Category Archives: Material World

Notes From an Alien Shore

A few weeks ago I happened to ask two friends a question that had been on my mind a good deal lately. Both conversations went very much like this (I’ll call the friends “X” for simplicity):

ME: “Do you ever wonder what we are? What we really are?”

X: <Silence/blank stare>

ME: “I mean, think about it. We’re not our bodies, that’s obvious. But we’re not our minds, either, that’s just the organ that does the thinking. A Christian would use the word “soul”, but that just raises more questions, as does the notion that we’re a splinter of some kind of supreme being. So what are we?”

X: Honestly, I try not to think about that sort of thing.

Admittedly, two people is a narrow sample. But that fact that two intelligent, thoughtful friends should give me exact, identical answers really made me think.

I ask myself questions like the one above all the time. Questions of existence, of reality, time and space, life and death, meaning and ethics, good and evil; questions of everything that concerns our existence and what it means to be human…these occupy my thinking for large parts of every day. Metaphysics matters.

I also have a quirk in that I tend to consider everything from basic principles, taking little on trust or as given. So much of what we’re taught or presented with is false, biased, or founded on incomplete and/or sloppy assumptions that anyone interested in investigating the real must go back to the beginning or risk building on sand, or shaky foundations at best.

Moreover, to see reality at its clearest, I believe it’s critical to be free of any and all ideologies, especially political or religious belief. The moment you assume an ideology or a belief system is the moment you stop seeing reality as it is, but begin instead to filter it through the lens of your ideology, to try to make the actual territory of the real match your map. As someone once put it, “we see the world not as it is, but as we are.” So the answer is to just not be as anything—be you, a naked flame of being with no philosophy or ideology. Simply observe and think.

I do this with everything. When I was a decorative painter—a career I pursued with considerable success for twenty-five years—I took no classes but taught myself everything about colour, materials, and technique from scratch. Once I’d mastered the basics, I looked for new ways to achieve certain effects, as well as creating an array of paint effects nobody had ever seen. I mixed most of my own materials rather than buying off-the-shelf. The result was that within a decade or so I’d not only mastered the craft and was in high demand, but the look of my finishes was entirely different to the generic, cookie-cutter “faux painting” that my many competitors were practicing. This gave me a huge edge.

More recently, I’ve taken a similar approach with writing, approaching the craft from the standpoint of what works and gets results, and eschewing the mountains of stupid, fashionable rules and diktats endlessly touted at writers’ workshops and on countless blogs and Twitter feeds. Of course it’s important to know these “rules”, and a small minority of them are useful, even vital; the rest just need to be buried and forgotten.

It always struck me as odd that people talk about reinventing the wheel as though it were a waste of time—nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes you invent a better wheel; sometimes you come up with something that makes the wheel like as useless as a bag of rocks.

On a related note, we were recently given a bag full of DVDs of new and recent TV shows by an actor friend; apparently these things are passed around to people in the Screen Actors Guild so that they may consider them when dvds2-crop-smvoting for Emmy nominations. The shows include a wide variety of stuff, from The History Channel to offerings from Amazon, from American Crime to Portlandia; the last three episodes of Mad Men are in there, as well as the whole mini-series of Wolf Hall (a historical about Henry VIII, and the only one of any interest to me).

Since I don’t watch any TV at all, the huge majority of these were new to me. After enjoying Wolf Hall, we attempted some of the others, like an episode of Mad Men, and now, American Crime.

In trying to understand what people get out of TV shows like these, I’m thrown back to the gulf I sense when trying to discuss existential truths that concern me deeply only to discover that people I care for and respect would rather just not go there. I feel—and I suspect many writers will share this feeling—as though I’m living among aliens, where I barely grasp the parameters of the society and what makes it tick.

Is it even possible to understand why people behave the way they do without buying in to pop culture? Sometimes when I see people talk (and certainly when they argue), it seems to me that rather than processing and responding with thought and intelligently, they’ve learned to interact with others from TV soaps, and are just throwing out stock phases, learned reactions, mannerisms, expressions, postures. No wonder the world is the mess it is.

Why, for instance, would any sane person want to watch something like “American Crime”, which is so drenched in realism that no shred of escapism or joy is left to the viewer, so that the only possible reaction one is left with is to just end it all now? The question baffles me.

