Various Stuff

We can only hope Google+ squashes Facebook like the privacy-killing stinkbug it is

I'll admit that headline is partly tongue in cheek, but it does express my sincere dream of Facebook's ultimate fate. And I say that as someone who has used Facebook for years and will continue to do so for the near future.

Here's the thing: I'm neither an extreme privacy nut nor a let-it-all-hang-out-online type of guy. Obviously I don't mind sharing some personal information about myself since I have Facebook, Google+, and Twitter accounts, and I'm writing this essay on an extremely public blog. These days if you want to keep everything about your life private your only choice is to drop off the grid, become a wanderer, or be a Unabomber-style hermit (just don't mail your 50 page manifesto to the NY Times, causing your brother to recognize you). Honestly, this shouldn't surprise anyone—human society has always placed a premium on knowing all we can about each other. Go back to any human village or community over the last 10,000 years and you'll find absolutely zero privacy. Everyone knew everything about you.

Aside from hermits, wanderers, and off-the grid individuals, it was only with the rise of large cities that people could escape from this all-intrusive knowledge about their lives. With large cities, it was possible for people to disappear into a large mass of humanity. You could reinvent yourself. You could become anyone you wished.

Of course, this isn't to say that people don't also know lots about you in large cities. But the possibility to create your own private space was at least there.

And now along comes social media, which threatens to take us back to the dawn of humanity. We're reverting to village groups again, where everyone knows our business.

As I mentioned, I'm mostly okay with this. So far the benefits of social media have outweighed the negatives, at least in my own life. However, two things I do demand are the abilities to control what information I put out about myself and how I interact with others online. And that's where Facebook continues to spit directly in my face.

I don't have major issues with their new Timeline feature. It is what it is. However, what I absolutely hate is the continuing lack of control Facebook gives me over my own social media experience. For example, I used to know instantly when anyone responded to one of my posts. Not anymore—those reponses are hidden in a blizzard of Facebook notifications. I've recently missed several comments from friends who posted on my status updates.

I also hate how Facebook makes it difficult for me to control all of my privacy settings. Everytime I try to change a setting, I spend a half-hour hunting for the spot where Mark Zuckerberg's drones hid said control. 

This poor Facebook experience was driven home for me when I recently examined my Google Dashboard. Talk about a complete 180 from Facebook—privacy information from all of my Google accounts was centrally located and easy to both understand and change. I'll admit that when Google announced its recent privacy changes I was concerned. But as long as they continue to offer something as brilliant as their Dashboard, I'll accept their privacy rules. Google understands that people want to both control what they put out and how they interact with others.

And that, I surpose, is the point of this ramble. I accept that by using social media I am giving Facebook, Google, and other places valuable information about myself. For now, the benefits I receive make this worth it. But Facebook is quickly failing in this cost/benefit analysis.

Facebook is now the used-car salesman of the social media world, forever trying to trick you into signing away more than you intend. Google, though, understands that they don't have to trick people into buying their groovy social media car. Yes, Google makes mistakes, but at least they lay out the information for you and allow you to make most of your own choices.

So for now I'm okay with the direction my social media village is going. Since so many of my friends use Facebook, I'll continue to show up there. But I also hope Google+ keeps growing and threatening to squash Facebook like the bug they are. Because I suspect the threat of being squashed is the only way Zuckerberg and company will eventually realize that their business model must be based on giving people the control they desire—and not the lack of control Facebook currently embraces.

Where Does Google Plus Go From Here?

We've reached that point in the development of Google Plus where technology pundits suddenly declare this new social media network a complete failure and predict nothing but DOOM, DOOM, DOOM! Of course, it was only a few months ago that these same people were praising Google Plus and calling it the Facebook killer. But if there's one thing no tech pundit can embrace it is consistency.

The truth is that growth patterns of new human activities – no matter if the activity is based around a piece of technology, a social movement, or a new boy band – follow rather predictable patterns:

  1. First you have an intial growth spurt stimulated by early adopters. 
  2. Then the growth evens out as word spreads about the new activity. The activity can also collapse at this stage if not enough people are impressed with it.
  3. Next the activity begins another impressive growth spurt as it penetrates into the general population. 
  4. And finally, the activity either becomes an enduring artifact of human expression or, as more often happens, it turns out to be a passing fad whose popularity craters as we fickle humans move on to other pursuits.

