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Friday, December 31, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 12/31/10: Adios, 2010!

...and here we are, twelve-plus hours and counting until it's officially 2011. (Except for Watkinson, who as usual is already living in the future.)

I don't know about you, but for me, 2010 was an awful year, for reasons most of you already know. I don't want to dwell on them, but I for one will not be sorry to see 2010 become history, and to wake up tomorrow morning with something simulating the appearance of a fresh start.

How about you? What is the one thing about 2010 that you will be relieved to see receding in the rearview mirror as you leave it behind, like a really bad roadside diner?

The "no politics" lamp is hereby extinguished for twelve hours and the "kvetching" light is temporarily lit. Have at it. Get it out of your system.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Critical Thinking

The Gift of Words

Yesterday morning, as I was pulling on sweats at the scandalous hour of ten-thirty, I heard Maj Tom in the kitchen, scolding the Creature. I made my way downstairs and kissed the boy on the head. Maj Tom ranted that the Creature had commented that his eggs were cold and he overreacted and of course apologized. All said with a growly voice and a scowly face not normally seen on someone in the middle of a two-week break from work. I told the Creature that daddy needed snuggles, so we hugged him while tried to mope and growl and eat his own re-microwaved eggs.

I asked him what he wanted to do today. He’s spent the last week doing for and driving for others. I brought up a movie. The Creature brought up his remote control helicopter. Maj Tom brought up a funeral.

A couple of months ago, an old friend of his from high school mentioned on Facebook that she was in town. We met up with her and learned she was there to help her best friend who lived south of us and was fighting cancer. Tom knew the friend, although he hadn’t seen her in years. She died before Christmas, leaving behind a little girl. Tom couldn’t get ahold of his friend and didn’t know when or where the funeral was—besides today, sometime, in town.

And that’s why he grouched at the Creature for cold eggs.

A few days before Christmas, we went over to our friends’ house for dinner. My first novel, “Joshuwu Bradley: Rocket Scientist,” was loosely based on our family and theirs living on a space carrier. Rent-a-Kid, the daughter who’s a few months older than the Creature, was the inspiration for the character Greta. I’d emailed that book and a couple of others to my friend while she was deployed to Iraq for a year. These last few months, she and her daughter had read Joshuwu together.

“When are you sending me the next one?” my friend asked. I asked if Rent-a-Kid like the story. “Yeah, she kept asking when she was coming on again. And she was upset that she didn’t get to save the day.”

No “Greta”—“she.” That wasn’t a character in a book, it was Rent-a-Kid.

“But she did,” I said. “They never would have survived without her smarts.”

My friend laughed. “I think she wanted to fight more.”

“Well,” I said to Rent-a-Kid, “the sequel is all about you. I just have to write it.” Her blue eyes got huge, begging me to get started.

The next day, Tom’s parents arrived. I don’t get along with his mother very well. We’re alike in the wrong areas and different in everything else. She talks a lot. Stories, complaints, criticism, more stories that turn into complaints…I don’t talk a lot unless I’m caffeinated, and then I tend to say the wrong things.

Okay, she talks a lot unless she’s mad at me for something, and then she barely speaks to me. And she didn’t say very much the last two days they were here. I was worried that she’d explode all over Tom the morning they were to leave. Why? I dunno. Maybe because Rent-a-Kid’s mom calls her mother-in-law “mom” and I don’t. Maybe because I cooked chicken for Christmas dinner. Maybe because I had been sick while they were here.

So yesterday, before I left for work in the wee morning hours, I found some stationery and wrote a thank you note. I thanked them for coming, wished them well on their winter in Arizona, and put the fateful word “Love” before my signature. When Tom came downstairs, he called and asked where I’d put the card. I told him, but it was gone. Seemed someone had already been downstairs and found it. And it seems to have worked. The morning went very well—no last-minute drama as is custom.

At work, I logged in donations, played around in Excel to track donations by state (Colorado, Texas, and Missouri are big givers; Rhode Island, not so much), and worked on a couple of articles. The question page is down for the holidays so our writers don’t have to worry about deadlines in the midst of everything else.

But I bet the writers are starting to miss it as much as I am. Sometimes we get argumentative pickle-heads, and sometimes we can’t find the right words to get through to someone. But, every once in a while, we do get through. A couple of weeks ago, a man ask if he could be married in heaven. Three times he came back, intellectually understanding my canned answers, but still wondering, if God really loved him, why he couldn’t be married? This guy must really love his wife, I thought. But it’s pretty clear that there is no marriage in heaven.

So I told him a story. I said right now, it’s like we live underwater. When we’re young, we’re fitted with scuba gear and tethered to our parents. Our parents check our tank levels and clean our face mask and maintain our hoses. When we grow older, we join with a group of friends. If we’re lucky, we find one friend that we like enough and trust enough to tether ourselves to permanently. We check each other’s tank levels and maintain hoses. If our mask gets cloudy or lost, the other can hopefully still see clearly enough to keep us out of trouble. We learn to avoid the giant squids and the pirates and dangerous currents.

But, one day, the seas dry up. Land pokes out into the sky. We walk onto the sand, then the grass, and realize that we don’t have to rely on the air in our tanks—we’re surrounded by air. We don’t have to worry about cracked lines or broken regulators or fogged masks. The light is bright and clear, and we can breathe. There are no dangerous currents or giant squids. So we strip our scuba gear and unclasp our tethers. And from then on out, we may choose to stay with our friend, but we don’t have to. It’s a completely different world.

And this guy thanked me. Profusely. He said he finally understood. I was floored. It was just a little story I made up on the spur of the moment. But it meant everything to him. And we get quite a few comments like this—people thanking us for explaining things they’d always wondered about.

I think what I’ve been learning about this last month is the gift of words. Spontaneous notes, researched articles, stories. And not just our words. I got a Kindle gift card as part of my bonus at work. (I love my job!) The look on Maj Tom’s face when I sat down at the computer and asked him which Louis L’Amour books he wanted on my Kindle—worth every dime. On Monday, his parents took us to lunch at one of those places that take forever. The Creature was getting restless. I called him over to my side of the table, pushed a few buttons, and asked him which Magic Tree House books he wanted—right then and there. “Dolphins at Daybreak”! “Tigers at Twilight”! They were only a buck a piece and he was elated.

And I think that’s why Maj Tom was so cranky this morning. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to give his words. He’s very good about knowing what to say in any situation. He wanted to see his friends and his friend’s family and say the words. “I’m sorry. I remember. I’m here.” So, I plugged in the friend’s name, “Colorado Springs funeral” into the great searcher of words—Google—and found the information. He wolfed his breakfast, took a lightening shower, and ran out the door in time to catch the reception. In time to give his words.

May the words you say and write this year be a gift. May you be able to say what you need to, and may your readers and listeners understand.

“Say only what helps, each word a gift.” The Message

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

I have a confession to make. Actually, I have several confessions I could make, but this one, being fairly benign, is the one I will make today. While roaming through the aisles of my local BigBoxMart, trying to complete my Christmas gift shopping, I spotted this piece of cinematic mind-candy, and somehow it fell into my shopping cart:

I bought it because it's, um, digitally remastered, and because my old VHS copy was, uh, getting pretty worn out, and because, er—

Aw, heck. Because I really like it!

Why? I dunno. Because it's loud, and bright, and colorful, and just totally over-the-top fun! It's a 1930's comic strip brought to life; the costuming is straight out of an operetta, the sets are lavishly ridiculous, the actors were given free rein to chew the scenery shamelessly, and the spacecraft were steampunk before steampunk was cool. Add to that the wonderful, pulse-pounding, soundtrack music by Queen — any sci-fi movie, no matter how stupid, (and I'm looking at you, Highlander) is improved by adding soundtrack music by Queen — which sounds even better in Dolby 5.1 and makes this movie one of the few actually worth having the subwoofer and surround-sound cranked for...

It's the anti-Star Wars. Pure mind-candy. Totally fun. Utterly nonsensical. No pretensions of seriousness at all. A lesser filmmaker would have blown the entire budget just giving the hawkmen working animatronic wings, but De Laurentiis didn't bother with any of that. It's as if his entire attitude was, "They're hawkmen. They can fly. Shuddup and watch-a the show."

