Monday, January 31, 2011

[Novel] Progress!

A sort of progress, anyway. My writing goal for last week had three distinct levels - a "challenge" level, a "stretch" level, and a "normal" level. They looked like this:

Normal - complete edits and rewrites on Chapter 6
Stretch - complete edits and rewrites on Chapter 7
Challenge - complete edits and rewrites on Chapter 8

I'm pleased to say that I met the "stretch" level of my goal, successfully getting an edited Chapter 7 into my wife's waiting hands by the time she got home from work on Friday. I ended up making a fair number of revisions to Chapter 7, so I consider this a worthy accomplishment.

This week, on to Chapter 8. My recollection is that Chapter 8 needs a medium amount of revision, whereas Chapters 9 and 10 required rather minimal edits. If so, then completing up through Chapter 10 is my "Challenge" goal for the coming week. One caveat, though - I've always worried that Chapters 8-10, especially taken as a block, aren't sufficiently gripping. It may turn out to be necessary to make significant changes to them, which could throw my week out of whack. We'll see once I get into them. The good news, though, is that I finally feel like I'm moving ahead at last. Much of December and January seemed like slogging through honey - sweet and delicious, but freaking slow! I suppose my overall goal for February is to finish my re-writes of all existing chapters (up through 16) and be ready for new material in March. Ugh, that seems like an awfully long time, but it's probably the most realistic goal I can set at this point. Especially since the kids have a week of winter break coming up sometime soon, which will guarantee I get nothing done for that week. Wish me luck!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Right to Work!

Just a short entry today - I'm diving right in to work. It's been a pretty productive week, even factoring in an early stop yesterday so I could attend a piano recital at my kids' school.

I posted on Tuesday that I really wanted to get at least chapter 6 done, and chapter 7 would be awesome. Well, I expect to "finish" chapter 7 this morning, with one caveat. My wife has been busy and she's a little behind giving me a "final read" on thee chapters, so I likely won't get her feedback right away. I don't consider these chapters truly finished until I've had her eyes on them to make sure I haven't missed anything major. But hell, I'm thrilled that 6 and 7 are almost done. I'm going to start in on chapter 8 today, and it's actually not out of the realm of possibility that 8 could be done by end of day tomorrow. That puts me halfway through my written chapters, and I'm expecting several of my later chapters to need minimal re-writing, because I've re-written them extensively already. On the other hand, chapters 11 and 12 have a half-page of notes that need to go into them, so those will slow me down. Such is life - two steps forward and one step back is preferable to the other way around.

I've also gotten some fresh information from another friendly stranger about the history of Kenpo karate here in Central New York. I'm really starting to think again that a conversation with Rick Iannuzzo and possibly Master Thompson (if I can track him down) would be very helpful in understanding my style's lineage. I just want to make sure before I do that that I've done my homework to know what I'm talking about before I try to conduct interviews with these experts.

I also need to spend some time documenting and organizing what I've already learned. I'm not sure when I'll be doing that, though.

Lastly, I've managed to accumulate another handful of handwritten notes pages that I need to organize and enter into my OneNote notebooks so they'll be useful. They include lots of notes for my current novel, as well as a handful of fresh story ideas (for new novels or short stories that I haven't worked on yet) and the odd note for my two novels that are "in the works" but not currently being actively written. Which is to say, I've got tons and tons of notes, research and reference material for them, but I haven't actually sat down as started to write them. One of those novels is definitely next up when the current one is done, and where I go after that will depend on how long it takes to write it and where I stand with my current novel in terms of publication. If things were to go well and somebody bit on my first novel quickly, I'd need to break off any other work to get that one ready for publication and probably move straight on to its two sequels. But that's all way in the future and topped with a generous dollop of wishful thinking.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Super in the U.S.A.

America has a weird relationship with fictional superheroes. If a superhero movie is really good - like the original Christopher Reeve Superman, about half of the total Burton/Nolan Batman movies, the first two Spiderman movies, X-Men, etc. - Americans will embrace them. But comic books and graphic novels are still largely for geeks, and superhero media in general is pretty hit-or-miss, both in terms of quality and in terms of America's response.

Heroes, for instance, had an absolutely amazing first season, then it tanked and never ever got its mojo back. No Ordinary Family is doing pretty well, but will people stick with it and will it keep up the quality? The Cape is doing okay out of the gate, but hasn't exactly been a huge hit.

All of this made me wonder: why? Why are Americans luke-warm toward superheroes in general, and why is it so hard to make a great superhero story that captures peoples' attention?

Certainly the costumes can be a bit of a turn-off, if there are any. It's just hard to look cool in spandex, no matter what color it is or what you're doing.This is probably a big part of the reason that shows like Heroes, No Ordinary Family and even Smallville have tended to tone-down or avoid super-suits altogether.

Of course, eschewing the superhero outfit has its own down-side in terms of story. Without a mask, you're potentially recognizable, which puts your family in jeopardy. Also, in just ordinary clothes, it may be hard for the police to tell the hero from the villain, again putting you at risk. At the same time, these issues can create dramatic tension for the stories, so they're not entirely bad.

The powers themselves can be an issue, too. If the hero is unbelievably powerful, it's hard to create believable challenges for them that keep the story interesting. If the hero is too weak, it's potentially boring and offers too little material to keep a story going.

Moreover, the whole concept of superheroes existing in our daily lives is a tough nut to crack. How WOULD society react to these people? It seems likely that it would lead to all sorts of upheaval - hero supporters, vigilante protesters, and imitators, all looking to get involved. Then you've got the media, politicians, businesses and hucksters all looking to capitalize on the heroes and villains for their own nefarious purposes. It's a big mess, and the more "super" people you've got running around, the more the story has to account for peoples' reactions.

All of these issues aren't always handled well. There were no anti-spidey protesters in Spider-Man, but the anti-vigilante movement was a key aspect of the (far less successful) Watchmen film. When Tony Stark revealed his Iron Man identity in the Iron Man films, he got called before congress, but nobody except the police seem to have an opinion about Batman's antics.

Special effects and TV writing have come a long way since the arguable heyday of superhero television back in the 1970s, when you had the Six-Million-Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man all on network television. But modern shows are as challenged as ever to find their audience.

