Friday, December 30, 2011

Destroy MS with spectacular violence!

For those who don't like reading serious science stuff, today I'm offering a fun and violent solution to the problem of multiple sclerosis. My favourite options:

1. Carpet-bomb it:



2. Drop a helicopter on it:



3. Chew it up with a twister:



4. Turn up the music and call in a missile strike:


On Sunday I'll return with a post about something sensible, like writing. Until then: Happy New Year! Go blow shit up!

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Never piss off a writer

As a novelist I'm fond of reminding people: Never piss off a writer. A writer can immortalise an enemy by killingly them gruesomely, lingeringly, before millions of readers. (It's very satisfying.)

I am currently dissatisfied with the Quarterly Review of Biology. There's a paper in their latest issue that should be freely accessible but costs $14. However, it's difficult to write the death of a scholarly journal into a novel about the seventh century (my current work-in-progress). So I've had to resort to spectacular movie violence instead.

So, for all the millions of people with MS who want to read this paper and can't get to it, I made this for you. Turn it up loud:

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

MS is a metabolic disorder: the paper is finally out!

Dr Angelique Corthals' brilliant new understanding of MS, "Multiple Sclerosis is Not a Disease of the Immune System" is finally out! Full citation:

Angelique P. Corthals
The Quarterly Review of Biology
Vol. 86, No. 4 (December 2011), pp. 287-321
(article consists of 35 pages)

Right now, it looks as though free web access is restricted to those with JSTOR accounts. I'm a little taken aback by that (it was my understanding that it would be free for all). Hopefully, this is just a(nother) glitch. If you can't afford $14, I can send you the paper by email, and then you can send it on to others. For now, direct your healthcare professional to the link above; they'll no doubt have free access.

Meanwhile, my précis of the paper, and explanation of why this is not just another bit of hype, but a truly ground-breaking new paradigm, is here. And here's the abstract:

Multiple sclerosis is a complex neurodegenerative disease, thought to arise through autoimmunity against antigens of the central nervous system. The autoimmunity hypothesis fails to explain why genetic and environmental risk factors linked to the disease in one population tend to be unimportant in other populations. Despite great advances in documenting the cell and molecular mechanisms underlying MS pathophysiology, the autoimmunity framework has also been unable to develop a comprehensive explanation of the etiology of the disease. I propose a new framework for understanding MS as a dysfunction of the metabolism of lipids. Specifically, the homeostasis of lipid metabolism collapses during acute-phase inflammatory response triggered by a pathogen, trauma, or stress, starting a feedback loop of increased oxidative stress, inflammatory response, and proliferation of cytoxic foam cells that cross the blood brain barrier and both catabolize myelin and prevent remyelination. Understanding MS as a chronic metabolic disorder illuminates four aspects of disease onset and progression: 1) its pathophysiology; 2) genetic susceptibility; 3) environmental and pathogen triggers; and 4) the skewed sex ratio of patients. It also suggests new avenues for treatment.

Please spread the news as widely as you can. The sooner people are banging on the doors of the medical establishment, the sooner MS will be eradicated.

This is a tremendous way to prepare for the New Year. I, for one, will be folding the insights of this paper into my goals and resolutions for 2012.

ETA: As Heather points out in the comments, many library systems have JSTOR access. So try your friendly local library.

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Cars crash from the sky

A funny thing happened on the way to lunch at Julia's today...

That Wallingford intersection will never be the same.

I'm now hoping the app maker will come up with some even better options. Top of my list: volcano eruption, tank attack, charging rhino. Also some Treacly Nice options would be cool, e.g. kittens tumbling from a box in the ceiling, unicorns and rainbows, an instant coating of sparkly frosting...

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I blew up our Christmas tree

Making the Christmas tree is fun. Dismantling it such a hassle. So this year I blew it up instead:

FX from the free app, Action Movie, via GalleyCat.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Jaw-dropping news: Nixon was gay

From the Daily Mail:

He carpet-bombed Cambodia, spewed out anti-Semitic slurs and crude misogynistic jokes in the White House and smeared his political opponents with ruthless 'dirty tricks' campaigns.
And, of course, he lied to his country about his involvement in the Watergate scandal and went down in history as America's shiftiest, darkest President.
Given everything that Richard Nixon has been accused of, it's difficult to believe there could be any more skeletons left in his cupboard. But it seems there are.
[...]
A new biography by Don Fulsom, a veteran Washington reporter who covered the Nixon years, suggests the 37th U.S. President [...] may have been gay himself. If true, it would provide a fascinating insight into the motivation and behaviour of a notoriously secretive politician. (via @TheAdvocateMag)

Apparently the book, Nixon's Darkest Secrets, details Nixon's affair with a Florida 'non-member Mafia‑affiliate' called Charles 'Bebe' Rebozo. They held hands under the table. Rebozo had complete doesn't-even-have-to-give-his-name-to-the-Secret-Service access to Nixon in the White House--where he had his own bedroom. He chose Nixon's clothes. They held hands under the table. It's... Well, just... Whoa!

Part of me doesn't believe this: it's just a damn good way to sell a book. But part of me thinks this explains a very great deal. Go read the article. Even if they didn't actually have sex, the other revelations are just jaw-dropping.

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What Hild saw

photo: BBC (couldn't find a credit for the photographer)

This photo was taken late last week in West Yorkshire--which in Hild's day (early seventh century), was the kingdom of Elmet (see nifty map). I'm trying to imagine Hild sitting outside on a bright twelve-days-of-Yule morning and watching those glide over the horizon. What would she have made of them? To me it looks like meringues carved by a god. (Big meringues, carved by a major god: those are wind turbines: easily over 100' tall.) But in Hild's time and place there was no meringue because there was no sugar.

So...carved driftwood? Whipped cream from a celestial cow? (I've no idea if the Anglo-Saxons whipped cream--it seems unlikely but, hey, so do those clouds.)

Technically speaking these are lenticular clouds:

Where stable moist air flows over a mountain or a range of mountains, a series of large-scale standing waves may form on the downwind side. If the temperature at the crest of the wave drops to the dew point, moisture in the air may condense to form lenticular clouds.

