Sunday, August 31, 2008

Wikisurveillance--and a little tabloid journalism

There's never a shortage of hijinks in cyberspace--people posting admiring things about themselves while pretending to be a third party, or preposterous (and often slanderous) rumors of the type studied and debunked by the admirable

But things are getting more complicated out there. Many of you have read that VP-nominee Sarah Palin's Wikipedia page received such a makeover--beginning 24 hours before the announcement of her selection--and that Wikipedia suspended public updates of her entry and is allowing only senior editors to make changes.

Many other VPs-in-waiting had their pages polished a bit in recent weeks. But Palin's page was treated to an extensive series of tweaks (including things like downplaying her beauty-pageant history). The most interesting of these were thirty changes made over five hours in the 24 hours preceding her nomination by someone who posts by the handle of Young Trigg*. (Trig, with one 'g', is the name of Sarah's youngest child; see the Yellow Journalism section at the bottom of this post.) The "Young Trigg" account was then retired. Some folks are jumping to the conclusion that Young Trigg is Sarah Palin herself, which seems patently absurd to me--I assume she had better things to do with her time in the hours before her nomination was announced.

It wouldn't be surprising at all were it someone from the McCain campaign, and I find it to be far from a scandal--in a business where outright lies are used as attacks on one's competitor, spiffing up a Wikipedia page seems like a minor sin. All of the changes Young Trigg made were certainly favorable to the candidate, but they were also arguably "true" within the Wikipedia guidelines. I imagine the public's reaction to what is being promoted as Wikigate will be, "So?"

The truly interesting part of this story has to do with how this last-minute burnishing came to light. The Washington Post became aware of the massive edits of Palin's page through a firm called Cyveillance. Cyveillance is a firm that watches internet traffic, and one of the things they monitor is updating of Wikipedia pages. According to the article in the Post:

Cyveilliance normally trawls the Internet for data on behalf of clients seeking open source information in advance of a corporate acquisition, an important executive hire, or brand awareness. For example, an executive updating his Wikipedia page or resume on may be an indication of that person's plans to change jobs, or even that the company is in financial trouble.

Gudaitis said the company decided to monitor the veep picks on a lark to test the applicability of its open source methods in the sphere of politics. In addition to the Wiki pages, the company monitored chatter on other Internet sites that discussed the observations, movements and locations of potential VP candidates.

Blogs by pilots and others in the airline and private aviation industry also are a font of open source information, Gudaitis said.

My, my. We are being watched in ways we never suspected. Roger Morris has admitted to spending most of his summer setting up new internet sites for himself. Do you suppose Roger's now on some sort of Cyveillance watch list?

So, don't go order six copies of your own book online, hoping to bump your Amazon ranking for the day from 4,333,286 up to 2,522,314. (Can six books do this? Yep.) Someone is tracking all this. And it will come up when you're nominated as VP. Or for the Booker. Or the next time you apply for a loan.

* The Tabloid Journalism Section of this Blog: (I tried a yellow font for that, but it wasn't readable. You'll have to settle for purple prose.)

One of the first things you hear about Sarah Palin is that she is so committed to her anti-abortion stance that she bore her youngest child, Trig, despite the fact they knew from amniocentesis that he had Down's Syndrome.

There have been rumors for some time that the child is actually the son of one of her teenaged daughters, Bristol, and that Mrs Palin claims it as her own. This seems on the face of it to be a preposterous story, but various events can be added up in such a way that it all hangs together. If you want to follow this tale out through its various branches, here's a good place to start.

The more I think about this story, the more I like it; it sure would be fun to write as a novel. But if you want to run with it, don't let me stand in your way--I have too much on my plate as it is.

Alas, I seriously doubt that it's true. The rumor has been around for some time, and you can bet the McCain campaign went over it with a microscope before they selected her.

Politicians only make careless, unexamined moves once they've already taken office.

Friday, August 29, 2008

McCain Chooses Palin as Running Mate

That's the News Alert headline for the NY Times that came shooting into my e-mail this morning.

As it turns out, though, there's some other Palin out there. It seems she's the governor of Alaska.

Every so often, the Republicans show a keen sense of humor. (For example, nominating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Or nominating Dan Quayle for anything whatsoever.)