And don’t get me started on reality shows or celebrity chef contests. What possible pleasure anyone can take in watching real people put in often humiliating conflict situations, subjected to extreme stress, and then publicly defeated or even ridiculed, I can’t imagine. The Roman games were at least honest.

Fnally, take a simple predictive Google search. The trending popular searches which flash up as you click in the box are almost invariably to do with celebrities, sports, TV shows, or something so mind-numbingly banal as to leave me shaking my head. It’s glaringly obvious that the overwhelming majority of us aren’t much preoccupied with the mysteries of existence.

I am, it seems, legend. Perhaps I’m not even real.

Are you?

 

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The road Most Traveled: Good Intentions, Catastrophic Results

A Federal judge has just ordered Apple to unlock the phone used by one of the two San Bernardino shooters so it could access the phone’s records. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has said the company will fight the order, stating that it has neither the ability to bypass its own strong encryption and that this would set a dangerous precedent. Although I’m not an Apple user, I’m 100% with the company on this and applaud their decision.

The question here is a simple one of the road to hell. It all begins, as usual, with good intentions: we want to stop terrorism. But as Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a back door. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”

Yet we continue to jog blissfully into an Orwellian future in which the state (the UK is no different) not only insists but has also persuaded a good many of its citizens that their lives are in dire and imminent danger from foreign threats, and that any violation of privacy or individual freedoms is secondary to fighting that threat. Politicians of course make huge capital on this, and the media does nothing to bring some perspective and reality to the actual real threats to our daily lives, which for most people are to do with poor education, debt, poverty, ill health, unaffordable housing, the criminal cost of healthcare, and long-term insecurity—not terrorism.

The US has been in a state of perpetual war for over thirteen years, and continues to be. Its misguided foreign policy actions have destabilized a huge region of the world by trying to impose Western notions of government on nations utterly ill-equipped to embrace democracy (you have to have an Enlightenment before you can consider democracy, and when you still think tribally, corruption and self-interest are going to quickly corrode and ruin any attempt at forging a new state).

Saddam was undoubtedly a brute, and Bashir-al Assad (still in power today) not much better; Gaddafi was mercurial and unreliable. But although some individuals and/or sections of those societies were persecuted during these leaders’ rule, the vast majority of people in Iraq, Syria, and Libya had jobs, food, and a reasonable, often happy and secure standard of living. Today they’re straggling across Europe by the millions like beggars, taking handouts and desperately looking for places to settle—and that’s if they haven’t drowned in the Aegean or Meduterranean after having been fleeced by a whole new class of local criminals our good intentions have benefited: people smugglers. In the process, the rest of Europe is being destabilized.

I fully understand that government has a primary mandate and responsibility to keep its people safe. But in reality, the risk from terrorism is infinitesimally small: if you live in the USA, your chance of dying in a terrorist attack is about 5,000 times less than that of being shot by a US citizen (and even that’s not something that keeps most of us awake at night). The simple act of getting on a plane has already become a tedious, time-wasting hell despite the fact that study after study has shown TSA checks to be up to ninety-five percent ineffective at detecting threats. If you live in a city, your actions while out in public are already recorded on countless cameras; your cellphone and the plastic in your wallet provide extra layers of tracking and monitoring. But government insists it needs a further backdoor into everyone’s lives, and argues tooth and nail that any level of  inconvenience and curtailment of individual privacy and liberty is justifiable.

Every day we see evidence of how the well-intentioned use of electronic records ruins lives. The undiscriminating and poorly-thought-out register of sex offenders is one: is it—to take just one example—really okay that because an eighteen-year-old had consensual sex with a seventeen-year-old, he should be viewed as a sexual predator in the same data bucket as a child molester? How many of my readers didn’t have underage sex of one kind or another in their high school or college days? And let’s not even talk of the teens whose lives have been upset by the (silly, but, hey! these are kids) practice of sexting one another.

The argument of course is that an honest citizen has nothing to fear from all this. Really? Try telling that to someone who’s been accidentally put on a no-fly list because of some data entry error or some other innocent reason (it happens). And although China’s new Social Credit System—a data-driven rating system similar to our own credit rating systems but with the emphasis on your status and trustworthiness as a citizen—isn’t likely to be replicated in the US  anytime soon, the reality is that all kinds of aggregated data, including your online browsing and shopping habits, are already finding their way into databases that can affect your ability to rent a home, get a job, obtain credit, and a great deal more.

