Saturday, May 29, 2010

Happy Memorial Day

I just wanted to take a moment to recognize the sacrifice of the brave men and women who have served our country and, all too often, given their lives for our freedom. From the Continental Army through today's Armed Forces, we're able to live lives of peace, prosperity, liberty and security. Memorial Day is about more than grilling meat - it's a time to reflect on how we're better off because others helped ensure we would be.

Have a safe and happy Memorial Day and I'll see everyone back here on Tuesday!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

[Book Update] Different Perspectives

In the last couple of weeks, I've managed for the first time in a while to write some entirely new (or almost entirely new) chapters. It feels pretty good to have the "chapter 6" tribulations well behind me. I'll still need to edit old chapter 6 again at some point, incorporating feedback from my writer's group as well as my own thoughts on what would make it stronger, but that's also true of most of the other chapters I've written. Week after week, I've been taking my work to the group, getting their feedback, and then bringing those critiques back home and stacking them in a pile.

Why, you might wonder? Well, because there's only so much functional time in the week that I can apply to my writing, and I prefer to focus that time in the areas of (whenever possible) creating new chapters and prepping each week's existing chapter to bring to the group to be critiqued. Once the novel's initial round of drafts is pretty much finished, then I'll go into edit mode and start working through the pile of critiques chapter-by-chapter.

Anyway, I got bogged down reworking chapter 6 into two chapters, both of which were mostly new content combined with some of the stuff that had previously been in that original chapter. Now there's a ripple-effect going on. You see, chapter 6b took what had been a minor villain previously introduced in a later chapter and pulled him way forward AND turned him into a major-league badass in the process. I now have in mind for him to represent the forces of evil not only in the first book, but probably throughout the trilogy.

Writing him was a neat experience, actually. He just kept growing in importance as I wrote and I'd realize "Hey, this is the guy who's responsible for THAT." He still gets blasted in chapter 13, but it didn't kill him the first time through and it still won't when I get around to re-writing 13 to replace all the stuff that got moved forward to 6b.

Meanwhile, in chapter 6c I introduced a character who I'd never intended to be more than a historical figure - someone always mentioned from 50 years in the future. But it turned out, I needed him to tell his own story because trying to tell it through narration was irritating too many of my readers. And, again, there are ripples. This "founding father" character has ended up with a three-chapter story arc covering the most vital period of his contributions to the story. The second and third parts of that arc (chapters 11 and 16, for those keeping score at home) are now written and I even got 11 critiqued Monday night (to mostly positive reviews). Chapter 16, however, is hands-down my favorite so far. In fact I love it, which is entirely unusual.

It's not uncommon for me to write phrases, passages or whole sections that I like, but in general I'm not the biggest fan of my work. I don't dislike it, but I usually struggle not to focus on the blemishes. The exception being when I read something that I wrote far enough in the past that I don't really remember it very well. I often enjoy my work very much when what I was trying to accomplish isn't as fresh in my mind. Every once in a while, though, I write something that I like immediately. That's chapter 16 - I was flying high for days after I finished it, and I think I knew about halfway through that it rocked. Now, I already know that my writer's group's going to tear it up because there's practically no dialogue. It's an action-chapter, but I don't expect that to matter, they'll hate it anyway. Tough noogies - this is one of those cases where I need to trust myself as a writer to know when I've nailed it, and I nailed it. I gave it to my wife to critique for me and she read the whole thing without making a mark on it. I told her to read it again. Still, I count that as a good sign - my wife's no fan of crappy writing.

Originally I'd expected to spend most of the novel in the perspective of my protagonist, and some of it in the perspective of a major character introduced in the very first chapter. I also knew I'd occasionally hop over the perspective of a character I'd originally code-named "Buddy" because that character can let the reader see the protagonist through another set of eyes. That was pretty much it, though - mostly just those three. But just in the last few weeks, I've added that 3-chapter arc from the perspective of a significant character from the novel's history, plus a bad guy who turned out to be a major villain. If nothing else, it's starting to really put things... wait for it... in perspective.

Hey, thanks, I'm here all week (sort of. See the note below). Try the chicken parm!

Virtual Vellum Schedule Changes

Some of you may have noticed that I've been unofficially operating the blog on a reduced schedule for a while. The last couple of weeks I've missed updates at least once or twice each week. I expect that to continue for the next few weeks, perhaps longer, because my schedule's just crazy. I've written about how we're evaluating new karate schools, and next week I expect that to mean being out at various karate dojos until much too late at night on Tuesday, Wednesday Friday and then Saturday morning next week. I'll also be doing the same tonight. And I've discovered that anytime I'm at karate until late, I never manage to get a blog update written.

So no formal changes, but don't look for a new post tomorrow and I'll probably be on a reduced schedule for the next week at minimum.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dojo vs Dojo part 2 - The Mom & Pop

Analysis of the second of the two main types of karate school

Yesterday, I wrote about the karate school where my family's been training for the last several months. We like a lot of things about the school - the large, well-equipped, convenient facility, plus the nice, friendly people who run it. But they're driving us away with a 3-year contract and a generally high cost to train that's simply outside our budget. But the whole question of what to do next and where to train got me thinking about the business of operating a martial arts school. I concluded that there are two types - the Supercenter model and what I'll call the Mom & Pop model. My current school is a Supercenter. Now I mostly seem to be looking at Mom & Pop schools, and I'll cover those today.


The Mom & Pop dojo

The other end of the spectrum from the "Supercenter" dojo is the smaller, more traditional school. There's no reason that a school couldn't combine small size with the glitz and glam of the Supercenter's marketing model, but in my experience that doesn't seem to happen. The marketing fireworks seem to come later, when the school's proprietor has made a decision to not only turn their school into a steady source of income, but to turn their school into a business that can both grow over time and make them actually wealthy. In my experience, the Mom & Pop school doesn't display a lot of interest in the business aspects of the school. Sometimes business is clearly just a means to an end - the owner of the school needs to make enough money to pay for equipment and to pay the lease on the facility, but any money they make beyond that isn't a priority. In fact, it seems to me that often the business part of running the school is an annoyance and an inconvenience that the owner would completely avoid if they could.

They want to train - that's their focus. They're excited about the martial arts, excited to run their school, and they're looking forward to sharing their knowledge with, and learning from, their students. Contracts, exchanging money, paying the rent, insurance, and all of that other stuff is at best a distraction for them, and at worst makes them feel as if they're dirtying the purity and traditions of their art. These are the folks who really put the artistry in the Martial Arts - they seem to see themselves as part of a long chain of people going back many years (sometimes centuries) to the beginnings of their style of hand-to-hand combat. It's a spiritual journey for them, one they'd prefer not to sully with business considerations.

There's a trade-off, though. In the movies, Mr. Miyagi can have a gorgeous Japanese garden with a koi pond and nice landscaping on just a handyman's salary. In the real world, if you want to operate a Martial Arts school, you need to pay for the facility, the utilities, the insurance, taxes, fees in various governing bodies and organizations, and for equipment like mats, body shields, hand targets, and so forth. To grow into a "supercenter" costs even more, since they tend to have a paid, professional training staff and people "working the front desk" throughout the day.

So the Martial Arts traditionalist, the one with so much enthusiasm and excitement for their discipline and a spiritual connection to all of the masters and teachers who have come before them, has to make some decisions about the extent to which business will be allowed to factor into their school's operation. For many, their preference will be to treat the commercial aspects of the business as a necessary evil, doing as much as they minimally have to and then washing the filth from their hands and getting back to training. They may even contract with an outside service to manage things like dues and bookkeeping so they can focus on their art.

There's a benefit to this approach. While the facility may not be as luxurious as at a "supercenter," the Mom & Pop dojo gets the minimum equipment that they need to operate and then stops. These approach costs less, which lets them keep dues down. Also, the instructor may not be operating the school as a full-time job, so they're not trying to draw a salary from the school's operation that pays for their own personal bills. It's a labor of love, and that attitude will tend to rub off on the students.

An advantage of the spiritualist, "the art is more important than the business" approach is that students are often inclined to feel this way as well. They're more likely to volunteer to help with things like the upkeep of the school, saving on expenses for repair, improvements and cleaning. As some students become senior members of the school's community, the owner may be able to expand their class schedule by drawing on the knowledge and experience of those senior students and having them teach classes on the owner's behalf. Unlike a paid, professional staff, this instruction both costs the owner nothing AND benefits everyone. The senior student learns and perfects their art by teaching others, which has long been recognized as an optimal way to gain mastery and expertise. The junior students benefit through an expanded, more convenient class schedule. And still, costs are kept low.

The Mom & Pop school offers other advantages to the Martial Artist as well. They tend to have smaller class sizes, for more personalized instruction. One big complaint I've had about my current school is the number of mid-level students I've seen repeatedly making rookie mistakes and not being corrected. I suspect this is a function of class-size - the instructor just can't stop and work with one student when there are a dozen others who need attention, too. In a Mom & Pop dojo, the master instructor has more opportunity to impart their expertise directly to even novice students.

