Posted on 8 December 2013 | No responses
Earlier this week I had laid out a very loose theory (and by “theory” I mean “rhetorical device”) about dancing sprites as an inducement to disquiet. My weekend having been consumed with a trip to East Lansing and back, I had plenty of road time to refine my thinking on the subject.
My original consternation hails from a single source: The recognition that I could be Excellent — capital E, and lauded on the national stage — were I simply to try. When I see people who are Excellent finding happiness and success, I’m not envious of their position, but I am reproachful against the inner demons who conspire against my own success.
Modern-day excellence comes in one of three flavors: Achievement, Beauty or Connection. The connected people are perhaps the easiest to identify; were it not for her sister-in-law being a future queen of Great Britain, for example, no one would know of Pippa Middleton or her shapely derriere. Wealth or family ties foist some people into the spotlight whether they deserve it or not (looking at you, Paris Hilton). So, also, does beauty. Models, musicians, artists, actors — there’s a reason why so few ugly people travel in those circles, and those who do are usually elderly veterans or “character” types who fill a niche. Being of pleasing appearance opens many doors that remain bolted for the merely average.
The achievement category, though — there’s the rub. The ugly and the unconnected can still find success through hard work. A lot of writers fall into this category (cf, “Martin, George R.R.”). So do a lot of folks who wield political or economic power. Bill Gates wasn’t pretty or connected, for example, but he managed to grow a software empire that left him the richest man in the world.
Think of the baseline level of fame it’d take to get automatic VIP treatment at a Vegas nightclub. It’s not terribly high — a B-list actor, a DJ, a model without the “super” status — but there’s nevertheless a bar below which a clubgoer is just another schmuck waiting behind the velvet curtain, and above which you’re acknowledged as being “someone.” This base level of fame is an ABC mix. If any one of the three — achievement, beauty, connection — are high enough, you’re in; if not … the bouncer will check your I.D. in 45 minutes. Maybe.
When I examine my own fame level, I note that although my achievements over the years may put me in, say, the top 10 percent, it’s not enough. You need to be in the top tenth of a percent. I also know that although I’m not ugly, on the “beauty” front I’m fairly average. So no dice there. And connections? Not so much, really.
But the interesting thing is that the formula can change. I can ratchet up my achievements. I can maximize my appearance to be as beautiful as genetics will allow. I can network like crazy, building connections that make future accomplishments that much easier to rack up.
I know all of this. So when I examine what is, and reflect on what could be, I am simultaneously confronted by the excitement to achieve and the lingering fear that it won’t matter no matter how hard I try. Thus the Scylla and Charybdis of Fame: No matter how carefully you set the stage, it’s still a roll of the dice whether you’ll sail through to the other side.
It comes down to one directive: Be excellent. Regardless of the outcome.
Posted on 6 December 2013 | No responses
Seems every year, in November or December, I do one of these: Highlight the songs that are top-of-playlist. This time around (alpha by band name or artist first name):
- 30 Seconds to Mars, Capricorn (A Brand New Name)
- 30 Seconds to Mars, Conquistador
- 30 Seconds to Mars, The Kill (Bury Me)
- 30 Seconds to Mars, The Race
- *Britney Spears, Everytime
- Carly Rae Jepsen, Call Me Maybe [this one amuses people]
- Chevelle, Forfeit
- ^Chevelle, The Red
- Creed, My Own Prison
- D12, How Come
- ^Eagles, Hotel California
- Goo Goo Dolls, Home
- Hinder, What Ya Gonna Do
- *Linkin Park, Iridescent
- OneRepublic, Feel Again
- *Papa Roach, Burn
- Pop Evil, Monster You Made
- *Restless Heart, Fast Movin’ Train
- ^Roberta Flack, Killing Me Softly with His Song
- Shinedown, 45
- Shinedown, Second Chance
- *^Stone Sour, Hesitate
- Train, Meet Virginia
Last year’s repeats are marked with an asterisk; the 2011 repeats with a caret. Only one to make a triple appearance is Hesitate — odd, in that I”m not a huge Stone Sour fan. Maybe I’ll have to go digging through Xbox Music to see if there’s anything in their back catalog I find appealing.
