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Friday, August 29, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 8/29/08

And here it is: Labor Day Weekend. If not the official end of summer, then it's at least the end of summer vacation, and in the immortal words of Rod Stewart, it's time to collect your books and get on back to school.

So that's what we're looking for this week: your favorite Labor Day Weekend story. It can be an end-of-a-summer-romance story, a packing-up-and-heading-off-to-college story, a closing-up-the-cabin story, a one-last-crazy-road-trip story, or whatever else you have in inventory. The deadline is next Thursday.

So, go ahead. Get nostalgic. We won't laugh.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Living on the Web

Coupla items have come in over the broadband in the last few days and warrant further comment, but I have a Board of Directors meeting t'night and need to bash this off quickly.

Longtime readers know I'm a big fan of cartoonist Chris Muir and his daily web comic, Day by Day. Chris is running a fund-raiser on his site right now, because he's trying to make a living by doing this strip, and I mention this because I for one believe it is possible to enjoy his work, admire his chutzpah, and support his efforts while simultaneously thinking he's daft. Anyway, because I really enjoy the strip and want him to keep writing and drawing it, I'm in at the $40 level. How about you?

For reference, I'm also a fan of cartoonist Darrin Bell and his strip, Candorville. Darrin and I had an email dialog going there for a little while and I was hoping to get a column out of it, but then he found out I'm politically conservative or something and cut off contact. Sigh. And here I thought it was possible to admire someone's work and support their creativity without always agreeing with them.

Speaking of columns, JP Frantz over at SF Signal asked for my thoughts on Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Since I had a little spare time and felt I had something to say on the subject, I first whipped out the rough draft of a much longer piece, and then cooked a few of the more salient points down to what I actually sent him. I'm told the piece is up on the SF Signal site now. If you have time, go check it out — and report back to me. I didn't have a lot of time to check out the SF Signal site in depth. What's it like?

For reference, I don't mind writing guest posts and such, provided I have the time, which is always in short supply. What sold me on writing this one for SF Signal is that Frantz didn't give me the hard sell, and try to convince me that this was an opportunity I simply could not afford to pass up because my words would be appearing on The #1 SF Fan Portal With Umpty-thousand Hits Daily! and all that. In comparison, the foremost loser in recent weeks was the guy who gave me the hard sell, stressing his site's high editorial standards, and then closing with his best pitch. Didn't I know, if I were to write for him and my piece was accepted, I would get a percentage of the Google Ad-Sense profits for that month!

Oh, boy. Give me some room, because I can't contain my excitement and I just might explode.

Finally, I just got a request for an interview the other day from Popular 1, "the best Spanish rock and roll magazine." Does anybody here know anything about this magazine? For that matter, can anyone here besides rycamor read spanish? Is this an interview I want to do?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Goose Days of Summer

They call these the Dog Days of Summer — because Sirius, the Dog Star, is ascendant, and not because the dogs don't want to do nothin' but lay on the porch and bark at strangers —

Me, I don't think of dogs this time of year, I think of geese. The tomatoes are ripe, full, red, and delicious, the peppers are ready for picking and pickling by the peck, and the beans are ripening faster than we can think of ways to eat them. The plums are still a week or two away from being ready to harvest, but boy, are we going to have plums out the ears this year.

Meanwhile, the days are still hot, but the nights are turning crisp and cool, and over in the cow pasture, the wild geese are starting to flock-up. Every morning, about half an hour before dawn, they start raising an unholy racket; as far as I can tell, in goose-speak, they're all saying, "So, you think it's time to fly south?" and "No, not yet," over and over again, by the hundreds.

How about you? What's your favorite indicator that Summer is almost over and Fall is just around the corner?

Monday, August 25, 2008

An observation

Just back last night from a weekend spent mostly out of town. Sunday afternoon we wound up watching a parade, of your usual smaller-town summer festival sort, and aside from my usual peevish comments about how fewer people every year seem to remember that you're supposed to stand, take off your hat, and put your hand over your heart for the color guard at the beginning of the parade, and about how annoying I find recorded music in parades — if I have to watch one more float roll by covered with a bunch of Wiscorgeous girls flanked by signs proclaiming them the North Cowchip Pepper Festival Junior Royalty, with all the girls doing synchronized hand-waving to the crowd while the speakers blast out "The Macarena" — well, I'll scream, but no one will hear me, because the music will be too loud and the equalization will have added an ear-splitting overemphasis to the high freqs.

But never mind that. What really made an impression on me were all the kids stomping along in their white martial arts outfits. I had no idea this town had so many karate schools, tae kwon do schools, kung pao dojos, and whatever the heck else they have. But there they were: wave after wave of semi-rural gomers in their white pajamas, throwing synchronized punches and kicks in the air, while their parents clapped and cheered. These were followed by another group twirling and thrusting bo's that were covered with some prismatic reflective stuff, so they were really shiny and eye-catching in the sunlight, and then later on a "float," if you will, which featured some young guy throwing punches and kicks at what looked like a heavy bag on a stick. But the real high point of all the kung foolery was a fetching young woman who came along at the end of her school's group with a genuine steel katana in a scabbard, and every fifty yards or so she'd whip it out and do a flurry of stabs, slashes, and parries in the air, all the while shouting things in what was either guttural Japanese or fluent nonsense, after which the crowd would cheer.

And I found myself thinking: The Kid just finished his Minnesota firearms safety certification class last Thursday, and scored a perfect 100% on the written test. (Not that I expected any less.) I wonder how this crowd would react if Oakdale Gun Club was to put a group of thirty or forty hunter safety students in this parade, and have them all marching along in blaze orange hats and vests, carrying real rifles and demonstrating safe firearms handling?

