Tag Archives: op-ed

On Freedom

Today being Independence Day (which I, as a Brit, and a lifelong monarchist, refer to as The Day of Blackest Infamy and Betrayal) it seems appropriate to write about freedom.

For all its faults, the US still scores high in this regard. As someone who’s traveled a good deal and lived in other countries, I have some solid points for comparison here. The First and Second Amendments—the Rights to Free Speech, Religion, Free Press, and to Assemble and Petition the Government; and the Right to Bear Arms—are pretty much unparalleled. I can also attest, from direct experience, that anyone who wants to go into business for themselves is rather more free to do so in this country than almost anywhere else in the world. Even in the current dire economic circumstances, anyone with a little skill and ingenuity coupled with the will to work can make it here, and for all my own dithering and mistakes, this country’s been very good to me in that regard.

That said, could Americans’ freedoms be improved upon? Hell, yes.

Many years ago, when I still lived in Santa Cruz, I received a parking ticket. On examining it, I was astonished by the number of codes, i.e., regulations which, if broken, would get you a ticket. If memory serves me well, there were over ninety of them.

Or take alcohol. I understand not letting kids drink, but why on Earth shouldn’t responsible adults be allowed to share a beer or a bottle of wine on a beach or in a public park in California? I also never understood why a passenger in a car shouldn’t be allowed to sip a beer, since there are solid laws already in place to cover the driver’s need for sobriety. And the restrictions on buying alcohol are becoming outrageously intrusive. Self-checkout in supermarkets, which has always required a store employee’s direct approval, now forces that employee to check your ID and log your date of birth along with the sale—why? And, worse, where does this end?

Tobacco, now. I don’t smoke, but I fully support the freedom of others to do so. I understand the issues with bars, restaurants, aeroplanes, and similar closed spaces; but there are towns in California, such as where I live in Concord, where you can’t smoke in the street or in parks; and an increasing number of condominiums and housing complexes are banning people smoking not just outdoors but in their own homes. Apart from being heavy-handed, coercive, and undemocratic, this, folks, is just plain stupid.

Then there are the questionable licencing requirements for many professions, among them manicurists and hairdressers. In my old trade as a decorative artist, I was required to be licenced as a painting contractor. However, in most cases the onerous (and expensive) courses a licence applicant is required to take, and the tests they’re required to pass, have very little to do with establishing quality and competence but everything to do with generating revenue both for local authorities and a whole parasitic infrastructure of schools. So with the unhappy example of manicurists, although I agree that someone using blades and sharp objects around people should understand safety and hygiene issues, let’s look at the California course requirements here:

Cosmetologist = 1600 hours

Barber = 1500 hours

Esthetician = 600 hours

Electrologist = 600 hours

Manicurist = 400 hours

… and note that a manicurist isn’t allowed to wax your eyebrows.

And God help you if you’re a licenced professional in one state and want to move to another, because in most cases, there’s no reciprocity. You have to start all over again.

This, friends, is just wrong. All of it.

To my way of thinking, when laws stop honest, competent people making a living at something that isn’t, say, medicine or the Law, without having to pony up thousands of dollars and take a year or two out of their lives, something is very wrong indeed.

I understand municipalities’ needs to raise taxes, but I can’t condone doing so by limiting people’s ability to make a living and by strangling individual freedoms. In my own past case as a decorative artist working alone, why did I have to pass a certification that pretty much exclusively concerned itself with employment law, wages and withholding, employee insurances, and the rest? Since as an artist I mostly fell through the cracks, I was unlicenced for years, and I can’t begin to tell you how many times I was hired to correct or even wholly redo jobs that licenced contractors had botched.

How long until they require artists to be licenced?

Of course, these laws are typically enacted under pressure from various interest groups, or under the wooly-headed idea that they protect the public or the licencee. Bullshit; road-to-hell paving, etc.  In the vast majority of cases they exist to generate revenue and to keep lawyers busy.

