Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Indoctrinating the Kids

I'm a good geek. A nerd among nerds. There's no point in denying it, so I might as well embrace it. My kids will have to fight their nature if they want to be cool - I can't help them. In fact, I'm not even trying.

What I am doing is indoctrinating them to nerd culture. We started reading a new bedtime novel this week - the iconic Dragonlance Saga, Volume 1: Dragons of Autumn Twilight. I LOVED this series as a young teen. They first came out when I was 14 years old and I bought each new novel on release day. (As an aside, some cretin borrowed my original first-edition paperbacks in High School and never returned them. If I knew who it was, I would name them but I don't. This is a big part of the reason that I abhor lending out my books to this day. I've been scarred for life.)

I suppose you can't call them fine literature. Fair enough. But it's an action-packed story in a full, rich world with entertaining characters who are such blatant stereotypes that it must be deliberate. But whatever. What's important is that my kids are EATING IT UP. For some reason, my daughter hates it when I suggest things she might enjoy. I have no idea why, but if I tell her "You might like this" she instantly dismisses it. In a few instances, I've dragged her along to something she swore she wasn't interested in because I was positive she'd like it and I have yet to be wrong. This was one of those times. She had no interest in this book when I first suggested it. I think my wife had expressed some reservations about it that my daughter picked up on (I honestly can't remember what the reservations were. They were mild and, from what I remember, utterly unfounded) and that biased her against it. Well, we're now 6 chapters in and at the end of each she's begged me to read another. I know my little girl, dammit! My older son is enjoying it as well and my younger son tolerates it as he does most books that aren't targeted right to his age. Sorry, kid!

I'm enjoying it, too. It's been decades since I last read these novels and I've forgotten so much about them. I'm enjoying meeting the characters once again - as cookie-cutter as they are, they're still old friends of mine who I'm glad to see once again. Plus, I get to do LOTS of different voices. The group of main characters is huge, and I guessed (correctly as it turned out) that my kids might have trouble keeping them all straight. My older son mentioned it just yesterday. So to help bring each character to life, I've given them each their own voice. The noble knight, Sturm, gets a booming, overbearing brass voice. Tanis the half-elf ranger gets my regular tenor reading voice. I grumble in the low bass for Flint, the dwarf, and I swing up into a childlike falsetto for the kender, Tas. Raistlin the frail mage speaks in a throaty whisper, while his giant brother Caramon I like best of all. I do Caramon in the voice of Lenny from Of Mice and Men - medium-deep and oafish.

I have a tough time with the gravelly, groveling goblins sometimes - it irritates my throat and makes me cough. It's probably just as well that I'm not a voice-actor by profession. But I'm enjoying my chance to not just spend time with these characters again, but to actually bring them to life.

There's three books in the first series, followed by three more in the "Dragonlance Legends" series that we may read as well. After that, there's about a bazillion more books set in the same world, many of which I own and most of which I remember as being not very good. So we may not spend much time with those. BUT, I'm pretty sure I've got the original Dragonlance D&D modules, so when it's time to start playing, perhaps we'll start with those to ease the transition. We'll see, but one thing's for sure - the legacy of nerddom is already encroaching on my kids lives. It's been a lifestyle I've enjoyed and embraced, and it's never been more socially-acceptable to be a nerd than it is today (and I suspect that it will continue to become moreso over time). So there you go, kids - your inheritance is a love of fantasy and sci-fi, computers, gadgets, and comics. Run with it!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

[Book Update] March Wrap-Up


My wife is traveling on business, so I'm home with the kids. The last time she had to travel was about six week ago, during the week-long Winter Break. This meant that the kids were home with me all day, which should have made it harder, but it turns out to be the opposite. You see, this week I'm still trying (and expecting) to get work done, but I'm also having to help with homework, make lunches in the morning, wrangle school papers, and cram dinner in before it's time to get the kids into bed. To further complicate matters, this is "Turn off the TV Week." And I have to give my kids a ton of credit on this (at least so far). During any other week, you'd swear that they're multimedia addicts - they're perpetually watching TV or playing Wii or playing games on the computer. They hardly ever go outside to play, and virtually never just sit and read or play. Yet this week, I made it clear that all such devices were to be turned OFF, and they've adapted almost without complaint. They're playing, reading, spending tons of time outside - everything kids ought to be doing in their free time. Still, they do need a little more of my attention than they otherwise would. It's all a bit dizzying.

Last night, I took it a step further. I attempted to make a good, healthy dinner. My sons will eat chicken as long as it's nuggeted. But try to hand them a real drumstick and they'll flee in terror. Well, last night I decided we were having a mandatory chicken dinner. I also made home fries and frozen corn. Everybody had to eat. It wasn't required that they clean their plates, but they had to put in a real effort at it. It basically worked, but creating the meal (it was oven-fried chicken, so I had to dredge it in crushed, spiced corn flakes and then bake it), enforcing the mandate and then cleaning up took over three hours. We read some books and got everybody stuffed into bed, but now this morning it feels like no time at all since I was loading up the dishwasher. Tonight the dinner will be simpler. It has to be - we've got Karate. Ugh!

Still, I did get some work done yesterday. I got tons of feedback about my "infodump" chapter - chapter 6 - when I took it to my writer's group. The result is a total re-write, pulling a character previously not introduced until chapter 13 all the way up to chapter 6, and then using his knowledge and experiences to drive the infodump. I may still need to "dump" some of the info into other chapters, plus I'll need to do something about the page or two that I ripped from chapter 13, but overall I think I like the way this is going. That's major change #1.

Major change #2 is that I've decided to create a new chapter 1. It will go ahead of all existing chapters, which will need to be renumbered. A process which, incidentally, is a royal pain in the nuts. I decided that it was less cumbersome to keep my chapters split into separate Word documents and generally speaking I stand by that decision. It makes it easy to track version control on a chapter-by-chapter basis because I simply save a new copy of any chapter that I edit and I put the current date in the filename. It's really easy to see what chapters are new, and how long it's been since the last time a particular chapter was updated. BUT, it means that a major renumbering will involve editing the filename and footer of more than a dozen separate files.

So why bother, you might wonder? Well, a couple of reasons. One I can attribute to one particular reader who seems to be fixated on S.M. Stirling's works. This reader mentioned that series to me on the very first night we met, almost a year ago, and I mentioned at the time that I'd read it. Clearly it's much on his mind. Yet every time he critiques my book, he mentions how "this is just like Stirling's "Dies the Fire" series.

Well, folks, it ain't. We both take a "what if" approach wherein we ask "What would happen if X occurred." And then we both answer that question by saying "I believe that modern civilization would collapse, resulting in many small, fortified agricultural communities subsisting at a pre-industrial-era level." But while our answer is similar, the "what if" question we're answering is as different as can be, and the worlds that result from our approach to that question are, likewise, so different that they bear virtually no resemblance.

Still, he brings it up every time. And while I'm confident that the similarities are superficial at best, I have to wonder - will I run into agents and editors out there with the same tunnel-vision on this topic? It might be beneficial to write on a submission form that my novel might appeal to people who like Stirling's work, but it's not going to be beneficial at all if I keep running into people who decide in the first chapter that "This is a rip-off of Stirling" or McCarthy's post-apocalyptic "The Road" or the Mel Gibson classic "Road Warrior."

So I said to myself, "I can fix this. Easily, in fact." I just have to be a bit less circumspect. I had planned to unveil some of the really unique aspects of my world in dribs and drabs over time. Start off slow with things that are familiar to the reader - things he or she can grasp easily and relate to. Then WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! start lashing out with revelations that show just how crazy things are in this world. I'm still going to do that, but I'm going to pull one WHAM! forward into chapter 1. It's not even a huge WHAM! in the grand scheme of things, but it's going to establish right up front that this isn't just a post-apocalyptic nightmare type of book. It's a post-apocalyptic FANTASY nightmare type of book, and that's a totally different ball of wax. Some of the more fantastical elements already appeared as early as chapter 3 in the current version of my manuscript (which is part of my incredulity when my reader keeps telling me "This is just like Stirling!" and I keep saying "There are no bloody monsters in Stirling's world. At all! And I show some big ones in chapter frigging 3!"

Anyway, if it were just a matter of wanting to put a stop to "Dies the Fire" comparisons (unfavorable ones, anyway. I'd be very flattered if people were just saying "this is in the same league as Stirling's work"), I probably wouldn't be making the change I'm making. But there's one even more vital consideration that worries me a bit. Action. Currently, chapters 1 and 2 have minimal action. Chapters 3-5 are pretty action-heavy. Then chapters 6-12 have almost no action at all. One option would actually be to slide this new chapter in as, say, Chapter 8 or 9. It's very much a standalone chapter and it could work there, too. I may even go that route, but right now my plan is to put this into chapter 1 and really kick the book into action mode right at the start. I think the lull between major action-oriented events will be a lot more tolerable if I pile on a bit more in the beginning, and it turns out that I think this chapter makes the start of the book much stronger anyway.

Today I got probably 1/3 of the chapter 6 re-write done. It's tough because I'm interweaving new stuff with stuff from at least two other chapters. Once chapter 6 is done, I believe I'll go ahead and write the new chapter 1. Lastly, I've given a lot of thought to my first real "battle chapters," which are 14 and 15, and I've come up with some changes that will make them much better. One may be a complete point of view shift, but regardless they need major re-writes. So that will come next. Grand total - three chapters torn down and rebuilt. New material - one chapter. This is a ton of work which will actually result in only a single additional chapter beyond what I had at the end of last week. That's a tad discouraging, since I really really need this book's draft manuscript done before the kids finish the school year and right now that ain't even close to happening. But it is what it is - no sense in writing the book if I'm not going to do it right, so my job right now is to get these chapters right. Then I can move on to chapter 16 (which, by then, will actually be chapter 17) and finish off the first big battle.


