Thursday, October 7, 2010

God and Doughnuts--an exercise in rationalizing my bad eating habits.

In two TV shows I recently watched (one of them the Grilled Cheesus episode of Glee) a character suggested that God was a real jerk. Asking Abraham to kill his son; teaching his followers intolerance toward gays; disposing of humanity with an enormous flood when things got out of control—I have to admit, Old Testament God doesn’t sound like someone you’d want babysitting your kids.

Jesus came to teach us what God was really all about—Love. But I contend that you do, in fact, get to see the occasional hint of that in the Old Testament. Specifically in the story of God feeding the Israelites during their 40-year jaunt in the wilderness.

Here’s the gist of the story: the Israelites had escaped from pharaoh in Egypt, and had spent a little over two weeks wandering in the wilderness when they arrived in Sin (a real place, apparently roughly between Elim and Sinai.) They’d been slaves, so they didn’t have a lot of stuff to take with them when they left Egypt—including food. They were starving. And they started to complain:

“Moses—when we were slaves, at least we got fed! Beef stew and bread every night. But now we’re free. Yippy-skippy. Free to do what—starve?”

So God sent the Israelites food. Manna. Manna is a bread-like substance which fell from heaven. Each morning, the Israelites gathered it and they ate. Here’s how the Bible describes it:

Small, round
white-ish in color
not as good the next day
something to fry in oil
stale if you leave it in the sun
sweet in flavor

So I finally figured it out—God sent the Israelites Krispy Kreme doughnuts. It’s true! Small, round, sweet bread, white inside, fried in oil, not as good if it sits around all day. This is proof—proof positive, that God LOVED his children.

It’s also why I have to stop at Krispy Kreme each time I go to the LDS temple up in Denver—Krispy Kreme is the food of the gods! It’s a way for me to worship God. (Okay, maybe not.)

But it gets better. When the Israelites got sick of eating Krispy Kreme every day, they prayed for God to send them something else. So he sent thousands of tiny quail for them to catch and cook up.

Can you say, “time for wings!”?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Why We Aren't Making Any Headway in this Country

My next book is about a group of little old ladies who have a book group that reads silly books. They decide they haven't made enough of a difference in the world and they decide to become vigilantes. In my research for this book, I've been reading a lot of bad books, a lot of pop-psychology books, and some good books.

One of the books I picked up was Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People." I was surprised to read something in the first chapter that seemed relevant to today's political environment.

Carnegie tells of a murderer on death row who didn't understand why he was there. Carnegie says the man murdered a policeman in cold blood (in front of witnesses), but that the man excused his own behavior as justifiable. In short, Carnegie says, none of us ever believe that we are in the wrong. It's simply human nature that we believe that we are the good guy.

So when someone criticizes us, we simply stop listening to them. Instead, we become defensive. We rail against our accusers. We claim they are out to get us.

Sound familiar?

So, if everyone (EVERYONE!) believes they are in the right, what does this mean for humanity? It means that (let's pluck a number out of the air) 50% of the time each of us is wrong and doesn't know it.

Well that can't be good for the country. How, then, are we supposed to straighten things out?

Carnegie says criticism simply doesn't work. Instead, positive interaction does.

Abe Lincoln is well known for holding the country together during the Civil War. At Lincoln's death bed, Stanton, the then-secretary-of-war, said, "there lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen."

Carnegie says Lincoln held his tongue when his generals blundered, saying instead, "judge not, that ye be not judged." When his own wife spoke ill of the South, Lincoln said, "don't criticize them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances."

Is this how we are behaving toward people in opposing political parties?

Lincoln wasn't always this way. In his youth, he reveled in criticizing others, writing scathing letters about people he didn't like and dropping those letters where people could find them. He attacked opponents in newspaper articles. It culminated when he insulted someone so badly that the man challenged Lincoln to a duel to the death. Lincoln was opposed to dueling, but couldn't get out of it.

The duel was stopped at the last minute, but having been faced with the possibility of killing a man, Lincoln was changed forever. He never again wrote a critical letter. He never again ridiculed someone. He strove for the rest of his life to bring people together rather than prove the superiority of his opinion over another.

I'm a registered Republican. Some people might wonder why I voted for Obama. Especially when I tell them that I liked McCain, too. It's because Obama said that too much of the time, opposing sides spend so much time yelling at each other that they forget that they have common ground. If we came together civilly, we might actually be able to make progress by implementing those things that we agree on. Instead, we let our egos get in the way.

He was talking about abortion--one of the most polarizing issues of our time. The common ground? Both sides want to reduce teen pregnancy. How can anyone argue with that? The problem is that, because we yell at each other, and don't respect each other's opinion, we don't bother to work on even that small issue together.

Obama said, " I absolutely think we can find common ground. And it requires a couple of things. It requires us to acknowledge that..
  1. There is a moral dimension to abortion, which I think that all too often those of us who are pro-choice have not talked about or tried to tamp down. I think that’s a mistake because I think all of us understand that it is a wrenching choice for anybody to think about.
  2. People of good will can exist on both sides. That nobody wishes to be placed in a circumstance where they are even confronted with the choice of abortion. How we determine what’s right at that moment, I think, people of good will can differ.
"And if we can acknowledge that much, then we can certainly agree on the fact that we should be doing everything we can to avoid unwanted pregnancies that might even lead somebody to consider having an abortion.

"We’re not going to completely resolve it. At some point, there may just be an irreconcilable difference. And those who are opposed to abortion, I think, should continue to be able to lawfully object and try to change the laws."

And that's why I voted for the man. Not because I believed in one political issue over another, but because I wanted a person in the White House who was willing to stop calling people names and start getting down to business.

