Category Archives: observations

The Start of World War I

I‘m more than halfway through my reading of The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume 1. Yesterday, as I was about to head out to lunch, I said this on Twitter:

I was referring to the fact that the book was creeping up on the start of the First World War. However, in a remarkable coincidence, it turns out that yesterday, July 28, was exactly 100 years since the official start of World War I back on July 28, 1914. To the day. That is pretty creepy.

My Attempt to Watch Mad Men

I‘ve heard lots of good things about the show Mad Men, and so, after the kids went to bed last night, Kelly and I settled down to watch the first two episodes.  They were entertaining, maybe a little over the top, but the truth is that after two episodes, I was worn out. Two episodes into the show and there was already so much potential drama1 that, as a story teller, I could see the explosive proliferation of plot twists and struggles that would fill the rest of this season, and presumably, subsequent seasons.

Part of what spurred me to give Mad Men a try was catching a few episodes of Bewitched earlier in the week. As a kid, I remember spending summer mornings watching syndicated reruns of the show (I’m nowhere near old enough to have seen the show in first run) and it was nice to see it again. Darren is, of course, an ad man, and the show takes place in the 1960s instead of the 1950s, but memories of how much I enjoyed Bewitched made me curious about Mad Men.

The problems I have with Mad Men are the same problems I have with all television dramas today. First is that they focus on edge-cases, which is understandable, since they are easy targets for good storytelling. But it also means that the shows tend to be overly dramatic and those wear quickly on my limited patience with television.

The second–for me, more important–problem is that they are serials as opposed to series. I’ve discussed this before. I don’t watch a lot of television. When I do, I want to dip for some brain relief and entertainment, and dip out again. I always liked dramas like Magnum, P.I. because, despite being dramas, they were self-contained episodes, rarely, if ever ending in a cliff-hanger, rarely carrying an arch beyond one episode. You could watch an episode, any episode, be entertained for 50 minutes, and move on without a second thought. Not so with today’s dramas, including, it seems, Mad Men.

Let me be clear that my objections to Mad Men have nothing to do with the quality of the writing or acting. They are objections based on my own ennui with how dramas are produced today. I am not a serial TV watcher. I don’t look for a show that will last season after season. I’ve grown to despise cliff-hangers in dramas, and I hate how they chop up seasons these days. Most of all, I really dislike how you can no longer watch just one episode. Today’s dramas are made with binge-watching in mind. I’m not part of that audience so it makes sense that I don’t connect with those kind of shows.

I suspect that series (as opposed to serial) dramas are mostly a thing of the past, and this is one of those cases where like what I grew up with, and am simply not part of the serial-watching culture. That’s okay, I can deal with that. But it is disappointing when shows that sound good in principle are virtually unwatchable to me because of this.

Notes

  1. I use the term “potential” in the classical physics sense here.

A Useful Word Processor Function All Tools Seem to Lack: Shift Keys Left

I touch type. I’m self-taught, and after more than, oh, twenty-five years or so, I’m pretty fast. I don’t need to look at the keyboard. In fact, I can close my eyes and just type away1.

But on certain keyboards, I seem to make the same mistake from time-to-time. I’ll start typing a sentence and by the time I look at the screen, this is what I see:

Dp muvh got nrinh s hoof yu[ody!

The problem, of course, is that I’ve managed to shift my fingers on the keyboard one key to the right. I know there are little nubs on the F and J keys that are supposed to tell you where you are but I simply don’t pay attention. My mind is elsewhere. Like on the scene that I am writing.

Once I realize what happened, I have to go back and delete the gibberish and rewrite what I meant to write. It seems to me, that (a) I am not the only one in the world to which this annoying phenomenon happens, and (b) since it is a one-key shift, there should be a way to quickly fix the problem.

I think that a decent word processor should include a SHIFT KEYS LEFT (or RIGHT) function on the Edit menu, the way some word processor have CHANGE CASE functions. The way it would work is this. You accidentally type algorithmic gibberish like:

Dp muvh got nrinh s hoof yu[ody!

You can then highlight the text and click Edit->Shift Keys Left and the result would be:

So much for being a good typist!

It saves time and turns your gibberish back into what you intended. Why don’t word processors have this useful function? I’m seriously considering writing the function and adding to the set of functions I’ve created for my Google App Scripts.

