwy". The woman is so thrilled to hear the little girl speak English by uttering "I'm sorry" that she immediately rushes off to tell Sugar's mother her child is learning to talk, dismissing the damage. Spike is duly impressed by how effective the magic phrase was. "Okay, so it worked. But what does it mean?" he asks. Sugar whispers in his ear, "I think it means 'The cat did it.'" Spike ruminates. "Hmmm... that makes sense."

Later, when a man accidentally slams his car into the fence in front of Spike's house, he apologizes to Spike's mother and offers to pay for its repair. But the kids are outraged when they overhear him say "I'm sorry." An angry Sugar exclaims, "What a nerve! He's blaming it on the cat!"

To quote the book's foreword: "Mayer was shooting for an audience of all ages, providing them with insights into two mischievous minds struggling to figure out (and get around) the rules of a strange land governed by large, imperious creatures who could not understand them." Buy this book for your kids. Buy this book for yourself to recapture the magic of winsome nostalgia. Or simply buy it to persuade DC to republish future volumes in the series. And remember, this was not a book review. I don't do that stuff.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Pox on Both Your Houses

On December 9, 1979, an international team of scientists verified the success of the World Health Organization's efforts to eradicate smallpox, a deadly disease that had killed billions (an estimated 300–500 million during the 20th century alone) since 10,000 BC. In all of human history, smallpox remains the only infectious disease affecting humans to have been eradicated. It was only wiped off the face of the Earth after a concerted effort by all of the world's governments to end this scourge. Think about it: amazing what mankind can accomplish when we all cooperate for the common good. And equally amazing what results when we don't.

Monday, August 27, 2012

We Can Build a Mars Rover But...

America needs high-speed rail access throughout the country and mass transportation in all metropolitan urban areas, like every other major nation. We also need to replace the automobile industry, which is based on a century-old technology, pollutes the environment, 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 government gives subsidies and tax breaks to the oil industry, though God knows why. It's not like they need the money; they are among the most profitable businesses in the world. Exxon reported $9.4 billion profit in January 2012 and earns $104 Million in profit (not revenues) every day! Let's use those government funds not as givebacks to Big Oil, but to build American infrastructure and employ out of work Americans.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Natural Disaster Imminent, But First, A Word from Our Sponsor

Way to go, local TV! The station interrupted a TV show to broadcast a tornado alert and then interrupted the bulletin to broadcast a commercial.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Who Watches the Watchmen?

The TSA, which spent $2 million of your tax dollars on equipment it has sitting unused in warehouses, is now outsourcing to private firms at 16 airports! Instead of government employees, our security is being outsourced to... whom exactly? Who are these private individuals (not government-screened employees) who are patting down passengers and rifling through their belongings, and how do we know they are not thieves, child molesters, or terrorists themselves? Unlike the government, these private firms are solely concerned with hiring cheap labor and maximizing profits. Who's watching the watchmen?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Rewards of a Classical Education

Alex Wagner is showing her chops! Commenting yesterday on a discussion of Mitt Romney's chances of winning after alienating black, latino, women, and elderly voters, she described the task as Sisyphean. When John Heilman said her knowledge of Greek mythology was greater than his, Wagner shot back "That's why I got the (MSNBC achor) job." Go Alex!

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king in ancient Greece who offended the god Zeus. His punishment was to roll a huge boulder to the top of a steep hill; each time the boulder neared the top it rolled back down and Sisyphus was forced to start again.

It's rewarding to see a well-educated person succeeding in her chosen profession. It's encouraging to see a news organization hiring educated people. If only we could make a traditional education a requirement for politicians and voters.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Voting is a Right, Not a Privilege

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is trying to cut early voting from 12 days to 8 days to depress Democratic voter turnout. Only one state supervisor of elections has stepped forward to challenge Gov. Scott. Republican (yes, I said Republican) Harry Sawer, Monroe county supervisor, stated his intention to offer early voting for the traditional 12 days. Gov. Scott has threatened to remove the supervisor. Monroe is one of only two Florida counties with a plurality of Republicans that voted for Obama, a Democrat.

