Author Archives: Mitch

Re-Reading Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation Trilogy”

I just started listening to the audiobook of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, which I last read when I was a teen-ager. I got a bug in my ear to re-read it after a review by Jo Walton.

First impressions, based on my memory of the books and my having listened to about five minutes:

The Foundation Trilogy retells Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as space opera, with a Galactic Empire replacing the Roman, and the entire Galaxy — millions of inhabited worlds — standing in for the Earth.

It really helps to know something about Asimov, the period in which the stories were written, and how they were written. The trilogy was written during and just after World War II. This was the period when America was at its greatest power, and we often compared ourselves to Rome.

Asimov was an American, an immigrant, and a New Yorker who didn’t travel or even go outside when he could help it.

As Walton notes, the planet-sized city of Trantor is New York in the 30s, where Asimov was a teen-ager, writ large. Back when Asimov was writing, technology meant that things were going to get bigger and faster — the Hoover Dam! Skyscrapers! Airplanes and cars! Today, technology means things get smaller — iPhones! Genetic engineering! So it was reasonable to assume, in Asimov’s day, that cities would one day grow large enough to encompass whole planets.

The Foundation Trilogy assumes that the Roman Empire was good. That’s a supportable position. But the people Rome conquered might disagree with it.

I love that thing Asimov does where he starts each section with a quote from a made-up history book, the Encyclopedia Galactica, supposedly written a thousand years after the action of the novels.

The first few minutes of the book spend a lot of time talking about how travel through hyperspace works in getting starships around the galaxy. That would all be completely unnecessary today, it’s just a given in science fiction.

The viewpoint character of the first section is a young man on his way to Trantor (New York, remember?) to participate in the Seldon Project. I’ve also been listening to Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynmann, a spoken-word memoir of the physicist Richard Feynmann, who was Asimov’s contemporary, and also a New Yorker. Feynmann traveled from New York to participate in something called the Manhattan Project. It’s hard to avoid seeing parallels.

That’s a lot to get out of five minutes of listening. I hope I enjoy the rest of the book as much.

Creative writing: What I’m working on

I started work on another novel this weekend. This means I’m currently working on:

  • Two novels and two short stories in various stages of revision.
  • One novel, newly under way.
  • One more story waiting to be revised.
  • Another story which I’m seriously considering trunking, while maybe cannibalizing the characters and situations for some future work.

Yes, I know this sounds like I have become the guy who’s always starting things and never finishing. But I was eager to get started n the new novel. And I have a plan: I want to always be working on something new, while also revising, publishing, or promoting something else. So really I’m only working on two things currently — the new novel and one story I’m actively revising — while the other work is waiting.

I’m really enthusiastic about self-publishing and e-publishing right now. I’ve talked to some professional novelists and book editors and they support it as well. That’s important, because as little as five years ago, these same people viewed self-publishing as a massive con job (with certain narrow exceptions).

What’s changed? E-book readers, of course, like the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook and their iPad apps. Also, Amazon CreateSpace for self-publishing print books, along with the collapse of Borders making traditional publishing less attractive by removing a huge percentage of the nation’s retail shelf space at the stroke of a lawyer’s pen. I’ve been reading blogs by Mike Stackpole, Dean Wesley Smith, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, as well as James Macdonald, all of whom have had successful careers at traditional publishing, all of whom are now exploring self-publishing. And I’m thinking: I can do this. Publishing on the Internet has been my sole source of income for eight years now. I know how this works.

I got to talk with Mike Stackpole a bit at World Fantasy Con a bit more than a week ago (actually, more like I was allowed to be a fly on the wall while he talked with another pro), and came away with the insight that the sweet spot for e-books is likely to be series of 50,000-word short novels with recurring characters and situations. And that’s the new novel. It’ll stand on its own as a short adventure novel, and also serve as the beginning of an open-ended series.

“What time is it?” “It’s teatime, you old bag!”

I started drinking tea years ago, influenced by a friend who is a tea connoisseur. My friend and his wife live far away and we hardly ever get to see them. I don’t think he’s ever prepared a cup of tea for me. But he wrote about tea so appealingly on his online journal that I had to try it out.

The first thing to know about tea is that American supermarket brands are crap. They’re made from the little particles that are not good enough for tea drinkers elsewhere in the world. You want to use loose tea to make your tea. You can buy it online; one good place is Adagio Teas, which is where I buy. I tried a couple of dozen different kinds of teas over the years, but never really felt like I developed any kind of palate for it, so I eventually just started buying Lipton Yellow Label loose tea. I was never able to find it in a standard supermarket, but I bought it regularly from a supermarket called Vineripe, which caters to the middle Eastern and Eastern Asian immigrant communities here in San Diego. The package I buy has a strange alphabet on it; I think it might be Farsi.

I tried different kinds of teapots, but they were hard to clean, so Julie got me a kind of teapot called YiXing, made from a special Chinese purple clay. It’s a nice-looking teapot. You don’t wash it; you just rinse it with hot water between uses. The tea steeps into the porous clay and supposedly adds to the flavor.

A different YiXing teapot than the one I have.

A different YiXing teapot than the one I have.

Eventually, I got tired of messing with the teapot. The spout clogs regularly, and has to be cleared with a very thin brush. So I switched to making tea one cup at a time using a mesh steel ball to contain the leaves.

I commented to a friend recently about how I drink Lipton Yellow Label, and he said he considers it barely one step above rubbish. He’s English, so he should know. He drinks Irish Breakfast tea. We didn’t have any of that around the house, but we did have English breakfast, and I liked that much better than the Yellow Label so I think I’ll be drinking that for a while. I found two or three containers we had lying around, and I ordered a small sampler of English Breakfast and Irish Breakfast from Adagio to see which I like better.

