Friday, April 30, 2010

Microsoft Courier - Good News and Bad News

Both Gizmodo and Engadget are reporting that Microsoft this week confirmed the existence of the Courier device that I first wrote about back in September. Sadly, they were confirming it even as they killed the project.

The official Microsoft position is that this was just one of many, many prototype and proof-of-concept projects that they have going on at any given time and that most of them don't make it to become actual products. Of course, speculation is rampant that Microsoft decided they weren't up to the task of taking on the mighty iPad after it's considerable success at launch. It seems to me just as likely that they simply decided to focus their efforts in other areas. Hopefully they'll take the most innovative product features from the Courier and move them into other products.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

[Book Update] Chapter 6 - The Joy, The Rapture!

I've had a love/hate thing going on with Chapter 6 now for a while, as regular readers are well aware. It's a critical chapter, or, at least, the information in it is vital for the reader to really understand and appreciate key aspects of the world the story takes place in. It's a world much like our own, but with certain incredible differences that are the basis for the entire novel.

Originally, Chapter 6 was about an 8-10 page infodump. Let's call it around 14 pages double-spaced. It had no dialogue, very little action, and didn't even have a Point-of-View character as my other chapters all have. It was narration, taking the reader through big chunks of the past 50 years of the novel's timeline.

With that said, I never hated Chapter 6. I was never completely convinced that it worked, but neither did I feel that, as a whole, it failed. It needed some work, that's all.

I took it to my writer's group, and the overwhelming feedback was that it needed all the things it had (deliberately) lacked - characterization, dialogue, action. I don't religiously follow the feedback I get from the group, but since I knew I was struggling with Chapter 6, I took their critique under careful advisement. I set out to strip Chapter 6 down to the basics and rewrite it to incorporate those missing story elements.

The result was the birth of Chapter 6b, followed soon after by Chapter 6c. In Chapter 6b I attempted to use some storytelling techniques to deliver some of the information. Specifically, I created a classroom environment and shared a couple of student essays with the reader. It sort of worked, but with some significant issues: each individual essay conveyed generally too little of the information I needed to get across, plus they were tedious to read to the point where I immediately decided that I needed to cut one. This frustrated me, so I set Chapter 6b aside and moved on to Chapter 6c, which offered a new set of challenges and a fresh array of opportunities unspoiled by student essays that didn't perform up to my expectations.

I ended up liking 6c a lot by the time it was done. It contained around 80% of the key information from the original chapter 6, but I'd managed to wrap about half of it around two character-driven stories. There was still a sizeable section of narrative infodump, but even most of that at least was able to lean on the characters I'd just introduced, which I think served to make it more appealing. I also expanded some of the story's history, which served to add depth and clarity to certain aspects of the novel in ways that I think work very well.

Here's the kicker, though - Chapter 6c was almost 22 double-spaced pages long. By itself it was 50% longer than the original chapter. And I still wasn't done with Chapter 6b.

Well, now I am done with Chapter 6b. I kept one essay and will probably edit it some more to make it more interesting, and I didn't end up conveying a ton of the info from the original Chapter 6. BUT, I introduced a key antagonist and through him provided a great deal of information that's relevant to the rest of the story.

A second kicker arises, however - Chapter 6b is also almost 22 double-spaced pages long. Little old Chapter 6 has exploded from a mere 14 pages to a whopping 42+ pages in length. Oh, and I don't really know where to put Chapter 6b in the book. Chronologically it falls prior to anything that's yet happened, yet I don't think I want to start the book with it. I'm going to need to figure out where it goes, though, because it's done, I like it, and I plan to use it.

Let the revels commence! Chapter 6 is dead. Long live Chapter 6!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Corporate Culture

Is it even possible to build a good one and make it last?

Every culture I've worked at has suffered from the same exact problems, just to greater or lesser degrees:
  • Co-workers who make themselves feel better by screwing with you.
  • Co-workers who aren't really that good at their jobs, which makes your job harder because they're always in the way of your success.
  • Departments that are so focused on their own objectives/needs/issues that they can't really understand the "big picture" of the rest of the company. It just adds up as a mad scramble for resources, with everybody playing a game of "I've got mine, now piss off"
  • Executives who lack real business acumen and so end up getting in the way of the company's success. Often related to the item directly above.
  • Senior managers/employees with a sense of entitlement because they're "senior" and who expect everyone to bend over backward for their every need, regardless of whether it's legitimate or whether the time/money/energy would be more effectively spent elsewhere.
  • Junior employees who don't feel any investment in the company as a whole, and so do little or nothing outside the narrow scope of their day-to-day activities to help improve the larger organization.
  • An often massive disparity, at least in some departments, between the volume of work that needs to be done and the staff available to do it, resulting in long-term overtime, burnout, inefficiency and low job satisfaction (because you can see that no matter how hard you work, you can't possibly get even all of the really important stuff done, much less the moderately important stuff or the "get ahead" stuff that would make you more efficient in the future).

And that's just a short list. I could go on. What I don't know is, assuming I were to run a company of my own (which I have no plans nor intention of doing anytime soon), how do you prevent the kinds of problems listed above? They seem so prevalent that I have to wonder if they're just human nature. Yet they're so debilitating to any company's success that it seems like defeating them would produce huge returns for the business.

I may have to research this and write a book about it at some point

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

My Grampa's Garden

Despite his having died when I was nine, I remember my dad's father fondly and well. He was a loving, affectionate grampa, always glad to hear what his grandkids were up to and he clearly enjoyed our company. My grandfather had a very traditional "Upstate New York Italian" house. I put that part in quotes because I don't know for sure that his home was anything like you'd find back in the little town outside Naples where his parents hailed from. I just know that his setup was quite common in places like the village where I grew up. For starters, you had to have a finished basement, complete with a fridge, stove, dining area, etc. This was where people hung out, for some reason I don't know. I think the upstairs was meant to be "formal," but when you had people over they went down in the basement. That practice wasn't too common at my grandparents' house by the time I was around, but I believe it was standard when my dad and uncle were kids. My parents' first house had a similar setup and they used it for any and all birthday parties and other events of that sort. Anyway, outside their house, you had a nice patio surrounded by a vegetable garden.

My grandfather took his garden very seriously. He grew tomatoes like crazy, plus zucchini, squash... hmm, I'm struggling to remember what else - there was a lot. I remember parsley, and I think I recall string beans (though that might have been my dad's garden). Eggplant, maybe? Hmm. Anyway, he grew so much stuff, that he had a root cellar dug off his basement to store it in. Then he built a screened-in porch over the root cellar. Some years after he died, the root cellar started to collapse and took the porch with it. I wasn't involved with the repairs, but to my recollection they were extensive and involved filling in the root cellar.

Anyway, it was a lovely garden, I remember that. He had these large, rectangular pieces of slatestone that made a U-shaped path through the garden. These were handy because when my dad got the roto-tiller and turned over the soil every year (yeah, just because it was grampa's garden doesn't mean he did that stuff himself - that's what he had sons for!), the stones could be moved out of the way. They were nice colors, too - grays, purples, rose-reds. When the garden was in full-bloom, you could walk that earthy path and be surrounded by lush  leaves and stems, the mottled green zucchinis and bright red tomatoes lounging indolent in the sun.