Posted on 4 December 2013 | No responses
Like a fallen leaf twirled about upon the chaotic eddies of a gentle mountain stream, I spent the evening today grasping — and mostly failing — to draw a coherent, unified insight out of several discordant sprites dancing chaotically at the margins of my imagination.
The spark that lit the pyre of introspection was … well, it was odd. I was enjoying a premium hand-rolled cigar at my local tobacconist’s smoking lounge. I paired an lovely Alec Bradley Nica Puro with a can of cold, refreshing diet Coke. And I sat in a soft leather chair, my tablet in hand, reading the various news of the day while some sort of extreme sports program played silently on the television. Two-thirds of the way through the 1,100 or so headlines that had queued over the last 24 hours, I came across an article in one of the politics-slash-gossip blogs I read, about the frenzied speculation that British diver Tom Daley, an Olympic bronze medalist who’s not yet 21, is dating American writer Dustin Lance Black — a man twice his age so therefore a contemporary of mine. Apparently the Internet was abuzz yesterday with Daley’s YouTube confession that he’s bisexual and has been dating an unidentified man, so of course the tabloids went into overdrive and Black’s the theory du jore because Instagram. I’m not sure why the story struck me, or why, but it did — swiftly and viscerally, but incoherently; I thought something but I didn’t know quite what.
So that was the first dancing sprite. The second was a reflection, on my way to pick up a gift certificate, that the lion’s share of the reason I sometimes can’t get done what I need to get done is because I am apparently pathologically incapable of declining the pleading of others to help them solve their own problems. As I obsessed over all the stuff I’ve meant to do lately versus what actually got done, I realized that a major time sink wasn’t that I can’t deliver, per se, but that I have so little time for myself because I’m doing something else, somewhere, for someone. Nothing heroic — don’t infer a humblebrag — but more like the assumption that I’m everyone’s tech support hotline or personal document editor. No one really abuses the system, I guess, but when enough people want something, and each request in itself is reasonable, the calendar overflows and the bulk of my personal docket gets shuffled off to another day. A day that, increasingly, gets shunted ever more distantly down the road.
The third sprite was a flash of irritation over a well-intentioned question about my hair. Yes, it’s long. Yes, I have a reason for it. Yet I cannot fathom why people feel impelled to comment about it. And my family is the worst of all; I almost want to let it grow down to my ass because I absolutely do not want to have it cut and then listen to them coo about how much better it looks, as if I were some wayward child who finally saw the light. (I believe Tony’s wife calls this attitude oppositional defiance, except in my case, I’m quite happy with it.) I’m getting to the “last straw” point with them, a conflagration that’s been smoldering, ready to ignite, ever since my grandfather, St. Frank the Peacemaker, died eight years ago.
Other sprites jigged ’round the noggin — lamentations about dating shared over Bloody Marys with my friend Julie; questions about portfolio diversification as a freelancer; the aggressiveness of my 2014 annual goals; realistic prospects for my novel – but those three took pride of place.
Perhaps the Grand Unified Theory of these discordant threads is time. One of the most fascinating courses I took as an undergraduate was a grad seminar in the philosophy department about the nature of time. Taught by the brilliant but somewhat erratic Quentin Smith, the course reviewed the major logical ways of characterizing time as a thing-in-itself and therefore an object of independent perception. Although we argued mightily about whether we live in A-, B- or C-series time, the notion of time as a companion — a fellow traveler, if you will — stuck with me.
The clock waits for no man. I’m still young — 37 is hardly elderly — but it occurs to me that many of the things I really want to master require the vitality of youth. I really do want to do a marathon. I really do want to dive the Great Barrier Reef. I really do want to hike Denali. But the window of opportunity doesn’t stay open forever, and when I examine both the professional and personal success of someone like Black, and I stress over having to dance to everyone else’s drummer, it occurs to me: At some point, I’m going to have learn to say no, so I can enjoy the privilege of saying yes to life’s Meaningful Things.
