Monday, January 31, 2011

Sorry to interrupt your regular programming

I just came across a very funny phrase on Worldnutdaily. Never mind the story; nothing there means anything. Here's the paragraph:
"An outspoken American pastor says yes, and he's sounding the alarm for Christians to be aware of the Islamic influence he calls "backdoor Shariah" now nibbling its way across the fruited plain."
C'mon, don't you love that? Nibbling its way across the fruited plain! This one deserves some sort of award.

The United States of Terrorists

Here's the lead paragraph from an AP story today:

"A foreign intelligence report says that the control systems of Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant have been penetrated by a computer worm unleashed last year — and is warning of a possible Chernobyl-like disaster once the site becomes fully operational."

The United States planted that worm. Think about it. Can you imagine how we would react if a foreign government inserted a computer worm into our nuclear facilities -- and turned them into potential Chernobyl disasters?

What would we do? We'd go mad, that's what we'd do. Civilized nations do not act this way. Yet this is exactly what the United States has done in Iran -- and it confirms that the United States is the greatest force for terrorism in the world today. I cannot imagine the rage this is causing in Iran.

The United States -- getting more disgusting by the day.

Writers' tools: a timer

Okay, so maybe this is a tool for writers who live alone. But since that describes me, I have to list a timer among my most essential tools for writing. I couldn't write without one.

When I write, I am lost. I don't know what room I'm in, what country, or even who I am. So it's easy to lose track of all sorts of things, especially cooking. My trusty timer saves me every day. I just set it and I can allow myself to drift away in a flurry of words. And then, before I know it, it calls me back.  "Check the beans!" it yells, or "Walk the dog!" (The dog is in another house; there are no visual cues when it's time to take her out. We don't want to forget the doggie.)

Every writer should have a timer, even those who live with others. Surely the other people leave at some point, no?. A timer frees you to write. Get one.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

When trucks delivered blocks of ice

I was reminded of something when I read Paul Krugman's blog this afternoon. In part, he said:
"Now turn the clock back another 39 years, to 1918 — and you are in a world in which a horse-drawn wagon delivered blocks of ice to your icebox . . ."
And there it was again: the idea that it was only in the early part of the last century that they delivered ice to your home. But I can remember the truck that delivered ice to our building when I was a child in the early 1950s. I remember it distinctly.

I always came close to the truck to watch the men. Stuff like this is the highlight of your day when you're a kid sitting on a stoop. And yes, their truck was drawn by horses (as was the truck of the scissors grinder). First they lifted a big, brown, leather flap that covered the open back of the truck. Inside, it was very cold. Ice blocks were stacked on wooden pallets. It was wonderful in there.

My memories of the truck are summer memories, so the cold in that truck was alluring. Remember, this was in pre-A/C days. I'd always get as close to the truck as I could, just to feel the cool air billowing out. They also had dry ice on which I'd burn my fingers, thinking it great fun.

They used a long, heavy hook to haul the blocks of ice around in the truck. And then they'd put one big block of ice on a large piece of leather. Then they'd wrap the leather around the ice and cinch the long ends together, and grab the ends and throw this package over their shoulder. This is how they carried the ice up the stairs. I loved the ice men though they only grunted at me to get out of their way. Nice, nice ice men.

Over the years, older friends told me I couldn't possibly remember such a thing, that ice deliveries were way before my time. One even told me I must be remembering something I saw in a movie. And now here was Krugman, implying the same thing. So I did the only thing a lad can do in such a situation. I called my mother.

She told me everyone in our building, including us, used ice for refrigeration. There was no one in our whole neighborhood who had an electric refrigerator. I was relieved to hear her say this. So I wasn't crazy after all. I guess modernization hadn't yet reached New York's immigrant communities. 

Just a story running through my head today. I thought I'd pass it on. Anyone else remember ice trucks?

Great stuff on physorg this weekend

The weekend is usually dull over at physorg. Not this time.

First up, "A Fizzy Ocean on Enceladus". It seems there may be life on Saturn's moon, right in our own local neighborhood. And you know what this means with respect to life elsewhere in the universe -- if it's on Earth and on Enceladus, a much different world, then life is common throughout the universe.

Next, "Researchers Find Smoking Gun of World's Biggest Extinction". I always believed the late Permian extinction was caused by volcanic eruptions. Now we know it was. This event wiped out 90% of life on Earth. There have been numerous mass extinctions of life on our planet -- and we're heading into another one now as a result of human activities.

There's also a great physics story that I don't even pretend to understand. But I love it anyway -- Time-like entanglement!

And finally, a depressing note from an article entitled, "High School Biology Teachers Reluctant to Endorse Evolution in Class". Here's a quote from it:
". . . only about 28 percent of [biology] teachers consistently implement National Research Council recommendations calling for introduction of evidence that evolution occurred . . ."
People have to stand up for truth, especially in these mindless times, yet it seems even biology teachers won't say it loud and clear: evolution created us and all the living things on our planet. Why am I not surprised? It's just the American decline again. I see it as a skull grinning madly back at us and hoping for the time when darkness will engulf everything for all eternity. This is what religion also seeks, and that is no coincidence. Knowledge is the mortal enemy of these people.

Anyway, check out the great sci-stories and mourn the facts revealed in the last one. And rest assured: no matter how many people try to stop it, science will always march forward.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

People are such twits about prostitution

People have sex. Get over it. And as for money for sex, what do you think marriage is?

Today's AP article on the four women killed by a serial killer near Jones Beach in NY, is really irritating. Here's their lead paragraph:
The four women were prostitutes in their 20s, advertising their services online, living on the margins of society and not likely to be immediately missed. They appeared to share similar middle-class childhoods, but it is the way they lived their adult lives that has authorities chasing a serial killer. [My emphasis.]
No, AP, it is not "the way they lived their adult lives" that is causing police to chase a serial killer. That's happening because there is a serial killer out there. He did the killing. Don't try and foist blame for their murder on the victims. What a bunch of anti-women prigs AP must be to say such a thing. Ugh. AP, you are disgusting.

Magical ointments

What is it with Noxzema? As anyone who's ever used it knows, it's magical stuff.

I mean, there you are at your kitchen sink, gazing at your grey, corpse-like countenance in the mirror.

But you reach for that jar of Noxzema and put some on your face and then rinse it off -- and when you lift your head to look in the mirror, you see a young, pink, virginal face looking back at you. It's just not possible.

You don't think Chthulu is involved, do you?

Brain-dead web polls

People don't know how to create poll questions. I used to do this so I'm very aware of the inadequacies in internet polls.

In my area, the NY Daily News has the worst polls. They loop extraneous phrases into the choices you choose from, so you can't possibly answer the question unless you fall into their ridiculously narrow scope. Today's poll concerns a boat house restaurant. Never mind the issues, just look how they phrase the choices:

Will you be going back to the Boathouse Restaurant?

- Yes, the owner had a legitimate reason to let the workers go.
- No way, those employees should not have been fired.
- I don't know, but I love the Boathouse in the summertime.

See what's wrong here? This is how they should have done the poll:

Will you be going back to the Boathouse Restaurant?

- Yes.
- No.
- I don't know.

See how that works? Note to poll makers: Do not tack on your stupid, irrelevant, qualifying remarks. You make it impossible for anyone with a brain to take your poll. Oh, that's right. I forgot. You only publish for idiots. Never mind.

We already know it's Winter

Has this happened to news in your area? It used to be the case that when you turned on the news you'd see, you know, news. No more.

About two years ago, NYC's TV stations decided that news is optional on their news shows. Once they made that decision, they were free to broadcast a full hour and a half of snow coverage whenever they wanted to. Or rain coverage. Or any old weather-related thing. The heck with news. We don't need that stuff anymore.

But see, we already know it's winter. Even if we don't go out, we have these things called "windows". For this reason, snow doesn't come as a total surprise to us. We know when it snows. Now, if the only way to learn whether it had snowed was to turn on the TV and have them tell us, then it would qualify as news. See how that works?

This is a huge problem these past two months because there has been a slew of total-snow "news" shows. They don't even pretend to tell you anything that went on in the world that day. They just interview one shoveler after the next. They don't do this every day but they do it way too often.

