Life is stupider than fiction: Trump edition

Here is me complaining about how stupid it was for Mitt Romney’s campaign manager to go public with their plan to “Etch-a-Sketch” his campaign after he won the nomination.

Those were such innocent times!

I find it difficult to imagine Trump as a literary character, because the humorous parts of his character (his absurd vanity, for example) are so hard to reconcile with the incredible damage he could if he somehow managed to get himself elected.  This is real life, unfortunately.

Fiction (the kind of fiction I write, anyway) needs to assume a level of competence in the protagonist — that’s where the tension comes from.  You want a real Russian spy, not the dim-witted dupe that Trump apparently is.  You want a real billionaire who is nefariously turning his attention to politics after mastering the business world, not an unsuccessful huckster.

Trump’s incompetence would be disqualifying in a novel; it should be disqualifying in real life as well.  Too bad reality doesn’t play by the same rules.

Why does someone with a dirty secret go into politics?

I don’t know much about Dennis Hastert, but his problem sure sounds familiar.  Apparently he has a dirty secret in his past, and he spent a lot of money to make sure it stayed secret.  It strikes me as a bit odd that someone would choose a political career knowing that he had such a secret lurking in his part.  But this is, of course, the way politicians are.  A major plot element in my novel Senator involves just such a situation: Senator Jim O’Connor (who has his own problems) finds out about his opponent’s dirty secret.  What should he do about it?  Should he use the knowledge to destroy his opponent?

What would you do?  Well, you’re not a politician, so that doesn’t matter.  It’s these moral conundrums that interested me most in writing the novel..

Life is stupider than fiction: robot politician edition

A friend sent me a link to this article, noting that “someone has been reading your book.”

“The election for U.S. House for Oklahoma’s 3rd District will be contested by the Candidate, Timothy Ray Murray,” Murray wrote in a press release posted on his campaign website. “I will be stating that his votes are switched with Rep. Lucas votes, because it is widely known Rep. Frank D. Lucas is no longer alive and has been displayed by a look alike.”

On the website, Murray claims that Lucas and “a few other Oklahoma and other States’ Congressional Members,” were executed “on or about” Jan. 11, 2011 in southern Ukraine.

“On television they were depicted as being executed by the hanging about the neck until death on a white stage and in front of witnesses,” the website claims. “Other now current Members of Congress have shared those facts on television also. We know that it is possible to use look alike artificial or manmade replacements, however Rep. Lucas was not eligible to serve as a Congressional Member after that time.”

The book in question is my novel Replica, whose basic plot is evident from its cover:

Replica cover

Replica was by far the most successful of my novels when it was first published. So far it hasn’t gotten much love as an e-book. Is it the cover? The price? It’s a pretty good book!  Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly said when it came out:

While maintaining a highly readable pulp-fiction style, Bowker takes the narrative through a gripping array of turnabouts, doublecrosses and twists.  Readers will be guessing the story’s outcome until the very end.

And here’s a customer review:

I’m not sure exactly what I expected when I bought this book, but I didn’t expect it to explore terroristic politics, development of artificial intelligence, and some of the challenges of AI/human relationships … all without becoming bogged down in the esoteric nature of the technologies involved.

It starts out more or less the way I thought it would, with various entities coming together to make it possible (and plausible) to substitute the President with an android. Almost everything after that, though, was a surprise … with plenty of twists and turns and misdirections and characters developing in ways you probably won’t expect.

This is a good read, and amazingly so given how long since its original publication. It’s not too often that near-future books involving technology or politics (and especially a combination of the two) are written such that they don’t become badly dated in a decade. This one is still fresh, a fun read.

The North Pond Hermit

The Boston Globe has an interesting story (behind its paywall) about the North Pond Hermit — this guy who spent 27 years in the Maine woods “living a life of solitude and larceny.”  Here are his former living quarters:

The story is deeply weird and heads into “life is stupider than fiction” territory.  The guy has a mother and siblings still living, but no one ever filed a missing persons report when he disappeared a couple years after graduating from high school.  The police never managed to catch him, even though he was camping not far from the houses that he broken into time and time again for more than a quarter of a century, even though he didn’t start out with any particular survival training or skills.  But the weirdest part of the story is the hermit himself.  He didn’t keep a journal, he didn’t have any deep thoughts about civilization and society, he he didn’t seem to have any reason whatsoever for doing what he did:

Knight expected to die in the woods, [the state trooper who interrogated him] said, but he could not articulate why he decided to live there. He liked reading about hermits as a child, he told the trooper, but nothing traumatic had happened in his life.

I’m sure there is a novel here, or maybe just a made-for-TV movie.  But you need to do better than that when it comes to motivation.  I vaguely recall the playwright Peter Shaffer talking about his play Equus, which was apparently based on a true story about a young man who blinded some horses.  As I recall it, Shaffer saw a headline n the newspaper about what happened but chose not to learn the actual details of the story, because he didn’t want to pollute his imagination with reality.  I think we’ll have to do the same thing with the North Pond Hermit.

