Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Hack Writer: Idlers

NOTE: Don't remember what I was writing this one for. Nor when. But I see it as part of my hack writing evolution. I am indeed getting better. And better.

That odd feeling.

Like a chili dog with onions. Or liverwurst. Or that rotten bag of greasy french fries that caused his stomach so much misery. He showered with that feeling. Walked with it, sat with it, schlepped with it and slept with it. When he brushed his teeth it was there, mint-tinged and crisp as a rotten apple. When he moved his patch of lawn it was there, green and fresh as a compost heap.

He liked it a lot.

“There’s nothing better on a day like this than ice cream.”

His wife licked her cone, nodded. The dog begged for bits, sitting square on her bottom on the painted concrete floor. The parlor felt like a swimming pool. Concrete. Worn wooden boardwalks giddy with twittering children. From somewhere came the smell of wet towels mixed with honey-buttered bread, $1.50 a slice.

The ice cream supplied the chlorine.

He was so insanely happy.

What day is it?

His favorite question. Sitting on the toilet first thing in the morning, he liked to ask it. He asked the mirror. He sang it to his hairbrush. He whispered it to the dog, squatting outside the door. And he cackled. Because she didn’t want to know, either.

It’s no boon. I’m learning something here. It’s wholesome and valuable and interesting and educational and I don’t like it one bit, he said.

Ben, you’re not quite seeing the potential. Potential, Ben. A dreamscape filled with horizons reachable from a computer and a chair.

I see no horizons.

You’ve got to look for it.

Look for it, Marv? Look for it? That sounds in an idle fashion like something akin to work.

But it’s good for. . .

I don’t want to know what it’s ‘good for.’ You’re missing the whole point. My object in life is to be like this conversation.


Useless. See, I have my opinion. Haven’t worked a lick to get it. Just thought it up, in fact. But it’s mine and I’ll be damned if anything you say, no matter your eloquence, your reasoning, your supporting evidence, is going to sway me. Then there’s you. You have your opinion. Maybe you think you’ve worked for it and maybe you have. But maybe it’s someone else’s that you’re trying on for size and hell no you’re not going to budge because if you do you’ll have to go shopping for opinions again. So here we go back and forth, I say no, you say so. The waiters refill our drinks and those trees over there, Marv, those trees will turn color with the seasons and be covered with snow and green all over again just to brown and orange. Neither one of us will win. Not because deep down we don’t want to lose but because even deeper down one of us never really entered the contest in the first place. This isn’t even an intellectual exercise since my mind’s been elsewhere since my second beer. Speaking of which, waiter, seventhies!

Ben lazily sipped his seventh beer.

I don’t follow, Marv muttered.

Ben smiled. At last, you’re getting the knack.

He favors long drives, silent walks. Movie theatres. Malls. Beaches and biking trails and freeways and concert halls. Even the library. Especially the library. That’s where you got the stuff. That’s where you met the pros who’ve given up all the sins but golf.

He didn’t like the fat ones. Some thought they were gurus. If they had a beard, all the better. But there was work involved. More work than he liked. A regimen. Extra food to be purchased and eaten. Fewer cosmetics to be bought.

Ben is a purist.

His sins: glasses, a limp. Sandals and neatly combed hair that often put him at odds with those who congregated in front of the supermarkets, reading discarded tabloids. Purists had to have some sins because purity implies knowledge of the undesired. You can’t measure a weed with an unmarked yardstick.
He never shared that motto.

Not a motto. A blip; there one moment when he caught himself thinking on the road from Bone to Blackfoot. Music or not. Scenery or not. Drive on and the thought is gone. Like a fart. Just look at that road, that road. Steer. Gas. Brake. Signal. Ten-minute errands he prefers because they were blank and thoughtless outings into the back country, the fore country, and once 43 times around the block. Ten cows. Ten more cows. Two crows. A fire hydrant. A parking meter. Two fat men. A delicatessen. Sixteen hay bales. Two mini vans.



Rolling away.

And two hours blissfully gone.

The movies. They provide empty thought. He never felt better plugging in. Staring at the dancing screen covered with spitwads. Ninety minutes of blissful nothing, and all for $2.50 if he went to the right theater. And he always did. You had to be careful, though. Thoughts jump. Like rock climbers, they dangle on springy cords. They enlighten. They encourage. They interrupt. It’s better if he spends at least the first ten minutes -- once past the previews -- free-associating phone numbers that have number sequences in common with the number on his ticket stub. Or trying to remember what he’s seen that minor character in before. Or -- best yet -- waiting, often in the theatre before the next feature, before they started sweeping the floor and found his hiding place replete with snacks, night light and sleeping bag, for the sequel.

Hell Week

We're headed into high paranoia mode at work this week, with a management self-assessment coming up starting on Nov. 8 in preparation of opening a new Cat 2 nuclear facility later in the month. We see only the paperwork end of things, but that's enough to throw just about everyone into a frenzy, because it's the paperwork that's one of the three pillars of our preparation pyramid.

(Manager's Elbow, by the way, doesn't apply where I work, fortunately. Credit is spread just about as equally as the blame, so I've got no complaints.)

I've got my fingers in about a half dozen bits of paper that have to be finished this week. Fortunately, five of the six are relatively simple, but it's that sixth one that's likely going to be the troublemaker this week. But that too shall pass. It's got to. And with deadlines looming, the skids that need to be greased will be greased well. I'm just glad that we had a flood of approvals go through last week so the majority of our stuff is done. So pretty much during the next few weeks we'll be playing catch-up with the stuff that's had to go on the back-burner, and then making any necessary changes that come up just before and then during the assessment. The good news is last year when we did this, the assessment results were pretty perfunctory, without major calamities happening. I can only hope that'll be the case this time around.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Scary Sulky Halloween

Ironically, this is how Lexie spent her Halloween, aside from the scary-sulkiness at the window thing. Yeah, she was sick. We thought she was going to have things pulled together for the evening, but she hurled just after she got her costume on this evening.

She and her mom were going to have a quiet evening at home while I took the boys to their Oma's house for a Halloween party, but when we got to the bank so I could get some cash for some post-party grocery shopping I couldn't find my wallet. I felt like a fool. I had no pockets, because I was wearing my own Halloween costume at the time -- a pink bunny suit a la Ralphie Parker. So there I was in the parking lot of the credit union, little bunny tail hanging on my butt as I bent over, looking all over in the car, on the ground, trying to find the wallet. Called Michelle. She couldn't see it at home either. Drove home. Searched the driveway and the street from our house to the post office. No luck. So Michelle bundled up the sick Lexie and drove us to Idaho Falls for the party. And she found the wallet too, wedged in an odd little pocket in the center console.

But we had fun. And we don't have to cancel any credit cards or get me a new driver's license. And we're hoping Lexie feels better in the morning.

Frankly, I'm Embarrassed This Has Taken Me So Long . . .


This post is a follow-up to my post of several days ago, wherein I babble about making Uncharted more friendly for our Explorers and for potential Explorers who may not know our is an open system, a social media system, rather than a system closed to amateurs and open only to the pros.

My wife Michelle right now is taking a masters class on complex communication and information systems -- a class very similar to one I took for my masters program more than a year ago. We got to talking about complex communication situations on our walk this morning, and it dawned on me what we need to do with Uncharted to make it more user-friendly:

We've got to make the exigency that when they open their profiles, when they go to Uncharted, they're seeing what they and their friends are doing or have done, not what we want to present to them as having been done by others.

In other words, we need to get away from the Web 1.0 idea of having a homepage as the main portal and let each individual Explorer create their own portal with their own friends and their own interests showing up while we, as the puppeteers, play more of a background role, presenting stuff that we like but also allowing our Explorers to bypass our stuff completely if they so choose.

