December 30, 2010

Tone deaf to poetry

I'm clearly an idiot.

I tried reading some of the poems and literary fiction in the Florida Review's Native Issue, but I just…don't…get it.

Reading literary journals feels, at times, like listening to the atonal or dissonant symphonic music of the early-to-mid 20th century. I feel as if I ought to do it, because it's Art. But I don't really enjoy it.

Story becomes subordinate to words that seem strung together not to evoke emotion or meaning, but just because no one ever put them in that order before. As if one took a bunch of vocabulary cards, threw them in the air, and wrote them down without concern for which words are which part of speech.

I started to put an excerpt for you, but I have two concerns. First, and foremost, excerpting a poem runs the risk of violating copyright because even a few lines is a large percentage of the whole.

Second, I'm not sure what this poem is actually about. It might be naughty. Or maybe it's just about yoga. I can't be sure. Clearly, I am an idiot.

But then, I'm not real fond of Stravinsky, either.

December 23, 2010

Candy confusion

I once received an e-mail message that went something like this:
Photo by Gary Scott | www.garyslens.ca
“A candymaker in Indiana wanted to make a candy that would be a witness, so he made the Christmas candy cane. He incorporated several symbols from the birth, ministry and death of Jesus Christ.
“ … a stick of pure white, hard candy. White to symbolize the virgin birth and the sinless nature of Jesus, and hard to symbolize the solid rock, the foundation of the church …
“The candymaker made the candy in the form of a ‘J’ to represent the precious name of Jesus … it could also represent the staff of the ‘Good Shepherd’ …
“The candymaker stained it with red stripes … three small stripes to show the stripes of the scourging Jesus received … the large red stripe was for the blood shed by Christ on the cross.
“Unfortunately, the candy became known as a candy cane — a meaningless decoration … but the meaning is still there for those who ‘have eyes to see and ears to hear.’ ”

There are even several children’s books that tell something like this story, calling it the “true” origin of the candy cane. The problem is, the “true” story changes with each retelling.

In some versions, the candy cane is said to have been a secret sign among persecuted Christians — although the persecution of Christians in Europe ended long before the invention of stick candy.

Straight white candy sticks have been around for centuries. According to the National Confectioners Association, the first cane-shaped candies in America appeared in Ohio, where, in 1847, a German-Swedish immigrant named August Imgard decorated his tree with them. The shape is meant to evoke not the letter J, but the shepherd's crook -- still religiously symbolic, if you think about it. Besides, you can hang a crook on a branch. Doesn't work so well in the "J" orientation.

The truth may seem boring in comparison to a fanciful story. Gracious, I'm in the business of telling fanciful stories. But we must be clear when we are using fairy tales to share our witness, and not pretend that fables are fact.

December 17, 2010

Yes, I love Jesus. Now can I get back to work?

I suppose they mean well, the people who craft those e-mails that go on for pages and amount to, "If you love Jesus you'll send this to X more people." I suppose the people who forward them mean well, as do the ones who forward the forward.

By Carl Dwyer | stock.xchng
But I doubt this is how God keeps score. When Paul said we'd be held to account, I don't think he meant God will scold us at the end of days for not forwarding e-mails.

I think He'll ask whether we made good use of our time and talents or wasted them on trifles. I think He'll ask whether we shared knowledge or kept it to ourselves. Did we nourish His sheep or stuff them with junk food?

One such message challenged whether we make time for God at work. Why yes, I do, thanks for asking. Here are my tips for staying close to God while you work:
All of these help keep my mind on things that are above. Or at least help me re-focus when I drift.

I know senders mean well, but messages that imply we're unfaithful if we don't forward them just create false guilt, which can be a stumbling block. Perhaps, instead of forwarding messages that demand "proof" actions from recipients, we should just give words of encouragement and expect nothing in return. We might be surprised by the response.

December 9, 2010

Mad Cow conquers a classic

When I asked my patient other half, "If I buy tickets to this play, will you come with me?" his only question was "when?"

It seems to me that few modern men are interested in classical theater, and the audience at the theater reinforced the idea. I believe the women outnumbered the men two to one. Almost as bad a ratio as at a figure skating show.

Well, the absent fellas don't know what they're missing. The Mad Cow Theatre Company's production of She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith is brilliant.

Mad Cow Theater Company photo of
Elizabeth Takacs as Constance Neville
and Melanie Whipple as Kate Hardcastle
Mad Cow Theatre is tucked into the ground floor of a downtown office building. The cast and crew make excellent use of a quirky space: The theater is L-shaped, with the stage in the corner and the seats in each branch. It's a cozy house -- seating about 220-250 people, I guesstimate -- so the performance really is intimate. When characters break into soliloquy, they really are talking to you.

The cast is fabulous. Brian Brightman as Marlow and Melanie Whipple as Kate are especially charming in their repartee. Engaging, star-quality performances.

In an article about Oliver Goldsmith published in 1935, Alice B. Fort & Herbert S. Kates wrote: "this play sounded the keynote of Goldsmith's 'mission' . . . to render more natural the comedy of his time and to strike a decisive blow at the 'genteel' or 'sentimental' comedy of his contemporaries." She Stoops to Conquer may not be considered natural by modern standards, but it is nevertheless fresh and delightful.

It's a shame that such a small house was not sold out on a Saturday night. It was nearly full, but still, I had thought a play this clever and funny, performed by such outstanding actors, could fill even a large auditorium.

Perhaps it's because not many people have other halves who enjoy theater as much as mine does. Or maybe it's that not many people offer to buy the tickets.

She Stoops to Conquer is playing at the Mad Cow Theatre through Dec. 19. If you enjoy comedy, buy the tickets. You'll love it.

December 3, 2010

Inspirational anecdotes don't need to be faked

Motivational speakers often use true-life anecdotes to illustrate a topic, and this is a great tool. But of course it’s better if the true-life anecdotes really are true. Too often, speakers (and, dare I say it, writers) don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

One plum people pull out to show you shouldn’t be discouraged by failure is the one about how the inventors of the Post-it Note were supposedly trying to make a super-strong glue but failed—the glue turned out weak. They then converted their biggest failure into their biggest success.
Silver and Fry are featured on the Post-it anniversary page

A good story, but not true. The truth is less dramatic, but no less inspirational: Spencer Silver, a chemist at 3M, discovered a low-tack glue in 1968, but because he and his colleagues couldn’t come up with any marketable applications, it was shelved. A few years later, one of those colleagues—Art Fry—realized Silver’s temporary adhesive would hold bookmarks in place. After some brainstorming, the company came up with Post-it notes and other products using the glue.

Silver’s original project was only a “failure” in that initially they couldn’t think of a market for it. Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras include the story in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. They emphasize that Silver wasn’t looking for anything in particular. He was “following the principle of ‘experimental doodling,’” something 3M encourages. He was playing around to see what he could find.

The Post-it story is a good one. But, as Collins and Porras make clear, what it illustrates is the need for companies to foster creativity and allow risk-taking.

The “super-strong glue” story isn’t the only falsehood I’ve heard propagated by people seeking to inspire. In the future, I’ll tackle some of the others, and any more you care to bring to my attention. Because I believe if you're going to use a true-life anecdote to make your point, it really should be true.

November 8, 2010

Why we would rather drive

High-speed rail is slow in coming
to Central Florida. © Bombardier
Americans have been accused of loving their cars too much. But that affection is just the result of having passenger trains that are almost useless.