I know, as a serious sci-fi person, I'm 'sposed to look down my nose at this one, but I can't. I love it.

How about you? What's your guilty pleasure; the sci-fi movie you know you're supposed to hate, but you actually love?

Let the arguments begin.

Temporary Upload Test. Pay no attention to this image.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The 12/24/10 Friday Challenge Finally Arrived on Tuesday of This Week


Monday, December 27, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

As I've mentioned in earlier columns, the year is almost over. We're closing in on the time when we're expected to come up with all our resolutions for the new year. I've never been really big on those things, rarely think about them and even more rarely bother to make them. This year is going to be different. I'm not only going to issue a few resolutions, I'm going to make them publicly. Who knows, maybe that will help me keep them. And so, I hereby resolve to:

Finish writing a novel, preferably the one I started during NaNoWriMo. I've only got 3400 words written on that one, so there's plenty left for me to write. Following through on this resolution could have a significant effect on my writing future. That's not because I think the novel will necessarily be picked up by a publisher and make lots of money. It's because I have always found myself daunted by the size of the task of writing a novel. I'm great at shorter writing tasks, ones where the end is in sight even from the very beginning. That's one reason comic books were such a great medium for me; the end of an issue was always within sight, even from the very beginning. That held even for multi-part stories. Given that, perhaps I should consider writing chap books or something.

Record a storytelling CD. Lord knows I've got the equipment, the stories, and the inclination. Some of you out there in Friday Challenge land even have the technical production capabilities I lack. But I'm pretty sure I could produce a reasonable sounding CD all by myself. In the past, I've wanted my CD to be made from a live performance. I always enjoy the energy I get from a live audience and feel as if the CD would probably be better recorded live. On the other hand, it's much tougher to fix mistakes from a live recording. So, maybe it's time to find a few hours of quiet time in the house and record the CD. Wait, quiet time in the house? I knew there was something stopping me from recording the CD at home!

Work out science fiction versions of tradition folk tales. While I don't necessarily see science fiction storytelling becoming huge, it does seem to me that there might be chances to perform at science fiction conventions around the southeast. At both conventions I attended this summer, NASFIC and Dragon*Con, there were a lot of bands performing. If filk singing (science fiction folk singing) can reach the point where hundreds of filk bands are producing thousands of filk CDs, it seems reasonable that science fiction folk tales could find a market. I figure I need at least half a dozen converted stories to start with, but will need to double that number once I get started. I've already got four folk tales selected and am nearly finished converting one of them.

Maybe, finally, find the rest of the team I need to get a smartphone application project off the ground. I need an artist and a software developer. Unfortunately, I've been trying to get this project off the ground for almost two years with absolutely no success at all. I'm pretty sure I could find a software developer without any real trouble. As with comic book writing, my big problem is finding an artist. I don't know why I think 2011 might be different than 2009 and 2010, but maybe it will be. The idea is to produce audio picture books for kids to listen to when their parents need some peace and quiet. I still think it's a great idea, I just can't find any artists who can spare the time required to work on spec.

There you go, four resolutions for the new year. Any of them could really help further my artistic ambitions. If I can pull off all four, I'll definitely have had a year of serious accomplishment. I'll keep you posted on my progress.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why We Write

This week: Stuart Watkinson

I write because I can’t draw.

I have a very vivid imagination but for all my efforts I cannot transfer the images in my head on to the paper. Many an art class I did as a youngster, with not much improvement. In the end I think I was the one that decided to put the paintbrush down, even though I was constantly told that my work ‘looks really good’ and it was an ‘excellent effort’. That of course was the encouragement that parents and teachers of young children lay on because they have to. I often wonder how long parents would let that kind of encouragement continue… especially if you could see some of the things I have drawn.

So that was it for drawing for me. It wasn’t until I was about 16 that I started to dabble with a bit of writing, most of which was inspired by video games, films, and table top role-playing games. I started writing the story lines for my friends' role-playing games. Which was good fun, as we mainly played Vampire: The Masquerade, therefore I could set the stories in my local neighbourhood. I would use iconic local figures and give them seedy pasts. Corrupt politicians, mental health patients, teachers and even the local shop owners all got given new identities. It made it fun for us and gave it a level of reality as well. These role-playing stories and short story writing for school were the only creative writing that I did. So, when school finished most of my writing did as well. From the ages of about 17 to 22 I didn’t write a thing -- except for university papers, but they aren’t the most exciting things in the world.

So what sparked my interest in creative writing again? Not surprisingly it was some real-life experiences that I had whilst hanging out with a few unfavourable types. I was amazed at some of the horrendous behaviour they/we were getting up to and the characters that I came across. It was a conversation with a very large biker that sparked the idea in my head. He was telling me about the events that led up to his arrest in 2005, which lead him to spending three years in jail. It involved a lot of drugs, violence, outrageous behaviour, ludicrously bad luck and astounding coincidences. As I sat listening to this giant steroid-abusing maniac it struck me... this is incredible. This stuff had to be made up. So I quietly asked a friend of mine about it. It wasn’t; it was true. It blew me away. I had always liked the fact that my area had a bit of a dark underbelly, but some of the things I was beginning to hear were mind-boggling.

I started to take more notice of the conversations that were going on around me. I started to take notes about some of the stories because they were completely off the wall, but I felt like I was becoming a bit of a spy. So, I scratched that. But I did start to adapt some of the tales that I heard and write them down, short stories and even the occasional poem. It was then that I realised how horrible my spelling, grammar and writing skills were. Political science had taken its toll on my ability to write with flare. Herein lies the beginning of my journey.

I started searching the web for help with my writing techniques. The first thing that I found was a small writing group that met at my local library. I went along one Saturday morning to have a look see. I got lots of criticism and not much else. I was ok with that. So I went along to the next meet and again got shot down. It became apparent that a 22-year-old writing about futuristic crime syndicates would never get a good reaction from The Henley Scribblers, which comprised washed out small-timers talking tough in the library.

I tried a few different online writers groups, with varying levels of success and constructive criticism. All the while I kept finding different sites and books to help me along the way. What I found was... most books and writing guides or tips are useful for a time. Until you get to the point where you realise that the only way you are going to get better is if you write. Then re-write. Then write again. All the information given to you from these sources can’t teach how become a writer. They can just give some guidance when you are a writer. And when are you are a writer? (Perhaps that is a question for another day)

Then, of course, I found TFC, which really is a great place; helpful constructive criticism, friendly people, and an active group that want to be involved. The combination of weekly exercises, critical analysis, and friendly competition really does make for a great atmosphere. Also, seeing what the other people in the group are getting up to showed me that I have a long way to go. I am still young and find it hard to put time aside for writing, especially with starting my new job this year, although I will be taking steps to give myself more time in the new year for writing*. I will also be enrolling in a few short courses just for a bit of change and probably joining the South Australian Writers’ Centre, which is quite a handy group for writers in my city.

In short, I write because I have stories I want to share. Everybody comes from somewhere and everyone has something to say.

I think this has given you a little insight into why I write. Thank you for your time.

* Saving for a home loan. I will have to save a LOT considering the price of houses in Australia at the moment.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Column

Remember when you were a kid and it used to take forever for Christmas to get here? You'd impatiently mark off the days on the calendar and try hard to keep from getting frustrated at just how slowly the days were passing. Somewhere close to Christmas, you'd get Mom or Dad to take you out shopping for Christmas presents for your siblings, your parents, and any grandparents who might be staying at the house for Christmas. You'd watch all your favorite Christmas specials, especially A Charlie Brown Christmas. You'd pretend to suffer through the puppet version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, your youngest sister's all-time favorite Christmas special (even now, over forty years later), but not really mind it too much because it meant Christmas was just a bit closer.

Then Christmas morning would arrive and you'd finally get to tear into your gifts. An hour, maybe two hours, and it would all be over. All that would be left was cleaning up the wrapping paper, eating Christmas dinner, playing with stuff you got and showing all of it off to your friends.

Then you got older and the Christmas rituals changed. You spend the year trying to set aside money for Christmas so you won't have to put everything on the credit card come December. Even so, the Christmas savings are the first thing you raid when cash runs short one month or when unexpected expenses pop up. Before you know it, Halloween is over, Christmas decorations go up in the mall, Christmas music plays in the stores, and the ever-expanding rush to spend, spend, spend for Christmas begins.

