Category Archives: Articles

Ashley Madison and the Coming Information Storm

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Generally, I’m inclined to keep my opinions to myself, or to veil them in metaphors wrapped in allegories that are woven into a plotlines. But I have to confess this whole Ashley Madison thing pulls my ripcord.

As a writer whose favorite hobby is turning technology loose on hapless characters, recent events have given me a chance to watch idle conjecture unfold in real-time. And it’s been sad. And scary. And unsurprising.

For anyone not familiar with the story, Ashley Madison is a dating website that caters to those seeking extramarital affairs. Call it the Facebook of infidelity. Ashley Madison members paid upwards of $400 in fees pursuing adulterous liaisons on the site.

In July of this year, a person or persons calling themselves The Impact Team threatened to reveal Ashley Madison member information unless Avid Life Media took the site down. True to their word, in mid-August The Impact Team began releasing user data, including customer names, addresses and sexual preferences.

Since that first data leak, the breach has been linked to firings, resignations, blackmail, identity theft, and most tragic of all, suicide. Avid Live CEO Noel Biderman stepped down on August 28, and all over the world people were rightly (and sometimes wrongly) revealed as cheaters. Marriages fell apart, kids got confused, in-laws got irate, and divorce lawyers everywhere put down hefty deposits on next year’s BMW.

“Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion,” the Impact Team said, and many echoed this righteous sentiment.

But as Glenn Greenwald put it: “[I]t’s worth remembering that the reality is often far more complex than the smug moralizers suggest.”

Every victim of the hacking has a story, a reason. A family. We’re talking about real people, real families, living real consequences. As one who has spent most of their life in the shadow of a family suicide, I can say that no family deserves this.

But I bring this up not because it’s wrong to extort, blackmail or bully (although I could write a book on it), or to tell you that hackers are scary and that the internet is a dangerous place filled with hackers and trolls and lies–but instead to talk about a larger phenomenon that’s happening before our very eyes, something too big for us to fully comprehend yet.

Paper, you had a good run

Five hundred years ago, if you were wealthy enough to have servants and fortunate enough to be able to read and write, you might have been able to send and receive messages cross-country. Just a smidge more than 100 years ago, the first tentative radio signals reached across the Atlantic. Contrast this with today, where information travels to the furthest reaches of the world in a nanosecond.

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Our amazing internet is faster than the telephone, more powerful than print, able to reach remote locations with a single click. And it’s not just for personal communication or entertainment. A giant information cloud rains down on us 24/7.

None of us ever has to wonder how many movies Wes Craven produced or if the local theater is doing a revival this weekend. We don’t need to read maps or know phone numbers or remember appointments—or spend one unoccupied moment, thanks to our smartphones and the rapidly growing market of devices being developed to satisfy our information itch.

It’s a small exchange too: devices are cheap, and apps and web tools generally have one small price: we tell them about us, and they tell us everything. Give us everything. We happily oblige though, because we need it. Last week a friend of mine was hurrying through Manhattan to catch a flight at LaGuardia when his Moto X bricked. “Worst thing ever,” he said. “I can’t believe I made it.”

Indeed. How did we manage? A question we often ask ourselves when we’re standing around during the intermission of Washington Middle School’s production of Our Town, while dialing up the current score on the Vikings game.

And so each of us willingly carries around what amounts to personal surveillance device: complete with camera and GPS, containing our personal information: our hopes, our dreams, our lives. A social media dossier is now attached to everything we do, from applying to a job to meeting and attracting a mate.

And we’re only now beginning to realize: What happens in Vegas stays on Instagram. Forever, and ever and ever.

Once something becomes data, getting rid of it is difficult, if not impossible. Data can be duplicated, screenshotted, archived or spidered and cataloged forever. The Library of Congress has started saving tweets as part of America’s historical record. And I don’t even want to think about what the NSA is up to these days. And here’s something else to consider: how many of those Terms of Service do you actually read?