Grampa had a pear tree, too. It grew up where the garden began, beside the broad concrete patio. That was, in turn, behind the detached two-car garage with its heavy wooden staircase that raised and lowered on a pulley. The pear tree had a mate in the next yard - Mr. Bellucci's place. Mr. Bellucci had a garden, too. It wasn't laid out as nicely as my grampa's, but it was every bit as big. Their pear trees cross-pollinated each other. My grampa's, the smaller tree, survived him for several years, but nobody tended to it the way he had. Eventually it grew gangly and diseased and then it died. Mr. Bellucci's tree stopped producing fruit after that - it could live without its mate, but it couldn't make the luscious, juicy pale yellow pears anymore. I remember thinking that was sad. I still rather do, I suppose.

I remember that garden, its patio, its brick oven (that I only ever saw used for roasting marshmallows) and its fruit trees. I remember it fondly, as a place of lush tranquility in the summer. Now I've got my own yard, my own garden. I'm thinking about getting some fruit trees, but only if I can find dwarf ones that are small enough that I can care for them properly. I wouldn't say I really get the same sense of peace in my garden that I had in my grandfather's. Perhaps that's because I was a little kid and it was easy to find peace wherever I was - I was always safe, cared for and loved, with no long-term worries or cares. Or, perhaps, grampa's garden was just a special place whatever age you were. I'd be okay with that. Recreating that magic thirty years later gives me something to strive for.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Cultural Melting-Pot

My great-grandfather came to America from Italy in the early 1900s. My Dad tracked down all of the documentation, though I'm not sure how much we know of ancestors farther back than that. Which, in the grand scheme of things, isn't all that far. One thing I do know about my great-grandparents, however, is that they believed whole-heartedly in a concept I remember learning in school: the Melting-Pot Theory of cultural assimilation. The idea of the Melting Pot was, from Wikipedia (since I had to hand in my old textbooks at the end of the school year):

a metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous, the different elements "melting together" into a harmonious whole with a common culture. It is particularly used to describe the assimilation of immigrants to the United States; the melting-together metaphor was in use by the 1780s.
This notion was never discussed with me by any of my relatives. They never said to me, "We're all in favor of the melting pot theory." Rather, I can tell they bought into it because I have no cultural heritage to speak of. My parents would tell me about family traditions they remembered from when they were younger, but being told isn't the same as experiencing them. I know, for instance, that Italian families often have enormous feasts around certain major holidays. Christmas Eve or Christmas, I forget which, was definitely a big one. There were certain standard dishes to be served at each course. I've never been to one of these feasts, I've just heard my dad talk about it. I think probably his grandmother was the last one in our line to host one. His own mom was neither Italian nor an especially capable cook, so that's not too surprising. That's got a lot to do with it, I'm sure - my paternal grandmother wasn't Italian and I don't believe my maternal grandmother was, either. But neither did they have cultural traditions that they passed down to their children. We basically just had the same traditions as all the other generic white Catholics in Upstate New York.

It's hard to miss what you never had, but I kind of do. I wish I spoke Italian. Or, hell, any foreign language. I'm pretty adept at English, so clearly learning a language wasn't always beyond my capacity. I may have had a limited window of opportunity, though - I took something like five years of French in High School and college and can't speak a word of it. I probably could have picked up Italian, though, if it had happened organically. It's not just the language, though. It's the connection to the past that would be nice. I don't feel particularly Italian, or any other ethnic group, because I don't really have any of the cultural baggage that would go with them. Practically the only indication of my ancestry is my greasy dark hair and the funny way I pronounce mozzarella (it came out moots-are-ell for years).

It's nobody's fault. It's just that some families clung tightly to their heritage and others were more apt to try to blend in. It's pretty clear that my family, or at least my grandfathers' branches of them, were inclined to "just be regular Americans" - a decision that likely either led to or resulted from their marriages to women who were not predominantly Italian. Likewise, my grandmothers evidently didn't feel overwhelmed by the need to hang on to the traditions of their European backgrounds. The result - I'm culturally a full-blooded American, with no real sense connection to anywhere outside this country. That's okay - being an American is fine and dandy, and we have a rich, vibrant culture all our own. My roots may not run deep, but they're intertwined with millions of other families now - all part of the great melting-pot.

Friday, April 23, 2010

[Book Update] Hearing Voices

I recently finished a cut of Chapter 6b. It wasn't right. It was done, but it wasn't finished. I read through it and instantly saw what I'd done (again) - too much tell, not enough show. It was another chapter that was mostly narration and not enough action or dialogue. Ugh.

I had a problem, though - as much as I'd love to introduce this new character (who I had pulled forward from Chapter 13 and quickly discovered was a more important character than I'd initially realized. A MUCH more important character, actually) though dialogue, I couldn't see any way to do it. There was simply NOBODY in the book that this guy would have any interest in talking to, certainly not with any degree of honesty. He's a villain and he despises pretty much every character I've introduced so far, or would be likely to introduce into the setting where the story is currently taking place.

Luckily, I had an idea that worked extremely well - I gave him a companion. A very special companion who is both useful as a character in his own right and absolutely perfect as a sounding board for this unique individual. Problem solved!

Until it was time to sit down and tear up the chapter, turning narrative text into natural-sounding dialogue that conveyed the same general information, perhaps in different words or different order. I wrote a single line of dialogue, then found myself stumped. I couldn't hear the voice of this new character. I couldn't come up with anything interesting for him to say, or a way for him to say it.

It may be that I was having some trouble cutting into the words I'd already written - like a surgeon who knows his patient is sick, but hesitates to slice through his smooth, healthy-looking skin to get to the problem beneath. Editing's certainly not my favorite thing to do, especially when it means taking text that I feel is well-written and changing it, possibly (if I don't edit it perfectly) losing some of whatever it was that made it work before. It's certainly not beyond me to edit something that's good and turn it into something that sucks.

That was a week ago. I had to give up on that chapter for the afternoon - I just couldn't get it. I went on to my karate test and left it sitting, abandoned and unedited.

The next day... it was still sitting, abandoned and unedited. But as I wrestled a pile of freshly-washed karate uniforms out of the washer and hung them to dry, I started to hear voices. They were the voices of my villain and his new friend. And they spoke and spoke and spoke. So much so that I was afraid I might forget it all before I was done. I quickly hung everything up and raced off to my computer, typing up the dialogue with lots of "blah blah" references to the text I needed to intersperse between the chunks of conversation. Woo! I was back on track at last, thanks to the voices. Call it crazy if you like, but I think this time, hearing voices worked to my advantage.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Beyond National TV-Turnoff Week

I like the amount of support that my kids' school provides for National TV-Turnoff Week. They promote the concept verbally with the kids, but they also offer a range of supportive activities. For instance, the kids are given reading logs a couple weeks ahead of time to track their reading on. If they get up to seven hours over about an 18-day time period, they each get a free ticket to Darien Lake (worth around $20). Next, during National TV-Turnoff Week itself, they get a packet that includes five raffle tickets. Each day, their parents would sign a ticket if the child didn't watch TV the day before. The tickets are brought to school and there's a daily drawing for prizes ranging from gift cards to bookstores to the grand prize - a "swap day" with the school principal. That day, the winning student gets to sit in the principal's office and do all the things she would normally do, while the principal goes to the student's classroom and does his or her lessons for the day.

