Wednesday, June 30, 2010


It's taking me quite an effort to type this. Yesterday, I did something to my shoulder. I have no clear idea what it was - it just started to ache in the afternoon and got progressively worse until I could no longer raise my arm without extreme pain. By bedtime, the pain was constant even when I was trying to sit completely still. It was bad enough that I considered going to the emergency room. Sleeping was quite an adventure. Using Icy-Hot hadn't done anything, so for bed I mixed myself a little medicinal cocktail of Tylenol, sleeping pills, and an ice pack. It wasn't my most restful night ever, but I survived it. By morning the persistent pain was gone and it's back to only hurting when I try to use my arm. It's a good thing I don't have karate this week - there's no way.

So what's the impact of this injury?
  • My blog will be offline until I can type without extreme discomfort.
  • I sure as hell won't be doing any more swimming (open swim having been one of the possible causes if this pain)
  • Working on my novel is in doubt for the next couple of days, though my keyboard tray on that computer is low enough that I might be able to do it.
  • Attending Mock Faire Day at Sterling tomorrow is in doubt.
  • Attending the Sterling Renaissance Faire this weekend is in doubt.
So that's it. I'm off - need to get a fresh ice pack.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Swimming Lessons

My wife and I are determined that our kids learn to swim at least as well as we do (which is to say pretty well, though not competition-grade by any means). Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, they're surrounded by "Water, water, every where" - from home swimming pools to lakes and rivers. There's simply too much water in Central New York for my kids to be running around unable to do something as basic as swimming. To that end, we've signed them up for swimming lessons through a local group - The Liverpool Jets - every summer (and sometimes winter) for the last... um... many years. I forget how long we've been doing it with the oldest kid - seems like forever.

Anyway, this week we begin the most recent season of lessons. My eldest has finally mastered everything she'd previously struggled with, from just putting her face in the water to jumping in and diving in and even rhythmic breathing. This session is really just to polish off her skillset and make sure she's truly learned all of the basics. I don't really care whether she knows every competitive stroke, and I can teach her the rescue-stroke/side-stroke if she ever decides she wants to be a lifeguard or something. She's nearly done at last.

The boys, too, have come a long way. All of them have. Last summer really saw them make tremendous gains. Each kid struggled at first. They're stubborn little buggers and skittish about anything new. Where some kids would jump or dive in without concern, my kids tended to freak out when asked to put their whole faces or heads in the water or even to jump in with someone catching them. Somehow, in the second half of last summer's three swim sessions, the kids got their acts together and just did what they had to do. I'm hopeful I can recapture that spirit of cooperation this summer as well. After year upon year of these swim lessons - many more sessions than were needed to actually teach the skills - I'd love to see us finish them up. It'd be nice to go occasionally for open swim rather than every day to watch the kids refuse to try some key requirement of their class.

Yet, for the frustration I might experience with repeating the same lessons over and over (and sometimes over and over and over), that's also a big part of the value. They needed the time. They needed the opportunity to get familiar with the sensations on their own terms. Hopefully once they have, that comfort will stick with them even if they should find themselves in a panic-prone situation - somewhere where they unexpectedly have to put their skills to the test.

Swimming's a lot of fun and I hope this training gives them the ability to enjoy it as recreation or even as a sport if they're so inclined. More, I hope they never need to rely on their swimming ability to save their own life or someone else's, but if they need to I'll be glad of every moment we spent at these lessons. Being a strong and capable swimmer can't save every life, but being unable to swim at all certainly won't.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Plenty Good

Explaining my inexplicable enjoyment of chain restaurants

I used to travel a lot for work, and I've eaten in all sorts of restaurants around the country, from diners to fine dining. The best meal I ever had was probably when my wife and I visited the Four Seasons in Manhattan and had the roast duck. My second-best meal was probably the "limited edition" Angus steak I got at an Outback Steakhouse in Las Vegas. It was a truly remarkable piece of beef, and tasted far better than steaks I'd had at several so-called "5-star" steakhouses in the same city. It's no secret among those who know me that my favorite restaurant is probably Olive Garden, but Outback Steakhouse is a close second and the Dinosaur Bar-B-Queue rounds out that top triad - the three restaurants sharing the "top spot" depending on what I'm in the mood for and with whom I'm dining. I'm also a huge fan of diners if they serve good-quality, tasty, traditional diner-food, particularly fried chicken.

Some people, I know, find this baffling. They sneer at my high regard for the Olive Garden, holding the chain's food in utter disdain. I think they're nuts. I've never had a bad meal at the Olive Garden, and I've eaten scores (possibly hundreds) of meals there over the last fifteen years at restaurants all over the country. I've also gone to "local" Italian restaurants that were very well-regarded and found the food to be far below what I'd expect at Olive Garden. I mean, let's evaluate:

Marinara - their tomato sauce is flavorful, has chunks of tomatoes in it (bigger chunks than I prefer, really, but I can pick around them easily enough), and always tastes fresh. I remember eating at the Italian restaurant once at the Turning Stone Casino and their marinara was a bilious yellow-orange color that looked like bilgewater and tasted like 10W-30. I was similarly unimpressed the two times that I ordered the Chicken Parmigiana at Rico's Ristorante in East Syracuse - it's one of those local places people rave about and both times I ate there I found my meal barely edible. Marinara's one of the "Mother Sauces" that any Italian restaurant ought to have mastered. Olive Garden's is consistently good.

Pasta - I think it's funny that Olive Garden used to make their pastas fresh onsite (each restaurant actually had a pasta chef who was in charge of all the fresh-made pasta for that kitchen), but found that people liked their pre-made pastas better so they stopped. It seems to me that a preferable solution might have been to improve the fresh pasta so people liked IT better, but what do I know? Regardless, their pasta is always perfectly cooked and flavorful. Which is all I really ask of pasta - it's pretty hard to screw up and even harder to make really good. In fact, I don't remember ever having pasta that I thought qualified as "really good," any more than I've ever had "really good" white rice. It's a basic starch - just don't screw it up and you're fine. Again, Olive Garden's pasta tastes just fine and feels good when you eat it - not too firm nor too soft. Personally, I don't like my pasta "al dente," and anyone who does might find Olive Garden's pasta too soft. That's their problem - it's perfect for me.

Alfredo - if anything, I'm an even bigger fan of alfredo than of marinara, at least when I eat out (my own marinara is, of course, beyond compare). Olive Garden's isn't the best I've ever had, but it's plenty rich and better than what I make at home

Soup - Olive Garden's Pasta e Fagioli is exceptionally better than the lame "bean-soup" I've had in other restaurants. The reddish broth is FAR more flavorful than I've had elsewhere, and it's one of my all-time favorite soups anywhere, any time. Which is almost too bad, because they Zuppa Toscana looks pretty good, too, but I never get it because I just can't pass up the Pasta e Fagioli. I also appreciate the fresh parmagiana (well, it's not fresh - that would be a contradiction in terms for this classic, aged, hard Italian cheese, but you get the idea) that they hand-grate on the soup in as big a pile as you like. I like a big, big pile.

Bread - the Olive Garden breadsticks are decent. I've had better and I've definitely had worse, though I admit that I'd prefer a flavorful Italian bread and butter. But the breadsticks are good enough.

Everything else - it'd be impossible to go through the menu item-by-item (well, it'd be boring, anyway. Somebody else can do it if they want), but you get the idea. Their Lasagna is at the low end of passable (certainly falling far short of Spaghetti Warehouse's classic 15-layer Lasagna), so I don't order it anymore. Their fried chicken cutlets for the Chicken Parmigiana, however, are delicious - tender and not (usually) too dry (though when it's not perfect, it's usually because it's a bit over-done). Their toasted ravioli appetizer is exceptional, and is also one of my favorite items.

Best of all, it's consistent. It's ALWAYS the same, and if it's not a 10 on a scale of 1-10, it's an 8.5. Better, it's the same 8.5 no matter which restaurant I'm at or which city I'm in. There might be local Italian restaurants that would rate a solid 10 on that scale, but a) I haven't had any luck finding one and b) I'd have needed to find one in every city I traveled to, or even in different quarters of each given city. Here in Syracuse, there's an Olive Garden nearby whether I'm on the northwest or southeast sides of the city. Convenience and a meal that I know in advance I'm going to enjoy counts for a lot.

