Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Create-to-order children's books; used books; and an online "book bank" to encourage literacy

I still get pestered about why I am not more aggressive in pushing my books as “commodities”, which might help others make money.  My “Do Ask, Do Tell” series does lend itself to development of other media, including music, screenplays, and film.  It’s true that the “upward affiliation” psychology in my material might lead to less than happy endings for some people. But there are ideas that so far little explored in more adult film.  How would society really handle a public alien encounter or landing? (Yes, there is “Close Encounters”, “Contact”, and now Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”, while “Rendezvous with Rama” is still stuck in early development.) How would people live together in family units or communities for generations on a space ark going to another planet? (There is the film “Evacuate Earth”, cf blog Aug. 20, 2013, which doesn’t say much about the voyage once it starts.)

I get a lot of emails with “childrens’ books” for review, which I usually don’t do (and some literary agents don’t work with them).  There’s a clever entrepreneurial idea of generating a print-on-demand book for a child where the child finds his or her name based on animals he or she meets, or his or her home from a space voyage based on various information about his hometown specified by parents.  It’s “Lost MY Name” Personalized Children’s Books.   The company has taken on the obvious responsibility for protecting PII of children (which can run into COPPA considerations; see my COPS blog Oct. 27, 2015).  Hayley Tsukayama has a story on the company on p. A11 of the Dec. 29 Washington Post on the Switch Blog here.
Then check Michael S. Rosenwald in Sunday’s Post, “Paper is back: In the age of Amazon, secondhand shops are thriving and opening around the nation”. There was an indie film in 2000, “Book Wars” by Jason Rosette, related to this topic.  I can remember back in the 1970s, one of the founders at the Ninth Street Center ran a bookbinding business somewhere in the East Village.

There is a charity in Washington DC, “First Book”, which aims to provide books to underprivileged children and promote literacy.  The Washington Post has a story Monday Dec. 28 Lyndsey Layton, “Binding publishing, philanthropy” with a hyperbolic back page byline
“There’s a profound need that is really unprecedented”  First Book manages an “online book bank” that sounds like an analogue to a food bank. It’s hard to see how real this is.  Back around 2011, Reid Ewing made a short film mockumentary satire on wanting things in life to be free with a setting in a public library where “It’s Free” (access to books), but there was no sense of how valuable this might become to some people.  In late 2014, I remember seeing an athletic looking undergraduate on the Metro in the GWU area with a case of textbooks and reading “A History of Philosophy”, recalling my days in Minneapolis when a philosophy major at Hamline helped me promote by own first book. But we had a “book bar” at Dan Fry’s Understanding conventions in Arizona and California throughout the 1970s.

A librarian, Amy McLay Pteerson in Halifax, Nova Scotia writes in Vox, "I read 164 books in 2015 and tracked them all on a spreadsheet; here is what I learned." Publishing is dominated by white people, and fiction does teach empathy?

Oh, how I remember that first day of high school sophomore English class in 1958, when we saw in hardcopy the “good books” we would read like “Julius Ceasar” and “Silas Marner”.  In ninth grade, it has been “The Three Musketeers” translated to English (even though I was taking French I). Nevermind, we read most of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” in twelfth grade French.

Update: Jan. 18, 2016

While in southern Maryland today (MLK Day), I saw a sign for "Book People Unite" or "Reading Is Fundamental".  I'm not sure how the group actually works.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

"Are We Alone?" NatGeo asks and tells in a new glossy booklet

I’ve reviewed a few books on cosmology here, but I wanted to note the National Geographic magazine-sized book “Are We Alone? And Other Mysteries of Space”, edited by Bridget A. English, available in a lot of supermarket checkout lines.

The book has an Introduction and five major sections.

The most immediately interesting part is its evaluation of the likelihood of our finding life on alien worlds (the first section is “Strange New Worlds”).

The book maintains, surprisingly, that life could exist in the high atmosphere of Venus (still) and atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn. In general, it sees the finding of methane on Mars as an indication of a pretty good likelihood of some sort of bacteria-like subterranean life.  It gives some hope to the idea of finding something in subsurface oceans on Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, and Enceladus, maybe Titan, but dismisses the idea of life on the surface of Titan, the only moon in our Solar System with a thick atmosphere, quite interesting as it is (with proto-organic compounds) but too cold.

It explains the Drake Equation to estimate the number of planets with life in our Galaxy, but the range of expected numbers of lifelines runs from less than 1 (us) to over 70,000.  An argument favoring life however, is that it arises under extreme circumstances on Earth and that intelligent species (like primates and cetaceans) can evolve separately and converge to have similar cognitive skills.

The booklet also tries to define life.  Is a virus alive?  What about a fire, since it can grow and consume?  Could processes that form and destroy stars involve their own form of consciousness?
The rest of the book gets into matters like dark matter or energy, black holes, the nature of gravity, sub-atomic particles and their relation to forces in physics, quantum mechanics, and space-time. The booklet accepts a relatively conventional theory behind black holes (which some physicists now say may not exist at all, but then what?)  You could wander into a sufficiently large and massive black hole and not notice that anything had happened until it was “too late”.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Taylor Wilson is "The Boy Who Played with Fusion" (by Tom Clynes)

Authors: Tom Clynes (and Taylor Wilson)

Title: “The Boy Who Played with Fusion

Subtitle: “Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star” (pun)

Publication: New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Eamon Damon Books, 2015; ISBN 978-0-544-08511-4; hardcover, 303 pages (plus 5 roman Introduction pages); four parts, 29 chapters, indexed.
also, e-book and audio format are available.

The cover of the book is yellow – the brightest color, in the center of human visible spectrum, because Taylor likes the uranium compound mix called yellowcake (the subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 mystery “Notorious.”

Taylor isn’t just a “brain”, but he is very good working with his hands “in the lab” – something I was not, when I encountered college organic chemistry in the fall of 1963.  By age 14, he had built his first fusion reactor near the family home, relocated to the Reno, Nevada area so that he (and brother Joey) could attend the Davidson Academy.  (See Issues blog, Nov. 7, 2015 and TV blog, report by Sanjay Gupta on the Academy, Dec. 6.)

I’ll leave readers to go through the book (or look up on Wikipedia) to meaning of fusion and fission.  Clynes discusses Taylor’s gradual accumulation of hardware and the chemistry and physics or his experiments in great detail.  Often Taylor is in yellow protective clothing (in the book and Internet pictures, and in videos).

Yes, Taylor literally created a star of plasma (the fourth state of matter and most common in the universe) in his garage.  One wonders, could he create a black hole or wormhole?  Is this the first step in playing god?  It seems the natural progress of the universe (if there is intelligent design from a creator) for new independent conscious lives to form, with free-will, that will try to master creation on their own.

Clynes does discuss the safety issues, and it is more “legal” to acquire these raw materials than one might think. It’s easy to imagine the potential security problems in housing them.

Taylor, 21 now, and often speaking in Ted talks and at all kinds of events, has apparently “skipped college” and with the help of investors like Peter Thiel (maybe Mark Zuckerberg but not Donald Trump) started laying out his plans for innovation, including the necessary patents (which apparently have to be secured early).

