Saturday, July 31, 2010

Taming that Octopus, Part II

Oh how little we know.

Stayed up until 1:30 last night trying to get Michelle's computer -- any computer, in fact -- to recognize the new printer we got more than a month ago. It wasn't until today that I triumphed in getting the printer recognized. It's obvious I need to learn a bit more about home networking. It's also obvious I know more about home networking than I did 24 hours ago. So, progress was made.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Taming the Computer Octopus

Those of you familiar with computers will understand where I'm going here.

Michelle's mouse has been acting up. I cleaned it a few weeks ago, but that didn't do much for it. I think the switches in the guts of the mouse are worn out. So we went to Wal-Mart today to buy her a new mouse. We could get a cheapo mouse for $11, or a wireless one for $18. The wireless one caught Michelle's fancy, because her computer setup means her mouse is on a short lead. But it's easier said than done. Both the wired and wireless mice required a USB port. Given that she has an external hard drive and two printers connected to her computer, she doesn't have a USB port to spare. Well, she does, but then she couldn't connect her iPod Nano or iPod Touch to the computer.

So we got the wireless mouse. I told her I'd take one printer and move it to the kids' computer, thus freeing up a USB port on her computer.

Of course it's a lot more complicated than that. Moving the external hard drive cable from the front to the back (one of my goals in this recombobulation). Unfortunately, I also unplugged the second printer. Ordinarily that wouldn't be all that bad, but it's an old parallel-interface printer we have connected to the computer through a parallel-to-USB cable, and it's a bear to get reconnected and recognized by the computer. The software is a bit odd -- you have to run it twice in order for it to take. That took an hour.

Now I'm busy installing the four-in-one printer on the kids' computer. I'd rather retire the thing, but given that it's still got a good scanner on it, we can't yet. Hopefully it'll work on the kids' computer just fine. Then I have to figure out why the printer we've got connected to our router can't be seen on Michelle's computer. Always complications.

All this because the switches in Michelle's mouse pooped out.

Update 1: Also caved in and connected the kids' computer to our home network. They're at the age when they'd be interested in using the Internet anyway, and besides, we wanted virus protection on the computer as well. It's obviously been a while since this computer was connected to the net, since I'm now busy churning through 77 Windows updates. Yikes.

Update 2: Got the kids' computer to recognize our new printer. Now have to go do the same thing on Michelle's computer.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tonight's Nonsequitur

I don't know why, exactly, I find this so amusing. But it is.

The Ophelia Syndrome

The Fair Ophelia
I take this as a good sign. A sign that maybe I am still learning a thing or two.

Yesterday in the mail came a copy of “I Think,” the BYU-Idaho-prepared text for the foundations English class I’ll begin teaching in September. I brought it to work with me today, anxious to read the bits of wisdom I’m supposed to impart to my students.

Forty-two pages into it, I come out chagrined and ashamed. But hopeful, because though I see signs that, during my undergraduate work at the University of Idaho, I was, for the most part, the Ophelia that Thomas G. Plummer warns in his essay – and required reading for the course – “Diagnosing and Treating the Ophelia Syndrome,” I also see signs that maybe I’m getting past the point where I want everything spoon-fed to me, where I want to know the hoops to jump through rather than finding the hoops for myself.

Not too long ago, I lamented that the journalism professors at the University of Idaho didn’t teach me what I’d need to know in the real world, and that the journalism professionals I worked with figured I was on my own in finding things out. I see now that I was an Ophelia, someone who wants to be treated in ignorance by someone who is going to give me everything I need to succeed, with the only effort on my part being the ability to absorb information.

I’ve had a growing realization that this approach is why I washed out of journalism: laziness. It’s an ugly word when applied to oneself, but in this case it appears apt.

But I am moving on. I’m no smarter, but I believe I’m learning to think. As Plummer says:
To put it differently, surrender the need for absolute truth. The English poet John Keats wrote a landmark letter to his brothers, George and Thomas Keats, on December 22, 1817. It has become known as the letter on "Negative Capability." In part it reads, struck me what quality went to form a Man [or Woman] of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

I do not want to do Keats an injustice by oversimplifying a magnificent statement, but I believe he is saying essentially this: The world is a complex place, and absolute truth is elusive, indeed; the greatness in Shakespeare may be attributed to the fact that he didn't feel inclined to explain what he could not, but only to portray the human condition as he saw it.

This concept drives a stake into the heart of the notion that Polonius has the answers. Overcoming the Ophelia Syndrome, becoming an independent thinker, includes giving up romantic notions of the world as a place where everything can be explained. It includes giving up the need to be fooled into thinking that Polonius does indeed have the answers when he does not. I wish he did. I wish I did. I wish any or all of my colleagues did. We do not. We can only join with students and others in the pursuit of answers, and even then we must remain ultimately in some degree of uncertainty.
The corollary to this is that to treat the Ophelia Syndrome, one must develop a healthy distrust of authorities and experts. Experts disagree more often than they agree. Those who pose as authorities are as likely to be a Polonius trying to turn Ophelia into a baby as they are to have a real handle on what they are talking about. Is there a solution? I can think of two: First, for every important opinion you hear, get a second opinion. Second, in the words of the Lord in the 9th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, study it out in your own heart.
I wondered why, just after I signed the contract to teach this course, why I was doing it. I went over the reasons once again: A good resume-builder. A way to see if teaching is my thing as I contemplate pursuing a doctorate. A diversion from boredom.

No. I see a bit more clearly that the reason I’m doing this is to keep stimulating that intellectual curiosity, the desire for learning. I saw that a little bit earlier this year when I wrote “Through A Glass Darkly” as a series of blog posts. Now I’m starting on the second book in that series. Maybe it’ll go somewhere. Maybe it won’t. But at least I’m taking some creative risks to use my brain, to get me to thinking.

This is what the teachers in my graduate program were cultivating – they didn’t want to show us the hoops and have us jump through them; they wanted us to think. For the most part, I did that. Maybe that’s why taking these courses was exciting. They were hard work. They set me to thinking.

I think that’s what doing this “teaching thing” is going to do once again: Help me to become a better thinker, a better reasoner. The only way is up from here.

Grammar Nazi, Using Tack

Grammar Nazi here. It has been a while.

Today, we learn the difference between tact and tack. Once again, words related phonetically, but not by definition.

To tack – or to change course – has its roots in nautical usage. Tack, of course, is the rope used to anchor certain sails in place as the wind pushes on them. To change tack means to anchor the sail differently, to effect a change in direction. That change of direction, to sailors, is called tacking. Thus the word’s usage in common speech for a change of direction.

Tact is something completely different – and me being a Grammar Nazi, you might suspect I don’t possess it. Tact, per the American Heritage Dictionary, is “the ability to appreciate the delicacy of a situation and to do or say the kindest or most fitting thing.” An admirable quality to be sure. But not an admirable word to use when you mean you want to change the direction of a conversation.

Again, I have to blame phonetics. The final T in tact, is a soft T and thus, for some people, is lost, especially when people hear the word used rather than reading it. So to confuse tact with tack is easy to understand phonetically.

This is one of the reasons those detestable old English class vocabulary lists are so important. Yes, we can and should increase our vocabulary through the spoken word, but knowing how to spell the words we learn is as important as knowing how they’re said and what they mean, else we look like fools mixing words up. And yes, I did just end that sentence with a preposition. Notify Winston Churchill at once.

Paul Yarrow, News Raider

Oh, the cheekiness of the British.

Or at least of Paul Yarrow, 42, a self-confessed “unsightly” man who, this year alone, has managed to get himself into background shots of British TV news shows at least one hundred times, each time in a rumpled white turtleneck – a fashion no-no for tubbies like he and I – and wild, Art Garfunkel hair.

Why does he do it? He’s striking a blow, he says, for unsightly people everywhere.

Here’s what the Daily Mail got out of him:
His TV appearances are designed to strike a blow for the ordinary-looking man in the street.