The solution? Well, I side wholly with the ideal Libertarian (though not the Conservative Libertarian), and these would be my immediate thoughts:

1. Protect the Right To Do Dumb Things That Don’t Hurt Others (Ha!).

2. Apply a unitary, Federal standard (no chance).

3. Limit litigation (not going to happen).

4. Get rid of all unenforceable laws (yeah, right!).

5. Do away with 90% of the laws on the statutes; repeat until you arrive at something close to the Ten Commandments (definitely not going to happen).

Hey, we can dream, can’t we? And despite all the inanities I’ve listed, it’s still a free country, or at least far more so than most. Count your blessings.

Happy Fourth!

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Deja Vu All Over Again

Two news items on the excellent website io9 got me thinking about memes and the failure of the artistic imagination. The first of these concerned itself with aliens, the second with zombies. Only one really pissed me off. Here’s why.

Annoying as it may be, the remarkable popularity of the zombie in popular culture is at least defensible in that the condition of the mythic undead seems to correlate pretty closely with a real-world phenomenon, namely, rabies. As the article points out, many of the symptoms, particularly the ‘silent, semi-lucid, unending aggression’ of the rabies victim, are precisely those that typify the movie zombie. Well, fair enough. I still have sub-zero interest in reading or seeing movies about them, but I buy zombies as somewhat believable, a pop-culture meme with some basis in fact.

The other news item was about a 14-minute short made for literally a zero budget. ‘This no-budget short film captures the creepiness of an alien encounter on a shoestring’, trumpets the io9 headline. Since I generally like io9, I decided to go with it and commit 14 minutes of my time to see why this ‘science fiction film’ (io9’s words, not mine) was in the running for a grant from Ridley Scott’s production company.

I should have known better.

This short, about a young woman whom nobody will believe trying to resist yet another alien visitation, is the worst kind of meme. Oh, the cinematography and production is fine, until the alien comes along. At which point we’re treated to bright white lights, electrical and electronic  malfunctions, things rattling and shaking, and a three-fingered alien hand coming around the victim’s bedroom door: in short, the generic alien encounter meme that has been around for something like three decades, at least since the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The pop culture meme of the skinny alien, with its childlike, elongated head, slitty eyes, three-fingered hands, blinding light, undampened electrical fields, and fond use of rectal probes, is out of control. But unlike zombies, we have no data point whatever on which to base the alien meme: it’s made up, people! And it wasn’t a very good effort in the first place! The chance of aliens looking like this is no greater than aliens that look like octopi, or ambulatory potatoes, or nothing we can even begin to comprehend.

To my way of thinking, this is the worst kind of laziness. When there is the opportunity to do something entirely fresh and original, why does every filmmaker do exactly the same thing as has been done before? If the answer is, because that’s what audiences expect, all I can do is bury my head in my hands and say they deserve to be fleeced at every opportunity. You can tie a pink ribbon around a turd and put it in a Tiffany box, but it’s still a turd. And yet, we continue to reward these pathetic, uninspired imitators.

Once in a very, very long while, a filmmaker comes along who gets it. Unfortunately, we have to go back even further than Close Encounters for that one, to the 1972 film (based on a 1961 novel), Solaris. Surreal? Hard to understand? That’s exactly the point, though, isn’t it—a real alien encounter is going to be confusing and incomprehensible.

And startlingly, memorably, original.

So the fact that millions (probably hundreds of millions) of people are already convinced that the generic movie alien is representative of the real thing (as though we had even the shadow of a clue) is something I find both maddening and depressing. Haven’t we been here with angels and fairies?

When an artistic form runs out of, or refuses to embrace, fresh ideas, it’s usually considered dead. I think we can safely declare the science fiction film—at least where aliens are concerned—to have entirely flatlined.

Zombie article link

Alien short film link

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Subterranean Euro Blues

I was never a fan of Europe.

More specifically, I was never enthusiastic about the EU, the idealistically-driven political and economic integration of the many different nations and peoples that make up the European continent. The architects of the EU, elder statesmen who’d lived through the horrors of two world wars in the span of a generation and a bit, sold it as not only an economic solution to the problems of  cross-border trading and tourism (I remember when a trip from London to Northern Italy meant changing currencies at least twice,) but as a permanent solution to nationalism and an end to conflict between the nations of Europe. Like all idealists, they discounted human nature.