"Can't we all just get along?" is seen as an anemic and cliche refrain. But it shouldn't be. It should be our battle cry. It should be what we start demanding of our political representatives. Whether or not we agree with every political stance they represent, our political leaders should be willing to talk to the people on the opposing side. And that's not going to happen when we're throwing around labels like "left-wing or right-wing nutjob", and "A**holes", and "baby killers" and "Christ killers" and "towel heads" and "camel jockeys" and every other word we like to throw around.

It's time to stop acting like three-year-olds, guys.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Let's VERB Palin!

Love her or hate her, you have to admit that Sarah Palin has a problem. I'm not criticizing--it's a problem she and I share, and it's why I'm a writer, not a radio pundit. We can't come up with a well organized spoken thought when put on the spot.

I got a call last night from the Fraternal-Order-of-Police-Stickers-for-Your-Car. You know the guys--they guilt you into thinking that if you don't give them money then some poor sweet barely-out-of-the-pimple-stage-of-life man is going to die from a sucking gunshot wound to the chest because he couldn't afford a bulletproof vest. And even if you don't believe that, you hope that having the sticker on the back windshield of your car is going to make the cop who just pulled you over think to himself, "gosh--there's no way I can give this woman a ticket--she helped pay for my station's last BBQ!"

Sorry, but I'm just NOT going to give these guys money. I don't mean the police, I mean the sticker people. I want the police to get the money, just not the sticker guys. So you know what I did? When the police department needed more funds, I voted to pay more taxes so they could have it. I want those fresh-faced rookies to have their bulletproof vests, dangit! But I'm not giving money to the sticker people.

So I got a phone call last night, and it went a little like this:

Caller: Hi, I'm so-and-so from the guilting-you-into-buying-stickers foundation. We've just started our most recent drive, which will pay for things like anti-drug education at schools, and all sorts of ambiguous help for our men in blue.

(I wanted to get him off the phone fast, so I decided to tell him I already give money to a variety of causes and am therefore, morally allowed to say no to him.)

Me: I already this year have given money to other things . . . charities, you know . . . for disabled . . . like the Federa-, I mean, Founda-, uh, the group for Blindness . . . that and for other disablednesses that . . .

(At this point I sensed that it wasn't going to get any better, and I hung up.)

I do give money. I tithe to my church. I've taken in people who need a place to live. I give money to my college. I've given money to diabetes charities. I regularly support the National Foundation for the Blind (I have two blind cousins.) I give all my used stuff to the Goodwill truck behind Safeway. I give money and energy bars to homeless people.

In other words, I don't suck as a human being. And I wanted this guy to know it. (Why I feel it's important that a stranger doesn't think I'm a bad person will have to be the topic of another blog post.) But I failed.

Now, I consider myself a pretty articulate person. I have a degree in English from a pretty good university. My writing peers consider me reasonably good at what I do. I've earned money for taking other people's thoughts and writing them down in a coherent manner, earning, in turn, money for those people. So why couldn't I come up with the words on the spot?

I am convinced that I am not an on-the-spot speaker. We all have our flaws. Albert Einstein and Henry B. Eyring were walking across a college campus when Eyring pointed out some beans that were growing in a garden. Eyring asked Einstein if he knew what kind of beans they were. When Einstein admitted he didn't, Eyring concluded that "Einstein didn't know beans!"

In other words, I don't think people should judge me (or Sarah Palin, for that matter) for being unable to string together a coherent thought in front of an audience. It doesn't mean we're not smart. It just means we're not good at that particular thing. On the other hand, when one's not good at something, one probably shouldn't try to get a job that would require one to do it on a regular basis. (I'm lookin' at you, S.)

So I think it would be a nice idea if we had a word for this phenomenon--where an otherwise intelligent person finds a way to make himself look stupid. That way I can say, "wow, when that police-sticker guy called last night, I really Palin-ed it!"

No comments, please, about whether or not Palin is qualified to be put in the category of "otherwise intelligent person." If you go there, you've missed my point.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


When you watch this, take a look at the storage system in the guy's basement. Yes. We have that. LEGOS.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

How Fashion Survives without Copyright

Johanna Blakley, in a talk at TED.

I love TED!

The best part of this talk is when she talks about how much money copyright protected industries make versus non-protected industries.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Listening to Critique--no more "don't touch my baby"

What is it with us writers? "I'm an artist--my story is my vision--you mustn't change a word." "But it doesn't really matter if I use a lot of adverbs, does it?" And my personal favorite: "You think I should change something? You must be saying I'm a bad writer!"

These make me want to scream! Why do writers believe that they are the only people in the world who don't need coaching?

Let me run a scenario by you. You're Tommy, a ten year old boy who likes playing football. You love football. You eat, sleep, and breathe football. Your mommy likes watching you play football.

You're good enough that you get on the high school football team. Your coach says, "Tommy, you're telegraphing which direction you're about to run. You need to not turn your head." You say, "Coach--I'm an athlete. My body is my tool. I have a vision of what I should be doing. I won't change."

"SURE!" says the coach, nodding enthusiastically.

You make it onto the college football team. Your college coach says, "Tommy, you need to pick up your feet more." You say, "Coach--it doesn't really matter if I pick up my feet or not. I still play well enough to win games."

"SURE!" says the coach, nodding enthusiastically.

You get onto a pro football team. Your coach says, "Tommy--you need to spend more time stretching. You're not limber enough." You say, "Coach--you think I should change something about myself? You think I'm a bad athlete. I'm going to take my talent elsewhere,to a team that appreciates me."

"SURE!" says the coach, nodding enthusiastically.


Tommy wouldn't last one year on the high school football team, much less make it into college football or go pro if he wasn't willing to accept coaching.

