Thursday, November 24, 2011

To be or not to be

While revising my novel these past couple of weeks, I've come to realize just how badly high school English damaged my writing technique. A parade of English teachers impressed upon me the importance of using the active, rather than the passive, voice. The active voice was always good, while the passive voice always bad. So far, not so bad. Stephen King agrees. But they went farther. Some teachers I had went so far as to mark up every time I used the word to be, whether it was passive voice or not. (Ironically, science papers were supposed to be entirely passive voice.) As a result, I'd developed a pathological aversion to the word "to be." Looking over my novel, which was first written ten years ago, I've come to see just how problematic this aversion was. Some of my writing was ridiculously convoluted just to avoid the words "was" or "were." A lot of my revision has been killing these overly contrived evasions and just rehabilitating the word "to be." So, for other writers recovering from high school English, here are three reasons to embrace "to be".

  1. Sometimes things just are. Compare "She was angry" to "She felt angry."  The first is a stronger statement, more definite and clear.  When I was trying to avoid "to be," I used equivalent words, words like "seem" or "feel" or "become" or "appear."  These are useful and sometimes necessary words, but they're weak words.  When something is, say that it is, don't try to weasel around it.
  2. A whole tense depends on "to be."  The imperfect tense, where we say "He was coming," as opposed to "He came" or "He did come," needs "to be" as a helper.  Imperfect is a useful tense, conveying incomplete past action, and I needed it to write a book in the past tense.  Without "to be" there's no imperfect tense, and it's a shame when that's gone.
  3. Passive voice is sometimes the right voice.  I'll admit, new authors often write in passive voice when they need to use active.  It can make writing timid and weak.  But the reason it does that is not the voice itself, but the subject of your voice.  We tend to use passive voice when things are happening to our characters, as opposed to when they are doing things.  That's what it's for: passive voice puts the emphasis on the object of the action, rather than the subject.  When our heroes stop doing things and things happen to them instead, then our writing is weak and timid, no matter what voice we use.  There are times when things do happen to our characters, and passive voice is perfectly good for keeping the focus on them even when they're not active, but if the characters are inactive too long, active voice won't save the story.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why the iPhone needs a hard reboot button

My iPhone died the other day. When I took it out of my pocket I noticed that it was hot, but when I tried pressing the home button, nothing happened. I tried the power button, I tried holding down the power button, but still nothing. Then I tried plugging it in, in case the battery had run down. Still nothing. No sound, no screen, no indication besides its heat to let me know it was anything but plastic and glass.

Finally, I plugged it into my computer and started up iTunes, which recognized that the phone was there, but wasn't able to do anything with it. It hung backing it up, and it hung canceling the backup. There's an Apple store near where I work, and I considered taking it to them, but I didn't want to ask for help until I had at least rebooted the darn thing. The problem was that there was no way to reboot it. I suspected it had simply hung, and was now unresponsive. You could use the power button to turn it off, but first you had to hold it down, then it would prompt you to swipe the screen to shut it down, and as I mentioned, there was no response when I hit the power button. I couldn't even take the battery out, since the iPhone doesn't give you access to it.

Ultimately, I had to let the battery run down. When I charged it back up, it was fine. But this has convinced me that the iPhone really needs a hard reset.

Friday, November 18, 2011

World Fantasy Convention: Day 4

I honestly thought it had been only a week since my last post, but novel revisions create a time distortion field, and it's really been two. To be honest, Kristin and I didn't do much Con related on our fourth day. We didn't go to any panels or readings. We did go to the banquet, which was held on the last day. The food was so-so, but Connie Willis gave a very funny toast. There were awards too. A number of our friends were nominated, but I don't think any of them won. They were robbed, of course. I can say this with absolute confidence, despite not having read any of the nominated books or stories.

Afterward, we went to the beach. Kristin's Clarion West class was staying at a beach house, and we went to visit them. We took advantage of the California weather to wander along the beach while we were there.

Kristin on the San Diego beach.

Afterward, we had dinner with them, then went back to the hotel, where the final con party was. We hung out there as well, mostly with Kristin's Clarion West class. So we saw a lot of them.

After that, we went to bed. We were exhausted, and I had my flight home the next day.  Kristin also had a flight, though she was going to San Francisco to visit her sister.

Overall, it was great fun.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

World Fantasy Convention: Days 2-3

I expected to have a lot to say about the rest of World Fantasy.  But it can be summed up fairly quickly: I went to panels, I went to parties, I met interesting people.  I talked to John O'Neill and the Black Gate crew again, which is always fun.  I hung out with friends, and with Kristin's friends.  More Kristin's friends than mine, actually, as she knows more of the regular Con-goers than I do (which is only natural, as she's been going to Cons longer than I have).

That said, let's try to hit the high points.

In terms of panels, the most interesting one I went to was on the role of character stupidity in genre fiction.  I felt that this was somewhat one-sided, as the arguments of the panelists boiled down to "your characters shouldn't be stupid."  But I felt this was unfair.  The real issue with characters, especially in horror movies, is that they don't know that they're in horror movies.  Much of their stupidity stems from this fact.  People, all the time, will go downstairs, alone, unarmed, in their underwear even, to check out a strange noise because they think the dog knocked over something or something toppled over, and they won't be expecting someone to be lurking there.  If they knew they were in a horror movie, or a suspense movie, they wouldn't do that, but they don't know.  That's not stupidity, it's just ignorance.

