Friday, June 30, 2006

fireworks

Until this year, the only fireworks that have been legal in Indiana have been pretty tame: sparklers, smoke bombs, spark cones, things like that. Nothing that blows up or launches in any way was legal. Sometime around 1990, the state changed the law so that you can sell any kind of fireworks, but you can only use them out of state, or in designated fireworks-safe areas staffed by firemen. How did they enforce this? You had to sign a waiver where you purchase your fireworks promising that you'll only use them out of state or in designated areas. So if you were willing to part with that tiny part of your soul for lying on paper to the government, you could legally buy any kind of fireworks without driving to Ohio (where the laws are more lax on the matter), and set them off wherever you wanted. And enormous numbers of people did.
This year they changed the law; you can now legally buy fireworks, sans waiver. People are debating how much impact this will have on the fireworks industry; last year they estimated the sale of banned fireworks to be $48 million dollars, $37.50 of which were actually detonated in approved areas (and that by accident). If this year's sales aren't any bigger, that's a pretty good indication that the fact that it was illegal didn't actually influence anyone's buying habits last year.
Better yet, let's do math. Let's assume that dollar-value sales roughly correlate to number of buyers. It's not a perfect assumption, but it's probably not too far from true. Given that, divide last year's total sales by this year's total sales, and multiply by 100. The resulting number is the rough percentage of the fireworks-using population who are willing to lie to do it. It's a little lie, but still -- I suspect the number's larger than I'm comfortable with. And, of the crowd that's completely okay with a little dishonesty if it gets them what they want, I wonder how they vote? This might explain a lot -- people willing to be a dishonest in writing are probably more forgiving of elected officials being substantially dishonest.
UPDATE: I just read that fireworks dealers are now estimating that at least 10% of their sales are to out-of-state customers from Illinois, Michigan, and Kentucky, where laws are stricter.

Bit o' funny

Years ago, Dave Barry was a guest on Prairie Home Companion. He and Garrison Keillor did a "Lives of the English Majors" together, and it was hilarious. That link takes you to a transcript, and there's a link at the top of the page for the audio in RealPlayer format. Yeah, RealPlayer. Sorry. But it's much funnier with sound effects, so if you've already got Real installed go for it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

drug dealers and bad neighborhoods

I was lamenting the fact that the Thug Squad doesn't seem to notice or care that they're part of the problem, helping turn a decent neighborhood into a worse one. It finally occurred to me: if your vocational goal is to sell drugs out of the back of a '64 Impala with 21" gold rims, a crappy neighborhood is actually to your benefit. For one thing, while bad neighborhoods may (possibly) have more police presence than good neighborhoods, they have much less effective police presence. A cop's job is harder in bad parts of town; the lower the neighborhood's baseline, the harder it is to distinguish something bad from something that's just normal. Three thug guys hanging on a street corner in downtown Carmel (or even Broad Ripple) attract a lot of attention; here, they're just scenery. Bad neighborhoods are better markets for dope, crack, and street crank. And, the crappier the neighborhood, the easier it is to feel like the Big Dog. A mover/shaker in the thriving drug trade can feel pretty darn important and badass, but the ego boost isn't there if your neighbor the attorney makes ten times the money and doesn't list getting shot as an occupational hazard. Milton (or was it Khan Noonian Singh?) quoted Satan talking about ruling in hell, versus serving in heaven. If you don't think heaven's an option, ruling in hell probably seems like a pretty good deal.

I think I'm getting (more) cynical....

Kitty drama

Our youngest cat, Jayne/Meeper, is having health problems. The first symptom popped up last week when he developed a lump on his side. We took a close look and decided he probably got scratched (or maybe stung), and it got infected. The lump went away in a day or so, but the next day he developed another one on the other side. It appeared over the course of three or four days, and started to worry us when it hit the size of half a racquetball. We were going to take him to the vet today, but the lump was gone this morning; in its place was the gaping hole the infection drained through. So I spent an hour this morning cleaning up the blood and pus that leaked from the wound after it opened. I did the CSI thing and figured the lump popped when he hopped off the kitchen countertop; the signs were obvious, but you're probably happier not knowing details. Blech. The Meeping Cat is much perkier now, and the gaping hole seems to be healing already. He hates hydrogen peroxide, but it really helps clean the wound. We're hoping the kitty trauma is over. If he develops another sore, we're taking him to the vet pronto.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

What day is it?

I spend a lot of time not knowing what day of the week it is. I think the problem is that days of the week aren't just lines on a calendar; they also have cultural significance. I could probably keep track of one or the other, but I get lost when they collide. I spent all day yesterday (Monday) thinking it was Sunday. I was almost right, in that it was a cultural Sunday (the second of two days off, before a day back at work). And today really feels like a Monday. I don't think this is much of a problem for people who work a regular schedule. If you work every Saturday, you probably adjust pretty quickly. But my schedule is pretty erratic: some evenings, some late nights, some regular days, some really early mornings, and a nearly-random number of weekends. And, I usually get two days off every week.
I'm not complaining; it's actually liberating. I enjoy having odd days off in the middle of the week. It forces me to manage my time better. It's a good time to write, which I should be doing more of anyway. But I'm being better about writing. I haven't played a video game for two weeks, which I'm pretty proud of. And I've been reading more than usual, too. I had gotten in a reading rut, wherein I was mostly reading familiar things by familiar authors, but I'm now doing a lot of reading outside of my normal boundaries. And picking up a bunch of new authors in the process, yay!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Anti-gentrification

I wonder if there's such a thing as anti-gentrification. We bought our house with high hopes that the neighborhood would "gentrify" -- that it would become a nice, almost trendy place to live, where young professionals would start bidding wars when homes went on the market. Because that's what actually makes a neighborhood nice: the people who live there.
So far, the gentrification hasn't happened. In fact, we're just starting to see the opposite: our retired neighbor across the street, Jack, is moving because he doesn't feel safe in this neighborhood anymore, and doesn't want his wife trapped in the neighborhood if something happens to him. He's the second to leave. Bruce and Karen (two doors down, owners of a flower shop on Washington Street) left last summer at least in part because the neighborhood wasn't safe, and he thought the likelihood of someone stealing all the tools in his garage was high and getting higher. It's a bad sign for the rest of us, when good people decide they're no longer willing to take a chance on a neighborhood. We're losing good neighbors and taking a complete gamble on who'll replace them.
We're doing what we can, which isn't much: being good neighbors, taking care of our house, taking walks around the neighborhood. The mechanics of gentrification are otherwise out of our hands. Can you think of a nice neighborhood with lots of rental properties? In Indy Broad Ripple is the only one I can think of, and that's supported by intense amounts of trendiness. Lots of rental housing signals a bad neighborhood. Where property values are higher, landlords have less incentive to rent and more incentive to sell
It's a cruel system, really: in a broad sense, neighborhoods improve when property values (and property taxes) increase to the point where poor people can't afford to live there anymore. The bottom 20% are financially forced into ever-worse housing in ever-worse neighborhoods. Or, what I fear might be happening here: those who can afford to leave a bad neighborhood, do. Then the neighborhood declines.
I'm not trying to whine here. It's just been on my mind a lot recently. I was reading in the backyard yesterday, and the back of my brain was paying attention to the sounds of various neighbors' pre-Fourth of July fireworks, trying to pick out if any of the noise was actually gunshots. It's not a relaxing experience.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Turkey Chili

