Shareholder revolts

I love closed-end fund shareholder revolts, when you get two different ballots, and one of them is all about how management sucks. Such a refreshing change from ballots issued by management, which typically say that management is wonderful and that we should therefore vote as management desires.

(If you do not know, a closed-end fund is a form of mutual fund. Most trade in bonds. The biggest difference between CEFs and conventional funds, the kind most people think of when they hear the term ‘mutual fund,’ is that conventional funds are open-ended. All their trading is between the investor and the fund. Thus, when you buy shares, they are created; when you sell (redeem) them, they are annihilated. In a closed-end fund, shares are not created or annihilated. They are traded between buyer and seller, neither of which is the fund. I have given lengthy criticisms of conventional funds in the past, and probably will do so again, just because they need frequent slappage.)

What I love even more is when the rebels’ complaint is that the fund is going to be kept around two years before liquidation, and should be instead liquidated immediately. I guess I should have bothered to read their semi-annual reports, or perhaps this liquidation is a more recent development. In any case, it’s good to see something other than the standard blind endorsement of management. Usually the most revolutionary thing on the ballot is some proposal put forth by an environmental group or something, demanding greater accountability or constraints on executive pay. Management always votes against all such proposals, claiming that they are already doing more than what the proposal would require. You can believe them if you like; I don’t.

So. What to do?

In my case, first I go vote for the revolt. If I were keeping the shares, I might stick around to care who wins. However, if the fund is going to be liquidated, I don’t wait to be paid out. I slap trailing stop sell orders on my shares. Whatever drama they’re going to have, they can have it without my money. I can surely find a better job for my money than a fund that is being managed toward a liquidation date.

This one (KMM) was fun. It was one of my lowest yielding CEFs, and I had a capital gain to boot. Yes, please.

Fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek

Everyone has read about its impact, how it would not die, how it created a movement. True. As an eleven-year-old knuckling down to six years of protracted cruelty, I can point to Star Trek as one of the things that got me through it all. I was not the only one. I have seen a friend of color say: “Until Star Trek, I didn’t realize that the future included black people.”

Yes. Did Star Trek mean more than the Beatles? No, the Beatles are not some sacred cow that automatically surpasses every other phenomenon. They were culturally important, but lastingly more than Star Trek? I am not thinking so. Of course, I like Star Trek and do not like the Beatles, so I admit a basic bias.

BBC America is showing a bunch of old Star Treks, and I am DVRing them and will rewatch them all again. Well and good. I will see more redshirts destroyed than an overpaid college coach trying to avoid a 5-7 record in his third year of program recovery. However, the show spawned a less savory product, and I’m not referring to / fiction. (95% of you do not know what that means. ‘Slash’ referred originally to ‘K/S,’ as in ‘Kirk/Spock,’ the notion that the two of them were in a gay relationship and often expressed in fanfic (fan-authored fiction). Now you see why I think this outshines the beatified Beatles? Scoff if you wish, but gay America living through the 1970s and 1980s does not.)

After the original series’ three seasons ended, and fans refused to let the show die, there came a less savory product: paperback novels, and many of them were awful. Loopy story ideas. Inept writing. Lazy naming. So many moments of “Oh, no. Seriously? You did not just name the security team after the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first line? And you got away with this?”

No, no individual callouts. Remember, I go to some SF conventions. I could end up having drinks with someone in whose withers I left banderillas, and who would now like an explanation. “J.K. Kelley. From where do I remember that name? Ah, yes, it’s associated with the knout scars on my back from your blog comments about my writing. Well, I was 25 then. Are you the same writer today that you were at 25, Mr. Kelley?”

Here’s a secret. Want to know what made me think I could be a good editor? I looked at what was being published by New York. Then I looked at what was coming out of the smaller houses. Then I looked at the indie publishing movement. In few cases did I see books that I could not much have improved in the editing process. In many cases I saw decent book concepts botched or clumsily executed. I knew that I could help those who wanted help badly enough, and could afford the help.

