A new Six Minute Story

I wrote a Six Minute Story this morning. Dashing off a poem so quickly and extemporaneously means there are bound to be a few scanning errors, but that's part of the fun. It might make more sense if the story prompt were included, but I think you'll still get the picture. Read it here.

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The Importance of Arbitrary Limits

What is the point of an arbitrary limit? Why set for yourself boundaries that mustn’t be crossed? With the entire world of art and letters, politics and emotion and everything else before you, why choose a number of words as the defining characteristic?

Why, indeed.

We might as well ask why an apple is round, or why birds have hollow bones. Weight, height, depth, length… these are physical limitations, constraints to which the organisms responds. Working within them, novel solutions – often amazing solutions – arise which pave the way to achieving the ultimate goal.

We set limits because therein glories lie.

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Happy Pi Day!

Happy Pi Day!

As you are no doubt aware, March 14 is celebrated as Pi Day in the United States, since we use the month.day.year convention of designating dates. This gives us a 3.14 every year, a date to celebrate math and irrationality.

It also prompts an awful lot of "Americans use a dumb date designation system, and should do it day.month.year, i.e. the way WE do it." comments in social media, but we won't talk about that because America! Also because everyone else is obviously jealous because 14.3.15 means nothing, so their approbation is therefore beneath notice.

But I digress.

As you may have heard, this year is a very special Pi Day. In just about an hour from when I'm writing this, it will be 3.14.15, 9:26:53, the only moment in my lifetime when the date and local time will align to produce the digits of Pi to 9 decimal places. This moment won't come around again for another hundred years!

And who knows? By then, America might have switched to day.month.year, or to the even more logical year.month.day. Hell, we might even be using the metric system by then. Who knows what the 22nd century will bring?

Happy Pi Day, everyone!

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No New Boobs On This Blog

An update on the policies Google will implement for Blogger (which hosts Landless):
Google has updated its policies on Blogger, its blogging platform, to preclude new users from hosting adult content. Blogs that are created after March 23 and contain “images and video that are sexually explicit or show graphic nudity” may be summarily deleted. Existing blogs will be set to private; the only way to visit them will be for the blog owner to explicitly give permission to individual browsers. 

If that sounds too cumbersome, Google has some other suggestions for administrators of blogs with adult content: they can remove the offending content. Or they can remove the blog. In short, Google no longer wants their business.
Not that I ever posted much adult content (except for that one Friday Flash with the bondage and hot candle wax), but this seems like another step toward the sanitization/Bowdlerization of the web. There will always be plenty of porn on the Internet, but this is a major blogging platform deciding that the presence of adult content on some Blogger sites is a threat to the business position of the entire company.

Sic transit gloria boobs

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Caressing a wax doll

A passage from "Anna Karenina" struck me with particular force today. Before I share it, some introductions and scene-setting are necessary:

The Russians:

Anna Karenina: a noted politician's wife, now living in exile with her lover, Count Vronsky, for whom she has forsaken husband, children, home, and reputation.
Count Vronsky: Anna's lover, who, having given up his army career and society position to be with her, has grown bored with his new life abroad, and who has taken up painting as a way to fill the hours of his empty days.
Golenishtchev: a self-important quasi-intellectual, now settled in this Italian town, perpetually gathering information for a grand treatise, and perpetually on the verge of writing it.
Mihailov: a brilliant artist who has been given the commission of painting Anna Karenina's portrait, and who in consequence has been obliged to listen to Golenishtchev's views and to look at Vronsky's own attempt at a portrait of Anna.
 "Mihailov meanwhile, although Anna's portrait greatly fascinated him, was even more glad than they were when the sittings were over, and he had no longer to listen to Golenishtchev's disquisitions upon art, and could forget about Vronsky's painting. He knew that Vronsky could not be prevented from amusing himself with painting; he knew that he and all dilettanti had a perfect right to paint what they liked, but it was distasteful to him. A man could not be prevented from making himself a big wax doll, and kissing it. But if the man were to come with the doll and sit before a man in love, and begin caressing his doll as the lover caressed the woman he loved, it would be distasteful to the lover. Just such a distasteful sensation was what Mihailov felt at the sight of Vronsky's painting: he felt it both ludicrous and irritating, both pitiable and offensive." - Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, Ch 13.
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Fifty Shades of Grammar: just how bad WAS the writing?