The most interesting party was the pajama party, which was a release party of N.K. Jemisin's new book, The Kingdom of Gods.  You were supposed to wear your pajamas, and there were kids' games like Hungry, Hungry Hippos and Operation, and there was liquor in sippy cups.  The book supposedly has a god of childhood in it, hence the theme.  It was fun.  We went, but didn't wear our pajamas, since we were going to the aforementioned panel on stupidity later.

One thing we enjoyed was the sun.  San Diego in the fall is nice--the temperatures in the 70s, rather than the 50s, like it is here in Boston.

Friday, October 28, 2011

World Fantasy Convention: Day 1

Yesterday was the first day of the World Fantasy Convention.  To be honest, I didn't have too much con stuff to do, but I figured I'd tell you about it anyway.

I arrived at San Diego yesterday around 1 pm, and immediately made my way to the hotel, the Town and Country Resort, where the World Fantasy Convention is being held this year.  Kristin had already flown out the day before to spend some time with her Clarion West class.  I arrived at about 1:45 pm, only to be told that the room wouldn't be ready until 3 pm, so I went and registered for the convention and got lunch before I could check in.  This might have been a mistake.  As part of registration, I picked up my "book bag"--a big bag of free books every participant gets.  It's about twenty pounds of books that is not a lot of fun to carry around.  (I've since gone through the books, and separated the books I'm interested in reading from the ones I'm not, so it's now a more manageable weight.)  Once I was able to check into the hotel room, I settled in to wait for Kristin.

Kristin arrived around five, and after some time together, we went to get dinner, and finally to the main event of the con, at least as far as we were concerned: Kristin's first ever con panel: "Magic and Metaphysics."  The main idea being, "How do you design a believable magic system?  Why is it important?"  Kristin's already written about it, but it was fun to see her talk it out with some other big name authors: Ted Chiang, Mark Teppo, and Peter Orullian.  Of course, the panel, like most con panels, tended to stray off topic, mostly discussing whether there really is any such thing as magic, and when they did get asked the question I was really interested in, they didn't seem to understand it.  The question, as it was asked, was "Is it more important to define the magic system when it is the protagonists using magic?"  The way I would have phrased it would have been: "How do you use a defined magic system in order to show the reader what the limits of your characters are, so it's clear what situations and conflicts are actually a challenge?"  There's more to the question, of course, but I hate it when people asking questions of panels talk and talk rather than just asking a question.  Instead of addressing the question, the panel (and the audience) talked about quantum physics, in ways that made me, with my Ph.D. in quantum computation, cringe from time to time.

Kristin was much better than the others at staying on topic, by the way.  But you could tell that she was jet-lagged.  So afterward, we went to bed.

So, really, we didn't do much con-related stuff yesterday.  Hopefully there'll be more con stuff to report after today.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

2011 World Fantasy Convention

Kristin and I will be going to the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego next week.  If you've seen Kristin's blog, you already know that she's going to be on a panel this convention.  It's one of the panels I thought sounded most interesting, on the metaphysics of magic, at 10 pm on Thursday evening.  As I'm arriving on Thursday afternoon, I suspect that I'll probably be badly jetlagged.  Which won't stop me from going.

I applied to participate as well, although I indicated a preference for giving a reading.  That may have been a mistake (there appear to be fewer slots for readings than for panels), as I wasn't scheduled.  That's disappointing, but since I did an unofficial reading at the last World Fantasy Convention, I guess I can't be too jealous of Kristin.

In any case, I expect it will be a fun convention, and I'm looking forward to it.  If you're going to be there, let me know.  And do go to Kristin's panel.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Kindle Fire Battery Life

I've read some of the information available on the Kindle Fire, and I've come to the conclusion that the Kindle will live or die by its battery life.  This is because the Fire is placed directly at the high end of the Kindle line.  Since the Kindles are e-ink screens, with little in the way of interaction, they have a battery life of days and weeks.  With an LCD screen and a touch sensor, as well as a browser and video playback, the Kindle Fire will not be able to compete with them.  However, if it does not have at least the battery life for a full day of reading, then it will fail to successfully live up to its market niche.

From what I'm hearing right now, the Kindle will have enough juice for 8 hours of continuous reading (slightly less for watching video).  That is what I consider the absolute minimum.  If it fails to live up to that duration, then it will soon find itself going the way of other fancy, but less than useful, gadgets.

This has not stopped me from adding the Kindle Fire to my wish list, of course.  If anyone's interested in giving me one for Christmas, I'd be happy to test out the battery life for you and report it here.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Story now online

I announced last week that my story, "Her Majesty's Guardian," was out.  That was the e-mail version, which you received if you're subscribed to Daily Science Fiction.  Yesterday, it went up on the Daily Science Fiction website.  Now everyone can read it here

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Her Majesty's Guardian" is now out!

My short story, "Her Majesty's Guardian," is being sent out to Daily Science Fiction's e-mail list today.  It'll be appearing on the website in about a week.  Here's a small taste:

"The Council's vote was unanimous," Duke Richard said. He looked ridiculous in a bright yellow doublet. The color would make anyone look foolish, as the other old men seated around the table proved, but its gaiety was especially jarring against Richard's habitual dark expression. "You know your duty, Guardian."
Alric, in his customary black, stood out like a crow among canaries. He wanted to protest further, but he had no arguments left after the last hour's debate. More arguing would only convince them to give his task to someone else, and he couldn't do that to her. He felt a heavy weight settle on his chest as he bowed to the Duke. "I will do as you command, Your Grace. But I will never forgive myself." Or you.

