On Politics 4: The Adviser

Like a clear majority of the voting electorate I’ve watched the pre-presidential developments around the Trump White House with trepidation, interest, and a bit of raw fear. The president-elect somehow didn’t get the memo I sent him. He hasn’t made any real governance decisions as yet– even the recent lightning round of cabinet appointments is still subject to Mr. Trump’s whims and/or mood swings, and I’d be a fool to think that anything is set in stone.

Encouraged by recent developments or not, I still maintain that a positive public face is still superior to ideological name calling or hair pulling. So, I’m going to continue my little game of make believe and continue to publicly advise the presumed next president of the United States. A letter every week or two– delivered also to his inbox, though its been widely reported that neither presidential candidate knew how to use a computer, maybe an intern will occasionally print something out for him thrust his lower lip out at in a simulation of consideration?

Since I’m not an actual wizard

–Probably–

I don’t think this will influence policy or change any minds. However, giving the president-elect some pre-impeachment civility and constructive criticism– does he really think that not reading the daily briefings will insulate him?– for a year or so is bound to result in an interesting record. I promise not to cry in public where you can see me.

Dear Mister President-elect:

This is an open letter, the first– well second I’ve sent you, but the first one in a planned series– of many. You’ve got a presidency of unknowable length ahead of you, and I plan to use these to comment on the year or so. I hope you find them entertaining if not instructive; I know that it’s pretty unlikely you’ll see them at all. This is more of a record of my own thoughts than a missive for you, but if somehow someone prints it out so you can read it, if somehow any one of these letters moves you, then I’ll figure I hit the jackpot. And then I’ll keep writing. It’s the only thing I know to do.

Congratulations are in order. Regardless of recounts, Russia, and the popular vote you are headed into the White House. The Rule of Law basically guarantees this; it is one of the traditions that has marked the United States’ hundred years or so of uninterrupted imperfect greatness. I hope you will enjoy your new home even if it has remarkably little gold leaf on its furniture. I know you have standards.  In preparation for your time in the White House, my wife purchased pocket copies of the Constitution for all of her students. Our local combination gun shop/toy store distributes American flag pins, and we wear ours unironically.

Going into office you have some considerable challenges ahead of you– more than most American presidents, more than most world leaders. You are entering office with a clear victory in the Electoral College, but nearly a 2% deficit in the popular vote; you have the highest unfavorability rating of any incoming president in decades.The decisions you make now are going to impact your entire presidency– its efficiency, its legitimacy, and eventually its legacy.

I’m a presumptuous person. That’s the only explanation for my decision to send you unsolicited advice. Admittedly, I’ve never felt like any other U.S. president could use my help, but I’m intelligent and educated and a political outsider. I also have no foreign or domestic policy experience. Based on your staffing decisions thus far, only my education stands as a strike against me, so I’ll presume to continue but I’m going to have to set some rules for myself.

Rule 1: I’m only going to address your actions– I can’t know your reasons, and that’s okay. The actual things you do are going to matter more than your intentions, so no guesses on my part, no insinuations.

Rule 2: No name calling. Name calling is the surest way to undermine civil discussion. Be it Fuckface von Clownstick, “Crooked Hilary,” or even “deplorable” it makes it hard to engage the other side. Democracy needs multiple sides. I get that the point of an election or a Twitter war is not engagement so I’m not going to worry about other people’s histories as name callers. It is an action, though, and as the Philippines’ President Duterte has demonstrated, it can have consequences. So I won’t call you or your friends names, but any time a world leader or political rival acquires an unflattering nickname I will have to notice.

Rule 3: Constructive criticism. I’m not just going to tell you “you’re bad.” I’ll probably disagree with you a lot, but I won’t lie to you, and I won’t offer a criticism without also offering a solution.

I’m not delusional. I don’t think you’re going to read these letters. If you do read them, I don’t think you’ll see them, slap your forehead, and suddenly appoint someone with actual human experience in urban planning in charge of HUD. Sincere or not, brilliant or not, advice from strangers has less influence on our decisions than advice from trusted advisers. You’ve got advisers, trusted and otherwise, crawling all over you now. I can only hope that they’ll give you the best advice and, when the time comes, you’ll listen.

Therefore, you’re going to need better advisers. I’m not exaggerating when I say your lack of political experience is historic, and the fact that you are already having to abandon many of your pre-election promises as unworkable should clue you in to the fact that your going to need some new ideas. Ideas that could, you know, work.

You like to point out that you are a smart person. Here’s my advice to smart people, by way of 90s television. It’s at the end of the clip.

