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Monday, December 31, 2007

The Message, and the Messenger

...and so we come to the end of yet another year, and as such this seems like a good time to try to close the books on yet another of those long-running topics: why I no longer write political commentary for public consumption. As I frame my answer, I keep coming back to Arthur C. Clarke's rules for writing. (I'd love to be able to say that Sir Arthur passed these rules on to me personally when we last met, but in truth, I got them from my agent, who got them from an article he once read.)

Herewith, Sir Arthur C. Clarke's rules for deciding whether or not to write something.

1. It must be about a topic that you absolutely love and find fascinating.

2. It must be something you feel you can write better than anyone else out there.

3. The money must be right.

Rule #3 pretty much kills the whole subject from the get-go, as for most freelance writers political commentary is a cost center, not a profit center, but that would make this a really short bit of bloggerel, so I'd best ramble on a bit further.

As for Rule #2, there are already plenty of other people out there doing better commentary with more enthusiasm than I could ever hope to muster. Aside from Vox Day , who I read daily if only to discover who my former apprentice is enraging this time, I regularly read Joel Rosenberg, because he's plugged into local law enforcement and 2nd Amendment issues far better than I'll ever have the time to be; Power Line, because John and the boys have a genuine knack for finding good if otherwise un- or under-reported stories; Big Lizards, because Dafydd ab Hugh writes well and usually has something interesting to say; Chris Naron, just because; and Ed Morrissey's Captain's Quarters, if only for the daily cartoon.

In the competition for attention, that's already a formidable array of established talent to go up against. Then, if you factor in the serious professionals — say, Peggy Noonan at The Wall Street Journal, who I never miss reading, or Mark Steyn — well, that pretty much wraps it up for Rule #2.

In truth, though, it's Rule #1 that's my biggest problem. To be successful in writing commentary, you have to keep it plugged in and cranked to 11 all day every day, and I just can't find it in me to sustain that level of passion for politics. Perhaps it's a moral failing on my part, but there are days — many days — when I care far more about the botulism epidemic that is killing Great Lakes aquatic waterfowl than I do about whatever the heck it is that's happening in Kerplopistan this week. Why, there are days I care far more about identifying one new little twit that's been hanging around my backyard bird feeder than I care about all the words and inactions put together of all the overstuffed old big twits that are hanging around the public pork feeder in Washington.

Besides, there is also some sort of Secret Rule #00 that doesn't fit neatly into Sir Arthur's model, and it states (as Vox so often demonstrates) that if you become successful enough at doing political commentary, in time you become the story.

I don't know about you, but as for me, I started writing to tell stories, not to be one.

In support of the Secret Rule #00 thesis, then, I offer up five books that did not make my Christmas recommended reading list, because in all cases the identity of the messenger far outweighs the content of the message.

The foremost modern example of the message being overshadowed by the messenger, of course, was Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name lives on as a curse. I once believed as many of you do, but as it happens I then had the good fortune to be allowed access to part of the Venona archives, and because of what I read there I will now defend Sen. McCarthy with remarkable vigor. He was perhaps a drunken buffoon (but then, who from the Fox Cities isn't?), and when he gave that famous Lincoln Day speech in 1950 the list of "known Communist agents" he waved may in fact have been a blank sheet of paper, but the truth of the matter is, Senator McCarthy was right. The Roosevelt - Truman White House and State Department was riddled with Communist agents. The Communist Party of America was a wholly owned subsidiary of the KGB. The Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss were guilty as sin, prominent members of the American Left were criminally and treasonably complicit in Soviet espionage and agitprop operations on American soil, and we had the cable intercepts and KGB payroll records to prove it. The reason Eisenhower and the Army chose to hang McCarthy out to dry in 1954 wasn't because he was wrong; it was because the grandstanding fool had come within a hair's breadth of disclosing the existence of the most important American intelligence operation since the cracking of the Imperial Japanese naval codes.

These are the facts, and in Treason, Ann Coulter names the names, makes the charges, and presents the evidence with remarkable clarity. And yet, because this book was written by well-known conservative lightning rod Ann Coulter, it's either ignored or dismissed as mere overblown right-wing propaganda.

Similarly, in The New Thought Police: Inside the Left's Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds, Tammy Bruce makes and supports the accusation that the American Left, and especially the American Academic Left, has since at least the 1960s been engaged in a systematic and darn near Stalinist campaign to eliminate free speech, redefine the language, deconstruct and destroy American culture, yadda yadda yadda, okay, what right-wing so-called think tank spawned this mo—

Oh, wait. She's a lesbian. A militant feminist. For seven years she was the president of the National Organization of Women's Los Angeles chapter and a member of NOW's executive board. That "inside" in the subtitle isn't a mere rhetorical flourish; she really was inside.

