Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I need an editor

Right now, I've gotten more 'This has promise' / 'This is really good except for' / and 'I almost, but no...' on my MS than I can quickly count. Almost all of them were non-form letters from people who normally use form letters.

At the same time, every non-editor / non-publisher / non-agent / non-purchaser who reads it has a list of 'change this! and it will be saleable!' items. Trouble is, very few times have the items been the same.

Very frustrating; if I change too much, I am more likely to fall out of publishing contention than to succeed. If I change nothing, I'm likely to stay in the unpublished valley. I need to change some small part, but without an editor I'm really struggling to figure out which part.

OK, back to class.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I write this, even knowing there's a slight chance he'll read it...

OK, for those of you who are unaware of why November's posting has been more anemic than usual, it's because November is NaNoWriMo. Almost all of my wordingyness is dedicated to that; I go elsewhere only when my hands hurt, or I'm so tired my brain won't fire right to type. Since essaying takes more than knee jerk reactions, I can't really do any in November. Well, unless someone asks really, really nicely.

However, as noted with my last post, sometimes something just HAS to come out.

Now, on top of NaNo, which makes sure I put out at least 50,000 new words once a year (inertia usually gets me another 50K before I slow down and start editing) I'm at Philcon due to the kindness of a friend. It's a very good opportunity to meet people in the publishing industry, which is a Good Thing for a variety of reasons I'll not go into here. Because a geek button got pushed. Which is odd, because I don't HAVE many, y'see.

So, I go to a panel for sci-fi newbies, because there are huge swaths of 'classic, everyone must read this' sci fi and fantasy that I've never read. My entry point into sci fi, y'see, was not magazines with stories, nor novels, nor even the considered-slightly-different TV shows of Star Trek and Doctor Who. Most authors who are my age write one of those as their entry point. My entry point into Sci Fi, y'see, was slightly different. It had Russian music and Japanese Animation and a really bad English script. Yes, I'm talking about Star Blazers. I watched it while reading Tolkien, back when my sister was still a baby and Carter was still president.

So it's not real surprising that my writing reminds some of Kurosawa does Anime. However, this is all a massive digression, because my geek out is embarrassing me. Ok, last person on the panel is Michael Swanwick. Now, I link to that list for an important reason, which I shall get to when my geeking out level drops a bit. Mr. Swanwick mentioned one of his books during the panel, but I'd not read the one mentioned. When I saw him, I remembered him from the "Where I Write" project.

Well, I talked with him a bit after the panel, mostly about being from an odd sci-fi entry point. He thought that was kind of neat, and a bit later during a "meet the pros" mixer I met Kyle Cassidy, who is the guy doing Where I Write, which is cool. Mr. Swanwick was there again, and had some very encouraging things to say about the feedback I've gotten from publishers and agents, as well as giving me some satori-moment-inducing advice on writing and pruning.

OK, I'm stalling again. In my defense, and since he said he has the same problem, perhaps he'll understand. I don't remember names. I took a notebook to Philcon with me specifically to write down names in, because I don't rememeber them.

The whole point here - I recall exactly ONE book I've read cover to cover twice in a row. I'll get to that in a bit. I know, I'm stalling. I'm Syndrome at the moment, ok?

Anyhow, I get home, sit down to write a little, and decide "y'know, I ought go look him up; perhaps I've read something of his and don't remember. He sounded very cool, perhaps I ought try out his writing; I'll certainly be trying the books he recommended." I go to his website. I go to his bibliography. Bones of the Earth, new one he mentioned during the panel, haven't read. Griffin's Egg, I've heard of, but don't think I read. In The Drift, don't remember the title, and book titles I remember (go figure, I forget my own name at times, but I can remember titles).

Iron Dragon's Daughter.

HOLY . There are authors I would like to and think I can someday match style-and-quality wise. Adams, Ringo, Jordan. There are authors I've been compared to, who I like, so I don't mind if I wind up more like them when I hone my skill to publishable levels (Cherryh). But Iron Dragon's Daughter is just way beyond anything I could write. I can't write that well. I just... I don't think I can. I mean, in part it's the prose, which is beautiful while still flowing quickly, but in part it's the story. When I try to do '10 words or less' on Iron Dragon's Daughter my brain just kinda short circuits. Um... OK, I just tried, and I can't name all the major components of the story in 10 words, and it's ALL 'surprising yet inevitable'.

And I got advice from him. And he gave me encouragement.

Definite Syndrome moment. "I'm still geekin' out about it!"

Monday, November 9, 2009

I'm sorry, it won't stay in my head...

If Christ is the Lamb of God, wouldn't that mean you're supposed to serve communion with Holy Mint Jelly?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Axes, Leaks, and Loops.

It's been a bit since I promised those posts. I've recently started teaching, and got the job and the cirriculum at the last minute. Coming up with my lesson plans, getting them posted to the district website, marking papers, all of these have been a little time consuming. But the operative part of all that is I've got a job now. One that might even let me write on occasion. Going forward I'm going to try for something modest - one a month, essay wise. I'll probably post a bit more often just griping, but I can't be sure how often I need to gripe, so...

At any rate, I recently had a chance to reread three essays which influenced my thinking. Individually, they're influential. Read together, they interact in interesting ways.

The first one, and one that I only recently found for the first time, is Polsky's essay on Leaky Abstractions. It's worth a read, but if you're short on time, I'll sum up the pertinent points. Any model we make of reality is going to be imperfect. Mental models used to ease interaction with reality, abstractions, are no exception to this general rule. When abstractions are different to the subjects they're modeling, they 'leak' at the points of difference. A common maxim about this idea is that you mustn't push an analogy too far.

The next essay that I've reread recently is about an abstraction which is more leak than not. Pournelle's Political Axes describes the failures of the false Right / Left political dichotomy fairly well. It also points out a better way of examining political positions, by plotting each person or group based on a pair of unrelated but demonstratable values. Effectively, to refer back to leaky abstractions, he points out the leaks in the Left / Right dichotomy, then suggests a far less leaky alternative.

The final essay... Actually, I'm lying. It's not an essay, it's a series of nigh incomprehensible PowerPoint presentations, which have some supporting documentation. At any rate, the final thing that I reread recently was a synopsis of Boyd's OODA Loop. Now, the Wiki isn't the synopsis I read, but it's a fair synopsis itself, and I can't find the one I read. The OODA loop describes all human cognition. We take in informatin (Observe), we assign meaning to the facts we have gathered (Orient), we ascertain the correct action (Decide) and then we Act. One way in which human beings can 'short circuit' is to 'get inside their own OODA loop'.

That last is described in the Wiki, but I'll summarize. When you can cycle through that whole process fast enough that your opponent is still Orienting, he has to re-Observe to account for your new Action, then re-Orient. Meanwhile, you're cycling again. This often creates a state of confusion and demoralization in an opponent. That is known as 'getting inside an opponent's OODA loop'.

Now, the longest part of the loop is the Orientation phase. What the training of certain military organizations (including the USMC) tries to do is to shorten that Orientation phase to near nil for combat operations. Soldiers and Marines are trained in the appropriate response to any given situation, until recognizing the situation (Orientation) happens on a split-second, subconscious basis, and the Action occurs primarily from 'muscle memory'. Against any opponent who is not trained in the same fashion, this will do exactly what you'd expect. The opponent is caught in a continual state of Orientation, at least until the Soldier or Marine has a chance to Do Unto Them.

The related concept of 'getting inside your own OODA loop' is a Bad Thing. In short, it involves extending your Orientation phase until the likelihood of completing Orientation before the environment changes of its own accord. Once Orientation is that long, reaction is the only option, and even those reactions will typically be slow in coming. One major cause of slow Orientation times has been identified; if a person's worldview is skewed from reality, that persons Orientation phase will be extended when dealing with the periphery of the skew. The nexus of the skew is frequently exempt; the center of the skew is usually a dearly held religious, political, or personal belief. At any rate, the Orientation phase can be extended long enough for a person or organization to 'get inside it's own OODA loop'. When that happens, stagnation or fragmentation is often the result.