The time span for these four steps can vary anywhere from a few weeks to a few years or more, but the basic arc of people accepting something new rarely changes. In my opinion Google Plus is now just past the early adopter stage and fully within the second "even growth" stage. But while it is possible for activities to fail to engage people at this stage – as it is also possible at the early adopter stage – Google Plus already has enough users that it should move successfully to the third stage and catch the attention of the general population. That's where the true success or failure of Google Plus will be decided.

If what I'm saying is true then obviously it is far to early to declare Google Plus a failure. And the fact that Facebook has responded so aggressively to Google Plus by redesigning their social media interface shows that Mark Zuckerberg and company are well aware of the danger posed by their new competition.

So what do I think about Google Plus at this point in its development? Personally, I still prefer the clean interface of Google Plus over Facebook. I've also found that Facebook's recent redesign fails to impress me. 

That said, I'm also using Google Plus less than I did when I was an early adopter. Part of this is due to my personal time being dominated by editing and writing projects. However, I've also noticed that the personal interactions I so enjoyed during the early days of Google Plus are not happening as much. (I suspect this is one reason so many pundits are yelling "GoogleFail!") For what it's worth, though, I remember a similar pattern happening during the early days of Twitter, in that precarious time between people babbling excitedly about their first few Tweets and the social network turning into something people used on a daily basis. I suspect this is a normal part of the second stage of growth of a social network.

So if you're going to predict the failure of Google Plus, I'd suggest waiting another year or two. If by that point Google Plus is still struggling to engage people with people, then yes, it will face a rough future. But my money's still on Google Plus succeeding.

Help Locate Information on Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers

This year is the 50th Anniversary of the U.S. Peace Corps, the famous "toughest job you'll ever love." Since President Kennedy created the Corps in 1961 nearly 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries.  This number includes myself and my wife, with both of us serving in Thailand.

However, not all of these volunteers returned home. As documented by the non-profit Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers Memorial Project, 279 of these volunteers gave their lives while pursuing the Peace Corps mission. The accounting of these volunteers is listed here.

The problem, though, is there's little or no personal information for many of the volunteers listed on the memorial. The is especially true of PCVs who died in the program's early years.

So here's what I'm asking: Will you join me in tracking down information on these fallen volunteers? Simply go through the list of fallen volunteers and find someone without any information on their entry.  These deaths would have been in the newspapers at the time, meaning there are news reports we can locate using online databases. Or perhaps you know the family or friends of these volunteers, who might share some information for the memorial.

What We Are Looking For

  • Scans and summaries of news reports
  • Personal accounts from the volunteers' family and friends
  • Photographs
  • Scans of letters and other artifacts

If only a few hundred people pledge to search for information on these fallen volunteers, we will soon fill the memorial pages. I have been in contact with Donna Mack of the FPCV Memorial Project and she supports this data collection effort. Donna's son Jeremiah Mack was a PCV who died in Niger in 1997.

Please help spread the word about this.

Where to Send Information

If anyone finds information or photos, please feel free to send it to the FPCV Memorial Project through their contact page. If the information is contained in attachments or scanned documents which you can't send through the contact page, feel free to email those files to me. I will then pass them on to the project.

I should also note that FPCV will be taking part in the upcoming 50th Anniversary events in Washington D.C., with an Arlington National Cemetery presentation and wreath laying scheduled for September 25th of this year. The families of all fallen PCVs are invited to attend. For more information, please go here.

Genre Walking

Are you a science fiction or fantasy fan who enjoys walking or jogging? Want to motivate both yourself and your genre friends to exercise more? Then join in with the newest exercise trend, genre walking!

First, the history: Shaun Duke tweeted last week about all the walking he's doing, at which point I tweeted my own jogging and walking comments and how science fiction and fantasy fans should help motive each other in our exercises. Fabio Fernandes chimed in strong agreement, Shaun said he'd design a website to keep track of everyone's progress, and that's how genre walking was born.

It's easy to genre walk. Every time you walk or jog, tweet your distance with the hashtag #genrewalking. If you see tweets from other SF/F fans who are genre walking, encourage them. You can also enter your distances using the handy genre walking form. To keep track of everyone's progress, click here.

This is not about shaming people. This is not about competition. This is about genre fun and staying healthy. I look forward to seeing everyone on the road to genre fitness!

Offline for Two Weeks Due to Eye Surgery

I have a detached retina and will undergo emergency eye surgery shortly. The prognosis is excellent, but I won't be able to access my computer at all during the recover period. So don't expect to see me online for up to two weeks.

