29 June 2006

Thrills at Thrillerfest

I'm in Phoenix, Arizona for Thrillerfest, the annual jamboree of the International Thriller Writers, of which I'm a member.

What is a "thriller" anyhow? Let's start there. I'm told that I write them, as opposed to "mysteries." That seems reasonable to me, there isn't much real mystery in my books. They are more "don't do its" than there are "who done its." I guess that's as close as I can get to describing a thriller. In a mystery something happens early in the book and the rest of the book is spent trying to get to the bottom of it. In a thriller, something is going to happen and the book is spent trying to prevent it, or alter it or fix it. It's the difference between a bomb going off in the first chapter and then the detective trying to find and bring down the culprit. And someone finding out that a bomb is going to go off and spending the book trying to find the bomb and stop it before it explodes.

So, that's why I drove from L.A. to Phoenix yesterday. It takes about 5-1/2 hours, or would if it wasn't for the bottleneck that is built into Highway 10 just as you start entering Phoenix. On the way I passed the truckstop restaurant near Palm Springs that for years has featured lifesize statues of dinosaurs. Now it features statues of humans running around with those dinosaurs. That might seem entertainingly silly until you find out it's because the truckstop has been bought by Christians. The sort of Christians who believe that the world is no more than 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs and people used to wander around together. It is now a truckstop with a mission; an idiotic, science-denying mission. I couldn't bring myself to stop there and give them my business.

So I got to Phoenix where it was 109 degrees and threatening thundershowers. I checked into the Arizona Biltmore - an architectural masterpiece by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is great to look at, but it demonstrates a lot of the all too typical arrogance of big architects. Here, in the middle of the desert, it is an oasis of manicured lawns, non-native trees and bushes and low-lying, low-ceilinged buildings that don't take much advantage of the views, the desert light or the occasional evening breeze. My room would be fine if it were in a Motel 6 where I was paying $49.95 per night. As is I'm paying $130 per night, or something like that, because it's off-season and I'm part of the conference. Usually it's somewhere in the $400 per night range - which would be an utter outrage.

It is certainly a popular conference locale. There is a gigantic group of women here who belong to some national sorority. They are all carrying pink carnations and wearing a lot of makeup. There are Avon ladies. There are us thriller writers and readers.

And best of all there are the Christian fundamentalists who have taken over the ballroom next to the lobby. They are yelling and screaming and flailing and falling on the floor and talking in tongues. The background noise in the lobby is: "Praise Jesus, praise him, hallelujah, praise God, praise Jesus, oh lord..." It does seem something of a mistake on the part of the hotel to have put the bible thumpers right next to the lobby. Maybe they'll take a field trip to the dinosaur truckstop. They haven't brought out any snakes to handle yet, but I'm hoping they will.

It's likely to be 109 or so again today and unfortunately there is no air-conditioned path from the lobby to the conference center.

27 June 2006

Cracks in the Pot With Age - This Morning's Reading of the Paper

Okay, so maybe that headline is a bit of a stretch, but I'm beginning to see why becoming something of a crackpot seems to be one of the perogatives, if not requisites, of age. I turned 54 a week ago and have already written two letters to public officials. Emails really, is that somehow less crackpotish than snail mail?

With the years has come some knowledge, experience and an apparent increasing level of crankiness. All that turns many a morning into a roller coaster ride, prodded along by reading the newspaper. Here's what this morning's L.A. Times did to me emotionally:

Column One: "Fond Computer Memories." Ah, a bit of nostalgia. I never had a Commodore computer of my own, but I used one. I remember the very primitive computer in the basement of the library at my college and then my first computer, the one with two 5-1/2 inch floppy drives and no hard drive. I fondly recall XyWrite, my all time favorite word processing program, now long gone.

Just below it: "Study Links Male Gays, Birth of Older Brothers." Yet another study linking biology and sexual preference. On the one hand that's always welcome; it's a whole lot harder to discriminate against someone because of their biology than their choices. On the other, why should anybody care whether it's nature or nurture? Who someone has consensual sex with, and how, ought to be a mere personal matter and of no interest to anyone else than the people having sex. So this story has some ups and downs for me. I'm pleased this study might make it harder to discriminate against gay people. I'm displeased that it should matter in the first place.

