Friday, July 22, 2011

For Your Consideration, A Metaphor

Imagine two pilots are flying in a small plane. The plane runs out of fuel and begins to crash.

There is one parachute in the plane. If either pilot takes it for himself, he'll survive unscathed, but the other pilot will die. But if the pilots cling to each other as they use the parachute together? They'll come away from the crash with some broken bones, but both of them will still be alive.

Now imagine that the two pilots are sitting in the cockpit as the plane falls, arguing not over who gets to use the parachute, but who's going to take the blame for the crash.

That's about what the debt ceiling debate looks like to me right now.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Status Report! I'm two weeks out from a submission deadline and feeling, for once, pretty confident in my work. Project Oh God It Burns and Project Lost In The Woods are both revised, polished, and sitting with beta readers for a quick once-over before I give them a final bit of shine and send them out to the God-Editors. Let me take a moment to thank my beta readers, better known as my wife Sarah and my best friend Colin. They don't generally read the stuff I like to write, but they're still willing to take time out of their busy lives to pore over manuscript pages and tell me where I've gone and fucked up. They both rock.

Project Long Hard Slog Over Broken Glass has not been so much fortunate: For the moment it's sitting in a drawer, waiting for me to dust it off and get it on its feet again. That could happen in a few weeks; that might not happen for months. I'm not sure at the moment which: at the moment it depends on how well Project Oh God It Burns is received, in my mind if nowhere else.

I am currently casting Project Sexy Golem, which involves taking a hard look at the characters I know I want in the story, and making sure they have what it takes to carry a story. That means giving them names, faces, goals, loves, hates, quirks, neuroses: the whole gamut of what makes someone interesting to read about. Once I've got a few sketches together, I'll be outlining. Once I've outlined, I'll start writing. That should still happen in August.

* * *

I'm slightly scared about taxes.

Well, that goes for everyone. What I'm worried about is paying my taxes when (never if) I reach the next level as a writer, which is making enough money at it that I'm forced to register myself as a business. So far my income's been meager enough that I've been able to file this as a hobby.

No writers write about taxes. Stephen King discusses how his short stories helped him scrape by before Carrie, but Uncle Sam does not appear once in On Writing (he's probably got a guy). A few books about writing take a stab at the business end of things, but never in great detail. The books that devote themselves entirely to freelancing never tackle the question of what you do if you already have a day job.

I have a job I'm not quitting anytime soon. I get taxes withheld from my paycheck and a W-2 at the end of every year. I do not want to layer quarterly tax filings on top of that if I don't have to. I don't know if I have to. I don't know anyone who's dealt with this and spoken about it publicly.


* * *

I'm developing an unhealthy obsession with OCD: Obsessive Corgi Disorder. It's just pictures of Corgis. There's nothing else to it. But it updates faster than a speed freak and it always brings the cute. I'd contribute, but the lighting in my house is horrible and Lina refuses to take a good picture recently.

* * *

True Blood has me actively hoping for a black panther massacre. If you're following the show you know why. It's something that bothers the living fuck out of me whenever I try to read supernatural romance of the Charlaine Harris or Laurell K. Hamilton variety. The main character typically gets fed on, mesmerized, cursed, raped, infected, and God knows what else by the cast of a Hammer horror film in every book. Yet, somehow, thoughts of stakes or silver bullets never enter the heroine's mind, at least not associated with the sexy bad boys gnawing on their neck.

I wonder to this day what would happen if Anita Blake got loose from all the shit flowing in her veins and reverted back to the no-bullshit investigator we met in Guilty Pleasures. I guarantee you Jean-Claude would be a tiny pile of ash inside of a week. Which is kind of how Project Sexy Golem came about, now that I think about it.

* * *

Two last bits of business.

Ari Marmell has a new book out. The Goblin Corps is epic fantasy written from point of view of the monsters: the orcs, gremlins, trolls, bugbears, and other miserable creatures bound in service to the titular Dark Lord. Except this lot is foul-mouthed, crude, treacherous, and somehow quite sympathetic on top of all that. It's a load of fun to read and well worth your time if you've ever enjoyed anything with an orc in it.