I suspect that someday "genre" fiction, whether Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Hero or whatever will become completely mainstream and commonly-accepted at last, but it's not there yet. For instance, a running gag in No Ordinary Family is the lab-assistant who regularly references the X-Men and has a signed picture of Battlestar Galactica's Laura Roslyn. It's a gag because being interested in those things - especially if you're an attractive, intelligent woman - is comical in our society, even still. You don't hear the football players in the locker room arguing about whether the Justice League could beat The Avengers (they totally could), or at least I assume they probably don't. After all, I'm a comics geek - when have I ever been in a football team's locker room?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

[Novel] Marching On

Everything about this novel is taking longer than anticipated. Some of it is, admittedly, slacking off on my part. I'm sure I could squeeze another few hours of writing out of each week if I trimmed here and there and forced myself to write instead of doing other things. Some of it is that I hit a tough spot and I have to get up and walk away for a bit so my brain can figure out how to handle it. Some of it is just that this takes longer than it seemed like it would. And some of it is fear. I know some of where I need to go next, but there are key details about how to get there that I'm really struggling with.

For example - and this is just a very high-level look at a major issue - how to get a group of people across a significant distance, largely unassisted, when the whole area is infested with vampires. And before you think of fifteen clever ways to solve the problem, realize that the conditions of the world in which the novel takes place will invalidate all of them. There's no technological solution. There's no "series of armor-reinforced way-stations". There's no negotiating with the vampires.

I've actually come up with 2-3 solutions for this, two of which involve making decisions that vampires in my fictional world "can't smell you if you're covered in X" or "are driven off by Y" or whatever, but I have to be careful with that. If I modify them too much, it weakens them as an overall threat. For instance, if they can be driven off by Y, and Y isn't really that scarce, then why doesn't everybody just apply Y to their whole town as a vampire prophylactic?

The other solution involves a magic item - or two of them, actually, each with a different purpose - but I've been struggling with how to get them into the hands of the right people at the right time without raising questions of "Then why didn't Character 1 just use the magic item before?"

It's all fairly complex, at least as it currently sits in my mind. By the time I have it all figured out and written, it'll probably be much more straightforward and logical to the reader, who won't ever know how much brain-power went into telling that part of the story.

The good news is that the extra time this is taking me has given me the time I needed to work through those difficult issues. The worst thing I could have done would have been to attack them aggressively, make up some shitty workarounds, and just push on. I'd have ended up having to go back and change them later, anyway, and the ripple-effect of changing something major is a monumental editing effort. You have to find every word, every sentence that references or is affected by the change and fix it in every chapter impacted. Miss just one, and you've blown your story's continuity, at least for any readers who notice the discrepancy. Plus, I'm really not a big fan of re-writing, which is another reason this is taking so long.

I'm lucky when it comes to writing. I'm good enough at it that I can produce passable work the first time through, particularly in terms of things like essays and college papers, where I'm being judged not based on what I'm capable of at my best, but against the rest of the class and the teacher's (usually low) expectations. In high school and college, I was pretty much always able to hand in a rough draft and get an A. It saved me, frankly, because I was religiously opposed to re-writing. I hated it and pretty much refused to do it.

Now, I'm much more passionate and personally-invested in my novel than I ever was in any of those papers, so I'm willing to re-write to get it as close to perfect as possible. But I'm not going to be enthusiastic about it and I'm not going to do it all that quickly. So it is that I've been dragging my feet a bit the last couple of months, slowly working my way through a second or third (or sometimes fourth) pass at each chapter beginning at, well, the beginning. I'm now "done" with the first six chapters (the prologue plus chapters 1-5) which actually feels great when I write it out like that. On the other hand, I have 17 chapters written so far, which means I'm only about a third of the way through the editing process, and then only on the first 1/3- to 1/2 of the novel. I need to get a move on. My goal for this week is to get through chapter 6 (a long one) for certain, and I'd love to get through chapter 7 as well. If I could get on into chapter 8, boy, I'd be on top of the world. But I'll settle for 6 & 7. At the rate I've been going, honestly, getting all the way through 6 would be a massive improvement.

So that's where we stand. I haven't written anything new for the book since I finished the prologue back in November, but I've made extensive revisions to all the early chapters and I'm really, really happy with where they are now. I'm very anxious to get on to chapter 17 and beyond, and I've been thinking hard about how to make the story progress once I'm ready to write the rest of the book. Stay tuned for more!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Attn: Business Owners. You Suck at Facebook

So you've decided you want to promote your business through the magic of social networking. You want to communicate with your customers, share information about your business, and possibly generate revenue by leveraging the friends of your existing customers. That's all well and good, but don't screw it up! For the purposes of this article, I'm going to deal with Facebook because it's far and away the most popular, successful social networking site.

There are a handful of different types of "pages" on Facebook. Choose the wrong one, and you minimize your potential business impact, miss out on useful tools for tracking activity, and even potentially frustrate your customers. Like me.

"Personal" pages - these are sort of the basic Facebook pages. They're intended for real, live, regular people. Not businesses, not celebrities, not associations, not schools, just PEOPLE. DO NOT use this sort of page for your business. I'll discuss why below.

"Group" pages - luckily you can no longer create these, but the old ones still linger. They suck. They were intended for clubs, associations, and other, well, groups who needed a dedicated gathering place online and wanted to control who was able to join. Group pages could be "open," allowing anyone to join, or "closed," where you needed permission to join. DO NOT use this sort of page for your business. Again, I'll explain below.

Here's a picture of what you actually see these days when you click the "create new page" link in Facebook:

"Community" pages - these are sort of the replacement for groups, I think. Sort of. Anyway, they're intended for groups of people who share some common interest, from organizations to charitable causes to political activism. They're not intended for businesses. DO NOT use this sort of page for your business.

An "Official Page" - ah-ha, now we're getting somewhere. These used to be called "fan" pages, because you would click the "fan" button to indicate that you liked the page. You can choose from the list you see above, because Official Pages are meant for businesses (like yours), products, organizations (from sports teams to political parties), and celebrities. THIS is the sort of page to use! Why? Read on!

Personal pages are meant to be used by people, so a lot of the information fields don't really apply to businesses. Plus, networking with a "person" in Facebook is a two-way street. Somebody who wants to network with you must "request" that you become their friend, and you must then accept them. Then you show up on their "friends" list and you are in all other ways treated as a "person" in Facebook. It's incredibly awkward, and may be a turn-off for some potential customers. They don't necessarily want you on their friends list, they just want to see when you're having a sale or a special. Another factor - and I believe it applies to both "Personal" and "Group" pages - is that there's a limit of 5000 "friends" for each type. There's no limit for "Official" business pages - you can have 10,000 people "like" your business. Why limit yourself if you don't have to? Sure, 5000 seems like a lot when you have 0, but by the time you're at 4,999, it'll be way too late to say, "Gee, I wish I'd used a different kind of Facebook page for my business."