On the other hand, I have yet to find a Mom & Pop dojo that perfectly fits my schedule. This is a natural by-product of having fewer instructors - it's hard for a single teacher to run 4-5 classes in a single day, covering all of the different student levels and training styles (such as kata, sparring, weapons, cardio-fitness, and so on).

As I noted at the end of Monday's article, there's one place where the analogy between Martial Arts schools and retailers breaks down. In retail, the "supercenter" tends to be the "low-cost leader," using volume to drive down costs. In the Martial Arts, the "supercenters" rely on high volume, but it doesn't seem to translate to low costs. Instead, it's the Mom & Pop operations that seem to be the least expensive and to eschew long-term contracts that might tend to drive up the overall cost of the training (by charging you for services you didn't end up wanting or needing).

I do suspect, however, that there could be (or will be) a middle-ground. I believe that a traditionalist, spiritualist karate school probably could borrow some savvy practices from the business world (and thus from the supercenter dojos) without necessarily violating their moral sense of what's appropriate for their school. I'm don't think I've seen this in practice, but if somebody, somewhere isn't doing it, I'd be shocked. For instance, there are lots of ways to build a brand without packaging and productizing your art. Just having a slogan can build brand awareness in potential students, even if the slogan reflects the traditionalist nature of the dojo. For instance, a Korean Tan Soo Do school's slogan might read "A Thousand-Year Tradition of Korean Martial Arts." That's a pretty impressive (and, to my understanding, not inaccurate) claim that might entice potential students who are interested in a style both for exercise as well as for its ties to ancient history, yet it still emphasizes that this is a school rooted and grounded in tradition that's going to take their discipline very seriously and cut no corners.

Likewise, while a traditionalist instructor might (understandably) balk at using pizza parties and buddy training to turn their youthful students into junior recruiters, there's nothing unseemly in reminding their students (both young and old) that if they like the training at the school and would like to help the school to grow, they can and should recommend the dojo to their friends. Moreover, assuming that the addition of more students would be a long-term benefit to the school (allowing it to afford a nicer facility, better equipment, a more flexible schedule, etc.), then the owner might be well-served by offering incentives because it will ultimately benefit their whole community. Even more, I'm baffled at the number of martial arts schools that either don't have a website or have a really crummy one. It's one of the cheapest, easiest ways to advertise, yet it's often either under-utilized or poorly implemented.

I suspect that this middle-ground is likely going to become more prevalent in the future as more people think about ways to match their desire to teach Martial Arts with tried-and-true business practices that have been successful at other business enterprises. The challenge for prospective students will be to identify whether a school meets all of their needs, from the instructional philosophy to the physical operation to the total cost of training. The challenge for the owners will be to match their business and financial capabilities and preferences against the realities of their expenses and the demands of the marketplace. I also wouldn't be surprised if there are or soon will be consulting services available to dojo operators that help with the business and marketing (such as bookkeeping, dues tracking, website content creation, and other key functions), thus freeing the instructor up to focus on their school.

Meanwhile, my family's got some options and we're making sure to explore a variety of training venues before we make a final selection by the end of July.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Dojo vs Dojo part 1 - The Supercenter

Analysis of the first of the two main types of karate school

I've mentioned previously my family's history with the martial arts (such as it is) and our current experience training at a local school. There's been a bit of turbulence lately, and it's gotten me thinking.

Here's our situation - we're training at a "chain" school, one of 13 in the Lavallee's family of dojos. The school has a long history in the Syracuse area, but not necessarily an entirely positive one. We went there at first because it was close and it had an extremely inexpensive "intro" program for the elementary kids. We went back as a family because it's a really nice facility and the instructors are ver personable.We like the facility, we like the instructors, and it's very close by. We've been there as a family for almost four months, now.

The turbulence set in every time we reached what I'd call a "sales milestone." It was time for them to pull out what felt like a scripted component of their business model and sell us on something new. First it was the initial 6-month contract, which was expensive but made more affordable because it had both a family discount and another discount if you paid in full up front (which I did). But a couple months in, we discovered the clause in the contract that stated we HAD to buy our sparring gear through the dojo, and the cost ranged from $125 to $180 per person. Pow! - there's another $600-900 we hadn't budgeted for. (What's worse, the instructor who sold me the contract had made it pretty clear we could use existing equipment that my wife and I already owned as long as it was the correct brand. That would have saved us around $100.) They ended up letting us buy the gear piecemeal and gave us a discount, but it was an unanticipated expense that not only didn't I feel had been made clear, but in fact I felt I had been deliberately mislead about it up front.  And then it was time to talk about the next stage in the process - their "Black Belt Champions" program. It's a 3-year contract that would cost our family $500 per month - more than double what we paid for the initial "family plan." Plus an up-front "down payment" of $500-1000. Perhaps you're thinking I ought to just stick with the family plan and the 6-month contracts? Yeah, me too. Sorry, they don't do it that way - when your first 6 months are up, it's BBC or the highway.

To their credit, they're willing to work with us to an extent. If we want to spend one night a week (about 3 hours) cleaning and mopping the dojo, the price drops dramatically to $250 a month. It's affordable, but it's also the very definition of indentured servitude, where you enter into a contract to provide labor in exchange for services you cannot afford, and you're stuck offering that labor until either 1) the contract expires or 2) you somehow come up with the money to pay the difference [or, technically, 3) you die]. I've concluded that I don't want to sell myself into slavery in order to learn the martial arts.

All of this would have felt a lot less like a scripted sales pitch if there had been any way to really understand the details up front, but at every step it felt like a battle to understand what we were really getting into, and it definitely sounded like a clever, tried-and-true marketing scheme that they'd already used to produce some 600+ black belts at that school over the last 20 years.

Here's the thing: I could be angered, disgusted and offended by the whole LaVallee's approach, but I'm not. I can even understand it. It doesn't really work for me, and it took a LOT of thought on my part to be okay with it, but I think I understand where they're coming from. My conclusion: there are basically two types of karate dojo. They operate very differently and they don't always get along, but they can each work for some people.

The "Supercenter" Dojo

I believe LaVallee's operates a bit like a retail supercenter (with one key difference that I'll address below). LaVallee's has productized the Martial Arts. It's not a traditional system of forms to them, it's a product. It could be used cars or vacuum cleaners or electronics, but it so happens that their product is Martial Arts training. They've packaged it, developed a proven and effective sales process, and they deliver it to their market in volume. Let's look at the product and the sales process separately.

The product is not a traditional, definable Asian Martial Art. It started as Kenpo Karate, but it's changed so much over the years that that's barely recognizable anymore. They've added a lot of Muay Thai kickboxing, plus a smattering of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and whatever else struck their fancy, to the point that it's a unique style totally removed from any pure Asian Martial Art. Ironically, they adopted the term Mixed Martial Arts until that became associated with the brutal and controversial "Ultimate Fighting Championship" matches, with which they didn't really want to be associated. So now I think they're calling it "Blended Martial Arts." It'd be a lot easier to just call it Kenpo, but that would be misleading so, to their credit, they don't.

The product is also an often intense workout with fairly well-trained, professional instructors. The product includes a VERY nice facility that's large, clean, and close by to large population centers. It has features like a huge training area with foam mats on the floor, a smaller warm-up area, and even large bleachers for parents and visitors to watch from. In my experience, they're some of the nicest schools you're likely to find. The product's well-trained, professional instructors are on-site six days a week, and there are a lot of them (I think I count about 7 of them at my school). Result - the class schedule is about as flexible as you'll ever find, ensuring that it fits your lifestyle and your training needs.

You can also see that the senior students are regularly competing in things like full-contact matches (of highly dubious quality), and they're winning. Even if watching them train and demonstrate their skills wasn't enough to ensure that the training at the school is effective, seeing their successes in competition is a strong indicator (though not a guarantee) that it's not just snake oil they're peddling. Another indicator that they're not just a "black belt factory," which is the term for a karate school that sells people their black belts over a 3-5 year period whether or not they actually learn anything useful, is the fact that they actually care whether you show up for class. A fitness center might take your money whether you bother to work out or not, but LaVallee's wants you to show up and train with them.

That all adds up to a very respectable, fairly high-quality product. But it's a product that is slickly sold through a carefully-crafted marketing plan that offers a variety of ways to attract new students and separate customers from their money. For starters, they focus on kids. There are a LOT of kids around the suburbs and most of them think karate sounds pretty cool. So they mine the neighborhoods for young students to join. They send home "introductory offers" through the school. These offers are so inexpensive that it's almost crazy NOT to do it. You get a couple of months of training and a free uniform for around $40. The uniform alone would probably cost around half that, so it seems like a steal. Once they've got students in the door, they use a number of tactics to expand on that initial point of attack. They have "buddy week," where students get a gold star on their uniforms by bringing a friend to train, for free, during the week. They have birthday parties where, in addition to taking in money from the child's parents, they get a chance to solicit the kids attending the party to see if they might like an introductory offer of their own. They also throw free events during the year, including a really nice Halloween party and an Easter Egg hunt. Marketing, advertising, brand-building - it's no different than Pepsi sponsoring a stock car, and it all serves to build opportunities to attract new students.