Florida is not alone in this shameful, unAmerican action. In Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted planned to allow weekend voting in rural (more Republican) areas but not in urban (more Democratic) areas. Pennsylvania House Republican Leader Mike Turzai told a GOP gathering, “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania" by disenfranchising Democratic voters.

Shame on you, Gov. Rick Scott and your GOP comrades. For 236 years, Americans have fought and died for the freedom to vote for their leaders of our republic. They fought against dictatorships that denied their citizens the right to vote and elect their own governments. By seeking to limit or deny citizens the right to vote, Gov. Rick Scott  and his GOP comrades have aligned himself with the likes of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Castro, and other totalitarian and communist despots of the past century. Voting should be made as easy as possible, for all Americans. It is the basis of our democracy and any public official who fails to understand this or actively seeks to limit voting rights should be recalled from office.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Kindred Spirit

Eido Cohen won't be reading this blog tonight.

I had no idea Eido regularly read my blog until one night last month, when I was at his apartment and he displayed it to me on his large-screen "Google TV", a device that lets one surf the Web on a television screen. I first met Eido online. A friend had posted seeking writing advice for a book she was working on. I made the mistake of giving my advice, which was not well received. Her response can be boiled down to "You don't know what you're talking about; who asked you, anyway; go away." Well, it was a tad harsher than that, but I digress. This being the Internet, a stranger leapt to my defense, scolding her and lecturing her with an articulate and meticulous explanation of why everything I had said was correct. I emailed him a thank you and we began corresponding.

It was a while before we started talking by phone, mainly because I couldn't figure out how to pronounce "Eido". Usually, people speak their names when you first meet them, but pronunciation is lost on the Web. When Eido learned I was a writer, his interest was piqued. I discovered he had a wide depth of knowledge spread across many disciplines. Like me, he was a Renaissance man. We were kindred spirits.

Eido was well read and as a result had an extensive vocabulary on which he prided himself. I asked him to proofread my Paved With Good Intentions manuscript and that evening was the first time we met in person. I handed him a copy and he drove off. That night, he phoned me complaining, in mock umbrage, he had found two words in my manuscript that had sent him scurrying to the dictionary -- "and that was on the first page!" Like me, Eido did not believe a book was truly enjoyable unless you also learned something while reading it. We bonded immediately. Our online friendship blossomed into a personal, offline one. Eido was an intellectual and we engaged in hours of debate, online and in person. Last year, after my birthday party had ended, Eido and I stayed behind in the parking lot debating politics and economics until the wee hours of the morning. It was only last month, Eido and I went to see the Pacquiao-Bradley fight, and a few weeks before, that we had gone to the IMAX theater to see Dark Shadows.

Eido wrote on his Facebook page that I was one of his favorite authors, which I considered an enormous compliment, considering how well read Eido was. He repeatedly remarked how much he enjoyed Paved With Good Intentions because of its layers and depth, at one point analyzing the book on the basis of moral relativism, leading me to wish someone had written a Cliff's Notes for my own book so I could hold up my end of the conversation. I suggested, since he had found so much of note within the book, he should share his glowing critique on Amazon, where only a handful of lackluster reviews had trickled in, and point out what those readers had missed. He promised to do so, and I waited... and waited. Eido would spend hours composing 800-word replies to Facebook comments each night, but never found time to pen a few paragraphs for Amazon. I often chided him they would soon have to retitle "Waiting For Godot" to "Waiting For Eido" and told him I might not live long enough to see his review when it finally appeared. I never imagined the promising young man two decades my junior might not live long enough to write it.

R.I.P. Eido Cohen, a kindred spirit.

Eido Cohen

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Lobster Thriller

In recent months, there have been unusual reports of rare bright blue, orange, calico, white, yellow, and split lobsters (one color on each side). Fishermen have no explanation for the increase in sightings of the rare lobsters.