I should preface this by saying that Laura makes the best chili in the entire world, possibly the best chili in all of space/time. She has understandably high standards for chili and an equally understandable distrust of canned food products. This afternoon we were trying to decide on an easy dinner. As close as I can remember the conversation:
Jeff: "I've got some Trader Joe's Turkey Chili in the cabinet."
Laura: "It's canned chili."
J: "It's good canned chili."
L: "It's canned chili. It's chili. In a can."
J: "It's way better than Hormel or Dinty Moore."
L: "That's not really helping."
J: "It's even better than Steak-n-Shake chili in the can."
At this point, Laura gives me the Look. It's adorable, and it possibly warps reality: she can convey all of the effect and nuance of looking over her glasses at me, without actually wearing glasses.
J: "Or...we could order out some Italian food."

And it was good Italian food: Some Guys Pizza, at 62nd and Allisonville Road. She was a good sport about the chili, though. I heated some up so she could taste-test it, but she didn't like it much (that is, she made ick-ing, thwa-ing noises). That means I can hoard the chili for when she's not home, bwa ha ha.

Deep advice

My wife is usually the first person I turn to when I need to vent, discuss deep things, or lean on a sympathetic shoulder. Laura's a good listener, she's always there when I need sympathy, and she tends to give good advice. I finally made the connection recently that a lot of her good advice is, "get over it." Verbatim. This actually says a lot more about me than it does about her, because in almost every case, "Get Over It" is exactly the advice I need. Even if it's not exactly what I want to hear. I think that's what a good wife (or a good friend) does: tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. If I want to grouse about any of the topics in the GOI category, I can always take it to the cats; they're more than happy to sit in my lap, be petted, and listen to me whine about just about anything. As an example, my quasi-midlife crisis is on top of the pile of "get over it" topics. But any of the cats will gladly lay down on my chest and patiently listen to me whine about lost opportunity or life direction, provided I pet them occasionally while I grouse. They're very good listeners about a large number of topics ranging from writer's block to home repair to complicated physics and math. Of course, if they could talk I suspect they'd probably say, "Get over it, and scratch behind my ears more." Because we have practical cats, and it's generally sound advice for most problems. And getting scratched behind the ears is always pleasant.

Are we still in Kindergarten?

We had a band at the Artsgarden for an event last night. They brought their own sound guy, so most of my work revolved around setting up and tearing down. During most of the actual event, I finished Joe Haldeman's Forever War (and it was good, more on that another time). We were a little nervous about the band; party bands can be difficult to work with, and we've had lots of experience with them. This was a band that's been around forever (no names mentioned, sorry), but I'd never worked with them before. I was willing to be optimistic. But we had warning signs as soon as they arrived. Chris said, "uh oh--Bon Jovi hair!", which is never a good sign. And we watched their guy singer throw a tantrum over something inconsequential during sound check, also a bad omen. The real kicker was the bass player, though. At one point during the performance, the band's sound guy went up to the stage and told the bass player to turn down his amp. The BP went over to the amp and pretended to turn it down. No kidding, he made turning gestures with his hand a few inches from any knobs. A few minutes later, when the sound guy went up again to tell him that, yes, he really meant it, turn the amp down, the bass player stormed back and turned the amp off. I'm glad I wasn't the sound guy for this, though I might have enjoyed telling him to grow up and pretend we're not still in kindergarten. And the BP wasn't some kid; he was probably in his mid-40s. I guess the old saying can be true: you're only young once, but you can be immature forever.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

More PC irritation

I've had a little tiny motherboard problem ever since I built this computer. If I boot the computer with a thumb drive, flash media, or my MP3 player plugged in, the computer forgets which drive is the boot drive. I have to restart and reconfigure the BIOS every time I slip up on this. There's no actual fix for the problem, other than to remember to unplug everything before I turn my computer on. Occasionally I forget; usually, I forget when I'm in a hurry and just need to check a movie time online or something. The fifteen minutes it takes to fix the problem is a pretty serious inconvenience. This is one of the hundreds of little PC quirks that's tempting me to go Mac....

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Soccer

We had a bit of a crowd gathered around the television in the Artsgarden when the USA - Ghana soccer match was playing. I was the one of two in the crowd rooting for Ghana. It's easy to be labelled unpatriotic these days, but I really didn't want the US to win this one; it's not our sport, and we don't take it seriously. We've already got basketball, American football, baseball, and usually hockey wrapped up. We don't need to add soccer to the list. I'm glad to see some other country, one that actually cares about the game, take the tournament.
Did you know -- the Ivory Coast actually called off a war so everyone could concentrate on the World Cup soccer matches?

Downtown, on the bike

I enjoy riding my bike to work. It's just over four miles each way, which is a pretty quick ride. If I'm riding for exercise, it takes me about seventeen minutes; if I'm riding for transportation, it's a 25-minute ride. And most of the ride isn't through the scarier parts of the neighborhood. I like the exercise, I like the fact that I'm saving gas, and I like being a good influence. That's how change happens in a socially-driven place like America: if enough people are seen doing something, it becomes acceptable. I'm hoping that biking to work becomes normal, so I'm doing it now while it's still the purview of exercise fanatics, Green Party members, and guys with suspended driver's licenses. On the cutting edge, that's me.
It's got a few disadvantages, though, almost none of which are my fault. In order of seriousness:
1. Idiots. Imbeciles are generally a problem in all aspects of life, from politics to grocery shopping. Usually they're a minor irritation, but when you're on a bike idiots have the ability to make you dead. They change lanes without looking, they pass too close, they don't look where they're going when they round a curve, they don't use turn signals, and --worst of all-- they don't notice bicycles. Not to overgeneralize, but a lot of idiots drive huge SUV's.
2. Weather. More than once, I've driven to work on a beautiful sunny morning and driven home in an afternoon torrential downpour. Weathermen are less accurate than I'd really like....
3. Cargo. Nobody has yet invented a great way to carry a tool bag on a bike.
4. Sorry, there's no way around it: helmets look dorky. But I'd rather look dorky than crack my skull. And you look even dorkier after you've left a patch of scalp on the asphalt.

Windshield!

