Category Archives: personal

Susan Straight and the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes

I learned this morning that Susan Straight was awarded the Robert Kirsch award as part of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. Back in my college days at the University of California, Riverside, I had Susan Straight as a creative writing instructor for two advanced fiction writing classes. She was one of the best instructors that I had, and by far, the most encouraging. This was twenty years ago, and in the two decades since, I’ve tried to write, eventually succeeded, and have, to-date, about 10 short fiction credits and half a dozen nonfiction credits to my name.

Back then, I was a nobody, but Susan was always encouraging. Here is just one example. At the end of the second class I took with her, I asked her to sign her (then current) book, I’ve Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. This is what she wrote:

Susan Straight

I was delighted to see Susan get her award for her fiction set in Riverside, and feel fortunate to have had her as an instructor.

Throwback Thursday, April 10, 2014 #tbt

For Throwback Thursday this week, I present me and my brother holding up our certificate of completion for Safety Town, while standing dangerously close to a passing car1 back in Somerset, New Jersey. This would have been 1978 or 1979.

Safety Town

People often comment with some surprise that my hair was once so light. This baffles me. My hair was very light as a child, grew a little darker for about 5 minutes, and then went even lighter. Or, as we in middle like to say, gray.

Notes

  1. Not really, the car was parked people!

Three Jobs I Think I’d Love To Do in Professional Baseball

Aside from being, you know, a baseball player, since that ship has pretty much sailed.

  1. Announcer. There is something wonderfully appealing about getting up every day to go to the ball park and call a baseball game. A scorecard in front of you, the game spread out before your eyes, the smell of hot dogs. That would be a pretty cool job.
  2. Sports Writer. Baseball columnists and writers appeal to both the writer in my and the baseball fan and so this seems like it would be a good match for both passions.
  3. Sabermetrician. Because, you know, I like numbers.

(The Little Miss was home sick this afternoon, so while she was being her sick little self, I caught the home opener of the Washington Nationals today. They lost to Atlanta, but it was a good game.)

What I Was Doing 14 Years Ago Today: Getting My Pilot’s License

It’s hard to believe, but it was 14 years ago today, April 3, 2000, that I took the day off work, drove over to Van Nuys airport, and (with thankfully good weather) took my oral and practical exam for my private pilot’s license.

The oral exam lasted about an hour or so and seemed to consist mostly of the examiner talking about the movie script he was planning to write. Intermixed in that monologue, were questions about weather, night flying regulations, flight planning and various certification requirements. Then I was instructed to head out to the plane to get it ready for our flight.

I had to plan a flight up to Paso Robles, but we quickly diverted to Oxnard Airport. I did my hood work (instrument work) while enroute to Oxnard. My first landing was a short field landing, and so I got that out of the way pretty quickly. I did a short field takeoff and then headed out over Thousand Oaks where I did some turns around a point. This is where the examiner tried to distract me, complaining that I couldn’t hold my altitude in the turn (I knew the tolerances were +/- 100 ft and I was well within +/-50 feet so it didn’t bother me much. We did a few more maneuvers and then headed back to Van Nuys airport.

On the downwind leg, the examiner told me that I’d just experienced an engine failure and needed to make an emergency landing. I did this on th Van Nuys’ long runway 16R, and was off the runway at the first high-speed taxiway. I taxied the plane carefully back to Group 3 aviation. When the plane shut down, the examiner said to me, “Nice flying. You lock things up here while I go write up your certificate. A little while later, he gave me this:

Airman Certificate

I was pretty thrilled. It was my Dad who first got me interested in planes. It was my cousin who first took me flying in a private plane. As soon as that happened, I knew I wanted to fly. I was 28 years old on that day, 14 years ago, but I still think of it as one of my big accomplishments, right up there with selling my first story.

New Furniture, Delivered: Before and After

The new furniture has arrived. Our window of delivery was 10 am – 3 pm and the truck showed up just before 11 am, beating the guesses of most of the folks online who seemed to think the truck would show up at 2:59 pm. The delivery guys were quick and efficient and had everything setup and cleaned out within a few minutes.

