Thom on March 3rd, 2015

Evidently the “Digital Natives”, the generation that have grown up with the latest electronic conveniences, are not as sold on e-books as one might think. According to an article in the Washington Post, while they consume general content electronically, when it comes to reading for learning or leisure, they prefer printed books.

The article lists several reasons, but the one that resonates most strongly with me was this explanation:

“I can’t imagine reading Tocqueville or understanding him electronically,” Nordquist said in between classes while checking his e-mail. “That would just be awful.”

Without having read Baron’s book, he offered reasons for his print preference that squared with her findings. The most important one to him is “building a physical map in my mind of where things are.” Researchers say readers remember the location of information simply by page and text layout — that, say, the key piece of dialogue was on that page early in the book with that one long paragraph and a smudge on the corner. Researchers think this plays a key role in comprehension.
It’s also apparently easier to concentrate with a physical book:
Another significant problem, especially for college students, is distraction. The lives of millennials are increasingly lived on screens. In her surveys, Baron writes that she found “jaw-dropping” results to the question of whether students were more likely to multitask in hard copy (1 percent) vs. reading on-screen (90 percent).
That would make sense, since books are not full of links, ads, and video previews. What’s not so surprising when you think about it is that students actually like used textbooks because of the notes made by previous students. Digital natives are accustomed to sharing information, and this is one case where “old school” can still deliver, even if there’s a time lag.

There are quirky, possibly lazy reasons many college students prefer print, too: They like renting textbooks that are already highlighted and have notes in the margins.

While Nordquist called this a crapshoot, Wallis Neff, a sophomore studying journalism, said she was delighted to get a psychology textbook last year that had been “run through the mill a few times.”

“It had a bunch of notes and things, explaining what this versus that was,” she said. “It was very useful.”

Shades of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”?

I can’t say I’ve given e-books a real try. When I took my MBA program the textbooks were electronic, but I convinced my employer, who was footing most of the bill, to let me print them out. I’ve read a few books that were only available electronically, and I found it a bit disorienting. There’s no real feeling of progress–the words just keep coming! And no, you can’t find your way back to a particular section quickly. But I’m an old fuddy-duddy who is so deeply engrained with the old “book” paradigm that I suppose I’m not a reliable critic. Nor are my D.N. children, as I’ve brainwashed them into believing in physical books. But I’m a bit surprised to find that the Digital Natives aren’t completely sold on e-books, either.

On the other hand, there are quite a few e-books being sold, so I find myself questioining this particular study. If it’s not the D.N.s, who is buying all those e-books? We need to see some real numbers. Is the purchase of e-books based on something else that cuts across demographic lines? It could be. One of my co-workers is an avid e-book reader, and he’s in his seventies. He has hearing difficulties, so audio books don’t work for him. And while I’m not an e-book reader, I am a regular audio-book consumer. But that’s to fill a specific need–make my commute more productive–and I still read more physical books in a year by nearly twice as many.

In any case, I’m not so sure the e-book revolution is over and that print has lost. I think it’s too early to tell. If this study is correct, it may well be that e-books will be the fad that fades away. I doubt it, as I do think e-books fill a specific consumer need that won’t go away. We may go on for quite some time with the needle stuck halfway. And I’m okay with that. I’m not ready to have print go away.

Thom on March 2nd, 2015

Last year I posted about a reality TV show about three couples who agreed to let someone else arrange their marriages and meet that person for the first time at the wedding. I speculated that I thought it could work, but it would take a lot of work.

I remembered that post recently and decided to see if I could find out what happened. I found this report. I was pleasantly surprised to find that two of the three couples had decided to stick it out, though it’s clearly been work for them all. In some ways I suspect the pressure of being on Reality TV helped. They may have had a more vested interest in making it work, for one, but they also had those same experts who had matched them in the first place as resources. Both couples turned to those experts for counseling, and it appears to have helped. They also had something most couples don’t have: they have actual “game film” they can turn to when learning how they can improve their communication.

I’m not surprised to learn that what got one couple through a rough spot was an external trial they faced together. I think shared struggles can bring people closer together. One thing I did find interesting was that one couple appeared to have an instant connection, and yet they seem to have struggled just as much as the couple who were on shaky ground from the start. That seems to point to a willingness to work at it being one of the key ingredients to a lasting marriage more than attraction.

