Thom on September 2nd, 2014

I awoke around 4:00 am this morning and checked the clock. It wasn’t there. It took me a moment to register what I wasn’t seeing. It was there; the power was off. Today is a normal schedule for everyone. Oversleeping was not an option. I made my way downstairs to find my cellphone to set its alarm to wake me up.

It’s amazing how much light there is in a house at night. LEDs are everywhere; microwave displays, DVD-players, clocks, battery chargers, electric razors, and on and on. A thousand reference-points of light. It’s difficult to navigate the house at night without them.

We were right on the edge of the outage. The neighborhood on the other side of the street our property backs to had power, but most of the streetlights along the separating street were out. A little farther down there was power, but only one streetlight was close enough to provide much illumination. The street in front of our house was dark, but a block north or east there was power. The animatronic sign at the high school still beamed its outdated messages to the neighborhood.

I didn’t sleep very soundly from then on. Part of me was listening for that sudden surge of white noise from a dozen appliances regaining power, part of me was afraid I’d still manage to oversleep, and part of me was afraid I wouldn’t get back to sleep in the first place. I did get some more sleep, but not sleep of much quality.

Walking the dog was a little eerie. I could see well enough; we live in a large city, and the air is hazy, so the sky itself provided significant illumination. But I’ve grown rather accustomed to the pools of orange light that gather around the streetlights. I had my cellphone with me, which I had to use as a flashlight in order to see to clean up after Sofie’s deposits. A utility truck–city or power company, I couldn’t tell–slowly cruised the neighborhood.

Half the family was up when I returned home. Usually no one is. Everyone was unnerved by the outage. Would we even be able to get out of our garage to get to where we needed to be today? I assured them there’s a manual release on the garage door opener, but in my mind I wasn’t so positive. I knew there was one, but I’d never tried it. Would it turn out to be yet another one of the unpleasant surprises our house has to offer?

Showering by flashlight wasn’t as difficult as I would have expected, and as soon as I was dressed I decided to resolve the garage door question. It worked. The door is heavy, but not difficult to get up. It stays up, too. I backed both vehicles out into the driveway and closed the door again. We would at least be able to get on with our day. My electric razor retained enough charge to get the job done.

The power was still out when I left for work. In this day of ubiquitous automation I’m sure the power company knew about the outage the instant it failed. And yet part of me always wonders, “What if they don’t know? What if everyone assumes they know and no one tells them?” I checked their website when I got to work. They only list outages and status when it impacts more then 500 customers. Our area isn’t that big. No news to be had.

Ironically, tonight we will be talking with our cub scouts about energy.

Thom on August 27th, 2014

Let me just say up front that I don’t watch award shows. I don’t watch television, really. I gave up on it a long time ago. And so you can pretty much guarantee that everything I say from here onward is biased along those lines.

Evidently at the Emmy awards the head of the academy or whatever he is gave a speech which they jokingly attempted to liven up by displaying Sofia Vergara on a turntable. Feminists immediately objected to her objectification, and anti-feminist conservatives (and Vergara herself, whatever her leanings may be) countered with varying vapidity. One side says the joke wasn’t funny. The other insists it was.

We all totally missed the joke, and it was on us. The television entertainment industry just openly insulted (or accurately skewered) its audience by telling the truth disguised as a joke. Or several truths, really, such as:

  1. Industry execs truly see us this way. We need pretty, sexy eye-candy to make their “intellectual content” palatable. If there are messages that need to be delivered (and trust me, they have their messages they want delivered) they need to coat it with a nice layer of sex, violence and pretty people so we don’t choke on it.
  2. The own a whole stable of pretty people who they can get to put themselves on display any time, anywhere. People are falling all over themselves to be the richly rewarded minions willing to provide the eye-candy-coating to help the “medicine” go down.
  3. The industry execs think the viewing public is so stupid that they can insult us to our faces and we won’t even notice. (They may be right, from the sound of it.)
  4. The exploited are very good at convincing themselves they aren’t exploited.
  5. Sure enough, put the eye-candy out there and no one will notice the message, won’t weigh it, won’t think about it, won’t even consciously register it. But it was delivered, and no one is talking about it.

