AWESOMEness

When I was thinking about pitching TEOH to publishers, I wrote a book proposal to summarize the book and its target audience.  I brainstormed some of the adjectives I would use to describe the book’s point of view.  The first three that came to mind were “Scientific, Agnostic, and Moderate.”  That gave the acronym SAM.  Pretty bland!  In an early draft of my proposal, I wrote,

The book champions a scientific, agnostic, existential, objective, moderate outlook.

Now I was up to the acronym SAEOM, which was unwieldy and didn’t make any sense.  With a little thought, I realized that I was anagramatically close to AWESOME.  I just needed a W word and another E word.  Then it clicked …

Agnostic + Worldly + Existential +  Scientific + Objective + Moderate + Educated =

awesome

In our world of hype, the AWESOME voice easily gets lost.  Religion is considered to be righteous, and the irreligious are still lumped in with communists and fringe extremists.  News programs love to interview guests at the far left and far right to get opposing strong opinions.  Political parties force politicians into dramatically polarized teams.  Conspiracy theorists, religious fundamentalists, and bitter cynics dominate every online forum.  Nationalism is still a matter of pride, and globalism is viewed with suspicion despite all its clear benefits.

Beliefs, biases, opinions, allegiances, and emotions all have their place.  Yet if your goal is to truly understand the world we live in, you must try to rise above these distractions.  You can’t take sides or get married to preconceived notions.  You have to be agnostic, worldly, existential, scientific, objective, moderate, and educated.

In a series of follow-up posts, I will delve into each of these words and further define what it means to be AWESOME!

 

As far as I can tell, the image credit belongs to Yoyo Games.  If you own rights to the image and wish to correct this attribution or remove it from this page, please let me know! 

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Write first, publish later

After writing two chapters of TEOH, I took time off to study the publishing world.  The standard advice for a non-fiction book is to (1) get an agent, (2) submit a book proposal, including two completed chapters, to editors at publishing houses.  That was my intended path for quite a long time.  Eventually, I came to feel that this isn’t the right choice for me.  I am going to write first, publish later.

What is the point of submitting a book proposal to publishers before the book is finished?  For most writers, it is to find out whether the book is worth finishing.  If the proposal does not attract publishing interest, the writer will drop the book and try another one.  I don’t need that kind of approval.  I am committed to writing TEOH whether anybody ever publishes it or not!  It’s a personal life goal for me.

For some authors, a publishing contract provides an advance on royalties — a sizeable up-front payment.  This can help pay for research and travel.  If an author has a good relationship with the publisher, his advance can even buy him six months to a year of free time to focus on the book!  That wouldn’t apply to me, though.  I’m a non-famous, first-time writer.  I’d be lucky to get a publishing deal, let alone an advance.  I would expect my advance to be a nice round number like zero dollars and zero cents.

Chasing down agents — and then publishers — would be hard work.  I have no illusion that publishing is easy.  Rather than spend my time researching agents, calling, emailing, and arranging meetings, I’d rather be building up the book and online presence.

In fact, if I did get a publishing contract, it would instantly create time pressure.  The publisher would probably expect to see a completed draft in a year.  Without an advance, I wouldn’t have the time to devote to that.  I don’t like being hurried!  I would also be handing over artistic control while the work is still in progress.  I’d rather have the luxury of finishing the book on my own time and my own terms.  Then I can pitch it to publishers, with a completed manuscript on hand — and of course explore self-publishing options too.

With that decision made, it was very exciting to finally get back to writing.  “Chapter 9:  The Last Few Billion Years” is now in progress!  Here is my working outline of sections:

  • Oxygen and Eukaryotes (done)
  • Sexual Reproduction, or “The unsexiest lesson about sex that you’ve ever seen.” (in progress)
  • How Sexual Evolution Works
  • From Amoeba to Amphibians
  • Continents and Climate

I liked writing the first and last chapters first.  I’m thinking that I’d like to continue that pattern, writing from the outside in.  That means “Chapter 2:  The Last Few Centuries” would follow Chapter 9.

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Chapter 10 is now a real “chapter”

I posted chapters 10 and 1 early this year, and then took time off to study the publishing world.  I learned very quickly that my chapters were far too long.  The appropriate length for a large book is about 100,000 words, meaning that each chapter of this book should be around 10,000, say 8,000 – 12,000 words.  In my first draft, Chapter 10 was 20,000 words long.  Chapter 1, at 60,000 words, was almost long enough to be its own book!  At first, I toyed with the idea of pitching the print version of the book as a five-volume set.  I only had to contact two or three publishers to learn that they had no interest in such a project.  I understood that I’d have to condense each completed chapter to about 12,000 words or less.  Certainly the first and last will be two of the longest chapters in the completed book.

I am happy to announce that the 2nd draft of Chapter 10 is now finished and posted online.  It is now down to just under 12,000 words.  It’s been several months.  Writing has been unusually slow this year.  As I mentioned, I took off the first half of the year to study the writing / publishing industry and to set up this website.  Then my life was completely dominated by a move through the summer and fall.

