Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dare Mighty Things




The Hermit of Iapetus is going to have to know this kind of stuff. He's going to have to know how to dare mighty things, and completely on his own as well, because there's no one there to help him out if he gets stuck.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Kindle-Free

Because three children under 12 tried to drag me into an argument over who got to lay in the hammock in the cabin up at Island Park Scout Camp, I inadvertently left my Kindle Fire there, in care of said children and my wife, who have spent the balance of the summer working at the camp leaving me to fend for myself in the wilds of Ammon, Idaho. (The Kindle was in the cabin and they were arguing at me when I was trying to pack after spending the weekend there. I packed hurriedly and fled.)

That in of itself is tragic. But now I must spend the entire week without my beloved precious. We'll see how that goes.

I know that sounds funny, coming from a guy whose house is bulging with electronics, including a formerly much-beloved iPod Touch that was relegated to alarm clock status until the Fire Debacle occurred this weekend.

I will try to remain strong.

First impressions:
  1. The iPod Touch is incredibly small. It is the noisy cricket of tablets. Every time I pick it up, it feels like I'm holding one of the more fragile Faberge eggs.
  2. I'm still a nervous nelly about missing my alarm, no matter what device I'm using to get myself out of bed. I finally gave up checking the time when I woke up ten minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off.
  3. I wish I knew what happened to my iPod Touch case, packed away when we moved and now the only significant item of mine that remains AWOL. Maybe I should check the boxes that hold my ugly tie and Mexican wrestling mask collections.
  4. My wife will probably want a report on my Kindle-free week, as she mocks me mercilessly for how often I'm seen, Kindle in hand. Although she is the one who insists on taking her iPad to the grocery store on the flimsy notion that it contains her shopping list.
Further bulletins as events warrant.


Online Classes and the Motivated Student

From what I’ve seen in just over a year and a half of teaching online courses, it is true that the more motivated the student, the more likely they are to succeed in online classes. And though I might like to think otherwise as an online instructor, it is the student’s motivation, not the teacher’s, that makes for success.

There’s quite a bit of hand-wringing going on out there about online courses and how they leave the less-motivated students behind. There are other factors they point out that also leave other students behind, couching everything in the unrealistic idea that every educational opportunity ought to be open to everyone, no matter what inabilities or disadvantages they possess, such as in this piece from Noliwe M. Rooks in TIME magazine. Her conclusion:

If we really want to democratize education, finding creative ways to realistically open up colleges to different communities will do more to help than will a model that, despite its stated intentions, is more beneficial for students for students who are already wealthy, academically well-prepared an highly motivated. We ought to make sure that everyone has access to the same opportunities or we will further widen the opportunity gaps we mean to close.
So why not make online courses only for the motivated student?

Well, there are many reasons that would cause hand-wringing sessions of their own. First and foremost is this American idea that education ought to be available in all forms to everyone, rather than in a tailored fashion that lets students take advantage of their learned or inborn advantages and move at a brisker pace through their education. Making online classes open only to motivated students – and how do you measure motivation – smacks as undemocratic, something that’s just not allowed in educational circles.

Maybe getting these highly-motivated students out of the classroom – leaving more room for the less motivated in traditional classrooms where they can get the physical, one-on-one instruction they need – is an advantage that’s being overlooked.




Another advantage: I’ve seen highly motivated and talented writers simply go through the motions or kick against the pricks of their online course because – this is true – they already know about writing a thesis, organizing a paper, doing research and the little bitty tricks that their less-motivated and less-talented peers are still working on. They’re bored in physical classrooms and frustrated at the busywork in online courses, and I don’t blame them. These are the divergent thinkers Sir Ken Robinson talks about in this video. Why not, in fact, let these highly motivated and talented students audit courses for credit and get it without having to go through the motions at all?


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Life as A Venn Diagram

It's all about making connections.

You read A. Several months pass. You read B. More months pass. You read C and D, and then, for kicks, you read B and A again.

Then it happnes.

Something you read in A reminds you of D, so you read it again. That brings up things you read in C and B, and you start making connections.

Those connections make you more intelligent. More informed.

The media doesn't matter -- you can read books that make connections to web articles that connect to something you saw on the television which reminded you of something you heard in conversation. What matters is that your brain collects all of the funny bits of things you read or watch or absorb and it stores them away, hoping against hope that somewhere down the line something else you consume will fire those memory neurons and help build a connection.

What's more enlightening is then to see how other people miss connections. Of course, you don't brag about it. You remain humble. Because there are others noticing the connections you miss. But it's fun, this thing called learning. Creating these little Venn diagrams in our heads.

(Thanks, XKCD)

Examples: Slate.com is wailing about gun control in the light of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. Because guns were involved, the only way to fix things is with structer gun control laws.

