Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Reprisal

Miss Snark is an anonymous blogger who claims to be a New York literary agent. I've had her blog on my sidebar for a few months because it's helpful for writers and amusing for everyone. I read it regularly and I'm not planning to remove the link — but this week, she deserves a rebuke.

The ruckus began when a group called Writer Beware published a list of 20 Worst Agents who were allegedly soliciting naive authors with empty promises and mysterious "administrative fees." This is a real phenomenon and a serious problem. After a couple of dozen rejection letters, despondent authors can become easy marks for a con because they want to believe that someone's interest is genuine. I can understand how, to a writer in that situation, a smooth-talking lowlife can make a "$500 reading fee" sound perfectly reasonable. The hope behind publishing this list was that, with the help of Google, young authors could find the facts before mailing a check.

It's a good strategy — which is probably why one of the listed agents, Barbara Bauer, reportedly bullied a web provider into yanking the plug on the website hosting the list. Word spread quickly, and Miss Snark responded by posting the list herself and highlighting Bauer's name. She followed up with a post detailing the evidence against Bauer and concluded by writing, "Barbara Bauer, you are a scam artist."

Miss Snark's evidence is easily verifiable. She's probably right — and her readership threw her a virtual parade. Her blog was flooded with comments thanking her for showing courage and integrity and chutzpah. All of it was praise for a public indictment delivered anonymously.

No one questions that thieves belong in stocks in the town square; and it's easy to understand why Miss Snark, a reputable agent, would harbor an acute hatred toward a woman whose predatory actions carry adverse consequences for Miss Snark's entire profession. I have nothing but praise and respect for those who stand up and speak out, for those who are determined to cast vermin into the sunlight for disinfection.

Let me say that again. I respect those who stand up — who stand up — and speak out. Where is the conviction, where is the chutzpah in firing sniper shots from an anonymous blog?

This isn't the first time Miss Snark has named her target. Last month, she published an e-mail from an author who wanted representation. She redacted the author's address and telephone number but left her full name and the title of her book, and then proceeded to dare her readers to suggest creative ways to give the author a brush-off.

Melissa Lafsky spent ten months publishing her anonymous blog about the soap-opera antics inside a high-profile law firm, and she never once used anyone's name. Even after revealing her identity in the New York Observer, she continued masking the identities of her blog's subjects by substituting initials and pseudonyms. Her posts are every bit as funny and clever as anything I've read from Miss Snark — but Lafsky's blog never attacked anyone.

I'm not going to condemn all anonymous blogs. I don't love the idea, but Lafsky proved it can be done with grace and still prove entertaining. But you have to recognize that there's a line to be crossed. If you're throwing someone else's public reputation onto the fire while concealing your own behind a curtain, then you're a coward. It doesn't matter whether your allegation is true or false. It's not about the other person. It's about you.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

By Contrast

Flashback to last week. Framingham police responded to a 911 call and found Carla Souza and her 11-year-old son beaten to death in their apartment. Despite the fact that Souza's husband promptly confessed, a Boston Globe writer stumbled over her prose trying to afford him a presumption of innocence.

Contrast that with this week's lead sentence from a New York Times story about the alleged Marine massacre in Iraq.
Hiba Abdullah survived the killings by American troops in Haditha last Nov. 19, but said seven others at her father-in-law's home did not.
Res ipsa loquitur.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Bad Taste

Tonight, Kerrie watched Wolf Creek while I wrote on my laptop. I didn't pay enough attention to follow the plot, but I can tell you it's a horrible movie — if for no other reason than the fact that for at least a half-hour, the only "dialogue" I heard consisted of a girl sobbing uncontrollably.

Horror movies have been the latest fad. In the '90s, it was horror satire; recently, filmmakers have gone back to trying to scare audiences. In most cases, directors interpret "scary" to mean either "startling" (sudden noises) or "shocking" (creative torture). Both are cheap and lazy, and the resulting films suck broken glass.

I took a screenwriting class once where the teacher explained two approaches to drama: suspense, where the audience knows what the characters don't; and surprise, where the characters know what the audience doesn't. The trick of writing horror films is to walk between those raindrops.