Hmm. A most interesting and disturbing book.

Next, I want to call your attention to A Republic, Not An Empire, by Patrick Buchanan. If I were teaching an honors course in American history, this book would be required reading. If I were running for President, this book would be the basis of my foreign policy. This has to be one of the most well-researched and thoughtfully articulated historical -slash- political visions I have ever had the pleasure of reading, and I highly recommend it.

Likewise, Buchanan's 2004 book, Where the Right Went Wrong, is a profoundly intelligent and mercilessly incisive critique of George W. Bush's foreign relations and trade policies, and a far better book than anything comparable produced thus far by the parting on the left. And I would strongly recommend it, except —

Except that there's the matter of Buchanan's 2002 book, The Death of the West, and his latest book, Day of Reckoning. I don't feel qualified to comment on Reckoning; I haven't read it yet and am more than a little afraid to. But The Death of the West is one of those books that really made me squirm.

Not because I fundamentally disagree with it; I guess in large part I do. If present trends continue unchanged, I agree that the future will look a whole lot more like Mogadishu than Star Fleet. But what puts me off about this book is the strong reek of racism. I categorically refuse to accept the idea that brown, yellow, black or red people are somehow intrinsically incapable of being as civilized as white people. And before anyone jumps down my throat, I know that Buchanan does not overtly make that argument in this book. All the same, I couldn't help coming away from this book with the impression that Buchanan was making that argument in subtext.

Or maybe this just proves I've already been co-opted by the New Thought Police...

And with those hopefully final words on the subject, I'm done testing the flexibility of my "no politics" rule and back to writing about fiction and the business of writing. Don't forget the Friday Challenge, don't get overserved tonight (or at least if you do, don't drive), and we'll see you next Wednesday.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Friday Challenge

It's an occupational hazard. We're at a holiday dinner party. The Mrs. has excused herself and wandered off somewhere else for the moment, and that's when the stranger-lady on my other side sees her opportunity to pounce. "So," she says, "I understand that you're an author."

Yeah, I guess I am. I've had a few books published.

"What a coincidence. I'm writing a novel, too."

Oh, really? What's it about?

She answers. At length. All would-be writers love to talk (and talk, and talk!) about the book they're going to write. I won't tell you about her idea; it's her idea, and her claim to work and either prove out or fail trying. But pretty soon she has to pause for breath, and that's when I ask The Cruel Question.

So, how far along are you?

"Oh, I'm still working on the polishing the first chapter. You know, the opening needs to be perfect."

You've been working on this book for three years, and you've only written one chapter?

"I've been developing the outline for the rest. And I've written first drafts of some key scenes. But as everyone in every writing group I've ever been in says, if the first page and the first chapter aren't perfect, you may as well throw the rest away, because no editor will read further."

No editor...

That stuck in my craw. I can understand the reason for the standard editorial myopia. When you're stuck with the Augean job of wading through the slushpile, you look for any excuse to reduce the size of the heap, and most editors eventually wind up judging unsolicited manuscripts based on a quick glance at the first page. Then, later on, when you've advanced far enough in your career to be dealing with known authors and solicited submissions, you tend to judge submissions based on the first chapter and an outline, because in most cases that's all the author has written.

But thinking now as a reader...

Y'know, I think this is another of those cases where what "everyone" knows is absolutely wrong, and the received wisdom passed along in thousands of writing groups does more harm than good. As a reader, I never decide which book to buy based on the first sentence, the first page, or the first chapter. I decide which book to buy based on the reviews, the jacket copy, and the author's reputation. Then, once I've got the book in hand and am actually reading it, what matters most to me is the ending, because if the ending craps out, this engenders in me a powerful lack of interest in the author's next book.

I have never once finished a book and said, "Wow! What a great beginning! I wonder what else this author has written?"

And thus we come to this week's Friday Challenge.

Methane hydrate (more properly, Methane clathrate) is fascinating stuff. Long believed to be found only in the form of methane ice on the various moons and such in the outer solar system, we now know that there are sizable deposits of it right here on Earth, buried in the polar continental sedimentary rocks and the bitterly cold deep ocean sediments. In fact, a major deposit has been discovered in the Nankai Trough, about 30 miles off the coast of Honshu, and scientists estimate there is enough frozen methane in this one place to supply all of Japan's natural gas demands for 14 years, provided a safe way can be found to drill for, thaw, and tap it.