You try to sift through the items your children want, hoping desperately to narrow the list down to the items they'll actually play with or use. You try desperately to figure out what to get for a spouse whose answer to "What do you want for Christmas?" is "Nothing." You look high and low for something to give to your parents, who have more money than you and who can already buy anything they truly want or need for themselves.

If you're hosting the family for Christmas, you hit the grocery store multiple times, making sure you have everything you need to make Christmas dinner as much like Mom used to make it as possible. If you're traveling, you worry if that formerly-wished-for white Christmas is going to come along and strand you away from home.

You watch as your neighbors' houses seem to effortlessly sprout Christmas decorations, and you vow to put up some decorations of your own. In the end, you hope having your lighted Christmas tree visible through the window will do.

You scramble to wrap gifts. You call various package delivery services to ask why they claim your package was delivered yesterday when nothing was left at your door. You make the rounds of the other houses on the street, eventually finding your own package and, likely, passing along your neighbor's packages left at your house by mistake. You wrap more gifts.

But most of all, if you're not really careful, you forget. I don't mean you forget to get a gift for everyone. I don't mean you forget to buy the right ingredients to make the dressing. I mean, in the hectic, fast-paced, head-long drive toward Christmas, you forget why we call it Christmas.

Stop. Take a deep breath. Forget about what you didn't do or still need to do. Look around at all who are gathered together with you this Christmas Day. Take just a moment and give thanks for all those you love and who love you. Take just a moment and remember.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

Merry Christmas to you all! And God bless us, every one!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 12/24/10

This week in The Friday Challenge
Guy Stewart weighs in on Why We Write. Is it true that if you don't get 'em hooked on reading when they're young, you won't get 'em hooked at all? Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel continues to brag about his shiny new Kindle, and explores the wonderful world of free books you can download for your Kindle, Nook, or other ebook reader. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu tackles a simple, and for us, remarkably non-cynical, question. What are your favorite Christmas memories? In your own personal version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, what would the Ghost of Christmas Past show you? Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald shares a few thoughts about plans and what happens to them when they collide with reality, and the great virtues of expedition-weight polypropylene long underwear. Join the discussion...

Finally, Henry Vogel writes a column about the true meaning of Christmas, Bruce gets snowed in, and the inmates discuss the view from their respective places in the asylum. All this and more, this week in The Friday Challenge.

12/17/10 - The Holiday Song Parody Challenge
Re the 12/17/10 Friday Challenge, which was to write parody lyrics for your chosen holiday song, as of the deadline we have received the following entries:

WaterBoy: "I'm dreaming of a tight Christmas" and "The Little Dumber Boy"

Watkinson: "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas"

Miko apparently wrote an entry, but the posted link doesn't work. Any suggestions?

The Bandit: "Last Christmas"

As always, you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorite entries. The winner will be announced at some ill-defined date in the not-too-distant future.

Speaking of ill-defined dates in the not-too-distant future
As Miko has graciously pointed out, the "Before and After," "Writing the Winner," and "Save the words! Write a story!" challenges all await resolution, as described here. With the vaporization by aliens of drop.io, any entry that was posted there is presumably lost forever, but we really should get the rest of it sorted out, by—say, January 16? Does that work for you?

And now for this week's challenge.

The Utterly Unforgettable Gift
We've all experienced it: that magical moment on Christmas morning when someone unwraps a gift, looks at what's inside, and says, "Oh, you shouldn't have."

"Seriously, you shouldn't have. I'll get you for this."

That's what we're looking for this week. Whether given or received, by accident or intention, tell us your story of the most ironically unforgettable gift ever. Was it the time you gave a new friend a delicious spiral-cut ham, not realizing he was Jewish? Or the time your aunt gave you a lovely sweater, while insisting that your wool allergy was "just a phase"? Or maybe you belong to one of those families in which the sisters and in-laws have been "regifting" the same ugly salad bowl set to each other for years, each time in ever more elaborate and harder-to-open packaging?

Anyway, that's the story we're looking for this week. Funny or embarrassing, tacky or terrific, wonderful or wince-inducing, share your story!

As always we're playing by the loosely enforced official rules of The Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #3. Given all the disruption caused by the holidays, the deadline for this one is midnight Central time, Thursday, January 6, 2011.

I'm digging out from under a White Christmas

Which is to say there will be a Friday Challenge post today, but not until later this morning.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Critical Thinking

Twice a week, on average, Maj Tom will come home from work, sigh, and say, “Things today did not go as planned.” I usually tease him that he should stop making plans, and he agrees.

That was before today. Today I got to see the amazing black pit that is the planned day of Maj Tom.

Our plan was simple:

- Get up and assembled
- Take my car (’99 Outback) to shop for 120,000-mile maintenance (2000 miles overdue)
- Get my allergy shots
- Get breakfast and work on Christmas cards at coffee shop
- Drop off present #1
- Drop off present #2
- Pick up photos
- Pick up car
- Clean house
- Take a nap

We actually got through step six before everything fell apart. He got a call from work and had to go in to complete some security paperwork. Of course it didn’t work the first time around. He left for another office to convince the two women who needed him to finish the paperwork that, no, he would not come in tomorrow or next week and he was sorry if they were trying to get to Denver, but they needed to stay until they got this figured out. Meanwhile, I was in his freezing cubical, teaching the Creature the difference between pixilated and vector graphics and the fine art of Mine Sweeper.

After an hour and a half, Maj Tom got everything figured out and we went to lunch.

Did I mention it was freezing fog? All day. Visibility maximum 200-yards. And the guy called about the car. $3200. Because the last time we got this thing done, I didn’t go in and let them tighten everything like they told me to.

Went to drop off present #2 to be greeted by my friend in her sweats and the palest face I’ve ever seen on her. She has the flu. She has two sons who are home from school. Her husband works in Denver. She’s very, very tired. Wasn’t Maj Tom surprised to see me come back to the truck with not one, but three boys!

The next eight hours are a blur of cleaning the house while the boys played X-Box and Maj Tom shopped, introducing the boys to Tron, making and freezing pies, asthma attacks, realizing the full meaning of the phrase “he has ADHD and takes a steroidal inhaler so he doesn’t sleep much,” and staying awake so the aforementioned could take his inhaler at one in the morning. Which I’m not sure he needed to do, but the last thing we wanted to do was kill our friend’s child while she had the flu.

Now the house is quiet. And freezing. And I have insomnia. I get up in three and a half hours to go to work. Which Maj Tom has to drive me to.

But my job’s so flexible I’m actually going to start as soon as I’m done with this. The Creature had the time of his life. Hopefully our friend got rest. Maj Tom got something done he won’t have to worry about. And the cold weather gear bag had my old expedition-weight polyprops from my flightline days so I’m not as freezing as I could be.

I’m not going to make any trite statement about things working out for the best because, as far as I’m concerned, “best” means I’d be asleep. And sometimes, things don’t work out at all. I guess I’m just thankful for the small graces that make the impossible bearable. Maj Tom didn’t freak when I came out of our friends’ house with their boys. I didn’t freak when he told me how much the car was going to cost. The boys didn’t freak when dinner was cheap frozen pizza and apples. Isn’t that a sad standard? But sometimes “not freaking” is a pretty significant thing. I am not always this gracious or flexible or selfless. And I’m not actually feeling as selfless as I’m acting. But there’s nothing for it but to pull out the credit card for the car, make sure the boys have cereal when they wake up at 5:30, and hope the Creature and I (who did not get shots) don’t get the flu.

Right now, though, it’s 3:40 and I get to go to work. Which means a nap tomorrow. And tomorrow night is an unexpected open house for friends from Hawaii. And in two days, it’ll be Christmas. I can open that box that’s right now sitting four feet from me, taunting me with its wry smile. And maybe think about Mary, the queen of not freaking out, who didn’t even have a bed, let alone expedition-weight polyprops.

And a friend who always repays emergency sleep-overs.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

Decorations are up in most of our houses. We've brought trees inside and covered them with lights and tinsel and ornaments. Offerings to our family and friends have been wrapped in colored paper and placed beneath these decorated trees. Life feels more hectic as we try to balance the needs of everyday life -- work and food -- with the needs of the holidays -- buying, wrapping, decorating, cooking and baking. In amongst it all, we try to insert more love and fellowship than usual.