Posted on 3 December 2013 | 4 responses
I crossed the 2013 National Novel Writing Month finish line with just above 50,100 words, with 13 hours to spare. This was my third year participating, but my first “win.” Herewith some lessons:
- I do best when I have an outline of the work in mind before I begin, including scene synopses and character sketches. I use Scrivener for Windows, so all of this info is readily at hand. Before Halloween, I plotted out 25 scenes over 12 chapters (with a prologue) with a goal of putting a minimum of 2,000 words in each scene, one scene per day, with five days off in the month. I didn’t stick exactly to that schedule, but getting slightly ahead of target early in the month gave me some slack later in the month. All I really had to do was treat each scene like a module; it’s less daunting to write a 2,000-word scene than to write “a novel” in exactly the same way it’s easier to eat calamari instead of a giant squid.
- The more I finished, the easier it was to write. After about the 30k mark, the words flowed easier because I better understood the nuances of the story and the personalities of the characters. By the end, I had so much stuff I wanted to stick in that I had to discipline myself to stick to the original plan of getting all 25 of the originally planned scenes done.
- Syncing my novel files to SkyDrive (and removing the Office Document Uploader, the bane of my existence) means I can seamlessly pick up the work on my Surface Pro or on my desktop PC. No worries about not backing up, losing a hard drive, breaking a USB stick, yadda, yadda ….
- Writing with a group means you’re disciplined about it. I give credit to my friends Julie and Roux for their consistent encouragement, as well as my whole chain-gang of WriteOn! colleagues who made things more palatable and certainly more pastry-filled. I hosted a Saturday-morning write-in that, over the month, logged almost 95,000 words among our motley cast of characters. Plus, I won the “Word War Benevolent Leader” award at the Ottawa County/Grand Rapids regional TGIO party and the “Most Likely to Carry a Sub in His Car” award from Jessica’s Kentwood Library write-in. W00t.
- I’m a reviser. I write fairly slowly, perhaps 1,000 words per hour if I’m focused, because I write fairly clean prose on the first pass. It’s easier to reach the end if you resist the urge to re-revise already written work and instead just get things on paper.
- The folks who conduct the annual event remind us that, really, NaNoWriMo isn’t about writing a novel. It’s about getting the first 50k words of a novel’s “zero draft” down. The real work comes with subsequent addition, revision, editing, etc. I agree with this sentiment: I “won” but I haven’t yet written a novel. But I’ve got enough of a novel done now that to decline to finish would be a tremendous waste. The 50k mark gets you not to the end, but to the point of no return: You’re committed, so use December and the months following to wrap things up.
So what’s next? Well, I’m taking two weeks off for the end-of-December holiday season. I have sundry tasks planned for myself, but chief among them is to bring the novel up to roughly 85,000 words, plus or minus five grand. And there’s plenty of opportunity to augment it — I have some notes about scenes I need to beef up, one whole scene I need to add for context, some holes to plug … and I must straighten one of the two subplots so it’s got a stronger element of interpersonal struggle about it.
Beyond that, I’ve got a few folks who have volunteered to read the draft. I intend to give it to them so they can hack it to pieces (I don’t want nice reviews, I want mean ones — the mean ones help improve the quality of the final draft).
The novel is straight genre: It’s a detective fiction, set in modern-day Grand Rapids, with a not-entirely-loveable main character who, I think, grows a bit by the end. Sex and violence are present but muted and not at all graphic – this is probably a PG-13 book — and expletives are reserved for occasional bits of dialogue for certain characters. I’ve left the door open for this concept and the primary cast of characters to turn into a series. Maybe volume No. 2 comes with 2014 NaNo?
I think I can get this into a form ready for release to an agent. Assuming I win the 1-percent-chance lottery of finding one. If late spring rolls around and I have no bites on the manuscript, off to Amazon it goes at $2.99 a pop.
One of my bucket-list items was “Write a novel.” The draft of Sanctuary is rough, but in good shape. I’m happy with it. I crossed the NaNoWriMo finish line, now I need to bring November’s work product past the finish line, too.
