Entries from July 2010 ↓

Digest 4

My fourth digest linking to what I’ve recently been reading online. First, the customary now-playing and now-reading: Computer Love by Kraftwerk, and actually, I’m between books at the moment; wifely Kate put Gone with the Wind on a reading list for me, so I think I’ll take up that one next.

  • A Japanese paper says the hikikomori, or shut-ins, are a problem that has reached the stage of crisis.

    There are approximately 230,000 people [in Japan] who almost constantly shut themselves in their rooms except to go to nearby convenience stores, according to a survey conducted by the Cabinet Office. […] the statistics have raised questions about the future of Japan.

    Hikikomori are defined as those who shut themselves in their homes for at least six months but are not involved in child care or housework even though they are not sick.

    Problems involving shut-ins have been pointed out over the past 15 years, but only experts and nonprofit organizations have worked on the issue, with little public support.

    I’ve heard good things about Michael Zielenziger‘s book on the subject.

  • Requisite rightwing lunacy: former Republican Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, once a Republican presidential candidate who’s now stated his intention to run as the Constitution Party’s Colorado gubernatorial candidate, has advocated the impeachment of President Obama for “wanting to destroy the Constitution,” calling him “a more serious threat to America than al Qaeda” — that’s from his op-ed in the Washington Times, where he says:

    [Obama’s goals constitute] the utopian, or rather dystopian, reverie of a dedicated Marxist — a dedicated Marxist who lives in the White House.

    Because of the power he wields over budgets, the judiciary, national defense and even health care, his regime and his program are not just about changing public policy in the conventional sense. When one considers the combination of his stop-at-nothing attitude, his contempt for limited government, his appointment of judges who want to create law rather than interpret it – all of these make this president today’s single greatest threat to the great experiment in freedom that is our republic.

  • “On the other side of the aisle,” as the phrase goes, Van Jones, former White House green jobs special advisor, tells the netroots — pretty much the progressive blogosphere — to quit beating up on Obama.

    “I can’t stand it. President Obama volunteered to be the captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg,” Jones said at Netroots Nation […]

    “This is harder than it looks. Having spent six months in the White House, it’s a totally different experience when you’re sitting there and the missiles are coming over the horizon at you,” he said. […]

    Jones said the netroots need to realize they are up against an “epic” force with the conservative media movement, which is trying to “bury everything you fought for everything you believe in,” and comparing it to the Lord of the Rings.

    Much as I wish for more progressive results, I have total sympathy for Van Jones’s view: it’s easy to backseat quarterback and complain when you don’t have the full view of entrenched interests and whatever other enemies Obama faces. On the other hand, acknowledging that can slippery-slope to a “just trust the President you like” position, and since that isn’t viable overall, government should be more transparent. And really, if you aren’t activist-ing in some way (e.g., How to Call Congress, How to Snailmail Congess), your cynicism probably isn’t getting anyone anywhere.

  • For his part, the President asked Netroots Nation via a video address to seriously credit his Administration for its accomplishments so far:

  • No? You don’t want to do anything for the mid-term elections because they’re not as dramatic as the Presidential ones? Here, read this CBS piece about Minnesota Republican Representative Michele Bachmann, who “said yesterday that if Republicans [win] the House in November, ‘all we should do’ is subpoena and investigate the Obama administration.” She’s also called for “100 percent repeal of ObamaCare” and the “big mother of all repeal bills.”

  • To me, anything regarding the Apollo space program is automatically interesting. For instance, recently a customs officer was charged with stealing Neil Armstrong’s signature. Bidding for the recent signature rose over $1000 before the auction was halted.

  • A College Board study ranks Texas as one of least educated states, with only 27% of Texans holding university degrees. Actually, that’s a higher figure than I would’ve guessed. No disrespect.

  • Something less depressing, please? Wallpaper made from newspaper, a Boing Boing find.

  • Better: super zoomed-in, short, silent video, also found on Boing Boing (initially via Nothing to Do with Arbroath), an ant drinking from a rain drop. It might take a moment to download before you can play it.

    Amazing how the rain drop doesn’t just collapse instantly.

  • If you want to spy on the Wall Street Journal, here’s their take on Netroots Nation:

    How nervous are liberals about the November election and how angry are they at conservatives? Plenty, to judge from this year’s Netroots Nation gathering of 2,000 liberal bloggers and activists.

  • The great Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle, which I attended in 2008, has announced its set of six instructors for 2011. (For another 36 hours or so, you can donate to the workshop by sponsoring me; $5 through PayPal, quick!)

    We’re pleased to announce that our instructors for the 2011 Clarion West Writers Workshop will be Paul Park, Nancy Kress, Margo Lanagan, Minister Faust, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Charles Stross, the 2011 Susan C. Petrey Fellow.

