Monday, April 30, 2012

Well, I Guess You Can Call it the End of an Era

Astute readers of this blog will note I have not written much about Uncharted lately.

First, it was because we'd moved and that, for a while, our Internet access was spotty at best. But life kept getting in the way, and for some reason or other -- some good, such as I've taken on a part-time job of teaching English classes at a local university; and some not so good, such as I flat out got used to not checking my Uncharted email.

So as of this weekend, I'm no longer working for Uncharted.

This isn't a bridges burned, friendships-be-damned parting, however. Just a shift in priorities and where I can put the free time I've got. In many ways, I'll still be involved in Uncharted, through doing some on-call writing, consulting, and other such work fro the very good friends I still have at the company. I just won't be involved in day-to-day operations, or be in charge of editorial content any more.

Why the departure?

See the reasons above. Taking on a part-time job in addition to my full-tme job was rather time consuming, but at the same time was getting some short shrift as I tried to balance Uncahrted win with teaching and working full time and also being a full-time husband. There are those at Uncharted who have lives as busy as this, and I am in awe that they can keep it all together as well as they do. The challenge simply proved, over time, to be too great for me.

Add to that there's a little part of me that has always preferred inertia to action, like Petey here encountering his stink bug, and that makes for a heavenly mix of conundrums mixed in enigmas wrapped in Twinkies.

Oh. I'm also back on writing novels, another significant time-taker.

Lest any rumors be spread, let it be known that I enjoyed my time at Uncharted, as did my wife Michelle. We made some good, lasting friendships that I'm confident will last as we move in a different direction. And you'll still see me on Uncharted as an Explorer, though not one doing the double-duty of pulling strings behind the scenes. You're not rid of my Uncharted babblings yet.

Wegwets . . .

Friday we travel to Logan to watch Michelle be hooded and awarded her masters degree.

I had my chance. Back in the summer of 2009 when I finished the coursework for my masters degree, she gave me the option of doing the same. I opted not to.

Watching her be hooded is going to be fun. She's worked hard for her degree, and is looking forward to having her evenings and weekends free of classwork and papers. I'm looking forward to the same -- though she'll certainly find things with which to fill the time.

But should I have gone through the hooding ceremony? Maybe . . .

Friday, April 27, 2012

Brother VanWinkle

This was me at church a few weeks ago. Literally and figuratively.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mining in Space

I like it when reality even approaches the coolness of science fiction, so to hear of a Wahsington state company making plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for materials makes me a happy man.

Rather than wasting money by pursuing the Apollo 11 engines resting at the bottom of the sea (like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos) the investors in this company hope to see a future when resources mined in space are used on Earth or in orbit for building everything from rocket fuel to space-whale-repelling battleships (of course, one of the investors is James Cameron, who seems bent on giving us vapid entertainment between trips to the deepest recesses of the ocean floor and the Titanic, so they’re not all innocent here).

In short, Planetary Resources hopes it will be in a crucial and lucrative position of not only boosting terrestrial industry, but also setting up a network of fuel depots that humanity will need to better explore the solar system and beyond.
"The Earth is feeling a resource pinch, and ultimately we will have the ability to turn that which is scarce into abundant," [Peter] Diamandis, who co-founded Planetary Resources with Anderson in 2009 but generally kept mum about the project until this month, said at a press event in Seattle on Tuesday.
"It can be done, and yes, it's very difficult ... but the returns economically and the benefit to humanity are extraordinary," added Diamandis, who also is chairman of the X Prize Foundation.
When I worked for the Post Register, I actually interviewed Diamandis for some story whose import and subject are completely lost to me now. Probably had something to do with the X Prize, though why a lowly reporter from a Podunk paper like ours was interviewing him I can’t remember. I’ll have to sort through my files to see if I can find the article. Nonetheless, it’s exciting to see people still doing that forward-thinking that characterized so much of the post-war era and that, in many ways, seems lacking today. When he talks of fuel stations scattered throughout the inner solar system, all I can conjure up is images of Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth, and how awesome it would be if science fiction could become science fact.

Near-Earth objects abound, but you have to wonder if they’ll come in the size these guys need to make their company viable. I find it hard to believe that objects as big as Eros have gone undetected in near-Earth orbit, so they’ll have to be contented with smaller pickings or go further afield. Given their moxie, I don’t see the latter bothering them all that much.

I just hope the scout satellites they're sending up aren't just MAMA in disguise.

Social Networked-Out

I think it was when I got the invitation to the BYU-Idaho online instructors’ social networky thingy that I finally snapped.

Snapped is probably a bad word for it. Felt a teense overwhelmed, perhaps.

Social networks are, of course, de rigeur nowadays, and everyone has them. From knitters – you bet your perled little booties that there’s a social network exclusively for knitters – to, yes, the multiple, and I mean multiple, social networks to which BYU-Idaho has invited me, there are plenty of social networks to go around.

And that’s great news. I, myself, am involved on a foundational level with Uncharted, a social network of its own standing (more on that in just a little bit). That the Internet can provide venues for like-minded people to gather and share information and comeradeship is a wonderful thing, if they’re managed properly. BYU-Idaho’s networks, right now, are giving me fits but that’s likely because I’m new to navigating the whole system. (Surely, somewhere, there must be a Facebook-like option for me to see everything that’s going on in the multitude of little BYU-Idaho networks I’m tied to at the moment.)

Many moons ago – I might have a copy of it somewhere – I wrote a short story outlining the life of a man so dependent on computer technology for his work and social interaction that he rarely left his home, instead focusing on his work which came to him via email and in a cloud-sorta thing (this was just at the advent of email and before anyone had heard of The Cloud, so I was a bit prescient there) to the exclusion of all else. When the power went out and he had to go outside to see what was going on, he was overwhelmed by the beauty of nature, the multiplicity of marigolds that had spilled out of their flower beds and overrun his disused driveway, and by the death of his next-door neighbor, dead at her computer in a room with the shades drawn at the exclusion of all else.

No nevermind on that. Just brought it up as an example of why maybe the BYU-Idaho social network pushed me over the brink. I’m social networked-out.

Let’s go over the roll-call: Facebook. Twitter. Google+. Uncharted. BYU-Idaho. GoodReads. LinkedIn. Did I miss any? Plenty. And these are only the ones I’m involved in to any degree. Plus the family of blogs I run, including this one. They don’t necessarily count as social networking because it’s not social networking when you’re yelling into an empty room, but I’ll include them here for argument’s sake.

There are plenty more out there I could join. Obviously doing so would drive me insane.

I’m not dissing any of the social networks I’m involved in. or those I’m not involved in. I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve reached a saturation point. I’ve reached the point where I need a social networking website that collects all the information from my other social networks and presents it in one convenient package.

Not likely, per Jeff Tinsley, one of the original brains behind, a website aiming to be the “one social network to rule them all.” Says Tinsley:

The fact is, no matter how great, no one network is able to deliver on every front. For instance, can any platform match Twitter when it comes to short, instant global communication? Or will any network ever equal Facebook when it comes to making and sustaining connections the world over? Users will embrace a variety of sites, each of which excels at its unique method of connecting, sharing and more.

For the future of social networking, that means tolerance is key, and integration and management tools will have essential roles to play. Those that succeed will offer users simple, comprehensive solutions to maintain their connections and make new ones.

