That so-called “Christian morality” in action yet again

Sometimes, by happy serendipity, you discover something that, in a totally non-conspiracy-theory kind of way, allows you to connect a few dots and go, “Ah soooo!” Being someone who makes something of a close-to-full-time hobby of science fiction and fantasy literature, and knowing as I do a number of writers both professional and aspiring, I came across news recently of a potential scam targeting the latter group.

The sad truth of our world is that there are hucksters and con artists out there who latch onto your dreams and hopes and insecurities in order to rob you blind. Religion has refined this so expertly all you can do is stand in awe.

Aspiring writers are easy pickings for vile charlatans. And it is via the blogs of award-winning science fiction novelist John Scalzi and literary agent Janet Reid that I learn of a writing contest for newbie talents, the fine print of which can be summarized as “We Are Going To Fuck You.” (What does any of this have to do with atheism and religion? Wait for it.)

The contest is run by one Karen Hunter of First One Digital Publishing. Immediately, to anyone who knows anything about the legalities of actual publishing, red flags are flying all over the map. First flag: entrants must pony up a $149 entry fee. An entry fee isn’t problematic in itself, but this one’s exorbitant, to put it mildly. I just entered an online screenwriting contest for the princely sum of 12 bucks.

Then there is this tiny little rider that they hope you don’t notice, buried deep within the rules.

All submissions become sole property of Sponsor and will not be acknowledged or returned. By submitting an entry, all entrants grant Sponsor the absolute and unconditional right and authority to copy, edit, publish, promote, broadcast, or otherwise use, in whole or in part, their entries, in perpetuity, in any manner without further permission, notice or compensation. Entries that contain copyrighted material must include a release from the copyright holder.

For those of you not up on writing or intellectual property stuff, what an entrant is being told here is that First One Digital Publishing expects you to give away all of your rights to the story you submit, forever. Once they have it, it’s no longer yours, and not only will you never get paid a dime if, say, they sell the story to film or TV, you cannot even ask for it back if they do nothing with it. And you’re expected to shell out 149 bones for the privilege. I’m reminded of Sarah Palin suggesting that women should be charged for their rape kits.

As Scalzi points out, with rules like these, why would any writer with a story good enough to submit to this contest not simply submit it to a real agent or publisher? Because you see, in traditional publishing, a writer is never expected to sign away all rights. When, for instance, Random House accepts your story or book, they are never flat-out buying up the story, lock stock and barrel. They are simply buying first publication rights, which is a license allowing them to be the publishers of your story, to which you retain full copyright, for a period of time specified by the contract. Once the contract expires, the publisher can choose to negotiate a renewal of it, or not, leaving the author free to take the property elsewhere. (Note: there is a thing called “work for hire,” but I’m not addressing that here.)

But this contest is relying on newbie writers being utterly ignorant of their legal rights, which, sadly, almost all of them are. And considering that the accepted length for entries runs up to 65,000 words — right around the low end of what the industry considers a novel — this represents quite a lot of work Hunter is expecting a writer to pay to give up.

The fuckage continues. You don’t have to know jack about writing and publishing to raise an eyebrow at this one:

In the event that there is an insufficient number of entries received that meet the minimum standards determined by the judges, all prizes will not be awarded.

Get that?

If an “insufficient number of entries” are received, First One can simply call the whole thing off. How many entries are “sufficient”? Why, they don’t say. So they can get 20, or 200, or 2000, and decide, so sorry, we’ve received an “insufficient number” of entries, but thanks all the same for submitting. And for your entry fee. Wait, don’t you get that back if the contest is cancelled? Why, it doesn’t say, so I’m going to take that as a “No.” So the contest will be off, but they’ll still have your cash in their bank, and your story, which they can publish, edit, do whatever with, without paying you or even putting your name on it. Because their rules require you not only to grab your ankles but supply your own lube. Finally they wrap everything up with a kicker that leaves them legally untouchable for anything, including, one fears, any arbitrary decision to turn up at your house one day, shoot your whole family dead and burn the place down.