The odds of catching a blue lobster are 1-in-2 million, while orange comes in at 1-in-10 million. Yellow and orange-and-black calico lobsters at 1-in-30 million, split-colored varieties at 1-in-50 million, and white — the rarest of all — at 1-in-100 million. But we might have the answer:

 Wesley Snodgrass hates his life. Like most 16-year-olds, he hates the acne that dots his face, forcing him into a nightly ritual of playing Whack A Mole with a tube of acne cream, knowing a new pimple will sprout in any spot he missed. He hates the name Snodgrass. He hates his parents saddling him with a wimpy name like Wesley. He hates being viewed as weird by his classmates for living in an isolated lighthouse with his oceanographer father. But when his father acquires a rare yellow lobster, Wesley sees a path to popularity... unaware the lobster holds a deadly secret. A short story by Keith B. Darrell. 5,000 words.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Outing the Rapists

As a followup to the Savannah Dietrich story (previous post), I want to let you know the attorneys for the boys who admitted as part of a plea bargain to having raped the 17-year-old Kentucky girl after she passed out at a party have withdrawn their request asking the judge to hold Savannah in contempt of court for violating a gag order and revealing her rapists' names on Twitter. While the judge could still hold her in contempt sua sponte (on her own accord), I doubt that will happen after the publicity.

Generally speaking, in my reporting and in my nonfiction books like Issues In Internet Law, I do not name rape victims, the exception being when they have first sought out media attention, which is why I did name Savannah in my previous post. I wrote the post Sunday night, but held it back so readers coming to my blog after the weekend would not miss my weekend post on the Colorado theater shooting. I also held back the names of the rapists -- I don't say "alleged" rapists because they have admitted their guilt in court -- because I believed they might have been minors, as well, since I knew they were on a high school Lacrosse team. While I did have their names, as well as their photos, I resisted the temptation to identify them on this blog, and I will not do so.

However, if anyone else does...

Chris Klein, an attorney for one of the boys, said publicizing their names "may create problems for them in the future." Gee, you think they should have thought about that before raping a teenage girl?

The Law Is An Ass!

"If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, "the law is an ass - an idiot." Charles Dickens, one of my favorite authors, wrote that line in Oliver Twist in 1838 and the phrase -- often quoted when the application of the law runs contrary to common sense -- remains true today.

Savannah Dietrich, 17, of Kentucky, passed out at a party. Two boys sexually assaulted her and later shared photos of the assault with their friends. In a plea bargain the victim knew nothing about until right before it was announced, the pair pled guilty to first-degree sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism. Savannah thought the proposed punishment (sentencing has not yet occurred) was too lenient, so she violated a court gag order by tweeting their names on Twitter. Now, Savannah could face up to 180 days in jail and a $500 fine if convicted of violating the court order to keep her assailants' names confidential.

The assailants' lawyers asked Jefferson District Court Judge Dee McDonald to find Savannah in contempt of court for outing his clients on Twitter.

"There you go, lock me up," Savannah had tweeted after naming them. "I'm not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell."

Technically, Savannah did violate the court order, although it might be an overly broad restriction on her freedom of speech. The proper course would have been for her to ask the judge to vacate the order or seek to have a higher court intercede. But Savannah was tired of being a victim. “They got off very easy … and they tell me to be quiet, just silencing me at the end,” Savannah said.

The law said Savannah should remain silent, be seen but not heard. But Savannah, who had been seen enough in the humiliating photos by an unknown number of people, wanted to be heard. She had come to the court seeking justice but was basically told the equivalent of the old joke, "when rape is inevitable, you should keep quiet, lay back and enjoy it." So Savannah chose civil disobedience over silence.

“So many of my rights have been taken away by these boys,” Savannah told the Louisville Courier Journal. “I’m at the point, that if I have to go to jail for my rights, I will do it. If they really feel it’s necessary to throw me in jail for talking about what happened to me … as opposed to throwing these boys in jail for what they did to me, then I don’t understand justice.”

I understand the law and I understand justice, but they are not always one and the same. It seems intuitive that if a woman is raped, she should have the right to name her attackers. On July 30, Savannah will return to court, this time for a hearing on contempt charges. If found guilty, she could spend the next six months behind bars while the boys who sexually assaulted her are free awaiting their own hearing date. That is what the law supposes should occur. As I squeeze my own figurative hat emphatically in both hands, I echo Mr. Bumble's words: "If the law supposes that, the law is an ass."

