Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thinking Like Tolkien

This photo is in the public domain.

When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a letter in 1951 to Milton Waldman, a friend of his at Collins publishers, he outlined in a few brief sentences how he created the world that is Middle Earth and the stories that make up the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings:
My Dear Milton,

You asked for a brief sketch of my stuff that is connected with my imaginary world. It is difficult to say anything without saying too much: the attempt to say a few words opens a floodgate of excitement, the egoist and artist at once desires to say how the stuff has grown, what it is like, and what (he thinks) he means or is trying to represent by it all.

In order of time, growth, and composition, this stuff began with me – though I do not suppose that that is of much interest to anyone but myself. I mean, I do not remember a time when I was not building it. Many children make up, or begin to make up, imaginary languages. I have been at it since I could write. But I have never stopped, and of course, as a professional, philologist (especially interested in linguistic aesthetics), I have changed in taste, improved in theory, and probably in craft.
When I’m feeling discouraged as a writer, I open my copy of The Silmarillion, in which an extract of this letter appears, and I re-read it. And every time I hear Tolkien say “though I do not suppose that that is of much interest to anyone but myself,” I pause and say to him, in my imaginary world where we sit and talk, that what he says about the craft is certainly of great interest to me.

Tolkien never stopped. Never, like the elves, or Theoden, or Denethor, Steward of Minas Tirith, did Tolkien rest in stasis. He so wanted to find a world of myth (not allegory, he repeated often) to connect himself with the earliest of Britons, but because he never found it, he created it. He let the egoist and artist within shape and evolve, he “changed in taste, improved in theory, and probably in craft” over time as he studied and pondered and wrote.

That’s how you create a world, and it takes a lifetime.

Do I consider that a discouraging thought, you might ask. How can that possibly aid me, a person who has so little depth in his taste, theory, and craft, that I can never hope to be Tolkien’s equal?

I don’t know. But it does. It shows me it can be done. It shows me that 90 percent of the effort Tolkien put into his stories is the research, the thinking, the picking at ideas, the avoidance of stasis. The rest – the writing – came easy. So as I pursue the writing projects I’m working on, I, too, work to emphasize the behind the scenes, the thinking, the research. I’ve got a few projects that I’ve been working on for years. I’ve experimented with some of the writing, and when the writing comes difficult I know it’s not because I’m a lousy writer, but because I haven’t done enough thinking or research of any kind. So I put the pen down, I walk away from the keyboard, and do some more of the thinking.

That doesn’t stop me from writing; to stop writing puts one in a state of stasis that Tolkien obviously avoided. But I write a snatch here and a snitch there, working on one project as a writer to feed the egoist and artist while other projects gather more bits of fluff and hair to add to the ball.

WikiLeaks and the "Smoking Gun"

I’ve followed this week’s revelations from WikiLeaks with much fascination.

Part of that fascination comes from my fascination with the White House of Richard Nixon, and how information parleyed through leaks (as with the Pentagon papers) and with informants (as with Watergate) showed the American news media in one of its finest hours and showed how the control of information and the lack of control over information – and not just a little bull-headedness, lying, and deceit – can bring down a government.

So with Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, now calling on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to resign if she did indeed authorize diplomatic spying on the United Nations, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the question that was asked of Richard Nixon – “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” – will be asked of Barack Obama.

I’m not one that’s out for Obama’s blood. I voted for the man. I had high hopes when I did so. But any politician who runs on a platform of change who then runs smack into the Same Old System in Washington and doesn’t make good faith efforts to change it – and that’s all of them, as far as I’m concerned – deserves to have that smoking gun question asked of them.

Time Magazine, in interviewing Assange, bluntly asked what the group’s next target is. I like very much what Assange said: “We don't have targets, other than organizations that use secrecy to conceal unjust behavior ... That's created a general target.”

It’s interesting to hear how many people are calling what Assange and WikiLeaks is doing “treasonous,” while at the same time not recognizing as treasonous the behavior of those caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Yes, there’s some parsing of language here: Treasonous against “our country,” whatever country that might be, without realizing or acknowledging that this kind of intelligence-gathering is treasonous against the greater good of mutual trust among nations.

None of the spying revelations surprise me; I’m not naïve enough to believe that even allies don’t spy on each other. But wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where such spying just wasn’t necessary. Kind of like Thomas More’s “Utopia;” kind of like the opposite of Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”

And kind of like the battles raged in the Book of Mormon against the robbers of Gadiantion, who did everything underhanded they could to usurp and destroy the rightful government. So says Helaman Chapter 7:25, 28-29:
Yea, wo be unto you because of that great abomination which has come among you; and ye have united yourselves unto it, yeat, to that secret band which was established by Gadianton!

And except ye repent he shall perish’ yea even your lands shall be taken from you, and ye shall be destroyed from off the face of the earth.

Behold now, I do not say these things shall be, of myself, because it is not of myself that I know these things; but behold, I know that these things are true because the Lord God has made them known unto me, therefore, I testify that they shall be.
The Nephites saw their collusion with these people, who used deceit to gain power, bring their downfall. This is how our Constitution will hang by a thread, not because wicked people in office do so, but because we collude with them, calling evil good and good evil. It’s good to spy on others, even our allies, because they spy on us. That’s good, right? And not spying, well, that’s naïve. There’s the good being called evil.

Assange sounds like the kind of guy working to combat evil, even evil that’s called good. He told Time:
This organization practices civil obedience, that is, we are an organization that tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction.

It's very important to remember the law is not what, not simply what powerful people would want others to believe it is. The law is not what a general says it is. The law is not what Hillary Clinton says it is.
Yeah, just like when Nixon told David Frost that “when the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Don’t buy it from him. Can’t buy it from the current administration.

Jach Shafer, writing for Slate.com, makes a good point for her resignation:
But what makes Clinton's sleuthing unique is the paper trail that documents her spying-on-their-diplomats-with-our-diplomat orders, a paper trail that is now being splashed around the world on the Web and printed in top newspapers. No matter what sort of noises Clinton makes about how the disclosures are "an attack on America" and "the international community," as she did today, she's become the issue. She'll never be an effective negotiator with diplomats who refuse to forgive her exuberances, and even foreign diplomats who do forgive her will still regard her as the symbol of an overreaching United States. Diplomacy is about face, and the only way for other nations to save face will be to give them Clinton's scalp.
But Hillary’s a politician. She won’t resign. Obama won’t ask her to do it, either. And because of that, he’ll be asked that Nixonian question. Wonder how he’ll answer.

And while I argued yesterday that perhaps the Internet was built for pessimists, today I have to offer this as evidence that it’s also made for the optimists and idealists as well.

Similar things, of course, happened to Richard Nixon when the Watergate tapes were released. Though they were heavily redacted as WikiLeaks’ document dump this week, they painted a clear enough picture for people to understand what was going on. And they were widely disseminated even without the Internet, given that they were in print and sold out in several printings, were dramatized in part on National Public Radio and other news outlets, and generally were the talk of the wonks. This weeks’ WikiLeaks revelations are nothing less, but are even more ubiquitously available, despite the denial of service attacks the site has suffered.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Finding the Facebook Killer

I’ve blogged in the past here about what we might want to do/need to do at Uncharted to make it a more appealing social media experience. My last post focused on the “Facebooking” of Uncharted, updating our static pages into something more dynamic, like Facebook’s news feeds (or indeed, Twitter’s constant updates) both of which feed our insatiable need for something new on the Internet that’s related somehow to our self-centered natures.

I wrote all that not because Uncharted is or possibly could be framed as the “Facebook Killer” – something it most certainly is not—but merely as a way to make our site more appealing to those on the site already and act as a potential draw for new Explorers.

So it was interesting to read Pete Cashmore’s column on CNN.com today, in which he talks about Facbook killers.

He points out that Facebook won the war against MySpace because of its news feed – a feature I advocate at Uncharted:

Facebook, which usurped MySpace for the social networking crown, did so with a radical innovation: the launch of its News Feed in 2006. This new feature wasn't just a "better MySpace" but a completely different approach to social interaction that replaced static pages with streams of constantly updated information.

Constantly updated information. I know that’s what I look for in the web sites and tools I regard as social – Facebook, Twitter, my personal blogs, even e-mail and other communications tools. It’s obvious that Uncharted needs to do some more along those lines if we’re to stay relevant in today’s social media landscape, if I may use such a tired metaphor. Dynamism is what we need to keep Uncharted going and to help it grow. We’ve got elements of that dynamism with stories and photosets being added periodically, but that dynamism needs to show up on individual profiles as well as elsewhere.

This also means we need to look at our competition – from the lofty National Geographic to more humble enterprises (like ours) such as travelbuddy.com. What are we offering that’s radically different? We’ve got stuff in the wings – professional development in the form of workshops on writing, photography, cultural awareness, et cetera. Those are the unique services we think we can offer our Explorers. We’ve just got to get off our duffs and do it.