Since I have a library, I must maintain it. I have learned that one of the best ways to winnow out the chaff is to look at books and be able to say: You know what? I knew you were a lousy book even before I became a professional writer or editor. I need the space you occupy. You will be donated. And thus, book by book, I have done so. I am ruthless. Is the book a piece of crap? Will neither I nor my wife ever again wish to read it? Then it does not need to take up space. I refuse to be a book hoarder.

So what I am doing is to re-read all the hundred-odd Star Trek books, most purchased cheaply from used bookstores on the Ave (referring to University Way NE in Seattle, the beating heart of the University of Washington’s U-District). And while I may re-finish those whose storylines I can now respect, if they suck, I am going to get rid of them. Stupid plot? Gone. Author can’t write (the case in 75% of those books)? Gone. Authorial laziness or fetishism? Let’s not eat a whole egg to confirm that it’s rotten. It’s time to de-dross this library–or at least, in the case of some of my trashy westerns, accept the dross with a full understanding of its drossage.

This will take a while, but I expect to thin this collection out to the minority of books worth revisiting. And it’s time.

Things that go bang in the daylight

I sat at my keyboard, doing my work and bothering no one.

Bang.

Some noise from the far side of the house, it seemed. Ho-hum.

Thump.

Neighbors obviously doing something, but it sounds like it’s hitting my house. I got up to inspect the likely direction, and learned only that my rosebushes are overgrown. Back to my office.

Bump.

I snarled an imprecation, got up. Left knee is worse than usual today, hurts even with the brace. I took another look around the same side; all calm.

Bonk.

Wait; that came from inside. I went back in and inspected the dog’s activities. The dog looked up at me without comprehension. He was innocent, and I let him be. Back to the office.

Whump.

Now my eyes narrowed; I spat a curse. It sounded like some kids throwing something at the house. I considered taking a weapon, rejected the idea; let’s not get carried away. But I was going to find out who or what was ruining my concentration, and it was going to stop. While I headed for the back door, there were two more bangs.

Whack.

Yeah, we’ll see, you little bastards.

Thump.

I wonder how my arm is these days. Some of those little green pine cones are pretty hard. If they can throw them, I can throw them back. I step outside, look east, and wait. Fuck you, you little shits, I used to throw a hard fastball that kept batters loose, and I will hurt you.

Blonk.

It’s a green pine cone, fallen from directly above my eave-trough, hitting it with a metallic sound. Okay, so pine cones are falling. I can see from the roof that bunches of needles are also falling.

Splop.

Obviously this is not some kids’ idea of comedy. I relax. Then it occurs to me: I have fourteen mature lodgepole pines. Why is all this stuff falling in this one area? I’m a bit worried about one of my trees; is another one flaky?

Crack. That was a real hard one.

And then I saw movement, a legacy habit from my long-past hunting days. A branch moving, not as if by wind. Nope, a squirrel.

Thump.

“You little shits,” I said, and went back to my office.

I’m fond of them.

I want to call this author out, but I can’t quite

Last few days, I’ve been rereading a moderately successful SF series. I hadn’t revisited it for twenty years, since back before anyone paid me anything to write or edit. I won’t go so far as to say that I had no critical perspective back then, but years of doing this stuff professionally do alter that perspective. I am more perplexed now than before by the popular acceptance of bad writing.

Not that I ever sniff “well, clearly she should fire her editor.” We’ve been over that. In the first place, I do not know whether she had one. In the second, I do not know whether she heeded him or her. In the third, there are many different types of editing. The most I could ever say would be something like: “The book does not reflect competent copy editing.” That may be the the publisher’s fault, as in one spectacular screwup where the house printed and distributed an early draft by mistake. I am not joking. They really can be that stupid and haphazard.

