Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books Read in 2011

For posterity's sake, it's nice to capture a list like this. Here are all the books I read this year, either to myself or to my family:

Dune Messiah (Frank Herbert) (approximately my 5th attempt to read the sequel books to the absolutely stupendous DUNE. As with the others, this attempt ended in pain, but not until the 4th book, which is farther than I'd ever gotten before).
Children of Dune (Frank Herbert)
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan) (read to the whole family, complete with unique voices for each character)
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Sea of Monsters (Rick Riordan)
Kenpo Karate: The Law of the Fist and the Empty Hand (Ed Parker)
God Emperor of Dune (Frank Herbert) - it sucked
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Titan's Curse (Rick Riordan)
A Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin) (a re-read, probably for the 5th or 6th time, in preparation for the release of A Dance with Dragons)
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Battle of the Labyrinth (Rick Riordan)
A Clash of Kings (George R. R. Martin)
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Last Olympian (Rick Riordan)
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) (As with Percy Jackson, this was read to the whole family, mostly out on our deck in the warm summer evenings, complete with character voices)
A Storm of Swords (George R. R. Martin)
Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)
Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins)
A Feast for Crows (George R. R. Martin) - read twice
A Dance with Dragons (George R. R. Martin)
Japanese Swordsmanship: Technique And Practice (Gordon Warner & Donn F. Draeger)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J. K. Rowling) (as with Percy Jackson and The Hunger Games, this was read to the family with a plethora of character voices, all with as close as I can manage to a British accent)
Armor (John Steakley) (read almost entirely while sitting at the State Fair, saving seats for my daughter at the Big Time Rush concert)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J. K. Rowling)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J. K. Rowling)
The Fall (Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan)
I, Robot (Isaac Asimov)
The Passage (Justin Cronin)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J. K. Rowling)
Ed Parker's Infinite Insights into Kenpo Vol1 (Ed Parker)
Semper Mars (Ian Douglas)

Friday, November 11, 2011

One Day

Even though I'm not actively using my blog at the moment, I simply couldn't resist making a post today. It's November 11th, 2011. Also known as 11-11-11. And I'm timing this post to be at precisely 11:11 AM (I'll try to press "publish" at exactly 11 seconds in).

Sadly, I probably won't live to see February 22nd, 2222 at 2:22.22 AM. That'll be cool, too. But through the miracle of modern medicine, maybe I'll make it to November 11th, 2111. Or one of my clones will.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Rolling Up the Scroll

If you're reading this, there's a pretty good chance that you're my mom. Hi Mom.

Kidding aside, I haven't updated Virtual Vellum in quite some time, and at this point I'm planning to go on a long-term hiatus. I don't imagine that this will upset too many people, because so far as I could tell very few people ever read this blog. That's my fault, of course - if it were better, it would have soared to great heights.

Part of it, though, was also the unfocused nature of this blog. I have a lot of interests, but I'm not expert enough or knowledgeable enough about any of them to write 3-5 blog entries a week. The result is that anyone who shares one of my interests would have to slog through lots of posts on things that didn't interest them at all - my family, my writing, the guitar, martial arts, business, renaissance faires, politics, or whatever other nonsense I'd decided to write about. I would certainly find this deeply unsatisfying, and I've stopped reading blogs myself for the exact same reason.

This is all John Scalzi's fault, really. I read one of his books about writing, and part of his advice was that all new writers should harness the power of social media. It had worked well for him, after all. Well, yeah, but not necessarily in a way that would work for others. Scalzi got a big boost by being a writer for AOL, gaining regular followers that way. When he expanded onto the real Internet, that surely gave him a boost. Starting from scratch is hard, and I wasn't successful at it. Plus, I've since heard from other authors that having a devoted internet following can actually be a liability when dealing with publishers, as they may (and sometimes have) take the position that since you already have a loyal following, they don't need to invest money or effort in marketing your work.

And I won't lie - it's pretty disheartening to check your numbers and see that the same 20 or 30 people (tops) who were reading your blog a year ago are the same ones still reading it. On any given day, I was lucky to get a couple of dozen hits. That's paltry, and in the end it just doesn't inspire me to keep on going. It's understandable (see above), but it's not sustainable unless I'm getting some personal gratification out of doing it. Once it started to feel like a chore to put up a blog post that hardly anyone was going to read, I decided to call the whole thing off. For a while, anyway. Perhaps at some point I'll feel compelled to raise this blog from the dead, breathing life back into it and sending it forth once more to do my bidding. Until then, I want to thank my very small cadre of loyal readers who have read, enjoyed and sometimes even commented on my posts here over the last couple of years. Thanks for coming along for the ride!

Monday, June 27, 2011

I Write Too Much

I'm a classic example of the fact that knowing your weaknesses doesn't ensure that you'll correct them. Case in point: my emails are invariably too long. If the subject matter lends itself to or seems (to me) to require any amount of significant detail, I find myself utterly unable to be concise. There's simply too much information that I believe the reader needs to have, and the fact that the volume of info will cause the reader to skip over the bulk of it (possibly missing key points) is, in my mind, not so much irrelevant as unavoidable. Try as I might, I simply cannot bring myself to leave out key info. This has been a problem for me for many years. Time and again, people - friends, coworkers, even bosses - have told me that my emails are too long, too pretentious-sounding, and aren't as effective as they should be. Yet in every instance, they've also conceded that the information in them is absolutely valuable and necessary.

Therein lies the crux of my problem. It's not that the content of the emails is inappropriate, it's that the forum is. Emails don't lend themselves well to careful analysis. People don't expect to have to read them all that closely. After all, most businesspeople are likely to receive upwards of 100 emails in a given day (sometimes MANY more than that) and they get used to skimming them, glossing over the contents, and then moving on. And what's come along even more recently that's replacing email for many people? Texting - which is even shorter, less detailed, and less able to convey critical information.

I confess, this isn't something I've found an ideal solution to. My best approach, when something is really important, has been to call someone on the phone or speak to them in person. This way I can convey key info in detail, using tone of voice and inflection to hold their attention and help emphasize how vital the information is to them. This has several downsides compared to email, however, so it's not perfect. For example:

1. Email leaves a written record. The recipient can refer to it later to ensure they haven't forgotten anything. I can refer to it later to recall exactly what I said and when. It also serves as a CYA (ie. "Cover Your Ass") in the event that I have to defend what info I provided and at what time.

2. Email is convenient. I can write it whenever I have time, and the recipient can read it whenever they have the time. The approaches of using the phone or speaking face-to-face require that I work around my schedule and the schedule of whomever else I need to communicate with, which in the busy, meeting-intensive business world can take hours and result in a lot of lost time playing phone-tag.

3. My memory sucks. It sucks worse when I'm face-to-face with somebody and I have a mental list of things I need to tell them. Some mischievous part of my subconscious likes to ensure that I forget at least one important detail, maliciously blanking it from my memory. This means I have to either bring a list and refer to it (which doesn't always help - if I'm nervous for whatever reason, I'm inclined to forget to look at my list) or go back after and follow up with a, "oh yeah, I forgot." Both of those solutions look bad.

4. Unless I call a meeting or schedule a conference call, I can only face-to-face with one person at a time. It's not uncommon that the info I need to get across is relevant to a range of individuals. I can send one email to all of them at once, or spend hours (or days) trying to bring them together at a mutually-convenient time, hope all of them show up, and tell them in person. Assuming I've got the clout to call them together and get them to come.

One way to handle some of these issues is to have a face-to-face followed by an email where I recap the key points of the conversation. This ends up taking as much time as the email I'd have preferred to send in the first place, compounded with the time I had to spend tracking them down and having the conversation in person.

What I really need is a type of psionic mental command power with which I can compel people to just read my vital, useful, clever emails. The world would be a better place if they did. Hey, wait - you read this all the way through, right?

Friday, June 24, 2011

My Daughter's Finest Year

I write posts for a wide array of different reasons. Some are to share my thoughts on issues or to spread my opinion with a wider audience. Some are to convey knowledge. Some are just for fun. But a selection of articles here are for the future. Someday, many years from now, my kids will be able to read these posts and get a sense of their old dad's life at the time, his past, and even of their own younger selves. This is one of those.

