Thursday, January 31, 2008

Art and Skill

I spent a bit of time today wandering around the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I enjoy looking at about half of the museum's collection. Some art speaks to me and resonates with my sensibilities, and I enjoy it. As with my taste in music, I'm fully aware that my enjoyment of art in no way relates to whether or not it's any damn good. Some classical art, while quite good, just doesn't speak to me. And some modern art is crap, but I still enjoy it. One day I'll have to write a huge chunk of text about my thoughts on art, but now's not the time. I just wanted to share one of my long-held opinions about art, borne out by observations of a lot of the world's finest art, both classical and modern. One of the strong dividing lines between classical art and modern art (not in academic art history terms, but in a practical way) is that modern art came about when skill and technique stopped mattering. I respect a lot of classical art, even if it doesn't speak to me; I appreciate that the artist was good at what they did, and I acknowledge the talent required to create the work. Modern art, on the other hand, is less about technique than salesmanship. It can be a work of exquisite craftsmanship, or not -- the craftsmanship is completely irrelevant to its perceived value. I've seen a lot of highly skilled artists whose work impresses me. And I've also seen a lot of work which amazes me less because it's good, and more because the artist was able to talk someone into paying for it. There's an installation at the IMA now which consists of a few pieces of yarn (cheap craft-store yarn, even!) in the shape of large Ls on the wall, and another thick piece of yarn stretching from a point on the floor to a point on the wall. Another work consists of a sheet of laminated plastic board ($65 from Meyer Plastics) painted with dichroic paint ($110/gal from Rosco Scenic). That's it -- just a 4' X 8' board painted with pretty paint. With a roller. It'd be pretty if someone painted their hallway with the nice, expensive paint. Painting sheet goods with it, though, apparently earns you a suitcase packed with cash and a place in a major art museum. This is a major work of skill, but the skill in question is self-promotion, not artistic ability. I'm appalled to say it, but we might have hit a point in the art world where the two are becoming functionally synonymous.

Funny moment at the museum: we looked at a piece of "art" -- a square piece of canvas, painted bluish, that from a very short distance is revealed to be several colors dry-brushed together -- and I started making asinine fake art-speak about it. Something like, "you see the tiny horizontal and vertical lines represent the strictures placed on individuals in a modern capitalist society...". It turns out, I was remarkably close to the actual text in the artist's statement posted next to the work. I was BS'ing; the artist was serious. Or, more likely, he was BS'ing too, but being serious about it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Oddly tired, and a side job

I got a decent amount of sleep last night, and I didn't have an unnaturally hard day at work today. Still, I'm surprisingly tired. It's 8pm, and I feel like I'm ready for bed. I'll try to do a bit of writing tonight, but I'm seeing an early bedtime in my future.

I'll need my sleep, too. Tomorrow, after I work my usual day at the Artsgarden, I head to Castleton Square Mall to do a lighting call for an out-of-town design company. We're focusing lights in a few retail stores, me and three other guys, and we start an eight-hour call after mall hours. So I'm 9am to 5pm at my real job, then I have three hours off, then I work 8pm to 5am at the mall, then I have four more hours off before I'm back at the Artsgarden. When I was twenty, I could do this kind of thing all the time. Now that I'm 36, it's a different story. I'll probably be running on fumes all day Thursday, and I'll crash early Thursday night. I might even be feeling after-effects on Friday. Tonight will probably be my last chance to do any writing until Friday after work, so I'll dive in and get as many words down as I can before they start turning incoherent.

I like this kind of job, really. It pays well, it fits my schedule, it's work I'm good at, and it's the kind of job that might lead to more work; the company I'm working for does this kind of thing a lot, and they hire a lot of independent contractors for quick gigs at a good day rate. With luck, this might turn semi-regular. And we can always use the extra cash.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Writing realistic characters

One of my little writing issues for the weekend has been about toning down my main character, a professional thief, to make her more realistic. I'm torn about the need to do so, for one thing. Big Damn Heroes are always a bit larger than life, and they always have skills and knowledge not found in the public at large. I'm not trying to write Our Town; I'm writing a supernatural suspense story about a burglar and ghosts. But it's possible to take an extremely skilled character too far; a character cast from the James Bond mold, better than the experts at everything (outskiing an Olympic skier, outflying fighter pilots, et cetera), becomes pretty boring, quickly. And I definitely don't want a character to turn into Anita Blake (lusted after by everyone, extremely badass, unnaturally capable, etc). It's cartoonish and it makes a book easy to put down.

Still, I'm not happy with the way the character's developing. And I've hit the point where I need to make some big decisions about what happens next before I do much more writing. I think I'm on the verge of needing an outline. I never thought of myself as an outline kind of writer, but it's looking kinda necessary....

