Monday, August 31, 2009

Pride Goeth (Twice) before the Fall

Experiences at the New York State Fair

Friday was my family’s big outing at the New York State Fair. We had our ride-all-day discount coupons in hand, light jackets for the kids (though the high ended up quite a bit warmer than the useless weather reports had suggested), tickets, camera and good walking shoes. We arrived just after 9:00 AM when the gates opened and were more than ready when the rides started up at 10.

There were two events at the Fair that made me really proud of my kids. The first was easy – they had entered their artwork in the Art & Home Center graphic arts competition and all four of their pieces had won honors. They got three Honorable Mentions and a 2nd Place. My wife also won for her scrapbook pages and a small hand-made book. It was really nice to see the accolades and my son (the 2nd-place winner) was very gracious in victory.

A short time later, they were back on the rides and the crowds had picked up quite a bit, resulting in actual lines for the first time all day. The line at the Super Slide was especially chaotic. Now, my kids aren’t the most assertive children on the planet, particularly around strangers. I’d even go as far as to call them timid most of the time. It makes them fairly polite and means they rarely if ever start trouble, but it also means they don’t tend to finish it if it starts, or stand up for themselves in the face of oppression. But how do you teach a child to be assertive, especially if it’s really not in their nature? I don’t know, but I think “Lessons from the Super Slide” went a long way.

For whatever reason, this line was heavily populated with bullies and the clueless – kids who either didn’t care that there was a queue or didn’t grasp the concept of waiting their turn. My kids don’t always say thank you when they should, but they understand the concept of taking turns and they were pretty surprised to see self-centered little kids all but streaming around them as they waited patiently. My daughter turned to where my wife and I were standing and moaned, “These kids keep cutting us!” You might think that some other parents, who were also standing nearby, might have heard this and taken action, but you’d be gloriously over-optimistic. When it was clear that nobody much cared to adjust their kids’ behavior, I upped the ante a bit.

“Throw a few elbows if you have to,” I called back. I didn’t much care who heard me, either.

Now before you conclude that I’m a horrible parent for giving my daughter free license to jab other kids in the throat, you’d need to know my daughter. She’s not going to deliberately elbow another kid unless he or she were to physically threaten her (or her brothers) in some way. She and I joke around a lot and she knows when I’m kidding. But she also heard the tone of my voice and knew that it was okay to stand up for herself.

My daughter took charge and interposed herself between the ride’s entrance gate and the other kids who were intent on slipping past her. I was very proud of her, but the best was yet to come. My daughter was one of the bigger kids around, so she had the advantage of size and weight – she could gently and passively use her body to exert some control. My youngest had no such advantage.

I didn’t witness any of this, but the kids told me about it afterward. It seems that one of the boys in line behind them had tried to argue his way past and my youngest child, who was easily a foot shorter than the other boy (I remember seeing him in line behind my son), told him to wait his turn. The boy didn’t relent, but insisted “I was here!”

This is great – wait for it. My son replied, “Yeah, you were there and I’m here. Now stop!” And he did! After they came off the ride, my kids began to complain bitterly about how they’d been treated by the other children. But when I heard their tale, and understood that they’d stood their ground and peacefully resolved the situation, my heart swelled with pride. My fears for their future as limp dishrags being tossed about by their peers in the mad scramble for position and the rich rewards life has to offer were calmed. Evidence suggests that they might just be all right. And, best of all, the three stood together as a team, which is something I’ve always tried to encourage in them. I hugged and congratulated them for their assertiveness and they seemed to take the lesson to heart. But, as they say, pride goeth before the fall. I never realized it was meant so literally.

After over eight hours of nonstop State Fair excitement, it was time to drag our weary carcasses out to the car. We’d gotten a great parking spot since we had arrived so early, but the walk through the fairgrounds, across the street and up the bridge was still a mile or so and we were beat. After the long day of walking and standing, it felt like my shoes were filled with lead. It was starting to rain and we just wanted to be in the car – nobody moreso than me. I had just rounded the corner from the walkway into the grass and gravel parking lot when I lost my footing. I’m not positive how – I either stepped in a small depression or possibly on a stick, but it was enough to turn my ankle and send me sprawling.

I’ve tripped a few times in the past, and while I’m pretty rusty, my old Aikido training nearly always kicked in allowed me to tuck, perhaps even roll, and generally fall with minimal damage and perhaps even a miniscule degree of grace and poise. Not this time, no sir. There didn’t even seem to BE a fall, as far as any sensations I experienced were concerned. There was no slow-motion reaction time when I could try to plot a safe trajectory. Nope, this time I went down like a sack of grain, spilling across the gravel and landing hard. I think I said something clever like, “Oof.”

Once I was down, the weariness in my bones really hit home. I didn’t especially feel like getting up right away, but sort of lay there, face in the grass and gravel, a bit stunned and taking careful stock of whether anything seemed to be broken. My wife, who had fallen behind with my younger son, rushed to my side, asking repeatedly “Are you OK?” Apparently she didn’t believe me, because she asked me twice more even after I told her I was fine. She didn’t see me fall, just looked ahead to see her husband spread-eagled in the dirt and had assumed I’d passed out or had a heart attack or something. Yes, my svelte physique inspires exactly that level of confidence in my loved-ones.

So here I sit, sprained ankle wrapped in an Ace bandage and iced down, bandages criss-crossing my palms, trying to ignore the sting as they rest on the keyboard. I’m still a proud papa, but coming down to earth so firmly has left me suitably humbled. So here endeth the lesson – kids, stand up for yourselves. Or, at the very least, just stand up. It beats the heck out of the taste of gravel.

Friday, August 28, 2009

I Don’t Know Where to Buy Drugs

And I’m Okay with That

I was reading an online forum and saw one of my fellow regulars there post about smoking some pot. Now, at the risk of sacrificing some of the extreme “cool dude” cred that I’ve no doubt built up with my witty tales and biting social commentary, I’m going to admit that I have never smoked pot, much less used anything harder. But I got to thinking – this fellow is a regular guy. He’s a mildly-successful entrepreneur with an online retail site, and I think his wife works in journalism or somesuch. But if he’s smoking weed, assuming he’s not getting it in some sort of medicinal capacity (which may or may not even be viable where he lives), he’s either got to grow it himself or he’s got a drug dealer. And that’s when I realized that I haven’t the vaguest idea where a typical middle-class guy would get a drug dealer. If I desperately needed to buy non-prescription narcotics, I’m not entirely certain I could manage it.

I mean, when I think of drug dealers, I confess that I pretty much think of the stereotypical dirty, greasy, armed felon covered in gang tats and prepared to gun down a potential customer who isn’t clued in to the mores and rituals of the drug culture. Oh, and in my imagination, they don’t really work in the best parts of town. So is that it – you drive down to the worst part of town and sort of drive around looking for somebody who looks like a drug dealer?

Or maybe you need to be introduced. Perhaps when chatting with the neighbor about the weather and the teenager whose car is too loud when he drives down the street at 10 PM, you casually inquire, “So where do you buy your marijuana?” Of course, if most of your neighbors are straight arrows like me, you’re going to have pretty well shot your reputation in the ass before you find somebody who can steer you in the right direction.

Are there different classes of drug dealer, just as retail stores cater to different economic and social demographics? Maybe the type I’m thinking of from TV is the “sleazy convenience store” of drug dealers, whereas middle-class folk like myself tend to shop either at the “Wal Mart” of drug dealers (if they’re especially price-conscious) or perhaps the “Target” of drug dealers (if they’re looking for a step up in quality). Perhaps there’s even a “Domino’s Pizza” of drug dealers, delivering your hash, crack or meth in a half hour or it’s free? The upper crust-types would naturally get their drugs from the “Bloomingdale’s” or “Lord & Taylor” of drug dealers, where it’s a lot more expensive but comes in old-fashioned paper dime-bags.