Sure, users recognize that a definitive, end-all platform to communicate may be ideal. But it isn’t essential. People will share, friend, link, circle, pin, like, tweet and post — and they’ll do it happily. They know that when it comes to making quality connections, “more” is always better. Social networking, it turns out, isn’t a zero sum game after all.
I guess I’m getting old. Don’t have the attention span any more.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Here is Your War

Another plane throbbed in the sky, and we lay listening with an awful anticipation. One of the dogs suddenly broke into a frenzied barking and went tearing through our little camp as if chasing a demon. My mind seemed to lose all sense of proportion, and I got jumpy and mad at myself.

Concussion ghosts, traveling in waves, touched our tent walls and made them quiver. Ghosts were shaking the ground ever so lightly. Ghosts were stirring the dogs to hysteria. Ghosts were wandering in the sky peering for us cringing in our hide-outs. Ghosts were everywhere, and their hordes were multiplying as every hour added its production of new battlefield dead. We lay and thought of the graveyards and the dirty men and the shocking blast of the big guns, and we couldn’t sleep.

“What time is it?” came out of darkness from the next cot.

I snapped on the flashlight. “Half past four, and for [expletive] sake go to sleep!”

Finally just before dawn we did sleep, in spite of everything. Next morning, we spoke around among ourselves and found that all of us had tossed away all night. It was an unexplainable thing. For all of us had been through greater danger. On another night the roll of the guns would have lulled us to sleep. It was just that on some nights the air became sick and there was an unspoken contagion of spiritual dread, and we were little boys again, lost in the dark.

Fear without using the word. Fear through repetition of congruous imagery. Fear that brings us back to that world of little boys, spooked in the familiar surroundings of their neighborhood, their back yard, by an unexpected light or shadow or sound that ordinarily would not have bothered them. For me, the sound is that of a cat in heat. Never bothered me during the day, but at night, that eerie cry like that of a baby, bothered me terribly.

 This is the writing of Ernie Pyle, World War II combat correspondent, describing the creeping fear he and his fellow soldiers felt during battles in Algeria and Tunisia in 1942-43, collected in his book "Here is Your War." Pyle writes in an astringent manner, but occasionally lets fly with what John Steinbeck would describe as a bit of hooptedoodle, such as what is duplicated above. He handles the hooptedoodle well, filling in the space between his fits with spare, riveting reporting of the war that today’s correspondents might do well to emulate.

Emulation, however, might be a difficult situation. It’s clear where Pyle’s loyalties lay, and today’s journalists’ loyalties are far from his. I’m not discussing objectivity – Pyle could certainly tell horseshit from reality – but rather I’m wondering if today’s war correspondents would even consider reporting in this manner, as a soldier-correspondent, not as a reporter dropped in for a day, a few days, a week, and then outta there before the real hot stuff begins. No matter. For World War II buffs, reading Pyle’s tales is a requirement.

Only the Planets are Big

Outer Space from Sander van den Berg on Vimeo.

"Space is small. Only the planets are big."

-- Robert Kleinmann

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bugs in the Arithmetic

So, did the Viking landers really find life on Mars, way back in 1976? Headline writers and breathless bloggers across the Internet sure think so.

What did they really find?

Gullibility. Or at least evidence that an as-yet unverified mathematical process that could detect signs of life in data from the Mars Viking landers might possibly have found proof of life in that data.

But there’s a problem with their method: It’s unverified. Writes
Critics counter that the method has not yet been proven effective for differentiating between biological and non-biological processes on Earth so it's premature to draw any conclusions.

"Ideally to use a technique on data from Mars one would want to show that the technique has been well calibrated and well established on Earth. The need to do so is clear; on Mars we have no way to test the method, while on Earth we can," planetary scientist and astrobiologist Christopher McKay, with NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., told Discovery News.
Sounds like the researchers used a complexity analysis to see if Viking’s readings showed biological chemical reactions in tested soil, rather than geological reactions, as the scientific consensus lies. I don’t pretend to understand the math, but apparently there is some caution urged when using such analyses, as data showing, for example, poor results as compared to another analysis could, in the longer run, actually show better results over time.

I don’t doubt there is life on other planets; to disbelieve such is ludicrous. Finding life, however, is going to take more than mathematical analysis. It’s going to take money, and the political will to send more accurate probes to places such as Mars to discover that life. It’s romantic to think that you’re going to find proof in data that’s been lying around since he 1970s, but if that proof relies on unverified methods, it’s not really proof at all.

Casualty of the Mommy Wars

Ah, the distractions of a political campaign.

When Rick Santorum was still in the running, it was contraception. Now, with him gone, it’s shifted from the War on Women to the Mommy War.
Give me a break.

I guess it’s hard having to fill all that air time. I suppose you could fill it with well-researched news and well-argued opinion, but that takes time. And by time I mean hours. But hours are an eternity to the fast-paced news business, where your competition can beat you with the next new completely idiotic distraction by mere seconds, and if they do, well, they get to beat on their chests (even the ladies) and strut about with their penises hanging out (even the ladies) because, hey, they’re the big news-oozing machine that beat the competition and got to make someone squirm on live TV because of the comments they said or were said against them or for them or in their general direction and some such drivel.

Bill Maher is the latest to open his gob in the Mommy War battle, saying something that sounds, on the onset, completely stupid but then, after you think about it, sounds even stupider than you first thought.

Says the man:
No one is denying that being a mother is a tough job; I remember I was a handful. But you know there is a big difference between being a mother, and that tough job, and getting your ass out the door at 7 am when it’s cold, having to deal with the boss, being in a workplace, or even if you’re unhappy you can’t show it for eight hours.
Anyone who has been a mother, or even spent more than five minutes thinking about motherhood, knows what Mr. Maher says is patently stupid.

My wife has to get three kids out the door to school by 8 am. So, it’s not 7 am, but when Bill gets himself to work at 7 am, I’m sure he’s only got himself to worry about – he doesn’t have to make sure three uncooperative little sprites are ready to go alongside him. She’s out the door with those kids rain or shine.

She doesn’t have to deal with a boss. She does have to deal with teachers who are wondering where the missing homework is, why junior britches is throwing an Asberger-related tantrum in class, why little miss chucklehead can never remember her lunchbox and why that little spaz, the young one, can’t find his jacket even though he’s standing on it.

She doesn’t have to deal with a workplace. Just home, where once the kids are at school there’s stuff that needs doing and she’s the boss telling her no matter how much she’d like to take it easy if she does she won’t get her homework done (she’s taking masters-level classes right now) or get her teaching material ready (she’s a volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America) or any of the other tasks she’s got to get done without anyone looking over her shoulder or even with a paycheck attached to it. Motivation boils down to maybe a grunt from the kids when they come home from school or a deep sigh from Dad when he has to figure out why her computer won’t talk to the color printer so she can get her work done, which she does without pay.

And she can’t show she’s unhappy. Well, in small, guarded moments she can, when the kids have blown her off for the nth time on getting their piano lessons done (which she teaches them) or their clothes put away (which she washes) or their homework done (which she corrects and signs for them) or when Dad gives that sigh or complains about having to do too much after he’s home from his job of whatever the hell it is he does each day without kids underfoot or one of them calling her to school with a plastic bag and a pair of clean underwear because he pooped his pants.