Posted on 28 November 2013 | No responses
The last time Tony and I recorded a podcast episode, he tried to wish me a happy Thanksgiving but stumbled his way toward telling me “Thanksgiving blessings.” Which, then, degenerated into a series of giggles at the odd turn of phrase. But Thanksgiving does, indeed, provide a window for at least reflecting on the blessings we do enjoy. I’m grateful for:
- Living in the United States, which — despite the bitter partisan nature of contemporary electoral politics — remains a beacon of hope for so many poor and oppressed souls around the world.
- Enjoying a nice home with modern utilities and antique charm, courtesy of a landlord who’s also a friend.
- Having a family with whom I may happily break bread tomorrow, or at least talk to by email.
- The opportunity to write this blog post with two sweet feline overlords within arms’ reach, who are sleeping peacefully upon their pillows.
- The chance to make my world-famous spicy sausage jambalaya tonight, which I’ll enjoy by a wood fire with a book, a glass or two of delicious Spanish wine and Bach playing in the background.
- The drive to “win” NaNoWriMo this year and, next month, polish a draft of a real, honest-to-goodness novel.
- A meaningful job that brings ample opportunity to explore and implement ways to improve public health.
- My friends in West Michigan, especially the motley crew of writers with whom I associate.
- A reliable four-wheel-drive SUV that can plow through the snow accumulating outside my window.
- Our podcast and the friends across the world we’ve made because of it.
- Knowing that if I had an emergency and had to place a dreaded 3 a.m. call, that people would answer.
- Experiencing the joy of being the inaugural house guest of PPQ and The Good Doctor this week.
- Having a life plan and making progress toward achieving Big Things.
- Cigar and cocktail evenings and the relationships built from them.
- Having finally made that Isle Royale trip earlier this year.
We can always find things to complain about, or discern opportunities to make things better. Thus shall it always be. Harder is the task, though, of reflecting upon what is and finding joy in it — joy without caveat.
Today, be grateful. Without reservation or evasion. Be content with what is, and let tomorrow worry about what will be.
Thanksgiving blessings to you all.
Posted on 17 November 2013 | No responses
Time flies when you’re noveling.
So my participation in National Novel Writing Month is proceeding better than I expected. I’m actually above my target word count for this point in the month, coming in somewhere just north of 27,000 words. I like my story: It’s mainstream detective fiction, set in Grand Rapids, about a murder and a neo-pagan cult that’s not what it seems. My main character is a private investigator whose primary subplot revolves around his dating foibles, with some color commentary on bisexuality in West Michigan.
With the time off I intend to take around the December holidays, I plan to get the novel to roughly 80,000 words and streamline the prose well enough to admit to editing by others, with a goal of pitching it to an agent or self-publishing on Amazon. The choice of straight genre and localization were deliberately planned to improve potential commercial prospects for the final manuscript.
Because of the writing, I’ve had little time for much else. I’m behind on emails and I’ve effectively shut down the Jason Help Line this month. The only things other than writing that I’ve continued to handle are the podcast and some very light contract work. Oh, and setting up a Facebook group for my 20-year high school reunion. Lord a’mercy, I’m getting old. Graduation day is closer to my date of birth than to today.
One of the big time-sinks from NaNoWriMo isn’t necessarily the writing, but the community of writing. Every day but Friday and Sunday I have a November writers’ event — and the one on Saturdays, I host. It’s great for camaraderie and for bolstering word count, but it’s time not spent on the myriad other things that would normally occupy my time in any month other than November. Last week’s Day of Knockout Noveling was fun (but given the high sugar content, not super productive). I do try to write from home, but Fiona d’Cat has taken to laying on my forearms and chest whenever I recline in my office chair.
On the bright side, I’ll have some focused time the week after next. With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, I’ll have some catch-up time (if I need it) and because I’m making classroom visits to the east side of the state for the International Year of Statistics that week, I’ll have some time at Detroit-area cigar bars to write, enjoy a premium cigar and possible a dram of Scotch or five.
Posted on 27 October 2013 | 1 response
Wow. Six weeks without a post? Where does the time go?
