Thursday, February 28, 2013

Respecting Copyright

Here’s more evidence why the Internet can’t have nice things.

And by “can’t have” and “nice things,” I don’t mean to side with those using Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strip characters without his permission, whether the resultant art is good, bad, or mediocre.
Techdirt is all aflame over Universal Uclick/Andrews and McMeel’s polite copyright infringement notice sent to an artist who was taking the Calvin and Hobbes characters from the famed comic strip and putting them in “real photos.” (Example at the TechDirt site.)
What makes Techdirt’s arugment so laughable is that they compare the takedown of the Calvin and Hobbes artwork with the production of the “Garfield Minus Garfield” comic strips, in which Garfield creator Jim Davis embraced that concept of the strip and urged his publishers to cooperate with the creator – effectively giving the creator of the strip permission to move forward with the project. There is no such cooperative urge on the side of Watterson and his publishers.

Creators of derivative works – ranging from Garfield Minus Garfield to the parody songs of Weird Al Yankovic – have varying bits of copyright law they can run to for protection – but I admire the approaches of the Garfield Minus Garfield creator and of Yankovic, who always seeks permission from the artists to be parodied before he proceeds. He could clearly proceed without permission, but does not do so out of respect for those he parodies. 

Seeking forgiveness rather than permission might make for a good saying, but it hardly works when you get copyright takedown notices. 

To his credit, the creator of the Calvin and Hobbes art mashups is now going about things the right way, per his blog.

This is a real concern for creative types. I myself need to pursue the use of songs and song lyrics in two books I have written before I proceed much further with getting them published, whether through an agent or on my own. I don’t have the money it would likely take to get a license to use the works if such a license is required, and will have to re-tool my approach – but I won’t move forward knowing I could violate copyright law. Because I wouldn’t want someone to turn around and do the same to me for something I’d created.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Chapter Twenty-Five: I Thought You Told the Purdys

Chapter Twenty-Five: I Thought You Told the Purdys 

Marmots are apocryphally known to use different whistles to communicate different dangers approaching their colony. Though the types of whistles may vary from group to group, hikers have long suspected that marmots have a different warning call for when they come into view as opposed to, say, a badger or bald eagle. 

Some of the more sensitive (or clumsy) hikers also believe marmots’ special whistle for some hikers is akin to a human calling to another: “Hey, this guy’s walking on scree. I think he’s going to fall on his ass. Come watch.” 

None of that is true – though it is true marmots do enjoy watching hikers hurt themselves. In truth, marmots have a varied language that they understandably keep to themselves, and only whistle or chuck or gurgle when an enemy’s approach is imminent and discerned as a threat. Many marmots, in fact, will watch other animals, including predators and man, with an unbounded curiosity. They will then return to their compatriots – once the threat or lumberer is departed – on what they’ve seen. 

But none of this helped the marmots communicate with the Purdys. At all. 

This they already suspected would be the case – their efforts to speak with other humans as they tried to sell their goods and warn them of their imaginary shotguns had come to naught. But as is the case with those who present ideas in a large group setting, it fell to them to implement their plan. 

They fell to other measures. 

Aloysius was goaded into stealing more books, this time going much further afield to find privies where a few childrens’ books might be obtained so those with the best chances of communicating – the crows through speech and the raccoons through rudimentary writing – could learn a bit more of the alphabet and how to put words together. 

“I will not come back with folksy words to make for a laugh,” he screamed at Father Marmot before he set out on his first such expedition. “But you will take whatever I bring back – if it’s not what you want, then you go find it. I’m through.” 

The crows learned quickly – they’d already learned a fair bit of quacking from the duck and were natural mimics – once Aloysisus brought a few books back and the marmots discovered a phonograph and a stock of records in an ill-used shepherd’s shack. 

The duck – whom the crows called Cecil, as his own name was unintelligible – was ruled out as a communicator. “They’ll just listen to you and laugh,” Chylus told him.

But they agreed to let him come as they tried to communicated with the Purdys for the first time. “Maybe seeing a duck and crows together will ease the tension,” Magda said. “Maybe think we’re setting up some kind of joke.” 

So on a sultry night with the crickets chirping and thunder rolling on the other side of the valley, Chylus, Magda and Cecil watched warily form the bushes as pa and Yank sat on the back porch, idly whittling at sticks and spitting into the growing darkness.

