Some thoughts on being fifty

Three days ago, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday.

Well, perhaps “celebrated” is too strong a statement. I was in the middle of an allergy attack that made me miserable, so I spent it faffing about on the computer rather than engaging in the kind of orgiastic bacchanal that one might expect from an Internet sex gargoyle.

In any event, in between faffings on the Internet, I spent some time musing about what an absolutely bizarre trip it’s been, and some time cleaning in my writer’s loft. These two things are related, as it turns out, because in the process of cleaning I came upon some old photographs.

I started the journey through life in New Jersey. Before I was a year old, I realized that living in New Jersey was a bit rubbish, so I moved to Idaho, taking my entire family with me. My parents drove a Volkswagen Bug, something which apparently left quite an impression. What can I say? I was struck by the elegant simplicity and robustness of the design.

We stayed in Idaho long enough for me to pick up a sister, then bounced around the Great Midwest for a while, where I picked up the hobby of model rocketry. There is, it seems only one battered and scuffed Polaroid photo exists from this particular time in my life–peculiar, when one considers that model rocketry was pretty much the greatest thing in my life for quite a long time.

And yes, that’s a plastic model of a Romulan bird of prey from the original Star Trek on my desk. Don’t judge me.

I had a computer back then as well, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1 that was a Christmas gift from my aunt in 1977. That thing might have saved my sanity. I didn’t have any friends while I was growing up in Venango, Nebraska, but who needs friends when you have a computer and a bunch of rockets?

Radio Shack published the complete schematic of the TRS-80. Seriously, you could walk into the store and buy not only the schematics but also books on how to modify it, and a complete, commented disassembly of the ROM chips–something that is beyond unthinkable today.

I modified the computer extensively, spray-painted it black, and overclocked it. Stock, it had a 1.77MHz Z80 8-bit processor, which I modified to work at 2.44 MHz (which caused some software to break) or at approximately 4 MHz (which caused it to malfunction frequently and required that I set it in a tray full of plastic bags of ice). The yellow LED you see in this photo would come on when I ran it at 2.44 MHz, the red LED would come on at 4 MHz. My parents were often horrified to see it spread out all across my bed, which was the only work space I had.

I kept it until I was almost 40, purely from nostalgia.

In my memoir The Game Changer, I talk about taking two dates to my high school senior prom. This wasn’t because I was suave with the ladies; it was because one person asked me to the prom, I said yes, another person also asked me, I said yes again, and it didn’t even occur to me that this might be a problem.

Fortunately, they were both totally cool about the whole thing. I took them both to dinner before the prom, which raised a few eyebrows.

Only two photos from that prom exist that I’m aware of, and I found both of them. Yes, I’ve always been a weird-looking motherfucker.

Until recently, I have not been much into partner dancing, though I do love to dance. My high school senior prom might’ve been the last time I partner danced until I was in my 40s.

I had a storied checkered educational career. I went to school at Lehigh University, where I discovered, and feel in love with, a Digital Equipment Corporation DECsystem-20 mainframe. Ours was a forbidden love. There were certain…allegations from the faculty of less-than-completely-aboveboard activities involving that mainframe. “Computer hacking,” they said. Also, “your scholarship is revoked.” And “don’t come back.”

I bounced around for a bit, worked fast food for a while, then ended up going to school in Florida again. Sadly, that part of my life is poorly documented–if any photos exist from that period, I don’t have them.

I did find this photo of me, taken in April of 1991, the last year I was in college.

My early childhood experience with my parents’ Volkswagen led to a long-term love for the cars, of which I’ve owned two. The first car I ever owned was a 1969 Bug; my third car was a 71 Bug, which, like my computer, I modified extensively.

There’s a passage in The Game Changer in which I talk about how absolutely clueless I was about sex and relationships, and how I could not recognize even the most obvious attempts at flirting:

Worse, I was in that awkward stage of male development where I was so desperate to try to figure out how to get girls to pay attention to me that I completely missed it when girls paid attention to me. Prior to that afternoon at Jake’s place, Caitlin and I had spent quite a lot of time together. We were great friends. But when I look back with wiser eyes, I can see she was trying in a thousand ways to tell me she was open to more.

