Dad was the most practical person in the world. “When I go,” he said, “just put me in a cardboard box.” Today my brother and I had to choose him a casket. The funeral director handed us a page with a list. They started at twelve thousand dollars (metal, lots of gold) and worked their way down to four thousand (solid wood). “Then if you flip that page over,” she said, “you’ll see our particle board caskets.” They were one thousand dollars. I laughed. I knew what Dad would be saying.
Still, I can’t put him in particle board. He’s getting a solid wooden one.
I love you, Dad.
British pole dancer Donna Cleeve has been forced to quit her job because she’s allergic to the metal pole. The 20-year-old from Portsmouth developed a red rash after each show before she realised nickel used in the poles was to blame. “It’s hard to look sexy when your legs and body are inflamed. I tried to ignore it, but in the end it wasn’t worth the pain,” she told London’s Sun. She’s now given up her dancing and taken a job in sales.
My web traffic soared on the back of my review of a Mary-Kate and Ashley novel, partly because quite a few people liked it but mostly because there are an awful lot of internet searches for “mary-kate and ashley”. In fact, that phrase quickly became the #3 search people used to get to my site, coming right after “jennifer government” and “max barry”. (Alas, “max berry” is #6.) For a few days Google actually listed my site in its first page of results for “mary-kate and ashley”, which, if I have this right, makes me one of the world’s foremost Mary-Kate and Ashley experts. This is awesome. Now if this novel-writing thing doesn’t work out, I have something to fall back on.
In response to my Everybody just left the room post, I received an emphatic e-mail from a guy named Jason:
just fuck off with your boring egotistical ramblings… if you cant reply to your email you can go fuck your self.. silly marketing c—t pretending to care…
fucking stick to the marketing, you do it better than writing books
you have the time to write bullshit about 9/11 but not answer your emails… wat the fuk?
There was more, but it became repetitive. I was surprised; I hadn’t realized that visiting my web site was compulsory. Also, while I am a long way behind on my e-mail, so is the Pope and people don’t write him hate mail. Or at least not just about that. And I was a little confused about the references to marketing. I do what marketing better than writing books? Was he talking about how I promote my novels, like on this web site? If so, wouldn’t it be self-defeating to stop writing in order to concentrate on promoting my writing?
I searched through my In Box in case there was a previous message from Jason and found two. One was from a week ago, in response to my True Love & Drool post (I’m better now, thanks), and it said:
i know your a good writer and all, i did read your book.. but having a pissy throat infection is not a good enough reason to not reply to my email. Maybe your too important and your time is too valuable to deal with “readers”… i maybe a low life, uneducated skum bag.. but at least im more enlightened and “educated” than the people who have marketing degree’s and PHD’s and all this truly meaningless “education”…
I was beginning to sense a theme. I opened up Jason’s original e-mail and was surprised to see it was a mere 4 weeks old. For most people, sure, that’s a long time to reply to an e-mail. But for me, that would be lightning-fast. That’s why the page with my e-mail address lets people know I’m running several months behind.
In light of that, I felt Jason was being a touch unreasonable. But I also felt guilty about my pile of unanswered e-mail, so I decided to reply to his original question. Here it is:
Iv just started reading ur book, its great so far! Im just interested in what made you see the light? ie. realise that marketing is fundamentally evil… and turn towards a more satisfying and creative career?
Well, Jason, there were a few reasons. But partly it was so I could reach out and touch people like you.
The commission investigating the September 11 attacks has released tape recordings of some of the conversations from that day. Among them was one of the most powerful pieces of dialogue I’ve heard in years. I have no jokes or political points to make here; I just want to talk about the actual words.
The situation was this: within the last 50 minutes, two hijacked airlines had struck the World Trade Center in New York, a third had crashed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and a fourth was being tracked. The national Air Traffic Control System Command Center contacted the FAA headquarters to suggest military jets be used to intercept this fourth aircraft.
Many people have said that 9/11 felt like a Hollywood movie. If it had been, the scene would have gone like this:
TRAFFIC CONTROL GUY Do we want to think about scrambling aircraft? FAA OFFICIAL Way ahead of you. PULL BACK to reveal out of man's office window, two F-15s screaming off a runway.
