Monday, July 30, 2007

The Decline in Literacy

The country just keeps on going to the dogs, but fortunately it never seems to quite get there.

Perhaps the ancient Romans grumbled about the declining standards in literacy among the young. And the Greeks, as well. And everyone before them, back to the dawn of writing. Of course, the further back you go, the smaller the part of the population the question would apply to, but I bet people grumbled about the declining standards of literacy within that social group.

Ah, but it's worse now! Young people today, they don't know how to write a proper sentence. And they spell funetickly. And their music - ! Oops, sorry, that's a different post.

I don't say such things myself, despite being very much, er, not-young, and I find myself snapping at other not-youngsters who do say such things. The kids are al(l )right, I tell them. Why, I say, I remember that when I was a lad, most of my acquaintances couldn't write worth a damn. I'm not convinced that the percentage of serious, intelligent young people who can speak and write well is any smaller now than it was then. Let's face it: Most people, in every generation, don't give a damn about proper English usage, and most of them have always thought that the minority of us who do care are creepy weirdos.

But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that literacy really is declining and that communication in our society is suddenly and rapidly becoming based on video and sound and funetickly spelled, icon-filled text messaging, :). All that really means is that we're returning to our natural social and intellectual roots.

Reading and writing are fairly recent innovations in human history, and their widespread use is much more recent. Surely there were always people who enjoyed them for their own sake, but their adoption was due mostly to necessity - a way of compiling, communicating, and storing lists and laws and contracts and royal orders. Verbal communication and storage by means of memorization became impractical once societies grew past a certain size, geographic extent, and degree of social organization. But now, thanks to technology, those old ways are once again practical even in a highly complex society spread across the surface of the world.

Marshall McLuhan talked about the global village and the ways in which the medium changed the nature of the message. We've pretty much reached the global village part. I'm not convinced that the medium is the message. Rather, I think that the old message has reemerged, not so much changed by the nature of the (new) media but enriched by it. We're moving back to being a village in which people communicate not with the writing and reading most of them always secretly, or not so secretly, hated, but instead with sight and sound, spoken words and playacting. It's enriched, for example, because instead of drawing a scene on a cave wall to show others, you can take a picture of it with your cell phone camera and send it to your zillion online friends electronically.

I do hope that great numbers of us creepy weirdos who love writing and reading hang around, though. And even though the kids are al(l )right, their music still sucks.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Clack Clack Clack Clack Clack Ding Zzzzzziiiip!

They were lovely sounds.

Yesterday, I was sitting at my computer, working from home, and a stray smell passed by. The window was open because it was delightfully cool and rainy outside - nice change from the baking desert Denver has been for most of the summer - and this smell drifted in. It only lasted a second, and I don't know what it really was, but for just an instant, it smelled like the unique combination of oil, metal, rubber, and paper of a manual typewriter.

Ah, sweet memories! I wrote my first few novels, and vast numbers of short stories on a portable typewriter that I bought in high school. I still have it, er, somewhere. The smell triggered wonderful tactile memories of striking the keys and feeling the letters being impressed onto the paper.

And of course of unsticking the keys, and trying to correct typos, and pages getting messed up and having to be retyped, and paper cuts, and changing ribbons, and that loose t that I had to keep pressing back into position so that that one letter wouldn't stick up above the rest of the line. Sure, it was an awful way to write, and I was daydreaming about some kind of computer setup long before those became practical. I'd never go back to using a typewriter. The idea is absurd.

Still, on some level, that's still real writing to me. I kind of miss the beautiful machining and engineering, the clacking of the keys, the ding of the bell, the feel of the carriage return lever, the zzzziiipclunk of the carriage being returned. Even the electrical typewriter I graduated to from that manual portable didn't have the character and tactile and sound pleasure of the manual.

Couldn't blog with it, though.