Notes

  1. I’m doing so this very second, but of course, you’ll have to take me word for that.

Pet Peeve: No, I Won’t Recommend Your Article Before I Read the Whole Thing

I have been seeing a lot more of this kind of thing lately: I find an article I’m interested in, start reading, get through about a paragraph (sometimes just a few sentences) and then see something that looks like this:

Full Content

This is one of those things that will instantly make me quit reading a blog or article. It seems to me that the site (or author, or content manager) is attempting to make this kind of bargain:

I’ll let you read the rest of the post, but first you have to recommend it publicly.

That’s like a used car dealer saying, “I’ll let you test drive the car, but first you have to buy it.” Screw that! When I “like” something on Facebook or retweet something on Twitter, or +1 it on Google Plus, I am staking my reputation on it. I’m saying, “Hey, I saw this and thought it was worth passing along. Check it out if this kind of thing interests you.”

Why on Earth would I risk that reputation on an article I haven’t had a chance to read? Why would anyone? This kind of Internet snobbery makes it clear to me that all the site really cares about is how many “likes” or “retweets” it gets. It’s fishing for them in the most blatant and annoying way.

I doubt that my complaining about it here will alter the behavior one iota, but I hope that it demonstrates that, in at least some of the population, this kind of behavior will get you some reaction you probably didn’t expect: a pissed off, annoyed reader who will go get his information from a source that won’t ask for a quid pro quo.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled Internet.

 

 

May 28, 585 B.C.

Since it is May 28 and I happened to remember on the day, for a change, I thought it worth mentioning to both history and astronomy buffs, that at May 28, 585 B.C., the Battle of Halys took place. This battle is significant for two reasons.

First, the battle stopped abruptly when  solar eclipse darkened the battlefield. This was taken as an omen that the gods wanted the fighting to cease.

Second, because the dates of solar eclipses can be predicted, it is the earliest historical event to which the date is known to such precision.

Actually, the battle is significant to me for a third reason, which involves the story that I have been working on for the last few months, in which the history of the battle and the eclipse that abruptly ended it, both play a small, but significant role.

Astrologers are constantly claiming the stars shape the fortunes of humanity. I think the battle of Halys is a perfect example of this, although I am certain it is not what the astrologers mean when discussing the dawning of the age of aquarius.

Marketing Is Not A Substitute for Talent

Next month, my writers group is holding a lecture called “Marketing Yourself as a Writer.” There is no description of what the lecture entails, other than the title, but I find that when I see people discussing “marketing yourself as a writer,” either in lecture form or as a blog post, I get squirmy. I don’t know that I always used to feel this way. Indeed, I probably once thought that marketing yourself as a writer was a good thing. I don’t really believe this anymore.

Let me clarify that statement a bit. I don’t believe a writer should spend a significant amount of time marketing themselves as a writer. Of course, “significant amount” is vague and probably differs from writer to writer. If you want hard numbers, I’d probably say something like, for every 100 hours you spend writing, spend 1 hour “marketing yourself as a writer.”

I have two main reasons for coming to believe this:

  1. Marketing is not a substitute for talent.
  2. Marketing tends to easily become annoying to others.

Allow me to elaborate a bit.

Marketing is not a substitute for talent

This really only matters if you are trying to write good stories. It seems to me that good stories market themselves. You don’t need to sell yourself when you have a good story. All you need to do is submit the story to the appropriate market and wait patiently for an editor to recognize the talent. Or submit the story to an agent and do the same. Or, if you are an independent writer (whatever that means) you self-publish your story and wait for people to start buying it because it is good.

I suppose the argument goes that for indie writers, marketing is the mechanism that let’s people know a story is available. Okay, sure, a little time investment in marketing here makes some sense. But it is not a substitute for talent. And I get the feeling, reading various posts, that marketing yourself as a writer is being used as a substitute for talent. It seems to me that a writer’s time is much better spent improving his or her craft. The only way to get better is write stories and learn from them. This is why I think a writer should spend the bulk of their time writing. If a writer has talent, persistence, and some level of humility, they will eventually get noticed.

Stephen King was once just a kid submitting stories with absolutely no track record whatsoever. So was Isaac Asimov, Connie Willis, Robert Silverberg, J. K. Rowling, and pretty much every other successful writer in the world. They got to where they are because of talent. Marketing may have played a factor in their superstardom, but that was only after they’d demonstrated that they had talent worth marketing.