One particular evening, I drove her home from work in my beat-up Volkswagen Bug. We sat in the car in front of her house talking for a while. She complained there was something on the seat digging into her butt. She dug around for a bit and came up with a small machine screw—a leftover, no doubt, from the work I’d just done replacing the back fenders with the half-sized fenders popular among people who liked to take Volkswagens through deep mud. “Hey!” she said brightly, holding it up. “Wanna screw?”

The whoosh of her flirt passing over my head might have sucked all the air out of the car had the windows not been open. It was years before I realized she’d been flirting with me all along.

This is the car in which that happened.

From about 1978 or so on, I had been involved heavily in the computer BBS scene. A BBS was the forerunner of modern Web forums–a computer running special software connected to a phone line, which you could dial into and leave messages on (text only, generally) at agonizingly slow speeds. Most BBS systems could only accommodate one user at a time, so if you called while someone else was logged on, you’d get a busy signal. Popular systems were constantly busy, so you’d set your computer up to keep redialing, over and over, until it got through, then alert you when it made a connection.

I was on systems with names like CBBS-Chicago, Pirate-80, and Magnetic Fantasies. When I started school in Sarasota, I ended up with a roommate who was, like me, an enthusiastic TRS-80 hacker and BBS fan. He ran a BBS called The Wyvern’s Den. I thought “hey, I can do that!” and started a BBS of my own, called a/L/T/E/R r/E/A/L/I/T/Y.

I ran A/R for about six or seven years, on a TRS-80 Model 4 that had been heavily modified. The IBM PS/2 computer had just come out, and the PS/2 systems used 3.5″ floppy drives that had a design defect: they were prone for going out of alignment. IBM would replace them under warranty and then, rather than taking the five minutes to fix the floppy drives, would just throw them out. I went Dumpster diving behind an IBM repair shop one evening, came out with a big pile of 3.5″ floppy drives, cleaned them up, aligned them, and connected them to the TRS-80 by way of a custom hardware interface I designed and built. These became the storage for the A/R message boards. You can see two of them, sitting bare without cases, to the right of the computer in this photo. There’s a third one sitting on the shelf just behind the center of the computer, and a fourth one under the 5.25″ floppy in the foreground on the right.

TRS-80 floppy drive controllers were only supposed to be able to access four floppy drives, but it turned out to be possible to instruct the floppy controller to access two drives at the same time, so with a bit of software trickery and a 4-line-to-16-line demultiplexer chip, you could actually get them to talk to up to 16 drives at once.

There’s a wooden box just barely visible in the right-hand side of the picture. It held a power supply that powered all the floppy drives. I used to warn guests to the apartment, “don’t touch that, you’ll get electrocuted.”

I was a late bloomer sexually, but made up for it through the rest of my life. In the late 90s, I developed a prototype of an Internet-controlled sex toy. It rose up out of a toy I’d developed in the mid-90s that was designed to be plugged into a telephone line and controlled by the tones from a Touch-Tone phone. My former business partner and I tried to bring it to market, with less than stellar success.

We designed a plastic cabinet for it, which we made with a vacuum-forming rig we built. We had a run of circuit boards made, and I would sit for hours at the kitchen table with a soldering iron in my hand putting components on them. The company we’d hired to fab the circuit boards made a mistake in the fabrication, so each board required reworking as well.

We called the device “Symphony.” This is the very first one we ever sold. It’s supposed to have the name “Symphony” screen printed on the front; somehow, this one ended up without the screen printing.

And now, decades later, Im still exploring the intersection of sex and technology.

From high tech to low tech: in the early 2000s, I was invited to speak at Florida Poly Retreat. One of the classes I taught was in how to build a trebuchet, a Medieval siege engine. During the course of that workshop, we designed and built a working model trebuchet.

The T-shirt I’m wearing in this photo reads “Catapultam habeo. Nisi pecuniam omnem dabis, ad caput tuum saxum immane.”

Even after my divorce from my ex-wife Celeste, which story forms the backbone of The Game Changer, I kept this habit of extensively hacking any computer I own. (That continues to this day; I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro that has had its DVD drive removed and replaced with a second hard drive, and the first hard drive has been replaced with an SSD.)

My partner Amber and I moved into an apartment together after the divorce. The living room looked like this.

I kept the TRS-80s and an Apple Lisa, even though they’d largely been retired by this point. The black thing stuck to the ceiling is an Apple //c monitor, spray-painted black. It had a green screen monochrome display that accepted a composite video signal, so it was easy to pipe just about any video into it. Most of the time, Amber and I had it showing Bladerunner on a loop. When I played World of Warcraft, though, I would pipe that to it instead.

Amber and I ended up rescuing two cats during the time we lived together. One, a rather handsome tabby, had climbed a tree to the third story of the apartment building next to ours, jumped from an overhanging branch onto the roof, and then realized he couldn’t get back down. He cried piteously for days. We threw food up to him until we could figure out a way to rescue him. We named him Snow Crash.

The other adopted Amber when we were out walking in a large park late one night. We heard a cat meowing from under some bushes. When we turned around, a cat came catapulting out straight for Amber and jumped up into her arms. She refused to let go, holding on to Amber until we walked all the way back to the car, then insisting on accompanying us home. We named her Molly, for the character Molly Millions in Neuromancer.

So here I am, fifty years old, and what a peculiar thing it is to be a human being. Life is amazing.

When I was a child living in Venango, the bus that took me to school would drive past a church with a sign out front that had pithy sayings on it intended to inspire us to live better lives. One day, that sign said “Your life either sheds light or casts a shadow.” I knew, at eleven years old, there was something wrong with that, but I didn’t have the words to describe what. Now, almost forty years layer, I understand: it’s bullshit. We are all, every one of us, made of light and shadow, good and evil.

I have screwed things up and hurt people. I have been hurt. I have gotten things wrong, made mistakes, been careless with the hearts of others.

I have also experienced the most amazing love. I have known and been loved by people who are so remarkable, I consider myself privileged merely to have known them. I have learned things and gotten some things right.

We are all made of light and shadow. It is on all of us to treat each other with care. We’re all confused. Being human is fundamentally weird and more than a little scary. We’re all making this up as we go along, even those of us–especially those of us–who try to pretend we Have It All Figured Out.

I’ve spent thirteen and a half billion years, give or take, not existing, and fifty years existing. That’s enough of a sample size to tell me that existing is better. It’s harder, sure. We have to do stuff. We have to make choices. You don’t have to make choices when you don’t exist. Making choices means sometimes we make wrong choices, and making wrong choices means sometimes we hurt people. Hurting people sucks.

I carry a lot of regrets with me. There are many things I have done that I wish with all my heart I could undo–times when I have not been as careful as I should be, perhaps too preoccupied with my own fears to be properly gentle with other people. It’s a consequence of being plonked into existence without a user’s manual.

We all get banged up a bit on the journey through life. But despite that, I would not trade a goddamn minute of it for anything. I am flawed and I make mistakes. All the people I know are flawed and make mistakes. And yet, this brief moment we share in the sun is a gift of inestimable value. I am grateful for every moment of it, and I hope to be here in existence for much, much more.

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!

Update #6 on the sex toy you can feel

Whew! Lots of things going on in the world of high-tech sex.

I’ve been hard at work on the second-generation prototype of the sex toy you can feel. The first-generation prototype was intended as a proof of concept rather than a usable sex toy; the sensors I was using were large and bulky, and made the strapon impractical to have sex with.

The second-stage prototype features a new and more powerful wearable computer, a larger number of much smaller sensors (each about as thick as a sheet of paper), and a completely redesigned vaginal insert. The new prototype took a while to assemble–mad science is hard!

