Risks, Benefits, and Refugees

Like most people who are tuned in to current events, I’ve been hearing a lot, over the last few days, about the wisdom of admitting refugees to the U.S. As of Tuesday, twenty-six governors had voiced a desire to stop or delay the settlement of Syrian (and some other) refugees in their states (source). Whether governors actually have the power to deny refugees entry to their states seems unlikely to me, but for my purposes here, it’s the thought that counts.

These governors are thinking that one or more of the refugees we admit might actually be a terrorist in disguise. Or that one of their kids might grow up to be a terrorist. Despite the fact that the U.S. is quite capable of growing its own terrorists, it is, of course, perfectly possible that a refugee might be, become, or parent a terrorist. Even the best screening cannot unfailingly predict human behavior stretching decades into the future, and people arguing in favor of settling refugees in the U.S. do their position a disservice if they suggest that no refugee could ever become a terrorist or the parent of a terrorist. If you stake your argument on that kind of absolute claim, then your entire position collapses at the first exception, and whatever the situation, we can pretty much count on there always being an exception.

What we need to do instead, I think, is consider risk and benefit in a careful, rational way. Let’s use a less emotionally charged issue as an example: vehicular deaths. It’s well known that higher speed limits lead to increased traffic fatalities. Accidents that occur at higher speeds are more likely to be fatal because the g-force applied to the body is so much greater. The best airbags and seat belts in the world can’t help much with the fact that the organs in your body are going from 60 mph to 0 in half a second. That means all the fluids inside your organs are slamming up against structures that did not evolve to withstand those impacts. Even if you don’t suffer any blunt force trauma and remain safely inside your vehicle, a high-speed accident can kill you (source).

Cars have become a lot safer. Even as our population has grown, traffic fatalities have shrunk. That said, they’re still awfully high: between 30,000 and 35,000 people die this way in the U.S. every year. We could stop many of these deaths if we were to institute a nationwide maximum speed limit of 25 mph and all abide by that limit. Yes, it would take longer to get places, especially when traveling long distances. But saving, say, 25,000 lives a year would be pretty great. That’s tens of thousands of people who would suddenly not lose a parent, spouse, child, sibling, or friend. Not to mention a whole lot of non-fatal injuries prevented. Seems like a powerful incentive, right?

But instead of reducing speed limits, we’re raising them. When I was learning to drive, the nationwide speed limit was 55 mph. Now it’s as high as 85 in some places.

We can map high speed limits in terms of risk vs. benefit:

Risk Benefit
33,000 deaths and 2.3 million injuries (2013 numbers) convenience; economic benefits of faster shipping; the pleasure of driving fast; etc.

Now, I like driving fast. And I like my Amazon Prime free two-day shipping. And I’m not eager to have my 45-minute commute become a hour-and-a-half commute. I am, in other words, a typical American: pretty much willing to trade many thousands of lives, families forever disrupted, and hideous injuries for cost savings and convenience. When I think about it rationally, it doesn’t seem sensible. The risk is so great, and the benefits are so superficial. And yet, I am not out there trying to start a 25 to Save Lives movement.

Now, let’s look at a yearly risk-vs.-benefit table for admitting refugees to the U.S. To be generous to the anti’s, we’ll take the worst-ever year for U.S. terrorism fatalities as our measure of risk:

Risk Benefit
several thousand deaths; immediate injuries and possible longterm illnesses; economic disruption giving 10,000 desperate people a chance at a decent life

Admittedly, this doesn’t look so good. “Trading” several thousand U.S. lives in order to help 10,000 refugees could be seen as deeply irresponsible. Our governments’ primary responsibility is, after all, to protect us, not to help citizens of other nations.

On the other hand, we have to remember that the September 11 attacks have not been replicated. In a number of the years since, we’ve had zero domestic deaths linked to “Islamic” terrorism. Using this site, I’m counting thirty-three such deaths in the fourteen years since September 11. This article, written prior to this year’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, attacks, puts the figure slightly lower. However you count it, the number of people killed in the U.S. by self-identified jihadists is far exceeded by the number killed by right-wing extremists, such as the wretched specimen who gunned down nine people in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this year (source).

