There is no good reason to ever buy an inkjet printer

Inkjet printers have been in the news lately, thanks to HP’s attempt to fleece their customers by pushing out an update that would cause those printers to reject third-party ink cartridges. (They were forced to backtrack on this plan by understandable consumer outrage.) Which gives me, as your nerd friend who gets asked about this stuff all the time, an opportunity to pre-emptively pass along to you a little bit of purchasing advice.

The advice is this: under no circumstances should you ever buy an inkjet printer.

This advice isn’t specifically about printers from HP; it’s about the entire category. Despite their enormous popularity, inkjet printers are always a bad deal.

Inkjets became popular in the 1990s as a middle ground between laser printers, which produced superior output but were then very expensive, and dot matrix printers, which were loud and ugly but cheap. Back then, inkjets gave home and small-busines users an affordable way to produce printed documents that, while still a bit rough-looking, were at least better than what they could have gotten before.

But that was twenty years ago, which is a long time in computer-world, and today the landscape of printer options is very different. Dot matrix printers, which were everywhere in 1990, have completely disappeared. And laser printers, which in 1990 were huge, colossally expensive machines only suitable for large offices, have plummeted in price and size to a point where they’re nearly as cheap as their inkjet cousins.

Which changes everything, because literally the only thing that inkjets had going for them was the fact that they were massively cheaper than lasers. They lose on every other front. Laser-printed documents are so much sharper and clearer than inkjet-printed ones that it’s silly to even compare the two. Inkjet printing uses, well, ink, which means that if an inkjet-printed document gets wet the ink can blot and run; laser-printed documents don’t have this problem.

And then there is the big problem with inkjets, which is that ink for them is just ludicrously expensive. Printer makers have taken advantage of the fact that inkjet buyers tend to be less technically savvy for decades, luring them in with cheap printers and then gouging them on ink. The result of all that gouging is that, ounce for ounce, printer ink these days costs more than Chanel No. 5. For the same amount you’d spend on a gallon of ink, you could buy more than 2,600 gallons of gasoline! That’s ridiculous.

Today’s laser printers, on the other hand, are cheap, efficient and reliable. You’ll pay a little more up front to buy the printer, but not that much; you can get a very capable black-and-white laser these days for around $100. (Here’s an example.) And the cost to operate that printer will be much lower. Lasers use “toner” rather than ink; a replacement toner cartridge for the printer I linked to costs around $45 and is good for 2,600 pages, which works out to just under two cents per page.

Compared to that, an HP black ink cartridge may seem cheaper, since it’s priced at around $14; but it’s only good for 190 pages (!), which means you’re paying more than seven cents for each page you’ll get out of it. That’s more than four times as much as what that page would cost you to produce with a laser. Or, to put this slightly differently: a $14 ink cartridge is no bargain when you’d have to buy 14 of them to print as many pages as you could print with one $45 toner cartridge.

There’s two common reasons people give for holding on to inkjets, despite this economic logic. The first is that inkjet printers are cheaper up front than lasers are. And that’s true! You can walk into a Best Buy and walk out with a basic inkjet printer for under $50. But this only seems cheaper, because while you’re saving a little money up front, you’ll end up spending lots more to keep that thirsty inkjet filled with ink. Saving $40 on the printer doesn’t gain you much if you end up spending $145 more on consumables.

The second is that they want to print in color. Even the cheapest inkjets offer color printing, while the cheapest lasers are black and white only, so at first glance this seems to make sense. Like the “cheaper up front” argument, though, it makes less sense the more you look into it.

First, while the cheapest lasers do not offer color printing, it’s certainly possible to get a color laser. You’ll just pay more for it; color lasers generally start at around $150-200 these days, and toner for them is more expensive than plain black-and-white toner.

But there’s a more fundamental problem with this argument for inkjets, namely this: you probably don’t want to print in color as much as you think you do.

Think about it. When was the last time you printed anything that absolutely had to be printed in color? Most documents are just that, documents — which is to say, mostly text, which benefits next to nothing from being printed in color versus black-and-white.

There are things that do have to be printed in color, of course; the most obvious example is photographs. But even here, the argument for inkjets fails to impress, because being able to print in color isn’t the same thing as being able to print in color well. Reproducing colors in photographs accurately demands a lot more than just some barrels of color ink; it demands a high-resolution printer and special, treated paper that can hold colors better than plain old printer paper can. You can buy that stuff too, of course, but doing so expensive and complicated, which makes it hard to recommend when you could alternately just send your photos to a photo printing service and get much better results than you’d get at home for a fraction of the price.

So take my advice: next time you’re in the market for a printer for your home or small office, don’t get fooled by the low price of inkjets. Spend a little bit more up front and get yourself a laser printer instead. You’ll get better output, save a ton of money over time, and stick it to the greedy bastards who have been gouging unsuspecting inkjet customers for years.

That’s what’s called a “win-win.”

It’s raining in Charlottesville

So I’ve got this new car, and as the weekend arrived I found myself with an itch to take it out and stretch its legs a little. Which is why, more or less apropos of nothing, I spent my Saturday afternoon in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I had no real purpose in choosing that destination in particular. It was just a good long drive (about two hours and fifteen minutes each way) from my home in Alexandria, and someplace I’d never been before.

Saturday was maybe not the best day to do this, since it rained more or less continuously all day, while Sunday and today have both been gorgeous, sunny days. But I was feeling impatient, so I figured what the hell, why not. And in the end it worked out pretty well, with the rain in the trees and on the cobblestones giving Charlottesville’s downtown a damp, autumnal charm.

Downtown Charlottesville

The big attraction in downtown Charlottesville is a seven-block-long pedestrian mall featuring shops, restaurants and cultural venues like theaters, bookstores and art galleries. It’s a charming place to take a walk, even in the rain.

Graffiti wall

Near one end of the mall is a graffiti wall, onto which passers-by are invited to chalk their own messages. I observed two young women working on adding a message of their own to the riotous collection.

Charlottesville is the home of the University of Virginia, which I assume just came back into session for the fall because college-age kids were everywhere. It was fun to watch them coming and going, ducking into coffee shops and gathering together under awnings; it reminded me of my own college days.

The rain actually helped on that score, too. When I first arrived for my own college freshman orientation, it turned out to have been scheduled alongside an absolutely enormous D.C. rainstorm. At the time that was an annoyance, but ever since then seeing a rainy college campus has taken me back to that moment, when it felt like the whole world was opening up.

Faded Coca-Cola sign

After walking the mall and ducking up and down side streets for a while, I settled into a little coffee shop to dry off (I had forgotten my umbrella) and warm up. The place was packed to the gills, mostly with students, but here and there were older people too.

Absolutely everybody had laptops open, and were either furiously typing — these folks usually had earbuds in, presumably to help them focus — or gathering around them in small groups to argue furiously about something or other. I felt a little jealous, since when I had been a college student these were scenes that took place in campus computer labs rather than coffee shops. Back then laptops were so expensive that nobody who wasn’t on a corporate expense account owned one, so while we worked on computers we were tied to fixed locations in ways today’s students aren’t.

Which reminds me of a story. Even back in my student days, some twenty-odd years ago, there were people arguing that computers had gotten so cheap that there was no need for the university to maintain computer labs for students anymore. The students all bring their own computers these days, the argument went, so open-access rooms stocked with workstations and printers were an anachronism.

I was one of those students who had brought a computer, because as a nerd of course I was, but I argued strenuously in favor of keeping the labs open. I knew how much my parents had to stretch financially to provide me with that computer, and I didn’t want other students who weren’t as economically fortunate to be shut out of access to what I was convinced even then was going to be a foundational part of living in the future.

Today, of course, you can get a computer a thousand times more powerful than the one I had back then for less than a hundred dollars, and it fits in your pocket to boot; so I suppose I was on the wrong side of history in that debate. I sipped my coffee and wondered if any of the kids buzzing around me had ever even seen a computer lab, and just how foreign to them the idea of computer technology as an expensive luxury must seem.

The coffee was pretty good, though.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

While some things change, however, other things stay the same; pull a bunch of college-age kids into one place, and showing Monty Python and the Holy Grail in that place makes as much economic sense in the 2010s as it did in the 1990s. So maybe I’m not as old as I thought.

My big idea to save Twitter

Twitter: this bird has flownTwitter is in trouble. The microblogging service, which is coming up on ten years of struggling to reach a mass audience, has recently admitted defeat and started looking for a buyer. And so far, the results have not been great: Google has passed, Disney has passed, Salesforce has expressed interest but is waffling, and Apple hasn’t even deigned to show interest at all. There aren’t many companies big enough to buy a company the size of Twitter, and as those that are drop out of the bidding one by one it looks less and less likely that a white knight is going to ride in and save the day.

Longtime Readers™ know that I kind of hate Twitter. It was a poorly designed product from the beginning, chock full of bad design decisions that have bitten well-meaning users over and over again. Its management seems to know this, because they appear to be absolutely baffled as to why their product became successful in the first place, terrified to change anything for fear of breaking the magic spell. So they tinker at the edges with failure bombs like Twitter Moments, but leave the core product’s sharp edges and buried land mines untouched.

Contrast this with Facebook, the big winner of the Web 2.0 social network sweepstakes. Facebook today is a very different product than it was when it was first introduced to the public. Facebook management has been unafraid to take big risks, such as rebuilding their product around the News Feed, which today is central to the Facebook experience but was intensely controversial when it debuted ten years ago. I have plenty of problems with Facebook, but they at least are not afraid to blow up their product in order to make it better. Compared to that, Twitter’s timorous approach to its own sacred cows is striking.

I do like a challenge, though, and so as Twitter has flailed over the last few years I’ve thought periodically about how I would go about saving the company if I were in charge. Lots of people play this game, of course, but the solution I eventually came up with is one that I have never heard anyone else suggest, so I figured I’d write it up here.

(Here on my blog, which I own, and where I can post complicated thoughts without having to struggle against an archaic, ridiculous character limit. Did I mention I hate Twitter?)

So how would I save Twitter? Simple: I would let people buy extra characters.


To understand what I’m talking about, you have to look away from the types of companies Twitter is usually compared with and look at a completely different market: the market for free-to-play video games.

Free-to-play gaming is huge, especially on mobile platforms, where it has driven every other type of game more or less out of business. Conceptually, their business model is simple: you make a video game, and then let anyone who wants to download it and play at no cost. But you design the game so that it has a bunch of annoyances built in, things that force the player to stop playing for a time, or that force them to do some boring, un-fun activity in order to continue. (Game designers call these latter things “grinds.“)

Wait a minute, you object. Games are supposed to be fun! Why would you put un-fun things into a game?

The answer is simple, and defines the free-to-play business model: you put un-fun things into your game so you can sell players the opportunity to skip past them.

Maybe you sell this opportunity in the form of in-game currency, which is bought with real money and spent to acquire items that let you skip the grind. Or maybe you sell it in the form of “XP boosters” that let players level up into more capable, powerful characters faster than players without them can. Or maybe you sell it in the form of a pro-level account, which gives your character the opportunity to carry more gear or wield more powerful in-game weapons — as long as they keep their subscription active.

The exact form the pitch takes from game to game varies, but the basic idea is always the same. The game forces you to do some un-fun thing in order to proceed. The game then gives you the chance to buy your way out of having to do the un-fun thing. Lather, rinse, repeat. Making it free to get started with the game opens it to the widest possible audience, who can then be sifted through to find players who are willing to spend real money to skip the un-fun patch.

Now, there are some serious ethical concerns around this business model. The big one is that, since the most active players are the ones who will hit the un-fun patch most often, it ends up exploiting people with addictive personalities. If you’re an obsessive player of a particular game, you’ll hit that un-fun patch over and over again, making buying your way past it incredibly appealing. So those players become “whales,” dumping money into the game the way other people do with slot machines or lottery tickets.