Today, we reached a milestone. For the first time, one person (we will call her “Experimental Volunteer A”) had sex with another person (who we will call “Experimental Volunteer B”) with the prototype. Aside from a few minor design glitches which will be solved with the third-generation prototype, the sex went smoothly and was a great success. Experimental Volunteer A was able to feel the dildo moving inside Experimental Volunteer B, and there was much screaming, giggling, and moaning. A great time was had by all involved.

One of the areas of focus for the near to mid term future will be doing some research on the neural density of the inside of the vagina. I haven’t been able to locate anything in the literature that talks about this. It’s going to be one of the design factors in how many neurostim electrodes the final device will have, as there’s little point in having a number of outputs that exceeds the wearer’s ability to differentiate between them. We may end up having to do some research to find this out.

We’ve also received word that the patent application is in the hands of the US Patent Office, so at this point we’re able to say “Patent Applied For.” Patent applied for! When the PTO publishes the application, we’ll be able to say Patent Pending.

I’ve already started to take the things I’ve learned from today’s experiment to make some design changes to the third-stage prototype.

Want to keep up with developments? Here’s a handy list of blog posts about it:
First post
Update 1
Update 2
Update 3
Update 4
Update 5
Update 6

The Lads from Cyprus: Analysis of an Organized Hacking Gang

I get, as readers of this blog will know, a lot of spam. I’ve been using the same email address for decades (my AOL address since 1992, my own domain address since 1996), so I’ve had plenty of time to get on a lot of spam lists.

Recently, I started to see a whole series of very similar spam messages, all variations on the same message (“Hot Lady Wants You to F*ck Her,” “Invited to H00kup”) and all advertising redirectors on hacked Web sites. I’ve received a ton of these spam messages–about 75 in the last three weeks alone, with more coming every day.

The spam messages all spamvertise malicious redirectors that are placed on hacked Web sites. The redirectors all go to a destination that says “This is NOT a dating site! WARNING! You will see nude photos. Please be discreet.”

There’s a lot of hacking activity going on. Every spam message points to a different hacked site, all of which redirect to a whole network of identical landing sites. This, then, is the work of an organized, deliberate hacker or (more likely) group of hackers, likely using automated tools to hack vulnerable Web sites and plant the malicious redirectors.

Curious, I decided to go down the rabbit hole, to see what I could find out. I started collecting the spam emails, tracking how often they came in, what URLs they spamvertised, and where those URLs redirected to.

I discovered an organized gang of hackers and fraudsters operating out of a series of companies organized in Cyprus, who had built a large network of hacked sites and were using the hacked sites to funnel traffic into a fake dating site that attempts to get rather a large amount of money from marks it cons into signing up.

I followed the link from one of the spam messages, a site called This site had been hacked to have a redirection script placed on it that redirected me to which in turn redirected me to, where I was asked a simple series of questions.


The URLs mentioned in this post are live as of the time of writing this. I recommend you do not visit them if you don’t know what you’re doing. The URLs are compromised sites or sites owned by people who compromise Web sites. They may attempt other malicious actions.

The site naughty-juicygirls-com is registered to an outfit calling itself Tralox Overseas Limited, which lists its business address as

Mitsis Building 1, Stasinou Avenue
Nicosia, Cyprus

I answered the questions and filled out a signup form on naughty-juicygirls-com, and was taken to yet another site, This site attempted to get me to enter a credit card number–purely to confirm my age, doncha know. At least that’s what the text on the left side of the Web page claimed. But what the left side giveth, the right side taketh away; text on the right side of the screen told me I’d be signing up for a “VIP membership” that would automatically renew at $49.95 per month.

The site at is also registered in Cyprus. It is registered to a company calling itself Canderstone Limited, whose address is given as

Peiraios 30, 3016
Limassol, Cyprus

If you are foolish enough to agree to give them a credit card number, totally just for age verification (and recurring membership fees of $49.95 per month), your credit card is sent to a Web site called This site is also registered to Canderstone Limited in Cyprus.