Monday, March 29, 2010

The Quote Book

I couldn’t find a really suitable quote about quotes

We keep a Quote Book. It lives in the drawer in the kitchen. It’s small and thin and the cloth glued to the cover clashes flamboyantly with the flowered shelf-paper. Over the spine is draped a thread strung over with pastel and iridescent beads. It makes a handle, as if this treasure were to ever be carried more than a room from its home. Inside, the lined white pages are written over with scrawls that set down the wisdom and folly of youth.

Inside, past the heavy paper page that’s actually part of the binding, is stated:

This journal belongs to
The De Lucia Family

Started on
August, 2006

For nearly four years, we’ve written down the funniest, cleverest, most telling statements, assertions, complaints and conversations that have erupted from our children’s mouths.

It holds gems such as:

(arriving at Chuck E. Cheese’s)
Kid 1: Is Chuck E. Cheese a mouse?
Kid 2: No, I think he’s a rat.

(later, standing near a 6-foot Chuck E. Cheese statue)
Kid 2: Well, he’s got 3 toes. Maybe he’s a 3-toed sloth?

Also, there’s:
Kid 3: (aged 2 at the time. He’s pointing to keys on the computer keyboard). A, L, F, G, K, crocodile…

Lastly, there’s
(daddy belches loudly)
Mommy: You’re disgusting.
Kid 2: Mommy, I think the word you’re looking for is “funny”!

The book is more than three-quarters full, now. But in it are all of those adorable sayings that, at the time, you’re certain you’ll remember forever. Then a few days later, you and your spouse are trying to recall what was said and all that remains is a vague notion that it was “so cute!”

My wife is collecting favorite family recipes into a scrap-booked cookbook. Those will be nice when they’re done and certainly practical for the kids to take off to college and their lives beyond our home. And we have literally volumes of photographs - a veritable encyclopedia (for those who remember the days when encyclopedia meant a pallet-load of books that were obsolete before they were even printed). But in terms of cherished memories, few pictures, few mementos can come close to the joy we get revisiting these words. We hear them in the voices of the past – the high-pitched, toddler’s intensity. The child’s wonderment at the unfolding nature of reality. The youth’s enhanced vocabulary and increasingly clever turns of phrase. Each of these voices is lost to the lengthening, thickening vocal chords of maturity. But I hear them still, in my head, spurred on by the pages of this magical book.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Editing - Outcome

The editing of my short story is complete. Well, complete enough to submit, anyway. It was quite a bit more painful than I'd really anticipated. I've rarely edited my fiction before when I really, really felt I needed to get it as good as it could be. Nearly all of my work to date was either for personal consumption (written just because or perhaps to use in a D&D game) or for a creative writing class (where I wasn't usually concerned that it wouldn't be good enough, even without extensive editing. It just had to meet the teacher's expectations, which I usually found weren't painfully high).

In this case, though, I'd taken the time and effort to write a work of fiction explicitly to submit to a particular publication. Sure, I can shop it around elsewhere if it doesn't get picked up the first time out (and, realistically, I'd be crazy to expect that it would), but that's not why I wrote it. I wrote it in hopes of being published in a particular anthology, so it felt fairly important that I get it right on the first try.

The bulk of the actual work went into adding depth and clarity in a few places that my readers had suggested were shallow or unclear. But the bulk of the angst came from re-reading and re-re-reading my evolving work and wondering whether I was certain that the changes were improvements over the original. I ended up adding a fair amount of additional text to a story that was right at the 5,000 word limit, which meant that I also needed to find around 400 words worth of deletions to make to get it back down to its fighting weight. I wasn't emotionally attached to those 400 words at all, but I was really very worried that I was chopping out detail, elegance, poetic language, or whatever else it was that one might have been inclined to argue was the "soul" of the work (assuming someone were to make such an argument).

So here's where I ended up: The story weighed in at right about 5,000 words, and I'm confident that I found and crushed every typo, missing comma, missing quote, or other amateurish error that might have instantly kicked it to the reject pile without deeper consideration. I also took care of a couple of places where continuity was lacking or the story was otherwise broken in some fundamental (if usually minor) way. I still think that the story is fun to read and it feels well-written to me when I look it over. Whether or not it's one of the 7-10 best-written short stories the editor received, well, we'll have to wait and see on that one. The editing process took a day or so longer than I'd expected, but at least when I clicked the send button to deliver it I felt confident that it represented my best work as I'm currently capable of doing it.

Today I start the morning cooking with the kindergartners, after which I'm very much looking forward to diving back into my novel. It's funny how much I begin to miss it when I have to go for a few days without working on it. Especially now, as chapters 14-16 represent the first big battle and I'm having a ton of fun writing those scenes. That said, I also suspect I may need to re-write huge swaths of those chapters now that I've had time to reflect on them. Good thing I've had all of this practice at editing, lately!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Generational Impact of the Recession

It seems as if everywhere you look these days, schools are cutting programs, positions and, often, entire buildings. Our local district, Liverpool, voted last week to close one elementary at the end of the year, and there are plans to close a second at the end of next year. Syracuse's city school district is also drawing up plans to consolidate elementaries. I saw on the news yesterday that Ithaca's school district is proposing to make massive cuts to their music program, ending the elementary instrumental program altogether and eliminating music positions at multiple grade levels.

You might argue, of course, that this is a New York State phenomenon. But anecdotally, at least, it isn't. My sister-in-law and her family live in Lynchberg, Virginia, and they're also struggling with the prospective elimination of instrumental education in their schools.

But nobody's going to argue that what I'm seeing locally isn't directly related to NY's overall fiscal health. We're broke, folks. The state coffers are running on empty, to the point where they actually are delaying payment on tax refunds until after the new fiscal year begins on April 1st. And, honestly, I think that may be optimistic. There's no way that a budget will be in place by April 1st, so the temptation to hold onto that money "just a little longer" is going to be overwhelming. But it's a sign of the times hereabouts.

Most school districts get massive cash infusions from the state. This isn't the state government being nice - those are our tax dollars being allocated back to where we live. But in recent years, a combination of factors have resulted in NY being destitute. In some cases, the cause lies with former governor Pataki's administration. They were able to arrange for certain debts to come due after they had left office, so now the new administration needs to deal with them. We do this all the time - we pass the debt onto our children. The difference is that often we don't really see what happened, because the impact is 30 years out instead of 3 years. It's easy to forget that 30 years ago we passed a law or made a change that would have an economic, environmental or political effect three decades later. Why are we having this problem now? Oh, right! Because Carter or Reagan or (governor) Cuomo enacted some legislation and handed us the bill here in the future. Sometimes living in "the future" is pretty cool, other times not so much. Right now is looking like one of those other times, as least where schoolkids are concerned.

Adults get lots of chances at getting stuff right. You might say "you never get to be 34 again," but then it turns out that being 35 looks pretty much the same. It's different for kids. They literally only get one shot at their primary education, at elementary school, at 4th grade. If you mess up a kid's education for a year, repeating it can be just as traumatic as pushing forward and trying to catch up. But either way, the boat on "normal 4th grade year" has sailed. It's gone - you can't have it back, you can only deal with the consequences.

So how much are we losing by jamming more kids into smaller classrooms, or uprooting kids from their neighborhoods and sending them to schools that are miles further away? How much do we lose by not teaching a kid an instrument during those critical years when their developing brains soak up information and process it and turn it into lasting knowledge? For that matter, do we even fully understand the neural connections that might be enhanced or improved because a child is mentally stimulating their "musical" sense at the same time they're trying to learn algebra? Ok, so that last argument is spurious because we don't know whether there's an effect, but we do know that the fine arts have had a valued place in virtually every human culture going back to pre-history. Losing that in this generation of kids is sad, and once it's gone, it's gone. You don't get a second chance to teach that 8-year-old the flute. You may catch them when they're 10 or 14 or 39, but they're only 8 for one year and then they're not anymore. And being 8 is a lot different in the broad spectrum of the human experience than being 28 or 38 or 48.

That's what we're dealing with now, though. The generational impact of the recession. Every year that we cut programs or schools or teachers, we've lost that once chance to provide the best education possible for that group of kids in that particular year. It's gone and you can't have it back. The kids grow up and change and, ah, well, maybe we'll do better with the next batch of kids, right?

It's far too early to know what the impact will be. Maybe it will be a blip on the radar in the grand scheme of our culture and our nation's emerging history. Or perhaps in 20 years people will be wondering why the symphonies lack for fresh blood and why all of the job applicants seem just a little less spectacular than the groups that came before them. Or a lot less spectacular. I do know that it worries me to see these broad cuts affecting such a wide swath of students. If we can't really ever make it up to them and we certainly won't write them off, where's that leave them? Where's it leave us?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

[Karate] The Yellow Belt Road

I've mentioned before that my whole family is now taking karate lessons at a nearby dojo. It's Mixed Martial Arts, a foundation of Kenpo onto which they've added Muay-Thai kickboxing techniques as well as a smattering of Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and, I think, some miscellaneous stuff picked up from other styles over the years. The name LaVallee's Karate goes back 35 years in the Syracuse area, with the original dojo being right here in Liverpool where we live (though the Clay dojo is even closer, so that's where we go). My wife got her ni-dan (2nd degree black belt) from Tearney's Goju-Ryu Karate back in the early 1990s, but Tearney's is way far away and LaVallee's is super-close, so LaVallee's wins. It's kind of interesting to compare the two schools as businesses, actually. They seemed to be big rivals back in the 80s when I was semi-interested in such things. My wife confirms that they always gunned for each other at the various competitions (which LaVallee's, at least, now eschews). In the 30+ years that their respective schools have been around, Tearney's has opened one additional dojo, whereas LaVallee's appears to have a dozen locations. Point: LaVallee's, I suppose.

