Friday, November 05, 2010

Know your battles

Let me start off, like a good academic, with a caveat. I read the political cartoonist Chuck Asay pretty regularly, and while this in no way implies that I agree with the man on a regular basis, it means that I find him interesting, entertaining, and at least occasionally thought-provoking.

But, today. . .



Setting aside the "Obama and colleges are dirty Marxists" overtones, there's a huge, lazy error in this comic.

Colleges and universities already exist in the free market. They do compete for students, and they're well aware that the cost of tuition is a big part of that competition. (Ask anyone who works in an admission office.) Tuition is, however, far from the only consideration, and it's well-established that students and parents are eager to pay a premium for prestige, in large part because the labor market, on the whole, pays a premium for graduates with degrees from those colleges, even though there's little or no evidence that the quality of education is any better—meaning that paying this premium is an economically rational decision. God bless free markets!

Do you know what are the two biggest factors behind increasing tuition at public universities? 1. The increasing cost of health care, and 2. state-level divestment from higher education. That's right! When the state stops subsidizing its universities, you pay market price for your education!

Thus:

A. Colleges are already free-market entities. There is no way that "free-marketizing" them will lower tuition because the only way to make them more beholden to market forces than they already are would be to eliminate state subsidies from public universities. Which would raise tuition.

B. The single fastest, most effective way to lower tuition would be to take the cost of employee health care out of education. Maybe through something like national single-payer health care. (Or by making all instructors "part-time" adjuncts, which many schools are well on their way to doing. Good for costs. Not so great for quality of education. But then we've already established that quality of education doesn't matter if you have a prestigious school's name on your degree.)

Complaining about rising tuition is fair. Blaming the rise on Marxism is idiotic. In this case, talking about federal involvement in student loans is a non sequitur.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

I'm never in favor of book burnings

A few thoughts which probably don't qualify as full-fledged opinions:

  • That crazy pastor in Florida has every right to burn whatever book he wants, just as I have every right to criticize him for it and publicly ask him to not do it.
  • Just as Park51 has a right to build a community center wherever they want, as long as it meets local zoning ordinances.
  • The difference being that Park51 is not, in fact, an attempt to thumb anyone's nose at anyone.
  • It's sad that the 300+ million people in the US will be judged internationally based on the actions of a 50-member church.
  • Except that, clearly, this 50-member church is expressing an opinion condoned by a lot more than just 50 people.
  • Free speech is hard. Tolerance is even harder.
  • Also, don't expect a lot of thanks from someone because you tolerate them. Tolerance is the bare minimum for civil society. Tolerance is the least you can do to not impede justice.
  • Working toward justice is an entirely different thing, and something we need to get better at.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Three final reasons to vote "yes" on renewing the CADL millage

(Originally published at www.supportcadl.org)

1. Library usage is up, not down. In fact, it's way up. And CADL is not asking for one penny of increased funding. Not one penny Seriously.

2. If the millage passes, it doesn't increase your current property taxes by one penny, and the 13 CADL branches and bookmobile continue to operate. If the millage fails, the library closes, and your property taxes won't even decrease enough for you to notice. (Less than 3.5%. Seriously.)

3. Michigan needs to hold on to young, college-educated people, especially families. You've heard about "cool cities"? Yeah, I didn't really buy that either. My family and I don't live in a loft, and we don't want to. We don't want a new nightclub, or a cool place to shop downtown. We want a library. We want story hours. We want a safe place to bring our kids where they can have fun and learn and we can find information on how to kill the dandelions in my lawn or cook a good dinner faster. If you want to keep college graduates in state, fund the library. Seriously.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The library is worth supporting

(An edited version of this letter was run in the June 30 edition of Lansing City Pulse)

In 2005, my wife and I moved back to the Lansing area after an unsuccessful year looking for work in Detroit and the east coast. We knew the area well from our time at Michigan State University, but we were coming back without much of a support system. Our closest family was in Detroit (my father lives in Chicago, and my wife’s parents in New Jersey), and nearly all of our friends had moved out of the area (and the state) after graduation. Our daughter was a little more than a year old at the time, and we were expecting our second.

We were living on a single income, and needed entertainment and educational resources for a stay-at-home-mother to use, as well as a place for the family to get out of the house and meet other families. We found all of this in the Capital Area District Library’s Foster branch, which had a great collection of kids’ books and music, and a weekly story hour. It was nothing less than a lifesaver.