There aren't any mountains in Elmet/Leeds, though, so this is a rare sight. In Hild's day, a gift from the gods. I like to think she would have been pleased with the present.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

To boldly glow...

Peoria, IL via GeekTyrant.com

If we did lights, this is what I'd put on top of our house. And it would flash and make that awesome go-to-warp wooshing sound whenever I turned them off.

Have a wonderful holiday, surrounded by comfort and love. I'm signing off for a day or two. I'll be back next week.

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Which MS organisation most deserves a donation?

A couple of readers have asked my opinion regarding the best place to give money. Specifically, money to help encourage research and treatment options regarding Dr Angelique Corthals' exciting new understanding of multiple sclerosis (that it's a metabolic disorder akin to atherosclerosis).

I'm stumped. I used to be on the board of the Multiple Sclerosis Association (MSA) of King county. I didn't care for their approach--people with MS were to be helped but not consulted--but couldn't change their course. After a year or so of trying I resigned. Not long afterwards they were absorbed into the Great Northwest chapter of the NMSS.

I have absolutely nothing against the NMSS, I believe they do a great deal of good. But I'm wondering if there's a more nimble organisation, one willing and able to use a nice donation to help push further investigation into Dr. Corthals' insight into the etiology of the disease.

I'd love to hear your opinion on that. Information by the 28th Dec would be most helpful--so that kind donors can make their gift in time to take a deduction against their 2011 taxes. If you have thoughts to share, I'd eager to hear them.

Meanwhile, I wish you a warm and welcoming holiday with those you love.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

A question and answers about diet, MS, and Terry Wahls MD

From: Diana Mackin

What do you think of Terry Wahls, MD?

I asked Angelique to answer this. She said, "QED. When you understand MS (and treat MS) in the context of a metabolic dysfunction, the results may be more obvious than with current immune system-based treatments (though it may depend on the stage/severity/type etc. of your MS)."

My answer is: when I was first diagnosed with ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) in the UK in 1989, I took complete control of my diet. I cut out all processed foods. I took a specially designed combination of vitamins and minerals. I was already essentially vegetarian. I added fish and liver to my regimen.

I went from being unable to walk more than fifty yards without resting to running again. From horrible numbness and tingling to an apparently complete remission of symptoms. I also lost so much weight that people worried. (I found it hard to maintain weight without lots of starch.)

Then I came to this country, and stress and different diet and--frankly--complacency gradually sent me back to the numbness/fatigue place. Then came the limping. Then came full MS.

In 1997, I took three months and devoted it to zero alcohol, zero processed food, zero red meat. (Zero chocolate, sigh. Zero bread, sniff.) And became well enough to begin to study aikido.

Complacency struck again. Followed inevitably by loss of function. And MS. I gave up aikido. I graduated to a cane.

Rinse. Repeat.

I found it impossible to maintain a strict regimen with nothing to go on, no support or evidence but gut instinct. The medical profession wanted was to get me on immunomodulatory and -suppressive therapy and nagged me endlessly. Every now and again I'd try it--with disastrous results. I refused finally half a dozen years ago. I've continued to lose function, and now walk (I use the term loosely) with elbow crutches.

But now I have evidence. Now I have a cohesive framework. Now I'm beginning to form an idea of what lab results to measure. In the New Year I'll embark on a new regimen. It's daunting but exciting.

----

The QRB paper is still not live (no one knows why). But I do have a copy. If you want to see it, let me know and I'll email it to you. Also, Angelique is travelling and so won't have much time for responses for a while. Just FYI.

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

A terrible and beautiful vision

For all the support and signal boosting of the last two days: thank you. Thousands of people have now read my précis of the paper, by Dr. Angelique Corthals, that will be published tomorrow in the Quarterly Review of Biology.* That paper is a brilliant synthesis of what is known to be known about multiple sclerosis (MS). It takes the research we're all familiar with, the research that's been reviewed and replicated, that the medical establishment understands and is comfortable with, and fits in into a new pattern: MS is caused by faulty lipid metabolism.

This is a profound insight: MS is a metabolic disorder, not an autoimmune disease. It will change the way researchers approach the disease. It will change how doctors treat the disease. It will change the way people with MS live our lives. It will, one day--just possibly--lead to the eradication of MS.

As Angelique says, "When lipid metabolism fails in the arteries, you get atherosclerosis. When it happens in the central nervous system, you get MS." Think about that. Think about the fact that atherosclerosis is preventable and, sometimes, reversible. Now, so is MS.

It's difficult to explain what this means to someone with MS. I've spent nearly twenty years knowing that immunosuppression and -modulation didn't help my MS and never would but without the expertise to articulate exactly how and why. When I first read Angelique's rough draft earlier this year, it shook me to the core. I had a vision of ten years from now: a world without any new cases of MS.

It was a terrible and beautiful vision. Beautiful, because I'm so very glad for all those people for whom MS won't be a life squeezer, a life crusher, a life burden. Terrible, because at this stage I don't yet know how much better I can help myself become.**

Last night was the winter solstice. I thought, Tonight is the longest night, and tomorrow we turn towards the light. And that's how it feels.

Perhaps after the holidays I'll write about how I'm going to approach this new beginning. But for now, I want to thank you all again. Tomorrow there will be thousands of downloads of that paper. In the New Year, tens of thousands of people with MS all over the world will march into their doctor's offices and say, "Read this. Now, how are we going to take charge of this thing?" And it's all because you helped get the word out. So for those who have blogged, emailed, Facebooked, Google+'d, and Tweeted: thank you. Keep doing it. You are changing millions of lives.


* I'll link to the paper as soon as it goes live. It will be free to all. It's a very technical paper, but if the précis isn't enough to hold you until tomorrow morning, drop a comment or email me with your address and I'll email you a copy.
** By making changes to diet, supplementation, and exercise. I also don't know how fast research will move on variations on statins, fibrates and other extant drugs.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Huge news: multiple sclerosis is a metabolic disorder

***The paper is now published. Read it here.***

In the latest issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology (Vol 86 Number 4, December 2011), in a paper titled "Multiple Sclerosis is Not a Disease of the Immune System," Dr Angelique Corthals argues that multiple sclerosis (MS) isn't a disease of the immune system: it is caused by faulty lipid metabolism.