Or better yet, how about The Minnesota Concealed-Carry Precision Drill Team?

"Hey! That's just a bunch of ordinary people walking along! They aren't wearing funny hats or matching shirts or special badges or anything, and they aren't doing anything with their guns. In fact, I don't even see any guns!"

Exactly the point.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 8/22/08

Bet you thought I forgot to come up with a challenge with this week, huh? Well, no, I didn't forget, but this challenge is going to require you to get your geek on big time, because it's written in code. To wit, this week's Friday Challenge is:
Gary Seven Meets Logan Five at the G8. Write the story. Bonus points for working in Seven of Nine.
As always, we're playing for whatever is behind Door #2, and the deadline is next Thursday, August 28.

Now get out your secret geek decoder rings and get to work!

Muzzling Your Inner Editor (continued)

It is 6 a.m. as I write this. I am sitting out on the deck at the patio table, listening to the birds and the breeze in the poplars, watching the mist rise off the pasture, catching glimpses of the fat orange sun as it breaks through the treeline off to the east, and scribbling away in longhand.

This is my favorite time of day to write: in that quiet, calm hour that begins when the first rays of false dawn pink up the morning sky and ends when the rest of the world wakes up. I have no trouble being awake at this time. I don't need an alarm clock; I share my life with a large and rambunctious labrador/springer mix (a Labradinger?) who wakes up each and every morning with the unshakable belief that this is the day she will finally catch one of those cottontails down on in the garden. She whines me out of bed; I pull on my sweats and sandals and open the back door for her, and by the time she's given the rabbits a good run and taken care of her bio-business, I've taken care of mine, brought in the newspaper from the front step, and gotten the coffee going. Two pots: decaf for me, and fully leaded for the Missus. I grind the beans fresh each morning. I use filtered water. The regular beans go into Mr. Coffee, but I make the decaf on the stove, in a glass percolator. I love the way the scent of the fresh coffee wafts out from the kitchen when it's properly brewed and done.

I have not yet put my glasses on.

This is one of the little dodges I have developed for dealing with my inner editor. There once was a time when I had 20-15 vision, and under the right lighting conditions could see .30-caliber bullet holes in paper targets 100 yards away. That is only a memory now, although my distance vision is still better than most people's, but what's really failed in recent years is my close-in vision. My handwriting was always terrible, which is why I learned to touch-type at age 12. Now, without my glasses, it is utterly unreadable.

Reading, I've learned, is one of my inner editor's key triggers.

I used to think I was a night owl. I thought nothing of staying up until 1 or 2 in the morning, bashing away at some story until finally I found myself too tired to think and wandering around in verbal circles. I now realize that it's my inner editor who is the night owl, and that I am at my freshest, most creative, and least inhibited first thing in the morning. So the trick is to get up early, tiptoe around quietly, and avoid doing the things I know will wake him.

Hence, no glasses. If I have my glasses on when I pick up the morning newspaper, I'll start reading it, and if I start reading, my inner editor awakens. Same thing with the TV and the radio. They stay off. No scanning a passage from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader while I'm taking care of my biological necessities. Patricia Wrede tells me that when she's really stuck, she'll turn off her monitor, and try typing blind for awhile. I can achieve the same effect simply by not wearing my glasses.

There is another problem with the computer, as well. I have a really nice Dell laptop. I get a decently strong wi-fi signal out here on the deck. (My optical trackball also does some really entertaining things when the first rays of low-angle sunlight fall on it, but that's a story for another time.) But I've discovered that I simply cannot write first drafts on my laptop.

Why? Because with Windows XP, I not only get my text editing program, I also get everything else. And while I try to resist, I never succeed; pretty soon I'm taking just a few seconds to check my email, and then taking just a quick look at my six favorite blogs, and then doing just a quick pop-over to see what's new on Drudge and The Register today —

And by that point, I'm hosed, and fully into critical reader/editor mode. Besides, as nice as this laptop is, it's also a lot like an annoying, insecure girlfriend: always demanding attention. I find myself ignoring everything else and responding to the computer's need for constant input, first. I cannot, as I have just done with my pen, simply drop it and let it sit ignored, while I spend ten minutes dealing with a dog who's just informed me that we were not quite done playing fetch after all.

I have tried other alternatives. All of them work sometimes; none of them work all the time. I bought an old DOS-driven text-only 486 laptop at a thrift store a few years back, and for awhile, that worked. No internet; no email; no distractions. Eventually, though, I capitulated to the urge to start each writing session by re-reading what I'd written the day before, "just to come up to speed," and then I was lost. Or rather, stuck in edit mode again.

Working in small files and starting each day with a fresh file; sometimes that works. Sticking in a nonsense keyword at the point where I quit, and then starting the next day with a search for that keyword so that I don't have to re-read anything; sometimes that works. Over time, I've found that what works most consistently for me is to remember that I compose and revise in two distinctly different processes, and while my inner editor is a genius at revising, he's just in the way during the composition phase. So among other things, I've learned to compartmentalize my days. I read, revise, and edit in the afternoons and evenings, and try to reserve my mornings for composition and composition only.

Hence, these days I tend to write my first drafts in the early morning, in longhand, with pen on paper. My inner editor has been trained to recognize that these scribbled words are only a raw material, which he'll get to mangle later when I enter them into the computer, and he's content to roll over and go back to sleep for now.