The corollary is that marketing yourself as a writer when you write mediocre stories is essentially marketing yourself as a mediocre writer, which is probably not what you intend.

Then, too, every minute you spend marketing yourself as a writer is a minute that you are not improving your writing. It makes me think of two types of baseball players. There are players that talk themselves up with the press but perform only average on the field. Then there are players–Derek Jeter is an example–who do their best to steer clear of the limelight, and let their talent on the field speak for itself.

It was only when I started concentrating on spending as much time as I could writing stories that I really began selling them in greater number. The amount of marketing involved in those sales was incredibly small, and most of the marketing was limited to a covering note that read something like:

Please consider the enclosed 5,200 word science fiction mystery for publication in Analog. My fiction has previously appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and other markets.

Yes, I can hear some people say, but you see, you already had  publications that you could list in your cover letter as “marketing.” What about those of us who don’t? To that I’d point out that when I sent my cover letter to InterGalactic Medicine Show in 2006 for my story “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer,” I had no previous publications listed. I was a new writer.

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Automation and the Power of Process Improvement

Three recent experiences remind me that automation for the sake of automation doesn’t really do much. But if automation can be used to improve processes, eliminate repetition, and redundancy, then it is well worth investing the time to improve the automation. It is a personal pet peeve of mine whenever I have to supply the same piece of information more than one in a given transaction, especially when that data is available somewhere else. Here are two small failures, and one small success to illustrate where we stand with automation and process improvement in day-to-day tasks.

“Would you like to apply for a Target Red Card?”

The complex we live in borders a Target and Safeway shopping center. This has been very convenient. We can walk to the store. It means we probably go more frequently than we need to. And because Target has pretty much everything, we go there quite a bit. Eventually, we decided to get one of their Red Card credit cards because we save 5% on every purchase. Once we had the card, I set it up to pay the bill in full each month. There is no point in saving 5% on purchases if you are paying 19% interest. So we get a nice benefit on every purchase we make from Target. So far, so good.

Recently, however, it seems that Target is really pushing the use of the Red Card to the exclusion of all logic. For instance, on several occasions, I’d put my items on the conveyor, slide my Red Card and wait for the total.

“Would you like to apply for a Target Red Card?” the cashier asked.

I blinked. “Well,” I said, holding up my Target Red Card, “I just paid with mine. Do I need another?”

The cashier laughed and we each went about our day.

But it happened again on the next visit with a different cashier. And then again. And again.

Finally, I said to the cashier, “You guys have been asking this quite a bit. I pay with my Red Card every time I come here and you always ask me if I want to apply for a Red Card. Isn’t there something on your screen that tells you that I have paid with a Red Card?”

The cashier said, “We are told to ask everyone, even if you already have a Red Card?”

“What sense does that make? If I say, ‘yes’ and apply for a second Red Card what would happen?”

The cashier just shrugged.

I don’t mind being asked this once or twice, but every single time I come to Target, and when I have already swiped my Red Card? That seems like a major breakdown, not just in a logical process, but in customer service.

“Can you fill out these forms?”

I took the Little Man to the doctor the other day. There is a nice touch-screen system to check in, and pay your co-pay, if one is due. It’s a nice piece of automation. But it failed this time. The system told me to see the desk. So I saw the receptionist and he told me that since it was the Little Man’s first visit this year, I had to fill out some forms. He handed me three forms.

The forms were all standard information. Parent names, addresses, phone numbers, insurance company information. I filled them out at a slow burn because I knew what would happen. I’d turn the papers back to the receptionist and he would key in my responses to the central system. So not only was I entering the information, but he was entering the information. He had to parse my handwriting, increasing the chance that some of the data would be entered incorrectly.

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Bye-Bye Google Reader

Yesterday, Google announced the retirement of a number of its services, including Google Reader, its RSS aggregator. The retirement will take place on July 1. This is unfortunate. I’ve used Google Reader for years as the place where I aggregate my RSS feeds. I generally don’t read my RSS feeds using Reader. For that I use Reeder on my iPad or iMac. But Google Reader is the engine behind the scenes that manages it all for me and I am sad to see it go.