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Night Rises

One evening, as Dr. Thomas Wayne, his wife Martha, and their little boy walked out of a theater, a gunman accosted them, demanding their valuables. Accounts vary, but Joe Chill shot and killed Dr. Wayne, and his wife died, either from gunshots or a heart attack. The only survivor of, and witness to, the horrible events of that dark night was their young boy, Bruce, whose life would be consumed by a grim determination to protect society from those who would perpetrate such evil and senseless violence on the innocent. Thus was born the Batman. In a stroke of grim irony, 73 years later, life imitated art. A gunman walked into a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire on the audience viewing the premiere of the Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises".

The gunman, dressed in black body armor and a gas mask, lobbed gas canisters into the theater, creating panic and confusion. He then sprayed the trapped movie-goers with a hail of bullets from an array of weapons that included an AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 870 12-gauge shot gun, and a .40 caliber Glock handgun. Another Glock was found in his car. All of the guns used were purchased legally within the past six months. The 24-year-old shooter booby-trapped his one-bedroom apartment with a maze of explosive devices, rigged to explode when someone opened the door, and placed blaring music on a timer, set to play at midnight, ensuring someone would arrive to do so. Such extensive premeditation was not the work of an insane mind, but an evil one. Under the legal definition of insanity, to be determined insane and thus unable to stand trial for one's actions by reason of insanity, an individual must be unable to tell right from wrong. The shooter knew right from wrong; he chose wrong.

Like a Batman film, the script writes itself. A hue and cry emerges urging gun control measures be passed, or at least restored. A ban on assault weapons like the one used by the shooter was allowed to expire in 2004. That ban had outlawed the AR-15 used in what is now the worst mass shooting in American history, in which 12 people -- including a four-month-old child -- were killed and 58 wounded. President Obama has done nothing to control the proliferation of dangerous weapons within this nation's borders. In fact, he has relaxed gun laws, allowing people to carry guns in national parks and to carry guns in their checked bags on Amtrak trains, and has proposed reducing restrictions on exporting guns and other "items with military uses". His presidential campaign opponent, Mitt Romney, has stated his opposition to gun control legislation. The cry for gun control always arises after a shooting. We heard it in 1981, when James Brady and President Ronald Reagan were shot; we heard it in 1999, when two students shot to death 13 of their classmates at Columbine High School and wounded 23 others, mere miles from the Aurora theater shooting; we heard it in 2007, when another student shot and killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus; we heard it in 2009, when a gunman killed 13 people and wounded 32 others at Fort Hood; and we heard it in 2011, when a gunman in Tucson, Arizona shot 19 people outside a supermarket, including a federal judge and Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, killing six of them, one a nine-year-old girl. Born of righteous  indignation, the hue and cry for stricter gun control resonates loudly, full of sound and fury but in the end signifying nothing, for nothing will change. There will be no strict gun control in America. That portion of the script has been written by the National Rifle Association, a powerful political lobbyist, and no edits are allowed.

The media adhere to their script, as well. This is "The Big Story". On every channel, there is but one news story: the Aurora theater shooting. Even when there is nothing new to report, the talking heads continue repeating what they have already said, because this is, after all, "The Big Story". Even with 24-hour news coverage, "all news all the time" channels, the script is firm on one point: no other news is allowed to be reported on a day when there is a "Big Story". No other murders occurred that day, no rapes, no robberies, no tornadoes or hurricanes, no floods or monsoons, no scandals, no foreign affairs, no economic news, no reports on the environment or public health or scientific developments. Whenever an event is deemed "The Big Story", the media's script calls for wall-to-wall coverage of only that, even when all that can be said at that moment has been said. Just as on a slow news day when minor events become "news", on a day when "The Big Story" occurs, minor and major events cease to exist.