Which is precisely what JOGMEC — the government-run Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corp. — proposes to do.

The environmental alarmists are alarmed and opposed to this project, of course. According to some theories it was a vast, uncontrolled release of methane gas that caused the Permian-Triassic Extinction (which wiped out the trilobites and eurypterids and all that), and a similar but smaller-scale eruption which caused the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (which wiped out — oh, a bunch of other weird critters that nobody misses).

Now, never mind how this story starts. Let's just assume that it does start, and that JOGMEC goes ahead with the drilling as planned, and that then, in accordance with the official rules for dramatic action, Something Goes Terribly Wrong. What that something is, I don't know, and don't much care. Maybe they awaken Godzilla. Maybe it turns out that Methane hydrate is the perfect fuel except that it smells like highly concentrated 250-million-year-old trilobite flatulence. Maybe it turns out that the Earth is hollow, and once punctured it goes skittering around the solar system like a giant deflating balloon. Take your wildest guess and run with it.

As for the Challenge, what I want you to do is imagine a rough sketch of whatever story you think should have proceeded from that moment when Something Terrible Happened, and then write a few paragraphs that comprise the final ending of your story, and post them in the comments for this blog item.

As always, the contest will be judged by the somewhat relaxed Friday Challenge rules, with a winner or winners to be announced next Friday and a prize or prizes to be awarded as per the principles enshrined behind Door #2. Whether you're entering or not, I encourage you to comment on and vote for the other entries, and if you're feeling really ambitious there is no limit on the number of entries you may post.

Any questions? Then, ready? Go!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

La Tempesta di Polvere Riguardo á Vox Day

In seeming innocence, d asks:
Why the furore over Vox?
The short answer is: because Vox likes to create a furor. He enjoys tossing off outrageous rhetorical overstatements just to get the munchkins riled up. And he is very, very good at doing so.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this, I suppose. Heinlein did it all the time. Robert Adams, of Horseclans fame, used to spout some of the most rage-provoking things you ever heard, although he generally did so in the context of SFWA business meetings or private parties. John W. Campbell Jr. pretty much made a career out of floating outrageous ideas in his Astounding editorials.

Vox, on the other hand, has the bad luck to live in the Internet age, when even the slightest and most offhand rhetorical fillip can fall into the infinite echo chamber and be picked up, amplified, recycled, cited, disputed, endorsed, discarded, and fished out of the trash and reposted again for years afterwards. Further, early on he chose to make some singularly humorless enemies, who have since proven inclined to neither forgive nor forget.

(Further still, Vox has the bad luck to be neither a bestselling author nor the editor of the most influential magazine in the market, so those who disagree with him feel no need to kiss his — er, ring — in order to further their own careers.)

I call it the Mother Night problem. Quoting Vonnegut, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." In Vox's case, I don't feel he should be surprised when people he's chosen to shake up and outrage have chosen to remain shaken and outraged, and yet from time to time, he is. Underneath that brassy exterior there is a very intelligent and thoughtful man, who once in a while comes up with an idea he really would like to see discussed soberly, calmly, and dispassionately, and on those occasions he seems genuinely taken aback to find that the people he would like to discuss his idea with are still holding a grudge over something he wrote years ago.

That, in brief, is Vox's problem.

My problem is that I get it from both sides. From the parting on the left, I continue to be asked, "How can you still be friends with that knuckle-dragging Neanderthal?" My answer is that I'm friends with lots of people, of all different stripes and political persuasions, and if you associate only with people who always agree with you you'll never be exposed to any new ideas.

It's the parting on the right that's somewhat more problematic. Vox has a fan club that follows him around from blog to blog, defending his honor (as if he's incapable of defending it himself), and while most of them are quite intelligent and pretty reasonable, there are a noisy few who are best described as touchingly loyal but tragically dim. Ergo, whenever I say anything about Vox that is not even critical, but merely insufficiently laudatory, I get it in the back with both barrels from them.

And that is the lesson for today. Politics is a contact sport, and as we've discussed before, the two things that always get a sporting crowd on its feet are sex and violence. Political discourse in the talk radio and Internet age, in particular, has become a blood sport, and thousands of people checks blogs or tune in every day to a Michael Savage or an Al Franken, not to learn anything new, but to read or listen as their chosen hero administers a thumping good beat-down to today's specified enemy. Ergo, if you want to write political commentary, and you want to develop a large audience, this is the experience you must deliver to your readers.

As Vox consistently does.

But if you do so, be mindful of the Mother Night problem, and remember that if you choose to compete in this arena, you are also by default crafting a public image of yourself. Therefore you'd better really believe in every word you write, because you will be held accountable for each and every one of those words, perhaps for years to come.