But of course going over all of this does nothing to help me decide if I should vote for the bozo with the big ears and the do-nothing-complex because the big, bad Republicans are in control of the House of Representatives or the guy who has to check the windsock at the airport every morning to see what his views on various subject might be and who has to kiss butt to the right-wing whackos in the party because they tend to be the ones who go out to vote. It’s all just fodder for the talking heads who are all satisfied that, at the end of each day, they’re helping me on the issues, they’re helping me sort out, via ludicrous comments on non-important things, who I should vote for so that the books balance, the wars end (but not the culture wars, let’s fan those because they give the TV folks something to jabber about).

Add to it all we’re reading Helaman in our scripture study, the chapters in which Helaman talks about the devil getting such a strong hold on the hearts of men, distracting them with their riches and with battles over politics and culture while the big, important things (like getting rid of the Gadianton Robbers, for one) go unchecked to the point they basically become the government*.

Let’s shut down the Mommy Wars. They’re nothing but a distraction.

*Before you get all knotted up, I’m not making any parallels between the robbers of old and anyone involved in current government. I don’t believe there’s a great conspiracy on either the left or the right to usurp and do whatever to the government to make it fall. I’m just saying there are distractions today, just like then, that are pulling our attention from the things that really matter.

Forgive me. Just feeling a bit Entish at the moment.

. . . and You'll be WALKING to Notting . . . ham has made a very big deal out of walking as of late. As in we, as Americans, do not do enough walking.
On that, I agree – though my wife and I go for at least three good, hour-long walks each week. Moving around a lot (or not enough) is a serious problem – something I recognize as I sit behind a desk for more than 40 hours a week. I know I feel better on the days when I’m able to get out of my cubicle and do some walking, even if it’s as I pursue my other duties at work.
But then turns to Walkscore, and with the quantifying of “walkable” neighborhoods files completely off the deep end.

An example: We recently moved from Sugar City, Idaho, to Ammon, Idaho. Both towns, in my estimation, are extremely walkable. From our current home, we can get to our kids’ school, two grocery stores, several restaurants, a hardware store, three big box stores and any other number of amenities ranging from parks to a swimming pool to a big empty field where the kids can run around shouting “walla walla walla walla” if they want to. Our neighborhood nets a paltry 26 from Walkscore – telling us we’re in a car-dependent neighborhood.

Even more laughable is that our old neighborhood scores nearly twice as high as a walkable neighborhood (a 45 versus a 26) even though – and Walkscore would know this if they ever visited the place – there’s a lot LESS stuff worth walking to in Sugar City than there is in Ammon.

This, in my eye, casts doubt on the databases Walkscore uses to make its calculations.

Plugging in another address we lived at – near downtown Rexburg, Idaho – is even more enlightening. This address gets a Walkscore of 89.

There are lots of destinations within a short distance of our old house there – never mind that I couldn’t stand upright in the basement because the ceiling was too low. So it gets a good walkability score. Thing is, when we lived in Rexburg (a town of about 26,000) we walked everywhere, even distant places. We could walk across the whole town in less than an hour. In my eyes, that town is entirely walkable.

Granted, where we live now we have to walk sometimes a mile one way to get to some of these destinations. But you know what – a two-mile round trip isn’t all that bad. Apparently it is to Walkscore – we should have many, many more of these amenities within a shorter walking distance in order for our neighborhood to be walkable.

Feh, I say. Walkability certainly does depend on proximity – walking to a library from where we live, for instance, isn’t doable, nor are there art galleries and such within the neighborhood – but there are other aspects of walkability that I think Walkscore isn’t taking into consideration.

How far is an individual willing to walk? We’re willing to walk pretty far, and without complaint. We enjoy it. And from what I can tell, the folks who live in the cities in France in which I also lived also enjoyed walking, even if they had to walk a long time to get to their destinations. So freaking out because Walkscore deigns your neighborhood as unwalkable is unthinkable.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

American Settlers: Aside

NOTE: I was going to append this to my previous post, but I realized instead it should stnad on its own.

To those of you just getting started wtih Oregon Trail: American Settler, let me say this: Don't bother.

If you'd rather not follow that advice, then listen further: Start right now building as many infirmaries as you can and in those informaries start building as many needles and mortars as you can, because you're going to need them.

Here's another thing: Does no one else work in these towns? Yeah, yeah, I know. I can get "friends" to come do chores in my town. Go online and get your friends helping, that's how you build a community! Whee! I don't mean that. I mean in-game, does no one else work in these towns? I'm so busy running a sick ward that I've got crops rotting in the field and taxes/revenue going uncollected because very energy bit i get is going towards making medicine. And you know what: They're all going to die before I can get to them all.

[Insert here lesson on how I finally figure out the social gaming aspect and how this is supposed to teach me that It Takes A Village to Raise A Child ® and that the game is a microcosm showing how the liberal/progressive meme of working together with others is supposed to be beter than the conservative do it all yourself/get bootstrappy meme.]

Stuff that. It's just a game. And if they want to inject politics into this kind of thing, then give me the option of kicking some fannies in order to get some of the other denizens of this little pioneer village to do some of their own damn work for a change. Because the truth behind social gaming is not the concept of getting everyone to cooperate so that two plus two can equal five, but so more people get suckered into these games and thus boost the publisher's numbers and the possibility that some idiot will actually start making in-app purchases either to save a dying village or to help a friend.

So tant pis pour cochonnet.

I Am Not A Social Gamer

I resisted for a long time.

Send me a Farmville request via Facebook? Ignored the request will be, as Yoda might say. Don't have time for that kind of shenanigans. I don't want to be on Facebook to play games. I'm on Facebook to babble incoherently at my friends and relatives and otherwise make a nuisance of myself, but not to play games.

I have a Kindle Fire for games.

Thus Oregon Trail: American Settler.

I think this started out on Facebook, but then the app developers -- and they're all apps now, they're not games or software or whatever they are, they're all apps; I expect an app-brand breakfast cereal to come out any day now. (Just did a quick Google search to see if someone hasn't already come out with an app-brand cereal. Doesn't look like it. But there is this app that will help you pick a healthier breakfast cereal and an app that's a cereal simulator.)

But back to American Settler.

I don't play it on Facebook. But it's on the Kindle Fire, and it's addicting.

And maddening.

I'm a big simulator player. I got the original Sim City when it came out and have been a loyal Sim City player through the game's current iteration, and can't wait for the next one to come out. But because I'm not a social gamer -- there's a phrase nobody was talking about five years ago -- I skipped the Sims phenomenon. I played around briefly with Second Life, but never saw the appeal of either. And still don't. So to be playing a game that constantly invites me to share my progress with others (as if anyone else will care) and to beg and barter with others for the goods and virtual "energy" needed to complete tasks in the game is maddening.

It's not fear or loathing of interaction. We regularly have game nights with some friends, and we get to competing and cooperating throughout those games. I know how it can work out. And not. But to say that I constantly want to badger my friends with game requests is ludicrous to say the least. So I don't. And I don't spend any "real" money in-app, either. I suppose people do this. There are marketing strategies built around in-app purchases. But I hark back to the time when you wanted to play a video game, you just played it. Granted, they looked like this:

But you just played.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Amazon, You Need A Trunk Monkey

You know, of course, that as soon as someone figures out a neat new way to do something, a hundred chattering monkeys come in right behind him or her to fling poo about and otherwise mess up the landscape.