If you're less into BDSM and more into CMOS, you might be wondering just how well the writing in "Fifty Shades of Grey" conforms to the norms of grammatical construction. From Grammarly comes this analysis of the types of proofreading gaffs you might find in this bestseller. For the record, Grammarly has never run MY book through their analysis, but (for obvious reasons), I'm sure it would pass with flying colors.

Grammarly: Fifty Shades of Grammar
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#FridayFlash: The Heart's Primordial Fire

I could tell you a lot about electric arc furnaces, probably much more than you would ever want to know, or could possible care about. I could reel off statistics about the metallurgy, economics, and environmental impact of re-melt scrap steel vs. virgin iron ore, but I know it's an esoteric topic, one with a limited appeal.

Maybe if I were to talk about how Big Steel died? Relate how the old smokestack and coal mine Big Steel of Pittsburgh, Allentown, and Johnstown got the shit kicked out of it by electric minimills like mine, maybe then you'd care. After all, that's people, right? Men, women, kids, small town America. Wrap a flag around it and put a shivering puppy in the picture, then maybe you'd care.

But I don't come from Pennsylvania and I don't have any puppies on hand.

How about bulk shipping prices from the reclamation breakyards in Malaysia? Feed material mix ratios of shred to pig iron to big scrap? The impact of carbon and molybdenum content on the resultant steel's quality, market destination, and price?

No, that's stuff I care about, but you wouldn't. After all, I'm boring, I'm tiresome, I'm a one-note Charlie because all I care about is my mill.

What if I were to tell you that there's over two hundred tons of scrap in this melt? Busted engine blocks, mostly, about a thousand of them dumped them into the bowl. A thousand old cars, a thousand old chariots of the modern Rome, broken up so I can melt them down and start the whole thing all over again. I renew America with my filthy, boring, tiresome mill, day after day after day.

Still nothing?

What if I told you that in the middle of that pile of broken steel was the mortal remains of one Jeantte Alice Spurling, native of Weshona, WY? And what if I told you that the cap is already over the bowl, and that the electrodes are already primed? And what if I told you that when I throw this switch, sixty-five million volts is going to slice into all those engine blocks? Do you know what will happen?

Do you care?

In about forty minutes, the whole melt will be at two thousand, nine hundred and fifty degrees; the bowl will be filled with two hundred tons of molten steel, golden and powerful with an ancient, primordial fire. All the residual oil, engine fittings, and combustion gunk will vaporize, right along with sweet, plump, cheating little Jeanette. She'll be steam, then smoke, then ash, then nothing. She'll never have to complain about being bored ever again, not with my mill, my steel or with me.

After the melt stabilizes, in an hour or so, the foreman will order the rigger to pull a sample of the melt for the metallurgy QA/QC lab. Would it interest you to know that there isn't enough calcium in her bones to show up on the meter? I know, because I did the compositional math on the mass ratios last night.

And would it interest you to know that even though Richie McCauliffe, that piece of shit, is keeping little Jeanette company down there under the engine blocks, he won't show up in the melt chemistry either? Two hundred and thirty pounds of muscle, hair gel, and thick necked charm is still mostly just water and carbon. Compared to the weight of steel, one cheating lover with big tits plus one greasy redneck with crooked teeth equals nothing... nothing at all.

Oh, I could tell you a lot. Maybe after the ready light switches from red to green. Maybe after the melt starts.

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Brains are stupid

Listen, I have no idea why I feel differently about being a writer than I did a few days ago, but I do. Is it the period of quiet introspection with my pen-and-ink journal that gave me a chance to work out how I feel? Is it the conversation I had with a friend? Is it the weather? Is it the restful splash of scotch I had last night after a long, hard day?

Who knows?

Maybe it's that I've been reading a book of short stories by famous, successful authors. My reaction to them has been a mixture of, "Gosh, that's a well-set scene! Gosh, that's an interesting character!" and "Ugh, why is this character so boring? Ugh, what a formulaic plot twist! Ugh, what a dumb resolution!"