    General background on the Clarion West Writers Workshop can be found here. Check back with us in September for more information on next year’s instructors and on applying to attend the 2011 session.

  • An account of a military contractor’s corruption has made many rounds already, but it’s so offensive it bears linkage (NYT) and excerpting:

    more than $6 million in personal expenses [were paid out] on behalf of [contractor] Mr. Brooks, covering items as expensive as luxury cars and as prosaic as party invitations, Ms. Schlegel testified.

    Also included were university textbooks for his daughter, pornographic videos for his son, plastic surgery for his wife, a burial plot for his mother, prostitutes for his employees, and, for him, a $100,000 American-flag belt buckle encrusted with rubies, sapphires and diamonds.

  • The Wall Street Journal discovers there are languages other than English. Actually — this feature piece about how various languages influence perspective seems good:

    many other ways to organize time exist in the world’s languages. In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above. In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.

    In addition to space and time, languages also shape how we understand causality. For example, English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. […]

    if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. […] if you take away people’s ability to use language in what should be a simple nonlinguistic task, their performance can change dramatically.

  • Boing Boing once more brings us teh happy, picking up a post from Lowering the Bar about muggers accidentally encountering, in the course of their crime, a real-life team of avenging ninjas.

  • Oprah Magazine mentions The Alexander Technique, a bodywork method of which I’m a fan; see AlexanderTechnique.com for more, including an instructor finder.

    Research published in the British Medical Journal found that patients trained in Alexander technique, which teaches proper posture and everyday movement habits to reduce strain, experienced an average of 18 fewer days of back pain over four weeks

  • A WSJ article reports that the United Arab Emirates called the Blackberry smartphone a “security risk.” And Blackberries have very powerful encryption built-in.

    BlackBerry was operating “beyond the jurisdiction of national legislation,” the U.A.E.’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said in a statementi ssued on Sunday.

    “As a result of how BlackBerry data is managed and stored, in their current form, Certain BlackBerry applications allow people to misuse the service, causing serious social, judicial and national security repercussions.”

    India jumped in, too, according to the India Times:

    The home ministry, which has time and again shared with DoT its concerns over the security agencies’ inability to de-crypt messages shared over BlackBerry, has now asked DoT to sound out Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian firm that makes the BlackBerry device, that its services in India will face shutdown if its e-mail and other data services do not comply with formats that can be monitored by security and intelligence agencies.

    Cory Doctorow’s novel Little Brother uses phone encryption in its plot a great deal.

  • NYT reports on Britain’s debate over decentralizing their health care system. Meanwhile, the US Department of Health and Human Services announces the opening of the national Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan (see more at HealthCare.gov):

    The Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, which will be administered either by a state or by the Department of Health and Human Services, will provide a new health coverage option for Americans who have been uninsured for at least six months, have been unable to get health coverage because of a health condition, and are a U.S. citizen or are residing in the United States legally.

    Created under the Affordable Care Act, the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan is a transitional program until 2014, when insurers will be banned from discriminating against adults with pre-existing conditions, and individuals and small businesses will have access to more affordable private insurance choices through new competitive Exchanges. […]

    In order to give states the flexibility to best meet their needs, HHS provided states with the option of running the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan themselves or having HHS run the plan. Twenty-one states have elected to have HHS administer the plans, while 29 states and the District of Columbia have chosen to run their own programs.

    Starting today, the national Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan will be open to applicants in the 21 states where HHS is operating the program. […]

    The Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan will cover a broad range of health benefits, including primary and specialty care, hospital care, and prescription drugs. The Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan does not base eligibility on income and does not charge a higher premium because of a medical condition. Participants will pay a premium that is not more than the standard individual health insurance premium in their state for insurance that covers major medical and prescription drug expenses with some cost-sharing.

  • The Federal Register website gets an upgrade.

  • Business Insider discusses the destruction of the American middle class; the article has an anti-global perspective I don’t like (because building walls around yourself isn’t a long-term answer), but the article’s worth the scary read:

    no matter how smart, how strong, how educated or how hard working American workers are, they just cannot compete with people who are desperate to put in 10 to 12 hour days at less than a dollar an hour on the other side of the world. After all, what corporation in their right mind is going to pay an American worker ten times more (plus benefits) to do the same job? The world is fundamentally changing. […] the American middle class is being systematically wiped out of existence as U.S. workers are slowly being merged into the new “global” labor pool. […]

    The truth is that most Americans are absolutely dependent on someone else giving them a job. […]

    36 percent of Americans say that they don’t contribute anything to retirement savings. […]

    Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975. […]

    For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together. […]

    More than 40% of Americans who actually are employed are now working in service jobs, which are often very low paying. […]

    The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.

