Book Review – When Genius Failed

 

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Author: Roger Lowenstein
Title: When Genius Failed
Available at: Amazon (and many other places)
My Rating: Very Good ****

Synopsis by publisher: “John Meriwether, a famously successful Wall Street trader, spent the 1980s as a partner at Salomon Brothers, establishing the best–and the brainiest–bond arbitrage group in the world. A mysterious and shy midwesterner, he knitted together a group of Ph.D.-certified arbitrageurs who rewarded him with filial devotion and fabulous profits. Then, in 1991, in the wake of a scandal involving one of his traders, Meriwether abruptly resigned. For two years, his fiercely loyal team–convinced that the chief had been unfairly victimized–plotted their boss’s return. Then, in 1993, Meriwether made a historic offer. He gathered together his former disciples and a handful of supereconomists from academia and proposed that they become partners in a new hedge fund different from any Wall Street had ever seen. And so Long-Term Capital Management was born.
In a decade that had seen the longest and most rewarding bull market in history, hedge funds were the ne plus ultra of investments: discreet, private clubs limited to those rich enough to pony up millions. They promised that the investors’ money would be placed in a variety of trades simultaneously–a “hedging” strategy designed to minimize the possibility of loss. At Long-Term, Meriwether & Co. truly believed that their finely tuned computer models had tamed the genie of risk, and would allow them to bet on the future with near mathematical certainty. And thanks to their cast–which included a pair of future Nobel Prize winners–investors believed them.
From the moment Long-Term opened their offices in posh Greenwich, Connecticut, miles from the pandemonium of Wall Street, it was clear that this would be a hedge fund apart from all others. Though they viewed the big Wall Street investment banks with disdain, so great was Long-Term’s aura that these very banks lined up to provide the firm with financing, and on the very sweetest of terms. So self-certain were Long-Term’s traders that they borrowed with little concern about the leverage. At first, Long-Term’s models stayed on script, and this new gold standard in hedge funds boasted such incredible returns that private investors and even central banks clamored to invest more money. It seemed the geniuses in Greenwich couldn’t lose.
Four years later, when a default in Russia set off a global storm that Long-Term’s models hadn’t anticipated, its supposedly safe portfolios imploded. In five weeks, the professors went from mega-rich geniuses to discredited failures. With the firm about to go under, its staggering $100 billion balance sheet threatened to drag down markets around the world. At the eleventh hour, fearing that the financial system of the world was in peril, the Federal Reserve Bank hastily summoned Wall Street’s leading banks to underwrite a bailout.
Roger Lowenstein, the bestselling author of Buffett, captures Long-Term’s roller-coaster ride in gripping detail. Drawing on confidential internal memos and interviews with dozens of key players, Lowenstein crafts a story that reads like a first-rate thriller from beginning to end. He explains not just how the fund made and lost its money, but what it was about the personalities of Long-Term’s partners, the arrogance of their mathematical certainties, and the late-nineties culture of Wall Street that made it all possible.
When Genius Failed is the cautionary financial tale of our time, the gripping saga of what happened when an elite group of investors believed they could actually deconstruct risk and use virtually limitless leverage to create limitless wealth. In Roger Lowenstein’s hands, it is a brilliant tale peppered with fast money, vivid characters, and high drama.

My Review: Although clearly sarcastic, I still think the title is a little too generous.

What is truly frightening about this account is not so much the details of how it came to be, but the fact that we live in a world where it can happen at all. That the upper echelon of international finance has become almost an exclusive province of the psychotically individualistic is no secret. Yet sanity almost dictates that one believe in the existence of at least a few cool heads prevailing somewhere up there in the clouds. Alas, it would appear there are none. The story of LTCM is, of course, just one account of something that is now par for the course. Yet it’s an important one because it demonstrates clearly just how non-existent the boundaries of the field have become in the 21st century. Not only was the man who created this monster a product of Wall Street, but he was aided by this community at every turn, and was back in their good graces within a year of the disastrous end of the venture; not as an employee either, but as the creator of yet another hedge fund.

As for the book, it is well-written and clear. The author does seem a little confused about the nature and status of the US Federal Reserve, but on the whole he does a good job of laying down the facts. Some readers have criticised the book for not delving into enough technical detail, specifically on the subject of the theories expounded by the project’s two Nobel Prize winners. I think this can be forgiven in part because the book is clearly intended for a broader readership, but mainly because these theories are not works of genius, but so much mathematical hogwash, and are probably best left vague lest someone get it into their head to try them out for themselves.

Book Review – God is not Great

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Author: Christopher Hitchens
Title: God is not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything
Available at: Amazon (and many other places)
My Rating: Fair **

Synopsis by publisher: “In the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Sam Harris’s bestseller, The End of Faith, Christopher Hitchens makes the ultimate case against religion. With a close and erudite reading of the major religious texts, he documents the ways in which religion is a man-made wish, a cause of dangerous sexual repression, and a distortion of our origins in the cosmos. With eloquent clarity, Hitchens frames the argument for a more secular life based on science and reason, in which hell is replaced by the Hubble Telescope’s awesome view of the universe, and Moses and the burning bush give way to the beauty and symmetry
of the double helix.”

My Review: Setting aside for a moment the subject matter, I would like to begin by saying that Christopher Hitchens was without a doubt one of the most eloquent and unabashed writers of his time. This is the second book by Hitchens I have read, and he is the only author I have reviewed twice on this blog. The first, Letters to a Young Contrarian, was an equally impassioned, albeit less controversial book, which I enjoyed tremendously.  I won’t claim to have enjoyed this book – I don’t think the term would even be appropriate – but I did appreciate it.

On the positive side, the book is well-written, contains a lot of pertinent information and rational – if not harmonious – argument. On the down side, it is a little too spiteful to be called simply honest, and makes a rather blinding leap of logic in its condemnation of religion as a whole.

There is no doubt in my mind that the subject of divinity is as much a victim of organized religion as organized religion is a victim of those who have claimed moral authority over it; which is to say, a victim of human folly. But that is an indictment of man, and does not necessarily disprove that he is more than a peculiarity of the material universe. Thus, Hitchens goes to great lengths to point out that the existence of god, as portrayed by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, must be a fiction, while he wholeheartedly subscribes to the Darwinian notion of man as the dominant primate of the animal kingdom. The problem is that this idea is just as unbelievable as those he seeks to disenfranchise, and just as void of empirical evidence.  I don’t think it’s much of a secret that the self-elected men of “science” who believe – and it is only a belief – that man is a mere byproduct of his own gray matter, are faring any better than the bible, and are certainly no less barbaric in their approach. In fact, I would go so far as to say that modern psychiatric practice is outdoing even religion. Where the former may have been described as the “opiate of the masses”, the latter seems determined to replace faith with the real thing, and on a truly horrific scale.

That a man of Hitchens’ intellect should overlook this would seem to suggest he is as prone to the dangers of blind belief as the victims of his chosen nemesis.  Physics and evolution may discredit much of what is claimed by religion, but they are not a substitute for it, nor do they answer the essential question of man as a sentient being; the origin of creative, as opposed to reactionary, thought. Thus Hitchens ultimately contradicts himself by closing the door on – and perhaps rightly so – one set of self-contradictory beliefs by inviting the reader to close his eyes and adopt another.

Bookbub Revisited

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Back in April of this year I made my first approach to Bookbub, the much-touted (and sometimes maligned) eBook promotion site. My book, with only a handful of reviews and no sales to speak of was, of course, politely shown the door. Much aggrieved by this travesty of justice I made the mistake of looking over the books which had made the grade, and finding one that was barely readable, gave a sermon from the pulpit of this very blog.

Fast-forward to the present and I find myself once again approaching Bookbub. This time I was prepared. My book has enjoyed modest success, and I shall soon be publishing the second volume in the series. In the intervening months I have built up a solid review base, established the book at Goodreads, and done a fair bit of promotion. I have read a lot of opinions about Bookbub in this time too. Most hail it as an indispensable tool for any new author, while some (after many a failed submission, I have no doubt) are less approving. What surprised me was not that the book was turned down for the dates I had requested, but that Bookbub replied to me by asking if I would be willing to change them as they were keen to feature the book. I have yet to hear of this happening (although it obviously has), and cannot deny that I am somewhat flattered by the development.

As for how the book will fare, I’ll know on the morrow.

Full report to follow.

Book Review – The Dreyfus Affair

 

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Author: Piers Paul Read
Title: The Dreyfus Affair – The Story of the Most Infamous Miscarriage of Justice in French History
Available at: Amazon (and many other places)
My Rating: Very Good ****

Synopsis by publisher: “Intelligent, ambitious and a rising star in the French artillery, Captain Alfred Dreyfus appeared to have everything: family, money, and the prospect of a post on the General Staff. But his rapid rise had also made him enemies – many of them aristocratic officers in the army’s High Command who resented him because he was middle-class, meritocratic and a Jew.

In October 1894, the torn fragments of an unsigned memo containing military secrets were retrieved by a cleaning lady from the waste paper basket of Colonel Maximilien von Schwartzkoppen of the German embassy in Paris. When French intelligence pieced the document back together to uncover proof of a spy in their midst, Captain Dreyfus, on slender evidence, was charged with selling military secrets to the Germans, found guilty of treason by unanimous verdict and sentenced to life imprisonment on the notorious Devil’s Island.

The fight to free the wrongfully convicted Dreyfus – over twelve long years, through many trials – is a story rife with heroes and villains, courage and cowardice, dissimulation and deceit. One of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in history, the Dreyfus affair divided France, stunned the world and unleashed violent hatreds and anti-Semitic passions which offered a foretaste of what was to play out in the long, bloody twentieth century to come.

Today, amid charged debates over national and religious identity across the globe, its lessons throw into sharp relief the conflicts of the present. In the hands of historian, biographer and prize-winning novelist Piers Paul Read, this masterful epic of the struggle between a minority seeking justice and a military establishment determined to save face comes dramatically alive for a new generation.”

My Review: As an avid student of European history I have run into references about the scandal surrounding the persecution of Alfred Dreyfus on many occasions. Although only one of many scandals in the annals of this historically troubled continent, it does have a particularly deep significance, having, as the author points out in the sub-title, rocked the French establishment to its core at a very volatile period.

Employing a great deal of thorough research, the author provides a clear and easily followed chronology of the scandal, including a thorough build-up to the period that helps put everything into perspective.  In addition to the scandal itself, the book also offers a great deal of insight into the state of anti-semitism in both France and greater continent at this time, a fact that had an undeniable impact on the course of events. As with any good history book, we are offered both the author’s opinion and a chance to draw our own conclusions about the greater meaning of the affair.

I thoroughly recommend that anyone set on gaining a better understanding of pre-WW1 Europe place this book among the works he or she intends to employ for the purpose.

Book Review – Spymaster

 

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Author: Tennent H. Bagley
Title: Spymaster: Startling Cold War Revelations of a Soviet KGB Chief
Available at: Amazon (and many other places)
My Rating: Very Good ****

Synopsis by publisher: “From the dark days of World War II through the Cold War, Sergey A. Kondrashev was a major player in Russia’s notorious KGB espionage apparatus. Rising through its ranks through hard work and keen understanding of how the spy and political games are played, he “handled” American and British defectors, recruited Western operatives as double agents, served as a ranking officer at the East Berlin and Vienna KGB bureaus, and tackled special assignments from the Kremlin.

During a 1994 television program about former spymasters, Kondrashev met and began a close friendship with a former foe, ex–CIA officer Tennent H. “Pete” Bagley, whom the Russian asked to help write his memoirs.

