Friday, February 27, 2009

Convenience at a cost

The last time I mentioned Amazon's Kindle, it was in that dismissive, mocking tone I reserve for things I don't fully understand. Basically, I was incredulous that anybody would shell out several hundred bucks for a device that seemed much less convenient than the paperback book it purports to replace.

Now, as is so often the case, I see that I was wrong. As this piece in Slate points out, the second generation Kindle "makes buying, storing, and organizing your favorite books and magazines effortless. You can take your entire library with you wherever you go and switch from reading the latest New Yorker to the latest best-seller without rolling out of bed. ... The Kindle is the future of publishing."

OK, that shows how much I know. If you've got an extra $359 around to buy one, fine. But keep reading the Slate article: the thrust of it is not how great the Kindle is, but how bad it might eventually become for this pursuit we call reading. The problem is twofold: No more reselling or sharing the e-books you buy, and everything you buy must come from Amazon.

Sounds like the Kindle has become cool and convenient enough to become the next iPod. But with that kind of acceptance, it makes you wonder what might eventually become of public libraries. Applying DRM to the printed word just seems wrong -- no matter how convenient it might seem now.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It's my birthday too, yeah

So far it hasn't been a great year, but today dawned clear and warm with the smell of spring in the air and it all seemed to augur well for another trip around the sun. The exact number of this trip shall remain unspoken -- such is the foolish vanity of baby boomers when they start getting mail from AARP. Let's just say the proprietor of Dave's Fiction Warehouse is not all that anxious for the senior discount.

Which is not to say I'm ready for a life without birthdays. True, as a reminder of my advancing age, they're nothing to celebrate. But as a reminder of how many people might miss me if I weren't around, they're not bad. Gift cards come in the mail, and phone calls come in from the kids, and my wife takes me out to lunch. I guess if you want to measure success in life, you just count up the number of people who feel obligated to remember your birthday. If it requires more than, say, one hand -- well, how bad can life be?

Anyway, if growing older isn't great, the alternative is less so. You don't want to go gentle into that good night, but you don't want to be bitter about it either. So today I took the dog for a long walk to College Hill Park, and took special note of the yellow and lavender croci rising amid the brown grass and the dog turds. Springtime in February, how often does that happen? And for me, it's New Year's Day. Might as well enjoy it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sick of yourself? So am I!

This year I'm taking a break from fiction writing to concentrate on finishing up my motivational book, Seven Years to a Less Hideous You. It'll soon be dominating the entrances of Barnes & Noble stores everywhere, but I'm offering regular readers a "sneak peek" long before the rest of the rubes and suckers. It's my way of giving back to the community.

I feel good about Seven Years. My basic premise is that, despite the glacial corrosion of time and the occasional bout with alcoholism and unemployment, nearly everyone can leverage my hard-won insights, delicious recipes and sex secrets to become, if not the person they always wanted to be, at least a better person than that creepy dude they're always running into at the library.

I know; you're skeptical. Like me, you've probably got a copy of Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in a box down in the basement. I didn't get anything out of that one either, probably because the chapters were too long. My chapters are short. Each one is a nugget of pure gold that an idiot like Covey could only dream about. Some samples:

Chapter 3
Always wear your glasses when you look in the mirror. Without them, you might miss that errant nose hair curling down like a superfluous apostrophe. Then in a week it becomes an exclamation mark and has cost you an important career opportunity.

Chapter 17
Dave's Invigorating Tea:
Put a cup of water in the microwave for two minutes on high.
Put in a teabag.
Don't forget to remove the teabag at some point, or after a couple of days it will adhere to the side of the cup and you'll need a kitchen knife to pry it off.

Chapter 23
Never forget: Highly successful people do something every day. Presumably, one of those things is getting out of bed. So up and at 'em, champ!

Chapter 49
Sex secret No. 1: Real sex requires another person who likes you. Good luck with that. In the meantime, a dog can make you feel at least marginally appreciated. And if you record all of the dog's amusing antics in notebook, you might have a bestseller on your hands when the dog inevitably dies.