Since I don’t need to know how or where to buy drugs, the only point at which any of this would actually impact me would be if I needed to write about it. But if that day ever comes to pass, I expect that I’ll have to decide between cranking out the stereotypes or inventing a class of drug dealer that would potentially establish an entirely new series of marketing models for narcotics trafficking. To achieve karmic balance, I suppose I'll need to ensure that those characters suffer horribly. But heck, if I can revolutionize the retail model of drug trafficking, finding a new circle of hell for those fictional felons should be easy.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

I Dislike when Others Make Mistakes

I freely admit that I make errors. When it comes to the written and spoken word, in English, anyway, I’m less prone to them than many, but it does happen. So there’s some truth to the statement “Mike makes mistakes, but objects when others do it.” Because here’s the difference – I make an effort to correct my mistakes, and I make an extra effort to ensure that any sort of “formal” document that’s intended for public distribution, for marketing purposes, or as part of a formal document for which I am being paid is as error-free as possible. I’m probably not entirely alone in this, but it’s starting to look as if I may be.

I took my wife out for dinner and a movie last weekend, and throughout the afternoon my tender eyes suffered one vicious assault after another in the form of my mother tongue being mutilated like cattle in a UFO. One sign at the mall proclaimed that you could have your slushy flavored like Banana’s. Like a banana’s what, I ask.

So, as I said, throughout the day I was subjected to one spelling or grammatical error after the next. At the restaurant, for instance, the back page of the menu explained the history of the company and misused the contraction for “it is.” It was the fifth or sixth such error I’d noticed during the day, and I was emphatically not looking for them.

They weren’t egregious, nor did they change the meaning of the document in a way that the reader was likely to be confused. It was just so deplorably lazy. In each case, it would have taken a few minutes at most to have a second reader glance over the copy before it was printed, published, and distributed. I mean for chrissakes, there were eight damn words at most on the “Banana’s” sign. Somebody paid good money to have a sign painted that contained a big glaring mistake right there on it, then proudly displayed that sign outside their business. Somebody paid good money to have hundreds of those menus printed and shipped to restaurants across thirteen states and that wasn’t even the sole error I noticed, just the first.

It has never been easier to proof a document than it is today. Modern word-processors will handle virtually all of the most common spelling errors. Sadly, the grammar-check is much less reliable, but then there’s the Internet for detailed and diabolically simple descriptions, rules and examples for every grammatical quandary a writer is likely to experience.

But I count this as yet another proof of the decline of western civilization – that people who are using words in an attempt to promote their products and make money can’t even be bothered to ensure that the words are used properly when it’s so simple to do it right can only suggest a level of decay and ruin not seen since the last days of Rome. It’s symptomatic, I think, of a crumbling of the intellectual fiber of our society combined with a disregard, nay a disdain, for the kind of pride of craftsmanship that has been replaced with the lamentable sentiment of “meh, good enough.” Well, it’s not good enough for me, and I will continue to dislike it when others make mistakes.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Secret of Man’s Failures is in the Bathroom

From Jules Verne and H.G. Wells through the mid 20th Century, Western society contemplated a future where scientific advances achieved an almost magical level of sophistication. We were promised jetpacks and flying cars to speed us on our way. Cities were to become shining beacons of hope for a clean, prosperous lifestyle of leisure and scientific pursuits. The heavens beckoned and we had only to decide whether our journey to the stars would be in a rocket-ship or a flying saucer. There would be new worlds to conquer.

And, really, everything seemed to be going fairly well up until the 60s. You could argue that Viet Nam and smelly hippies ruined it for everybody, and you’d be correct, of course. But only partly. The secret testament to scientific and cultural failure has actually been staring us in the face (or perhaps in the chest) for decades. From public restrooms. Fair and gentle reader, the single device that better than any other epitomizes the sad state of technical achievement in the latter half of the ultimately pathetic 20th century is none other than the humble hand dryer.

You’ve no doubt seen these useless devices affixed to walls in bathrooms around the world. They use a powerful-sounding motor that seems as if it ought to cause the very building to tremble upon its foundation, each use of the machines threatening to rip it from its moorings to lift ever so briefly off the ground. These predominantly white, porcelain-like behemoths suck in air from the room, whip it to a gale’s force, then unleash through their chrome muzzles the gentlest puffs of breath upon one’s moist hands. You, the user, standing before this vicious assault upon your ears and timid stirring of the air about your dripping hands, obediently follow the directions on the roaring unit hieroglyphic instruction plate. You rub your hands briskly together, creating a friction almost sufficient to ignite a Boy Scout’s campfire, the asthmatic, screaming puffing of the machine mocking your vigorous efforts to achieve some semblance of evaporation.

After perhaps a quarter of a minute of fruitless hand-waving (a Jedi attempting to employ one of these machines would, in such a time, have made mindless vegetables of every living creature in a three-block radius. Though their hands would be no less wet.), each individual must make a choice as to how to proceed. The truly stubborn or, perhaps, incurably indolent, will continue to flap and rub and wave and shake their hands as the machine simultaneously simulates both the sound of a fighter jet and the air pressure of a Summer breeze. They may, perhaps, engage the unit for a second round when they find that the allotted time has expired, the dryer has powered down, and yet somehow their hands remain no more dry than a water park in August. The all-too-common alternative is to simply wander off, frustrated and unsatisfied, a sheen of water glistening on your hands, ears ringing. Your shirt, the thighs of your pants, a convenient pocket – these hapless fabrics must then absorb the failure of the hand dryers. And, naturally, they must absorb the remaining water on your hands. Nobody likes to walk around with wet hands.

At a restaurant-industry trade show in 2006, I got a preview of the next generation of hand-dryers. The unit looked much more sleek, all grey plastic instead of white porcelain. It was the same generally-boxy shape, but it seemed to channel its very essence down into a cone-shaped exhaust-nozzle at the base of the device. I was invited to dip my hands into a bowl of water nearby and, since the day was young and it didn’t seem as if a thousand other people had already put their greasy hands in the bowl, I availed myself of it. I then placed my wet hands beneath the unit's mouth and it howled into action. The sound was only marginally less deafening than traditional hand dryers, but instead of producing the gentle zephyr of a butterfly’s wings to lightly tease the water pooling between my knuckles and clinging to each individual hair on the back of my hand, this marvel of 21st century engineering directed a jet of heated air over my hands such as might have lifted the Concord over the Atlantic at mach speed. My skin literally rippled from the force of it, not unlike Roger Moore’s face in that James Bond movie where the bad guys strap him to a giant centrifugal force simulator and send him racing around in circles to a grizzly, dizzy doom. I could see the water being blasted from my hands. Within moments the device’s brigade of airborne super-soldiers had driven the invading moisture from my occupied hands. I was free. Technology had at last overcome the world-dominating power of water.

It took three years, but a few weeks ago I finally experienced one of these new breed of hand-dryers in an actual restroom. Mind you, the original hand-dryer was invented in Chicago in 1948 by George Clemmons. The year now is 2009. A little basic arithmetic (carry the one… calc.exe… 2009-1948=61) and it’s immediately clear that it took over SIXTY YEARS for this revolution to occur. Want to know why man hasn’t gone to Mars or established colonies on the Moon? Because it took SIXTY FREAKING YEARS to invent a hand dryer that works. A machine that dries your hands by blowing air on them. Jet packs? Are you freaking kidding me? Oh sure, we can make a jet pack that SOUNDS like it’s blasting you beyond the pull of Earth’s gravity, but actually achieving lift? We couldn’t invent a machine to blow water off your hands in less than six decades, people!! It’s amazing that computers actually do anything more than blink a few lights and whirr loudly. It’s astounding that airplanes actually manage to get off the ground (perhaps because they were invented before the hand dryer?). It’s not at all surprising that our state-of-the-art in manned space craft drops pieces of styrofoam all over the place every time it blasts off. The ones I made as a kid always did that, too, and I didn’t even go to Aerospace Engineering School.

The hand dryer. Dangling from the neck of Western society like an albatross (except that a fully-functioning albatross can, you know, actually fly). At long last, this painful chapter in our culture’s history can close. It is now possible to blast the water right off of your hands. There’s every reason to believe that we’re back on track. It’s not beyond plausible that we might, in my lifetime or my children’s, once again reach for the stars. And hopefully, on the Moon or on Mars, there will be restrooms. And those restrooms will have paper towels.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Family Vacation Day 1

We started our day as losers.

