Thursday, April 29, 2010

Want a Book for Your Ego Rack?



Those of you who wonder what it would be like to have a book you wrote sitting on your shelf, here's how to do it, and without much cost:

1) Write a book. (This is like the recipe for rabbit stew -- first, catch a rabbit, but hey.)

2) Change the manuscript into a form designed for printing. (Basically, this means to single-space it, justify the type, pick a bookface font -- Times or Georgia will work nicely -- change any underlined text to italics, and lay the margins and spacing out so the pages fit the format of the size book you want. It sounds harder than it is. You can get all this information from Lulu.com. Just go there and click on the Publishing link at the top.

Basically, this is a matter of adjusting text by using the ruler on your word processor. Lulu likes Word docs, and those are easy to get to from most computers. Mac's Pages WP will export to that, and if you want, you can use Word (or OpenOffice.org's freebie version of Word.)

Run the spellchecker and all like that.

3) Make a cover. There's a cover wizard at Lulu.com takes you through the steps. You can use your own art or their generic stuff. It's paint-by-numbers -- I can do it, so anybody can.

4) Do all the other stuff Lulu tells you. Once you get that done, you can list it with them, then order a copy. For a medium-length mass-market paperback, with your author discount, that will probably run you about fourteen or fifteen bucks, plus shipping.

In a week or so, you'll get the book. If you followed the instructions, it will look like a real book, and you can leave it out where company will see it. When they do, shrug it off. Oh, that? No big deal ...

Total cost, if you have a manuscript, maybe one afternoon, and less than twenty bucks. And people could even buy it, though probably not many will, since they'll tack on a bit to your cost and a $6.99 paperback at B&N will run $21 from Lulu. A tad on the spendy side.

But still, you will have a book and your out-of-pocket cost is probably less than you spend taking the kids to Mickey D's for lunch. And if you order eight or ten copies, there's your Christmas presents for your family next time around.

And you are welcome ...

At It Like Cats and Dogs

Ballou, left, front; Layla, right; Jude, background.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Subconscious ... A Few Thoughts Thereupon

The human subconscious -- that portion of your mind that mostly churns along without you knowing what it is up to -- is a wondrous thing. (In psychology, the preferred term is "unconscious," but that always brings up images of some guy stretched out on the floor of the squared circle with the ref counting to ten, so I like the former term better.)

I have learned how to use my subconscious for certain tasks.

Sometimes in writing a story, I'll get stuck on a plot-point or bit of character. Something isn't right, and I can't quite put a finger on it, so I'll put it aside and wait.

Eventually, something bubbles up through the tar and offers me a solution. Might be a few hours, maybe days, but the grinder keeps chewing at it until something happens.

Most of us have noticed this at one time or another. Mislay a name -- who was it in that movie? Geez, I know the actor's face! I just can't remember his name! Paul Something? Right on the tip of my tongue ... nope ... can't get it.

Then, as I am lying in bed about to drift off, the come to realize moment: Giamatti! That's his name!

I believe that Google is bad for the subconscious. If you can remember anything else about the subject, you can plug that into the search engine and winnow your way to the answer. Satisfactory on one level, but not so much on another level: Give it a chance -- it's in there somewhere ...

Unless of course that last beer Friday with the boys killed that particular neuron and it's not in there any more.

Hard to know.

Two things about this came up in my thoughts today:

1) I believe I have mentioned a time or twelve that I study a martial art based on the blade. I also have made it pretty clear that I am not in the least bit expert at it, especially the knife part. However, I do have some experience in waving sharps around, mostly practice versions, but sometimes for fun, a real one, and after doing this fairly regularly for a while, have come to believe that I am fairly comfortable with the action in general. I fancy that in the unlikely event I have to actually use a knife to defend myself, all this dancing will serve me better than if I had not done it.

Today, while using a kitchen knife to slice an apple, I put it down on the counter when I reached for the big jar of mixed nuts I was using to augment my lunch. As I did, my shirt's tail caught the knife's handle and jerked it off the butcher block. I saw it slide, saw it start to fall, and just like I had good sense and any reflexes left ... I reached out and caught the knife by the handle, no big deal.

At least I have learned which end to grab onto ...

And while feeling pleased with my derring-do and looking at the mixed nut container, I saw on top a couple of Brazil nuts. And my subconscious offered up 2) a tidbit of wonderful racist memory from my childhood ...

A quick flashback so you know: My folks were not particularly racist when it came to black people, even though we lived in the Deep South. My mother worked at a market in a predominantly black section of town where ninety percent of the customers were black, and thought nothing of it. My father grew up amongst Cherokee and Arapahoe, and was mostly of Kipling's White Man's Burden philosophy. We didn't get inculcated with racism at home, not consciously. Ah, but, it is insidious, that attitude.

As I looked at the Brazil nuts, the term used to refer to them from my childhood burbled up:

Nigger toes.

