Sunday, September 17, 2006

How Pirating Movies Helped Me See Better

Yes, it's true, movie piracy helped my eyesight.

Not video piracy, as in cheap DVDs from Malaysia -- real, honest-to-goodness actual film piracy. Sorta.

Back in the stone age, meaning the early 1970s, in the pre-DVD, pre-VHS, pre-HBO days of over-the-air television and crappy cable tv service (some things never change), if you wanted to see an old movie, you either had to a) wait for it to play on The Million Dollar Movie (WOR-TV in NYC) or b) see it at the Thalia Revival House (for more on the Thalia, check out any Woody Allen film from the 1970s). If it wasn't on tv, and it wasn't at the Thalia, you were SOL.

Unless you were a Pirate.

Arrrggh, me ladies.

In 1972 or so, I bought a 16mm projector and started to collect 16mm film dupes. This was not an inexpensive hobby, by the way, but I was young, foolish, and well-heeled with cash. (At the time I was writing for Marvel Comics, scripting four or five titles a month, and making pretty good money. Not as good as I thought, since I neglected to pay estimated tax, which left me in the hole every year for a few thousand dollars, but like I said -- young, foolish, etc.)

Some of the films I bought included Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, To Have and Have Not, King Kong, and a slew of grade-B programmers from the mid-Forties. The average cost of these dupes, none of which was in pristine condition, was between $300 and $400 dollars.

That's $300 and $400 1972 dollars.

By my back-of-the-envelope calculation, that's probably the equivilant of $1000 to $1500 in 2006 greenbacks.

Per film.

Like I said, young, foolish and well-heeled.

(A few years later all of those titles were available on VHS for about $80 a pop. That's late-70s, early-80s, probably about $200 in today's money. And today, of course, they're all available on DVD for less than $20. Today's $20 would probably be worth about fifty cents in 1972. But I digress.)

Anyway... how piracy saved my eyesight...

I've always liked to sit up close in movie theaters. Love seeing that big screen filling my peripheral vision. Back in the early 70s, though, I really liked to sit close. I'm talking fifth or sixth row. Neck-straining close.

I never wondered why.

Until I started hosting movie parties in my apartment to show off my collection of pirated films.

It became a regular Friday night gig. I wasn't the only 16mm dupe collector, but I had the biggest apartment with the biggest expanse of free wall space, so I became the de facto host of our illegal film club. Every Friday night for about a year, people would troop over, grab a seat or a piece of floor, munch down on some Jiffy-pop, and watch the latest pirated epic. Lots of fun was had by all. It became a kind of ritual.

So did the complaints about how poorly I focused the damn projector.

Every week, the same damn thing: I'd start up the movie ("Hey gang, this week it's Spartacus!") and no sooner did the picture hit the wall than someone would pipe up to tell me the image was out of focus. I'd adjust it till everyone was happy, then take my seat two inches from the wall, and wonder why all these idiots had such lousy eyesight.

Didn't hit me for almost a month that, uh, maybe they weren't the ones with bad eyes.

Turns out I needed glasses and probably always had.

I can remember my shock when, at the age of 20, I finally got a look at the world the way it actually was. (We're talking about the natural world, here; seeing the world the way it actually is, in a philosophical sense, is still something I'm working on today.)

Wowza. So that's what a street sign looks like!

See, I grew up in New York City, so I had no need to take driver's ed, which means I never had to take a vision test, and my parents were so boxed up in their own drama they weren't that alert to their kids' health, so... it just never came up.

I never knew the world wasn't supposed to be blurry past twenty feet.

Till I became a film pirate.

Which is why film piracy helped save my eyesight.

Just thought you'd like to know.

Immigration, Part Two

Whoa, it's been a while, hasn't it?

Sorry about the delay in updating this blog. But life happens, and I've had other things on my mind lately.

So where was I?

Let's see. I explained why immigration issues are of personal importance to me... I outlined my understanding of the two categories into which these issues can be divided: security and economics... I explained my theory that laws which are generally ignored by those they purport to regulate, are laws that are intended to be ignored, either by the legislators who wrote them (and left their enforcement unfunded) or by society in general... and I partially answered the overriding question -- who really benefits from illegal immigration?

So, who benefits?

As I suggested in my previous post, business benefits, obviously. Low-pay workers provide deflationary pressure on wages in general, which helps business by keeping labor costs down and profits up.

Who else benefits?

Well, politicians benefit, perhaps not so obviously. By writing laws to "control" immigration, politicians are able to place blame for weak national security, and shaky economic conditions for the average worker, on a group that has no political power. By keeping the enforcement of those laws underfunded, the politicians provide a valuable service to their true constituents. the business interests whose campaign funding (directly and indirectly) keeps them in office.

But, ultimately, who else benefits from illegal immigration? What other group has a stake in perpetuating the farce of underfunded laws and social scape-goating?

We do.

Anyone who's ever shopped at a Big Box store... or hired a gardener to mow his lawn... or bought a burger at a fast food restaurant... or eaten fruit picked in California... or had his or her house cleaned by a woman named Rosita... or stayed in a hotel... or hired a contractor to do some small remodeling job... or gotten a newspaper delivered...

Anyone, in other words, who's benefited from plentiful cheap labor. Namely, you and me, amigo.

But wait, you say, those are jobs real honest-to-goodness red-blooded, flag-waving Legal Americans could do!