Central Florida has two rail projects on the horizon: SunRail, a commuter line I could take to work, and high-speed rail, which would connect Orlando and Tampa with stops at Disney World and Lakeland. This will be very helpful for people going from Lakeland to the Orlando or Tampa metro areas for major sporting events, concerts, airports, etc. It would also keep folks going from Orlando to Tampa off Interstate 4, theoretically. Of course, then you're reliant on rental cars or the quality of mass transit at your destination.

This difficulty in getting from one place to another led Busch Entertainment to run a charter bus from Orlando to Busch Gardens Tampa. Very clever, and quite handy. The only drawback was when I wound up with a tired child at Busch Gardens at four o'clock in the afternoon, and the bus not scheduled to leave until five. Ah well. We sat in a cafe and ate ice cream.

All this came to mind because I had to go to a meeting in Boca Raton this week, and a friend offered to drive. I was tempted to drive myself so I could leave as soon as the business part of the meeting was over, and skip the dinner and socializing. But it would be irresponsible to drive two cars if we could both go in one. Besides, I need to practice being sociable.

Then I thought -- maybe I could take a train. Yeah, right. No, go on, look. Just to see. Sure.

The meeting was to start at 1 p.m. The morning train leaves Orlando at 10:30 a.m. and takes four hours and fifteen minutes to get to Delray Beach (the train doesn't stop in Boca -- it's Delray or Deerfield Beach). That would mean traveling the day before and staying overnight. Told ya. Plus, I'd need a bus or a taxi from Delray to Boca, unless I could find an indulgent South Florida friend.

Interstate 95, on the other hand, got us from Orlando to Boca Raton in three hours. More importantly, an Amtrak ticket -- one way -- costs more than a tank of gas, and my friend made this trip -- round trip -- on one tank.

For completeness' sake, I looked at air travel, though of course a plane ticket would cost about five times as much as a tank of gas. But the airlines can only fly me into Fort Lauderdale. Boca's airport is a small general aviation facility without scheduled flights by major airlines. To fly into Boca, we'd have to charter a flight.

November 1, 2010

Candidates oughtn't leave the electorate guessing

FFPC: One of the only sources for help with those Judge elections
As I finish up my candidate research for tomorrow's election, I'm struck by two things.

First, I see that both at CF News 13 and at Florida Family Policy Council, many candidates neglected to answer surveys. This not only makes voters' research more difficult. It also sends a signal that the candidate is either not dedicated enough or not organized enough to place his information into important forums.

Second, I'm really disappointed that once again I'm left having to choose between Republicans and Democrats. With few exceptions, all the others are just flakes.

Perhaps I'm being harsh. They may not all be flakes. Some of them may only be undedicated or disorganized.

October 30, 2010

Plunkin' down dollars for pumpkins and more

I had a choice between an elaborate brown hoop-skirted costume and a simpler one. I picked the simpler one not only because it's purple, but because it's cheaper.

Many of us are still economizing, although the National Retail Federation says Halloween spending this year is expected to bounce back to 2008 levels after a big drop last year. This year's total is estimated at $5.8 billion. Yeah. With a B.

I sometimes wonder whether neo-pagans are as annoyed by the commercialization of Halloween as Christians are about Christmas.

The old holiday, Samhain (pronounced SOW-ahn, which means, roughly, "summer's end"), marked the final harvest of the year, after which the earth became "dead," entering a winter dormancy. European Pagans had a variety of ways to celebrate this holiday. Would it surprise you to know none of them involved orange and black taffy? More than you probably care to know is here. The festival began at sundown Oct. 31 and continued through Nov. 1.

As with Easter and Christmas, the early church took an adoptive approach with this holiday. In 835, at about the time there came to be more Saints than there were days in the year to have feasts for them, Pope Gregory III initiated "All Saint's Day," and put it on Nov. 1. So the day before became All Hallow's Eve, presumably because "Salloween" didn't have quite the same ring to it.

Pumpkins, which are indigenous to the Americas, didn't come into the picture until after Irish immigrants got here. In Ireland, jack o'lanterns were made with turnips. But in America, the Irish began using pumpkins instead, not only because they are bigger, but because their abundance made them cheaper. See, I'm not the only one cutting costs around this holiday.

In the mid-19th century, Halloween was basically just an excuse for trickery and vandalism, sometimes involving outhouses. In later Victorian days, celebrations mellowed into tame harvest festivals. It wasn't until around 1920 that people began sending their kids door-to-door like so many beggars.

Now, parents tend to keep their kids off the street, seeking more sanitized venues like shopping malls. Even churches have begun holding Halloween parties, which strikes me as odd. It must strike the pagans as even odder.

October 23, 2010

Big free music hides behind little asterisk

When I bought a new flash drive, it came with an eMusic "50 FREE* songs" coupon. I visited eMusic.com to see what's behind the asterisk.

First, you have to enter a credit card or PayPal account so eMusic can automatically roll you into one of its subscription plans when your 14-day trial runs out. To get the 50 songs truly free, you must download them within 14 days and then cancel.

My trial included one audiobook, so I started there. But downloading books (or albums) requires installing eMusic's proprietary software. This rankled, though it's similar to installing iTunes to shop in the iTunes store. Except iTunes doesn't let you shop for half an hour and click a big button labeled "Download" before telling you the software needs installing.

The "Browse" feature at eMusic is pretty good. You can filter by genre, subgenre, editor's picks, user ratings and release date.

eMusic's interface is clean and easy to read.




But to listen to audio samples, you need to install an Adobe Flash Player upgrade, if you haven’t already. Which I hadn’t. I dislike Flash. One of my favorite Firefox add-ons is Flashblock. I had to add emusic.com to the Flashblock whitelist.

Then I spent the evening listening to music samples and downloading free tunes. As I got closer to having zero credits left, I started getting interesting messages. If I downloaded one song from a seven-credit album, eMusic offered me 6 free credits to complete the album -- and start my paid subscription.

The eMusic catalog is impressive. And in November, they’ll add another 250,000 tracks from Universal Music Group. I considered signing up for a subscription, but then I would be obligated to pay $12 a month for 24 tracks. (If you pay yearly, you get a discount.) I don’t want to be obligated to shop for $12 worth of music every month, since I currently average only about $7 a month for music. Those who know me well will not be surprised to know that I keep records this minutely.

So after I got my one e-book and 50 songs, I went to cancel the account. Would it surprise you to learn there’s a “just one more thing before you go” offer? An otherwise unpublicized “eMusic Mini” account -- $6 a month for 12 tracks. Even though this is below my monthly average, I gave it a miss. The cancellation process was painless. I took the exit survey so I could specify (and they anticipated this answer, because it was one of the multiple-choice options) that I prefer a la carte pricing.

Just to ensure there were no more asterisks, I logged back in and verified my account was canceled. It is, but my login remains in their system, and my account has a big button to click if I ever change my mind. Which, if eMusic switches from the subscription model, I might do.

October 15, 2010

A Crown Of Splendor

As we were led to our table at the restaurant, we passed a long table where a family was celebrating a birthday. By the markings on the cake, it was the gentleman's 86th birthday. He was thin, maybe a bit frail, but in good spirits and, as far as I could tell, able to get around without help.

"Uch," my friend said, "I'd hate to live that long."

"If you had your health, why not?" my husband asked.

She shook her head. And her husband agreed with her.
 

I couldn't find words. My grandfather died before I was born. How I wish he had lived to be 86. My cousin died when she was only 36. How might another fifty years added to her life have changed the lives of her daughters?