So yes, I'm a discerning diner who knows what he likes and prefers chain "Smart Casual" restaurants to most of the alternatives. I've depended on Olive Garden and Outback Steakhouse over many years of travel, business dining and dates with my wife to guarantee delicious, dependable meals at a fair price. To all the people who deride these dining choices - I feel bad for you. I feel bad if you went there once or twice and somehow got bad food or bad service. I feel bad if your tastes are so refined that very good-quality food is beneath your standards. I feel bad that a consistent, convenient, reasonably-priced dining experience is denied to you (or by you). Ultimately, though, I'm okay with it - it decreases my wait-time for a table if you choose to eat somewhere else.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

[Book Update] Mid-night Rambling

Ah, what the hell - it's the middle of the night and for some unknown reason I'm wide awake. I don't usually suffer from insomnia without a clear reason - reasons that usually include too much adrenaline too close to bedtime, having to get out of bed within the first half-hour after I try to go to sleep, etc. The only cause I can think of is that I might be coming down with a cold, but it's not very mad yet and I'm surprised it woke me up.

Anywho, here I am and I might as well put out a more robust Wednesday-morning post than I'd planned. Be aware - due to the nature of blogs, this post will appear above the earlier post for today, so you might want to skip down and read that one first.

In general, I'm not happy with where my novel is in terms of a production schedule. I had wanted to be where I am now back in February/March. At this rate, it's certainly going to take me through the Summer to finish the novel, and even that may be optimistic. Almost certainly is optimistic. Sigh.

On the plus-side, I'm very happy with the content of what I've finished so far and I'm getting fairly close to finishing my re-write of Chapter 15. Chapter 16 is already finished. For the first 1/4 to 1/3 of the book, here's what's left to be done:

  • New Chapter 1 - At the moment, I'm leaning toward adding a different intro chapter that brings some of the novel's fantasy elements forward a bit and ramps up some dramatic tension before we get into the exploits of the main character(s). I will be tempted to write this before moving on to the rest of the story both to finally feel like I've got the early part of the book "finished" (at least in terms of this draft) and because a new Chapter 1 will force me to re-number all subsequent chapters, which will be easier to do sooner rather than later. And yeah, I realize that the second reason is especially crappy and the first reason isn't going to win any awards. Who said writers have to be rational?
  • Re-re-writes - For months, I've been taking each chapter in to my writer's group and getting their feedback. Most of that feedback exists in the form of marked-up, critiqued copies of the chapters, sitting in a pile on my desk. Each of those chapters got at least one, often two re-writes prior to taking it to the group, and they require at least one more re-write just to incorporate the changes. I will be tempted to do those rewrites before moving on to fresh stuff both to finally feel like I've got the early part of the book "finished" (at least in terms of this draft) (and yeah, I copied that from the first bullet - it's a running theme here) and because I'll be concerned that there might be a change that's waiting to be made that will have effects down-stream in the novel requiring future edits that could have been avoided if I'd incorporated them before writing those new chapters.
  • Get feedback on chapters 1-16 from my various readers. This would then funnel into the above bullet.
 So that's all the stuff I'll be tempted to do instead of continuing on to the rest of the book, which includes:

  • Write the rest - I mean, yeah, it goes without saying, but I still have to, you know, write the rest of the thing. Which will naturally involve writing each chapter, re-writing each chapter (usually a couple of times), getting it critiqued by my wife, my confidants, and my writer's group, and then re-writing it a couple more times.
  • A final polish - Where I take the completed draft and fix everything that's wrong with it. This will take at least one re-write, possibly more to get it right (though I've got a few chapters that I'm pretty happy with and may survive without too many major revisions as long as the novel as a whole ends up working pretty well and I don't need to scrap entire characters, entire storylines, or modify major aspects of the book like setting, theme, etc.
In fairness, it's not as if I'm anywhere close to the point where I'm just making little tweaks. Everything above will need to be done at some point, and will constitute major work regardless of what order I do it in. It doesn't really matter which I do first. Either way, I'm going to feel like I'm putting off something that needs to be done. Egads, that's a lot to do! Now that I think about it, I wish I hadn't thought about it. But at least being on the verge of pushing ahead after dwelling within the first 16 chapters for so long actually feels like progress. And when it's the middle of the night and you're up, anything that feels like progress feels pretty good.

Transition Time!

It's the end of the school year - the kids have four half-days this week (actually, one of them's like a quarter-day), so we're working on how to transition them from school to home. It also means transitioning me from writing full-time to writing just a few hours a day. On top of that, we're currently training in karate at TWO different dojos, both of which are fully or partially closed next week. So, we're training every night this week in preparation.

All of that adds up to mucho craziness. I'm experimenting with an "extended quiet-time" format for the kids, where each afternoon they get several hours of time where they can, for up to an hour each, watch TV/movies, play the computer or Wii, and then spend the remaining hour (or more) playing games, doing crafts, reading, or any other non-multimedia activities. During this period, I spend the time writing. So far so good, but it may need tweaking. The cardinal rule of this Quiet Time is the "quiet" part - there's an absolute zero-tolerance policy for arguing, fighting, yelling, and other non-quiet activities that require my intervention. Today, there will be no TV or Computer during Quiet Time because of excessive arguing yesterday. The training continues.

The result of all this is that I'm utterly worn out at the moment. Last night's karate class contributed to that, I confess. It was a really hard workout and I did something excruciatingly painful to my left tricep. It felt better by the time I got home, but oh boy did it hurt when I did it. I know, whinge, whinge. (I only recently discovered that that was a real word. In fact, I used to correct one of my fellow World of Warcraft players whenever she used it. Poor Gormie.)

All of this adds up to one thing: I don't know what my update schedule will be like this week. I feel bad, because a lot of people read my Knight & Day review and if they're inclined to stick around, I'd really like to provide some fresh content for them, but this is all I can manage for today. Hopefully I'll produce something more spectacular for Thursday. In the meantime, why not check out some of my older articles? Many, many of them are not especially time-dependent and a few of them are actually pretty good.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

[Movie Review] Knight & Day

I like movies. Actually, I love movies. And I've seen a lot of movies in my day. Yet, rarely have I enjoyed a movie more than I enjoyed Knight & Day. Perhaps never have I walked out of the theater so thoroughly satisfied. My wife and I don't get out alone together very often. We've got three little kids and it's only as they get a little older that we'd consider leaving them in the care of a hired sitter while we went out. So, until we make that leap, we rely on my parents to come watch them for us. With our busy schedule and theirs, this comes down to about four times each year. One of those times was last Saturday.

For most of the week prior to our date, I'd been scanning the movie showtimes trying to decide what to go and see. Our choices included things like Toy Story 3, the A-Team, Prince of Persia, Karate Kid 3 and Jonah Hex. None of these really leaped out at us as "must-see" hits, except maybe Toy Story, but we weren't about to go see that without the kids. Then I noticed something unusual - at 7:30 on Saturday night, there was one and only one showing of Knight & Day. We'd been seeing previews for this film for months and wanted to see it badly, so suddenly the choice was simple. I even used Fandango to buy our tickets in advance online (completely forgetting that I have gift cards to use at the theater. Ah well, they'll keep).

We had an outstanding date, capped off by the advanced screening of this new film, which officially opens on Wednesday, June 23rd. We got there ridiculously early because I wasn't sure how packed it would be (it's been years since I've been to a movie that wasn't a matinee), so we got the best seats in the house. This was good, because we were in for a hell of a ride and I'd have hated to be distracted by anything as mundane as the view.

Knight & Day is a complicated action-comedy that never resorts to pratfalls or goofiness. It's the story of a simple woman, played by Cameron Diaz, who literally bumps into a super-spy and ends up pulled into his adventures. Throughout the film, you're repeatedly charmed by both of the characters - Diaz is innocent and natural, doing her best to deal with the utterly unbelievable series of situations she's pulled into. Cruise is suave and sincere, continually re-convincing Diaz (and the audience) that he's the good-guy despite repeated twists and turns that bring his true motives into question.

The plot is complex and I'm going to endeavor not to give too much away. Diaz is the owner of a garage that restores classic cars and she's on her way home with parts for the '69 GTO she's fixing up as a wedding gift for her sister that weekend. Cruise is a spy who's either protecting valuable U.S. government assets that are at risk from traitors within his own agency, or else he's the rogue spy who has stolen those assets and is trying to sell them to an international arms dealer. Every time you think you know which is the truth about Cruise's character, there's a reversal that once more makes you question it. That ambiguity is just one part of the fun.