You're right. But would you? Or would anyone you know?

Nope, not for a federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour -- or even the California minimum wage of $6.75.

Yeah, but, you say, if it weren't for those Illegals, employers would have to pay more money to hire Real Americans, or the jobs wouldn't get done!

In many cases, that might be true. But a lot of those jobs are what I'd call "discretionary" jobs, ie: gardening, housekeeping, minor construction work, etc. Those jobs, if higher wages were demanded, would probably just disappear. If you had to pay triple what you're paying now to have your lawn mowed, you'd probably end up doing it yourself. Ditto with housework. Ditto with repainting your kitchen.

As for the other, non-discretionary jobs -- yep, they'd have to pay higher wages, and those wages would be passed along to you, the consumer. That $3.00 meal at MacDonalds might end up costing you $6.00. That $1.00 banana might cost $3.00. That hotel room, once $200 a night, might go up to $300. And so on and so forth.

So what happens then? Basic economics:

You go out to eat less often, you buy less fruit, you stay home instead of spending a weekend in Palm Springs.

And those businesses start to lose money.

So they hire fewer workers.

And they don't start by cutting the low end of the payroll... they trim the higher paying jobs first, 'cause that's where the savings will be greatest. They cut white collar workers. Skilled workers who get paid more. Maybe they close down a couple of offices or a couple of stores or a less-well-performing hotel.

And the economy shrinks.

And one day, your boss comes to you and says, we have to trim the payroll, friend, and since I'm not about to lose my job or take a smaller profit, I've decided that your job is expendable.

Don't think it'll happen that way?

Just do the math.

According to the most recent estimate, we've got 12 million "illegal" immigrants in this country. For the sake of argument, let's say those 12 million are earning a wage halfway between the Federal and Californian minimum wage. (Most are probably earning more, but more than a few are probably earning less.) At about $6.00 an hour, we're paying those illegals $2,880,000,000 a week. That's almost three billion dollars a week, one hundred fifty billion dollars a year. Now, let's say we remove that entire workforce from the economy and replace it with workers demanding something closer to a "typical" Real American wage of, say, $10 a hour. We replace a workforce that costs $150,000,000,000 a year with one that costs $250,000,000,000 a year.

That's an extra one hundred billion dollars a year out of the economy, most of it from small business owners and average earning households. (I guarantee you there aren't too many Fortune Five Hundred companies employing illegal workers; if they're looking to economize on payroll, they just outsource their white collar jobs to India.)

So, do you still think getting rid of "illegal" immigrants will have a beneficial effect on our national economy?

Sure it will, you say. After all, if we got rid of all those Illegal Immigrants, us Real Americans wouldn't have to pay so much for health care or schooling for our children or any of those other services those Illegals are stealing from our over-generous government. Our schools won't be overcrowded and local governments won't have to close emergency rooms and the sun will shine all day and it'll never rain ever again.

Yeah, right. If you believe that, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn with your name on the bill of sale.

More on this, next time, which hopefully will be Real Soon...

Intermediate Update - Who Would Have Thought...

... South Africa would turn out to be more socially tolerant than the United States?

South Africa's High Court Rules in Favor of Gay Marriage

(You might have to register with the NY Times to access the article.)

Tomorrow, back to our regularly scheduled blogcast.

Immigration, Part One

As part of his continuing effort to win back some of the support he's lost over the last year, President Bush presented a "new" plan for immigration reform some days ago. I won't bother to recap what he said; what Bush has to say on issues that require legislation is pretty much irrelevant these days, since the Democrats don't care and the Republicans are too worried about next November's elections to do anything controversial, or, for that matter, intelligent. But I do have some things to say about the Immigration Issue, and given that Bush is trying to pump up interest in it, I figure now is as good a time as any.

Before I get into my thoughts on the subject, let me explain why I care so deeply about the "immigration issue." Like almost every other American, I am descended from immigrants. In my case, on my mother's side, I'm a second-generation immigrant. My grandparents were born in Ireland. They came to America in the late 'teens of the last century and lived a life not very different from the life my housekeeper and her husband live today. My grandfather was a day laborer in the Brooklyn ship yards. My (step) grandmother washed floors at Hunter College in Manhattan. (My biological grandmother died when my mother was eight years old, so I've no idea what she did to earn a living, but I assume it was either piece work or domestic work of some kind.) Because they were lower-class Irish, they were the Hispanics of their day -- tolerated, but not embraced, by the larger society, and viewed with scorn by the WASP upper class. It may be hard for some of you to believe this now, but for most of their first hundred years in this country, the Irish were considered to be lazy, drunken troublemakers with outlandish religious superstitions, narrow-minded and provincial, a group that stole jobs from Real Americans. (Businesses looking for workers regularly posted "Irish Need Not Apply" signs.) Every ethnic stereotype you can apply to an immigrant group today could be applied to my grandmother and grandfather, and probably was. Even my father felt that anti-Irish prejudice, real or imagined. In the 1950s he once spoke, rather bitterly, about being one of the two "token Irishmen" working at his company. (If you find the idea of a "token Irishman" bizarre, consider the fact that in 1960 there was real controversy about John F. Kennedy being an "Irish Catholic" President.) Compared to what some immigrant groups have experienced, anti-Irish prejudice may have been pretty tame, but it did exist, and it certainly left an indelible impression on my family. My Irish immigrant heritage is the main reason I'm passionate on the subject of immigration.

