Friday, December 31, 2004

Happy Birthday to Me!!!

I changed my mind. I didn't get my SoundDock for Christmas, but I did get to choose what I wanted for my birthday. Now that we were being serious, I decided to read some reviews and figure out what would be best for me. Thanks to the iPodlounge GearGuide, I found a better alternative: the JBL OnStage. According to the reviews, it has clear, balanced sound and it will accept a normal line in, so you aren't tethered to the iPod as your only source of music. I don't see myself necessarily using it any other way, but it's nice to have the option.

The best part about it is that it costs about $190 less than the SoundDock. Since I apparently don't have a group of people waiting to pool their money and get me something extravagant, this price tag seems much more palatable.

Not to mention, with the horror happening across the world right now, extravagance seems a bit harder to justify. I gave the difference in price, and then some, to the Red Cross for the tsunami flood victims.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

You'll be sorry you asked

OK, as requested, here's another "how's the novel coming?" status update. Read it at your own risk, since I can't promise that it will be anywhere near as entertaining or thought-provoking as previous updates. Fair warning: I may have repeated some of this previously, but since I'm the only one reading it, I don't really care. The history helps to put things in perspective.

After several years of saying, "I really should write a book about this," I finally bit the proverbial bullet this year and started writing in January. In fits and starts, I have kept going all year, and just finished chapter 8 this week. Word count-wise, I'm at about 40K, so if my estimates are correct and I really am somewhere between one-third and halfway done, then this will be about a 100K-word book. Right in the sweet spot for satirical fiction: not so long as to excite comparisons with Twain, but not so short that it's filed with the Bathroom Reader series in the bookstores.

The book is tentatively titled Hollywood.bomb©. It provides a humorous look inside a hot young software company, where you can see what happens when social norms are relaxed in deference to technical prowess, and what happens when the brainy, esoteric world of software collides with the hype-driven superficiality of Hollywood.

Hmm, that sounds pretty good. I might save that for my query letter.

I spent the first half of this year playing around with the plot and characters, thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of satire, and generally avoiding putting anything that looked like a plot on virtual paper. Then in July I took advantage of the rest of my family's annual summer pilgrimage to my in-laws' house, and took a one-week writing retreat to see if I could really write when I tried. Turns out that I can, just not very quickly.

One week of "full-time" writing got me through three chapters, and another month resulted in a fourth. Then I slowed down again and spent a lot of time saying, "I really should write tonight," or, "I should remember that for my book." I recruited some relatives to read what I had so far, and was rewarded with chuckles, guffaws, and the occasional belly laugh. And that was before they read what I wrote (ba-dump bump!).

Finally, I participated in NaNoWriMo and got serious about writing nearly every night. Once again, I was reminded that I can write, just not very quickly. I also learned that an hour of writing a night isn't as painful as I thought it was, and that I don't miss TV that much when I don't watch. This caused an unfortunate drop in the value of my Netflix subscription, but it was a small price to pay for creative productivity. Chapters 5, 6, and part of 7 resulted from this tortoise-like sprint, but a new habit was born.

I caught a series of colds in November and early December -- actually, I'm still getting over one now -- which sapped much of my energy. I went back to knowing I should write, but really just wanting to slump in my "Big Man" easy chair and watch football. Or Buffy, Season Two, I wasn't picky. I mustered up the energy for a bout of writing here and there, and even took advantage of some slow times at work, and managed to complete Chapter 7 and start Chapter 8.

I took a week off for Christmas, too. My dream was to get in at least three four-hour writing sessions over the vacation, but managed only one. On the other hand, my wife's presents were wrapped as well as I could make them, and we have almost decided on the color of the new living room furniture. Four hours was enough to finish Chapter 8, though, which was satisfying. I think that Chapter 9 will go quickly, as well, since I have already written one long scene that will go there. I just need to fill in around it and come up with a few minor plot twists to keep things interesting.