Oh, wait. I know. I goes into the giant pile of crap I have to work on — a pile that’s grown so large that even my ironclad weekly routines fell by the wayside. At least Abbi noticed.
Here’s a quick recap, in no particular order.
- It’s October 27. That means we’re a scant five days away from the start of National Novel Writing Month. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m working on a murder-mystery set in Grand Rapids. With cults, even. (Er, um, affinity groups … sorry, Lianne.) I’m hosting a weekly Saturday morning write-in in lovely downtown G-Rap. If you join NaNoWriMo and click on the Ottawa County/Grand Rapids forums, you can get the details.
- Last week was spent in Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada. Exclusively downtown, this time. Tony and I flew out of DTW on the 17th and returned on the 20th. Our major adventure: The Vegas Internet Mafia Family Picnic, an annual community event hosted by the VegasTripping crowd and the Five Hundy by Midnight and Vegas Gang podcasts. We had a great time — stayed at The D Las Vegas and never even ventured onto the Strip. It helped that our good friends from Denton, Texas, were present to enliven the festivities. And we finally connected with some folks we heretofore had only known through The Twitter.
- In early October I trekked to Louisville, Kentucky, for the annual educational conference of the National Association for Healthcare Quality. The conference was pretty good, and I networked with a lot of leaders in the industry. Met up with the Michigan delegation and spent some time getting a different take on how other organizations implement clinical improvement programs.
- I do feel like the grim reaper at work. Dominoes three and four have fallen since my arrival. One guy is transferring to the I.T. department and another left to pursue a solo entrepreneurial project. Good for them both. Last week I had my annual review and it went well — best review I’ve had in 13 years with the company.
- A contract client has been sending me several small but urgent projects that have thrown my schedule out of whack. I’m happy to do the work but, geez. Now y’all know why it’s been six weeks since my last blog entry.
- I’m eagerly anticipating the coming holiday season. I’m taking two full weeks off at the Christmas holiday and I have a four-day weekend for Thanksgiving. Already planning the list of projects I’ll undertake on my 16 consecutive days off in December. Yay.
- Looks like my dear PPQ is hosting a Halloween party next Saturday. I am already planning my costume.
- One of my cats has taken to napping on me. It’s sweet, and fuzzy warm, but she only does it when I’m in my office, trying to type. Your words-per-minute plummet sharply when you have a pudgy orange ninja laying across your forearms.
- I’m digging the cooler autumn air. It’s been getting into the 30s at night, so the blankets have come out.
OK, all for now. I’ll try to get back on the blogging wagon.
Posted on 15 September 2013 | No responses
Every year, upon the sad occasion of the commemoration of my birth in the far-away and ever-receding year of 1976, I offer a reflection on the year gone by, tempered with aspirations for the year ahead.
So, in terms of Year No. 36:
- Overall, good.
- My health has been stable. I’m in exactly the same physical condition today as I was turning 35 and 36. I’m not nearly as healthy as I was at 30, but I’m considerably more healthy than I was at 27.
- The “day job” has engendered much turmoil and gnashing of teeth. I went from leading a team of nine analysts in the hospital’s revenue cycle space, to being the odd man out in a report-writing department in I.T., to moving to the Quality Improvement team of the health insurance company. The flip to Q.I. required an application and an entity transfer, but I’m glad I did it. In fiscal 2013, I had six — six! — formal uplines in the payroll system. Started with Mary, then Tracey, then Big Jason, then Hollie, then Meghan, then Bob. You learn flexibility in a hurry in that kind of environment.
- The podcast has exploded in popularity. The last year has really seen a lot of cool engagement, thanks in part to the support of our friends at 360 Vegas, Denton Dallas & Beyond and Access Vegas. My unofficial estimate is that, conservatively, we probably have between 3,000 and 5,000 listeners per show. We don’t have any insight into the volumes through the biggest distribution channels (iTunes, Stitcher) but looking at a mix of RSS feed analytics and file-access stats on the server, and using a little trick I call “math,” I’m confident that we’ve more than doubled our audience in the last year.