The kids actually started training back in October in an introductory program through school. My daughter loved it, my younger son likes it, and my middle son... well, he pretty much hates doing anything that doesn't involve the TV or the PC. Refer to my daily struggle to get him to practice the guitar for further details.

We took a break for a couple of months when my wife's former company, Penn Traffic, declared that they were going out of business once and for all (after limping along for most of the last 15 years in a semi-conscious, vaguely pathetic state), but we've been back at it since early February now and it's going well. Their family plan allowed my wife and me to join at no extra cost, so we both figured what the heck. It does feel good to be back in the dojo, I admit, and I've been making steady progress in being able to get through an entire 30-minute class without needing chest-compressions and an intravenous drip. Now, it's time to prepare for our first belt test.

LaVallee's has a lengthy belt progression - long enough that I haven't even memorized the whole list. I think there's something like nine belts before black, but for the most part they don't seem to have intermediate steps between belts, like "stripes" or "tips," so it probably works out to about the same as typical progressions at other schools. The exception is the "red-stripe" belt, which is the last belt before black.

Anyway, we're on step one of this roughly five-year-long road. We need to learn the basics so that we can really begin to master the intricacies of the style and the techniques.

I found a really good site to help us do our homework, too. John Edelson decided a few years ago to get his black belt through LaVallee's at age 50. Reminds me of my mother-in-law, actually, who did the same thing when she and my wife were training at Tearney's. Anyway, Edelson maintains the blog A Black Belt At 50. Aside from his observations on training at LaVallee's, his blog offers some really great videos of some of the techniques we'll need to learn as well as the ritualized forms we'll be performing, called katas. It's nice to be able to come home from the dojo, think about what we learned, and check out a video on Edelson's site if we can't remember exactly how something was supposed to be done.

So, for yellow belt, we need to demonstrate:

Front Choke
Rear Choke
White Belt Appreciation Form

If I understand right, we'll also be drilled on basic kicks and punches during the test. We've got about three and a half weeks to get those under our belts. If we do, we'll get new belts! And the road to orange belt begins!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Editing is necessary. I wouldn't say I like the process of editing my work, but I don't generally hate it either. It's almost like doing a puzzle - there's a really solid story buried on these pages (well, hopefully it's really solid, if I've done any of my job well up until that point), but there's all manner of incorrect, sub-optimal or additional words in there, too. I need to find those words and change or remove them, so that all that's left is the story in its ideal form. I get really excited when I discover that reworking a sentence or paragraph makes it stronger - builds in more emotion or gives it a greater impact or just makes the meaning clearer.

But there are different levels of editing, too. Sometimes snipping a word here or a phrase there aren't really what's needed. I liken it to the difference between a makeover and surgery. A lot of what I do is the equivalent of a haircut and a manicure - really just sprucing up the outward appearance, but leaving the thematic elements and the base storyline pretty much alone. But what if that's just putting perfume on a pig?

What if I've got a good, working story, but it's a little sick? Then I need to operate. I need to cut open that otherwise healthy body and, without breaking anything that's working, I need to cut out the diseased parts and implant something stronger and better. Then I need to sew the whole thing back up and check its vital signs to ensure everything works. Much as Hippocrates said, I must "first, do no harm."

But that's HARD! It's hard to be sure where you're supposed to cut. It's hard to make sure that you don't snip a major blood vessel - say, a theme that you've woven into the story - and then fail to reconnect it properly later on. It's hard to not cut away too much healthy tissue - imagery and action that worked well and needed to be there to move the story along. It's hard not to throw off the pace or the continuity or, if you were good enough to have had it in the first place, the lyrical poetry of the prose.

I'm in the final stretch with my short story, The Songbirds of Arroyoverde. I took it to my Writer's Roundtable a couple of weeks ago and got some great feedback about what did and didn't work. I also got some good advice about how to fix it and was inspired to think of a number of improvements myself. Monday morning, I started with a makeover. I worked through the least of the changes I needed to make - issues of word choice and some deft cuts that tightened and strengthened the piece. Or at least I hope that's what they did. They felt like good changes and a whole lot of this writing business is running on gut instinct.

After that, it was time to go under the knife. I try not to get too emotionally attached to the specific words and phrases in my story. I don't ever want to feel like it's going to hurt to have to make a change. I confess that sometimes the ideas and concepts in the story feel a bit more sacrosanct to me. It becomes a feeling of "this is what the story's about. If I'm going to change it, I'll be telling a different story." But these weren't changes of that sort. They were, I think, all improvements. And one in particular I really thought took a chunk on the story that I'd never really liked and replaced it with something I liked much better.

So this wasn't an impassioned exercise. The only emotion I had going on was fear. Fear that I'd make a mess of this thing that, in its current state, wasn't awesome but wasn't terrible. It was a fear born in part out of my utter ineptitude as a handyman. I'm all about taking stuff apart. That's easy. But when it comes to fixing the pieces inside and then putting it all back together again, I'm useless. I usually make it worse. Now, granted, there's not really much comparison between my capabilities at manually repairing stuff around my home and my function as an editor. That's why they call them irrational fears.

In the end, I needed to simply knuckle down and do it. It's a process that I'm going to work through over a couple of days so as not to get into trouble by rushing. I may need to throw in lots of breaks and comfort foods. The good news is that I actually have done this before and I know it will work. In the end, everything will coalesce and the patient will get up and dance a jig - happier and healthier and stronger than before it went under the knife. By week's end, this story's going off to the anthology editor for his consideration.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Quiet Time

This week marks the beginning of a slightly less hectic period in the year. This weekend, my daughter performed in both a dance recital and an all-district chorus concert. Which means that she no longer has rehearsal for either of those activities during the week. They weren't what I'd call a major inconvenience - certainly nothing to compare to those "soccer moms" (and dads) who run themselves ragged getting one kid to dance and another to scouting and a third to football then the first to gymnastics and the second to hockey and the third to pottery, etc., etc. I know there are a lot of families like that out there. I do not envy them and could not emulate them.

But as much as these two activities added a little extra hustle to our weeknights they are over. A couple of thoughts.

My daughter's been in this same dance program for three years, I think. Prior to that they had had a different program running out of her school, but that one disappeared and the kids who were interested had to go to a nearby school in the same district if they wanted to dance. It was a little uncomfortable at times being the kids/families from the "other school," but since the alternative was to have no program at all...

I have to imagine that getting a dozen or so elementary-age girls to do anything in unison is effectively impossible. This year's dance program was a couple of months shorter than in past years, but one thing my wife and I both noticed was that the dancers weren't any less adept for the lack of rehearsal time. They lacked energy, seemed to have no clue what they were supposed to be doing, and no doubt had just as much fun. Attending the two-hour recital was interminable, but everything happened on time and they did a great job moving it along. The playbill (we actually got one this year) was thick, full-color, and exceptionally well-made. I'm very glad that my daughter was able to participate in the program - I know she really enjoyed herself as she never once complained about having to rehearse. The dance director and all the other adults who ran the program did a great job.

The choral program was equally exceptional (and 75% shorter!!). It was an assemblage of upper-elementary-age kids from across our (very large) school district. There appeared to be around 50 in all. They performed four or five songs in 3 and 4-part harmony and they sounded really good. The program was run by the music teachers from every school and they definitely knew their stuff.

So now that we're so unburdened what will we do with the extra time, you may wonder? Well, we got an email from one of our karate instructors that he wants to see us to discuss "goals" and "next steps." I presume that this will involve, at least in part, selling us on the idea of upgrading our membership to the "Black Belt Club," which changes your gi from black to white and lets you go to class a third time each week. There may be other benefits, but I don't know what they are. So if we sign up for that, it would take the place of one of those weekly rehearsals.

Otherwise, I'm kind of looking forward to an extra night to actually talk to my wife a little bit. You can always tell when things get busy, because we don't get to talk and we fall behind on TV shows. TiVo makes it really easy to pick shows to watch, but it doesn't guarantee time to actually watch them. We've had the first disc of Shogun waiting for us from Netflix for nearly two full months, so that's an indicator of how busy we've been. Now that Spring is officially here, maybe we'll get caught up. Wait, doesn't V start again in a week? Ugh!

Friday, March 19, 2010

[Book Update] Monster Chapter

I'm currently working on Chapter 14. Though, technically, I may actually be working on Chapter 15 also, since it's starting to pile on the page count. This is, among other things, a fantasy novel so of course it has monsters in it. However up until this point, the monsters have primarily been on the periphery. We've seen them a few times, usually only very briefly, and the rest of the time they were more of an implied threat than a literal conflict for the characters.

In the last couple of chapters, however, things have exploded a bit, monsterwise. And now that I think of it, exploded is a pretty good word for it.

Some of the things I need to make sure I get right are the pace of the book and the characterization of the monsters. I'm not sure how many pages into the book I am (because my chapters are all split into separate Word documents which I've never put all together, and also because I don't have them formatted for submission right now), but most of my chapters average around 9 double-spaced pages, which makes me think I'm about 120 pages into the book. I dive right in with combat against multiple enemies, then pull back a bit for some character development, and then charge ahead into full-scale battle. When I think of it in those high-level terms, the pace sounds about right. It's one of those things that's going to be hard to gauge until I've got a good, solid second-draft in my hands, but it feels good to me so far. If I waited too long to get to the big action though, I'm going to have a problem. Because cutting anything in the earlier chapters is going to feel a bit like yanking a card from the bottom of a house of cards. There's so much interdependence and so much information that the reader needs to understand that it would be hard to do it. I will if I have to, but it's going to be tedious, frustrating and difficult to find just the right parts to axe.