Probably the hardest thing for me about this process is that it takes so darn long. I have never had to wait more than a couple of weeks to complete a personal project, and have always dashed off anything I needed to write in a day or so. To maintain the energy and purpose over a long haul of a year (and counting) has been a real test of my patience and commitment. It's also really hard to wait for the fun parts of the book to arrive. When I started seriously considering this book (see: January through June), I came up with some very funny scenes and concepts that I thought would make the book. Unfortunately, as with most comedies, the action has to build up to the funniest stuff. So I have had to wade through exposition and character introductions and all kinds of other setup before I can get to the really good parts. In fact, I'm still not there. I have been able to write some stand-alone scenes that won't actually happen for many more chapters, so that has helped somewhat. At least I don't have to worry about forgetting that really funny image or that perfect line between now and Chapter 16. But the best part, the culmination of many interactions and tensions between characters, where everything explodes in a big messy climax, is still a ways off, and I don't feel that I can write it now.

I am also seeing something else firsthand that I have always heard authors say, but which sounded like fanciful artist-speak to me: the story changes as you write it. Now, I don't have characters waking me up in the middle of the night with a story to tell -- don't get me started on the guy who claimed that -- but I do find myself throwing things in that I had never have thought of until just that moment, things that turn out to be integral to the plot or a characters arc. That's a big part of the reason that I can't write the big scenes yet: there are pieces missing from them that I don't even know about now. if I tried to insert them into a previously written scene later, I think it would be awkward at best, contrived at worst. Those things are going to come together naturally, but I have to wait to get there.

In books, movies, or even TV shows, I love it when a story or a joke comes all the way back around to the beginning, and uses things that you didn't even know were important until just then. Arrested Development is the best example of this on TV that I have seen, with no element ever wasted. I always thought that you had to intricately diagram every aspect of your story to make that happen, but now I'm starting to think that maybe you don't, that you can just let these things fall where they may and gather them up at the end. That's a great relief to me. I don't think I'd have the patience to do it otherwise.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Trackbacks now added!

I just added Haloscan commenting and trackback to this blog. Now I can get into long arguments with people I have never met and -- if I'm lucky -- probably never will meet. Technology is a wonderful thing.

I think I'll go find someone and pick a fight.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Marion Fights Back

Marion Jones Sues Accuser Over Steroid Allegations

Now Marion Jones is suing Conte over his claims that he witnessed her using steroids. This is shaping up into the greatest "He said, she said" battle since Monica and Bill squared off. Well, at least as far as the sports world is concerned, though I expect it will have about as much impact on the rest of the world as the Lewinsky story had on sports.

Now that this is going to a civil trial though, my question is: how does Marion make her case? If you can't prove a negative, how does she prove that Conte was lying? I guess they can try to force him to give specifics about the incident and then prove she was elsewhere, but that's a dangerous game. They did meet in person, and all he has to do is use some of those meetings as the basis for his story, assuming he's lying. If he's telling the truth, then Marion doesn't want this to get anywhere near a trial.

Filing the lawsuit is a good move, but going through with it is the only way to show that she has nothing to hide. If this settles out of court, I'll be very disappointed.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Oy, that's early!

I had to be at work by 4 AM today (don't ask why, it's a long story). It's a surreal experience driving to work at 3:00 in the morning, just you and a couple of semi trucks. Heck, even the truckers were mostly sleeping at that time. The convenience of having the road to myself was tempered by the fact that I had to slow down or risk outdriving my headlights. And did you know that the rest area McDonalds only offers a limited menu in the wee hours? It's somewhere between late-night burgers and breakfast.

It's also really hard to get gas at 3:00 AM. Only the rest area station was open.

I was ready for lunch by 9:00 and now that everyone else is getting lunch I'm ready to go back to bed. Call it the swing-and-a-half shift.

Friday, December 10, 2004

All I want for Christmas

Now, this is what I want for Christmas: the new Bose SoundDock. I can't think of a better way to fill the room with those holiday favorites. Family, are you listening?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Just Write

"Good," "great," and "stinky" writing are all relative, and are primarily a function of practice. Just being capable of putting words together in an order that other English-speaking people are able to understand, with relatively few typos or misspellings would put someone ahead of many people with whom I work on a daily basis, even if they didn't consider it a God-given skill. This ability can be honed, just like any other ability, only through practice.