My daughter's finishing up what I believe is her most successful year of school so far. Her grades weren't outstanding - she's a pretty solid B+ student who's going to have to work hard in coming years to compensate for the material she didn't quite master so far. But she had two incredible successes this year that, in the grand scheme of her life, surely will have a more profound effect on her than whether the grades on her report card were 5-10 points higher or not.

The first success had to do with her music. There are actually two performances in this category - one on the piano, the other on the trumpet. She's been a pianist now for... man, I think it's around five years. I'm sure she's been playing under her current instructor for at least four, and we'd brought in another fellow, Calvin, for a year or so prior to that to get her started. He was a lousy teacher, really - no clue how to teach at all - but it was enough to prove that she had some talent and enough interest that it was worth pursuing, so we kept going. As is her nature, she's not big on challenging herself, but every so often she finds a piece she really wants to play that's just a bit of a stretch for her and she tackles it. That happened this year.

In the spring, the school's new music teacher, Mrs. McGee, organized the school's first piano recital. It was awesome - I'd read about the recital's she'd held previous years at her old school before it closed, and I was always envious that our kids didn't get to do it here. And then they were! I don't recall what my daughter played - one of her own compositions, probably. For a couple of years she was churning them out pretty often and they were quite good. I really need to get them made into usable audio files sometime. Regardless, I don't remember what she played, but another girl played Journey's classic "Don't Stop Believin'" and my daughter fell in love with it. I had to go buy her the sheet music right away, and nothing would do until she learned it. To her credit, she practiced it relentlessly until she could play it perfectly and even without the music. For the last few months of the year, she's played it around school whenever anyone would let her at the piano, and I gather she's gotten a pretty positive response, even from kids who've known her for years and have heard her play lots of times in the past. That's pretty cool!

Granted, it's not as cool as what she did with her trumpet. She's been playing the trumpet for about three years, and I've forced her to practice 30 minutes every weekday throughout that time. It wasn't easy, either - she's about the least self-motivated kid you'd want to meet when it comes to anything she doesn't really want to do. Strike that - the reality is, she struggles with things that are challenging, and prefers to avoid them. Sorry, kiddo - I call 'em like I see 'em. Anyway, she wouldn't be caught dead just going in, picking up her trumpet (or sitting at the piano) and playing without being forced to. But after a few years of wrangling, at least she finally relented to actually doing her daily practices without a tantrum, which I can live with.

After her first year with the trumpet, we asked her band teacher for suggestions of material she could work on over summer break. The teacher sent us off to the music store, and we came home with two books. One had various "traditional" tunes, from the Battle Hymn of the Republic to When the Saints Go Marching In, Tom Dooley, and even The Entertainer. For whatever reason, she took an instant dislike to that book and hasn't touched it in two years. The other book was sheet music from various movies, including The Lord of the Rings, Rocky (Gonna Fly Now), the Pink Panther and others. She messed around with that one a little, but didn't really try to play anything out of it for a year or so. Eventually, she learned to play the theme from the Lord of the Rings movies and the Pink Panther. And boy, does she play the hell out of the Pink Panther.

She not only has the notes down - playing it without any of the squealed missteps that were pretty common during the first couple years when she was still learning the instrument - but she can actually make this cool growling sound that fits the tune perfectly. As young as she is, it's a pretty impressive piece to hear her play. Granted, the sheet music in that book is abridged so there's a sizable section of the original tune missing, but when you're listening to her play that's the last thing on your mind.

So this year she really nailed that tune and played it often. She practiced it just about every day here at home, and I gather she wasn't shy about playing it at school during her band practice and instrument lessons, either. Diving briefly off-topic, it's funny to listen to her talk about her peers and their music. As much as she hates to practice, she has no patience with the other kids, most of whom (she believes, probably not incorrectly) don't practice much if at all. She's forever complaining about it, entirely disregarding her own reluctance. I suppose not all parents choose to "make their stand" on the hill of instrument practice. Eh, you choose your battles, and I decided this one was worth fighting for. I personally regret never learning a lesson, an omission I'm doing my best to rectify now with my guitar lessons. But I digress.

Evidently she impressed her band teacher with the tune, because at their spring band concert, the teacher did something I've never seen done before in the 9-10 band performances I've attended these last few years - she let my daughter do a solo of the Pink Panther, accompanied by the band teacher on trombone and another young fellow on the drums. She got up there and played and growled and blasted her way through that tune, and it caught the packed auditorium of parents completely by surprise. When she was done, the applause was tremendous and I don't think I've ever seen her look happier. Well, maybe once...

You see, her other big achievement this year was as Sarah Brown, the lead in the class musical Guys and Dolls. I don't think she's ever wanted anything in her life as much as she wanted that part. She saw her friend gearing up to be Annie in last year's musical and she just knew she had to be up there on the stage belting out songs and performing for the crowd. She immediately started asking what this year's play would be and, once they told her, she set out to learn everything she could. She watched the DVD (the old one with Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson), the learned the songs, and dissected the parts and figured out which one she wanted, then she went for it. I discovered that she was schmoozing with the Art and Music teachers - who'd be casting the parts and directing the show. I found her singing the character's songs to make sure she knew them cold. Then it was time for the audition. Then the call-backs. Then the cast list. She got it!! She'd gotten the part! I swear, she was walking three feet off the ground for a solid month after that, possibly two.

When she got her script, she relentlessly stuffed every line, every song, every scene into her brain until she knew it inside and out. She even marshaled her fellow performers, helping to herd them into place when they didn't hit their entrances or their marks. She learned her leading man's lines because his head wasn't entirely in the game and he had a tendency to forget them. And when it came time for the one big night, she gave it everything she had. She sang, she spoke her lines, she hit her marks and she played her part like a pro. I've never been prouder of my girl, and she was absolutely beaming with pride. She knew she'd hit it out of the park. She knew she'd nailed it cold. And if she hadn't known, the onslaught of well-wishers - people she knew, people she didn't know, and practically every kid in the school - would certainly have made it clear.

And I never made her practice anything for it. I never (well, almost never) nagged her about learning her lines or practicing her songs. Her mom and I supported her and let her run with it. She was self-motivated, self-driven, and determined, and she achieved everything she could have dreamed of. I hope some kind of lesson, some deeper meaning, came out of it for her, because I know she's capable of so much if she just believes in herself. Perhaps, just perhaps, after such an incredible, successful year, she'll figure that out for herself, too. The school year's over as of today - here's hoping for many more great ones yet to come!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Social Deals - The Real Thing (for Some Businesses)

There's a lot we have to learn at Five Star Martial Arts, and I don't just mean Karate. A big part of my job is to leverage my business experience to pave over some of the bigger potholes and speed bumps before we hit them, but a lot of what we face is new to me as well. I've never been responsible for advertising, for example, so now I have to draw on what I've learned in my MBA program and what I've seen my friends in the Marketing Departments do.

And some of our challenges are just plain new, because they involve technologies and services that simply didn't exist before. Social Marketing is one big one - using Facebook to serve existing customers by providing a constant (daily) stream of news, events, motivation, encouragement, recognition, articles and other information. It also serves potential new customers, giving them a taste of what we're all about, showing how active and dynamic we are, and showing that we're "hip," using this new technologies that a lot of our competitors either don't bother with or don't use with energy and consistency the way we do. Sadly, it's hard to draw conclusive effectiveness data from social marketing on Facebook. Did we actually get any new students or retain any existing ones because we were using Facebook aggressively? I have no way to really tell, but it seems like a good idea anyway.

The other brand-new technology is the "Daily Deal" form of social marketing. I'm referring of course to tools like Groupon and Livingsocial (among many others). I'm not personally responsible for using this tool at my business, but I have input and I try to account for it in my strategic business planning. And a powerful tool it can be, if used for the right purposes. Sort of like The Force, I suppose.

I read an article recently about how Groupon, as a company, is more or less one big Ponzi scheme, paying today's bills with the deal they're going to offer tomorrow, and so on. Moreover, the article argued that companies dealing with Groupon were at severe risk of digging themselves into a hole, relying on the sales of new Groupon offers to pay for the supplies they needed in order to fulfill the previous ones they'd sold. Well, here - you can read the article for yourself: Why Groupon is Poised to Collapse.