Well, not quite. Actually we started the day with the kids doing their main weekly (mandatory) chores, followed by my son and me practicing the 12-Bar Blues we just learned yesterday. I love the sound of it and the fact that it feels really natural to play. I'm looking forward to getting so fluid with the basic 12-bar that we can add on some neat sounds to go along with it.

From there, we packed a picnic lunch (in an authentic Yogi-Bear-Style pick-a-nick basket) and headed out for fun with the kids. Our first stop, though, was the Great New York State Fair. My wife and the older kids had entered a pile of art into the various competitions at the Art & Home Building this year and a whole lot of it had actually won. But my wife had two photos and two drawings that weren't accepted and we had to pick them up. It's a good thing she's not sensitive about it, really. We pulled up to Gate 2 and a grizzled-looking security guard walked up to the van. I told him "We're going to the Art & Home Building to pick up our losers" and he nodded solemnly - that slow, single nod you use when you're at a wake and don't want to seem overly enthusiastic about anything because it's supposed to be sad. My wife only chuckled at my choice of words.

I love the fair. Love it. I love the sounds and (most of) the smells and everything that there is to see and do there. I enjoy walking through the buildings, especially the ones that don't have stinky animals in them. I enjoy watching my children on the rides, their faces lit up with pure glee as they spin and twirl and bounce.

Boy, you know what I really used to enjoy? This was before we had kids. I used to drag my wife over to "Empire Court"(which, at one point, was (and possibly still is) the name of the lawn between the front stage by Gate 1 and the Dinosaur BBQ tent. It might be Chevy Court now, or that might just be the part right by the stage. I dunno.) and take a nap for a half-hour or so in the afternoon. I'd fall asleep to the sounds of the people and the smells of the food and the grass, and I'd wake up refreshed and ready to dive back into the Fair. I think my wife would spend the time pawing through the bags of pamphlets and crap we'd picked up in the Center of Progress building, but I don't really know. I was asleep. Sadly, the kids have no patience for naps and I don't get to have one anymore, but the few years I managed to take one were glorious.

Anyway, I love the fair and it was a bit of a mild thrill to be driving around the grounds as everything was being assembled in preparation for Thursday's grand-opening. We picked up our rejected art and then walked back across the grounds, marveling at the dry fountain at the center of the NY State Park at the Fair. Here's a little piece of trivia - the property on which the State Fair sits was, at least to begin with, given to the State in perpetuity as long as they continued to operate the annual State Fair on it. However, one little chunk of the fairgrounds is actually a designated New York State Park. Unfortunately, that little park is about 50% fountain and the rest is covered in park ranger and state police exhibits, a miniature golf course and a Parks Gift Shop, so I didn't nap there. Nope, sorry, too much crap in the ol' State Park at the Fair, so I took my naps to more welcoming territory.

After strolling through the State Fair (some assembly required), we headed to Shove Park (pronounced with a long O), a really nice area in the town of Camillus with a baseball diamond, quite a few picnic tables (most of them under a roofed pavilion), three separate playgrounds (an ancient one, a new one and one for toddlers), and - best of all - a stretch of Geddes Brook passing through it. The kids had a wonderful time wading up to their knees (or, in the case of the youngest, up to his waist) in the cold water, floating pieces of bark through the twisting course and digging up a wide array of interesting (to them) rocks. We easily spent a couple of hours there while they got all wet and dirty and happy.

Next, we paid a visit to Fairmount Glen miniature golf course. I never played mini-golf too much when I was a kid, but my wife's family had an annual ritual of golfing at Fairmount Glen so it's a special place for her. The kids just like it because it has all sorts of creative and fancy holes including a windmill, a castle, a plinko table, and a bucket of flowers hanging above a "secret passage" that sends your ball shooting straight at the hole. I had a lousy game due to my general lack of coordination, and my older son came out the big winner for the first time ever. He was especially elated to have beaten the rest of us.

My daughter needed some cheering up after her devastating defeat at the hands of her brother, so we made a quick stop at the Camillus Municipal Building playground. With her joy-meter reset to "high," we headed to Pizza Hut, to take advantage of the coupon on the mini-golf scorecard. Our waitress looked really familiar, so I asked if she had worked at that restaurant for a while. She laughed and told us she'd been there for twenty-six years. That's why I'd recognized her - my old friend Bill and I had eaten there all the time and she'd waited on us as often as not. And that was more than fifteen years back. As much as the face of West Genesee street in Camillus has changed since I got married and moved away, this woman represented to me everything that's still the same there. It was comforting in its way, not least of all because she's a pretty decent waitress.

We finished the day with a trip to Peter's Polar Parlor, an ice-cream stand that I can remember visiting when I was barely more than a toddler. My parents would sit me up on the counter to tell Pete what I wanted. Pete - the original Pete, this is, not the more recent Pete who owned the place after it had changed hands once or twice - was a friend of my Dads' so he always took a moment to say hi to us when we'd visit. He seemed to take a real pleasure in serving his customers - I don't think I've ever seen anybody happier at their job than old Pete.

We got home full, tired and happy. Day 1 was an unqualified success. Let's hope the rest of the week goes as well!

Monday, August 24, 2009

The whole family's home on "vacation" this week and there have been promises made regarding miniature golf, the zoo, swimming at grandma's, and, of course, the Great New York State Fair. As such, blog entries this week will be somewhat more sporadic than usual.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Net-Based Entertainment

A Glimpse of the Future, Today?

Sure, the Internet gives us hours of flash-based games, scads of pictures of cats in compromising positions, and at least one cat that can sort of play the piano, but so far it’s been a bit light on original entertainment of the sort we’re used to from TV and movies. Granted, both Shane Ackerman’s 9 and Neil Blomenkamp’s District 9, two new movies hitting theatres this summer, began as short films available on YouTube, but they’re the exception to the rule. There’s just not a lot of “traditional” entertainment available on the web. It really makes you wonder what the future holds for entertainment that’s blended with, distributed through or enhanced by the web.

Well there’s one other exception to the rule and it’s worth mentioning. Felicia Day, an actress best known for her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is the writer, producer and lead actor in an online-only series titled “The Guild.” What makes me think that this series of short shows is a look into the future is that it blends two Internet-based concepts – that of short videos like you’d see on YouTube, plus the world of Multiplayer Online Gaming. By putting these two together, Day has achieved quite a following for her show, which is due to launch its third season on Tuesday (August 25th).

The premise of the show is that a group of players of an online game have formed a “guild” where they work together to succeed in the game. When one of the guild members begins to essentially stalk another member of their team in real life, all of the players are forced out of their comfortable online reality and into the bright light of day. Reality has a hard time living up to fantasy, and the personalities and foibles of the actual people are far different from the confident, heroic characters they play in the game. The shows have now been viewed over 25 million times. In Neilson terms, that’s every prime-time show in all time slots on every network for an entire evening (or thereabouts). And much like the network shows, The Guild is free if you want to watch it on its original network (in this case, the Internet), or you can buy previous seasons on DVD if you’re so inclined.

Not content to stop there, Day has initiated yet another Internet crossover, this time through a music video based on the series, with the MP3 of the song available on and iTunes. A testament to the power of viral marketing, when the video and song, titled Do You Wanna Date My Avatar, were released on Tuesday of this week, they immediately rocketed to the top of the “charts” everywhere from references on Twitter to downloads at the music sites. Visitors to Virtual Vellum may not be familiar with The Guild, but there’s a world of geeks out there for whom Felicia Day is their uncrowned queen.