I don't decide who lives how long. God does, and I don't question His wisdom. But sometimes I wonder...

And I pity my friends. Where they see wrinkles, I see wisdom.

When Grandma was 86, she wrote this essay. I had the privilege of reading it at her memorial service last year. Today would be Grandma's 90th birthday. She died last year, just before Independence Day.

Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained by a righteous life. -- Proverbs 16:31

Old Age
By Phyllis Kirkpatrick

I believe old age is a gift from God. Now that I am 86, I can be the person I have always wanted to be. I don't mean my physical body! I despair the bags under my eyes and the wrinkles on my face -- to say nothing of the sagging underarms! But I no longer agonize over those things.

I would never trade my wonderful life now for my former black hair and thinner figure. I have my wonderful, loving family, and many good and faithful friends.

As I have aged, I have become more kind to myself and less critical of my faults. I no longer blame myself for taking that cookie or buying that silly knickknack. I feel entitled to overeat once in a while, and to be extravagant occasionally.

I've seen too many dear friends leave this world too soon, before they understood the great freedom that comes with old age. Whose business is it but my own if I read a book I am wrapped up in until 4 a.m. and then sleep until noon? Or if I listen to favorite golden oldies from the 50's instead of the latest so-called music?

I go to the pool in my old-fashioned one-piece bathing suit, stretched over my bulges, and ignore the pitying glances of the bikini set.

I know l am forgetful sometimes, but some things are better forgotten anyway, and I can remember the important things when I need to.

Sure, over the past 50 years my heart has been broken. How can a heart not break when it loses a beloved husband of 34 years at the too-early age of 57? Or even when a loved dog gets killed by a car. Or a beloved granddaughter who dies so suddenly much before her time. Of course hearts will break, but that is what gives us compassion. A sterile heart, never broken, cannot know the joy that having loved and lost can bring.

So I feel blessed to have lived long enough to have my hair turn white and to have laugh wrinkles on my face, and I can say yes to getting old and staying positive and optimistic.

You care less what other people think, and you have earned the right to be wrong sometimes. I know I am not going to live a lot longer, but while I am still alive, I will not waste time lamenting what might have been, or worrying about what will be. My motto now is: Life is short, so eat dessert first!

October 10, 2010

The cost of being unreachable

Some people complain about other people’s apparent addiction to connectivity. Blackberrys, iPhones, and other such gadgets are seen as signs of misplaced priorities or rudeness. Why, they ask, would anyone call or text people who are elsewhere instead of talking to the people who are with them?

© Apple Inc.
Of course, the gadgeteers don’t see it this way. They see their world as a relational network, and sharing what’s happening with those not present is a way of fostering relationships.

Although I understand this view, I believe we all need to unplug once in a while. In his book Good to Great in God’s Eyes, Chip Ingram advises us to “develop great habits.” One of those is, as part of Sabbath-keeping, to “turn it off:”

“Close the calendar, turn off the phones and pagers, shut the computers down, and look back on your week in gratitude.”

Today, after worship and Sunday school, I drove 20 minutes to another church for a class. I found the classroom empty. Shortly, the teacher’s husband arrived to tell me she was sick and class was canceled. She had tried to call me but got no answer.

That’s because my phone was turned off.

He apologized for my driving that distance for nothing, and I apologized for being unreachable. Then I headed home.

As I drove, I thought about the cost of being unreachable. About 45 minutes of driving time and, since I get great mileage, less than a gallon of gas. Not too high a price, I think, for developing this particular habit.

But next week, I’ll probably check for messages.

September 29, 2010

Despite its false provenance, this personality test is intriguing

By Fotocromo | stock.xchng
I recently received in my e-mail a copy of "Dr. Phil's test." I usually view with suspicion anything that shows signs, as this did, of having been forwarded more than once, but this time I played along. The message said, "Dr. Phil scored 55. He did this on Oprah and she got 38. Some people pay a lot of money to find this out!"

There followed a multiple-choice quiz that is said to be used by human resources departments as part of a hiring process. A sample question:
1. When do you feel your best?
  1. In the morning
  2. During the afternoon and early evening
  3. Late at night
I scored 38, which means people see me as "sensible, cautious, careful and practical...clever, gifted, or talented, but modest.... Not a person who makes friends too quickly or easily, but someone who's extremely loyal to friends you do make..."

The correspondent who sent the test told me he scored 48, which means people see him as "fresh, lively, charming, amusing, practical, and always interesting...kind, considerate, and understanding, someone who'll always cheer them up and help them out." All of which is certainly true.

But of course the skeptic in me wondered whether HR departments really make decisions based on a ten-question test. Top Google result? Snopes, as you may have guessed.

No, the test isn't from Dr. Phil. Yes, it is more accurate than random chance would suggest. But there's no indication it's used in HR circles, and surely no one is paying "a lot of money" for a thing freely available on the Internet. The folks at Snopes call it a "parlor trick." Which doesn't make it a bad thing. It's actually kind of an amusing thing. It just happens to be wrapped in some false advertising.

September 9, 2010

I've been compared with worse

My critique partner Robynn wrote a blog post in which she compares me to the queen bug from the Alien movies. I consider it a lovely tribute.

Thanks, Robynn.

August 30, 2010

More Spam than you ever Spam wanted to know about Spam

While clearing out my files in preparation for a new Sunday School year, I came across my Spam notes. A couple of years ago, I taught a lesson about prayer in which one of the talking points was that insincere prayer is like sending spam to God. So along with the lesson handouts, just for fun, I included one with the same title as this post. Just for fun, here it is:

Hormel Foods is not fond of the fact that people call electronic junk mail “spam.”

The term, of course, is not meant to disparage the famous tinned meat.

Spam (the meat product) was one of the few meats excluded from British food rationing during World War II. As a result, many Britons grew heartily sick of it.

This disaffection with Spam led to a 1970 sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in which a couple dine at a restaurant at which every dish contains Spam. When a patron asks for something without Spam, the waitress recommends “Spam egg sausage and Spam, that's not got much Spam in it.”

Near the end of the sketch, a group of characters start singing the praises of Spam — “Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam — lovely spam, wonderful spam —” ad nauseum. They soon drown out the dialog between the diners and the waitress.

In olden days, before the World Wide Web, geeks used an Internet predecessor, Usenet, to communicate. Messages were sent to a central address and distributed to all participants.

Sometimes, topic threads would be drowned out by marketers sending advertising messages to the Usenet server and, therefore, to each individual participant.

The geeks naturally termed this noise, which drowned out the topic of discussion, “spam.”

Obviously, a disproportionate number of geeks are Monty Python fans.

My research about Spam at the Hormel Foods Web site uncovered a recipe for Spam Cupcakes, along with many other dishes that might have been served at that Pythonesque restaurant.

Hormel Foods loves the Monty Python sketch, probably because Eric Idle's character says “I love Spam!” Video screeens showing the sketch in a mock cafe are a key feature of the Spam Museum.

You can find photos and a descriptive walkthru of the museum here. An exhibit professional reviews the Spam museum here, and over here, on a site that features tourist reviews of roadside attractions, one woman calls the Spam Museum "...fabulous! It's like a really great children's museum, except with potted meat products."

The museum gift shop sells the Spamalot commemorative tin of Spam. And Hormel's website includes a link to a Spamalot game. Catapults and cows. Just for fun.