Worse, a "Person" page can really only be interacted with by other facebook members. If you want people who might not have joined Facebook (yet) to be able to see your page, they won't.

I'm going to skip over "Group" pages because you cannot create them anymore. If you already have a "Group" page, read on to see the merits of an "Official" page and it should quickly become clear why you're in the wrong place. I'm going to skip "community" pages, too. They're just not the right place for your business because it's not what they were made for. Now, on to "Business" pages.

A properly-configured "Official Business" page on Facebook can be a good marketing tool for you. I actually know of some folks who are convinced that Facebook pages are the be-all, end-all of marketing, supplanting everything businesses have learned about marketing best-practices over the last fifty (or a hundred or a thousand) years. I'm not quite on board with that yet, but there are definitely some strong benefits to be had if you're using a Facebook page to market your business. For instance:

As I noted before, "Official Business" pages don't require you to log in to see what's on their wall. Anybody can come visit your page. AND, Business pages have built-in tools, native to Facebook, that let you monitor traffic to see how many visitors you've had, how active the page was, and other useful information. You DO NOT get this built-in to non-Official pages.

Also, clicking the "like" button on an Official page is a piece of cake. It allows interested Facebook users to follow your messages on their own "News Feed," just like a friend, but it doesn't involve them waiting for you to "approve" them as a friend, nor do you show up on their list of friends.

Best of all, Official Business pages were designed specifically for businesses. They have all the necessary fields for you to explain what your business is all about, and doesn't have all of the goofy fields like "interests" that simply don't apply to a business. An Official Business page will make you look professional and web-savvy. It allows you to turn on various "applications" such as discussion forums, coupons and special offers, special events, and even a customized "Welcome Page." If you learn the Facebook-specific HTML (or hire somebody who knows it), you can even tie those applications or the "Start Page" into other websites or databases. You can control access to things like coupons or special offers so that they're only available once people "like" your page. Once you have 25 "likes," you can even set up a custom short-name for your Facebook page so people can find it more easily. Simply, an "Official Business" makes you look like you know what you're doing, and any other type of page makes it look like you don't. Plain and simple.

So from one Facebook user to another, please, please, business owners, get it together. Do it right. It'll make everybody's life easier and really help contribute to growing your business.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wanted: Dead or Alive

I don't think I'd have really characterized myself as a huge Bon Jovi fan back when he was big. In the age of hair bands, he was always a little more pop and I was a lot more metal, so while I didn't really mind his music, I didn't run right out and buy it, either. In fact, I can't recall whether I owned any of his albums or not. I suspect I didn't.

He did have a couple of songs I really, really liked, however. Runaway wasn't too bad, but Wanted: Dead or Alive and Blaze of Glory really worked for me, and still do to this day. I loved the Young Guns movies, and here's a little trivia:  the Young Guns producers wanted to use Wanted: Dead or Alive in Young Guns II. The name certainly fits, but if you listen to the lyrics, it's actually a song complaining about life as a rock star on tour (much like Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" and several other tunes I could name), and has nothing to do with a film about wild west outlaws. I suspect Bon Jovi figured that out pretty quickly, because he offered to write a song just for the movie, instead. And thus, Blaze of Glory was born. It even has the words, "I'm a young gun" right in it, and a much more twangy, wild west feel to it. Jon even has a cameo in the film, getting shot as Billy the Kid and company bust out of town. I'm pretty sure it was his first acting role.

Anyway, fast forward twenty years or so. My wife and I have Bon Jovi's greatest hits on CD. We don't really listen to it all that much, but I got my hands on it and decided it was kid-friendly enough to put in the car. I was thoroughly sick of listening to the soundtrack to Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron for the 500th time (which isn't to say it's not a great soundtrack, because it's actually got some really excellent Bryan Adams tunes on it. But egads, we must have listened to it for what seems like a year straight) and wanted something new. The kids complained bitterly at first, as they always seem to do, but they warmed up to it to the point where they no longer want to listen to anything else.They know all the lyrics from Livin on a Prayer to Bed of Roses to Runaway (though there are definitely some lyrics they don't really understand, which is fine by me) and sing them all the way to and from karate or wherever else we may go.

As I've mentioned before, my son and I are feebly trying to learn to play the guitar. We suck, but we suck a little less than we did when we started over 18 months ago. For Christmas we got electric guitars and amps, and my loving wife bought me a book of - wait for it - Bon Jovi sheet music for the guitar. Now, granted, my first attempt at "modern" electric guitar axe-play was to try to learn Metallica's "One," but I'm no Kirk Hammet and I got bogged down pretty quickly on some of his fancy fretwork. Wanted: Dead or Alive seemed like it might be a better choice.

We've been working on it for a month, and I can honestly say we've got the intro down pretty darn well, if not necessarily at full speed. Also, we're playing on six-strings rather than a twelve-string, so it sounds a bit different. I'm pretty proud of what we've learned so far. Last week we started on the body of the song, with some help from our guitar teacher. It's going to take us quite a while to learn the song, but listening to it, it sounds like lots of pieces repeat, so there should be a point sometime kind of soon where we're not learning new parts so much as trying to tie them together. There's a solo that'll take some doing, I'm sure. As much as I'm no Kirk Hammet, I'm also no Ritchie Sambora. We're having a blast, though, as I walk these streets, a loaded six-string on my back.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My Broken Stuff

This article will sound a bit like whining... well, because I suppose it is to an extent. But really I've just been marveling lately at how much of my stuff is broken currently, has been broken recently, or is likely to break in the very near future. I have some thoughts on the subject, and then I'll tie it in to my writing so that perhaps somebody other than me will find this all of interest. Or not - nobody makes you read this, right?

So let's see:

My minivan was in the shop for 9 days to get a head gasket replaced, after a week or two of intermittent warning lights and suggestions that something was very wrong. Also, the gas gauge doesn't work reliably. After I got it back, it stalled on me twice the following day, requiring that I take it back in for another visit. A week later, it failed to start while my wife was running errands. That turned out to be a separate issue with the starter. I'm pretty well sick of this van and am thinking strongly of selling it, trading it in, or otherwise making it go away. It's about eleven years old, with 90,000 miles on it, which isn't really what I'd consider "a good run," but it's not really a lemon, either.

My car has an intermittent "coolant level low" light that comes on briefly. This is similar to what I saw happening with the minivan, and if it's the same problem it would mean another lengthy, costly repair on this vehicle as well.