In other words, we need that Web 2.0 idea epitomized in the likes of Facebook:

Is what we're doing bad? Not necessarily? But is it making it much more difficult and much more intimidating for new and potential Explorers to sign up and post stuff and to make the site much more interesting to return to? I think so.

I've been thinking seriously about the social media sites I use. I don't use many; in fact, I use three outside of Uncharted: Facebook, Twitter, and Good Reads.

So what makes each appealing?

Facebook, well, loading stuff is a snap, and it's not necessarily required that we post, say, captions with our photos. They really feel optional. Optional because, well, if our friends have questions, they can post them right there and we can answer them on our own time. Or we can be anal and do the captions right there. With more textual babblings if we so desire.

And we can see immediately what our friends are doing, when they post, when they ask us a question. I get twenty to thirty e-mails from Facebook a day, and I don't find them annoying at all. They're just part of the experience. So maybe we can do that at Uncharted and not scare people away, but give them many more reasons to click back to our site.

Twitter. Well, this one is probably the least valuable of the three, but it does give me occasional reading material. Maybe stuff for the casual user. I'm probably using the site wrong.

Good Reads. Not a really active site because I have so few friends. But again, they make it easy to upload content, and to share content in other formats. If I do a book review and want to share it on Facebook or on my blog, that's only a click or two away.

We need that portability. Not just linking, which we're already doing with "Add This," but that portability, which lets us, with a few clicks, send stuff from one network to another. I think that would be exceptionally valuable in getting photos from Facebook to Uncharted.

Why do we need to do this?

Facebook, Twitter, and Good Reads make it easy to put up stuff. No one is intimidated in feeling they're not expert enough, because, hey, you're sharing it with friends. Perhaps we've put up the impression that there are too many gateholders at Uncharted. There aren't, really, but the impression is there, and that's to our detriment.

Also, when a person goes to an individual profile, that's great -- they get to see what that person has done or is doing. But they should, in the same screen, also have the option of knowing right away what their friends have been doing on the site as well, just like Facebook. That gets more interaction going. I admit when I go to Facebook, I go to my "home page" which is a conglomeration of my stuff and stuff from my friends. I rarely go to my individual profile, or the individual profiles of others. I go to where the mix of information is and comment and read and look at stuff that I think is neat. That gets others coming back because they get an instant message from Facebook that says, "Hey, that bozo Brian just commented here!"

So what would that look like? Well, Facebook-y. And that's not all that bad, is it?

NOTE: Just a reminder to all of you in Blogland that this isn't official Uncharted stuff. It's just me trying to think out loud.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Luv Pome: Dead Boy Boat

NOTE: The only explanation I can offer for this poem, which I wrote more than 15 years ago, is that it stems from a game my brother Jeff used to play with Randy and I. We were the "dead" boys he threw on the boat -- the couch. Don't know why this was so entertaining. But here it is.

The Dead Boy Boat

Pick 'em up.
Toss 'em in.
In the Dead Boy Boat.
Little boys past their prime.
Little boys run out of time.
On the Dead Boy Boat.
Can't play checkers.
Can't go swimmin'.
Ain't no suffleboard.
You won't be grinnin'.
On the Dead Boy Boat.
Little boys.
Big ones, too.
Come from Illinios.
Or Kalamazoo.
Beanies. Yo-yos.
Teacher's notes.
Marbles. Frogs.
Caps and coats.
Those will be your souvenirs
from the Dead Boy Boat.
Got a Dead Boy?
Chuck him on!
The boat still floats
The Dead Boy Boat.
Ain't no flirtin'.
Wouldn't want the buffet.
On the Dead Boy Boat.

"Can Yuh Float?"

We're in full swing at work now, in the final stages of getting our end of the paperwork ready to open up a new waste processing facility. This is the third one I've been involved in, and it feels pretty good. I like the work. It's a challenge and, even when some of the guys tease me because I don't get mad when last-minute changes come up, I like it. I remind them that fire years ago I was stocking shelves at Target and answering phone calls at Center Partners. Even with the headache of last-minute changes, the place where I work now is paradise.

Now just have to make is through the next year. Layoffs. Up to 700 people gone. Not going to be fun.

But through it all, the only thing that comes to mind is Ed Norton from the Honeymooners.

Whenever I have job stress, I think of this episode, when Ralph comes home after nine years of loyal service to the Gotham Bus Company believing he's been fired. He sits down and dictates a nasty letter to his boss to Norton, who is inspired to say to Ralph that me might be able to get him a job in the sewers. "All ya gotta do is pass the test," Norton says. "What test?" Ralph asks. "Can yuh float?" Norton responds.

So I remind myself: I can float. I did it in 2005-06 when I was working at Target and CP. I didn't much like it, but I floated. Kept money coming into the house. And we got through it. So thanks, Ralph and Ed. I appreciate your help.

The best lines:

After Ralph spends a good minute complaining about all the rotten stuff he's had to do at work, working Sundays, holidays, filling in for sick drivers, Alice tells him to relax. "You'll get another job," she says. Ralph's response is akin to what I think now: "I'll get another job, sure, but not a good one like this one!"

Then, when Ed is trying to cheer Ralph up by making him smile, bigger, bigger and bigger, until Ed says: "That's the way I wanna see ya! Even if it takes a year to get a job! Even if you never get a job!" Ralph, of course, tells him to shut up.

They go on to my favorite part in any Honeymooners episode. Ed is inspired to offer helping Ralph to get a job:

"Don't take it rough, eh? Maybe I can get a job for you with me over in the sewer! All ya gotta do is pass the test."

"What test?"

"Can yuh float?"

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Seeing What We Want to See

Is this woman holding a cell phone?

More importantly, if this woman is holding a cell phone and is a time-traveler who happened to get caught on camera in a clip from Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 movie “The Circus,” then who is she talking to? Obviously, she’s not alone. Obviously, whoever came with her also brought a cell tower so they could converse.

Or, you could say this:

Look at the shadows. They’re dark and crisp, made darker and crisper by the bright lights that have to be used even now to record film footage properly, be it on celluloid or in the ethers. She’s shielding her face from the light.

Or she’s just a wanderer on the street who suddenly saw the camera – they didn’t block off streets to film little scenes like this back then; Chaplin was very much into verisimilitude as well – so she was being coy, or shy, but still wanting to walk on through.

It’s true she’s holding her hand up to hear head as if she’s talking on a cell phone. But is that because we’re used to seeing hands in that position, used to thinking of people walking briskly down the street talking on cell phones? Of course. And when I see an African-American woman holding her head to hear ear like this:

I naturally assume she’s a time-traveler from the future who is communicating with one of those ear-pieces Lieutenant Uhura has, so I naturally understand those who think the woman in the Chaplin film is talking into a cell phone.


I do not wear a watch.

I own two of them. Both sit in my sock drawer upstairs, waiting for new batteries. That’s not likely to happen. Because I don’t need a watch.

I’m tough on watches. Those I wear on my wrist I inevitably bash on something and crack the glass – well, plastic. The pocket watches I have – the two in my drawer – went there and stayed there when their batteries died.

The last wristwatch I owned was a Swatch. This was in high school. I stopped wearing it because the watch’s plastic band lent itself liberally to cases of Swatch Sweat, and I tired of my wrist feeling damp all the time.

Dad, now he wore a watch. The watch changed from time to time, but he always had the watch on. Years of outdoor work as a bricklayer darkened his skin except where the watch rested. So when the watch was gone, he had a ghost of a watch on his wrist.