His ideas touch many areas.  He wants to make the electric power grids safer (more resilient from cascading failures, which could be caused by cyberterror, as in Ted Koppel’s book Nov. 10) by providing electric utilities with the ability to build small backup fission reactors, which he says could have prevented the disasters in Japan after the tsunami in 2011.  He wants to improve screening of cargo by Homeland Security with newer devices that don’t depend as much on very rare materials (like an unusual isotope of helium). The book, by the way, goes into some detail on how interdependent we are on other countries (from Canada to China) to get the rare minerals that new green power sources will require.  Clynes spends some space on the dirty bomb threat and believes Taylor’s ideas could make a future incident much less likely. The also has ideas for innovation in nuclear medical (especially cancer) diagnosis, which may be in some part inspired by Jack Andraka.  The book describes his “loss” to Jack in the “Science Fair Superbowl” in 2013.  (Jack’s book is reviewed here March 18.)

Clynes gives a lot of space to the education of gifted children, including Taylor and his brother Joey (described as more introverted), who could be compared to the Andraka brothers, or Param Jaggi. Clynes discusses Malcolm Galdwell's earlier writings ("Outliers", Nov. 27, 2008) that include, with a moral perspective, life circumstances and luck (even birth order or time of year) as to the opportunity to make the most of one's gifts.  But Taylor’s capability to make stuff requiring intricate knowledge and manual skill is so amazing that one wonders if he acquired the knowledge in a past life.  (One of his videos seems to give a subtle hint.)  It sounds like a pretty good deal, to trade in a 90 year old body and start adulthood again at 14 (after a short respite in the Afterlife at the appropriate Focus Level).  Maybe there is a way to have a  21-year-old body forever (drinking age), or 25 (car rental age).  But the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy) gets in the way. Hence, biological life must reproduce.
If you can make a fusion reactor, can you possibly make a black hole?  Then could you generate a universe and become a god?

The book describes his attempts at relationships, and gradual improvement in personal life.  Like Jack Andraka, he reminds quite articulate and charismatic in public appearances.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

NatGeo: "Strange But True: Secrets of the Supernatural Revealed": Best article is one about near-death experiences

National Geographic offers an interesting supermarket gloss paperback, “Strange, but True: Secrets of the Supernatural Revealed”, 112 pages, edited by Bridget A. English.

The three sections are “Animals, Myths and Monsters”; “Sci-Fi, Folklore and Ghost Stories”; and “Ancient Legends and Sacred Places”.

I’ll mention a few articles of most interest to me. The tone of the articles that most "strange" phenomena do have natural explanations within known science if we look hard enough.
One is “Are we on the brink of a zombie apocalypse?”  The article notes that the rabies virus is capable of inducing zombie-like crazed behavior as the brain is destroyed. Mutation to create new zombie viruses is practically very unlikely. However, the behavior of some people belonging to cults seems almost zombie-like.

“The truth behind alien life on Mars” looks at the significance of methane found there.  Volcanism stopped on Mars hundreds of millions of years ago, so that enhances the likelihood that the methane has an organic source.  But there are inorganic processes involving strong sunlight (in a thin, dry atmosphere) that might explain it.

The article “It’s a UFO, It’s a Bird, It’s a … Cloud” examines the odd-looking holes in cirrus clouds with rainbows inside.  They could be caused by aircraft inducing short-lived snowstorms (not reaching the ground) high in the atmosphere when flying through it.

One of the most interesting is “Looking deeper into near-death visions”. The article notes that as someone passes away, carbon dioxide accumulates in the brain.  Although most people have never reported NDE’s, most NDE cases seem to relate to periods where CO2 accumulated.  However a very few may be different, such as Eben Alexander’s (March 30, 2013) where he had a long-lasting NDE (starting in a blank “Core”) when supposedly completely brain-dead from massive meningitis. There are good arguments in physics that suggest that consciousness somehow continues, possibly as part of a “group”.  There’s the logical observation that it is impossible to conceive of not “existing”.  Some observers note that the brain may be able to function for several hours after the heart stops, which could argue that family members need to stay present and accompany the departing person.  The person may know he or she has passed, and the sense of passage of time (since time is a flexible concept in physics) may be distorted and seem to take infinitely long.    

Thursday, December 03, 2015

The physical hardcover and softcover book is still alive and well, thank you

Will physical books go out of fashion because of e-books (Kindle, Nook) and video?

Someone might have asked a question like this in the 80s when audio-books became more popular.  I even recall, when living in Dallas, a friend’s going to a day-long seminar in Waco learning how to promote them!

Nearby, a home has a yard sign “This family is reading with Arlington Public Library”.  Yes, actually going there physically and checking out books (where, “It’s Free”).

There’s another wrinkle to mention, and that is that since 2000 or so, the Library of Congress has paid attention to whether a new book is likely to be purchased by most local public libraries for collections.  Print-on-demand usually is not, so since then most POD books have not gotten catalogue entries there.

I can remember the protocols, back around 1960 or so, as a high school student writing a term paper, the issue of interlibrary loans, and getting on the bus to go downtown (DC) to the main library (near Mount Vernon Place) because I couldn’t find enough at the local county library.

And there was a preference for hardcover, basically because of durability among many uses, as well as more cover art.

Slate has an article in 2013 by Katie Arnold-Ratliff, explaining that publishers see e-books as a boon compared to paperbacks, because used e-books can’t be sold.  Geekwire has a 2015 story explaining why paperback has rebounded.

Quora has a discussion of paper v. hardcover here.

On Sept. 26, 2014, Jim Milliot wrote in Publisher’s Weekly that hardcover and paperback together still outsell e-books, link here.

I recently broke my Kindle on a trip and replaced it with a newer model --- and Amazon refreshed it for free.  I find the newer one, with fewer buttons, less easy to use, actually (even if it’s fast).   A few books are available only on Kindle, and it’s a great way to get classic novels (like Arthur C. Clarke sci-fi, or even high school literature stuff) for almost nothing.

Over the years, I've tended to prefer to have paper copies of books, particularly if they have illustrations, have complicated content-structures, or are long.  I typically use a printed index to fund stuff again, and sometimes make hand-written notes before doing a review, on the inside cover.  I'm not likely to pimp them at used-book sales (but I know a lot of people do).

All of this relates to pressure on me in recent months from POD publishers to push sales of my own books specifically in retail stores.  In my case the Kindle and Nook prices are much cheaper than even the paper.  It’s easy for me to encourage people to buy Kindle (at $3.99), but not to buy a 2000 non-fiction policy book in paper at $27.95 (it doesn’t appear to be discounted on Amazon right now, although it sometimes has been).  (My third book is available in hardcover, for $29.95, and hardcover is a must these days with libraries, I have found.)   And, frankly, my kind of content, with its “moralizing”, doesn’t tend to become popular quickly. “Writing to Sell” is a whole topic in itself (and that’s a book by Scott Meredith, literary agent, 1996, from Writer’s Digest).  Some of it is “Write what other people want.”  This whole idea has long been controversial, and was especially so with a NWU group in Minneapolis that I used to attend around 2002-2003.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

National Geographic Issue warns "Cool It" and even makes personal consumption a moral issue

The November 2015 issue of National Geographic has a cover Earth globe with the title “Cool It: The Climate Issue”.  NatGeo is not always identifying the article authors, but the lead writer seems to be Peter Miller.

The Issue (also calling itself a “Survival Guide”) is in two parts: “How to Fix It” and “How to Live with It”.

There are page-headlines, “How can we power the planet without making things worse?” and “This year could be the turning point.” Indeed, other media reports today say that we are half-way toward the 4 degree C raise that could send the planet onto an irreversible spiral.