This furniture officially completes the conversion of what was our office into our living room. (The office was moved into a room upstairs.)

Here is the before shot:

Furniture Before

And here’s what it looks like after:

Furniture After 1

And from another angle:

Furniture After 2

This room conversion was the first of two home improvement projects we’re working on. Next weekend, we visit the showroom of a contractor we selected for a kitchen remodel. We are putting in new cabinets, countertops, backsplash, floors, sink, and pantry. I don’t think the work will begin until sometime in May on this one, but the ball is already rolling.

My Technology Ecosystem, April 2014 Edition

I get questions, every now and then, about the technology ecosystem I use. I figure it’s pretty obvious from my posts, but in order to be perfectly clear, and in order to have a post I can point people to, I’m documenting my technology stack as of today, April 1, 2014. I’ll do this in layers from hardware, up through software ecosystems.

The Hardware Layer

Desktop Computer: Commodore 64

I recently upgraded from the VIC 20 to the Commodore 64, and I must say that it is a huge improvement. Having the additional memory is great, because I can now type in longer programs from the pages of BYTE Magazine. And, it’s got a 320×200 display, which is almost double what my old VIC had.

But an even better advantage of the upgrade has been…

Laptop Computer: Commodore 64

It is small enough to carry with me when I go places. I don’t even need batteries because this thing has a plug that I can snap right into a wall outlet. I mean, it’s cutting-edge.

Tablet: Etch-a-Sketch

The Etch-a-Sketch has been a life-changer for me and the family. It’s portable, requires no battery, and can do just about anything. I’d post a picture of our family Etch-a-Sketch, but it turns out we left it in the car (which my wife has driven to work). We use it a lot in the car to keep the kids entertained. They can watch their favorite movies on the Etch-a-Sketch, which I painfully draw for them, scene-by-scene, and which they then criticize. It’s a wonderful family-bonding experience.

Printer: My Royal QuietComfort DeLuxe Portable Typewriter

Granted, it is a little difficult to find toner ribbon for this device today, but when you do, it produces copy that harks back to the golden age of journalism, when newspapers were king, and on April Fool’s Day, columnists would wryly opine on how television was the wave of the future–nod, nod, wink, wink.

Truth is, finding decent typing paper is almost as difficult as finding ribbon, but I make due. Turns out it’s even easy to print multiple copies with this printer…

Copier: Carbon Paper

…because, carbon paper!!. This stuff is pure genius. Slip a sheet of it between two pages of typing paper, and type away. You come away with two copies of your document, each copying duplicating with precision every typo you make along the way.

Now let me discuss the software layer of my technology ecosystem.

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No Going Paperless Post This Week, and Other Updates

Last week I posted my 100th Going Paperless post, and I think that, coupled with a cold that I am still fighting off, has earned me a week off. I hope you’ll forgive me, but things will resume next Tuesday, which just happens to be April 1.

I took a sick day from the day job today. I stayed in bed until around noon, sleeping and trying to let me body recover from this cold. I’ve found that, for me, a day of doing absolutely nothing usually does the trick. Indeed, by 1 pm, I was feeling better. I even managed to get my writing done early today, extending my streak to 246 consecutive days, and 388 out of the last 390 days since I first started trying to write every day. Moreover, I’ve beaten my daily goal for 10 straight days now, which is the first time I’ve done that in a while.

Later this week I’ll hit my Life, the Universe and Everything1 birthday milestone, but birthdays just kind of flash by now. More exciting is some new furniture we’re having delivered in a week, so that we can complete the transformation of our living room from an office to a living room. We haven’t had a real living room since we bought this house more than 4 years ago.

We are also in the process of wrapping up our evaluation of contractors to have some kitchen remodeling work done. And while we’ll likely hire a contractor in the next week or so, the work on the kitchen won’t start until mid-May. It’s not a complete overhaul, and is probably considered a “minor” remodeling, but it will including new cabinets, granite countertops, a new sink, new floors, a new pantry and some other odds and ends.