So what does Cashmore envision as the Facebook killer? He’s not sure, except to say it won’t look anything like Facebook. We need to look at what our competition is doing and make what we’re doing look not like what they’re doing.

Which brings me back to the premise of Facebooking Uncharted. Is Facebook our competition? Not directly. Indirectly, however, yes – because of how easy it is to put travel-related stuff up on Facebook and share it with your already-existing circle of friends. No one is going to come to Uncharted until everyone is there – a conundrum faced by many social media sites.

Is the Internet Built for Pessimists?

I suppose this all goes back to the old newspaper adage: We don’t report on the plane landings. Just the crashes.

But I have to wonder: Does the instant media access/frenzy combined with the easy anonymity of the Internet make the Internet perfect for pessimists? I think so. Try to make a positive comment – especially in the realm of human behavior – and you’re going to be called a rose-tinted-glasses-wearing Pollyanna wannabee, at least on the sites I visited over the weekend.

Jack Cafferty – and his forehead – are but one example, wherein Mr. Cafferty trots out the typical media litany of bad Black Friday behavior, then shakes his head while asking the question “What’s happened to us?”

Well, Jack, nothing really. The media are still focusing on the bad behavior while ignoring the behavior that’s acceptable to exemplary. You’re feeding the pessimism you see in life without realizing there’s so much to admire in humanity. But I know that the Pollyanna attitude doesn’t drag eyeballs to your blog, so hey, I understand.

It's an old trick, and one I played a few times as a journalist. But the stories that I did which I remember with the most fondness are the ones that maintained a positive approach because, well, the news was positive: Two individuals with Down syndrome marrying each other, a local expert in wilderness survival getting to help out with the film "Cast Away," and any other number of stories I wrote. I miss doing those kinds of stories. The bad news/pessimist I gotchas, I don't miss much at all.

Fark.com as well has been a deep well of negative-vibe merchantry as of late. The collapse of a roof at a Salvation Army center in Colorado really brought out the ugliness.

Then again, it could be me. I call myself an optimist, but maybe -- just maybe, mind you -- the pessimists' posts are more interesting to read. Though interesting not in the "I agree with you" sense but interesting in the "wow this guy/gal must be a real train wreck and a ball at parties" sense.

I, for one, will continue to look on the positive side of things. Humans may have their failings, but that doesn’t mean humanity is of itself intrinsically evil. I’ll even look for the good among the media reports I see – though that task is a bit harder to accomplish.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Viral Schmiral

Pillow Pets. Apparently, our daughter saw one -- and I mean one -- TV commercial for the things and is now obsessed with getting one for Christmas. She saw one ad. One. And it wasn't even at our house -- just happened to catch it on TV at Grandma's house.

Folks fond of the intertubes like to say that it was the Internet that invented viral marketing. Not so. Our daughter caught the Pullow Pets bug from one isolated television commercial and a chance placement of a handful of Pillow Pets on an end cap at Wal-Mart. So don't tell me the viral concept is new. Or that it started with television.

I listen to a lot of old-time radio. One of my favorite shows is "Fibber McGee and Molly." their sponsor was Johnson Wax, makers of "Self-Polishing Glo-Coat," a floor wax Fibber and Molly plugged incessantly when the show's narrator Harlo Wilcox wasn't doing it himself. I recently listened to a show where the plot revolved around removing a spot on the floor, and the increasingly antic antics the pair go through in trying to get it cleaned up. Of course the punchline of the entire half-hour episode is that Johnson Wax has a product that'll take care of the McGees' little problem.

we today would see through that obvious ad ploy, and not put up with it, right? Right? Because we're so much more aware of advertising and much more media savvy these days, since we cast off the onions tied to our belts and stopped saying things like "Gimme five bees for a quarter," right?

They were too, you know. Once, with Harlo hawking his wares, Fibber McGee and Molly poke fun at the so-called integrated commercial:

Fibber: Watch him pour it out.

Molly: Listen to him spread it around.

They -- and their listeners -- were savvy enough for me.

So viral advertising and the cleverness we think we are the masters of today is old hat. Because I can make just as much fun of the commercial for the product mentioned in my mobile device blogging signature as Fibber McGee and Molly can poke at Harlo and his ridiculous wax.

- Posted using my iPod Touch, like a pretentious pseudosnob.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

An Odd Bit of Marketing

I'm not sure what to make of this:

Both videos used in this posting are used under the fair use doctrine.)

Apparently it's not a spoof. It's a real bit of ironmongery marketing put together by someone who thought they could connect with the American people by showing clips from "Animal House" in their thank-you kiss to the nation.

I don't get it. And it's not just because I've never seen, nor do I want to see, Animal House.

However, I did enjoy the ad's nice, subtle use of "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." (The Hollies did it best):

Fortunately for my cultural literacy, I do understand the other bits referenced in the ad, from the triumphant Harry S Truman holding up the "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline to poor, poor Popeye sinking to the bottom of the drink. But the Animal House bits are lost on me. Who are they trying to appeal to by including those clips? Themselves -- because I can't think of anyone who makes a better parallel to John Belushi's boorish, unadmirable Bluto than a company that literally drove itself into a ditch.

Potatoes: Too Much to Ask For?

Photo (c) Uncharted/Great Divide Media LLC)

I'm beginning to realize that there are two types of potato people in my family: Those, from the Davidson side, who grew up with meals centered on the potato, and those from the Griffin side who grew up with meals not centered on the potato.

I'm patr of the Davidson side, obviously, given that I'm generally shaped like a potato. Dad, an immigrant to the United States from the Netherlands, grew up on the humble spud and, as a result, cooked them by the bushel as we were in turn growing up ourselves. We had boiled or mashed potatoes at least three or four times a week, and most certainly and most abundantly on holidays.

The Griffins, however, don't seem to hold the potato in high regard. I love my in-laws tremendously, but as far as potatoes, they have a lot to learn. For Thanksgiving at the Davidsons, it wasn't uncommon to have a huge vat of mashed potatoes on the table with an emergency backup vat of potatoes on the stove, awaiting a special aerial lift from stove to table when the first vat invariably ran out. At the Griffins, what passes for an entire meal's worth of mashed potato would be considered, in the Davidson household, a single serving. So much to my chagrin this Thanksgiving did I see the tiny blop of spuds left available to us after we arrived late to dinner and even more chagrined after I served the kids and then saw the last bit go to my wife. So I was completely surrounded by NO POTATOES this Thanksgiving.

I don't want to sound ungrateful. They have many other delectable delights at dinner: Stuffed mushrooms. Amish green beans cooked with bacon. But I like me a good mound of mashed potato.

I felt exactly like Rincewind the Wizzard from Terry Pratchett's "Interesting Times." He spent so much time marooned on an island that he developed an inhuman craving for potatoes and, just as he found a way to indulge that craving, he was taken back to the city of Ankh Morpork by the magic of his fellow wizards, viz:
The coconut stayed where it was, but Rincewind's eyes swivelled madly from side to side.

Three figures stepped into his line of vision. They were obviously female. They were abundantly female. They were not wearing a great deal of clothing and seemed to be altogehter too fresh-from-the-hairdressers for people who have just been paddling a large war canoe, but this is often the case with beautiful Amazonian warriors.

A thin trickle of coconut milk began to dribble off the end of Rincewind's beard.

The leading woman brushed aside her long blonde hair and gave him a bright smile.

"I know this sounds a little unlikely," she said, "but I and my sisters here represent a hitherto undiscovered tribe whose menfolk were recently destroyed in a deadly but short-lived and highly specific plague. Now we have been searching these islands for a man to enable us to carry on our line."

"How much do you think he weighs?"

Rincewind's eyebrows raised. The woman looked down shyly.

"You may be wondering why we are all blonde and white-skinned when everyone else in the islands around here is dark," she said. "It just seems to be one of those genetic things."

"About 120, 125 pounds. Put another pound or two of junk on the heap. Er. Can you detect . . . you know . . . IT?"

"This is all going to go wrong, Mr. Stibbons. I just know it."

"He's only six hundred miles away and we know where we are, and he's on the right half of the Disc. Anyway, I've worked this out on Hex so nothing can possibly go wrong."

"Yes, but can anyone see . . . that  . .  you know. . . with the . . . feet?"

Rincewind's eyebrows waggled. A sort of choking noise came from his throat.

"Can't see . . . it. Will you lot stop huffing on my crystal ball?"

"And, of course, if you were to come with us we could promise you . . . earthly and sensual pleasures such as those of which you may have dreamed . . ."

"All right. On the count of three --"

The coconut dropped away. Rincewind swallowed. There was a hungry, dreamy look in his eyes.

"Can I have them mashed?" he said.

I feel your pain, Rincewind. I feel your pain.