Their earlier plans to march up to the humans felt cold and distant and foolish. “No use scaring them,” Chylus said. “They’re not used to dealing with us in groups. Especially when we’re talking.” 

Chylus approached first, boldly flying from across the field in a slow, meandering flight that guaranteed the Purdys saw his approach. That he would speak to them – hopefully, with them – would be surprise enough. 

He landed on the porch railing, hopped nervously, and squawked. 

Pa Purdy chuckled and threw a bit of bread toward the bird. “Put the gun down, boy,” he said to Yank. 

Yank scowled, and lowered the shotgun, which he had started to retrieve from his side. 

“What ya gonna do? Blow it’s head off and splatter the both of us?” 

Chylus squawked again. He eyed the bread. This is going to take some willpower, he thought to himself. 

“Hello,” he said. 

“Damn bird talks,” Yank said.

“’es! Tak!” He eyed the bread. Then wrenched his eyes from it, looked at Pa. 


“Hello!” Pa said. “Hello!” 

“Farm! Farm! Sayyvit! Sayyvit!”

“They’re clever birds, Yank,” Pa said.

“This one’s a bit loud,” Yank said, wiggling his finger in his ear. 

Chylus leaped from the rail, grabbed the bread and choked it down. Now, he thought, I’ll be able to con— 

Pa Purdy threw an entire slice of bread on the porch.


“Help you! Farm! Sayyvit! Sayyvit Farm!” 

He found his beak useless at pronouncing the W and V sounds. But it was good at eating bread. He leaped again and took the bread to the railing.

“Hello, crow!” Pa Purdy said. 

Despite himself, Chylus said Hello back. 


Chylus clamped his beak shut. This was harder than they thought. Maybe they should have used the raccoons. They were getting pretty good at spelling words. 

“Sayyvit farm! Pant cop! Corn! Corn!”

“You’ve got bread right there at your feet, you greedy bugger,” Pa said. 

Chylus hopped on the rail, knocking the bread into the dirt. 

As the crow squawked and the humans listened and said “Hello!” back to it, a board in the porch near the front door slowly rose. Paws pushed a folded bit of grubby paper up through the crack. The board lowered in place with only a tiny squeak. 

“Corn! Car’t! ‘na gar-den!” 

“Throw it some more bread, Pa. Shut it up, or I’ll get the gun.” 

More bread on the porch. 

“Fah! Fah!” Chylus screamed. 

From under the porch, barely audible chuckles.

Chylus leaped from the rail and flew off over the field. 

“It left the bread,” Pa said. “See that? Squawked loud as you please for more and left it there. In the dirt. Damn daft thing.” 

“That was weird,” Yank said. “Think that bird was trying to tell us something?” 

Pa laughed. “Yeah. He was hungry.”

They sat on the porch a few more minutes, as unseen paws grabbed the bread in the dirt and pulled it under the porch. 

Several minutes later, Pa took a swig from a jug on the table, popped in the cork. “I’m off tibet,” he said. 

Yank followed. 

At the door, he stooped. 

“Pa, look at this.” 

Yank handed Pa Purdy a bit of folded paper. He unfolded it and read, in letters cut from various newspapers and magazines: 

Be WAre tawKING bird!
Tawk only too U.S.
We will TEL how
Sav yor fARm
NEW note 2moro

I Wuz Drafted

Well, not officially. Yet. Idaho voters will decide my fate probably in 2014, when a state constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Jim Rice of Caldwell is put to the voters. 

The aim? Broaden Idaho’s definition of what a “militia” is – as in the militias mentioned in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution – to include all of the state’s adults. 

What will I, an Idaho citizen, be required to do as a member of the state militia? 

Rice, according to the Associated Press, says amending the constitution is an important “backstop” to protecting existing gun rights. 

I’m going to go out on a limb right now and express a right of my own: I don’t want any part of any militia, state or otherwise. 

I do not own a gun. That does not mean I don’t think others should own guns; it just means that I, personally, do not own a gun. I have plenty of items around the house that could serve as weapons if the need arises, ranging from crowbars and shovels to two automobiles, not to forget to mention a wide variety of hammers, kitchen knives, plungers, quilting frames, bits of wood and a circular saw which could, in a pinch, serve a call to arms if someone ever called up a Hopelessly Inefficient State Militia. 