 I hope you enjoy the story.  If you're interested in other stories I've published, here's a quick list:

My wife, Kristin, also writes science fiction and fantasies.  You may also be interested in her stories.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Writing vs. Blogging

I've been looking over my most recent blog posts, and I'm worried that my blogging skills have atrophied.  Once upon a time I wrote three posts a day, every day, generally on political topics.  Then I got a real job, started writing fiction seriously, got in a serious relationship, and got married, in that order.  My blogging dropped off to once a month or so.  I decided, fairly recently, to try to blog more regularly, and now I'm writing a post once a week.  But my blogging has taken a hit.  I don't think I'm as good a blogger anymore.  I'm not, however, a worse writer.  I'm pretty sure that I'm a better writer.  But the skills involved in blogging and in writing are different enough that I can be good at one and not the other.

There are several reasons for that:
  • Blogging is shorter.  When I write, I'm generally writing a story on the order of 8,000 words, or a novel on the order of 80,000.  For a blog post, 800 words is long.  My tendency to write longer does not help me write the succinct posts that blogging requires.
  • Blogging has little, if any, chance for revision.  My fiction has a rigorous, four revision process.  A blog post may get a quick once over.  I'm used to pushing through to the end of a story, then going back and making sure I get all the details right.  One of the most important parts of that revision process is waiting.  I can't go back and revise something right after I've finished.  I have to wait some time, typically weeks, to get some distance from it, before I can look at it with fresh eyes.  I can't do that with blog posts.  I might be able to give it an hour or two, but that's all the distance I can manage before it publishes.
  • Blogging has a different purpose.  This one's so obvious that it's easy to overlook.  In a story, I'm focusing on things like plot, characterization, and description.  In blogging, I'm writing about facts and opinions, often in bulleted lists like this one.  In a story I'm making things up; in a blog post, I need to get facts straight.  Oh, they aren't entirely orthogonal endeavors.  I need to get facts straight in stories too, when it comes to the real world parts.  Blogging can often benefit from detailed description, and even a clear plot structure.  Overall, though, they do have different purposes, and require different types of writing to meet those goals.
Since I don't intend to stop blogging, I'm trying to get better at it, or at least recover my atrophied skills.  That requires blogging more, but I don't want to blog so much that I don't have time for other things--such as fiction writing.  Still, I'll be making an effort to pick up the pace of my blogging.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Getting ideas

One of the most common questions writers get is "Where do you get your ideas?"  Their most common answer is "I don't know."  Writers have ideas.  They don't really know where they come from.  But as any writer can tell you, ideas are a dime a dozen.  They're plentiful and manifold, and not really worth anything.  The real work of writing is always the execution, turning the idea into a story.

That said, it's not, contrary to what some writers say, impossible to teach how to come up with ideas.  Writers don't know where ideas come from because they don't really think about it.  But there is a process.  Or more accurate, there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of processes for coming up with ideas.  One of the most common is to take two ideas which are out there and combine them.  But where do those ideas come from?  Newspaper articles, technical papers, real-life experience, movies, other stories, etc.  They're all around you.  Any real story is going to intertwine dozens of ideas.  Just about every story is about how someone reacts to something.  Psychology meets technology, sociology, or even just some more psychology.

But what I want to talk about is something a bit different.  Rather than talk about how you combine ideas, I want to talk about how you develop one.  What do I mean by that?  Well, to start, you need a concept.
  1. Concept. The concept is not the idea.   Rather, it is the basis for the idea.  If you're writing a science fiction story, it may be a technology--nanotechnology, or genetic engineering.  If you're writing a fantasy, it could be a magic system.  If you're writing something more down to earth, it could also be a social structure, an organization, or even a relationship.
  2. Research and Development.  This is where you figure out how your concept works.  This may involve real world research in the technology, or similar societies.  It will also involve some thought into how things work, and figuring out the details.  Some of this will be made up.  Even if you're working with a real society or technology, you're probably going to need it to behave differently than it does today.
  3. Destruction.  Now that you've developed your society or technology or magic system, it's time to break it.  Figure out what can go wrong.  Then ask yourself, "Is this too obvious?  Is it too easy?"  If it is, then maybe you need to fix it.  Things which are too easy to break are fragile, and anyone with half a brain wouldn't put their trust in that technology.  Readers won't be able to suspend their disbelief.  But some things aren't obvious, or just are very hard to break, even though these can have catastrophic effects.  Should you fix these too?  Of course not! 
  4. The idea.  By now, you have your idea.  Have fun with it! ... "What idea?" you ask.  The one you just came up with.  You figured out how to break your system.  You found the interesting part to write about for your technology or society: when things go wrong.  There's a great story there--go ahead and write it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Hiking this past weekend

Kristin and I went hiking this weekend.  It was an adventure.  By which I mean, Irene and the following storms had left things a mess.  It started when we got to the road leading to the trail and found a sign saying Road Closed (though not actually blocking the road).  Not to be deterred, we continued until we reached the turn off for the trail head, only to find that the dirt road was impassable.  Rain had left huge ditches in the road, more than our tiny car could handle.  So we decided to hike 1.8 miles up the road until we reached the trail head.  After getting a little bit lost, we found it, and ate lunch.  Then we started on the trail, and got a mile into it before we reached a sign saying "Trail Closed" due to unsafe conditions.  After some discussion, we turned back, and returned to our car.  Overall, we hiked about as far as we had intended, but not on the trails we had planned.