"Private Philanthropy Shifts Outlook of Governments." Ah, that Warren Buffett, what a mensch. Those Gates'. It makes me proud to be using a PC. It's a shame that governments would rather spend their money killing people or giving their pals big, unnecessary development contracts while leaving so much of the good guy stuff up to private foundations, but it's very nice to see some rich people doing some very good things. I wish I was rich enough to give a bunch of it away.

"Gov. Calls for New Spending on Prisons." I'm sorry, but FUCK YOU ARNIE! Go back to making movies. I liked the Terminator flicks. Hell, I even have a soft spot for Kindergarten Cop. (I don't know what's wrong with me.)

Don't worry, I'm not going to go through the paper story by story. Those were my highlights on the front page. There were a few other thrills elsewhere:

Page A8, "Coffee May Cut Diabetes Risk." Oh boy, I love coffee. Think I'll make another double espresso.

A14, "Supreme Court Rejects Campaign Finance Limits." I don't know enough about this particular law to know enough about the decision, but these days I'm skeptical of nearly anything the court does. And campaign financing is one of the most important issues we've got and something needs to be done about it and soon. I can see the argument that says people ought to be able to donate as much as they want to a campaign. Then again, who was it that said something along the lines of "Freedom of the press is for those who own the presses." Well, it ought to be for the rest of us too.

Poor Bruno the Rambling Wild Bear. I'm always comforted, just a little, when I read about Europeans doing stupid things too. It isn't just us Yanks! I feel less alone.

"Insurgents Planted Bomb With Bodies." Of course they did. Why wouldn't they? It's a war isn't it? I feel terrible for the soldiers who were killed, for their families, for the other soldiers - on both sides, they're all just pawns in someone else's fucked up game - for the Iraqis and for us in the U.S. who are having a big chunk of our country's future hocked to pay for all this bullshit.

Dodgers lost, stockmarket was sort of up, sort of down, I didn't bother reading about the new Superman movie, I probably won't go see it anyhow.

Okay, so now let's skip over the rest of my newspaper reading for the morning and get to the part that got me all riled up, caused me to write a letter to a public official and set off this blog entry.

The middle edtitorial, "The case for flag-burning." Yet again, what the hell is wrong with California Senator Diane Feinstein? Is she trying to make it so that I can't even hold my nose long enough to vote for her in November. She supports the constitutional amendment that would, in effect, ban flag burning. Is she insane? This is another good example of why it makes no sense to simply support one party or the other no matter what. There are plenty of fucked up Democrats out there too. (The governor of Louisiana for example.) The L.A. Times editorial made the case against the amendment very well. Here's what I've got to say:


Here's what I wrote to that cretin Diane Feinstein. I don't know how I managed to remain polite.

Dear Senator Feinstein,

I implore you to reconsider your suppoort of the so-called Flag Burning Amendment. The idea that burning the national symbol in protest is tolerated, speaks far louder to what makes this country great than the symbol itself. At a time when so much of what America stands for is under threat by its own administration, amending the constitution in a manner that will even slightly open the door wider to those threats is a very grave mistake.

Earlier in the week, my other letter went to Tom LaBonge, the city councilman for my district. That letter was in opposition to the new city law that will force catering trucks - mostly taco trucks - to move every hour to a new location at least a half mile away. Here's what that letter had to say:

Hi Tom,

As your neighbor, a second-generation native of Los Angeles and a long time afficianado of eating at taco trucks, (a habit I learned from my mother), I am displeased with the city ordinance regarding food trucks that is scheduled to become law in July. I have long felt that taco trucks provide a real service to working class communities around town - as well as to their fans such as myself. The people who enjoy eating at them need to know where to find them and when, or they can't adequately provide that service. I have seldom, if ever, seen taco trucks parked in residential areas or any other sort of place where they were causing any nuisance. The only objections I have ever heard to them have been voiced by brick and mortar restaurants who were unhappy with the competition.

But then, isn't competition what business here is supposed to be all about? Making the trucks move every hour strikes me as unfair restraint of trade, and likely to put a lot of the trucks out of business. If that happens, where are Eva and I and our friends going to find good al pastor? Tijuana is a long way to drive for a good taco.