Why, as writers, do we feel that we are somehow exempt from needing to accept coaching? Writing seems to be the one profession where anyone can sit down, with no training or experience, and expect to turn out a fantastic novel. Why is it a bad idea to represent yourself in court? Because the lawyer knows more. Why is it a bad idea to try to treat your broken leg yourself? Because the doctor has the tools and training to handle it.

Please don't be afraid to learn more about your craft. Don't be afraid to take classes. Don't be afraid to join a critique group. Do be afraid of any group or any reader that tells you that you're perfect. Granted, you can't take everyone's advice, or you'll end up with nothing at all, but do be willing to learn.

I am so grateful for the Pikes Peak Writers--a great organization dedicated to helping each other become better at our craft. They've taught me 80% of what I know about writing. Without them I'd still be writing in passive voice, sprinkling my text with adverbs, and changing point of view three times in the same sentence. If you want to write, and you want to be successful, find a writers' organization in your area, take a course at your local college, or team up with some others and form a critique group. Be willing to be coached.

Monday, May 10, 2010

I interview local mystery author: Robert Spiller

Good morning! Today I'm please to share an interview I had with Robert Spiller, a local mystery writer.

Robert Spiller is a mathematician by trade and weaves his profession into his mysteries. He is the author of the Bonnie Pinkwater mysteries (The Witch of Agnesi, A Calculated Demise, Irrational Numbers). His high school teacher sleuth uses mathematica and her knowledge of historic female mathematicians to solve murders in the small Colorado town of East Plains. Robert lives in the Pikes Peak region with his wife Barbara.

1. What’s the most unexpected thing that happened to you when you became a published writer?

I got to speak to groups of other writers--and they actually listened to what I had to say. They laughed at my jokes. They wrote down my opinions. They wrote me e-mails asking for clarification of something I said in some workshop I led. And did I have a handout from that workshop. Don't get me wrong, having an ego the size of Texas, I enjoyed the notoriety, but I'm the same guy I was before I got published.

2. What’s the coolest thing that happened to you because you had a book published?

Well, I don't have a fan club but lots of folks have bought me drinks and dinner. The coolest thing is still when after a book tour, I get a couple a dozen e-mails from all the places I traveled to from folks telling me how much they enjoyed my books and how they can't wait to read the next one. I never get tired of that.

3. Have you ever had a negative response to something you wrote?

Believe it or not, the most negative response to my books came from my mother. She is a devout Christian and objected to the curse words in my novels (I really don't curse all that much--readers believe me). She said she couldn't finish the Witch of Agnesi because my female math teacher sleuth Bonnie Pinkwater said she was “too old for this S**T.

4. You write about a woman. What is your response from your female readers? Do they feel you capture what it’s like to be a woman? Why did you chose to make your protagonist a woman? Wouldn’t it have been easier to write from a man’s perspective?

I get e-mail from many female readers and their responses have always been positive. They think Bonnie acts like a strong woman would act in the situations she finds herself in (danger, in trouble with her bosses, chasing down murderers). I do write other material with male main characters, but they are no more fun to write for than my female leads, and definitely no easier to control.

5. Are you what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Actually, I have become two out of the three things I wanted to be when I grew up. I got to teach math (I retire at the end of this year after thirty-five wonderful years). I got to write--and still am writing. I never got to be a spy.

6. If you could wake up tomorrow as a different person who would you want to be?

What a great question! I asked one of my eighth grade Algebra classes the same thing this week. Mostly all of them just wanted to be themselves. I think I feel the same way. I love what I do in both my occupations (writing and teaching). I'm still in love with my wife, after 17 years. I love my children and my grandchildren (I have a brand new grandson.) I love the few friends I have.

7. If you could beat the world over the head with a lesson, what would it be?

Perhaps two lessons. Keep your word, once you give it. It may be painful sometimes but in the long run it will be worth it. The second lesson is a close relative to the first. You have no more precious possession than your integrity. Be faithful to those that count on you. Be someone who is fair and honest in all his doings. Okay maybe a third lesson. Laugh as much as you can.

8. What advice do you have for new writers?

First of all write. That was the advice Twain gave to writers and there is none better. Second, always be working on your craft. Always be learning, improving. Writing is like Zen--best approached with a beginner's mind. Lastly, I wouldn't write to trends. Write what you want to write, what you need to write.

9. What are the titles of your books, where can we buy them, for how much, and what's next?

The Witch of Agnesi, A Calculated Demise, and Irrational Numbers. You should be able to get them (although they might not all be on the shelves) at any bookstore, or Amazon. (Here's a link to buy them.) Being paperbacks, they are generally under ten dollars. As for what's next, my agent is currently trying to find a home for a YA series I have and am penning.

10. Anything else you'd like to share with us?

I am very grateful to be a member of this fabulous writing community we call the Pikes Peak Writers. In it I became acquainted with my current critique group, have broken bread and laughed with other writers, have learned so much that I can't even quantify it. I don't think I would be where I am today if I hadn't attended that first Pikes Peak Writers Conference in 1999 (I attended my tenth conference last month in May). In addition to this, I am grateful to be counted a writer. It occupies my time and fills my senses. I love what I do.

Friday, May 7, 2010

How Gaming Will Change the Future

Talk by Jesse Shell: Is Your Life Just One Big RPG?

One particular thought I liked was that we will start reading better literature as more and more of what we do in life is recorded. If we know that our great-grandchildren will know what books we read, we’ll say, geez—I don’t want my progeny to think all I ever read was candy, so I’m going to read X, Y, and Z.

If you have the time, watch this half hour talk. It’s enlightening!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Mother's Day Poetry

Jessica's 2nd grade class wrote poetry in honor of Mother's Day. Here's the result.

The acrostic poem:

Mother, Mother I love you so.
Oh, how you are nice.
Today I love you. I will love you
Hugs and Kisses.
Even if you are mean sometimes.
Remember me, Jessica.