Nevertheless, the hike proved a good chance for me to test out some new equipment.  Most notably, a new backpack which I had just received from my wife.  An Osprey Atmos 65.  It held up well for the hike.  It's most notable feature is the ventilation--the part that presses up against your back consists of netting, rather than solid material, in theory so that your back doesn't get overheated.  It was indeed better than normal, though my back wasn't really cool and dry, as some reviewers claimed.  Maybe I just sweat a lot.  I also wore my new hiking boots, a pair of Oboz Yellowstone II.  They also held up pretty well.  They had good traction, decent support (once I tightened the laces), and were comfortable, not raising any blisters.  The waterproofing on them seemed good as well, though I didn't tramp through any brooks.

So, overall, I thought the trip was worthwhile, even if we didn't reach any really good viewing points.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Upcoming Story

Daily Science Fiction has announced its stories for September 2011, and if you look there at the bottom, around September 29th, you'll see my name listed.  My story, "Her Majesty's Guardian," will be coming out at the end of the month.  But if you want to read it then, you'll need to subscribe to Daily Science Fiction, which delivers its stories via e-mail.  Of course, if you're willing to wait a week longer, it'll appear on their website, but as I know you're all eager to see my story, I'm sure you'll get a subscription.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Irene come and gone

Hurricane Irene was hyped as a dangerous storm here in New England.  But ultimately, its bark was worse than its bite.  There was a lot of rain and wind, and some fallen branches, but we never even lost power.

The only downed branch I've seen so far.

Not that there's been no damage.  500,000 people in Massachusetts are without power, and at least 15 people were killed in the US (though none reported in Massachusetts so far).  Kristin and I stayed inside all day, finding ways to keep ourselves occupied.  We didn't want to be outside in it, but overall, it looks like we've come through the storm all right.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Million Words

There's a saying that every writer needs to write a million bad words before he writes any good ones.  Like most aphorisms, there's some truth to it, and some exaggeration.

I started writing in middle school.  I wrote a lot all through high school, and submitted my stories to all the contests they have for middle school and high school writing, and placed in a number of them.  So I was actually a fairly good writer for my age group.  That did not mean that I was a good writer overall.  It was just that I and everyone else at that age was going through our one million words.  So my bad words were maybe a little less bad than a lot of the other bad words.

One I started college, I pretty much stopped writing, and didn't pick it up again until I was well into Grad school.  And lo and behold, I discovered that I was now a much better writer.  I've always sort of wondered how that happened.  It wasn't like I wrote my last bad word in high school, and when I started back up, I was starting to write good ones. For one thing, I had never written that much. But it does seem like it should have taken a lot more practice to turn the corner.  Something must have changed in my life so that I was better.

Well, something did change.  I was older.  More to the point, I was wiser.  I had read a lot more, experienced a lot more, thought a lot more, and even written a lot more, even if what I was writing was mostly technical.  This, in turn, made me a more competent writer by the time I set pen to paper, or more precisely, hand to keyboard, again.

This did not, however, make me a good writer.  I had become better, without practice, but that was not enough to make me good.  I still needed the practice.  I still had to write a lot, until my better prose became decent prose, and maybe even good prose (good enough to get published, at least).  That's where I am now.  I've sold five stories so far, and I'm hopeful that I'll sell more, so I'm at least that good, and I did it in well under a million words.  But I have a long way to go in becoming a better writer, in learning how to do better dialogue and stronger characterization, in making my descriptions richer and my settings more alive.  So in that sense, maybe I still have a ways to go in my million words.

So is there truth in the saying?  Yes, in that every writer must write in order to become good at writing.  That it doesn't come without effort.  But the exact number isn't set in stone, and neither is writing the only thing that makes you better at writing.  It's a necessary part of it, but it's not the whole of it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

That movie stole my cliche!

Kristin and I saw Cowboys & Aliens last night.  I had something of a professional interest, as one of my stories had turned into a weird western while I wasn't looking.  Once I knew where it was going, I watched a lot of westerns as research, including a few weird westerns.  This let me incorporate a number of western tropes in the telling of the story, enough to give it the right flavor, while still having what I thought was a unique twist.  I'm proud of that story.  I sent it off to Fantasy & Science Fiction, the premiere speculative fiction magazine, just yesterday.

Watching the movie last night, I was struck by the horrible realization that I'm going to have to change my story.  When we went to see Cowboys & Aliens, I was interested in seeing which tropes they would use.  As it turns out, all of them.  Including one of the driving tropes of my story--the antihero getting into a fight with the spoiled son of the rich landowner, and this leading indirectly to his arrest by the sheriff.  I mean, it was uncanny how similar it was.  I can just picture the editor reading it and saying "Oh, he stole this from Cowboys & Aliens," and then tossing it aside with a chuckle.  And he'd say that even if it were a good movie.

Cowboys & Aliens somehow missed the first rule of western story telling--you need to be selective of your tropes.  If you just throw them all in, it becomes campy and corny.  Which is what the movie achieved, intentionally or not. Of course, I might have enjoyed it more if not for the folks sitting behind us snickering at most of it.  Granted, a lot of it was snicker worthy, but I think I could have had an easier time turning off the critical part of my mind if not for the constant reminders.

I'm hoping that the next time a movie borrows from the same cliche as one of my stories, the movie will at least be a good one.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Discipline of Writing

Mike Duran has argued that the craft of writing is at least as important as creativity to a writer.  If creativity is about inspiration, craft is about discipline.  It is about spending the time and the energy to learn how to write well, and to do the work of writing.