I threw javelin in high school and college. God graced me with a strong arm, so for the first year or so I got by on muscles alone. I ran down the runway, did a few cross steps, and then basically stopped and heaved as hard as I could on that little spear. I topped out, though, at about 150 feet, which was as far as my raw strength could take me. To go any further than that, I had to find a way to convert the momentum of the run into the kinetic energy that would propel the javelin further than my arm could alone. That took practice, lots of it. I had to train my muscles to work in concert, but I also had to create new neural pathways in my brain to control the millions of actions that had to take place to transfer energy from my planted left foot all the way to my arm without interruption. The only way to do that was through massive repetition.

Writing works the same way. When you start trying to tell a story, your brain contains the images you want to convey, but your fingers don't yet have the skill to convey them perfectly. More importantly, the neural pathways between your visual imaging centers and your language centers haven't formed yet. That, too, takes brutal repetition.

I participated in National Novel Writing Month for the first time this year, and while I discovered that speed-writing doesn't exactly fit my lifestyle, I read some things that got me excited about their damn-the-torpedoes approach to creativity:

If I'm just writing 50,000 words of crap, why bother? Why not
just write a real novel later, when I have more time?

There are three reasons.

1) If you don't do it now, you probably never will. Novel writing is mostly
a "one day" event. As in "One day, I'd like to write a novel." Here's the truth:
99% of us, if left to our own devices, would never make the time to write a
novel. It's just so far outside our normal lives that it constantly slips down
to the bottom of our to-do lists. The structure of NaNoWriMo forces you to put
away all those self-defeating worries and START. Once you have the first five
chapters under your belt, the rest will come easily. Or painfully. But it will
come. And you'll have friends to help you see it through to 50k.

2) Aiming low is the best way to succeed. With entry-level novel writing,
shooting for the moon is the surest way to get nowhere. With high expectations,
everything you write will sound cheesy and awkward. Once you start evaluating
your story in terms of word count, you take that pressure off yourself. And
you'll start surprising yourself with a great bit of dialogue here and a
ingenious plot twist there. Characters will start doing things you never
expected, taking the story places you'd never imagined. There will be much
execrable prose, yes. But amidst the crap, there will be beauty. A lot of

3) Art for art's sake does wonderful things to you. It makes you laugh. It
makes you cry. It makes you want to take naps and go places wearing funny pants.
Doing something just for the hell of it is a wonderful antidote to all the
chores and "must-dos" of daily life. Writing a novel in a month is both
exhilarating and stupid, and we would all do well to invite a little more
spontaneous stupidity into our lives.

(from their FAQ)

It's too late for anyone else to participate in the official NaNoWriMo for this year, but it's not too late to take these ideas to heart:

  1. Just write.
  2. Shut up. Just write.
  3. Don't reread, don't edit. Just write.
  4. Give yourself permission to stink, at least on the first pass. You can clean it up later when you edit the complete work.
You will start awkwardly, but your writing muscles will loosen and strengthen as you go on. Don't let the initial cramps keep you from getting any further, and don't try to be a great writer! Settle for "legible," then move on to "readable," and accelerate from there. Even if your first few chapters stink, it will get better as you go on. Plus, you can always come back to them later and apply your bulging writing muscles to rewriting them in painfully beautiful prose.

Just Write.

- WS
Who is now on chapter 8 of his first novel and getting better all the time.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Late Model CARS

Disney, Pixar delay release of last joint movie

Pixar announced yesterday that it will delay the launch of its next movie, Cars from November 2005 to June 2006 in order to maximize potential box office and DVD revenues. While analysts had several theories as to the real reason for the delay -- including production problems and stalling to give more time to find a new distribution partner -- Steve Jobs was quick to squelch any rumors.

"The truth is, that aliens have abducted Lee Unkrich, who's in charge of our first non-Disney film," stated Jobs, "and we need time to negotiate a prisoner transfer that will get Lee back and return Michael Eisner to his home planet."

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Go Canadian, eh?

T-Shirt Co. Offers 'Go Canadian Package'

A New Mexico T-shirt company is offering a "Go Canadian" package, which will allow Americans traveling abroad to avoid political discussions by posing as Canadians. The kit includes a Canadian flag T-shirt, a Canadian flag lapel pin, and a Canadian patch for luggage or a backpack. There's also a quick reference guide — "How to Speak Canadian, Eh?" — on answering questions about Canada.

