On T-Mobile, Pandora, and Streaming the Holiday

A couple of months ago I switched from AT&T to T-Mobile because I hate AT&T. Anyone who has used AT&T will understand why I left. They consistently overprice and under-deliver. Their stores are so metaphysically awful that I suspect they were derived from some unpublished B.F. Skinner experiment. The thing that really got me, though, was their international service. I was up-sold on a plan that included an app for finding wi-fi hotspots internationally so that I could save on (massively overpriced) data. What a great idea! Except the app requires the use of international data to find said hotspots, which it never actually did, by the way.

But like most consumers, I would probably have just taken it forever—the gouging, the extortion, the stores aspiring to be a joyful as the DMV—but T-Mobile announced an unlimited streaming plan that seemed (and seems, frankly) too good to be true. It works like this: streaming data does not count against your data plan. Netflix? YouTube? Apple Music? Go wild. Run it 24/7. Stream 730 hours of video a month, and you’ll pay for 0 bytes of data. This is a Crazy Eddie type of deal, but it’s real. I expected fine print or some sort of gotcha when I went to the T-Mobile store (the Siegen Lane location in Baton Rouge), which, incidentally, was clean, bright, and pleasant, and so overstaffed that at one point I had three people helping me at once. It was like I was slowing them down.

(This is the precise opposite of the AT&T experience. Life hack: the next time you have to visit an AT&T store, bring along all of last year’s receipts and do your taxes while your wait for an employee to call your name. And not the 1040EZ, either, but the long form.)

T-Mobile paid-off my AT&T contract and bought my old phone. Here is how that worked. They asked me how much time was left on my contract. (14 months.) They asked me what new phone I wanted. (iPhone 6s.) They asked me to back up my phone (I already had) and they typed things into a computer. Twenty minutes later, I had a new phone, 6GB of (tether-able) data, unlimited streaming, and it cost me… nothing. Like, they handed me a bag with my activated phone and I had to ask them if they were sure it was OK if I left without giving them any money. Until then I had never left a mobile phone store without paying somebody something. In fact, not only did I not pay, but they paid me to leave. The value of my phone applied to the first two months of my cell phone bill. They told me when AT&T sent me a final bill, to bring it in and they would process it for a final refund. (Yesterday I did, and they did.)

The thing that struck me about the employees was their weird zeal for sticking it to the competitors. Like, I get it when the CEO of T-Mobile insults AT&T and Verizon. He’s the CEO. He wants to make millions of dollars. But these guys at the T-Mobile store aren’t getting stock options or use of the company jet. They just really seemed to like their jobs and hate the competition. They were excited to have a new member of their tribe. (It was almost cult-like in retrospect, but a really good cult, like those weirdos who’ve started an actual Jedi religion.)

It seems like I’m on the payroll here by writing all this (I’m not, though if you’re reading T-Mobile, call me!), but the whole experience was so rewarding and free of frustration that I feel like I have to tell somebody lest I wake up from a really great, if boring, comparatively, dream.

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All of this occurred during the holiday season. Christmas. Whatever. God I miss when you could just write “holiday season” without it being some sort of political statement. I just mean the winterish time when people suddenly remember that gingerbread is a valid cookie. See, I’m not a huge music fan (well, I am a great fan of music, but I’m not one of those people who calls it “my music” when referring to their album collection), but I love Christmas music. Not just any Christmas music, but the classics of the Bing Crosby and Burl Ives variety. If you are a Christmas song and were written or performed after 1950, you are suspect to me.

Because I now have unlimited streaming, I figured that I would try it out. (In truth, when I switched over I wasn’t sure what it was I wanted to stream. It’s not like I’m watching Netflix while driving.) I signed up for Pandora because it was free and required no thinking on my part. (For some reason, the signup for Spotify feels like buying a timeshare.) So I signed up for Pandora and searched for a radio station or channel or whatever they’re calling it and found “Christmas Traditional Radio.” (It might also be called “Holiday Classics”—I have no idea how Pandora works.)