I like how Jessica says how nice I am then hedges her bets with "even if you are mean sometimes!

The haiku:

You have rosy cheeks,
Your green-hazel eyes sparkle,
You shine like the stars.

I didn't know Jessica even knew what hazel meant! We always underestimate our kids.

The cinquain:

Love you
oh your wavy hair shines
oh lovely, friend, you are to me

The free verse poem:

I like how you take care of yourself
when you wake up in the morning
you always smell so sweet
I like when
you make cinnamon toast
on tasty wheat

Without punctuation, it's hard for me to tell on this one if she meant, "I like how you take care of yourself when you wake up," or "when you wake up you smell sweet."

The shape poem (it wraps around a shape--in this case, a paw print that Jessica made from a heart):

You're the heart pawprint of my eyes.
I'll love you forever, oh Mother, oh Mother.
I love you a lot.
You have rosy cheeks, your green hazel eyes sparkle.
You shine like the twinkling stars.
You take good care of me, putting me under your wing.

Who can resist, "you're the heart pawprint of my eyes?"

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Katherine came home today and announced, "Well, I just found out that so-and-so likes me. That makes fifty-one boys who like me now."


"Well, I asked my friend how many boys like her, so she counted them all up. So then I decided to see how many boys have ever liked me, and I started counting, and by the end of the day I came up with fifty boys. So now it's fifty-one."

I go inside and tell John. He says "fifty-one BOYS?"


Katherine walks in. "Oh, are you telling Dad now, too?"

"Yes, Katherine. I found it amusing."

"Well, it might not actually be fifty-one boys."


"Yeah--I might have miscounted. It might actually be fifty-two."

" . . . "

On another note entirely, riddle me this: why does water from a water fountain (the good kind that chills the water) so much better than anything I make at home? I can get cold water at home. I can put ice in it, so it's really cold. So why is water from the industrial water fountain at church so much better than the water I can get elsewhere? Is it because it's aerated?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Really REALLY long article by Cory Doctorow.

If you have the time to muddle through this longer-than-usual article by Cory Doctorow (written Feb. 14, 2006) you really should. Publisher, Writers, and Artists of all sorts are all up in arms about people pirating their works.

But as Doctorow says, the "biggest threat as an author isn't piracy, it's obscurity."

The most pirated books, music, etc., are the most profitable. Just look at the numbers! I don't use pirated books or music in any way, but as an author who wants to make money, I need to look at the truth--not the ideal. Word of mouth is one of the best marketing tools in existence.

If I'm lucky enough to have my books published someday, I'll happily work with my publisher within whatever bounds our contract dictates. Heck--I'd be thrilled! I'd pee my pants for the chance to have an All Rights Reserved book. And I would never NEVER publish things for free unless my publisher wanted me to. But I think that more people in the publishing industry should examine how the numbers add up.


Why Publishing Should Send Fruit-Baskets to Google

Google's new Book Search promises to save writers' and publishers' asses by putting their books into the index of works that are visible to searchers who get all their information from the Internet. In response, publishers and writers are suing Google, claiming that this ass-saving is in fact a copyright violation. When you look a little closer, though, you see that the writer/publisher objections to Google amount to nothing more than rent-seeking: an attempt to use legal threats to milk Google for some of the money it will make by providing this vital service to us ink-stained scribblers.

Opponents of Google Book Search (GBS) argue that publishers should have been consulted before their works were scanned, but it's in the nature of fair use that it does not require permission -- that's what a fair use is, a use you make without permission.

They argue that GBS should pay some money to publishers because anyone who makes money off a book should kick some back -- but no one comes after carpenters for a slice of bookshelf revenue. Ford doesn't get money from Nokia every time they sell a cigarette-lighter phone-charger. The mere fact of making money isn't enough to warrant owing something to the company that made the product you're improving.

Here's how GBS works: Google works with libraries to scan in millions of books, most (more than 75 percent) of them out-of-print, some out-of-copyright and some in-print/in-copyright. Google scans these books, converts the scanned images of the pages into text, and indexes the text.

This index will be exposed to the public, who will be able to search the full text of tens of millions of books -- eventually this index could comprise the majority of books ever published -- and get results back reporting on which books contain their search-terms.

For public domain books, the search-results will contain a link to the whole text of the book. These out-of-copyright works are our collective human property -- or no one's property at all -- and Google is perfectly within its rights to distribute copies of any public-domain book that matches a search-request. As an author, I would love to be able to get the full-text of books that matched my search-queries.

For other books -- the books that are in copyright -- Google will show a brief excerpt: a single sentence with one or two sentences from either side of the the match. In some cases, publishers or other copyright holders have granted Google permission to show more than this -- a couple pages -- and Google will show you this, too.

In all cases, Google provides information for buying any book that matches a search-query, provided that the book is in-print. Sadly, most books aren't in print, and for an author, there is no greater professional loss than that arising from not having your works available for sale at all -- this loss far outstrips any conceivable loss from kids with photocopiers, Russian hackers who post ebooks on their websites, or fumble-fingered marketing or PR.

So what's not to like? Writers and publishers have fielded many objections to GBS, flinging a lot of muck in the hopes that some of it will stick. The three objections that have emerged as the main talking-points for GBS's opponents are:

  1. Google should cut copyright holders in for a slice of any revenue that comes from this: if Google can turn a profit on our books, why shouldn't we?

  2. Google should have obtained permission before scanning the GBS books; copyright controls the making of copies, and Google had to make a copy produce its index.

  3. It will be too easy to spoof: Although Google only shows excerpts, wily hackers could eventually piece together enough excerpts to reproduce the entire GBS library and then post it on the Internet, at which point all bets will be off.