The product has been met with enthusiasm, leading the company to consider several other kits, including:

  • The his-and-hers "Go Taliban" kit: a fake beard and AK-47 for him and an all-enclosing burka and chastity belt for her.

  • The "Go Yankees" kit: a steroid syringe, a vacuum with an attachment that fits directly over your wallet, and a one-size-fits-all choke collar

  • The "Go Democrat" kit: same as the "Go Yankees" kit, only the syringe is replaced by a large "I'm sorry, world" sign

  • The vintage "Go German" kit, (for sale in France only): a white flag, swastika armband, and French-to-German dictionary, complete with 32 different German phrases for "I surrender unconditionally"

Friday, December 03, 2004

Look into the Future

Deep thought for the day: If you want to know what your girlfriend will look like in twenty years, look at her mother. If you want to know what you will look like in five years, look at your boss.

Sweet Pain

You know you've had a good workout when you have to open the locker room door with your head.

Marion Jones Juiced? - OLY - BALCO chief says he gave drugs to sprinter Jones

Victor Conte is cutting loose and doing his best to take everyone else down with him. I find his self-righteous tone more than a bit laughable, given that he has been dealing in illegal drugs for the past several years. He says, "Do [I] feel ashamed about what [I've] done? The answer is, no. Because I got to a point where I realized that elite sport is about doing what you have to do to win. I've seen athletes being forced to decide whether to use or not use, and it's much more painful for them to entertain the idea of giving up their dream than using anabolic steroids. So those are the real rules. That's what's really going on. Those are the real choices that athletes face when they get to the very top of their sport."

That's like hearing a drug pusher say, "Hey, I just provide the smack. They kill themselves with it." Or maybe Philip Morris (I mean, "Altria") saying, "We didn't force people to smoke cigarettes."

The relativistic argument of "everyone's doing it" doesn't hold any more water now than it did when you used it on your Mom in fifth grade. You remember: when you wanted to go jump your dirt bike off the edge of the overpass, because Tommy Milewski said that it would prove you weren't a wuss. Guess what? Even if you had gone and cracked your head open, you still would have been a wuss, because you let him tell you what to do. Only now, you'd be a brain-damaged wuss. So Mom was right. Go call her and tell her I said so.

I was an athlete in college, and I wanted to do my best. I wasn't exactly competing on the international stage, though I had my dreams. I can't imagine taking something that was both illegal and unhealthy (come on, everyone, do you think your body likes being pumped full of chemicals?) in the name of those dreams. Especially in sports, which are supposed to be about bettering yourself and striving in clean competition to outrace, outthrow, or outjump someone, how do you knowingly cheat and then claim that you're proud of your achievements?

I don't buy the "leveling the playing field" argument. It sounds too much like an excuse to take a shortcut, and I think that you have to exhibit some personal integrity if you want to be lifted up as an "elite" anything. I also suspect that it's more about getting -- or being afraid of losing -- those big endorsements than it is about achieving dreams anymore. Money is a far more powerful stimulant than any adrenalin surge that comes from winning.

All that said, I'll still be very sad if it turns out that Marion Jones was juiced. Sad, but not terribly surprised. I mean, did you see her last spring? I wish that I had a body like that.

Speaking of things you can't say...

... my only hope for polite society is that most of this goofiness is restricted to California: Yahoo! News - 'Master/slave' Most Politically Incorrect Phrase.

Then again, this is no crazier than some of the freakishly over-sensitive debates that people entered into around the time that I was in college. Don't even get me started on the Water Buffalo Affair....

Thursday, December 02, 2004

You Don't Say!

Further reading on Paul Graham’s site has given me a new favorite essayist. Well, let’s be honest: I didn’t really have a "favorite essayist" before, so he’s "new" in the sense that I hadn’t ever read anything he’d written before, not because he replaced someone in my great pantheon of essaydom. Although, now that I think of it, Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis both wrote some rather famous essays, so I guess I did have some other favorites. OK, Paul is now in my Top Three of favorite essayists.

Why do I call him an essayist? Because he calls himself one, right here. After reading that piece, I realized that I, too, have been writing essays ever since I started this infernal blog. So I guess Paul’s really in my Top Four.