The good news is that the 2011 storysouth Million Writers Award will continue on because the judges can do their work without me. It's possible there may be a delay in releasing this year's list of notable stories, but I'll cross that bridge when I can see where I'm bloody well going!

The Best Samurai Film You've Never Seen: Harakiri by Masaki Kobayashi

One of the best Japanese films I've seen in recent years is Harakiri, a 1962 samurai movie by Masaki Kobayashi. I stumbled onto the film by accident in my local library and, since I'm a fan of samurai cinema, took a chance. I'm glad I did and I urge people to seek out this classic film.

Harakiri opens with disgraced samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo entering the home of a local feudal lord with what sounds like an unusual request—to use the lord's house to commit ritual suicide. However, the lord warns Hanshiro that a number of disgraced samurai have been using this request to scam money out of nobles like himself. The lord then recounts just such a scam attempted by another samurai and how the feudal lord forced this man to follow through on his suicidal request.

I don't want to give too much away, but the performances in this film are amazing. In addition, as you watch the film your relationship to the characters changes as you learn more about their lives. When I first watched one of the samurai trying to scam money, I felt only disgust. But as the film revealed more of this samurai's backstory my disgust turned to sympathy and understanding, a change which mirrors the main character's emotional journey.

Of course, being a samurai film there are sword battles here. But pay attention to how these battles take place, and especially to how the last one is filmed by Kobayashi. Much of this final battle is shown only through the reaction of the feudal lord to the sounds of a fight he is not allowed to witness. This is one of the most powerful scenes in all of cinema.

I'm also happy to note that critic Dan Schneider has written an in-depth examination of Harakiri, which should be required reading for anyone looking for further insight into this great film. I find it especially interesting how Schneider says the film's timeless setting gives it an almost science fiction feel, and how disgraced samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo is a Japanese version of Number 6 from the British television show The Prisoner.

Write a bad story for NPR and Michael Cunningham

Am I the only one blown away by the badness in NPR's new Three-Minute Fiction contest? As with all their contests, you have to write the story in 600 words or less. The problem is that the story must

1)  start with the first line "Some people swore that the house was haunted."

and

2)  end with the last line "Nothing was ever the same again after that."

My God! The pure, cliched badness! Badness so bad it is blinding in its badness! So bad it almost comes full circle back to goodness! (Well, maybe not.)

I mean, come on. If you're going to do a fiction contest, do it right. Don't start by mocking everyone who attempts to write a story for you.

Even worse is that Michael Cunningham wrote those opening and closing lines. He tries to palm off inspiration for the last line on Russian writer Nikolai Gogol--even as he admits Gogol "didn't actually use that line"--but I don't buy it. I think Cunningham doesn't give a shit about the contest and is playing a joke on people. Either that, or he thinks cliches are somehow inspired writings in disguise.

My suggestion is for writers to submit the worst stories they can create. Return the joke on Cunningham and NPR. And if they actually pick one of these bad stories as the winner, let them air it on Weekend All Things Considered before you admit to your own joke.

Now that would be a story worth telling.

Harlan Ellison and Prince flee the internet, which somehow survives without them

The internet died last week. At least, that's the message coming from Harlan Ellison and Prince, two controversy-loving artists who evidently couldn't stomach how social media makes it impossible to totally control their online image.

Harlan started the fun last Tuesday after reading this rather innocuous article on io9 about his current book sale. I've read through the article twice and can't see what pushed Harlan over the edge; perhaps it was one of the comments to the article (such as the commenter who said, "What is the current bid for Harlan to stand and yell at you for 15 minutes?")

In response, Harlan posted on his website forum that "I've finally had as much of the internet as I can bear. The 'news site' ... has actualized my worst dread nightmare of web involvement. I just gotta get the hell away from this awful thing. ... I abominate the public footprint being left for me by caitiff like the journalistically-knobheaded toddlers whose names are emblazoned on their editorial side-bar."

Because of the extremely dated design of Harlan's website forum, it is impossible to directly link to his comment. However, his words about how "I abominate the public footprint being left for me" does suggest his problem with the internet is that he can't control his online image.

The same thing popped up last week with the artist again known as Prince, who stated "The internet's completely over. I don't see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won't pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can't get it."