You don’t want people like me in your militia. I have a strong contrarian streak that extends back years through my father and his brother locking themselves in the only public telephone booth in Santpoort, Holland, denying its use to other paying customers for over an hour, to my family’s passive aggressive resistance in Nazi-Occupied Holland and then to the two fellows who got thrown out of their synagogue because they wouldn’t give up their front-pew seats to a rich fellow who bought them from the rabbi. If you ask me to show up at a rally for the state militia, I will appear in my pink bunny costume wielding a wiffle bat as a weapon. And the wiffle bat will be in pastel colors. And no matter how much you push, I WILL be at the front of the line in the parade so the local news gets a good shot of me as we march past. 

And if you push me to the back, I will enlist some obscure state representative to define “peaceable assembly” as wearing bunny suits – and only wearing bunny suits – at public militia demonstrations. You don’t want that, though I do know an excellent pink bunny suit supplier who will be overjoyed if that legislation gets pushed through. 

Now I know Sen. Rice isn’t going around with a proposal to forcibly enroll every adult in the state in the state militia, if even such a thing existed. But perception is nine-tenths reality, so it’ll appear that if any militia action is called for, I could possibly be drafted if the state constitution is changed to say the militia represents every adult in the state. 

Not gonna happen. 

Republicans should be aware that this is the kind of shenanigans (as is this WARNING: Halli Stone) that will drive moderates such as myself to the Democratic party, or at least some fringe candidate/loser I know doesn’t stand a chance at winning any election, thus narrowing your chances for any victory. You may say good riddance, and, bless me, the feeling is mutual. Frothing at the mouth as you pander to a base of voters that is never going to leave you is, as we have seen on both the Democratic and Republican sides, a losing proposition. Elections are not won or lost because a party smooches it’s bases’ behind, but because the loony factor emerges enough to throw moderates in a different direction.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

'I Wasn't Really Any Good'


Some days, when I look at my writing, I feel like the person Michael Caine’s character describes (here from the wonderful film “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”). I recognize my limitations. I may not be a moron, but I know I’ve got enough moronic qualities that I must actively work to become a moron’s antithesis. 

It’s like I tell my writing students: Maybe I’ll get better if I keep at it. Thing is with writing, once you reach a point where you can, say, write decently enough to pass a college English class, there’s more to do if you want to progress. Every peak accomplished reveals another one. And since I’m using such an icky cliché, you can imagine I’ve got many more peaks to climb. 

Part of what ails me I described to my English 106 students today: I’m too much of a fly by the seat of my pants writer. I don’t like to plan things. I can say clever things like “I want my characters to surprise me,” but I after re-reading what my characters have done without any pre-planning, I’ve got to say they’re pretty boring people. Or predictable at least. So I need to get more planning done before I write. And that’s hard – writing is easy. Writing to a plan that you painstakingly put together beforehand is a lot harder. 

That’s not all that ails me, of course. But it’s what I’m focusing on at the moment. 

More importantly, I’m not letting my shortcoming stop me from writing. And from getting better at it. 

This was the challenge for the day:

“Pa, look at this.” 

Yank handed Pa Purdy a bit of folded paper. He unfolded it and read, in letters cut from various newspapers and magazines: 

Be WAre tawKING bird!
Tawk only too U.S.
We will TEL how
Sav yor fArm 

Still not too happy about it, but it’s a shot better than what I started out with.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Is Amazon Toying with A Used E-Thing Market?

This, no matter what the Ghostbusters might say otherwise, is going to be bigger than the microchip: Per Nathan Bransford, Amazon has filed for patents on technology that would let them establish a used e-bookmarket.
Mediabistro has a little more information on the concept, which commenters at Bransford’s blog should be reading. (Mediabistro, by the way, indicates Amazon has been awarded the patent, not just that the application is in.) 

Specifically, Mediabistro points out that the patent calls for transfer of “used” e-books once a pre-determined number of transfers has been met will not be allowed.

I recommend reading the patent application. Amazon appears to want to create a marketplace for all types of “used” digital content, from books to apps (maybe software as well) to movies and music. 

If so – and, frankly, even if not – Amazon’s got a big fight on its hands from content creators. Part of me understands why, but the bigger part of me is flummoxed by the angst. 

Bransford himself seems a bit confused on the concept of used. He says: 

"For me personally, it's hard to wrap my head around what a "used" digital files even means. A digital copy does not get worn, the pages don't yellow over time, there are not dog-eared corners. A "used" digital copy is exactly like a brand new digital copy. The idea of "used" digital anything is pretty meaningless."