So, here's an email from at least one constituent asking you to help stop the impending ordinance.

That's this morning's roller coaster. I think I'll have to make another cup of espresso and settle down. At least that will help stave off diabetes.

Update at 4pm Pacific Time
The onerous flag burning amendment lost by one vote, no thanks to the equally onerous Senator Diane Feinstein (Democrat - California) who voted in favor of it. Mitch McConnell, the Republican senator from Kentucky and the senate deputy majority leader, who I normally have little truck with, was one of three Republicans who voted against the amendment on the grounds that protecting the first amendment was more important than protecting the flag. Good for him. So at least this stupidity is tabled for another year or two until the next election year.

10 June 2006

Disoriented Express

Colin Cotterill and I both write books set in Asia. His are set in Laos in the mid-1970s. This September we'll be going on a short book tour together, stopping off at points along the way as we drive from L.A. to Madison, WI for Bouchercon. We're planning a multimedia presentation with quirky Asian pop music and either a digital or slide show (depending on what sort of projector we can come up with.) It ought to be a lot of fun. Check the Appearances page of my website for where we're going to show up. Here's the poster for it:

Disoriented Media
I guess Ann Coulter sells papers, and attracts viewers and sells books, but I find that very depressing. She is not particularly smart. She is not funny. She isn't even really all that pretty, she just wears short skirts and has limp looking long blonde hair. What she is, is an ignorant, arrogant, vituperative boor.

I suppose I can't blame her too much for her cretinous beastly persona. Like anyone else, she's just trying to make a buck. I blame the press for her. If she said exactly the same stuff, in exactly the same way and was a dull, rumple-suited, balding white guy, would anyone pay any attention to her moronic blather? I doubt it.

I can't say that her latest nonsense about the widows of men killed in the 9-11 attacks is a new low, even for her. Near as I can tell she broke the vileness meter a while ago and so there's no way of measuring how low she can go.

I'm happy to listen to people I don't agree with, even caustic ones just so long as they employ some wit and intelligence in their arguments. Ann Coulter isn't one of them. Can't the media just boycott her? Can't we make her go away?

Reoriented Bookstore
In some good news, for a change, Aliens & Alibis, the bookstore in Columbia, South Carolina that I bade a fond farewell to a couple of blogs ago, has found some new funding and a new and much better location, and is reopening. Congratulations! As they said in the email announcing the resurrection: You can't keep a good bookstore down. Well, unfortunately there are too many examples of the fact that you actually can, but I'm delighted to see that Aliens & Alibis has popped back up again.

Discombobulated Voting
With regards to the last post on this blog, I did end up voting. It was a struggle. First, I went to my usual polling place only to be informed that my precinct had been split up into several new polling places. This in spite of the fact that the lowest ever turnout was expected for the election and the election commission was worried that it didn't have nearly enough poll workers to go around.

So, from my usual polling place they sent me to a different place. I went there, only to be told that I needed to go to another place. So I went there, walked up to the first table and was told, "oh, you're not here." At that point I was about to give up on voting, but they pointed across the room to another table and told me to go there. Finally I was in the right place.

They gave me my ballot and I went grumpily to vote. There was virtually nothing and no one on the ballot that I cared the slightest bit about. One of the most idiotic things about the California ballot is that I was asked to vote for a bunch of judges that I, and 99.9999999 percent of the rest of the electorate knew nothing whatsoever about. I left those votes blank.

I was cheered by one of my votes, although it was purely symbolic. I voted for a woman running against Diane Feinstein, the incumbant Democrat Senator from California. With her opportunistic support of such things as California's loathesome three-strikes law, the death penalty and the Iraq War, I do not at all like Senator Feinstein. In November, unless the Republicans put up someone I like better than her - which is doubtful - I will no doubt hold my nose and vote for her anyhow. But at least in the primary election I had a feeble chance to voice my disgust with her.

I was also somewhat cheered by the fact that it was indeed the lowest voter turnout ever - 28 percent. There has been, of course, a lot of hair pulling and chest beating over that, although unfortunately nothing will come of it. I'm hoping that one of these elections there will be a specific "Don't Vote!" campaign to keep home an even larger percentage of the vote. Maybe then someone will be forced to figure out ways to get people more interested in elections.

