I’ve been writing a long post about politics. It’s detailed, and wide-ranging, and it criticizes everybody in politics for various things, and I think it’s pretty much guaranteed to make lots of people mad.

I’ve been down this road before, though. I’ve written many, many posts like that over the years. Looking back, I’m not sure there was much point in it. I espouse my views, and in the best case scenario, the people who agree say “Yeah” and move on. The people who disagree keep on disagreeing. I don’t think anyone does anything different as a result of reading political blog posts. 

The other day, I jokingly said on Twitter:

I wrote that after watching yet another politician bemoaning the state of the country, for what felt like the millionth time. You could make same joke could about political blog posts, though. There are so many of them written every day. You’d think if things could be fixed by blogging, it would have happened already.

Longtime readers may have noticed I’ve dialed back the political posts a lot over the last couple years. It’s ticked up a bit again recently but it’s nothing like it used to be. Politics was nearly all I posted about back in, say, 2011. But lately, I’ve shifted to posting more about writing, entertainment, and criticism.

That’s not an accident. Those subjects produce far more rewarding and engaging discussions than political blogging does. And for a simple reason: people enjoy it more. Pat Prescott, my fellow blogger and longtime reader, can probably comment on this, since he’s been with me since the days when the blog was heavily political.

I used to enjoy writing about politics. Or I thought I did, at least. But at some point, once I realized I wasn’t really changing anything by writing about it, I started to lose my zest for it. 

The funny thing is, most people are way more open to new ideas, creative reinterpretations, and even harsh critiques, when it comes to the world of fiction and entertainment than they are when it comes to real-life politics. I include myself in that. There are people who lose themselves in the political intricacies of totally fictional worlds while holding the most simplistic and unexamined views of the world they live in. I mean, there are probably people who could tell you they understand both sides of the Geth/Quarian conflict, but couldn’t do anything beyond parrot the talking points of their preferred real-life political party.

That sounds kind of harsh, but I don’t actually mean it to put people down. People like what they like, and wishing they liked other things is like wishing we all had wings and could fly. 

Life is too short for petty, futile political disputes. If 2016 did nothing else, it taught us that you can spend your entire career studying politics and still get everything totally wrong. 

That’s why I decided it was time to shift my focus to things that were more rewarding, both for me and for my readers. Things like book reviews, and art, and writing fiction. (Now admittedly, I did put some allegorical references to my politics in The Directorate. I figured that way I could say a few things in a way that was entertaining rather than stridently preachy.)

Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics by other means, and there’s no doubt that politics is inherently combative. Which means everyone tends to be in fight mode when talking politics. Sometimes that’s appropriate, but it makes collaboration nearly impossible. I sometimes think that asking for cooperation in modern politics is almost an oxymoron.

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Scene from “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)

If you can get people out of the political sphere, however, you’ll usually find a lot of room for communicating, making deals, and exchanging knowledge that is useful to everyone involved. 

As a result of the shift from political blogging to topics like writing, I’ve met all kinds of wonderful writers and readers. And in many cases, I have an idea of their political leanings from following them on social media. I have readers and authors with widely diverging views—and I’ve learned plenty from each of them, especially the ones I disagree with.  

So it might be that that the key to improving political discourse is… not to engage in it so much. It’s easy to hate people when you know nothing about them other than their politics—but if you’ve already met through some other common interest, it becomes much easier to see their side of things.

I’ve never used the WordPress reblog function. But I was going to for this post by Audrey Driscoll, because it’s just that good, and I wanted to make sure all my indie author friends see it.

But then the reblog button wouldn’t work for me. So, I’ll just link to it instead. Go read it. Meanwhile, I’ll return to pondering what the purpose of the reblog feature is.

The biggest problem in American politics is not the Republicans. It’s not the Democrats, either. It’s not even Donald Trump, the man who broke and domesticated the former in order to run roughshod over the latter.

No, all these things are mere symptoms of the disease. But what is the disease? We have to understand the affliction before we can cure the body politic.

The disease is nothing less than a fundamental breakdown in human communication itself. It takes time to analyze something and appreciate all the nuances of a given issue. And people don’t have time for that. They would rather pass judgment immediately than take the time to think things through.