  • Yikes, time for the funny papers. TV Barn posts about cartoons displayed at Comic Con 2010 that Bill Watterson (of Calvin and Hobbes fame) sent to Berkeley Breathed, creator of my favorite comic strip, Bloom County from the 1980s. In other comics news, the great cartoonist John Callahan, another favorite of mine, died today.

That’s all I can manage for today; for the news I’m a few days behind, but hopefully this digest will let you catch up on some good items you might have missed. Tschuss for now!

Digest 3

Several items in this digest are a few days old, but some are quite current, too.

  • You should read this entire New Yorker commentary on illegal immigration:

    [Illegal immigration apprehension numbers along the Arizona border] are sharply down, according to the Border Patrol — by more than sixty per cent since 2000 […] Illegal immigration, although hard to measure, has clearly been declining. […]

    The problem of illegal immigration isn’t a matter of violent criminals storming the walls of our peaceful towns and cities. It’s a matter of what to do about the estimated eleven million unauthorized residents who are already here. The mass-deportation fantasies of some restrictionists notwithstanding, the great majority of “illegals” are here to stay. That is a good thing, since they are, for a start, essential to large sectors of the economy, beginning with the food supply — the Department of Labor calculates that more than half the crop pickers in the United States are undocumented. National business leaders have no illusions about these basic facts of economic life.

    There are reasons to be uneasy about illegal immigration. In some industries, dirt-poor newcomers lower wages. State and local budgets suffer when workers are paid under the table. The fact that people lack legal status is itself disturbing. […] Yet anti-immigrant backlashes don’t always track closely with actual immigration. They track with unemployment, popular anxiety, and a fear of displacement by strangers. They depend on woeful narratives of national decline, of which there is lately no shortage. Scaremongering works. […]

    Projections show white Americans becoming a USA demographic minority in the 2040s. Anyone got an idea what, with present voting trends, that’d do to current Republicans? I think that has a lot to do with the rightwing’s anti-illegal immigration position.

  • At Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow mentions a £1,000-prize fiction-writing contest that insisted, for the alleged betterment of humankind, that contestants handwrite their entries and avoid science fiction. Nobody entered the contest.

  • INCEPTION’s tangled plot conflicts Nancy Kress:

    INCEPTION is, in microcosm, the state of much current [science fiction]. It is so complex and self-referential that much time is spent figuring out what is happening, rather than inhabiting what is happening. Is this good or bad? I guess that depends why you like stories. […] If you want them to be reflections of human experience, then INCEPTION is still good but not as good as it could have been […] judging from the enthusiastic audience reaction last night, puzzles are what is wanted. People applauded at the end.

    Kate and I haven’t seen it yet. Despite Roger Ebert and William Gibson complimenting the movie — those two would make a great movie-reviewing duo — we might not get around to seeing this one at all. And, I have to say that right now I’m really enjoying the Kress novel Beggars in Spain.

  • The NYT praises health reform implementation thus far.

  • The Washington Post publishes its two-year project exposing the Top Secret America surveillance and intelligence industry. In case you’ve forgotten about it, here’s the Fourth Amendment:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

  • Literary agent Nathan Bransford with his top 10 myths about our eBook future.

  • Sleepwalking woman on Ambien sends emails about her dreams — Discover Magazine can haz it, or the protagonist from INCEPTION can, I guess.

  • New interview with Ted Chiang, spear-famed writer of quite brainy science fiction:

    I started submitting stories for publication when I was about 15, but it was many years before I sold anything. I don’t make my living writing science fiction so in that sense I’m still not a pro. Writing for publication was always my goal, but making a living writing science fiction wasn’t. […]

    Science fiction is very well suited to asking philosophical questions; questions about the nature of reality, what it means to be human, how do we know the things that we think we know. When philosophers propose thought experiments as a way of analyzing certain questions, their thought experiments often sound a lot like science fiction.

    Buy his short story collection!

  • My Clarion West ’08 classmate Carlton Mellick III and the rest of the Bizarro writer army make The Guardian and Boing Boing. Carlton was a fun guy, extremely talented, and extremely sincere in a way that was still informed — not dewy-eyed.

  • A Boing Boing post discusses The Bechdel Test, a few quick questions that help evaluate the representation of women in any movie.

  • At GalleyCat, novelist Bret Easton Ellis says writers will make more money due to eBooks, not less, in part because of the decreased costs of producton allowing for higher royalties.


Digest 2

The second digest in my aggregating/anthologizing experiment. Basically, what I find especially interesting in my day’s Internet reading. Here’s the digests category of my blog. Without further ado — oh, wait. The “What I’m reading and listening to” bit: Today I’ve been reading more of Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress and listening to Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love,” Metallica’s “Fixxxer,” and REM’s “Shiny Happy People.”