From there, you’re taken to yet another site, This claims to be a dating site, though as fraudulent dating sites go, it’s pretty transparent. Within fifteen seconds of being redirected to I received notification that a woman had sent me an email–which, naturally, I would need to pay money to see.

and ten seconds after that, I got a chat request, supposedly from a woman near me: is registered, unsurprisingly, to Tralox Overseas Limited.

This is par for the course for Web sites that prey on lonely and desperate men. The employees of such sites keep stables of fake profiles, often hundreds of them, and message new users with the intent to entice them to pay for the service. I’ve known folks who’ve worked for such sites.

So, it’s an ordinary and common fraud, atypical only in that the people who own the fraudulent site are aggressive computer hackers who compromise large numbers of sites and ten send out barrages of spam containing links to redirectors on the hacked sites.

I took a look at the Web host responsible for It’s hosted on a Web hosting company called RackCo. RackCo looks to be a Virginia company that’s basically Yet Another Managed Hosting Provider, nothing particularly interesting about them. However, a quick check at Spamcop did turn up something interesting: Rackco is specifically not interested in hearing complaints about

So what’s happened is a group of folks operating out of Cyprus are running aphony, and very expensive, dating Web site. They are aggressively hacking large numbers of other sites, which they use as a redirection network. They spam their redirection network to funnel people into the fake dating site. The ISP hosting the fake dating site has explicitly said it refuses to hear spam complaints regarding the fake dating site.

The overall system looks like this:

So this is a group of sleazy operators in the sleazy fake dating sphere, who have crossed over from sleazy to outright criminal activity in using hacking to compromise Web sites and enlist them as traffic redirectors.

People often ask me, “what’s the big deal if I don’t stay on top of security for my little WordPress site? There’s nothing on it. I only get three visitors a month, and one of them is my mom. Why would anyone want to hack me?”

The answer is “people don’t hack you to get whatever’s on your site. They hack you so they can use your site for their own purposes–placing illegal content on your site, hosting phish pages on your site, planting malware on your site, putting redirectors on your site which they can then use in spam campaigns. It’s not about you. Obscurity doesn’t matter.”

Secure your Web sites. If you have a presence on the Web, it’s on you to prevent operators like these from hijacking you.

I have reached out to Rackco to see if they’re willing to explain why they host this site and refuse to accept spam reports about it. I’ll update this blog post if I get a reply.

Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Disaster in Black Rock Desert and Reconnecting with my Roots

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

In ther North American continent is a state called Nevada. In that state is a desert. This desert has the rather ominous name of Black Rock Desert, and it’s noteworthy for two things: rich hippies who get together once a year to have sex, do drugs, and build implausible things; and for being one of the most inhospitable places North America has to offer. The latter fact may bear some relationship to the former, as it is, I gather, only sex and drugs that make the place bearable.

In the 1800s, people came to this place in search of riches. Most of them found only pain. Some of them found lead, and presumably also pain.

In my various attempts to research ghost towns online, I came across a reference to Leadville, an abandoned mining town high in the mountains in Black Rock Desert, not too far from Gerlach. Google Earth showed the place quite plainly, and it seemed interesting, so with considerable optimism we set off two chaosbunnies in a 1992 Ford van.

Black Rock Desert is, as it turns out, no place for two chaosbunnies in a 1992 Ford van.

I told Siri to navigate us to the ruins, having given up on Google Maps, which had plainly shown it knows fuckall about turn-of-the-century mining roads. We headed down a long, straight paved road into the desert, me driving, Bunny drinking tea.

“Turn here,” Siri said. There was a conspicuous lack of place to turn–nothing but straight road and fence. I turned around.

“Turn here,” Siri said. The road onto which we were supposed to turn continued in its stubborn failure to exist.

“Turn here,” Siri insisted.

“Maybe Siri doesn’t know where we are,” Bunny suggested.

I kept going. Eventually, after quite a lot of faffing, we discovered the road Siri expected us to turn on, about half a mile from where Siri thought it was.

I say “road.” Of course, I jest. The thing we ended up turning onto was less road than two narrow rutted tracks through desert wasteland. Still, we’d managed to take the Adventure Van into some unlikely places before, so off we went.