Now, granted, the production values on The Guild are pretty low – you don’t tend to get a variety of camera angles, location shots, extras, elaborate props, special effects or the other technical rigmarole we’re used to on network TV shows – but if studios were to embrace this method (and find a way to make it profitable while still making it widely available to the masses), they could be just as high-end as any prime-time series. And that’s why I think The Guild is a glimpse of the future of Internet entertainment. Shows tailored to a certain audience that will live if people go crazy for them and possibly die if nobody cares. I don’t know if I’d say that’s an improvement over the way we do things now, but I think the capacity will exist for talented newcomers to get into the action in a way that’s simply impossible with broadcast television as we’re used to it today. Somebody’s going to figure this out for real and the final straw will be a way of monetizing the product so that there’s a profit to be made above and beyond the cost of the show. That plus a convenient way of delivering the content to the TV because, really, however big your LCD monitor is, who wants to sit and watch TV on it? Watching TV is as much a social endeavor as it is simple entertainment, and people are still going to want to gather on the living room couch to watch a show. But once that bridge between the Internet and TV is conveniently crossed, I suspect there will be a lot more shows out there like Day’s, and I think they’ll take what they’ve learned from her and run with it to as-yet unseen heights. That will be revolutionary.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Training Tomorrow’s Zombie-Killers Today

My son received this high-tech weapon for his birthday last weekend and it’s made him such a highly-effective killing machine that the US Army Special Forces and the US Marine Corps are fighting over which elite section of the military gets to have him. He’s fond of animals, however, so we’re trying to determine whether the World Wildlife Fund uses snipers.

What we’re talking about here is next-generation weaponry from NERF, makers of “less lethal” toys for generations. We all grew up with NERF footballs, which allowed those who were afraid of the ball to still compete, after which they’d learn to be afraid of the linebackers. Since the “NERF Taser” is still in development, the current state-of-the-art in soft foam small arms is the NERF N-STRIKE series. Designed for the age 6+ crowd of future commandos, it's the first weapon my son ever really loved.

The RECON CS-6 is notable because it’s highly mission-configurable. It consists of no less than three modular components for the body of the weapon itself – a shoulder stock (with a bay for a spare clip), a barrel extension (which actually seems only to make the weapon “cooler” while decreasing its range), and the weapon’s central mechanism containing the grip, trigger, chamber, the receptacle for the clip, and the primary barrel. To these modular sections, the operative may choose to add either or both targeting tools – a flip-up, adjustable sight and a dual-mode light beam. The latter device emits a red beam of light that can be adjusted from a narrow “laser” beam to a wide dispersion for visual targeting in low-light conditions. This device has been technically described by my son as “cool!” Both of these targeting attachments can be affixed at multiple positions on the weapon.

My son cares for none on this. Sure, the dual-mode light beam attachment caught his attention for a moment, but he never uses it. No, it’s all about laying down suppressing fire as you move into position, leading your target, and taking the kill. Skeet shooting? Silhouettes? No, for a weapon this magnificent, only The Most Dangerous Game will do. This weapon is for hunting men. Well, boys. And little girls. Anything that moves, pretty much. The guinea pigs have thus far eluded notice, but it’s only a matter of time. Anything, as long as those six precious rounds can be ejected with deadly-seeming force at a (preferably fleeing, screaming) designated enemy combatant.

But that’s where this remarkable weapon both excels and fails. The rounds fly with sufficient speed that you have a good chance at taking down your prey, yet they don’t really hurt. Granted, all the fancy targeting is useless because the rounds drop rapidly once they leave the barrel – you have to aim high, not where the laser is pointing. But the biggest issue with the NERF N-STRIKE RECON CS-6 is in the name. The 6 apparently is for the number of rounds of ammo included with the weapon. It’s a pump-action chamber so you’re not losing rounds to strafing like you would on full automatic, but you still move through those six “streamline darts” pretty darn fast. You move through five even faster, which is what happens when you put one up on the roof and the rain doesn’t wash it out the downspout. The clip looks like it could hold 8-10 rounds, but you only actually get 6. They sell spare ammo in a 60 count pack for $20, and three spare clips for $14, so if you want to be fully combat-ready, count on spending another $34 on top of the $20 for the weapon itself.

As toys go, this one’s a hit though. It’s sufficiently well-built that it doesn’t seem like it’s going to fall apart all the time, and it’s even been relatively jam-free once the kids learned how to properly load and service the weapon. They somehow lost the sliding flip-up sight, but that’s just the kids being kids, not a design flaw. It could easily have come with a few more rounds of ammo, but the kids don’t seem to notice or mind too much. I’d highly recommend this toy for any red-blooded American boy (no commies!), or maybe a Canadian boy or a really tough British girl who wants to mix it up with the lads. This weapon has made my son into the man he is today, and the US Army or Marine sniper he’s going to be within a few weeks once the Pentagon decides who gets to have him. Sniff – I’m so proud.

I’m really looking forward to the NERF 10mm Mortar and the NERF heavy artillery!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Zombies are Bad, Say Doctors

Yesterday, the BBC reported on a study conducted by Canadian researchers into the spread and recommended response to a zombie pandemic. I can only assume that they read my short story and decided to avert disaster by putting a better plan in place while there’s still time.

I like zombie stories. I liked Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, and even Thriller when I was a young teen. I’m literally watching 28 Weeks Later for the first time as I write this. I thought World War Z, by Max Brooks, was a remarkable book and even made my wife read it (despite protest and much stalling). She reluctantly admitted it was pretty good. I’m a little bummed that J. Michael Straczynski won’t be doing the screenplay after all, but I still hope the movie does justice to the book .

While I’m thinking of it, you absolutely must check out this outrageous song by Jonathan Coulton called “re: Your Brains.” It’s sort of “Office Space meets Night of the Living Dead.”I think it’s hilarious and my kids are pretty fond of it, too.

Zombies have become really hot in the last few years. I think the fear factor is part of it – what’s worse than an implacable, mindless, tireless undead adversary that doesn’t merely eat you alive, it actually consumes your very humanity and forces you to join the ranks of the shambling not-entirely-dead? Plus, they rarely come single-spies, but in battalions, like waves of death crashing through the city streets or across the countryside.

What the Canadian researchers determined was that a Zombie infestation would theoretically mimic a major outbreak of infectious disease. Makes sense - it spreads from victim to victim, it’s highly contagious and almost invariably lethal. And the more people that get it, the faster it spreads – exponentially growing in severity as each infection leads to multiple new victims. Because of this similarity to actual disease, I suppose somebody was able to justify spending real money to study this presumably-fictional infection. From the article:

“In their scientific paper, the authors conclude that humanity's only hope is to "hit them [the undead] hard and hit them often".

They added: "It's imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly or else... we are all in a great deal of trouble."”

Well, okay, I guess I’d say, “duh,” except that in World War Z, this isn’t at all what happened. So, fine, if you don’t nail them right away, you’re going to be overwhelmed. That’s logical (though WWZ does a decent enough job of rationalizing how this wasn’t necessarily so) and arguably goes without saying, right? Continuing from the article:

“According to the researchers, the key difference between the zombies and the spread of real infections is that "zombies can come back to life".”

At the risk of being redundant, “duh?” This strikes me as the equivalent of saying “the problem with the plague was that people got real sick.” Moving on:

“"My understanding of zombie biology is that if you manage to decapitate a zombie then it's dead forever. So perhaps they are being a little over-pessimistic when they conclude that zombies might take over a city in three or four days."”

Really? Have these guys ever read or seen anything about zombies? Played a good game of paintball? I think the pessimism is entirely plausible. How many of us have ever defended ourselves against a raging lunatic who feels no pain, doesn’t need to sleep, eat or breathe, and wants nothing more than to use your skull for a salad bowl? I’m not sure what’s sillier, the article or the report (or the scientist who added a question-mark to the end of his name so as not to be mistaken for a rock star. No, I’m not joking.).

But as far as I’m concerned, zombies in the news is always a good thing – the more they infect the mainstream consciousness, the more zombie-lovin’ there’s going to be.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Warren Spector – Master of Deus Ex

Why I routinely replay a 10-year-old PC game

Following yesterday’s post about Deus Ex Machina as a cheat in writing fiction, I got to thinking about a game I recently replayed and plan to replay again in the future, despite having been released nearly a decade ago. The name of the game is Deus Ex and in my opinion it’s a masterpiece. It may be the closest thing to the “perfect” PC game produced to date. Its graphics are now sub-par and there are no surprises left in the game’s story for me, but I replay it about once a year anyway, because it’s just that good.