Moreover, they have various tactics to extract as much cash as possible from existing students. For example, they offer a wide array of "bonus" services throughout the year. Virtually every month, they have some sort of Saturday-afternoon party where, for a fee, parents can drop off their kids for a few hours of fun, games, and exercise. It's glorified babysitting, but it brings in some extra cash and keeps the kids' enthusiasm-level for the school high. It builds a strong bond where spending time at the school (often compensated) is a routine part of the child's life. And, of course, the "introductory offer" has to be converted to a membership. They start with that initial 6-month membership, that's quite a bit more expensive than the "introductory offer," but not nearly as expensive as the 3-year Black Belt Champions program. And there's the gear, which comes in a nice package that includes a $16 bag (upgradable to a $25+ bag if you're feeling the weight of unspent money dragging you down). You may think that $16 doesn't sound so bad, until you consider that for a family of five, like mine, that's $80 in addition to the rest of the equipment. To be fair, they let us skip the bag and use our own, but I still thought the gear was overpriced compared to what I found for the same stuff online. As you go up in belts, there's additional sparring gear, plus a variety of weapons, new uniforms as the kids get bigger, etc. None of the fees are unreasonable (except the actual monthly tuition for the 3-year contract, which I thought was pretty high), but they all add up.

This is the heart of American entrepreneurship, so you can't really view it too harshly even if it may seem a bit seedy at times. They developed a quality product, created a marketing program, and then applied it rigorously to make a profit. If they hadn't done all of those things, then the product wouldn't be as good, because the nice facility and the numerous, capable instructors cost serious money to operate. The marketing glitz may not be strictly necessary, but if you're going to productize something you're obligated to use all means at your disposal to generate sales, and that means word of mouth, advertising, brand management, community outreach, special offers, discounts, and whatever else it takes to get customers into your storefront. You might take issue with the fact that, in addition to his schools, Kyoshi Steve LaVallee also has a side-business wherein he sells his packaged product to OTHER martial arts instructors who wish to become millionaires through their own schools, but if you agree that it's a quality product and it's not sold to anyone who is obligated to buy it, then it's simply the free market working as designed.

With that said, there's one aspect where I think LaVallee's differs from the "Supercenter" model, like Wal-Mart. One of the hallmarks of Wal-Mart, Target and similar stores is that they drive down costs. I don't think it's accurate to conclude that LaVallee's does so - if anything, I suspect that they drive UP the costs of Martial Arts training in the area, and I know at least one local LaVallee's competitor who agrees.

Still, free market is free market. If they didn't offer a quality product at prices people thought was fair, they'd be out of business. And, I should be clear, if we could afford the cost and if they didn't mandate a 3-year contract, we'd be staying. I think the contract is crazy-long for any service and the price is just too high, but we do like the program. It's a great workout 2-3 days a week, our family genuinely likes the managers and instructors at the facility, it's super-close and wickedly convenient. It's purely their business model that's driving us away.

However, it's not the only model. In part 2 of Dojo vs. Dojo, I'll examine the traditional model, its advantages and its disadvantages, especially compared to the Supercenters.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Busy week

This is the most insanely-busy week I've seen in some time. My parents are home for the summer, it's my wedding anniversary, my daughter has a band performance three hours away and we're looking at alternative dojos to consider when our current contract expires. Plus, we've got class at our current karate school twice and we're going to try to eat in between all of that stuff, too.

As such, I suspect I'm not going to get to my blog much beyond this point for the remainder of the week. I might find time to add something new, but it's not looking likely.

I hope you have a good week, too, even if yours is as busy as mine.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Traditions

I've written before that my family didn't have too many old-world cultural traditions to pass down. In fact, my family wasn't really big on traditions at all, beyond the American standards - presents and cake on birthdays, presents for Christmas, big Easter baskets, that sort of thing. Two of the few I can think of was that we'd go to Lasca's restaurant in Auburn for most major celebrations beginning in the late 1980s, and that we went to breakfast (at various places) on Sunday mornings. Those were good, but they weren't quite right for my young family.

My wife and I have created some of our own, however. Whether they'll continue beyond our generation won't be known for many years, but for now they add some fun to our family life. Here are some of my favorites:

Making Sauce - about every four months, I make up a huge pot of spaghetti sauce, carefully following my mother's recipe. Which is funny, because my mom didn't HAVE a recipe. She just tossed in the ingredients and measured by eyeball. I don't cook like that - once I get something the way I like it, I don't want to risk screwing it up by leaving out something important or using a tablespoon when I should be using a teaspoon. Moreso since I'm making sauce to last for months. I still have the paper where I had my mom measure and write down how much she used of each ingredient and I pull it out to use each time. But that's not the tradition. The tradition is that I put on my Godfather DVD and let it play while I work. It takes about 90 minutes from the time I get out the big pot to the time that I toss in the final ingredient, which means I make it almost all the way through the first Godfather movie (usually up to the part where Michael returns from Italy) and I get a little more than halfway through the Godfather Part II. Then I watch the end of the movie while getting up every few minutes to stir the sauce before turning it down to simmer.

But why, you ask? It's a seemingly-random tradition, I'll admit. Well, the association began because of the scene in the first Godfather movie where Clemenza teaches Michael Corleone how to make a pot of sauce. It's a pretty basic recipe, very similar to mine (except I use a lot more spices and I'm way more careful about how I toss it together), and the similarity just struck me. I began this tradition some twelve years ago, and have never failed to maintain it.

Piano Recitals - the next one's pretty simple: my daughter has about three piano recitals per year, and we've established the tradition of going to Olive Garden to eat afterward. It's my daughter's favorite restaurant and it's basically mine as well, so it's a nice reward for her and something I can enjoy as well.

Valentine's Day - my wife and I aren't really big fans of this hyper-commercialized holiday. Our tradition, and I confess this was my idea, is that we have chicken parmigiana for dinner on Valentine's day. What we DON'T do is buy overpriced flowers at this particular time of the year (though I make a point of getting some for my wife at various other times of the year because she's awesome and I love her dearly).

Groundhog Day - this is the tradition that we're most likely to forget to honor, but for quite a few years my wife and I watched Bill Murray's Groundhog Day every single year. We've tended to skip it while the kids were younger and we were busy with them all the time, but I can see us going back to this one in the coming years. It's a hilarious movie about an arrogant, self-centered man whose life is really empty. He's forced to live the same day over and over again, potentially thousands and thousands of times, during which he reaches rock bottom and then rebuilds his life into something worthwhile, with room in it for other people. It's not only one of Murray's funniest movies, but one with a worthwhile message if you take the time to think about it.

There are various other traditions big and small in our home - some of which I'm sure we don't even recognize as such because they're so ingrained to our daily lives. As the years go on, we'll likely add new ones and some of the older ones may not go the distance. Some may be carried on by our kids, and some won't. But right now, these are the most notable, and I think they help anchor us as a family - adding stability and fun to our lives. Feel free to comment on your favorites (or what you think of ours)!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Attack of the Summer Movies!

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
 
The summer blockbuster season is upon us! It's been a decent enough year so far, with hits like How to Train Your Dragon and Iron Man 2, and bombs like Clash of the Titans and Wolfman.

Some of the summer's possible blockbusters include:

Knight and Day - a high-action film starring Tom Cruise as some sort of secret agent and Cameron Diaz as a woman who gets caught up in his adventures. There are some really hilarious scenes in the trailer, so it's an action film with some amount of humor, too. I hope it's as good as the trailer implies.

Robin Hood - Russel Crowe and Ridley Scott team up once again in this new take on the Robin Hood legend. It's supposed to be heavy on the action, and much lighter on the Bryan Adams ballads than the last big Robin Hood hit, Prince of Thieves.

Toy Story 3D - their owner's a big kid now, so Buzz, Woody and the rest of the gang get donated to a daycare center. Hijinks ensue. The last two movies were great, so I've no reason to think this one won't be, too.

Shrek Forever After - the final Shrek film. Even having seen some previews, I have no idea what it's about. I wasn't a big fan of Shrek 3, so I'm reserving judgment on this one. Nothing I've seen so far really made me want to see it.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time - a Disney flick turning a computer game into an arabian adventure that looks surprisingly awesome based on the previews I've seen. I'm optimistically putting this one in the "likely to be good" category.

