The truth about commercialism, gluttony and peace on Earth

The truth is that it is all good. If some aspect of it makes you happy, go with it. By the same token, can we enjoy this happy time of year without bemoaning aspects of it that don't seem sufficiently pure?

Commercialism is cool: who doesn't like getting new things they have wanted? In our house, it's like everyone has a second birthday on Christmas. People in my house put off getting things they want for months leading up to Christmas, so getting the items is quite the thrill. But at least no one goes around complaining that others are not being commercial enough.

Gluttony is glorious. Being post-food myself, this doesn't matter much to me. Actually this is one area where no one really objects that much. I guess, given my food rants in the past, I would be the one to say something like 'hey, does an obese country really need this?' but since Christmas isn't only about food, it's not that big a deal. There are people who do complain that others are not gluttonizing enough, and they need to chill.

Peace is positive. Just let go the whole 'this is only about my religion alone'. Christians attempting to own Christmas are being silly because underneath their claims is the historical fact that their guy was born in spring or summer. Every faith and culture has a winter holiday, and if they didn't, they made sure to get themselves one. Come one, come all.

In the immortal words of Sheryl Crow, if it makes you happy, it can't be that bad. So live it up, because January and February are coming, and they blow chunks.

Trackball heaven: is this the Lair's future?

See the 7 Logitech trackballs! See the 8 screens (4 suspended) in the front-viewing-area-thingie?

The next step for the Lair 1.0 is to fill that big empty expanse on the desk. Oh, come on, don't act surprised. Did you think that I would never want to play any games in the Lair? I would want it to look like a slightly less insane and majorly less cluttered version of this.

I'm not saying I would ever construct something like this, but check out this from a Yahoo! Games article on a guy who plays 36 World of Warcraft characters at the same time on 11 computers. It's called multiboxing, because he has a separate account for each one. That's one way to have a grand time without any friends!

But let's focus on the hardware here, people, okay? Here's another look:

(Any insinuation or accusation that this computing gear orgy is shown here in part to make anything I want to do seem minor by comparison is spurious, scurrilous and preposterous.)

The truth about me and football fandom

Beginning in 1984, I swung from mild apathy toward pro football to rabid interest. I watched the San Francisco 49ers offense glide through the season in such a groove that I was shell-shocked. Joe Montana was so cool, in the zone, and he spread the ball around everywhere. The offense's timing and execution was brilliant: I had never seen a group of people act so closely in concert. And the D was tough, led by the hard-hitting Ronnie Lott.

I began to pay attention to all the exciting football going on during that era: the epic Giants-49ers duels, Bo Jackson, LT, run and shoot, the hapless Oilers and Bills and Patriots. But a perfectly thrown pass, a Barry Sanders juke or a Ronnie Lott hit are things of beauty. I played Tecmo Bowl, Tecmo Super Bowl and Tecmo Super Bowl III (Special Edition) and knew every roster. I played Front Page Sports Football Pro, made my own playbook, built my own league based on historical NFL teams (Rochester Jeffersons, anyone?), etc.

Lately, the fan-focused fantasy football has really ruined much of my interest. The sport is no longer about teams and group psychology, it's about players' individual performances. Most of the fans now root only for the running back on one team and the wide receiver on the other because of their league. Do they care which team wins so long as their guys rack up the points? Yes, fanta-football allows the fans to participate more, in a Vegas sense, but it tackles the idea of it being a team sport.

Free agency has killed football too. Players are not together long enough to learn the playbook and play together. The constant shuffling of players due to injuries, which are way too common, and free agency means that there are no more offensive or defensive philosophies. One season a team has an aggressive D, the next they are on their heels because their explosive linebacker is on IR. Coaches have become just a front office tool seemingly along for the ride, but no longer in control of much.

This has brought parity to the NFL, but also a lot of boredom. Yes, you may not know who will win any given game, but who cares? A lot of games look like the quality of NFL Europe. And there are no dominant teams. Most cycle between mediocre and abysmal, with little reason for the change. Other teams go on a run for one season, and then stink up the place the next. Going from 6-10 to 10-6 to 6-10? Come on, it's random chance. The Super Bowl winners seem to be drawn randomly any more.

Maybe it is me. I just don't have the desire to sit through 3 hours of a game. At 58:00 into a close Monday Night Game, I turned it off. Just wasn't worth the effort. Either way, I'm done with pro football. I'll spread my very low attention to sports more evenly among them.

But, I have to admit, playing the old Tecmo Super Bowl on the web (see link above) was fun. My 1991 49ers beat the 1991 Bills 36-28 (yeah, the controls were hard to get the hang of).

Macllenium Falconbook

The truth is, I don't know what to make of Apple anymore.

The MacBook's hard drive died midway of this past week. I was angry, frustrated and ready to chuck the thing and go get a cheapie netbook. There have been a number of other problems with this computer in the past. But it is only 2.5 yrs old. The chipping plastic topcase I could live with, but a dead MacBroke is no good.

Worst, I lost about two weeks worth of work on the novel. Yes, it was backed up, but I generally back up once a month or so. Oh, and I should mention that those were two really good weeks. I had finished going through the novel completely and was revisiting sections I flagged for needing more work. It was starting to feel like the end stage of a draft where I feel like all I can do is mess it up. Also, I had a bunch of 'stickies', notes to myself on lots of stuff, that are now gone forever.

I took the MacBroke to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store. Got there 1/2 hour earlier than my appointed time, but they took me early. (It was three days after HDD death that I could get the reservation: I don't know what this says about the volume of problems and repairs going on with Apple products.) They diagnosed that the HDD was D-E-D dead, which meant the files were lost. But because there was a run of bad drives a while back, this was a beyond warranty freebie for me.