Your inner editor has habits and behavior patterns, too. Study them; learn to recognize them. Most importantly, figure out ways to work with and around them. The most important thing to remember about a first draft is that it doesn't need to be perfect, but it does need to be done.

There's much more I can write about regarding composition vs revision — and I will, eventually. But the neighbor's kid has just called: it's the last day of summer session, her parents have left for work already, and Little Miss Latchkey has missed her bus and is hoping for a ride. Then, after that, I have commitments to deliver on, obligations to meet, and paying work to do.

The day begins.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Muzzling Your Inner Editor

DaveD writes:
"You either need to write, and do so...."

Here's my question about that. Before I ever read a book or article on "How To Write Fiction" I LOVED to write. I was almost always writing some story or another. People generally enjoyed reading my writing so I was doubly happy.

Then I "learned' how to write. This effectively killed my joy of writing. Now it is a rare time when I can sit down and pound out a story without being paralyzed by self-editing to make sure I'm following all the rules that are the ways you "HAVE" to write. It simply sucks all the enjoyment and escapism out of the task.

Don't get me wrong. I still have ideas. I still flesh them out and even do research. I have at least a half dozen stories ready to go right now. I just get caught up in the "How to Write" checklist and get bogged down.

Any cure for this?
Most of us have a tiny inner editor who lives somewhere in the back of our head. This editor's job is simple: he's there to make certain our interior monologue remains interior, and that every stupid random thought that pops into our mind does not immediately pop right out of our mouth.

I've known people who had no inner editor. They can be hilarious to be around when they decide the lunchtime conversation needs to be livened up by describing the wonderful new anal beads their boyfriend has just bought for their birthday; terrifying to be around when the local representatives of MS-13 walk into the restaurant and they blurt out, "Hey! Where'd all these f***ing spics come from?"

Part of the process of becoming a better writer is developing an effective working relationship with your inner editor. He needs to be trained. He needs to learn the rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar and internalize them until they become habits. He needs to be recognized, released, empowered, and unchained.

The problem is, your inner editor, like most outer editors, is probably, deep in his tiny, rock-like heart, a martinet, a perfectionist, a tyrant, and a real prick. Once let off the leash, he will in time completely stop up all output. Nothing you write is ever good enough. Everything you write needs to be analyzed, cross-examined, and second-guessed — and third-guessed, and fourth-guessed, and so on, and so on — until ultimately, nothing you write is ever sufficiently perfect to be declared finished and released to make its own way in the world.

As a result, you end up in a condition commonly called "writer's block," but the reality is much worse than the name suggests. In truth, you're locked into a Sisyphean diagnostic loop that is slowly decreasing with each iteration, in which you are condemned to continually rewrite the same story — then chapter, then scene, and then paragraph — until it is absolutely perfect. But since true perfection is unattainable in this world, of course, what you ultimately end up doing is rewriting the same sentence over and over, each time either inserting or taking out the same damned comma.

Don't laugh. This has happened to me.

"But," you say, citing one famous name or another. (Let's say Dickens. He's dead. He can't sue.) "Dickens obviously didn't suffer from that problem. Would that he had, but he didn't. How did he beat his inner editor into submission?"

Fortunately, since these are writers we're talking about, we have ample recorded evidence of the methods they used to successfully control their inner editors. And while it is not true that you can look up "writer" in the thesaurus and find that it's a synonym for "alcoholic," many of the more popular methods do involve ingesting copious quantities of drugs and/or alcohol. In fact, my current belief is that that is why so many famous writers did eventually become alcoholics. It was no intrinsic weakness or character flaw on their part. They were simply trying to drown their inner editor in booze so that he would shut up and they could get back to work.

This is the common thread that runs through the whole length of the Western literary tradition. The ancient Greek and Roman poets and playwrights favored wine; lots of red wine. If ergot was not a hallucinogen, the entire body of Medieval mystic literature probably would not exist. Absinthe had its period in vogue. If beer was not a depressant, the Germans probably would never have come up with existentialism. And don't even get me started on the intimate relationship between vodka and Russian literature.

Even today, this experiment continues. Larry Niven recommends starting out each writing day with a cup of black coffee sweetened with a generous dollop of peppermint schnapps; if this fails to get the creative juices flowing, repeat as necessary. There is an entire sub-genre of contemporary mainstream fiction that future literary historians will someday declare the New York Coke-Head school of writing. And I myself conducted extensive experiments back in the early 1970s with the intent of determining whether, like a beehive or a wasp nest, my inner editor could be smoked out by the use of certain burning herbal products. To some extent, it worked. My inner editor was quieted, and I wrote a lot. Admittedly, it was a lot of utter crap, but I was most pleased with myself while writing it.

Thankfully, I survived that period of experimentation without lasting harm and left it behind more than three decades ago, and have since developed some successful, effective, and non-toxic strategies for keeping my inner editor safely dozing in his kennel until needed. be concluded...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Cult of Strunk & White

DaveD has been kind enough to give me several days' worth of blog topics. Tackling his questions in LIFO order:
Is Strunk and White's really the Holy Grail of writing? Nearly every pro I've read says that if you want to be published you HAVE to follow "Elements of Style".
I like The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. I keep a copy of it on the bookshelf right behind my monitor and still refer to it now and then when I have a question. It's one of those books I buy in order to give to people I meet; as a tool for teaching aspiring writers the rudiments of punctuation and grammar, it has few equals.

But, the utility of Strunk & White begins and ends with academic and technical writing. If you want to communicate your ideas clearly, concisely, and with all the vitality of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy, then by all means, follow The Elements of Style slavishly and never deviate a millimeter from the one true path.

