Thursday, February 25, 2010

Snow Day!

It's hard to really imagine the difference between how excited I'd get as a kid when school was closed for the day and how annoyed I get now when it happens. I mean, sure, spending time with the kids is nice, but I had stuff to do today that now is not going to get done. At least, it likely won't get done today, anyway.

My current project is a (hopefully) brief departure from my long-term work. I'm taking a little break from my novel because I want to write a short story to submit to an anthology for publication. Somebody on a forum suggested some months ago that if I want to write full-time, I ought to be looking into things like John Joseph Adams's The Way of the Wizard anthology. Adams is an editor at Science Fiction & Fantasy magazine and has already published anthologies on topics like outer space, armageddon and zombies. Now he's looking for material for a book of wizard-related short-stories. Most of Adams's books include works by very well-known bestselling writers like Stephen King, George R.R. Martin and Laurel K. Hamilton so I have no idea what my chances are, but it also doesn't really take THAT long to write a short-story so I figured I ought to take on this challenge.

I found out about the book back in the fall and the first thing I did was to collect wizard-related story ideas. Then I put it aside for a while so I could focus on the novel. Yesterday, I pulled out my document of ideas and was fairly amazed. I recalled that I'd taken fairly detailed notes on at least one story concept, but had forgotten how much material I had for it. More, I'd totally failed to remember that I'd also set down a detailed write-up for two or three other stories. And a less-detailed write-up for a couple more. And bare-bones notes (just a couple of sentences) for two or three others. All together, I had seven or eight story concepts that were fleshed out in decreasing degrees. Which I thought was pretty cool, but I still grabbed the top one - the one I'd been thinking about and looking forward to writing for the last several months.

But my wife made a good point when I told her about the file of story concepts last night. She said that if Adams doesn't select my work for his anthology, I should write up the whole batch of stories and write my own. Damn straight, I said! You hear that, Mr. Adams? Submit or face a full-on frontal assault. This is war, sir. A war of wizards! I've got a loaded wand and I'm not afraid to use it!

Or something. I dunno. My plan at the moment is to finish this story over the next two or three weeks, including getting it critiqued by some reliable readers and doing a handful of rewrites (probably around four major ones, plus the ones I'll no doubt do while I'm writing that typically add up to another four or five) before sending it off for consideration. Writing short stories is very different from writing a novel. In both cases you want to choose good words to tell your story, but short stories really require that every word be perfect because you're trying to cram all of your characterization, imagery, theme, symbolism and conflict into a much smaller package that's just as rich and full and entertaining. It has as much in common with poetry, in fact, as it does with long-form prose.

I got a good start yesterday - I know the specifics of the story I want to write and I wrote the first 800 words or so. The limit is 5,000 words and I expect I'll probably hit somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000. We'll see where it ends up. Wherever that end is, I'm not likely to get any closer to it today. Because it's a snow day.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Oh the Places You’ll Go – Part 3

And how to get there without going nuts

This week, I’m trying to document some of the lessons I learned over several years of (sometimes very frequent) business travel. Some of it I learned from friends and co-workers, some I figured out on my own. All of it’s been personally battle-tested, though your experiences may certainly vary (particularly since my last business trip was a couple of years ago).

Topic 2: Hotel

Like choosing your airline, choosing where to stay on business has various factors to consider. Location is important, as are cost, overall convenience, amenities, and brand loyalty (if any). Let’s break those down.

Location – you want to stay somewhere that’s not going to be a hassle to get to and from. BUT, it’s just as important that the hotel be in a suitable area. Not too many major hotels are in run-down parts of town, but noise can be a big issue. Lots of hotels are near airports, for instance, but that can be really loud as jets are taking off and landing from early morning until late at night. Likewise, I once stayed at a hotel that seemed okay until I’d  been there for about half an hour. Then a train roared past my room, literally shaking the walls, the bed, the entire building. I had just climbed into bed and was stunned by the sound and the sensation. I flicked on the light and called the front desk to ask whether the train would be going past again. “Oh yes,” they replied. “About every forty minutes.” I told them I was leaving. Then ended up moving me to a room at the far side of the hotel and I was insulated from the train, but had there not been somewhere else for me to go, I would have been a wreck the next morning. Google maps and Mapquest are great friends to the business traveler who wants to be sure that their hotel isn’t as far away from the airport AND their destination as possible, while ensuring that there isn’t a bullet train running across the property.

Cost – hotel rooms have a huge swing in price from double-digits up to $400+ per night for a regular business-traveler’s room. Be aware that you can not only get deals on hotel rooms through the travel websites like Travelocity, but also through organizations like the American Automobile Association.

Overall convenience – there are lots of factors that can make a hotel stay more or less pleasurable. They can include the presence of a hotel restaurant (and the cost – if it’s a 5-star joint that exceeds your per diem, it’s useless to you). They can include how near or far your room is to the elevator. Some prefer it close so they don’t have to walk too far, while some like to be farther away where it tends to be quieter. And how’s the parking? The hotel’s job is to facilitate your life, comfort and work while you’re away from home. The more all of the pieces fit neatly together, the less stressful your trip will be.

Amenities – it’s not just about the little shampoo bottles in your room. It’s about the ability to get a high-speed internet connection. It’s about the placement of the TV and the available channels. It’s about whether the bed is a medieval torture device or a cloud that lulls you to sleep. It’s about whether there’s a decent, working alarm clock. Is there a business center where you can fax or print something if needed? Is there a fitness center? Is there room service if you want it? For a lot of people, getting a decent cup of coffee (or three or five) in the morning is a huge deal – how well does the hotel accommodate them? Is there a fridge? A stove? A microwave? These little things can all add up to the difference between an OK stay and a great experience.

Corporate loyalty – as with the airlines, you can choose to spend most of your time within the auspices of one hotel corporation and its various sub-brands, or you can stay wherever suits you best on a given trip. One difference is that sticking with one set of brands adds up in reward points (that can add amenities to your stay as well as being redeemed for free stays once you’ve accrued enough). Another, less obvious difference, is familiarity. For me, I tended to stay at Hilton Garden Inn hotels, Doubletree hotels and Homewood Suites – all of which were Hilton properties. And while there wasn’t much similarity between the brands, the hotels within each brand were nearly identical. Once I got familiar with the Hilton Garden Inn property, I knew exactly what to expect at all of them. This was really comforting when I was cruising in late after a long flight and I just wanted to get into bed as quickly as possible. Knowing the ropes was a huge help in relieving the stress at the end of that hard day. The same was true of every Homewood Suites and every Doubletree hotel I stayed at – if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. When I’m traveling for pleasure, I might like to see new places and try new things. But when I’m on business, familiarity and comfort are important to me. Marriotts were nice too, for the most part, but once I decided to go Hilton, I made a point of selecting them whenever possible. I ended up accruing well over 100,000 Hilton points that I’ve since used multiple times when taking my family on vacation. This has personally saved me hundreds of dollars. That’s value.

So when you’re trying to pick a place to stay, there’s a lot more to the decision than whether to get a king bed or two doubles. Choose wisely!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Oh the Places You’ll Go – Part 2

And how to get there without going nuts

This week I’m collecting everything I learned (or thought I learned) during my period of extensive business travel. In Part 1, I kicked off Topic 1: Flying.  Today, I’ll finish off the process of going up, up and away.

Other factors to consider include: how easy is it to change flights if you need to depart at a different day or time or possibly even from a different city? I remember once I ended up driving to a different city for an unplanned customer meeting and I got royally screwed trying to change my USAir return ticket from City A to City B. If I recall, I ended up having to buy a whole new ticket. If that’s likely to be a factor for you, best to know the policies up front. Also, check into things like whether there are meals and/or snacks. That was another problem with USAir – they sometimes ran out of their crummy, expensive meals before they even got to me. I got to fly for 6 hours on a little bag of pretzels. I stopped flying regularly before all of the extra fees for bags and such went into place, but these days that’s one more factor to weigh before you declare loyalty to one carrier.

So for me, choosing a flight meant going to the website of my preferred carrier (or sometimes my top 2-3 preferences) and plugging in the info on the travel dates, destinations, etc. Then I looked at departure/arrival times, connections, available seats, and even plane types until I got what I wanted. This is a pain in the neck, no two ways about it. But it was a time investment up front to save me discomfort and frustration later on. It got easier once I decided I only wanted to fly JetBlue, unless I had to go somewhere they didn’t service.