August 19, 2010

The accidental rhythm section

I have previously mentioned Perri Klass's "Knitting Fantasies" column, which originally appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Knitter's Magazine. An excerpt:
Duane Ellison Photography | iStockphoto
I have felt for years that classical music would be enhanced by knitting. I know, I know, the needles might click, even the whisper of yarn against yarn would be enough to upset some music lovers. I have no intention of pulling out my knitting at the symphony. I just know that if only I could, I might have a chance of reliably achieving that state of mixed concentration and relaxation which so often eludes me…"
I was not bold enough to attempt this stunt at the symphony, either. But when our church hosted a free piano concert by Sergei Kossenko, I figured it was worth a try.
It was nearly a successful attempt. No one complained. In fact, one of the ladies, a new knitter, changed seats to sit next to me so she could watch how I do it.
I had already pulled out my knitting when Mr. Kossenko made his introductory remarks, and when I spoke to him for a few minutes after the concert, he said nothing about the knitting.*
But the clicking of the needles did indeed prove too distracting -- for me. I found myself alternately trying to knit in time with the music or to knit quietly. Both were difficult, so I wound up hardly knitting at all. Although this was an interesting exercise, it's one I won't repeat. Except maybe, as Klass suggested, at an outdoor concert, where airplanes and sirens provide a greater source of distraction.

* He generously spent some time explaining to me the meaning of "Navazhdeniye," the title of a piece by Prokofiev. Mr. Kossenko listed it in the program this way, although English sources usually use the French title "Suggestion Diabolique," which is not accurate. He said diabolical is the wrong word, because it implies evil intent. Based on the conversation I had with Mr. Kossenko, I would describe "navazhdeniye" as a surreal delusion with overtones of doom, but free of malicious intent. I think he's right to give the title in Russian. It's good to learn new words.

July 23, 2010

2010 FWA conference fast approaching

Here's me and Chris Coward
at the 2009 RPLA banquet
Photo by Karen Lieb

The Florida Writers Association conference will be held Oct. 22-24 at the Lake Mary Marriott, which is a lovely facility. The association is expecting about 350 people to attend. Most of these will be aspiring writers who are developing their writing skills or who are promoting their work for publication. Many FWA members are published writers like me, working to take their writing to another level.

Agents and publishers also attend, and faculty members are accessible through much of the conference. And of course the Royal Palm Literary Awards are presented Saturday evening. My science fiction Christmas comedy “The Feast of Stevens” is in the running this year in the published short story category.

Through July 31, the full conference fee is only $289. On Aug. 1 the fee goes up to $309, and on Sept. 22 it goes up to $329. Daily rates are available, as are tickets to the awards banquet only, for people like my patient husband, who yearly sits through lots of writerly talk to see whether I go home with a plastic plaque.

Building your business -- whatever business you're in -- is all about building relationships. The FWA conference is a great place to establish relationships that will build a writing business. For more about the faculty, workshops, and opportunities for manuscript critiques, see www.floridawriters.net.

July 16, 2010

Imparting wisdom, or something like it

Mark Victor Hansen’s seminars for writers are usually pricy, so I readily accepted a colleague’s invitation to attend a three-hour session free. The seminar was held in a hotel dining room packed with a diverse crowd, all ready to take visions from thought to print.

Some of them seemed like Hansen groupies. They laughed excessively at every stale joke (e.g, “I slept like a baby…woke up every two hours crying.”) and recited statements along with him. I felt a little creepy, like an investigative journalist infiltrating a cult of personality.

Free seminars usually conclude with sales pitches. I was prepared to consider buying a book, but I expected to pick up a few how-to pointers from the free part first. I was disappointed.

The best part of Hansen’s talk concerned the future of publishing: audiobooks, e-books, vooks, and mobile distribution, for starters. His proposition that the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen (pictured), which was developed as a note-taking device, could be a medium for interactive audiovisual books is fabulous. Hansen admits to being an investor in Livescribe.

Halfway through the session, I was still waiting for some how-tos.

Hansen offered inspirational aphorisms (“When you are your authentic self you are unstoppable”) and loads of anecdotes about traveling to exotic locales with his high-powered buddies.

He started to lose me early on by dragging out that moldy old legend about Walt Disney being cryogenically frozen, a doozy debunked by the best.

That he got the story about the Princess of Wales being assassinated by the land-mine cartel straight from Mohamed Al-Fayed did not diminish my skepticism.

And his offhand remark that one of his pals “owns the Yankees,” coming so soon after George Steinbrenner’s death, was shocking. (The buddy’s name was not Steinbrenner.) Perhaps he meant his friend was part of the group that bought the Yankees back in the ’70s. But the late Mr. Steinbrenner bought out the other investors years ago.

As the misstatements mounted, my confidence eroded. By the time the sales pitch came, there was little left. That the pitch was high-priced and “one-time only” made it easy to pass.

One of my notes says, “If you know the ‘why,’ the ‘how’ will come.” As Hansen said that, its seemed to make sense, or I wouldn’t have written it down. But now it seems inaccurate. I know why I want the lawn to look nice: so the homeowners’ association will stop leaving those notes on my door. But the hows of lawn-growing have yet to come.

That’s what teachers are for: imparting the how. But Hansen’s free speeches, it seems, contain only motivation. To get instruction, you must buy his products. But here’s the problem: If I can’t trust what he says, and his free talk doesn’t demonstrate an ability to instruct me in my weak areas, why should I buy the product? Maybe there are better ways to invest that money in my business.

As I walked to my car, I recalled a comment Hope Clark recently made in Total Funds for Writers: “…many people who take time away from the day job and family to attend a conference, won’t necessarily invest that same time in the writing itself.”

Those three hours would probably have been better invested in my writing. Ah, well, at least I got a blog post out of it.

July 4, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness

This Independence Day, I’m thinking about those who preceded us. The founders who forged a nation of laws, not men. The indigenous peoples who chose to fight no more forever. And the immigrants who came -- and still come -- yearning to breathe free.

My great-grandfather Harry came from England in 1922 and settled in Detroit. Being an auto worker in Detroit was better than being unemployed in Cornwall.

As much as I’d like to believe every immigrant longs to come to America because of the democratic foundation of our great republic, the simple truth is, many come because in their homelands, they were unemployed.

Amnesty is the flashpoint at the center of the immigration reform. Are we willing to forgive those who don’t have proper documentation? For years, I’ve resisted this idea. If Grandpa Harry could go through proper channels, so can others.

Arizona has drawn a lot of fire for its immigration law, even though it mirrors federal law. Kirk Adams of the Arizona House of Representatives answered concerns that "law enforcement can simply walk up to a person and say, "'Can I see your papers?'" in this article. An excerpt:

…officers can only attempt to determine a person's immigration status during "lawful contact," which is defined as a lawful stop, detention or arrest. Any "reasonable suspicion" can be derived only through the investigation of another violation or crime.

I cannot blame the huddled masses for pursuing happiness here, though I do wish they’d go about it properly. And if a person is suspected of one crime, surely it makes sense for the police to see whether he committed any prior crime -- including that of entering the country illegally.

But many illegal immigrants have been living and working here for years, with no other criminal charges against them. The Apostle Paul instructs us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Although complete amnesty seems excessive, I’m inclined to allow a path to citizenship for those without proper papers, if they’ll admit their wrongdoing and pay their back taxes.

The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that the problem isn’t the undocumented workers. The problem is the employers. Which is why I was pleased to see the Arizona law also targets those who do the hiring. If no one were giving undocumented workers jobs, they wouldn't be here.

We are a nation of laws, and the laws we have deserve enforcing. But the sentence need not be deportation for those who scrub our floors and pick our vegetables, even if they did jump our sea-washed, sunset gates.