You will find many writers and editors who believe in doing this, if you stay in the word business long enough. There is a sort of a cult of Strunk & White out there, adhered to by people obsessed with rules and order, most of them seemingly aging ascetic single women who live with cats, are stuck in mid-level copy-editing jobs, and would rather write, "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put," than end a sentence with a preposition. In Strunk & White — or if not Strunk & White, then The Chicago Manual of Style — these people have found the sacred text they can use again and again to invoke the near-wrath of a trivial god.

The problem with Strunk & White, as with most sacred texts, is that its devotees tend to seize upon the absolutes stated in chapters 1 and 2, get bogged down somewhere in chapter 3, cherry-pick a few highlights from chapter 4, and never make it to the subtleties and ambiguities of chapter 5. The results?

A certain Mr. G. Roddenberry turns in his copy: "To boldly go where no man has gone before." Miss Strunkenwhite has a fit. "No! Never split an infinitive! Strunk & White, Chapter 3, Verse 98: it is written!"

A certain Mr. R. W. Emerson turns in his copy:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
Miss Strunkenwhite gets an attack of the vapors. When she recovers, she scribbles PASSIVE VOICE in the margin, underlines it twice and stabs down three exclamation points, and then rewrites the passage:
It was April. The farmers stood near the primitive bridge. They fired their guns. Everyone in the world heard the shots.
Remember, when writing fiction, rules are made to be broken, but the corollary to this is that you must know what the rules are before you can choose whether or not to break them. In this context, then, Strunk & White is a good tool for learning the rules quickly, and by all means you should become familiar with it.

But then, you should go read Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On Becoming a Writer

A person who will probably prefer to remain Anonymous writes—
Oh, never mind, the exact words don't matter. I get a few of these every Fall; this one merely jumped the gun by a few weeks. It's an energetic, highly emotional, poorly punctuated complaint about this person's Fall class schedule, leading up to a salvo of rhetorical questions asking what reading other people's novels and researching and writing papers about said novels has to do with becoming a writer.

Um... Everything?

Look, if you do not like to read other people's fiction and are not willing to do a little research once in a while and learn to think critically, you probably are not a good candidate to "become" a writer in the first place. But let's deal with the most pressing question first. If that bit about wanting to write so that you can "get the dark visions out of [your] head" before you hurt yourself or someone else was not just a dramatic flourish, you don't need to write, you need a therapy program. There are many good ones around. Find one. Now.

Assuming that was merely rhetorical overstatement, though: I'm increasingly of the opinion that one cannot go to college to learn to "become" a writer. One either is or is not a writer. You either need to write, and do so, or else you don't, and your time and your parent's tuition money is better employed pursuing something else.

You can learn to become a better writer. Writing is both an art and a craft, and the craft aspects can be taught. Most of us start out as pretty bad writers, but with time and diligence can learn to become better craftspersons. But majoring in Literature for four years, all the while complaining that your college does not offer a Creative Writing major, will not help you to "become" a writer. For that matter, even if you did end up with a four-year degree in Creative Writing from an institution with an accredited Creative Writing program, that would not make you a writer.

What makes you a writer is that you write. The fairy godmother with the magic wand who taps you on the head and pronounces you a real writer comes in the form of an acceptance letter from an editor, or a check from a publisher, or in fan mail from readers — or sometimes it never comes at all. I know of one very successful, best-selling, award-winning novelist who still harbors the secret fear that some day the world will find out that she doesn't really know what she's doing, she just does it, and then she'll have to give back all those lovely awards.

It is up to you, and you alone, to define the set of conditions that will enable you to say, with a straight face and without a trace of doubt or embarrassment, "I am a writer."

It does not come from majoring in Literature in college.

Don't misunderstand me. Studying Literature is good. Literature is the collective memory of our civilization; it is the common background that makes understanding and communication possible across age lines and social strata. Reading other people's writing and thinking critically about what makes it work will help you to become a better writer.

But majoring in Literature in order to "become" a writer is a waste of your time and your parent's money. Major in Journalism; learn to listen to people. Major in History; you have to know where we're coming from to imagine where we're going. Study architecture. Learn to throw a clay pot on a wheel. Do as one writer I know did and quit school for a semester, to follow the harvest as a migrant farm worker. Get off campus once in a while. Go places. See things. Meet people you wouldn't ordinarily meet. Read books that aren't assignments. Accept that as a 19- or 20-year-old in college, all the ideas in your head right now have come from someone else's books, movies, websites, or songs — or else from that possible dopamine imbalance, do get that checked out — and cultivate both patience and diligence.

But do not go to college in hopes that one day you will end up in the right section of the right class, where a fairy professor will whap you on the head with a magic wand and say, "You are now a Real Writer. Go forth and write!" Because that only happens in fantasy.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Ongoing Book Discussion Discussion

How do you determine the body count for a book, or more properly, for the ideas which a given book contains? For some titles it's easy, because the effects are fairly direct and writ large in history. The Communist Manifesto: One hundred million dead in the Twentieth Century alone. Mein Kampf: Twenty million dead, in about a decade. (World War II properly began in the mid-1930s, but that is a topic for another time.)

With other titles, it's more subtle and harder to gauge. Personally, I believe there is a special place in Hell reserved for the author of The Population Bomb, which was required reading in high schools and colleges all across America circa 1970 and which in turn convinced an entire generation of educated, affluent women to either forgo child-bearing entirely, ignore genetics and outsource child-bearing offshore by adopting from Third World countries, or perhaps worst of all, to produce just one, perfect — and perfectly spoiled — trophy baby. In the long run, I believe The Population Bomb will cause the collapse of Western Civilization.