Our children are older now, and my wife and I are both working full-time, but the library is still a big part of our lives. Our daughters check out more chapter books than picture books these days (Cynthia Rylant is a particular favorite), but Sesame Street CDs are still popular, and audiobooks still keep us all happy, healthy, and sane on the long drives to visit grandparents in Chicago, New Jersey, and Tennessee.

On Tuesday, August 3, voters will be asked to renew the millage that supports the Capital Area District Library. Even with increased operation costs and record levels of library use, CADL has not requested additional funds, but only a renewal of the millage which expired on December 31, 2009. This millage covers nearly 90% of CADL’s operation and maintenance costs, and without this funding, the 13 CADL branches will close on Jan. 3, 2011.

The Capital Area District Library is an essential community resource, and one of the best values in the area. In 2009 alone more than 1.5 million visitors checked out 2.7 million items (and logged more than 284,000 hours on the internet using CADL computers). My own family conservatively estimates that we get $148 of use for every dollar of our property taxes that goes to support the library.

Perhaps even more importantly, my daughters get excited when it’s time to go to the library. They love to return books on the conveyor belt in the downtown branch, and the toy trains can’t compete anymore with shelves and shelves of books they haven’t read yet. They meet up with friends by accident or at special events. They sit and read, and read, and read. (Okay, the younger one looks at the pictures and makes up her own story, but it’s a good start.)

This summer, they each got their own library cards, and they treat them as the most valuable things in their purses (which they are).

Please vote to renew CADL’s millage on August 3. The library is a treasure. Let’s keep it around.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The best of Wordwright

Wordwright has been around for more than five years now, and it seemed an opportune time to collect some of the keepers. Thus here, in reverse chronological order, are 16 posts that hold up well, offer interesting markers, or are simply the first places I would point someone digging through my archive.

Hopefully it's a fun and interesting grab bag. Thanks for reading, and I hope to have even better in the future.

Thursday, April 15, 2010: There are only three meaningful places to cut federal spending

Monday, November 16, 2009: Theses on journalism: an experiment in format

Thursday, January 22, 2009: First poem (A reading of Elizabeth Alexander’s poem written for the Obama inauguration)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009: Identification and participation (Thoughts on the community function of newspapers)

Monday, August 25, 2008: Ones and zeroes (DVD as the digital novel)

Thursday, August 21, 2008: Trying to get published: minefield or quicksand?

Friday, August 08, 2008: Kwame Kilpatrick: the cliffs notes (This may need an update, but the thought of writing one is more than a little depressing)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008: What makes the Bat?

Friday, July 11, 2008: I'm not wrong, just not as insightful as I'd often like to be (Obama vs. Clinton)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008: Nearly everyone talking about this is an idiot (Yale art student Aliza Shvarts)

Monday, April 07, 2008: i is for improvisation

Monday, March 12, 2007: My old friend (On Jack Kerouac’s 85th birthday)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005: Promo CD problems

Monday, November 07, 2005: Ain't fake politics fun? (On The West Wing’s live debate episode)

Tuesday, October 11, 2005: The story of O. (Where I claim, well ahead of the pack, my belief that James Frey’s memoir was a fraud.)

Saturday, October 02, 2004: Musing on Hitchens (and Miller, apparently)

Notable omissions: nothing on the aftermath of the 2009 elections in Iran made the cut (there are some good links archived there, but my own writing on the topic just wasn't substantial enough), nor did any posts on copyright law (too dry), nor my recent writing for the now-defunct Ditching Otis (too recent).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Confessions and Extra Lives

(This piece was originally posted at Ditching Otis.)

I have a confession to make. I’m not an unbiased reader of Tom Bissell. I have a not-entirely rational investment in writers from my alma mater, and Bissell’s background comes tantalizingly close to neglecting to fail entirely to overlap with my own. He graduated from Michigan State a year or two before I started attending. He worked on the campus literary magazine that wasn’t the one I worked for. He has longstanding acquaintances with the older MSU writers whose books I obsessively collect, catalog, and for the most part do not read. I had lunch with him once when he visited campus and he was friendly and interesting without leaving the impression that he was working harder than he should to like you or make you like him. He signed my copy of his collection of stories (which I had actually read) and included his email address.

I have a second confession to make. Tom Bissell is the reason that I write about video games. While trawling the interwebs I stumbled across a piece Bissell had written about the game Dead Souls which spiraled out to consider the role difficulty plays in video games. Bissell used Dead Souls as a way to talk about the complaint that recent generations of video games, with in-depth tutorials, frequent save points, and repetitive game play minimized in favor of cinematic cutscenes, lack the level of challenge found in the earliest console games, which demanded split-second reflexes and/or hours of repetitive “grinding” in order to raise characters to a level sufficient to defeat the monsters guarding the next area to be explored. I knew that Bissell was going to be a game writer worth following when it became clear that he was not entirely nostalgic for the days of difficulty ├╝ber alles.