Now, put those all together. As Polsky explains, a perniciously leaky abstraction is never going to be a realistic model of the world. As Pournelle points out, the Left / Right dichotomy is more leak than model. Finally, Boyd informs us that a worldview skew from reality will eventually cause a person to become incapable of effective decision making and hence effective action.

With that in mind, is it any wonder our government is so unable to get anything done?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Quick Thought

A note for businesspeople of all stripes. Actually, a note for people of all stripes, public or private sector.

If you are doing something that makes you say "If word of this got out, my reputation would be ruined." maybe, just maybe, you shouldn't be doing it in the first place?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A conversation I just had...

"The contents of the dishwasher are dirty."

"Coincidentally, so are most of my thoughts at the moment."

"So you can just stick anything in there."


"Don't even go there."

I've had comments about the dialogue in my books that 'people don't talk like that'. Funny, half of the dialogue in my books is lifted more or less whole from conversations I've had.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How my mind works...

I'm perverse.

Now, you may all realize this. The folks following my blog probably do. If anyone ever winds up coming here who doesn't know me all that well, they may not get the point, so I'll have to spell it out. For those of you who were already aware, my apologies, I'll at least try to keep it entertaining.

When I say perverse, I mean perverse, not perverted. Not saying the latter is a bad thing, or even that I'm not, but that's not the point of this here diatribe. When I say I'm perverse, I mean that my interest in doing something is inversely proportional to the difficulty. If someone says 'come on, this will be fun, it's easy', I have no real interest in whatever activity they're endorsing, other than a possible basic interest in the scenery or terrain. If someone says 'don't even try that, it's impossible', my interest is peaked.

Now, there are some caveats. While I'm mildly attracted to gambling, I'm not really pulled to things like keno or Powerball (although I'll play the latter if the EV is close to positive). My definition of 'difficult' is not based on artificially generated odds. When I think 'difficult', I'm thinking about something that requires a great deal of skill, endurance, or personal effort to succeed. Marathons intrigue me. Games of skill will forever hold my interest. One of the attractions of writing is that while it's easy to do, it's hard to do right. Anyone can type words (or at least semi-coherent letter groupings) on a page; stringing words together so a reader is intoxicated and enlightened is hard. Doing so on a regular basis is an ongoing challenge that I can't walk away from.

I even know where it comes from, after a fashion. The root has to do with the juxtaposition of being a very bright and literal child and having parents given to particularly bad metaphor and hyperbole.

At any rate, what spawned this whole commentary lies here. Specifically the entry for the 18th, wherein Patrick reports that even the best of handshakes must fall far short of passionate.

Thanks, Patrick. Now I've got an unquenchable desire to write a passionate handshake. And I don't even have a story appropriate for such a thing.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

How I learned to drive, and why it worked

Overall, given the amount of miles I've driven, I've experienced remarkably few real problems. I've had some speeding tickets, and I had a few accidents when I was much younger, but overall, I've had very few problems with operating motor vehicles, getting lost, or running into things. After thinking about it, I realized why. It has to do with where I learned to drive.

Most people have some story about learning to drive from a driving instructor, or more likely a family member. Unfortunately, my dad was sure enough about my mad driving skillz to go to sleep whenever I drove, and my mom never let me drive. By the time I was in driving school, it was more of a formality than anything; the only thing that the instructor taught me was parallel parking and proper use of signals. Shifting, navigation, all that jazz were already second nature.

All of those, the core of making a vehicle go down the road without running into things or leaving the road, I learned from video games. Most notably, the video game Pole Position (the original one). Sounds silly, I know.

However, when going off the road or nicking another vehicle makes your vehicle explode, you learn not to do that.

Bob's Head, episode 4

OK, one of the reasons updates are so infrequent is that I get my ideas at REALLY odd times and have no way to record them. I'm starting to take notepad notes on the computer when I'm there, and putting them in my actual phyiscal notepad when I'm not.

Some of them may be short (like this one) but another thing I'm doing is jotting down starter bits of all of them any time I post, so I'll be able to come on here and start up without trying to remember 'what was that cool idea again?'.

That's the idea anyhow. I need to start practicing my wind sprints. NaNo is coming up, and my personal goal is a 100KWord complete modern / urban fantasy. I might even try to make it YA, but I kinda doubt it will get there.

The ideas at the moment in the bullpen are as follows:

Lobbying, and why the arguments for allowing it are Not Very Convincing.
Salary / Wage caps, with a side order of Risk vs. Reward.
Juxtaposition of Pournelle's Political Axes, Spolsky's Leaky Abstractions, and Boyd's OODA Loop.
Inspiration vs. The Need to Write
and what will likely be a multi-parter (if the Juxtaposition above isn't, I'll be surprised),
Crime, Theft of Time, Theft of Free Will, Liberal societies, defining workable optimal societal states (& Laws), Ivory Tower vs. Crapsack World.

Regarding NaNo this year, I'm trying to put together a playlist. Looking for two things. First, any Guitar Rock which brings to mind (even a little) Arthurian / Celtic legend. More looking for tone and music than lyrics, but those are good too. I know, I'm already going to check Queen and Iron Maiden. Any others? Also, any songs where there are at least two covers after the initial recording, wherein the covers are both distinctive from the original and objectively Do Not Suck (meaning they're technically minimally proficient). One example would be Personal Jesus. Another would be Tide Is High.

Reason being I've got three characters who trade the spotlight for much of the story, and I'm trying to stay coherent (hence the same titles) while still making each section distinctive.

Also, if anyone wants to be Tuckerized, I'm populating a High School in this one. I need teachers, students, maybe even janitors. Coaches and security are already taken care of though. Also, I need a name for the school. I'm looking for something something academy. The school is a very exclusive private high school / prep school, so names might be appropriate. If anyone can suggest anything, thanks will be offered.

OK, that's enough for now. Off I go. More soon (tomorrow, maybe Saturday).

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Attention Employers...

A very good executive once said to me 'The job of leadership is to get the right people on the right bus to the right destination.' The right people. If you don't have the right people looking for people, you're done right there. If they're not using all the resources at their disposal correctly to find those people, it's fail time again.

I'm writing this because over the past few years, I've heard quite a few comments about how there is a talent shortage. At the same time, I've been hearing from talented individuals that they can't find positions which utilize their talents; instead they wind up in positions that 'pay well', or 'have a good atmosphere'. When I combine those two observations with the first hand experience of technology being misused badly at the very start of an employee search, I begin to have an inkling of where the problem lies.

An example I have seen very frequently recently is the online manual resume breakdown. This would be where a potential employee uploads a resume (fine so far), fills out some standardized contact information (ought to be on the resume, but maybe it's not easily parsed) and then fills out more or less entire content of the resume, line by line, in an online form which often doesn't accept copy/paste from the resume itself.

The information is on the resume. If it's not, there's really no need to consider that applicant any further. If there's some questionable item, forcing them to retype the contents of the resume is not going to present the data any more clearly; they will probably retype the same data from the resume. Use some judgement as to whether the applicant has enough other qualities to bring them in for an interview or not, then move on. If the person reviewing the resumes has no ability to determine if the person is a good fit for the position by looking at a resume, why are they the one reviewing resumes in the first place?

There is a problem here. There are probably a plethora of causes, none of which matter. We're talking about business, and we're talking about something with a very simple solution, part technical, part operational.

First, the technical part. Instead of spending the IT budget on a number of web forms, spend it on a document converter and / or search tool. There are tools built into most OS's that will do either or both, but if you want a bit more speed, you might want something more specialized. The alternate would be to hire more technically capable people in the department that does first review of resumes, but that might not be possible or desirable depending on your field.

Second, the operational part. Have HR use the aforementioned tools to do simple keyword searches with a keyword list created by the new employee's future supervisor, coworkers, and direct reports. They probably know the job better than anyone else in the company, and can let the HR person know what to look for. Once the keyword searches narrow the field enough, send the resumes to those same groups. Expect some to be shot down. Call the remaining folks in for interviews, and make sure one of each of those groups previously mentioned is represented during the interviews. Give each group's input equal weight in the final decision.