Obviously Prince has issues with the new ways people are purchasing music online, but I can't help but wonder if like Harlan Ellison, Prince's true issue is how social media has changed the dynamic around managing your own image. Both Harlan and Prince came of age when artists began receiving more media coverage for their persona than their artistic works. This isn't to say that Harlan and Prince aren't great artists--they are. But they have also cultivated their controversial image for maximum effect. The dust jackets to one of Harlan's books claimed he was "possibly the most contentious person on Earth," while Prince wrote the word "slave" on his cheek to protest being trapped in a contract with Warner Brother after the company paid him an unbelievably large amount of money to, well, be trapped in a contract with them.

But hey, controversy was good to these two artists and for decades they used it to promote their artistic works. But now the established order has broken. Instead of being able to create and manage controversy on your own terms, that pesky social media allows anyone to pick at your life and work. If you squeeze someone's breast on stage during the Hugo Awards ceremony, people will post the video online and rip you a new one. If someone isn't pleased with your archaic view of the internet, they can pick apart your opinion while the entire world watches in glee.

Please tell me how this can be anything but good?

The irony is that both Harlan Ellison and Prince were originally enfant terribles fighting the far-too conventional artistic establishment. Now they are the very establishment they once fought against--aging artists who don't like how the internet and social media gives millions of people the ability to criticize them.

Please don't mistake my criticism. I love the best examples of Harlan's writings and Prince's music. I have purchased a number of Harlan's books and Prince's albums, and if they release new works I might purchase even more.

But the days of micro-managing your controversies to raise your artistic profile are over. If you do something controversial, yes, the online world will notice. But you can't manage how people will react. People might as easily applaud as laugh or scream at you.

This doesn't mean controversy no longer sells. Of course it does. But if you light a fire in today's online world it can easily come back to burn you. And I suspect that is what Harlan Ellison and Prince hate about today's interconnected reality.

Happiness is a full mailbox

Happiness truly is a full mailbox, both virtually and in real life. I arrived home to find the snail box full of fun stuff, including Interzone 228 with my story "Plague Birds" inside. I also received my Nebula Award Nominee lapel pin and certificate--thanks to the every-wonderful Eugie Foster for sending it my way. Can I wear the Nebula pin with everything, or just on special occasions?

I also received the Progress Report 2 for the 2010 World Fantasy Con. They have things well in hand, with what looks like more than 400 people already registered. If you're thinking about going, I'd suggest registering soon. Last year's WFC ran out of registration spots and I wouldn't be surprised to see the same thing happen again.

As for the virtual mailbox, I received a nice note from Daily s-Press that they'd highlighted my Nebula-nominated novella "Sublimation Angels." Many thanks. Daily s-Press showcases "innovative writers and publishers" and is always worth checking out.

The things that once killed you

Back when I worked as an archeologist, I saw the things that once killed people. Broken bones and wounds which today would be treated on an out-patient basis. Abscesses of teeth which turned to infection until, centuries later, archeologists excavated bones riddled with pain. And that's nothing compared to the deadly diseases like small pox which were once so prevalent.

I don't mean to be so morbid, but I just found out I need a root canal. Despite my best dental hygiene, somehow a bit of decay sneaked in near the bone. Decay beneath the tooth, not through the exposed top as is normal. My dentist says she's never seen a case like this, so maybe I should be perversely honored.

Except that the bone is mildly infected. And the procedure to fix all this will be expensive, more than blowing through my dental insurance. Thank goodness for my family having insurance. Curse goodness that dental insurance is so crappy unless you're rich.

But looking toward the truly good, at least I won't die from this. I remember excavating a skeleton with a gaping hole in the jaw, where an abscessed infection had eaten it's way through that woman's mandible. As I cleared the dirt from the woman's bones, I couldn't help but cry at the suffering she went through before she died.

So while I'm not happy at spending a ton of money to fix this problem, it sure as hell beats the alternative.

Where I disappear to in Alabama

While I don't currently live in Alabama, I was born and raised there, so trips back home happen once or twice a year. Even though it's a long drive to Alabama from Ohio, the kids manage the trip well and are always excited to see their grandparents.

On our last visit we spent time with my family at Clear Creek Harbor, a small marina and camp area near Birmingham. Unfortunately, this was during November so we couldn't enjoy the swimming, but it was still fun. Most people at Clear Creek Harbor live in permanent trailers and campers at the site, and obviously fishing is a big deal there. In fact, the picture on the harbor's home page is of my father fishing.

