Entries from December 2011 ↓

About Stories About Things

Through my interest in and use of the social micropayment service Flattr I came across Aelius Blythe (Website: cheapassfiction.com; Twitter: @CheapassFiction) who also writes free fiction you can Flattr some cash toward. She curates a list of fiction writers who use Flattr, too. After a guilty two months or three of just reading her blog & Twitter feed, I finally downloaded her short story collection Stories About Things. I’ve been reluctant to read fiction on a screen, but given her (and my) support for piracy, it seemed the proper way to read hers. I was also reluctant to read her fiction because even if writers are cool people, their fiction usually sucks — and then I’m all disappointed.

But I’m really glad to have read Stories About Things. That’s my standard: “Was reading this a worthwhile expenditure of my time?” And it was. (Who needs fancier criteria?) Aelius seems really at ease writing fiction, happy doing it and if you don’t like it you can go read something else.

I don’t like Amy Hempel. Hempel writes these “miniaturist” stories where nothing happens and you’re supposed to feel awakened by the beautiful comma placement (and other sentence-level things). One of her fans, a friend of mine, wrote in the course of praising Hempel that “style becomes the writer’s morality.” Really? Your ethical theory is predicated on the placement of commas? The fan meant something more like voice or authenticity. All the same I like Aelius’s perspective better:

If [WebFiction] gets in the way of enjoyment, put the book down and go enjoy something else.

But before you judge to harshly, remember one thing: You are reading the literary version of graffiti art You may not want to stand in line for $20 tickets to a gallery opening for it. But somewhere in the scrawled mess of spray paint there may be a picture that sticks with you. And it gives you something better than a brick wall to stare at while you’re waiting for the gallery to open.

Stories About Things put Hempel in mind because Aelius’s stories are similarly short. Except I enjoy Stories About Things. And in the same way I enjoy The Police. Really talented and thankfully more interested in being enjoyable and rewarding than in being aesthetically elite. Here’s a good excerpt from Aelius’s collection:

Sal’s grandmother always warned him like this when she caught him looking. His mother said this was silly, and he was old enough not to be scared by fairy stories. If he looked into the sun, she told him, he would go blind, and that was that.

He never understood how someone could say that — “Don’t look at it.” People looked. If they could, they did. Sometimes, Sal thought, if he wasn’t paying attention he could turn off his hearing so when the lawnmower was going while he was reading he wouldn’t even notice. He could turn off his nose too by breathing through his mouth. Touch was a sense that everyone ignored unless it was too bad or too good. Taste was the same. But he could only turn off his sight by closing his eyes, and he couldn’t go around like that. He had to look. He didn’t know how not to. If he could see something, he would.


The flower has brown eyes, a bright brown, almost-red. They smile. They don’t shine in the sun. They shine at the sun.

In describing webfiction, (something distinct from fanfiction), Aelius lists a bunch of fiction “errors” — starting a story with weather descriptions, or the white rooms the characters are in, or making tpyos, etc. — and considers them all good, because who’s counting?

She says:

Part of the reason why I turned to web fiction was because of a sort of disillusionment with regular fiction in which I find many distractions (repetitive plot patterns, dull characters, predictable everything) that just happen to be dressed up better. I wondered for several years why I couldn’t find books that I liked, even though I read so many. But then when I started writing seriously myself and studying writing, I realized that there are certain styles that are institutionalized in writing — it’s how people are taught and styles change slowly so you get so much of the same thing. I think that’s why I can ignore the flaws in web fiction. Because I needed something DIFFERENT, and web fiction is different.

Charles Darwin’s quote (also paraphrased by Bradley Manning) describes webfiction well: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

As for setting some stories on the Internet, Aelius writes that her collection Brave New World (which I haven’t read yet) is

a collection of stories about the natural world. Not the natural world that Whitman or Thoreau wrote about, but the world that comes just as naturally to my generation as sky and woods did to theirs. Our world is made of more than that. It’s made of computer screens and wifi and endless libraries of information all at the tip of our fingers. This is our Nature, or part of it anyway.