But, with all that being said, one thing that’s clear about this model is that it works. Free-to-play games throw off absolutely astonishing amounts of money. Clash of Clans, a popular free to play mobile game, earned its publisher $1.3 billion in 2015; that’s four times as much as was earned by the latest installment in the shooter franchise Call of Duty. Just about every hit game on mobile platforms these days is free-to-play, and the model is creeping into more traditional desktop and console games as well, through hits like League of Legends and World of Tanks. It’s not hard to imagine a (dystopian, but still) future where every game is free-to-play.

Twitter as free-to-play video game

So what does all this have to do with Twitter?

Well, let’s look at Twitter, or more specifically at the “feature” that’s been at its heart since the very beginning: the 140 character limit on posts.

Twitter boosters like to point to this as a stroke of genius, but anyone who’s used Twitter knows how quickly it can turn into a pain point. It’s absurdly easy for even the simplest thought to bump up against the limit, which is why Twitter users have adopted a range of arcane workarounds over the years: txtspek, pictures of text, tweetstorms, and so on.

Normally, when a software designer sees her users twisting themselves into knots to work around some part of her product, she takes that as a sign that it’s time to improve that part. Twitter’s management, on the other hand, has held to the 140 character limit like they are Captain Ahab lashed to Moby-Dick, and with more or less the same result.

But what if we were to break that tradition and actually take the users and their workarounds seriously? We’d discover something important: a big, un-fun patch built right into the heart of Twitter.

Think about it. Whittling a joke down from 143 characters to exactly 140 is not fun. Taking pictures of text on a screen is not fun. Breaking your thought up into 15 tweets, which you then have to number individually so people can follow your train of thought, is not fun. And the people for whom they are the least fun are Twitter’s heaviest users, whose high volume of tweets mean they run into the limit faster and more frequently than a casual user ever would.

Sound familiar?

Now imagine if Twitter made those heavy users an offer: the ability to buy a bag of extra characters, which could be drawn from at any time to extend a tweet as needed, for a price low enough to qualify as an impulse buy. For purposes of discussion, let’s say a penny each.

Suddenly, those heavy users — the 1% who generate 20% of the tweets — have a choice. They can buy their way out of the grind. For $1.00 they can buy 100 characters, which would be enough to bail them out of a fair few “I just can’t get it to less than 142 characters” moments.

And when they run out, they can always buy more.

As a way of generating revenue, this approach would have a lot to commend it. It would keep Twitter free for casual users, as well as for power users who would rather spend time editing their tweets than spend money to avoid having to. It would address a real pain point in Twitter’s user experience. And, best of all from Twitter’s perspective, it would be more or less pure profit; the marginal cost to Twitter of sending 141 characters down the wire instead of 140 is so small as to hardly even be worth measuring.

In other words, everybody wins.

But, you ask, won’t Twitter suffer if people start posting long tweets? Isn’t the brevity it forces on users a big part of its appeal?

I don’t think so — I think the near-real-time delivery of messages and the built-in scorekeeping mechanisms (follower count, retweets/faves, etc.) have more to do with it than the character limit does. But even if you disagree, I would argue that you would have little to worry about; because, if you are correct and brevity has value, people who avoid it will be punished by the marketplace of ideas. If keeping under 140 characters really is something people value, then users who routinely go long will lose followers. Eventually word will get around that the way to stay popular is to only go long when you absolutely have to.

The problem will solve itself.

So, if Jack Dorsey were to DM me today begging for ideas to bail him out, this is the one I would offer him: let people buy their way out of the 14o character limit. It’s free money, sitting there waiting for Twitter to pick it up.

Book review: “Everything Belongs to the Future”

Everything Belongs to the Future

Disclosure: I was provided a free pre-publication review copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley.

I’ve been reading Everything Belongs to the Future, an upcoming sci-fi novella by British writer Laurie Penny.

Set in the waning years of the 21st century, Everything Belongs to the Future follows several characters in a society a few decades after medicine has conquered death. One blue pill (“the fix”), taken daily, can stave off aging indefinitely, letting the person who takes it stay young and beautiful forever. But the fix is expensive — so expensive that only a privileged few can afford it. The result is a gerontocracy, in which a narrow elite live luxurious lives unmoored from mortality while the vast masses live their normal life spans in squalor.

The lives of the characters are all defined by their relationships to this system. Daisy, one of the scientists who invented the fix, has lived for nearly a century in the body of a teenager; bored, and nagged by the memory of a long-dead colleague who thought the fix should be available to all, she works in secret to develop a cheap generic version. Nina is a scruffy anarchist who lives on the fringes of society, stealing doses of the fix and giving them away to the poor, Robin Hood-style. Alex, her lover, is both a member of her criminal band and a guilty informer who sells their secrets to the corporation behind the fix in exchange for the promise of a century’s supply. Nina’s plan for a grand strike to topple the gerontocracy once and for all draws them all towards a climax in which their loyalties will be put to the ultimate test.

Everything Belongs to the Future is a novella, which is another way of saying that it’s short. I blew through the whole thing in a single reading session while sitting in the tub. But Penny makes good use of the space available, sketching out her characters with just enough detail to make them feel plausible and real. The setting she places them in, near-future Oxford in a world that’s been flooded by global warming, is convincing too. It’s just weird enough to feel futuristic, without beating you over the head with flying cars and such. Penny knows how to build a dystopia.

Speculative sci-fi succeeds or fails based on the cleverness of its central conceit, and here Everything delivers too. The only thing more plausible-feeling than the idea of a pill that can stop the clock is the idea that such a pill would become just one more lever for the 1% to use to set themselves apart from the rest of us. And Penny’s smart enough to show us that her miracle isn’t entirely miraculous, even for the people who can afford it; the weird sheen fixers’ skin takes on, for instance, or the ennui that endless life can bring when you have literally seen it all before.

If I had to lodge a complaint about Everything Belongs to the Future, it would be one that’s common to this type of sci-fi: the Big Idea tends to show up in the characters’ lives a lot more frequently than even the biggest Big Idea would in real life. In Everything’s world, the fix is all anyone talks about; it’s even the subject of the characters’ favorite music. This is a natural trap for speculative sci-fi to fall into, since exploring the Big Idea is the whole point of the work. But real life doesn’t work that way; here in real-life 2016, nobody’s favorite bands are singing about the Internet or economic inequality or global warming. (Not outside the context of the occasional do-gooder fundraising spectacle, anyway.) It’s a reflexive authorial tic that distances the reader from the story by reinforcing the idea that it’s just a story.

That aside, though, I liked Everything Belongs to the Future a lot; enough to wish that I could see these characters and this setting fleshed out in more detail as a full-length novel. So if you’re into this kind of sci-fi, this is one that you’ll probably want to put on your to-read list.

“Everything Belongs to the Future,” by Laurie Penny. Available on October 18, 2016 from Macmillan – Tor/Forge.

I bought a zoo

No, wait. A car. I bought a car.

Subaru BRZ

It’s a 2015 Subaru BRZ. I was considering buying one new, but I got a very good deal on a lightly used one from CarMax.

Longtime Readers™ may know that this marks the end of an era. The last time I bought a car was 13 years ago, when I bought a new Subaru Impreza WRX which turned out to be maybe the best major purchase decision I ever made. The WRX was a real tank, running for more than a decade without any major mechanical problems, and fun to drive to boot thanks to its tight handling and turbocharged boxer engine. (Someday I’ll write a post just about that car, it certainly earned it.) And its fundamental quality showed through in the trade-in value I got for it, which was frankly shocking for a 13-year-old car.

But flash forward to 2016, and the WRX was starting to show its age; a weird rattle had developed in the left rear quarter, the A/C was getting flaky, and my mechanic was making noises about replacements for non-trivial things like the serpentine belt looming. And in an age when things like GPS navigation and smartphone connectivity are to be found everywhere, her pre-Iraq-War cockpit was still sporting a cassette deck. All of these things could have been fixed, of course, but I felt like if I was going to be spending a lot of money it’d be better spent picking up a new car than trying to keep the old one running. So I went on a search for a replacement.

The BRZ is an interesting car, and one I’ve had my eye on since the model was first introduced in 2012. Designed and built in collaboration with Toyota, its intention is to revive a kind of small, rear-wheel drive sports car that you don’t see much anymore. This means that it gives up some traditional Subaru trademarks, like all-wheel drive. And it’s not much in raw performance terms, either, sporting a naturally aspirated 4-cylinder engine where other modern performance cars come with V6s and V8s.

But you don’t give all that stuff up for nothing, since by leaving it out Toyobaru is able to deliver a super-light car that feels nimble and connected to the road in a way that I’ve never experienced in a car before. I test-drove it more out of curiosity than expectation that I’d actually buy one, but by the end of the test drive I was completely sold. I had more raw fun on that test drive than I’ve had driving cars that cost twice as much.

Will it turn out to be as great of a car as my old WRX was? I have no idea. It’s definitely less practical, with just 2 doors instead of 4, rear seats so small as to be hardly worthy of the name, and a merely acceptable trunk instead of a big, roomy one. And even some admiring reviews of the car seem baffled as to why exactly the reviewer likes it, reeling off long lists of gripes before getting to the “but I love it anyway” at the end. So maybe I’ll end up regretting this purchase, I dunno.

But for now, I don’t care all that much. I don’t feel all that practical these days myself. I feel like mashing the accelerator into the carpet and flicking the gearbox into fifth and letting the tail hang out a bit as I go round a curve. I like the idea of a car that’s all about that feeling and literally nothing else. So for now, that’s what I’m driving.

On debates

Party to watch the 2008 vice-presidential candidates' debate at On the Boards, Seattle, Washington.

Photo credit: Wikipedia user Joe Mabel. Licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

I’m against them.

Political debates are empty exercises in style, in which candidates are judged entirely on the performative aspects of their presentation. In this format a candidate who says stupid things flawlessly beats a candidate who says smart things haltingly, or with an awkward-sounding word, or with a bead of sweat on his forehead. Ideas take the back seat to buzzwords and pre-packaged, focus-grouped lines. They provide no insight about the candidates who participate beyond how well they are able to deliver their lines, as if it was a casting call for a Hollywood movie.

Lots of people at the moment are blaming the media for this, saying that it’s the fault of the reporters who moderate the debates and the news organizations that cover them for not fact-checking more aggressively. But the media aren’t the problem here. The problem is the format, which caters to our worst instincts. Putting people on a stage and forcing them to speak in brief, timed blurts is inevitably going to favor pretty people with razor-sharp, meticulously rehearsed lines.

And by choosing to focus our decision-making processes on these staged confrontations rather than doing the hard work of paying attention and thinking independently, we ensure that staged confrontations are more and more all we’re going to get.

In other words, the problem is us.

I’ve been skeptical of the value of debates ever since I was in high school. Allow me to share a personal story that will explain why.

Vote for me

The Ohio town I lived in when I was a kid used to do an annual civic exercise for the students of its high school. (Maybe they still do; I don’t know.) A list of all the town’s public offices would be published, and seniors could announce themselves as “candidates” for any of these offices. A vote taken among the student body to elect one senior candidate to each office. The winning candidate for each office would then get to spend a day shadowing the actual person who held that office, learning what their job entails and seeing them go about doing it.

When the time came for this exercise during my own senior year, I decided, for reasons that I still don’t comprehend, to put myself forward as a candidate. And not just for any office, but for the office — the Mayor’s office.

Now, for the rest of this story to make sense it’s important for you to understand one thing about this decision: it was utterly, utterly ridiculous.

I was putting myself into the most hotly contested race on the ballot — there were, if memory serves, nearly a dozen kids running for mayor. (This despite the fact that our town has a council-manager government, so in actuality the mayor was mostly a figurehead; I was smart enough to know that, but running for city manager sounded boring.)

And to this competition, I brought exactly no qualifications. I was a nerd back in the days before nerds became cool, active in deeply uncool activities like theater and quiz bowl. I had no fan base, the way a star football or basketball player would; and no obvious constituency, no prominence as a leading student in an ethnic or religious community. Even as a nerd, I wasn’t distinguished; there were other nerds running with much better academic records than mine, with long histories of student-council participation and such that I completely lacked.

I was, it is important you understand, absolutely certain to lose.