Because Bagley knew so about much of Kondrashev’s career (they had been on opposite sides in several operations), his penetrating questions and insights reveal slices of never-revealed espionage history that rival anything found in the pages of Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, or John le Carré: chilling tales of surviving Stalin’s purges while superiors and colleagues did not, of plotting to reveal the Berlin Tunnel, of quelling the Hungarian Revolution and “Prague Spring” independence movements, and of assisting in arranging the final disposition of the corpses of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. Kondrashev also details equally fascinating KGB propaganda and disinformation efforts that shaped Western attitudes throughout the Cold War.

Because publication of these memoirs was banned by Putin’s regime, Bagley promised Kondrashev to have them published in the West. They are now available to all who are fascinated by vivid tales of international intrigue.”

My Review: This book is my first foray into Kindle Unlimited and Amazon’s Whipsersync audiobook integration service, and I was not disappointed.

One thing the book opens the reader’s eyes to is that for the intelligence community, the Cold War was only another phase in a clandestine battle that had been in full swing for decades. Unlike many other books on the subject, Spymaster provides a startling account of life and politics inside the Soviet apparatus, as well as a host of previously unknown information about many of the specific events that defined much of the era of Soviet dominance. The author’s personal association prior to his death of one of the longest surviving members of the KGB opens a cornucopia of interesting facts that would surely have remained buried had it not been for this unlikely friendship.

No doubt a boon to scholars of the era,  Spymaster is also a great read for anyone with an interest in the field as it is well written and provides ample and clear explanations.

Can Anyone Explain This? The Amazon Free Giveaway Conundrum

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This isn’t so much as post as it is a question.

Several weeks ago, I re-enrolled by book, Origin – Season One, in Amazon’s KDP Select. Out of curiosity I held a free one-day giveaway with no advertising of any kind to support it. The result, at least by previous examples, was impressive.  Over 1250 downloads. Curious, I tried it again a week later and the result was almost identical. Feeling the gods were at last paying attention, I went all out an hosted a two-day giveaway a week later. The result, an unmitigated disaster. As yo can see in the attached picture, I do not tell a lie.

So my question is: WTF is going on?

I know Kindle Unlimited has just been launched in the UK, but is was already up and running in the US during the first giveaway. Yet, the difference is simply too big to explain.

Any and all attempts at an explanation are welcome.

 

Book Review – Flash Boys

 

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Author: Michael Lewis
Title: Flash Boys –  A Wall Street Revolt
Available at: Amazon (and many other places)
My Rating: Excellent *****

Synopsis by publisher:Flash Boys is about a small group of Wall Street guys who figure out that the U.S. stock market has been rigged for the benefit of insiders and that, post–financial crisis, the markets have become not more free but less, and more controlled by the big Wall Street banks. Working at different firms, they come to this realization separately; but after they discover one another, the flash boys band together and set out to reform the financial markets. This they do by creating an exchange in which high-frequency trading—source of the most intractable problems—will have no advantage whatsoever.

The characters in Flash Boys are fabulous, each completely different from what you think of when you think “Wall Street guy.” Several have walked away from jobs in the financial sector that paid them millions of dollars a year. From their new vantage point they investigate the big banks, the world’s stock exchanges, and high-frequency trading firms as they have never been investigated, and expose the many strange new ways that Wall Street generates profits.

The light that Lewis shines into the darkest corners of the financial world may not be good for your blood pressure, because if you have any contact with the market, even a retirement account, this story is happening to you. But in the end, Flash Boys is an uplifting read. Here are people who have somehow preserved a moral sense in an environment where you don’t get paid for that; they have perceived an institutionalized injustice and are willing to go to war to fix it.”

My Review: Come on, did anyone really believe the cult of the Greenback was going to bring the world to the edge of financial doom and just walk away? No, of course not. Like any self-respecting hive of rodents, once they realized the ship was only listing very badly, they were always going to come scurrying back to see if there was anything left to chew on. That something turned out to be the stock market itself.

In this insightful account of the new race to the bottom, the author gives us a front row seat to what may easily be the most cynical conspiracy yet in the dark history of the money changers; theft by microprocessor. Ultimately tragic, but also funny at times, Michael Lewis paints a vivid picture of the often absurd lengths financial institutions will go to when there is money to be ripped off, and the heroics of a few dissenters who got it into their heads to forsake the gospel and shine the light of truth into a den of vampires.

High Frequency Trading – an elaborate sounding euphemism if ever one existed – is nothing more than the practice of using the increased processing and data transfer speeds of the modern age to preempt the the intentions of actual investors and manipulate their trades within the mind-bogglingly brief intervals of time that make all the difference if you have the means to take advantage of them. Remove the layer of complexity added by the time factor and what that basically means is that some creepy-looking guy – who turns out to be the owner – is following you around the supermarket, taking notes on what you drop into your basket so he can bump up the price on everything you intend to buy before you get to the checkout counter. Not by much, just a penny here and there. On a per-transaction basis the gain is minimal, but the pennies add up. And if you do a lot of shopping, you’ll feel it eventually. Now all you have to do is reintroduce the time factor by imagining not your corner grocery store, but a fifty square-mile Wall-Mart with a few million people going through the checkout every second or so and pretty soon those pennies add up to millions, and in some cases, billions. The important thing to understand is that those millions were on their way to the real world before they got sidetracked. They represent jobs that won’t be created, machinery that won’t be bought, and ideas that won’t see the light of day. In summary, what the FCC likes to imagine is a boon to market efficiency is actually a parasite that breeds volatility and uncertainty into a market already weighed down by the aftermath of the last “good idea” to come out of Wall Street.

If you have investments tied to the stock market, you should read this book. Although you might want to clean out your medicine cabinet first and leave any firearms you own with a friend or neighbour. If you’re thinking about investing in the stock market, you should read this book and tread carefully. And if you’re one of the people who knows not to go anywhere near the stock market, you should read this book and give yourself a big old pat on the back.

No Really, I’ve Been Here All Along

It’s been at least four months (maybe longer) since I stopped writing my “Adventures in Publishing” posts, and at least as long since I made any effort to say something – anything – about myself as an author. In fact, all I seem to do on this blog now is review the books I read. As for why I review them here, I’m not entirely sure.  There is no overriding theme to what I read (although it’s almost all non-fiction) and none of the titles are remotely new. I guess I just feel obliged to the authors I enjoy to share my experience as a reader (I post all my reviews on Goodreads and Amazon). But if this is my author blog, it seems I should make at least some effort to keep those who have expressed an interest up to speed on what’s what. So here it goes:

I have learned quite a few important lessons – and this goes to the heart of my recent obscurity – about promoting books. The first of these is that diversity is not a universally potent strategy when you’re trying to capture as much interest as possible. By this I mean; having four Facebook pages, two websites, two blogs, an author profile on Goodreads and Library Thing, and two Twitter accounts is not a sober strategy for someone whose hours are limited to sixty minutes like everyone elses. For one, it leaves very little time for writing. It’s also unhealthy. But more importantly, it’s a colossal waste of time and energy. The real bitch of it is, I knew all this before I started. I just un-knew it somewhere along the way and convinced myself that a multitude of potential readers were hanging on every cleverly-crafted word, post and comment I took the time to make. Not so.

Anyway, that’s over now. And what I’ve re-learnt is that at this humble juncture, the only two platforms that mean anything are Amazon and Goodreads. The former because – for better or worse – it’s the market for book sales in this brave new world of ours. And the later, because it’s by far the biggest concentration of organic readers on the internet. And at the heart of both lies the one thing that has genuinely affected the sale of my book; reviews.

A lot of Indie Authors seem to snub at the idea that reviews play a significant role in the sale of their books. My own experience is not universal enough to counter this claim entirely, and it would be somewhat arrogant of me to insist that it does, but it is the truth in my particular case. To elaborate; my first giveaway on Goodreads found less than a hundred takers. Similarly, my first free promotion day through KDP Select found just over a hundred. At the time, both venues had only a handful of reviews posted. My last Goodreads giveaway saw over six hundred people line up for a copy. Shortly thereafter I gave my book away on Amazon for 24 hours and had over 1500 downloads. To make sure it wasn’t a fluke I did another a week later and the result was even better. Both days also resulted in an impressive volume of paid sales and borrowers through Kindle Unlimited. These figures may not be so impressive by the accounts of others, but the important thing in this case is that I did absolutely NO promotion of any kind for either day. The only difference was that I now have over 30 reviews on Amazon. Admittedly, I have employed neither science nor technology to arrive at the conclusion that the reviews were the real difference, but it seems pretty obvious all the same.

So that’s that.

As for my writing, Origin – Season Two is now well on the way to completion. The most liberating thing about writing the second instalment is that I’m managing to avoid at least 75% of the institutional errors committed in the first draft of the first book. Or so I am convinced. I’ll let the editors have the final say.

ps. I lied. There is actually a common denominator to all the books I have been reading (with one or two exceptions); they are all research to a greater or lesser degree for what I’m working on.

 

Book Review – Inside the Kingdom

 

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Author: Carmen bin Laden
Title: Inside the Kingdom – My Life in Saudi Arabia
Available at: Amazon (and many other places)
My Rating: Very Good ****

Synopsis by publisher: “Osama bin Laden’s former sister-in-law provides a penetrating, unusually intimate look into Saudi society and the bin Laden family’s role within it, as well as the treatment of Saudi women. On September 11th, 2001, Carmen bin Ladin heard the news that the Twin Towers had been struck. She instinctively knew that her ex-brother-in-law was involved in these horrifying acts of terrorism, and her heart went out to America. She also knew that her life and the lives of her family would never be the same again. Carmen bin Ladin, half Swiss and half Persian, married into – and later divorced from – the bin Laden family and found herself inside a complex and vast clan, part of a society that she neither knew nor understood. Her story takes us inside the bin Laden family and one of the most powerful, secretive, and repressed kingdoms in the world.”

My Review: I came across this book during a search for something entirely different, but was intrigued enough to obtain a copy and read it. With so much emphasis on Osama bin Laden, it is quite a surprise to see how little most people actually know about the family itself, its history and relationship to the Saudi royal family. Carmen, who was married to Yeslam bin Laden – one of 54 siblings – for eighteen years, is particularly well-placed to provide an account of the family and its history, having lived among them for most of that time. Aside from being an account of her own life and that of her children, the book also offers a great deal of insight into Saudi society, particularly the treatment of women and the role of religion. Perhaps most striking (if not surprising) of these revelations is the sinister hypocrisy of the royal family, whose self-appointed role as guardians of Islam’s most holy sites and claims of piety are ill supported by the rampant corruption and dubious ties of many of its members.

All in all I thought the book was well-written and informative and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject.

Book Review – The Emperor of all Maladies

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Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Title: The Emperor of all Maladies – A Biography of Cancer
Available at: Amazon (and many other places)
My Rating: Excellent *****

Synopsis by publisher: “In The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee, doctor, researcher and award-winning science writer, examines cancer with a cellular biologist’s precision, a historian’s perspective, and a biographer’s passion. The result is an astonishingly lucid and eloquent chronicle of a disease humans have lived with – and perished from – for more than five thousand years.

The story of cancer is a story of human ingenuity, resilience and perseverance, but also of hubris, arrogance and misperception, all leveraged against a disease that, just three decades ago, was thought to be easily vanquished in an all-out ‘war against cancer’. Mukherjee recounts centuries of discoveries, setbacks, victories and deaths, told through the eyes of predecessors and peers, training their wits against an infinitely resourceful adversary.

From the Persian Queen Atossa, whose Greek slave cut off her malignant breast, to the nineteeth-century recipient of primitive radiation and chemotherapy and Mukherjee’s own leukemia patient, Carla, The Emperor of All Maladies is about the people who have soldiered through toxic, bruising, and draining regimes to survive and to increase the store of human knowledge.