I have other timepieces. An iPod Touch. A pager I have to carry around one week out of the month. There’s a clock in my truck. Clocks on the wall. Clocks in the computer. And, frankly, the only magic hours that need marking are 4:05 AM, when the alarm goes off, 5:03 AM, when I get out of the truck at the bus stop, 5:13 PM, when I’m back on the bus heading home, and roughly 9 PM, when it’s time to put the kids to bed.

So it doesn’t surprise me to read that the watch is going out of fashion, or at least out of necessity. According to the UK’s Daily Mail, only 28 percent of those aged 25 or younger have watches, compared to 86 percent of those polled, no matter their age.

I kind of wander through time like Jim Henson in “Time Piece,” anyway.

Grammar Nazi Confesses

It’s confession time for the Grammar Nazi.

I’ve hoist myself by my own petard before, of course, but even for a Grammar Nazi’ it’s good to stay humble.

Another bugaboo of mine: ephemeral. I constantly spell it “ephermal” or “ephemral” because – and my hackles rise when I see others do this – I base my incorrect spelling on an incorrect pronunciation.

The first example isn’t one I say, but it’s how my brain, for some reason, remembers the word. The second is how I have been saying the word.

No longer. After several instances of using the word, and wanting to use it correctly, I’ve broken the habit of misspelling and mispronouncing this word. I did that by getting all the syllables in: e-phem-er-al. Saying it that way in my head, slowly, deliberately, has gotten me over the hump. And now whenever I need to type the word, it’s there, ready to go, in its perfect form.

Here’s to hoping that my conquering of this beast isn’t fleeting, or, shall I say, ephemeral.

The Ox-Bow Incident, Five Stars

In Walter Prescott Webb’s afterword to Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Ox-Bow Incident,” Clark discusses the motivation behind his seminal debut novel:
The book was written in 1937 and ’38, when the whole world was getting increasingly worried about Hitler and the Nazis, and emotionally it stemmed from my part of this worrying. A number of the reviewers commented on the parallel when the book came out in 1940, saw it as something approaching an allegory of the unscrupulous and brutal Nazi methods, and as a warning against temporizing and of hoping to oppose such a force with reason, argument, and the democratic approach. They did not see, however, or at least I don’t remember that any of them mentioned it (and that did scare me), although it was certainly obvious, the whole substance and surface of the story, that it was a kind of American Naziism that I was talking about. I had the parallel in mind, all right, but what I was most afraid of was not the German Nazis, or even the Bund, but that ever-present element in any society which can always be led to use authoritarian methods to oppose authoritarian methods.

What I wanted to say was, “It can happen here. It has happened here, in minor but sufficiently indicative ways, a great many times.”
There are obvious political parallels, of course, but the parallel that’s the most striking is summed up in a quote attributed to Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

In Clark’s book, good men try to do something. That good is summed up in the character Davies who at first tries to stop the posse/mob from leaving town, and then accompanies it on the supposition that he can act as the voice of reason when and if any suspects are found, in order to convince the posse to bring them to trial, rather than instigate frontier justice where the suspects are discovered.

Given the ambiguity of the evidence and an insatiable desire for action now, however, Davies’ attempts come to naught.

In Davies, I believe Clark sums up the “good man’s” reaction to blame one’s self when things go terribly, and to attempt to right the wrong through self destruction:
“Now do you see,” [Davies] said triumphantly, like all he had wanted to do was make himself out the worst he could. “I knew those men were innocent. I knew it as surely as I do now. And I knew Tetley could be stopped. I knew in that moment you were all ready to be turned. And I was glad I didn’t have a gun.”

He was silent, except that I could hear him breathing hard over what he seemed to consider an unmerciful triumph, breathing as if he had to overcome something tremendous, and could begin to rest now. I could hear the talking downstairs again too. There wasn’t much laughing now, though. For some reason I was relieved that there wasn’t much laughing, as if, coming at that moment, even from downstairs, it would have been too much.

But had had to rub it in.

“Yes, you see now, don’t you?” he said in a low voice. “I had everything, justice, pity, even the backing – and I knew it – and I let those three men hang because I was afraid. The lowest kind of a virtue, the quality dogs have when they need it, the only thing Tetley had, guts, plain guts, and I didn’t have it.”

“You take it too hard,” I said, still looking at the floor. “You take it too much on yourself. There was no reason . . .”

“Don’t trouble yourself,” he said hoarsely. “I know what you think. And you’re right. Oh, don’t you worry,” he said, before I could call him, “I’ve thought of all the excuses. I told myself I was the emissary of peace and truth, and that I must go as such; that I couldn’t even wear the symbol of violence. I was righteous and heroic and calm and reasonable.”

He paused, and I could feel the bed shaking under his hands.

“All a great, cowardly lie,” he said violently. “All pose; empty, gutless pretense. All the time the truth was I didn’t take a gun because I didn’t want it to come to a showdown. The weakness that was in me all the time set up my sniveling little defense. I didn’t even expect to save those men. The most I hoped was that something would do it for me.”

“Something,” he said bitterly.
In Davies, Clark expresses the remorse and revulsion of humanity tired of its own cruelties, but more tired over its own pretense of action, rather than action itself. More deeply, however, Davies emerges as the only character to epitomize Clark’s revulsion at using authoritarian means to overcome authoritarianism. He wanted justice, but not a showdown. He did not want to substitute evil for evil, but good for evil. The nature of mankind, however, failed to provide that “something” that would make a good for evil substitution possible. And Davies recognizes that nature of mankind that did not act accordingly included himself as well.

Enter here the discussion of the “good” war, the “justifiable” homicide, and such, which, noble as they are, throw themselves against the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”

We just read in Alma the story of the people of Ammon, who would rather die than even defend themselves against their enemies. Though their motivation was an unshakable faith in God, they maintained their right to a better nature. I wonder if the better nature always has to be the losing nature; if good guys always have to finish last.

We also hear echoes of such sentiment in the character of Gerald Tetley, who rails ineffectively against his authoritarian father, who is much weaker than Davies thinks Davies is:
“You can’t go hunting men like coyotes after rabbits and not feel anything about it. Not without being like any other animal. The worst animal.”

“There’s a difference; we have reasons.”

“Names, for one thing,” he said sharply. “Does that make us any better? Worse, I’d say. At least coyotes don’t make excuses. We think we can see something better, but we go one doing the same things, hunt in packs, like wolves; hole up in warrens like rabbits. All the dirtiest traits.”
Here, in Tetley, Clark drums criticism at those who believe force is the only answer – and at those, like Gerald Tetley, who go along with it because that’s just how things are done, no matter what one’s conscience might say.

Clips from the movie which, as I understand it, strayed from the book, in that in the movie Martin’s letter to his wife is read aloud, whereas in the book its contents are never revealed. This may have been Hollywood’s answer to getting in the monologues on justice that Clark wrote in the beginning of the book. Also, the movie says that Kincaid is not dead, only wounded, and that the men who stole the cattle and shot Kincaid have been captured.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Where to Put it All

I'm facing a digital media conundrum: I've got thousands of megabytes of photos I need to ahve stored in a public place, but I don't want to pay for the right to do so.

Flickr? For free, I can store 100 mb a month. Same at Photobucket. If I want unlimited storage, well, I have to pay for it. Minimum $25 a year. I know that sounds terribly piggy and selfish that I don't want to have to pay for storage, but you know what? The Internet has taught me that free is good.

Going to try an experiment tonight. Via Blogger (and Google) I have access to something called Picasa Web Albums. Apparently, I can store 1,024 mb for free. When it all comes down to it, however, when it comes to digital storage, 1,024 mb isn't all that much space. I've got about 260 photos of our recent campout to Meadow Lake that I'd like to store somwhere, but that computes out to about 1,300 mb of data. I'm already hogging 164 mb in my Picasa allotment with photos and junk I've uploaded to my blogs, so I could easily clog Picasa with just one additional photo album.