I love the game’s high degree of player freedom. I love its detailed storyline. I love that the plot of the story can change depending on what choices you make. But first, a quick summary of the game. You play an agent for a UN-mandated anti-terrorism force. You’re a savvy young go-getter with a big edge – you’re pumped full of micro-electronic devices to augment your abilities. You can see in the dark, talk to HQ without a radio and can recharge your electric reserves using energy packs. Technically, the game’s like a lot of other first-person shooters. You run around picking up equipment and fighting bad guys, but the game generally doesn’t try to dictate how you have to accomplish your goals. For instance, it’s possible to play much of the game without killing anybody – either sneaking past your enemies or disabling them with tasers and gas grenades. If you’d prefer to go high-tech, you can often accomplish your goals by hacking computers and security terminals, turning cameras and machine-gun turrets against their owners. Or you can go the route of the action-hero, murdering your way through the game with sniper rifles, rocket launchers or a special sword that’s treated with nanites for a molecular-sharp edge.

This sort of latitude is hard to appreciate if you’re not a gamer, but, trust me, it’s all too rare. In a lot of games, the game’s creators railroad you through mission after mission, through elaborate mazes where your only choice isn’t where to go, but simply whether to kill each enemy with a gun or a grenade. And often, anything that moves is an enemy to be killed. But Deus Ex is rife with characters who have no stake in your mission – they’re just browsing the local market in Hong Kong or walking through Battery Park in New York City. What’s more, you can interact with many of these characters and they share their unique thoughts about the area, the troubled times you live in, or their personal problems. Overlaying all of this is a superb soundtrack that sometimes you’ll just want to stop and listen to.

So you’ve got missions to do, and it’s entirely up to you how to accomplish them. That’s technically great for gameplay, but all of that freedom’s not worth much if the game’s not entertaining. That’s where the superb storyline comes in. Deus Ex pulls in many (perhaps all) of the major conspiracy theories floating around the web and molds them into a cohesive tale of secret societies, shadow governments, and struggles for control at the highest echelons of government and society. The writers use everything from black helicopters to Area-51, Men in Black to the Illuminati and Majestic 12 and they weave a complex story of betrayal, power struggles and global crimes against humanity. Most games cobble together a flimsy rationale for the player to want to do what the game requires of them, but Deus Ex blows that paradigm out of the sky. The Deus Ex story would have made a decent read as a novel and serves to really draw the player into the game’s world. (Actually, it was a novel – Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is in some respects a very similar story to Deus Ex. I wonder if Warren Spector ever wishes he’d just written a novel instead of making a PC game?) Plus, the interactive nature of the game means that information can be revealed to the player through a wide array of methods. If you sneak up on some guards, you might hear them talking about their recent missions or one of the main bad guys. If you hack into a computer, there will likely be emails outlining the goals and objectives of the different factions in the game. You may find books or electronic notepads lying around that describe the game’s plot and its major players. Or the various characters in the game, friends and foes alike, may flat out tell you what’s going on, at least from their perspective. Sometimes they even lie to you. And it’s not enough that there aren’t just the good guys and the bad guys, there are actually good guys disguised as bad guys and vice versa. There are also multiple organizations and factions, some of which aren’t at all what they first seem and several of which turn out to be “grey,” with their own goals and methods that aren’t necessarily good or bad. And you get to interact with all of them, deciding who to join and who to fight.

Which brings me to the branching storylines. It would be an exaggeration to imply that your character is totally free-willed, able to become a saint or a serial-killer on a whim. There are some sides you can’t really join and some deeds that simply can’t succeed, but by the end of the game, you’ll have encountered all of the major factions in the game and you’ll have no fewer than four final outcomes to choose between, each of them being a choice to join a different warring faction. To accomplish this, the developers had to write and create each of these multiple outcomes, with graphics, recorded voice acting, programming and logic in the game to accommodate all of them – even the three that the player might never see. Plus, there are multiple branching storylines long before you reach the end, each of which means extra content that the player might miss entirely unless they’re willing to replay the game multiple times to see them all. Most game studious are wary of putting a lot of time and effort into creating content that each individual player might never even see, but Eidos took the chance and made a game that’s so immersive you really start to wonder if the Masons and the Knights Templar might not be pulling the strings behind the scenes to manipulate world governments.

Ironically, there’s not really any Deus Ex Machina in the story – it all pretty much makes sense. Instead, YOU, the main character, are “the machine” and, ultimately, you get to play god and decide through your actions and choices how the world will look after the events in the game play themselves out. It’s one of the longest, most detailed games I’ve ever played, with dozens of hours of gameplay and scads of hidden notes scattered through the game that you really have to hunt for if you want to know every detail of what’s going on with the story. Yet, it’s also a technically playable game where you’re not bogged down in minutia if you decide you don’t care about the little details and just want to stick a commando knife in somebody’s skull.

So there you have it – the perfect PC game. Ok, it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn good and certainly a step above many of my other favorite games. By letting me, the player, decide how to win the game while immersing me in a detailed and very believable storyline, Spector and his team set the bar far above the usual level expected and required of game developers. Kudos to the studio and to Warren Spector. Now if only somebody else would make a game this good.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Fiction of the Unknown and avoiding “Amazing Bullshit”

A writer and their readers operate on an assumed set of rules. The writer, in particular, has to play fair. There’s even a name for the art of cheating your audience – it’s called deus ex machina, which translates as “god in the machine.” It used to be literally used in Greek plays, when a “god” character would be lowered from the heavens on a rope, or pushed up through a trap door in the stage, in order to solve some seemingly impossible problem for the main character. Horace and Aristotle warned writers against using this mechanism. In modern writing, deus ex machina is viewed by readers and authors alike as weak writing unless used very deliberately and cleverly (which, some would argue, invalidates its classification as deus ex machina which, by definition, is hardly clever).

In writing fiction, then, there are rules that the writer must obey. Generally, the reader owes nothing to nobody. A certain suspension of disbelief is helpful if the reader is to enjoy the work, and it’s assumed that the reader will “give it a chance” by not flinging the story across the room after the first paragraph, but it’s his or her nickel and the reader is free to fling away if the mood strikes them. The rules apply to the storyteller.

Certain fictional elements lend themselves to breaking the rules, and authors must take care with them. Magic is one such element. If the writer resorts to “it’s magic” to solve their problem whenever they write themselves into a tough corner, it gets old for the reader pretty quickly. It’s impossible to build any suspense, for instance, if the reader knows that a favorite character is certain to be spared from serious harm by what an old friend of mine used to call “amazing bullshit.” A newer friend, Ron, wisely cautions that magic should be used as minimally as necessary in any story, so as not to risk exactly this reaction.

Physiology can also serve as deus ex machina. A good example of this is the old Star Trek episode “Operation: Annihilate,” where Spock submits to a treatment to rid himself of a parasite. The treatment involves a flash of light that damages his optic nerve, leaving him blind. By the end of the show, McCoy realizes that only certain wavelengths of invisible light are needed to cure the infestation, but the damage, for Spock, is done. This noble character is doomed to an early retirement from Starfleet. Except for the special Vulcan “inner eyelid,” that we learn in the final minutes of the show instinctively shielded his eyes and preserved his vision. All’s well that ends well, except that the eyelid is “amazing bullshit.” It’s cheating – why? Because the reader (or viewer, in this case) was never given the information to predict the outcome on their own. That’s part of the deal – a well-written work challenges the reader to predict what’s going to happen, gives them all the necessary info, but does it so well that the reader either doesn’t see the end coming or is so engrossed that they don’t even think about it. But it’s important that the reader be able to go back and say “Ahh, I should have figured that was going to happen because of A and B and C, which were clearly right there for me to put together.” This eyelid business didn’t follow A or B or C – it just appeared as Z all on its own, which is cheating. But nobody knows the physiology of a Vulcan or a dragon or an elf or an alien, so it’s tempting for writers to get themselves stuck in a corner, then pull a physiological solution out of their ass to save the day. “Umm, poison doesn’t work on elves!” “ Orcs have their hearts in a different place!” “Dragons have redundant spines.” That last one was actually used as further amazing bullshit to save Worf in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

A third conceit that lends itself to this temptation is a catch-all category that I’ll call “technology.” Whether it’s shields or cloaking devices or teleportation or hyperspeed, it’s all too easy for the writer to bend or break the rules to fit an immediate need in the story. Need a quick escape? Whoosh – warp-drive, baby! Facing an enemy that’s immune to your weaponry? Hell, just reverse the polarity on the anti-matter emitters. Naw, it won’t overload and blow your whole weapons system right out the stern, instead it will magically make your plasmic discharge 10x more powerful than originally designed by, presumably, a team of top engineers and physicists working for years in laboratories, computer simulations, and field testing. They no doubt faced a multitude of failures, but the story’s brilliant chief engineer can do it just by crossing a couple of wires. It was used as a ridiculous plot device so often in Star Trek: TNG that Engineer Geordi LaForge should just have installed a “reverse polarity” switch and gotten it over with.