Black Friday, Part II; Or the Return of Varlene Murdock

So after the briefest of reposes, Michelle and I were at it again at Wal-Mart this morning. She was there for two portable DVD players to buy for the ward library. I was there as kind of a tag-along, though I was stationed by the 4 gig SD cards because they're cheap and we need a bunch. Wal-Mart, I have to admit, played it pretty smart. They let us inside rather than leaving us as a seething, trampling mass at the door. So she stood by the DVD players, I stood by the SD cards, and we got what we wanted.

We also saw Varlene Murdock. Of course she asked if we'd actually gone home or if we'd just hung out in Wal-Mart for five hours. I did tell her that we had in fact gone home and slept for a while.

Next we went to Kmart, which, after 45 minutes of shopping inside, I still swear is being run as a junior class economics project. Their value cards, which they're hawking to everyone in the store, don't seem to be keyed into their computer system which is no nevermind either since their sale prices aren't in either. As Michelle checked receipts as we sat at McDonalds across the parking lot, she noticed it was rife with errors. So she returned and won her battles. And again I saw Varlene Murdock and accused her of following us. She laughed at that.

So next we went to Porters, our local pricey little craft, game and knick-knack store. I was three-quarters of the way into getting Michelle another game for Christmas when she said, offhand, that we'd better play the games we have at home more before we buy any more games. So I got her some straight pins and quilting tacks instead. And as we were standing at the games debating some other purchases, Varlene Murdock came at us out of the aisles, shook her head and said, "You know, you should just tell me where you're going next so I can just get in your car!"

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday, Part I

Given the bleak retail landscape in the Recession That Will Never End, retailers are really pulling out the stops to get people to shop this year. And finally, they're catering to night owls.

I know there's not a lot of difference between midnight and five am, but both my wife and I are much more functional at the latter than at the former. We love to stay up late and sleep in when we can, and when we can't, well, we just stay up not so late as we'd like. So to be at Wal-Mart at midnight tonight was a good thing for the both of us, even if that means we still have other places to hit later today.

We struck out on one item: A remote-control truck for Isaac. His brother has one, and while Isaac has a little one, he'd like one that's a bit more robust. We did get him a remote-control Corvette, so we're hoping that'll make up for not getting a truck.

The biggest find for the night, however, was Varlene Murdock. The Murdocks have lived across the street from my mother for years, and they're an awesome family. Many years ago, Dad had a dream that he sneaked over to the Murdock's house late at night, cut a hole through her kitchen window and reached in to sneak a piece of the wedding cake that was sitting on the table. He got his hand slapped because also sitting at the kitchen table was Varlene, watching for any cake-snatching miscreants.

So, thusfar, Black Friday is a success for us, merely because I got to relive that funny memory. We'll see what else the day brings us.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

OK, Now 'Considering How to Run' is Done

When people ask me what was the most difficult portion of "Considering How to Run" was to write, I'll point them to this passage:
Chemistry does not lead to obfuscation. Chemistry is straightforward. Mix a bit of sodium borate solution with a bit of glue and cornstarch and you turn some liquids and powders into a ball for bouncing. Get the proportions right and the ball is sound every time. But when the classes turn to philosophy, double talk becomes quadruple talk and my mind wanders. But wandering minds are punished.
If it appears simple, that's because it is. But though it took only thirty seconds to write, it was, up until this morning, the last bit of the novel that hadn't left the first draft stage. Now it has.

Why did it take so long? Well, in the manuscript I wrote "(Find a simple chemistry experiment to include here.") and then I promptly forgot about it. Went on writing the book. Finished the book. Started on the sequel. All the time I knew there were things I needed to do on the first novel as part of the edit to make sure things were right. One of them was to search for little parentheticals like this. I finally did it, and found this one. Now it's fixed.

So what else is there to be done: As I continue editing the thing, I'm also going to start a list of names, particularly people. I don't name a lot of places in this story, but I do name some people and I want to keep track of who I've named and who they are so I may re-use them in the future and so that I don't re-use someone who's dead or incapacitated or annoying or something like that.

And, as a bonus, I got to get rid of the six sheets of paper that experiment was on from the top of my desk. Oh, I love convoluted sentences!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Out From Under the Thumb of El Guapo

Every time I read stories like this, I’m glad I got through a BA in journalism and a MS in English with only $1,500 in student loan debt.

And whenever we get to feeling discouraged because money is tight and we’re deferring home improvement projects we’d like to do, I have to say, well, at least we’re not massively in debt. Sure, we owe about $70,000 on the house, and a miniscule amount on a sole credit card. We’re not being crushed by debt, and if I have any say in it, we’re not going to.

We pay as we go. And we do what we can to save money. This summer’s home improvement project, for example, is going to be replacing the four windows on the front of the house. All four of them are big energy-leakers. Luckily, all we have to do is buy the windows. I’ve installed all of the other windows in the house, so we don’t have to pay labor to have them put in.

It’s the other projects that are killers – the back deck plus garage, I just can’t do myself. Parts of it, yes, But not all of it – and certainly not things like framing, roofing and concrete. I can do the window dressing, the electrical and such. That’s good. Can’t afford the rest. That’s bad.

I just refuse to go into debt for things like this. It’s just not sound thinking. I feel for the people who have had massive amounts of student debt pile on top of them, as with the woman featured in the Wall Street Journal article. But I can’t help thinking: You knew you’d have to pay the piper some day. At what point do you cut your losses and stop taking out the loans? I knew going into journalism that I’d have a heck of a time earning enough money to provide for a family, let alone pay off student debt. So I worked summers, worked during the semester, and overall just worked when I had to and didn’t go to school when I didn’t have the money. I got lucky with this current technical writing job landing in my lap, and that spurred me on to getting that masters degree – for which I paid cash. What has it netted me? A possible $2,500-a semester teaching gig at a local university, if there’s ever enough demand for the bonehead English class I’m signed up to teach. Again, nothing I could use to pay back any student debt had I taken out loans to get the Masters degree I needed to teach the class and get my foot in the door at the university.

Every tie I read one of these stories, I’m reminded of President Gordon B. Hinckley’s 1998 Conference talk, “To the Boys and to the Men,” in which he said:
I urge you, brethren, to look to the condition of your finances. I urge you to be modest in your expenditures; discipline yourselves in your purchases to avoid debt to the extent possible. Pay off debt as quickly as you can, and free yourselves from bondage.

This is a part of the temporal gospel in which we believe. May the Lord bless you, my beloved brethren, to set your houses in order. If you have paid your debts, if you have a reserve, even though it be small, then should storms howl about your head, you will have shelter for your wives and children and peace in your hearts. That's all I have to say about it, but I wish to say it with all the emphasis of which I am capable.
We’ve tried to heed that advice and, humbly, I can say it works.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Get off Those Tenterhooks

Grandpa Spiers. I like the hat. He'll be a character in the next book.

I'm sure there are many out there in Blogland waiting on tenterhooks to find out if I've decided what the name of my next novel will be. There's probably a larger group out there in Blogland wondering if I'll ever finish editing the first novel and getting it out to agents for possible publication.

I'm here to answer both of those questions.

First, I'll take on the second question. Yes, I'm still editing away. It is my goal, remember, to have the novel edited and a ready-to-go query letter, uh, ready to go by the end of the calendar year. Finding an agent is not going to be fun, but I'm going to do it. Pity that the agent I was going to test my query letter on is now no longer in the agenting business, but, perhaps since he's no longer in the business, he won't be as inundated with queries and could possibly maybe want to help a budding novelist put his thing down.

As for the first question, yes, I have decided on the title for my next novel, which will continue the story of Seth and Altus and the rest as they try to figure out this whole Messiah business and, who, technically became a Messiah at the end of the first novel.

Drumroll, please.

The title will be "Their Hearts Run Cold," (following up "Considering How to Run," and will focus, again on mainly Seth's struggles to come to grips with his learning and power and the defection of Altus to the dark side of the Scwartz.

No, I don't really understand it that much, either. I'm exploring the characters and premise along with you.

So to keep my mojo working, I'm going to do a two-fold project. I'm going to start writing the second book in the series. At the same time, I'll edit and polish the first.

From what I understand about agenting and writing, this is a good practice. Firstly, for the writer, it keeps us in that creative groove, thinking and putting the Bradbury Postulation to the test. The postulation, of course, is that most of the stuff a writer produces is crap, but it has to be removed from the system in order for the good stuff to come out. If I can get the bad stuff out and invite the good stuff along, well then, I'm that much more ahead of the game.

And I'll edit the first along as well, reminding me of little plot things that I hinted at that can be addressed in further novels. This is good all the way around.