I think she has more courage to do what comes naturally to her than I do. Following her on Twitter, where she often remarks about her fiction-writing, inspires me to write more.

(Perhaps I should cut myself more slack. My life right now primarily consists of divorcing, moving in to a new place, a knee injury, and figuring out my budget + wacky streams of income. But I haven’t ever particularly believed in cutting myself slack.)

One of the really interesting things Aelius is doing is writing authors letters to ask if they know about, if they approve of, their publishers suing their fans over piracy. (I like this exchange she got into.)

So webfiction is the opposite of National Endowment for the Arts writers who want to write comma-perfect books at taxpayer expense, and then charge taxpayers to read them, too! Sharing culture freely is better and artists need to deal with changing technological mediums instead of whining about it and suing people over it.

I feel as if I should say something critical in a token effort at Neutral Point of View. Aelius, don’t start so many sentences with conjunctions, especially “But” and “Yet” — conjunctions kick in readers’ logic modules and thereby reduce emotion. It’s fiction, not Boolean! (Unless you want it to be more logic-y.) Really in a way I don’t want to post any of this, because talking about good things sometimes interferes with them, and she certainly should just continue what she’s doing and not listen to anyone.

You on the other hand should go read her fiction.

Creative Commons License

About Stories About Things by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license? Email me: dal@douglaslucas.com.

Call to Stop SOPA before Thursday

Please ███████ this bipartisan anti-censorship request! Our earlier activism ███████ stopped legislators from co-sponsoring this ███████!

SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) might pass the House Judiciary Committee this Thursday. Piracy of intellectual property is, if a problem at all, a negligible problem (and in fact, some studies show piracy ███████ increases consumer entertainment purchases). ███████ problem is ███████ this legislation can be used by ███████ US to censor ███████ Internet (more than DHS/ICE is already doing using flimsy reasoning). ███████ under SOPA, websites (such as mine) that merely link to controversial content can be held liable for that content. (And what if I link to a site that later becomes controversial without my knowledge!) ███████ Wikipedia is considering temporarily blacking out their site in order to raise awareness of SOPA’s danger.

So call your US House Representative’s local and DC offices against SOPA before Thursday! ███████ politely give them a three-sentence statement: 1) Your name, your occupation (if relevant), and that you’re a constituent (give your state or ZIP code); 2) Two or so reasons explaining why you want your Representative to oppose SOPA (hurts job creation ███████ the reliable technology sector, institutes American Internet censorship not unlike China’s); 3) Say thanks ███████ re-state your point: “I want Representative So-and-so to OPPOSE the Stop Online Piracy Act.” The worker who answers will be polite to you, ███████ don’t have to worry about that.

It’s ███████ a bipartisan issue: currently, among others, notable Democrat Barbara Boxer ███████ notable Republicans Scott Brown and Eric Cantor receive lots of money from organizations opposing SOPA, and notable Republican John Boehner and notable Democrat Harry Reid receive ███████ money from organizations supporting it. So ███████ now there’s a good opening for you to contact your US House Representative as the issue’s still in play.

More resources ███████

(This post has been mildly edited/improved/added to today since its original posting a few hours ago.)

Creative Commons License

Call to Stop SOPA before Thursday by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license? Email me: dal@douglaslucas.com.

In which my Taco Benefactor Turns Out to Be a Former Communications Analyst for JSOC

While working on a freelance infotainment assignment during the small hours of Thursday night, er, Friday morning, a friend alerted me to the presence of free tacos nearby. After engulfing a few, I happily tweeted:

This started innocently enough.

I asked who my taco benefactor was. Friend points him out: that guy over there talking philosophy. One of my BA majors was in philosophy, so I go over and talk up my taco benefactor on the subject, which we quickly hone in on Hobbes.

In 1651 Hobbes wrote in Leviathan:

I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.

The conversation gets mildly heated and a bit more interesting when he says he voluntarily chose to fight for the US military in Iraq. I asked him how he reconciled his philosophy studies with, you know, invading another country that didn’t do anything to the United States. My taco benefactor tells me that, metaphysically speaking, he thinks of reality as permeated and constituted by violence.