No, the problem is greater: I have to live with these people, and with my words about them. That wake-up call came at an SF con. I have no idea what the panel’s subject was, but one of its participant authors rang a bell. I sat there trying to remember why. Something vaguely familiar here. And then it came to me–I’d read one of her books, and panned it on Amazon. Odds she would remember me, even if she happened to look at my name tag? Very low. Odds of me meeting her socially at all? Not so low. Odds of me feeling awkward? Bank on that. Yes, I would have stood by my words, but the issue is that I’m in the business too. In theory, at least, she was a potential client.

Now let’s consider the leap from a harsh Amazon review to this  blog. One might write many reviews on Amazon, or elsewhere, and have them lost in an ocean of snippy “obviously she didn’t have a good editor” junkfests. To dissect this author by name, in this space, would take it to the next level. That would single her out as an example of what not to do. She would probably learn of it, from a devoted fan or message board if not through her own searching. People being people, she would wonder who the hell I was, and what she had ever done to make such an enemy of me. She would remember my name, whether or not she were fool enough to reply here, and the memory would be unfriendly. It would not be that I said anything unfair, or that I didn’t mean. Her best rejoinder would be: there are tons of books out there with similar flaws, or more grievous ones. Why single me out? And while we’re at it, this is my work twenty years ago. You of all people ought to know that we evolve. Why pummel me today as if my older work represented my current standard? How would you like to be judged and strung up for writing you did during the first Clinton administration, hm?

She’d have a point or two, and such a reasoned reply would be the best case scenario. Authors can be sensitive. It could get awkward. Could she harm me professionally? Not really, but she could make sure I didn’t soon hear the end of it. What if I’m on a panel with her someday? Even if she did not notice, or did not bring it up, I know I’d be pretty uncomfortable. The issue would not be that I had been critical. It would be that I had made a vindictive-seeming, special, personal effort to hurt her. If I were here, I wouldn’t like that either.

So we’re not going to talk about how authors come up with motifs they evidently consider very clever, then hammer them so hard that each mention might as well come with “thissss…issss…significant” background music (props to my bro John for that joke, moderately edited and recycled). We’re not going into how “She felt…” are two of the worst words in narrative fiction. And we’re not going to say who is so guilty of contrivance that the story becomes predictable. And no, before some of you who know me personally begin to suspect, she is no one I have ever met in person. But I might.

And that’s why we won’t be citing examples. It’s also why I write rather few reviews on Amazon (along with not much wishing to donate free labor to the behemoth). If I don’t feel comfortable being objective and candid there, silence is best.

Blowing off Steam

For those who don’t know much about PC gaming, Steam is an online service that provides copy protection, game e-tailing, and probably does other stuff as well.

I wouldn’t know for sure. Way back when Valve was announcing a game called Half-Life 2, there came an announcement that one would also have to use a service called “Steam.” One would have to permit one’s computer to phone Steam to validate one’s non-piracy right to play the game; not just upon install, but all the time. I had loved the first Half-Life to the level of remembering specific moments in the story and how I’d handled them. I also am not prone to automatic acceptance of pretty much anything. Me being me, I took at look at that and said: “nah, ain’t doing that, don’t need a game that badly.”

Most people did not take this stance. Most people just accepted the concept, just as most people accepted debit cards and juice bag drinks. I did not just accept it. And over time, I have come to understand that it means the end of my buying new PC games. When my old ones will no longer work under new systems, I just won’t be a gamer any more.

It wasn’t about unwillingness to buy. I don’t mind paying for software. I do mind the idea of having to keep spyware running just to play a game. For my OS and applications, it’s one thing; I hate it (oh, trust me, how deeply I hate it), but the price there would be my livelihood (and yes, I realize they know that and that’s why M$ does it, and yes, be assure that I take time to take that as personally as possible). I can be forced into it for a word processor, though I’ll remember that they did that. I can’t be forced into it for a game.

Thus, no Steam for me.

It ripples outward. I kept taking PC Gamer for quite some time, and would have continued, but now they no longer list in reviews whether a game uses Steam copy protection. When last they did, most games seemed to use Steam, so I infer that Steam is now assumed and thus needless to state, like “requires monitor.” With that, PCG lost its relevance to my world, and it’ll join about ten other print mag subscriptions in the recycle bin.