And then, of course, they don't do it well. One of their most recent innovations -- wait for it -- is to send reporters out in a car so viewers can see out the car window as they travel along. Because we can't do that. We can't possibly get in our cars and look out the window. That is something only possible through the magic of TV. And the most horrifying thing is that as soon as one of the three NY news stations did this, the others promptly sent intrepid Driver Reporters out into the, you know, snow. Wow. I don't know about you but I'm impressed.

I remember when there used to be news. I liked it. Are things any better in your area?

Friday, January 28, 2011

I got blistiz on my fingiz

This Xmas Carol edit is killing me but I'm happy to report that I have only nine more scenes to edit. I'm down to single digits!

And then I'm going to print and read it, though I might take a day or two off first. I'm beat.

Does life have a purpose?

I don't think life has a purpose, at least not right out of the box. "But," you say, "aren't survival and procreation purposes?" 

You'd think so, but survival and procreation are life. That's pretty much life's definition. So is that a purpose? It does accomplish something but procreation is merely replication, life's trick that allows it to survive into the future. If that is purpose, then the machine replicators on Stargate SG-1 had purpose. More, more, more. It's the cry of life but is it purpose in the way we humans use the term? Of course, human purpose may just be an illusion that comes with these bodies we inherited. We have to consider that possibility, too.

Still, we humans can do a great trick -- we can accord our lives a purpose. We create purpose, we design it and set it loose in the world. We can do anything we want, unlike animals that must rely on an unchanging way of life to survive. We change, we grow. We adapt easily and it's all because we can think in a comprehensive manner. That's the game changer.

So does this mean human life has a purpose? No, not unless humanity itself decided in a unified way to have a lasting purpose, such as pursuing world peace, and then kept it up for eons. Beings in the future might look at us and say, "Boy, those humans really have a purpose: peace." I guess then you might say humans had a purpose.

But there's little chance of that sort of high-level purpose emerging from our race. Much to our chagrin, we have seen that people only want to eat, buy things and have sex (and note that the last two often coincide). If humanity has a purpose, human nature is at cross-purposes with it. We can't even change our behavior when all life on our planet hangs in the balance. (Climate change, anyone?)

To answer the original question we first have to answer a more basic one: "What are we?" In the year 2011 we still don't know the answer to this question. We don't even know how our brains create the illusion of a mind.

Richard Dawkins suggested in "The Selfish Gene" that it is our genes that are the prime component of existence, that it is they who "want" to proliferate into the future, to continue to exist for all time. In other words, it may be fair to say that they are the key "beings" in life. Thus the name: "The Selfish Gene". But that's just the replicator thing again. What of purpose?

All sorts of biological activities occur within our bodies without our knowledge. Our health is maintained by the production of new cells, by antibodies patrolling our body and taking on invaders, and a host of other, wildly sophisticated biological activities. But we're not even aware of this. For that matter, nine-tenths of "our bodies" aren't even made of human cells. The bacteria inside us far outweigh our human components. And all this activity happens outside our view. This is one level of "our" lives.

We, the personalities we call "us", ride atop this maelstrom of internal processes. And we are in an enviable position: we drive the car (our body) and can take it in a direction that accomplishes a purpose of our own design. We make purpose. That is our job description: it's what we do.

But life itself seems to have no purpose other than replication. In the vast sea of non-purpose that surrounds us, it seems we are the alien creatures. It's both strange and beautiful.

To me, it's almost like we're fairytale creatures that magically emerged from the long and bloody evolutionary process. To think that we came from that pool of pain and suffering and yet we can pick our own values, the things that we consider important and true -- that's so amazing. And as a result of this ability we live meaningful lives. To me, this is a true fairytale. Disney ain't got nuthin' on this story.

But as I said at the outset, I sometimes wonder if anything really matters. We seem to have purpose -- at least, to our eyes. But how fogged are our eyes, how primitive and unseeing? Do our purposes really rise to the level of "purpose"? I don't think we're in a position to judge. 

It's unthinkable that we are the pinnacle of creation. It seems highly likely that there are creatures in the universe that far outstrip our meager mental abilities. Perhaps they have true purpose. I treasure this idea and find it hopeful. If any creature makes it to a higher level of understanding, something well beyond our meager scope, then this is a very successful universe in terms of purpose. 

And I want that. I want at least one race to snag the golden ring and perhaps live forever in a Utopia beyond our ability to imagine. As long as one race gets there, I'll be happy. It doesn't have to be us. In fact, I don't think it could ever be us. We're too flawed.

And to think that all of this came out of elementary particles and their tendencies to group, spin, attract, repel, etc. This is the most amazing thing, and it too gives me hope. Reality is fascinating.

Slipping into your own creation

I assume anyone who visits this blog is a book lover. So you know the joy of recalling a character or scene from a favorite book. That fictional world is like an old friend. Asimov's stories were some of the most powerful for me. They continue to live in my mind, as alluring and intriguing as the day I first read them. His worlds, his ideas and especially his robots are a part of me.

When you write a book, your knowledge of the fictional world you create is far greater than any reader could hope to obtain. You know the fictional world outside the tight confines of your scenes because you made this world. And if you did it right, for the rest of your life it will be a pleasure to revisit that world in your mind. It's like nothing else you've ever experienced: your world.

I love the worlds I've created and I suspect any writer who can't say this has not written much of a book. I'm always drifting off into my worlds, and I can't express how much this means to me. It adds texture to my life.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Timelines: aaaaarrrrgh!

Timelines are a difficult aspect of writing fiction, at least for me. I create scenes and assemble them into a book, and it all makes logical sense to me. But then at some point I have to fit the fictional activities on a real calendar. Because in the end, the story must be in synch -- all the clocks have to chime in unison.

As a writer, you just write. You know your story needs this or that, so you write scenes and make those things happen. Often these scenes are not anchored in time. They just float around in book-space until you nail them to a clock. The problem comes when, even using a trowel, you can't jam all the scenes into a coherent timeline.

This is where I am now with Xmas Carol. It's not a huge problem. It just concerns a three-day space, into which I must fit about five days worth of scenes. I'll have to compact them somehow. Sigh. I'll get it, but still: grrrrrrrrrrrr!

Today will not be an easy editing day, but I'm on it.


I watched Sunshine last night. It's a classy movie from 2007 that could have rated a 9, but they mucked it up so bad that I have to give it a 6. It's sad because they had a great idea and a ton of money to pull it off. 

On some levels, the creators of Sunshine did a good job -- but they didn't pay attention to their script. The main concept, that a spaceship is taking astronauts on a mission to restart the fusion reaction in our dying sun, is a good one. Sunshine takes the viewer on a magical, ultra-floodlit two-hour trip to the sun. No one ever promised that before and the movie delivers, in a visual sense. The look is unmatched, so fiery and bright that you may be tempted to close your eyes now and then.

And Cillian Murphy is perfect for the lead. He's such a strange, ethereal-looking guy and a good actor, to boot. You easily believe that he is a genius/physicist capable of saving the world. And the movie's certainly got drama -- if the mission fails, all life on Earth will be destroyed. You don't get much more dramatic than that. With all that going for it, you'd think the movie would be great. It's not.

The problem is that, while Cillian is perfect and the ship's captain, Cliff Curtis, is good, the dialogue and the absurd sub-plots are terrible. I wish the director had spent more time fine-tuning the secondary story to make it believable. Because it isn't. They brought in a ridiculous idea to fill up the middle of the movie, and completely ruined it.

Yet the movie still shines. It's the look: it's brilliant, gorgeous, startling. Since the story takes place on a spaceship, the audience is watching actors and CGI sets for most of the two hours, but the look never gets old. There is great computer animation in Sunshine. Nothing looks fake. The music is also delightful, providing an appropriately magical tone for the story. It reminds me of the soundtrack to Solaris (which is a far better movie). 

They tried with this movie but failed. If you're a sci-fi addict, you'll want to watch it just for the visuals. You can always fast-forward through the idiotic sub-plots. As usual, I reveal no spoilers in my reviews.

Anyone out there have a different opinion of the movie? Remember, this could be your unlurking day, the grandest moment of your entire life!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The joy of obituaries

There have always been obituaries in newspapers, but I can't say I noticed them until I entered my sixties. Suddenly they were interesting.