- Engagement with my writers’ group has proceeded well. I was much more successful (although not a “50k winner”) for last year’s National Novel Writing Month. Over the first half of 2013, I wrote several short stories set in my writers’ group fictional city of Mechlanberg. I also made good contacts with national trade magazines for future freelance work while making contact (thanks, James!) with a non-fiction book editor who’s interested in some of my pitches. Add me being a finalist for a copy editor role for a prestigious national journal … and yes. Progress.
- ‘Twas a good year for travel. I managed a few small trips (e.g., to Horseshoe Hammond for the Midwest Smoke Out) as well as some bigger ones, like Las Vegas in the late winter — for the 360 Vegas Vacation — and Isle Royale National Park in the late spring.
- Nearly four years ago, I totaled my vehicle in an at-fault accident. In the last year, the long-awaited lawsuits wound their way through the legal system. The upside is that I really have a much deeper understanding of my current financial position and expect to be 100 percent debt-free and ahead of the curve for retirement savings over the next few years.
- Oh, and I have kitties now. They are sweet, even if one of them thinks his solemn duty is to serve as my alarm clock irrespective of my intended wake-up time. Nothing says “good morning, sunshine” like a cat’s head mere inches from yours, meowing loudly, and for which a few pats on the head serve only as a three-minute snooze button.
- Much to my mother’s chagrin, I’ve let my hair grow longer. It’s now below the shoulders. I have some ideas for what I want to do with it, eventually, but I need even more length for it. Maybe after the new year.
And for Year No. 37:
- Goal No. 1 is to get back into fighting form again. The biggest contributor to my own weight gain is stress, and over the last year I’ve methodically eliminated the biggest stressors (the job, the lawsuit). I’ve signed up for the mailing list for a marathon next summer — it’s a trail run in Newaygo County — and set up the stuff I need in the bedroom to use the exercise bike again. I find it much easier to exercise in the fall/winter than in the summer.
- I continue with writing. I’ve been getting the novel bug in ways that my friend Duane has mentioned, and I may have an in with a non-fiction book agent. I want to “win” NaNo this year, but in the sense of writing something that is worth publishing. The non-fic lead may actually grease the wheels a bit.
- I’m already slotted for some travel — in October, a business conference in Louisville and then the Vegas Internet Mafia Family Picnic in Las Vegas — and would love to return to Isle Royale next spring. Some folks have already expressed an interest in going with me to IRNP. I’d welcome something more remote, too. Maybe Denali, or out of the country. I can also envision a road trip to Las Vegas that includes some camping at Red Rock Canyon and a swing back through Texas.
- I’ve penciled in more scuba classes and General-class radio licensure.
- Biggest plan is to hunker down this fall and winter. I have a rough idea of what I want to do, and on what schedule, between now and Dec. 31. It’ll help, too, that I plan to take a full two weeks off at the holidays, so I can jump into 2014 with a leg up.
- I’ve started conversations about continuing my higher education. I actually went to Kalamazoo last week for an aborted meeting about the interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Evaluation from WMU. Still looking at that program, as well as the M.S. biostats program at GVSU.
I know I mentioned it last year, but I think it bears repeating: My earlier revulsion to aging has been replaced by a twofold new perspective. On one hand, I’m more determined to live a life worth a robust obit, so I’ve been a bit more intense about the things that matter from a 50,000-foot view. On the other hand, much of the ignorant passion of youth has yielded to a “been there, done that, life continues” mindset that no longer sweats the small stuff. Many of the stumbles that seem so serious in your 20s … really aren’t. And it takes the benefit of experience to cut through the crap.
Right now, I’m stable and reasonably happy and I have a plan. My 36th year was good, and I intend to use it as a platform for an even better 37th year.
Posted on 8 September 2013 | No responses
The drip-drip-drip of information related to the leak of classified surveillance information by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has re-focused the debate about balancing liberty and security in an increasingly interconnected, digital world.
We now know, for example, that the NSA has basically cracked almost all routine Internet encryption, including SSL — the same technology that you rely upon when you submit your online banking information or log in to your insurance company. The NSA has some sort of agreement with all the major domestic tech companies and can effectively subvert pretty much all smartphone security. It’s even been alleged that the NSA has deliberately tampered with standards and coerced large commercial security venders to plant secret backdoors.