Hmm, I wondered. Will it be actual holiday classics or will it attempt to foist upon me that horrible Paul McCartney “Wonderful Christmastime” atrocity that society seems hellbent on making a classic even though nobody likes it if they’re honest with themselves. (Don’t get me started on “Happy X-Mas (War is Over),” which actually makes me hope for total thermonuclear armageddon. If ever I’m a prisoner of war, you can pry off my fingernails and I won’t talk, but play that godforsaken John Lennon abomination and I’ll tell you everything you want to know. I’ll become a spy for you. Anything. Just make it stop.)

Dear reader, this station was the real deal. Bing Crosby and I spent weeks together and it was glorious. Only once did Holiday Classics fail me, when it attempted to sneak “Merry Christmas, Baby” by the Beach Boys into the rotation. God. But mostly the algorithm (I’m assuming the station is automated) achieved near perfection. Nat King Cole, the Andrews Sisters. Mitch Miller. Frank Sinatra is hit and miss with his Christmas music. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to hear a Frank Sinatra song and not think, “Oh, that’s Frank Sinatra,” which destroys the immersion. Sinatra is simply bigger than Christmas music. But Bing Crosby? He is Christmas. (Sinatra isn’t alone in this. The Rat Pack, collectively, fails miserably and almost embarrassingly at Christmastime.) Moreover, a lot of musicians are a little too fondly remembered for their Christmas music. Perry Como has about 2,000 songs of the holiday, and exactly two good ones: “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and “Home for the Holidays.” Andy Williams isn’t quite as good as he’s remembered either.

It’s worth noting that the Pandora stream never once buffered, which is a testament, I think, to both Pandora and T-Mobile. Indeed, I had zero outages driving from Baton Rouge to Orlando and back. I think that’s pretty impressive, and it alleviated my greatest fear when switching to T-Mobile: that the network would be spotty. But I can say that streaming music had a measurable effect on my life over the last month: it’s put me in the Christmas spirit.

Thoughts on the Jawbone UP3

Two months ago, I gave in to temptation and bought the Jawbone UP3 wristband. (Previously, I wore the Jawbone UP24, which was an extraordinarily comfortable and durable device with excellent customer service. My primary motivation for upgrading was to get the pulse feature. I’m an avid runner and updates on my heart rate just seemed like something that would be cool to know.

Here are some brief thoughts on the device when compared with its predecessor. The app for the Jawbone UP3 is much, much better than that of the UP24, which almost never worked by the time I upgraded. (It basically required a daily phone reset in order to sync my device. This had the effect of training me not to bother checking the app but for once or twice a week, tops. More on this in a minute.) It now seems clear that Jawbone simply abandoned the old app in favor of the new, or at least, has its B-team working on that one. (The old devices and new apps are incompatible.) Regardless, the new app is fast and fun to use. It’s functionally identical, but it actually works. It’s almost worth the upgrade for that alone.

In terms of comfort, once you have the device strapped to your wrist, it’s easy to forget about. It has a very low profile, and on the rare occasion that it catches on something, it’s not a panic-inducing concern. I can’t imagine how one might damage the rubber-like band, and the two-inch plastic “device” component of the band seems well-hardened and scratch resistant. Either way, it’s not like you’re going to damage the nonexistent screen, or a Jony Ive designed, multi-axis milled, cold-forged-alloy-and-diamond-carbon-coated case. If anything, the rubber-and-plastic band is more durable than the Apple Watch in daily use, as there’s no high polish in need of constant cradling. It would be hard to spot a scratch on this thing.

(N.b. that this isn’t really to compare the two devices, which serve entirely different purposes. The Apple Watch is a very attractive watch that happens to track activity. The Apple Watch wants to be seen. The Jawbone UP series tracks activity, and wants to stay hidden.)

The UP3 seems close in appearance and fit to those Livestrong bands. (I’ve never actually worn one, so I cannot comment on the similarity of comfort.) In practice, it takes a couple of weeks to really figure out your fit and learn how to strap on the device. It’s not a watch clasp, exactly, but a weird overlap clipping mechanism that requires you to stretch the band with your non-dominant hand, align the clasps and clip them. The device was intended originally to be waterproof, and with that in mind the clasp makes perfect sense. Regardless of the headache that is its design, if you only have to remove it once a week, there are no worries. Unfortunately, the device is not waterproof, which means daily removal while you shower. (It is water resistant, however. I even cleaned my pool yesterday while wearing it. So technically you could wear it in the shower, I guess, but it seems like it would be a pain to rinse the soap away from underside.)