David's Definitions for September 2007


To be reticent is to be reluctant to speak. It comes from the Latin word for being silent. It can refer to someone who is taciturn - that is, simply doesn't talk much. Or it can refer to someone who is reluctant to speak about something specific. For example, a politician who is being cagey about his plans to run for President might be reticent on that one subject but loquacious (very, very talkative) on all others. Many people misuse reticent when they mean reluctant. They might say, "He was reticent to act." That should be, "He was reluctant to act." Reticent can only refer to speech, not to action.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Karen's Great Adventure

Check out this blog.

Until a few weeks ago, Karen was a fellow tech writer at Quark. She quit to go map trails in Alaska for a year. She created the blog so that people who know her could follow her adventures. The latest post has a link to a photo album she put up. There are some good shots of dry but dramatic scenery in Colorado and other Western parts, and then it ends with nice pictures from Victoria and Vancouver, BC. Sigh. I wanna go back.

Lahdeedah, I hope this doesn't make you too homesick for The Most Beautiful Part of the World.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Yeah, but What Have You Done for Us Lately?

When I sold my first novel, to Pocket Books in 1975 (I think), I was sure that my writing career had begun a smooth upward trajectory that would take it all the way to the Moon, baby! and would very soon take me out of the workforce. I don't remember if I said as much to any of the older and more experienced writers I met as a result of that book sale, but if I did, they would have been justified in snickering behind my back.

It's all in the numbers - the sales numbers. That's no surprise to anyone, but it's still painful when you learn that your numbers aren't good enough and your current publisher isn't interested in seeing new proposals from you. What has surprised me is how often this happens to writers I thought had solid, flourishing careers but who now can't sell their new books, or who are selling books but sense that they're on a downward trajectory. Understandably, people prefer not to talk about this when it's happening to them. When they do, the conversations are carried on in private places, online or not. In some cases, I've learned about the dormant state of someone's writing career from a third party. In every case, it's been a shock.

In a way, it's even more shocking when I see this happen to someone who came up the ranks after me than to someone who was already there when I first got published. With the older writers, I just assumed that they had grown tired of writing, or age had interfered.

But there was a long period when the realization was sinking in that my career had stalled. "That's all the power there is, Captain! Mah puir wee bairn engine's canna deliver any more!" "Our orbit is starting to decay, Captain. We will impact the planet's surface in approximately 5.287111965493 hours." Meanwhile, I was watching the rockets of Hot! New! writers taking off and heading for the Moon, baby! They were the buzz. They were brilliant. They were changing everything. I was filled with envy and poisonous resentment that I didn't want to feel but couldn't purge myself of.

And now, some years later, I'm hearing sad laments from some of those very writers. Few of them are still well known - or even being published.

What a depressing post this is! The point I want to make, to the extent that there is one, is that if you sometimes wonder what happened to X, a writer you really liked a few years ago, and why hasn't X written anything lately, don't assume that he hasn't. Don't assume that X got bored with writing. Assume that publishing got bored with X. Assume that he's still writing, but to the publishing biz, he has become a non-person. He's yesterday's Hot! New! writer, and now he's cold and old. It's even possible that, in despair, X has given up writing entirely. Now, that's depressing!

Oh, there was another, related point. Back when I used to whine to friends about the state of my writing career (I learned not to, finally), some of them would protest that I had proved myself. I had so many published novels I could point to. I was a proven professional. Yes, but what I had proved was that my books didn't sell lots and lots of copies. Oopsie. On the bright side, if you're a newcomer, you haven't yet published books that didn't sell lots and lots of copies. Therefore, in the eyes of the publishing biz, you still have the possibility of becoming one of the Hot! New! buzzthings. They're actually more likely to take a chance on you than on someone they know is cold and old.

So write on. You'll have two or three books to prove yourself. And you might well be one of the ones who makes it to the Moon, baby!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Dumped the House. Sob.

Not Daniel's house. A fictional house, in Time and the Soldier.