First, a note to obit writers. Do not omit the person's age! I can't believe how many obituaries don't list the age. This is essential to the message. Was this person 12 or 96? It matters. And now, on to other aspects of obituaries, such as the thrill (okay, the fun) of reading them.

I don't know how others react to obituaries, but I find myself poo-pooing people who die in their 40s or 50s. Don't these people have any mettle? What happened to their stick-to-it-ive-ness? Weak as water!

The most amazing thing about them is the three or four-word summary of the person's life.Three words? That's so scary. But I must say they do a damn fine job of it, at least at the Times. Among today's offerings we find, "Wright-trained architect"; "Writer of Gentle Wit"; and "Shaper of Hit Records". You have to give them credit for packing a ton of information into such a tiny space. Then again, there are some obits that may as well say, "Had good appetite," given the person's lack of achievements. These, of course, are great fun to read. "Liked big parties". Indeed. Yes, there is humor in obituaries. You just have to look for it (and perhaps you should be somewhat old).

And of course, we ruminate as we read the obits. Oh, that one was my age! Gasp! This one was a writer too, and he died younger than me and just before he published his first book! There's a ton of this as we pick our way through them and relate their situations to our own. But we can't die! It only happens to other people. This goes round and round and I don't know why I call it fun, but I do.

With the exception of very young people dying, I don't feel sympathy for any of them. First, they're usually titans of corporations and I couldn't care less if they died. Mind you, I only read the Times obits, so it's partly due to their focus on the rich.

And as a regular reader of these things now, one thing I notice is the obscene lifespans of so many rich people. There are tons of 97-year-olds and 102-year-olds in the Times obits, and most often they are people who led luxe lives with excellent, lifelong access to health care. Money seems to make a big difference in how long you live, at least in this country. Sadly, there is inequality even in obits.

They're fascinating and I suppose they'll only become more interesting as the years march by.

UPDATE: In this morning's Boston Herald there is an obituary with the following four-word summary: "Ceramist Responded to Holocaust with Art". I feel a kinship with this fellow because I've responded to the American decline by writing books. Obits are interesting; they just are.

Writing about psychopaths

There are not one, but two, psychopaths in one of my books. I figured why not go for two, you know? Just kidding. The plot required them. As a result, I spent a lot of time with these guys.

You've probably seen the news about the woman in New York who found her real mother, and thereby outed as a kidnapper the woman who raised her. Now there's a psychopath. She steals a baby from teenage parents, brings it home and happily goes about her life, raising the baby as her own and probably never thinking of the child's true parents. These folks have no qualms at all. Qualms are for the little people. It's all about them. Everything else is inconsequential.

Hearing about the case reminded me of my very own, homegrown sociopaths. It was strange to write about them because I had to get into their heads. So what is it like to be one of these guys? What I learned is that they are one-dimensional. There is no depth, none at all. There is only what they want, and the act of getting it. Their satisfaction is intense, but fleeting. It's just a quick fix until they see the next thing they want. They're the ultimate consumers, and we are the consumables.

What I learned is that a psychopath is a pathetic thing to be. I came to see them, both my fictional characters and actual psychopaths, as cursed. There is no hope for them, no possibility of change. I found myself pitying them.

What hollow lives they lead, always looking outside for satisfaction because there is nothing inside. I sense that this scares them at times. That's half the reason they want thrills -- to distract them from noticing who and what they are. They are people without souls. What a rank existence.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

No politics

I dipped my feet into politics on the blog recently but I've decided to opt out. I even deleted a few posts. Suffice it to say, the American decline continues unabated. I'm going to lose myself in my work and ignore it. Best plan, I think. When no one's making sense, why join in the conversation?

Internet reality vs. TV news

I assume anyone who finds his or her way to this blog is an alert, intelligent person who uses the internet adroitly. We are internet people. We're awake and we know stuff.

One effect of this is that it's very difficult to watch "the news" on TV. Isn't it amazing how what they call "news" are items we've known about for days, weeks, months or even years? They actually present this stuff as fresh, new and vital -- as if all of us alert folks out here don't even exist.

But see, we do. And we find their words to be old, tired and almost always delivered from an obtuse, unhelpful viewpoint. We recognize how uninformed the "news anchors" are, and their ignorance is painful to observe.

How much longer will TV news be around? It's already dead, of course. But what I mean is how long will it be until everyone notices it's dead and stops tuning in? Sense would say "soon" but sense doesn't apply in our insular, knowledge-free America.

I wonder how long NBC's stentorous blowhard Brian Williams will be allowed to pontificate on the air. How many more months or years will I have to watch Katie Couric muddle her way through hairstyles and issues? And, horror of horrors, how can I continue to sit on the edge of my seat each night wondering how long Diane Sawyer's eyelashes will be this evening? One day she'll fall flat on her face from the weight of them. Even now, she can hardly keep her eyes open. Toss them out, woman, and give those eyes a rest!

What is their job supposed to be, anyway? They're introducers? I don't know about you, but these days I shoot through what they say since it adds nothing to the stories. The video that they introduce is "the news", what little there is of it. So what's with the introducers? These "anchors" are models reading words they don't understand (although in blowhard Williams' case, I accept that he's awake and actively evil). Their words don't amount to anything. They might as well not say them for all the effect they have.

The internet has opened our eyes and there is no way to close them again. We are alert, informed and self-motivated enough to seek out the real news. TV can't fool us anymore. So why are these people still on every night? And when will they go away? I won't miss them.

TV news is dead and when death happens, we need to toss out the body and switch our attention to the living. The internet is our only hope of obtaining true information about the world.

However, if the broadcast stations ever decided to present the real news again we'd flock back in droves. But as long as "the news" is just a bunch of mindless flacks presenting pre-packaged, government-approved pap -- we won't be there. Does a broadcast make any noise if no one watches? We'll soon find out.

Because the old-school model of "the news" will soon go the way of the dinosaur, this means the corporate powers-that-be will try to find other means to control our access to information -- and that means that, in the end, they will attack the internet with all their might. It's inevitable.

That will be the final battle. If we lose that one, we lose it all.

Lucid writing

I noticed something odd while editing Xmas Carol. I am brutal in my edits, hacking and slashing just about everything. It seems I can always see a better way to phrase something, and as a result I edit in a chronic way, only achieving what I want after many passes. I do finally get to the point where I'm happy with what I've written, but it takes forever to get there.

Which is why it was so odd to encounter several pages of good writing in Xmas Carol, stuff I didn't have to edit at all. Not paragraphs, but pages! And this happened more than once. It's so strange. Why are these sections different from the others? What allowed me to write so clearly and capably that day?  And what prevents it from happening at other times? It's a mystery.

It's not just a visit from my muse, Phil; it's something else. I call it lucid writing. When it happens, a window opens and I can draw on all my skills in concert. That's what I think it is -- a coordination of skills, a coming together of disparate brain elements that aren't usually online at the same time.

When it happens, writing is so easy. There's nothing in the way. I just see the words and write them down. It feels graceful, as if I'm in synch. I can't trip, at least for a time. It's so nice to lay down pages like that.

Lucid writing, "The Zone", whatever it is, it's magical and a writer's best friend. I wish I could call it up on demand, but I can't. In the end, I'm just grateful that it visits me now and then.

Underwater = heaven

"I like to be, under the sea," as they say in the song, Yellow Submarine -- though I could easily forgo the octopus' garden. I love to be underwater. The moment I'm under, I'm home.

This is something I feel in my heart. I don't care if it's a pool or an ocean, I'm happy down there. While snorkeling near coral reefs in Jamaica, with fish hovering near me in the water, all of us lit and warmed by beams of sunlight, I never felt more at home.

Is this an ancestral memory? The creatures that came before us spent a lot of time in warm, shallow waters. Did this perception of water as home travel down through the ages to me? Is it a sort of inheritance? There's something so right about life underwater. It sure looks like home to me.

Does something strike this same chord in you? Tell us about it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

It's a miracle!

There hath been another sighting of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Visit if you dare to behold His countenance!

Dick Cheney's heart (ugh!)