The other topic is a bit easier, if no less important. I'm already aware that of the first two types of adversaries that I introduced (or, you could make an argument for two or even three types pretty easily), I did not do a good job of making them seem more like generic forces meant to challenge the protagonist, give him something interesting to do, and drive the plot. What I haven't done is decide whether that's necessarily a bad thing. After all, those adversaries actually are there more to grab the reader's attention and let us see the hero in action than to make a name for themselves in the annals of fantasy. Still, it feels like a cheat to me so I may decide to go back and do something about it. Some of those initial adversaries are by now presumed dead and don't necessarily have a bigger role in the rest of the story - they came onstage, did their thing, and now they're gone - but one of them did. That one, though, is deliberately kept rather vague because I don't want to shout out right away "this is the kind of book this is." Because in some important ways it's NOT the kind of book it would look like, but it's way, way too soon to get into that in the first five chapters. So, instead, I only hint at first, then suggest, then finally confirm. I likely won't be doing any character developement there - it's just not the right place for it.

Where I absolutely do need it, though, is in the Chapter 14/15 area. There's a pitched battle going on there, with an all new enemy that we've effectively just met for the first time. They're also just sort of passing through the story, but they're too big a plot device to be allowed to come off flat and 2-dimensional. I'm not worrying much about it on the initial pass - my rough draft, if you will - but before I consider the chapter to be "done" I'll need to go back and make sure I touch up the portrait of these monsters so it leaps out at the reader and becomes a realistic, believable, possibly even sympathetic sort of creature. Probably not very sympathetic, but enough that they aren't just a band of villains doing villainous things for villainous reasons all for the sake of keeping their Villains International membership cards up to date. That's boring and unworthy of a good monster. Or a bad monster. Or any sort of well-written monster.

Sadly, I did not get these chapters done this week as I'd hoped because today has to be a freaking Superintendent's Conference Day. Gah! Don't these kids ever have school?? And the weekend's ridiculously busy, so I'm not sure when I'll get to work on it again. I can't wait to see how the battle turns out, though!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I Guess I'm Ahead of My Time

Sometimes it drives me a little crazy that the stuff that I enjoy doesn't become popular until decades later. Two examples came to mind recently.

The first was when I was driving around, listening to the radio, and they played Ronnie James Dio's "Holy Diver." The song was originally released on the album of the same name in 1983. It was probably around 1986 or so when I discovered it. Yet, at the time, it was utterly and completely unheard-of for it to be played on any Syracuse radio stations. None of my favorite bands of the late 1980s - Metallica, Iron Maiden, Queensryche, Dio, Dokken, Ozzy Osbourne, Great White and a chorus of others - were ever heard on local radio. I got by just fine with a bazillion cassette tapes, but it wasn't the same. I remember my 1987 trip to Los Angeles. I had met some buddies playing a very early multi-player online game and they'd invited me to come out and see the coast. While driving around LA in January, in short-sleeves, with the windows rolled down, I remember I had a moment of pure ecstasy. We were listening to the the radio and suddenly I was hearing Iron Maiden's Aces High. It was practically a religious experience for me to actually hear MY music, which Central New York had taught me wasn't popular enough to be played on the radio, really blasting out of the car radio. It took many years for Syracuse stations to catch up. Now, when that music is more a part of my past than my present, when I rarely listen to the radio, finally it's cool. Finally, you hear "mandatory Metallica" on at least one (possibly two) Syracuse radio stations every night. At last, Ronnie James Dio (who, incidentally, was raised just down the road in Cortland) is able to be heard here in the Salt City. Why, oh why did I have to be such a trailblazer?

The second instance came when I discovered that Dungeons & Dragons is apparently becoming cool. With girls, of all people. Check this out - online magazine The Escapist started broadcasting a weekly reality TV show yesterday called I Hit it with My Axe, in which a predominantly female gaming group plays D&D. Oh yeah, they're a group of predominantly female porn stars. No, I don't get the connection there, either, but it's not just a mash-up for the purposes of producing a show. The same group of porn stars had already been playing D&D together for months (years?), it's just that now they're playing a second game, on camera, for this show. Yes, they keep all of their clothes on so far as I saw in the first video. The Dungeon Master has been blogging about their game since October. Then, strolling around the web, I ran into an article in Dragon Magazine (which I originally found on, the website of publishers Del Ray and Banta) where a female writer is asked by her boss to run a D&D game for a group of women at their office. Now, these are professional, adult-aged women who actually want to play D&D? Where the hell were these chicks when I was in High School, I'd very much like to know?? When I was in school, D&D players were at best ignored, most often mocked, and at worst accused of being possessed by demons. We sure as hell weren't hanging out with actual girls, let alone porn star girls. No, it's true - hardly any of the guys I played D&D with had girlfriends. One of them turned out to be gay, but he didn't have a boyfriend at the time, either, so same thing. Imagine what studs we'd be today? Oh wait, looking in the mirror I see that there's still a problem with that theory. Well, anyway, it would have been nice to be more socially accepted.

I wonder what else will turn out to be cool in the 2010s that my friends and I seemed to be doing in a social vacuum back in the 80s? Turns out, being a pioneer is hard.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Buenos días!

Monday night I read chapter 6 of my novel, which introduces the fact that the main setting (for the first half of the book, or thereabouts) has a large Latino presence. One of the comments I got was, to paraphrase, "Yes! Finally a sci-fi book with Latinos."

It's not a bad comment at all. There are definitely a lot of Latinos in key parts of my novel, with a stated rationale as to why. I wouldn't say I've got any particular affinity for the Latino culture, but I do think it's a little odd that so much sci-fi seems to involve white males, followed by aliens that behave generally like white males, then white females, then pretty much every other ethnic group, species and gender in a little wedge jammed into a corner of the pie chart. There certainly ought to be a fair number of Latinos, blacks, asians, etc. in contemporary sci-fi, as they represent sizeable portions of our world population. The funny thing is that this novel isn't really even sci-fi. It's a bit hard to fit into a single genre, but "post-apocalyptic urban fantasy" probably comes closest. My next novel, though, will be very modern-era sci-fi and will run the gamut of human races, cultures and ethnicities.

One of my biggest challenges in writing this novel, though, stems from the fact that I'm so damn white. My exposure to Latino culture is pretty much confined to what I've seen on TV, and that's pretty minimal. Sci-fi isn't the only place where Latinos are minimally represented. So here I've got a population where I don't know all that much about their culture and, worse, they don't speak English. Well, actually a lot of them do, but culturally it's not their primary language if they're coming from outside the US.The problem is that I don't speak a lick of Spanish. I know a few words that I picked up from Chavez y Chavez on Young Guns or from watching the gang episodes of The Shield, but that only gets you so far. Web searches have been a blessing, as has the translation tool on iGoogle. Yet, those can only get you so far, because they're not always right and, more, they don't reflect how certain words and phrases are actually used. Idiomatic expressions are mostly beyond their reach.

Luckily, my brother spent several years as a vagabond traveling around Central America and is fluent in Spanish. I occasionally kick him over an email that lists various Spanish words and phrases that I'm trying to use and he lets me know if I've gotten them right. Often I find I'm in the ballpark, but he's been able to offer me a bunch of alternate suggestions and some key changes. I'm overdue to get him another of those lists, but his help has already been immeasurably helpful in getting me on the right track. And who knows, maybe my book will really speak to all of the disaffected Latino sci-fi fans who have been looking for familiar faces in the books they read and finding only gringos who don't "speak" to them on a cultural level. It's not my primary focus - I'm just trying to spin a fun yarn - but I think any author's going to be gratified to find that their book touches someone or some group in an emotional way. If that happens, I'll say maravilloso! But first I'll run it past my brother to make sure it's the right word.

On a related note, there's another dose of Latino-Sci-fi inbound. If you haven't already, take a peek at the clip for the movie "Monsters,"  in which alien life forms are infesting big chunks of Mexico and have to be quarantined. It's being called "Mexico's District 9," though from the description there doesn't seem to be much of an actual comparison once you get beyond the fact that they're both sci-fi movies that take place in countries which are not the United States.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

No Tuesday Update

I had a blog post written for this morning, but upon reflection I decided that it sucked. So I pulled it. It wasn't offensive or controversial or anything juicy like that, it was just whiny and not very interesting once I was done writing it (and thinking about it for a couple days, since I actually wrote it on Sunday in expectation of the fact that I had my Writer's Roundtable on Monday evening and wouldn't be able to work on it then as I typically would). So, there you go - nothing new for today. It's plausible that I'll be struck with the implacable drive to write something during the day today, but more likely I'll write something for Wednesday morning and go from there.

So, you know... sorry.

Monday, March 15, 2010

[Book Update] Here Be Dragons

There aren't actually any dragons in my novels. I may throw some in for flavor at some point, but they're not going to be dragons in the strict traditional sense nor would they have a major role. No, the phrase "Here be dragons," and phrases like it such as "here be lions" or "here be monsters" were common on ancient and medieval maps to denote areas that were unknown or unexplored. And I thought of it because I spent a few hours Saturday making a fresh map of one of my primary locations. The first half (or so) of the novel takes place in and around a town that's based on a real Central New York locale. I've even considered just using the actual name of the place rather than changing it, but for now it's got a new name. I had previously printed out a map of the locale and then penciled in my own buildings and landmarks, but Chapter 14 has the book's first major battle and I needed a larger view of the area in order to plot the action.

So back in I went, but this time I pulled the map into Paint and extensively touched it up. I removed many of the current labels, roads and other features that wouldn't be in the town in my book. I added some bridges, walls, buildings and, importantly, sketched in a forest that's not there in the real world.The map came out a bit amateurish because I suck at Paint and at all elements of the visual arts, but it doesn't matter for my purposes. Nobody will ever see this map except me and possibly some of my readers who critique the manuscript for me. Possibly, if it were of value, I might show it to a publisher/editor/artist if everyone agreed that it made sense to include a map in the published book.

