Back to December 2005

To Making Light's front page

Forward to February 2006

January 31, 2006
Fiction and truth
Posted by Patrick at 08:37 AM *

Echoing Maureen Dowd, Arianna Huffington is exercised over the fact that James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces, now comprehensively exposed as fraudulent baloney, is still listed by the New York Times on their nonfiction paperback bestseller list.

I posted a comment on Huffington’s own site, but it doesn’t seem to be showing up so I’ll repeat myself here. This is a silly argument because calling a book “nonfiction” has never meant any kind of certification that its contents are true. Edgar Cayce books are “nonfiction.” Immanuel Velikovsky is “nonfiction.” Self-published tracts about how bees from Venus are attacking Your Child’s Brain are “nonfiction.” All of these are packs of lies. They’re also not fiction, which is to say, narratives put forth under the rubric of “I’m now going to tell you a story which I made up.” Yes, there are books which fall into a gray area. (Into which category would you put Avram Davidson’s Adventures in Unhistory? You have five minutes. Show your work.) A Million Little Pieces isn’t one of those books, any more than this particular pack of lies.

What’s more, as an editor devoted to the value of good fiction, I wouldn’t want the Times, or anyone else, to start using “fiction” as a dumping-ground for works of nonfiction which have proved to be full of lies. There’s a good discussion to be had of whether respectable book publishers should make a greater effort to ensure the basic truthfulness, or at least truthful intention, of work published as “nonfiction.” But using “fiction” as a synonym for “lying” isn’t the way to go.

January 30, 2006
Now, rethink what they mean when they say “special interests”
Posted by Patrick at 07:04 PM * 51 comments

Digby quotes from an interesting-sounding book, Politicians Don’t Pander; Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness, by Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro:

Why has the derogatory term “pander” been pinned on politicians who respond to public opinion? The answer is revealing: the term is deliberately deployed by politicians, pundits, and other elites to belittle government responsiveness to public opinion and reflects a long-standing fear, uneasiness, and hostility among elites toward popular consent and influence over the affairs of government.


Read Digby’s whole post, particularly if you’re down over Alito. (If you haven’t noticed that, in the past year, the blogger called “Digby”—about whom exactly nothing is known, not even gender—has become the best political writer on the internet, it’s time to find out.) Me, I’m thinking that observation by Jacobs and Shapiro explains, in 58 words, nearly everything that’s gone septic in our media and political elites in the last twenty years.

January 29, 2006
Open thread 59
Posted by Teresa at 07:17 PM *

What would happen to an unwrapped bar of Ivory Soap in a vacuum?

Posted by Patrick at 11:05 AM * 48 comments

Michael Bérubé on academic freedom: what it is, how it’s under attack, and why it matters. You must read this post.

January 27, 2006
Fighting Terrorism
Posted by Patrick at 11:09 PM *

From the Associated Press:

The U.S. Army in Iraq has at least twice seized and jailed the wives of suspected insurgents in hopes of “leveraging” their husbands into surrender, U.S. military documents show.

In one case, a secretive task force locked up the young mother of a nursing baby, a U.S. intelligence officer reported.

But wait, weren’t they supposed to be on our side?
Posted by Patrick at 10:55 PM *

Responding to claims by the US Ambassador to Canada about what are and aren’t Canadian territorial waters in a melting Arctic, Canada’s incoming Conservative prime minister gets testy:

“The United States defends its sovereignty, the Canadian government will defend our sovereignty,” he said.

“It is the Canadian people we get our mandate from, not the ambassador of the United States.”

As Jim Henley once observed in a post I can’t seem to track down, you know those people all over the world who get pissed off at overbearing, grabby Americans? Like all those Iraqis with rifles and IEDs? Those people are often conservatives, the local variety, devoted to home and turf. Only American “conservatives” are airheaded enough to think that “conservative” automatically means “in favor of the continuing power, glory, and wealth of the United States.”

The life expectancies of books
Posted by Teresa at 01:01 AM *

[Update, 8:32 a.m. EST: I’ve added new material to the bottom of this post.]

We talk about immortal literature, but the vast majority of books are as mortal as we are. Who here has read John Cleveland? He was the most popular poet of his era, with numerous editions of his work published during his lifetime and just after. Then his style went out of style, as did his Royalist sentiments. Bye-bye, Cleveland.

It happens. You wouldn’t believe how many authors were left gasping on the beach when the tide of 1920s experimentalism ebbed—not that you could tell, looking at a bestseller list, that they’d ever been in print in the first place. When I was young, paperback gothics and nurse novels and books of poetry by Rod McKuen were all over the racks, but they disappeared like the passenger pigeon. More recently, the collapse of the horror boom left a lot of authors with nowhere to go.

Let us consider the Cader Books website, where they’ve put up the bestseller lists from 1900 to 1995. Reading through the lists makes an interesting exercise:
Which books have you read, from what years? Did you read them for a class, or for fun?

Which books have you heard of but not read? If you’ve heard them referred to in the past, did you recognize the reference as the title of a book? Do you know the title only because it was reapplied to something else—a movie, a TV show, the name of a nightclub, miscellaneous other?

Which authors are you familiar with? Which authors have you heard of? Did you hear about them for something other than writing yon bestselling book?

Do you own any of these books? How many of them have you seen on a bookstore shelf within the last couple of years?

Tell me again how unjust it is that your own books are out of print?

(If you want to get a little more perspective on a given year, go to Wikipedia’s List of years in literature, though Wikipedia’s list of significant books for that year won’t match the bestseller list. You may also be able to find information on more recent bestsellers at the Bestsellers database.)
The literature taught in schools is that which has survived: a collection of gross statistical anomalies. This is misleading. Falling out of print is a book’s natural fate. We can belatedly train ourselves to believe that this will happen to other people’s books. What’s hard is for writers to believe it will happen to their own.