First of all, I don't want to hear anything about what goes on inside Dick Cheney's body. Right there, you've got a disgusting picture on your hands.

But the idea that he's hoping to steal someone else's heart -- a human heart! a living person's heart! -- and put it into his evil body, is sickening. I mean, think about it. Some perfectly nice person is going about his life right now, not knowing that he's about to die and his heart will be put into the body of a monster. It's horrifying.

Just think of the double-tragedy the victim's wife, mother or children will be forced to experience. To know that their loved one is gone and that his heart was used in an unholy surgical procedure that caused it to power the devil himself! Now that is the stuff of tragedy.

I think someone needs to step up and propose a law immediately, stating that living hearts may not be used in Cheney's filthy carcass. Ugh!

Classic sci-fi movies

Until baseball comes back, I won't be watching much TV in the evenings. There's nothing on, as you know. It's too bad because after a day of writing or editing, I want to collapse in a chair and stare at something. It helps to bring me back to Earth (literally, given the things I write about).

So last night I broke out the old sci-fi movies. I've got a stack of DVDs to watch. Here's what's in the batch:

First Spaceship on Venus
Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet
Things to Come
Rocket Ship (Buster Crabbe!)
Crash of the Moons
They Came from Beyond Space
Teenagers from Outer Space (oddly good in a bad way)
Rocketship X-M (wonderfully depressing)

Not to say these are my favorites. They're really sub-par, in fact. But I love them anyway and they'll fill up my evenings until the damn calendar changes to Spring and everyone comes back to the baseball field.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

You just know he's got the emerald shoes, too

Note: On my graphics blog, this post is accompanied by a photo of the popey guy in a garish green outfit. If you want to see it, here's a link.

The popey guy's such fun, isn't he? And damn straight he's got the emerald slippers to go with this outfit. If there's one thing the popey guy knows, it's coordinating dresses with shoes.

And crowns! Normal women just have tiaras, but the popey guy gets to wear something even better than a crown: a hat-crown! Very stylish.

So what's the popey guy been up to? I'm glad you asked. Why, just yesterday, at his grand poobah speech to the Roman Rota, he said the right to a church wedding requires that the bride and groom intend to "celebrate and live the marriage truthfully and authentically." (I think that's how they talk about sex at the vatican.)

As a parting shot, the popey guy threw out this comment: "No one can make a claim to the right to a nuptial ceremony." I wonder who he could be referring to. Seriously, I have no clue. 

Ah, popey guy, what would we do without ye?

What the hell, it's Sunday

I think we have to face something: You're nobody until you've been picketed by the idiots from the Westboro Baptist Church. When they go after you, it's sort of like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval used to be.

So what do you have to do, who do you have to be, for the Westboro dingbats to target you? Judging by their actions, the answer is a soldier, a grieving relative, an upstanding Democrat, a gay person, a liberal or an atheist -- in other words, a decent person with a brain that works. That's all it takes for these evil demons to target you.

It's the new imprimatur: being picketed by the craziest goons ever to live in this country. And, hooo-eee! That comes with a whole passel o' meaning. I can only say that I hope they picket me one day. Then I'll know I've really arrived.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Just sayin'

So Comcast and MSNBC merge, and boom -- Keith Olbermann is out the door. This does not bode well for democracy.

Moment of discovery: Ken Ono

If you can stand to read a story about mathematics, there's an inspirational one on about an amazing mathematician from Emory. His name is Ken Ono and the rather long article discusses his discovery and describes the moment when he came up with the idea. It's a good story, especially the description of when and how he came up with his brilliant notion. Here's a link to the story.

The story demonstrates something I've discussed here (and in my books): that important patterns are all around us but we're too dumb to see them. Ono found one. These secrets are hiding in plain sight but we have no clue. We'll see the patterns one day if we last long enough. And who can say how we'll benefit from the discoveries? They're in a realm we don't even know exists.

In case you don't want to read the article, let me say that before Ono's theory surfaced, the only way to solve the problem of "partition numbers" was so time-consuming as to be almost useless (and often involved infinities, never a good sign). But on a walk one day with a colleague, Ono (and the colleague) figured out a simple way to provide instant answers to a problem that has confounded the greatest mathematical minds.

Ono saw the pattern everyone else missed. He is a genius. I think what we'll learn from as yet undiscovered patterns will change everything. Life as we know it is the "before" picture. But "after" certain patterns become evident, doors will be flung open -- doors we never knew existed. And because these laws, these patterns are completely unknown to us, we can't begin to predict what will be on the other side.

We are an infant race with so much ahead of us. People don't cherish the future anymore and that's why they don't protect the present. That is so sad and short-sighted. We must protect the present if our descendants are to thrive after we're gone. Why don't people care about this? To me, that's the greatest mystery.

Friday, January 21, 2011

This is why I like Ed Brayton

Ed Brayton's blog, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, is one of the few I list on my sidebar. I visit the site daily, and he reliably produces four posts each day. He is the most rational of fellows and an expert in constitutional law.

Today's post -- Diplomatic Nonsense with Pakistan -- is a good example of why I read him. If you've never given Ed a visit, click on over and read this one. Its an exemplar of the sort of reportage he offers. And it highlights the United States' terrible and inane position on so-called "blasphemy laws".

Best atheist song ever

On my graphics blog, I posted the video of XTC's Dear God, which is such a great atheist song. Since I can't post the vid here, I'm posting the lyrics. I only wish I'd written it. But then, I can't sing.

"Dear God" by XTC

Dear god, hope you get the letter and...
I pray you can make it better down here
I don't mean a big reduction in the price of beer
But all the people that you made in your image
See them starving in the street
'Cause they don't get enough to eat from god
I can't believe in you

Dear god, sorry to disturb you but...
I feel that I should be heard loud and clear
We all need a big reduction in amount of tears
And all the people that you made in your image
See them fighting in the street
'Cause they can't make opinions meet about god
I can't believe in you

Did you make disease and the diamond blue?
Did you make mankind after we made you?
And the devil too!

Dear god don't know if you noticed but...
Your name is on a lot of quotes in this book
And us crazy humans wrote it, you should take a look
And all the people that you made in your image
still believing that junk is true
Well I know it ain't, and so do you
Dear god
I can't believe in
I don't believe

I won't believe in heaven or hell
No saints, no sinners, no devil as well
No pearly gates, no thorny crown
You're always letting us humans down
The wars you bring, the babes you drown
Those lost at sea and never found
And it's the same the whole world 'round
The hurt I see helps to compound
That father, son and holy ghost
Is just somebody's unholy hoax
And if you're up there you'll perceive
That my heart's here upon my sleeve
If there's one thing I don't believe in

It's you
Dear god

Go write a short story

This is going to be a recurring theme from me: I want to encourage everyone to write. I've said this before but since no one reads old posts, I'll just have to say it again. Here's today's push to get you off your duff (or on it, come to think of it) and writing.

Once again I've been chatting with people who are "going to" write a book. I sigh when I hear this, knowing that most likely the book will never be written. As I see it, the trick is to maneuver your idea onto the page, despite a roadblock created by your fears of failure. And so the idea never progresses, the book is never begun.

It may seem impossible to write a book, but it's not. The odd thing is that you just have to get into the habit of writing. I know, I know: you can't start. But if you don't, the book won't be written, right? So maybe you need to think about this problem you're having, and figure a way out of it.

I'll keep it simple: write now, people. Life doesn't stretch on forever, even if you're young. You never know how much time you've got to write that book. Don't you want to leave a novel behind, so there's a piece of you that goes on, that continues to speak whenever someone reads it? As far as goals go, it's a nice one.

But you keep putting it off. So I have news for you: it's not that hard to get out of this cycle. All it takes is a firm decision to start writing. If you can't face your novel yet, or your history of the Huguenots or whatever it is that you're planning to write, then start smaller. If you're a non-fiction writer, write an essay. Why shouldn't you write an essay? What possible harm could there be in trying? I know, I know: your fragile ego. Get over it.

If you're lucky enough to be a fiction writer who has a great idea for a novel, but just can't get your motor started, how about writing a short story today? Why not? Fear of failure is not an excuse. You'll never know if you can do it unless you try. Who knows? You may be a natural. Don't you want to find out?