But that was then and this is now.

As I see it, the current Immigration Issue can be broken into two categories: security and economics.

Taking the first, people in favor of stricter immigration controls declare that unsecured borders invite terrorist attacks. Terrorists, we are told, can follow the coyote path of illegals north from Mexico into the soft underbelly of California and Texas without detection. Those who tell us this are probably right, though this assumes that all other methods of entering the country through deception are completely closed. For people who accept this line of reasoning, illegal immigration is a threat to national security, and must be stopped.

Others see illegal immigration as an economic issue, driving down the wages of American workers, draining the budgets of local and state governments with skyrocketing health and welfare costs, and otherwise wreaking havoc with the economy. Illegal immigrants, we are told, steal jobs from Real Americans. (Where have I heard that before?) For people who follow this line of thinking, illegal immigration is an economic threat, and must be stopped.

Now, there's truth to be found in both points of view. It's undoubtedly true that border security is a legitimate issue. It's also true that immigrants take jobs for low pay and make unfunded demands on state and local government budgets. Unfettered illegal immigration is a problem.

But do illegal immigrants cause this problem, or are they, like the rest of us, its victims?

Most politicians on the right reduce this to a law and order issue. We have laws, we're told. Illegal immigrants, by definition, have broken the law. Hence, they're criminals, and they should be treated as criminals. Throw them in jail, then throw 'em out. End of story.

Their position is disingenuous, to say the least.

When a law, any law, is broken over and over and over -- is, in fact, ignored by the people at whom it's directed -- there's something seriously out of joint. There's a disconnect between the stated purpose of the law and the real purpose, between the appearance of legality and the reality. When the national speed limit was 55 MPH, how many people actually drove 55? When Prohibition was the law of the land, how many people stopped drinking? With oral sex illegal in a number of states till the Supreme Court declared sodomy laws unconstitutional in 2003, how many men in those states never had a blow job? How many women in those states never had head? (Okay, probably too many.)

Laws that are ignored for the most part, are intended to be ignored. They exist for political reasons, to pander to a self-righteous interest group, or to use as a club against minorities that can't (or won't) fight back. They're not enforced because enforcing them goes against the actual interests of either the controlling political class or society as a whole. When a law that's widely touted is also widely un-enforced, it's a clear sign that Things Are Not What They Seem.

When Things Are Not What They Seem, you have to ask yourself... who benefits?

Well, to a degree, illegal immigrants benefit, because they're able to enter the country and gain jobs for higher wages than they'd receive back home. Yet that benefit is pretty slight, because the life of an illegal immigrant, while better than what he or she experienced before, is hardly a life any other American would voluntarily embrace. And in any case, though they do receive a (marginal) benefit, as a social group they're powerless to enforce their will, so I seriously doubt that illegal immigrants themselves are the primary movers behind our un-enforced immigration laws.

I'll tell you who I think benefits from illegal immigration: three groups, and you decide which is the most powerful.

The first group is obvious: business benefits. As long as there's an unending (and unorganized) supply of low-pay unskilled labor, wages throughout the business world are under continuing deflationary pressure. That's one reason the average American's inflation-adjusted salary hasn't really risen in thirty years. (The other reason, of course, is the mass export of American jobs overseas, but that's a topic for another blog entry.) A business doesn't even have to employ illegal workers itself to benefit from this wage-deflation pressure, as long as other businesses (and individuals) do. A wider, shallower labor pool brings down wage costs for all employers. To rephrase an old economic canard, when the tide goes out, all boats are lowered.

So, business benefits, and as Calvin Coolidge has been misquoted as saying, "The business of America is business." (Old Cal may not have said it, but enough people believe he did to make the saying a generally accepted piece of "popular wisdom.")

The next group that benefits from illegal immigration is, of course, also obvious: politicians benefit. Illegal immigration is a two-fer for politicians. On the one hand, as an Issue, it gives them a bogeyman to blame for their supposed constituents' economic problems, and by passing tough "immigration reform" laws with lots of stiff penalties and strict guidelines, they can been seen as doing something to protect Real Americans -- without, naturally, doing any such thing at all. And on the other hand, by not really enforcing these tough laws, politicians also provide a valuable service to their actual constituents -- the business interests that provide the funds to get the politicians elected. It's rather brilliant, as political theater goes. By beating the illegal immigration drum, politicians get to fix the blame for their policies on the people their policies encourage to immigrate illegally. It's what we in America call a win-win situation.

So, politicians benefit, and politicians run the show... don't they?

Like I said, the first two groups that benefit from illegal immigration are obvious. But when something is obvious, it goes without saying, that Things Are Not What They Seem.

What's the third group that benefits from illegal immigration?

I could tell you now, but I think I'll save it for tomorrow's blog...

(As always, feel free to comment by clicking the link right below.)

Dumb Stuff I Love

My daughter Rachel and I were watching the DVD of "Star Wars Episode III," and I noticed a line of dialog I'd missed when I saw the film in the theater. (Not hard to do, since ignoring the dialog is necessary to enjoying the film.) Now, I've been sick (see below) so maybe I misheard this, and in any case, it may have had no significance at all, but given Lucas' professed love of old-time movie serials, I think it was intentional. I believe it was just before Obi-wan's final battle with General Grievous, when he addresses one of the clone soldiers as "Commander" and then, a moment later, as "Cody." When I heard that (or misheard it), I did a mental double-take. And I thought, for the first and last time during this benighted new trilogy, "Hey, that's cool!"