But that also is a topic for another time.

Today, I want to talk about a recent addition to the We're Doomed! collection that I consider a real find: Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. This book, first published in 1962, is considered the founding text of the modern environmentalist movement. It is also the reason why, when asked, I will admit to being an environmentalist, but then hasten to add, "But I'm an Aldo Leopold environmentalist, not a Rachel Carson environmentalist."

The difference? Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, if you've not read it, is a beautiful, almost lyrical book about man's relationship with and stewardship over the earth. One of my uncles once unintentionally but brilliantly summed up Leopold's philosophy in a single very pithy epigram: "What you dump in the lake today might end up on your plate tomorrow. So don't dump crap in the lake."

Carson's Silent Spring, on the other hand, is a shrill, angry, darn near anti-human book. If this is indeed the founding text of the modern environmentalist movement, the source of many contemporary problems quickly becomes evident. The book is well and movingly written, of course, and really sinks its hooks into the reader on an emotional level. But Carson also routinely cites anecdotal evidence as proof, treats assertions as facts, conflates one complex chemical with another, and delivers blanket indictment upon blanket indictment of the entire agricultural chemical and pesticide industry. Further, throughout it all runs the near-constant subtext: We're in a crisis! There isn't time to study this issue further and wait for proof! The government must take drastic action NOW!

I first read Silent Spring in about 1967, and, as the author intended, embraced its message and took it to heart. I was very young and impressionable in those days, and not yet capable of understanding the Schopenhauer dialectical method nor recognizing its use. It took me years to realize that this book was agitprop, not science.

Someone else also read Silent Spring back in the 1960's, and he apparently took away a different lesson, which is what makes this particular copy of the book such a find. This reissued edition begins with a shrill, frothing, 12-page introduction written by none other than Al Gore, back in the days when he was still called "Ozone Al." (Are you old enough to remember the hole in the ozone layer that was going to kill us all back in the 1980s if the government didn't take drastic action right away? In case you missed it, the government didn't, the hole closed by itself, penguins and polar bears by the millions didn't go blind from UV radiation, and humanity was not devoured alive by a plague of skin cancer.) In his introduction, Gore even goes so far as to credit Carson and Silent Spring as his twin inspirations for becoming an environmentalist and writing Earth in the Balance.

So to return to the question we began with: how do you determine the body count for a book? In the case of Silent Spring, the numbers are fuzzy. Because of this book, the manufacture, sale, and application of the pesticide DDT was banned worldwide. Because of the ban on DDT, thirty-five million people so far have died from what otherwise would have been a cheaply and easily prevented disease: mosquito-borne malaria. And 35,000,000 is just the conservative estimate; other estimates double or even triple that number, which puts Silent Spring right up there in Mein Kampf territory.

But if what he wrote in his introduction was true, and Silent Spring really was the book that inspired Al Gore to write Earth in the Balance, and later, An Inconvenient Truth...

Well, then wherever they are now, Marx and Engels had better be worried, because their record is in serious jeopardy.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 8/15/08

Wow. Three and a half years of blogging. More than six hundred posts. More than fifty identifiable Friday Challenges—

To be honest, these numbers are vague because about two years ago I went on a housekeeping binge and deleted a lot of trivial, irrelevant, and/or redundant posts. The Friday Challenge per se is also a relatively recent addition to this site. It started out as the monthly Gedanke Experimentieren (German for, "no funding available"), progressed to being The Monday Challenge (which was a flop, participation-wise), and didn't settle down into the form we all know and love until roughly a year ago.

Nonetheless, a bit of spelunking through the archives produced this list of past challenges. I make no claim that it's complete. In fact, I can clearly remember a few that I can't seem to find now, much to my annoyance, so I must have either deleted them or given them weird names I'm unable to recognize now.

In any event, this list should do for a start. The list of known past challenges includes:

90377 Sedna
A wizard, a elf, and a dwarf walk into a tavern...
The old writer-sells-his-soul-for-success shtick
Welcome to the neighborhood
The organic supercomputer
Save the Guinea Worm!
The October Surprise
Casablanca: The Remake
The Strange Death of St. Teresa of Avila
The archaeology paper
Peter Punk
Remaking The Monolith Monsters
The Great Sci-Fi Pirate Story Challenge!
Starfleet Academy
A Halloween story, preferably involving the cryogenically preserved corpse of Paris Hilton
The Best Thanksgiving Dinner Story Ever
Die Hard: The NeXT Generation
Life in the 21st Century
Methane clathrate
Predators and Terminators vs. Aliens
The Squirrel Diet
Household appliances
Heather Has Two Mommies, Three Daddies, a Pig's Spleen and a Baboon's Heart
The worst job you ever had
The Lord of The Rings II: The Return of The One Ring
The Star Trek Death Scene You Always Wanted To See
Arfour's Complaint
The CSI PistolCam story
Hillary Clinton: Immortal Mighty Warrior Woman Battling Through Time
The attack of the Crazy Rasberry Ants
The Day The Televisions Died
The Friday Challenge Parody Song Contest
American Idolator
School's Out!
Bruce Wayne Meets Lex Luthor
Your best 4th of July / Fireworks story
A letter to a child born this year, to be delivered on his or her birthday in 2023
Your best rant about ecological catastrophe

As for this week's Friday Challenge: isn't it obvious? Today, we begin The Ranting Room's First Annual Ultimate Snowdogging Competition. Deadlines be damned! Any past topic from any previous Friday Challenge or its predecessors is fair game. Still have that great half-story from your failed stab at "Arfour's Complaint" lying around? This is your chance to dust it off and try again!

