Thursday, August 28, 2008

Warning signs for morons

I spent a chunk of my workday in a Genie lift hanging signs. I spent a moment debating whether or not I should place warning signs around my work area, and I decided against it. I figured that if I were to use warning signs, an acceptable sign would say, "CAUTION -- Man Working Overhead". An even better sign would be some sort of universal graphic depicting a guy overhead in a lift; it's multilingual and easily understood, even by the illiterate. But, I reasoned, I couldn't reasonably place signage larger than the actual lift and occupant -- and therefore warning signs are unnecessary. Because if a pictogram of a guy in a lift is adequate, how much better is the actual guy in an actual lift? Anyone who would see me in a Genie lift overhead, but who would still need some sort of signage to inform them of potential danger, is probably too stupid to be walking around unassisted. It would be like warning signs for a fire: anyone who needed a warning sign in front of the fire that said, "CAUTION -- FIRE -- HOT" is probably beyond help anyway. So, if I were to place warning signs, I think I'd print them to say, "Caution -- Man Working Overhead, You Moron!", because only morons would need the sign.

This being said, I was amazed by how many people actually need the sign. It wasn't uncommon to see people walking so close to the raised lift that they had to step around the outriggers. And, one guy actually sat down in a chair and scooted back so he was under the lift basket. I really don't think signage will help these people, but just in case, I'm making the signs next time....

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Writing in quantity

One of the writing panels I attended at GenCon was about fitting writing time into a busy life (the "day jobs" panel). It was eye-opening, seeing how a pile of published authors manage to cram a novel a year into their lives. One of my favorite panelists, Jim Hines, wrote his first three novels during his lunch hour at work, which is an impressive feat; another wrote on a regular schedule of two evenings and a weekend morning every week. I have trouble finding writing time in my schedule, so I was happy to hear from other people facing the same problem.

Really, my day job fits pretty well with writing. I've got odd hours, which means I get odd days off. And irregular days off are good for writing. I also work a block away from a Borders Books, which is a good place to sit and write, and six blocks from the new library, which is the perfect place to write. And, a few days a week, I've got the time to grab a laptop and wander up to the Artsgarden balcony on my lunch break and pound out a few words.

A bigger problem for me is self-discipline. It's easy for me to rationalize not writing, just like it's easy to rationalize eating crappy food and not exercising. I've got a problem with write-ish activities that I substitute for writing. Blogging? Almost like writing. E-mail's almost as bad. And reading author blogs? It's almost like building my craft, with the added bonus that it's easier than actually putting words on the page! So I end up squandering a lot of my writing time by doing write-ish things, instead of real writing.

That said, though, I had a few good days in the past week with big chunks of free time to devote to writing. The more I do it, the easier it is to write for long chunks of time. I still peak around four hours; at that point, I need to do something that doesn't involve staring at a computer screen. I even managed a day in which I pulled two four-hour chunks of writing (balanced by the fact that I did no writing at all yesterday). I suspect this would be the real advantage of writing for a living: you can fit your life around your writing, instead of fitting your life and your writing around your job....

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Zoe's Tale: another hit!

I just finished reading Zoe's Tale, the latest book in John Scalzi's Old Man's War series. It was a blast, and I recommend it to anyone who's read the previous books in the series. It takes place concurrently with the events of The Last Colony, but it's not a direct retelling; the story is told through the eyes of Zoe Boutin, adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan. I won't talk too much about the events of the story; it's fun to get a different perspective on the events in the previous book, and I wouldn't want to spoil anything. But it lives up to its premise, and more. It even made me cry, which is a rare trick for a book. If you've read the previous books in the series and enjoyed them, you need to read this one. Even if you haven't read the other books, this is a good young-adult sci-fi novel. If that sounds appealing to you, you'll probably enjoy this book. It feels like this is a stand-alone book, that you don't need to have read any of the other books in the series to make sense of this one -- but, I'm saying that having read the previous books. If you haven't, and you read Zoe's Tale, let me know if it works for you as a stand-alone novel.

The entire Old Man's War series is what I'd call "starter sci fi": they're good books to recommend to people who aren't familiar with the genre. They've got a sci-fi setting, and sci-fi tech, and sci-fi science, but at the core they're really about an entertaining story told by interesting, likable characters. The science is never overwhelming, and it's not laden with the jargon-speak that drives new readers away from harder science fiction. They're witty and clever, the tone is almost conversational, and the books are very accessible to people unfamiliar with the genre conventions of science fiction.