The teachers also call random students during "prime-time" each night, and if the TV is off when they call, the child gets a coupon for a free snack at lunch. Finally, the school's library sponsors a game night during the week, with everything from Legos to jump-ropes to board games and puzzles. All of this adds up to a lot of incentive for the kids to do something besides watch TV for a week. I think it's a great program.

So great, in fact, that I upped the ante at our house. First, I included non-academic use of the computer as well as video games like the Wii. Second, I made participation in the week mandatory. This was for a couple of reasons. First, I felt that the kid(s) most likely to pass on the whole affair (my boys - in particular my older son) were the ones who needed it the most. Second, it seemed that if some of my kids were participating and others weren't, it put a big burden on the participants to leave the room whenever the non-participants decided to crank on the TV. Besides all that, I'm Dad - I get to make the rules.

It was glorious. My kids were playing board games, reading, playing outside, and generally doing all sorts of healthy activities that challenged mind and body rather than just injecting sounds and images straight into the brain and generally turning the whole mass of gray matter to mush. Don't get me wrong, I like TV and I think it's a wonderful form of entertainment. I'm a big fan of computers and the Internet as well. But when I was a kid, I balanced these activities with LOTS of reading and outdoor play. I don't see my kids striking that same balance, one that I believe is healthy, without some help from me. My older son, especially, would alternate between plopping in front of the TV and mindlessly playing computer games all day if I let him.

Best of all, the kids didn't really seem to mind the lack of TV and computer, at least based on the extremely low volume of complaints that I heard. Now, part of this is that I've got really good kids who know that rules, especially Dad's rules, are not subject to debate. But part of it is that all kids like to play and don't really need programmed entertainment beamed at them to have fun. So I considered National TV-Turnoff Week 2010 to be a huge success.

So huge, in fact, that I decided to make it a year-round event. For the last several weeks, my kids have been on a "reduced multimedia" schedule. They're allowed 30 minutes of TV/Computer/Wii on weekdays, and 60 minutes on weekends and holidays. This has proven to be PLENTY. After all, they only have a couple of hours before school in the morning, most of which is taken up with dressing, eating, and instrument practice. Likewise, they only have about three hours in the afternoon, of which anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 hours are taken up with homework, dinner, and activities like karate. Add in that half-hour of multimedia time, and they've only got a couple of hours to kill. I'd much prefer them to kill that time with activities that engage mind and body.

This may not end up being a permanent state of affairs. We'll see. I definitely don't want to drive my kids to other friends' houses all the time because those friends get to do fun stuff that's not allowed here, and I'm very sensitive to that. In fact, I'd like our house to be the place that friends want to come, so that as much as possible I know where my kids are and that they're safe. Unless and until that becomes a factor, however, I think my kids will get a lot more benefit out of alternative activities than they will as couch potatoes in front of the boob tube. Right now? They're out in the driveway drawing with chalk. The TV is off.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cleaning up Wet Glass

Cleaning up broken glass can be a serious hassle. Shards fly everywhere and you want to be sure you get them ALL if you're ever inclined to walk around barefoot. What's worse is that all too often, the broken glassware is wet because it had a drink in it at the time. This makes both sweeping and vacuuming tough. The wet shards stick to the floor or counter rather than being easily wrangled by a broom, while a general-purpose household vacuum isn't meant to be used around liquids (and should never be due to risk of electrocution). Luckily, there's a tool that's perfect for these situations - the wet/dry shop-vac!

My parents never owned a shop-vac, and honestly I'm mystified how they got along without one. There are a myriad great uses for shop-vacs, from sucking out the winter dirt from the garage to cleaning up spills, but they really shine when it comes to broken glass.

I've had glass break in two especially challenging places and the shop-vac was a lifesaver both times. The first was when a baby-food jar fell into the garbage disposal. It was short enough that the whole thing fit down there and we couldn't see it, so the next time we turned the device on, it turned that jar into razor-sharp glass gravel. I certainly didn't want to reach down in there to pull out all of that splintered glass (most likely by getting them embedded in my fingers), but since there was plenty of water involved my vacuum was totally unsuitable. Enter the shop-vac and with literally the flick of a switch, my entire problem was sucked away. I simply jammed the end of the hose down into the disposal and every little shard vanished into the tank.

A similar situation occurred when a glass shattered (for no obvious reason) inside the dishwasher. When we opened it up, there was a pile of broken glass on the top rack and little broken pieces that had fallen onto crockery in the bottom rack as well as into the base of the dishwasher itself. Once again, the shop-vac came to the rescue. It's a wet/dry vac, so again the water remaining in the machine was no challenge. I picked out the biggest pieces, sucked up the rest, and then ran a quick wash cycle to be sure I got everything. What could have been an hour-long project was taken care of in moments.

In my experience, wet/dry shop-vacs are relatively inexpensive, last a long time, and can handle jobs that no other single tool is as adept at. I highly recommend that every household have one.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Future is in My Wii

Anybody who knows me or reads this blog knows that I'm a movie fan. I love movies. I have a pretty decent collection of DVDs and even some videocassettes that I haven't gotten around to upgrading. So you might think that I'm the kind of guy who'd jump onto the Blu-Ray bandwagon with both feet.


You see, I think Blu-Ray is a transition technology. It's an improvement to DVDs, but it's not the sort of improvement we saw between videocassettes and DVDs. And it's a level of improvement that would require that I upgrade some of my core equipment. My TV isn't high-def, for instance, so I'd need to pull out my antique 55" rear-projection TV and put in something with high-definition capabilities.

But this week, it turned out that the key to the future is actually not part of my home theater system. It's my Wii. You see, this week, Netflix subscribers who are also Wii owners were able to receive a free Wii disk that allowed them to access all of the "Play On Demand" movies available through Netflix.

I've had access to these movies for a couple of years already, but always over my PC. And I don't like watching movies on my PC, so I never took advantage of it. Granted, my computer is 5' away from my TV, but I was never sufficiently motivated to hook them up, so the potential went unrealized.

But now it's here, and it begins to validate a prediction that I've been making for a while. I don't think Blu-Ray is the technology of the future. I think physical DVDs and their equivalents are on their way out. In the future, I expect that we'll simply access movies on demand from huge libraries. Wait, that's not the future - that's happening now! It's happening through Netflix and through cable providers and over the Internet. It just needs to be refined.

The barriers right now are business and bandwidth. Bandwidth-wise, the broadband providers hate movies because they pump huge amounts of data through their infrastructure. Business-wise, the studios are focused on "DVD-sales" as a measure of a movie's post-box-office success. They're going to need to change their business model and find a way to make enough money off movie download services to be satisfied.