Riveting and magisterial, The Emperor of All Maladies provides a fascinating glimpse into the future of cancer treatments and a brilliant new perspective on the way doctors, scientists, philosophers and lay people have observed and understood the human body for millennia.”

My Review: This is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read, and I’ve read plenty.

The subject of cancer is both a frightening and mysterious one. There are few people – if indeed any – who have not been affected in some way by it, or at least been exposed to it through friends or family. My wife had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (one of the rare forms of cancer generally curable in 85% of sufferers) in her early twenties, and my aunt recently had a mastectomy. I have always understood cancer to be a diverse and highly aggressive genetic mutation of some kind, but have never really understood what it is. I can’t exactly claim to be an expert now, but I can say that I finally understand what it is, what causes it and why it remains so difficult to treat successfully.  The understanding is both a relief and somewhat frightening. A relief because I suffer mysteries poorly, and frightening because to understand what cancer is is also to understand that avoiding the malady completely is largely a game of chance, a  genetic lottery of sorts in which lifestyle and habits play only a partial role in determining who will fall prey. There is also a rather tragic irony to cancer, in that age is a major factor in its own right. One very significant factor in the increase of cancer in recent decades comes down to the simple fact of increased life expectancy.

Then there is the subject of the disease itself and the chronology of research and discoveries which have culminated in the ongoing effort to fully map the cellular composition and inherent mutations in most common forms. It’s a fascinating journey of brilliance, dedication, politics and human folly that has left me at times both in wonder of some, and incredulous at the obstinacy of others. The book parallels this story with the equally harrowing account of the evolution of cancer treatment, two sides of the same coin which remained surprisingly isolated from each other until only recently.

All of these things, and much more, are studiously covered in this book. And yet despite the complex nature of the biology involved, not to mention the chemistry, the book is written in a way that leaves no relevant fact out, yet is genuinely easy – I’d even say pleasantly so – to read.

If, like me, you’re one of those people who just needs to know; this is the book for you. Equally, I would recommend it to anyone who is, or has ever been, affected by cancer, either directly or indirectly, if you want a greater understanding of what is happening and why (my wife is now reading it). I have no official capacity in which to suggest it would be of therapeutic value, yet I instinctively believe it might well be.

Either way, the author has done an absolutely outstanding job of bringing this age old mystery within easy grasp of anyone who chooses to understand it. I can honestly say I was taken aback by the elegance, thoroughness and clarity of the book, and cannot praise mister Mukherjee enough for his effort.

Palestine – The Only Valid Question

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The seemingly immortal stalemate that has engulfed the question of Israel and Palestine for over seven decades now may be a complicated one, but just how complicated is really an unknown quantity. In assessing the situation, scholars, politicians, activists, journalists and victims alike present their views and the public, largely ignorant of all the facts and highly susceptible to the dangers of  prejudice, assumption and emotional reaction, either chose a side or retreat from the topic in apathy. We hear of Palestinian militants launching rockets over the border and we shake our heads in indignation. Then we see Israel retaliate with disproportionate brutality and wonder how such a thing can possibly be justified. When the dust settles, both sides accuse the other of premeditated murder and the whole thing begins again. The problem with this apparent catch-22 is that it is a superficial conundrum; a perpetual cycle of violence that cannot be interrupted by dialogue or mediation because its roots run far deeper than most people understand.

I am not talking about the historical events which led us here. These are well documented and serve only to explain the general air of distrust and mutual suspicion between the two factions involved. If this were the sole reason things appeared so impossible to solve, the international community would have made far more headway by now than it has. The real issue, the 900 pound gorilla attending every effort at negotiation to this day, is one of territorial sovereignty. By this I don’t mean the periodic incursions by the IDF into Gaza or the West Bank. The question of Israel’s “right to defend itself” is a legitimate one, even if the means employed to achieve it are not always mired in temperance. What I am talking about is the right of Palestine to exist as a single, defined territory, unbroken and undivided by the arbitrary appropriation of land by its neighbour. Unlike the myriad of other questions involved, this one is clear and unambiguous. The IDF may feel it has a right to cross the Palestinian border – and under certain conditions I agree that it does – but that is not the issue. The issue is permanent settlement by Israeli citizens within the borders of Palestine.

Of all the moral decadence, reactionary upheaval and misguided action in the region, the question of settlements and its many disastrous ramifications, is one for which Israel alone is responsible. No Palestinian government will ever succeed in quelling its own radical factions, nor achieve any wide consensus among its own people in putting an end to violent reaction, until this indignity is rectified. Human nature simply doesn’t have the capacity to endure a humiliation of this magnitude, and nor should it have to. The truth is that nothing Israel says or does in the name of peace or reconciliation will have any meaning as long as it continuous not only to allow this practice, but actively support it. Therefore every other argument is secondary to this one by necessity, if not inclination. You simply cannot claim to desire something while actively working to make that thing impossible. No nation on Earth would stand for an arrangement in which its own lands are divided arbitrarily by a foreign power and permanently occupied by citizens of that power.

Palestine, as it exists today, is not a nation, as so should not be expected to function as one. One need only look at the map above to see what the effects of the current situation are. It is not a country at all, but a piece of land dissected by concrete walls and the threat of force into a patchwork of disconnected territories that stifle the possibility of free movement within. In any sense of the term, Palestine is  not a nation. It is not a distinct geographical entity. It enjoys no real sovereign rights, be they judicial, military or political. To pretend it is a nation and accuse it as such of belligerence, negligence or collusion is the height of both irresponsibility and hypocrisy.

To get some sense of the real situation in Palestine today I prepared a hypothetical map of the United States, using the one above as a template. The picture it portrays is an absurd one, I agree. But that is exactly the point. If the idea is abhorrent to you, you can rest assured it is no more palatable to those for whom it is a reality.

Alternative US Map

Click to see full size image

 

You don’t need to be schooled in the details or the history of the region to appreciate why little will come of any effort until this fundamental issue is addressed. And by addressed I mean that Israel must withdraw its claim on Palestinian land  down to the last settlement. Not as gesture of goodwill, or a concession to peace, but in recognition of the fact that to abuse the right of a people to exist as such without let or hinderance is to provoke in them all the violence and hatred of which humans are capable. This is not a question of individual responsibility for acts of violence. Murder is murder. No civilized society allows for the killing of one person by another, regardless of motivation. But to be civilised, a society must have the freedom to develop and support those institutions which safeguard it against anarchy and unsanctioned violence. There is no society in Palestine today, nor will there ever be unless the roots of self-determination are allowed to take hold and grow.

 

Dealing with Amazon: Something we often forget

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As part of my role at Indie Spotlight I have been keeping an eye on the reaction to Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s latest subscriber plan for eBook readers. There’s no doubt that the service comes as a mixed blessing to the authors whose work is in the Unlimited selection, but just what it will end up meaning is still unclear. Some are optimistic, while others see the move as yet another broken promise by Amazon in its metamorphosis from Silicon Valley start-up to global corporatehood. As an author I’m no longer enrolled in KDP Select, so the argument is largely academic to me. But Kindle Unlimited isn’t really why I’m writing this. I’m writing this because reading all the recent complaints about it made me realize something that few apparently take into account before sharing their disapproval; Amazon doesn’t owe anybody anything.

I don’t mean that they have no legal or moral obligation to those whose books they sell. Like any retailer, they must pay their suppliers. What I mean is that Amazon  is not obliged to sell anything in the first place. KDP charges no up-front fees for listings, and Amazon makes no money from books that don’t shift. In fact most of the complaints about Amazon make no real sense outside the context of its own making. Which is to say, for a large percentage of writers, Amazon isn’t an obstacle to their success, but one of the primary reasons they are writing in the first place, or at least writing with a view to publishing and making money. That may seem unfair at first first glance, but think about it. Before there was a hope in hell of anyone but friends and neighbours ever reading most of the millions of books now available, what did the majority of would-be authors do? Who did they complain to when confronted with the reality that there weren’t enough tress on the planet to publish their work?

Now you could argue that having conquered the market, Amazon has a moral obligation to make it as egalitarian as possible. I’m not sure why anyone would argue that, but I suppose you could. More realistically, Amazon made the market and so Amazon gets to call the shots. You can bet your bottom dollar that if Jeff Bezos hadn’t been the one to make it so, it would have been someone else. If the big five had beat him to it, you can also be sure the world would be a far less welcoming place for self-published authors today.

My point is really just this: Amazon asks for nothing, and so we should not expect too much in return. And before you point out that your book – the one you poured your heart, blood and soul into – isn’t exactly nothing, remember that you are free to do with that book as you please. You can produce, promote and sell it in any way you wish. Amazon, regardless of what it chooses to do on a day-to-day basis, isn’t standing between authors and readers, it’s the only common ground most of them have. So before you get too worked up about issues of exclusivity and royalties, remember to look at all this in the context of where you would have been ten years ago, not what you thought you were entitled to yesterday.

It’s also worth pointing out that self-published authors who sell significant volumes of books on Amazon are largely immune to the horse-trading that goes on from time to time. The reason is obvious enough. It’s one thing to be an anonymous member of the hypothetical mass which makes KDP financially viable, and another to be an actual brand in your own right. For those of us whose talent, ingenuity and hard work has yet to pay dividends, Amazon is one of the few really good reasons to go on trying. Expressing outrage or disappointment at the withdrawal of specific rights and privileges within the context of what is basically the biggest free lunch in the history of publishing is both counterproductive and a little naive.

So if you’re in the game for the creative joy alone, none of this matters. But if you’re also looking to do business, then business is what you’ll have to do. Amazon takes care of the supply side of the equation, and that’s what you pay them for. Demand is the author’s problem. And the higher you raise it the larger your seat at the table becomes, until eventually, if what you have to sell is the genuine article and you let enough people know,  you get to join the conversation where it matters the most; in the boardroom.

None of this should be interpreted to mean that I am an admirer of Amazon, or a supporter of their decisions, per se. I am no more excited about Kindle Unlimited as a Kindle owner than I am as an author. But I am grateful to have free access to the world’s largest eBook market. For me that’s enough, and I have no expectations beyond the fact that when I tell someone where to buy my book, it will be there, and Amazon will take 30% of the asking price for making that possible. I simply assume that any agreement beyond this basic one will have strings attached to it. Strings that Amazon, in it’s eternal quest for higher profits and more customers, will always be pulling in one direction or another.

Book Review – Scar Tissue

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Author: Anthony Kiedis and Larry Sloman
Title: Scar Tissue
Available at: Amazon (and many other places)
My Rating: Excellent *****

Synopsis by publisher: “In SCAR TISSUE Anthony Kiedis, charismatic and highly articulate frontman of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, recounts his remarkable life story, and the history of the band itself. Raised in the Midwest, he moved to LA aged eleven to live with his father Blackie, purveyor of pills, pot, and cocaine to the Hollywood elite. After a brief child-acting career, Kiedis dropped out of U.C.L.A. and plunged headfirst into the demimonde of the L.A. underground music scene. He formed the band with three schoolfriends – and found his life’s purpose. Crisscrossing the country, the Chili Peppers were musical innovators and influenced a whole generation of musicians.

But there’s a price to pay for both success and excess and in SCAR TISSUE, Kiedis writes candidly of the overdose death of his soul mate and band mate, Hillel Slovak, and his own ongoing struggle with an addiction to drugs.

SCAR TISSUE far transcends the typical rock biography, because Anthony Kiedis is anything but a typical rock star. It is instead a compelling story of dedication and debauchery, of intrigue and integrity, of recklessness and redemption.”

