The Lucifer Effect effect

Eve loves to read to me. It’s one of the love languages we share, and it’s been a part of our relationship for years. We’ve read fiction (like Use of Weapons) and non-fiction (like Parasite Rex) together.

The Lucifer Effect is a book by Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who designed the now-infamous Stanford prison experiment. The Stanford prison experiment was an attempt to understand the dynamics of deindividuation in prison environments. Zimbardo hypothesized that prisoners lose their sense of individual identity in institutional settings. The experiment, which had been focused on prisoners, ended up showing that prison guards become abusive not because they are evil or abusers, but because the psychological environment of prison creates enormous pressure for otherwise normal people to become abusive and sadistic. The experiment recruited a group of college students to role-play prisoners or guards in a false prison. Within days, the students assigned to guard roles became so violent, abusive, and sadistic, and tortured the students playing the role of prisoners so severely, that the experiment was discontinued.

And the book has turned into a rough ride for me.

Reading the book, which goes into great detail about the physical and psychological abuse inflicted on the “prisoners” by the “guards,” has been surprisingly difficult. When Eve reads this book to me, I find my blood pressure shooting up, I end up angry and irritable, and I have trouble sleeping.


This is Venango Elementary School, in Venango, Nebraska, the tiny town where I grew up.

It’s more fair to say this was Venango Elementary School. It closed for lack of students decades ago. Venango had 242 people living in it when I was there; at the last census, the population had fallen to 167, none of whom are children. The grounds are still maintained by a retired gentleman who’s lived in Venango most of his life, but nobody’s had a class here in a very long time.

When I was in middle school, I was socially isolated and alienated. I was the only kid in town who didn’t follow football, and the only one who owned a computer. I had no friends, and spent my time building model rockets or dialing computer bulletin boards from my TRS-80.

Needless to say, I was bullied extensively during my career in middle school. The two worst offenders were the two Mikes, Mike A. and Mike C. They were both a couple of years older than I was and quite a lot bigger, and they were inseparable. One of them—I think it was Mike C., though time may have garbled that detail—was fond of coming to school in a T-shirt with iron-on letters on it that spelled out “It’s nice to be injected but I’d rather be blown.” (It’s about cars, geddit? Geddit?)

The particulars of the abuse I suffered at their hands is as predictable as it is tedious, so I won’t bother cataloging them. The official response from teachers and faculty was also tediously predictable; they were aware of the abuse but not particularly motivated to intervene.

I went into high school shy and with few social skills. Then, about the time I was midway through my senior year, I changed.

I had always believed that the reason I was bullied was the reasons bullies gave for bullying me: I wore glasses; I didn’t like football; I liked computers. It took a very long time for me to learn that the content of bullying is completely separate from bullying. That is, bullies bully because they are bullies. If I didn’t wear glasses, if I didn’t like computers, if I did like football, they would still have bullied me, they just would have bullied me about different things.

But that wasn’t the life-changing revelation. In fact, it didn’t come until after the life-changing revelation.

The life-changing revelation was that bullies bully people who don’t fight back. If you want to end bullying, you walk up to the biggest, meanest bully of the bunch, reach back, and punch him square in the face. When bullies realize you bite back, they look for easier prey.

So I went into college with a whole new attitude about violence, one that a lot of folks who know me now find difficult to believe. I was, for a while, quite willing to resort to casual violence in the service of self-protection. I got into fistfights often, and learned yet another lesson: victory does not go to the biggest or the strongest person in the fight. Victory, nine times out of ten, goes to the person who escalates fastest, the one willing to do what the other person is not. I could get in a fight with opponents far larger and stronger than I was, and I almost always came out on top, because I escalated swiftly and aggressively.


I am not the person I used to be. Or, more accurately, I am not the people I used to be. I’m not the shy, friendless, unsocialized bullying victim I was in Venango. I’m also not the aggressive, in-your-face, ready-for-a-fight guy with a hair trigger I was in college. In fact, most of the time it’s hard for me to connect with either of those mindsets any more.