The battery life is much worse than the Jawbone UP24. Within six days, the device is dead, and I never realize it until it’s too late. The previous model trained me to just forget about it. It was always there, always working, this immortal machine powered as if by plutonium. This one is like a really healthy octogenarian. There’s no reason to worry, exactly, but you know the end could come at any moment. The charger, meanwhile, is a mess. Just this weird, terrible dongle-like thing whose magnetic contacts are impossible to properly align the first five or six times you go to charge the device. This is only like a minute of my week lost, but I’m glad my pulse isn’t measured for that minute; my frustration with and bafflement of the design would throw off my average.

The pulse measurement is passive. That is to say, you can’t push a button and get a reading. It happens when it happens and that’ll just have to do. It measures both resting and passive heart rate. It doesn’t give a whole lot of guidance for the information it collects, and I suspect that has something to do with federal regulations. Its advice is usually something to the effect of: “Your heart rate is slightly higher than last week. Try getting more sleep.” I’m pleased to have the readings, though, and it really is a motivator to remain on top of my running. My RHR is generally in the high-40s and I’d like to keep it there, or even get it a bit lower. (Now that fitness is measured by how rarely one’s heart has to beat to keep you alive.)

Lastly, the cost. I’m not sure of the price at which it premiered, but earlier this year it ran $179, which was a shade too much. $159 would have made it a real bargain. But the price has since dropped to $129, making it an absolute steal. Despite its minor frustrations, I heartily recommend the device. It does what it sets out to do, and does it well.

If Beijing Is Worried about Its Air Quality, Worry.

The front page of the New York Times today features an astonishing story about Beijing that begins: “Residents across this city awoke to an environmental state of emergency on Tuesday as poisonous air quality prompted the government to close schools, force motorists off the road and shut down factories.”

Abstractly, it is the kind of story you read, consider for a moment, and go about your day. “Smog,” you think. “Just awful.” Had I not visited Beijing last year, I’d have thought the same thing, and immediately forgotten about the problem. But having been there, I’m thunderstruck by how horrible things must actually be this week for the government to admit there’s a problem, let alone close the city down.

Beijing is the kind of city where you’re never more than ten minutes from a marvel of human history. The Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, the Summer Palace—they all just seem so impossible, so immense, so stunning to behind and impossible, really, to comprehend. The city’s parks are splendid, and the food and the vibe and the people—it’s a terrible place to have to leave.

But the air pollution is scary. Not the way weepy environmentalists find everything not made of hemp to be scary, but scary in a humanity-cannot-survive-this sort of way. If you don’t believe humans can be the cause of climate change, visit Beijing.

Nobody warned me about China’s pollution problem in advance, and I’m not the sort of person who notices that kind of thing. When I close my eyes and visualize the word “pollution,” I see a toxic waste dump (or what I imagine a toxic waste dump to look like), with barrels floating on a lake of sludge. Anything short of that tends to escape my attention. So upon arrival, I thought, “Wow, foggy day.”

Within two days, my eyes were burning. It wasn’t like seasonal allergies, where your brain acknowledges the discomfort, you complain a bit, and then go about your business. This was alarming on a visceral level. My eyes were burning simply because I was using them. And that deep part of your brain that knows when something is definitely Not Right was at red alert. Whatever was burning my eyes wasn’t natural—wood on fire, say—but artificial and chemical, something that human beings did not evolve to handle.

It didn’t ruin my trip, and I don’t want to sound (too) apocalyptic about all of this, but it did give me a new appreciation for the urgency of addressing human environmental impact. At the top of this post is a photograph I took of the city that is representative of every photograph I took there. This is what Beijing looks like on a clear, sunny day, when nobody is particularly worried and the city government wants everyone to go about their business. I can only scarcely imagine how much worse things must be for them to panic.