What’s interesting is that you can still write a good story even by breaking the rules. Some of the best stories break the rules on purpose, and some are just good enough that they work despite messing around with the reader. Star Trek and its successors were, in general, pretty good shows, even though they shattered these rules on an almost weekly basis. Heck, people still study Euripides’ plays like Medea, and he may well have invented the concept of deus ex machina.

But as a writer preparing to create original works of sci-fi and fantasy, I need to deal with this issue and I need to deal with it up front. I need to create rules for things and concepts that don’t exist in reality. These things don’t exist in everyday life for a reason – they’re either impossible according to natural law or they’re implausible given current technology or they’re just plain imaginary. Each writer who tells a tale using these conceits has to put some thought into how they work.

So, I’ve taken some time to think about all the different ways that, for instance, I’ve seen magic work. I’m writing an essay about that – haven’t decided what to do with it when it’s finished, but it may be worth publishing if I put enough effort into it. I’m also giving thought to how I might want to handle faster-than-light travel for another story. One thing I’d like to avoid there is to mimic David Weber in the Honor Harrington books. I’ve only read the first one so far, and I liked it a lot. What I didn’t like was that during a climactic space battle, he pauses for about two pages to give a fairly dry physics lecture on the history and function of faster-than-light travel in his universe. DURING THE CLIMACTIC SPACE BATTLE, DAVID?!? You couldn’t find a better place in your entire novel to slip on your physics professor mortar board and robe? Sigh. Anyway, I also only understood about a third of David’s lecture there, so I’m hoping to come up with something that doesn’t stretch credulity too far (within the bounds of something that Einstein theorizes is patently impossible), but is reasonably accessible to the reader. However I decide to do it, I’ll want to be sure to write the rules down, share them with my reader as appropriate, and then obey them.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Apocalypse Soon

The Imminently Forthcoming End of Mankind

Man has always been fascinated with the idea of death at a mass scale. We all die – that’s part of the human experience. But we expect that we have a chance to make an impact on our society and through our work or our children leave something better behind. But from the Norse myths surrounding Ragnarok to the Christian tradition of the End of Days and the Rapture, people have explored the idea of the loss of mankind as a species. During the Cold War, it was assumed by many that nuclear destruction would bring about an ironic self-promulgated end to man’s endeavors. More recently, climate change and disease have become popular, and not entirely without reason. Yesterday, I saw a report that India is depleting its water supplies at an astounding and dangerously unsustainable rate. An ABCNews Special, Earth 2100 hypothesized a whole series of issues likely to confront mankind in the next 90 years, from the abandonment of the Mojave desert to plague and coastal flooding. There’s even a show on the History Channel, Life After People, that focuses on how the world would adapt to a complete absence of humans, from the growth or loss of plant and animal species to the eventual collapse of notable buildings and relics. It’s pretty clear that people are intrigued by the potential for our civilization to crumble. And some really excellent stories have been told that focus on the often-heroic efforts of the few survivors.

One of my favorite stories would have to be The Road Warrior. The original, Mad Max, was pretty good, too, and they make a great set, but The Road Warrior is the one that really sticks with me. Mel Gibson’s portrayal of a former cop trying to survive in a lawless land is just a terrific story. The action is intense, the characters are interesting, and the redemption of the hard-as-nails character when he agrees to help the embattled civilians is almost moving. I say almost, because, let’s be honest, this is an action flick and it’s not making any great attempt to pull at your heartstrings. Still, a really outstanding movie.

Another film I really like is 28 Days Later. In this movie, a character wakes up alone in a hospital. While he was in a coma, a disease known as “Rage” had crossed from monkeys to people, turning nearly all of Britain into a wasteland inhabited primarily by infected victims driven mindless by the disease. He meets up with some other survivors and eventually they find themselves a haven in the well-defended compound of a military unit. But in a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease, the soldiers turn out to be not much better than the crazies running around the countryside, and the main character must transform himself from a fairly mild “everyman” into a true hero.

The third of my favorite Armageddon stories is not just one film, but at least three, plus the novel that inspired them. I’m of course referring to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which was made into The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price, The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston, and I Am Legend starring Will Smith. It’s a great novel and interesting in that all of the movies based on it are more similar to each other than to the original book. The Price film is a little dated for my tastes, but The Omega Man was always a favorite of mine and I thought Smith’s portrayal of vampire-infested world-gone-mad survivor Robert Neville was an apt modernization of the story, if a bit linear. In this story, a plague turns men not just into zombies, but into vampire zombies that shun the light and seek to destroy the last remaining man. The story gets interesting as Neville learns that the vampires are growing smarter with the passage of time, eventually forming their own society to replace the one that birthed them. At which point Neville is the outcast – the threat to the orderly operation of civilization. Matheson is a giant in the world of 20th century fiction and this is among his best-known works.

I recently read two other well-regarded “end-of-man” stories, one of which I liked and the other I didn’t. I thought that George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides was excellent and holds up reasonably well for having been written in 1949. There are some anachronisms, of course, but the story’s mostly about the people, not their stuff. The book covers a wide swath of thematic elements, from population control to law & order to how societies grow and change. His characters come alive in a way that many writers can only aspire to replicate and the book is gripping, chilling and thought-provoking all at once. It tells the story of a geographer who comes down out of the mountains to discover that in the weeks he was away mankind had all but perished to disease. From the ashes, he becomes one of the leaders of a very small community near San Francisco and struggles to cope with what they’ve lost while appreciating what they’ve found – a sense of freedom, a community spirit, and a peace that was unattainable in the press of cities and nations overflowing with people, traffic, crime, pollution, and disease. I wouldn’t say the book ends happily (I mean, how happy can you be when a couple of billion of your brothers and sisters have perished?), but it ends well and with a message that man, as an animal, is capable of getting back to basics if given a push in the right direction.

Immediately after, I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and I can’t say I really cared for it. It’s impolitic of me to say so – everybody else raves about it, right up to the committees that awarded it various prizes including a Pulitzer. I’m probably just missing something really profound, but both the writing style (consisting of, as far as I could tell, 70% fragments and only 30% complete sentences) and the story itself (about a father and son traveling across a post-cataclysmic land, primarily evading human predators) turned me off. I think the point of the story had something to do with the nature of the interactions between the father and son and, like I said, it’s probably something very profound that I’m just not smart enough to see. Fair enough. To me it just read like a story where not a lot really happened except for the main character making a few outrageously lucky “search for secret door” checks that made me think the Dungeon Master was giving him a little helping hand. Granted, I used to do this for my Dungeons and Dragon players all the time, but I never went on to write a Pulitzer-winning novel about it. Yet.

Regardless, this list barely scratches the surface of post-apocalyptic stories in literature and film. Hell, if you want the earliest “modern” example, it’s probably the story of the Eloi and the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. That’s a pretty good read, too, now that I think of it. So while this list isn’t exhaustive, it certainly reflects some of my favorites and it’s a genre I definitely plan to explore in my writing at some point. What’s more fun than a story of a lone survivor, especially when the story begins with the assumption that anyone who’d be inclined to read the book must already be dead?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

In which Mike stumbles, bleary-eyed, to his PC

streeeetch; yawn

Just back from a 2-day vacation in Rochester, NY, hence no post this morning (though I did manage to write a couple in advance so they'd pop on Tuesday and Wedensday while I was gone). If the kids cooperate, I'll get something up later today.