  • At ReaderCon 2010, Eric Rosenfield and JF Quackenbush of Wet Asphalt conducted quick video interviews with several big names mostly asking variations of the same questions: What’s the future of publishing? and What’s the future of genre?. In his interview, Peter Straub said: Although “people will continue to write books” — of course! — publishing is becoming “less centralized, more electronic” and publishers are “infinitely less willing to take gambles.” Also: “blogging’s going to become an essential element of a brand” and “that’s just the way things are going, you know? Adapt or die.”

    The interviewer asks Straub about publishing his latest novel The Skylark through a small press to preserve an artistic vision not chosen by the major press editors of the book’s incarnation as A Dark Matter (unfortunately I’ve yet to read either, though I own ’em!); the interviewer specifically asks, “Do you think small presses are going to be much more important in the future in taking up the reins of preserving the artistic vision of writers, and that major presses are just going to advocate anything that — lowest common denominators?” Straub answers — it’s hard to hear given the crowd noise — that he thinks “megabooks are going to antiquate[?] the concept of catering to writers of unproven earning capacity; that means small presses are going to reap an enormous benefit […] and become more commercial.”

    Ted Chiang takes the studied-neutrality view on publishing’s future: “There will be publishing […] I expect that there’ll probably be something that no one right now can predict” and says that though genre’s boundaries “aren’t going to go away,” they’re “fading.”

    John Kessel, asked about the future of genre (particularly with recognition of his efforts toward pushing the academy into accepting genre fiction), comments: “I think there always will be something that presents[?] as science fiction written. […] As a separate genre, [science fiction] will probably persist still. […] But also more and more writers seem to be dealing with [*inaudible*] science fiction concepts without being part of the subculture.”

  • Writer and editor Scott Edelman captured and/or published footage of a recent panel, also at ReaderCon 2010, that focused on Theodore Sturgeon, perhaps my favorite writer. Scott Edelman’s YouTube page offers Part 1 and Part 2 of the footage, and I hope more parts were recorded and will be published. From the YouTube descriptions:

    On Sunday, July 11, 2010, Samuel R. Delany, Paul Di Filippo, Barry Malzberg, Noël Sturgeon, and Diane Weinstein appeared on the panel “From Microcosmic God to Slow Sculpture: The Short Fiction of Theodore Sturgeon.”

  • At DailyKos, Meteor Blades (whose handle sounds like a Final Fantasy spell) writes a worthwhile post on economic inequality in the States, employing statistics and charts impressively.

  • In time for this coming Tuesday’s 41st anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Ryan Brown at Salon.com interviews Stephen Pyne about his recent book Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery which starts with “the first sputterings of Sputnik and reach[es] all the way to our recent space shuttle disasters.” Although Pyne is inclined away from manned space exploration, he says:

    Science fiction actually preceded [space exploration], and many people involved in the program had grown up reading these books and took the ideas within them very seriously. I think that what made the literary side so potent was that it gave space exploration a sense of story. It helped us answer those big-picture questions: What does this all mean? How can we understand what is unfolding?


    [The Voyager spacecrafts] are each equipped with a gold-plated phonograph record and instructions (if anyone is able to decode them) on how to play it. They’re filled with sounds and greetings in most of the earth’s languages.

    You can hear the global music recorded on the Golden Record; it includes the best performance of Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto, 1st Movement — by Karl Richter’s Munich Bach Orchestra — that I’ve ever heard. It’s at a very fast tempo, yay!

  • NPR reports on the high number of job seekers hoping for jobs with the federal government. Excerpt:

    With a 9.5 percent unemployment rate reported in June, there aren’t a lot of job opportunities for recent graduates. But the federal government is looking to fill an estimated 50,000 entry-level positions in the next year, according to the Partnership for Public Service, and public sector work is looking better and better to some people as private sector job growth remains anemic.

  • The NYT wonders about the French government and digital piracy since

    “President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed what was to have been the world’s toughest crackdown on illegal file-sharing [… yet] not a single warning has been sent out; not a single broadband connection has been cut.”

    Like many, my thoughts on digital copyright are mixed and currently not very useful, so here’s some copyleft stuff to read — Cory Doctorow’s nonfiction collection Content — and some far copyright stuff to read — Abjectivist Greg Perkins on intellectual property. Further, there’s the studied, tumultuous-change-is-inevitable neutrality (if I’m not mistaken) of William Gibson and Clay Shirky. Learn more than I have and make up your own mind! I will say, however, that some writers (such as myself) who loudly specify that they don’t write for profit also overly fret about digital copyright, and that seems contradictory to me, unless they’re worrying about publishers/presses affording their costs of production, or about making sure authentic versions of their texts are reliably available to readers as opposed to tampered versions — presumably there’s tech for the latter problem?

  • Letters to the NYT Editor debate the value of Teach for America.