But both of those things are going to happen. Why? Because they MUST. People are going to demand it. This is an unusual case where the consumer end of the pipeline is in place, the demand is poised, but the corporate end needs to catch up. In the end, people just want their entertainment. They want it at the time and place of their choosing, they want it convenient to access and they don't want to pay big money for a movie they're only going to watch once.They can already choose from 100,000 Netflix discs if they don't mind waiting until the next day to get their movie. This is just pushing that envelope a bit, allowing instantaneous access without the delay (and cost) of handling and shipping physical media (and having it be scratched to the point of being unwatchable right at a key scene. What the hell do people do with their Netflix discs, anyway? I mean, seriously - you take the disk out of the envelope, put it in the DVD-player, watch it, and put it back. Where do all of these damn scratches come from?? Ahem, I digress.).

So yeah, the Wii is finally catching up to what the PC and the Playstation (and probably the XBox) have been able to do for a while, but the toothpaste is out of the tube and there's no putting it back. Watch events unfold and mark my words - all of those shiny silver DVDs and Blu-Ray discs will be just so many coasters within another five years at the most.

Monday, April 19, 2010

It Didn't Come True

Back in the mid-1990s, I was teaching English at Cicero-North Syracuse High School. I needed to put together lessons based on the state and district curriculum, selecting works of literature from the books available. I spent a lot of time in the storeroom looking through the stacks and choosing what I wanted to teach. One of the novels that I found deeply buried was George Orwell's 1984. I decided that I'd ask about it at the next faculty meeting, just to verify that it was acceptable for my 11th-grade Regents class. So I did.

Now, one of my fellow faculty members was a bit, shall we say, spacey. I'm pretty sure she's the one who taught all of my students to start every single blasted essay with the words, "In literature as in life..." I ended up having to tell them that beginning an essay in that rote fashion would earn an automatic loss of significant points.

Anyway, when I asked why nobody taught 1984 anymore, she dove right in. "Well, we all used to teach it, but then 1984 came and went and it didn't happen so we stopped." I'm not sure, but I think my chin made a loud slap when it hit the table. One of the other teachers rolled her eyes and informed me that the novel had been used as part of a Sci-fi elective course that stopped being offered when the teacher who taught it retired, but I know that first teacher wasn't the only person who probably believes that 1984 was some sort of prediction of the future that failed to come true.

But inasmuch as it didn't come true, we have to wonder if that isn't because the book shone a light on the sort of behaviour that leads to regimes like Orwell described in the book. And inasmuch as "eternal vigilance is the price of freedom" I think it's vital that this book continue being read, or we may be less likely to spot the dangerous trends toward tyranny and stop them before they can erupt into full-blow totalitarianism. Likewise, the references made by those who HAVE read it will be lost on those who haven't.

For instance, a recent article on the blog Popehat, referred to the curious case of British scientist and journalist Simon Singh, who raised some serious questions about claims of the British Chiropractic Association that they could cure a variety of childhood maladies. For which he was promptly sued under Britain's whinge-friendly libel laws. (I just recently learned that whinge is a real word and I like to use it since I missed so many previous opportunities.) When Singh was ultimately cleared by the British courts, they issued the following statement (in part):

Asking judges to rule on matters of scientific controversy would be to “invite the court to become an Orwellian ministry of truth”, the judgment said.
 Well that's all well and good, except that it makes almost no sense to anyone who hasn't read 1984. I mean, a Ministry of Truth sounds pretty nifty taken out of context.

So no, we didn't quite end up living in a world crushed under the weight of structured, guaranteed military conflict designed to keep totalitarian governments in power. But we struggle against the same infringements on liberty, individual rights, and governments overstepping their role on a regular basis. We need to keep reading books like 1984 to ensure that we recognize when a "good idea" like "let's make it so you can't say bad, untrue things about people" turns into a ridiculous set of libel laws in otherwise freedom-loving places like Great Britain. Hey, look: has the book for ten bucks. Your local or school library no doubt has copies as well. Why not read it again? Or just read it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

We Did It!

I've mentioned a couple of times recently that my family and I had joined a karate dojo and were preparing for our first belt test. It was last night and we are all now freshly-minted yellow belts!

The test was brutal, at least in comparison to our regular classes. It was a mix of all adults who were testing for belt promotion, so it included candidates from white through brown belts, many of whom are surely used to a more intense workout than I am. Even my wife was dripping with sweat, so I know it wasn't (just) me being a wimp. I made it all the way to the end, however, only having to stop for a drink once. Then I staggered out to my car and home, not even stopping for Chinese food as I'd planned.

Feels good to have made it, though. The kids did a great job and were extremely well-behaved for the hour they had to sit through the adult test.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Muscle Memory

Learning the martial arts is a bit like learning to walk. Nobody's an expert after 18-24 months. You're just a toddler. Even if sometimes you really get moving, you're probably jerky and have trouble changing directions quickly. You've got to figure about 5 years to really master the basics. It simply takes that long to build the muscle memory in all of the different large and small muscles used to control your hips, knees, ankles, feet and toes, as well as to tie in the balance you get from your inner-ear and to integrate your whole upper-body which plays a vital role in moving smoothly, gracefully and deftly. That's why you don't see a lot of really capable 5 or 6-year-old gymnasts. After mastering the basics, it takes years more to develop the precise control needed to execute the most complex techniques. You have to build knowledge of how to do them, muscle control to be able to do them, and muscle strength to execute them accurately and decisively.

So I was very much a novice after studying Aikido for about a year. I had progressed far enough to take one test, for which I had to demonstrate basic execution of 4-6 techniques (I remember Ikyo, Nikyo and Iriminage, but I'm sure there was at least one more and possibly as many as three more. I knew quite a few others that I wasn't being tested on, so it's hard to recall which were required). I had to master side and rear breakfalls as well as front rolls, rear rolls, and the running shoulder roll known as a "stretch roll" (one of my favorites). I did all of that and (barely) got my 5th Kyu, but I was still a toddler. A complete novice.

Interestingly, there's very little of Aikido that you could really use in a self-defense situation until you're advanced well beyond black belt. Most of the early techniques are to teach concepts more than actual practical moves. In fact, moving has a lot to do with it. You need to retrain your muscles not to tense up, but to flow with your opponent. When somebody shoves you, it's natural to stop yourself and shove back. In Aikido, when somebody shoves you, you actually help them along by encouraging them to overbalance and, ultimately, go flying through the air. It's not natural though. It's not instinctive. So you need to re-learn and re-train and break those habits and instincts even as you try to teach your hands and body to execute the various techniques on your opponent.

Well, I must have had some pretty good teachers (thanks, Sensei Mehter!). Because all these years later, I find that I still move the way I was beginning to be taught in Aikido. For instance, when the kids decide they want to play-fight, I'm far more inclined to whirl away from their attacks and spin them off harmlessly than I am to block their blows and counter-strike. Granted, these are my kids and I don't want to hurt them to begin with, but that doesn't change the fact that when one of their little fists comes flying toward my crotch and I've got a split second to avoid knee-buckling pain, my Aikido training simply kicks in without me thinking about it.