It’ll happen just the same. It happens faster in mainstream fiction than it does in Our Beloved Genre, more slowly for nonfiction history books, very fast indeed for computer manuals; but in the end, all but a very few titles will be forgotten. Just look at the authors in that collection of bestseller lists. You’re a literate bunch, but have you ever heard of Harold Bell Wright? How about Mazo de la Roche? Mary Roberts Rinehart, Lloyd Douglas, Irving Bacheller, Frank Yerby, Coningsby Dawson, Warwick Deeping? These were all notable authors in their day. Some of their books were no better than they should be, while others were genuinely praiseworthy; but all of them spent some time perched on top of the commercial heap.

All gone, now. We shall none of us escape obscurity.

Consider, then, the duration of copyrights. They’ve gone from 28 years renewable to 56, then 28 renewable to 95, to life of the author plus 70. Given the range of human lifespans and the extreme rarity of prepubescent authors, you can pretty much figure that by the time a 95-year copyright runs out, the author will be dead and gone, and any offspring will have reached their majority. You can’t exactly draw a line, but somewhere in there, copyright stops being about directly rewarding an author for his work. What’s left is an intangible time-travelling value: the hope of being read.

This is why it pains me to hear respectable minor authors going on about how the extension of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years is a victory for the little guy. It isn’t, unless by “little guy” you mean the heirs of the author’s ex-spouse’s step-grandchildren by her third marriage. The real push behind the last round of copyright extensions came from the big entertainment combines. They’re bitterly opposed to the idea that cash-cow properties like Winnie the Pooh might ever go out of copyright.

Hollywood’s real attitude toward copyright is that it’s one more useful tool for gaining control of intellectual property. When I was a sprat, and Martha Shwartz was explaining copyright to me in terms of things to watch out for when copyediting, she used the Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes estate as real-world example.

Conan Doyle’s work was out of copyright, she said, but the estate was still combative about anyone using the works, characters, images, et cetera; and so they had to be tiptoed around. Furthermore, she said, images associated with Sherlock Holmes which originated in the movies, not the books—f.i., the deerstalker cap and the calabash pipe—belonged to whomever owned the rights to the 1940s Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies. She said she knew of a case where someone had written a novel in which there was a Victorian detective, not explicitly identified as Sherlock Holmes, who wore a deerstalker cap and smoked a calabash pipe. One of the studios had taken some kind of legal action, and required that the book be rewritten.

I dutifully remembered all that. Years later, I took great pleasure in letting Martha know that those traditional images of Holmes did not originate in the 1940s filmed versions. The deerstalker cap was bestowed on Holmes by Sidney Paget, one of his early illustrators. The deerstalker cap was perpetuated by actor William Gillette, who played Holmes onstage from 1899 to the 1930s, and also was responsible for giving Holmes his curved calabash pipe. I don’t know which studio it was that harassed the house where Martha’s friend was working, but they were asserting rights they manifestly didn’t own.

(“I’ve seen other cases like that,” Teresa said briefly, biting her tongue.)

But I nearly digress. Hollywood and Sherlock Holmes are the big guys. Very few of us are big guys. We’re minor and less-minor and respectable-in-our-day authors. Nobody’s going to contribute heavily to elected officials’ campaign funds in order to get laws passed that will enable them to retain control of our works. All we have to shoot for is the hope of being read.

Life of author plus 70 years does squat for your chances of being read. The knowledge of books and publishing possessed by the aforementioned heirs of the ex-spouse’s step-grandchildren by her third marriage usually boils down to, “No one would have thought Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats would be worth a lot, either.” They’ll turn down a proposal to do a nice little reprint project (not a lot of money in it, but everyone involved read the books when they were kids, so they’re fond of them) that would be just the thing to revive a little interest in your work. Why? Because if one publisher is interested, it must mean that some other publisher would be interested as well. There could be an auction! A movie! A theme park! Woo-hoo! Pots of money!

Only there isn’t another publisher. Time passes. The heirs-and-assigns and their ignoramus lawyers lose track of the project. Nothing happens. The moment is gone.

It could be worse. One of the heirs could have literary ambitions, and conceive the idea of finishing Grandpa’s abandoned partial-plus-outline. They could offer publishers a joint package of their short stories plus Great-Aunt Eleanor’s stories, take it or leave it, which effectively means Great-Aunt Eleanor’s stories can’t be reprinted. They may refuse to allow republication because they can’t get their own work published, and their literary nose is out of joint.

Here’s a completely hypothetical case: ownership of a popular body of commercial fiction starring a very recognizable central character passes to some collateral branch of the author’s relatives. These people don’t know recto from verso. The estate’s executor is very knowledgeable, and is doing a good job. Unfortunately, some thuggish, ignorant local lawyers convince the heirs that the executor is doing them wrong, and get themselves made executors instead. They then proceed to mishandle the estate for their own profit and amusement. After years of bad behavior, they cap all their previous exploits by scuttling what would have been an extremely profitable pair of media projects based on the work. Why? Because part of their price for letting the property be used is that they themselves should be given high-level jobs in the projects, for which they’re completely unqualified. This doesn’t happen. Instead, the projects get rewritten to star two similar-but-not-copyrighted characters. One’s a great success, the other’s a huge success, and both would have done the literary property a world of good.

Mind, that’s hypothetical.

If that’s too complicated, imagine an author’s entire body of work being kept out of print because the rights passed to the ex-spouse’s third husband after the ex-spouse died, and he hated the author.

Even if the heirs-and-assigns aren’t pulling flagrantly stupid stunts, those extra decades of copyright are a drag on the publishability of the work. David Hartwell and I were both doing big retrospective story collections in the wake of the last big copyright extension. That change did something which I’d been told in my youth would never happen: works that had gone out of copyright went back in. David got caught with “The Machine Stops” already in print in his collection, and had to pay the E.M. Forster estate some undisclosed sum he still growls about. I was luckier. It took Bob Cloud of SMP Production two or three memos to convince me that “Danny Deever” was a problem, but I was finally made to realize that it really had gone back into copyright, and had to be pulled from Eileen Gunn’s introduction to “The Affair at Lahore Cantonment.”