I know that last sounds a bit odd; having prospective direct reports interview a potential supervisor. However, if someone is already a valued member of your team, it's important that the new person you're adding isn't going to be completely incompatible with them, no matter the relationship between the two. That's all part of the 'right people'. The direct reports can also tell you if the person they'll be reporting to is going to have any clue whether the prospect has enough technical expertise to tell if the employee is doing a good job or not.

Remember, right people is step one. Without it, you're opening a big can of fail. With that in mind, odd but workable solutions beat conventional but non-functional ones any day, hands down.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Advice for companies hurting in this economy...

In times of economic stress, companies tend to make cutbacks. That's understandable, it's both difficult and risky to grow in a depressed economy. Also understandable is the general strategy of making cutbacks in cost centers and maintaining revenue centers as undisturbed as possible.

The definition of a cost center and a revenue center is the point of this advice. Common wisdom is that Sales is a revenue center, and everything else is a cost. This is based on the thought that if you get a sale, you can find a way to fulfill the order, somewhow.

The trouble is that paradigm requires uninformed consumers. In hard economic times, consumers begin informing themselves to a greater degree. In other words, the harder the times, the more likely a consumer is to see that you've maintained Sales at the cost of Operations. In simpler terms, if you have a product with value, it may not require active selling at all. I can't, for example, recall the last time an advertisement for basic staple foods (meat, fruit, veggies, bread) made the slightest difference to my decision to buy. Price does, but sales does not. The same holds true on entertainment; where costs are equal, I go with the greatest value, no matter the sales efforts made; where costs are inequal, I go with the less expensive option.

The point is fairly straightforward; despite years, even decades of salesmen selling the idea that Sales is the only Revenue center, it's not. Operations is. The revenue center are the folks who Get The Job Done. Sales, Management, HR, Admin are all Overhead.

That said, I'm not actually anti-Overhead. Most of those things are actually multipliers for the revenue generating portions of a business. HR can find the right Operations people and arrange training to make them more effective. Management can ensure that the right people are on the right jobs, and deal with obstacles that aren't within the ability of the Operations folks to deal with. Sales and Marketing can make sure that everyone in your target market is aware of your product, facilitate purchases, and even find entirely new markets for you to enter.

All of those, however, are multipliers. Not additive. If you start with a zero in Ops, it doesn't matter how much you lay on. You still wind up with zero. If you start with too small an Ops division, you wind up with a very brittle organization, where Ops is overloaded; not only will individuals be more prone to failure, but when they fail the effect will be felt far more than in an organization where Ops has enough depth.

Really, the point isn't exactly that Ops is a Revenue center and everything else is a Cost. My point is that everything in an organization costs money, and everything in a for-profit organization should be ultimately directed toward producing revenue. If companies cut back during tough economic times, which can be just as risky as trying to grow during those same times, they need to be very careful to make cuts across the board; ensuring that no portion of the company is cut disproportionately to the others.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

And so it begins...

I've heard it said that one way to improve an artistic skill is to observe the work of others, preferably those who have won great acclaim. Really I have. OK, I'm fairly certain I have, and it certainly sounds like a good idea, doesn't it?

With that in mind, having found a list of the top 100 English language novels of all time on Doug Shaw's home page, I recently decided to read all 100. At best, my writing will improve. At worst, it will be more like those 100 novels, but in a bad way. Most likely of all, my writing will meander along the course of improvement through practice that has been it's wont, and I will at least be exposed to 'culture', whatever that means.

I have a personality flaw, a quirk of the mind, that will not let me start at a random point in that list. Given the always entertaining Professor Shaw's description of Ulysses, I thought it rather better to start at the other end. Alas and alack, the local library appears to have never heard of Booth Tarkington except as the author of a novel upon which a BBC television show was based. They have the television show available on DVD, you see, but no novel. It is, however, apparently one of the seven deadly sins of Library Science to forgo having Joyce in your library.

Much like Professor Shaw, I will regale you with my experiences as I wander through the hallowed halls of greatness. Unlike him, I will do so as I wander those halls, rather than later, once I've had time to digest the culture contained therein.

With that in mind, Ulysses: At this point, I have discovered many things. First, Joyce appears to be writing stream-of-consciousness. The big accomplishment, at least in my eyes, is that he writing the stream of someone else's consciousness. Not just one, either, but two relatively different people. I say relatively different, because I've discovered one commonality between them, one that partially explains Dr. Shaw's difficulty in following the narrative of the book. Neither of the characters is a linear thinker. OK, that's putting it too mildly. The characters are almost frighteningly scatterbrained, compounded in one case by being repressed to a degree that he cannot complete a substantial portion of his own thoughts, diverging instead into rambles about religion, self-recrimination and death. Occasionally he does so in Latin and French. In the other case, the character is equally repressed, but in that case the repression is expressed by self-censoring of his own naughty thoughts, but only when they're about other people. He goes on a long, lovingly described flight of fancy about a bath he's going to have later, and the gratification he has planned for that bath.

OK, Joyce is having an effect on me. My own meandering writing style is becoming less concise by the moment. Perhaps that's not the effect I was looking for.

Another reason, perhaps a larger one, that I can see a reader having a problem with the book. The book apparently predates Strunk's Elements of Style. It also appears to predate modern punctuation conventions regarding quoting speech. 87 pages into this 767 page book and nary a quotation mark to be seen. Spoken words are preceeded by a dash, but no indication is given as to when the speaking ends. 'He said' isn't a reliably indicator, as on at least two occasions thus far someone has said 'he said', after which the quote they supply is given in italics.

Overall, between the odd quotation punctuation, the stream of consciousness, and the repressed, non-linear thought processes of the two main characters, I can see where the book might be considered a wee bit of a hard read. I've often compared reading to eating. Pratchett is a literary Morimoto, the total package. Robson is TastyCake, I feel guilty for loving it but can't stop until it's gone. Cherryh is toffee, I love it but it tires my jaws out. King is searingly spicy tam noodles, I love them, but I will regret it later. Brin is a seven course gourmet vegan meal, I feel like I ought to like it, and want to like it, and think my not liking it is a fault in me. Joyce is like chewing on ramen, liberally spiced with whole vitamin, diet and caffiene pills. I'm told it's good for me, will help me build muscle and lose fat, that it's nutritionally sound and has everything a growing boy needs.

To put it another way; I spend 15 minutes warm up on a stair master. I spend 60 minutes of cardio on a elliptical machine. Since I started reading Ulysses, I no longer notice the complaints from my body; my mind is too busy moaning about reading this thing that is begging, pleading, screaming for a copy editor to put some gorram punctuation in.

Still, I'm not done the book. It might get better. I might get used to it. His prose, while a touch lurid for a modern audience, is at least highly descriptive. His stream of consciousness is very stream-ey, although it delves into singsong and acoherence a bit much for my taste. Maybe that's the problem; I'm too much of a linear thinker to really empathize with the characters.

We shall see. We shall see.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Regarding that last...

Specifically the part about enjoying or not enjoying reading.

I've often compared reading to eating. Some books taste good, but are essentially empty calories. Some books are good for you, but taste awful. Some books are the equivalent of a bag of chips; before you know it, you've eaten the whole thing. Others are like good toffee; difficult to eat too much of, because they're crunchy or chewy. Not only that, but every author has a different flavor, even two authors that are writing in what is ostensibly the same genre or subgenre, no matter how restrictive.

There are writers who write things that are good for you, tasty, and quick to read (does my adoration for Pratchett have an upper limit?). There are writers who write pure tasty treats with little redeeming value, or even with significant guilty pleasure factor (Justina Robson and John Ringo, I'm looking at you). There are the producers of filling, tasty food that lasts for several meals (Cherryh's Foreigner comes to mind). Then there are folks who write stuff that is good for you, and really ought to taste good, but is just so hard to gnaw through that it winds up being just not-quite-tasty enough to enjoy (*cough* Brin *cough*).

All that leads to two points I'm pondering now. The first; my recent worries were mostly based on too much not-quite-tasty in close succession. Two doses of candy, even knowing it's candy, still taste sweet. The second; juxtaposing my mental parallel between reading and eating with my mental parallel between writing and sex might explain things, not least of which why I married Yomiko Readman...