I can't entirely disagree with the article, because I just don't have enough facts. But I can sort of disagree, because I've personally seen some incredible results using these tools. I even left a comment about it on that article. Here it is:
Like any other business tool, companies need to be smart about how they use Groupon. It's not going to be for every business. You can only afford to sell at or below your cost for a very short time before you overload yourself and go under. The business I work with - a martial arts and fitness center - has been EXTREMELY HAPPY with Groupon and LivingSocial. They bring us QUALIFIED LEADS in the form of customers who have already paid for the privilege of trying us out before they've even walked in the door to see the place. Read that again - they PAID for the privilege to come see what we're all about. And what we give them back in return effectively costs us nothing (at least in terms of inventory or product) - it's the service of our knowledge and our classes, both of which were going to be there anyway. Granted, when we sold over 200 fitness classes the first time - expecting to sell 20-30 if we were really lucky - it stressed us out a bit and we needed to buy some extra equipment in a hurry, but it was totally worth it and then some. The cash we got from Groupon itself was a pittance, but the new customers we gained - especially those we've been able to convert into long-term clients under contract - are irreplaceable. PLUS, we've managed to get in the game early and beat our competitors to the punch. We consistently see them showing up AFTER us with similar deals that sell much worse than ours - because we've already captured that market.

I'm positive that a lot of companies would lose their shirts using Groupon. That may arguably even be Groupon's fault if they're overselling their own product and not divulging the ristks, but I can say with confidence that it's a tremendous service for the right industry, and we're thrilled we got on board with them when we did.
I'll tell you, success feels good, and these new "social" tools feel like they're successful to me. They're working like crazy for us, anyway. Every business struggles with basic challenges like building brand identity and getting the word out to potential new customers. How can anybody find out how awesome you are if they've never heard of you. Advertising is expensive, but Groupon (as one example) PAYS YOU for the privilege of advertising your services to a broad range of customers. And it pulls them in by the truckload. If you're the right kind of business to take advantage of that without losing more than you can afford in the deal, maybe you can win with social deal marketing, too.

Monday, June 20, 2011

America - Land of the Sports Silos

In business, the term "silo" deals with business units, departments, or product lines that have been segmented apart from each other. It's not usually a good thing - there's little or no communications, knowledge-sharing, or exchange of resources across an organization that's been silo'd.

I'm not talking about business here, though. I think we're a culture of silos here in America - everything is "for ____________, not for ___________," For instance, baseball is for boys, not for girls. Actually, all but a handful of sports seems to fall into that pattern, and the ones that are open to girls... nobody seems to care about except for the players and their families. It's not just a gender issue, though. Since getting re-involved in the martial arts at Five Star Martial Arts, I've noticed that it transcends all aspects of our society. For example:

Karate is for little kids, not adults.
Yoga is for women, not men.
Tai Chi is for old people, not young people.
Zumba is for women, not men.

What's strange about all of these, is that they're demonstrably, historically both untrue and actually backwards. Karate, for instance, was practiced exclusively by adults (primarily men) for most of the last 100 years. In some dojos, and especially in Japan, no one under 16 can even achieve a full black belt rank. Yet in the U.S., Karate is seen as being for little kids, and adults seem to dismiss it as something to keep the kids entertained rather than a true combat art.

Yoga has been around for hundreds of years, and throughout that entire time, the leading practitioners, teachers, and masters of Yoga have been... say it with me... MEN! That's right, Indian guys were the creators of Yoga and its primary practitioners for centuries.

Tai Chi is, of course, Chinese. And in China, freaking EVERYBODY does it. Young or old, male or female, it makes no difference. In China, 1.35 billion people all recognize the benefits of Tai Chi, but in the U.S. I've literally see classes where nobody under the age of 50 was welcome. Seriously? What the hell!?!

Oh, and Zumba? Zumba's easy. It was created by Alberto "Beto" Perez, and the company's senior managers are all guys.

I was a teen when I started karate - so was my wife. Now I'm middle-aged, and I'm back at it harder than ever. I'm getting a lot of benefit out of Yoga practice, too. I'd love to learn Tai Chi as well, and hope to at some point. What I don't get is how to break down the silos? How do you convince Americans - who love to engage in the game of "it's for ____________ not ___________" - that they're missing out on some amazing fitness because they perceive it as being for some other demographic group? I'll have to work on that one. And I'll rely on all my various fitness options to help put me in the proper frame of mind to figure it out.

Friday, June 17, 2011

[D&D] Monster Mythology - Jurlexatial the Reclaimer's Servants

So I'm undertaking a small contribution to the "Monster Mythology" project over at Purple, the "Home of 2nd Edition AD&D." On Wednesday, I posted my old notes on humanoid god Jurlexatial, the All-Father. Today, I'll expand on his servants - the priests and paladins who have entered his service.

The Priesthood
Known as Disciples, Hunters, and in groups, Packs. The priests of Jurlexatial are, at this point, indoctrinated through dreams of the Vanquisher, instructed in the methods of worship and lured with (justified) promises of wielding power beyond that which any Shaman possesses (spells as high as 7th level!). They are appearing throughout the humanoid populace, but can expect little direct aid from their weakened god beyond granted powers and spells. Any “humanoid” race can join the ranks of the priesthood, including gnolls (and flinds), goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, orcs (and orogs), ogres, and so on (see Complete Book of Humanoids). Even some of the lesser giants, such as furbolg, fomorian, and verbeeg, could conceivably join the faith. The priests are expected to be aggressive and independent in surviving and spreading the faith.

Major - All, Animal, Combat, Healing, Necromantic, Guardian
Minor - Divination, Elemental, Plant, Protection

Granted Powers
1st Level:
Turn Undead
+4 to attacks and damage vs. Shamans of humanoid "gods"
Pass without trace through underbrush at full movement rate
Tracking ability as a ranger
Bonus Proficiencies:
Weapon - Great Axe Specialization (1d10/2d6)
Non-Weapon - hunting

3rd Level:
Claws of the Beast (see below) 2/day

5th Level:
Incite Berserker Rage in other humanoids, conveying +2 to attack and damage rolls.
- takes 1 round of chanting and affects up to 1 creature per level who cannot be engaged in combat during the round of chanting (must be within 15-20’, must be able to hear, etc.). The first creature affected is always the caster.

7th Level:
Shapeshift into one type of carnivorous animal, 3/day
    - change includes clothing and weapons
    - must declare the type of animal when reaching 7th level.

May only eat meat - immune to raw-meat-related diseases.
Must pray with flames and incense to receive spells.
Sexual contact is prohibited (as a result of the repercussions of Jurl coupling with the goddess)
Must hunt during the full moon. Failure to kill prey results in a -1 to saves and the loss of one spell per spell level until the next full moon.
Blunt weapons, including flindbars, are prohibited.

Claws of the Beast (Alteration)
   Duration: 1 round/level
   The use of this power causes the priest's hands to
   temporarily develop short, thick claws. This allows the
   priest to make two attacks per round, doing 1d4+1 hp
   damage per claw, and allowing attacks against monsters
   struck only by +1 or better weapons. The caster is still
   able to manipulate objects while this power is in effect,
   and can cast spells as well. Activation of this power is at
   will and instantaneous.

Paladins of Jurlexatial are the militant arm of the Hunter. They almost always reside on the surface, though paladins do exist among subterranean dwellers. Their abilities may be modified or completely different. The surface paladins are master hunters and warriors. They are expected to expand the faith just as priests do, but are also called upon to lead battles both against the shamans of the "sons" and against human and demi-human civilization. Paladins slain by "civilized" races are automatically called to hunt with Vurkhon, while paladins who die in battle against shamans are rumored to become tortured spirits, trapped between life and death until they are able to slay their enemy. The brotherhood of Jurlexatial’s paladins is open to all humanoid races (see “Complete Book of Humanoids). Some of the lesser giant species, such as hill giants, furbolg, fomorian, and verbeeg, could conceivably become paladins, also.

Major - All, Animal, Combat, Healing, Necromantic, Guardian
Minor - Divination, Elemental, Plant, Protection

Granted Powers
1st Level:
+4 to attacks and damage vs. shamans of humanoid "gods"
Tracking proficiency as Ranger (+1 per 3 levels)
Immune to disease
Move Silently as Ranger
Hide in Shadows as Ranger
    - Both require studded leather armor or lighter
    - Both work in natural surroundings only (reduced to 1/2 in cities or dungeons)
Bonus Proficiencies:
    Weapon - Great Axe Specialization (1d10/2d6)
     Non-Weapon - Hunting

3rd Level:
Pass without trace through underbrush at full movement rate.