The public sticks to the script as well, expressing its collective shock at the horrific tragedy. They are good actors, appearing to express genuine surprise that a culture -- overflowing with gratuitous and extreme violence in its music, television, movies, and video games -- that inundates its children with such "entertainment" inculcating them with little respect or regard for human life until they are inured to scenes of mayhem and death, might result in young adults who become sociopathic killers. Computer programmers have a phrase for it: "Garbage in, garbage out." Or, as the Bible phrased it, "As you sow, so shall you reap." Our society continues sowing the seeds of its own destruction and as we watch these shootings, we are reaping the harvest.

I have veered from the script today. As a journalist many decades ago, I was taught to begin any story with the 5 Ws: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and hoW (the last, the unofficial 6th W). In the hundreds of news stories I've written, this is the first time I've left out the "who". I've deliberately not named the Aurora theater shooter (or any of the other shooters) because I choose not to give the killer one more second of his 15 Minutes of Fame, or in his case, infamy. The only publicity I would like to see him receive for his heinous act is his public execution. It should be broadcast as a deterrent, so all those tempted to commit such acts realize the gravity of the fate that awaits them. And it should be painful. As painful as the grief of the families and loved ones of the murdered victims. As painful as the shattered lives of the hospitalized survivors, many of whom will live with permanent damage from the shooting: brain damage; paralysis; or loss of vision, hearing, or limbs. No, I won't print that scumbag's name. He doesn't deserve that iota of dignity.

Batman is a fictional character, who rose like a phoenix from the ashes of personal tragedy to make society a safer place. We are real people -- can we do no less?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Tax or Penalty: Does It Matter?

There's been a lot of talk about the Individual Mandate being a tax. It isn't. The debate over whether it is a penalty or a tax is merely one of semantics. The Individual Mandate is a requirement that everyone not already covered by health insurance buy health insurance. The idea is to prevent freeloaders who refuse to buy health insurance from getting routine medical services from emergency rooms that can't turn them away and passing the cost on to the rest of us taxpayers. It will bring down overall insurance costs.

Republicans wanted to overturn The Affordable Care Act (which they dubbed "ObamaCare") and they sued, claiming the government lacks the power to make people buy insurance. Now, anyone who drives a car is well aware that the government can require you to buy auto insurance. This was kind of a no-brainer. But the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The government has a lot of powers, but it can only exercise powers granted to it under the Constitution. Under the 10th Amendment, all other powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution, nor prohibited by the states, are reserved to the states or to the citizens. So the legal question became, what clause in the Constitution gave the federal government the power to enact the healthcare law and specifically, to require people to buy insurance? There were only two clauses that might allow it: the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3) and the Taxing & Spending Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 1).

Now, I believe the Commerce Clause grants the government the authority to do this, but Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the 5-4 majority opinion disagreed with me. He said the government does have that authority, but it comes from the Taxing & Spending Clause, not the Commerce Clause. This is a bad decision because it will have long term consequences for future interpretations of the Commerce Clause, but that's another matter. From a political viewpoint, the Republicans jumped on the ruling to brand the penalty for not buying insurance as a "tax". The Republican spin machine has told us we are all going to be taxed by ObamaCare. That's a lie. Here's the truth. The penalty (what they label a "tax") only affects freeloaders who refuse to buy health insurance - you know, those people who get routine medical services from emergency rooms that can't turn them away, who then pass the cost on to the rest of us taxpayers. If you have health insurance, THERE IS NO TAX. Also, the amount of the penalty can NEVER exceed the cost of the national average premiums for the lowest-cost “bronze” plans offered through the new insurance exchanges created by the Act. So it's the same amount you'd pay in premiums if you had insurance.

There are also exemptions for those who can't afford coverage, taxpayers with incomes below filing threshold, and hardship. The Act says people who don't pay the penalty can't be put in jail and can't be criminally prosecuted. The minimum "tax" for failing to get coverage would be $7.92 for each month of 2014, $28.75 for each month of 2015, and $57.92 for each month of 2016, when the penalty is fully phased in. According to the LA Times, the Individual Mandate "tax" will affect fewer than 2% of the population. That's right, this so-called tax the Republicans have called "the largest tax in history" does not affect 98% of us. That's a fact. Facts are not Democratic or Republican. Facts are not partisan. They simply are what they are - the truth.