And since basically the entire state of Idaho is closed by a blizzard today, I'll have plenty of time to work on things. As long as the kids don't realize I'm home.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Winter Has Arrived

It’s winter in Madison County when . . .
  • You have to put your truck into four-wheel drive to get out of your driveway.
  • You have to use your snow shovel to clean your windshield off.
  • You have to climb mounds of snow left in the middle of the street when you’re crossing the street on foot.
  • You have to punch through mounds of snow left in the middle of the street when you’re driving.
  • BYU-Idaho students still assume they can walk out into the street without looking to see if drivers are stopping.
  • You shovel your sidewalks three times a day and still have to shovel them again in the morning.
  • Your neighbors swap giving their grandkids rides on the riding lawn mower to giving them rides on the four-wheeler with the blade on the front.
  • The cameras at the traffic light at Second East and Highway 33 stop working so you have to run the red light rather than sit there forever.
  • Suddenly every tire store in the county wants to “sipe” your tires.
  • Wal-Mart is sold out of every bit of snow gear imaginable – and will never, ever, re-stock.
  • Kmart sells its three pairs of snow boots and six shovels.
  • O’Dells Furniture announces a Spectacular Winter’s Finally Here Blowout Sale, close on the heels of its Spectacular Indian Summer is Going to Last Forever Sale and followed by its Spectacular Get Your Entire Home Re-Furnished for Christmas Sale.
  • Booger-freezing cold is forecast within days.
  • Everyone starts dressing like Eskimos except for the teenagers, who insist on wearing shorts and t-shirts while saying “I’m not cold.”

Saturday, November 20, 2010

#amwriting Fragment, "Ourscielfurr"

NOTE: This is, as I recall, a poem I wrote many, many moons ago when, in a fit inspired by Richard Adams' "Shardik" I envisioned writing a great animal-based novel. Recognzing now my lack of talent for most things writing at the time (not that I've improved much since then) I'm a bit hesitant to present this now. But what the heck. I feel like the dwarf Gibbsson from Terry Pratchett's "Soul Music," ready to laugh at the guitars he made when he was just learning the trade.

Black be the coat, flat be thy snout
Trees and Rivers shall by thy friends
hoe in the claw, dung on the paw
Green Gift and Bounty no end

Brown be the coat, keen be thine eyes
Paws caress good willow and yew
Kin to the hawk, silently stalk
Fire Feasts and families renew

Pink be the fur, firm be thy claw
eye and snout both caress and scorn
soft yet afeared, loved yet revered
Ourscielfurr of thee may be born

Gold be the fur, high be thy brow
thee, heir and descendant of kings
firm be thy jaw, hard be thy law
'til Ourscielfurr's booming voice wings

Red be the hue, hot be thy blood
spear shines in the eyes of the dead
Hard be thy claw, teeth fill thy jaw
fill the dark forests with dread

Grey be the hue, deep be thine eyes
voice booms out of past o ye wise
clear is thy vue, Crow tell ye true
songe secret lights of the skies

White be the glow, brass be thy shield
run swift on the clawed winged feet
sword be of steel, traitors reveal
soldiers of Ourscielfurr's Keep

Blue be the glow, grace be thy name
fight bravely thy fate is made sure
lead and expound, blessings renowned
Blessed One, O Ourscielfurr

App Review: iSurvival

The time hasn't come yet that an iPod Touch is the first item I think of when I'm compiling a list of wilderness survival essentials, but a friend of mine recently recommended a survival app that just might change my mind.

It's called -- maybe this won't win points for originality -- iSurvival. But as I mock the name, I have to say that for an occasional wilderness wanderer like me, it's got some handy stuff, though I'm hard-pressed to way when, in the future, I envision myself becoming lost at sea. Published by Utah-based Fishington Studios, the app is billed as a "military grade" wilderness survival manual. And considering the friend who recommended the app worked as a paramedic and in California and follows military minutia as he has a son who is a soldier, I have to believe that this app lives up to its billing.

Wilderness Survival, ten-year-old style

There are small tells throughout the manual that reveal the text in iSurvival wasn't originally written for the leisure wilderness crowd -- the chapter on shelters, for example, advises that you choose a place to build your shelter that "provides concealment from enemy observation" -- but, in general, the tips therein echo those I've read in more expensive manuals, including a few I've got lying around the house because I haven't yet gotten around to getting lost.

Though I've poked fun at the manual a bit, it's certainly something I'd have at my side if I were wandering off into the wilds. The app's clear textual presentation, accompanied by clear, useful illustration of survival techniques ranging from shelter-building to identification of edible wild plants.

The link provided above says the app is available for $1.99. I searched iTunes and got it for free, though perhaps the "free" was a short-time promotional price.

The only fault I can see in this app is obvious -- run out of power for your handheld device and the app is locked away forever. Perhaps they've included a chapter on locating current bushes . . .

Friday, November 19, 2010

Watching the Hooptedoodle

Illustration used on the Fair Use principle, as is the quoted material below.

I spent about an hour this morning editing my novel, "Considering How to Run," realising that indeed as perfect as I thought it was when I finished the first draft this summer, it's got enough holes in it to make it look like a slab of Swiss cheese And that's okay; re-reading it is helping me see the holes and giving me ideas on how to fill them in, as well as showing me the places where I need to add stuff, and the places where stuff needs to be edited out.

All the while as I worked this morning, however, the word "hooptedoodle" kept going through my mind.

Hooptedoodle comes from a prologue John Steinbeck wrote for his novel "Sweet Thursday." The prologue, barely a page in length, remains the best bit of writing advice I've ever come across. It reads:
One night Mack lay back on his bed in the Palace Flophouse and he said, "I ain't never been satisfied with that book Cannery Row. I would of went about it different.

And after a while he rolled over and raised his head on his hand and he said, "I guess I'm just a critic. But if I ever come across the guy that wrote that book I could tell him a few things."

"Like what?" said Whitey No. 1.

"Well," said Mack, "like this here. Suppose there's chapter one, chapter two, chapter three. That's all right as far as it goes, but I'd like to have a couple of words at the top so it tells me what the chapter's going to be about. Sometimes maybe I want to go back, and chapter five don't mean nothing to me. If there was just a couple of words I'd know that was the chapter I wanted to go back to."

"Go on," said Whitey No. 1.

"Well, I like a lot of talk in a book, and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. And another thing -- I kind of like to figure out what the guy's thinking by what he says. I like some description, too," he went on. "I like to know what color a thing is, how it smells and maybe how it looks, and maybe how a guy feels about it -- but not too much of that."

"You sure are a critic," said Whitey No. 2. "Mack, I never give you credit before. Is that all?"

"No," said Mack. "Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. The guy's writing it, give him a chance to do a little hooptedoodle. Spin up some pretty words maybe, or sing a little song with the language. That's nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don't have to read it. I don't want hooptedoodle to get mixed up in the story. So if the guy that's writing it wants hooptedoodle, he ought to put it right at first. Then I can skip it if I want to, or maybe go back to it after I know how the story came out."

Eddie said, "Mack, if the guy that wrote Cannery Row comes in, you going to tell him all that?"

Whitey No. 2 said, "Hell, Mack can tell anybody anything. Why Mack could tell a ghost how to haunt a house."

"You're damn right I could," said Mack, "and there wouldn't be no table-rapping or chains. There hasn't been no improvement in house-haunting in years. You're damn right I could, Whitey!" And he lay back and stared up at the canopy over his head.

"I can see it now," said Mack.

"Ghosts?" Eddie asked.

"Hell, no," said Mack, "chapters . . . "
Steinbeck's little lesson here gets repeated a lot in writing instructions offered by writers both famous and not-so-famous, notably as in Elmore Leonard's well-known advice to writers, seen here.

Steinbeck offers good advice, some of which I'm taking as I edit this book of my own. But hearing Mack and Eddie and the Whiteys talk about house-haunting, part of me wonders if Steinbeck at the same time he's offering writerly advice is poking fun at people who offer writers advice, especially since they seem willing to offer any kind of advice to anybody in any situation. After all, one of the main reasons writers learn the rules is so they can figure out how to break them.

Still, the chapter idea has merit. As I re-read my own work, I see that now, thought having only the barest of divisions at the time seemed to work. That certainly works for Terry Pratchett and other authors.

Steinbeck himself breaks his own rules -- notably with "Travels with Charly," in which he dons the hat of a journalist, rather than the hat of a hooptedoodle writer. Still, they're good rules to live by, until you're ready to break them.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A New Blog: Targhee Writers

They say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

And I don’t know nobody.

And when you know nobody, it’s hard to find other people willing to read the things you write.

That’s why I’m starting Targhee Writers.

Who We Are: Well, right now, me. Maybe my wife if she’s got the time. Which she doesn’t. And maybe Shawn, if I can talk him into it, which I probably can. And our three kids, who have started writing stories and, in the case of our ten-year-old, comic strips.

Want to join? Just barge on in. No fees. Never been published but want to join a group of writers who want to read what other people are writing? We’re your group.

Who We’re Not: Snobs. Want to join a writing group so you can go to retreats and wine tastings and such? Don’t bother us. We’re too busy writing. And reading what each other write.

And when we say write, we don’t just mean words on the page. Do you write graphic novels? Come on in. tell stories with photos? Come on in. Do you write with light as Pablo Picasso did? Talk to us. We’re interested. Or I’m interested. That’ll have to do until there’s enough of us to be an “us.”