5th Level:
Call for animal companion (a 2-4 HD carnivore that will join the paladin and live at his side). Typical examples – worgs/wolves, bears, large cats, etc.

9th Level:
Cast spells as per paladin spell table
Berserker Rage 1/day, conveying +2 to attacks and damage.
    - takes 1 round to initiate, lasts until all enemies are vanquished.

May only eat meat personally killed.
Must pray with flames and incense to receive spells.
Sexual contact is prohibited (as a result of the repercussions of Jurl coupling with the goddess)
Must hunt during the full moon. Failure to kill prey results in a -1 to attack, damage, and saves until the next successful full moon hunt.
Blunt weapons, including flindbars, are prohibited.
Must make war on humans, demi-humans, and servants of the "sons."
Paladins disdain missile weapons.

So that's it for Jurlexatial. If you like this or use it in your game, I'd love to hear from you.

This material is copyright Virtual Vellum, 2011. Permission to reproduce for personal, non-profit use is granted. All other rights, including publication or transmission online, distribution, or publication for profit are reserved.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

[D&D] Monster Mythology - Jurlexatial the Reclaimer

Through the web forums at Purple, the "Home of 2nd Edition AD&D," I've decided to join in on the "Monster Mythology" project, at least with one entry. I remember being really fond of the "Complete Book of Humanoids" - it opened up a whole plethora of new races and cultures to explore. I liked it so much that I even ran an all-humanoid campaign for a short time. We didn't get very far with it, but I had fun designing the campaign and the adventures, including a god just for humanoids, with his own history, goals, challenges, and priestly class. And so I give you Jurlexatial the Reclaimer!

Jurlexatiel, the Reclaimer  - god of all humanoids
    Other names:        Jurlexatial the Overlord - ancient
                                 Jurl, the All-Father
                                 Jurl, One-Eye
                                 Khurmidg - gnoll for “hunter”
                                 Vurkhon - hobgoblin for “father”
                                 The Reborn (new)
                                 The Vanquisher (new)
                                 Dark Father

[As described by Murlek, ancient Orcish prophet]
When the world was new and the gods were young, Jurlexatial and his fellow deities ruled the land and heavens. Each took a part in creating the land and its inhabitants. Thus were the men and elves and dwarves and animals born. Some gods took sway over the forests, some the heavens, others the meek. There were gods for building, for music and dance, gods of duty and gods of darkness. Jurlexatial, for his part, was primarily one of the latter. He chose to create animals of strength and cunning to populate the forests. His creations preyed upon the weak and slow and kept them from becoming too numerous.

One day, while walking in the gardens of heaven, the Hunter came upon a maiden goddess who had given wisdom and skill to man and elf and dwarf. Overcome with desire, Jurlexatial forced himself upon this goddess in the gardens. He then dragged her unconscious body to his home and kept her there.

Each morning, the Overlord would come to her and demand that she swear her undying devotion to him. He would then give her until nightfall to consider her answer. Each dusk, Jurlexatial would return and each dusk the goddess would spit in his face. Each night he would ravish and beat her until she fell unconscious, then leave again to hunt with his animals. As an immortal, the goddess knew that this daily beating could continue for eternity.

She began to foster a hatred for the god of the hunt which overcame even her immense wisdom. As time progressed, the seeds of Jurlexatial's assaults began to germinate and the goddess grew large with child. As the months passed, the goddess grew as large as a hut, and the Hunter became anxious to see his children.

Seeing that her impregnation pleased Jurlexatial, the goddess bent her thoughts inward. In each child's mind, she planted a hatred for Jurlexatial as blinding as her own. Their minds and bodies became twisted with a thirst for blood. While implanting this hatred, she also robbed them of the wisdom which she had given to man. Every day she infused her offspring with the cruelest thoughts and the most burning hatred.

Eventually, the goddess became so swollen that she burst, and from her ruptured corpse emerged the sons of Jurlexatial. So were born the gods of the bugbears, gnolls, hobgoblins, kobolds, lizard men, ogres, and orcs. They sprang, fully-grown, from their mother and immediately devoured her.
Jurlexatiel was pleased with his progeny. They carried many of the characteristics of his hunting animals, yet stood erect and showed intelligence. Naming himself the All-father, Jurlexatial immediately began to train his sons to hunt and track and live in the wilds. He taught them the secrets of creation and magic. When he felt they had learned all he could teach them, he gave them power over his creations and retired to the great forest to spend the rest of eternity hunting.

[As revealed to the new Disciples of Jurlexatial]
In fact, the sons of Jurlexatial did not wait for their father to leave on his own. When they felt they had learned enough, they rose against him and destroyed him, or so they thought. They then used their limited abilities to create followers in their own images, and set them into the forests and hills and caves where they would be safe from the children of the other gods. Though they took great interest in their offspring, they were never true gods and did not possess the power of their father. Thus, their shamans and witch doctors could never hope to wield magic like their human and elven counterparts and their children were safe only in great numbers.

That was thousands of years ago. Jurlexatial has now awakened from his death-like slumber. Weakened by his long absence and lack of worshipers, he cannot yet deal with his sons. Instead, he has reached out to the minds of his sons' creations and offered them power in return for service. Centuries from now, when his priests have sway over large tribes of humanoids, Jurlexatial plans to wipe out all of his sons' shamans and kill each of the sons in turn. Then, he will claim what he feels is the humanoids' rightful place in the world. He believes that humans and demi-humans have thrived unfairly because the humanoids had only demi-gods to watch over them. Jurl plans to launch a crusade against the humans, with an army of humanoids in his service.

Jurlexatial - Intermediate/Greater God
Jurl has always been a cold, blood-thirsty hunter. He is a god of carnivores. He takes what he wants and needs, disregarding others. He is a master hunter and warrior, thrilling in conquest and bloodshed.
The overlord deeply resents both the actions of his sons and the fact that his "people" are being driven deeper into the forests as mankind and demi-humans expand their territory. He welcomes all humanoids to his breast and seeks to unite them. He is no paragon of wisdom, but has an animal cunning and an innate sense of the hunt which makes him extraordinarily dangerous in battle.

Check back for priest and paladin character class descriptions for followers of Jurlexatial! If you like this or use it in your game, I'd love to hear from you.

This material is copyright Virtual Vellum, 2011. Permission to reproduce for personal, non-profit use is granted. All other rights, including publication or transmission online, distribution, or publication for profit are reserved.

Monday, June 13, 2011

My First Seminar

On Saturday, June 11th, I attended my first martial arts seminar. The key word there is "my." I've attended lots of seminars, especially when I've trained at Aikido of Central New York, both now and in the past. I love seminars - so much knowledge and training packed into a few hours. But Saturday was the first seminar that I was personally responsible for. I proposed it to my Senseis at Five Star Martial Arts. And to their credit, they gave me the go-ahead, even though they really didn't know much about Aikido. I then made the arrangements with Yousuf Mehter Sensei at Aikido of CNY, who was extremely gracious to such a young dojo that had never done anything like a guest seminar before. I scheduled everything, created all of the marketing materials, and promoted the seminar for the better part of a month. At the seminar, I greeted all of the attendees, checked everyone in at the front desk, and showed our guests around the dojo. My Senseis even kindly allowed me to make the opening introductory remarks and kick off the day's training. This was my baby - something I'd never done before.

I confess, I was a bit nervous leading up to this. I take a lot of pride in doing a good job, in being successful, and in serving with quality and distinction whenever I take on a task. I wanted this to be a big success, for many reasons. Of course, my own personal credibility was on the line. It would have been very embarrassing to me and to my dojo if nobody showed up for this seminar. As it was, we had to shift the children's class into the main adult seminar because only a handful of kids signed up (and most of them were mine). But more than that, this was the very first guest seminar at my home dojo, and its success or failure could easily have an impact on the future of seminars at our school.

I believe martial arts seminars are important. Learning from different instructors who are recognized as experts in their style is truly valuable. More, I think that exposure to different styles is useful to the martial artist who wants to be well-rounded and to understand all ways that different styles approach movement, strikes, blocks, stances, grappling, and all of the other aspects of hand-to-hand combat, fitness, training methodology, and martial arts theory. I also like the way seminars can bring people together from different dojos to meet, train with each other, and form part of a larger martial arts community.