He seems too hung up on the concept that “used” needs to mean the item is showing use or wear or is in some way degraded from its “new” condition. That makes sense in the physical world to a point – there is certainly a difference between a new and a used car. 

But not really. A car that is a year old is used, and though it may have some mileage on it, it’s quite possible that the engine and paint are pristine, there are no dings and no rust and that, physically, the car may appear indistinguishable from a new car with no miles on it whatsoever. Used doesn’t mean worn, it just means the first purchaser has decided, for whatever reason, to move on to something else. 

Bransford and other authors are also fretting that used e-books will undercut the new e-book marketplace – and rightly so. But that’s a current problem with the used physical book market, and no one seems to be too upset about that at the moment. Take it from a person who buys a lot of used physical books, rather than buying them new – used books are the way to go, just for the price points that Bransford mentions. 

But here’s an opportunity for content creators to get a slice of the used e-book or e-whatever market. If Amazon wants to set up a used item marketplace, they’ll likely do what Ebay and other resellers do with physical objects – demand a cut of the sale price. What’s to stop content creators from approaching Amazon for a cut of their cut? Maybe content creators won’t get an enormous amount of money from such sales, but doesn’t the dictum “half a loaf is better than no loaf at all” apply in the digital marketplace, as well as in the physical marketplace? 

There is a certain bit of honesty that applies in this situation – but it’s an honesty that applies in all situations. Can I trust that the person who sold me a used bit of digital content doesn’t have it saved somewhere else? No. But I recall buying a used copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down at a thrift store and thinking myself a very lucky fellow until I actually sat down to read it, whereon I found parts of the first few chapters were missing – the pages were there, but they were blank. So I had a defective book on my hands and, had I been able to find the bozo who brought the book to the thrift store in the first place, I would have had words. 

All of this thought continues to push me towards what I’m calling the Bellegarrique Solution, based on a place in Harry Harrison’s novel The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted wherein people get paid for what they do, not for how much of what they do gets sold to others, whether it be a good, a service, or a creative endeavor. But given the societal complexities involved with that kind of talk, royalties from resales seems simpler to accomplish.

Buh-Bye, Twitter

When my wife received an email from Twitter suggesting she follow some of the people I follow, including someone who bragged about “spanking” someone recently, I decided it was time to pull the plug on Twitter. 

No hanky-panky on my part, mind you. I have a brother in prison due to hanky-panky, and I'm not heading down that road. But I should have been more judicious in choosing whom to follow and deleting those who brought up questionable topics. That’s what I used to do – but my Twitter account has become a ghetto of neglect and sadness. I rarely visit Twitter. If I send a tweet, it’s in the form of a link to my blog, a link to something I’ve done on GoodReads, or some other link. Rarely anything purely Twitter any more. So the benefits were far outweighed by the risk, particularly the risk to reputation, which my wife pointed out to me.

So it’s time to pull the plug.

I won’t miss it. Blogging, writing novels and keeping up with my Facebook friends – who are real friends, not the random hangers-on and strangers at Twitter – will keep me active enough. And out of trouble with my wife. 

I’m not ragging on Twitter. I’m just finally coming to the realization that it’s not for me. There’s a lot of good going on there – I will miss tweeting around LDS Conference time – but then again, will I? I don’t remember tweeting anything from the last conference in October. And I certainly won't miss its more cesspool-like elements. Which you find on the Internet everywhere. But at least by killing Twitter, I stop it from coming to me or others I know in my name, for reputation is coin of the realm. And cesspools are icky. And my brother just isn't having fun at all.

So again, it’s time to pull the plug.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Happy Birsday

I know next to nothing about writing songs. 

That should be evident, as I also display amply on this blog I know next to nothing about writing fiction or poetry.

But I do know this: The “new” Happy Birthday Song being championed this week by the Free Music Archive sucks rocks. 

Don’t believe me?

And the alternatives.
Don’t listen to the second-place winner. Even through the ukulele, it’s ultimately unlistenable.

Or the third one. The tune reminds me of those dreary bluegrass songs (and dreary bluegrass groups) you’d hear in a period movie like O Brother Where Art Thou.

