Category: observations

Thoughts on the Star Wars Episode VII Trailer

I was five years old when the original Star Wars was released in theaters. I don’t remember seeing any trailers for the movie. I just remember my parents taking me to the drive-in to see the movie. That’s right: the first time I saw Star Wars was at the drive-in.

When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, I remember seeing the trailer for the movie and feeling more excited about a movie than I had ever remembered feeling before. I watched the trailer over and over again, and I remember I was almost out of my head on the evening that I went to go an see the movie.

I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I watched the trailer over the weekend, expecting to be filled with the same excitement I had when I first saw the Episode 1 trailer. I was disappointed. The trailer didn’t move me at all.

This probably has much more to do with me than it does any problem with the trailer or the movie. I’ve just moved beyond Star Wars. There are far too many series out there today and far too few one-out movies–or books for that matter. I understand this, of course. The economics of it is clear. If a movie is successful, why risk something else, when you have a built in audience for a sequel. Still, I am tired of sequels and remakes, just as I am tired of television dramas that are serials rather than series. I’ve even grown tired of book series. I’m sure there are lots of people awaiting George R. R. Martin’s Winds of Winter, but I burned out after A Dance with Dragons.

Let’s face it: judging a movie by its trailer is like judging a book by its cover. But it is all I have to go on so far, and so far, I saw nothing new in the story, nothing to make me say, “Ah, now that looks interesting.” Everything I saw in the trailer is simply recycled from earlier movies: the settings, the characters, the problem (“the dark side, and the light”), the weapons (we saw a double light saber in Episode 1, so a triple light saber is the next logical step). And, of course, the music.

Having been at that critical impressionable age of 5 years old when Star Wars first came out, there was no way to avoid being a fan of the movie. Yet even at five, I never remember wondering what happened to all of the characters after the Death Star was destroyed. Nor did I wonder about them in the time before the story takes place. Still, a part of me hoped for something spectacular in the trailer, and I was a little saddened that I didn’t find it there. I hope that others do.

3 Ways I Avoided All Election Campaign Ads This Season

It occurred to me this morning that it was election day, a fact that crept up on me mostly because I managed to avoid all election campaigning this season. I was pretty busy with the day job, and the family, and writing, but there were at least three things that helped me avoid the ads and phone calls, and I thought I’d share them here.

1. I didn’t watch any live TV

I have very little time for television. I may catch a show like The Big Bang Theory or Modern Family here and there before bed to rest my brain, but it is never in real time. It is always either on-demand or through NetFlix or the iTunes store. Which means there are generally no ads, and never any political ads. Not watching TV means I have more time for other things (like the family, or writing). But as I’ve discovered, it has the added benefit of eliminating a huge proportion of political campaigns.

I do listen to the radio, now and then, when I’m in the car, but I listen almost exclusively to either Sirius XM’s 70s on 7 or 80s on 8, both of which are entirely commercial free. So I was free from torment there as well.

2. I don’t answer phone calls for which I don’t instantly recognize the number

I got tired of political calls a long time ago, and since I rarely use the phone these days, anyway, sometime in the last year, I stopped answering calls for which I don’t recognize the number. And since I no longer listen to voicemail, my outgoing message directs people to text me or email me. I imagine that most of the political calls are robocalls, and aren’t smart enough to grab my email address and send me email. Bottom line: received no political calls this season. At least, none that I answered.

3. I recycled all political mail ads without looking at them.

You can kind of tell by feel. Those ads are all printed on that same thick bond poster-like paper. I tend to sort the little snail mail I get these days into two piles as I walk back to the house. Stuff to look at, and stuff to recycle. I’m guessing that all of the political ads made it safely into the recycle bin, because I don’t recall actually looking at any.

These three things combined to help eliminate all political ads from my life this season. I might not even have noticed it, had I not realized it was election day this morning. After work today, Kelly and I picked up the Little Man from school, and took him with us to our local polling place so that he could see what it was like to vote. The polling place was pretty much empty, which kinds of makes a mockery of how much money gets spent on political campaigns, and in particular, on advertising.

But really, the important thing is, as I discovered this morning, it is still possible to vote without being carpet bombed with political ads for months at a time.

Who knew!

Thank You, Derek Jeter, for Saving Baseball

I started at my present job in the fall of 1994, at the end of one of the more depressing baseball seasons of my life, thanks to the player’s strike that killed the postseason for that year. Baseball, it seemed, was at an all-time low.