What this record suggests is that domestic jihadist strikes pose a minuscule risk to American lives during most years. In years other than 2001, more Americans have been killed by lightning and dogs. Large strikes like those on September 11 are, at least so far, rare. And even when they do occur, the lose of life is small compared to any number of other significant threats that may seem less scary. Like, for instance, car accidents (more than ten times as many Americans killed every single year). And hospital acquired infections (75,000 U.S. deaths/year). And suicide (about 40,000/year). And falls (about 30,000/year). And drowning (approaching 4,000/year). If it’s your loved one who’s killed in a domestic jihadist strike, it’s unbearable. But it’s also unbearable if it’s your two-year-old who’s mauled to death by a dog. Or your mother who goes in for routine surgery and dies of an infection. Or your husband who dies in a car accident. However we lose those we love, it’s unbearable.

So, here’s another way to think about risk: as comparative. We’re willing to trade some tens of thousands of traffic deaths for the convenience and cost-savings that come with high speed limits, but the governors of twenty-six U.S. states are unwilling to trade a handful of yearly deaths, plus the much smaller risk of a larger strike, to help tens of thousands of people who are absolutely desperate. You know how desperate–you’ve seen the pictures.

Let’s do one more risks-vs.-benefits table, this time thinking of September 11 not as a yearly event, which it clearly is not, but as a once-every-fourteen-years level of event (and even that may be way too pessimistic … maybe it’s a thirty- or fifty-year event):

Risk Benefit
High Speed Limits 33,000 deaths and 2.3 million injuries, on average convenience; economic benefits of faster shipping; the pleasure of driving fast
Welcoming Refugees at Current Levels 215 deaths per year, on average, plus injuries and economic disruption giving 10,000 desperate people a chance at a decent life

An average of 215 deaths a year … why does that terrify us so much? Why are we willing to “spend” tens of thousands of lives purchases fun, cost-savings, and convenience but are not willing to spend 215 on compassion?

I’m hardly an expert on this stuff, but this is how it looks to me: if I’m willing to accept the risks inherent in 85 mph speed limits for benefits that, frankly, aren’t all that essential, I should also be willing to accept the comparatively tiny risks that come with welcoming refugees to my community, especially since the resulting benefits go right to the heart of what it means to be a decent person.

What If You Had No Recourse?

There are no jobs, no schools, maybe no food. No place is safe — from bombs, from human predators, from your own government. If you get hurt or sick, maybe there’s a hospital miles away. Maybe there isn’t. The dangers vary from place to place. What’s consistent is that few are attending to your happiness, your rights, your life, or the safety of your children. Whatever the exact situation, it goes on and on. Two years ago, you told yourself it’d be over by now, one way or another. Things would’ve settled down. Four years ago you told yourself this. Ten years ago. But it’s not over; if anything, it’s worse. That’s because it’s no one person’s fault. No one group’s. It’s a mess that only gets messier, and there’s no shortage of blame. The real world has a hell of a lot of hydras, and no Hercules.

This is the refugee crisis of the 21st century.

Though actually, I suspect “crisis” isn’t the right word for it. To me, a crisis is a sudden event of finite duration. I don’t think these mass human migrations will end — not in my lifetime, at any rate. I think they’ll shift, like a river in flood cutting new channels, but I don’t think they’ll stop.

So I’m committing to donating 10% of my writing proceeds to Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. It’s not a whole lot of money, at this point, but hopefully, in time, it will grow.

“Alright” Is All Right, But That Doesn’t Mean It’s the Best Choice

Over on Kboards today, I read a good thread on a perennial editing question, “Is ‘alright’ all right?” I have some thoughts on this matter … of course! To fail to care deeply about such minutia would be to abandon my self-definition as Really Quite Obsessive About Words. Buuuut, the thread seemed to have run its course, and I hate to stir things up by adding a post. Writers can get pretty exercised about this one. Because aren’t we all At Least a Little Obsessive About Words?

So, I’ll ask the question here: Is “alright” all right? And I’ll go right on and stake out an answer: Yes and no, but mostly no, but perhaps not for the reason you think.

First off, yes, you’ll see “alright” in the dictionary. And you’ll see “comprise” defined as “constitute” and “forte” pronounced for-TAY. Etc. That’s because these words are in the process of change. A century or three from now, few people will use “all right,” and no one will remember that “comprise” once meant “contain.” Dictionaries are generally descriptive, not prescriptive, so if people out there are using a particular word in a particular way, it will end up in the dictionary. That makes dictionaries not always useful in making editing choices. All many dictionaries will tell you is that, Yes, some people out there are using this word in this way. But you already knew that; if the word weren’t being used in the way you want to use it, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to you to use it that way. Some of the better ones have extensive usage notes. I think Dictionary.com is outstanding in that area. But many of them don’t.