The English Breakfast we had around the house is in teabags. I know that all decent tea-drinking people hate teabags, but really this wasn’t bad. These were the oval pillow kind without strings, not the square ones with attached strings you get in the US. Manufacturers now make pyramid-shaped space-age teabags which are supposed to be just as good as loose tea. Maybe teabags have gotten better.

In the late afternoon and evening, when I need to avoid caffeine, if I want something hot to sip on I drink rooibos tea, which is an African herb tea. The plant doesn’t have any caffeine in it at all. The taste is similar to black tea, but different enough that it doesn’t seem like some kind of fake food that’s trying too hard (like some of those vegetarian fake meats you can buy). It’s a tougher brew than regular tea. Regular tea needs to be steeped for a precise amount of time or it’s underdone or overly bitter, but you can leave rooibos tea steeping as long as you want. Leave it in there for days if you want. The tea doesn’t care.

This handmade Doctor Who TARDIS teapot is available for sale on Etsy for $15. It holds more tea on the inside than it does on the outside.

Tardis teapot

Put away two things every day

In my effort to get my home office looking less like a disorganized storage unit, and more like an actual office — an effort that has gone on so long that if it was a person, it would be old enough to vote — I have a new rule: Every day, I clean up that day’s new clutter and mess. And then I remove two more things from the office. Preferably, I put those things away. But usually I can’t put them away, so instead I move them to a part of the house we don’t use. And when my office is in shape, I’ll start sorting through all the things in storage and keep some of them, and get rid of most of them.

Getting rid of things is a big project. We can’t just throw them away, as we could in the Mad Men era. We have to recycle them, or sell them, or give them away responsibly. What a pain.

Among the things I’ll be giving away: About 90 percent of my books. I have no idea how many books I have; if I had to guess, I’d say 10,000. Years ago, I began to wonder why I kept every book I ever read, because it’s not like I’m going to reread 99 percent of them. And yet I keep them all. Why? Well, because it’s what one does. It’s what I’ve always done. But now with the advent of e-books I’d much rather have the space, and re-acquire anything I want to re-read as an e-book.

Where can I get rid of old books? How about electronics? Office supplies?

Some notes and photos from my time with Occupy San Diego

Occupy San Diego is on the little plaza just outside the San Diego Civic Theater, which is where Julie and I saw _Wicked_ and other Broadway plays, and where we will be going to see another play next week. Appropriately enough, that play is Hair. The news and local blogs identify that little plaza as the San Diego Civic Center, but neither Julie nor I nor Google Maps have ever heard of such a place. There is, however, a Civic Center stop on the Trolley, our local light rail, so I just drove there late Sunday afternoon and then drove around until I saw a half dozen police cars and motorcycles, some cops walking around, and a big placard on the sidewalk that said “Occupy San Diego.” I parked a couple of blocks away, and walked back.

On arrival, I talked to a guy who looked to be in his early 20s, carrying this sign:

USA invade USA 3

He introduced me to his pregnant wife and young daughter. He said he does PR, marketing, and online community management for a game company. I asked him why he was demonstrating, and what changes should be made in the economic system. He said he favors capitalism, but believes that too much wealth is concentrated in the hands of too few people. He believes everybody should have an opportunity to start a business and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

I asked him what he thought about criticism that Occupy was incoherent, and should have an organized list of demands. He said, well, he’d like to see them have three talking points and focus on those points. Spoken like a true PR person, I said.

There seemed to be about a hundred people in the plaza, mostly young but a few older, mostly white but a few of other races. They were mostly a bohemian lot, as you might expect, but many of them looked like they’d fit right into any business office.

Will be heard 1

You have a voice 1

One of the leaders was a red-haired woman with a lot of tattoos, wearing a sundress.

Megaphone

I had a good conversation with a young blonde woman with a Mohawk. She told me the police were very helpful, looking out for them and clearing the way for their protest marches. (Although I have seen reports elsewhere of conflicts with San Diego police.)

I stopped at a card table set up as an information kiosk in the center of the plaza. They had some tattered mimeographed documents stating Occupy’s principles and demands, which they said were downloadable from the Occupy Wall Street Website. I asked them what they needed, they said nonperishable food, medical assistance and supplies. They’re set on bottled water. I saw a bushel of apples. I went to a commissary area in the back of the plaza, and they told me about more things they needed: Any snack foods. A couple of camp stoves. Instant coffee. I said I was about to make an EXTREMELY GENEROUS DONATION, and fished around in my gear back for three Kashi bars I thought I had in there. Turned out I only had two. The young man at the table thanked me anyway; he said everybody else was taking from the commissary, so every little bit given helped.

I walked past two young men seated on the ground. One of them asked me what time it was. I looked on my iPhone, and told them: “4:20.” As I walked away, the other man snickered. It took me a second to figure out what he was laughing at. Right. 4:20. I went back and talked to him (the guy who asked me the time had left), and we talked for a while. I’d seen him walking around before; he was wearing a dirty bathrobe and carrying a placard. I’d avoided him before because, to me, a guy walking around in public wearing a dirty bathrobe is not someone you want to seek out. But he explained that he is not a crazy person; he just wanted to attract attention to his sign, and a guy walking around wearing a bathrobe certainly attracts attention.

Bathrobe

A crowd marched off through downtown. I didn’t join them. They came back

I had been nervous about going down, hearing about riots in other cities and some problems in San Diego. I even thought about taking the Trolley in, in case I got arrested, but I finally decided, screw it, I’d just take the car. The Trolley takes forever. I thought about wearing clothes that could stand a sidewalk-scraping, and wondered if I’d be pepper-sprayed or beaten. I got so nervous — oh, why not call it what it was; I was afraid — that I thought about not going. But it was entirely a pleasant experience, and I’m glad I went. I’m going to try to get back in a few days, and bring groceries this time.