The very basic précis of the paper: looking at MS as a metabolic disorder helps to explains many puzzling aspects of the disease. MS cases are on the rise as a direct consequence of a high-sugar, high-animal-fat diet. MS is similar in many ways to atherosclerosis.

This is huge. It is not an incremental improvement of what's known about MS, it's a paradigm shift. It will change the way MS is understood, researched, and treated.

Full disclosure: Angelique is a good friend of mine. I've seen every draft of this paper. It is not original research. It's an overview of what is known to be known. It takes what has been researched, reviewed and replicated and reassembles it into something utterly new: a jigsaw puzzle in which, for the first time, all the pieces fit. There are no pieces left out, none hammered in with brute force. It's brilliant. It's elegant, clean, and makes complete and utter sense.

At some point soon I'll write about how this makes me feel. But today I want to give you the gist of the paper without editorialising. (All mistakes are mine; nifty illustration and direct quotes are from Angelique.)

WHAT THE PAPER SAYS

The medical profession has believed for a long time that MS is a disease in which the body’s own immune defenses attack nerve tissue in the central nervous system. [For an overview of changing medical wisdom, see The Incredible Journey, courtesy Rocky Mountain MS Center.] The disease's main characteristic is inflammation, then scarring, of tissue called myelin which insulates the brain and spinal cord. Over time this scarring can lead to profound neuron damage.

Researchers have thought that the fault lies with a runaway immune system, but no one's been been able to explain what triggers the onset of the disease. They've linked genes, diet, pathogens, and vitamin D deficiency to MS, but evidence for these risk factors is oddly inconsistent and often contradictory. This frustrates researchers in their search for effective treatment.

"Each time a genetic risk factor shows a significant increase in MS in one population, it's been found to be unimportant in another. Pathogens like Epstein-Barr virus have been implicated, but that doesn’t explain why genetically similar populations with similar pathogen loads have drastically different rates of disease. The search for MS triggers in the context of autoimmunity simply hasn’t led to any unifying conclusions about the etiology of the disease."

Understanding MS as metabolic in origin rather than autoimmune begins to bring the disease and its causes into focus. "The new approach explains both the recent rise in incidence and all pathological, genetic, and environmental aspects of the disease."

In other words, this new understanding of MS will finally make it possible to find effective treatment--including preventative treatment.

THE LIPID HYPOTHESIS

The etiology of MS (click to enlarge)

Corthals believes that the primary cause of MS can be traced to transcription factors in cell nuclei that control the uptake, breakdown, and release of lipids (fats and similar compounds) throughout the body. When the lipid-metabolizing function of these receptors, known as peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (PPARs), is disrupted, it can cause the accumulation of toxic lipids known as oxidized LDL, which form plaques on the affected tissues. The accumulation of plaque triggers an immune reaction, in part also regulated by the PPARs. With a failed inflammation control and the accumulation of oxLDL, the immune response runs amok and the toxic plaques leads to scarring of the tissue. The mechanism is essentially the same as atherosclerosis, in which PPARs' failure in heart cells leads to inflammation and an immune response in coronary arteries. "When lipid metabolism fails in the arteries, you get atherosclerosis. When it happens in the central nervous system, you get MS."

There are several risk factors for reduced PPAR function, including:

  • a diet high in saturated fats and carbohydrates
  • genetic predisposition
  • environmental factors (such as poor exposure to sunlight or sources of vitamin D)

If the PPARs and the disruption of lipid homeostasis are the culprit in MS, it would explain why statin drugs, which are used to treat high cholesterol, have shown promise as an MS treatment. It would also explain why cases of the disease have been on the rise in recent decades. "In general people are increasing their intake of sugars and animal fats, which often leads to high LDL cholesterol. So we would expect to see higher rates of disease related to lipid metabolism—like heart disease and, in this case, MS."

It also sheds light on the vitamin D link. Vitamin D helps to lower LDL cholesterol, so it makes sense that vitamin D deficiency increases the likelihood of the disease—especially in the context of a high-fat/high-carbohydrates diet.

The lipid hypothesis also explains the inconsistent evidence for MS triggers. In many cases, Corthals says, having just one of the risk factors for reduced PPAR function isn’t enough to trigger a collapse of lipid metabolism. But more than one risk factor could cause problems. For example, a genetically weakened PPAR system on its own might not cause disease, but combining that with a poor diet can. Under these conditions, the body is "primed" for the onset of the disease, which is then triggered either by a pathogen (it can be any) or trauma, or even stress.

Finally, the lipid hypothesis also explains why MS is more prevalent in women.

"Men and women metabolize fats differently. In men, PPAR problems are more likely to occur in vascular tissue, which is why atherosclerosis is more prevalent in men. But because of the way women metabolize fat differently in relation to their reproductive role, their lipid metabolism is more likely to affect the production of myelin and the central nervous system, leading to the neurological equivalent of atherosclerosis. MS is more prevalent in women, just as atherosclerosis is more prevalent in men--but this framework excludes neither sex from developing the other disease."

Much more research is necessary to fully understand the role of PPARs in MS, but Corthals hopes that this new understanding of the disease could eventually lead to new treatments and prevention measures:

"This new framework makes a cure for MS closer than ever."

And that, dear reader, is the magic word: cure. For the first time, ever, I think there might one day be one. Even better, we might be able to prevent MS.

If you have questions--and I'm sure many of you do--please drop a comment here. Angelique has promised to answer as many as she can. I will, too. But please note: neither of us will give specific medical direction or advice. For one thing, I'm seriously not qualified. For another, there is no substitute for talking in person to your healthcare professional. I'm happy to share my opinion--I'm opinionated; it's my blog--but do not construe this as medical advice. Angelique will discuss her understanding of MS in general, particularly as it relates to this new paradigm. But she will not tell you what you should do. There will be no exceptions.

ETA: QRB is not yet live (sigh), so I've reverted the link to the forthcoming page. I'll update when this changes.

ETA2: This an emotional topic. I will be moderating comments here carefully. Please remember that neither Angelique nor I am making money from this. This blog post is a service. Don't even think of getting impolite or I'll delete your comment. Let's all play nicely.