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Fun with hypothermia!

I had a great time with dad this morning, and I'm glad we managed to sneak in a breakfast this week. We met at Lincoln Square, one of our eastside favorites, and spent an hour and a half talking. Dad's a genuinely nice and interesting guy, and I'm glad we've made the transition from father and son to friends. The ride there wasn't bad, either; I had a nice, strong tailwind, the roads weren't snowy, and traffic was light. And it was a balmy 18 degrees, which I was dressed for.

The ride home was another story. Laura had some minor tech trauma on her short tour, and she called me to help resolve it. This involved cycling over to DK's warehouse space and doing some digging for important parts left behind when they loaded the truck. I cycled over from the restaurant, waited for someone with keys to arrive, located parts, and cycled home. But I did two stupid things this morning. The first was wearing an all-cotton bottom layer; the second was leaving all of my layers on during breakfast. So my cotton undershirt was sweaty when I went to the warehouse and waited outside in the cold, and the wind (now a headwind, 15mph plus my cycling speed) cut through my fleece jacket and froze me in a hurry. The ride home might be my least-fun cycling trip ever; I'm okay with a headwind, but when you couple it with wet clothes and zero-degree wind chill temperatures, I was going hypothermic by the time I got home. I was shivering and numb, and starting to cramp up everywhere; I was twitching so bad, I even had trouble getting my key into the back door lock. I hopped in the shower right away and stood under the hot water until I could feel my temperature hit normal again. Other than a stabbing headache for the next few hours, I was fine again as soon as I was out of the shower. But it was a learning experience, all about making sure I'm dressed for the weather before I hop on the bike.

Election thoughts

My long-ago predictions for the primary winners were that Hilary would rule the Democrats, Giuliani the Republicans. These weren't my hopes, don't get me wrong. Just the way I suspected things would happen. Hilary still looks likely, Giuliani less so. But neither would be my ideal. On the Democratic side, I don't see any candidates I think are ideal for the job. In terms of issues, it's really hard to tell them apart. Probably Obama comes closest to what I'd like to see in a candidate, but I'm not entirely comfortable with him either. As a rule, the Democrats seem to be united in their support of pulling out of Iraq as soon as possible. Sorry, guys -- the time to oppose the war was before y'all voted for it. The fact that we're in Iraq in the first place is a national embarrassment, and our utter lack of post-invasion planning was unforgivable. But we really need to finish the job we started. We're stuck in Iraq, even though it'll keep costing us lives and capital. Stop talking troop withdrawal, start talking about how to fix what we broke. And everybody has their poorly-explained health care plan, but nobody has a plan to execute it. It galls me, but there really are no Dems I can stand behind 100%. There aren't even any candidates I like.

On the Republican side of the election, we run the gamut from the scarily religious to the Putin-esque corrupt to the impulsive and juvenile. The only bright star in the Republican sky is Mitt Romney. He might be the most sincere and trustworthy of the candidates, which should mean something to the largely values-based party. One bit of evidence: all of the Republican front-runners have been married in a church, with an oath involving things like richer/poorer, sickness/health, 'til death do us part, and all that. Romney is the only one who meant it. Not that divorce should preclude running for office, but really. The "values" candidates didn't even value their own marriages, and most of them had affairs. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, tends to live by his values. Too many fundamentalists in office fall into the trap of behaving badly, then asking (often publicly) for God's forgiveness. This crutch is built into the faith. This is one thing I really respect about Romney (and Mormons in general, really): they don't buy this. The concept of instant, unconditional forgiveness makes it easy to do whatever you want, knowing that you will always be forgiven. The general Mormon attitude seems to be that forgiveness is fine, but a huge leap better is to not sin in the first place. Romney has demonstrated this sense of responsibility and ethics in his life; unlike the rest of the candidates, he has no skeletons in his closet, no gross hypocrisies he needs to cover up. He's the only Republican in the race (and possibly the only candidate in either party) you couldn't define as corrupt, one way or another. I'm doubting he'll get the nomination; to a lot of the Republican base, Mormon is no different than Scientologist. But it'd be nice to see him do well.

Since it's looking like he's our likely Republican candidate, I should mention that while I like John McCain, he scares me a bit. I like a lot of things about the guy; he's definitely not a party robot, he's plain-spoken (for a politician), he's practical, and he tends to do what he feels is right, regardless of who he'll piss off. He seems to be reluctant to play politics, and he's willing to take unpopular stands if he feels he's right. I like that he's always pushed for campaign finance reform and fiscal responsibility, and he's been on the correct side of a lot of issues. On the other hand, I suspect he'll have little patience for diplomacy as a foreign-policy tool. And that's the President's real power: foreign policy. Any kind of tax plan or health care plan or spending bill is subject to congress's whim. But how we deal with the rest of the world rests strongly in the hands of the President. And I think his predilection for pissing people off, while fun to watch in the senate, won't serve us well in the rest of the world. American foreign policy over the next few years will largely be about undoing George Bush's damage, and I don't think McCain is the guy for this job. Also, his age worries me a bit. He's a survivor -- tough and scrappy. But he's also been through a lot. If he's elected president, he'll be the same age when he takes office as Reagan was when he left office. While I like McCain, I wouldn't be comfortable with him in office unless I really liked his VP too.