I watched Saw. The killer had no discernible motivation, and the plot consisted of conceiving imaginative ways to commit murder. It's exactly the sort of film that I would have made when I was eleven. I guarantee, any script chosen at random from last year's Nicholl Fellowship quarterfinalists would be an improvement. This was like that.

I can't imagine the Wolf Creek script was longer than 36 pages. "Girl sobs. Gunshot. More sobbing. Cut to killer." That's not a story. It's a fetish — next to which, The Shaggy Dog looks like Hitchcock.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Plan Ahead

Read this. I first read about this arithmetic in Charles Givens' More Wealth Without Risk and I've cited it often, but this example (taken from a book by Burton Malkiel) spells out the math in specific terms. The knowledge startled me when I first read it, and the illustration startles me today — but thankfully, I've begun saving for retirement during the intervening years.

We don't teach personal finance in school. This is absolutely essential information; and I don't know about you, but it was news to me. The principle may be obvious, but the details and the magnitude constitute a revelation of their own. People need to know. Pass it on.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Voice of Experience

Lloyd Bentsen died today. He was 85. In 1988, Bentsen was the Democratic nominee for vice president alongside Michael Dukakis; and during an October debate against rival Dan Quayle, Bentsen delivered the most famous retort in American political history. Upon hearing Quayle compare himself to JFK, Bentsen answered coldly: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Today, WBZ telephoned Dukakis to comment on Bentsen's passing. Dukakis complimented Bentsen as a candidate and took responsibility for the loss, saying that if he had run a stronger campaign, Bentsen might have made the difference that won the election. Then Dukakis said something very interesting. He said that if he had spent more time planning, instead of blindly charging forward to campaign from state to state, they might have won.

You don't often hear unsuccessful candidates waxing about what went wrong, and certainly not when those campaigns were spectacular disasters that are remembered years later as textbook failures. It's almost like a magician giving away his secrets. So although careful planning might not sound like groundbreaking advice, you have to consider the context and give pause.

"A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow." That admonition is attributed to General Patton, and it's damn good advice that I often seen practiced in politics. (No surprise, since politicians love to study war strategy.) The flip side is that politicians tend to rush headlong into action — which is why you see so many stupid, stupid mistakes in professional politics. You might be tempted to dismiss Dukakis' hindsight, to say he was never much of a candidate regardless of what strategy he employed...but his analysis rings true.

The mystery of politics is why every blue collar on a barstool knows exactly what the national candidate is doing wrong, while the candidate himself is surrounded by $350,000 paid consultants who tell him to keep on charging ahead. The answer is that those consultants and their candidate have spent the last ten weeks on the road, hopping from hotel to hotel to airplane; and after 70 days sprinting through the trees, it becomes difficult to see the forest.

Dukakis hit the nail on the head — and it might seem obvious, it might seem trivial, but it's absolutely the take-home lesson for every professional politician working a wide stage. Yes, it's important to seize every day; and yes, mistakes are better than inaction. But you need to retain perspective. You need to see the whole board.

Monday, May 22, 2006

That's a Fact

I don't know why it amuses me to pick on the Boston Globe. Maybe because it remains the paper of record for this city despite its continual incompetence. Maybe because its staff refuses to acknowledge or fix the problems. The paper is often criticized for its liberal bias, and I agree with those criticisms — but to be honest, I'm bothered more by the fact that it reads like a bad college daily.

Today's front page included this lead:
FRAMINGHAM — Carla Souza dialed 911 just after 11 p.m. Saturday, asking police to rush to her Framingham apartment because of a problem with her husband, according to police. But an attacker allegedly got to her before officers did one minute later.

Firefighters and police found Souza, 37, and her 11-year-old son, Caique, semiconscious — their heads beaten — lying in blood on the bedroom floor. The cordless phone was still connected to the police operator. Both mother and son later died of their injuries.
Souza's husband is scheduled to be arraigned today on two charges of murder. Obviously, reporters have to acknowledge that he's innocent until proven guilty — both out of civic responsibility and legal liability — which is why the writer addends her first sentence with the phrase, "according to police."