You want to know what the Occupy movement wants? I can tell you. Here are three talking points, to gladden a PR person:

– They want an honest day’s pay for a day’s honest work.

– They want to keep their pay themselves, not have their money get siphoned to the richest 1%.

– They want a shot at the American dream.

In other words, they want the cookies, not the crumbs left by the 1%.

Cookies

(The little red wagon at this woman’s feet had trays of cookies on it.)

Or, rather: We want those things. I sure do. Don’t you?

First impressions of iOS 5

I upgraded my iPhone 4 and first-generation iPad Wednesday morning as soon as iOS 5 became available. I like it a lot. Here are some random first impressions:

I like the tabbed Mobile Safari browser on the iPad. I hadn’t read anything about that feature on the previews. Tabs reduce the hassle of changing between open browser windows by many taps. I’ve switched back to Mobile Safari as my main browser; previously I’d been using the Atomic Web Browser, mainly because it has tabs.

Speaking of the browser, I like the new Reading List. I hadn’t thought I’d use it, because I’m a devoted Instapaper user. But I’m using the Reading List for a completely different purpose. When I visit a site like Techmeme, which has a lot of links, I queue up links in the Reading List, and then read each of them one by one. Because of the iPad’s limited memory, that’s better than just opening all the links in separate tabs, which is what I would do on the desktop.

I like the split keyboard on the iPad. It makes it much easier to thumb-type while holding the iPad in portrait mode between my palms, which is how I often enter text into the iPad. I wish the keys were a little bigger, though.

On the iPhone, I love that the Personal Hotspot feature is now surfaced in Settings. I wish they’d also surface Bluetooth, because I frequently have to fiddle with Bluetooth settings to keep my Bluetooth earpiece working. Bluetooth earpieces are a cruel joke by the electronics industry.

I like that I can now flag messages in mail. For years, I used Gmail as my primary email account. When I was mobile, I’d access Gmail with my mobile browser, mark everything as read, and star messages requiring attention at my desk. Now, my primary email is a corporate Exchange account, which I need to access using the iPhone and iPad’s Mail client. I didn’t realize how much I missed being able to flag messages.

I had a bit of trouble migrating to iCloud. When I entered my MobileMe credentials, I got an error message saying, “Move your MobileMe Account to iCloud: Go to me.com on your computer to move your information to iCloud.”

Turns out that’s not quite right — you need to go to iCloud.com first, log in with your MobileMe credentials, and then you’re directed to Me.com to complete the job. And I couldn’t access Me.com from Chrome; I had to use Safari to get in.

Steve Jobs is going to come back from the dead to kick some ass over this.

I can’t access iCloud from my Mac, because my Mac is still on Snow Leopard.

Altogether unsatisfactory — but I hope the problem will be quickly resolved.

I like the new Notification Center a lot. I gather it’s unpopular among the respected Mac blogs; I haven’t had a chance to read up to find out why.

On the other hand, Settings for Notification Center are a mess. To configure Notification Center for any individual app, you need to look in three places: The Notifications area of the Settings app, the app’s own area in the Settings app, and the settings area of the app itself. I know that sentence is confusing to read; it’s equally confusing to do. Apple needs to crack the whip on developers and enforce a consistent way to manage settings. I don’t care if settings are inside the app or in the Settings app, but they all need to be in one place.

I wish that apps like OmniFocus and Podcaster could sync in the background. Every day when it’s time to check my to-do list, I have to walk across the house to get my iPad and sync OmniFocus manually, then sync it on my iPhone, and sync on the Mac. It’s like living in primitive conditions.

Because I have an older iPhone, I don’t have Siri. I’m looking forward to getting it with my next upgrade, which I expect will be spring or summer when the next generation of iPads or iPhones come out. I had hoped that the iPhone 4 and iPad would support dictation at least, if not full-blown Siri support, but that’s not the case. Oh, well.

I like shortcuts. I can now type “mmw” to spell out my whole name, and “cmosig” for my work email signature. I’m sure I’ll come up with more.

Here’s an annoying bug: When I went out walking yesterday, far away from a Wi-Fi connection, I found I had to redownload all my podcasts. Same thing with Instapaper articles. Instapaper developer Marco Arment explains the problem.

All in all, a solid upgrade to the iOS line. Nothing I can think of that’s magic, but many improvements.

Advice to a friend who’s hit a plateau losing weight

I hit a plateau on my weight loss until I took two steps:

Increased my daily exercise from a half-hour to an hour. There was a medical study that said that people who exercised a half-hour a day had difficulty losing weight. But people who exercised an hour a day were much more successful.

The cut-off was around 54 or 56 minutes.

The study was done on women, but I have been given to understand that women and men are the same species.

On the other hand, women seem to find it much, much harder than men to lose weight; their metabolism fights them much harder to keep the pounds on. So a study of weight loss done solely on women is likely to be less applicable to men.

Still, it worked for me.

Adjusting calories. I lost weight by counting calories using the Lose It! iPhone app. After a long period of weight-loss plateaus, I evolved the following thumb rules:

– Any week where I kept to my eating program and maintained or gained weight, I would cut 25 calories from Lose It’s recommended daily allowance.

– Likewise, any week where I lost more than 2 pounds, I’d add 25 calories to the Lose It recommendation. Because losing weight at a moderate pace is one of the keys to maintaining weight loss.

I’m following a similar calorie-counting regime to maintain weight; if my weight is getting too low, I add 25 calories per day to my program, and if I gain more than a half-pound or so, I subtract 25 calories per day. My weight has been swinging between 171 and 174 since January, which seems pretty good to me.