As such, I sincerely want seminars to be available as a regular, ongoing part of the training for Five Star's Karate students. And the only way that's likely to happen is if they're successful, well-attended, and well-regarded by the students, the Senseis, and the other martial artists in the area. So when I say that Saturday's seminar could easily have had a long-term impact - positive or negative - on the future of seminars at Five Star, it's not difficult to believe.

Fortunately, it was a huge hit. We had about 20 total participants, including some senior students from Aikido of CNY who were extremely helpful to the Aikido novices at Five Star.  Sensei Mehter spent two solid hours teaching us a series of techniques that all built on the basics of the style - notably Ikkyo, Nikyo, and Sankyo. He was a terrific instructor as always, and really great with the six kids and pre-teens who attended. In between techniques, he would call the children up to the front to show what they'd learned, which they all seemed to really enjoy. And so did everyone else. The look of wonder on everyone's face was incredibly gratifying. The awe and amazement they expressed at what we were learning sent my spirit soaring. THIS is exactly how a seminar is supposed to be - enthusiastic martial artists being blown out of the dogis by the fantastic new knowledge they're learning that's different from anything they've trained in before.

I got to make the rounds a lot, working with everyone and lending the benefits of my limited experience to those with even less than I have. I got to experience their joy up close. Now looking back on it a couple of days later, I'm filled with gratitude to everyone who helped bring the seminar together and make it a success - to Mehter Sensei, to Senseis Pastore and Napoli, to the attendees from Aikido of CNY and the Oswego Aikido Club, and to the student participants from Five Star Martial Arts. The bar has been set and set high - our next seminar will have to be outstanding to compare with this one, but at least everybody will know that a Five Star Seminar means the best in quality martial arts instruction. People will talk, word will get out, and the next time Mehter Sensei comes and teaches for us (if he graciously agrees to return in a year or so, perhaps), I fully expect to have twice as many people on the floor, eager to see why everyone raved about this seminar so much. I know I'll be there!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

[Karate] Yoga and the Severely Inflexible

My body doesn't particularly like to stretch or twist. I suspect part of this may just be how I'm built - I've never been very flexible, even when I was much younger. I know I have a deformity in my wrist bones (specifically the ulna bone in my left forearm, and probably my right) that caused me to need surgery about 20 years ago. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the source of my hip pain and general leg inflexibility is of a similar nature. My mother pointed out to me after my last post that when I was very young, I'd needed corrective shoes to address a misalignment in my hips that was affecting my walk (making me pigeon-toed). So now I'm left to wonder - is my hip pain and my inability to gain significant flexibility in my upper legs caused by that same defect? Or did the process of correcting my walk cause my hips to twist into a position that ultimately causes me other problems? I may have to talk to my doctor about it at some point soon. My hip pain isn't constant, but it's bad enough that, for instance, I have to play my electric guitar standing up, because having it rest on my leg hurts now.

Meanwhile, I'm addressing my flexibility issues as directly as I know how - through Yoga. Suami Michael Smith recently started offering Yoga classes at Five Star Martial Arts and I've attended them all. Mike's approach is pretty cool. He's very comfortable with beginners, taking time with each new student to show them the details of the poses and techniques, and then continuing to offer tips and encouragement as we progress. He also teaches a class that's a great blend of stretching, breathing, and strength-building. For instance, he taught us a plank modification the other day that involved a push-up, and we did an ab-building exercise that left me sore for days. Finally, I like the way Suami Michael blends hints of karate into his Yoga. From stances to movement, his background in the martial arts makes the class very relevant to me.

It wouldn't be accurate to say that I've seen no improvement in my flexibility in the year that I've been studying the martial arts. It's just that it's not enough, and in particular my kicks suffer quite a bit because I can't get them up where they need to be. I'm not significantly closer to doing a split than I was a year ago, which means my side kicks, hook kicks, and roundhouse kicks just don't get up where I want them. But in just a handful of Yoga classes, I've seem some flexibility improvement already. I figured if anything could help, it would be Yoga.

So I'm now addressing my breathing through Aikido and Yoga classes. I'm working on my balance through Iaido and Yoga. And I'm working on my flexibility through Karate and Yoga. Hey, I see a common thread there! I admit, I went into Yoga as a fairly blank slate and as open a mind as I could manage, but I wasn't necessarily sure I was going to stick with it. Now, I'm sold. I'm in for the long haul, I think. And I look forward to using good balance and proper breathing... as I kick people in the head!!!

Monday, June 6, 2011

[Karate] Overdoing It

Sometimes, we definitely can push too hard. That's all too easy to do when you're training often, as I am. Beyond that, on Thursday and Friday, I trained in Aikido, Iaido, Yoga, and Kenpo. I'm in much better shape than a year ago, but that's still pretty intense. Thursday's Aikido class was particularly punishing. I had my elbow wrenched to the side - the same elbow that someone had landed on at the seminar I attended two months ago. The pain's pretty well gone now, in fact after a good Aikido workout it felt better than it had since I'd first hurt it, though afterward it ached for a couple of days. For whatever reason, I chose that same session to try my first hardfall in about 18 years. Successfully, as it turns out, but it put a kink into my lower flank that followed me into the weekend.

It's also not uncommon for workouts to make my hip(s) hurt. I'm not sure if it's the butterfly stretch or the split (well, what I do doesn't much resemble a split, truth be told) or throwing sidekicks, but it puts a nice searing hot thorn into my hip joint for me. It's far from constant and usually little more than an annoyance, but naturally it raised its ugly, um, head after two rough days of falling (on purpose), stretching, twisting, and kicking.

The result was a couple days of soreness and aches - not the kind of muscle aches you expect from a good workout. Not even the hobble-inducing soreness I used to get in my quadriceps when I'd spend too much time in seiza. Thankfully, that seems to be largely a thing of the past. No, this was joint pain - joints and bones and tendons all scolding me for overdoing it. It's over now, and it should become less prevalent with time as I continue to train, but it's certainly a cautionary tale - it's possible to do too much, push too hard, and your body will let you know when that's happened.

Friday, June 3, 2011

My Weight-Loss Experience

An old friend of mine recently asked about my weight-loss. He wondered if I planned to lose more, and he expressed concern that he was still going in the wrong direction - getting heavier. He didn't specifically ask for my advice, but I can't help offering it when I see that it may be helpful. My message to him is below. I thought perhaps others might find it of use.

(In answer to the question whether I'm still trying to lose more weight:)
I need to lose another 20-25 pounds at some point. I may not make it that far, but I definitely want to drop at least another ten.

I'm sorry to hear you're struggling - I can really relate. Different things work for different people, and I know you travel a lot for work which is a miserable thing to do to a person's body, but some of what helped me was:

1. Counting calories. I would fool myself about how eating X or Y wasn't really a big deal, but once I knew I had to write it down and add it up, I found it a lot easier to cut out the garbage or eat smaller portions of it. I admit I have a very hard time sticking with calorie counting over the long haul because it's a pain in the nuts, but when I want to knuckle down and drop pounds, it's absolutely key for me.

2. Vigorous cardio workouts 2-4 times a week, for at least 30-40 minutes per session. This was the other key for me. Once I got into karate (and it's "Americanized" karate, so every class has a big cardio component) I started to slim down. It's not specifically the karate that did it, it's just the fact that I finally found something that didn't bore me to tears (like pretty much any other exercise) so I stuck with it. Normally I'd either talk about something and then never do it, or I'd start something new, do it for a month, get mediocre results, and give up. I have a $1,000 treadmill in my basement rusting away because two months of 20-minute jogs did exactly squat - I was still stuffing my face with junk and there's no way burning 300 calories on a jog makes up for 1000 calories of garbage.

One trick that worked with me when I was traveling a lot (if it's an option for you) was to stay at a Homewood Suites-style place that has an in-room fridge/stove/microwave and buy my own groceries. I ate a lot better than when I went to dinner at a steakhouse every night (much as I enjoy steak).

If I can offer any other guidance or help in any way, let me know. I feel your pain and I know how much you want to be able to be active with your family and alive to see them grow up. I firmly believe my situation is far from unique, and that anyone can do the same if they're smart about it, ditch the excuses (I was awesome at excuses!) and focus on the results they want to achieve.

As I re-read this before sending, it occurred to me that it was pretty decent general advice for "real people" trying to get their weight and their eating under control, so I decided to post it here. If you find this helpful, I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Iaido for Real

Last Saturday was a terrific day for me. I had the great privilege of attending an Iaido seminar that was, in reality, a five-hour-long private lesson. Absolutely amazing!