Tuesday night at the dojo was another good example. We were doing an exercise where each student would run to an instructor who was holding targets for us to punch and kick. Then we'd run to the next one. At some of the stations, the instructor would advance on you with the targets and you were supposed to back away while throwing punches. I was exhausted. I could barely catch my breath. After making the rounds several times, I stumbled while backing up and tripped, falling over backwards. Without thinking about it, I simply did a back roll and came up on my feet. It was nothing at all to me, I was too tired to be impressed with myself even if I'd thought I did anything impressive. But my wife tells me that the instructors were quite taken with my little maneuver. It was no big deal - it was just my Aikido training kicking in like it's supposed to.

I think that's pretty cool and disappointing, all at the same time. It's cool that I was able to embrace the style and absorb the core movements so thoroughly. It's disappointing that I couldn't afford the time and the expense to stick with the style. If I was able to pick it up to that degree in that short a time, it's easy to imagine that I might have gotten really good at it if I'd stuck with it.

Maybe some day I'll go back. In the meantime, tonight is our first belt test at the new dojo - our whole family tests for our yellow belts. And I know, if I should fall over backwards, it's ok. I'll end up right back on my feet.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Kick Ass Just Might

There's a new movie coming out pretty soon titled Kick-Ass. The premise, to my understanding, is that a teen-ager decides that there ought to be actual superheroes. Which is pretty common - I think a lot of teenagers (boys, anyway. I have no experience being a teen-aged girl. They were strange and frightening creatures to me and still are in many ways) dream of going out and fighting crime and winning the adulation of a grateful nation. The difference is that in this movie the kid goes an does it. He becomes Kick-ass, a masked vigilante fighting crime. This in turn inspires others to do the same. In particular, it inspires Nicholas Cage's character to become the Batman-esque Big Daddy, along with his 12-year-old daughter as the hyper-violent Hit Girl. The whole thing appears to be an action-comedy with over-the-top violence (mostly from Big Daddy and Hit Girl, at least from what they've shown in the many many (many) trailers) and the comic antics of the relatively harmless teen vigilante Kick-Ass as he tries to be a hero, beat some bad guys, get a date with a girl (who thinks he's gay) and generally deal with all the crap that most teens would prefer to escape by putting on a costume and going out to fight crime.

So, to recap, we've got:
Hapless teen vigilante - check
A 12-year-old girl cussing like a sailor and killing bad guys - check
Nicholas Cage, destroyer of films - check

Actually, I'm not sure that Cage destroys films. I don't even think he's a bad actor - I like him as an actor. It's just that so many of his films lately have sucked that you kind of wonder after a while if it mustn't somehow be his fault. But anyway, those elements there, for me, add up to a craptacular movie that I had had no interest in seeing.

Now, I've said before that I'm as like to be swayed by strong marketing as the next guy. I can be fooled. They almost got me with Repo Men, which I was very very excited to see until other people actually started seeing it and came back to report that it was, "Ehh, okay I guess." It had a hell of a marketing campaign though!

And so does Kick-ass. One potentially key difference is that I always wanted to see Repo Men because it always looked cool. Kick-ass actually turned me off at first, but has since grown on me as I've seen more about it. The comedy aspects (some of which do seem come from the awkwardly mature Hit Girl character - a full-on assassin in a kid's purple-haired body) are starting to appeal to me and the fight scenes look terrific (if deliberately over-the-top). And, after all, I was one of those teen boys who'd have loved to go out and fight crime. Until the first time I got a really big welt, at which point I'd have been out of there.

There's another potentially key difference, though. The site takes an amalgamation of movie reviews by critics and assigns a score to each review, then tallies them all up to give a movie a score that ranges from rotten to fresh. It's not a perfect barometer of a movie's quality or success, but it's one indicator you can use to judge whether a film is worth your time or not. Repo Men currently has a score of 23%, which is thoroughly Rotten. To my recollection, the score has been in that vicinity since before the movie was released and hasn't changed much. Kick-Ass, on the other hand, currently sits above 75%, with a rating of "Fresh." That's actually a pretty impressive score on that site, in my experience. Even a lot of movies I've really liked didn't get scores that high.For reference, Daybreakers, which I did not like but which it seems most other people did like, got a 67%. Percy Jackson, which I liked but lots of fans of the novels did not, got a 50%. So take it for whatever you think it's worth, but a 77% based on pre-release screenings is not bad. And the trailers aren't bad. And the posters and other marketing glitz aren't bad. All of which is making me think that I might have to see this movie at some point.

Meanwhile, I'm almost literally drooling over Iron Man 2. I don't think I've ever so fervently hoped that a movie will live up to its hype as I do with this film. It's due out in less than a month and I just can't wait to go see it. So there you go - two upcoming movies that I'm excited about. Anything you're dying to see? Leave a comment!

Update: if you're interested in this sort of thing, Roger Ebert absolutely hated it. I suspect he's somewhat missing the point that this movie has violence for violence's sake, but not having seen it it's hard to be sure. Anyway, there you go.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

[Book Update] Ah, Chapter 6, My Old Friend

We meet again

It's hard to believe that two full weeks ago I wrote:

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.

 Hard to believe, because in the intervening two weeks, I have not yet completed the work described in Change #1 and have yet to begin the work in Change #2. I know, sucks, right?

And if that's not exciting enough, I've got essentially one full day tomorrow followed by what will work out to half-days on Thursday and Friday due to morning meetings that I have at my kids school. Each is only around an hour long, but they'll manage to distract me for most of the morning anyway. Oh yeah, then next week, the kids are off from school. Ugh.

It's not as if I haven't made progress. I don't want to imply that. It's just that what I describe above, a rewrite of chapter 6 wherein I pull a character up from a later chapter and use him to help introduce backstory, that became Chapter 6b. Chapter 6b is around 7 pages long at the moment (single-spaced, which is how I prefer to work) and is probably 80% done, but manages to convey only around 15% of the backstory of the original chapter 6.

No, chapter 6b, while a good chapter, I think, and one that's helping to develop a character that I'm increasingly deciding to give a prominent role in the novel, did a poor job of conveying backstory. Here I'll digress for a moment:

One tool for delivering backstory can be through the eyes of students learning about the novel's history or relating that history as part of a class project. I decided that this technique might work in this chapter and decided to write up a couple of 500-word student essays, each addressing a different aspect of the novel's troubled past. They were small parts of the chapter, but they actually did more to deliver backstory than most of the rest of the chapter combined. And then I realized that two was too much. I had to cut one, or roughly half of the information I was barely managing to convey. It was just unreasonable to ask my readers to slog through two essays deliberately written at approximately the 7th-grade level. And bumping up the maturity level would have basically meant just taking my old info-dump and putting it in the form of an essay without making it any more interesting or engaging, which didn't make sense, either.