My Review: As a diehard Chilli Peppers fan since the release of The Uplift Mofo Party Plan way back in ’89 (I stole the cassette), you’d think I would have gotten around to reading this earlier. I knew about the drugs of course, and the death of Hillel Slovak, but I honestly had no idea how bad things really were.

I think miracle is probably the word that best describes how Anthony Kiedis managed to stay alive, much less write and record 8 studio albums by the time he finally kicked his addiction to heroin and crack for the final time. What’s even more amazing is the extent to which he developed as a song writer in that time, going from playful punk ditties like “Get Up and Jump” on the debut album, to arguably some of the best songs of his generation, like “Under the Bridge” on Blood Sugar Sex Magik or “Scar Tissue” on Californication.

Reading about the life of someone you truly admire can be a harrowing experience, especially when every chapter comes so close to being the last. But it’s also a rewarding one. As a fan I really enjoyed getting an insight into the inspiration and subject matter of some of my favorite songs, while as a reader, the book has opened my eyes to the true brutality of drug addiction in a way general awareness of the problem cannot. Anthony is also pleasantly candid in the relating of his own experiences, as well as surprisingly honest about his views and motivations. That may seem par for the course for someone choosing to tell his life story to the world, but I can assure you that not all personal accounts by people in the limelight achieve this.

Non-judgemental, harrowing, inspirational and often funny, this is an autobiography I would recommend to anyone in general, and Chilli Peppers fans in particular.

A First Look at The Endless Blue Sky

 

Book Cover The Endless Blue Sky option 2

Synopsis: When Nazi SS colonel Felix Kirchmann is spotted by one of his former victims outside a cafe in Holland in 1964, the Mossad waste no time in apprehending him. Smuggled to Israel to stand trial for his numerous crimes, Kirchmann is assigned to veteran interrogator Ephraim Baratz. Baratz, a survivor of Auschwitz whose family perished in the V-2 rocket plant beneath the Kohnstein in the final days of the war, is a bitter and disillusioned man. His short temper and quick fists have already placed over a dozen men beneath the gallow’s pole, and Kirchmann is to be no exception.

But then he begins to speak. His story, far too elaborate to be a mere cover, is as unlikely as it is fascinating. Kirchmann’s narrative, which begins high in the Austrian Alps in the months leading up to the annexation of his country by the Third Reich, is a tale of unlikely heroism in the face of insurmountable odds, ruthless treachery and blind passion. Baratz, skeptical at first, decides to look into some of the former Nazi’s claims and soon finds himself piecing together the missing half of a story that forces him to question many of his own motives. But in a time and place where the memories of unspeakable horror and the need for retribution leave little room for the benefit of doubt, even the truth may not be enough. What ensues is a race against time, a race in which two of the unlikeliest of allies have an equal stake; one for his life, the other for his soul.

The Endless Blue Sky is scheduled for publication in April 2015. Advanced Reader Copies will be available from early January 2015, and Advanced Review Copies from late February 2015.

If you would like to be kept up to date, or would like to receive a pre-release copy, you can sign up at the book page here.

Book Review – Outliers

 

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Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Title: Outliers – The Story of Success
Available at: Amazon (and many other places)
My Rating: Very Good ****

Synopsis by publisher: “In this stunning new book, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of “outliers”–the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different?

His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.

Brilliant and entertaining, Outliers is a landmark work that will simultaneously delight and illuminate.”

My Review: The principal tenet of this book is an interesting one; success has less to do with inherent ability, and more to do with the fortunes of circumstance.

The opening chapter is an intriguing look at Canadian ice hockey of all things, and concludes with the startling fact that unless you were born in the first two or three months of the year, your chances of becoming a professional player in the Canadian league system are all but nonexistent. That’s quite an incredible claim, but it also happens to be true. And not for some mystical or obscure reason either.  The book then goes on to look at other professions and activities with similar anomalies, as well as some of the most successful people of their day, including Bill Gates and the Beatles. It turns out Gates was one of the only teenagers of his generation with almost unlimited access to the cutting edge of computer technology at a time when most people were still feeding ticker-tape into warehouse-size machines. And the Beatles got a mammoth head start on their contemporaries, playing eight-hour sets, seven days a week in the strip clubs of Hamburg; an intensity of performance rarely seen before or since by a popular music band.

In a nutshell, the book argues that timing, childhood experience, cultural heritage and hard work are the real difference between the ones who go all the way and those who end up toiling alongside the rest of us. I’m not entirely sold on the proposition, but my view of success in general terms has certainly been greatly affected by what I’ve read. Many of the arguments made are actually pretty obvious. Few would argue that a person nurtured in an environment of equality and privilege is more likely to succeed in the long run.  That said, the author does have a point in stating that the cult of personality tends to proliferate the myth that genius and talent make their own luck regardless of circumstance, when this is clearly not always the case. Bill Gates would not have gone on to found the Microsoft we know today had he been born a few years earlier, or later. And without access to the resources at his disposal, he would not have had the wherewithal to do so.  At the same time, I don’t think the Beatles would have disappeared had they not spent as much time as they did practicing. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers managed to go from relative obscurity to world fame in an environment plagued by disadvantage, drug abuse and repeated personal tragedy, surviving in the end on nothing but pure talent.

If asked to come up with my own hypothesis, I’d be inclined to say that inherent ability and chance play equal roles in the individual prospects of those who break away from the pack. Some rise with the tide, others persevere despite it. But none of that takes anything away from this book, which I found both fascinating and genuinely educational. It makes many valid points and highlights an aspect of success that we tend to overlook to our own peril. I think anyone considering a run at the top would benefit greatly from what this book has to say and recommend it heartily.

Today we launch Indie Spotlight, a no-nonsense meeting ground for the self-publishing community, and everyone’s invited!

 

Indie Spotlight

Alas, the time has come to give life to our new blog, Indie Spotlight. We wanted to create a place where follower participation was a key ingredient and we hope we’ve succeeded.

There are plenty of blogs out there that deal with the subject of self-publishing and we have neither the time to, nor see the point in, competing with them. To this end we’ve designed Indie Spotlight to be more of a forum, or information exchange, than a creator of original content. That’s not to say we don’t blog, we do. But our primary focus as administrators will be on vetting the content suggested by members, and conducting interviews with people from across the self-publishing industry. Our first interview, a chat with Indie author Brian Marggraf, has now been posted, and we have several more in the pipeline.

We strongly urge anyone with a stake in the Indie scene to come along and sign up. We’ve created a comprehensive menu system that allows visitors and followers alike to suggest content in any form, from potential interviewees and news items, to posts you think we should re-blog and links you think should be posted. In time we aim to make Indie Spotlight both the place to go for current events and a repository of resources for everyone involved.

So come check us out at indiespotlight.org and join in!

 

Smashwords Releases Survey Results

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Authors, publishers and marketers, here is a link to the results of a recent survey conducted by Smashwords into the subject of eBook sales. It contains some interesting information and useful tips!

Book Review – A Brief History of Britain 1851-2010

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Author: Jeremy Black
Title: A Brief History of Britain 1852-2010
Available at: Amazon (and many other places)
My Rating: Very Good ****

Synopsis by publisher: “From the Great Exhibition to the Credit Crunch – the transformation of Britain from the world’s greatest nation to the present day.

In 1851 Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, it was the high water mark of English achievement – the nation at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, at the heart of a burgeoning Empire, with a queen who would reign for another 50 years. In the following 150 years, the fate of the nation has faced turmoil and transformation. But it is too simple to talk of decline? Has Great Britain sacrificed its identity in order to stay part of the present world order.

Leading historian, Jeremy Black, completes the landmark four volume Brief History of Britain series with a brilliant, insightful examination of how present day Britain was formed.”

My Review: I must confess that I wasn’t even aware this was the fourth in a series until I went looking for the Amazon link. Not that this is a problem. Assuming the previous three volumes concentrated on events prior to 1851, I was probably lucky not to know. I am a great lover of history in general, but pre-19th century Europe – at least going back to the fall of Rome – has never been my cup of tea. This volume, however, was.

Throughout the first half of the book my only fear was that it was going to remain a little too neutral for my taste. The narrative, good as it was, had the feel of something intended for an audience that would be tested; a lot of fact and little deduction. My trepidation, however, was put to rest as we approached the middle of the 20th century, and continued to improve in this regard until the end.  The author deals very well with the subject of Britain’s rapid shift from imperial power to relative isolation in the period between the wars. In many ways it reminded me of Tony Judt’s Postwar, which is a good thing.

The book does a good job of summarizing a relatively long period of history without descanting into tedium, and is an ideal study for those who want an understanding of this period and its effects on the state of Britain today without an unreasonable commitment of time and energy. All in all, I would say it was well worth your time and money if you fit that bill.

This has to be nuts, right?

Less than six years ago my wife and I were living in a house paid for by the army with no water or electricity bills. We both had well-paid jobs, there were no kids, and I hadn’t even started writing yet. Well, not seriously anyway. In the interim we’ve traded one of those jobs in for a set of twins, started paying market rates for everything, moved into a bigger house in a more expensive neck of the woods, and bought two cars. I’ve also written a novel, started a publishing concern, begun a blog and started another novel. In theory the sky should be falling faster than my will to live; but it isn’t. And then I went and got it into my head to start a website focused on the self-publishing industry.

It’s not that I found an hour or two I wasn’t already dedicating to something of immediate importance, or that I decided I wasn’t busy enough as things stand. Nor did I wake up one morning and realize that I was uniquely positioned to spearhead such a venture, or even qualified to try. What actually happened was that I finally let go of my prejudice and opened my eyes to the whole idea of self-publishing.  That may sound odd coming from someone who has already started an Indie press and published a book through it, but it’s not quite that simple.

I’ve often thought that some unlucky words in the English language have as many meanings as there are people who use them. The word Indie, I fear, is just such a word. My initial impression of the self-publishing scene was that it was a festival of unbridled carnage from one end to the other. This view is clearly reflected in some of my earlier posts on the subject, such as this one, or this one here. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’ve come full circle and now embrace self-publishing as an indisputable force for good in the world, but I have come a fair distance. For one, I no longer believe that it’s as much a menace to literature as a boon. That’s a significant shift because it means I see more good than bad, and that is really the only catalyst necessary to stop pushing and start pulling, so to speak.

I’ve also come to understand that for many new authors, self-publishing is really the only viable option. This has less to do with an author’s ability to produce a good novel, and more to do with the DNA of the publishing industry as a whole.  Moreover, the difference between a newcomer walking onto the scene like a bull in a china shop, and one who takes a sober look around before making those vital decisions, is more often than not a matter of education. The sad truth is that there are many people and companies lying low in the tall grass, waiting for the next upstart with a few innocent dollars to lead down the garden path. Many are clueless armatures in their own right whose knowledge of the industry is limited to an appreciation of just how lost such people can be. But many are well-established subsidiaries of the big 5 who cynically use their experience and clout to lure unsuspecting upstarts with costly and deceptive promises into a sense of unrealistic expectation.

But there are also a lot of genuine people out there prepared to do a days work for a days pay in helping authors to navigate the rocks and shoals of the industry and provide them with the education and services they will need to make a real go of it. Bringing these people together – all of them, not just the authors – is what I have decided to concentrate on. The scope of the task at hand is somewhat daunting, and I still have far more ideas than hours in the day to see them through. But in time I think I can get enough people involved to generate the critical mass such a project must have to succeed.