When they tested the new drive, the hardware test failed on a temperature sensor, no doubt a leftover problem from the heat fan death problem from last year. That, and the topcase, will be repaired for free when I take it back in. But they got the computer back to me on the same day.

I have to say that I was floored. I figured that I would be out $50-100 on a new drive and another $100 for labor or whatever. But the Apple service was excellent, especially in fixing problems where they could have shrugged off culpability like any other corporation or tried to squeeze me for some more money. ("Mark, your flux capacitor also looks like it might go. That will be another $300.")

It has cost me nothing to have this computer fixed yet. $0. Beyond the original price, all I've spent is about $80 to quadruple the RAM. It may very well be a lemon that needs a Wookie to bang on it with a hydrospanner once in a while, but it has it where it counts: the technical support.

I write to you today on the MacBook, while it is in between stops at the Genius Bar. So far, so good. It flies once again, but every time I pull the hyperdrive lever, my heart jumps into my throat.

Oh, and the new MacBooks? Totally awesome. The glass trackpad with NO buttons is pure genius. If they put one into the MacBook Air 2.0, whenever that comes around, I would be hard-pressed to ignore it as a possible successor to the whitest hunk of junk in the galaxy.

Applesauce Bar stands at 55% apple awesomeness, 45% watery hype.

Out-parented by a 9 year old

I don't usually talk about the smaller Trackballs, but you'll see there's no harm done in this post.

My son was in the tub, washing his hair, while I worked with his older sister on fractions, divisions and decimals outside the bathroom. He started crying and yelling. I checked on him and he said that he got shampoo in his eyes.

So I told him to lay back in the water and get the shampoo off his head and out of his eyes. I gave him a washcloth to clean off his face. He just kept crying.

In rushes his sister, who takes the washcloth, tells him it's okay, soothes him, and starts cleaning his face. This 9 year old girl went completely into mom mode.

I stood there, useless.

And yes, she calmed him down, got the shampoo off his face and hair. I doubt she even noticed what she was doing. I stood there in awe. Kudos to Mini Trackball.

The truth about the word 'oral'.

I was recently reminded at work about how we regularly misuse the word 'oral'. In this case, it was a job description that mentioned giving 'oral presentations' and 'written and oral' something or others.

Now, I will admit that using the word oral or orally to refer to something spoken is completely allowed by dictionaries and common usage. It's just that I think it's time to change that.

When people hear the word 'oral' or orally, they think of two things, and neither has to do with verbal or spoken communication. They have to do with a person's mouth. The first, which I'm sure jumped into your brain the second you read this post's title is, well, I'll get to that in a second. The second thing you thought of is health care related to the mouth. Oral hygiene, oral care, Orajel, take this medication orally, etc. It's a nice clinical description for the mouth, and it covers the teeth, tongue, gums, etc. It doesn't refer to the voice box, which actually produces the words. You can measure body temperature with a thermometer orally or anally. Come to think of it, the word 'oral' is a nice compliment to 'anal'. The intake and the exhaust portals, if you will.

Which leads me back to the first thing you thought of regarding the word oral: oral sex. Come on, admit it. Not that there's anything wrong with thinking of oral sex first. It's not even your fault; the only time the word 'oral' gets used in the media anymore is to try to politely describe this act in as clinical a term as possible. Like crime reports, or newspaper articles, etc. Whenever one hears or reads the word 'oral' these days, one is fully expecting to hear it followed by 'sex.'

That's why it makes no sense to refer to spoken or verbal communication as oral. Oral belongs to health and sex now. It just does. So lets make a clean break. After all, we don't refer to written communication as 'manual' even though it has to be performed with the hands, one way or another. The hands are the means, the writing is the medium, and for communication, the medium matters. By the same token, referring to communication as something coming out of one's mouth is irrelevant; the mouth is just the means. The medium is the voice, the audio transmission: spoken or verbal. And verbal is never used in connection with clinical health (again, oral) or sexual contexts (it's called phone sex or pillow talk).

Verbal communication, not oral. Spread the word. Verbally, and in writing.

Update on the math journey in public school

Last school year, I kept track of how many days math was missed in Minnie Trackball's 3rd grade. After a few weeks at the start of the year, she managed to have it nearly every day, until the end of school. Then it kind of just petered out.

Fourth grade has stepped things up in terms of homework and subject matter. Minnie has moved up a level in math and will be skipping 4th grade math for the most part. We are real proud of her and she's really excited. So far, the obligatory two weeks of no math, to do assessments and such, is over. Math class assignments and homework have started to flow.

The math changes are part of a trend we've noticed when it comes to school. As the academics increase, there is a sorting out that happens. The kids who put in the effort seem to be pulling ahead; the parents who were so bent on having a gifted kindergartner are becoming more realistic about what their kids can do, especially if they fall a bit behind. Grades and standardized test scores make things pretty clear. Sweat equity seems to be a growing factor in success at school. And that can only be a good sign.

Lair 1.0 Pics

For your viewing pleasure:

The desk and chair: (the shiny stuff is vapor-lock that holds the insulation in and moisture out; the house was built that way and it is not a cool sci-fi effect that I put up)

The embryonic theater area and library (ignore the luggage shelf and storage container 'walls'):

Lair security courtesy of Star Trek and Star Wars models (an Incom T-65 X-Wing below):

The Pirate Lego sound stage:

The town is under attack:

By pirates at sea:

Apparently at night or a late, cloudy evening (sigh).