But, again, I think chapter 6b is a good chapter. I like the character development of a guy - a bad guy - with a lot of "cool" potential. And the relatively small amount of backstory the chapter conveys is reasonably smooth and entertaining. More, it allows me to take a fairly small scene from the original chapter 6 - a description of a relatively minor historical event that revealed to much of mankind that "things had changed" - and expand on it by getting more detailed and by letting the character comment on it from his own recollection and opinions. So it works as a chapter, just not as a delivery vehicle for key information that I REALLY need to convey in order for my novel's world to make sense. (Note, as an aside, that I don't absolutely have to convey this info in Chapter 6, but it's pretty important that I get most of it out pretty close to that point in the novel. If I wait too long, I really risk confusing the reader about what the hell's going on in the story's world)

Ok, that's it for the Chapter 6b digression. It's a good chapter, but it's not much of an info-dump. So my problem with Chapter 6 hasn't really been solved, I've just added yet another chapter into the mix while still being faced with the need to get 85% of the original chapter 6's key information revealed in a readable, entertaining way. Enter Chapter 6c. Yes, you read that correctly - yet ANOTHER chapter attempting to execute chapter 6's infodump, but in a more readable, enjoyable way. It gets better.

Chapter 6c is effectively done. In a 2nd draft, anyway. I've handed copies out to a few of my writer friends from the roundtable and asked them to critique it for me. Yup, it's done. And it's more than double the length of the original, or of pretty much any other chapter in the novel. Approximately 75% of the original chapter 6s information remains in more-or-less the same format that it was in to begin with. I didn't re-write Chapter 6 so much as I wrapped it in friendlier material. Like a hot dog full of pig snouts and hooves wrapped in delicious cornbread. Yes, I turned Chapter 6 into a corn dog.

Here's the thing - I think that may be exactly what Chapter 6 needed. There's certain vital information that I need to convey. And doing it through dialogue or through student essays or through nearly any other format may make it more readable (or not), but it definitely makes it LONGER. Now it may be that on a further review of the surrounding chapters, I may be able to move some of the more textbook-like chunks organically out of 6c and into one of its neighbors, but probably not a lot. I mean, 75% of the original material from Chapter 6 is still there, so even if I manage to move a third of that, it still leaves a lot behind. But I don't believe that having some matter-of-fact narrative reveal is inherently bad. Lots of good books do it. Some do it better than others, but sometimes the narrator just needs to take the reader aside and say, "Look, if this story's going to make sense, you need to understand such and so. Got it? Good, then let's get back to the story."

I have to admit, I'm still not completely convinced that the original Chapter 6 needed to be re-written. It may end up that at some point down the line, I may end up showing it to an editor and saying "We can go back to this version if you think it works better." Probably not, but it's possible. Still, I'm happy with where Chapter 6c ended up. I took the story back in time to the point where things really fell apart for my story's post-apocalyptic world and I showed some of the collapse through the eyes of two characters. One, as simple farmer, the other a politician responsible for the lives of millions. You get to feel, I hope, some of their anguish at trying to deal with what they see happening all around them.

All of which brings us back around to the last two weeks. Because that's how I've spent them - farting around with Chapter 6, to a point where it's been broken into two chapters of which one is nearly complete and one is complete but swollen beyond all expectation. And that new Chapter 1 I'd mentioned? It's not started. Oh, and Chapter 14, which needs some heavy editing? Still the same. And Chapter 15, which needs to be re-written from a different Point of View? Unchanged. And Chapter 16, the conclusion of the book's first major battle, and a chapter that I'd really been looking forward to writing? Unwritten.


Two steps forward, one step back. Or maybe it's two steps back, one step forward. Either way, I'm still facing the same way and aiming at the same target, it's just a question of how much progress it feels like I've made toward getting there. At the moment, I'm afraid, it does and does not feel like I've made much. Likelihood of finishing this novel before the kids finish school for the summer? Let's just say that I'd be better off playing the lottery than counting on that to happen.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Couple days off

There won't be any Virtual Vellum articles Monday or Tuesday this week. I'm exhausted from working in my garden this weekend (today in particular just wore me out. Mostly, I think, because it was the second day in a row.) and just don't have the energy to get enthused about writing anything tonight. I'm headed for bed pretty soon. Monday I'll be working on my novel, particularly getting a chapter ready to bring to the Writer's Roundtable Monday night, which always makes it tough to get an article ready for Tuesday. I'll plan to be back on Wednesday morning.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Busy Day Today?

I just thought it was kind of funny that as of 2:30 PM EDT, I hadn't had a single visitor to the blog today according to Google Analytics. Interestingly, Woopra shows that I had a single visitor, who stumbled in here looking for info on Reese's T-Shirts.

Both of these figures are way below my average typical traffic of around 15 visitors. I guess it must be a busy day for folks today.

[Game Review] Torchlight

Regular readers may recall when I took advantage of a big holiday sale on Steam to buy a slew of games. I've already finished and reviewed Assassin's Creed. That's a link to the review there. I've also finished Judge Dredd, but I never got around to reviewing it. The short version is that it was totally worth the $1.59 I paid for it.

I actually only paid $4.99 for Torchlight, which was really a remarkable price for a game that was only a few months old and of such high quality. Torchlight feels like the original Diablo, done with modern graphics and a few nifty tricks. Like Diablo, the game randomizes its maps, so that it's never really the same game twice. Also like Diablo you get to choose from a selection of classes, in this case a melee-focused barbarian, a magic-focused alchemist, or an archer. Each of them also gets to choose a pet - either a dog or a cat.

The game, made in part by some ex-Blizzard employees who worked on Diablo, keeps many of Diablo's basic features. It has pools of health and mana that are used up when you take damage or cast magical spells. It has a variety of weapons, it has an array of spells, and each character has statistics controlling things like how hard they hit, how well they use magic, and how well they resist certain types of spells. Each character has a tree of special abilities that they can learn and improve as they go up in levels. These abilities use mana just like spells. There's a town with merchants to buy and sell your stuff as well as characters who give you quests to kill certain monsters or find certain items. And, lastly, there's a dungeon into which you descend, level-by-level, gaining power, gold, better spells, and superior weaponry.

You get to determine how to beef up your character as you go up levels, which means that really any character can be as good or bad at whatever you want - you can have a barbarian who casts spells really well, or an alchemist who uses a bow. I didn't really try this, but by the end my barbarian was a pretty fair spellcaster.

The game was long, which I consider to be a good thing. There's nothing worse than a game that's over before you're ready to quit playing it. More, Torchlight lets you keep playing indefinitely once the main questline is complete and the "final boss" has been defeated. The main problem I had was that there didn't really seem to be any point in doing so. There was almost no chance of getting a complete set of any of the really useful magic items, yet they weren't really necessary anyway. I played the game both without any really great magic items and also, often, without even bothering to assign all of my skill points. I very rarely died and the penalty for dying wasn't that severe anyway - generally just a loss of some gold.

It was a fun game, but it wasn't a great game. I can't put my finger on the difference, but there was something missing from it when it get the inevitable comparisons to the blockbuster hits Diablo or Diablo 2. It had some interesting differences. The pet was nice, both because he could hold stuff and because you could send him off to town to sell crap you didn't want. Also, there were fishing holes where you could play a little fishing mini-game, and the fish you caught could be fed to your pet to change him into various monsters, some of which could be quite powerful.

