Tuesday, January 31, 2006
It seems the Irish bishops and the principals of Irish schools have read Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America, and have taken it to heart. They are beginning to argue that all sacramental preparation be taken out of the schools and be done exclusively at home by the parents.
This is, of course, the central argument of DTF. [shameless plug] If you want a more complete demonstration of the case than the article provides, buy the book! [/shameless plug]
Google, the organization that has recently been lecturing the world about how important it is to be transparent with information, is now refusing to take part in hearings about its business with China.
We all know - because Google, MSN, and Yahoo tell us so - that providing limited information is better than providing nothing at all.
This rule seems to apply to everything except Congressional inquiries, where it is better to provide nothing at all than it is to provide limited information.
Perhaps computer geeks are under the impression that China, being made up of Godless communists, might still be saved, while Congress, being made up of American politicians, is past hope. Yet another example of why despair is a mortal sin...
Monday, January 30, 2006
A few months back, I wrote a series of essays on the connections between science and religion. In one of those essays, I pointed out that the phrase, "reality exists" is an essentially Christian religious concept which is specifically repudiated by Buddhists and at least one major school of Hinduism.
In the following months, I received a fair amount of criticism for that essay, most deriving from Buddhists and Hindus who refused to accept that their faith repudiated science.
Now, I discover that my article has become part of the curriculum at an on-line Buddhist university (although it is interesting that they cut out the first three paragraphs).
The question is, should I be upset that they took the whole article without asking me first, or pleased that they vindicated my position? I am opting for the latter, but with a bemused shake of the head...
And, before you put it out, they aren't necessarily really stealing. After all, if reality doesn't exist, they didn't steal anything, so my protestation to the contrary would fall on non-existent ears, as it were...
Friday, January 27, 2006
"Television is the most perfect democracy," Aaron Brown, former CNN 'Newsnight' anchor said. "You sit there with your remote control and vote."
The delicious juxtaposition of those quotes is irresistible. What if the population of a country wants violence? What if they specifically elect men or women because those men and women promise to bring violence to their neighbors or to those groups perceived as the enemy?
Now this is not meant as a defense of Hamas. Regular readers know that my love for the redundancy that is “militant Islam” is virtually non-existent. Still, there is a certain irony in the fact that Islam’s democracies are not necessarily superior to Islam’s dictatorships. For Muslims, as for the rest of us, we get the leaders and the culture we want. We always have.
This is a point that too many simply ignore, even when it is brought forcibly forward, as with the recent Palestinian elections. I remember being in one graduate sociology class in which the professor and the students seemed quite oblivious to the fact. During the course of the class, both professor and students lamented the draconian measures undertaken by some medieval towns in order to avoid plague and similar illnesses, and spoke at great length on the degradation of the citizenry.
When I pointed out that the citizens must have found the measures acceptable, else they would have rose up in rebellion, the room responded with shocked silence. No one had ever considered the fact that no leader is stronger than the vision he successfully imbues in the people he leads. Even the strongest man can be overcome by four or five other men who decide they have had enough. More than one Caesar has discovered that his Praetorian guard could also be his executioners. The members of the sociology class never considered that many townspeople were willing to pay quite a high price to avoid the painful deaths of themselves or their families from (microbial) agents they believed were bent on their destruction.
This week, George Bush and Jack Straw both have the look of a sociology professor facing a new idea.
Americans may not commit suicide by blowing themselves up at bus stops, but as Americans, we must remember this country was founded on the ideas of ancient Rome. And Cicero, one of Rome’s most celebrated orators, ended every speech with the same phrase, “Carthage must be destroyed!” The party line was successful – Carthage was so thoroughly destroyed that today we don’t even know what language they spoke.
Hitler did not gain power through a putsch. His party was voted into office as part of a coalition government. Enough Germans wanted him. The same can be said of Bill Clinton, FDR, George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain. Democracy or dictatorship, the people always get the government we want.