I've been trying to develop a more disciplined writing schedule.  I usually write as I feel inspired, writing as much as I feel comfortable writing, until I get the ideas that I already have in my head out.  Recently, I've started trying to write consistently, at least 800 words a day, five days a week.  I'm focusing this writing on producing a novel.  At this rate, I produce one chapter a week, and should finish in about twenty weeks.  I'm about a quarter of the way so far, so I think it's going well, at least as far as the word count is concerned.

One of the frustrations of maintaining this discipline, even though every writer I've ever heard give advice on writing insists that it's necessary, is that it feels as though the quality of my writing suffers when I focus so much on the word count.  I feel like the creativity portion of the craft and creativity suffers from me trying to force my brain to come up with something rather than letting the ideas bubble up on their own, and simmer for a while before putting them to paper.  Writing at this rate forces me to come up with new ideas on the fly, and to devote them to paper without the proper aging.

I wonder sometimes whether this is my imagination.  When I look back on some of my earlier writings, I don't always find that my ideas were as well thought out as I thought they were at the time.  And when I read over stories that I've written quickly before, they seem less disjointed and wandering than they felt when I was writing them.

Some people say that you can't force inspiration.  I really don't think that is right.  Prolific writers are capable of writing at high speeds because they learn to come up with enough ideas to maintain that speed.  But I'm beginning to think that I need to figure out how to force inspiration.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Office of Second Chances now on Kindle

In 2008, I wrote a story inspired by (WARNING: this site will suck your life away if you let it).  Specifically, I postulated that if the world is always in danger and the odds are always against the heroes, then sooner or later probability will win.  As the world is still around, there must be something at work to defeat probability, or at least reload the last save point.  Hence, "The Office of Second Chances."

It was a fun little story, and I sent it off to Coach's Midnight Diner, where it was published in the 2009 anthology Coach's Midnight Diner: The Back From The Dead Edition. I strongly believe that the story still has some life to it, and I've been considering other places it might thrive since the rights returned to me a while ago.  One possibility is an audio edition, but I really don't have the acting ability to do it justice.  And there are very few places that will publish reprints.  So ultimately I stole an idea from my wife.  She's decided that once her story rights return to her, she'll put them up as ebooks on Kindle. She's kind of annoyed that I did it before she did.

So "The Office of Second Chances" is now online at Amazon.  Here's a small taste:
World-threatening dangers are a fact of life. Most people can’t accept that, so they tell themselves it isn’t true and then make up stories about it. None of the details of those stories are right, but they do reflect the greater truth that there is always something threatening the world, and always a need for a hero to save it. Where they get it wrong is in thinking that the hero always succeeds. In real life, sometimes the plucky comic relief isn’t plucky enough, the wise old mentor isn’t that wise, the cryptic clues are too cryptic, or the ragtag band of heroes just can’t manage to overcome their differences. For whatever reason, there are times when the heroes don’t have what it takes to save the world.
When that happens, the world gets destroyed. Six thousand, seven hundred, and twelve times at last count. That’s why the Office of Second Chances exists. When things go wrong in the World Saving Department, they fix them.

 You can download it to your Kindle (or free Kindle app) for $0.99.  Just follow the link to your right.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Blog upgrade

I've finally gotten around to adding Bio and Writings pages to this blog.  I'd put it off because I had a feeling it was going to be painful to integrate this blog and my hosted site, and I wasn't wrong.  But they're now online, and links appear at the top of each page.  There's not much there now, aside from links to my published works and the all important Brief History of Donald, but I'll be adding more as time goes by.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Presidential suite

In case anyone's wondering what's in a Presidential Suite at a hotel, I can now say that it's about the equivalent of a nice apartment (minus the kitchen). There's a living room with couches, chairs, a television, and a grand piano. A dining room with table and chairs and a sink. A bedroom with a king sized bed and a television. Two bathrooms, the larger with separate shower and bathtub, two sinks, and a bidet. A kitchenette with a microwave. And humongous mirrors everywhere.

The real question, of course, is how I ended up in the Presidential Suite. I haven't yet figured that one out.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Keychain LED knives

There are some things I think everyone should have with them at all times.  A cellphone is a common one.  I personally like to have a multitool, but not everyone wants to carry that.  What I consider absolutely essential, though, is a flashlight and a knife of some sort.  That's why I like having a keychain flashlight/pocketknife combination.  Since I keep it on my keychain, I can be sure that I'll remember to take it with me, as long as I don't forget my keys.  I have a Buck Metro LED which I find very useful.  Unfortunately, it appears to be discontinued, though I'm not sure why.  It has an LED and a knife, along with a very sturdy "ring" to hook onto a keychain.

Recently, I bought another flashlight/knife combo, ostensibly for my wife.  She doesn't really see the need to carry it around though, so mostly it sits in our key basket, on the second set of car keys which she rarely needs.  It's a Victorinox Tech Signature Lite, and it's pretty nice.  Since she's not using it, I've considered swapping out my old knife for it, but before deciding to do so, I'd need to do a side-by-side comparison.  I figured I'd do that here.