Indeed, people who even attempt to think about things in-depth are automatically condemned as traitors by their own side. Pointing out nuances or subtleties is never something zealots are interested in, and in today’s climate, you’re either a zealot or you’re intimidated into silence by the zealots. “The best lack all conviction,” etc.

Back in the ’90s, there was an extremely popular business book by Stephen Covey called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Like all self-help books for business types, it contained its share of platitudes and buzzwords, but there was also some very sound advice. The part I remember most was habit number 5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

This is extremely good advice, and it’s something that seems to be rarely heeded these days. Certainly not in the world of online political debate, where humanity seems to have regressed to its most primitive societal constructs: small villages of like-minded individuals who venture out only to engage in raids against rival tribes.

Pamphlets

There is some historical precedent that we can use to guide us in understanding how social media has changed communication. In the late 1500s, the spread of the printing press made it easier for people to create and distribute  pamphlets. These were used to attack or defend certain people, ideas, nations, religions etc., much as social media is today. As Wikipedia helpfully summarizes: “In addition, pamphlets were also used for romantic fiction, autobiography, scurrilous personal abuse, and social criticism.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The most famous pamphlet in history is probably Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which advocated for the independence of the American colonies and attacked the British monarchy. This was pretty late in the pamphlet game, though. The real high point of pamphlets-as-propaganda seems to have been in the 1600s, when they played a major role in fomenting and prolonging the English Civil War.

Governments gradually adapted and shut down such publications, mostly by use of copyright and libel laws. It’s possible that down the road, the same thing will happen with social media. However, this is not a great solution, since it could very easily turn into a totalitarian dystopia where all speech is controlled. Paradoxically, history suggests that nothing clears the path for rigid totalitarian control so smoothly as anarchic mob rule. I suspect the internet is no exception to this pattern.

Besides the role of laws and censors in reducing the relevance of pamphlets, there was also a change in social norms. Now they are ignored or seen as the hallmark of political fringe elements. If somebody gives you a printed pamphlet about their cause, it makes them seem slightly kooky. These days, if you want to be seen as legitimate, you have to have a website and a Twitter account, or at least a blog.

It’s possible that with time, social media as we currently know it will fall out of favor, and be replaced with something else.  It’s already skewing away from the written word and towards pictures: in 2004, blogs were all the rage. By 2010, it was Twitter. Now it’s moving towards things like Instagram, which by design is meant for pictures, not words.

In a way, I think this is a good thing. People who like fashion (and by fashion, I don’t just mean clothes, but everything, from movies to political views, that is seen as fashionable)  can have their site, and people who don’t care about fashion—that is, people who do care about substance—can stay on their stodgy old blogs and have real discussions.

Charisma

The internet isn’t the only issue, though. The rise of mass-media, which acts as a force-multiplier for charismatic leaders, has been gradually paving the way for this for decades.

I’ve talked about this at length in other posts, but I want to briefly make some points about the role of charisma, because it’s the single most important force there is in modern politics. Televised political events, debates, ads, and so on were the equivalent of atomic energy as far as revolutionizing politics, and charisma is the reason why.

The average person does not have the time to understand all the issues they are voting on. It’s hard enough to hold a job, raise a family, take vacations and live a normal, healthy life without having to also be an expert on the multiple dimensions of policy that they are electing officials to manage.

A person naturally looks for shortcuts to make the decision easier. This has been true certainly throughout U.S. history, and probably the history of all democracies. Once mass communication technology became widespread, politicians were quick to leverage it to their advantage, just as those in an earlier era used bribes and grift.

It will always be easier to vote for the candidate who “seems like a better person” than it is to study and fully understand all the potential policy implications of a candidate’s platform. I would say that no one person can fully understand all the different spheres of policy that the president, for example, can affect. People dedicate their entire careers to understanding just one of them.

People vote for the person they like better. And what determines whether you like someone or not has very little to do with a rational weighing and measuring of objective facts, and a great deal to do with hardwired human instincts combined with subconscious associations based on your past experiences.

Thus, politicians try all kinds of tricks to associate themselves with things that people like–they seek the endorsements of movie stars, championship-winning athletes, other popular politicians, etc. They try to prove that they are “just regular folks” like the voters. But that only helps with the subconscious association part of the equation. The instinct part was decided centuries before, as people developed their instincts to survive in a very different world than the one we live in now.