On Saturday morning, I hopped in my car with my bag of clothes, my sword, my passport, and some bottled water. Two hours later, I was at Tallack Martial Arts in Kingston, Ontario. It's a really, really nice place to train. I can't tell whether it was originally a home or whether they built it specifically for their needs, but it's got two great training floors with tatami mats, plus a third room that's all bamboo laminate which is nothing short of gorgeous. If I'm ever involved in designing a dojo, I'll definitely look to incorporate some of what they've done at Tallack's.

Anyway, I met one other fellow - Brian, from Perth - in the parking lot on the way in. He also had a weapon bag with the distinctive shape of a katana. We knew right away that we were both there for the same thing.

I put on my full regalia. I'd picked up a traditional-style keikogi top in dark blue, and a hakama of the same color, as well as a wide, thin Iaido obi. I've been using them the last several weeks to train and it really made a huge difference in the feel of the techniques not to have my sword slapping around all over the place because my narrow karate belt couldn't hold it in place properly.

My biggest concern going into this seminar was that I'd taught myself some bad habits over the last two months. I've diligently practiced what I could remember from my first three-hour-long seminar, but I knew I'd forgotten some things and mis-remembered others. I would find those concerns justified. I'd forgotten quite a bit, as it turns out, and there was a fair amount that I was doing wrong.

It didn't really matter, however. Davis Sensei started us right at the beginning, basically as if we'd never learned any Iaido at all before. Which, really, we hadn't. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, three hours is negligible.

He began with how to walk into the room - how to hold the sword, where to bow, and where to go with the sword to set it down while warming up. He taught us the proper way to kneel down and set the sword by the correct wall. It's all very precise, very formal, very proper. In fact, that describes all aspects of Iaido - precise, formal, proper. Not to mention detailed and efficient.

That describes the next five hours, in fact - precise and detailed. We worked stances. We worked movement. We practiced drawing and sheathing our swords over and over and over again (a tiny, miniscule taste of the amount of practice it will take to do it correctly), focusing on the movement in a way Davis Sensei hadn't even attempted to convey to the full group at the first seminar I'd attended. Back and forth across the floor we'd walk in small gliding steps or shuffling half-steps. Back and forth we'd turn, again and again - a quick, efficient turn that kept you in line with enemies on both sides. In and out our blades would slide, snicking out of the saya (the scabbard) and back in again.

Later we worked some waza (techniques, sort of like kata. Actually, I'm not clear what the difference is between a waza and a kata. I need to look that up.), both standing and kneeling. I fear I don't remember them all fully. That's okay, though. I could easily spend the next month or two just practicing my stances, my movement, and the drawing of the blade and feel that I've spent my time productively. Those are, after all, the foundation on which the rest of Iaido is built.

Next year around this time, Davis Sensei has said that the Japanese masters will be coming to Ontario for the annual Canadian Iaido Association seminar and grading. According to their website, it takes one year of training to test for shodan. If Davis Sensei believes I'm ready, I'd like nothing better than to test at that time. And if I'm not... well, then I'm not. But I'll know a year's worth of Iaido that I don't know today, and that's enough for me right now.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mind Games for Good

My daughter is a reasonably talented trumpet-player. Which is to say that she's not going to win any grammys or anything, but for a kid who's been playing for three years she's not awful. She recently played a solo of the Pink Panther at her school band concert (the only solo I can remember seeing in three years of band concerts that I've been attending), backed up by her teacher on trombone and another student on drums, and the accolades she got from the kids and their parents were terrific to hear.

But my daughter has a problem - she's just not self-motivated about... well, about much of anything, really. She'll do what I tell her to do under varying degrees of duress, but, for example, there is absolutely no chance that she would walk in and pick up her trumpet and practice it if I didn't insist. She never just goes in and plays the piano, either, despite being an even more talented pianist than she is a trumpet player. She'll sit for hours doing "crafts" like bead necklaces or friendship bracelets, which is fine, but getting her to spend time on music is a big challenge.

She actually learned the Pink Panther out of a book of sheet music we bought her two years ago. The idea was to give her something new and interesting to play over summer vacation, so she wouldn't get bored playing the same music she's been practicing throughout the school year. It didn't work too well - she's highly resistant to trying new things or figuring anything out on her own, so for that year the books of music mostly sat untouched.

The following year, however, she took them to school with her and asked her band director to help her figure out how to play them. She learned the Pink Panther and the main theme from The Lord of the Rings. And once she knew them, she'd practice them, but she never did try anything new.

Fast-forward to this school year, the end of which is fast approaching. As always, I suggested that she look ahead to summer break and think about learning to play some new music so she'll have something to practice that won't be too boring. The books we bought her have a couple dozen tunes in them, only a few of which she's played. No dice - once again, she's not interested in doing anything extra, even through we both know (well, I surely do, anyway) that by mid-July she'll be complaining loudly about being bored and soundly cursing her trumpet, her parents, and her sad, sad life.

But through a happy set of circumstances, I came up with a brilliant, devious plan. It started when I saw that had the music for Haydn's Tumpet Concerto. I decided to look it up on Youtube to gauge how hard it was, when I found a performance by Tine Thing Helseth. Now here's a few things to note about Tine Thing Helseth: She's a girl. She's a smokin' hot girl. And she plays the trumpet really, really well. "Hmmm," thought I. "Perhaps my daughter might find it inspiring to see a beautiful woman playing the trumpet incredibly well." Honestly, I have no idea how much a role the "beautiful" part might have played. It might have been just as impressive to my daughter if she'd been an old hag. But I couldn't wait to show it to her.

After school the other day, I called her over to the computer and played that video. My daughter, ever adept at grasping what might utterly elude others said something profound like, "Hey, she's a girl." I think she was just enchanted by the performance, though. She noted some of the more difficult aspects of the piece and was clearly impressed. I told her I could get she sheet music for her, and SHE suggested taking it in to school to have her teacher help her with it. I even found the music for Jar of Hearts, a silly pop tune she likes, and got her that as well. Summer is saved! I'm a damn genius!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Sad State of "Modern" Nutrition

I believe I mentioned before that I'd read a book titled Food Rules by Michael Pollan. It was an "eat this, don't eat that" guide broken down into a series of rules, but it made some interesting points as well. One of those points really got me thinking. I don't have the book handy, so I'll have to paraphrase and hope that I get the sentiment reasonably close. Pollan suggested that the state of nutritional science is in its relative infancy, akin to medicine back in the Renaissance.

Wow. That's an amazing, and frankly horrifying, notion. I'm by no means an expert on Renaissance medicine, but I'm not utterly unfamiliar with it. It was pretty bad in the 1600s. Oh, and the 1700s. Yes, and the 1800s were also terrible times to be sick or injured. In fact, it wasn't until the middle of the 1900s that chemistry and biology had advanced to a state where medicines became somewhat reliable, vaccines could be counted upon to ward off disease, and surgery developed into something more than a quick amputation and a roll of the dice.

So imagine if Pollan is right (and I've seen very little reason to doubt him). Nutrition is clearly a mess, especially in Western society. We're fat, we're eating a LOT of garbage that we can guess isn't really good for us, and we're under a constant barrage of "knowledge" and "science" about what will fix us. "Don't eat eggs! No, wait, eat eggs! Don't eat meat! Eat more meat! Chicken, no... beef! Cholesterol kills you! No, just the 'bad' cholesterol. Oh wait, maybe cholesterol isn't such a big deal." It goes on and on. The big vitamin manufacturers try to get us to load up on nutrients  that we literally piss away. The homeopathic gurus tell us to eat this or that weed. And then a year later, we find out it doesn't actually seem to do squat, until some other new study tells us it does. It's one thing after another, leaving us running around like madpeople, crazed and confused and hungry for knowledge as much as for food.

If we're truly only as far along today as medicine was in the Renaissance, we may be nowhere close to actually understanding how the hell nutrition actually works. We might be hundreds of years away. That's hard to fathom for us - we see change happen so often and so easily these days, that it's difficult to imagine how we could fail to be right on the cusp of having this whole nutrition thing figured out. But the years go by, and we never seem to get any closer to clarity. We not only don't know for sure what we should and should not eat (and in what quantities) to fuel our bodies and ward off disease, but at a fundamental level we lack any understanding whatsoever of why one thing could be better than any other thing. We've identified vitamins, minerals, compounds, chemicals, enzymes, and all sorts of other stuff, to the point where we know it when we find it, we can remove it, add it, increase it, decrease it, and so forth, but we haven't the slightest clue why it does any of what it does. We might as well be bleeding ourselves with leeches for all the good it does.