Feeling better? That's just a taste. Seven Years will be available both as a book and an iPhone app, and I don't care which because they're both $29.95.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Should we silence the insensitive?

So for three days running, a top story on all the news sites was the chimpanzee who ran amok and tore off somebody's face, and was then shot for his trouble. It was eclipsed only by the ongoing story about the federal stimulus package and its myriad shortcomings. So you'd think that when a cartoonist attempted to play off both headlines, the result would be polite yuks at best, bored shrugs at worst.

Then again, this is America, where Al Sharpton remains at large and the only thing we have more of than bad debt is sweet, sweet outrage. Sharpton was among the professionally aggrieved who looked at the cartoon Wednesday and perceived in it the specter of racism. The president of the National Association of Black Journalists, evidently unaware of the 24/7 coverage of the rogue chimp, saw a direct racial caricature of President Obama. A New York state senator saw a tacit endorsement of assassination and fond nod to the days of lynching. And those were the more moderate interpretations.

Look, I know I'm not black and therefore my opinion on this worth exactly nothing. But here's what I see: a cartoonist suggesting, none too subtly, that the stimulus bill is so imperfect it might as well have been authored by a crazed lesser primate. I don't need to point out that the authors include both houses of Congress as well as the president. As political criticism and satire, it's perfectly legitimate. Other presidents have fared much worse, and Obama probably will too.

Remember those Dutch cartoons about Muhammad, and how so many Muslims the world over went so laughably berserk? By rampaging over a caricature, they became caricatures themselves. It's probably too late for Sharpton, but the others tearing out their hair over a dumb cartoon should give that some thought.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What it means to kill the killer

Jodi Sanderholm's murder is just another atrocity in a nation full of them. If you don't live in south-central Kansas, you've probably never heard of it.
The big news here in Wichita today is that Justin Thurber has been sentenced to die for killing her in January 2007. As might be expected, the sentence has prompted a lot of hand-wringing from death penalty foes, who are always quick to point out the obvious: killing the perpetrator won't bring back the victim.

OK, I think we all understand that, just as we understand that the possibility of a death sentence does not necessarily deter those predisposed to commit unspeakable acts. One look at the simian Thurber, and a cursory review of his short, useless life, and you realize that this is not a man given to reflection on cause and effect. Look at the evidence presented during the trial, and it's hard not to conclude that if ever a man deserved to die, it's him. Jodi Sanderholm deserved to live, too, but we can't give her that. So it's time for Justin to roll up his sleeve.

Is that justice? Maybe it's as close as we can come. But the death penalty is not really about restoring the cosmic balance, just as it is not about deterring the next mindless sociopath who sees an opportunity and takes it. Capital punishment is a societal expression of outrage over the most heinous of acts, a public statement that the continued existence of the perpetrator is an affront to any notion of civilization. Fuzzy notions of closure and deterrence are beside the point.

I won't be carrying a bleeding-heart sign when Justin Thurber rides the needle, just as I won't be posting gleeful remarks beneath the stories marking the event. State-sanctioned killing is not pleasant and is nothing to celebrate. There are legitimate reasons to oppose it -- the possibility of a mistake, the idea that we must pay individuals to become executioners, the fact that capital cases require far more time and money to prosecute. But enough of the facile argument that killing the killer won't bring back the victim. We get that, already. And it does not pertain.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Time to consume some printed content

Read any good books lately? Neither have I. In fact, since the start of the year, I can count the number of books I've finished on one hand -- and three of them I've read before.

What's up with that? The hip, facile answer would be to blame New Media. These days the Web is full of people talking -- with a strange sort of pride -- about how things like Twitter and Hulu and Facebook and YouTube are pushing Old Media, like TV and movies and books, off to the side of the road. The thrust of this CNET piece, for example, is that the guy spends a lot more time these days Tweeting about things than actually experiencing them. You can see how far this has gone by pondering the headline: "How the Web changed my content consumption."