This house has been there since the earliest outline for the novel, as I remember. It was a nifty and niftily mysterious house. I really liked it.

But it just didn't fit into the plot. In fact, keeping it would have required all sorts of extraneous stuff added to the story, for no other purpose than to justify keeping the house. So tonight I gritted my teeth and girded my loins and bit the bullet and wrote the house out of existence. Oh, the iron demands of aaahhht! Sob!

On the bright side, some stuff gets blowed up real good.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Absurdly Complex World

Is all this shit really necessary? I mean, really, really necessary? Or is it the case that our laws are created by lawyers as a way to keep the lawyering business humming? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Because Daniel is still in Minneapolis and his house closing was scheduled for last Friday, he signed a power-of-attorney form, and I did the closing stuff in his place.

I've only been through one house closing before. That was in 1971, for the house we still live in. Back then, Leonore and I were somewhat befuddled twenty-somethings, new to Denver and a bit frightened by what a big commitment we were making, and we thought we were just going to a title company office to, as the realtor had said, sign some papers. Holy cow! By the end of that loooong day, we were two stunned, bewildered, terrified, disoriented, broken-down sixty-somethings! No, wait, that's now. But we felt pretty stunned, bewildered, etc., then.

Closings have not improved in the last 36 years. Oh, of course there has to be paperwork. What's being bought and sold has to be properly described, and recorded for the state for tax purposes, and the details of the transaction have to be specified, and so on. And the same for the mortgage. But, being blessed with not being a lawyer, I cannot see why all of this requires so God-damned many pages and signatures and versions of the same thing. It's effing ridiculous.

It's nothing new, of course. I was reading a history of the Persian empire recently (cool stuff!), and it's remarkable how much of our knowledge of those ancient times comes from detailed contracts and lists recorded in clay tablets. Christ, I shouldn't complain. Those ancient guys had to do it all in cuneiform! Anyway, so if all of this survives, it will be of immense value to future historians from some alien civilization visiting the ruins of this one and trying to piece together how we lived. "Great Ungi, look a this, Grzlb! This is just as bad as the stuff back home!" "Yeah. You know, disgusting as these creatures were, it's hard not to feel sorry for them." "Oh, I wouldn't go that far."

Nonetheless, it sucks with teeth and it should all be done away with. We're not ancient Persians, and we're not record keepers for hypothetical future alien historians. A half-dozen succinctly worded sheets of paper should be sufficient. The current situation isn't proof of how advanced and complex our society is; it's evidence of how primitive and clumsy we are.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Nastiness of Bad Memories

I disapprove of deliberately misleading titles, but the title of this post is deliberately misleading. I couldn't help myself.

I'm not talking about the kinds of memories that bedevil us and interfere with sleep. We all have those, surely. Rather, I'm talking about not being able to remember things - a memory that doesn't function properly, in other words.

My memory has always been awful. If anything, it's not quite as bad now as it was when I was a kid. I think I've developed coping mechanisms, as they say, such as being sure to write things down and using a calendar program on my PC. When I was a kid in school, my inability to remember, coupled with poor hearing and poor vision, sometimes got me classified as either stupid or naughty, depending on the teacher. I can understand why it must have looked that way.

If this problem is hereditary, it must have come from my mother. My father has always had a remarkable memory. He's now approaching 100 and complains about how bad his memory is nowadays, and it's still better than mine. Gads, what will happen to me if my memory does start deteriorating because of age, as it normally does with everyone? Maybe it's not hereditary. Maybe it's yet another aftereffect of my mother having to get up in the middle of the night while heavily pregnant with me and trundle down a few flights of stairs to the basement, dragging two sleepy daughters with her, because of the German bombers coming overhead. It's the fault of the Germans, you see. They started it. They invaded Poland. (Fawlty Towers joke.)