Chuck Wendig also has a new book out, but electronic-only I'm afraid. 250 Things You Should Know About Writing is a dirt-cheap collection of his 25 Things You Should Know About... blog posts, all of which have been informative. You also get some articles that were never posted on the blog, such as 25 Things You Should Know About Writing A Fucking Sentence. For 99 cents, you've really got no reason not to pick it up.

Go. Read. Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Debt Ceiling for Dummies

I've been watching the debate over the debt ceiling closely over the past few months. I haven't written about it until now because I'm reluctant to talk about politics, and because the whole thing makes me so angry that I'm not sure I can talk about it intelligently.

My average reaction to debt ceiling news.

But the debate has gotten so bad at this point that I can't keep silent, or I'll end up with a massive ulcer in addition to the intractable GERD. So I'm going to try and tackle this from an educational perspective. I'm going to explain what the debt ceiling is, why it needs to be raised, and why no one in Washington, D.C. can agree to raise it. Hopefully I'll be able to get through this without my heart exploding.

If I get something wrong here, feel free to point it out in the comments, but politely. I read more news than is healthy for me, but I don't claim to remember all of it with 100% accuracy.

What is the debt ceiling?

The debt ceiling was enacted by Congress prior to World War I. Beforehand, each issuance of government debt (i.e. Treasury bonds) had to be approved by Congress individually. To streamline the process, they established a ceiling for the amount of debt the government could incur, which has been raised repeatedly over the decades since.

No other country has a debt ceiling. As a practical matter, Congress dictates the level of government borrowing every year when it passes the budget. However, the debt ceiling has remained in place, if for no other reason than for the minority party in any given Congress to pound their desks over the majority's outrageous spending.

Why do we need to raise it?

The United States spends a lot more money than it takes in. At the moment, the federal government takes in revenues from taxes that total roughly 15% of the our gross domestic product (GDP), and spends about 25% of the GDP. This means we're growing our debt every day.

Back in May, our level of debt reached the debt ceiling. Since then, the Treasury has been engaged in various measures to keep from defaulting on any of our debts, but Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner says that we will begin defaulting on our debt on August 2nd. At that point a whole slew of bad things happen, which might include seeing our country's credit rating lowered, trouble in the bond markets, and a shutdown of many government services, possibly including Social Security payouts.

Why hasn't Congress raised the debt ceiling yet?

As I mentioned above, raising the debt ceiling is always a vote where minority party Congressmen will stamp their feet and raise hell over wasteful spending. This time, though, the Republican party has control of the House, and they're insisting on tying the vote to massive cuts in federal spending. Roughly speaking, they'll only raise the debt ceiling if Congress also reduces spending by the same amount.

To raise the debt ceiling enough to get us through 2013, Congress will have to raise it by about two and a half trillion dollars. Cutting that same amount will require Congress to make painful cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and/or Medicaid.

Couldn't we cut defense spending?

For the most part, no. Republicans are opposed to major defense cuts, and no one else is particularly keen on them either.

What about other parts of the government?

None of them have enough funding to cut to make up the numbers on their own, though many other parts of government (education, EPA) would face budget cuts.

Couldn't Congress raise taxes instead?

That would be reducing the deficit, not spending. Republicans are opposed to any tax increases, even if they're in a ratio of $1 in tax increases to $3 in spending cuts. At one point Republicans indicated they would accept an 85:15 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases, but they've rejected a ratio of 83:17, and are now insisting on 100:0.

What about reforming the tax code to cut out loopholes or subsidies, without actually raising tax rates?

Not good enough. Blame Grover Norquist.

Go on. Blame him.