The other two parts of the fun are fun and fun. Because awesome action scenes are always fun, and clever humor is always fun, and Knight & Day is chock-full of both. Best of all, the film seamlessly mixes both of these into really hilarious action scenes. One great example that leaps to mind is a scene where Diaz is being escorted off by a troop of bad guy thugs. We see a glimpse of Cruise running through a nearby room, snatching up a bullwhip as he sprints past. We then cut back to the thugs, where Diaz (hopped up on truth serum) is aimlessly chit-chatting with the leader. From the back of the line, a whip snakes down from above and snatches each of the thugs away, one-by-one, until only the leader is left. It's a simple and yet hilariously funny scene, and that sort of comic action recurs throughout the movie, almost from beginning to end. It constantly whip-lashes your emotions between tenderness for the characters, laughter at their antics, and bug-eyed amazement at the stunts.

Naturally there's plenty of completely unbelievable action where except for pure luck the heroes would have found themselves splattered all over the pavement, but it's rarely so brazen as to be a distraction from the excitement of the film. The bad guys are also somewhat unimpressive, mostly serving more as targets than as fully fleshed-out characters. The exception is the Spanish arms dealer who, sadly, isn't in the movie nearly enough as his performance was quite good. The other main "bad guy" (or maybe he's the good guy - the film constantly makes you wonder!), played by Peter Saarsgard, is dull and uninteresting, especially in comparison to the leads.

In fact, the bad guys are completely overshadowed not just by the leads, but by the locations - Knight & Day spans the world, from Boston to Austria, the tropics to Spain and the result is visually lavish. It's hard to think of a better example of the different aspects of filmmaking all coming together so seamlessly.

I'm not sure a conclusion is even needed at this point, but I'm hard-wired to write one so here it is. See this movie. See it now or as soon as you reasonably can. You absolutely will not be disappointed. I loved it and, predictably, I'm giving it a full-blown A+.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Simple Space

As promised, this is a follow-up to last week's article titled Complex Space. To briefly recap, I'm planning to write a novel (once my current one is sufficiently done that I'm calling it "finished" and circulating it for publication) that involves an object passing through our solar system and the desire of certain humans to send manned spacecraft out to it.

Writing this novel will pose a multitude of challenges for me in terms of stuff I don't know - I'll need to brush up on (or simply invent) information about international politics, aerospace engineering, rocketry, extra-planar propulsion and navigation, astrophysics, ephemerides, astronomy and a host of other topics.

One subject that was really bothering me had to do with planetary movement within our solar system. As the object moved through one "side" of our celestial neighborhood, its passage would bring it nearer to or further from different planets at certain points in time. This would affect everything from its course (as different gravity wells applied force against the object to speed it up, slow it down, or pull it from side to side) to the launch windows for Earth-based spacecraft. It was something I could have just invented, but I felt compelled (for some reason I can't really explain) to make at least a cursory attempt to get it right. It's been bugging me for a good two months or more, and I finally couldn't stand it any more. I posted an article about it here on Virtual Vellum, and simultaneously posted the same plea for info on a message board that I've been a member of for over five years. Naturally, since the message board gets more traffic from a wide array of knowledgeable folks (some of whom work at NASA and others who simply have an interest in this subject), it got somewhat more attention there, including some very worthwhile information. I thought I would share it here for folks who may regularly read or just happen upon this blog and find this information of value.

First off, one site that I found all by myself (well, surely someone pointed me to it from somewhere at some point in the past, but I have no idea whom or when), is Atomic Rocket. It's a site dedicated to the mathematics of sci-fi rocket ships of the sort written by Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. It's more related to the other topics I'll need to handle for the novel, but it's in the ballpark of useful and relevant sites, so I include it here.

Next, one fellow suggested that I look up the topics of Orbital Mechanics and Legrangian Points on Wikipedia, which rather goes without saying (as a writer I practically live on Wikipedia and am very unclear as to how anyone got meaningfully accurate - or even vaguely accurate - writing done without it. I sure wouldn't want to have to run down to the library and flip through the card catalog every time I had some niggling little point in my book that needed a little info to properly do its job.) but it's still good advice so I include it here.

That same fine fellow suggested a comic at the often-brilliant (and all-too-often over my head) XKCD webcomic, where the cartoonist compares the gravity wells of different planets and moons in the solar system. I'm not sure I need to know this info (it would only be relevant if the object were to come within a certain distance of these bodies, which I hadn't planned to have happen in the story), but I can see where it might well be helpful depending on what decisions I make regarding the story.

In addition, he recommended two articles at discovery magazine, here and here. They're good reads and, combined with the wiki articles probably contain more than I ever really wanted to know on the subject. It's not a passion of mine, just some raw info that I need to write my book. I'm trying to avoid doing graduate-level work in celestial movement in order to tell a story.

His final recommendation seemed to hold a lot of promise. The Geometry in Space Project: Orbital Mechanics: From Earth to Mars appeared at first to have some calculators and simulators on it (or linked from it) that might do what I needed. Sadly, none of them quite did - the closest, a java app showing the planetary positions - only worked to provide info for yesterday, today or tomorrow. I need one that will show the planets 5-10 years from now.

Another helpful chap recommended a piece of free software called Celestia. It's a tool that allows you to simulate the solar system (lots of solar systems, actually) and take a tour through it. It's definitely in line with what I'm looking for, though it has a rather steep learning curve and in an hour of fiddling with it I was unable to make it obey me. Definitely a step in the right direction, however.

Sort of like a spacecraft on final approach to an extra-planetary body, the mission kept spiraling closer and closer to success. Then a dude who I think works for NASA or the JPL posted a link to the NASA Solar System Simulator. Woo hoo! as Homer would say. The resulting graphics it generates are kind of hard to read, particularly the inner planets (which tend to get all smushed together in the middle), but it's totally adequate for my needs.

So, yeah - jackpot! There were some other helpful links to info on near-Earth asteroids and the recently-completed Hayabusa mission from Japan, too, but that solar system simulator is just the thing I needed.

Mission accomplished - thanks to the power of the Internet to bring people together. It'll be quite some time before I actually need any of this information, but just knowing I've got it has really removed some anxiety that I had for that novel. Thanks, everybody, for the enthusiastic support!

Friday, June 18, 2010

My Soft, Smooth Gi

I really don't remember how I used to wash my karate uniform (called a gi) back in the 80s and 90s, but the ones we got from LaVallee's specifically said they should be washed in cold water and allowed to drip dry. That's largely what I've been doing, with the exception that I used warm water because it's my understanding from Chemistry class that detergent works better when the water's not too cold.

But on Wednesday of this week, I wasn't sure whether my family would need their gis that night or not. I'd forgotten that my wife had an implementation that evening for work. But I'd washed our uniforms the night before, and there's no way they'd be dry in time on their own if we needed them. So I tossed them into the dryer for just ten minutes on a low heat cycle. And oh, what a difference!

They were still damp when I took them out, of course, but they were so soft! Usually when I just hang them they get all stiff and rough, but after a short trip through the dryer they were like Egyptian cotton towels. I was amazed. Even more surprising, they were almost without a wrinkle. Again, usually when they go straight from the washer to the hanger, they're all wrinkly and they pretty well tend to stay that way. But that brief stay in the dryer seemed to fix a multitude of sins.

When my family tested for our yellow belts, I spent over an hour ironing everyone's gi so it would look good for our test, and I'm pretty sure they didn't look as good when I was done as they did when they came out of the dryer. I think I may be doing that from now on - it certainly didn't seem to shrink them at all.

That's it for today, I'm afraid. It's my kids' last full day of school and they have a full day of games and sports to get ready for, as do I. Also, my kids have done a less than stellar job of learning their Short One Kata, and they've been told they're going to knuckle down and work on it today. My wife and I will help them with that.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Complex Space

This is not so much a blog article as a cry for help. I'm hopeful that at some point, somebody will read this who knows a lot more about large bodies in our solar system than I do.

I have an idea in mind for my second novel (to be begun some months from now when the first one is finished), but one aspect of it has me concerned. I neither have the innate knowledge to handle it myself, nor have I had any luck finding the information online (though I hope it's there and I'm just failing to use the right search terms). My wife tells me I should just use creative license to make it all up, and I may end up doing that, but I'd like to at least attempt to get it correct (or nearly so) first.