Slate is also shaking its head about right-wing wailing about abortion in the light of a woman who died at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Chicago as she was undergoing an abortion. That death doesn't mean abortion should be banned, Slate says.

They've missed a connection here, of course. As have the strict gun nuts who lament loss of their freedom while at the same time wishing to curtail the frrdom of others.

This brings up sticky ethical conundrums, of course. Never said noticing connections and dealing with their implcations was easy.

Another exmple: Since I work in the nuclear industry, I read a lot about its history. I'm just finishing up a biography of Albert Einstein, in which one chapter outlines Einstein's involvement with the Manhattan Project. I've also read books on the Manhattan Project by Richard Rhodes, where Einstein's involvement is also mentioned. Both authors approached their subject matter from different points of view, and because I've read both sets of books, I can see the connections between them.

One connection: Einstein is one of those Men Who Are Supposed to Know. Since he was a brilliant physicist, many, many people approached him for his opinion on sundry subjects ranging from Palestine to minor bits of scientific quackery. The author of this book points out that while Einstein was a genius in physics, he was pretty naive in other areas -- most other areas. So the connection I make here is: When you hear an opinion being offered by a prominent person, double check to make sure it's an opinion on which they're qualified to speak. Fame isn't a qualifier for everything under the sun. So I remember that when I'm tempted to comment on something on which I've developed an opinion but not the expertise.

Every Day's A Good Day With Your Paint

Those folks who brought us a singing, philosophical Mr. Rogers now present a singing, philosophical Bob Ross.




Every day is a good day with your paint. Or, in my case, my words. I will push myself to become one of these people uninhibited by what the world thinks of my talents, and just develop them.

Words . . . Words . . . and Words.

What if they held an election and nobody came?

Well, first of all, the election would come to you, if with this twisted phrase I may continue the vein of the Bertold Brecht poem that inspired it. Maybe (more on the maybe later):

What if they gave a war and nobody came?
Whey, then, the war would come to you
He who stays home when the fight begins
And lets another fight for his cause
Should take care:
He who does not take part
In the battle will share in the defeat.
Even avoiding battle will not avoid battle.
Since not to fight for your own cause
Really means
Fighting on behalf of y our enemy’s cause.

Or – and there’s always an ‘or’ in these kinds of things – perhaps you’d like to continue in the vein of the Carl Sandburg poem that inspired the phrase:

The first world war came and its cost was laid on the people.
The second world war — the third — what will be the cost.
And will it repay the people for what they pay?...
The little girl saw her first troop parade and asked,
‘What are those?’
‘Soldiers.’
‘What are soldiers?’
‘They are for war. They fight and each tries to kill as many of the other side as he can.’
The girl held still and studied.
‘Do you know ... I know something?’
‘Yes, what is it you know?’
‘Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.’

Or the Allen Ginsburg poem from the 1960s:

What if they gave a war and nobody came?
Life would ring the bells of ecstasy and forever be itself again.

I do know the phrase inspired some awful pop art. And some awful modern poetry as well.

But suppose they held an election and nobody came?

Also an unoriginal question. Google that and Google spits out 160 million responses, almost all of them along the same vein as this:

It would have to be absolutely nobody. Because the bums get one vote, and they’re in.

Or you get something like this:



Not nearly as political a statement as trying to elect Pigasus as president, but just as useful, I suppose.

What’s the point of all this? Nothing, really. A collection of words that pretty much mean nothing.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Group Writing


Yeah, that's been my experience. Not that collaborative writing is all that bad, if you've got one person really calling the shots. But to say you're going to get a group of people in the same room and have them come out with a coherent document without carrying with them the baggage of festering hatred towards their fellow "writers" is to lie.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Popehat, I Am Disappoint

Popehat, I am disappoint.

Though I don’t always agree with what is written here, I always appreciate the reasoned approach to what is written. Your post concerning the Boy Scouts of America falls short of the reason I expect from Popehat. Your post concerning Chick-fil-A – in which you express your abhorrence of what this restaurant’s ownership stands for – is better reasoned than this one. You express your revulsion for the owners’ stance on gay marriage, but at the same time roll your eyes at the mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, who threatened to effectively bar the restaurant from opening in his city though the denial of licenses because of the owners’ stance. That’s why you shouldn’t be puzzled, as you say in your postscript, by the “implication in a few of the emails that I’m suggesting the BSA ought to be coerced by the government into changing its policies.” The bone thrown to Chick-fil-A and the absence of any similar bone thrown to the BSA invites such an implication.

Maybe you were planning on writing something similar to the following in a subsequent post. You might have better served your readers – and avoided any implication of favoring government coercion, as you did in your Chick-fil-A post, by writing something similar to what follows:

The US Supreme court has interpreted the First Amendment of the Constitution as allowing for freedom of association. In 1995, the court decided unanimously in Hurley v the Irish America Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston that the organizers of that city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade could not be forced by government to allow the group to march in the parade.