I knew this as well as anyone. So why did I throw my hat in the ring? It seemed funny, that’s why. The idea of running amused me. As the kids today would say, I did it for the lulz.

The assembly

Candidates were given some time before election day to campaign — putting up signs around the high school, that sort of thing — but the most important part of the process was the assembly. Just before election day, all the students would be called together in the auditorium in a big assembly, and all the candidates for all the offices would be given an opportunity to address them. Attendance was mandatory, which as I’m sure you can imagine made the assembly pretty unpopular; but for candidates it was your one and only chance to address the entire electorate. So a lot rode on it. And each candidate was given only 90 seconds to speak, meaning that your pitch would have to be whittled down to the sharpest edge possible.

Candidates spoke in alphabetical order by last name; since my name starts with “L”, that put me in the back of the pack. All competing candidates for an office had to stand on the stage together, each one stepping forward to make their remarks. I stood there as the others spoke one by one, the realization slowly dawning on me that I was about to embarrass myself terribly.

See, I hadn’t bothered to prepare for the assembly. Like, at all. Not only did I not have a statement written down, I hadn’t even given any thought to what I would talk about in general. Why would I? I was in it for the lulz; I figured I’d just say whatever came to me when it was my turn. No big deal.

But as others spoke before me, I realized that they had prepared. Like, seriously prepared. People were reading off long lists of accomplishments, reminding the audience of offices held and awards won. And I had nothing to counter them with. Nothing.

Then it was my turn. I stepped up to the microphone. The house lights shone into my eyes as I looked out onto the faces of all my schoolmates, my entire community, waiting for me to say something. And feeling desperate, because I had nothing to say to them.

Which is when I remembered the joke.

Before high school, as a younger kid, I had collected joke books. Most of them were terrible, cheap paperbacks full of things that barely deserved to be called jokes. But my brain, scrambling for something, anything, to feed to my mouth, pulled from the deep recesses of my memory a joke that I’d read in one of those joke books. And then, with a minor alteration to make it fit the situation, fed it directly to my mouth.

“Fellow students,” I began. “I want to begin by saying that my opponents” — and here I gestured to my sides, to indicate the other candidates up there on that stage with me — “are all good people. Good, honest, accomplished people.”


“Of course, so’s my uncle.”

More silence. I dropped my voice a little, to add conviction.

“But my uncle shouldn’t be mayor of our town… and neither should they. Thank you.”

That was it; I was done. I waited at the mic to see what would happen next.

And then, dear reader — pandemonium. The crowd went wild.

After having to sit through all the other speeches, all the canned 90-second résumé recitations, I had given them something utterly unexpected: a bit of raw, red meat. A direct, dirty swipe at all the people who’d been making those speeches. An actual, honest-to-goodness negative ad.

And they loved it.

From that moment, the election was a foregone conclusion. I crushed the other candidates. Despite being completely unqualified, despite being one of a dozen candidates, I won more than 50% of the vote. All because I’d been the only one on that stage with the nerve to bring a knife, and the willingness to draw blood.

The lesson

The experience taught me something about politics, but I don’t think it was the lesson the organizers of the election had intended. It taught me how deeply performative these types of staged events are; how much who wins depends on who is the best entertainer, rather than the most qualified leader.

Presidential debates are held on a much bigger scale, but elementally they’re the same thing, and we watch them for the same reasons. We watch them the same way we watch football games or professional wrestling. We watch to be entertained. And nothing’s more entertaining to watch than a clean, hard takedown.

So whenever I hear people talking about these debates, and arguing over which candidate will have the best “zingers” and which will wear the most appealing outfit and so forth, I think back to my experience in that student election more than twenty years ago. And I tremble, a little bit.

Because democracy stops being democracy when it turns on who can most effectively stimulate our base instincts. And the more our elections revolve around gladiatorial combats, the less surprised we should be to find that our leaders have a taste for blood.

You really need to be using a password manager

Password theft

Photo credit: Wikipedia user Psyomjesus. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The news of yet another massive password breach at a major online service (this time it’s Yahoo!) provides me with an opportunity to give you a piece of advice: you really need to start using a password manager.

You. Yes, you. You need to start using a password manager. Like, right now.

Passwords, as a security mechanism, are broken. Utterly, utterly broken. But they’re all we have to secure our data on 99% of the services we use and rely on every day, so we have to do what we can to live with them. And the only way to live with passwords without putting your data at risk is to use a password manager.

What’s a password manager, you ask? It’s a little piece of software that provides a secure, encrypted vault, either on your computer or in “the cloud” (ugh), inside which you store all your passwords. It then connects up to your browser so that, when you encounter a login form, your username and password are retrieved from the vault and entered into the form automatically.

This may sound like just a little convenience, but it’s more than that. It’s actually very critical, because when you use a password manager, you no longer have to remember your passwords anymore. The software does the remembering for you. And that’s a Big Deal, for a couple of different reasons:

Strong passwords are safe passwords. Using a “strong” password — a very long string of completely random characters, instead of a dictionary word or short, less random string — gives you the best security against automated hack attempts. But very long strings of completely random characters are hard to remember, so people don’t use them. Letting the password manager do the remembering for you means that you can make your passwords as long and cryptic as you want without fear.

Unique passwords are safe passwords. If you use the same password on multiple services, you put yourself at risk, because if even one of those services gets hacked your accounts on all of them are suddenly vulnerable. What you want, ideally, is to have a completely unique password for each service you use; that way, if your Yahoo! account gets hacked, you just change the password there and you’re safe again. But remembering dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) of unique passwords is hard, so people just remember one or two and re-use those all over the place. Letting the password manager do the remembering for you means that it doesn’t matter how many passwords you have; your computer can remember a million of them as easily as it can remember two.

A good password manager can even go beyond just remembering passwords for you, and provide tools to help you further along these lines as well. Some provide password generators, for instance, that can automatically whip up new passwords for you based on any criteria you specify with the click of a button. (“Give me only 128-character passwords that include at least one number, one capital letter and one special character,” for instance.) That makes creating strong, unique passwords for each service you use a breeze. Others provide auditing tools that can show you at a glance which of your accounts are all using the same password, making it easy to go back and create strong, unique ones for them. There are also various “nice to have” features, like the ability to require two-factor authentication to access your password vault, or native support for mobile platforms like iOS and Android.

There are few things in the world that can make your life more secure and more convenient at the same time. A good password manager is one of them. You need to be using one.

What makes a good password manager

There’s no such thing as one password manager that’s perfect for everyone, unfortunately. This is because different types of password manager provide a different balance between security and convenience, so you’ll need to evaluate where you want to fall on that spectrum.

Here are the big places where that tradeoff happens:

Local storage vs. cloud. At the end of the day, your encrypted password vault is a file, and files have to live on a hard drive somewhere. So do you want yours to live on the hard drive of your own personal computer, or the hard drive of a server out in the cloud?

If you put it on your personal computer, you don’t have to worry about it leaking out if some remote service gets hacked. But if you put it on a server out in the cloud, you don’t have to worry about it leaking out if your personal computer gets stolen or physically compromised. Which of these threats seems like a higher priority to defend against is a decision you’ll have to make for yourself.

There’s also a convenience tradeoff involved. If you use more than one computer, or a computer plus other digital devices (smartphone, tablet, etc.), having your password vault live on a remote server can be convenient, because it removes the need to synchronize that file between all those devices. But it also means that you’re dependent on Internet access in order to get at your stored passwords, which may be inconvenient if you’re somewhere where reliable net access is limited or expensive.

Open source vs. closed source. Generally speaking, security tools whose source code is published are considered stronger than those whose code is not, since open source code can be reviewed and audited by third-party experts. But, open source tools tend to have clunkier and less elegant user interfaces than closed-source tools do, because closed source tools have programmers who are paid to work consistently polishing them to a bright shine. So you’ll need to think about how much security you’re willing to give up for a streamlined experience.

Free vs. “freemium” vs. for-pay. There’s also a few different ways the creators of these tools distribute them. Open-source tools tend, of course, to be free of charge. Closed-source tools usually cost money, though some offer a “freemium” basic tier.

Some good options

Here are some good password managers for your consideration. They all fall in different places on the tradeoffs outlined above, so I will refrain from pointing to one and saying “everyone just use this.” But I will briefly outline where each came down on those tradeoffs, to help you avoid wasting time evaluating tools that don’t fit your personal priorities.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of every password manager under the sun; it’s a short list of products I’m either personally familiar with and generally comfortable pointing people at, or that have been consistently reviewed positively over several years. (You’re trusting your password manager with enormous amounts of sensitive data, so this is not a place where you want to be using fly-by-night software.)

  • LastPass. Closed source; subscription pricing, free basic tier or $1.99/month (billed annually) for Premium version. Available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Stores passwords remotely.
  • Dashlane. Closed source; subscription pricing, free basic tier or $39.99/year for Pro version. Available for Windows and Mac. Stores passwords remotely.
  • 1Password. Closed source; subscription pricing, $2.99/mo. for one user or $4.99/mo. for up to five. Available for Mac (Windows version is in beta). Stores passwords locally.
  • KeePass. Free, open source. Runs natively on Windows, usable on Mac and Linux via Mono. Stores passwords locally. Large ecosystem of plugins and add-ons. Interface clunky but usable.

What do I use?

I personally use KeePass, storing the password vault locally and automatically synchronizing it between my machines and devices using the very secure service SpiderOak. For additional protection, the vault is set up to require both a password and a private key file be presented to unlock it.

This approach is much nerdier than anything I’d recommend for general audiences. Even then, though, it’s not perfectly secure; I’d like to replace the private key file with a physical authentication token, for instance, since key files can be copied while physical tokens are unique and thus require actual possession of the hardware token itself to use. Consumer-level physical authentication tokens sadly tend to be flaky and unreliable, though.

Five podcasts I recommend

So you binge-listened to “Serial,” and now you’re looking for more podcasts to feed your brain with? No worries! As always, I am here to help. Here are five that are live right now that I listen to and recommend.

You Must Remember This

Film critic Karina Longworth takes you inside “the secret and forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.” Longworth is both an astute researcher and a capable storyteller, pulling together fascinating nuggets of overlooked history and stringing them together into compelling, must-listen narratives.

Looking for a place to dive in? Try season 1’s crackerjack multi-episode exploration of “Charles Manson’s Hollywood.

Chapo Trap House

Will Menaker, Matt Christman and Felix Biederman tackle the political news of the day with an uncompromising leftist perspective and bracing, acerbic wit. Irreverant, vulgar and hilarious, this won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you’re liberal and like your commentary with elbows out and no holds barred this is the place for you to be. Patreon subscribers get access to members-only episodes every other week.

Looking for a place to dive in? Episode 3, in which the hosts read from the collected works of Ross Douthat, is everything you hope it would be.

Three Moves Ahead

Gaming journalist Rob Zacny and a host of collaborators focus obsessively on digital and tabletop strategy games, tearing them apart to find out what makes them work (or not work, as the case may be). Zacny & Co. are smart and observant, going beyond “it’s just fun” to uncover deeper truths about game design and why we play the games we play. Patreon subscribers get to vote on subjects for upcoming shows.

Looking for a place to dive in? Their 2013 dissection of the utterly-broken-on-release Total War: Rome 2 stands as perhaps the most comprehensive demolition job I’ve ever seen a group of reviewers carry out, in any media.

War College

Hosted by defense journalists Jason Fields and Matthew Gault, this Reuters podcast tells stories from all the world’s battlefronts. They cover Iraq and Afghanistan, of course, but go beyond a U.S.-centric view to talk about conflicts around the world as well. And their discussions of potential future conflicts are thought-provoking and troubling.

Looking for a place to dive in? This discussion from July on what motivates suicide bombers is excellent.

How Did This Get Made?

There are lots of “let’s make fun of terrible movies” podcasts, but this is far and away the best example of the form. Comics Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas tear into some of the worst movies ever made so you don’t have to. And you don’t even have to have seen the movie to enjoy an episode — it helps, of course, but the hosts’ sharp, observant jokes and easy camaraderie will give you plenty of laughs even if you’re coming in cold.