Such is happening to the world of ebooks where, as Fortune reports, the rise of “spam books” on sites like is becoming not, well, a problem, but more of an electronic pratfall for people who don’t do careful enough searches when they’re looking for the hottest titles out there or stumble across a deal that seems too good to be true for a hot book.

Says Fortune:
There are a number of books on Amazon with similar titles to much more popular ones. Fifty Shades of Grey, the steamy romance novel that has created buzz around the world, is the No. 1 selling book on Amazon. Also available on Amazon: Thirty-Five Shades of Grey. Both books are written by authors with two first initials – E. L. James and J. D. Lyte – and both are the first in a trilogy about a young girl who falls for an older, successful man with a taste for domineering sex. The publisher of the bestseller Fifty says the book is "a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever." The author and publisher of Thirty-Five, which came out in early April, apparently believe that description fits their book as well, word-for-word. Also selling on Amazon is I am the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Twilight New Moon. Neither is the book you are likely looking for.

Amusingly, Fortune talks with the author of a book similarly titled to Steig Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to discover a stay-at-home mom who self-publishes as a way to support her children. She seems to see nothing wrong with giving her book a title similar to that of Larsson’s and even claims hers was published first (it wasn’t, according to Fortune).

Amazon’s critics (and I’m sure the same applies to any outfit that helps people self-publish their own ebooks) say the company doesn’t do enough to cull the copycats, or to stop them from going up for sale in the first place. Amazon pretty much counters by saying it’s the Wild West out there and that, yes, they are aware of the problems and things are being done and some such.

Book piracy, of course, is nothing new. My favorite tale of such comes from China(!) where folks were proud to sell the latest installment of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, in which the first chapter of the book details how the wizard Harry was changed into a little person with a round belly and furry feet and then went on to have an adventure with dwarves chasing down a dragon for treasure. Yeah, they took Rowling’s character and basically transplanted him into The Hobbit and went from there. Thousands of people bought the book, thinking they were getting an early peek at Rowling’s new creation.

The cheap copying of ebooks brings up a significant problem for people like me, who like Uncle Rico want to look totally legit in the ebook world, like we’ve got all the answers: With so much spam floating around out there, how will we rise above the noise? The answer: Quality, dammit. We’re going to have to write good books. Which is what I want to do in the first place.

And then, I’ll get a trunk monkey to go after the poo-flingers.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

An Epitaph Graven by A Fool

They have chiseled on my stone the words:
“His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him
That nature might stand up and say to all the world,
This is a man.”
Those who knew me smile
As they read this empty rhetoric.
My epitaph should have been:
“Life was not gentle to him,
And the elements so mixed in him,
That he made warfare on life
In the which he was slain.”
While I lived I could not cope with slanderous tongues,
Now that I am dead I must submit to an epitaph
Graven by a fool!

Thus laments Cassius Hueffer, one of the denizens of the cemeteries of Spoon River, in Edgar Lee Masters’ masterful Spoon River Anthology.

I have teased fellow poets that poetry is dead, yet I read it and occasionally write it. Masters’ poetry in its collective form is the best poetry can be: A stained-glass window’s worth of thought, each filtering the sunlight or moonlight or darkness differently. And oh, what fun it is to read.

Masters wrote it, of course, as part of that uniquely American genre of literature called Rebellion Against the Village. The open-minded, the progressive, the liberal, felt stifled by American small-town life and, as the 19th century turned, they left it in droves for the bustling, sophisticated anonymity of the city. Like some of Masters’ characters, some who left the village discovered they could never leave it, with their small-town minds forever bound by the Spoon River, the mill, the petty squabbles, the powerful overbearing on the meek, the meek seeking impotent justice.

I’ve read a lot of this kind of literature. My favorite is Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street because it, of any book of the genre, shows the small-mindedness of the small town. But the most successful in this genre is Babbitt, another Lewis accomplishment. Because in this story – as we see in Masters’ Spoon River – it’s not the size of the village one flees that matters.

George Babbitt lives in the comfortable largeness of Zenith, an anonymous large American city, synonymous with the Meccas those of the Spoon River ilk were attracted to as they fled their small towns. But poor George, though living in paradise, is just as bound by the type of small-town thinking that Carol Kennicott sees in Gopher Prarie, Minnesota. Though George lives in the big city, he has, as in Spoon River, a small circle of friends and acquaintances and caricatures that, no matter how he tries, he cannot escape. The narrow-mindedness of each country village is transplanted into the city and multiplied a thousand times over. The only surcease a city-dweller has is to sneak off into a neighborhood where he or she is unknown. But as the denizens of Spoon River discover, George still has to go home and can never excape the scrutiny of small minds, bith progressive and convervative, because in some way he is not conforming with their wills, even if their will is nonconformity itself. The tyranny of the small town is not escaped, even in the largest of urban conglomerations. Only the distractions are multiplied.

Samuel, laments Dow Kritt of Spoon River, is forever talking of his elm –
But I did not need to die to learn about roots:
I, who dug all the ditches about Spoon River.
Look at my elm!
Sprung from as good a seed as his,
Sown at the same time,
It is dying at the top:
Not from lack of life, nor fungus,
Nor destroying insect, as the sexton thinks.
Look, Samuel, where the roots have struck rock,
And can no further spread.
And all the while the top of the tree
Is tiring itself out, and dying,
Trying to grow.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Can't Text. Bear Chasing Me.

This is EXACTLY why I do not do ANYTHING with any electronic devices while I'm walking. You never know when you're going to run into a bear.


This probably would affect me more if I were buying ebooks, not scrounging the interwebs for free ones or having free ones delivered to my Kindle Fire on a regular basis.

But as an author who is planning to publish his own ebook this summer, perhaps I should be worried: Free ebooks are nice, but they don’t pay for the mustard and ketchup.

“This,” of course, is the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Apple and publishers McMillan and Penguin, alleging the companies colluded to fix the price on ebooks so the companies could get more money at the expense of the book-buying public. Three other publishers (Hachette, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins) settled with the DOJ out of court.
No word yet on what the full legal defense from Apple et al will be, but I’m sure it’ll be interesting, with a swirl of accusations against Amazon for flooding the market with cheap ebooks in order to sell items like, ahem, the Kindle Fire, and plenty of stories of doom and gloom and more doom from publishers and authors and their children being tossed out in the snow with their frostbitten teddy bears because nobody (including me) is willing to pay premium prices for books, print or e, any more due to the changing times.

Bloomberg gets a peek at their strategery:

Apple and Macmillan, which have refused to engage in settlement talks with the Justice Department, deny they colluded to raise prices for digital books, according to people familiar with the matter. They will argue that pricing agreements between Apple and publishers enhanced competition in the e-book industry, which was dominated by Inc.
Philip Elmer-DeWitt, writing at Fortune, has this to say on the situation:

According to the Journal, the government has argued that the waiting period would allow publishers and booksellers to resume a one-to-one relationship, "free of the taint of collusion."

The length of that cooling-off period is reported to be one of the sticking points for Apple, and it's easy to see why.

An extended cooling-off period -- in which Amazon goes back to selling bestselling e-books for $9.99 and Apple is still adding its 30% surcharge to the publishers' prices -- could seriously damage Apple's e-book business.