At any rate, my hat is off to those couples who had the guts to even do this in the first place. I wish them well, and hope they remain happily together.

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Thom on February 27th, 2015

I just heard the news that Leonard Nimoy has died. I’m not even remotely sure what to say at this point. He was a significant part of my childhood. I was Spock for Halloween. I’ve felt kindly toward him most of my life.

He had a good run, I think. But the sky is just a little darker now for the lack of his star in it.

Thom on February 27th, 2015

When Judge, a retired police dog in West Deptford, New Jersey had to be put to sleep dozens of police officers turned out to show their respect and offer their support. Judge apparently had severe Cushings Disease, the same disease our sweet Lady struggled with.

Police dogs are extremely well trained, and the danger they face in the line of duty is no less just because they view much of what they do as a game. I know the officers who work with them value their abilities greatly and view them as comrades in arms.

I know police across the nation have come under a great deal of criticism of late, but I remain undeterred in my admiration for the men,  women, and dogs who willingly put themselves in harm’s way every day to keep us safe and enforce the laws we rely on to hold society together. Do they make mistakes? Absolutely. Under the conditions they work in it’s a credit to their restraint and dedication there aren’t more. Nearly no one is happy to see a cop.

Are there bad cops? Sure. But that there are people willing to even be cops is an amazing thing, really. It takes a special type of person, and I for one am glad there are still people willing to be police officers.

So I’m not surprised that Judge was given the farewell salute he was. Only cops truly appreciate what it is to be a cop, and I’m certain Judge was accepted as “one of them.”

I’m grateful for Judge, Cpl. Michael Franks, his handler, and all police men and women who put themselves out there day after day. To all of you, my deepest thanks.

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Thom on February 26th, 2015

I imagine by now everyone has heard about Lady Gaga’s performance of a “Sound of Music” medley at the oscars. I didn’t see it at the time, as I don’t watch the Oscars. But based on comments I heard from people who I’d be inclined to trust on the issue, I decided to give her performance a look later on.

I don’t care much for Lady Gaga, to be honest. She’s just another attention-hound pop star who will do pretty much anything to make the headlines. She just does it in a premeditated way that makes it easier for admirers to believe she’s making an intellectual statement at the same time.

Well, this time she decided to be respectful of the material. Her performance, while not especially memorable, was understated and fairly classy. She chose to make a statement by not making a statement. She chose not to go for shock value. Perhaps she realized that she was treading on an American institution and decided not to throw pink paint all over the Lincoln Memorial, so to speak. I know other artists who wouldn’t have hesitated to do so.

So I find it interesting that I’ve gained some respect for Lady Gaga–not because of what she did, but for what she didn’t do. She may not draw the line where I would with most of what she does, but it’s refreshing to see someone at least willing to draw the line.

Thom on February 25th, 2015

I’ve been a sci-fi/fantasy consumer from way back (ie. the 1970’s, which is not that far back in my perspective). My teenage years were filled with Star Trek tie-in novels, Orson Scott Card series, and pretty much anything else I could get my hands on. I loved it. It was intelligent. It was fun. It engaged the imagination. It’s why I began writing; I wanted to tell stories like that.

Today there are people who tell us that speculative fiction has a duty to address the ills of society, and that the only authors worth reading are either those of minority status, or those who take up social issues. It probably goes without saying, though I’ll say it anyway, that by “take up social issues” they really mean “take the approved stance on social issues.” Never mind that this movement can’t quite find consistency within themselves as to what is acceptable. For example, they can’t quite make up their mind whether it’s okay to write about the “other” if you’re not part of that “other”.

(This latter is a particularly shallow view, even hypocritical view, anyhow, given the nature of science fiction and fantasy. Who then would be qualified to write about aliens, elves, orcs, vampires, etc?)

I’m not here to argue that stories can’t or shouldn’t address social issues. Any story of sufficient depth is going to at least inadvertently or obliquely tie into social parallels. But I fail to see that there is an obligation to do so. In fact, I’d wager most people are wary of stories that purposely set out to right social wrongs. No one likes to be preached to, even if the cause being preached is a cause de jour.

That said, sci-fi and fantasy are often great vehicles for raising issues that are on our minds. Speculative fiction can enable us to take current issues and situations, pull them out, and recast them in a way that allows us to examine them in more detail without bringing in the emotional baggage that may accompany those issues in the real world. Any tale, told well, can make us re-examine ourselves without beating us over the head with an agenda.