You may think your book is in the "planning stage." Now, there's real value in planning; I don't mean to knock it. But let's get real. When's the last time you did some planning for the book? I thought so.

At a certain point you have to move from planning to writing. You can always keep planning as you write it. I do, and it works. See, there's an important issue here, and it may be something you don't realize. There is a learning process that takes place as you write. Nothing can replace this learning. In the end, only writing teaches you how to write.

You'll find that every time you write fiction, you will get better at it. Without planning to pick up a particular skill, you'll find yourself saying, 'Oh, I can do that now", "I can create characters; I can write dialogue." You'll learn new things every time you write, and this is something you only understand after its happened to you.

What have you got to lose? Go for it. Remember, you don't have to show it to anyone if you don't want to. So write something this afternoon. Go sit in your happy place, be it in front of a fire, your computer or the great lawn at your local park -- and write. At the end of the day, you'll have many precious things.

First, you'll have your story (or scene or essay or whatever) which you can read and evaluate at your leisure. But more than that, you'll have the experience, the learning that you picked up simply by writing. Keep it up and your skills will accumulate. Soon you'll know exactly what you're doing. You'll be an old hand and it won't seem impossible to write that novel. It's not the hardest thing in the world. I promise. Just give it a shot. Okay?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Editing. Oy.

I just counted and I have 33 more scenes to edit in Xmas Carol. I think the total was 75 the last time I reported on my progress, so I'm getting there. But jeez, 33 more scenes! Oy.

Update: It was a banner editing day. Now I have only 28 scenes to go! Yay!!!!!!!!!!! 

The list of the beast

Today The Beast published their list of "The 50 Most Loathsome Americans of 2010". Wanna know who was number one? I agree with the choice:

1) You
Your brain’s been cobbled together over millions of years of blind evolution and it shows. You’re clumsy, stupid, weak and motivated by the basest of urges. Your MO is both grotesquely selfish and unquestionably deferential to questionable authority. You’re not in control of your life. You wear your ignorance like a badge of honor and gleefully submit to oppression, malfeasance and kleptocracy. You will buy anything. You will believe anything. You believe that evolution is a matter of belief. You likely scrolled down to #1, without reading the rest, because you’re an impatient, semi-literate Philistine who’s either unable or unwilling to digest more than 140 characters at a time. You think Epic Beard Man is a national hero and that Bradley Manning might be Eli and Payton’s brother. You believe in American exceptionalism despite the contrary, compelling and overwhelming evidence. You tacitly partake in all manner of atrocity without batting a lash. You’re actively participating in our species’ extinction and you’re either in denial or you just don’t give a shit. You escape into every sort of mind-numbing distraction and ridiculous, convoluted fantasy, so you don’t have to face the bitter, terrifying fact that your life is utterly meaningless.

Chihuly Fire and Light

Wow! Did you see the show about Dale Chihuly on PBS last night? (My post title is the title of the show.) I'd never even heard of the fellow. He and his staff blow glass and create the most beautiful, organic, colorful structures you've ever seen. I was startled by his work.

The show was wonderful and the glass structures are nothing short of cosmic. I can't believe I've never heard of the guy before last night. The show is still floating around PBS schedules right now. If you haven't seen it, check your local listings. It's very, very cool.

The History Channel is a cesspool

When this channel first arrived on the scene, it was going to be a champion of history. Finally, history buffs would have a channel of their own. Alas, history is just a word to the people at the History Channel. But I'm sure you already knew this. They've been stinking the joint up for too many years.

If their shows aren't about Nazis (my favorite?: "High Hitler"), they're about Jesus -- who is presented not as a myth or even a man but as a god. When it's not about Jeebus or the Nazis, it's about threats they say could kill us all. They really like stuff like asteroids because they might leave millions dead. That's like an orgasm for the History Channel. But then, to throw you off, they randomly toss in an occasional science show about, you know, reality and stuff. 

The scary thing isn't the asteroids, it's the History Channel. Here we are in a country where people's brains are in a progressive state of rot, and the History Channel is feeding people nonsense on a nightly basis -- and calling it "history", no less. It's a scam for the rubes, and nothing more. The History Channel is staffed by snake oil salesmen who exist only to make money. And if truth is a victim of their nightly drive-by shootings, they don't give a damn.
Last night's sampling from the History Channel included the following treats:
  • A show about how we'll all die if the moon drifts away;
  • One about "decoding 2012", which I assume is about Armageddon, one of their favorite days of the year;
  • Another about the "six gates to Hell", which they seem to think exist;
  • And one accurate show about the deepest place in the ocean.
Seriously, what are they smoking over there? How could this appeal to anyone who finished elementary school? That night's schedule provided one hour of reality surrounded by five hours of idiocy.

They also have such treats as "Pawn Stars", "Swamp People", and "The Seven Signs of the Apocalypse" on this station. But I'm sure you knew that. And lotsa Nazis. Can't forget the Nazis. You'd think Hitler was still alive.

It's hard to know what to say. I shake my head when I pass it by on the guide. It's TV for idiots. And companies pay to hawk their products during these craven shows? They want to be seen in the company of fools?

What adds to my aggravation is how easy it is to find religious nonsense on TV. It's all over the dial although none of it is true. But I have to pay extra to see the only gay station, Logo. Why is that? I need an explanation for this from my satellite service provider. Oh, I forgot, no one's home there. If you call, not one soul there knows a thing about anything. Ah, America!

All we can do, apparently, is give the History Channel three thumbs down and never watch it. Hopefully it will go away, like a bad smell sometimes does.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A bit dead

I wrote a post a couple of months ago bemoaning the fact that I'll never be able to write horror novels that have ghosts, witches, spells or any of that sort of nonsense in them. They don't exist, so poof! They're disqualified and I can't write about them. That's how it works for me. Only real (or conceivably possible) elements can worm their way into my stories.

But there's one eerie sort of tale that I may yet work into my bag of tricks. I'm talking about stories where the characters are really dead but it takes them the whole book (or movie) to realize it. "Hmm," you say. "But wouldn't that constitute a nonsensical story, Keith?"

Not especially. Humans experience flashbacks. We say, "his life flashed before his eyes," and everyone understands what we mean. It seems to me a significant story can be packed into a flash. All you have to do is play it back at a much slower speed. Voila: an eerie tale that doesn't break my self-imposed "reality rule".

At some point I'm going to try one of these. It won't be the usual, boring (i.e., SyFy Channel-like) story where there's a car crash at the beginning, and at the end they all see themselves dead in the wreck. I think I can do a lot better than that.

Am I tipping off my audience by saying this? Sure. But I'll bet you won't even recognize the gambit when you read the story. Betcha!

The edit marches on

I've been plowing through the edit of Xmas Carol for . . . seemingly ages. This is the most work-intensive edit I've ever done. I'm changing just about everything and at the end of a day of editing, I'm exhausted. It's a huge job.

I have no words of wisdom to impart about editing, not now. I'm so deep in the trench right now, it's hard to see anything except the wall of words surrounding me. This book is long even though I've cut entire scenes (and one character). I can look up to the top of the trench walls and maybe yell a few words out to you. But my feet are snarled in sentences and I can't quite stand on the paragraphs to muster a decent yell. I am engulfed by language.

There's nothing to do but continue the edit. I just have to keep marching until I get to the end. I know I'll have a far better book once the edit is complete. But it is taking a big toll on my energy levels. At the moment, I am a slave to this book. But so be it. It must be done.

PS: I just realized something and it's a further illustration of how lost I am in this edit. Because it's December in the book, I've been writing December at the head of my journal entries for the entire month of January. It's December, I tell you! December!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Almost a joke but not -- man games!

Everyone can just lie back and relax now. The human race has reached its pinnacle with the release of urine-stream games. You know you want to read it. Here's the link.

I'll bet Rex Ryan is dying to try one.

Vatican fail

From AP today:
A newly revealed 1997 letter from the Vatican warned Ireland's Catholic bishops not to report all suspected child-abuse cases to police — a disclosure with the potential to fuel more lawsuits worldwide against the Vatican, which has long denied any involvement in cover-ups.

A moral man

"So Keith, who else -- other than Dr. King -- do you think is a moral person?" I'm glad you asked and a name leaps to mind.