Worse still, it could keep the books off the iBookstore altogether.

Apple's lawyers seem to think they can make a case that going to the agency model actually increased competition, allowing e-book rivals to take back some of the 90% market share Amazon had amassed.

Moreover the company -- unlike most book publishers -- has pockets deep enough to do legal battle with the U.S. government for as long as it takes to get a settlement more to its liking.
More of his article here.

Matthew Yglesias, writing at, takes up a contrary position, saying that the DOJ's involvement isn't nexessary:
What makes a major publishing house a major publishing house is its expertise in the manufacture and distribution of books. As an ancillary element of the business, publishers are also good at recruiting authors, editing prose, and publicizing new works. But firms with expertise in writing, editing, and publishing text are a dime a dozen. Slate has that know-how, as does every newspaper and magazine in the country and a huge quantity of independent and university presses. Even more troubling for traditional publishers, famous authors now have unprecedented ability to simply bypass the entire publishing system. If Suzanne Collins wants to sell a Hunger Games prequel directly to her readers, does anyone doubt she’d sell vast quantities? Celebrities could even potentially become their own publishing brands, using their fame to substitute for a traditional market apparatus. Oprah Winfrey has a proven ability to drive book sales. Why not launch an Oprah Press?

But the only way for these firms to stay viable is to publish books people like and to sell them at a price readers want to pay. Whether they merge, collude, or simply find a convenient confluence of interests around Apple’s efforts to compete with Amazon, there’s no real threat to competition here. Literary culture, for better or for worse, is dealing with a radically transformed business landscape. The Justice Department is, at best, irrelevant to this process.

As a soon-to-be-self-published author, there is concern here on both sides of the fence. While writing a book is in of itself a satisfying endeavor, it would be nice to think that somewhere along the way I could get a little money for all that work. The agency model under question by the DOJ does just that – it makes sure adequate gobs of money are changing hands so that the author – presumably – gets some of it too. I could say that as a self-published noob, that does not apply since I have no chance in hell of getting paid to publish anyway. That’s probably an accurate assessment. But a little part of me screams “I ought to make some kind of money along the way.” Even though that first ebook is going to be given away for free so’n I can build meself an audience.

Caine's Arcade

Not that we need proof there is good and that there are good people in this world, but here you go.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Nobody Writes Like This Any More . . .

A common refrain, I know. And it’s something I say often after I’ve re-read something like Richard Adams’ Watership Down or Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and most certainly after Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows: Nobody writes books like these any more.

Well, there are a few. William Steig, for one. He approaches childhood storytelling with an honesty we rarely see these days. And by honesty, I mean taking childhood at face value, showing children that books meant for them don’t have to be mawkish or syrupy or try to “teach” them something. Writers like Steig, like E.W. Hildick, like C.S. Lewis – even like J.R.R. Tolkein, if you look at The Hobbit as it was intended: a story for the young – write stories because they enjoy telling stories to children.

Enter Bob Brooks, who with his Tales from the Glades of Ballymore enters this world.

I admit when I started reading his book, I wanted to hate it. The only reason I can think of would be his own review of it on Good Reads, in which he compares it to Grahame’s Willows. Willows is a sacred book in my canon, so any author comparing his book to that one had damn well better be able to back up what he or she claims. Brooks does so in Ballymore, and admirably so.

I’m reminded of a few things as I read Brooks’ novel.

First is a quote from Lewis, which I love to bandy about when people claim they only want to read “adult” fiction:
Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. . . . When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
(This is from his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.”)

I’m also reminded of Beatrix Potter’s twee world of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, viz:
The path ended under a big rock. The grass was short and green, and there were clothes—props cut from bracken stems, with lines of plaited rushes, and a heap of tiny clothes pins—but no pocket-handkerchiefs!

But there was something else—a door! straight into the hill; and inside it some one was singing—

Lily-white and clean, oh!
With little frills between, oh!
Smooth and hot – red rusty spot
Never here be seen, oh!

Lucie, knocked—once—twice, and interrupted the song. A little frightened voice called out "Who's that?"

Lucie opened the door: and what do you think there was inside the hill?—a nice clean kitchen with a flagged floor and wooden beams—just like any other farm kitchen. Only the ceiling was so low that Lucie's head nearly touched it; and the pots and pans were small, and so was everything there.

There was a nice hot singey smell; and at the table, with an iron in her hand stood a very stout short person staring anxiously at Lucie.

Her print gown was tucked up, and she was wearing a large apron over her striped petticoat. Her little black nose went sniffle, sniffle, snuffle, and her eyes went twinkle, twinkle; and underneath her cap—where Lucie had yellow curls—that little person had PRICKLES!

"Who are you?" said Lucie. "Have you seen my pocket-handkins?"

The little person made a bob-curtsey—"Oh, yes, if you please'm; my name is Mrs. Tiggy-winkle; oh, yes if you please'm, I'm an excellent clear-starcher!" And she took something out of a clothes-basket, and spread it on the ironing-blanket.
Potter is unashamed to write this, and I am unashamed to read it. So bravo to Bob Brooks for doing the same.

Critics of the twee claim such innosence belies reality and that our action-crazed kids these days just won't put up with books as slow-paced as these. Meh, I say. Give kids a chance and they'll slow right down. They don't want to run as fast as adults do, because more often than not, when they're running as fast as adults do they miss a whole lot of their childhood along the way. I don't want to do that to my kids. I tell them unashamedly I played with teddy bears kintted for me by my grandmother as a (whisper) teenager. We -- my brother and sister and I -- built villages for them and carried on the little domestic scenes many sneer at in Potter's world as sexist, demeaning, and beneath our modern times.

Phooey with that assessment.

I have to wonder, though: Would such a book be published today – another favorite question of the bookish-snobbish set. I’d have to say yes – but how big of an audience would it reach? Childrens’ literature is often a zero-sum game for authors, with only the cream of the crop making a living at it. Brooks’ gentle, easy-going tale in which there are no magic spells, no loud kabooms nor distinctly cliff-hanging conflict but only the quaint and the twee and the innocent and the simple, is a rarity. It stands out with its gentility. It is one I will read again.

Monday, April 9, 2012

'They're Always Mean to Me'

Ironically, I was just thinking this morning, after a rather emotional Easter weekend, that going back to work today would be a good thing. Lo and behold, Scott Adams read my mind.


A few things to wrap up before life, as is its wont, gets away from me:

Our new furnace is installed and functioning perfectly. It’s so nice to have a warm house now. It doesn’t matter what floor we’re on, we’re warm. And we know we’re not breaking the bank paying to heat the place, either.

Dennis and Dallin from Sermon Service and Electric (I have to put a plug in for them) did a great job. Tough we made them work around our furniture and in a fully-finished basement, they did well. I have some drywall to do, but it’s not nearly as extensive as I thought it would be – in fact, it’s so non-extensive I’m not sure now how I’ll string the speaker wire and do the little electrical jobs I thought I would do because they didn’t take down nearly enough drywall. So that’s a problem.