As always, we're playing by the hallowed rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for what's behind Door #2. As for the deadline: shall we say Thursday, August 21? Or do you want until the 28th?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

And the winner is...

So in the end I was down to choosing between three entries, all of which were very good and all for different reasons. On the short and wry end of the spectrum, Leatherwing gave us a quick glimpse of Tech Support Hell, which looks exactly like being trapped in a Starbuck's by a mob of putz users being driven slowly insane by Microsoft's weekly automatic updates. There is not a word wasted in this story; it's clever, funny, and ends with a really nice, dark, twist. A good short-short story is hard to write, but this one is very good indeed.

Just as I was about to give the award to Leatherwing, though, I'd take another look at Al's story, "Recursive Stack Overflow,", and then I'd waffle. Al's story is a much different take on the idea: very dark, very cerebral, and in the end, very creepy. Of all of the entries, this is probably closest to what I would have tried to write. But, as I keep reminding myself, the object here is not to train you to write just like me — there's already one of me and that seems to be sufficient, thank you — so just as I was about to give the award to Al, I'd force myself to take a step back, take a deep breath, and try to be a bit more objective.

Which effort always brought me around to DaveD's entry. What I like best about this one is the way it just grabs me and drags me along at a breakneck pace to the ending. Even though I've now read it four times, once I start this one, I must finish it. This one is a really good example of great pacing in a much longer short-story.

And so I would continue to sit there, contemplating my three-sided waffle, unable to pick a clear winner.

Until this morning, when I once again asked Karen her opinion, in one of her moments of startling clarity, she said, "Look, you've already blown off two other Friday Challenges since this one. Why don't you just declare it a three-way tie and move on?"

Hey, look at that, we have a winner! And it is, amazingly enough, a three-way tie! Leatherwing, Al, and DaveD, come on down and claim your prizes!

New challenge tomorrow...

What's going on with The Friday Challenge?

My life continues to be... interesting. Promising blog topics go noted but undeveloped, email accumulates unanswered, things promised to other people but not urgently required remain promised but undone, and all but the most critical of deadlines make a lovely whooshing sound as they go by. At the moment, it looks like this pattern of hyperactivity won't break before the 25th at the earliest.

All the same, I've been schlepping around eight really strong Friday Challenge entries in my briefcase ever since the 1st, and before we roll over into the Friday Challenge Hostage Crisis, Week Three, I must deal with these.

The original 7/25 Friday Challenge, as you may remember, was:
...a free story idea for you. How about if, in some not-too-distant future where implanted wi-fi brain augmentations are as common as Blackberrys are today, one of the leading implant vendors releases an inadequately tested OS software update that has the unfortunate side-effect of turning a certain subset of users into psychotic homicidal cannibals? And the hero of the story is a lone, brave, software tester who is trying to figure out just exactly which combination of base software, patches, updates, aftermarket mods, and open source spaghetti code caused the problem and how to fix it — while at the same time fighting off his own implant's regression errors, which are continually throwing his brain into earlier and more primitive patterns of thinking!

There, bet that is a story you could sell to Analog.
Obviously, the easiest way for me to dodge out of this one would be for me to say, "Okay, you've all written your versions of the story: now the first one to sell it to Stan Schmidt at Analog wins." But that would be cruel and unusual, and given Schmidt's current response time, could draw this out for another six months. Ergo, picking the top one off the pile and proceeding more or less at random, we begin.

Ben-el: Cute, clever, funny; I snickered when you had Jeff Goldblum deliver his signature line. "Must type faster. Must type faster!" But in the end it was just too cute, and besides, if I don't disqualify someone once in a while for completely blowing off the deadline, the deadline will have no meaning. But fear not, my young friend, for in a way, you have determined the choice of the Friday Challenge that will be issued tomorrow.

But more about that tomorrow.

WaterBoy: What is it with Brian? I can understand why so many of you wrote stories that evidenced deeply held Microsoft Loathing, and darned if I don't cave it to that myself on a regular basis, but what do all you have against Brian? Honestly, given the similarity in names, it makes me just a little nervous.

Never mind that. WaterBoy, you story has a really nice "Twilight Zone" vibe to it, and the thought of being stuck in an infinite loop inside The Wedding Singer made me cringe and groan, but in the end, it read more like a summary of a story than an actual story, and that wasn't good enough to win this week. I felt like I was outside the story, looking down on it from a high level and having it narrated to me, rather than more immediately in the story. Does this make sense? (I can't tell; as I write this it's 6:15 a.m. and I haven't had my second cup of coffee yet.)

Good idea, good vibe, good ending twist, but too abstracted to win, this week.

Athor Pel: Too short. A very good idea — that there is a pattern to be discovered, implying intent, and behind that, a malignant intelligence — but this is the beginning of a story, not a story. You definitely could have taken that idea and run a lot further with it, and I would like to see you do so. Don't be so quick to go to the punchline — or in this case, given the dark nature of your story, the gut-punch line.

Speaking of which, I know I gave you all a pretty dark subject to start with — it's difficult to find the lighter side of psychopathic zombie homicidal cannibals, although it can be done — but this challenge certainly brought out everyone's dark side, didn't it? Rather than complaining about this, though, I sense an opportunity. Is there a vast market for Geek Noir stories just waiting to be tapped?