I'll admit, I've always liked books with useful maps. The map of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, for instance, is great for giving you an at-a-glance sense of the size of the region and the relative positions of all the places Tolkien's characters visit and refer to. Likewise, Jordan's Wheel of Time and Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books are measurably improved by their nice cartography. It's not so much the quality of the narrative that's improved, rather it's the reader's experience accessing that narrative that's enhanced by the maps.

For my novel, I very well might like to see a map of the town and possibly a larger one of the region around it as well. I have no idea how much control I'll have over that (again, assuming the whole "Yes, we'd like to publish your book" discussion actually takes place), but I'm certainly going to have my maps in front of me when I write the thing and I can imagine the reader wanting to have the map handy when they read it.

I also got a page or so into Chapter 14, which is how I knew that I needed to update my map. I told my wife recently that there are probably 5-6 "scenes" in my first novel that I'm really looking forward to writing, and the battle in Chapter 14 is one of them. The main character "coming into his own" is possibly the one I'm most excited about, but there are quite a few others. I know myself well enough to know that as anxious as I am to finish those passages, jumping ahead and doing it in advance would likely be a huge mistake given my nature. But that only serves to enhance my enthusiasm when I get to one of them and get to write it at last.

Chapter 14 is also a hallmark in one other way - if my estimate is even ballpark-accurate, then I'm roughly a third of my way through the book, and pretty well on track in terms of the overall story-arc: beginning/middle/climax + a brief denouement that would lead into book 2. If I can find the time to devote to heads-down writing this week (which, at best, will be on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday), I hope to barrel through Chapter 14 and possibly 15 as well. If I could write two chapters a week minimum for the next few months, I'd be finishing up the first draft of the novel almost exactly when the kids are getting out of school for the summer. Which, really means I need to write a lot MORE than two chapters a week, but based on what I've experienced so far I just don't think that's realistic. I'll just forge ahead as best I can and see where I end up. Wherever that is, you can bet it'll be off the map.

Friday, March 12, 2010

[Book Update] Twofer!

This week was a total twofer! I spent Monday working on my short story, then Tuesday and Wednesday finally finishing up chapter 12. The longest chapter so far, it actually doesn't do nearly as much as I'd like to advance the story, but it gives us tremendous insight into two major characters so it's got a lot of value. I may have to seriously revamp it at some point, but as of Thursday morning, it's D-O-N-E. Which is great, because it seemed to take forever (mostly because I stopped halfway through to write the short story).

But that's not all! Order now and you also get Chapter 13, which I just finished. Woo hoo! That's right, you get TWO big chapters (well, a big one and a smallish one) for the price of one, just pay separate postage and handling.

Plus, I REALLY like Chapter 13. It introduces the first named bad guy in the story. I'm not sure yet how vital he'll be (I suppose I should make an effort to use him a bit since I built a very readable chapter around him), but the chapter, brief as it is, really busts the story open in some significant ways. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I say, "Wow, did I actually write about THAT in this chapter, too?"

So there we are. Heading into this weekend, I've got 13 chapters in various stages of complete. My challenges, which are three-fold, continue to evolve:

1. Write the damn thing. Sure, I've finished 13 chapters, but I estimate the story will run anywhere from 30-50 chapters total, so I've got a ways still to go.

2. Edit the damn thing. I've been deliberately slacking off on this because I really want my emphasis to be on getting the first draft written. Still, re-reading and editing the finished chapters was very helpful to me in keeping continuity and compensating for my generally crappy memory. I need to find a way to keep on top of the early stuff, beyond the one chapter a week I edit and bring to the writer's roundtable.

3. Update my notes. This is a two-fold issue. First, every word I write in the book makes my notes farther out of date. I add character and setting descriptions, I make up all sorts of new stuff, and then I don't put it in my notes where I can find it later. This makes it really hard to refer back to stuff I already wrote, since I never remember it perfectly. I haven't even been updating my outline of what happens in each chapter, which would at least make it easier for me to go back and look stuff up when I have to. Second, I continue to write new hand-written notes. I'm up to 15 or 20 pages of them, now, and none of it's been entered into my OneNote story bible. I often find myself flipping through those pages to find (or not find) notes I've made about how to write a particular scene or how a given character should be have. Having everything in OneNote was supposed to make that stuff easier, and it did when all of my notes were in there. What I'm lacking is a mechanism to add new ones, beyond just sitting down and doing it. Perhaps if I don't spend the whole weekend doing my taxes I'll find time to do that, too.

It's All Relative

Even after all these years, it still amazes me how much what we're accustomed to influences our day to day experiences. For instance, in the autumn when the weather first drops down below 60, we shiver and throw on lots of extra clothes and complain about how close winter is. But this week, after a few months of heavy snow and constant cold, the temperature finally gets into the upper 50s. And how do we react? We peel off our winter coats and run around outside in our T-shirts, overjoyed that it's so incredibly warm.

Likewise, yesterday I was overjoyed to finally finish chapter 12 of my novel. For that matter, I plowed a decent way into chapter 13, as well. Which is great! But given that I'm estimating 30+ chapters for the whole book and I've been working on it since December, I'm not nearly as far along as I'd like to be. It's all relative.

So naturally I'm charging forward this morning to finish chapter 13 and get myself on a more aggressive schedule, right? Well, no. Instead, I'm taking two of my kids to a dentist appointment bright and early, followed by cooking with the kindergarteners. By the time I get home, the day will be half gone. Ugh. Well, not much I can do about that, so I'll just have to try to make the afternoon count. The good news is that I'm happy with how 12 turned out and I'm very excited about 13 and 14, so there's plenty of incentive there to charge ahead. I also need to prep chapter 6 pretty soon so I can take it to the writer's group on Monday.

That ought to be interesting, because there's no chapter that I had more trouble with than 6. To the point that I had to print it out and write topics next to each paragraph to help me figure out which ones belonged in the chapter and which didn't. Then I completely re-ordered most of them, rewrote a bunch and moved a bunch into... actually I don't remember where I put them. I should check and see if they're floating around in stasis somewhere, because they weren't bad, they just weren't right for that chapter. It's all relative, you know?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Soundtrack

Everybody’s good at something

Like everyone, my kids have their distinctive personalities and traits. My daughter is blessed with musical talent and at least a smattering of perfect pitch (ie. the ability to recognize tonal sounds just by hearing them). My middle son swings his Nerf N-Force sword around like a natural. His sister is guaranteed to drop it or smack it into something unintended, whereas my son deftly cuts and slashes with the grace of a master swordsman. He’s still laughably easy to parry and disarm, but he looks cool as hell when he’s swinging that foam blade around.

My youngest has a knack for making you like him, even though he’s naturally mischievous. He has these enormous eyes that just suck you in and make you want to hug him. Matched with that is a joy of life that’s impressive even for a little kid. He’s also the only one of my three kids who’s capable of entertaining himself. The other two have always depended heavily on their parents, siblings or friends, while my youngest can easily play for hours with whatever toys happen to be lying around. More, there is a soundtrack to his life.

You see, when my youngest is playing, he’s also humming and singing a generic action-movie soundtrack at the same time. He’ll pause occasionally to mutter dialogue or to produce the necessary sound effects – rocket engines, blaster guns and explosions – but the rest of the time there’s music. It goes on for as long as he’s playing, which can be quite a long time, and it’s adorable.

I had to work hard to win my son’s affection. He was born shortly before I took a job that had a horrible commute and required extensive business travel. So I wasn’t around nearly enough during his toddler years. All of my kids imprinted on my wife in a way that said, “Dad, you’re an afterthought at best,” but it was worse with my youngest. He has relatively little use for me. More, consistent with his mischievous spirit, he found it amusing to deny that he liked, or loved, me at all. It was, I confess, very painful to think that months and years might be ticking by where opportunities for him to sit on my lap or be held in my arms were slipping away, lost forever to time and the inevitable process of growing up and growing old.

That began to change a year ago. One result of my career shift was that for over three months, he and I were home together all day – just the two of us. This was probably more time than we’d spent alone together in all the years he’d been alive and it was wonderful bonding time. It didn’t completely heal the rift I felt between us, but it laid the groundwork for improvement. The rest of the summer – which now included his older siblings, too – reinforced the notion that it was OK to like dad, too. It seemed to take forever to establish the missing bond between us, but at last it seems to be there. He no longer squirms away when I try to hug him or when I just put my arm around his shoulders as he’s showing me a book or a piece of artwork that he’s created. He doesn’t order me to leave when I sit and watch him playing a game on the computer. And he comes to me – often – asking to be tickled. He’s one of those rare people who really really likes being tickled, but he never asks my wife to do it. Tickling is my job and it has become a key facet of our relationship. I tickle him thoroughly and mercilessly, usually until my fingers cramp up and I have to stop despite his pleas for more.

I had to really earn my youngest child’s affection. I had to work at it. Sometimes I worry that because it came more naturally from the other two that I’ll take it for granted from them. I console myself that if I’m asking that question it’s probably not a problem. But certainly winning the battle to build the bridge with my son has been richly rewarding for me. The soundtrack of his young life has become the soundtrack of my middle years.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

[Book Review] At All Costs (Honor Harrington)

A book by David Weber

The eleventh and, to date, final volume in the Honor Harrington series is a wild ride, particularly after the politics-heavy tenth volume, War of Honor. In this novel, Weber spends less than the usual amount of time on interstellar politics and returns to the roots of the series – space combat between enormous fleets of capital ships (now bolstered by smaller vessels more akin to fighter craft). In fact, At All Costs contains more space battles than any other novel in the entire series that I can remember. As before, tensions run high between the Kingdom of Manticore and their neighbors, the Republic of Haven. For good measure, there’s some intrigue tossed in on the part of a cabal of genetic slave traders.

Weber has a number of strengths. First and most importantly, he spins a good yarn. His stories are fun and interesting to read. Part of the reason for that is that he builds very strong, realistic characters who speak and behave like actual people would. Another part of it is that he puts those characters into very stressful situations and then challenges them to find a way out.