ISO modern supernatural baddies

The humanized supernatural is a huge thing right now. Fantasy romances featuring vampires, werewolves, the undead, etc. are a big hit. Most of the focus is on vampires. The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer features a teenage girl who falls for a vampire and it's sitting atop the Amazon best seller list. There are tons of other fiction genres that have leapt into supernatural angles to spice up old plots. Now HBO has a new series, True Blood, which is a Southern Gothic vamp soap opera.

As a result, vampires just don't seem that scary anymore. They are emotionally vulnerable, thoroughly humanized, even enviable. They have issues, personalities and goals. These angles are entertaining, but it reduces them in a way. In fact, all the supernatural monsters seem trite, played out, overused. Maybe we have humanized too much, or maybe the world has changed in a way that they no longer have a grip on us. We've turned them into another class of superheroes, really. Which may be cool, but it's not scary.

These types of things used to be scary, viscerally scary. The very thought of some supernatural monster would drive a spike of fear into your heart. They were tied to the old Joseph Campbell archetypes and represented threats to the very fabric of human society:

  • Vampires subvert morality, especially for women, and they are death incarnate.
  • Werewolves represent losing control, and the threat of spreading that loss of control.
  • Zombies represent a loss of personality, a loss of self that can't be stopped and is highly contagious. As rotting corpses, they also represent disease and death.
  • Witches are strong confident women with power over men, threatening the patriarchy.
  • Ghosts are the past come back to haunt the guilty
I think we need a new set of supernatural baddies that can actually scare us. I don't know what those baddies would be, but they should be things or beings that scare the crap out of us just by their very existence. In the next post I'm going to throw some ideas out about what those things might be.

That's just how I scroll

You can surf your usual rounds of sites until your eyes bleed or your hand breaks off at the wrist from all the clicky-clicky. Staying on top of one's interest areas, keeping in touch with people, following the news and can seem endless and overwhelming. I can't stand to be uninformed, but am lazy enough to want the informing process to be fast and efficient. I suspect you do too. There is a better way.

I realize that I have arrived late to many innovations in this area, but am probably ahead of the curve for this blog's less geeky readers, so here we go. People sometimes express amazement that I know so much, but it's simply because I try to quickly find information. So I will detail how I do this and hopefully give you ideas on how to better manage your own info flows.

iGoogle: At the base of all this is The Google. I have a gmail account, this blog and a couple of other things from Google. It is all tied together by my iGoogle page: a web page custom designed to dump all the information I want, how I want it, in one place. iGoogle allows you to set up tabbed pages where you can house different types of information. And there's always a Google search box there if you need it. Check out the tech tab from my iGoogle page below:

The Home tab has my three main web communication tools: gmail inbox, Twitter and Google Reader. I rarely interact with these three programs outside of this home tab. I've made the tab my home page, so whenever I fire up The Firefox, I see email, twitter and new blog posts all on one screen, along with weather, calendar, Google docs and a few other things. There's a theme of background photos that I set to put a pic of Hawaii that matches the time of day. The Tech tab has a Matrix background: yes, each tab has a pic that matches the theme.

Google Reader is a program that avoids the endless clicking among all the blogs you want to follow to see if any has a new post. You 'subscribe' to the blogs you want to by searching for them. The reader will show you all of the unread posts from any of those blogs, and will let you read them right there in the Reader.

RSS feeds: Tired of clicking from the New York Times, to your hometown rag, to, and then back to NYT to check for breaking news? You can add gadgets that have feeds from all over the web on one tab. The screenshot above shows that I have both Gizmodo and Engadget RSS feeds on my Tech tab. While at most you get a handful of headlines, you can click on the title bar and go directly to the website if you want in a separate window.

There's many other ways to create webpages that house your customized nozzle on the firehose of web content. I'm just showing you how I scroll. Your mileage may vary.

Passing the Bechdel Test

Charles Stross, sci-fi writer extraordinaire, references a test for misogyny in movies, courtesy of a comic strip by Alison Bechdel (who credits someone named Liz Wallace). The test is:

1) there are at least two female characters
2) who talk to each other about
3) something other than men.

Charlie applied this test to his own fiction and found that some of it passed, and some of it didn't. He has sworn to pay more attention to how female characters are portrayed, even at the expense of possibly turning his work into movies.

Since I have much less fiction to test than Charlie (and that is the closest this fanboy will ever come to comparing himself with Mr. Stross), this was much easier to check. Crashpoint Cascade, the novel in progress, passes. There are at least two scenes off the top of my head that meet the test, and ironically, none of the women in the first scene are in the second. I made a point of having as many female characters in the novel as male, in part because the story has some utopian elements, including more gender equity, but more importantly, because those characters just are female, just like some are angry, some are happy, some are evil and some are good.

Making the right choices subconsciously or unintentionally

Back when I was younger, I felt like I could go into any of a number of different careers. My guidelines in choosing a career were simple: I didn't pay much attention to earnings potential, industry growth, portability, advancement or even scheduling. I was all about what interested me, what I excelled at.

In retrospect, I really lucked out. At one point, I seriously toyed with pursuing journalism. I was the editor of my high school newspaper and even did Journalism Explorers and got to hang out at the local paper's newsroom. Journalism was always a low paid, badly scheduled career. I chose not to go that route because I got more interested in public policy. Twelve years later, the journalism field is collapsing as its business plan falls apart. Media organizations are hemorraging money and journalists have been laid off in droves. Plus, the pay and hours still suck. Good choice on me.

I also toyed with joining the legal profession. Even did Law Explorers in high school, got to hang with real attorneys and judges and excelled at a mock trial. Took constitutional law in college and liked it. But it just didn't excite me, the pre-laws in college were irritating and as Tom Hanks once put it, being a lawyer means having homework all the time. Plus the hours suck, the hourly pay can be pretty bad, but it is highly portable. Fair choice on me.