In May of the following season, Derek Jeter made his major league debut with the New York Yankees. Since then, he has gone on to become not only one of the best all around players of his generation, but in all of baseball history. And what is more remarkable: he did it while keeping his ego in check, and being a role model that kids of all ages (including the “kid” of 23 years old that I was back in 1995) could look up to, and rely on to be a good example. For twenty years, Jeter has maintained that high standard.

Yesterday, Gatorade released a new commercial featuring Derek Jeter that has gone viral. I’ve probably watched this commercial a dozen times now.

At first, it was the artistic elements that drew me to the commercial: a choice of music, a good choice of how it was shot (black and white). But there was something else, something I couldn’t quite put a finger on. People have said that watching the video gives them goosebumps. It certainly had that effect on me. But why?

The reason, I think, dawned on me earlier this evening. As I said, I started my present job not long before Jeter started his with the Yankees. That twenty years has gone by in the blink of an eye. I wonder what it must be like for someone like Derek Jeter, who worked hard as a kid to make it to the big leagues, and then lived a dream, becoming one of the best players of all time–and now, he’s retiring and that part of his life is coming to a close. This final season of his has been like the credits at the end of a movie, one that you want to end, but that you wish would go on and on forever. If the last twenty years felt like blink of the eyes to me, what must it feel like to Jeter?

The new video captures some of that, and it comes across. When he nods to the camera at the end, just before he walks out onto the field, it is like an acknowledgement that all good things must come to an end. He’s cool with that, even though it makes us shed a reminiscent tear for halcyon days.

I’ve thought it a little strange that Jeter is getting the kind of send off that he’s been getting all season, but I no longer think so. Everyone, fans, players, owners, wants to say thank you to Jeter. They are thanking him for something that he probably had no idea he was doing when he made his first major league appearance in May 1995, when baseball was reeling from the strike, and was soon to be plagued by a decade of disappointing role models, thanks to steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. Through all of that, there was one player that fans, kids, old-timers, sports writers, managers, owners, and other players could count on not only for excellence on the field, but for excellence in character.  The send-off Jeter has gotten this season is a thank you from everyone.

They are thanking him for saving baseball.

Which is exactly what he has done for the last two decades.


Winston Churchill’s Bacon Number is… 3!

Yesterday on Twitter, I was ruminating about how many notable people are mentioned in Churchill’s biography. Churchill was born toward the end of the Victorian era, and lived 90 years. So Churchill had conversations with the likes of Mark Twain, as well as actors like Charlie Chaplin. Indeed, Churchill lived long enough that, despite being a Victorian, he lived into the Beatles era.

But for some reason, the notion that Churchill spent time with Charlie Chaplin struck me, and I decided to do a little Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with Churchill. I bent the rules a little. Instead of acting with someone, I considered a significant interaction good enough for my purposes. Indeed, Churchill spent time with Charlie Chaplin on several occasions. Going from there, I checked to see what Charlie Chaplin’s Bacon number was.  I used the Oracle of Bacon website to find this out. Turns out, Chaplin’s Bacon number is 2:

Chaplin Bacon Number

So, by virtue of the fact that Churchill spent significant time with Chaplin (as oppose to acting in a movie with him–my own variation of the rules) his Bacon number would be 3. I find that fascinating for some reason.

The Start of World War I

I‘m more than halfway through my reading of The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume 1. Yesterday, as I was about to head out to lunch, I said this on Twitter:

I was referring to the fact that the book was creeping up on the start of the First World War. However, in a remarkable coincidence, it turns out that yesterday, July 28, was exactly 100 years since the official start of World War I back on July 28, 1914. To the day. That is pretty creepy.

My Attempt to Watch Mad Men

I‘ve heard lots of good things about the show Mad Men, and so, after the kids went to bed last night, Kelly and I settled down to watch the first two episodes.  They were entertaining, maybe a little over the top, but the truth is that after two episodes, I was worn out. Two episodes into the show and there was already so much potential drama1 that, as a story teller, I could see the explosive proliferation of plot twists and struggles that would fill the rest of this season, and presumably, subsequent seasons.