June 14, 2010

Breaking out and splashing down

I want to give a Blatant Plug to P.A. Baines, the first member of the New Authors Fellowship to land a book contract. His Alpha, renamed Alpha Redemption, will be published this fall by Splashdown Books. At left is the cover art by Zoë Demaré, also of the NAF.

The fellowship grew out of the critique-partner atmosphere of last year's Marcher Lord Select contest. I post about once a month on the Fellowship blog.

Speaking of contests, my poorly named A Gift With Which To Serve was a runner up in the Novel Journey contest, apparently getting no help from a name change to The Prophet's Chronicle. The judges wrote, "Very good story. Initial set of characters needs work--tripped from the beginning, not realizing there were three different people on stage. A little smoothing out and this piece could be awesome!"

Slightly discouraging, because I thought I'd smoothed this opening out already. Ah well. The folks at my new, live-in-person critique group, Word Weavers, can have at it next month.

June 4, 2010

All about the money

Once again, the key theme coming out of a space industry discussion -- today it's a task force meeting in Orlando -- is funding.

Funding - or the lack thereof -- is the reason for the spaceflight gap. The shuttle and its replacement can't both be fully funded at the same time.

Several participants at today's meeting -- including self-professed geek MJ Soileau from the University of Central Florida -- said what we really need to keep our high-tech workforce employed is money. Soileau said UCF is submitting a grant proposal to fund work at the fabrication facility that was donated this week. He urged the cabinet members at the meeting to "grab it out of the stack and fund this sucker" so UCF can put people to work.

Whether you talk to people in workforce development, economic development, or high-tech startups, it all comes back to funding. The only way to retain Florida's position in the aerospace industry is to feed it money. That also happens to be the only way to maintain America's position in human spaceflight.


The NASA Railroad carried the last space shuttle solid rocket booster segments across the Indian River Kennedy Space Center. Six cars transported the segments to Titusville from the ATK solid rocket booster plant in Promontory, Utah. The booster segments would be used for shuttle Atlantis on the "launch on need," or potential rescue mission, for the final scheduled shuttle flight, Endeavour's STS-134 mission.

Image Credit: NASA/
Kim Shiflett

May 19, 2010

Your tax dollars at work

We learned from the Florida Keys tourism council that tar found on beaches in the Florida Keys beaches "do not match the type of oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill."

To determine where the tar in question came from, the council tells us, "tar balls discovered on beaches at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Smathers Beach in Key West, Big Pine Key, Fla., and Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas National Park, Fla. were flown by a Coast Guard HU-25 Falcon jet based in Miami to New London, Conn., Tuesday for testing and analysis."

Using a military jet to deliver tar to a lab? Have they never heard of FedEx? Did they absolutely, positively, need those results at the speed of sound?

It seems that ships passing through the busy shipping lanes near the Keys often shed oil. Still not a pleasant thought. But where the tar came from is secondary. Clean the beach first, then figure out who gets the bill.

About the Photo: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley. The mobile offshore drilling unit Q4000 (near) holds position directly over the damaged Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer, May 18, 2010, as the drillship Discoverer Enterprise burns gas from a tube in the ruptured drill pipe.

May 10, 2010

Putting on the brakes

The guys at Planet Money interviewed a college professor who goes into detail about how automated market orders led to a self-feeding frenzy. Part of the problem is that when the New York Stock Exchange paused to see what was happening, trades moved to other exchanges where bids were lower.

After meeting with the exchange executives today, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairwoman Mary L. Schapiro is scheduled to testify at a House subcommittee hearing tomorrow about what the industry will do to stop this happening in the future.

May 7, 2010

SkyNet storms Wall Street

Yesterday's wild market ride -- in which stock prices fell into a "black hole" for a few heart-stopping minutes -- appears to have been caused by "black boxes."

Unlike an aviator's black box, which records what has happened, an investor's black box decides what's going to happen. Algos, or trading algorithms, allow investors to program computers to buy and sell when certain conditions are met. For more on algos, see here and here.

For example, if your box was programmed to sell Proctor & Gamble at $58, that would have been triggered yesterday at about 2:45 p.m. Off go however many shares of P&G you held.

Now imagine that happening across whole mutual funds, many of which are index funds that track the whole Dow Jones or S&P 500 indexes. That's how the whole market moved so fast in the same direction.

Thursday's dive seems to have been triggered by an error, but that error led to a series of computer-generated trades that fed into each other until they reached critical mass. The New York Stock Exchange -- which is responsible for less than a third of stock trades in the country -- halted trading briefly, and that seems to have been enough to stop the collapse before it could devour the entire S&P 500.

Buy orders may also have stopped the free-fall, and I would not be surprised if some of the same boxes that had sell orders at one price also had buy orders at a lower price.

Anyone whose black box sold P&G at $58 at 2:45 p.m. only to buy it back five minutes later at $54 made $6 a share today, when P&G closed at $60.

That math has some conspiracy theorists accusing traders of rigging the market. But I agree with Barry Ritzholtz here: There is no need for panic.

But we do need to keep an eye on those black hole boxes.

April 18, 2010

How to spot a spoof

"Spoofing" is a trick used by spammers, scammers, and hackers to make an e-mail that came from them look as if it came from somewhere else. We saw this before with the messages purporting to be about a package delivery.

Today I got one purporting to be from Hallmark. There are several red flags:

  • It says I received a card, but it doesn't say from whom.
  • The subject line starting with "Hey..." is not Hallmark's usual style.
  • The "To" line says "undisclosed recipients."
  • The subject line is missing a comma after that inappropriate "Hey."
OK, this last one is a copy editor's nitpick. The real clincher is that if you mouse over the "here" link without clicking, a popup shows the link actually directs to a server that's identified only by its IP address and not hallmark.com. It's also set to download a .exe, or executable file.
Since the file is called "Hallmark.exe," the unsuspecting might go so far as to launch it, and install a virus on their computers.
Hallmark offers a few other things to watch for, including these:
  • The e-mail will come from the sender's e-mail address, not Hallmark.com
  • Hallmark cards are displayed on their Web site, not downloaded.
Spread the word. Hackers will continue to send this garbage as long as there are uninformed people opening it.

April 16, 2010

Rethinking how we will work in and on space

Wow. The space forum wound up being one of the most engaging such events I think I've ever been to. It's hard to know where to start. Here are some random thoughts:

• As soon as I walked in the room, I spotted Pat Duggins, whom I promptly accosted with a request for him to sign my copy of his book Final Countdown. He's very nice, and has a wealth of knowledge about the space program. I'll give his book a Blatant Plug: It not only gives a detailed overview of the history of the shuttle program, it ties in NASA history at each stage and includes many personal anecdotes to keep things interesting. My favorite is the recollection of adults who were kids on a school field trip to see a shuttle launch on the day Challenger blew up.

• Duggins says the proposed new use of Orion is as "a lifeboat for the Titanic."

• Duggins reminded us of something I had forgotten. In the movie 2001:A Space Odyssey, the space shuttle is operated by PanAm and the space station by Hilton. That's Arthur Clarke anticipating reality for you.

• I overheard someone say Bill Nye was among those at the KSC conference. Nye hasn't updated his blog, so this is unconfirmed. [Update: Nye participated in the human spaceflight breakout session. Sesson leader John Holdren said Nye did such a "fabulous job" describing how the space program can inspire kids, "we're going to enlist him full-time."