But man, this book.

This book does not mince detail. It describes, directly and even clinically, the abuses suffered by the “prisoners” on behalf of the “guards,” abuses that range from verbal bullying to refusing to allow the prisoners to use the bathroom and forcing them to urinate and defecate in their rooms.

When Eve reads this book to me, I’m transported back to the person I was in college. I can feel my body amping up—I can feel the adrenaline, the shaking, the hair trigger coiled up inside me ready to explode that I used to feel back in my college days whenever someone would start harassing me. And I mean that literally; my hands will shake while she’s reading.

I can identify with the group of students who were made into prisoners. I can understand what they’re experiencing. And I believe that if I had been chosen to participate in an experiment like the SPE and had been assigned to the role of prisoner, there is a very strong likelihood I would have injured or killed one of the “guards,” or been injured or killed myself in the attempt.

It’s been rough, this book. It’s brought me viscerally back to a time and place that I haven’t been in for more than half my life now. We’ve had to switch from reading it in the evening before bed to reading it in the afternoon, because when we read it at night, I can’t sleep.

The book is an excellent deep dive into the underworld of institutional evil (and it’s astonishing how closely the casual abuse that happened in the faux prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building mirrored the abuses in the real world at Abu Ghraib, and for exactly the same reasons). It’s a book I think everyone needs to read, now more than ever, and I’m glad we’re reading it.

But man, it’s turned into a painful slog.

Never do this: How self-published erotica authors harm their sales

A while ago, I wrote about a new project I’ve launched, an uncensored erotica search tool for Amazon. Briefly, a couple years back Amazon started removing listings for some self-published erotica from the search results on their Web site, especially for non-traditional erotica that deals with subjects like BDSM. I discovered they do not, however, censor search results made using their API, so I built a tool that uses the Amazon API to do searches.

The site I built also keeps a database of Amazon erotica, all neatly arranged by category, so that visitors can either search Amazon directly or browse erotica by category.

That’s when I discovered a problem.

A lot of books listed in the database, probably about 15% of them, go to 404 pages on Amazon when you try to follow the link.

“Huh,” I thought, “that’s weird.” The books are still there, but the links don’t work.

I looked further and discovered the ASIN—the Amazon Standard Identification Number that Amazon assigns to all Kindle books—had changed in the links that were broken. An Amazon link goes to a specific ASIN, so if a book’s ASIN changes, the old link breaks and the book lives at a new link on Amazon.

Needless to say, this is bad. If you are an author and your book’s ASIN changes, every link that anyone has ever posted to your book on Amazon breaks.

This happened to Thorntree Press books when we moved to a new distributor. Our new distributor removed all the old listings for our books from Amazon and re-listed them, causing them to live at new ASINs and breaking the old links.

I looked closer at one of the broken links and discovered something interesting. The book was still on Amazon, but with a new listing date. The new listing date was after the date the book had been added to Red Lit Search:

If you have self-published a book on Amazon and you wish to make changes to the book, you can upload a new file in your KDP Dashboard and you will not change your ASIN.

It is very important to make changes to your self-published book this way.

It seems that a lot of self-published authors will make changes to their books by deleting the old listing and re-creating a new listing with the changed file. Do not do this. You will break every existing link to your book, which will hurt your sales.

Instead, you can use the KDP Dashboard to edit your book and upload a new content file without breaking existing links. To do this:

1. Log on to your KDP Select Dashboard.

2. Find your book. There is a button labeled “…” to the right of your book’s listing. Click it and choose Edit Details from the popup menu. It looks like this:

3. In the book’s Details page, scroll down to the Upload Your Book File section. Click the Browse button and upload the new contents for your book.

Your ASIN is how the world locates your book. On Amazon’s site, your book’s listing is attached to the ASIN. If your ASIN changes, this will break any links to your book; and if your book is self-published erotica, there is a chance that it will not turn up in searches on Amazon’s Web site, now or in the future. That means that links to your book are the only way people will find it.