What'll we do?

Simple. We'll read and/or look at each others' stuff. We'll say what we think. We'll offer suggestions, criticisms, whatever is needed to make what's good into something that's great. Then we'll help each other craft query letters and do what we all want to do eventually: Get published.

If you're interested, drop me a line at misterfweem (at) yahoo.com, or post a message here. I'll be seeing you soon, I hope.

The $40 Question

Here’s the question: Should we have to pay $40 to watch our daughter do her little two-minute ballet dance at the recital coming up Dec. 14?

I’m gobsmacked that I even have to ask the question, but then again, both Michelle and I are still a little shell-shocked at the price tag for tickets to this little event, especially after paying for the monthly ballet lessons and the monthly costume rentals. Even more worrisome is the fact that there are two performances, and I’m afraid we’d have to pay an additional $40 to get into the second one.

We admit selfishness here: We’re not going to this performance to see any of the other dancers. We’re going to see our little girl do her little plies and twirls. She loves to dance, and we love to support her.

We just can’t afford it any more.

We were spoiled by our daughter’s previous ballet instructor. We still bought the shoes and outfits. We still paid the monthly tuition. But when it came to the recitals, we came, we sat in the pews at the Rexburg Tabernacle Civic Center and we watched. We didn’t have to pay to get in. We’d have stuck with her as an instructor but she decided she wanted a break from instructing, which I can understand.

What is the $10 per ticket going for, I’d like to know. Given that our daughter’s previous instructors could afford to use the same venue for free, I can’t believe it’s the venue that’s costing that much. Nor is there anything by way of advertising for this – it’s just generally expected that parents and grandparents and, yes, our two disinterested boys, ages 10 and 6, should have to pay to watch the dancers.

I know: Pay commensurate with the instruction received. We’re already doing that, through the monthly tuition and the costume rentals on tatty little costumes I’m sure were paid for years ago – not to mention the $55 we have to pony up for costume rental next semester. So this $10 per ticket is going beyond meeting expenses and helping the business profit, it’s going into excessive profit padding.

I know: I don’t know the numbers. Maybe she’s barely squeaking by. But I don’t think so. I think the instructor’s got the families right where she wants them, and, for the most part, the families just pay up.

Not us. We’ll be looking for a new instructor next semester. And we’ll be sneaking into the performance as well. OK, maybe not that last one. But I’m seriously thinking of sending my wife in to watch while the boys and I stand outside and picket, holding up signs that say we can’t afford to watch our daughter/sister perform.

Not Enough Room to Contain Them All

So it’s back to storing books.

I don’t like it. It’s like having to pack my best friends in apple and copier paper boxes and stuffing them, Harry Potter-like, into the closet underneath the stairs. But the study overfloweth with books; there are books on the floor running the risk of getting ruined, so I’ve got to do something to get them of the floor and better protected.

There’s the obvious storage solution, one that many of my more tech-savvy friends suggest with regularity: If you bought e-books, you wouldn’t have this problem.

How so, I ask – even though we do have a Kindle in the house, along with two iPod Touches. The problem is that I buy used books almost exclusively. And until there’s a brisk used e-book market where I can pick up out-of-print or gently-used new fiction for less than $2 a pop, a heavy investment in e-books isn’t likely to happen.

Stop buying used books, you say? No, no. Can’t do that.

So to keep books off the floor and from popping off the shelves, I’m taking those off the shelves that I’ve read and re-read and read again, and those that I’ve recently read and am not likely to re-read for a while, and putting them in storage, in the meantime getting off the floor the new-to-me books I haven’t read yet. We have an entire wall in the study we could turn into bookshelves, matching the other wall that’s entirely bookshelves, but I’m not sure I can convince Michelle that’s a good idea. Especially when I’m pretty certain I could fill the new bookshelves without having to buy a single additional used book. So much is the pity.

I could be brave and do as CS Lewis did – he donated all of his books to the Cambridge University library, knowing full well he could go to the library and take out a book any time he wanted without having the trouble of storing them all. But given that I don’t have the clout CS Lewis had, I’d run the risk of going to the library and seeing all of my donations on the “for sale” table, putting me at the risk of having to buy my own books back.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Twice Derped

Cooks Source magazine, which took baby steps forward a week ago in making amends to the writer whose article they printed without her permission took a step backwards this week, folding their magazine as I (or anyone, frankly) predicted and becoming a textbook example of how not to handle a social media crisis.

Their site is shut down -- even the latest half-assed apology posted is no longer live, but can be found in cache only (read it here).

In the statement, Cooks Source editor Judith Griggs reiterates and expounds upon her claims that she was overworked and overtired when she found Monica Gaudio's apple pie recipes on the Internet and plugged them into her magazine, giving Gaudio a byline credit but not the courtesy of asking permission first or offering to pay her for the work until the situation exploded.
Its sad  really. The problem is that I have been so overworked and stretched that when this woman -- Monica -- contacted me, I was on deadline and traveling at the rate of 200 mile a day for that week (over 900 in total for that week), which I actually told her, along with a few other "nice" things, which she hasnt written about
Here, we hear the same tired story: She was rude to me and didn't report the "nice" things I said. Like that matters. What matters is that in offering a non-apology over stealing Gaudio's words, Griggs revealed little understanding of copyright law -- this post itself is copyrighted by me by the mere fact of writing it and posting it in a tangible fashion; that's all that's necessary to copyright words worldwide. She also revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of how quickly her words and her claim that everything on the Internet was in the public domain would spread worldwide, and how quickly it would sink her reputation and her business. Griggs, to her credit, did send in the donation to the Columbia School of Journalism that Gaudio suggested, along with a donation to a Massachusetts food bank. But the damage to Cooks Source is already done.

Griggs recognized a bit of Gaudio's power to take her message to the world, without recognizing, perhaps, that her own negative messages would also go out to the world as well. She wrote:
I should add that this email exchange took place the day before she wrote her article for the world. After she (likely) received my email, she called the home office phone at 10PM, I didnt answer that late, was in bed as I was traveling again the next day (left at 7AM the next morning) to Connecticut, and didnt get back to her. This is not an uncommon practice with anyone, to not respond to a phone call for a day or two, it happens to me from other businesses, all the time.
The rest, as they say, is history. You can read here the official Wikipedia page on the Cooks Source scandal.

The most important lessons for anyone who has followed this scandal are these:
  1. Are we the pot calling the kettle black? I'm making efforts on this blog to use original or public domain illustrations now, rather than relying on whatever I could find on the Internet.
  2. As Joseph Kahn wrote for the Boston Globe, "The risk of private e-mails being seen by unintended recipients is hardly new. Practically everyone knows somebody who’s hit the “send’’ button and regretted it. Yet the ease and speed with which these communications can now spread have turned the e-landscape into even more of a minefield than it was a few years ago."
  3. Kahn also quotes a communications expert in his piece as saying that if you're not able to resolve a conflict with just a small handful of e-mails, stop writing them and get on the phone. We've learned this the hard way at Uncharted a time or two. I can testify that it's best t talk on the phone, even if that sounds more confrontational than writing an e-mail. E-mails are easily taken out of context, provide fodder for which antagonists can read between the lines and, in Griggs' case, show poor thought processes and a persecution complex, when contrition is really the answer.
  4. Remember that deadlines are artificial, especially when it comes to making shortcuts that could permanently damage your business and your reputation.

A Study in Gullibility

This is one of the reasons I left journalism: For the most part, I am a gullible person. Gullibility and journalism, just like cheeseburgers and loneliness, are not a healthy mix. What people told me, for the most part, I believed. That worked fine for most things, but I did encounter the occasional source who wanted to lie and reveled in the fact that I could not detect them lying.

I’m no longer in that business, which is a good thing.

And I like to believe I’m less gullible these days, though I do catch myself and have my little gullible episodes.

So having read Andre Gide’s “Lafcadio’s Adventures,” and having wondered at the gullibility of nearly every character involved in this novel, I had to chuckle when I noticed he following scrawled on the back flyleaf of the book: “Everyone in this book is being duped.”

And indeed they are. And most often, the duping is self-induced.

First we see the character of Anthime, the atheist, who is converted to Catholicism the night his rheumatism disappears after he first breaks the arm off a statue of the Virgin Mary and then receives a vision of her appearance.

Then we see Amedee Fleurissiore, the simple, devout investor from Pau who travels to Rome believing he will singlehandedly free the Pope from the hands of the Freemasons, who are supposed to have imprisoned the Pope and put an impostor in the Vatican.

We also see Julius de Baraglioul, diplomat’s son and novelist, who is disillusioned by the seeming failure of his literary career and is duped into believing he can revive his fortunes by writing something altogether new.