Yes, all of this calorie counting and fiddling seems like an enormous hassle, but (1) I evolved this system over the nearly two years it took me to lose weight. It started simple: Download Lose It!, use it to keep a food journal of every bite you eat, measure everything, keep within the Lose It! recommended calorie limits. Over time, it got more complicated as I made adjustments, but it’s all been very manageable. (2) It beats being fat. I think of myself as a disabled person; I don’t have that barometer part of my brain that governs eating and exercise in normal people. As disabilities go, it’s not a bad one to have (although I don’t get a special parking space, dagnabbit).

For OmniFocus nerds only: A big feature request

OmniFocus is the control panel of my life. I write down everything I need or want to do in OmniFocus, and then when the time comes, I do it. This post is for my fellow OmniFocus nerds only; it won’t make sense to anyone else.

Here’s something that bugs me about OmniFocus, and that I’m hoping to see fixed in Version 2.0: The Folders/Projects/Groups structure is plain confusing. We should instead just have items which act as projects if they contain other items, and act as actions if they don’t contain anything else. Actions can exist at the top level, they don’t need to have containers.

Users should be able to nest these action/projects to an unlimited number of levels.

Eliminate parallel projects. They’re just confusing. I know what the theoretical difference is between parallel projects and the other kinds of projects. I just don’t see parallel projects as useful. To the contrary, I see their existence as harmful.

Single-action lists do essentially the same thing. The default for new projects should be configurable in preferences as either sequential or single-action lists.

I plan to write this up as a feature request and submit it to the appropriate email address at the Omni Group; I’d just like to show this to other people first, to see if I overlooked anything.

The day Steve Jobs hung up on me (Warning: This story is less interesting than you’d think)

It was 1992 or so. Jobs had been out of Apple for years. Apple was a struggling vendor with a couple of niche products. Jobs was now CEO of NeXT, which made a $10,000 workstation that looked a lot like the Mac would ten years later. But at that time it was an expensive white elephant. The NeXTstation ran an operating system based on software called Unix, and I was a senior editor at a publication called Unix Today.

I was scheduled to do a phone interview with Jobs about something NeXT-related. It was going pretty well. He then mentioned something about NeXT earnings, which was a slip on his part. He said, “That was off the record.” I said, automatically, “I’m sorry, but going off the record is an agreement, and I won’t agree to that.”

He said, “Then this interview is over.” And he hung up on me.

See? I told you this story is a lot less interesting than you’d think.

I was shaken up by the event, and I think the PR person on the call was too. We talked about it a while, and she said, “Don’t worry about it. Steve can be like that.”

And Steve and I never talked again. And I started following Apple closely 15 years later, and had trouble getting access to them. But I don’t think that had anything to do with my earlier encounter with Jobs. Apple is like that. Maybe that will change under new management, but I don’t expect it to.

I may have interviewed or met with Jobs at other times earlier in my career. I don’t recall. I started covering technology a couple of years after Jobs had already been kicked out of Apple. Jobs wasn’t STEVE JOBS!! back then. He was an impressive figure, but he was also kind of a has-been, a one-hit wonder. He was an important person, but I’ve interviewed a lot of important people, and very few of them intimidate me. The ones who intimidate me tend to be personal heroes, and often less famous and admired generally than some celebrities I’ve interviewed.

Later on, of course, Jobs became one of the greatest businessmen to have ever walked the Earth, and one of my personal heroes. But that was later. And one of the things that made him one of my personal heroes is that he came back from being a has-been. It gives hope to the rest of us underachievers.

I handled that interview badly. Later, when in the same situation, I just keep my mouth shut until I decide whether I even want to use the information. Because I never did use that earnings information; it wasn’t something our readers at the time were interested in.

The best possible tribute to Steve Jobs

I only read a couple of the tributes to Steve Jobs that appeared after his death.

I thought at first that I had an obligation to read more of them, as my own tribute to the man.

Then I thought that the best possible tribute would be for me to create something great.

Then I thought that I might not have it in me to make anything great. The overwhelming majority of people never do.

Then I thought, well, if I can’t make anything great, I’ll just do the best work I can do.

And that’s what I did.

The sanest man running for President: Gary Johnson, Republican

Is This the Sanest Man Running for President? by Lisa DePaulo, GQ

He climbed Mount Fucking Everest with a broken leg. So you think anemic polling numbers and a tiny campaign chest is gonna spook this guy?

As presidential candidates go, Republican New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson seems to be the best of a bad lot. I can even see myself getting enthusiastic about him.

He’s correct on Culture War issues: He’s pro-choice. He favors civil unions. I’d be happier if he favored legalizing same-sex marriage. But civil unions are a start.

He wants to “stop pissing away money on border patrols and erecting fences and walls across the Mexican border, and let immigrants earn work visas ‘and actually contribute to our economy.’”

He wants to end the Perpetual War and bring the troops home.

Personally, he seems like a decent man with a lot of integrity, and as a two-term state governor in New Mexico, he has executive experience.

On the negative side — and this is a huge negative: He’s a hardcore libertarian. He wants to slash government by nearly half and shut down the Department of Education. But his views are no more poisonous than the crony capitalism that currently prevails in Washington. When you’re looking at a government that gave a trillion dollars to bankers who nearly destroyed the economy, you’re looking at a government where the bar for too-crazy-to-hold office is set pretty low.

Outside of New Mexico and political junkies, Americans haven’t heard of Johnson because the mainstream media anoints who’s worthy of being taken seriously as a candidate and who isn’t, and Johnson isn’t considered serious. As a two-term successful state governor he should be considered a serious candidate and included in the debates, even if his numbers are polling low. Just another thing that needs fixing in the election process.

Immediate gratification, FTW!

I just ordered the $79 Kindle Wi-Fi after reading this convincing argument against touchscreens on dedicated ebook readers.

Shorter version of the argument: When you’re reading books, you don’t need to tap and swipe all over the screen, getting the display all shmutzy. The main thing you need to do is keep turning pages, and for that a hardware button does the job nicely.