Nor is it just government. PayPal has just clamped down on allowing account holders to use its system to pay for VPN (virtual private network) subscriptions, presumably on the grounds that VPNs, which are used to mask a user’s real computer identity (IP address), may be used for terrorist communication or other illicit activity. What about the many hundreds of thousands of people who use VPN for entirely legitimate activities such as researching sensitive subjects (journalists do this all the time), getting around censorship in countries under authoritarian rule, or simply  avoiding being tracked by advertisers. (PayPal are of course doing this not out of any noble motives but simply to forestall any possible future heat from government over enabling the masking of criminal communications).

Consider the slew of new voice- and audio enabled devices that are appearing in your home, like the Amazon Echo, which “hears you from across the room with far-field voice recognition, even with music playing”: do you really want that in your house? Even if it doesn’t come with a backdoor or a camera, what do we think happens to all the data it collects about our and our family’s daily habits? You don’t think that’s mined? Increasingly sophisticated AI can do that with ease and extract every ounce of commercially  valuable information about us.

You’ve already been carrying around a tracking device (your phone) for years. Within the very, very near future, your home is going to be bursting with microphone- and camera- equipped devices which are all connected to the net as part of the IoT, or Internet of Things. If you’re not concerned about this, you should be. Quite apart from any government surveillance, just about anyone can hack in to these devices. For a single, chilling example, the camera on the monitor in your childrens’ room is ridiculously easy to hack, its IP address quite possibly already on a website. Think about it.

Everything—everything—that takes place in your home and car will—unless tech companies hold a hard line, and good luck with that one—be available on production of a court order. Right now the bar is terrorism; but other, more everyday, criminal activities will soon qualify. How long before all that data becomes available to your ex’s divorce lawyer? What if your current prospective employers can one day gain access to the data mined from these devices? Because you can bet that it’s all going to be for sale, legally or otherwise. And don’t forget that security on the current IoT is just about non-existent (this is in fact a big concern with self-driving cars, which can currently be hacked with such ease that a person with a laptop can take control over the car with very little difficulty from anywhere in the world).

In conclusion, I believe that tech companies have an absolute responsibility to protect the rights and privacy of their customers at every level. Not only should devices not come with a backdoor, ever, but every possible measure should be taken to ensure that networked devices, from our phones to our cars, refrigerators, baby monitors, and home thermostats are protected against intrusion and hacking by strong encryption and security measures. The emphasis and primary focus should be on the inviolability of the consumers’ privacy and individual rights. And we should demand that of them.

After all, it is we, and our hard-earned dollars, that have made Apple, Google, and Amazon what they are today.

 

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Sex, Magic, and Rocket Engineering: the Extraordinary Life and Death of Jack Parsons

In the course of writing a novel you come across some very interesting stuff. In fact, some of the research can be so interesting that it becomes a danger to your progress, consuming increasing amounts of time and attention far beyond what was necessary for the writing.

During the writing of my new novel, a supernatural thriller titled Black Easter, I needed to research the Waffen-SS, the legendary black magician Aleister Crowley (aka ‘The Great Beast’), and the internal workings of the Greek Orthodox Church in some depth. One particularly fascinating area of study involved life in the closed monastic communities of Mount Athos, an autonomous peninsula in Northern Greece entirely sealed off from the outside world.

Absorbing as all this material was, the most fascinating subject I came across was Jack Parsons, occultist, libertine druggie, explosives junkie, rocket engineer, and one of the founding figures of NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) right near my home in Pasadena.

Parsons (nearest on right) and colleagues preparing for a rocket engine test in Pasadena, 1936. (photo: JPL)

I stumbled across Parsons quite by accident when a friend, who knew I was doing some background research on occultist Aleister Crowley and the Thelema Lodge, mentioned him to me. After reading the Wikipedia entry on Parsons, I found a number of further articles about him and a biography. Despite being a key figure in the development of modern rocketry, Parsons’ extreme eccentricity has led to his being pretty much written out of NASA’s history.

Parsons developed a childhood interest in rocketry from reading Science Fiction. He and a friend founded a rocket research group which received National Academy of Sciences funding in 1939 to develop JATO (Jet-Assisted Take-Off) for the military. In 1942 they founded a new company, Aerojet, which just a year later became JPL.