Here endeth the lesson.

Monday, December 24, 2007

And the winner is —

Okay, the winner of the most recent Friday Challenge is DaveD. A good idea, well-written, with a great opening line, and an all-around pleasure to read. (If I was editing it for publication I'd cut the initial rhetorical question and answer and begin with, "I don't know when the idea of public spaces vs privates spaces died out but it must have been a brutal killing.") DaveD, click here to claim your prize.

To everyone else who participated: thanks! There were some great ideas in there, although not all were as fully developed or well-polished as DaveD's, so this gives me a new idea. Normally I'm reluctant to tip my hand, but this time I'm going to flash it around for all to see. The January 11, 2008 Friday Challenge will be for your next best rant about life here in the 21st century. You have two weeks to think about it and start working on it. Beginning Friday, 1/11/08, you can begin posting your rants or commenting on and voting for other's posts, with judgement to be rendered on Friday, 1/18/08.

Again, thanks to everyone who participated, and I look forward to seeing what you come up with given a little more time to prepare.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

39 Hours, and Counting

It's that most wonderful time of the year, again, when I start to develop an uncontrollable twitch every time I turn on the TV, turn on the radio, or go into a store. A month of nonstop saturation bombardment with Christmas music will do that to you. If it was being broadcast on armed forces radio, it would probably contravene the Geneva Convention.

Understand, I like Christmas. I like it a lot. I even like Christmas music, in manageable doses. But this ceaseless, repetitive, inescapable blare of cheesy arrangements of secular standards like "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" and his many cousins —

Well, it gets to me, it does.

Ages back, in my previous life as a musician, I attended a songwriting seminar featuring some famous guy whose name I should remember now but don't, and the one piece of advice he handed out then that I remember to this day was, "If you want to get your song recorded, write a song about Jesus. It doesn't matter how bad it is; someone will record it.

"But," he said, "if you want to write a song that will get played over and over again and generate royalties for the rest of your life, write a Christmas song without Jesus."

Anyway, here we are, with a day and a half to go to zero hour, and my traditional Christmas music uncontrollable twitch has returned. Usually it's Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song," that pushes me over the edge, but this year it's "The Carol of the Bells." It seems like everyone and his dog is using that one as the soundtrack for a commercial this year. Ding dingy ding. Ding dingy ding. Buy at our store! Buy at our store! Come in right now! Come back and buy some more!

How about you? If you had it in your power to remove just one Christmas song from the rotation, which one would it be?

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Friday Challenge

A number of questions have come up lately about the Friday Challenge, so I suppose it's time to think about answering them. For example, how come the competition is so uneven? Why is the schedule so erratic and unpredictable? What the heck is "Door Number 2?" And what, precisely, are the rules?

The rules? Ah, yes, er — well of course, there are rules, and they are, um, ah...

Look, the Friday Challenge is a little audience-participation thing that's just sort of growed in the three years I've been doing this blog. (Three years? Good grief, has it really been that long? Well, as of February, I guess it has.) It's come and gone a few times, and taken a number of different forms over the years, and like any struggling TV series jumped around to different time slots, but in the end, the essence remains the same. I spot you an idea, or an argument, or the beginning of a scene; you take it from there; and a week or so later, we announce a winner.

At first I took the Friday Challenge very seriously. I wrote the first few paragraphs of a story, or posted an interesting scientific or historical factoid, and challenged you, the reader, to engage your fiction-writing muscles and produce a serious response. I even lined up several Celebrity Judges to review the entries and render a solemn decision.

All of that, frankly, was a lot of work, took a lot of time, and tended to limit the response, so eventually entropy set in and we drifted down to what we have now. I'll post an idea — a Big Idea, if I have the time, but I often don't — and invite you to toss it into your story generator and see what comes out. This is important. Even if you don't get an idea for an entry that you want to write, I also want you to comment on and vote for the entries that other readers post. This latter doesn't happen often enough to suit my tastes.

The number and quality of entries in any week varies wildly, depending on the quality of my Big Idea and whatever else I've been writing about that week. I've noticed that if I have the time to spot you the well-formed beginning of a science fiction story, I will in return see serious, thoughtful, and well-developed entries. If I've crossed the line and violated my No Politics rule that week — and especially, if I've written anything involving Vox Day — I'll have more readers and get more entries, but the entries will tend to be short and have a painfully obvious contemporary political slant. If I toss out an idea that's media-related, those often bring out the most and funniest responses, including some that have proven unforgettable. ("Britons! Tonight we dine in Hellllll!" I don't know how, but I'll get you for that, rycamor!)