Here’s an example: the fundamental thought-process underlying sexism is that, in our primitive mind, we think of men as stronger than women because men, on average, have greater upper-body strength, and in ancient times, that was important because you wanted your leader to be able to climb, or carry heavy animal carcasses, or win a physical fight.

Of course, that’s irrelevant to the present day for two reasons: first, the strength gap between men and women is narrowing, and second, because the modern day leader doesn’t need to do any of that–but the hardwired instincts in the average human brain don’t know that.

Charisma is about appealing to our instincts; our so-called “lizard brains“. And we voters are all too happy to let them appeal to us this way; because it’s much easier than the fundamentally impossible task of learning about all the issues.

The way mass media has changed politics has been a gradual shift. It started with small things, like Kennedy beating Nixon by knowing he needed to use makeup in televised debates. A half-century later, a reality TV star won the Presidency.

Trump

I’ve tried to avoid talking about Trump too much on this blog, partially because it’s nearly impossible to get away from news about him as it is, and partially because the mere mention of his name tends to bring out strong negative emotions in people–both his detractors, who become enraged, and his supporters, who viciously attack his detractors. It’s unproductive.

But there is no way of writing about this subject without discussing him. Trump’s entire PR strategy depends on appeals to deep, instinctual feelings. Tribalism, nostalgia, fear of the unknown, etc.–Trump taps into all of these things in order to galvanize his supporters. And he largely relies on TV and social media to do it.

Of course, he isn’t the first politician to do this. All of them try, to some extent. Trump is just better at it. His competitors in 2016 felt like they had to keep at least one foot planted in the world of policy. But they were living in the past. In the new system of politics, being a reality TV host is far better training than service in government or the military.

This is where the charisma-infused cult-style politics, with mass media acting as a catalyst, combine to create an extremely potent brew that tells voters to revert to their most basic urges, and do what is easy and comes naturally.

Taking the time to understand others does not fit into that equation. Nor does analyzing policies and examining complicated issues with ambiguities and shades of grey. Ironically, in this regard as well, modern technology has once again just made it easier for people to revert to the ancient practice of following the tribal chieftain.

Solution?

The human tendency to fall in line behind a charismatic leader and the acceleration of technologies that gratify our desire for easy answers and acceptance by our tribe have combined to make politics poisonous. 

Is there a way out?

For a lot of people, I think the answer is no. Many people have no interest in thoughtful debates or analysis; they just want to say their piece and have instant agreement. Trying to debate such people is a waste of time for everyone. It just makes both sides mad.

One of the most common pieces of advice for dealing with a toxic relationship is simply to leave it. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow, because usually people feel some strong urge, be it guilt, money, fear, or something else, that tells them to stay in the relationship. 

The same dynamic is at work most political arguments. In the majority of debates, no minds will be changed, and all that will happen is that people will get angry. That’s practically the definition of toxic. And yet, to just quit arguing altogether seems wrong. It feels like giving up on your own beliefs. After all, if you don’t argue for your own beliefs, who will?

You should stand up for your beliefs, absolutely. In that regard, it’s actually OK to follow the crowd and just put your opinion out there. Say what you think and why you think it’s true. Instead of reacting to someone who you think is wrong, just say what you think is right. That’s what’s really important anyway. After all, there are a theoretically infinite number of wrong ideas in the world; right ideas are a far more limited and therefore valuable commodity.

“But won’t that in itself lead to group think and insularity?” you ask. “Isn’t this how the dreaded ‘epistemic closure’ begins?”

I agree that it certainly sounds like it could, but it’s going to take a lot to prevent like-minded people from flocking together. As we’ve seen, technology and human nature are both pushing us strongly towards doing that. We can’t fight that trend; nor would we even necessarily want to, as like-minded people grouping together can produce great things. But we can and do want to mitigate the trend of different groups getting into protracted and pointless fights with each other.

The key part is that when people try to argue with you—and inevitably, they will–you will have to use your judgment as to how best to handle them. I don’t want to offer too much advice on this, as there are lots of possible angles from which they might attack, from the most childish insults to actual threats to strong, well-reasoned arguments. Each one requires a specific response.