Kill them before they kill us, he says, because otherwise they will kill us — that sort of thing. I bring up nonviolence, Martin Luther King Jr., Zen Buddhism, etc. and win temporary favor with him by acknowledging the US MIL culture is at its best educated, sophisticated, etc., not easily rendered by broad brushstrokes (speaking of rendering things, the CIA renditions innocent civilians extra-legally, knowingly; then there’s the torture). My taco benefactor is assuaged enough by my token respect for military culture to carry on the conversation outside over a cigarette, but I carefully bum one (rare & for social purposes only) from my friend, not from him.

He (Chad Wood) tells me he worked as a communications analyst for the Joint Special Operations Command. JSOC, you know, black ops. Said he was integral to missions that led to the capture of AAM (Abu Ayyub al-Masri), for example. Said, a few times, “I don’t know if I should trust you” — I’d made my activism supporting WikiLeaks clear from the outset and that I was adversarial to his beliefs. In fact, I let him know that a few hours prior I’d been calculating bus fare to attend a protest at Fort Meade to support Bradley Manning, who was, like Chad, a military intelligence analyst. (It turns out the bus fare cost is prohibitive; the USA really needs some high-speed public transit.)

Chad philosophically justifies US aggression and treating people as expendable by reference to the grand historical project of democracy. Look, I like Madison-Jeffersonian democracy, too, but the approx 120,000 dead civilians in Iraq (due to the War since 2003) aren’t the price for that. It seemed to me Chad argued for the goodness of US foreign policy by an attempt at inference to the best explanation: Look around, he argued, things are fine, aren’t they? Don’t you think there are some really smart people making sure you and I can have this conversation, and that we should let them have their secrets? I’ll let Howard Beale reply to that one:

Well, if there’s anybody out there that can look around this demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in and tell me that man is a noble creature, believe me: That man is full of bullshit.

He pointed to a truck at a stoplight. He said if he saw such a truck overseas, a computer could give him the last 8 months on that truck in seconds. Exact maps of its past movements, actually. I asked him if they do that on domestic soil. He shook his head No.

He told me the NSA (No Such Agency National Security Agency) has a guy called “Crypto ******” — Crypto something; I didn’t catch the second part of the NSA man’s name, and when I asked Chad to repeat it, he wouldn’t. I do recall that the other, second part of the name was a dactyl (metrical foot: three syllables, stressed on the first syllable) and alliterative (starts with the same sound) — I think it was “Crypto Codekeeper” or “Crypto Keykeeper” or “Crypto Keymaster” or “Crypto Codemaster” or something like that. This guy, Chad said, arrives at top-secret meetings with a briefcase containing physical tape — like cassette tape — that’s used to communicate one-time cryptographic keys and is burned as soon as possible. This guy, Chad said, will be watched for the remainder of his life.

Chad also said he worked with CIA black sites. I’m not sure if he meant worked at them geographically or worked with them remotely (or both).

He posited a “hypothetical”: Why not a submarine vampire-tapping the communication cables that cross the oceans?

Another “hypothetical”: Why not a building here in Fort Worth — or any other major US city — with 6 elevator shafts and only 4 elevators, the other 2 used as antimissile silos or for other interesting purposes? I asked which building. He said I should have asked which buildings, plural. He didn’t specify any.

He said Obama personally authorizes dronekills (or at least the significantly controversial ones) and in general, the extrajudicial assassinations (my phrase). Said it’s public record that the Commander-in-Chief authorizes them, but that he has the experiential knowledge that it’s so.

Said AES-256 OTR properly done cannot be brute-forced yet and contains no backdoors.

Really, he asked me, if I’m so interested in this stuff, why don’t I join up? “The ultimate Assange is already working for the NSA,” he said. Get involved, he said, and get better health insurance than hippies currently have. I’d have access to all sorts of cool technology, he said, and since I’m an ace humanities guy, they’d even have stuff about metaphors and narratives for me and all that kind of stuff!

To which as a proper reply I offer:

Creative Commons License

In which my Taco Benefactor Turns out to Be a Former Communications Analyst for JSOC by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license? Email me: dal@douglaslucas.com.