I went into public policy expecting low to moderate pay, no portability and lousy hours. Most policy jobs involve horrible hours in exchange for doing really important (or seemingly important) work. The burnout rate is pretty high. The pay turned out to be higher (especially on an hourly scale) than I expected, the portability is nearly nonexistent and the hours are manageable in some spots, like the spot I'm in. The burnout potential is there, but it's mostly because of the hours and work that turns out not to be important. I've avoided that for the most part. Good choice on me.

The funny thing about career choices is how some of your mildly held preferences bubble up and become more important over time. I was willing to trade off money for decent hours, and substance over appearance. I have the Gen X trait of wanting work/life balance.

Having a good amount of work experience now, to me there are few office jobs with crazy hours that seem remotely worth the tradeoff. Much of the time, the culture of 24/7 work is a perpetual fire drill done mostly for appearances' sake. Humans are not very productive beyond eight hours, other than in looking busy. Over time, it's that kind of work culture that increasingly I have found ridiculous.

This has so far kept me from toying with politics, software development and entertainment because of the lousy hours and work/life imbalance. But it's not a big deal, because those fire drill cultures drive me nuts. I like having down time each night, to vary my mental frequencies and recharge in one area while focusing on another. Good choice on me.

Digging to the truth

So I'm still in a rewrite of Crashpoint Cascade. And I'm plowing through this scene, feeling itchy because it's not right. It's not immediate enough, it's like a rough draft that I hadn't noticed is a rough draft.

It's a scene around a picnic table, with a number of characters, some of them minor. One of them is trying to convince the rest to stick with him through a political crisis. So a few characters just pop up out of nowhere who were at the table the whole time but I just had not focused on them. And they start talking, pulling the scene in other directions.

Before I know it, the scene is going off the rails. I've got some new characters raising issues that don't fit, I don't know why they're saying things, where they're going with various positions and statements. Chaos. but some of it is interesting, and a little voice says not to throw those tidbits away.

And then I move a paragraph that had made the whole narrative disjunctive. And pieces start to fall into place. Motives appear, things start to make sense. I realize that the true scene was there all along, lurking somewhere in my subconcious. It needed to be pried out slowly and carefully. There's a process to make this happen. I must keep doing it and not rushing to get so many pages done per day.

30 Years later, the Trackball rolls into the Lair

Today is the Trackball's birthday. It's funny that as one ages, that a whole bunch of old birthday traditions no longer have much interest while new ones appear.

  • The donut breakfast? The soda for lunch? The large amounts of cake, the favorite food for dinner? I'm post food (ignoring lunch today).
  • The money that financed summer entertainment? I'm self-financed and almost post money.
  • The Legos? I bring my own.
  • Celebrating the day on the day, regardless of how convenient? Now I wait for the weekend
It's not that the idea of the birthday has diminished as the birthdays rack up. The same level of excitement is there, it's just redirected to bigger objects. To the gift I have given myself: my own personal lair. A dream many years in coming true. It's 1.0, but it's done. Ever since seeing the Batcave as a 5 year old, I have wanted my own lair.

New birthday tradition: chilling out in your own personalized Lair.

Cardinal Glick meets his Invisible Avenger in the Sky

While I was away at Sesame Place, dodging water rides, thunderstorms and heaps of unhealthy American food, George Carlin died. Maybe it was fitting that I spent 2 days in a place that he would have abhorred and loved at the same time. After all, he did narrate the Thomas The Tank Engine videos and was wildly considered a very gentle person.

It should come as no surprise that the Trackball regards the man who portrayed Cardinal Glick in Kevin Smith's Dogma (the character who replaced the crucifix with the thumbs-up Buddy Christ) as a demigod. George Carlin was the truth, wrapped in humor. As a teen in the late 1980s, Carlin was already a god to me when I was old enough to see his material. He was controversial and funny. But he also seemed like a cool guy who would be fun to hang with and watch humanity pass by, if only for the commentary. Yes, I did see his short-lived Fox sitcom and Jersey Girl.

His observational humor was eye-opening. He had a way of taking human reality and revealing its absurdities in ways that I had never thought of before. And he always stuck with the truth, the way he saw it, even if it offended, fell flat or was ignored. In a way, he made you face the truth, no matter how uncomfortable (like his characterizing of belief in a god as believing in having your own personal invisible avenger in the sky) and his gentleness and his humor helped you get comfy with it.

His naughty humor was liberating. They're just words, he pointed out, but it was clear he loved language and words in particular. He was as much a poet of the stand-up world and television world as he was a performer. He just snagged the Twain Prize for American Humor, and when I saw the bio pieces on him I thought it was because he was due to receive it, not because it was an obit. Shit.

Kevin Smith and Jerry Seinfeld, who could be considered the descendants of naughty Carlin and observational Carlin, have both written tributes to him which you should read. The best I can say is that the Twain of our time has passed and will be sorely missed by this fan.

The truth about neckties

I just finished Scott Westerfeld's excellent YA novel "So Yesterday" which tackles who decides what is cool and fashionable in the teenage worlds of sneakers and clothing. Inside is a bit of a history of the necktie that posits that neckties came about because of the Little Ice Age. Everyone in Europe wore scarves all the time because it was freezing so bad the Vikings died out in Greenland. Neckties have been popular for centuries since then but they have no reason or purpose to exist. The bowtie and cravat have already fallen, but the necktie, with it's oversized shirt collar, continues to survive. You know I hate hollow traditions like that.