Looking for a place to dive in? Try episode 64, where they take on the Will Smith/M. Night Shyamalan flop After Earth.

Littoral Combat Ship: the little vessel that couldn’t

Littoral combat ships USS Independence (LCS 2), back, and USS Coronado (LCS 4) underway in the Pacific Ocean. Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Keith DeVinney.

Littoral combat ships USS Independence (LCS 2), back, and USS Coronado (LCS 4) underway in the Pacific Ocean. Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Keith DeVinney.

The last few months have not been kind to one of the U.S. military’s most high-profile projects, the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).

Earlier this month, the Navy announced a wide-ranging overhaul of the way the LCS fleet operates. The reason is simple: when sent out to sea, the LCSes have shown a disturbing tendency to break down in catastrophic fashion.

Of the seven LCS-class ships currently commissioned, five have suffered major breakdowns within the last twelve months:

Everything you need to know about the level of confidence the Navy has in the LCS fleet currently can be summarized by one fact: as part of the just-announced overhaul, the first four LCSes will be pulled back from active service and reclassified as training vessels.

Even by the abysmal standards of American defense contracting, this is bad enough to be worthy of note. These are (in some cases literally!) brand new ships. You would not normally expect them to be breaking down like Ford Pintos.

So what happened?

The short answer is, a lot. The LCS program has been a train wreck from the outset. If you want the gory details, Wired ran a good summary of all the ways the program had gone off the rails a few years ago. But if you want a short version, just take this video and replace every mention of “Bradley Fighting Vehicle” with “Littoral Combat Ship,” and you’ll have the general gist.

At this point, the LCS is a ship without a mission, that can’t be counted on to perform reliably, whose survivability under fire is an open question….

… so naturally, the Navy wants to buy 40 more of them. At $360 million a pop.


The glass wall

A glass wall

For as long as I can remember, I have lived behind a glass wall.

I have trouble getting close to people. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s a symptom of my depression, or a consequence of some particular constellation of circumstances in my childhood, or a consequence of my particular genetic makeup. Maybe it’s something else entirely; who knows? But it’s there.

This is not to say that I can’t relate to people, or form relationships with them; I can and I have. But it always seems to take work — work that other people just don’t have to do. People come into my orbit, but unless I pick up a hammer and go to work breaking the glass wall in order to reach them, they just bounce off, slide away. There are people who make these connections effortlessly; who attract others without even trying, like flies to honey. But I’m not one of them.

I struggle with it. It’s possible to break through and make a real connection with somebody, but it takes work,  on my part, theirs or both, and most people have (understandably) decided that I’m not worth the effort. Why bother, when there are so many other people out there? People who will just fall into your life, like ripe fruit from the tree?

I try to use this space to explain things, when I can. But since I have no explanation to offer here, instead I will give you the story of why I call this “the glass wall.”

Flash back to a little more than 20 years ago. I had just arrived at college, and since I didn’t know anybody, I decided to attend a mixer for incoming freshmen. When I arrived, though, I found it to be a room tightly packed with people with loud music blaring — a type of space I find claustrophobic and exhausting. (I love music, but I’ve never been an enthusiastic attender of concerts for precisely this reason.)

I did my best to introduce myself around, but I could barely hear what the other people were saying, and after shouting back and forth with strangers for a while I felt a pressing need to escape. So I headed for the door and stepped outside to get some air.

As I stood there, catching my breath in the crisp early-autumn air, I realized that one wall of the room the mixer was being held in was actually an enormous window — a window I was now on the other side of. I stood there for a few minutes, watching the people inside the room circulate. I could see them, but I couldn’t hear the music, or what the people inside were saying. I was watching a silent ballet, dancers mutely pirouetting around the stage, following a choreography that I had never learned.

There, in that room, were the people I’d be spending the next four years of my life with. Some of them would end up being my good friends. But at that moment, while I was nominally part of the group, I was still somehow separate from them — a stranger, apart.

On the wrong side of the glass wall.

I’ve come a long way since then, had all sorts of experiences and met all sorts of people.

But the people come and go, and the glass wall is still there.

Book review: “Indelible”


Disclosure: I was provided a free pre-publication review copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley.

Indelible, the debut work of new novelist Adelia Saunders, has an absolutely fantastic premise.

Magdalena is a young Lithuanian woman with a strange, inexplicable ability: she sees the facts of peoples’ lives written upon their skin. Even the facts of events that haven’t happened to them yet. A man’s name on a woman’s bare shoulder means that someday the woman and a man with that name will become entangled; mistakes and health conditions and too-early deaths are spelled out on the people all around her. Their futures are — literally — written all over them.

(Except for Magdalena’s own. When she looks at herself, her own skin is bare.)

When we meet her, this ability — I hesitate to call it a “gift,” because in practice it’s more of a curse — has driven her into a kind of self-imposed ostracism in the English town of Swindon. The burden of knowing the future of every person she meets the moment she meets them has proven to be too heavy. To avoid it, she purposely leaves her glasses off and practices looking past those people she has to deal with instead of directly at them — which leaves her seeming aloof and inaccessible to a world from which she keeps her ability a closely guarded secret.

But fate has other plans for Magdalena. Through a series of connections that are gradually revealed to us as the story goes forward, her life intersects with those of two men: Richard, an older man who is obsessed with the enigmatic death of his famous mother, an American novelist who cut a legendary swath through literary Paris in the 1950s before dying young, and Neil, Richard’s son, a student of history. Together they find that the questions each of them harbor can help the others find the answers they seek.

Indelible is a difficult novel to review. Where it works, it really, really works; and where it works best is in the character of Magdalena and the story of her curse. She’s a well-drawn character, completely realized and three-dimensional, and the effect of taking that thoroughly grounded character and draping over her a single thin sheet of fantasy is arresting. It makes her tragic in a weird, unearthly way that I found completely compelling.

Wisely, beyond letting us in on Magdalena’s secret, Saunders otherwise keeps Indelible‘s feet planted firmly on the ground. This is not a story about Magdalena discovering her True Heritage as a witch or something, and being whisked off to Witch University to find out she is The One The Prophecy Foretold. Beyond some nods in the direction that there may be others in the world with the same strange talent, Saunders doesn’t spend time telling us where that talent came from, or trying to build a mythology around it. It’s just a burden that fate, or God, or whatever has laid on this poor woman. Saunders is more interested in the woman than she is in the burden, which is what makes this a novel for grown-ups when the same premise could so easily have careered off into the young-adult Harry Potter-alike bargain bin.

When she moves beyond Magdalena’s story, though, Saunders stumbles. The chapters focusing on Richard and Neil never felt as satisfying as the ones focusing on Magdalena. The two men are rather dry, thin characters, and whenever the book turned back to them I kept wanting it to go back to Magdalena and her fascinating, otherworldly dilemma.

Richard, the older of the two men, is at least driven by something — his desire to learn the truth about the death of his famous mother. But watching a character sorting through old memories, trying to separate the facts from the fictions, feels low-stakes when you’ve just finished watching another character wrestle with something huge and unexplainable that’s happening to them right now. And Neil lacks even this kind of lower-stakes motivation; his character seems to exist mostly to provide a bridge between Richard and Magdalena, which isn’t enough to carry the weight of devoting a third of the book to following him around. I would have loved to have seen both of them pushed into the background and just have the novel focus on Magdalena.

There’s nothing in the world rarer than a perfectly formed first novel, though, so it’s probably unfair to Saunders to expect that her first outing would fire on all cylinders. It doesn’t, but when it sparks, it sparks. It has a crackerjack idea, one strong character to wrap it around, and some scenes where the character and the idea come together in ways that you won’t soon forget. It’s a flawed gem, but hold it up to the light at the right angle and it still sparkles. I enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to reading more from Adelia Saunders in the future.

“Indelible,” by Adelia Saunders. Available in hardcover on January 17, 2017 from Bloomsbury USA.

The real price of our secret wars

MQ-1 Predator

With the Obama Administration nearing its end, it seems like somebody ought to talk a bit about the implications of one of its signature policy accomplishments: normalizing the idea of endless, undeclared secret war.

(It doesn’t surprise me that people aren’t lining up to tackle that subject, given the broad, bipartisan support people express in polls for the general concept of drone strikes and the like. But I feel like somebody ought to.)

Take a look at this Presidential Policy Guidance document, written by the White House in 2013 and released in a redacted form to the public in August of this year. It lays out the process by which the executive branch of the U.S. government targets and executes its “kill/capture” operations.

Put yourself into the shoes of a leader in one of those drone-patrolled nations as you read it. How does it read to you, from that perspective?

  • Per U.S. policy, you now have to accommodate, within your borders, the operations of certain armed American military units. The identities, strength and operational patterns of these units may be disclosed to you, or they may not. Nothing in American policy requires them to disclose this information to you.
  • The mission of these units will be to hunt down and kill certain of your citizens. They promise they won’t kill anyone who doesn’t deserve it, of course; and for all you know, they’re actually sincere. But even they acknowledge that occasionally they make mistakes. You are expected to be willing to live with that.
  • When the citizen of your country in question is targeted for capture, they will be interrogated. You will be provided no details on which interrogation methods are used on them, other than a directive to the interrogators that those methods should “[preserve] the availability of long-term disposition options, including prosecution.” The International Committee of the Red Cross is to be notified of the detention, and provided “timely access” to the detainee; neither courtesy is extended to your government.
  • Captured detainees may be held for “long-term disposition” as long as the U.S. deems necessary. This detention may take place in a third country “consistent with U.S. national security.” You will not be informed which country this is, beyond the assurance that “in no event will additional detainees be brought to the detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.”
  • When the citizen of your country in question is targeted for death, you are assured that this action has only been taken because “capture is not currently feasible” and “the relevant governmental authorities in the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S. citizens.” Both determinations are made in secret, within the U.S. government. You will have no opportunity to participate in or appeal them.
  • Should the U.S. government determine that a “lethal action” within your borders is justified, you are assured that it will only be undertaken in a time and place where there is a “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.” What constitutes a “near certainty” is not defined. You will have no input into this determination.
  • Your country may have laws that would restrict or block such operations. The U.S. government recognizes no obligation to follow such laws, or indeed any of your laws, while performing military operations within your borders. The only legal constraints it recognizes are “domestic” (e.g. U.S.) and international law.

If a foreign power asserted any of these privileges within our own borders — even one of them — I dare say we would consider that an act of war.

We are free to assert them ourselves without such worries. But for one reason and one reason only: because today, we are strong. Nobody we have presented with these terms wants to fight a war with us, because they are certain they will lose. So they swallow their offended honor and accept whatever terms we dictate.

But people remember. When they are pushed around, they remember. When they are bullied, they remember. And those memories are long.

By making these assertions, we are teaching entire generations of people around the world that the foundation of American power is not law, or justice, or even right. The foundation of American power, we tell them, is might. We, who are strong, do what we will; they, who are weak, do what they must.

They accept this, for now, because they have no choice. But they remember.

Arrogance is rarely a winning strategy in the long term. By institutionalizing it, we store up trouble for the future. We create enemies for our children and grandchildren to fight. We undermine our interests of tomorrow to avoid inconvenient debates today.

This is the real price of our secret wars. It’s moral debt. And someday, some generation of Americans will be called upon to pay it off.

What Hillary needs to do to win

There’s been a fair bit of pearl-clutching going on over the last several days by many Democrats about Hillary Clinton’s chances to win the presidential election. It’s driven by a few different factors, but the main one is that the most recent polls are showing Donald Trump narrowing her lead, with some showing Trump having pulled even or ahead in key swing states like Florida and Ohio. So lots of people are wondering if Secretary Clinton has found a way to lose what by all rights should be an un-loseable election.

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s true that her general-election campaign performance to date has been shaky at best. She’s been positioning herself as the safe alternative to Trump, and while that’s true as far as it goes it doesn’t really give people a good reason to vote for her, instead of against Trump. She’s playing not to lose instead of playing to win, and it’s given her whole campaign a feeling of smug complacency that’s poison for a candidate who’s as strongly associated as she is with the existing establishment.