ETA3: QRB informs us there's been a delay and the paper will go live on Friday. But I have a copy of the final document, the PDF that will be downloadable free in a couple of days. It's 25 pages of double-columned, densely argued fabulousness, with 9 pages of double-columned bibliography. It is solid. For those who know their PPARs from their peroxisomes and can't wait until Friday, email me.

ETA4: Comments on this post are now closed.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A meta note

Yesterday I wrote about the big news about multiple sclerosis coming tomorrow from the Quarterly Review of Biology. I explained why it is such big news. And, trust me, it's the biggest news I've ever encountered about MS.

Tomorrow I'll post the precis of the paper ("Multiple sclerosis is not a disease of the immune system," by Dr. Angelique Corthals). I promise you won't need a graduate degree in biology to understand it. I'll even include a nifty diagramme. And hopefully a link to the free, downloadable article itself. (Assuming it's live. Right now it's just forthcoming.)

Today is just a signal-boost day. Think of it as the middle section of a school essay--you know the structure: say what you're going to say, say it, then say what you said. Except, hmmn, I suppose today is just the comma between saying what I'm going to say (which was yesterday) and saying what I am saying (which is tomorrow). Confused yet? Yeah, me too...

Come back tomorrow. All will be clear.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Coming soon: important news about MS

QRB's Forthcoming page (click to enlarge)

On Wednesday, December 21st, the Quarterly Review of Biology will publish "Multiple Sclerosis Is Not a Disease of the Immune System," by Dr. Angelique Corthals. It presents a revolutionary new framework for understanding the disease: MS is not an autoimmune disease, rather, it is caused by faulty lipid metabolism.

MS has been regarded as an autoimmune disease for decades. Billions of dollars have been spent on research depending on that premise. As a result, current treatments for MS are not particularly effective.

This paper explains why and, more importantly, offers a way forward.

I've been paying attention to research in the field since I was diagnosed with MS in 1993. I have a good understanding of the issues and a solid grasp of the scientific lexicon. Full disclosure: Dr. Corthals is a very good friend of mine and I've read every draft of this paper. I am fully convinced that her framework explains the contradictions that have puzzled researchers over the years, and answers their most frustrating questions*:

  • Why does vitamin D play such an important role?
  • How does diet affect the disease?
  • Why do some studies suggest Epstein Barr (and other pathogens) trigger MS but other studies contradict this notion?
  • How important is genetics in the development of MS?
  • Can stress and physical trauma trigger the disease?
  • Why are women more prone to MS than men?
  • Why do drugs like statins sometimes seem to help MS?

This paper takes all the research of the last decade and fits it into a new pattern: a radical new understanding of MS.

However, it's an extremely technical paper, and long (70 pages--though 20 of them are the bibliography). So on Wednesday, when the article goes live**, I'll post a précis here that I hope will help readers grasp the essentials. (For those who know their PPARs from their peroxisomes, I recommend downloading the original.)

Angelique has given me permission to start discussing the paper before publication because it will have a powerful impact on people with MS and those who love us.

It takes a lot to move the needle of orthodoxy. Think of the MS ecosphere--people with MS, their loved ones, their doctors, their insurers, the pharmaceutical companies--as an ocean-going liner. It needs time to make a course correction. The sooner we start, the sooner we'll get the ship moving in the right direction and the sooner the right treatment will reach those who need it.

The odds are very good that you know someone with MS: there are more than 1.4 million of us (some estimates are much higher). For them--for us--I'd like you to help spread the word. If you know any media professionals (online, in print, on the airwaves), please point them to this post or the forthcoming Quarterly Review of Biology. Talk to your doctor. Talk to bloggers. Talk on Twitter. Just talk. Help move the needle. Think of it as a holiday gift to people with MS.

I'll be talking about this more fully on Wednesday.*** Angelique has also offered to answer questions then--or now, if you have them. Just drop a comment or send me email (see sidebar).

This paper doesn't offer a miracle cure. It doesn't offer an instant treatment. But it does point the way. Please help by pointing people you know to me or to Angelique (her contact info is on her website--the first address is best).

Thank you.


* All opinions in this blog post--and all the mistakes--are mine.
** The paper will be available to all as a free download.
*** The announced publication date of QRB is 12/21/11. If that doesn't happen--and delays do occur--I'll post the précis anyway. This is too important to wait.

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tree, with hangover

No, the tree doesn't have a hangover, the photographer does. Having said that, the tree was utterly dry this morning--it had sucked down all its water (replenished before bed) overnight. So perhaps it was also feeling a wee bit dehydrated. Eh, it's what the holidays are for.

Now I'm going to go eat a lot of bad food and watch some cheesy TV. Okay, I admit, not cheesy: I happen to be very fond of Highland: The Series. I even got this t-shirt to enhance my viewing pleasure:



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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Facebook Timeline

Facebook is bringing Timeline online next week. I decided to get ahead of the curve and do mine now. I haven't spent much time on it. But I imagine I could: curating, fussing, sharpening, adding. I can see how for many people this could be a very useful feature, a way to bring together their online lives in one place.

But I prefer using tools over which I have long-term control. (This blog. My website.) I would hate to spend a hundred hours fixing everything in this walled garden, getting it just right, and for the FB powers-that-be to decide, Eh, bored now, and put in place yet another design. My work would be wasted.

But I spent an hour yesterday fiddling. Go take a look. Go look at your own Timeline. (GalleyCat has some basic How-To tips.) Make sure to pay attention to the privacy issues like downloadable email addresses and so forth. And don't waste too much time...

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Friday, December 16, 2011

QR codes made of chocolate

This is a genius idea: QR codes made of chocolate. No, I'm not joking. Chocolate is serious business. From Chocolate Graphics:

Looking for a great new way to promote your company and products? QR codes allow anyone with a smartphone and a QR code reader app to scan the QR code and access websites, videos, coupons and more!

... Chocolate Graphics chocolate QR codes are not only delightfully delicious but are also a great talking point and marketing tool. Each chocolate features an embossed chocolate QR code design using a process far more advanced than simply printing on the chocolate.

Chocolate Graphics uses a unique patent protected process to create a finished product that is 100% chocolate (no inks or icing are used) and this unique feature results in a superior product.