Now explain why her second sentence includes the word "allegedly."

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Force Allocation

The Hartford Courant reports:
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman won the endorsement of a divided Democratic state convention Friday night, but his challenger, Ned Lamont, garnered enough support to force a primary and a summerlong debate on the war in Iraq.

Lieberman, 64, a three-term senator and his party's 2000 vice presidential nominee, defeated Lamont, 52, an anti-war candidate, on a 1,004 to 505 roll call ballot, the first step on what promises to be his most difficult re-election challenge.
In the midst of a midterm election against an unpopular majority, the Democrats are faced with a choice: Focus efforts on winning Congressional seats from vulnerable Republicans, or attack each other. Witness their decision.

Talk about a cliched sign of weakness.

I'll admit, there's a school of thought that says the Democratic power structure has proven inept and that maybe the best long-term solution is to pull down the existing framework and rebuild. That school of thought is naive. Politics is money, and nothing attracts money like fame. I don't care how many grass-roots idealists make PayPal donations; that sum will never outweigh the millions of dollars invested by people who want to have breakfast with a celebrity who can help them.

I understand the radicals' logic — that Senator Lieberman's votes have betrayed their values, that their primary objective should be sending a message of protest — but they're wrong. I'm a Republican, but foremost I'm an American and I care more about the good of our country than the victories of my party. The pendulum has swung too far, and we need the Democrat party to pull itself together and suit up.

The course of human civilization has turned on the quest to govern; and although we have invented more effective modes of government than democracy, we have found none more elevating. I firmly believe in adversarial politics, and I hesitate to suggest that Connecticut wouldn't benefit from a spirited campaign; but sometimes politics is war, and war requires triage. You have to pick your battles, and you have to recognize that small victories can sometimes preclude meaningful ones.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

How To Sound Like a Candidate

Last night, President Bush addressed the nation. Now, I'm an arrogant sonofabitch, but there are at least a dozen living speechwriters whose prose could blow mine out of the water so it's not arrogance when I tell you that President Bush's speechwriters are incompetent — and to demonstrate, I submit Exhibit A, excerpted from last night's speech about cracking down on illegal immigration.
I was the governor of a state that has a 12,000 mile border with Mexico. So I know how difficult it is to enforce the border, and how important it is.
You heard right. That's your second-term president citing his experience as governor of Texas to establish credibility.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Building Blocks

Following cuts in state aid, many towns in Massachusetts are seeking budget overrides to offset projected deficits for 2007. Medway voters rejected a proposed $2.5 million override last month; and now, the Medway library will likely be closed.

These deficits have caused as contentious a debate as I've seen in local politics. There are valid complaints on both sides, from allegations of classism to criticisms that new residents move into town, hike taxes with frivolous spending, then leave. But for the moment, I'm not concerned with those arguments. Medway is going to close its library.

I'm a conservative. I believe in small government. But there are certain faculties that are absolutely necessary to the progress of a civilized society, and foremost among them is education — and public libraries are the best and only resource we have to provide for the abiding education of our citizens.

I don't have a solution. Medway's deficit is real, and the voters have decreed to solve it with budget cuts. Closing the library will result in a $280,000 savings. The school budget is likely to be cut by $542,000; so by comparison, maybe it's trivial to view the library's loss as a blow to education. And the library could be reopened next July, so I don't mean to imply that the sky is falling.

Still. It's sad to see a public library viewed as non-essential. I realize that many suburban voters eschew public libraries in favor of Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but there's much to be said for the value of unexercised freedoms. And in the case of a public library, the freedom at issue is the freedom to improve yourself — which is, at root, the American dream.

A man said, "You're the same person today as you'll be next year, except for two things — the people you'll meet and the books you'll read." The residents of Medway are going to lose one of those two opportunities for growth during the next year. That's a political tragedy.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Course Requirements

Boston politicians are always clamoring about a half-dozen disputes from local suburbs, and one of the present topics is Joni Jay, principal at the Joseph Estabrook Elementary School in Lexington. Jay has decided that kindergarten students should be taught about homosexual families.