Could it be Lucas was referencing that famed hero of TV's yesteryear...

Commando Cody... Sky Marshal of the Universe!

Not Commander Cody, as in the band, "Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen", nossir; I'm talking about that high-flying Rocketman played by Judd Holdren on TV, based on the character from one of the last great sci-fi serials, "Radar Men From The Moon." This guy, here:

Not this guy, here:

who's probably best known for the 1991 movie of the same name, but previously appeared in a series of comics written and drawn by Dave Stevens, ie:

The Rocketeer was, I believe, an affectionate tribute to the original King of the Rocketmen (who went by several names before settling on the Cody moniker), including, of course...

... Jeff King, as in, uh, King of the Rocketmen.

From Commander Cody and his band, through Dave Stevens' Rocketeer and George Lucas' clone soldier Cody, it's clear to me that I'm not the only kid who fell in love with that rocket-strapped leather jacket and tin can helmet. Maybe you did too. Maybe you didn't.

But this is one of the Dumb Things I Love.

It's Driving Me Crazy...

Does anyone know where the music in this comes from?

(click at your own risk)

I think it's Raymond Scott, but damned if I know.



PS - I later learned, it's the theme from "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure"


Of all the major holidays, I've always had the least complicated reaction to Thanksgiving. Christmas makes me crazy, Easter makes me feel depressed, Passover confuses me, Halloween made me feel conspicuous, Labor Day seems irrelevant (I'm a writer, not a laborer), New Year's reminds me I'm not a kid anymore, and Arbor Day, for all its promise, leaves me a little cold.

But, Thanksgiving -- Thanksgiving, for me, means mostly good things.

My earliest memories of Thanksgiving as a special day center around family, spent with my mother's brothers and sisters and my cousins. My dad would get the old Hudson out of the garage (which in itself was a rare event, since we lived in Brooklyn and rarely had reason to drive anywhere), pack up my sister and my mom and me, and off we'd go to the wilds of eastern Queens and Long Island.

Most of those Thanksgivings we spent at my Uncle John and Aunt Lillian's house, I believe; some, at Aunt Elinor and Uncle Archie's; and some at Aunt Anne and Uncle Joe's. My mom had four brothers and sisters, and each of those had an average of 2.5 children, most in the same five-year age range, so it was quite a crowd, particularly when you consider the size of the average middle class home in those days. (Sixteen hundred square feet max, is my guess.) How the aunts managed to mount such an event on an annual basis (and sometimes, bi-annually, since we also spent most Easters together) is beyond me. The fact they managed to do so with reasonably good humor is a testament to their sense of family. And it's one of my fondest memories from childhood.

So, when I think of Thanksgiving, I think of those family events, and while my own family is now spread across three thousand miles of a very large continent, Thanksgiving remains for me, a celebration of family.

Of course, my definition of family has changed over time. My blood family remains at the center, naturally (Karen, Cara, Rachel, and now Eric, Cara's fiance; Peggy, Jimmy, Erin and Liz), but my sense of family has expanded to include those friends who've been part of my life for many years. Chosen family, if you will. So, many members of my blood family are far away, those of my chosen family will be here to share Thanksgiving with us -- in a way, on their behalf.

Like I said, Thanksgiving is the one holiday that evokes an uncomplicated reaction in my heart.

It's just the celebration that gets a little complicated...

Something to Drive You Crazy

To wit:


Go Anywhere

When I was a kid, one of the things I most liked to do was "explore." In my maturity, I'd probably call it "trespassing," but as a boy -- especially between the ages of nine and fourteen -- I found it thrilling, and a lot of fun.

Most of it, I'm sure, was pretty harmless: checking out the secluded walkway/tunnels that looped around the basement area of the apartment building beside the Lutheran Church (something I did in company with the minister's son); sneaking into the rooftop gymnasium at Our Lady of Angel's Elementary School (bizarre place for a gym, but a cool spot to go exploring); discovering a "hideout" on a catwalk behind a billboard on Jamaica Avenue...

But some of it, I'm also sure, was pretty dangerous: hopping the fence protecting the train tracks of the Long Island Railroad; wandering an abandoned meat-packing warehouse which some enterprising teenagers were apparently using as a sex pad; climbing onto the roof of an elevator in my high school and shimmying up a girder to open the door onto the next (unauthorized) floor...

Dumb, yes, but fun.

I don't know what attracted me to this sort of thing: curiosity, surely; boredom, probably; bonding with friends and cousins, I guess; a taste for danger, certainly. (This aggressive disregard for the rules of appropriate behavior served me well when I was breaking into the comic book business at fifteen, though. More on that in another post.)

Whatever the attraction, the need to explore faded as I grew older, until by the time I was in my early twenties, I was probably as timid and conservative about "unauthorized access" as anyone else. One of the last "explorations" I remember taking was when I was twenty or so, and living in an apartment with Len Wein near a cemetery in Queens. One night we threw a party, and way late in the evening a group of us (probably stoned) decided to check out a few graves. We trooped to the cemetery, somehow managed to climb a seven-foot chain link fence, and spent half an hour wandering in the dark tripping over tombstones.

As far as I can recall, that's the last "urban exploration" I ever participated in. A long time ago, and far far away.