All are obvious signs that Christmas is just a few days away.

Excitement is building in children as they imagine all the gifts they'll receive Christmas morning. Many a mother is worrying whether she'll have enough food for everyone at Christmas dinner. (Not only will she have enough, she'll have enough to feed at least twice as many people as actually sit down at the table.) Many a father is worrying whether the roads will be fit for travel or how heavy the traffic is going to be on the highways (either for himself or his children who are traveling). And, somewhere, at least a few people are offended at my two stereotypical parents.

Finally, Christmas morning will come. Kids will drag tired parents out of bed, spend entire seconds reveling in their latest gift before ripping into the next one. Just a few short hours after everyone gets up, the gifts will be open, the food will be eaten, and Christmas will, effectively, be over. Weeks and weeks of preparation for just a few short hours of frenzied activity. Is it really worth it?

Yeah. Definitely. Memories for a lifetime occur during those few short hours. And memories are what we're here to talk about, today.

What are your favorite Christmas memories? You score extra points if any of them have a geek association to them, but we're really just looking for what the Ghost of Christmas Past would show you in your own, personal Christmas Carol story.

Let the fun begin!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

I know some of you are hoping to get an ereader for Christmas this year. To prepare you for the arrival of your ereader here's a starting point for finding free ebooks. Of course, you can still read books from all of these sites without an ereader, so the column isn't a complete loss even if you aren't getting an ereader.

The first thing you'll want to do before you head off searching for ebooks is to make sure you get the right ebook format for your ereader. If you're expecting to get a Kindle, look for books in Mobi format or, obviously, Kindle format. If you're getting one of the other ereaders, check the ebook formats it supports and select the appropriate format. Epub is a very popular format supported by most ereaders (except the Kindle, of course), so you may want to select this format if you're expecting a Nook or one of the other devices.

Now that you're armed with your ereader's preferred format, it's time to search for books. After all, you'll want to load books onto your ereader and begin reading immediately, right?

This being a site mostly dedicated to science fiction, I'll start with the Baen Free Library. Baen scores big over other publishers in their willingness to give away works by a wide range of authors. Not only do they give them away, they even allow you to give them away to friends, too. Baen supports a bunch of different formats, though it seemed to me they had fewer in Mobi/Kindle format than they did in epub format. That's not a disaster, as they also support various other formats, some of which will work on the Kindle and all of which can be converted to work on the Kindle (more on this later). Baen's Free Library is a great place to start building your ebook library while also picking up some very good works by some big name authors.

Baen also supports what they call a WebScription service, where you can purchase ebook versions of virtually everything Baen publishes. The prices are generally lower than the cost of a paperback, plus they have some really good deals on sets of books. (I've had my eye on a series of early books by Leigh Brackett, where the average price per book is about $3.)

Another obvious place to go looking for free ebooks is Project Gutenberg. Every book on this site is in the public domain, meaning it's entirely legal to download a copy of the book. The number of formats supported varies from title to title, but you can always find plain text, which is supported by every ereader on the market, and can usually find epub and Kindle format. I've pulled a lot of books off of Project Gutenberg, including a lot of early science fiction (find it grouped together here), mysteries, folk and fairy tales, and historical books.

Watkinson provided a link to eBooks@Adelaide, another place to find books in the public domain. I suspect titles on this site has a fairly large cross-over with titles on Project Gutenberg, but the books may be better edited (being associated with a university rather than being a volunteer-support project like Gutenberg). The only supported format here is epub, but that isn't a barrier to reading the books even on the non-epub-supporting Kindle. To download one of these books, click on the green, stylized 'e' for epub. Otherwise you'll have to read the book in your web browser.

The web is also full of sites at which authors may electronically publish their works, either offering them for free or selling them. Our very own M has stuff on Smashwords (and if you ask nicely, he might even electronically autograph his work). You'll have to create a username to access the books, but it's free and Smashwords doesn't hit you with any spam (I've had a username for months and they've left me alone). God only knows how many similar sites there are online.

Two other very good places to look for free ebooks are amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Both sites have thousands upon thousands of free titles. I've heard that many of the ones on amazon are simply titles amazon has "harvested" from Project Gutenberg and is making available at the same price. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Barnes and Noble has done the same thing. One advantage to download these versions rather than the ones from Project Gutenberg is that the store will have already formatted the book for your ereader (assuming you have a Kindle or Nook).

For those who haven't seen the news, Google is apparently about to dive into the ebook market, too. I assume they've gotten over their previous "we get to make your book available for everyone to download unless you specifically tell us otherwise" stupidity, but you never know when it comes to Google. (Why everyone bitches about Microsoft when you've got "Do no evil" Google around is beyond me.) Google's idea is to provide a way for your local Mom and Pop bookstore to sell ebooks, just like the major chains. As Google doesn't have a dog in the ereader fight, it seems likely they'll support all the major formats. I'm cautiously hopeful that Google may find a way to make this work. (If they really want to turn the ebook world on its ear, they'll work out a way for readers to sell ebooks they've already read and no long wish to keep. I'm not holding my breath on anyone pulling that off.)

Finally, let me mention Cory Doctorow. Cory makes every single one of his books available free for download from his website. Further more, he makes the available at the same time they are being released new in hardback. Most of the formats are supported. You will probably have to right click on the file type (AZW is the file format for Kindle, btw) and select "Save Link as..." to download a book. I mention Cory's site because I find his approach interesting and suspect he's doing quite well with it. If you like what you read, you're welcome to donate to the cause (thereby skipping the publisher and putting money directly in Cory's pocket). Or you can just keep the books, pass them to your friends, etc. Cory very specifically grants that right for each of his books.

Now, I've talked a bunch about files and where to get them. I've also mentioned converting them. This is where you learn how to do that. I stumbled across Calibre ebook management software the same day I got my Kindle. In my Kindle review, I told you that Calibre will convert ebooks from one supported file format to another supported file format (and it seems to support all of them). The software also provides an easy method of managing the books on your ereader. I know all of the ereaders already have software that will handle file management, but Calibre has the advantage of both handling file conversions and managing the books on your ereader. Calibre supports all of the major devices, automatically detecting them when they're connected. I didn't have to tell Calibre that I had a Kindle, it simply picked up the type of device connected and away I went. The software is also very easy to use but has extensive help files should you find yourself in need of assistance.

This ought to be more than enough to get all of you prospective ereader owners started. You've got five days until Christmas. With only minimal effort, you can have hundreds of titles ready to load once you've got your new toy.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why We Write

This week: Guy Stewart

You have to go back to sixth grade, my sixth grade; the 1968-1969 school year.

New school. New teacher. New awareness of a young female teacher…and the discovery of The Spaceship Under The Apple Tree, by Louis Slobodkin (1952). After that came The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954, Eleanor Cameron), followed by a waterfall of other books by Andre Norton, Robert A. Heinlein, Donald A. Wollheim, Murray Leinster, Ben Bova, John Christopher and Alan E. Nourse.

Then in eighth grade, I hit a wall. I’d read everything I could find that I liked in the Brooklyn Junior High library. I hadn’t graduated to adult SF yet. I wanted more Tripods. I wanted more Mars. I wanted more SPACE!

So I wrote “The White Vines,” in long-hand, in pencil, on lined paper, and tied the pages together with a string. After that I wrote “The Black Planet”, an Andre Norton-type story. I read A Universe Between, then wrote “A Place In Between”. I still have both stories.

I never stopped, though I’ve looked back many, many times. I graduated from pencil to pen, then to an old manual typewriter (closely related to the one Bruce uses on his “other webpage”), followed by an electric typewriter scavenged by my mother from the high-school typing classroom. (I still typed on lined notebook paper, though.) I thought what I wrote was wonderful, but quite plainly, it wasn’t. I discovered ANALOG at the public library, read every issue I could lay my hands on, and really started to write. I discovered books on writing in the library, and read all I could and kept writing. AMAZING, F&SF, GALAXY and FANTASTIC were the magazines I stumbled across next; I found Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore and starting reading in earnest.

I say all of this to make it clear why I write.

Can’t you see it? Aren’t you making the connections that are so obvious to me? Let me point out one thing: every kid has an imagination. Every kid makes up worlds inside his or her head; they can be realistic, magical, or super-scientific.