The insurance company finally got around to replacing my windshield yesterday. No rush, it's only been three months. But the guy who came out and did the work was great. And now I've got a new windshield! Yay!

Do I even need to mention that the last three weeks of delay was caused by the insurance company losing my paperwork?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Going Mac

I've been considering getting a Mac recently. I had a semi-serious computer failure a few days ago; not a reinstall-the-operating-system crash, more a matter of lost drivers, program failures, and optical drives not recognized. But every time a minicrash like this happens, I spend a fair amount of time cursing Windows and wishing for an OS that works the way it's supposed to without constant tinkering. I don't know that I'm tech-savvy enough to go Linux (even more tinkering-heavy than PC), but I'm considering installing it on a separate partition or drive for experiment's sake. I'm also thinking about going Mac. I'm pretty sure that the next computer we purchase won't be a PC. By the time we can afford a new one, Vista (the Microsoft replacement for WindowsXP) will be everywhere, and from what I hear it's a lot like the latest Mac OS. Being a MSProduct, Vista will of course be buggier, probably by orders of magnitude, and will require constant updating. So if I'm going to have to learn a new OS and upgrade all my software anyway, I might as well go Mac.
Macs fill an odd price point. I think it's because there are so many more PCs to choose from: there are really only three kinds of Mac desktop (iMac, Mac Mini, and Power Mac), but a quick search of this month's Computer Shopper found over a hundred PC manufacturers, each of which sells at least three or four models. A bottom-of-the-line Mac is functionally equivalent to a good PC, and a high-end Mac is better than any Windows box. In keeping with this, the cheapest Mac desktop is almost double the price of the cheapest PC. The cheapest Mac laptop is almost double the price of the cheapest Windows-based laptop. The cheapest Mac is still a great computer, though; the cheapest PC really isn't. In the middle range, a $2000 Mac laptop outperforms a $2000 PC laptop. It's not even a close comparison. And, just for comedy's sake, I did a comparison of the other extreme of the price range. The most expensive PC you can build at Alienware (the most expensive PC company I can think of) costs around $9000. The most expensive Mac you can build at Apple's website is around $21,000. I can't believe there are people who will actually spend $21k on a computer. If there are, I need to devote some time to separating these people from some of their loose cash. :-) I'm hoping that, if anyone actually does spend that kind of money on a computer, they're using it to render Pixar movies or something.
Going Mac is a sign that my computer use is shifting focus. Do you know the only really good argument for using PCs? Gaming. That's it. If you don't game, a PC is in no way better than a Mac. If you game, PCs are an easy choice. PCs support an enormous range of video cards and sound cards, and the newest and baddest are always PC-only. And, most importantly, most games aren't even available for Mac. A quick survey of the game CDs littering my desk shows only two games (out of nine) that are available for Mac. And Mac games are rarely discounted, so you pay the full $50 for any recent Mac game. But these days I'm spending a lot less time gaming and a lot more time writing. I've only played games twice in the last two weeks, and only for an hour or so at a sitting. It's been months since my last gaming marathon. Instead I've been doing a lot of writing, most of it not here. Going Mac is a sign that my priorities are shifting away from the mindless play of video games, toward the slightly more mindful play of writing. Plus, I have a mental picture of writing in little coffee shops on a slim Mac laptop, maybe at a little cafe located next to a major European river. Gotta have a Mac for that. :-)
The Mac shift isn't really an option for a while. Like the cars, we'll be running the computer until it dies. But a new computer is a nice toy to daydream about. The daydreaming phase is even better than the shopping phase. My imaginary bank balance for daydreaming is limitless, but my shopping is harshly limited by real numbers. Plus, the Mac daydream comes with a new desk. The imaginary desk changes with every iteration of the daydream, whereas the physical desk is limited by my admittedly substantial carpentry skills and changes much more slowly. In another serious break from reality, the imaginary desk has absolutely no clutter on it. That's not going to happen in real life.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Body Shop

I spent a good chunk of my weekend doing body work on Laura's Jeep. She (the Jeep,that is) developed a rust spot on the front driver's side wheel well from a bad factory weld. The rust spot was a three-inch circle, and by the time I was done grinding all the hidden rust away I had a five-inch hole to fill. I've never done a patch of that size before, so it was a little experimental. After the wild Bondo adventure, I made a quick painting mistake that took me almost two hours to correct. Oops. I did the final painting this morning, and I'll buff it in a day or two. I'm hoping it turns out well; wish me luck.
We stopped on Saturday to get paint, but the Jeep dealership said they don't carry it in a spray can. He told me to visit Sherwin-Williams. So Sunday we stopped by Sherwin-Williams, only to be told that the normal retail shops don't carry it either; they have a special auto store that carries the correct paint. This morning we went there, where we learned that they sell it only by the gallon. So we ended up visiting Auto Advantage for some generic black paint. It's not a great match, but I should be able to correct some of that when I buff it. Maybe. In any case, it'll be better than the big rust spot.
It's been my general observation that I only figure out the right way to do a project once it's finished. That's the case with this, too. I learned important things about masking (and when not to), sanding, and priming, and I learned them all by screwing something up. And I learned a new Bondo trick. If you've got to do body work and you don't have much experience, drop me a line and I'll share my deep knowledge. If you've already done lots of body work, you almost certainly know more than I do, so I won't be any help to you.
And, a quick story. Years ago, I went with a friend to pick his car up at a repair shop. While we were waiting, I watched a guy detailing a classic car. He was an impressive painter; just watching him improved my technique. But I noticed he was painting the words, "Cutlas Supreme" on the back of the car. I asked my friend if I should tell the painter that there should be another S in "Cutlass"; he said no. He'd eventually notice the mistake, but it was too late for a neat correction. If I was the one to point it out he'd probably vent his anger at us, which might negate the discount my friend was getting on his car repairs. People generally have no problem with killing the messenger.