And went. And went. And went. The road trail rutted track was narrow enough and rough enough that we were forced to move at about five miles an hour or else risk breaking an axle, and the remains of Leadville was some considerable distance into high desert. We drive along for an hour or two, and started heading up, the road trail rutted track hugging the edge of a mountain that rose abruptly from the desert floor.

We didn’t realize we were playing a game with the desert–a game the desert was determined to win.

We continued climbing, up and up, until we just…didn’t any more.

The van didn’t break down, precisely. The engine kept revving, but the van simply stopped moving. The tires didn’t spin, the van just…stopped. Even in low gear, the engine turned but the wheels didn’t.

I shut off the engine to keep from burning up the transmission, which would have left us well and truly buggered. The road kept getting steeper ahead of us, leaving the inescapable conclusion that we were not going to be visiting Leadville.

We both got out, Bunny looking perhaps a bit more grumpy than I.

From our vantage point, we could see the “road” we’d driven in on. I say “road” in scare quotes because, while it was much more a road than the one leading to Susanville, it still wasn’t what any reasonable person would describe as a proper road at all, though there certainly was quite a lot of it.

That left us with the not inconsiderable task of getting back down. You know that scene near the beginning of the movie Serenity, where the spaceship Serentiy is making reentry and part of the heat shield falls off, and Mal says “just get us on the ground” and Wash responds with “That part’ll happen pretty definitely”? It was a bit like that. I knew we could get the van off the mountain; I just hoped we could do it without arriving in disassociated condition.

My first thought was to put the van in reverse and back down the mountain. I knew turning around was a non-starter, what with the narrowness of the road and the steep cliff on the side and all, but, thought I, that’s why they invented reverse, right?

The desert had other ideas.

The ground was soft and the incline was steep and we were carrying luggage on a rack sticking out the back of the van, and these things all conspired to cause the back of the van to dig into the ground as soon as I tried backing it up.

So with forward, backward, and turning around all off the table as options, that left little choice save “pray for a miracle,” “learn to fly,” “unload all of our gear from the van, take the luggage rack off the back, and try again,” and “wait out here to die.”

Bunny and I aren’t particularly inclined toward miracles, we’d opted to take the van and leave the X-wing fighter at home, and Bunny seemed to have very strong feelings about not dying out in the middle of the desert, so with some resignation and a bit of grumbling, we started unloading the van. Half an hour later, we’d offloaded hundreds of pounds of stuff and carried it down the mountain a bit to where the road, such as it was, widened enough to, with a bit of maneuvering. we thought er could turn the van around, provided we didn’t have a morbid fear of death.

That just left backing the van down the road without tipping off the side and arriving at ground level in disassociated condition. I will save you the descriptions of the white-knuckle bits of that endeavor, as there are plenty of white-knuckle bits still to come in future installments of this story, and instead just say that by dint of much agony and a few close brushes with an untimely demise, we were able to get the Adventure Van back down off the mountain, loaded up once more with gear, and pointed in more or less the right direction, whereupon we left the desert the same way we came in: slowly, and with great concern over the possibility of a broken axle.

Back on the road again, we beat a retreat from the desert. As we left the boundaries of Black Rock Desert, I squinted off into the distance. “Is that water?” I said. Bunny made a skeptical noise. I stopped the van and got out to look. It looked a bit like water, maybe, but it seemed…I don’t know, dryer somehow.

It was, as it turns out, salt, not water. There is collectively not enough water in this picture to drown a gnat.

Final score: Black Rock Desert 1, chaosbunnies in an ancient Ford van 0.

We set off down the road, wallowing in the misery of our defeat and drinking tea. As the sun set, we made camp on the side of the road, still wallowing in the misery of our defeat. Bunny made pasta to go with our wallowing, and we resolved to make it to Bodie, the next (and last) ghost town on our itinerary, the following day.

The following morning, we were up bright and early before noon, and headed off toward California. The day was clear, and the promise of success loomed in–

“Hey, what’s that?” I said.