When the US thought the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island might explode, President Jimmy Carter didn't hesitate to put his own and the First Lady's lives on the line. If the people nearby felt threatened, then they would go there to give them hope. The following is from PBS' web site, as is the accompanying photo. Here's a quote from their article.
"The national and international media had given the accident at Three Mile Island front page attention for days and venerable network newsman Walter Cronkite was speaking of a 'horror' that 'could get much worse.'
"Carter believed that the people of Pennsylvania and the nation were looking to him for leadership, so on April 1, Carter inspected the damaged plant. Middletown mayor Robert Reid later spoke of Carter's visit as providing a much-needed morale boost. 'People weren't talking to one another. They were cooped up in their homes, and when he came, it seemed like everyone came out to see the president and it was really a shot in the arm,' Reid recounted to writer Mark Stephens."
I always thought that was a brave thing for a president to do. Some presidents are the sort that run for the bunkers when a threat is three states away. Others head for the fire. It always seemed that Carter, when presented with a choice, tried to do the right thing. I'm very grateful to him for that and I see him as a powerful role-model.

Jimmy Carter was courageous then and he's never stopped his life work -- to foster peace. The man is open about who he is. When you hear him speak, you know in your heart that he simply considers himself to be a vessel for good and a tool for justice. He will let himself be used in any way that furthers these aims.

Many people see Carter as a deeply committed, religious man. But when I look at him, what I see is a moral man.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King Day

I may hate holidays, but not this one. I loved this man. He was a shining light and a courageous leader. Who knows where the country would be with respect to race relations if Martin Luther King, Jr. had never existed? Although I typically make fun of America's hollow, empty holidays, this day is a different story.

Unfortunately, two "friends" smudged the holiday for me. On MLK Day a few years back, I called these two people, a married couple whom I considered among my closest friends. And they made fun of the day and the man. I won't repeat the things they said. Trust me that they were sickening.

After I called them out for being racist pigs, I never spoke to them again. If I met them in the street today, I would shun them. You don't get to make fun of this man, at least not in my presence. You just don't. So now I think of MLK Day not only as a holiday to cheer the man and his accomplishments -- but as a day to watch others and see how they react.

I have found that MLK Day is a shining marker that separates the decent people from the racist pigs. You can try this yourself. Feel people out today about their feelings for the man and the holiday. On the one hand, it's a sad thing to do with such a meaningful holiday. But you'll learn who among your friends is a good person, and who is an animal. This can be useful. So: enjoy the day and remember the man. But remember that it also makes racist pigs drool with hatred.

In a way, I wish those "friends" had never said those things, never sullied the day for me. I liked my Martin Luther King holiday better before. So maybe I shouldn't have mentioned this today. But I find truth attractive; I don't try to avoid it. MLK Day is an inspiring day for most Americans. And it also provides a way to tell the good people from the bad. And that's a fact.

Now, let's end on a high note. Here's Martin Luther King, Jr., the day before his death:
"And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
Sometimes people can say religious things, and it's perfectly all right. That was one of them.

The origins of phrases

Phrases are fun. Each has a feel, a meaning and a story to it. I find them colorful and often wonder where they came from. It's more flavorful to use a phrase once you understand its full meaning.

For instance, in America when we say, "mind your P's and Q's," we mean the person should watch what he's doing and pay attention to the small details. (I just realized some younger readers might not even know the phrase; horrors!) Since I am a mad typist, I thought the most obvious origin for this phrase was that it was a caution for typists. After all, which fingers type P's and Q's? The pinkies of both hands have to reach high to hit them. This makes them arguably the hardest letters to type accurately. I assumed that was what the phrase was about. Simple, no?

But I was wrong. I tracked the meaning down in the early 1980s, in those wild, pre-internet days when you had to read books to learn things. Apparently this is a phrase that an English bar owner might use in the 17th century when speaking to a barmaid. It was a caution to remind the barmaid to record exactly what each patron had to drink. Keep your chits in order, in other words. Written without abbreviations, the phrase was, "mind your pints and quarts." I loved that.

However, Wikipedia has a slightly different explanation, and I don't like it at all. They say it referred to bartenders who were minding their customers' alcohol consumption -- i.e., minding their P's and Q's. So many pints or quarts, and presumably you were 86'd for the night. I don't like that at all. If that's true, all we can do with the phrase is tell our drunken friends to mind their P's and Q's when we're the designated driver. How dull. The phrase is permanently ruined for me. No, don't try to lessen the blow for me. This is it: I'm throwing it away.

Or at least, in light of all this, I may retreat to my original, ill-begotten thought that it was all about typewriter keys. Ah, it was all so simple then. Darn that Wikipedia!

Still, it's fun to learn these things. And I'll bet the next time you use the phrase, or hear it used, this knowledge will come to mind. I like that; it provides depth. Anyone else enjoy this stuff?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I can't believe the Jets won!

[On my graphics blog, link on left] is a photo of our outsized Jets manager here in New York -- Rex Ryan, he of the big everything, especially mouth. But we love the guy. (And will do so until he fails; that's the agreement.) 

But the thing is, the Jets just beat the Patriots! This is totally impossible yet it happened. I saw it, so I know.

There were some weird moments afterward, at least for me. I found myself aghast (and laughing) to see Rex take the field after the win and roughly push aside anyone who was in his way. But I mean he shoved them the hell out of his way.  It was an amazing display of aggression and privilege. How dare anyone be in his path?! Didn't they know who he was?!

One poor photographer was standing still, shooting video with a big camera on his shoulder. His back was to Rex so he had no idea what was about to run him down. With no one else anywhere around, Rex picked a path that went right through the photographer. He could easily have gone around him, yet he slammed into the guy's back with an outstretched hand that never stopped moving. It was like a bulldozer hit the guy.

Whoa, Rex. If you're taking steroids, big guy, stop now. Oh yeah, and congratulations, Rex! We love ya, guy!

NY Times fail

I have absolutely no respect for the culture-reviewing aspects of the NY Times. If the Times says a book is great, it's garbage. If they hate it, it may be fabulous. They are equally clueless about TV and movies.

But they really tripped up big-time today by publishing a two-page article about the SyFy Channel's movies -- without ever saying they're dreadful! They actually praised them! They must be blind and stupid. Amazing!

Here's the link. What dolts!

Bringing voices to print

I worked for a community-based HIV-prevention organization for many years, one that focused on teens and adolescents. In this job I had the opportunity to meet some incredible speakers, community people who could get through to a crowd in a personal, meaningful way. Their messages were startlingly fresh and inspiring to hear. In the end, I came to think of this new breed of educators as heroes --  and there were some stars among them.

One thing I learned from my interaction with them was that, although they could think on their feet, when it came to the written word, they were lost. To them, writing was an alien thing. Since speaking in public is an alien thing to me, I figured we were even and wondered if I could help them out. I learned that they wanted to get their message down on paper, and that's where I came in.

I loved interviewing these speakers and then writing articles with their byline, for publication in various newsletters. I actually assumed their identities and tried to write in their voice, while at the same time using my writing skills to make the piece work. In other words, I wrote the articles I thought they would write (if writing was a part of their skills set).

In emotional terms, this turned out to be like painting the likeness of a military hero and giving the painting to the family. When I handed them the finished article and watched them read it, their faces were a sight to behold. They saw this simple act as a stunning gift. Finally, there it was right in front of them: their message in print, to do with as they wished. They were so grateful (and so was I, for the experience).

This sort of thing can be helpful in many ways. Once something has been written in a clear, compelling manner, this language can be lifted and used for other purposes, such as PSAs or grant applications. A little writing goes a long way.

What I'm trying to say is that if you can write, you have a precious gift to offer to others. Do it. Spread your talent around. Sometimes even something quite simple, like helping a mother write a letter of complaint to send to her child's school, can be very empowering. They can relax, knowing their case has been stated clearly, and this can be a source of great relief. And of course, many people today could use help with resumes and cover letters.

We writers have something to give and the great thing is, barring Alzheimer's, this talent will remain with us forever. No matter how old you get, you will still be able to write things for people. Try it if you haven't. It feels pretty darned good.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Religious twits running loose in the world

When I lived in Manhattan, I was once a patient at St. Vincent's Hospital in the Village. While there, I saw an appalling thing. Even today I shudder to think of it.