Life is stupider than fiction: the Tsarnaev brothers

Should we feel good or bad that the trauma and heartache Boston suffered last week was apparently caused by two loser idiots?

I’ve just finished watching the first season of Homeland, where the terrorists are every bit as clever as the CIA and, in their own way, rather sympathetic.  If they weren’t, the show wouldn’t be watchable.  The Tsarnaev brothers are neither clever nor sympathetic and, as far as we know, weren’t pawns in the game of some Chechen mastermind. They were only smart enough to make some crude bombs and set them off.  Everything else about them was sheer pointless stupidity.

As far as I can tell, the brothers had no escape plan after the bombings; the younger one, at any rate, just went back to school at UMass Dartmouth, apparently confident that the investigative resources of the most powerful nation in the world wouldn’t find him.  When their photos were released, the brothers respond by hijacking a car, and they then: 1) let the driver escape; and 2) leave his cellphone in the car so the police can track them.  During the gunfight that follows, the younger brother manages to run over and kill his older brother, and then for some reason abandons the car and takes off on foot.  He finally decides to hide out in a boat in someone’s backyard, which simply delays the inevitable while he almost bleeds to death.

I suppose this doesn’t matter to the maimed; it surely doesn’t matter to the dead.  But I think some part of us wants a worthy adversary — the kind we see in the movies and on TV.  If we are going to be Boston Strong, we want to stand up to someone who is also strong.  Instead what we got was a pair of useless bums.

Pope Emeritus? A black pope?

Strange times at the Vatican.  I was at the gym this morning; on the TVs, all three morning news shows were reporting live from Saint Peter’s Square.  I listened to Arcade Fire instead, because it was highly unlikely any of them would have anything interesting to say.  You need to go elsewhere for that.

One of the top candidates to replace Benedict is a black cardinal from Ghana, Peter Turkson.  I find this particularly fascinating, since my novel Pontiff features a black pope.  So it was my idea first!  My guy is not this guy, though.  He strikes me as the Church’s equivalent of Marco Rubio (not Obama) — he may have appeal to people the Church wants to appeal to, but any changes he brings will be in style, not in substance.  This is from the New Yorker:

He will not lessen opposition to gay marriage or undo the directive stating that men with “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies” should not be ordained as priests. On the contrary, Turkson has defended anti-gay legislation in Africa and argued that “alternative lifestyles” should not be considered human rights…. Similarly, there is no reason to expect shifts on abortion, birth control, or the ordination of women should Turkson become Pope. He does not deviate from the party line even on topics where a variety of positions are theologically permissible, such as the end of clerical celibacy.

A good place to go for some perspective on the current goings-on at the Vatican is Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish.  An odd bundle of contradictions, Sullivan is a gay conservative Irish-Catholic Obama-lover, and no admirer of the Catholic hierarchy. Here he vents about Cardinal O’Brien of Scotland’s resignation on the eve of the conclave after accusations of sexual impropriety, while the abominable child-abuse-enabling Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles will attend:

Britain will have no representative at the Conclave because the Cardinals are either too old or too sexually compromised. But Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, found unequivocally guilty of hiding and enabling the rape of children, will show up in his red robes. Why exactly is he allowed to go while O’Brien has resigned? Will he grab a sherry with Cardinal Law, another enabler of child-rape actually rewarded by the Vatican with a sinecure in Rome?

And here’s a question: if every Cardinal who had a cover-up of child-rape and abuse under his authority or had had sex with another man were barred from the Conclave, how many would be left?

And then there’s the ex-pope’s living arrangement — he’ll be right there in the Vatican, with his handsome secretary doing double duty as the head of the new pope’s household. Sullivan says:

So Benedict’s handsome male companion will continue to live with him, while working for the other Pope during the day. Are we supposed to think that’s, well, a normal arrangement? . . . This man – clearly in some kind of love with Ratzinger (and vice-versa) will now be working for the new Pope as secretary in the day and spending the nights with the Pope Emeritus. This is not the Vatican. It’s Melrose Place.

Ya can’t make this stuff up.  I know; I tried.

Patricia Cornwell wins her case

Here we gazed in awe at mystery novelist Patricia Cornwell’s lifestyle and the lawsuit she had lodged against her financial advisers.

Now she has won the lawsuit, to the tune of $51 million dollars. She seems to have given the Boston Globe a lot of access during and after the trial, in return for which she got prose like this:

And Cornwell is sitting, one leg crossing the other, just a couple of hours after the decision, lamenting the journey she had to go through in the first place, the type of challenges not even a hero in one of her novels should have to face.

“It’s just, we have fought long and hard,” she said, her Southern drawl deepening as she gets more heated while discussing the betrayal of her former finance manager, Evan Snapper, and his company, Anchin, Block & ­Anchin LLP.

“It’s just been harrowing, but we felt we needed to do the right thing, we needed to fight,” she said, in an hour-long interview with the Globe.