B. Choosing a seat. I almost called this section “picking your seat,” but that’s too easy to make fun of. Anyway, I also put a lot of thought into my choice of seating, based on those air-travel factors that stressed me out the most. There are going to be stress-factors in your trip, no matter how carefully you plan. But if you can eliminate some in advance, I always felt that was a big plus.

For me, two of the more stressful aspects of the actual flight were missing my connection and dealing with my luggage. And they’re related – if you miss your connection, any checked baggage is likely going to be taking a vacation without you. Also, if you are in danger of possibly missing your connection, you’ll want to get off that first flight – with your carry-ons – as fast as possible.

Enter stress factor number two – being separated from my carry-ons. You’d think that being at the front of the plane would be important to somebody concerned with having to dash to a connection. You’d be right, except that dashing to a connection was, in risk-management terms, medium risk and high impact. It was only semi-likely to be an issue, however if it did occur it could be disastrous. By ensuring that my flights were far enough apart, I changed the risk-level from medium to low. In fact, I almost never missed a connection.

What remained high risk, however, was what would happen with your bags if you sat up front. You see, airlines generally board from the rear. And travelers bring more baggage on board than they ought to. This almost always leaves the folks sitting up front out in the cold. By the time they board, the overhead compartments are filled with other peoples’ crap. Now I’m a light packer, but if I was staying for a week I needed to bring a carry-on, and I wanted that thing right near me. When it’s time to de-plane, I didn’t want to have to swim up-stream like a salmon to get to my bag which had had to be shoved in 15 rows back because there just wasn’t any other stowage space for it. That kind of crap really stressed me out!! High risk! High impact! High Blood Pressure!!

I’m tensing up just thinking about it. Ok, so since I’ve made it so that I’m unlikely to miss my connection, being first off the plane is less important to me than getting space for my bags. And, other than preferential boarding privileges (which I was never able to get), the best way to do that was to sit near the BACK. On JetBlue, this had the added advantage that sometimes in Vegas they would open the back door and deplane folks from both ends. That’s what they call a win-win. But, regardless, I like to sit near the rear of the plane so I’m among the first ones on. Then I never have trouble stowing my carry-on near me.

Also, it goes without saying that you avoid the middle-seat like the plague, but I also put a lot of thought into the window/aisle decision. I ultimately chose aisle. While it can be a hassle getting bumped by every extra-wide passenger who walks up the aisle or getting your foot run-over with the beverage cart, the aisle seat had some advantages that I liked.

For one thing, the side of the plane often curves. This leaves the window seat with less room to stow their gear under the seat in front of them, because the space just isn’t as wide. I never had trouble actually jamming in my laptop bag, but in the aisle I often had room to put at least one foot next to the bag if I wanted to stretch out. In the window seat, there just wasn’t enough space for me and my bag.

Even more basic, in the aisle seat I could get up and down as I pleased, without bothering anyone else in my row. It might be a hassle for my row-mates, since I usually had my tray down and my laptop out, but that’s the price they pay for not choosing the aisle seat.

Lastly, consider the end of the long flight when everybody’s tired and cranky and glad to finally be on the ground. What does everyone do as soon as the “fasten seatbelt” light goes off? They stand up. Well, they stand up if they’re near the aisle. If they’re near the window, they huddle there kind of hunched over, because the baggage bin is overhead and they can’t stand all the way up. This affected me less than a lot of people because I’m short, but I still liked being able to hop into the aisle, grab my bag from the overhead, and stand ready to disembark as soon as possible.

I will say that the JFK to McCarran flight (NY to Vegas for the airport-code-impaired) can be very window-worthy, especially when you fly past the Grand Canyon and the Vegas Strip (especially at night – the Luxor in particular is very cool). But once you’ve seen it you’ve seen it, and then the aisle starts to look appealing again, such as around hour 4 when your row-mates are fast asleep and you really need to get to the bathroom.

On any individual trip, choosing your air carrier, your flight and your specific seat can be as easy or as complicated as you want to make it. Adding in the long-term implications of choosing a preferred airline adds its own level of complexity. But if you think about your priorities, both near and far, you can make choices that will minimize the stress of flying, which will go a long way to reducing the stress-level of your trip.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Oh the Places You’ll Go – Part 1

And how to get there without going nuts

I’m not much of a vacation traveler, and I wouldn’t win any prizes as a frequent business-traveler, either. However, for a couple of years when I was a VP for a manufacturer, responsible for folks in offices spread across the country, I did my fair share of traveling. I attended several trade shows, multiple customer site-visits, and met with my people and my company’s partner firms. In about 18 months, I became a Hilton Diamond VIP and racked up enough frequent flyer miles to take my whole family to Orlando. Funny thing with the Hilton program – I hit Diamond VIP level on my very last trip before leaving that company, so I never got to enjoy the diamond-level benefits (whatever they were. I recall being underwhelmed by them, but the membership card I got was a pretty color). So while I’m not one of those road warriors who’s never home, I certainly had ample time to develop and refine my traveling techniques to make my flights as painless as possible. And that’s not easy – sometimes it’s as if the airlines, the government, the weather and your fellow passengers conspire to make your trip as horrific as a stay in a Vietnamese POW camp. And you can figure that Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone aren’t going to come rescue you. They’re up in First Class.

So my thought was to share some of my hard-won travel tips this week. My wife is making her first business trip in almost ten years, so it was fresh in my mind. This advice is all a couple of years old, now, but as far as I can tell it should all remain fairly true.

Topic 1: Flying

A. Choosing your Airline – you’ve got some choices here. Assuming you’re not using a travel agent (which I almost never did – I preferred to do it myself to be sure I got it just how I wanted it), your first choice will need to be a combination of where to buy your tickets and what airline to fly. This is a choice because one decision affects the other. If you prefer to fly a particular airline, then you may want or need to buy your tickets right on their website. If you prefer instead to buy through a particular website (perhaps or one of those other online travel sites), then you’ll have to see what airlines come up. Some factors to consider:

- Not all airlines are available on all travel sites. For instance, JetBlue is a personal favorite of mine, but not all online travel sites will necessarily show JetBlue rates. At one time I believe that none of them did, but a quick check of showed that they did, in fact, come up with JetBlue as an option. Still, your mileage may (literally) vary from site to site and airline to airline.

- Travel Bundles may sap some of your control. My other experience with online travel sites, and a reason I didn’t use them, was that their bundled fare+hotel tended to be a pain to use – I just couldn’t get the same granular level of control over my trip that I could if I went straight through the individual airline or hotel websites. Again, they may have gotten better at that (they’re certainly incented to do so), but since getting the rock-bottom cheapest rate wasn’t a concern for me as a business traveler, sacrificing control for a (possible) discount didn’t work for me.

- Different planes allow different options. For instance, I preferred to fly jets rather than turboprops. They’re bigger, so the seats tend to be larger and have more legroom. They also fly higher, so there’s (usually) less turbulence. There’s also more room inside the plane for your carry-on and such.

- Make that connection! I liked to arrange my connection so it was far enough from my first flight’s arrival to allow for some delays, but not so far that I spent overmuch time sitting around the airport.

- Not all airlines are created equal. If you’re going to fly once a year, then loyalty doesn’t add up to much. Pick whatever works best for you on that trip. But frequent travelers can accumulate “frequent flyer” miles that can add up to upgrades, free flights, and other amenities. Just getting preferential boarding can be a nice plus. Also, some airlines are just nicer to fly – their planes may be bigger or their terminal might be more convenient for you.

To digress, I’ll cite my own choice to switch from USAirways to JetBlue. I was making a trip from Syracuse to my Vegas office something like once every two or three months at one point, and that eventually became once every 6-8 weeks (sometimes more). It was a long-ass trip. At first, I flew USAirways because… I think two jobs previously it had been the preferred carrier or somesuch. I don’t remember. I flew them because they were familiar to me.

I had started with a few thousand frequent-flyer miles already on my account, if I remember right. After a few months, I was up around 40,000 or so. But it never did me any good. There were never any first-class upgrades available for me to use my miles on because the first-class section was small and filled up quickly. I didn’t get preferential boarding, nor were there any other nice amenities. On one flight, my seat wouldn’t recline and that was the last straw. It was clear that I was going to be stuck flying coach out to Vegas every time. So I asked myself, if I’m stuck with coach, shouldn’t I fly the nicest coach class I can find?