There is no stronger goad than the feeling of, "Hell, I could do better than that!"

Granted, I still don't have any fresh ideas, but I have a reworked second draft of an existing novel-in-progress I can dive back into. Will it eventually be a good book?

It'll be as good as I can make it, and that's enough.

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Former writer

Today is one of those days when I feel like it would be more accurate (and more truthful) to change all my online biographies (Twitter, Amazon, LinkedIn, this blog, etc.) from "writer" to "former writer". Because I've got to say, where creativity and invention used to be a lush garden, it's now nothing but a dead, empty wasteland inside this heart of mine. All sere, no serenity.

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2014 in review

What New Year's Eve would be complete without a retrospective? In quasi-order of significance on my life:

Resolutions, 2014. Unlike previous years, I'm not even going to bother looking up what my resolutions were back on January 1. This year has been so disrupted, any resolution goals I did achieve would have been by random chance, not intentionality.

About my day job...
Work. I started a new day job in January. It came with more responsibility and more stress, but more of the good stuff, too. However, what struck me most after I started was how several of my new peers said the same thing: what the hell were you thinking, taking a horrible job like this? (Such prognostications of doom were usually said soto voce in hallways and elevators, with significant head shakes and sidelong glances). As the year went on and things were going pretty well in my world, I'd get repeated warnings about how awful the job could be, with repeated variations of "do you regret it yet?".

Curiously, though, my year was fine. Better than fine, it was pretty good. At each major turning point of the year, I half-expected the impending horrors to show themselves, but they never did. My experience in the new job wasn't just "absence of bad"... it was "I rather like this". Thanks to the welcome I got, I spent the last twelve months waiting for the other shoe to drop, but based on everything I've seen, experienced, and heard (and been able to sniff out via a carefully cultivated spy network) is that there is no boogieman under the bed. Probably.

Writing. Ugh, don't even go there. In the spring, I finished the first round of deep edits on my next novel, and have figured out a) why my MC wasn't compelling, and b) what to do about it. However, I've not really done anything more with it since then. I just haven't had the mental energy to tackle it (see "Work", above). It doesn't help that the deeply horrible second draft is the point where it takes a tremendous effort of will and/or self-delusion to believe that the book a'borning is worth salvaging. The temptation to chuck the wretched thing and work on something more productive is way, way too strong.

Exercise. Started running in February. This was a great thing, as exercise is a wonderful way to deal with stress (see "Work", above). Using the Couch To 5K app, I started couch-potato slow. Over the course of months, I worked up to ~5K training runs several mornings a week. When I ran in my first official 5K this summer, it was no more challenging than a normal Tuesday. Go me!

Alas, I pulled a hamstring in July, which sidelined me for a while, but then I was back on the pavement, working my way back up to 5K eye-openers. Go me again!

Alas (again), in late October, I tore a tendon in my left foot while doing some rough trial hiking in the Poconos. That meant constant pain for weeks. As of this writing, it's slowly healing. I walked 2 miles yesterday, and my foot let me know it. However, that sensation of "someone is stubbing out a lit cigarette on the bottom of my foot" wasn't terribly pronounced, so that's a good thing. I'm still casting around for an aerobic activity that doesn't involve stress on my foot. Maybe weights? Yoga?

Resolutions, 2015. I'm not sure yet what my resolutions for 2015 will be. Now that things have settled down a bit, I might just recycle the 2014 ones.

I hope the coming year is an interesting and enjoyable one for you!

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Alan Turing

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A short, snappy post on the philosophy of self-valuation

I just spent some time writing a long, introspective blog post full of rhetorical questions about how our enthusiasms feed into how we define ourselves, and what happens to that self-definition (and self-valuation) when those enthusiasms change, run their course, and, ultimately, fade away.

But really, screw that. Nobody wants to read that kind of year-end philosophical didacticism, especially with a set of Grand Questions arranged in a bullet point list.

So here's a cool version of "White Christmas" instead.

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New Year's Resolutions: what worked?