It’s times like this I have to admit we probably deserve our fate.

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Thom on August 26th, 2014

My comment spam has gotten out of control, so I took measures. Drastic measures. By Top Men. Top….Men….

It’s worked. I’ve had no comment spam in several weeks now. And now I know how much of my traffic came from spammers. More specifically, spammers for Viagra or payday loans. It appears about half to two-thirds of my traffic was spammers. My page hits have fallen off considerably since I fought back.

Am I disappointed? Not really. I suspected this was going on for some time. I suppose it could also because I’ve become more boring lately. That’s also a strong possibility.

So I care? Well, I clearly don’t care enough to try and make this post longer. :-)

UPDATE: Clearly I also don’t care enough to proof-read. I’m tempted to fix this, but I’ll let it stand.

Thom on August 25th, 2014

I’m still working my way through “The Wise Man’s Fear”, by Patrick Rothfuss, and probably will be for some time. I’m listening to it as an audiobook, and it’s a long one. And while audio isn’t always the best format for a writer to learn from another writer’s technique, I’m noticing a few things here that I’m finding interesting.

Rothfuss likes to layer. His “Kingkiller Chronicles” series is really an elaborate layering of stories, all with the same character. There is, of course, the frame story of Kote (if I misspell names, forgive me. You don’t get to see spellings in audio books) the innkeeper explaining how he became an innkeeper when he used to hold the world in the palm of his hand. And then there’s the main story of Kvothe, a coming-of-age/bildungsroman tale of a gypsy boy whose family are destroyed by supernatural beings.

But from here we start to see the layering of plotlines, which gets quite deep (in more ways than one). For example, we have:

  1. Kvothe’s self-appointed quest to avenge his family
  2. Kvothe’s ongoing relationship with Denna
  3. Kvothe’s efforts to learn everything he can at the University
  4. Kvothe’s ongoing problems with money
  5. Kvothe’s ongoing war with Ambrose
  6. Kvothe’s efforts to become a Namer

Those are just the “meta” plotlines. At any given time there are numerous sub-stories going on within each of those larger plotlines. Currently in the book for example (Possible Spoiler Alert):

  1. Kvothe’s effort to steal Denna’s ring back from Ambrose leaves him with tell-tale injuries and provides Ambrose with blood, which he uses to attack Kvothe with Sympathy.
  2. Kvothe’s friends have to stay up at night to guard him from attack while Kvothe sleeps
  3. Kvothe is trying to find a way to ‘artifice’ a gram (sp?) to protect himself against attacks, but that knowledge is forbidden
  4. His efforts to determine who is attacking him results in misunderstanding and making a powerful enemy of his loanshark
  5. Master Elodin seems to be teaching everything except Naming.
  6. His weariness from all of the above is hampering his studies and he is starting to lose Sympathy duels.
  7. His lute is stolen
  8. He’s spending money like no tomorrow
  9. Two of his friends are starting to fall in love
  10. His artificing instructor his challenging him to make something challenging
  11. Some strange young woman that keeps showing up looking for him

All of the second list are, in some small way, advancing the main plotlines in the first list, while at the same time the plotlines higher up on the second list are also driving those lower down. The result is like a large river. There is a fair amount of activity right near the surface, yet those are indicative of and resulting from the relatively slow, deep water beneath the surface. And all of it is one massive stream of water moving slowly and inevitably toward the sea.

The result is a complex story with enormous depth that you know is moving toward…something. The reader is but a stick being swept along on the surface. Then there are the many scenes and characters that, for the moment at least, appear more to be set-dressing than plot, but weave in and out of the story:

  1. Kvothe’s friendship with Auri
  2. Kvothe’s interactions with Count Threpe
  3. The world of the Aeolian
  4. His rivalry with Master Hamm
  5. His relationship with Anker the innkeeper
  6. Denna’s mysterious patron

I’ve not even begun to look at the various sub-plots and characters of the frame story, either.