On that note, I'm fleeing before she catches me.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Reading and Writing (with a nod to Arithmatic)

First the Arithmetic nod; does anyone know a good reference for writing textbooks or reference books? A mathematician asked me to co-author. Meaning he wants to do the math, and wants me to do everything else from the non-math content to finding a publisher. Since most of what I've read on non-fiction indicates platform is king and god, and the mathematician has multiple (New Jersey large) school districts salivating over the idea of using the hypothetical book, the platform is solid enough I'm willing to give it a go IF I can find a good reference for writing reference.

That said, I've been having a problem reading lately. Formerly, the storyteller in me would consistently be telling more stories based on what I read. Sometimes those stories were fan-fic-esque, other times they were just inspired by the original. At any rate, I enjoyed the story as written, then riffed off of it.

Lately, however, I've been noticing a different pattern in myself. As I read, I'm actively noticing writing techniques. Foreshadowed twists are no longer surprising. Deus-ex-machina were never my favorite, but now I look on them as completely unsatisfying. Flat prose is no longer compensated for by originality, character or plot. Flat characters annoy me more than they used to. Lack of plot can still be excused on a first read, but I don't reread or recommend plotless books. Excessive political or other viewpoint evangelism is more annoying than it ever was.

I worry that I'm becoming a snob. More than that, I worry that what used to be one of my favorite hobbies is now rapidly becoming more a chore than a relief and release. I'm also worried that the few authors I could count on for a solid book with all the things I'm looking for and none of the things I'm avoiding are dead, dying, or succumbing to age.

Still and all, I enjoyed Vorpal Blade, and I'm generally enjoying Earth. I just noticed the flaws in each more than I would have five years ago. Or did I just notice myself noticing?

Meh. Either way, I'm off to write a bit, followed by going off to some conference with the aforementioned mathematician.

Just because you say it...

...doesn't make it true.

I've been cruising through the archives of Not Always Right recently, and found this gem. Why is it that people can't understand that certain sets of behaviors have certain results that are dictated by the laws of physics? In my own experience, those people seem to be the same ones who feel that their own immoral / unethical / bastardly behavior is dictated by the laws of physics as well. The 'your valuables weren't secured well enough to stop me, so I had to take them' attitude.

I recently read a Brin quote (in character, this may not be his opinion) suggesting that humans are attractive as individuals, but horrifying as a species. I've always felt the opposite was true.

Beauty and Truth

OK, probably more along the lines of 'Bob rambles on about Beauty and Castle's mom', but I couldn't resist.

My wife was watching Castle a few days ago and Castle's mom comes out with a line about women seeking things to cover their imperfections, and when those imperfections are covered the woman thinks she's beautiful, and that's what makes a woman beautiful. Which is, to a small degree, true. It is also, to a much, much larger degree damaging and counterproductive.

First, note that most people equate Beauty and Attractiveness. The two are not co-equal, and never have been. Beauty is a highly subjective thing. Attractiveness, on the other hand, has been studied to a fare-thee-well using reasonably scientific methods. There's even an amusing and informative series of shows on the topic narrated by John Cleese. Then again, if it were narrated by John Cleese, it could be about war crimes and be fairly amusing, but I digress. Point is that Beauty and Attractiveness are not the same, even if people tend to conflate them.

Standards of Beauty are subjective, but in most cases they are based loosely on the physical aspects of Attractiveness. Those aspects include a certain arrangement of features. for which there is a mathematical formula. The imdb for the series, which has more details, is here. Cleese will back me up on this, he's my homie and has my back. Not really, but I couldn't resist. At any rate, the physical aspects of Attractiveness are fairly straightforward. For the face, even features in a particular layout. For the female body, hip to waist ratio and hip in a narrow range and hip to bust ratio in a rather wider range. Everything else, like hair color, eye color, shape of individual features, height, weight and precise hip to bust ratio is more based on what culture tells us is attractive than what our genes tells us will make a successful mate.

So if we posit that Beauty is the bare bones of physical Attractiveness with the socially keyed 'everything else' layered on, that tells us two things. First, in a multi-cultural society each individual is going to have different standards of Beauty, with standards varying wildly in radically different segments of the society. Second, Castle's mom is full of it. There is no way that masking one deficiency is going to make a woman Beautiful, unless they're quite close to it already and the imperfection is fairly insignificant. In other words, some have it, some don't, and some can achieve it with varying levels of work.

However, there is another aspect to this discussion. When Castle's mom (Martha Rogers, played by Susan Sullivan) talks about Beauty, she's not talking about Beauty. She's either talking about Attractiveness, in which case she has a small yet important point, or she's talking about the philosophical concept of Beauty, which is such a massive divergence from the subject at hand, both in this essay and in the conversation she's having on screen that I'm going to set that idea aside for later. Like much, much, later. Maybe when I'm dead, or rich, or both. At any rate, assuming she's talking about Attractiveness, then her point is basically that confidence makes a woman Attractive. In this, she's correct. Healthy adult males like confident women. Note that differing societies have had differing ways for each gender to display confidence, and that there have been (are?) entire societies that were dominated by non-healthy adult males. My point here is that confidence* is probably one of the biggest general non-physical keys to Attractiveness**.

There is still a problem with Martha's statement, and it is what makes it so damaging and wrong. The statement basically posits that to be confident, a woman must find something external to herself which, when she uses / wears / carries it, makes her believe in herself. When she does, she will then be Attractive / Beautiful. Men will want her and women will want to be her. The problem with that approach is that it relies on something external, and confidence is not an external trait. The damaging part of the approach is that it teaches women to look outside themselves for the answer to a question which is, in the end, internal.

That's the real shame of the attitude illustrated in the show. It takes the one aspect of Attractiveness which could be attained by any woman and makes it something external to the woman herself, and then only if she seeks out the external thing which will offset some real or imagined flaw in the portions of Attractiveness which can't be changed short of plastic surgery. The problem, in other words, is not that women are trying to look like 'unhealthy' runway models. The problem is that women are trying to look like someone other than themselves.***

*Confidence, not bossiness. This does, unfortunately, require you to have something to be confident about. However, this can be as simple as knowing exactly what it is that you want. Or even confidence in what you do and don't know. Everyone can find something about themselves to be confident about.

**The other major key being attraction itself. Very little is more attractive than a person confident enough to say openly 'I find you attractive.' when they mean it. Please note, people who are very physically attractive may be inured, as they hear the same words uttered insincerely on a regular basis. Also note that extreme physical unattractiveness may torpedo the entire endeavor, but most people don't get that 'extreme' tag without poor hygeine and general maintenance, which are controllable.

***Men have an entirely different set of problems, which I shant go into here. OK, maybe if soemone asks me to.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I've finished looking through the Novel & Short Story Writer's Marketplace, and I've picked out the agents I'll be querying. From what I've read, given a query of sufficient quality, two in ten agents should reply for partials. Given an MS of sufficient quality and relation to the query, one in ten partials may generate further interest. Given further pursuit success, one in ten should offer. Ergo, should XLI actually be ready or nearly so for publication, proper selection of agents, and proper query writing, it should only take five hundred queries to acquire an agent.

Of course, my complete list is only twenty five agents long.

Wish me luck.

Edit to update on Ordinal - I've gotten Tram & Ten & Inge to the 'changeover' scene. From here on out it's one long, brutal action scene. Should be fun.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Church, Atheism, and Faith

An interesting, perhaps ironic situation I find myself in.

Whenever I wind up in church, I find myself having a crisis of faith. I listen to the inaccuracies, misinterpretations and outright lies the pastor and congregation feed back and forth to one another and think "I know this stuff is wrong. All of it. At best, some of what they're saying is correct but taken out of context. At worst, it's outright lies. I don't believe anything that they're saying." Except, of course, that I really do believe some of the core tenets of the faith, but like I said, associating with believers shakes my faith to its core.