Yet all of us are willing subscribers, eager to trade our personal slice of data for any convenience. Meanwhile, webbots and screen scrapers mine the cloud, looking for vulnerabilities. Eager for something to use.

And while you might find it hard to sympathize with Lothario McCheaterson and the Ashley Madison debacle, this breach illustrates again the ease with which data can be high-jacked by anyone determined to obtain it.

There are no shortage of information breaches on the news. Nearly 2 billion accounts have been compromised since 2004. And you don’t need to be a victim of identity theft to know it won’t be long before simmering privacy and security issues go full boil.

But still, wouldn’t it be cool to have your needed groceries automatically delivered to your door without you even having to crack a list? And to have them remember to include balsamic vinaigrette, which you only just mentioned to your spouse in passing? And isn’t that creepy? But so worth it, because it makes our lives better and easier. Up until the point our identities are stolen or our health insurer removes all references to Ben & Jerry’s from our grocery lists, in the name of “improving our lives.”

So what happens when your medical record is compromised and you’re turned down for the job you’re after because of that 2012 prescription for Prozac? What happens when your mortgage loan is rejected because of your flip remark about running off to Bimini on Facebook? And what about when you can’t get life insurance because there is just way too much Lana Del Ray on your Spotify?

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No, the risk isn’t just from hackers wearing black hats, breaching networks in the dark of night. We face just as much peril from the boardroom deal between your bank and your health insurer.

The right to individual privacy has always ground against the needs of society. If some nutjob was plotting to incinerate the Ben & Jerry’s freezer at your local market, it’d be good to know about it, right? If someone means to harm us and we could stop them by knowing their plan, it’s a good thing, no? But the waters quickly muddy when you realize the endless number of scenarios and realize there is no gold standard in the war between privacy and right to know.

And when the prize is as vast and valuable as our collective information, expect things only to get more complicated. And the only thing certain is that we are all at risk.

Mira! Mira la tormenta.

Which reminds me, I wonder if Netflix still has Terminator 1 and 2.

HitList by K. Rawson

HitList by K. Rawson What happens when a teenage hacker takes revenge on cyberbullies. Available on Amazon

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Perfected

I’m smitten.

And while I’m generally unqualified to give opinions on matters of taste and culture, I have to tell you about last night. You see, I was fortunate enough to attend A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perfected. That’s right–423 years after the original production, Janet Schlapkohl’s adaptation, performed by Combined Efforts Theatre has nailed it.

I admit I’ve never actually had the pleasure of seeing MND performed up until last night, but it is difficult to imagine a more delightful adaptation, a more picturesque venue, a more splendid series of scenes or more heartfelt performances.

About the theater

grant-wood-young-corn-1931On satellite, Eastern Iowa looks like a child’s leaf-rubbing: ghost-green fields patchworked by Christmas-velvet groves, with veiny rivers worked all through. To get to The Country Camp, drive down a ribbon of hardpacked gravel, up a dirt driveway and then turn north at the horse pasture to park. Next, get out of your car and marvel at the number of vehicles there already. As you make your way past the horse barn to stage one, look around and realize–Grant Wood wasn’t making it up–Iowa really DOES look like that–except it’s golder and greener and fresher and oh-so-astonishingly real. It’s late July, and the air smells like tall corn and cut alfalfa.

Iowa weather is fickle, but we were fortunate last night–it was clear and the temperature landed somewhere between shirtsleeves and tank tops, with the humidity hovering in that sweet spot that makes Iowans quit complaining about the weather long enough to complain about the caucuses.

As we waited, we were serenaded by a chorus of cricketsong and hen gossip, smelling cotton candy and an abundance of that lemon-meringuey Bug Soother that Midwesterners pass around at outdoor gatherings as if it were a party favor. And then, showtime.