There are too many beautiful people on television, he argues. The people who run television companies are happy to put blonde lovelies on air but seem curiously averse to filling the screen with balding fat men in wrinkled white sweaters.

And it has to change.

‘It’s a serious issue and I’m trying to make a statement: “Be who you are.” I’m just a common person in the street,’ says Yarrow.

‘People say we live in a fairer, more understanding society these days, but elderly and overweight people still get pushed aside. The camera crews try to move me out of the way but I’m a human being.’

‘I don’t do it to be funny. I’m quite a serious person really but I’m quite unsightly and that makes some people laugh.’

What I appreciate about Yarrow’s approach is that he’s not going for the cheap showiness. He keeps his props extremely low-key, though I’ve got to admit the little grocery trolley is pretty hilarious. He’s there just to be seen, and I love it.

I hope, however, that the stiffs in the news don’t try to shoo him away or call the police on him now that he’s garnered some international celebrity. Here’s a tip to the BBC, SkyNews, and others. This man could be a ratings gold mine for you. People all over the world will tune into your news (thank HEAVEN I can watch this stuff on the Internet now; finally finding some utility in watching the BBC news) so they can spot this guy. He could singlehandedly bring you all to the top of the 24-hour news heap.

And reporters – you could all consider him to be your Paul the Psychic Octopus. If he shows up in your news footage, you know it’s going to be a good story with a good, long shelf-life. So, talking heads, be kind to Mr. Yarrow.

And Mr. Yarrow, please continue striking blows for unsightly men. You are my hero.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Instant Experts, Circa 1968

I wrote earlier this week about David Pell's commentary at on the Five Most Endangered Words on the Internet, and chastised him a bit for suggesting that this phenomenon of comment now, think later, is boren of the Internet age.

I offer tonight a brief excerpt from Victor Lasky's book "It Didn't Start with Watergate," published in pre-Internet 1975, speaking on the phenomenon of instant analysis:
By the time Lyndon Johnson left office, his administration was under bitter attack by the media and its subsidiary organizations. Thus in 1968 the journalism society Sigma Delta Chi had this to day: "The Credibility Gap, which as reached awesome proportions under the Johnson Administration, continued to be a grave handicap. Secrecy, lies, half-truths, deception -- this was the daily fare."

In turn there were those who felt that the press had its own credibility problems. Douglas Cater, special assistant to President Johnson, suggested that too often newsmen presumed an expertise they quite obviously didn't have.

"I'm concerned about the little demigods of TV who make an instant analysis of complicated events," said Cater. "There should be bounds on what TV men do, so much of which is delivered with flippant abandon."
It's a familiar criticism, as Pell says. The mainstream media sees this attitude -- with some justification -- in the blogosphere. It's a criticism they ought to be careful in making, since it's obviously a criticism that can be leveled at themselves quite easily, with some justification.

It's a common aphorism in most journalism circles that a journalist is an "instant expert." It's a cute thing to tell journalism students and rookie reporters, but it can also be a dangerous thing. I know I fell for it often enough -- not our of laziness, but out of sheer exasperation in trying to become an expert in something in a day or less, given the common deadlines we're given to work with. I note that the reporters and writers I enjoy the most aren't instant experts -- they're the ones who have toiled for years to understand their subject matter, and thus can write and speak on it authoritatively through their hard work, not through j-school bravado alone. If I learned anything in my short journalism career, it's that there is only a small leap of difference between an instant expert and an instant asshole. I'm intensely gratified that there exist areas of knowledge in which I can safely say I am somewhat well informed. I'm far from being an expert in anything.

It's as true in journalism as it is true in the blogosphere that there are many out there who babble on with the air of authority without really having the knowledge to back it up. It's equally as true in journalism and the blogosphere that here are many out there that know from whence they speak. The babbling jerks in the blogosphere may be part of the sphere as a whole, but they do not define the sphere. As Uncle Jay would say, "those who think they do ought to be embarrassed."

Fossil Music: Harry Nilsson

This is one of those songs you recognize instantly, whether you like it or not:

Again, i have to wonder why the songs I heard in childhood are the ones that I recall with the most fondness, and why they seem to be embedded in my mind. Just hearing the opening strains of this one sets the entire song playing in my brain. Especially the part where he's singing like Charlie Brown's teacher.

Never knew it was Nilsson singing. I wasn't all that into knowing who was singing, just that they were singing.

He also covered that hit from Casablanca, "As Time Goes By." He does an excellent job.

Though Louis Armstrong is the one most associated with this song, I have to say that despite his ownership and despite Nilsson's good cover, this song, in my mind, will always belong to Dooley Wilson. Don't be deceived by the erroneous label on thsi next video. It may say Armstrong, but it's all Wilson. This I did not know: Wilson was a drummer, not a pianist, but nonetheless he pretended to lay the piano in 1942's "Casablanca."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Matt Ridley: Genome

So, what are you?

A complicated biological machine beset by innate programming and external conditions bent both on keeping you alive and eventually killing you?

Or are you the creation of a supreme being, both soul and body, possessed of a free will?

And though Matt Ridley, in his 2000 book “Genome: The Autobiography of A Species in 23 Chapters,” leans to the left in this equation, he still writes an incredibly balanced and above all scientific book about the human genome, what we know about it, how we think it works and how we misunderstand the science that’s delving into figuring out how that double helix of DNA can turn two germ cells into a complicated biological masterpiece.

Ridley, in the footnotes to his book, acknowledges that it was, at its printing, already out of date. Ten years further along, of course, it is certainly even more out of date. But what’s not out of date in this wonderful book is the critical approach Ridley takes to this science. And it’s not critical in any political way, but critical in a scientific way. He reminds the reader constantly that what is known about the human genome is small compared to what is not known, that cause does not necessarily mean effect, that a firm belief in genetic determinism is just as foolish on the left as is a firm belief in free will is on the right. More importantly, he reminds us all that what we have, as far as genetics goes, is some knowledge bolstered by a lot of unsupported belief.

Here’s an example:
We instinctively assume that bodily biochemistry is cause whereas behavior is effect, an assumption we have taken to a ridiculous extent in considering the impact of genes upon our lives. If genes are involved in behavior then it is they that are the cause and they that are deemed immutable. This is a mistake made not just by genetic determinists, but by their vociferous opponents, the people who say behavior is “not in the genes”; the people who deplore the fatalism and predestination implied, they say, by behavior genetics. They give too much ground to their opponents by allowing this assumption to stand, for they tacitly admit that if genes are involved at all, then they area t the top of the hierarchy. They forget that genes need to be switched on, and external events – or free-willed behavior – can switch on genes. Far from us lying at the mercy of our omnipotent genes, it is often our genes that lie at the mercy of us. If you go bungee jumping or take a stressful job, or repeatedly imagine a terrible fear, you will raise your cortisol levels, and the cortisol will dash about the body busy switching on genes. (It is an indisputable fact that you can rigger activity in the “happiness centers” of the brain with a deliberate smile, as surely as you can trigger a smile with happy thoughts. It really does make you feel better to smile. The physical can be at the beck and call of the behavioral.)
Ridley, I believe, successfully finds and holds that middle ground. Our genes certainly influence who we are and what we become. But our behavior can, in turn, influence our genes. We are machines, beautiful, free-willed machines, capable to some extent of reprogramming ourselves.

Here’s a thought I had on the bus this morning: Our genes are like the model tank kit we can buy at the hobby store. We follow the instructions religiously and build that magnificent tank. Everything works. The wheels turn. The gun turrets rotate. The tracks allow the tank to maneuver through any kind of terrain. And then we take that tank not into the battlefield, but gently down a city street, to the park, to the grocery store, trundling along. It is still there in its essence of tankness; everything that makes it a tank is still there. And yet our use of it for domestic purposes does not mean that its innate tankness takes over; we drive it to the grocery store and load it with groceries, we do not drive it to the grocery store to level the building with our tank shells.

