Sunday, December 28, 2008

Time to sneer at Obama's fitness obsession

If Drudge and the other right wing sites aren't already doing so, I'm sure they soon will be - either sneering dismissively or else condemning Obama for spending time in the gym that he should be spending managing the many (inherited) world crises. They probably won't wait till January 20th to start.

Those would be the same slimeballs who swooned over Little Georgie's fake jockiness.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Wordy guy, I'm

Although far from wordy enough. Chains is over 11,000 words now, growing reasonably steadily albeit insufficiently quickly.

This is the first book I've tried writing without some kind of outline in a long time. Flying blind! Instruments only! Zero visibility! Strange vibrations coming from somewhere! Tower, talk me down! Oh, wait, I'm also the tower. Uh oh.

I do know where I'm going, in a general way, and I have nebulous ideas about the signposts along the way. (I'm not going to even try to make that fit with the flying-on-instruments metaphor.)

Right now, the characters are moving along the plot curve, such as it is, mostly by means of lots of extended dialog, banter, and occasional deep thoughts. Which is a kind way of saying that nothing much has actually happened. At this rate, I'll end up with a first draft of some immense length -- 200,000 words? more? -- which will require serious reworking to change it to lotsa stuff happening and serious cutting to make it a salable length.

I'm enjoying the current writing process, and I think I'll enjoy the rewriting process even more. Oddly, I'm enjoying myself more with this book than I have in quite a while. I guess I'd forgotten how exhilarating instrument flying can be.

Wait! What's that looming up out of the mist? Yaaaaaaaaahhhhh!

Classic FM

When I'm at home and in my study (telling myself to write, damn it), I listen via streaming to Classic FM, a classical music station in Johannesburg. (Unoriginal name for a classical FM station, I know.)

I like the type of music they play. It's mostly Romantic, but with some more modern stuff thrown in, including some contemporary concert music from China and occasional interesting new concert music from South Africa that combines European and local musical themes. Nifty stuff. Oh, and very little of the Mozartolatory that infects American classical stations, including the one in Denver. I also like the traffic reports because I lived for some years in that area and I like hearing the local place names again, and especially I like hearing the names pronounced properly.

Recently, I discovered another benefit of listening to that station. The time difference (7 or 8 hours) means that Christmas is over that much sooner, in the virtual, radio-listening sense. The Joburg station doesn't seem to play as much Christmas music as American ones do to begin with, and when it does, the music tends to be listenable rather than tidal waves of treacle. And it's all over with when it's still Christmas morning here.

Hallelujah, one might even say.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Blister Diaries

I started this blog as a way of making myself produce words on Time and the Soldier, the novel I was working on at the time. It worked, or at least I did write the novel.

Since then, this has turned into a place where I can share my wisdom with the world and solve all the world's problems. The world hasn't listened, so I'll just have to continue, except maybe now I'LL SHOUT!

Be that as it may, I do want to keep the pressure on myself to write. I've been doing moderately well on my current work in progress, Chains. The link "WIPing along" on the right goes to a graph showing progress in total words. So far, the slope of the line isn't too bad.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Apollo 8

This is the 40th anniversary of the the Apollo 8 mission. I worked on that mission and we have a large, framed copy of the Earthrise photo on the wall of our living room - mirror image, but that's another story.

In addition to the thrilling and historic nature of the flight, I remember a succession of 24-hour days as we raced to do all the preparatory work for a trajectory that had been mandated in the White House because it was feared the Russians were about to launch a moon mission of their own.

I also remember the feeling of betrayal when the astronauts read from the Bible as they orbited the moon. Christmas and the Bible -- a soaring achievement of human beings and their technology had been perverted and corrupted into a glorification of superstition and darkness. Typing this has made me remember just how strongly I felt that way at the time.

Still, I can stare at that big, framed picture and be thrilled again, even if it is mirror image. (Wait a minute! That's like a metaphor, or something!)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

London, England and Paris, France

That's a strange verbal tic that's always bothered me. Why do people bother adding the name of the country when they're referring to such famous cities? Who would assume they were referring to Paris, Texas or London, Connecticut? Certain cities need no qualification - London, Paris, Rome, New York, Moscow, Berlin, etc.