Not sure why this would be of interest to anyone outside my family, but figured I'd still put it out there.

Ebook releases help overall book sales

Respected literary agent Nat Sobel has an email up this morning arguing that publishers should wait to release ebooks until at least 6 months after a hardback's release. "Notingwith alarm that movie exhibitors had recently pulled a film after learning that an early release of the DVD had been scheduled, Sobel drew the analogy with booksellers whose hardcover sales are cannibalized by early release of e-book editions."

Sobel is correct that ebooks are the mass-market paperbacks of today. For example, my mother used to buy tons of paperbacks. Nows she simply downloads titles to her Kindle.

However, Sobel is wrong to draw a connection between publishing and the movie industry. I mean, that's like saying book sales are hurt when a movie based on the book is released. The reverse is actually true. And what about the example Sobel gives to support his view:

His reasoning is by no means theoretical. He recently demonstrated its correctness by asking Tor Books to hold back the e-edition of a series by the late bestselling fantasy author Robert Jordan. "Now," he writes, "four weeks after its release in hardcover, The Gathering Storm has sold 24% more copies than the previous volume, even though the work was completed by another writer."

I suspect the reason why The Gathering Storm has sold so many more copies is due not to the lack of an ebook release, but to a very important marketing detail: Jordan died. This brought massive attention to the series and the other author completing the books. A similar effect is seen with Michael Jackson being one of the top-selling musicians of the last year. Did Michael Jackson's CDs start selling like crazy because there were no iTunes versions of his songs (which is obviously not true, but would have to be the case if Sobel's example was valid)? No. His music began selling like crazy across all platforms because he died, which has a massive marketing effect on one's fans. Just ask Elvis or Tupac Shakur.

I suspect ebook sales help overall book sales because more people are willing to make an impulse purchase of an ebook (like my mother does, for example). If someone wants a hardback, they'll buy it. But at nearly $30 for most hardbacks these days, they are not going to be purchased by impulse buyers. Ebooks will be. So don't imagine that waiting 6 months to release the ebook helps sales. In fact, since a book's marketing will be well passed by that point, meaning impulse buyers will miss out or be angry they can't purchase the title, I suspect the opposite is true.

Why frat boys love Kerouac's On the Road

Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road hasn't aged well, and now resembles the old hippie uncle you run into at family reunions. He still spouts revolutionary slogans and wears his few remaining hairs in a long ponytail. But instead of feeling cutting edge, his dress and manner come across as a sad attempt to reclaim a misplaced youth. The truth is aging hipsters--and the aging books once aimed at the hip--are rarely ever that.

This doesn't mean On the Road wasn't influential. Without it there would be no American road trip genre in either literature or film (think Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise). But the book's racism and inane plot--go forth and rebel through drinks and drugs and prostitutes, and by going south to Mexico to do such things--makes reading the book painful. Add in how the prose which so shocked 1950's sensibilities is now laughable to read, and you have a book which fails to measure up to most of its fellow literary classics.

I understand my view is likely the minority among readers and critics. Still, I decided to blog about this after receiving an email the other day from a friend.

My friend, a writer who teaches at a respected university, was at a small party and casually mentioned his love of On the Road. As if on cue, a drunken frat boy chimed and said, "That's my favorite novel." Several of his drunk friends nodded. "Last time we went to Cancun, it was like we lived the book."

My friend said it felt like his world collapsed. As if he'd been suddenly confronted with absolute proof that someone had desecrated the shrine of his literary god. He babbled how he was pretty sure On the Road wasn't set in Cancun, at which point the frat boys wandered off in search of more drunken Kerouac-esque adventures.

I'm sure if Jack Kerouac was still alive, he'd need some serious drinks and drugs and sex to deal with the readers who are now so in love with his book.

Where to shove your self-published crap

So I'm talking to a friend about publishing, and a friend of a friend's friend (FFF) slides in--you know the scene, where an intimate conversation is interrupted by the scurrying intrusion dance of a damn conversation hacker--and my friend, whom I'm trying to convince to submit his amazing fiction manuscript to an agent, hears these words from the FFF's dung hole: "Why bother submitting. Publish it yourself."

And so my friend is exposed to the worst possible advice. FFF pulls his self published novel out of his backpack and flashes it like gold. Nevermind the tacky cover which FFF likely asked his kindergarten niece to whip together in Photoshop.  Nevermind the typo I discover on page 1 while flipping through the book as FFF regales my friend about the reasonable costs of self publishing. Nevermind that FFF brags of having sold hundreds of copies of his novel.