By all accounts, Jay is both respectful and professional. She obviously cares about her students, and she genuinely believes her decisions reflect their best interests. She told the Boston Globe, "It's not our intent to be on the forefront of one of the most controversial issues in the country" — and while that lacks a ring of credibility, I suspect it's probably true. She began this tack seven years ago; if she had been seeking a spotlight, she could have found one earlier.

Nevertheless, she's wrong.

Last week, National Geographic and Roper Public Affairs released a joint study assessing the geographic literacy of adults between the ages of 18 and 24 in the United States. They conducted 510 interviews which averaged 26.8 minutes apiece, and the results were disappointing. Here are some highlights.
  • 88% could not locate Afghanistan.
  • 63% could not locate Iraq.
  • 70% could not locate North Korea.
  • 74% believe that English (rather than Mandarin Chinese) is the most commonly spoken language in the world.
  • 71% did not know that the United States is the world's largest exporter of goods and services.
  • Fewer than half could locate New York or Ohio on a map of the United States.
The reason that Jay is wrong has nothing to do with homosexuality — whether it's wrong, whether gays should be allowed to marry, whether they should be permitted to adopt. Jay is wrong because it's not her school's job to teach children what defines a family. Her job is to teach children to read, to write, to perform arithmetic and to understand history. Our schools aren't performing those jobs adequately — so why the hell are teachers spending time lecturing kindergarten students about families?

School is an important part of our children's education. It is part of that education, and just because our children should learn something doesn't necessarily mean they should learn it in school. We have a problem with teachers who believe that if something is important for children to know, then it's their job as teachers to impart that knowledge — and that may be well-intentioned, but it's arrogant and it's misguided and it's wrong.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Hypothetical

The Rev. Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church and owner of GodHatesFags.com, has been encouraging his followers to protest the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. According to FOX News, the church members stand across the street during burial services holding profane signs ("Thank God For Dead Soldiers") and screaming that the deceased will burn in Hell.

We all agree, these people are vermin. Few among us will shed a tear when Rev. Phelps passes away, and few among us would sob if these protestors were delivered a swift beating by the families of these deceased soldiers. And that's the context of the following hypothetical, which will serve as your final exam in Principles of Free Speech.

You're impaneled on a jury, charged with deciding the fate of a widow who grabbed a cemetery trowel and killed a man who was screaming obscenities during her husband's burial. The prosecution's case is indisputable and includes a video recording. But the widow refused to plead on principle, because she thinks she's right and she's betting a jury won't send her to prison; so the prosecutor was forced to press for the maximum, and now this widow's fate lies in your hands. She is 28, with two young children.

Now, her fate is your decision — whether to take this woman away from her children, whether to lock her away from fresh air and sunlight for 12 years. Do you convict or nullify?

It's easy to say that you'd defend a bigot's right to free speech. It's more difficult to imagine an instance where you would have to. But stand it up against the rule of law, and you've got yourself a fair fight.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Advice For Authors

Continuing in the vein of informative blog posts, I would direct your attention to this gem, where a literary agent explains how to write a query letter.

No, this stuff is not obvious. It needs to be said, written, and repeated — and now it has, by an expert.

I have only one criticism: Your letter needs to specify whether your novel is finished. Many are. Most aren't. It makes a difference.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Ten Dollars

My first job was working in a small market. In addition to the deli counter and a few aisles of groceries, we sold lottery tickets; and although Sundays were reliably slow, you could always count on selling scratch tickets.

I saw the same people every week. It was like a ritual. They would buy maybe $30 worth of tickets, which they carried to the coffee counter in the back of the store. They would come back a few minutes later, having won something (variably more or less than they had spent) — and they always traded their winnings for more scratch tickets. Then they would go back to the counter; and the process would repeat until their winnings were lost.

I've always remembered that. So when I won $10 on a scratch ticket that someone gave me last week, I traded it for cash. (The clerk looked stunned, as if she had never heard that request. She probably hadn't.)