If you self-publish on Amazon, it is very important to do everything in your power to keep your book’s ASIN from changing. I can not stress this enough! Do not make changes to your book by de-listing and re-listing it. This will make your book harder to find.

Happy birthday to…you all!

Today is my birthday! Unfortunately, I’m spending it at home in front of my computer rather than out celebrating, because I’m in the middle of a very nasty allergy attack and I feel miserable.

However, I’d like someone to have a good time, and it might as well be you. So, in honor fo my birthday, I’ve created a coupon to let people download my BDSM novel Nineteen Weeks from Smashwords for a discount!

Nineteen Weeks is a story that takes the tropes of a conventional bodice-ripper romance and turns them all on their head. It follows Amy, a housewife to a successful lawyer, who discovers him cheating on her and decides to turn the tables by taking control of her husband…and his mistress. And it’s been getting a bunch of lovely five-star reviews on Amazon.

Anyway, for the next month, you can download it at a discount by using coupon code VE87E. Enjoy! And if you like it, please consider leaving a review on Goodreads or Amazon!

Threesomes and intrigue and kink, oh my!

As some of you may know, Gentle Readers, among all the other things I do, I write porn. Well, erotica, I guess. I’ve never been entirely clear on the distinction. Sex stuff. I write sex stuff. Novels about people having kinky sex.

Long novels about people having kinky sex.

These novels are published under a pseudonym, and I’ve just released a new one. It’s called Nineteen Weeks.

The premise of Nineteen Weeks is straightforward: Amy, a suburban housewife married to a successful man, discovers that her husband is having an affair. But after she catches him red-handed with his mistress, she decides to deal with his infidelity in an unusual way; since her husband and his mistress had been sleeping with each other behind her back for nineteen weeks, she demands that they give her back that time, and pledge themselves to her to do anything she asks for nineteen weeks.

I deliberately tried, in this book, to take every one of the tropes of a conventional romance and flip them all on their heads. The powerful man takes control of the shy and inexperienced woman? Nope. The torrid affair ends with them settling down? Not quite. The–well, you’ll have to read it and see.

Plus it might be the only porn novel that quotes Ovid.

Anyway, check it out! You can find it here. If you despise the romance genre and you like kinky sex, this book might be exactly what scratches your itch.

Now through the end of September, you can get it for $2.00 off using the coupon code XQ68N. And patrons who support me on Patreon get a coupon code to download it free!

eBook Design Illuminated

A short time ago, I was hired by Talk Science To Me to do the eBook version of Tantra Illuminated, a very lengthy academic work on the history of Tantrick religious traditions in India.

The book was large and beautifully designed, with a great deal of content from original Sanskrit sources. The design used a number of different, complex elements, including copious margin notes.

I’m in the process of blogging about the complexities of eBook design with non-English alphabets and complex layouts. Part 1 of the series is up on the Talk Science To Me blog. Here’s a teaser:

The project turned out to be far more daunting than I’d imagined, even knowing from the outset that it would likely be more complex than it first appeared. I could easily write a book on the various technical, layout and rendering challenges I encountered creating this e-book (in fact, that might be a good future project!), but we’ll just look at a few of the interesting potholes we encountered on the road to creating the e-book.

A tale of two diacritics

The text in Tantra Illuminated contains significant lengths of transliterated Sanskrit. Sanskrit uses a non-Latin alphabet for which a standard transliteration system called the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) exists. This is the system employed by the transliterations in Tantra Illuminated.
The IAST relies heavily on Latin characters with diacritic marks. Most of these marks are supported by the majority of e-book readers, so I didn’t anticipate difficulty with the transliterations.

I was wrong.

You can comment here or over there.

Staring Into the Abyss and Blinking: Why I’m Not Watching Dr. Who

I was sold a bill of goods.

We all were, really. It was a bill of goods we’d been promised for years, with the reboot of the popular BBC TV show Dr. Who.