All the world’s a stage

Expect no curtain call at The Country Camp. Instead, Ms. Schlapkohl has the audience move from set to set, taking advantage of meadow, farm and woods as a backdrop, and using everything from chairs to logs to railroad ties for audience seating. Act I was accompanied by barn swallow acrobatics and Act II was held in a shady cathedral of spruce and red cedar–the sort of wooded copse that lies on the edge of every Midwestern farmyard. Inside, it smelled of juniper and pine needles. Beneath our feet, a loamy carpet peppered with cedar seeds, and overhead,  a canopy of birdsong. The far side of the woods featured a circus train of walkways and ladders (no doubt enjoyed by Country Campers) which provided a marvelous backdrop for Fairyland. In the meadow beyond, a pair of monarchs improvised an amorous ballet, while the sinking sun gilded a perfect swell of prairie.

Spectators may find the need to lean around the weathered trunk of a cedar tree in order to catch all the actors, but this in no way affects the enjoyment of the show. From that enchanted Fairyland in scene two, Act III is enjoyed from a clearing suitable for frolicking in flower wreaths, where the audience may grab a chair or perch upon a log instead.

But about the show

But about the show–and that is what this is supposed to be about–Combined Efforts Theatre is a disability-inclusive theatre troupe based in Iowa city, Iowa. It was founded in 2002 by Janet Schlapkohl. I couldn’t begin to list all the delightful performances last night–being of only limited acquaintance with the play–but Josh Sazon was mesmerizing as Oberon. The role of Nick Bottom was played with comic abandon by Derek Johnson and Lark Cristensen-Szlanski played a sweet and wry Margaret of the Mead House. My personal favorite was Pam Michaels Meyers with her delicious dose of snark as Hippolyta. In addition, the show featured a host of entertaining Athenians, winsome Fairies and hilarious Mechanicals. Ms. Schlapkohl’s version is a slimmed down and kid-friendly version, with a tang of present-day, the performance of which was complimented by the occasional graceful interception of the missed line.

So anyways

I realize now that this was not just a review of MND, but of rural Iowa and Grant Wood and a reminder of how grand and great the world can be. And that even in the midst of dark tragedies and frantic headlines there are oases of peace and calm and beauty. So my advice to you is get thee to Iowa City if you are anywhere close. There are only two more chances to enjoy this wonderful show. I have to think the Bard would approve.

My heart still sails at the thought of it.

In Defense of Reading

 

IMG_1923Dear Writer,

I’m breaking up with you.

I apologize…it’s not you. It’s me.

I know you stay up late, typing your fingers raw, crafting your rich characters and your clever tales. But you’re smothering me. There were 1,000,000 new books published just last year.

And yes, I must confess: there’s someone else. His name is [Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Twitter, insert-media-of-choice].

Sincerely,

Your Reader

 

Where did all the readers go?

Back before I had kids, the soul-sucking corporate job and the internet handily attached to the end of my right arm, I’d sometimes read book a day. These days, I’m lucky to finish one in a month.

And while I complain that I’m busy, when those open gaps of time come, what do I do? Lately it’s devour episodes of Treme off Netflix like fine chocolate with a cup of Thirty-thirty. And before Treme, it was Black Mirror and True Detective and Breaking Bad. And I don’t have to tell you mid-century Mad Men what I’m up to on Sunday nights.

What the heck. I apologize, dear writer. Here you are staying up nights, polishing your prose, and I’m too strung out on Tivo to charge my Kindle.

Readers before writers

Serial television has enjoyed a renaissance of late. But ultimately, its franchise food, assembled by the entertainment industry. While it might not be charbroiled pink slime, it’s still processed food when our minds crave more raw and leafy things to digest. We grow lazy on easy entertainment.

Books are built with words, the fundamental blocks of stories, but they require our imagination to digest them. Books aren’t prepackaged fare—well generally not. They demand an active ingredient: the reader.

A resolution to read

stack of books

By ParentingPatch (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And so, with this post, I do hereby solemnly swear, from this day forward to cast aside my Netflix marathons and return to you, esteemed writer. I beseech you to thrill me. But first you must tell me how to find you.

Because with 1,000,000 new offerings just in the past year, I daresay it’s hard to find you.