My watch isn't a Rolex, but it's not a $12 Timex, either. When I moved from "worker bee" into management, and was regularly meeting with upper-level managers and executives, I decided I ought to try to look the part a little more. To that end, I dumped my digital Timex for a nice, solid, silvery metal analog watch that ran me about $100. It looks very nice and worked fairly well for about seven years. Then the watch band started to lose its ability to stay fastened. At first it would pop open a couple times a day at inconvenient times, but three years later it is now held closed with a twist tie. Good thing I don't meet with executives much anymore, I suppose. That was bad enough, but last week it simply stopped altogether. It might be the battery or something more significant, but I consider it broken because I'm not sure I want to replace the battery on a watch that won't stay on my wrist anyway.

My snowblower was tuned up and repaired last year and worked just fine through the 2-week "blizzard of 2010" in December. Then I didn't need it for a bit, and when I finally did need it in early January, it would start and then immediately quit on me. It's currently back in the shop. The fact that they obviously didn't fix it very well the last time probably won't matter to anybody but me.

My home furnace is working fine at the moment. It's just over two years old. In those two years, however, it has failed completely... twice. The same part - the impeller? inducer? something like that - failed on it both times, something that the repair techs insisted was virtually unheard-of. I'm hoping that I've seen that last of that problem, but I wouldn't say I have complete faith in my furnace at this point.

My hot water heater sometimes produces copious amounts of nice hot water like it's supposed to. Sometimes it produces moderate amounts of warm water. Sometimes it produces a half-assed amount of slightly-warmer-than-tap water. I've had some suggestions about how to fix it, but I think it's just a piece of crap and I look forward to when it stops working completely so I can replace the piece of junk.

The windows in my home were the rock-bottom cheapest the builder could find, I believe. They're utter garbage. They're very inefficient. Several of them are all fogged up between the layers of glass, and that's AFTER we replaced five or six of them for the same problem back when we bought the house. We need a complete window replacement, but doing that costs anywhere from thousands to many thousands of dollars, so we keep putting it off.

My 55" rear-projection TV is a massive beast of entertainment pleasure. It has a circuitboard in its guts that has failed twice so far. The TV is over twelve years old, so I figure it's only a matter of time until it craps out entirely.

Last year, the wire rack in my closet that serves as both the rod to hang clothes from and as a shelf to store stuff completely collapsed. We decided to replace it with a fiberboard in-closet organizer that was supposed to be a relatively quick "do it yourself" job. It's been sitting half-complete for over six months now, because I hit a snag. I decided I couldn't finish it without help and my wife and I don't seem to give enough of a crap to make it a priority.

My main computer died on me a few weeks ago. It got a new hard drive and some RAM and it's back up and running, but being without it for a week was a royal pain. My wife's PC occasionally flips out and my kids' PC is ancient, so I figure it's only a matter of time until one of those bites it.

So that's everything that comes to mind with a quick mental survey. Ten items, at the moment, that are failing, have failed, or are expected to fail soon. Is it any wonder I often feel as if everything I own is broken?

It's not necessarily directly related to these particular items, but the role of technology in everyday life is a theme in nearly every novel or story I'm currently working on.

My current novel is post-apocalyptic, where the means to make technological items (anything involving advanced manufacturing or a global supply chain) is gone. That's not even the main problem of the story, but it's certainly a major factor in their lives. Their society can't support big cities, for instance - there's no means to grow all that food and get it in to the residents, and no economy to support classes of merchants and craftsmen. The world has returned to the pre-industrial age of steam, where technology is limited mostly to what can be made by hand from iron, leather, or wood. Some remnants of the industrialized age remain, but they're finite resources, subject to wear and deterioration and loss, and then gone forever. I've enjoyed building a society that has to deal with these technological challenges even as they strive against the main threats of the story.

My first novel - by which I mean the one I started first and then sort of abandoned - was even more extreme. The main characters were dumped in a world with no access to technology at all - not even information on how to create technology. They had only the clothes and minimal supplies they carried (none of which were intended for long-term survival) and the knowledge in their heads. And, being modern, information-age Americans, that knowledge was extremely limited in terms of really useful, practical information about things like growing food (or just finding food), hunting, and crafting. I mean, sure, there definitely ARE people around who know this stuff - from hunters to farmers to Eagle Scouts to hobbyists with an interest in things like leatherworking or metalsmithing. But they're not entirely commonplace, and we've done a pretty good job of raising one or two generations of Americans who just don't know this stuff at all. From inner-city kids (and later adults) to middle-class and upper-class Americans who live in a world of cell-phones and iPads and on-demand service providers for their every need, the ability to live without assistance from a wide array of experts and technical assistants is severely limited.

Another story I have in mind takes the notion a bit farther. What happens as we continue to advance technologically, to the point where we're even MORE used to technology being an ever-present, reliable part of every moment of our lives. What happens, then, if you lose your access to that technology, or it turns against you? How much farther will humans progress away from their roots - their comfort with basic tools, with nature itself? And what do they give up in exchange for the comforts, the ease of advanced technology? Their independence? Their humanity? Their souls?

I enjoy exploring those themes in my work, and I think about them often. Every time a piece of my technology - technology that I'm increasingly incapable of living without or understanding enough to fix myself - fails. In fact, it's one of the only things I enjoy about this damn technology, but then I'm not exactly planning to give it up, am I?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Verizon In-Home Agent

I'm still a little ambivalent about Verizon's FIOS service, to be honest. I was really used to Time-Warner Cable and felt like I knew and understood the ways in which I was being served and screwed by them. With FIOS, I feel like I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop.

We decided to go with phone, internet and television as a bundle because that made the savings add up enough to justify making a switch. I will say that initial installation was excellent, with a tech coming and giving white-glove service to ensure everything was set up just the way I wanted it. On the other hand, the sales guy and a customer service rep I had to speak with on the phone both made a mess of things. The sales guy gave away all kinds of stuff he apparently wasn't supposed to. It ended up benefiting me in the end, but it literally took me 8-10 hours on the phone over several days to straighten out my bill. The sales guy might have promised me the moon, but Verizon's systems weren't even capable of giving me some of what he'd put on the contract. Likewise, the service rep I'd spoken with had offered me several discounts and free services that were supposed to be either/or choices, so I'd ended up getting billed for stuff I hadn't really wanted and had believed I was getting for free. That was a year ago.

Since then, well, it still sort of feels like my bill's higher than it should be, but it's low enough that I'm better off than if I'd stayed with cable and a traditional landline. With my parents down south for the winter, the long-distance charges alone were killing us under the old AT&T-based phone service, so FIOS's free long-distance makes a big difference.