I’m working like mad to finish up the novella that I’ve struggled with on and off again because I have a big project that will follow that one–and I’ll have more to say about that in due course.

Today, however, I’m just trying to take it easy, and get through this cold.

Notes

  1. If you don’t get the reference, it shouldn’t be too hard to find online.

A Bit Under the Weather

I‘ve been a bit under the weather these last few days, a cold that I picked up from the kids, I suspect. Not terrible, just a little lethargy, a runny nose, etc., etc. I’m trying to take it easy this weekend so things may be a little quiet here on the blog front. It’s supposed to be beautiful here today, and maybe the nice weather will help. Of course, there is snow in the forecast for Tuesday. Not much, but it’s still a spring snowfall and those are never as much fun as winter snowfalls.

I have some new projects to report on, and I’ll do that over the next week or so. In the meantime, for March Madness folks, I don’t get much into basketball, but I am taking Gonzaga1 over Arizona on Sunday. And if you have a perfect bracket so far, and think you might still take a billion dollars from Warren Buffet, you should check out what Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has to say about that.

Have a great weekend!

Notes

  1. Why Gonzaga? I’ve probably said this before, but I am a huge Bing Crosby fan, and Gonzaga was Crosby’s alma mater. I always pick Gonzaga. Which is a terrible reason to pick a team, by the way.

Moments of Truth for Writers

Back in 1997 or maybe 1998, I took a customer service training class from a fantastic company called Ouelette & Associates1. The class focused on customer service for technical people, IT, etc. It was a seminal course, taught by an amazing instructor, Anita Leto, and it lead to a completely new way of thinking about the interactions I have with others. A central tenet of the course was something called “moments of truth,” a phrase that comes from a book of the same title by Jon Carlzon, CEO of Scandinavia Airlines.

A moment of truth is an outcome of every interaction you have with someone else, no matter the form it takes or how big or small it is. In the customer service realm, the interactions are, of course, with customers. There are generally two outcomes: a “positive” moment of truth and or a “negative” moment of truth. In thinking about interactions with customers you always strive to make positive moments of truth. The course (unscientifically) posited that it takes ten positive moments of truth to wipe out a single negative moment of truth. Not scientific, but concept rings true. You have a bad experience with an airline, and wild horses and free trips might not drag you back to fly with them again.

As a professional freelance writer, I’ve been thinking about moments of truth in my interactions with other writers, readers, editors, publishers, anyone really. I look at Facebook occasionally, and am often dismayed by how many negative moments of truth I see out there. I’ve avoided Facebook more and more for this reason, but having spent more time than usual on it yesterday, it got me thinking about my own interactions as a professional writer in the same way I have interactions as a professional software developer. I aim for positive moments of truth.

This goes from the story level on up. When I write a story (or a blog post, or an article) I try to make it the best it can be. I want it to be a positive moment of truth for the reader. I am not always successful. Occasional typos slip in and readers (almost always kindly) point them out to me. I used to think, ah, well, not a very big deal, I’ll do better next time. But I realized that while a few little typos might not bother me, they act as negative moments of truth for the reader. It doesn’t matter why. All that matters is that I’ve caused a negative moment of truth for a reader.

A story is an objective thing and some readers won’t like a story for highly personal reasons. Those are negative moments of truth, as well, although they are far beyond my control as a writer. These I just have to leave with, in the same way I live with customers that can never be pleased. What I do have control over, however, is further interaction with those readers. Once a story of mine is published, I feel that it is no longer mine, in the sense that I’ve said what I wanted to about the story and moved on. A reader may not like a story, may despise a story. I usually just let that stand. No need to muddy the water and risk a negative moment of truth by replying.

That said, if a reader writes to me to tell me that they didn’t like a story, I will reply with regret, and say that I can understand that, I don’t like everything I read either, you win some, you lose some, etc., etc., but thanks for at least giving me a shot. It’s remarkable the effect this type of reply has. I may not have gained a new reader, but I’ve gained a fan nonetheless.