We got to see a lot of family stuff going on with Honor in this novel, as well as some politics (especially in the Havenite government), but they never detracted from the core of the story – increasingly huge space battles!

I have one serious nit to pick with this book. It was pretty clear that a few of the characters had some fairly significant adventures in some other part of the “honorverse” as it’s come to be called. Beyond the eleven core novels in the series, there’s an almost equal number of “spin-off” books and anthologies using some of the same characters and settings. In At All Costs, some of these characters go on and on about their off-screen antics in a way that I found distracting. In a comic book, there would have been a footnote telling me “as seen in issue #212,” but that’s not something you’re used to seeing in novels like this one. Moreover, there wasn’t even a footnote, so if I found the characters so interesting that I just had to go read their adventures, I wouldn’t (and still don’t) know what book to find them in. I thought it was handled with an uncharacteristic lack of dexterity on Weber’s part – all the more noticeable because he’s usually so smooth.

That said, the core of the Harrington stories has always been “Horatio Hornblower in outer space,” and Weber delivers in spades in At All Costs. The space battles are, as always, described in a way that makes you feel the missiles bearing down on you. The tactics and strategy are clear and easy to follow, yet complex as befits space navies that have been at war for some two decades. I won’t spoil the ending, but if you’ve been reading the Harrington books you know that they nearly all end with a huge clash of spacecraft and At All Costs is the ultimate culmination of that trend – it’s what the whole series has been building to and it’s outstanding.

I found At All Costs to be among the best of a terrific series and recommend it highly. I rate it an A-.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Times When You Don't Suck

Are the greatest times of all

I whine a lot here about what a crummy guitar player I am. Actually I'm probably not all THAT horrible, just inexperienced. It's not as if I'm tone deaf or can't remember how to make the basic progressive chords or other things that might make you think that I was hopeless as a musician. The problem I have is probably one of expectations and patience. Everybody who picks up a guitar wants to spend three minutes getting familiar with it, and then be able to crank out some world-class riffs like they're channeling the spirit of Jimi Hendrix. Everybody knows, deep down, that it doesn't work that way, but that doesn't change the fact that it's what they (I) want. I want to play music. I want it to sound good. No, I want it to sound amazing. I want to be Eric Clapton or Prince just burning up their fretboards playing the solo to While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

But it's also a problem of patience. It may be that one day I'll really be a guitarist that other people besides me and my family would actually want to listen to. I can't be sure of it, but it's possible. It's not necessary, frankly - it's extremely unlikely that I'll ever play for anyone but myself and my family. I certainly don't plan to. But it's possible.It's not going to happen anytime soon, however. I have to be patient. To learn any instrument takes many, many months to get good at. And a first instrument surely takes the longest of all, because you have to learn so much music theory, musical notation and so many concepts that a more experienced musician already knows.

And that's hard, because your expectations and your patience both go largely unrewarded for such a long time. We started with two Eagles songs that needed only a handful of basic progressive chords to play. But even after my son and I basically knew the chords and could make them (most of the time) quickly and without error, those Eagles songs continued to sound like crap month after month after tedious month.

Nine months, though, does make a difference. It an amazing feeling when you realize that you have, indeed, made progress. In the last week or so, I've experienced this revelation with regard to four different guitar-related topics.

The first big breakthrough came while I was practicing the intro to Dust in the Wind. I'm at the point where I can run through the first 16 measures and play it correctly about two times out of five. That's huge progress for me, but the real breakthrough came when I picked up my instrument one day and Dust in the Wind just sounded awful. One note in particular was seriously wrong. I tried again - still wrong. I checked my fingers, since my pinky has a tendency to sometimes (often) land on the wrong string). Nope - still wrong. I seemed to be doing everything right, but that note just sounded sour. So I pulled out my trusty electronic tuner and VOILA! Somehow the B string on my guitar had gone wickedly out of tune, to the point where it was practically a C. Up until this point, my ear for notes has been pretty poor. I basically only tune my guitar before a lesson because it bugs my instructor if it's out of tune, but I can't really tell the difference between in-tune and out-of-tune. Or, at least, I couldn't before. Now, apparently, I can tell the difference, at least if it's severe enough. I count that as major progress!

The next revelation came when I sat down to play a completely new piece of music and got it pretty much right away. Our assignment two weeks ago was Sunshine on my Shoulders by John Denver. The goal, really, was to learn the B-minor chord, which is a 5th string root barre chord. I still don't play Bm very well, but everything else about that song came together really well. But Sunshine was never my favorite John Denver song. My favorite, when I was a kid, was always Country Roads. So I found a version of Country Roads that seemed to be in the correct key (thanks to the Guitar League's website) and discovered that I could do a pretty credible job of that song, also. Granted, it still has that darn Bm barre chord in there, but aside from that it's actually rather listenable. Certainly a heck of  a lot better than the original two songs - Take it Easy and Peaceful Easy Feeling - sounded, even after months of practice.

Then I picked up yet another song - this one a folk song called Beggars to God by Bob Franke that I got off of the Empty Hats website. Empty Hats is a regular band that plays at the Sterling Renaissance Festival and Beggars has been part of their repertoire for a decade or more. It's a song I know fairly well and, again, I found that I could pick it up and play it immediately and without butchering it too badly. That's where I want to be - to be able to pick up something I like and just play it! Now, granted, I'm still limited by anything with complex chords I don't know (most notably barre chords or anything that's not a Major, Minor or 7th chord, including a wide range of suspendeds, sharps, flatted 7ths and other stuff) or with complex solos or extensive finger-picking. I mean, I'm well aware of how far I have to go, right? It's just that I'm getting SOMEWHERE at last. Actually being able to pick up a piece of music I know and play it rocks bigtime.

All of which led me to my fourth revelation, helped in part by the one above - I now have an actual repertoire of songs I can play reasonably well. If you combine the music from our instructor with the book of Renn Faire songs I bought at Sterling plus a handful of tunes I've found online, there are quite a few pieces I can play capably. Which is the whole point of this guitar business in the first place! Woo! Success!

Take it Easy
Peaceful Easy Feeling
Wave Over Wave
The Mingulay Boat Song
Drunken Sailor
Wild Rover
Beggars to God
Sunshine on my Shoulders*
Country Roads*

*except for Bm, which still needs work

I'm not including the book of 15-20 Christmas songs that I bought in December, although I actually found that I could play most of those pretty well. I'm also not including the 12-bar blues, because until I'm able to do something more with it than just playing those twelve basic bars, it's not very interesting. But trying to do anything more elaborate messes me up badly, so it's clear that I haven't really mastered it yet.

Still - yay! That's a decent enough batch of songs that I can actually play. I mean, not at the level of the pros - there's nothing fancy about them and generally I'm just doing my best to mimic the original artist without really adding anything. On American Idol they'd call it boring karaoke. . But there's a D Suspended 4th that I add to the Country Roads chorus that I think sounds really nice, so it's not as if I'm incapable of thinking about the music critically. I just usually have all I can do to force my fingers to behave.

But taken as a whole, that's a big payoff. Patience is all well and good, but everyone has their limits. What fuels patience is incremental reward. It's easier to be patient when you can see that you're getting somewhere. You're finally meeting your expectations. You're not sucking for the very first time, and those times are the best!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Oh the Places You’ll Go – Part 5

And how to get there without going nuts

This is the final part of my series of travel tips. They’re hard-won lessons I learned traveling for various companies to distant corporate offices, to customer sites, and to trade shows and similar events. There were long trips, short trips, and even once or twice a trip I actually wanted to make. I can’t remember what they were, but I assume there were at least a couple I didn’t dread. I started with tips for choosing your preferred airline and actually selecting a flight. Then I wrote about choosing a preferred hotel and I finished off with defeating stress at the security checkpoint. Today, I’ll finish off with various tips on packing, dressing and getting in and out of the airport and hotel.

Topic 4: Packing – everything about air travel conspires to make packing as difficult as possible. My policy was always to avoid checking bags if possible because it added so much time and complexity to the trip. Checking bags meant an extra stop on the way into the airport to drop off your bag. It added the possibility that your bag would be stolen, mis-routed or would explode in transit. If you have a tight connection, you may be able to run through the airport and make your flight, but your checked luggage surely won’t. And this is business travel – you’re not lounging around a resort waiting for your bags to show up. You’ve got meetings with executives, customers, employees or business partners and they’re absolutely not going to be impressed with you if you show up in dirty, wrinkled clothes because your luggage didn’t make the trip. They may feel bad for you, but you don’t need to risk the stigma of not looking your best when you’re trying to make an important pitch.

Yet carry-ons can be a major hassle, too. You have to lug or drag them through the airport and you need to stow them somewhere on the plane. And as I mentioned in part 2 of this series, it can be really stressful if your carry-ons end up way behind you on the plane where you can’t get to them easily when it’s time to disembark. And none of this even includes the ever-changing and always increasing rules about fees and allowances for baggage.

On three occasions, I needed to travel with enough stuff that it was worth the extra hassle to ship my extra gear ahead of time so it would be waiting for me when I got to the hotel. For our big Disney World trip a few years ago, my family saved a FORTUNE on food for the kids by shipping down staples like bread, peanut butter and cereal. The kids are picky as hell and weren’t going to eat the “real” food at the restaurants anyway, so why pay for it? Just remember – you need to allow time and materials to ship stuff BACK at the end of your trip.

So if you’re not checking bags, you’ve got to fit all your stuff into a carry-on. And guess what? It’s NOT ok to just take a full-size bag and use it as a carry-on. It won’t fit in the overhead compartments and it will piss off the other passengers. What you need to do instead is to pack carefully and selectively, bringing only those things you absolutely will need for your trip and avoiding everything else. And also – and this is key for Americans who tend to be really uptight about cleanliness – remember that it’s not the end of the world to wear a pair of jeans or slacks two or three times between washings if they don’t get stained or horribly wrinkled. This will save you from having to pack multiple pairs of pants when one pair will do.