Splice - two rogue scientists create an entirely new life form. From what I've seen, I think it then goes berserk and eats them or something, but I'm not sure. I'm reserving judgment on this one, too. I need to see or hear more about it. It's got an intriguing premise though - sort of Frankenstein updated for the genetic age.

The A-Team - a blatant remake of the old 80s TV series, with Liam Neeson replacing the cigar-chomping George Pappard. I loved the show as a kid, but the premise of every single episode was insipid and ridiculous, so I'm not holding much optimism for this movie.

The Karate Kid - another blatant remake, this one takes place in China instead of Los Angeles, and puts Will Smith's kid in the lead role made famous by Ralph Macchio and action hero Jackie Chan in the teacher role played brilliantly the first time by the late Pat Morita. This ranks high on my list of movies that don't need a remake, particularly one where there's no actual karate for the kid to learn. Karate's a Japanese martial art, and all the scenes I've seen of the new film feature Chinese Kung-fu instead. I'm calling this a "skip" and I rather hope it flops. Learn to leave the classics alone. Strike first, strike hard, no mercy!

Jonah Hex - an adaptation of a comic book about a Civil War-era soldier (Hex, played by Josh Brolin) who has been brutalized and scarred by his evil nemesis, but kept alive through some sort of magic. I'm not sure about this one, honestly. It could be a more action-oriented "Unforgiven" or it could be a campy "Wild Wild West." I'll let some other folks check this one out - at best I'm thinking it's a Netflix candidate for sometime over the winter.

Twilight: Eclipse - I only know what I've heard about this series (based on the bestselling novels) online, so I don't feel right commenting on it. Sparkly vampires vs. werewolves with lots of teen-girl angst is the impression I get. The trailer did look pretty cool. This is, I believe, part 3 in a series.

The Last Airbender - this is another one I don't know much about. I think it's based on a Japanese manga cartoon about a little Shaolin monk-type boy with magical powers.

Predators - based on the classic Arnold Schwartzenneger film of the 80s, this version features names like Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, and Laurence Fishburne. Ok, I mean, Fishburne's pretty cool - I particularly liked him in The Matrix and The Tuskegee Airmen. But really, there's nobody here who even comes close to the majesty that was Ahnold, plus Jessie Ventura and Rocky's Carl Weathers. I'm thinking this is a "maybe" at best, and I'm not even sure I'm that optimistic.

Despicable Me - an animated feature starring Steve Carrell as an also-ran super-villain who meets some orphans and has a change of heart. Meh - I haven't been impressed with the previews I've seen so far. It could be a huge hit, but right now it looks like snores-ville to me.

Inception - the director of the recent Batman movies, Chris Nolan, brings us Leonardo DiCaprio as a guy who can force people into dreams and then manipulate those dreams to steal their secrets. He's come to hate what he's doing and wants to make one last big score before he gets out of the game. Has a lot of buzz, but so far I'm not sure I'm sold on it.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice - a live-action film based on the classic segment from Disney's Fantasia. Stars Nicholas Cage, Monical Bellucci and Alfred Molina. I've seen nothing about it so far, so it's a big question-mark for me.

Salt - Angelina Jolie plays a government agent who may actually be a Russian double-agent planning to assassinate the President or the one person who can save him. Think Jason Bourne with long hair. I think this movie looks terrific and I can't wait to see it.

The Expendables - It shouldn't be possible to pack so much potential for awesome into one action flick, but combining the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Mickey Rourke, Danny Trejo, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger ought to be able to pull it off if anyone can. This is probably the one movie this year that I'm most afraid might suck and am most hoping won't. They play a team of mercenaries who take on an especially deadly mission because it's the right thing to do.

Machete - this is just all kinds of funny. It's a mexsploitation film sort of along the lines of his 1995 film "Desperado." It features Danny Trejo, who for his entire career has always been the "huge Mexican guy with the big knife" in the background of a wide array of different films. For the first time (that I'm aware of) he gets to play the leading man - a guy known as "Machete" who is hired to assassinate a controversial politician played by none other than Robert De Niro. Except it's a set-up, and he's actually been hired to be killed in the act, thereby justifying the politicians anti-Latino platform. Except (dun-dun-dun!) they miss. Now Machete is coming to get them. Features an all-star cast including Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, Cheech Marin (as a twin-shotgun-wielding priest!), Steven Seagal and Don Johnson. Ok, granted, Seagal and Johnson's glory days are well past and it's questionable whether Lohan ever really had any, but still, that's a decent cast and the film looks like a riot of over-the-top violence typical of Robert Rodriguez films.

Those are the big summer movies that I know of. There could well be a couple others that have slipped by under my radar, but that should be the bulk of them. Honestly, it's all gravy after Iron Man 2 - that movie has already made my summer in terms of entertainment. Hopefully a few more of these will be worth seeing as well.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Virtual Vellum's Sordid Past

My allergies have been messing with my head lately so I'm taking the day off from my blog.

However, I was doing a web search and found a site where Virtualvellum.com was on a list of expired web domains as of 2007. This made me wonder - "Hey, somebody had this domain before me. I wonder what they used it for."

So off I went to the "Wayback Machine," the Internet Archive where you can look up old websites and see what they looked like on various dates. Well, ahem. Apparently Virtualvellum.com was owned by a site of, shall we say, ill repute from 1998 through 2002. It looks like it was just a redirect - if you went to virtualvellum.com, it pointed you to some other site, but still. Ugh. How sordid!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My Big Fat Fingers

I haven't written much about playing the guitar in a while. There hasn't been overly much to say. I'm coming up on a year and while I can bang away at some some songs in an almost passable fashion, there's not much I can play that's really listenable. Which, I suppose, is consistent with someone who's only been playing for a year. I guess. I don't know - I expected more by now.

I have a fair number of issues. I screw up easily, even on stuff I ought to know. There are certain chords that I have a VERY difficult time hitting, including F, Bm, B-flat and, oddly, Dm (which shouldn't really be all that hard). Combine the screw-ups with the chords that I just don't play well, and practically any song will sound off.

Also, as my guitar teacher endlessly (and correctly) reminds me, I tend to play too fast. I'm just not good with tempo, I guess.

But by far my biggest personal disappointment is that I seem to be physically incapable of only hitting one string at a time. No matter how I place my hand on the neck and my fingers on the strings, I invariably will hit the string next to the string I'm aiming for, just enough to mute it. Sometimes, if I set up my fingers really, really carefully, I can avoid this and get a chord to ring out pure like it's supposed to. Which, you'd think, would mean that I ought to be able to train myself to ALWAYS play like that and therefore ALWAYS sound like I want. Which may be true, but in practice even when I get my fingers right where they're supposed to be, within a few seconds of actually trying to play I find them touching the other strings again. I don't seem to be capable of holding them there without extreme concentration and remaining perfectly still (which, you can imagine, is contra-indicated for anyone attempting to play the guitar which tends to involve a fair amount of moving your hands and fingers around).

Worse, sometimes I CAN'T get a pure note, no matter how much time and effort I put into arranging my fingers just so. I can wiggle and stretch and do everything up to and including using my other hand to put them exactly where I want them and I just doesn't help - that finger is simply too thick not to brush against the next string over.

Honestly, I'm finding this extremely demoralizing. I'm never going to get the sound I want out of the instrument if I can't fix this. I joked to my instructor that I'm tempted to glue pencil erasers to the tips of my fingers so I'll have something narrow that I can use to get in there and hit just a single string. I'm not entirely sure it's a joke, though. If such a prosthesis existed, I'd be sorely tempted to try it out.

In terms of content, my son and I are trying to learn yet another scale. To date, we've never learned any of the 4-5 scales we've been assigned well enough to play it consistently without screwing it up (even after weeks of consistent practice), much less be able to play it as a solo while the other player (my son or me) plays a blues rhythm along with it. That's supposed to be our current goal with the E Phrygian mode we're working on now, but I don't see it happening anytime soon. I don't think I've ever made it through the whole thing (after 4-5 days of practice) without messing it up. We've also gone back to some of the older scales since we're pretty rusty on them. Same deal - at least one screw-up every time we play it).

We can play Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" passably well, though we struggle with certain particular spots and I struggle in general with the B-flat barre chords.

I'm really enjoying working on "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas. We got the intro (the first 16 measures before the vocals begin) some months ago and worked and worked and worked on it. It's not really hard, but learning the finger-picking pattern well enough to play it without messing up all the time takes some effort. Now I'm moving on to the first verse and it's MUCH harder. The intro is nice - there are three C chord variants and 3 A chord variants and they simply rotate - you play the three Cs, then the three As, then the Cs again (starting with a different variant but still playing all three in the same order) then the As (again, starting with a different variant than the first time around). Once you master the picking-pattern, learning the six chord variants is really pretty easy. And the finger-picking pattern never changes throughout the intro.