I loved Dr. Who as a kid. I had a secondhand television set in my bedroom when we lived in rural Nebraska. We didn’t have cable, and we were way out in the middle of nowhere, so we only got two stations: PBS and something I don’t remember (because if you have PBS, what else do you need?). I’d watch Tom Baker romp around the universe with his sidekick Louise Jameson (my second celebrity crush) in cheesy low-budget glory.

The new Dr. Who promised to be something darker, something more complex, something less campy and more menacing. And, for a time, it delivered.

Oh, sure, it had problems. Russell T. Davies’ epic misogyny was tiresome and sad, like that one relative who overstays his welcome at every family get-together, the loser who drinks too much and starts rambling about how in his day, women didn’t run for political office before he ends up passed out on the table with all the leftovers scattered around him and his head in the plate of mashed potatoes.

Eventually, the show realized it was actually Mr. Davies’ bigotry that looked tired, and Steven Moffatt took over the reins. His sexism is still there, to be sure, though it’s a more covert sexism, a sexism that sees female characters as “strong” provided they don’t, you know, talk too much or stray from gender roles. But that, perhaps, is a topic for another essay.

Ah, Steven Moffat. The man who blinks at the edge of the Abyss. The man who promises but can’t deliver.


The Promise

When you think of the new Dr. Who, what comes to mind? The character of the Doctor has been re-imagined in a much darker way than the original. This is not the Tom Baker Doctor; this is a doctor much more complex, much less cartooney. This is the Doctor who is always running–but not necessarily from Daleks or Cybermen as much as from himself. This is the Oncoming Storm, the Doctor capable of atrocity, the Doctor who disowned his own name after he destroyed his entire species. This is the Doctor driven by remorse, grief, and a vast, aching ocean of loneliness. This is a Doctor at war with himself.

That’s what the new series offered, and, for the first several years, delivered. In the re-imagined Dr. Who, we were introduced to a character made up of equal parts whimsey and rage, hope and regret. This was a Doctor of contradiction, a Doctor capable on the one hand of rejoicing “Just this once, everybody lives!” and on the other of inflicting infinite punishment on those who anger him. “He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing, the fury of the Time Lord… And then we discovered why.” This is a Doctor capable of acts of almost inconceivable fury. This is a Doctor who, while deriding genocide, is altogether comfortable with it.

Where did this psychological complexity come from? According to Steven Moffat, from his own past, from his own decision some countless number of centuries ago to destroy his own kind and the Daleks in order to prevent their war from swallowing up everyone else. He looked into the Abyss, and he chose atrocity. He made the choice, consciously and with awareness of the outcome, to commit genocide. Living with the consequence of that choice has defined his character since.

This is the grownup Doctor, the Doctor for adults. The Destroyer of Worlds, the Oncoming Storm, the Bringer of Darkness, with a goofy grin and a Fez and an irrepressible sense of optimism that flies in the face of everything he’s seen. This is the new Doctor.

Or so we were told.


The problem

Many heroes have darkness in their pasts. It’s a rather pedestrian storytelling technique. The most simplistic versions of it, repeated in nearly every comic book since the dawn of time, involves a traumatic event inflicted on the protagonist by an outside party, which becomes the protagonist’s reason to become a hero. Spider-Man and Bruce Wayne had people close to them murdered by bad guys. It’s a cheap trick, a quick way to jump-start a hero without having to work too hard.

Sometimes, storytellers will go a more ambitious route, and make the Dark Tragedy that compels the protagonist forward an atrocity of the character’s own making. This is the strategy employed in my all-time favorite novel, Use of Weapons. When it succeeds, it succeeds well.

It’s a difficult thing to do, though. Presenting a character the audience is expected to see as sympathetic and to be able to identify with, and who is also capable of acts of atrocity the audience finds repugnant, requires considerable finesse in the craft of storytelling.