In 2000, the court decided in a 5-4 decision in BSA v Dale that the BSA could not be forced by the state to reinstate an assistant scoutmaster the group dismissed when he came out of the closet. The majority decision in BSA v Dale says in part:
We are not, as we must not be, guided by our views of whether the Boy Scouts' teachings with respect to homosexual conduct are right or wrong; public or judicial disapproval of a tenet of an organization's expression does not justify the State's effort to compel the organization to accept members where such acceptance would derogate from the organization's expressive message. While the law is free to promote all sorts of conduct in place of harmful behavior, it is not free to interfere with speech for no better reason than promoting an approved message or discouraging a disfavored one, however enlightened either purpose may strike the government.
Please feel free to call the BSA a bigoted organization. Please feel free not to associate with this group, if you so choose – it is your Constitutional right, after all. But no matter how much you may despise the BSA for what it stands for in the case of homosexuality, please uphold the reasoned approach to the rule of law that Popehat has, until this post, upheld, even if you have to hold your nose while doing so. Chick-fil-A got such treatment from Popehat. Why can’t the BSA?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Yershi Babbling

You'll note, dear reader, that I have just published a bit from my novel work in progress, YERSHI THE MILD. Here's why:

The experts tell you when you write anything that the best way to edit it is to set it aside for a week, a month, or longer, then come back to it, read it, and find its flaws.

Well, I have done everything in that formula but read my story again, and I already know where many of its flaws are. I know I need to spend a lot more time with Yershi and Shadow getting comfortable with each other, Shadow learning from Yershi, and Yershi eventually talking about why he's left the field of assassin to become an alchemist. There's a lot more story telling to take place, and this little installment is only a part of it.

Another part of it is that I need to do some more reading and research into alchemy, specifically the writings of 11th century alchemist Roger Bacon, in order to get this new influx of novel stuff working. So I will continue working on such and let y'all know what's going on.

What does that mean: I had hoped to publish Yershi this summer as an ebook, but it's going to have to wait now until fall or winter. Still want to get a 2012 publish date on it, but why publish before it's ready?

Yes, Yershi


Yershi set to weeding the garden, and motioned that I should join him.

He planted a garden, though coin did not lack in his house and plenty of fresh provender could be found at the market in the village. The garden had quickly become a sore spot between Yershi and I. He saw to it that weeding became one of my first chores, and I saw to it that weeding was the chore I despised the most.

“You have no patience, Shadow,” Yershi said, setting his small spade aside. “Look at how you tear the weeds out of the earth.”

“They’re gone, are they not,” I asked, pointing to the weed-free patch near the carrots, where I had been working. “My spot is much bigger than yours. So who is it who is working faster?”

“Haste, yes, always haste with the young, as I recall,” Yershi said. He grabbed his spade, thrust it into the center of the patch I’d cleared and pulled out a scoopful of soil.

“See the white worms – the roots – here in your soil,” he asked.

I nodded.

“They are the weeds lurking beneath the surface. While the green seeks the sun, the root seeks the earth and water. Cut off the green and the root will grow new green, because whatever virtue the green finds in the sun is stored in the roots – this I know because you see the green wilts when it is cut, but the root will always grow back new green unless it is taken out completely.”

He thrust his spade into his smaller spot and poured the earth from it slowly.

“See here, Shadow,” he said. “There are no roots. Well, there may be tiny roots – see how there are hairs on this one. Your patch will be weedy a week or two hence, but this patch, my patch, where I have taken out the virtue of sun and water and earth, will be bare much longer.”

He left to tend the pigs, thrusting his spade into my patch of earth before he departed, giving me a look.

I took up the spade, dug about in the patch and pulled out as many roots as I could.

He was right. Though some were thick, most, near their ends and occasionally on an underground branch, the roots grew thinner and spidery, finally disappearing altogether. I held up a slender root. Therein lies the captured virtue of the sun, I thought. The sun. No wonder Yershi uses so many roots in his potion. I thought at first it was because he had nothing else to put in them. But the manuscripts I have read – I have progressed far with my reading since coming to live with Yershi – call for sun in many of the mixtures, and I never saw Yershi set a cup in a sunbeam.

What virtue lies in sun? On a hot day I can feel sunlight strong on my arms, my neck. Sometimes after too much time in the sun I feel weak and my skin turns red and hurts – too much of the sun’s virtue, I suspect?