I heard a statistic on the radio that has stuck with me: Americans' personal savings levels are presently at their lowest point since the Great Depression. With that in mind, let me share a remarkable blog post (three words I rarely juxtapose). Everyone always asks, "What's a good book to help with personal finance?" J.D. Roth has answered — not by recommending one, but by summarizing the bullet points from five.

Roth recently launched a blog devoted to personal finance tips. I'd suggest you bookmark it — but definitely read his original post. Think of it this way: These are five books that were chosen by editors and publishers from among hundreds of manuscripts, and millions of readers have since made all five bestsellers. Roth is giving you an opportunity to digest them in capsule form. It's worth a look.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Fallout

I've received a few e-mails regarding my analysis of the Opal Mehta controversy. I like hearing from readers; and I appreciate the fact that you took the time not only to read my column, but to compose an e-mail to a stranger. While every e-mail was laudatory, several folks asked what I thought about the evidence against Viswanathan.

I chose to avoid commenting on the specific allegations for several reasons. First, I don't like speaking without having heard both sides; and notwithstanding Viswanathan's hastily prepared statement, I figured it was reasonable to allow her a couple days to form her response. Whatever she planned to say, whether it was confession or denial, it would carry legal and financial consequences for several companies, and thus I assumed her statement would be reviewed by executives and lawyers before she talked to Larry King. That's not an unreasonable allowance.

Second, I haven't read either book. And while the excerpts do seem to speak for themselves, I'm hesitant to excoriate someone based on secondhand research. I like to do my own homework — and in this case, I had absolutely no intention of slogging through two mediocre chick-lit novels in order to opine intelligently on a plagiarism scandal. So aside from my media analysis, I was content to let this one pass me by.

I can't deny it's an interesting story. As of this writing, Viswanathan's publisher has pulled the book from shelves and DreamWorks has halted production of the film. Considerable time and money were invested into both; and after the blame has landed somewhere, a lot of executives are going to want some assurance that this won't happen again. Obviously, any editor who hadn't read (and memorized) McCafferty's book wouldn't have recognized the similarities; but in an era where any discussion of plagiarism inevitably includes the word "Google," eventually someone's going to demand a solution to that problem.

What's ironic is that the solution will probably resemble Google's proposed massive digitized library — a proposal which, when announced, was fiercely condemned by nearly every major publisher.

But there's a third reason that I limited my comments. Sometimes you avoid a fishin' hole not because it ain't stocked, but because you'd rather not associate with the folks who frequent it. I have no problem denouncing plagiarists; I think a thief is worse than an incompetent, and I think convicted plagiarists should be forever banned from professional writing.

However, in deciding whether to climb onto any given bandwagon, you have to look at who else is aboard. I'm not writing for the lowest common denominator, here. I didn't pounce onto Viswanathan for the same reason I didn't castigate Ben Domenech: I looked around the landscape, and I didn't like the company.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Invasion

Today has been dubbed, "A Day Without Immigrants." Thousands of advocates for illegal immigrants around the country have rallied their supporters to boycott work and school in an attempt to show Americans — real Americans — that illegal immigrants are a formidable presence in our society. This rally is intended to punish us. I say, "Good riddance."

These advocates would have us believe that illegal immigrants are hard-working people who simply want to achieve a better life. That may be true, but it's not the whole picture.

Imagine that you have a cup of cold water beside a bowl of hot water, and you want to raise the temperature of the cold water. You can use the stove — or you can just empty the cup into the bowl, which results in lukewarm water. That's the Mexican solution: Rather than build their own wealth, they prefer the shortcut of leeching off ours. Our wealth is reduced — but hey, what do they care? They're not cold anymore.

Immigrants are the backbone of America. We cannot thrive without them, nor should we want to. Frankly, they tend to work harder than native-born Americans; and their ambition reminds us of what we're trying to achieve with this nation. When folks from every hemisphere aspire to "The American Dream," you know you're part of something special.

But when a foreign country demands you open your southern border — a foreign country whose economy is propped up by your investments, a country whose own southern border is strictly patrolled with violators subject to two-year imprisonment — we're no longer talking about immigration. This is invasion. And today's protest is nothing short of organized crime.