I switched to JetBlue on my very next trip. The planes were new and in great condition. There was MUCH more legroom, the snacks were nicer, and, best of all, I got to watch TV! Plus, I never got stuck on a crappy turboprop, because they’re JETBlue. They only fly jets! And I even did ultimately earn enough miles for that trip I mentioned above, so it was a decision filled with win. Those are the kinds of thoughts you want to have before you declare loyalty to a particular airline.

Tomorrow - more airline-related stuff.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Finishing out the Week

It's been a long one. Not in a bad way. Actually, a lot of it was really good. The kids, for instance, were extremely well-behaved all week. Everything got done that needed to get done - doctor appointments, karate lessons, instrument practice, even trips to the movies and the zoo. Plus more mundane stuff - like everybody getting fed (even the fish) and chores getting done.

One thing that did not get done was any writing. It drives me crazy that it's so easy to get knocked off my routine every time there's a school holiday or a half-day or a kid home sick. I've been working on this book for two and a half months already and I'm nowhere near half done with it as I'd really wanted to be at this point. Next weekend, I'm going to need to get back to work, bigtime.

Blog-wise, though, I've actually got a plan for once. My wife's travel this week got me thinking about my own travel experiences and everything I learned about how to keep the stress and hassles to a minimum. I actually got pretty good at traveling when I was doing it all the time, so now I'm going to share my tips. That will be the bulk of the blog for next week. So come on back Monday for Part 1 of "Oh, the Places You'll Go - and how to get there without going nuts."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

[Game Review] Assassin’s Creed

Blood and death in the holy land

Assassin’s Creed is the first of a handful of games that I bought for a song during the holidays. If nothing else, it was totally worth the $10 I paid for this two-year-old title. Would I have been as happy if I’d paid the full $40 or so for it when it was released? That’s not quite as clear.

As the name implies, Assassin’s Creed puts you in the role of a contract killer. It takes place in the holy land during the Third Crusade. Your character travels to ancient cities such as Damascus, Acre and Jerusalem where you undertake various missions in support of a main questline. Each city acts as its own “level” in the game, complete with an endboss assassination mission.

There’s an awful lot to like about this game. The graphics were beautifully-rendered, to the point where my wife (who hasn’t the least bit of interest in mainstream computer games) actually watched me play for a whole and commented on how beautiful the graphics were. And, related to that, the developers did an outstanding job in capturing the look and feel of medieval cities in the eastern Mediterranean. I’m no expert on that era, but I kind of feel like I’ve been there now.

The interface was also quite good – informative but unobtrusive. There’s a compass with markers for quests, an indicator of your current health, a weapon selector, and an alarm to indicate when the local guards are hunting you.

The story was entertaining and well-written, and the sound-effects and voice acting was very well-done. In fact, the way that the audio and video immersed you in the game's world was definitely the high point of the game. It was extraordinarily realistic.

The combat system reminded me a bit of Batman: Arkham Asylum, with some of the same complaints for me. I could feel the consolitis in it (and I don’t even know for a fact that this was developed as a console game, too, but it felt like it was). Consolitis sneaks in whenever a PC gamer needs to use their keyboard to mimic the controls on an X-Box or Playstation system. They have those funky little handheld controllers with all the buttons, so hitting three or four at once is no big deal. On a keyboard, having to juggle between shift, control, spacebar and the movement direction keys – all while clicking one or both of the mouse buttons – drives me a little batty. And it was definitely present here (though the system wasn’t as complex as in Batman so it frustrated me somewhat less). I never really did get good at the combat, even though I think I understood what I needed to do and was attempting to do it (unlike in Batman, where I ultimately just ended up mashing the keyboard with my fists until fortune smiled on me and combat finally ended). There were, for instance, times when I’d try to execute moves that I’d successfully completed in the practice ring, and they just wouldn’t work at all on real enemies. Then there were times when I’d do something like hit the spacebar (which I didn’t remember ever seeing on the list of combat move controls) and my character would seem to execute combat moves more effectively than when I didn’t. The whole thing was a little random and left me kind of frustrated at times. Luckily, the combat is also fairly forgiving for the most part, so I usually managed to win even though it wasn’t as smooth as I’d have liked it.

One other disappointing thing I found was that the guards seemed to learn new moves when you did. You’d go back to a city you’d been at before, and the guards would now use the same new counters or attacks you’d just learned. This was distracting, but I presume the rationale was to avoid making combat impossible in the early levels and too easy later on.

I was also really disappointed with the endgame. You spend the whole game learning to sneak around and master your four different weapons – throwing knives, a short sword, a longsword, and a hidden wrist-blade. Yet when you get to the final two bosses, it becomes a straight-up slugfest against hordes of enemies and you’re actually confined to these tiny little spaces where you can’t run or hide or sneak. The only viable weapon for the last two major levels is your longsword, and the only way to win is to replay these mass melees until you somehow manage to beat the 8-10 guys being sent against you at once.

Worse, the game’s relatively good historical accuracy is blown away when Richard the Lionhearted decrees that you must prove your accusations against one of his men through trial by combat. “Surely,” he says, “God will favor the one who is just.” Yeah, sure, except that you don’t just fight the one guy you’ve got a beef with – you fight like 10 of his soldiers. That’s not trial by combat, it’s a damn execution. And, again, you’re boxed into a little area with no room to maneuver or use your different weapons, it’s just bashing away with your sword again and again (and again and again) until the game has mercy on you and lets you win. It must have taken me 15-20 tries to beat those guys, and the whole scenario was a real disappointment because it was just so different than most of the rest of the game.

Assassin’s Creed owes much to the original sneak-fest, Thief: The Dark Project. The difference being that Thief was focused on the use of light and darkness to hide your character, where Assassin’s Creed deals more with line of sight issues. But it felt very similar and reminded me a lot of that wonderful old game.

Overall, I think $10-15 was probably the right price for Assassin’s Creed. I don’t know if I’d have been as forgiving of some of its flaws, especially the very mediocre ending, if I’d paid full-price for it. But its production values were very high and there’s no question that I enjoyed the two or three weeks that I’ve spent playing it. The open gameplay suits people like me who prefer to wander around and do things when and how I please, rather than being herded along from place-to-place by the designers. I see that Assassin’s Creed 2 is out, and I definitely plan to look into that title once the price drops by at least half. I rate Assassin’s Creed a B+.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

[Movie Review] Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

How I spent my Tuesday afternoon

Percy Jackson is, in many ways, the successor to Harry Potter. Both brands consist of a series of young adult fantasy books turned into major motion pictures. Both are coming-of-age stories about a young boy who finds that he was born with extraordinary powers - and extraordinary enemies. Both even have the buddy, the girl-buddy, and the school where heroes are trained in the use of their wondrous powers. Heck, both even have the crummy, borderline abusive father-figure with whom they live (in lieu of the really terrific dad they should have had if life sucked less). At least one other point in common - Chris Columbus, (seriously, who names their kid that??) who directs the first Percy Jackson film, also directed the first two Harry Potter films (along with Mrs. Doubtfire and some other well-known movies).

Unlike Harry Potter, I haven't read any of the Percy Jackson novels. But I plan to - if they're as well-written as the movie was well-made, they ought to be very entertaining. My kids are asking to read them also.

And the inaugural Percy Jackson movie was extremely entertaining. My youngest son, who sometimes loses interest midway through some really fantastic movies (most notably each of the three Lord of the Rings Extended Edition films. Which, admittedly, were pretty damn long for a little kid), declared, "That was the best movie ever." How's that for a ringing endorsement?

It wasn't really the best movie ever unless you have a fairly narrow basis for judgment. Some of the negatives include the fact that I guessed about half of the "reveals" before they were actually revealed. Granted, I'm somewhat more mature than the target audience, so I wouldn't call that a deal-breaker. Also, the rationale for the main "quest" of the film is rather thin and a bit contrived - the surprise "twist" villain being no more complex in his machinations than would be typical of a Scooby Doo episode.

But I can live with that stuff if the acting and effects are first-rate and the overall story is packed with solid fun. And Percy delivered on both counts. It's a star-studded show, including the likes of Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Joe Pantoliano and a nifty performance by Uma Thurman.