Not mentioned in the article: I’d have to wait nearly two months for the Kindle Touch, but the Kindle Wi-Fi will get here Saturday.

My two cents on the new Kindles

I expect the tablet will finally be the one to grab some serious market share from the iPad.

People talk about the “tablet market,” but there really is no “tablet market.” There are iPads, and then there are a million other tablets, none of which have sold any significant market share.

I expect the Kindle Fire will change that, because of the Amazon brand and the low price. I haven’t played with it myself, or read any credible reviews, so I can’t speak to the quality of the product — whether it’s a well-designed machine or shoddy merchandise like all the other iPad competitors. But Amazon did a great job on the Kindle, so we can be optimistic that the new tablet will be a good machine too.

We’d already decided Julie is getting a Kindle reader (she seems to be leaning that direction at the moment, rather than a tablet). She has trouble holding the iPad for long periods, because of its weight. Because mostly what she does on the iPad is read, a Kindle is a natural choice for her.

And I think I’ll get a Kindle reader too (not the tablet), for similar reasons. Unlike Julie, I am comfortable holding the iPad for long periods, but a lighter-weight and smaller device would be even more comfortable. Like Julie, I mostly use my iPad for reading. So a Kindle seems like a natural choice. I’d been holding out because of the price, and because the keyboard strikes me as a waste of real estate. Both of those problems seem to be fixed on the new Kindles. I’m not sure which model I’ll get, but I’m leaning toward holding out for the high end, which I think comes out in November (?).

All in all, an exciting announcement. And Apple’s new iPhone comes out next week! A great month for personal tech.

So far, of all the endless speculations about the iPhone announcement, this SplatF post seems to be the only one worth reading. It’s a short post, with three questions of things to watch out for. Two questions are interesting to me:

(1) Will Apple even mention iAd?

(2) Will there be an Apple TV announcement?

If there’s a new software update, I’ll be doing the happy dance. New software is always fun! If it’s new hardware, I’ll be a bit frustrated, since we just bought an Apple TV. But on the other hand, the Apple TV is cheap.

If Apple announces the rumored flatscreen Apple TV, well, I’ll just be weeping like a character in The Oatmeal, because we just shelled out large coin for a 52″ flatscreen TV and it’ll be at least seven years before we’re due to buy another one.

NYC etiquette

This Quora thread on NYC etiquette makes me a little homesick:

Excerpts:

“Don’t say you’re “from New York” when you’re from New Jersey or Long Island.”

I say I’m “from New York” if I’m out of town, which I am most of the time because I’ve lived in California for more than a third of my life.

Julie and I disagree on whether I’m also “from California.” After this long living here, I say yes.

Or, rather, I say, “Yeah, dude.”

Don’t ask people where you can find good “New York Pizza.” In New York, it’s just called pizza – most New Yorkers don’t even know “New York Pizza” is a thing outside New York, or that there is a “New York-style” (see Where can you get New York-style Pizza in London? and its ilk). Just go to the local corner pizza shop and help yourself; I promise it’ll have “New York-style pizza” unless it says very explicitly otherwise.

Yeah, but it might not be any good. When I’m visiting my brother, I rely on his recommendation. When I’m in the city on business, I ask the hotel concierge. When I do that, I do specify that I want New York pizza, at a little hole-in-the-wall with formica tables and a counter in front. I don’t want no damn tourist pizza.

New York eats late – don’t propose dinner earlier than 7pm unless the other party has kids. People won’t hate you for violating this, but they may give you a strange look.

This is a big source of disagreement with me and Julie. She’s from the midwest [1. Also a source of disagreement with me and Julie. She says Ohio is not the midwest, it’s the Great Lakes Region.], where folks sit down to supper at 6 or so. I keep New York dinner hours. I think I wore her down on this one over the years, which I’m not proud of. On the other hand, I do enjoy finally getting to eat dinner at a normal hour.

Also:

  • Don’t steal someone else’s cab, along with guidelines on how to make sure you’re not doing that. I’ve broken that rule, I’m afraid, although I didn’t know I was doing it. I’ll know better now.

  • “When you refer to locations in Manhattan, don’t give the Avenue first – always start with the Street.” I never knew that was a rule, but I do it instinctively.

  • “Perhaps less of a faux pas, but a sure tipoff that you’re a tourist; if you’re in Manhattan, don’t refer to “North” and “South;” it’s “Uptown” and “Downtown,” respectively.

  • “New York is a walking city.”” One of my favorite things about it.

  • “Don’t touch a stranger’s kid.”

  • Do feel free to talk about where you live and how much you pay for it, even though that would be considered too personal elsewhere. “New Yorkers are obsessed with real estate.”

There’s lots more. Worth reading the whole thing.

(Via kottke.org)

About authenticity and writing ethnic characters

Fantasy and science fiction writer Kate Elliott has an interesting discussion of authentic portrayals of ethnic minorities in fiction. Worth reading.

The heroes of my current novel-in-progress are a Mexican-American woman and an Indian-American man. The storyline itself is very traditional; it could be lifted from a pulp magazine from the Truman administration. I gave the characters those ethnicities for a number of reasons, among them that I wanted to add a more contemporary flavor to the story.

I don’t have any close friends or family who are Mexican-American or Indian-American, so I’m relying on a lot of reading and Googling.

I’m writing a scene right now where the Mexican-American woman has a conversation with her mother, father and sister. The way I wrote it, the heroine and her sister are college-educated, the mother is strong, loud, opinionated, and not very well-educated (so she’s a good person for the main characters to explain things to, and in so doing explain them to the reader), and the father is largely silent. Like I said, I don’t know much about Mexican-Americans, but I do know families with that dynamic.