Are you OK with this? Are you OK with a government that feels justified in breaking or bending the law to sweep up protected information about U.S. citizens? Are you willing to nod respectfully to President Obama when he smiles and says, “Let me be clear: Trust me!” Do you believe a government that screwed up the Affordable Care Act and laughed about shovel-ready jobs while the IRS targeted ideological opponents will somehow be pure as the wind-driven snow when it comes to citizen metadata in the hands of the FBI, CIA and NSA?
(Hint: Apparently, intelligence operatives illegally peering at ex-lover files occurred often enough that it was given a humorous inside-the-NSA code name of “LOVEINT.” Think about that.)
Take, for context, the security theater that occurs at every airport in the United States. American citizens, possessed of an inherent right to travel, are nevertheless subjected to sundry humiliations like shoe removal, nude body scans and invasive luggage searches. Unless, of course, you feel like paying the Transportation Security administration $85 and agree to being fingerprinted. The rationale? To protect Americans from terrorism. The reality? You have better statistical odds of being struck by lightning while being infected by the Ebola virus than you do of perishing in an act of terrorism. The TSA’s response is wildly disproportionate to the risk, but we nevertheless take off our shoes and belts at the airport — and sometimes witness children, the elderly and disabled veterans be subjected to humiliating personal searches — just to look like Uncle Sam is being effective.
You know how you saddle-break a horse? Start by throwing a blanket over its back. Let it adjust. Then add a saddle. Adjust. Then a bridle. Adjust. Then sit on top. Adjust. Before you know it, the horse thinks the rider is a natural extension of itself, even though horseback riding is — from the horse’s perspective — a raw deal. TSA is saddle-breaking Americans to accept an intrusive security regime. We should all be wary of that.
There’s an old saying: To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. To a man with a security clearance and a defense contract, every problem looks like an opportunity for paramilitary-style surveillance operations with cool code names and the feelings of importance that come from being on Big Brother’s inside. The most significant philosophical problem with America’s current surveillance fixation isn’t whether it’s effective: It’s whether the folks manning the security state understand that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
American-style security remains averse to human risk, so it relies on a dragnet. Instead of putting boots on the ground — in neighborhoods, or in hostile zones — America’s guardians prefer to suck up data and then pretend that they can divine meaning out of it. We’re masters of collecting everything but understanding little. Yet time and again, the default response to a public threat is to build yet another agency, pilfer ever more data, inconvenience Americans ever more directly … and without any real, obvious payoff. So, we hoover up the data, fire up the drones and pretend like it’s effective. We do that, in lieu of sending cops on the street, spies in the field and Tomahawks into the terrorist caves.
Al-Qaeda’s still here. And thanks to them, we have the TSA. Want to bet whether al-Qaeda would be around today if 9/11 had happened to the Israelis? Or the Chinese? Or the Russians?
Think of the current Intelligence Community like a project manager at your place of employment. The goal is a good outcome, but the process can unfold in myriad ways. Some PMs balance research with experimentation. Others obsess about information and are reluctant to act outside of authority. Others still rely on relationships to muddle through. There’s no one right way to run a project — just like there’s no one right way to protect a country — but some methods admit to better relative balance than others. Right now, Uncle Sam’s instinct seems to be to avoid direct confrontation and instead play with numbers. There are plenty of advantages to this strategy, but there are some real downsides, too.
So what would a well-balanced security regime look like?
- Airline travel would restore a bit of sanity. Cockpit reinforcement pretty much solved the pre-9/11 hijacking problem. Add armed sky marshals to the mix, to maybe two-thirds of flights — or better yet, provide some degree of combat or weapons training to flight crews — and the problem is solved without citizens having to surrender their nail clippers and bottles of water. Sure, I’ll be X-rayed to make sure I’m not bringing loaded firearms in the passenger cabin, but beyond that, extra security is more illusion than salvation.