So far, one room in the house has almost recovered from their work. Last weekend, I spent way too much time putting up new shelves in the storage room. The old ones had to go, they were in such poor shape, and I thought they’d be in the way of the furnace guys. Not necessarily, but too bad, they’re replaced now. Next on the list is the pantry in the kitchen (through which they ran a pipe to the upstairs) and Lexie’s bedroom closet, through which that pipe extends. Then on to the study and the rest of the basement, where most of the work lies. I’m not really looking forward to it all, but it’s got to be done and it appears I’m the guy to do it.

At least our remodel hasn’t gone like this:

I did do the little Tom Hanks scream, however, when I tried to put a nail through the fingernail on my right index finger a scant three minutes after I whacked the thumb on my left hand with the hammer.

Next of all: I’m officially done with Winter Semester at BYU-Idaho and, in a week, will move on to different things. Still teaching at BYU-I, but this time around I’m doing English 201 and 106, an advanced writing and a remedial English course. Sounds kinda scary, but that’s the direction I’m going. I don’t know why I agreed to this. Well, I do, because it’s fun, it’s a challenge, and it’s extra money we need to pay off the furnace guys.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Hi, Mongo

Oh the things you can find online.

Or, in other words, here's a bit of what I learned in my Masters classes coming back to me. Prof. Haley reminded us often that as far as the web goes, what our users do with the sites we create may not necessarily be what our users use them for. Witness this odd review of an Android game, as posted on, as an example:
greetings fellow amazonians well today was a true adventure with mongo. we went out on our date with this girl (Victoria) that we met at the park yesterday. it was nothing to exciting at first we went to go and get coffee at the local coffee shop, but mongo couldn't have any caffeine so I got him an italian soda instead because they said it was caffeine free.

so Victoria and I started to get to know each other she was from califonia and was really nice. I told her I was mongo's dad and that his mother had been in a terrible combine accident shortly after he was born so after that we were just alone together. she ate that up like it was honey I couldn't believe it. so everything else was going well until mongo started getting antsy in his rascal so I downloaded gem boy jump to let him play while Victoria and I continued to talk.

should have known better than let mongo have anything to drink at a coffee shop because there must have been caffeine in his drink or he just breathed it in from the air because he started going crazy slamming is spiderman helmeted head into the table and yelling "it's not fair that I can't jump like gem boy! I want to go home and see my mommy and your not my dad so stop lying to this pretty lady!". well that pretty much blew up my spot. Victoria threw her scalding hot cup of coffee on me and mongo persisted to slam his head into my phone until it was nothing but a bunch of pieces.

finally I told mongo to go home and I went to the bathroom to clean up. now I am sitting on my kindle fire ordering another phone (third one in 10 days). thanks amazon for making me look like a lying chump.
This reviewer has a series of such reviews up, most of them about the free app of the day offered on Android devices (I have a Kindle Fire, and thus also regularly peruse the free apps, though this is the first time I've encountered this particular reviewer).

Certainly Amazon never intended such reviews when they established their review system, but there you go -- reviews as storyline. A vapid storyline, yes, but a storyline nonetheless.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Opti-Grab Version 2.0

If I can get me a pair of Google's rumored awesome virtual reality, internet-ready x-ray specs, then all the muttering I do to myself in public will finally make sense with the rest of the world.

And, dude, where can I get a scarf like that?

I'm hip. I've got buds with scarves. I play the uke. I have techno x-ray specs that make me a hit with the ladies. And I'm now congentially unable to focus on far objects because I spend the day staring at the insides of my neat-o glasses.

This, meanwhile, made me laugh out loud:

Who Reads an American [e]Book?

So, is ebook readership spiking? Are we all on an ebook bender?


The Pew Internet & American Life Project, which I’ve followed avidly, released another study today, this time on ebook usage – and they’re pretty excited. Ebook readership, they say, is on the rise, spiking four percent just over the Christmas holidays as more people got tablets and ebook readers for Christmas.

Anecdotally, I can put myself in that camp. I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas, and since then my ebook consumption has tripled. Yeah. I read one ebook last year, three so far this year. So I suppose that’s a spike.

Or not really. Pew says the number of people who have read an ebook jumped from 17% before Christmas to 21% after. That’s a good leap, but hardly a spike, as their margin of error on their most recent study is plus or minus two percent.

Pew itself is having trouble reporting this. They say that those who read ebooks claim to have read an average of 24 books in the previous 12 months (with a median of 13 books), while those who did not read ebooks read an average of 15 books, with a median of six. Then they go on, clumsily, to say this:

Interestingly, there were not [sic] major differences between tablet owners and non-owners when it came to the volume of books they say they had read in the previous 12 months.
I find that a little hard to swallow. I’ll hazard a guess to say that most people are guessing at the number of books they read last year, and are certainly guessing when it comes to reporting the number of books they read the year before that. Now me, the anal retentive reader that I am, I can say with certainty that, in 2011, I read 44 books. I counted them all. One ebook among them. This year, not so much, though I am reading more ebooks. So I’m tempted to say that people are guessing that they’re reading more with their ebook readers, but if they actually went to quantifying, I think they’d find that there’s not as much of a difference as they’re telling. Indeed, Pew says in its study that only 30% of those responding said they were reading more because of their ereaders – but that includes all digital content from books to magazines to newspapers. A whopping 62% said their reading level had not increased after they bought an ereader.

While having an ebook reader does make it easier to carry around a lot of books with me, finding the time to read an ebook is just as difficult this year as is finding time to read a regular print book. Ebook readers don’t suddenly add time to my day, is what I’m saying.

Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

This is the kind of book that those smarty-pants YouTube commenters read, absorb and then regurgitate without grasping the concept that it’s supposed to make you a better critical thinker, not a wise-ass.

Nevertheless, I wish more people would read and internalize what M. Neil Browne and Stuart M. Keeley advocate in “Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking,” – most especially their “Final Word” at the end of the book:
As a parting shot, we want to encourage you to engage with issues. Critical thinking is not a sterile hobby, reserved only for classrooms, for taking exams, or for showing off your mental cleverness. It provides a basis for a partnership for action among the reasonable. Beliefs are wonderful, but their payoff is in our subsequent behavior. After you have found the best answer to a question, act on that answer. Make your critical thinking the basis for the creation of an identity of which you can be proud. Put it to work for yourself and for the community in which you find yourself.
Remember, the payoff of becoming a better critical thinker is in our subsequent behavior. I kinda like the sound of that. Reminds me of something CS Lewis once wrote:
As the author of the Theologia Germanica says, we may come to love knowledge -- our
knowing -- more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar's life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.
Unfortunately, critical thinking takes time. And in our time-obsessed culture, we just don’t have the patience for it. Even when our sitting president (whom I voted for) urges the press corps just to report what he or his administration says without bothering to look “at the other side” because the other side is stupid or out of touch or dead wrong or whatever reason, I see clearly that something is dead wrong with our obsession with time. My goals: Read this book again several times over, learn how to become a critical thinker, and then s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Or at least replace any quick wise-assery with nonsequiturs, which aren’t all that helpful to the conversation but at least get out that urge to participate without thinking in a more harmless fashion.