One thing I'd really like to see from any candidate is some straight talk about what to do about the really scary issues, with the utterly terrifying national debt a good place to start. But it's not an issue that sound-bites well, so we'll probably hear nothing about it.

How will I vote in November? That's a tough call. A lot can change between now and then. And I'm convinced that Democrats are on the right side of more of the important issues than the Republicans. But a Hilary/Edwards ticket, versus a McCain/Romney ticket? That'd be a tough call....

Friday, January 25, 2008

Cocooning

I'm psyched about this weekend. I don't have to work, I don't have to be anywhere, Laura's out of town, and she took the Jeep. This means I've got an entire weekend to myself with nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no weather-appropriate transportation. I'm planning on spending the next 48 hours wrapped in a blanket, in the comfy chair or on the couch or in bed, doing nothing but reading and writing and loafing. It's like a vacation -- a short vacation with no travel, but still a vacation.

Actually, I do have one little plan: I'm meeting my dad for breakfast in the morning. We try to have breakfast every week, and it's rare that we miss one. Tomorrow we're meeting at a diner on the east side, about a 25-minute bike ride away. It'll be cold, but dad's worth the trip. And, it'll keep me from sleeping in until noon. I might even hit the grocery on the way back and pick up some kind of culinary treat for myself, possibly something from the pot-pie oeuvre.

A quick edit, from comedy to tragedy

Apparently, the Health Savings Plan rep told a horror story yesterday at Laura's meeting. He was extolling all of the benefits of people being responsible for their own care and their own money, and he told what he thought was a perky, happy story about the positive benefits of HSPs. He said a client of his was in a car accident in northern Indiana, and the paramedics decided that he was banged up pretty bad and needed to flown to Methodist Hospital in Indy via the Lifeline helicopter. He stopped them and said, "how much will this cost? A helicopter sounds expensive. You need to find a cheaper way to get me there!" See here! We have a person Taking Charge Of His Own Health Care! What a tale of virtue and personal power!

I'm going to retell that quick story, changing three little words, and turn it into something hideous and appalling. Here goes, changes in bold italics:
... a client of his was in a car accident in northern Indiana, and the paramedics decided that his wife was banged up pretty bad and needed to flown to Methodist Hospital in Indy via the Lifeline helicopter. He stopped them and said, "how much will this cost? A helicopter sounds expensive. You need to find a cheaper way to get her there!"
Amazing, how that little edit managed to strip all of the virtue right out of the story....

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pardon My Ranting: new "insurance"

Laura's employer just ditched their traditional insurance coverage and picked up a Health Savings Plan. This is a high-deductible insurance plan, coupled with a tax-exempt Health Savings Account that can only be used to pay for medical expenses. You deposit money into your HSA with every paycheck, and you get a special debit card that lets you spend it on qualifying medical expenses. These HSPs are odd creatures, made no less odd by the fact that nobody, even the insurance companies, really understand them. I had a series of questions about the plan, and I received a few non-answers, and even a few contradictory answers, about the plan and what it covers and how it works.

Part of the problem is that the front-line question-answerer is a salesman. He can tell you how great, how absolutely freaking wonderful the plan is, but he can't answer actual questions about the plan. He'll gladly tell us that "a particularly appealing aspect of HSAs is that they encourage people to stay healthy". I really can't tell if he believes this or not; it seems to be based on either the erroneous assumption that people choose to get sick, and will do so less when it's their own money they're spending at the doctor; or the erroneous conflation of "getting sick" and "going to the doctor". See, you can pay for (some kinds of -- see next paragraph) preventative care from your HSA. But if you accept the premise that people are reluctant to spend their own money in the HSA on a doctor, why would you be more willing to spend your own money on preventative care?