It was a very interesting project to rewrite and shorten this material.  Cutting Chapter 10 in half forced me to be more broad and sparing in detail.  I felt it become less like a dissertation and more like a popular science book.  That has its pros and cons.  As a consumer item and a pitch to publishers, it will have to be easily readable.  Even as an educational tool, it is best to keep it simple.  As a lifelong goal, though, I would like TEOH to be a serious research project with original insights and thorough arguments (I consider it my honorary PhD dissertation at the School of Life).  For economy of words, I am being forced to reduce much of my analysis to surface conclusions.  I think that the hybrid solution is to continue with the single-volume version, and then eventually expand each chapter into its own short book.

The next step, then, is reducing Chapter 1 to legitimate chapter-size. This will be a hell of a challenge.  I need to slash that chapter down to 20% of its current size.  I will try to finish that this year.  Then I’ll be able to start early 2015 exactly where I should have been in early 2014!

 

 

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My first rejection letter!

rejection_image_typewriterI’m really beginning to feel like a professional now.  Not only have I begun to send out query letters to publishers, but I have even received my first response!  Surprise, surprise, it was a “polite decline.”  I won’t get in the habit of posting all of my rejection letters, but the first one has sentimental value.  This particular letter was, graciously, very cordial and constructive.  The editor wrote,

Dear Scot Fagerland, Thank you for your inquiry to our website regarding your work-in-progress, The Evolution of Human

While I share your sense of the need to think deep and incorporate an evolutionary perspective, my acquisitions responsibilities at Hot Button Press have shifted to a focus on environmental science and I am not able to consider new opportunities in evolutionary anthropology, etc. I encourage you to approach other publishers with your ambitious project but would also advise that you propose a single-volume synthesis, as I don’t expect many publishers would warm up to the idea of a multi-volume set.  I appreciate your interest in Hot Button Press.

Sincerely,

J. Edgar Anonymous
Senior Sponsoring Editor

Hot Button Press

A few thoughts:

The letter addressed one of my most important concerns, which is my volume of material.  The two chapters that I’ve written already are big enough for a book.  While I will probably keep all of my material here on the website, I have been wondering if I should try to rewrite each chapter 4 – 5 times more concisely so I can pack it all into one print book.  Apparently I should.  Wow, that will be some challenge.  If you thought that writing a world history was difficult, try doing it in 100,000 words or less!  Brahms had something similar to say about composing music:

It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is leaving the superfluous notes under the table.

This letter also brought home to me the real-world, pragmatic character of publishing.  We non-famous people tend to envision the whole world of publicity as a magic kingdom.  Just write something decent, take it to the pearly gates, and it will be exalted to the heavens.  But you know what, the publishing industry is nothing more than individual agents and editors with specific jobs.  One editor might have his hands full with books about apples.  Submit to him a book about oranges, and he just won’t care.  That’s not his job!  As a lawyer, I have to understand that.  My practice area is pretty narrow.  When people call me with questions about custody battles or wrongful termination, I generally advise them to try someone else.  Getting published isn’t just about writing something that your mom would be proud of.  It’s about getting lucky and finding an editor or agent who is actually looking for what you’re writing, when you’re writing it.  Don’t look for someone to do the job for you.  Do his job for him.

It is a tantalizing fantasy to write a “Why Not?” response to a rejection letter.  When I read this one, I thought, “Oh yeah?  I looked you up on GoodReads, and your last three books were about evolutionary anthropology!”  Needless to say, that approach will get me nowhere fast.  I have to take each rejection at face value, learn from it what I can, and make the next query all the more appropriate and focused.

rejection-letter_snoopy2

Finally, in my studies of the publishing industry, I have discovered that there is a whole small but inspirational niche of Rejection Letter literature.  All artists have been rejected at some time or another.  We love to read those rejections and laugh at how foolish the agencies were.  “See, they’re wrong!”  Apparently, we all like to be reminded that value is subjective.  It helps us feel a connection with our favorite artists.  We begin to believe that rejections like this one are just a necessary first step in our great career:

rejection_madonna

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s Happening in Ukraine?!

Headlines have been streaming from Ukraine since November.  The news immediately caught my interest because of the background history that I had researched for Chapter 1.  Then the situation seemed to keep getting more baffling.  Soon, it was a country in chaos.  It quickly became one of the year’s biggest events, at such a pace that it has been difficult to keep up with developments.  In this post, I lay out visuals, look at the big picture, and try to get a handle on what’s going on.  The more I research, the more I forgive myself for being confused about the constant stream of news in the last few months.  It’s complicated!  Finally, I offer a few thoughts on “who’s right and who’s wrong.”

Backdrop

As discussed in Chapter 1, the 21st century world is essentially quadripolar.  The US, EU, Russia, and China form the four major spheres of influence.  The eastern powers are more old-fashioned and nationalistic, and see foreign affairs as more of a zero-sum game.  Most second-world countries rely on one of the four superpowers for investment, trade, energy, and security.  Some regions, such as the Eurasian front, are caught in the middle.