  • This one will probably anger some of my readers especially. The United Farm Workers union has issued a job-offer call to unemployed American citizens as rhetorical defense for immigrants. In response, the NYT opines on immigration:

    It is safe to conclude that few if any Americans will take up the [UFW] offer, no matter how hungry they are. The campaign is a sly attempt to draw attention to the push for immigration reform, particularly an effort to legalize undocumented farm workers. With anti-immigrant resentment running hot, many accuse immigrants of stealing American jobs. The union replies: How can immigrants steal jobs nobody else wants?

  • My Clarion West ’08 classmate Kristin Janz praises a Realms of Fantasy short story about zombies. I hope Kristin keeps on blogging! (Also, here’s her brave post attacking annoying habits some fiction editors have). Hope you don’t mind the liberal excerpting, Kristin:

    The [Realms of Fantasy story] also hinted at a parallel with the way western culture often attempts to experience other cultures, stealing bits of the other cultures and incorporating them into their own in a misguided attempt to understand them, perhaps ruining or at least diminishing the original culture as part of the process. “… that was the zombie way. Forever to yearn for new things. Forever to absorb them and turn them into the same old McHuman.”

    Of course, this tendency is hardly unique to American, Canadian and modern European culture. I think of the ancient Romans borrowing from Greek culture. Or the Mughal conquerers of northern India (especially Akbar) borrowing from Hindu culture. And I’d also question whether it’s entirely bad.

  • Tim Shorrock posts about the Corporate Intelligence Community

That’s a wrap, folks! I hope readers are enjoying these digests.

Creating Character Emotions is Awesome

Most how-to fiction-writing books I’ve read — and I’ve read a bunch — are bad, worse, or useless. A few have helped me tremendously, however, and they don’t fall in either the pathetic HOW TO WRITE A BESTSELLING NOVEL category (an actual title!) or in the John Gardner “Does anyone actually read this?” category. The three I’m thinking of lie in the Woah, this is useful! category that makes it worthwhile to occasionally visit that slightly embarrassing WRITING REFERENCE section of the bookstore.

Novelist and short story writer Ann Hood (Wikipedia entry; Blog), who teaches at The New School and whose latest novel is The Red Thread, wrote one of the three how-to books I prize. It’s titled Creating Character Emotions.

Creating Character Emotions cover

A Rectangular Read

After opening with an essay on writing about emotion, the book gives 36 short chapters, each focusing on a separate emotion — Anger; Anxiety; Apathy; Confusion; etc. — in a specific pattern: a short essay discussing the particular feeling, bad examples of its description in fiction (with discussion), good examples (with discussion), and exercises. (Myself, I always ignore exercises; I have enough writing projects of my own! So I can’t speak for or against her exercises.)


  • Excerpt of the first part, the mini-essay:

    Anxiety comes from matters large and small. Anxiety is worrying to an extreme.

  • Excerpt of the second part, the bad examples:

    “Would that doctor ever come out? Jon wondered. He bit his nails and tapped his foot nervously.” […] Nail biting, foot tapping, fingers drumming, sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, a trickle of sweat, and pacing are all tired ways to show anxiety.

  • Third excerpt, one of the good examples (from Thom Jones‘s short story “I Want to Live!”:

    “But those people in the hospital rooms, gray and dying, that was her. Could such a thing be possible? To die? Really? Yes, at some point she guessed you did die. But her? Now? So soon? With so little time to get used to the idea?”

  • Fourth, one of the exercises:

    Choose a seemingly minor reason to produce anxiety, such as an invitation to a party, running out of hot water, a rainy day, and write a one-page scene in which a character obsesses on that concern. Be sure the character’s anxiety level rises as the scene progresses. Objective: To tap into the heart of anxiety. Even a small thing can cause great panic.

Too often I see in fiction the “He bit his nails”-type shortcut to expressing emotion — in fact, I don’t think these shortcuts express emotion at all, except for inexperienced readers or for characters with really important nails (what about biting the kind of nails you put into walls?). I think those shortcuts — “He bit his nails” — are, unless the writer’s really trying to speed a paragraph along or some such, simply announcements to readers’ left brains (so to speak) that amount to “Oh, the story is informing me that this character is anxious.” The shortcuts become mere info to process, sort of like a bus route chart: no emotion there.

Whereas a description of anxiety that startles or wounds or points uniquely will force readers out of complacency and keep them engaged in reading which is an active process of creating an experience in the mind. The Thom Jones example above makes readers (me at least) worry about suddenly learning of their own impending deaths. The bad example is just data, better suited to a computer than a person. CAVEAT SCRIPTOR: Don’t ditch all physiological ways of showing emotion, of course, unless you want your characters to represent disembodiment.