The “survival guide” starts with “You” and deals with the moral issue of personal consumption, especially people who feel little incentive because they won’t be around. There is a picture of a tiny house, and says every individual would have to limit his power consumption to 2000 watts a day (in the US it’s 12000). It movies on to business, cities, nations and the world.

There is a piece that talks about Germany’s plan to replace nuclear power (and older fossil fuel power – there’s a huge coal processing plant picture) with renewable energy, especially wind and solar.  That can eventually run into shortages of rare earth minerals, and is somewhat contradicted by other experts who say that smaller nuclear plants could actually be green and more terror-proof because of energy distribution (Taylor Wilson’s) idea, as well as those who say natural gas can be clean (Pickens).

The issue looks at six states: Louisiana, Texas, North Dakota,  Arizona, Kentucky, and California.

There are photo articles on the native people’s of Greenland, and on the island country Kiribati.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ted Koppel's "Lights Out" warns that we are not prepared for possibly a sudden change in our way-of-life forced on us by enemies or even nature: cyberattack, EMP, or solar storms wrecking the power grids

Author: Ted Koppel (or Edward J. Koppel)

Title: “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath

Publication: New York: 2015, Crown Publishers.  ISBN 978-0-553-41997-9, hardcover (also eBook), 280 pages, Three parts, 20 chapters with epilogue;  endnotes, and indexed.

Last Sunday morning, while waiting for a cab to start a quick two-day electric Amtrak train trip to New York, the power cut out suddenly.  I wondered what was up, as the weather was calm. My generator kicked on.  My computer and router are tied into uninterruptible power supply, so they were unaffected. In about five minutes, the generator shut off, and power returned before the cab arrived.  Had there been more time, I might have double-checked that my new car would start.

Before getting into the book, I’ll note a few other little incidents. Hurricane Isabel struck the DC area in September 2003, shortly after I had returned from Minnesota to look after mother, and our power was out “only” about 14 hours.  Cable came back after about 20 hours. But a friend, who used our freezer, and lived three miles away was without power for nine days.  They (an elderly couple) were told it was taking a long time for Dominion Power to get a new transformer from Richmond.

The DC area had not been affected by the major power outage in the northeast in August 14 2003, but some areas were without power for over a week (Wikipedia) .  I can remember a 24 hour power outage in New York City in the summer of 1977, and a six-week landline telephone outage in Greenwich Village in (as I recall) 1975 because of a building fire.

After the derecho on June 29, 2012, my own generator (installed in August 2011) ran for close to three days, but some people were out more than a week. I had no significant outages for either Irene or Sandy, which was not as severe as expected right here.

About five weeks ago, an escalator at a local shopping mall went out.  The Mall put up signs promising repair by October 30.  The day came, and the repairs still are not done because the supplier sent wrong-sized parts.  Upstairs businesses are furious.  This little incident shows how difficult it is for some companies to maintain infrastructure important to customers and businesses.

In the spring of 2015, a non-severe thunderstorm in southern Maryland damaged a tower belonging to an electric cooperative, indirectly causing a several-hour outage in Washington DC around Capitol Hill.  Later a transformer fire in the DC Metro caused partial rush hour service reductions near RFK Stadium for several weeks.  And once, in 2012, I wasn’t allowed back into a hotel room in New York City after a nearby manhole fire related to an auto accident. In fact, one month before 9/11, there was a day-long major power outage in the Dupont Circle area of Washington DC because of a manhole fire.

Ted Koppel was well known as the anchor for ABC Nightline for years, often reporting on overseas issues, especially South Africa, and recently a series on China.  But I think he is the first mainstream journalist (not from what we think of as “the right”) to report seriously on a potentially grave national security hazard and our way of life.

The three parts of the book are “A Cyberattack”. “A Nation Unprepared”, and “Surviving the Aftermath”.

There are really two big issues in the book.  One of them is the nature of any of several ways enemies (terrorists) or possibly natural events could cause many sections of the US to lose electric service for long periods.  This begs the question as to whether better security and technology policy can practically eliminate the risk. The other issue is that there is, in a sense, an unprecedented risk to our society, now that it has become technologically dependent, that we lose it all, and go back to the nineteenth century (like in the notorious NBC series “Revolution”).   Another aspect of this paradigm, though, has historical precedent.  Prosperous civilian civilizations have been suddenly destroyed before, like Pompeii.  And modern civilian populations, like Britain in 1940, have endured enemy attacks that might have come to be viewed as unthinkable.  This is a more disturbing question, one which bears on individual morality and whether notions or human rights really are subject to external forces beyond the control of most civilians, augmenting socially conservative, communistic, or religious philosophies about individual expectations.  Certainly individualism as we understand it would change as society tries to survive in a suddenly radically different world, after a “purification”.  Preparedness evokes moral questions, and crosses a number of issues ranging from gun ownership and possession, to hospitality and family values.

On this blog, I’ve already reviewed a number of books on threats to the grid, as one can see by following the blogger labels “cyber security”, “electromagnetic pulse” and “solar environmental effects”.  I’ve reviewed some publications from the National Academy of Science and from Oak Ridge (which I visited in 2013) indicating that the solar storm risk in particular could be quite serious.

Personally, I have tended (at least until now) to believe that the biggest threats come from EMP attacks or huge Carrington-sized solar storms and coronal mass ejections (we may have just missed a big one by a week in July 2012).  Koppel discusses a rifle attack on a substation in California in April 2013;  there have been a few other similar attacks around the country (mostly in the South) with few long-term effects.  However Byron Dorgan’s novel “Gridlock” (Sept. 5, 2013) describes a cyberattack, introduced by thumb drives, but starting with a surreptitious shooting of power company employees making repairs.

Koppel notes that the Pentagon has given Raytheon a contract to strengthen the communications under Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado from damage from EMP, and recently Raytheon has advertised heavily in the Washington DC Metro, a rather chilling coincidence. All of that suggests that the Pentagon is worried that an enemy really could lob a scud-like missile from a boat 100 miles off the coast, leading a relatively high-altitude nuclear explosion and creating EMP for much of the country. That’s what happens in Forstchen’s novel “One Second After” (July 20, 2012).  However, shouldn’t NORAD (or the Coast Guard or Navy) intercept such a missile before it goes off? Other writers, like Maloof (as well as The Washington Times), have suggested that more amateurish terrorists could make microwave pulse generators with local EMP effects (and idea circulated mysteriously in 2001 just before 9/11 not talked about much). In any case, Koppel’s own narrative makes the EMP threat sound more likely than he says it is.

Koppel then moves to the cyberthreat itself, which more or less follows Dorgan’s novel as to how it might happen.  There is some issue as to whether an amateur can bring down a power company from a laptop or cell phone.  Koppel suggests this is possible, but it probably isn’t.  You can’t normally log on to a server that manages power loads.  Finland’s Linux inventor Linus Torvalds himself says power grids and other essential infrastructure should never be made directly accessible from the public Internet.  There is a difference between taking down a power grid and taking down the server of an entertainment company (Sony). But even many US government Internet systems are poorly shielded, as we know from many hacks.