Size: While they're both small, but the Buck knife is definitely bigger, made more to fit comfortably in the hand than in the pocket.  The Victorinox is small, the same size as their classic keychain knife, and is thus more comfortable.  Advantage: Victorinox

Blade: While the Victorinox blade is slightly longer, the Buck blade is wider and sturdier.  It also locks into position, and has a grip that makes it easy to open with one hand.  Unfortunately, it's a little bit too easy to open.  While I've never had it come all the way open in my pocket, I've had it come partially open.  Still, I have to say I prefer the Buck one.  Advantage: Buck

Flashlight: Both of them have a bright, white LED.  Either one works well for navigating in dark places.  The Victorinox has a protruding button, while the Buck has a recessed one.  Both have features to prevent the flashlight from coming on in your pocket and staying on until the battery drains (a common failing with keychain flashlights).  Victorinox solves the issue by having a button that must be held down to remain on, while Buck's clicks on, but automatically shuts down after three minutes.  I've never noticed the Buck accidentally turning on in any case.  Either one works.  Advantage: Tie

Ring: Victorinox has the standard, small wire keychain ring, the type that I find very annoying because they commonly bend out of shape and fail in their function of holding the knife and the key ring together.  In contrast, the Buck has a solid metal ring, the type you couldn't bend without a metal press.  It's also well positioned, opposite both the knife and the flashlight, while the Victorinox ring is opposite the flashlight but on the same side the knife opens, making the knife a bit awkward to use while on the keyring.  Advantage: Buck by a long ways

Other tools:  "What other tools?" is all you can say for the Buck.  There's nothing but the knife and flashlight.  It does it well, but that's all.  By contrast, the Victorinox managed to cram in most of the other things you might need in your pocket: a nail file with screw driver, scissors (probably the single most needed tool), and even a pen.  Advantage: Victorinox by default, but it deserves it anyway.

Side by Side of the two knives.

Verdict: So what's the verdict?  I love my Buck, and it has a lot of advantages.  But after working things through here, I think I'll try out the Victorinox for a week, and see how I feel about it.  There are a number of things I dislike about it, but there's enough good there that I think I should at least try it out.

Update: My wife has reclaimed the Victorinox, cutting the experiment short.  It seemed to work pretty well while it lasted.  I'll be keeping the Buck for now, but if I ever need to replace it, I now know a good alternative.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Naples: The city and Paestum

After spending two days in Pompeii and Herculaneum, we decided to spend the next day in Naples and see one of the castles.
Castel Nuovo

The problem with seeing Naple's castles is that while you can see the courtyard, and some of the interior, you can't actually go up into the towers and the battlements, which is what I'd really like to see when I'm visiting a castle.  Instead, Naples seems to have turned all its castles into art museums, which seems to me to defeat the purpose of going to see a castle.  There were some interesting paintings, I admit, including one of the Visitation of the Magi, where one of the magi was clearly a midget.  There was also this door:

Which is most interesting for the cannonball embedded in it.  This is supposedly the door to the gate, but as the sign next to it notes, it's far too small to span the gate to the castle.  It may have been part of a larger structure spanning the gate, but I believe the sign suggests that it actually belongs to another castle.

The next day we went to the Naples National Archaeological Museum.  This is where many of the artifacts recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum end up.  Once more, there seems to be an emphasis on the art rather than the archeology.  The museum mostly contained statues, mosaics, and pottery.  There were a few exhibits of everyday, household items.  These would have been the most interesting ones to Kristin and I, if any of the signage for that section was in English.  But they seemed to save their English for the more artistic items, like these:

We also managed to accidentally follow a tour group into a part of the museum which isn't normally opened to the public, displaying some of the more erotic artifacts found in archeological digs.  Let's just say that phalluses were widespread and common as nicknacks in Pompeii.  I didn't take pictures, though.

On our last day in Naples, we traveled to Paestum.  Getting there proved to be a chore, starting with a train to Sorento, and then a long bus ride to Paestum.  Getting back was easy though, as there was a direct train between Paestum and Naples, which would have made things much easier if we had known about it for the trip thre.

Paestum is the remains of a Roman colony, which was originally a Greek colony.  It has some of the oldest temples in Italy. 
A temple built by the Greeks.

A Roman house with a traditional layout.
There's also a museum, which I thought was one of the better archeological museums, not least because it had English signs for everything.

After that it was time to return to Rome, and from there to Boston, because we'd seen all of Italy we could see in two weeks.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Naples: Pompeii and Herculaneum

Last time, I talked about the first part of our honeymoon, in Rome.  I've been negligent in talking about the next part, which involved traveling to Naples.  Our goal was not so much to see Naples, but to visit the important historical sites close by: Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Paestum.  Naples, being the largest city near these, was our home base for this part of the trip.  It also had a large museum, collecting many of the artifacts recovered from these sites.

I remember, when we first got to Rome, thinking "Wow, the traffic here is worse than Boston."  Well, Naples was even worse.  The streets were filled with pedestrians, motorcyclists, and cars, all honking and zooming past one another.

A taste of Naples traffic.
But we managed to survive Naples, and even get out of the city to visit some of the important sites.  First up, Pompeii.  There was a lot to see in Pompeii, and it'd be easy to overwhelm with pictures.  Pompeii was buried in ash when Vesuvius erupted, and its rediscovery was one of the great archeological discoveries of Ancient Rome. 

Kristin walking down a Pompeian street
It's been a long process unearthing Pompeii, with many mistakes along the way (some say that Pompeii's second tragedy is that it was discovered a couple of centuries too early).  Still, there's a lot to see.  For example, this very famous mosaic (technically a copy, as the original is in the Naples museum).
Cave Canem--Beware of Dog
The best preserved building in Pompeii is the Villa of the Mysteries, famous for its paintings connected to the Dionysian mysteries.  But what I found most interesting was this room:
A storage room?
According to what I could find, this is supposed to be a storage room.  My difficulty, however, is that it apparently has no door, just the hole in the wall that looks like it was made as part of the excavation, and this window:

The only way in or out?
Maybe I'm wrong, and the door was just very narrow, and it was merely widened, but I did notice that some of the maps of the building showed no door there.  I couldn't find much more information on what most people consider an uninteresting part of the house.  But to me, it's rife with story possibilities.