I often cruise through Atheist, Pro-Evolution and Anti-Fundamentalist blogs. Quite a few are funny, although it's often scathing anti-fundie humor. Bay of Fundie, Fundie Watch and Evolved Rationalist, I'm looking at you. Sometimes it's more thought provoking analysis of the divide between theists and atheists, like Dangerous Intersection. Wandering through those sites, seeing the arguments put forth, I realize that there really isn't any concrete evidence for the faith I have. However, a common argument put forth really brought things into perspective for me. The argument, in its most basic form, goes something like this:

1 - The theist has no logical basis for his faith (cue long queue of examples of failed proof)
2 - The burden of proof for the existence of god lies with the theist (tea, anyone?)
3 - The theist fails to prove god via logical or rational means
4 - The theist should now dispense with the belief in a deity

Now, it's that last one where I see the logical flaw in the argument. I heartily agree that anyone who wants to convert others to their mode of thinking should do so through reasoned discourse. However, the core problem with the argument is the belief that faith is rooted in rationality. Faith can be rooted in emotion, tradition, or just about anything, but I've rarely seen it rooted in logic. Most belief I've seen personaly is a combination of emotion and tradition, sometimes with a smidge of denied self interest ('my business relies on my image as a pillar of the community, but I am not fundamentally dishonest enough to go to church without believing, ergo I must believe, so I do').

However, all that led me to really look at why I believe. I agree with the atheists; there is no proof of god. At the same time, I really don't see any good proof of not-god either. The best proof of not-god I've personally seen has a glaring flaw in that it is fundamentally circular. It presupposes a failure condition in the argument, then assumes that argument is meaningful. To use examples from the preceding link, my immediate response to premise 1 in argument one, or premise 3 in argument 2 is "Why?". Maybe it's a factor of growing up with too many anti-heroes, but why does 'good' mean 'kind'? No, seriously, someone shoot me a link on that, if you have one.

OK, so I don't see any positive proof for god, but I don't see proof for not-god either. I dislike making what are or may be important decisions for emotional reasons, so I have to avoid that if possible. However, I do believe in personal choice in matters of belief where all evidence is equal, so I have justification in making a choice. With the knowledge that there is no proof of god, and the likelihood is that there never will be, but there may someday be proof of not-god, I therefore choose to believe in god.

What, a fellow can't be perverse?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The perils of editing

One of the problems I have with editing is that nothing is ever perfect from an artistic standpoint. Thus, I can read the same passage five times and find five things to tweak. Five more rereads will find five more tweaks. Eventually, the odds of a tweak fixing things is so slim that I would be better off buying lotto tickets, but I still find things that could be improved. Of course, given the ease of editing an electronic document, my modus operandi is to make the tweak as I see it, so I don't forget it.

The trouble is that when I've been away from something for more than a few days, I need to reread the section before to get back in the swing of things. Which means I see things that need to be tweaked. This leads to days like today, where I wrote for nearly four hours and wound up only getting five hundred new words on the page. Of course, I tweaked at least five scenes, adding, removing, or otherwise changing an average of a hundred words each.

Which is a sorry word count for that much time spent, but I did at least get back in the groove once I got writing.

On a completely different topic; is it unrealistic for someone to have a phobia about something they don't believe exists?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A few notes on Writing

First, on the days I'm not writing here, I'm probably working on one of my novels, most likely the first draft of Ordinal.

Second, most of what you're seeing here is rough drafts. They're not highly edited or polished, they're the raw stuff coming out of my head. Hence the title. I hope I'll get better at polishing as I write, but until then things might be a little rough at times. Feel free to poke sticks at the rough spots, but be forewarned they'll be there.

Third, thanks to DMB for the pointer to the progress bars. I'll be tinkering and adding progress bars on my non-Blog projects, so those of you who might be interested can see.

Finally, thanks to both of my readers for commenting. It really makes me feel all warm and cuddly to know someone is actually reading this.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Musing on Ignorance

So on rereading, I realized that the earlier Definitions post makes me sound a bit like an arrogant, elitist bastard. Which I really need to correct.

I'm not elitist at all.

Don't get me wrong, I used to be, but musing on those ideas was what actually made me realize one of the bigger failures of elitism. To start with, when talking about 'elitism', I'm talking about the idea that some group of people is just 'better' than other people. More desirable in any situation. I could keep describing, but I think you get the point here.

I was, at one time, what one might call a 'reverse elitist'. I wasn't for any particular group, but I was certain that deliberately ignorant people are worse in all possible cases. Of course, with that postulate in mind, I started thinking about why that might be the case. That's when I realized it wasn't true. Mostly because 'Ignorance' is so very ubiquitous.

Ignorance. Lack of knowledge. Everyone is ignorant of something. There is no one who knows everything. As an aside, I don't believe that it's impossible to know everything, as I find acceptance of impossibility to be something of a cop-out, but I do not believe that any human person currently possesses the sum total of human knowledge. Which means that Jay and Dom are wrong, but don't tell them I said that. So everyone is ignorant of something. Not only is everyone ignorant of something, but there are times when people deliberately refuse to acknowledge information. I'm sure everyone out there can think of an example.

Here's the sticking point. There are times when ignorance, even temporary ignorance, is required for some virtue. A fireman knows the risks of going into a collapsing structure. However, most of them who describe doing just that will usually say they 'weren't thinking about that'. They were 'doing what had to be done'. If you'll remember, I mentioned in my last post that I don't value judge (assign automatically as good or bad) ignorance. Courageous people are one reason why. They deliberately ignore physical danger in order to do something for the greater good.

In a wider light, I've been reading Science of Discworld recently, and it illustrates that all life is precarious, constantly threatened by catastrophe. In day to day life, most people choose to remain ignorant of that fact. That ignorance is all that keeps people going, that keeps them moving forward, that keeps them building a society that might, someday, become catastrophe proof. Much of which is done by lack of ignorance, but none of which would be possible without it.

So. I'm planning on becoming a teacher. To dedicate some portion of my life to the eradication of ignorance. I'm already writing, and like most science fiction writers putting bits of knowledge in to remove more of it. All this knowing that ignorance is a near requirement for success. In part, that's because I really don't think it's possible to eradicate ignorance. In part, it's because the neccessary ignorance can be manufactured at need with adrenaline and endorphins. In part, it's because I hope for a world which is both catastrophe proof and ignorance optional.

But mostly it's because I still don't like ignorance.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Apes & Angels

I'm sure many of you have heard the Pratchett quote which reads something like 'Man is the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape'. Quite a few people I know are enamored of the image. Most of them are religious sorts, which in and of itself is a touch ironic, given Pratchett. Most of those focus on the image of themselves being analagous to the falling angel. Divine, tragic, in some way better than the poor fleshly creatures they are surrounded by.

The relevant part they seem to miss? The ape is the one who is headed the right direction.

Defining Ignorant, Stupid, Intelligent and Dumb

One of the primary problems communicating with the English language is connotation and mutating meaning. However, it is one of the things that can make English such a powerful communication tool. With that in mind, from time to time I intend to post short essays defining how I use words.

In this case, I'll be talking about four words I think about often, two of which are really grades on the same scale.

The first word is Ignorance. The Bob Standard Definition of Ignorance is a lack of knowledge. Please note that I do not place any value judgement on ignorant people based on their ignorance. It is possible to be ignorant and not be at fault for your ignorance. Children are born ignorant. Those not taught to read face a much harder task combating or controlling their own ignorance. Judging someone for being Ignorant is like judging someone for being poor, just like judging someone for being knowledgeable is like judging someone for being rich. As an additional aside, there are a number of side effects of Ignorance. People possessing some of those side effects are also value judged by society at large. I do not, for the same reasons I don't value judge people who are ignorant for being ignorant.

The next word(s) are Intelligent and Dumb. Both are descriptors for processing and learning rates. The Bob Standard Definition of Intelligent is someone who processes information and learns more quickly than average. The Bob Standard Definition of Dumb is someone who processes information and learns more slowly than average. Again, no value judgements there, although in this case we're talking about inherent or inherited traits rather than default or acquired ones. Being prejudiced against the Intelligent or the Dumb is like being prejudiced against someone for the color of their skin or how tall they are. Like other inherent traits, it might predispose you to excelling at certain tasks, but talent doesn't make you a better or worse person.