The insurance rep can't even really tell me what I can spend the HSA money on -- that is, what is considered a "qualified expense". Here are two of my questions to the insurance rep, and his answers:
How do I know what is included as "qualified medical expenses"?
Who decides whether the money I'm spending from my HSA is for a "qualified medical expense?"
Unfortunately, we cannot provide a definitive list of "qualified medical expenses". A partial list is provided in IRS Pub 502 (available at www.irs.gov). There have been thousands of cases involving the many nuances of what constitutes "medical care" for purposes of section 213(d) of the Internal Revenue Code. A determination of whether an expense is for "medical care" is based on all the relevant facts and circumstances. To be an expense for medical care, the expense has to be primarily for the prevention or alleviation of a physical or mental defect or illness. The determination often hangs on the word "primarily."
You are responsible for that decision, and therefore should familiarize yourself with what qualified medical expenses are (as partially defined in IRS Publication 502) and also keep your receipts in case you need to defend your expenditures or decisions during an audit.

As I interpret this, they can't tell me what I can spend the HSA on, but will gladly audit me if I do it wrong. The list of qualifying expenses is fairly broad, much broader than the list of services covered by the traditional high-deductible plan that accompanies the HSA, but only the goods and services covered by the insurance plan are counted towards meeting your annual deductible or out-of-pocket maximum.

On the plus side, this newer type of HSA has a cool feature: the unspent balance rolls over from year to year, instead of disappearing. The old version was a bit like an interest-free Christmas Club savings account, with the caveat that any money left in the account on New Year's Eve goes to buy toys for your insurance agent. The new version is more like a Roth IRA (complete with a tax hit and 10% penalty if you withdraw it for non-medical expenses), except that it doesn't earn interest. They say you can invest it in stocks or bonds or mutual funds, but this doesn't work so well if you need it for actual medical expenses.

There's an old not-really-a-joke about insurance, that says the way to stay happy with your plan is to not get sick. HSPs are a lot like this, except you need to get a very specific dollar amount of sick per year....

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Word count widget

In the sidebar over there ======>> , I added a new toy: a word-count widget from Writertopia. It's right above my official atheist logo, and I'm hoping it'll serve a vital function, that of reminding me of all the writing I have left to do on my various projects. It might even publicly shame me into working on the writing more often instead of wasting time on the enormous number of things I do with my free time, other than writing. I plan on updating it whenever I do a significant amount of writing at home, "significant" defined by either word count or effort. If I'm working online (I'm using Zoho Writer), I can't check word count; Zoho is cool, but it doesn't show metrics. Feel free to harangue me if you go a few days without seeing the counter move.

And, before you ask, yes. I played with adding the word-count widget when I should've been writing.

My Profound Thoughts On The Oscars

Kidding. I don't have any profound thoughts on the Oscars.

I was just reading the list of nominees for the Academy Awards this year, and it suddenly occurred to me: I really don't care who wins any of the awards. I had to scroll down the list of nominees through the first fifteen categories before I got to a movie I had seen (Bourne Ultimatum, Film Editing). I've only seen three of the nominees on the entire list. I've been reading commentary on the awards for years, and the unifying theme isn't about the actual quality of the performances or films, it's all about the politics of Hollywood. And Hollywood's internal politics hold almost zero interest for me, ranking fractionally above celebrity gossip and fractionally below this week's Loch Ness Monster sightings on the huge list of things I could care less about (but only if I actually expended energy to care less)....

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Extremely mundane news from the Glover-Mountjoy household

We're out of ketchup.

Really, this is big news. I don't know if most households have this problem, but Laura and I spent a few years having variations on this conversation in the condiments section of the grocery store:
"Do we need ketchup?"
--"I'm not sure. We'd better get some, just in case; I'd hate to run out."
"Yeah, and you really can't have too much ketchup."
As a result, I think we peaked at eight or nine bottles of Heinz in the pantry, which we both agreed actually was too much ketchup. We finally stopped buying ketchup when we started running out of places to stack it. So imagine our surprise when we realized we were out of ketchup, when I made hash browns for breakfast:
Laura: "I think we're out of ketchup."
Jeff: "Okay, I'll get some out of the pantry."
L: "No, I mean we're out of ketchup."
J: "Did you check the cabinet?"
L: "Yes. No ketchup."
J: "How about the homemade ketchup?"
L: "It started turning sour; I threw it away last summer."
J: ".... Wait. You mean we're out of ketchup completely?"
L: "Yes."
J: "That can't be right!"
But it is. We're going to have to purchase ketchup, and soon. I don't think I even remember where it lives in the grocery store. I'll probably have to ask for directions.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A day of much writing!

Yes, much writing. And none of it here, until now. Maybe my best single-day word count in memory, and I resolved a little character trauma that's been irritating me. I pretty much did nothing all day but write. Laura and I were extremely cute; we spent probably eight or nine hours sitting on the couch, legs intertwined, with our laptops balanced on our knees, her reading while I wrote. I really like the luxury of having an entire day to write. An unanticipated bonus: having an entire day with no plans other than writing means that I can do other things without guilt. I could take a writing break to make us a nice lunch. I knew the meal wasn't cutting into my writing time, and I knew I'd be right back at it after we ate, so I can revel in the cooking and not feel bad that I'm doing something other than writing. I feel so freakin' productive!