So brain and genome, tank and the purpose we put with it, work together. As Ridley writes:
The human brain is a far more impressive machine than the genome. If you like quantitative measure, it has trillions of synapses instead of billions of bases and it weighs kilograms in stead of micrograms. If you prefer geometry, it is an analogue, three-dimensional machine, rather than a digital, one-dimensional one. If you like thermodynamics, it generates large quantities of heat as it works, like a steam engine. For biochemists, it requires many thousands of different proteins, neurotransmitters, and other chemicals, not just the four nucleotides of DNA. For the impatient, it literally changes while you watch, as synapses are altered to create learned memories, whereas the genome changes more slowly than a glacier. For the lover of free will, the pruning of the neural networks in our grains, by the ruthless gardener called experience, is vital to the proper functioning of the organ, whereas genomes play out their messages in a predetermined way with comparatively little flexibility. Yet . . . the dichotomy is a false one. The brain is created by genes. It is only as good as its innate design. The very fact that it is a machine designed to be modified by experience is written in the genes. The mystery of how is one of the greatest challenges of modern biology. But that the human brain is the finest monument to the capacities of genes there is no doubt. It is the mark of a great leader that he knows when to delegate. The genome knew when to delegate.
I think what I enjoyed most about reading this book is that I learned a few things. Genetics is a pretty fascinating field of science, and I think if we all learned about it a bit more, we could have more intelligent discussions on the subject that what we see in political and media circles. Politics tends to get too black and white in this subject, and the media, for the most part, either boils things down too simply or merely presents both sides of the argument without really bothering to explain anything to the layman about what's being discussed. Ridley does a wonderful job explaining to the layman, but keeping it intelligent enough that the curious layman is able to keep exploring and asking questions.

The Five Most Endangered Words on the Internet

Dave Pell, one of the rabble of bloggers who happens to write occasionally at has come up with what he thinks are the most endangered words on the Internet:
Let me think about that.
He’s partly right. Though he writes his post mainly in reaction to the Shirley Sherrod story, what he says certainly applies to much of the news reaction – be it from professional and highly-paid politicians or media pundits or members of the pajamas media cognoscenti, our inability to control our umbrage before all the facts are in is, in a word, unlimitless.

Pell goes on to write this:
This story is less about politics and more about pace. It provides a clear example of how our Facebook and Twitter behaviors are bleeding over into the rest of our lives.
Almost. While this is absolutely about pace, I’m not sure you can really blame this kind of overreaction on the Internet. The Internet certainly makes such overreaction much easier to do, easier to disseminate and easier to send to your friends, but I’m certain that such overreaction was quite common in the era of newsprint and radio, and even further back. We only hear about it not because everyone’s got a chance to shout their umbrage from the rooftops. Scroll back fifty or sixty years or so and you’d see lots and lots more letters to the editors of newspapers, for example, than we do now, simply because back then that was how people let their umbrage be known. Plenty of fact-avoidance happened in those kinds of venues as well.

So it’s hardly a new national pastime, as Pell puts it: “Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and making determinations and judgments without a full set of facts.” He’s paraphrasing White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs in that pithy quote, of course.

I certainly agree with Pell when he says, however, that the most endangered words in the blogosphere are “I don’t know.”

On a related note: Uncle Jay, over at Uncle Jay explains, says something this week that dovetails nicely with this discussion, coming about midpoint in this week’s episode. He reminds us – as Pell likely would – that we do need to have an assemblage of the facts before we rush to judgment – and that goes for the left as well as for the right.

Here’s what he says, in regards to the Sherrod/NAACP/Brietbart/Tea Party thing, showing that even if you can’t be satisfied with saying “I don’t know,” you can at least say, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Every political party, every religion, every race, every group of every kind have members who embarrass the group, but those members don’t define the group. And people who say they do should be embarrassed.

Amen, Uncle Jay.

Play this video

So I’m challenging myself: Increase the density of my umbrage filter. Spend the time gathering the facts and then, when you’re ready, state your case using the facts. If the facts don’t agree with my preconceived notion, I’ll do the daring thing and change that notion, rather than ignore the facts. The NAACP and Andrew Brietbart could both learn something from that.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thurston and Stanley: A Story by my Sister

NOTE: This was originally published at My Kids' Refrigerator Blog.

Out of the blue this afternoon, my sister Maaike asked if my daugther would draw a picture of an elephant and a mouse for a story she's written. Said daughter was thrilled. I think. She churned this out quite quickly, and was stunned -- stunned -- by the fact that I could scan it in, e-mail it and get comments back from her aunt in a matter of minutes. I guess I should tell my kids a bit more about technology, eh?

Anyway, here's Thurston the Elephant, with his friend Stanley the Mouse. And, for fun, Maaike's story:


Thurson is an elephant.
He is great at making noise with his trunk…
And stomping up dust with his feet…
But the other elephants laugh at him because he is very small.

One day they called him names
(Runt! Pee-Wee! Tiny!)
Which made him sad.
He went to his quiet place to think.

“Hello,” said a little voice. “My name is Stanley Mouse.”
“I’m Thurston.”
“Why are you sad?” asked Stanley.
“The other elephants called me names because I am small,” said Thurston.

Stanley walked up to him and said,
“You may be small, but you are the bravest elephant I have ever met.”
“I’m brave? What do you mean?” asked Thurston.
“Watch this!” said Stanley.

They went up to the edge of the tall grass.
“Wait here,” said Stanley.
Thurston watched as Stanley quietly crept up to the other elephants.
When Stanley was in the middle of the elephants he said,

(Yikes! Eeek! Run away!!)
Thurston laughed as he watched the other elephants run from Stanley.
Stanley smiled and waved.

When he came back Stanley said, “That is why you are brave.”
Thurston was always small…
But the other elephants all agreed that he was very brave.
(Thurston with Stanley standing on his trunk.)

The End.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Walkman vs. iPod Family: Sony Holds Up Well

I won a Sony mp3 player at my company picnic yesterday, which is exciting news, since I rarely win anything in raffles of this nature.

But here's the funny part: I'd almost forgotten that Apple isn't the only company that makes such devices. That's both good and bad for Apple.

We have four iPod-branded devices at home. Two 32-gig iPod Touches, an iPod Nano, and a standard iPod. Add this Sony player and now we've got one for each member of the family. They vary in their utility for playing music and, in all but one case, video.

For music, the standard iPod and Nano are the best because -- and this'll sound nit-picky -- because the UI for the simpler devices is better for playing music. If I want to shut down the music playing on my iPod Touch, I have to turn the thing back on, unlock it, then shut the music off. With the standard iPod and the Nano, it's just one push of one button, and it's off.

For video, the iPod Touches, of course, are better, simply because their screens are a bit larger. The iPod Nano does play video, but on that tiny 2-inch screen.

I haven't had a real chance to test-drive the Sony yet -- and I love that it's of the Walkman brand; I had one of the original cassette-playing Walkmans back in the 1980s and thought I was one of the coolest people on the face of the planet. But, so far, I'm impressed.

My wife juggles two iPod iterations on her computer. That means that through iTunes, she has to set up two different libraries, and has to remember a certain key combination when she starts iTunes in order to get to the right library. It works maybe two out of three times. The other two iPod devices we have running on separate computers, a desktop and a laptop. Moving music from one to the other is a painful process of either e-mailing or using thumb drives.

The Sony has an incredible UI that Apple could learn from. Sony has set up their device to run like a thumb drive -- and you don't even have to eject the device to disconnect it from the computer. Yes, the iPod Touches do that, but the Sony does something a bit more than that.

Sony recognizes that people who buy their mp3 players likely already have Apple players and iTunes. Rather than making their own complicated library software, Sony just says, hey, drag and drop your music from iTunes over to the Walkman and you're good to go. You can also organize through Windows Media, but if you've already got iTunes, why bother?