There's one thing about FIOS that I can say I unwaveringly adore, however. The FIOS In-Home Agent. It's a piece of software that you install on your home PC and it ties into your account to let you survey, diagnose and troubleshoot your system. It's a terrific piece of software, and several times when I've used it, I've been left thinking that everything ought to be this easy.

I'll give you a terrific example. When I recently had to rebuild my PC from a bare hard-disk, it meant re-loading Microsoft Outlook. For some reason, Outlook doesn't save any of your account information in your mailfile. I could probably back up the settings info somewhere, but it's never occurred to me to figure out where. It shouldn't be a big deal - I know most of the setting info by heart. But FIOS has some unique settings and somehow used Yahoo to handle their email. Worse, when I looked up the settings on their site and plugged them into Outlook, they flat out failed to work. I triple- and quadruple-checked the settings, but I'd entered everything precisely according to what was on their page.

So I fired up the In-Home Agent, just to see if somehow it could help. And, lo and behold, it had a button that basically said "fix outlook." So I clicked it. And it did. It was literally that easy. I'd farted around with Outlook for an hour or so and the Agent fixed it in no time. When I went back to see what it had done, it turns out the FIOS website I'd been using was full of crap - because of the Yahoo email involvement, the server settings needed to be totally different from the ones that site had told me to use. It probably wasn't even a huge code-writing project to make the software do what it did - figure out who I was, determine how I got my email, determine the version of Outlook I was using, find the place where the server info was stored (presumably either in a file somewhere on my PC or in the Windows Registry) and then edit that file to input the correct settings. But all too often, what should be easy just doesn't work or isn't done. Software should always be this easy, particularly after we've had the last 30+ years to get good at it. All too often, it just isn't.

It reminded me, though, of the MONY Desktop Commander. THAT was a brilliant piece of software, if I say so myself. It's certainly the pinnacle of any software I've ever written, even if my cohort Scott Scheuerman did most of the heavy lifting in the programming department. We were working in MONY's "Integration Test Lab," and one of our major projects ended up being to help the desktop group come up with a way to get 15-20 pieces of software and software updates installed more easily on the 5,000 insurance agents' computers. They were, by and large, pretty computer-inept, but to do their jobs they needed over a gig of programs installed a couple of times a year. We'd spent many months developing massive documents about how to install the programs - step-by-step-by-step, with screenshots and captions and whatever else we could think of to idiot-proof the process, but it was a nightmare. They routinely botched the process and the result was lost productivity for the agents and lots of calls into the MONY computer helpdesk.

So we automated it. We created a whole series of batch files and subroutines to install the various programs with little or no user intervention, and even gave them a menu so they could pic and choose which programs to install. It was absolutely beautiful. It worked wonderfully once we got the bugs ironed out, and it ended up making a lot of peoples' lives easier. That was over ten years ago, and I almost feel as if the Verizon In-Home Agent is the first utility program I've found since that really went the extra mile to work as effectively and as seamlessly as it possibly could. Kudos to Verizon, too. Scott and I had to fight and claw and cajole our co-workers into supporting the software we'd developed, at least until they saw it in action. Some guys at Verizon probably had to do the same to convince the powers-that-be that they could write a utility that would really do the job for their customers. But they did, and I'm suitably impressed.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Day for a King

It's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the U.S. - one of those holidays that everybody pretty much ignores unless they're the government or a public school or a bank, but that means my wife and kids are home for the day. So I'm taking the day off, too. Check back tomorrow for my take on Verizon FIOS and their nifty little In-Home Agent utility.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Don't Blame Me

If you checked the blog sometime Thursday and the new Executive Decisions Part 4 wasn't up yet, it's not my fault. Blogger loves to mess with me, and often doesn't actually publish a finished blog after I click "publish," which was what happened today. Totally not my fault.

Executive Decisions part 4

And it all boils down to this: creating a strategic business plan. An action plan. A detailed roadmap to business success, populated with specific work to be done by named people by a certain date.

To get there, we've defined the nature of the company and its products. We've brainstormed what the company's future ought to look like. We've boiled that future vision down into the most important work that needs to get done. Perhaps we've also detailed the gap between where you are and where you'd like to be. Possibly you've taken the time to imagine everything that could go wrong and develop ways to prevent those obstacles or get the business back on track if they do happen. If so - awesome! All of that information can and must funnel into your plan.

The Strategic Timeline - your business plan needs to account for specific activities over the next twelve months. It should detail any and all of the following:

Marketing and Ad Campaigns
Any other known time-commitments or planned work-effort beyond daily "must-do" work*
Key dates - holidays, fiscal closes (especially if they impact the ability to do other work or projects), etc.

*A note about "keep the lights on" work. There MUST be a balance between the priority get-ahead work and the daily grind. Most people would prefer to put the bulk of their effort into growing the business - it can be exciting and it feels like you're really accomplishing something when you're working on it. But, by and large, the business stays in business because there are people at their desks doing the daily work to keep the customers happy. This is critical - I can personally attest to how frustrating it is when senior managers don't recognize how much of the work day is being spent on necessary, if boring, work. You don't want to put "spend 2 hours handling customer emails" on your Strategic Timeline, but if that work is critical to your business, don't you dare forget about it, either. It's a sure recipe for driving your staff crazy if you pretend they can spend 40 hours a week working on the exciting growth stuff and somehow the day-to-day work will just magically get done.

Once you've gathered all of that information, it's time to lay it out in order and plug it into your timeline. Watch in particular for places where you've got too much going on to realistically handle. Once the whole year is planned out, you're done - and your real work has just begun. It's time to get going on that plan. Bang out your goals and projects relentlessly, one after the next after the next until the year is over and they're all finished. Focus on your priorities and shove aside anything that's not a priority which threatens to drag you off course. If you made a Risk Mitigation plan, refer to it often and use it to avoid trouble. But most importantly, POST the PLAN. Make sure it's right there where you and your key staff will see it on a regular - preferably daily - basis. At your weekly staff meeting (you DO have a weekly staff meeting, right?), point to your Strategic Timeline and verify that you're still on track. Be flexible, of course - if you missed something big or circumstances changed, make adjustments to the plan so it's still realistic and actionable. But don't let up. Don't give up. Don't let the old ways, the easy ways, the chaos, pull you back in. Make your Strategic Plan your battle flag - let it lead your charge to more and greater successes. Let it influence every Executive Decision you make. It's your recipe for success - follow and cherish it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Executive Decisions part 3

Welcome back to my primer on business fundamentals. Let's get back to work.

As I said yesterday, the next steps in the process help you focus your attention in the areas you and your workshop participants decide are the most important. You want to identify your priorities and goals based on the 12-month visualization, so you know what to give your limited resources to and exactly who's doing what.