If I’m puzzled by why Cornwell didn’t pay closer attention to how her money was managed, I’m even more puzzled by why the financial management firm thought they could get away with the malfeasance they were found guilty of.  They would have made out perfectly well without it.  Why did the defendant, for example, forge a $5000 check from Cornwell as a bat mitzvah present to his daughter?  This sort of stuff is too stupid for fiction, and I hope Cornwell doesn’t put it in a novel, as she told the Globe she was thinking about doing.  That novel wouldn’t be worth reading.

Jonah Lehrer: My high IQ made me do it

Jonah Lehrer — he of the self-plagiarism and fabricated Dylan quotes — tried to start rehabilitating himself last week, and it didn’t go well. He gave a speech and Q&A session at a seminar hosted by the Knight Foundation (which says “it supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism”).  In it he laid out what he perceived were the causes of his misdeeds and how he intends to make sure they don’t happen again.

As a journalist, the author of this entertaining Forbes article was not impressed.  This paragraph caught my eye:

The oddness of Lehrer’s thinking came into focus when he allowed himself to consider some of the factors that may have eased his way down the path of iniquity. One, he said, is his high intelligence. “For some cognitive biases, being smart, having a high IQ, can make you more vulnerable to them,” he said.

That’s really going to cause make Lehrer’s public feel sorry for him.

As a scientist, Jerry Coyne was not impressed.

When I was interviewed by Lehrer for his New Yorker story on E. O. Wilson, and saw the result, I sensed something amiss.  There was such a disconnect between the science I taught him and what came out on the page that I suspected Lehrer was more interested in making a big splash than in the scientific truth.  And, sure enough, truth has always taken a back seat to Lehrer’s self-promotion and desire to make a big splash at a young age.

In truth, and given the content of this speech, I sense that Lehrer is a bit of a sociopath.  Yes, shows of contrition are often phony, meant to convince a gullible public (as in Lance Armstrong’s case) that they’re good to go again. But Lehrer can’t even be bothered to fake an apology that sounds meaningful.  Call me uncharitable, but if I were a magazine editor, I’d never hire him; and we shouldn’t trust anything by him that’s not fact-checked by a legion of factotums. This is what happens when careerism trumps truth.

As a virtually unpaid fiction writer, though, I have to say I was impressed that Lehrer managed to get himself paid $20,000 for his little speech.

This whole thing makes it into my “Life is stupider than fiction” category–first, because Lehrer actually thinks he can rehabilitate his career by opining that his high intelligence was a cause of his problems.  And second, because he got some charitable journalism foundation to pay him twenty grand for his deep thoughts on his malfeasance.

Upon sober reflection, the Knight Foundation realizes it may have made a bit of a mistake here.

Controversial speakers should have platforms, but Knight Foundation should not have put itself into a position tantamount to rewarding people who have violated the basic tenets of journalism. We regret our mistake.

The comments below their apology are not kind.

What am I missing about this heartwarming Mitt Romney story?

Just when I thought I could quit Mitt Romney, the Boston Globe publishes a long analytical piece about his presidential campaign.  Most of it is standard stuff — his ground game was insufficient, the 47% remarks hurt him, his voter tracking app didn’t work on election day, he didn’t fight back against the Obama campaign’s early negative advertising . . .  But the main point the article makes is that his campaign may have made a mistake by not focusing on what a great guy Mitt Romney is.  One example the article cites is the time he helped a dying 14-year-old boy write his will:

Ann Romney, who had long pushed for more focus on her husband’s personal story, made her point directly in a convention video: “If you really want to know how a person will operate, look at how they’ve lived their life.” A Vermont couple ­appeared on the convention stage to tell the emotional story of how Romney, as a Mormon leader, helped their dying 14-year-old son, David Oparowski, write his will. “How many men do you know would take the time out of their busy lives to visit a terminally ill 14-year-old and help him settle his affairs?” Pat Oparowski, the boy’s mother, said in her speech.

So, am I missing something about Mormons, or about rich people, or what?  What kind of 14-year-old needs to “settle his affairs”?  What kind of affairs does he need to settle — who to bequeath his Xbox to?  And why does he need Mitt Romney to help him?  (To answer the mother’s question, I bet a ton of men would take the time to help a dying kid.)

There seems to be no question that Romney is personally a good and generous guy.  (On the other hand, he’s richer than God, so it’s not like his own family is going without basic necessities if he spreads his wealth around.)  But there is also just something kind of off about him.  I have a feeling that the more people got to know the real Mitt Romney, the less they would like him.  If this was the kind of story the campaign was being pushed to tell, I think they made the right decision to drop the heartwarming personal stuff and focus on lying about outsourcing Jeep production to China and whatnot.

OK, I’ll shut up now.

Rule #1: Don’t sleep with your biographer

A correspondent notes that if General Petraeus had read Senator, he wouldn’t be in this mess.

I have now added a “Life is stupider than fiction” category, but I don’t see how anything could top the Petraeus / West Point grad – Ph.D. student – jealous mistress / Tampa socialite – honorary Korean consul with a crazy twin sister and a bogus cancer charity / jealous FBI agent sending shirtless photos of himself / general with enough time on his hands to send thousands of emails story.

I know I wouldn’t be able to top it.