Another nifty feature. I noted seeing the package that the Sony would play movies, but only those in the WMV format. I thought that was kind of disappointing, given that I've got a lot of movies and TV shows in the mp4 format. However, Sony has a nifty little feature that converts any incompatible video file format to WMV and thus allow them to be played on the Walkman. I tried the conversion out with a few fifteen-minute cartoons, and the conversions took less than a minute. The videos play just fine. Maybe there's a little degradation of quality, but when you're squinting at a 2-inch screen to watch Donal Duck, you're not going to be all that picky, are you?

The model I won is an 8-gig one, so not terribly large compared to the 16-gig Nano and 32-gig iPod Touches. If I'd been shopping for another player, I would have bought one with a larger capacity. But having used this Sony for only a short time, I'd certainly consider, if I were in the market for a new music/video player, buying on that's not an Apple brand. The ease of moving music over to the new player and the fact I don't have to construct a new library is a big bonus, as is the Sony's ability to do the mp4 to WMV conversion. Sony and the others may be in the secondary mp3 player market, but they're certainly playing that market extremely well.

Moonlighting Sith Lord

We saw this guy at the Fourth of July Parade in Victor, Idaho, a few weeks ago. There was just something about him -- aside from his overall Elvisness -- that made us do a double take.

Then it hit us. Our good friend Alan Murray is likely masquerading as an Elvis impersonator and plying his trade at small-town parades throughout the Intermountain West. Never knew you had it in you, Alan. Looking good, though.

Yeah, looking at the photos now, maybe they don't really resemble Alan. But there at the parade, in the moment, all Michelle and I could think of as we watched this guy come by was "Wow. That's Alan up there, right?" I guess he will go to any lengths necessary to promote Uncharted. What a guy.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Fossilized Fud Music: Petula Clark

I don't know why, but this song always makes me happy. It's so singable. So hummable. It's a bit escapist in its lyrics, telling people to go downtown to avoid their problems. But we all need that, don't we -- a place to go where our troubles and cares don't follow us?

And this is unquestionably Petula Clark's song. Again, I'm not saying this because hers is the version I'm most familiar with -- I like that she's not only singing about a bassanova beat, but also in a song that's got that nice bassanova beat. Some of the more modern versions of the song try to rock or jazz it up a bit more than it needs to be.

Here's another one from Clark in the same vein:

Once again, a song about after work, hanging out -- a song about nothing long before Seinfeld made his show about nothing. And how can you top the hip little bit of hip-slappin' she does in this video? These are videos from the Ed Sullivan Show, when videos were about the music, not necessarily about the weird images folks could throw up on the big MTV screen.

Yes, I am a fossilized fud. Check out the title of the post, bub.

Here's another happy --- GAH! What IS that dress she's wearing? It looks like a cross between a swimsuit top and a Slip 'n' Slide bottom. But it is a happy song. Gale Garnett. A fine version. But I think I like this one better:

This is Helen Reddy's song -- and the fact that she sings it here with a dancing camel is only a bonus. This scene from The Muppets always fascinated me. How much practice did it take those two camel performers to do this right? Lots, I imagine.

My Biggest Fear

 I'm going to get students like this. I know it.

We're now at the tail-end of week three (of four) in the training I'm taking to become an online instructor at BYU-Idaho. With one week left, including a group conversation that'll take place Friday morning, I have to wonder: Am I up to this?

I ask the question because I do not suffer fools well. I should modify that. On the ethers and in paper, I think I suffer them tolerably well. But that's because I manage to put a filter between me and the reactions I allow to escape. Perhaps that's a sign of maturity: We still have the feeling of not suffering fools well, but we learn to moderate our outward reactions. I hope that comes through.

I have a principal worry in that my past online course experience has been as a student in a graduate program, dealing with people who suffer fools as equally poorly as I do, but have learned to moderate their behavior so that their suffering doesn't show. I'm not sure what to expect with a bunch of giggly freshmen, especially freshmen who have to take this English class because they're required, not because they actually like to write. Michelle, a former high school teacher, tells me to be prepared for lots and lots and lots of "[Insert Student Name Here], Biff at Large" behavior.

And yet there will be students who are wonderful human beings and excited to be in this class. Though I'm not holding my breath in thinking I'll get a lot of those.

I will make it through the first semester. There's no question of quitting once I start. I just hope I don't end up virtually strangling a student between now and Christmas.

Things NOT to Do if You're Cynical About Government

Because I'm an incredibly geeky individual, I'm reading yet another book about Watergate. Well, it's not necessarily about Watergate, but centers on how the media handled the Watergate scandal and yet did not handle other scandals precipitated by Democratic presidents (Kennedy and Johnson) during the same time period. It's Victor Lasky's "It Didn't Start With Watergate." Fascinating, illuminating, cynicism-building stuff.

Lasky is rightly critical of national media outlets that gave the likes of Kennedy, Johnson, and later Carter a pass on some of the more lackluster shenanigans during their tenures (Kennedy's assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and the US-supported coups against leaders in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, as examples) while putting Richard Nixon under the microscope for Watergate. He doesn't excuse Nixon for what happened -- in fact, he seriously shakes his head at what was done in the Nixon White House -- but does look jaw agape at how the scandals of a Republican president were brought out into the daylight while the media was complicit, or simply didn't bother to dig out -- the improprieties of Democratic presidents.

He even deflowers one of my political heroes, Sen. Frank Church of Idaho. I had always held him in pretty high regard, until I found out that he tried to suppress the results of his own committee's investigations into presidential meddlings in coups and assassinations of heads of state because it would have besmirched his idol Kennedy -- and after the cat was out of the bag, still tried to point fingers more at Nixon and Eisenhower than at the Democrats who were in power during the same time period. That seems like shoddy statesmanship to me.

This book isn't a complete indictment of the entire media-presidential complex, because Lasky does give kudos to journalists of both conservative and liberal stripes who did their jobs as journalists rather than to protect presidents with whom they were chummy. But it is an indictment against the establishment press that does not dig into allegations simply because they approve of the president against whom the allegations are levied, and then dig into the allegations against presidents whom they despise. This would be a good lesson for journalists today -- and a good sign that the lessons that could have been learned back then have not been learned at all.

You know, that's why I find that portion of American history so fascinating. So many lessons to be learned for politicians, journalists, voters and everyone else, but few of those lessons have been learned. We're still voting for style over substance, still assuming that if we like a guy he can do no wrong. And where we should have a healthy distrust for politicians and journalists and pundits and such, we instead have a cynicism -- which tells us that now we assume everyone is a liar and an asshole and going to steal the kids' lollipops after they kiss them. The kids, not the lollipops. That's counterproductive. Because to excuse someone for doing something simply because their predecessors have done it, that's wrong. And that's what I see going on with the current occupant of the White House. He's making the same mistakes as his much-hated predecessor, and yet he's being given a ride for it, because all he did was "inherit" the problems. That's horse caca. I voted him in so he could change things. Now we're getting a politician who won't do what he says he's going to do. So I'm looking to the next person. Maybe one of these days I"ll get something right.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Year of the Water Balloon

In the annals of acrimony, snickering, snobism and downright flim-flammery that is the junior/senior status between BYU in Provo and BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, this year may become known as the Year of the Water Balloon.

BYU-Idaho students tried to organize an “epic” water balloon fight this past weekend, pitting students from the west side of town against those from the east. Because they wanted to hold it at a public park, they were thwarted at the last second by the Rexburg Police Department, concerned over safety, the lack of a park use permit and other legalities.

This past Wednesday, the Rexburg City Council banned “epic” water fights, not going as far as to ban “epic” as an adjective, however. Pity they couldn’t take a stand on the larger issue.

This Friday, BYU-Provo students will stage a record-breaking 120,000-balloon water fight on campus, under the aegis of the student activities program and with the blessing of the university.

Only time will tell if the uppers at BYU-Idaho would allow such a battle on campus, though it’s not clear right now that anybody’s formally asked them. And when they are asked, I’m not sure they’ll say yes unconditionally.