Beyond strategy, there have been tactical errors as well. Most recently, despite running against a man who has refused to release any information at all about his health, by stonewalling on a completely normal case of pneumonia she has allowed herself to become the candidate whose health everybody is wondering about. Forget her doctors; her campaign advisors have committed political malpractice.

We’re still weeks away from election day, though. So what’s a struggling candidate to do? How can she turn this ship around?

If she asked me — not that she would, my consulting rate isn’t nearly gold-plated enough, but if she did — I would tell her to sit down and take a close look at this video, from last year. Because this is the Hillary she should really be wanting America to see right now.

The video, from GOOD Magazine, captures an exchange between Secretary Clinton and several Black Lives Matter activists in Boston during August 2015.

I encourage you to sit down for a few minutes and watch the whole thing. (Yes, even the rambling opening from the BLM activist, who has some trouble getting to his point.) Because the Hillary you’ll see in this video is not the Hillary we’ve seen on the stump so far.

There’s a lot of good lessons anyone in politics, not just Hillary, could take away from watching her here; this is how the pros play the game. But I would pull out a couple of specific points that I think are relevant to why this performance is one she should try to emulate across the board.

The first thing is that she is engaged. Once the guy from BLM finishes his opening statement and the two start going back and forth, watch her face when he starts talking again. She’s paying close attention, making mental notes on what he’s saying so she can let that knowledge inform her response.

In debates, she has a bad habit of coming across as pre-programmed, not so much going toe-to-toe with her opponents as rolling out lines of argument that were honed and tuned and focus-grouped days or weeks or even months ago. She’s spontaneous here in a way we rarely get to see her be.

Second, she’s self-deprecating, and in a way that manages to both feel sincere and to serve her political purpose. This happens when the question of the BLM activists’ youth versus her own relative age arises. Her response feels sincere; instead of trying to duck the question, she wraps her arms around it, acknowledging her age and praising them for their youthful vigor and passion. And it serves her political purpose too, because she uses her age to link herself to the mainline civil rights establishment — turning aside the activists’ original charge, which was that her 1990s support for mass incarceration makes her an opponent of civil rights for African-Americans. It’s a very deft, very adroit little bit of politics.

Finally, she’s challenging in a way that I frankly haven’t seen her be before. While accepting the activist’s premises, she very directly lays out the ways in which her theory of politics differs from his, and shows willingness to push back and demand that her listener collaborate with her to solve the problem instead of just accepting all the responsibility onto herself.

It’s this last part that’s the most bracing and, I think, the most potentially transformative. Americans know that we have problems in this country. You only have to look at the “right track/wrong track” numbers to see that in very stark terms. So far, Clinton’s approach has been to deny that those problems exist, which has managed to both make her seem tone-deaf and to cede any voter who’s dissatisfied for any reason at all to her opponent.

Imagine if she made a U-turn on that point, though. Imagine if she wrapped her arms around it and said to Americans: “Here are the challenges I believe we face. I have ideas for how we can address them. But I can’t do this alone. You have to pitch in too, and here’s how.” Stop running from the right track/wrong track numbers, in other words, and use them as an opportunity for a John F. Kennedy-style message: “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

I think there’s a lot of room for that kind of message right now. In fact I think there’s a kind of hunger for it. People want to make things better, they want to mobilize beyond the facile George W. Bushian “take your family and go shopping” mobilization that’s just dressing things we already do up in yellow ribbons and flag pins.

Trump isn’t speaking to that; his “solutions” are just endless variations on His Trumpness somehow swooping in and making everything magically better. So seize the opportunity, Hillary. Stop asking us to be with you, and start asking us to all be in this thing together.

Book review: “Please Do Not Disturb”

"Please Do Not Disturb"

Disclosure: I was provided a free pre-publication review copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley.

Please Do Not Disturb is the soon-to-be-published second book by Robert Glancy, who made his debut in 2014 with the novel Terms & Conditions.

Set in the fictional African nation of Bwalo, Please Do Not Disturb follows five characters as Bwalo approaches “The Big Day” — the one day each year when the aging king who led Bwalo to independence leaves his mansion to speak to his subjects. Charlie, the young son of the expat managers of the Mirage Hotel, pokes his nose and a Dictaphone he received as a gift into places he really shouldn’t. Sean, a booze-soaked Irish writer, nurses his faded dreams of becoming Africa’s Hemingway at the Mirage’s bar. Josef, the king’s boyhood friend and current spymaster, struggles to keep under wraps an explosive secret of his own. Hope, the king’s nurse (and Josef’s ex-wife), watches his decline and worries about the deluge that comes after. And Jack, a small-time smuggler, stumbles into a job bringing something into Bwalo that could alter all of their lives forever.

Robert Glancy was born in Zambia and lived in Africa until the age of fourteen, and Please Do Not Disturb is an affectionate portrait of the Africa of the expat. Bwalo is full of the standard dysfunctions of the newly independent developing nation, symbolized neatly in the person of the sickly King Tafumo. Once, decades ago, Tafumo was young and vital, returning from a medical education in the West to lead Bwalo out of colonialism to independence. But now Tafumo is old, barely hanging on to his faculties, and under his rule Bwalo has become a sort of museum of his personal enthusiasms and eccentricities. To the natives this is just the way things are, but to the expats it all seems vaguely ridiculous; a perspective summarized by a shorthand saying Sean sometimes blurts out — “OIA!” Only In Africa.

Glancy clearly knows and loves this milieu, and Please Do Not Disturb is at its best when he’s telling the story of Bwalo and how it got the way it is when we meet it. He’s smart enough to keep the backstory in the background where it belongs, but gives the reader just enough glimpses to make you want to read more. The truth about subjects like the historic rivalries between Bwalo’s various tribes — rivalries that were theoretically submerged into equality under Tafumo, but which in reality continued to play out behind the scenes — or the deceptions Tafumo himself employed to rise from ambitious village boy to King of Bwalo emerge as the plot moves forward.

Please Do Not Disturb also demonstrates that Glancy is an effective storyteller. You won’t walk away from this novel with a head full of lines you’ll never forget, but he knows how to set up characters and start a plot into motion. And juggling five main characters in a single novel is a tricky thing to attempt, but here he mostly pulls it off; some of the characters are better-developed than others, but they do all develop their own voices and personalities, and none of them feel undercooked or represent narrative dead ends.

There are problems with Please Do Not Disturb, however, and they come from the same source that so many of its strengths come from. Glancy’s expat’s eye helps him fill the story with convincing color, but it also distances him from the nation and the people he’s theoretically writing about.

To put this issue bluntly: in this, a novel about Bwalo, only two of the novel’s five main characters are Bwalo themselves. The rest are white Europeans — even if, for little Charlie, his UK “home” is a place he’s never actually been to. And that gives Please Do Not Disturb a bit of a removed feeling, a distance between its heart and its subject matter. So many of its characters are in Bwalo, but are not of Bwalo, and as a result the book occasionally picks up a whiff of Kipling, of the white man’s burden.

I never got the feeling that this was a conscious thing on the author’s part; his years in Africa clearly gave him a fondness for that sprawling continent, a fondness that extends even to its foibles. But he’s not able to fully free himself from his own experiences, at least not here, and so Please Do Not Disturb never breaks free of the limitations of a white man’s story of black Africa.

(Note: having spent a fair bit of my own youth living overseas, in my case in the Middle East, it’s possible I’m overly sensitive on this question. If you want to hear a speech on the subject, buy me a beer sometime and I will give you one.)

Don’t get me wrong, though. I liked Please Do Not Disturb. It tells an interesting story, the characters are (mostly) engaging, and it’s a quick, enjoyable read. I’ll be keeping an eye out for Glancy’s next book. And if he ever decides to revisit Bwalo, and show it to us through its peoples’ own eyes instead of the distorted lens of European experience, I’ll be the first to buy a ticket.

“Please Do Not Disturb,” by Robert Glancy. Available in hardcover on November 15, 2016 from Bloomsbury USA.

Fifteen years later

9/11 Memorial

Photo credit: original photo by Wikipedia user The Pancake of Heaven! Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

It all seems so long ago, now. But it doesn’t take much to bring the feelings from that awful day rushing back. An image, a video clip, a recording.

But fifteen years is a long time. In the next Presidential election, there will be people old enough to vote who have no memory of the world before the towers fell. Before Afghanistan and Iraq, Madrid and London and Paris, Libya and Syria. Before drones and surveillance and the permanent state of emergency. Before all of these things, all of these events, through which runs a strand of causality that leads back to that clear September day.

9/11 pulled a thread, and the sweater of history has been unraveling ever since.

It’s difficult, even at this remove, to say whether history will judge the attacks as a success or a failure. Osama bin Laden is dead, the rest of al Qaeda hunted down and dispersed; life in the West has (more or less) long since returned to normal; a new World Trade Center has risen from the ashes of the old. But the malignant ideology that al Qaeda once represented has metastasized across the Middle East; Iraq and Syria have fallen into chaos and bloodletting; American power, once unquestioned, has become less so after a decade of ineffectual war; and the tide of refugees all this tragedy has generated has tilted the EU into crisis.

I have no idea when or where this story will end. Do you? Does anyone?

Book review: “Hotels of North America”

Hotels of North America

Hotels of North America is the latest novel by Rick Moody, author of such critically appreciated novels as Garden State and The Ice Storm. It takes the form of a collection of hotel reviews posted on the (fictional) Web site by an enigmatic online reviewer named Reginald Edward Morse. Through his reviews of various hotels, a picture gradually emerges of the reasons for his nomadic lifestyle, his relationships with his daughter, ex-wife and current companion (who he will only identify as “K.”), and eventually of the nature of the man himself.

As an experiment in form, Hotels of North America is daring and largely successful. Morse’s reviews aren’t presented in chronological order, so the story jumps around through time, trusting that the reader will be smart enough to put all the pieces of the puzzle into their proper places. Morse is a convincing creation, a character with a distinct voice, curmudgeonly and discursive; his “reviews” frequently only discuss the hotel they’re supposed to be about for a few words before veering off into a discussion of the latest turn in his career, or a lament about how infrequently he sees his child, or a hilarious tirade against the commenters who he resents for polluting his reviews with their stupidity. Every online community has its Reginald Morse, and anyone who’s ever been active in such a community will recognize the type immediately. (And the hotels he reviews are real hotels that actually exist, so if you’ve ever been to one of them, you’ll recognize it too.)

I can’t recommend Hotels of North America unreservedly, though, because of one major failing: ironically for a story about a constant traveler, it never really goes anywhere. We gradually learn more and more about Morse, but there’s no sense of his story building to anything; the climax, such as it is, is just when we slot the final puzzle piece into place and have a (more or less) complete picture of the man. As a study of a character, it’s strong and assured, but by itself a character study is an incomplete sort of novel. Growing to understand a character is part of the joy of reading fiction, but only a part. The rest is watching those characters do things, and grow while they are doing them. Moody fleshes Morse out enough for him to feel three-dimensional and real, but he never really lets his creation go out and play.

Still, though, there’s a lot of good things that could be said about Hotels of North America. It’s a fun read, quick and breezy; Morse’s life has its dark elements, but Moody leavens these with humor and wit, making the overall affect wistful rather than bleak. It’s not afraid to challenge the reader, but it’s not so challenging that reading it becomes a homework assignment.

It’s a good book; not great, but very good. If you’re looking for something new to read, you could do a lot worse.

“Hotels of North America,” by Rick Moody. Published on November 10, 2015 by Little, Brown and Company.

Why do I do this?

Message in a bottle

“Message in a bottle.” Photo credit: Flickr user Susanne Nilsson. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Write here, I mean. On this blog.

The short answer is, I have no idea.

First off, who blogs anymore? The good old days when the answer was “pretty much everybody interesting” are long gone. Writers I used to treasure reading have vanished completely. Others rode their blogs to “real jobs” in media, from which they now churn out hot takes every bit as vapid and unoriginal as the ones they used to use their blogs to skewer. Blogging in 2016 feels a bit like standing alone in a ballroom; blow that noisemaker as loud as you want, but the party’s over.