There was a knock at my door one morning and a priest stuck his upper body into my room. Ugh. He had a rosary dangling from one hand and some sort of spooky religious "vestment" in the other. Ugh.  And he said, in a sweet voice:

"Would you like a prayer?" 

Ugh! It was like he was some kind of mad cigarette girl at an old-time nightclub, but marketing prayers instead of smokes. I looked at him with open disgust and said, in my best Bea Arthur voice, "No! Get out."

What is wrong with these people? They should hide in darkened churches and leave normal people alone. There are a lot of sick people in hospitals and not one of them is in need of a prayer.

"Would you like a prayer?" Ugh!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Obama and morality

President Obama spoke of morality the other day in an almost universally-praised speech about the murders and mayhem in Arizona. He gives a good speech. We already knew this. But this president seems not to have moral values. If he had some, he'd stand up for what's right. He never does that.

Today, three days before Martin Luther King Day, the Obama administration filed a brief in support of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, which is expressly designed to oppress gay people and deny them the right to marry.

When asked directly about his position on gay marriage, Obama freely states that he hasn't decided yet if it's okay. This is not different from a white president saying he can't decide if black people should be allowed to marry. There is not one iota of difference between these two things.

But then, this is a man who continues the policy of perpetual wars, who sends drones nightly to kill innocent Afghan families, who continues to torture people in secret prisons (and American prisons!) and holds people in an endless state of solitary confinement though they are charged with no crime.

If Obama knew right from wrong, the public option would be in the health care bill -- because he would have fought long and hard for it. He would speak out against rampant taser use, the rising police state and the wearing of guns in public. If Barack Obama was a moral man, Bradley Manning wouldn't be sitting in solitary confinement, tortured by Americans. And the US would not be fighting to have Julian Assange jailed or killed for practicing journalism. But the man doesn't know right from wrong. He shows us this again and again. When it counts, he's nowhere to be found.

Morality is a land far away from the world of Barack Obama. And this is entirely of his own choosing. I have come to believe he is not a good man, and I say this as someone who cried with joy when he was elected, if only for what the moment represented. But even then, in my heart I knew the man was an illusion. He had already announced that Rick Warren, a virulently homophobic preacher, would deliver the invocation at his inauguration. I knew right then who Barack Obama was.

Barack Obama is not a good man.

Image-blocking software

I'm armed to the teeth with software blockers. I haven't seen an ad on the internet in years. I also block Flash because it plays without my permission and fouls my area with unwanted noise. I'm very happy with these tools, easily available to Firefox users.

But where is effective image-blocking software? Why can't I say I don't want to see an image ever again -- like the foolish face of the Arizona killer in his attention-seeking mugshot -- and poof, it's gone from every page I visit? The software wouldn't have to know all faces and shapes; it need only find one face based on my input image. Ideally, it could could zap that image from every page regardless of file name. Why isn't this available?

It's a frequent peeve of mine. I don't like having certain aspects of our culture poured over me like the contents of a cess pool. There are nauseating images that are repeated from blog to blog, and media site to media site. I don't want these images in my life.

Surely such software exists. Anyone?

Useful forms of aggression

I'm getting a kick out of the aggression currently being exhibited by NFL players and managers. They're going at it like mad, dissing each other with real venom in the lead-up to the Super Bowl. It's fun.

But do you realize this form of "show aggression", exemplified both by hurling epithets at other teams and actual play on the field -- is a very helpful thing for men to do?

Sports provide a harmless outlet for the aggression that evolution built into us. That aggression is still with us, still a part of our lives though there is little call for it in modern life.

Without a receptacle for their aggression, many men spend their lives getting in trouble. This instinct rides around inside us (and by us, I mean men) although there are no longer any mastodons to bring down, or giant, predatory birds to chase. There is nothing constructive for aggression to do in modern life. And so it bursts out in emotional moments, bringing bloodshed, mayhem and sorrow to the world. This is mankind's greatest problem and it has dogged us for millennia.

Sports provide a way to channel this aggression into non-violent games or challenges. They are a proxy for our aggressive instincts, a remedy, a way out of a hole that even now pulls young people into gangs, men of all ages into jealousy and rage, jilted male suitors into murder, and politicians into endless wars.

These thoughts are flooding my mind lately because I reread "On Aggression" by Konrad Lorenz last month. Although written in the 1970s, it is an illuminating book with an urgent message for our times. Lorenz takes us on a tour of aggression in the "lower species", particularly fish, and does so in lovely prose reminiscent of Dawkins. He presents a panoramic view of how non-human creatures handle aggression, especially in situations where the aggressor (almost always a male) should not attack. So what do these animals do instead?

They engage in formal aggression meant only for show. This serves to release the aggression without endangering either "combatant". This is what modern men must learn to do. If we truly understood this principle and took steps to re-channel our aggression into acceptable venues, we might no longer find ourselves engaged in perpetual wars.

Politicians, above all, should be forced to read "On Aggression". And we should quiz them afterward on the subject matter -- and if they fail the test they should be removed from office. This is a principle that must be learned.

In the meantime, maybe they could watch some sports -- and think about the lessons they are seeing play out before their eyes. We don't always have to kill. There are other options.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Three true things

Your list of three true things for today:

- Avatar is a cartoon

- When a young child draws a picture of a gun at school, he or she should be given a cookie, not chastised and sent home.

- Nicholas Cage is a cartoon.

The starkness of a good tale

Lately I've been watching lots of classic horror and sci-fi standards, including Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone". Some of those old stories are so good and so simple.

There aren't many elements in a Twilight Zone episode. It seems there are, at most, two concepts. There's the spacey element that provides the weirdness factor. And there's usually a character flaw driving the tale -- greed, avarice, fear, or a clawing for power or social status. That's it, just the two things.

But perhaps I should say there is another element, a silent one. It is the starkness of every scene. The best often have only one set: a room, a doctor's office, a car, a hotel room. Of course, it's just a half-hour show and you can only cram so many sets into that sliver of time. But it's more than that. The starkness is actually a player in the story. Against this purposely drab, minimalist background, the story can light up the night like a neon sign.

One or two characters, one idea, and one or two sets. Just let your story roll to its conclusion with nothing in its way. It's a good formula with a lesson for fiction writers, and it's one they've heard before: less is more.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Oliver Sacks on creationists

This is a quote from an interview with Oliver Sacks, the author of "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat". 
"I’m genuinely bewildered by people who tout creationism and so forth. It was understandable that Gosse should do so in his book, Omphalos, which was published in 1857, a couple of years before Darwin’s book. Gosse was a very good and passionate naturalist, but also a devout literalist, and this tortured book was his attempt to, as he put it, “untie the geological knot” and reconcile the Bible and the fossil record. But I can’t see how after Darwin, any beliefs like this can be maintained. The sheer, endless beauty and depth of evolutionary theory is far beyond the dullness of a divine Creation."

Hands and minds

There's an article today on Science Daily about the value of hand gestures. I knew about this already but it's good to see more work being done on the topic. Gesturing with our hands helps us to think and learn.

This is something we all should be familiar with, and it's a useful bit of information to pass on to others. When you speak with an older person who is having memory difficulties, encourage them to use their hands as they speak. It will help them connect with the words and ideas they're searching for. I've done this with my mother and it works. According to the article (which you can read by clicking on Science Daily, here or above), it also should work for kids who are trying to learn new things. (It will work for anyone, of course, not just old people and kids. They're just focusing on learning environments in this article.) So spread the word. Tell people about this.

While I'm at it, here's another useful nugget of information. If someone has a stroke in your presence, tell them first what you're going to do (so they don't freak out) and then gently touch their lips, their face and their fingers. Stroke them ever so lightly and keep doing this, moving from area to area (fingers, lips, face). You may prevent brain damage with this simple act so it's a great thing to do while you're waiting for the ambulance.

Here's a link to the study. Couldn't hurt, right? And it might really help. I'm certainly going to do it if someone has a stroke in my vicinity.

Another Annie

I've always loved Annie Lennox and I particularly like the words to the song, "Why". In the lyrics below, I put my favorite section in bold because it is such good writing. (Here's a link to the video if you'd like to listen in another tab as you read the lyrics).