I have a third confession to make. Tom Bissell is the reason that this column is titled “Diary of a Casual Gamer.” Bissell includes his Playstion Network and Xbox Live usernames in the author bio of his new book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, and when he accepted my friend request (don’t read too much into that gesture—one doesn’t make such information so broadly available if one is disinclined to accept such requests), it was brutally clear just how much homework I had to do to even be able to really even participate in the conversation. I have trophies (markers of progress) from six PS3 games (one of which I don’t even own). Bissell has trophies from 18, and it’s pretty clear from his writing that Bissell’s PS3 receives substantially less use than his Xbox 360, a console he has purchased no fewer than four times in three different countries. (Seriously. Page 160.)

I have a fourth (and hopefully final) confession to make. Bissell discusses a wide variety of games in Extra Lives. I have played almost none of them. Happily, this in no way adversely impacted my enjoyment of the book.

Bissell’s book is subtitled Why Video Games Matter, but more than a philosophical or aesthetic treatise, Extra Lives is an embodiment of the pleasures of close observation and careful description. I chuckled in moments of recognition—Bissell’s initial reaction to the overwhelming number of buttons on the original Playstation controller “(seventeen!)”—and allowed myself to follow Bissell through the twists and turns of games I’ve never played (and probably will never play). I’m pretty sure that Bissell has an opinion on the relative merits of the Xbox 360 vs. the PS3, and it’s somewhat striking that he claims to own a GameCube and not a Wii, but Bissell wisely avoids such debates, and casts an ironic eye on the possibility of a final qualitative distinction. At the end of the chapter "The Unbearable Lightness of Games," Bissell writes:
I once raved about Left 4 Dead in a video-game emporium within earshot of the manager, a man I had previously heard angrily defend the proposition that lightsaber wounds are not necessarily cauterized. . . . “Left 4 Dead?” he asked me. “You liked it?” I admitted that I did. Very, very much. And him? “I liked it,” he said grudgingly. “I just wish it had more story.” . . . I then realized I was contrasting my aesthetic sensibility to that of some teenagers about a game that concerns itself with shooting as many zombies as possible. It is moments like this that can make it so dispiritingly difficult to care about video games.
Coming at the end of a chapter in which Bissell has shown how the cooperative features and brilliant interactive design of Left 4 Dead actually creates narrative moments by forcing players into situations where their choices really seem to matter and create tangible (if entirely contingent) outcomes, the manager’s criticism is especially damning. Left 4 Dead, according to Bissell, creates experiences—I abandoned my group, because they were all dying and it seemed better for me to survive, but through shame and peer pressure, I was coerced back into the game and was able to save my teammates—but he is forced to concede that experience is not always the same as story. Given the way that open-ended gameplay is at odds with the sort of authorially-determined story that we’re familiar with from novels and film, Bissell is rightly and fascinatingly conflicted over whether making video games “matter” means arguing that they offer narrative possibilities equal to (if different than) those offered by film and literature, or casting an entire outmoded idea of narrative aside in favor of an entirely new set of possibilities.

Extra Lives doesn’t answer this question (and it probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun to read if it thought it necessary to do so). One of the underrated (or at least under-discussed) pleasures of video games is to watch a better gamer than oneself in action. (In this way, video games might be considered in analogy to sports as much as other forms of narrative.) This is one of the pleasures of reading Extra Lives as well.

The coach and the professor

Mitch Albom on MSU criticism of media coverage of Tom Izzo's flirtation with the Cleveland Cavaliers:
Tuesday night's gathering bordered on choosing a pope. A school president gushing over keeping -- not hiring, simply keeping -- a sports coach makes you ponder if she'd do the same over a beloved English professor who touches more than 15 kids a year?
Albom, like me, has a great deal of both respect and affection for Izzo, but I'm deeply grateful for the nod to the skewed priorities of the University, the state, and the nation at large.

I love MSU basketball, but it is just basketball.

Read the full column here.

Friday, June 04, 2010

A modest proposal

(This piece was originally posted at Ditching Otis.)