Other weeks, my Big Idea just hits the floor with a soggy splat and sits there stinking up the place, until it finally sublimates out of existence a week later. I've also noticed that audience participation is directly proportional to the time I'm putting into the blog. If I post daily, even if it's only something small, I have a much larger readership than if I skip a few days. Unfortunately, unlike some other bloggers I could name, I do have a life, a family, and a day job, so writing a new bit for the blog daily is not always my top priority.

As for the judging: that, I'm afraid, is completely arbitrary. Having been burned by the experience of using Celebrity Judges, I have appointed myself Sole Authority, and I pick the entry that I find most interesting, amusing, or thought-provoking. I would appreciate and benefit from reader feedback in making my decision — we do things by Chicago Rules around here, vote early and vote often — but as I said before, I don't see as much of that as I would like.

Now, as for Door Number 2: that, my friends, is a reference to the legendary Monty Hall and the Mother of All Greed-Based Game Shows, "Let's Make a Deal!" When I first started doing Friday Challenges there was no reward but the glory of having your name announced and that brief glow of smug satisfaction that comes with being named the winner, but later on, we decided that actually giving out some sort of prize would make the game a bit more interesting. I started out giving away signed copies of Rebel Moon — and how I wound up with a garage full of crates of Rebel Moon is an amusing tale in its own right, but that's a story for a different time — but quickly realized market-saturation was only a few weeks away. Ergo, we've now assembled a grab bag of prizes, which you'll find on the Door #2 web page, and winners are invited to take their pick.

And now, with all of that said, we come to the moment that everyone has been waiting for. Who is the winner of Last Week's Friday Challenge, and the coveted whatever-the-heck-it-is they choose to win?

Dunno yet. The polls are still open. You have until — oh, 10 p.m. CST to cast your vote.

P.S. No homework tonight, because of the holiday. We'll have a fresh Friday Challenge for you next week.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tools for Writers: The Camera

I am perhaps a bit obsessive about cameras. One corner of my office is completely taken over by a vast and untidy heap of Canon and Pentax 35mm SLR bodies and lenses, Canon and Yashica 35mm rangefinders, medium-format twin-lens reflexes, and other assorted historical oddities. (E.g., ever seen an Olympus Pen half-frame camera? Cute and clever little bugger. Takes great pictures, too.)

illo: The Heap

This doesn't even begin to count the stuff that's tucked away in storage: the enlarger, the darkroom timer, all my dad's old 8mm movie gear, the spools of film and thousands of slides that he shot on his world travels and that I'm going to catalog and scan one of these days.

Am I professional photographer? Depends on your definition. Am I remotely comparable to Oleg Volk? Not by a long shot. Have I been paid for photos that have been published in newspapers and nationally distributed magazines? Yes. But even if I didn't get the occasional snapshot published, I would still consider a decent camera to be an essential tool for the serious writer. It's my offline memory. It helps me to remember exactly what I've seen, and serves as an index into what I was doing, thinking, and feeling at the moment I took that picture. Ergo, over the years, I have spent a ludicrous amount of money accumulating photographic gear.

I don't use any of that stuff anymore.

About a year and a half ago, I went digital. I'd flirted with digital before that — I was what they call an "early adopter," buying my first digital camera back in the mid-1990s — but being very disatisfied with the image quality then, I'd put the thing on the shelf and gone back to film.

It was film that brought me back to digital. Or rather, it was coming back from a long road trip with a sizable amount of exposed 35mm color film and realizing that for what it would cost to get that film developed and printed, I could buy one of the lower-end digital cameras then on the market. So I had the film developed and printed — and then I bought a Nikon Coolpix L4, just to get my feet wet.

I've since become a total convert.

My "serious" camera these days is a Nikon D50 digital SLR, with the usual battery of lenses and filters. But more often than not I wind up catching the shots I like with the L4, because it's the camera I'm most likely to have with me. Lightweight, rugged, about the size of a pack of cigarettes — can I still say that in this country? Proof that a Kodak in the hand beats a Hasselblad back at home.