But the plants. The plants know how to extract that virtue and store it deep in the earth, hidden in their roots. Maybe, when the fall comes and the plants wither in the cold, the roots go on living, insulated in the soil, to sprout again when they feel the earth thaw and the ice depart.
All that time, trudging through the snow, digging up frozen potatoes and yams, I was eating sunlight.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Tumbleweed


I never feared walking in the dark until that tumbleweed rattled off the side of the railroad track into my path.

No wind, just the moon and stars.

The tumbleweed didn’t tumble. It scuttled. Then froze. Its core gathered black, but the spindly tips were grey or white or moonbeam.

It snorted. Then scuttled some more.

I backed away, hoping to find the turn in the trail that brought me to the weed.

It snorted again.

From the core, beady eyes stared.

A nose sniffed. The weed growled quietly, like a cat.

“I’m leaving, buddy,” I said to the weed. “Don’t get nervous. I’m leaving.”

The weed scuttled some more and a cloud shadowed the moon.

From the core of the weed, the beast, two faint stars glowed. Filtered moonlight reflected off the quills.

The constellation porcupine blinked, and its two biggest stars went out.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The BSA, LGBT, and the Slippery Slope

Again I approach a delicate subject: The decision of the Boy Scouts of America to maintain its ban on openly-gay leaders (and, presumably) Scouts, in its organization.

That decision came this week, and has met with some derision.

I have to say this: Despite what I may think of the constitutionality of banning gay marriage, I side with the BSA in their decision.

How can I hold such dichotomous beliefs? What I believe isn’t as dichotomous as it appears.

The Scout Promise in the United States (and The Philippines) is as follows:

On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.

It’s the last two words that get people all in a knot. Though they do not appear in Baden-Powell’s original Scout oath, their addition for the BSA is significant, and, in light of the BSA board’s decision this week, still being upheld. Morally straight, of course, does not bear solely the implication that scouts will avoid a homosexual lifestyle, but, in turn, that they will avoid pornography, crude humor, casual sex, alcohol, drugs, and other elements and activities that are regarded as immoral by the BSA. There is no indoctrination within the BSA that urges Scouts to hate gays, or to treat them differently or with derision. That being said, I can’t say that there aren’t individuals within the BSA that hold such beliefs or demonstrate such behavior; any given group will demonstrate bigotry, indoctrinated hatred and intolerance, whether you’re speaking of the KKK or, say, any LGBT organization.

Put another way: Forcing beliefs of a different stripe on an organization you believe is forcing its beliefs on others is, at best, hypocritical.

Additionally, I refuse to fall down the slippery slope that’s always dragged into such arguments: If the BSA can openly ban gays, why, then, couldn’t it ban blacks, or Asians, or members of any ethnic group?

Thing with slippery slopes is that both sides slip on them. There’s a slippery slope that says, for example, that homosexuals are more prone to abusing children, to hitting on anyone of the same sex and other such nonsense. Such things are not true.

Same for the BSA. If the BSA suddenly decided to ban blacks, or as has occurred in the southern US, ban members of the LDS Church from holding leadership positions or participating in Scouting, you bet I’ll be upset – as will the BSA national organization.

Though I have expressed doubts on the likes of Proposition 8’s constitutionality, I think I’ve been careful to say that despite my feelings that such laws don’t meet constitutional muster, there are deeper, spiritual reasons that make me cautious about fully supporting a homosexual lifestyle. I don’t expect or pretend that these reasons will be understood, but I do expect that these reasons will be respected, or at least considered thoughtfully.

Those in the LDS Church are reminded that to progress fully as we continue our lives after our time here on earth, marriage between man and woman is not only expected but eternally needful. Any other arrangement bars progression. That choice, as with all other choices we make in our pre-earth life, our life now, and in the life to come, are left to us because we have our free agency, or the ability to make choices ourselves. But as we make choices, we have to understand that there are consequences that come with the decisions we make. If we choose a homosexual lifestyle and eschew a traditional marriage, then, we must acknowledge that our progress toward godhood will be stopped. We will not have reached our full potential.

Choosing a homosexual lifestyle, of course, isn’t the only choice that bars progress – we’re reminded of so many potential stops to our progress in the scriptures, ranging from adultery to murder to denying the Holy Ghost. All of those choices come with consequences, and, as rational, free individuals who understand the rules, we have to accept the consequences of the choices we make.

Thus, the LDS Church is within its spiritual right to legislate against gay marriage, though such efforts, as I have outlined earlier, are hardly likely to meet Constitutional muster. At the same time, the LDS Church has expressed support for civil unions, which allow same-sex couples civil and legal rights to co-own property, be classified as dependents, and such, without encouraging violation of the spiritual law.

Homer Simpson, that noted philosopher, once said this: “It takes two to lie, Marge. One to lie and one to listen.” The more I ponder what he says, the more I see the truth in it.

An openly gay individual who wants to participate in the BSA encourages two people to lie. When the oath is said, both sides know the “morally straight” admonition is not being followed. The oath is said with a wink and crossed fingers. The oath is said with a lie.