So, again, I don't exactly know why Torchlight wasn't as good as Diablo or Diablo 2. It just wasn't. But it wasn't bad by any means, and if you can get it for a few bucks, it'll keep you entertained for quite a while. The graphics, music, gameplay and voice acting were all fine. The spells, skills and items made sense and worked appropriately. The game wasn't terribly challenging for the most part, but I also played carefully and made sure to take every advantage I found, which probably made my character's power above-average for the levels he was on. Torchlight is a fun, discount, single-player only game reminiscent of (but not quite as good as) the Diablo series. I recommend it and rate it a B+.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Nope, no iPad for me

I'm not getting an iPad. But Mike, you say, you're so hip and you love technology. Why wouldn't you want an iPad?

Note that I didn't say I don't want one, just that I'm not getting one. Because, honestly, as much fun as it might be to have one, there's no gap in my life that's begging for an iPad to fill it. Would I play games on it? Not in preference to my DELL XPS system with its 24" monitor, no. Would I write on it? Not in preference to my office computer, also with a 24" monitor (and the continuous multitasking I do between Word, OneNote and the Web). Would I watch TV and movies on it? Not in preference to my 55" TV with its 400-DVD changer and its TiVo, no. Would I surf the web on it? Sure, but 98% of the time, I'm already sitting in front of a real computer, so having a handheld, even a very nice one, is kind of redundant.

And, let's face it, if I were to get one, it would be the 64 gig variety with 3G access, which would set me back $830, plus another $15-30 a month for the data plan. That's a buttload of money to spend on something I don't need.

But, you might argue, I could recoup some of that cost by buying ebooks instead of hardcovers, saving an average of $15 on each. Nope, not so. For starters, I don't buy a hardcover a month, so that approach wouldn't even pay for my data plan. More, if we assume that buying the ebooks I want to read is really easy to do from an iPad, it would almost surely tempt me to buy more than I otherwise would, which would drive up the Total Cost of Ownership on this thing beyond just the initial investment and ongoing data fees. Besides, the ebook business is still very much being worked out. I'm in no hurry to leap into that fracas of competing formats right away. And, lastly, there's the fact that I like my bound paper novels. I have a soft spot for books and the library is probably my favorite room in the house. I keep virtually every book I buy and I enjoy seeing them there on my shelves. I'm not embracing the notion of switching over to a virtual library where the books are just bits and bytes on my eReader.

I did get to play with an iPad recently. My fellow Writer's Roundtable member Linda has one and was proudly showing it off at our meeting Monday night. It's a nifty little thing. The gestures you use to scroll through lists of apps or through websites felt very natural. Turning the page in a book really looked like you were leafing through an actual novel. It's a great little piece of technology. But, much like when I've played with iPhones and even fancy iPods, it didn't really scream at me "YOU MUST OWN THIS."

I confess, part of it is the endless braying of Apple fanatics over the last 30 years. I've learned to mostly tune it out, but egads it's irritating. I mean, I know it's tough being the underdog (the way, way under underdog), but making up for it with volume and fanatical proselytizing doesn't impress me, it just gets on my nerves. So I've got a bias against Apple products that goes beyond the insanely counter-intuitive GUI of the Mac OSs, touted for so many years as "oh, so intuitive." Well, it ain't. I've had to teach that OS, and it's every bit as mystifying to a newcomer as the windows interface is.  The fact that it's more expensive, entirely proprietary, and comes with a legion of fanboys (and fangirls) just makes it that much worse.

But while I'm interested to see Microsoft's Courier product, I don't know that it will be innately superior just because it's a Microsoft product. It wouldn't need to be, though, to edge into my comfort zone just by having apps based around Microsoft Office, with which I'm already innately familiar. But let's be honest - I don't need a Courier either. It's not just a Microsoft vs. Apple thing. I'm honest enough to admit that Apple makes some evolutionary products, even if they're not products I really need and even if their superiority over the alternatives is sometimes dubious. It's just that Microsoft's product no more fits a niche for me than the iPad does. I just don't need it, and getting one would be a needless extravagance. And you know me, I'm all about needful extravagance.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Went to the allergist yesterday.

It's odd. I grew up with a cat. I mean, I literally had the same cat from the age of four until I was in my mid-20s. I used to pet that cat, brush him, play with him, sometimes use him for a pillow. He was a very laid-back cat, even for a cat. And in all that time, never so much as a sniffle or a sneeze.

Cut to shortly after my cat passed away and suddenly I have pet allergies. Severe pet allergies. "Holy cow, I think my eyes are melting because they itch like crazy and there are tears streaming down my face" pet allergies. "My sneezes are registering on the Richter scale" pet allergies. And let us not forget pollens, grasses, dust and so on. I've been suffering with increasingly severe allergies for more than fifteen years. They're not debilitating or dangerous like a food allergy could be, but they really mess me up when I'm exposed to an allergen.

So what did I learn at the allergist? Not much new, really. It was more a confirmation. That I'm allergic to damn near everything. The worst offenders are dust, dog & cat dander, grasses, birch trees and mites. Those were all rated 4+ on a scale of 1-4. For the numerically impaired, that translates as "off the charts."

About the only things on the list that I wasn't allergic to were molds. Yippee - now I can keep using my shower without fear of an anaphylactic reaction. It also turns out I'm not allergic to my daughter's gerbils or the family's guinea pigs. Hooray. I may go stuff a gerbil up my nose to celebrate.

So, anyway, the next course of action is to start a 5-year regimen of weekly/bi-weekly and eventually monthly allergy shots because this level of sensitivity can easily lead to sinus and respiratory complications as I get older. The nice side-benefit will be that if my family wants a real pet (like a dog or a cat, rather than just fish and rodents), we'll be able to get one without turning me into a big gob of runny, sneezing, itching mucous.

So to sum up:

Allergic to everything
Looking forward to 5 years of getting jabbed in both arms

Monday, April 5, 2010

[Garden] Putting the Man back in Manual Labor

This weekend was the start of our garden for the 2010 season. That meant hauling out the hoe and breaking up the soil for planting. Then my wife came along behind me and planted some of the seeds for our veggies that are able to go in before the last hard frost. That includes stuff like peas, cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, and peppers. It was a hard weekend.

When you’re hacking at the dirt with a spade on a stick, you spend a lot of time wondering if there mustn’t be a better way to do all of this. Of course, there is. A roto-tiller would be ideal. It would churn up the dirt and break up the clumps, almost surely better than I could do it by hand. I considered this, to be sure. It’s how my father always used to do it. I could remember him using a roto-tiller every year to do my grandfather’s garden and, in the years when Dad had one, his own.

So why didn’t I? Well, this garden is rather ill-advised to be honest. We don’t eat all that many vegetables and when we do, it’s mostly corn. So why put all this effort into a garden (where, it must be noted, I'm not actually growing corn)? I’ll be damned if I know. Isn’t that odd? I mean, we will sort of eat a lot of what we grow and my parents will eat some, too, so it’s not as if it’s going to waste, it’s just that it’s not really needed and it’s hard to argue that it’s really saving us much money on produce from the store.

So, since it’s not really saving us any money, I hate to spend any MORE money on it than is minimally necessary. I spent quite a bit last year, between fencing, dirt, mulch for the path, seeds, and other stuff I’m sure I’m forgetting. I never totaled it up, but $200-300 is probably in the ballpark (though it wouldn’t surprise me if I got all the receipts together to discover that it was really $400 or more). But that was last year. That money’s spent, regardless of what I do this year. There’s no fancy bookkeeping going on where it would make sense to pretend that I could spread those costs out over multiple years because I can’t. I paid for the stuff last year and the money’s gone.