Here's the problem - in the novel, there is a small object (about one or two city blocks cubed) moving at a more-or-less constant speed (no propulsion) through our solar system some time in the relatively near future (as early as 2015, probably more like 2020). People (ie. governments) on Earth are highly motivated to send manned crews to rendezvous with the object, and will find themselves competing to do so. Yes, I realize that it's implausible, given current or projected technologies, for Earth vessels to reach something like that unless it comes very close, or at tremendous expense, or both. I'll deal with that issue.

Anyway, my problem is one of astrophysics (at least, I think it is. This is far enough outside my experience that I'm not even positive I understand the terminology). I've got various heavenly bodies (planets, moons, etc.) that are all whizzing around the sun at various speeds and, at any given point in time, will be at very different places relative to other objects - most notably the Sun, the Earth, each other, and the "object." This is important for several reasons:

1. If the Sun is between the Earth and the object, it's probably not practical to launch a spacecraft to try to rendezvous with it at that time. Or, more precisely, if the Sun is between the Earth and where the object WILL BE at the point in time when a rendezvous would be attempted (since there's a very lengthy travel time from Earth to the object even at their nearest point).

2. One method of achieving the rendezvous (I'm postulating) would be to slingshot around another body and come up on the object from behind. To do so, I'd need to know where those suitable bodies would be at particular points in time.

3. As the object travels through our solar system, travel times would change dramatically. In fact, depending on the applicable calculations (which I'm unqualified to do without some sort of template), some governments might delay their launch and just let the Earth and the object travel a bit closer on their own.

I suspect I can probably figure out how fast the Earth moves through space and decide on a suitable speed for the Object on my own (assuming I can find figures for how fast comets and such move). I think I probably can also make up suitable speed numbers for the earth spacecraft (though I'm less sure of that). What I'm mostly concerned about, though, is being able to chart the position of the Earth and other major bodies in our solar system at various points in the novel. Where's Titan in December of 2017 relative to Earth and the Sun? As the author, I can just say "Sure it is, if I want it to be!" knowing that 98% of my prospective readers probably wouldn't know the difference. But if there's some guy at NASA who decides my book looks appealing, I don't want him throwing it away in disgust because I screwed up all the planets' orbits.

So with that long-winded explanation, can anybody point me to some layman's tools suitable for figuring this stuff out? One of my main goals is to avoid having to teach myself astrophysics in order to write this book. It's something I'd like to get correct if possible, but the storyline would survive if I had to fudge these numbers, so there's a point of diminishing returns on effort invested in this level of accuracy. Alternately, if anybody knows of an engineer or professor who's well-versed in this subject and might be interested in babbling on endlessly about this stuff to a very attentive audience (me!), I'd be interested in that, too.

So this is it - the dark underbelly of the writer's life, desperately clawing at forbidden knowledge in a vain attempt to understand foreign concepts well enough to use them intelligently. On the plus side, my vision for this new novel totally kicks ass and I'm looking forward to writing it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

[Book Update] The Plot Doesn't Thicken

At this week's Writer's Roundtable, I presented the second half of the rather gargantuan Chapter 12. It used to be Chapters 11 and 12, but I realized they were actually one chapter that was split between two points of view so I pulled out some historical info (which I put back in Chapters 6. No that plural Chapters is not a typo.), jammed the two together, and then in an effort to shorten them, I naturally added another four to six pages. It was received very well, however - probably the best reception I've gotten to any chapter thus far. It's a bit surprising, as it's essentially two main characters walking through town and then down a country road. I'd say it was one of my least favorite chapters, though I ended up reasonably satisfied with how it turned out. It was certainly never one of those "ooh, I can't wait to write this one!" sorts of chapters.

I was the last of a short list of readers Monday night, so the group indulged me in an extensive analysis and critique of both the particular chapter and of my work as a whole. One of my peers has been very vocal almost from the start about the need to make a stronger connection with my lead characters because thus far they seemed to come off flat and dull. I made considerable assurance that I have heard that feedback loud and clear and that I believe I've made changes in the novel to address it. The problem is that those changes are in the form of edits to chapters that are behind us - I haven't brought them back in to the group and I have no plans to do so anytime soon. So at this point it's important to accept on faith that I've listened and made the necessary changes, because I'm certainly not making an effort to address in chapter 13 character development issues that absolutely must be handled within the first couple of chapters.

Another reader hit me with a tougher question, though. She asked if I could explain the plot of the (roughly) 12 chapters that I've brought to the group thus far. I had a hard time answering that question and after the meeting I gave it some intense and serious thought. And I concluded that the problem was that I shouldn't have tried so hard to answer the question, or, really, I should have responded that there simply isn't one at this point.

I'm intentionally doing a fair amount of juggling in the beginning of the novel, and I'm counting on that juggling being sufficiently entertaining to hold my readers' attention even without a clear plot. Also, it's worth noting, some modern writers (and editors and publishers and readers) actually go so far as to consider "plot" to be a dirty word - a limiter of creative nuance and an organic, natural-feeling story. I don't really subscribe to this theory - I don't see how you can tell a good story that doesn't ultimately have a plot, even if you didn't consciously put it there. I think the "anti-plot" crowd are more railing against formulaic plots, or using a very tight story outline that forces you as the writer to write only to the plot, denying yourself the freedom to explore characters, settings and themes that might take you off in new directions. But there certainly are people who (loudly and vehemently) subscribe to this theory, so it's plausible that I could be at least attempting to write a novel without a plot. I'm not - and I'm not even clear on how I would - but I could be.

I will note that there's no shortage of very popular authors for whom the question "What's the plot?" would have little or no meaning. If you were to ask George R. R. Martin what the plot of his epic series A Song of Ice and Fire was, I suspect it might go something like, "There are many powerful and wealthy families in Westeros. Most of them hate each other. Hi-jinks ensue." He's woven such a tangled skein of complex character actions that I'm baffled how he can keep them straight (though that complexity no doubt goes some distance to explain why his later novels tend to come so far apart). Likewise, I just finished the novel "Repo Men" (of which I'll write a review soonish) and while there ultimately is a plot in there (somewhere), it's cleverly and intentionally broken up in such a way that you never can clearly see what order things happened in until the very end of the novel.

And that may be part of what the "anti-plot" crowd is getting at. Though the more I write here about that mindset, the less I realize I actually know about it. I have some reading to do, I suppose. Anyway, I think it's fair to say that you CAN write a very engaging novel that follows the traditional "plot-driven" structure of "A leads to B leads to C, etc.," but as my buddy John at Microsoft always liked to say, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should. And just because you should doesn't mean you must." There are other, less linear ways to tell a story, and it's not automatically wrong if the plotline(s) don't leap out at you right from the start (or ever).

But I digress. In my novel, the first quarter or third of the book (up through about chapters 14-17) is an exploration. It's a tableau I've painted, where I introduce the reader to a new, different world and invite them to wander around in it. I let them meet interesting (I hope) characters and see how they interact as they live their daily lives. There's a bit of action, a fair amount of history (both of the world and of the individual characters) and a lot of story threads that I dangle out there but don't actually pull just yet. It's intended to make the reader wonder "Why?" Why is the world this way? Why does that character do that? Why did that happen? And, of course, What will they do now?

The "storyline" will come - the sequential, action-oriented events where characters race from conflict to conflict, building and shedding dramatic tension as they go. But we're not there yet. Just now, we're juggling, telling a few jokes, setting the stage for what's to come. It's a lavish, full stage, and the reader, I believe, needs time to digest what's on it. Not every last prop and set decoration in detail, but some of the key ones certainly, as well as the overall effect of having them together. If the juggling's good enough and the stage is interesting enough, then the audience, the reader, ought to want to stay for the main performance. Soon enough, the juggler will light his torches, do a final, amazing flourish with them, and then bow out so the main play can begin. Then all of the characters we've met will take their places to strut and fret their hour upon the stage.