"Hundreds?" I ask. I glance at the copyright page. The book was self published in 2007. Hundreds across two years is nothing. Hundreds means your friends and family bought all the copies.

"It's so easy to do," FFF says.

At this point I fight to restrain the great heaping pile of stinking truth I want to throw at this FFF. Idiot! You paid to have no readers. You paid to showcase a poorly written and edited novel. You paid to humiliate yourself merely so you can go up to friends of friends and say you're a published author.

But I restrain all that. My friend glances at the FFF book and hands it back, wishing FFF the best of luck with his novel. FFF wanders off to find others to dazzle with his authorial shine.

Right then, I decide if my friend even hints that he's considering self publishing for his manuscript, I will strike him down. I will beat him bloody until some sense--or fear of self publishing--enters his head. But I shouldn't have worried. People who can actually write amazing stories and novels know the self publishing score. Yes, it's good for some things, but don't pretend self publishing takes the place of landing your book with a good publisher.

"So," my friend asks. "Know any good agents?"

In the beginning was the word, and the word was "That's life!"

In the beginning was the word, and the word was jerk and d#&@ and a@#hole, and the writers did not like being called such. Then came screenwriter Josh Olson with his encyclical "I Will Not Read Your F&$king Script." And the writers rejoiced. No longer would they feel guilt at refusing to read the latest draft of their Great Aunt Matilda's memoir of her life with three dozen Chihuahuas.

Then came further revelation with John Scalzi's "On The Asking of Favors From Established Writers." Much drinking to excess was witnessed among writers, happy to be freed from being thought a jerk by the unwashed wannabe masses. For the anointed, merely pointing toward Olson and Scalzi's great words washed away any sense of jerkiness. And a new day was proclaimed across all authorhood. And lo, it was good.

Except the nonwriters never received the word. And the authors went out and were still pestered by other people, who shamelessly offered such distracting comments and intrusions as:

  • "I don't care if you are a fiction writer! If you name another villain in your stories after someone in this office, you're fired!"
  • "This is the IRS. Would you mind coming down next week for a minor audit? We have some concerns about that book advance you forgot to list as income."
  • And the fearsome "Honey, can you cut the grass before I jam that keyboard up your nether regions"

And the authors went forth and rent the few hairs on their balding scalps, and screamed to the heavens, asking why the word had deserted them. And the word laughed and proclaimed, "It's nothing personal, but that's life. There are always going to be distractions, people you'd prefer not to deal with, and things you'd rather not do. If any of that bothers you, simply grow a spine and say no once in a while."

The authors nodded, seeing the wisdom of the word. And they asked, "Does this mean we're okay saying no when told to cut the grass?"

And the word shook its mighty head at the idiocy of authors. "Only if you're comfortable with a keyboard protruding from your nether regions."

2009 Bexley Public Library levy

Note: The post below is about the 2009 levy. To read about the new 2013 Bexley Library levy request, go here.

As writers and readers already know, tough economic times are creating hardships for many of our best public library systems. I'm blessed to have two world-class libraries where I live--the Columbus Public Library and, in my small hometown, the Bexley Public Library. The Columbus Library is frequently rated as the best large library system in the country, while the Bexley Library has previously been rated number one in the nation among smaller library systems.

Unfortunately, recent state budget cuts have forced the Bexley Library to seek a levy, as detailed in this Columbus Dispatch article. The 1.5-mill levy, which will be on this November's ballot, would cost the owners of a $100,000 home in Bexley about $46 more per year in taxes.

Today I asked Robert Stafford, director of the Bexley Public Library, a few questions about the levy and the library's budget problems.

The article mentioned the library would "continue to look to shave costs amid uncertain state revenues" even if the levy passes. Is it possible to list what these cuts might cover? Will additional staff be cut, or are you looking at cutting hours or other services?

Robert Stafford: Part of the problem in determining the millage to be requested is the uncertain state revenue projections which provide the basic support for the library.  We have tried to ask for a levy amount that will bring the library operating budget back up to the 2008 level.  The latest projection that we have seen is that Bexley Public Library will receive $1,351,677 in 2010. The library received approximately $1,856,000 in 2008, but more than that in 2007.  The revenue from the proposed levy would not allow for an expansion of services.  Even after the passage of the levy, if there is a great decline in state revenues, we would still have to make cuts.  The problem with all this is that nobody really knows about future state revenue (and thus basic library support) but we still have to set a levy amount that is not too low, and not too high.  The Cuyahoga County Public Library is already in this position.  They recently passed an operating levy, but the decline in state support is causing them to have to make cuts after just passing a levy.