The writing itself is interesting. I'm figuring out how to write women first-person. I agonized over this for a while -- how do I make the viewpoint sound feminine? Talk about shoes, or something? (Turns out, I do talk about shoes.) But I'm finally starting to get comfortable inside the head of my main character. And, I've got a lot of text down, considering that I still don't know exactly to which genre the book belongs. I'm also editing as I go. I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, I'd prefer to make changes when they occur to me, rather than waiting until the entire book is finished. And, the little changes can give me ideas that can take the story in different directions. On the other hand, constant editing can be a distraction from actual writing which moves the story forward. And I'm very prone to distraction. But I feel like I'm striking a good balance, doing enough editing that I'm happy with what I've written, but not letting it take over my time for writing.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Nice visit!

I had a great time with Jennifer yesterday. We started the afternoon with some loafing and talking, then I took her to dinner at the Weber Grill downtown before we went to the symphony. The show was excellent -- the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performed Beethoven's "Pastorale" symphony and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", both pieces introduced by actors. For the Pastorale Symphony, an actor portrayed Beethoven discussing his growing deafness and what inspired the piece. For "Rite of Spring", a cast of dancers and actors recreated some of the opening of the show in Paris, complete with riots in the audience, as well as Stravinsky and Nijinsky's thoughts on the piece as it was being created. It was much fun, and Jennifer and I enjoyed the show. Afterwards, we went out to the Aristocrat with Laura and spent a few more hours hanging around and talking. It was a nice visit, and I'm happy she included me in her travel plans. I don't have many old friends (people who could remind me of what a jerk I was when I was younger, but choose not to), so I really enjoy spending time with them when I have a chance. I like the sense of shared history I have with my old friends. I wish more of them lived closer to Indy....

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Special Visitor from the Big Hat State

My old friend Jennifer is coming to town this weekend! We almost never get to see each other in person; she's a Texan now, and she doesn't get up north very often. I'm really looking forward to spending some time with her tomorrow. We've even got Plans: a show at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, a nice dinner, and hopefully some nice, unscheduled time to just hang around and talk. It'll be nice to catch up in person. We've got a lot of shared history and a few friends in common, and we don't get to talk much or spend time together, except for some very rare occasions. One of which is tomorrow!

Commercial success

A film crew shot part of a television commercial in the Artsgarden this morning. It's for a national bank that's buying out a local bank; as I understand it, the commercial is designed to get the word out that the new improved bank doesn't charge ATM fees, but the subtext is to help people be less grouchy about their neighborhood bank being the latest to be swallowed by a huge, faceless out-of-town corporation. The film crew brought in an ATM and two dozen crew members and actors and a pile of video and lighting gear and spent five hours shooting maybe ten seconds of video. A girl gets money out of an ATM, walks up to her friends, and says something like, "I got it, let's go!", before they walk out of the camera shot. I had a blast working with the film crew. This kind of thing is always informative for me; about half of my time is spent actually working, and the rest is occupied by the crucial but dull tasks of Being There Just In Case and Waiting To Do Something. I spend most of the being there and waiting time talking to the crew, many of whom are Waiting or Being There a fair amount of the time as well. I learned a lot -- about the gear, the business of video, the division of labor on a film crew, the way this subset of my profession operates. Some of it's wildly interesting, and video guys have some very cool toys that I'm unfamiliar with.

I also noticed something new. The lead actor, the girl who gets the cash out of the ATM, was a pretty girl. But when she appeared on the video monitors, she transformed to gorgeous. I mentioned this to one of the camera guys (because guys talk about this stuff). He said it surprised him too, the first time he saw that happen. But it's true: the camera really does like some people. The camera has the opposite effect on other people, he said; you also find people who don't look as good on camera as they do in person. And it's apparently hard to predict how the camera will affect someone. It's one of the reasons why casting is such an important job, and difficult to do well.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Cleaning under the bed

In keeping with our goal of leading a less cluttered life, Laura and I cleaned underneath our bed. I won't say how long it had been since we cleaned, but it's been a while. Surprisingly little of the cruft beneath the bed was really junk. Twenty pairs of shoes, a small pile of tools, fifty books, and a random assortment of odds and ends (hair ties, paper clips, bookmarks, et cetera). Still, we managed to fill most of a grocery sack with trash. And I filled the admittedly-tiny dirt trap on our handi-vac with all of the dust bunnies that were breeding under there.