Or (shudder!), if'n I was to, say, edit together an original theme anthology of stories by new writers, and call it, oh —
Bruce Bethke presents:
          Cyberpunk: The Next Generation
Augh! Ick! No! Get thee behind me, Satan!

But while you're leaving, Satan, would you mind getting my agent on the phone before you go?

Right. Back to the challenge entries...

Snowdog: Nicely done. You've packed an entire evil paradigm shift into 500 words and told a complete story in that length, which isn't easy to do. Two things, though.

1. Never use the name "Schtupp." That's one of those words that immediately tags the story as a joke and makes it sound like the setup for an old Mel Brooks routine.

2. In the end, "Schtupp" is monologuing. It always detracts from the story when the villain delays killing the hero in order to gloat and explain the Evil Plan. It would be much more effective, given that this story is told entirely in dialog, to have Leland figure it out — or at least make some wild guesses that let the reader figure it out — before the cut to the final scene.

Leatherwing: I don't know what to say about this one. It's short, it's funny, it's complete, it works. "Ma'am, he has the Blue Eyes of Death. You have to reboot him," cracks me up. The idea of doing tech support out of a Starbucks — worse, of being trapped in that Starbucks, doing Microsoft tech support, while the world deteriorates with every new automatic update — cracks me up.


Henry: Another one that I'm having trouble critiquing. It's good; it's mostly complete. It's not as polished as your usual work — there are places you fall into summarizing plot developments that would be better if shown onstage and fleshed-out — but considering how quickly it was whipped together, it's a great first draft, and I'd definitely like to see it more fully developed. That, and I'd like a piece of the eventual and obvious movie deal. Just a small piece will do.

Oops. Out of time, must dash, and I haven't even gotten to DaveD or Al yet.

...To be continued...

Monday, August 11, 2008

Thanks for asking

Mike Maier writes:
I'm finally getting around to reading the Acrobat copy of Cyberpunk I d/l'd [~brb: translation, "downloaded"] probably three years ago. Oddly, I noted on page 44 there's some sort of — artifact? — on the bottom half of the page. Seems like a weblink or something else that doesn't work but is there to be clicked on. Just thought you might want to take a quick look at it. And I just re-d/l'd it to make sure whatever it is wasn't removed in later revisions.

BTW, I'm very much enjoying Cyberpunk, but is there ANY means by which to buy a print copy? Amazon and eBay come up empty.
First off, thanks for the bug report. That, my friend, is a relic from the days of slow dial-up modems. Back when I first put a PDF of CP out on my original website, thirteen or fourteen years ago (Good grief? Has it really been that long?), I had to break the book up into a series of smaller chunks in order to make downloading it over a 9600-baud modem tolerable. The weblink you found is the relative link to the next PDF file in the sequence. Old data; pay it no mind. Since nearly everyone is on some form of broadband now and CP is now distributed as one monolithic file, the chunk file the link pointed to is long gone, and attempting to click the link returns an error 404. If I ever get around to re-gen'ing the Cyberpunk PDF, I'll delete the link.

But, at this point we tie into the answer to your second question. Right now there is no way — at least, there'd better be no way — to buy a print copy, as the book was never legally released in print form. However, within a few months that will be changing, as Rampant Loon Press is bringing out a print edition of Cyberpunk.

Sorry, no, what Rampant Loon actually will be publishing is Cyberpunk, and Cyberpunk Revisited, which combines the original novel and a rather longish non-fiction essay that tries to put the novel into historical context and answer all the many, many, many questions that have been asked about it in the past 25+ years.

Hey. It worked for Huxley.

As for why the book isn't available now: that ties into a discussion of the whole genesis of and business model employed by Rampant Loon Press, as well as a number of valuable Observations Made and Lessons Learned in the past year. But as usual, I'm out of time to explain.

Must dash, more to follow,

Thursday, August 07, 2008

More Catching Up

Those of you who read and commented on Violence: Some Very Ugly Truths and Violence: An Update will be relieved to know that the 41-year-old father who was the victim in this incident has been released from the hospital and is now recuperating at home. True, he is also now blind in one eye and will probably require facial reconstruction surgery, but at least he seems to have sustained no permanent brain damage. Charges against the six adults arrested in this case have been upgraded to first-degree assault, which I'm sure means something significant to someone — most likely to the D.A., in that it gives him more room to plea-bargain — while the status of the charges against the juvenile arrested in this case remain undisclosed and an eighth suspect is still at large.

Meanwhile, over in St. Paul, a spokesperson for some government office or another reported that as long as you are not a young Asian male wearing a red t-shirt, there is no reason to fear walking in Lake Phalen park and an extremely low probability that you will be attacked with baseball bats by gangs of young Asian males wearing blue t-shirts. While this does not quite seem to jibe with the recent experience of a middle-aged white woman who was beaten to a bloody pulp in Lake Phalen park last Friday by three young Asian males wielding baseball bats, a story printed in the 8/7/08 St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that:
A 17-year-old taking a walk around St. Paul's Lake Phalen on Monday was confronted by gang members who shouted at him and his wife, "Who you bang with?" and "Are you (a) Blood?" The teen repeatedly told the group he wasn't in a gang, but they assaulted him and his 18-year-old wife with a baseball bat—
No, wait, that wasn't the paragraph I meant to quote. How about:
Wang Moua Vue, 16, told police that he was with members of the Asian Crips gang and that they had come to Lake Phalen to look for a "guy in the red shirt" they had previously assaulted. At the lake, they saw a different person wearing red and chased the unknown male.