Unfortunately, the sense of humor doesn't extend quite as far as asking Michael to be the vice-presidential candidate. Too bad. They might have swayed my vote.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Questions Writers Get Asked

Lawrence Block said one of the only things certain in life is that if you admit to being a writer, someone will ask a silly question. My favorite Q&A of his was:

Have I ever read anything you've written? (I don't know--I said a was a writer, not a psychic.)

Emma Darwin has a post on her favorite dumb questions and her answers to them. Check it out, it'll cheer you up.

An Open Question to the Community

I have a friend who is involved in starting up a website oriented towards artists and writers. He contacted me to ask what blogs and websites I considered useful and important for writers, probably with a view to posting links.

I gave him a list of some I considered valuable--and, of course, referred him to the esteemed cast of bloggers over on the sidebar of this blog. But I thought I'd throw out the question to all of you folks as well. Are there any writing-related sites you consider especially valuable or prominent?

Monday, August 25, 2008

At Last I'm a REAL Writer

The paperbacks of Shock and Awe have arrived on my doorstep.

Nice. Shiny. And with a kind blurb from thriller master James Barrington (for which I am grateful).

You can't see it in the pics here, but the glossy gold title on the front is embossed. I spent the morning running my fingertips across the raised letters as if there might be messages in Braille lurking there.

It's a childhood fixation, I admit. But real writers to me were people who wrote books you could go out and buy--and in the benighted part of California where I grew up, there weren't any stores where you could wander in and buy hardback novels. (Not that I could have afforded any.)

And there they are: Paperbacks.

I suppose a lot of what I do is to please the ten-year-old lurking inside me. (Sad, but true.) Now if they'd just put me on a rack in a supermarket, I'd really have arrived.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

One More Post On This Topic And I'll Shut Up

Probably. Unless I change my mind.

Way down in the comment trail (on my original question about writing someone else's book), Emma Darwin observed there would be a difference in impact on your real writing depending on whether you could knock it off in one six-weeker, like Faulks, or whether you had to spend most of the year churning out a half-dozen Mills & Boon Harlequin romance novels. That's a salient point.

But, then, who knows? One probably wouldn't like to find out such a thing, but perhaps one would find the world of Mills & Boon to be where one's talents really bloomed. (I, for one, always worried that if I ever discovered what I was 'supposed to do with my life,' that it would turn out to be something I didn't respect. Even harboring such thoughts says something peculiar about me, but I try not to think about it. Yeah, sure, the unexamined life isn't worth living, but there's no reason to get carried away wit the whole thing.)

All this put me in mind of the rather strange case of Robert Graves. Today Graves is remembered, and still admired, for his novels, especially the pair of Claudius novels. But Graves himself viewed his novels as potboilers, paid hackwork he tossed off to support his real and lasting art, his poetry.

Now there's a sweet irony. Today, Graves' poetry is hardly remembered, and his novels are his lasting legacy.

(I'm putting my hands over my ears so I don't have to hear the outraged screams from aficianados of his poetry. On the other hand, there can't be all that many, can there?)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Note From My Sister

My sister comments on my blog every so often, but is for some reason reluctant to get into the actual Comment trail. I'm not sure why--deniability, perhaps--but I thought I'd share the e-mail she dropped me about my previous posts on writing for hire:


Had to comment on your blog (cuz that's what it is there for!). I think writing for a soap opera would be wicked fun. If anyone offers you said gig and you don't want it, send them my way. I would love to spew out five hours a week involving sweatless sex, artificial lust, attractive drug addiction, furfree beastiality, and alien baby abductions - all with limited special effects and tons of lip gloss. It would be just like the high school only lunch would be catered.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Writing Somebody Else's Books, Part II

Okay, be honest now. Have you read the first post? No? Well, go there first, and all of this will make more sense. Really.

At the risk of being tiresomely familiar, there's a tale that George Bernard Shaw once asked a woman at a party if she'd have sex with him for a million pounds. "Yes," she said, after some reflection, "I suppose I would."

"Then how about twenty pounds?" he asked.

"Of course not!" she replied. "What kind of woman do you think I am?"

"Madam," he supposedly said, "we've already established what sort of woman you are. What we're quibbling about is price."

His point is taken. But so is hers; there are a lot of numbers between between £20 and £1,000,000. Anybody who thinks everything is a matter of quantity rather than quality should compare a swallow of vodka with quaffing a quart.

Still: is what we're quibbling about here a matter of principle...or price?

I can't quite make up my mind about this topic. I think that the matter comes down to one of the "artist" versus the "professional," but even then I'm not so sure.