Maybe another option: Facebook. They let me store lots of photos. But are they stored at the size that is needed on the other end -- I'm doing this for Uncharted, and Uncharted wants the raw images, hugely huge; to describe their vastness would do them a disservice. (Start at about 0:53, just for fun; watch out for a little bad language that passes quickly in the night.)

We've got this problem, see. We used to run an FTP site for Uncharted, and that was handy, until our Ruby on Rails host told us that was a no-no. So we've been using one of our teammembers' Mac Mobile Me gallery, which works up to the point it doesn't. For the past two weeks, mysteriously, I've been unable to upload photos to said gallery, causing no amount of frustration. No one seems to be able to explain why -- though our Digital Bridge/Idaho internet is the most likely suspect (I'm so tired of bad high-speed Internet service I could scream).

I should probably break down and get a pro Flickr account. Maybe I can squeeze $25 out of the money I get for teaching a class next semester . . .

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Post-Partisan Energy Policy

A paper written by scholars from the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution and the Breakthrough Institute calls out both Republicans and Democrats for uselessly stalling energy research and development in the United States and recommends shifting emphasis from subsidies that encourage deployment of additional current energy technologies from Fossil fuels to wind and solar power to research and development to help bring down costs and further encourage future innovation in energy development.

The paper is available here from the AEI, or here from the Breakthrough Institute here.

David Leonhardt, writing for the New York Times, has this to say of the study, and I certainly think it’s worth listening to:
But history shows that government-directed research can work. The Defense Department created the Internet, as part of a project to build a communications system safe from nuclear attack. The military helped make possible radar, microchips and modern aviation, too. The National Institutes of Health spawned the biotechnology industry. All those investments have turned into engines of job creation, even without any new tax on the technologies they replaced.

“We didn’t tax typewriters to get the computer. We didn’t tax telegraphs to get telephones,” says Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, Calif., which is a sponsor of the proposal with A.E.I. and Brookings. “When you look at the history of technological innovation, you find that state investment is everywhere.”
One could go further to say that intense governmental interest in winning the Cold War helped spawn the planet’s space program via Apollo and research into nuclear physics through the Manhattan Project. The Marshall Plan at the end of World War II helped to reconstruct a continent.

The report begs the question: Why can’t we do the same kinds of things, on the same massive scale, with energy research and development today? Surely there is enough collective intelligence to find innovative ways to produce the energy we need, while at the same time reducing subsidies necessary to deploy that energy and the pollution some of that energy produces.

Oddly enough, Dr. Strangelove has the answer (start at about 1:50 and go to about 2:05):

To accomplish this, the paper calls for efforts:
to reduce ineffective, even wasteful energy research spending and more effectively utilize federal resources, America needs to create a national network of decentralized energy innovation institutes that can bring private sector, university, and government researchers together alongside investors (e.g., venture capitalists) and private sector customers to tackle big energy challenges, translate basic science insights into commercial innovation, and strengthen diverse regional clean tech clusters.
Such ideas aren’t farfetched. Offhand, I can think of two organizations that already fall into this category: The Energy Dynamics Laboratory, operated by Utah State University in Logan, Utah, and the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, operated by the Department of Energy at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The paper also calls for a compromise on nuclear power:
Long-time opponents of nuclear power must rethink their opposition given the potential for new nuclear plants to help solve several energy challenges – economic, environmental, health, and safety – at once. However, nuclear proponents must also recognize that America cannot bank everything on a single technology or design. A full portfolio of clean, affordable, and reliable energy technologies will be necessary to fully confront the nation’s energy challenges. The DOE and DOD should therefore have the budget to develop and procure all promising energy technologies, from advanced solar and geothermal to biofuels and batteries.
To pay for it, the paper calls for what it calls “a modest sum” of between $15 and $25 billion a year strictly for R&D – an effort tthat would pull DOE away from its current emphasis on cleaning up leftovers from the Cold War (a project I happen to work on currently) into living up to the energy part of the department’s name.

That money would come from:
  • Eliminating current subsidies for wind, solar, ethanol and fossil fuel energy production
  • Modestly increasing royalties charged to oil and gas companies, directing that money into new energy technology
  • Fees on imported oil
  • Implement an “energy modernization fee” on electricity sold in the US
  • A $4 to $5 per ton charge on carbon emissions, wherever they may come from.
The paper goes on to say:
Any one of these funding sources could raise sufficient funds from within the energy sector itself without appreciably increasing energy prices or impacting American firms or consumers. Different approaches may be combined and tailored to different energy sectors, piece-by-piece, rather than seeking a one-size-fits-all approach.
This is, of course, where politics come back into the picture. Selling any kind of commodity price increase – whether through increased taxes on electricity to increased taxes on gasoline – will be a hard sell to many Americans. The oil and gas industry can be expected to lobby heavily against increasing royalties, while proponents of solar and wind power will lobby equally as hard to retain current subsidies. What’s going to have to happen, of course, is a paradigm shift in the way most Americans look at how they consume energy, whether it be in the form of gasoline for an SUV or produced by the wind. We’ll have to exchange short-term gains and pain for long-term benefits, and, increasingly, people in general – not just Americans – seem unwilling to do this. I, for one, am willing to give it a try.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Office 2010 Madness

It sounds quite like something from a horror movie:

In a casual conversation with one of our IT guys at work today, my boss overheard the following snippet: "Well, it doesn't matter as we'll all be switching over to Office 2010 in a week anyway. . ."

"I"m sure I turned red when I heard it," my boss said afterward. He went to our supervisor to confirm, and our super just happened to be on the phone with another IT guy at the time. It is indeed true: We'll be migrating over to 2010 in a week or so.

This is not good. This is Reefer Madness.

 Why? Well, we've got a Cat 2 nuclear facility we're supposed to have a management self-assessment on in a few weeks, and that includes tons of paperwork. If, before that MSA completes, we migrate to 2010, we run the risk of having our Word 2003 documents explode, as the templates may not translate from one version of Word to another (Cannot even begin to emphasize how asinine this feels; you'd think with the same word processor from the same company that things would translate easily, but my boss knows from experience that they don't).

The timing couldn't be worse. Not only do we run the risk of having our documents for this Cat 2 facility blow up in our faces at the exact moment they're supposed to be pristine, pure, and winter white, we're also in the middle of getting another, much more complicated facility online paperwork-wise, and my boss knows in working with their current documents that the switch is going to be a nightmare. It simply appears that whoever decided to do the migration is doing so without really thinking of the implications, or talking with the people who know what the implications might be. They're most likely thinking, well, a word processor is a word processor, right? How hard can it be? Just numbers and letters appearing in the right order.

Exactly. And when the templates don't translate, they'll be there -- but all in the wrong places.

This could be solved had we switched to Open Office a while back, but apparently someone in the higher-up is afraid of a well-respected, well-running program that everyone can get for free. Of course, left to the writer/editors, we'd all be using WordPerfect right now. I really miss WordPerfect. My last home computer came with WordPerfect on it, and when that computer died that was the thing I knew I was going to miss the most. I can't afford to replace it, so now I run Open Office as a second best.

We're hoping that cooler heads prevail and that the switch is delayed at least for a while, But as this is government work . . .

Know Thy Audience

Daniel Lyons, in writing “Digg This: A Cautionary Tale for Web 2.0 Companies” at Newsweek this week, writes this gem:
The basic problem is that these new-media companies don’t really have customers; they have audiences. Starting a company like Digg is less like building a traditional tech company (think Apple or HP) and more like launching a TV show. And perhaps, like TV shows, these companies are ephemeral in nature. People flock in for a while, then get bored and move on.
So, really, new media are just like old media, except without the profits.