 

iPads as Education Placebo

The Washington Post has a depressing op-ed written by a teacher whose third grade class was issued Apple iPads. I don’t need to tell you that the ending is unhappy. As it turns out, if you give $500 gaming devices to children, they tune out and play games. Here’s a heartbreaking passage:

One of my saddest days in my digital classroom was when the children rushed in from the lunchroom one rainy recess and dashed for their iPads. Wait, I implored, we play with Legos on rainy days! I dumped out the huge container of Legos that were pure magic just a couple of weeks ago, that prompted so much collaboration and conversation, but the delight was gone. My students looked at me with disdain. Some crossed their arms and pouted. We aren’t kids who just play anymore, their crossed arms implied. We’re iPad users. We’re tech-savvy. Later, when I allowed their devices to hum to glowing life, conversation shut down altogether.

The Internet didn’t begin rolling out to schools in any meaningful way until my last years of high school, and I was spared the worst of the technology jihad mounted by people who were just certain that “a computer in every classroom” (that was the rally cry) would Change Everything, and that Our Children Need Computers, and so on.

(N.b. that now that computers have ruined schools across America, the new demand is for students to learn how to code, which, writing as someone with a B.S. in computer science, is about as hilarious and pointless an endeavor as anything ever attempted ever. Only a very tiny percentage of people will ever or should ever need to touch a compiler, and of them, only an infinitesimal number will be any good at it. The argument is that students need to learn coding because it’s the “job of the future,” but it really isn’t. Plumbing, carpentry, auto repair—those are jobs of the future. Computer science is a field that’s only existed since, oh yeah, 1822, but because someone with an education major and a clipboard doesn’t know how to do it, it’s new and critical and that somehow kids who were otherwise destined to work middle management at the local factory are going to be swept away in the magic of parsing algorithms and fixing buffer overflows. The mentality seems to be “Well if we only help one…” (which suggests right away that we’re dealing with a religious cause an not an intellectual one), but the question is why you’d want to waste the time and energy of the other 99%. I get pushing STEM on students, and largely support the effort, which is why I’d be fine with a high school course like Practical Chemistry and Biology. (How to read a medicine bottle. Why that magic weight loss cure doesn’t work. Why does hydrogen peroxide  disinfect an abrasion? Why does gasoline make your car run? Why do you need to change the oil?) But “coding” has limited value at best, and considering the quality of most high school “computer science” teachers, is a waste of time if not poison being poured into the STEM well. The best thing I can say about coding in schools is that casual observation suggests the only thing schools are really teaching is HTML, which, while a colossal waste of time, at least isn’t actively harmful.)

The problem with iPads in every classroom is that they (i.e. the iPads) give the illusion of innovative learning without actually teaching students anything. In the writing world, there’s this whole psychotic fascination among amateur writers with finding the perfect computer software. The thinking goes like this: I can’t seem to write my book, but if I had [whatever], I would be a great writer! And so would-be writers buy new laptops, download programs like Scrivener and elaborate Word templates, and research the best brightness for their screens, and look for the best online dictionary and scour the Internet in search of productivity apps and sites, and maybe something that’s cross-platform so they can work on their iPad, iPhone, AND computer, and they “build platforms” on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr—you get the idea. These people always buy Moleskine notebooks. Hundreds of hours go into these prodigies of activity, and these writers have the best literary command centers money can buy, and they go to their graves without having written a single word.

Writing is hard, just as teaching is hard and engaging students is hard. And this obsession with writing apps is a way to seem very productive—look at all I’m doing to make my career a success!—without actually doing the one thing guaranteed to make your writing a career a success: writing. Likewise, look at this wonderful tool I’ve given my classroom! Let’s spend the next month learning how to use our iPads! Let’s test new apps! Let’s attempt cooperative noncompetitive group learning using digital [whatever]…

All this, when months, and by the time students graduate, years, could have been better spent practicing math with a pencil and reading a play by Shakespeare in a book.

What is perhaps most infuriating about the efforts by schools to infest their classrooms with iPads is that, on a very basic level, I think teachers, administrators, and students know that computers and tablets don’t help, and oftentimes actually hinder, the learning process. But man, no ambitious school administrator’s resume is complete without a bullet-point that says: “Wrote successful grant for 500 tablet computers.”

