Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Beauty, Debate, and the Cost of Stupidity

This has been a confusing recent past. Sarah Palin, in like a lioness and now... just another pretty face. Presidential debates... ho hum, and the financial world-class dive in the ring. Where to start?

I was so impressed with Lady Sarah, not so much anymore. She’s still a hockey mom. The debates left me thinking Obama stole second and third base with the news McCain suspended his campaign - can you do that? - to run off to Washington and sit on the sidelines and do nothing, because he didn’t want to be stuck with the label of causing the next Great Depression. In fact, both the Democrats and Republicans did things that accelerated the demise of American banking. The Republicans deregulated the banking industry and took the restraints off crazy entrepreneurs to go wild. But the Democrats gave us the CRA ruling that bribed banks into lending to people who couldn’t afford loans. Duh, what could go wrong here?

We now know Mr. McCain is a liar. He told David Letterman he had to cancel his appearance on his show (an hour before airing) to get to Washington to bail out America, but instead, he goes across the street to do an interview with Katie Couric. When he gets to Washington the next day, he backs into the shadows - not very leader-like.

Then Wall Street explodes. This is nuts. Seven hundred billion dollars to patch a hole in a sinking ship - give me a break. The Treasury could give every person in foreclosure in the country a tax-free check for a million dollars and they could all pay off their mortgages. How many is that? About 700,000 families. If you refine the math to actual mortages, which would probably be less than a million dollars, the Feds could bailout a bunch more. Or, if that many people aren't affected, the 700 billion number could come down considerably. But the bailout would be focused on the those that need the relief and not another maybe-it-will trickle-down policy that doesn't have a good track record. Looking at it more realistically, if the bailout reduced the debt owed for all the foreclosure loans to a figure where the families could actually pay their monthly bills, the overall cost of this bailout would be minimized.

People of America wake up. The Ponzi schemes are running amuck in Washington. Why give a pirate more booty, a sharp sword, and a free out-of-jail card all in one haul. Start with the people of America not the slickies that are constantly looking for another dull Senator to bribe into yet another self-serving get-rich scheme off tax payer’s dollars.

I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, close Washington and make it a museum and move the seat of government to Denver and flush the 545 seats that make up our union and conscript people to replace them that have a talent for running large organizations.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Go Fly a Skype

Skype is a super concept for contacting people at a great distance. I had a student in California that checked in with his sponsor in China every day, etc. But, my point concerns the undercutting of the PSTN, better known as the phone company, which supports much of the long distance digital traffic via their lines. Why? Because they own the right-of-way across those great distances and charge ISP providers for its use. At some point the two costs converge and you bite the hand that feeds you. The question is, where is that point, and can we pass it and still save money? If your ISP provider raises rates to pay the PSTN increases, the value of Skype sinks. But, I must conclude that we will all probably be better off.

There is still a gorilla in the room that we are ignoring, and this is the real threat. One of the reasons phone rates are high and confusing is the government taxes the piss out of landline telecommunication companies, the PSTN. They always have, so it is something the PSTN can't get away from, except to pass it on to you. If future revenues are threatened by systems like Skype, how will the government react to this trend? After all, their paycheck comes from your tax dollars.

One of things government has regretted ever since they unleashed the Internet and let it run away is not setting up a tax structure for its use on day one. The overwhelming backlash every time they try to slip in a tax keeps them at bay. But if the PSTN cries foul competition pressure, due to cheap undercutting of their business using Internet tactics, they could get their day in court, which is a government agency in itself. This could open a door to get back into the concept of taxing the Internet.

I would like to hear from savvy ISP CEOs about this issue. What are the facts and how can we as users avoid triggering a government interdiction mission? Here in California, the State government is trying for a second time to railroad in a bill to tax downloads from the Internet. Yes, there is a backlash, but people have to pay attention and write their representatives. It seems politicians are more frequently using our right to vote against us by writing up deceptive propositions, hoping to get one voted in. Then you get the big surprise when they tell you, “Yes, you did vote to have your Internet service taxed, see.” They hold up the proposition tally and smile.

John Wolf

Monday, September 15, 2008

Books about Nothing

The bookstores are awash in books about politics. It is surprising that so much money is spent by the public to become informed on issues that do nothing about.

I have to assume that eventually, when the couch needs replacing that we are lounging on, we will, as a people, spots and all, get up and let the cat out. The best way to get the ruling class to do something is stop buying the things we don't need, ease up on travel, and stop voting in huge spending bonds. Because when we do that, tax revenues dry up. That will bring panic to any plump politician. Be a no-tax bitch about everything and vote out old taxes. That is like invading their personal stock of Cuban cigars. They will have to come out of their caves and face us. Then maybe we can deal the issues that affect the people.

The diversity lily pads shouldn't be a problem, and I'm not talking about racial diversity, I'm talking about vested interests by whatever the mix of individuals that oppose the American standards set by the forefathers. We harbor groups that hate the mainstream, don't like little villages with picked fences, because they came here to get rich and modify the plan.

We have home grown Neo Nazis, we have street gangstas, rap-sters, urban gorillas that isolate and conquer with drugs. Our legal system doesn't have a law against them. They form tyranny groups from within, which is exactly what Thomas Jefferson foresaw as the only threat to our future. But we tolerate it. We have nations within our nation. If any one or more of these groups gain power, they will take action, breaking the country down.

We also have the not-so-rich, but have a wealth of attitude. The government owes me, I want MY share, the freeloader that has been tolerated for years, taking money out of our pockets from taxes to keep them happy. We share a mermaid of services with these folks, but they don’t pay. They demand to go to the front of the line. I'm waiting for the pendulum to swing the other way. I'll be applauding from the sidelines.

What makes me disgusted is it seems to be on every street corner now. Years ago it was in someone else's backyard. Now, I have to drive around it, step over it just to get to the grocery store. The employers aren't helping much either. Why not provide a retirement fund to help people in their old age? Why not want to provide healthcare so the employee can stay working? These things can be planned into big companies to where it doesn't affect their bottom line. But you can't do it when the CEOs take all they can get.

An MBA is a dirty word in my book. We train executives to merge, downsize, and take all they can get. I'd rather deal with the Russian mob than a smart MBA graduate. Here's where the rubber meets the road. How do we get the society as a whole to care about each other enough to pull in the same direction?

It’s one thing to take care of those with special needs and quite another to freeload when you should be contributing. Once you hit the point of no return, where more people are living off of tax money than can be taxed, the democracy fails.

None of these fancy books by every lobbyist, media anchor, or celebrity on the block have one bit of advice on how to clear up the problems, bring the society together, or provide an alternative. It’s all blah, blah, blah.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Falling Arrows

As writers we are living in a very dynamic time. Each day I turn on the TV to another massive hurricane, flood, or earthquake. Mankind is being cornered and the arrows are in flight. Will your cozy mystery about a sleuth finding a serial killer be relevant in the wake of the real time movie playing out before us? I think not.

If you survive your tomorrow, start writing about it. You are the observer that sees beyond the sound bite. You aren’t squeezed into a two minute time slot or tethered to lamppost in a Category 5 storm commenting on the high winds. You are capable of bringing the world the human story like no other group of people. Write your hearts out and bring your critique group to tears.

If you ever were in want of a plot, a storyline or setting that would be the backdrop for your breakout novel, just stand on your toes and look around. We have the Russian Empire reemerging, monthly biblical sized disasters, social unrest, the American Dream being sold down the river by politician bent on spending for wars, families being crushed by shabby deals perpetrated by unethical loan officers, major financial centers duped by mutual funds filled with fraudulent underwriters, the African continent being dissolved into human tragedy, and who can count the greedy CEOs out competing for the longest yacht. I can’t think of a time when mankind has been more self-indulgent or self-destructive. We are even taken the planet down with us.

If you can’t find an exciting topic to write about or a human story in these times, turn your pen back in. You need to find another occupation.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Dialogue vs Narration

One of topics discussed in writers conferences and the How-To books from the staff of these events is the “show the reader, not tell the reader your story” spiel. The why is left to the virgin writer to figure out. It’s like that “obvious to the casual observer” bit that your physics prof at college used. Well, you need to know what causes the problem and how to approach the fix.

Narration dulls the spirit of any fiction. It can't be avoided entirely unless the story is only a rocket blast of dialogue, but it should be tamed so it doesn't drag the plot. Dialogue is the magic bullet in all action, thriller, or personal feeling stories. Dialogue shows the reader by opening up life and letting you participate in the protagonists struggles.

Can you imagine how quickly a story about Einstein would melt into boring documentary as a narration, although, there have been several very heart felt stories written about him in first person and third person dialogue showing you his life. Sorry, I seem to hitting on physicists in this piece.

Editors will also tell you that a story has a momentum, a pulse, a feeling of undulation that makes it more powerful. If not there, or erratic, it throws the reader off or may cause them to put down the book and do other things. To me, a lot of this is editor paranoia, the fear of low sales, but the point should be looked at as a writer and changed if you feel it too.

So, how do you control the fast pace of dialogue and the slow stretches of narration? Think about it five minutes and you can answer your own question.

By paying attention you realize the two oppose each other, therefore, balance them for effect. When you need to slow the story, use narration or internal monologue. When the story's excitement is what you are striving to achieve, use dialogue with minimum interference of attributions. Arrange scenes to minimize characters present so the dialogue can fly.

Check out any Michael Crichton novel (Jurassic Park, Prey, etc.). When the characters are being chased by beasts or bugs, the dialogue screams, rarely stops for breath, you’re on the edge of your seat and eyes bulging. But you can’t sustain that or you’d give the reader a heart attack. (I’ve actually had to stop reading and get a glass of water. His stories scar me to death.) Notice - go on, read one and see what I’m talking about - he skillfully places a narrative chunk that slows the pace by explaining things, sometimes with passive dialogue and some just narration. But it sooths the reader, and at the same time it sets up the reader for the next slap in the face action.

This rollercoaster ride is why people are thrilled with his stories. Like great composers that work music into a constant undulation of sound and rhythm, writers must learn to do the same.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

What is your approach to Writing

My method of writing starts with a title (I used to be a songwriter, so that's natural). I have to have a premise to write a story, but that's not a problem since every day or two lightning strikes me and I write down the message from the angel in my possible stories file. I then construct a scene, some kind of place, a stage if you will, to run the characters around on. By this time the main character is apparent. I love names, so the name has to fit the character. What is happening here is a building layer-by-layer process. The burst of writing is exciting for me. I go until I hit a fork in the road at neck break speed. Diet Dr. Pepper with pomegranate juice - my idea of a health drink, fuels the process. Oh, and Snicker bars.

This fork usually has a boogieman in the woods with a bead drawn on me. I sometimes have to pause and contemplate a lot of navels to break the spell by outlining possible outcomes. By this time I'm in another world. The story has sprung a life of its own. The story owns me and I just try to hang on.

I love the computer, because of the instant access to many references. If I hit a wall and don't know what something is or the "real" definition of a word or who Mary Queen of Scot's husband was - that sort of thing. I start the Wiki-this-or-that until I have a million Notepad files of information. Probably enough for several more stories, but we must be disciplined and return to job one.

It takes me about four months to write 70,000 words and do a couple of rewrites. Six months tops. I don't go beyond that size because if you self-publish, the cost of the book gets too high.

I don't write and drive at the same time. I don't own a cell phone, and the kids in my family are gone and married off, so the distractions, are as you might say, all my own doing. The last story I put aside, since it’s not published yet, I've been sitting on it to see if something else will hatch. I have a couple of folks reading it for a reaction. It's like water witching to see if a spring can be found. This time, I got so antsy; I started another story and am about two-thirds of the way through it.

I find it a pleasurable diversion to get interrupted, because it's not healthy to spend so much time at a computer. I never worry about coming back to it later. I've even stopped in mid-sentence and come back a day later and picked up where I left off. In fact, these stories can become a neurotic issue, invading my dreams or instead of humming in the shower, I'll stand there staring at the wall in another world planning out how the next chapter is going to go. It's like a seizure.

I don’t know if this rattletrap is of any use to anyone, but it is my typical pattern. I can’t storyboard a plot and have it work. I have to let the story talk to me, like a refugee that just crossed over a wall from a war torn region, staring up in desperation - you gotta believe me. Of course I do, I amaze easy. I’ll listen to any demented muse.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Sink or Swim

With all the discussion about the elections and government in general, we have an insecurity that has developed from what we’ve seen in the past, but let’s look at what’s happening in New Orleans right now. Two million people were successfully evacuated. That’s impressive, and this time they registered them as they left so their families can find them, the levees are holding, the pumps are running, it’s all good. The hospitals evacuated early and the sandbags went in before the storm got ahead of them. Hoorah for New Orleans! The politicians and the government functioned admirably.

There is going to be destruction from this storm, no doubt, but the embarrassing lackluster performance of the past has been averted. What I am saying is maybe we should give the politicians and the big government agencies applause this time. Thanks - job well done.

John Wolf