Part of what spurred me to give Mad Men a try was catching a few episodes of Bewitched earlier in the week. As a kid, I remember spending summer mornings watching syndicated reruns of the show (I’m nowhere near old enough to have seen the show in first run) and it was nice to see it again. Darren is, of course, an ad man, and the show takes place in the 1960s instead of the 1950s, but memories of how much I enjoyed Bewitched made me curious about Mad Men.

The problems I have with Mad Men are the same problems I have with all television dramas today. First is that they focus on edge-cases, which is understandable, since they are easy targets for good storytelling. But it also means that the shows tend to be overly dramatic and those wear quickly on my limited patience with television.

The second–for me, more important–problem is that they are serials as opposed to series. I’ve discussed this before. I don’t watch a lot of television. When I do, I want to dip for some brain relief and entertainment, and dip out again. I always liked dramas like Magnum, P.I. because, despite being dramas, they were self-contained episodes, rarely, if ever ending in a cliff-hanger, rarely carrying an arch beyond one episode. You could watch an episode, any episode, be entertained for 50 minutes, and move on without a second thought. Not so with today’s dramas, including, it seems, Mad Men.

Let me be clear that my objections to Mad Men have nothing to do with the quality of the writing or acting. They are objections based on my own ennui with how dramas are produced today. I am not a serial TV watcher. I don’t look for a show that will last season after season. I’ve grown to despise cliff-hangers in dramas, and I hate how they chop up seasons these days. Most of all, I really dislike how you can no longer watch just one episode. Today’s dramas are made with binge-watching in mind. I’m not part of that audience so it makes sense that I don’t connect with those kind of shows.

I suspect that series (as opposed to serial) dramas are mostly a thing of the past, and this is one of those cases where like what I grew up with, and am simply not part of the serial-watching culture. That’s okay, I can deal with that. But it is disappointing when shows that sound good in principle are virtually unwatchable to me because of this.

  1. I use the term “potential” in the classical physics sense here.

A Useful Word Processor Function All Tools Seem to Lack: Shift Keys Left

I touch type. I’m self-taught, and after more than, oh, twenty-five years or so, I’m pretty fast. I don’t need to look at the keyboard. In fact, I can close my eyes and just type away1.

But on certain keyboards, I seem to make the same mistake from time-to-time. I’ll start typing a sentence and by the time I look at the screen, this is what I see:

Dp muvh got nrinh s hoof yu[ody!

The problem, of course, is that I’ve managed to shift my fingers on the keyboard one key to the right. I know there are little nubs on the F and J keys that are supposed to tell you where you are but I simply don’t pay attention. My mind is elsewhere. Like on the scene that I am writing.

Once I realize what happened, I have to go back and delete the gibberish and rewrite what I meant to write. It seems to me, that (a) I am not the only one in the world to which this annoying phenomenon happens, and (b) since it is a one-key shift, there should be a way to quickly fix the problem.

I think that a decent word processor should include a SHIFT KEYS LEFT (or RIGHT) function on the Edit menu, the way some word processor have CHANGE CASE functions. The way it would work is this. You accidentally type algorithmic gibberish like:

Dp muvh got nrinh s hoof yu[ody!

You can then highlight the text and click Edit->Shift Keys Left and the result would be:

So much for being a good typist!

It saves time and turns your gibberish back into what you intended. Why don’t word processors have this useful function? I’m seriously considering writing the function and adding to the set of functions I’ve created for my Google App Scripts.

  1. I’m doing so this very second, but of course, you’ll have to take me word for that.

Pet Peeve: No, I Won’t Recommend Your Article Before I Read the Whole Thing

I have been seeing a lot more of this kind of thing lately: I find an article I’m interested in, start reading, get through about a paragraph (sometimes just a few sentences) and then see something that looks like this:

Full Content

This is one of those things that will instantly make me quit reading a blog or article. It seems to me that the site (or author, or content manager) is attempting to make this kind of bargain:

I’ll let you read the rest of the post, but first you have to recommend it publicly.

That’s like a used car dealer saying, “I’ll let you test drive the car, but first you have to buy it.” Screw that! When I “like” something on Facebook or retweet something on Twitter, or +1 it on Google Plus, I am staking my reputation on it. I’m saying, “Hey, I saw this and thought it was worth passing along. Check it out if this kind of thing interests you.”

Why on Earth would I risk that reputation on an article I haven’t had a chance to read? Why would anyone? This kind of Internet snobbery makes it clear to me that all the site really cares about is how many “likes” or “retweets” it gets. It’s fishing for them in the most blatant and annoying way.