Truth be told, when water fight organizers are talking about water balloon launchers and other hardware, you know people will get hurt and that property might be damaged. Organizers of the Rexburg event said that yes indeed, people had gone to the emergency room the last time they held such a fight.

So probably the high-powered weaponry is out.

But they’ve got a chance of the university saying yes. They ought to ask.

I'd comment on the maturity of such events, but then again I participated in many campus snowfall fights at the University of Idaho.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Pennsylvania Diamonds

Life is full of experiences waiting to happen. A few years ago, I got to crawl into the innards of a dam. I wish I'd taken better pictures. A few years after that, I got to soar into the sky in a hot air balloon. Better pictures there.

Then there's this story, done by Uncharted Executive Director Alan Murray, in which he takes us into a coal mine in Pennsylvania. Fortunately for us, he does a great job with the photos, including this of a graffito left in the mine by astronaut Scott Carpenter. How cool is that? Go here to read the whole story.

I Need Mechanics Like This

E-books Surpass Hardback sales at Amazon

Here’s food for thought as I ponder publishing my book:

Yesterday, said it sold 180 e-books for each 100 physical books in the past month, and that, over the past three months, more e-books than hardcover books.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, according to the Wall Street Journal, credits a cut in the price of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader as a significant factor in helping e-books to their significant tipping point this summer. Makers of other e-readers, including Sony, Barnes and Noble and Apple also noted increased sales in e-books.

What does this mean for the sale of physical, paper books? A few things. Amazon says that the uptick in e-book sales was also accompanied by an uptick in physical book sales, though, obviously not to the same degree. The Wall Street Journal also quotes representatives of traditional publishing houses who are saying that there’s simply not enough data out there to say whether increased e-book sales are going to hurt traditional paperback sales.

That time is coming.

Nathan Bransford, a literary agent whose blog I follow, had this to say about e-books in a March blog post:
People will still have that choice and there are some books that simply can't be replicated digitally. But when faced with a better option, consumers shift extremely quickly. Right now the benefits of e-books are a little murky except for early adopters and those that can afford the devices. But that's just right now. Pretty soon they're going to be better (color! design! portable! interactivity! instantaneous!) and cheaper. Readers won't pay a premium for an inferior print product out of habit and nostalgia in great numbers.

The e-book era is going to be one of incredible innovation and unlimited opportunity, and people who don't see e-books dominating the future of the book world are ignoring the coming innovation and creativity and affordability. I refuse to believe the skeptics and pessimists. Books are about to get better.

So an e-book is definitely in my future. A publisher who wants to go ahead without such an option is off my list. And that sounds scary – would I really pass up publishing a book if they said an e-book was off the table? Ask me again when the opportunity arises, but for now, sitting where I am, I’d have to say yes.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Cookie Conundrum

Got the following fortune cookie fortune recently:

"You will soon be receiving some good written advice."

Well and good. But there's a conundrum: Is the good written advice I'll
soon be receiving coming in a form other than a fortune cookie fortune?
Otherwise, I'm in one of those endless little feedback loops.

I also hope it doesn't mean any of the following:

1) Privacy policy notification from investment firm.
2) Most recent paystub.
3) Credit card offer from American Express.
) Possible impending critique of the first page of my novel from a
literary agent.
5) New message scrawled on the bathroom wall in WMF-613.
6) Laffy Taffy joke.

I'll let you know what comes up.

I Owe You An Apology

I get a lot of practice with apologies.

I tell my wife I’m sorry all the time. I apologize to my kids. I probably owe several people in my tiny little sphere of influence an apology; if you’re one of them, leave a comment on this post.

Daniel Pink wants us to think about how we apologize. I agree with him 100 percent.

Pink writes in the Telegraph that the “professional” apology (“We regret any inconvenience this may have caused,”) or the “non-apology” (See Steve Jobs) is not only terrible on the corporate level, but is getting even worse as we slip into such apologies – even if Scott Adams Calls them the “High Road Maneuver” – into our everyday speech. (I have to agree with several of Adams' commenters, who say there's a fine line between taking the high road and being insolent; Jobs and many others cross that line and still want to claim the high road. They can't have their cake and eat it, too).

I won’t stand for it. I’m a sorry little sack of protoplasm and will continue to be a sorry little sack of protoplasm every time I screw up. I’m likely to continue screwing up not because I’m not learning lessons from past screw-ups, but because I’m prone to making mistakes. I'm not one who believes apologizing shows weakness.

In that, I’m in agreement with 37 Signals’ Jason Fried, whom pink quotes:
“Any inconvenience” is emotionally anaemic and lacks the specificity to make it meaningful. “We apologise” isn’t much better. It’s distancing almost to the point of dismissiveness. “When you say, ‘I’m sorry,’ you’re owning,” Fried explains. “When you say ‘I apologise,’ you’re renting.”

Professionalese is a renter’s language. It doesn’t expect to be around for very long and has no stake in the long-term prospects of the neighbourhood. It says, “mistakes were made” rather than “we messed up” and claims to “take responsibility” instead of acknowledging “it’s my fault.”
I catch myself doing it – saying “I apologize” to my wife rather than “I’m sorry.” There are lights years of difference between the two. The latter, to me, is more sincere, less sterile. More in line with this:

And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.

It’s all in the humility, something of which we’re in desperate need these days. A non-apology, or one couched in language meant to insulate the one who made the mistake from the ones that mistake impacts do not invite forgiveness or empathy.

As Pink writes:
The behavioural economist Dan Ariely has conducted research showing that when people are treated rudely, they’re more likely to behave vengefully – for instance, by not saying anything when they’re given too much change in a transaction. But when rudeness is followed by a clear and simple “I’m sorry”, the annoyance dissipates and people tend to behave as honourably as they do in ordinary circumstances.
That’s the kind of world I want to live in; where the golden rule means not “He who has the gold makes the rules,” but the meaning the rule was intended to have: “Treat others as you’d like to be treated.” If someone compels you to walk a mile, walk with him twain. That kind of thing. It doesn’t matter if there are people out there making the same mistakes as we are – their behavior does not control our own.

No Fair Dozing Before Dinner . . .

Here I sit, one generation of Simpson, wondering what to do next.

I have finished my first novel. I have made much noise on this blog about that fact. And I find myself asking: So what? Here, the road divides: Both routes include finding someone to publish said novel, but both routes include different ancillary activities.

My impulse is to continue on, start writing the next installment of this story of Seth and Altus learning to become messiahs. I have started formulating a few ideas. But then part of me wonders: Am I better off going back and revising the first installment so I know that it works, before moving on? Because I know there are flaws. Many flaws. But am I too close to it to see them all? Probably. The best thing for a writer to do is to put his or her writing aside for a while, then look at it again with fresh eyes. It’s even better, however, to have someone else entirely look it over, because they will approach it with that cold eye. Michelle is perfect for this. But she’s incredibly busy with life and her masters classes and whatnot.

So I dither. And continue to gather ideas for the next installment. That’s probably the direction I’ll head: forging on.

Otherwise, I’ll feel empty. These past few months, working on that novel almost daily, really helped me find a sense of fulfillment. Not that I don’t have other things that are fulfilling – wife, children, career, great suit, terrific henchmen – but writing that novel really helped me find a project. Kinda like Lord Morley:

(Go to 3:03 for the appropriate moment.)

Ooh, A Ruckus

Rumor has it that Max Spatig, who is in a spat with the Madison County Sheriff's Office and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the discovery of hazardous chemicals on his Madison County property, is taking his message to the masses.

Or at least is trying to. Or threatening to. Nevertheless, local representatives of the LDS Church have a plan in place. Spatig, the rumor says, wants to target the open format of the LDS Church's Fast Sunday -- the first Sunday of the month in which, for the first hour of church, anyone in the congregation may bear their testimonies or otherwise hold forth at the microphone -- to preach against the evils of the MCSO and EPA. Instructions, the rumor says, for local church leaders
if this were to happen would be to immediately cancel church for the day and send everyone home.