That said, here are two key things to keep in mind: first, every argument feels like a personal attack, whether it is or not.  And in fact, almost none of them are; even the ones that are designed to seem like it. The natural instinct is to strike back immediately (I’ve been guilty of this) but it’s better to take a little time to ask yourself “Is this worth responding to?” Often, it isn’t. If it is, it probably means that somewhere, it contains a nugget of useful or interesting information. Address that, and disregard the chaff.

The second thing is that the vast majority of arguments online are all formulaic lines that the arguers themselves didn’t originate. They just got them from some source of pre-made arguments for their side. If you read an online political debate as a neutral observer, you’ll realize that it’s not organic—it’s a choreographed dance where each side unwittingly follows the pattern their party has set down for them. It’s an understatement to say both sides do this—all sides do this. Most people don’t know how to argue, so they look to others (often charismatic leaders) to show them how.

Don’t be like most people. Focus on having something new to say, both in your original statement and your counter-arguments. You can quote others as supporting evidence, but your central point should be your own. After all, if somebody else already said it, why should you say it again?

This method has two good results, which act as antibodies to the disease that’s killing communication. One is that if you strive to create something original, whatever ideas you come up with are likely to be well-thought-out and robust, because you’ll have to work hard to think of them. And the second benefit is that to a degree it protects you against the charismatic leaders who are trying to cajole you into echoing them.

Ultimately, political debates will be settled by the test of which ones have the most success in the real world. So don’t worry about trying to correct people who are wrong, unless they signal that they’re open to correction. Wrongness is its own punishment, in the end. Focus on getting your own ideas right, engage with the people who have something useful to contribute, and ignore the others.

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Well, I do. Anytime I find a new blogger who seems interesting, the first thing I do is look at their archives and category lists to see what else they’ve written. It’s fun to stumble across someone who has addressed a subject that interests me.

However, I suspect I am in the minority. When I asked for advice on redesigning this blog, quite a few of my readers and fellow bloggers said they rarely look at sidebars, and from all indications, few of their readers look at the sidebars on their blogs. And my impression from my traffic stats is that visitors almost never look back through the archives or browse a particular category. And never mind the “ads”, which is effectively what the book icons are. My hunch is that people have been trained by internet marketing tactics to automatically ignore anything that looks like an ad.

Given that, is it worth having these sidebars if only a small percentage of visitors use them? It seems like a waste of space for the majority of users. And yet almost all blogs have them, including some very widely-read ones.

I admit, I have a slightly irrational attachment to my sidebars—they represent a gateway to nine years’ worth of writing, and I’d be reluctant to lose that unless readers say it actively harms the site’s usability.

But I still can’t help wondering if that space could be used better. Devoting 35% of the blog to content that 80-90% of users ignore seems inefficient.

<RUSH TRANSCRIPT>

Honorable readers, distinguished authors, and fellow bloggers:

Tonight, it is my honor and privilege to appear before you to mark the 9th anniversary of this blog. I can think of no date more fitting for me to make such an address.

(laughter, boos from the opposition)

I’m pleased to report that the state of the blog is strong, thanks in part to wonderful authors and interviewees like Carrie Rubin and Audrey Driscoll, who have kindly allowed me to post their insightful and thoughtful answers to my questions here.

(applause)

I’m grateful also to readers like Eurobrat, l33tminion and Phillip McCollum,

(applause)

…who have contributed to the discussions on this blog on a number of topics, from politics to the craft of writing.

Now, while the blog is stronger than ever, I recognize that there are still improvements to make. And that’s why I’m glad to have input from Pat Prescott, Mark Paxson, and Barb Knowles

(applause)

…on how to better the site. I am therefore launching an Executive Initiative to improve the readability and layout of the site, some elements of which have already been implemented. It has, in my opinion, certainly gone no worse than any such initiative can be expected to, in that it at least vaguely resembles what the people have asked for.

(laughter, boos from the opposition)

With all this in mind, and most of all, with the insightful attention and comments of readers like you, I will continue to preserve, protect, and to post on this blog, to the best of my ability.

Thank you.

<END TRANSCRIPT>

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This has nothing to do with the post, I just think it’s pretty.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m fairly happy with the way the site looks right now. In general, I think the information is presented pretty well–you’ve got the latest blog posts at the top, then my books and popular/recent posts on the right. If you scroll down, there’s more stuff below the categories. I suspect people don’t see that very often–but that’s deliberate, because it’s more esoteric content that I don’t want to throw in the face of everyone who visits the site.

