Thom on November 25th, 2014

I don’t write about my mom much. Not because I don’t love her, nor because it would embarrass her (it wouldn’t because she doesn’t read my blog to my knowledge). Certainly not because her influence is any less than my dad’s has been. If anything she’s been more of an influence in my life. She’s just been, perhaps, quieter about it. My mom has never sought the limelight–if anything attention makes her want to hide. Come to think of it, I probably got that from her, with just enough of a dramatic streak from my dad to allow me to enjoy performing.

But if there’s one thing I learned from my mom it’s that family comes first. Even when she had to work in order to help keep our family afloat it was just that–to keep our family afloat. She’s a good worker, and had she chosen to have a career she could have had a good one. Instead she garnered her reputation into flexible hours back when flex-time just wasn’t heard of. She spent years working late at night in an office by herself, not another soul in sight, because that is what worked best for allowing her to be home with her kids during the day. Her boss would rather let her do that than lose her.

Later when most of the kids were in school she was able to get another job with flexible hours that could mostly be worked while we were all in school, allowing her to get home before we did, or not long after.

If she ever felt like she’d missed out by focusing more on her family than having a career I never heard a word about it. Definitely not from her. I seldom heard her complain about working all day and then working most of the evening too to take care of kids and the household chores. It’s just what moms (and dads) do.

I’m not sure I’m as devoted as she was, but I still grew up getting the message loud and clear: parents take care of their kids and provide for them. That’s just what they do, and it doesn’t matter what they may have to give up in order to do that.

That wasn’t so earth-shaking a concept back then. Today, however, it seems as though kids are an accessory, as though when you get married you’re given an order form: “Please indicate if you would like to have children, pets, frequent exotic trips, or a large house. Select one, maybe two.” Kids are just another option, one you can outsource to someone else. Is it any wonder that children’s repect for their parents is rapidly decreasing?

How do you really, adequately thank a mother? You never really understand what a mother is, what a mother does, until you become a parent yourself. It goes far beyond 20,000+ meals prepared, thousands of loads of laundry, rides to school, loving care when you’re sick. Mothers are the very foundation of life that allows a child to begin to experience and explore the world around them. For a mother to be taken for granted is almost a requirement–if a child doesn’t feel safe and cared for at home, how can they possibly feel safe enough to take on the world outside?

Home was always a good, safe place to be while I was growing up. I never really appreciated the effort involved from both parents, but especially my mom, to make and keep it that way. It never occurred to me that my mom might want to spend her time on something other than keeping the household running and the kids from running wild. I never considered that there could be something more important for a woman to do.

Today the message is that pretty much anything is more important for a woman to do. But that’s not what my mother taught me. There was nothing more important to her than raising a good family. Though I’m not as good as she was at applying it, it’s still a lesson she passed on to me. Considering that the greatest happiness I’ve found in life has been with my own family, I’m pretty sure she was on to something. Thank you, Mom.

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Thom on November 24th, 2014

Last night we got together with family for the evening, and at some point the conversation came around to our dad and his tool collection. Someone to recently use those tools reported that some of them were downright scary to use, having been repaired, modified, and worn out. While I didn’t remember them being like that, I wasn’t the least bit surprised.

My dad was a product of his time, and he was…my dad. Born to poor dry-farmers (both my parents were raised on farms during the depression and WWII), he grew up learning to make do or do without. One didn’t throw out an otherwise functional circular saw just because the wiring had been nicked and exposed in a few spots. You put some electrical tape over them and you moved on–carefully. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of his tools were older than I am. Living cheaply was how my parents were raised, and it’s how they were able to raise us.

My dad was also something of a tinkerer. That may have been a side-effect of the frugality aspect, but he was never afraid to try things. If the university he worked for was throwing away some old fencing foils and badminton raquets he was able to see the potential and made us the world’s best marshmallow-roasting sticks. Rather than spend a lot of money to get a router table he just made his own. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. I’d never use it, because I have no idea how it all went together, but he knew, and he made it work. He renovated our house, a freak of architectural design in its original form, into something a little more functional. He helped us build tree houses, zip-lines (WAAAAY before zip-lines were cool), and archery bows from fiberglass flag sticks and raquet-string.

