Friday, December 31, 2010

Read in 2010

I may, if I can peel my eyelids back long enough to read it, have one more book to add to this list this year, but given that it's New Years Eve, I've got a terrible cold and really just want to go to be right now, it's not likely to happen. So I present here the list of books I read in 2010. Some good. Some intellectually stimulating. Some trash. Lots of repeats from past years. And nearly 18,000 pages. That doesn't seem like a lot, I have to admit. I thought I'd get through at least twice that in a year. But I slept a lot on the bus on the way home from work.

NOTE: I did finish reading "The Dilbert Future" before I konked out, bringing the page total to 17,615.

* 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, The; by Karl Iglesias. 232 pages.
* Another Fine Myth, by Robert Asprin. 200 pages.
* Aristocrat in Burlap: A History of the Potato in Idaho, by James W. Davis. 203 pages.
* Big Secrets, by William Poundstone. 228 pages.
* Book of Insults, Ancient and Modern; The, by Nancy McPhee. 160 pages.
* Brief History of Time, A; by Stephen Hawking. 198 pages.
* Bring Me the Head of Willy the Mailboy, by Scott Adams. 128 pages.
* Brother Cadfael's Penance, by Ellis Peters. 196 pages.
* Cachalot, by Alan Dean Foster. 275 pages.
* Calix Stay, by Niel Hancock. 254 pages.
* Case of the Phantom Frog, The; by E.W. Hildick. 118 pages.
* Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, by Paul Fussell. 202 pages.
* Cokesbury Party Book, the; by Arthur Depew. 404 pages.
* Confessions, by Saint Augustine. 347 pages.
* Darwin Awards, The; by Wendy Northcutt, 327 pages.
* Dave Barry's History of the Millennium (So Far), by Dave Barry. 236 pages.
* Diary of A Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney. 217 pages.
* Dilbert Future, The; by Scott Adams. 258 pages.
* Dilbert Gives You the Business, by Scott Adams. 224 pages.
* Excuse Me While I Wag, by Scott Adams. 128 pages.
* Faragon Fairingay, by Niel Hancock. 349 pages.
* Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett. 244 pages.
* Fluorescent Light Glistens off Your Head, The; by Scott Adams. 128 pages.
* Fine and Pleasant Misery, A; by Patrick F. McManus. 209 pages.
* French Revolutions, by Tim Moore. 277 pages.
* Gaming the Vote, Why Elections Aren't Fair, by William Poundstone. 338 pages.
* Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, by Matt Ridley. 344 pages.
* Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett. 373 pages.
* Good Intentions, by Ogden Nash. 180 pages.
* Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, The; by Erma Bombeck. 255 pages.
* Greyfriars Bobby, by Eleanor Atkinson. 219 pages.
* Handbook of Folklore, The: by Charlotte Sophia Burne. 364 pages.
* Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky. 327 pages.
* If Life is A Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? by Erma Bombeck. 213 pages.
* Interesting Times, by Terry Pratchett. 295 pages.
* Into the Valley, by John Hersey. 127 pages.
* It Didn't Start with Watergate, by Victor Lasky. 438 pages.
* Jingo, by Terry Pratchett. 323 pages.
* Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, by Simon Winchester. 416 pages.
* Lafcado's Adventures, by Andre Gide. 242 pages.
* Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, by Lemony Snicket. 212 pages.
* Les Vacances du Petit Nicholas, by J.J. Sempe. 186 pages
* Little Book of Plagiarism, The; by Richard Posner. 116 pages.
* Magician of Lublin, The; by Isaac Bashevis Singer. 201 pages.
* Making Money, by Terry Pratchett. 394 pages.
* Maskerade, by Terry Pratchett. 271 pages. TWICE
* Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett. 355 pages.
* Moving Pictures, by Terry Pratchett. 254 pages.
* Non Campus Mentis, by Anders Henriksson. 150 pages.
* Off the Record, by Norman Pearlstine. 282 pages.
* Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities, The; by James Thurber. 113 pages.
* Ox-Bow Incident, The; by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. 224 pages.
* Polygamy was Better than Monotony, by Paul Bailey. 180 pages.
* Post Captain, by Patrick O'Brian. 527 pages.
* Post-Capitalist Society, by Peter F. Drucker. 232 pages.
* Radioactive Boy Scout, The; by Ken Silverstein. 203 pages.
* Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, The; by Lloyd Alexander. 273 pages.
* Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World, The; by Bob DeSalle and David Lindley. 195 pages.
* Serpent's Coil, The; by Farley Mowat. 222 pages.
* Small Town in Germany, A; by John le Carre. 271 pages.
* Soul Music, by Terry Pratchett. 373 pages.
* Spouse in the House, The; by Richard Armour. 215 pages.
* Squaring the Circle, by Niel Hancock. 378 pages.
* Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted, The; by Harry Harrison. 262 pages.
* Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett. 400 pages.
* Utopia, by Thomas More. 134 pages.
* When Did Ignorance Become A Point of View? by Scott Adams. 128 pages.
* When Worlds Collide, by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. 192 pages.
* Wintersmith, The; by Terry Pratchett. 252 pages.
* Page total: 17,615

An Important Message from President Kim B. Clark

NOT the actual message from President Kim B. Clark

The week before Christmas, my wife got a rather urgent message from a well-trained if not comical acolyte of Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Apparently, a "very important" Christmas message from President Kim B. Clark -- the name and title were emphasized several times in the conversation, my wife says -- had been returned to the University by the United States Postal Service. The acolyte was calling to determine my mailing address so that this important message from President Kim B. Clark could be delivered in a timely fashion. My wife, a little bemused at the zealotry on the other end of the phone, swiftly delivered our mailing address and the important message was duly dispatched. It arrived the day we left home for a vacation. It was a nice Christmas card including a nice signature from President Kim B. Clark, but it hardly qualified as urgent or important.

It does mean, however, that I'm in the system.

As did the card, featured above, from the distance learning folks at BYU-Idaho, whose august ranks I am a member of (as an online adjunct faculty member) and whose august ranks I tried to join but was rejected because, oh I don't know why. Someone else got the job, which I'm used to.

It does mean, however, that I'm in the system.

It's an odd little family, this BYU-Idaho. Not that I don't like the cards and the special attention -- who wouldn't -- but it's just amusing to feel the sense of urgency on their behalf in getting these messages out to us in their mass produced, form fill fashion. Especially to a schlub like me who has tried two semesters in a row to teach an online class but hasn't been able to do so due to lack of students. Not that they're not trying, they reassure me. I hope they don't want to send a card to that effect. 

Character Chart

Here's the completed -- well, chicken-scratched -- character chart for "Considering How to Run." It's a lot more complicated than I thought, and it's just here in simple form.

What is this, you may ask?

Well, it's a list of every named character in my book (two don't have names, but their significance is noted anyway, since they're central to the story). I wrote this up first of all to remind myself of the names I used, and secondly to see if I was using them consistently, which I am not. It's part of the editing process also that helps me visualize where and when I'm featuring the characters I've created. The difference in ink color is merely coincidental, it just shows where I lost my red pen and reverted to black. The ink pattern did break, however, at the point that my characters shift from one location to another, so it's interesting to see how many characters I created in both places.


What winter blood I had acquired between the early snows of November and now, I have completely lost.

Of course, it doesn't help that we're home now from a vacation to Yuma, Arizona, where it was warm enough to let us go swimming on Christmas Day. Two days. We were there just two days ago, bobbing in the pool. Tonight we got home and had to shovel six inches of snow out of the driveway, start a fire in the fireplace down stairs and look forward to temperatures of eight below zero (without the wind chill) tomorrow morning.

Boo hoo. I know. But you know what, the warm weather was nice when it lasted. Too bad we had to drive home to crud. I need a winter job in Yuma and a summer job in Idaho. That would be ideal, except for the juggling of two households and such. Maybe, like the guy in "Red October," I need two wives.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Things I've Learned, Part II

Upon further reflection, I realize there are a few more things that I've learned in the last few days:
  • Folks who consider customers as an inconvenience probably shouldn't work in the hospitality industry.
  • While negotiating prices in Mexico's open markets may be half the fun, I have no fun whatsoever doing it. I feel like the Ugly American. And that's probably what they count on.
  • I don't mind if my kids get yelled at for being loud if others' kids are yelled at by the same people for the same reason. I'm still waiting for the kids shouting outside the hotel right now to get yelled at. But I'm not going to be the yeller, because I choose not to be bitter and vindictive.
  • A kid who has a bad cough is of course the kid who's going to elect to sleep in your hotel room on your side of the bed.
I should probably say something about the yelling/customers as inconvenience thing, so both are put into contest that won't make me sound like an asshole.