There has been a small outcry in the sports world over the past few days after a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game on the very last out. Replays shown by broadcasters clearly and immediately showed that first baseman Miguel Cabrera’s throw beat Jason Donald to the bag. Joyce reviewed footage after the game and admitted as much to Galarraga in a tearful apology. Calls to institute instant replay into the game of baseball have been insistent and widespread. This was an objective error, fans and commentators say, with concrete consequences that could have been corrected immediately. In fact, if he so chose, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bud Selig could still reverse Joyce’s error, erase the subsequent batter groundout to third, and award Galarraga a perfect game. Fortunately, Selig has rightly declined to do so.

Galarraga’s game is irrevocably tainted by Joyce’s error. If placed in the record books it would be entered with an asterisk. It, at this point, cannot be perfect. Joyce’s error cannot be corrected, and is an essential expression of the inherent failure of asking a subjective umpire to make an objective determination. If we can electronically time bobsled runs to the hundredth of a second, we can objectively determine who got to the bag first. Baseball fails as a game because of its reliance on umpires, and we should get rid of them.

Major League Baseball relies on umpires because baseball, in its current form, is a deeply subjective game. There is perhaps no better expression of this than the strike zone, upon which every pitch, every play of the game is entirely dependent, and which exists as an imaginary box in the head of the home plate umpire. Major League Baseball defines the strike zone as “that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the knee cap.” The home plate umpire bears sole responsibility for determining and enforcing this magical imaginary set of boundaries, and is accountable to no review of his determination. Even more ludicrous is that this set of boundaries, upon which the entire game hinges, is different for every single player. A taller player will have a larger strike zone than a shorter player, which was famously exploited by the Cleveland Browns when they sent a 3’7” Eddie Gaedel to the plate on August 19, 1951. Gaedel, whose strike zone was less than a foot tall, walked on four pitches. In a more respectable and more objective game like basketball or football, this would be equivalent to lowering the basket for shorter players, or adjusting the length of the field depending on each player’s 40-yard split time. In addition to variations based on differences in physical size, the batter himself can alter the strike zone by changing his stance at the plate, since the official rules state that “The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.” Thus, a player who stands at full height at the plate, like Craig Counsell will have a larger strike zone than a player like Ricky Henderson, who crouched at the plate.


Left, Craig Counsell; right, Ricky Henderson.

Baseball’s current reliance on human judgment is a relic of its antiquated, rustic origins. While precision electronics may not have been available in 19th century Cooperstown, we have them now, and it’s time to fix baseball. Basic touch sensors can be used to determine whether a runner or a fielder has made contact with a base, and motion-sensitive devices in both the ball and the mitt can exactly determine when a fielder has possession. Playing fields should be standardized, with the distance and height of the outfield fences dictated in the rulebook. Fenway’s green monster need not be torn down, but it would need to have a line set above which any ball which strikes the wall would be ruled a home run. Alternatively, left field walls identical to the green monster could be built in every stadium. Objectivity demands not that the field be symmetrical, only that like a basketball court, a football field, or baseball’s own infield diamond, its dimensions be identical in every park.

The crowning glory of this plan, however, will be the strike zone. Dictated by the rulebook as a precise and specific polygon suspended above home plate, identical for every player, we can embed laser proximity sensors around and in the plate itself. We will not rely upon the umpire to judge that a pitch hit the inside corner. We will know. There will be no arguments over a called third strike. There will be no inconsistency. There will be no variation based on player size, stance, or umpire’s whim. Every pitcher and every batter will have the same target. With the right eyewear, we can even make it visible, if we wish. Imagine every player and spectator wearing glasses in which the lenses are polarized screens, making the laser-determined strike zone clear to all, and perhaps even programmed to illuminate the ball if and when it passes through this no-longer-subjective space. The umpires can even remain on the field if we wish, nearly invisible headsets informing them of what has just happened, allowing them to give voice to an objective, correct result. There would be no more perfect performances marred by subjective error. There would be only perfection.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Diary of a Casual Gamer #1: Getting Lost

(This was originally posted at Ditching Otis)

Playing Red Dead Redemption and Final Fantasy XIII at the same time is more than a little jarring. Not, of course, because of the wildly divergent settings. Even a casual gamer can accept the transition from the early 20th century American west to a futuristic dystopia without so much as blinking. For me, at least, the deeply unfamiliar experience is playing not one but two current-generation console games so close to their release date. I am, after all, the epitome of the casual gamer. Always late to the party, mashing buttons, dependent on the strategy guide, with the slimmed-down version of the console under my television, and a disproportionate number of games with garishly colorful “greatest hits” cases sitting on my shelf. (The ugliness of the “greatest hits/players choice/whatever” packaging is intentional, a penalty inflicted upon those of us cheap, lazy, or patient enough to not buy a game until the price drops.)