Imagine being able to hand out a chocolate that will take readers immediately to a free first chapter, or an audio sample, or your book trailer (though I admit I'm one of those people who think book trailers suck; they are not worth the money), which they will then settle down to read/listen to/watch while eating chocolate. That, dear reader, is a triumph of associational good will for the book in question. The happy muncher will be hitting the Buy button before they know what they're doing.

I've written before about how and why to use QR codes (here and here). But I never dreamt up chocolate. It's pricey, but I'm thinking some of this might be in my future (and therefore possibly yours). Immersive reads like Hild pretty much demand chocolate.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Go slay a dragon

Slay a dragon, fight off sharks, put out fires--all at drawastickman. It's enormous fun. You can share your pictures afterwards. Or not.

All you have to do is draw a stick figure, then watch your little person caper about and get into all sorts of scrapes. The software will occasionally prompt you to help your hero out with another wee drawing--but there's no artistry required. A toddler could do this. Er, a toddler could probably do a better job.

Have fun.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reader comment, and how to contact me

From: G

I’ve been reading your blog for a while, and your latest post (on seeing a video of yourself in your twenties) prompted me to stop lurking. It reminded me of a story by Ali Smith, called "Writ," and I wondered if you’d read it? (It’s available in a collection called The First Person and Other Stories.) A woman is visited by her 14 year old self, and the story describes how terrible and wonderful that possibility is. I’d quote, but as usual, Smith’s work is so bloody brilliant that I’d just end up typing out the whole story…

A friend gave me a couple of your books in the summer, and since then I’ve read all the novels, and as many of the short stories that I’ve been able to track down. I loved sci fi when I was little, getting everything by John Wyndham out of the library, graduating to the likes of Asimov et al (I love his story "The Bicentennial Man," and think of it whenever I read something by you about Descartes and dualism) but I only relatively recently discovered women like Octavia Butler, so was delighted to discover another contemporary female author. I would have loved more Ammonite, but have accepted that’s not going to happen! However, I am more hopeful that Aud will one day return (I now take corners wide, and on a recent visit to Oslo, my daughter went to the sculpture park purely because I'd mentioned it to her in passing having read about it in your novel).

‘Historical’ fiction isn’t really my bag, but I think I’m going to have to make Hild the exception to my rule, as I love how you write nature into all your other novels, and I guess there’s a lot of scope for wild (in all senses of the word) writing in Hild.

I also enjoy your blog posts and essays on writing; I’ve your manifesto printed up on my study wall. The ethos of that reminded me of Kakfka, when he talks about books being “ice axes” to break the frozen sea inside of us.

Well, this was really all just a long winded way of saying thank you for your books, and for taking the time to write your blog, because it makes me think.

Sorry, last thing: I heart your occasional photos of Seattle, because I have an old school friend who lives in Enumclaw, Washington State, and your pics help make me feel closer to her.

G, your email arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Normally I'd just write back privately but Kontactr, the form I've been using, screwed up not only the formatting but your address: I have no other way to talk to you but here, in public. As I wasn't sure whether you'd be okay with this, I redacted your full name.

First of all, thank you. Thank you for forcing me to pull my finger out, get rid of Kontactr, and fling a bit of javascript around my asknicola email address so I can post it without fear of evil spambots. (See sidebar. To talk to me about business, go through my agent: Stephanie Cabot at the Gernert Company.) And thanks, too, for prompting me to finally get around to giving my writing manifesto (previously part of You've been warned) it's own post and, therefore, URL. Now cunningly titled Manifesto.

Now, on to your email.

I have three collections of Ali Smith's stories: Free Love and Other Stories (1995), Other Stories and Other Stories (1999), and The Whole Story and Other Stories (2003). I think she's a truly original writer. Her work astonishes me. But I haven't read "Writ." I imagine the story is brilliant and terrifying. I'll be adding Free Love and Other Stories to my collection soon. How exciting! So thanks for that, too.

As for Hild, oh yes, the book is stuffed to the gills (to the mane, to the beak, to the fang; to the bough, to the beach, to the horizon) with nature. Hild is in nature all the time. Flora and fauna fascinate her: for its own sake and for the purposes of prediction (weather, war, wyrd). I believe you'll like it. Think of it as a hybrid of Aud and Ammonite.

And here's a photo for you: my back deck and the ravine, taken from the shelter of my kitchen (it was cold!) yesterday morning.

But if you want to see some gorgeous pix of Washington, follow Jennifer Durham's blog, Light Coming Back. She's a professional in love with nature and she lives right here.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Writer's manifesto

When I write, dear reader, I don't want to build a careful tale for you to discuss with a smile in a sunny place, I want to own you. I don't want to be The New TV Series, I want to be pornography: to thrill you so hard you're ashamed but can't help yourself crawling back for more.

I want to write a whole novel that invades you. I want to control what you think and feel, to put you right there, right then, killing and being killed, fucking and being fucked, cooking and starving, drinking and thinking, barely surviving and absolutely thriving. I want to give you a life you've never had and change the one you live.

How? I will take control of your mirror neurons. I will give you tastes and textures, torments and terrain you might never find in your real life. I will take you, sweep you off your feet, own you. For a while. For a while when you're lost in my book you will be somewhere else, somewhen else, someone else.

I control the horizontal, I control the vertical. Sit back, relax, enjoy. When you're done, take a breath, smoke a cigarette, figure out who you are now, and come back for more.

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Publishers: pay writers more, it's good for you

Mike Shatzkin has written another thought-provoking post about the publishing industry. (If the business interests you, subscribe to his feed; his perspective is expert and insightful.) This time his basic thesis is not only perspicacious, it absolutely delights me. He makes a good case that it's in the best interests of agency publishers (most of the publishers you've heard of) to pay their authors a higher ebook royalty.

For the ins and outs of it, you'll have to read Shatzkin's post; publishing accounting practises are arcane. But here's one of the more simple points he makes: writers don't pay much attention to the fiddly bits, the unspoken cost of the publisher's job: marketing, publicity, design, editing, etc. Apparently what we notice are the contractually agreed numbers: advances and royalties. So if Amazon comes along and offers the author an ebook royalty of 35% of the gross, and an agency publisher offers 25% of the net, well, us simple souls won't bother factoring in such airy-fairy fiddle-faddle as market penetration, we'll think, Hang on, Amazon will pay us twice as much. And we'll jump ship.