Paralleling these material ventures were Parsons’ curious spiritual adventures. In 1939 he became a disciple of Crowley’s and adopted Thelema—Crowley’s magical teaching—as his religion. Just a couple of years later, at Crowley’s behest, he was running the Crowley-affiliated Agape Lodge (from the Greek, αγαπε, “love”, “love of man”, “highest love”) from his Pasadena home in Orange Grove Avenue.

Sex and magic were inseparable in the Agape Lodge’s rituals. Partner-swapping, orgies, and ritual masturbation in the performance of magic ceremonies were common practice, along with marijuana and cocaine use. This behaviour eventually led to Parsons’ expulsion from JPL.

Parsons’ pursuit of esoteric knowledge continued unabated. Somewhere around 1945, L. Ron Hubbard (who later went on to found the Church of Scientology) moved into the Lodge, and he and Parsons became close friends. After losing his girlfriend, Sara, to Hubbard, Parsons decided on a series of rituals he termed the “Babalon Working” aimed at bringing about an incarnation of Crowley’s Thelemite goddess Babalon on Earth. After the final ritual in the Mojave desert, he became convinced that Marjorie Cameron—a young unemployed artist who’d just come to visit the Lodge—was the incarnation of the goddess he had summoned.

Following further adventures, which included being defrauded of his life savings by L. Ron Hubbard, an unsuccessful court action, and finally unwelcome attention from the House Un-American Activities Committee, resulting in the FBI’s revocation of his security clearance, Parsons returned to occultism with a vengeance. Working in a gas station and selling homemade nitroglycerin on the side to earn money, he wrote several occult texts, including The Book of AntiChrist, in which he prophesied that Babalon would manifest on Earth within nine years and bring about the downfall of the Abrahamic religions. Parsons and Cameron separated, and she went to live in an artists’ commune in Mexico.

Parsons was able to start working again after a closed federal court hearing resulted in his security clearance being reinstated. He was hired to design and build a chemical plant for the Hughes Aircraft Corporation, but was fired in 1951 on suspicion of stealing classified company documents and spying for the Israeli government.

Parsons and Cameron, now reconciled, moved into a former coach house in Orange Grove Avenue, where he converted a room to a lab. He brewed absinthe, held parties with members of the new Beat Generation, and started a new Thelemite group. He founded the Parsons Chemical Manufacturing Company, which specialized in making explosives and special effects chemicals for the film industry.

On June 17, 1952, Parsons received a rush order for explosives from a movie company and set to work in his little Orange Grove lab. There was an explosion, which destroyed the lower half of the building and cost Parsons his life. The Pasadena Police Department investigation concluded it was an accident caused by sloppy work habits and clumsiness. But a number of Parsons’ former colleagues challenged this, stating that he was always extremely cautious in his work. One chemical engineer insisted the explosion had come from beneath the floorboards (a suggestion the police department accepted as a possibility) leading to speculation that Howard Hughes had Parsons assassinated for stealing company secrets. A friend of Cameron’s believed Parsons died in a ritual intended to create a homunculus. In the end, Parsons’ demise was declared an accidental death owing to the lack of conclusive evidence. He was only 37 when he died.

When I started writing Black Easter, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was shortly after our move to Pasadena that I began to research Crowley and the Thelema Lodge, and came across the extraordinary story of Jack Parsons. When I discovered the Pasadena-Crowley connection, I experienced a serious frisson at the very odd synchronicity. And it’s not the only the only one this supernatural novel has triggered in my life.

Truth is often stranger than fiction, and the everyday sometimes supplies characters way larger than life. Jack Parsons was one of those. It makes me want to write him into a novel somewhere down the road.

My supernatural thriller, Black Easter, will be released on December 5, 2015. Read an excerpt here.

About Black Easter

It’s Resurrection Time.

San Francisco antique dealer Paul Hatzis sells his business and rents an old house on the small Greek island of Vóunos. What he doesn’t know is that the house, which has a sinister reputation with the locals, was previously owned by black magician Dafyd Jones who—along with his seer companion Magda O’Whelan, and Klaus Maule, a seriously disturbed colonel in the Waffen SS—made a deal with the demonic, culminating in their planned bodily deaths during the final ritual in 1944.

In return for a lifetime of service on the frontier of Outer Hell, where all the demons of Hell fight a desperate, eternal battle against inconceivable powers that would consume both the human and demonic spheres, Jones and his companions will be reborn on Earth as powerful immortals…if they don’t go mad first.