I'm morally certain (a phrase I stole from Patrick O'Brian, since I've never been morally certain in my life) that there's no right or wrong answer. Everything is fuzzy, and even fuzzier once we get off into the realm of hypotheticals.

But, just to check, and to get utterly ridiculous, let's look at a, umm, specific hypothetical:

"Give us a day of your writing time, and we'll give you enough cash, and cachet, that the other 364 days of your year will be generously paid for. Do what you like with the rest."

That would be hard for me to turn down. (Yeah, yeah, the road to hell, et cetera, ad nauseum, and other late Latinates.)

Would you trade in six weeks of paid writing labor for a year to do as you like? (That's what Faulks did.)

Well, I confess: I would, readily.

But we already know what kind of woman I am.

[nb. I won't even start to remark on the whole sexist, gender-laden, who-is-taking-what-from-whom-sex-for-pay issue here. So why did I use that analogy in the first place? Well, largely because it is freighted with bushels of the same kinds of concealed, value-laden goodies that we confront when we ask how a writer "ought" to spend their time.]

How about two months of your year, for ten to do with a you want? Three, leaving you nine?

Six months? Half of your year?

For most of us, that would still leave us more time for our own work than we have right now...

I find this to be a fascinating question, and even more fascinating if we push it to extremes. Suppose, for example, that you could make a good living, for yourself and your family, by spending six months of the year as a writer on some stupid soap opera...and then had the other six months to work on whatever you chose.

Good trade-off? Horrifying sell-out?

And is what's bothersome is that this hypothetical, a) it pushes everything down to a real matter of character, or, b) it proposes something that is far more clear-cut than anything life offers us?

I don't know. I guess that for a real artist, the answer would lie in whether the six months of hackwork benefitted--or at least didn't harm--the six months of other work.

I could make an argument that fictioneering of any sort is a benefit, and allows the writer to hone their storytelling skills. If you get paid for it, so much the better, and if you get paid enough that it allows you to follow your passion, you're nearing nirvana.

Yet I could make an argument that any storytelling that isn't your main passion is a diversion.

Still, suppose I offered you 364 days of pay for one day of work for hire?

Hmm. Howabout two months, with ten months off?

Well, howsabout...oh. Sorry. We've been here before, haven't we?

Writing Somebody Else's Books

I have reached the end of my recent programming nightmare. Or, rather, I have finished the program and have it ready for distribution. With software, the nightmare never really ends. There is always the bug that gets reported to you on an urgent basis when you are busy doing something else, usually when you’ve had your head out of the program for so long that it looks like Linear B rather than something you once wrote and understood. But for the moment, RefMod LP seems as though it's ready to charge out there and attack the project we’ve been working on.

To a lot of writers, I might seem to have the ideal day job. After all, I have big chunks of time when I can delve deeply into my stories. To others, the drawbacks might seem more apparent: when we have a crisis, it’s all-consuming, and there’s no way to “squeeze in” any writing at all.

This question of balancing the day job with the writing is one most writers face, and I’ve known few who were entirely happy with the balance. At least one writer I know is trying to figure out a way to move from a standard day job to a more writing-oriented career, trading in her current work for freelance editing and other wordsmithing.

I wonder about this. I’ve heard from too many writers who found that careers in editing or script-reading or writing advertising copy tended to use up a big portion of their writing juices—or, in the words of one, left them so self-conscious that they felt constipated.

Teaching creative writing has always been a favored option, at least in the US, but many writers—including John Gardner himself—report that they seldom get much done during the school year, and that the only advantage of the job is the long school breaks. (That said, some others seem to balance teaching and writing quite happily.)

Back in the Golden Age of paperback originals, many authors supported their writing with even more writing. Well-known writers like Lawrence Block, Dean Koontz, Brian Garfield, and Elmore Leonard learned their chops and earned their bread while writing “their own” books and also cranking out series novels, novelizations, work-for-hire, ghosting, or other secondary fictioneering.

The market for this sort of thing is far smaller than it once was—though I saw recently that Sebastian Faulks was happy to pick up the James Bond torch—but I wonder what it would be like, supporting your fiction with fiction.

Faulks apparently wrote the new Bond, Devil May Care, in six weeks, a far shorter time than his “own” novels. If you don’t have to invent protagonists, characters, style, or milieu, this whole job might be easier. Far less satisfying, I would imagine, but easier.