Once you're out of the intro, though, it's time to go to school bigtime. Both of the things that made the intro easy(ish) are gone. The picking-pattern which, in the intro, had been the same four strings over and over, is shot to hell because the chords now use all six strings. Oddly, even the Am chord, which was IN the intro, has an extra string added just to confuse me. Oh, and that extra string sounds like crap, by the way, because it's always muted by my fat finger on the string next to it.

Anyway, the pick-pattern is still similar, but vastly more complex because it's bouncing around between five and six strings. In addition, the chords are ALL different (even the one - Am -that's technically the same is changed because of the pick-pattern, noted above) and they occur in no related or predictable order. Instead of C-C-C, A-A-A, C-C-C, A-A-A, you now have C-G/B-A-A, G-D-A-A. Ugh, it's a mess. And it's the song where the muted strings are most noticeable, because of all the finger-picking. When you pick at a muted string, it sounds way different than it's supposed to, and where I'm expecting to hear pure high notes I'm just hearing dull thunks instead. It's disheartening.

My instructor keeps telling me I'll figure it out and I want to believe him, but honestly I don't. I think if I were going to figure it out, I'd be getting better at it after a year and I'm just not. Intellectually I know there are guys out there with fingers the size of bratwursts who play the guitar beautifully. That doesn't change the little voice inside me that keeps saying "Yeah, but you really, really, really try to do it, and it just never works. If it were possible, you'd have done it by now."

I don't plan to stop playing or anything. Not right away. But every time I hear one of those dull, muted chords, it takes some of the enjoyment out of playing the instrument, and that's the opposite of what's supposed to be going on. If I ever do get over this problem, I'll be sure to post about it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

[Movie Review] Iron Man 2

I was a huge fan of the first Iron Man movie, somewhat to my own surprise. I never really read the Iron Man comics, so I didn't come to the film with a wealth of knowledge or a big sense of devotion to the character(s). Iron Man was always a peripheral character for me, a minor player who wandered into some of the comics I did read, such as Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and other Marvel titles.

The original Iron Man just blew me out of my seat. Tony Stark was a complete anti-hero - a rich, spoiled billionaire playboy, sort of like Bruce Wayne without all the brooding. As a character, he had to undergo a transformation and have his eyes opened in order to come into his own as a do-gooder. He also had to be betrayed by one of his closest advisers to realize who his true friends were. The combination of outstanding action scenes plus Tony Stark's engineering exercises along with some hysterically funny dialogue and situations came together to make Iron Man a spectacular film, one that I've since re-watched many times and continue to enjoy.

I was very worried that Iron Man 2 would lose some of its humor. Based on the reaction of the audience I was with, I might conclude that it had, because they didn't seem to laugh at anything. Luckily, though, I was there too and was able to guffaw where appropriate. It was, once again, a very clever, funny movie with some witty banter to keep me amused in between scenes of destruction.

Iron Man 2 is actually much more complex and, therefore, daring than the first movie. The original basically just had to juggle Tony vs. his supposed friend and business partner Obadiah Stane. Tony escaped from captivity, built and upgraded his suit, and took on a band of militant Afghanis, but then it turned out all of that had been organized by Stane in an effort to oust and destroy Stark. So the whole film was really Stark vs. Stane, culminating in the huge battle between Stark as Iron Man and Stane as Iron Monger.

Iron Man 2 has tremendously more conflict. There's Tony Stark's (Roberty Downey Jr.) rivalry with second-string weapons developer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). There's his rivalry with the US Government, personified by Senator Stern (Gary Shandling). There's the vendetta of Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke). There's his semi-betrayal by frustrated friend and Air Force Lt. Col. James 'Rhodey' Rhodes (Don Cheadle this time). And there's his complex relationship with Nick Fury's (Samual L. Jackson) S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, which is slowly revealing itself as a serious behind-the-scenes player in the Marvel universe. And, naturally, Tony has his own personal demons to battle as well, from the physical toll his own technology is taking on his body to his feelings for his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwynneth Paltrow). Whoa! That's WAAY more complex than the first film.

I've read reactions to the film that said it jumped around too much between characters. Rubbish! This is no Spider-Man 3 here, even if it did have Stark busting loose and then busting up a dance party at one point. This was an outstanding blend of character development, surprises, and action scenes, all laced with the irreverent Stark wit and even some clever one-liners from Rhodes as the armored War Machine.

There were certainly some opportunities for further development and I wouldn't have minded if it had been a little longer (it sure didn't FEEL like 124 minutes. Wow - I'm amazed it was longer than 90) to better explore some of the questions. For instance, when Tony tears up the dance party, I THINK we were supposed to understand that he wasn't drunk, so much as suffering ill-effects from his own technologies. But I wasn't sure that was the case. But that's a minor nit compared to the overall excellence of this movie. Pay no attention to the nay-sayers. Iron Man is the first big hit of the 2010 Blockbuster Movie Season. More, it totally lived up to my expectations as a sequel, and I admit I was very worried that it wouldn't. The marketing and hype for this movie reached a fever pitch, and it's insanely hard to live up to that level of expectation. Iron Man 2 did it, though, and any fan of action blockbusters or superhero films will be well served by seeing it. I give Iron Man 2 an A+.

Oh, and if you go to see it, stay through the (incredibly long, I'll grant you) credits for a super-short sneak-peak at Marvel's next big adventure.

Monday, May 10, 2010

[Book Update] Cataclysm!

This isn't so much an update, but since I never enabled tagging it helps make it easy to find these related topics if I always title them that way.

No, this article is about Cataclysms. Boom! Big, bad, destructive, world-changing, apocalyptic, catastrophic, armageddonous events. In English, those are about all the words you get for that concept. It's one of those things you can only refer to in a relatively limited number of ways.

I have a cataclysmic event in my novel. It's a post-apocalyptic urban fantasy, after all, and the only way to get to the post-apocalyptic part is if, at some point (past or present) there has to be an apocalypse. And, if there are survivors, they're going to call it something. We've had minor cataclysms in the last few decades, events like 9/11 and Katrina, where we've named them and everyone instantly knows what we're talking about. I decided a year or more ago that people would probably, logically, refer to my event as "The Cataclysm." That could still change if I come up with something I think is better, but for now, that's what I've been using.

Here's the problem - when you're writing a sizeable work, you become very sensitive to any other work you encounter that seems to use similar themes, plots or terms. The last thing you want is to put thousands of hours of effort into an original work and have somebody (or, worse, lots of people) proclaim, "oh, well, it's just a knock-off of [writer X's] work."

So there I am reading my kids the Dragonlance novels, and I see that in that fantasy realm there was once a world-shattering event (literally) that they all call The Cataclysm. And then I see that the new World of Warcraft expansion will ALSO be called the Cataclysm. Which actually helps me feel a little better.

Let me explain - there's a reason why we'd all use the same term. That's because there just aren't that many alternatives. Short of making up a new word or finding a suitable "Katrina-esque" name, you're pretty well stuck with the half-dozen or so we already have. And you can be darn sure that other writers of novels, movies, TV shows and whatnot have been up one side and down the other of whichever word you pick. I try hard to tell myself that everytime I stumble across a term or concept that's central to my work and prominent in someone else's.

Ok, so here is an update - chapter 11 has been totally re-written and, as usually seems to happen, it's now gigantic. The old chapter 11 has been smashed together with the old chapter 12, which makes the new chapter 12 also gigantic. It will need some serious editing. Chapter 13, on the other hand, has been gutted in order to create chapter 6b, so it needs to be re-written. If I can get the new 12 and the new 13 finished this week, I'll be very happy.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Decision Points

Sometimes you can look back on your day and identify the critical junctures where things went completely off the deep end. Monday was such a day for me. Most of the day was standard stuff - writing, re-writing, getting stuff ready for my Writer's Roundtable meeting that night. And ready I was, until my wife came home and told me that somehow she'd made it all the way to work and back on a nearly-empty tank of gas, and that the car was - still - nearly empty.

Decision Point #1 - stop for gas on the way to the meeting, or try to make it there and back?
Factors involved - the earliest to arrive at the meeting get first dibs on the sign-up sheet to read that night. If you want a prime spot - one that falls after everyone has arrived but before folks who have to duck out early have begun to disperse - then you need to get there early. Despite NOT having stopped for gas, my wife had gotten home late and the clock was very much ticking.
Decision - I was in the left-turn lane to get gas and decided, "screw it - I'll just go."
Result - had I gone for gas first, I'd have arrived later at the meeting place, run into different (more informed) people, and had a full tank of gas. Instead:

Decision Point #2 - we get to the meeting spot - a local Denny's restaurant - and discover that we don't have the room reserved for the night. A little voice in the back of my head says "Oh yeah, we couldn't reserve our regular room on the first Monday in may - some other group had it already. We were supposed to go somewhere else." The question becomes, what to do - do I run off to the next nearest Denny's, where rumor has it we have the room reserved, or do I wait around for other members of the group and see what they want to do?
Factors involved - there's a waitress at the first Denny's who flat out tells us our meeting is at Denny's #2. How she knows this I have not idea, as it turned out to be flat wrong. The clock is still ticking if I want to get a good slot in which to read my work. But the rest of the group is probably lost, too.
Decision - I go for it. I hop in the car and run back up the highway to a Denny's I had already passed once on the way to our regular meeting place.
Result - Yeah, wrong Denny's again. The manager at Denny's #2 has no idea who we are, but we're not the Ham Radio Club who has reserved the room for the evening. I've wasted more time, more gas, and now have no idea where I'm supposed to be. Some phone calls later, we catch up with the group's president, who's back at Denny's #1. Eventually we all realize that we're supposed to be way across town at Denny's #3. It's now late, I'm very grumpy (partly because I hadn't eaten yet, I'm sure), and I don't have nearly enough gas to make it to Denny's #3.