There are some nagging issues, though. It kind of annoys me how big the header is–I worry that stops people from visiting the homepage much, since you have to scroll down to read the posts. Also, the category list goes on forever–does anyone actually use that, I wonder? Finally, I noticed recently that when you write a comment, the text boxes that let you choose if you want to be notified about replies are invisible. (Black text on black background.)

I could play around with some of the settings, but I’m hesitant to do that because last year, when I did the major overhaul to put the blog in its present form, not only did my pageviews decline dramatically, but it also threw some old posts out of whack. (I think I’ve fixed the ones that get a lot of traffic, but the formatting on posts imported from Blogger — that is, from 2009-11 — is something I’ve never really gone back to check on in detail.)

So I put it to you, loyal readers. You’re the ones who use the site–is there anything you’d like me to change? Any suggestions for features I should add?

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Anton Ego from the movie “Ratatouille”. Image via IMDb

My most viewed posts on this blog, not counting one anomaly, are my reviews of movies, books, video games, etc. So I thought I’d talk about how I write them and, more significantly, what I think an effective review should do.

The easiest way to begin is to categorize reviews by usefulness. I based the idea on Paul Graham’s disagreement hierarchy.  Reviewing something isn’t exactly the same as arguing, but they are related in the sense that both should be about working to improve something, so there is a fair amount of overlap.

[In the following x = any movie, book, game etc. being reviewed.]

Tier 1 – The Most Useless Review

“This x sucks. I hated it. Why would anyone think it was good? What a terrible piece of work.”

This review is useless to everyone except the reviewer. It does not explain what the flaws with the x were, nor does it even give us an idea of what the reviewer looks for in xes.

Note that a really good writer can dress up a useless review very nicely, so much that you might think it’s a useful review. For example:

“x is a piece of unmitigated tripe, the likes of which I am sorry to have ever had the displeasure of enduring. It is a blot on the [whatever x’s genre or medium is] landscape.”

This sounds kind of funny and clever, but it doesn’t say anything helpful.

Tier 2 – A Mostly Useless Review

“I loved this x! It’s the best one ever. Everything about it was terrific.”

This is close to being as useless as a Tier 1 review. In fact, I was originally going to group it as a Tier 1, but then I realized that there are two important differences. First, while a Tier 2 might be useless to everyone else, if I read a Tier 2 review of something I made, it would at least make me happy.

And secondly, if somebody wrote a Tier 2 review about one of my books, it would be more useful to me than a Tier 1, because if I know someone liked something, I can figure out how to produce more things they’ll like by sticking to that formula. Whereas with a Tier 1, I have no idea how to produce something they will like. It’s completely useless feedback.

That said, while a review like this is mildly helpful to the creator themselves, it’s useless to all other consumers. They have no way of determining what was good about the x in question—all they know is this reviewer liked it for some reason.

Tier 3 – The Diagnostic Review

“I liked the parts of the x with these characteristics. I didn’t like the other parts with these characteristics. The second half was stronger than the first. It reminded me of y at times, but lacked its [some element of y]. Fans of z will like it.”

This is getting somewhere. This review tells us some specific elements about the x that they thought were good or bad, and provides a reference point that we can use to start to form an idea of what x is, and what type of audience it would appeal to.

This is an informative, workmanlike review, and if I write a review this good, I feel like I’ve done my job. But there is still one higher form to aspire to:

Tier 4 – The Corrective Review

“The central flaw of x is its [some characteristic], which could have been fixed by the following adjustments.”

Or, if it’s a positive review:

“What makes x work so well is its [some characteristic]. This separates it from [other things in x’s genre or medium] to make it truly effective.”

The best type of review not only diagnoses what is good and/or bad about an x, but states why these elements are there, what could be done to fix them if they are bad, and how to replicate them if they are good.

The best review, in other words, not only tells you the negatives and positives of x, but provides sketch blueprints of how to make more and/or better xes. If it’s a bad x, a good review tells you what went wrong and how to fix it. If it’s a good x, it tells you how to replicate its goodness.

Not surprisingly, Tier 1 reviews are the easiest to write and Tier 4 reviews are the hardest.