In the end, it may not work. The way I'm building the novel may need to be adjusted or radically changed, but I don't know that yet. And if I don't know it, as the author, then nobody else does either. We're going to have to wait and see once the novel is largely complete whether the early chapters were a suitable lead-in or not. Hopefully my fellow writers will stick with me, give me the benefit of the doubt and let the story reach that stage before judging it. I'll be sad if they don't, but as the writer I need to trust myself enough to follow through with it anyway and see where it ends up.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

[Novel Review] Jack Campbell's series The Lost Fleet

I've been a fan of John G. Hemry's work since I read his trilogy about a soldier named Stark who finds himself in command of an army of soldiers assigned to fight enemy forces on the Moon. In Stark's case, the soldiers overthrow their poor leaders and put him in charge in their place. Then he needs to fight both the enemy and his own side's forces. Nothing heavy there, but good, fun reads with a certain amount of "Officers can't be trusted not to mess things up" attitude that's somewhat ironic coming from an Annapolis grad. Hemry writes this new series under the pen-name of Jack Campbell.

The Lost Fleet shares some of the same themes. There's one good man who's in a position to assume command and win by not making the errors of his predecessors and by being an all-around good guy. Instead of leading ground forces, the protagonist of The Lost Fleet is in command of a massive flotilla of ships.

The lead character in this series is somewhat unique because he's a man out of time. In the opening days of the current war, John Geary was thrust into command of a heavy cruiser from which he made a last-ditch stand against the enemy and their surprise attack. He and his ship are lost, but this noble act made him a hero and, after, a legend. A century later, every member of the military honors the legacy of "Black Jack" Geary, attributing to him all sorts of noble qualities and wise lessons in leadership. He's raised up to a larger-than-life figure that inspires the entire fleet while putting pressure on Geary's family's descendants to live up to his impossible standard.

The war has gone badly for both sides over its hundred-year span. Strategy and tactics have given way to bloody, blunt-force attacks with no regard for casualties. Likewise, attacks on civilian targets and even planetary settlements have become common. The ideals of Geary's age have been lost in favor of a win-at-all costs approach and a quest for glorious death on the part of the warship crews. At the beginning of the first book, Dauntless, it looks to the Allies as if they might finally be in a position to win against their Syndicate Worlds enemy. It is on the way to this great victory that they discover a single lost life-support capsule floating in a forgotten system. Inside, still alive, is the hero of the Alliance, Black Jack Geary.

Geary awakens a hundred years in the future, weak from the long hibernation and baffled by the changes he sees around him. He's still trying to collect his wits in his cabin when the great battle begins. But it's a trap - the Syndicate Worlds fleet has baited their Alliance adversaries into making an enormous, fruitless gamble. The fleet's admiralty are all killed, leaving the most senior captain in charge. And given that John Geary was promoted to his rank (posthumously, it was believed) a hundred years before, he suddenly finds himself in command - a century out of touch with the technology and attitudes of his sailors and trillions of miles behind enemy lines. The six-book series follows the exploits of Geary and his fleet as they fight their way back home using forgotten tactics, ingenuity, and a different kind of fighting spirit than anyone alive is familiar with.

There was a lot to like about The Lost Fleet. It's full of gigantic, fleet-sized space battles akin to something out of David Weber's Honor Harrington series (which I also like). Hemry does a good job of creating believable space-battle physics, which is a challenge for any sci-fi author writing about spaceflight. There has to be a good way for ships to transit the enormous distances across solar systems without everyone on board dying of old age. In Hemry's universe, ships move fast but not too fast, resulting in sometimes lengthy wait-times for things like 2-way communications or just closing to combat range. It gave the story a strong sense of realism.

Hemry also creates some very good characters, particularly in the form of Geary and his key advisers.The pace is good, the dramatic tension pulls you along and each book leaves you wanting more right up until the end.

The books do get a bit repetitious at times, notably when Hemry re-introduces concepts already covered in prior books. His goal is obviously to facilitate access for readers who haven't read the prior novels, but he does it at the expense of readers who have.

Another big weakness is in the enemy forces. They're never anything but nebulous "bad guys." They're a function, an idea more than a form that the reader can identify with one-on-one. There's no way to relate to them as people because we never get to know them at all. Worse, they rarely seem to present real challenges to the hero. As the books go on, some of the victories don't seem sufficiently hard-won to maintain tension going forward.

There were also some gender-based interactions and conflicts that felt a bit forced to me. As good as Hemry is at building strong, identifiable characters, I found myself wishing both that he'd apply that skill more to the enemy and that he'd make the gender conflicts more believable.

Overall, The Lost Fleet series was an enjoyable read that explored themes of command responsibility, military honor, and the effects of allowing long-term wars to affect both. I devoured all six books and would whole-heartedly recommended them to anyone who likes space fleet military sci-fi. As a series, all six of the books were of similar quality (which is somewhat rare in a long series like this, where certain books tend to stand out among the others) and I'd rate them as a B+. You can find the series from amazon at this link.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Getting Ready for the Renaissance Faire

June is when we start thinking about the Sterling Renaissance Festival. I got our tickets in May when they were on sale (I should have gotten them in December when they were even cheaper), and now we're waiting for the faire to begin in July. Yay!

Getting ready for the faire involves pulling out my kids' garb (that's the word rennies use for their period costumes), particularly so my daughter can try hers on. The boys don't worry about it too much, while my wife and I have had the same garb for years and it fits about the same as it ever did.

The next part of getting ready is that I pull out my CDs and we start listening to bands like Empty Hats. They've been my favorite Renaissance Faire band going back to the days of Double Indemnity in the 90s.

Next, I start browsing some Rennie websites again, mostly It's not a fruitful exercise, as this is the most active forum I've found and it's still pretty dead. There's also Family of Faire, but it gets even less traffic.If anybody knows of an active online community for the Sterling Renaissance Festival, I'd sure love to hear about it.

And lastly, this year I get to add one more preparation - I can play some of my favorite tunes on the guitar now. In addition to the lessons our guitar teacher has given us, my son and I are playing a selection of Renn Faire tunes each morning. If only I could master the F#m and Bm chords, I'd be able to play the heck out of the Renn Faire standard "Wylde Mountain Thyme." As it is, it sounds decent enough if you don't listen too closely at those parts.

Beyond all of that, it's just a countdown until the faire opens on July 4th weekend. I don't know for certain that we'll go the first weekend, of course. It's mostly up to the weather - you can have a LOT of fun at the faire in a light drizzle, but it's really no fun to be there when it's pouring or when it's scorching hot.

One thing I'm excited about is called Mock Faire Day. Apparently it's one of the best-kept "not really secrets" of the Sterling Faire. The Thursday before opening day is the cast's final dress rehearsal, and a full run-through of a day at the Faire. Since much of their acting is audience-participation, they welcome people to come in garb to help them rehearse. I took my daughter last year and it was an absolute blast. Walking the grounds that day took me back to when we first started going to the faire back in the early 1990s - it was a much more sylvan experience then, with more trees and fewer people. Last year there were a lot of new buildings and other changes to the grounds, and it was nice to get a chance to see them before the faire was open for business, too. I'm hoping that the weather and other factors (mostly the kids) cooperate such that we can go back again this year to help the cast and to enjoy a little alone-time with the place we love so much.

I like June and I'm not in any hurry to see it end, but when July gets here and the Renaissance Faire opens, we'll definitely be ready!

Friday, June 11, 2010

[Book Update] Closer and Closer

For the last couple of months, I've mostly felt off-kilter with my novel.

Let me explain. I was making good, forward progress for quite some time. I was banging out 1.5 chapters a week (or 3 chapters every two weeks) for a couple of months. It felt good - write a chapter, make a few little tweaks, and move on to the next chapter. BANG - BANG - BANG. One after the next.

Then I got myself side-tracked. I'm not complaining. I'm not second-guessing. I'm not even saying I shouldn't have done it, because it did need to be done. I desperately needed to fix Chapter 6, which was a crucial chapter for me in that it was where I had chosen to make a stand and say "By this point in the novel, my readers need to clearly understand X, Y, and Z about the setting, or they're going to get mad and wander off." So in Chapter 6 I had done what's called an "Infodump" - providing vast amounts of information without necessarily adding much to the action, the plot, or the character development of the story. You don't often need infodumps in mainstream fiction - everybody can pretty well imagine what life is like for a character of [insert gender] and [insert age] and [insert profession] who lives in [insert location] and is friends/spouses/lovers/related to [insert other characters] and has a problem of [insert conflict/dramatic tension]. But when you're telling a story that's most easily classified as "post-apocalyptic urban fantasy" (and note: I didn't say it WAS easily classified, just that that was the most easy classification), you have to do a lot of work to help your reader understand how different things really are from anything they've ever seen or experienced.