Factoid - there is a gas station near my house that routinely has some of the cheapest gas in town. Most other gas stations I pass are anywhere from a few cents to nearly a dime higher than my nearby Citgo. That was the gas station to which I would have gone in Decision Point #1 had I chosen differently.

Decision Point #3 - to go to Denny's #3 or not?
Factors involved - It's already 6:15 PM - the time the meeting is supposed to start. We're all going to be late, but it's going to cut into the time available to read. Also, it's possible that there will end up being a smaller than usual group as people fail to find the correct location or give up trying. A smaller group means more time to read my work, but the quality of the critiques can suffer depending on who's absent. So even getting to the meeting successfully could end up being something of a bust. Also I'm cranky. AND, going to the meeting means buying the nearest gas I can find, likely costing me a hefty chunk of change more than I'd spend at my local Citgo where I was planning to buy my gas. It'll add up to something less than a dollar, but it's the principle of the thing! Did I mention that I'm cranky at this point? Cuz I was.
Result - I'm grumpy at the whole meeting thing. I'm grumpy that I forgot about it, I'm grumpy that nobody reminded me beforehand (so I could have notified the rest of the group), I'm grumpy that I haven't eaten, I'm grumpy that I've already driven to two places and am now faced with going to a third, and I'm still grumpy that my wife didn't just put gas in the car in the first place. Aaaargh! I decide to bag the meeting for the night - I'm just not in the right frame of mind.

Factoid - once a month, there's a meeting of the Guitar League. I'd gone to it one time and decided I liked it enough to go back. Sadly, it's also on Monday nights, which means I'd need to skip the writer's group to attend.

Decision Point #4 - Hey, the Guitar League meeting doesn't start until 7:00. I could still get gas, go home to grab my guitar, and make it to the meeting in time! Should I?
Factors involved - basically none. Sounds like a plan, let's do it!
Result - remember back in decision #1 when I decided not to get gas first? Well, I still need gas. So I make it home (with the "low gas" light flashing at me most of the way) and drive over to my local Citgo for some nice, cheap gas. I drive up to the pump and there's a message on it about "Loading..." I can see a guy nearby who appears to have successfully completed a purchase at HIS pump. Um, ok. I'll just wash my windows while I wait. By the time I finish, the message has changed to "Unable to accept payment at this pump. Please see attendant to pay." Well, OK, the pump at the next island over is working, I'll just drive over there. Except by the time I get there I see that same message. Aargh! Ok, I go inside. There's a line. A long line. And it ain't moving. Apparently the problem they're having is preventing transactions inside, too. Aaargh! My whole plan (the second one of the night so far) is disintegrating! Again!

But I must have gas, I'm running on fumes. I decide to run up to the next closest gas station, a Fastrack that's usually only a few cents more expensive. It's not really a decision point, because I'm basically out of options. I manage to make to the gas station and I see that the gas is $3.05 a gallon. That seems rather high, but I forgot to check the price at Citgo. It's probably pretty close. Again, it's not as if I have options. I fill 'er up and head for home. It's now dubious whether I can make it to the Guitar League in time or not.

I pass the Citgo. Price for gas there (assuming they were actually able to, you know, sell some): $2.97 per gallon. Yes, I left the station with the cheapest gas in the area and paid exactly what I would have paid anywhere else and then some - a difference in total price of about $1.00. I have now missed both my Writer's meeting and my Guitar League meeting, AND I've over-paid for gasoline. I've reached the pinnacle, the very zenith of grumpiness.

I go home. On the way I think back about my decisions, and the choices I COULD have made instead:

Decision #1 - the better choice would seem to have been to have gone and gotten gas right then. The Citgo pumps would have still been working, so I'd have saved a buck and been gassed up for the night. I'd have arrived later at Denny's when the group's President was already there, and would not have gone hauling off to Denny's #2 for no reason (Decision point #2 eliminated). I likely would have gone on to Denny's #3 and had a good meeting (Decision Point #3 resolved). OR, I might still have decided to go to the Guitar League, but I would not have had to stop for gas, so I'd probably have made it in time (Decision Point #4 resolved). The entire evening's debacle can be traced back to that one point where I was already in the left lane and decided "screw it" and turned right instead.

Of course, it's also possible that Decision #1 saved me from dying in a fiery car wreck, my full tank of gas lighting up the evening sky after a run-in with an out-of-control tractor trailer. Who knows? I ended up going home, making myself a burger on the grill and reading to my kids, which all-in-all isn't a bad night at all. It's just not the night I'd had in mind.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Is Facebook Facebad?

The other day, I found a neat article on Lifehacker titled Top Ten Reasons You Should Quit Facebook. I noticed that, like all Lifehacker articles, it had a "Share via Facebook" link. The irony was too delicious to ignore - posting a link on Facebook to an article about the top reasons to quit Facebook. I couldn't resist.

But you might wonder - what are my real thoughts about Facebook? Bottom line - it doesn't really matter what I think. Facebook is here to stay, barring several factors coming into play simultaneously. For Facebook to go away, you'd need:
  • A serious, grass-roots campaign to get people off of Facebook
  • A legitimate alternative to Facebook that provided similar functionality with few(er) downsides
  • An accelerant of some kind. A form of "starter fluid" that blew up in enough peoples' faces to convince everyone else that it really was in their best interests to flee.
This doesn't appear to be happening, however, so I don't think Facebook is going anywhere right now. That's despite the almost weekly reports of serious security flaws, security breaches, and privacy shenanigans on the part of this ubiquitous social networking site.

Just yesterday, it was reported that a flaw in the Facebook software had exposed supposedly-private chat messages to anyone on your friends list. Just a few weeks ago, four US Senators asked Facebook to address privacy issues with the site. (article on CNN.com). US politicians aren't especially well-known for their web-savvy, so if these fellows are concerned, there's a pretty good chance that there's cause to be.

My problem with Facebook isn't so much the personally identifying information it exposes. Your name, address, phone number, birthdate and a wealth of other information is easily available already to anyone who wants it. No, I have two other issues with Facebook.

The first is the assumption of privacy that it offers and then repeatedly seems to violate. Facebook gives the illusion to people who don't know any better that their information is being shared only with designated recipients. But Facebook's current direction is clearly to open up that information to paying customers as a way to generate revenue, and that's wrong.

The second issue is tangentially related to the first. It has to do with the information Facebook can collect and share about you that you don't even realize exists. It isn't your email address, rather it's demographic info about what you like, where you shop, what sites you visit online, and a wealth of other factual data that, when you think about it, is deeply personal. It allows them to establish an online identity for you that includes information YOU don't even know - like how often you visit certain sites or your browse-to-buy ratio. It's not clear (to me) how much of this 360-degree virtual identity is already in place and how much is still under construction, but it's definitely the direction Facebook is working toward for one big reason - they can SELL that virtual clone of you to marketers who can then tailor their advertising specifically to you, luring you to buy stuff you may or may not want and using a detailed psychological profile to make it as enticing as possible. It's Big Brother on steroids.

There are certainly a lot of things to like about Facebook. It's an easy way to share your thoughts, interests, news and greetings with friends and family in a manner that's even less intrusive than email - it's completely up to them whether to read it or not, and they don't even have to delete it if they're not interested.

I also REALLY like one of the most privacy-invasive features - the ability to login to certain websites using your Facebook ID, thus saving you the time and effort of creating separate usernames at multiple websites around the Internet. This convenience comes with a hefty privacy price, however, and it's not one anybody goes out of their way to tell you about. Every time you link a website to Facebook, you've both filled in another big piece of their "Virtual Identity" puzzle about you, and you've also potentially given an intruder access to your online identity at a wide array of sites. In other words, someone who hacks your Facebook account suddenly has the ability to become YOU not just on Facebook, but on any other site that you've linked to via Facebook. That's extremely dangerous and should be used with caution and with your eyes wide open regarding the potential consequences.