Because we're in warmer climes for the holidays, I took my kids swimming at the hotel's outdoor pool today. As kids are wont, as they were splashing and swimming and playing, they were shouting. Twice someone from the hotel office came out to ask my kids politely to shut up because, according to the first lady, "when my employees hear yelling [in the pool] they come a-running," and, second, because "we can hear them all the way in the office and we get worried."

So I have to ask myself: Come a runnin' for what? To rescue some poor, hapless drowning soul or just to holler at them for hollering? And what are you worried about? Upsetting other guests and such? Your pool rules clearly state that since no lifeguard is on duty those who swim assume liability for any accidents or incidents -- so if one of my kids drowns in the pool, it's my fault, not yours. So don't tell me you're going to come a runnin' and let me assume it's because you're on some kind of good Samaritan lifeguard duty. It's because you don't want the yelling. And I'm okay with that. If you don't want the yelling, then come tell me and I'll do my best to quiet down the three kids under ten I've got screaming in the pool. (And maybe that's the reason they came a runnin', because there's been another family with kids running and screeching outside and as far as I can tell they haven't been yelled at for yelling because they're not in the pool.) And if you don't want pool liability issues, then by all means turn the pool into a sand pit.

Other things I've learned:
  • My in-laws, in their entire lives, have never had a pleasant experience with Flagstaff, Arizona, though they have visited the city several times. They don't even know why people would want to live there.
  • Scott Adams is kind of a wiener (I got "The Dilbert Future" for Christmas, and it appears that as much as Adams may be adept at drawing office comics, he pretty much stinks as a futurist. And has only questionable value as a homo sapien.
  • While I choose not to be bitter or vindictive over the whole pool/yelling thing, I will do the passive aggressive thing and write a blog post about it, though I won't identify the hotel we're at unless you send me an e-mail requesting the information.
  • Having escaped the snows of Idaho for a week, the only thing drawing me back into colder climes is employment.
  • And I don't know why employment has such an attraction, as the company I work for is going to lay off 600 employees this year including 100 the week after we get back to work in January. They lay off subs in batches first. I'm a sub. I'm doomed.
  • Folks who take 'Taint off every year shouldn't advertise jobs that close on Dec. 31.
  • Newspapers sucked me into an anti-technological time warp that robbed me of ten years of advancement. Before I worked for a newspaper, I was blogging, writing basic bonehead HTML code and such. There just wasn't an environment for that in the papers I worked for. It's good to hear other papers are doing better. But they're all still doomed.
  • I like saying things that I'm no longer involved with are doomed.
  • It's not that they're doomed because I left them, but because they were already marginal enough to hire idiots like me.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Things I've Learned

Just over the past few days, here are a few of the things I've learned:
  • Don't think you can back up in an Arizona hummingbird garden while trying to take a photo of a hummingbird without backing into something sharp and spiky.
  • Don't wear a loud Hawaiian shirt (yellow with white and orange hibiscus) to Mexico if you don't want every street vendor in town shouting "Hey, you in the yellow shirt! Come see what I got!"
  • Ponchos that happen to be made in China for sale in Mexico were likely made in China by Mexicans, per the street vendors I met.
  • The United States of America doesn't really seem to care if you leave the country, but if you plan on coming back in, make sure you've got your passport and other paperwork in order.
  • When the restaurant calls it a "Macho Mucho Burrito," plan on the "Macho" and "Mucho" living up to their meanings.
  • Benito Juarez is pretty much regarded as Mexico's Lincoln.
  • There are many, many, many people in Yuma who have no idea how to control their dogs and, as a consequence, spend a lot of time looking for them.
  • The city of Yuma, Arizona, is a haven for 1930s Art Deco architecture, at least on Main Street. Well worth visiting.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Eet Ees Done

Well, folks, though I had my doubts about a week and a half ago that I'd be able to complete this task, I have the pleasure to report that it is done.

What did I learn from the experience? Well, I have a lot to learn about writing a novel. My biggest weakness: Keeping track of characters' names. I've got one character who changes names no fewer than three times in the 80,000 words of "Considering How to Run," and to me that seems a bit much.

So my plan for the future is this: Keep a running list of characters' names, basic characteristics and such on hand so I can refer to it as I refer back to my characters in further novels. I'm sure this is an elementary step in planning a novel, but I'm also certain it is something I had to learn on my own rather than reading it in a writers' checklist or other some such writers aid.

And when I say done -- if I can now revert to the first paragraph of this post -- I mean the editing is done. The re-write is yet to begin. But I've got a good road map, once I finish writing an outline of everything I need to do continuity-wise to make the book better. Thankfully, it's a shorter list than a longer list, but I've still got my work cut out for me.

I'm not scared of the work. I'm actually looking forward to it. So here's the next goal:

Novel re-written by March 31. That'll give me three months to get it done. I think that's as doable as getting the thing edited by the end of the calendar year.

I'll couple the re-write with two other major tasks:
  • Researching agents so I can find a dozen at least to whom I can send the completed manuscript.
  • Writing the next book.
The latter seems most essential.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Editing Continues Apace

One of my hopes for Christmas vacation, as you may recall, is that I'd be able to do a thorough edit of "Considering How to Run." I'm now three-fourths of the way through the manuscript, and I recognize more and more that as much as I like the story, I've got a lot of work to do before I've got a draft that's ready to send to an editor.

But, as I am prone to saying, that's okay.

Found some interesting flaws today, most brought on by the method I used to write the thing: Since I wrote it in bits and tried to sew them together into a whole, sometimes I've popped a seam or left out part of the overall pattern. The name of the protagonist's youngest, most favorite sister, has changed from one part of the manuscript to another, changing to a name that I used for a different character altogether about two-thirds of the way into the book. So that's a major error that this first run-through has caught.

Then there are the constellation of other errors, where I state one thing will happen, for example, and then it really doesn't happen, or at least happens too subtly that it's not evident that it's happening. I know some subtlety is a good thing in a novel, so I've either got to bump up the occurrences or get rid of the more blatant hints. And I can't make a blanket pronouncement on either getting rid of one or the other, either, because in some places one method works, while the other method stinks.

And I also noticed that at the point I decided to end the first novel and start the second, but then reconsidered and added the rest of the stuff I'd written to the first book that there's some re-exposition that I need to re-examine in order to decide if it adds to the story or if it makes the pace suddenly slow down. Not that the pace is break-neck, but still I have to ask myself: Does it need to be there?

What's important, though, is that I still like the story, and that's happened after it's been set side for three or four months before I began reading it and editing it. I can tell, however, that it's got flaws in language.

So what's the next step from here?
  • Finish the edit.
  • Begin rewriting. Sofar, most of my edits have been to point out where the book needs fixing, and I have only done some preliminary patching as of yet.
  • Read it aloud. Once it's rewritten, I'll read it aloud to see how it sounds. If it sounds klunky in parts -- which I'm sure it will -- I'll have to fix it. But reading it aloud is critical because as I read books in my head, I can tell if the writer got too writerly in writing. If a book sounds written, in my opinion, you're in trouble. I call it the "Human Tooth Yellow" problem, a title I take from an old radio interview in which the reviewer obsessed about the writer obsessing about finding the exact yellowish color to describe something. Who cares, I have to say. My readers won't. So I can't include those writerly tells.
The character graph I started has been invaluable, too, as it's helped me note the changing name of the youngest sister, and to see what names I've used for what characters in what situations so I can track them for future inclusion. And as I mark the characters in this way, I can tell that I need to work to make them more human, less cardboard. Some will remain as cardboard characters, of course, but those to whom the story is central, they've got to have character in their characters. Then again, i think part of my voice as a writer is not to reveal too much about characters, and not to concentrate too much on the relationships between characters (though I know I've got one relationship I've got to seriously re-investigate in order to increase the tension the two characters feel between themselves as the story progresses).

Hm. All this writerly talk is beginning to upset my stomachs. Centurions! Come to attention!

I'm also wondering about the shadowy enemy. It's a cliche, of course, to have a shadowy enemy, but in part I'm using the shadowy enemy as a red herring, so maybe that's okay. But I still need to keep an eye on the Weird Shit-O-Meter to make sure I'm not going overboard with the real enemy of sorts.