Friday, June 16, 2006

More books

I finished Sara Gran's Come Closer on Tuesday, about two hours after I started it. I'm recommending it if you're up for a quick, creepy read. I started it with low expectations; I didn't expect much originality from a book about someone who gets possessed by a demon. But it's a very well told, original story. I really like Sara Gran's writing style, too; she reminds me in turns of early Kathe Koja (from the Skin days) and Poppy Z. Brite (whose collection Wormwood -- originally titled Swamp Fetus, which was apparently deemed too unpalatable and unsalable -- contains my favorite gothic short story ever, "The Sixth Sentinel"). If you're up for a quick, good read, I'm recommending Come Closer. I've got another of hers on hold at the library, and I've got high hopes.
I'm also almost finished with Patrick McManus's The Blight Way, his first foray in to novel-length fiction. He's one of my favorite humorists, and he's very good at it; even after several readings, I still can't make it through most of his stories without laughing out loud. So I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt with this book. It's an average mystery at best, but it's told in McManus style, so it's still entertaining. If I weren't familiar with him in advance, though, I probably wouldn't have made it through the first twenty pages. But if you're feeling like some outdoor humor, his collections of stories are as good as you'll find.
I'm also re-reading the good parts of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum mysteries. They're fun, quick reads--exactly what you'd expect from a decent series mystery. Like a lot of series mysteries, it's half novel, half travelogue. The books all contain a plot involving her bounty-hunter job, a little bit of love interest, some family wackiness, and a lot of New Jersey. The writing is really entertaining. One of the funniest scenes I've ever read is about two thirds of the way through Hot Six. If you're curious run to the bookstore, pick up the paperback, and read a few pages, starting on page 256 with "Mitchell and Habib were waiting for me when I pulled into my parking lot". The only backstory you need is that Mitchell and Habib have been following her, hoping she'll lead them to someone they're looking for. They started friendly, but have been making vague threats that get more threatening as the book progresses.
It's weird, but if I actually retype the funny part here I'm in serious copyright trouble. I'm okay quoting the sentence above, so I'm not sure where the line falls, but quoting two pages would definitely cross the line. Hey, Janet (and St. Martin's Press) -- it's free marketing! If people read the good parts, they'll want to buy your books!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Google Maps. It Rocks!

Quick story. Laura went to Michigan yesterday to visit a friend and see Elvis Costello in concert. The plan was to drive back today and get home in time to go to her rehearsal tonight. She just called; the CHECK ENGINE light just blinked on in her Jeep, so she pulled off the interstate near Fort Wayne and called me. I walked her through the quick diagnosis and decided she needed to have it checked out before she got back on the highway. She told me which little side street she was on, I pulled up Google Maps to locate her and googled "Jeep dealership Fort Wayne Indiana" to find the closest repair shop. I used the Google Maps satellite map to find where she was and navigated her to the nearest dealership, telling her what turns to make, which roads she should be crossing, and what lane to be in. She pulled into the lot, said thanks, and hung up to talk to the Jeep guys.
The technology involved just boggles my mind; this wouldn't have been possible two years ago, and it wouldn't have even been the stuff of sci-fi ten years ago. She's on the road a hundred miles away, and I could not only find her exact location on a street-level map, I could also find the nearest Jeep dealership and precisely navigate her between the two points using a satellite map. It was precise navigation: "the next intersection, just past the gas station, turn right. Two lights, turn left. It'll be the third car dealership on the right." It's amazing how clear the satellite map is. You can see which intersections have stoplights; if you can't see the lights themselves, they cast pretty distinctive shadows. And, if you pay attention, you can even tell roughly which car dealerships you're seeing. How? If you see a row of big white vans, you're looking at a Ford or Chevy dealership, not Toyota or BMW or Audi.

Update: she just called. Her throttle position switch died, so they're replacing it. She should be back on the road in a few minutes. I think I need to taker her out to dinner tonight.

Decaffeinated

In preparation for my hiking adventure, I'm thinking about going caffeine-free for a while. I don't know that I'll feel like brewing coffee every morning in the wilds of California, and I definitely won't feel like lugging along my espresso machine. And I absolutely, positively don't want to spend my first two backpacking days with a splitting caffeine headache. So I'm going to start easing back slowly on my caffeine consumption. It's a good idea, even if I weren't going hiking; I'm consuming far too many caffeinated beverages these days, and soda might be the least healthy thing I consume. I figure if I start cutting down slowly, I can be decaffeinated with no headaches in a few weeks. I hope the detox doesn't make me surly. Or, more surly.
And, some caffeine comics from The Whiteboard, Dork Tower, and Sinfest.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

After the flood

I wasn't working yesterday, so I missed the flood. The main office has a new dishwasher in the kitchenette, and the plumber apparently didn't connect something right. When everyone showed up for work Monday morning, water was pouring out the front of the building. We occupy the fifth floor, so the damage was pretty substantial; the law office on the fourth floor was traumatized, and the tech company beneath them had little actual damage but much wet-computer panic. I had our portable sound system stored in a closet. I'm sure I lost one speaker, and the other one might not be in any better shape. And the cute little portable sound board got wet, but I suspect it'll be fine when it dries out. We're going to have a lot of drywall replaced, since it doesn't recover well from being wetwall. And we'll probably have carpet problems. A few wet computers will probably be replaced too. For the floors beneath us, the damage is worse; the water came from above, so it got into everything.
This is an expensive mistake. An actual unretouched quote from the Arts Council's director: "God, I hope Jeff didn't do the plumbing." No, it wasn't me. The building manager hired the plumber, and he's insured. I'm amazed at how much friendlier the insurance company is for this than they were for all of the residential hail damage a few months ago. Then again, it's in their best interest to be friendly; we're not their customers, and it's pretty easy to sue them for this sort of thing if they give us any grief.

Monday, June 12, 2006

And The Library

I just returned a pile of books to the library. I had seventeen books checked out, which is a lot even for me. I returned ten books and picked up another five that were waiting for me on hold, so it was a net loss. That's a good thing. I'd eventually like to have my list down to six or eight books at a time, since that's the most I can actually read at one time without forgetting which character is in which book. One advantage of having eclectic tastes is that it's easier to keep your books straight. I suspect if you were reading half a dozen swords-and-sorcery fantasy novels at once, it would get pretty confusing. It's easy to keep my reading straight, since my current list consists of a graphic novel (of the X-Men ouvre), a sci-fi novel (re-reading Old Man's War), a modern horror novel (Come Closer, from Sara Gran), a sociology book (Our Own Devices, by Edward Tenner), a series mystery (a self-guided tour of Stephanie Plum's best moments), a book about writing (Stephen King's), a book about how the brain works (Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot), and a Discworld book (The Truth).
Now that I'm thinking about it, I'm not sure why I'm incapable of reading just one book at a time. It's been years since I've even tried. Maybe I should make it a project to not start any more books until I've finished all the ones I'm reading now, and try to read just one book at a time for a while. Or at least cut down to two: a print book and an e-book. Or maybe three, if I add a nonfiction book. Or four, at the very most; I can't be expected to give up my audio books. And books I'm re-reading shouldn't count towards the total.
This line of reasoning sounds familiar. I once heard an alcoholic say almost the same thing: he only drinks at dinner. And after work. And you have to drink at parties. And weekends were made for drinking. Maybe I've got some kind of literary addiction. It's a good thing we've got a good library in town, or I'd have to trade my book addiction for a cheaper fix, like crack or meth. :-)