So why do I bring this up now? Because I'm reading a book by a guy who made a hobby out of what he's termed infiltration and has written a fairly entertaining book on the topic: "Access All Areas: A User's Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration." (See the sidebar to the right for a link.) The book stirs up memories, for me, of a time in my life when trespassing was just a word adults used. Maybe it's nostalgia for a time when everything seemed possible, and all doors, particularly the ones with No Trespassing signs, were potential portals to wondrous new worlds. (Hey, there's a reason the Narnia books are popular with people other than Christians.) That sense of eager anticipation, that desire to discover new things, hasn't left me completely, though it's mutated (or evolved) into something different. (An insatiable need to know a little bit about everything, for example.) But I guess I miss the pure fire of that young, foolish, and naive adventurer. He was a daring soul.

I hope he's not gone for good.

And don't forget the Kaypro

A couple of you responded to my Osborne memoir with some sweet reminisces about the Kaypro... to wit:

From Wesley:

Ah -- the memories...

My first computer was a Kaypro 4-84.

It was awesome.

Not only was I able to write a complete screenplay on it, but the two 5.25

disks held a whopping 390K!!

Not only was it highly functional with the incredible display, but I could
even PLAY the text only games that were just coming out. You remember --
open the door; pick up the axe; kill the spouse, et cetera.

Standard features:

Kaypro 4






Full-stroke keyboard with arrow keys and separated keypad


4 Mhz

Motorola 6845 (video controler)

64 KB

2 KB

2 KB

80 chars x 25 lines

virtual 160 x 100 through graphical characters

built-in 9'' monochrome monitor

No sound

46 (W) x 41.5 (D) x 21.5 (H) cm / 15kg

2 serial ports, 1 parallel port, communication socket (built-in modem)

two 5.25'' DS/DD half-height floppy drives (390 kb)

CP/M 2.2

Built-in power supply unit

About $3500

You'll note -- the price was only $3500.00!!

Boy did I get a deal!


And from Ethlie...

Loved the reminder re: the computers we were using a minute ago. I was just thinking whether I should bother to upload a 64K GIF file onto eBay. 64K? That's so tiny! Why even bother?

Mine was a Kaypro with a single floppy drive, so you had to pull out the program disk in order to save the text you were creating. The screen glowed amber -- it was that or green -- and the dot-matrix printer (the size of my spare desk) printed only capital letters. Wordstar commands were often a character typed in the first column, so if you had a sentence that began with, say, the letter L, it would suddenly become an indented sub-paragraph, whether you wanted it to or not.

Those were the days.

My new phone has actual voice recognition. I was about to re-record all those sound bites of me saying "John" and "Mary" for the phonebook, but they explained that all I have to do is say "Call John" or "Call Mary," and the phone will look to see if it has J-O-H-N or M-A-R-Y in its list.

I don't know what it's going to do with my entry for BMW. How do you pronounce that?

Have a gorgeous day - eav
Surfing one of my favorite sites,, I came across a brief article, with photo, of a 500KB-capacity hard drive from 1975. The photo's worth a look:

Huge 1975 hard drive

The article referencing the photo is here:

Hard Disk de 1975

Now, to put this in perspective for you non-geeks, 500K is less than the size of a small digital photograph. In 1975, if you wanted to take a photo with a digital camera, you would've needed a truck to haul the thing around, and you'd have been able to take ONE tiny photo. Today, with most digital cameras, with a small memory stick inserted, you can take upward of two hundred high resolution pictures -- many more, if you'd be happy with smaller photos.

In a word: whoa.

Which brings me to the Osborne Portable Computer.

Osborne 1 portable computer

The Osborne was my first real computer, purchased in 1981, and at the time, it was the technological peak of geek civilization. I believe it was the first computer to come bundled with software, including the Wordstar word-processing program (whose control-key combinations we still use today, ie: Control-C for copy, Control-V for paste, etc.), and it cost around $1700. For that $1700 (in 1981 dollars) you got a box that weighed twenty or thirty pounds (portable my ass), that had a 5 inch CRT screen which could only show 52 characters across at a time, and an operating system called CP/M that ran off a floppy disk. The CRT screen was text-only. The computer's memory was 64K. (My G5 Powermac has two gigs of memory installed.) Storage consisted of two 5-inch floppy disk drives. Each floppy could hold about 90K. A screenplay took up two or three floppies.

And it was the coolest thing I'd ever owned.

Before I bought an Osborne, I tried using a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer, but found it little more useful than a toy.

TRS-80 computer

The TRS-80 may have been a great computer, but I never managed to do anything useful with it. For storage, it used ordinary audio cassette tapes. (Apparently floppy disk drives were available but my local Radio Shack must not have known about them.) There were a few programs readily available, mostly text-adventures, but as far as I ever knew, that was about it. Basically, for me, the machine was an oversize paperweight.

The Osborne, however, was a fully functional workhorse, and using it, Roy Thomas and I wrote several screenplays together. It was awkward, though. I had to attach a full-size (13 inch) CRT monitor so we could see the screen, but even a full-size CRT could only display 52 characters across at a time. Since most printed pages ran 80 characters across, the screen had to shift back and forth as you typed a line. Bizarre, but you got used to it. As dinky as it seems today, it was an extremely useful machine for the time, an incredible achievement in innovation.

And like all innovative achievements, the moment it was produced, it was doomed.