To keep all of these balls in the air is no small feat. Rothfuss is, without a doubt, an excellent writer. Perhaps more accurately, he’s an excellet illusionist. He’s very good at creating the appearance of a busy, moving story. And yet the story barely moves. Even with the frame story returning to focus here and there to remind us of the destination point we are working toward, I often find myself wonder if we’re really getting anywhere. The frame story hints at so many things yet to come, and yet we often seem no closer to any of it than we were before. All we know for sure about the period in time the book is currently working through is that he will be expelled from the University. (Not a spoiler–we get this information almost before we even know there’s a story)

Now granted, these are long books. The first book covered a lot of ground before arriving at the University, and some of my perusing indicates there will be plenty of things happening beyond the University in this book. But at the moment it’s fortunate the day-to-day activities of Kvothe’s life are interesting or we would be bored by this ponderously slow pace. At least I would. I’m from the Rocky Mountains. Our rivers move fast around here.

I think that alone is the one thing keeping me from declaring Rothfuss’ work to be incredible. The immersion is perhaps too deep, the pace too ponderous. There is too much weight and not enough actual motion. Such may be the danger of writing a tightly-focused first-person epic. I’m not trying to suggest that his setting isn’t interesting, his characters compelling, his scenes entertaining. And for all I know at present, this may all be very important detail that needs to be laid out before he can pick up the pace. But this story is supposedly being dictated to a historian over the space of (so far) twelve to eighteen hours. On audio it’s taken at least forty. I have no idea how long Rothfuss plans this series to be (it’s at least hinted at taking three days to dictate), but while we’re in day two, it feels like, if this were Star Wars, Luke hasn’t even found Princess Leia’s message yet.

But my original intent here was to praise Caeser, not to bury him. I do believe that Rothfuss’ layering approach has a great deal of merit. His ability to maintain and advance all these different layers is admirable and worthy of emulation. I don’t know if this is something he manages all in a single pass or something that he builds in over several revisions, but either way, it does provide a great deal of complexity to the story, especially when he can get plotlines to intersect one another. It’s an interesting approach, and intend to keep this all in mind and start practicing it myself.

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Thom on August 22nd, 2014

To read and listen to so many reviewers these days you’d think we’ve completely lost the ability to tell good stories any more. That, or we’ve lost the ability to train up reviewers who know how to recognize a good story when they see it.

The trouble is that far too many reviewers come at a story with a limited toolbox these days. Often they’re limited to one tool. They’re not so much reviewers as inspectors: does this story have a strong female lead? Does this story send the right message about environmentalism? Does this story sufficiently decry violence? Does this story sufficiently promote a liberated sexual lifestyle? They don’t want to review the story for itself, they want a press release. They’re looking to check boxes to determine if this is the “right kind of story”.

Oh, they have wonderful motives for doing so, I’m sure. They want to make sure that this minority or that position is adequately represented so that people of that persuasion will be able to recognize themselves in the story.

It’s all nonsense, but it’s far too pervasive. They’re not promoting diversity, they’re destroying empathy. Yes, it’s healthy to explore the world through characters that are different from yourself, but to insist that the “other” must be a different gender or race is naiveté of the first order. Grab any other 44-year-old white male and hold him up next to me and you’ll find us to be very different. Grab a 83-year-old black woman and compares us and you’ll find we have a lot of similarities.

That’s not to say we don’t get a little lazy as writers. I’ll admit that much. Is there any reason why a story told in modern or futuristic times couldn’t have a middle-aged, asian female protagonist? Well, if the protagonist needs to be able to kick alien butt with their bare hands, the answer might be yes, unless they can get their hands on some equalizing technology. In spite of what Hollywood would have us believe, a 140-lb. person, male or female, is just not going to be able to do as much damage to a 240-lb person as the latter would do to the former. Physics knows no political correctness. River Tam couldn’t really hit all those Reavers that hard. But Ripley could conceivably take on the alien queen with a cybernetic hydraulic loader.