The Hike

I'm getting excited about the trip to King's Canyon in August. I de-cobwebbed my backpack (literally; it's been living on a shelf in the basement), tossed some gear in it, and went for a walk this morning. The pack used to be second nature, but I haven't really used it for eight or nine years. It'll take me a while to get used to it again. I'm hoping specifically that it takes less than two months, since I'll be back from the trip by then. I'm also hoping it'll be a decent pack for this kind of trek. I really don't want to buy another pack before we leave; I'm already going to have to buy boots and some gear. Backpacking is close to the cheapest vacation you can take, but it still costs money.
Speaking of money, this trip has a fatal flaw. Laura crunched the numbers and informed me today that we can't both afford to take a vacation this year. A side job last week ended up not happening, and that was going to be vacation money. Because I'm going on the hiking trip she can't go to her mother's in Virginia, and she can't go to Oregon in August. When she told me, I started making arrangements to skip the backpacking adventure and just have a vacation at home, but she absolutely forbade me to cancel my hiking trip. I feel like a selfish jerk; when I heard about the hiking trip, I didn't really ask her about it before I started making plans. I'm suspecting that it'll dig into my enjoyment of my trip, knowing that my hike is costing Laura her vacation. And she's a lot more into vacations than I am.
It'll also be odd being out of touch. No e-mail, no internet, no phones: it gives new dimensions to the phrase, "primitive camping". Spending a week out of cell phone range is a hardship in the new millenium, and it'll be the first time Laura and I haven't shared at least a good-night phone call at bedtime. On the plus side, this'll be my first solo trip since we've lived here. I hope Laura enjoys some time to herself in the house.
On a lighter note, I've got a few books on backpacking on hold at the library. A few hiking books will help me get in the mindset for the trip. Reading doesn't equate to experience; the menu is not the meal. But reading about something makes the actual experience more vivid, more real to me. The way I tend to relate to things through reading might be one of the reasons I became an English major.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

energy bars

In the interest of eating healthier I've mostly given up eating Cinnabons. It's a challenge; I work fifty feet from a Cinnabon store, and the managers give me a hefty discount. If I'm hungry and want some cheap food, it's even closer and cheaper than the $1.89 Einstein's peanut butter bagel. My dietary substitute for Cinnabons comes mostly from the sixth food group: the bar group. So I'm working my way through the various options available, trying to find something that's yummy and reasonably healthy. I've also got an ulterior motive for bar exploration. I'm not sure yet what we'll be eating on my upcoming trip to King's Canyon, but I suspect that at least part of our diet will be in bar form. So it'd also be nice if I could find a yummy bar that doesn't melt or get nasty in heat. My front-runner for taste is the Met-RX Big 100, in Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. But it gets unpleasantly sticky if it gets too warm, and it stays that way even if you put it in the fridge. My other big favorite is from Promax. They've got a high-protein slab o' Double Fudge Brownie that I like, but it's got a very meltable chocolate coating. Actual brand-name Powerbars are the clear winner for durability. They're tough like car tires, but they also have a long-standing reputation for tasting like sweetened sawdust. I might end up sticking with Clif Bars, which have been a travelling-snack staple of mine for years, plus they come in a dozen good flavors.
Since I've been bar shopping, I'm amazed at how many of the offerings are low-carb, especially the protein bars geared toward exercise fanatics. I'm not opposed in principle to eating low-carb energy bars, but they all either use unpleasant artifical sweeteners or sugar alcohols (which cause digestive issues not unlike Olestra) in place of the actual sugar. Have we hit a point where it's just assumed that if you're exercising, you're automatically embracing the Atkins? I'm definitely not on the low-carb plan. I like my bagels too much, and I'd have a hard time trading in my Trader Joe's Cinnamon Mini-Wheats.
It just occurred to me -- wouldn't it be cool if the South Beach Diet actually required a pilgrimage to South Beach at some point during your diet? It'd be just like Muslims going to Mecca, with more strenuous eating restrictions. I could picture a whole host of copycat diets springing up, based on cool tourist destinations. We've already seen books about how French people don't get fat; imagine how many people would jump on the bandwagon if those diet plans required a trip to Paris or Provence. Now we need a Maui Diet, or an Aruba Diet, or a Caribbean Cruise Diet. Now that I think about it, though, a Carribean cruise would be a pretty bad way to lose weight....

Saturday, June 10, 2006

That Scalzi Guy

Just came from John Scalzi's book signing at Don's Books in Kokomo (Indiana, that is). I bought a copy of Old Man's War and a copy of The Ghost Brigades and had him sign both. I already own the books, but I think it's important to support bookstores who bring authors in for things like this, so I bought books from Don's for the signing.
I enjoyed Scalzi in person as much as I enjoy his writing. He seems like a great guy. He stuck around past the end of the official signing time to talk, which I really appreciate. And, after chatting with him for a while, I've got added enthusiasm for his upcoming books. He described Android's Dream as sci fi the way Carl Hiaasen would write it, which is a strong incentive to read it. And he's got a book about writing coming soon. Even if I didn't know who wrote it, I'd probably buy a copy based solely on the title: You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop To A Coffee Shop: Scalzi On Writing. It's a pretty small print run, so if you want a copy it's a good idea to pre-order it at Amazon.
Talking with the author was more than fun; it was also highly educational. I mentioned a while ago how much I liked his invented names, that I appreciated that they were original and pronounceable, and today I found out where he gets his names. And I learned quite a bit about the business of writing, which is always a good thing. It was oddly encouraging, even though Scalzi's own story has Cinderella aspects to it. F'rinstance, he never submitted Old Man's War to a publisher; someone at Tor saw chapters on his website and made him an offer. That never happens. But in writing, as in most of the world, what looks like luck really isn't (I'm thinking it was Pasteur who said that fortune favors the prepared mind). Scalzi has contacts and business sense, he's got an established fan base from a substantial web presence, and most importantly he can write very well and can write fast. So it's a tiny fraction of luck, and a lot of skill and planning and work. And that's heartening for my own potential writing career; I can work hard, and I can even plan. We'll see about skill. :-)
I should mention that this is the first time I've made a trip to meet an author. My first rabid fanboy day, and it went well!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Activist judges?