3. Priorities and Goals - your 12-month visualization cooked up a whole slate of work to do. Maybe you can get it all done and maybe you can't, but some of that work is going to be more important - more beneficial to your business - than others. It's also vital that you put some scope around your key objectives so you any anyone else affected by them know exactly what they mean. So a key step in building your strategic business plan for the next year is to distill your visualization's most critical components down into priorities and goals. Which probably makes you wonder, what's the difference? Read on and see!

Priorities - you can have more priorities than goals, and probably will. A priority is simply something you've identified that you consider more vital to your business success than other work you could be doing. When it comes down to a decision about what to work on, you should always pick the priority over the non-priority. It's pretty much that simple. Identify your top priorities at any given time period so you can balance your work-balance and stay on track.

Goals - these take a bit more work, and there will generally be fewer of them. Not everything you plan to do in the coming year will be suitable to turn into a goal, which is why you'll want to identify priorities as well. But for those tasks that you designate as goals, they should be the heaviest-hitters. They should be the tasks that, if accomplished, will have the biggest impact on your business. And it's vital that they're well-written in order to be truly effective. Each goal should be S.M.A.R.T. I've written about this before, but the Cliff's Notes version is to make each goal Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. You must know exactly what meeting the goal (or failing to meet it) will look like, and there has to be some tool for identifying success. The goal has to be something you can actually accomplish given the realities of your business, and, perhaps most importantly of all, you need to set a timeframe by which the goal must be met.

Break your year down into the priorities and goals you're going to work on each month, each quarter, and before you know it, there's a gameplan in front of you for driving business success!

Now, as mentioned yesterday, there are lots of other exercises you could use during a strategic planning workshop. Two tools that fit especially well in this part of the workshop would be a gap analysis and a risk mitigation matrix. Before we get on to creating our full strategic plan, let's talk about those.

Gap Analysis - this is a neat and useful exercise and fits really well with any of your Visualizations. The idea is to identify two key points in time for your business: the "current state" and the "desired future state" (which can be at any point in the future). It's important that the two states be broken down across similar categories, because the meat of the exercise is to define the distance between where you are now (the current state) and where you want to be (the desired future state) in as specific terms as possible. The outcome is to end up with a whole series of "this is specifically what we'd need to do to get where we want to be" items that you can then turn into priorities or goals or, if they're completely unrealistic, can decide to abandon completely.

That last is critical - unrealistic is unrealistic no matter how bad you may want it. Step up to the plate and make the executive decision, the tough call, right now. "We're not going to waste precious money or time on trying to achieve that, because it's not feasible given our current situation. Let's focus on those places where we're truly able to win, succeed, and grow." That's a much better speech to make to your team than one about how you blew all your company's ready cash chasing rainbows and are no longer a viable company.

Risk Mitigation Matrix - this is an excellent tool for all sorts of business scenarios, most notably projects. The idea is to try to identify every risk you and your team can think of - every obstacle that could get in the way of meeting your goals. List them. Next, draw columns beside the list and label them "likelihood" and "impact". Go down the list, and rate each item in those two categories. For each possible risk, how likely is it that the obstacle will actually occur? Rate it. For each possible risk, how big a deal would it be if it did occur? Rate it. I prefer to use a rating system of LOW/MEDIUM/HIGH. When you're finished, you'll have a matrix of risks, their chances of occurring, and their significance to the company if they do occur.

Next, select those risks that are HIGH in both categories. In other words, they are VERY likely to occur, and they will have a BIG impact if they do. Develop mitigation strategies for each - plans that you can either implement in advance to prevent the risk from occurring, or that you could implement after the fact to lessen the damage when it does. When you've developed plans for all of your heavy-hitters, go back down the list and do the same for the next two categories - those with HIGH in one column, and MEDIUM in the other. Ignore anything with LOW in both categories, and don't spend a lot of time on items with HIGH or MEDIUM likelihood but LOW impact. Sure, they're going to happen, but who really cares if they don't do any real harm to your business? When you're done, you should have a whole list of new priorities (the results of plans that need to be enacted NOW to prevent obstacles from getting in the way later) and an emergency preparedness plan to be implemented when and if certain risks occur that you weren't able to prevent. That's a pretty handy document to have, and you'll really appreciate it when all hell's breaking lose and you know you've got all the tools you need to deal with it and limit damage to your bottom line.

Tomorrow, the final wrap-up: creating a business plan for the next year. It'll be short and sweet, but oh so satisfying when you're watching your business grow as the result of your careful attention to these details.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hey, look at that!

It's 11:11 AM on 1/11/11. That's pretty numberalogical or whatever.

Executive Decisions part 2

Welcome to part two of my brief review of techniques I've learned over the years for driving business improvements. These tools are typically used in a workshop setting with key stakeholders in the business or business sub-area to develop a detailed, usable strategic business plan.

Which reminds me of a saying one of my bosses and business mentors used to have. Whenever we brought large groups of people together, he would remind everyone that "this is a very expensive meeting" and that we needed to make sure that it added real value to the business. Otherwise, it was a waste of money. Please consider this when you're setting up your strategic planning session - if it's just a bunch of busy-work, you're wasting the hourly rate of every participant times the number of hours you spend in the workshop times the number of participants. That could EASILY add up to thousands of dollars of YOUR business's money. Make it count or spend it elsewhere!

Now, back to the workshop agenda!Yesterday we covered part 1 of the (usually multi-day workshop), Definition of your company and all of its key elements. In other words, you defined what your company ALREADY IS or SHOULD BE. In today's section, we delve into determining what your company WILL BE.

2. Visualization - the next step is to look out into the future and put serious thought into where the business is and ought to be headed. I usually take a three-step approach. I suggest tackling a far-future visualization, usually five-to-ten years. I also recommend a short-term visualization of one year, because that's really the meat of your strategic plan - what to do in the coming calendar or fiscal year. In-between, I like to tailor the medium-term visualization to the needs of the workshop and the business, however 18-months is pretty typical. Here's how they work:

Five Year Visualization: imagine how you want your business to look in five to ten years, assuming a realistic best-case scenario. It can be somewhat vague, but the more specific you can make it, the more useful a tool it will be. The idea is to identify general directions, key successes you'd need to have made, and any major changes you foresee in the business. An ideal five-year visualization should include planned staffing changes, major projects, significant product changes, any anticipated shifts in marketplace, any new facilities (including moving, expanding or renovating existing offices), and certainly anything really significant like sales or IPOs. It's okay for your five-year to be a bit on the rosey side as long as you feel that your company's future is or could be legitimately rosey. Ultimately, you're going to create a series of five 12-month plans that should get you in the ballpark of your five-year visualization if all goes well. Even if all doesn't go well, you've got something to shoot for, which is better than just flailing around. Besides, you'll be updating your five-year visualization each year, so it's always going to be a future outlook, never a near-term realization.