Or, perhaps, this:
JACK RYAN You guys need to scramble aircraft, now! FAA OFFICIAL You don't run the FAA, Mr. Ryan. I do. And I'm not spending twenty thousand dollars in jet fuel just because you've got a point to prove! CLOSE UP on RYAN as his jaw clenches with frustration.
This is popcorn entertainment, escapism. There is nothing wrong with that; I often enjoy a good dose. But what I love even more are tiny moments of realistic human failing: when a person does something unthinking, or gets confused. These are touching simply because they’re real and recognizable. Humans make a lot of mistakes. Our lives are not scripted, and if we could yell “cut” and do over every bit of our lives we weren’t happy with, we’d all still be in our teens.
That’s why this little exchange is, for me, almost heart-breakingly tragic.
Air Traffic Control: “Do we want to think about, uh, scrambling aircraft?”
FAA: “God… I don’t know.”
Air Traffic Control: “That’s a decision somebody’s gonna have to make probably in the next 10 minutes.”
FAA: “Uh… you know, everybody just left the room.”
The other day I lost my internet connection. All the lights on my cable modem turned off except one, the Receive light, and it just blinked at me. I wasn’t worried because this has happened before and each time it turned out to be a general fault in my area: koalas chewing through the cables, for example. Well, actually I’m just guessing there. It could have been koalas. I never bothered to get into the specifics.
I called up Telstra, my ISP, and after wading through layers of “Press 2 if you want to express your frustration with automated telephony systems,” I got a recorded message saying there was a nationwide problem. I was invited to press 0 to speak to a human about it, and since I wanted to know when it would be fixed, I took them up on this.
Now, I knew this wouldn’t be easy as it sounded. Telstra has an excellent “Network Status” web page that displays problems with its service; if you visit this, you can see if there’s an area-wide outage at a glance. But if you can’t visit this page—if, for example, you’re suffering from the effects of an area-wide outage—you have to call them up, and they refuse to tell you anything until you have exhaustively checked your own computer. Their attitude seems to be that while they accept it’s possible that there are koalas chewing on their cables, it’s much more likely that koalas are chewing on your cables. Or have crawled inside your computer. Or, I suppose, the problem is the result of some more technical issue unrelated to koalas. Anyway, at first I used to have conversations like this:
Max: “My modem’s doing that blinking thing that means there’s a problem with your network, can you tell me when it’ll be fixed?”
Tech: “First I need to confirm everything’s working at your end. Can you tell me what error message you get when you try to connect?”
Max: “No, because I don’t use Telstra’s connection software. It kept crashing so I use the open source replacement. But that’s not the problem; the problem is the modem doesn’t seem to be getting a signal.”
Tech: “Uhh… okay. Can you check that the cable connecting your modem to your computer is plugged in?”
Max: “Well, I could, but whether it is or not, my modem’s still not getting a signal.”
Tech: “Can you check that cable?”
Max: “Hang on… I have to crawl under my desk… ow! What the… so that’s where my favorite pen got to. Okay, yes, the cable is plugged in.”
Tech: “Can you check the cable from the modem is plugged securely into the wall?”
Max: “Fffffff…fine. I just have to move some furniture… urrrrrrghhhh! Arrrrrgh! Okay. Yes it is.”
Tech: “Okay.” (keyboard sounds) “There’s an outage in your area. It should be fixed by two o’clock. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Then I got smart. This time, when Andrea the tech support person came on the line, I shamelessly lied. “I already checked my cables before I rang, and they’re all plugged in.”
Andrea: “Okay, good. (keyboard sounds) There’s no outage in your area. What I’ll do is book a technician to come out and look at your modem. Because you’re out of contract, you’ll be charged $66 plus $18 per 15 minutes. Is that all right?”
Max: “Uhhh… I thought there was a nation-wide problem. There was a recorded message just before I got you.”
Andrea: “No, I’m not aware of any nationwide problem.”
Max: “Well, that’s what the message said.”
Andrea: “I’m looking at the screen and there’s no outage. When your modem is blinking like that, it usually means there’s a problem with the actual modem. So the technician may need to sell you a new one.”