I doubt that my complaining about it here will alter the behavior one iota, but I hope that it demonstrates that, in at least some of the population, this kind of behavior will get you some reaction you probably didn’t expect: a pissed off, annoyed reader who will go get his information from a source that won’t ask for a quid pro quo.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled Internet.



May 28, 585 B.C.

Since it is May 28 and I happened to remember on the day, for a change, I thought it worth mentioning to both history and astronomy buffs, that at May 28, 585 B.C., the Battle of Halys took place. This battle is significant for two reasons.

First, the battle stopped abruptly when  solar eclipse darkened the battlefield. This was taken as an omen that the gods wanted the fighting to cease.

Second, because the dates of solar eclipses can be predicted, it is the earliest historical event to which the date is known to such precision.

Actually, the battle is significant to me for a third reason, which involves the story that I have been working on for the last few months, in which the history of the battle and the eclipse that abruptly ended it, both play a small, but significant role.

Astrologers are constantly claiming the stars shape the fortunes of humanity. I think the battle of Halys is a perfect example of this, although I am certain it is not what the astrologers mean when discussing the dawning of the age of aquarius.

Marketing Is Not A Substitute for Talent

Next month, my writers group is holding a lecture called “Marketing Yourself as a Writer.” There is no description of what the lecture entails, other than the title, but I find that when I see people discussing “marketing yourself as a writer,” either in lecture form or as a blog post, I get squirmy. I don’t know that I always used to feel this way. Indeed, I probably once thought that marketing yourself as a writer was a good thing. I don’t really believe this anymore.

Let me clarify that statement a bit. I don’t believe a writer should spend a significant amount of time marketing themselves as a writer. Of course, “significant amount” is vague and probably differs from writer to writer. If you want hard numbers, I’d probably say something like, for every 100 hours you spend writing, spend 1 hour “marketing yourself as a writer.”

I have two main reasons for coming to believe this:

  1. Marketing is not a substitute for talent.
  2. Marketing tends to easily become annoying to others.

Allow me to elaborate a bit.

Marketing is not a substitute for talent

This really only matters if you are trying to write good stories. It seems to me that good stories market themselves. You don’t need to sell yourself when you have a good story. All you need to do is submit the story to the appropriate market and wait patiently for an editor to recognize the talent. Or submit the story to an agent and do the same. Or, if you are an independent writer (whatever that means) you self-publish your story and wait for people to start buying it because it is good.

I suppose the argument goes that for indie writers, marketing is the mechanism that let’s people know a story is available. Okay, sure, a little time investment in marketing here makes some sense. But it is not a substitute for talent. And I get the feeling, reading various posts, that marketing yourself as a writer is being used as a substitute for talent. It seems to me that a writer’s time is much better spent improving his or her craft. The only way to get better is write stories and learn from them. This is why I think a writer should spend the bulk of their time writing. If a writer has talent, persistence, and some level of humility, they will eventually get noticed.

Stephen King was once just a kid submitting stories with absolutely no track record whatsoever. So was Isaac Asimov, Connie Willis, Robert Silverberg, J. K. Rowling, and pretty much every other successful writer in the world. They got to where they are because of talent. Marketing may have played a factor in their superstardom, but that was only after they’d demonstrated that they had talent worth marketing.

The corollary is that marketing yourself as a writer when you write mediocre stories is essentially marketing yourself as a mediocre writer, which is probably not what you intend.

Then, too, every minute you spend marketing yourself as a writer is a minute that you are not improving your writing. It makes me think of two types of baseball players. There are players that talk themselves up with the press but perform only average on the field. Then there are players–Derek Jeter is an example–who do their best to steer clear of the limelight, and let their talent on the field speak for itself.

It was only when I started concentrating on spending as much time as I could writing stories that I really began selling them in greater number. The amount of marketing involved in those sales was incredibly small, and most of the marketing was limited to a covering note that read something like:

Please consider the enclosed 5,200 word science fiction mystery for publication in Analog. My fiction has previously appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and other markets.

Yes, I can hear some people say, but you see, you already had  publications that you could list in your cover letter as “marketing.” What about those of us who don’t? To that I’d point out that when I sent my cover letter to InterGalactic Medicine Show in 2006 for my story “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer,” I had no previous publications listed. I was a new writer.