All the same, due to a happy set of unusual circumstances this past holiday season, I’ve found myself with both a Playstation 3 and a Nintendo Wii, which has allowed me the fantasy of engaging in some serious gaming. In March, I purchased Final Fantasy XIII (Final Fantasy X and X-2 were my favorites out of the rather limited number of games I played on the PS2), and let it sit almost entirely untouched until the beginning of May. (I was finishing a graduate thesis, and my wife made it perfectly clear that if I valued my marriage that the thesis was going to have to come first.)

Now, after several hours of game play, I’m on Chapter 7, which depending on how you’re counting, is either about halfway through the game’s 13 chapters, or barely started. (The strategy guide—yes, I bought the strategy guide—describes chapter 10 as being about halfway through the game’s story.) There are substantial portions of the game’s battle system that I don’t even have access to yet.

This can make it feel at times like you’re only playing part of the game in the early stages, which is quite literally true but is also a sensible way to deal with one of the most substantial challenges in the current generation of console games: the learning curve. As games become more immersive and give players more control over characters and environment, the number of skills a player has to master in order to progress in a game has exploded. (Just imagine Super Mario Brothers, with the only inputs being a direction pad and two buttons, where the game opens with the character simply waiting for the player to make him run, a threat in the form of a Goomba already bearing down. I don’t really want to get nostalgic—I never actually completed Super Mario Brothers—but we’ve come light years from the first generation of consoles.)

Many games succeed or fail based on how well they teach you the necessary skills in the early stages without feeling like the only purpose of the early stages is to teach you the skills you will need in order to really play the game. This is no small trick, and a number of reviewers have argued that Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t quite pull it off. As a player, for all the aspects of the game I have yet to master (or even encounter), I feel like I’m making progress, but I have little choice but to do so. The only thing the game asks me to do is to run forward and fight the monsters that stand between my character and the somewhat arbitrary geographic goal the game has set for me.

Red Dead Redemption, in a lot of ways, is something else entirely. In the few hours I’ve played the game so far, I’ve spent a great deal of time entirely lost. (I’m nowhere near as far along as Chris Hooley, in fact, I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I can’t find the poker game.) The world, as many have written, is huge, and I’ve already had my horse stolen out from under me in the middle of nowhere, leaving my character to jog to the next town. A number of reviews have talked about lassoing bad guys and dragging them in for a bounty, but I’m not even sure whether or not I have a rope yet.

More than anything else, I’m not good yet at the sort of things the game asks me to do. My own inclination is to play as more of a “good guy” than a “bad guy” character, and the game gives you ample opportunities to help people out. Just walking or riding around, I’ve stumbled upon a miner being robbed, a man being hung by a gang, and a drunk assaulting a prostitute. In exactly one of those three situations have I been able to keep the victim from being murdered. Once when I was shooting coyotes, I shot a man I hadn’t even seen sitting in the tall grass. (That was the one time I actually stopped playing and went back to an earlier save point.) I’m apparently, just not very good at helping people.

And for all that, I’m having a hard time figuring out which game I like more. I have a long and very fond history with the Final Fantasy franchise. I love the settings, the stories, and the varying levels of weirdness they present to the American gamer. I have, on the other hand, never played a Grand Theft Auto game. (And, as others have observed, whatever its setting, Red Dead Redemption is essentially and structurally a Grand Theft Auto game.) The richness and depth of the narrative of the Final Fantasy series is one of the primary reasons that I take video games seriously (my graduate degree was in literature), and I don’t really expect Red Dead Redemption to be able to compete on that front. I expect to spend a lot more time in Red Dead Redemption wandering around and doing things that, in terms of the overall story, amount to nothing at all. But to my own surprise, I’m finding that I like being lost.

Friday, April 16, 2010

There are things we can agree on, even across the spectrum

Andrew Sullivan echoes my point in yesterday's post (of course, I'm really echoing him and other reasonable people all along the political spectrum):
When they [Tea Partiers] propose cuts in Medicare, means-testing Social Security, a raising of the retirement age and a cut in defense spending, I'll take them seriously and wish them well.

Until then, I'll treat them with the condescending contempt they have thus far deserved.
In the sense that I support a single-payer healthcare system, I'm actually in favor of an expansion of Medicare, but if we're going to talk about balancing the budget, popular scapegoats like earmarks, farm subsidies, or food stamps aren't going to get us there. They're not even going to get us started. Let's have a real political discussion about what we want government to do (and realize that we're never all going to agree, and that elections are a valid way of helping to settle—and unsettle, and re-settle—those questions), and agree that whatever it is that government does, we have to be willing to pay for it.