Cheekily, I kinda hope this happens.

Weirdness is often a part of LDS Fast Sundays. I've heard it used to issue calls for repentance by folks willing to use names of church members they feel have sinned, by folks who want colognes and perfumes banned from church buildings, and other such ruckus-rousing behavior. Most of the time, Fast Sundays are good Experiences, with people sharing their love of Christ, their love of the prophets, their love for their fellow beings and such. Sometimes, however it's a ruckus. Mormons are, above anything else, intensely human human beings, with all the good and bad, ego and humility, that entails.

So if Spatig shows up and truncates our traditional three-hour church block, I won't complain. I am, in fact, sorely tempted to bring the video camera next Fast Sunday, just in case. In fact, I'd feel kind a bad for folks who have Sacrament Meeting last and thus, with a Spatig sighting, wouldn't get the church truncation benefits of folks, like us, who have it first in the three-hour block.

I should go on record here saying that while Spatig deserves to be heard, hijacking a church meeting isn't the best way to go about it. It won't help his cause -- although there is enough anti-government sentiment in some Mormon circles to make this approach logical. I don't support his storage of chemicals on his property, in the open, in the weather. If he wants to keep them, that's fine. But warehouse them and store them in a fashion that if, heaven forbid there is a leak or spill, it's properly contained. And if you're upset with the tactics of the local Constabulatory or the feds, take it up in the papers and in the courts. Taking it into the court of public opinion directly to the masses is only going to accomplish one thing: A one-week vacation from church.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Drivelalia Factosis

Now at least I know what to call it.

You read it here daily. My wife gets it all the time when she's trying to do something else. My kids get it until they're absolutely sick of hearing their Daddy's voice.

I have it: Drivealia Factosis. I'm not sure anyone has ever elucidated this, well, I'm going to call it a genetic disorder, because this isn't really the kind of thing you can pick up from a bug. Although it certainly could be parasitical.

Anyway, I have it. Many members of my family have it -- that's why I believe it's genetic, not parasitical or anything else like that. My mother-in-law noted it in me early and rather than be concerned for her grandchildren (she has other offspring, so they may provide the kind of grandchildren she wants) she simply feeds the habit. She brings home books like Dan Voorhees' "The Book of Totally Useless Information," laughs, and says, "Well, when I saw it, I thought of you."

Drivelalia factosis, however, brings its own dangers. I'm expected to know everything. I cannot disappoint. So to keep up with all the demands from three very inquisitive children, I have to read a lot. And watch movies a lot. And do all sorts of things a lot so I can feed the habit. Still, it's not enough. Now I've got to start learning about native flora and fauna -- my knowledge was found lacking when we took a hike over the Fourth of July weekend.

Fortunately, our oldest son has the right combination of recessive genes to make this condition evident in himself. So I provide him with ample reading material. It's nice to have another one in the family.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

INL Has A Firebug?

I want to reiterate here that I have a rock-solid alibi for when the Jefferson Fire started at the Idaho National Laboratory.

I say that in jest, because on the day of that fire, I had one person call and one person e-mail, asking if I started it. They wanted to tease, of course. I did not start it, I told them.

Evidently, however, somebody did. Whether it's arson or an accident, apparently nobody's telling.

(Photo here is taken from my back porch on the first day of the fire, looking west. The plume of smoke pretty much took in the entire sky except for a narrow slice to the south, where ordinary daylight could still come in. It came in blue, however, as you can see in the photo below.)

You can see the blue light reflected most clearly on the leaves of the tree in the left portion of the photo. There are more photos in my Facebook photo album.

But back to the cause. Nobody's telling whether it's arson or accident. I hope it's the latter. I don't like the thought of an arsonist having access to a nuclear reservation -- and it's quite possible that those opposed to nuclear power could use this kind of event as another bludgeon against new plants. What they (and the arsonists) don't realize is that part of the standard fire protection plan at any kind of nuclear facility to to have a vegetation-free zone around the plant to prevent fires like this from causing trouble. They may burn down power poles, but they will not otherwise affect the plant in any way.

Additionally, I've got to feel some pity for the folks over at the Materials and Fuels Complex Emergency Response Organization. They had to have had a hell of a time this week, going through the paces of keeping the rest of us abreast on what was happening out there. I'm a notification specialist on the RWMC ERO, and even in drill situations it's not a fun job to do -- and it's all volunteer; nobody gets any extra money for all that work. And it is work, tedious, tension-mounting work. I hope they find more than just a one-pound bonus in their pay buckets this week. Though we all had to do some additional ERO training this week, so maybe it wasn't all roses over there. The training can hardly be coincidental with the fire; that's just a bit too pat for me.

Anyway, here's to hoping that the accident, if that's the cause, is cleared up, and, if there's an arsonist, that he or she is nabbed before another fire goes off.

Then there's the other thing I probably shouldn't mention until I do a little homework. Maybe early next week.

Reunion Time

As I wandered around my 20th high school reunion picnic this afternoon, memories of the good parts of high school started to flood back. They may have indeed been primed by our voyage a few weekends ago into the center of Palisades Reservoir on a motorboat captained by Ralph Hunter, my high school Algebra II teacher. He's thinner than he was. I'm a bit stouter. He knows his maths. I do not.

I'm reminded I'm not a huggy person. Lots of hugs being tossed left and right at the reunion, but I was not among them. Not that I felt left out. Relieved, more likely. It's the Dutch in us, I think. That natural bit of reserve. Plus, probably buried deep within our DNA, a gene that runs around in a little circle muttering "fire fire fire fire fire" in social situations, and the rest of the body takes its cues from that.

Most embarrassing moment: Shouting "Amy! Amy!" at Ruth Ann Staiger, trying to get her attention. Until I realized Amy is her older sister, my wife's age.

Second most embarrassing moment: Steve Loertscher said he had a person come to him in Boise saying, "Hey, I was over in Rexburg and there was an article in the paper about you!" She had in hand a column I wrote for the Rexburg paper about trends, mentioning Steve's attempt in the sixth grade to start a new one by wearing a padlock on one of his belt loops. You know -- and this is a bizarre thing to come from a writer -- sometimes I just plain forget that the things I write are going to be distributed (sometimes) and read (sometimes) by people who know me and eventually might get back to me about what I wrote. Spent many hours this afternoon contemplating all the stuff I've written and how it might come back to haunt me.

Best moment: Seeing I have passed on that little "fire fire fire" gene to my oldest.

Second best moment: Seeing the gene skipped my daughter and youngest son. Especially the daughter, who lamented as we left that she would never see her new friend -- from Oklahoma -- again. Don't know who she was, but if anyone from the reunion lives in Oklahoma, my daughter would like to say thanks and would be thrilled to have an Oklahoma pen pal. Lexie's eight; your daughter would be about the same age. If you read this, let me know. We can swap addresses.

It's a pity, sometimes, that my wife and I are hermits. Some days, I'd like to be a social butterfly. Some days, however, I'm very content to be me -- something that didn't happen much in high school. Maybe that's the best reward that came out of the picnic today: I came home realizing I'm pretty happy to be who I am.

Now I'm psychoanalyzing. Time to conclude this post.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Oh Non, Mon Collier

This isn't as easy to enjoy if you don't speak French, but still, the cartoons are pretty self-explanatory and they're funny to boot. This one is about a poor giraffe that loses its fancy pearl collar, lamenting for, well, you'll see. Then there's the payoff. Excellent.

Oh that poor thief . . .

Here's one if you've ever wondered why your cell phone reception is so bad.

About That Long Tail . . .

When I was a journalist, occasionally we’d get a book in the mail. It was mailed to us by some obscure author from some obscure, distant place, in the hopes that we would read it, like it, publish a review and soon have the local populace beating a path to the author’s door. I read the books; I worked at a twice-weekly paper in a small town with really nothing going on, so I had the time on my hands. Rarely liked them. And we never published any reviews.