What I also liked about the movie was that it seamlessly brought together so much Greek mythology in a very accessible way. You got the Olympian pantheon (Zeus, Poseidon, Hades and their kin), the Titans (specifically Chronos, father of the gods), the demigods (Hercules, Perseus, and Achilles), and the monsters (Medusa, the Hydra, the Minotaur, etc.). There were references to the Parthenon, Mount Olympus, and the Lotus Eaters of the Odyssey. And all of that was packed into a 2-hour movie where the primary storyline was based on action, rather than a study of classical mythology. There was nothing horrifically inaccurate (though the depiction of Hades as a more Christian-style pit of hellfire and suffering wasn't consistent with the Greek afterlife), so the film actually serves as a good, accessible introduction to the myths and legends of the Greeks. Heck, the more I think on it, the more references I come up with - Charon (the boatman on the river Styx), the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the tale of Orpheus and Euridice, the labors of Hercules. Virtually every major Greek myth was touched on at least lightly, and this is only the first in a multi-part series.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief probably won't win many Oscars next year (which is good, in a way. Remember how annoying it was when they kept having to repeat "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" all night long? This would be just as bad.), but a film doesn't need to be deep and artsy to be excellent entertainment, especially for the young adult crowd that this film was clearly targeting. I look forward to the next installment and I rate Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief an A-.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Happy Presidents Day

I'm home with the kids, one of whom probably has double ear-infections. Trying to get her into the doctor's this morning. My wife heads out of town tomorrow for a business trip that will last most of the week. I'm not sure how much blogging I'll get done this week.

Friday, February 12, 2010

[Book Update] Aaargh!

Proof that the writer isn't always in control

My current/first novel is loosely in the fantasy genre. Well, it's firmly in that genre, but it dips into a couple of others, also. One of the challenges of fantasy and sci-fi, as opposed to more mainstream fiction, is that you can't really ever assume that the reader knows what you're talking about. My book has some elements of the modern world in it, but they're not straightforward. So they need explanation and description. And the stuff that's not of the modern world certainly needs to be broken down for the reader if it's going to make sense. I've also got issues of language, historical information that helps establish the setting, and all manner of other crap - all of it over and above the usual fiction challenges of characterization, conflict, theme and so on.

All of which boils down to an awful lot of text spent describing this or introducing that or explaining something else. It's no doubt going to be worse in the beginning than it will be later on, but aaargh! I struggle with the feeling that my story's not getting anywhere, and I worry that my readers may feel the same. On the other hand, when I read books I like I'm often struck by how an author will take time to explain something where, were I writing the same scene, I would possibly have gotten right to the action and to hell with everything else. This gives me some hope that what I'm experiencing is natural and necessary and expected by the reader. I sure hope so - I've been trying to move my characters back out of town and into some action for about three chapters, now. I just completed chapter 11 wherein the protagonist and his friend walked from the center of town almost to the front gates. They didn't even get out of town!!

Granted, during that walk I introduced a ton of information about local clothing, farming, some history (especially of the aforementioned farming), food, local attitudes, local labor (ie. what the locals do with their time), introduced one historical character (who likely won't be seen again, but played an important role in explaining how things got to where they are now), introduced one current character (who will be fairly important later on), and provided a small amount of important information about an existing character. I added to what the reader knows about the main character's nature and added to an existing, semi-mysterious storyline (that will prove to be very important in a few more chapters). Lastly, I made it a very pleasant morning, which I think will make a nice counterpoint to how shitty the afternoon and the next couple of days are going to be.

But, once more, aaargh! It's just driving me crazy that there's so much vital information to tell that I have a hard time getting to the action. But if I skimp on this information, I don't think my story will make sense. It certainly will leave the world of the novel less rich and less logical.

So now I'm onto chapter 12. And right from the start, they're outside, dammit!!

When to Reboot

And when not to

Sometimes Hollywood comes off as really skittish and lazy. Instead of investing in revolutionary, groundbreaking new films, they all too often fall back on making movies out of popular (but ancient) TV shows from the 60s, 70s and 80s. And, recently, the “remake” or “reboot” of existing films has become very common. They’re potentially safe investments – if the original was a hit, there’s a decent chance that the new one will be, also. And you don’t have to invent a whole new story, you can simply re-use what’s been done before. And that’s why the studios like them – they feel like safe investments in an industry that has had its biggest successes come from trying things that weren’t safe, but turned out to be really terrific. And it doesn’t always work. The remake of Planet of the Apes, for instance, was a huge flop (and a big personal disappointment for me). But for all of the flops, they just keep coming.

And you may wonder, do we NEED a remake of Robocop? I mean, come on – Paul Verhoeven’s cyborg masterpiece was a brilliant work of over-the-top violence, dark comedy, social and political commentary and the evaluation of what makes us human. In my opinion, it was pretty damn near perfect to begin with. The performances by Peter Weller (as the good father and cop turned into a piece of corporate property), Kurtwood Smith (as the murderous villain), and Miguel Ferrer (as the amoral corporate ladder-climber) were spot-on. There were no bad performances, no crummy special effects, nothing to say to the viewer, “If only that part had been better, this movie would be great.” The commentary on Detroit metropolitan development and politics is still relevant today. The messages about consumerism and the apathy of the masses (as represented by the iconic TV spot that plays throughout the film, where, “I’d buy that for a dollar!”) still apply. And, if anything, the critique of self-serving corporate malfeasance and greed is even more relevant today than it was in the 80s. Without even knowing too many details of the new Robocop, I’m calling it an unnecessary reboot. I hope it’s a great and entertaining movie, but I’d rather the time, energy and money were spent making something new.

So by now, you’ve probably figured out that I’m not necessarily a big fan of remakes. It’s annoying when you say, “I love [movie x]” and the response is always, “Which version?” But they’re not entirely without merit. In fact, when I started thinking about the idea of remakes and reboots, I discovered that there’s actually a good case to be made for them, even if these aren’t the primary reasons that the studios like them. For instance, sometimes a series of films has gone as far as it can with the old storyline. There are more stories to tell, but you need to wipe the slate clean and tell them with fresh actors and even a new origin story. This was the case in recent years with both Batman and Star Trek. Both had been the subject of multiple films in the 80s and 90s, and both had hit a point where each successive film was worse than the last. The old movies were dragging down the brand. This is a pretty good example of a time for a reboot. Start us off fresh, but continue to tell the stories about these characters that people want to see. And it worked brilliantly for both of them. The Chris Nolan Batman movies starring Christian Bale have done a lot to redeem a series that was pretty well destroyed by a succession of truly unwatchable movies back in the 90s. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have been critical and box-office successes, and pave the way for more films in the same rebooted storyline.

Likewise, JJ Abrams’s fresh take on Star Trek was a giant hit and helped to rejuvenate a series that had literally and figuratively run into the ground. I’m thinking specifically of the scene in Insurrection where they crash the Enterprise-D into a planet. To this day I have not seen and refuse to see Star Trek: Nemesis. And while the Next Generation crew was fun, for many nothing beats the original team of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest. Now, for the first time since 1994, we get to see those characters back in action. That’s a great use of a reboot. Plus the 1994 Star Trek: Generations film sucked, so even the last time we saw the old crew was lame.

And there’s another reason that we ought to be more accepting of remakes, I think. If you look at the great plays, from Greek tragedies and Shakespeare up through modern times, they’re constantly being performed in new and fresh ways. They may change the setting and costumes to put Julius Ceasar in WWII Europe, or to put A Streetcar Named Desire in the 21st century. And each troop of actors bring their own fresh take to the role. Is their Hamlet to be energetic and action-oriented (in his indecisiveness), or sad and weepy? So it’s commonplace. It’s expected. It’s a key difference between live theatre and film. But while films will never capture the intimacy and immediacy of the theatre, there’s technically no reason why each different director and cast shouldn’t get to put their own stamp on a classic. Some will work, some won’t, but the screams of “aaah, they’re raping my childhood” whenever an older title is resurrected aren’t really fair. So bring on the new Superman. Bring on the new Black Hole. Let’s see what these new folks can do with the classics. And if we don’t like them, the original will be right there waiting for us on DVD to re-watch at our leisure.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wolfman Predictions Come True?

In several of my movie-related articles this year, I've mentioned that I was a little skeptical (or more than a little) about the upcoming Wolfman movie. Something about the previews just left me doubts about whether the movie was going to work. One clue - the previews showed a lot of talking, but not a lot of the werewolf. For a movie like this, that struck me as a concern.

I saw this on io9 today. It's far from conclusive, and it's not unprecedented for a film to be panned in pre-release reviews and then go on to box-office success, but it looks pretty bad.