“Looks like a billboard, maybe?” Bunny said.

“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “Is that–?”

I pulled over. It was.

For those of you born after the advent of the Internet and broadband, there was once a thing called a “drive in.” Imagine a movie theater–no, not like that, a theater with only one screen. Outside. With a big parking lot in front of it. You would drive your car there and sit in it while you watched the movie. A little speaker about the same size and quality of a fast-food drive-through speaker was mounted at each parking space, but we people didn’t care because you didn’t go to a drive-in to watch the movie, you went to a drive-in to make out and/or have sex in the back of the car while a movie played somewhere in your general vicinity.

Changing demographics have not been kind to the drive-in industry.

We got out and poked around a bit. When this drive-in was abandoned, it happened all at once, it seemed.

Drive-ins had a small shack where the projection equipment was housed, and where the employees made popcorn. Before the movie started out, people in silly hats would come to your car and ask if you wanted popcorn. Then they’d run to the projection shack, make your popcorn, take it out to you, and let you get on with having sex.

We picked our way across a a field littered with broken glass and bits of rebar and electrical cable to the projection shack, which was an absolute catastrophe.

In a previous life, I was once a movie theater projectionist (at a regular theater, not a drive-in). To be fair, the projection booth I worked in wasn’t really a whole lot more tidy or organized than this.

I felt weirdly nostalgic, picking through the rubble of the projection booth. There was a fine layer of dust over everything, so it didn’t look like anyone visited frequently. Not even the local greasers with their pompadours and their muscle cars seem like they can be arsed to come out here all that often.

The concession stand was separated from the projection booth by a wall that ran down the length of the projection shack, without a door through it; the projection booth had its own door, and you couldn’t go from the concession stand to the projection booth. This seems to be typical from what I remember of my movie theater days. The projectionist occupies the most lofty stratum of the theater employee hierarchy, and the booth is his castle; riffraff like ticket sellers and concession workers aren’t permitted in his domain.

There was one lonely piece of graffiti in the concession stand, scrawled without any genuine effort at artistic merit on what was left of the popcorn machine. Honestly, the neighborhood truants, delinquents, and hoodlums really seemed to be phoning it in.

We made our way back to the van and headed off toward Bodie, which would prove to be the shining jewel of the trip. I have much to say about Bodie, and many many pictures. Those will wait for the next installment.

Survey: Amazon erotica

A while back, Amazon, under pressure from some of the more Puritanical factions of US society, changed the way they handle search results.

Amazon has long been popular with people who self-publish books, because it offers powerful tools to self-published authors and an enormous storefront where authors can reach their readers. This system has shaken up the publishing industry and allowed a lot more writers to reach a lot more people–something I think is awesome.

I am one of those authors. I publish erotica under the pseudonym William Vitelli. And I noticed something strange: I woke up one day to find that, overnight, I’d gone from making about $2800/month from Amazon sales to making less than $100.

Amazon has made changes to the way self-published erotica appears in its search results. Many, but not all, self-published books no longer appear in Amazon search results, even if you type the name of the book or its author exactly. The books are still listed for sale, but you have to know the Amazon URL to find them.

It’s hard to say how the new search results work. This removal from the results seems, unsurprisingly, to target niche erotica. Some books seem to appear for some users but not others, irrespective of search settings. Some books just don’t show up at all.

Many Amazon self-published erotica authors have been badly hit by this; I’ve seen people saying online that they’ve seen their Amazon royalties drop by thousands of dollars a month.

That suggests to me there are people who want to buy erotica who aren’t finding what they want, and authors who want to sell erotica who aren’t able to do so.

So I started thinking, what if I set up a Web site that lists Amazon erotica, including books that don’t appear in Amazon search results, and crowdsource the database? I’m thinking of a system that would allow users to suggest books that might otherwise be hard to find, and search tools that would let users look for what they want. The site would then give links to the books on Amazon.

The site would, the way I’m thinking of it, also allow users to review and rate books in the database.