Within seconds, it seems, the ether was filled with posts for alternatives. Lifehacker had a pretty good list of recommendations. And when I mentioned the demise on Twitter last night, I got several more recommendations. Most of those seem to center around Feedly. I’ve glanced at Feedly and it seems alright. But it seems to be more of a RSS reader than an aggregator. What I’m looking for as a replacement to Google Reader is another aggregator. Products like Feedly go above and beyond and I imagine that’s great for some people. But I’m not interested in which RSS items Feedly considers to be “featured” and I’m not interested in the pretty layout it provides. I’m looking for simple aggregation. I’ve already got a UI.

Then, too, I love my RSS reader, which is, as I said, Reeder. I imagine that before July 1, the good folks at Reeder will need to come up with an alternative to its dependency on Google Reader. I wouldn’t want to to give up that application.

Still, despite the recommendations for other products, I am holding out hope. The masses can sometime surprise the big producers, and I think it is possible we might see enough support for Google Reader in the community that Google reverses its decision to do away with it. I’m not counting on this, you understand, but a little wishful thinking never hurt anyone. And so I’m not jumping ship right away. I’m continuing to use Google Reader and I’m continuing to keep my eye on what Google decides to do. Around mid-June or so, I’ll make my final decision.

There’s certainly no rush.

On LinkedIn Endorsements

I‘m not sure I get the point of LinkedIn “endorsement.” I suspect that the original idea was that people in your social network could endorse skills that you’ve listed and as the endorsements accumulated, someone could get a picture of how skilled you are in a given area of expertise. I suspect this is not how it is working out in reality. For one thing, I’ve noted that I’ve gotten quite a few endorsements from people who I don’t actually know, on skills for which they have no basis for judgement. For another, I get the feeling there is a quid pro quo to the endorsements. But why would I endorse a skill for someone just because they did it for me? What if I didn’t think the skill was endorsement-worthy, for instance?

endorsements

For example, I’ve received 6 endorsements for PHP, but so far as I can tell, only two of the people who have endorsed me for this skill actually have experience working with me on some PHP-related project. Two of the six people I don’t even know.

Then, too, I can’t be the only one  getting endorsements from people I don’t know, for skills they are in no position to judge. And if it is happening to others it means that to some degree, large or small, the endorsements you see in LinkedIn come from people who don’t know the person they are endorsing and have no way of judging that person’s ability at a given skill. So how could I trust the endorsements in the first place? Certainly some of the endorsements are genuine and reflect actual experience with the person and skill in question–but how do you know which and to what degree? You can’t.

It makes it seem like a big waste of time. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate people taking the time to endorse a skill that I’ve listed on LinkedIn, but I take it more as someone trying to say something nice about me, as opposed to having any real value.

On Ribs, Texting, and L.A. Story

Last night, around 2am, I couldn’t sleep. It was my ribs again. The cough that I’ve had since before Christmas finally seems to be waning, but the damage is done. My right ribs and the soft matter just beneath them feel shredded. The slightest pressure irritates them. I’ve taking to sleeping on my left side, but even that doesn’t completely solve the problem. So when the Little Miss woke us up around 2am last night, I had trouble getting back to sleep. As often happens, I let my mind wander. Kelly was also having trouble sleeping and had gone downstairs for a snack. After a while, I considered texting her to ask if she was okay. I thought I’d text her: “R U O K” but I wasn’t sure that would make sense to her. (Are You O.K.?)

Considering that, I was reminded of one of my favorite movies, L. A. Story. I’ve written about L. A. Story before. But tonight, as I was laying there in mild pain, trying to get back to sleep, I had a sudden realization. In that scene where Steve Martin first encounters the signpost, and the signpost asks him, “R. U. O. K.?” Martin is essentially predicting the “texting” phenomenon that would arise a decade later. Indeed, when Martin’s character doesn’t understand what the sign is saying at first, the sign responds, “Don’t make me waste letter.”

Moreover, there is another scene which anticipates social networking. While driving to brunch with his disgruntled girlfriends (played by Marilu Henner), Martin asks, “Who are we having brunch with again?”

Henner replies, “Friends, and friends of friends…” When I heard this line last night, I immediately thought of Facebook, and how you can share things with friends, or even with “friends of friends.”