The first reviews of this film are popping up, and they're mostly pretty damning — and full of spoilers. (It's compared to, among other things, Ang Lee's Hulk, and one reviewer urges you to watch a Syfy original movie instead.)

I'm not gleeful that this movie might potentially suck - I want all movies to be spectacular because I really like movies - but it's rewarding to know that my gut reaction to this film might have been spot-on.

Movie Crossovers Part 2 - DC

Should more films follow Marvel’s example?

Yesterday I wrote about the Marvel films that are in production now, and the expectation of a massive cross-over between key characters like Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America in the upcoming Avengers movie.

So that got me thinking – if it’s good enough for Marvel, would it work for DC Comics? At the moment, the only big film hit for DC in recent memory is Chris Nolan’s Batman series (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight). The latest Bryan Singer Superman reboot flopped and there hasn’t even been an attempt at much else that I can think of. But Tuesday the rumor circulated that DC is looking to tap Nolan to act as a mentor on a project to reboot Superman the way he did with Batman – chucking out all of the old Christopher Reeve movies and the more recent Superman Returns reboot starring Brandon Routh (who’s currently guest-starring on my favorite TV show, Chuck). There’s also a Green Lantern movie slated for 2011 that’s supposed to star Ryan Reynolds (who you may have seen as the awesome Deadpool in the otherwise not awesome X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie). So, you’ve got Superman, Batman and Green Lantern all with movies due out in the next few years (as Batman 3 is supposedly heading for production. But that’s really a given after the enormous success of Dark Knight). Right there, you’ve got a good-sized chunk of DC Comics’s Justice League of America’s founding members. I really think there needs to be a Wonder Woman movie, and honestly I think it needs to be Angelina Jolie while she’s still in her prime. I’ve seen no indication from Hollywood that they agree with me, sadly. That’s not to say that there aren’t rumors of Wonder Woman and Justice League films already in pre-production, it’s just that I can’t find anything beyond wishful thinking to suggest that the rumors are true or that the films have reached that point in the process where they have the momentum to actually happen. The early months or years of a film’s production involve a lot of wrangling over the script, the cast, the director, the budget and so forth. It’s common for directors and screenwriters to come and go from the project, and they often just crumble altogether. If any of these films is past that point, they’re keeping it a secret.

Still, I’d love to see this happen. Superman and Batman, in particular, make a wonderfully interesting team, because they’re so different. One of them is naturally super-powered, the other is just smart, rich, and extremely well-trained. Superman, in fact, is so awesome that he needs to put on a disguise to NOT be awesome, whereas pretty much everybody else puts on their super-suit when they want to change from their boring old selves into something wonderful. Batman in particular isn’t much without his costume and gadgets. But what’s best about seeing them both together is that Superman is a symbol of light – he even gets his strength from the yellow sun – whereas Batman is a creature of the dark. Superman never beats anybody for information. Batman will do what he has to do. Superman is a force of nature, Batman is a detective. They’re opposites in so many ways that, in the comics at least, they often don’t see eye-to-eye on how to deal with a given situation. That’s part of what makes them so great together and so entertaining to read. I’d like to see them cross-over, with or without the rest of the Justice League.

The danger of adding too many heroes (or villains, for that matter) in a film is that they end up vying for screen time and everybody loses. There’s just not enough spotlight for everyone, sometimes. But the beauty of doing it well is that you get to have these people, these characters, play off each other rather than carrying the whole story by themselves. That can be really entertaining when done correctly. Also, you get to do some really outstanding special effects along the lines of Michael Bay. Yeah, if Batman fights a bad guy and a city gets nuked in the process, he’s lost. But if the Justice League fights a villain who’s planning to destroy the entire planet, losing a city or two is just collateral damage. It raises the bar on the level of acceptable mayhem which can, if done properly, be a good thing.

We’ve seen Marvel both shine brightly and fail miserably. The Ang Lee Hulk film was a critical and box office failure. Even the (quite good, in my opinion) Edward Norton Hulk has its detractors. Spider-Man 3 and X-Men three were both fairly crappy, and every Punisher movie ever made was a flop. Sadly, nobody has yet found the formula to ensure that a film gets everything just right. But when Marvel pulls it off, they do it in a big way. The first Blade film was a masterpiece. The first two Spider-Man and X-Men films were outstanding. They’ve clearly learned some hard lessons, and hopefully this is putting them on the right track to making consistently excellent movies.

DC, meanwhile, has managed two unqualified hits with the Batman movies. They’ve also got the first two Superman movies to draw on, since they were acclaimed successes as well (though they’re thirty years old, so it’s hard to say if that counts. I suspect it doesn’t.). If they can also learn from Marvel’s successes and failures, there are certainly plenty of excellent DC universe heroes and villains to draw on. Moreover, DC’s animated series Justice League and Justice League: Unlimited, which ran from 2001 – 2006, were excellent, showing that at least somebody at DC comics knows how to write a teleplay. They just need to figure out how to translate that to the big screen.

Marvel’s definitely sailing down the crossover highway. I suspect DC comics will do the same in the coming years, but the DC relationship with Warner Brothers has always been a bit rocky so it’s harder to be certain. I just know that the potential’s there for some super-heroic entertainment and I’m 100% on board for that ride.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Movie Crossovers Part 1 - Marvel

Should more films follow Marvel’s example?

The current plan from Marvel, as I understand it, is to create the ultimate movie cross-over in the Avengers film, due out in a couple of years. The Avengers is a long-term Marvel title that brings together a team of heroes, many of whom have their own stand-alone comics. It was founded by notables like Iron Man, Thor and the Incredible Hulk. All of whom, you’ll note, have had or soon will have films of their own in recent years. AND, Iron Man’s Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) had a cameo in the latest Hulk film, just as SHIELD head-honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) appeared briefly at the end of Iron Man. Captain America has also been a long-time member of the Avengers, and Marvel’s putting out a Captain America movie sometime next year. So just as with the comics, we’ve got a series of stand-alone superhero films, with a plan to bring the leads together to make one (or more) films about them working as a team. This is potentially great news. It’s also potentially a disaster.

The problems with this sort of film are many. For instance, while the different superheroes will have been fleshed out in their own individual movies, they still have to be introduced in the Avengers in a meaningful way. It’s not fair to expect the audience to go out and see two Iron Man films, an Incredible Hulk film, Thor, and Captain America before they can set foot in the Avengers. If the film doesn’t re-explain those characters for the poor girlfriend who gets dragged along unwillingly to this geekfest, it’s going to fail. At the same time, the target audience is probably those very same geeks (like me) who WILL have seen all five of those prior movies, and it’s not fair to them to spend the first hour of the movie explaining how Iron Man got his armor and how Captain America got so strong. THEN, on top of explaining each of these main characters (and there’s no firm word yet on how many will actually appear – I’ve read that the Hulk, at minimum, is very much up in the air), the movie has to serve as the origin story for the Avengers team. There has to be an explanation for how/why they’ve decided to get together, and (presumably) a little bit of depth on how each of them feels about it, how they get along, etc.

All of that is in addition to explaining the bad guy(s), his agenda, his powers (if any), and why anybody should care. THEN, finally, you get to the part where the Avengers (again presumably) kick some ass. Whew! It sure took a while to get there. Now, granted, skillful writers may choose to mix that all up – showing one or two heroes battling the villain(s), then working together, then bringing in another hero and fighting some more, then brining in the remaining heroes for the climactic battle, but that only changes the order of what needs to happen, not the fact that it all has to be in there. You end up with probably an hour of the backstory and the origin of the team and then you’ve only got an hour left for them to actually do stuff. Or maybe two hours if they go for the mega-movie like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. Still, it’s a big chunk of time and there’s lots of room to screw it up by making it too boring or too confusing or leaving too many plot holes. When you’ve got all of these super-powered heroes, every one of them has to use their talents and super-powers or there needs to be a reason why they wouldn’t. It’s bad enough with a single hero, but adding more of them makes it worse.

On the plus-side, nothing like this has ever really been attempted before that I’m aware of. And the first two X Men movies certainly demonstrate that an ensemble team of superheroes can be very entertaining and exciting, even if the filmmakers need to spend a chunk of time setting up the premise.