The final word of the day is Stupidity. I reserve that word for the condition of being deliberately Ignorant. Until recently, I have placed value judgements on Stupidity, and they have been uniformly bad. I haven't stopped value judging based on Stupidity, but I have seen instances where I didn't find it bad. I have realized that there are times when the only way humanity has continued to thrive is that certain humans were ignorant. Since I like humanity thriving, because the quadruped has not yet been born who can create a good deep dish pizza or code a interesting and visually appealing video game, I am forced to judge judicious use of ignorance as the lesser of evils.

So, there you go. Ignorance is lack of knowledge, Dumb is lack of processing power, Stupidity is deliberate Ignorance. I'm going to be looking further into this later, when I talk about the side effects and grades of Ignorance, and discuss Weapons Grade Ignorance and similar concepts.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Teaching, Lies and Patience

As some of you may know, I'm applying for a teaching certificate. Some of you who didn't know are probably saying 'wait, isn't that putting students into Bob's Head on a regular basis?'. Probably, but Only a very specialized part of it that deals with Biology. Ok, that might not be better. Biological Science is one of those fields that squicks people. Still, High School Biology only leaves so much room for squick. In point of fact, my own preference is for less squick; molecular biology rather than zoology. Anyhow, I still remember enough to ace the Praxis general science test and score over 90% on the biology test, so I know the material. Now it's just a question of background checks and such. With the level of checking done in the past, I'm not too worried about that bit.

There are advantages and disadvantages to teaching as a career. One disadvantage is a comparitively low pay rate. One advantage is that pay rate increases reliably once you've achieved tenure. Another advantage is benefits. I was recently talking to my dad, who is due to retire from teaching in another half dozen years or so. I asked him how much he pays for health insurance. His response of 'Pay? You mean deductible?' floored me. I've been used to having half a grand or more docked from my pay each month to pay medical. Actually, if I add that money back onto the pot, it makes up about half the difference from my old job and a teacher's starting salary. Retirement benefits are another perk. The only 'retirement' fund available to me previously was a 401K. Employer-paid pension funds don't happen often for IT folks, and they don't happen at all for IT consultants. My dad's retirement is going to be better than what I was making at my last job, by quite a good margin. Don't get me wrong; I don't begrudge him that, but I've been employed for roughly 18 of the last 20 years and not once have I had an employer do more than 'matching funds, vested when you've been with the company longer than we keep employees'.

So yeah. Teaching looks better and better from an economics standpoint. Then there's the work itself. I hear a lot of teachers complaining about a lack of respect, but I can't think of a single person I'd be embarrassed to tell what I did for a living as a teacher. More importantly, I don't think there's a single person I'd need to tell what teaching is. You just say 'I'm a teacher', and they reply 'what do you teach', and you respond with a subject or grade level for elementary teachers. I've had hour long discussions with people about what a Project Manager does, and there are people who still think I wrote code for a living. Then again, that's a popular misconception: if you are in IT, anywhere in IT, you write code. The popular belief is that you also know how to solder, can't spell, live with your parents and are bereft of meaningful social skills.

OK, each of those is accurate in some cases. Some IT guys write code, although they're mostly in departments that have broken themselves off from 'IT' now. Some IT guys can repair electronics, although most of them realize that it's cheaper, more reliable and faster to swap out the broken part for a new one. More than one IT person I know of can't spell beyond a phonetic level, but that's by no means a universal trait. I know of a few IT folks who lived with parents until later in life, but that was mostly a cost-saving measure, not a social one. Finally, I've known IT guys with no social skills, but I've known many other professionals with no socials skills to speak of either. Actually a final note is that I've known nearly as many women in IT as I've known men, so they're not all 'guys', except in a metaphoric sense.

That actually leads into my next point, which relates to teaching. Terry Pratchett nailed it in The Science of Discworld, where he referred to it as 'lies to X', the most repeated version being 'lies to children' which are generally imparted by teachers attempting to get students to understand something at a basic level. People tell lies for a variety of reasons, but a very common reason is when they can't understand something and need a simplified version to grasp. In the case of IT guys, the original IT guys were a iconoclastic bunch, with the only unifying characteristic being that iconoclasty and a rather different worldview, one in which things worked if you follow rules. Minus the iconoclasty, that's rather the same as clockmakers and engineers, so the stereotype of the IT guy was born as a 'particularly weird engineer'.

Similar things happen with the sciences at a high school level. I realized once I was in college that High School Biology covered biology up until, say, the mid 1800's, with vague allusions to the 1900's. Bio I & II in college covered that same ground, but actually pulled in some information from the 50's. It wasn't until I hit junior & senior level coursework that I started learning things from my own lifetime. Quite often, they contradicted things that I had learned in High School, just as later discoveries contradicted things that were believed earlier. In some cases it was clarification rather than contradiction, but there were some contradictions. There were some huge ones in my physics courses, as I recall, and even some in my Chemistry courses, although I couldn't be sure; my High School Chemistry was too involved with making things go 'boom'. So there exists the very real possibility that I'll need to simplify things to the point of being incorrect in order to simplify them enough for students to understand. I hope not, but we shall see.

Either way, Teaching will be a different kind of career for me. My previous career, IT, is all about speed. Make it work faster, get it done faster. Cheaper is often a goal too, but faster is the name of the game, especially as a consulting IT person. For those in need of clarification, a 'consulting' IT person is one who doesn't work for the company he's supporting. He works for a dedicated IT company, which lives or dies based on the contracts it gets. Teaching isn't.

About speed, that is. Short of reverse engineering the brain and uploading memories, there's no way to speed up the learning process. So I'll be forced to slow down, from a tactical perspective. From a strategic one, too. Ask anyone in IT, and they'll have a plan for early retirement, if they plan for it at all. It may not be a good plan, but they've got one. Teaching, on the other hand, is a long term thing. It's a different way of thinking, one more suited to patience and contemplation. Those of you who have read this far might guess that I'm all about contemplation. Plus, there are summers off. To a guy who once had multiple employers seriously care that people were 'unproductive' during the 30 to 90 second periods when we were waiting for the phone to ring, the idea of two to three months of scheduled downtime is downright odd.

So yeah. I'm hoping that CE comes through soon, because all in all, teaching looks like a place I'd like to be.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Writing, Inspiration and Schedules

So, as noted in last night's post, I'm writing about why I've falled off schedule.

There are quite a few reasons for the delay. Some of them have to do with my job search. Some of them have to do with having two little boys in the house. Most of them, however, have to do with the state of mind conducive to writing, when it happens, and the lack of writing implements of all kinds appropriate to those times.

OK, they're excuses more than reasons, but that's why I'm also going to be writing about what I'll be doing about it.

At any rate, I get most of my best ideas for writing when I'm doing something that might be described as active meditation. I'm not implying anything mystical by that, either; I simply can think more clearly when I'm doing something more or less mindless. I suppose it's because that part of my subconscious that reminds me about daily chores, bills to be paid, and eating lunch is busy dealing with something that I ought to be doing, so my conscious mind can pay attention to more interesting things, like ideas and wordplay. For whatever reason, though, I get a lot of writing ideas when I'm working out, cooking, or driving.

Yes, driving. Driving is a mindless activity. If I may be allowed a small tangent; a mindless activity is one where no decisions need to be made. In most cases, driving qualifies. Route? Mostly to the same places, the grocery store, the gym, work, relatives. No thought required. Speed? Mandated by law. General road behavior? Also mandated by law. A driver needs to be aware, but that's not the same as making decisions. It engages the senses and the body, but if you're having to make decisions about whether or not to do something while driving, you're probably doing it wrong.

Now that I think about it, that may be my next essay; how I learned to drive and why it worked.

This essay, on the other hand, is about writing, inspiration, and schedules. As noted, I get most of my inspiration for writing, whether fiction, essay, or just pithy little sayings, while I'm doing something that occupies body and subconscious. The trouble with this, of course, is that the former is required for recording those inspirations, even as very abbreviated notes. In some cases, stopping to take notes would be inconvenient and break the mental state I need to continue writing. Working out qualifies for one of those, as does chores. In others, like driving, stopping to take notes is actively dangerous. It does require the senses and body engaged, after all.