Combine this with a conversation I had with a geo-physicist on my bus one day about silly-easy things we could do to help the environment. She mentioned over-air conditioning DC to account for winter business wear that we insist on wearing in the summer. Like long-sleeved shirts, neckties and suit jackets.

Today was a triple digit day in DC, and schools and houses across the area had their AC conk out due to overwork. It may be time to rethink cinching our necks tight under a thick collar that likely has a t-shirt underneath. Even though the necktie culture is well entrenched. Even though the short-sleeve dress shirt is outdated. Even though the hip substitute for a tie is a sport jacket, which is decidedly less cool in the summer. Even though most office climate decisions are made by bosses, who are likely jacketed and tied and sweating men. Even though it makes younger workers look older, more serious and older workers look younger (imagine your boss in a t-shirt and shorts as opposed to a figure slimming navy blue suit and tie). Even though being formally dressed in DC is code for seriousness, as those in the most expensive ties and suits make the most unserious claims.

In one sense, wearing a necktie has desensitized people to seeing a sharp dressed man. What used to be reserved for super-formal occasions (Bond, James Bond) is now boring. And not wearing a necktie looks cool, hip, at least in DC. I'm impressed five times more often by the shirt and jacket hipster than the sharp, neato tie. Supposedly the ever encroaching biz-casual has threatened the neck tie, but that's a neckwear apocalypse that never quite seems to arrive.

Maybe I'm exposing some misplaced West Coast roots, but I think a t-shirt with a sport jacket and uncreased pants should be fine for anyone in a geek job. Yeah, the oversized collars, on shirts so transparent you have to wear an undershirt, probably have to go as well. Save the ties for the prom, the wedding, the funeral, the big presentation/occasion. We need a new idea of business wear that complements the changing environment. I don't know what that is.

As for me, I may try to limit the routine necktie wearing (does anyone care where I work if I wear a tie?) and keeping the AC off this summer in my office. The truth is that I can't escape the necktie entirely, and don't mind them that much, but it's time to usher those things into oblivion.

Balticon wrap-up and Indy review

A good time was had by all the Trackballs at Balticon 42. The little trackballs bonded with friends of mine quite a bit and Dr. Trackball bought some jewelry and didn't seem horrified by the huge amounts of geekery. I got to do a lot of hanging out with cool people and hit and missed on good and bad panels.

The whole weekend was capped off by seeing Indiana Jones. My mini-review (with spoilers): good movie, the only wrong note in the whole thing was the space alien storyline. Readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of the alien crutch. I blame George Lucas, who insisted on mimicking 1950s alien films even though Spielberg and Ford objected for almost two decades, because they knew it wasn't appropriate for Indiana Jones. What do space aliens have to do with archeology? But to get a movie done, they had to cave. At the end there were two movies going on: Spielberg and Ford's story about Indy and his family, and Lucas' about aliens.

It would have been much better if it had been Indy versus the Soviets to find the Fountain of Youth (ironic, and have Indy refuse it's powers) or some other South American religious/mythical artifact. Tie it in with the Cold War fights in that part of the world (heck, set it in Cuba, two years before the revolution and have Indy run into Fidel). Ah, but they had to let George insist on his bad story idea. There's a whole odd dynamic between Lucas and Spielberg in which Steven bows to George, despite being the much better storyteller and possibly filmmaker.

Off to Balticon

Geeks all across Maryland, DC, Virginia will pack their geeky bags for Balticon 42, including yours truly. I always get the feeling that I am not geeky enough to belong, despite my geek cred in the real world among the non-geeks. You could say I'm a geek and a geek fanboy, in that I think geeks are cool and don't feel worthy. No physical science degree, no comics pedigree, no l33t hacker skillz, no RPG XP, no publications. But somehow the tribe doesn't kick me out.

Every year, Balticon is like a checkpoint on the writing career such as it is. So here's a progress report:

Short fiction sold: 0.
Short stories drafted: 1.
Short stories reviewed by outside readers: 1.
Novels being drafted: 1.
Novel drafts completed: 1.
Novel drafts reviewed by outside readers: 1.
Novel drafts in rewrite: 1.
Query letters sent: 0.

Not very impressive, and a few years ago, I might have become mightily discouraged at the glacial pace of things. But some experience in crafting quality things suggests that time to get things right is time well spent, especially when building expertise and new skills. It's supposed to take ten years to become an expert in something. The Crashpoint Cascade has been in production seriously since about 2003, so I'm halfway there, right?

The Shiniest RPG in the 'Verse?

Just stumbled across this in my travels around the Cortex. Looks shiny. But are there enough Browncoats out there to sustain it? Maybe there will be some at Balticon. I'm not sure I have time enough anymore for RPG play, what with keeping my own ship flying, writing, video games and all, but I hope somebody does.

The Truth about Video Games

The release of the widely hailed Grand Theft Auto IV indicates what a sea change has happened in how society treats video games. GTA was ignored, GTA II (the first I ever played) got a smattering of negative press, and GTA III was treated as if it were a dire threat to national security. GTA IV is being treated as an entertainment and artistic masterpiece. Oh, how the times have changed.

Video games seem to be a major point of contention for this generation of adult males. Regarded as a childish pastime that every young woman instantly writes off as temporary but soon finds is not, video gaming has become a sore point and a cause for celebration at the same time. The truth is that video games are like any other entertainment: capable of greatness, culture-changing and yet prone to misuse by those who take everything too far, including those looking for easy scapegoats.