I remember the novel “The Final Reflection”, by John M. Ford. In hindsight there was a good chance this novel at the least had parallels in and at most made a statement on the Cold War. The novel takes the point of view of a Klingon officer, tracing his upbringing and his rise through the ranks. Much of what was written on Klingon culture was largely discarded in the Next Generation forward, but it didn’t matter to me. I was entranced. I connected with someone I’d been taught was the enemy, but who turned out to be a good man (being) of conscience. In my teenage, black-and-white world this was a unique concept: even the “bad guys” are not cut and dried. There are good people and bad people on all sides of the dividing line.

Tom Clancy later finished my conversion with the same concept applied more directly to current events, but the seed was already there, thanks to pop-culture sci-fi.

But neither of them could have convinced me had they handled the story differently. Had they attempted to portray all the Klingons or Russians as noble, upstanding, honest people and/or tried to flag the Federation/Americans as all evil and corrupt I probably would have thrown the books away without finishing them. Had they not given their characters depth and motivation I would have felt insulted at the stereotypes and straw-men.

Yeah, I know, subtlety is a slow way to change the world, and most writers with social axes to grind can’t wait that long. It’s easier to hack away with that ax than delicately carve with a well-sharpened knife. But just as surgeons don’t perform operations with chainsaws, social change works best when it leaves the least amount of scarring. The best way to change a person’s mind is to lead them so gradually in that direction that they arrive there thinking they got there all on their own.

But it’s slow. It also requires a level of craft that takes time to develop. It takes a measure of restraint. In short, it’s hard to change the world overnight, and most people just can’t wait that long. The trouble is, rapid change usually brings about open conflict. They wanted rapid change in the Balkans, too. The quickest solution they could see was to kick out or kill anyone they felt was part of the problem. Surprisingly, those people didn’t want to just roll over and die, and as soon as they got the means to fight back, they did.

So slow down, peoples! You want to preach to me? Tell me an irresistably good story that doesn’t feel like preaching. Give me characters who don’t make me feel like a punching bag. Give me complex, sophisticated situations that make me think. Make the pieces available, and then trust me enough to put them together myself. Trust your storytelling enough to let it lead your reader along gradually, willingly.

That’s hard work, you say? That takes patience? The world can’t wait for change?

Rapid change almost always comes through violence. If that’s something be avoided in your mind, then you’d better learn patience.

As I said, I’m not here to tell people not to write about causes that matter to them. I’m not sure there’s any such thing as a story that doesn’t make some sort of statement about the writer’s values and desires for society. I’m just suggesting that it will be hard to sell your point unless you can first and foremost tell a good story. Tell me something in an interesting, engaging way, and I’ll at least listen to anything you have to say. Make it a story well-told and I’ll give your ideas some thought.  I may even change a little.

Remember, the pen is mightier than the sword, but if you’re just going to use it to gouge someone’s eye out, you may as well use the sword. It’s more efficient. And more honest.

Thom on February 24th, 2015

Evidently the Academy Awards ceremony was held this weekend. As this excites me about as much as the Superbowl (ie. not at all), I didn’t really pay attention. I learned a long time ago that Hollywood and I disagree greatly on what constitutes a good movie. And, quite frankly, I’m more than a little tired of taking up my limited time to listen to overpaid, spoiled brats who get thousands of dollars of goodies just to show up lecture me on how to live. Wage equality? Physician, heal thyself. I’ll know they really mean it when the highest-paid actors willingly forego their big checks in order to keep things more even with their peers. Racism? I’ve never had a problem with movies with black leads. A good story is a good story, a good actor is a good actor. So why doesn’t Hollywood produce more movies with black leads? There’s certainly plenty of evidence that Hollywood is more than happy to produce movies to advance lots of other agendas, even at the expense of profits, so don’t tell me they can’t make more movies with black leads.

Hollywood, be the change you claim you want to see in the world. Then we’ll talk.

Of course just as telling, perhaps, was the social media posts that showed up on my Facebook feed. Of all the posts about the Oscars made by male posters, nearly all were about the actual awards–agreeing or disagreeing with choices. The one notable exception was someone praising Lady Gaga’s performance of a medley of The Sound of Music songs. Of the posts made by female posters, the majority were critical and/or objectifying of individuals. That singer is too skinny, the other sang flat. That male actor must be gay because he takes his mother to award shows. So-n-so is a hottie. So-n-so’s dress was abysmal. Rrrrraarrr, gotta get me some of that.  That sort of thing.