A big thanks to everybody who checked out my story on Monday, and especially those who sent or posted feedback (here or on various discussion forums). For material that basically (and intentionally) went from pen to publication, I'm very happy with the comments I got. I've got many changes I mean to make, and I still need to review the feedback from Monday night's writer's roundtable from which I'll likely get more ideas. But nowhere did I hear "this is crap," and I think I would have gotten that sort of candid input if it just plain sucked. Of course, I wouldn't have put it up (or dived into the world of being a fiction writer) if I had thought it was rubbish or that I wasn't capable of telling the difference. Still, validation's nice. Nobody wants to be one of the talent-less rejects from the first week of American Idol who believes that they've got the singing voice of a songbird when in fact they sound more like a bullfrog with a sinus infection.

Which, now that I think on it, pretty well sums up my singing voice. Just not my writing style.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Death to IE6!

Why an outmoded web browser has a torch-wielding mob up in arms

According to estimates published in a CNN story 15 to 25% of web users are still on IE6. Sweet merciful crap! IE6 has a host of issues for its users, among them that it’s slow, crashes easily and it’s riddled with security holes. But for developers, it’s even worse. The people creating websites have to jump through all sorts of hoops and hacks to make their site look right on both modern browsers and the antiquated IE6.

It’s a conflict I’ve seen first-hand. At one company where I worked, they were unable to keep their ERP system and its various components current, and were relying on some modules that only officially worked in IE6. The team that supported that ERP system actually wanted IE6 to be the default browser across the company. My desktop team basically told them to get bent and went ahead with IE7. It turned out that only a very, very small number of people actually experienced conflicts using the ERP tools on newer browsers, which is grand, but somewhat irrelevant. Companies need to realize that they shoot themselves in the foot (feet?) by relying on antiquated technologies. The longer they do so, whether it’s their browser, their Operating System, their word processors, or their ERP application, the more often they’re going to run into conflicts. You want to ensure that the executive team can browse the web securely? Then get them off IE6. But then they can’t read the business reports? Tough – it’s one or the other. Time to make those business reports run on software that wasn’t developed ten years ago.

A lot of this is Microsoft’s fault, of course. They sat on IE6 for five years before finally releasing IE7 in late 2006. Plus, they didn’t write it all that well to begin with. There’s a single line of seemingly-innocuous code that will crash IE6 if used on a website. But Microsoft is on board with making the switch and wants people to adopt one of its newer browsers – IE7 or IE8 – as quickly as possible. Of course, there’s also the Firefox browser and a host of others if you’d like to try something completely different. Personally I use Firefox 3.0 primarily (soon to be switching to 3.5 most likely) and IE7. I’ve tried Google’s Chrome browser and liked how fast it loaded pictures, but it’s only in beta and Google’s terms and conditions always creep me out. Regardless, I’m sure as hell not using IE6 and if you can’t avoid it you shouldn’t be either.

To join the movement, you can check out IE6 No More or Bring Down IE6, or for a laugh you can visit the tongue-in-cheek Save

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Privacy on the Web, or "I know what you wrote last Summer"

One of the reasons that people like and feel comfortable on the Internet is that it gives them a perceived anonymity - a sense that they’re in control. Most places online where you’d offer up your thoughts and opinions allow or even encourage you to use an alias, reducing the likelihood that you’ll be personally called out on the carpet to defend, apologize for or otherwise answer for your statements. Unlike your job, your neighborhood, your family, etc., if you don’t like where you are on the web, just don’t go there anymore. Getting harassed in the chat room? Go to a different chat room. Not finding what you want at an online merchant? Shop somewhere else. Even if you don’t flee, you don’t have to respond to criticism or questioning if you don’t want to. You can just ignore it and go merrily on your way.

One downside is that this seems to stimulate a fair number of people to behave badly because they know they can’t and won’t truly be held accountable for it. Another downside is that people often underestimate just how easily their online personas can be connected to their actual identities. Just because you go by the handle of SexiM0M on a forum doesn’t mean that your husband can’t ever find out that you’re posting sex fantasies online. It’s actually more likely than you might expect, and I was recently reminded of this fact twice.

Many people like to dance on the edge with their personal information, either not realizing how easily it can allow somebody to build a profile of them or just not caring. I’ve tended to be more cautious than many, though not to the extent of paranoia. I don’t post pictures of my kids online anywhere. For a long time, I never used or even referred to my last name online, though that became irrelevant when I publicly won the GMA BBQ contest. I rarely ever gave out my personal email address, and never posted it where strangers could stumble across it. While I frequented an online forum, I never forgot the fact that for every person who read and replied to my posts, dozens or hundreds of others could read them anonymously without ever making their presence known. And they weren’t all my “forum buddies” – they could be anybody on the internet, including nefarious sorts who might want to do me harm for some perceived slight or for no reason at all. Moreover, I kept focused on the fact that most or all of my online postings would remain available for years, so just because nobody might be interested in what I had to say today didn’t mean that they might not at some point in the future.

So, to recap, I’ve never been a particularly flamboyant public figure, with the sordid details and specifications about my live freely available for all to see. But neither was I a complete enigma, carefully sequestered in an impenetrable cage of misdirection and encrypted information. I was, however, surprised by what I found when I subscribed to Facebook for the first time.

When you complete your initial Facebook account setup, one of the screens presents you with some “suggested friends.” I have no idea where Facebook comes up with these suggestions, but for me they were all complete strangers. All but one. One fellow on the list was possibly known to me. He was a regular on some forums I visit and we’d “known” each other for years. I knew his first name and he knew mine, and we knew approximately where the other lived. But that was about the limit of our interactions. So imagine my complete surprise when he appeared as a potential friend. I had revealed NO relevant info to Facebook that I can identify. I had not associated myself, at that time, with ANY friends, nor had I proclaimed myself to be a member of any communities, social groups, online services or other networks where a connection to this person could be inferred. I wasn’t even sure at first who he was because, as I said, I didn’t know his last name. To be sure, I had to go and find an email address for the suspected “friend” and ask whether it was him. Needless to say, we were both baffled by Facebook’s connection of the two of us, and we remain so to this day.

It put me in mind of a recent movie. I won’t print the name, as this description potentially spoils a significant plot point. In this movie, a top-secret mega-computer has gained access to and a degree of control over an unprecedented amount of information about people’s lives, which it uses to manipulate victims into being its tools. Not only does nobody realize that the computer can manipulate everything from ATMs to traffic lights, but nobody outside some top US government officials even knows the computer exists. So when it begins forcing the protagonist to do its bidding, he’s utterly baffled by it and unprepared to defend himself. This was a bit like how I felt when Facebook made this connection that, by all rights, it should never have been able to make. It felt as if somewhere there’s an unknown, unseen intelligence making connections between people who are supposed to be anonymous. I find it exceedingly creepy.

Then, on Saturday, I received an email back from Mil Millington, whose website Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About I referenced in one of last week’s blogs. Mil mentioned the blog Girl with a One Track Mind. This blog, about the antics of a woman with a healthy libido, isn’t really my cup of tea, but I checked it out because Millington had referred to it. And it reemphasized how fleeting Internet anonymity can be.

The blog’s author has a day job that has nothing to do with her blog, as well as a family and other relationships that she’d have preferred to keep separate from her blog-life. She did her best to keep her identity private, even publishing a book under a pseudonym. However, some intrepid reporter for a UK newspaper not only tracked her down, but found her real address, unlisted phone number, e-mail address and even her mother’s contact information and job. This reporter, backed by an equally-sleazy editor, then proceeded to “out” her in a national newspaper, as if her real identity were in some fashion newsworthy. I didn’t read enough to get a sense of the degree to which this devastated her life, but it certainly drove home, particularly in light of my experience, above, the degree to which somebody determined to track you down online can probably manage it unless you’re very, very, very careful.