All joking aside, this book is a wonderful guide for anyone (student, journalist, blogger, YouTube commenter) who wants to move beyond the quick to really get the tools to become a better, more critical thinker. I’m hoping that there are a few good thinkers among the Obama press corps who listened to what he said and said, “Wait, whut?” and then went on doing their own critical thinking, occasionally dismissing the “other side” because, yes, they are full of hooey, but occasionally reminding himself or herself that the world is rarely black and white, that there are almost always more than two alternatives and that even sitting presidents of the United States can fall victim to any of the common logical fallacies Browne and Keeley outline in their book, or, at worst, one of the classic blunders Vizzini talks about:

Funny I should bring Vizzini up: Browne and Keeley talk a lot about looking at our own values, assessing their own strengths and weaknesses and how we can better use what we believe (or adjust what we believe) as we embark on the critical thinking path. Vizzini obviously believed that the Man in Black would rely on his great physical strength to overcome the poison and thus thought his intellect was superior – not knowing that the Man in the Black had gamed the system by using his brains to augment his physical strength by building up an immunity to iocane powder.

Same values differential going on here, between Satchel the dog and Bucky the cat:

Satchel is obviously more interested in getting Rob a gift he knows he wants, while Bucky, blinded by his own values and selfishness, can’t see how Satchel’s beliefs are worth a hill of beans. A good critical thinker Bucky is not. (Satchel isn’t all that smart, either, but he obviously believes in friendship through buying a wanted gift much more than Bucky does.)

Why am I reading this book? In a few weeks, I’ll be teaching a class that centers on it, so I’d better know it inside and out. And I want to become a better teacher by way of helping my students think more critically, so I’ve got to do some learning myself.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

eBook Arfhebung

My wife is deeply involved in ebooks.

One of the final classes she’s taking for her masters degree in technical writing concerns ebooks. Her final project includes producing an ebook of her own – in her case, a book of recipes used at Island Park Scout Camp (where she’ll work this summer as assistant cook to our very own Jana Porter).

As part of her class, she and a partner are writing a paper on the future of ebooks. She had me read the rough portion of her draft, and it got me to thinking. As she points out, we are only at the infancy of ebooks. And how ebooks will evolve is going to depend a lot more on authors and fans than on publishers, who are going to be less and less willing to take creative risks with ebook content than are authors and fans – despite the connection (and promised spending power) connecting fans and authors together can bring.

I should qualify what I say: The big boys – the Crichtons, the Rowlings, etc, will have the full force and clout of traditional publishing houses behind them, because the publishers can see an instant return on investment. But for the nobody author like yours truly, the animus to animate ebooks with more than a digital pouring of words into an ereader is going to lie with authors and fans, not publishers.

Here’s what I told my wife:

When you mention Harry Potter, you might mention or do a comparison between our current newspapers and the interactive newspapers in the wizarding world (If you want to get that nerdy) – and then make a corollary comparison between print books and ebooks – in that we’re only seeing the beginning of the interactive possibilities with ebooks. Right now, for ebooks, we’re just taking traditional text and pouring it into an electronic format. With Push whatever press, they’re taking on the next level of interactivity. For your IPSC cookbook, for example, later on you could add videos of Jana in the kitchen preparing her meals, prepping the kitchen, serving up, interviews with staff on their favorite meals at camp, a walk through the camp, etc – stuff that you’d never get in a traditional book.

This blows up an entire new segment, however – the author has either to become a videographer and more explicity visual storyteller, or the author has to team up with someone who has these visual skills – levels of commitment that traditional publishers may not be interested in because they may fear they may never recoup the cost of all the extras. But as we see with the extras on DVDs, the level of care the authors puts into them attracts their core audiences even more, bringing them into the story – so there is a benefit, no matter the cost, and if authors can figure out how to mitigate the costs by doing the work themselves or possibly, in future editions, integrating fan fiction, fan art, fan-performed stuff that connects with their original story, their connection to their audiences becomes deeper, richer – and then more likely the audience will be more willing to keep on buying the product.

Anyway, that’s a blog post for the future.

I do like your paper. I guess I’m getting excited about the possibilities.
So as I work on my first ebook – Michelle is going to show me what she knows – I’m going to have to figure out how to add these additional elements. Baby steps at first, of course. But I think I’ve got an inkling of the idea. It’s the book trailer, but expanded and more convoluted and evolved.

It’s basically producing a movie of your book, all at the same time.

But who is going to do all of this? And with what money?

Maybe the best ones will all be fan-sourced.

Imagine a DVD extra of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with this film included. Multiplied by a thousand.

(V) (;,,;) (V)

Had the following technical communication conversation with my wife earlier today:

WIFE: You know when people are sending texts, and they use abbrevaitions like LOL, OMG -- what do they call that? Abbreviations? That doesn't sound right.

ME: I don't know. I know what you mean, though. Abbreviations sounds old-fashioned. [Consults almighty Google.] Well, Wikipedia mentions abbreviations, and then goes into SMS -- Short Messaging Service.

WIFE: But that's outdated, isn't it?

ME: I think so. I don't think those who text say they're using SMS Language.

So, texting folks: What do you call your little abbreviations? I'm not talking about emoticons, or the Dr. Zoidberg/Homer Simpson shapey-thingies (though it sounds like I need a little help on those as well).

Help a fossil out here. Before I go off for a scuttle.

(V) (;,,;) (V)

Mandelbrot and Fibonacci Mush

I’m trying – really trying – to understand why I should care about Fibonacci numbers.

Today’s contemplation all started with today’s New Adventures of Queen Victoria comic strip, in which artist Pab Sungenis the following:

I’ve heard of the sequence before. I know that it’s been “spotted in nature.” I know it gets math nerds as excited as Winston Churchill retorts get word nerds excited.

I just don’t know why I need to be excited about it.

Whee. The Fibonacci sequence has been noticed in the clustering of florets in some flowers. That’s neat. It’s just as neat as the phenomenon of pareidolia, which involves people spotting, say, images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in tortillas, tree bark, or grilled cheese sandwiches. Just because you can sorta see something in something else doesn’t mean it’s there on purpose or that I should get all whipped up about it. Maybe those florests arrange themselves that way because that’s how they’re arranged. Then we come along behind and notice that some mathematical sequence happens to match the pattern and then boom it’s the Face on Mars all over again, but since it’s science-y, that takes the curse off it.

All of this reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel “The Ghost From the Grand Banks,” in which the story’s requisite genius has a lake in the form of the Mandelbrot Set. He had to include the Mandelbrot Set in a novel because, well, it was the newest, neatest science-y mathematical thingie to mince down the pike.

Problem is, he had no idea what to DO with the Mandelbrot Set now that it was in his novel, except to have it be the place where the requisite genius (or whomever, it’s been a while since I read it) meets his/her/its end. The lake could have been in the shape of, say, a four-leaf clover or the sigmoid colon and the end would have been just the same: Genius and/or minion and/or relative dies in the lake, shaped like the whatever.

If a science weenie like Clarke (he came up with the concept of geosynchronous satellites, for heaven’s sake) can’t do much beyond introducing a mathematical wowie as a mediocre plot device in a rather boring novel, then how do the rest of us stand a chance at getting all excited about it?

Heaven knows I tried. Waaaaay back when the Mandelbrot Set was all the rage, I labirously typed a computer program into my Radio Shack Color Computer 3 to reproduce the Mandelbrot Set on my computer. I remember sitting there, watching the image slowly – and I mean slowly – form on my screen, and stroking out every time one of he pixels turned up a color other than black, because that meant the program was going to run faster for a while until it got back to that familiar field of black.