Right about now would be a natural time for people to be compiling anthologies of the early 20th C. writers of fantasy, horror, and proto-SF. It’s not happening. Look at Dunsany. His marvellous and seminal fantasy short stories were published in collections from 1905 to 1919, but the man himself lived to 1957. And think of that moldering forest-floor mulch of writers who sold who knows how many stories in the course of their careers, only one or two of which a modern reader might still find striking. Just finding the stories would be a heroic but imaginable tasks. Securing the rights is beyond imagination. The heirs would range from intransigent to unfindable; and those you could find would have to have the entirety of standard publishing practices explained to them, after which they’d consult their cousin the real-estate lawyer, who would give them dreadful advice. Best not to even try. Too bad, but it’s best not to even try.

Electronic piracy is a fight that’s still being waged. Like extended copyrights, proposed draconian laws prohibiting electronic piracy and other copyright infringement are being hailed as a defense of the rights of the little guy. You know what? They aren’t. They’re being pushed because the big entertainment combines are all twitchy at the thought of their content escaping into the wild.

We known that the biggest reason people buy a specific work of fiction is that they’ve read and enjoyed another work by that same author. For years now, Jim Baen has been making electronic versions of his books available online in advance of their hardcopy publication. As far as anyone in the industry can tell, it does their sales no harm at all, and may well help. Cory Doctorow made his first novel available online at no charge. His hardcopy sales were just fine. Further afield, I’ve noticed that when Patrick has the opportunity to listen to lots of unlicensed copies of recordings, his record purchases go way up.

I don’t approve of hardcopy piracy of hardcopy publications, or online piracy of online content. That’s a different thing. But so far, when it comes to scattered feral electronic versions of hardcopy publications, the rule seems to be that familiarity breeds audience.


For some time now I’ve been meaning to recommend Cader Books’ pithy and accurate Book Publishing FAQ. Everyone should read it. For example:

Q. Do I need an agent to sell my book to a publisher? A. Probably, but not necessarily.

(The real answers are longer than what I’m quoting. I’m just giving you the flavor of the thing.)

Q. How do I find the right agent or editor? A. Smart research—the same way you do anything else in life.

Q. Can you copyright a book idea, or a title?
A. No.

Q. So how do I keep my idea from getting stolen?
A. The best protection is to execute your idea as well as possible.

Q. How do I find the right publisher for my book?
A. The same way that you find an editor or agent—by research.

They also explain what a standard book deal looks like, how to put together a good proposal, and the three self-explanatory things to never say in a nonfiction book proposal:

1. “Who knows, it could be the next pet rock.” 2. “All my friends think this is a great idea.”
3. “I know we can make a million dollars with this one.”

Wise advice.



I knew there was something more I wanted to say about books going out of print. Julian Bond shook it loose by asking the right question in the comment thread:

Falling out of print is a book’s natural fate. It may be now, but does it have to be? Do we have the technology now (eg print on demand) to make sure that a book is always available even when it’s initial print run has been remaindered. This is classic long tail thinking. Even if the number of purchasers drops to zero for a few years can we make sure that the next potential purchaser can still buy it?

I said, we’re talking about two different kinds of “out of print.” One is where you can’t buy a new copy of a book you already know you want. POD may be the answer there.

The other sort is where, if you don’t already know you want to read the book, nothing in your environment is going to suggest it to you. Reviews are a significant cue, but the biggest one is the cover of the book itself.

Every book cover is an advertisement—for itself, for other books like itself, for the whole idea of literature; but mostly for itself. If it ceases to be displayed in places where people look at book covers, that’s a different kind of out of print. There’s only so much display space: a sort of collective physical mindspace.

(Incidentally: the loss of wire racks? A significant change in our culture. The chattering classes haven’t noticed it because they all go to bookstores. Books are still selling very well, but we’ve lost a lot of that collective display space that was an ongoing advertisement for the joys of literacy.)

POD technology can provide a copy of a book that you want, but it’s simply not the same thing as that larger and far more complex technology whereby a book finds new readers. The latter involves a sort of collective consciousness that the book exists. Historically we’ve instantiated that consciousness in a lot of ways: reviews, reading lists, library shelves, shop windows, book clubs, wire rack and bookstore displays, etc. New instantiations are evolving on the net.

No one knows all there is to know about the physics and geography of book-mindspace. There’ve always been people who’ve been intensely knowledgeable and familiar with the current physical forms and patterns of book-mindspace. What we’ll make of it electronically will be interesting to see.

I’m confident of one thing: the number of books we can hold suspended in book-mindspace will be smaller than the number of books whose text is stored in POD databases, ready to be printed out.

January 26, 2006
Pick up the phone. Now.
Posted by Patrick at 05:16 PM * 106 comments

I can barely believe that John Kerry, of all people, is issuing a last-minute call for a filibuster of the Alito nomination, but this appears to be the case.

I’m not interested in arguing about Kerry’s timing, or his motives, or anything to do with the 2008 Presidental race. I’m not interested in arguing about Roe v Wade. I’m interested in one thing, which is that we appear to be about to put a guy onto the Supreme Court who thinks the President of the United States should have dictatorial powers whenever he or she wants to exercise them. If that doesn’t alarm you, you’re dead.

A good hint to Senate Democrats (plus Jim Jeffords, and the sad remaining rump of ha ha “moderate” Republicans like Snowe and Chafee) would be that when the New York “Conventional Wisdom ‘R’ Us” Times writes:

A filibuster is a radical tool. It’s easy to see why Democrats are frightened of it. But from our perspective, there are some things far more frightening. One of them is Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court.

—you have to think, maybe it’s time to get off the pot. Phone your Senators. Urge them to support this filibuster. It probably won’t work, but how much trouble is two damn phone calls? Lose well today to win tomorrow. Pick up the phone now.