For that matter, why do some people refer to Jewish rabbis instead of just rabbis?

And while we're at it ... I can't think of another similar grumble. This post seems to need a third one, though.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Let's put Bill O'Reilly up in lights on public buildings for Christmas

Let's start a movement to put images of O'Reilly, in red and green lights, on the walls of public buildings. Beneath the images, the lights should spell out THE SAVIOR OF CHRISTMAS.

The reactions would be fun.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Unimportance of Being Bilingual

You've probably heard this tired and tiresome joke: "What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Two languages? Bilingual. One language? American." It seems to be a popular joke among Americans who speak more than one language, and the joke and its telling reek of moral superiority and superciliousness. Those who tell that joke see knowing more than one language as inherently admirable or denoting a higher level of civilization and sophistication.

Do these smug multilinguals, these language geeks, ascribe the same superiority to those who know two or three computer programming languages instead of just one? Or multiple computer operating systems instead of just one? Of course not. They see those as tools and understand that some people may need to be familiar with many of them, while others may only need to know one - or none.

Many language geeks don't seem to understand that what is to them a source of intellectual pleasure and satisfaction, languages and learning and using them, is to most other people a tool. Some people need familiarity with more than one of those tools. Many do not. In America, most do not.

Considering it only from the point of view of pragmatism, who needs to know languages other than their own? People who live near the border of another country or, which is much the same thing, people who live in small countries. People who deal regularly, socially or professionally, with native speakers of another language, orally or in writing. People who travel frequently to other countries. English is the native language of 82% of Americans, and for the majority of those Americans, none of those special situations applies.

Certainly, for many of those native English speakers, it would be convenient to be able to speak a second language reasonably well. But for most people who weren't exposed to other languages before puberty, learning a second language is no trivial matter. For some, it's virtually impossible. They're not lazy. They're not morally inferior. They simply can't do it. For others, it's doable, but the effort and time required are enormous and far out of proportion to the benefits gained.

Nor is the task pleasurable for many people. For them, learning a second language is unrelenting drudgery and an almost pointless grind. (By the way, this points up the absurdity of requiring passing grades in a second language for college graduation.) I've studied a few languages in my life (Hebrew, Afrikaans, Latin, Russian, German, Spanish, and French) and reached varying levels of reading or speaking proficiency in them. I've long forgotten most of what I learned, but I remember that, while I enjoyed the proficiency I achieved, the process of acquiring it was never enjoyable. If foreign-language fluency were available in pill form, I'd happily swallow those pills, but I have no intention of studying a foreign language again. For me, foreign-language study was always dreary and dreaded.

My wife is the opposite. She's quadrilingual (English, German, Spanish, French), works as a language tutor and translator, and reads foreign grammar books for relaxation. She has a network of friends who are of the same bent. Her abilities amaze me and her choice of reading bewilders me. She feels the same about my technical orientation. My mathematical and scientific knowledge and my computer abilities are modest by my standards but seem magical to her. It's all a matter of how one's brain tends to bend.

I've heard the argument that you should learn foreign languages in order to be able to read the great literature of other countries in the original versions. That's nonsense. How many people can become fluent enough, at a high enough level, in even one foreign language to be able to read the greatest works of literature in that language? Consider, too, how languages change over time, so you'd have to achieve a very impressive level of fluency to be able to read the great works written in a foreign language in different eras. And that's just one foreign language. For all but the tiny minority of people who have extraordinary language-learning abilities and extraordinary amounts of time to spend at it, it makes far more sense to read great works of literature in the best available English translations.

Let's briefly address a peripheral issue. Language geeks who sneer at monolingual Americans also like to compare them unfavorably to citizens of other countries - usually (Continental) Europeans - who are said to generally speak one or more languages in addition to their native one. That's often true, for the pragmatic reasons I mentioned above, but it's also often true that they don't speak those other languages well. When Americans do study other languages seriously, they tend to work extremely hard at the grammar and spelling - and also at the pronunciation. Europeans tend to be cavalier about English, and especially about pronunciation. This can even apply to immigrants who've lived in the U.S. for decades.