It was not overt racism in the sense of the term being consciously used to denigrate somebody as being inferior because of their skin color, but nonetheless it was one of those small, unthinking barbs that bespeak a larger overview. How could one use such a term without being aware of how it demeans and degrades an entire race simply by its being?

Our everyday language was full of such things, and it takes only the most cursory examination to reveal them for what they are: Racism, pure and simple. Ladled into the conversations without stopping to realize what they offer: Eeny, meeny, miney, moe, catch a nigger by the toe. A nigger in the woodpile. A nigger with a nickel. And more: A jewish moneylender. Hook-nose. Taco-bender. Bean-eater. Wop. Slant. Slope. Gook. All of them just out in the back yard, buried in the subconscious ...

We have come long way, baby, but we still have a long way to go.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Repertoire


The handmade instrument festival always sparks a new ambition in regards to my guitar playing. Mostly I want to come home and yell at mine -- Traitor! How come you don't make me sound like those guys?

Don't you love people like that? Nothing is ever their fault, no matter what? They have an open account at the scapegoat store ... Got drunk and plowed into a herd of nuns on the sidewalk? Not my fault -- it was dark, they were wearing black, and there's not usually anybody on the sidewalk that time of morning ...

Um. Back to the subject at hand, which was ... ? Ah, guitar. So, inspired by excellence and knowing that it's beyond me but you gotta try, I decided to add a couple new pieces to my -- pardon the expression -- repertoire.

Something of problem. I now have enough of that so that adding something on one end is apt to make something go away on the other. I generally practice for an hour, maybe ninety minutes, and that's not enough time to play everything I have memorized, so either I have to rotate through a list and hit stuff every third day, or I won't keep it. I know guys who have five hundred songs at their beck, but it ain't me, babe.

Anyhow, the two new pieces upon which I am laboring are "Suicide is Painless," (the theme from M*A*S*H) and an old tune by Larry Collins and Alex Harvey, "Delta Dawn." There are several covers of the latter -- most notably by Helen Reddy, in 1973, when it reached #1 on the charts late that summer. This one is easy to play, simple chords, so it's not much of a stretch.

Why those two?

Seemed like a good idea at the time ...

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sunday and the Sun Did Shine



So, yesterday was a fairly long day, activity-wise. While my wife went grocery shopping, there was another episode of Steve and the Machete versus the Blackberry Canes and the English Ivy. A draw at best. The only way to get rid of Himalayan Blackberry plants is to nuke 'em from space. Cutting, digging up the roots, salting the earth and cursing the ground barely slow them down.

Then my daughter came by with her two boys for a visit. Brought her little dog to play with our critters. After a few minutes dashing about the back yard, the dogs wanted to come in and chase the little boys, so they took turns standing and the back door and barking pitifully.

Oh, please, sir, may I not come inside? It's so cold and lonely out here ...

After the family left, we cleaned up and went to the annual handmade musical instrument show at Marylhurst College, always a delight. There was display of ancient stringed instruments, and I looked at a thing that seemed to be a cross between a lyre and the Arc de Triumph that had a plectrum the size of a cake icing spreader. How, I asked, did you come up with the plans to build this?

The woman, Gayle Neuman, said, We saw a painting in which it was represented.

She had another small gourd-like gut-stringed instrument about as long as a uke and a third as wide. That one, they saw in the hands of a statue that was several hundred years old.

I find that fairly amazing. The skill to make a guitar or violin is beyond me, but to do it with nothing more than a painting or a sculpture as a reference?

We got there late, but we went to the little theater across the way and listened to a few of the mini-concerts. These are usually one or maybe two players showcasing builders' instruments. The guitar maker will come out, say a few words about the instrument featured, and the player will do a fifteen minute set.

We saw: Mark Hansen on steel string guitar by Dan Biasco; Rene Bereblinger on classical guitar by Jeff Elliott; David Franzen on classical guitar by George Smith; Peter Zisa and John Dodge on steel and classical guitars by John Mello.

Some jazz, blues, pop, classical, flamenco. Standards to new compositions. Really interesting to see somebody play his own flamenco-style piece using a steel string guitar and a pick, and make it work.

All the players we saw were excellent, The odd clam now and then, but it is so much fun to see somebody who is really into the music have a good time on stage. The tone of some of these guitars was amazing -- the sustain, the timber, the volume. No amplification, and easily filling the little theater. Probably two hundred people quietly listening, and SRO. There's a saying I heard recently, can't recall where, about playing the guitar: Your left hand shows what you know; your right hand shows who you are.

Then we came home, fell into a stupor, and watched a basketball playoff game. A good day.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Writing -- Craft & intent





Halftime at the Blazers' Game
(Photos by Dal Perry)

Part One:

It is the nature of writing stories that you will enjoy telling some more than others. That some will be nearer and dearer to your heart, and others might be exercises in craft. They aren't your flesh and blood children, you don't really have to love them all equally, you do the best you can with what you have, whatever your connection to it.