But inside jobs from poorly screened employees or contractors are possible, as is the idea of introducing malware from an external thumb drive, which seems to be how the US itself has tried to infect Iran, and how Saudi Arabia’s oil company was brought down.  The main risk seems, according to Koppel, to come from compromise of a smaller power utility, which overloads transformers of larger companies and causes cascading failures (as happened with the software failure in 2003).  Koppel explains well how the continental US is divided into three topologically connected grids, and his book cover shows the Eastern grid blacked out!  The black book cover, by the way, attracts attention in public places, as recently from a teenager on the Metro in Washington.  Sometimes it's good to have the physical book rather than just an e-copy.

I could ask, could power company firmware be designed to prevent such transformer-eating overloads?  Could power generation be more decentralized when necessary?  Koppel discusses the idea of installing small fission reactors for backup, an idea suggested by young inventor Taylor Wilson who, with the help of financiers like libertarian Peter Thiel (who had helped Zuckerberg with Facebook), wants to develop and patent these systems.  Wilson says the small mini—plants could be underground, which could protect them further from other kinds of attacks (like EMP).

Koppel discusses the issue of NSA and other law enforcement surveillance of power company systems, and notes that there are serious legal impediments, from the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which would interfere with monitoring for criminal attacks that the public would support, despite the constant presentation of government and military as villains (even by Electronic Frontier Foundation) because of unrelated problems of unwarranted watching of individuals.

Koppel correctly points out most large transformers are manufactured overseas (there are two holding companies involved in Virginia, in Lynchburg and Roanoke, and several along the Gulf Coast, but it seems that the real work is overseas).  Furthermore it is very difficult to transport them on highways or rails in the US (I recall seeing a picture of one in a “Trains” magazine on a Schnabel as a kid).

The last third of the book deals with the unpleasant issue of civilian preparedness.  Koppel goes on the road to investigate, in a way similar to what I sometimes did for my own DADT books.  He visits ranch owners in Wyoming and talks about the possibility of offering “radical hospitality” to domestic refugees.  He talks about gun ownership, and notes that rural states where most people own guns out of legitimate interest in hunting or reasonable need for self-defense have much lower rates of gun violence than large cities with strict control.  He then does a detailed debriefing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints, where disaster preparedness (and neighborliness) is part of their personal moral code, partly because of their history of being persecuted as a group and having to back each other up. (One could make an incomplete comparison to Israel.)

Koppel says that frank discussion of how this issue could change our lives personally could help stimulate the policy changes (and bipartisan cooperation) that would make actual disaster more preventable.  He uses the Cold War and even Cuban Missile Crisis with the Soviet Union (after the “duck and cover” of the 1950s) as a comparison.  He notes the lessons of civilian preparedness from history like the Battle of Britain in 1941.  He also treads on personal values, noting that more communal lifestyles, even Marxist in thought, could become necessary if a prolonged catastrophe really happens.  I could rant on here and say that at 72, I would be of no use in the world of NBC’s “Revolution”.  But this is an issue or personal morality – how it interacts with the common good of the community you live in – that we don’t like to talk about today than that earlier generations (when we had, for example, a military draft) may better understand.

It's unnerving that Koppel reports (in post-publication interviews, like in Time) that some former public officials see a major attack as unavoidable.  We're not prepared for a total change in our way of life, so we'd better prevent this.  Maybe Taylor Wilson does have the best idea on the table.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Should authors buy book sales promotion services?

Should self-published authors pay for promotion services to sell their books?

I get a lot of tweets about this, and I thought I’d pass along the link for Book Promoter, here.

I think there is a conceptual difference between disseminating content and becoming politically influential that way, and selling “instances” of books as commodities.  The content is like the “class” (in object-oriented programming) and the individual copy is like an “instance”.  Think about what the phrase “my book” as a subject line for an email (which I once got) really means.

My autobiographical non-fiction content doesn’t lend itself to easy “commodification” because I didn’t make myself a “star” somehow else, like by “lowering myself” (intellectually) to run for office (and today is Election Day, in an off year).  And most non-fiction books don’t remain best sellers for long (with major exceptions in the religion area).

Fiction, especially novels, can be a different matter.  I do have a novel manuscript, which I have talked about in detail on Wordpress, which I should be able to try to field in 2016.  It’s called “Angel’s Brother”.  No, it doesn’t offer the politically correct (nowadays) idea of making someone small (or even disabled) into a “hero”.  The politics at the end of the novel could be disturbing.  But it does offer the reader and experience of how alien (extraterrestrial, of sorts) contact might really unfold and affect the people who live through it.  That is a concept one can sell.

It also tells the story from the viewpoint of two major characters other than myself, although both characters are appealing white males (one is married with a family, working for the CIA, and dealing with the fact that he knows he is gay and attracted to the college-age character, and unusual geek, to say the least).  Ii do appear in the “backstory” as a supporting character, and can’t get away from myself.

There’s more. The New York Times has a surprising story about “story time” at public libraries (where "it's free").  Sunday, I mentioned in a review (Movies) of "Deep Web" that Silk Road defendant Ross Ulbricht had once tried to start a literacy project based on used books.  And here's another piece on what book selling is all about, and it seems sound.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Anne-Marie Slaughter's "Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family": so what about the single and childless?

Author: Anne-Marie Slaughter

Title: “Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family

Publication: 2015: Random House, ISBN 978-0812994568, 352 pages, hardcover, e-book and audio-CD available, three parts, eleven chapters with introduction and “coda" (like in music).

Amazon link is here.

The author is the head of the New America Foundation, and has been a Princeton professor and State Department official.

I bought this book on my new “second” Kindle.  It’s a little pricey for Kindle, and this one might have been easier to grasp with the entire physical book in hand.

On one level, the premise of her book is relatively simple.  Feminism, on a certain level of political correctness, has become equated to women “having it all” and having all the same compensation and opportunities as men.  But in a certain area of logic, that isn’t possible.  And our “western” values, influenced by hyperindividualism, have gotten stilted.  We value personal competitiveness and measurable or visible success, but we don’t “value” caring for others, or caregiving. We also need to change our attitude about proving our “needlessness”.

She develops her narrative in stages.  Part 1 is “Moving Beyond our Mantras” and deals with half-truths about work and family balance.  Part 2 is “Changing Lenses” and Part 3 is “Getting Equal” (and that is not Donald Trump’s “getting rich”.

There is a basic question here about the role of government in all this, and Slaughter “admits” she is a Democrat.  Conservatives believe that learning to care for others is a personal moral virtue tied to sexual morality and confining sex to (traditional) marriage.  Liberals believe it has to do with public sharing of assets, with a wide range of acceptance of personal differences.  But in practice it’s very hard to put into practice the “Everybody’s beautiful” idea from that 1970 song. One of the biggest side effects of our attitude about “caring” as a virtue is that we pay caregivers (often immigrant women) poorly, and get away with it.

Slaughter makes the usual arguments for mandatory paid family leave, and she seems to have an expansive view, that it should include leave for dads as well as moms, and presumably for eldercare for parents too.  But she believes that men need to change (and be allowed to change) their own perspective. Dads should share in active parenting at home more than they do.  She makes a brief reference to the idea that men seem to drop testosterone levels when parenting babies (possibly when tending to pregnant wives).

She does mention the role of same-sex parents, and reassures everyone that same-sex couples can be as successful raising kids as traditional parents.  (That strikes me as saying, well, of course Alan Turing would have been a good father and male role model, which of course he could have been.) She also talks about how single people get treated in some workplaces, but doesn’t seem to be able to come to a clear conclusion on that, because of the logical contradictions within her objectives.