Much has been made of the voice of the novel, how accurately Scalzi managed to capture the sense of being inside the head of a fifteen-year-old girl. I have to say, I was impressed with the viewpoint; it really felt like it was told by a teenager. The main character's reactions felt true, and her use of language seems very much like what you'd hear from a kid. And, as an aside, when Zoe sounds the most like a clever, sarcastic teenager, she also sounds a lot like Scalzi himself....

Thursday, August 21, 2008

City budgeting. Like a maze, but darker.

I just sat through the parks committee meeting in which they discussed this year's budget, including the half-million dollar cut to the arts budget. They talked a bit about how they needed to trim $3 million dollars from their budget, and the arts cut was a part of the total cuts.

One question: did anyone else notice that they only trimmed around $780k from the city budget, over two thirds of which was the arts cut? The rest of the reductions weren't funding cuts, but expenses shifted to other line items in the city budget. They "cut" around $1.5 million by moving park ranger expenses from parks to public safety, but it's still city money they're spending. They did the same with a few other line items, reallocating parks funding for things like roads to other city departments. Without cutting actual city spending, they managed to make it look like they shaved 2.2 mil from their budget. Just about the only substantial cut they made: arts funding. And, it looks like the parks department can't even do anything about it; it's a "pass-through", from the mayor, and everyone seemed to be under the impression that it's already a done deal....

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Vacationing in public

I mentioned recently that Laura and I went on vacation. But I didn't mention it until after we were back. I suspect this is pure paranoia on my part, but it's pretty easy to connect my online presence with my location in the real world. And it doesn't seem smart to leave a searchable note telling people when I'll be gone.

This line of thinking never occurred to me until recently, when I mentioned in passing that my wife doesn't care for Howard Stern and got 200 or so (obscene, unpunctuated, grammar-free) hateful comments from the Stern Fan Network. Some of them were downright threatening; if they would've come in the mail or by phone call, instead of anonymous blog comment, I would've called the police. As it is, I wasn't too worried; there's a yawning gulf between firing off a quick, anonymous threat to someone who dislikes your hobby, and actually following through on the threats. Still, it made me realize exactly how easy I am to find; I blog under my own name, I list my employer by name, and I'm in no way anonymous or hiding. And it's at least possible that anyone obsessive enough that they're making 80 posts a day on the SFN might also be obsessive enough to find me in person....

Out of curiosity, I did a Google blogs search and found quite a few people in Indy who've got future vacation plans on their blogs, who are also pretty easy to find from their online footprint. I'm easier to find than most (being the only person with my name in the entire midwest, as far as I know), but even if you're Joe Smith or Mark Douglas, it's not hard to pin you down in the real world. It just seems unwise....

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I love making Laura roll her eyes

After dinner tonight:
Laura: "This was a nice, light meal. Or, considering the bacon, at least faux light."
Jeff: "Ahh, Foe Light: half the calories of regular enemies!"
Laura: (rolls eyes)

The mayor, the arts, and the parks

Our mayor here in Indy has had a busy few weeks. He recently announced that he's cutting the city's arts furding by 35% this year, eliminating it totally within four years. He also announced that he would like to close and sell the city's small parks to save the expense of maintaining them. My initial reaction was more disappointment than shock; the mayor's done some wavering about public support for the arts, so I wasn't surprised to see he's once again backing cuts. Also, the mayor's in the habit of speaking before he thinks. These things might not come to pass.

But it says a lot about his approach to his job and city government. For one thing, any elected official's credo should include something like, "I will leave the city in better shape than I found it; barring that, I at least won't leave it any worse." And selling parks is a one-way step. Converting a park to housing is relatively easy, while converting residences into parkland is much trickier. And, his process is shady at best, corrupt at worst. He's using an outside real-estate company to determine which, if any, parks should be sold. The company isn't getting paid for this work. Rather, they get to broker the deal for any parkland the city decides to sell, and they collect a commission on the sale. They determine if parks need to be sold, and they're essentially paid per park they eliminate.