Publishers need to hold their noses and take the leap to higher royalty rates. Yes, it'll trigger all kinds of clauses regarding industry standard rates; yes, then they'll have to pay out more even on backlist titles. But the alternative is a) paying out more to retailers instead (go read the post) and b) losing the providers they absolutely can't do without: writers with proven readership.

Do I want to get paid more? Oh, yes. Do I think Shatzkin is right? Absolutely. Will it happen? No doubt; it's just a question of how fast. But how many great writers will get scooped up by Amazon before that happens?

Big Six, over to you.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Stannis is coming...

This trailer for Season Two of Game of Thrones isn't nearly as shivery-good as the first one for Season One. "The cold winds are rising," is sorta pitiful next to the blunt "Winter is coming." (The blue pencil in my editor-brain twitches. They could at least have said, "The north wind is rising.") So I hope there'll be another one soon.

Will I be watching anyway? Oh hell yes.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Anniversary

Today is the 22nd anniversary of the day I moved to the US permanently to live with Kelley. I intend to spend the day lazing about and beaming, and the evening celebrating in suitably splendid style. I won't be around much. I imagine you'll survive somehow.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ominous to glittering to eerie glow

Here's how yesterday morning began: dull, grey, and ominous, with a carpet of frost--thick as cat fur--on every surface:

And here's how it was less than an hour later, bright and spangled with sun:

And--though sadly I don't have a photo--last night was cold and clear with a huge LED-bright full moon. And a scarf of fog lying twisted around the neck of the Olympics and draped across the Sound, which glowed like the breath of some spirit stealing into our world.

I love Seattle.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

29 years ago today: me on video

Dead Kennedys, The Damned, The Undertones, Cocteau Twins, Killing Joke, Stiff Little Fingers, and my band, Janes Plane. What do we all have in common? We played at the Ace, Brixton, in 1982. (So did, uh, Kajagoogoo, but we don't admit to that. Though in my defence of coolness I will point out that this was before their pop hit, "Too Shy.")

To be precise, twenty-nine years ago today I sang in front of a sell-out crowd and four TV cameras. I had a blast. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll was not a metaphor.

If you've read my memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party, you'll have heard some of the Janes Plane songs. You can read an exerpt about the band's formation, and how singing brought me to writing, here. Or, ah fuck it, just listen to "Bare Hands":







It was recorded in August 1982, when the band was still together--and when the following video (for a UK TV show called Whatever You Want) was recorded.

I've been sitting on this video for a long, long time. It makes my toes curl. (Do you have any idea how hard it is to edit video when you can't actually look at it??) I was 21, trying to hard to look laid back and world-weary, but so stressed out about that kitten. (And with a wicked hash hangover--the night before was the first time I'd smoked Nepalese Temple Ball. I smoked a lot.) Note that my nose looks different: it was a couple of years before I got it broken in a fight.

While I'm throwing caution to the wind, here's video of part of that Ace gig, filmed December 9, 1982. We were woefully under-rehearsed (we'd split up not long after that August interview, and reformed for this one gig) and this was the song we'd played least. (You won't find this one on the CD in the memoir. It was the last song we wrote.) Also, Jane's guitar was horribly out-of-tune. It was always out of tune; even pooling our resources, we couldn't afford to replace the machine heads.

We were incredibly poor. That white shirt I was wearing cost 20p in a jumble sale and I cut the collar off with a knife (ditto that shirt in the other video). The waistcoat was knitted for me by a lover's mum. The pink trousers were hand-me-downs that I wore all the time. I was reminded just the other day that on the day of the gig I didn't have tube fare to get there and had to borrow it. But, hey, we got paid in cash--union rates--right after the show. That night we partied. The only snag is, I don't remember a thing about it :) Eh, I was 22; I thought I ruled the world. I remember that young person fondly.

Enjoy.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Catherine Hall wins Green Carnation Prize

The winner of the Green Carnation 2011 is The Proof of Love by Catherine Hall. I've enjoyed watching the process--and the longlist and shortlist are good places to find gifts for your quiltbag lit loving friends.

Full press release below:

Catherine Hall has won the 2011 Green Carnation Prize with her second novel, The Proof of Love. Set during the long hot summer of 1976, it is a deeply evocative and moving tale of a young Cambridge mathematician who arrives in a remote village in the Lake District and takes on a job as a farm labourer. Just as he is slowly winning the trust of the suspicious local community, tragedy strikes.

Chair of the judges Simon Savidge said “I am thrilled, along with all the other judges, that Catherine Hall has won this year's Green Carnation prize with her extraordinary second novel The Proof of Love. This is one of those rare novels in which you get so lost you forget that it is fiction. The characters walk off the page and you can feel the atmosphere simmering and brooding in every sentence. It's a book that quietly takes you by the hand, leading you gently into a false sense of security before gripping you and it doesn’t let go until the very last moment. It is the sort of novel that storytelling and reading are all about, wonderfully written and a book you want to pass on and recommend to everyone you know.”

Winner Catherine Hall said “I’m utterly delighted to have won the Green Carnation Prize – a completely unexpected pleasure, especially given the calibre of the other writers on the shortlist. It’s a great way of raising the profile of LGBT writing, which I think can only be a good thing.”

About The Prize

The Green Carnation Prize got off to a great start in 2010 as an award that celebrated the best fiction and memoirs by gay men. It provoked debate, produced an intriguing shortlist and chose a worthy winner in Christopher Fowler's Paperboy.
In 2011 the prize came back even bigger and better. As Britain's most prestigious literary prize for modern gay writing, it opened its doors to all LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) writers. It aims to engage the wider LGBT community, as well as all readers outside of it, in its search for great modern writing.

Details of the winning author and novel:

CATHERINE HALL was born in the Lake District in 1973 and brought up in an extended family on a remote hill farm. After reading English at Cambridge University she moved to London in 1995, working in documentary film production and then for an international peacebuilding organisation before becoming a freelance writer and editor for human rights and development charities. Her first novel was Days of Grace (Portobello, 2008)

THE PROOF OF LOVE: During the long, hot summer of 1976, a young Cambridge mathematician arrives in a remote village in the Lake District and takes on a job as a farm labourer. Painfully awkward and shy, Spencer Little is viewed with suspicion by the community and his only real friendship is with scruffy, clever ten-year-old Alice. When he saves Alice from a mountain fire, he begins at last to feel accepted, but as he is drawn deeper into the lives of others, he also becomes aware of their secrets - and of the difficulty in keeping his own. As the heatwave intensifies and a web of complicity tightens around him, Spencer realises that he will be forced to choose: between passion and logic, between loyalty and truth...”

The six shortlisted books for the Green Carnation Prize 2011 were:

  • The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge – Patricia Duncker (Bloomsbury)
  • The Proof of Love – Catherine Hall (Portobello)
  • Red Dust Road – Jackie Kay (Picador)
  • Rembrance of Things I Forgot – Bob Smith (Terrace Books)
  • Ever Fallen in Love – Zoe Strachan (Sandstone Press)
  • The Empty Family – Colm Toibin (Penguin Books)

The judges for the 2011 prize were:

  • Nick Campbell, blogger and book addict
  • Stella Duffy, author, broadcaster and director
  • Paul Magrs, author
  • Michelle Pauli, deputy editor of guardian.co.uk/books
  • Simon Savidge (Chair of Judges), blogger, journalist, podcast presenter and literary salon host

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Book spaces

About a thousand people read yesterday's post about showrooming: turning book shops into book spaces funded through the marketing budgets of various organisations (publishers, big independent writers, giant online retailers).

I'm not the only one thinking along these lines. Yesterday, over at Publishing Perspectives, Jo Henry, the MD of Book Marketing Limited, ventured the opinion that Amazon may end up buying Waterstones, a UK book chain, "so that it would have its own showroom on the high street."

And today in Publishers Weekly, Roxanne Coady, of RJJulia Booksellers, Madison, CT, has a modest proposal for independents to charge Amazon for showrooming.

Finally, a smart friend of mine points out that the book space I imagined yesterday already exists: it's the New York Public Library. So my additional suggestion is for publishers and giant online retailers* (Amazon, B&N, Apple, and Google) to fund libraries directly.

Just a thought.


* Giant Online Retailers: GOR.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bookselling: We are showroom dummies

Yesterday, AllThingsD discussed Amazon's latest move:

Amazon is offering consumers up to $5 off on purchases if they compare prices using the online giant’s mobile phone application in a store.
The promotion goes live Saturday and will serve as a way for Amazon to increase usage of its bar-code-scanning application, while also collecting intelligence on prices in the stores.
They refrained from characterising this as any more than breaking customers to the saddle accustoming customers to using price comparison software--combined with a nifty information-gathering-on-their-competitors'-pricing exercise. But many book-centric blogs exploded in outrage.
I don't think outrage will serve.
A couple of days ago, the New York Times Media Decoder blog introduced me to the term 'showrooming':
Bookstore owners everywhere have a lurking suspicion: that the customers who type into their smartphones while browsing in the store, and then leave, are planning to buy the books online later — probably at a steep discount from the bookstores’ archrival, Amazon.com.

Now a survey has confirmed that the practice, known among booksellers as showrooming, is not a figment of their imaginations.
I read on, nodding. The survey found that 24% of those who bought books online in the last month had seen the book in a store first, and 39% of people who bought from Amazon said they'd looked at the book in a bookshop before buying it from Amazon. In other words, Amazon has been doing this for a really long time, as we all know; they've just added some extra incentive for the customer and, as I say, are accustoming more customers to the practice.
Peter Hildick-Smith, the president of the Codex Group, said publishers and bookstore owners should be worried about the practice, especially considering the rapidly increasing number of e-readers in circulation.
It's at this point that I stopped nodding. I started to shake my head. No. The time for worry about this behaviour has passed. It's time for bookstores to acknowledge this pattern and start using it.
Readers are customers. We shop as it suits us. No one--publishers, wholesalers, retailers, commentators--can wish that away, no matter how vehemently. It's time to look at the situation from another perspective. Right now book shops have what Amazon (and publishers) need: the showroom. The showroom is the bookseller's advantage.
In any business, the way to make a living is to leverage one's advantage. Book shops need to start thinking of themselves less as points of sale than as showrooms.
I've talked about this before:
Customers of all kinds live in an information and experience-rich world. Booksellers and publishers should be figuring out how to enhance a reader's shopping experience, creating a relationship with them...

What I'd take from the description of these readers and shoppers is that the urge to shop in person, even among those who read on Kindle, is something online retailers don't yet quite have a handle on. It's a magnificent opportunity. Why don't independents install WiFi and partner with publishers so that readers with Kindles can download DRM-free books in .prc format from them? Why don't publishers club together to build experience kiosks in public spaces where people can fondle the merchandise, get ideas for books, then download them? Why not hire booksellers to talk up their product to these shoppers? Why doesn't Amazon sponsor book parties to tempt non-Kindle users into giving it a go? Why don't writers band together and hire customer reps to staff kiosks in bars or cafes selling their books (digitally or paper) at the best price?
I don't understand why, in the season of pop-up retailing, some writers' coop hasn't tried this. Seriously: why haven't we tried this?
If you walk into the average Barnes & Noble, there are 15,000 books in your immediate sightline. If you log onto Amazon, you see a maximum of 33 covers per screen*. It's no contest in terms of discoverability. Why aren't booksellers using this? Why isn't some small luscious book shop with high foot traffic but low sales and collapsing bottom line partnering experimentally with a group of publishers for sponsorship, and hiring extra staff to wait on customers and really sell books? I want book shops to survive. I want to know that in ten years there will still be spaces that display books for readers; there will still be spaces where, as a writer, I can meet those readers; where, as a reader I can get personal recommendations.
We need book spaces.
But let me be blunt: I'm not convinced these book spaces will be book shops. They'll be book displays. Book showrooms. Former booksellers will be professional, publisher-agnostic book marketers paid fees directly by publishers, and, yes, giant online retailers. Functionally, it makes no difference to most readers whether the owner of that bricks and mortar book space earns money directly from the sale, on the premises, of particular books, or whether they are paid fees by publishers and giant online retailers to display their wares. Functionally, would it be so bad to be paid directly by those wanting to market their wares rather than by individual buyers? Functionally, I as a writer only care that the venue exists, that the publishers exist so that writers are published and paid, and that readers can discover new books.
The world has changed. It's not going back to the way it was. Every corner of the publishing ecosystem has to accept this reality. Look at Hollywood. Film studios spend over $100m to market a big movie. Studios understand that viewers must discover the film before they can see/pay for it. Similarly, publishers should start understanding that books now need real marketing. Putting boots on the ground in showrooms is one way to begin.
Imagine a book space where a customer is greeted at the door by a book professional with twenty years experience and asked: What are you looking for? Where they're ushered to their own private changing room reading nook and brought a variety of clothes books to try on look at. Where they are engaged in aspirational conversation: That dress book will make you look/feel so attractive. Everybody's reading that book this month. Where other book buyers will nod and say: I read that one last week, it rocked my world.
We have showrooms. It's time to start using them the way readers/customers have already shown us they want us to. Otherwise we're all dummies.