And let's extend that principle to our states and communities. No more demanding that everything get cut as long as it only affects someone else. Fund the schools. Fund the police (and emergency services). Fund the library and the bus. Each of these things is worth paying for.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

There are only three meaningful places to cut federal spending

Last Friday, I tweeted a link to an Economist poll in which 92% of Americans said that it was important to balance the federal budget within the next few years, and 62% said that the budget should be balanced with spending cuts alone instead of raising taxes (5%) or some combination of tax increases and spending cuts (24%). The notable part of this poll was that when participants were asked what, exactly should be cut, the average response seemed to be "not much, except for foreign aid" (which accounts for less than 1% of federal spending).

As a follow-up, I'd link to point to an article in the NYT today reporting the results of a poll and follow-up interviews with people who identify themselves with the Tea Party movement:
When talking about the Tea Party movement, the largest number of respondents said that the movement’s goal should be reducing the size of government, more than cutting the budget deficit or lowering taxes.

And nearly three-quarters of those who favor smaller government said they would prefer it even if it meant spending on domestic programs would be cut.

But in follow-up interviews, Tea Party supporters said they did not want to cut Medicare or Social Security — the biggest domestic programs, suggesting instead a focus on “waste.”

Some defended being on Social Security while fighting big government by saying that since they had paid into the system, they deserved the benefits.

Others could not explain the contradiction.

“That’s a conundrum, isn’t it?” asked Jodine White, 62, of Rocklin, Calif. “I don’t know what to say. Maybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security.” She added, “I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I’ve changed my mind.”
In order to make inroads into the federal budget, the only places where substantial cuts could make an impact are in Defense, Social Security, and Medicare/Medicaid, which together make up more than 59% of total spending. Of those three, only Defense is "discretionary," meaning that cuts could be made without requiring the passage of substantial new legislation.

I'm not against spending cuts. What I'm against is demanding that government shrink without a clear idea of where cuts should be made, and what the real impact of those cuts would be, especially when percentage of the federal budget (or percentage of the total deficit) is compared to impact on actual people's lives.

I think that the budget should (on the whole) be balanced. (Temporary but substantial deficits in times of recession would be the primary exception to this rule.) And I think that eliminating waste is a good thing. But when you're being told that government waste is the source of the problem, you're being lied to. The problem is the irresponsible tax cuts of the past 10 years, combined with fighting two wars on a different continent.

Many government programs help people, and they do so with a surprising level of efficiency. They help you. And that's worth paying for.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Lansing Lit Mags, and me.

I've already posted a link to a slides-only video version of my Lansing Lit Mags presentation at Ignite Lansing 3.0. This afternoon, LCC TV posted video of both the slides and me. I think I have a nerdy sort of charm.

What would I do differently if I were to do it again? I think, especially given the spirit of the event, I'd focus a bit more on the opportunities for small periodical publication offered through the internet, and talk about how Oats led into Robin Sloan's current work. It's a tough compromise to make, since I already had to cut so much. I barely had time to name drop Pablo Neruda and Margaret Atwood (I didn't get to mention the interview with Allen Ginsberg in issue #17, or Tom Bissell's first published story in volume 30 #2, etc., etc.).

And these are tough compromises, because there are a lot of cool things that people have done, and one of the big things I wanted to do was to show off some of the good ideas so that people could see the variety of forms that lit mags have taken and not come away with the idea that the lovely, glossy, rather staid versions that are out there right now are the only options. The costs of entry are nearly non-existent.

One story I didn't tell had to do with the transition of The Offbeat from a self-published 'zine to publication with the MSU Press. Before the final decision was made, Tim Carmody and I talked between ourselves about publishing a final compilation issue showing off the work that The Offbeat had printed over the previous three years and centering on an essay which would argue that if we had done it, with minimal support (basically free web space and an email address) from MSU, that anyone could and should do it. Rather than asking a new staff to pick up our publication, we would have created a gap and asked someone else to fill it with their own publication and their own ideas. I'm proud of The Offbeat, and happy that it has carried on. Because of Offbeat/1, I have an editor credit in the Library of Congress.

Still, part of me wonders what might have popped up had The Offbeat not hung around.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Summer reading

I'm currently buried neck-deep in reading for my MA thesis on Gertrude Stein, but I'm starting to get really excited about being free to read anything I want this summer, and at the top of my list is fellow MSU and East Lansing lit mag alum Tom Bissell's upcoming book on video games Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.