But these objections reflect a nonsensical vision of how copyright law and computer security work. The reality is that the biggest threat to book-writers and publishers is that their works are simply invisible to people who get all their information from the Internet. Google Book Search makes our books visible to those people. In so doing, Google will save our asses from oblivion. Instead of sending legal threats to Google, I think that writers and publishers should be sending them fruit-baskets and thank-you notes.

More than 75 percent of the books in Google's index are not in print. A substantial portion of those books have disputed, unclear or missing rightsholders. In many instances -- the majority of instances, if my own experiences in getting "clearance" for the copyrights in out-of-print books is anything to go on -- Google won't be able to contact these rightsholders in anything like a cost-effective manner. The majority of works in the world's libraries would not be scanned, would not show up in Internet searches, and would cease to matter to our cultural discourse. They will have been effectively suppressed.

It gets worse: every twenty years or so, the entertainment industry manages to secure an extra twenty years' worth of copyright for everything ever made. That means that these works have every chance in the world of staying in copyright for something like forever, even though they have no visible rightsholder, even though their copyright status keeps them from being rescued from the scrapheap of history, even though suppressing an author's work is far, far worse than merely infringing her copyrights.

Imagine, though, that it was possible to cost-effectively contact all the parents of those orphan works? Should Google have to pay?

Fair Use and Google Book Search
Google scanned the GBS library without securing any copyright-holder's permission. They got permission from the libraries whose books they scanned, of course -- and they got publishers' permission to display full-page excerpts in their search-results. But Google made its initial scans under a US legal doctrine called "fair use."

Normally, copyright holders have a monopoly over the copying, display and performance of the works they create or acquire. Fair use is a category of uses that can be made without permission from or payment to rightsholders. These uses are ones that serve the public interest by preventing the author's monopoly from creating market failures, from stifling free speech, and from compromising the property interests of the people who acquire copies of copyrighted works.

So what's a fair use? Is there a certain number of words you're allowed to copy to make a use fair? Are all noncommercial uses fair? Are all commercial uses unfair? Is there a list of which uses are fair?

Judges consider a number of factors in determining whether a use is fair. A large part of fair use analysis hinges on the four factors -- a collection of four criteria from 17USC, the US Copyright Act, which guide judges' decision-making. But more important than the four factors is commonsense. The four factors are a floor on the public's rights in copyright, not a ceiling -- they're the minimum criteria that signal the fairness of a use. Here they are:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;

  3. amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

But there are lots of uses that are fair even though they fail the four factors test. The most famous of these is "time-shifting" with a VCR. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., the case that established the legality of Sony's Betamax video-cassette recorder. Sony had introduced the VCR as a device for "time-shifting" shows that were on when you weren't home. Today, it's obvious that time-shifting is innocuous and ultimately to the benefit of the entertainment industry, but this was hardly clear in 1984 -- indeed, many legal scholars of the day felt that Sony's defense was doomed; the entertainment industry warned that if Sony prevailed it would be their death-knell. Jack Valenti testified to Congress in 1982 that "the VCR is to the American film industry as the Boston Strangler is to a woman home alone."

Why was a use like time-shifting so legally difficult to defend? Well it fails three of the four factors:

  1. It consumes the whole work, not an excerpt or quote

  2. It can copy works that are creative in nature -- not just news-casts, but also feature films

  3. It makes no "transformation" of the work -- it doesn't turn it into a parody or criticism
(Arguably it failed on the fourth test as it harmed Hollywood's ability to offer exclusive home-viewing licensing to competitors of the VCR, like the Discovision, an early play-only home theater device, but the Supremes had different ideas about this)

If the four factors were all the Supremes considered in the course of their deliberations, the VCR would have been banned on the spot. But, thankfully, judges don't stop at the four factors: in the words of the Pirates of the Caribbean's ghost-captain: "They're more what you call guidelines." Where a use fails the four factors but wins on commonsense, judges can rule on that basis.

If Google's scanning of the books for GBS isn't fair, then it indeed needed permission from publishers and/or authors to compile its library. But if the use is fair, then by definition, it doesn't need permission: fair uses are those uses that don't require permission.

Let's examine each step of GBS to see if it seems unlikely to be fair:

  • Displaying ads alongside of search-results
    Showing ads alongside of excerpts isn't necessarily an infringement. Book-critics often quote the books they're reviewing (even books they aren't reviewing!) in the pages of magazines; these pages frequently contain advertisements. If quoting on a page with ads is an infringement, then the New York Review of Books is in big trouble.

  • Showing quotes in response to searches
    If you write a letter to the editor of your local paper asking exactly how William Gibson's Neuromancer opens and they publish a reply containing the infamous line, "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" it's pretty clear no infringement has taken place. Indeed, running short excerpts as necessary to make a point in reportage, criticism, analysis, or parody is canonically a fair use.

  • Scanning in books
    Here's where it gets interesting. In order for Google to figure out which fair use quotation to show you, it must first make a copy of the whole book -- several copies, in all likelihood. Here we have the four factors on our side. While Google copies the entirety of the work, and while the works are often of a creative nature, Google is only distributing the briefest of quotations, and it can hardly be said that Google is disrupting the normal fortunes of authors and publishers in providing a searchable index of their books.

There's no substantial business today in charging companies money for the privilege of indexing one's book; indeed it's often the reverse: a publisher or author pays a service to produce an index of its books.

Google has done what it does best: converted something that used to cost money into something that makes money. For example, older search companies spent a lot of money on human editorship of their indexes, and then charged money for access to the results. Today, Google uses the links that web-writers create between web-pages to figure out which pages are about what subject and how important they are -- then Google charges advertisers to show results alongside of the search-results.