And Disc 2 of 2: Sounds like a reject from the Portlandia Gentle Music Festival. Though it does have a surprise humor element to it. I probably would have voted for that one.

There are reasons the ubiquitous Happy Birthday song has stuck around for so long. It’s simple. It’s repetitive. And, above all, it’s short. Worst part of any birthday party to me is the inevitable singing of the birthday song. And the inevitable re-singing of the song because somebody wasn’t in the room and didn’t get to sing the first time, or (this happens a lot at my house) the kids want to blow the candles out again. And again. And again.

Why do we need a new birthday song? Royalties, I suppose. But that only affects folks who want to sing the Happy Birthday song in some commercial venture, as the author of the Slate article concedes in the last paragraph.

Honestly, there are better ways around those royalties than any of the dirges in this contest.

Short, repetitive, and peppy. That’s why the Happy Birthday song has lasted so long, royalties be damned.
And no one -- but no one -- can beat my Dad singing the original Happy Birthday song with his Dutch accent: "Happy Birsday to you . . . "

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Chapter Twenty-One: Knee-High by the Fourth of July

Chapter Twenty-One: Knee-High by the Fourth of July 

The crows were the first to notice the twine.

It was hidden subtly along the rows, blending in with the color of the dirt, held in place by twigs. At first they thought it was just a bit of baling twine pulled up from the depths when Yank disced the ground last fall, but seen it tied to the twigs shoved snugly into the dirt aroused their suspicion. 

Others had seen it, too, but none asked questions. It was theirs to plant and occasionally weed, and if there was twine among the corn and brambles, it was none of their concern. 

This and That remained unquestionably silent on the matter.

Soon, other areas of the field sprouted the diminutive fences. First it was the shrews, ostensibly marking off plots their children were responsible for weeding. Others followed, and soon the field was a patchwork of fiefdoms demarcated by twine and not spoken of above a whisper, and never in mixed company.

If the Purdys noticed the fencing off of their field, they made no sign. Pa Purdy wandered the farmyard listlessly, took to long walks in the woods along the creek bank, sometimes far into the box canyon where the rusty traps still lay inert and sprung. Yank wandered the forests, too, with a bit of rope and his shotgun, broken, carried in the crook of an arm.

Lazy beasts. No wonder the farm is lost. Neither one of them has so much as lifted a finger since the bank order came. And I’ve seen it. Well, the cats have seen it and brought reports. They say it’s not a terrible amount of money the bank wants, surely one harvest of a good crop of corn or potatoes would pay the bill. But no nevermind. They do nothing. We do it all. And for what? So the louts keep the farm. We live on the edges, still to fight the poison and the shotgun and the cats and the cold. While they sit in the warm all winter. 

The marmots plotted. They measured. They dug burrows, deep burrows underneath a shelf of basalt, where the cool rock would keep food preserved for a long time. They burrowed into the cellars on the Purdy farm, into the cellars on nearby farms to study. They observed methods of insulation and drainage and storage and piling and sorting. Then they filled their tunnels back in carefully and the humans never knew their handiwork had been observed. 

But the twine fences in the field, not theirs. Not theirs. They had bigger fish to fry. 

The plans evolved and the tunnels to the neighbors’ cellars re-opened. Bit by bit, the grand burrows underneath the table of basalt rock filled. The neighbors put out a fair number of traps and poison and did a good go at killing the local rat population, but still, they noted, their stocks of stored seed slowly disappeared. If one farm became militant and wet to watching the stocks of feed and seed at night with torches, the marmots filled in the tunnels, quietly. The farmers grew smug. Dropped their vigilance. Then the tunnels were re-opened and the pilfering begun anew. 

The plan had one flaw, the head marmot knew. And it burned within him, not knowing how to solve it. The gathering would go on, however, because once the problem was solved, the rest of the plan would fly into action and soon there would be new owners of Purdy Farm, new owners who did not bring traps and poison. New owners who would not tolerate theft by others, not of their kind. 

He smiled in the darkness. 

Aloysius sneers at waistcoats and slippers. Paneling and mead, he said. Be they the affectations of human storytellers, they are fine things to pine for. Fine things to have. Fine things to ward off the chill of a tunnel or the damp of spring, the disgusting ends of worms and the innumerable ants who insist the tunnels underground were share and share alike. 