There’s a problem that one faces, when one is a storyteller dealing with a protagonist who, we are told, is capable of atrocity. At some point, we, the audience, must see the atrocity, or else it becomes a gimmick. If we are told the protagonist is capable of this repugnant thing, but we are never shown it, it’s simply another cheap trick, too easily ignored. Eventually, the TV show was going to have to come to a point where we, the audience, would have to be taken to the abyss. We were going to have to see the act, if we were to continue to take it seriously.

That moment came in a Dr. Who show called The Day of the Doctor, and Steven Moffat almost–almost–pulled it off.

The Day of the Doctor could have been one of the best hours of television filmed in a long time. Instead, it made me utterly abandon any interest in continuing to watch the show, and totally undermined any confidence I have in Moffat’s ability to tell a story.

It should have worked. It really should have. I mean, for Chrissakes, they got John Hurt to play the zeroth Doctor, the Doctor whose act of atrocity laid the groundwork for everything that came after.

The Blink

Dr. Who has always been a corny show, with the degree of corniness waxing and waning as different writers tried their hand at the character. (The Titanic ramming through the TARDIS walls in one particularly atrocious and best-forgotten episode, for instance, will not exactly ring down through the ages as television’s highest moment of artistic achievement.) There is, naturally, a bit of corniness in The Day of the Doctor,, and the episodes leading up to it. That’s to be expected. It’s the characters and not the situations that matter most, right?

So we are introduced to the War Doctor, the Doctor before he renounced his name, the Doctor who was the person all the other Doctors would spend their lives running away from, the Doctor who made an unthinkable choice for which he and all his future incarnations would be driven by remorse. We saw, by the device of time-travel and simultaneous presence, the revulsion and contempt his future selves hold for him. We saw, starkly, the Doctor’s self-loathing put on display. We, the audience, were walked through the events that led to this unthinkable choice, the anguish, the despair, the cold moral calculus that justified it and the emotional response to what it implied. We saw all that.

And then, we saw those future Doctors, the ones who had spent centuries running from that choice, the ones who held the man who made them in such contempt, join him at that hour. Wait, the later versions said. You were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right. But this time, you don’t have to do it alone. The past Doctor and the future Doctors, reaffirming that this act was the right–the only–thing to do.

This was a gutsy, brilliant piece of storytelling. This was the storyteller leading us to the edge of the Abyss and saying, see, this character you love, he is capable of atrocity, and he would do it again. This was the Doctor saying, all these centuries I have lived with this guilt and this remorse and this shame and this self-loathing, and I would do it again. From here, from the vantage point of all these centuries, with all that has happened, it was still the right thing to do. This was the twin irreconcilable pillars of the character’s psychology, the essential paradox of his makeup, the Doctor’s compassion and the Doctor’s capacity for genocide, reconciled. This, maybe, was the beginning of the Doctor’s coming to terms with himself, the path away from self-loathing and grief.

And Moffat blinked.

But he’s the Doctor! Everybody loves the Doctor! He wears a fez! He’s nice to puppies! He helps little old ladies cross the street! We can’t show the Doctor doing this!

And so, in a ridiculous last-minute deus ex bigger-on-the-inside-machina, he blinked. No, we won’t make him do this! We will paint ourselves out of the corner we’ve painted ourselves into because…the TARDIS is magic! Alternate dimensions! But we won’t actually change the Doctor’s character because…because, um…time loop! Memories! He’ll still believe he did this terrible thing even though he didn’t! Nobody actually has to make hard choices, not for real! Retcon! Retcon!


I can forgive a lot of things.

I can forgive uneven writing. I can forgive lapses in continuity (“Even a Time Lord’s body can be dangerous, so we have to burn it…no, wait, Time Lords don’t leave behind bodies when they die, they leave a special effect instead!”) I can pretend that episode about the Titanic didn’t happen.

But I can’t forgive cowardice.

What happened in The Day of the Doctor was cowardice. It was a storyteller making a promise he didn’t have the guts to deliver on. It was not crediting us, the audience, enough to believe that we could take you seriously about the genocide thing and still want to keep traveling with this character. It was the easy way out–I promised you this…oh, no, only kidding! The Doctor would not really do that. Not for serious.