Not every kid tries to take those ideas and turn them into words. Why would he? Who would he show them to, who would care? Well…probably the OTHER people who read the magazines that I read. So I took the next logical step and started sending them out.

That was when I truly became a writer, and that is why I write. I’m a writer and a writer writes.

A similar phenomenon determines who is a teacher and who is not. My lifelong contention is that teachers are born, not made. You can always tell a kid who is born a teacher. He’s the one who, when a little girls asks, “How did you throw that ball?”, kneels down and shows her how it was done, leading her patiently step-by-step until she can throw the ball effectively. Then he adds, “Make sure you keep practicing!” The kid who is not a teacher answers the same question with a taunt or eyes rolled toward heaven.

I grew into being a writer step-by-step, guided by the wisdom of others. That process of writing, reading, practicing, learning and growing is what led me to Bruce Bethke. He and Phil Jennings advertised for new group members -- I don’t even remember if we had a name -- but I joined, we wrote, and then time and business drew me away and I left.

But I kept writing. I kept sending, and even though acceptances are few and far-between even now, I keep at it. I kept writing last weekend, despite a seemingly endless stream of submission rejections, because through thousands of hours of practice, reading, networking, and submissions, I have grown into a better writer. I have a long list of publications at which even I must smile. But even with success, I keep on writing: not “to get published” and be paid the big bucks, because I have been -- in ANALOG, CRICKET, my book SIMPLE SCIENCE SERMONS FOR BIG AND LITTLE KIDS, THE WRITER, STUPEFYING STORIES, AETHER AGE, TURTLE, FUN FOR KIDZ -- I don’t need to “prove myself” any more. I can write just fine.

I write because it’s what I am.

I write because I am a writer.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Open Mic Saturday

Good morning all, and welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently, when is it coming out and where can we find it? In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Or what else is on your mind, that you feel like sharing with the group here?

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 12/17/10

Fenders crunch, are you listening?
In the lane, the chrome is glistening.
We're sliding tonight, oh what a fright,
driving in a winter wonderland.
That's right! It's time once again for the Somethingth Annual Friday Challenge Holiday Song Parody Contest!

The rules are simple. Take one overused, overplayed, and overtired holiday-themed song—if you can't think of one, spend ten minutes in any shopping mall or convenience store and I'm sure a worthy candidate will immediately become apparent to you—
an insipid Christmas song.
And then put on your Weird Al glasses and, ...er, improve the lyrics.
Chipmunks roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at the scotch
Nothing obscene, profane, scatological, X-rated, or sacrilegious, please. If you're one of those people who has serious problems with Christmas, you're in the wrong place. But if you've already reached the point where you're going to scream if you hear "that" song one more time (whatever "that" may be)—
want a hippopotamus for Christmas...
Well, here's your big chance to return the favor.

As always, we're operating under the loosely enforced official rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #3, unless I can dig up a suitably tacky special prize. The deadline for this one is midnight Central time, Thursday, December 23rd. And remember: if
Jingle bells
Batman smells
can become a rhyme for the ages, you've got to be able to do better!

Current Challenges
Just a quick reminder that the current Greater Challenge, "Telepathy," is still open. In fact, we haven't picked a closing date for it and are still waffling between 1/6/11 and 1/13/11. Your thoughts, comments, observations, or suggestions?

Also, the 11/27/10 Challenge, "The Little Worm That Did," is still very much open. Should we pick a closing date for this one or just let it run for an indeterminate span of time?

A few notes on method
In the Comments following the "Telepathy" challenge post, M suggested—and Arisia seconded—that Henry, Kersley, and I also write stories for this challenge. In a separate email, M then went on to expand on this argument at some length, and quite persuasively. However...

While Henry and Kersley are free at any time to choose to participate in a challenge, I am not and will not. This is a rule I made for myself at the outset, and I'm sticking to it. Tempting as it may be—and believe me, there have been times when it has been very tempting—I will neither enter a challenge myself nor create a pseudonymous sock puppet and permit him to enter a challenge for me.


Trying to make this as succinct as possible: I have suffered through far too many creative writing classes and workshops in which the unspoken core idea was, "There is but one true way to write, and that is the way I do it." It gets worse when you get out of school and into the publishing world. Here, you will find far too many writers-turned-editors who deeply, profoundly, and unthinkingly embrace the same idea: "This is but one correct way to tell this story, and that is the way I would have told it, had I bothered to." John W. Campbell Jr. was the worst offender in this regard, but the fields of genre fiction are full of such people, many of whom are still working today, so that's all I care to say about it at this time.

If I were to enter a challenge, then, however implicitly, I would also be making the statement: "There was but one right way to answer this challenge, and this is it. Study it! Emulate it! Follow me!"

I recognize this as something of a failure on my part. In the field of political bloggery especially there are writers who have built large and dedicated audiences by encouraging their readers to emulate their style and repeat what they've said or written with parrot-like dedication.

But as for me, the thought of being surrounded by people who are repeating what I say and trying to imitate my voice—well, I think that's one of the torments of Hell that Dante edited out of Inferno because it was too horrible.

I already know what my voice sounds like. What I want to hear is your voice.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Critical Thinking

Under the Christmas Tree

Among the sordid socks and golf clubs (Maj Tom ran over the Creature's driver), there will be a smattering of books waiting for eager hands to caress their pages and weary eyes to peruse their words. Here is a sample:

For the Creature, one Geronimo Stilton. I can't remember which one because I bought and wrapped it some time ago. He seems to stay modestly interested in our rodent adventurer, partly, I'm sure, because of the ransom-letter-like font changes. Whatever works.

For the Mother-in-Law, Two Tickets to the Christmas Ball. It's cute, it's by a friend of mine, and it's a romance, so the MiL might like it. Then again, it has wizards, so she might not.

For the Father-in-Law, Colonel Roosevelt, a biography of old Teddy. Males above the age of sixty seem to be impossible to buy for. He likes Civil War stuff, but I partly got it because it looked interesting enough for me to steal--I mean borrow when we visit.

For the mother, Bone. The Creature has started bringing Bone books home from the library, and I have to say I'm delighted. The homages to Walt Kelly are delightful and common enough I think my ma will like it.

For me, I get a Kindle. And it's going to be a Kindle, and it's either going to be black or white, but it's going to be a Kindle and I'm going to love it and squeeze it and spank it when it's bad and call it George. Okay, I'm not sure about that last part. But I probably will name it. And I already have plans to find an old hardback book and hollow it out like that guy in Shawshank Redemption except instead of hiding carving tools I'll hide my Kindle.

Just a touch excited.

What's on your list this year?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

Today's Ultimate Geek Fu question can be summed up in one word:

But since that makes for a short column, let's expand on it a bit. Show of hands: who here is planning to go see Tron: Legacy this weekend? Or not merely planning; itching to see it? Can't wait to see it?

True story: at my company, one software development department is shutting down early on Friday, as the entire crew of 20-something- and 30-something-year-old programmers is taking the afternoon off to go see the movie together. They're calling it a "team building" exercise.

What's your Tron or Tron: Legacy story?

Let the arguments begin.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

The traditional end-of-year reflection piece is supposed to appear closer to the actual end of the year. Next week is reserved for geek reactions to Tron and I just don't see myself wanting to take time on the day after Christmas to settle down and reflect on the previous year. Nor will I feel like doing so on January 2. Besides, I need a column topic now, not a week or two from now.

This has been a year filled with new experiences; educational experiences, for the most part. Not all of those experiences have been good. I'd even say most of them have been bad or worse.

The "bad to worse" trend was established early, when my then foster son took a wicked knife to school, earning a long suspension and a date in juvenile court as a result. I've written about our problems with the foster son here and here, but I don't recommend you go read those columns unless you like starting your day on a down note. Nearly three years ago, back when the Friday Challenge was hosted at the old Ranting Room, I first wrote about life with our foster son, writing that "life doesn't prepare you to be rejected by a child." I've learned the rejection slowly but surely creates a void in you. A void into which you find yourself sacrificing your feelings for the child who has rejected you. It starts small, but eventually I found myself caring only how the foster son's behavior affected my family and not how it affected him. I found the void simply cannot be filled until he who created the void is no longer with you. If the void has been with you long enough and fed on enough of the feelings you had for the child, I found the void can be purged surprisingly quickly. I found that both relieving and disturbing.