More than just occasionally, a zealous local author would call or barge into our offices, freshly-printed copy of their book in hand, and insist we publish a story about their book and about their achievement. Again, I worked at a slightly larger paper in a slightly larger town with slightly more news occurring, so I read the books. I had the time on my hands. Unquestionably, we wrote and published the stories. Local Author Makes Good, we’d say. And, because we’re not grossly stupid and wanted to preserve our readership, our well-standing in the community, and because the author’s puppy-dog eyes were focused so appealingly on us, we said nice things about their books. Even if they didn’t really deserve it.

We were their marketing. The really zealous ones got their books in the local bookstore, back when it sold books. Others tried all sorts of gimmickry, from advertising book-centered websites by stringing up banners on highwayside bales of straw to setting up booths a local street festivals, stacks of books on hand, eager pen ready to sign autographs.

We have one local author of note: Jack Weyland, of “Charly” fame, who went the route of publishing fiction through a niche publishing house which markets to a strictly niche audience.

The rest, well, they’re in that long tail of published authors that no one has ever heard about, and for good reason: They’re not very good. I include myself – unpublished – in their company.

I don’t want to be there.

Like many authors, I believe what I’ve written to be pretty decent. Fifty thousand, six hundred some-odd words of – and I’ll be honest here – first-draft prose. I know it has its faults. First drafts, and tenth drafts, and hundredth drafts, always do.

I am exploring my options. I have looked into self-publishing, you bet your boots. And prices in the self-publishing realm are going down. A few years ago, a run at self-publishing would have put me back about $1,000. Thanks to my brother-in-law over at The Lithium Press, I now know of, where the prices – for an e-book at least – have plunged to a mere $150. That’s less than a day’s wages; much more manageable.

But at what cost?

Assurance of resting in that long tail. Forever.

Assurance of haybale URL marketing.

Assurance of going, hat and book in hand, to the local news outlets. The local bookstore.

This is the bone I have to pick with self-publishing: Despite the promises of liberation, of more control, more profit, more this and more that – you get less. Far less than taking the long, certainly mostly fruitless haul of trying to find a literary agent interested in your work. They send out, hat in hand, to market your book – your far inferior book – while they come at you, hand out, waiting for the fee.

Going the self-publishing route and want someone to edit your book? Yes you can. For a flat $199 fee, will provide “a professional copy editor” to review your book “to give you invaluable advice.” Who are the professionals? Schlubs like me. Parlaying their career as journalists and technical writers into freelance editing careers. It’s Russian roulette – what kind of editor will you get? And what will that valuable advice entail?

Not satisfied with that? For 76 cents a word, get an advanced editorial review – “a tailored review of story ideas, plot development, suggestions for improvement of the work as a whole.” They even toss in copy editing! And for a book of 50,600 or so words, that comes out to a fee of $38,456.


All that, and you’re still in the long tail.

See? There are reasons books cost a certain amount at the bookstore, coming from a traditional publishing house. They may be inefficient, slow to change, cantankerous, railing at technology – but they filter. They help an author hone and caress, mill and shape as part of the package. They put in an investment they hope they can get out. And if they don’t see the potential, they’ll tell you. Bluntly. And as often as it takes to get the message through your thick little authorly skull.

I know this, and I haven’t even gone through the process. And maybe after this long process, if you make it through, you’re still in the long tail. But at least you paid in sweat equity, not cold, hard cash.

Self-publishing is tempting. But you get what you pay for. Self-publishing – until their prices to hone and refine come down to what the market will bear – will be like going to the lumber yard and coming home with a tree.

But – but – what about that organic collaboration I blogged about earlier in my post on the Creative Commons? Well, the self-publishing industry, as it stands now, makes that approach even more appealing.

We must hang together, or assuredly we will hang separately.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

BYU-I Podcast

The big assignment this week for our certification was to make a post a podcast introducing ourselves and our class. So here's mine:

I did not use the suggested software -- it was just not what I was used to, not as powerful as I'd hoped (at least for what I wanted to do) and the fact that I can't record very good sound on my computer is also a problem. You don't know what you need to do until you can't do it, you know?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Creator or Consumer?

One of the most stinging – meaning the most truthful – critiques of the so-called Blogosphere is that the vast majority of bloggers do not create original content. They may riff off of someone else’s content – commenting on a news article, say – but the “originality” quotient of most blogs is fairly low.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams today ponders the effect modern technology is having on creativity, and poses this series of questions:
Another interesting phenomenon of the iPhone and iPad era is that we are being transformed from producers of content into consumers. With my BlackBerry, I probably created as much data as I consumed. It was easy to thumb-type long explanations, directions, and even jokes and observations. With my iPhone, I try to avoid creating any message that are over one sentence long. But I use the iPhone browser to consume information a hundred times more than I did with the BlackBerry. I wonder if this will change people over time, in some subtle way that isn't predictable. What happens when people become trained to think of information and entertainment as something they receive and not something they create?
We’ve seen, I believe, the answer to that final question in society for at least the last several hundred years. True, modern technology is putting massive amounts of information at our fingertips for instant access, but until there are 48 hours in each day, until we have four-hour work days and until we have computers or smartphones permanently wired to our eyeballs and cerebral cortexes, the amount of information flowing our way means little – we can and do still choose how much of that information to consume.

And we’re still creating scads of stuff, just like Mr. Adams did on his Blackberry.

The bloggers as non-creators argument is funny coming from newspapers, because they function a lot like blogs. Like blogs, they create original content. And, like blogs, they use content from a lot of other sources. Ever heard of the Associated Press? Anyway, back to the topic at hand.

Example: We have a lot of comic books at home. Because they’re there, our kids have them out constantly, poring over them. We also have copies of “Diary of A Wimpy Kid” at home. Cartoons all over the place. They’ve lit a fire under our oldest son. He’ll sit and read the comics for a while, but then put them aside, get out paper and pencil and draw comics of his own. For hours. For much longer than he spends reading comics. He’s producing a lot more than he consumes. It’s not terribly original right now what he produces, but for a ten-year-old kid, he does occasionally have a flash of inspiration that leaves him with an end product that is his, original.

If he were not exposed to comics – if he were not consuming them – it’s likely he would not now be a budding creator of comics.

Another example: We have many Legos in the house. Our youngest son is constantly poring over the Lego magazines that come into the house, and, as a result, is constantly asking us to find instructions for him so he can build the latest Lego gadget. We don’t always have the parts he needs. But he improvises. As he consumes information and entertainment, he creates his own versions of the Lego models he wishes to build. And he’s happy as a clam – except when nobody will help him find the parts he wants.

If he were not exposed to information and entertainment coming his way courtesy of the Lego models he doesn’t have, his desire to create would be stunted.

We’re not the robot drones Scott Adams thinks we are. The act of consuming information and entertainment can and does result in the desire to create information and entertainment of our own. Yes, that desire arrives in greater and lesser degrees in people, but the desire does come. That most of the stuff created out there does not become known – is not repeated on the radio, published in a hardcover book or on the Internet somewhere – does not negate the fact that the stuff was created and born in the consumption of other stuff. For many, the information and entertainment consumed act as catalysts for the innate desire we have to create.

The act of creation isn’t limited or stunted by the amount of stuff we consume – but in the amount of time we lend or are allowed to lend to the act of creating.

No Longer Boxed in by

Here's an e-mail I sent my online certification instructor last night:

Honestly, I promise I am not a technological bozo. I've set up wireless networks. I've set up wired networks. I've installed new computer power supplies, memory, all sorts of stuff. And I've had jobs where I had to run a dozen computer programs at the same time, and I did that with ease.

Then there are times I just get in trouble.

Not any more. I'm back in, able to edit. Evidently I fat-fingered an e-mail address in my profile. Fixing that helped immensely.

I hope you don't think I'm an idiot. I promise this is a one-off thing. Really.

Yeah, hit more trouble with over the weekend, trouble that was fixed almost as inexplicably as it was the first time 'round. I'm not sure I'm competent to do this. . .