The New York Times reported a few years ago on the habit of computer executives in Silicon Valley to send their children to technology-free schools. As one blog explained, “The tech-free teaching methods are designed to foster a lifelong love of learning and teach students how to concentrate deeply and master human interaction, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills.”

You’ll find none of those benefits while smearing your finger on a glass screen. But everyone knows those benefits aren’t really the point.

The Fascinating Scrabble AMA

There’s a wonderful AMA with a North American Scrabble champion happening right now on Reddit. Here are a few favorite exchanges.

On “hooks.”

Q: You get to go first, your letters are: UUUTJNZ. What do you play?

A: JUN and JUT are the only words really worth playing, though I’m not happy about keeping two U’s. JUN is better defensively

Q: Can you give me a brief explanation as to why it’s better defensively? I’m not great at scrabble, but im always interested in high level game strategies.

A: Simply due to the “hooks”, i.e., the letters you can add to the front or end of the word. JUT can hook an E or S to make JUTE or JUTS. Whereas JUN can only hook with a K to make JUNK. So by playing JUT, you’re giving the opponent more options

The letter “Q.”

Q: Would the fact that you have a U make it more worthwhile to hold on to the N so you have the UN prefix? I guess it might not in this case, since you probably won’t be bingoing next turn with that leave anyway. It’s decisions like this that separate great players like you from decent ones like me!

A:The U is a horrible letter. There is a disproportionately high number of them in Scrabble simply because of the Q. If you draw a U, you should try to play it off if possible.

On playing your rack.

Q: I’ve read that top scrabble players focus on bingos, whereas the average best-among-your-friends focuses on tile placement for multipliers. Any tips for transitioning from the latter to the former?

A: Improve your bingo-finding skills! First, learn how to look for them on your rack. Most bingos include a common prefix or suffix. If you have -ING, -ERS, -ABLE, or -IEST on your rack, that’s a good place to start. It’s a lot easier to find the 8-letter words in EEGINRST if you start with the common suffixes. Second, learn how to manage your leaves better. The “leave” is the leftover tiles when you make a play. We know that ERS is very powerful, so if we’re not able to bingo this turn, it might be a good idea to make a play that saves those tiles for next turn.
Third, learn more words. There’s no way around this one. You’ll play more bingos if you learn more words. One of the most common 7-letter words in Scrabble is ANEROID. You have to know it to be able to find it!

How to get rid of vowels.

Q: I still have problems coming up with words when I end up with so many vowels. What are some good tips or words to use when you end up with so many vowels and the board is already full ish?

A: The bag is inherently vowel-heavy, so it always takes some care to not end up with too many. Try not to unload as many vowels as you can each turn.
Also, it helps to learn some of the less-common vowelly words. Words like AUREI, MIAOU, UNAI, or ILIA can clean up those ugly racks quickly.

On being a Scrabble player.

Q: How many of the less common words do you use in your daily lexicon?

A: Do you mean outside of Scrabble? None. I try to act like a normal person when I’m not at tournaments

I wrote about the fascinating Scrabble tournament subculture for Mental Floss a few months ago. This is also a good opportunity to throw rocks at Scrabble for blundering the move to apps, and at Words With Friends for allowing players to jumble their letters endlessly on the board, clicking “play” until one is accepted by the computer. In case you’re wondering, the reason that Words With Friends isn’t a flagrant violation of Hasbro’s copyright is because a game’s concept can’t be copyrighted for a game—only the game’s rules. Words With Friends places its bonus squares in different locations on its board, and its BINGO bonus is different. This feels wrong on a lot of levels, but if Hasbro couldn’t bother to invest its billions in a good app, I can’t be bothered to shed many tears for them.

(Image credit: Local Scrabble)

How Defense Officials Spent $150 Million in Afghanistan, When They Could Have Spent $0

My latest piece for The Week ran yesterday, in which I write about the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, a Defense Department office that was created to “do capitalism” in war zones. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but they didn’t do well and are presently under investigation for myriad accusations of fraud, waste, and abuse. The piece can be found here.