There are wonderful amazing life-changing works being published. But how to find them? Everything, everything, everything has a  4-star review on Amazon. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad? Four stars, 250 reviews. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer? Four stars, 6789 reviews. What to read, what to read?

It’s all so overwhelming, and when the pursuit so often ends in disappointment, the temptation is to drift into the den, hook up my Netflix IV drip and worry about it later.

So tell me: What do I read?

Seriously, dear writer. this is me, your devoted reader, appealing to you:

What shall I read? What has stirred you? What have you read lately that reached into your soul? What stayed with you, long after the book was gathering dust on the shelf?

I want a book so vivid that when I put it down, the world is black and white. I want lines that haunt me for decades, characters that feel like dear friends forever-missed, a story so compelling I want to call all my buddies and say: do you know about this one?

So tell me, my writerly friends, what shall I read?

In the comments below, tell me the best book you’ve read this year and why it touched you. Doesn’t matter if it’s indie or traditionally published, longstanding classic or unsung masterpiece. No judgment here, no bias to genre.

Tell me, tell the world: what to read.

Oh, and cancel that Netflix membership and join me in the Readolution.

It’s The End of the World As We Know It

Writers, are you sitting down?

Okay, here’s the bad news:

Amazon has discontinued their Breakthrough Novel Contest. So if you’ve spent the last eighteen months polishing your novel in anticipation of competing along with 9,999 others for that $50,000 prize, well—it ain’t happening.

More bad news? They are replacing it with the Kindle Scout program. Okay, maybe it’s not bad news, I guess that all depends on what you want to write. And what you want to read.

What is Kindle Scout?

You can learn all about it here, but to sum-up, writers are invited to submit their unpublished novels for nomination for review by a Kindle Scout Team. If the Kindle Scout Team selects your book, you win an Amazon publishing contract. Authors will know within 45 days whether or not they’ve been selected, and winners receive a $1,500 advance.

By submitting, writers agree to Amazon’s contract terms which offer 50% royalties (yay!) and the option to back out of the deal if the book hasn’t sold $25,000 in 5 years. Even after a careful reading of the publishing terms, I’m not clear if one can ever escape Amazon’s clutches if the title proves popular (boo).  Amazon captures all rights to the book, with the exception of print, which stay with the author.

Books need to pass muster with their gatekeeper, and they strongly suggest professional editing and cover design. I don’t know if you’ve priced either of these things, but done right, it will easily eat up that advance.

Still, it may be hard to resist the opportunity to earn -.27 cents an hour. On the plus-side, copy editors, cover designers, and of course Amazon, will profit.

Jane Austen, you can go home now

Writers of historical literary YA fiction need not apply. Neither should Faulkner, Hemingway, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, JK Rowling or even Stephen King. Because as of now, Kindle Scout seeks only submissions in the following categories: Mystery/Thriller, Romance or Sci Fi/Fantasy.

It’s no coincidence that those categories constitute their greatest share of ebook sales.

Why did Amazon do this?

What Amazon has accomplished is to recruit their customer to filter the slush pile. And there is a lot of logic to that—who better to tell you what the customer wants than the customer themselves?

But will it work? Amazon selects candidates based upon customer nominations. So if you are a social media darling or promotional guru, you have a chance of getting elevated to a Kindle Scout Reviewer without anyone reading a single word of your work.

I can’t help but wonder if this came up because they found that books that garnered the best editorial reviews didn’t necessarily sell. Publishers Weekly reviews factored heavily in later rounds of the last ABNC.

Instead, Amazon is quite frankly asking the customer: what will you buy? And, when you’re in business to make money, I guess that is the most important question.

Perfect Pitch

As promised, here is a piece on crafting that query (or blurb) to get agents, editors, reviewers and (most importantly!) book buyers excited about your book.

Writing the Badass Query

stack of papers

By Niklas Bildhauer (who also is User gerolsteiner91. (originally posted to Flickr as folder) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Congratulations.

Your book is done. You’ve written it, rewritten it, had it critiqued and maybe even edited professionally.