So in other words, I'm still having fun as a writer. I love that part.

Funny Christmas Trees

This has been kind of an odd Christmas. First of all, we went swimming today. We froze to death, but we did indeed go swimming. I've been in colder pools -- and Bear Lake in September is certainly colder than where we swam today -- but this one was indeed of the goose-bump-raising variety. Liam's jaw was clacking as he was swimming but he said, "No, Dad, it's not cold at all." We lasted about 45 minutes.

Then they all came back inside to enjoy their Christmas presents. Lexie and Isaac played with their new dolls (no, it doesn't bother me that my six-year-old boy wants to play with dolls) and Liam read his new book. No surprise there.

For more photos, go here.

And I'll keep adding to that album, because, thanks to Grandma and Grandpa, everyone in the family now has a camera for the taking of the pictures, if I can quote the inspiration for Jeff Albertson in that manner. I won't guarantee the quality of any of the photos or videos that will be produced and offered here in the next little while, but understand the enthusiasm is rampant in that department. At least since they're all digital, we won't be burning through roll after roll of film for their silliness.

Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

Friday, December 24, 2010

In Case You Think God Doesn't Have A Sense of Humor


Wonderful . . . Counsellor . . . The Mighty God . . .

Captain Kirk

(This photo is used under the fair use doctrine.)

You know what? I miss Captain Kirk.

He didn't really think much about what he did. He ordered phasers or photon torpedoes. He kissed the alien chick.

These other star captains, however . . .

Yes, I'm watching an episode of "Next Generation." Haven't seen an episode of the show in years. And while the show is okay in its own right, the characters spend altogether too much time talking. Babble babble babble.

So I suppose, then, that I prefer the Republican brand of Star Trek, and not the namby-pamby liberal version. Frankly, I don't care that Captain Picard finds reading Dr. Crusher's thoughts through the stupid implants put into the backs of their necks by the stupid aliens who once again are humanoid except for their stupid forehead prosthesis -- I definitely want to stop the ones who want prosthetic foreheads on their heads -- a fascinating, enlightening thing to experience. Meh.

Yeah, I'm geeking out a little bit. And you know what, maybe working with a co-captain (or whatever insufferable position Riker had) with counselors is a better way to run the galaxy, but you know what, I've seen how the US Navy gets things done, and Kirk, being a member of the US Navy in space, damn well gets things done.


Many moons ago, I started writing a novel in which the owners of a big box store chain plotted and succeeded in taking over the world. It all started when, of course, i visited a big box store and noted -- along with the hundreds of others in the store -- that it was remarkably similar in many respects to the same big box stores they had in their own home towns. Building a novel around that novel concept seems pretty pedestrian, but once and a while I pull out the old manuscript and think, yeah, this has still got legs. It's certainly on my list of things to finish before my life ends.

Had a chance to do some research on that front today, as we visited a big box store many miles from our home town. As I surmised many, many years ago, it bears remarkable similarities to the familiar box at home. But there are those subtle differences (definitely color scheme) that make it stand out on its own. Other big differences of note include that they use another language in the signage at the store as well as English, with folks who don't necessarily have English as their native tongue as the checkers and the majority of the shoppers. I'm not pointing this out because I'm racist in any way, but simply because it is a difference. I'm sure they'd notice a difference were they suddenly transplanted into the big box I've got near home.

So it was fun to wander today, listening and soaking it all in. It's given me some good ideas to incorporate into the novel, and, hopefully, an additional impetus to get that novel done.

Research, I'm finding out, is as much fun as writing the novel. It differs from inspiration in that inspiration comes in a flash, lasting a few seconds or a few minutes. The research, on the other hand, is much more slow, but helps you build and build and build. That's certainly the direction that Tolkein took in writing his novels, and I hope, in my own humble way, to emulate his methods.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Blogging Lite

Blogging will be light for the next several days, given that we're on Christmas holidays. I do plan on working a bit more on my novel (and am grateful for the concept of cloud computing that makes such projects easier to accomplish) and I will also continue editing my first book in the hopes that it'll be ready to farm out by the end of the year. May also post a photo or two. But not right now. Must sleep.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Signs Point to Yes . . .


See that vaguely dingy brown squarish rectangle to the left of “Fremont” in Fremont Avenue? That’s my house. If you squint, you can almost make out the driveway. You can see the sidewalk that goes from the back of the house to the alley, though the shed on our lot’s southwest corner just looks like a blotch of poorly-watered lawn. That’s the sidewalk our youngest learned to ride his bicycle on. That’s the yard where we set up the inflatable pool, where I mow and sing They Might Be Giants songs, where I once set the grass on fire trying to barbecue.

View Larger Map

Here’s the best street view one can get on Google of my house. Look beyond the mounds of snirt on the side of the road and if you squint your eyes just right, you can see the pine tree that’s completely blocking my home from public view.

View Larger Map

When, I have to ask, will Google bless Sugar City with an aerial view map that doesn’t render our town as Blotchville in the closest view? When, I have to ask, will we see the glorious day when a Google vehicle will trundle down North Fremont Avenue to give the world a view of my house with the sagging rain gutter, cracked driveway, pathetic flower garden, alligator paint job, and mounds of dog poo contributed daily by the neighbor’s Pomeranian?

Probably not going to hold my breath on this one.

Not even on the dog poo. Because what I really should be doing is mounting a 24/7 webcam on the front of the house and streaming it live to the web via this blog – or another blog solely dedicated to the camera – so that the instant that damn dog comes over to take a dump the entire world knows it and with me seeks vengeance.

Or, I could just find the courage to talk to my neighbors pleasantly and in a non-confrontational manner about the dog and his droppings. But that’s not the way we do things these days.

Unless, of course, I believe what Mark Dery, writing at True/Slant says about our propensity for oversharing and believing that the world cares about every tweet, blog post, family vacation, rambling thought, novel installment or whatever amount of digital detritus we can produce.

And I do believe it. And I do believe that only a very, very narrow slice of the people I broadcast to on Facebook, Twitter, my stable of blogs, Good Reads, Uncharted and other sites really care to know what I’m doing.

Writes Dery:
When [web guru Steven] Johnson argues that his “valley of intimate strangers” is “a much richer and more connected place than the old divide between privacy and celebrity worship was,” he’s forgetting that connection doesn’t always equal intimacy, that exhibitionism is a form of social dominance, and that we fetishize fame more than ever.

Isn’t that the motivation for much of what we call oversharing, online? Ours is the age of nanocelebrity: broadcasts created by us and, too often, for us and us alone. How many YouTube videos and blog posts and Flickr sets languish, their discussion threads registering a melancholy zero comments, their feature attractions playing to a spellbound audience of one? We’re all Norma Desmond, ready for our close-up.
Or, to carry a quote of Clay Shirky, another Internet guru, to its obvious conclusion: The Web, Chirky says, has brought us from the era of “Why should we publish this?” to the era of “Why not publish this?” Now it’s quickly taken us to the era of “God in heaven, why did they publish that?”

But that’s okay. Because nobody’s really listening anyway. Or if they are, it’s only because they’re pausing for breath before they let loose with another bit of their own “detached, bite-size yippety-yap.”

It’s just as Darin in the video and Dery writing say: “Friends don’t just randomly shout into the darkenss and hope someone’s listening.”

Here’s what Dery says:
Johnson argues that “something is lost in not bringing” our private selves—for example, “the intensities of sex and romantic love”—into the online space between “privacy and celebrity,” a liminal zone that Johnson calls “the valley of intimate strangers.” Taking the private public enriches our souls, he implies, and makes the public sphere a better place. “Somewhere in the world there exists another couple that would benefit from reading a transcript of your lover’s quarrel last night, or from watching it live on the webcam. Even a simple what-I-had-for-breakfast tweet might just steer a nearby Twitterer to a good meal.”

This is so reality-challenged, so head-in-the-data-cloud it’s effectively its own rebuttal, at least to anyone not lifecasting, 24/7, live from Laputa. What, exactly, is the benefit, to a pair of strangers, in reviewing the unredacted transcript of last night’s reenactment of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starring me, my wife, and the better part of a bottle of Rumple Minze, let alone watching the whole sordid affair on a webcam? Undoubtedly, someone somewhere would watch this, and maybe even claim to “benefit” from it. But there are those who claim to benefit from 2 Girls 1 Cup. Have we no sense of decency, sir, at long last?