You catch that? Surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you. You still make the decisions, and you free yourself from the burden of toadies, echo chambers, and transparent manipulators. You stand a chance of being the president for all Americans you’ve said you want to be and– let’s face it– you’ll end up making decisions that are based on facts instead of guesses and opinions. Also, you might hear the word ‘kleptocrat’ a bit less often. Since it’s becoming a major vocabulary word for the American public– is 171,000 results ‘major’ enough?– I’d imagine that would be a relief.

I know you feel personal loyalty to Steven Bannon, for example. He’s a part of your victory. His ties to white supremacists are undeniable, though. People like Bannon are not going to make your presidency easier or better. Neither is Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson, Rick Perry, Ben Carson. Experienced people who care about their work are what you need. Otherwise you get a team of people each driven only by their particular prejudices and assumptions, unwilling to look at facts. People who are only looking to get something for themselves out of their newfound power. That’s how people– Americans– get hurt by their government.

You can’t make American great(er) by making it worse.

See you after Christmas

Sincerely,

Matthew Z. Wood

MA, MLS

Philosophe Stupide

On Reading 1: Christmas Ghosts

There’s a nearly-lost tradition of Christmas ghost stories. The most famous, of course, is Darles Chickens’ A Christmas Carol, where 3 spirits +1 troll a mean old man mercilessly until he becomes a better person. All joking aside, it’s a magnificent tale– one that Dickens himself considered relatively unimportant, but a story most of us know better than The Pickwick Papers or The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This is partially because it’s short– novella length, and Dickens is well known for being paid by the word for his serials. It’s also because it’s a great story. Not only is A Christmas Carol creepy, well-written, and strange, it takes an unlikable protagonist– the miser, Ebenezer McDuck– and by telling his story it humanizes him. It even humanizes him to himself, lets him forgive himself, and start giving himself to the world again. Plus, you know, Muppets.

When he wrote this story, Christmas was very nearly dead in England. Oliver Cromwell, the late Lord Protector of England, had hated fun and religious fun with no scriptural basic most of all. He had declared an actual war of Christmas… which, you know, one step lower than the actual murderwar he declared on everyone he disagreed with, but it was still really bad. This combined with the Industrial Revolution’s busier pace meant that, by Dickens’ day, fewer people could take the day off to celebrate Christmas.

The curious thing is that, in spite of all of the above, Dickens had experienced enough of the holiday to mourn its loss in prose. He didn’t anticipate the story’s incredible success– he ended up doing numerous live readings, touring not only England but also the United States, and made a huge amount of money in the process. Almost as an accident, he rekindled an interest in the holiday, both in England and on this side of the Atlantic; without this story it wouldn’t be celebrated in (largely non-Christian) Japan as the equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

And without the tradition of Christmas ghosts it wouldn’t have been written.

Christmas-themed horror movies are totally a thing and in fact 1974’s Black Christmas predated Friday the 13th (1980) and Halloween (1978) and basically invented the slasher genre. It’s also an actual good movie– not great, but good– if you’re in the market for such things. And I think we can all agree that there’s something sinister about the identical Santas that line our malls and streetcorners and those unblinking angels that sit in judgement from the tops of Christmas trees. And nothing could be scarier than the Elf on the Shelf.

With that in mind, here are some ghoulish Christmas stories, stories of ghosts, old school Irish Faeries, and other dangers to life and sanity.

Richard Chase’s Grandfather Tales is where I first encountered both the idea of Old Christmas (aka Twelfth Night– it’s off topic so Google it) and the idea that wonderful/terrible things might occur. The story “Old Christmas Eve” only ends up listing a handful of creepy stories in the margins, but I do love it and the affection the book has for these traditions.

M.R. James was perhaps the greatest ghost story writer of his era, and he made sure he had a fresh ghost story every Christmas. Either check them out here at thin-ghost.org or, if you’re feeling adventurous, trying looking up the 5 James-based stories from the BBC’s “A Ghost Story for Christmas.” My personal favorite James stories include “Casting the Runes,” “Count Magnus,” and “Lost Hearts.” “There Was a Man Dwelt By a Churchyard” is the one that’s most obviously a Christmas ghost story; it completes the never completed tale in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”

H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Festival” is a nicely creepy Yuletide story. It’s Lovecraft, so it’s all Necronomicon this and “madness from beyond the stars” that, but I like it.

E.F. Benson’s– yes, scary writers love their initials, don’t they?– “Between the Lights” is a story of croquet and Christmas ghouls, as delicious as any goose dinner.

Algergnon Blackwood has by far the most satisfying name for any horror writer ever. “The Kit-Bag” is his story of holiday travels and misplaced luggage turned murderous.

Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is the most famous of the ones I’ve opted to list here. Honestly, it gives the tradition a better known writer to attach it to, beyond Dickens and Shakespeare and Marlowe… oh wait? Are those the greatest names in English literature? Boopsie!

Finally, W.B. Yeats’ “The Twisting of the Rope” is a short, sharp shock that should remind readers that faeries aren’t all sweetness and butterfly wings, regardless of what pop culture has managed to turn them into. No one knew this better than Yeats, who loved stories of Irish magic and horror.

And of course I do love scary movies, so here’s Robert Zemeckis’ delightful short from 1989’s Tales from the Crypt. Much better and than the series– and the series episode of the same name. Enjoy!


Read and drink deep this holiday season, friends. I’ll have a seasonal tale of my own to share soon enough.

On Guests 1: Multilevels, Markets, and You

Not surprisingly, the first guest blogger on my site is the smart to my stupid, my lovely wife Liz. Liz is a Research Scientist for Washington State University, and is completing her dissertation in Disability Health Studies at UNC’s School of Public Health. She’s a genuine expert on statistics, policy, and the power of numbers in human lives.

By night, she fights crime.

Somehow, this combination brought her to Reddit. A poster was making arguments in favor of LuLaRoe, a multilevel marketing company (translation: pyramid scheme) that lets you buy their clothes so you can… sell them? There’s a $5,500 “investment” required up front, and you have to order more from them every month. The person promoting the company was advertising it as a ‘work from home’ opportunity for moms– aka ladies with no free time. Liz used the numbers provided to put together a best-case scenario for the unfortunate souls that fall into LuLaRoe’s clutches.

At least this pyramid monster is straightforward about his intentions.

The original poster did not reply back.

With her permission, I’ve excerpted her post below. While these specific numbers do not apply to every huckster, shyster, and snake-oil salesman in corporate form, feel free to apply the lesson herein more broadly.

First, here are her numbers. I have trouble trusting anyone who doesn’t want to share their data, so I don’t know why I’d ask my readers to.

Here’s her post. Enjoy.

That chart from LuLaRoe is bonkers and makes no sense as a table. I am procrastinating and did some math. Here are my assumptions, I tried to err on the side of generosity:
The LuLaRoe chart suggests that you can charge about $27.72 per piece (Gross Sales Per Month, divided by four, then divided by pieces per week as per their chart). So I rounded up to $28.

An initial cost of $5500 and 381 pieces works out to about $14.44 cost to the seller per piece, I rounded down to $14.

I honestly have no idea how to estimate how long you would deal with each piece from start to finish (ordering, receiving, storing, selling, delivering, travel, taxes, social media, and bookkeeping) but I estimated it at thirty minutes a piece (which I think is pretty low? I thought five hours a week was probably the lowest you could do for a home business).

Taxes on self-employment income run about 35%.

[...]I did the math at selling 10 pieces per week, 20, 30, etc. up to 100. If you sold ten pieces a week, you would have replaced the initial $5500 in twenty weeks (five months). (In other words, your gross income would cross the $5500 threshold at that point and not sooner.) If you sold 100 pieces per week, you would have replaced the initial $5500 in only two weeks.

(I also think the whole "pay yourself back" thing is kind of a distraction because it doesn't really account for the time costs. Assuming my assumptions are okay, you'd work for free for 98 hours before hitting the break even point, regardless of whether you got there in two weeks at 100 pieces a week or five months at 10 pieces a week.)

After the break even point, assuming the same prices, costs, and times, you could do from $136 net revenue per week (10 pieces) up to $1356 net revenue per week (100 pieces). That works out to about $27 an hour, pre-tax.

So here are some scenarios for a year, ranked from least to most profitable.

Get started, immediately quit. You are in the hole $5500, LuLaRoe is up $5500 (minus their manufacturing costs, etc.).

Get started, work until the break-even point, quit. You have neither earned nor lost money, LuLaRoe is up $5500, and you are out 98 hours of work.

Get started January 1st, sell 50 pieces a week and hit the break even point within a month. Earn $72,800 in the year (2600 pieces at $28 a pop) and pay 35% of it in taxes (leaving $47,320). Spend $29,120 on inventory (2600 pieces at $14 a pop). Net revenue is $8,736 for the year, working out to $8.40 an hour for 52 weeks of 25 hours a week.

Get started January 1st, sell 100 pieces a week and hit the break even point within two weeks. Continue to work 50 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, selling 100 pieces a week (debatable as to how doable this is while also providing childcare). Earn $145,600 in income (5200 pieces at $28 a pop) and pay 35% of it in taxes (leaving $94,640). Spend $72,800 on inventory (5200 pieces at $14 a pop). Net revenue is $21,840 for the year, working out to $8.40 an hour for 52 weeks of 50 hours a week.