So, Dear Readers: in the unlikely event that such a job were offered you, would you take it? If it would let you quit your day job, would you write the novelization of Tropic Thunder, or Finnegan Wakes Again, or The Return of the Return of the King, or Pride and Judiciary: The Divorce? Would you ghostwrite/co-write Tony Blair's debut bodice-ripper or Jessica Alba's striking new novel of ideas?

(You'd be welcome to use a pseudonym, of course.)

Friday, August 15, 2008

On Being Published

Early this week, over on the Macmillan New Writers blog, I threw out the general question of how writers felt having finally attained publication.

So far we're approaching a dozen responses. The reactions are varied, but with a few common themes. I think most of the visitors to this blog would find the varied perspectives an interesting read, so you may want to take a gander at the comment trail on that post.

(If you have not already done so, you may want to add your own perspective!)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Potted Tree Parable Pics

Alis has decided to take the revival of our little tree (see previous post) as a good omen. I can't quarrel with that--I'll take good omens wheresoever they can be found.

In furtherance of the Good Omens for Writers, here's a picture of exactly how forcefully the tree has put out new leaves and branches. Not long ago, this was a spindly barren stick with a couple of dying leaves.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Parable of the Potted Tree

We have a South American tree--never mind what sort--in a halved wine barrel out back. We've been growing the tree from a timy seedling, and now it has a nice trunk and stands a little taller than me.

It's a deciduous species. But this spring, the leaves came bursting out...and died, looking as though the sun had fried them. Again and again.

Finally we discovered the poor thing was rootbound (or root-bound, or perhaps root bound)--all roots, but unable to absorb water. Although it was late in the season, we dragged it out of its huge pot and laid it on its side. I took a saw and cut away the bottom third of its roots, resulting in a woven woody mat about the diameter of an automobile tire, though not quite as thick. Then I cut some big triangular wedges out of the rootball in parallel with the trunk.

We pruned back the branches--pruned it back hard--and replanted it in the barrel with loads of new soil. We figured we might have killed it, but it was clearly dying anyhow.

The tree has burst out in new buds, buds now invincible to the sun, and more energetic than ever before. Which probably goes to demonstrate a profound concept, and probably has deep applicability to writing, or editing, or your hair or your family or something.

Or it might demonstrate that I'm a crappy horticulturist and that trees are incredibly resilient even if they are badly mistreated by incompetent owners.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell parables from screw-ups.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Giger in the Garden

Okay, I've been remiss in posting about writing lately. Mostly because I haven't been doing much writing; instead, I've been slaving over a hot computer, and then taking out my frustrations in the garden while I wait for various software vendors to figure out why their third-party widgets don't seem to be working in my (admittedly offbeat) application.

And, though I've been remiss, I'm afraid it's botany once again today.

Our back yard (or backyard, or back-yard) has a huge Ficus repens (vining fig) growing along the walls. These are the sorts of things that take over whole temple complexes in Southeast Asia, giving Indiana Jones something to clamber up or slash away at. They are extraordinary plants, but apparently sterile without their specific pollinating wasp (figs are generally pollinated by a species-specific wasp). As an act of bioterrorism, you could import that wasp to California. If these figs could propagate by seed, the whole of coastal California south of San Francisco would soon be swallowed up by these vines. The only solution would be to import orangutans (from that Bahasa orang "people" and hutan forest--forest people) who are big on chomping down figs. As it is, the fruits simply form hard, inedible little knots that dig into your feet when you step on them.

Our house--which had been left in great disrepair when we bought it--had vining figs leaning out as much as ten feet from the walls at the back of the property. I assaulted them and cut them back, but not far enough. Every so often, they rush out and try to overwhelm our house.

For those who can't quite envision this, here is Ficus repens over one of the benches on our deck. To get a sense of scale, the top of this seeming hedge is about ten feet from the ground.

Trimming never really worked on the more aggressive sections: they had branches thrusting out that were thick as your forearm. So this time, we decided to cut them all the way back to the wall, and henceforth attempt to keep them within a foot of the wall.

The result was something like this:

Well, okay, not really. But it might have been. If you were on acid. But my point is: it's really weird underneath there. These arm-thick vines wrap around one another, and where they cross they actually merge together; where once there were two thick vines, there is a unified "X".

In another twenty years, this will be a block wall encased in a solid wall of living wood.