Monday, July 12, 2010

Exploring the Creative Commons; Sgt. Rizzo, Advising.

 My brother-in-law is a smart cookie, smarter than I ever hope to be. I play catch-up a lot to him, and that’s fine, because in conversing with him (as we do through blog posts and comments, rarely face-to-face, as we’re both shy, reserved individuals) I’ve learned a lot.

So today I’m learning about Creative Commons licensing, just to find out what the hoo-hah is. I’m starting at the source at, which offers, by the way, excellent explanations of the various licenses the organization recognizes.

Here, I’ll briefly recap the offered licenses:

Attribution. You authorize others to distribute, alter, or build upon your work – even for profit – as long as they give you credit for the original creation.
  • Attribution Share Alike. You authorize others to distribute, alter, or build upon your work – even for profit – as long as they give you credit for the original work and license it under similar terms.
  • Attribution No Derivatives. You authorize the commercial and non-commercial distribution of your work, as long as you get the credit for it.
  • Attribution Non-Commercial. Same as Attribution above, but they must agree not to profit from your work or theirs.
  • Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike. Same as Attribution Share Alike, but they must agree not to profit from your work or theirs.
  • Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives. Same as Attribution No Derivatives above, but they must agree not to profit from your work or theirs.
That’s all well and good. And then Sgt. Luther Rizzo comes into the room and, with his Louisiana drawl, says, “Awl ah wahnt is mah monaaayyyyy.”

So, how do people who license their creations under a Creative Commons license get paid? Or should they be?

Yes, the folks at say. Here’s an excerpt from their FAQ:
Can I still make money from a work I make available under a Creative Commons licenses?

Absolutely. Firstly, because our licenses are non-exclusive which means you are not tied down to only make a piece of your content available under a Creative Commons license; you can also enter into other revenue-generating licenses in relation to your work. One of our central goals is to encourage people to experiment with new ways to promote and market their work.

Secondly, the noncommercial license option is an inventive tool designed to allow people to maximize the distribution of their works while keeping control of the commercial aspects of their copyright. To make one thing clear that is sometimes misunderstood: the "noncommercial use" condition applies only to others who use your work, not to you (the licensor). So if you choose to license your work under a Creative Commons license that includes the “noncommercial use” option, you impose the ”noncommercial” condition on the users (licensees). However, you, the creator of the work and/or licensor, may at any time decide to use it commercially. People who want to copy or adapt your work, "primarily for monetary compensation or financial gain" must get your separate permission first.

One thing to note on the noncommercial provision: under current U.S. law, file-sharing or the trading of works online is considered a commercial use -- even if no money changes hands. Because we believe that file-sharing, used properly, is a powerful tool for distribution and education, all Creative Commons licenses contain a special exception for file-sharing. The trading of works online is not a commercial use, under our documents, provided it is not done for monetary gain.
Okay, Sgt. Rizzo says.

So I write that book. I license it under a Creative Commons license – let’s say one of the non-commercial ones to start with; that seems the most conservative. I also file copyright notice with the United States, so I can defend my copyright in court (the folks at suggest this). I put my book out on the Internets for everyone to see and for those really wound up about it, to alter in any way they see fit, as long as it’s done non-commercially and they give me credit for my original work. Effectively, in this instance, I’m using the Internet to find a co-author.

At the same time, I’m marketing my book directly to agents. I’m not one to sit around waiting for mah monaaayyy to come to me. No, like Sgt. Rizzo, I go in search of it. Either an agent bites or an agent doesn’t bite. I get a deal or I don’t.

Then someone who saw my work under that Creative Commons license contacts me. “Hey,” he or she says. “I altered your work. I made it better. Want to read it? Maybe we can get it published.” Maybe, just maybe, it’s good enough that, if an agent hasn’t bit, the new, improved work gets a bite. Good for me, right? I’m a published author – though the ego has to take a hit, giving co-authorship to another.

But, Sgt. Rizzo says, in that comical drawl of his, “Lookit this way, Bub. Some monaaayy is better than none a’tall. Besides, just ‘cause this bozo got you in don’t mean you gotta keep him aroun’.”

Ego soars forward, bruised, but still mostly intact. The both of you sail into a book deal. The agent asks, “So, what y’all got for me next?” Maybe co-authorship isn’t that bad, right?

“Seems to me that sittin’ on that story with nobody readin’ it is like sittin’ on a log in winter in front of a fahr that’s ‘bout to go out,” Sgt. Rizzo says. “Throw that log in the fahr, hell yeah somebody else gonna share that heat. But you’ll get warm, too.”

Sergeant Rizzo, you’re as smart as my brother-in-law.

“Don’t go sayin’ stuff like that,” Sgt. Rizzo says. “I’m no college boy. Seems to me there are plenty o’ people out there who won’ care you’re the original author. Awl they wahnt is their monaaayyy, and if’n they gotta steal somethin’ o’ yours to get it, they’ll do it, quicker’n little Billy Bubba – ah tole you about mah boy, little Billy Bubba, right – will suck down a pecan pie. Or, they like what you got and they just don’t wanna pay you for it.”

That’s the protectivist chicken in me. So, next installment. What do literary agents think about Creative Commons licensing?

Sunday, July 11, 2010


I've developed a new spectator hobby that YouTube is going to make very easy for me: Zalespotting.

I'm talking Sgt. Zelmo Zale of MASH fame. You know, this guy. Also known as Johnny Haymer. Try to spot him in the McDonalds ad shown here.

You're looking for this guy:

A PSA for the Newspaper Industry

If we don't have newspapers in our lives, we can't do things like this.

Please read a newspaper today. Or at least put some coins in one of those paper kiosks. Multiple times.

Time for Lutetia's Close-Up

If you look at one space-based photo a year, please, for 2010, make it this one:

This is a shot of Asteroid Lutetia, shot by the European Space Agency's Rosetta space probe on July 10, as the probe neared the floating bit of space rock. That in of itself is spectacular, though the image is made even more amazing - and a little eerie - with Saturn floating into the probe's field of vision.

There's a lump of rock out there, about 100 kilometers in diameter, floating in the void. It's near enough to the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter to be considered a main belt asteroid, but still, it's in a lonely place out there. Since the dawnna time, it's been floating out there, getting pock-marked and dusty. Maybe, early on, it had a more unique color, but the dust of space has settled there now, thick, painting it a uniform gray, mottled here and there by darker bits and lighter streaks. Pounded by sister hunks of space junk.

Then a little hunk of metal and silicon and glass what whatnot else comes out of the void, speeding towards Lutetia at a phenomenal rate. Little strands of radiation reach out from the little hunk, probing the big hunk, then sending more streams of radiation back somewhere along the route on which it came. In a few scant hours, it's gone from sight, only the slight whisper of its communications and the exhalations from its engines left to mark its passage. Lutetia, alone for eons, is alone again.

Lutetia is one of only a handful of encounters Rosetta will have on its way to its 2014 rendezvous with Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. During that encounter, the probe will parallel the comet along its path roughly from the orbit of Jupiter to the comet's closest approach to the Sun. Along the way, it'll drop a probe that'll actually land on the comet's surface. It's pretty much what the Three Amigos did in "Shootin' for Love."

I love these kinds of space missions -- those done just for the sake of science. And for photos like this:

That's Lutetia's dark side, backlit by the Sun. We're so used to seeing crescents that are round all over it's kind of hard to adjust to the thought of a rugged crescent like this one.

I love looking at these photos. All I can think is "Space Potato." That's probably juvenile of me. Now we just need to corral one of these things, hollow it out and build a spaceship inside and we can seed the universe with the nuttiness that is Earth-based humanity.

And here I go again benefitting from the creative energies of others without paying for it. Am I a hypocrite? I suppose I am. They did not make these Star Trek episodes so some wonk can publish them on his blog. Thought maybe I can classify this under the aegis of cultural research. Naw, that seems like a bit of a stretch.