No longer is the video game the ridiculous boogeyman blamed for school shootings, carpal tunnel or empty bowling alleys (no, that would be guns, the mouse and the cell phone). But it is the culprit of the male college freshman who stays in his room for days, hiding from the unfamiliar campus, skipping class and ultimately dropping out. Being able to socialize with high school buds via email, texting and social networking also are crutches to make staying in his high school and parents' world so comfy.

Ah, but video games have risen in social status too, as us males of the first video gaming generation have ascended to positions of influence in industry, media and entertainment. And the games have gotten pretty good, in part because they don't take themselves too seriously. Why not celebrate them? They are the first and only completely interactive form of entertainment: mentally challenging and entertaining in ways completely unlike previous forms.

Cases in point would be games coming up in the near future:
Lego Batman: Play with a Lego Batman. If this is half as fun as Lego Star Wars, yum.
Lego Indiana Jones: See above
Spore: Be the (intelligent?) designer of an organism that evolves and eventually flies to other planets from Will Wright, the guy who created Sim City and the Sims.

And in a sign that games are supplanting movies, comics and books in some ways:
Ghostbusters: in lieu of another sequel
Star Wars: the Force Unleashed: Be Vader's apprentice in a brand new chapter that takes place between the trilogies, with a super realistic physics engine.

Tasty butterflies and other discoveries: BikeAbout 2008

The 2008 Columbia BikeAbout happened on a gorgeous spring-summer day, sunny with the temperature somewhere in the 70s and a light breeze. I covered the thirteen miles of woodsy Columbia trails in two hours exactly, stopping on occasion to take in some exhibits on Columbia's history and suck down water.

Any time I am in the woods it is akin to a religious experience. Call it some Gaia religious belief riding alongside my (nonsecular) humanism: I worship nature and humanity. If that sounds flaky or contradictory, consider that I have no embarrassing clergy or bizarre rules to explain. And since humanity is part of nature, then the two actually go together like cereal and milk.

A rabbit raced me down one trail, scared witless, a squirrel did its best to run under my front tire, but missed, and a butterfly flew right at my mouth, which thankfully was closed. I could feel both its wings flatten against my lips like it was a feathery light bandage covering my lower face. Then it flew off. Since I was whipping along downhill at the moment and it was capable of flight, I didn't stop to see if it was okay. It didn't check on me either. Nature loving can be rough sometimes.

Maybe I'm drinking the Columbia Kool-Aid in saying this, but I think the Columbia street naming convention is neat. All Columbia street names are based on poetry, literature or in some cases the usual forgotten historical sources. Lots of people think these names are bizarre and that street names ought to be boring old and familiar (1st st, 2nd st, etc). Liquid Laughter Lane and Rippling Water Walk are unique and lyrical. In many cases, the original poetry has been expanded by the addition of the street type.

All in all, a very pleasant morning in suburban utopia.

Prediction markets and Innovation

Check out this NYT article about using prediction markets to capture innovative ideas, foster communication and to give heads up to people in an organization about events or trends that are emerging below the radar. More companies are jumping into this because they hold some promise.

Google has experimented with this as well for improving idea generation and communication, and some folks have actually researched how well it works.

Prediction markets have many uses, one of which apparently is not political markets. Market response to elections seems to follow the latest polls exactly and is not often that accurate. These things have their limits when it comes to the general population. Within organizations, where knowledge is both common and not, they may be quite revealing.

As many of you know, I have been looking at prediction markets and other ways of predicting the future. Interestingly enough, prediction markets seem better at finding and aggregating existing information about the present (like 'we are behind opening a store in China' as the story points out).

If you want to know more about wisdom of the crowd-type techniques, read The Wisdom of Crowds. Who wrote it? Click the link, I'm too lazy to post all that info when you have your hand on the trackball.

The sweetless it is, the sweeter it gets

I've written about fighting off the dreaded High Fructose Corn Syrup devil and in general becoming post-food. Here is an account from Slate of someone who went even further. Does sugar intake cause zits? Don't know. Does the taste of sugary things become unappetizing when you go off it even to some extent? Absolutely.

I haven't had the sugar cravings that this woman describes, nor the hangovers she had, but I have been not quite avoiding sugar as much. (Organic root beer and sarsaparilla rocks!) It could be your brain trying to go back to the 'good times' even though your body chemistry has moved on. Avoiding dairy and all fruit seems too extreme, and I can't eat nuts, which seems to be a major leg of her food consumption patterns. Some of the problem, as she points out, is that you really have to prepare all your own food to dodge sugar entirely. And that is just not possible at breakfast (organic cereal is the best I can do), lunch (at work: leftovers, frozen or buy it).

Still, I get the feeling that she and I and Dr. Trackball are much further ahead than most adults. Now if Pot Bellies would just stop making those chocolate chip oatmeal cookies and Trader Joes would stop selling cookies altogether...

Where you are is who you are

How did it end up that I was geeking out around the LucasArts facility in the Presidio in San Francisco rather than working there? This occurred to me when I was taking a picture of the bronze Yoda statue by the front entrance, the only sign that a ton of really cool jobs working on the next Indiana Jones and Star Wars properties were on site. Only real geeks know that Lucas Arts moved whole hog from Skywalker Ranch and other locations to a nondescript but beautiful section of the Presidio.

People end up living where they are via three routes: accidentally, intentionally, and indirectly. Accidentally: most people in the US simply live where they grew up because it's familiar, family and friends are close by and it is so easy to piece together an existence from all that familiarity. Intentionally: at some point early in their lives, some people say, look, I want to live/work/go to school there and then they make it so. Indirectly: some people follow a job, a spouse or a passion that limits where they can live, and the choice is just fallout from that initial decision. There are few nomads, other than those required to be so due to their job (military, sales, corporate execs, etc.).