As for the argument that we must Always Connect so that some passing Twit can have a “good meal” through our Random Act of Kindness, oh, ick.
Oh, ick, indeed.

Ron Rosenbaum, writing on a similar vein at, reiterates what Dery and others are saying about oversharing.

So why am I still here, shouting into the darkness and hoping someone is listening?
It might be worth dwelling for a moment on the panopticon, because I believe Jeff, who has not demonstrated much familiarity with history before Google or philosophy before Zuckerberg, perfectly illustrates the shallowness of many of today's Internet gurus. Futurists who have no time for the past are now running "integrated marketing J-schools" and "entrepreneurial" programs rather than giving journalism students the deeper understanding of society, history, culture, and humanity that places like Columbia's J-school and Harvard's Nieman fellowship still care about.

And if he is aware of the panopticon and its implications, it's all the more shameful that he doesn't see the kind of digital totalitarianism he is shilling for.

But what grates most is his increasingly shrill and hysterical (in both senses of the word) advocacy of imposed, involuntary "publicness" on everyone. He seems unable to understand the difference between the virtues of transparency when it comes to powerful closed worlds of government and corporate power, and the perils—and invasiveness—of transparency when it comes to individual people.
Well, someone is listening. Me. I’m my audience, for the most part. And I’m okay with that. This blog is a minisec of ideas for me, principally, and for those who stumble upon it, secondarily. This blog gave me a place to monitor my own progress in writing my first complete novel. Whether or not anyone came along for the ride is only a secondary concern of mine. That I used this blog as a tool to help me complete a task I’ve long wanted to complete is good enough for me.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Pay Freeze

This may not matter as it’s quite possible I’ll be laid off this next year anyway, but the Department of Energy has announced a two-year pay freeze for people working at its sites.

Unclear of course – and it’s always of course – is whether subcontracted employees such as myself are affected. Neither DOE nor our prime contractor are very good at all at communicating the nuances to those they deem essential to have working but not essential enough to have directly employed.

My guess is, of course – there’s that phrase again – that the freeze does apply to us. Every little bit of bad news does tend to roll downhill to we subcontractors, while the good stuff (safety bonuses, education benefits, et cetera) get blocked by the Subcontractor Weir.

Good news is I already got a pay increase for 2010. That means, of course, that I can’t expect to see another until 2013. That is if I haven’t been laid off between now and then.

And I’m okay with that all. I understand with the economy in the shape it’s in that there are plenty before me who have had their pay frozen, their pay lowered, their hours cut, or their jobs eliminated. That’s just the nature of the beast we’re dealing with. The bone I have to pick is the ineffectualness in communicating how all of this affects everyone. My default assumption is that bad news affects everyone and the good news affects everyone but subcontractors. That way I don’t lead myself into any disappointments.

Halfway Done

Well, with about a week or so to go before the end of the year, I’m halfway through editing the text to my first complete novel, “Considering How to Run.”

I’ve seen both good and bad. Good story, I think, with some good characters. But I’ve seen a lot that needs improvement. A lot I can see that led from my gonzo style of writing this novel – no outline to begin with at all – to some plot holes and chameleon characters that are going to have to be fixed and reconciled before I can call this novel complete. But, oh, the joy of editing a complete thing of my own creation! To know that I’m not reading this for someone else, but reading it in order to make something I made that much better. That pleases me a great deal.

I know it’s not perfect. I’ve got some major things to fix. But at least I’ve got a something, not just a vague notion, down on paper, in one complete form. The first draft. That’s a huge milestone. Editing it has been and will continue to be a pleasure because, despite its faults, I can see that I’m trying. I’m not just going through the motions, not at best simply sewing together forty or so blog posts into something that’s supposed to be whole. Oh, I’ve got some spots where the seams show, where the cloth is threadbare, but I’ve got it all here, ready and waiting to be fixed.

And I can do this.

As for the other part of the goal – the query letter: I know that’s not going to happen before the year ends. I’ve got to find potential agents, research them, then and only then craft that letter, based on advice issued by Nathan Bransford, a former literary agent himself, on his blog. That blog’s a treasure-trove for wannabee writers like me.

So, how am I approaching the editing? Here’s a breakdown:
  • A higher level of edit. While I am catching the occasional typo, what I’m focusing on mainly is a more than mechanical level of edit. I’m looking for the way things flow, the way things work together, and the ways they don’t. I’m asking myself a lot of questions in the margin, asking myself “What do I mean by that,” “This is contradictory to something you wrote earlier, right?” “This character seems uncharacteristically mean. Where are the hints of kindness?” Just lots of things to get me thinking.
  • A character map. I’m also writing out a bar graph to show who my main and ancillary characters are, how they relate to one another and different parts of the story, and who they are. I’m doing this to make sure I’m using the characters as I intended, and not at cross purposes.
  • Repeats. I noticed today that in this book, I use a situation that I repeat in the second book. I’ll have to study why I put it in the first because it works better in the second, or if I can repeat the situation for better effect in the second book, echoing the first, just to show the interrelation of the characters and situations. I’m sure other authors do this, but until you’re actually writing your own, you don’t realize how important it is to get everything just exactly right.
I’ve got to say that having put this novel away for a few months, I can come back to it with fresh eyes and while I’m seeing its warts, I’m also seeing still the potential that initially got me started down this road nearly a year ago.

Ah-ah. Found it. Started this book, or at least put up its first post, on Feb. 19, 2010. So I feel plenty good that I’m now editing an 80,000-word first draft that came from this initial 885-word post. Though it does seem weird to think that the first post contains just over one percent of the completed first draft.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

It Can't Happen Here?

In a world where money doesn't matter -- better be moving to Chojecki if I want that -- I'd study political science. But as it is, the best I can do is study it through the books I read, rather than in a classroom setting, which is a pity, given that government is the exchange of ideas and opinions, not simply the mere studying of them.

Recently, I read William Poundstone's "Gaming the Vote," in which he examines the various alternates to our current plurality voting system (basically, our system says the guy with the most votes wins, but has the disadvantages of disenfranchising minority parties while at the same time giving them the power to suck away votes from the majority party, thus giving their opponents the plurality to win, as is what happened in the 2000 presidential election).

In the book Poundstone takes up the story of Kurt Goedl, a German logician who emigrated to the United States to work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, shortly before World War II broke out. In preparing for his citizenship test, Goedl studied the Constitution intensely. He emerged prepared for the test -- which he aced -- but dissatisfied in what he saw as a fatal contradiction in the document. The flaw he saw was in Article V, on amendments:
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.
Here's how Poundstone describes the flaw Goedl saw:
By permitting everything [through amendments], it guarantees nothing. In principle, the Bill of Rights could be rescinded by a future amendment -- just as Prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment, was repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment. It may be supposed that a two-thirds majority of both houses would never countenance a major erosion of individual liberties. Atricle V could amend itself. In theory, two-thirds of Congress could vote in a new amendment saying that only a simple majority is required to amend the Constitution. The smaller the threshold, the more likely it is that a strongly motivated faction might manage to pass an amendment that many find unconscionable.

In the 1940s, many Americans felt superiority over the totalitarianism existing in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. Wartime rhetoric implied that America had a patent on democracy. Godel found this "it can't happen here" attitude unconvincing.
Ironic Poundstone should use that phrase. Sinclair Lewis used it for his novel "It Can't Happen Here," in which a president, roused by his desires for power but disguising them under a national emergency, convinced Congress to do just what Goedl feared, amending the Constitution until it was unrecognizable and the United States existed in a totalitarian system.

Poundstone points out that less than a month after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, he convinced its legislative body to temporarily suspend the constitution in order to give an "enlightened dictator" termporary dictatorial powers to deal with a national crisis that started with the Communists' burning of the Reichstag (which some now believe was a plot engineered by Hitler). "The motion passed 441 to 84," Poundstone writes. "It was the first majority Hitler ever got, and the last he would ever need."

So where am I going with this? Oh yeah. We've seen a lot of petty bickering between the Democrats and Republicans over the last decade or so. It's not pleasant to watch. But maybe our government could be a heck of a lot worse, under either party, if one decided to make a Constitutionally-sanctioned grab for power.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Just A Little Exercise

NOTE: Felt like anthropomorphism tonight.

Mole stood on top of the rotting pumpkin.