As long as the leader has a vision which enough people subscribe to – and “enough” doesn’t have to be a majority – that vision will be enacted.
That’s why our visions are more important than our realities. That’s why the war over culture matters as much or more than the war fought with bullets. The Palestinian people don't need democracy. They need a new vision. If all they have is Islam, there will never be peace.
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
For those who may not be aware, Google’s company motto is “Don’t Be Evil.” As more than one commentator has pointed out, the sentiment is laudable, even if their conception of evil is not entirely clear.
Take a very specific example. A few months ago, after having heard a lot about it, I signed my Bridegroom Press website and my blog into Google's AdSense program. Unfortunately, while the blog was accepted, Bridegroom Press was rejected. It contained objectionable content, according to Google. I found this rather amusing.
You see, the Bridegroom Press site contains only two things: articles (such as the one you are reading now) and Catholic books and CDs. The only difference between the blog site and the Bridegroom Press site is the presence of the books and CDs. The articles are identical: the two sites mirror each other in article content.
I pondered over what Google might have found objectionable. Given the wrong frame of mind, someone might find the title of my Scripture study on the infancy narratives, The Flesh of God, to be on the verge of blasphemy. Certainly I have had at least one bookstore refuse to carry my book on John Paul II's Theology of the Body, Sex and the Sacred City. They said their clientele would not buy anything with the word “sex” in the title. Or perhaps the reviewer was a big proponent of parochial schools, and therefore took offense at Designed to Fail, Catholic Education in America. It's hard to know, really. All I know is my site is not worthy of AdSense, although my essays on Blogger apparently are.
In fact, the reason is certainly much easier to discover than I make out. No matter how much revenue Bridegroom Press might generate for Google, it won’t begin to approach the amount of revenue that Blogger generates. Thus, Google doesn’t bother to review any Blogger feed – the revenue stream is too large to risk offending the Blogger community.
But Bridegroom Press? That’s a different story. Articles on a stand-alone site that speak out against homosexuality and homosexual marriage, contraception, abortion and similar topics won’t generate enough money to justify Google’s risk. If they allow their ads to become associated with the site’s contents, if someone discovers it and objects loudly enough, Google might face media scorn.
This example is relevant precisely because Google has joined Yahoo and MSN in deciding to censor itself in order to enter the Chinese market.
Google America doesn’t much like those who fight against the expansion of homosexual rights and the killing of children in the womb. Google China will not only refuse to permit discussion of China’s infanticide policy, it will also refuse to allow Chinese computers access to anything that the murderers currently running China deem unfit for public discussion.
Google America fights the US government’s attempt to get a list of key words that would help fight child porn. Google China, “will base its censorship decisons on guidance provided by Chinese government officials.”
A few years ago, Pepsi’s slogan, "Come alive! You're in the Pepsi generation", was reportedly rendered into Chinese as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.” One wonders if “Don’t Be Evil” translates as “Follow the Money.”
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
In the last few days, I’ve had many people ask me about the publishing business – how does one get started, how hard is it, how lucrative is it, etc. This is a short primer on how it works.
Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing
The primary difference between a traditional publisher and a self-publisher is who supplies the money to print and market the books. With a traditional publisher, the author sells them the sole right to reproduce and sell a book in exchange for a royalty (typically 10-12%) from book sales. A well-known author might get an advance, but most first-time authors don’t.
While every publishing house has staff cover design and typeset teams, it is the very rare publishing house that runs its own printing press. Ironically, most of the publishing houses today do only book layout. They don’t consider the actual book production a core part of the business, so they contract that work out to the cheapest printer they can find. Book publishers are, then, essentially glorified distributors, i.e., they are warehouses with good to great marketing departments and good to great layout design teams.
Few authors know or care much about layout design or marketing, so this works well if you happen to be in that group and are happy with 10% of the sale.
But what if you prefer to do it on your own?
As I’ve noted earlier, most people see the self-published author as an egocentric incompetent. After all, if such an author were good, he would have been accepted by someone’s marketing department, that is, he would have a publishing-house patron. Since he doesn’t have a patron, he must be lousy. QED.