He was glad Jarrod had noticed the fencing, was beginning to become concerned. Concentrate on that, Holstein pheasant. Let it keep you busy, worrying over who is marking off what and for what purpose under the sun so loved. The more the busybody occupied himself with the shrews and crows and voles and raccoons and sparrows, the less attention he would pay to the faithful marmots, who weed a grand section of the field without fences or demarcation, whose corn grew faster than any other plot on the farm because, night and day, the marmots fertilized the ground while the other animals wasted their fertilizer on the grass and flowers in the forest.

Faithful marmots. Who seek no reward.

If only they could solve the problem!

Humans asked too many questions. Marmots – and most animals – ask too few. Where the animals wake and wander and find things to eat and water to drink and feel the sun or the rain or the wind or the snow and take what is found because that is what there is offered, humans asked questions. They asked, Why should I find food, if there are others who can find food for me? If I pay them, they will give, and find other food for themselves. They asked, If the winter wind is too bitter, the snow too deep, why not move the snow out of the way, pile it up, so our vehicles may wander the roads as we sit in heated comfort, going to buy the food that others have found for us and laid aside for us in the winter so we do not have to scrabble under the snow to find twigs and berries to chew on. 

Off they would go, then, earning and spending money, buying food, buying shelter. And fine entertainments. Even the Purdys, whom the marmots knew still had to gather some of their food for themselves, had enough money for a radio, for a television, for heat in the wintertime and, for Ma Purdy, trips to visit her mother, some eighty miles distant. 

What was important is this: The head marmot had seen inside other houses. Far richer houses built on plots not much bigger than what the Purdys farmed. Where the Purdy money went, the marmot knew not, but he reasoned with someone more intelligent in charge of the farm, the money would come and not be frittered away.

But the problem stopped them. 

The problem was that humans asked too many questions. 

If, perchance, the human found sixty bushels of seed corn, bagged and ready for market, at the depot or behind the seed store, with a polite note attached to it reading “Pray, sir, put the money for this seed corn in an envelope and put the envelope in the hollow of the beech tree overhanging Purdy Lane near the crossroads; we are sorry we cannot collect ourselves, but we are shy folk,” they treated it as a grand joke, moved the seed inside the warehouses to sell and never left the money in the envelope as promised. And when another note, sent with a dearly-produced stamp, invited the humans to come to an old barn over the hill from the Purdy Farm to collect another sixty bushels of seed corn and to leave the money in an envelope on the stool in the barn’s northwest corner; we are sorry we cannot be there but we are shy but we are nearby with shotguns,” they came with shotguns of their own and after scouting about and seeing nothing more than a chipping family of marmots screaming angrily at the intrusion, shot at the marmots, took the seed corn and again left without making the payment, as instructed.

Who is dumb enough to leave seed corn in such a manner, and expect payment to be left where the rats can eat it, they asked. But not too loudly, mind you, in case the ears attached to the shy family with shotguns were nearby. 

And others asked, Who are the thieves, then, who steal our stored stocks and try to sell it in such a manner? If they were honest folk, shy or not, we would know of them and know that they had indeed planted and harvested what they sell, rather than, as we suspect, steal it from us. 

So the owners of the seed store and the mercantile grew richer and the local farmers more suspicious and the marmots came no nearer to solving the problem.
But they were smart. A solution would come.

Homey Don’t Play Dat, H&R Block

It is, in the end, as with most things that go wrong, my fault. 

It states clearly on the Internal Revenue Service website that to free file, your adjusted gross income must be less than $57,000. Our adjusted gross income exceeds that, and for that I am glad. 

But I glossed over that fact as I sped onward through the IRS website to one of the many free-filing services offered out there by companies ranging from TaxAct to TurboTax to H&R Block, the latter which I chose not because of its tax-filing reputation but because they graciously allow spaces in their name. 

But, foolish mortal that I am, I did not heed the IRS’ advice on the free-filing adjusted gross income limit. So the hours I spent putting data into H&R Block’s system were for naught, because as I went to print my returns for my own records, I was told, oopsie, you earned too much money last year, zitbrain, to qualify for free filing. 

They didn’t use words like “zitbrain;” they’re far too couth for that.

But still. That is the only point at which H&R Block told me, oopsie, you can’t file for free. Even though it knew what my adjusted gross income was many, many moons ago. Even though it knew I came to its site from the “Free e-file” page of the IRS website.