My own skepticism stemmed mostly from aesthetic rather than practical reasons. When the UK decimalized its currency in 1971, I  was dismayed. Our ancient, eccentric, and uniquely complex system of pounds, shillings and pence (a pound was made up of twenty shillings of twelve pence each; half-crowns were two shillings and sixpence; threepenny pieces were thick and octagonal; and then there was the professional unit of currency used by lawyers and doctors, who billed in guineas, a guinea being one pound and one shilling) had overnight been reduced to a thing of appalling simplicity, with pennies becoming the equivalent of cents and everything else, tradition, history and all, swept away as though it had never existed. Furthermore, although only in my late teens, I knew that much else that I valued would be lost: the individuality of nations, and the distinct character of each people.

Anyone who’s watched D.A. Pennebaker’s amazing documentary of the 1965 Bob Dylan tour of the UK, ‘Don’t Look Back’ will realize that England was like another universe in those days, with attitudes, habits and traditions radically different from those of mainland Europe. The same was true to a lesser extent of European nations—their peoples, customs, and architecture were fabulously distinct. Young as I was, I knew two things: first, that I didn’t want the nasty, vanilla homogeneity that a unified Europe would bring; and secondly, that it wasn’t going to work.

Just a dozen or fifteen years ago, as the reality of the Soviet Union’s demise had begun to sink in, a good many loopy people on the far Right had begun to worry about the sinister New World Order they saw emerging, in which the UN—dominated by the Antichrist and his demonic minions—would bring all nations together and plunge humanity into some kind of Socialist slave hell. I laughed in the face of more than one of these nutcases, pointing out that people everywhere were trying to secede and demanding independence, provinces shearing off from their parent states like ripe fruit from the tree.

People in the real world cleave—for good or ill—to tradition and sovereignty in a way that delusional idealists across the spectrum can’t possibly fathom. Whatever carrots the technocrats used to sway the electorates of the EU’s many nations to join (labour mobility, farm subsidies, economic integration, the creation of a world-class trading bloc, etc.), would never be enough to cement such disparate peoples into a single nation-state. As NYT columnist Thomas Friedman recently pointed out, Greeks are not Germans, and (fortunately) never will be.

So where does this leave us?

Well, for one, Greece will almost certainly default. Although whatever course it takes now is dangerous for its battered people, I believe it will ultimately default because all it has left, after the humiliation and suffering of the past year or so, is to reclaim some measure of sovereignty and self-determination. In the same way as lack of control and predictability are the circumstances which cause the greatest stress to primates, so it is with nations; and while a return to the drachma will likely precipitate a run on the banks and possibly a period of hyperinflation, the Greek people will have regained a measure of pride and a sense of being in charge of their own destiny. I wish them every success and a speedy recovery.

As to the rest of us, I’d say we’re in deep shit. A Greek default may well precipitate further defaults (Portugal certainly, Spain maybe, Italy… ugh), and just possibly the total collapse of the Euro. Although the masters of Europe have had some time preparing for such a disaster and have shored up their financial levees, their continued failure—like all politicians in all democracies, I’m sad to say—to do more than the absolute minimum required guarantees catastrophe. Who the winners will be in the ensuing flood of fear and uncertainty is impossible to predict. One thing is certain: speculators will do well, ordinary working people will get screwed, and politicians will continue to live in a fantasy-land all their own.

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On Tolerance and Civility

There’s an appallingly common mindset which presumes that if someone holds this view, then they must hold that also. So if you drive a truck or work for the FBI, you’re probably a right-wing Christian fundamentalist; if you make a living as a teacher or writer, why, you must lean hard to the left.

This is, of course, bullshit.

That’s not to say that the above don’t occur, and may even be common: but to pigeonhole everyone is both preposterous and simplistic. Real life isn’t like that; hell, even fiction—at least the better sort of fiction—isn’t like that. The best villains, like the hero, are nuanced and complex.