As you may have guessed, I ended up watching the entire movie last night between the hours of 2 and 4am. I’d guess that I’ve seen the movie one hundred times, but there are new little things I notice each time I watch it. The funniest new thing I noticed last night:

Early in the movie, when Harris is at the stationary bicycle park, quoting Shakespeare about L.A., we see in the background a man fall off a recumbent bike; apparently he is having a heart attack. I’d noticed this many, many times in the past. But what I never noticed before is, as the paramedics are carting away the fallen man, another man quickly jumps onto the recently occupied bike. I’d never noticed that before and it was a very funny touch.

Each time I watch L. A. Story, I expect to find it has lost something. This has happened with other movies that I’ve admired. But it has not happened with L. A. Story, at least, not yet. I get into the movie and laugh, and recall my own years (nearly 19 of them) living in Los Angeles.

Perhaps the most startling revelation, watching the movie last night: the movie came out in the summer of 1990, nearly 23 years ago. Steve Martin is currently 67 years old, which would have made him about 44 in 1990, and more than likely 42 or 43 when the movie was made. He was only two or three years older than I am right now when the movie was made. That’s a little scary for a guy who saw the movie opening weekend, in a movie theater in L.A.–and was only 18 years old at the time.

What’s With All of the Adult Toy Stores In North Carolina?

We are spending New Year’s Eve at a hotel off the I-95 corridor in central North Carolina. Tomorrow, we will be home after being away on a terrific vacation for nearly three weeks.

I may have mentioned this in an earlier post, but it really stood out today while driving through North Carolina:

What is up with all of the advertisements for adult toy and video stores along the I-95 corridor?

I think I saw more billboards for these establishments1 in North Carolina than one might find on 42nd Street in Manhattan in the 1970s. I’m not really sure what my notion of North Carolina was, but it wasn’t “Adult Entertainment Capital of the East.”


Notes

  1. I have no objections to the stores or the ads. They just seemed incongruous to my notions of life in North Carolina.

Where Are the First Person Bookstores?

Recently, John Scalzi announced a new first-person shooter game that he is involved with. I’m not a big gamer, but I’ve played my fair share of first person shooters. The original Call of Duty was my game of choice many years ago. I was always impressed with the details of the surrounding world, how you could walk through all kinds of terrain, open doors, look in cupboards, break windows. The physics models that go into those kinds of games–to say nothing of the art in the renderings–is impressive. And the technology is always improving. These games must be almost life-like today in their visual experiences. Add in gesture-based control and 3D and you really do find yourself immersed in a virtual world.

And so it amazes me that with all of this technology available, no one has yet used it to create first person bookstores. I simply cannot believe this hasn’t happened yet.

Despite its massive catalog, one of the biggest complain of Amazon, or Powell’s, or even those independent bookstores that maintain an online presence is that you lose the ability to simply wander the stacks and browse. But it seems to me that this doesn’t have to be the case. The technology is out there to recreate a physical bookstore in a virtual environment. Imagine wandering through a virtual bookstore using the same technology that first person shooter games use. You could walk down the stacks, pausing to browse at what’s on the shelf. A gesture could select a book, which you could then browse portions that the publisher had made available for preview. If you wanted the book, you could add it to your “cart” and move on, continuing to browse until you are ready to check out. You don’t even need to be willing to read the books online. If you wanted e-book editions and they were available, upon checkout, they’d simply be downloaded to your e-reader. But if the virtual bookstore maintained a live inventory and only allowed you to add “physical” copies of the book when they were available, upon checkout, the paper books would be shipped to you.

Moreover, many games these days are online and you can interact with your friends and other players. You can see their avatars and team up with them to fight a common enemy–or each other. The same would be true of the first person bookstore. You could meet up with friends in the virtual bookstore and wander the stacks together, recommend books to one another. It wouldn’t matter if I was in Virginia and you were in Portland. We could hang out in a virtual rendering of a used bookstore on Second Avenue in New York City and wander through it, seeing it as it would appear if we were there.

It seems to me that this is one way brick and mortar bookstores might reclaim some of the patronage they lose to places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. They would no longer be depended on just their physical presence, because anyone could wander through their stacks and browse for books, just as if they were in the store itself.

I’m not saying this technology comes cheap. But the technology does exist, and to my knowledge, no one has yet described exploiting first person shooter technology in quite this way. I, for one, would be lost for hours at a time wandering the virtual stacks of bookstores that were too far away for me to visit in person.

And I’d be spending my money in them as well.