Later she talks about the on-demand economy and workplace (and ROWE or “results-only workplace).  It’s pretty easy to see that sharing of homes and cars and rides can be driven by the economy, and maybe the environment, but a lot of us are not prepared to go into the car and accommodation business on the fly ourselves.   She admits that this is somewhat a mixed-bag.

One of the biggest concerns about mandating family benefits from employers is that they have to be paid for.  Of course, conservatives have pointed out that requiring these benefits could reduce employment.  Slaughter has prepared us somewhat for this in the past by talking about the “toxic workplace”. (IT Job Market blog Sept. 20).  My own experience with this has come from the “salaried” or “exempt” workplace in mostly mainframe information technology.  Throughout the later 80s and then 90s  generally “we” had to work whatever the hours it took to get projects done and implemented, and we did nighttime production support at on our own time and expense.  I can imagine her response to this.  I do think that the workplace for modern tech companies like Google and Facebook would be more flexible than mine was (Amazon has created controversy).

 Furthermore, developers who work on W-2 contracts are supposed to be paid overtime (usually at straight time).  But the work environment that I lived in did encourage “lowballing”.  That is, a single person like me without kids could afford to be paid less, but since I had lower expenses (much less debt and health-care expense) I usually had more disposable income.  That could put a lot of pressure in the workplace on those with families.

But it’s a pretty obvious problem, that if you have pro-family policies of paying for family leave, those without families to support are going to do more of the work for a given amount of pay.  She never directly addresses that.  I talked a lot about this in Chapter 5 of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book as well as some supplementary essays (1996) from my legacy “Do Ask Do Tell” site. (Go here ).   Elinor Burkett had addressed this viewpoint in her 2000 book "The Baby Boon" [Review March 28, 2006].  Slaughter at one point says you can’t parse the world this way, like somehow unfolds all together.  But you have to.  In Europe (and Canada, Australia, etc) policy has softened this gap with higher taxes.  In Washington DC, the city council proposes a 1% payroll “insurance premium” to pay for family leave benefits.

I’ve always been “conservative” when it comes to something like this, and I hope constructively so.  Even with a “family leave insurance deduction”, you would be in a position to use it or lose it (which could sound like anti-selection to the insurance industry).  In practice, this means that as a single person you will need to become involved somehow in caring for others.  If you don’t have your own kids (or at least adopt kids, which I think Slaughter would agree should be treated as well as having your own, especially for same-sex couples or even singles) you’ll at least get stiffed on this, and eventually you’ll find eldercare even harder to deal with.  That’s what happened to me.

I found it very difficult to give people personal attention on demand – whether my mother (which meant I hired caregivers through an agency) or some kinds of students when I was working as a substitute teacher a few years back – when I didn’t have the experience of courting women and having my own children, hopefully in a marital relationship.  Social attitudes about homosexuality, and the supposedly obligatory place for “normal heterosexual marriage” in socializing (or taming) men (that is, George Gilder’s “Men and Marriage” in 1986 [Review April 12, 2006]), greatly complicate the discussion, as this has all changed greatly in the past couple of decades.  Slaughter admits her gratitude for not being born before the 1950s – I was born in 1943 and dealt with more of this.  An alternative, advanced by the Ninth Street Center in New York City in the 1970s (and now known as the Paul Rosenfels Community) was “polarity” – that box genders have access to the possibility of masculine and feminine personalities, and that some men need to get in touch with their femininity, living perhaps in a somewhat sheltered intentional community, to get away from the cherry-picking of the normal conventional competitive world.  I had to deal with this, too.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"For-profit social venture" still collects, resells physical books for charity ("Better World Books")

While passing though Leesburg, VA yesterday on a Columbus Day trip (aka Indigenous People’s Day), I saw what looked like a collection box in a Starbuck’s parking lot for “Better World Books”.  Unfortunately, there was some debris near it.

The company is a for-profit social venture whose earnings go toward literacy programs around the world.  It’s FAQ page is here. Apparently it had started at Notre Dame (remember, the ND football team is a favorite of actor Richard Harmon). 

The organization collects used textbooks and also “discards” from public libraries, and then sells them.  The textbook part of the business is likely the most successful, since new college textbook prices have gone out of control (but that may be due to lack of competition).  The company’s own FAQ page is here.  

Again, what’s interesting to me here is the idea of copies of books as “commodities”.  I’ve been pestered after self-publishing my own DADT books about why I don’t spend time networking with physical stores and trying to “sell”.  Well, I’m busy with other development (music, blogs, screenplay, video) and I don’t have time for “operations”.  I usually tell people that the cheapest way to buy my books is Kindle or Nook (it is indeed), but that doesn’t help “sell books” especially in stores.  (And, yes, the approaches made to me years ago about multi-level marketing, or about selling financial services didn’t go anywhere – I can’t see wasting time sitting in a kiosk in a shopping mall.)  And despite the supposed demised of local bookstores because of big chains and because of Internet, I still run into them in small towns.  Am I “local” enough for northern Virginia?  That’s a good question, but my social media contacts seem to be distributed around the country, not always locally, even a little bit in Europe.   I should try the local library soon.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Jesse Eisenberg: "Bream Gives Me Hiccups, and Other Stories": little pieces of satire from impressionable young minds

Author: Jesse Eisenberg

Title: “Bream Gives Me Hiccups, and Other Stories

Publication: 2015: New York, Grove Press, ISBN 978-0-8021-2404-3, 273 pages, hardcover (also ebook), in nine sections with 39 “chapters”

Amazon link

First of all, let’s talk about the title.  “Bream” is a kind of freshwater fish (not necessarily “free fish”), and the title of the first of nine sections is “Bream Gives Me Hiccups: Restaurant Reviews from a Privileged Nine-Year-Old”. 

That section, which has about eight “reviews” (not exactly Yelp style), not listed in the book TOC, is followed by eight more topical parts, the longest of which is “My Roommate Stole My Ramen: Letters from a Frustrated Freshman” (and that freshman surely is not Jack Andraka currently at Stanford – see March 18). I had to look up “the food” (ramen) in Wikipedia. I thought about slurping borscht in Ukrainian restaurants on 2nd Avenue in the East Village near the Ninth Street Center back in the 1970s.

I should mention the most interesting of the reviews: perhaps “Thanksgiving with Vegans”, or “Robert Frost Elementary School Cafeteria” (when I substitute-taught, the cafeteria meals in the mid 2000’s in northern VA were fat-filled and awful), or “The Ashram and Mom”, an intentional community requiring deep ritualistic participation and banning cell phones.  (I recall a 1970s book about the Hidden Valley ashram in Peru on the Altiplano where all the men had to look the same, rather like Franciscans.)

The other sections (like “Family”, “Dating”, “Self-Help”, “Language”) are broken into little stores, a few of which are set up nineteenth-century style in letters, and others are set up as dramatic skits (almost suitable for FinalDraft), at least one of which is set up to look like verse or a poem for literature class in freshman English (which even Jack has to take, despite having written a book himself).