Also, it’s important to realize that context matters. Sites like Amazon encourage short reviews, and on average a Tier 1 or 2 will be much shorter than a Tier 4. A Tier 4 is an extended argument, in that you have to make a series of statements that follow one another logically.

Realistically, I think a Tier 3 is the most you can ask for from anyone who isn’t a professional writer or trying to become one.  Tier 4s take too much time. The most useful Amazon reviews I see are all Tier 3s. My eyes glaze over when I see a really long Amazon review, so even if it’s extremely helpful, it probably isn’t worth posting there.

On blogs or sites dedicated specifically to criticism, it’s a different story. On my blog, I feel like I have license to go on as long as I need to make my point.  (You may have realized that already.)

One thing I noticed once I started thinking about this is how many professional reviewers are only capable of writing Tier 1 and 2 reviews, albeit dressed up with five-dollar words and clever turns of phrase. How are they getting away with this? Well, people don’t read professional critics solely to get information, they also read them to be entertained. And nothing is more entertaining than a well-written negative review.¹

This is dangerous. There’s a strong incentive to write negative reviews, because they tend to attract more attention and comment. And if you’re focused on being negative, you’re very likely to lose sight of the thing that makes a Tier 4 review: ways to make the x in question better.

When faced with a choice between being helpful and being entertaining, critics feel a strong pull towards being entertaining. I’m guilty of this myself—writing a scathing but unhelpful review is way more fun and more rewarding (in terms of page views and comments) than writing an extremely useful review.

I’m not saying you can’t be witty and entertaining when you write a review, but that you should be careful not to lose sight of the larger goal. The job of an x critic is to figure out how to make good xes and avoid making bad ones.

Looking back at reviews I’ve written, I’m not sure that I’ve ever achieved a Tier 4. Probably the best one I’ve done so far is this review of Planescape: Torment. I say it’s the best because it’s the only one where I figured out why I liked it so much as I was writing the review. I felt like by writing it I was finally solving a mystery I’d been trying to answer since I first played the game in 2010.

This brings me to a final point about Tier 4 reviews: writing one will probably mean going over the x in question more than once. Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake, but I usually have to read/watch/play something at least twice before I can give a useful review of it. This is another reason Tier 4s are so rare.

Footnote

1.Mark Twain’s brutal review of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels is a good example of this.

On this day of counting blessings, here is what I’m thankful for:

‘Tis you who read this blog and keep coming back for more!

While some may speak of all that’s wrong on ye olde internet,

Myself I’m full of gratitude to all the lovely folks I’ve met:

There’s good Pat Prescott, the historian and bard

who wrote of Optimus: Praetorian Guard.

There’s l33tminion, who always has good things to say

whenever he (or she) comes passing ‘round this way.

And Thingy, who’s prolific in prose and in rhyme—

I hope she brings back her blog real soon some time!

Eurobrat, with social commentaries dark and biting,

is as good as any satirist at strong, arresting writing.

Barb Knowles, who writes with wit and candor all

the time—must be descended from a very sharp Neanderthal!

Ben Trube, author of the thriller Surreality,

Who can both make fractals and write mystery.

Shannon Selin, one of the finest writers on

what might’ve been for old Napoleon.

And Natalie gets loads and loads of votes

for her great blogging work at boatsofoats.

Mark Paxson (or KingMidget, if I use his proper title)

has tips that any writer should consider vital.

Lydia Schoch, who writes on topics int’resting and various

that can be thought-provoking or hilarious.

Andrew Crowther is a lover of light verse, as I’m,

and I hope that he’ll forgive this rather awkward rhyme!

When it comes to G&S discussion, I’m always glad to have it,

and so I’m in debt to Charlee Hutton and Mike Pavitt.

My knowledge of the East Roman Empire isn’t e’en

a tenth of what Eileen Stephenson knows about the Byzantine.

Phillip McCollum (who is also known as beatbox32)

is writing fifty-two short stories—and really good ones, too!

And then to round it out, last but surely not the least–

ensuring good nutrition at this e-Thanksgiving feast:

is Dr. Carrie Rubin, keeping all our reading dishes full

with thrillers like The Seneca Scourge and Eating Bull.

And to all those many other readers who

I’ve left unlisted here—why, yes, that does refer to you!