Getting back to “alright”/”all right,” the problem is that the change to the word’s spelling is in process right now, not complete. Therefore, a substantial part of the population thinks of the new spelling as “wrong.” They remember being taught the mnemonic “‘alright’ is not all right” in grade school, and they took it to heart. They don’t necessarily spend their time navel-gazing about the idea that language is constantly shifting, and that spellings and definitions aren’t really right or wrong in some objective sense, but merely common or uncommon, accepted or not accepted. Most people don’t think of vocabulary that way. Words mean certain things and are spelled in particular ways; you know the right way, or you’re misinformed.

And importantly, the types of people who remember the rule they learned about “alright”/”all right” when they were eight years old are probably more likely to care about which spelling you use. Just think of it: They remember something from third grade! It’s practically super-heroic. You know what makes people remember stuff from way back when? Caring about it. Thus, these are the folks who get annoyed that so many people are “doing it wrong, these days.” Those who blithely go around using “alright”? I bet they’re less likely to get irked at seeing the form they don’t use. Early adopters of language changes are the more flexible folks. Because of educational experience or personality or something else, they’ve taken language flux on board more readily.

So, does one edit to please the uptight, old fashioned folks or the laid-back, rolling-with-change folks? You can probably guess my answer: When you’re editing and you encounter a word in the process of change, I think it makes sense to choose the older or more traditionally acceptable of the competing forms. The people who are still clinging to the old form/definition will nod and say, Ah, here’s a writer who really knows her stuff! And the people who’ve moved on to the newer form in their personal usage? They probably won’t be all that bothered about seeing the older form. They’ll be used to encountering it in formal documents, or they won’t notice the difference, or they’ll notice it and shrug it off. Some small percentage might think, Ah, that fuddy-duddy, still sticking to the old ways, resisting the natural evolution of language! But I bet they’re a small contingent.

So, yeah, there’s nothing really wrong with “alright,” and one day, it will reign victorious. The pull of “already” and “altogether” and “albeit” and “almost” and “already” and “also” and “always” is too strong to resist. “All,” bless its heart, is clearly a word destined to be chopped up and squished onto things. Why should “all right” remain a holdout?

BUT. Until it the contest is well and truly over and “all right” has come to sound archaic and/or pedantic, I think it will remain the safer choice.

Nolander, Revised

In March 2015, I published a revised version of Nolander on all retail platforms. I’ve updated the book several times before, fixing small mistakes and formatting problems. But this (4th) edition represents more significant changes:

  • The book’s been professionally proofread and formatted.
  • I altered the beginning to speed things up a bit. The book has gotten many reviews that say something to the effect of, “Starts off slow, but …,” or, “Took me a while to get into it, but ….” I suspect many potential readers didn’t make it through the leisurely beginning, so I did some tightening. Beth now has her first “paranormal experience” in the opening pages. Instead of having her describe her panic attacks, we see her have one. And Matt, the ex-boyfriend, has bitten the dust.
  • The Ghosteater chapters now use a straight third-person point of view.
  • Beth is now a digital photographer. When I wrote Nolander, I didn’t realize how hard it’s become to acquire film for traditional cameras. Now that I’m clued in, making Beth a print photographer seems unrealistic. It would actually be more expensive for her to go that route, not less.
  • I cut down on the amount of sitting-around-and-explaining Graham and Cordus do.
  • I’ve added a glossary at the back to help readers keep track of places, people, and things.
  • I’ve tweaked the ending slightly to try to give the last Beth chapter a little more punch. In so doing, I was trying to address this kind of feedback:
    • “I am a little bummed that the book simply stops as if it were a chapter break rather than having a proper ending.”
    • “… the ending is quite abrupt. Another chapter would have helped this book seem complete. Nothing wrong with a cliff hanger ending but it felt like we lost a chapter at the end, instead of finishing up the tale and leaving it open for the next one.”
    • “Abrupt ending was disappointing …”

    I know cliff-hangers drive people nuts, but I don’t think these readers are reacting to the cliff-hanger, per se. I think the ending felt unintentionally incomplete. This was by far the hardest issue to deal with, as I didn’t want to make revisions that would change the novel’s plot. In the end, I just added another couple lines that I hope will give Beth’s last chapter a more complete feel. I vacillated quite a bit on this revision. Before settling on the additional lines, I experimented with adding a scene. That version (let’s call it Edition 3.5) made it into the free Gods and Mortals collection, so if you’re curious, you can check it out it there. I might also print it as a separate blog entry.