Sometimes Eisenberg really makes fun of the way we squirm at sensitive issues, like the carnage in Bosnia during the Clinton years, or female clitoral mutilation as a ritual in some African societies. At least once he talks about male physical attractiveness – his – as he thinks women should perceive it.
The common element in all of these morsels is a kind of “word salad” on the way kids, tweens, and real teens (and college students and emerging young adults up to the author’s age, now 32) seize on their perceptions of the biased expectations they think the world has of them.  He makes it look pretty much the same in the straight world (which he inhabits) as the gay world I “live” in – because I came from the straight world.  I’ve done similar writing, over longer narratives in one setting – like the first “fiction” story in my third “Do Ask, Do Tell” book (check Amazon), pp. 209-256, a quasi-fictive account of my 1968 experience with Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, SC.  There’s another book on this subject that did that, “The Sunshine Soldiers”, by Peter Tauber, 1973, republished in 2003 by Higganum Hill Books.

Somehow this book reminds me of Thomas Carlye's experiemental "Sartor Resartus" (Dec. 2, 2013).  The language does get explicit and sharp, but English professors might find Eisemberg's writing experiment interesting to teach. 

And, by the way, when I lived in the Cast Iron Building in the 1970s, I was a few doors down from Grove Press.

Eisenberg is said to be negotiating a series of comedy videos to be sold on Amazon Prime, based on the book, maybe a bit like "The Power Inside" (TV, Spet. 13, 2013). 
Wikipedia gives an interesting account of Mr. Eisenberg, including his fostering of animals (especially cats) and vegan diet.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Time Special Edition book "Francis: The Pope's Bold Message Comes to America"

Time Magazine sells, in supermarkets, a Special Edition glossy large-page book, “Francis: The Pope’s Bold Message Comes to America”, 96 pages, by John R. Allen, Jr. The author covers the Vatican for the Boston Globe.

The book has ten chapters and three inserted sidebars, one of them (“Kiss the Ring”) by Elizabeth Dias.

The book is heavily illustrated with very full photos from around the world, but also has double-columned pages of text with no pictures.

The book traces Francis’s background, as a Jesuit, and as one who grew up as a rough-and-tumble boy in Buenos Aries, and who even once had a girlfriend.  It also covers an unusual medical emergency for a young man in 1953, a strange kind of pneumonia that required surgery and was almost fatal.

The third chapter, “Moderate to an Extreme” would suggest the tone for how the book characterizes the Pope.

The Pope has tried to avoid condemning anyone’s inclinations or psychological makeup, while maintaining a traditional position on social issues.  But the Pope is more inclined to say that priests and congregations should be flexible on practical situations, like giving communion to same-sex couples.

But the most telling passage in the book may be a statement about the predecessor Joseph Ratzinger’s views, regarding “equality” for women (since they cannot hold many positions in the church but have their own, as nuns).  That is to say, end the “arms race with men . once and for all and reject power as the only way to evaluate one’s worth or dignity.”  That comports with Francis’s interest in working with the poor on a personal level, and with emphasizing compassion over more common ideas of virtue and personal merit.

The book does not get into family values as much as Francis did in Philadelphia, where he recognized that many people today have learned to live without familial intimacy or commitment but where he says the trend does not bode well for the future (my main blog, yesterday).
The book discusses the Pope’s monitoring of the Middle East in some detail, and also his push for financial reform in the Vatican.

Monday, September 14, 2015

How does copyright registration and LCCN work for self-published and print-on-demand books?

Self-publishers will want to know if they need to pay for copyright registration and for Library of Congress Catalogue numbers (LCCN’s).
I’ve checked back over my own books, as summarized here.
My first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book had an initial print run which I managed in 1997.  It looks like I submitted a Form TX for copyright registration, and a separate PCN for the catalogue itself.
The copyright registration may not be legally necessary, as technically a book is copyrighted by the author’s or publisher’s notice in the book once published.  Authors who have good practical reason to believe that “piracy” would occur (or plagiarism) should consider formal registration, which results in a RX number and a certificate in a few months.  The registration has nothing to do with the catalogue number.  (The Writers Guild West has a similar formal registration for screenplays.)
The Library of Congress has a link with all questions at a website specifically for Copyright, and the correct form is TX, link here. Print-on-demand self-publishing companies will offer to do this, but usually charge more than the author can do for herself.
The Library of Congress Control Number does relate to the actual catalogue at the Library in Washington DC. There is a Preassigned Control Number Program that the publishing industry uses to assign control numbers before publication. There is also a Catalogue in Publication Program.  All of this is explained here .  Generally, Print-on-demand companies can get LCCN’s assigned (if requested and paid for – when the actual service is free) but this does not guarantee that the LCCN can be located in the LOC database or that (simultaneously) the LOC will have a copy of the book in Washington along with a card catalogue entry. Generally, the Library of Congress does not catalogue print-on-demand books unless there is a large initial print run and evidence that libraries will actually carry the book physically. The practical importance may be minimal for newer books, since Google book search exists. 

I’ll report later on the issue of placing self-published books (mine at least) in independent books stores and chain stores (I’ve mentioned it before).  

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Books now delivered by cyclists in some cities; do booksellers now have to compete with "It's free"?

I do get questions as to why I don’t spend time with booksellers or with retail of my product as a “commodity”.  Of course, personal accounts with heavy doses of moral philosophy don’t typically become best-sellers, at least in print.  As I’ve explained elsewhere, I’m quite busy with music, a screenplay, a novel, and blogging, and some travel.  My work is horizontal rather than vertical.  And I came into this business as a second career.  I didn’t start off by “getting published’ and going on to write branded series.  (Stephen King, by contrast, has sold over 350 million copies of his books in print.)

Nevertheless, as last weekend’s festival showed, a lot of the public does like “popular books” for normal entertainment or family use (not footnoted college texts).

NBC News (story by Joe Fryer) is reporting on pedaling librarians bringing “Books on Bikes” to little outdoor book festivals.  The report focused on Seattle, but the idea has taken off in a few cities.  Another trade name is “Spokes and Word”, story here. One pedalist was even willing to wear advertising tattoos on his arms and legs (a sacrifice).
Back in 2010, the New York Times had reported, “With Kindle, the Best Sellers Don’t Need to Sell”, link here. Same idea for Nook.  More books are given away free on Kindle, and publishers disagree on whether this helps sales (by introducing new authors) or hinders them (by competing with oneself).  This would be a good topic for Reid Ewing to follow up on some day, after his “It’s Free” video in 2011, centered on a public library. 
There are some ideas that are popular now, that might not have been so in the past, because of social media.  Some charitable efforts could make stories that sell, but writing a book is not a noble incentive itself for a charitable venture that one wouldn’t get into anyway out of the natural course of one’s own life. 

Saturday, September 05, 2015

National Book Festival from Library of Congress: authors Weber (sci-fi) and Kristoff and WuDunn (policy)

Today, I did attend the National Book Festival in Washington DC at the Convention Center.

I was amazed at the size of the crowd, and overheard a woman say how much she admires these authors.  But you probably had to be a best selling author to be invited to have a podium.  The festival was divided into many fiction and non-fiction areas of genre categories. 

I first picked out David Weber, author of the “Honor Harrington” military science fiction series with a female hero. Weber explained how he first got published – by a referral from a big publisher who foun his work too long.  He said that writing is a skill like walking.  He also talked about storytelling, and that in his works he tries to have his characters do “what they have to do because they can”, not because they made some choice that obligated them. He distinguished between fantasy and science fiction.  In fantasy, you have a world that is impossible but self-consistent.  Characters in fantasy tend to be more clearly good or evil than in proper science fiction, which is supposed to be a scenario that really could happen.