January 25, 2006
In which culture moves from a traditional base in a consensual collective endeavour to forms which are rationalised by commodification and led by individuals with interests which are separated from the purposes of the population as a whole
Posted by Patrick at 06:45 PM * 56 comments

As promised: now available for sale, Whisperado’s debut CD, the six-song EP Some Other Place.

Whisperado is two-thirds bloggers, two-thirds Jewish, two-thirds computer professionals, two-thirds left-wingers, two-thirds car owners, and two-thirds Brooklynites. Also, three New York guys with day jobs who (in the words of our press kit) “write and play songs about the American essentials: bowling, capitalism, and demanding women.” Our sound has been variously described as “rootsy,” “acceptable,” and “loud.” A couple of sample songs can be downloaded via Alison Scott’s page full of free music she likes.

Some Other Place, recorded this summer in a series of learning experiences, features four original songs by Jon Sobel, one by me, and a Mark Knopfler cover. It will be available on CD Baby and the iTunes Music Store, and (for the discounted price of $5) at our gigs. You can buy it immediately for $8, shipping inclusive, here.

January 24, 2006
Beautiful China
Posted by Teresa at 11:15 PM *

Amazingly beautiful photographs of China’s Guilin area. I was particularly struck by the photos of its immaculately maintained, labor intensive agricultural terraces. I have to wonder how long those are going to last, given China’s massive population exodus from rural areas, and its increasing ability to buy food from areas of the world where you don’t have to terrace 45-degree slopes to grow rice.

Open thread 58
Posted by Teresa at 02:18 PM *

Picture your seed text here!

January 21, 2006
Live Music: Your Best Entertainment Value
Posted by Patrick at 10:30 AM *

For once I’m going to post about one of these events earlier than 24 hours before we take the stage. As I speak, copies of Whisperado’s first CD are in transit from the plant, and this coming Wednesday we’ll be throwing a CD release party downstairs at the Cornelia Street Cafe in conjunction with fearless leader Jon Sobel’s monthly “Soul of the Blues” event.

Opening at 8:30 will be singer-songwriter Melissa Mulligan, followed by Bostonite Adam Payne (warning: link plays sound). We’ll take the stage around 10 PM, and we hope to see you there.

The Cornelia Street Cafe is at 29 Cornelia Street, between Bleecker and West 4th in the heart of the West Village. Cover charge will be $10, which (assuming we get our advance box from the plant in time) will include a copy of our six-song CD Some Other Place, soon to be available on CD Baby, the iTunes Music Store, and directly from this weblog, among other fine retail channels. Watch this space. Okay, you can stop watching this space.

UPDATE: Two Whisperado tracks can be downloaded, restriction-free, via Alison Scott’s fine Page Full of Free Music She Likes.

January 20, 2006
And now, a message from our sponsors
Posted by Teresa at 03:16 PM *

Bored? Stuck on the phone? Waiting for another tab to load? Consider clicking through on one of our sidebar ads! Nothing very bad can happen to you, it encourages repeat business from our advertisers, and it might be interesting!

No guarantees, of course.

A Day Late and a Dollar Short
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 02:10 AM *

A mere three-and-a-half months after Hurricane Katrina (and where’s the federal investigation?), Michael Brown has noticed that maybe he had something to do with the botched federal response to the storm:

Brown Accepts More Blame on Katrina

Ex-FEMA Chief Michael Brown Now Says He Deserves Much of the Blame for Hurricane Katrina Failures

By TOM GARDNER Associated Press Writer

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. Jan 19, 2006 — Former FEMA Director Michael Brown has placed blame on everyone from New Orleans’ mayor to Louisiana’s governor for the chaos following Hurricane Katrina. Now, he’s including himself.

Brown said Wednesday he fell short of conveying the magnitude of the disaster wrought by the nation’s deadliest hurricane, and calling for help.

Fell short? Ya think?

Try the search link in the left-hand column here to find our previous comments on Michael Brown falling short.

Brown said he doesn’t want to play the blame game.

Completely understandable, big guy. Who’d want to play a game when there are 1,300 American citizens known dead and 3,200 still missing? Not that he wasn’t pretty quick to “play the blame game” back in September. You’d have thought it was The Family Circus for all the times Not Me and Ida Know were trotted out.

FEMA had been gutted by the Bush administration, with known incompetent political cronies put in charge. It’s nice that the agency’s head incompetent is admitting what the rest of us have known for months. But isn’t there someone else who should be taking some responsibility?

January 17, 2006
On Fear Itself
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:16 PM * 138 comments

From a speech by Al Gore, 16 January 2006:

… As President Eisenhower said, “Any who act as if freedom’s defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.”

Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction. Justice Brandeis once wrote: “Men feared witches and burnt women.”

The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk.

Yet, in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the Bill of Rights.

Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of missiles poised to be launched against us and annihilate our country at a moment’s notice? Is America in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march-when our fathers fought and won two World Wars simultaneously?

It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they. Yet they faithfully protected our freedoms and now it is up to us to do the same.

We have a duty as Americans to defend our citizens’ right not only to life but also to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is therefore vital in our current circumstances that immediate steps be taken to safeguard our Constitution against the present danger posed by the intrusive overreaching on the part of the Executive Branch and the President’s apparent belief that he need not live under the rule of law.

I endorse the words of Bob Barr, when he said, “The President has dared the American people to do something about it. For the sake of the Constitution, I hope they will.”

Okay, American people. Over to you.

January 11, 2006
Parsimony and refinement
Posted by Teresa at 09:25 AM * 392 comments

From Jed Hartman’s Lorem Ipsum, “Economy and efficiency as motivations in fiction”:

Something I see quite often in both submissions and published fiction (including movies) is plots that hinge on people taking implausibly inefficient approaches to achieving a goal.