Ukraine, a former Soviet territory, has long ties with Russia.  It became an independent republic in 1991, though its government hewed close to Russia for another decade.  In 2004, a politically charged election highlighted the question of whether Ukraine should continue looking east or develop closer relations with the EU to its west.  That question has divided Ukraine ever since.  This news story is not just about sudden panic in one second-world nation.  It is part of the slowly unfolding saga of the superpowers and the shaping of the 21st-century world.

As geopolitics so often revolves around natural resources, of course there is an economic twist in this plot too.  Ukraine hosts major natural gas pipelines providing Russian gas to Ukrainian and European consumers.

ukraine-map_english

 

Two leaders who embody Ukraine’s split personality emerged from the election and “Orange Revolution” of 2004.  Yuliya Tymoshenko, the on-and-off prime minister from 2004 – ‘11, looks westward.  Viktor Yanukovych, president from 2010 to February, 2014, based his career on developing relations with Russia and the gas lobby.  During Yanukovych’s term, some of his political opponents, including Tymoshenko, were imprisoned.  Though it is difficult to pin these convictions to Yanukovych’s orders, the US and EU condemn them as unjust political maneuverings.

Tymoshenko looks west to Merkel and the EU

Tymoshenko looks west to Merkel and the EU

 

Yanukovych looks east to Putin and Russia

Yanukovych looks east to Putin and Russia

The EU and Ukraine have been negotiating a formal alliance since at least 2008.  In Chapter 1, I discussed the EU’s Copenhagen Criteria.  In order to join the EU, a candidate nation must make commitments to economic stability and human rights.  Ukraine has not yet been pursuing full EU membership, but an “association agreement” that confers many of the same benefits and requires many of the same demands.  After Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, the EU made her release a condition necessary to finalize the alliance agreement.

Russian president Putin was never a fan of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement.  Fearing a loss of influence, he put pressure on Yanukovych to reject that agreement and strengthen ties with Russia instead.  Ukraine is a vulnerable nation, deeply in debt and at risk of default with little economic power of its own.  Russia had a few major bargaining chips:  natural gas price guarantees and the promise of a bailout as carrots, and a boycott of Ukrainian chocolate as a stick.

Chaos in Kiev

Russia’s pressure proved more compelling than Europe’s on the Ukrainian government.  Just a week before the association agreement was scheduled for signature, the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) announced that it would not free Tymoshenko, and president Yanukovych publicly announced that he would abandon the alliance.

In response to these announcements on November 21, protesters took to the streets of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.  Public opinion in Kiev and the western half of the country was largely in favor of the EU alliance.  Ukrainians demanded Yanukovych’s resignation.  Protests did not fizzle out but grew over the next few months, usually a sign that a government has gotten itself into real trouble.  Demonstrators took control of government buildings in Kiev and western Ukraine.  The police responded with mass arrests in late 2013.  In January, parliament cracked down and police force resulted in a few deaths.  Amidst the chaos, the prime minister resigned.

The situation accelerated dramatically in late February, with a climax on the 22nd.  In Kiev’s Independence Square, three heavy days of fighting between police and protesters resulted in about 100 deaths.  This street battle galvanized protesters’ passion.  Yanukovych finally sensed the gravity of his situation and fled to Russia.  Civilian soldiers seized control of the presidential palace and stood guard over it.  Parliament released Tymoshenko from jail.  Ms. Tymoshenko addressed her supporters as they packed Independence Square.  “Don’t leave this square until we have achieved real change!” she encouraged them.

Let us not get swept up in revolutionary romance, though.  Demonstrators are, needless to say, not legally recognized as a lawmaking body.  It was up to Parliament to make the next move.

The Verkhovna Rada held a vote to remove President Yanukovych from power.  His ouster was approved by a vote of 328 – 0.  This sounds like unanimity, but the parliament has 439 members, and the impeachment votes were technically short of the ¾ super-majority required by the constitution. 1 Russia and Russian Ukrainians have never accepted the legitimacy of this vote, and still regard Yanukovych as the rightful president.  Nevertheless, Parliament proceeded to appoint an interim president and prime minister who are both pro-western Tymoshenko supporters.  The US and EU have rallied behind the interim government.  Permanent elections are scheduled for May, with Tymoshenko as the leading presidential candidate.

John Kerry greets Ukraine’s interim leaders, President Oleksander Turchynov (L) and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk

John Kerry greets Ukraine’s interim leaders, President Oleksander Turchynov (L) and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk

The Kremlin in Crimea

The hasty appointment of a new pro-western government instantly set off counter-protests in the eastern pro-Russian half of the country.  Overnight, the turmoil shifted from Kiev to the Crimean peninsula.  Just as in Kiev, there were mass protests in Crimea, and armed rebels seized control of government buildings.  The Russian military quietly but quickly slipped into Crimea to take control of essential infrastructure such as highways, ports, and airports.  So far, direct confrontation between Ukrainians and Russian troops has been minimal, with about two confirmed deaths.