So you could say that I’m in agreement with Marvel: An avengers movie that ties in other key characters from the Marvel universe is a good idea. And, since Marvel’s been so good at turning their characters into hit movies, there’s really no end to the potential to bring in other known entities. For instance, Spider-Man lives in New York City, which isn’t far from X-Men founder Dr. Xavier’s mansion headquarters. Likewise, the Avengers are usually based in New York as well. You’ve technically also got Blade running around, as well as all of the bad guys from Magneto to Doctor Octopus. The Marvel universe is uniquely well-positioned for massive crossovers if they can manage it all properly. Tomorrow, I’ll consider whether DC Comics could do the same.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Movie ad campaigns
Sometimes, the difference between mediocre success and a blockbuster has more to do with how good the marketing folks are at stirring up excitement than the quality of the movie, itself. I’m no more immune to this than anyone – if the previews make a movie look really great, I’ll get interested in it.

Right now, there are four movies about which I know little or nothing beyond what I’ve seen in their marketing campaigns. If you watch TV at all, you’ve surely seen ads for Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and Wolfman. I haven’t seen any TV ads for the other two, but I’ve seen previews online that I think look great. They are Repo Men and The Crazies.

The ad campaigns for these films are all pretty typical, though the latter two seem to be more web-based. Or perhaps I just don’t watch the TV shows where they’re advertising. For Percy Jackson, there was an enormous standee (those big, free-standing cardboard cut-outs) that I saw the last time I was at the theatre.  Add in all the TV commercials and this one’s doing a great job of hyping the movie. I know I’m looking forward to seeing it, and might even take the kids to it next week when they’re home from school.

Wolfman might be just as successful, except that for whatever reason I don’t think it looks quite as good. I can’t decide if that’s the fault of the ad campaign or the film. I suppose I'll have to see both (probably on DVD) to be sure.

The Crazies is a remake of a George Romero film, and it reminds me a LOT of 28 Days Later. The premise seems to be similar, anyway – a disease of some sort drives people into a murderous, killing frenzy and a small group of uninfected are trying to survive and escape. One key difference is that 28 Days Later is focused on a guy who was in a coma during the whole initial infection, and by the time he awakens there’s almost nobody left. In The Crazies, you get to see the first few infected folks, like the guy who walks out onto a little-league field carrying a shotgun. Things presumably head downhill from there. Unlike Wolfman, this one seems to sell itself mainly on the quality of the trailer. Again, it’s way too soon to say whether The Crazies just has a trailer that’s edited better, or perhaps it’s a movie that better lends itself to a 30-second summary. The other possibility is that it really is the superior film. Wolfman stars Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, whereas The Crazies stars Timothy Olyphant plus nobody I’ve ever heard of, but the stars don’t always make the movie, either.

But one movie that I think is doing a great job of using multiple media formats is Repo Men. It’s a story about a future where artificial organs have been perfected to a level where they’re better than the originals. They’re also expensive as hell. The problem occurs when an organ recipient is unable to pay – each of them signs an agreement specifying that the company that makes them can repossess the organ if they default. Since these are major organs, the Repo Men aren’t exactly gentle and the organ recipients don’t tend to survive the collection. The twist comes when, of course, one of the Repo Men needs an artificial heart that he ultimately can’t pay for. Now the hunter becomes the hunted. It stars Jude Law, Forest Whitaker and Liev Schreiber, and it’s got a great-looking trailer. But check out the posters!

I think that’s a heck of a gripping set of images. Repo Men is shaping up to be one of the best-looking films due out in the next month or so. Whether it really is or not remains to be seen, but the marketing folks are definitely playing the hype for all it’s worth.

Monday, February 8, 2010

[Book Update] Chapter 2 Strikes Back

Having taken chapters 1 and 2 of my novel to my local writer's roundtable to be critiqued, I decided last week that I ought to catch up on my re-writes. Instead, I ended up being sick all week, so not much happened. I did get chapter 1 done, though, which felt good. Chapter 2 is proving to be more of a challenge.

Originally, Chapter 2 was known as "that thing I'm not quite sure where to put." I think it may have begun inside another chapter that has since become Chapter 3. I realized pretty soon that it didn't fit there, so I pulled it out and put it in its own document, just to get it out of the way. Then I added more to it, but still couldn't decide where to put it.

So the entire time I was writing it, it was almost like a separate story because it didn't really have a place within the main novel. This was still pretty early in the writing process, so I hadn't yet even decided things like how to handle Point of View. As a result, the "voice" of Chapter 2 feels a bit off.

Editing Chapter 1 involved changing a few words here or there, reworking an occasional paragraph, and adjusting punctuation. Editing Chapter 2 is quite a bit more involved. It lacks emotional depth. It lacks connection between the point of view character and the narrative. It's slow in parts.

I'm not quite chucking out the whole thing and starting over - not even close, in fact. But it's the most extensive editing I've had to do of my work, well... ever. It's good practice for later and it's necessary that a chapter that hits so early in the book be rock-solid, so it needs to be done.

So that was how I spent a good chunk of the day on Saturday, plus some more time on Sunday. Next on the list - incorporating my wife's suggestions into Chapter 3, where applicable, then giving it a final once-over before printing copies for tonight's Roundtable.

I also need to find a way to gently educate my fellow writers that a long sentence isn't automatically a run-on, nor is it inherently wrong. The way I'm writing this novel includes, and will continue to include, some fairly weighty, lengthy sentences and I find the group routinely getting stuck on those. I'd rather they be able to spend their time on stuff that's legitimately broken. Regardless, I'm getting good feedback from the group, so if they can't get past the sentence structure I can live with that.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Behind the Mask

How can you know who to trust?

My impression of other peoples’ impressions of John Edwards was that, generally, people thought he was a fairly decent guy, regardless of whether they agreed with his politics. His favorability rating peaked at 59% back in 2004 (when he was running as Kerry’s VP candidate) and remained in the 50s right up until his scandal broke in late 2008 (when it dropped like a rock, obviously). I never voted for the guy, but I might have had he been a politician in my state. He sure seemed like a genuinely decent guy.

Now, former Edwards aide Andrew Young has published a tell-all book that cracks Edwards public persona wide open, revealing a rotten core inside. Now, it may be that some (or all) of Young’s seamier allegations are false (as Edwards claims), but just based on Edwards own admissions of marital infidelity, denying his love-child, and then later admitting to fathering the little girl born to his lust, the man’s a scumbag. In fact, he’s the complete opposite of everything he spent years convincing the public was his real persona.

Which raises a question I’ve been struggling with for a while – who do you trust? The media is heavily compromised, to the point where you have to view everything MSNBC says through the lens of their blatant liberalism and everything Fox News says through the lens of their ravening conservatism (and CNN frankly just come off as a bunch of morons most of the time). You’ve got pundits (most of the worst of whom seem to be conservatives) who serve only to stir public opinion with the most vitriolic rhetoric they can think of, even if much of the time it comes off as utter fantasy with no basis in reality. You’ve got lobbyists shamelessly influencing legislation, regulation and public policy to serve their very narrow-minded ends (regardless of the true public weal) and you’ve got public officials who are so adept at manufacturing their images that they can actually convince a majority of Americans that their values and morals are the complete opposite of their true natures.

So you can’t believe what you are told by the “experts,” because they all slant the news toward their particular ethos. You can’t trust the politicians, because there’s no way to know which ones are willing to say the opposite of what they believe. Based on the more public revelations, it seems likely to me that many of them probably are.

So who do you trust? How do you know the truth? How do you separate questionable claims from outright, bald-faced lies? I don’t know, but it all makes me seriously question the long-term viability of our political system. Sadly, the only ones who can enact sweeping reforms to everything from campaign finance to the influence of lobbyists are the same people who stand to benefit most from blocking those reforms. And now that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations can exercise their “right” to free speech as if they were actual people, the flood-gates are open for massive amounts of money to swamp any virtuous candidate who might be an actual crusader for positive change. I still believe that America is a great place to live and has the capacity to be the leader of the free world, but not if our leaders are corrupt. The great experiment in democracy is teetering on a precipice – and that’s not an age I’d ever dreamed I’d live to see. I’d be just as happy if I hadn’t.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

[Book Update] An Editing We Will Go!

Just a brief post today because I still feel lousy. This week hasn't been what I'd call terribly productive. And I just found out an hour ago that the kids have a half-day of school today, so it doesn't look like today will be much of an improvement.