In Thailand they are prone to play with the various ficus species in the ruins. In the ancient capital Ayutthaya, which was abandoned after the Burmese sacked it centuries ago, the locals are fond of picking up the decapitated heads of the thousands of Buddha statues and sticking them into ficus vines. After a decade or two, they appear to be part of the tree. Very picturesque (and in fact I have a picture or two of them).

A picture can't really do our back wall justice, especially since pictures need to be taken in the daytime. (At least if you have my camera, and my questionable level of skill.) But it's at night that the true, writhing, Hans-Rudi-Gigeresque, biomechanical force of these vines is apparent. I wish I could do better. But here's a mid-day photo of a portion of our back wall.

Too sunny, too bright, too Southern California. But trust me: after dark, it's one-third Giger, one-third Poe, and one-third HP Lovecraft.

I only feel safe at all because I'm the guy who waters them. They need me, right? (And is "they" the right term? I'm not sure how many plants there are. Maybe only one.)

On the other hand, once they are this well-established, they don't need much water...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I'm a Lumberjack, and I'm Okay...

While fighting to get Visual Studio to incorporate a new linear-programming optimizer routine (the vendors are busy trying to figure out why it doesn't work right), I've been taking time to, ahem, do a bit of gardening.

Specifically, I cut down two 40-foot-high trees.

Now, I don't much like cutting down trees, and these were exemplars of their type: Australian Brush Cherries (Syzigium paniculatum or Eugenia myrtifolia), variety Monterey Bay, which some references say reach a masimum height of 15 meters. So our pair was nearing their full genetic potential.

They were also uprooting a brick wall and wreaking all manner of other havoc. Whoever planted them didn't think things through. Brush cherries seem like innocent little things: they are popular as bonsais, they can be trimmed into topiaries, and the the hedge along our walkway is a long sequence of well-trimmed brush cherries. But if left to their natural inclinations, they become tall, pavement-heaving, pipe-crushing monsters.

And these weren't in a spot where you could attack the base of the trunk, cry "Timber!" and stand back. They could easily topple onto our house, our neighbor's house, fences, walls...

So it was a process of climbing up into the trees and cutting down the high branches first--toppling then carefully toward the few safe fall zones. It took a day of working down the trees to get to two heavy-trunked, branchless stubs about twelve feet high. Back on solid ground, I brought these down with a chainsaw. And I've spent much of the rest of the day chainsawing branches and treetrunks into bits that can be carried without hiring in trained logging elephants from Thailand.

The whole process has left me with mixed emotions. I always feel guilty about felling trees, and expect furious Ents to descend upon me with their powerful fists. But destroying large examples of God's handiwork with loud power tools is one of those satisfyingly testosterone-laden acts that guys have to perform every so often. I tell myself chopping down problem trees is better than, say, setting cars on fire, or shooting lions, or invading Poland. (Though I suppose to invade Poland with much effect really requires a large military apparatus. If you invade Poland on your own, you probably seem like just another tourist.)

The real problem is that now I have to clean up after myself. It's quite a mess. But, then, most guy things seem to leave a big mess, which may be why invading other countries has always been so popular. At least then the mess isn't in your own yard.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

More On Hyphens from Me Mum

From my mother comes a link to a BBC news story about hyphens. (Count on the BBC for all your cutting-edge news.) Fear not; they don't endorse any position, but simply report on trends.

The fact my mother is doing scanning British news sources is, in itself, news to me. Perhaps I'll have to start referring to her as 'Mum,' a word reserved over here for 'silent' or as a nickname for chrysanthemums.

Or perhaps I'll start referring to her as 'Moo,' as in the wonderful 1950s John Updike poem:


oooooThey [members of teenage gangs] are respectful
oooooof their parents and particularly of their mothers
ooooo--known as "moo" in their jargon.
oooooooooo--The New York Times Magazine

oooooCome moo, dear moo, let's you and me
oooooSit down a while and talk togee;
oooooMy broo's at school and faa's away
oooooA-gaaing rosebuds while he may.

oooooOf whence we come and whii we go
oooooMost moos nee know nor care to know.
oooooBut you are not like any oo:
oooooYou're always getting in a poo

oooooOr working up a dreadful laa
oooooOver nothing--nothing. Bah!
oooooRelax. You love me, I love you
oooooAnd that's the way it shapes up, moo.

(And thanks for the link, Moo.)