Crimea has its own capital city, Simferopol, and its own parliament.  While Simferopol, literally down to the parliamentary building, was occupied by Russian forces, this parliament approved a local referendum, a popular vote of whether Crimea should remain with Ukraine or defect to Russia.  The March 16 referendum claimed to show a 96% majority in favor of seceding from Ukraine.  Besides the circumstances of this vote at gunpoint and its fishy super-duper-majority, there is evidence that the election was rigged. 2   More pertinently, a change to the country’s territory must be approved by all Ukrainians.  Restricting this referendum to Crimean voters contradicted the Ukrainian constitution. 3 So now both sides have relied on Constitutionally iffy moves, and the whole country is in a state of legal limbo.

Russia has already ratified the referendum and claimed Crimea (once again) as its own.  It is clear to all but the most hardened Russian apologists that this whole procedure was orchestrated by the Kremlin.  Moscow justifies its presence in Crimea on the basis of protecting ethnic Russians.  Crimea is a Russian-speaking semi-autonomous republic with strong family ties with Russia.  By treaty, it has hosted Russian military bases for decades.

Despite little connection to Ukraine, the US has reacted strongly against Russia’s takeover of Crimea.  In the larger context of superpower spheres of influence, the western powers regard this as unacceptable precedent.  “It would allow the old way of doing things to gain a foothold in this young century,” remarked President Obama from the symbolic platform of a WWI cemetery, “And that message would be heard — not just in Europe but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.” 4  Obama has been leading strategic sanctions against Russian government officials behind the takeover of Crimea, as well as President Yanukovych.  Today’s news is about deepening occupation, military buildup, and tension in the region.

Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong?

Geopolitics is a strange combination of law, consensus, and “might makes right.”  Casual observers tend to focus on moral questions of good guys vs. bad guys, fairness vs. greed.  We forget that there are constitutions, treaties, and UN directives that apply to almost every question at the national level.  Most diplomatic discussions are based on legal arguments.  The debate that you have with your drinking buddies is probably very different from the issues discussed at international summits and in government chambers.   On the other hand, legalities can be very difficult to enforce.  It is one thing to point fingers and say that Leader X is in violation of Principle Y.  It is another matter to do anything about it.  The UN provides a body of laws but very limited power to enforce them.  Sometimes, paradigm shifts happen as well.  When a mob of 100,000 squeezes a leader out of his capitol, it implies that the constitution has been abandoned and it’s time to start over.  Then it is up to the international community to decide whether to recognize the old government or the new one.  There are no legal standards for those decisions.  It really does come down to what individual nations want to do and how much influence they have – though their arguments are cloaked in legal raiment.  Round and round we go.

Following a strictly legal tack, Yanukovych supporters are technically correct that the president was not properly impeached.  He was duly elected, and, by the book, he would still be the rightful president.  Yanukovych had many party die-hards in his parliament who abstained from voting against his impeachment for fear of retribution, or who were not even present that day due to the angry mob outside.  Those Members of Parliament (MPs) represent an ethnically diverse electorate throughout a broad swath of Ukraine.  The Verkhovna Rada did overstep its bounds by appointing a new administration.  If the discussion had ended there, certainly western Ukrainians would have been unhappy, but they would have an opportunity to rally for change at the next election.  This kind of lesson is important for a young republic to learn.

Yanukovych could have stood a chance if he had remained in Ukraine and made some concessions.  But his next move was even more egregious.  After his police force killed dozens of his own subjects, he defected to Russia and took part of the country with him.  There is no way to justify the Crimean sequestration – at least not in the manner it was done.  That episode has been a farce.  It would be entirely reasonable to bring charges against him now, and to remove him from power based on criminal convictions.  Perhaps he could be tried for “abuse of power,” which is the very charge that was brought against Tymoshenko.

Russia believes that it is justified in reclaiming Crimea because the Crimean peninsula has been historically and ethnically Russian for centuries.  That may be, but things change!  Since 1991, Crimea has been a semi-autonomous republic within Ukraine.  The borders and constitutions were very clear, and Russia was committed to respecting them not too long ago.  There is no legal basis for turning back the clock.

On the other hand, some changes just fell into place, and it is apparently going to be simpler to accept them where they now lie.  In western Ukraine, the unconstitutional impeachment and its proximate causes – the interim government and the May election – now have the support of two superpowers.  Right or wrong, this is a ratification of legitimacy.   It is not entirely a positive development.  If you are more swayed by good-buy / bad-guy arguments, consider that at the heart of the western protest movement is Svoboda, a fringe neo-Nazi party. 5 There is something to be said for stability.  But realistically, with the recognition and backing of the US and EU, the Yatsenyuk government is now the de facto voice of Ukraine.

In eastern Ukraine, it’s interesting to see how quickly the world has become resigned to the notion that Crimea is once again Russian.  Despite a complete lack of legitimacy, it is now spoken as a hard truth.  Even Obama admitted as much, just a week after the takeover. 6 The objective now is to stop Russia where it is, to keep it from spreading Soviet-style further into Ukraine.

