Sunday, June 29, 2008

For those about to Twitter ...

I was on the Internet long before AOL, embraced e-mail in its infancy, put up a few web pages when you still had to know some basic HTML to do it. I've had online photo albums for years, I'm still slogging away with this dumb blog and I even flirted briefly with Facebook. So I don't consider myself some kind of Andy Rooney luddite, still scratching my head over the Zip Code system. But I still don't get Twitter.

If you don't know what Twitter is, fine. Perhaps we are kindred spirits and let's just enjoy this moment. If you do, that's fine too. I come not to judge.

Because really, my thinking on this is mixed. We already have the attention spans of Mediterranean fruit flies, and I'm not 100 percent sold on on anything that makes them even shorter. On the other hand, who has time, what with gas prices and the war in Iraq, to put together complete sentences? Twitter asks nothing in this regard and gives much. You riff about about what you're doing, and you get to read the riffs of friends about what they're doing, or what they think you're doing.

Except you're not doing it, and neither are they. The whole premise of Twitter is that you use it while you're ostensibly doing something else. This necessarily means that your attention is elsewhere. You can focus on a crappy episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, or a drug intervention with a beloved relative, or you can twitter. You can't really do both. When people say they're finishing that Balzac novel, or baking brownies, or teaching the kids a valuable lesson about honesty, they're lying. At that precise moment, they're twittering. It is self-evident that their eyes are on the screen, and their hands are on the keyboard. The novel gets kicked under the couch, the brownies burn, the kids wander away to play in the street. What you read in the ephemeral parade of Twitter posts is what people would be doing if they weren't twittering.

Is that a bad thing? I don't know. If stream-of-consciousness text messages bring you closer to people you like but might otherwise ignore, that's probably good. If you have 295,000 "followers" you never heard of, maybe not. Followers on Twitter are like friends on Facebook: they multiply like locusts and they will not be there for you should things go south.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A hardboiled blast from the past

When you call yourself a writer you frequently find yourself reading books not for the pleasure of reading them, but for things to mock and, with luck, the short-term reassurance of feeling that if this guy can sell books, you can too.

That was the reason I picked up the 1987 paperback Hot Summer, Cold Murder by one Gaylord Dold. A friend loaned it to me with the endorsement that it wasn't terrible, that it was crime novel and it was set in Wichita. He didn't have much else to say about it.

Now, there are a lot of not-bad crime novels, but very few set set here in the Paris of the Plains. I can think of only one other, offhand (The Ice Harvest, by Scott Phillips). In Hot Summer, Gaylord Dold introduces the brooding PI Mitch Roberts, who drinks muscatel and smokes Lucky Strikes and exchanges improbable repartee with an improbably beautiful femme fatale.

I know: the last thing crime fiction needs is another hardboiled private investigator. And the painfully titled Hot Summer clings so tightly to the conventions of the genre that it sometimes feels like satire. Hey, check out the cover. But it was written more than 20 years ago, so let's not quibble. What I like about the book is the sense of place -- a feat Ice Harvest never quite managed. Unlikely as it seems, Wichita in the summertime does have a personality of its own, with its sultry heat and thunderstorms and certain brick streets that run through "caverns of dusty elms." Maybe you have to live here to appreciate it. Maybe it helps that the book is set in the mid-50s, just before widespread air-conditioning robbed the Midwest heat of its ability to ignite the baser emotions.

I guess my point here is that if I was looking for things to mock and a feeling of authorial superiority, I'll have to look a bit further. Hot Summer, Cold Murder is an enjoyable read. Turns out you really can't judge a book by its cover. Well, once in awhile you can't. Google Gaylord Dold and you find out he published eight more novels with the same character, and managed to land a hardcover contract with St. Martin's. I'd be damned happy with that.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Smoke on the water

One thing about losing your job on the Andrea Doria, it lets you hang around at a safe distance and enjoy the spectacle as the vessel founders.

There was a time when I might have been alarmed at the news that the Orange County Register is farming out some its copy editing and page design to India. These days, it just makes getting laid off seem a remarkably prescient move on my part. Especially when I read this bland justification from deputy editor John Fabris: "In a time of rapid change at newspapers, we are exploring many ways to work efficiently while maintaining quality and improving local coverage."

Rapid change? You could say that -- and show me the newspaper manager who hasn't said it about a dozen times in the past five years. It's the part about working efficiently and maintaining quality and improving local coverage that doesn't ring true. Doing more with less -- that mantra has lost its meaning. The ship's gone down; now it's all about people like John fighting over seats in the lifeboat. I do look forward to the day when someone decides that deputy editing can also be accomplished more efficiently by a call center in India, but probably by then all the middle managers blowing smoke today will have had the good sense to row elsewhere.

Running a newspaper used to imply a certain commitment to facts and plain language. Even the truth, space permitting. Today it's just a matter of endlessly repeating feeble euphemisms to obscure the obvious: Newspapers are dying because nobody wants to read newspapers anymore. Advertisers have noticed. Revenue's tanking and everything must go. As the Boss once observed, these jobs are going boys, and they ain't coming back. See you in New Delhi.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

No more Hummer? Bummer.

I've always wondered about the appeal of the Hummer. It's a ludicrous cartoon of a vehicle, wholly unsuited to any purpose except getting rid of any excess gasoline you have lying around and compensating, not too subtly, for an owner's shortcomings in other areas. I'd curse when I'd see them parked in the narrow streets of Philadelphia, taking two parking spaces instead of one, shouldering out into the traffic lane so you had to risk a head-on collision to get around it. I don't write stories about serial killers, but if I did, my serial killer would go around with a rocket launcher, blowing up Hummers and Hummer drivers with reckless abandon. Hell, I'd do it myself if rocket launchers weren't so crazy expensive.

But now, it appears $4 gas might do what minimal intelligence could not: consign the absurd Hummer to the vast Museum of American Dumb-assery. General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner announced plans to close four SUV plants and said the company is rethinking the whole Hummer thing. Evidently, when the weight of your vehicle exceeds three tons, as the Hummer does, mileage suffers.

I don't know how much they're paying Rick, but it might be too much. Even GM's dumbest customers are stampeding to get on the high-mileage train; Rick remains in the men's room with his pants around his ankles. Somewhere in his briefcase are the company's financial reports from the '70s, which might have encouraged him to make this announcement, say, two years ago. Now you can't give away a full-size SUV, much less sell one. U.S. automakers' strategy so far has been to offer these stupid "hybrid" SUVs. A hybrid Escalade? That's like ordering a banana split and telling them to hold the cherry: too many calories.

But really, it goes beyond mere mileage. Fact is, SUVs the size of school buses just aren't cool anymore. The time of enormous vehicles, like the time of enormous pants and visible underwear in the world of hip-hop, is over. Perhaps you also remember platform soles and shirts with collars the size of jib sails. If you have a photo of yourself standing proudly beside your big black Expedition or Yukon, burn it now. I'm not kidding. It'll save some awkward explaining in a few years.