Granted, there is stuff that demonstrably works. Getting off of a "western" diet full of processed foods, sugars, refined carbs, pesticides, hormones, and so forth seems to do a pretty good job of keeping people from looking like fat Americans, but, again, we don't really understand why (and anyone who tells you they do is just guessing. They may feel very strongly about their guesses, but they're still just making this stuff up. Which doesn't mean they're wrong.). We still need to invent the dietary equivalent of the blood transfusion, or the antibiotic, or the vaccine. I sincerely hope we don't have to wait 400 years for it (and, granted, the pace of change is MUCH faster than it was in the 1600s), but I'm not holding out hope that we're going to figure it out in the next decade, even with all the supermarket check-out aisle magazines tantalizing us with "dietary secrets revealed!"

Thursday, May 19, 2011

My Martha Stewart Food Reviews

So I found a link to a site where I could sign my wife up for a free year of Martha Stewart Living. These offers aren't incredibly rare - they assume that some number of people will end up subscribing, and the rest still see the ads, so it pays for itself in the long run. It's not my wife's favorite magazine - it's rather pompous for our more mundane tastes - but she likes to read it enough for it to be worth my time to make a couple of clicks and fill out an online form.

And if that had been all I'd needed to do... well, I wouldn't be blogging about it, for one.

You see, AFTER you fill out the form and you think you're all set to get your magazine, they throw a survey at you. Gah. If I'd known I needed to do that, I probably would have skipped the whole thing, but now I'm too invested to stop. They've tricked me, but I shall have my revenge. I click randomly through the survey, not even looking at the questions. My random responses will plague their statistical analysis! Mwua-ha-ha! But wait, there's more!!

I get to the bottom, and there are no fewer than FOUR large text fields. I'm now required to write a review of what I liked or disliked about four different breakfast foods. Cripes, really? Fine, I'll just throw a word into each box and... oh crap, it requires a minimum of 25 words. Dammit! Trapped again! I have no choice but to continue, but I don't have to make my responses useful! In fact, the more annoyed I got, the funnier my responses became. Enough so that I thought I'd share them with you. Note that all misspellings and other errors are intentional.

Review #1:
I like it cuz its tasty and fills me up in the morning an dhelps me get my day going. Its sweet and chewy and fills me up.
I know, it's not really funny. I was just getting started.

Review #2:
I like that its quick and easy and i can make it really fast with no truble. that way i have more time for other things like cleaning and making origami napkin animals.

Review #3:
I like it but its chewy and pulled out all my fillings once. I got new ones, but now I'm afraid to eat it anymore.

Warning - the next one is not suitable to read over breakfast.

Review #4:
I cant eat it anymore because it gives me the runs and makes me sneeze. And thats really bad if it happens at the same time and your not redy. 

So at that point my wife and I are roaring. She asks, "What are you supposed to be reviewing?"

"It doesn't say," I replied. "It just said to review four breakfast foods. I decided that not naming them was part of the fun."

Yeah, I probably won't get the subscription. I'm okay with that.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Life Choices

When I was a little kid, my intended careers had nothing to do with anything more than what I thought was cool at the time. My dad was a science teacher and he raised me on the Apollo space program (which was still active in my youth). My first LEGO set was the Apollo 11 moon landing, which was fairly awesome. I remember it had a grey moonscape base and the LEM lunar-lander. My dad helped me build it, which I really enjoyed. So, naturally, I wanted to be an astronaut.

Firemen were also intrinsically cool. I seem to vaguely recall owning a dress-up kit with an axe, fire extinguisher, and air mask that I liked to play with. I wanted to be a fireman.

I REALLY, and no, those caps don't do it justice, REALLY loved the short-lived TV show S.W.A.T., despite only being four years old when it debuted. I had the plastic M16 rifle, the belt with holstered sidearm, the bullet-proof vest with badge, the handcuffs - the whole set. I even had a blue cap that I turned around backwards when I was being the sniper. I spent endless hours running through the yard yelling the awesome S.W.A.T. theme song at the top of my lungs and shooting imaginary bad guys. I wanted to be... whatever the heck a S.W.A.T. guy was. I'm certain that I didn't recognize them as police officers. They were way cooler than regular police officers. But whatever they were, I wanted to be it.

When I grew up, I discovered that I didn't know what the hell I wanted to be. After two years of community college (with a straight-A average), I was no closer to figuring it out. I seemed to be best at English and it sure was easy, so I majored in that when I got to my four-year school. At some point I sort-of settled on "writer," but I don't remember how. I think I might have figured out that the two main things you can do with an English degree (aside from "nothing productive") are to write or to teach, and I sure as hell didn't want to teach.

Then I didn't get into the MFA program at SU (the fools!!), which left me with the option of heading off to the cornfields of Iowa or some damn place, leaving my brand-new fiancee' behind for a few years while I waxed poetic about corn and, if I was lucky, learned how to make a career as a writer. I sure as hell didn't know how. I tried sending query letters to a handful of magazines and such, and was roundly rebuffed. In some cases, it was clear they had entirely failed to appreciate the brilliance of my proposal. I don't have any of those submission letters, but I've found a few of my old resume cover letters and egads was I a pretentious prick. I've no doubt that my proposals were written in similar vein - as pompous and condescending as possible.

But the response terrified me. What would I do to support myself if these fools in the editing rooms weren't going to receive my work as the divinely-inspired work of unabashed brilliance that it clearly was?? So... I became a teacher. And, truth be told, I'm not convinced I was especially great at that, either.

Luckily I found my way into Information Technology and things went pretty smoothly from there for most of the next fifteen years or so. Ultimately, some of my choices panned out - I just didn't always get it right the first time. And as a kid, I definitely never said, "I want to be the guy who makes the corporate computer systems operate to effectively support the business objectives and day-to-day needs of the company." Though I might have if there'd been a TV show about somebody doing it, preferably with a really kickass theme song.

Yet my kids... my kids are taking a very different approach. My daughter waffled between dentistry and veterinary medicine, neither of which is a typical "When I grow up..." sort of choice. Okay, you could make an argument for vets because people love pets, but the only one who's ever wanted to grow up to be a dentist was that freak elf from the Rudolph cartoon. You know - the one that teaches kids that everyone hates a freak.So that's pretty different. But my boys are even weirder.

My older son has always really liked science. He likes what it teaches him, but he also likes the idea of investigative understanding of the way the universe works. When asked to consider what he might like as a career, he has actually responded thusly: "What was it that Albert Einstein did?" My response - "He was a physicist." To which my son replied, "Then yeah, I want to be a physicist." In elementary school, his role-model is Albert Freakin' Einstein. And yes, I do believe he knows who Oppenheimer was, though I'm less sure about Fermi, Szilard, and the others. Now, granted, he's not a boy-genius as far as I can tell, nor does he like to read quantum physics texts at bedtime (he very much enjoyed the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and is currently reading Beast Quest number I've-lost-track). But still, that's a fairly uncommon career choice for such a young man. His brother's just as weird.

My youngest son, you see, has - at least for now - decided on engineering as his chosen occupation. He's something of a math whiz - certainly far better at it than I ever was in elementary school. He has, on occasion, been know to help his sister (who is five grades ahead of him) with her math homework. He's definitely better than her at adding and subtracting negative numbers. He's also the one kid in the house who will sit and build a LEGO set, according to the directions, from start to finish. I actually think he could be a very talented engineer just based on what I've seen in his admittedly short life. But really, what kind of little kid longs to be an engineer??

I worry - do my kids lack imagination? Are they too serious? Are they too grounded in reality? Then I watch them play pirates or spaceships and I know they're fine. If I'm lucky they're more than fine - they're way, way smarter than me. I'd rather they be really smart and very happy than that they just long for careers of glory the way I did. Yeah, that would be just fine by me. But now I've got that damn S.W.A.T. song stuck in my head!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Monday, May 9, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

[Guitar] Back in Black!

I'm back, baby! In more ways than one, really.