So now I have this patch of earth with a decent fence around it and a lightly-mulched path (in truth, I need more mulch). Whether I use it or not, it’s there. It’s paid for. Whether I spend $300 more on it this year or nothing at all is up to me, but we’re starting over at $0 spent in 2010 and going from there. So far, I’ve spent about $10 on seeds, some of which it turns out I probably didn’t need. I didn’t realize we’d had so many left over from last year.

So we took a huge loss on the garden last year, no doubt about it. We grew peas and beets, lettuce and spinach, carrots and green onions, and all told probably saved around $30 in terms of actual produce that we would have bought but didn’t have to buy because we got it from the garden instead. Maybe not even that much – we just don’t buy that much produce except for things like grapes, strawberries and bananas that I don’t grow in my garden. So this garden isn’t likely to ever save us real money. Instead, I look at it as improving our nutrition.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with better nutrition. I’d just like to see if I can keep costs under control this year. Since I’m starting with a ready garden, I don’t need any of the stuff I bought last year. I’ve got my seeds (some of which are redundant), and I’ve even got a leftover bag of mulch that I can use to spruce up my paths. I decided that I didn’t need to add in the cost of a roto-tiller if I could possibly do the work myself. So far, I’m about half done with the work. My back aches and my left thumb has a huge raw spot where all the skin was rubbed away.

I’ve lamented in the past that if my family and I were dependent on growing our own food, we’d surely starve. One thing about tilling up the soil myself, I get to know it rather well. I can see where there’s clay beneath the few inches of topsoil I’ve added. I can see where the soil furthest from the house is lined with roots, though I’m not sure from where. Some I suspect are from a nearby willow. I’m at a loss as to where the rest of them are coming from. I can see that the soil does loosen up pretty well when I break it apart, and I can see that there are virtually no rocks in it. I assume that’s good.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s peaceful or relaxing to be out in my garden huffing and sweating and swearing and viciously attacking the earth with my polearm. I wish it were, but it’s not. It’s just hot, tiring, and tedious. It certainly takes a lot longer than it seems like it should. I’m careful to pull out as many of the leftover weeds as I can, since I know they’ll gladly re-root themselves and get back to growing if I leave them there.

Yet, for all of that, I can’t say that I have a real need for a garden or a really good justification for the cost and effort of having one. It’s just one of those things that it seems like I ought to have, so I do. There are certainly worse things I could have talked myself into, so there’s that. And it’s very nice to go out and grab a bowlful of peas and just munch away at them right off the vine. The taste of garden-fresh produce can’t be beat, and gives the lie to anytime you see those words used on a can or package at the store. Garden-fresh and stores are mutually exclusive. So are fat guys and gardens, usually, but I seem to be the exception there. Though I must admit that after a few hours sweating in my garden, there’s nothing fresh about me.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Have a Good Friday!

Aren't they all good, though?

I plan to spend at least half the day continuing to re-write Chapter 6 for the umpteenth time. I now have the original Chapter 6 (which is pure backstory info-dump), Chapter 6b (wherein I pull a character forward from Chapter 13 and elaborate on THEIR backstory while also trying to cram in some useful info-dump, so far with dubious results) and Chapter 6c (wherein I go back in time to the timeframe of the backstory, expand on one character previously mentioned only as a historical reference, and add a new (rather cool if somewhat pathetic) character.)

So far, 6c offers the most hope of incorporating most or all of the key info-dump data into a more character-driven chapter, but the result will be looooong. It's up to 7 or 8 single-spaced pages already and I've still got at least half of the original 6-page info-dump left to go.

So the bad news is that I have yet to complete a replacement chapter for chapter 6 (which I'm still not entirely convinced needed to be totally re-written. The more I've studied and dissected it, the happier I am with it in its more-or-less original form). Further bad news is that I've created TWO chapters in its place, neither of which do I exactly know where they'd fit in the book and at least one of which (if not both) may actually end up as TWO chapters for a total of FOUR chapters that I don't know what to do with but which nominally would replace ONE chapter that actually may not have needed quite this much attention.


Anyway, that's it for me - I'll be back after Easter. To commemorate the holiday, here, have a picture of Zombie Jesus! It's Blaspha-tacular!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Another Great Article – Knock on Wood


No, it’s not about the Stevie Wonder song. I was thinking about superstition the other day. Not so much in the broadest sense of all things paranormal, but rather in the more specific sense where people use words, gestures and symbols to try to influence “luck” or “good” or “evil.” These are almost universally pagan in origin, but they’re still in extremely common usage in a society that is almost entirely either monotheistic or agnostic/atheist. People who believe in “One True God” still commonly feel a need to “knock on wood” to ward off bad luck. People refrain from speculating about potential good fortune out of fear that they’ll “jinx” it. They feel a need to say something when somebody else sneezes. Even if it’s just something as benign as “gesundheit” or as seemingly pseudo-religious as “God bless you,” you have to wonder – why? Why do you need to say anything at all? It’s just an autonomic reaction to irritation in the nose’s hairs or mucus membranes. Does that really need an acknowledgment, much less a benediction?

What it comes down to is control. All of these old superstitions derive from man’s uninformed attempts to understand and exert control over the world around us. We all want things to go our way. We’d all prefer it if misfortune passed us by as much as possible. Life’s hard for most people, but some seem to live a “charmed” life – things just seem to work out in their favor. Mathematically, it’s just a matter of random probability, but it sure seems more likely that they must be doing something to influence their outrageous luck. And if we can figure out what that something is, we can imitate it and thus live the life of Riley ourselves.

At least, that’s the pagan, pre-science way of thinking. So they came up with gestures to ward off evil and sayings to hold onto good luck or persuade bad luck to go bother somebody else. The question then would be – why do we still do it? If we believe in the Christian, Jewish or Muslim God, we believe that all good AND bad comes from Him. He’s the maker of heaven and Earth and whatever isn’t the result of our own free will is part of God’s plan for us. Catholicism specifically condemns superstition as a “lack of trust in the divine providence of God,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Atheists or agnostics believe the opposite – that there’s no plan or there’s no influence or that, at best, there’s no way we can understand it if there is. Either way, the notion that “luck” or even “God’s will” can be influenced by saying “Bless you!” after somebody sneezes is laughable. Knocking on wood? Pointless! Tossing salt over your shoulder? Wasteful! So, again, WHY? Why do we still do it?

Well, it’s still about control. We STILL want to believe we can influence unseen forces to bring us good luck or steer away misfortune. We know better, but then we’re also keenly aware of how much we don’t really understand. There’s a whole universe out there of sub-atomic particles and energies and even spiritualism that we don’t really understand well at all yet. And since we don’t, well then, maybe there actually is some way to get a little more control over the winds of fate. Until something better comes along, of course, we might as well stick with the tried-and-true beliefs of our great-great-great-great ancestors. And if you think that’ll really help, well, good luck with that.