The argument against the fairness of the initial scanning hinges on this: because Google has demonstrated that there's gold in them thar indexes, it supposedly follows they they should share the wealth.

But this is a false line of reasoning. If adding value to someone else's creation entitled him to a chance to say no, then anyone who makes an iPod case, an automobile cup-holder phone-cradle, or a lens-wipe for a camera should have gotten permission from the creators of the technologies they're improving. Hell, every carpenter who ever put together a bookcase owes her livelihood to the books that got shelved on them -- why not go after them, too?

This is the real meat of the argument: rent-seeking. Wikipedia's compact definition of the term is this: "[Rent-seeking] takes place when an entity seeks to extract uncompensated value from others by manipulation of the economic environment." Rent-seekers are shakedown artists: they don't add new value, but they demand a piece of the action anyway.

There are plenty of ways that publishers could turn a buck off of indexing their works -- they could index them themselves; they could sell premium access to digital versions of their catalogs to Google or its competitors, they could come up with ways of executing searchable indexes that are better than those that Google delivers.

It's also clear that publishers will benefit from the increased visibility of their works: the more people hear of a book, the more copies of that book will sell. Putting books into search-resultes increases the number of people who'll hear of them.

Google versus the scrapers
But what if readers use the quotes Google sends them to piece together the whole book?

Writers and publishers have written that Google presents a risk to them because wily hackers will be able to use multiple searches from different addresses to extract all the text of all the books in Google's index. Once this is done, they argue, the books will appear all over the Internet and that'll be the end of publishing: after all, who will buy a book when the electronic text of it is available for free?

This argument is technologically and commercially nonsensical.

Google has an army of computer scientists who continuously monitor and fine-tune its intrusion-detection system. It has to, because Google lives in a highly competitive, high-stakes marketplace (far more competitive and high-stakes than publishing), and has shown itself to be more than capable of detecting and shutting down attempts to "scrape" significant portions of its database, even when those originate from a wide range of Internet addresses. It's simply not credible to believe that Google could miss the fact that some kids are running the billions of queries necessary to extract its GBS library.

More to the point, though: If all it takes to kill publishing is a low-cost means of acquiring digital copies of books, then publishing is dead already. It's cheap and easy to turn a book into a text-file at home, and it gets cheaper with every second. Why should we give credence to the hypothetical risk that a well-resourced gang of book-thieves will spend millions of dollars and hours spoofing Google, but not spend those same hours and dollars simply scanning in books? Google has an army of PhD computer scientists guarding its database; no such army protects the stock of your corner used-book store.

Finally, it's no foregone conclusion that free electronic copies of a book will substitute for sales of physical copies of that book. My first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, was released as a free, open download on the same day that it appeared in stores. Three years later, it's in its sixth printing and more than 650,000 copies of it have been distributed from my website (an untold and unknowable number of copies have been distributed by others, as well). That's because my biggest threat as an author isn't piracy, it's obscurity. The majority of ideal readers who fail to buy my book will do so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free electronic copy.

Tim O'Reilly, the publisher of O'Reilly and Associates, framed the piracy-vs-obscurity question, and he also gave us its corollary: "Piracy is progressive taxation." That is to say, the most widely pirated O'Reilly books on the Internet are also the most profitable ones. Most writers can only dream of achieving enough market-share to warrant anyone's effort to pirate their works -- indeed, one of the few things that gives me hope for science fiction as a genre is that it's the only kind of fiction that Internet users can be bothered to pirate in any great quantity.

Some day, electronic texts will substitute for print books: the convergence of superior technology and an audience raised to read off-screen will make treeware editions into luxury items and white elephants, the way that oil-paintings are today. It's certain to me that books will be largely represented as bits in the near future. It's likewise certain that bits will never, ever get any harder to copy than they are today. From here on in, barring nuclear holocaust, bits will only get cheaper and easier to copy, period. Anyone who thinks bits will get harder to copy is either not paying attention or kidding himself or kidding you.

Smart authors, then, should make some hay while the sun shines -- that is, use free ebooks to sell print books. That will make authors rich today. To ensure that authors stay rich tomorrow, though, we need prepare to change over to the new models that emerge when books are most often freely copyable digital objects. The best way to do that is to perform millions of experiments with digital texts to see which approaches are likely to bear fruit.

Will authors have to turn into performers? Maybe -- after all, performers once had to turn into studio-musicians when phonogram and radio technology disrupted their business-model. Will authors have to ask for tips? Publish in free, advertising-supported venues? It's likely to be a combination of these things and others; after all, books and authors are distinctive and so their business-models will be too. One thing is true today, though: the more electronic editions of your books circulate, the more books you sell.

In an ideal world, writers could choose whether they wanted to avail themselves of this opportunity to sell books by giving away digital copies, but in an ideal world, authors wouldn't have to trouble themselves with any of this stuff -- they could just sit at home and write.

The realpolitik of authorship is that authors can't master their digital destiny when it comes to fans who share their works. Authors can choose to chastise and sue their fans for electronically evangelizing their works, but any victory gained by suing your customers is a hollow one. No sustainable business-model starts by insulting or suing the customers who love you best.

Google Book Search won't have any impact on "ebook piracy," one way or another. What it will do is make is easier for readers to find out about books and buy them.

This all comes down to obscurity versus visibility. There was a time when there was a giant market for books as social tools -- read the right book and find people who shared your values, whether that was the guy on the subway with the Dungeon Master's Guide, your hippie co-worker with The Celestine Prophecy, or the latest smartypants volume lauded in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement.