And one last photo, also located in the Villa of the Mysteries.  A grim reminder of the tragedy which gave us Pompeii as we have it today:
One of the bodies found in the house.
The next day, we went to visit Herculaneum.  This city was also buried when Vesuvius erupted, but since it was buried deeper, much of it was better preserved.  Overall, I preferred Herculaneum over Pompeii.  It's better preserved, and thus there's more there for the amateur archeologist.  It's also smaller overall, so you can see all of it without being rushed.  Finally, they provide you with a free English map and guidebook, both of which you had to pay extra for at Pompeii.

Herculaneum.  The grassy area is where the beach used to be.
The view from the beach.  The cliff on the left shows how deep the volcanic tufa burying the town was.
I took many, many pictures, of which only a few will be interesting to those not fascinated by Roman archeology.
Kristin taking a picture of the impluvium (a pool for catching rainwater) in the atrium of one of the houses.
Kristin taking pictures of a shop, which probably sold those jars you see in the upper right.
One of the interesting things about Herculaneum, from an archeological view, is that some of the wood from the town was carbonized and preserved, giving us some rare samples from the time period.  That's why I have pictures like this:
Part of the door to one of the houses

Lots and lots of pictures like this.  Which maybe aren't so interesting to folks who aren't as into ancient Rome.

I was going to finish up Naples in this post, but I'm thinking maybe I can save some of it for later.  So I'll wrap things up here for now.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Donald and Kristin's Roman Adventure

On the Tuesday after our Sunday wedding, we departed for Rome, Italy. We took an overnight flight on Al Italia, arriving around 8 am on Wednesday morning. Then, on little to no sleep, we had our first day in Rome. It was tough, since we couldn't check into our hotel right away. We could, however, drop off our luggage there. After which we went down to St. Peter's Basilica (where there was a large gathering of people associated with John Paul II's beatification), got lunch, and then saw the Pantheon. By this time we were exhausted, so we went back to the hotel and checked in, and I, at least, took a two-hour nap. Kristin got maybe half-an-hour of sleep, before we went to a nice restaurant for dinner.

The Pantheon from the square outside.
The Pantheon's dome.  Note the large skylight, aka the hole in the ceiling.

For the next week, we did a lot of stuff, more than I can easily recount in one blog post, and the number of pictures is staggering. This is partly because Kristin's idea of a relaxing day is to do two museums, rather than three outdoor ruins in the hot sun. She also had very specific ideas about what restaurants she wanted to go to, based on various guide books, and she was willing to spend a significant amount of time wandering around in order to find them. My idea of a relaxing day is to spend it inside doing not much of anything, and maybe get a meal at a nice, nearby restaurant for dinner.

After our first full night's sleep in Rome, we spent the next day (Thursday) seeing the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and the Palatine hill. It was hot, tiring, and we took many, many pictures, mostly of things that will be boring to anyone without a deep interest in Roman history.

Me in front of the Colosseum

On Friday, we went to an Etruscan museum in the morning. It would have been more enjoyable if more of the information had been in English, but it was mostly in Italian.  We intended to take the afternoon off, but instead spent it wandering around a park lost, trying to find a restaurant. This made Kristin grumpy. The restaurant we did find really wasn't anything special. That evening we saw the Vatican museums, including the Sistine chapel, which was great fun.

From the outdoor exhibits of the Etruscan museum.  I'm not sure that it's really Etruscan, as there was no information included, but we weren't allowed to take pictures of the indoor exhibits.

From the Vatican museums, the famous statue of Laocoon and his sons being devoured by serpents.

The next day, Saturday, we saw the Imperial forums, ate lunch at a really expensive (but also really nice) restaurant, then climbed up the Capitoline hill to see the Capitoline museum. There was a whole lot of walking and climbing involved. This made me grumpy.
Kristin in a shop (taberna) at Trajan's market

Me in front of the famous Capitoline wolf.  The wolf statue may be ancient, but the infants (Romulus and Remus) weren't added until the Renaissance.

On Sunday, we went to Ostia Antica. This was an abandoned Roman city. Since it wasn't buried under mud or volcanic ash like Pompey and Herculaneum, it was in fairly poor condition. That said, the staff are much less protective of it, and visitors can wander around and through most of the buildings.
Me in a thermopolium (restaurant) in Ostium Antica.
That's me walking around the amphitheater at Ostia Antica.

 On Monday, we visited three different catacombs along the Via Appia Antica (the old Via Appia, which is famous to anyone familiar with ancient Roman history). While the guides for each tour told us largely the same information--for example, catacombs were purely for burial, the Christians never hid in them--this was fascinating for anyone interested in the history of early Christianity.  And also for any aspiring writers who think catacombs would make a great setting for a story. Unfortunately, we couldn't take pictures inside, so we have no boring pictures of the catacombs.

The outside of the catacombs.

On Tuesday, we went to Hadrian's Villa. Hadrian was a Roman Emperor who built the luxurious retreat to end all luxurious retreats (at least until the next Roman Emperor came along). I wasn't as impressed with the villa as I wanted to be, but it was still fun.
The Canopus at Hadrian's Villa.