Politicians of every stripe play with language. It's part of the game. A nice catchy name and some clever phrasing will go a long way towards making your point, even if you don't have substantive arguments. My recent peevish use of language is the phrase, "activist judge". It's usually in the plural: "activist judges", because it's almost never used to complain about an individual judge. What "activist judge" actually means, in practice, is "any judge anywhere who disagrees with me about any issue, and dares to rule that way in a court of law". You'll notice that the people who spend the most time tossing the phrase around have yet to apply it to judges who refuse to grant judicial bypass for abortions. Or to judges who strike down environmental protection laws. The term is usually used to vilify a group of judges who have decided to take the law into their own hands and declare someone's pet law unconstitutional, even though a group of legislators have approved the law and an executive has signed it into law.
Okay, time for some legal review. That's actually in a judge's job description. One of a judge's duties is to rule on the constitutionality of laws passed by legislatures. It doesn't actually matter if the majority of people approve of something or not. That's not how democracy works. Our system of government is designed to protect the people at large from what's been referred to as the tyranny of the majority. So, for instance, even if 51% of the population believes that eating carbohydrates is bad (you laugh, but it's coming!), the government isn't allowed to ban soda and pasta. The beliefs and sensibilities of the majority aren't allowed to override the rights and privileges of the minority, no matter how much the majority dislikes carbs. Or abortion. Or homosexuals.
This isn't absolute, though. One person's rights end where another person's rights begin. Or, as they say, my right to swing my fists ends where your nose begins. All moral issues aside, this is the legal issue with the abortion debate. At what point do the rights of a woman and the rights of her fetus/baby intersect? It's a serious grey area, largely dependent on personal philosophy: when does life begin? At what point is a fetus a separate item from the mother? That's why it's a tough legal, moral, and ethical question. And that's why gay marriage isn't. All political grandstanding aside, it's not a legal issue; the right of two people -- regardless of gender -- to get married in no way infringes on the rights of any other person.
But you can't really say, "all political grandstanding aside" about the Defense of Marriage Amendment, because it's all about the grandstanding. It was guaranteed in advance to have too few votes to pass. It wasn't even close. It's an attempt to rile up the lowest-common-denominator voters and give senators something to show them. It appeals strictly to people who can overlook ethics violations, corruption, an unnecessary war, Katrina's aftermath, and financial and budgetary malfeasance, as long as a senator hates dem queers enough. I'm embarrassed that congress and the President even tried this, and I'm also a little embarrassed for America that it'll probably work.
It's blatantly obvious that this issue is 100% about homophobia. And I'll keep believing that until someone in congress proposes a real defense of marriage amendment: one that not only defines marriage as between one man and one woman, but also prohibits divorce, outlaws prenuptial agreements, and bans divorcees from public office. Better yet, prohibits any corporation with a divorcee officer or board member from receiving government contracts. If they're so interested in protecting marriage from the "threat" of legal homosexual unions, why not also protect it from the much more visible threat of divorce? Heh.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Phenomenal Cosmic Power

I've noticed that a lot of fringe religions -- like Falun Gong, Scientology, and a whole pile of Hermetic traditions -- promise their adherents some type of Phenomenal Cosmic Power. This amuses me, since I've never actually seen any adherent of any of these religions actually manifest Phenomenal Cosmic Power. I once saw a Baptist minister manifest Phenomenal Purchasing Power (he drove a new Rolls Royce), but that's as close as I've come. I've experienced no walking through walls, no levitation, no manipulation of time and space, no psychic gifts, just people going through the motions and wishing for the best. And I'm okay with that; to a large extent, it's what religion is about.
What I can't figure out is why people keep falling for the promise of Phenomenal Cosmic Power. I spent years practicing a scary Indonesian martial art with the goal of developing Phenomenal Pummeling Power. But I actually saw the intended power manifest in the people who had been at it for a while; silat promised the ability to kick ass, and you could actually watch the advanced practitioners engage in much ass-kicking on a regular basis. It was often demonstrated on my particular ass, so it was a very concrete example. And true to its promise, I eventually acquired the Phenomenal Pummeling Power, along with the usual host of benefits people obstensibly study the martial arts to obtain: discipline, physical fitness, confidence, agility, et cetera. But a lot of vaguely cult-ish religions promise the PCP, sight unseen. Why do people buy it?
Maybe it's faith; that is, after all, what separates a religion from a science. Or maybe it's good marketing. The literature of Falun Dafa assumes that advanced practitioners can manifest all sorts of abilities, from flying to invisibility to walking through walls. They even promise that early in your study, an advanced practitioner will heal you of all of your physical maladies. But they're only allowed to heal believers; to heal an unbeliever would be to erase his karma (bad karma causes illnesses), and that wouldn't be right. And if they can't heal you, it's because you've obviously got karmic issues to work out. And, it would be likewise bad to demonstrate the other PCPs to unbelievers. Better yet, Falun Gong has made it a tenet of the faith that, sure, you might have these amazing abilities, but you shouldn't actually use any of them. The English translation of the Zhuan Falun is full of things like this: So you aren’t allowed to show off like that. And you’d probably do bad things since you can’t see the underlying reasons, and you can’t see the essence of things. What you think of as doing good could turn out to be bad when you do it. So you aren’t allowed to use them. Their salesmanship is pretty good, too, in that they only talk about the PCP in roundabout ways. The Zhuan Falun often says things like, "The ability to walk through walls is not a good reason to begin the study of gong." Scientology follows much the same "theology". If you advance high enough in the faith, you'll gain much PCP. I quote: An Operating Thetan is a spirit who can control matter, energy, space, time, thought, and life. But you have to work your way up, and Thetans aren't allowed to demonstrate any of their PCP; it's secret.
Secrets are also how most of the Hermetic sects keep their PCP out of the public eye. And they have a powerful tool in their spiritual toolbox. The first steps of the training develop your mental powers of sensory visualization to the point where you can visualize something so strongly that you can't separate your vision from reality. Isn't this much the same as training yourself to hallucinate the results you want? And, since it's secret, you can't do it in front of any non-believers who might not be as prone to hallucination as the inner circle.
The irony is, I don't actually disagree with a lot of the fundamental tenets of scientology, or Falun Dafa, or even hermeticism. I think scientology has some good teachings that can truly help a person live a more fulfilled life and come to terms with some of their inner demons*. Falun Dafa is an excellent practice, both physically and spiritually. And the meditation, exercise, self-knowledge, and personal development required of a hermetic acolyte are very enlightened. In the vast pantheon of religions, they could probably compete on their own merits. I just don't understand why they feel the need to sell themselves with the promise of Phenomenal Cosmic Power. After all, most mainstream religions reserve the PCP for the founders and the saints, and they've got no shortage of acolytes....