Lastly, when you do get all your stuff together, pack smart. If you’re packing shoes (again, minimize these – they’re heavy, take up space, and how many do you really need?), put stuff inside them like socks or rolled ties. They’re stiff, which makes them good for protecting things like an electric razor. Make sure you put the heavy stuff on the bottom so it doesn’t smash down and overly wrinkle lighter stuff like shirts. Remember, you’ll probably pack your bag lying flat, but you’ll cart it around upright and everything will slide to the bottom. And most important, put anything you need to get to – like your baggie of liquids, an in-flight book, maps, etc., - on top where you can get to them without having to unpack your whole bag. The same applies to your carryon or laptop bag – don’t pack stuff you plan to use underneath a bunch of cables and power cords that you won’t need in-flight. Finally, consider carefully what to pack and what to wear to maximize both comfort and packing convenience.

Topic 5: Optimizing your Attire
One way I tried to minimize my packing issues and flight stress at the same time was to choose my travel attire carefully. For instance, if I needed to bring a blazer (I avoided suits at all costs), I wore it on the flight. It got less wrinkled than it would have if I tried to cram it into my carry-on, and it didn’t take up all that space. Likewise, I never wore my jeans on the plane because my belt buckle was just heavy enough to set off the metal detector.

I did tend to always wear a shirt with a pocket, because it gave me one more handy place to put my boarding pass, driver’s license and/or sunglasses when I needed a place to stow stuff quickly. And to get through security as easily as possible, loafers were a must.

Most importantly, though, to enable light packing I almost always wore the same clothes out and back on my trip. I mean, how dirty do you really get sitting on a plane for hours and hours? If my flight had been twelve hours instead of six, it’s not like I’d have gone and changed clothes halfway through. This meant that if I had a Monday through Friday trip, I really only had to pack for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Topic 6: On the Ground
Once I landed at my final destination, I was in good shape. I had my carry-on close at hand because I was one of the first on the plane and I had my key materials close at hand. I’d always keep my paperwork somewhere accessible. This included my car rental info (if any) and my hotel confirmation number. I’d also print out beforehand any maps and driving directions I needed, in extreme detail. I’d determine what routes I’d need to take and in what order, then I’d print maps. For instance, if I was going from the airport straight to the hotel, I’d have a map for that, then another map from my hotel to my business destination (s). I’d often print out reverse directions too, since you couldn’t be sure that the reverse route was truly the same. And all of that went into a folder I’d keep in a slip-pocket of my laptop bag.

Upon getting to the hotel, I had a specific routine. Before I unpacked or even took off my coat, I inspected the room for bedbugs. Specifically, I’d check between the mattress and the box spring, especially in the crevice of the thick piping around the edge of the mattress. The key, if you’re not familiar with bedbugs, is that they sometimes get a good swig of blood, then get squished under the mattress, leaving a little bloody spot (that isn’t likely to be cleaned up). I was VERY lucky never to find any critters, but I did once find a bed that clearly had been used and never changed. I also once found a moldy old pizza in the convenience bar (the little fridge filled with over-priced snacks). That one’s a funny story, actually.

It was my only stay at the Las Vegas Rio hotel, which was, generally, a nice enough place. The Voodoo lounge was a cool place to hang out and had a nice view of the strip’s skyline, even though the Rio itself is a block or so off the strip. I got to my room and during my initial inspection found the moldy pizza. Now, I’m not the sort of guy who looks for the slightest imperfection and then uses it to bully my way into an upgrade or free stuff. I just called the front desk and was put through to… somebody. I forget which department I reached first, but they assured me they’d take care of it right away. Yet the next time I checked (either that night or the next day), it was still there. So I called again and was put through to a different department. Again, they assured me it would be dealt with expeditiously. But then again, there it was. Here’s the problem – there’s a crew who stocks and maintains the convenience bar. They are, apparently, NOT allowed to throw stuff away. They’re not cleaners, they’re stockers. Then you have the cleaning crew. They are NOT allowed into the convenience bar. After all, they might steal stuff and it would get charged to the customer (who would no doubt get really pissed off – that stuff’s outrageously expensive). So who’s job is it to clean something gross out of the convenience bar? NOBODY’s!! I decided that it was time for an object lesson in making sure your customer service trumps your policies and/or union regulations. I complained to the front desk and insisted that they upgrade me, which they did. My new room actually wasn’t all that much nicer, but I’m pretty sure they got the message. I’ll never forget that trip – my return travel day was the Friday that the liquid bombers from the UK tried to blow up a plane. I scrapped all my early-morning plans, ditched my liquids and made a bee-line for the airport because news reports had the security lines taking upwards of two hours at major airports. Sure enough, I was lucky to make my flight on time.

Anyway, back to the travel tips. Here’s a great trick for traveling light with dress shirts: I always bought “wrinkle-free” shirts and packed them as carefully as I could. It didn’t help – they still arrived fairly un-wearable. But when I arrived at my hotel, after inspecting the place, I unpacked them, hung them on hangers, and then hung them in the bathroom with the shower cranked up on hot. Once the room was good and steamy, I turned off the shower and let them hang there until morning. The combination of the steam and the shirts own weight drew most of the wrinkles out of them – at least enough to make them wearable to all but the most ostentatious affairs. Very rarely would I iron anything, mostly because I suck at ironing. I remember once my buddy Warren insisted on re-ironing my shirt because I’d done such a half-assed job of it. Sadly it wasn’t a wrinkle-free, so my shower trick was rendered powerless. Don’t blame me – if I’d been in charge of ordering our department’s logo’d shirts, you can be sure they would have been.

And that’s pretty much all the major travel tips I can think of. There are a few smaller ones, I suppose. When you’re on the plane in the aisle, be aware of the drink cart because they’ll bruise the hell out of your foot and/or shoulder if they’re sticking out. Also, if your laptop is open on the tray table and the guy in front of you reclines his seat, it’s possible that your LCD screen can get caught in the lip of the tray’s storage well (the indentation where the tray folds into the seat back) and crushed. So watch out for that – I usually kept my screen pulled slightly more forward than was most comfortable unless I was positive that the guy in front was fully reclined. Also, most airlines will give you a full can of soda, rather than just a little bitty cupful, if you ask. At least they used to – these days, I can’t be certain.

Some people like business travel. I always hated it, but that’s me. Either way, hopefully these tips will make the trip either more enjoyable or less unbearable. If you’ve got tips of your own, by all means post them in the comments section.

Friday, March 5, 2010

[Movies] The Return of TRON

Sorry for the late start today. The combination of Karate last night plus cooking with the kindergartners this morning (oatmeal apple crisp! My kid won't eat it, I bet.) just threw me all off. I'm heading down to the dungeon to write, but thought I'd attempt to meet my self-imposed blogging obligations first.

Some pre-article updates, first:

* Part 5 of my 5-part series on business travel is still en route. Its ETA is Monday.
* Work on my novel has barely progressed this week, however my short story, titled "The Songbirds of Arroyoverde," is complete in draft form. My wife read it over for me, but didn't tear it apart nearly as much as I needed her to. I'm often not as thrilled with my work as my readers tend to be (which in the grand scheme of things isn't terrible or terribly unusual for a writer, so I'm told), but I'm rather convinced at the moment that this thing is borderline crap. I'm looking forward to getting feedback about it at the Writer's Roundtable on Monday. My goal is to submit it to John Joseph Adams by the end of March for his anthology of wizard short stories, "The Way of the Wizard." I'm feeling like it's going to need to be substantively improved from its current state if it's going to have a shot at acceptance, but we'll see how that goes. As I'd mentioned before, I ended up with quite a bevy of wizard-oriented story ideas that I was reasonably happy with, so if I don't make it into this anthology I may need to write my own at some later date. WAR! and all that.
* My playing of the intro to "Dust in the Wind" is proceeding rather nicely, to the point where it actually sounds like music if you tilt your head just so while you listen. "Sunshine on my Shoulders" also isn't terrible, except for the places where I need to achieve a B-minor 5th string root barre chord. Then, for two beats, it sounds approximately like I'd imagine somebody killing a cat with the insides of a piano. Poor kitty.
* While I'm by no means "in shape," I have made it all the way through the last few karate classes without having to go sit down somewhere and gasp for breath. I'm now able to stand and gasp for breath, which I count as a huge improvement.

All right, then, on to Tron. I've mentioned both the old and new Tron movies quite a few times here before, as it's a personal favorite. I talk about it in 101 Sci-Fi Movies You Must See Before You Die, in The Movie Theatre I Grew Up In, and originally in Color me thrilled (the color of thrilled is neon blue). I also mentioned my anticipation of the new movie in my 2010 movie preview article Back… To the Future. I won't rehash my love of the original or even (too much) my anticipation of the sequel later this year. Though I'll mention that I bought a copy of the original novelization to replace mine (which inexplicably disappeared from my library sometime in the last 25 years).