I also know a lot about immigrant families, having grown up in one and around others. Growing up, it seemed like everyone I knew had grandparents who were born in Europe.

My little experiment could prove to be a spectacular failure. But you know, I think a lot of Mexican-Americans and Indian-Americans would be willing to cut me some slack. Maybe they’ll even help out as first readers when the time comes, and tell me what I’m doing that no person of that culture would ever do.

Although first readers can be tricky. Cory Doctorow, a Canadian who’s lived in America and London, wrote a novel For the Win set largely in the slums of China and India. He described how he gave sections of the manuscript to people of both cultures to read, and one reader would come back to him and say,”This part here? Very authentic!” while another reader would say the same part was inauthentic. These would be people who grew up within a few miles of each other. Even within a single culture, customs vary.

Similarly, growing up in my family, we never celebrated Christmas in the house, but we certainly enjoyed the TV specials and the shopping seasons. Other Jewish-American families celebrated Christmas. Still others celebrated Hanukkah using Christmas rituals. And we all lived within a few miles of each other.

(These days we celebrate Christmas. It means a lot to Julie. And I like it so what the heck.)

I like “Prime Suspect,” starring Maria Bello, a lot

I almost bailed out after the first few minutes because it had too much cop stuff, and seemed too derivative of NYPD Blue.

As a general rule, I am tired of cop shows. One reason is the way that they routinely portray police brutality. Cops get confessions out of suspects through threats of beatings, and sometimes actual beatings. And in the world of cop shows, that’s OK. In the real world, it’s a terrible thing.

But my dislike of cop shows isn’t primarily a matter of principle. It’s just that they seem to be all the same.

There’s the discovery of the body, often by a couple of interesting characters we never hear from again. That’s in the prologue, before the credits.

After the credits, the main characters, who are detectives, arrive on the scene. They are briefed by uniformed officers, examine the murder scene, and discuss the B-story, which is unrelated to the main murder — somebody’s relationship or career problems or whatever.

After the first commercial, there’s the scene where the coroner shows the detectives (and the audience) the interesting wounds on the body (don’t watch this scene while eating dinner).

There’s the confrontation with the by-the-book lieutenant.

There are the interviews of the suspects and witnesses in the interrogation room.

There’s the scene where the cops, wearing bulletproof vests, run from room to room in an apartment with guns drawn, shouting “CLEAR!” “CLEAR!” “CLEAR!”

It’s like Taco Bell: Same four ingredients, mixed up in different ways and called different things.

I can get into a cop show anyway if there’s something else going on I enjoy. The Closer is one of my favorite shows, and I was a huge fan of NYPD Blue.

I also loved Homicide.

And Prime Suspect seems to have many of the same qualities as Homicide, being about flawed people doing the best they can. Prime Suspect also looks a lot like The Closer — at least the first couple of episodes of The Closer, when Brenda was still fighting for her place. But where Brenda candy-coats her toughness with Southern charm, Maria Bello’s detective covers her toughness with another layer of toughness, with New York “fuck me? no fuck you” attitude.

Also, Maria Bello. I’m a huge fan of hers. She was particularly fantastic in The Cooler, with William H. Macy and Alec Baldwin. [1. I was at a corporate cocktail-party for work around 2005 where I was chatting with the wife of a colleague, and learned that this woman had actually been a roommate of Maria Bello in New York, back when Bello was still a struggling actress. I had just seen The Cooler and loved it, and I said so, and my brain sent these words down to my mouth: “And she was really something in that scene where she dances for William H. Macy! Hubba hubba!” But fortunately at that point, my brain started to visualize a conversation with HR about workplace-appropriate discussions, not to mention a conversation with my colleague about appropriate discussions with his wife — he’s much bigger than me. Not to mention a discussion with my wife (which I’m probably going to have anyway after she reads this). So my brain sent down a signal, “ABORT! ABORT! ABORT!” and instead my mouth just said, “I really liked The Cooler. She was good in that!” And thus disaster was averted.] She’s great in everything she does. I’m just going to pretend The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor didn’t happen.

So far, it’s my favorite program of the new season. Although I think I only watched one other new program, 2 Broke Girls. I didn’t care for that one, although I might give it a half-dozen episodes to find its legs and then come back and give it another try. Assuming it lasts that long.

About what Tony Bennet said

Tony Bennet’s military experience in World War II:

Drafted by the U.S. Army in November 1944, Bennett served as an infantryman in Europe, moving across France, and later into Germany.

“The Germans were frightened. We were frightened. Nobody wanted to kill anybody when we were on the line, but the weapons were so strong that it overcame us and everybody else.”

He “admitted that his two years of service gave him enough time to witness the horrors of war.”

“The first time I saw a dead German, that’s when I became a pacifist,” he said.

He told [Howard] Stern that he was left forever shaken by the sight of death.

“It was a nightmare that’s permanent,” he said. “I just said, ‘This is not life. This is not life.’”

Wikipedia has more.

The man then named Anthony Benedetto was drafted into the United States Army in November 1944, near the end of World War II. He was assigned as an infantryman, and crossed France and Germany with his unit. As March 1945 began, he joined the front line and what he would later describe as a “front-row seat in hell.”

Benedetto was part of the forces that pushed the Germans back to their homeland. They fought bitterly in frigid winter cold, often hunkering down in foxholes under heavy German fire. Then they crossed the Rhine and fought house-to-house.

During his time in combat, Benedetto narrowly escaped death several times. The experience made him a pacifist; he would later write, “Anybody who thinks that war is romantic obviously hasn’t gone through one.”

Then he helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp.

Later, he got easier duty. He worked for an informal Special Services band unit entertaining nearby American forces. But then he had a meal with a black friend from school at a time, against the rules of the segregated Army. So he got demoted and was reassigned to Graves Registration Service duties, the unit that retrieves, identifies, transports and buries fallen military.