It’s not the only area in which I’ve done such a thing. There is increasing social pressure to own a “smart” phone, a device I consider mostly loathsome and unusable, not even very good for the basic purpose of speaking to others. For example, if someone under 40 organizes a meeting nowadays and creates an event on Facebook, and at the appointed time the venue turns out to be closed, the organizer will not post a sign on the closed door. The organizer will update the Facebook event, taking on faith that everyone checks Facebook from his or her phone. If you don’t, you’re left out. I realize that this will see me left out of a certain number of social events.

Once, I might have minded. Now I simply ask myself what I am really missing. That’s not sour grapes, but experience. An event with a bunch of people with smartphones will probably lead to the barbarism of a bunch of people staring down at their groins, madly “checking in” and posting Instagraphs (whatever they are), and making sure the whole world knows their status. I wouldn’t be a good fit anyway. At a group gathering, if I don’t mute my cell phone, you know that either something very important is going on, or I forgot, or I have so little regard for the value of the gathering that it’s valid to ask why I’m even there.

At some point during such obstinacies, the original issue becomes less important than the obstinacies themselves. No, I won’t take a debit card, even if I could see rare applications for it. Why? Because by now, debit cards can go to hell for their own sakes; I’ve enjoyed boycotting them for at least twenty years, and I see no reason to abandon the fun.

I don’t have phone conversations with disembodied voices, either. I will press numbers, but I will not speak understandably. Companies and government need to continue to hire human beings to do business with other human beings, and I’m not going to make it easier for them to get rid of more human beings. Making it harder for me? Okay, we can play that game. I view human interaction as important, and worth some invested time in order to foster.

It might seem like I have a fundamental aversion to new ideas. I don’t. I just have a fundamental aversion to new ideas that are pressed or forced upon me, especially when it’s one that is mainly for the forcer or presser’s benefit. Please consider that clause carefully. That’s my complaint about Steam: it’s there so that it can send information from my machine. That does not benefit me. That benefits game companies, maybe, but I’m not here to benefit them; therefore I’m fine if they go to hell. Same with smartphones. To me they look like a tiny chiclet keyboard and unusable screen at data rates that bloat up faster than a dead steer in August. Seems like $500 to begin the suffering, then $100+ per month of ongoing suffering. Go to hell, not doing it. Automatic bill pay? Seriously? Let me get this straight. I’m to let them take money out of my account without even reviewing the validity of their charges? What if they make a major mistake? You’re saying I should trust the company to do the right thing and be honest? Yeah. I’ll get right on that. I think I’ll be the one making decisions about who gets paid with my money, thanks.

I don’t look down on anyone who chooses to accept situations that I have rejected. I do think more highly of anyone who stopped and thought before making that acceptance. Can’t live without gaming, and decided to kneel and accept Steam? At least you thought. At least you did not just kneel by reflex. That’s really all I advocate: accept it for a considered reason, not just because a corporation ordered you to do so.

In the end, there may be more isolating choices, and I’ll have to decide what’s worth it to me.

I know one that is not, and it is Steam.

Removing stickers, fossilized or not, from books

Different people love books in different ways.

My mother first immediately broke the spine of every paperback she read. That way, she said, she didn’t have to worry about that any more. To me, that’s sort of like becoming a heavy tobacco and alcohol user so that one won’t have to save for retirement, but they were her books. Long as she kept her Visigothic, mutilating ways off mine, we were fine.

Some people keep no books, giving them all away. Some keep a selection, for show or rereading. Some have gone over to e-readers. Most people, I think, do not much care how much wear and tear they put on books. I believe this because of the condition of the used books I buy: creased covers, dog-eared pages, cracked spines, and probably body fluid stains.