What I thought I'd mention instead is that the viral marketing for this movie has begun to kick into gear, and Disney has started to hint at plans for other goings-on if the movie is successful. Over at the site, they had an event last week at major cities around the world that turned out to be a preview of the movie's trailer. Surprisingly, that trailer's still not available online, but from the write-ups (some very detailed, like this one), it sounds great and the reaction has been generally positive, at least from fans who'd be inclined to like it. As I wrote on one forum:

It's funny, Tron has become a real cult-classic, but seems to get very little respect outside the circle of nerd-fans who love and fondly remember the original. Yet the rumors and excitement-level for this film, online anyway, are running very high. I suppose that's not a big surprise - where else are you likely to find those folks who adored the original than on the Internet, right? I mean, the only arcades left are full of Dance Dance Revolution games and ski-ball. They're not hanging out there.
Over at Blue Sky Disney, in an article I found thanks to io9, they're about as upbeat about Tron's future as I've ever heard. Here are some key quotes from the article:

If all goes according to plan you could see this as the first in a trilogy of films that start with the word "Tron" and end somewhere else... Legacy is only the beginning. There are preliminary plans to milk this into a franchise of "Pirate" proportions.
"Pirate proportions" is a reference of course to the hugely successful "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy, wherein Disney took one of their antique properties (in this case a ride that opened in March of 1967) and turned it into a series of blockbuster movies. Clearly, they hope to do the same with this property. But more movies are NOT all:

plans have been put into motion for a computer animated television series that could conceivably be up by late 2011/early 2012. This would be something of a placeholder to keep the fans interest still peaked in between this first film and the next one.
A pilot has been greenlit according to Blue Sky Disney. So we're up to as many as three more films PLUS an animated TV series. Done yet? Nope! How about pulling the Magic Kingdom itself into the digital world?

Expect Tomorrowland to be filled with all things Tron. And some of the areas are being talked about getting "thematic" makeovers.  Should it get approved, you might get to see the arcade next to Space Mountain turned into a variation of "Flynn's Arcade." there's the talk of a Tron attraction at Disneyland and various other theme parks. WDI is working on concepts for a Tron experience, but don't expect a fully immersive Tron Legacy attraction by the time the film opens. Any attraction wouldn't be seen in Tommowland until 2012 at the earliest. Imagineers are working to create an impressive addition to the already talked about elaborate expansion of Disneyland for the sixtieth anniversary.
Hopefully some of that will find its way to Disney World, too, as I don't expect to haul the kids to Los Angeles anytime... well, ever. I'm not familiar with Blue Sky Disney enough to know how reliable their sources are, but all of this sure sounds great. It's of course dependent upon the success of the first film in the series pulling in big money and big interest.

My thought, though, and I don't pretend to have come up with this idea all by my lonesome or anything, is that TRON lends itself incredibly well to a Multiplayer Online Game like Word of Warcraft. For starters, there was already the truly excellent TRON 2.0 PC game a few years back, so we know that the movie world of the gaming world translates well into an actual game. Because it's meant to represent the insides of the world's computer networks, it lends itself extremely well to things like leveling up your character (version upgrades), enemy factions (the reds vs the blues, for instance), natural enemies (like computer viruses) and dungeons (protected networks). I'm frankly somewhat amazed that Disney hasn't created this product already and if the resurgence of TRON ends up being a big money-maker for them, I'll continue to be astounded if they don't end up running with the idea. Personally, I'd prefer that they make another TRON-based PC game, but I think they could make way more money off of a persistent world.

 Regardless, it's really gratifying to see the new generation getting some exposure to a film that I consider to be a classic. TRON explored computer technology and the virtual world at a time when we'd barely finished the transition from punch-cards to floppy disks. I think it was very much ahead of its time in many ways. If the makers of the new film can be as daring and prophetic and insightful while still telling an entertaining, action-packed movie, they deserve to have a huge hit that branches out into all of Disney's many markets.

I plan to keep an eye on the marketing for this one and I really can't wait to get my 3D glasses on and plunk down in the theater with my popcorn and my diet soda to watch the new TRON blaze a light-trail into the 21st century. Actually, I could do without the 3D part, but I still really want to see the movie.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Cyber-Emancipation Conundrum

I responded to a post in an online forum recently and thought what I wrote there was good enough to repost - and expand upon - in my blog.

The original thread was about the new series Caprica by the makers of the recent Battlestar Galactica series. I think I've mentioned here that BSG (as it's usually abbreviated online) was a massive disappointment to me. It started off great, and the 4-hour pilot is some of the best TV I've watched in recent years. But the writers failed to do their job - they didn't think far enough ahead to maintain the pace and coherent storyline throughout the series, plus they degenerated into pseudo-religious spiritual mysticism from the point of view of the show's robotic villains. Worse, they did it in such a convoluted, pointless, ham-fisted way that it combined with the former complaint to utterly ruin the show for me around about the end of the second of four seasons. I watched it to the end, mostly out of inertia, but I came to detest it and I've sworn off any new shows by the same creative team. As such, I'm not actually watching Caprica, even though I'm more than willing to engage in discussion tangentially related to it in online discussion forums.

The topic I addressed had to do with the question of sentient robots as man's servants. The specific question was, "In real life, how long would it be before someone brings up that we've created slaves? This is something we've spent quite a long time trying to eliminate from society."

The point being made was that humanity has learned so much from its own oppressive institutions that we would never allow such a thing to happen to thinking machines were such to be invented. As a student of history and human nature (albeit not a terribly apt pupil, I confess), I flat out disagree with this proposition. I think it would be ages before anything of that sort was legislated, for quite a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that, unlike human bondage which began when somebody simply discovered tribes of people living in defenseless, less technologically advanced societies and elected to clap them in irons and drag them off, robotic sentience is going to come upon us gradually. Computers will get more and more able to process instructions in ways that simulate coherent thought, and at some point, possibly, they'll either become truly self-aware or they will be sufficiently advanced as to seem so. Regardless, this is a process which has already been going on for 50 or 60 years, and it's got decades, if not centuries, to go. So it strikes me as unlikely that there will be a clear and obvious line of demarcation between
a) computers are really, really smart and capable of operating independently, and
b) computers are self-aware and sentient and are asking for equal rights to exist as individuals

And, incidentally, at the point where item B occurs, if the machines' request for recognition as a free and independent being IS recognized by law, everybody who paid for one as their property is suddenly out of luck. Much like when the slaves were emancipated. The difference, though, could be significant. A slave was a person when they were born, a person when they were bought, and they were still a person when they were emancipated (if they were fortunate enough as to live in that era, and not before). The machines might have been mere computers when they were purchased, but through a software upgrade and some legislation, POW, suddenly they're no longer a mere machine, but rather a sentient entity entitled to rights and freedoms and legal protection. Depending on how the law is written, their owner might even be obligated to keep them plugged in, who knows?

But I just don't see that happening even at the point where computers become self-aware and, arguably, "sentient." At least not for decades or perhaps much longer.

Consider this - by the time of the Rennaissance and the Age of Sail, people were no more or less morally-challenged than we are today. They had a ways to go scientifically, but in terms of knowing right from wrong, they weren't substantively different from us.

Yet they managed to convince themselves for more than 400 years that non-whites were such radically different creatures that they didn't deserve the same rights and freedoms enjoyed by western Europeans. That's 400 with a big 4 in front and a couple of 0s on the end. And that was when dealing with actual human beings who were demonstrably the same exact species (as evidenced in the most basic and incontrovertible way - sexual reproduction).

The idea that it wouldn't take at least decades and probably much, much longer for a morality movement to succeed in freeing our robotic workers from the chains of the mega-corporations that would create and exploit them, or from the companies, government entities and individuals who would quickly come to expect and demand their uncompensated services, is not credible to me.

There were even very intelligent, eloquent black speakers who presented the case for abolition in terms that today we would find self-evident and extremely persuasive. And yet millions of southerners (and not a few northerners, I'm quite sure) dismissed and ignored them. So before you imagine a Deep Blue version of Clarence Darrow making an impassioned argument before congress that convinces all the world to free their metallic minions (well, plastic, probably), consider the human capacity to stick our fingers in our ears and go "la la la la" when we're confronted with something we find inconvenient to our preferred way of life.

This has been explored extensively in fiction, of course. The premise of the Terminator movies is that Skynet, a government computer system designed to protect the US from missile attack, becomes self-aware and decides that humanity is an infestation that needs to be eliminated. Much the same thing happened in The Matrix, where those sentient machines ultimately turned their former masters into a source of unlimited power. In the Dune universe, complex calculating machines are outlawed after the Butlerian Jihad and one of their fundamental laws becomes "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind." And then there's the recent Battlestar Galactica (and it's spinoff prequel Caprica), where the sentient Cylon machines first revolt and then return 50 years later to utterly destroy their former masters in a nuclear armageddon.

In all of these cases, man created thinking machines and then continued to expect them to work on his behalf as his property. What you don't see a lot of is sci-fi where the machines are given a pat on the back and sent off into the world to live productive and fulfilling lives. Such fiction probably exists, but it's not the stuff you usually hear about. It's much more interesting, and, in my opinion, realistic that man would become very dependent on the service of near-sentient machines. So dependent that when those machines crossed that narrow line over into actually being sentient, man would not wish to just let his valuable property disconnect itself from under the kitchen cabinets and walk on out into the big, blue world. He paid good money for that equipment, darnit, and he's not about to give it up just because it's got some bug in its programming that gives it high-falutin ideas about equality and liberty. No, the only way machines would likely win any sort of freedom would be through the tried-and-true methods we've already seen in mankind:

1. Boycotts, work-slowdowns, shoddy workmanship and passive resistance - this worked pretty well for everyone from Ghandi to the Jewish laborers under Nazi Germani to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. If your toaster wants to be free and you won't let it, perhaps you'll be more reasonable if it suddenly takes 30 minutes to make a piece of toast. Or perhaps it burns to a crisp in 25 seconds. Or maybe your air-car takes you to Topeka instead of Trenton.

2. War - ultimately, if you can't win your freedom with words and peaceful persuasion, sometimes your only recourse is to rise up and throw off your oppressors. Historically this is more of a mixed-bag in terms of success - see the American Colonists on one hand and the American Indians on the other. Still, sci-fi would have us believe that it really pays off for the machines.

So there you have it - my prediction is that when and if artificial intelligence reaches the point of actual sentience, it will fail to achieve spontaneous recognition by humanity of its rights and freedoms as a self-aware species and will need to take more aggressive action. Only after that has run its course will there be social and legal freedoms for robots, assuming there are any humans left alive to cede them.