He was braver with his patch-jobs and experiments than I’m inclined to be, but then none of us were ever injured, and he himself died of natural causes, so I suspect he knew what he was doing much more than we gave him credit for.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m regularly reminded of my father’s impact on me, and it’s worth mentioning again (and again). I may be more cautious about things than he was, but his example leads me to at least try. I spent the last couple weekends mounting shelves in various rooms in our house. I didn’t have to call a handy-man. I didn’t even have to call my brother. I just did it, and it appears I did okay. And while I might have been able to do the whole project more cheaply buying it all from Ikea, we have our shelves exactly the way we we want them.

Raised by my father, I don’t consider this a big deal. This is what a man is supposed to do. This is what I teach my children to do. But now and then I’m reminded that not everyone is automatically taught these things. Yesterday I also spent some time with someone from our church helping them hang a mirror. The man I partner with for these visits and I knew immediately what to do and had it done in short order. I don’t fault the guy for not knowing how to do it himself. I was just reminded that we can no longer assume that everyone knows how to do these sorts of things. He knows now, and as I told him, there’s nothing like home ownership to teach you all sorts of skills. It’s amazing the number of skills I’ve learned simply because I don’t want to have to pay hundreds of dollars to get someone else to do it.

Not that I’m all that skilled, either. I’ve inherited a child’s cabinet built for my mother by her grandfather from the wood of a shipping crate. The workmanship blows the doors off of anything I’ve done. And my brother has built things that I can only marvel at. If the world goes to all to heck and we return to a barter economy he’s well-positioned to become the village carpenter. Maybe he’ll need an apprentice.

But I digress. This is about my father and what he taught me. I don’t recall him sitting me down and formally teaching me any of this, except for one time when he made me replace a faucet. I learned a lot by watching, and by helping. But perhaps the most important lesson was one he may not have even realized he was teaching, which is to not be afraid to try. Oh sure, we grew up wary of Dad and his experiments. But the older I get the more I suspect a lot of that was due more to what we didn’t know. I suspect he had a much better idea what he was doing than we realized. I suspect my kids are already developing a similar assessment of me and my improvisations.

Though a great deal of my handyman skill has been attained since I married and became a homeowner, and though my father never formally set out to teach me hardly any of it, I still credit him for raising me to believe it can be done, and that it’s worth a try.

My father has been gone for a while now, and it’s one of my many regrets that I never thanked him for teaching me to not be afraid to try. And while I’m of the belief that I’ll see him again and have that opportunity, it’ll still likely be a long time in coming yet. I do plan on having a nice long talk with him someday and thanking him for a lot of things. This is just the tip of the iceberg of all the things he taught me, and probably all the things I realize he taught me are only the part visible above the surface. Parents have a much bigger influence on their children than any of us ever really comprehend. What I am beginning to understand is that in the lottery of parents, I came out pretty darn well.

 

Thom on November 21st, 2014

“The Night Circus”, by Erin Morgenstern, is a strange book. The premise is that two sorcerors have a proxy duel by training up two children into adulthood and placing them in competition with one another. In this case the venue (and the competition) is a night circus, a place of wonder and magic. But their plans are thrown into chaos when the two competitors fall in love.

If you’re looking for a sense of wonder, this is the book. Morgenstern makes us all “reveurs” with her descriptions of the nocturnal, black and white circus and its many magical tents. We’re given a cast of characters who are easy to love and admire. We’re given a simple, yet effective plot. We’re given everything we could possibly want for a book that simply cannot be forgotten. Except a satisfying ending.

Don’t get me wrong, this is still a good book, worth the read for the imagery alone, if nothing else. But the plot is not so much resolved as transitioned. It goes until it stops, and at least in my case, the denouement is presented to us by people we care less about, wrapping up details that don’t really matter, while giving us only third-hand information about the characters we care most about. Don’t tell me Bailey is happy, show me!