• Florida Rep. Ritch Workman believes there is no reason the shuttle cannot be used to close the gap between its current manifest and ... whatever the next new vehicle is. He urges people to contact their representatives in Washington to support this idea.

• The kind of personalities that were appropriate for Mercury ... Apollo ... Shuttle ... are different from the kind of personality that will be suitable for long-range missions. A psychologist interviewed by Duggins for his next book (Trailblazing Mars) said NASA currently looks for Type-A Superman types, but on long-range trips, Clark Kent may be more appropriate.

• The participants agreed on two things. First, what happens in the future will depend on whether or not Congress actually approves the budget. Second, whatever happens, Florida's space industry needs to diversify from launch operations into research, development, and manufacturing.

• When you take notes in Word while recording audio, the keyboard sounds really loud on the playback.

April 15, 2010

Privatizing the space program

The president didn't say much in his televised remarks that wasn't in the documents released earlier. He did give credit to Rep. Suzanne Kosmas for supporting her constituency, but he pronounced her name "cosmos." Twice.

Once the president had gone and the conference got under way, Norm Augustine gave an overview of his commission's report for those who haven't read it in its 150-page entirety. I have to admit to being among those. I've read parts, but admittedly not all of it. If you want to take a stab at it, you can download a copy here.

Augustine identified the president's plan as the "flexible plan" outlined in his commission's report in Chapter Six, Section Five, Variant 5B. This plan will delegate routine jobs like delivering materials to the space station to commercial carriers while NASA does fun stuff like exploring the asteroid belt. To those who express concern over turning this job over to private industry, he asks whether we prefer to trust the Russians with it, or American companies. It's a valid question.

My major concern with turning spaceflight -- especially manned spaceflight -- over to private industry is the profit motive. Mind you, I'm as big a fan of the free market as anyone, but what we have seen is that the profit motive can lead companies to do crazy things like growing too big too fast and cutting corners on quality and then you're making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

I understand that this plan, by reducing NASA's role in servicing the space station, will have lower operating costs. But NASA must maintain quality oversight, lest we put our crews on rockets with runaway accelerators.

Charles Bolden, at the podium, opened the Conference on the American Space Program for the 21st Century by asking the participants to "go and do good stuff." Behind him is U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann.

April 14, 2010

An em-Bolden-ed conference

The concurrent breakout sessions at KSC tomorrow are being described by NASA as a "conference" hosted by Administrator Charles Bolden.

Conference Session Topics:
* Increasing Access to and Utilization of the International Space Station
* Jumpstarting the New Technologies to Take Us Beyond
* Expanding our Reach into the Solar System
* Harnessing Space to Expand Economic Opportunity

The conference will be streamed live at NASA's Web site. Since I can't be on the coast tomorrow, I'll be watching online or looking for a transcript later.

While combing through the Augustine Commission report today, I noticed that the NASA budget got a huge boost, more than 5 percent, for fiscal year 2010. Overall, budget increases for the last 10 years have risen pretty much in line with inflation, 1-3 percent per year. But the FY 2011 is pretty puny by comparison, just a little over one percent. So although the increases sound big when you express them in billions of dollars, NASA's budget is not really getting a huge raise this year. Just a cost of living increase.

Orion spared the mothball treatment

Air Force One will land at Kennedy Space Center tomorrow. The bad news is Harrison Ford won't be on it. The good news is the White House released more information about the president's new plan for the space program. Information about the program's goals and funding are here, and information about what help the administration will give Florida’s aerospace workers is here.

Among the notable pieces of information is news that the Orion capsule, part of the shelved Constellation program, will be repurposed as an escape vehicle for the International Space Station. This calls for scaling back the design of the capsule. Since Orion was already described as cramped compared to the shuttle, it will be interesting to hear how astronauts evaluate the final product.

April 13, 2010

Some summit

I've been watching both NASA and White House press office Web feeds, hoping to get the agenda for the president's April 15 "Space Summit" at Kennedy Space Center. Today, it came across the NASA news feed. You can see it here.

In short, the agenda is this:

Air Force One Scheduled Arrival: 1:30 PM
Air Force One Scheduled Departure: 3:45 PM

So this "summit" will cover two hours and fifteen minutes, during which there will be an opening session (the president will give a speech at the Operations and Checkout Building), breakout sessions, and a closing session. That's not considering the time it will take to drive the 8.5 miles from the landing facility to the O&C building.

I'm not sure how much work can really be accomplished in such a short time, especially since many local players, including the U.S. Representative for the district that includes the space center,* have not been invited.

Maybe the White House has a different definition of "summit" than I do. I would expect a summit to involve all the major players and take long enough to both air concerns and come to consensus on future goals.

I don't suppose it matters what the president's definition is, as long as the event produces some real, achievable spaceflight goals instead of being an expensive photo op.

*Correction: Rep. Suzanne Kosmas did attend, flying in on AF1 with the president. And the conference took place after the president left.

April 8, 2010

Programming space

This came in too late to make OBJ’s April 9 issue, but the University of Central Florida’s Metropolitan Center for Regional Studies will host The Future: Florida, NASA, and the Space Industry April 16, 8-10 a.m., at the University of Central Florida Executive Development Center in downtown Orlando.

The featured speaker is Pat Duggins, National Public Radio's NASA correspondent. Duggins also wrote Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program. Orlandoans will remember Duggins from his days covering the space program from WMFE. He is now news director for Alabama Public Radio, which covers the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

At the forum, a panel discussion will be moderated by Ray Gilley, president of the Metro Orlando EDC. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida; Florida Sen. Mike Haridopolos; U.S. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas; M.J. Soileau, vice president of UCF’s Office of Research and Commercialization; and Lynda Weatherman, president of SpaceCoast EDC.

I plan to be there. If you wish to attend, admission is free, but reservations are required. Make reservations by phone, (407) 235-3934 or e-mail, metro@mail.ucf.edu.

This event takes place the day after the president’s “summit” at Kennedy Space Center, so it will be interesting to hear the reactions of these leaders to whatever comes out of that meeting.

We got one piece of good news today. Details from NASA's 2011 budget request show allocations of over $1 billion for programs and facility improvements at Kennedy Space Center. You can read more about that here.

This photo, taken at at Kennedy Space Center in January, shows the construction of a new mobile launcher that would be used in the Constellation Program. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossman.

March 30, 2010

They're certifiable

This just in, from the American Patriot Foundation:

"I am today compelled to make the distasteful choice to invite my own court-martial, in pursuit of the truth about the president's eligibility under the constitution to hold office," said active duty Army Lt. Col. Terrence Lakin. The American Patriot Foundation, a nonprofit group, set up a legal defense fund and will provide Lt. Col. Lakin with a defense team.

The foundation says the president's continuing refusal to release his original 1961 birth certificate brought Lt. Col. Lakin to the point where he feels the commander-in-chief's orders are unlawful, and thus must be disobeyed.

If Lt. Col. Lakin wishes to sacrifice his career on the altar of obstinacy, that's his prerogative, but it seems foolish to make such a great sacrifice for such a pointless purpose. I wonder whether this is just another attempt to get the birth certificate matter before a court. Any court.

The "birthers," as those obsessed with the president's origin are pejoratively called by those of us with more important things to worry about, keep trying to file suit over the authenticity of the president's birth record. Their suits keep getting thrown out.

Birthers have made such a nuisance of themselves in Hawaii that legislators there are now considering a bill that would let state recordkeepers classify "vexatious" requests as an "abuse of process" and ignore them. Since Hawaii reportedly gets 10 to 20 birther requests each week, one can hardly blame them.