Should any LGBT organization be required to allow individuals who support civil unions, but not gay marriage, participate in that group’s activities, even if that person conceals his or her beliefs and thus lies through association with a group that holds publicly-expressed beliefs that he or she does not support? Such groups typically call for those who hold beliefs opposed to theirs to change – do they call for such orthodoxy within their own ranks? Or is that regarded as intolerant by those preaching tolerance?

If strict orthodoxy is to be maintained, then, well, here we go on the slippery slope once more, folks.

A note on Constituionality: The US Supreme court has ruled specifically that forcing the BSA to change its policy violates the group’s First Amendment rights of free association.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Present Tense

Present tense, I tell my students. Present tense. If you want to bring your audience into an important part of your life -- be it past, present, or future -- the present tense is your best friend.

Speaking or writing in the present brings a sense of immediacy. It helps your audience feel like they're at your side or on your shoulder as you relate your experiences.

Today I stumbled across a study that helps, in part, prove my thesis, though for some it might seem the proof is morally questionable. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the Autonoma Unversity of Madrid, Spain, asked 153 students to write about their personal experiences with binge drinking, using either the past or present tense.

Here's what they found, according to Medicalxpress.com:
How we recall and communicate a past event influences future decisions, Dr. [Dolores] Albarracin explains.

Recalling a past instance of binge drinking can lead to intentions to repeat what one habitually does or what seems beneficial depending on what verb tense is used. Reliving the past of drinking excessively in the present tense (I am drinking) makes people use their past behavior as a guide for future intentions: Regardless of whether people drank a lot or abstained in the past, they intend to do the same in the future. Recalling the past in the past tense (I drank), however, leads to more abstract types of thought and thus forming intentions on the basis of how good or bad drinking seems.
The study suggests that alcoholics working in self-help groups would be better served by writing or speaking about their attitudes toward not drinking and making positive changes in behavior by doing so in the present tense, while writing about the negative aspects of their drinking in the past tense.

Their experiments showed that recollections in the present tense had "more concrete interpretation[s] and impact[s], while past tense recollections were more abstract."

So to expand this into writing or speaking in general: Present tense brings more concrete interpretations and I argue, more vivid recollection of detail and more passion to tell a compelling story, while the past tense is jsut a crutch used to get through an event quickly in order to meet the expectations of a recalled memory or moment -- I've seen this a lot in my English 106 class at BYU-Idaho these past few weeks. Those students who wrote in the present tense are showing, not telling, and getting better grades to boot.

What's interesting is that the study looked at the difficulty the participants had in writing about their experience from a mechanical/grammatical/workload point of view, and found that the difficulty their subjects encountered with the task of writing didn't have in impact on their recollections, no matter the tense they used.

Monday, July 16, 2012

25 Cents A Day, Plus Expenses

Donald J. Sobol, even more than the authors of my pre-algebra books, taught me one thing: The best stuff is always at the back of the book. And like the befuddled mathematician looking up those andwers to all the odd questions in the back of the book, looking in the back of Donald J. Sobol's Encyclopedia Brown books led me to realize that maybe I should try to sort things out in the front of the book first, just so everything makes sense in the end.

Sobol's Encyclopedia, plus the ineffable Mr. Brown, always willing to flip open that notebook and share the details of the city's most recent bizarre crime with his young son, were constant companions in the back of most of the classrooms I inhabited at Lincoln Elementary. I wrote many book reports based on his books and imagined that the schoolyard bullies were all members of The Tigers, Bugs Meany's petty little gang of unintelligent miscreants.

Imagining foiling Bugs and is fleshy compatriots time and again, with or without the help of spunky female sidekick Sally Kimball, filled many hours at Lincoln. I never was really amart enough to apply Encyclopedia's brains or Sally's spunkiness to real-life situations, as real life doesn't have the solutions in the back of the book. But I made many good college tries and then, in junior high school, moved on to other things, such as not giving a fig for what the bullies said. They moved on to less confident victims.

Sobol apparently died late last week. He's second only to E.W. Hildick for the most notable author in my childhood.

Sobol's ability to spin out original stories in such simplified language still astounds as I read the books now (and pass them on to my kids).

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Borrowed from the Fridge -- Idaho: A Great State


I don't know if Idaho is in the market for a new promotional poster, but if it is, here you go. Yeah, Old Faithful is a little out of place. But the heart is there. And what state wouldn't want to be represented by a weenie dog fishing from horseback, while harvesting potatoes?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Best Part: Here is Your War


Pages 244-245, "Here is Your War," by Ernie Pyle

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.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Will Amazon's Same-Day Delivery Kill Local Retail? Price is the Answer

Both Farhad Manjoo and Matthew Yglesias at Slate.com are convinced that Amazon.com’s push to offer next-day or same-day delivery for free* by opening up a score of more local distribution centers capable of plopping the laptop computer you ordered in the AM on your doorstop in the PM is going to be the death of local retail.