Because old media also have an audience, not customers. That audience pays a nonexistent (for broadcast TV) or minimal (50 cents an issue for the newspapers) entrance fee, and, for their investment of time and/or money, they get the product they want. Old media audiences – think the core, not the fringe – are rabidly dedicated to their product, and detest even the most minute change. I worked for a regional daily and the most common controversies that arose there were when the features editor tweaked the comics page. We learned this: The paper will not be able to kill “Alley Oop” until at least another local generation passes into the grave.

There were, of course, other problematic areas: a Democratic-leaning paper in a conservative-leaning city; a series of articles that cast the Boy Scouts of America (correctly) in a bad light.

But those things, media old and new media can recover from. If, however, any media’s audience finds someone else offering the same or similar product in a way that’s more attractive to their line of thinking, they will flee their old reliable for the new thing.

Part of this ephemeral nature may be, perhaps, that fame is fleeting. Take Chatroulette. (Given that overexposed male genitalia killed Chatroulette, consider this link educational but not necessarily something you’d read to your grandmother. Safe for work, but the writer is a libertine.)

The Digg (and, for the most part, old media) chapter may be that listening to your audience is the smart thing to do, even if you think your audience is overempowered, juvenile, and perhaps a bit too egotistical.

For Uncharted – you knew I was leading up to this – the challenge is to stay fresh and relevant and responsive to our audiences, and to be prepared with plans of action when the competition comes along. And that competition is the most ephemeral element of all, as Lyons quotes Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as saying “the biggest competitor for us is someone we haven’t heard of yet.”

I spent part of my weekend looking over National Geographic Adventure, which we have considered as competition. Nat Geo certainly has name recognition, and has writers and photographers that are peerless as far as taking photos of nature and writing about nature.

You’d think an outfit like Uncharted – where amateur photographers and writers are invited to mix and mingle with professionals in providing information on where they’ve been and where others can go – would be a natural niche for Nat Geo to explore. But through National Geographic Adventure, they’re leaving the amateurs out of it, aside from buried suggested places where the unwashed like us can submit, say, hiking photos. They’re leaving a tremendous audience on the table. If they suddenly offered an Uncharted-like experience, we’d be bead because they beat us in the name recognition and actual money to spend on things categories. But they’re not. So we’re here.

And we can’t overlook the amateurs – because that’s what we all are. Sure, some of us have professional writing and photography experience, but not to the tune of National Geographic. We’re as Clay Shirky describes photo submitters to Flickr: We’re not necessarily the top dog, but we’re there. And we’re not going to scare away (at least I hope we’re not) the Psycho Milts out there.

So our competition isn’t Nat Geo Adventures. It’s somebody we don’t even know yet.

Side note: Psycho Milt probably has no idea how influential his Flickr presence is, given that he's become a rather potent Internet meme.

The Contrarian Voter

The truth is clear: If you want me to vote for the other guy, smear him with an attack ad.

And you know what, unless the other guy you’re attacking is a baby-eating acolyte of Adolph Hitler, he’s probably going to get my vote by virtue of your attack ad alone.

But that’s just me. I’m a contrarian voter. Tell me to vote one way and I’m going to find out why you’re telling me that and likely vote for the other guy. Unless the other guy is telling me not to vote for the first guy. Then I’ll really have to figure things out.

I don’t know why I’m like this. Perhaps because, in politics, I think if they only thing you can say about your candidate is that he’s not the other guy, then maybe your guy isn’t all that great.

Do you hear that, Frank Vandersloot?

(On that note: If I could have gotten out of taking the math portion of the GRE a few years ago and still have gotten into my masters program, I would have done it in a picosecond, because, like Stan Olson, I don’t like math. That doesn’t mean I don’t do math at work, nor that Stan Olson wouldn’t work had at the math he’d have to do as supernintendo of public schools in Idaho.)

These are my rules if you want me to vote for you:

Don’t attack anybody. If your opponent has done something despicable enough, I won’t vote for him or her. And if the attack is just a battle of opinions, well then, tell me your opinion, rather than launching an attack.

Knock on my door and tell me, in person, why you want my vote. Nine times out of ten, you’ll get it because you came personally and told me you want it. Obviously, that works better for local candidates, but that’s not to say those seeking higher office shouldn’t try.

Don’t robocall me. Ever. Especially to invite me to a “telephone town hall.” Come to our local town hall, and I might come listen to you.

Pay front groups or not disencourage front groups from robocalling me on your behalf, or call me on a vote-gathering scheme disguised as a public opinion poll.

In fact, don’t call me at all. Hell, I buy tamales from the lady who brings them to the door. If she called first, I’d probably say no.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wumpies or Constipation. Your Choice.

I know there's that drive to create symbols that are universally understood. But when the tire pressure monitoring system in our Honda Pilot displayed this icon yesterday, the only thing that came to my mind was:


Yes, it's juvenile and childish. Welcome to my world.

But you know, back in the day -- and I'm thinking specifically of my Dad's 1948 Ford pickup -- when your tire pressure was low you knew it either because one of the tire was pancaked on the road or starting to look as if it had love handles. Now, thanks to computer technology, our cars can tell us if one tire is underinflated by only a few psi, as was the case today.

So I put air in the tire. The warning, however, remained illuminated. I had to drive to Moody and back (Moody isn't a town, per se; it's more of a collection of houses on a street corner, so it's more of a feeling than a community) before it reset. Now here's to hoping that everything runs well in the morning.

Speaking of the morning: It's likely that I'll wake up to snow, which means, on the truck, my tires are going to have the wumpies. That's what I call it when the tires get cold and, as a consequence, have a little flat part on them where they've rested while the temperature dropped. As I drive to the bus stop tomorrow morning, I'll get the "wump wump wump" that's typical of a vehicle with the wumpies.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Battening Down the Hatches

Today's order of business: Battening down the hatches.

We've got our first winter storm likely to blow in tomorrow afternoon, and I was a bit behind in getting our outdoor stuff ready for the foul weather.

This is what responsibility feels like. It's frighteningly like a mix between the flu and old age. Of course, I've had a touch of the flu for the past few days, so maybe responsibility doesn't feel all that bad.

It started with the carrots. We still had carrots in the garden until noon. They're now all dug up, with some of them bottled. We may pack the rest in sand, or we may bottle the rest. I don't know. I'm too tired to think about it now.

Then I cleaned out the shed so we had enough room to cram the outdoor stuff into it -- bicycles, wagons, wheelbarrows, and all sorts of junk. Still have more to put in, and I'm running out of room.

Then the worst of it: I had to fix the gutter on the front of the house. Really didn't want to, especially after I'd buried the ladder putting stuff in the shed. But I fixed it. I even liquid nailed it in place, hoping this time that it'll stay put together.

Still have more to do, including getting the camper stowed for the season. So here's to hoping the weatherman is wrong.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Financial Planning

We make a pair, Michelle and I.

We had our financial planner come over today (Hi, Trent! Thanks for coming!). We've managed to squirrel away a bit more in savings that we wanted to be doing more with than collecting miniscule profits from credit union savings account interest.

Also Tired of Miniscule Profits

Trent always comes well prepared, ready to study our current portfolio and make recommendations for how to tweak it and then find ways for us to invest what little chicken scratch we've got.

And 90 percent of the time, the stuff he suggests just goes right over our heads.

See, we're not numbers people. Words, yes, you can depend on us to come up with them, and in mass quantities. But when it comes to words that are mixed up with numbers, we just sit there pleasantly nodding while our brains pull a Homer Simpson on us:

To give us a bit more credit than I'm giving us at the moment, we do try our darndest to understand. We do ask questions. I try to follow the financial news and try to think as an investor should think (buy low, sell high; isn't it about time that gold did a header, et cetera). And then we both kind of sit back and think, "Wow. Are we investing in gold?" (Yes we are. In China, too. We're getting out of both, based on Trent's advice, which, from what I've learned, I think is sound.)