In some ways this book lends support to “Sanderson’s First Law of Magic,” that the more the reader understands about the system of magic the more the writer can use that magic to resolve things within the story. The magic in this novel is described as far as what it looks like, but not how it works. It appears to have no limitations, no real rules, except when the author tells us details that simply must be so in order to forego certain options for resolving the plot. But when the moment of truth arrives I felt no anxiety, no suspense at all over the outcome. When anything is possible…anything is possible. I had no reason to doubt they could fix things.

And that solution was ultimately unsatisfying, partly because we had simply traded one static situation for another, and partly because we are not really allowed to investigate whether or not the new static state is better. It’s just assumed that it is.

But as writing evoking a sense of wonder goes, this is some of the best I’ve seen. The rest can easily be forgiven for the chance to experience the Night Circus in all its glory and the almost carefree progression toward the ultimate end.

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Thom on November 21st, 2014

Here’s what I need:

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Thom on November 20th, 2014

Blogger Glenn Reynolds, creator of “Instapundit“, used to have a tag-line: “If you’ve got a modem, I’ve got an opinion.” He doesn’t use it any more. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because he realized that’s not really true. While Reynolds does cover a wide range of interests in his blog, he generally tends to limit himself to things that are, well, important.

My wife has been following the adventures of Esther the Wonder Pig, a rescue pig in Canada whose owners recently bought a small farm with the intent of opening an animal sanctuary. Facebook fans are presented with several daily photo and video updates from Esther. In some pictures you can see parts of their new house, which is understandably outdated. But the number of commentors who cannot resist complaining about the wallpaper or the carpets is truly surprising. They look past the adorable pig (and that’s not easy to do) and notice things to nitpick in the background. If they’re really fans of Esther they’re missing the point entirely.

Then of course there’s the recent revelation by an Australian television host that he has worn the same suit on air for the past year–and no one noticed. He did so in order to call attention to the fact that his female co-host regularly gets all sorts of nasty criticisms of her hair, make-up, and clothes.

It’s not exactly news that people have opinions about things that really are none of their business. What is perhaps new, at least over the last decade or so, is that people have come to believe that just because they have an opinion they should not only get that opinion out onto the Internet, but that they should do so directly to the target. It’s as if people feel an obligation to be critical.

Granted, there are quite a few (read “far too many”) people out there who have garnered some measure of fame/notoriety for being viciously critical of others, sometimes disguised as humor. It seems one of the quickest way to grab your fifteen minutes of fame is to find a particularly clever or shocking way of insulting another person.

But the result seems to be an increasingly negative world. We have women posting videos about all the times they were verbally assaulted (in at least some cases through compliments) in a ten-hour period, while people who say nasty things about people are held up as heroes. Something seems to be flipping backward in society, and I can’t imagine it will lead to sunshine and puppies for anyone. We will reap what we sow, and we’d better all start finding recipes for thistles and crabgrass.

It’s no wonder that graffiti is so rampant in many parts of the world. People just can’t resist the urge to make their mark on something someone else did, no matter how repulsive that mark may be. People evidently get some thrill from seeing their negativity plastered on someone else’s blog or website comments. It’s really rather childish. It’s like standing on the street corner belching for attention.

I’m not saying we should never disagree with one another online, or that we should never discuss anything negative. But if what we have to say is entirely off-topic and benefits no one, why not just keep it to ourselves. Anyone who has been following Esther and her owners’ page have to know that they’re extremely busy getting the farm set up, under control, and ready for winter. It shouldn’t be hard to guess that, having just bought a farm and moved into a new house, that they probably aren’t flush with cash right now. Chances are, even if they had the time and money, replacing the carpet and wallpaper is not high on their list of priorities. The continual criticism, however amusing for the critic, benefits no one. If they really want to make a difference in the world, why not start up a “Save Esther From That Terrible Wallpaper” fundraiser and help out rather than just gripe about it?