Each year, I take the turning of the calender as an opportunity to reflect on the year past and consider the year ahead. Since an unexamined life gathers no moss, I ask myself the following questions:
  • What worked? What didn't?
  • What happened with the goals I set a year ago? If I achieved them, what came of that success? And if I didn't achieve them, why not?
  • What new goals should I set for the coming year? Do I need to make a major change of direction? Or do I just need to set waypoints farther down the road I'm on?
  • Of all the people I interacted with this year, how many will be glad I was in the room? How many will wish I hadn't been? How many won't even recall I was part of the conversation?
  • Is my part of the world a better place for what I did this year?
  • What parts of my world still need to be better? And what can I do about it?
  • Am I happy? Am I satisfied with my life? With myself? If not, what can I do about it?
Questions like these are best asked in the midst of quiet and warmth. The answers can be tricky to live with, but they are always good to learn.

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Book launch: "Trails Through the Fault Lines"

Today, I'm pleased to interview April Brown, a twitter pal of mine (@UncoveredMyths), in connection with the launch of her new book, Trails Through the Fault Lines. It's an adventure set in the earthquake-prone deserts of New Mexico.

TN: April, give me your elevator pitch for this novel. What's the hook?

AB: Amber and Alex track expanding quakes and volcanic eruptions across New Mexico. The Rio Grande Rift begins re-opening the inland sea that once covered much of this region. Together, with guides Livia and Corbo, they gather information to attempt to save as many lives as possible. Amber and Alex grapple with losing best friends and family. Their world tumbles faster than the Rio Grande swirls.

TN: It sounds like it's drawing on several genres. Do you have a specific writing style?

AB: A story idea will appear, and I'll make a few notes, maybe research a bit. At this point, I have no idea if the story will occur, or stay in the notes folder.

A few weeks, or months later, I make a few more notes, and research more. A few names may appear, maybe some background notes, some of which will change.

A few months after that, I make a one page general outline (that never stays the same). I also start a background and name list. Then, I research all I can before I start, making a labelled list of sites to find more specifics if needed. Usually, I write half the novel, then set it aside for a month or so. At that point, I re-read, as a first edit pass, and finish the rest of the novel, before moving into editing stages. This often involves more intense specific fact verification. There are several edit passes based on the needs of the novel. From the basic story, down to the nitty gritty sentence structure, and then the formatting issues.

TN: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

AB: I would have skipped the agent search, and created my book cover, rather than waiting on others. During the five year agent search, I managed to write 3.5 of the sequels, with 1.5 to go. Also, I waited on the cover design and had to change the publication order. By doing so, I may have missed a major marketing technique, as a series of such quakes were in the news at the original publication time.

TN: You've put a lot of time into this story arc. Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

AB: I was always interested in writing. I enjoyed newspaper reporting, and yearbook recording. Then, I moved on to poetry. Writing is my way to connect with my past, present, and future. It's my only legacy to leave for others.

TN: What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

AB: For this story, there were many challenges! Conflicting evidence in science reports means many scientists will not believe the Rio Grande will spilt up to Yellowstone. However, the evidence that it is occurring is there. There are traces in the rocks, the mountains, and the scientific reports on the area. How fast it will occur is anyone's guess!

Making the science entertaining for the non-scientist while not making it too fluffy for the scientific readers? That was difficult. I tried not to use too many technical scientific terms, which is one reason the characters are closer to twenty, when they would still be used to speaking to friends and acquaintances in less scientific terms about their work.

A third difficulty was that people expect romance in books, no matter how unlikely it would be in real life. So, allowing it to develop lightly, and naturally, was difficult. There are two very different relationships in this book: one almost cold and scientific, and the other, a more forced romance, based on social need of a culture that soon will not be. How these lead to the problems between later cultures created by the characters in these novels can only be discovered in the sequels. One point that unintentionally appeared in this novel is another social construct that has been in the news of late. One character, Corbo, always thought he was born in the US. That turns out to be not quite true, and it makes all the difference. He never had a birth certificate, and was really born a mile or so across the Mexican border. The US government, and the Mexican government say he doesn't exist. This thread wound it's way into the story five years ago, long before it was news.


 "Trails Through the Fault Lines" by April Brown is available in ebook and paperback at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Smashwords. You can follow April on Twitter as @UncoveredMyths and at her website, Uncovered Myths.

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