Finally, on Wednesday, it was time for our trip to Naples, for the second stage of our honeymoon.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Wedding of the Century . . .

...happened two weeks ago.  Prince William married . . . some woman, I presume.  I really wasn't paying attention.  I was more concerned with the wedding of my lifetime, which happened this past Sunday, when I married the lovely and talented Kristin Janz.

Kristin and I met in the writing group of Park Street Church in April of 2009.  We quickly discovered that we were both published writers who wrote similar types of stories, specifically fantasy with a society based on Ancient Rome.  This became something more, thanks largely to generous hints dropped by Kristin.  Even so, it took me awhile to notice, but by July we were dating.  Aside from going to conferences together, we've also gone camping, backpacking, and to restaurants much nicer than I would ever think of going by myself.

After a year and a half, I proposed to her in December, while we were visitng her parents in Nova Scotia.  This gave me the opportunity to ask for her father's blessing first (note that I asked for his blessing, not his permission--it's an important distinction).  We didn't leave ourselves much time to plan for the wedding.  There are limits to the times her family can travel, so that meant that the wedding would either have to be before mid-May, or we'd have to wait until October, and we decided earlier was better than later.  Less planning time encouraged us to keep things simple, which was how we preferred it.

Kristin had long dreamed of having her wedding as part of the regular church service.  It's not unheard of, but it's not something that our church had done before, so when we approached Park Street's associate minister about doing it that way, he was originally reluctant.  We laid out our case in e-mail, and apparently the senior minister was enthusiastic about the idea, so eventually the associate minister came around.  We scheduled the wedding for the 6:30 pm service at Park Street on May 8th.

Ultimately, the wedding ceremony was the easy part.  There were, over the course of the weekend, no less than four parties, although I'm using the term "party" a bit loosely. 

The first party was really just dinner out for us and our families on Friday night.  The twelve of us went out to Legal Seafood, one of the nicer family-friendly mid-range restaurants.  Present were Kristin's parents, her grandfather, her brother, and my parents, my sisters, and my nieces.

The next day was what we'd been calling "The Saturday Event."  Since the wedding ceremony was so late, the reception would be even later.  So we knew that we needed something at a time that families with children could enjoy.  We also wanted to spend more time with our families and other friends who'd come from out-of-town to see us.  For this purpose, we planned a party for Saturday afternoon, from noon to five.  This took place at our old apartments: prior to getting married, we lived in the upstairs and downstairs apartments of a two-family house.

For this, I wanted to do something special for the food, namely crawfish. Crawfish is a very Louisiana food, which you just don't see a lot up north.  For a while we didn't even know if we could get crawfish in Boston, but we discovered a restaurant called Brother's Crawfish, in Dorcester, that catered.  They delivered plenty of crawfish for our meal.

As you can see, they look like mini-lobsters.  They're good, but often pretty spicy.  I got to teach some Canadians how to eat crawfish, though, so it was fun.  My niece, Kara, already knew how to eat crawfish, of course.

Aside from crawfish, we got some barbeque and sides from Blue Ribbon.  This ensured that even those who couldn't eat shellfish (like my sister) had plenty to eat.

After we had cleaned up, Kristin and I went home to rest up for the big day.  And it was big.

The first order of business was getting set up for the reception, which would take place that evening in the same two apartments where the Saturday Event had been.  Then we picked up the food for the next party: coffee hour.  Our church has two evening services, a 4 pm service and a 6:30 pm service.  In between, they have a coffee hour.  Since our wedding was at the 6:30 pm service, we decided that we should be present there to greet guests who were coming to the wedding, but not the reception.  But since coffee hour usually only has a limited amount of food, we brought extra: a full gross of desserts from Quebrada.  We had cupcakes, croissants stuffed with fruit or chocolate, lemon tarts, fruit tarts, chocolate tarts, chocolate dipped strawberries, and five pounds of cookies.  We also brought some Italian sodas, apple cider, and some teas to drink.  We wanted to make the desserts available to the entire church, but we also knew that they'd go quickly, so we told our guests to come at 5:15 pm.  The 4 pm service let out at 5:20 pm.  By 5:30 pm, all the desserts were gone.

Nevertheless, we were able to talk to most people at the reception.

Kristin and her roommates

After that, it was time for the main event.  We had a reserved row for family, but everyone else found their own seats.

From left to right: Kristin's brother, Stephen, her parents, and her grandfather

From left to right: my sister, Rebekah, her daughter, Kara, and Hope with her mother, Sarah, my other sister

In order to keep the wedding from being too disruptive of the regular service, we kept things simple.  That meant no wedding party, just Kristin and I, no wedding dress, and no special music or readings.  When the time came, we went up, stated our intentions, received the blessing of our families and the congregation, said our vows, exchanged rings, kissed, and sat down.  Okay, sure, it sounds like a lot when written out like that, but the whole event only took about ten minutes.



After we had our receiving line--really, we just stood where new members stand after they join the church, and let people say hello and congratulate us--we went to the fourth and final party, the reception.  For this party, we had sushi from Whole Foods, as well as fruit, vegetable, tortilla, and mediterannean baskets.

While many of our guests with children weren't able to make it, we hung out with a lot of friends, some local and some from out-of-town.

Kristin with her father, brother (Stephen), mother, and sister (Lisa)
More guests
Around midnight, we went home to our new place.  We didn't take any pictures of what happened next, though.

Our new place--taken the next day