Many have bookstore price stickers or remnants thereof. In many cases, someone brutally clawed at the sticker without much luck, leaving lots of nice divots and grooves. Sometimes there are three labels, one atop one or more others. Sometimes they are on the spine, which creates delicate circumstances; without special care, peeling the label may rip off part of the spine. ‘Used’ labels from school bookstores are always on the spine, and it’s not strange for them to be fossilized. It’s not strange for any label to be fossilized. The gum eventually hardens.

It’s not that my soul is crushed by the damage to a thing (though I think it’s pretty shabby to abuse a book, in my heart of hearts). It’s that I like to maintain valuable things in good condition. Books are valuable things. And for that reason, I’m going to take any sticker on a book as a personal challenge. I have now developed an improved method for this. Considering the demographics of my readership, there is a reasonable chance some will find this interesting.

First, gather supplies and books. I would practice on beat-up used books. Supplies:

  • Books with labels or remnants thereof
  • Bottle of Googone
  • Paper towel
  • Q-tips
  • Scissors
  • Some form of protection for the work surface, if needed, like an old plastic placemat
  • Plastic bookmark, or some other plastic potential scraper suitable for gentle work
  • A little patience

Method:

  • Examine the first book for stickers. Locate all, including all remnants and gum residue.
  • Make at least one gentle effort to peel off each sticker without help. New stickers may well come off. Some will leave residue.
  • Rip off a paper towel just so it’s handy. Cut a piece of that the size of the label you want gone, or slightly bigger.
  • Set the piece over the label and drip the Googone onto it. The idea is that by having the piece in place, it doesn’t all run off–Googone is thin.
  • Repeat for any other labels on the same exposed side of the book. Drip a bit more Googone on the paper towel piece, now and then–it evaporates, and if the label is paper, keeping it soaked is how you get the solvent through the paper to loosen the gum.
  • It can take some time to soften up completely hardened gum. You can test with the plastic bookmark (works better than fingernails). Most labels loosen up after several minutes kept soaked with Googone. Once you loosen it, you can q-tip some more Googone onto the residual gum.
  • If the label is plastic, this is going to take a while. If it won’t peel safely, use just a little Googone all around the edges, and wait for the stuff to eat away at the gum until you can peel up one side a bit. Then q-tip a little more on, wait, peel, q-tip more, wait, peel, etc.
  • Eventually, all labels will come off. Baste the remaining residue with Googone, then use the rest of the paper towel for a vigorous rub of the whole surface. If some got on the pageblock, or there’s a stain, don’t worry; it’ll evaporate. Give it a day or so to do that. The book will not smell like that forever, but a week or so is not odd.
  • Enjoy the original color of the cover, because on a used book, the uncovered area will be darker than the faded remainder.
  • Take a moment to scoff at their feeble labels.

If you are concerned about safety, wear those thin kitchen gauntlets and eye protection. I’m not, but I’d never encourage anyone not to. Googone has a very strong orange smell and is a petroleum distillate, and can be persistent, so I try to do this somewhere that won’t be a problem. I do make a point of washing my hands very well afterward, and that can take some effort before my hands no longer smell like this stuff. If you are concerned, the company website has Safety Data Sheets in .pdf.

The company’s website also indicates that they have a spray gel, and that may yet be a better method. I’m so cheap that I probably won’t consider it until I’ve used up my current supply of the original. They’ve even got a package they bill as the sticker-lifter, so the Googone people know their customer. Haven’t tried that one either.

Now if only I can figure out a way to fix cracked spines.

It is nonsensical to expect shame from those who have none

Spanish has a beautiful word: sinvergüenza. It means “shameless,” but is culturally loaded. (Don’t make the mistake of thinking it changes by gender; it is a compound word, “sin vergüenza,” or ‘without shame’; thus as an adjective it retains the same form regardless of the noun it modifies, and if a noun, is the same whether describing a shameless man or woman.) To articulate it correctly, remember that the trema (two dots) over the U means to pronounce each vowel: seen-vair-hu-en-za.

In most Spanish-speaking cultures, one’s personal honor is an important thing, which may require actions or non-actions for the sake of preservation. A sinvergüenza is a person whom dishonor would not restrain, a person who has placed him or herself outside shared cultural values and ethics. It occurs to me that this useful word can help nice people to understand some of the assholes we deal with.