I figure Bennet gets to say whatever he wants to say about war.

Getting ready for the zombie apocalypse in San Diego

We were in the dark for ten hours during the San Diego blackout earlier this month. That impressed on me that we’re pretty unprepared for emergencies.

What if power goes out again, this time for much longer? What if we have to evacuate, perhaps due to fire? We’ve nearly had to do twice in the last ten years.

Since the blackout, I’ve been taking stock and making plans, which I’ve done using two of my best skills: (1) Reading on the Internet and (2) Buying things.

There are four scenarios we need to be prepared for:

Short-term power outage. Something like the one we had recently. We did pretty well there. There are a couple of things I think we can do better, but those relate to the next scenario, so I’ll talk about them there.

Longer term power outage. One that stretches on for many days, perhaps combined with breakdown in other utilities.

In this scenario, we’re hunkered in the house without electricity, maybe also without gas and a supply of pure water.

We need to do a bit of work to get ready for this. We need food, pure water, illumination, and communications.

Water: FEMA NY and a couple of other places recommend a three-day supply of pure water. That’s one gallon, per person, per day, plus a quart per day for pets. Different sources give slightly different info on how to prepare the water, but it seems all you really need to do is pour it into food-safe containers, seal the top, put it in a cool place away from direct sunlight, and you’re good to go.

Food: We’re pretty well covered there. Thanks to Julie, we always have food in the house. About half of it is perishable, but half isn’t. We both like nutrition bars of various flavors, so we always have a lot of food.

Illumination: Julie stocked up on candles. They’re warm and cozy for a ten-hour blackout, but not really practical for longer than that. They don’t cast a lot of light, and they’re dangerous. Julie also bought a lot of flashlights, and a couple of them are very good.

I bought two of these rechargeable lanterns from Amazon.com. We’ll keep them plugged in in the pantry room off the kitchen at all times, which is where I think we should keep our little collection of emergency supplies.

We need to think about solar lighting or hand-cranked rechargeable lights.

We need to make sure we always have a supply of D-Cells.

If we had a lot of money lying around (which we currently do not), I’d get one of these GoSolar! fold-up solar panels, to charge laptops, cell phones, give the car a jump-start, and more.

Communication: Julie has a hand-cranked portable radio, which we listened to quite a lot during the blackout. I think I will probably also get this one, which also includes the ability to recharge a cell phone over a USB connection.

The Internet is a major source of communication, of course. I kept plugged into Twitter during the emergency, but my iPhone ran down just before the blackout ended. Since then, I bought a Mophie Juice Pack, which doubles the lifespan of the battery. I’ve been thinking I want one anyway for business trips. I’ll make a point to keep it 100% charged at all times when it’s not actually in use.

During an emergency, the car isn’t just a source of transportation; it’s also a source of electrical generation. I already have a car charger for the iPhone. It’s actually an adapter that turns the cigarette lighter into a USB power source, so I should be able to use the car charger for the iPads too. And the car has an electrical outlet built in to run conventional household power, which we can use to charge the iPad and my MacBook Pro.

Evacuating by car: Take all the above, throw them in the car, and go.

Evacuating by foot: Store as much of the above as we can carry in knapsacks, take them with us and go.

Still needed: Print out copies of legal documents, store them with emergency supplies. Get copies of prescriptions, store them with the emergency supplies. Julie says we have a first aid kit — is it any good?

You’ll note the absence of a fifth scenario, which has started to appear frighteningly likely since the financial meltdown of 2008:

The collapse of civil order. Think: Russia, 1990. Government simply stops working, cops and courts disappear, money is valueless. How would we survive then?

I’ve done some reading on this on blogs like Ran Prieur and Global Guerrillas. The two things that are valuable in that situation are community ties and practical skills that matter in that new world. I don’t have much of either, I’m afraid. I don’t see my abilities as a blogger, content marketer, and journalist as having much value in a post-breakdown world. And as for community — for more than a decade, my community has been on the Internet rather than where we physically live.

You’ll also note the absence of weapons on this list. This is not because I am a pacifist; it’s just that survivalists who think they can fight their way out of societal collapse are deluded fools. You’re most likely going to lose a gunfight or a knife-fight or a bare-knuckle brawl unless you’re trained and practice every day. I do none of those things.

What I can do is talk. I’m more confident of my ability to talk my way out of a conflict than I am in my ability to fight my way out. I may get a gun at some point, but only partly for self-defense, and even then it’s a real risk that the gun would most likely be used against me, or, even worse, Julie.

My friend Jim Macdonald recommends never, ever going below a half-tank of gas. It’s a good rule, and one we never follow; we usually let the tank get well below a quarter-full before refilling. That’s the way it was at the time of the blackout. We really need to do a better job of keeping the tank full.

Internet resources:

Tips for an apocalypse, by Teresa Nielsen Hayden.
Real emergency preparedness, by Teresa
Jump kits (Go bags), by Jim Macdonald.
FEMA NY – Water
FEMA NY – Food

Why I decided to take my main blog back from Tumblr

Flip Flop Pattern

About two and a half months ago, I started using Tumblr as my main blog. I did it against the advice of some smart people, such as my friend Gina Trapani, and WordPress founding developer Matt Mullenwag.

Turns out, it wasn’t a good idea for me to put all my eggs in the Tumblr basket. That’s why I’ve moved this blog back to my own self-hosted WordPress installation. You’re looking at that right now.

Here’s why I made Tumblr my main blog:

  • I like Tumblr. It’s got a great user interface, nice-looking theme, and great tools. Its blogs look like normal blogs to the outside world, but if you’re registered at Tumblr you can subscribe to other Tumblr blogs and read them with a Dashboard, which makes Tumblr a social media platform too.

    As a social media platform, Tumblr works like Twitter without the length limitations, and with its own media sharing tools. Nice!