Once the foster son became the former foster son, I set myself looking forward to the big gathering of Friday Challengers at NASFIC, the science fiction convention in Raleigh scheduled for early August. I faced growing disappointment as I kept up with developments on the convention web site. As time passed, it became evident the convention was not going to be anywhere near as large as I had hoped it would be. Instead of having so many of my friends from the Friday Challenge come to Raleigh for a nice, fun convention, it became obvious that the convention wasn't going to be worth the trip for many of you. In the end, instead of a dozen or more of the Challengers gathering in Raleigh, only M and I -- both locals -- ended up attending.

On the other hand, I offered a new proposal to Bruce; let's all go to Dragon*Con in Atlanta, instead. I'd attended Dragon*Con many times, though not since 1999, and knew it would provide lots of fun stuff to see and do. Plans were made and a small group of us planned to make the trip.

During this time, one of the good things happened -- Stupefying Stories. I not only got to provide some small help selecting the stories, I got to proofread the stories and even have one of my stories appear in the collection. Later, Bruce even passed along a comment made to him about my story. My story was "pure gold. It's fourteen caret gold, but gold nonetheless." I love that comment.

Shortly before Dragon*Con, Bruce told me the news about Karen's cancer diagnosis. It was the second time in less than 12 months that I had so much I wished I could say, yet had no words with which to say anything.

Dragon*Con turned out to be more than I could have hoped for, at least briefly. First, the convention had grown considerably since I had last attended. Instead of the 20,000 attendees I thought would show up, overall attendance exceeded 40,000 with Saturday's single day attendance exceeding 70,000. It was wall-to-wall humanity, but there was always something to see going on around us.

Better than the events, I finally came face-to-face with Bruce, Karen, Sam, Arisia, and Leatherwing. M was there, too, along with the Boy, Leatherwing's wife, and one of Leatherwing's close friends. One of my highlights for the year was the group of us gathering together on Friday night to read all of the entries in the current Friday Challenge, discuss them, and judge them. It was how I imagine a very good writing group might be on a very good day. As long as my mind stays sharp (no guarantees how long that will last), I will remember this gathering. Yes, it was that much fun.

Before we could meet up with the Bethkes again, I got the phone call from my wife telling me she was in the hospital awaiting a blood transfusion. This issue has swept up the rest of the year. Regular transfusions kept her going until a potentially life-threatening diagnosis was delivered. Her two week stay in the hospital hit its lowest point when she was moved into the ICU for cerebral hemorrhaging. Coming out of the hospital, she had to turn around and go back in overnight for another transfusion. She followed that transfusion a few days later with one more as an out patient. Even while we were preparing for the possibility of bone marrow transplants, her blood test results began to improve. As I write this, it's been over five weeks since her last transfusion and her blood cell levels continue to be within the norm. I've begun to be cautiously optimistic that bone marrow transplants won't be necessary.

It's been a difficult year, perhaps the most difficult one of my life. There are still concerns, of course, especially for Karen and the chemotherapy she is undergoing. But as the year comes to a close, I have things to celebrate. I no longer have a void sucking up life, energy, and joy from my soul. I have, briefly, met some of you in person, something I began the year thinking might never happen. I am officially a published science fiction author. The Boy has already told me he wants to attend Dragon*Con in 2011 (and maybe more of us here will be able to attend). And, of course, my wife appears to be on the road to recovery.

Still, I will not be sad to see 2010 pass into history.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why We Write

This week: Kersley Fitzgerald

Oy, if this doesn’t turn out to be the biggest load of navel-gazing in the world, I’ll consider it a success.

I write because I can’t talk. I’m mean, of course I can emit sounds out of my mouth that sometimes bear resemblance to the English language, but that doesn’t mean that the intent always gets through. Or often gets through. I’m a deep, introspective thinker who can go from Twinkies to wormholes in three seconds and not be able to verbalize how. My amazing husband is not only a master communicator, he’s a master listener. He’s one of the few people with the patience to sit and listen until I get out what I mean to say. I’m a lucky duck.

I started to write…stuff…about ten years ago when my sister ("cheesentoast" AKA: Sara) and a co-worker ("mangycat") introduced me to Yahoo. We had a little writers’ group, with my ma, and we’d write joint stories. Then Sara introduced me to LiveJournal, where I could write navel-gazing things and people would actually read them.

But I didn’t know anything about writing. I’d had enough English honors classes in high school to be able to skip it in college. My time in the Air Force was spent learning how to cram a year’s worth of accomplishments into ten lines. Writing on the blog gave me the luxury of being able to spend time trying to articulate what I meant without worrying about the other person getting up to make a sandwich. Which I’m sure they did, but it didn’t break the flow of my writing.

In 2007, an equaintance from Fort Worth who has severe MS challenged everyone on her LJ Flist to do NaNo. I’m the only one who accepted. She wound up dropping out (severe MS, remember), but I plugged away. The next month, a well-known Christian fantasy writer started coming to our small church. I overheard her talking to a friend that she had a writers’ group for kids’/YA novels. I shamelessly begged to be allowed to join.

Was it really that long ago? I switched groups to another of hers last year. The groups provide unconditional encouragement as well as accountability -- I feel like I’m wasting my time if I don’t bring something to read.

I used to write because I had so many questions -- and a few answers -- that I wanted to get out into the world. I think I’m at the point now where I just want to tell a good story that people will like to read. I’m sure that will evolve into something else, later. But here’s a secret: I have to write. Depression runs deep through both sides of my family, and it killed my dad. If I’m writing, I rarely get depressed. Even Major Tom notices the difference. I can’t tell you why cranking out a scene about how an orc finds his pixie-pup in a dumpster after he chased a car seven blocks can chase away the blues, but it does. Writing is frustrating and aggravating, and publishing seems to be an unreachable, mythical beast, but I can handle frustrating.

In the end, writing has given me a whole lot more than it’s taken, including association with all you fine hobbitses (and hirsute elves).

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Open Mic Saturday

Good morning all, and welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're participating in NaNoWriMo: how's it going? If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently, when is it coming out and where can we find it? In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Or what else is on your mind, that you feel like sharing with the group here?

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 12/10/10

With no forewarning or hoopla, The Friday Challenge returns. In fact, it backs cautiously into view, with a small bell on the rear axle dinging: realistically, are you going to be in the mood to finish up and submit an entry on New Year's Eve?

Me neither. So let's begin with a discussion: I'm thinking the deadline for this one should be Thursday, January 6, 2011, although I also think a case can be made for pushing it out to January 13. Your thoughts, comments, and suggestions?

While we're at it, we still have yet to come up with a replacement for drop.io. I've heard good things about dropbox.com but as a rule distrust any site that wants to force me to download a binary. Do any of you have any experience with it, or any alternative suggestions?

Now, as regards the challenge itself: in my few spare moments lately, I've been thinking seriously about telepathy. It's one of the grand old tropes of the field; in fact, it dates back to well before the beginnings of the genre itself, back into the primitive days of the 19th century, when phrenology, mesmerism, spiritualism, and racism were all as widely and unquestionably accepted as being scientifically valid as anthropogenic global warmingism is today.

But telepathy as it is usually treated in fiction is more like a convenient super-power—in fact, in Charlaine Harris's "Sookie Stackhouse" novels it's pretty explicity a super-power, which Sookie uses to prevent or solve crimes—and even in the somewhat more thoughtful treatments, such as Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, it still works like having a cell phone installed in your head. It's convenient. It's controllable. It's boring.

So let's take two steps back and one to the side, and seriously reexamine the subject.

Clearly, our species is not innately telepathic. If it were, four million years of hominid evolution would have conditioned us to manage the ability as reflexively as we manage talking or flatulence, and there would be no story here. Further, I have to wonder whether functional telepathy would be in fact be an evolutionary advantage, or whether telepaths would tend to be selected out of the gene pool. (I believe the latter, for reasons we can discuss in the Comments.)