At any rate, writing nonfiction without ideas or fiction without plot, characterization, or dialogue is very likely to wind up as literary fiction. As the defining objective characteristic of literary fiction is that no one reads it, and I want people to read what I'm writing, writing that way is counterproductive.

Ok, new tangent, complete non sequitor. Has anyone else realized that the (not quite new) McDonalds commercial basically is positing that Ronald is the creator-god? For those of you that missed it, it's the one where the kids are looking through a telescope and there's nothing there. Ronald looks out, says 'oh, I know what to do', and throws out a handfull of star-stuff which then becomes the night sky. Now, whether you read this as Mickey D's asserting that Ronald is God, or read it as Mickey D's asserting that they've so much money that they hired God to play Ronald, I still find it vaguely offensive. For aesthetic reasons, not religious ones, but still.

Ok, back to the matter at hand; my best writing thinking is done when I've no way to get it on paper. That mostly has to do with state of mind. The question is how to get into that state while not in a situation where I can't use it. The answer is, unfortunately, rather prosaic. Practice, practice, practice. I've got to get into a habit where I can, if not turning the ideas and inspiration on and off like a tap, at least summon it up with a minimum of fuss. In order to do that, I've got to practice. In order to make sure I do that, I need to set up a schedule.

I've got to sort something out where the kids won't be jumping up and interrupting too bad. Right now I'm typing with a toddler over the shoulder, and trust me when I say we're all very grateful for the backspace key. That's very much a matter of scheduling. Since the wife and I swap days watching them, at least while I'm unemployed, I should be able to sit down to write once every two days. So that's the plan. Once every two days I'm going to sit down and write something here. It may be an essay. It may be an anecdote. It might, possibly, be a note that I'm going to write more of Ordinal. One way or another, I'll be writing something here on a regular basis.

Because it's the only way I can get this unruly head of mine tamed.

Yeah, like that's going to happen. Still, I have to try in order to have a chance at success.

As Trip noted...

I've not quite maintained my desired posting schedule. There are a variety of reasons for that, but the biggest one is actually going to be the topic of my next post (which should be up by tomorrow evening) regarding writing, inspiration, and schedules.

Sorry for the delay. Habits are as hard to start as they are to break.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Posting schedule.

Ok, I'm going to try to post at least one essay every few days. What with the lack of employment at the moment, I should be able to keep that up for a while.

Slice of life stuff might happen more frequently than that. Or less. Or both.

On Polymathy, Entrepreneurs, and Recession

Ok, Polymathy is a little strong, but I was looking for something with more impact than Dilletantism, a less corrupted connotation than Jack-Of-All-Trades, Multi-Talented usually implies a limited, if broad skill set, and I've recently seen Renaissance Man repurposed to describe those who engage in serial soft polygamy, so I'm stuck for a word. The idea I'm looking for is someone who performs at a level of professional competence or even excellence across multiple areas of expertise. The guy who can reliably fill any role in an organization. Some places they're called the 'go-to guy', but that again has connotations of connections rather than skills, and I'm really talking about someone who can do any task set in front of them, not someone who can find someone who can do that task.

For the sake of argument, let's assume when I use the word Polymath, I'm referring to a 'field expedient Polymath (f.e.p.)'. Someone who can by dint of vast experience, mental acumen, psychological flexibility, or whatever, pick up any task fast enough that people think they're already an expert at best, or 'relearning' something they've done before at worst. Someone who can speak intelligently on a wide range of topics; business, the sciences*, popular culture**, interpersonal relationships, and art of whatever stripe***.

Now, some people are immediately giong to disbelieve. That's fine. Not only are there the examples of the 'real' polymaths to counter that, there are likely enough examples than given reader knows one or has met one personally. Successful entrepreneurs often are, because they need either that or top notch networking skills in order to fill all the roles a starting business needs with the limited number of personnel available. What often happens is that the entrepreneur hires specialists in the core areas of the business, then steps up and fills all the empty roles until the business can afford to fill them with specialists. Most mid-sized and larger businesses have individuals with that same type of field-expedient polymathy; their the ones thrown wherever the fire is hottest. Small businesses tend not to get them, not because they don't want them, but because the individuals are uncommon. Not rare, really, more on the one in a hundred scale, and with one in the driver's seat running things, the odds are just that the business won't get another unless they're specifically selecting for them. If they are, they'll have different problems.

I recently was talking with a friend (who qualifies as a field-expedient polymath and an entrepreneur). He made the following observation: "The trouble with someone who is good at everything is that they have no clue what they should be doing." I really wish I could claim that line, but such is life.

If you're only good at one thing that you enjoy that pays the bills, you know what you're 'meant' to do. If in a professional sistuation there are ten things that need to be done, but you only have the skills to do one of them, you know which thing you ought to be doing. If the other nine jobs still need to be done, you may try after the one you're capable of, but there's no sense of personal failure if the job you can do is done. You're going above and beyond, if you reach for the stars and fail, you were still doing more than you really should have had to.

Now take our hypothetical f.e.p. If there are ten jobs that need to be done, odds are he can do between six and eight of them well enough to get the job done professionally. If it's a ten man job, odds are he has a few coworkers, hopefully nine, although there are times when he won't. The guy who can fill in any of the holes has to wait for the other nine to step up before he can fill the whole. The hesitation is often taken as laziness or lack of initiative, but it's actually a strategic choice. Were our f.e.p. to step into a role prematurely and fill a role one of the other employees is capable of, there is now an unfulfilled role and an excess employee.

All of that is pretty straightforward. Most of you playing at home can see the best use for someone like that; keep them on the bench until you have a job no one else can do, then throw them in the gap until you can get someone new. When you do, return them to the bench until the next gap appears.

Now, the failure modes, and I've seen a few.

The first failure mode is a growth failure. When a business is growing, having one or more f.e.p.s is a must; eventually you need more than just the owner / entrepreneur. However, companies often try to keep costs as low as possible, and the failure mode occurs when leadership fails to replace the f.e.p. with a speicalist once the need is identified. Instead, more and more hats are stacked atop one another until the f.e.p. fails due to overload. In our hypothetical ten role situation above, instead of having nine specialists and one guy to fill in the blanks, the company sees an individual who can perform six of the roles and repurposes five of the other people. One person, if pushed to complete six persons worth of work, is eventually going to fail, and not just in the 'fail to cmplete the task' way. Since the failure is usually a component failure, rather than a task failure, and that component was tied to several key tasks, the results are often widespread and fairly serious.

The second mode, which is related, is a failure mode that happens frequently during Recessions. When companies cut back, they frequently do the 'everyone justify their existence' thing. Ironically, the f.e.p. is often caught out. There are two common reasons. The first is excessive cycling roles, which causes the 'by the time I communicate this back to you, two of these four items will be out of date and three more will have been added' situation. When the evaluator sees the justification, he sees a person not fully justified, despite being over one hundred percent workload. the second is excessive small roles, which causes the 'None of these are justification' response. When the evaluator sees the long list, by the time he hits the bottom of the first page his eyes have glazed over, but nothing has jumped out at him, so the f.e.p. is marked as unjustified. Note that in both cases, the f.e.p. is likely holding down multiple mission-critical roles; that's what they do. However, it's often a case of 'none of these files in the windows folder look important, I'll delete them to save space'. By the time anyone realizes what happened, an implosion is usually well under way.

The final failure mode is actually what I mentioned above, the company comprised of nothing but f.e.p.s. It sounds great; anyone can do anything! However, think about the 'who does what' scenario. Instead of everyone grabbing a chore, each of them is waiting for the list to narrow to what everyone else can do. In addition, the company often has no 'core competency', nothing they're better at than everyone else. That's not quite correct; they're often quite good at things that require massive flexibility and broad skillsets in very little time, like innovation and crisis resolution, since in the first they can fit pieces together in ways others woudn't think of, and in the second, assuming they have at least one person who can manage the crisis that person can throw anyone anywhere at any time for the duration.

Ok, it's late, I'm rambling a bit. Short version, for those following along: there are folks in any business that do whatever the business needs. Every business needs some, too large a percentage can actually be a problem. They can't do everything all at once or they'll implode, and if you have one, it's a bad idea to get rid of them because they don't do any single 'critical' thing.