But if your protagonist is a detective that uses their mind primarily, and has a Colt .45 to defend themselves with, there may not be any real reason why that detective couldn’t be a 43-year-old 150-lb. black woman. So why not try it?

In the end, however, every storyteller must tell the story they think best. If certain minorities can’t relate that may or may not be the fault of the writer. It could be the writer’s fault if the character is someone that anyone would have a hard time relating to, or who is offensive in some manner, but it could be also be the minority’s fault if they lack sufficient empathy or imagination to be able to put themselves in that character’s shoes.

Sure, everyone likes to see someone in a story who is “just like them.” But I think these mono-thematic reviewers forget that “just like them” is not limited to skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or what have you, and it’s rather superficial, shallow, or even bigoted of a reviewer to assume so. Alfre Woodard’s character in Star Trek:First Contact, for example, is an excellent character. She’s tough, smart, and able to adapt to being thrown into a situation beyond her wildest imaginations. She gives Captain Picard a good dressing down when he deserves it. I was able to relate to her quite a bit, not because she is just like me in any superficial sense. Yes, she’s a black woman and I’m not, but I could relate to her character on levels that really matter, like how she’s interpreting what’s going on around her, and how she learns enough to understand not just the immediate situation, but the people she’s found herself thrown in with.

The measure for me of a good story is not whether it comes pre-packaged with characters who are just like me, or who are relatable on some external level, but whether it presents people who are different from me, but who are sympathetic enough that I care enough to find out why they are the way they are and hence learn something about myself in the process. I didn’t sit there through Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead” reminding myself that most of the characters were a different ethnicity than me. I reveled in getting to know these people, in learning how they think, and why.

In short, the stories I most enjoy are those with people in them. The reviewers I most listen to are the ones who get that. I don’t have time or patience for reviewers who apply the same politically-correct checklist to everything they review. And should I ever get published I’m sure they won’t have time or patience for writers like me.

I write the stories I want to read. I read the stories that help me better understand people who are different than me–and that pretty much includes everyone. I don’t want to write stories that remind us we’re all different. I like stories that help remind us that in many ways we’re the same.

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Thom on August 21st, 2014

Regardless of who is right and who is wrong in Ferguson, there is one very troubling aspect of this entire situation. Those protestors trying to get attention to their cause are willing to sacrifice everyone else to get what they want. A recent interview with some of the protestors indicated a belief that had they not been looting, burning, and causing mayhem no one would be paying any attention, so their destruction was justified. You can’t make an omlet without breaking some eggs, etc. These people are not acting out of anger, out of a temporary loss of sense. This is premeditated. They want attention, and that’s what they are willing to do to get it.

One protestor even claims to be an owner of several businesses. He admits that he’d hate to see someone come in and destroy one of his businesses, but it’s still okay for him to do it to someone else’s because the matter is so important that he’ll do whatever is necessary to attract the necessary attention. I am floored. He knows it’s wrong, he knows he wouldn’t want it to happen to him, but he doesn’t care. He wants what he wants, and he’ll get it, no matter who it hurts.

So I can only ask: Why didn’t he choose one of his own businesses? Why is he so willing to make somoene else sacrifice for his cause? He’s willing to destroy someone else’s livelihood, but unwilling to give up part–just a part, since he owns several businesses–of his own?

I’ll tell you why. Chances are he’s not even from Ferguson. Of 78 protestors recently arrested, only three were from Ferguson. It wouldn’t have the same effect if he destroyed a business that’s not in Ferguson. It wouldn’t make the right statement. The media might not be willing to go that far away to cover it.