Indie Spotlight Red star

Named Indie Spotlight, the site is already up, although I have not “launched” it yet, so to speak. What sets it apart – what I hope will set it apart – is a concentration on follower participation, and a focus on interviews as the core theme. More specifically:

1. The site has a menu item labelled “Make a Recommendation” under which there are several options. Users can recommend people for an interview, highlight an important news item, request the inclusion of additional resources, recommend a post for reblogging on the site, or suggest a link to another site to appear in the column. By encouraging followers to actively influence the content, I hope to make the task of running the site less time-intensive, as well as create a sense of community.

2. Instead of simply providing an interviewee with a list of pre-drafted questions, I am taking a more intimate approach. The process involves conducting the interview over a period of several days or a week, and proceeding one or two questions at a time so that each questions ties, where relevant, into the previous answer, and allows the exchange to proceed in the manner of a real face-face breeze shooter. I have already finished the first one of these and am in process of completing the second. The results so far have been positive, and the interviewees have responded well to the more personal format. Also important is the variety of subjects. My first interview was with an Indie author, while the second is with an editor. For the next I am looking for either a dedicated blogger, a cover designer or a publisher. By “mixing” things up this way I hope to achieve the broadest possible representation, and thus the widest possible appeal. I think getting the views of people from all corners of the industry on record will also prove more valuable to everybody, and act as a resource to everyone involved.

Alas, the site will be as effective as there are people involved. If you have a stake in the self-publishing scene, I would be eternally grateful for your help and participation. If you keep up with industry news, why not stop by and recommend an article or post? If you know of a great website or other resource, drop by and let me know so I can feature it. And if you know of someone who would make for a good interview, by all means recommend them and I’ll try to schedule them in.

 

A Poem

The Bay Bridge – Reflections on Yesterday 

We broke the night to a deep-kick bass line beneath the barnacled pillars of the old Bay Bridge.

And I would give July back to the summer sky to run the lines of your hand to the knuckle ridge.

Memory is static motion, a cruel notion, a tidal wave of the rarely spoken, pictures faded and mostly broken.

Glance away and you miss something vital, overlook the meaning, leave the point on the floor as you float to the ceiling.

By the time I opened my eyes my bones were brittle, my mouth too dry.

In a beggar’s heartbeat youth and vigor had surfaced only to passed me by.

All of this in such stark contrast to the promises we made each other, to sneer at death and live forever.

It’s funny how we always pretended that nothing ever ended, that time is stupid when you’re young and clever.

I hate growing up now even more than before, two lonely words in a dark and ominous score.

And yet If I close my eyes I can still hear you laughing, a sweet sound, bare feet on soft ground.

They say the world is smaller now, closer somehow, a stone’s throw to anywhere in the blink of an eye.

Perhaps I’ll save for that bus ride, set off on the fool’s tide, and find you if only to kiss you goodbye.

Is there any Hope for Football?

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I’m no big fan of football. There was a time – about a million years ago – when I called myself a Liverpool supporter and followed the Permiership and La Liga with a kind of halfhearted interest, but no longer. That said, I am not immune to the grand spectacle that is the World Cup and have spent a few hours in the front of the television of late; enough to remember why I lost interest in the game in the first place and to wonder anew at the truly idiotic reluctance of FIFA to bring the game into the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

The arguments both for and against the introduction of video replay technology to football are equally compelling. A lot of unnecessary mistakes could be avoided if the technology were used, but the complications of implementing it are many and varied, and on it goes, ad infinitum. There’s just one problem; as the debate goes back and forth professional football has degenerated into a morally decadent farce which has all but made the use of subterfuge a real – if not essential – part of the game. In light of this, any argument about practicality goes out the window. To sit in front of a high-definition television screen and watch as grown men deliberately and unabashedly feign injury and simulate foul play while the world watches on should be more than any rational man can bear. And yet the practice is so ingrained – not to mention self-perpetuating – that nothing short of a radical shakeup of the sport itself would be sufficient to put an end to it. This isn’t just about fairness, this is about putting an end to an activity that is promoting and breeding both a culture of dishonesty on the field, and an atmosphere of morally injurious indifference off it. It’s turning what should be a competitive sport into a debouched Big Brother-style reality TV show.

It is true that introducing a regime of technical oversight into a game as established in its norms as football would be no small feat, but it can be done. Rugby has such a facility, and the consequences are clear for anyone to see. The fact that bringing a similar system to bear on football would be a culture shock to begin with isn’t a case against it, but a clear argument that it should have been done a long time ago. Whatever the short-term fallout of such a move might be, it could in no way outweigh the long-term benefits.

I’m not holding my breath, however. Corruption has a way of reinforcing itself, as does mass complacency. So while it may be too late to do anything about football, one can at least hope. The alternative is a game that may well become a hallmark of human folly rather than a testament to our capacity for invention and “fair play”, a slogan FIFA has turned into a hollow phrase, as devoid of meaning as it is indicative of its blindness to self-denigrating irony.

Book Review – Letters to a Young Contrarian

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Author: Christopher Hitchens
Title: Letter to a Young Contrarian
Available at: Amazon
My Rating: Excellent *****

Synopsis by publisher: “In the book that he was born to write, provocateur and best-selling author Christopher Hitchens inspires future generations of radicals, gadflies, mavericks, rebels, angry young (wo)men, and dissidents. Who better to speak to that person who finds him or herself in a contrarian position than Hitchens, who has made a career of disagreeing in profound and entertaining ways. This book explores the entire range of “contrary positions”-from noble dissident to gratuitous pain in the butt. In an age of overly polite debate bending over backward to reach a happy consensus within an increasingly centrist political dialogue, Hitchens pointedly pitches himself in contrast. He bemoans the loss of the skills of dialectical thinking evident in contemporary society. He understands the importance of disagreement to personal integrity, to informed discussion, to true progress-heck, to democracy itself. Epigrammatic, spunky, witty, in your face, timeless and timely, this book is everything you would expect from a mentoring contrarian.”

My Review: I have to admit, and not without some degree of shame, that prior to picking up this book I had shunned the author for the most part as someone whose views diverged too sharply from my own to be of any interest to me. It remains true that I do not share many of his specific views, or at least approaches to them, but that does not take away from the fact that Christopher Hitchens was a remarkable and highly intelligent man who stood by his convictions and contributed more than most to some of the the great debates of his generation.

In this short work the author takes up the subject of what it means to devote oneself to a life of opposition to the status quo by responding to many of the questions he has received on the subject throughout the years.  It is not so much a treatise on any one subject – although his controversial opinion on things like religion and politics inevitably come up – as a dissertation on the very mindset a person should adopt if he or she is to successfully assume the role of the outspoken critic, and the various pitfalls of doing so. As such, the book lends itself well to anyone in such a position, be they a supporter of his views or not. I was particularly taken by the self-reflective and often humble tone of the book, as well as the beautiful simplicity and inescapable logic of the advice Hitchens offers on the subject of moral compromise and the temptation to “go along to get along”. Again, one does not have to agree with the author’s politics to make sense of his motives. In fact I would go so far as to say that a refusal to read this book on personal grounds is as much a vindication of what it has to say as it is an objection to it.

Aside from the advice on offer, the book also contains a good deal of recommended reading, some with which I was already familiar, but much that I was unaware of and look forward to reading. I would conclude by reiterating that this is one of those books that, ironically, might prove as valuable to the opponents of the writer as his supporters.  I am neither – or perhaps both – and yet this fact seems almost irrelevant when you consider that unlike much of Hitchens’ other publications, this one is, for the most part, neutral. Which is to say, you can ignore those things you do not agree with and still benefit greatly from the more general reflections of a mind that is nothing if not uncompromising and devoted to personal freedom above all else.

Digital Rights Management – Why I don’t worry about it, and why you shouldn’t either.

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I find it very ironic that much of the current dispute between Amazon and Hachette has its roots grounded in DRM. If the word on the street is anything to go by, publishers have tied themselves to the eBook retailer largely over fears that going around it poses a threat to the digital integrity of their material. There’s just one problem; DRM is a joke. In fact, in this day and age, it’s an oxymoron.

I am a child of the Napster generation. With the statutes of limitations now long expired, I’m quite happy to admit that I was one of the millions who helped themselves to a complimentary album or two back in the day. I know the record industry claimed it lost a lot of money as a result of Shawn Fanning’s short-lived liberation of its back catalog, but I also know that as a cash-strapped teenager with a serious skating habit, David Geffen wasn’t so much losing money on my account as losing sleep. I’m not saying that’s an excuse – taking something without paying for it is both illegal and unethical – just that not everyone who downloads copyrighted content form the internet is a lost sale. I’m pretty sure that holds true for pirated eBooks, too.

But that’s not my point. People download books illegally, we all know it. It’s not good, it’s not fair, but DRM isn’t a solution to the problem.

Now a grown man with a decent full-time job, my days of hunting for torrents may be over, but I’ve still got most of my brain cells, and certainly enough to know that trying to “protect” digital content is a fool’s errand. For one, many of the people who make pirated content available online have forgotten more about computers and programming than most of the IT people at Amazon will ever know. To them, converting a DRM-protected KF8 file into an unrestricted EPUB is child’s play. Every album and movie released is available to anyone who doesn’t want to pay for it, and at the bit-rate and resolution of choice. The very fact that eBook piracy is an issue at all is simultaneously an admission that DRM is useless.  Google “removing DRM from Kindle” and the first result you get is a how-to guide, complete with links to the necessary software. Although why you would want to waste time doing this when a hundred other people have already done it for you is a mystery.

My point isn’t that piracy is acceptable, only that trying to stop it is as pointless as bitching about it. And for a publisher to cut it’s own throat for the sake of it is beyond idiotic. Chances are that if you’ve uploaded your book to the web, someone has ripped it off, turned it into a torrent file and posted it somewhere. There is nothing you can do about it. What you can do is get on with the job of marketing your book  to readers who are willing to pay for it. At the end of the day, these make up the overwhelming majority of readers anyway. As for those who do steal it, most would probably never have bought it.  True, if you hit the best seller list the problem may seem more serious, but if you really have hit the big time….yeah, exactly.

Gatecrashing the Cosy Consensus on Amazon

Another no-holds-barred piece by a true champion of the people, David Gaughran.

David Gaughran

amazonhachetteA group of bestselling traditionally published authors – including James Patterson, Scott Turow, and Douglas Preston – engaged in an act of breathtaking hypocrisy on Thursday with an open letter calling on Amazon to end its dispute with Hachette.

The letter is incredibly disingenuous. It claims not to take sides, but only calls on Amazon to take action to end the dispute. It also makes a series of ridiculous claims, notably that Amazon has been “boycotting Hachette authors.”

Where do I start?

The Phantom Boycott

First of all, refusing to take pre-orders on Hachette titles is not a “boycott.” Pre-orders are a facility extended to certain publishers – not all publishers. Many small presses don’t have a pre-order facility. Most self-publishers don’t have a pre-order facility.

I don’t know why Amazon has stopped taking Hachette pre-orders, but both sides have stated that negotiations aren’t likely to be resolved any…

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Using Text-to-Speech as a Proofreading Tool

One from the archives that I wanted to throw back on the front page.

Nathaniel Dean James

I’m far too lazy to go looking all over the web for someone who has already pointed this out. I also don’t think it will kill anyone if I offer up my own experience.

Text-to-speech has been around for quite some time now. I remember downloading a program called “Shit-Talker” on my Windows 95 PC back in the days when most of us still thought bankers knew what they were doing. Not only could you write whatever you wanted it to say back, you could also manipulate the voice in a myriad of hilarious ways. My favorite was the “whiny fly”- It came out sounding like one of the Chipmunks with its balls stuck in a vise at the end of a long and very disappointing day.