Saddam Chex Vang, 17, told police he was an active member of the Asian Crips and —
Saddam Vang? Saddam Chex Vang?

Catching Up

Oops. The Curse of the Automatic Post strikes again. Disregard the post time-stamped 07:00 this morning; I never properly presented last week's Friday Challenge — haven't even announced the winner of the previous week's, come to think of it, even though I've been schlepping the entries around all week — so we may as well blow off this week's deadline. If you've actually written something; great, you'll get to use it next week. If not; you lucked out. Teacher's been busy so you get a reprieve.

And golly, have I been busy. Swamped with work, family-related stuff, and what has turned out to be The Pro Bono Project From The Deepest, Darkest, Stinking Depths of Hell. As a result the fun stuff, which includes blogging, has not merely taken a back seat; it's bound hand and foot and tossed into the trunk with a strip of duct tape over its mouth. I'm sorry to say the crush is not going to let up anytime soon, either, meaning blogging is going to continue to be light and variable until around Labor Day.

The pity is, I have so much to write about. For starters, there's this Great Moment in Page Layout, which appeared in the Washington County edition of yesterday's St. Paul Pioneer Press:

And many thanks to all of you who wrote to tell me the scandalous news that Obama has removed the American flag from the vertical stabilizer of his official campaign ObamaPlane, and replaced it with a strange glyph of his own devising:

What I'm surprised you missed, though, was the concurrent unveiling of his new personal symbol, along with the news that henceforth, he is only to be addressed as The Candidate Formerly Known As Obama:

Uh-oh, out of time, must dash. More later,

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Futility (Part 2)

Blogging time continues to be consumed by forces beyond my control. Ergo, instead of the thoughtful explication of the differences between drama and reality as evidenced by a comparative reading of Marooned and Lost Moon that I had planned for today, I instead present this outstanding example of proto-geek humor, as found in Lost Moon, chapter 12.

The date is Thursday, April 16, 1970. Apollo 13 has successful rounded the moon and is headed back towards Earth, with a projected splashdown on noon, Friday. But they've lost pressurization in the LEM descent engine fuel tanks — the LEM's main engine will never fire again — which rules out the possibility of any further major course corrections, and the ship's trajectory is inexplicably drifting away from the proper re-entry angle. Too shallow, and the command module will skip off the Earth's atmosphere like a rock on a pond and never come down again; too steep, and it will not so much land as impact.

With only tense hours to go before the moment of truth, what is happening in the lunar module control room at the Grumman Aerospace plant in Bethpage, Maryland? Is anybody getting drunk while despairing at a solution? Arguing over a romantic relationship? Threatening to kill himself if the ship crashes?

Not exactly...
The laughter started at one end of the lunar module control room at the Grumman plant in Bethpage and gradually spread to the other. Tom Kelly, who had been wedded to his console in a corner of the room since he and Howard Wright had flown down from Boston in the early hours of Tuesday morning, had not heard much merriment in the three days he had been here, and he didn't have a clue as to what this outburst was about. Several consoles away, he noticed that a thin sheet of yellow paper was being passed from controller to controller, each of whom looked it over and emitted a loud bark of laughter.

Kelly waited for the paper to arrive at his station. Scanning, the sheet, he recognized it immediately, and with a mixture of surprise and amusement, read on.

The thin yellow sheet Kelly had been passed was a copy of an invoice that Grumman would send to another company when Grumman supplied it a part or service. In this case, the company being billed was North American Rockwell, the manufacturer of the command module Odyssey.

On the first line of the form, underneath the column headed "Description of Services Provided," someone had typed: "Towing, $4.00 first mile, $1.00 each additional mile. Total charge, $400,001.00." On the second line, the entry read: "Battery charge, road call. Customer's jumper cables. Total, $4.05." The entry on the third line: "Oxygen at $10.00/lb. Total, $500.00." The fourth line said: "Sleeping accommodations for 2, no TV, air conditioned, with radio. Modified American Plan with view. Prepaid. (Additional guest in room at $8.00/night."

The subsequent lines included incidental charges for water, baggage handling, and gratuities, all of which, after a 20 percent government discount, came to $312,421.24.

Kelly looked at the controller who had handed him the form, then looked back at the paper and smiled, despite himself. The men at Grumman would love to send this out, and the men at Rockwell would hate to receive it. For that reason, as much as any other, Kelly guessed that someone was actually going to put this thing in an envelope and mail it to Downey, California...

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 8/1/08

Okay folks, here are the contestants who submitted entries for the 7/25 Friday Challenge, listed in no particular order. If I've missed anybody, please let me know, and I'll fix it ASARP.

Athor Pel
Al, The New Guy

To reiterate redundantly, even if you haven't submitted an entry this week, you're encouraged to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites, with a winner or possibly winners to be announced Sunday evening.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge: frankly, The Beast That Consumed All Available Oxygen In The Room kept working right up until the last possible second and then for awhile afterwards, too, so right at the moment I'm pretty short on energy and fresh ideas. Shall we make this week's challenge:

a.) Your pitch and outline for The Cold Equations II? (Just to finally kill that topic off once and for all.)

b.) Whatever comes up next out of the Topical Grab Bag? (Which I won't be able to look into until I get home, and that will probably be pretty late tonight.)

c.) Or shall we just declare this an Open Topic rant week?

Your thoughts?

Oh, and it restate it yet again: as always, we are playing by the now pseudoformally codified rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #2. The deadline for this challenge is next week Thursday. And always remember: this is supposed to be fun.