My plan for this week was to spend it editing and re-writing. I'm at a mini-milestone: I finished chapter 10 last week, which means I'm into double-digits and also that the book is probably around 25-30% complete. I've taken two chapters to my local writer's roundtable and gotten feedback from them, plus my wife has read up through about chapter 5 and I have her notes as well. Chapters 6-10 have received a lot less re-writing than my early chapters did. All in all, it seemed like a good time to make edits to all ten chapters.

Well, I got chapter 1 done, which is better than nothing, I suppose. I'm going to aim to do chapter 2 this morning. Chapters 3-5 had fairly minimal notes, so rewriting those shouldn't be too bad; I expect to finish them tomorrow. That'll just leave chapters 6-10 which, by and large, I haven't re-read since they were first completed. If the family goes out on Saturday, I hope to be able to get those finished by then. That will position me to pick the story back up on Monday. It could be worse, I suppose - this could have been a week that I entered saying, "Dammit! I'm writing three chapters this week come hell or high water." I usually try not to over-challenge myself with stuff I know I won't accomplish because it's senseless. I prefer to set stretch goals that are attainable with hard work and perseverance. Goals that I won't achieve if I allow myself to take an hour lunch every day instead of a 20-30 minute break, for example. Luckily, this week I set the bar really low, perhaps realizing subconsciously that I was sicker than I wanted to admit.

But to recap:
  • The first 10 chapters are done!
  • I'm very happy with the story so far!
  • The feedback from my readers to the first couple of chapters was generally positive.
  • It feels like I'm spending more time writing when I actually sit down to write - less time on backstory and research and such. I'm hopeful this means I'll be able to pick up the pace soon.
My original tentative schedule called for completing my first draft in March. That was based entirely on guesswork since I had nothing to base it on. I think now that it's more realistic to expect that I might finish it in April at best. I'd guess that I have another 25 chapters to write, though that could easily be off by 50% or more (ie. there might be as many as 35-40 more left. One of the disadvantages of not writing a tight chapter-by-chapter outline is that I just don't know these things yet). On the plus side, my "first draft" will end up being more of a "second draft" if I keep up with re-writing the way I have been. I figure chapter 1 has had somewhere on the order of 8-10 rewrites (some major, most pretty minor) by now, as have chapters 2 and 3. Chapters 4 and 5 are probably a bit less, and chapters 6 and 7 really only got 2-3 rewrites. Chapters 8-10 have each had 1-2 rewrites or less. But as I write chapter 11, I'll go back and work on chapters 6-8. When I move on to chapter 12, I'll rewrite chapters 8-10, and so on. So eventually they'll all get roughly the same amount of attention. I think this process will help ensure that the whole book feels like I wrote it at roughly the same time and that the improvements I make to my writing style as I progress can be retroactively applied to the earlier chapters. It also helps to compensate for my crappy memory, as I can easily see myself forgetting important things that I wrote early-on and not carrying them through into later chapters.

So there you have it - a little insight into the writing process (at least the way I do it. Everybody writes differently). More updates to come and (hopefully) a regular blog article for Friday.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

[Insert Clever Title]

I tried to think of a good title for this post, but I've got nothing. Except, I suspect, bronchitis. After being sick for around a week with no sign of improvement (if anything, I felt worse yesterday rather than better) I'm going to call the doctor today and see if I can get in. Yup, can't think of anything else to write here, either.

Oh yeah, except that the second installment of my wife's attempt to create the classic Calvin & Hobbes Snowmen Comic Strips entirely out of cookies is out.  That link will gather any and all related articles together - past, present, and future, so it's a good one to use anytime you want to see if she's created another new one. Isn't she clever?!

See you Thursday.

Noon update (for everybody who's just sitting there hitting the refresh button on their browser in hopes that I'll provide fresh info about my condition. Hi Mom.): Went to the doctor. Bronchitis and a probable sinus infection. Now I'm popping these enormous yellow antibiotic pills to kill it all dead. DEAD!! I actually feel almost human today, so hopefully I'll be back in the swing of things by tomorrow. Thanks for checking in.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

[Business] My Product Sucks. I’m Sorry. Please Buy More. Part 2

Lessons for staying in business after pissing off your customers

So, yesterday, I talked a bit about major manufacturing failures such as the 1982 Tylenol poisoning, the current Toyota accelerator problem, and my own experience a few years ago. The bad news is that stuff like this happens to nearly every manufacturer, eventually. There are simply too many variables that affect your ability to test everything. And some variables (like sales forecasts, Wall Street numbers and market timing) even affect your willingness to test everything. You may choose to go to market with incomplete testing or even knowing that your product is defective. If your product is doilies, it’s probably not a huge deal. If your product is 3,000 lb chunks of metal and plastic that inexplicably zoom up to 120 mph and drag their screaming passengers to their deaths, that sort of decision is criminally negligent. Note that I’m not saying Toyota did this, but there are some allegations floating around out there that they weren’t as aggressive as they could have been. It’s ironic that both the company and their product kept rocketing along at high speeds, seemingly out of control.

In the case of the issue I had to manage (one of many that came up during my tenure with the company, but by far the issue that was most applicable across a wide array of manufacturers), we had been supplied faulty parts. We’d then used these parts – which looked identical to good parts we’d always used successfully – to manufacture product that was going into our customer’s stores. In place of older, still-functional product that actually worked better (because it didn’t have these faulty parts). My experience may serve as a lesson to Toyota and other companies when they encounter serious product failures.

1.    Be as up-front and forthright with your customers as possible. The more you lie or try to dodge responsibility, the worse it’s likely to be for you when the truth comes out. And the truth usually does seem to come out. In my case, at first it didn’t seem to be our product. We’d seen the customer’s employees mishandle our printers in the past, as well as issues where a little piece of paper would tear off and lodge between the LED and the sensors. But as soon as we realized the problem was ours we told the customer that it looked like we had a product issue and we assured them that we’d make it right. I gave my personal assurance to management at at least three different levels of their corporate hierarchy that we’d resolve this issue. Just as importantly, I made it clear that we understood the difficult position that our failing product was putting them in, and that it was going to get worse (much worse) as the newer units still being installed began to fail. Their pain was my pain.

One key difference was that, even as we realized the scope of the issue, we didn’t attempt to weasel out of it or pretend that it wasn’t our problem. Which isn’t to say that we threw open our arms and took responsibility for the sins of the world. We just owned our problem like grown-ups and committed to making it right. This is huge and it’s something too few companies seem to have the balls to do. It takes some balls, yes. It may mean that somebody (or several somebodies) at the company are putting their jobs – their livelihoods – on the line. But it’s the right thing to do and it’s important that companies do their best to encourage and protect people with this sort of courage unless they’re culpable of some gross negligence or severe incompetence.

2.    Get your facts straight internally and present a consistent message externally. As soon as it was clear to us that this problem wasn’t the result of user error, we got busy. We began to have internal meetings between our engineering, quality control, senior management and sales teams to gather and exchange information about the problem. We brought in my repair teams to analyze what they were finding in their workshops. When all of the indicators started to point back to one part, we involved our purchasing department to make sure that supplier also felt our customer’s (and our) pain.

We carefully documented our findings. This allowed us to explain to the customer what was happening and actually allowed us to refute some (half-assed) assumptions they’d begun to make about what was going on. Again, it’s important to be clear that we didn’t just lay down and accept responsibility for global warming, the war in Darfur and the assassination of JFK. We stuck to our guns on issues that were not our fault or were not related to the actual problem we were seeing, even when the customer was insistent. The careful documentation had two other benefits as well:
a. It made it easier to show to our supplier that their part was inarguably defective.
b. It made it easier to keep our multi-disciplinary internal committee on the same page. There were a lot of gears turning in this scenario as we attempted to find a new, reliable part and also determine exactly what batches of the old parts were bad. We also had to negotiate with the supplier while we worked to soothe and satisfy the customer, all in such a way that we didn’t completely disembowel our own company.

3.    Do the right thing. This actually applied as much to our supplier as it did to us. They ended up kicking in some serious money that we added to our own budget and used to send technicians out into the field to replace the bad parts with new ones as quickly as we could get them. And we coordinated the hundreds of locations, scores of techs and thousands of parts out of my office with the help of a really good temp. All according to the priority order and timetable set by our customer (and brutally enforced by them). It was a massive and expensive undertaking, but it allowed us to make a bad situation as right as possible for our customer. And that was key – we wanted them to be customers for a long time to come, and they needed to see us as a valued business partner rather than just some company that sold them a shoddy piece of crap that almost destroyed their multi-billion-dollar corporation.