The L4 takes nice pictures, too. Good lens, great color sensitivity, terrific auto-focus and auto-exposure functions. The pics are "only" 4 megapixels, so the full-sized images are perhaps not quite as a sharp as a perfectly exposed piece of chemical film. (You can download the full-sized .jpg files by clicking on the following images, but be forewarned, each file is roughly 1MB.)

illo: Hmong New Year

Remarkable range of light-sensitivity. This one was shot using only moonlight — and, admittedly, a tripod.

illo: Moonrise over Lake McManus

The 3x zoom lens is serviceable, which is not surprising, but the macro mode is actually quite good, which is. For example, it makes these quarter-inch nightshade berries look like their distant cousins, the tomatoes.

illo: nightshade berries

In addition to the auto-everything mode, it has what seems at first like a bewildering array of "tuned" modes. I'd never before had a camera that came with a built-in online help system. But the modes are actually quite easy to learn, and once you get the hang of them they help you capture shots that would be a real chore the old-school way. For example, I might have spent half an hour with the Pentax, mucking about with polarizing filters and the like and ultimately missing the light as I tried to capture the dramatic clouds in this bleak winter twilight sky.

illo: winter sky

And there's no way I would have gotten this shot — at least, not hand-held — although I would have wasted a lot of film trying. Clouds are really difficult to photograph well.

illo: flaming sunset

Which brings up another of the L4's advantages: it uses the seemingly ubiquitous SD cards for memory, so you don't have to use your frames conservatively. You can take the dozen shots you want in order to get the one image you want to keep. It also comes with a couple of different USB cables and Nikon's image-handling sofware, which I must admit I've never even taken out of the shrinkwrap. For me, transferring the images to my computer is simply a matter of popping the SD card out the camera and putting it into the SD slot on my computer, at which point it becomes just another removable file storage device, like a thumb drive, and I can copy and move files at will.

I will admit that from time to time I do succumb to the urge to pull pictures into Paint Shop Pro and "improve" them...

illo: The Cat from Hell

Another of the L4's advantages is that it uses plain old AA alkaline batteries, which is one of those things that doesn't seem important until you've had to find a replacement for that oddball battery in your Canon AE-1 in Slackjaw, Kentucky, at 8 p.m. on a Friday night. But that's another story.

What's not to like about the Nikon L4? First off, the same complaint I have with pretty much every camera ever made; that it's built for right-handed people, and as much as I'd like to get my left index finger onto the shutter button, it just can't be done. I've learned to live with that.

Secondly, there is a noticeable lag between the time you press the shutter button and the time the shutter actually fires. This lag varies, depending on how much automatic functionality you have engaged and how tired the batteries are. If the batteries are low and you're shooting in automatic everything mode under poor lighting conditions, it can spend a second or more hunting for the focal point and the right exposure, and then a few seconds afterwards storing the snap to memory — which is irksome to someone who's used to the nearly instant gratification of a first-rate 35mm SLR with a motor drive — but the solution to this is simple: replace the batteries before the camera tells you that it's running low on juice. (In all honesty, there have been plenty of times where I would have gotten a better picture if I had not been able to snap it instantly, but instead had been forced to take a few more seconds to get my focus and exposure right.)

Third, though, is the seemingly insurmountable one: the Nikon L4 is discontinued. The successor camera is discontinued. The successor to the successor... Let's face it: as with computers, if you're waiting for the absolutely latest and greatest technology, you have a window of about five minutes between the time it's introduced and the time it's obsolete. What you have to decide is whether what you can buy right now is good enough for your immediate and short-term foreseeable needs.

The good news is that the successor to the successor to the successor — the Nikon Coolpix L11

— well, apparently it's discontinued, too. But it seems to have all the features and functionality of the L4, plus an image size beefed up to 6 megapixels, and your choice of either a prosaic silver or edgy black case. More importantly, Ritz Camera is blowing them out this week for $89.95 apiece. So if you're thinking about going digital and still looking for that last-minute nice gift for yourself or someone close to you, I highly recommend taking a closer look at this one.

Your thoughts and comments?


Sunday, December 16, 2007

When Penguins Attack

So my travel day turned out to be a complete botch. The cab was late picking me up; no problem, the 7:15 a.m. flight was canceled. So was the 9 a.m. flight. The counter people blamed it on a snowstorm out east and claimed the Boeing 757 we were supposed to be flying was stuck in Newark, and operating on the blind squirrel & acorn principle, they may have been telling the truth. Shortly before 11 a.m. they rolled an Airbus 330 up to the gate and announced that we'd all be leaving on the 12:15 p.m. flight instead, and shortly after that, they totted up their numbers again and announced free tickets for anyone willing to take the bump to the next flight, which was scheduled to depart at 1 p.m.. Since they weren't specifying 1 p.m. on which day, though, I decided to keep my seat.

I should have taken the bump.