We have an ace in the hole in that Trent also works for the same company that advises Michelle's Dad, who has done not so badly with his investments over the years. We always check in with him when we make these decisions - and he always gives us the same song and dance we get from Trent: No one can predict how these things will work out. But he said we made some good decisions, based on the trust we've got in Trent. That's good enough for me.

Talking Out Loud About Making Uncharted Better for Explorers

NOTE: Bear with me if you've heard all you ever wanted to hear about Uncharted. I'm just thinking aloud here, trying to figure out what we can do to make our site more attractive to people who want to post their stories and photos. We've got some challenges to overcome.

Challenge: We've got a website – Uncharted – where the key to growth lies not only in getting eyeballs to the site but getting the brains connected to those eyeballs contributing to the site.

Reasons for folks not making contributions vary from situation to situation. The most likely scenarios:
  • People are just busy
  • They're following us on Facebook, or made a profile at Uncharted, because they're friends or acquaintances with us, but that's as far as it goes
  • Our interface makes it cumbersome or time-consuming to submit content
  • They're intimidated by what's already on the site
  • They're not aware they, too, can contribute.
This little plan is being concocted to see what we can do better to surmount the final two obstacles, while other plans are being developed to tackle other challenges, including those not listed in this plan.

So, what do we have on the site right now that invites people to contribute?


The SHARE tab and the Register link appear on our home page. Given the color scheme and location, SHARE is more prominent. To share, however, one must log in, or, if one is not yet an Explorer, one must register.

This is what a potential explorer sees when he or she clicks on the share tab without registering or logging in first:

Okay, the invitation is there. But what are the benefits? What does a potential Explorer get by registering? We don't explain that. More on that later.

We do offer lots of enticement. Here's a banner that also offers an invitation:

We've got another one that's similar, but you get the idea.

It's somewhat of a crapshoot to know where to click. Parts of the image are clickable, others are not. Clicking on either gets you to the following page:

Cool. An invitation that asks them to sign up.

But what are the benefits? Again, I'm not sure we're communicating those benefits. We know them. Perhaps we take them for granted. But we can't do that. Our Explorers don't know the benefits as we see them.

(An aside: I think we need to revise the Terms of Service. But more on that later.)

Here's another invitation we offer, in the form of a slide on the home page (again, it's hit and miss as to where one has to click on the image to go anywhere):

Click here, and you go to this page:

Here, you get to see what a story and photoset look like. Kinda nifty, isn't it? We do better on the invitation, but there's something lacking – we don't tell them where to go to sign up (we should) and we don't tell them what the benefits of being a member are.

Oh, we give them hints. Like this:

That looks cool. But what is it? Again, maybe it's obvious to us. But is it obvious to a non-inducted servant of Alan the Sith Lord what this means? We don't explain it. I'm glad it's there – but we need to do a better job explaining what the benefits are, why people should become Explorers, before we can expect to see them join.

So, what are the benefits? We must eludicate, and communicate them on the site so people will know why we want them to sign up so badly. Here are a few examples:

  • Planning a trip to Planet X? Maybe someone at Uncharted has been there before you and can show you photos or let you know if it's a place where you can take your kids, for example, or if it's even worth the trouble
  • Not only do you get their words and photos, but if you become a friend with them and communicate with Uncharted's email, you're automatically connected with a kindred spirit who might pass on some other tips he or she didn't share online yet
  • Like to write or shoot photos? Here's a place to show your stuff off with other people doing exactly the same thing. Sure, you can post your stuff on Facebook for your friends to ignore
  • Maybe you want some help learning how to shoot better photos, or write a snappier story. Uncharted touts itself as a place where amateurs and professionals get together and help each other out. Except we don't advertise that. More on how to fix that later
  • If we like your stuff, we'll brag about it for you on Twitter, Facebook, et cetera
  • Maybe we'll send a little bit of Uncharted swag your way because you signed up and posted your first photoset or story, and because we like you
  • And many, many other advantages
  • More importantly, what do our Explorers see as the advantages?
Where can we communicate them? I see several opportunities:
  • Staff page, where we share a set of photos of our current Explorers, quoting from them why they like Uncharted. We can talk about why it's a great place all we want, but until potential Explorers hear it from current Explorers, it's not as powerful
  • Blog, where we can do the same
  • Facebook, where we can do the same
What needs to be there?
  • Short, sweet testimonials
  • An invitation
  • An immediate opportunity to follow up on that invitation by signing up and submitting a story or photo
  • An explanation of the “behind the scenes” at Uncharted, including a tour of a typical explorer's page (possibly in a video or, given our tech limitations, a slide show; an example, in a slide show, of what happens when one of the Sith Lords at Uncharted decides an Explorer contribution is worthy of being featured on the home page.
In the preceding list, we see where we have our Explorers tell why they like Uncharted, where we explain our processes – at the same time giving them a taste of the amateur/professional mix, but said in friendlier terms so they're not intimidated, and examples of what others have done on the site.

I guess what I'm getting at is that we can't just assume that because the site is there, potential Explorers will explore the site and figure out the process and advantages by osmosis. We need to tell them. Honestly, succinctly, and firmly.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hocus . . . Pocus! I Am a Vampire!

It's that time of year again when I turn into a vampire.

Not literally, of course. But as I'm heading out to the bus at 4:45 am with Orion watching from the southeast and the Big Dipper pointing its handle at the horizon to the north and coming home with the first stars coming out and the twilight ending, I do feel a bit vampirish. If it weren't for the window in my cubicle and the occasional stroll outside, I wouldn't see the sun at all. And it's a condition that lasts through mid-April, when the days finally start to get a bit longer.

No wonder I feel a bit fatty-gyooed.

So it is nice when the weekends come and I can be outdoors, soaking up the sun and making Vitamin D. Tomorrow, my adventures will likely include digging all of the carrots out of the garden and getting stuff stowed in the shed for winter; we've got our first winter storm scheduled to start storming into the area on Sunday.

For those of you who are interested, I'm trying a new summer accoutrement storage approach, in using the kids' playhouse, both underneath and inside, to store stuff for the winter. The shed is great, but it gets so crowded with stuff over the season that it's hard to get in there. So when the snow is here in earnest, the tomato cages and the kids' bicycles are going in the playhouse, with the wagon and one of the wheelbarrows is going underneath the playhouse.

The Left Pulls A Brietbart

Several years ago, my wife and I were sitting alone at an airline gate at London’s Heathrow Airport, waiting for our return flight to the United States. We were at the gate early, as is our practice. We were the only ones there.

The flight previous to ours was destined to fly to Iran.

No worries, I thought. No reason to think anything ill of people just trying to get home, like us.

Then the passengers started to filter in. Most in traditional Westernized Arab garb: headscarves worn over suits and collared shirts, burquas and such.

I started to feel nervous.

No worries, I reminded myself. No reason to think ill of anybody.

No reason at all.

But of course I was nervous. This was pre-9/11, but post 1980s, when hijackings and airport bombings by Muslim extremists were still in the news. To say we didn’t maintain a low profile would be to lie. To say I wasn’t nervous would be to lie.

But nothing happened, of course, except a little paranoia which was pretty embarrassing at the time, and still causes embarrassment as I think about it now. I’d seen my inner bigot.

I know it’s an irrational fear, of course; just as silly as some Japanese kid spotting Dave Barry while on vacation there and yelling GAIJIN! (foreigner!) and running to his mommy, as if there were something to fear from a humor columnist.