In a way, we live today in a world the blogs made. The promise of those early days was that we could open up publishing to the whole world; that everybody could have a voice. And now they do! Not on blogs, though; they go through other channels instead, Facebook and Twitter and Medium, channels provided by corporations that sanded off all the rough edges and slapped up ads everywhere. Capital saw dollar signs in the culture we created, and drove a Mack truck through it. Now everyone does have a voice — just so long as that voice can be commodified, collateralized, monetized.

We set out to empower people, but ended up turning them into just another product.

Anyway, that battle was lost long ago. But here I am, still here. Why?

And beyond the question of blogging in general, there’s the question of why this blog specifically. The first post went up on this blog on January 17, 2002. In a couple of months it will have been 15 years since then. Fifteen years! Fifteen years, three designs and a whole lot of words. (On average, I’ve published 107 posts per year.)

But what have all those words accomplished? If I were ever going to find an audience here, it feels like that would have happened by now. And, I mean, I have the analytics reports, you know? I have the numbers right in front of me, every day.

And, um, yeah.


And then there’s the overall cheery environment you’re swimming in when you publish stuff online. I’ve received far more negative responses to the stuff I’ve written here over the years than positive. Everything from “meh, this isn’t for me”-level negativity to full-on “delete your account, you horrible stain on humanity”-level negativity. Occasionally something will pop — sometimes years after I posted it! — and I’ll get a little shot of validation, which helps offset the ceaseless flow of crap. But that’s rare, and it feels like it only gets rarer as time goes on.

I don’t mean to put this entirely on the feet of the people who are providing that feedback. I’m entirely open to the possibility that I’m a bad enough writer to deserve every poke in the eye I’ve gotten, and more besides. The only judge of a writer’s merit who matters is the reader. It’s just something that’s exhausting to deal with, when you deal with it on a regular basis for so long.

It would be so much easier to pull a Mark Pilgrim and just let it all vanish. Just step back, give up. Float with the current and let this flow downstream.

So why? Why persist? Why bother?

The only answer I have is this: I persist because of my mom.

My mother passed away ten years ago. I could say a lot of things about her, but the one I’ll say here is that she was a writer. That was part of her identity for as long as I knew her. Before I was born she had worked at our local paper, and after she left her career to be a stay-at-home mom to me (and my brother, who came along a few years after that), she kept writing, usually on a little word processor she kept in the closet in a little slipcase with some paper.

When I got old enough to appreciate such things, I asked her what it was she had been writing, and she let me read one thing: a script for a play. I won’t go into the story here, because I’m working entirely from old memories and I don’t want to misrepresent her work. But it was good.

It was good.

When I was done reading it, I asked her what to me seemed like an obvious question. This was a good piece of writing. When was she going to share it with the world? When would she try to get it produced, or even just published?

She gave me a non-committal answer, and, not wanting to press the subject (not to mention being young and stupid), I let it go. And so the play went back into the slipcase.

But the question nagged at me. Why would someone who had made something that was good not want to share it with the world? Why hide your light under a bushel?

I’m not going to pretend to have a complete understanding of my mother’s mind. What child does? But at the time, I thought I knew the answer.

I thought she was afraid.

Afraid of dismissal, of rejection. Afraid that if she tried to take this good work and turn it into something more, the world would handle that ambition cruelly. Afraid that, even if the work was good, people would say it wasn’t good enough.

And that it would turn out that it wasn’t just that the work wasn’t good enough. That it would mean that she wasn’t good enough.

So she took all that work and kept it to herself, where it would be safe. Where it would always be filled with potential. Where it would always, always, always be good.

I grew up, started a career, moved away. Time passed. She grew ill, and I went home to be with her, and she died. I went to the funeral, cried my tears, went back to work. More time passed.

One day, out of nowhere, I thought of that play. And that made me think of my mom, and how much I missed her. And that made me think of how much I would like to read that play now, as a way of communing with her mind again, even if only at a distant remove.

So I went looking for the play. And what I eventually found was: it was gone.

Not out of malice. Nobody had burned it in a pyre, or banned it in Boston, or anything like that. But time had passed, lots of time, and somewhere in there those sheets of paper just got lost in the shuffle.

And she’d never gotten it published, or really shared it with anybody. So it was gone. As gone as if it had never existed in the first place.

That feels, at least to me, like a loss. Like the world is less bright today. Less bright than it should be.

And, while I am today much more appreciative of the things she was trying to avoid by keeping it hidden than I was as a kid back then — I am certainly much better acquainted with what rejection feels like! — it breaks my heart a little that, because of that fear, I am denied a way of staying in touch with her. That everyone who loved her is denied that. And that people who never knew her, people in generations not even yet born, are denied that too.

I understand her decision, but I regret it. I wish she’d found the courage to go another way. I know it’s selfish of me to wish that, to wish someone else had been willing to struggle and suffer so I can have what I want. But I can’t help it. I’m weak.

That’s why, when I write, I write here, in public. In the hope that if I ever write something meaningful, that something will find its way to whomever needs it. Like a message in a bottle.

Even if everything else I write means nothing. Even if that one meaningful thing is only meaningful to one person. If that one meaningful thing finds that one person who needs it, all the rest will have been worth it.

Life is short, of course, and the world wide. And placing a message in a bottle and casting it upon the waves does not guarantee that it will reach its intended recipient.

But it’s a start. You know?

Why airplane windows have round corners

If you’ve ever had the window seat on an airliner, you’ve probably noticed that the corners of the window were rounded instead of squared. Ever wondered why?

The answer is simple: to keep that window from killing you.

Enter the jet age

To understand why, we need to take a trip back to the year 1954.

The early ’50s were an exciting time in the aviation industry. After being dedicated full-time to building warplanes for most of the 1940s, the end of World War II meant that manufacturers could get back to the everyday civilian business of building planes to haul people and cargo. And the pressures of the war had prompted an enormous wave of innovations in aviation technology, opening possibilities to make those planes faster, longer-ranged, and more comfortable than they had ever been before.

One who seized on these possibilities was a British aeronautical pioneer, Geoffrey de Havilland. By 1950, de Havilland was already a legend. He had designed many of the United Kingdom’s most successful aircraft during World War I, and then went on to found his own company, de Havilland Aircraft Company Limited, which built a reputation for innovative, high-performance design with such planes as the Moth and Mosquito.

With peace restored, de Havilland had turned his attention to the question of what civilian aviation would look like in the new postwar era. And his attention gravitated towards one of the many new technologies the war had spawned: the jet engine.

Ever since the Wright Brothers had first flown at Kitty Hawk, nearly all airplanes had been driven through the sky by the same type of mechanism they had used: engines fitted with propellers. Propellers had proven to be adaptable and reliable, and so they flourished; but as engines got bigger and planes got faster, propellers couldn’t keep up. Additionally, propeller engines were raucous beasts, their loud noise and vibrations making the plane’s ride less comfortable the bigger they got. That wasn’t an issue with warplanes, but for civilian air transport, where passenger comfort was a priority, it was a big issue.

De Havilland saw that the jet engine could solve both these problems at once. With all their moving parts contained inside their enclosure, jet engines didn’t suffer the aerodynamic penalties that propellers did, so they could propel planes through the sound barrier and beyond. And unlike propellers, jets were relatively quiet and still, which meant a jet airliner could whisk its passengers through the sky in quiet comfort.

A jet airliner, in other words, was an airliner that could revolutionize aviation — and that meant the first company to bring one to market stood to make an absolutely fantastic amount of money. So de Havilland set out to make sure that company was his company.

Riding a Comet

The result of that effort was unveiled to the world in 1949. It was called the de Havilland Comet.

de Havilland Comet

BEA de Havilland DH 106 Comet, 1969. Photo credit: Ralf Manteufel. Licensed under GFDL 1.2.

The Comet was like nothing the world had ever seen. Sleek and streamlined, powered by four jet engines housed inside its wings, it looked like the future. Its cruising speed of 460 miles per hour beat its propeller-driven competitors, like the Douglas DC-6, by nearly fifty percent. And its pressurized cabin let it soar through the sky at 35,000 feet, high above storms and turbulence, giving passengers a smooth, comfortable ride.

For all its innovations, though, there was one thing about the Comet, as originally designed, that was utterly conventional.

It had square windows.

The Comet was an immediate success. The first Comets off the production line went to Britain’s national “flag carrier” airline, British Overseas Airways Corporation (“BOAC”). On May 2, 1952, a BOAC Comet made the world’s first-ever jet passenger airline flight, and smooth, quiet Comet service quickly proved popular with the world’s glitterati — including Queen Elizabeth and the royal family, who took a ride on a Comet in June 1953.

Airlines from around the world began to place orders with De Havilland for Comets of their own. Britain, struggling to find its economic footing again after the losses of two world wars, appeared to be on the verge of becoming the world’s leader in commercial aviation.

Which is why it quickly become a national crisis when, just a few months after that triumphant royal flight, Comets began to mysteriously fall out of the sky.

Falling stars

In its first year of service, two Comets were involved in crashes causing loss of life. The first, operated by Canadian Pacific Airlines, crashed outside Karachi on March 3, 1953, killing all 11 people on board. The second, operated by BOAC, crashed shortly after departing Calcutta on May 2 of the same year, this time causing 43 fatalities. While these crashes raised some initial concerns, investigations attributed them both more to pilot error than to any fundamental problem with the Comet, which meant that after some minor improvements de Havilland’s flagship could continue to operate as normal.

The next year, however, saw two more Comet disasters.

BOAC Flight 781 took off from Rome’s Ciampino Airport at 10:31 AM local time on January 10, 1954, en route to London’s Heathrow Airport. Twenty minutes later, as the Comet climbed past 27,000 feet, communications with her pilot were suddenly cut off. Shortly thereafter, off the nearby island of Elba, fishermen saw wreckage falling from the sky. 35 lives were lost.

The loss of Flight 781 made headlines worldwide. and an investigation began immediately. This was before the age of black boxes and all the other modern infrastructure that has been developed to account for air disasters, however, so it proceeded slowly.BOAC voluntarily grounded its entire Comet fleet on January 12 to perform its own internal inquiry; after another round of minor improvements, Comet service resumed again on March 23rd.

It was just days later that another Comet was lost.

This time it was South African Airways Flight 201, another Comet departing from Rome. The flight took off at 7:32 PM local time on April 8, 1954, headed for Cairo. Her captain checked in with ground control at 8:05 PM, confirming the flight’s estimated time of arrival. And then nothing was heard from Flight 201 ever again. No wreckage was ever found; 21 lives were lost.

The investigation

Finally, after four crashes and dozens of fatalities, the British government stepped in. “The cost of solving the Comet mystery must be reckoned in neither money nor manpower,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared. The Comet’s certificate of airworthiness was revoked until the cause of the crashes could be conclusively identified. de Havilland’s production line fell idle and Comets worldwide began to gather dust as the question of the Comet’s safety — a question upon which hung the future of Britain’s aerospace industry — awaited resolution.

Piecing together wreckage from crashed Comets, the investigators suspected that, whatever the root cause had been, what had ultimately brought the Comets down was a phenomenon called explosive decompression.

As noted above, one of the Comet’s exciting new features had been a “pressurized” cabin. At high altitudes, there isn’t enough oxygen in the air for people to be able to breathe; this had always limited the maximum altitude at which planes could fly. Pressurizing the aircraft — sealing it air-tight, and then pumping it full of breathable oxygen — allowed passengers inside to breathe easily, even as the air outside became too oxygen-thin. It was this innovation that allows pressurized aircraft like the Comet (and all modern airliners) to soar high above the weather and turbulence that buffet planes at low altitudes.

Pressurizing an aircraft isn’t risk-free, though. With the air inside the cabin now being held at a higher pressure than the air outside, it becomes critical that the sealed cabin remain sealed until such time as the plane reaches ground level and the pressure inside and out lines up again. If that seal is broken, air from inside will rush out — sometimes so violently that the force of it rips the entire plane apart.

But just observing that the crashed Comets had suffered decompression didn’t answer the underlying question. It was one thing to be able to say that something had ruptured the integrity of the Comet’s sealed cabin; it was quite another to be able to say exactly what that thing was. So the investigation proceeded.

Eventually, a series of extraordinary tests — including submerging the entire cabin of a Comet in a giant water tank, and then repeatedly pressurizing and de-pressurizing it in three-minute intervals — found the answer. And it all went back to the one thing about the Comet that wasn’t revolutionary.

It all went back to those square windows.

Stress kills

It turns out, the investigators found, that when an aircraft’s interior is pressurized and de-pressurized repeatedly, over and over again for many months, the strength of that aircraft’s metal body slowly weakens — a phenomenon that became known as metal fatigue. And when the holes you cut into that body to hold windows have sharp corners like squares do, thanks to a process called stress concentration the weakness builds up much faster in those sharp corners than it does elsewhere. Eventually cracks start to form in those corners, one of those cracks gets wide enough to let the pressurized air in the cabin rush out, and… boom.

Explosive decompression.

Two of the Comet’s innovations, each safe enough on their own, had when combined spelled disaster. Jet engines allowed quick, quiet air travel, but were most efficient at higher altitudes. And there had been airliners with pressurized cabins before, but since they were propeller-driven they flew at lower altitudes where the stresses on the airframe were less severe. Not until the jet-powered Comet would an airliner with a pressurized cabin fly high enough to stress its windows beyond the breaking point.

None of the plane’s designers had realized it, but the Comet had been doomed from the day the first one rolled off the assembly line.

The aftermath

Once the cause of the Comet crashes had been discovered, de Havilland was quick to act. All existing Comets were refitted with new windows with rounded corners, and all Comets produced afterwards came with the safer windows built in. And round-window Comets would go on to prove themselves no more dangerous to fly than any other aircraft.

But the solution came too late.

Too late for the Comet; its reputation now compromised beyond repair, that crowd of airlines wanting to buy it for themselves rapidly dispersed.

Too late for de Havilland; the Comet’s faded sales prospects, combined with some other high-profile disasters, drove the cash-strapped company to sell itself to competitor Hawker Siddeley in 1960.

Too late for the British aerospace industry, which saw competitors like Boeing and Lockheed, slower to market with their own jetliners but perceived to be more safe, seize and hold the crown of king of the Jet Age for America.

And, of course, too late for the 24 crew members and 86 passengers who died when the Comets they had boarded — those beautiful, doomed Comets, with their world-beating technology and luxurious accommodations and fatal square windows — had in an instant transformed around them from symbols of the future into tumbling heaps of wreckage.

Which is why, when you sit in the window seat of an airliner today, your window has round corners.

We did it, all by ourselves

Holy Hell

So I stumbled across this documentary on Netflix yesterday called Holy Hell, which isn’t bad. (If not as great as some of the critical buzz would suggest.)

Holy Hell is the work of a filmmaker named Will Allen, who after graduating from film school in the mid-80s wandered into the orbit of a group of charismatic young people who called themselves “the Buddhafield.” Led by an eccentric guru and former actor named Michel, the Buddhafield sought enlightenment through a very California combination of meditation, physical fitness and contemporary ballet. (Yes! You did in fact read that correctly!) Intrigued by their sunny spirituality, Allen joined them. He wouldn’t leave for 22 years.

Allen’s film-school background and cinematic ambitions led Michel to appoint him as the group’s in-house filmmaker; much of Holy Hell is drawn from the enormous amount of footage he shot over his two decades documenting the life of the Buddhafield. And as soon as you start watching that footage, which focuses like a laser on the person of Michel, you realize where the story is going: the Buddhafield is going to become a cult.

I have a kind of fascination with cults — or maybe with what William James called “the varieties of religious experience.” Not least because they tend to an outsider to look very silly. It’s easy to laugh at the true believers of the Buddhafield for dedicating their lives to a personage like Michel, who appears (to our outsiders’ eyes) completely ridiculous: a fey New Age Yoda, spouting watered-down Buddhism while clad in nothing but Ray-Bans and a banana hammock.

But they’re not alone in this kind of thing, after all. They’ve disengaged their critical faculties, certainly, but then billions of people do that while contemplating more mainstream prophets every day. Disengaging your critical faculties is sort of what faith is all about.

So what’s interesting about cults isn’t generally their members, who are just human beings responding to a  need that’s as old as humanity itself. What’s interesting about cults is their leaders — or, more accurately, what being on the receiving end of all that faith does to them. Because human beings just aren’t wired to handle that sort of thing gracefully.

You can see that dynamic in action in Holy Hell. The ideology of the Buddhafield is built around service, and early on we see that being interpreted broadly, as the members work to serve both each other and the community at large. But as Michel’s following grows, the message changes; it becomes less about serving others and more and more about serving Michel. Devotees we saw in the early days of the cult cooking meals for each other and helping local quadriplegics with their daily chores show up later weeding Michel’s garden, carrying an ersatz throne for Michel to sit on, even building an entire dance hall for Michel to perform in. He stops being a messenger of veneration and instead becomes its object.

And then his demands get really personal, and things take a turn that is both disturbing and completely, utterly predictable.

I felt for the members of the Buddhafield, because I understand why put themselves in the position they did. I feel the same drive they did; I would love to have a spiritual teacher, someone who could help me understand why the world is the way it is. But while I’ve run into a fair few people who put themselves forward in that role, what I have yet to find is one who seemed worthy of being followed. 

Prophets are easy to find, if you don’t care whether they are false. It gets much harder if you do.

So what would a real leader look like? I think the key is in the word I used above. Not a prophet, not a guru, but a teacher. Someone whose interest in her students is what she can do to improve the students, rather than in what the students can do to improve her.

A leader who starts by following.

I wrote a bit in this space recently about my fondness for Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. A quote from that work on this subject has stuck with me ever since I first read it.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”


Book review: “The Boys of Sheriff Street”

The Boys of Sheriff Street

Disclosure: I was provided a free review copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Boys of Sheriff Street is a moody, atmospheric new graphic novel by American writer Jerome Charyn and French artist Jacques de Loustal.

It tells the story of twin brothers and partners-in-crime living in the 1930s ghettos of New York City’s Lower East Side. Taciturn, hunchbacked Max Adamov is the brains of the operation. Together with his brother Morris, he runs the Sheriff Street gang from a perch in Mendel’s Cafe. Their partnership is successful and lucrative, until the night when Morris appears at the cafe with a glamorous woman named Ida Chance on his arm. Blonde and beautiful, Ida introduces an unstable element into the brothers’ relationship —  an element that sends them into a spiral of violence and betrayal.

The Boys of Sheriff Street is a fascinating little work of art. Charyn’s story is spare and simple. There’s not a lot of introspection here, just action and reaction. These clean lines, combined with the story’s gloomy mediation on elemental human flaws like jealousy and hubris, give it the feeling of classical tragedy.

That feeling is reinforced by de Loustal’s illustrations, which are striking and memorable. Building each panel around strong lines and muted colors, de Loustal grounds Charyn’s characters in a grim, grimy New York underworld. Crowding characters together in close, dingy-walled rooms, de Loustal vividly imagines the squalid world they’re willing to fight so bitterly to rule. Even the gorgeous Ida Chance, who floats into the boys’ lives like a menacing iceberg, comes to us through his pen as less an angel than a sort of tarnished statuette, all brass in a world without polish. Channeling some of the same spirit as the works of artists like Diego Rivera and Edward Hopper, the illustrations of The Boys of Sheriff Street will linger with you long after you put the book down.

At just 80 pages in paperback, this isn’t a long book, so readers looking to bite into an epic story will come away disappointed. But it will definitely leave you wanting more, especially of the art of de Loustal, whose other works I’m looking forward to exploring in the future. So if you like noir-ish crime stories, or just want to see some images that are worth lingering over, The Boys of Sheriff Street is definitely worth your time.

“The Boys of Sheriff Street,” by Jerome Charyn with illustrations by Jacques de Loustal. Published July 20, 2016 by Dover Publications.

Book review: “We That Are Left”

"We That Are Left"

I’ve been reading We That Are Left, the 2015 novel by Clare Clark.

We That Are Left tells the story of an upper-class English family as it’s buffeted by the turbulent years around the First World War. The Melvilles have occupied Ellinghurst, an English country house modeled by an eccentric ancestor after a medieval castle, for hundreds of years. As the story opens in 1910, the house is home to Sir Aubrey Melville, the family’s reserved scion, and his family: Eleanor, his vivacious wife; one headstrong son, Theo; and two daughters, Jessica and Phyllis. The family is frequently joined by a friend of Sir Aubrey’s, the widow Sylvia Carey, and her son, Oskar Grunewald, who took his last name from the German husband Sylvia lost.

Their country idyll is shattered by the Great War. Theo dies in the trenches of France, throwing open the question of who will inherit Ellinghurst when Sir Aubrey passes. Shattered by the loss of her son, Eleanor retreats into a miasma of depression and spiritualism. Jessica’s dreams of coming out as a debutante and marrying into another great family are dashed as one by one the boys she knows come home mangled or fail to come home at all, and Oskar’s of becoming a scientist are threatened by the vortex drawing all young men towards the battlefields. They all struggle to cope with the new world in their own ways, until circumstances draw them all together one last time to determine once and for all the fate of both Ellinghurst and the Melville name.

From a stylistic perspective, Clare Clark has a lot of talent. Her prose is clear and flows naturally; it’s a pleasure to read. She has a knack for summing up a character’s emotional state in a single evocative phrase. Except for an awkward flash-forward prologue that gets the book off to an rocky start, We That Are Left is very well put together structurally as well. The characters’ motivations are clear, the plot reels out smoothly and reliably. This is not a novel that you’ll need a family tree and a dozen appendices to make sense of.

Alas, those are just about the only positive things I can say about We That Are Left, because here all that talent is here deployed in the service of a story that doesn’t deserve it. If you’ve ever seen Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs, or read any of the ten billion other stories set in this period, We That Are Left will impress you with its dogged determination to roll out every classic cliché of the genre. There is no stereotype too familiar, no plot development too well-worn to be left out of Clark’s bag of tricks. And even those elements of the story that are original still manage somehow to be unsurprising; Clark builds the last third of the novel around a big, Gone Girl-style plot twist, except that in this case the “twist” is telegraphed so obviously from the very beginning of the story that it lands with a thud.

Even more disappointingly, beyond their overly-familiar contours, We That Are Left’s characters are uniformly one-dimensional. Sir Aubrey is stolid; daughter Jessica is flighty and carefree; friend Oskar is studious and responsible. Even love is not powerful enough to drive these characters out of their ruts. You find yourself yearning for just one character with some complexity, with enough depth to be spiky and difficult to wrap your brain around. But your cries will not be answered here.

Upon completing We That Are Left, I found myself wondering if it had been imperfectly developed from an earlier character sketch or short story. The first third of the book is by far the best part; Clark is unsparing in her depiction of the psychic and emotional toll the Great War takes upon her characters, and while the characters themselves are unoriginal, watching them each wade through their own personal Slough of Despond is at least interesting. Then the War ends, however, and yet for some reason the story keeps going, and going, and going, trying to coast far beyond where its initial momentum can carry it. By the time you get to the big “twist,” you’re just happy to see the end coming into sight.

So, after saying all of that, I find myself in an awkward position myself. This is a book I can’t recommend, except maybe to obsessive Downton Abbey fetishists. (Which there are plenty of, for reasons I won’t pretend to understand.) But despite that, I find myself wanting to read something else by Ms. Clark, in hopes of finding a book where her obvious skill as a prose stylist is married to a story that lives up to the promises those skills make.


Hapgood Pond

“Hapgood Pond.” By U.S. Department of Agriculture [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Autumn is never a great time for me.

It’s a melancholy season. The days get shorter, the nights longer, which is catnip for depression. Some people love the colors, the piles of orange and yellow leaves, but I look at them and all I see is death. These things, once alive, are now dead. Living through autumn means watching the world die around you.

Not permanently, of course. We know that it’s part of a cycle, that the death we witness today paves the way for life to burst forth again in the spring. But autumn is when the joy of that rebirth is farthest away. Months of darkness and cold stand between us and it.

Autumn is a time for wariness, for the sloughing-off of pretensions. A time to prepare for a long march.

Better know an apocalypse: South China Sea edition

South China SeaWe here in the United States are in the middle of an election season, which means that our attention at the moment is focused like a laser beam on domestic problems. But the world doesn’t stop turning just because we’re not paying attention, and over the last year we’ve drifted closer to conflict with a range of other major powers than we’ve been in a long time. So this is the first post in an occasional series, “Better Know an Apocalypse,” whose purpose is to bring you up to to speed on these potentially catastrophic flashpoints.

Today’s flashpoint: the South China Sea!

Where it is

Part of the western Pacific Rim, the South China Sea comprises the waters off the coasts of the nations of Southeast Asia. Roughly speaking, it can be defined as those waters south of China and Taiwan, west of the Philippines, north of Indonesia and Malaysia, and east of Vietnam.

Who’s quarreling over it

China on one side, and just about everybody else in the region plus the United States on the other.

Why it matters

Access to the South China Sea is critical to the economic interests of the United States. By volume of goods traded, Taiwan is the US’ 11th biggest trading partner, Vietnam 13th, Malaysia 14th, Indonesia 20th, the Philippines 30th. Nearly all of those goods are transported back and forth by container ship, which means that access to the South China Sea is critical for these trade relationships to function.

China, of course, has major economic interests in the region as well. With a long coastline running directly along the South China Sea, it is critical to the ability of her own burgeoning economy to be able to import raw materials and export goods. Additionally, the Chinese economy is increasingly dependent on imported oil, and the roughly two-thirds of its imported oil that it acquires from Middle Eastern and African sources passes through the South China Sea on its way to Chinese ports.

Also relevant to China’s oil needs is the belief held by some that substantial untapped oil reserves exist under the South China Sea itself. If the South China Sea proves to be a fertile place to drill for oil, and China has exclusive control over resources found in the region, it could reduce her need to import oil from abroad.

What’s in dispute

The basic issue is the question of where exactly the territorial waters of the nations around it end and where international waters begin.

What’s the difference, you ask? It’s a distinction designed to answer an obvious question. On land, national borders tell us where a particular nation’s laws apply. But what tells us that at sea? Once we leave shore, how do we know where one nation’s laws end and another’s begin?

In the modern world, the generally accepted answer is that a nation’s laws only apply in their territorial waters, which are defined as those waters that begin at their shoreline and extend out 12 miles from there. (Borders drawn on land are extended out to sea in a straight line, to avoid situations where Country A’s beach is lapped by waters legally controlled by Country B.) Within those waters, the laws of the each nation are in effect every bit as much as they are on land.

Once you get out past the 12-mile limit, though, that stops being the case. There can be situations where a nation has a limited set of rights outside its territorial waters. (An example is an exclusive economic zone, where international law has granted a nation a monopoly on exploiting particular oceanic resources like fish, water or wind.) But generally speaking, everything outside the 12-mile limit is held to be international waters — a region outside the realm of the laws of nations, governed instead by the much more limited law of the sea.

The heart of the dispute is that, when it comes to the South China Sea, China disputes that its territorial waters end 12 miles out from its shoreline. Instead, the Chinese government asserts that its territorial waters reach out to include nearly all of the South China Sea itself — an expansive claim that has come to be known as “the nine-dash line,” after the markings Chinese maps use to enclose the claimed area.

The "Nine-Dash Line"

The “Nine-Dash Line” enclosing Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea

An international tribunal in the Hague rejected China’s claims in the region in July, but as of this writing the Chinese have not retracted them.

The dispute, therefore, boils down to this: who controls the terms under which ships transit and resources are extracted from the South China Sea? Are these international waters, essentially open to all comers? Or are they Chinese waters, with the Chinese government having claim on their resources and determining who can or cannot pass?

What’s causing conflict

China making sweeping territorial claims in this region is not a new development — the People’s Republic of China has held that it possesses everything within the nine-dash line ever since it took over mainland China in 1949. What is new, however, is China being willing to expend resources and political power to back up those claims with diplomatic and military force.

Poor and surrounded by enemies, the Chinese Communist state spent most of its history focused on the Asian mainland, with relatively little interest in asserting herself at sea. As she has risen into the first rank of world powers, however, that has begun to change. Major investments have been made in expanding the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), including expansion into “blue-water navy” functions like carrier aviation that the PLAN has in the past eschewed.

Beyond building ships, China is also bolstering her claims that the entire “nine-dash line” is Chinese territory by creating new Chinese territory within it. Starting in 2014, she began dredging sand onto coral reefs in two island chains in the region — the Paracel Islands in the northwest, and the Spratly Islands in the south — to create new, artificial islands in each. (One U.S. admiral dubbed this project “the Great Wall of Sand.“)

These islands threaten the interests of other nations in the region, along with the U.S., in two ways. First, if there really is a substantial amount of oil to be tapped under the sea there, they could in theory allow China to claim that her territorial waters now extend out 12 miles from the shorelines of each of the new islands, rather than from the shore of the Chinese mainland. Given the position of the Spratly and Paracel island chains, this would create a legal rationale for the “nine-dash line” claim that had not existed in the past — which, if accepted, would allow her to cut the other nations in the region out of that potential oil bonanza.

Second, if push were to come to shove, those islands could also provide convenient bases for Chinese military aircraft, along with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. Such a network of bases could in theory permit China to simply throw legality aside and declare de facto control over the region, and any power that wanted to challenge the claim would then have to face the prospect of going to war with China to do so.

A war with China would be a fearsome prospect for any nation, even the United States, whose military position in the region is not terrific. And a war between China and the U.S. would be a war with nuclear-armed powers on both sides, which could spiral out of control very quickly even if both nations intend at the outset to keep it limited.

What happens next

As noted above, as of this writing China is continuing to press its claims in the region despite international disapproval, so it doesn’t appear that the conflict will de-escalate on its own any time soon.

The Chinese claims are prompting many nations in the region to escalate their military spending, both to deter any theoretical aggression and to put them in a better position if that aggression stops being theoretical. Vietnam is estimated to have quadrupled its annual military spending over the last decade, and the government of nearby Japan is seeking to expand its own forces as well.

The United States has been working to pull the various nations in the region challenged by China’s claims into a more closely-knit, unified opposition. President Obama visited Vietnam earlier this year, in part to further this process.

That effort was dealt a blow in May, however, when the people of the Philippines elected a new president. Rodrigo Duterte is best known internationally for the draconian crackdown on crime he has launched — a crackdown that has claimed nearly 2,000 lives in just sixty days — but in foreign policy he has positioned himself as open to a rapprochement with China, including having the Philippines settle their territorial disputes with China one-on-one rather than as part of a broader, U.S.-oriented regional bloc.

This blog is now secure by default

HTTPS iconA brief programming note: after a fair bit of tinkering and testing over the last few months, I’ve finally pulled the trigger and switched Just Well Mixed over to 100% HTTPS. This means that you should see the green padlock up in your address bar when loading any page on the site.

What does this mean for you, the Longtime Reader™? Not a whole lot, really. If everything goes right, you won’t see any difference except for that little green padlock.

But that’s important, because the green padlock means nobody has tampered with the page as it traveled from me to you. Your ISP hasn’t injected their own ads or tracking codes into it before it reached you, for instance. In that respect, the green padlock is kind of like the little seal that lots of food and pharmaceutical products carry these days; if the seal is broken, you know someone’s been monkeying with your mustard bottle. The green padlock means my mustard can be… trusterd?

(Sorry about that.)

On the implementation end I’m indebted to Let’s Encrypt, a coalition of tech organizations that have put together a set of tools to make upgrading sites to 100% encryption easy and inexpensive. You can’t serve a site over HTTPS without an SSL certificate, and traditionally these have been expensive to acquire and complicated to set up, which has limited adoption. But with Let’s Encrypt certificates are free and implementation is drop-dead simple, which opens up a lot of possibilities for smaller sites like this one.

Anyway, like I said above, this really shouldn’t impact you directly except for providing you with some additional assurances when you browse JWM that nobody’s mucking around with what you see. If you experience any problems you think are related to the shift to HTTPS, feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to get them fixed up — just please be as detailed and specific as you can when describing the problem, so I can find it and fix it as quickly as possible.

Book review: “The Cartel”

The Cartel

Let’s do another book review, huh? This one’ll be for Don Winslow’s 2015 Mexican narco-noir, The Cartel.

Set in the years from 2004 to 2012, The Cartel is a sprawling story of Mexico’s never-ending drug war, revolving around a struggle for power between two characters apparently carried over from Wilson’s 2005 novel The Power of the Dog (which I haven’t read). Adán Barrera is a drug lord who’s been toppled from his throne and starts the story as the king of a Mexican “maximum-security” prison; Art Keller, is a DEA agent whose obsessive quest had been to bring Barrera down.

The Cartel‘s story begins when Barrera decides he’s been in prison for long enough, and uses his money and influence to orchestrate an escape. Once free, he sets out not just to rebuild his Sinaloa cartel but to unify the entire Mexican drug trade under his banner. This ambition brings him into conflict not just with his old nemesis Keller, who comes out of retirement to try and stop him, but also with other drug gangs with big ambitions — most prominently the Gulf Cartel and their bloodthirsty paramilitary arm, the notorious Zetas. As the conflict between these factions slides into open war, characters on all sides find themselves having to decide just how far they’re willing to go to avoid losing what increasingly seems to be an unwinnable war.

There’s a lot to like about The Cartel. Winslow is a careful student of contemporary Mexico; his protagonists are fictional, but they’re surrounded by real people and actual events. (Much of the novel’s back half is driven by the debate around and effectiveness of the Mérida Initiative, for instance.) He’s able to explain the Byzantine politics and economics of Mexico and the narcos clearly and lucidly, which helps clueless Anglos such as myself understand the differences between the PRI and the PAN or the way the cartels divide up their territoryHe also knows how to set up and write a good action set piece, which is why I was completely unsurprised when doing research for this review to find that Hollywood has already snapped up the movie rights. (And handed them to Ridley Scott, which makes sense. Someday The Cartel will be a very fine action movie.)

But overall I came away from The Cartel dissatisfied. Weighing in at 640 pages in hardcover, this is a book that desperately needed a more authoritarian editor. There’s enough story here to fill two or three books; trying to cram it all between one pair of covers just results in plot threads feeling half-baked or underdeveloped. We’re constantly bouncing from the central story of Barrera and Keller to side stories about a down-on-his-luck journalist or an up-and-coming rival drug lord or a grim, desensitized child soldier, any one of which could easily be a book of their own. Winslow has a lot to say, but trying to say it all at once just makes the book feel flabby.

There’s another problem, which is that (in this book, at least) Winslow just isn’t that great of a writer. He’s not bad, per se, but this is not a book from which you’ll take away any memorable turns of phrase. Most of the time his prose is competent, if workmanlike; but periodically he slips into bombast or repetition, traps a better editor could have helped him avoid.  We get that half-Mexican Art Keller loves Mexico, giving him a full page to monologue about how many great artists and thinkers and philosophers Mexico has produced just drives home a nail with a sledgehammer.

This isn’t a novel that will dazzle you with the originality of its characters, either. Art Keller is a Renegade Cop Who Doesn’t Play By The Rules™. His boss is a paper-pusher whose function is to sputter impotently about all the rules Keller is breaking. Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before.

Still, if you’re looking for action, you could do a lot worse than The Cartel. It’s not going to win Don Winslow the Man Booker Prize, but it’s an accessible story with some good action scenes and a setting with a wealth of color and detail; and odds are it will also teach you a few things about the bloodbath south of our border that we Americans have been studiously ignoring for so long now. That’s more nutrition than your average crime thriller will offer.