Technology has come a long way since then. I only caught up with it myself recently, after uploading an epub file to Google…

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Pseudonym – yes or no?

Interesting.

Sights. Sounds. Musings

In the past, female writers considered it necessary to have a pseudonym that gave the impression they were male or at the very least made their gender unknown, for fear that their books wouldn’t sell to male readers.  The Bronte sisters did this, as did Louisa Alcott but perhaps the most famous recent example is J.K Rowling.  Although it’s not technically a pseudonym, she inserted a fictitious initial (K) into her writing name to appear more anonymous, rather than writing as Joanne Rowling who is quite clearly female.  As the books became successful and it was evident that both girls and boys were buying the books, her gender became irrelevant.  Recently, she has adopted a real pseudonym – Robert Galbraith – a man’s name.  In J.K Rowling’s case, she would have no trouble selling books under her own name now but in this instance, she chose a pseudonym for a…

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Selling on Google Play Books – A Good Idea?

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Ever considered selling your novel on Google Play? If so you might do well to delay.  For a company meant to be on the cutting edge of internet technology, Google’s experiment with selling eBooks is turning out to be problematic, if not outright embarrassing.

I opened a Google Partner account several months ago with a view to selling my novel, Origin – Season One. Like opening a seller account with iTunes, this is no easy process. Like Apple, Google need a US Tax ID and a bank account tied to the holder. I first realized something wasn’t quite right when the interface for uploading books became so confusing I had to – wait for it – google “how do you upload a eBook to Google Play?”. I eventually found a comprehensive guide and managed to upload the book, only to find that the EPUB file had been converted by the service into something so replete with formatting errors that I gave the whole thing up as an exercise in futility.

Fast forward to last week and I found myself wondering if the techies behind the scenes had managed to iron out the kinks. I uploaded the most recent edition of the EPUB file, along with the new cover and waited a couple of days for the review process to be completed. When the book finally appeared the file that had been used was not the one I uploaded, but the older one, albeit with none of the  the previous formatting issues. Encouraged by this development I contacted support and explained the situation. There were a couple of additional issues, too. The thumbnail cover in the search results was the right one, but the thumbnail on the book’s own page was the old one.  Also discouraging was the fact that my book had 37 reviews, none of which were for my book.

Here is what Google had to say about the file issue:

“Our internal records show that we are using the most recent files for displaying your book online. It appears that by the time you checked the content of your book, our system may not have processed the recently uploaded files. I therefore, encourage you to reconfirm the content being displayed and if you still find it outdated, please feel free to reach back. I’ll investigate the issue further.”

And the thumbnail issue:

“I reviewed your book and noticed that it is indeed displaying incorrect front cover thumbnail, although the correct cover image is available in the sample preview of the book. I have escalated this issue to our engineers to fix the thumbnail image.”

And finally, the mysterious reviews:

“We are aware of this issue and are also concerned about showing accurate information. We’re working to remove reviews that are for other books from displaying on your book’s page on Google Books. This may take a variable amount of time on our end, due to a number of factors with our system, so I’m afraid I can’t provide a precise timeline.” 

So my book page will be displaying reviews for another book indefinitely. Great!

I gave them another 48 hours to sort out the file issue, and presto, the latest version of the book is now the one they are selling. However, the book cover embedded in the uploaded EPUB file has been removed and replaced with the old one. Why Google need to manipulate a perfectly good EPUB file (it was created at considerable expense by one of the best in the business) is a mystery. Why they would replace the cover is beyond comprehension.

What this all boils down to seems obvious enough; book sales through Google Play clearly aren’t a priority, at least not for small self-publishing fry like my little pocket Indie press. It doesn’t take a great leap to arrive at the conclusion that this because it isn’t worth it to them financially.  You can’t tell me that a company like Google is incapable of sorting out what must be a relatively simple problem. Although you do also have to wonder if maybe the reason has something to do with the fact that it clearly isn’t worth it for us either.  Which is to say, if they created a user friendly, bug-free service it might work out better for everyone.

My conclusion; for the relatively small market share and all the hassle involved, you could do worse than ignore Google for the time being.

I plan to keep an eye on the situation and will keep you updated.

Book Review – The Crisis of Islam

 

 

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Author: Bernard Lewis
Title: The Crisis of Islam
Available at: Amazon
My Rating: Excellent *****

Synopsis by publisher: “In his first book since What Went Wrong? Bernard Lewis examines the historical roots of the resentments that dominate the Islamic world today and that are increasingly being expressed in acts of terrorism. He looks at the theological origins of political Islam and takes us through the rise of militant Islam in Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, examining the impact of radical Wahhabi proselytizing, and Saudi oil money, on the rest of the Islamic world.

The Crisis of Islam ranges widely through thirteen centuries of history, but in particular it charts the key events of the twentieth century leading up to the violent confrontations of today: the creation of the state of Israel, the Cold War, the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, the Gulf War, and the September 11th attacks on the United States.

While hostility toward the West has a long and varied history in the lands of Islam, its current concentration on America is new. So too is the cult of the suicide bomber. Brilliantly disentangling the crosscurrents of Middle Eastern history from the rhetoric of its manipulators, Bernard Lewis helps us understand the reasons for the increasingly dogmatic rejection of modernity by many in the Muslim world in favor of a return to a sacred past. Based on his George Polk Award–winning article for The New YorkerThe Crisis of Islam is essential reading for anyone who wants to know what Osama bin Ladin represents and why his murderous message resonates so widely in the Islamic world.”

My Review: I have been on the lookout for a brief and concise book about Islam for some time now, and this is it. To really understand what is going on in the world right now with regards to the “rift” between the Arab world and the west, you must at least have some fundamental understanding of history, both short and long term. It is possible to empathize with a view without agreeing with it, in fact it is essential if you really want to understand what is going on. It is also important to draw distinctions in a world where reaction abounds and often distorts facts through generalization. This book delivers all these things, and in a way anyone can understand.

The book has been criticized by some as an over-simplistic explanation, but this overlooks the fact that to many, simple is as much a requirement as it is a convenience. There is nothing wrong with simplifying facts, provided they are not distorted. This book clearly intends to serve as a layman’s guide to what could undoubtedly fill several hefty volumes, and it does a good job of it. I would strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the facts, but perhaps not enough time to make a rigorous study of it.

Book Review – Mr Mercedes

 

 

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Author: Stephen King
Title: Mr Mercedes
Available at: Amazon
My Rating: Poor **

Synopsis by publisher: “A cat-and-mouse suspense thriller featuring a retired homicide detective who’s haunted by the few cases he left open, and by one in particular – the pre-dawn slaughter of eight people among hundreds gathered in line for the opening of a jobs fair when the economy was guttering out. Without warning, a lone driver ploughed through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes. The plot is kicked into gear when Bill Hodges receives a letter in the mail, from a man claiming to be the perpetrator. He taunts Hodges with the notion that he will strike again.

Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing that from happening.

Brady Hartsfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. And he’s preparing to kill again.

Only Hodges, with a couple of misfit friends, can apprehend the killer in this high-stakes race against time. Because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim hundreds, even thousands.

My Review: Let’s be very clear about something before I deliver my opinion of this book; I am a die-hard Stephen King fan and have been for as long as I’ve been a reader. I didn’t come across it by chance, I waited for it with baited breath from the moment the rumors of its imminent arrival first surfaced, and snapped up my copy on the day it was released. But being a King fan is serious business. Perhaps we have been spoiled by an uninterrupted stream of great books spanning several decades and our expectations have become too high. Whatever the reason, this is the first King novel that has taken me by surprise in entirely the wrong way, and I will explain why.

It’s not the writing. King’s writing style remains as engaging as ever and I would give my right arm for the ability to emulate him in this regard. No, the problem with this book is that it isn’t a Stephen King book in the strictest sense of the word. That alone is no reason not to like it, of course, but it isn’t very good either. Setting aside his ability as a writer, what really makes King in my eyes is his subject matter, his capacity to create a world in which nothing is quite what it seems and forces both dark and light stir behind the fabric of reality at every turn. With a couple of exceptions, notably Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, this is King. With Mr Mercedes he has abandoned his roots and side-stepped into a genre of fiction far removed from his usual stomping ground. Again, this would not necessarily be a problem if he had done it well. But this book does not hold up as a detective mystery novel, in fact it falls rather flat on its face.

The premise – a retired detective is stirred into action by the taunts of the killer he failed to apprehend – is pretty standard fair for a detective novel. For a plot like this to pan out the execution would need to be pretty gripping, but it isn’t. There are no real twists, no cliffhangers, no surprises. Things like technology and procedure – a mainstay of this genre – have never been King’s strong points. It makes you wonder why he would chose to dabble in a field where these things are necessarily important. At times it felt like he was getting advice on technical matters from someone with little or no grounding in the field.

Another major problem with the structure of the novel is that the protagonist and antagonist are both introduced at the beginning and followed alternately throughout, leaving no room for any real suspense. This approach is classic King and works well in his other writing, but using it in a crime thriller is a mistake.

But my most serious gripe is the lack of warning. If King wants to move into crime thrillers, that’s his prerogative, I just wish he would have done it in another way, perhaps through a pseudonym. In using a name all but tied to a very different genre, he is “pulling a Rowling”, so to speak, and we all know what happened to her debut non-Potter novel before the truth was leaked. In my opinion, this book wouldn’t have fared much better if it had to hold it’s own against the rich body of established crime writers already out there.

So I’m taking two stars off for the book itself and one for the slight of hand. If the rumors are true, this is going to be the first of a trilogy featuring the same cast, a proposition so dire I refuse to believe it.

Book Review – Stasiland

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Author: Anna Funder
Title: Stasiland – Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall
Available at: Amazon
My Rating: Excellent *****

Synopsis by publisher: “In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell; shortly afterwards the two Germanies reunited, and East Germany ceased to exist. In a country where the headquarters of the secret police can become a museum literally overnight, and one in 50 East Germans were informing on their countrymen and women, there are a thousand stories just waiting to get out. Anna Funder tells extraordinary tales from the underbelly of the former East Germany – she meets Miriam, who as a 16-year-old might have started World War III, visits the man who painted the line which became the Berlin Wall and gets drunk with the legendary “Mick Jagger” of the East, once declared by the authorities to his face to “no longer to exist”. Written with wit and literary flair, Stasiland provides a riveting insight into life behind the wall.”

My Review: East Germany was perhaps the most hard line member of the communist block, as well as the most absurd. In this, a collection of first-hand accounts by various people living through the era, we get a real and very fascinating view of what would – were it not for the fact that it was happening to real people – be a comedy of the truly ridiculous, taken to new heights by a regime that found an ideal – if not willing – population in the ruins of post-war Germany to test out its own version of totalitarianism. Perhaps more striking that anything else is the truly anti-climactic way in which the DDR first disintegrated, then quietly disappeared. One thing is for certain, this dark chapter of history deserves to be told, as much for our own sake as that of the people who had to endure it, and this book does a brilliant job painting a picture of life under the auspices of the seemingly bottomless paranoia known to history as the  German Democratic Republic.

An Alternate History

 

 

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From the Toronto Daily News, Thursday June 5, 2003

Scenes of violent protest erupted today in Baghdad as Saddam Hussein, prime minister of Iraq and serving marshal of the Arab Defense League, announced his intention to bring forward the occupation of Britain. The demonstration – numbering over 100,000 people in strength – is the largest open gathering of protesters seen in the Middle East since the completion of the Palestinian Security Wall which now surrounds what remains of the former Jewish state of Israel. The announcement comes just days after another attempted hijacking of a Saudi oil tanker en-route to the El-Kabir refinery complex at Havana by the KSG, a terrorist group with links to the British Military. Prime minister Blair denounced the decision, stating, “This is yet another example of the League’s determination to use force as a measure of first resort in direct defiance of international law.”