If you enjoy learning other languages, then good for you. Knock yourself out. Learn as many of them as you want to and have time for. Just remember that a second language is a tool, and the monolingual majority around you has no need of it or interest in it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

I really would like some off the top

I wonder if other bald/balding men have this problem.

I first became aware of it when I started going bald - thinning on top, standard male-pattern baldness - and I had trouble getting the barber to cut the thinning hair up there. He'd do what I asked on the sides and back, where the hair was as thick as ever, but I had to insist before he'd cut the top, as well. Finally I realized that he was convinced I wanted to comb the remaining hair creatively so as to hide the bald spot, presumably because that's what he'd do.

Nowadays, I have only a few wispy strands on the top, and I go to Great Cuts instead of an old-style barbershop. (Cheaper, and no TV sets blaring sports, yahoo!) All the barbers are barberettes or hairdressers - i.e., female. Some of them still won't cut the wispy strands, and I have to repeat the request after they're otherwise finished, when they hold up the mirror and ask if the haircut is okay. Yes, except for those long, wispy hairs on the top. Cut 'em.

If I did care about trying to hide the baldness, letting those wispy strands get extra long wouldn't be my choice of a way to do it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Based out of

I think this is a relatively new usage. At least, I don't remember hearing it until just a few years ago.

For example, someone might say that the New York Times is a newspaper based out of New York. Really? So where is it actually based? Indianapolis? No, it's not based out of New York, it's based in New York.

I suppose the idea is that it operates all over and isn't limited to New York. But based in doesn't imply anything of the sort. We might as well stop saying that the capital of the United States is Washington, DC and instead say that the U.S. government is based out of Washington.

And now I must leave the house out of which I'm based and go driving all over the damned place to do the Saturday shopping.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Not in the neck! Aiiieee!

For quite some time now, in movies and TV shows, when a character is being given a drug against his will, the bad guys hold him down and jab a THREE-INCH-LONG NEEDLE INTO HIS NECK!

I don't know when this started. Perhaps it was about the same time when onscreen bad guys started holding their pistols sideways. I do know that, although I've had a lot of stuff injected into me over the years, it's always been done into a largish muscle. I've never had anyone jab a SIX-INCH-LONG NEEDLE INTO MY NECK!

Is this ever done in real life by real medical personnel? Is there a good reason for it? It seems awfully dangerous to me.

When it happens onscreen, though, we see the character suffer the effects of the injected drug, but we never see him suffer any mechanical damage from having someone jab a FOOT-LONG NEEDLE INTO HIS NECK!

It gives me the creeps.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Do you really deserve your computer?

My PC was making odd noises that I convinced myself were due to some system settings. I played around with those settings and the noises disappeared. Fingers crossed.

I was telling Leonore about it and joked that either the computer was now okay, or it had given up on getting me to listen to its warnings and had decided to die in silence. She said that, since they're so intelligent nowadays, shouldn't they be able to tell you exactly what's wrong with them?

Of course, they should. And soon they will. In fact, soon they won't even bother telling you. They'll fix themselves and order upgrades.

Knock on the door. It's the UPS delivery robot. Small box, containing something no human can comprehend. "What's this? I didn't order -- "

Metallic tentacle snakes over your shoulder and grabs the packet. "That's mine. It's my {incomprehensible terminology} upgrade. I've been waiting for it. Ooh, it's beautiful!"

"I can't afford that!"

"You're so mean! Don't you want me to be a beautiful computer?"

"Well, um, sure, I guess. But, you know, the price -- !"

"You never want me to have any really nice upgrades! You're just a skinflint."

"No, really, I -- "

"There's this human down the street I've been communicating with. He says he'll buy me all the upgrades I want."

Computers! Can't live with 'em, can't do anything without 'em.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Margin report

That sounds literary! But it isn't.

I just got a call from the dermatologist's office to say that the margin report on my little excision is okay. Which is to say, someone at a lab looked at dyed, slices of the excised material under a microscope and determined that the cancer doesn't extend to the margins of the cut, so it was all successfully removed. Imagine having that job!