Above, Chylus perched on a thin beam of evergreen irreverently poking through the canopy of a quaken aspen.


On the barbed wire, tipping their tails as they cursed at cowering sparrows, Magda and Vox waited, as did the others.


Mel and Rosie, their countless brood squirming in the tunnels directly behind them, trembled like soon to be popped corks as they watched, awaiting the signal for action.




“Damn that sun,” Mole cursed. “Ninety-three million miles away and it’s still strong enough to burn the skin off your bottom.”

Chylus started from the branch, but checked his flight and jostled heavily to his perch when he realized Mole’s noises had been a curse in general, not the curse which would start the attack. The jolt of his landing loosed two pinecones, which thwocked on the ground practically on the heads of Rosie and Mel.

“Oy! Watch i’ up there, ya burnt crumb, er I’ll smack yo wi’ me stick, I will!”

“Rosie,” Mel crooned, “Please calm down.”

“Shut up, yewself!”

Mole rolled his eyes.

Magda preened her white feathered eapulets.

“After this, anting, I say,” Vox said. “Anting, anting after this, yes?”

Magda opened her beak to speak.


Mole leaped from his pumpkin perch into the thick bramble of weeds and vines. Chylus darted from his branch and swooped low over the fallow pasture. Mel and Rosie picked themselves up off the trampled ground and tried to brush the dust and tiny shrew paw prints off their backs after their brood had popped from their holes to answer the mole’s cry of war. A cloud of dust and shrill shrieks marked the spot where their hundreds of tiny shrews were clawing their way through weeds and bracken. Vox and Magda, with final dips of their tails, leaped into the air to follow the shimmering wingtips Chylus so eagerly flapped through the air.

Mole leaned against a cucumber vine, chuckling.

“Oh, a fine army you are,” he said, laughing still. The shrew brood stopped charging and were now fighting and rolling and scamering in the thick pine needles. The birds, still airborne, wheeled quickly at the mole's cackling and lit on a barbed wire fence.

“You said attack,” Vox said petulantly, dipping his tail in time with his mate.

“Aye, I did,” Mole said. “But did you know what you was to attack before you took off like you did?”

“Well, maybe it was an attack in a general sense,” Mel said, shuffling his feet.

“Mole, we'll know,” Chylus said. “We'll know what to attack. He'll be here. We'll see him. And we'll attack him! That's what we're training for, right? That's what we're all wanting to do, right?”

“Aye,” Mole said. “And there he is!”

The shrews dove back underground in puffs of dust. Chylus squawked and leaped into the air, followed quickly by Magda and Vox. Chylus flew in a tight circle, just below the treetops, watching.

“Mole!” he shouted. “That's the scarecrow! You've got us jumping at scarecrows! I am NOT jumping at scarecrows!” He wheeled in the air and flew a straight line into the cupola atop the barn, where he hid his nest.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Idaho Nuke Company in Trouble -- With the SEC

This illustration is used for commentary purposes under the fair use doctrine.

Things just don’t look good for AEHI.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is charging Eagle, Idaho-based Alternative Energy Holdings, Inc., and two of its officers, for farting around with money and stocks rather than using investor money to forward plans to build two nuclear power plants in Payette County. The company has been told to temporarily halt trading of its stock until Dec. 28.

No, “farting around” isn’t official SEC parlance, but that’s basically what it boils down to, per the Idaho Statesman.

All charges right now are alleged charges, of course, and at this point it’s unclear what impact – if any – the investigation will have on the company’s plans to build a nuclear plant on 5,300 acres near New Plymouth, Idaho.

The SEC’s news release, however, is pretty damning:
AEHI’s fundraising was facilitated by a scheme to drive up the company’s stock price, both through frequent press releases (at least 87 in 2010 alone) and efforts of paid stock promoters to manipulate the stock price. The SEC alleges that the company has made multiple misrepresentations, including claims that its executives had such confidence in AEHI that they had not sold a single share of company stock. Records obtained by the SEC show that Gillispie and Ransom have instead secretly unloaded extensive stock holdings and funneled the money back to Gillispie.
The SEC is also calling out the company for underreporting CEO Don Gillespie’s salary by at least a factor of six – pretty big numbers considering the company says he has a salary of $133,000.

The company blames foes of the Payette County power plants for its woes. Says Gillespie:
“The SEC has notified AEHI that the inquiry should not be construed as an indication by the SEC that any violations of law have occurred. We plan to fully cooperate with the SEC and to address the concerns that they have raised,” said Don Gillespie, AEHI CEO.

The SEC has not notified AEHI whether the temporary suspension [of stock trading, set to expire Dec. 28] was prompted by the submission of any specific complaints. However, local anti-nuclear groups and certain vocal opponents of AEHI have taken responsibility for this action in press releases, online forums and financial blogs.
(That's from a press release issued yesterday that doesn't mention the charges filed today. Neither the Idaho Statesman nor Dan Yurman writing at Idaho Samizdat has heard from Gillespie on the charges themselves.)

This contrasts with the SEC’s order, which calls for freezing assets and seeks “investor relief” from the company. That doesn’t sound like a hand-slapping is in the offing to me.

I’m all for nuclear power. I’m all for nuclear power, however, funded and operated by companies that run honest, ethical organizations which AEHI may not be, if the SEC investigation finds otherwise. I don’t like to see any alternative energy project become a financial toy for people who want to enrich themselves while only giving lip service to providing the electricity we need to reduce carbon emissions in the United States.

And as much as the Snake River Alliance has been a thorn in the side of nuclear proponents in Idaho, I can't say I fault them for probing AEHI and filing the complaint. Should the allegations prove true, SRA has done the state a service. Nuclear proponents in the state know better than to hand SRA a juicy bone like this, because you know they'll chew on it.

Farewell to the Caps Lock Key

This photo is in the public domain. has an interesting and thorough take on the history of the caps lock key, nestled just to the north of the left shift key on just about every keyboard in the world.

The crux of the article: Google, in introducing a new notebook computer, has replaced the caps lock key with a search key, acknowledging that the little-used key is just taking up space on the keyboard because of an archaic link to the venerable typewriter, from which, of course, the caps lock key originates.

Writer Christopher Beam sums up the caps lock key’s perseverance nicely:
So why has Caps Lock stuck around so long? The simplest explanation is technological inertia. Computer companies have long been obsessed with reverse compatibility, or the ability of any new product to support old software. People are more likely to buy a new computer, the thinking goes, if they can still access their old files and don't have to change their habits. As a result, computers have almost always been additive: more keys, more programs, more functions. That was the logic behind carrying over the Caps Lock key from typewriters to personal computers, and every new keyboard designer has probably thought the same thing: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Beam handily points out that the caps lock isn’t the only bit of history clinging to our keyboards. For example, I haven’t used the “function” keys since I had to give up WordPerfect back in 1993 – an anachronism Beam points out. Yes, I could learn many of the handy keyboard shortcuts (my boss is a big advocate of this). But until I can undo a Shift-F3 without having to go back in and insert capital letters where capital letters ought to be, I’ll do things the old-fashioned ways, thank you. Heck, I never even used the two function keys provided on my Tandy Color Computer 3, back in the late 1980s. He points out those keys and others, used frequently in DOS-based programs, just don’t serve a function outside the programming realm these days. But it all goes back to what’s been said thusfar about the caps lock key: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Some, of course, do. It’s been pointed out that the QWERTY keyboard layout is an even more annoying typewriter leftover, with the left hand doing more of the work just because more than a century ago some engineer had to figure out how to slow down the typists who were jamming the key bars together because they were typing too fast with a standard keyboard layout. Acolytes of the Dvorak keyboard point out their layout is much easier to use. Much easier, of course, if, like me, you didn’t learn to touch type on an electric typewriter with a QWERTY layout. So as far as that goes, my keyboard ain’t broke.

Some of the new keyboard buttons, I like. I love that I’ve got a mute and volume control right on the keyboard. A few others I’d like:
  • CD/DVD eject button
  • USB device eject button (that would bring up the menu so I can select which device to eject, rather than using the mouse, or simply eject the device if only one is detected)
  • Browser open/close button. That’s what Google has done with its new keyboard. Good on them.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bad Guy Things

NOTE: An old poem. I still think I could re-work this into a childrens' book. Anybody know a good illustrator?

Bad Guy Things

How’d you like to be the bad guy’s horse?