By entering, entrants release judges and Sponsor(s), and its parent company, subsidiaries, production, and promotion agencies from any and all liability for any loss, harm, damages, costs, or expenses, including without limitation property damages, personal injury, and/or death arising out of participation in this contest, the acceptance, possession, use or misuse of any prize, claims based on publicity rights, defamation or invasion of privacy, merchandise delivery, or the violation of any intellectual property rights, including but not limited to copyright infringement and/or trademark infringement.

No, I’m not sure what kind of writing contest could result in “property damages, personal injury or death,” but at this point I’m willing to believe they’ll think of something.

Seriously, even the prominent “Writers of the Future” contest, a major competition in SF publishing that has launched several notable careers, and which is run by the publishing arm of the Church of motherfucking Scientology, does nothing that isn’t strictly ethically above-board in their own rules. Hopefully, by now, I’ve made it abundantly clear what an exercise in total fail Karen Hunter’s little contest really is.

So now we get to that happy serendipity I mentioned earlier. Once word got out in writing and publishing circles — with people tweeting the living hell out of the Janet Reid blog in particular — some folks began to wonder just who this Karen Hunter person was. Particularly when she responded to Reid with an awesomely bitch-ass comment in her blog thread.

Janet,

While I appreciate your comments. And I understand your vested interest in this business because if we’re successful, we eliminate the need for literary agents, the contest hasn’t launched yet. So to post our rules and a link telling people that this is a contest to avoid is both self-serving and misleading. Are there issues with the rules, yes. But I think you should wait until the contest officially launches on Feb. 11, 2011, before you tell people to not join it. That’s the fair thing to do.

Could I, a 20-year veteran in publishing as a writer and publisher, afford to put out a contest that rips people off? I’m not desperate. The goal is to truly find the next great author, something not too many people are actually looking for. What’s been your success track record?

Blessings,
Karen Hunter

PS: I sleep extremely well every night because I operate in truth.

Man. Hunter wasn’t done. This comment was immediately followed by “If my response doesn’t appear on your blog, I’ll know what your true motives are. Thanks aga
in.
” Well, I’d say the contest, rather than revealing how unnecessary agents are, actually illustrates their extreme importance, as agents make their living running interference between clueless n00b writers and the hucksters like Hunter who try to scam them.

Even given the hilarious defensive petulance and rich irony of much of this whine, there was just a lot in Hunter’s language that sounded to me exactly like the kind of butthurt rhetoric we get in emails from creationists, or conspiracy fans, or alt-med anti-vax loons, or anyone who’s pissed at us for slamming something they’ve attached themselves passionately to, and who can’t articulate their anger other than to imagine wild ulterior motives driving us.

So it came as little surprise to discover that Karen Hunter has done the right-wing Christian talking pundit thing on cable news.

Do any of you remember the “atheists need their own Hallmark cards” lady? Well, this is that Karen Hunter. And if you aren’t familiar with her still, she made an appearance on Paula Zahn’s show on CNN about four years ago, where the topic happened to turn to atheism. Appearing alongside the odious Debbie Schlussel, Hunter offered such memorable bon mots as these.

What does an atheist believe? Nothing. I think this is such a ridiculous story. Are we not going to take “In God We Trust” off of our dollars? Are we going to not say “one nation under God?” When does it end? We took prayer out of schools. What more do they want?

If [atheists] had Hallmark cards, maybe they wouldn’t feel so left out. We have Christmas cards. We have Kwanzaa cards now. Maybe they need to get some atheist cards and get that whole ball rolling so more people can get involved with what they’re doing. I think they need to shut up and let people do what they do. No, I think they need to shut up about it.

And here’s my very favorite.

I think they need to shut up about crying wolf all the time and saying that they’re being imposed upon. I personally think that they should never have taken prayer out of schools. I would rather there be some morality in schools.

Oh, morality? Would this be the “morality,” Karen, that led you to think you could get away with trying to bogart the rights in perpetuity of possibly hundreds of hungry and eager aspiring creative talents, while taking their money and constructing an impermeable legal shield around yourself barring them from any recourse against you, even the right to have the fruits of their labors returned to them if you have no desire to publish them? Or if you do publish their work to great success, and overlook putting their byline on it, having set things up so you don’t have to part with a penny in royalties either?