The western response has been particularly interesting.  President Obama has been meting out punishment, not with military force or even broad national sanctions, but with drone-like laser precision against Russian and Ukrainian government officials and arms traders. 7 Those individuals will be forbidden from travel into the US, their assets within US jurisdiction will be seized, and most importantly, they will be legally cut off from access to dollars.  The EU is imposing similar sanctions.  Obama is even considering sanctions against the Russian energy sector, the heart of its economy.  He is not finding much support in EU, though, because Europe depends so heavily on Russian energy.

Sanctions against guilty individuals are much more humane and sensible than the overly-broad strikes or sanctions that usually characterize international disagreements.  Nationwide embargoes, for example against Cuba, North Korea, and Iran, have been deeply hurtful to millions of innocent ordinary people.  The takeover of Crimea was orchestrated by a few individuals, and nobody else should be punished for their political over-reach.  On the other hand, it is unclear whether such sanctions will have any effect, or even what the objectives are.  Some commentators, including Jimmy Carter, believe that Russia is happy with today’s borders and will not move forcibly further. 8 Others believe that Russia is now preparing to swallowgeorgia_moldova Moldova and Georgia. 9 Some believe that western response should be much stronger.  “Sanctions would only really have an effect if they became general measures against whole sectors of the Russian economy,” says Nina Schick, a policy analyst with Open Europe. 10 But wouldn’t that mean that millions of innocent Russians would pay the price for a few greedy politicians at the top?  There we are back at square one

The bigger question, the question that very few people seem to be attuned to ask yet, is why individual nations should be the enforcers of other nations’ actions at all.  Sure, Russia is behaving out of hand.  Sure, its leaders should be taken to task, especially if they make another move of territorial expansion.  But why should that be the United States’ job?  It is such a clearer mandate when punishment comes from an international organization – especially one that includes Russia.  Fortunately, organizations such as the G-8, G-20, and UN are all condemning Russia’s taking of Crimea. 11 But all they really have the power to do, besides more sanctions, is exclude Russia from meetings and say, “Bad Russia!”  The UN or its future successor, or the Global Federal Republic if there ever is one, needs to have the power to strip abusive politicians from office or even imprison them or seize their assets.  That’s a very long-term solution.  For now, Russia has Crimea and there’s not much that anyone else can do about it.

In the end, I think that history simply takes some turns.  The splitting of Ukraine is one of them.  In the long run, my guess is that each half of Ukraine will end up allied with the neighbor of its choice, a win-win situation.  Ukraine has been a nation divided ever since the Cold War.  Now it is going through a divorce.  Europe tried to woo eastern Ukraine along with the west and failed.  As the saying goes, EU, “He’s just not that into you.”

not_into_you_cartoon

Life goes on.

  1. Ukrainian constitution, Article 111 Paragraph 6
  2. Graef, Aileen, Crimean referendum vote could have been fixed, world awash in faux shock, UPI, 3/17/14
  3. Ukrainian constitution, Article 73
  4. Obama, Barack, speech in Brussels, 3/26/14
  5. Kramer, Andrew, Unease as an opposition party stands out in Ukraine’s protests, New York Times, 12/16/13
  6. Brown and Dovere, Obama:  Putin will lose – eventually, Politico, 3/26/14, p. 1.
  7. Obama, Barack, Executive Order 13661, Federal Register, Vol. 79, No. 53, p. 15535.
  8. Carter, Jimmy, Interview with David Letterman, 3/24/14, 5:00 – 6:00
  9. Norman, Laurence, Europe accelerates agreements for Georgia, Moldova, Wall Street Journal, 3/21/14
  10. Espiner, Tom, Do sanctions against Russia have any bite? BBC, 3/24/14
  11. Brown, Hayes, How international organizations are responding to the  Ukraine crisis, ThinkProgress, 3/03/14
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Love and Hate at the Olympics

Last week, I helped a student with a current-events essay of his own choosing.  He selected an excellent topic: the meaning of the Olympics.  Are the games a platform for peace and solidarity through civilian statesmanship?  Or are they a highly visible stage for flexing geopolitical muscle?  Because this is a complicated world, the answer is:  both!  We have all witnessed international superstars like Nadia Comaneci thawing public attitudes during the Cold War.  We have seen countless Olympic stadiums packed with families and fans from every imaginable country, sitting side-by-side.  We have seen athletes from warring nations shake hands or hug on the podium.  On the other hand, we also remember controversial boycotts and attendances, Hitler’s exclusion of Jews from the Olympic team, and even acts of terrorism.

This year, of course, the Winter Olympics are in Russia.  The event has certainly drawn a lot of attention to the policies of President Putin and the national government.  Even seemingly mundane details as construction contracts have raised eyebrows.  Suspicions are that artificially high bids were awarded to contractors close to Putin.  The cost comes out of public coffers, probably lubricated by bribes in high places.

In the months leading up to the games, Russian authorities released several controversial prisoners.  In December, Putin granted amnesty to members of Pussy Riot and Greenpeace who had been detained for months or years.  All had been arrested on charges of “hooliganism.”  Most outsiders had seen the arrests as a thinly veiled suppression of free speech directed against the Russian church and state.  With the Olympics only two months away, many observers speculated that Putin felt uncomfortable justifying the protesters’ continued imprisonment in a glaring global spotlight.  It’s good to know that Olympic media pressure can make a difference like that.  On the other hand, forcing governments into momentary good behavior only permits them to wiggle out of criticism when all eyes are on them.  It’s easy to put on a good face for a few weeks.  One of the pardoned Pussy Riot members actually wanted to finish serving her term in prison.  Her ongoing sentence through the Olympics would have made a much stronger statement than her unheralded pardon and release a few months early.