It’s certainly true that individuals and organizations quite often behave inefficiently. That’ s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a character or (more often) an organization or government choosing a really truly ridiculously inefficient and roundabout means to a straightforward end, when there would appear to be much simpler/easier approaches readily to hand. Sure, that too can happen in real life (can you say building papier-mâchè aircraft in East Anglia to fool the Nazis? talk about unlikely!), but sometimes real life is awfully implausible.

This comes up a lot in time-travel stories. Say organization A wants to get rid of the leader of organization B. In too many stories, the very first idea that organization A comes up with as a viable approach is to invent time travel and then go back in time and kill leader B in his or her infancy.

(I suppose it’s a little silly of me to presuppose that time travel is possible and then object to particular uses of it on plausibility grounds. I guess some of my argument is just my gut feeling about how people are likely to behave, given a ground situation.)

Of course, if time travel already exists and is cheap, this isn’t so implausible. But I’ve seen stories in which, as far as I could tell, a government sank huge amounts of resources into creating time travel (sometimes with no reason to expect that it’s even possible) in order to take down an opponent. And it just seems to me that in almost every situation, there’ve gotta be not just simpler ways to go about getting rid of the enemy leader, but ways that the government in question is more likely to try first. …

Many conspiracy-theory plots fall into the category I’m talking about, of course. Which is more plausible: that the protagonist is nuts, or that thousands of people are all playing their parts perfectly with the sole goal of keeping our hero from finding out one particular fact? Of course, this example shows the limits of my complaint, too; there are plenty of great conspiracy-theory plots, and in some cases the conspiracies even end up sounding kind of plausible. Or else they’re trying to make some broader point about society (think The Prisoner) and aren’t so concerned about mundane plausibility. Or else they’re using elaborate plans as a genre convention (as in the Bond movies). All that is fine; still, there are plenty of stories in which the good guys or the bad guys engage in ridiculously roundabout and inefficient ways to achieve a goal, simply because it’ll be more dramatic than doing it the simple way. Or (and I think this is really what bugs me) because it didn’t occur to the author, after they came up with the cool complex approach, that there might be a simpler or more likely way to do it.

There’s more to his essay. It’s all good.

The reason writers use implausibly inefficient approaches is that they start with a big dramatic thing they want to do, then come up with some sloppily pasted-on justification for doing it. A good way to study this is to refuse the stewardess’ offer of headphones on long flights. When a movie has an implausible plot, the visuals will have all the stuff they wanted to put into the movie in the first place. The dialogue will have all the stupid contrived reasons why the plot supposedly has to happen the way it does. When you can’t hear the dialogue, the moviemakers’ true motives are much clearer.

Twister, for instance: (1.) “Hey! We can do a pretty good-looking tornado!” (2.) You Will Believe A Cow Can Fly. The rest is just noise and rubbish. Speed is about a city bus that can’t slow down, no matter what. Jaws is about the shark coming to get you. The Warlock in Spite of Himself is about how cool it would be if a bunch of SCA people had psi powers and their own planet.

I kinda faked you out with that last example. The weird thing about the Stasheff novel is how little of the setup most readers remember, years later—all that to-do and fro-do about very large, very dull interstellar organizations—compared to how clearly they remember the cool bits. The mind performs the necessary edit in retrospect, and reshuffles the scenes that are the real reason the book exists into the Good Parts Version.

Goldman’s riff about the Good Parts Version in The Princess Bride is a far more sophisticated rumination on the transaction of reading than is generally recognized. The experience of reading a book is holding on to a contingent understanding of the plot kerfluffle while you wait for the good stuff to come along. Afterward, the good stuff is what you mostly remember.

Stephen King would understand this. I remember when I first read Salem’s Lot and The Stand, and understood that he’d reprocessed and transformed the experience of EC comics, Hammer films, Revell model kits, and cheesy post-holocaust novels into deeper and stranger works. It’s like what Patrick said when he first saw Alex Ross’s art: “This is what I saw in my head when I read comics as a kid.”

Yay, cool parts. Love the cool parts. But the other stuff, the supporting and explaining and incluing material, has to be just as good, even if it’s not what’s remembered. When that stuff is logical and proportionate and properly connected, we’re happy. It blends near-invisibly into our overall map of existence, bringing the cool stuff with it, so that both become part of our world.

When the support structure doesn’t work, the cool stuff’s still theoretically and abstractly cool, but we can’t connect with it. It’s like meeting what at first you think is the most beautiful [gender of your choice] in the whole world, only as soon as they open their mouth you realize that you never again want to hear their voice, and you wish you didn’t know their thoughts.

Regretfully, you fold your heart up and put it back in your pocket. They’re still beautiful, but they’re beautiful like an artifact, not like someone you could love.

Flu Pre-Pack
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:26 AM * 131 comments

I’m a big believer in pre-packs. Jump bags, go-kits, that sort of thing. You gather your supplies in advance so when the world is falling apart around you, you’re ready to take action.

As-you-know-Bob, there’s been a lot of talk about the Avian Flu. Whether the current Avian Flu is the one that’s going to go all pandemic on us I don’t know. What I do know is that someday (maybe this year, maybe next year, maybe ten years from now) a flu will go pandemic and we’ll be seeing some major mortality figures. Even without a pandemic, flu kills around 36,000 Americans every year.

The flu is a virus. Viruses are interesting little thingies … not really alive, not really not-alive. They’re a piece of genetic material (RNA or DNA) inside of a protein capsid. Some viruses have a lipid envelope around that.

Without a living cell, that genetic material can’t do diddly. So this little protein capsid just hangs around being inert. What the virus needs is a living cell. We, unfortunately, are just quivering masses of living cells.

Living cells have mechanisms for bringing stuff from outside to inside. Think of the outside of a cell as being covered with little bitty keyholes (receptors). Hormones and food and such are covered with little bitty keys. When the right key hits the right keyhole, the substance can enter a cell or instruct it to do something.