Max: “But every other time I’ve had this pattern of blinking lights, it’s been a fault with your network.”
Andrea: “It’s more likely to be your modem.”
Max: “The Power light on, the Receive light blinking, everything else off?”
Andrea: “That’s right.”
Andrea: “Do you want me to book a technician?”
Max: “I think I’ll wait and see if it fixes itself.”
Andrea: “Okay. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Now, let’s pause to review the “facts” I received here. At first I thought there were only two:
- There is no outage
- My pattern of blinking lights suggests a fault with the modem
But later I realized Andrea had buried a third one in there as well, and it was waiting to bite me.
The next day my modem still wasn’t working, so I called up again. Tech support told me:
- There is an outage
- My pattern of blinking lights suggests a network fault
- It will be fixed by 1pm
This was a relief, because I didn’t want to shell out for a new modem. It was also reasonably satisfying to confirm my suspicion that Andrea had no frickin’ idea what she was talking about.
Sure enough, internet access was mine again after 1pm—but only for a few hours. Then the modem started doing that blinking thing again. I couldn’t bring myself to call Telstra again, so I decided to re-try an earlier strategy: going to bed and hoping everything fixed itself overnight. Alas, this proved unsuccessful. In the morning I sucked it up and called Telstra again. Now tech support told me:
- There was an outage in my area yesterday, but that was fixed
- That pattern of blinking lights could mean anything
- A technician needs to come out to my house to see what the problem is
Then commenced a heated five minute argument about why a technician needed to come to my house. This came to a halt when I finally articulated a key assumption: “… so I don’t see why I should have to pay for a technician to confirm there’s a problem with your network.”
“Oh,” the tech said. “You don’t pay for a technician unless the problem is with your computer — like if it’s got a virus and that’s why you can’t connect. Otherwise there’s no charge.”
Thus, Andrea’s third and final piece of misinformation:
- If a technician comes out to see me, I get charged for it
The soonest a technician could visit was the next day. “I can book him in for between 7am and noon,” tech support said.
“Okay, sure, any time in there is fine. Say, 9am?”
“No, I mean, that’s the booking time: between 7 and 12. We book in five-hour windows.”
Fortunately I don’t have a real job, so this didn’t require me arranging time off work. Instead I merely had to postpone showering in case that was when the guy knocked, and, of course, he finally dragged himself to my doorstop at 11:30am. He came upstairs, unplugged my modem, and plugged in an orange doohickey. It went KRRRRRSSSSSSSHHHHHH, like an old man blowing his nose. The technician repeated the process at the wall socket: same deal.
“Hmm,” he said, “When I drove up, I noticed a Telstra van on the corner, digging up the road. I wonder if they’ve disconnected the amplifier.”
He wandered out the front door. I heard these blokes shouting to each other. “Oi! Did you cut any optical cables there?” “What?” “I said did you—” And so on. After a few minutes, the technician wandered back. “Yeah, they’re doing some work. They reckon they’ll be finished in about twelve hours.” With that he packed up his orange doohickey and left.
This strikes me as an interesting, even innovative, business process. A traditionalist like myself might come up with something like this:
- When a Telstra bloke unplugs part of the network, he records that fact in the system.
- If a customer calls up with connection problems, tech support checks whether any Telstra blokes have unplugged things in that area.
Telstra, however, prefers:
- Telstra blokes arbitrarily unplug sections of network; wander off for hours or days.
- When customers call up unable to connect, tech support makes them check if their computer cables are plugged in.
- Technician is booked for some vague time period in the future, during which customer is required to stay at home and avoid going to the bathroom.
- Technician drives to customer’s house, checks modem, wanders streets looking for any Telstra blokes who might have unplugged things.
That must be why they’re Australia’s largest telecommunications company and I’m a chump trying to make a living out of writing novels. That and their koala expertise.
I’ve spent most of the last three and a half days at Continuum, my first ever science-fiction/fantasy/horror convention. I didn’t know what to expect, so my first stop was the “So This is Your First Convention” panel. This proved to be a little alarming, as Danny, the Chairman, talked about the “6-2-1” rule: “Each day, have at least 6 hours of sleep, 2 meals, and 1 shower. Please, the shower is particularly important. I can’t stress that enough.”