Read more

Automation and the Power of Process Improvement

Three recent experiences remind me that automation for the sake of automation doesn’t really do much. But if automation can be used to improve processes, eliminate repetition, and redundancy, then it is well worth investing the time to improve the automation. It is a personal pet peeve of mine whenever I have to supply the same piece of information more than one in a given transaction, especially when that data is available somewhere else. Here are two small failures, and one small success to illustrate where we stand with automation and process improvement in day-to-day tasks.

“Would you like to apply for a Target Red Card?”

The complex we live in borders a Target and Safeway shopping center. This has been very convenient. We can walk to the store. It means we probably go more frequently than we need to. And because Target has pretty much everything, we go there quite a bit. Eventually, we decided to get one of their Red Card credit cards because we save 5% on every purchase. Once we had the card, I set it up to pay the bill in full each month. There is no point in saving 5% on purchases if you are paying 19% interest. So we get a nice benefit on every purchase we make from Target. So far, so good.

Recently, however, it seems that Target is really pushing the use of the Red Card to the exclusion of all logic. For instance, on several occasions, I’d put my items on the conveyor, slide my Red Card and wait for the total.

“Would you like to apply for a Target Red Card?” the cashier asked.

I blinked. “Well,” I said, holding up my Target Red Card, “I just paid with mine. Do I need another?”

The cashier laughed and we each went about our day.

But it happened again on the next visit with a different cashier. And then again. And again.

Finally, I said to the cashier, “You guys have been asking this quite a bit. I pay with my Red Card every time I come here and you always ask me if I want to apply for a Red Card. Isn’t there something on your screen that tells you that I have paid with a Red Card?”

The cashier said, “We are told to ask everyone, even if you already have a Red Card?”

“What sense does that make? If I say, ‘yes’ and apply for a second Red Card what would happen?”

The cashier just shrugged.

I don’t mind being asked this once or twice, but every single time I come to Target, and when I have already swiped my Red Card? That seems like a major breakdown, not just in a logical process, but in customer service.

“Can you fill out these forms?”

I took the Little Man to the doctor the other day. There is a nice touch-screen system to check in, and pay your co-pay, if one is due. It’s a nice piece of automation. But it failed this time. The system told me to see the desk. So I saw the receptionist and he told me that since it was the Little Man’s first visit this year, I had to fill out some forms. He handed me three forms.

The forms were all standard information. Parent names, addresses, phone numbers, insurance company information. I filled them out at a slow burn because I knew what would happen. I’d turn the papers back to the receptionist and he would key in my responses to the central system. So not only was I entering the information, but he was entering the information. He had to parse my handwriting, increasing the chance that some of the data would be entered incorrectly.

Read more

Bye-Bye Google Reader

Yesterday, Google announced the retirement of a number of its services, including Google Reader, its RSS aggregator. The retirement will take place on July 1. This is unfortunate. I’ve used Google Reader for years as the place where I aggregate my RSS feeds. I generally don’t read my RSS feeds using Reader. For that I use Reeder on my iPad or iMac. But Google Reader is the engine behind the scenes that manages it all for me and I am sad to see it go.

Within seconds, it seems, the ether was filled with posts for alternatives. Lifehacker had a pretty good list of recommendations. And when I mentioned the demise on Twitter last night, I got several more recommendations. Most of those seem to center around Feedly. I’ve glanced at Feedly and it seems alright. But it seems to be more of a RSS reader than an aggregator. What I’m looking for as a replacement to Google Reader is another aggregator. Products like Feedly go above and beyond and I imagine that’s great for some people. But I’m not interested in which RSS items Feedly considers to be “featured” and I’m not interested in the pretty layout it provides. I’m looking for simple aggregation. I’ve already got a UI.

Then, too, I love my RSS reader, which is, as I said, Reeder. I imagine that before July 1, the good folks at Reeder will need to come up with an alternative to its dependency on Google Reader. I wouldn’t want to to give up that application.

Still, despite the recommendations for other products, I am holding out hope. The masses can sometime surprise the big producers, and I think it is possible we might see enough support for Google Reader in the community that Google reverses its decision to do away with it. I’m not counting on this, you understand, but a little wishful thinking never hurt anyone. And so I’m not jumping ship right away. I’m continuing to use Google Reader and I’m continuing to keep my eye on what Google decides to do. Around mid-June or so, I’ll make my final decision.

There’s certainly no rush.