The Airbus 330 is a big barge: it seats eight abreast up in the main cabin and seven abreast back in steerage, which was where I was. To distract you from your sardine-like state they have a little LCD TV screen on the back of each seat, on which they run announcements, safety videos, and in flight, an assortment of movies. Altogether, the thing seems to seat around 300 people, and at 12:15 p.m., with every seat full, we rolled back from the gate.

And stopped.

And sat there awhile, and then rolled back some more. And stopped again.

And then the little video screen popped up a message to tell us that the pilot was making an announcement, whereupon he announced that we were having some mechanical problems and there would be a slight delay. He apologized for the inconvenience, and assured us we would be on our way shortly.

And then someone shut off the cabin air-conditioning.

S'okay, I 've had worse. Once, in Memphis, Nørðwürst left me sitting out on the runway for three hours, in late August, with the cabin A/C turned off while they tried to do some field repairs to the APU. This time at least it was December, and an overcast and drizzly day, so we weren't roasting. It was just a bit stuffy in there.

And then the little video screen popped up a message to tell us that the pilot was making another announcement, whereupon he announced that we were going to back to the gate, because the problems were trickier than they'd thought, and there would be another slight delay. He apologized again for the inconvenience, and assured us that this time, we really would be on our way shortly.

Meanwhile, the cabin A/C remained off.

S'okay, I've had much worse. Once, in San Diego, Nørðwürst left me sitting out on the runway all morning and half the afternoon, sweltering in the sun with the A/C off, and then had us deplane and sit in a secured room until quite late in the evening, when they announced that the plane wasn't going to fly that day after all. Then they loaded us all on a bus and took us to a fleabag motel, only to rouse us at 4 a.m., drive us back to the airport, and herd us onto a plane and get us out of there before we had a chance to warn any other prospective passengers. So this wasn't so bad. It was just getting rather warm, close, and smelly in there.

An hour later the AAA truck showed up and jump-started the plane or something, and the little video screen popped up a message to tell us that the pilot was making another announcement. Whereupon he announced that we were finally ready to depart, ordered the stewies to secure for takeoff, switched the A/C back on, fired up the engines, and rolled us out to the taxi-way.

And stopped.

And switched off the A/C.

And after we'd sat there for twenty minutes or so, the little video screen popped up yet another stupid message telling us that the pilot was making another stupid announcement, whereupon he announced that they were having computer problems, but not to worry, they were working through the problems with the technicians back in Minneapolis and expected to have them resolved shortly. In the meantime, he apologized yet again for the inconvenience, and assured us that we were very, very, very close to being ready to be on our way. And then we sat.

S'okay, I've had... no, wait, I'm lying. By this point it was like being trapped in a sunken U-boat inside that plane. The air was hot, dense, suffocating. People were drenched in sweat and stripping down to their t-shirts. (None of the good-looking women, though, dammit.) A passenger revolt was brewing as people tried to storm the bathrooms and the stewies had to break out the tasers and cattle prods to keep them in their seats. The cabin was filled with the soft muttering of angry voices and the quiet, desperate clicking of hundreds of thumbs on cell phone and Blackberry keypads. Then the little video screen popped up another @#($*& message telling us the pilot was making yet another @#*$&^ announcement, whereupon he came on the PA again to announce that the computer problem couldn't be resolved on the runway, so they'd have to go back to the terminal to reboot the plane. In the meantime he really, truly, deeply and sincerely apologized for — ah, stuff it, buddy!

So we rolled back to the terminal again — with the cabin A/C still off, of course — and the stupid little video screen popped up yet another stupid little reminder that the pilot was making an announcement, whereupon he came on the cabin PA to tell us that, because we'd burned so much fuel taxiing around the tarmac, we were also going to have to refuel the plane before we could take off. So they shut off everything — A/C, reading lights, the works — while a cadre of technicians swarmed over the plane, connecting hoses and umbilicals, and one of the passengers seated near me started to get panicky because he'd been in the Air Force and said he could smell a JP-4 leak.

And then, more than two and a half hours after we'd first rolled back from the gate, the cabin PA system chimed but the LCD screens stayed dark, and the pilot came on to announce that everything was finally just about ready to go, just as soon as they finished the last step in rebooting the plane's computer systems. And then suddenly, 300 little LCD screens simultaneously blanked, flashed, and displayed the same smug, tubby, familiar little image...

Tux, the Linux penguin

Followed by about 50 lines of UFS error messages. At which point the plane's systems finally seemed to come up, and the engines fired up, and we rolled out onto the runway and — after an agonizing 15-minute wait in the takeoff queue — we finally took off and got the heck out of there, and flew back to Minneapolis.

