Saturday, January 26, 2013


How cool -- one of my articles inspired students in Singapore to learn more about their native biodiversity!

Hantu Blog @ Tanjong Katong Girls School | Pulau Hantu

Saturday, January 12, 2013

My gun control wish list

I didn't grow up around guns. My parents never had guns in the house, and I'm pretty sure that the only gun in either of my grandparents' houses was an ancient, dust-covered hunting rifle.

I did go shooting once or twice as a kid -- boy, did I suck -- but the defining gun-related moments of my life came in college. The first came in 1987 when I met Jim Brady, who later founded the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The second was in 1990 when a friend of mine survived a shooting that killed his step-father.

I have been around guns a bit since then -- heck, I live in Maine, where seemingly everyone hunts -- but I don't much care for them, the violence they inspire or the culture wrapped up around them. I think it's well past time that we rolled back the use of guns here in the U.S.
Along those lines -- and with the Newtown shootings and Mark Kelly's and Gabby Giffords' announcement about their new group Americans for Responsible Solutions close in our minds -- here are my thoughts on how we should move forward with gun laws in this country.

  1. Create one set of federal gun laws, not a hodgepodge of varying federal and state laws that make no sense in the context of the United States of America.
  2. Create a functional, nationwide system of background checks and licenses for gun owners, who will need to renew their licenses annually after proving that they meet various physical criteria (vision, etc.), mental criteria (no history of mental illness), knowledge of safety issues, and legal criteria (no criminal record, no owed taxes, no overdue child support, etc.).
  3. Create a functional, nationwide system of gun ownership records. As with cars, guns should be re-registered and taxed annually.
  4. Create a functional, nationwide system for tracking stolen guns.
  5. Close the "gun show loophole" and require all private sales of guns by made by licensed gun dealers. People who want to get rid of them guns should only be able to sell them back to licensed dealers. No more person-to-person gun sales (or other transfers other than through inheritance) should be allowed. 
  6. Ban all private ownership of automatic and semi-automatic weapons. For the first few years of this transition, let owners turn in their weapons with no punishment. After that, start increasing punishments. After 10 years, ownership of these weapons should be punishable by 10 years in prison.
  7. Ban both high-capacity clips and so-called "devastator" bullets, which are intended for warfare only.
  8. Tax the sale of bullets 100%. Put the money toward buying bullet-proof vests for cops.
  9. Ban environmentally toxic lead bullets. We got the lead out of almost everything else, so let's do it for bullets, too.
  10. Lift all "stand your ground" laws.
  11. Place limits on bulk ownership of firearms and ammunition. One gun per hand ought to do it, with a possible exception for legitimate collectors.
  12. No guns in the workplace, at schools, in churches or government buildings. 
  13. Restrict concealed carry permits to people who have displayed a documented and certifiable commitment to safety and responsible gun ownership.
  14. Create a responsible system for all other carry laws, where weapons must be fitted with trigger locks while they are are in transit.
I know a lot of people won't like my suggestions. Whatever. I think this is the direction the country is moving and I hope to see us take a few steps closer toward it every year.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Jersey music memories (WHTG edition)

Matt Pinfield's appearance last night on Portlandia brought back memories of the old WHTG, 106.3, perhaps the greatest alternative music radio station of all time.

Man, did I love 106.3 back in the early 1990s, when I lived in central New Jersey. It was the only station on my radio dial for years. They aired what would probably be referred to as "free-form" alternative rock -- whatever the DJs felt like playing, they played. You never knew what was coming next, and all of it was good. My musical tastes still skew back to what I heard in those glory days.

Pinfield was just one of the DJs at WHTG (this was before he moved to MTV, of course). I'm sure if I dug around I could find and remember many of the other DJ names, but I loved 'em all, even the ones that sounded like amateurs, which many of them were. Heck, I almost got a chance to spin there. I applied for a job in 1991 and the managers said yes, but the salary was so low it would have been like paying them for the right to work there.

Alas, WHTG is no more. They changed ownership and formats around the same time I moved further north, out of their broadcast range, playing more hits and less alternative music. Their format has shifted a few more times since then, and now they are apparently known as "Thunder 106" and play only country music. What a loss.