In a practical sense, our day-to-day life is really no different now that we've got a clean floor under our bed and less crap in our basement. We've got our books more organized; we've got our shoes more organized; I no longer wonder if the library book I lost a few months ago has been hiding under the bed somewhere (it wasn't). But knowing that the house is getting cleaner makes us happy. And it's easier to keep things clean than it is to get them clean, so we're planning on making the effort to keep the house clean. We've said this before, but this time we really mean it. Really.

New Library!

I'm writing this from the new Central Library, and this place is gorgeous. I don't even know where to start, so I'll start with the old and familiar. The original Cret building is much like it's always been: stately, granite-and-oak, traditional. The desks even have extremely traditional lamps with green glass shades. The adult fiction collection now lives entirely in the Cret building, and is organized as well as you can expect of any alphabetical collection by genre spread across three huge rooms.

The five-story glass-and-steel atrium connects the original library building to the modern expansion. It's framed with tubular steel arches, and there's not a harsh line in it anywhere. The desks are curved, the carpet pattern is organic, the layout is open and friendly. The atrium houses the main checkout and return desk and a cafe and coffee bar, and the east wall opens onto an outdoor garden. The entire building is as impressive as it is friendly. And there are computers everywhere.

The new addition is seven stories of books, digital media, and computers. It's amazingly well designed. And crammed with computers, did I mention. There's a public computer area on every floor, probably 300 computers spread out over seven floors, and that doesn't even count the actual computer lab. The books are organized in such a way that it's easy to find whatever you need. And two of the lower floors have conference and meeting rooms you can reserve or just wander in and use. The place is rife with comfortable seating, work tables, and excellent interior design. And the north and south walls are floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall glass everywhere there's not a structure attached. There's good natural light everywhere, and subdued indirect lighting to supplement it.

A few noteworthy features:
  • The bookcases all have LED strip lighting along the top edges; it makes excellent task lighting for looking at books.
  • I'm writing this at one of the many work tables scattered around the library. I've been noticing that the chair is extremely comfortable; I flipped it over and checked the label, and realized I'm sitting in a $750 HermanMiller Aeron Side Chair (model AE500P).
  • The view from the top floor of the new building might be one of my favorite views of downtown Indy.
  • The computers, which are everywhere: two years old. They were apparently purchased before the construction fiasco and resulting legal traumas expanded the timeline by two years. It's no big deal; they're mostly for word processing, internet, and access to the library catalog and databases. Still, they paid full price for machines that were two years from new when they opened. (UPDATE: a bunch of the computers are brand new. I took my sample set in the wrong part of the building, apparently; but still, a pile of their "new" computers are two years old.)
  • The glass atrium? It leaks. Speaking as someone who works in a big glass building that leaks like a sieve every time it rains, I found this a little gratifying.
  • Free wifi access everywhere. Free fast wifi access everywhere. I have no idea how filtered it is; I'm not willing to surf for pr0n just to find out.
  • The top floor of the new building houses a special-collections section full of rare books. And it's accessible by the public; anyone can wander in and touch the cool obscure expensive books.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Baking, honest critiques, and a recipe

I baked cookies last weekend to bring to work and share. I have fun with the baking, and I enjoy the coolness points I get for sharing cookies. And I share them with pretty much everyone: mall staff, the Cinnabon gang, the Arts Council staff, random strangers in elevators. It was a somewhat invented recipe, like most of what I bake these days, so I always ask for comments, critiques, and suggestions. And, after a few years and a few dozen baking experiments, I actually get honest critiques now. I think people usually assume when you ask for criticism, that you're really asking for compliments and praise. But the people I work with have had enough unusual baked goods from me that they really take me seriously. So I get lots of real criticism. This batch of cookies earned me a batch of criticisms ranging from "too salty" to "too crispy", with a very special "too much like Chips Ahoy" in the mix. And, even though I ask for a critique, and even though I'm happy to get an honest critique, I still find myself getting a bit defensive. I don't voice it, but a little voice in the back of my head always takes a little offense, and occasionally even fires out a snide comment ("what do you mean, too salty? These are great cookies! Too salty, pah! Maybe your problem is that you're too tarty, wench!"), which I also never voice. But, even if criticism stings my ego a bit, I always appreciate it. And I think maybe they were too salty, and probably too crispy too.

In any case, here's the recipe, modified a bit for less crispiness and less salt. I think me might be stuck with the Chips Ahoyness.

Jeff's Experimental Chocolate Chip Cookies, attempt # 33481

1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup butter-flavored Crisco
1-1/2 cups brown sugar
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
--cream together in stand mixer; scrape sides often, and cream extremely well. Add:
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp chocolate extract
2 tbsp molasses
--mix until well blended. In a separate bowl, mix together:
4-1/4 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
--add to wet ingredients and mix until soft dough forms; don't overmix. Stir in:
2 12-ounce bags semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 12-ounce bag milk chocolate chips
--drop by rounded tablespoonfuls (or, my preference: a #40 cookie scoop) onto ungreased cookie sheets, flatten a bit, and bake at 350 for 13 minutes. Let cool on cookie sheets for a minute or two, but not longer, before transferring to paper towels to finish cooling. Safe to store in airtight containers after half an hour, and they'll keep for four days; I suspect they'll keep for ten days, but the last cookie disappeared late on day four so that's all I can guarantee.