And we see Portos, childhood friend of Lafcadio, who now fancies himself a powerful figure in “the slim,” a nascent organization bent on duping a lot of people – they’re the source of the Pope/Freemasons rumor – who himself id duped into believing that because he has friends on the police force he is thus above the law.

As always, there’s a helpless rabble of minor victims also included in the story, from Lafcadio’s sometimes lover who is duped into thinking honesty is the best policy – a policy which costs hear dearly when she is strangled by Portos for fingering him as the killer of Amedee when in actuality it is Lafcadio, who pushes the hapless, fleabitten innocent off a moving train on a whim.

Anthime’s rheumatism disappears; he resumes his atheistic ways. Amedee, as we see, dies not for his gullibility, but simply for being in the wrong place at the right time. Portos is arrested. Only Julius and Lafcadio are left at the end, and Lafcadio is duped into thinking he can have it all, including Julius’ daughter Genevieve.

Maybe this is more self-delusion than gullibility, especially on the parts of Portos and Lafcadio. Their scorn for the ordinary, for the innocent, for the unintelligent, is their Achilles heel.

The critics say Gide was motivated in writing this story because he wanted to write about an unmotivated crime. After reading it, however, I’m inclined to say he wanted to study what it is that makes people believe the first thing they think or the first thing they hear, and how coincidence and circumstance can serve to reinforce those beliefs and tall tales, even when that reinforcement is completely unintended. Julius, for example, disbelieves the Pope/Freemasons story until Fleurissiore is killed, then he believes the Freemasons were the killers.

I ponder this because of Gide’s change in attitude on Communism after he visited the Soviet Union. As you can read on Wikipedia, going in, he believed that the Soviets were doing wonderful things with Marx’ philosophies. He said:
My faith in communism is like my faith in religion: it is a promise of salvation for mankind. If I have to lay my life down that it may succeed, I would do so without hesitation.
Upon returning, he observed:
It is impermissible under any circumstances for morals to sink as low as communism has done. No one can begin to imagine the tragedy of humanity, of morality, of religion and of freedoms in the land of communism, where man has been debased beyond belief.
Gide, obviously, didn’t like to be duped himself, and may have wanted to write a novel about dupes and duping just to explore the theme.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Painting Frescoes

 This photo is in the public domain.

In between other books – I’ve always got three or four going, not because I’m a genius but because my attention span isn’t all that long – I’ve been reading Andre Gide’s “Lafcadio’s Adventures.”

Two of Gide’s characters have the following exchange about the tedium of editing:
“Do you know what I dislike about writing? All the scratchings out and touchings up that are necessary.”

“Do you thing there are no corrections in life too?” asked Julius, beginning to prick up his ears.

“You misunderstand me. In life one corrects oneself – one improves oneself – so people say; but one can’t correct what one does. It’s the power of revising that makes writing such a colorless affair – such a . . . “ (He left his sentence unfinished.) “Yes! That’s what seems to me so fine about life. It’s like fresco-painting – erasures aren’t allowed.”
Now, aside from that twaddle on not being able to correct what one does – we do that all the time, Mr. Gide, even if we have to correct what we do by apology, by renunciation, by repentance – what these characters say is interesting about editing, or at least about the writing process.

When I wrote my first novel (and I love saying that now, though I know the process isn’t finished by a long shot) I took that fresco-painting approach: Full speed ahead, no corrections, no fussing, just write things down and move on. The fresco is a good metaphor, as traditional frescoes are done with paint applied to wet plaster, so the paint’s colors seep into the plaster. (Yeah, I know this is only the buon fresco method, that’s the metaphor that’s so apt.) The artist, once the plaster is applied, has to work fast because if the plaster dries out, the colors don’t seep in as they should.

The same with writing , at least from my point of view. Getting something down on paper is much more important the first time around than ensuring that what gets put down on paper is perfect. Then through the editing process – unlike with frescoes – we have the right to wet the plaster again and change the colors. We do get to redo what we do, but unless we’ve got the first draft of the fresco on the wall, there’s nothing to re-do, and all the fussing in the world with the little patch of fresco we’ve got won’t do us any good. We’ve got to finish the whole painting, then work on fixing the flaws.

Yet Another "Life-Changing" Announcement from Apple

I know every basement blogger is writing about this.

I know a fair contingent will have the same opinion as I.

But really, Mr. Jobs: Having the Beatles come to iTunes is a “life-changing” event?

How? I want to know how.

I have lived for the past 38 years without a single Beatles album in my house. Oh, sure, I might recognize a Beatles tune on the radio. We did goofy indoor exercises ranging from rope-jumping to ball-bounding to drawing concentric circles on the blackboard to “Penny Lane” when I was in the third grade at Lincoln Elementary School.

But life-changing? Really?

You’re the boy who cried wolf, Apple. In the past three years, well, we’ve had the Beatles from you. We’ve had the iPad from you. The iPhone Mark Whatever. All life-changing events.

A cure for cancer, that’s life-changing.

The return of Christ, that’s life changing. (Oh, but you have returned. And run a computer company. I forgot. Please forgive me.)

Making available digital music by the Beatles – the same music that’s been around for, oh, fifty years now? Not life-changing. Someone at Apple please make a note of that.

Monday, November 15, 2010


For anyone out there who, like me, is tired of warts on their fingers and toes, just let me say this: Try some Mexican over-the-counter wart removal stuff.

Chemically -- if I'm translating my pidgin-Spanish correctly -- this stuff we've been using for the past few weeks is no different than the paint-on, salicyclic acid-based stuff we've used domestically for more than a year. But this stuff is killing off the warts like nobody's business.

Believe me, I've tried everything. First with the paint-on stuff. Then with the home-freezing kit. I even tried the duct tape technique. The only thing that seemed to work was a six-hours-long plunge into a chlorinated hot pool at Heise Hot Springs, though I didn't spread the word lest the folks there didn't want it known of the pool's curative qualities.

The pool got rid of all but four of my more than fifteen warts. This Mexican stuff is now getting rid of the final four. And it's working on the kids, too. I mean on the kids' warts. It's not making them disappear. Ha ha.

My Brain Hurts -- An Exploration into the Business of Cheating

It appears I went about getting my masters degree in English the wrong way.

Here’s how I did it: When a professor gave an assignment, I read books, magazine articles, did a lot of Googling, then sat down at the computer and wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote and wrote some more. Then I’d get feedback, from the professor and my peers. Then I’d go research and read and write some more. I eventually would get to a point where I’d decide the paper was finished, good enough, and ready to be submitted. And when I got the grades I got and read the professor’s comments I could see, yeah, that’s about right.

I earned my masters degree with a 3.96 GPA.

My wife – who is now in the same program I finished in July 2009 – is also doing it wrong. She’s doing her assignments the same way I did them. She’s got one advantage, if you can call it that: She knows a recent graduate from the self-same program whom she can consult for advice, work with as a sounding-board and otherwise check in with when she’s got a question.

But she’s not taking my papers and using them as her own. The only things we’re sharing are textbooks, the notes I scrawled in the margins, and conversations as we take our weekend walks.

But according to Ed Dante, writing this week for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the way my wife and I approached our education is entirely outside the norm, or at least the norm he sees.

Dante (using a fake name for this article) writes essays for an online “custom essay” company, where students desperate for a grade can go to find folks like him to write their papers, their graduate theses, their business proposals, the entries into the seminary, for them.

Both his article and the comments that follow it are enlightening. And kinda scary.

He sees students come to him from three categories: Those learning English as a second language, lazy rich kids, and students he describes as “hopelessly deficient,” and given some of the e-mails he reproduces in this article, it’s clear to see what they’re deficient in, unless they happen to have sent all of the messages to him on International Talk Like A Pirate Day. (An example: “You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?”)

Dante insists these students desperately need help in learning how to learn, and it amazed that more of his stable of cheaters aren’t caught in the act:
You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students' writing. I have seen the word "desperate" misspelled every way you can imagine. And these students truly are desperate. They couldn't write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school. They really need help. They need help learning and, separately, they need help passing their courses. But they aren't getting it.

For those of you who have ever mentored a student through the writing of a dissertation, served on a thesis-review committee, or guided a graduate student through a formal research process, I have a question: Do you ever wonder how a student who struggles to formulate complete sentences in conversation manages to produce marginally competent research? How does that student get by you?
Responses in the comments range from “Nobody ever gets by me” to “Online courses are cash cows, cheating considerations go out the window” to “Just roll with it.” I’m not sure I buy into any of those responses.

What’s eerie about Dante’s work is that, frankly, anyone with a modicum of writing and researching skill and a complete lack of moral compass could do this, easily. I’m reminded of the saying “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Or as Mr. Dante says, just lie about your expertise and know just enough to fake it:
Customers' orders are endlessly different yet strangely all the same. No matter what the subject, clients want to be assured that their assignment is in capable hands. It would be terrible to think that your Ivy League graduate thesis was riding on the work ethic and perspicacity of a public-university slacker. So part of my job is to be whatever my clients want me to be. I say yes when I am asked if I have a Ph.D. in sociology. I say yes when I am asked if I have professional training in industrial/organizational psychology. I say yes when asked if I have ever designed a perpetual-motion-powered time machine and documented my efforts in a peer-reviewed journal.