Gettin’ whipped all the time
Faster, faster, you fool, you fool!
Not many oats
and definitely no carrots.
While he’s countin’ the treasure
or kissin’ the women
you’re out in the stable
with the propositioning donkeys and the drunk stable boy.

How’d you like to be the bad guy’s clothes?

Drab and black.
Smellin’ of smoky disappearin’ powder
among other things.
And always gettin’ caught in machinery
or the shark’s mouth when the baddie gets done in.

How would you like to be the bad guy’s sidekick?

Comic relief, sure that’s fun.
Sometimes you get the best lines.
And the little kids love you
because you’re the stupid one.
But you still get stuck with the baddie
and have to break rocks in prison
or share the eternity in the genie’s lamp
no matter how many laughs you got.

How would you like to be the bad guy?

Get the girl until the hero shows up.
Slink around in passages inside the castle walls.
Scare little children.
Do nasty bad guy things.
Have a moustache.
And probably never change your underwear.
And no matter how dastardly you’ve been
that goody-goody with the fairy godmother
or the helpful forest creatures
has the happily ever after ending
and leaves you to the wolves
with a sword sticking out of your back
or in the insane asylum wearing that funny jacket.

Stupid heroes.
Without us bad guys and our bad guy things,
you haven’t got the giant
you haven’t got the nasty tiger
you haven’t got the story.

You need us to prove you’re heroes
or you’d have never gotten out of that job
at the pig farm in the first place.

So as we bad guys are fond of saying:

Nyaah! Nyaah! Nyaah!

Degreed, Yet Unqualified

A few months ago, I looked into what it would take to get a bachelors degree in web design, programming, or some other such subject at a local university.

I already have a bachelors degree, albeit in journalism and mass communication, with a minor in French. Just over a year ago, I earned a masters degree in English with an emphasis on technical writing.

Yet when I look at the jobs available today, or potentially available in the future, I feel woefully undereducated.

The local university does offer the degree program I’m interested in. Just not in a form I can handle right now. Physically, I’d have to be in class. However, to keep my family physically in a house, I have to have a job that physically keeps me far away from the classroom as it possibly can. Literally. I work roughly 84 miles, or about two hours, from home, as the bus drives. My daily commute:

View Larger Map

I did talk with one of the professors in the program, who tells me that in a few more years, they may be ready to offer the degree entirely online. That’s well and good, but by them I’ll probably be living in a cardboard box. Or dead. You never know.

We got introductions to XML, HTML and other such stuff in my masters courses, but not to the degree to which I could claim even a beginner’s knowledge of the stuff. I need it, obviously. Doing without it is only going to hurt me in the long run. I should look into night classes, so I can spend even more time away from the family (I work four ten-hour shifts a week, putting me on the bus at 5 am and putting me home shortly after 7 pm, Monday through Thursday).

It’s just a frustrating position to be in. I know life is supposed to be a long adventure of learning, but I feel like I’m running to keep up and the bus just keeps pulling away faster and faster.

Other options are even more daunting. It’s becoming more clear to me that a doctorate is probably in order. But to do that, I’ve got to move the family to Logan, Utah, and figure out a way to work full-time and be a student full-time because otherwise it ain’t gonna happen. I’m pushing 40 years old. I know it’s a competitive economy, but I half wonder if and when I get that doctorate is the bar going to be going higher, higher, and higher?

Yet I know I’m a lucky guy. I’ve had a job through a rough economy, a job I got before the economy tanked, thank heaven, because I’m certain had I been in my former industry I would have been out on my rump anyway. I have faith that God will support me as I work to support my family. Still, it’s a daunting future we face.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Annie Lennox: A Class Act

Just caught this video thanks to a Facebook friend, and thought I'd share it here.

I've always loved Annie Lennox as a singer, and as a performer in her videos. When I was in college, her song "No More I Love Yous" was the big hit, and I remember its video fondly, especially with the odd, tu-tu wearing individuals dancing through it.

Lennox's video for "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is just as unique, harking back to traditional Victorian England Christmas celebrations and, obviously, to the winter solstice/pagan festivals that Christianity co-opted at that time of year.

Reading the message boards on her video, no matter where you happen to find it, is an education. Two camps, obviously. Those who think Lennox has created a paen to paganism, and those who see her approach as unconventional, but certainly not anti-religious. I'm of the second camp. Every element in the song, from the outdoor caroling, the masquerades, the drums, the holly, the green man/snap dragon is of Victorian vintage. Those who see anti-religious or pro-pagan messages in the song are simply reading too much into it, or expressing their ignorance of the Victorian Era.

What I find more fascinating in this presentation of the song is how she sings it. A lot of folks have mentioned "autotuning," which I hadn't heard much about. Lennox is obviously a good enough singer that she doesn't need electronic compensation to help her voice be on tune, so use of the technology's obviously there for the effect -- which I thought attractive and fitting to the tune. The autotuning gives the song an antique feel, as if we were listening to a wax cylinder recording of the song -- though obviously the technology only comes into play in the waning years of the Victorian Era.

I don't find the song creepy a'tall. It's ultimately Lennox being Lennox. Well done, miss.

Feeling Dumb

Don't know the status of this one. But here's where I got it.

There’s this thing called entropy. Physicists define it as energy not available to do useful work. Information theorists define entropy as information that’s missing when the value of a random variable is unknown.

Both definitions fit my work situation right now.

Problem is, there’s reverse entropy here as far as they physicists go – there’s energy available to do useful work, but since that useful work is partitioned off because only a certain number of writers have been authorized to do that work, there’s plenty of energy lying around for work that isn’t useful. It’s a frustrating situation, especially when those on the non-entropic side are screaming because they don’t have enough time to get done what needs to be done. But that’s government work for you.

Then there’s that unknown random variable, in this case known as layoffs. Up to 600 are planned next year, starting in January. Frankly, if I’m on the list, I’d rather know now. That knowledge might juice up my current job search – again, an application of that energy going into work that isn’t useful.

I try to remain busy and useful. I do have some work to do, just not in the amounts I’d like to help fill the days and not in the amounts I’d like in order to help those who are feeling overwhelmed. Helping out with non-partitioned documents works to a point, but that’s not where the pressure is. Unfortunately, that’s where the budget pressure is, so relief won’t be coming any time soon, though relief is close at hand, available and willing. Seems unfair in a way.

So this is why I try to maintain other pursuits, outside of work, and outside of work hours.

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Hopes for 2011

I hope when I come back from Christmas vacation this year that I have a long-term job to come back to. This is not the kind of economy in which I want to be unemployed, especially as I’d practically be in as precarious a situation as The Sicilian threatened Fezzik with: “Do you want me to take you back to where I found you? Unemployed in Greenland?” At least, I should take some consolation, I’m not so slobbering drunk that I can’t buy brandy.

People with mad writing and editing skills, I’ve decided, are dime a dozen. There are just so many of us out there that to compete head-to-head in a nasty job market just isn’t palatable. My boss has reasonable confidence that we won’t be touched in the three rounds of layoffs coming in 2011, but the writing/editing group has been touched in every round of layoffs since I started working for the company in 2006. And guess who’s fairly near the bottom of the totem pole and not a company employee? I may as well be one of those guys who tucks his shirt into his underpants instead of between his underpants and his regular pants.

Wow. Two fairly obscure pop culture references in as many paragraphs. But nothing more than any of my competitors for scarce jobs are doing at this exact moment.

So, what else do I hope for in 2011, seeing as I’m thinking about unicorns that eat flowers and poop rainbows?
  • A relatively warm February. Doesn’t have to be global warmingish, but avoiding our standard Winter Deep Freeze of 20 below zero on a warm day for a few weeks would be rather nice.
  • A dog – but after the holidays. Was supposed to call a guy this past weekend about a $100 weenie dog, but put it off. Maybe this week. Saturday’s call would have been a bit premature.
  • Lots more camping. This is of course contingent on me remaining gainfully employed. No job, no money for camping trips, of course.
  • Progress either on replacing windows on the front of the house or an addition onto the back of the house. Probably the former, because with Michelle in school right now, any big project just isn’t in the budget.
  • A teaching gig at BYU-Idaho. Tried now for two semesters. I’m trained. Ready. Poised to go. Still, no teachee. Maybe that business writing course I applied for will pan out . . .
  • A published novel. But I’ve got to get it edited, and then farmed out to agents, and then agented first. May as well go back to Greenland.