* Unfortunately, they also teach you how to come to terms with space alien time travelers.

the lighter side of shootings

We did have a quick moment of comedy with last night's shootings. When the gunfire started, Laura woke up and asked me what the noise was. I think she was expecting me to say something relatively comforting, possibly involving firecrackers or a car backfiring really fast. Instead, I turned in my sleep, said, "handgun. Nine millimeter automatic," and fell back asleep immediately. At which point she said, "oh, okay," and fell asleep herself. We just might be a little jaded by the neighborhood. :-)

Scary neighborhood

Indy is still reeling a bit from last week's shooting: four adults and three kids killed execution-style, almost a mile from here. The police have suspects in custody. Apparently the shooters heard a rumor that this family had a pile of cash and/or coke in the house. They didn't, it turns out, but the gunmen were planning on killing everyone anyway. This is the worst multiple murder in Indy's history, and it's a little unnerving that it happened in our neighborhood.
We had another shooting last night around midnight, another narcotics-oriented robbery gone wrong. Two guys kicked in the door and shot three people, none fatally. This happened TWO HOUSES AWAY from our house. Needless to say, Laura's a little unnerved. When you're buying a house, you spend a lot of time listening to the old mantra about location, location, location. There's actually something to this. Our house would be worth five times as much if it were located at 58th and Penn (about five miles away); it's a better neighborhood, but we can't afford to live there. Apparently the trade-off for an affordable house is the increased chance of being killed by a stray bullet -- or, better, the increased chance of being shot on purpose. We've already experienced a pretty broad spectrum of the Transitional-Neighborhood Blues: random gunshots, thug teenagers, broken windows, car break-ins, MadDog bottles smashed in the street, the need to lock your door even when you're home, and an inability to take a walk after dark. And, I pulled bullets out of my neighbor's garage wall last week.
The list doesn't include bad neighbors, because those can live anywhere. But our own particular version of bad neighbors is unique to worse neighborhoods. Across the street and three doors down, the prostitute just moved out. After her umpteenth arrest she ended up on home detention. This was less effective than you might think since hers was, ahem, a home-based business. Her clientele didn't seem to mind the ankle monitor. The real comedy with her was that she finally got in serious trouble with the law. No serious consequences for her arrests for prostitution or for selling drugs to kids -- her big run-in with the law was for a zoning violation. See, she had added a business entrance on the side of the house so her customers could get right to the professional space without walking through the kitchen and living room. And our neighborhood isn't zoned for business. It didn't matter at all that the business in question was illegal, either.
Our worst neighbors ever are long gone. When we moved in, their house contained two adults, eleven kids, and nobody employed. Tony, the dad, was educational; he had more ways to game the system than I would've thought existed. He actually found some kind of federal energy-efficiency grant to change their gas appliances for electric. Because the electric company can't shut your power off if you've got a child under 18 months in the house. And they always had a kid under 18 months. They ate better, or at least more expensively, than Laura and I did; they got more in food stamps than I earned in a month. A neighbor told Lisa, the mom, that he had caught several of her kids spray-painting grafitti on his garage. The mom gave the kids a good yelling-at -- for being dumb enough to do it in daylight and get caught. We had a running joke about the fact that we had lived here for almost a year before we heard Lisa's speaking voice; all she ever did was scream and yell.
So, yeah, I'm a little down on our neighborhood at the moment. I love our house, our cats, our garden, and (most of) our neighbors. But I'm feeling the need to keep scary cutlery close at hand in my own house, which isn't really a peaceful state of mind....

Sunday, June 04, 2006

more on e-books

Thought I should expand on something I mentioned in that last post. E-books, as you purchase them, are really pretty limited. If you buy a print book, it's yours. You can legally read it anywhere, you can cut pages out and hang them on your wall, you can highlight it and dog-ear pages (shudder), and, most importantly, you can give it away. The book is your physical property; you're even allowed to sell it when you're done reading it. Contrast this to the heavily-DRM'ed version of an e-book you buy. You have to do something complicated to read it on multiple devices. You can't share it with friends. You can't even paste bits of it into your pithy-quotes file. You can't bulk-search the text. The proprietary readers for DRM'ed books lack some important features of open-source text, like the ability to change fonts or resize something to fit on a page. All this for essentially the same cost as the print version. And, none of this benefits the authors, or even the publisher.
How do you discover new authors? Very rarely, I'll see an interesting-looking book on the shelf, buy it, and enjoy it so much that I buy other books from the same author. Mostly I discover authors through friends' recommendations. And these generally come with a book attached. I never hear a friend say, "I just read this book that might interest you. Go buy a copy and tell me what you think." Usually it's, "Here's a book you'll enjoy. Let me know what you think." If I enjoy the writing, I'll buy more from the same author. If I really enjoy it, I'll even buy a copy of the book I was given, so I can have one in my own library. E-books that you can't share don't really benefit anyone, but they actively hurt the word-of-mouth of less well-known authors by making it more difficult for potential fans to discover their work. If you're Stephen King or J.K. Rowling this word-of-mouth book sharing isn't really a factor in your success. But if you're almost anyone else, your publisher's not doing you any favors by making it more difficult for people to discover your work. Especially given the way bookstores stock authors who aren't on the bestseller list (see last week's post for more on that).

And, a quick book story. One of my favorite books in college was Illusions, from Richard Bach. It's entertaining, it passes for meaningful, and it's a quick read -- what more could a college freshman want in a book? When I finished reading my copy, I signed the inside of the front cover and gave it to someone in my dorm. They finished it, signed it, and gave it to someone else. A year later, when I was a sophomore (as opposed to three years later, when I was still a sophomore), one of the guys in my dorm said he had a book I'd probably enjoy. And he handed me my old copy of Illusions, with two dozen names written inside both covers. I almost wish I would've kept it; instead I passed it on. I wonder if it's still out there somewhere. I'm picturing it now: held together with tape, names scrawled in margins, pages reglued where they had fallen out....