Yet we’re encouraged to think in binaries and cleave to polar opposites. Stereotyping people who hold views contrary to our own makes it so much easier to dislike and ridicule them. That makes us and our gang feel good. Unfortunately, it’s a slippery slope, and what begins as simple disrespect and derision can end up in the dehumanization of others that leads, in its most extreme form, to genocides. Hitler and the Jews, anyone? Mao and the Chinese intelligentsia? Serbs and Muslims? Hutsi and Tutus?

I was brought up in a Jewish/Italian partisan family right after WWII, which might explain why anything that smells of conformity, lockstep thinking, brainwashing—from the far Right’s white supremacy to the far Left’s political correctness, from rabid, angry atheism to sinister, apocalyptic cultism and Scientology—makes me see red. I’m fine with anyone believing whatever they want to believe in religion or politics, but I despise intolerance, incivility, and character assassination. I’ll stand up for anyone who is attacked for sincere and honestly-held beliefs, even when I don’t agree with them. Where I draw the line is when they seek to impose their will and belief system on me.

There’s a real simple rule here, and it’s do as you would be done by. Maybe it’s time to start thinking for ourselves and start seeing people as individuals rather than as clones, well-meaning individuals who love their families and think they’re doing right rather than mean fools who are out to get us. Like the famous Christmas incidents in the trenches of WWI, maybe we’ll discover that the guys in the enemy uniform are just like us.

Ah, we say, but they started it! Well, maybe they did. Or maybe we watch too much TV or listen to too much talk radio, left or right, and—like those old folks who see the world only through the media and live in fear of everything—have  cut ourselves off from reality.

My personal beliefs are highly heterodox. I follow no party or school of thought. Accordingly, I’ve always had friendships across the political and religious spectrum (that seems unusual in the US, but is not uncommon elsewhere). We can have raging and wide-ranging discussions and arguments yet still remain good friends; sometimes, we learn from one another. At the least, we respect one another and know each other for good people.

I tend to the atheist side of agnostic, but in my 23 years here, two of my closest friends have been Christian fundamentalists, and these are two of the finest people I’ve ever met. Because we respect one another, we can agree to disagree, even though I think they’re deluded and they worry I’ll burn in hell. We laugh. We build on commonalties rather than differences. We enjoy the friendship and like being respectfully challenged now and then by someone who respects us. These are seeds that spread.

If one proceeds on the premise that even those who disagree with us mean well, there’s no need for enmity… but it’s so much easier to demonize people we disagree with than to deal with them, and isn’t that what the media and our environment wants us to do?

Look in the mirror. Whom do you demonize and ridicule?

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The Hollywood Syndrome

In 1999, during a talk at MIT, the late, inimitable Douglas Adams quipped that “getting a movie made in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.” I’m of the strong opinion that the book publishing industry, especially in the US, has for some years now been heading in the same dubious direction, a trend exacerbated by both macro-economic factors and the present turmoil within the industry.

Let me begin with my cards on the table: I’m biased. I prefer the real over the idealized, the purity of the artist’s original vision over a heavily-massaged corporate product; similarly, I believe true beauty is better appreciated without pancake makeup and every strand of immaculately-styled hair tucked perfectly in place. In the same way that a perfect world crafted by committee would be an intolerable, saccharin Disneyland, a book produced by committee with the cynical purpose of making the most bucks is not going to appeal to me. It may—may—be a smashing success, and that’s okay if you want to live in a world of Dan Brown thrillers­­: I don’t. I want some verisimilitude in a book, and that includes protagonists that sometimes aren’t proactive, characters who might not change, and loose ends that don’t get tied up in a pretty ribbon. I’d bet my dog and lot that the warped notion that an unholy alliance of agents, editors, sales and marketing people, and (shudder!) accountants will improve an already good book rather than turn it into processed mush is about as intelligent as the dream of the Edsel. And we know where that ended up.

This isn’t to say that developmental editing doesn’t have a place: of course it does. Even the best authors can be too close to their own work and benefit from educated and intelligent input. A good agent and editor can be an invaluable asset to any author. But the process has got entirely out of hand, with more books than ever being rejected or twisted out of shape because of bizarre preoccupations over category, marketing demographics, and inherited assumptions of what readers want.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take the case of Science Fiction in film. Those of us who love Science Fiction literature know very well that even the best SF stories and novels (Philip K. Dick, anyone?), in the process of being scripted and filmed, have most of their intelligent content ripped out and replaced with gunfights, explosions, chases, and slo-mo kung fu. Why? To target that all-important adolescent male demographic, of course. Now, proving this happens to manuscripts is less easy, but every one of us who works with or is a writer has seen it at first- or second-hand. While I don’t think we’re yet at the woeful state of the movie industry, I do think that the US book industry is pretty far along the road to a lockstep conformity dictated by factors that have little to do with good writing and everything to do with perception and factors unrelated to quality.

A couple of years ago at the World Fantasy Convention in San José, I asked GOH Zoran Živković why non-Anglophone SF (‘World SF’) typically has very different thematic concerns than US/UK SF, and is often far more vibrant, political, allegorical, edgy and even surrealist. His reply was both insightful and telling: “The publishing industry in the US is very powerful,” he said, “and its strength is what determines the market. In the rest of the world, writers write what they want to write, not only what is marketable.”

Aliette de Bodard, in a superb and heartfelt 2011 blog post on the prevalence of US tropes in storytelling, addresses the same issue from a slightly different angle. This pressure to conformity, originating from purely commercial concerns, is warping the literary landscape and spreading like a cancer. Again, let me qualify: there’s nothing wrong with the book industry attempting to pick winners and make a profit, but there’s a great deal wrong with marketing people and accountants dictating a book’s final shape; not only that, but—like Hollywood—they’ve proven over and over that they’re not very good at it, because otherwise every book would make a profit.

To conclude, not all artists or writers have 20-20 vision; there are plenty of bad indie books out there, just as there are plenty of bad indie movies. But, given a good cut of beef in the first place, I usually find that a steak grilled on a high heat by an experienced hand tastes a great deal better than one cooked over months by having a succession of people breathe on it.

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When Ink Runs Red

The unfolding debacle with regard to eBook pricing is both fascinating and, in some ways, bewildering. So for those who’ve not been following the issue, here’s a quick recap:

Ebooks have been around  for well over a decade. Although there were several—and some would say better—eBook readers on the market years before Amazon introduced the Kindle in 2007, the lure of instant eBook downloads via the Kindle’s unique, built-in wifi, added to Amazon’s vast inventory and ultra-prominent brand, quickly made Amazon the main player in the eBook business; even today, with competition from the Barnes and Noble Nook, the Sony Reader, Apple’s iPad, and numerous apps that enable one to read on a smartphone, Amazon still claims some 60% of the eBook market.

The action kicked off last summer with a class action suit filed against Apple and five big publishers, accusing them of eBook price fixing. Back in 2010, Amazon had been selling eBooks at $9.99 in a drive to grab as much market share for the Kindle as possible. With the introduction of the iPad, Apple and the publishers reacted with a covert deal to set their own eBook prices so that no bookseller could undercut Apple (déjà vu of Apple’s policy over individual song pricing, anyone?). As a result, eBook prices jumped overnight. Amazon wasn’t about to give up: in February of this year, Amazon dumped some 5,000 titles from IPG (Independent Publishers Group) because they refused to go along with Amazon’s pricing structure. And yesterday the US Department of Justice opened its own suit, simultaneously announcing that 3 of the 5 big publishing houses had agreed to settle, leaving Penguin and Macmillan to fight alone.

Although one can certainly have some sympathy for the Publishers’ and the bookselling industry’s assertion that once Amazon cements its monopoly this will quickly turn into a Pyrrhic victory for consumers, it’s very, very hard for me to have any sympathy for the book publishing industry as a whole. Not only has it clung for decades to a truly awful business model, but the industry is well-known for its historic lack of transparency over authors’ royalties and for its often onerous contract clauses; like the music industry before it, book publishers have only themselves to blame for their utter failure to adapt to a rapidly-evolving marketplace and new technologies. It’s not as if someone changed the rules overnight: the writing has been on the wall for at least a decade, and the book publishing industry simply sat on its hands and showed the same fatal complacency that the music industry did several years ago.

Like it or not, we live in a Darwinian, capitalist world, and Amazon has achieved dominance by serving the book-reading public with truly phenomenal efficiency; if they’ve sometimes done so by taking a loss on individual book sales to cement their market share, so what? It’s their money, not the taxpayer’s.

From a writer’s point of view, Amazon has also—so far—proved benign: indie authors publishing their own titles electronically get to remain in print indefinitely, have near-complete control over their work, and keep a far, far greater share of the net. Yes, they’re forgoing marketing, cover design, copyediting, and the rest… but given that traditional publishers offer most new authors just about zero marketing help and often appallingly poor covers on which they have no input, this is a debatable loss. Nor do I buy the ‘ocean of dreck’ argument which argues that  publishers have been the industry’s shining Guardians of Quality: although they may have screened out the worst—manuscripts of  third-grade level literacy—the truth is that a large percentage of published works have always been and will continue to be crap, per Sturgeon’s Law.

The nightmare scenario that the book publishing industry and many indie authors warn of is that once Amazon has run the competition out of town and achieved a monopoly, it’ll start jacking up prices and chipping away at author royalties. While the second is a distinct possibility, the first is unlikely. Why? Because (i) the market won’t wear it; and (ii) capitalism abhors a vacuum. Even if all the big five publishers were to fall—and they won’t, because some of them show signs of ‘getting it’ and adapting—other players will appear to compete with Amazon. Who would that be? Why, Apple, Google, and maybe even Mr. Zuckerberg (Facebook Publishing, anyone? Ugh.). All these have the muscle to go head-to-head with Amazon, though it certainly won’t be easy.

The bottom line? No monopoly endures for long, and modern capitalism tends to duopolies at worst; the free market is a Darwinian arena where the blood never dries. And whenever a Goliath appears, there’s always going to be a David to challenge them.

See also WIRED magazine, DOJ Announces Terms of Stettlement

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One Cozy Fiction

Why do we maintain and allow the absurd fiction that deranged evil dictators will play nice and cave to polite requests to stop killing their own or other people, building atomic weapons, or the like? It’s absurd. Yet the UN has now extended Al-Assad’s deadline to stop butchering his own citizens to April 10. And this after even the Arabs have washed their hands of him.

Imagine, if you will, the situation in Syria as a 911 call:

911 OP:    What service do you require? Fire Police, or Ambulance?

SYRIA:     Police! There’s a pair of armed thugs beating down the door!

911 OP:    Are you sure?

SYRIA:    Of course I’m sure!

911 OP:    Have you done anything to cause this, ma’am?

SYRIA:    Erm, I once complained about crime to the local paper. Look, I need help right–

911 OP:    And how do you know they’re thugs, ma’am?

SYRIA:    Because they have stocking masks and sawn-off shotguns! [crashing, tearing noises in background]

911 OP:    Assumptions can be wrong, Ma’am. Let’s keep an open mind see what they do when they come in.

SYRIA:    [screams] Oh God! They’re in the house! One of them’s holding his shotgun to my chest!!

911 OP:   Yes, ma’am, please calm down. Try asking them to leave.

SYRIA:   [Voice off-mike, followed by coarse, mocking laughter] They won’t!! Oh god get me the police!!

911 OP:   Please let me speak to them, ma’am.

THUG:   [Deep-voiced, after pause] ‘Sup?

911 OP:   Yes sir, we’d like to appoint an inspector to visit. Will this afternoon be okay?

[Long pause] Sir?

[Another long pause; background smashing and looting noises, woman whimpering in abject terror] Sir?

THUG:   Yeah, no, s’okay. We’ll be leaving later.

911 OP:  [Brightly] Thank you sir. At what time will that be?

THUG:   Do I gotta tell ya?

911 OP:   We do require a commitment, sir.

THUG:   [Laughs] Yeah, okay. Say, midnight. [Woman screaming. Shotgun blast. Screaming stops]

911 OP:   That’ll be acceptable, sir. Have a nice day, and thank you for using 911.

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