Less and less so every day, though. If there's one thing the Internet is good at, it's connecting people with comparable interests: if you're a Civil War re-creator with a penchant for extreme knitting and left-of-center liberal political beliefs, you can be sure that somewhere on the net there's a group of people waiting to welcome you in. These days, science fiction fans can find all the camaraderie and fellow-feeling of sf without having to do all that tedious reading -- that's why at a con I attended a couple years ago, the two big-name authors on the ticket drew six people, while the guys who made the hilarious video-game-based cartoon Red Vs Blue had a full house.

It was once true that reading was a good way to get some light entertainment -- whether you were stuck on a train or in your living-room, a lightweight novel was just the thing to tick the hours away. But here again, the Internet, video-games and the mobile phone are hugely disruptive. Any overland commuter train has is dominated by phone-conversations, with readers in an ever-dwindling minority.

It's easy to see why: content isn't king; conversation is. If you had the choice of bringing your friends or your books to a desert island, we'd call you a sociopath if you took the books over the breathing humans.

Between vegetative media like TV that leaves your hands free to eat and IM and knit and cook dinner and conversational media like IM and multiplayer games and phones, books are a big loser in the field of providing empty entertainment in the dull moments.

This pincer movement is gradually squeezing books out of the lives of much of the traditional audience for books: people don't need books to meet each other anymore, and books aren't the best way to kill time anymore.

If that wasn't bad enough, the number of retail outlets for books has also dwindled away. Mall and main-street bookstores have all but vanished; drug-stores and grocery stories have eliminated or downsized their book sections. What that means is that the only time you come across a book these days is when you go looking for one: when you specifically plan a trip to a big-box bookseller or a distant specialty store. That's fine: people who are already interested in buying books can go to a giant Borders or login to Amazon and get more selection than every before.

But the majority of potential customers for books will never plan a trip to bookstore. They're impulse buyers who happen upon an intriguing book in the course of their daily lives and wind up taking it home. For these people -- people who might be willing to substitute a book for a phone or a game or a TV show or a convention or a newsgroup or a mailing list -- for these people, books simply never cross their transom. The idea of buying a book just doesn't crop up anymore.

This is the single biggest threat facing publishing and writers today. Social media and increased entertainment choices compete for our readers' attention.

But this is also publishers' and writers' biggest opportunity. The Internet makes it possible for the social factors that sell books -- the sense of community engendered by shared cultural referents, the conversation that books enable -- to flourish. It may be that books aren't outcompeted by the Internet at all -- it may be that Internet media are the lifeline that books need to survive in a world where the retail ecosystem of booksales has been denuded to stubble and mud.

That's where Google Book Search comes in. GBS puts books on a near-equal footing with other information resources, the ones that are currently kicking the hell out of us. When a customer performs a Google search, she can get results, right there on her screen, from real, actual books, books that can often be purchased with a single click.

This is our single best hope for extending our industry's lifespan for a decade or two. Physical books will always suffer the disadvantage of forcing a reader to actually make rendezvous with a lump of atoms that is like as not thousands of kilometers from her at the moment that she wants to refer to them. But with GBS, ebooks and fast fulfillment from etailers, at least books will maintain their position in readers' attention, and capture people who don't set out to find a book.

At least books will be part of the discourse.

We need to stop telling people that the Internet isn't as good as books. It makes us look like whiny jerks. We need to stop telling people that they have a moral duty to read. It makes us look like imperious jerks.

We need to act like a money-making industry and spare some attention for what our customers demand: books that are no more clicks away than web-pages.

GBS and programs like it are the best effort to date of solving that. I'm sending them my fruit-basket today. How about you?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

My creative daughters

My "creative" daughters have a sick sense of humor. I've posted this video on Facebook before, but here it is for all you blog people.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Girls with Aspergers Syndrome

Trying to remember a little about what Morgan was like when she was little. I have Beth Busby from D11 coming to my house to record me for a video she’s producing. She wants me to tell her a little about how the AS experience is different for girls.

I’ve long contended that AS isn’t nearly as scarce in girls as is thought—they just manifest the symptoms a little differently. One of the main things that makes people think girls don’t have Asperger's is that they want to play with others. It’s their method of play that gives you the clues. My girls have a much harder time progressing past “parallel play” (where the children play two different games side by side—common in toddlers) to shared play. I think this is because they have a hard time giving up control. When they do find that one friend who is sweet enough to indulge their need to be in control, they want to spend as much time as possible with them.

That leads us to the “wanting to play” part. This, I believe, is a common misconception about AS kids in general. I have yet to meet an Asperger's child who simply did NOT want to have friends (though I am aware that there are a few out there.) The kids are frequently happier playing by themselves, but that’s only because play with their peers frustrates them—not because they don’t want it. Imagine you love ice cream, but you’re lactose intolerant. You want it, you love it, but it gives you pain because there are aspects of it that you can’t handle. For Asperger's kids, playing with friends is like that. They love it, they want it, but because there are aspects of it that cause them pain, they can’t handle it. Sadly, some AS kids come to associate friendship with pain & decide they don’t want it anymore.

Third: Asperger's girls engage in imaginative play, so they must not have Asperger's. Girls with AS get out their dolls and ponies and dragons and dinosaurs and dance them around the floor of their room. But something is a little different. Sit down next to the AS girl, pick up the pony, and say, “no, I’m not going to do (what ever your child suggested.) I’m going to go to the park and eat mushrooms.” When you introduce a plot line that your autistic child didn’t write, the autistic child can’t change gears (like a neurotypical child would) and embrace the new plot. Sure, most kids are like that when they’re toddlers, but they grow out of it. It takes a lot longer for the AS child to.