*Gaps in scientific knowledge are ok as long as areas of knowledge appear to outnumber gaps.
**Same here, only applied to details of pop culture.
***Ditto, although applied to areas of art.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

More on unfortunate implications in SF

Here's the 'next' from the earlier 'more on that next'. For those who are interested, a rather demanding one year old can tie up enough arms to prevent typing for over twelve hours a day. This is partially a request for feedback, partially me thinking out loud. I appreciate any and all comments, critiques, and suggestions, but I don't really expect any.

That said, as noted before, one of my characters is a big, tough, masculine, gay, black man in a community where the last two but one (gay and black) are each enough to make him an outcast, or a victim of prejudice. Between the first two (big and tough) he's become second-in-command of that community. He's more or less happy in that spot because he's in got an unrequited love for the leader of the community. Not a character that I'd be embarrassed about.

Now for what happens to that character.

In the scene where he's introduced, he's taken by surprise and Colson's Law. He's a secondary character, which means his lot in life is to be beat about a bit, so I'm not too upset about this scene. It's certainly not something that would have been one whit different had he been some other race or orientation. Plenty of other characters get manhandled in that fashion; the character doing the manhandling is tyrannical and from a culture where casual physical violence is beneath the radar. Personal judgement: possibly unfortunate slapstick, but not as problematic as, say, the name Abdul.

The next scene where he makes an appearance is as one of three guys drafted as ammo mules. Now, this one could be taken the wrong way, but the qualifications for being one of the ammo bearers was being really strong, really big, a combatant, and running afoul of the main characters. Every character that matched all of those requirements got drafted, so I'm not upset there. There's some question of whether someone will be upset by a character of obvious African anscestry is being used to carry stuff, but two others (Mongolian and Irish) are being treated the same way. The Mongolian is a member of an elite monastic order. The Irishman is a mentally handicapped (environmental factors) but good natured hunter who has become more or less an adopted clan member of one of the main characters. Really, Abdul's involvement here isn't a racial slur; it's a comment on his size and strength. Personal judgement: no orientation implications, possible racial implications, but again less problematic as the name.

Finally, there's the scene that I reread and, frankly, shudder. In a large firefight, Abdul becomes the focal point of an illustration about courage. A man can be capable of dealing with enormous danger calmly, but faced with the unknown, he can still be intimidated. Abdul has been in more fights for his life than he can clearly remember, but they all involved muscled powered primitive weapons. The firefight he's in is firing off terrain changing explosions multiple times per second, and flechettes are flying like rain. He keeps going, but he's getting shocky. The main character realizes both that he's going tharn and the reason for it (fear of the unknown) and shoots him, once, in the calf. The suit he's wearing seals and anesthetizes the wound, so what he gets is a short stabbing pain followed by numbness. Now that the danger is made real, rather than being an unknown, he settles down and completes the mission. During the point where he's going all shocky, I was writing him as stuttering due to fear. The problem is that on rereading it, it doesn't sound like a fear shudder. It sounds like a bad 'old south on the plantation working in the fields' accent. Like I said, I'm shuddering. Personal judgement: a man being fearless in a known situation can be afraid in an unknown situation, no matter their race or orientation, but the accent Has To Go. Poste Haste.

In conclusion, my thoughts are that I need to change his name and how he sounds when near breaking. The feedback I'd like is whether I'm horribly off base, just about right, or somewhere in between.

Writing, SF, and the D word.

I've recently been rereading my completed novel (XLI), mostly to make sure there aren't any major continuity errors between XLI, Ordinal (book 2), and Hope (book 3 / prequel). During that reread, I came across a potential land mine, and it got me thinking. The landmine in question is related to both racial and sexual orientation, and how they relate to the needs of the story. I'm going to meander a bit in describing the land mine, so please bear with me.

At one point in the story, I needed a character who was a strong character in his own right, but who was unwilling or unable to hold a direct leadership position. As a note, the group he is the second in command of is a group of, for lack of a better term, neo-savages. Ergo I need someone who is too much of an oddity to lead the group, strong enough to earn a high ranking position despite that, and possessing a reason for unswerving loyalty to the character I'd already put together for the leader.

The setting is in the far future on a world settled primarily by a mix of European and Asian
cultures. There are some others, but they're decidedly a minority. There are valid story reasons for that, mostly to do with subcultures that currently match a variety of criteria. The combination, in case anyone is wondering, is a strong belief in pacifism, some degree of belief in the virtues of a simplistic or primitive lifestyle, and (this is the real kicker) possession of a fairly large amount of high value or potentially high value real estate.

Now there are a few cultures that sprang to mind immediately, and a few others I pulled in as well. Immediate ones I'm familiar with personally are the Amish, the Quakers, and American 'hippies'. The others I researched and pulled in were from various parts of Asia. I'm not an anthropologist, I'm certain there ARE some subcultures in Africa or Eastern Europe that qualify. I'm just not aware of them, and couldn't find enough information to even include them as a 'long ago and far away' kind of source. So, short story long, the world is a mix of northeast Europeans (English and German anscestry primarily) and Asians (a somewhat broader mix, including Indians, Thai, Japanese and Mongolian). There are some others, but they're far less common, mostly pulled in via that 'hippie' connection.

So, an easy way to make the character stand out was skin tone. Most of the world wouldn't care, but in that particular savage subculture, any difference is a reason for discrimination. So as I'm wont to do, I pulled together several actors or famous personalities to come up with a voice, a face, a body, and a personality. Kevin Grevioux for the voice was first, and him mixed with a bit of Michael Clarke Duncan for the look. Finally, for the personality, a stong dose of the public persona of Doctor Dré. That last was at least partially because one of the inspirations for the physical look of his 'liege' was Marshall Mathers (the other was Mark Sheppard) so he was right there to mind. Finally, for an additional reason the character is both an outcast and loyal is if he is deeply infatuated with his leader.

Ok, so I've got the bare bones of the character there. Physical description; big, black, very masculine. Personality; forceful, loyal, possible residual self-doubt from being several ways an outcast. He's a supporting character for a supporting character, so I've not really put much thought into whether he's worked that out or is just suppressing it, but a moment's thought tells me that introspection doesn't gel well with the rest of the character. He's a leader, they tend to be extroverts. Finally, 'additional information' about the character; he's gay, he's in love with his boss, he's from a culture steeped in primitive hand-to-hand violence, so he's got a lot of physical courage. He's also just a touch cocky, although there are strong arguments he has cause to be. Name drawn out of a hat came out as Abdul. A bit cringeworthy given everything else, but ok.

Not too bad for a secondary character, really. Might need to work on the name. Arthur? His leader is Angus, so I might go with something not so alliterative. Most folks on the world are some variety of religious, either Buddhist, Hindu, or Christian (mostly Mennonite derivative), so something Biblical could work. That would make him some form of lapsed christin, possibly 'second gen, as it were.

So I look through my world - is he possible? Yes. Is he likely? No, but that's part of the character requirement. So what's wrong?

A lot, I've found. More on that next.

Is this thing on?

Hello out there in the wide world. For those who used to follow me on LJ, welcome back, I'll try to post with more frequency here. For those of you just tuning in here at the new location, expect an eclectic mix of posts related to writing, philosophy, politics, pop culture, and whatever crosses my mind at the moment. I'll try to keep it interesting.

For any of you who might be of a literary bent, I may post snippets of my fiction; either parts of my currently completed works or portions of my WIP. The latter is likely an attempt to get feedback on some portion I feel needs work, the former is a blatant ploy to garner an audience of raving fans who would then entice some nice agent or publisher to contact me.

Bob's Head, now on Blogger

I've been intending this move for months, really. Like most such things, it took a pointed comment from my own personal beloved to boot my butt into gear long enough to actually put things in motion.

Amusingly, the thing that got in my way last time I tried was choosing a URL. I typically use the KennyCelican moniker, as BobRoman is taken in most venues. In this case, some cybersquatter had taken KennyCelican.blogspot.com, but not taken BobRoman.blogspot.com. Go figure. At any rate, I've claimed that URL as my very own and will start posting here going forward.