One of Paul’s works, What You Can't Say, really challenged me (go ahead, read it. I’ll wait). At heart, I agree with what I think is his common theme: "Question everything," or as he puts it, ABQ -- Always Be Questioning. We can’t improve what we don’t question, and in my job I try every day to ask, "Why are we doing this, and how could it be done better?" So we’re all right there, me and Paul.

As I read, though, I started feeling defensive. Somewhere between the lines, I felt that I could read a hidden message: "It’s people like you that are enforcing these ridiculous taboos. Why can’t you just lighten up and stop forcing your morality down my throat, man?" I mean, I’ve never even met this guy, and now he’s attacking me? Where did he get off, with his relativistic intellectual pseudo-superiority? The nerve!

Well, it passed, but not until I walked away from the computer for a while and, in the interest of being true to my previously stated principles, asked myself some questions? Why did I feel defensive? Was I oppressing anyone or taking away their intellectual independence (my children notwithstanding)? No, not as far as I knew, which is why it felt so unfair. Was I part of a group that Paul identified as actively oppressing freedom of speech? Not directly. Nowhere in the essay did he say, "specifically, all tall white guys with white-collar jobs who lives west of Cambridge, MA, really need to think about what they’ve done." But we were getting warmer. Then it hit me: I am so used to being lumped in with that group that the other side is always accusing of oppressing something or other that I automatically assume, whenever I read something calling for open-minded dissent, that I’ll be demonized. The funny thing is, I get it the right or the left, depending upon which issue we’re talking about. But it doesn’t matter, because, by virtue of my skin color, faith, education level, income, and/or sexual preferences, I must be wrong, at least according to the other white guys leading the debate on the other side of the issue.

This is the main flaw in dealing with people as a group: you inevitably lump someone in based on demographics who really doesn’t match the color of the brush with which you’re painting them, and they get offended. Now, on top of the usual demagoguery and polemics, you have hurt feelings from someone who thought they were on your side. Better to deal with people as individuals, I say, and stop being so lazy. Despite what you may have heard and read over the past (Heaven help us) 13 months or more of campaigning, the world isn’t divided up into groups that all move en masse from one issue to the next. It is made up of individuals, all exhibiting their independence to one degree or another, all making up their minds -- or deciding not to make up their minds -- on their own. I'll admit that I feel a fair level of pity for those who have decided to unquestioningly follow the herd, but it was still their decision and even they can be shaken enough to question the herd mentality when it comes to extremes.

So what have we learned so far?

  1. Paul Graham is a good writer who makes you think.

  2. I don't like being lumped in with other people, especially negatively.

  3. It's better to deal with people as individuals than as members of a group.

  4. It's better to deal with issues in the same way. (I didn't really say that before, but I think it's a good corollary, and I like lists)

Once I got over my knee-jerk reaction and realized that I wasn't being blamed for anything yet, I started thinking about some of the things that we can't say, specifically in business. What heresies are out there, lurking in people's heads every day as they go to work? The company Christmas (oops, Holiday) Party isn't until next week, so rather than listening in on drunken conversations I'll have to make up the answers myself. Here's a few I came up with:

  • Maybe A Better Process isn't the answer. Maybe doing better has something to do with personal responsibility.

  • Maybe our CEO and other executives are fallible, or worse, don't actually know what they're doing.

  • Maybe going into this market, product line, or up against that competitor was a mistake.

  • Maybe we should treat employees like adults and hold them accountable for what they do while they're at work, rather than making up a bunch of rules describing what personal accountability doesn't look like. Could we still succeed as a company?

  • Maybe work really is personal and we should acknowledge that fact in the way we deal with our employees.

  • Maybe the bottom line shouldn't be the most important factor in every decision.

  • Maybe we're getting our butts kicked because we did something wrong, and not because of macro issues in the economy, our industry, or the world at large. Should we try to fix that?

That's a start. If, by some small chance, someone else actually reads this, feel free to add your own in the comments below, so I know that I'm not just entertaining myself. If I know you're out there, I may even try to make future ramblings more coherent and entertaining.

Or, as they say nowhere that I've ever been, "Holla back!"

Oh, one more thing: If you like what you saw on Mr. Graham's site, you should check out his book: Hackers and Painters. It's worth the read.

Just Design It

This great essay from Paul Graham attempts to describe why Americans do some things well and other things badly. I think he's hit the nail on its well-designed head.