Along these same lines, if our species was innately telepathic from the dawn of time, how would it have affected our evolution? Would we even have individual minds? If you've watched a group of teenagers talking and texting lately it doesn't take too much imagination to see that they're constantly forming, dissolving, and reforming the nodes of a crude, short-lived, and ad hoc collective intelligence. Now take away the limiting technological crutch, give innate biological telepathy some thousands of years to develop, and factor in the usual general societal pressure for conformity. In a society of functional telepaths, where everyone else was part of the gestalt, would a person who was born telepathically deaf and dumb actually have an advantage?

There are a lot of directions in which we could take this topic. Decades ago, I started writing a story based on the idea that humans are innately telepathic and capable of forming incredibly powerful gestalt minds, and that kuru was an alien bioweapon dropped here millennia ago to cripple us and keep us down. (To give you some idea of how old this idea is, I started writing it back when they thought kuru was caused by an as-yet-unidentified "slow virus," and long before they even knew what prion disease was. Today, of course, we know that prions would make much better biological weapons—but "weaponized prion disease" is no longer science fiction. Now, it's a hackeyed plot gimmick from 24.)

So the general topic is telepathy, and the challenge for now is to think seriously about the idea, for at least a week, and try to come up with an original take on it, before you begin to think about writing a story.

Beyond that, though, the parameters are wide open. Do you want to write a steampunk story? Perhaps someone in the late 19th century accidentally discovers that a freak interaction between Professor Olafson's Amazing Magnetic Phrenology Helmet and Swami Suresh's Secret Indian Macassar Oil & Hair Tonic suddenly unleashes his innate telepathic abilities.

Do you want to write a mystery? Perhaps Sherlock Holmes is actually a genetic freak and a powerful telepath, and all that nonsense about observation and deduction is just a carefully constructed ploy to hide his true nature.

Or maybe you're working in an alternate 1950s, where all of that open-air nuclear testing has unlocked a Pandora's box of mankind's latent abilities, and Sgt. Friday is just another working-class blue-collar telepath whose constant, "Just the facts, ma'am," is meant to get witnesses to settle down and think clearly, so he can get a good read. Or how about setting it in an alternate 1970s, where all of those great '60s drugs combined with an alien nanoparasite accidentally brought back from the Moon has unleashed...

Oh, you get the idea.

Now, what do you think can do with it?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

We are in the middle of one of the two biggest months of the year for movies, with some truly major releases coming out. Harry Potter is back. Narnia is back. The computerized world of Tron is back. And a Disney princess is back. All of these movies come with big hopes and big expectations; expectations we truly expect to be met or at least come close to meeting.

But what about those movies which fail to even come close to meeting our expectations? What about those movies with big budgets, star power, perhaps major brand recognition, and major marketing campaigns that still come no where near meeting our expectations? What about them?

That brings up the question, what do you think is the most overrated science fiction movie you've ever seen? Remember, it can't be something with a piddly budget and people you've never heard of that you just happened to stumble across one night in the university theater. What major science fiction movie release just didn't do it for you?

To show I'm a fair guy, I'll get the ball rolling by naming my most overrated science fiction movie. Now, there was a strong temptation to just go ahead and pick Avatar and be done with it. It does meet -- surpass, really -- all of my requirements and it wasn't all that good. But it was about as good as I expected it to be. And, while there are those who think it truly is a cinematic work of art, there were more than enough people who agreed with my take on the movie that I don't honestly think it can be called the most overrated science fiction movie I've ever seen.

No, the most overrated science fiction movie I've ever seen is Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. In the 28 years since this movie was released, I've yet to run across a single person who agrees with me on this, adding further justification to my claim. Why is it so overrated?

Come on, people, the only reason people love it so much is because it restored their faith in the Star Trek franchise. There was more improvement between and Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan than there was between any two other Star Trek movies. But the first movie was so bad that the second one couldn't help but be amazing in comparison. But as more Star Trek movies came out, there was less and less reason to worship at the alter of Khan.

Another reason the movie scored big is that it brought back someone from the original series. I'd have preferred Harry Mudd. The problem is that Khan is supposed to be this amazing genius, a warlord from old earth, blah blah blah. If he's so damned smart, why does Kirk keep out-thinking him? In the big spaceship battle near the end of the movie, Spock tells us that the genius Khan is using two dimensional tactics. Armed with that knowledge, Kirk uses two-dimensional tactics in response. Who doesn't remember the shot of the Enterprise rising from the space dust (or whatever it was), like a shark coming up behind a swimmer? Kirk gets the ship on the same plane as Khan's ship then blasts it with everything he's got. Both ships are always following an X/Y axis, an X/Z axis, or a Y/Z axis. Imagine if just one of them decided to use all three axes at once?

Then there was the whole bit about Kirk getting a commendation for reprogramming the Kobioshi Maru (or however, you spell it). One thing I really liked in the 2009 movie was that Kirk was about to get kicked out of the academy for cheating, not given a commendation for "original thinking."

Finally, the whole Genesis Project is just incredibly lame. Seriously, an entire solar system created by Science! in just a few minutes? (That level of technology simply required the capital S, the italics, and the exclamation point.) Where did this incredible technology go after it was fired for the first time? How come we never hear about it again? Probably because it was incredibly unrealistic and so powerful the Federation would have either killed everyone who knew about it or used it to wipe out the Klingons and Romulans and anyone else stupid enough to stand against them.

So, there you have it. The most overrated science fiction movie I've ever seen.

Disagree with me? Then, let the arguments begin!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

The story was written for a Friday Challenge in December 2008. The challenge: write your best Christmas rant. The story is true. I offer it again so those of you who weren't around in 2008 may read it. I also offer it in hopes it will inspire just a bit of extra compassion for the poor fools who work retail during the Christmas season. I rejoice every single year that I am no longer one of the fools.

December 23, 1989. 7:45 AM. The Saturday before Christmas.

The mall is already packed, meaning one of the big anchor stores opened at 5:00 or 6:00. I get to the store and raise the gate just enough to get in. Four customers duck under the gate before I can start lowering it again.

“We don’t open until 8:00,” I say.

Holding up a game, one of the customers asks, “Have you got this for the Commodore 64?”

“We aren’t open yet,” I repeat. “You can come back in at 8:00.”

Three of the customers leave. The C-64 guy is still holding the Atari game, ignoring me and looking on the PC compatible section.

“We aren’t open yet,” I say in my best I’m-being-patient-because-you’re-a-moron voice. I use that voice a lot during the Christmas sales season. “You can’t stay in store right now.”

“Huh?” the guy says, looking up.

“Leave. Now.” The store hasn’t even opened and I’m already out of patience.

The C-64 guy slips the Atari game onto the PC shelf. “All you had to do was say so. No need to be rude. You’re not the only software store in the mall, you know.”

“Yeah. There’s a Babbage's at the bottom of those stairs over there,” I say, pointing. “Their sales guy is just showing up. If you hurry, maybe you can duck under his gate and see how he reacts.”

I slam the gate shut and finally start getting everything ready to open the store.

Joy to the world.

8:25 AM

I land my first babysitting job of the season when a mother instructs her two boys to stay in the store and play games until she’s finished. The boys are maybe 11 and nine.

Looking across the store at me, she says, “Keep an eye on them, for me. They aren’t allowed to wander around the mall by themselves.” Then she’s gone, reabsorbed by the amorphous multi-celled blob known as Christmas shoppers.

She goes right to the top of my Mother of the Year list. Competition for the top spot had been tough this season, but I’m confident this display of maternal instinct will prove well nigh unbeatable.

I finish with the customer I was assisting and look for the two boys. Oh, bliss, They’ve decided to be helpful! They’ve taken all of the software in the Amiga section and scattered it on the floor. I tell them to leave the software alone.

The nine year old looks to the 11 year old. The 11 year old says, “We’re bored.”

“Not my problem,” I tell them.

“Mom told us to stay here and play games but you don’t have any games to play!” he accuses.

I start putting the Amiga shelf back together again. “Correct.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

“Nothing,” I tell him.

“When she gets back, I’m going to tell my mom!” he threatens.

I bend down, look him directly in the eyes and hiss “So am I.”

I don’t have any more trouble from the two boys.

Joy to the world.

9:40 AM

The first complainer shows up. He's right on schedule.

“It took me twenty-five minutes to find a parking place,” he snarls at me.