My gratitude to all above for coming here,

both on this day of thanks, and all throughout the year!

“Now if you make a pilgrimage, I hope you find your Grail.
Be loyal to the ones you leave with, even if you fail.
And be chivalrous to strangers you meet along the road
As you take that Holy Ride yourselves to know.”

–Warren Zevon, “Ourselves to Know”

Inspired partly by this post by Phillip McCollum, and partly because it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, here’s a list of some of the wonderful folks I’ve met on social media over the years.

Andrew Crowther: The Secretary of the W.S. Gilbert society and an expert on all things Gilbert, as well as P.G. Wodehouse and plenty of other writers, Andrew is also quite the quick wit in his own right.

Eurobrat: A modern-day Jonathan Swift, with a real knack for very dark satire. Also a delightfully friendly and funny blogger, when not conjuring bleak and all-too-plausible dystopian scenarios. Her writing talent is undeniable, whether you agree with her politics or not.

Barb Knowles: Barb’s blog is funny, moving and thoughtful. What I admire most is how she can write about very personal subjects in an emotional and yet detached way. The way she can document even normal day-today events and make them funny or interesting is also wonderful.

Patrick Prescott: Sadly, Patrick no longer blogs. He was one of my first readers, back in the days when I was on Blogger, and he taught me a ton about both writing and history. Too many things to list, really, but here are two examples: I’d never heard of the Peterloo massacre till he told me about it. And second, whenever I write one of my rushed, description-light first drafts, I can imagine him telling me “nice skeleton, but there is no meat to this.” Then I go back and add some.

Carrie Rubin: Carrie is awesome. She’s a doctor, a novelist, a first-rate writing and health blogger… and also, she posts some really funny home life anecdotes on Twitter.  I am grateful to her for so many things, including kindly and thoughtfully answering my rambling questions for an interview.

Eileen Stephenson: Before reading her book, I could not have told you the first thing about the Byzantines. Now, between her book and her blog, I’ve learned a ton about a whole period of history I previously knew nothing about.

Maggie Swanson AKA “Thingy”: Along with Patrick, I’ve known her since the Blogger days, when she would provide encouragement by commenting on my poetry, giving me some reassurance that I was, perhaps, not simply a lunatic mumbling nonsense into the void. Her work ranges from poetry to artwork to novellas, and her blog includes delightful commentary on politics, culture, and pretty much anything else you can imagine.

Russ Sype: Another Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and a very funny blogger for many years. But rather than talk him up too much, I’ll just let this video speak for itself. It gets better every day.

Ben Trube: Ben wrote the book I always wanted to write, but never could–a neo-noir, cyberpunk-y thriller set in our own hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He also shares my love of fractals–but he knows a lot more of the hard math stuff behind them.

I’m sure there are others, and so apologies in advance to anyone I’ve left off the list.

First of all, thanks are in order to loyal reader Natalie of boatsofoats.com. She notified me about a problem with the annotations on this page. I’m not even sure if I’ve completely fixed it yet, but I figure if not, I can at least make it up to her by directing some traffic to her excellent blog.

As for the annotations: I know nothing about HTML. But doing the original annotations for that page was not bad–it was just this:

<span text=”Whatever blithering comment I had”>Actual story text</span>

I then highlighted it in red to make it obvious which parts to mouse over.

But the problem was, it wouldn’t work on mobile devices–tablets, phones etc. And this bothered me. I tried to tell myself it was ok. But it was the sort of thing that would nag at me.

There must be a better way, I thought.

After consulting with a family member who does web design, downloading some plugins, and experimenting with CSS and JavaScript, I think I’ve got something.

Mind you, I said I think. I’m not actually sure if it works on all devices yet. It definitely works on my iPad, which it didn’t originally when I was just using HTML.

That’s where you come in. I am calling on readers to come to my aid and check out the page to see if the annotations work for them. In exchange…

Uh…

Let’s see,… I will teach you something about weird fiction from the 1890s?

How’s that sound?

Oh, another thing; some of the modifications I did seemed to (temporarily) play merry hell with the comments. (e.g. reducing my all-time comment count to zero, removing comment ‘likes’, stuff like that.) I think it’s fixed now, but if you notice any comment issues, let me know… unless the issue is that you are unable to comment, in which case you can use the form below or tweet at me

 

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