You may form you own ideas about what the difference means, or whether my results are typical. All I know is that I’m getting tired of being lectured on how terrible middle-class, white males are when everything around me suggests that the problem may be elsewhere. Let s/he who is without sin cast the first stone, okay? Oops, sorry for the lack of trigger warning on that religious reference there.

Thom on February 23rd, 2015

The other night my wife was telling me about how one of our cats gave her strange looks while she was doing yoga. I made some comment about it not being able to tell if she was doing “downward-facing dog or mutant-looking cat”. My wife laughed and pointed out that “downward-facing dog” really is a yoga position and wondered how I knew, considering I’ve never done any yoga. I told her it was probably something I picked up from a “Dharma & Greg” episode.

I’ve long been a font of useless information. I can remember the names of yoga positions I’ve never done (or even seen), but forget to take the muffins out of the oven even with two timers set. I could tell you who was the production designer for “The Empire Strikes Back”, but not the name of the guy in Data Warehousing I’m having a meeting with next week.

It occurred to me, however, that while I may remember weird stuff, it’s not necessarily useless information. I’m a writer, after all, and I keep hearing how writers are supposed to know a little bit about everything. If that’s the case, then…well, that’s me! I’m perpetually curious, and constantly cramming my head with seemingly pointless factoids. I am the very model of a modern major general.

Not that my recall is exactly flawless, mind you. I can still get beaten fairly handily in trivia games. Usually my storehouse of useless data refuses to cough up the right information when the pressure’s on. Rather it leaks out at odd times, or times when it’s not important and people will generally think I’m weird to remember something like that. In short, it’s not even useful to liven up a cocktail party or floundering conversation.

It’s Norman Reynolds, by the way. I know you’re dying to ask me that.

But yes, I suppose it does have its uses, and writing is one of them. Now I just need to figure out a few more practical applications…

Thom on February 20th, 2015

One of the most difficult things about moving three years ago was leaving behind people who have become very important to us. Ten years is a fair amount of time, and the friends we made in Boise have come to be some of the longest-running friendships my wife and I have known. We vowed to keep in touch with these people. We’ve been largely successful, though it hasn’t been easy or as often as we’d like. Entropy affects relationships, too.

Yesterday, in an interesting coincidence, my wife and I both got packages from separate friends in Boise who had been thinking of us for various reasons. In both cases the things they sent showed that these dear friends really know us–perhaps better than we realized. And perhaps more importantly, it showed that they are thinking of us–and fondly.

That’s pretty cool, when you think about it. Someone was going through the regular course of their day and something cause them to think about us, to think, “Hey, I’ll bet my friend would appreciate this.”

And then they took it a step further. They didn’t just Facebook about it. “Hey Thom/Terhi, I saw something the other day that made me think of you!” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s nice to know you’re thought of. But they actually took time and money to send us something! They held something in their hands, thought of us, and decided they wanted us to have those things, even though we’re five hours drive away.

Getting thoughts and ideas to one another in our virtualized world is not hard. Getting physical things to one another requires time and effort. It used to be less of a big deal, I suppose, because all communication required that time and effort. Today it perhaps means even more when someone takes the time to connect in a physical, tangible way.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that my wife and I are blessed with really good friends who are willing to go the extra mile for us.

Thanks, you-who-know-who-you-are (I hope). These were wonderful gestures, and truly appreciated both for what they are and for what they represent. I hope we are as good friends to you as you are to us.

And because I feel the need to express feelings that mere pixels on monitor can’t adequately convey, I will turn to music–and an image that paints at least a thousand words. Thank you for your friendship, both of you.


Thom on February 19th, 2015

If there’s still anyone out there unconvinced that video games get as serious musical treatment as movies these days, I present the theme from Civilization IV, “Baba Yetu”. Dang, I miss playing Civ-Rev.

And then there’s this song, “The Parting Glass”. I first heard this on a Loreena McKennit album, and it’s rare that someone covers a folk tune I haven’t heard before. But clearly someone has, and they decided to use it for a video game. Peter Hollens then proceeds to knock it out of the park:

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