But, probably not.

06 June 2006

To Vote or Not to Vote, That is the Question

It's election day in California and I'm trying to figure out whether or not I want to bother voting.

For one thing, I'm too irritated to want to vote. Sunday is a good example of why. I left the house at about noon to go to an author's event in El Segundo. When I returned four hours later there were nine phone messages. One was from a friend, the other eight were recordings from Jerry Brown, Billy Crystal and others, pestering me to vote this way or that. I deleted them all without listening to them, then I lay down to take a nap - I was running on about four hours of sleep. For several reasons I couldn't turn off the phone. During the next hour I got five more calls, all of them recorded campaign messages. So much for my nap.

Does anyone actually listen to these things? Once they realize that it is a recorded message, don't 99% of people simply smash the phone back down or angrily push the off button? The messages that really astound me are the ones that don't quickly shout out the name of the candidate or the vote on the proposition they want. At least then there's a chance of getting the name into the brain of the person you are pissing off.

Then there's the negative campaigning. I don't really care if candidates tear each other up, but I would like to get some sense of what they actually want to do and how they plan to do it. Simply showcasing themselves as the lesser of two evils is not a very good way to get me enthusiastic.

Yesterday, in a fit of pique at the garbage I've been hearing from Angelides and Westly, I described the choice between them as no different than deciding whether or not I wanted snot flowing out of my left or right nostril. Then I thought, that's a bit extreme, isn't it? Then I thought about it some more and decided: no, that's about right.

So far as I can tell, they both claim to want to do the same things that they probably won't really have the power to do anything about. They've both taken money from suspicious donors. Neither of them have any new, bright or interesting ideas. And the only chance they have of beating the Governator is if the electorate hates Arnold even worse than either of them.

All down the line there just aren't any candidates in the Democratic Primary who I care all that much about one way or the other. There's no inspiration to be found anywhere on the ballot.

As for the propositions, as usual they are poorly written, confusing boondoggles that won't accomplish much.

Proposition 81 is a bond issue to raise funds for construction and renovation of libraries. Who could be against that? I love libraries. I think they're one of the most important services that government can provide. But, I just looked at the Los Angeles Public Library website to see how many libraries there are within five miles of my house in Silverlake - 18.

I've been in about six of those libraries and in every single one the librarians complain that they don't have enough money to hire staff or to stock the shelves. Problem is, this bond issue won't help that. It specifically raises money to build more understaffed and understocked libraries. Something about this proposition smells fishy, well, porky really. Like if it passes it will have the construction industry chuckling happily all the way to the bank.

Proposition 82 sets up a whole new, poorly mandated and structured, no doubt inadequately funded bureaucracy to allow any child whose parents want it to, to go to preschool. I'm all for preschool. But this bill isn't going to help more than five to ten percent (at most) of the population and is going to give us just one more horribly run government agency that we will all learn to hate and complain about the lousy job it's doing. Meanwhile, the existing school system is widely regarded as an utter fiasco.

I'm also a little uncomfortable with the idea that it will be funded by an added tax on only one segment of society, even if it is the segment that can afford it the most. (Although, it is the group of people who need it the least.) Sure there's an argument to be made that since the rich benefit the most from society they should pay the most toward its operating expenses. But the whole point of so-called "civilization" is that we all do better by chipping in what we can and contributing to the greater, common good. It's a bad precedent. Today we're hitting up people making in excess of $400,000 per year to fund something; there's not too many of them so why not? But tomorrow, maybe it will be people making over $120,000 a year and there's a lot more of them. For that matter, why not anybody making anything over the California state average of about $35,000?

It seems likely that this will be the lowest voter turnout ever - or very close to it - for an election in California. The lower the turnout is, the more hand wringing there is likely to be over how to get voters more interested in elections. And maybe something good will come of that angst. So the little devil on one of my shoulders says: "Don't vote, hope that it will help teach these assholes a lesson."

But then the little devil on the other shoulder says: "You might as well vote, it gives you a stronger leg to stand on when you gripe about the morons running the government."

I'm still undecided.