I could go through a list of excellent best-selling books that were self-published, or list recent best-selling books that were execrable, but there’s little point. Egocentric incompetence is rife in every industry, whether you are paying for someone else’s version or just doing it yourself, so it hardly matters if the charge is true or not. From the author’s perspective, there is only one question: which will bring more income?
When you sign away your manuscript to a publisher, depending on the contract, you lose most to all control over it for a set period of time. Even assuming they make no serious changes, your book will not see the light of day for at least a year after begin accepted. It takes that long for the marketing department and the layout team to agree on a cover design and a marketing plan.
But, going with a publishing house means you have a lot of marketing muscle behind you.
You see, every publishing house rejects 95% of the manuscripts it gets. Of the five percent it publishes, it doesn’t have the money to market each one equally well. So, it picks whichever one it thinks is most likely to succeed and pushes that one hard. The rest don’t get much attention. If you don’t like the odds, this is how you self-publish.
Business and Book Layout
- Go to your local courthouse and register as a business, either sole proprietor or corporation, as you desire.
- Buy a block of ISBN numbers from Bowker. A book without an ISBN number will not be carried in most bookstores, and bookstore sales will account for roughly 80-95% of total sales for any book. They are sold in blocks of ten for about $300, more for larger blocks. There are no smaller blocks.
- Assign your book an ISBN number off the list you bought and get an EAN bar-code for your book. Don’t buy the barcode from Bowker. They are hideously expensive. Note – don’t use the UPC bar-code. Books have their own bar-code system. The bar codes can be purchased very inexpensively ($10 each) from places like Bar Code Graphics. Make sure your bar code includes the retail price of the book. Many bookstore chains won’t carry a book that doesn’t have the ISBN on the bottom back cover with the price included in the bar code.
- Five years ago, professional book printers would only accept files in Quark or Pagemaker. Things change. Today, Quark and Indesign CS 2 (Pagemaker’s successor) are both still desirable for the cover, but Acrobat PDFs are generally used for text. The files are smaller and cleaner to work with. This means if you have access to a program that generates a PDF from your Microsoft Word document, you don’t have to buy an expensive layout program for your text. Indeed, some printers will even accept PDF files for your cover. Even better, some websites generate free PDF files for you, given a Word document. So, actually formatting the documents for the printer can be quite inexpensive, if you want to cut costs and can find a good, free PDF website.
- If you want to use a desktop publishing program, I strongly recommend InDesign CS 2. It is incredibly powerful and relatively inexpensive, and will run rings around anything you can do in Word. Don’t buy it new. Go to Ebay, buy an old version of Indesign or Pagemaker, then buy the upgrades to get the latest version. Software upgrades are always cheaper than new. That will cut your software cost in half, at least.
- There are lots of tricks to cover design, and I won’t go into them here, but the cover sells the book. It needs to be loud and splashy, with a LARGE title. Walmart won’t carry a book unless the title can be easily read from at least ten feet away. They probably won’t carry the book in any case, but at least give yourself a fighting chance. Also, don’t use Times as the typeface on your cover – use something at least a little unusual.
- To figure out where to place things, how the title and copyright page should look, etc., just look at the books you already have and copy them. No need to re-invent the wheel.
- Price several printers and make them compete for the price. They will bid against each other. The price of the book depends on many factors; most of it is bound up in page count. Having a full-color cover is not really any more expensive than having a single-color cover – it adds only a few cents to the cost of the book, and repays itself many times over in sales value.
You have two choices: print-on-demand (POD) or traditional printer.
The advantages of POD:
- Relatively inexpensive start-up cost: Setting up a book at Lightning Source costs on the order of $200 to $300. With a traditional print run, you will spend at least two to three thousand on book production.