As Easter approaches, Paul is preparing to celebrate the biggest holiday of the Greek calendar with his girlfriend, Elleni, and Alex, his adored 18-year old niece. But with the biblical threescore years and ten now up, the magician and his two colleagues are being called back from Hell by the ritual artifact they buried deep in the cellar of Paul’s house.

And all they need are three living human bodies…

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Back in the Saddle

As some of you know, I’ve been stretched very thin of late. The demands of running Panverse Publishing singlehandedly as well as my part-time CAD work and the need to balance work with some of sort of real life and family time–I will not yield it all to work!–hasn’t left a great deal of time for my own writing in the last year. I had started work on a new novel last Spring, but made a conscious decision to put it on hold at 30k words while I took care of getting Panverse off the ground in its new incarnation as a publisher of novels rather than simply anthologies.

I’m happy to report that my business partner in Panverse, co-owner Herma Lichtenstein, is now able to join me fulltime; Herma will be taking over the vast bulk of the marketing and promotion, as well as some of the developmental editing. This means that I can now get back to my own writing. In the past few weeks I have in fact been flexing the muscles by completing a number of short stories that I’d either begun and stalled on, or simply didn’t have the craft to raise to the level where I thought they were ready for an audience (one of the double-edged issues with being an editor is that your standards tend to climb all the time, and of course your toughest criticism is reserved for your own writing).

So the good news is that before long I’ll be publishing a number of my short stories–possibly even a small collection. You have been warned! And once the shorts are done and earning their keep, I’ll be back to the novel…unless I get sidetracked into writing another Billy Sutherland novel. So many readers have asked for a sequel to “Sutherland’s Rules” (though a prequel is likelier), that I’m very, very tempted. I’ve never had so much fun writing as I did with “Sutherland’s Rules”, and readers have certainly responded to that.

I’m also delighted to say that YA author and superstar writing maven Janice Hardy has invited me to guest blog regularly on her shiny new Fiction University site. As one of six “visiting professors” guesting for her “Indie Author” series, I’ll be blogging there once every six weeks on some aspect of indie publishing. In fact, I have a shiny new post on Fiction University today on the ridiculous and needless war between the promoters of Traditional and Indie publishing–click here to check it out.

Thanks as always for your time and your interest. I’m going to try to blog here a little more frequently; so what would you like to see me blog about?

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Heartbleed Password Blues

The most commonly used password in 2013 was 123456. That’s a change from the previous most commonly used password, which was… password. Facepalm? You bet!

Long before the Snowden revelations, I was always fascinated by the issue of internet security. I also have several close friends who work in the field. Most of them are pretty cutting about not only the average web user’s lack of awareness of the problems of safeguarding data, but also the reluctance of executives in industry, including banking, to get serious about data protection.

The Heartbleed vulnerability, while not necessarily an immediate threat to any of us, does raise the risk that one or more of your inline accounts will be hacked. Some accounts are more important than others. If your Goodreads or NYT account gets compromised, it isn’t the end of the world, but someone getting access to your banking, email, or Facebook page can wreak havoc.

The ease with which a hacker can get into 99% of people’s accounts is hard to believe—we’re talking seconds and minutes. Even if your password is a bit better than those mentioned above, a great many people use easily researched and identifiable personal data, such as their birthday, wedding anniversary, kids’ names, etc…many of which can be conveniently found on, say, your Facebook page. And people often use a single password across several accounts, resulting in a nice domino effect bonanza for someone who gets hold of it. Two-thirds of internet users only use one or two passwords across dozens of accounts.

There are services now that will manage your passwords for you, typically using the cloud—which is fine except that if they suffer a breach, you’re in trouble. Biometric data, such as fingerprint ID (Apple and Samsung are using them, and apps are out there) are more secure, but the stakes, should they be compromised, are huge—you can’t change your fingerprint or iris.

At its worst, someone getting into your key accounts can ruin your life.

The good news is that it’s actually not hard to secure your major accounts without having to remember many complex and meaningless alphanumeric and symbol combinations: think in terms of passphrases. While a “brute force” or “dictionary” attack—a computer crunching every possible combination or trying the most common words—can crack many passwords in minutes or days, a passphrase comprised of three common words like, say, one happy camper, will take in the order of centuries to break using these methods—and you can remember it far more easily than, say, J_15v0*As2, as pointedly and memorably illustrated in the classic xkcd cartoon, “Password Strength”.

A passphrase, as the word implies, is more than a single word—it’s a string of them, a short sentence. Here are some easy rules:

  • Don’t use obvious ones (iloveyou was the 9th most popular in 2014; letmein was #14)
  • Don’t include personally identifiable data (birthday, pet’s name, etc.)
  • Don’t use keyboard patterns (e.g., qwerty)
  • Use at least three words
  • Do pick a phrase that has meaning to you, but that even someone who knows you wouldn’t automatically associate with you
  • Don’t put capital letters at the beginning
  • Incorporate some numbers and at least one symbol
  • Use a phrase that you can easily associate in memory with a site or adapt to different sites

Let’s look at this last item, which is especially important and interesting, and generate some examples.

To create a strong passphrase for an email account, you might start with an idea like, cursive is lost—there’s the association with writing, but it’s not a phrase with meaning to anyone else, or a common one; yet it’s super easy to remember. Remove the spaces (most sites don’t allow them) and you have cursiveislost.

Now start to adapt it to meet common system requirements. Put in a capital or two (not in the obvious place), so we have cursiveISlost. The trick is to create a rule and stick to it—in this case, caps will always be used for my middle word.

Add in a symbol or two…hey, you could even use an emoticon that connects with how you feel about the passphrase! If I think of the loss of cursive (or “joined-up-writing”, as we called it in the UK), that would be an unhappy face. Now you have cursiveISlost:(

Finally, most sites will require a number. Pick a favourite; more than one would be great, but this passphrase is already complex enough that a single numeral would do, maybe your lucky number, or something that has meaning to you. So we’re now at cursiveISlost:(9. A bit more complicated…but if your email account doesn’t require symbol or numerals, you could dispense with these and your passphrase will still be very strong.

And guess what—you’re done with your email passphrase. Type it a few times and think about it for a few moments, retracing the reasons you chose each item, and you’ll never forget it.

Now move on, using a similar process for your banking password. Here you could begin with, say, if i were a rich man; first lose the spaces, then proceed as above.

Another, easier still, strategy is to use a single phrase but have a way to customize it for different sites.

So I could begin with a line from a song—I fear earthquakes and lightning would work; but it’s a little long to type, so I might pare it down to earthquakes and lightning…it’s still three words not commonly used together. I add in my caps, numbers and symbols and get to 9earthquakeSandlightning! (notice a new rule…I put the capital at the end of the first word. Again, create a rule and stick to it for easy retention).

To modify that passphrase for different sites, you could do something as simple as take the first letter of the site name (say, “B” for your Bank of America account) and add it to the end of your passphrase. Your BoA passphrase is now 9earthquakeSandlightning!B. The same phrase applied to, say, Facebook, would now be 9earthquakeSandlightning!F. This simple rule—on which you’ll create your own variation—makes it possible to adapt the same passphrase across a variety of accounts.

Now, although it’s true this violates the “domino effect” advice above, the chances of the original phrase being cracked are so remote as to vanish. But passwords don’t have to be hacked; they’re typically simply stolen or intercepted. So let’s add in one extra tweak. Instead of using the first letter of the account site for your variant, use the second.

If you’re thinking, “this is so complicated”, trust me that it’s not, and here’s why: because when you create your own ruleset and passphrase following the methods outlined above, it’ll have personal meaning to you, and will be easy to remember. Again, make up a system and rules that have meaning to you. Try it—you’ll be surprised. Just set a rule, be consistent, and do change your passwords for key accounts once every few months.

And—if you have a really rotten memory and all else fails—you can always make a paper note of the core phrase(s) and your rules, and keep it somewhere far from your smartphone and computer!

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On Honesty and Self-Censorship

Among all the other fallout from the Snowden/NSA revelations was a PEN America survey of 520 writers which found they are “not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.” The survey states that,

– 24% have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations.

– 16% have avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic and another 11% have seriously considered it.

– 16% have refrained from conducting Internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious and another 12% have seriously considered it.

Then just yesterday I came across a self-published author’s post about why he no longer swore in his books. Although the author goes on to give several lengthy and variably credible artistic reasons for the decision, he candidly admits that part of his reasoning includes the concern that some readers are turned off by coarse language, and that he’ll probably sell more books if he stops using it.

My reaction to both the above? I don’t fucking believe this. What are we coming to?

Last case first. It’s true that the gratuitous overuse of coarse language can be obnoxious, attention-seeking, and a crutch for poor writing, especially in dialogue. And some fine writers, among whom Charles Portis (True Grit, The Dog of the South, Norwood, et al), arguably one of the very best American authors of the twentieth century, have written several books without using a single swearword.

It’s also true that bad language can alienate some readers. One reviewer of my own book, Aegean Dream, says in his three-star review, “I might have given this a fourth star had it been written with fewer profanities/vulgarities.” (Meh. One reader. There are probably less than a dozen cusswords in the whole 350-page book.)

All that said, the truth is that people in real life, even the best brought-up people, do swear, often, and almost without exception when bad things happen. Some people even go so far as to use swearwords as punctuation. This is reality, people. And I take the firm view that it’s the writer’s duty, even in fiction, to represent the reality of the world*

The same thing goes for sex. In the real world, most adults spend a large amount of time thinking about sex, and—all things being equal—enjoy practicing it whenever the opportunity arises. It therefore follows that if you’re writing fiction for grownups, at some time or another your characters are going to think about, or have, sex. And yet I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to newer writers agonize over writing a sex scene out of concern that their parent/relative/boss/coworker will end up reading their book, and what will they think of them as a consequence.

In fact, if the reader in question is also a grownup they won’t probably think anything negative about the author—unless the sex scene is poorly written, in which case they’ll think the author is a bad writer.  More to the point, if the scene is done well and feels like reality, they’ll probably appreciate the honesty. Because the truth is that readers—with the possible exception of ultra-conservative religious types—respond very well indeed to honesty, including hot bedroom scenes and, where appropriate, coarse language. It’s part of making the fictional dream real, people!

In the case of the PEN America survey, the concerns are of a different order, with the writers surveyed obviously fearing that they’ll be tagged, flagged, and perhaps even targeted by the authorities.

While there’s some sound basis to these concerns, the fears aired also show a high degree of ignorance about the way intelligence works. Simply running a few web searches on Al-Qaeda training camps, white supremacist groups, or the enrichment of Uranium for use in nuclear devices is not going to land you on a watch list or bring the DHS to the door.

In the course of writing Sutherland’s Rules, my 2013 caper novel about a pair of lovable sixty-something hippies on a crazy last dope smuggling run**, I did no end of research—online, in library books, and via phone and email with experts—on drugs, smuggling, Afghanistan, the Taliban, intelligence and police agencies, customs procedures, surveillance techniques, and much more.

If all this activity ran up enough flags (unlikely) to be brought to the attention of a human intelligence analyst, it’s just possible they checked it out, built a profile, noticed I was an author, and likely concluded I was researching a book on the subject; if not, the publication of the book would have confirmed this. But more likely it didn’t even come up on the human radar, because the reality of modern-day intelligence is that the amount of SigInt (intelligence gathered by interception of signals) is so fantastically vast that even a small fraction of it would swamp all available human resources. Face it: you’re both less unique and less important than you think. And, although mistakes can occur, these people are generally smarter than people give them credit for.

So the likelihood of a few innocent queries getting you into trouble is, really, insignificant; if, however, your contact list includes firebrand Imams, terrorist suspects, or known criminals, then, yeah, all bets are off, and you may well deserve a little attention from the authorities.

It is true that there’s always going to be some small chance that you’ll get flagged, and perhaps suffer some minor harassment down the road as a result of repeated digging into very sensitive areas. But you know what? Art isn’t safe. Artists and writers around the world daily face beatings, arrest, and even death, and it doesn’t stop them. Because honesty is more important to them. If you want safe, you’re in the wrong business.

To me, a big part of honesty—in fact, the biggest part of being an artist or writer—is having the courage of your convictions. I’d bet a year’s income that a great many of the PEN survey respondents who self-censor and fear to run web searches on “topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious” also claim to be huge supporters and admirers of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Russian feminist punk rockers Pussy Riot, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. Hmmm.

And yeah, this shouldn’t happen in the US; but, like earthquakes and tornadoes, it sometimes does. Get over it. If you don’t like it, vote; if that doesn’t work, protest (peacefully). But if you protest, don’t be wimps like Occupy, who cut and ran at the first snow flurries in NYC and the first threats of muscular action from the authorities. In Russia, crowds of protesters will stand all day in temperatures of 20 below; in other countries, they regularly face tanks and tear gas and rubber bullets. But writers in the US self-censor because they fear getting an extra pat-down or some intense questioning at the airport next time they fly, or having their activities monitored a little more closely? Give me a break.

So are we going to be honest as writers, or leave it to those of real conviction?

*          *          *

* Stephen King addresses this same point wonderfully in his book, On Writing; John Gardner has a whole chapter on honesty and truth in The Art of Fiction

**The protags in Sutherland’s Rules risk both life and freedom in pursuit of love, loyalty, and their ideals. 

ADDENDUM: And this very evening my good friend Jon Del Arroz has posted a wonderful response–check it out:  http://delarroz.com/?p=100

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The Power of, uh, Stuff

I’ve always had a tendency to accumulate stuff. Not a hoarder, I’m not that bad….but paper and books are especially difficult for me to let go of, closely followed by old photos. Some of it is sheer sentimentalism (old school exercise books, etc.) some is the fear of letting go of things that might one day be useful. You know how that is.

A couple of weeks ago I decided that I really needed to start thinning the pile in earnest, and figured that if I began with the  most challenging—books—it would make letting go of other belongings easier. I’ve skimmed the top off the book pile a few times before, but now I was planning to cut into flesh. Not easy for me. (My wife, who is the opposite of me when it comes to belongings, is wonderfully patient with me.)

The  problem with excess possessions, of course, is that they eventually possess you. They make it hard to clean, hard to move homes; they cost money because you need space for them; they limit your freedom in every way.

So why do we get attached to the material? Why, even when we know the reasons for attachment, and see them for the garbage they are, can some of us still not bear to let go of surplus possessions? How much do any of us actually need to be happy? Hell, one day we’re going to have to let go of the most important thing we have, life itself. So it’s probably a good idea to become a little more comfortable with the notion..

The only time I’ve ever viscerally grasped the insignificance of all the possessions we invest with such terrible sentiment and memory and symbolism has been in the presence of death. In London, for example, fifteen years ago, while going through my mother’s mountains of belongings with an old friend, I was struck so forcibly by the irrelevance of all the stuff she’d kept that I began to laugh out loud at the foolishness of it. You can’t take any of it with you. It’s nothing.

Of course I could see that my own tendency to accumulate was at least partly inherited. But my mother had been through wartime and her family had literally lost everything they owned: I was born into a time of plenty and didn’t have that excuse.

I decided that my acid test with the bookshelves would be the question, “am I  really likely to read that book again?” And of course, quickly realized that there are many books that I occasionally pick up and read a few paragraphs of, or refer to something, or keep to loan out, etc. Oh, how quick the excuses. I resolved to be firm.

And then there’s the problem of inherited books. Like for instance a big quarto volume bound in what looked like white pigskin that I’d found—along with piles of age-yellowed Penguin Classics and Plays—among my mother’s belongings. The book was a novel, in Italian, and inside was a fascinating dedication, also in Italian: my mother (who, with her family, had endured WWII in Nazi-occupied Rome) had given it to her mother in late 1944, adding in the dedication that this was the  first book to be printed in Italy after the liberation. Sentimental value high, practical value, zero: I have no children or family that reads Italian; though I do, I would never read this book; and I don’t have the time to start advertising every book I think might have value to someone somewhere.

Somewhere in the cluttered attic of my mind a little voice reminded me that if I could make these hardest choices, getting rid of the low sentiment possessions would be a breeze.

A few days ago I took several large boxes of books to my local used bookstore, one which donates all the books they can’t sell. In the three boxes were some tough calls: a number of Science Fiction hardbacks and also some of the very first SF books I ever owned as a teenager, people like Asimov and Poul Anderson, VanVogt and Clifford D. Simak. It was hard to let them go. But I know, know I’ll never read them again: the few that I will (like Asimov’s The End of Eternity), I kept. But the others, though I loved them as old friends, were just too dated.

It wasn’t much, but it was a start. Some tough calls were made and, yes, the pigskin-bound book is gone, too. There will be more, much more, and not just books. It won’t be easy, and the part of me that is so resistant to any change will fight and scream. It’s a bit like dieting or quitting smoking—you find every possible reason to put it off and not start now.

I will do it. No, really. I will.

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