The subject matter, the grade level, the college, the course—these things are irrelevant to me. Prices are determined per page and are based on how long I have to complete the assignment. As long as it doesn't require me to do any math or video-documented animal husbandry, I will write anything.
There is part of Dante’s story that I find a bit laughable and yet at the same time a bit chilling. He is, obviously, a highly-motivated writer, one who wants to write for a living and to be recompensed at the level of effort he’s willing to put in. He tells this story of his college years:
Although my university experience did not live up to its vaunted reputation, it did lead me to where I am today. I was raised in an upper-middle-class family, but I went to college in a poor neighborhood. I fit in really well: After paying my tuition, I didn't have a cent to my name. I had nothing but a meal plan and my roommate's computer. But I was determined to write for a living, and, moreover, to spend these extremely expensive years learning how to do so. When I completed my first novel, in the summer between sophomore and junior years, I contacted the English department about creating an independent study around editing and publishing it. I was received like a mental patient. I was told, "There's nothing like that here." I was told that I could go back to my classes, sit in my lectures, and fill out Scantron tests until I graduated.
Soon thereafter, he recounts, eh fell into writing papers for fellow students, and then for complete strangers who contacted him for help:
I didn't much care for my classes, though. I slept late and spent the afternoons working on my own material. Then a funny thing happened. Here I was, begging anybody in authority to take my work seriously. But my classmates did. They saw my abilities and my abundance of free time. They saw a value that the university did not.

It turned out that my lazy, Xanax-snorting, Miller-swilling classmates were thrilled to pay me to write their papers. And I was thrilled to take their money. Imagine you are crumbling under the weight of university-issued parking tickets and self-doubt when a frat boy offers you cash to write about Plato. Doing that job was a no-brainer. Word of my services spread quickly, especially through the fraternities. Soon I was receiving calls from strangers who wanted to commission my work. I was a writer!
In other words, rather than pursuing his novels (and here, maybe I’m uninformed; he may have published his novel, but given the story he tells in this article, I doubt it) he takes the easy writing path, one that let him immediately benefit from his skill, rather than one that led him gradually to success. He does exactly what he chides his clients for, and what he rolls his eyes at academia for doing: He takes the easy path and doesn’t count on getting caught, or, indeed, doesn’t see much wrong in what he’s done, though he says in the article he plans on “retiring” from the business.

Unfortunately, there are those who read this article and respond in the comments, basically passing along the message that, like Dante’s students, they just don’t get it as well:
THIS ARTICLE IS just f*** awesome. You are such a great writer, the delivery is just great, and I could have read a whole book of it.

Is it weird that I find your amorality just inspiring? (there is no irony there--I'm serious).

This was just such a good read. If you are interested, I'd love to interview you on my blog [redacted].com. I don't endorse ghostwriting, but your writing was the best thing I've read all month.

If you are interested, take a look at my blog or follow me on twitter @[redacted]
And another:
For those troubled by the phenomenon, consider what sorts of assignments you ask students to complete. Consider how long you spend grading.
Term paper writers are cranking out BS--the author is very clear about that. That's how he writes so much in so little time without reading or researching--just using google and amazon reviews!

The fact that students are passing courses while turning in shoddy work is the fault of instructors. Again, it's clear that the term paper author is not concerned about quality.

And for everyone whining and crying about the pseudonymous writer, well, I'd rather make 66K a year with no benefits than 28K a year as an adjunct (with no benefits)! Sign me the f*** up!
Some do, however, understand the problem, and think they know how to solve it:
There is a sure-fire way to put Ed Dante and others like him out of business. I know, because I've done it. You supervise every piece of student writing from first draft to final submission. Along the way you actually teach people instead of complaining nonstop about their ignorance. You will have to (gasp) give reasons for rejecting this or that piece. Yes, you do have to read reams of not-very-good writing. And you do have to fail the truly incompetent. That will make you Not-The-Students'-Best-Buddy. But perhaps all this sounds too much like real work.
And another:
I wonder if professors and teachers ever read their students' non-academic writing. If they did, they'd probably be horrified at how many American college students (our "best and brightest") can't write coherent sentences, spell, or correct their own typos. And they'd likely be wondering if the passable papers they're seeing are actually written by these students or by a professional.

I say this because until recently I was involved in accepting (and usually, heavily editing) student submissions for news articles at our college paper. The humorous examples of incoherent e-mails that "Dante" has peppered his article with, are not so funny. They are absolutely the way most students really write. Do professors know this?
In all, it makes one weep for the species.

Still, through it all, I look to Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac for inspiration on how I’d like to achieve my status as a writer:
Ay, and then?. . .
Seek a protector, choose a patron out,
And like the crawling ivy round a tree
That licks the bark to gain the trunk's support,
Climb high by creeping ruse instead of force?
No, grammercy! What! I, like all the rest
Dedicate verse to bankers?--play buffoon
In cringing hope to see, at last, a smile
Not disapproving, on a patron's lips?
Grammercy, no! What! learn to swallow toads?
--With frame aweary climbing stairs?--a skin
Grown grimed and horny,--here, about the knees?
And, acrobat-like, teach my back to bend?--
No, grammercy! Or,--double-faced and sly--
Run with the hare, while hunting with the hounds;
And, oily-tongued, to win the oil of praise,
Flatter the great man to his very nose?
No, grammercy! Steal soft from lap to lap,
--A little great man in a circle small,
Or navigate, with madrigals for sails,
Blown gently windward by old ladies' sighs?
No, grammercy! Bribe kindly editors
To spread abroad my verses? Grammercy!
Or try to be elected as the pope
Of tavern-councils held by imbeciles?
No, grammercy! Toil to gain reputation
By one small sonnet, 'stead of making many?
No, grammercy! Or flatter sorry bunglers?
Be terrorized by every prating paper?
Say ceaselessly, 'Oh, had I but the chance
Of a fair notice in the "Mercury"!'
Grammercy, no! Grow pale, fear, calculate?
Prefer to make a visit to a rhyme?
Seek introductions, draw petitions up?
No, grammercy! and no! and no again! But--sing?
Dream, laugh, go lightly, solitary, free,
With eyes that look straight forward--fearless voice!
To cock your beaver just the way you choose,--
For 'yes' or 'no' show fight, or turn a rhyme!
--To work without one thought of gain or fame,
To realize that journey to the moon!
Never to pen a line that has not sprung
Straight from the heart within. Embracing then
Modesty, say to oneself, 'Good my friend,
Be thou content with flowers,--fruit,--nay, leaves,
But pluck them from no garden but thine own!'
And then, if glory come by chance your way,
To pay no tribute unto Caesar, none,
But keep the merit all your own! In short,
Disdaining tendrils of the parasite,
To be content, if neither oak nor elm--
Not to mount high, perchance, but mount alone!

Just Dumb

The fog was thick at around 5 am Monday morning as I drove to the bus stop. I didn’t go any faster than 35 miles per hour on Highway 33 because, as Yukon Cornelius says, “that fog’s as thick as peanut butter.”

I have to go up the hill on south Second East to get to the bus stop. The LDS temple, ordinarily a beacon, could not be seen through the fog until I was past the Hinckley Building on the BYU-Idaho campus, a scant ¼ mile north of the temple.

Then I saw him.

Not the Angel Moroni atop the temple steeple, but some black-clad gink walking in the middle of the northbound traffic lane – yes, ladies and gentlemen, with his back to traffic – as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

I can’t assume, of course, that this individual was a BYU-Idaho student. I can assume, however, that he/she just didn’t want to walk on the nice, wide sidewalk, just six or eight feet to the right, rather than walking down the middle of a black street while wearing black clothing in the middle of a rather dense fog. A dense fog that, I might add, scatters light and scatters sound, so any hope that the pedestrian had of hearing or seeing traffic coming his way would be greatly reduced, while at the same time his unexpected location in the street, while wearing black clothing on a densely foggy morning, reduced his or her chances of being seen until it was too late.

Maybe this individual was looking to become a speed bump. I’m not sure. But his or her choice of clothing and walking location Monday morning certainly was, in two words, just dumb.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

He is Done

With the posting of Liam's Webelos art portfolio, he has completed the final requirement in his Artist pin, and the final award he can earn as a Webelos Scout. He'll get his Arrow of Light on the 23rd of November, then have two whole months to work on Boy Scout stuff before he officially becomes a New Scout. We're proud of him. And also glad the portfolio is done.