I can’t forgive cowardice, and the television show no longer interests me in the slightest. I simply don’t care enough to follow it any more.

We were sold a bill of goods. The box is empty. The Emperor has no clothes. Steven Moffat can keep his robotic bad guys with their plunger arms and little flashy lights. I want stories that aren’t afraid to go where they promise. Now, where’s that Culture book?

Some thoughts on modern-day literature

There will come a time
This life you live
Will catch up with you
And no one will be left
When honesty is blind
In ignorance exist the fallen.
We’re begging for the truth

I just returned from a trip to Chicago to visit dayo. The flight’s a little over two hours, plus ancillary waiting-about at the airport after passing through the absurd farce we laughingly call “security,” so I brought a book along with me.

I had quite a lot to choose from. I’ve recently received rather a large pile of books from Amazon, as a result of the not inconsiderable credit I’d built up with them over the past year.

The book I chose is one of the best pieces of literature I’ve read in a very long time. It follows, in a non-linear fashion, the story of a man–a soldier, and a veteran of several wars–who is running from something in his past. The narrative peels back the story of his life, through flashbacks and memories told so deftly that they make Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury seem positively clumsy and hamfisted by comparison; the main character is illuminated in stages, bit by bit, with a sympathy and a narrative skill that makes every part of the book a delight to read.

The book is Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks, and there’s a reason it has not won a Pulitzer Prize. At the very least.

It’s not a very good reason, mind. But there is a reason, and that reason is quite simple: The story is science fiction.

Had it been set in any other genre, in any other setting, the book would be taught in college literature classes all over the country. Oprah would be discussing it on TV, and comparative lit classes would probably be putting the story alongside Tales of the South Pacific and March.

Had it been set in any other genre.

Night comes and the shadows fall
The lights appear
Across the city
I wonder where you are
The words you say are false
There is no compromise
No absolution.

The main character travels in a spaceship instead of a steamship; the battles in which he engages take place on distant planets, not distant continents. Because of that, the story is relatively unknown. And frankly, I think that’s a damn shame. It’s rare that so dark a journey into a character’s mind can be pulled off with such a light touch, and the author’s treatment of the main character is simultaneously sympathetic and unflinching–a neat trick, considering the book’s subject and the character’s history.

I think it’s interesting that even in this day and age we still make broad assumptions about classes of literary works. “This is Serious Literature; that over there is Science Fiction. Serious Literature is real literature; Science Fiction is mindless fluff for overgrown geeks who still play Dungeons & Dragons in their mothers’ basements.

It’s quite rare that a contemporary book can bridge the divide. William Gibson’s Neuromancer is one of the relatively few works of science fiction to be treated as Serious Literature; older works, like those of Jules Verne, occasionally get a nodding respect out of deference to their age, though rarely the respect they deserve. Spaceships and planets, it seems, aren’t thought of as appropriate settings for serious explorations of the human condition.

Which is odd, given that science fiction is arguably the most forward-looking exploration of a species that has over the past hundred thousand years carved its place in the universe by virtue of its ceaseless forward progression in its understanding of the physical universe.

To some extent, I suppose, it’s inevitable–much of science fiction tends to obsess over the nuts and bolts of technological ideas that don’t exist yet. Popular science fiction gives us the sterile banality of Star Trek, or the facile, juvenile universe of Star Wars, without depth or any apparent understanding of what it means to be human.

But pop literature of any sort can be argued to have that same flaw. It’s not like The Da Vinci Code exactly shines a spotlight on the nature of man, or The Bourne Identity plumbs the furthest recesses of the human spirit. Yet nobody would automatically place these works into a mental bin marked “Serious Literature Not Found Here.”

And that’s rather annoying, y’know?

Anyway, it’s a damn fine book, and one I recommend without reservation. Even to folks who think they prefer Serious Literature to Science Fiction.