That’s about it. The overall plot in the 4th ed. remains unchanged, so people who’ve read older editions should be able to go from those to Solatium without any confusion.

If you’ve read an older edition and would like to have the new one alongside the old, here’s the mobi (for Kindle) and the epub (for most other ereaders). The files are compressed for quick downloading. Once you have them, you’ll need to open the zipped file. You can then read the book on your computer, using an ereading app or a program like Calibre, or you can sideload it to your tablet or ereader. Directions on how to do that are here.

Read in good health! :)

eBooks and DMCA Abuse: A Few Suggestions Based on My Experience

Thanks to the fine people of the indie-publishing community, Nolander has recovered wonderfully from its week’s vacation. Folks on The Passive Voice blog and the Kboards Writers’ Cafe urged downloads, and a number of discounted/free book sites spontaneously advertised the book: big thanks to OHFB, Pixel of Ink, Flurries of Words, eBookDaily, and Free Kindle Books for your generous help. With so many people in its corner, Nolander got a couple thousand downloads and bounced up into the top two hundred free books on Amazon. It was an amazing and moving thing to see. The self-publishing community is strikingly diverse, and we don’t always agree on stuff. But we’re there for each other at the big moments, and that tendency to act together — fostered by those sites that give us places to gather — gives us some leverage. Thank you all so much for using that leverage on my behalf.

Now, I think we need to keep applying leverage: how retailers respond to DMCA take-down notices needs adjustment.

The best-case scenario is that my experience was a one-off event — that my scammer had something against me, personally, and this won’t happen to anyone else. Fingers crossed that’s the case. But it might not be. This could’ve been a money-making scheme, with the target being selected wholly or partly at random. Worst-case scenario, Nolander was a trial balloon for someone(s) with bigger plans.

I think distributors and retailers need to figure out how they’re going to deal with this sort of thing if it happens again. It’s obviously no good for retailer sites to become hunting preserves where scammers troll around, looking for their next mark. And if retailers unintentionally and unwittingly ended up making blackmail easier in a consistent way, that would be awful.

Solving this problem is probably above my pay grade. I hope the retailers have people working on it, and that they come up with better and more creative ideas than mine. But FWIW, here’s what I’d suggest:

  1. Send the author the full name, email address, and physical mailing address of the filer of any DMCA notice immediately. Include a link to the evidence of copyright infringement the filer submitted. These things did not happen in my case. From one retailer, I received the name and email address only; from the other, I received none of the above.
  2. If the author submits a DMCA counter-notice, restore the book to the site within the time-frame stipulated by the DMCA. What I’m recommending here would, apparently, be a significant change of policy. Unlike ISPs, retailers consider themselves exempt from the counter-noticing provisions of the DMCA (I don’t know if this is a reasonable assumption, on their parts, or a legally established status). On the face of things, the exemption makes some sense: retailers have the right to sell whatever they want for whatever reasons they want, right? If Amazon wants to refuse to sell any book with the word “The” in the title, it can go ahead and do that, so far as I know. The problem with this approach is that the counter-noticing provision is the DMCA’s one and only safeguard against abuse by non-U.S. residents, who cannot be curbed through the U.S. courts. It was built into the law for a reason. If retailers react to noticing (as they must) while ignoring counter-noticing, they render the law dysfunctional and create a dangerous imbalance of power.
  3. Put some well trained people to work actually looking at the evidence submitted with DMCA notices and counter-notices. (So far as I can tell, this did not happen in my case. The evidence seems to have initially been accepted without examination.) A retailer must remove a book if it receives a DMCA notice. So far as I know, there’s no way around that rule, even if the notice is obviously fraudulent. But does the law say a retailer cannot then reach out to the book’s author and suggest independent resources that would help the author move forward with appropriate counter-noticing? Not that I know of. So, in cases where they see clear evidence of fraud, retailers should reach out to authors in this way, IMO. Perhaps authors identified as potential victims of fraud could be directed to the Electronic Frontier Foundation or some other source of assistance.
  4. Indie authors should support any organization that steps up to provide effective advice and assistance in these matters, especially if caseloads rise in the future. I’m sure even small donations would help. We don’t have large corporate legal departments standing behind us. (That’s something traditionally published authors get in exchange for their lower royalty rates.) Sending some of our profits to organizations that help with this sort of thing would probably be a good idea.