But I soon discovered that sweaty nerds dressed as Darth Vader were actually thin on the ground. Instead, there were endless ranks of spunky young women with arresting eye shadow. What’s more, they were friendly, thus rectifying the single flaw I’ve always found with spunky young women with arresting eye shadow in the past. Danny was right: the convention felt like an intimate party for a couple hundred people. Everyone was excited to be there and ready to party down.
The convention’s centerpiece was the Maskobalo, a big costume party. There I learned another important lesson: nobody respects the guys who wear tails. “Furries,” said Sarah, a blindingly blonde punk rocker wearing a SHOW US YOUR RIFFS T-shirt. “See, some of them love animals a little too much.” Actually, that’s not what she said. What she said terrified me to the depths of my soul, and I had to bang my head against the floor until I could no longer remember specifics.
My favorite part of the Maskobalo was the most realistic Dalek I’ve ever seen—when it talked, even the lights on its head flashed—doing stand-up comedy:
Yesterday I went for a job interview. The woman said, “Do you have any EX-PER-I-ENCE?” I told her, “Daleks have ruled the galaxy for THOU-SANDS—OF—YEARS!” She wrote: Some management experience.
Just before the Maskobalo, I got talking to Ian, who had read some of my blogs. He said, “That one you did about drool, did you make that up?”
I was shocked. “You’re not suggesting I make up blog posts for comedic effect.”
This had sounded a lot less sarcastic in my head. Ian laughed. “Riiight.”
“No, no, I mean they’re all true. I don’t make anything up.”
I could tell Ian didn’t believe me. But I didn’t have time to argue; the Maskobalo was starting and we had to go into the main hall, along with a Dominatrix, a Knight, and a Cyberman, to watch a Dalek perform stand-up comedy.
I have a throat infection. This will come as no surprise to people who know me well; developing throat infections is something of a hobby of mine. In fact, given the amount of time I devote to it, it’s more like unpaid part-time work. According to my parents, it’s because I have no tonsils. The story goes like this: as a kid, I caught a cold or something and the late 1970s were a dangerous time for tonsils; you only needed to look at a doctor the wrong way and he’d be down your throat, grabbing for them. My parents were unconvinced that I needed a tonsillectomy (“ectomy” being Latin for “get those dangly things”), but they were hypnotized by the gentle swirls of the doctor’s lava lamp and into surgery I went.
In a twist worthy of Marvel Comics, I emerged with an incredible super power: the ability to transform any bodily affliction into a throat infection. It works like this:
- Get food poisoning
- Develop throat infection
- Stub toe
- Develop throat infection
- Develop throat infection
- Develop much worse throat infection
During times of sickness, I also gain super powers of drool production, which allow me to produce my own body volume in saliva. In fact, I’m pausing to spit even as I write this. Sorry, that’s probably a little more insight into the creative process than you really needed. But it really is amazing. If I could bottle this stuff and sell it as some kind of industrial lubricant, I’d be rich.
Right now I can’t speak without breaking into a fit of coughing (followed by spitting), so Jen is required to phrase all questions to me in a way that accepts a yes or no answer. She’s pretty good about this, except, I discovered, when it’s 4AM and she has to get up for work in three hours. I thought I was being terrific last night, keeping my coughing and spluttering down to an admirably low level, but somehow Jen failed to appreciate this. At one point she glared at me (I think—it was dark) and said, “Do you want me to go into the spare room?”
My answer was “no”—I mean, it wasn’t like she was disturbing me—but I had a feeling the real question was, “Do you want to go into the spare room before I brain you with a lamp?” Unable to articulate this, I just lay there quietly. Then, slowly but surely, my throat started to tickle. I fought against it, but finally it was too much and I had to grab for the pack of Butter Menthols on my bedside table. In the process I banged my lamp and knocked a book onto the floor, and in fact I was still looking for those bloody Butter Menthols when Jen sprang out of bed and announced she was relocating.
She didn’t hit me, either. I guess her question was for real after all. What a girl. I was filled with love and appreciation; also saliva. I had to spit.