By the way, some writers/critiquers subsume the above advice under the precept “Don’t tell readers what to think.” That precept, I think, is imprecise. If a writer says “He wandered the hours away by the bank of a brook, watching the sun on the face of the chuckling water. A bird came to circle him, flew unafraid through the aura of gladness about him. The delicate tip of a wing brushed his wrist with the touch of the first secret kiss from the hands of Bianca” he should first win an award, but anyway, he is, in fact, telling readers what to think — at least to some degree — he’s commanding THINK OF A BIRD; and THINK OF A TIP OF A WING, etc. So drop the precept, people!

And buy Ann Hood’s book!

Digest 1

This post starts a new type of entry that I hope to make regular here at Babel Krieg. Possibly you’re familiar with blogs that largely serve as aggregators — Boing Boing and to a lesser extent Maud Newton‘s site are two examples. Aggregating is sort of the blog equivalent of anthologizing. Since I already bombard a targeted group of friends with link-excerpt-snark emails, several have encouraged me to replace those emails with blog posts instead. I was reticent to do so because typically when I visit someone’s blog, it’s to read their original content, not to follow a chain of links leading to someone else’s original content. On the other hand, like anthologizing, aggregating is a useful service for many reasons: my idiosyncratic interests might take you down fresh roads, my excerpting might enlighten you or dismay you at my intelligence or lack thereof, etc. As I often do, I sought a compromise solution, and found one: occasional one-post digests of online content I’ve been reading that day, primarily selected from my Google Reader account (RSS FTW), Twitter, emails, etc. Without further prolegomena:

  • Brain Mysteries adapts a University of Pennsylvania news release about research led by Gary Lupyan that demonstrates:

    an image displayed too quickly to be seen by an observer can be detected if the participant first hears the name of the object. [..] “This research speaks to the idea that perception is shaped moment-by-moment by language,” said Lupyan. “Although only English speakers were tested, the results suggest that because words in different languages pick out different things in the environment, learning different languages can shape perception in subtle, but pervasive ways.”

    The single study is part of a greater effort by Lupyan and other Penn psychologists to understand how high-level cognitive expectation can influence low-level sensory processing

    Might go a ways toward explaining hallucinations in psychotics suffering delusions, perhaps if research can, ala Libet, time the latency between the high-level cognitive expectation and the low-level sensory processing.

  • Awesome science fiction writer Nancy Kress mentions on her blog Judith Merril‘s autobiography Better to have Loved which includes a “lengthy chapter” on Merril’s relationship with Theodore Sturgeon.

    “[Pohl] sanitized everything [in his autobiography The Way the Future War]!” [Merril] said [according to Kress]. “I’m going to write those years the way they really happened!”

    I have yet to read Merril’s autobiography, but anything on Theodore Sturgeon, one of my favorite writers, makes my mental radar beep loudly.

  • In Fort Worth a twelve-year-old boy, CBS 11 reports, is not only volunteering for Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White (will I meet the boy?) in this city, but also founding his own political party (The United Party — he’s filing with the Federal Elections Commission soon. Totally awesome.

    “You have to file a statement of organization,” he explained, “That way we’ll be able to raise money, and expand from there.”

    What were you accomplishing at twelve?

  • In the NYT Brian Ladd gives a mixed review of Peter Watson‘s The German Genius, a “lengthy compilation of essential German contributions to philosophy, theology, mathematics, natural and social science and the arts since 1750.” Watson discusses, Ladd says, the great pantheon of creative Germans ranging from Kant to Goethe to Haydn. Two notes from Ladd’s review:

    “German Romanticism and German erudition placed truth and creativity firmly inside the human mind” […] “Germany invented the modern university, combining teaching with research in both humanities and science.”

    Sounds to me like a Babel Krieg.

  • With a NYT article on the young duo behind USA Twitter statecraft, “The Internet will save us” scores a half-point on the scoreboard against its perpetual enemy, “The Internet will ruin us.” (It’ll do both.) The duo discussed gives credit to Hillary Clinton for opening the doors to cyber-statecraft; in the article she reminds us that half of humanity is under 30. One of the duo’s cool ideas is to set up a virtual clearinghouse to help NGOs get a directories of who’s helping with what (education, clean water, etc.) in countries such as Kenya. But when one of the pair — the guy closer to Bush, not the Obama campaigner — comes down on wikileaks, which I suppose makes sense given the duo’s direct employer, they run afoul of me. You, of course, should be following @OpenCongress on Twitter, as well as the @EFF and @wikileaks Don’t miss the quote from NYU’s Clay Shirky in the excerpt below. Meanwhile, Chinese ‘net censorship continues.