It wants me to pay. Not quite 500 pounds and not to someone called Harry the Bastard, but in the neighborhood of $60 which is far, far too much to pay. On top of what I already owe the state of Idaho (thanks for that, Idaho). 

I will file my own taxes, on my own, thank you very much. 

That H&R Block deserves some compensation, I understand. Why it demands compensation at that arbitrary $57,000 limit I can’t fathom, but, you know, it’s a business. They should be paid. They’re offering me audit protection. A real live human to help me do battle with the IRS if their software – or my fat fingering – screwed something up. 

But please. Tell me when the AGI exceeds the free filing limit up front, as soon as it’s calculated, so I can decide then and there if I want to go through the onerous chore of entering all those numbers into your system and then pay to file, or bail right then and there. I know they’re counting on me to capitulate and pay – you’re so close to filing, just give us the freakin’ money!

How do I feel about myself? 

Totally dissed, Homey. 

But Homey don’t play dat. 

Not at all. Homey will use the free fillable forms from the IRS. He doesn’t need to pay.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Let Me Ignore You More Efficiently

At first, when I read about Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten’s concept of re-inventing the email inbox, I was intrigued.

His concept, to sum up, invites his email submitters to classify their requests, as to whether they’re asking a yes/no question, sending an FYI message, sending a short message or sending a long message. Additionally, each sender gets an email from him indicating how long, on average, it takes him to respond to an email and allows him the option to simply ignore that shit and have it magically blow away after a preset time, or when he pushes a button on his end, sending your email message into the proverbial ethers.

That’s great email management. Until you realize it’s management that optimizes the receiver’s, and not the senders’ needs.

I don’t disagree that I get a lot of email that’s junk. It’s easy to ignore and easy to get rid of, without a fancy system. I also don’t receive gobs of email in a given day, so my email management needs are pretty limited. But the message such an email management system sends to the reader is that the receiver plans to ignore your message more efficiently. Yes, the idea is also to set up email in a way that lets simpler requests be answered in a more timely fashion -- and that's a great concept. Fishing through lots of emails to find the low-hanging fruit gets to be a shroe at times, even when you don't receive gobs of email messages. But the thought that more detailed requests are added to the perpetual pile of ignorage is kind of unsettling.

The core of this new email system seems to be that if you’ve sent an urgent request that goes ignored, you’d best pick up the phone and call your recipient right away to get the answer you need. Because, in reality, that’s how things work.

But woah, hoss – that works just as inefficiently as sending an email that’s going to be ignored. Look at it this way: Whether I’m sending an email or making a phone call, I’m sending the message that I need information or a response. A phone call, if answered, demands an immediate, sometimes off-the-cuff response leading, of course, to the inevitable “I’ll call you right back” loop, or the dreaded “I’ll just respond to your email” loop in which busy people fall constantly. It doesn’t matter what kind of message you send people. Busy people can ignore requests by phone as easily as by email, and additionally don’t have the advantage of a written request that email offers.

Additionally, there’s no guarantee the sender is going to classify his or her email correctly. They might see, for example, that you respond to yes/no questions fairly quickly and thus classify their non yes/no question as such. Uh-oh, your nifty little system is broken and it’s now back to you, the receiver, to sort through it all and program your new inbox to send a little chastising message to the offender.

Another additionally: As a technical writer, I know writing to your audience is the best way to get an answer. As such, I already write fairly terse emails that offer my recipients a short (very short) menu of options they can choose, most of which fall under a yes/no request. Constantly getting an email reminder to classify my own emails seems like an inefficient use of my time, which ought to be just as important as the recipient’s time, as I’m already writing efficient, easy-to-classify messages.

Of course, I have to remind myself that I live in a closed email system, where only people I work with can email me (I do get occasional emails from the outside world, mostly from my wife, but that’s about it). I don’t get gobs of email, either. But I do prefer emails over phone calls, since my job requires a paper trail for everything I do. Phones are pretty inefficient when it comes to official records.

Van Zanten is responding to Paul Graham’s call to improve email. More significantly, to improve email for powerful people. Or people who get lots of email. So the unwashed masses (such as I) probably won’t be impressed with the changes. And that’s just fine. If I got gobs of email I’d probably be in the same boat as these people. Until then, I’ll just use email as it was intended: Doing my job.