4.    MANAGE your customers, even if what you’re asking of them is unreasonable. This is important and it’s one of the hardest things to pull off. It’s a tightrope you walk with your customer. If you just roll over, many people will smell your weakness and, like sharks in a frenzy over blood in the water, they’ll attack. If you let yourself get in the situation where you customer feels like they’re putting their foot on your throat, you may never get back to an amicable partnership again. That’s bad for everybody – partnerships are always better than simple customer/supplier transactions. At the same time, if you’re too stand-offish with your customer – if you refuse to own up to the problem or you act like you’re doing them a favor for trying to fix it, they’ll hate you. And rightfully so. We were the little guys in this scenario – our customer was the 800-pound gorilla. But all too often it’s the other way around. It’s IBM or Microsoft or Toyota who’s at fault and they sometimes treat their customers like something they scraped off their shoe, even when the customer’s asking for something very reasonable to address a legitimate product failure.

So you need to strike the right balance with your customer. Be a partner, not a patsy. Be a friend, not somebody who’s doing them a favor. In my case, I always behaved like a professional – much like if I’d been a doctor or an attorney. I took a fact-based approach, addressed the problem unemotionally, and refused to get emotional myself when they got nasty. And a few of them got really nasty with us. Every company has small people who get off by beating up on people they see as in their power. A few of them worked for my customer.

To handle them, I identified the people at my customer’s who were rational and reasonable, and let them run interference on the ones who weren’t. I made it clear to them that I wanted to fix their problem. More importantly, I made it clear that there were things I could do and things I could not do. I wasn’t going to be walking on water or turning water into wine. I couldn’t offer miracles, only hard work and professionalism. And this was the sort of problem that really called for a miracle – it was a disaster that was going to affect my customer’s business through no fault of theirs. Asking them not to freak out about it was borderline unreasonable. Asking them to wait for days or weeks while we found and tested a solution was unreasonable. The amount of time it took us to find and fully implement the solution was unreasonable. It was a mess. I asked them to work with me anyway. They did. To the best of my knowledge, that relationship between my old company and that customer is still going strong, mutually satisfying for both organizations.

In military jargon, this product situation was FUBAR – fucked up beyond all recognition. Fixing it took time, money, professionalism, and an enormous effort. But it took honesty, coordination, resolute action and strength to resolve the problem in a way that satisfied the customer and maintained a valuable relationship. If you’re a business executive who finds himself of herself in a situation like this, courage is an asset. Be confident, be smart, do the right thing, and make it right for your customer and your company.

Monday, February 1, 2010

[Business] My Product Sucks. I’m Sorry. Please Buy More. Part 1

Handling severe product failures

Nearly every company will at some point experience a product or product-issue that’s an utter train-wreck in some fashion. I worked for a manufacturer a few years back, and I’ve been dealing with hardware and software issues in the IT realm for many more years than that. In light of Toyota’s recent catastrophic issue with their accelerators [], it seemed like an appropriate time to share some of what I’ve learned about handling business calamities.

In the Fortune article I linked to above, they refer to this gas pedal issue as Toyota’s “Tylenol Moment,” referring to Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 crisis when somebody was poisoning their product and people were dropping dead. Tylenol was the victim in that case, so it’s not a perfect comparison, but there’s a good lesson there and it meshes somewhat with my experience. Johnson & Johnson turned the crisis to their advantage by doing the right thing. They pulled all of their product, THEN they changed their manufacturing process to include tamper-proof packaging to ensure it could never happen again. It cost a fortune up front, but even if they never quite made that money back (which I suspect they probably did), they did manage to stay in business. Had they failed to win back the trust of their customers, there probably wouldn’t be a product called Tylenol on the shelves right now, and there might not even be a Johnson & Johnson. Toyota’s at a similar decision-point.

Let’s recap the Toyota situation. As early as 2007, there appear to be documents showing that Toyota was aware that their gas pedals could continue to accelerate when they weren’t being depressed or even during braking. It’s unclear whether they did anything to fix the problem at that point, but whatever they might have done, it doesn’t appear to have been very much. Then people started to die. Including one incident where an off-duty State Trooper and his family dial into 911 [] as their Lexus is rocketing down the road at 120 mph. They were all killed in the crash, but it was a wake-up call to America that something big was wrong with Toyota vehicles.

Toyota’s response was lackluster, ranging from blaming driver error to the placement of floor mats. They even recalled the floor mats and installed a special bracket that was supposed to hold them in place better. Except that the problem now appears to have had nothing to do with floor mats, and (again, allegedly) Toyota damn well knew it. All of the facts aren’t in yet, but all indications are that the issue is in the electronics, not the mechanics. The gas pedal wasn’t caught on anything, or jammed, or even necessarily being depressed. It looks as if the computer controlling acceleration would simply get stuck on “accelerate” and would fail to release. The engine would continue to rev no matter what, and the brakes weren’t strong enough to stop it. The only solution was to remove the engine’s ability to drive the vehicle, such as by putting the transmission into neutral (which disengages the gears that connect the engine’s crankshaft to the rest of the drive train) and then by turning off the engine once it’s safe to do so. Toyota has since recalled some 3.8 million vehicles and ceased the manufacture of new models until the issue is resolved. And hopefully not just resolved with a useless floor mat bracket, but actually fixed.

I had a very similar experience when I was a VP for a manufacturer. Our products were printers, not cars, and there was no risk that anyone would get hurt. Our problem was also related to faulty parts – in this case, a combination of an LED emitter and a sensor. The sensor’s job was to report to the printer’s software whenever the light from the emitter was blocked, as this indicated that a slip of paper had been inserted into a slot and the printer needed to print something. Except that our printers were continually reporting that there was always paper in the slot, even when there clearly wasn’t.

My job as Service Operations VP was to represent the needs of the customer and the interests of my company in getting this issue amicably resolved. Unlike Toyota, we sold to other businesses, not customers, but in both cases reliability and reputation were key elements in preserving future sales opportunities and relationships.

When the problem was first reported to us, we, like Toyota, initially reacted somewhat defensively, assuming (and suggesting to the customer) that it was most likely user error of some sort. Instead of floor mat issues, we proposed that there was probably paper debris being left behind in the slot that needed to be removed. The users were supposed to be aware of this potential issue and had been provided directions on how to be sure the slot was completely free of obstructions. Stupid users!!

Well, then we got our hands on a few of the failed units, and there was definitely no paper in there. Oops! Sorry! Didn’t mean to call you stupid there. Wait, who said stupid? I didn’t say stupid? Did you say stupid? I don’t know. What to go grab some lunch or something?

But here’s where it started to get ugly. You see, our customer had recently begun a massive (massive!) upgrade in their stores all over the country, replacing our older printers with nice fancy new ones. And they’re out there just banging away with hired help all over the country installing new printers. Installing. Installing. Installing. Meanwhile, our engineers and quality-control guys are trying to figure out why this printer insists it has paper when it doesn’t. Oh, and here’s another one doing the same thing. And another one. And another. Uh-oh. It looks like all of the units installed last month (or, say, half of them) are having the same issue. And as they investigated further, it became clear that all of the ones being installed that day would start to fail in about a month.

You see, we’d been given bad parts. Bad parts from a reasonably good supplier. Bad parts that had never, ever been bad in this way before, as far as we’d ever seen. But, ah-ha, the supplier had recently moved production of these LEDs to a new factory. And, they’d borked the production process, bigtime. The LEDs (I think. It might have been the sensors, but I’m pretty sure it was the LEDs that were the problem) would lose power and quickly become so weak that they couldn’t send a signal across the gap to the sensor. But, this didn’t happen quickly enough to ever be seen in our quality-control testing. It took a month or so (or thereabouts – I don’t recall the specific number of hours. But it was definitely several several weeks) for the LED to fail completely, at which point the printer was unable to function until the circuit board containing the LED was fixed.

Now we’ve got a new product that actually works worse than our old product because it’s defective (whereas the old product, that was being removed from service, technically still worked fine). The customer is removing something that works and replacing it with something that, after a month or so, doesn’t work. And we have no easy fix for the problem. How we’d handle this disaster would have a huge impact on whether or not one of our best customers would continue to view us as a key business partner or as a hated supplier with whom they used to do business. Tomorrow, I’ll detail the lessons I learned managing this, my “Tylenol Moment” and the lessons it think it offers to other business-people across industries who need to come to grips with a product that’s threatening to go down in flames and take the company with it.