The only thing that really troubled me on the flight home was the two-liter bottle of lemonade I’d drunk at the airport. I had to get up during the ascent, against stewardess’ orders, to visit the toilet because there was going to be an accident. I’m sure there were people who saw me moving and were wondering, “Where is that guy going? Does he have a bomb? He could be a neo-Nazi extremist, with that burly build and blond hair.”

Irrational, of course. But a fear nonetheless.

Juan Williams, an NPR reporter and “news analyst” got fired this week for expressing such a fear while appearing on Bill O’Reilley’s show on Fox News. This is what Williams said, per the Washington Post (via CBS News):
"I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country," he said. "But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
Williams then brought up a statement made in a New York courtroom this month by Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who pleaded guilty to trying to detonate a bomb in Times Square and was sentenced to life in prison.

"He said the war with Muslims, America's war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts," Williams said.

Reached this morning in Washington, Williams said he was still digesting the news of his termination and didn't want to comment. "I better bite my tongue at this point," he said.
Nothing that I haven’t expressed here, of course, nor nothing just about anyone hasn’t thought about, say, a black person, a Tea Partier, a Hell’s Angel, or any other individual whose race or appearance makes them stand out in a crowd and make it easy to identify what group that person identifies with.

Here’s why NPR fired him:
NPR said in a statement that Williams's remarks--including that he gets "worried" and "nervous" when he sees people dressed in Muslim-style clothing on airplanes--"were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."
If he’d said such things about, say, a neo-Nazi, a costumed Tea Partier, or even a guy on the airplane wearing a pink bunny suit, it’s likely no one at NPR would have noticed.

Williams got fired for expressing a common fear. That’s it. Thoughtcrime, uttered aloud, has been committed. But maybe I’d better bite my tongue at this point as well.

Here's what William Saletan writes at
I'm not saying Williams is the world's most enlightened guy. He's wrong, for example, about the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero. And it's certainly unsettling to hear him admit that he worries when he sees Muslims in distinctive dress. But admitting such fears doesn't make you a bigot. Sometimes, to work through your fears, you have to face them honestly. You have to think through the perils of acting on those fears. And you have to explain to others why they, too, should transcend their anxieties or resentments and treat people as individuals.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

New Blog Page! V.V.V.V. Exciting!

I take the information on the most popular posts on this blog and then put it here, with pithy and occasionally stupid reactions from myself as I re-read my own crapola.

Stats are as of Oct. 20, 10 pm.

1) Drivelalia Factosis

82 page views since July 18. By far the most popular post, by pageviews. One of my favorites as well, as comic strip artist Richard Thompson nails the affliction I have, as evidenced by my nearly 1,000 blog posts this year alone.

2) Paul Yarrow, News Raider

40 page views since July 29. I sincerely hope Mr. Yarrow, who appeared as a wandering background character in hundreds of news reports in the greater London area, is still plying his trade, taking potshots against a world of glamour for the unattractive man in all of us.

3) Walkman vs. iPod Family: Sony Holds Up Well

38 page views since July 24. ARRRRGH! I hate it when my typos stand out as clearly as they do in this post. Oh well. Ironically, I've not used my Sony for quite a while, as I'm addicted to a new iPod Touch game that I won't go into at the moment.

4)  Exploring the Creative Commons; Sgt. Rizzo, Advisi...

36 page views since July 12. A long discussion I had with myself about the creative commons, writing a novel with a collaborator found via the web, and such. Nothing has come of it.

5) Awl Ah Wahnt Is Mah Monnnaayy. . .

27 page views since July 9. Rounding up a very fecund July, a follow-up post to the post on creative commons licensing. I have made significant progress on the novel I mention in this post, finishing it with just over 80,000 words. Now I must edit, find an agent, and continue writing.

6) The Grammar Nazi is Loathe to Mention This . . . A...

27 page views since February 3. I'm happy to see the Grammar Nazi -- who has been absent from my blog as of late -- make an appearance. Apparently, lots of people out there are anxious to know the difference between loath and loathe.

7) What Else Needs A Permit in Rexburg?

26 page views since September 16. From the second-most popular month on this blog, where I wrote about needing a permit to hold a water balloon fight in town. The city has since banned such fights, while the university remains ambiguous to them -- probably because nobody's had the nerve to ask the Rexburg Taliban the question.

8) I Sell Other People's Belongings

22 page views since April 28. Commentary here on the theft of an iPhone prototype. Interesting how this has faded from the news now, given the umbrage it received in April. C'est la guerre.

9) International Read the Qur'an Day

20 page views since September 9. I'm still reading, though it's slow going.

10) Words Less Valuable Than Spreadable Cheese

18 page views since September 30. My lament on the cheapness of words. Ironic, considering how much I babble on this blog for nothing.

I still dwell mostly in zero (0) comments land, as expressed at But that's okay. I do these blogs mainly as an outlet for self-expression, not because I want to be noticed. I'm also successfully ignored on Twitter and Facebook.

Angry Birds

This is, apparently, all it takes.

Write an addictive smartphone game. Say, Angry Birds. Sell that baby for, say a cheap 99 cents. Then watch your publisher get snapped up by gaming giant Electronic Arts for a rumored $20 million, while you retain the copyrights to your game and begin exploring things such as television shows, a movie, and other associated and ancillary media.


And, if you’re lucky, repeat.

That has come to pass.

I play the game. The free version. I have not added a red cent to revenue earned by RovioMobile, the Finnish company that wrote the game, or Chillingo, the American company that published it and was bought by Electronic Arts. Not that it matters. It seems they can afford to give me a free version in the hopes that, once addicted, I’ll buy the 99 cent version – as I said earlier, cheap; cheaper than a terrapin, Mr. Bean. More importantly, I’d pass on that addiction.

Bravo to them. Just another example of making the pie higher: Producing a good a lot of people want, not charging much for it, but then beating the spread when it becomes popular.

Of course, thousands try to replicate this success, and thousands fail. Thus is the nature of any kind of ‘ism you’d care to bring up. People buy what they want. They don’t buy what they don’t want. Finding what they want, that’s the key.

The key for anything, really. Is the novel – you knew that was going to come up – that I’ve written something people want? I don’t know. Nobody seems to be reading it. That’s my fault; I’m not marketing it well enough.

Should I sell it for 99 cents a pop in the hopes that it’ll become a sensation? I don’t know. I can’t seem to give it away at the moment. And forget appealing to the gods of Google for help on ebook publishing. Just entering that search term into Google brought 38.2 million hits from a buncha different companies, each shadier than the last. And marketing is a full-time job. I’m not up to that.

I wonder, when the printing press was developed, followed by the folio, were there scam artists there just waiting for some na├»ve author to come along and ask the question: I’ve got a book. Who wants to publish it? I’m sure there were as many as there were questionable bits of movable type stolen from the more legitimate publishing houses.

So what to do, what to do, while waiting for my Angry Birds moment? I can make the book better, for one. And continue writing, for another. And find an agent, who knows this business better than I.

PS: Story behind the story. RoxioMobile had to go into a flurry of Twittering because a lot of folks thought they'd been bought out by EA, and not their publisher. This is probably due to journalistic shorthand, which goes like this: Obscure Company A has been bought by Prominent Company B. Nobody knows A, not even as publisher of Company C's Product X, but since Company C's Product X is very hot at the moment, the quickest way to provide context is to say that the publishers of  Product X. The public, in reading the story, aren't into the nuances of publisher versus owner, so they automatically assume that Company C has been bought out, since they're the ones with the hot product and they've never heard of Company B. Easy for the journalist, harder for the public and for Company C.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

But Dreng Has No Fortune

Taboo subject here: That ol' payscale.