Norquist heads Americans for Tax Reform, and he's gotten the vast majority of the Republican Party to sign a pledge not to increase taxes. By his standards, that means that tax code reforms that increase revenue by closing loopholes (or ending subsidies to oil companies, ethanol, whatever) can't be passed unless they're offset by spending cuts in the same amount.

In other words, Norquist's primary goal is to shrink the size of government. Shrinking the deficit doesn't matter so much.

Why don't we just raise the debt ceiling and worry about cuts later?

The GOP is adamantly against raising the debt ceiling without spending cuts, and a bill can't pass the House without their support.

What if we get to August 2nd without a deal?

Several GOP House members identified with the Tea Party (including presidential candidate Michele Bachmann) claim that a short default by the United States would not have any long-lasting consequences, despite warnings from economists, rating agencies, and businesses. Additionally, the last time the U.S. defaulted on its debt back in 1979, the increased interest payments on U.S. bonds cost the country billions of dollars. Still, President Obama is unwilling to risk calling the Republicans' bluff.

So how do we get a deal?

With great difficulty.

The initial talks on the debt ceiling led by Vice President Biden came close to a deal of about 2.4 trillion dollars, but ended in a walkout by House Republican leader Eric Cantor over the idea of having some of that come from revenue increases.

After that, President Obama attempted to negotiate a 4 trillion dollar deal in private with Speaker of the House Boehner. The deal would have required tax increases of about 1 trillion dollars, through cutting subsidies and ending the tax cuts passed by President Bush for people making over $250,000 per year. President Obama in turn would have agreed to significant cuts in entitlement programs, possibly including raising the minimum age for Social Security from 65 to 67. The deal was a non-starter for Republicans and never really made it into negotiations.

Currently President Obama is holding daily meetings with Congressional leadership to try and hammer out a deal. He's continuing to push for a 4 trillion dollar deal, which is raising the hackles of Republicans opposed to tax increases and Democrats opposed to entitlement cuts.

Republicans in the negotiations are pushing to revisit the 2.4 trillion dollar Biden deal, but without revenue increases; aides on both sides claim that the actual number without those increases is closer to 1.5 trillion.

Senator McConnell today suggested a plan by which the President could raise the debt ceiling over the course of three to six votes between now and the 2012 elections. This would put all responsibility for the debt ceiling votes on Democrats, and would not guarantee any spending cuts. Reaction so far has been mixed, tilting negative.

So what can we do?

Just kidding.

I wish I knew. I would encourage you to write or call your Senator and Representatives and urge them to raise the debt ceiling, regardless of whether a deal over spending cuts is made. You may want to do that repeatedly. You could also consider shorting Treasuries, but that's unpatriotic and not guaranteed to pay off.

Probably your healthiest course of action is to take a deep breath, count to ten, and try not to worry too much. Whatever deal is reached, it will likely take years to go into effect, regardless of how much you might hate it. A default, on the other hand, will happen on August 2nd with immediate consequences, or not at all. Please, encourage the latter.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Dropbox TrueCrypt Paranoia Corollary

Well, it's a week now since I started using TrueCrypt to encrypt all of my files on Dropbox, as detailed in my last post. And, I'm sad to say, after one week I'm ready to drop the encryption and go back to using Dropbox, um... unprotected. I've got a few reasons why:

TrueCrypt adds extra steps. I'm annoyingly fragile when it comes to getting into a writing frame of mind. Most anything can distract me at a critical juncture, be it a Corgi jumping in my lap for attention or that pile of laundry I forgot to pull out of the washing machine three hours ago. So having to find and mount a TrueCrypt volume before I can find and open the Word document I want to work on can actually stop me from opening that Word document. And I can't have that, now can I?

TrueCrypt nerfs Dropbox's versioning system. An obvious point I think I mentioned before, but as long as my files are in a TrueCrypt volume, Dropbox can't version them individually. For the most part, I haven't had to take advantage of this feature. Still, I've done enough development work with Subversion to know I damn well want it.