Did I refer to "TV and movies and books" in that last paragraph? What I meant was "content." You don't read a book or watch a show anymore, you consume content. And you'd better be quick about it, or you'll end up consuming something that's as stale as an SNL episode on a Monday afternoon. Good luck Tweeting about that -- kiss of death, baby. It's hard enough live-blogging every episode of 30 Rock without also having to pick up a freaking book.

That would be the easy explanation: too much content out there for one man to consume. But for me, it's not really true. I've largely abandoned Twitter, quit looking every 15 minutes to see if somebody responded to whatever useless remark I'd formulated regarding something I'd seen on TV. I gave up Facebook, I'm indifferent to YouTube, I don't care to watch fragments of TV shows or amusing commercials on tiny screens. I've got all the time in the world to read books, but I haven't been reading them. For some reason, every book jacket I look at makes the book itself seem like way too much trouble.

I don't what's behind this sharp decline in my reading. Maybe it's a result of trying to write for a living myself. Maybe on some level I can't bear to read successful authors who are either worse or better than I am -- the first group creates bitter resentment, the second despair. Who needs it? Or maybe -- and this is the most likely scenario -- I've just gotten lazy and preoccupied with other things. A book isn't like a Flight of the Conchords video; it takes a certain amount of commitment to see even a good one through to the end.

In any case, I'm not quite ready to to make the leap the CNET guy did, and give up reading books altogether. Old Media or not, I'd better get back to it. Time for a determined trip to the library, with a stop at Border's. Recommendations, anyone? I lean to crime fiction, but all suggestions will be considered.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Report from the Netflix queue: 'The Nazis'

I've been watching The Nazis: A Warning from History, which is probably not the best way to dispel a dark mood in the dead of winter. Especially with the world as we know it now atilt, and the objects on it trembling slightly toward the edge.

OK, maybe I exaggerate. I'm not one of those dummies who equates every small bump in the road in America with Hitler's Germany; I hate when people do that. But this two-disc BBC documentary (1997) does seem alarmingly current in its calm portrayal of something that happened 70 years ago. And it's not reassuring to see how normal, under normal circumstances, so many of the perpetrators were. In interviews, they are just old people with their memories and their reasons -- and chillingly devoid of convincing regret.

One former businessman seems almost wistful as he recalls bleeding the Jews of the Lodz ghetto of everything they owned in exchange for ever smaller amounts of food. For him, it was just the time-honored law of supply and demand. Another Lithuanian man just shrugs when asked how it was possible for him to shoot women and children. "What can I say?" he asks blankly.

Watching stuff like this, you might hope to learn why something like the Holocaust could never happen again. Instead you see again how little it takes: a dash of paranoia, a pinch of chaos, and someone strong to say it's OK. It makes you think of Rwanda and Srebrenica and Darfur and a dozen other places where the same thing has happened since, although on a much smaller scale.

The Nazis is thoughtful and instructive, but not if you're prone to depression in the wintertime. Maybe keep it low on the Netflix queue for now. For now, if you must see something with Nazis in it, try renting The Sound of Music instead.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I feel stupid, and contagious

Now they tell me. Turns out the worst thing you can do when you have a cold is blow your nose. I've been blowing mine about every 90 seconds for the last two days, ever since this cold swept down like the wrath of a vengeful god. Also, my head aches, my joints creak and my throat feels like somebody slipped ground glass into my Cheerios. Under these circumstances, blowing my nose had become a bright spot in the day.

But no, they say. Don't blow your nose. Use decongestants instead. And presumably, let mucus run all over your upper lip and shirt should the decongestants take awhile to reach full effectiveness. OK, now I'm grossing myself out. I hate the word mucus. But here's another helpful tip from the geniuses at the University of Virginia: If you must blow your nose, blow one nostril at a time. Hey, thanks for the heads up. Never would have thought of that on my own. Just blow the problem nostril, not the other one, right? Got it.