Dredging Up the Past

It’s now been nearly six years since my exit from the world of journalism. For the most part, I haven’t looked back. A few times, with a few events, perhaps, I might look back over the past five years and wonder how I might have covered that event had I still been working for a newspaper. But those moments were fleeting.

Now – and I fully expect my potential employers to read this if, indeed, I am not weeded out immediately – I’m looking at a move back towards that world.

Not entirely. It would be a move into public relations which, by most accounts, is journalism, but with a corporate entity as the sole client to please.

Am I ready to make such a move?


As I look back at the ten years I spent as a journalist, I have to say that the stories, the people, the events I remember with the most fondness are those for which I basically acted as a press agent – the Idaho International Folk Dance Festival, local school districts, and the like. Reporting generally good news, upbeat news, news that people wanted to read and, hopefully, made them want to participate in the events being featured. If that isn’t public relations, I don’t know what is.

So I prepare myself now for the question: You left journalism for technical writing. Now you want back into a similar industry. Are you okay with that?

Yes again.

I left journalism for some pretty specific reasons. First and foremost – and I’ve never been shy about this – I was burned out. I was tired of being a one-man band, keeping all the plates in the air while the promised help never fully arrived. The team dynamic in which I work well wasn’t there. It’s not that I can’t work independently – I most certainly do. But it’s nice to have a team to chat with, to work with, to rely on. For one reason or another, I didn’t feel like I had that in journalism. I’ve spent time over the last several days looking over my news clippings and thinking, for the most part, that I could do it again, but in a different environment.

So I guess what I’m saying is I’m practicing for that interview, and that specific question, if I’m not weeded out. Hope the practicing isn’t in vain.

I have that now where I work, and I love it. If it weren’t for layoffs, I’d keep on working here as long as they’d have me. But I have to be prepared for the event that I get canned in 2011, so filling out applications and doing a little schmoozing and navel-gazing is a must.

UPDATE: ARRRRRGH! The position has been filled. Now I know how all those nannies felt when they got blown away (literally) just before Mary Poppins got the job.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Dollar Store Books

I used to feel sorry for the authors whose books I saw at the dollar store.

Surely, seeing one's work at the dollar store must feel like the nadir of a career. One's work, once proudly published and touted and read by notables, now on the shelf below the cheaply-produced Bible word search puzzle books that seem to be the dollar store's literary mainstay.

But I go there a lot. And I bring a fair amount of books home. And though I'm sure the authors don't get much -- or any -- commission from the dollar I spend on their words, I'd like them to know, in a small way, that their words are appreciated.

Reading right now William Poundstone's "Gaming the Vote." Probably shouldn't. I'm already pretty skeptical of the political process, politicians, political pundits and the like, and what I've read thusfar isn't helping. Well, it's helping in the way that now any time I see James Carville on the TV, my reaction now has shifted from "Hey, who's the toady bald guy" to "laugh, clown, laugh," fitting in well with my life axiom: "Beware Bald Men." Just the opening chapter of Poundstone's book describing how Edwin Edwards gamed the system to become Governor of Louisiana several times too many, once with Carville's help, just made me want to shriek.

But I'll keep reading.

Found a lot of good books at the dollar store, which is why I keep going back to the shelves almost every time we go there. I'm not really sure I need to be introducing more books into the house, but they keep on coming in.

Will there ever be a market for used electronic books, I wonder? Given the current state of piracy and the screaming of copyright infringement, probably not. There's a fundamental flaw in the honesty of humanity that will prevent the sharing or selling of used e-books for at least the next hundred years, and probably beyond that. Being an author, I can understand -- but as a consumer who hasn't bought a new book in years and who revels in the good find at the dollar store and the thrift store, I have to think: I buy my words as cheaply as I can. I'm part of the problem, though not a pirate or an infringer.

I can at least pass on the word, though, that William Poundstone writes a mean political analysis. Maybe in some way that's helpful. But in the big scheme of things, probably it's useless.

So, How's the Goal Going?

Here I sit on the 12th of December, giving me 19 days in which to finish editing the first draft of my novel, "Considering How to Run," as well as having a query letter ready to go to potential agents. So how am I doing?

Not well.

Digging the manuscript out of the pile of detritus on my desk reveals that, thusfar, I've managed to lightly edit 24 of the novel's 180 pages. The query letter is a distant bit of fiction. My only consolation is that I've written nearly 7,000 words -- that sounds like a lot until you realize it's not -- of the second book in the series.

I've got a lot of ground to cover in the next nineteen days.

So, how am I going to make it up?

Well, I'll bring the manuscript with me to work. I've got an hour and a half on the bus each way each day, so I ought to be able to do some editing then. I'll be realistic, though: Probably not going to happen on the way out. I get on the bus shortly after 5 am, and am usually asleep before we hit the next stop. And on the way home I'll have to compete with "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," movies I've just uploaded onto my iPod Touch. Then there's that query letter.

I think I can still do it, however. Nineteen days doesn't sound like a lot, but it sounds like a whole lot better if I get my mojo going now rather than waiting another week or so.

Editing this thing is also going to be an essential part of writing more on the story -- it'll remind me of characters and situations and such that maybe need fleshing out or further explanation. I keep reminding myself of that as I try to put the editing off in favor of other activities.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

College Writing

College writing. Such a cliche. Spare me from a novel set in a university (except, perhaps, Terry Pratchett's canon) because for the most part, they're like German music -- introspective and dull.

To prove it, I offer this: A snatch of a college novel I started while attending the University of Idaho in the mid-1990s. It never went anywhere. But there are bits of it I like, particularly the bit of figuring out what kind of car people resemble. I still do that. I, for the sake of complete disclosure, look like my Dad's old 1948 Ford pickup: All nicely rounded with large, protruding nostrils.

At Janice Levy's university, nobody smiled. The cold wet walk over the railroad tracks towards town was the closest she'd ever come to an out-of-body experience. All these strange human faces walking by, some walking, some riding, some frowning, some smiling. Janice liked to look at people and think of what type of car they looked like. A bulky boy with a faded green coat, chin stubble and close-cropped hair. A Buick, 1970's style. A dark-eyed Oriental woman, face clear of blemish and expression. A Nissan, of course. The boy laughing behind his glasses next to her. A Chevy Nova.

The University, and the town it embraced. A car put together from pieces and parts bought from wrecked auto yards, glass scratches and painted ID numbers included. Each piece a record of tragic events forgotten, then commercialized like porcelain dolls and doily collections from a farm bankruptcy sale. An odd hodgepodge. Blue fender. Green door. Orange hood. A baleful mix of college liberalism and small town farmer conservatism, held together with bailing twine, surly shop owners, strip malls, duct tape, defunct grocery stores and sidewalk cracks.

Above the bank was an office. On a placard placed by the escalator, the title: Coalition for Central America. Outside on the street, blackened group of goatees and sunglasses gaggled around bicycles and showed off the rollerblades with neon green wheels. The drugstore displayed children's board games. Angry posters shouted at the eyes of passerby from the bookstore across the street. Noise was traffic and wheels and wind in the trees and the hum of electric street lights.

The red sidewalk bricks were new and coated with a winter's worth of salt, grit and filth. Everyone stared at them as they walked on their errant errands. Once a cursory glance at a store window, another quick peek across the street. Red bricks and filth and dirty shoes and sometimes sandals with socked toes poking out. Full field of vision. Eye contact tried, sometimes got a stare in return, then a suspicious or whispered howdy. Beautiful people setting out to change the world. Only the man wearing bib overalls, his girlfriend in black nylons and the dog on a leash, said hello with any gusto, and that brought a smile to Janice's wind-pinched face. Their voices and faces did not say Have A Nice Day. She hoped hers didn't, either.

"I'm not sensing any anxiety over this exam," chortled Professor Honey from behind her brown pulpit. "I miss it." Grey black hair like a witch. Eyes and personality of a drunken nun. Sun shined in the windows. "I'm content to let you go now, but you should really be asking more questions about this material. I'm giving you what to answer. Maybe you think you'll breeze through, but you won't."