- No inventory. With POD, you order only as many books as you think you can afford to buy or can sell – a couple dozen is a perfectly reasonable POD run. Thus, with POD, if your book turns out to be a clunker, you don’t have a garage-full of books to get rid of. And I do mean a garage full. Even a short book – 100 pages – in a 5000-book run will use 40 boxes measuring 12x18x8, each weighing 36 pounds. If you print with a traditional printer, you better have somewhere to store the boxes. And your street had better be able to handle a semi-trailer, because that’s how they arrive. Either that, or you meet them in the local Walmart parking lot with a U-Haul…
- Some PODs hook directly into distribution channels. Lightning Source, for instance, is one of the cheapest PODs out there. Since LS is a division of Ingram, every book you publish with them automatically goes into Ingram’s catalog, which is one of the largest book catalogues in America. Having Ingram as a distributor is no small thing, and is tough for a small publisher to do any other way.
- There are a lot of POD printers who offer more services than LS. Authorhouse, Lulu.com, and literally dozens of others will take care of cover design and certain aspects of marketing for you. I've never used these so I've no comment on them. There are a lot of horror stories, so buyer beware.
The advantages of a traditional printer:
- While the setup and up-front cost is high (and no, they won’t give you credit if you are printing with them the first time – it’s half up-front, the rest on the counter in order to release the book for delivery), the per-cost book is quite low. A book that might cost two dollars each to print through a traditional printer will cost well over five dollars per book through Lightning Source, and Lightning Source is pretty inexpensive as POD goes.
- Since a bookstore needs a minimum 40% discount off the retail price, it is nearly impossible to get a book into a bookstore except through a traditional print run or through a POD that hooks into a major distribution channel as part of the contract. Clearly, if you are your own distributor, you maximize up-front profits. However, many bookstores won’t work with you because you aren’t a well-known distributor.
Finally, you need to get your book into bookstores. That means getting a list of every bookstore in your market niche and cold-calling, e-mailing or postcard-mailing them about your work. Call up radio stations and invite yourself on interviews. Write up news releases and send them to magazines and newspapers. Coordinate book signings at your local bookstore. Think of organizations that could use your book and pitch it to them. Give away lots of copies to decision makers.
Being a great writer is not difficult – there are a lot of great writers. There are also a lot of mediocre writers with great marketers behind them. Great marketing sells at least as many books as great writing. After all, when was the last time you bought a really lousy book and actually returned it? Most of us just sell the clunkers at garage sales.
Speaking of garage sales, most bookstores have a return policy of one year. That means they can return any unsold books to you at the end of twelve months, for credit. If you have a high return rate, this is obviously a problem. The biggest book publishers typically have a twenty percent return rate.
I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had a return rate of one-tenth of one percent. But then again, I’m just an amateur, and not really qualified to compete with the professionals. As one friend remarked, my return rate either means I am a phenomenal writer or I am seriously underselling the market. I prefer the former explanation, but, given my marketing skills (or lack therof) am willing to accept the latter.
So, there you go. You can publish a book for well under $700; around $1000 if you want to lay out the money for the publishing software.
Monday, January 16, 2006
I've heard many answers to this question, but none are close enough to a sound-bite to work very well. Perhaps this might serve:
Jesus told the Sadducees, "At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven" (Matthew 22:30). Where God is, there is heaven. Jesus, both God and man, would not marry any individual human person in the human sense precisely because such an act would mean the person He married had, indeed, be given in marriage in heaven.
Thus, affirming that Jesus could marry in the human sense indicates He lied when He spoke to the Sadducees. Worse, such an affirmation denies His divinity.
Note how many Protestant preachers have no particular problem with Jesus marrying...
Friday, January 13, 2006
I like Mr. Smith a lot. We've been friends for as long as I can remember, we always hung out together, drank together, played cards together. But when Mrs. Smith came along, I found I didn't much like her.
Now, I would like to spend time with Mr. Smith, but I don't want to spend time with Mrs. Smith.
She annoys me.
I have three choices on how to deal with the situation so I don't have to interact with Mrs. Smith yet can have as much fun with Mr. Smith as I want.