I hate letting a cold run its course. But I hate getting older, too, and the possibility of tornadoes in February. Some things are just going to happen. "The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on ..." I just wish, in this case, that it would move on a little faster.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The tawdry truth can now be told

Look, if A-Rod has the stones to admit using performance-enhancing drugs, I guess it's time for me to step up as well. There were times during the late '60s and early '70s when I used certain substances to enhance my performance on the dance floor. For that, A-Rod and I are on the same page: We are "very sorry and deeply regretful." That's a measure of how sincere we are: a guy blowing smoke would only be "very sorry" or "deeply regretful," but not both.

Hell, as long as I'm at it, I'll admit using performance-enhancing substances on a number of other occasions. Most involved large parties or talking to attractive girls. Like A-Rod, "I felt like I needed something, a push, without over-investigating what I was taking, to get me to the next level." And so when friends would pass back a bottle of warm Bali Hai, I was only too happy to bogart the damned thing until someone else demanded a swig. What can I say? I was young, I was stupid. I was naive. I thought you had to be somewhat impaired to function in certain social situations.

Actually, I was right about that. To this day there's no getting me on the dance floor without three or four beers and a half-pint of Bushmills. If I go to a party where I don't know most of the people there, I'll be the quiet guy lurking near the bar with a glass that's never empty. Introduce me to a pretty girl and I might forget the glass and start drinking right out of the bottle. Fortunately, I don't meet a lot of pretty girls these days.

And that's the ugly truth. I don't know how this is going to look in the record books. I hope I'm not stripped of my already austere dating record. And every joke I ever told at a party will now carry an asterisk: Was it Dave, or was it the booze talking? Whatever. Now it's time to be a man, like A-Rod. I throw myself on the mercy of the fans.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Reflections on some ancient tomes

Whenever I visit my folks' place in Montana, I can never head back home without a sack lunch and a hundred pounds of books. Mom's always got a lot more food around than the two of them can eat -- some of it a few weeks past the sell-by date -- and a lot more books than her groaning shelves can safely hold.

Putting away the lunch was the easy part. Now I'm wondering what to do with these dusty books. My own shelves are long since full, mostly paperbacks that I'd be embarrassed about should President Obama wander through. The stuff Mom sent home with me defies easy categorization: Best Tales of the Yukon, a collection of Robert Service poems; The Walls of Jericho, by Paul E. Wellman (Mom thought I'd like it because it's set in Kansas); The Waverley Novels, by Sir Walter Scott. And a whole raft of other ancient tomes by authors unknown to me.

Whether I'll ever get around to reading them, I can't say. But it's been interesting to look them over. Most were part of a library collection at some point; the first volume of The Waverley Novels was first checked out from the Butte library in January 1927. Now, 82 years hence, it's come down to me. I think of all people who've read it since then, all the hands that have held it, all the brows furrowed in incomprehension at Scott's lengthier paragraphs. I look at my own bookshelves, see a slim modern novel like Calibre by Ken Bruen, and ponder the evolution of the story and the printed word.

I suppose the book I find most interesting here is the one entitled simply Short Stories. It was printed in 1934, apparently as a high school text. A number of classic tales are included: "The Speckled Band," "The Monkey's Paw," "The Fall of the House of Usher." But there are also quite a few titles and authors now faded to obscurity. The lead story, "The Token," is by one Joseph Hergesheimer. Never heard of him -- my apologies to those who have. When the collection was published in 1934, he was apparently at the height of his powers -- known, as the introduction states, "primarily as a novelist."

What I find endearing about this book is the premise that students might actually want to write something themselves. And so there are words of advice and encouragement. While warning the student against reliance on technical elements in writing, the book goes on to spell out the 24 types of short story:

1. Tale
2. Fable
3. Legend
4. Plot
5. Setting
6. Dramatic incident
7. Mystery
8. Supernatural
9. Ghost
10. Detective-Ingenuity
11. Humor
12. Psychological
13. Problem
14. Local color -- Regional
15. Atmosphere
16. Theme
17. Love
18 Animal
19. Terror
20. Adventure
21. Dialect
22. Character
23. Fantasy
24. Cross-section

Also, lest students think writing is an occupation for academics and elitists, the introduction goes on to note that "Contributions to our American literature have been made by Negroes, lumberjacks, cowboys, sailors and others." That's good to know.