Saturday, June 03, 2006

e-books

Around 1997, a technology guru named Edward Tenner wrote a book called Why Things Bite Back. It's an excellent book that concerns itself with technology's revenge effects -- the unintended negative consequences of positive technological improvements. I recommend it to anyone with a slight geek streak, a taste for nonfiction, and a sense of irony. Some of what he talks about has been in the news; as an example, he talks briefly about the widespread use of antibiotics aiding antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Some of it's also thoughtful and more obscure. For instance, he discusses the utility of milk crates. They're sturdy, easily stackable, useful for storage, great for lugging stuff around, and with a few zip ties they can become many kinds of college-student furniture. But you can't legally own them. Sure, you can buy flimsy versions at Target. but if you want decent milk crates, the only way to own them is to steal them.
The milk crates came to mind when I was shopping for e-books last week. I spend a lot of time reading text on my Axim handheld, but the deck is stacked against you if you want to do it legitimately. Here are the options:
1) download works that are either public-domain (translates: ancient) or licensed for free distribution. This is not a horrible option; much good writing is available with a Creative Commons license, and a few publishers make works available to the public for free.
2) buy e-books from online retailers. This is problematic for a couple reasons. First, a relatively small list of titles is available for e-book. Second, I just did a sample of ten random e-titles at Amazon; the average e-book is just under 80 cents cheaper in e-format, which is less than 10% discount for saving the publisher the trouble of printing, storing, and distributing a physical book. This is true for books currently in hardback as well as paperback. Third, the e-books are only available in intensely inconvenient DRM-limited formats that make them difficult to move between devices. Half of my sample of ten aren't available in any PocketPC-compatible format, and none of them will work on my old Rocket E-Book. The MS Reader format requires you to install their software and give them an unpleasant degree of control over your computer or handheld. To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, I've never spent time wishing that publishers would devote expensive engineering efforts to making sure I can do less with what I pay for.
3) hack. A pile of websites and newsgroups offer hacked e-text, usually scanned and OCR'ed. The advantages are that it's free and that an enormous catalog of current work is available. The disadvantages are that it's technically illegal and a lot of the work is incomplete and poorly edited.
So, what do I do? About half of what I read is free online. I'm trying to read this year's Hugo and Nebula nominees, and a fair amount of them are temporarily available for free. I also dump web pages onto my Axim's memory card so I can read them offline. And a lot of interesting history is available for free online. The other half of what I read is hacked. I don't like taking advantage of publishers, and especially not of writers, so my general rule is that I only keep hacked copies of things I already own in print. It's nice being able to reread some of my favorites without having to carry a pile of books around or having to locate them in my extensive library (some of which lives in boxes in the basement). I don't really consider this unethical.
As far as I'm concerned, the biggest advantage of e-text isn't that it's convenient and portable. The big advantage is that it's searchable. I spend a lot of time trying to remember in which particular book a scene occurred, or which character generated a witty phrase. Being able to perform a text search of my e-book directory is pretty darn convenient. And, might I add, only possible with non-DRM formats like text or html. You can't bulk search Acrobat or MS Reader documents.
As an aside, I still have my old Rocket E-book resting in its cradle on top of my computer tower. It's a nice way to read text: it's got a much larger screen than my Axim, it's got handy buttons, the battery life is around 35 hours on a charge (my Axim usually manages between 3 and 4 hours), and it never crashes. Unfortunately, I rarely use it; it's mostly for when I'm at home in bed. The backlight doesn't keep Laura awake, and you can switch to large text with a single touch of a button, which is handy when you're not wearing your glasses. When I'm not home I've usually got my Axim handy, so it's my normal text reader. Carrying the Rocket around in addition to the Axim, my phone, and my tool pouch, might require that I trade in my belt for a Batman-style utility belt. And, really, the only way a utility belt looks cool is if it's accompanied by a cowl, a cape, ripped abs, and the Batmobile. The other reason I rarely use my Rocket is that you can no longer buy content for it; the company that made it has closed its doors. So it's now offically useful only for reading public-domain text in .txt or .htm format.

For an interesting quck read about selling e-books, check out John Scalzi's thoughts on the matter. For a longer take on why DRM is a bad idea in general, check out the transcript of an amusing talk Cory Doctorow gave at Microsoft headquarters.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Scary bookstore trivia

I wandered into the big Borders Books on Keystone today. I was looking for a copy of John Scalzi's Ghost Brigades, so I could take it to Kokomo next weekend and have the author sign it. Imagine my surprise when I found out they didn't have a copy on shelf. I had one of the staff members (the manager, it happened) check the computer, to see if it was maybe end-capped somewhere, or in some special section. Turns out, nope. They only had one copy, and someone bought it last week. They had another copy on order, but it was still a few days away. We started talking, and she told me that it's policy that they only stock one copy of any given book at a time. The only exceptions are special publisher's promotions, current bestsellers, and previous bestsellers written by the most popular authors. I asked her if they were worried about competition from Amazon; she said they really weren't. I said that Amazon wasn't going to keep me from going to bookstores, but bookstores were starting to turn into a place to hang out, instead of a place to buy books. She said that was fine. A rough quote: "look around the store. Notice we've moved a lot of stuff in the last few years? That's because it bothers people if you cut down shelf space, but if you move a whole section, you can't really tell that the new location is short by 200' of shelf space. The promo section is all new, and the coffee shop has tripled in size over the last three years. Anyway, all most people want is the newest book in the news or the latest Sue Grafton or chick lit. Not stocking obscure books doesn't really hurt us." This bothered me, and it took me some thought to figure out why: my mental map of what a bookstore should be is a combination of sacred ground and book warehouse (though the mocha and scones are a nice touch). I keep forgetting that what bookstores really are are financial engines designed and managed to make the maximum return on investment for its owners. And I can't help but notice that a side effect of the current system is to stack the deck against new authors.

By the way, I decided to just buy a copy of Ghost Brigades and Old Man's War at Don's Books in Kokomo when I go for the book signing. I figure it's good to support bookstores who have authors in for signings. And I'm working under the wild assumption that they'll have copies there. :-)

Spicken and Spurkey

This might only be funny to me, but I'll share anyway. Laura bought herself a few birthday gifts, so I told her I'm going to buy myself one when the time comes. The first random gift that came to mind? A Home Spam Maker! I don't know if there actually is such a thing, but it's turned into a running joke. You can make your own Spam-like meat products out of anything -- you can make Spicken, or Spurkey, or even Spork. You can use fish, and make your own Spuna or Spalmon. You could even branch out into vegetarian products, like Spofu or Spalafel....

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Boss

Laura and I went to see Bruce Springsteen last night. Laura, being a Jersey Girl, is a HUGE Springsteen fan. Not as big a fan as the people we were in line with, who were apparently the Bruce version of Deadheads. This was the third time they had seen him on this tour. It was a great show; he's very high-energy, and it was entertaining to watch. The music was good, too -- this is the tour for the Seeger Sessions album, so it's not the traditional Springsteen fare. A lot of the repertoire was folk music and old protest songs, and his new band is more of a traditional folk band. Amongst others, he had a tuba player, a banjo, an accordion, a dobro, and three guitar players. I could tell there were three guitar players because I saw them onstage; I really couldn't hear them in the house mix, even when they were soloing. The only guitar you could usually hear was Bruce's. I think the sound guy was trying to emulate the sound of the same band playing acoustic in a very small venue. This isn't actually a good thing; the mix was heavy on the brass and percussion, and you wouldn't have even known the guitars were there. The banjo was pretty clear throughout, but the dobro and steel guitar were only noticeable during solos. The lighting was odd, too. It didn't look good if you were looking at the stage, but it looked great on the big video screens. Lighting for the cameras instead of the audience is one of Laura's pet lighting peeves.
My other issue with the performance was the ego show. Say you're Bruce, standing on stage looking out at 6,000 fans. You know for a fact that everyone out there paid a minimum of $45 -- some paid as much as $300 -- to see the show. It's a good assumption that they know who you are, that nobody's there because they wanted to go to Ozzfest and got the date wrong. The Bruce knows for a fact that everyone present wants to see him perform. So it irritated the crap out of me that he stopped in the middle of a song to make the audience applaud and scream before he'd keep playing. It went something like, "Hold it. Do you really wanna hear the rest of this song?" "I don't think you really wanna hear this song. Do you really wanna hear this song?" He did this three different times in the middle of the same song. I know this is pretty accepted concert etiquette for live shows, but it still irritates me. Dude, get over your ego and just play the damn music.