I'm not what you'd call a Facebook enthusiast. I use it, I check it at various times throughout the day, and I sometimes use the login feature at websites where I'm not concerned about the integrity of my online identity. I wouldn't be heartbroken if the site went out of business tomorrow, but I don't think that's likely, either. Facebook is here for the long haul, the question is whether its users will be able to get informed about the risks its use entails and take steps to minimize its negative impact on their lives. Like with so many other things, I doubt this will happen to any great degree without that missing accellerant I referenced above.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Office 2010 Beta Review Part 2 - The Improvements

Yesterday I complained about the things that have been driving me crazy with the Office 2010 Beta. To be clear, a Beta is expected to have bugs - it's a form of software quality testing where you get lots of people banging away on your software and hopefully uncover issues before it formally goes to market. However, my experience with Microsoft products has always been that they're largely bug-free at the Beta Test stage, so to find a piece of software with such a wide range of problems is hugely surprising and disturbing to me. Perhaps as some sort of karmic retribution, I experienced an entirely new problem after publishing the first part of my review. As I was typing in a document, Word let me type and type right down off the bottom of the window without ever adjusting to let me actually see the text I was creating. I had to manually scroll the page. Nuts, huh?

But for today's article, let's assume that all of these bugs have been fixed. I reported nearly all of them (except yesterday's - it's kind of late at this point, since the software is already available to corporate subscribers), so we should hope they'll be purged from the final product, right? Yeah, I don't know either, but let's operate on that assumption anyway.

Today - the reasons I liked Office 2010

Office is actually Microsoft's cash-cow. They make more money off of Office than practically everything else they do combined. As such, it was a little bit surprising that they made so few real improvements for the better part of a decade. From Office 95 through Office 2003, each new version was a largely incremental upgrade. In fact, most of the companies I've worked for skipped at least one version because it just wasn't worth the hassle of upgrading. Well, Office 2010 is a little bit like that, to be honest. It's definitely an evolutionary change rather than the revolutionary change we got with Office 2007.

But Office 2007 was so brilliant, that coming along with a version that corrects its few key deficiencies is worthwhile. Office 2007 tipped over the apple cart, dramatically changing the software's interface and even creating a new file-storage format that's supposed to result in much smaller documents. File size bloat had been one of Office's problems for many years, so this was a welcome change. Likewise, powerful programs like Word had a dizzying array of features and functions, but many of them were buried so deeply that most people didn't know where to find them. For those power-users like me who did know where they were, it was sometimes too much of a hassle to dig down into the menus, sub-menus and property sheets to use them. Office 2007 put it all right out there on the ribbon where you could find it (once you got used to the changes).

But Office 2007 wasn't perfect. For one thing, certain applications like Outlook didn't get the memo on the updates - they went merrily along without the new features that were so exciting and revolutionary. Office 2010 corrects that by giving every application - including Outlook and OneNote - the Ribbon.

One of the other big changes in Office 2007 I didn't care for as much - the all-powerful file menu was removed in favor of the obscure and inscrutable Office Menu Button - a round button with a squiggle in it that most users easily overlooked as just window-dressing. Office 2010 wisely gives back the file menu, which it locates right in the classic position at the upper-left of the screen, alongside the names of the different Ribbon tabs. Now, here's a caution - looking up "Office 2010 screenshots," several of them showed not a File menu item in that location, but a return to the inscrutable "office symbol," so who knows what's going on. I can't tell if those shots were taken before or after the Beta that I've been using. Anyway, I thought it was a big improvement and if they've backed away from it in the finished version, I think that's a huge mistake.

My other favorite feature also crosses all applications - the upgraded "paste" button. There's a little menu under the Paste button on the ribbon, now, that lets you select between options such as a regular paste, paste as an image, or my favorite - paste text only. When I'm copying and pasting between the web and a document, for instance, I usually want to ditch the colors, fonts, sizes and hyperlinks and just get the raw text. Now it's super-easy. I can either preemptively click the "paste text only" button, or I can use the little pop-up menu that appears after I paste and click the option from there after the fact. Either way, it's a BIG improvement for me, and one I use all the time.

Application-by-application, here are some of the other things I liked:

OneNote
I've used OneNote very extensively over the last five months, and I found very little that I didn't like. I strongly recommend it to writers or anyone who needs to keep track of massive amounts of research, notes, or other written information. It has a new file-format that's not compatible with prior versions of OneNote, which is sad, but the new format included some really nice features, like added levels of indentation to the tabs along the right-hand side, allowing for more intricate classification of whatever you're taking notes about.

Word
The File Menu has some terrific features, including a print-preview that's built into a whole list of print options. The right-click menu continues to evolve as well, placing useful features right where you can get to them quickly. The research tools have also been beefed up and are tightly tied to the right-click menu, making it really easy to be sure you're getting the words you want. I'd like to see the the thesaurus and dictionary expanded to include some of the more uncommon words that writers like to sprinkle into their work, as sometimes when I've used them I've found that they didn't represent well on the thesaurus list or, in some cases, the dictionary didn't even know what to make of them.

Outlook
The addition of the Ribbon is the biggest improvement you'll see in Outlook, but it has some nice additions as well. One of the more notable new features is the way that Outlook now allows users to group messages into "conversations" for a more granular level of control.

Those were the three apps I used enough to feel comfortable commenting on them, and I have to acknowledge that I really didn't spend a lot of time with Outlook. Office 2010 is another evolutionary update to this software, which is probably OK. If every version is a radical change, people are going to get annoyed. I certainly heard my share of whining and complaining about the Office 2007 upgrade. But the improvements in 2010 are smart, appropriate, and, in many cases, are features you'd wish they'd included in Office 2007 in the first place. Each individual will need to decide if the improvements are worth shelling out 500 bucks for (I sure wouldn't), but there are certainly some good changes there to look at. If you're not on 2007 already, then 2010 is probably the right time to dive in and make the switch.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Office 2010 Beta Review Part 1 - What's Not to Like

You'll note that there's no question-mark at the end of this article's title. This is a list of what I don't like about Office 2010.

I've been using the Beta since November, which is a pretty good, long time to evaluate a piece of software. I wrote about a significant bug that I ran across back in December, but I've put off a full review for a few reasons. First, I kept thinking that at some point I'd use a few more of the applications enough to form an opinion about them. That just never happened, though, and it isn't likely to between now and June when it's available at retail. Corporate availability began last week. So today and tomorrow, I'll present my two-part review of Office 2010 based on the beta. I'm not sure when I'll get my hands on the full-release version, and if I'm not convinced that they've fixed these bugs, I might never bother. For the many nice, evolutionary upgrades from Office 2007 to Office 2010, I can't remember ever being so frequently and frustratingly distracted by bugs as I have been using the Office 2010 beta.

By far, the two programs that I've spent the most time with are Word and OneNote, and I found no significant bugs or major complaints in OneNote. I'd love it if it were easier to get statistics on the total volume of a OneNote Notebook - in terms of word count and number of pages - but honestly this is just for my own fascination. It's not a necessity of any sort.

Outlook
I've also used Outlook enough to be familiar with it. I've got Office 2010's Beta loaded on my work/writing computer and I don't do much email handling on that machine. However, even with rather brief usage, I found a few things I didn't care for in the software.
  • The most minor issue was that a little icon in the upper corner of the Calendar pane disappears for some reason - it turns into a solid black square. It's a simple graphical artifact, but it's unexpected in a brand-new, fairly beefy PC running Windows 7 and Office 2010.
  • Next in order of increasing severity, is the lack of the nice big, prominent Send/Receive button that I use all the time. I'm a home user, accessing my mail from a hosted server at my ISP's datacenter. If left running, Outlook will go grab my new mail automatically every 15 minutes, but I always want to check and see what's waiting for me RIGHT NOW. To do that, I use the Send/Receive button that's always been right in the center of the toolbar on older version of Outlook. In Outlook 2010, you have two choices. There's a full-sized button you can use, but it's buried on one of the Ribbon tabs, meaning you need to click over to that tab, click the button, and then click a third time to return to the main (Home) ribbon. That's three clicks instead of one. Option 2 is to use a teensy little button that's up on the Quick Access Toolbar. It works, but it's small enough to be a nuisance to try to hit it.
  • Most irritating (and, to be fair, these issues are all irritants more than serious, debilitating issues) is the way Outlook's primary pane fails to adjust when new mail arrives. I prefer my new mail to appear at the bottom of my inbox list. I invert the "Received" column so that oldest mail is on top and new mail appears at the bottom. In older version of Outlook, this was never a problem - the list would shift up automatically to display new mail. In Outlook 2010, however, I've found I need to manually scroll down to see what's arrived (or even to know whether anything HAS arrived). This is annoying. It's exacerbated by the fact that the status bar at the bottom doesn't seem to tell me as clearly when Outlook has checked for mail and either found some or not found any.
The culmination of these admittedly minor issues is that Outlook 2010 feels a bit clunky, despite some positive changes like finally adding the Ribbon that the rest of Office got in version 2007. I'll delve more deeply into Outlook 2010's improvements in Part 2.