    On Twitter, Cohen, who is 28, and Ross, who is 38, are among the most followed of anyone working for the U.S. government, coming in third and fourth after Barack Obama and John McCain. This didn’t happen by chance. Their Twitter posts have become an integral part of a new State Department effort to bring diplomacy into the digital age, by using widely available technologies to reach out to citizens, companies and other nonstate actors. Ross and Cohen’s style of engagement [is] perhaps best described as a cross between social-networking culture and foreign-policy arcana […]

    [Evgeny] Morozov no doubt voiced the concerns of many when he wrote [in the WSJ]: “Diplomacy is, perhaps, one element of the U.S. government that should not be subject to the demands of ‘open government’; whenever it works, it is usually because it is done behind closed doors.” […]

    Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who has engaged in an ongoing debate with Morozov, has given […] advice to members of the State Department. “The loss of control you fear is already in the past.” […] “You do not actually control the message, and if you believe you control the message, it merely means you no longer understand what’s going on.”

    This stuff will continue changing the world like mad, in my opinion, though it’s easy to underestimate the importance of the ‘net’s physicality; the danger the ‘net faces from, say, power grid loss, for example.

  • Has anyone else noticed that Salon.com is growing more and more contrarian? Maybe I’m imagining things.

  • Lifehacker’s Top Ten Tips for Surviving Office Life includes a true-to-my-experience tip:

    Due to social psychology or personal guilt, many work-from-home types end up dishing out more hours from home to clients than they ever would have at the office. It’s still an exciting challenge, but consider what you’re getting to get away with at the office before you curse it too deeply.

    I’ll add that others, however respectful of your work they might say they are, tend to expect you to attend to errands, etc., while you’re working. I think this is partly because they don’t get to see anchoring signals that you’re going to work — no briefcase, no tie — and partly because they see you goofing off a little while working, which people do in offices, but less visibly.

  • Wikileaks tweets that a far-reaching story comes out Monday in the Washington Post that will initiate “real change” by the end of the year. Especially with the midterm elections in November, I’m eager to see what’s revelead about the men behind the curtains. Meanwhile, Boing Boing is curious where WikiJulian — as I call Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks — is, especially in light of Wikileaks tweets that USA federal agents were hunting for him Saturday. The TV show The Good Wife will, TV Fanatic says, soon will feature a guest-star for a season premier:

    Jacob Pitts […] He’ll come aboard as the owner of a Wikileaks-type website who faces a murder charge.

    The guest-starring: Coincidence? Technohip show writer? Disinfo/scare campaign? In a democracy people need to know the truth about the issues they’re voting on. I say we all promise to forgive each other, then show all our cards, and let the chips fall where they may. I don’t think others will agree to that, though, nor might it be beneficial — dunno!

I’ll cap off this post with a note that I’m listening to REM’s “Shiny Happy People” and reading Nancy Kress’s novel Beggars in Spain, which uses the conceit of children who’ve been genetically engineered so as not to need sleep — and therefore, to work later hours — as a way for Kress to explore the contrast between Ayn Rand’s laissez-faire capitalism and Ursula K. Le Guin’s communism.


How to Call Congress

Hart Senate Office Building

Hart Senate Office Building, via goldberg

In addition to snailmailing Congress, I’ve telephoned elected officials (in both cases, I activist-ed in favor of a genuine public option for health care — er, health insurance reform!).

For me, calling Congress was an intimidating task at first. Maybe you know about the infamous Milgram experiment where research participants were asked to administer increasingly severe electric shocks to others — to actors pretending to be learners; the shocks were fake, but the participants didn’t know that.

scary doctor

TRUST ME (via Kevin Lawver)

Despite the screaming and the heart-pain complaints from the actors, despite the actors banging on the divider wall and pleading, most participants allowed the technician-coat experimenter to goad them into pressing not just the extreme intensity shock and Danger: Severe Shock buttons, but finally the XXX button that resulted in the actors’ silence. (Several participants laughed nervously or cried throughout; the experiment has been repeated with the same results as recently as 2009; researchers have used a real-life puppy, too, wondering if perhaps the participants figured out the shockee was an actor — no, all participants in that one killed the puppy.) Stanley Milgram explained these results in terms of conformity and fearful obedience to authority; I think whatever the reasons are, they lie behind patients’ fear of asking doctors questions (for example), and also my initial fear of phoning Congress!

Anyway. Calling Congress members became easier after I did it a few times. Aides answer (rarely do Congress members), and without exception I found them friendly, if rushed. They want you to get to the point, and you should. Though there are scripts online for various causes, I wrote out a paragraph for what I’d say, so that I wouldn’t sound like an astroturfer‘s employee. Each paragraph matched the structure of my letters: 1) who I am (including occupations & city) and what I wish from the Congress member; 2) One or at most two sentences of reasoning — including poll statistics or actual quotes from the Congress member; 3) Reiteration of what I wish from the Congress member and a friendly thank you.