Hogwash.

Please, paint me as skeptical. Because here’s the thing that they’re both missing: Amazon.com isn’t always the best deal. I confess I have used Amazon to buy stuff on the cheap. Need a computer cable or a bit of software? Chances are Amazon is your go-to place, and for good reason. A few years ago I ordered an adapter that would allow me to plug a second monitor into my computer, for less than $5 – when no such thing was available locally. Score for me and for Amazon.

But just last week I bought a new laptop computer locally at Staples for a bargain price – after rebates, of course – of $480. I could also have purchased it locally at WalMart for $650. Or from Amazon.com for $606.88. Same specs. Same features. Same everything. Same-day delivery from Amazon is going to kill local retail? I don’t think so. Not at these prices. Even if I blew off the rebates, I’d only pay $529 for the laptop from Staples. Amazon isn’t even touching that price.

Buying mindlessly from any store – bricks and mortar or online – because of the perks is a good way to get taken on price. Comparison shopping is going to be your best bet. And while I have bought a lot of cables and software and such from Amazon and Newegg and other such online retailers, three out of the last four computers we’ve purchased have come from our humble, local Staples store, which has always beat the socks off the big internet retailers in price.

Yeah, I’m boosting a bricks and mortar behemoth rather than shopping at a local mom-and-pop shop. So what? Their argument is that Amazon is going to kill local retail, whether it’s mom and pop or a brick and mortar chain. Not so, says I.

It’s the same thing I argue with WalMart. We have a supercenter within walking distance of our home, but most of our grocery shopping is done further afield at WinCo, because WinCo’s prices on most things are better. Except for the apples. Can’t figure out why WalMart can get apples cheaper than WinCo. Oh well. But even at WinCo, we’re constantly checking prices, and if we can find another store that offers the same item at a less expensive price, that’s where we’ll go. WinCo isn’t killing local grocery stores any more than WalMart is. And unless Amazon takes a critical look at its prices (and the prices of its affiliates) it’s not going to kill local retail any time soon.

*Free, I suspect, to Amazon Prime members, who pay $80 a year for the privilege. So not necessarily free, folks, not necessarily free.

Bad Configuration Management? Kaboom!

I'm no genius when it comes to computer code -- I may recognize it but all I could intelligently say about it is "Wow. Look at all the letters and numbers." -- but it sounds like the problem that led to San Diego's Fourth of July fireworks all going off at once, instead of over twenty minutes, is a simple matter of configuration management.

According to an article in the New Jersey-based Star-Ledger newspaper, the reason San Diego's fireworks all went off at once is that a backup file with an extra bit of code injected into it was used to fire the sequence, rather than the original file that did not contain the extra code.

The article describes a "complex, procedural explanation" issued by the New Jersey company in charge of the fireworks. It's not quite clear in the article what happened, but there are enough clues in the quotes from the company to indicate to me that the wrong backup file was used to fire the fireworks display.

That's got configuration management issues written all over it.

I'm no angel when it comes to configuration management, and I often pay the price for my sloppiness. Fortunately, most of the sloppiness occurs with some of my personal files, rarely with the files I work with in my full-time job -- which is a good thing, since working with multiple iterations of the same forms and procedures I work with on a daily basis could cause an awful lot of headache if the wrong file were used in the wrong place. We're pretty strict about storing just the latest and greatest of the files we're working on in a secure server, with ancillary versions and other files being hidden in the same server elsewhere -- so it's clear, if someone else has to pick up where we left off, which file is the one to be trusted and used. I do the same at home with critical files -- from my rough draft novels to my resume -- but I have slipped with some other stuff that leads to pain.

Configuration management, in this case, literally meant the final outcome blew up.




Another reason to keep your files tidy appears here. (Warning: You'll feel like you're coming in on the middle of the conversation here. I know I sure did.)



Wednesday, July 11, 2012

It's A Gasser!

Somehow, I think Marvin Acme would approve of this.

Acme, of course, loved his disappearing, reappearing ink and in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, loved squirting it on anyone he could spoof with it.

Now a publisher in Argentina has hit upon the disappearing ink part as a marketing strategy for new authors: Buy one of their books but read it quick, because within two months the special ink, once exposed to light and air, will slowly fade away, leaving you not with a book from a new author but by an artfully-bound package of note- or scrap-paper.

Yeah, I said it. Scrap paper.