You’ve printed it out and read the whole thing aloud: to your mother, your cat, and your toughest crit buddies–not to mention the Philodendron. You’re at the point where you’re just pushing commas around.

You know what that means?

You’re ready.

The Hook

hook

By Parrot of Doom (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you remember the last book you bought at the bookstore? I’m not talking about the one you thought you wanted to buy.  I’m talking the one you had to buy. You wanted something fresh. You were sauntering along the aisle, picking up books one by one, studying the covers, running your finger along the spines. And then you turned one over to read: the book jacket.

How long did it take you to decide?

It started with a sentence, a handful of words. Maybe it was enough to make you catch your breath. It was at least enough to make you read the next line. And the next, and the next, until before you know it, you were standing at the checkout holding out your debit card.

Now that, my friends, is a proper hook.

Pitch Perfect

As writers, we all know you’ve got to show and not tell. But a pitch is different, right? After all, you’ve only got a page. If there was ever a case for telling, now is the time, right? Wrong.

Now is when you absolutely must show. Don’t tell them your protagonist struggles with loneliness and can’t find the right guy. Show her in the checkout line, juggling four pints of Ben & Jerry’s while eyeing the douchebag with the $200 haircut. Meanwhile the cinnamon-sweet cashier can’t catch her eye.

That’s all there is to it. Build a collage: a sketch of character, a shadow of scene. Arrange a few powerful verbs around one glistening metaphor. Sculpt the shape of your story like that—the first third of it at least—and leave the reader with a breath of hint of what’s to come.

Now, finally. Make it sound like you and make it match the tone of the book. Funny book? Funny pitch. Scary book? Scary pitch. You’d be surprised how many people miss this.

All right, got all that? Great. Now do it in 300 words. Easy-peasy, right?

The Shameless(?) Self-Promotion

If you’re doing a query letter as opposed to crafting a pitch for Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Contest, you’ll also need to talk about you, the writer. The same rules apply—don’t tell them about your immense talent, your sparkling prose or that your characters are thoughtfully crafted. You should have shown them that in the preceding 300 words or so.

Awards and writing credits, if you have them, are a fair brag. But don’t tell them your story is impossible to put down; make your query impossible to put down.

The Final Dos and Don’ts

Did you ever wonder why literary agents hate rhetorical questions? Don’t.

Do you think your novel is so ground-breaking it merits a two-page query? Don’t.

The Dos?

Proofread your query 1,001 times. Once you’re convinced it’s perfect, have it proofread by someone else. Lots of someone elses.

You only get one chance. One single chance. C’mon, you busted your behind to write that book, it deserves the best pitch you can give it. Write one so good it blows their hair back.

I’m counting on you.

I’m a Dog’s Ass and Other Things my Phone Thinks

My phone hates me. Or maybe it’s not hate so much as sneering disrespect.

IMG_1476Case in point: I manage my calendar on my phone. That’s the wonderful thing with smartphones: everyone trots around with their own personal assistant at the ready. Start my coffee! Turn up the heat! Add four boxes Barefoot wine to the grocery list!

It’s really astounding if you think about it. So there I was, putting my week together  and on Tuesdays I take my dog to agility class. So I said: “Emma dog class”

I’m a dog’s ass

Seriously? I repeat it three times. Each time, my phone smirks back at me: I’m a dog’s ass.

Do I argue with that?

I walk a lot. Gets the wheels turning when I’m writing and part of the appeal of my particular phone was the thought that I could march along and dictate all my profound musings as they occurred to me. Because God forbid I have a deep thought that isn’t saved for posterity.

But my phone is a churlish, inattentive, gum-chewing idiot.

Consider this mystifying entry from my notes:

Voted up for good measure. And it stays that way.

Or this:

Feel the shiver's ink to the base of yours. Bye.

Or this:

Sleep frayed at both ends.

Well I actually sort of like that last one.