Two ongoing Olympic themes are especially related to issues addressed in Chapter 1 of this book:  Russia’s gay propaganda laws, and the threat of Chechen terrorists.

Russia has had a complicated history with gay rights.  Homosexuality has only been legal since the 1990s.  In the ‘00s, regional governments started passing laws forbidding gay “propaganda” in the presence of minors.  Last year, the federal government officially made the ban nationwide.   The punishment has generally been fines on gay rights activists.  Gay pride parades are not permitted.  The stated purpose is to protect children from the overtly sexual displays that can characterize gay activism.  In so doing, of course, it is quite a damper on free expression.  It also strikes most Westerners as old-fashioned, as if homosexuality should be shameful and as if propaganda influences children to become gay.   The Russian government in turn has been fined for supporting this law, in a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.  But the law still stands, and actually has widespread support among Russian parents.  For the record, here is an English translation of the actual text.  I have arranged it in outline form for the sake of readability:

“Propaganda

of non-traditional sexual relations

among minors

expressed in distribution of information that is aimed at

  • the formation among minors of non-traditional sexual attitudes,
  • attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relations,
  • misperceptions of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations,
  • or enforcing information about non-traditional sexual relations that evokes interest to such relations,

if these actions do not constitute a criminal offense,

is punishable by an administrative fine.”

(Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses)

This law has pitted conservative (especially Russian) and liberal (especially Western) views about the gay pride / civil rights movement directly against each other.  As the Olympics began, Google’s home page featured a quote from the Olympic Charter:

“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” 

This was a little bit of an overreaction, because Russia had imposed no discrimination against gay athletes themselves.  But it made the point, a contrast of moral values.

As the games approached, there was a lot of speculation about whether foreign activists would be punished under the law.  Some athletes themselves had to decide whether to protest the law or respect the host country.  So far, protest has been subtle and unpunished.  The US official delegation to the Olympics includes three gay members, including Brian Boitano, who came out publicly after being assigned to the committee.  A silver medal has been dedicated to “gay friends back home.”  Rainbows have been painted on fingernails.  In summary, the law and its reactions have produced a peaceful collision of cultural values, a dialogue that is a little more global than it was last year.

sochi_mapAnother major theme of this Olympiad is the threat of terrorism.  Sochi is located on the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus region, not far from Chechnya and Dagestan.  Since the Chechen wars, this area has become an increasingly popular destination for violent jihadists.  (The Boston Marathon bombers were from Dagestan).  In 2007, separatist leader Doku Umarov founded the Caucasus Emirate.  This militant organization strives for an autonomous Caucasus under Shariah Law.  With only about 1,000 members, their vision is overblown.  However, so is their passion against  Russia and especially Putin, with fresh war memories and lingering depression.  Russia cast the Olympics in the Caucasus partly as a strategic effort to attract tourists and foreign investment, to revitalize the regional economy on Moscow’s terms.  Nothing could be worse for the Islamist isolationists.  Local separatists know that one single blow at Sochi would keep foreigners out for years.  It would be a perfect target.

The Caucasus Emirate has been very active in recent months.  In the city of Volgograd, a major travel hub toward Sochi, it has bombed buses and trains three times since October.  Dozens of civilians were killed.  The Emirate also committed public murders in Stavropol last month.  None of these attacks were expressly Olympic-related.  However, direct threats have been made.  In a January video, two Emirate members warned, “If it happens [the Olympics], we’ll have a surprise for you. This is for all the Muslim blood that is shed every day around the world, be it in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, all around the world. This will be our revenge.”  Influential cleric Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi has approved of the recent bombings in a manner that some see as a fatwa.  “They are careful to demonstrate security stability in their country especially with the approaching Olympics,” he wrote last month, “so shaking such stability is a required matter and an intended target.”  The threats are taken very seriously.  Russian forces have created a massive “ring of security” around Sochi.

The Emirate’s notorious female suicide bombers are known as “black widows,” because many of them lost their husbands in the Chechen wars.  Last month, there was a rumor that a black widow had already penetrated the ring of security and was lying in wait.  Now it is unclear whether she is actually there.  With their ongoing success with “soft” (less centralized, more vulnerable targets) it seems likelier that terrorists would strike somewhere outside the main Olympic village.  Some experts have assessed a bombing attempt as “almost certain.”

Last year, Umarov himself encouraged attacks against the Olympics.  He was reportedly killed by Russian special forces last month.  Now, thankfully, the rebels may be too disorganized to launch a successful attack.  “That’s why all the talk about the threats to Sochi are absolutely groundless,” said (legitimate) Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.  So far so good!