My professional interactions go far beyond readers, however. Even before a story gets to a reader, it goes to an editor, who may have her own thoughts on what works and what doesn’t. Interactions with editors are just as prone to negative moments of truth as they are positive ones. When I first started out writing stories, I’d read a lot of Piers Anthony, and I liked his author notes. In them, he made it sound like if an editor bounced a story of his, they were an idiot. I might have taken that same attitude early on out of simply naivete, but I haven’t thought that way in 20 years.

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Notes

  1. I cannot recommend O&A highly enough. In the years since that first course, I’ve probably taken half a dozen other courses, ranging from project management, to requirements gathering, to testing, and they have all exceeded my expectation.

Snow Day

We got snow last night. Two days after sunny skies and 70 degree temperature, we got 7 inches of snow dumped on us last night. The snow closed the schools as well as the Federal Government. And since my office follows the Federal Government, my office is closed today. Normally, this means I just work from home, but I, not realizing we were getting this snow when I left the office on Friday, did not bring my laptop home with me. So today is a real snow day for me. Just for the record, here is how things looked on Saturday:

Spring Day

Contrast this with how things look as I walked home from the grocery store this morning, just as the snowfall was finally coming to an end:

Winter Morning

Still, we are trying to make the best of it. The whole family is home. We are lazing around. I am not working so I am actually sitting down and reading a paper book for a change, Michael J. Sullivan’s Hollow World. I’m still re-reading It, but I’m using the free day today to read something else, too. It’s a pleasant change of pace.

Hopefully, however, this is our last snowstorm of the winter. Likely it is, even it if it isn’t the last snowstorm we’ll see, as the winter ends on Thursday.

Oh, and there’s some beer in the fridge to help ring in St. Patrick’s Day later on this afternoon.

Why I Will Teach My Kids to Write Code

I wrote my first computer program sometime in the summer of 1983 after coming home from the movies with my cousins. The movie we saw that summer day was War Games starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. When we arrived back at my cousin’s house, he introduced me to BASIC programming on his Timex Sinclair computer. I was hooked from the start. I had just turned 11 years old.

I have now been writing code professionally for twenty years, and as hobbiest for nearly thirty years. If there was one skill that I had to shine a spotlight on as far as having a truly significant impact on my life and career, it is being able to write computer programs, or, as we call it today, “coding.” Furthermore, if there is a skill you are looking to learn, regardless of age or experience, coding is probably one of the most useful and rewarding you can learn. This may seem like hyperbole, but I believe it, based on my own experience, for several reasons:

1. Writing code teaches a compactness of thought. It’s like putting together a puzzle that does more than just display a pretty picture at the end. Solving problems with code gets you thinking about those problems in new and different ways, and this oftens allows you to take complex issues and break them into their simplest component. I’ve taken many insights from these exercises that I probably would have never gotten had I not thought of them in this unique way.

2. Writing code gives you control over your data. Data ownership is a big issue these days, and we produce more and more data every day. It’s great to have the data, but it is even better to be able to do whatever you want with the data, without having to rely on the limits of commercial software. Without the ability to write code, for instance, I’d never have been able to gain the insights I’ve taken from the personal analytics data that I collect, be it data about my writing, physical activity, sleep, reading, or other parts of my life. The insights I’ve gained have been invaluable in helping me try to better myself. While some of this might have been possible without knowing how to write code, it would certainly have not been as easy to achieve.

3. Writing code frees you from the shackles or limits of commercial software. Don’t get me wrong, commercial software can be write and there is plenty of it that I use. But where commercial software has limits, the ability to write code allows you to extend beyond those limits. My Google Writer Tracker scripts are one example of this, but there are many others. This is important because we all work in our own unique way, and the ability to write code allows us to tweak the way we do things to fit our own needs, rather than the other way around.

4. Writing code allows you to automate processes that you’d otherwise do manually. One of the best things about computers is that they can do things faster than we can, and do them over and over again. I have probably saved hours in my day by delegating repetitive tasks that I used to do manually to automated programs. The result is that the tasks get done correctly every time (assuming the code is right), and I have extra time in my day to pursue other interests. This kind of automation is also useful in the job market.

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