But I got a lot of complaints from my test-readers about that chapter being too much like a history book. I rewrote it, eventually splitting it into two chapters. But each of those chapters had a ripple effect on the parts I'd already written. The first chapter, which I've creatively titled Chapter 6b, borrowed a character from later in the book and introduced him much earlier. I brought his backstory forward, added a companion character so he could interact more through dialogue, and gave him a more prominent role. It ended up being the first part of a 3-chapter arc with that character (two of which are written so far).

The second chapter, which you might imagine correctly is titled Chapter 6c (for now), introduced a couple of character who were never intended to be anything but historical footnotes - they would originally have been mentioned by name and referred to by their deeds, but never actually entered the story as players - primarily because they lived fifty years before the beginning of the story's main action. One of these characters, a farmer named Luke, played a big role in the establishment of the setting where the first half of the novel takes place. He also ended up having himself a 3-chapter story arc (all three of which are now written).

So, if you count those up, there's six extra chapters that I either never intended to write or never intended to put in the places in the story where they ended up. As a result, everything else got shoved around and I was obliged to rework many of the existing 15 (or so) chapters, or at least most of the ones that followed the original Chapter 6. As of today I have reworked all of the existing chapters 7-13, and added one or two new ones in there that didn't exist before. I've also written a new Chapter 16, which finishes the arc I began in Chapter 6c. So, at long last, all I've got left is to make re-writes to chapters 14 and 15 and I'm finally caught up. Finally, I'll be in a position to move forward once again, which feels pretty darn good.

I'm very happy with the way the new and altered chapters worked out, don't get me wrong. I have absolutely no regrets about the time I put into working on them. But it never felt like I was moving the story ahead - it felt like I was stuck at the beginning of the story and unable to advance past it. I've got a big story to tell and I want to get to it. Soon, at last, I think I'll be able to. At the very least, I'm getting closer.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

All for the Sport

I've never really been into sports. I played little league for a couple of years because... I don't remember why. I suppose it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was terrible at it, though. I played left field (or maybe right field - I could never remember which was which. That was no doubt part of the problem.) and don't recall ever making any significant plays. In other words, I don't think the ball ever came anywhere near me, except when I was at bat. And my at bats always ended in strike-outs, except when I got beaned by the ball or on the odd occasion where I got walked.

I never played football or even watched it. I used to go to high school basketball games with my father, but I never played it at all or even developed a real appreciation for the sport. I usually sort of half-watch the Olympics when they're on, but more out of the same sense that "everybody else is doing it" that sometimes causes me to watch the Superbowl than out of any genuine interest.

As you might imagine, one of the results of this utter disinterest in athletics is that I don't own sporting equipment. And my wife's no more a sports fan than I am, so there no compensating going on there. It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that the result was likely to be that my kids would grow up with a similar disinterest in sports and with, if anything, perhaps even less understanding or appreciation for our national pastimes.

Granted, I'm not entirely sure I care. I'm of the opinion that the value our society places on athletics is way out of proportion to its actual contribution to the health and well-being of the people in it. The high school sports programs that are intensive prep-camps for college sports programs - the college sports programs that serve as intensive prep-camps for pro sports programs - it all seems like a big waste of energy, effort and money to me.

Still, I've certainly lived a life where I'm sometimes left baffled by sports-related small-talk by colleagues, clerks and neighbors. "How about the big game?" they'll say, looking all excited and happy. "There's a big game?" I'll respond, wracking my brain to at least narrow the "big game" down to a short-list of possible sports and levels. Collegiate basketball, perhaps? Pro baseball? Is it the playoffs already? Who the hell knows - I don't keep track of that sort of thing! But it's a little irritating at times to be left feeling out of step with much of society. I don't mind, really, but I don't want to intentionally subject my kids to that way of life if they don't choose it for themselves. I'd like them to at least have a passing familiarity with some of the more popular sports.

So I gathered up my family and we headed off to the used sporting-goods store. We didn't go hog-wild - I figured we ought to tackle one sport at a time. Plus, I'm not putting up a basketball hoop, so there's no need to get equipment for that sport. Baseball seemed like a good place to start. I at least played baseball once.

An hour later, we walked out with gloves for my three kids (plus one for my wife and me to share. I don't expect to have to do much sharing), a couple of balls, an aluminum bat and a T-ball T. To my surprise and relief, after spending over a hundred bucks on this stuff, my kids actually showed some enthusiasm to go outside and play catch. We've actually tossed the ball around almost every day since. My youngest is having a hard time mastering his fear of the ball and at the moment I'm not coercing him to play, too, but my daughter and son love to put on their gloves and throw the ball. They're getting the hang of throwing and catching, already, and I'll introduce the T and the bat sometime soon.

Hopefully this summer, I'll get them over to a Skychiefs game. I still think of them as the Chiefs and they still play in Macarthur stadium unless I stop and think about the name. It's tough - nearly all of their games are at 7:00 at night, which is pretty late considering my kids have an 8 PM bedtime. I found a 2:30 game in July, though, so that's at least one possibility. I'm never going to be one of those people who gets all worked up about sporting events, particular teams or will sit around watching sports on television. Sorry, kids - there's only so much I can do. But I can at least give them a foundation so that if they want to become sports fans themselves, they won't have to learn everything from the very beginning. And, if nothing else, it gets them outside for a little exercise!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Song Through the Years

Everything I Do (I Do It for You)

When my wife and I started dating, one of our first outings was to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at the Genesee Theater. It's a silly film, but we enjoyed it at the time not least of all because we were thrilled with each others' company. Now we still enjoy it, not least of all because of its sentimental value to us.

Recognizing that this movie was an integral part of our lives, I decided to include it in our wedding-day festivities. As a surprise to my wife, I had learned the lyrics, found an instrumental recording of the music, and arranged with the band at our reception for them to play the recording when I gave them the nod. At the right time, I hopped up on stage, professed my undying love for my new bride (who immediately ran in the other direction and had to be escorted back by my best man - nice work, Bill!), and sang her the Bryan Adams ballad "Everything I Do (I Do It for You)" from the Robin Hood soundtrack.

Fast-forward fifteen years. We now have three beautiful kids and we're as happy as ever. More, I love my wife even more now than I did back then. Fifteen years felt to me like a milestone - more substantive than a mere ten years, especially now that our children seem less like squalling sacks of spitup and more like real people. Plus, two of those people are now fledgling musicians! That gave me an idea!

First, I found the guitar chords for that classic ballad online. I told my guitar teacher I needed a bit of a hand, and he was glad to help. Even better, he had a full copy of the music and experience with the song - he'd performed it for his own wife some years ago! He helped me figure out how to play it (which started by changing the key from D-flat to D, because, you know, barre chords - ugh!) and he worked up a version of the solo as guitar tabs.

Next, it was off to see my daughter's piano teacher. Again, he was glad to help and we were grateful for his assistance. He also marked up the music so that it was playable at my daughter's level. She then improvised on her own and went far beyond the simple notes he worked out for her, but it was definitely helpful to have the notes as a baseline.

Then, we practiced. For FIVE MONTHS we practiced this song nearly every day, usually 2-3 times per session. Sometimes more. I also worked the solo on my own. We're extremely novice musicians, of course. My son and I have been playing the guitar for exactly one year. My daughter has a few more years on the piano, which is why her part sounds better. Oh yeah, and I don't really sing all that well, which doesn't help.

Anyway, keeping the thing a secret was probably the hardest part. It was supposed to be a surprise, after all. So we couldn't let my wife see the music. I had to come up with excuses to take my daughter to her piano lesson so I could talk to her piano teacher. I even made sure not to whistle the song, because I didn't want her wondering why it was in my head.

In the end, it came off pretty well. My mother cried, my wife was touched, and everybody got the message that she's a pretty special lady to me and to our kids. It's not going to win any awards or anything (far from it) and I never could manage to record a performance where I got the solo right (I CAN do it, I swear. Just not when it counts, apparently), but as amaturish displays of affection go, this one's right up there.

So here's the world premier of our performance of Everything I Do (I Do It for You).

Go ahead and comment if you like. Just remember - we're amateurs. I'm not even pretending we're professional caliber. This was a labor of love, and no talent is implied.