I can't decide what to make of this arrangement, but I see two options. Option one, the ramifications of this deal never occurred to Mayor Ballard. Option two, the mayor wants to eliminate a lot of parks, but wants an outside agency to absorb some of the blame for the decision, and structured the deal with that in mind. Neither option is particularly reassuring, though I prefer the first; I'd rather the mayor be dumb than corrupt.

Both the arts cuts and the park eliminations say a lot about the mayor's take on government. City government isn't just about patching potholes and scraping the snow; one of its functions is to improve the quality of life for its citizens. I want to live in a city that people want to visit, that residents are proud of, where life is better than elsewhere. This isn't the government's responsibility, but the government has a leadership role. Our civic leaders (whether government, cultural, social, or economic) show us what's important by example. If they think culture is vital, it becomes vital. If they think parks are important, they are important. And if our government leaders decide that arts and parks aren't important, that carries a lot of weight beyond its direct financial impact. Cities are dynamic organisms, not static; they're always either growing or shrinking. The mayor should be leveraging growth, instead of trading away the city's potential to shave .2% off its budget.

For detailed information about how the city's arts funding is spent, check out the Arts Council's information page. And, sign the online petition (not affiliated with the Arts Council) to save Indy's arts funding.

Secondary exercise

I don't watch the Olympics. I hope this isn't an unpatriotic thing to admit; it's really a matter of free time (none), scheduling (weird), and commercial breaks (too frequent). But I'm impressed with the athleticism of everyone competing. Here's my odd Olympics thought: incidental exercise. I caught a minute of diving while Laura and I were out at a bar last weekend, and I was contemplating the training routine of a diver. It occurred to me that in a good day's training, the diver probably falls at least a kilometer, ten meters at a time. This is an impressive feat. But what struck me as amazing is that the diver climbs a kilometer of ladder, too. This has a very CrossFit feel to it. I could see it being one of their workouts-of-the-day: "climb ten-meter tower, jump off, repeat 100X, post time to comments". I can't think of any other sport that has such an extreme workout as a completely incidental part of the sport.

Monday, August 18, 2008

GenCon. Much fun!

GenCon was much fun this year. I spent almost all of my time at the writer's symposium, and I think I learned a lot. Especially useful were Michael Stackpole's classes on character and plot, and his "21 Days to a Novel" course. And, his class on the future of publishing was interesting. I've been following a lot of writers' thoughts about the coming changes/apocalypse in the publishing business, and I liked Stackpole's educated guesses about the future of fiction. The authors were fun to listen to and highly informative, and now I've got another pile of books I need to read. I'm really looking forward to Jim Hines's Goblin Quest and Patrick Rothfuss's Name of the Wind, among others; they were fun to listen to, and I'd be shocked if they're not also fun to read.

Plus, it was GenCon. I had a blast wandering around people-watching and seeing what's new in gaming. I fought the urge to buy anything (other than books!); I've really got enough clever t-shirts, I wouldn't really have any use for a stuffed Cthulhu, I already own more swords than I've ever used (number owned, 4; number used, 0), I don't wear jewelry, and I wouldn't ever wear a Utilikilt. and I don't really play games much, anymore, so I'm not really in the market. But it's fun to look at everything and to discover some of the clever toys gamers invent to support their hobbies. And, really, in a lot of ways the GenCon crowd is my peer group, and it's a group I only encounter every year or two at GenCon. So it's fun to hang with My Peeps for a while.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Writing Seminars

I know what defines a writer: they write. The defining characteristic isn't reading books about writing, or thinking about writing, or going to seminars about writing. It's all about putting words on a page, and nothing else really matters.

That being said, I'm spending a lot of GenCon time at the writing seminars. The guest of honor is Michael Stackpole, and other notables include Patrick Rothfuss, Jean Rabe, and Chris Pierson. I'm looking forward to spending some time with the writers. Hopefully, I'll learn something while I'm at it, too.

One minor oddity: the schedule shows some of the authors bi-locating, doing a lecture at the Embassy Suites while they're also leading a panel discussion at the Marriott. Not sure how this is going to work.

Mini-Vacation!