Enjoy the cookies! Let me know if they're too bitter, or too sweet, or too much like Ronald McDonald's Chocolate Chip Cookies, or whatever.... :-)

Another sign of aging

I did some free climbing around the structural steel at work today. There are places I need to go, and there's really no other way of getting to them, so occasionally climbing is a must. I'm pretty good about it; I'm usually wearing a harness, and sometimes the harness is actually attached to something other than me. It's really not a hard climb, though I'm no longer in my peak climbing shape (I was once in the 5.11b range -- good, but not world class); the building where I work resembles a large ladder in a lot of significant ways. But today I had a first: I had that little flash of nervousness about something I was about to do. It was nothing spectacular, just an unsecured, energetic change of preposition (from "under" to "atop") around a piece of structural steel with a few seconds of hanging from one hand, maybe 30 feet up. It's the kind of thing that only seems dicey because it's done at altitude, like walking on a beam or hand-over-handing along a pole -- with the ground a few inches below your feet, it'd be no big deal. I've done much trickier, more dangerous things. But right before I did the big lunge, I had a second of that panic-y fear: what if something goes wrong? What if my grip fails? What if my harness snags on something on the way by? Et cetera. It didn't stop me; I took an extra second to make sure the fear wasn't a message from my subconscious (maybe there was something for my harness to snag on!), then went for it without incident. But it's the first time I've ever had that happen while I was climbing anything, ever. Maybe it's a sign I'm getting older. Or maybe it's a sign I need to start exercising again, to re-develop my confidence that my body's capable of anything I ask of it. Because it's true: while I'm not in bad shape, I'm in much worse shape than I'm used to. And that's never good.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Uncluttering

Laura and I spent some time today cleaning out the basement. We never schedule a basement cleaning; we're generally inspired to the task when one of us needs something that's stored downstairs, and we either can't find it because of the clutter, or we know exactly where it is, but we can't easily get to it because of the clutter. Today's cleaning was a spin-off project of cleaning up Christmas stuff. We planned on stuffing our empty gift boxes in the basement, but we realized that we already had a five-year backlog of old gift boxes in storage. So we decided which of the old boxes were worth saving (answer: none of them), and we threw away most of them. Not all, because all the boxes we were going to toss wouldn't fit in our mini-dumpster in the alley, even after I broke the boxes down and smashed them flat. Unnerving, but true: we had saved more empty boxes in our basement than would fit in a dumpster. Not all of them were gift boxes; some were cardboard boxes from when we moved into this house in early 2001. Some were old shoe boxes. I have no idea what inspires us to save stuff like this, other than the possibility that we might someday need a box, and we'd hate to know that we just threw away exactly the one we needed.

I'm always torn about what to throw away and what to save. As a general rule, I'm reluctant to throw away anything I paid a lot of money for. I recently disposed of my old Pentium 90 desktop computer (8 megs of RAM, running DOS6 and Windows for Workgroups), which I bought in 1994 and which hasn't functioned since before Y2K. It was non-functional, yet I still kept it around for seven or eight years. I'm also reluctant to throw away anything I can't easily replace, especially hardware. At work, I have a collection of frame bolts for mounting loudspeakers. You can't buy them, but they come with the speakers. And if I were to ever re-mount the speakers elsewhere, I'd need the bolts. Am I likely to ever re-mount the speakers? No. But I'd hate to need the parts and not have them. I've also got a small collection of those little straws that come with spray cans. I don't feel bad about these; they get lost easily, and a can of WD-40 without the little straw is a lot less useful. On the other hand, I also realized while doing laundry today that I've been saving the little measuring cups that come on top of the detergent bottles. I've got three or four of them in a little stack next to the washer. I had no plan for them; I just saved them, without really thinking about it at all. I really need to start thinking, and maybe make saving stuff less of a reflex and more of a conscious act....

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Logan Runs, but I forgot him

Today, a day off!

I celebrated by watching Logan's Run with Laura. I remember watching it years ago on broadcast teevee when I was in grade school. Laura and I had fun rewatching it together. It might be one of the low points of Michael York's acting career, at least in terms of his talent, but maybe one of my favorite roles for Peter Ustinov. It's extremely 1970s, and it has some fun moments, some quality science fictioniness, and surprisingly good set and costume design for a '70s sci fi movie. And, while I remember having watched it, it quickly became apparent that I didn't remember anything at all about the movie itself.