It’s always been easier to destroy than to build, but now, thanks to the Internet, we can destroy anyone, anywhere, within seconds, with very little effort on our part.

If that’s progress, consider me retro.

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Thom on November 19th, 2014

Evidently these images are not necessarily live, but they were created using sound and science. Kinda cool, in any case:

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Thom on November 19th, 2014

As much as some people would like to ignore it, human beings are competitive by nature. It’s the smart ones that clue into this and take advantage of it. Our power company has done just that. Once a quarter now, in addition to their regular bill, they send out a “power use analysis” which essentially tells us how our usage compares to 100 other homes in our area. We are currently sitting around 24th place.

For a family of five in a 2300 sq ft. house I figure that’s not too bad. Our neighborhood has a fairly wide variety of house and family sizes. I’m not sure we could do much better without some significant renovations to the house.

But the family has decided we want to be number one. I suppose it’s not a bad goal. We do have a tendency to leave lights on in rooms we’re not using, or use too much light in a room at times. But there are times it gets annoying.

What is particularly clever (and frustrating) about this little competition our power company is fomenting is that we have no idea who those supposedly doing better than us are, and by how much. Is it even possible to become number one without going to bed as soon as the sun goes down and never using our oven? Or is that one less light in the kids’ room really going to make all the difference? Is number one that single guy living in the small house on the corner who seems to almost never actually live there? Could we ever hope to compete with him?

My wife doesn’t appreciate my jokes about sneaking around at night plugging space-heaters into our neighbors’ outdoor outlets. Surely she doesn’t think I’m serious. I mean, without more information we’d have less than a 1 in 4 chance of sabotaging the right people.

Perhaps the best course of action is sneaking around at night checking meters…

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Thom on November 18th, 2014

Purdue University has teamed up with Imperial College London to create an impact simulator to calculate what would happen if an asteroid or a comet were to crash into the earth. Enter your various parameters and see what you would experience at a distance from the impact of your choosing.

Here’s the flashy version

There’s also a text-based version if your computer doesn’t like the other (mine only ran it once, then refused to again).

My only regret is that it speaks very little about the long-term effects of such an impact. But they can’t do everything.

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Thom on November 17th, 2014

Supposedly Feminism is all about equality. At least that’s what they keep telling me, even though that’s not always what I see. So as an MBA, let me give you feminists the benefit of my Marketing 501 class: consider your message. Focus in on what you’re all about, and stick to it. Don’t go off-message. Don’t get distracted.

Feminists, you’re getting off-message, and it’s hurting your cause.

Consider this from The Anchoress:

6) These umbrage-taking, offense-seeking people mewling about the travesty of shirts bearing sexy-women-with-guns tend to be the same sorts of people who believe that when Kim Kardashian props herself up as a plasticine-nude cocktail shelf, she has offered conclusive and empowering proof that mothers can be sexy, or something. For the sake of the world.

7) Somewhere between demands that men “speak no catcalls” and “wear no inappropriately geeky shirts” and assertions that a woman’s full-frontal/champagne glass nudity is seriously empowering, there is cognitive dissonance. A disconnect.

Read the whole thing.

I’ve expressed a similar sentiment before, as well. If you want people to follow the rules you have to make the rules clear and consistent. And if you really are interested in equality, you have to make the rules equal for everyone. And you have to make allowances for people like me who are clearly just too stupid to understand the different between “slut-shaming” and “slut-shirt-shaming”. If you can’t explain the difference perhaps it’s you who has the problem?

The saddest part about this outrage over a scientist’s shirt is that the tweet that supposedly launched it all implied that the shirt was the reason there are no women in science. Yet in the few images and videos I’ve seen of the project team (and including the televised apology by the scientist in question) there were women. If you look at the project team roster you will find several women. Are they equally represented? No. But take just one moment to actually think about this in terms of marketing. If you’re looking to increase the number of women in science, what would have been the better message  in response to the success of the Rosetta mission:

  1. One of the lead scientists wore a sexist shirt made for him by a female friend!
  2. Look at this amazing accomplishment! Look at the contributions of many women as part of this team!