A Few Follow-Ups

Just in case readers of this blog have been stuck on tenterhooks (and we all know how painful that can be) while waiting for updates on some of the posts I've made earlier, I offer the following updates:
  • The truck is back, with the brakes working just fine. We still have to take it back to get a hose on the power steering system replaced, but that can happen at our leisure.
  • Liam indeed did complete the last requirement for his Arrow of Light and, contrary to his little Asberger's qualities, actually acted interested in the whole thing. I hope I'm helping him by showing that you can indeed talk with other people without getting totally freaked out by them. Liam does, however, have one final requirement to finish on his Artist pin for Webelos, but we'll finish that tonight.
  • The Leaning Snowman of Pisa is leaning even more precipitously, but as of 3:33 PM MST today has not fallen to the ground. It is snowing, however, so his developing weight problem may lead to his demise. Let that be a lesson to us all.
  • While I have not yet written the final bit of my novel, I did indeed start on the editing, as you read last night. I decided rather than go back and fill in that one spot I know I've got to fill, I may as well edit the thing and then consider all the spots I have to fill at once, so I can make that much more progress by the time everything's done.
  • I have gutted my Yahoo! e-mail contact list, run SpyBot Search and Destroy, and otherwise done all of the techie things I know to do in order to stop my e-mail address from sending Canadian Viagra advertisements to everyone in the outer stratosphere. If you got one of my e-mails, I sincerely apologize and promise, as did W.A. Thornhump, to engage in "vigilance against further attacks!"
  • I have resisted the urge to scour the Internet for photos, videos and other illustrations to use with my blog posts, while at the same time not resorting to posting any old crap of my own in place of more pertinent material. I don't want to be known as the next Cooks Source, I can tell you that.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Watch Out for that Bar of Soap, Everybody

We started this conversation with a garage.

We've owned two houses in Madison County. Neither one has had a garage. We'd like to build one here, but we're just not sure we've got the room. Well, we've got the room, but it would take out a pretty good chunk of our backyard.

So the other option is to up and decide that we've outgrown this house and move on. But the local real estate market is pretty weak. The one house that's sold in the neighborhood was sold by a couple who owned it outright, owned another house outright, and thus could afford to discount said house heavily. We can't do that without eroding into any possible down payment on a new place.

Then there's this: There's some work that needs to be done on this house in order to make it sellable. The back deck, for one, is falling apart -- we needed to replace it when we bought this place ten years ago. And the kitchen is an ugly 1970s mess. I got to looking at kitchen cabinets today, and figure we'd have to spend between $1,800 to $2,000 to replace what we've got with a few minor additions which we counted on doing if we were going to redo the kitchen anyway -- and that excludes countertops and the floor. I can do the majority of the labor, it's just getting the money for the materials and then having to pay someone for a little bit of plumbing and the countertops; I won't do those.

Then there's this other difficulty: Once all that work is done, do we want to sell or revel in the new appearance of the kitchen? It's a slippery slope, everybody.

I Did It!

First of all, check this out. Original BD photography from when I was in my black and white phase because I'd inadvertently loaded a roll of black and white film into the camera when we went on a camping trip. But seeing that early morning mist rising off Horseshoe Lake, contrasting with the black of the trees on the shore, makes me appreciate that perhaps I ought to try black and white photography more often. Thank heaven that's possible with digital filtering in Photoshop these days.

But that's not the I Did It! I'm bragging about here. What I'm bragging about is that I caved in today and finally started editing that famous unpublished novel of mine.

Writers will understand this: I had to let some time pass in order to give myself enough distance from the writing that I would be more open to seeing its flaws and failures. It's obvious, looking at even this cursory look-through that I started tonight, that there are plenty of flaws and failures to find. But that's good news -- that means I have waited long enough for the romance of the words and the story to fall away.

I'm seeing lots of weird little tics in my writing. For instance, for some reason I almost always start novels out in the past tense and then migrate to the present tense as I go along. Granted, this is the first novel I've completed so I can see the pattern, but as I edit I recognize the pattern in even the unfinished stuff I've got.

Also, I experiment oddly with first person. That's working for this novel, but for some reason in the second part of the book I switched the point of view from two characters to two new characters, and it doesn't work at all. I started heavily editing that section until the hippo of memory lumbered out of the deep to remind me what I'd done in that section. So it's going to take a lot of re-working before it's up to snuff. But that's okay. It's me finding this stuff out. It's me doing the polishing before I send this out on spec for people to maybe want to publish. I'm making it better.

And then there's that whole time thing. I compress some things too much, drag out other stuff way too long. It's an endless cycle of tinkering, and I'm okay with that. It's keeping me in line with my goal to have this edited by Christmas. Then I farm it out. But I am on the way, and that pleases me.

Want to read the drivel I've written? Just click on the "Considering How to Run" link just below the blog banner on the left, and you'll be reading.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Derp Redux, Plus Beam Removal

So Cooks Source has officially closed up shop, at least temporarily, to deal with the imboglio of a few weeks ago.

Looks like they did so Nov. 4, after their Facebook page got hijacked, after their local advertisers got harassed. Their website is now home only to a rather glib statement that's half apology, half shame-on-you to the people who did the hijacking and harassment.

To their credit, they did apologize to Monica Gaudio, the writer whose piece they used without her permission:
Last month an article, “American as Apple Pie -- Isn’t,” was placed in error in Cooks Source, without the approval of the writer, Monica Gaudio. We sincerely wish to apologize to her for this error, it was an oversight of a small, overworked staff. We have made a donation at her request, to her chosen institution, the Columbia School of Journalism. In addition, a donation to the Western New England Food Bank, is being made in her name. It should be noted that Monica was given a clear credit for using her article within the publication, and has been paid in the way that she has requested to be paid.
Note they don't admit to any systemic abuse or plagiarism, though that was an accusation lobbed at them. I don't know whether it's true or not. But I also don't know whether this article was used "in error," that it was "an oversight of a small, overworked staff." Sorry. Don't buy that. You may have a small staff, and you may be overworked, but that doesn't mean you can't take a few minutes to try to contact the author of an original piece before you decide to not only publish it yourself but also offer a rather stupid explanation for why you did it.

It's true that people upset at what Cooks Source did should not have hijacked the site's Facebook account or started up a bogus Twitter user to further harass the company. And while I'm not exactly sure what these same people might have done to harass the magazine's advertisers, I certainly don't think it's outside morality to contact an advertiser and say you're not pleased with the outfit where their ads appear.

But my wife had the following discussion earlier today: Do we sometimes treat the Internet as public domain? I had to answer that yes we do. Sometimes I'll search the net to find a photo or illustration to go with a blog posting here, and I don't ask permission. I use YouTube clips that no one asked the original copyright owner if they could use them. I can try to shield myself behind the feeling that since I'm not making money on this blog, I can use what I please, but that still doesn't feel right. Cooks Source statement, ironically, makes for good reading on this subject:
This issue has made certain changes here at Cooks Source. Starting with this month, we will now list all sources. Also we now request that all the articles and informational pieces will have been made with written consent of the writers, the book publishers and/or their agents or distributors, chefs and business owners. All submission authors and chefs and cooks will have emailed, and/or signed a release form for this material to Cooks Source and as such will have approved its final inclusion. Email submissions are considered consent, with a verbal/written follow-up. Recipes created in the Cooks Source Kitchen are owned by Cooks Source and as such approval is given for chefs and cooks in our area to use them. Artwork used is created by our staff, or is royalty-free or purchased “clip-art.”

However: Cooks Source can not vouch for all the writers we have used in the past, and in the future can only check to a certain extent. Therefore, we will no longer accept unrequested articles, nor will we work with writers or illustrators unless they can prove they are reputable people, provide their sources, and who, in our estimation, we feel our readers and advertisers can trust and rely on for accuracy and originality. All sources will be listed with the articles, along with the permission, where necessary.
So, dare I make some of the same pronouncements: Use only in-house art and such for this blog, or stuff that I've paid for or at least asked permission to use? And where and how may I apply the following principles:
  • The fair use doctrine?
  • Things that are truly, legally, in the public domain?
  • And what about Creative Commons items?
And what would I do if someone whose stuff I'm using without permission came to me and said, cease and desist? Well, ceasing and desisting, with a sincere apology, would certainly be first and foremost on my mind.

So, expect to see more original illustrations here.

These are issues that anyone on the Internet needs to be aware of, wary of, and ready to react to as necessary. And finding the beam that's in our own eyes while we clamor for the removal of the mote from the other's eye is equally as important.

Still, part of our discussion this morning also went like this:

My wife does a fair amount of scouring the web for Cub Scout stuff. She finds a lot. She uses a lot. She always cites sources and gives credit where credit is due, but she's never asked anyone permission to use what she's using. Should she have to? Isn't the intent of putting stuff on the Internet that it be read and used and observed and enjoyed by others? Do we only cross a line when we get paid when we use someone else's stuff without permission? Current copyright law argues against that notion. Even the use -- outside of the vagaries of the fair use doctrine -- constitutes theft. All the victim has to do is claim harm, not merely that the profiteer profited off the pilfering.