~

As part of this little personal blog experiment, I thought I’d share a bit of my process for this type of story. Earlier this week, I received a heads up that the allegations were about to be made public, and I pitched a story on it to my editor at The Week. I chose The Week because I knew the story was a good fit, and because I’ve written several pieces for them about waste in Afghanistan. Also, I really enjoy working with Ben, my editor, who’s a really smart guy and an all-around good human being. I also appreciate that he doesn’t waste time with my pitches. The “yes” or “no” happens quickly. It’s hard to overstate how rare this is for an editor, let alone one for a major publication.

N.b. that in general, I don’t mind when someone rejects a pitch. There are times when I know I’ve got a good story, and that editors are mistaken in rejecting it, but I deserve a lot of the blame when that happens. It’s easy to get lazy on a pitch—especially a “sure thing”—and I’ve done a lot of good stories a disservice by not selling them with proper care, and as a result, not selling them at all. I actually think I’ve gotten worse about this over the years, and I am actively trying to correct that.

But a simple “no” is fine with me. A writer can’t curl up into a ball every time he or she receives a rejection. What I do hate is having a query ignored. When editors don’t respond to a pitch, a freelance writer is dead in the water. Do you try with another publication? Do you wait a little longer? This is especially problematic with time-sensitive stories. I realize that some editors are fielding 100 pitches a day, but simply as a professional courtesy, a “no” should be sent. Professional writers (usually) don’t need “nice” no’s. We just need a “no” so that we can move on—we know it’s not personal.

In this case, Ben gave the pitch a quick approval, and I added it to Trello, where I track my ongoing jobs.

The story wasn’t exactly Benghazi, so there’s nothing particularly interesting or exciting regarding the journalistic legwork involved. I did research, contacted the relevant parties, called the Department of Defense for their side of things, contacted SIGAR for photographs, etc. Pretty much everything I write involves some form of this. Sometimes it’s exhilarating and you speak with cool people you’ve only read about. Sometimes there’s confrontation. Sometimes the story is all a big misunderstanding and something new and exciting takes its place. You do your best with the resources you have. In this case, nobody was going to fly me to Afghanistan to get to the bottom of things, and so the telephone was my best tool available. (Note to editors: I’m happy to fly to Afghanistan to get to the bottom of things if you’ll send me.)

I wrote the piece over a couple of hours at Starbucks. My writing process is messy. I probably wrote a dozen ledes, and wrote several passages that didn’t work or quite gel. The process doesn’t exactly make me feel nervous, exactly, though it does induce some level of concerned anticipation. Why aren’t the words flowing? Why aren’t they perfect? Where does this fit? Why did I go into the business? And so on. Once the first draft is written, I feel a lot better about life in general. I let the story sit for a bit, and returned to it with fresh eyes, strengthening the poetry of the piece; cutting away the needless prose; rewriting weak or inelegant phrases, sentences, or passages; and just generally crossing my t’s and dotting my lowercase-j’s.

I filed the piece, and received an edit a few hours later. Ben is a great editor, and his suggested changes were good ones. I again revised and filed, and the mysterious machine at The Week did the rest. I have no idea what happens between filing the final version and its publication the next day. Once the piece does go live, I beat the drum on social media. I know there’s a kind of gaucheness to promoting your own work, but I feel like it’s a necessary part of the job and do it anyway. I have a good Twitter following and there’s not yet been a stampede to the exits, so I assume I’m doing OK.

And there you have it.

(Image credit: An unnamed whistleblower in Afghanistan)

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle is Amazon’s latest streaming video production (and for many, I suspect, its only video production that’s garnered interest), and it’s a great show—based on one of Philip K. Dick’s novellas and produced by Frank Spotnitz of X-Files fame. I’m both deeply curious to learn how it ends, and worried that it remains faithful to the book’s length and will end after 12 episodes. (I’ve not read the book.)

The series takes place in an alternate reality where Nazi Germany dropped the atomic bomb on Washington D.C. and ultimately won the war. In the aftermath, the Axis Powers split the continent, with Japan gaining control over the west coast and Germany seizing the east. (The very middle of the continent is a neutral zone evocative of the Wild West.) All of this makes for compelling viewing, and that’s before you get to the haunting, hypnotic presence of Obergruppenführer John Smith—what juxtaposition!—played by actor Rufus Sewell, who brings to the role a subtle intensity not seen on film since Al Pacino in the 1970s.