If equality is your goal, is persecuting a single man who likely never even met most of the team face to face going to advance that? Even if you’re right and the guy really is a pig, is calling him out online going to encourage today’s girls to want to be scientists? You’re calling major attention to the fact that there may be unpleasant people you have to work with if you go into science. Newsflash, ladies: There are unpleasant people in every line of work. And you know what? Often they are women, and from my own experience, one of them wearing a shirt covered with images of Chippendale Dancers would have been the least offensive thing about them.

The message you all sent with your outrage about Matt Taylor’s shirt, whether it was your intention or not, was this: you may encounter things that make you uncomfortable in the sciences, and you are too frail to deal with it. Let us see if we can run all those people out first, then we’ll give you the high-sign when it’s safe.

Contrast that to the latter message: Hey look! Women in science doing important things! Be part of a team that can land a robot on a comet from millions of miles away! Girls, consider a career in science!

Too bad you totally bombed that opportunity. You took what could have been a real positive, affirming message and instead advanced the message that feminists are an intolerant, unforgiving bunch of bullies who will hunt you down and make you pay for the slightest offense, no matter how unconscious or well-intentioned (Dr. Taylor’s female tattoo-artist friend is probably feeling completely miserable now, but do you care about her?). You made a man apologize and cry on international television. Congratulations. Slap another kill sticker on the fuselage and carry on, while denying that this is a war on men.

It’s all about the message, feminists. And you’re blowing it. You can’t expect men to play by your rules when your rules don’t make any sense: Thou shalt cheer for a naked Kim Kardasian balancing champagne glasses on her scientifically-enhanced posterior, and spread her image across the Internet, but never-ever-ever consider wearing a shirt showing women wearing slightly more clothing. But should a woman choose to wear a similar outfit of her own accord, thou shalt never criticize her!

Huh? Message, message, message! You’re sending the wrong one, except when you’re sending completely confusing and contradictory ones.

If Feminism, as a movement, wants to be taken seriously you need to work on your message. Right now you’re looking increasingly like the embodiment of a “De-motivational” poster I saw once: “COMMITTEES: Because no one of us is as stupid as all of us working together.”

I, too, would love a world where my daughter, should she choose to do so, will encounter no real barriers to her going as far in science as she is willing to work for. It would be nice if she never encounters people wearing clothing that makes her uncomfortable. But she’s in middle school, and that ship has already sailed. She’s not failing middle school. She’s not coming to me whining about how hostile an environment it is because of guys’ “Grand Theft Auto” t-shirts. When she complains it’s about the other girls and their skin-tight everythings, and how they put her down for not wearing similar clothing.

Considering how geeky my daughter is, if she were to go into science she’d feel right at home among all those geeky men, regardless of what they choose to wear. They’d talk Dr. Who, Lord of the Rings, and Avatar: The Last Airbender for hours while cranking out amazing work. And she would never have to worry about not being “cool” for not wearing jeggings, yoga pants, or skinny jeans.

But she is just not into math and science, unfortunately. It has nothing to do with the scientists’ shirts. It has to do with science and math, and the fact that she’s a very visual person who would rather spend her time cranking out fairly impressive artwork or planning elaborate settings for her writing. I encourage her to pay more attention to science and math, if for no other reason than to help her writing, but her interest is superficial, seldom moving beyond the conceptual. And I’m not going to force her, no matter how much more she could make starting as a computer programmer than a graphic designer.

Feminists, if you really care about the world you’re making for my daughter, please consider getting your message back on track. Matt Taylor’s shirt is not the enemy. If anything,  your obsession with people’s clothing is.