Technology doesn't sit still. (Nothing in the world sits still, really, but compared to most of aspects of our lives, technology is a kid with A.D.D. on caffeine.) It evolves constantly. (According to Moore's Law, the capacity of a semiconductor -- the heart and brain of a computer -- doubles even 18 months.) Today's miracle is tomorrow's antique. Literally.

By the time I'd written one screenplay on the Osborne, it was already old technology.

1981, you see, was also the year IBM introduced the PC.

Unlike the Osborne, which had 64K of memory and ran CP/M, the IBM PC had up to 256K of memory and ran MS-DOS. It was sleeker, faster, more powerful, and it was open-source (meaning other companies could easily design compatible products and clone computers using the same specs). In a matter of months it was the dominant computer platform for personal computers. And once IBM was in the market, the market exploded -- prices came down, technology sped up, capacity grew, and before you knew it, the Osborne was obsolete.

There's a lesson here, I guess. I could offer an analogy to political parties, social beliefs, popular culture, and so forth. But I won't. You can draw your own conclusions. Just ask yourself...

What favorite technology, political belief, social belief, or cultural phenomena, is the Osborne of today?

My answer?

All of them.

Strange But True


Click on the photo to read the headline.

Well, That Was Special

Talk about bizarre.

At yesterday's Sexual Harassment Seminar, we learned how dangerous it is for workers to communicate with other workers in a corporate environment.

Understand, I'm against sexual harassment (or any kind of harassment) at work, or anywhere else, but the law, as currently written, is so vague and lopsided it not only permits abuse of the system, it actively encourages it.

Consider this: The definition of sexual harassment is anything that causes an individual to feel sexually harassed.

Basically, that's it. Totally subjective. By law, it doesn't matter what anyone else (except a jury) thinks about the behavior involved; it doesn't matter what the "offender" intended; all that matters, legally, is what the person offended "perceives."

For example, I could be in the office with a female secretary, look at a photo of two watermelons in a fruit-growing contest, and say, "Wow, those are big melons," and whammo, I could be slapped with a sexual harassment suit.

Think I'm kidding? I'm not. As far as I can tell, from yesterday's seminar, the female secretary has a perfect right, under the law, to file a complaint, and a lawsuit. I don't even have to say it twice; according to the seminar, one incident is enough to constitute sexual harassment.

In the example I've given, the plaintiff would in all likelihood not prevail at trial. But she (or he, because it doesn't have to be a woman) doesn't have to... because according to the lawyer giving the seminar, 98% of these cases are settled out of court. By settled, I'm assuming that means the plaintiff gets paid off. So, in effect, just the act of filing a sexual harassment suit practically guarantees a payday.

That's what I mean about the current system actively encouraging abuse.

And by the way, in these kinds of suits, the individual "offender" is also a defendant. Meaning that your money, potentially, is also on the hook. And the hook is completely subjective.

So, to sum up, the best policy, as far as I can see, for anyone working in a corporate environment is...

Don't interact with anyone, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances.

Mandatory Sexual Harassment Seminar

Tomorrow I have to go to a special "make-up" class for the Mandatory Sexual Harassment Seminar I missed a month ago while I was recuperating from surgery. What is the world coming to, I have to ask, when someone working in Hollywood has to take a company-mandated sexual harassment class? Don't these people realize the entire film business is based on sexual harassment? Duh.

One thing I really don't understand is why they want to make sexual harassment mandatory. I've always felt it should be completely optional.

Divx anyone?

You've probably heard about the networks cutting deals with DirectTV and Comcast to offer episodes of their shows for pay-per-view download. It's the hot topic in Hollywood this week. Personally, I think it's not going to amount to very much, and here's why...

Remember Divx?

I'm not talking about the video codec Divx used by some online video-on-demand sites, I'm talking about the Divx DVD box that came out about twelve years ago. (My timeline might be fuzzy.) This was the brainchild of the studios, their big effort to control the use and distribution of DVDs back in the early days before they realized sell-through DVDs were a golden goose waiting to be throttled. It was a brilliant technological tour-de-force. And it was rejected thoroughly by consumers. Why? Because it was completely anti-consumer and totally pro-studio.

The Divx box played a special kind of DVD that could be purchased for about $3-5. Unfortunately, this DVD could only be played for forty-eight hours, and only if your Divx box was hooked up to your phone line. After forty-eight hours it turned into a coaster. (I believe you had the option to "buy" the DVD -- again -- and have it "unlocked" via the phone-line hookup, but if you did so, it would only play on the original box, which means you couldn't give it away to friends or family, or sell it online, or do anything else with it except keep your drinks from wetting your coffee table.)

Needless to say, in competition with the "open" DVD player, the "closed" Divx DVD player died a quick and horrible death.

Who on earth, other than an early-adopter tech geek, would buy such a monstrosity?

Apparently, no one.

(An aside: I knew the guy who was president of the Divx DVD corporation. Before the system came out, he tried to explain the benefits of the design to me, but I just didn't get it. Sure, it's good for the studios, but where's the benefit for consumers? As far as I could see, it was nonexistent. Sales seem to have borne this out.)

So, what does this have to do with the network deal to sell their shows on a pay-per-view basis for 99 cents a pop?

It sounds like a great deal... if you don't have a DVR or VCR.