As I travel around the U.S. to places I've always wanted to see, I play this game in my head of trying to figure out how people who live there came to live there. I'm in San Francisco now and my feeling is that there is a greater proportion of intentionals here than in other places. It's the same vibe I get from immigrant and transient-heavy DC. Maybe it's because both are creative class meccas, granted of different flavors. Richard Florida, who studies these issues, has a new book out called "Who's Your City?" I haven't read it yet, but it deals with this kind of thing.

Given my job, DC is the obvious choice for me and I realize now that I figured out where I wanted to live and what I wanted to do at about the same time. I wanted to go to college in DC but was stuck in NY for financial reasons. But I made sure to go to grad school inside the Beltway. Thinking these things through paid off very nicely for me. I would recommend to any high school student that he/she factor location into the college decision. College location feeds into social and business networking quite heavily. Yes, you can get a job in Miami after colleging in Seattle, but it's swimming upstream. And above all, don't let your location just happen, because these things tend to get locked in after a while. Someday, you might look at that Yoda statue, or the dairy farm in Vermont, or a restaurant in New York, and get pissed that you're just a visitor.

If I had made a different career choice and was successful, maybe I would have ended up at a West Coast entertainment or tech company. Growing up in the Shire made this difficult (especially for laying the ground work for comp sci or anything artistic) but not impossible. I could see an alternate timeline where that did happen: I would be slaving away on animation shots for the upcoming Star Wars movie, halfway through my 30s, unmarried, wondering if what I was doing was truly meaningful and if life had more to offer. All geek and no life makes the Trackball a dull boy.

So how did I react when I saw Yoda and realized that I was on the outside looking in? I took his picture, with my kids in it, felt a little sorry for the people inside (I'm not kidding it was a beautiful day and I was on vacation) and moved on with a big grin on my face. I mean, I was standing right outside a geek mecca! Awesome! I score major geek points.

James Bond + Dilbert in the Dunwich Humor

I've been reading Charles Stross novels at a feverish pace lately. Like Neal Stephenson and Richard K. Morgan, I'll read anything he writes.

Even still, I was more than a little surprised at how much I like his Bob Howard novels. The main character is a sarcastic IT support geek who works for a secret British MI6-type place that combats the supernatural world. Yes, he is in expert in computational demonology and is regularly threatened with Powerpoint, government bureaucracy and clueless computer users as well as zombies and demons straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. And I mean straight. out. of. Lovecraft. These are Lovecraftian sequels, really, but with humor instead of horror and the world of Dilbert instead of a creepy gothic Halloween vibe.


The first novel was The Atrocity Archives.

The second is The Jennifer Morgue.

Entangle your destiny with them and thank me later.

Hey Air Force: above all, stop the web blackouts

Has anyone else begun to grow tired of Air Force 'Above All' ads blacking out an entire website? The military essentially running pop-up ads that 'block' or 'black-out' a website won't win them much love.

The Air Force 'Above All' campaign though, especially the cyberspace defense ads with that cool 'Minority Report' command center, is pretty darn neat. The issues it raises lie near and dear to my novel's heart. So I'll throw a link in to their site in hopes that they stop the blackout ads.

Pew has released a major survey on religion in America. Big result: people are moving fluidly between religions. And the second biggest religion behind Christian is 'unaffiliated' which translates to 'none'. Not that the unaffiliated don't have religious beliefs, but that they don't belong to an organized religion. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Check out the results, including state breakdowns for the lower 48, here.

As a humanist and free thinker, I find this encouraging. More people are exercising their free will and are breaking out of whatever mold their families may or may not have tried to stuff them into. It makes society less tribal, more thoughtful and more heterogeneous. Maybe Sam Harris was on to something in The End of Faith.

Since atheism is the new gay, maybe the pockets of high 'unaffiliated' will correspond to creative class meccas in the US, a la Richard Florida's hypothesis that the presence of gays in a city is a sign of tolerance, a key ingredient for municipal success. (See 'Creative Class: how cities succeed' link on the right).

Rewrite Hell

I have been rewriting the novel The Crashpoint Cascade for years (very part time though, because of family and work obligations). It has gone through about four major drafts and is now into its fifth. Some of that has been due to me learning how to write a novel. But a lot of it is just the requisite work needed. With two readers having poured through an entire draft, I have a pile of edits to put in. This is a real rewrite, more so than the others, because it is based on input from two other human brains that are not mine.

Rewriting is creative destruction in its purest essence. Favorite chunks of prose are slaughtered, ideas are belittled, put on the stand, and often executed. Characters become collateral damage. The process can seem endless, pointless, and will make you question why you ever bothered to show the world how you are a no-talent idiot that doesn't have the sense to recognize the foolishness of trying something so far beyond your abilities. Sometimes you have to write some new stuff that you know will be trashed just to get you a couple more steps on the journey to better understanding the story or a character. And sometimes you don't realize that it will be trashed until later on during a quietly sober moment of despair.

And then, while rewriting, you'll see a story point snap into place. A character steps into some contrived dead end you are sweating and takes the story in a better direction. You find some really cool chunks and they point you to new changes. Edits that you or the readers suggest spawn a whole series of new ideas and you are off and running again. Crest and trough, crest and trough.

Other writers have talked more eloquently about rewriting hell than I have, (Elizabeth Bear has this excellent post about rewrite hell here and and elsewhere she recommends this post by Justine Larbalestier) but experiencing this first hand is worth sharing.