My inability to remember is an oddly intermittent, patchy thing. I can remember books and movies from decades ago, which causes Leonore to insist that I have an extremely good memory. Somehow, my brain handles that kind of information differently from practical info, such as where I'm supposed to be on a certain day and at what time. Or what I did last weekend. Maybe that's not uncommon, though. Years ago, in an online discussion, the writer Damon Knight talked at length about which stories by which authors had appeared in which issues of a particular science-fiction magazine around the time of WWII. This was all from memory. I expressed amazement that he could remember that. He responded that it was because it was important. I guess I need to train my brain to regard future appointments as being as important as old books and movies. That might be impossible.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

They Aren't Making Fairies the Way They Used To

Wasn't there a day when fairies granted wishes and so on? And of course genies and all sort of other supernatural critters. Where are they now?

I'm about to start ironing shirts. There's a big stack of short-sleeved waiting for me, and underneath that is a bunch of long-sleeved shirts that have been sitting there since the cold weather ended. We have a perfectly good ironing board and iron, all set up, and I was sure that if I waited long enough, the Ironing Fairy would do his?her?its? job. But, no. The stack just sat their, wrinkling, and finally I'm going to have to give in and do the hot and unpleasant work myself.

Same applies to the Dirty Dish Fairy. If we stack the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink and ignore them, the next morning, they're still there! That's another fairy falling down on the job.

I'm disgusted.

Don't even get me started on the Beer Supply Fairy. Lazy bastard.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Vanishing C

Or Low C. Or No C. See? There's nothing to C! And so on.

I've changed the working title of the it's-only-some-notes-so-far possible next novel, and so the working codename for it changes from BBC to BB.

Which is scarcely worth a post, except that it made me think about internal company codenames for upcoming software releases and how they sometimes change, which is really idiotic.

As I understand/remember, codenames came into use to foil industrial sabotage in big companies (and just where are those beautiful Chinese industrial spies, I ask you?) and to simplify referring to the next release in small companies. You can't use the number, as you might think, because nowadays the marketeers will dictate some illogical number based on their perception of the market's perception. E.g., what should logically be Version 3.2 will instead be released as Version 4.0, or vice versa. Or, even worse, what should be 3.0 will be released as 3.3, just to fool all those apparently really dense customers. But if internally everyone refers to it as Umslopogaas (anyone get that reference?) (without using Google!), then the marketeers can do their silly stuff without messing up all the internal documents, which always use Umslopogaas. The code names were meant for internal consumption only and never revealed outside the company. (But if any beautiful Chinese spies want to try to wheedle such information out of me, I encourage them to try. Nothing will force me to give away secret company information. No matter how hard they try. Or how long. Or what amazing beautiful-spy techniques they resort to. Why, I'm shocked and horrified and repulsed just thinking about it.)

Later, software giants like Microsoft and Apple started using those codenames very publicly as a way to build the buzz and excitement for their boring releases. Wronghorn will change the world! Jackoffyouare will change the paradigm itself! Wow. Whole new ways to rename or delete files. New looks for old icons. Yawn.

But ignoring Gates and Jobs, real software companies have no good reason to change the codename. Doing so would contradict the reason for using codenames. And yet I've been in smallish companies where exactly that happened. Just when you've got it straight in your head which set of features is associated with Umslopogaas and when it's likely to be released, suddenly you get an e-mail that henceforth that version will be known as Des Moines, while the name Umslopogaas will be reserved for future use. Or not.

Utterly absurd.

Well, I suppose it helps confuse those beautiful Chinese spies. (I can help! Call me!)

Monday, July 02, 2007

Seduction of the New

A while ago, I nattered about living in the next book. I was trying to emulate my hero, Anthony Trollope, Tony the T, The T Man, The Teester! (Okay, I'll stop.) I was thinking of a couple of possible next books, actually, not one; both of them have been hanging around on my hard drive for a number of years, in partial form.