DirectTV is touting this "service" as a feature of their new DirectTV Plus DVR. Now, unless they're planning to cripple their DVR to prevent their customers from recording TV shows, who's going to spend 99 cents for an episode of their favorite show when they can record it for free with their DirectTV DVR? And if it turns out they can't record tv shows for free... why on earth would they buy the DVR? DVR stands for Digital Video Recorder. If it doesn't record, then what the hell is it? It certainly isn't a DVR. Know what it is?

It's a Divx DVD.

I don't know, maybe there's something I'm missing here. I can understand the attraction of buying TV shows from iTunes for your video-playing iPod: There's no easy way to transfer an episode of "Lost" from your Tivo to your iPod without jumping through various software hoops that the average viewer doesn't want to know about. It's a convenience, and people pay for convenience. But why would anyone pay for something they can get right now, for free, and legally? It's not like buying the season DVD set, which comes in a nice box, sometimes with extra bonus material, and makes a great Christmas gift. In effect, you're buying a recording of a show that you can already record for free. What's the market for this? The only way this kind of thing can work is if the networks manage to convince, say, Congress to pass a law making it illegal to record television shows off the air (or, by extension, off cable or satellite.)

Funny that should come up...

Even as I speak, the studios and networks are trying to get Congress to pass a law that will do just that.

They want to break your VCRs and DVRs and prevent you from recording free tv.

If only the guys who created the Divx DVD had thought of that twelve years ago. If consumers won't buy a broken product, pass a law to make 'em.

That's the American way.

How to turn comic book writing into a Big Time Hollywood Career in three easy steps!

An email from a reader asked me to explain how I made the transition from comic book writer to television writer.

(For those of you unaware of my earlier career, I wrote comics for many many years, for both Marvel and DC. Among the characters I wrote were Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, Superman, Batman, the Justice League, and many others. I also created a few super-heroes who are still popular today, including The Punisher, Firestorm, and Power Girl. But all of that, to coin a phrase, was long ago and far away.)

I wish I had an easy answer to explain how I "did" it, but I don't. The truth is, things just happened. I'd like to believe talent and a gift for a certain kind of storytelling had a lot to do with it, and I'm sure it did, but there's also an element of right-place-at-the-right-time. I will say this: I always knew that my ultimate goal as a writer was to work in film or television, and every decision I made as a writer (and as a man) was influenced to some degree by that desire. So my arrival at this particular point in my life, writing and producing television shows, is probably a combination of talent, luck, and hundreds of thousands of nano-decisions that guided me over of the years.

But for the purposes of giving advice, that's all pretty facile. The aspiring comic writer would-be film writer might want something a little more concrete to guide him or her. So here's one small offering...

Write what you enjoy, and write as much of it as you can, and always have a long term goal somewhere in the back of your mind. Develop skills. Find something you're good at and make it your specialty. And always be ready to ask for help. Don't be shy, but don't be overbearing either.

I know it isn't exactly Polonius' exhortation to Ophelia, but it couldn't hurt.

World of Warcraft, or...

... how to get a life.

I just started playing "World of Warcraft" a couple of weeks ago, an online community/adventure game. It's been around for a while, so I'm probably not telling many of you something you don't already know, but boy, is it addictive. Even Rachel is into it -- though she needs a lot of help to complete quests. Most games of this type intrigue me for a short time, then frustration sets in, and I lose patience with the process. But this game is so huge and there are so many open-ended ways to go, that the frustration doesn't really last. If you haven't tried it, check it out.

Zane Grey by Collectoo

Our first reader submission:

I take your dare.

Will you in your blog, elucidate - er - oralize - er expound (that's the word I needed) on your blog about your fascination with Sci-Fi, fantasy , and other "out-there" written works. A review or two on the best pulp of the day?

To start things off I am a ferverent fan of Zane Grey. He is best known for Riders of The Purple Sage, which when translated into movies and TV movie was whitewashed considerably. This book and others in his series were his rant against Fundamentalist-plural-wives religion of the Mormons of Utah. Very interesting to read how he got his message across on the he sense of the evils of this sect. Today we use TV "documentary" to accomplish the same thing.

His other Westerns are pure delight. Written in style of the times, he weaves his tales about strong western women who break the mold and embrace the men for their character and strength. I like the way his women never try change their men, but really realize that these men know who they are, know they cannot live any other life than that on the range and choose to life the same life because of their love of the west.

Zane Grey described the landscape so very well. Deserts, mountains, cliffs, crags, outcroppings, dusty trails, pure clear streams tall pine forests rising from abruptly from the desert floor! Takes me to the mountains of California and the places I spent my summers! We are headed off to Prescott, AZ this Thanksgiving and we will travel through all these landscapes during the 6 hour drive! Yeah -

So now Life can Imitate Art. By design.



Funny you should mention Zane Grey -- I just started reading his books a few months ago, beginning with "Riders," and currently I'm working on "Call of the Canyon."

Now, when I say reading, I'm fudging a bit, because actually I listened to an audio book of "Riders" on my iPod, and it was a fantastic experience. I'd tried reading Grey's books before but found the period style a little hard going, mainly because I had no inner "voice" to guide me. But the audio book was so well produced, and the reading so effective, it brought out the poetry in Grey's descriptions of Utah and the west in a way that now lets me read his other books without that sense of modern-day dislocation.

I can lend you an iPod with the audio book on it, if you want to play it on your car stereo for the drive to AZ. (It runs about eleven hours, so it'll cover you coming and going!) Or, if your stereo plays MP3s, I can give you the CD.