And was it the same “morality” that gave you the smug arrogance to think you could avoid getting called on all this bullshit, by actual established and respected (and godless) professionals in the field to which you’re only a pretender? Is that an example of the Christian “morality” you disdain atheists for lacking? Then let me state how proud I am to have missed the lessons in “morality” you took to heart. As a creative person myself, nothing disgusts me more than the idea of a sleaze merchant like you exploiting the naivety behind someone else’s dreams, and all for your own petty personal enrichment. But somehow, knowing that you’ve probably convinced yourself it’s what Jesus would do, all I can say is, it figures.

So who is making money during the economic crisis?

Sleazy “psychics” with their usual exploit-the-scared-and-insecure routine.

But you know, you’re likely to be astonished — simply slack-jawed in astonishment — over the powerful predictions that come from “psychic” Roxanne Usleman. Prepare to have your skepticism swept into the sea:

The housing crisis will deepen, the country could fall into a depression and laid-off workers may need to start their own business.

Holy shit! How does she do it? Bog knows no real financial advisor would be able to come up with ideas like that! Must be why so many pathetic dimwits concerned, thoughtful people like Bruce Levy (who, of course, was “skeptical at first”) consider Usleman someone who “is able to make me see things that I wouldn’t otherwise see.”

I’d suggest that if Levy is so lame a “businessman” that he cannot see that we’re swirling in a financial whirlpool, that it will get worse before it gets better, and that a whole new career game plan might be worth thinking about, and see those things all on his own without paying some dingbat with a really ghastly face lift $20 a minute to tell him, then he deserves to be a broke-ass chump.

I suppose I shouldn’t blame Usleman for doing whatever she can do to avert financial hard times on her own. But I have these things called morals, and, well, taking advantage of the mentally disadvantaged or emotionally vulnerable just isn’t on my “cool things to do” list.

Ted, somehow I’m dubious

Oh, Ted. Ted Ted Ted. (Haggard, I mean, for those of you just tuning in.) So you’ve come out today with your latest excuse for, after years of hypocritically posing as a greal moral religious leader, finally being revealed as a drug-abusing, adulterous, whoremongering sodomite. And it’s that old standby, “I was abused as a child.”

Sure, I suppose this could have happened. After all, so many children, especially those in extremely rigid religious environments, are horribly abused, sexually and otherwise. But here’s the problem. Or problems.

One: You are, or were, a high-profile public figure whose fame and influence was tied to maintaining and cultivating a carefully manicured image of righteousness. That wasn’t merely tarnished, it took a direct hit from a nuke. So it’s natural you would be highly motivated to repair and restore that image any way you can. How better to do this than by…

Two: …playing the victim. See, religionists have a really bad habit of doing this when they have, in fact, been shown to be in the wrong. Why, we’ve experienced it here firsthand. (coughYomincough) Playing upon emotions is what you, as a preacher, have spent your entire career doing. It’s become such a part of your personal lexicon you probably do it reflexively, without having to rehearse or even give the act much thought at all. Guilt, fear, anxiety…all the ingredients of the religion-toolkit all designed to lead the poor sinner back to that coveted moment of redemption. Come on, Ted, the whole schtick is your stock in trade! Who wouldn’t expect you to claim something like this as an excuse for your acts? The only surprise is you didn’t do it sooner.

Three: Your whole “confession” here is an insult to gays, though as a self-denying homophobe, you probably don’t care. See, Ted, it’s a fact that people abused as children do sometimes grow up to commit violent criminal acts. But you weren’t caught at that, dude! You weren’t found doing the Catholic priest thing of diddling a choirboy, or smacking the hell out of your wife and family. You were just found to be a closeted homosexual carrying on an affair. Okay, granted, you somehow stupidly chose a male prostitute for your extracurricular dalliances instead of just, you know, picking some fellow up at a bar or online. And you also bought meth from him. And those two things are illegal acts, sure. But they aren’t crimes of violence. And while violent crimes in adulthood can often be traced to an abusive childhood, plain old homosexuality cannot. (Then again, you aren’t a normal gay man either, so your situation could be different.)