You can fool those little bitty keyholes with a chemical that has the same shape as the chemical they’re looking for. For example: Some cells have receptors that are shaped to take endorphins, molecules made by other cells that say “Stop hurting,” or words to that effect. Morphine and the opiates have keys on them that happen to fit the endorphin receptors. We whack someone up with morphine and the cells that are expecting endorphins have morphine latch onto them instead, and they say “Okay, we’ll stop hurting now.”

Viruses have proteins on their capsids that will latch onto the receptors on some cells and tell them “Take me inside now.” There are a wide variety of cells in the world. Each of them have particular protein receptor shapes. A virus with the protein that tells tobacco leaf cells to take it inside won’t be able to fool cells in your lungs. Different shaped keys, different shaped keyholes.

As it happens, flu viruses can latch on to some bird cells and some human cells (and some pig cells too). That’s what allows the flu to spread from birds or pigs to humans. Not all humans are susceptible to viruses that fit bird receptors. But it’s possible that the virus can mutate so that will be better fitted to humans. When that happens, watch out.

Once inside a cell, the virus capsid opens and the DNA or RNA goes to work. The cell’s mechanisms for making more cells or doing whatever other useful thing are put to work creating more virus parts. Those virus parts are assembled into completed viruses, which either get pumped out through the cell membrane one at a time (budding) or all as a group when the cell explodes (lysis).

Sometimes the viruses mutate while all this is going on. Flu is famous for mutating … hence many strains. If you have antibodies for a previous strain of flu, those antibodies don’t work (antibodies have little keys too, looking for locks on the flu capsid) since they’ve never seen the particular shape for this particular strain before.

The body gets sick — from all the cells that are no longer performing their assigned function because they’re making virus instead, or from bacterial infections that take the opportunity to nail you while your resistance is lowered, or from the immune reaction as the body tries to fight off the viral infection. Your body makes cytokines, which limit the damage under most circumstances. Get too much virus activity in the body, though, and the cytokines overwhelm your organs and you’ve got organ failure, and death.

Here’s a nice slideshow of the whole process.

There isn’t much you can do about viruses. Antibiotics won’t touch them, since they aren’t alive to start with. There are some anti-viral agents, but they’re not 100% even if you can get them and get them in time. You can make vaccines, which introduce your body to the virus in advance so that your antibodies have the correct keys to whack the viruses when they first appear, before there are so many that you’re overwhelmed, but flu (with its rapid mutation rate) is tricky that way. First you have to have a sample of the virulent virus before you can make a vaccine … and so far there’s no sample of the Avian Flu virus that’s mutated into a human-human transmissible form. Once it’s done that, we’ll have something to work with. Until then, making a vaccine against a theoretical disease is tough.

Anyway … this gets us back to pre-packs. The best way to treat flu, whether the usual kind or a super-deluxe pandemic flu, is to treat the symptoms. Support the patient and let the patient’s immune system handle the disease. The flu may not kill you … what may kill you is dehydration from vomiting, from diarrhea, from sweating, from feeling too darned weak to fix a cup of soup, from fever denaturing the proteins in your brain (happens somewhere around 105 degrees Farenheit, 40.5 degrees Celcius).

So what do you do? Well before you come down with the flu, make yourself a flu kit.

And here, my friends, is a great inventory list for just such a kit. Under the title Filling a Much-Needed Void:

So what do you do if you get sick anyway? Well, hopefully you’ve planned ahead a little and built yourself a nice little flu kit so that you can treat yourself adequately in the comfort of your own home, with your own bed and blankies and CD collection and those nice soft fluffy comforting kittycats (who hopefully haven’t managed to give you any of the diseases listed above, sweet little moggies).

A flu kit is going to be a little more extensive than what one might want to lay in for an average case of the flu. The idea here is that if there should be a genuine flu epidemic, hospitals are going to be overwhelmed pretty quickly with a) people who didn’t prepare, b) people who got sick and are panicking, and c) people who have complications and are genuinely in need of hospital care.

[UPDATE: Inventory list link is now dead. See post #83 below.]

There are a couple of places where it could be expanded. For example, here are a couple of items:

10. plain old table salt (to mix with water to help keep your electrolytes up)
11. plain old table sugar (see above)

But that doesn’t tell you how to use the salt and sugar to keep your electrolytes up. (Electrolyte imbalance can kill you.) The answer is: 5cc of salt plus 40cc of sugar to one liter of clean drinking water. See here for more on that.

I’d also add a box of surgical masks to the list, so that uninfected caregivers can stay uninfected while assisting patients. Put a mask on the caregiver and another on the patient to lower the droplet transmission from coughing and sneezing. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently; I’d add a bar (or bottle) of hand soap to the kit.

But, like I said, good list. Go make a kit for everyone in your household. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but one of these days….

Copyright © 2006 by James D. Macdonald

I am not a physician. I can neither diagnose nor prescribe. This post is presented for entertainment purposes only. Nothing here is meant to be advice for your particular condition or situation.

Creative Commons License
Flu Pre-pack by James D. Macdonald is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

(Attribution URL:

Index to Medical Posts
Other Flu Posts:

January 09, 2006
Ain’t misbehavin’
Posted by Teresa at 04:19 PM *

I’ve been pursuing various strategies for getting more Cylert, which will be duly reported here. In the meantime, I was feeling morose. Lo, Divine Providence sent me Alec Rawls, for a restorative round of foolkilling.

Some of you may recall a post here last September about wingnuts who object to the design for the Flight 93 Memorial on the grounds that it’s a crescent (it isn’t) which points toward Mecca (it doesn’t). You’d have thought they’d have moved on by now, right? They haven’t. Alec Rawls is still preaching and elaborating this bizarre idea, slandering the designer, and bringing distress to the families of the crash victims.

TBogg noted this in his weblog. Discussion followed. About a dozen messages in, Alec Rawls himself showed up, and the fireworks started. The thread, now fizzling out, makes a lively read. One seldom sees such unanimity of opinion in an open forum. It was Alec Rawls contra mundum all the way.

And yeah, I pitched in. It was irresistible. Perked me right up. If anyone’s interested, here are links to my comments there: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Also one further exchange, here.

January 07, 2006
Open thread 57
Posted by Teresa at 11:47 AM *

* Agnus Dei, Lamb of God.
* Crus de Agnus Dei con quilon menthae, Leg of Lamb of God with mint jelly.

January 06, 2006
Strange Advice from the FDA
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:28 AM * 0 comments

Yesterday, trying to find out What the Frick the deal was with Teresa not being able to get Cylert any more, I called the FDA. Six levels down in the phone tree I got to a voicemail box, and three hours after that I got a call back.

I talked with a very nice lady whose first, best suggestion was that I get in contact with Public Citizen (!) since they have strong influence on FDA policies. She helpfully gave me their web and email addresses.

I said that Public Citizen was unlikely to be helpful.

Her other suggestion was petitioning the FDA directly.

The one useful bit of information I learned was that there are no open dockets on this drug. I believe opening a docket on it would be a good first step.

Isn’t it astounding that the first-level flack catchers at FDA, as part of their scripts, send folks over to Public Citizen?

Those who wish to repeat the experiment can call the FDA direct at 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332).

If any reporters on deadline want it, I have Dr. Peter Lurie’s direct number here. (If you call his listed number he’s out of the office until mid-January.)

January 04, 2006
The Bloggies
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:52 PM * 27 comments

Nominations are now open for the Sixth Annual Weblog Awards (the Bloggies).

Anyone can nominate their favorite blog(s). There’s a number of categories. The weblog-of-the-year prize is $20.06. Plus fame and praise.

I’m just sayin’.

In other news, researchers at Central Missouri State University have discovered the largest prime number so far, clocking in at 9.1 million digits. It’s 230402457-1. If anyone finds a 10-million-digit prime it’s worth $100,000 in prize money. Plus fame and praise.

And a talking frog is cool.

And put your feet up
Posted by Patrick at 10:20 PM * 2 comments

We rarely blog about the intricacies of New York politics, city and state, partly because Julia of Sisyphus Shrugged does it so well. Go and be illuminated.

I particularly like the part where the shade of Alfonse D’Amato rises from a casket containing his native soil in order to implant a silver dagger between the shoulder blades of William Weld. Remember, New York is Fun City!

January 03, 2006
The Nielsen Haydens Break Into F&SF!
Posted by Patrick at 02:19 PM *

Unfortunately, as walk-on characters in a Paul Di Filippo story.

January 02, 2006
Fckng Ralph Nader, fckng Public Citizen
Posted by Teresa at 10:16 PM *

If Ralph Nader is run over by a beer truck and killed, if a very large meteorite falls on the offices of Public Citizen and vaporizes the lot of them, I won’t feel sorry. Not the least little bit.

I’m too angry right now to even explain why. More on this when I’m not inarticulate with rage.

Patrick, you’re welcome to take a crack at it, if you feel like it. No obligation.

PATRICK RESPONDS: Okay, this and this.

Cylert (generic name “pemoline”) has been the most effective treatment for Teresa’s narcolepsy in 24 years since she was first diagnosed. She’s been taking it for most of that time. Now it’s gone.

We discovered this when we tried to refill her standard prescription, just before Christmas, and the pharmacy didn’t have any—and, after some confusion, reported back that the wholesaler didn’t have any either, because (surprise!) it’s no longer being made.

Cylert has been implicated in some people’s liver problems. Teresa is regularly tested and her liver is fine. Evidently Abbott, makers of brand-name Cylert, discontinued it in March—but Sandoz intended to keep making the generic version, until the FDA, pressured by Nader’s group, weighed in to discontinue it entirely—despite a last-minute appeal from the Narcolepsy Network. Thank you, Public Citizen, for completely shafting my wife.

There’ll always be a happy hour
For those with money, jobs and power.
They’ll never realise the hurt,
They cause to men they treat like dirt.

The Thousand Injuries of Fortunato
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 08:30 PM * 154 comments

It must have been a slow news day at the London Times. They brought out the old standard “test,” where someone retypes a published book and sends it around to various publishers and agents. To what should be no one’s surprise, it’s rejected all over town. “Hah!” say the intrepid reporters who try this stunt. “Editors can’t recognize good writing!”

Publishers toss Booker winners into the reject pile

Jonathan Calvert and Will Iredale

They can’t judge a book without its cover. Publishers and agents have rejected two Booker Prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors.

One of the books considered unworthy by the publishing industry was by V. S. Naipaul, one of Britain’s greatest living writers, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The exercise by The Sunday Times draws attention to concerns that the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.

Typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of Naipaul’s In a Free State and a second novel, Holiday, by Stanley Middleton, were sent to 20 publishers and agents.

And so on.

This isn’t the first time such a thing’s been done. As Grumpy Old Bookman reports when commenting on this foolishness:

A similar scheme was carried out in 1996 by one Kevin Banks, of Colchester, who was actually a journalist on the Sunday Mirror. He sent a chapter of a novel to 10 publishers and asked if they were interested in seeing the rest with a view to publishing it. None were.

“Kevin Banks” then revealed that the chapter in question was a “lightly amended” version of Chapter 1 of Popcorn, which was a current bestseller by the comedian Ben Elton.

Yet another similar exercise was undertaken in France, in the summer of 2000. A famous French television presenter had written a novel which was published by a leading firm called Plon; the book was a great “success”, in that the author was interviewed widely, made lots of personal appearances, and the public was persuaded to buy a large number of copies.

The magazine Voici decided, however, that this novel was less than interesting, and that it would never have been published at all had it come from an unknown author. Voici typed out the first chapter of the book and offered it, under a pseudonym, to every leading publisher in France. None of them accepted it, and none recognised it as the season’s hit—including Plon, which had published the book in the first place.