* Via Paid Content

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Monday, December 5, 2011

Magic Flight's Launch Box

I've been working on a blog post for Friday about what I was up to twenty-nine years ago (it's an anniversary--but more on that on Friday).

Meanwhile, I've encountered a nifty bit of kit that, twenty-nine years ago, I would most definitely have wanted to own. I present to you, from Magic Flight, the incredible Launch Box:

It comes in this tin Rubik's-Cube-For-Stoners über box:

Everything slots neatly together, including rechargeable AA batteries and their case, and there are heartfelt sayings, carved on the Launch Box and painted on the tin. These sayings are, I imagine, just gnomic enough to be either deeply mysterious or highly risible, depending on your usual response to herbal alteration.

The method is ingenious: you grind your, ah, material to a fine consistency (pestle and mortar = perfect), open the box, drop the material in the centre trench, press the battery to the contact for 3-5 seconds, which heats an element sufficiently to vaporises the aromatics in the material, then you draw. No flame. No smoke. No noise. Barely any smell (except the herb itself, of course). Given the practise I'd had with smoking 29 years ago, I bet you any money I could have extracted every whiff of vapour from the draw.

So now I'm thinking 'Magic Flight' might mean something like, 'Wow, you could use it on a plane.' (I'm thinking this as a novelist, you understand, not an advocate. I'm sure Federal Aviation rules forbid it. They forbid electronic cigarettes, after all.)

Mainly I'm fascinated by the sheer ingenuity of people. I would have coveted this gear three decades ago. I loved finding new way to smoke hash (which I gave up when I was 24, just to be crystal clear): joints, of course (I made the best in town), on a pin under glass, through a carrot (and then you eat the carrot), via a supercharged fire-extinguisher (just once--dangerous, but fun), and, my favourite, hot knives. I loved hash on hot knives. But this cool gadget would have gone to the top of my wishlist.

And, ah, look, Amazon's Universal Wishlist will accept that item. Pretty wild. The world really has changed since I was doing this stuff.

Now I'll get back to mumbling, tugging on my floppy cardigan, and ordering those kids off my lawn...

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Sharing breakfast

A squirrel and I munched companionably at breakfast this morning--right next to each other, though separated by glass. It looks as though Tufty was enjoying a chunk of half-frozen apple from the wild orchard just north of here. Me? Smoked salmon on toast and green tea.

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

A day off

It's a sunny day here in Seattle. I'm taking the day off. Why don't you, too?

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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Russ, etc

I've had an interesting couple of days. Bumpy, in some respects. (Waiting--and everyone I know seems to be waiting for some important news right now--is not my forte.) But then two things happened that felt like a ray of sunshine slicing through the murk.

First, we planted some Siberian iris that came, in direct descent, from Joanna Russ. And then, literally two hours later, this gift arrived from New York:

The box was full of caviar.

So I've been pigging out on luxury items, and dreaming of a summer bright with the kind of irises Joanna might have gazed upon while writing her classics. Which of course she had no idea would be classics while she was writing them. Or maybe she did. Which--frankly--makes me feel even more pleased with the world: we all do what we must do, and the world grants its grace and favour or, shrug, it doesn't. Nothing much you can do to influence public opinion except do what you do, and do it well.

So I'm in a phelgmatic mood. And heading towards cheerfulness. Happy Saturday.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

Words to use carefully, a PSA

Bitch. Cripple. Dyke.*

Only some people can get away with using these words--and only sometimes, and in certain circumstances.

The rules are simple:

If you've had such a word hurled at you as a term of abuse, you may then reclaim the word and use it as a self-identifier, or--among other self-indentifiers--as a term of admiration.

Any other circumstances, any, make your use of the term an insult and a fighting word.

Clear? Good.


* There are, of course, many similar words that insult whole classes of people. But in troll country it's not a good idea to speak on behalf of a group to which one doesn't belong. You know the words I mean. Out in the real world, when you hear (or see) someone use one, call the user on it. You'll be making the world a better place.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

John Carter of Mars trailer

It's looks... Hmmn. Well, it doesn't look deep. But there are swords, and heroism, and epic music. (Which sounds like a weird choral/orchestral version of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir".)

Will it be good? No idea. But it's John Carter. Of Mars! How can I not give it a go? Besides, it'll be interesting to see Taylor Kitsch in something that's not Friday Night Lights. (I'm so used to seeing him with a football helmet dangling from his hand that I kept mis-seeing his weapons in this trailer.)

And, hey, all you producers out there, I think it's time for a remake of Tarzan. Seriously. I can't get enough of that stuff.

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Lambda Literary Award nomination deadline

The deadline to nominate a book for the Lambda Literary Award is today. But Richard Labonte, administrator of the award, has these reassuring words:

Nominations close officially on Dec. 1, but as always there's some leeway for publishers and authors who leave things to the last minute...we've all been there. In the next week, I'll be contacting publishers about a number of books reviewed in past months by the engaged and engaging critics of the Lambda Literary Review, but not yet submitted for consideration by more than 90 judges - but if publishers and publicists (and authors) want to avoid a nudging email, they can access the online submission form here and guidelines about what kind of book can be nominated, and what category is most suitable, here.

Readers are always hungry for good books. But we can't read what we don't know about. So don't hang about. Nominate something!

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