Here's their promo video:




I'm a funny kind of guy. When I buy a book -- whether it's by an author I'm familiar with or not -- I like to keep it. I re-read many of the books I own, sometimes if they're bad but especially if they're good. The idea of buying a book only to have it rendered unreadable in a few months doesn't ride well with me.

The publisher in this video offers the disappearing books as a way to get new authors read, to create a sense of urgency among book buyers to buy and read books and then, two months later, go buy it again if they liked it. This, they argue, will get more new authors' books sold and help them move on to becoming authors of multiple books, rather than just one that goes unread because people bought it -- or didn't -- and then didn't read it.

It's not urgency. It's not helping new authors. It's a marketing gimmick to get people to buy books. And then, perhaps, to buy them again.

I am as yet an unpublished author. I have one book written, others in the wings. I hope to publish within the next few years, after I've polished things a bit. But the idea of selling my book to a publisher who wants to use it as an Acme gasser in order to sell more books under the guise of "helping" me? Not so sure about that. I can accomplish much better things going the ebook route and taking a risk that my work just isn't good enough to merit continuing, rather than going through the process of writing a book, seeing it sold and then seeing my audience get a litle peeved when my words literally disappear before their eyes. Ebooks are already making words more insubstnatial; I don't think we need traditional publishing houses going the same route.

The LA Times seems to like it, and implies -- parroting what's said in the video -- that the first run of books with the Acme ink sold out. Nobody's telling us how many were sold, however, so the success of the project is right now mere PR fluff, nothing more.

Mashable likes it, too, but again, no numbers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

We ARE Kings of the Forest

Over at TIME.com, James Poniewozik has written a wonderful essay on the changing ways we consume media, thanks to the prevalence of cable TV networks, the internet, DVRs, and other such technology. Providing TIME doesn’t suddenly yank Poniewozik’s essay from the interwebs and make us travel back in time to read it, it’s worth your time.

Here’s the best of Poniewozik’s essay:
The surest sign that a medium is changing is that people start to romanticize the very features of it that used to be condemned. Back when there were only three TV networks with massive audiences, for instance, they were bemoaned for homogenizing the culture and playing to the lowest common denominator; now they’re recalled fondly as a “shared cultural experience” that we no longer have in the digital-cable era.

Likewise, the episodic structure of TV exists because of commercial considerations, not storytelling ones. Episodes end on cliffhangers to bring you back the next week. Subplots are resolved in an hour to give you a sense of completion as you wait for the next installment. “Acts” end on dramatic notes to keep you from channel-flipping through the commercials.

TV, in other words, takes its form from the conditions of its creation—which makes it no different from any other art form, such as the novel. Narratives changed when they went from lyrics, meant to be remembered and recited orally, to devices printed mechanically. Their subjects changed as more people became literate and had access to print. All of that matters–but it doesn’t mean that I’m spoiling The Iliad by reading it rather than having it recited to me by an old Greek man, or that if I’m not going to read Dickens once a week in the newspaper as he meant me to, I may as well not read him at all.
I see that romanticism a lot. I’ve participated in some of it. But there is a lot of truth in what he says. We have the right to consume content as we see fit, as it fits into our schedules and how it fits into our budgets – far more than those who manufacture our media could ever imagine we would, sometimes to their chagrin.

Used to be for our family watching The Wizard of Oz on TV was a big event because, well, it was on TV, man. We didn’t have to go to the video store to rent it, or sit around waiting until VHS tapes and VCRs were invented and available to rent to the unwashed masses such as ourselves. If, for example, the scouts were fooling about in the snow making snow caves to camp out in when Oz was on TV, we simply missed it on TV that year.

No more. Now I can watch it any time I want, because I have a DVD copy at home.

We’ve broken free of predetermined schedules. We’ve broken free of television – we haven’t had paid TV services in the house since we were married in 1997 – and we didn’t have it in the house I grew up in either. Four channels. All romanticized now. Ebooks mean we don’t necessarily have to go to the book store or the library to get books to read (though I’m cheap and still get most of my books, in physical form, from thrift stores). We don’t have to subscribe (generally) to magazines or newspapers any more because we have the internet. I don’t even have to have an unsightly antenna on my house to get our local TV stations, because their websites, well, they put everything they produce on them now.

I can still watch the news. Just when I want to. How I want to. And I can skip the stupid sports reports. That’s liberation right there.

As is this:


Onward Came the Meteors

So the town of Klagenfurt, Austria, is turning itself into a virtual library.

So the wonks at Slate.com tell us. Graced with smart phones capable of reading QR codes, you may now wander the streets of this Austrian burg and download “a free literary classic via Project Gutenberg or a similar public-domain service.”

The “cool part,” Slate claims, is that you can download books or short stories or what have you that are relevant to the location you’re standing. At the police station, for example, you can download a short story called “The Murderer,” by Austrian Arthur Schnitzler. Plans are in the future to add downloads of audio and visual content at pertinent places throughout the city as well.