Then there’s this one from 1975, concerning the Jerzy Kosinski novel Steps (widely mis-reported as concerning The Painted Bird):

In 1969, the well-known writer Jerzy Kosinski published a novel, Steps, which won the National Book Award. In 1975, a freelance writer named Chuck Ross was convinced that unknown writers just didn’t have a chance to have a novel accepted. To test his theory, Ross typed out the first twenty-one pages of Steps and sent them out to four publishers, using the pseudonym “Erik Demos.” All four rejected the sample. In 1977, Ross typed out the entire book and, again using the name “Erik Demos,” sent it to ten publishers and thirteen literary agents. One of the publishers was Random House, which had originally published Steps in 1969. The manuscript was neither recognized nor accepted by any publishers or literary agents, including Random House, which used a form rejection letter. That made twenty-seven rejections for a book that had won an important literary prize!

The film world isn’t immune from this sort of experiment either:

In the 1980s, [Casablanca’s] script was sent to readers at a number of major studios and production companies under its original title, Everybody Comes To Rick’s. Some readers recognized the script but most did not. Many complained that the script was “not good enough” to make a decent movie.

So, why is it that published works are routinely rejected when intrepid reporters submit them?

Books are rejected all the time, and “poorly written” is only one (though one of the most common) of them. See, for example, the list the lovely and talented Miss Teresa posted at Slushkiller:

2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.

10. The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.

(You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)

11. Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.

13. It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.

Yet other reasons include “We’re already publishing a similar book/we’ve run out of money to acquire more books/we’ve filled our schedule for the rest of the decade.”

Over at Scrivener’s Error, Charlie Petit finds numerous formal problems with the experiment, including sample size and failure to conform to submission guidelines. In brief, it’s poor science.

Our Genial Host, Mister Patrick, in commenting on this experiment, says (in another place):

I’ve seen some variation on this chestnut every year or two for the entire twenty years I’ve been working in the industry. Granted, this is a particularly thorough version, culminating as it does in a fine kids-today-don’t-know-what’s-good rant from Stanley Middleton. (And their music! It’s just noise!)

It’s not my job as an editor to decide what’s “worthy” of publication. It’s my job to find and acquire books that Tor can do a good job of publishing. I’ve passed on some very good books for which I felt we weren’t the right house.

I also haven’t read every well-regarded novel in the English language, and some of those which I have read I would certainly have rejected if they’d been submitted as new work to Tor in 2006. So the gotcha! aspect of this stunt also fails to impress.

But that isn’t the biggest problem with this experiment. The problem is that what’s a positive result isn’t defined.

Suppose one of four possible reactions from the editor:

  1. This book sucks; I wouldn’t buy it in a million years.
  2. I love this book! Alas, we’ve already filled our inventory.
  3. I love this book! Alas, it’s a literary slice-of-life story and we only publish splatterpunk horror.
  4. You son of a bitch! That’s In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul and you totally plagiarized it!

What’s the editor do in all four of those cases? He or she reaches over and grabs a pre-printed “Dear contributor: Your work does not suit our current needs” note, shoves it in the SASE, and sends it back.

The reporter seeing the response that meant “You son of a bitch! That’s In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul and you totally plagiarized it!” writes his story to imply the editor said “This book sucks; I wouldn’t buy it in a million years.”

Suppose you are an editor trying to fill an anthology. One day, reading slush, you find a story that you instantly recognize as “A Cask of Amontillado,” from “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could,” straight through to “In pace requiescat!” Do you really want to get into a lengthy correspondence with someone who may be a nutjob, a guy who thinks he’s E. A. Poe’s reincarnation? Who might sue you for mental cruelty for suggesting the work wasn’t his? Do you want this guy to start stalking you? Do you want to get Legal involved? Or do you just reach for that pre-printed form? I don’t know about you, bucko, but I know what I’d do.

Alas, I fear that Charlie Petit’s predictions will come true:

  • On or before 15 February 2006, one of the recognized “self-publishing gurus” not otherwise affiliated with a publisher will cite this work as “further proof” that self-publishing a novel is a viable alternative.
  • On or before 15 February 2006, a branch of a major vanity publisher (more than 5,000 titles in print this century) will do the same, probably while mislabeling its service as “self-publishing” and using a name different from its recognized vanity-press parent.
  • On or before 15 February 2006, a major writers’ conference will cite this “experiment” as part of a program or panel purporting to tell authors how to do better themselves.

January 01, 2006
Posted by Teresa at 12:14 AM * 102 comments

The ball dropped in Times Square.

On 31st Street in Brooklyn, an unidentified figure dashed out to the sidewalk and set up a fair-sized cardboard cylinder with a fuse sticking out of its top.

“What are you doing?” said Patrick, unnecessarily.

“Lighting it.”

Down the street, some of the neighbor kids were out on their stoop, yelling “Happy New Year!” and generally whooping it up in a kidlike way. Random artillery barrages were audible from other streets nearby. If you’re going to do something illegal, do it at the very moment that a bunch of other people are doing the same thing.

“Happy New Year!” I yelled back at kids up the street. By then I was on my third match.

“Happy New Year, whoever you are!” they replied. Right about then, the fuse finally caught. I expect they were hoping something like that would happen on our block.

There were fountains of sparks, and a couple of stages where bright bits flew out very fast and made swoopy whistling noises, and a spate of giant white sparks that crackled and popped; and all the while some old lady who looked like a schoolteacher was dancing around on the sidewalk yelling “Yahoo!” and “Yee-haw!” and other festively immoderate things.

It was very satisfactory.

“You’re barefoot,” Patrick observed from the top of our stoop.

“Uh-huh,” I said, as I scooped slush off the garbage can lids and packed it into the smoldering remains of the cardboard cylinder. I was also hatless, coatless, ungloved, and Not Acting My Age.

That last may not be true. I believe I’m still younger than Granny was when she took up model rocketry. But what matter age, or bare feet, when you have something to blow up?

Happy New Year!

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.