One of my Facebook friends (I defeated him in the grueling election to become eighth grade president at North Bonneville Junior High School, but I think he's forgiven me for that) posed the question Would I rather live now with a "middle" income of 70k a year, or with that same income in 1900, when it was the income of the top wealthiest cadre in the United States.

Trick question, I thought. Especially since even today, I don't quite meet the "middle" income mark he picks.

This isn't going to be a big Pity Me party, because, considering, we're doing quite well. I did just get news yesterday that I am getting a cost of living adjustment, putting me above a certain numerical threshold for the first time in my life. Not quite the middle income my Facebook friend was posing questions about, but then again it's certainly considerably more than I was making as a journalist.

Knock on wood I've been lucky. Got out of the journalism business before the Big Tanking. Also got a substantial raise at my current job in September 2008, right before the economy collapsed. So with the COLA this year, I'm going to say we're doing okay. Of course, 2011 is going to bring between 600-700 layoffs at the company I work for as a subcontractor -- with the subcontractors first in line for the firing squad. We're hoping -- and are fairly certain, but you know how fate works -- that we as a group will survive the layoffs, as there is still work in the areas we're attached to. That won't stop them, of course, from dumping subcontractors like me and then moving company people into those positions. So I've got to be ready for any contingency. But in the meantime, a COLA which will bring in almost another $200 a month is welcome. We can squirrel it away for the inevitable day I do get that funny little tap on the shoulder and am sent to that Sweet Fanny Adams in the Sky.

Working on aces up the sleeve:
  • I have signed a contract to teach at BYU-Idaho next semester. It's pittance pay and depends on whether there's enough demand for the course, but I see it mainly as a foot in the door at the university. Do a good enough job, my friend, and I might be considered more heavily for a better position.
  • The novel is written. My goal with it now is to have it polished by the new year and to have, to go with it, a polished query letter with which I may begin to pepper the agents. And I'll begin work on the second portion of the story I'm telling, with the possibility of picking up two other unrelated novels I've been working on for quite some time. Not necessarily here the promise of a cash future, but certainly something with which to feed the soul.
  • Applying for jobs like crazy. I interviewed (unsuccessfully) at the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Utah a few months ago, and still prowl the Internets for opportunities. I need to do better networking, but it's pretty difficult for a hermit to get excited about meeting people. I do have a few allies (and perhaps one enemy) working for BEA -- the research side of the Idaho National Laboratory -- so that helps/hurts at the same time.
  • I do know this: journalism, Target, and call centers are out. I'd rather chew tin cans and make my children do the same.
Soul food is as important as a paycheck, I discovered, when one is underemployed. I spent a fair portion of 2005 and 2006 working at Target and at a call center while looking for a job after I exited the journalism biz butt-first. Then I worked on a few short stories and a novel that I still think has a few possibilities. It's one I'm still working on.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Blowed Up Real Good

So it has come to this: President Obama, leader of the free world, is going to appear on “Mythbusters.”

Has already taped the episode, to air Dec. 8. Will observe (or participate in, or don a crash helmet for) an experiment “consider[ing] whether Greek scientist Archimedes set fire to an invading Roman fleet using only mirrors and the reflected rays of the sun.”

No word yet if this is going to be a broadcast of the group’s failed attempt to ignite a wooden fishing boat in San Francisco. No word on if, when Obama made the request, if anyone had the guts to tell him that myth had been busted, or if they all sat there in thrall as if they were Archie Bunker writing that letter to Richard Nixon:

Yes, President Obama is going to appear on “Mythbusters,” a show on which things get blowed up real good:

I like the show. I’m not a regular viewer of it – nor of any TV show – but when I’m at the in-laws and it happens to be on, I’ll watch it. But what’s the utility of having a standing president of the United States appear on a television show to request a demonstration of a myth that’s already been busted? Or is this a coy way for Obama, with help from the Pentagon, to show Iran and other adversaries the new Archimedes Death Ray that’s been developed out in the Nevada desert? Only time will tell.

And part of me wonders if this is going to be another ludicrous "boxers or briefs" moments in which, in attempting to connect with the youth of America, an American president makes himself look foolish. I don't know about you, but I kinda anticipate that in my president, there's going to be a bit of a generation gap. Not that he or she won't want to understand youth, but I'm not sure doing this kind of things is up to the dignity inherent in the office.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jeremy Messersmith -- Tatooine

So,, even with v. 4 inciting the ire of Diggers everywhere, can be good for something.

I've never heard this Jeremy Messersmith sing -- so surprise; I don't get out much, and, musically, I'm pretty stuck in the 1970s. But I like his stuff. And not just because of this video:

Here's another good one, kinda filled with that gleeful angst that George Orwell warned us about:

Orwell said this of the middle class, in countering an argument that it must be the lower class that is the most miserable:

In every one of those little stucco boxes there's some poor bastard who's never free except when he's fast asleep and dreaming that he's got the boss down the bottom of a well and is bunging lumps of coal at him.

Anyway, when I heard this song, that's the quote that came to mind.

This might be the most upbeat depressing song I've ever heard.

I love his lyrics -- very tightly rhymed in a style that I've been told I do well. I should do more of it, obviously.

Messersmith is online of course, here. He's got downloadable music on a pay-what-you-want meter. I'm not sure how smart that is, but perhaps it's working for him. It would be interesting to look at the economics there. But this music is definitely worth something, if you ask me.

The Brooklyn Space Program

The New York borough of Brooklyn has its own space program.

A group of parents and children, led by Brooklyinite videographer Luke Geissbuhler, successfully sent a homemade capsule containing a high-definition digital camera and an iPhone (acting as a GPS) into space, successfully sending their capsule via weather balloon to a height of nearly 19 miles, or 100,000 feet, and then retrieved their capsule for further experimentation after it landed a mere 30 miles north of its launch site.

Pretty damn cool and, frankly, done at a fraction of the cost of the first space launch. Of course, this team didn't have to design the camera or the location system, and they used ancient analog technology -- a weather balloon -- to launch, but they still had to overcome some pretty interesting engineering problems. Protecting their gear from the altitude and the cold? Hand-warmers and a waterproof capsule. How cool is that?

Well done, crew. I'll follow your further experiments with interest. You can read more about them here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

What is That Cereal About?

I used to think it was Charles Schulz who understood children the best. Now, I'm not so sure. I think Richard Thompson has at least accomplished the feat of becoming Schulz' equal.

And maybe this is an eerie view into how we understand products -- that each has its story. Of course the childrens' cereal is going to be more appealing -- it has, for them, a much more appealing story of activity, quick gratification and manic moving-on. The adult cereal has a more adult theme: Please help me poop. And that horse, well, I'm as confused as Petey" What does it have to do with digestive help? Maybe it passes on the message that by eating this cereal, one may continue to live the active, happy lifestyle one is accustomed to, even if the only time one gets close to a horse is when one is eating an unknown meat in Mexico.

So here -- and I'm sure you saw this coming -- is a good lesson for writers. Consider your audience, and how the story you're trying to tell appeals to them. Or doesn't. If, in reading your audience, you discover you're offering poo-poo help rather than the story they want, you've got a problem. Equally so if the story is compelling, but could be even more compelling if presented in a different way -- a graphic novel versus a straight novel.

But where to find that audience, in this day and age? I've had my novel on Scribd and on my blog for months now, and only a few perfunctory replies. But that's what's to be expected -- putting something up on the Internet like that is like shooting a shotgun blast into the air and expecting the shot to intersect with a duck. I've got to find some audience members willing to read and give this book a good critique.

But back to the comic strip. Bravo, Mr. Thompson. Your story is playing very well to this audience member. Please continue.