As this Associated Press article points out, Hawaii's health director and state registrar of vital statistics have verified that the health department has the original birth certificate. The department won't release it to birthers because state law restricts the release of such records.

There are heaps and heaps of evidence that the president was born where Hawaii's state officials say he was, and none that he was born anywhere else. What bothers me most isn't the time wasted on this nonsense. What bothers me most is that a barrel of crackpots are -- without any evidence -- accusing public servants of fraud.

Maybe Hawaii should sue the birthers for slander. That would be a trial worth watching.

March 21, 2010

Orion's hope

You can imagine my amusement, or bemusement, when the press release came over from Associated General Contractors telling me that the Orlando office of Hensel Phelps Construction Co. won an Aon Build America Award in the "Best Renovation of a Federal & Heavy Project" category for its conversion of a a 40-year old building at Kennedy Space Center into the new assembly facility for the Orion Capsule.

Yeah.

That's the same Orion Capsule that's part of the Constellation Program, which got its funding cut from NASA's 2011 budget.

J. Doug Pruitt, the president of AGC, said, “These are the projects that redefine communities, reinvent neighborhoods and remind us that anything is possible given the right mix of craft, skill and commitment.”

Pruitt said Hensel Phelps's Orion project was completed within 18 months, despite the need to abate more than 320 tons of hazardous materials, respect astronaut "quiet hours," and halt construction during launches.



Kirk Hazen, vice president and Southeast district manager at Hensel Phelps, said the company worked in partnership with Lockheed Martin to deliver the taxpayers "a unique project known as the 'Factory of the Future' that exceeded all safety, quality, budgetary, schedule, and environmental goals.”

Good job, guys. Now, if the taxpayers can bug their senators and representatives to pass the Human Space Flight Capability Assurance & Enhancement Act of 2010 (HR 4804), said taxpayers might actually get their money's worth out of this award-winning "Factory of the Future."

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that you can read about the bill at OBJ. And if you forget which persons in Congress are supposed to be representing you, check here.

February 13, 2010

Go, Canada!

During the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games last night, I was impressed by the amount of time and the degree of prominence given to the First Nations: the indigenous people of Canada. The leaders of the four nations whose territories encompass the Olympic venues were seated with the national and international leaders.

Tribal representatives offered greetings in their native languages, as did the Utes at the Salt Lake Games. But then native people from across Canada performed their traditional dances in traditional attire throughout the parade of nations. I was struck by the similarity between the dances and costumes of the Prairie tribes, as they were called, to those of the Great Plains in the U.S.

But I was most sharply struck by the notion that no games in the U.S. has ever given so much time and prominence to native peoples. For all our similarities, there are great differences between Americans and Canadians, and this is one of them. Here, we frequently forget our native peoples. And when we remember, it often seems an afterthought. ("Hey, since we're in Utah, we should invite the Osmonds. Oh yeah, and maybe the Utes, too.")

But another segment of the show was very -- how shall I put it -- North American. When the tartan-and-leather-clad tap dancers and fiddlers took the stage, in what I can only describe as a Punk Rock Riverdance, it demonstrated the individuality and inventiveness that characterizes both of our pioneer nations. The fiddling and clogging, which the producers encountered on Canada's east coast, is similar to that seen in Appalachia. I'd say it was the same, but I've never seen tattooed Appalachian dancers in black studded leather and chains. (Which isn't to say they don't exist. Only that I've never seen them.)

At the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, a thousand men, all of similar height and build and ethnicity, dressed the same way, doing the same thing, expressed the conformity of the Chinese Communist state. Contrast that with the Canadian people, a variety of colors and sizes and ethnicities, each dressed differently, dancing together but not in unison.

We Americans may admire the Chinese precision and unity, but individuality and innovation -- those are things we can relate to. Our normally unassuming Northern cousins have set themselves the audacious goal to own the podium at their games. I wish them well.

February 12, 2010

How many times do I have to tell you…

So often, I tell my teenager “we need to leave at X o’clock,” and he’s not ready to leave until X-plus-ten … or plus-15 … or plus-20 …

You would think I’d have learned by now to give him an earlier deadline, like editors sometimes do with recalcitrant freelancers. But no, even after years of arriving late at school, or dentist appointments, or worship, I told him the truth: We need to leave by seven-thirty.

Then I waited with gnashing teeth while he took uncommonly long in the shower, ignored my instruction to wear a sweater and a jacket because it would be cold, and roamed about the house searching for a misplaced wallet.

I looked at my watch. We were told to be at the school at seven-forty-five so he could take the state’s standardized test. It was now seven-forty, and the school is fifteen minutes away. Meanwhile, he looked for a book to read during the bus ride home.

My fury swelled. His insubordination showed disrespect for me and for his own education. I poured out my wrath by punching the wall, scraping the skin off my knuckles.

Once he was in the car, I sped to the school, praying we would be in time. We got to the school office five minutes after eight. Two other homeschoolers waited in the lobby. The secretary reassured me that the testing coordinator had not yet started. Thank you, God. I apologized to my son for losing my temper and wished him well. The coordinator came to admit the homeschoolers into the testing room.

I headed out, still angry. In the car, I prayed aloud, something I don’t often do in solitude. “Jesus Christ Lord God Almighty in Heaven, help me. Why is he so disrespectful? Why does he do the opposite of what I tell him? I give clear instructions, and he doesn’t follow them.”

I imagined God folding his arms and frowning. “Now you know how I feel.”

I would rather punch a wall and hurt myself than hurt my child. In the same way, the Creator poured out his wrath on the Redeemer, shedding his blood rather than ours. And despite our faults, He gives us enough grace that even though we fall short of the goal, we are still admitted into His presence.

February 5, 2010

Cancel this "special order"

This just in, from one of our faithful correspondents:

I have received an e-mail that looks like it is from Amazon.com but is not. I am sure it is a phishing scam.

The mail is very well done in that it has the Amazon logo and claims to be from "order-update@amazon.com.
It tells you to click on the attached link for an update on your order status.

The tip-off for me was: 1. I have no current order with Amazon, and 2. rather than a hot link to UPS as I would expect from Amazon, the mail had an attachment that was a .zip file with the instruction to open the zip file for order update information.… This one is pretty sneaky in that is does not try to scare you, e.g. "your credit card data is wrong," or sell you something. But I'm positive the zip file would unload some nasty bit of malware that would either steal my data or just trash the hard drive.

Malware, indeed. Akin to the "special delivery" e-mail noted earlier, this type of scam often involves software that logs your keystrokes, giving a hacker access to the things you use your computer for, like shopping and banking, either of which can get the hacker your credit card number. Alternatively, if you are using a Windoze computer, malware can turn your PC into a "zombie," generating even more spam to the unsuspecting masses.

For more information, visit Symantec's Web site.

January 29, 2010

It must take a rocket scientist to figure this out

I find it absurd that today, NASA's remembrance day for those who gave their lives to further the cause of space exploration, the Interwebs are buzzing with speculation about the president pulling the plug on the Constellation Program.

He claims it will be better to turn rocket-building over to private companies.

Whom does he think built the Ares-1X? The SeaBees?

NASA directs the program, but the heavy lifting is -- and always has been -- done by private companies.

The Saturn V rockets were built by Rocketdyne. The lunar landers were built by Grumman.