My Headquarters

My Headquarters (via John Smith)

And actually, unlike what might well be the case with snailmail, no aides seemed to mind when I was called from out of their members’ constituencies (I did call my own representatives at times), specifically since the issue (health reform) was national and especially when I mentioned nationwide donations (such as through ActBlue). Some aides asked for my ZIP — I’ve received a few mailings — and when the aides themselves seemed especially pleased with my perspective, I could hear it in their voices. A bad-result call ended with an aide saying, basically, “Thanks, bye”; a good-result call ended with an “I’ll be sure to pass along your comments to the Senator/Representative, thanks so much!”

Sometimes I opened with a compliment regarding something the Congress member did that I appreciated (easy to find from his or her website, or from the search strategies discussed in this post), and sometimes I simply called to say nothing more than thanks for a specific quote the Congress member gave the press or whomever; these aides and Congress members typically get angry phone calls, so it’s nice for them to receive gratitude every once in a while.

Some people went out of their way to tell me this type of activism is worthless, saying the aides’ phones must be perpetually busy. Well they’re not. I had a little trouble getting through the final day or two before the health reform legislation passed — but generally I had no trouble.

Phone numbers for elected officials can be found at USA.gov here. Definitely check out my preceding post for more stratagem. I think people neglect a whole lot of good activities — such as calling Congress — simply because the transaction costs, the totals of the effort and the irritation that must be endured to do the good deed, are too high. Activists should lower them, with info and otherwise.

How to Snailmail Congress – Results from my Campaign

I’ve posted about snail-mailing the United States Congress (in my case, in favor of a genuine public
option for health care — er, health insurance reform!), and now I’m finally following up on my results, as suggested.

The main result was that I learned more about the United States government, apparently a bureaucratic republic instead of a representative democracy, but anyway. Besides clarifying my own thoughts about the topics I sent letters about, I learned how to send letters — and make phone calls — more effectively. And I gained informal, experiential knowledge of what happens when you do contact Congress.

I posted one of my letters almost in its entirety; if you want, you could use it as a template for your own letters: basically, three paragraphs, 1) who you are and what action you wish the elected official to take — the more specific the issue and action, the better; 2) why you support that action — in addition to giving abstract argument you can remind elected officials of their statements with a Google News Archive search or with a regular Google search such as “max baucus” “public option” site:huffingtonpost.com and you can remind them of pertinent poll numbers; 3) restate the action you want the elected official to take, and maybe conclude with a kicker.

Although I’d planned — unrealistically and expensively — to snail-mail all 535 federal Congress members (should’ve been less; it would’ve been worthless to snail-mail Republicans, with the short-lived exception of Olympia Snowe, as it quickly became apparent none would vote for the reform legislation, and none did), I only wound up snail-mailing about 10. No Congress members replied to my letters, if I recall correctly. The President sent a form-letter back.

Some questioned whether sending snail-mail to Congress was effective at all. As I mentioned in a previous post, in 2009 The Washington Post persuasively reported that a professional lobbyist firm snail-mailed astroturfed (fake grassroots) letters to US Representative Tom Perriello. So if they expect fake letters to work, you should expect real letters to work. By the way, Shakespeare knew astroturfing:

[Cassius:] I will this night, In several hands, in at his windows throw, As if they came from several citizens, Writings all tending to the great opinion

Another question: if you live in Texas and mail a Congress member representing, say, Maine, do they see your Texas return address and trash the envelope posthaste (even if the issue has directly nationwide consequences)? Some friends argued so; others argued just as vehemently otherwise — it’s amazing, this is one of those issues on which everyone’s an expert. I don’t know the answer, but I did find a partial answer to another question: how long does it take snail-mail to reach a Congress member’s office from the time you put the envelope in a drop-box forward? This is important for letters concerning timely issues. Several government websites act as if post-9/11 security measures cause eons of delay, but since I had third-hand word that the delay warnings are simply smokescreens for decreasing letter volume, I emailed the Postmaster General my question. The response:

September 18, 2009
Dear Douglas Lucas:

This is to acknowledge your email to the Postmaster General, for whom I am responding.

The time for a letter to arrive at a Congressional office can vary for a number of reasons, and the total time (from the time a customer deposits their letter until it is received in the specific Congressional office) is not something we can measure with certainty as we do not operate the mailrooms of Congress or other governmental agencies. Instead, we only handle the mail from the point of origin to the tender of the mail to those mailrooms.

The length of time a letter is in our control will vary, depending on the current flow of mail as well as other factors (including accuracy of addressing) but as a guideline all of the functions we are performing should be completed in less than two weeks. Please let me stress, however, we cannot estimate and do not maintain records for the total time until delivery in the Congressional representative’s office.


Robert MacCloskey
Postal Service Headquarters

When I was in DC on my honeymoon, I really wanted to stop by a Capitol Office Building (e.g., Hart) and ask the mailroom there what they do once a letter arrives. But I didn’t have time. If anyone out there does this, please leave a note in the comments!

I’ll post about my experiences telephoning Congress soon.