That is a lot of risk to take on and a lot of hours to be in the bottom quartile of earnings for the U.S. with no health insurance. [...] I would proceed with caution.

On Politics 3: Open Letter to a President

Dear President Obama,

I know a part of you is probably looking forward to January 20. You’ve done the most exhausting job in the world for 8 years and you’ll finally have a chance to rest. A goodly portion of yourself– and myself, if I’m honest– is also probably dreading the day. The transition from ‘leader of the free world’ to ‘ex-president’ must be a strange one under any circumstances. How much stranger is it this year? How hard must it be to voluntarily give up the reins of power when no one can do more than guess at what a Trump presidency is going to mean for– and do to– this country?

I respect you all the more for handling the transition like an adult, though. I haven’t always agreed with you or your policies, but I have always appreciated the maturity you brought to the Oval Office. I thought it was a much needed commodity after the W. Bush years, a time when most Executive officials spoke to the American people like they were children asking annoying questions and when the Executive himself talked to the people and the press like a frat boy being forced to apologize for breaking the world economy.

God, how I’ll miss those days.

I voted for you twice. Some would take issue with this, but you did a lot of uniting. Not just our first black president but our first nerd president; hip-hop fans, comic book fans, and even basketball fans could all relate to you. You bridged the gap between jocks and nerds in your own person, and looked good doing it. You worked hard, but when you decided to meet with celebrities or with little kids dressed as Spider-Man you were obviously having a blast. You were a complete human being throughout your presidency and, even though you’re hardly universally beloved, I think you raised the standard there. Your successors might find themselves trying a little bit harder to be a little bit cooler as a result. Cooler in a “be nice to kids and old people” way. That makes me smile.

obamaspiderman

One of the true landmark moments from your first campaign was when you spoke to the American people about race. You talked to us not just like an adult, but like we were also adults. Thank you for that. You briefly elevated the discussion, changed what was possible if only for a little while. It was up to the rest of the nation to take the cue after that. I feel like we missed our cue, missed a lot of opportunities. I’m not surprised that things didn’t go perfectly, though, just a bit wistful.

I think people will remember your achievements… you know, eventually. I think historians will look back on your record of domestic success favorably. You successfully reformed the nation’s health care system– not perfectly, but successfully. My wife’s a policy expert and more than once she’s told me that the ACA (Obamacare, if you must) will probably survive as long as the pharmaceutical and insurance lobby wants it to survive. Big institutions don’t like big chaos; she’s right that it will probably outlive the 2-4 years I figure Trump will stay in office.

You and your right hand, Hilary Rodham, oversaw the death of Osama bin Laden, one of America’s greatest enemies. Mixed feelings about political assassinations aside, this was clearly a substantial victory, one that few could gainsay. That’s why your detractors generally forget about it, along with how your policies pulled us back from the brink of economic collapse. You spent 8 years trying to do the best things for this country, trying to pull it out of a hole that had taken 8 years of deregulation to dig, and trying to make sensible, fact-based decisions that would help Americans. And getting yelled at about imaginary attempts to take away people’s guns.

And now all I hear is that we’re now in a “post-fact” era.

discostu

Eras don’t last forever and some are remarkably short. Gone is the era of iPods, of landlines, of Disco Stu memes and all your base belonging to us. This whole “post-fact” thing might be more of a trend, we might be in more of a “post-Pokemon” era.

I think actions, words, and even morality have to be based on facts to mean anything. So… here’s hoping?

Even if the past 8 years had gone perfectly we’d probably be exactly where we are today. But I’m glad you were my president. You brought competence back to the White House; in spite of intransigent legislatures you tried to focus on real problems. Even when I didn’t agree with your solutions, I at least agreed that ISIS and the healthcare crisis were real problems endangering and harming Americans. You didn’t get bogged down in the endless nonsense that your Congress lived and breathed. As often as possible you rose above it.

You were a winner. Based on the recent Electoral College outcome– though not the popular vote— we got tired of winning. But I never saw you lose, sir. And yes, I would have preferred fewer drone strikes. I would have preferred a harder line with Syria, with Russia. I would have preferred no prison in Guantanamo. Most of all, I preferred an executive who made hard decisions and cared about the results but wasn’t destroyed by them. That’s what I got. Thanks Obama!

Respectfully yours,

M.Z. Wood

MA, MLS

Philosophe Stupide

On Writing 2: NaNoWriMo: Autopsy of a November

I never officially signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year. Their website was overloaded on November 1st and wouldn’t let me on. After the first day I was already writing, so it didn’t seem like a good use of my time.