The Olympics are complicated.  In the end, though, we keep coming back to them every two years.  That’s because of the true spirit of the games.  They are about inspiration, competition at the highest level, and sportsmanship.  One of the best moments this month has been the figure skating routine of Jeremy Abbott.  American Abbott fell hard during his routine.  Yet the crowd, mostly Russians, encouraged him to get up and finish, and cheered him on through the rest of his performance.  Despite the forum that they provide for noisemakers, the Olympics foster peaceful cooperation and cultural intermingling.  It is important for everyone to see such international camaraderie; it helps make world peace palpable.  Beyond that, of course the games provide an important goal for the very best athletes and their families.  We can’t help being intrigued by the world’s best.  We will always love to see them represent our home countries in battles of peace.

Since "we know what we see," it is important to witness this kind of international coming-together.

Since “we know what we see,” it is important to witness this kind of international coming-together.

_______________________________________________________________

References (in no particular order)

http://www.totalprosports.com/2013/04/17/9-sporting-events-impacted-by-terrorism/#9

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Rudolph#Motivations

http://lgbtnet.ru/sites/default/files/russian_federal_draft_law_on_propaganda_of_non-traditional_sexual_relations_2d_reading_eng.pdf

https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/olympics.html

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/12/28/3105591/arctic-greenpeace-russia-released/

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/feb/07/google-russian-anti-gay-laws-winter-olympics

http://karakullake.blogspot.com/2013/12/sochi-on-map.html

http://www.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/255

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-glyn-williams/the-brides-of-allah-the-t_b_4761027.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2541319/Chechen-warlord-Doku-Umarov-threatened-Sochi-Olympics-killed-Russian-special-forces.html

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The Paradox of Self-Publication

After writing a couple chapters of TEOH, I am using early 2014 to set up this website and study the world of publishers, promotion, and self-publication.  Chapter 1 of my book discusses the fast-changing pace of lifestyle and technology in the 21st century.  I have found that the publishing world is caught up in sea changes too.  I started writing TEOH in 2009.  The blogosphere was already well-established but still fairly new and growing quickly.  It also happened to be right at the beginning of the e-book revolution.  The Kindle was launched in 2007, the Nook in 2009 and the iPad in 2010.  The growth of E-book sales has been so dramatic in this decade that some experts are wondering which quarter it will be now when e-book sales overtake the market share of print books.  What does all this mean for a small-time writer?

lost_in_crowdThe obvious advantage to 21st-century authorship is that I am now able to post a blog like this and instantly put my work online for worldwide access.  The disadvantage is that every aspiring writer in the world has the same opportunity!  The result is a flood of drivel.  Lost in the sea of self-published content, I am still just as invisible as ever.  A Google search will bury my blog behind 10 or 100 pages of results, many of which are on completely unrelated subjects.  I’ve heard it said that public attention is becoming the world’s scarcest resource.  This is the paradox of self-publication.  Where this leaves us is that big publishers are still necessary gatekeepers.  Those publishers may be becoming more and more electronic and online, but they are still the few visible channels in this hyper-competitive market.

The transformation to self-publishing parallels the music industry.  Everyone under the sun is able to post their songs and videos online.  I recently heard of the site Forgotify.  It is a gathering place for the 4,000,000 songs uploaded to to Spotify that have never been played once!  The web is becoming a junk drawer for creative projects.

E-book sales are largely driven by commercial fiction anyway.  A non-fiction book like TEOH, especially with numerous references and pictures, is not the kind of work that drives e-book sales.  I’m sure that someday I will consider a conversion to formal e-book standards and a listing with Amazon or Apple.  But, as a published work, TEOH is a better candidate for print.  Meanwhile, of course, I will always have my own online presence here.

From what I’ve read so far, the conventional wisdom is that it takes a few months to attract any attention at all online, and a good year or two to get decent viewership numbers.  That’s a year or two of dedicated web management.  It doesn’t happen by itself.  Pundits recommend having an online presence for at least a year before approaching publishers.  You have to prove that you have the potential to sell well.  That presents a nice chicken-and-egg dilemma, doesn’t it?  You have to be published to get attention from readers, but you have to establish viewership before publishers will do business with you!  It seems hopeless without saving up and marketing out of my own pocket.

With this in mind, I’m glad that I was already dedicated to TEOH as a lifetime project for my own edification and enjoyment!  If I were counting on income or public recognition, I would have given up long ago.  Publication is a possibility worth pursuing, though.  It would add a whole new dimension to this book.  I’ve seen plenty of published books that had very little to say.  If they can do it, so can I!

I’ll use this page of my blog to comment on the world of publishing and my progress toward that goal.  I already have a little secret, a networking lead to a successful author in my field.  Stay tuned!  😛

 

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Why We Mark the Beatles’ Golden Anniversary in America

McCartney and Starr last week in LA (Photo: Reuters)

McCartney and Starr last week in LA (Photo: Reuters)

Today, CBS will be broadcasting a rare reunion of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, on the occasion of their 50th anniversary in America.  The concert was filmed the day after the Grammies, just a couple of miles from me here in LA.  The occasion is also marked by several magazine cover stories this month.