Laura and I just got back from an impromptu mini-vacation. It was an accident, really. We started talking about how much we enjoyed listening to the books-on-tape when we drove out to visit her mom, and thought it might be nice to do that again -- just drive around, maybe out in the country, and listen to another book. You really can't do it at home; too many other thing interfere. So we thought it would be nice to plan a drive. After a while, it turned into a drive somewhere, a stay in a hotel, and a drive back the next day. Some discussion later, it had morphed into a three-night, four-day trip, which was all we could fit into our schedules.

We found a great little spot in the middle of nowhere: Hocking Hills, Ohio. We rented a cabin not far from Hocking Hills State Park, and it was great. It was one room, with a little kitchen and a comfortable bed and nice lighting, and a hot tub on the back porch. It felt extremely secluded, even though we were only five yards from the road; the entrance, tub, and most of the windows faced away, and a small hill separated us from the road. We cooked all of our meals, and never ate out. We read, and relaxed, and soaked in the hot tub, and spent our entire vacation together. It was nice, and we recommend the cabins to anyone who wants a nice little trip like ours.

And, on the way back, we stopped at one of my favorite little bits of fun in Ohio: Young's Dairy! We had lunch, played putt-putt golf, and had yummy ice cream, in that order. If you've never been to Young's Dairy, it's a bit like Wall Drug, but much smaller, much less retail-oriented, and without the dinosaurs. Again, if you're cruising I-70 through Ohio, it's worth the five-minute detour (each way, minus ice cream time) to hit Young's. All the ice cream is great, the food is good, and the mini-golf is a blast!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Birthday gift: GenCon!

Laura just told me what she's giving me for my birthday this year: she's sending me to GenCon! This is really a good gift. I've been debating which day I was planning on attending, trying to figure out how I could get some time on the con floor, as well as catch some of the cool seminars and symposia. But it was a hard decision to make. There's good stuff scheduled every day, and I was having trouble figuring out which day was the best possible day to attend. So when Laura bought me a four-day pass, it made a good gift. It's a two-part gift, too. She's not only buying me a ticket to the con and a bunch of event tickets, she's also telling me it's okay to spend a bunch of time away next weekend, even though we've both got two days off at the same time. So knowing that she's okay with me being gone most of the long weekend gives me peace of mind, too.

My wife: she rocks!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Trading security for chocolate

I recently heard about a study done in Britain, in which pollsters quizzed subway commuters to determine their security savvy. The survey's a few years old, but still surprising. A third of the participants would tell a complete stranger their computer password. And, over 70% would tell their password in exchange for a chocolate bar. I was a bit surprised that so many people would give their password when asked. But I don't buy that so many more would be willing to part with their password for chocolate. That is, I'd believe that 30% of computer users are so unwise -- that they don't realize how much damage someone could cause with their password. But I doubt that 70% are so unwise.

But I can explain the survey results. I'm picturing myself getting asked this question. I wouldn't give away my password, no matter what. But if they offered me chocolate, I'd rattle off a string of random characters, or my cat's name (which is extremely not my password), or something, then take their chocolate. What I suspect this survey actually shows is that 40% of the population is willing to lie for chocolate. And this number seems completely reasonable. It's less about honesty, and more about giving an appropriate response when a complete stranger asks an inappropriate question.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Zombie rhymes

If you're not a regular Whatever reader (and haven't therefore seen it already), you need to pop over to Scalzi's website and check out the semi-complete, potentially-canonical list of zombie rhymes.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

That's "special"

I've noticed that the word "special" has gained a new set of usage rules. Some time during my grade school years, it was declared that we were no longer allowed to use the word retarded. The preferred term was special. I think advocates of political correctness were planning on the new terminology changing the way people viewed the mentally handicapped. Instead of the pejorative word retarded (a word which, prior to its adaptation by a previous generation of advocates, wasn't pejorative at all, and simply meant delayed or slowed), people would ideally look upon the mentally challenged as merely different; not necessarily any better or worse than everyone else, but special in their own way. But I suspect people have a pretty deep-seated discomfort with the severely mentally handicapped, and no change in lexicon will overcome that.

In fact, the effect has been the opposite. Rather than people shifting their views from retarded to special, the word special has changed meaning. Today on the bus, I heard a few younger people using the word special to mean retarded. They used it in exactly the context we said "retarded" when I was in second grade. The net effect of the politically-correct adaptation of special has been to raise a generation (mine) that doesn't use the word much at all, and a younger generation who don't use the word in any context other than referring to the mentally challenged. Plus, a set of adults (older than me by more than ten years or so) who still use special to mean special, and who sound a little silly to the younger generations.