I’m not saying here that these sequences and sets aren’t neat, or that they don’t help to solve problems, or help mathematicians to visualize what’s going on in nature or the universe or whatever. I’m just saying that the public relations people they have working with them aren’t doing their best to get the rest of us excited about it all.

Maybe I’ll go read about Mario Mertz instead.

Teaching, Yeah. Research? Maybe.

Time to see if therey's any lint in that navel of mine.

A year ago, when I started teaching at BYU-Idaho, I entered into the thing thinking that -- aside from the money -- what I might get out of the experience is a taste for whether I want to pursue a doctorate in technical communication and end up on the teaching/research end of things, rather than on the practical application side, as I am (kinda, sorta) now.

First, the obligatory reference to bellybuttons:

(And you'll be surprised how hard it is to find a decent copy of this video on YouTube. Too many "Patrick plays his belly while I play unfitting music" versions. Call me a purist.)

This one, fortunately, was easier:

Now, what was I talking about again? Oh yeah. Teaching at BYU-Idaho, and whether it has inspired me to pursue a doctorate and, ultimately, more teaching opportunities.

My navel contemplation comes out to this reading: Prospects are unclear.

To say teaching is the most exciting thing I have done would be to lie. Maybe it has to do with teaching undergraduates -- and those not necessarily serious about writing -- than anything else. That's not to disparage my undergrad students. Many of them are good writers, and, to a student, they are willing to learn or at least jump through the hoops to get a passing grade in their required English class. I come into this teaching thing with the rose-colored glasses of having taken 2 1/2 years of online courses as a grad student with fellow grad students (though we had our fair share of flakes there too) so I'm not coming at the grad/undergrad thing from a neutral position. But part of me wonders if thi would be more enjoyable if I were teaching older students.

Then again, part of me wonders if I'd be better off honing my skills at teaching a while longer before I make any conclusions.

The teaching factor is only of minor concern. I enjoy teaching enough I could go into teaching full-time without too much difficulty. Other aspects of the leap, however, are less appealing.

If I could teach entirely online, without having to move to Logan, I'd be good. We just bought a house in Idaho and are in the throes (final week, we hope) of installing a $17,000 furnace and duct system in it, so to say I want to turn around and sell the house right away to go after a new job isn't appealing. That may turn around to bite me in the butt whether I decide to go further with my education or not, but that's a bridge we'll cross when we come to it. Utah State is moving to make its technical communication doctorate more of an online thing if what my wife (who is in the last semester of her Masters degree in the same program) is telling me is true -- but I have yet to see how that would all work out, as they want to groom new teachers and researchers.

And yeah, there's the research. Is there really anything new to be said in technical communication? Or would some university pay me to tinker around anf uss and futz and not expect results, as the private sector does?


I, too, have worked in the private sector (well, pseudo-private right now. I work for a government subcontractor, which is weird in its own right).

I don't want to do that as a researcher or whatever. So I'll have to think about the research thing a bit longer. Develop a greater curiosity for all things technical communication-y, so to say. So help me.

Monday, April 2, 2012

I Miss My Desktop

As regular readers of this blog know, we moved recently. And by recently, I mean in mid-February, so about a month and a half ago. That meant that prior to the move, my desktop computer was boxed up. I think it spent a total of about four weeks in boxes until we finally were able to move in and begin settling in our things.

Inevitably, there were roadblocks.

First, our Internet didn't work. Then it worked but I had to get wireless antannae for my computer and the kids' computer. Then everything worked and it was bliss. For about two weeks. Then the furnace guys came and, of course, my desk was in their way. So the computer and desk got moved and I am, once again, sans desktop.

Not the end of the world, obviously. I'm on the kids' computer right now, slouching painfully to get down on their little desk. My computer is still out of commission, doing little more than acting as a print server right now. Maybe in another week -- once the furnace guys are done and I've done the drywall necessary in the basement to hide their handiwork -- I'll get my desktop back.

In the meantime, I'm mobile.

We're a mobile family. That seems odd, considering the screeds I've written here about my disdain for tablet computers. But as my wife has an iPad 2, as I have a Kindle Fire, as we both have iPod Touches, it was inevitable that I'd be turned around on the subject.

But not completely.

Text entry on even the largish iPad is a pain, even with the wireless keyboard my wife got for her device. It's not a full keyboard and is missing some keys in strategic places, making it cumbersome for touch typists such as ourselves. Given the limitations of keyboard entry on tablets, I'm worried that a generation is going to pass wherein they do not learn to touch type, which would be a shame if they weren't so damn fast at texting. I suppose that's the touch typing for a new generation -- except you can't text type on a tablet -- it's too big. There, you have to hunt and peck.

I recall, in junior high school, being fairly fast at hunt and peck. But after taking a typing class in high school -- yes, a full-blown typing course, on electronic typewriters no less -- I learned that hunting and pecking has its limitations when speed is needed. I know it's fun once and a while to wow the people out at work with how fast I can type -- and compared to the best touch-typists, I'm painfully slow. (I can manage about 70 wpm, which is anemic at best.)

But it's not just the typing that makes me miss my desktop.

Screen size, that's another thing. I love this big screen, even though it's still relatively tiny. It's about four times as big as the screen on my Kindle Fire, so I don't have to squint with my now 40-year-old eyes. (Yeah, I'm a fossil. Will dissolve into oil any day now.) And as handy as pinching and spreading is for magnifying and demagnifying my tablet screen text, I still cherish being able to see everything at once.

Getting on of those laser keyboards for my Kindle, now that would be interesting. Then I'd have to get a stand. Maybe a mouse, because who wants to keep poking at the screen when I'm typing? Oh. I have a setup like that. At least I will, when the furnace guys finish.

Well Trolled, Mr. Stein

TIME magazine's Joel Stein just successfully trolled every rabid reader on the Internet.

In a short screed entitled "Adults Should Read Adult Books," Stein argues that adults shouldn't be reading things like Twilight, The Hunger Games, the Harry Potter series, but rather should read books meant for adults.

Of course, this is classic Joel Stein being Joel Stein: Taking up a contrary or trollish position just to watch, as Scott Adams might say, the monkeys dance. And in reading the comments posted on his articles, I have to conclude that the monkeys are dancing indeed.

He may indeed hold true to his dictum that books written for children (or tweens, nor whatever marketing-speak you want to use) should only be read by the intended audience. He may simply be expressing a weariness for the popular at the expense of what he calls "3,000 years worth of fiction" meant for adults (I've read some of it. A lot of it is great. Some of it is mediocre. And some of it is dead boring).

He might also be right. I've read the Harry Potter books, and while they're great for stories, the writing is only mediocre. I've not read any of the Twilight books, and might consider reading the Hunger Games series, but at the moment there are other things calling from the bookshelves. This doesn't mean I don't read these "kinds of things," just that I'm not reading them at the moment of their popularity. I'm reading some other mediocre literature aimed at adults, putting off the popular until, I don't know, I'm in the mood, I suppose.

But there is some "kid stuff" out there that's rather much more lyrically written, and certainly more thought-provoking, than some of the "adult" stuff I've read. Lois Lowry's "The Giver," for one. That's a mind-wrenchingly good story, written well, that confronts some serious adult themes, all wrapped up in a tidy little tale for children. I hope Mr. Stein has read it.