A loosely Google-translated website offers more information, including the tantalizing bit that local authors and artists would be allowed/invited to offer their writings, music, and such through the service as well – though all for free, “promotional” purposes, because of course part of the battle here is against draconian copyright laws that get authors paid, uh, I mean, forbid the free spread of modern content to anyone with enough money to buy a smart phone and a trip to Austria to get the stuff, since the project isn’t indexing anything on the Internet, thus not allowing anyone not physically in Austria from getting into the program.

There’s potential. One could imagine a local historical society turning to such technology to help spread local historical information – though schlubs like me who don’t have a smartphone still have to do things the old-fashioned way. But do we really need to be immersed in so much information? I enjoy going to museums, of course, but reach my saturation point after about an hour even without stopping every five seconds to scan a QR code and read what I find. I can’t even read the little information cards the museum provides on the dusty displays.

So, mixed feelings here. Offering new talent a physical distribution method, good. Insisting it be free. Well, kinda good and bad. And offering downloads from Project Gutenberg – a great thing in theory, though their ebook formatting leaves a lot to be desired.

A clever idea? Absolutely. An idea that spreads the fact that thanks to modern technology, distribution of creative matter need not be an expensive thing (unless, of course, you add in the cost of buying and maintaining a smartphone capable of reading QR codes and downloading them). That puts the cost burden of distribution on the consumer, so nothing much has changed there. I can’t say I buy into their whining about copyright, though. Authors deserve to be paid as well so they can afford the smartphones and data plans and such. Maybe 70 years is too long, but as I read their website, they appear to be whining about their struggle to get permission to use a photo that is less than two years old for their website. Really? They wanted it in the public domain that quickly? Ebook prices set at free or at 99 cents is are already eroding the value of content; cutting copyright from a draconian 70 years to a ludicrous two years isn’t going to enhance content value any further.

They dare say content is king.

They were, of course, lying.

Eat the Rich


Scott Adams, though (like the rest of us) he is a goober in many ways, certainly understands the crux of class warfare. The problem isn't that there are rich people, but that there are rich people who aren't us.

Me, I'm not bothered that there are rich people who are not me. But I am bothered when I hear other people get all hot and bothered about it. Want to be rich? Do something worthwhile that will make you so. Start some hopelessly doomed social media startup (I certainly know what that's like) or become one of those young entrepreneurs whom we read about in the paper but seldom encounter in real life.

I think this is something the Hermit of Iapetus is going to encounter:
Like convicted felons, I get love letters. There are many lonely women on Earth and Mars and Mercury and one persistently lonely woman on Titan who write me letters. They send me locks of hair and lockets to put them in; they send me letters in scented envelopes and packages containing condoms and bars of lavender soap. Many of them want to have my children.

Why, I ask them -- and I do ask every one of them, reminding them that despite the boatloads of soap sent to me over the years, I have not had but sponge baths in fifteen years, and only fifteen sponge baths at that. I do not shave. The refuges I have are tidy but odiferous, as there are many waxes and resins trapped int he crust and ice of iapetus to send out noxious odors that permeat everything I own, even the lavender soap.

But they write and write and tell me they love me and want to join me here if only, if only, if only I would say yes.

I give them the address of the federal prison on Mars and, for the most part, I never hear from them again.

Then there are the haters. Those who ooze out of the woodwork or concrete or steel to tell me they hate me because of my scraggly beard, my smelly refuges, my loneliness, my independence, my ruggedness, my taste in footwear and music and politics and reading matter and religion and the fact that I have not voted for a Democrat since I put myself in exile -- outside the political system -- fifteen years ago. It doesn't matter to them that I have not voted Republican either, nor for the Mars Independence Party, nor for Mercury Rising Patriots, nor anyone else for that matter. Nor that my ruggedness has devolved from melting refuges in Iaptetus' crust to going without ice cream.

They seem to hate me because I am here on Iapetus, free from the stucco box, as Orwell might say, as they toil in theirs no matter what orb they find themselves on.

"Please," one Earther writes, "moon me every day as you walk around on that crusty moon. Knowing that, somewhere in the cold void above my head, your ass hangs out of a space suit to mock me may make my days better. The best days are, of course, when I don't think of you at all. The worst days are when I know no matter what I try, I will never have your independence. So moon me, and may your ass freeze and fall off and leave a crater in the dust."

All that energy in hate. All that energy to write a letter and to find a post office that sells intrasolar postage -- the media have been kind enough not to reveal my electronic address, though the sellers of viagra and dating services find me well enough.
And so on. Something like that, anyway. Just an idea for now. But since my blog is my brain, better out than in, I say.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Good News Is . . .

. . . robots can't play soccer any better than I do.