One of the key things they and others mention is that you have to persevere. There won't be a light at the end of the tunnel for a long while, if ever, and if you stop, all is lost. If you don't go far enough, the finished product won't be good enough. Rewriting makes everyone feel like an abject failure and question their use of talent and time on writing. It never goes away, apparently. Or, as Woody Allen put it, 90% of success is showing up and by definition, not giving up.

There's a reason why many published writers' first complete novels sit in drawers, unpublished but not unloved, but never to be returned to. It could be that these novels are the necessary learning failures, never ready for primetime. And maybe each is the scar that reminds the writer about hard won lessons driven home about slogging through the rewrite stage, the bionic right hand that constantly reminds what impatience, inexperience and lack of commitment can result in.

Boycott MySpace

Because they discriminate on the basis of religion by deleting groups for atheists and agnostics after they were hacked by Christians. That it is owned by Rupert Murdoch should come as no surprise. Fox Noise regularly refuses commercials that it doesn't agree with too.

Thanks to Charlie Stross' blog where I first heard this, and see the Cleveland Plain Dealer here with the full story.

Of course, I'm already on Facebook and have little use for MySpace. I wonder what other groups MySpace will persecute next.

Trackballs set for Balticon 42

The whole Trackball clan will peek in on Balticon 42 on Memorial Day weekend. Dr. Trackball surprised me with a hotel reservation where the con takes place.

Their only con experience has been an exhausted romp through ComiCon last year in San Diego. Balticon is much different, much lower key. This should be interesting.

Lair Deadline is set

As a pal mentioned here in the comments, I should have the Lair ready by the premiere of the next Batman movie, The Dark Knight. The movie will feature a new Batcave, which you shouldn't underestimate as an influence on Lair design.

So, this year, by July 18th, when the movie premieres, the Lair will be finished. Of course I have no idea what it being finished means, but I will figure it out.

I must catch this when it comes to town

I know, I should be beyond the Star Trek thing by now. The only Vegasy thing I did in Vegas in 98 was catch Star Trek: The Experience at the Vegas Hilton. Loved it.

But Star Trek: The Tour is coming to DC. No way I miss that. Thanks to Wil Wheaton for pimping it on his blog. The more of his stuff I read, the more I like him.

Oh, and on a related note, the Lair is coming along. Still looks like a basement corner, but it's taking shape. When it's done, it will be Lair 1.0 still, but 1.0 is better than 0.0.

The Truth about High Def DVDs

A couple months back, I bought a Playstation 3 in part to upscale DVDs to near high def and to play high definition DVDs. At that point, and even now, there has been a format war between HD DVD (Toshiba) and Blu-ray (Sony). Blu-ray has sold more discs but Toshiba has sold more single-purpose players (not counting the PS3, which if counted, hands the player race to Sony). They also had pulled in most of the studios to their side. So I bet on Blu-ray.

Looks like I was right. Sony just scooped Toshiba to sign Warner Bros., the biggest DVD content studio, to an exclusive Blu-ray only deal. It's over.

Some say that this is all moot because we'll all be downloading movies to our TVs and DVDs will go the way of vinyl LPs. Not so fast. The American internet is too slow to handle standard definition TV, much less high def. Video on demand has not taken off for standard def and that is the closest analog to downloadable movies. No one wants to be in the middle of a thriller and then hit internet lag, or worse yet, wait three hours to download a two hour movie.

The cosmic reward for excellence

One of the truths about life seems to be that the world takes notice when someone does something difficult, and does it well. Everyday acts of excellence, like landing a plane safely, or keeping the internet infrastructure operating, are well compensated. Apple and Google have done really well, and it's not an accident. Pro sports performers and entertainers rake it in because they are that good, people recognize it and money and acclaim just flow.

Maybe this is an intentionally constructed feedback loop by human society or maybe it's unintentional. Since it's not always noticeable via financial compensation, the feedback mechanism can be hard to spot ('she's, like, the best cupcake maker ever'). It's still pretty neat to see nonetheless. Whenever you come across one of those really well done things, it's a 'wow' moment.

Reading Charles Stross' science fiction is becoming a consistent 'wow' experience. Like Neal Stephenson and Richard K. Morgan, reading him prompts feelings of both 'wow, this is good' and 'I can only wish to tell stories like this.' He is the cutting edge of sci-fi. Chris Nolan is one of the cutting edge filmmakers and most of his movies are so good that I could easily start from the beginning after each ends (he made Memento, Batman Begins and The Prestige).

In general it takes about 10 years for someone to become an expert at something. They may be unrecognized, even by themself, as being just barely proficient until they make it all the way to expert level, but that doesn't mean that their mastery isn't advancing the whole time. I have seen this happen in my own line of work. Also, I have stared at my own lack of expertise in writing a novel for years and slowly watched myself chip away at it. I can see it happening with Guitar Hero III, which I got for Christmas, and have gained a whole new appreciation for real guitar players.

While it's fun to be at the crest of the learning curve, starting at zero can be very tough. There may be a learning curve restart at work on a project that is daunting considering the 10 year rule. It can be downright terrifying for the early retired or laid off who have to find a new field just to bring home a paycheck.

As a shout out to those who I think are experts in what they do, and who I aspire to follow gamely, this site will now add 'The Pros' links to the people who are recognized as having their expert shit together. Since I use the ToT site myself for interweb-wanderings, it's also a reference section for me, but please abuse it for your own pleasure.

So Happy New Year, and good luck to all who are just starting a new expertise learning curve or are already on their way. Remember, by 2018 latest, people will bow in your general direction.
For those who are procrastinating a needed start at the bottom of a learning curve, remember, the universe loves excellence. And you don't want to wait till 2019 to be an expert, do you?