But it’s 2015. Haven’t we perfected this technology by now? Maybe it’s me. Maybe after all these years I haven’t mastered the English language. And there are those that read my blog that might argue such. Or maybe my phone thinks I sound like I have a dog’s ass squished against my face. Who knows. But the whole thing is a daily source of frustration.

Play music: the Handsome Family.

Which member of your family do you want to call?

OH MY GOD. It’s moments like this I feel like such a dog’s ass.

What does your phone think of you?

Behold, the Dog

Seems like every year you can find a new crop of amazing gadgets to choose from: devices to entertain, to aid in our quest for fitness, gadgets that watch over our homes and those that just generally weird us out. And, as the age of Robot Butler grows ever closer, it’s easy to believe this technology solves all our problems and makes the world a better place. It doesn’t.

There is an affordable technology within reach of nearly every household. Technology 30,000 years in the making. Behold, the dog.

Emma, Queen of Kind. She has never had a mean thought about anyone. Well, except the mailman. And that plumber. But her instincts may very well be right.

Emma, Queen of Kind. She has never had a mean thought about anyone. Well, except the mailman. And that plumber. But her instincts are probobaly right.

The dog is alarm clock, home security device, therapist and health coach.

Forget Fitbit. Counting your steps and monitoring your heartbeat is for sissys. The dog is personal trainer–motivating you to get out in the fresh air daily to walk or run. Dogs will lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, while elevating levels of serotonin and dopamine. There’s even evidence dogs can detect cancer and children raised in a household with dogs are less likely to have allergies over their lifetimes.

Dogs can provide 24-hour a day surveillance and protection of your property. Homes with dogs are less likely to be burglarized.

shamed dog

The dog that ruined Christmas

Look, I know I complained when mine ate the Christmas ornaments two years ago and then followed up with the shit/chew combo on my son’s mattress. But she never deleted 4,000 music tracks off my mp3 player for no reason. So forget the devices, the gadgets, the latest trending brand and get a dog. You don’t need no pedigree.

Still not convinced? Look, Time magazine put out a list of top ten gadgets for 2014. So let’s compare some of your options this holiday season:

  1. Ring Video Doorbell: When someone rings your bell, you can see who it is on your phone. Look, dogs have been providing full service home security since 28,000 BC. Doorbell. Pfft. Give me a break. Dogs will alert you when a creepy guy walks slow past your house. Can the Ring Video Doorbell do that? I didn’t think so.
  1. iPad Air: Did I mention my dog never ate 4,000 MP3s? Nuff said.
  1. Jawbone UP3: Fancy fitness wristband. But can it lower your blood pressure? Asked and answered.
  1. Mophie Space Pack: adds 64 GB data to your iPhone 5. Okay, yes, I just bought it. Shut up. Move along.
  1. HERO4 GoPro: video camera for ideal for an active lifestyle. Actually I’m not going to touch this one either, it’d be a great accessory for you and your DOG. Put it on your dog!
  1. iPhone 6 Plus: No. Just no.
  1. Oculus Rift Development Kit 2: Virtual reality simulator. Real reality is better—when you have a DOG.
  1. DJI Phantom Vision+: a remote-control helicopter spy cam. C’mon. Instead of spying on your hot neighbor, save yourself $1,100 and get a dog. Playing Frisbee at the park with your dog has been attracting the opposite sex for as long as there have been Frisbees. Hell, dogs were bringing people together long before Frisbees. Get thee a leash and directions to a park. You’ll see.
  1. SmartThings starter kit: The age of the Jetsons has arrived. It will have hot coffee waiting in the morning, turn on your crockpot and lock the doors. And while it can tell you when your kids get home, can it play with them? Not even.
  1. Apple Watch: The dream of the wrist computer realized. But do you really need to spend more of your life hunched in front of a computer screen? The dog offers smiles, fresh air, home security and unconditional love. Top that, Apple.

img_5409So, if you have 5-15 years of space and time in your life, make this holiday better for you and a shelter mutt. Available in sizes, shapes and colors to suit any fashion sense. Visit your local shelter today.