 

Thom on November 14th, 2014

I’m working on the pre-writing for my next novel. I don’t know what that means for other writers, but for me that means I’m trying to anticipate what I will need as background for my story. Though I hear all the time different authors throwing out different figures (ie. you need to have written at least 10 times the world-building as you plan to write of your novel), I suspect it’s yet another one of those things where each writer has to find what works for them. I have no doubt that Brandon Sanderson has at least as much background written for his “Stormlight Archive” series as at least one of his novels, but if he had to write ten times that I doubt he’d have been able to start the novels yet.

I suppose, though, a lot depends on just what type of experience you’re hoping to give your reader. Sanderson is going for an epic, immersive experience. Michael J. Sullivan is going for an interesting story with a solid plot and good characters. His Riyria books may have accumulated a considerable amount of background info, but I’ll bet he didn’t start with that much initially, because his books use a lot of standard fantasy trope shorthand for setting.

As for me? I’m still trying to find that balance. I don’t want to get “lost at sea” and forget to actually write the book. The novel I’m currently planning is set in the same world as the last one, though in a rather different part of the world, so while a certain amount has already been done, there’s a lot that hasn’t. I have a general idea of the plot, and the plot is such that I don’t foresee needing a lot of background on, say, what’s going on in a part of the same empire 1000 miles away. This is not an epic novel. It’s an adventure story. I mainly just need to know the area in which I expect it to take place.

For me backstory is hard. I have to make myself work at it, otherwise I go with the first idea that comes into my head. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not necessarily good, either. It’s too easy to tie things up in a nice little bow rather than leave myself “hooks” that could lead me to develop other ideas. I tend to get lazy, and come up with something that explains it, but it’s way too simple. My setting can lack complexity, and as a general rule, complexity breeds conflict, which is what stories need to thrive.

I also have a hard time locating the holes. Anyone can take a look at a picture and figure out what’s wrong with it. It’s much, much harder to take a blank canvas and decide what’s missing. Do I really need to know how rich people’s children gain an education? Perhaps not. But perhaps that little detail could be important. It could be the spark that leads to a myriad of other ideas that lend my whole setting a weight that might not have been there before. But then, that could just be overkill that keeps me from actually getting to the story.

I suspect it may require something of an iterative process. I’d been avoiding creating my characters until I have the bulk of my world-building done, but I’ve been noticing that I’m running out of ideas as to what more elements of setting I need to fill in. Then yesterday I left my power adapter at home, so I couldn’t continue my world-building during my usual lunchtime writing time. So instead I sat down and wrote out what I know of my main character at this point, and what I know of the plot. Then, looking at those pieces of the puzzle, I brainstormed on what that suggested for other characters I might need. Within a few minutes I had four other characters. Then I started looking at each of them in turn. I quickly realized two of them were the same person.

The next realization was that several of these people likely wouldn’t like each other, or would at least have strong reason to distrust each other at first. That’s big for me, because building conflict into my stories is not easy for me. In spite of my main plot, I prefer everyone get along. It’s a bad habit I’ve got to break. So it’s encouraging that I’m starting to alter my thinking in that area.

The next and best realization was that I’m excited to write about these people. I still don’t have a real grasp on the plot line yet, but just the sub-plots already arising from my choices of characters are already grabbing my attention. I’m getting eager to start.

Since character is one place I feel I’m weak, this is especially encouraging. I’ve made a conscious goal for this next novel to focus more on characterization, so it’s encouraging that I’m giving myself more to work with this time around.

So the next step is to take a closer look at my characters and the various plots surrouding them, and do another pass at world-building. What do I now need to flesh out in order to explain who these people are and why they are the way they are? Where can I add points of conflict to their backstories? Where can I develop more interesting aspects to the setting to explain things? I’ll know if I’m getting it right if I find myself getting increasingly excited rather than increasingly bored with world-building. At least that’s the hope.

Where I may have initially erred in the last novel was in planning the novel in too great detail. This time I’m hoping to emphasize building up everything around the story so that (hopefully) the story becomes easier to tell once I get started on it. I don’t know wherethat balance point is. I’m still learning, still experimenting.

But I’m also having fun.