Four: finally, don’t presume that any of us, apart from a few of the still-brainwashed rubes from your former church, gives a shit. Really, your situation may have been a life-demolishing trauma and disgrace for you. But for the rest of us, who have spent years watching the decline and fall of the Bakkers and Tiltons and Swaggarts and Popoffs and all the rest of you charlatan SOB’s… well, to us, it was just another instance of “Oh look, another evangelist has been found to be a dishonest sleazebag.” In other news, the sun rose in the east this morning.

So, yeah…ho hum, Ted. Maybe you were horribly abused as a poor little waif, or maybe you’re just lying to save whatever tatters of your reputation are left. But who cares? Seriously, who cares? You’re done.

Money and thermodynamics

Here’s an addendum to Sunday’s show on financial scams. It’s a thought that I had while preparing the topic, but didn’t wind up using while on the air.

Your financial situation is a lot like the second law of thermodynamics — a concept which creationists frequently and (perhaps) deliberately misunderstand. The second law of thermodynamics deals with entropy, which is hard to explain in abstract terms, but it is often described as “chaos.” It is a function of the amount of energy in a system which is no longer available to do work.

In a closed system, entropy always increases, which means that orderliness is being drained away all the time. The only way to restore that order is to bring new energy into the system which can do work. Here on earth, the sun is always shining down, bringing new energy from space. That energy is absorbed by plants, which are eaten by herbivores, which are both eaten by people, which channel that energy into creating orderly things. If all the people in the world were to disappear tomorrow, within a very short time our buildings would decay and rust, and eventually fall down. What is biodegradable would be eaten by bacteria. And so on. Keeping our civilization going takes work.

The sun provides “free energy” for us and so powers order and life and yes, evolution too. Eventually the sun will burn out, but this is too far in the future for us to care about that problem right now. You can’t just keep spend energy without bringing more of it in: if the sun vanished, all life on earth would likely be dead in a matter of days. It doesn’t matter how clever our science is at that point; without new energy coming in, you can only shuffle existing energy around for so long before using it up.

In your personal life, money plays a similar role to order. Most of the things you do as a citizen of the 21st century require money in some way. Keeping a roof over your head costs money, or it costs somebody else money (if, for example, you live with your parents). Feeding yourself costs money. Traveling around costs money. The highways and buildings that keep our economy running cost money to maintain.

So in order to keep this system afloat, we have to do new things all the time that generate wealth. At a basic level, we have to grow enough food to feed everyone. We have to build houses, and create roads. At a less crucial level, we give each other reasons to go on living when we create art and design cool technology and educate one another. These are the things that we do that are of lasting value to our species, and they are things that are worth paying for.

A financial scam is the economic equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Scam artists will tell you that you can get your money for nothing (and, as Dire Straits tells us, your chicks for free). They say that if you mail their chain letter to other people, or build your downline as an Amway distributor, or hype up Liberty Dollars, or “pay the processing fee” to release the funds from your rich uncle in Nigeria, then you’ll get money without doing work.

Thanks to thermodynamics, we know that perpetual motion machines don’t work, and that anyone who claims to have built one is a charlatan. In order to create motion, you have to spend new energy. In order to keep a lifestyle going, you have to do something of value that brings in new money. In other words, an economic closed system is guaranteed to burn itself out sooner or later.

In a nutshell, that is what I mean when I say that you should always approach a new financial opportunity by asking: “Where is this money coming from?”

Today on the show: Financial scams

Sometimes I like to mix up the topics to avoid just being “the show that talks about how there is still no God.” Because of this, I’m returning to one of my favorite critical thinking subjects: financial scams. I’ll be discussing three examples of scams that I’ve spent time discussing in the past: Chain letters, Amway, and “Liberty Dollars.”

Today’s links: