Thursday, October 31, 2013


Good advice here.

I'm far too poor to pay for the right to use song lyrics in my novels. But the rough draft to The Hermit of Iapetus does have song lyrics in it.

So, what to do?

Establish the mood without quoting the words. Hint at the song, but don't quote it outright. Or maybe a line? I don't know.
Nope. Titles appear to be fair game. But not lyrics. Not even under fair use, according to this expert here.
So it's Get Creative Time. I can do that. Here's a sample:

At least this way, I don't run the risk of writing a novel in which the only good parts are those that are not original, with the original parts not being good. It'll just be mediocre all the way around.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

NoNoWriMo 2013

I have waffled about this for a while, but I have decided not to participate in National Novel Writing Month 2013.

Does that make me a wiener?
I guess so.
But I’ve got a lot going.
I’m editing one of my novels right now. It needs a lot of intensive care. I don’t see writing another novel while this one (and others) lie bleeding as a good way to spend my time, when it can be better spend making something I’ve already got in the can better.
Secondly, I’m reading a friend’s novel right now. I’m hoping if I can get his read fast enough and thoroughly enough, he’ll return the favor. Seeing how someone else writes and thinking about how my suggestions to him can make my own writing better seems like a better way to spend my November than writing a new novel that’s going to need a lot of help.
Third, I’m a lot busier now. Just got called as Scoutmaster, and that’s going to eat up a lot of time and energy. Add that to a full-time technical writing job and a part-time job teaching English, and I’ve got a full plate.
Plus I’ve got three kids who need attention and help and support and encouragement.
I’ve got a novel I started earlier this year that’s still holding my interest. I don’t want to leave it to start a new one for NaNoWriMo. It’s got a lot of promise. But also needs a lot of TLC.
Yes, there are reasons to keep writing despite everything I’ve listed here. Really good writers or really ambitious writer would keep going, damn the distractions.
Well, I’m not a really good writer, nor an ambitious one. I’ve crossed the NaNoWriMo finish line twice. And it feels great. I’d like to concentrate on crossing the self-publishing finish line with something I’ve got, and that’s going to take some effort.
Here’s someone who feels like I do, complete with typos.
Neil Gaiman agrees with me as well. Or, rather, I agree with him: “It’s astonishing how much more cheerful a place the world becomes when you start to finish things.”
That’s exactly what I aim to do.

Scoutmaster Report: One Week In

In my first week as Scoutmaster, we got the boys through two activities and didn’t lose a single one of them.

First activity: The Haunting at Krupp Scout Hollow. Bedlam in the line waiting to get in. That was the scariest part: Standing there in the semidarkness amongst a gigantic knot of boys and leaders, hoping that as I scanned the boys darting past or wrestling on the ground that they were indeed my boys – no correcting behavior tonight; just counting them. The spook alley itself was anticlimactic.
Second activity, much more sedate: Nuclear Science merit badge pow-wow with the local chapter of the American Nuclear Society. Only three boys showed up – not bad for an off-night activity. All three earned their badges. Score.
This weekend, started on my goal of meeting with the scouts and their parents. Met with two scouts, both anxious to get their Eagles before they turn fourteen. I have mixed feelings on that, but I will keep my mouth shut, because it’s none of my business whether they want to do that or not. Later this week I will meet formally with my own son, whom I’ll have in the troop for the next few months. Debating on whether to visit with the boy who is moving on to Varsity Scouts in November. I may skip him. Not because I don’t like him or anything, but my goal in meeting with them is to see what they want to do in scouting – and if they’re moving on, the interview has little value.
Those meetings will eventually spread into calendaring. I sat down yesterday to sketch out a three-month calendar, and it actually turned into a calendar almost a year long. I’ve got some gaps to fill, and – more importantly – more input to gather, but it’s at least a start on something, right?
So once I complete the calendaring and my visits, I will have completed three of my Wood Badge tickets. That’s exciting stuff. And the good news is the other two will fall into place rather quickly. Not that they’re going to be easy to do – this meeting thing is a challenge for an introverted boob like me. But there’s lots of value here, certainly if I can get boys excited about helping me out with communicating with their parents and working in the two patrols.
There’s a neat thing – I had no idea our troop had any patrol organization, but it does indeed have it. I still think dividing the troop into two smaller patrols to help pass around the leadership opportunities is a good thing, and I know of at least one scout and one father who thinks that’s a good idea as well – and it’s not me and my son, which is even better news.
So I’ve got to figure out patrol training.
Don’t want to reinvent the wheel here, but also don’t want the boys to think I’m having them do busy work.
Part of the calendaring I’m doing, however, is to encourage patrol work. One week a month I’ve designated as “requirements catch-up day.” Ideally, the week before this happens, the patrols will meet to identify what each individual scout would like to work on that day. The patrol leader will gather that information and present it to the senior patrol leader, who will report to the scoutmaster. Each patrol quartermaster will make sure the necessary equipment is present at the catch-up meeting so things can get done. The quartermaster can either bring the materials or work with the scoutmaster and other leaders to ensure the materials are present. If a scout can’t think of something that needs to be worked on, the patrol leader will ask the scout to work with the scoutmaster to identify what needs to be done. Older, more experienced scouts will be encouraged to help those who have requirements to meet. This is, hopefully, a model of the “helpful laziness” Ralph Oborn encourages in scout leaders – meaning we’re not the sages on the stage, but there to assist if needed but more often than not just to fade into the background, letting the boys do the work.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Nixon [whispers] and Obama [back to loud] and Surveillance

There’s a new video out there by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others urging commoners to get very, very upset about warrantless surveillance being conducted by the National Security Agency that, at first reading, left me very confused.

“We’ve seen this before,” says Daniel Ellensberg, whistleblower from the Rand Corporation who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.
Then, yes, we get to see Tricky Dick, in glorious black and white, cued along with sinister music.
And that’s it. More black-and-whites of the left’s favorite punching bag. But no context. Just the assumption that since the left regards Nixon as a villain, the EFF’s audience for this video – and just might who that be but perhaps the youngsters who will swallow it all without bothering to look for any historical context  – will know what connection Nixon has to warrantless surveillance. (Meanwhile, no sinister photos, black and white or otherwise, of Barack Obama, the current president currently presiding over the current surveillance dragnet we’re supposed to be upset about.)
Here’s where I say: Don’t get me wrong. Nixon was, in many ways, a villain. His administration’s prosecution of Ellensberg and its attempted prohibition on publication of the Pentagon Papers were wrong. That he was impeached and resigned over the subsequent Watergate investigation, in which paid White House spies tried to bug the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters is justified.
But making Nixon the sole identified villain in warrantless surveillance is, at the foundation of the argument, wrong. To make the accusation fair, we ought to be seeing black and white photos of Messrs. George W. Bush and Obama, along with their own creepy music, right alongside those of Tricky Dick. Leaving them out of the video effectively gives them a pass and fails to connect today’s younger audience, to whom Nixon is a historical figure they may have read about in the textbooks, with current administration abuses and rationalizations for continued abuse.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which has led to current surveillance abuses, started first during the Bush Administration and continued by the Obama administration came into being as a result of Nixon’s abuses of the Fourth Amendment as his administration pursued enemies using government entities (abuses also proved against Nixon predecessors Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy). The act was sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy (featured in the EFF video) in 1977 and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the act has been amended and/or extended a few times. And abused many times, including by the White House’s Current Occupant.
But, of course, what was done by Bush and what is being done by Obama is all for our own good, you see:
Once a critic of President George W. Bush’s hawkish policies, Mr. Obama was ready with an explanation for why he has preserved and extended some of them when a reporter asked him at the health care event if he could assure Americans that the government was not building a database of their personal information. “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s not what this program’s about.”
But he argued that “modest encroachments on privacy” were “worth us doing” to protect the country, and he said that Congress and the courts had authorized those programs.
A National Security Agency telephone surveillance program collects phone numbers and the duration of calls, not the content, he said. An Internet surveillance program targets foreigners living abroad, not Americans, he added.
“There are some trade-offs involved,” Mr. Obama said. “I came with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly.” In the end, he concluded that “they help us prevent terrorist attacks.”
That makes me feel all warm inside. “Nobody is listening to [our] telephone calls,” Obama says. “That’s not what this program’s about.”
My, my, my. Are we supposed to believe that? If it were Nixon saying, it, no way. But apparently, as far as the EFF and its supporters are concerned, President Obama gets a pass as long as we’ve got Dick Nixon to kick around. So, EFF, and Ellensberg, and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Wil Wheaton, as you deliver proper umbrage over the surveillance state, be sure you’re not protecting anyone. Not even your bestest of best buddies.
What Nixon did was terrible. What has continued in the name of warrantless surveillance today is unpardonable (Hear that, Gerald Ford?). Leaving Bush and Obama out of the picture is like condemning the common cold without talking about the Spanish Flu.
We have this today from Georg Mascolo and Ben Scott at
[W]e’re left to confront was may be [Edward Snowden’s] most dismaying revelation: That basic expectation of private communications on the Internet is now commonly seen a fiction.
Also, per Mascolo and Scott, those foreign governments raising proper umbrage over US surveillance, are you prepared to come clean with the kinds of snooping y’all are doing? (Hear that, Germany and Brazil?) Glass houses, and all, folks. Glass houses.
Mascolo and Scott conclude their screed by saying this, and I echo what they say: “[J]ust as President Obama has declared his intention to end the war on terror, he should also take a strong interest in lending an effort to reset his policies on surveillance to restore the balance between security and liberty – and in so doing, restore some of the trust the Internet has lost.”

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Back to the Drawing Board

Twenty-four hours after writing a synopsis of my novel “The Hermit of Iapetus,” I’m having some moments of clarity.

Immediately after I wrote the synopsis, I noted a distinct absence of plot. There’s a lot about character there, but nothing that really says what happens to the character.
That has me worried. And relieved.
I’ve got a few things I’ve been toying with – most notably, why in the world did the Hermit leave Earth for Iapetus in the first place – and now, 24 hours later, I’ve got some ideas why. These are ideas that have been percolating for a while now, but it’s clear to me that the percolation has come to an end and it’s time to edit this baby to put more of a plot-thing into the book.
So chalk me up as a believer in the idea that writing a synopsis of your novel is an excellent way to identify its flaws.
Back to the drawing board.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Would You Read This?

Read the following synopsis and tell me -- and be honest -- would you read this book? I'm planning to use this synopsis to enter a get-your-book-cover-designed-for-free contest. Honesty is appreciated.

He traveled nearly 900 million miles to be alone.

But as he wanders the cratered, icy surface of Iapetus, he is besieged.
Tricky Dick marches on the shores of the Invisible Ocean, spaniel Checkers at his heels. Dugout Dick shares a refuge in the Carcassone Montes, wheezing breathlessly into his harmonica and banging his begging bowl on the tables. Patsy Cline and Andy Williams sing to him out of the darkness, accompanied by the hiss and thrum of the radio waves from Saturn’s rings. And cattle-riding squirrels infest the plains, interrupting his solitude with chatters and bellows.
Then there’s Gloria.
Sentinel of Ronceveaux Terra, staring Sunward with her old eyes, holding leashes to the memories that follow the Hermit of Iapetus these millions of miles from Earth.
She’s there at The Butcher Shop, eating Roald Amundsen’s dogs in an endless feast, underneath the umbrellas that protect them from Iapetus’ cyanide rains.
And his son is coming to join him. His long-lost son, whose mother forbade him contact. He is coming. With soap.
To be alone, the hermit discovers, is to bring his own demons with him.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Annihilator of Words

Call it political correctness, call it Big Brother-ish, or call it a lame-o topic for articles (and blog posts, how meta), there is much to be said for the annihilation of words.

Or not. But at least this comic strip about the concept is funny.

What words would I choose to annihilate, or, at least through the Otterloop Conundrum, render meaningless through endless repetition? Annihilate seems to be a good candidate. First of all, do you pronounce the H or not? Do those who pronounce the H sound pretentions, thus inciting the listener to wish they would be annihilated? Would the annihiliation of annihilate, uh, annihilate the unclear antecedent from the previous sentence, where we’re not sure whose annihilation we’re meant to celebrate? Or should I forget the whole thing and start over?

Sunday, October 20, 2013


I don't quite know when this entry will be published, but it'll likely be sometime in September.

I don't really know why I'm writing it even, aside from getting a few thoughts down in the ethers while the moments are still fresh in my mind. So here goes.

I've been called as the new scoutmaster in our ward.

That set me to thinking: Scoutmasters. What to expect of scoutmasters. I knew only one scoutmaster when I was a scout: Scott Haroldsen, a builder and retired Denver cop who, dint of his former profession, had lots of stories to tell us about the "bad dudes." I don't recall a single one of them. I do remember being riveted by them, in a pre-teen sort of way. We also got to shoot his .45, which I shot once and decided I would never shoot one again.

Other recollections:

Going on a camping trip in the snow up beyond Kelly Canyon and watching him yank a pair of burning sneakers away from the campfire.

On that same trip, him confiscating some C-batteries out of a tape player (we had tape players back then, kids) and throwing them into the woods because we weren't supposed to be listening to music while camping.

Other leaders, of course, came along, but not for scouts. There was Eric Haroldsen (some relation, I'm sure) who took us camping at Lake Leigh in Wyoming and introduced us to poker and swimming in the rain.

I've been on a few camping trips with our current scoutmaster, Dan Winterholler, and feel like I've got some big shoes to fill. He's got size 1,000s.

Brother Whitworth said when he gave me the call that they like to keep on to their scoutmasters for a long time -- Dan's been in for years. I don't know exactly how long, but I do know it's been long enough that he's ready for a break.

Paul Fairborn will remain as the assistant scoutmaster -- don't know why they didn't call him to the job, but there you go. I think we'll get along fine. I need to do more on the building relationships of trust thing, and get to know people and such. Not my strong suit, but one I'll have to work on.

This painting -- from Norman Rockwell, to be sure -- illustrates how I feel about the whole situation. Michelle's trying to help. She bought me two official pairs of Boy Scout socks. I have almost a complete uniform now. But I'm not sure how it's going to fit.

I was assistant scoutmaster for the 11-year-old scouts in Sugar City before we moved to Ammon, but that was mostly because there was some concern with how our oldest would adjust to scouting. He did fine. Maybe that's a sign for me. Maybe it's also a sign I need to get a hat like this kid has.

I blame Michelle for this, of course. About a year ago, she convinced me to go to Wood Badge this summer, as she's on staff and thought it would be a good thing for me to do. So I signed up at the University of Scouting, where I won a $50 scholarship. Then we talked to the bishopric, who said they'd pay the rest of my way there. That got me on their radar. So my goose was cooked.

I've now got to figure out how to shuffle my work schedule so I can go to scout camp.

Now I've got too figure out how to pretend like I enjoy camping in the snow. That's going to be the hardest part.

Addendum: I wrote this post a while ago, shortly after I received the first notice I was being handed this job. Since then, I've been through Wood Badge training. I can't think of a better way to get trained up in a hurry and to feel a bit less intimidated about a new calling. If only other jobs in the church had such intensive, valuable training for new (and old) people in such jobs.

Addendum No. 2: Today it's official. And you'll note it's late October, not late September, when this happened. Feeling overwhelmed, but also feeling extremely lucky. I have two other scout or young men leaders anxious to help out, and I'm going to need it. I also get to associate with a pretty good group of boys. And we've got a busy week planned: Trip to the local haunted house, a merit badge pow-wow, and then a camping trip which I'll have to miss because we're attending the BYU-Idaho Halloween Concert Friday night. Oh, what terrors await. And I'm not talking about the haunted house.

Addendum No. 3: Just finished meeting with the former Scoutmaster, whom I know well since I've been on many a campout with him since we moved into the ward a year and a half ago. He's a fountain of knowledge and understanding and yet has the biggest grin on his face because now he's an assistant ward clerk. Big shoes to fill, big shoes to fill, big shoes to fill . . .

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Beware the codeX!

Somewhat interesting things going on over at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, as the wonks there ponder whether the word “ebook” is evocative enough for this new species of reading material.

They’re proposing the word “codex” replace “ebook,” for the following reasons:
With some trepidation, we would like to nominate codex, a word with a rich history that most of us don’t know anything about. Codex, derived from the Latin caudex (meaning “trunk of a tree”) even happens to contain the English word code, which will be central to the future of reading in a variety of ways. The things we’ll be reading in the future will not only involve a lot of programming; they’ll also require readers to decode complex, multilayered experiences and encode their own ideas as contributions in a variety of creative ways. Since standard printed books are technically codices, we propose (with significantly more trepidation) to distinguish our variant with one of those annoying midword capitals: codeX, to remind us that these new things involve experience, experimentation, expostulation … you know, all those X things.
And, why the capital X, pray tell? Oh, they explain:
This also works nicely because it reminds us of the X-Men and the X Games: We see the future of reading as an arena with the social dynamics of competition and play, scoring points and showing off, rather than a LeVar Burton rainbow of love and generosity. (Twitter works like this now, as a performance space where we’re all more or less openly vying for the award for “most clever person on the Internet this minute.”) Books have always been potent weapons in the cultural battlefield for prestige and distinction, and they won’t magically turn into utopian spaces anytime soon. At the risk of sounding too academic, we think the X highlights the jousting and (hopefully friendly) conflict inherent to digital reading.
Part of me understands this. When the bound book was introduced, I’m sure there was some quibbling over what to call the newfangled things. Parchment or scroll wouldn’t work anymore, principally because you don’t roll up books like you do a scroll and while they might be made of parchment, books, with their mobility, their “staytogetherness” demanded some new nomenclature.
But part of me, the cynical part that would sit in French cafes and smoke cigarettes, wonders what the fuss is all about. At the same time people were coining the word “book” to differentiate the mechanism for recording and distributing packaged words, I have to wonder if the content was changing all that much. Just because there were books available didn’t mean there was a fundamental change in what was written. Books were still used to record stories, histories, profits and loss, births and deaths, and all the other arcane and ordinary information that used to get recorded on scrolls or parchment or clay tablets for that matter.
Social media may have changed the amount of access we as readers and authors have to reading material, commentary,  snark and cravings of fame, but things like Facebook and Twitter and Goodreads are just modern versions of things like Punch magazine, pubs, gentlemens’ clubs and other spots and venues for interaction of the literati and their fans and detractors. It’s more centralized, More accessible to the unwashed masses. But it’s the same book, just a different chapter.
Plus ca change, the old saw goes, plus c’est la meme chose.
Charlie Stross says pretty much that has he writes about the brave new world of “feral spambooks,” books that will leap into your ereaders and into your brain without your permission or consent, much like the tomato that would eject itself from and egg and tomato roll, or even your stomach, if an accident were imminent:
Advertising spam made its way into paperback books, so it’s inevitable that it’ll work its way into ebooks (or codeXes, I suppose). The insidious nature of books forcing themselves into your ereaders (probably another term these folks are uncomfortable with) seems, well, farfetched. But stranger things have happened. I’m sure ebooks (or codeXes are a ripe platform for malicious code, but I also have to wonder about the long-term prospects of any author or publishing platform that welcomed and encouraged such behavior. There’s enough snobbery about to ensure that this cockorachization of the publishing world wouldn’t occur, or at least occur to the technicrati who fret about such things.
Funny thing, though. I’ve read a lot of ebooks lately, and I can’t say it’s the novelty of e-reading that’s kept me going. I’m not sure I’m ready for texts that bear with them embedded video and music – that kind of thing has been tried before, what with books coming with their own websites, and experimentation with selling CDs along with the printed books.
No, what keeps me reading is boring, mundane stuff such as curiosity, characterization, plot and soforth. A good story doesn’t need the window-dressing, right? Because the window-dressing appears IN MY HEAD. And if we take the window dressing out of my head and into the electronic pages of a codex, well, we’ve entered the world of books that read themselves, so what do we need readers for?
Oh yeah. The money. Ha.

Furlough Called Off, Due to Congressional, Um, Can-Kicking

With Congress kicking that budgetary can down the road for another two months, we’re back to work as normal on Monday.

Listening to folks at work today, though, was kind of comical. There’s a streak of disappointment going through the plant that the furlough didn’t go through. I think a lot of people, despite the moaning, were looking forward to some unexpected time off work.
The announcement from work is thus:
As you may have heard, Congress passed legislation last night to fund the government through a temporary Continuing Resolution (CR) through January 15, 2014.  While it will take a few days for the Department of Energy to process its funding distributions, CWI has existing carry over funding to sustain operations until receipt of the funding allotment next week. 
As such, DOE-ID has authorized CWI to resume work, thereby averting the planned furlough.  Accordingly, all employees are directed to report to work on their normal schedule on Monday October 21, 2013.  We will provide additional information as necessary if there are any new developments.
I appreciate your support during these times of uncertainty and I’m excited to keep everyone working!  We will conduct a safety stand-up meeting Monday morning  to ensure we are fully focused  after experiencing the distractions of the past couple weeks.  Please coordinate closely with your managers and supervisors to confirm you have clear guidance as you move forward with all CWI activities, maintaining our stellar record of safety and performance. 
Again, a big ‘THANK YOU’ you for your patience, understanding, and caring!  This workforce is the best!  Keep your eye on the ball – see you next week!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

There's A Peck Here, and He's Got Marketing Experience Pointed Right At Me!

Thinking about ebook marketing, because I hope to have an ebook to publish within the next six months. And I’m listening to Clay Shirky speak at a LinkedIn symposium in which he’s talking about how social media is bringing an end to the traditional business thoughts of what constitutes “the audience.”

Learning some fascinating stuff.
Here’s the germ of his talk: Businesses need to figure out how to make their audience more than just potential transactions.
Here’s further eludication:
Amazon says if we give them a place to tell one another how much they love this book, it won’t be good for business in any kind of direct transactional sense this person has already bought the book and no one is going to buy the book based on the 6,021st recommendation. What is happening here is that there’s a platform for human engagement which allows Amazon to have an audience that’s just more than an aggregate of potential transactions.
Robert Newton Peck hits upon this idea in his book on writing, “Secrets of Successful Fiction.”
He did it all physically, speaking wherever anyone invited him, taking whatever compensation was offered. He knew he wasn’t going to make a lot of money on these trips. But he knew that trip by trip he’d be able to sell books. Here’s what he said back in 1980, well before the opularity of the Internet, and long before social networking made this kind of thing a bit simpler to accomplish:
Knowing that I am far from ever being the most gifted novelist at Doubleday, Knopf, and Little, Brown, I decided to be their best salesman.
All over the country trots Peck, speaking at schools, libraries, colleges, and in many a damp church basement. I keynote almost every month at state conferences of librarians, teachers, and reading specialists.
I talk to groups of men, women, and children.
Do you know when the best time is to sell a book? I do. It’s right after you speak.
So wherever you go, take tons of books with you. I have twenty-five books out and they are all in print? Why? Because I huckster them with shameless abandon.
There you stand, in front of a hundred eager listeners, who want not just one of your books, but one of your autographed books. Sign a lot of books and you’ll sign a lot of checks. Writing is not an art: It’s a business. It’s what you do for a living.
Soooo, what are hucksters of ebooks to do?
Might be as simple as bringing a laptop, ensuring your location has a wi-fi connection, and directing folks to or your own book selling site. Or engaging in some kind of nifty ebook signing technomancy, like this.
Here’s how an Autography eBook “signing” will work: a reader poses with the author for a photograph, which can be taken with an iPad camera or an external camera. The image immediately appears on the author’s iPad (if it’s shot with an external camera, it’s sent to the iPad via Bluetooth). Then the author uses a stylus to scrawl a digital message below the photo. When finished, the author taps a button on the iPad that sends the fan an e-mail with a link to the image, which can then be downloaded into the eBook.
Now that is nifty.
Conversely, authors can be active on the social web. That’s certainly my intention. If I’m ever popular enough to attract even a small audience. Small or not, I’ll be there chatting with them, because who knows – that might sell a few more books.
Is that contrary to what Shirky says? Possibly. But if readers see value in the social web interactions and some of them see that as the end, not the means, then I’m fine with that. Others may notice their activity and come aboard, buy a book or two, and enjoy the conviviality as well.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Furlough Forward

By all indications, I’ll be furloughed next week.

That could last a week, or longer, depending on how long the ongoing derpfest in DC continues. If the news today is any harbinger of the future, a week may be too little time.
Ours is a dual-income family, because in addition to my full-time job, I also teach part-time. Having that money coming in is a blessing, though it’s not near enough to cover the bills if this turns into a long-term arrangement. We do have savings we can dip into – a rainy day fund that should last us about three months if we’re careful.
We are luckier than most. We do have a house payment, but it’s less than many of the nearby apartments rent for. We have no car payments, very little credit card debt and only month-to-month bills to fret about. We should be fine for three months or so, hoping, of course, that the furlough doesn’t last out the month of October.
But we’re torn.
Part of me thinks I should spend the time next week hanging drywall in the basement to finally cover up the new furnace ducts (thank heaven we paid for that work in cash). Part of us also think we should take the family to Disneyland, just to show Congress that life goes on. That makes me a little nervous, not knowing of course how long the furlough may last and how long we’ll have to stretch our reserves. No matter what happens, I still plan on standing in front of Rep. Mike Simpson’s shuttered Idaho Falls office waving a “CONGRESS FARTED” sign.

Most interesting to see is all the bright, shiny news about a Senate deal in the works to end the shutdown. What nobody seems to want to emphasize is that both the House and the Senate have to pass anything before it comes into effect, and the White House still isn’t talking to the House much at all these days. So pardon me if I’m pessimistic. I’m a believer in Reagan’s words, but not necessarily for the reasons he said them. All parties involved say they’re here to help, but you’ll note none of them agree on exactly where that elusive “here” might be.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Three Cluttered Pigs

I’m going to reveal a little secret about the “Three Little Pigs” assignment:

I hate it.
Why do I hate it?
Because of the subjective nature of the English language.
What is cluttered writing? And, when you get to the bottom of it, is cluttered writing all that bad?
Consider this little bit of writing:
It was much more important to him to get a clear understanding of his position, but he could not think clearly while these people were here, the second policeman's belly - and they could only be policemen - looked friendly enough, sticking out towards him, but when K. looked up and saw his dry, boney face it did not seem to fit with the body. His strong nose twisted to one side as if ignoring K. and sharing an understanding with the other policeman. What sort of people were these? What were they talking about? What office did they belong to? K. was living in a free country, after all, everywhere was at peace, all laws were decent and were upheld, who was it who dared accost him in his own home? He was always inclined to take life as lightly as he could, to cross bridges when he came to them, pay no heed for the future, even when everything seemed under threat. But here that did not seem the right thing to do. He could have taken it all as a joke, a big joke set up by his colleagues at the bank for some unknown reason, or also perhaps because today was his thirtieth birthday, it was all possible of course, maybe all he had to do was laugh in the policemen's face in some way and they would laugh with him, maybe they were tradesmen from the corner of the street, they looked like they might be - but he was nonetheless determined, ever since he first caught sight of the one called Franz, not to lose any slight advantage he might have had over these people.
Is it easy to read? No. And consider that any one of us could look at this piece of writing and edit it savagely, cutting it down to this:
He couldn’t think clearly with all these people here. One policemen, with the fat belly, looked friendly enough. But when K. looked at his boney face with the twisted nose, he felt it didn’t match the body. He looked suspicious. Who are these people? What were they talking about? Who do they belong to? He lived in a free country, where the laws were upheld. Who would dare accost him in his own home? He didn’t take life too seriously, didn’t worry about the future, even when things looked gloomy. But that didn’t feel right now. Maybe this was a joke, set up by his friends at the bank? Because it was his thirtieth birthday, after all. Maybe all he had to do was laugh and point out the joke, and the policemen would laugh with him and turn out to be shopkeepers from up the street, put up to the joke. But he was determined not to lose any advantage over these people. He did not laugh.
And even my version could be pared down.
But here’s the trick: The passage we just edited is from an English Hungarian author Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” Kafka is considered a literary genius. To edit his prose – to cut out the confused syntax, one thought running into the other from the mind of a man arrested in his bed one fine morning for no reason neither he nor the arresting officers can fathom, robs the passage of its mystery and its impact.
Yes, we should speak in clear language. But what is clear and what is valuable is subjective, person to person.
So here’s what I hope you get out of our exercise:
Avoid the passive voice.
Some of this may sound familiar from your high school English courses: Sentences have subjects, verbs, and direct objects (the target of the action), as in this following sentence:
Snow White ate the poisoned apple.
Snow White, the subject, does something – eats – to the direct objet/target, the poisoned apple.
That’s the active voice – the subject doing the action. It’s clear what’s going on.
Enter the passive voice, in which the target of the action is promoted to doing the action, even though the target isn’t doing anything.
Here’s what the passive voice looks like:
The poisoned apple was eaten by Snow White.
Who is doing the action? It’s still Snow White. The apple is just being eaten, it’s not doing anything. Not even screaming.
Why is this bad?
You can sort out the object and target in the passive voice example I provided. But what about this one:
Mistakes were made. (Credit to Grammar Girl for this wonderful example)
Who made the mistakes? We don’t really know, do we? Here, the passive voice is used for humorous effect – the little one-eared rabbit would not rather fess up to having made the mistakes himself, so to the leering figure, he merely says “Mistakes were made.” It’s a weasely way to deflect responsibility. We hear politicians talk like this all the time. If you learn to recognize the passive voice, you can learn when people speaking to you might not want to reveal all the information they have at their disposal.
It’s easy to slip into the passive voice. The active voice reveals, the passive voice conceals. Sometimes.
So using active voice versus passive voice is an exercise in being clear. If, for example, I said “The assignments were graded,” I could mean I graded the assignments, or that my wife did, or that I let my nine-year-old read them and assign grades based on how he was feeling at the moment. If, however, I say “I graded the assignments,” it’s clear who did the action.
Avoid clutter. Unless you clutter for effect.
Consider this headline:

“Kitten taken from Boise shelter by teens has been returned.”
This is in the past tense, but it’s not in the passive voice.
There’s still something missing, though.
What could you imply by reading the headline?
When I read it, I thought, “Oh, the miscreant teens who took the kitten from the shelter returned it.” That’s reasonable, right?
Not really. Because when you read the article, you see the parents of the teens who took the kitten returned it.
The headline is unclear on that point. Because it's cluttered.
So what to do?
Eliminate clutter, and eliminate confusion.
What’s important here? That the kitten was returned, or that the kitten taken by teens was returned?
We could write “Kitten taken from Boise shelter is returned.” And then let the first sentence of the article fill in the detail: “A group of teenagers stole a kitten from the Idaho Humane Society Saturday, but parents made sure the animal was returned Monday morning.”
Cutting clutter from the headline made it less likely that the reader would imply incorrect information from what was written.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Civil Disobedience

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 1849.
We can either accept the government that we have or take steps to change that government into what we want.
But that’s harder than it looks. Or sounds. Or best testing indicates.
Casey Neistat did a little bit of what I mean, in making this video showing why at times it’s impossible or hazardous to stay in New York City’s bike lanes. He got a $50 ticket for wandering out of the lane. But was safer doing so.
So what can we do, with a government that closes the open-air monuments on the Mall in Washington to tourists, but allows pro-immigration protesters access to that same Mall during the same week?
We do what would-be visitors to the World War II memorial on the Mall did: We cross the barricades. We demonstrate, as does Mr. Neistat, the danger of being too literal in obeying a law when there are others around who do not.
There are folks jumping the fences and barricades at national parks. Some, I’m sure, for the thrill of it. And some, of course, out of desire to be civilly disobedient. Utah’s San Juan County, for one, is rumbling about taking on duties of letting people use the national parks in its borders, as a demonstration of a local government being civilly disobedient.
I, for one, think that’s a fantastic idea.
What am I doing?
And that’s sad. Because those who do nothing have the government they deserve.
Oh, I’ve got plans. If I get furloughed on Monday, my plan is to hang out at Rep. Mike Simpson’s shuttered office in Idaho Falls until somebody notices.
“I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward,” says Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience. “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”
He goes on:
Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?
The remedy right now is worse than the evil. Yes, evil is in the eye of the beholder, but Thoreau points to anticipating and providing for reform as more desirable than scoring political points and remaining inflexible.
A good compromise shows, they say, when both parties go away from the agreement disappointed in what they did not get but glad for what they got. Compromise shouldn’t come in name-calling, weak-ass analogies (President Obama, this is not leadership, it’s schoolyard name-calling), locking US citizens and foreign nationals in a hotel to prevent them from “recreating” at Yellowstone National Park, and other excuses for not doing anything because to give in to the other side would be perceived as weakness.
Face it, Feds, you all look bad already. Congress has an approval rating of 5 percent, without anyone giving a cuss for what party those Congressmen belong to.
So here’s to seeing what Thursday brings.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Becoming A Visual Storyteller

NOTE: A little something I'm trying out for my writing students. It's not quite ready yet. Suggestions?

Writers want readers to keep reading.

Writers do that best by telling stories.
The best stories connect to the reader personally by offering them detail – or withholding it – in ways that compels them to continue.
Do these clips show or tell? Do they do both? What do they show? What do they tell? What do they withhold? Explain your answer.
I’ll take the last one as an example.
This clip tells us little. We don’t know who the man, the woman, or the child are. We don’t know if they have a relationship. We don’t know where they are, or what circumstances have brought them together. We know it’s winter.
This clip shows us a lot, or at least lets us assume a lot. (As writers, we can let our readers assume, because our readers are smart. But if we want them to assume, we have to show them the right kinds of clues so they assume at least some of what we’re going to tell them.)
We can assume the man is used to living alone; an unexpected noise, not of an animal or of the environment – but of a human being – startles him. We can assume the woman and child have a relationship. We can assume their presence in this environment is accidental or at least poorly planned– neither woman nor child are adequately prepared, clothing-wise, least of all the woman. We can assume it’s cold, because even with a blanket and wearing a jacket and sleeping near the fire, the man has to stoke the fire to get additional heat.
We can assume the man’s house is not their intended destination – if it is, why wait outside in the cold?
We can assume the woman is troubled. Her appearance is haggard. She is unkempt. She either left home without a coat, or has no coat to wear. And while her child has a coat, it is unzipped and she has no shoes on; only the feet in her pajamas protect her. No mother in full control of herself would allow her child outside in such circumstances, or allow her to wander off in such an environment.
And we, as readers/viewers, are begging for more. We want to know who these people are, and what brought them together. Most certainly, we want to know what happens to them.
This is excellent writing.
Do I expect this kind of writing from you?
Not yet. Because I’m still struggling with doing this kind of thing myself.
But I do want you to think about details. I want you to think about what you should show, and what you should tell. We can do this with any kind of writing. I’ll show you. Here’s my “This I Believe” essay.
I sat in the back of Mrs. Barrett’s third grade classroom, next to the bookshelf.
When I got my school work done – and sometimes even before it was finished – I’d pull a book off the shelf to read. There I found the magical worlds of Robert C. O’Brien, Beverly Cleary, Alexander Key, and so many others.
I wondered at a new world alongside Jon O’Connor after he fell through that forgotten door from his planet into the wilds of the Carolinas, befriended by the Bean family, hunted by the greedy Gilby Pitts. I tagged along in the background as Henry Huggins romped with Ribsy, that ragged, sharp-eyebrowed dog beneath the bold serif font declaring his name on the cover of the book. I sat beside Mrs. Frisby in the rats’ library, rapt at the story of the how the rats of NIMH gained their intelligence and how they hoped to use it to stop stealing from man, and later soared with her on the back of Jeremy the crow in the film inspired by the book.
Then I promptly did nothing about it.
Oh, I did little things. A poem here, a short story there. But through several fits and starts, I never did what I set out to do, there in the back corner of Mrs. Barrett’s classroom at Lincoln Elementary.
Until 2010.
By then, my wife and I had a third-grader of our own, plus two other children. I was working as a writer – but as a technical writer at a Department of Energy laboratory, after ten years as a journalist. It paid the bills, but hardly satisfied the soul.
During a lunch break in late January that year, however, I sat at my computer mulling the madelines of memory. I pecked out a few hundred words, centered on two boys, bored at living in their primitive village, longing instead to climb the cliffs that ringed them in and climb toward the stars, then over and out the green pass that led to the world beyond.
Maybe, I thought, I have something.
So the next day, at lunch, I wrote some more.
Each day, it became an obsession. Write a few more hundred words about these curious boys, now departed from the only home they’ve known into a mysterious school training them to become –I didn’t know. I kept writing, on the bus rides home, late into the night on weekends. And at lunch. Many lunches. I posted snippets of this growing story on my blog. If anyone ever read them, I didn’t know it. I knew a third-grader who was reading them. And he kept insisting, staring at those words in the ethers, that the story continue.
It did.
By January 2011, those first few hundred words turned into 114,000 words.
I’d written a novel.
It’s unpublished. It’s unedited. It’s raw. But there, in that little folder on my desktop, in that binder at home, on the thumb drives were I’ve stored it, my first novel awaits the finishing touch that may someday lead it to sit on a bookshelf in the back corner of some dusty classroom where another kid will pull it off the shelf and fall into the world I created because that inner third-grader who still loves the rats of NIMH told me I had to do it.
I believe, with the proper tools and motivation, one person can indeed move a mountain. I’ve got other mountains to move yet, but at least I’ve finally written a story that’ll get me out of the foothills and back on that track I found in that desk next to the bookshelf in the back of Mrs. Barrett’s third-grade classroom.
What do I show?
I show where and in what environment I decided I wanted to become a writer.
What do I tell?
I tell I’m still working on it.
What do I leave out?
I leave out that I’ve written three other unpublished books since then, and that I’m still working on them until they’re good. I hope I left you wanting to know more, but not so much more that you’re mad I left too much out.
This is like “Angels on A Pin.” There is no one right way to write, no one right way to tell a story. There are infinite ways to do so, and it’s up to us to find out which ways we can work with.