Plans for the occupation have been on the table ever since the league announced its oil embargo of the British Isles in 1999 in response to the Persian Gulf Incident, but the League only began moving troops and armor into neighboring Ireland last October following the signing of a five year agreement to stage operations from the island in exchange for generous oil concessions. It is estimated that the League currently has six operational divisions stationed in County Monaghan, and an additional two reserve divisions at its rear operating base near Drogheda in County Meath. The size of the force has prompted much debate within the league, with Syria and Lebanon the most vociferous of those calling for a reduction in numbers. However, Iran, by far the largest contributor of men and equipment, has warned that an occupation of Britain, even if the league succeeds in its plans to extricate Scotland under a separate agreement that would see it granted autonomy, will be a bloody and protracted affair. Their biggest concern –  and it’s not entirely unfounded – is that Britain may well descend into civil war if the occupation does not have the resources to maintain order. It is well known that many of the dissident movements in the country, whose strongholds in the south have been growing under the embargo, are already at loggerheads over how to respond to an occupation.

A Russian built T90 tank of the 2nd ADF Lightning Battalion on maneuvers near the Blackwater River on the Irish border.

Most likely to prevail are the Knights of Saint George, a paramilitary organization which rose from the ashes of the British National Party (BNP) after it was outlawed in 1995 for alleged terrorist activity. Rumored to be far larger than official government estimates suggest, the NSG is also feared to have a devoted if silent following within the British military, an allegation which has been repeatedly denied by Whitehall. The NSG is also known to be stockpiling weapons smuggled from Scandinavia and parts of eastern Europe. An investigation by the Estonian police in 2001 found evidence of not only weapons leaving the country for the shores of Britain, but men too. It concluded that over eighteen hundred people from Estonia and Belarus, as well as Russia, may have left the continent to join the NSG between 1998 and 2000. In November of 2002 a joint raid by British police and military units on a farm in West Sussex discovered over 500 weapons, including anti-tank rockets and land mines.

In the mean time, Westminster continuous to appeal to its European neighbors for support. Norway, who supply over 80% of the oil to Britain’s beleaguered economy, has made several appeals to the league in recent years for a partial lightening of sanctions on humanitarian grounds, sitting the widespread lack of medicine and other essential medical supplies. Yet Britain’s insistence that its membership in the European Union was revoked illegally, and that it is still entitled to the defense guarantees provided by the European Charter, continue to fall on deaf ears. Germany, who led the effort to oust Britain following the leak of the Wilson Papers, has insisted the union was right to act as it did, stating, “Britain’s open threat to use nuclear weapons against the league, and its decision to do so unilaterally after repeated warnings by its fellow member states, was a violation of its obligations and justifiable grounds for loss of membership. If Britain wants to drag itself into a war, that is something it will have to do alone.”

Former US president Charles Palmer has made several visits to Baghdad in the last six months in an attempt to dissuade the league from pushing ahead with its plans. Palmer, who was impeached following the revelation that he knew of Britain’s plans and secretly supported their failed attempt to force the league into submission, insists that a lighter touch is far more likely to bring the British to the negotiating table. His position, however, is untenable. Palmer still denies any direct knowledge of Operation Sterling, the attempt by the British Navy to sail the Trident armed submarine HMS Vigilant into the Persian Gulf, which failed when she was struck by a Saudi trawler and forced to surface. The submarine was subsequently towed to the Iranian port of Bandar E-Mahshahr, where it remains under guard to this day. When a Whitehall staff member, Stewart Wilson, leaked the operational plans for Sterling to a Dutch newspaper, it became clear that the White House was lying when it insisted it knew nothing of Britain’s intentions.

The current president, Charles D. Ross, meanwhile, remains mostly tight-lipped about his country’s position on the plight of its former ally. This is hardly a surprise when you consider the United States has yet to see the bottom of a three-decade long economic decline following the oil embargo initiated by the Middle East Petroleum Board, then known as OPEC. Although oil exports to the US have increased in recent years, the league remains devoted to its policy of “payment in kind”, an arrangement that has seen the US Dollar lose its once vaunted status as the world’s reserve currency in favor of the Arab Dinar.

However, when asked during a press conference last year if the United States was considering the possibility of military aid to Britain, President Ross was quick to dismiss the possibility, stating, “The United States has no intention of getting involved in the conflict militarily, either directly or indirectly. Our focus is on diplomacy.” What Ross didn’t say, and perhaps he can be forgiven for this, is that the United States is in no position to offer military aid whether it wants to or not. It is no secret that the Arab Defense League, lead by Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been the world’s largest importer and producer of weapons for over a decade now. While opinions may differ on the methods employed to measure such things, what no one can deny is that the league has by far the largest deployable modern military force in the world, a force larger by some estimates than that of the United States, China and the Russian Federation combined. It is estimated that as of 2000 the United States – still the world’s second largest manufacturer of military aircraft and missile systems – exported over 75% of its production abroad, with over half of it going to league members in payment for oil imports. Saudi Arabia meanwhile is set to take delivery from China of an additional three Mohamed-Class super-carriers over the next three years, an expansion that will finally see the league’s combined naval strength overtake that of the US, which has retired five of its own carriers in recent years. Add to this the fact that league members account for over sixty percent of  Russian tank and other armored vehicle exports and it’s easy to see why Britain is unlikely to find a willing ally in its current predicament.

Britain still has it in her power to avoid occupation, albeit at a high price. The league’s ultimatum, issued in July 1998, demands the surrender of Britain’s remaining three Vanguard Class submarines, HMS Vanguard, HMS Victorious, and the as yet completed HMS Vengeance, for which it has agreed to compensate the British government to the tune of 60 million Dinar (12 billion Pounds).

What is clear is that Britain’s plight is far from over, and the protests underway in Baghdad are unlikely to change that. In a recent fiery speech delivered to a Kuwaiti infantry battalion preparing to deploy from the port of Jeddha, president Hussein, speaking in his capacity as supreme commander of the ADL, said, “The world is a very different place today, and Britain is learning that the hard way. Her imperial past is a but a memory. Less than sixty years ago her armies ruled over these lands, dictated our borders and took freely what it wanted. No longer. Today this great people stand as one, and our destiny is our own to guide as we choose. Just as Britain and her allies would not have stood for unjustified naked aggression at the height of their power, nor shall we today. Her moment in the sun is spent. If she cannot see it, it will be up to you to teach her. We are a people devoted to peace above all else, but we also have a right to defend ourselves. That is the prerogative of all free nations, and we are a free nation.”

Author’s Note: I recently read a book about the Middle East and the religion of Islam (I have reviewed it separately) that made me wonder how the world might look today had the tide of history shifted at some pivotal point. This “mock” article is an attempt at picturing how that world might look as an almost polar opposite to the one we know today. I’m not trying to send out a political message or make the case for any one region or state, just to present a fiction that might, or might not, provoke the reader into thinking about the subject matter.

I didn’t say I could rite. I said I’m an author!

One from the catacombs.

Nathaniel Dean James

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Sometimes, when I see a hornet’s nest, I get this uncontrollable urge to pick up a stick and pound it until I’m blue in the face. This has been happening more frequently of late as I set out to fulfill my obligation to the greater community as a reviewer of books.  

I shouldn’t really be writing this post. In fact, I shouldn’t even be thinking about it. No good will come of the things I have to say. No movement will spring to life on the back of the problems identified here. And no aspiring writer will ever thank me for suggesting they might be a hornet. But I’m going to say it anyway. Not because anyone wants to hear it, but because I need to get it off my chest.

When I was about eight, I found an old, discarded vacuum cleaner leaning against the side of the apartment block…

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Indie Spotlight – An Interview with Author Matt Posner

 

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In this, the first of my Indie Spotlights, I invite New York based writer Matt Posner to talk about his experiences as an Indie author, life in the Big Apple and his views on the state of publishing in general. Matt is the author of School of Ages, a series of novels that chronicle the adventures of Simon Magus, a student at the little known school of magic nestled off the beaten path on an island in New York harbor. Sound familiar? Don’t be so sure. But I think we’ll let Matt do the explaining.

We know your name but not how you got it. Do you? Is there a story there?

My full name is Matthew Jerrold Posner. Jerrold is my father’s name. Matthew was chosen by my parents because it means “Gift of God” which is how they felt about me at the time. Posner is a Russian Jewish name. My great-grandfather on my father’s side is reported to have been a fugitive from the Czar’s pogroms who was adopted in another village. I can’t confirm that, but I will speculate that the Posners of that village adopted him.  He was in the United States prior to World War II, as were my other relatives on the Jewish side, so I have no Holocaust survivors in my family that I know of.

I’m going to skip the one about where your ideas come from for now – although you’re free to elaborate on that too, of course – and ask you if you can remember the moment – the exact moment –  when you made the conscious decision to be an author. Can you remember?

I was in seventh grade and had just been enrolled in a gifted and talented program at Nautilus Junior High School on Miami Beach. For this program we each had to produce a “contribution of worth” under the guidance of our teacher, Ms. Josephine Chesley. (I tried to look her up online as a result of this, and may have found her, still living, at age 83). I was nervous about doing anything in the community because of my introspective nature, but I came up with the idea of writing a science-fiction novel, and offered that as an option. Ms. Chesley accepted it, and I wrote an 80-page space opera with a lot of Star Wars influence, as well as a short story based on a creepy dream I’d had. It was while sitting under a tree in the Nautilus playground during recess that it clicked for me that I could take all the writing I had been doing for fun and move it toward a career. I resolved to do that, to become a novelist. And now, thirty-two years later, I am … a high school teacher.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King makes it very clear that he believes a mediocre writer can become a good one, but that great writers are born, not bred. That’s a somewhat controversial statement. What’s your take on it?

I read On Writing, but that statement didn’t stand out at the time. I think I just assumed it to be true and moved on. There are certain types of sensitivity, to language, to character, to story, to detail, that one finds in varying concentrations in the best writers. I think there is such a thing as inborn talent, although it is not the whole picture. Talent doesn’t make you successful; opportunity, luck, and effort are the main factors. Gladwell had it right in Outliers:  his demonstration of why success happens to people rings true for me, even though it may, I bitterly acknowledge, exclude me from the big time. But are people born with native ability and tendency? Sure, I think so.

You’re a teacher by day. I wanted to know your take on the state of literature today, especially in the Indie market. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of “bad” writing is making the rounds these days. Bad grammar, bad spelling, bad punctuation. Yet some readers are more sensitive to this than others. Do you see it as a good thing that so many people are writing, or a tragedy that so many are doing it badly? What say you?

The state of indie literature? I read mostly indie literature. I’m an English teacher who cares about style and errors, and I get exposed to a fair amount of work which has significant faults in these categories, and I always feel bad trying to figure out how to review a work which has merits in other areas but fails in these crucial ones. I don’t know how significant it is to readers who are less aware of the errors, but I wouldn’t want to make things more difficult for indies. Let the weak stuff be out there unrestricted, or else someone good may get labeled weak for illegitimate reasons. I am the sworn enemy of gatekeepers, and I would not wish to stem the tide of people moving to self-publish. I do wish though that there were a better way to stand out in that tide. The vagaries of the marketplace are infinitely frustrating, and it often seems that luck matters much more than quality.

I can see from your bio that you’ve done a fair bit of moving around. Some would claim this has wreaked havoc in their lives, while others no doubt see it as a good thing. Is it all relative?