As far as science fiction commentary goes, I'll probably get into it now and then as the mood strikes me. I just listened to an audio book of "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel," one of my favorite Heinlein novels. In fact, it's the first Heinlein novel, maybe even the first science fiction novel, I ever read, way back when I was nine years old. It was a "dramatic reading" with different actors voicing different characters, much like a radio play (though they didn't tamper with the text at all; it's the full book) and it's quite a bit of fun.

Again, if you want to borrow it for the drive, your kids might enjoy it a lot.

More to follow, sooner or later...


Until recently, I was a registered Republican, though I've voted Democrat for the last thirteen years.

I consider myself a sane fiscal conservative and moderate social liberal, by which I mean, I believe taxes should be as low as possible for everyone, not just the rich, but high enough to pay for the things we want government to do for us. In other words, I'm anti-deficit, anti-tax cuts for the rich, anti-wasteful government spending, and anti-the social welfare establishment (as opposed to, say, social welfare as such). I believe, as members of a common society, we have an obligation to help each other when help is needed, and if government is the best tool to provide that help (and it often is) then so be it. On most other matters, I want as little government as possible, and in this, I'm more of a traditional conservative than most of the clowns who call themselves that today. Government should stay out of our lives, period, except to a) protect us from enemies (by raising and managing a military force), b) protect us from each other (by maintaining a strong and fair criminal justice system), c) protect us from unexpected disasters (by providing a flexible and effective social safety net as well as effective and dynamic emergency care), and d) bring us together to work as a community to solve community problems (like health care for lower income Americans, public education for all our children, and so on). I've yet to hear a candidate from either major party articulate a platform I can completely support, but when push comes to shove, I guess I'd rather be wrong with the Democrats than wrong with the Republicans.

At least the Dems don't have Pat Robertson.

My Near-Brush with Near-Fame

Some of you may have read this before. Feel free to skip to the punchline.

No angry polemic this time out, no forwarded news article exposing the pomposity and/or absurdity of our elected officials; no, this time, I'm here only to share a personal story of my own near-brush with greatness. My own, brief, unfulfilled moment to joggle elbows with history.

As some of you may know, my daughter Cara lives in Virginia, where she's attending college, and she's engaged to a terrific guy named Eric Jones, whom she met in Washington, D.C., one month after 9/11.

How they met is a cute story, but I won't bore you with it here.

Eric is too modest to say so, but he's an actual, real-live, true American hero. A trained paramedic, Eric was driving past the Pentagon on 9/11 when an American Airlines jet slammed into it. He was the first civilian on the scene, and worked for many many many hours at the impact site, saving lives. (There's a photo in the Washington Times archives of Eric and a fireman and a Marine carrying the flag out of the Pentagon rubble; shades of Iwo Jima.) After working nonstop at the Pentagon, Eric then went to Ground Zero in New York where he joined other volunteers looking for survivors among the wreckage of the Twin Towers. He is a brave, courageous guy with a heart of gold; one of the truly good people of the world. I feel fortunate to know him, never mind having him as a future son-in-law.

For his service to the country, Eric was awarded the Medal of Valor by President Bush, carried the 2002 Olympic Torch to the White House, and was more or less "adopted" by the Administration. (To ease any potential anxiety among my readers, let me assure you Eric *is*not* a Republican.) (I said he was a good guy.)

Over the last few years, Eric has maintained a cordial, informal relationship with several members of the Administration; he's been invited to various functions at the White House, etc. My own cynical view is that the Bush Administration likes Eric because he's a decent guy who makes them look good. But whatever the reason, they like him, and he has a surprising amount of access for an ordinary guy. He's on a first name basis with a couple of members of Bush's staff, and it's his casual familiarity with one of them that provides the fulcrum of this little story.

Now, as to my near-brush with greatness and/or history:

Last summer, Karen and Rachel and I visited Cara and Eric in Washington. On a lark, I asked Cara if Eric had enough pull at the White House to get us in for a tour. By this I meant, could he get us on the regular White House tour, etc. Eric offered to call his contact on Bush's staff, a woman he said was Bush's secretary. To our pleasant surprise, she agreed to take us on a personal tour into the actual West Wing -- to parts of the White House the public never gets to see. We were pretty jazzed, but at the last minute, she had to cancel in order to attend the funeral of a friend who'd died suddenly back in Texas. Ah well, maybe next summer.

Now, you may be thinking, "That's it? That's Gerry's big deal near-brush with greatness/history?"

Well, yes and no.

To continue:

This past summer, Eric took a several week trip to Africa, where he did more good deeds (really, he's pushing this whole nice guy thing), wrestled cheetahs, and visited the Silverback gorillas made famous by Dian Fossey. (If you'd like to see a Quicktime movie I slapped together of some of Eric's photos from the trip, check my website at and go to the movie page.)

When he got back, a couple of weeks ago, Eric was astonished to hear about Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers as a Supreme Court justice.

His words, more or less, as quoted to me by Cara, were, "Why did Bush nominate his secretary to the Supreme Court?"

See, the "secretary" who used to call Eric about White House events, who wrote him cute little notes of thanks, who got Bush to autograph Eric's Olympic torch, etc., etc., etc., and who was going to take Karen and Rachel and I on a personal tour of the West Wing was...

... yep, you guessed it...


So I guess maybe she was qualified to wear that big black robe after all.