I can wait until Mrs. Smith leaves the house, then go over and visit with Mr. until such time as she returns, when I will bid a fond farewell until next time.
I can go over to the Smith house to visit, but slip a mickey into Mrs. Smith's drink so that she falls asleep shortly after I arrive. That way, Mr. Smith and I can have a marvelous time until she wakes up, when again, I will bid adieu.
I can kill Mrs. Smith. Then I don't have to deal with her ever.
From a moral perspective, does it matter which I choose?
If Mrs. Smith was your wife, would you have a preference in how I handled her?
Mr. and Mrs. Smith are the twin gifts of pleasure and fecundity, respectively.
Choice 1: NFP. I just wait until fecundity leaves.
Choice 2: Temporary chemical and physical barriers. I drug or bind up fecundity so it can't interfere with me.
Choice 3: Permanent sterilization.
Now do you see the difference?
BTW, I stole this story from a friend of mine who thought it up a few years back when he was teaching NFP.
Thursday, January 12, 2006
I define fundamentalism as a group of invariably male leaders who consider themselves superior to other believers. The fundamentalists believe they have a special relationship with God. Therefore their beliefs are inherently correct, being those of God, and anyone who disagrees with them are first of all wrong, and second inferior, and in extreme cases even subhuman. Also, fundamentalists don't relish any challenge to their positions ... It makes a great exhibition of rigidity and superiority and exclusion.
At least, I'm pretty sure he was talking about his political party....
Monday, January 09, 2006
For the scientist, faith is a humbug, a mental illusion with no basis in physical reality. For many in the Christian world, faith is only real when it is blind; for them, faith is real because the evidence has not been seen. As is readily apparent, the difference between these two world-views is thin indeed. Both take as a given the idea that faith is not based on physical facts.
Indeed, they even present the same evidence to prove their point: Jesus told doubting Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed." (John 20:29) while Paul told the Hebrews, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Using their common position as the base, both sides fight strenuously over the worth of faith. Evolution, intelligent design, even the events of history are up for grabs. Indeed, even as you read this, an atheist in Italy is getting free publicity for his new book by suing a Catholic priest for preaching Christ and Him crucified. The atheist has convinced a judge to compel the priest to prove that Jesus actually existed. The conviction that faith cannot produce such evidence lies at the heart of the suit.
But, as in most matters Scriptural, things are not quite as simple as they seem. Neither side recalls that the Hebrews were warned repeatedly to “take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children's children.” (Deuteronomy 4:9) Similarly, no one remembers Paul’s warning: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; for you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17).
John’s commentary on faith was most clear - and is most ignored - of them all, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled, of the word of life. For the life was manifested: and we have seen and do bear witness and declare unto you the life eternal, which was with the Father and hath appeared to us. That which we have seen and have heard, we declare unto you: that you also may have fellowship with us and our fellowship may be with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you, that you may rejoice and your joy may be full.” (1 John 1:1-4)
In short, both the Old and New Testaments demonstrate that faith is most certainly not blind, that faith is most certainly based on physical evidence. Indeed, if it were not for the existence of this physical evidence, faith would be useless.
Despite opinions to the contrary, John’s Gospel doesn’t discount the need for evidence, rather, it insists that the apostles, the witnesses to the evidence, are trustworthy. “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed [your witness].” Similarly Paul’s letter to the Hebrews points out that faith is based, not in a lack of evidence, but in the evidence of a thing which has no physical counterpart – trust. Paul’s central point is not, “Don’t worry your heads about physical evidence,” rather, he intends to answer one question: is God worthy of trust?
Trust in the persons of the apostles or the persons of God: this is a question about reality, but not the physical reality of an object, rather, the moral reality of the person.
If we take the scientist’s definition, if we assume that the only things worthy of our trust are the things that can be measured and replicated, then both the writing of history and the interest in current events are, in the scientific sense, religious pursuits. After all, none of us actually see most of the events described in the newspaper, radio, television or internet. Certainly none of us saw the vast majority of events described in the history texts. In neither case can we replicate those events. Taken critically, we have no more reason to believe there was a French Revolution than there was a Christ – the “witnesses” might all be colluding in an enormous lie for purposes of their own.