- Citizens should enjoy a right to anonymity — not just from the government, but also from commercial data aggregators. I own my data. I own my data profile. Neither the government nor private companies should be allowed to collect information about me beyond what I explicitly authorize, or beyond the minimum requirements of reasonable laws. Companies like Axciom and Radaris and Facebook and Google and the like, which spy on online transactions and pattern-match consumer behavior to create elaborate dossiers about individual citizens — ought to be very, very strictly opt-in.
- Encryption should be impervious to sweeps by government agencies. If I want to encrypt my hard drive or send secret email, so what? Who’s business is it, anyway? Slyly suggesting that only criminals or terrorists use encryption is a clever bit of misdirection, but it’s patently false, too. As a matter of law, I as a citizen am entitled to security in my communications. That’s baked into the Fourth Amendment. If you think I’m breaking the law, investigate. Note, however, that investigation isn’t just electronic surveillance. It’s also sending a cop on the beat.
- The “officer safety” rationale for SWAT-style policing must be put out to pasture. Reason magazine has done some yeoman reporting about the increasing reliance of domestic police agencies to go full-SWAT on even routine warrant service. Barge in the wrong house, shoot the family dog, and say, “Well, it was all for officer safety.” That’s bullshit. Police officers aren’t overlords; they’re citizens, too. And they need to play by the same rules as everyone else. Including regarding videotaping.
- Intelligence-gathering operations should favor HUMINT over SIGINT. America seems to think it can enjoy supremacy without blood loss. That error will someday come back to bite us in the butt — the first terrorist organization or foreign government that learns how to hack the NSA basically cuts us off at the knees. Americans are masters of signals intelligence — Internet monitors, spy satellites, drones — but we suck at connecting the dots (remember the “Saddam has WMD” line?) through experienced human intelligence. Our personnel, who aren’t all that deeply embedded in hot spots around the world, lack subtle clues borne of cultural familiarity to help sift the wheat from the chaff. We need to get out from behind the computer monitor and spend more time infiltrating agents into terrorist cells and hostile governments.
- Routine monitoring must meet minimal safety requirements and be routinely scrubbed. Stuff like RFID-tagged license plates ought to be off-limits. DNA databases, too. Traffic cameras — useful for real-time monitoring — should be erased after a brief period (12 or 24 hours). There’s no good reason to maintain vast archives of data about citizens. Any suspected wrongdoing may generate a warrant to segregate some archival data, but beyond that — delete it. Permanently.
Security isn’t something that can be erected, like a moat. It must be nurtured with good sense, expert judgment and tactical flexibility. America’s systems today are a case study in why the Maginot Line failed to protect the French in 1940: Just when you think you’ve built strong enough safeguards to keep the bad guys at bay, they find a way around … and when they do, you’re utterly unprepared for the consequences.
America can do better. We can have better security policies that don’t impinge upon citizen liberty. The question is, Will we do the right thing, even though it’s harder, or do the convenient thing that’s less effective but easier to demagogue?
Posted on 1 September 2013 | No responses
My friend Duane has been working on a new novel. I’m quite happy for him — he does best when the Muse has granted him some attention.
I’m somewhat in the same boat. I’m on a four-day holiday right now, but because I don’t have my tablet (dropped it, cracked the screen, and it’s currently being swapped for a replacement), I’m kinda stuck at my desk. Which is a challenge when the cats decide that Desk Time = Petting Time and I’m too much of a softie to shoo them away.
Anyway, I’ve had a growing sentiment that the time is nigh to get more serious about book-length writing. In the past, it’s been a bit of a fancy. Now, I’m seeing it more as an essential part of who I am. Much of that focus comes from my monthly writer’s group; we don’t do much writing together but being with like-minded souls of varying degrees of experience helps considerably.
It occurred to me, retrospectively, that my thinking has transitioned away from “quit the job and be a writer” to just “write.” Like it’s not a career strategy but a creative impulse. My experience with NaNoWriMo last year helped. And my various plotting sessions for my next attempt serve like bike rides without training wheels.
Duane once told me that he gets an idea. Then it percolates. He thinks he should do something, but doesn’t. Then he gets more ideas, and soon they come in a flood. Then he just has to write. And he does.
I’m feeling a flood.