Word
There's no doubt that I use Word more than anything else. I've been using Word 2010 for 4-7 hours a day, nearly every day, since I installed it in November. That's a fair amount of time. And I have to admit, I'm pretty fed up with the bugs. I literally end up swearing at this piece of software multiple times every day. It's pretty disappointing for a Microsoft Beta which, in my experience, usually have bugs that you have to dig deeply to find. These bugs are right out there, swinging in my face like... well, anyway, they're annoying as hell. I'm not sure if these are in order of severity - they're generally pretty equal for the most part.
  • I'm not sure it's fair to call this a bug, but after using OneNote quite a bit, I got used to using CTRL + Period (.) to start a bulleted list. In Word, CTRL + Period does nothing as far as I can tell. This seems like a simple omission and an inconsistency that ought to be fixed.
  • I've seen my Header/Footer fields suddenly toggle to "Display Field Codes." For no evident reason. Worse, none of the searches I did in help were useful in getting me an answer. I ended up having to search through various option screens until I found the right check-box. It was not a good day.
  • For some reason, Word 2010 regularly and inexplicably opens existing files out of my Documents directory as "Read-only." It's completely inconsistent and random - I can close that file and re-open it and it will open correctly. But almost half the time, it opens as Read-only, almost always when I want to save the file with its current file-name, making it especially irritating (particularly when I don't notice it's read-only until after I've made a variety of changes). This is well into the realm of baffling and completely unacceptable, and is one of the things I end up swearing about on a daily basis.
  • Template files often won't open at all, but they do create "ghost" documents that hang around in the background and cause issues when you try to do things like shut down Windows. I have a couple of custom templates I like to use, but the only reliable way to open them is through the "File...New" menus, rather than just double-clicking on the file like I usually would.
  • I've seen my text selection go completely haywire. By text selection, I mean the effect you see onscreen when you click and drag your mouse pointer over a section of text in order to perform operations on it - cut, copy, change font, underline, etc. In one case, instead of the text selection color being the usual light gray, it was changing, line-by-line or sometimes partway through a line, to various other colors. Sometimes the selection color was white, which was impossible to see against the white background of Word's workspace. Other colors included purple and even brown - sometimes all within the same click and drag operation. One chunk of text was in white, the next line was half purple and half brown, and then brown continued onto the next line. It was completely bizarre. This issue finally went away, but it took multiple reboots and probably twenty minutes of lost time as I open and closed documents, did help searches that told me nothing, looked for any option I could have hit by accident to cause this effect, and basically spent a lot of time swearing at my computer and this software.
  • Lastly and perhaps most puzzling, was my attempt to combine multiple documents into a single file, using section breaks to change the behavior of some fields in the headers and footers. This failed utterly - the fields, which I had inserted using the "header/footer" buttons on the "insert" ribbon tab, simply refused to notice when the document changed sections. For instance, I wanted to be able to change the chapter name in each section, but any changes I made affected the entire document. In thinking about it later, I determined that I probably shouldn't have used fields, but should simply have typed text into the footer, but given the "footer style" I had selected from the list included with Word, doing so always caused the formatting to go all funky and look wrong. In the end, I gave up trying to do this - it just didn't work. I might be able to get it if I were willing to put in the time, but I think I called it quits after an hour or so. I've been using Word for something like 20 years - when it leaves me feeling like a complete novice, I lose patience with it eventually.
  • Most irritating of all is the fact that Word constantly eats my insertion point. It just disappears. That's right, the blinking vertical line that's supposed to tell you where you currently are in the document. If you type something, it appears at the insertion point and the insertion point is supposed to move to the right as you type. You also use it when you want to use backspace or delete to remove characters, words, etc. But in Word 2010, mine very very frequently just isn't there. Nothing. Nada. I can click all over the document and the invisible insertion point will move, but I won't be able to see where it is. I've found that if I double-click on the header or footer, then close the header/footer, I'll get my insertion point back, but this is supremely frustrating when you're trying to make a whole bunch of edits quickly and have to constantly stop and reclaim your insertion point. This one literally gets me worked up into a rage. I haven't smashed or broken anything, yet, but if I were Bruce Banner I'd be huge and green after dealing with this bug for a while.
Combined, these bugs (and a couple of others, such as how sometimes I'll open the header or footer and there won't BE a close button to click, or sometimes the page number field will just be a black rectangle - another graphical artifact) have left me very disappointed in Office 2010. I really, really like many of the evolutionary changes that the Office team has made, and I'll cover those in Part 2, but if I get the impression that the release-version of Office 2010 has even a couple of these Word 2010 bugs still unrepaired, I'll be sticking with Office 2007 for the foreseeable future.As it is, only sheer laziness has kept me from uninstalling it already and returning to Office 2007 on that PC.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Completed Journey - Stephen King's Dark Tower Graphic Novels

This weekend I picked up the last few issues of the 5-part (30-issue, I think?) graphic novel series Stephen King's The Dark Tower, and got to finish the whole thing. It's the story of Roland and his first ka-tet, beginning with him winning his guns from Cort and ending with the disastrous battle of Jericho Hill. It includes the time in Meijis/Hambry, of course.

They were written by Peter David, who's work I often like, based on plotlines developed by Robin Furth, King's research assistant during the final three novels of the series.

I thought the series was excellent. Each issue was about 70% story and 30% "other stuff." The "other stuff" included everything from reflections on the series by Furth and others to pencil sketches of both used and unused artwork. The best ones, though, had backstory on various aspects of the Dark Tower universe - Maerlyn's rainbow, Arthur Eld, poisons, magic, North Central Positronics, etc., etc.

My only regret, and it's a small one, is that I bought each issue as a comic, rather than getting the hardbound collected editions. I'd have liked to put that next to the original novels on my bookshelf. They're about $12-16 (for each of the five) on Amazon. If I had the money, I think I'd buy them anyway, and duplication be damned.

The series was extremely entertaining for a fan of the novels. I'm not sure how it would translate to somebody who wasn't familiar with them, though there seemed to be an effort made to introduce everything that might be confusing to someone who hadn't read the novels or hadn't read them recently.

If that's you, let's recap. The seven Dark Tower novels were begun by King in the early 1970s with his novel The Gunslinger. Loosely based on Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." It tells the story of Roland Deschain, last in a long line of gun-toting knights in a world that's dying. A world that, as it turns out, is at the center of all universes. It's an ancient world - a parallel world to Earth where civilization progressed to a level that science could do nearly anything, eventually becoming as magic. Then it destroyed itself, and Roland's people live in a distant aftermath of mutants, outlaws, marvelous but dangerous technical relics of the past, and legends great and terrible.

The series begins with the marvelous line, "The man in black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed." In the seven books of the series, Roland battles his way across at least two worlds, fighting everything from crazed robots to vicious bandits, vampires to demons.Along the way, he gathers to him a cadre of close companions, each with their own mental and physical demons to overcome. His ultimate goal, always is to find the Dark Tower, the structure that binds all universes together and which is under assault by the forces of chaos.

The comics, by and large, dealt with little of that journey. Instead, they covered the Gunslinger as a youth and the events that turned him into the hard, callous, unstoppable juggernaut that he becomes. There appears to be a new series beginning that will duplicate the events of the novels (some of them, anyway) in comic form, but I haven't yet decided whether to get those. The thing I liked about the comics was that they weren't (for the most part) just re-hashing the content of the novels. They were religiously based on the ideas and spirit of the novels and King acted as the Executive Director of the series, ensuring that they were faithful to his work. But they delved more deeply into some of King's best characters from the novels - Roland's childhood friends and teachers. His father. His mother. His enemies. Part of the series even goes back to tell part of the story of Arthur Eld, Roland's distant ancestor, and his own ka-tet of gunslinging knights (who are also the ancestors of Roland's faithful friends Alain and Cuthbert). One of King's strengths is certainly his characters, and the Dark Tower series has some terrific ones, ones who aren't necessarily fleshed out in the novels. The comics gave us the chance to meet and explore those characters in more detail.

Of course, one big advantage of the comics - if they're done well - is that you get to visually experience some of your favorite characters. Books let you use your imagination and, often, that's a marvelous way to spend your time. But a really skilled artist may render a character or scene in ways that you couldn't imagine because that's their talent. From the Crimson King in his spider-form to Susan Delgado to the whole court of Gilead, the graphic novel's artists explored the history of King's longest-running character in vivid detail.

The original comics may be tough to find as the series has been running for about five years, however the hardcovers are available at fine local comic stores like Comix Zone as well as at online retailers like Amazon.com.

I enjoyed this series tremendously - both the novels and the graphic novels - and I recommend the comics to fans of King's epic series.