Category Archives: Material World

Manufactured Crisis or Thoughtful Analysis? Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind

Some days it seems that everyone I know is stressed over what’s going on in the world. Extremely stressed. I mean, like, freaking out. Panic attacks.

This is most apparent on social media, where everyone’s fears are repeated, reinforced, and magnified in a white-knuckle crescendo of screaming feedback and hyperbole. Some of the stress is justifiable: it’s pretty clear we’re not living in the best of all possible worlds. Bad enough that we have North Korea, ISIL, almost weekly terror attacks in Europe, resurgent racism, and what looks like a new cold war starting up. Add to that an unpredictable US president with a Twitter account and a penchant for pouring gasoline on every fire he sees, and it’s hard not to be concerned.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen many people expressing fears about everything from nuclear missile attacks vaporizing US cities to civil war in the US. Friends and acquaintances are having panic attacks, rage episodes, and experiencing chronic depression. This is hardly surprising, since the two biggest stressors in primates are lack of predictability and lack of control.

I share some of my friends’ concerns to a degree, but I’m far from depression or panic. Part of this is simply being older—I remember the Cuba missile crisis and lived in London throughout the brutal IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. I’m still here, and so is almost everyone else.

Beyond that, there’s one thing I do control, and you can too: your media. That doesn’t mean not staying informed—in fact, you can be both better informed and less stressed if you want to.

First, let’s remind ourselves that it wasn’t always like this. The 24/7 news cycle began in 1980, when Ted Turner’s CNN first came on the air. Before that, the news cycle was a daily one, beginning with the newspaper, and the same applied to the evening news on network TV. CNN was a game-changer: suddenly news was breaking 24/7, and anything even remotely newsworthy stood a good chance of being magnified for impact.

It’s important to understand the power of the visual medium in humans, who are primarily visual creatures (unlike, say, dogs, who get the vast majority of their information through their sense of smell).

Accordingly, a dramatic news item presented as video—a CCTV clip of a car mowing down innocent pedestrians, say—has infinitely higher emotional impact on the viewer than if they read the same item in textual form. Repeat that image over and over, and the impact on the audience is multiplied. Anyone who watched network news daily at the time of the 9/11 attacks probably saw the twin towers coming down at least scores of times, and probably several hundred: the networks played them over and over and over. For weeks. Months.

When Marshall McLuhan, back in 1964, wrote, “The medium is the message”,1 he wasn’t joking. The medium in which content is delivered shapes the content and the way it affects society in ways that are often unforeseen.

I haven’t watched TV news in almost thirty years. I have for many years listened to the BBC and NPR news on radio, and for the last decade mostly online, but in the last year or so I’ve mostly ditched that too.

How do I stay informed? I read. I read good news sources that report accurate, factual news—and, no, there’s no debate over what that is. (If you’re someone who believes the alt-right and president Trump’s definitions of “fake news”—or for that matter think Occupy Democrats and Addicting Info are credible news sources—you really shouldn’t waste your time reading this post. You’re not going to be convinced, and there’s a good chance I’ll can your comment: it’s my blog and my op-ed.)

I happened to be born with news media in my veins. My father was a celebrated, first-rank journalist, and I had a clear grasp of media accountability and the importance of credible sources before I was ten. Nine or ten newspapers were delivered daily to our house, and a number of news and current affairs weeklies, from Time Magazine to The Economist, as well as several Italian and French publications, were always to hand.

Now here’s the point. Television and radio news are push media: what that means is that the newsroom determines the hierarchy of importance of each item or topic and pumps them at you in a steady stream: you can’t just dip in and grab what interests you or what you consider important. Moreover, TV news has to be both sensational and simplified enough to keep the largest possible audience riveted: it’s fueled by advertising dollars, and airtime is very costly.

Text, on the other hand, is a pull medium: you can scan, determine what matters to you, and read just that; moreover, you can usually go and read more on that same subject in depth elsewhere. Lacking dramatic video imagery and manipulative voice tone, text media is much closer to sterile than visual or audio. Articles may of course carry spin or falsehoods, but selecting good sources addresses that.

Here’s a handy graph which compares news sources. The vertical axis defines journalistic quality; the horizontal, partisan bias. On the whole, I think it’s very accurate.

News Source Graphic

image too small? click here to enlarge

Another upside of text is that it’ll leave you better-informed. A four-minute radio piece—about the length of most items on NPR, undoubtedly one of the best news sources in the world—is perhaps 600 words. That’s not much, about the length of a typical blog post;2 you can barely scratch the surface. By contrast, the average length of a NYT article is around 1,200 words. Publications that take analysis really seriously, such as The Economist and The Atlantic Monthly, run some articles up into the several thousand-word range.

It’s true that readers’ attention spans are diminishing, and many people won’t take the ten minutes or so required to read a 1,200-word article. And the fact that everything is powered by the advertising makes it even more likely that newsroom editors, even in gold-standard publications, will be tempted to trim analysis and background material from articles.3

So: get your information fix from image-rich, emotionally manipulative push media, or pick your topics at leisure from in-depth, thoughtful, and less strident text media? Anxiety attacks or informed consideration?

The choice is yours. And there’s always antidepressants, right?

 

Notes

1  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan (Signet, 1966)

2 Most of my posts on this blog, and when I guest post elsewhere, are usually in the 1,200-1,500-word range—that’s how long it takes to dig a little into a subject.

3 https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/jul/15/tldr-quartz-associated-press-article-length

Thanks due to Vanessa Otero for her wonderful graphic comparing news sources. Check out her excellent blog here

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Poorly Served: The Upside-Down World of Dining Out and Shopping in America

It’s not easy being a cultural transplant.

After almost three decades in the US, one thing in particular still makes me gibber and foam at the mouth: the absolutely awful service in stores, and especially restaurants.

Say, what? Let me explain.

I’ll be in a store — a supermarket, say — and deeply focused on my mission. I have a list, either on paper or in memory.  I’m juggling menus and selections in my head. I may be examining tomatoes, considering their ripeness because the recipe I intend to use them in is three days away, and I want them perfect then.

And from behind me, a complete stranger asks me how I’m doing today, not only startling me but also totally disrupting my chain of thought.

Or the restaurant where I’m deep in conversation with my wife or a friend, and every five minutes either the waitperson will interrupt us to ask how everything is, or some poor wretch tries to refill my water glass every time I take a sip. Worst of all is the breathtakingly inconsiderate habit of starting to bus our plates before everyone is finished, on the pretext of “let me get these out of your way, sir.”

You moron! Go away! They’re not in my way, and my wife hasn’t even finished her meal!

Okay, I’ve never called anyone a moron yet, but I have told water-bringers to “go away and never come back.” For real. And, yes, I like to linger with my empty plate, to adjust and tinker with the carefully-positioned utensils laying across it as we chat and refill our wineglasses. It makes me feel I’m not being rushed. What’s the damned hurry?

Why do I get so bothered over this? Because I’m European. I come from a place where a diner’s chief priority isn’t wolfing down their food and getting out of a restaurant in twenty minutes. Where sharing a meal is something to be enjoyed, a chance to be unwind and bond and connect with one another. Where once you sit at a table, it’s yours until you’re ready to go. Where people aren’t coerced into hiding their real feelings behind a corporate mask of bland niceness and fake solicitousness.

I’m sure the waitstaff at restaurants and the people who stock the shelves in the supermarkets are often wonderful people, but I don’t go there to have a social experience with them: I have friends for that. And greeting a shopper when you’re not even in their field of vision isn’t merely annoying, it’s downright creepy! (Trader Joe’s, where all the staff are under substantial pressure to be full of puppy-dog good cheer, has an especially bad problem, as revealed in this NYT piece).

I don’t care what my restaurant waitperson’s name is. I just want them to bring my food while it’s still hot (a particularly challenging item in the US, especially with soup), and leave me to enjoy my meal in peace. Why must they waste our time and confuse us by reciting an endless list of specials in mind-numbing detail which we’ll all forget two seconds after they finish? Surely the restaurant has a computer and printer, and could just slip a sheet of paper listing the specials into the menu like they once used to. Is management must be under the illusion that you’ll find it a bonding experience and like the place better? It’s nuts.

Look, good service isn’t intrusive — it’s discreet and invisible. Waitstaff and store employees should be around and available when you need them and stay out of the way when you don’t. Pestering people, interrupting them, interrogating them…none of this is good service. It’s pretend, flummery, stagecraft. Sadly, these are core American values. (Discuss.)

The same goes for clothing, household, and other stores. I understand acknowledging the customer as they walk in to let them know staff is aware of their presence in case they’re thinking of shoplifting. But if — as happened to me in the lovely Huntington Museum gift shop just a few weeks ago —  four different people come up to me in the course of ten minutes to ask if I need help, I just walk. Usually after telling them why, and sometimes handing them the item I had intended to buy until they shattered the last of my dwindling patience.

Once or twice I’ve sought out the manager in a supermarket and told them that the smiling attempts to catch my eye, the repeated greetings, and the dreaded, “did you find everything okay?” at the checkout are excessive. When pushed, they’ll mumble that they and their staff hate it too, but head office makes them do it. And head office is probably getting that advice from some consultancy firm or guru, for which advice we, of course, are ultimately paying.

Service industry protocols in this country are upside down. It’s like living in a sick mirror universe, and there’s not much one can do about it. When my wife and I go into a restaurant these days, I’ve taken to telling the waitperson, nicely and right up front, that we’re not in a hurry, want the food to come slow, and don’t want to be bussed before we’re ready. They nod and smile and seem to get it. And yet four out of five times the result is no different.

So does anyone actually enjoy all these forced interactions and interruptions? Or am I simply legend?

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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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