Both Graham and Van Zanten indicate that email, which started out as a messaging service, has devolved over the years into to-do lists, and that these efforts are meant to control what other people put on their to-do lists. That's well and good. But the funny thing about people putting

Post-Script: There is an easier way to achieve Inbox Zero: Just walk away. If a message is truly urgent, the sender will call. If you’re 81 hours behind in answering email, waiting another 24 hours isn’t going to kill anyone. The idea that because technology brings requests for help, information, or whatever into our life we must instantly respond is much more ludicrous than the idea of fixing email is, to be sure.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


So this week a reminder of what the world is like for a budding author.

On the spur of the moment, I entered a contest in which writers were invited to submit the first paragraph of their current work in progress. So I submitted this:

Know this, Jarrod. I will not sing. I will not wear a twee waistcoat, nor allow any damn bird to fly about my head or perch on my back as I work. I will not work. I will not say things like ‘Oh my paws and whiskers.’ I will not scamper. If provoked – and being approached with a hat or bonnet or shoes to wear is provocation enough – I will bite. And draw blood.  And I will not – I absolutely refuse – to listen if she sings.

Needless to say, since you're not hearing a lot of whooping and hollering on this blog, I did not win the contest. And that's okay. Not everyone wins contests.

But still. There were a lot of entries, and many, many of them, in my view, were crap. Obviously, a view shared by the contest holder, except that mine was lumped in with the crap. And again, that's fine. Because we're coming to the relative part.

The contest-holder said he doesn't like chatty openings. He did not define chatty. Maybe my entry is chatty. I don't know. What chatty is, and what constitutes a level of over-chattiness is undefined in this case, and, what's more important, certainly relative from person to person, contest to contest.

Here's the rub:

I soldier on. I will keep writing this work in progress, not giving a fig at the moment that other people out there may not like it. That's not important. That I continue to write, that I continue to try to be creative, that's the important thing.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Internet Larff of the Week: PledgeWeak

First of all, I have no idea if this site’s name is actually PledgeWeak (without the space) or Pledge Weak (with the space). It’s so hard to tell these days.*

But the site, apparently in its infancy, is quickly doing for the head-scratching projects at Kick Starter what Regretsy has done for the questionable handicrafts at Etsy, but, mercifully, without (so far) the foul language that would make Tigger blush with shame. 

PledgeWeak’s contributors scour Kicksterter – you know, Kickstarter, the site where anyone with a gadget and a dream of bringing it to market can go to beg for money from the Internet masses to bring their dreams to fruition – for the dubious, the lame, the projects that on the surface look really cool but actually turn out to be some random Internet bum looking for the proverbial handout. 

Here’s my favorite so far. 

James Davey says “After graduating last year my dreams of becoming an Oscar-winning film director, tour documentarist, photo journalist have been trounced time and time again.”

Well, James gave it a good – what, nine months? – so now he’s just put those dreams on hold for a while and wants to hit the road. The only problem is that without ever having won an Oscar, made a documentary or sold a photograph he’s got no scratch. No problem – that’s what Kickstarter is for right? There must be thousands of people out there willing to fund your amazing journey of incredible discovery. All you have to do is attach some kind of tangible goods to the thing and you can call it a “project.”

You heard it right. Mr. Davey has tried and tried and tried but after NINE WHOLE MONTHS he’s giving up and going on a road trip. Or maybe the road trip will turn into that grand adventure which he can photograph and then produce into something Oscar-worthy. Or not. But he’ll have some travel under his belt, and hey, he didn’t have to pay for it. You did. 

And another one, in which is said this: 

I’m well aware that, inside the houses we pass, legions of rapidly aging Boo Radleys are clogging up the internet with all manner of unsavory, cringe-inducing business. I have hope that by the time my child is Caleb Zammit’s age, grown men who boast about their action figure collections and craft lewd garden ornaments in their off hours will seem sad and quaint. For right now, however, I’d prefer they spare me the grief of explaining why magical woodland creatures are waving guns and taking dumps on the neighbor’s lawn. 

What’s more telling about the site’s future success is the comments on this one (up to four! But I did say this appears to be something new) where, just like at Etsy, the affronted friends of the Kickstarter are there to defend the dubious project and to call the manhood of the satirist in question. Good on you. You’re getting there. 

I’ll leave the fun-poking to the writers at PledgeWeak, who have definitely got a good thing going. And I’ll be returning now and then just to see where I’m glad my money isn’t going. 

*It appears the spelling without the space is correct. Natch.