I haven't played my guitar in about six weeks. I know, for shame. I just wasn't feeling it anymore. Part of it was stress - I really did have a lot going on for the last month, and it was hard to pull myself away from my computer. That's a convenient excuse, which is my favorite kind. Having to work for an excuse to slack off defeats the whole point of the excuse. Let's see, what else?

Oh yeah, my son and I got in a little bit of a snit. We had been practicing together every morning, five days a week, for nearly two years. We got through the initial struggle to learn the basic chords. We got through the Monday-morning whining session when he'd reliably break down in tears every Monday morning. We got through the achy fingers and learning the individual notes and the scales and so much else. But after a while, I found that when we were practicing together, I'd be playing and I'd look over to find him just sitting there daydreaming. He played fine when I wasn't there with him, but if I was, forget it - he spent ten or fifteen of the thirty minutes slacking off. It drove me nuts. We'd argue. I'd stomp off because I knew if I wasn't there he'd play fine. I always told myself I'd go back and practice later in the day, I just never did. Eventually, I stopped trying to practice with him in the mornings at all, and I still never practiced in the afternoons. I just quit playing. Let's see, what else?

Oh yeah, I still suck. I mean, even before I took a break, I still sucked. After nearly two years of playing, I still don't "feel" the instrument. I can't just "play." Everything I do on the guitar involves intensive thought and analysis and concentration. That drives me nuts. I'm ready for my muse to just wash over me, infusing me with the skill and ability to pick up the instrument and just go - playing whatever I want to play by ear, without thinking about it and without working at it for months at a time to play just a single part of a single song. I'm kind of sick of sucking.

So that pretty well sums up why I stopped playing for a while - stress, conflict, and intense mediocrity. They conspired together to wear me down, to defeat me, to do what the previous 21 months hadn't been able to do - get me to stop playing.

Well screw that. I'm back! I utterly slacked off on our previous assignment - a part of Bad Company's "Can't Get Enough" that I should have really been in to, but just wasn't, plus a part of Van Halen's "Runnin' with the Devil." The problem I had with "Runnin'" was two-fold - I couldn't play it, which was a big part. But I also didn't know what song it was - part of our assignment had been to figure it out, and I utterly failed to place it. The two were related, of course. With tablature, there's no indication of the tempo of the song, so you only know which notes to play, but not when to play them. Thus, you pretty well have to know how the tune goes or it's near-impossible to figure out. So that was a part of why we played badly. And as a result of playing so badly, I couldn't figure out what song it was supposed to be. Which in turn led to us playing it badly. It was a vicious cycle of sucking. Now that I know what it was, I want to go back and try it again.

Which is to say that, yeah, I'm back. I'm back into it, I feel like playing again, and I'm going to try to work through any issues with my son not playing diligently enough while I'm there. So what changed?

Well, first off I finished a major project that had been absorbing a TON of my time for the last month, so I'm genuinely not as busy (though I'd be busier if I got back to writing my book, but I wouldn't be doing that at the time of day when we practice). I actually think that's a big part of it. But the other big part is the new music we got this week. We're currently working on Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhodes's "Crazy Train," which is cool as hell! And as if that weren't awesome enough, we're ALSO working on AC/DC's "Back in Black"! Hence the title of this thread.

So yeah, I'm stoked. Partly because these are fantastic tunes that I like, but partly because I CAN ACTUALLY PLAY THEM! I mean, not great, but well enough. I can see where I could actually master them (well, the parts we're working on, at least) with some diligent practice. And apparently the spectre of potential success is what it takes to get me going. I'm not a big fan of struggling and then failing. It's a major turn-off. But struggling and succeeding? That I can handle.  So I'm back in black, riding the crazy train. And loving it!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

[Karate] Aikido Seminar #2

Technically, I don't know what number Aikido seminar this was for me - I'm positive I went to at least four of them back in the early 1990s because I can remember training with Sugano Sensei (Sugano Shihan at the time of his very sad passing last year) twice, Yamada Shihan at least once, and a big guy with a mustache whose name I've forgotten. I suspect there were as many as two other seminars I attended and have simply forgotten, but those four I remember for sure.

To digress further, I think I've mentioned before that I'm baffled when I try to remember how long I spent training in Aikido. It seems like it was around a year, which would be consistent with having attended that number of seminars. Yet I only tested a single time - for 5th Kyu - and that test is usually administered after about 60 days of training, which would be around 6-7 months. Even assuming I was a terrible student (which would hurt my pride deeply, but wouldn't actually surprise me), I should have been ready to test around then, since I often went to class quite a bit more often than twice per week. So how freaking long DID I train for?? I just don't recall.

Well, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that I was able to attend Collins Smith Sensei's seminar last November, and then on Saturday I attended Irvin Faust Sensei's seminar as well. And if that weren't enough, I've also taken two actual Aikido classes in the last few weeks as well.

Saturday's seminar was really unique. Well, it was for me, anyway.  I don't know - maybe Faust Sensei teaches like this all the time. You see, in Aikido you typically take turns with your partner, each of you performing a technique four times as the Nage, then receiving those same four techniques as the Uke. The Uke's job is to be a reasonably compliant partner, providing just enough resistance for the technique to be properly executed. The Nage's job is to do the technique without injuring the Uke or throwing them where another Uke is about to fall. Only one technique is generally performed at a time.

Faust Sensei mixed this up, though. For the first hour, we performed variations on a series of techniques. The Nage would begin with Nikyo, then move on to Sankyo, followed by Kotegaeshi, and ending with Shihonage. Actually, it didn't always end with Shihonage - after a while we added an Iriminage throw as the final technique. So that's four - or five! - techniques all done together, one after the next, alternating hands. The Uke's job was just to reach toward the Nage as fast as they could after each technique so the Nage could perform the next one in the series.

It was actually a really great way to practice these fundamental Aikido techniques, it was just unlike anything I'd ever seen done before outside of Rondori (where multiple attackers act as Uke to a single Nage, taking turns attacking with whatever attack they desire while the Nage adapts and selects a suitable response).

Faust Sensei was throwing all kinds of stuff at us that I'd never seen or just didn't remember. I admit, I was confused and frustrated - not so much at my inability to execute the techniques (I give myself a pass since I'm way beyond rusty), but at my sheer bafflement when I tried to comprehend them. I would watch him do the technique and come away utterly confused. Sometimes I'd even practice it for a while and still be utterly confused. It was a very humbling experience, and I'm not a big fan of being humbled and frustrated. When that happens, my gut instinct is to give up. I felt those rumblings stirring within me on Saturday. "This is too hard. I don't get it. I should go sit and watch instead of bumbling around here looking - and feeling - like a fool." It was REALLY tempting to just give up. I'm awesome at giving up. I wonder sometimes if I'm part French (Je plaisante!). I didn't, though. I stuck it out. I stayed with it. After a while, Faust Sensei changed the format and then things did get somewhat easier.

You see, for at least the fourth and final hour, he had us in lines, with a single Nage and everyone else taking turns as Uke. It was a constant barrage of attacks - each Nage got to perform the technique around ten times in rapid succession. I still frequently found that after those ten times, I was no closer to mastering the technique or even being sure I was doing it kind of correctly. Being the guy up there facing that whole line of Aikidoka was fairly intimidating, but it was actually better than being one-on-one. Plus you got to rest while standing in line, which was really welcome after several hours of near-continuous Aikido.

That was another big plus for me - in the past, I've left seminars and even classes feeling completely drained and ready to collapse. Then I've gone home, stiffened up, and literally spent the next four or five days barely able to walk, hobbling around grunting and occasionally crying out in pain. I remember when Collins Smith Sensei's seminar was done, I collapsed flat-out on the mat and just lay there for a while. Several people even came over to see if I was okay.

This seminar, however, I completely lost track of time. I literally misplaced an entire hour, so that when the seminar was finished and we were lined up, kneeling in seiza for Faust Sensei to say goodbye, I was sure we still had another whole session still to go. And I was looking forward to it! I was ready for more, and a bit disappointed to find that there wasn't any. I remember that feeling. It's the feeling I USED to get back in the old days, when I was a young, fit, enthusiastic college kid instead of an old, flabby, worn out man. It's the feeling I'd get when I'd attend a seminar with Sugano or Yamada Shihan back in 1991 at the OLD Erie Boulevard dojo. Maybe I was channeling my Ki or just catching a second wind, but it felt damn good. I'm looking forward to more.