Today, somewhat out of the blue, a new book blossomed into ... well, not existence. Potential existence. Serious ideahood. Virtual bookhood. (The B Thing! The Bookster!) It would be mainstream, light but not frothy or shallow. Interesting characters, with a central story line that I've actually been thinking about for a long time but didn't know if I'd ever have a way to write. And it should be possible to do it with a lot of humor, even though the basic subject is quite serious. I love writing humor and do it only rarely in fiction. My last novel, Business Secrets from the Stars, was all humor, as many yucks per page as I could cram in. One reviewer complained that there were too many yucks. Hmph. I had a ball writing it, though. Interestingly, that book begins with its protagonist, Malcolm Erskine, getting an idea for a book and being sort of possessed by it. I'm not possessed with this one, but I am entranced by it.

The seduction part is that I'm eager to get to the new novel (which I'll refer to by an in-house code, just as software companies do for forthcoming releases: BBC) and I'm suddenly feeling impatient to be done with Time and the Soldier so that I can jump into BBC. Gotta fight the temptation to switch in midstream. The end of TimeSold is ... well, sort of almost visible. Must be self-disciplined!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Earthrise - Apollo 8

See here for the famous photo and some commentary about it.

At the time, I was a 25-year-old kid working as an aerospace engineer at NASA/Houston - the Manned Spacecraft Center, later renamed the Johnson Space Center. The rumor was that the Roooooshians were planning some kind of lunar mission to steal our thunder, so we had to get there fustest with the mostest. So a special mission was crafted from existing hardware and lunar-landing plans. It would only be a pass around the moon, but it would establish the primacy of the U.S.A. over the dastardly U.S.S.R. USA! Number One! Number One! But it wasn't supposed to look quite that smug. The mission, to be called Apollo 8, was announced suddenly, because of them Roooooshians, and I remember spending days doing computer runs analyzing navigation. 24-hour days. Literally. We all stumbled around like zombies looking at printouts of numbers that had ceased to have any meaning. That's paper, right? With numbers? Can I go home now? No!

I had a deep sense of foreboding. This isn't going to work. They're not going to be picked up by the Navy when they splash down.

As history shows, the mission worked very well. The astronauts read Biblical verses from space, reminding everyone that it was Christmas and we had triumphed over Godless atheistic Communism, which drove me, an atheist, crazy with anger and a sense of betrayal. This shit was not what I had worked for! This was not what I dreamed about as a space-crazy kid! LBJ said something; I can't remember what. The Rooooshians sulked, and it turned out they hadn't had a mission ready after all.

Later, this wonderful picture showed up, and none of the above mattered. What mattered to me was that the space-crazy kid had played a part in getting Man to the Moon.

Later still, NASA printed up a gazillion fancy prints of this picture to give out to members of Congress and others, only to realize too late that they had all been printed in reverse, in mirror image. Oops! Your tax dollars at work! So they handed out the reverse prints to us, the engineers, the guys who had made it all possible. Give it to those guys. They'll accept anything!

Despite the mirror-imageness, Leonore and I loved it. We had it professionally framed, and now it hangs over the couch in the living room of our house in Denver. I still stare at it in amazement and delight. No matter what else happens in my life, I'll always be able to say that I was part of that great anonymous army: I helped send Man to the Moon.

(I also worked on Apollo 12 and Apollo 15. Apollo 13 is the fault of other people entirely.)

Meaningless postscript: One day at NASA, I passed Wernher von Braun. He was visiting from his home base in Huntsville, Alabama. Houston was hostile territory because of the bureaucratic battles between his base and MSC. He was a tall, smug, fleshy-faced fellow surrounded by a clique of pandering pukeheads. His autobiography was title I Aimed for the Stars. The comedian Mort Sahl said that it should have been subtitled "but Sometimes I Hit London." When he was shooting off his V2s, I was a baby in England at the receiving end. I wish that when I passed him I had jumped up and down and sung, "You missed me! You missed me!" But I probably would have been fired.