While our luggage went to Boston, of course. But that's another story.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Friday Challenge

...and here it is, Friday already. Long week. Who knew that doing nothing but meeting and conferencing for hours on end could be so exhausting? (Well, my new Dell Lassitude laptop apparently knew, as it turns out the batteries can only go for a little over two hours before needing to stop and take a long drink from the mains.) It wasn't the talking that was tiring, though; it's was all the listening, processing, and developing structures, strategies, and plans in response to what I was hearing that wore me out. I suppose it also didn't help that there was no discernable downtime. I couldn't even go to a restaurant afterwards, alone, without overhearing the conversation of the people at the next table and realizing they were tangentially part of the same process (and were in fact blabbing about confidential and sometimes even classified information with no apparent cognizance of how their voices carried).

Well, at least I got through an entire week without having to endure a single PowerPoint presentation. That's a plus.

And now here we are, at 0-dark-30 on Friday morning, frittering away the hours until it's time to catch the shuttle to the airport and get out of here, and I never did get around to the blogbits I planned to write this week about the two books I read on the plane ride out here, or my trenchant observations about the local newspaper, or the books I wanted to add to the Recommended Giving list, or the movie I meant to plug. All fodder for next week's bloggerel, I suppose.

Instead, as I've now observed three times, it's Friday, and this means it's time for The Friday Challenge. First, though, I've been remiss, and have some catching-up to do. The winners of the last three Friday Challenges are (drum roll, please):

Rigel Kent, for "Die Hard: The NeXT Generation"

Passin Through, for "A Visit from Aunt Martha"

and Henry Vogel, for "The Final Solution to the TV Writer's Strike", with Honorable Mention to Claymore, who came up with an idea for a story that would probably be marketable if written, but wasn't an answer to the challenge. Winners, email me to claim your prizes.

Now, for this week's challenge. I want to begin by directing your attention to rycamor's comment on my Tuesday post; indeed, a fine, apolitical, curmudgeonly rant.

And that's this week's challenge: I'm looking for your best rant about modern life here in the early 21st century that does not involve presidential politics, illegal aliens (pro or con), homosexuality (pro or con), or "kids these days." What is the one thing you really miss about The Way Things Used To Be, or the one thing that you know is a really a relic of the last century but still hope never goes away entirely?

As always, we're playing for your choice of either a signed copy of Rebel Moon or what's behind Door #2, with the winner to be announced next Friday. Ready? Go!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Road Trip (continued)

And the Adventure continues. Here I am, awake at 4 a.m. local time, because my body hasn't made the adjustment and I won't be in this time zone long enough to bother doing so. My hotel is located in the fashionable "Armpit" part of town, right between the stadium and the dockyards and just a convenient hop and skip across the railroad tracks to the sports bar and strip club strip, so I've been listening to the hoots and rumbles of freight trains all night, interrupted by the occasional ship's whistle or rakkety-rakkety-rakka of a semi-trunk using compression braking on the nearby freeway exit ramp. After I got checked in and squared away last night I took a walk around the neighborhood, hoping to find an interesting local restaurant —

And then, realizing I was not up to that much interesting, I hurried back to the hotel, taking care to make sure I was not followed, and settled for an overpriced Cobb salad in the hotel restaurant. Ah, well. That's what expense accounts are for.

Now it's — too early. Dawn won't even be a notion in the sky for three more hours. And no, I would not really kill for a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll right now, but threaten someone with serious bodily injury? Perhaps. This whole "convenient coffee maker in every room" concept works much better if the hotel remembers to include filters along with the coffee maker and complimentary selection of fine locally roasted coffees.

As for yesterday: I intended to bloviate, but between Threat Condition Ernie, a seating cock-up, a delayed flight, trouble finding wi-fi hotspots, and all else, by the time I finally got settled in, I was too tired to think, much less write. I'm not terribly enamored of airports; to me, they combine all the appealing ambience of a bus station and an overpriced off-brand strip mall. And you have to wonder about the choices the airport management makes when they pick their vendors. Let's see: I'm going to be in a cattle car with wings for four hours, so yes, of course I want a double-bean burrito with extra garlic and onions. After all, I'm going to be spending the afternoon strapped into a seat next to an elderly woman from rural North Dakota who is going to insist on telling me her entire life's history, even after I put in earplugs and pretend to fall asleep...

One last observation, and then I'm done. Can we please declare a moratorium on Larry Craig jokes? Yes, I know, our flight originated from MSP, and the first few times I observed the Larry Craig Shuffle it was mildly amusing, but by the twentieth or thirtieth time? Eh, not so much. be continued...