This is a weird thing to type, but as of the season’s midpoint, one of the underlying tensions of the plot involves the health of Adolf Hitler. He’s not even a character in the show, really, glimpsed only for seconds at a time on television and posters, and yet he is central to the story. Everyone fears that if Hitler dies, Himmler or Goebbels will ascend to power and mount an atomic war against Japan. In other words, the show in a discomfortingly plausible way makes Hitler—the most evil human being to ever live—the safe choice. The one you want to stay in power. The sane one of the group. To be sure, his America is a thoroughly horrible place, and Nazi Germany’s abhorrent race laws and disregard for, well, everything good, remain in full force. But life has gone on in America. People have jobs, watch television, and go to diners. And here we are, hoping Hitler holds on a little longer so that none of that is lost. It’s unsettling in true Philip K. Dick fashion.

The show feels especially relevant with the nightmarish situation in Syria unfolding around us. That, of course, is a hallmark of great science fiction, allowing us to find some understanding of the world in which we live. Nonfiction, meanwhile, provides fuel for such explorations, and World War II has proven to be a kind of literary uranium. If for no other reason, I hope historians never finish writing about the Second World War. There should always be a little more to say about the depravity of which man is capable, and the courage necessary to defeat it. Things worked out well enough in the end, but they didn’t have to, and books come out every year with new details revealing how close we came to catastrophe, and how civilization was brought back from the brink. (Operation Long Jump and Church of Spies are the two most recent that I have read. One reveals Hitler’s very real plot to kill Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill at the same time. The other reveals Pope Pius XII’s very real plot to kill Hitler.)

In the mean time, I will continue to pace my viewings of The Man in the High Castle, and continue to dream about the world we were spared. That’s science fiction. As Philip K. Dick wrote in 1980: “It’s not just ‘What if—’. It’s ‘My God, what if—.'”

(Image credit: Amazon)

You Don’t Want to be a Freelance Writer

Over at her blog, Yael Grauer has an excellent post discussing the “painful truths about freelancing.” Anyone interested in doing this for a living would be well advised to read it. (Have your loved ones read it as well so that they understand why we’re so miserable most of the time.)

This is a hard business. The loneliness of the job, which Yael describes, might be the worst part of it. It’s not just about being around people—there’s always Starbucks, where I tend to work most days—but being around people with whom you interact, and who get it. People who are fighting the same battles as you: the slow pay, the unanswered queries, the 22-year-old newbie editors who think they’re Max Perkins, and so on. Unless you live in a media city, you’re probably not going to be around such people. If I did my job from a life raft in the middle of the ocean, the psychological conditions would not be measurably different.

A Lovely Interview with Evernote

Earlier this month, Evernote asked me to participate in their “great writers” interview series. Though they might be premature in their (exceedingly kind) use of “great,”1 the interview itself was a lot of fun and, I hope, helpful to writers just starting out.

What’s your process for evolving an idea into something more?

Ideas are pretty useless in and of themselves. Everyone has ideas! I have to repress a cringe whenever someone says to an author, “I have a great idea for a book—say, maybe you could write it!” as though writing the book were a formality, and what was really needed was someone to come in and supervise with Great Ideas.

When I have an idea for something, I try to write it out. In other words, muddle through until I know whether or not there’s really an essay or book there. And when there’s not, I toss the idea and start over. (It hurts a lot to throw out a 25,000-word book proposal.) If the idea proves to have merit, I pitch it to whichever editor I think might be interested. The worst thing you can do is know that a story is weak, but sell it anyway. It adds tremendous pressure to the ensuing process.

Read the whole interview here. My sincere thanks to the lovely people at Evernote for thinking of me. And, having been sufficiently inspired, if you’d like a free month of Evernote Premium, click here.


1 One of my favorite lines on the subject comes from Rocky III, where Apollo Creed chides Rocky, saying, “You gotta remember now, you fight great but I’m a great fighter.”

Book Talk at Mental Floss

Most of my work for Mental Floss of late falls into one of two categories: books or space. Because these are my twin passions, I must say that I’ve never been happier with the work that I’m doing there. Here are some of the books I’ve written about for the site, each of which are highly recommended.