  • I want to be read. The social media aspects of Tumblr plugged me in immediately to a community. I got a heck of a lot more interaction on my blog with Tumblr than I have done with any other blogging platform.

But over time, I grew more and more uncomfortable with Tumblr as a platform for my main blog.

  • Tumblr makes it insanely easy to share content created by other people. As a result, I started sharing a lot of content on Tumblr, just as I’ve always done on Twitter. That was great, but my friends told me they had a hard time figuring out what was mine and what had been created by other people.

  • The commenting system on Tumblr is weak. Tumblr’s built-in commenting system lets readers leave notes on blog posts, but the author of the post can’t reply. Crazy, huh? You can integrate Disqus comments (which is what I did), but then you end up with two commenting systems running in parallel. Crazy, huh?

    As a result, interaction was thin and unsatisfying. It was exciting at first when I began to accumulate Tumblr followers, reposts, and likes of my blog posts. Now it’s mostly just random high-fives from strangers.

  • The data doesn’t belong to me. If Tumblr goes out of business next year, the content I create there disappears. I have backup copies on my disk drive, but it’s not on the Web. If I switch blogging platforms and move the domain, my inbound links break. And I worry that my not owning the data could result in other, more dire, unforeseen consequences in the future.

    As I prepare to self-publish fiction on the Internet, not owning and controlling the data bothers me even more. At that point, this blog won’t just be a personal soapbox, it’ll be a business storefront.

The solution: Keep both blogs.

This blog, cleverly named “Mitch Wagner’s Blog,” will be used for original writing, photos, and video created by me.

And I’ll keep the Tumblr blog as my other blog, naming it even more cleverly “Mitch Wagner’s Other Blog.” The other blog will be used for links and quotes of material elsewhere on the Internet.

One benefit to this plan: I can go back to automatically mirroring Mitch Wagner’s Blog to LiveJournal, where I have friends. And both blogs will continue to be fed to Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, which is where I get a lot of my readers.

Thanks to Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land who wisely suggested that I point the mitchwagner.com domain to Tumblr while it was my main blog, so that people’s bookmarks didn’t break. That does mean external links to individual Tumblr blog posts are now broken (except for one or two that I’ve hand-coded manually). I’m working on fixing that.

All in all, I’m glad I used Tumblr as my main blog for a while. It was a great experiment. And now it’s done. But Tumblr isn’t rid of me yet — I still love posting links and stuff from elsewhere on the Web on that blog.

Related: Anil Dash wrote in December about the value of blogging in the age of Twitter. He contrasts the permanence of blogging with the fleetingness of Twitter. He doesn’t discuss Tumblr, but the same arguments apply there. Anil defends both Twitter and blogging, and I agree.

Anil links to this article by Clive Thompson on Wired, in which he is quoted, where the author says that Twitter is for discussion and blogging is for deep dives. Thompson says the availability of Twitter as an outlet for 140-character comments has also driven the popularity of longer, meatier posts. I say the same applies to Tumblr.

What about Google+? Is it for fleeting discussions and random links and comments, like Twitter and Tumblr? Or is it for more permanent, deeper dives, like blogging? It’s still too early to tell, but it’s showing signs of being useful for both.

Photo: Flip Flop Pattern by lincolnblues

9/11

Most of what I want to say is too bleak.

I am increasingly gloomy about the future of America, and Western civilization in general, and it seems 9/11 was a trigger event in the apparent decline. To say more would be inappropriate today.

I’m reading a little about 9/11, watching a little on TV, but mostly avoiding it.

God bless everyone working for peace and freedom around the world.

What I did on my summer vacation

relaxation

I’m back from ten days off. Here’s what I did:

Took the cat to the emergency vet. She was stumbling and could barely stay on her feet for about 12 hours. The vet diagnosed a possible inflamed nerve, and gave her mecziline, used to treat nausea, vomiting, sickness, vertigo and motion sickness in both animals and humans. She seems improved, although not entirely well. We’re waiting for results of blood work.

Took a social media sabbath. I took a break from blogging, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.

It wasn’t a perfect sabbath. I checked in quickly two or three times. But it wasn’t about being perfect — it was about taking a break.

It proved a little anticlimactic. I was expecting something big, given how often and compulsive I usually am about social media. Usually, I check it a thousand times a day. So I expected I might go mad from withdrawal. Alternately, I thought I might achieve ultimate enlightenment.

Neither happened. I missed social media some, but not a lot. Still, it was nice to quiet down the noise a bit. And now it’s nice to be back.

Visited with friends.

Visited Lions Tigers and Bears. It’s an exotic-animal rescue shelter near Lakeside, Calif., about 25 miles and a world away from home. More on that later.

Puttered and read. Which is my favorite way to spend vacation. For nonfiction, I read Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, “America’s Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine” and started reading Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization. For fiction, I finished The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown. More on those books later.

Relaunched this blog. I now have two blogs. One is this blog, “Mitch Wagner’s Blog.” The other is my Tumblr blog, which I’ve been keeping since the spring, and which I’m calling “Mitch Wagner’s Other Blog.” I chose those names after much deliberation, because as a marketing professional I know the value of branding.

Wrote. Worked on my novels, worked on my short fiction — have I mentioned I’ve decided to self-publish my short fiction as e-books? That’s a big project. I’m excited about it.

And I drafted a couple of blog posts, including this one.

And now I’m looking forward to getting back to work, and getting back on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and the rest.

How has your ten days been? Did you miss me?

It’s OK if you didn’t notice I was gone. Time has as peculiar quality on social media. Things that happened yesterday blur together with things that happened six months ago. It’s all just now.

On the other hand, if you think my social media activity has been the best it’s ever been for the last ten days, well, then, you and me have something to talk about, bub.

Photo: estherase