Beyond being a fan of Bissell in general, I've had a few tastes of his game writing in The New Yorker and The Guardian, as well as his writing at crispygamer.com. As someone who recently dragged myself through the original Final Fantasy, just to be able to say that I'd beaten it, I particularly enjoyed his piece on game difficulty and the downright sadistic although not entirely unenjoyable design of Demon Souls.

Final Fantasy XIII is sitting on my shelf, waiting for the thesis to be done, and I hope to use it and Mr. Bissell's book as a way to start talking about some of my own thoughts on games, narrative, and the way that I stopped reading sci-fi novels after playing Final Fantasy X. (Don't worry, a grad class, believe it or not, got me started again.)

So the point of all this is, if anyone wants to send me an advance copy, I promise to write a review. :-)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Lansing Lit Mags

I have some thoughts on the presentation after re-watching it, but for now, if you haven't seen it, my 3/5/10 Ignite Lansing presentation on Lansing Literary Magazines is available at YouTube here.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

A little controversy is a good thing

I gave a presentation on Lansing Literary Magazines at Ignite Lansing 3.0 on Friday night. I thought the presentation went well, and while I didn't bowl over the crowd (there were both more dynamic presenters and more socially engaging topics than mine), I kept up with the slides, presented some good information (no small job when trying to talk about 50+ years in 5 minutes), and even made the argument for people to get out and start their own lit mags a bit better than I expected I would. And there was only one moment of mostly-unintentional blue humor. [I'll link to video when it gets posted.]

Ignite got just a little bit of coverage in the local press, most notably a rather dismissive blog post from local columnist John Schneider. Schenider's post prompted some strong and thoughtful reactions, and he put up a semi/non-retraction this morning:
Some things I’ve learned in the past 24 hours:
- The presentations at “Ignite Lansing” are largely beside the point. The point of the gathering is the gathering.
- It’s not fair to judge the speakers because there are no standards beyond a willingness to stand up in front of a crowd and talk about something. Anything.
- The presentations aren't necessarily meant to introduce innovative thinking, provide a vision of the future, or move Lansing forward, although there’s no rule against those things.
- The fact that hundreds of people assembled to pay attention — to some extent — to those claiming their five minutes on the stage makes Lansing a better place.
- The Twitterati are good at mobilizing.

Beyond the fact that I'm a bit surprised that Schneider seems so surprised by the strength of the response—after all, participants in an event that posted a live Twitter feed of #ignitelansing tweets are pretty likely to read a blog post and have no problem commenting on it—I'm actually happy that the discussion is taking place, and I hope it gets people talking about the presentations themselves and not just that Schneider "missed the point," or that the presentations themselves are not the point of the event. I posted the following comment to Schneider's second blog post:

"As one of the speakers from Ignite, I'm not really comfortable if this discussion is leading towards the conclusion that "it's not fair to judge the speakers." (I don't think your summation of the feedback is off, John, I just think the feedback itself is a bit defensive after an initial seeming dismissal.)

"It is important to note that we (the presenters) were amateurs, but to say that it's not fair to judge us is to say that it's fine not to pay attention (which seemed to be one of the implications of the event.)

"The gathering was important, yes, and none of us were Steve Jobs announcing a new iPhone, but there needs to be a balance between the social aspect and the ideas and information that (in theory) the presenters are trying to share.

"It should always be a mixed bag, and it's okay if some are a bit dry, or inscrutable, or simply fall flat on their faces. But the good ones should start to be part of the bigger discussion.

"The last presentation of the night was a young architect taking about how to build a city that people will want to live in, instead of just a series of boxes or halfhearted, trendy derivatives. While I can make no argument for my own presentation other than that people voted for it, and so someone must have been interested, Francis Wilmore's presentation is one that deserved some coverage."

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

What we talk about when we talk about books

(This is also posted at Bookfuturism)

I'm taking it for granted that I'm preaching to the choir here when I say that books are different things. Books are novels, nonfiction, collections of photos, hardcover, paperbacks, inexpensive newsprint, rare vellum, scrolls, pop-up books, random pages bound together, text running left to right, right to left, vertically, no text at all, usually but not always made of paper. I think one of the things that we value so much about books is their very malleability. Hell, digitize it, put a "e" in front of its name and read it on a Kindle and it's still a book.

That being said, I think that it's time that we really start broadening our minds and ask ourselves some hard questions about what we're talking about when we talk about books, and as we move into the future what exactly it is that books do and what exactly we want them to do.