Indeed, given this reasoning, I have no basis for believing there is even a Rome or a Paris, though I have visited both. After all, I did not measure those cities in any repeatable way, and I have never returned to them, so I can’t say with scientific certainty they were actually there. No peer-reviewed scientific journal has verified their existence.
Just as Russian minister Grigori Potemkin reputedly constructed facades of villages in the Crimea in order to impress Empress Catherine II of Russia or as three British citizens discovered in the recent Space Cadet hoax, perhaps someone just created it all in order to laugh at my credulity. How do we know we aren’t living in the Matrix?
Many people assume that science revolves around the testing of the physical environment we inhabit, but that’s not strictly true. Whether we speak of apostolic review or scientific peer review, the issue at stake is the same. It is not a question of whether the physical evidence is trustworthy. It is a question of whether the persons who report the physical evidence are trustworthy.
If we live in the Matrix, then someone constructed it. If Rome doesn’t really exist, then it’s a put-up job. If we aren’t really in space – although our senses give us many reasons to think we are – then someone is pulling a fast one on us.
Scientists take as a given that there is no hoax – the physical material they work with every day is actually reality. In order to exclude the possibility of being hoaxed, there can be only two possibilities. Either (1) there is no person creating the data that feeds our senses, there is only the data or (2) the person who does provide the data that feeds our senses is trustworthy, he is not out to hoax us but to inform us about something.
But that creates a problem. Science has never created a physical instrument to reliably test the trustworthiness of any person alive, whether man or god. We must either choose to trust someone or choose not to. Scientists develop trust in one another’s skill as scientists in the same way everyone develops trust in each other and in God – they look at the results.
When Dr. Hwang first reported his results, those results were taken on faith. As far as Hwang was concerned, blessed was the scientist who did not see or question the results, but still believed. For quite some time, most of his compatriots in the field were blessed beyond compare. Hwang’s work fell apart primarily because the people who knew him best began quietly casting aspersions on his work. What had earlier been accepted was now critically re-examined. He proved untrustworthy in the end. Scientists who entertain agnosticism or outright atheism, have at some point in their lives put God in the dock and found Him untrustworthy as well.
Faith is directed towards persons, not towards physical objects. In order to have faith in physical reality, we must either assume there is no one behind the physical reality or we must assume total trust in the one who is behind it. Either way, we are taking something on faith, and what we take on faith is precisely the evidence of things not seen. That’s true whether the faith-filled person is an atheist or an apostle. Faith is not blind, if only because persons are the object of faith, and persons are always known through how they reveal themselves.
Friday, January 06, 2006
The hosting provider for my business web site crashed their e-mail servers and destroyed several years worth of work. They have no backups. Thus, I've spent the last week recovering files and moving them to a new hosting provider who should be much more reliable.
Unfortunately, as a result of this loss, we've lost most of the ability to communicate with our customer base. As a former network admin, it never occured to me that there might be network administrators who didn't make regular backups. Certainly any hosting provider for hundreds of business web sites would not fail to do so! Thus, I foolishly trusted the "professionals" to maintain several of our most important e-mail lists. These were all lost.
As a result of the server crash, we've lost our ability to communicate with the subscribers to the free e-mail services Through the Fathers' Eyes and Today's Lesson. If you were signed up and haven't been getting e-mails lately, this is why.
If you would like to sign up (again) for one or both of these e-mail lists, please do so now through the links above. As the descriptions indicate, both are concise e-mails that don't fill up your box. Through the Fathers' Eyes comes out once a week, Today's Lesson comes out once a day. Only list moderaters can post, and we post no more than what is indicated here.
With any luck, another article for the blog will appear by Monday. The new website is almost complete and ready for business. Everything should be in hand in the next couple of business days.