Monday, June 7, 2010

I Have a Dream

And by this I mean, more or less literally, a dream. Not something I'm actively working toward or ever expect to make happen, just something that I like to daydream about sometimes and which is probably neither practical or necessarily even completely desirable. It's one of those "if I could have things just how I wanted them and everything worked out perfectly" sort of dreams.

I've written more about the martial arts lately since my family and I started practicing again in February. But even when I wasn't actively training, I would still often imagine such a place.

Some martial arts schools are sleek and modern or traditional and elegant, and some are just wherever the teacher could find an affordable place to train. They all work. On the website for Sensei Barb Cruz's dojo, she quotes Goju Ryu founder Chojun Miyagi about the practice of the martial arts:

  • A large space is not required.
  • It may be practiced alone
 Still, there's nothing wrong with having a really nice place to train. Even better, wouldn't it be nice to have a unifying space that brought together avid practitioners of different styles? Wouldn't it be nice to have a large space and to practice with others who shared your enthusiasm?

So that's what I've envisioned - a martial arts academy designed specifically to give various martial arts schools in the Syracuse are a customized, dedicated, ideal place to train.

First, the architectural style: I see the structure as being strong and yet graceful - like the Martial Arts themselves. It would be built to reflect a blend of Asian architecture - Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Thai, Korean - but with materials practical to the study and training of martial arts in the Central New York climate. Better still, make it "green" in its construction, its materials and its use of energy - let the structure have its own balance, its own harmony.

Next the external layout: It should have one or more tall "towers" that are visible for a long distance and proclaim to those who see it only from a distance its Asian influences and traditional nature. I picture the ornate towers with the flared roofs that you see so often in images from places like China and Malaysia. An outer wall of stone or thick trees (or both) would help maintain a quiet space inside the academy for training and meditation away from the distractions of the modern world. Those entering the facility would pass symbolic gates reflecting entry into a place of tradition, respect and courtesy. Outside features (aside from a parking lot and other mundane necessities that I don't usually dwell on in my daydreaming) would include a jogging trail (because many schools include running in their training, especially for upper-belts) and - I like this part a lot - one or more level, grassy swards where instructors could choose to practice outdoors (weather permitting).

Finally, the internal layout: I've never quite made up my mind whether the iconic tower would be functional (perhaps a bell to chime the hours?) or just decorative. But I see the interior as having three distinct sorts of spaces:

The first sort of space would be somewhat mundane - you'd need an information desk where students and prospective members could get assistance (and where UPS can drop stuff off, etc.). You'd need a few offices for the (hopefully minimal) administrative staff - the people who operate the facility. A large conference room for the governing council to meet. To keep the individual "training halls" focused on their art, I'd envision a single retail outlet stocked with clothing and equipment common to most martial arts, as well as any specific items that individual head instructors wanted sold - a particular style, color or brand of uniform, for instance, or certain models of sparring gear suitable for their training. Traditional weapons, a selection of personal fitness equipment (hand targets and such) and probably some memorabilia like T-shirts that let people show their love of their art(s) and the academy.

Also in this initial space, I'd envision things like locker rooms and common areas so people could get around the academy. I often go back and forth about a fitness center, but usually I decide that having a place to do basic physical conditioning separate from their martial arts lessons probably would make sense for a lot of members, so I include such a facility as well. As my dreams get more grand, I often embrace the idea of a sports-focused physician on staff, someone to help in the case of training emergencies and with whom members could consult about training-related injuries. It's a dream, remember - I don't actually have to find a way to pay for this thing. Lastly, in my wilder imaginings there's a restaurant (Asian, presumably) where students could go to eat and socialize after class and where guests for larger events could be refreshed without having to leave the facility. Lastly, a library and small reading room would collect books, videos and other materials relating to the study of the martial arts.

The second type of space would be, naturally, the individual dojos. Each school operating at the academy would have a custom space suitable to their art's needs. If the instructor prefers hardwood floors to train on, then hardwood floors it is. If they need padded tatami mats such as for Aikido or Judo, then they'll have it. If they'd rather have modern interlocking foam pads on the floor, then let it be so. Likewise, the shape, layout, and decor of each space would suit the style that trains there. The walls and floors could and would be festooned with weapons racks, equipment storage, placards displaying the key tenets and values of the style, and whatever else the instructor wished (probably limited only by some aesthetic guidelines). I usually picture most of the dojos looking like the space from the classic kung-fu battle in "The Matrix" or Hai Fat's dojo in the James Bond Film "The Man with the Golden Gun" - very elegant, very traditional, with space for plenty of students but still suitable for small classes. There would be galleries for spectators, spaces for students to warm-up before and cool down after class, and somewhere, tucked away, offices for the dojo's senior staff. And lots of drinking fountains, because I get thirsty when I train.

There would naturally be more of these dojo spaces at any given time than would actually be in use. This would allow a particular dojo the option to move to a different, bigger space if their needs changed, or possibly to expand into a nearby space if applicable. It would also mean that small, less well-established dojos would have spaces where they could practice short-term if they were so inclined. These non-dedicated spaces would be available to the martial arts community, ensuring that instructors just starting out on their own or moving to the area from elsewhere would have an appropriate, if not customized, space.

The third and final type of space would be large indeed. Sometimes I envision it occupying the center of the academy, with the dojos arranged around its periphery. Other times I see it more off by itself. Either way, it's a large event hall suitable for holding demonstrations, tournaments, ceremonies (like dojo "class" graduations), and anything else where a very large space and seating for a few thousand people would be appropriate. Size, lighting, floor surfacing and such would all be customizable, and in the same aesthetic style as the rest of the facility, as much as possible. And good acoustics - nobody likes sitting at such an event and not being able to hear what's going on.

It's a great place, and I can see it in my mind as clearly as if I'd been there. What's a little less clear is the operation of the academy, probably because it's not as exciting and my daydreams bog down when they start to get boring. There'd need to be some equitable way for the instructors and their staffs to get paid and for students to get charged - the operation of the overall facility and the individual dojos would cost money, no matter how charitable everyone is feeling. I usually end up with some sort of "overall membership" system, where students join the Academy and then have their choice of where to train, adding on additional training sessions at an additional cost, perhaps. If one or more parents train, then the kids ought to be able to train at a considerable discount - both to promote whole-family fitness and because I don't think kids ought to be martial-arts cash cows.

The other place I bog down a bit is in the allocation of the dojo spaces and the "purity" of the Academy. How to decide that a particular Sensei should or should not be invited to add their school to the academy? How do you avoid the "McDojos" and the "Faux-jo" operations and ensure that every school at the academy has a high degree of integrity both in how it treats its students and in how it practices its art. I usually end up envisioning a sort of "governing council" of the Academy's senior instructors (with me, as the operations manager, carrying a powerful vote that ensures those senior instructors don't just play favorites or block somebody they don't care for without reason) who would evaluate and even actively recruit new dojos to join the academy. The ideal, in my mind, would be to have superlative representatives of a wide variety of different styles, such as Karate, Judo, Kung-fu, Muay-Thai, Aikido, Tae Kwon Do, and so on, all together under one roof. All representing the finest in martial arts training. All reflecting a long tradition and rich history of self-discipline, strength, flexibility, energy and balance.

It would grow to a world-renowned facility, where people would come from all over the country and the Earth for seminars, symposiums, competitions and just to train. It would serve as a focal point for martial arts thought, philosophy, and training - allowing for growth and understanding of these ancient disciplines.

It's entirely impractical. It's implausible even - especially in Syracuse, NY. That's why it's just a dream, but it's a good dream, I think. It's a place I can go to in my mind and visit, sometimes, and imagine what if it was real.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Book Covers

Put me down in the camp of folks who like their book covers to have something to do with the content of the novel. I understand that the people in charge of designing and selecting the covers for novels are trying to make the book look as appealing as possible so people will buy it. The cover is a marketing tool, just like the front of a cereal box or the packaging of a Wii.

But, all too often, it's false advertising!

For instance, I'm currently reading a series of novels called "The Lost Fleet." They're written by John G. Hemry under the pen-name of Jack Campbell, and they're quite good. I'm finishing the final novel in the series now and plan to write a review when I'm done. But their covers are a travesty. There's barely any ground action in these books - they're Horatio Hornblower-style space battles between fleets of naval vessels. They're actually very similar to David Weber's Honor Harrington books (in fact, if the two authors were to collaborate, the world might well explode from sheer awesomeness). So why, I'd like to know, do all of the covers feature the main character - John "Black Jack" Geary - in Marine battle armor wielding various enormous and fancy-looking ray guns??