My own science fiction is more concerned with what would really happen if there were initial contact, or what it would be like to live on another planet if abducted and the alien world somewhat resembled ours. Will all advanced civilizations have money systems?  Are non-monetary advanced societies possible?  (Try orcas.)  Another thing: my novel plots and scripts never have sharply defined villains as such.  (But then, I don’t see the “Autarch” or the “Unbeheld” as a villain in “Imjica”.)
Weber did talk about adaptations of novels to movies and television.  He feels that some of his work is better adapted to cable series than to 100-minute films.  He said that most writers (particularly if in the “business” of being best-selling authors as such)  don’t try to control how their novels will play out in film, and let others approach them about this (although I often see novelists credited as secondary “screenwriters” on imdb.com).

Weber’s Festival site is here.   Here is his regular site
Then I visited the Contemporary Life sessions, and listed to Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof, whose featured book is “A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity”, published by Vintage.  I may purchase this and do a separate review later. 

But I did want to hit their theme of inequality, and how they see the biggest problem as inequality of opportunity, not just income or wealth (Piketty and Stiglitz).  WuDunn talked about the importance of parental (especially maternal) attention very early in life (which feeds the paid parental leave debate). Kristof talked about the fact that in poor societies, children fall behind very early in life in brain development that would enable them to learn to behave according to modern western ideas of “personal responsibility”.

 He gave one example where there was more benefit in Gambia for paying for deworming kids than anything else.  He also gave any example of a librarian who allowed a poor kid to “steal” books to read, and the kid grew up to become a leader of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
Kristof’s event site is here.  The site for the book is here and there is a DVD (don’t know if this actually has a film, too, will look). 
I know someone can ask me, why didn’t I hustle and get a session in the Current Life pavilion?  I haven’t made “sales” of books as a commodity my main objective.  I work horizontally, trying to develop the same content across all media, rather than selling on just one medium. 

Update: September 8, 2015

"A Path Appears" is indeed a series on PBS Independent Lens, three episodes so far.  Check my TV Blog Sept. 8 for details.

Kristof and WuDunn had previously authored "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide"  (Vintage, 2010). 

Friday, September 04, 2015

Time: "Inside the New Cuba" -- how "new" really is this Communist island?

Time offers a supermarket illustrated book “Inside the New Cuba”, heavily illustrated with color photos, edited by Stephen Koepp, many contributors (Bryan Walsh, Karl Vick (several). Marc Peyser, Mitch Maxley, Nathan Thornburgh, Julia Cooke, Edel Rodriquez, Robert Siegel, Eyder Peralta, Tim Padgett, and Andrea Ford. The subtitle is “Discovering the charm of a once-forbidden island: the people, the culture, the paradise”.

Despite the opening of diplomatic relations and of the embassy in Washington on 16th St., the country is still Communist and no paradise for people who live there. On p. 9 (“Cuba on the Cusp”), Vick writes “ordinary Cubans need permission to move and go into business.” Internet access is not widely available to average people and censorship is heavy, far worse than China’s. Neighborhoods have their local chapters of the “Committee for the Defense of the Revolution”, and people spy on one another.  I recall a conversation with my own father about the lack of privacy under communism when growing up.  The last chapter has black-and-white “scenes from the revolution”. Cuban communism seems more extreme that what was practiced in the Soviet Union (at least after Stalin and Khrushchev).  Like Maoism (in the Chinese cultural revolution of the 1960s) it seemed dedicated to the idea that ordinary citizens must be kept “right-sized” by sharing their rightful shares of manual labor, and that wealth not earned directly by labor was immoral.  

Vick also quotes others as saying that the United States handled Cuba badly from the beginning, after the 1959 ouster of Batista (as in the ponderous Andy Garcia film “The Lost City”).  The US pushed Cuba into the maw of the Soviet Union. We all remember the Bay of Pigs, and then the existential Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 “the world’s closest brush with nuclear war.”  I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog post now if that threat hadn’t been contained (when I was a “patient” at NIH, a dark period of my own life).
Vick covers some of the refugee crises from flotillas, especially one in 1980 where appeals went out in gay communities in southern cities (like Dallas, where I lived at the time) to house refugees personally, an expectation that has not recurred this go-round with the Central American crisis the past two years or the Syrian crisis from Europe (usually only relatives are asked if they can sponsor people), but that is a topic that needs more reporting. 

The chapter on baseball (Siegel and Peralta) is interesting, and notes that Cuban baseball emphasizes “small ball” rather than power hitting.
 My own travel plans don't include Cuba in the foreseeable future. Pesyer has a chapter on the travel basics.  

Monday, August 31, 2015

John Paul Stevens: Six Amendments; a former Supreme Court justice weighs in on what should change in the US Constitution

Author: John Paul Stevens

Title: “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution

Publication: New York, 2014: Little Brown, ISBN 978-0-316-37372-2, hardcover, 177 pages, indexed, and 32 pages are used by reprinting the Constitution of the United States with amendments and signatories. Amazon link is here. also available in Kindle, audible, and large print.  The book comprises a Prologue and six chapters.

The author was a justice of the United States Supreme Court, from 1975 (appointed by President Gerald Ford, Republican) until retiring in 2010.  

I was attracted to this book because, in my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book (1997) I had proposed two amendments to the Constitution myself, which would have numbered as 28 and 29.  My 28th Amendment was constructed to protect personal “privacy” (called a “Right to Privacy Amendment”) along with personal autonomy, and focused mainly on sexual privacy (first of all, adult consensual relations, and later abortion), and freedom of speech. I had added “29” to propose an interim step toward gay marriage, a kind of DOMA worded in such a way as to encourage states to experiment with introducing same-sex marriage (or at least civil union) on their own without fear of “Full Faith and Credit” repercussions.  History would move much more quickly on gay marriage than I had ever imagined it could in 1997. “History” would also repeal the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military by 2011, a process that seemed to be much slower and more painstaking, but probably sped up by the post-9/11 war on terror.  In fact, in the DADT-1 book I had acknowledged the possibility of terrorism as significant, but had imagined it could come from secular extremism from the Right (white supremacy) or Left (like North Korea), rather than from radical Islam (or any religion), which did not command a lot of special attention then, at least in my own mind. I had also indulged in an informal (and long) “quasi oral argument” of how a constitutional challenge to the military DADT policy would play out if it ever did reach the Supreme Court. I thought such a debate could actually invoke the history of the military draft, which I’ll come back to.
In my second DADT book (December 2002) had included a long chapter, “Launching a ‘Bill of Rights II’”, an idea that had some word-of-mouth currency in the late 1990s, especially in libertarian circles, somewhat as a result, I think, of my first book and the “word of mouth” effect that was quite effective then for a while.  All of that thinking, though, was pre-9/11. I had, in that chapter, summarized the combinations of steps (essentially four possibilities) through which the Constitution can be amended.  (A complete treatise is provided by the 1993 book “Contemporary Questions Surrounding the Constitutional Amending Process” by John R. Vile, published by Praeger).  I had also covered the possibility of the return of the military draft.  

At this point, recall that Justice Stevens had cast one of the dissenting votes in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), about the Georgia sodomy law, as explained here and Justice Powell had voted for the majority and later admitted he regretted the vote (maybe not knowing he had a closeted gay clerk). Powell might have reread Stevens’s dissent.  That decision would be overturned by Lawrence v. Texas in 2003.  