I don’t say anything. Besides, he probably doesn’t want to hear that I’m required to park half a mile away from the mall so more spaces will be available for the customers.

“And that was after I spent 30 minutes crawling through the traffic just to get here!”

I’ve had to fight that traffic for the last seven days. I doubt he’s interested.

“All just to pick up this damned game for my kid,” he waves something for a PC compatible around.

I know the game and ask, “Do you have a VGA card in your computer?”

“A what?”

“A VGA graphics card,” I repeat. “The game requires a VGA graphics card to run.”

“How the hell should I know?” He’s back to snarling.

“If you could tell me what kind of computer you have I-“

“It’s an IBM,” he says.

“Actually made by IBM?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he answers.

“If you can tell me what model it is, maybe I can help you figure out if you’ve got a VGA card,” I tell him. It looks like I’m starting to get him calmed down.

“I know that! It’s a PC, Jr.”

Crap. I’m about to have the nothing-you-actually-want-will-run-on-a-PC-Jr. conversation.

Joy to the world.

10:15 AM

The Mother of the Year returns. I’m busy juggling questions from four different customers and don’t notice her return until she plants herself right in front of me.

“My boys tell me you didn’t let them play any games!” she says.

I signal the customer I was returning to that I’ll be just a minute. He nods sympathetically.

“We don’t have any machines set up in this store,” I tell her.

“You could have set one up!” she demands.


“And you could have taken them with you,” I retort, “or left them at home! I am not a babysitter nor is it my job to entertain your children. That, madam, is your job. Now, take your children and leave my store!”

Now the Mother of the Year is truly furious. Like I care.

“I’m going to file a complaint with your manager!” she threatens.

“Go ahead!” I hiss back. What the hell, hissing worked on her boys, maybe it will work on her, too. "She hates people who treat us like babysitters as much as I do!"

“Hmph! Well, I can tell you we’ll never shop in this store again!” she says.

Joy to the world!

11:00 AM

Support finally arrives in the person of my co-worker, Bob. Thank God! I've got to piss like you wouldn't believe.

"Been busy?" he asks.

Our store is all of 900 square feet and is packed wall to wall with customers. It took Bob half a minute to get from the store entrance to the register at the back of the store. And he has to ask if it's been busy?

"Yes," I say. "Hurry up and sign in so I can use the can!"

Bob laughs. I'll give him that one. I'd have laughed in his place, too. It takes all of 15 seconds to sign in and grab a name tag. It only takes 10 seconds for a customer to approach me. She's holding at least half a dozen different computer games and looks completely confused. A typical customer, in other words.

She holds out all of the games, "Which of these would be a good game for a 13 year old boy?"

Feeling as if my eyeballs are starting to float, I take a look at what she's got.
The Bard's Tale. M.U.L.E. Gauntlet. Skate or Die. California Games.

"Any of those would be fine," I answer and start edging toward the back office.

She's a pro, though, and not going to be deterred by my evasion. "But which one would be best?"

I'm tempted to just tell her to get
M.U.L.E. But just because I think it's the best computer game ever designed doesn't mean the boy she's buying for will agree.

"What are some other games he likes to play?" I ask, cursing myself for taking my job more seriously than my bladder.

"I don't know," she answers. "It's for my nephew. My sister said he liked computer games and to get him one."

Uh oh, I'm stuck with a customer who's even more ignorant than normal! Experience has taught me what to do now, but I'm going to be stuck with this one customer for a while.

"But you're sure he has a Commodore 64?" I ask, positive she will be anything but sure.

"A what?" she asks.

"His computer. Is it a Commodore 64?"

"I don't know. My sister just said they had a computer. Does it matter?"

"Yes. If the game isn't for the right computer it won't work," I tell her, just as I've told countless other clueless customers this season.

I'm amazed my bladder has exploded yet. I also know what's coming next.

"That's stupid," she tells me. "Why would people make computers that are different like that?"

"I'd suggest you call your sister and find out what kind of computer they have. Then we should be able to help you pick the right game for your nephew," I say, starting to turn away. But she's not done quite yet.

"Can I use your phone to call her?" she asks.

We're not supposed to do that but I figure I can run back to the can while she's on the phone. "Sure."

I hand her the phone, dial the number, make sure it's ringing and then head for the can.

"Hi, Ellen, it's Sarah," she says. "I've got a sales guy who has some questions for you!"

Smiling, she holds the phone out to me.

Joy to the world.

11:18 AM

I finally get to the can.

Joy to the world.

12:30 PM

Lunch. I get an entire 30 minutes during which I don't have to answer any questions for any customers! I find the shortest line in the food court and wait to order my lunch.

Joy to the world.

12:57 PM

I finally get my lunch and have a whole three minutes before I'm due back at the store. Oh boy, I get to grab bites in between customers!

Joy to the world.

1:53 PM

I finally finish my lunch. Cold fries suck.

Joy to the world.

4:30 PM

There are three of us working the store now; Bob, Mike and me. But Mike's seasonal help so he doesn't really count. Unless saying, "Let me ask Henry" or "I'll check with Bob" counts as help.

The afternoon has been a lot like the morning. I've had the drunk, the shoplifter (complete with parents who don't believe their angel is a thief), the father who simply watched as his three children totally wrecked the Apple shelves (a strong candidate for my new Father of the Year contest) and the usual assortment of complainers.

But now my shift is over. I get to leave!

Joy to the world!

5:15 PM

After a 10 minute walk to my car, I find traffic is pretty light. It only takes me 35 minutes to make the 13 minute drive home. I stagger into the apartment and am greeted by my wife and the cats.

"Tough day?" Audrey asks.

"About like normal," I respond.

Audrey smiles, "I thought so. I got beer."

Joy to the world!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Why We Write

This week: Bruce Bethke

I shaved my wife's head yesterday.

No, this is not some strange fetish. This is life with cancer. My wife has always had either long, or very long, straight, brown, hair. (Well, except for that period in the 1970s when she had a sort of reddish-brown poodle perm, but that's best left forgotten). In anticipation of the predicted "some hair loss" during chemotherapy she'd had it cut back to a short bob a few weeks ago, but this week, it began to come out in clumps. She couldn't run a comb through it or put on and take off a hat without pulling out a handful of hair.

So yesterday, I got out the hair clippers, and gave her the one haircut I know how to do: a half-inch crew cut. And then, in solidarity, I let her do the same for me.

After which I held her, for a long time, while she silently cried.

This is why we write. Because we are not telepathic, nor more than barely clumsily empathic. Each of us lives our life entirely alone, inside our own head and heart, and yet we need to share. Thus we talk, and write, and blog, and twitter: all in an effort to break through this loneliness and truly share our inner selves with other people. We write to say, "This is who I am. This is what I think. This is how I feel. This is what I want to share with you."

And sometimes, once in a rare while, the words come together just right, at the right time, and we make that connection. Perhaps only for a moment; perhaps only across the gulf between two hearts. Or perhaps, when everything works really right, we make the connection one-to-many, across thousands of miles, and across oceans of time.

This morning, over breakfast, Karen and I were talking about Christmas shopping. It's going to be a lean one, this year. While we have better medical insurance than most people do, there are still a lot of uncovered out-of-pocket expenses, and our budget is getting thin. So we talked about Christmas, and tried to narrow it down to just one really significant gift for each other. But all the while, we kept looking at each other's hair, and somehow the conversation insisted on drifting around to "The Gift of the Magi," by O. Henry. And for a few minutes, our hearts were lightened, and we laughed.

This is why we write. Because when it really works, it's wonderful.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Open Mic Saturday

Good morning all, and welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're participating in NaNoWriMo: how's it going? If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently, when is it coming out and where can we find it? In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Or what else is on your mind, that you feel like sharing with the group here?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Double Ds for Dee Dee

The story of Dee Dee begins
with the sins of nature,
and the day that she found
it had left her without
Though men did gawk at her stature.

Not for the reasons she wished-
she was quite a dish, she was tall
but she was slender.

To sculpt the shape she desired
it required her to be willing
to go under the knife.
To better her life,
She knew it would be full filling.

Now she longs for days gone by-
when the boys would look in her eyes,
not wonder what she was selling.

By KTown

Yeah, Story-a-Day's still going! I just ran out of stories. Send 'em in to kersley.fitz at yahoo.
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