I know the answer, of course - because it looks cool. But dammit, the Honor Harrington books are clear evidence that fleets of spaceships or a commander on the bridge of her flagship can be used to create compelling, exciting artwork for the covers of novels.

I can only conclude, therefore, that those publishers who choose to approve artwork that has nothing to do with the content of the novel are simply lazy. That's all - they could have, had they been so inclined, created cover art that was both an effective marketing tool and was true to the book's content, but they didn't feel like it. They wimped out. They were too busy or just not good enough to manage both, so they didn't even try - they gave up and went with the easy option.

For shame! When you've got good writers telling engaging stories and you've got talented artists at your disposal who can bring any image from imagination to reality, you're silly not to use them to their full potential.

Don't get me wrong, Hemry's latest novels aren't the sole examples of this activity, nor even the worst offenders. I mean, at least I can assume that the guy on the cover looks more-or-less like how the author imagines his protagonist as well as how he pictured Marine battle armor, it's just that he never envisioned them being smashed together and dumped on the cover (I presume - who knows? Maybe Hemry loves the covers). I also recall that back in the old Usenet days, it was common practice for the group members to pick apart the Darryl K. Sweet covers. But at least Sweet's artwork, imprecise as it often was, made a concerted effort to reflect what was in the novel. I recently saw a post on John Scalzi's blog where he discussed one of his novels' foreign covers and how it bore not the slightest resemblance to anything in the book. That's crap, and as a reader it annoys me.

So that's it. Novel covers - if somebody's going to put their heart and soul into writing the damn thing, then the editor in charge of the cover art ought to at least put some effort into selecting imagery that's true to the novel while still serving as an effective enticement to get people to buy it. Anything less is shoddy work.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

No More Games

For most of my life, my predominant hobby has been computer games. I also read a lot and watch television, and I've dabbled in other hobbies, but computer gaming has been the main one going back to the early 1980s. I started with text-based adventure games like Zork, except even older.


You see jungle.


You see jungle.


You see jungle. There is a large tree here.

>Climb tree

Looking out over the jungle's leafy green canopy, you see the ruins of an ancient pyramid to the north. There appears to be a river to the east.

That sort of thing. Then I graduated to online games like Dungeons of Kesmai and later Islands of Kesmai on the Compu$erve mainframe service. We players put the $ in the name because it was friggin' ten cents a minute to play! And that was during non-peak hours!

By the mid-80s, we finally had access to more progressive games like the Sierra Online King's Quest series, Wizardry, and other classics. Ten years later, I was gaming heavily and by the late-90s I was writing game reviews for the Central New York PC User's Group newsletter and fanatically following game development through magazines like PC Gamer.

By the early 2000s, my love of gaming led me to one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life and, in a wonderfully serendipitous turn of events, to two of my three main gigs as a writer to date. Through an online community I was a part of, I was invited to join the World of Warcraft "Friends & Family Alpha Test." It was a closed, invitation-only test where you had to know somebody inside Blizzard Entertainment to get in. Which I did. And it was WONDROUS! I played that damn game practically non-stop for as much as eighteen hours a day for about four months. I realized I was getting a little loopy about it when I went to the supermarket and felt paranoid that a fellow shopper who was picking out lettuce was "Camping my Herb spawn." You'd have to play the game to know what that means, but to me it meant that I needed to take some time off. Regardless, it was some of the most fun I have ever had. The game as it existed by the time they released it ended up being a bit of a disappointment to me and I didn't play it for the first two years that it was out, BUT it still served to catapult me into a writing job.

You see, the WoW F&F Alpha was not only a closed test, but we players were all under a Non-Disclosure Agreement. This meant that there was precious little first-hand information for the game magazines to publish about the title that would become the most-successful online game in history. On the day that the NDA was lifted, I sent a proposal to PC Gamer for an "insider" article about the game. They snapped it up and before I knew it I was a game reviewer! Whee! The pay was crap and I was never really happy with either the games I was reviewing or the copy I was writing, but I was writing for a nationally-published magazine for about a year and it's an experience I'll always remember.

This came a couple of years after my role as President of the Central New York PC User's Group brought me to the attention of the producer/director of the local Time-Warner TV Show "Point 'n' Click." I ended up becoming a regular on the show as both a co-host and as the regular game reviewer with my own segment - The Game Arena. This was an awesome gig because not only did I write the reviews and get paid for them, but I got to choose the games AND I got to be on TV. For a ham like me, that counts for a lot. Again, the pay was nothing much and the best guess on viewership placed it at a few thousand, but I was writing reviews and producing them for a TV show! Whee! That was awesome!

In the years following my first taste of WoW and my gigs as a game reviewer, I had a bunch of little kids and got really busy with work, so my gaming time dropped off quite a bit. I never quit, I just didn't play as much as before. Lately, however, something's different.

You probably didn't notice that I never posted a review of Ghostbusters. I really meant to, except I never finished it. In fact, I'm stuck. I keep re-playing the same level over and over, and I just can't beat it (though I came sort of close once). Now, it's not as if this has never happened before. In the past, I'd look up a hint online or possibly even find cheat-codes to let me get past the area I'm having trouble with. But I just can't seem to muster the energy to do that.

I tried to move on to another game - the very well-rated Bioshok - but that didn't work either. I just don't feel like playing games. For the first time in more than 30 years, I don't feel like it. It's weird. I can't explain it. It doesn't feel like anything's wrong - I'm perfectly happy and, in fact, in some ways I feel happier than I've felt in a long time. I think I've fully decompressed from my last two jobs, both of which were extremely high-stress positions where I spent a ton of time dealing with people who seemed to be deliberately trying to make my life as difficult as possible. My wife recently mentioned that I was much more willing to go out and do "fun stuff" with her and the kids, like picnics or just running errands. I thought about it and realized that it was true. "Of course," I said, "when I was working I was swamped from Monday through Friday and then on the weekend I was exhausted, grumpy and desperately trying to recuperate before I had to wade back into battle for another week."

So it's not as if I'm depressed or anything like that. I've just lost interest in computer games all of a sudden. I've watched my interest-level dwindle for a year or more, perhaps as far back as when I decided that World of Warcraft (which I finally did subscribe to for a couple of years) was a mostly-pointless exercise that was sucking up too much time and money. I didn't lose my gamer mojo right away, it just sort of petered out until now, it's gone completely. Dunno where it went. Kind of don't care. If I were still a hard-core gamer, it would be one more thing to distract me during the day when I'm supposed to be writing, and I have enough trouble with that as it is. So I'm not crying about it, but I did notice it.

It's not necessarily permanent, of course. I may see a game that really jazzes me up and suddenly I'll be back into it. If they finally made a worthy successor to the Heroes of Might and Magic games (like HOMM 3, which was hands-down the best of them all), I'm sure I'd jump on it with both feet. But for now, it's all a memory of fun times rather than a current diversion. I can live with that, and I'll remember those good times fondly. Thank you, computer games. Thank you for countless hours of fantasy and imagination, fun and excitement, frustration and heroic victory. Thank you for opening some doors and giving me experiences I'd have completely missed without you. Thanks for scaring me, making me laugh, filling me with awe and making me feel like a champion. I still have most of my favorites, in their original boxes, surrounding me on their shelves as I work every day. So, in a sense, they're always with me. Certainly they're always a part of me. It's a part I wouldn't trade for anything.

Quick Schedule Reminder

I can see from the traffic analyzer for this site that folks are hanging with me, which is terrific. I'm going to try to get up another article or two this week, but that's going to be tough with two sessions at LaValle's Karate and two (possibly three) nights of Goju Ryu Karate. I can't allow myself to take time away from my novel, either - once I start doing that, it's a slippery slope to the land of "never finishing my novel." It's already falling way behind the timeframe I'd hoped to complete it in (my original estimate was to be wrapping it up in April, with May as a buffer before the kids got out of school in June. I can see now that I'll be very lucky to be half-done by June).

So while I don't want to discourage folks from checking back for updates, I also didn't want to leave anyone frustrated that posts were few and far-between, for this week, anyway.

I do hope everyone had a terrific Memorial Day.