Our Government, Playing "Wheel of Fish"

As silly as the government shutdown is, it’s not as silly as what led up to it:

Absolutely nothing.
True, the Republican Party seemed bent on shutting the government down over a showdown on Obamacare, but let’s consider the Democratic Prime Alternative:
Letting the Republican Party shut down the government over a showdown on Obamacare.
Yeah, that is their solution. Don’t fix things, just let the other party implode and reap the political rewards, scant as they may be in an institution that has an overall approval rating of 10 percent.  Way to be, Congress!
Which means – no surprise here – that both parties are imploding. One is tilting at windmills, while the other is less interested in action than letting the other party tilt at windmills for perceived political gain. Nothing that’s going to help the country. Nothing that’s going to solve any problems. Just stuff that’s going to score political points.
Armageddon, the Constitution hanging by a thread, the doom of the Republic, is not going to come from any certain bit of legislation, nor from one certain political party. It’s going to come when politics and score-keeping and political point-making is the end, not the sideline, to what Congress and the president do.
So, we’re there folks.
Congress (and I mean both political parties) and the president, metaphorically, have gone for what’s in the box.
Absolutely nothing.
Stupid! Stupid! You’re so stupid!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What the Best Science Shows

So. Still nervous about nuclear power, given the disaster that occurred at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in early 2011 when it was first damaged by an earthquake and then a tsunami?

You shouldn’t be.
Nor should you believe the majority of what’s been reported on the accident, its severity, and government “worst-case scenarios” that had 30 million people in metropolitan Tokyo evacuating due to an impending plume of radiation.
So says Paul Blustein and a bevy of nuclear experts he interviews at, in an article that should be read by anyone in favor of nuclear energy and by those who oppose it. Especially those who fear nuclear energy but rail on those who fear climate change.
Here’s the deal, summed up: politics and misinterpretations by news agencies across the world made the disaster at Fukushima seem much more dangerous than it ever was.
Says Blustein:
[T]he public deserves to know what the best available science shows. Whatever conclusions people draw about the implications of the accident, the following should be borne in mind: The claim that an evacuation of Tokyo could have been necessary is based on flimsy, easily rebuttable evidence. Furthermore, the falsity of that claim is indicative of the distortions in much of the Fukushima news coverage. That coverage has given rise to baseless fears about Fukushima that have heavily influenced public opinion. It is time to dispel those fears.
Even more illuminating is what Gregory Jaczko, chariman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in the days after the disaster, per Blustein:
There’s what’s worst-case, and then there’s what’s possible. We should produce a worst case that’s actually possible. I mean, a worst case would be that you eject the core and somebody puts it in a bag and carries it across the ocean and pus that in  . . . California. So I think we should produce a source term that is truly what I would call a worst case but a possible scenario.
Politicians looked at some worst-case, but implausible, scenarios, spun up their own, and fed it to a media primed and ready to shout about the nuclear boogeyman. At the same time decrying those who do the same with climate change – ignoring the science, trumpeting exactly what the echo-chamber listeners want to hear.
We deal with worst-case scenarios where I work all the time. There was a time when an airplane crashing into one of our waste retrieval tents seemed implausible. Not now. We drill for that. We drill for fires and waste spills and earthquakes and other events – but all are possible. We don’t deal in the improbable. And neither should our trusted nuclear experts nor politicians nor the media.