TrueCrypt slows down my syncing. I noticed this right from the get-go: with TrueCrypt, it takes Dropbox about a minute to two minutes to sync any update I make to the files in it. It's not enough to be unusable, but it's just enough to get annoying after awhile, especially if I just want to turn my computer off and go to bed after a save.

TrueCrypt actually makes me more paranoid. This is the biggie. I don't keep anything on Dropbox I would mind people looking at. Mostly it's backup copies of eBooks, evidence of CISSP CPEs I've earned, and my manuscripts. Now, it's conceivable that Dropbox is going to steal all of my shit and do nefarious things with it, but I can't imagine what. The same goes for any random hacker who breaks into my account. At worst, I'd expect to get hit with some jerk deleting everything in my Dropbox, which is why I keep offline backups.

Now, with TrueCrypt, I get the added fear that my encrypted volume might get corrupted, either from bouncing it between operating systems or by forgetting to sync updates to the volume in the correct order and having Dropbox introduce a mess of file errors. I've made that kind of screw-up before, and I don't want to do it again and have it blow away all of my files.

So, no more TrueCrypt, at least not with Dropbox. I may go back to using it to encrypt some things down the line - an In-Case-Of-Emergency file, for example - but right now it's worth more to me to have an easy time using Dropbox.

I'd go into the annoying filename quirks I ran into when I copied everything out of my TrueCrypt0 volume, but the Corg0i just jum1ped int0o my lap and star1ted1 licking my keyboard. Stop that Lina!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Dropbox TrueCrypt Paranoia Conundrum

I've been using Dropbox for months now to back up my important files to the Mystical Cloud that drifts through the Internet. Aside from one minor wrinkle of a file conflict (which I easily resolved), it's done sterling service. My files are backed up across multiple computers and their associated backup hard drives, not to mention the Dropbox servers themselves. Losing my work in a catastrophic incident should, theoretically, be impossible.*

But over the last couple of weeks Dropbox has gotten some bad press. Aside from the security breach (see "bad"), none of this is really a surprise; if you put your data on somebody else's computer, they are going to have to protect themselves legally in some fashion. And because copyright law is a hydra with infinite heads and a bad attitude, even an innocent company is going to look bad trying to comply with it.

That said...

The security breach did bother the heck out of me. I don't know of anyone who'd want to look at my files with malice in their heart, but I also didn't know anyone who'd want to run up a $300 bill on my Amazon account. Shit happens. And while all of my files are perfectly innocent**, I still feel less than clean knowing that someone could be looking at them right now with their filthy eyes...

Enter TrueCrypt. My files are now wrapped in one big, ambiguous blob of encrypted data, one that no one is liable to crack open in the next decade without the correct password. So I am, relatively speaking, secure.

But can I still be productive?

TrueCrypt bundles your data into what is effectively an encrypted hard drive. With the right password, you can mount it and edit everything on it just like any other filesystem. So what's in my Dropbox account now is one big file that is 1.99GB in size. There are some issues with this:

Syncing. The initial upload of this file took a good three hours. Fortunately Dropbox does bitwise syncing, so it only needs to resync the bits of the file that change during an edit. I opened up a Word document and added some text, and Dropbox updated it in about a minute.

Syncing again. The encryption works fine if I only edit the file on one computer at a time. Since that's what I do anyway, this is no big deal. But if I forget and let my systems get out of sync, I'm going to wind up with a 4GB conflict that could potentially corrupt my data. So be careful with those edits, m'kay?

Nerfed features. Dropbox allows you to access your files from the web, but not if they're in one big encrypted blob. Ditto for sharing files with other people, or versioning them. Happily I'm not using these features anyway and don't plan to start.

So this isn't a perfect solution. Still, I think it's a happy balance between ease-of-use and security, which is all I can ask for.

And if it turns out to be more annoying than I bargained for, I'll store my files in my data dog instead.

*This is tempting fate. I'm certain some alien intelligence with a global-scale EMP generator is reading this and giggling.

**Pay no mind to that donkey in the corner.