Here are the lyrics:


How many times do I have to try
to tell you that I'm sorry for
the things I've done?
But when I start to try to tell you
That's when you have to tell me
Hey, this kind of trouble's
only just begun.

I tell myself too many times
Why don't you ever learn to keep
your big mouth shut?
That's why it hurts so bad
to hear the words
that keep on falling from your mouth

Falling from your mouth
falling from your mouth

Tell me...

I may be mad
I may be blind
I may be viciously unkind
But I can still read
what you're thinking
And I've heard it said
too many times
That you'd be better off

Why can't you see this boat is sinking?
(this boat is sinking this boat is sinking)

Let's go down to the water's edge
And we can cast away those doubts
Some things are better left unsaid
But they still turn me inside out
Turning inside out
turning inside out

Tell me...
Tell me...

This is the book I never read
These are the words I never said
This is the path I'll never tread
These are the dreams I'll dream instead
This is the joy that's seldom spread
These are the tears...
The tears we shed
This is the fear
This is the dread
These are the contents of my head

And these are the years that we've spent
And this is what they represent
And this is how I feel
Do you know how I feel ?
'cause i don't think you know how I feel
I don't think you know what I feel
I don't think you know what I feel
You don't know what I feel

Phew. Killer lyrics. And of course, it's the melody and Annie's voice that bring these lyrics to full power. Amazing song.

Worse than a collision of galaxies

Even worse than two galaxies colliding is the collision of clusters of galaxies -- huge arrays of galaxies held together by the force of gravity. This is a photo from Hubble's web site. It shows the aftermath of just such a collision. Here is their description:

"A powerful collision of galaxy clusters has been captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory. The observations of the cluster known as MACS J0025.4-1222 indicate that a titanic collision has separated the dark from ordinary matter and provide an independent confirmation of a similar effect detected previously in a target dubbed the Bullet Cluster."

It's all about the dark and normal matter separation -- which is wildly important; don't get me wrong. But the possible toll on life is never even considered because we're busy making believe that we're the only intelligent life in the universe. This is a colossally idiotic notion. No one will ever convince me that numerous intelligent civilizations weren't destroyed in this and similar collisions. What a colossal waste of evolution's work! It truly is an uncaring universe.

It's not a reach to assume that many life-bearing planets within these clusters collided with planets or suns or other debris. At best, they were turned into molten rock and the civilizations on the surface were subsumed into the planet itself, never to be heard from or known again. They might as well have disappeared into a black hole.

An uncaring universe, indeed. More reason to be overjoyed with our luck as we find ourselves in a peaceful neck of the woods. We are truly blessed -- by chance. But what of those civilizations? I often think of them as I fall asleep at night, and I pay them mental tribute. We will never know them and that is so sad.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Skimming the news

Lately, I find I'm skimming the news. This is unusual because I hardly ever skim text, preferring to enjoy the words and meaning. But the US has become so fat, stupid, ugly and mean that I can't read the news anymore -- at least, not every word.

Do you find yourself doing this lately?

Are there religious aliens?

Anyone with a lick of sense knows life exists throughout the universe. It's everywhere (that it can be). But the size of the universe means it's going to be a long, long time before we meet intelligent aliens. When that day finally comes, do you think they'll be religious?

I think if they haven't been around for much longer than we have, there's a good chance that religion will play a role in their society. Let me say the same thing another way: if they're as primitive as we are, they may well believe in gods.

They might even have similar god myths. After all, like us these aliens exist because of evolution. They will have traveled a similar, bloody path from primitive life form to their current existence as intelligent beings. And all along that route, like us, they would have tried to explain reality to themselves. And that means they might have invented gods, especially in their most primitive days.

After all, what are gods but a way to try to understand what we fear and cannot otherwise explain? I'll bet even dogs have wild notions about reality drawn from their basic lack of understanding of the world around them. Does Fido believe in a god (other than his owner)? Maybe that's pushing it but I'll bet there's a corollary.

Primitive = religious. So could an alien race that arrived in a spaceship be religious? Probably not. Their arrival in such a vehicle would imply an advanced understanding of science and likely the ability to travel at some high fraction of the speed of light. I figure a race like that would have thrown off notions of god long ago.

Of course, the worst nightmare would be if they were religious. If we can't handle the minor differences that exist between our religions here on Earth, can you imagine how we'd deal with alien gods? I can just see the Fox news coverage now!

Maybe I'll write a short story about this. Fun idea.

So this is what blogging gets you

Yesterday I skipped work, a rarity for me. But it was called for since my cousin Carmine was visiting. We sat around laughing all day. It's what we do.

But here's the thing: it was so weird to see someone who knows all kinds of stuff about my life because he reads my blog every day! I hadn't expected this and it was great. Why, it was exactly as if I wasn't writing into a void!

I guess all bloggers experience this, eh? I should have expected it. Has this happened to you? And did it please you as much as it did me?

Monday, January 10, 2011

On becoming a cartoon

I wonder if I'm alone in a perception I've been having. It seems to me that many of my old friends and acquaintances have turned into cartoons of themselves. Any echoes from the crowd?

I used to respect these people but they've literally morphed into absurd notions of themselves. It's as if they lost their bearings one day and drifted off. I can't even connect the dots between their current and former selves.

I don't know why it happened and I can't talk about it with them because . . . well, they're cartoons. It's bizarre.

Have you seen this phenomenon?

The mad editor

Well, I'm editing but I'm not quite mad -- more like exhausted. I've been editing Xmas Carol for a couple of weeks now and I'm halfway through the book. In the process, I've come to realize that what I'm doing isn't editing. It's a total rewrite, a much bigger task.

And it's going well. As I said in an earlier post, I axed an entire story-line and excised a character. (I feel I should put them in aluminum foil and store them in my freezer. You never know when you might need a good character or storyline.)

But phew, what a lot of work. Writing books is a joyful, easy thing but editing them into final shape is a whole 'nother animal. It's a mountain of work. 

 Anyway, this has been my report from the trenches. Over and out.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Nice stuff over on the graphics blog

I put two fun videos up on my cheesy-graphics version of this blog today, plus a photo of folks ice-skating on our pond. If you can stand the bandwidth, come on over.

A good thing happened this week

These days it's rare to see a story about people acting selflessly to help others. Yet there was one such story this week. You know you want to feel better. So go ahead: click the link below. G'wan.

Egyptian Muslims act as human shields for Copts.

I found it at Think Progress this morning.

Blogger quirks that drive me nuts

Overall, blogger (or blogspot) seems to be a nice place to set up digs. But it does have its irritating quirks. If you blog, do these things drive you crazy too?

Magic paragraph spacing
Extra spaces appear randomly between paragraphs. Sometimes there's a huge space between each of them. At other times, only between some. You try to axe the spaces but they just migrate. When you go back to look at your post, there's a space in another place. This can go on for some time and it drives me crazy. 

Only being able to upload photos now and then
This isn't the worst thing ever since you can always upload photos by mailing them to your blog. Still, why is a simple task like uploading a sometime thing at Blogger? 

Ever-changing Stats
I like the idea of statistics for the blog. But they don't really tell you anything you can trust. Stats might say you had 35 visitors today, but when you look the next day, it says only one person visited the day before. And they change throughout the day. I find that late in the day, you get meager stats. But early on, you think your blog is a happening thing. Why can't they be accurate? 

The skewing of audience stats because of Next Blog
I mentioned the other day here about the "Next Blog" button up on top of the page. People apparently click it. Why, I've even done it a few times. This brings random visitors -- and a skewing of the statistics. I've already written about my bitter sorrow upon finding out I'm not a hit in Somalia, after all. Kill the Next Blog button. Random people don't want to visit your blog, so why invite them in? Every blog is a special interest blog and you only want folks from within that group -- be it parents, sane people, religious nutjobs, atheists, liberal folks or nuns -- to visit your blog.

Does anything else drive you nuts here? Mind you, as I said at the outset, I'm also happy to be here. These may drive me a bit nuts at times, but they're really minor irritations in the long run.  We get a blog out of it, and that makes it worth the aggravation.