I'll happily download images from their site, though.

I’ll happily download images from their site, though.

Like so many of the other official things about NaNoWriMo, signing up wasn’t really the point. Writing 50,000 words wasn’t really the point. Finishing a novel in 30 days wasn’t really the point.

The point was to start building something, and to learn from the process. So here’s my breakdown on November 2016, what went right, what went wrong, how I’m feeling now, and a few numbers to hopefully connect my statements with reality.

First, my raw output was 25,988 words, which is less than my goal, but is still about 115 pages double-spaced. My first Masters thesis was about 90 pages long, my second 75; I wrote over 40 pages in 8 hours for my MLS comprehensive exam. I’ve certainly written faster in my life, but this is not just the longest piece of fiction I’ve worked on in my life. Halfway through, this is already the longest document I’ve ever written. It’s not perfect, and entire days’ worth of work are not very good, and most importantly it’s not done. I’m convinced it’s worth finishing, so I feel pretty great about that.

In terms of my work breakdown, I worked 17 of the 30 days in November. I only have daycare 4 weekdays right now; my wife works 5 days a week and my in-laws work more than that. My daughter, perfect and wonderful as all daughters are, is 3 years old and not yet independent enough to play by herself for an hour if I ask her for some time. However, my wife was generous and made sure to protect my time on weekends, so I typically got between 2-4 hours of writing in on a given Sunday afternoon. I also took the day off after the election to feel angry and depressed and to write an ad hominem filled open-letter to Donald Trump. I spent half of the following day writing the much more productive letter that I published on this site, but I also made my quota that day so it counts as a writing day.

Thanksgiving kind of kicked my butt in a different way. Yes, it was only one additional day off away from my computer, but I didn’t write that weekend either. I didn’t even make the attempt. Monday ended up being a 500 word day because I couldn’t get my feet back under me. Tuesday I spent an absurd amount of time doing necessary but exhausting chores– airplane tickets are even harder to buy when you’re spending someone else’s money– and probably wrote around 200 words at the very tail-end of the day. However, those 200 words felt absurdly good.

Mathematically, I didn’t meet my quota for my daily word count. I regularly managed to write 1,600 words a day, and on good days I broke 2,000 words. Bad days where I wrote 500-800 words hurt my average more than I thought, though– only counting the days I worked, I ended up with an average of 1,500 words a day. My first feeling is to chastise myself– 100 words is a mere handful, I can easily write that in a quarter hour. As a person who has spent half his life yelling at his brain– and the other half on his brain yelling back– it’s not a very useful response. If I got 1,500 words a day written for 4 days a week for a year I’d be thrilled! I’d also probably have a few books written. I think the better lesson is that if I write for many days in a row then it feels good and I get things done.

Sundays afternoons were some of my most productive writing days, sometimes resulting in over 2,000 words. I think knowing that someone else was making a sacrifice for me, and knowing that I only had a little bit of time for work, helped. I also didn’t have to worry about soloing my little girl as I got her ready for pre-school, driving her in, and then trying to change my entire mindset as I sat down and stared at a blank screen. It was a short enough time that I didn’t have to worry much about food, exercise, and bathroom breaks either. To apply this lesson, I’m going to try setting aside smaller blocks of writing time as absolute and sacrosanct. As the saying goes, I’ll poop when I’m dead, amIright?

Iamnotright

#Iamnotright

A lot of the things I’ve learned from the last 30 days are things I technically already knew. Life gets in the way of creation. The only way to do something is to stop thinking about it and do it. That angry, confused Twitterbot less than half of voters elected is going to be a grotesque hybrid of Silvio Berlusconi and Warren Harding. I feel better when I get to the gym. Obvious stuff, really. By actually doing the experiment, though, I’ve proved that I don’t have to work obsessively. I just need to work consistently. I don’t have to rewrite every scene until it’s perfect. I need to write every scene, learn from them as I write them, and be prepared for the arduous editing process to come.

This time next year, I’ll have a finished novel. It won’t be published, but if I’m lucky some of my friends will like the first chapter well enough to show it to their agents. If I’m not lucky… I’ve still written a novel about a reluctant teenage supervillain. My life and the world will be immeasurably– in the strictest sense, because good luck measuring this stuff– better for my work. And I’ll have a whole new fictional world to play around in.

Plus, Peter and Tink aren’t even in The Neverworld yet. I haven’t even gotten to the good stuff yet! WE CAN’T STOP HERE, THIS IS BAT COUNTRY!

Never stop here, friends. Everywhere is Bat Country.