I began to think about this while reading a thread on my local Nextdoor. A salesperson or scammer came to lady’s door and knocked. While waiting for an answer, he muttered profanities. We know this because her video camera recorded him in full glory. Several responded to say they had seen him, or that he had come to their doors and behaved with anger and rudeness. Everyone was surprised and outraged.

My theory as to why they were surprised: they had ignored the most obvious clue. The guy was sinvergüenza. How did we know this? Because he was knocking on doors, even those with NO SOLICITING signs, intruding on people’s private property in order to bother them. It’s the same mentality that sends spam, or makes scam phone calls. All those who do these things, which a decent human being would be ashamed to do, are lacking in shame. If one is impervious to shame, a key moral restraint is not in place, and thus all behaviors are permissible (in that person’s mind) and all other persons are required and expected to tolerate them. If other persons do not tolerate the bad behaviors, those said other persons are intolerant, mean, wrong, bad. It all comes back to the statement of policy: “I may be an asshole, and you may not object. If you do, of course, I single you out for extended assholery.”

I recall one time back in Kennewick, I happened to see a guy snooping around our vehicles in our driveway. I went outside with the sjambok (not brandishing it) and asked him just what the hell he was up to. He was handing out flyers for a hypermiler event sponsored by a Toyota dealership in Yakima. He then proceeded to evangelize me on hypermiling. I told him frankly that he was being creepy and had better get the hell out of there. The verbal altercation deteriorated to the point where I had to advance with the sjambok. I laughed when he talked about ‘threatening me with that stick.’ (He’s lucky he didn’t turn around and put me in a situation where I worried for my safety. That thing feels like boiling water hosed onto the skin.) Here’s the point: to him, it was perfectly fine to pull into my driveway, start snooping around one of our cars unannounced, then behave as an asshole when told to stop. A normal person would be embarrassed to behave this way.

We see it in email spam. A friend of mine wrote, this very day, about an email exchange with a marketer. After his third email, she told him her firm wasn’t interested, and to stop mailing her. His response was that she could have said so the first time. Point being: to him, as a shameless person, sending repeated emails was just fine. Thus, it was her fault she got them, because she did not opt out. Every couple weeks or so, I find myself on some unwanted mailing list. If it persists, I reply telling them to remove me. They often tell me to use their unsubscribe link. See what they did there? They intruded upon me unasked for. If I wish it to stop, I am expected to do work. Asking them to do work to correct their own wrong work, that makes me a very mean person, and unkind. They assume that their initial contact was perfectly legitimate, and it was not.

The area where this is most punishable is U.S. Junk Mail, because most days someone sends a business reply envelope that gets to hold all the day’s junk. It’s still wrong, because I’m still asked to dispose of it in some way, but at least I can dispose of it by sending it to a junk mailer for disposal.

I realize that most of you are fundamentally nice, decent people. You get surprised when bad things happen, because you do not do such bad things, and you wonder how anyone could. Thank you for being as you are; you are appreciated. I’m here to help you. And it’s simple:

THEY ARE SINVERGÜENZA. They have no shame.

They don’t play by nor care for your rules of courteous conduct. Because you impose those rules upon yourself in dealing with the shameless for longer than they deserve, they bother you longer and behave more rudely to you when you voice objection. They may go away when threatened, but they will not act as you would. If you had done what they did, you would walk away wondering what had become of you. They will not do this. They are already on to the next mark. Nothing you said hurt them or caused them to reconsider their actions. They are not like you. They lack shame.

You did not have to allow this. If you were to realize that a sinvergüenza action is the marker of a shameless person, you would not make nice with him. You would respond in the beginning as if this person were unworthy of courtesy. In most cases that might mean not answering the door; it might mean toying with telemarketers; it could mean refusing to answer nosey questions; etc. But you already have the person’s personality marker.

Because only a shameless person does in such a way.

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