He is not an activist. He is not a moral objector. He is a terrorist. You will never convince me of the morality of your cause when you act in an immoral way. It’s funny–in a sad way–how the left and the media are so quick to label the Tea Party as terrorists, and yet no Tea Party rally has ever ended in property damage, let alone to the extent that we’ve seen in Ferguson. And yet the Ferguson protestors are supposed to be accepted as some brand of noble hero.

I’m not buying it. It just shows the increasing moral bankruptcy and intellectual dishonesty of the left. Not that there isn’t enough of that on the right, too. But ultimately that’s the point. You cannot provide moral leadership if you have no morals. If I have to check my morals at the door in order to follow you, then that’s a place I have no desire to go.

Thom on August 20th, 2014

I’ve begun listening to the second book in Patrick Rothfuss’ “The Kingkiller Chronicles”, “Wise Man’s Fear”. I recall being somewhat lukewarm but appreciative toward the first book. Rothfuss is an excellent writer, and he has a way of lending everything in the story “weight”. His world is fully realized. But that is not why I’m writing about it today.

I’m in love with one of his characters.

Regardless of what else may go on in the books I thoroughly enjoy Kvothe’s interactions with Auri, a mysterious, ethereal young woman he meets on the rooftops. She is part wild animal, part mist, part fairy, and part moonbeams on water. Kvothe believes her to be partly insane, yet much of that is simply how she chooses to see the world. She adds a whimsical touch to everything. For example, Kvothe often brings her presents of food and other items, and she will interrogate him as to what about them might be more than meets the eye. When he brings her a smoked salmon one night she asks him if it has a secret. She wants to know something about everything that is brought her, and the more whimsical the answer the better. It becomes a game between them to come up with fantastical descriptions for their gifts for one another.

She lives in the “underthing”, the system of tunnels beneath the enormous university where Kvothe studies. She comes out onto the roofs of the buildings at night, which is where she and Kvothe have most of their encounters. She knows her way around completely, and cannot be caught. It takes Kvothe weeks to lure her out of hiding, and still more weeks to gain her trust.

There are times, however, when there appears to be so much more to her. For example, one night Kvothe is wracked with grief over the loss of his parents and spends a sleepless night caught up in their memories. Somehow she knows, and she comes to find him and comfort him. She is entirely lucid, and seems to understand his loss as well as he does.

I find their scenes together, though always at night, to be full of light and breeze, magic and timelessness. There is a sense of innocence and wonder about the whole of their relationship that I find powerfully compelling and immensely satisfying. When they’re together I don’t care if the book is “going anywhere” or not. I simply enjoy the moment. These scenes are so perfect, and feel so right that I have a hard time convincing myself that a person wrote them. They have a life of their own.

Whatever I may end up thinking of the book as a whole, I savor every scene with Auri. These alone are enough to convince me that Mr. Rothfuss is something special as a writer. Somehow he has captured the magic of the ordinary.

Thom on August 19th, 2014

I recently encountered an article by Paul Ford on politeness that I found rather interesting. Manners and politeness are growing increasingly are–and increasingly misunderstood–these days:

The complimenters don’t always formulate it so gently. For example, after two years ago at the end of an arduous corporate project, slowly turning a thousand red squares in a spreadsheet to yellow, then green, my officemate turned to me and said: “I thought you were a terrible ass-kisser when we started working together.”

She paused and frowned. “But it actually helped get things done. It was a strategy.” (That is how an impolite person gives a compliment. Which I gladly accepted.)

She was surprised to see the stubborn power of politeness over time. Over time. That’s the thing. Mostly we talk about politeness in the moment. Please, thank you, no go ahead, I like your hat, cool shoes, you look nice today, please take my seat, sir, ma’am, etc. All good, but fleeting.

Perhaps one of the most key points:

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.

I politely recommend you read the whole thing.