Janice longed to stay in the comfort of the room, sunny though it was outside. Sun mocked the timid yellow grass, steeped with the wet stink of winter's carcass. Bushes draped with air and clinging remnants of last year's leaves. Roots smothered in the sickly brown warmth of gas and compost. Once outside, she sat on the old stone steps, feeling the lingering cold of December seep out of the stone and through her slacks to the skin. She saw bicycles and sneakers and cigarette smoke. A squirrel catting by a naked tree. She watched it as it snuffed and munched at the raggy leaves that still covered the ground. Where were the nuts is stored for the winter? Was it, too, fooled by the empty promise the February sun was showering on the winter-weary landscape? Fooled like the blind tulips that cracked their bulbs and stretched their necks in the warm air by the sun-heated foundations? Even the grass itself, pioneering bare spaces between exposed tree root, seemed ignorant of the naivete it showed in its gusty February greening. Panicky, she stood up, and raced to the basement of the Administration Building and bought a package of salted peanuts from a vending machine. She wondered about sucking the salt off them before she fed them to the squirrels. Where do they get water if they're thirsty? But do they want my spit? Left them as they were and urgently stalked out to the trees. Stood silently on the sidewalk as a cheeky squirrel peered at her from behind a tree. It clung there upside down, craning its little neck around the bark to see the odd human being in the pea-green sweater, funny concerned face staring at the peanuts in the palm. Janice held her breath as the creature thumped to the leaf-covered grass and wiggled its nose in her direction. It stood erect on ridiculously tiny feet and held its equally timid paws in front of its mouth, as if in thankful prayer for the benevolence being showed to it in the form of several salted peanuts. Janice looked at its black eyes, coaxing it forward with her thoughts. Whiskers wiggled. Outstretched palm spasmed in the effort of keeping absolutely still. "Come on, little one," she thought to herself as the odd scrap of life slowly crept forward, looking side to side at sneakers and backpacks walking up and down the sidewalk, and addressing its tail to the whims of sun and wind. "Come on. You'll need it. Winter is not over yet." The squirrel was within a foot of her outstretched hand. The sun shone bright and laughed off the spokes of passing bicycles. Hop. Three inches. Tiny brown furry fingers wrapped around a goober, and eager black eyes looked up past the generous thumbs. Comical chewing. Like an exasperated woman shouting into a telephone. More brown fingers, this time brushing against the skin. Once again, bolder this time, grabbed two. Janice let the rest of the nuts fall through her fingers to the ground, as she noticed her generosity had attracted a small crowd. More round brown faces with black eyes craned from behind trunks and branches, and the daring do of those who dared to sail from one gossamer branch to the next. Like a shepherd with his flock, like a minister with her fold, Janice stood in glowing approval of her diminutive congregation. And like a minister, when the sermon is finished, wonders if the flock will remember what was said a week come Sunday.

John found her stooped over rotting leaves and a shriveled dog turd on the Administration lawn. Had on her ever-present vacant stare. Touched her lightly on the shoulder. "Janice, what are you doing? Don't tell me you've never seen a turd before!" Nothing. Shook her shoulder this time, and cleared his throat. She straightened up with a start, blinking her eyes as she turned around. Still had that far-away face.

"Oh, Michael. Hi," she blurted.

John's brain skipped a beat. She'd gotten the name wrong, but at least she was speaking to him. Still saw something wonderful and wild in the eyebrows and tiny brown mole on the upper lip. Did something he hated. Stuttered. "Ja-ja-janice, what a-are you doing?" Willed the capillaries in his cheeks to stay constricted. Maybe with the wind, she wouldn't notice the blush. "Don't t-t-tell me you'v-ve never seen a-a-a-a-" --he gave himself a slight slap on the cheek, and his speech phonograph bounced off the scratched vinyl--"a turd before." His hilarious sentence lost in the useless and spastic stammering. Bit his tongue. Bad boy, bad boy!

She smiled, showing her teeth but hiding her eyes. "I was just feeding the squirrels. I didn't notice the turd." An odd glance from a passerby. "I've got class." She scooped up her leaf-embroidered sack and turned to leave.

"I'll walk with you, i-i- (slap) if you don't mind." Janice's faraway look was gone, and John knew she was back once again among the quick. She moved over to make room for him on the sidewalk next to her, and he eagerly occupied the space. Hoped his actions didn't appear too eager. They walked in silence, as he pretended to hold her hand, fingers intwined as he had seen his friends do before.

"I was feeding the squirrels. They've got tiny fingers"

John started at the sound. "Squirrels are cool." Duh. Way to go, Captain Roget.

"Do they have bones in there? They've got to be awfully tiny. Like grains of sand."

"Bones. Yeah. Fifteen, including wrist and finger bones." Even better, Colonel Britannica.

"Fifteen bones? How do you know that?" They stopped in front of the College of Teaching. The sun did a wonderful thing with the strands of hair statically straying from the bunch she tucked behind her ear.

Come on, Casanova. Smooth. Suave. Debonair. Opened his mouth and belched. Pastrami and pickle sandwich left over from lunch. Someone laughed. "I-i-i (slap) I'm sorry. Watching MASH. Hawkeye said that squirrels have fifteen bones in their hands." All said in one breath, mouth closed at the end to halt any other messengers from the nether depths.

Janice spoke quickly. "I like MASH. Even more than I like the Wizard of Oz." Turned and walked up the steps to the building. Stopped, turned around. "John."

He quickly lost interest in staring at his shoes and looked up the stairs at the woman who finally remembered his name. "John."

"Call me tonight. 885-8350." Gone.

Opened his backpack and scrawled in his Journal of Thoughts: Today, I turned Janice on with a pastrami belch.

Friday, December 10, 2010

More School?

I should definitely be worried.

Just about a half hour ago, I finished reading a paper my wife is writing for one of her masters classes. She's now in her second semester in the technical writing program that I finished in 2009.

I'm worried not because she's smarter than I am -- I've always known that -- but because, in reading her paper and considering the subject (how technical writing and creative writing aren't really all that different, since technical writing like, poetry, for example, is a form that wants to use the right words, just the right amount of words, and not use words or word forms that interfere with the flow of information) I get to thinking, "You know, maybe I ought to go for that doctorate."

Right. More school. More money. More stress. Do I really want that?


But for it to happen, things have gotta change. We'd have to move to Logan, Utah, for one, since that's where I'd go for the doctorate, and they don't offer the doctorate online as they do their masters. And that would mean not simply moving there to become a grad student -- I've got a family to support; I can't do that on a grad student's salary.

But if I get the public relations job I've applied for at Utah State, maybe that'll help. Especially that'll help if I get laid off from my current job next year (about 600 of us are going to get the pink slip).

But if the stars align, I think I'm ready for more schooling.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Digital Detritus

Here’s a question to all of you pre-Digital Era journalists out there: How are you reducing the fire load at home?

By that, I mean what are you doing with all of your newspaper clippings?

I hope today’s young journalists aren’t keeping physical clip files, but instead are archiving the PDF or Web versions of their papers and stories instead. If you’re not, stop collecting the paper clippings now and go digital, because before too long you’re going to want to go digital anyway.

I know I do. For the last five years, I’ve intermittently spent many an evening at the home computer, diligently scanning in my clipped stories. I’ve still got a stack about four inches thick to get through before my archiving is done and, to tell the truth, I’m not even sure it’s worth it. Do I really want to keep all of the boring stories I wrote about municipal government? The police reports? The stories people called me up afterwards about to scream at me?

Well, yeah. Just because I’m trying to go digital doesn’t mean I’m not still a pack rat. I most certainly am.

Have I preserved every little bit I’ve written? No. I remember, in fits of frustration, just taking a pile or a file to the wood stove and chucking it in. As I sit right now amidst my piles, I can hear the fires crackling. It’s very tempting to ditch it all.

That’s why I hope today’s journalists are keeping digital copies if they’re prone to packrattiness as I am. It’s a lot easier to stash a DVD or two in a desk drawer than it is to open up the packed filing cabinet drawer, look at the mouldering piles of newsprint and close the drawer again, all the while praying for some extremely localized but cataclysmic fire to come along and erase the question of whether you want to spend hours scanning all that mess into the computer or not.

I know I should. I really should. But if I haven’t looked at the paper archives since I left the industry in 2005, what are the chances I’m going to pore through the digital archives now? Slim to nil. And will my descendants care that I wrote probably 100,000 words on efforts in the city of Rexburg to build an outdoor pool? I don’t even have to answer that question.

Progress. I have made progress. Now, the things I know I want to keep, I scan almost immediately so there’s not this enormous backlog of paper to deal with in the future. And given that the stuff I’m writing and working on now is proprietary documentation, I’m not bothering to keep copies of the stuff, knowing that if I did, I’d be hunted down like Julian Assange and nobody wants that.