Would these changes solve the problem completely? I don’t think so. But they’re the best ideas I’ve been able to come up with. If you think of other possibilities, please share them.

Distributors and retailers obviously have a big stake in this issue, legally. But the repercussions for individual authors may be even bigger, when you consider possible career impact. If we have ideas to offer, we should make them heard. Perhaps we can help our book-selling partners make the marketplace safer for all.

With deep thanks, Happy reading to all!


P.S. Not sure what this is all about? Start here.

DMCA Problem Resolved — for Me. Not So Sure About Everyone Else.

I’m delighted to say that Nolander is back on sale — or on giveaway, anyway — on Amazon. Even as the lower levels of KDP were churning out the form letter I quoted in my last post, the upper levels must have been giving the problem more individualized consideration. So, thank you to Amazon and KDP for taking care of this problem. And a huge thank you to the folks on Kboards who orchestrated an attention-getting email campaign on my behalf. You guys are the best. :)

Hopefully this situation is all wrapped up. I’ve been in touch with other retail platforms, asking them to be alert for fraudulent attacks on my books. Fingers-crossed, I won’t have to deal with this sort of thing again. But of course, other people might. In fact, I might be safer than others, now, since there’s a paper trail (“electron trail”?) at all the retailers documenting my having been targeted.

For the time being, I had better go grade some student papers.

But I want to think about this DMCA-scam issue some more. My scammer clearly made some mistakes, and those allowed me to build a convincing case. But what if there are no mistakes, next time? The person I spoke to at Amazon said the company doesn’t want to inadvertently aid spurious uses of the DMCA and that it would be taking a fresh look at its current policy. I trust they will do that. Nevertheless, it seems like a tough problem to solve. The DMCA may have been written for the digital age, but it wasn’t really designed for a truly global environment — nothing that leans so heavily on the U.S. legal system for both its teeth and its safeguards is going to work properly when information flows unimpeded across borders. And it doesn’t seem to have been designed with today’s massive digital sales environment in mind, since retailers apparently see themselves as exempt from the counter-noticing process.

I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but it seems like a problem we need to solve. Anyone have any ideas?

March 7 update: Aftermath for Nolander, and thoughts on how retailers could react to fraudulent DMCA notices more effectively.

Amazon KDP Digs in Its Heels on Fraudulent DMCA

Updating with the latest. What I sent to KDP a few days ago:

Dear [Rep’s Name],

Thank you for prompt response, and for your assistance with this matter. I appreciate Amazon’s careful attention to copyright issues.

Please find attached a DMCA counter-notice.

The DMCA notice you received from Rajesh Lahoti was fraudulent. Shortly after Amazon blocked my book from sale, Rajesh Lahoti initiated contact with me through my website, using an alias. He offered to help me with my “DMCA problem.” I believe he is using the DMCA process as part of a scam.

I hope this matter can be resolved quickly. Please let me know if you have questions or need anything else from me. For instance, I have a signed hard copy of my counter-notice, which I would be happy to mail in.

[My Name]

What I just got:


I’m so sorry, but we can’t offer any additional insight or action on this matter. We are unable to provide you with legal advice. For any specific questions you have about your publishing rights, we recommend you consult an attorney or copyright law professional.

Until this dispute is resolved by all parties concerned, the titles will not be made available for sale in the Kindle Store.

Best Regards,

[Rep’s Name]

So, there’s the answer to that question: Amazon does not consider itself legally bound by the DMCA counter-noticing provision. If it did consider itself thus bound, it would have to unblock Nolander within 14 days unless a suit were filed against me in my U.S. Federal Court district by Rajesh Lahoti. That’s my understanding of the law, anyway.

(Not sure what all this is about? You’ll find my original post about the situation here.)

Edited to add: Here’s some happy news! Amazon restored the book later this afternoon.