I don’t like moving. Every move is painful. I adapt and learn wherever I am, but if you ask me where I belong, I’d have to say I belong in my own head. I am always in a place, but never of that place.

I get asked this all the time, so I welcome the opportunity to pass the buck here for once. Who leaves Florida?

Yes, I left Florida. Who leaves Florida? People who want to get jobs leave Florida; people who don’t like heat and humidity leave Florida; people who like to see hills and mountains leave Florida; people who dislike hurricanes leave Florida; people who find strip malls and cookie-cutter suburbs appalling leave Florida. I miss places in Florida, but I can’t see my way to living there anymore, unless it was to return to my bachelor’s institution, New College of Florida, as a professor. They don’t exactly have me on speed-dial, shall we say.

From what I hear about New York, it’s a pretty happening place. Fact or fiction?

Is New York a happening place? Yes, that reputation is deserved. There is way more to do than one has time to do. Live theater and music all over the place; lots of teams if you are a sports fan; every imaginable cuisine; plenty of historical locations; ethnic neighborhoods. As an example, Julie, my wife, and I are fans of art museums. Here we have at least a half dozen of the top art museums in the world (and we can drive to Boston and Philadelphia, where there are two more).

I would like to think that the city has a strong presence in my School of the Ages novels, as my teen magicians go out to real locations in the city and have adventures there. The Empire State Building alone has figured in three novels. The books are a little weak on the Bronx and Staten Island, but do well with Manhattan, Brooklyn, and my home base, Queens.

One caveat to the wonders of New York City:   you need to have money to have fun here. New York is a great place to be rich and a horrible place to be poor.

Whenever I meet people in my own travels, I always tell them that we welcome visitors in New York, and it’s true. Manhattan people are generally nice, and the reputation for being mean or rude comes only from being in a hurry — there is plenty of community feeling here. I have actually had people follow me down a subway platform to tell me I dropped my phone or that I might trip over an untied shoelace. I do say, though, to try to avoid bothering the police. NYPD are kind of gruff.

If a student of yours confesses an interest in writing, what do you say to them? 

I always support students who express an interest in writing and always volunteer to give my personal time to coach them. So far, though, I have not had a chance to mentor a student who wants to be a fiction writer. I know they are out there, but I don’t work at a school which attracts students who are really committed to the arts, so usually, after I have a single one-on-one coaching session with a student, the student doesn’t continue with me.

School of Ages, a series featuring a school of magic. Where did the idea come from? Of course I want to say Hogwarts, but I don’t see it somehow. I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but you don’t strike me as Rowling fan. 

I wrote books about magicians and apprentices starting back in the 1980s, as my own apprentice work. I produced a really good one around 1992 which was doing the rounds of the publishers at some point but didn’t make it. (I have since cannibalized some ideas from it, making self-publishing it an unlikely choice.) After that, I focused on literary fiction for a while, until I had a pretty cool idea. In the twenty-first century, a magician with two or three teen apprentices who would travel the world encountering the local cryptids (like Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot) who would actually be elemental beings. I had this idea vaguely percolating, with a few others, as I continued a two-year stint as a teacher slash punching bag in a Long Island yeshiva high school. At that school I became fascinated by the Orthodox Jewish subculture and wanted to incorporate it into a book about magic. I couldn’t use it as the pivotal element, though, because my knowledge wasn’t sufficient, so I decided to create a magic school with both Orthodox students learning Cabala and traditional (Hermetic) apprentices. I added in some content related to India and Asian traditions, and School of the Ages was born. This occurred in 2002, and I began work around March of that year. Naturally, I was aware of Rowling and her vast audience, and I thought they would like my book to some degree, but I also knew that I was going to use real Hermetic philosophy, producing something much more intense and authentic, but also less mainstream, than Rowling’s whimsy. I was deeply into her books for a long time after that as they arrived, until really Order of the Phoenix, when I began to feel she was going off the rails. I realized that, despite her vast success, I could put together a better series than she has, at least from the perspectives of plotting, characterization, and imagination. So that has been my goal with School of the Ages. The four novels and two short story collections I have form a complete story arc, so I can be judged already upon whether I have done so. Book V is set to be a fun adventure, a romp to end the serieshappily, and a send-off for at least the teenage versions of these characters. I’ve only written a little of this book, though, so it will be a long time in coming

Books

Religion is a prominent feature in your books, albeit not in a dogmatic sense. Are you yourself religious? And if so, does that have a direct influence on your writing?

Am I religious? No. I’m multicultural. Religion fascinates me, but I have a low capacity for adherence to dogma. I am, however, neither Samuel Johnson nor Bishop Berkeley, not ready to quarrel over the real vs. the ideal:  I do believe there is intelligence in the universe, but I’m inclined to the view that the entire universe is a kind of a cosmic mind. This is similar to the concept of Brahman from Hinduism, or Emanations from Cabala, or really, something the like of which can be found in any kind of mysticism. However, I am not myself susceptible to mystical experience. I have a hyperactive mind and cannot still my thoughts to meditate. So I can only point to what others say and do and explain intellectually what it means and how it fits together.

Simon, your protagonist, comes across very much as a boy determined to face his own demons (literally) on his own terms. I want to ask, do you think it’s important that a story make a moral statement to the reader in addition to just telling a story? Is it important to you personally? 

Hm — that’s an interesting statement. Simon is an odd character in a number of ways, as he seesaws between a weepy teenager and a prescient sorcerer, able to act with cold clarity at a moment of stress and yet totally bumble a daily interaction. Morally, he is far superior to me. He has more courage, because despite all the death and loss he faces, he isn’t afraid of either. Miserable, depressed, yes, but not afraid.

Does a story have to make a moral statement to the reader? No, it doesn’t have to do so in an aggressive sense, but all stories do, indirectly, in the way they reflect the cultural values of their time. The primary goal of a fiction has to be a good story, however. Let me go with some examples.

Robinson Crusoe, one of the most moralizing of the early novels, works not because of the moralizing, but because it is a remarkable survival story. The moral aspects are questionable for us. There is Defoe’s tolerable Puritan lesson of Providence (trust God to give you signs of how to live so that you may prosper) but there is also a rotten lesson, because the novel shows a dark man choosing to be slave to a white one.

Dickens was also a highly moral writer, with his aggressive exposure of the evils of his society, and with the regular triumph of the good and kind over the selfish and wicked, and even the redemption of some scoundrels along the way; but again, he told amazing stories full of drama and conflict, and the moral issues aren’t the main draw.

Since you asked me about J.K. Rowling, in a different context of course, I’ll bring her up here as well. She is very moralizing in the Dickensian sense, since she focuses on the triumph of good people, but her message is muddled. Good people must sacrifice themselves in profusion to defeat wicked ones, and then ultimately, one must face one’s foes alone. Okay, so far so good: but then Harry becomes a Christlike figure at the climax of Deathly Hallows. Uh… what? Why? She bumbled this one, honestly, as he becomes a figure of capital-L Love, and all of a sudden, through a channeling of Love (i.e. divine power) Voldemort can’t kill anyone. It’s damn confusing and nigh illogical, and it totally bollixes the narrative. The movie version removed most of this rigmarole, thank God, and Harry just dukes it out with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Back to my poor protagonist:   Simon’s story is based upon the epic hero’s quest — he “dies” and is reborn, and stuff like that — so that gives some moral center — but mostly I am trying to show someone growing up and facing some terrible problems and massive challenges. So I present a view of how that can be done. Does it teach a moral lesson? Well, he’s a hero, albeit a flawed one, so he’s not going to be a jerk.  Book 4, Simon Myth, even brings him into direct contact with real epic heroes — the five Pandava brothers from the Mahabharata, who teach him what little he is able to absorb. They do offer ways to look at life and the world, which are useful to Simon. Some readers may like them also. Some may doze through that part waiting to get back to the action.

Many say that quantity can be as important to the Indie author as quality. Your series is now up to four volumes. Has this been an advantage to you from a marketing standpoint?

The advantage of quantity is that if you have multiple books, people will be more likely to try the first one, knowing that if they like it, there is more to read. From a marketing standpoint, though, it’s not that much help, because all you can really do is market the first one. Who’s going to buy book 2, 3, or 4 as a standalone? My books should get progressively better — that’s the goal, at least — but when I was promoting the later ones, I mostly had to talk about the whole series.

I think writing series is better than writing a lot of stand-alones, as people like to repeat a good experience and stay with cool characters and situation. It is then the writer’s goal to both provide the same and also upgrade the experience. That’s hard to do, but I am making the attempt.

Finally, as an author, where do you see yourself in five years? I know it’s not a fair question, but give it a shot. 

Where do I see myself in five years? That’s a hard question, as you acknowledge. I see myself being a better writer in various senses, and also being substantially more diversified in subject matter. I think I might have produced up to three novels in that time, assuming my job is stable in the interim. I’m a teacher, and my profession is under continuous attack in the United States courtesy of corporate education reformers and the politicians and media who like slavish curs are trained to their leashes. So if my job survives, and I can keep writing, then I will have some growth still. I was initially hoping to be successful within ten years, and November 2014 will be the four-year anniversary of my entry into the market as a bald, wide-eyed innocent. With the volatility of the eBook market, it’s hard to know what will happen commercially. For example, there are dire predictions that Amazon will crush all the publishers, and then, having subjugated them, abandon all the self-publishing authors who merely represent temporary leverage for them. I hope that is not what happens, but I have no faith in the corporate world, whose perspective often seems to me to be the diametric opposite of compassion or respect for humanity. I will keep going as long as I can, because I can’t help it.

 

School of Ages

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Food For Thought # 005

“People get excited about the antics of apes, dolphins and crows. I’ve never understood why. The difference between a mind, be it logic circuits or animal, and the awareness inherent in the human being is not the ability to solve problems. That function is inherent in all living things by design. Show me a monkey in awe of human ability and I’ll show you a wishful thought. What makes the human being unique is not his ability to solve problems, but his tendency to create them for his own amusement. Animals, be they simple or complex, are concerned solely with the extension of life, while humans seem more occupied with staving off the perils of immortality. The two could not be more different.” 

– Professor Dale R. Winters

Album Review – Hello Nasty

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I first saw the Beastie Boys live in Budapest in ’95 during their Ill Communication tour about a million years ago. The gig was put on in the upstairs hall of a building whose name and location I have long since forgotten. What I do remember was thinking the floor would collapse –  you could feel it bowing under the relentless bouncing of the standing-room-only crowd. I had been a fan back in the days of  License to Ill, and still know all the lyrics to Fight for your Right to Party, but had more or less lost touch with the New York punk rockers turned international rap superstars until the release of Sabotage.

I remember the day Hello Nasty was released because I spent every penny to my name on it and never looked back. Some might argue, but I think this album represents the pinnacle of the band’s rise to both stardom and musical achievement. The album is a regular pick-and-mix of delicious heavy bass rap-athons like Super Disco Breakin’, The Move and Intergalactic to mellow instrumentals like Sneakin’ out of the Hospital and Song for Junior, and everything in between. Mix Master Mike, who joined the trio in ’98, also brings a refined fell to the music missing on previous albums.

A remastered two-disc version was released in 2009 featuring a host of unreleased material, as well as re-mixes of original songs. Standing out among these is a mellow re-mix of Intergalactic by Colleone & Webb and Peanut Butter & Jelly, an original instrumental that reminds us that the Beastie Boys aren’t just a funky rap group, but also a serious musical act.

The boys from Brooklyn went on to make several more albums before the untimely death from cancer of Adam Yauch (aka MCA) in 2012, but never really recaptured the intensity that makes, in my humble opinion, Hello Nasty one of the best hip-hop/rap albums of all time.