Portlandia always starts with their theme song "The Dream of the Nineties is Alive in Portland." For me, that dream includes the music I heard on WHTG. Maybe I'll hear it again one day.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Hints about the books I may be writing in 2013

I have quite a few books in mind that need to come out of my head and onto my keyboard in 2013, and then make their ways to your eyeballs at some point after that. I don't want to give anything away, but here are a few hints about the books bouncing around in my brain right now:

  1. A nonfiction graphic novel (for lack of a better term) very closely tied in to one of the subjects for which I am best known as a journalist.
  2. A book-length instruction guide for people to interested in taking action in another area for which I am well known. 
  3. A slightly risque (depending on your viewpoint) illustrated humor book, somewhat akin to (but at the same time nothing like) the fantastic All My Friends Are Dead and its sequel. 
  4. A creative nonfiction kids' book that an award-winning author and I started writing last year but had to set aside while other deadlines loomed.
  5. A second kid's book, this time fiction, for which I have written -- and illustrated -- the first page. (Now I just need to figure out where it goes from there.)
  6. An incredibly short and weird graphic novel. (I've already written the first and second drafts of this one, but I need to tweak a few pages in the middle before I'm comfortable taking it to the next step.)
  7. I'm not sure yet, but I think the seed of a new idea is about to sprout. I know it's there, but I can't quite see it yet. The anticipation is killing me!
Will it be a busy year for me? I sure think so -- but I wouldn't have it any other way!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The books I read in 2012 (and some backstory from 1982)

My grandparents never threw anything useful away. My grandfather worked in a machine shop and my grandmother was a school librarian. Their home was always full of great stuff that still had a potential purpose. What I remember most about this was that there was always plenty of paper for us grandkids to draw or write on whenever we came for a visit. A great deal of that paper came from leftover journals or ledger books, and one item in particular has been in my life since 1982.

That was the year my grandmother gave me an old library binder full of pages that were designed to log in books acquired by the library. I -- a geeky kid if there ever was one -- started using it to keep track of every book that I read.

Here's a picture of that wonderful journal (a bit worse for wear, but not too bad for something I have owned and used for more than 30 years and transported from one home to another at least a half-dozen times):

And here are the first few entries from 1982. (As you can see, this was during my science fiction phase.)

(I should scan all of these pages one of these days -- some of the ink is starting to fade with time -- but they're much bigger than my current scanner, so that will have to wait.)

Anyway, a few years ago, I transitioned from this hand-written journal to using Goodreads, a great website (I'm sure many of you already use it) that lets you log in, rate and review any books you read and/or own. I still refer to the journal fairly often -- most recently to figure out which Max Allan Collins and Joe R. Lansdale novels I have read in the 1990s and which ones I still need to read -- but for the most part, Goodreads has now taken its place.

Yes, that's sad, but the good news is that both Goodreads and the old ledger have a big role in my life and are pretty tightly linked to my reading life, which remains as important me as ever.

Looking at Goodreads this New Year's morning, I find that read an amazing 115 books in 2012. That's way, way, way above the number of books I have read over the last few years and much closer to the number of books I was reading in the 1980s, when I often approached 100 books a year.

(I think you can see all of the books I read here. I'm not positive that Goodreads will share it with you if you're not my friend there, but give it a shot.)

I credit a few things with this massive increase in books. First, we moved in 2011 to a bigger, brighter house where it's just physically easier to read. Second, I read a lot of graphic novels, which are shorter and can usually be read in one or two sittings. Third, I read most of the physical books I acquired this year as soon as they came into the house, rather than letting them sit around for years like I used to. Fourth, my Kindle -- which I bought shortly after we moved here -- made reading novels a hell of a lot easier. The vast majority of my physical books are still in boxes after several moves and a lack of space to display them. Even though I still own hundreds of physical books that I haven't read, sorting through those boxes to find any of them is next to impossible. With the Kindle, I can quickly find the next book I want to read and dive in.

Oh yeah, and fifth, we live kind of in the middle of nowhere and we never go anywhere, so that leaves plenty of time to read. And sixth, I just flat out made more time to read in 2012. Go figure.

So what were my favorite books of 2012? Here are a few I would highly recommend:
  • Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert
  • Simon's Cat: Beyond the Fence by Simon Tofield
  • My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
  • Stolen Away by Max Allan Collins
  • The Hot Rock by Donald E. Westlake
  • Horrors! Cults, Crimes and Creepers by Stephen R. Bissette
  • The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli
  • Here Comes Trouble by Michael Moore
  • Snarked (volumes 1 and 2) by Roger Langridge
  • Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives by Thomas French
  • All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky by Joe R. Lansdale
  • Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand
  • Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
That's a pretty good list. I could go on, but 14 is enough.

I don't know what 2013 will bring, but I'm sure that my future holds more than a few books, for which I am eternally grateful.