So the next time you’re about to really tell somebody off in an online forum or post unflattering information about a neighbor or coworker, stop to consider just how reliable you think your online anonymity actually is. As our online and offline worlds continue to crowd closer together – as you use one online “presence” at places like Facebook and invite friends, co-workers, family members and online acquaintances to commingle – your degree of actual online anonymity will dwindle.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Sci-fi short story "If the One Doesn't Get You" published here for your amusement

This morning, my work of original fiction "If the One Doesn't Get You" was published here on this blog for your perusal. It's free - read it, share it, keep it, etc. My only caveats are:
  • Keep it intact - don't change it or distribute it without my name attached.
  • Don't charge anybody for it, naturally. If you want to distribute it commercially, I'm sure we can work something out.
  • Send people here - you're welcome to share the story however you'd like, but sending folks to this blog gives them a chance to see the other things I've written and to get any future publications I might post. By all means, send them in this direction if they're interested in my writing.
  • Comment freely - one of the nice things about Blogger is that it's very easy for readers to leave comments about a post. You're seeing this story damn near to it's first-draft state (though I revise as I write, so no finished work of mine is ever really first-draft). You'll get to see how I write and revise my work and I'd like to hear your thoughts about what you like and don't like. I won't agree with or use everybody's suggestions, regardless of how earnest or cogent they may be, but I'll read them all. If you read the story, please post a comment, even if it's short.
Mike De Lucia
August 10th, 2009

[Fiction] If the One Doesn’t Get You

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

"If the One Doesn't Get You" update

I finished my latest short story just now and technically it's still "Friday" somewhere. I ended up using some indents and such that I know are going to be a hassle to port from Word into blogger, so my new goal is to have it posted as my 6:00 AM Monday Morning blog update. Unless I'm struck by both unanticipated exuberance for some new topic AND unexpected free time to write, I don't foresee any blog updates until then. Ciao!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Don’t Tell Me I’m Not Influential!

Over the last two days, I announced to the world, via this blog, that I had joined the social networking community. The VERY NEXT DAY, the UK's Guardian reports a “5% drop in 15 to 24-year-olds using social networking sites.” You can’t buy influence like that, ladies and gentlemen. "Data suggests they are spending less time on social networking sites" is stated. “Since Mike De Lucia created his accounts last week” is strongly implied. The young 'uns flee before me! Mwuahaha! You're next.

The good news for those who don't choose to abandon the Internet to escape my burgeoning online presence is that I'm writing up a little piece of science fiction that you might enjoy. Hence an abbreviated post today and possibly Friday also. I hope to put it up on Friday, but a lot depends on when I can get quiet time to write. The title will be "If the One Doesn't Get You."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

My Media Empire Strikes Back

Over the last couple of months, I’ve started a blog, joined Facebook, and even joined Twitter. There’s a method to my madness, I think.

I started with LinkedIn, because a previous boss used the “social networking for professionals” service to reach out to me and various other people in his network. That one was easy enough to justify (sort of like how pot is said to be a gateway to harder drugs, I suppose), because it would theoretically help me build a network of business contacts to whom I could turn when I needed professional services, business referrals, help with job-hunting, or all manner of other legitimate business exercises. In reality, LinkedIn works a lot like my email’s address book – it collects names of people I used to work with but with whom I rarely if ever interact anymore. Not because I don’t want to, just because I… well… don’t. But now, suddenly, I was a part of my first social networking site, and it didn’t really hurt at all. There’s even that fun little game you can play where you rack up more and more contacts and secretly compare the size of your contact list against that of others you encounter. Now don’t try to tell me I’m the only one who does that!

I stuck with LinkedIn exclusively for a couple of years. But when I decided I wanted to write, I suddenly felt adrift. As a business executive and Information Technology manager, I had a pretty decent network plus very strong personal experience. I knew both “how stuff worked” and I knew people I could work with. For the publishing industry, I basically know what I learned writing courses for small colleges and reviews for a couple of medium-sized magazines, neither of which bore much relevance to publishing fiction. I needed to build an entirely new network and I needed to learn the industry from scratch.

As something of a traditionalist, I started at the library with Stephen King’s “On Writing,” which was good, but not nearly enough.

Fortunately, my one other foray into online communities was through a forum I’d joined around six years ago and where I’m something of a “regular.” From there I got several more suggestions for books on the topic of writing, including one by Sci-fi novelist and ardent blogger John Scalzi. I liked King and Scalzi’s books in part because they took a similar approach to writing. I also liked them because they seemed to validate that my skillset and experiences were well-suited to being a writer. Scalzi, though, puts particular emphasis on the web, in part because he’s been able to make quite a career in part from the growth of the Internet over the last ten to fifteen years. While both King and Scalzi agreed that a writer needs to write on a daily basis, Scalzi took it a step further – he strongly recommended that a writer have a blog. Ok, thought I, I’m game. Let’s do this.

Virtual Vellum even got its name based on something I read in Scalzi’s book. He’s got a sometimes biting sense of humor and he enjoys pummeling egotistical writers. At one point he was mocking the notion that a writer’s work was so fine that it deserved only to be imprinted on “the finest vellum ever pounded out of a sheep.” I thought that was uproariously funny and when I needed to name my blog, the word vellum (which is a type of writing material used to make books and scrolls in the days before paper was commonplace) was skill echoing in my head. The rest, as they so often say, is history.

From Scalzi’s book to his blog, I started to hop from one link to another around the web, in search of places that were relevant to my new direction. As I did so, I noticed that a LOT of people were on Facebook and Myspace – professional people in the publishing industry, not just college kids posting pictures of their debauchery. If the goal was to become part of this online community of writers and editors and publishers, then it made sense to hang out my shingle there, as well. If you’re interested (and I’m not implying you should be at this point), my facebook page is Though it seems as though also points to me, it just wouldn’t let me cement that as my username so I dunno. In a later blog entry I’ll rant about aspects of Facebook that irritate me. I may also rant about people who have the audacity to have the same name as me, but that’s not, strictly speaking, Facebook’s fault.

Lastly, Twitter always struck me as supremely frivolous and narcissistic. I mean, what can you really say in 140 words beyond the electronic equivalent of waving your hands and shouting “Hey! Look at me! I’m flamboyantly interesting!!”? As far as I can tell, not much, frankly. But the only way to find out whether I was missing anything was to sign up for a Twitter account so I could read what was being twittered. Or twatted. Or whatever.

But here’s the thing that I’ve come to accept – social networking will certainly evolve and change, but it’s not going to diminish. Unless you’re a Marine, but even that’s billed as a temporary thing.

Here’s what I think is coming for social networking: as media becomes more adaptive, immediate, and flexible, communities (sometimes spontaneous communities assembled strictly for the purpose of enjoying some particular entertainment program) will electronically access, absorb, critique and share content with each other. It’s like having an interconnected, instantaneous Neilson audience registering their approval (or lack thereof) of a show and recommending it to other interested parties, who also absorb the entertainment, review it, and pass it along. All possibly within minutes or hours. If, for instance, it’s not necessary to tune in to see a TV show at precisely 8:00 PM on Tuesday… if that show is available online and can be viewed on demand… then a given episode might kick around for days or weeks, riding a tide of social networking frenzy until the top several tiers of the “in crowd” have seen it and moved on. FLASH – you’re hot. FLASH – you’re history. FLASH – you’re hot again. It’s up to the media producers to find ways to stay fresh and exciting enough to engender continuing excitement amongst the online community.

And this wouldn’t just be for TV, it would be for music, books, movies, products – anything that can be discussed and recommended online. This is happening now, of course, but I think in the future it will be more “built in” to the system. Entertainment providers are beginning to seek out community support and excitement in places like the San Diego Comic Con, where a preview of District 9 was twittered worldwide within minutes, engendering a tidal wave of excitement for a movie that had been flying pretty much under the radar until that point. In the future, studios, advertisers, and networks will get more savvy at attempting to bend this medium to their will, while the community participants react – either by embracing their role or working to change it. Either way, if I’m going to be working in this industry, I need to be a part of it.