12-Month Visualization: this is the real, practical, meat-and-potatoes exercise. What do you want/need/plan to get done THIS YEAR? It needs to be extremely specific, actionable, and realistic. You may not actually accomplish it all, but it should encompass everything you really should try to do. Start with a brainstorming exercise and then distill that down to your actual list of activities for the coming year. That will in turn inform your goals and priorities, but we'll get to those later. The 12-month visualization should, on the one hand, bring you 20% of the way to your five-year outlook. And, on the other hand, it should absolutely form the foundation of a strategic operating plan for the coming four quarters. Plan to spend a fair chunk of time nailing this down, especially if you've never done this exercise before. Each subsequent year, as you get better at planning and build on what you did the year before, the workshop will get more efficient.

18-Month Visualization: again, this can actually be tailored to whatever timeframe works best for you, but the intention is two-fold. First, it should be an outgrowth of your 12-month Visualization that extends the timeline and shows that the work you're doing in the coming year doesn't end when that year is done. The 18-month visualization is all about continuity and momentum, documenting your team's expectations for life beyond the coming year. The other function is for it to serve as a further stepping-stone toward the five-year outlook. Sort of a "second shot" at nailing down the key accomplishments that need to occur to achieve the long-term vision you have for your business. For me, the core of the 18-month visualization is as follows: "Assume that you've executed a detailed strategic plan over the course of the coming year and have been largely successful at achieving your 12-month vision. What projects will still be underway at the end of the year, and what specific further changes do you need to make in the following six months to continue to build momentum and grow the business?"

When those three sections are complete, you should really be able to see what needs to happen right away and what you expect to happen in the future to move your company toward your ideal state. Now, bear in mind that there are lots of tools you can incorporate into this workshop that I'm not covering - everything from detailed budgetary and financial analysis to team-building exercises and so forth. That doesn't mean they have no value, rather that this is meant to be an overview, not a comprehensive manual. Two tools that fit especially well in this part of the workshop would be a gap analysis and a risk mitigation matrix. I'll try to remember to come back to those at some point, but you can google them if you want to skip ahead. If I ever write a book on this subject, I'll include them for sure.

The next steps in the process help you focus your attention in the areas you and your workshop participants decide are the most important. You want to identify your priorities and goals based on the 12-month visualization, so you know what to give your limited resources to and exactly who's doing what. We'll cover those tomorrow.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Executive Decisions part 1

I've been really lucky as a businessman. I've had some incredibly (albeit not exclusively) positive experiences and learned a tremendous amount about how businesses run, what to do, what not to do, and what to do RIGHT NOW to be successful. Not even counting the amazing people I've been fortunate enough to work with, the knowledge I've gained about operating a company, small or large, is invaluable. It's easy for me sometimes to lose sight of that as I've transitioned out of the day-to-day business world and given how easy it is to focus on the things that stressed me out, pissed me off, and generally made "the office" a torturous, painful place to be. But it wasn't all bad, and there were definitely aspects of business that I loved and still enjoy.

One of my favorite things, being something of a Type-A personality and a bit of a show-off, was to be the expert who could swoop into a broken, troubled, or inefficient situation and put things back on track. Man I enjoyed that. Being the superhero with the creativity, experience and know-how to make peoples' lives better, help them overcome adversity and drive substantial business improvements was one of the greatest feelings in the world for me. I got to be that guy a few times and I loved it. Heck, just being an IT support guy, which was how I got my start, sometimes put me in that position multiple times a day. But I'm really referring to the work I did as an executive, when I was able to roll up my sleeves, climb into the guts of the business, and work with interdisciplinary teams to drive meaningful business change.

I got a reminder of that last week. Some friends of mine are operating a small service business, and after six months of operation they've had some pretty meaningful success. But it was pretty clear to them that they weren't optimized for success. They had "plans," but not "a plan." They worked, but they didn't really get work done. They were operating on pure tactics, without an overriding strategy to tie their daily and weekly activities into long-term business growth. So I sat down with them and we talked, and the more I talked and thought and advised, the more I remembered about the achievements and experiences I'd enjoyed in business. I thought this would be a good place to share some of the take-aways from our discussions.

1. Definition - the first step toward a meaningful, useful business plan is to decide who and what your company is, and what it is not. Knowing your product, your target market, and your definition of success is key to knowing whether any subsequent decisions you make are appropriate. You're less likely to find yourself running off in fifteen different directions or chasing radically disparate (or even mutually-exclusive) markets if you've defined in detail what your business is all about. I suggested breaking this into concepts such as a mission statement, a set of core values, a set of core competencies, and a set of key differentiators.

Bear in mind, these are all utterly useless unless they're used to inform what comes after. I remember I always used to hate working on mission statements, because they were always fretted and argued over ad nauseum and then immediately forgotten. What a waste of time. But draft a meaningful business statement that drives directly into your operations, strategy, and marketing plans, and now you've got something.

Mission Statement - this is a short one- or two-sentence description of your business's reason for being. It can encompass concepts like the nature of your product(s), the make-up of your customers, the distribution of your profits, or even your preferred working environment. If it's written carefully and honestly, it should be influential in every aspect of your business. If it's just going to be lipservice, don't bother. Better yet, can the whole company and go do something you feel is worth your time.

Core Values - these are the ideals your company wants to espouse. They'll keep you focused and honest when met with temptation to "do the wrong thing." Any company that's not trying to be deliberately evil should have a set of these and focus on them constantly. It's extremely easy to get lulled or tempted into making life miserable for other people in the pursuit of profit. If that's not your preferred way of operating, set some ground rules up front. And, frankly, if it is your way of operating, you would probably still benefit from stating your core values to remind you to rape and pillage at every opportunity. I'd just prefer you didn't.

Core Competencies - these are the game-changing skills, knowledge, talents and expertise that you plan to leverage to succeed. It might be anything from technical know-how to salesmanship to leading-edge product design. Your core competency might be to spot and capitalize on trends or to have the most efficient supply-chain in order to drive down costs. Whatever it is you bring to the table, get it out on the table so you never forget to utilize it, nurture it, and value it. And if it ever becomes obsolete, fix it or replace it. Bottom line - everything you plan to be good at as a company goes here, and then informs your priorities later on.