I've experienced this a few times in the past year, with movies and books. A few weeks ago, I made it about 40 pages into a book before I figured out I had already read it (and it was a character name which finally triggered my recollection). And Laura and I rewatched a few episodes of Angel last week, and one of them didn't look familiar at all. I'm sure I watched them all when we first got them on DVD a few years ago, but I apparently forgot everything about an episode or two. If I were a bit older, I'd call these "senior moments". As is, I'm not sure to what I should attribute the holes gaping in my memory. If I'm like this at 36, I'm wildly curious to see how bad my memory gets when I'm 70....

Actual Dialogue

As further evidence that it's nice to be a guy, I present a brief excerpt from lunchtime conversation with my wife.

Laura: "Do you need a napkin?"
Jeff: "No, I'm wearing jeans."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Household hint for the cat-oriented household

At least one of our cats amuses themselves by batting at the toilet paper roll and unspooling the entire roll onto the bathroom floor. It doesn't happen often, and when it does it's more funny than annoying. But I just figured out how to prevent this, or at least minimize the mess: squeeze the Charmin. Squish the roll so you flatten the cardboard tube a bit. It won't unroll with one good tug, and the offending feline will hopefully get bored before she unwinds the entire roll a bit at a time. And it's still cute to watch.

I've been living in a cat house (heh!) for over a decade now, and I just figured this out today....

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Buffy, and Minions

Laura and I have killed some time in the last week with old Buffy reruns on DVD. We have a good time with it, and some of the episodes are genuinely good stories. But what I like best about the show is the dialogue. It's the way real people would talk, if their speech were written and edited by a team of extremely hip, clever 30-somethings. It's the way I would talk all the time, if my esprit d'escalier were operating a minute sooner. And it's funny to listen to. It's not instructive for writing realistic dialogue, but it's worth imitating if you're writing comedy or farce. The Big Bad in season five is Glory, and her episodes are worth watching for her use of the word minion alone. Her lackeys always refer to her by an honorific, and never the same one twice. When we first meet Glory, they're calling her "O magnificent one"; by the end of the season, they've progressed to titles like, "O sweaty-naughty-feelings-inducing one" and "O most pleasantly-scented one". Funny writing, good stories, characters you genuinely like: Buffy, one of my all-time favorites. It's nice to rediscover it again.

And, for extra comedy, Buffy has its own section on the TV Tropes Wiki. Even if you don't have all seven seasons on DVD, you can still hit the Buffy page and enjoy.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

I'm back!

I've been very lazy since Christmas. I haven't written, I haven't blogged, I haven't even sent (much) e-mail. I'm not sure why I've been totally disinclined to write. I think the fact that I'm still a bit sick might have a lot to do with it. I had a few days when I didn't have enough energy to play video games, much less do anything creative. I'm still a bit under the weather (it'll be three weeks tomorrow; I might actually visit a doctor soon if this doesn't go away), but I'm writing again. And it feels nice to be back at it.

I think a little part of my hardcore cross-platform writer's block might be that I saw a trailer for Jumper. I started outlining a book in early October, and I was as far as the chapter outline when I saw the trailer. It was remarkably similar to the book I was working on. I was a bit shocked to see plot issues I was hammering on resolved on the big screen. Even though we're talking sci fi here, I don't think the producers (or Steven Gould, who wrote the book upon which the movie is based) leapt back through time and burgled my idea; it's not really an original idea. I got the basic concept from a brainstorming session in which I was exploring story potential from characters who can imitate Dungeons and Dragons spell effects, and from a vaguely-remembered character named Tempest from the old Atari Force comic books.
But it was still off-putting, seeing it in a movie trailer. I've set that piece aside for a while; I might eventually get back to it. But it won't be soon.

Upon further reflection, I'm not sure why having a remarkably similar work on screen was so discouraging (and a bit depressing). A lot of good fiction resembles other good fiction, to one degree or another. And you can go some wildly different places with the same basic idea. An example from my recent reading: we've all seen The Sixth Sense, and I would've considered having a main character who can See Dead People to be pretty unoriginal. But I've read quite a few wildly original entertaining books recently with an assortment of main characters who interact with the dead: Kat Richardson's Greywalker series; Cherie Priest's Eden Moore novels; Casey Daniels's Pepper Martin mysteries; even Laurell K. Hamilton's ever-more-sucking Anita Blake novels all start with a character who Sees Dead People, one way or another. None of these books bears any resemblance to The Sixth Sense, or to each other. But they all start from a similar premise before they take it in wildly different directions.

In any case, I have to see Jumper when it hits the theaters. And probably read the book too.