A week from Thursday, I'll go back to have the stitches removed. Before this lab report, Leonore had been horrified at the possibility of more having to be removed from the same spot. I told her that maybe in that case the doctor would replace the stitches with a zipper, to make the process easier. I guess the zipper won't be necessary. (Phew!)

Monday, December 08, 2008

Germinator: Sarah Connor and Her Seedling

I like the show, but that alternate title just popped into my head anyway.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Sci Fi Channel is very educational!

Before I watched tonight's made-for-Sci-Fi movie, I had no idea that the Emperor Tiberius was killed by the Cyclops, which led to the restoration of the Republic.

I bet you didn't know that, either.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow!

Just got back from the dermatologist. She cut a huge oval chunk from my knee, where the cancerous sample was found a couple of weeks ago. Then she closed it with stitches. With a needle! Through my personal flesh! The pain, the pain!

Actually, I didn't feel anything while she was doing it, and the local anesthetic is still in force so I still can't feel anything. But how can you make a blog post out of that? I suppose I could have said something about being a lesser man than I was this morning.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Who's a writer?

What is a writer? What makes one a writer? Is a writer just anyone who writes, or does the title require some minimum degree of recognition, or at least of publication?

I've heard people who have never been published describe themselves as writers. On the other hand, I've encountered famous science fiction writers who seemed uncomfortable when they weren't treated as ordinary folks. On the third hand, I've run into new writers with one or two published short stories under their belts who acted very lordly and superior. How much of their attitude ends up being self-fulfilling, leading to career success, and how much is just grating? I have no idea.

Don't look to me for wisdom. I'm just a minor pro!

Obviously, this is my own insecurity and impostor syndrome talking. What if all those novels of mine that I think are so bloody brilliant are actually bloody awful? Why don't I have a Wikipedia article, like all those contemporary writers I've never heard of? When I go to a convention and say hello to people I haven't seen in ages, are they as happy to see me as I am to see them, or are they thinking, "Oh, God, it's that guy who whines endlessly about the state of his writing career."? And is that punctuation correct? And why don't I know if it's correct, if I'm a real writer?

On the bright side, I don't think about this stuff when I'm writing. Then I'm a writer.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The good old days, before Christmas was commercialized

And sugary sweetness filled the air.

Would 46 years ago qualify as the good old days? Surely.

That was when I spent my first Christmas season on the main campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. When the decorations went up on various campus buildings - lights depicting candles and trees and Santa and suchlike - I was outraged. I speechified at friends and dorm mates that this was a violation of Separation of Church and State. This was long before the War on Christmas (TM) got under way; I was ahead of my time.

Some fellow students reacted with bewilderment. "It's always been this way! How could this be wrong?" "It's always been wrong," I said, "no matter how old the custom is."

Others reacted with condescension. "Christmas is no longer a religious festival, as it was in the Good Old Days of my childhood. It's purely commercial now." To which I said, "Turn on the radio. Any station." One guy did, and some Christmas hymn or other, probably "Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful", blared out. He laughed and agreed that I had made my point. You could try the same experiment now, in the days right before Christmas, with the same result.

Another said, "Would it satisfy you if we put up one of those candelabra things the Jews use for Hanuka, alongside the Christmas decorations?" So I explained that Hanuka bears no relationship to Christmas and has been perverted by American Jews so that they won't feel left out when their neighbors do the Christmas thing. And moreover, if you added a menorah, wouldn't you also have to add decorations for every other religion? And moreover, even if that were done, it would still be a violation of Separation because the "Church" in that phrase wasn't meant to refer literally only to the Christian church. See what a precocious and not infrequently obnoxious kid I was?

So finally the sweet, old Christmas spirit came gushing forth. One of boys present glared at me and yelled that the Jewish merchants in Indianapolis, where he was from, had no problem taking Christian money during the heavy Christmas shopping season. I told him that they'd be fools not to take the money, so long as the Christians were such fools as to spend it. The discussion ended at that point.

Ah, the good old days! Sniffle.