Key Differentiators - there are two categories of differentiators - positive and negative. Hopefully your list of positive differentiators is much, much longer. This category should encompass all the things that make your company unique or different from competitors and alternatives. The positive differentiators are the "good news" - and should be accentuated wherever possible, whether by actively developing them further, making them the centerpiece of your marketing, or factoring them into your strategic thinking. Your negative differentiators are the "bad news" - those aspects of your business where you're weak, where your competitors are legitimately better than you, or where you've got perception issues that limit your ability to succeed.

Once you know these four things about your business, you've gone a long way toward understanding who and what you're all about. Now get it up on the wall of your office somewhere and look at it often. These are your guiding principles and the key work is "guiding." Whenever you consider a major executive decision, check and see whether it fits with those principles. If it doesn't, think really, really hard before you do it.

Next step - visualization!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Sorry, no update today. I'm in the process of completely reloading my PC after the DELL repair guy replaced the hard-disk yesterday, and it's a very labor-intensive process. I MIGHT have a post up on Thursday, but I'd say the chances are 50/50 at best.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Are We Ageless?

Since the late 1800s, we've been able to characterize each time-period as an "age." It all started with the Age of Steam, followed by the Industrial Age. Well, technically it didn't "start" there, of course - we had the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Sail, the Age of Exploration, and - if you want to go back far enough - the Iron Age, the Bronze Age and the Stone Age. But most of those time periods covered huge swaths of time, from multiple generations to centuries. Beginning around the Age of Steam, things started to compress and speed up. Change came much more quickly, such that a person could see the differences between their youth and their old age.

That was fairly unique to human history - for most of the time man has walked the Earth, technologies have come slowly and have spread throughout humanity's civilizations in a laborious process of trade and conquest. Men and women lived and died using the same tools and techniques their parents and grandparents had used up until about the 1800s. And once the concept of factory-based manufacturing really took off, once steam and electricity were available to unburden men of the physical forces needed to shape and mold their products, things really started to fly.

So we had the Industrial Revolution, followed by the electrical and gas era of the 1910s through the early 1940s - the Age of Invention, if you will, when commerce and war drove incredible advances in science, technology, medication, transportation, aviation, and virtually every aspect of the average person's life was touched by it. And it all came together in what might have been the ultimate invention, in which man harnessed the power of the sun itself - the atomic bomb. Welcome, people of 1945, to the Atomic Age.

The Atomic Age was a cool and frightening time, especially for Americans. On the one had, the late 40s and 50s were a time of unparalleled growth and prosperity, with new gadgets available seemingly every day and with lots of disposable income to buy them with. The trade-off was the start of the Cold War and the neverending fear of nuclear annihilation that would last right up through the early 1980s.

The Atomic Age drove right on into the Space Age of the 1960s and 1970s. This may have been the first era where the "age" was recognized by all to the point where it was actually used in advertising. This was what got me thinking along these lines in the first place, but I'll come back to that. So we had the "Space Age" - the time when men floated in space and walked on the moon for the first time in human history (and the last, as it turns out. The ratings just weren't high enough to continue the reality show called "Men on the Moon" and it was canceled after just a few episodes in the 1970s). We had "space-age polymers" and "space-age materials" available for sale on television, and we all knew exactly what a great time we were living in. Unless you happened to get drafted and have to go to Viet Nam, of course. But I'm sure there were some space-age polymers in your rifle, so that's something.

The Space Age overlapped the Digital Age of the late 70s and the 80s, when computers began to make headway at the corporate and academic levels. You pretty much needed a Mainframe computer to get anything done, because the technology was too expensive and too tempermental for home use. I mean, sure you could build yourself an Apple computer from a kit out of plywood and soldered connections, but it didn't really do much. You could buy a TRS-80 from Radio Shack in the late 70s, but you had to fart around loading every program, individually, into memory from a cassette tape. It was slow and tedious and, well, it still didn't do much when you were done. But it was digital! And it heralded a new age still to come.

By the 1990s, computers were invading homes and businesses around the country, because they'd become small  and fast enough to be useful. Plus, the Internet had caught up, connecting those computers together and giving them something to do. That something mostly turned out to be a never-ending quest for pornography, but when people got satiated on that, it turns out they could also go shopping and play games and stuff. The Information Age had arrived!

And to my knowledge, that was the last named age. I'm not sure whether anybody's figured out yet whether it's still going on or whether it's ended. I was thinking about this the other day, as it occurred to me that you no longer hear advertisements predicated on our age, as you did with "space-age" materials back in the 70s and into the 80s. For the last few generations, we've taken great pride in our techological growth and our succession of ages, but now there seems to be a bit of ennui about it. I'm not sure if we've lost track, or if things are just progressing so quickly that we can no longer tell where one begins and the next ends. You might argue that the ages are easier to see looking back, but that didn't stop us during the Atomic Age, the Space Age, the Digital Age or the Information Age. We all knew we were in them as they were happening.

So what are the 2010s to be? I could buy that the Information Age is still ongoing, but it doesn't really feel like it. I feel like the bulk of that was the emergence of the Internet, home computers, laptops, PDAs, and smartphones. Those have all been done to death - they're just getting smaller, faster, and more capable. The iPad, for instance, is cool, but it's just a fancy smartphone with a big screen and the "phone" capability turned off.

So what's it to be? Is there some seminal event or product or technology that needs to be invented, that will define the next age of mankind? Has the next age already begun and we're just too close to see it? Or have we reached a point in our advancement where our technologies are so mundane and blend together so seamlessly that they're no longer worthy of note? Are we ageless?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Computer Challenges

My main PC - the one I use to play games, surf the web, and write this blog - is on the fritz. It started to blue screen last week, and it got progressively worse to the point where it now blue-screens and auto-reboots within a minute or two after I power it up. DELL will be sending out a tech and some replacement parts later this week, but until that time I'm a little stuck. I can do everything (except the gaming) on my work PC - the one I use to write - but if I'm going to go downstairs and fire up that machine, I really ought to spend that time working on my book. After having the kids home for the holidays, the last two weeks have been incredibly unproductive. The other option is to use this really crappy old laptop we've got, but the comma key only works if I press it really hard and the wireless connection only works if the moon is full and the stars are properly-aligned. I can stand it for short bursts, but then I need either a comma or a web page and I get a desire to smash.

So... I can't predict how much Virtual Vellum you'll be getting this week. I've got some ideas I want to cover, including a 2010 year in review and a spoiler-ful analysis of TRON: Legacy, I'm just not sure when/how I'll get them posted. Bear with me - we'll get to them eventually.