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Thom on August 18th, 2014

When it comes to giving blood I’m a chicken. I admit it. I’ve never been able to do it. And it didn’t help any that several years back I passed out during a First Aid class at work (in my defense, the instructor was a paramedic, and was showing some rather gruesome photos he’d collected through the years). It was an isolated incident, but I’ve developed anxiety issues in certain situations. The anxiety, unfortunately, feels enough like getting light-headed that it feeds my anxiety further. And anything that I think might cause me to faint triggers my anxiety. A particularly graphic description of flogging in a book, for example, can trigger it (which can be extremely inconvenient and panic-inducing when its an audiobook and I’m cruising along on the freeway).

The office where I work has a remote blood donation unit come in once a quarter. I know I should donate. But I’ve always talked myself out of it or been conviently swamped with work. They come, I think “yeah, I should”, they go, and I’ve not donated.

Last week I talked myself into it. I did okay until they got me into the interview. When they started describing what they do I felt that old familiar panic rising. I tried my usual countermeasures: remind myself to breathe, think of something else, focus on the person speaking, etc. It helped. But then I hit a snag. I have a heart condition that could preclude my donating blood. They wanted to know my “grade”, which I don’t think I’ve ever been told. But without that they’re not willing to risk draining me. And that’s okay. I don’t want them draining me if they’re not sure what it will do.

To quote the guys on that commercial, “Reeeeeeeeejected!”

Oddly enough I’m actually disappointed that I can’t donate. Enough that I’ve called my cardiologist to try and find out my grade. He’s moved on, but someone there looked at my charts and estimated I’m a two out of six. I think that’s low enough that I might still be able to donate. But it’ll have to be next time. The donation unit closed shop while I was on the phone.

So I’m not yet able to say I’ve faced down that particular fear. But I took several large steps toward it. That’s a start, I guess.

Thom on August 15th, 2014

This morning I was getting ready for work by loading up my pockets with my wallet, comb, keys, cellphone, mp3 player, and security badge, then picking up my personal bag, my work laptop bag, and my lunchbox. It occurred to me that with all that preparation I really needed background music. You know the kind: stirring, martial music played during a montage of people resolutely putting on gear and securing it. “BRUMP-tata-tat-BRUMP-tata-tata-BRUM-BRUMP…” Such music could really give a person a proper send-off in the morning.

Then I got to thinking just how helpful it could be if all life came with a soundtrack. I could be out walking my dog and, depending on the music, know exactly what to expect. Music is peaceful? Great, nothing to worry about. The Music is ominous and surging? Better hurry before those thunderclouds get here! I’m hearing nothing but a high, thin tremolo in the strings? Get out the mace and run like the dickens!

But then if life had a soundtrack, would that also mean it has scriptwriters? If that’s the case, as my children have noted, the safest place I could ever be is with my dog. Pets survive distaster/apocalypse movies. Pets and kids. Take a look at “Independence Day” some time. Every pet and every kid survives. Two out of three of those families lose at least one parent, but the kids and the dog survive. Single people? Fuhgeddaboutit! Single people live only to die in apocalypses. Harry Connick, Jr., Vivica Fox’s stripper friend? Jeff Goldblum’s boss? Brent Spiner? All dead. Unless, of course, you’re in a failed/failing relationship. Then you’ll live to see it reconciled.

Now, as noted, while the kids survive, being their parent is no guarantee, but the odds are still better than the single people. And if you’ve got to die, there’s pretty good odds you’ll die in a heroic sacrifice that saves your family, if not mankind. Okay, Mary McDonnell buys the farm, but Randy Quaid vindicates his crazy stories, saves humanity, regains his kids’ respect, and gets in some great lines in the process. If you’ve got to go, that’s how you do it!

Of course, since not every day is an apocalypse, I’d most likely get a screenplay for a slice-of-life drama. And NO ONE is happy in those. With any luck I can arrange for a rom-com, though rom-coms about married people are rare. Perhaps a general comedy? Meeeeeeh, the dads in those tends to endure a lot of psychological and physical trauma. I think I’ll pass.

Unless I get a stunt double.