Orbiters for the space shuttle program were built by Rockwell International with parts by Grumman and General Dynamics. The shuttle's external tank is made by Lockheed Martin. The solid rocket boosters have motor segments made by ATK, with avionics and final assembly by United Space Alliance, which is a partnership between Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Co.

This New York Times story says NASA is getting a budget increase over five years. But if Constellation is scrapped, it seems much of that budget increase must go to a whole new round of requests for proposals, design review meetings, and test flights.

Ares already had a successful test flight. So why are we starting over? And why does the president who came closer to nationalizing our banks than anyone since FDR want to privatize the space program? Does he not realize that the Ares was built by private companies? From NASA:

ATK Space Systems of Promontory, Utah, is the prime contractor for the first stage reusable solid rocket boosters. Jacobs Engineering in Tullahoma, Tenn., is the prime contractor for Ares I-X avionics, with Lockheed Martin of Denver, Colo., as subcontractor. Teledyne Brown Engineering of Huntsville, Ala., is the prime contractor for developing the roll control system. United Space Alliance of Houston, Texas, is the prime contractor supporting launch operations at Kennedy Space Center.

Mr. Change wants to discard the work already done by these private companies so astronauts can fly on rockets built by ... private companies. But there are only so many companies capable of building a rocket that big. Apparently it escapes him that the companies most likely to bid on a "commercial rocket" will be those already named.

That's not change. It's just a waste.

January 21, 2010

You can do without this "special" delivery

This just landed in my inbox:
The courier company was not able to deliver your parcel by your address.

Cause: Error in shipping address.
You may pickup the parcel at our post office personaly!
...The shipping label is attached to this e-mail.
Please print this label to get this package at our post office....

The message purports to be from DHL and sports a convincingly spoofed "dhl.com" e-mail address.

The attachment is called "DHL_Label_NR34791.zip," and that's the real tip-off.

Well, that and the fact that I'm not expecting anything to be delivered by anyone.

Even if I were, why would a simple shipping label be in a zip file?

It wouldn't. It would be a pdf, surely. Or I'd be instructed to log into dhl.com with my tracking number.

This attachment and others like it -- the numbers appear to be randomly generated (yes, I got 2 of them with different numbers) -- contains a Trojan that will install malware on your Windows computer. But even if you have a Mac, you should not open unexpected attachments from unverifiable sources.

For more on Bredolab, see Hoax-Slayer and Symantec.

Oh, and another tip-off? The poor grammar. "deliver your parcel by your address" should be "to your address," and there are two Ls in "personally."

January 17, 2010

Those who can't, kibitz

I had a great time Saturday working with the guys from the Phenix Design Group, who provided driving and flight simulators for Otronicon.

You may recall that last year I wrote about my pretty dismal flight record. So I found it amusing when Lynn, an Orlando Science Center staff member, asked me to work at the Cessna Skyhawk flight simulator.

She asked whether I minded doing something kind of technical. Then she laughed and said, "Well, it's all technology, so I guess you wouldn't be here if you did mind it." Which is true.

Lynn introduced me to Ron, of the Phenix Design Group, who asked whether I'm familiar with flight simulators.

"Yes," I said, "I've crashed several of them."

He was fine with that, and proceeded to show me how the HotSeat Flight Sim works. A few menus and key commands later, and I was running the show.

The HotSeat is a lightweight bucket seat mounted, as one guest discovered by laying on the floor and looking underneath, on "big gimbals." (Yes, that's the kind of guest we get at the science center, and we like it that way. Actually, I saw two people do this.) As you steer left or right, up or down, the chair tilts accordingly. The simulation is driven by a PC, with the video displayed on a large LCD TV.

Usually I gave the guests a quick overview of the controls--which button or lever does what--but only the ones they needed. So several buttons, levers and pedals went unused. To keep things simple and the line moving, Ron was running a limited simulation of an approach and landing at Orlando International Airport.

So yeah, there's me, telling other people how to land a plane.

After I'd been doing this for an hour and a half or so, I noticed that some guests would only touch the buttons I pointed out to them, while others would, at some point in their roughly two-minute approach, push every button and flip every switch to see what each one would do. I also noticed that there was a greater proportion of young people (which is to say, people younger than me) in the latter group, and a greater proportion of people older than me in the former.

First I must point out that my OSC sample is disproportionately skewed to the youth. Nevertheless, this observation is in line with one I've made at the office, where people younger than me, when trying to accomplish something new with a computer, usually start clicking through menus and dialog boxes until they get what they need. People older than me usually call me for help. It's as if they're afraid they'll break it if they push the wrong button. Although there are times, in a production environment, when a computer error could bungle things up rather badly, generally speaking, clicking the wrong button isn't a disaster.

So I began wondering whether this willingness to experiment with the controls at hand is more prevalent in those who've grown up with high-tech gadgetry. Familiarity breeding confidence. I asked my teenager, and he concurs. Young people use trial-and-error, he says, because it's often the faster way to learn something than reading the manuals.

Perhaps the techno-timid of all ages should spend more time in environments like the science center, where trial-and-error learning can be practiced without danger to life, limb, or data.

And for the record, after my volunteer shift was over and I was able to try the HotSeat for my self, I had a lovely approach but pranged on touchdown.

January 14, 2010

Throwing learning a curve

Often, when I run into an old friend, they ask how my son is, and when I tell them he’s sixteen and taller than me they gasp and recall some thing he did when he was eleven. “Can you believe it’s been that long?”

Those of us who were around when Otronicon was a new idea are having much the same reaction. The baby is growing up and into a respectable citizen.

I first wrote about Otronicon in the Jan. 27, 2006 issue of Orlando Business Journal. Dr. Brian Tonner, then president of Orlando Science Center, told me, "The purpose of Otronicon is to examine the impact of digital electronics on culture."

But even then, Otronicon was about more than video games. Orlando has long been a center for military simulation, and the Army and Marine Corps have been participants in Otronicon from the start, along with Lockheed Martin’s simulation and training division.

This year, I told OSC President JoAnn Newman, in all sincerity, that the show keeps getting better every year. It’s true.

This year, one of the new additions is medical simulation. Otronicon has touched on this topic in the past, but this year Florida Hospital for Children has put together a roomful of displays, including a trainer for the da Vinci robotic surgery system.

I was able to try out the da Vinci Surgical System this evening at the Otronicon preview event. The robot is a massive thing with multiple arms -- a mechanical Shiva. The control mechanism is a massive thing with rounded edges, gaping eye sockets and a cavern containing the joystick-like controls.

The controls are a little touchy at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s very nimble. A tray of tiny modeling-clay cones and plastic rings sat on a table under the robotic arms. After only a minute or two -- once the company sales rep who was manning the display showed me the correct way to get my fingers into the grips -- I was able to move rings from one cone to another.

The company representative and a couple of doctors from the hospital explained that this kind of equipment allows for minimally invasive surgery, cutting recovery times by weeks and reducing or eliminating post-surgery problems.

A lady who came along after I finished wasn’t sure guests were allowed to use the machine. But I showed her how, and she gave it a go. But she accidentally pinched off the top of one of the clay cones. Her friend teased her -- “that would hurt” -- but I said, “That was an appendectomy. She meant to do that.”

Preview night is always fun. This year, more than ever. Because now, in addition to enjoying all the new things Otronicon has to offer, I can reminisce with others who’ve been around since back in the day about how far we’ve come.

Otronicon isn’t just about examining culture anymore. As Newman told the attendees tonight, at this event kids don’t just play games, they learn how games are made. “It’s not just about how we play,” she said, “it’s about how we learn.”