So I’m turning to you, O people of the Internet. What do you think? Do you read erotica? Do you buy erotica on Amazon? Has the change in Amazon search policy affected you? Would you use a site that was a searchable database of erotic books on Amazon?

Let me know what you think! I’ve set up a Survey Monkey survey. You can find it at

It’s quite short–only 9 questions–and I’d be quite grateful if you could help me out by taking it, and/or recommending it to other people.

Thank you all very much!

“Does my butt look big in this?” Some more thoughts on honesty in communication

“Does my butt look big in this?”

I am a fan of the idea of honesty. This is no secret. I’ve written before about why I think lies, even supposedly harmless “little white lies,” are destructive. (tl;dr: They teach people not to listen to the good things we say, and to dismiss compliments and positive things as white lies, while making negative things stick more.)

Inevitably, every time I write something like this or I say this at a workshop or lecture I’m giving, someone always, always says “but what if my girlfriend asks if her butt looks big in this dress? I shouldn’t tell the truth then, right?”

And I say “honesty in communication works both ways. It is wrong to give dishonest answers. It is also wrong to ask dishonest questions.”

Far more often than not, “does my butt look big in this?” is a dishonest question.

Questions like this are not requests for information. They are passive, indirect requests for validation. They are an indirect way of saying “I am feeling insecure. I want you to tell me that you think I’m attractive.” And, of course, they’re harmful and destructive ways of seeking that validation, because if you say “no, your butt looks awesome in that,” the other person is just going to dismiss it as a white lie. The answer doesn’t meet the need for validation, because on some level, the person you’re talking to won’t believe you. We’re all conditioned to know that other people are likely to prefer white lies to honesty, usually under the guise of sparing our feelings.

And if you say “yes, that’s unflattering,” well, not only have you not offered the hoped-for validation, you’ve confirmed the other person’s deepest fear. These questions are lose-lose: affirmations aren’t believed, unpleasant answers cut deep.

“Does my butt look big in this?” It’s the most obvious example of an indirect request for validation masquerading as a question, but we ask dishonest questions that are less obvious all the time. Whenever we ask a question expecting to hear a certain answer that validates us, that’s a dishonest question.

Honesty is just as important in the questions we ask as in the answers we offer. Dishonest questions are just as harmful as dishonest answers. Indeed, they might be even more harmful, because they set the other person up for failure.

I don’t believe they’re always a deliberate setup. It can be difficult to tease out all the threads woven into the way we communicate. Sometimes, we ask questions that we believe are honest, but then become upset when the answer doesn’t validate us. Sometimes, we tell ourselves we want an honest opinion while secretly longing for the answer that feels best.

But dishonest questions are not fair. They put other people into a difficult bind that offers no easy way out. At best, they are a sign of chinks in our own sense of self; at worst, they’re manipulative, immature, or both.

I am a fan of honesty in communication. I would like, therefore, to propose an idea: If you ask a question, be prepared for an answer that surprises you. If you’re not prepared for that, it’s probably a dishonest question. If you ask a question and then blame the other person for giving an answer that doesn’t follow the script in your head, it’s definitely a dishonest question.

Relationships do not thrive when everyone is reading from the same playbook of dishonesty, they thrive when people are straight with each other and ask for their needs to be met directly rather than indirectly.

How, then, do we deal with our ordinary human need for reassurance and validation? I propose a solution: direct communication. I’d like to propose that we strive for relationships where we feel safe to say,”I’m feeling insecure about thus-and-such, and I would like your validation.” I think that looking within ourselves to understand what we really want, and doing whatever may be in our power to ask only honest questions and to advocate for our needs directly, is a gift we can offer our partner. By offering this gift, we avoid putting our partner in a position where they must either compromise their integrity or hurt us.

I would also like to propose the suggestion that by answering questions honestly, instead of telling white lies, we are offering a gift to our partner: the gift of integrity. This gift allows the people in our lives to believe us more fully, and not dismiss the positive things we say.

Honesty works both ways. We can, and I believe we should, seek to ask honest questions as well as answer questions honestly.