Now Stevens starts his book with a Prologue (almost following Shakespeare!) and resummarizes the Constitution amending processes. He also points out that Article V prohibits two kinds of amendments, including anything that changes the representation of states in the Senate. His comment would seem to suggest that, for example, if the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico were to be given statehood, then such a state would have to be allowed full representation in the Senate (something that makes statehood much less likely for partisan reasons).  

The substance of Stevens’s six amendments have more to do with the integrity of the US political process and with the maintenance of proper checks and balances among the main branches of government, and between the federal government and states, under “federalism” – than they do with individual rights. That said, he does take up the death penalty, and then gun control, two topics that I did not address in my first DADT book or its amendments.  At this juncture, let me add that a lot of the legal talk around individual rights has to do with notions like due process (the 5th and 14th amendment’s incorporation doctrine), and “fundamental rights”.  At the end of 1998, I self-published a booklet “Our Fundamental Rights”, not much remembered now, because it was outside the “Do Ask, Do Tell” wordmark, but, although I talked about a right to property (very important to libertarians), I did not take up (as a “fundamental right”) the right to self-defense specifically – the Second Amendment question that will build Stevens’s last chapter.   

But Stevens’s approach obviously recognizes that there is such a thing as a common good, which is why we need dependable government.  He would not carry this idea as far as, say, Rick Santorum.  But his mindset admits that there are areas where the needs of the community can mitigate the presumed need of the individual for personal autonomy, a very important idea for me. *
Two of the six amendments would require entirely new paragraphs; four others would add key verbiage to existing clauses in the Constitution or existing amendments.  

The first topic is the “anti-commandeering rule” subsumed by Paragraph 2 of Article VI. Stevens argues that this interpretation can hinder counting on the use of local or state resources in national emergencies, which could occur with terrorism or with certain natural disasters (a huge solar storm with its effect on the power grid could be an example).  Stevens even suggests that the rule might have hindered preventing most of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting rampage. Stevens talks (on p. 25ff) about the military draft (conscription) and (implicitly) the Selective Service registration system, mentioning the experience of World War I.  In doing so, he provides a focus on the possibility of needing to expect citizens to put themselves in harms way for the defense of others, in a manner uncommonly seen in modern books or political articles, outside of my own work or, say, Charles Moskos after 9/11.   

Then Stevens moves on to political gerrymandering, with a new amendment.  He points out that gerrymandering tends to compel political candidates to take more extreme positions than can be plausibly implemented in a normal system with democratic capitalism. 

The third topic is campaign finance reform, which goes back to a controversial 2002 law, McCain-Feingold. The chapter gets a lot of mileage over the Citizens United movie ("Hillary, the Movie", 2008, Movies blog, March 25, 2009).  Stevens apparently believes candidates (like Trump) should not be able to spend too much of their own money to get elected – to buy an office.  It’s obvious that he would like to reduce the influence of traditional lobbying on K Street. That should be good for objective political speech from the media and even amateurs, but it could raise the question as to whether the an individual should have access to his own soap box just because he can afford it.  In 2005, campaign finance reform actually got to be seen as a threat to political blogging, even by amateurs, because political blogs could be seen as indirect, untrackable contributions – but that viewpoint died away when the FEC dismissed it. I got involved personally in that aspect of the debate when I was working as a substitute teacher, a history that I have discussed elsewhere.

The fourth topic is the most convoluted for legal lay person – “sovereign immunity”. On p. 92, Stevens mentions the topic of lynching, as abetted by the idea – with some focus suggestive of the work of the late Gode Davis (the incomplete film “American Lynching”). Stevens wants an amendment to remove an exclusion of any state or local official or government from liability for failing to obey federal law – a concept related to nullifying the anti-commandeering rule.  

The fifth gets back more directly to individual rights – the death penalty, which Stevens wants to see explicitly included in the definition of “cruel and unusual punishment”.  He believes it is not a practical deterrent beyond life without parole, and that medical unknowns exist with almost any conceivable means of execution (particularly injection), and that the criminal justice system has convicted innocent people (as in TV series like “The Innocence Project” (see “wrongful convictions” label on my TV blog) or CNN’s “Death Row Stories”.  More significant, Stevens does not believe existential justice (an “eye for an eye”) for murder victims or their families is really possible. To some extent, we all live with a shared risk of “victimhood” as part of civilization. Yet, if that is true, then, I say, “there are no victims, just casualties”.  

The sixth and last concerns gun control and the Second Amendment. Stevens want so add a phrase to the Second Amendment to clarify that it applies only when a citizen is “serving in the Militia”. He points out that the Supreme Court, in interpreting the Second Amendment (as in the Washington DC case) to confer some individual right to self-defense even in a totally civilian and isolated context, did limit its applicability to measures reasonably related to legitimate self-defense, not to possession of arsenals of foreign military assault weapons. But Stevens believes states or cities should be allowed to ban ordinary ban ordinary gun possession in a manner similar to Europe or Australia if there legislature choose to.  Gun control advocates (like Piers Morgan) have often argued that countries with strong gun control have much less violence – although given the recent outbreak of “jihadist”  terrorism in Europe, one wonders if this is still true, and whether the public should count on unarmed brawny male (off duty military) young adults to protect them from armed terrorists who have bought weapons from crime syndicates. A deeper question might be to wonder again what kind of risks citizens in a civilized democratic society naturally run all the time, as if one should not expect to defend oneself against some things.   

My own take on the Second Amendment had been to agree with the Supreme Court. Part of the reason is that we do not have “militia” today in the sense that we did in 1791.  To limit the Second Amendment to people when (off-duty) serving in the military, National Guard, or police force sounds meaningless, unless we look at it the way Switzerland does.  But perhaps the idea that gun ownership should have some continual supervision (like regular license renewal background checks, or even some kind of meaningful concomitant community service) could make sense, as creating a “gatekeeper” function on firearms ownership.  But then just imagine what could happen if we applied the same idea to self-distribution of speech under the First Amendment.  

Stevens’s writing style tends to be dense and detailed (like mine), and he goes into great precision in interpreting many famous cases, even in a brief book.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

DC Center just had OutWrite book fair, sorry that I missed it!

I must confess that I overlooked a book fair that probably would have been good for me to support, given my three “Do Ask, Do Tell” books (the latest was published in February 2014).
This event was OutWrite LGBT Book Fair at the DC Center  for the LGBT Community,  It was held in the U-street area of Washington DC (the Reeves Center) July 31-Aug. 2, 2015, with most of the book displays on Saturday, August 1, according to the Center website here. The website of the organization "OutWrite" right now does not load. 
Metro Weekly had an account of the 2014 event here.

I learned that this event had taken place when I attended the opening of DC Reel Affirmations last night (see Movies blog).

How did I miss it?  I do look at the DC Center site occasionally (for news about the asylum issue) but simply had overlooked it.  I was busy with my own agenda, getting ready to go to New England to discuss the possible completion of the unfinished film “American Lynching” by the late Gode Davis,
Of course, the book series, why centered or motivated by the original debate over gays in the military, spreads out into many other personal and policy areas, with a generally politically libertarian focus, and tends not to be identified with just one “group” whatever that is.

It’s true, I’m working solo right now, and I am not as keyed in to what is going on at a lot of other organizations (like HRC, Food and Friends, Whitman Walker) as others might think I could be.  I’ve gotte that feedback before.  But that’s the way it has to be right now.
I did attend a similar fair in New York City in March 2012, the Rainbow Book Fair (see that month here).