Books, for example, are not synonymous with any particular form of technology. The book, for example, is much older than those things we're used to seeing in bookstores and libraries, which are codices. The infamously destroyed Library of Alexandria? Nothing but scrolls. The end of the codex, if it ever happens, is not the end of the book. The single best example of this is the encyclopedia, which (in printed form) is dead, dead, dead, and exactly no one misses it. Whether Encarta or Wikipedia, there's a better way to collect large volumes of general reference information than unwieldy, expensive, and immediately obsolete printed volumes. On the other hand, e-readers may be getting better and better, but printed, bound volumes seem to still be the most accessible and cost-effective format for long-form fictional and nonfiction narrative, and so while novels may not carry the same high-culture impact that they did 60 years ago, they still sell (reasonably) well.

Books do not compete with newspapers, the internet, movies, or video games. These all do different things (or, perhaps more interestingly, they do the same things in different ways). Saving the book does not mean saving the novel any more than saving poetry meant saving the oral epic. Rather than bemoaning the death of the printed word, let's ask ourselves what print does that memorization and performance didn't do, and remind ourselves that memorization and performance still exist in the theatre, on slam stages, streetcorner lyrical battles, and lecture halls. The end of print (if print disappears) is not the end of the book.

Books are also not synonymous with authorship. The mystique of the author is the younger sibling (or grandchild) of the book. Homer has to be invented because when the Iliad was written no one cared who had written it. Discerning the future of the book is not a business plan for tomorrow's novelists (as much as I might like it to be), although since remuneration for writers will affect what books are written and not written, it will always be a subject of interest.

All books are written, although they are not written in the same way. All books are interactive, although they are not interactive in the same ways. Let's talk about what makes a book a book (and what makes it sometimes a newspaper, or a magazine, a film, or a video game), and what it is that we want the book to be.

What is it exactly that we're talking about when we talk about books?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

If I were writing a political movie, this is how it would end

Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder is proposing to eliminate the Michigan Business Tax and replace it with a "6 percent flat corporate income tax." Snyder estimates that the flat tax "would raise an estimated $700 million, less than the $2.2 billion the Michigan Business Tax is estimated to generate for the 2009-10 fiscal year," and calls this additional shortfall in a state that already faces an annual problem of severe revenue shortfalls a "$1.5 billion tax cut on Michigan job creators."

It really frustrates me that Republicans seem to own the issue of fiscal reform, even when, as during the Bush years, that reform is deeply irresponsible and goes against their own dogma (as in running a huge deficit). I think there's a big opportunity for Democrats to try and turn that around, and the Michigan Business Tax is a great example of a potential way to do so.

I'd love to see a Democratic candidate stand up in a debate and say something like this:

"My opponent criticizes the Michigan Business Tax, and he's right. It's a bad tax. It hurts small businesses that are critical to Michigan's economy, especially when big businesses like Chrysler and GM—whose lobbyists created this tax and are the only businesses who benefit from it—continue to demonstrate that we cannot rely on them alone to drive economic recovery in this state. The Michigan Business Tax is even worse than the Single Business Tax it replaced, and that's unforgivable.

"Republicans like to criticize the Democratic Party as the party of tax-and-spend. They say that our state can't afford huge increases in spending in our economy, and that's exactly right. But it's become clear that Republicans seem to think that government can spend without taxing, that we can cut our way to prosperity, and the results of that policy have been clear and disastrous. When you campaign on eliminating taxes and nothing else, you end up eliminating taxes like the Single Business Tax and replacing them with worse ones like the Michigan Business Tax. If your campaign is based on eliminating taxes and nothing else, this is great because then your next campaign just argues that we should eliminate the Michigan Business Tax. This may be a great campaign, but you end up hurting people. You hurt the children whose schools lose funding, you hurt your neighbors who lose police and fire protection when state revenue sharing is eliminated, and what's worse is that you end up paying more for less. This is nothing short of a disaster, and it's the result of short-sighted and frankly stupid tax reform that ends up costing businesses and the rest of us more than we were paying in the first place.

So lets agree where we agree. Let's fix the tax system, because it's broken. But let's do it the right way, with a plan. [outline plan, very briefly.] This isn't about taxing just so that we can increase spending. No one gets a blank check. But let's do what the state needs to do, and let's make sure it's paid for. That's fiscal responsibility. That's fiscal conservativism. And that's my stand."

Cue a swelling inspirational soundtrack, and I might be able to sell a few tickets to moviegoers who flocked to Dave and The American President, but I'm not holding my breath to see it in real life anytime soon.