Besides reducing library staff from 35 to 27 since 2003, what other belt-tightening measures has the library already enacted?

Robert Stafford: Besides reducing the staff size to the lowest possible level to cover 70 open hours per week, we have reduced expenditures for library materials, i.e., books, magazines and audiovisual items.  In 2009, we will probably spend only about 1/2 of what we spent for materials in 2008. Most of our belt-tightening has been in staff and new materials purchases. We have never spent a lot for programming and publicity.

Why does the library allow anyone from Franklin County to check out library items? Would this change if the levy passes?

Robert Stafford: All public libraries in Ohio are required by law to provide service on an equal basis to all the "inhabitants" of the county in which the library is located (5705.28 (D) Ohio Revised Code).  This is because the basic funding comes from the State of Ohio and is distributed at the county level through, in our case, the Franklin County Budget Commission.  When public libraries were originally formed, they were funded entirely by the local district. When library districts pass a levy or a bond issue for construction, these (supplemental) taxes are on the local district only. To that end, most of the other library districts in Franklin County have an operating levy, the annual yields of which range from $789,000 in the Grandview Public Library district to over $20,000,000 (2.2 mills) in the Columbus library district. Bexley's 1.5 mills would yield $689,279 per year. Many Bexley residents use the Columbus library facilities, including the Columbus Main Library (under the same law quoted above), but, until now, have not been asked to pay an additional library tax.

My local libraries have always enriched the lives of my entire family, so I'm supporting this levy. I hope other Bexley residents will do the same. As Robert Stafford explained above, this is an issue which affects people all across our county. So while money may be tight for everyone, don't let this great community resource be destroyed.

My koan for the day: Can you joke about the riddle of "Hint Fiction"?

I love jokes, especially when they play off a deeper truth. Riddles drive me crazy because I always miss the obvious--but then so do most people. Koans show so wonderfully why reason is rarely a path to enlightenment.

Now comes the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction, which will shortly be accepting submissions. What is hint fiction? As the anthology guidelines state, "It's a story of 25 words or less that suggests a larger, more complex story. The thesis of the anthology is to prove that a story 25 words or less can have as much impact as a story 2,500 words or longer." Robert Swartwood coined the term in this essay, where he explains that longer fictional formats like flash fiction--or heaven forbid, an actual short story--are simply to painful to be read by modern men and women, who evidently suffer from epidemic amounts of ADD.

And so we have hint fiction. 25 words or less.

My attitude to Swartwood's hint fiction--more power to him. I hope writers submit to the anthology, which pays at the astoundingly high rate of a $1 per word. But let's not pretend that hint fiction is anything new. The genre is merely a new term for the millennia old storytelling forms of riddles, jokes, and koans.

I'm sure some people will get their cackles up at that; after all, I've said similar things before about flash fiction, (although I should note that I've also praised certain examples of flash fiction for being very good stories). But the simple truth is that storytelling comes in all shapes and sizes, with riddles, jokes, and koans being examples of extremely short format stories. It's also possible for the best riddles, jokes, and koans to endure much longer than the long format stories and novels we're all familiar with. For example, the koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" evidently comes from 16th century Japan. How many of today's novels and short stories will survive another 500 years?

So yes, hint fiction is a legitimate fictional genre. Enjoy submitting to and reading Swartwood's anthology. But please, people, don't pretend hint fiction is anything more than an upscale rebranding of riddles, jokes, and koans.

Examiner.com takes on the world (and Austin, Texas)

Wonder what the implosion of daily newspapers means for local news coverage? Well, one hint of what's to come is Examiner.com, which bills itself as the "Insider source for everything local." Already covering more than 90 cities around the U.S., Examiner.com is a perfect example of how citizen journalism could easily replace the top-down journalism model we're all familiar with.

My friend Jessica Schneider works for the Examiner.com as their Austin Cultural Events Examiner. Anyone from that part of Texas looking for unique and different things to do should check out her page. If you know of any Austin-area events and shindigs you want to spread the word about, simply drop her a line.