One of the less commonly addressed issues of Asperger's is anxiety. Temple Grandin said that the most prevalent emotion the autistic child feels is anxiety. I believe that extreme anxiety in the very young girl is a sign of Asperger's. My oldest daughter had so much anxiety that she had to frequently leave her first grade classroom to calm down in the guidance counselors office. Eventually we filled a prescription bottle with tic-tacs, called it Aplacebo (a placebo) and told her she could go down to the office to get one whenever she felt overwhelmed. I may get criticism for “teaching a young child that meds are the answer to all her problems,” but I was addressing a greater issue—that my daughter was in constant fear and anxiety. The tic-tacs made her feel in control. Eventually (a few years later) we told her what was going on, and she realized that she was the one who was making herself feel better.

Well, this is enough for one day. I’ll blog more later.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Good news for another PPW member!

Beth Groundwater has three new book contracts! Go see her blog post.

Post Pikes Peak Writers Conference--Bypassing the slush pile

Yes--it was fantastic!

Later, I'll blog a little about some of the workshops. There was a lot of fantastic information about honing your craft. But for now, I'm going to give the details about the agents who asked for my manuscript.

On Friday, I decided to attend a Read and Critique 1-2-3 workshop. In this R&C, you bring the first page of your manuscript, and the moderator reads it aloud--this way it's anonymous. The panel the mod read for was Kate Gale (editor with Red Hen press), Carol Berg (an author), and Scott Hoffman (a founding agent of Folio Literary Management.) They were pretty brutal (something I'm always grateful for--more about that soapbox in a later blog.) After the first line of the first page was read, Scott frequently said, "Okay stop! I'd quit reading right here."

I was lucky to have my first page read--I was on the waiting list. M. B. Partlow, another member of the PPW was the moderator--she did the reading.

One line in, Scott says, "Stop!" I, of course, pee my pants a little. Then he continues: "I already love this." I un-pee my pants. M. B. resumes reading. At the end, the reviews are great and Scott says, "I love this, but I think it's absolutely unsellable. But whoever wrote this, please send me the manuscript, a synopsis, and your bio."

After the session, I go up to the front of the room to reveal that I'm the one who wrote Suicide TV (my manuscript.) I talk with Kate about what genre my manuscript might fall under, then move on to Scott. He tells me that the reason he thinks my manuscript is unsellable is because publishers aren't interested in reality show stories. (They don't believe we want to read about reality shows when we can watch them on TV. But remember--publishers are reactionary, not revolutionary--just before J. K. Rowling, they said there was no market for children's fantasy. Just before Twilight I kept hearing that vampires were on their way out.) But Scott wants the manuscript anyway. We talk about some common interests, he gives me his contact info, and I leave.

I go out into the hallway, where I see DeAnna Knippling--a great writer & friend. I do a little happy dance--the kind with the tappity feet, the flappity hands, and the squeaky noises only dogs can hear--and we hug. And Scott Hoffman goes walking by. I make a lame comment about how cool I normally am, but he just gives me a big smile. I'm sure they're used to seeing writers this way.

Friday night, I'm sitting at the table of Donald Maas, (an agent) talking with him and his wife, Lisa Rector (an independent editor with Third Draft NYC)--what a lovely couple! After socializing for a while, I give Donald my log line: two contestants on a suicide reality show fall in love and want to live, but the show has other ideas. Donald says, "you should come and talk to me about this." I meet him in the bar that night, answer a few questions, and he gives me his card (which I promptly lost) and asks for 50 pages and a synopsis.

Again with the happy dance.

The next day, I'm in Donald's workshop on microtension (more on that in a later blog) and he asks if anyone has their manuscript with them--he needs to pick apart some dialogue. I give him mine. He opens it, looking for some random dialogue, and his eyebrows knit together. (I pee my pants a little.) Then he says, "this is pretty tight writing." (I un-pee my pants.) Finally he finds some dialogue we can work on. Donald and the audience are pretty brutal (which I like) and find ways to tighten what I've written. Yay!

I go to my 4:20 pitch appointment with Sarah Megibow (an agent with Nelson Literary Agency.) By this time, I'm no longer nervous. I pitch to Sarah, and she asks for thirty pages, giving me her card with the secret password on it. (Yes, there really was a secret password.) Luckily, I don't lose this card.

Saturday night, I sit at Scott Hoffman's dinner table. My husband John is with me, and we spend much of the evening chatting up Scott. I am surprised to learn that he's not at all what I expected. Look at his photo and bio--does he not look scary and snobby? Well--John and I find out Scott reads Orson Scott Card, likes Joss Whedon, listens to TED lectures, and it pretty progressive about copyrighting trends (more about that in a later blog.) Have I found my soul-agent? We'll see--I'm not ready to pass judgment yet.

So that's about it--three agents, all interested in my work. Let me say one more thing, though: all of these agents were sold on the premise. I agree that the premise is fantastic. But none of them have seen more than a page or two of my writing. Think about it--dinosaur theme-park was a fantastic premise, but could just anyone have done a good job writing about it? The real test is yet to come--will they like my writing. But as John says, I've gotten past the slush pile--and that's a fantastic thing!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

This is how my day goes.

Great video about procrastination.

Bad Dreams

So last night I had a dream about the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. I was scheduled to be the moderator for a couple of the workshops (a job that entails introducing the faculty member, moderating the questions, keeping time, etc.) I kept sleeping in, though, and missing the workshops I was supposed to moderate. The faculty members were upset & I was embarrassed. I wonder what this says about my feelings about going to conference this year.

I'm excited about conference. I feel, for the first time, like I have a good manuscript to share. Can't wait to see what the agents I'm pitching have to say. I plan to speak with Donald Maass and Sarah Megibow (Sarah's with Nelson Literary Agency.)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Welcome to my Blog!


Looking forward to going to the Pikes Peak Writers Conference--one of the best conferences in the country. I'm especially looking forward to it this year, as I have a manuscript to pitch! The title of the book is Suicide TV.

Found THIS online.
Should I sing this to Donald Maass at the conference?

<3 L