And, a bit of anecdotal comedy. A school I worked for in the 1990s originally had a "grandparents' day", but it was decided that this might damage the self-esteem of the kids whose grandparents either were dead or lived too far away to come to school. So they renamed it "special persons day", and kids could bring any adults they chose. This was a decision made by people significantly older than me. For me and the teachers my age, our mental picture for a "special person" was "mentally handicapped", and there was a bit of snickering whenever the administration talked about "special persons day". Better, the students grew up with the lexical shift, so they made occasional snide comments to the kids whose grandparents didn't come. Which probably wasn't good for their self esteem either. The administration remained blissfully ignorant of all this, in the fashion of school administrations everywhere.

Good, gloomy fiction

I just finished Grave Surprise, the second book in Charlaine Harris's Harper Connelly mystery series. It's almost of the "cozy mystery" genre, with a supernatural twist: the main character can sense corpses and determine how they died. Both books have been good, and if you're up for a light mystery novel, I'd recommend it. But I wouldn't recommend reading them (and the third book, Ice Cold Grave) in a row. They're oddly gloomy in tone, and three of them in a row might be a little depressing. As much as I enjoyed the books, there's no two ways around the fact that they're kinda downers. It's amazing the main characters even find the energy to get out of bed, much less read graves and solve crimes....

From a technical perspective, it was interesting to read them and try to figure out what sets the tone. It's subtle, and it's amazing how much difference a few words make. It would take just a few changes (I think maybe 200 words over the entire novel) to make the main characters upbeat and perky; they're very efficiently made a bit morose and unhappy. It's a real lesson in storytelling and language use. I'm looking forward to reading a few more of Charlaine Harris's mystery series.

Another oddity, for a mystery series: the events in the second book follow immediately after the events in the first. Book one ends with Harper and Tolliver driving to Memphis, and book two begins in Memphis. If you read the first book, you already know what they're doing there. And in book two, we get some foreshadowing of what's going to happen in book three. I'm more used to series mysteries in which an undetermined amount of time passes between books, so it was different (and nice) to see books following on each other's heels.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Scrapping Vista

I'm spending a good chunk of today stripping Windows Vista from Laura's laptop, replacing it with Windows XP. It'll be a huge performance improvement; a machine with 2GB of RAM is barely adequate to run Vista, but it'll fly with XP. And, it'll crash less. This will be the third or fourth time I've had to reinstall the operating system, and we finally decided to install an actual functional OS instead of Vista.

If the second disk partition were a little bigger, I would've installed XP as a dual-boot; we could keep all the settings and software on Vista, and only use it when absolutely necessary. As it was, I overwrote Vista and reformatted the disk. I mostly followed the directions here, with only a few minor modifications. My XP disc is only as new as service pack 1, so I downloaded SP3; that, plus the wi-fi drivers and a virus scanner, were the first things I installed on the shiny new OS. It was time-consuming, but not really difficult, to find all the drivers for her hardware, and it's mostly done now.

In the interest of embracing the future, almost all the software I installed is open-source and free. We're running ClamWin anti-virus, OpenOffice for productivity software, Firefox 3 for a web browser, Gmail for e-mail, Spybot for protection, and Toucan for backup software. This is all good stuff, generally better than the expensive versions you can buy retail. Laura's got some professional software, like LightWright and Vectorworks, that's not open-source. Vectorworks is extremely not open source; it even requires an irritating USB dongle to function (and, 100% of the software's down time has been due to dongle issues, not program issues). It's shocking, going from software whose source code is readily available to software that's so locked up I can't even run it without constant hardware authentication. It's irritating, and this is the last software I'll ever buy that distrusts its users so much that it's willing to spend $25 per copy (which, of course, they pass on to us) to make their software less functional and more difficult to use. In fact, I'm in the process of figuring out how to hack the dongle; it's not about security, it's about ease of use, and the dongle radically reduces it. Ironically, it makes the software glitchier and harder to use while simultaneously not really increasing security; if it's relatively easily hackable by a non-hacker like me, that's pretty sad security.