The Beatles were a phenomenon that will not happen again, a band that was both the most popular and the best.  They made their US debut in 1964, when TV was still a relatively new medium and the number of channels was very limited.  The national dialogue was narrowly focused.  Today, we enjoy much greater diversity in entertainment options, but at the cost of being fragmented.  There is no turning back to a time when one band can catch the attention of children and adults in one monolithic nationwide audience.

The Beatles are usually remembered for their popularity and timeliness.  They wrote catchy songs, and they were right there at the leading edge of baby-boomer youth culture.  The 1960s was a decade of enormous social changes, and will probably merit a section all its own when I write Chapter 2.  It was really the beginning of of what we would identify with as “today’s world.”  As a cultural phenomenon, The Beatles were indelibly impressed on the social fabric of the times.  Beatlemania is a necessary ingredient of nostalgia for that period of time.  Even I have always felt oddly retro-nostalgic for the decade before I was born, when I hear the Beatles songs that still dominated the airwaves in my first few years.  And to think, the Beatles almost didn’t make it onto the Ed Sullivan show.  Management had trouble finding a sponsor.  Bayer aspirin came through at the last minute.  Isn’t it interesting how entertainment and pragmatic economics are intertwined.  Ultimately, the Beatles got on TV in February, 1964 because Bayer needed to sell aspirins.

Even aside from their cultural signficance, all music nerds will agree that The Beatles were a game-changer in the art.  It’s a little ironic that they started out as a cover band, and actually came to the game kind of late for rock-and-roll.  Many music agents at the time felt convinced that “guitar based bands” were already on their way out in 1962, as the Beatles sought their first record deals.  Their catalog from 1962 – 1964 is usually played on the same radio stations that play the “oldies” of the 1950s.

The Beatles' US debut, 50 years ago today

The Beatles’ US debut, 50 years ago today

From the start, though, one thing was unique:  The Beatles synthesized all of the rock-n-roll roles into one band.  Before that time, the industry had specialists.  There were songwriters (Willy Dixon, Neal Sedaka).  There were great vocalists (Roy Orbison) and vocal groups (The 4 Seasons).  There were instrumentalists (Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis).  There were stars (Elvis).  Very few had it all in one package.  With a few concurrent exceptions like the Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, the Beatles were the first self-contained rock band.  Their Ed Sullivan appearance set the new industry standard.  After that, it was commonly understood that bands should be able to write their own songs and perform them with panache.  It was an extremely high bar.  Honestly, in the whole history of rock music, only maybe a few hundred bands have ever been capable of pulling it off well.

But it was the next year, 1965, that the Beatles started to metamorphose and to take the art of music in new directions.  That was the year that the Beatles became the first progressive rock band, with a focus on studio production.  They launched two albums, “Help” and “Rubber Soul.”  These included songs the likes of which had not been heard before, such as “Ticket to Ride,” “Yesterday,” “Michelle,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “In My Life.”  1965 was a watershed year for the Beatles and other artists.  The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” brought distortion to the electric guitar while McCartney introduced fuzz bass.  It was the year of “Satisfaction” and “California Dreaming.”  Then the scene exploded.  Psychedelia appeared in 1966, again with Beatles contributions.  Hard rock / heavy metal was appearing by the late ’60s, influenced by Beatles songs like “Helter Skelter” (1968) and “She’s So Heavy” (1969, the year before Black Sabbath’s first album).  Even the bands that are usually given credit for inventing progressive rock, such as Pink Floyd and King Crimson, made their debuts only after the Beatles mid-career mark.  The Beatles continued to adapt their sound and be at the forefront of songwriting and production until their last album, “Let It Be,” in 1970.  They went out on top.

It is no exaggeration to say that the entire era of classic rock music was just three decades of Beatlemania.  The scene remained rich until the early ’90s.  I regard Dream Theater’s 1992 “Images and Words” as the last significant classic rock album.  It was preceded in 1991 by the sudden explosion of modern rock, a scene that produced great albums for only about two years before going stagnant.  The golden era of rock music is long gone and will never stage a comeback.  Today’s scene is too fragmented.  Audiophilism has given way to iPod miniaturization, live bands have given way to DJ’s.  At bottom, there’s not enough money in the industry anymore to cull talent and foster rock music communities.

I admire all the Beatles, with a special appreciation for Paul McCartney.  Half of the energy that you hear in early Beatles songs comes from his voice.  He drove the band in their late years.  I especially respect the way he has kept an active career all these years.   You remember his Christmas song and his collaborations with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder in the ’80s.  His song “Freedom” was an immediate response to the attacks of 9/11/01.  I saw him live in 2006, when he was touring for his great “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” album.  The crowd was riveted by “Jenny Wren” just as much as “Yesterday.”  He likes to stay up-to-the-minute on hot new bands.  He has released some orchestral albums that are really good.  He even did some anonymous albums under the band name “Fireman,” which I enjoy as much as any electronica.

Ringo Starr has distanced himself from the Beatles legacy in recent years, so I was glad to see him join Paul at this event.  It seems that he was very excited by it.  Wish I could have been there!  I’m sure tickets were hard to come by.  😛

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