When I first started, I used to try to work with certain tools. One story would be primarily action, another mostly dialog. I sold one piece that was probably 90% dialog just because I wanted to see if it could manage it in that form. Later sold to some German company that turned it into a radioplay.

Some of my favorite and most beloved books have done well, but some have not. Some things I dashed off without having to put much real effort into the work have sold much better than I would have believed.

As a writer, I think you have to start with the notion that you will try to serve them all equally. That you will work just as diligently on a shared-world, work-for-hire that you ghostwrite for no credit as you do an original tale to which you attach much love and affection. It's what keeps you from being a total hack, the determination to give it your best shot no matter what caliber and quantity of ammo you take into battle.

To change the metaphor: If you have a sow's ear, you can't make it silk, but you can make a good sow's ear purse.

I have always found something in every story I've written to like. Something upon which I can smile and feel proud of, and enjoy putting down on the page. Or, of late, the computer monitor.

If you can't do that, why bother? There are a lot of easier ways to make a living.

This doesn't mean that you need to produce something that is your favorite thing every time you sit down. I have written books that I probably wouldn't have bought had I seen them on the racks; scripts for shows I likely wouldn't have watched had I not been writing for them. (I have watched a lot of kidvid, and read a lot of comics, but I don't watch much or read many of those these days -- I don't have the time to keep up. But I know the forms well enough to work in them.)

You don't have to love everything about a project to write it, but you do have to find something about it that speaks to you. Keep that in mind -- it matters.

Part Two:

In this light, somebody asked me, which recent movie I've seen do I wish I'd written? Other than the obvious make-me-rich answer -- Avatar -- the one that I liked most was Crazy Heart.

Those of you who don't know it, it stars Jeff Bridges, in the role that won him an Oscar™. He plays a broken-down country singer who has fallen from the top of the charts to playing crummy bars and bowling alleys, with pick-up groups. He's fifty-seven, broke, and a drunk, and his only claim to anything is that he doesn't miss gigs. Even if he has to run off stage in the middle of one to puke. (There is a scene in which he does that. His sun glasses fall into the barrel as he is barfing. He fishes them out, shakes them off, and puts them back on. Yuck -- but great scene because of that.)

Bad Blake was somebody, but his sidemen have eclipsed him, he's divorced from four wives, and he has a grown son he hasn't seen since the child was four. He's going nowhere, and his wicked ways are apt to kill him pretty soon.

In country music, the love of a good woman is worth more than diamonds. (In the real world, too.) Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Jean, the niece of the piano player at another ratty venue, is a reporter for a local paper who comes to interview Bad Blake, and the onscreen chemistry starts bubbling and smoking right away.

There are some wonderful touches. A fan approaches Blake after a set and obviously wants to jump his bones. He puts her off, thinking that Jean is a more attractive prospect. The fan gives him her number. Later, when Jean has to go home to take care of her young son and leaves, Blake closes the motel room door after her, and within a couple of seconds, fishes the fan's number from his pocket and looks at it as he checks his watch.

You don't see them together, and you don't know if he calls her or not, but he didn't hesitate to think about it. That's the kind of guy he is.

Collin Ferrell plays Tommy, a former band member Blake mentored. Tommy's star has risen as Bad's fell, and much as Blake doesn't want to do it, he agrees to open a show for Tommy. There's a scene where they sing together onstage that is absolutely pregnant with undercurrents -- love, hate, admiration, lost hope -- and you can see it on their faces. It is as impressive a piece of acting as I've ever seen, and from both men.

There is a sequence in a liquor store that is sad enough to break your heart. Robert Duvall's turn as Wayne, Blake's friend, is a jewel. (Anything Duvall is in is always worth seeing for his part alone.)

The actors mostly sing their own songs, and some of them are pretty good.

Blake, with his new love, begins to find his songwriting abilities coming back. There is light at the end of what has been a long and dark tunnel.

Which light is, of course, an approaching train ...

If you haven't seen it, I won't detail the rest of the story, but it doesn't go exactly where most writers would have taken it, nor where most viewers would like to see it. Even so, it was a delight and it paid off, and those are more than enough reasons to have a look at it.

It's Bridges's movie. He's in nearly every scene and he's terrific, but the writing and the music are what allow him to shine as brightly as he does.

I'd be awfully pleased if I had written Crazy Heart. (Scott Cooper did the screenplay, based on the book by Thomas Cobb.)

Friday, April 23, 2010

More on eBookery

So I took a break from real work this afternoon, and did some more research on eBooks versus paper books. Like the idea or not, the ebook train is 'a'comin', and for the biggest reason of all in American biz:

Money.

Not "green," but "long green ..."

No inventory. No shipping cost. No spoilage if the warehouse floods. Very little overhead, almost instant delivery.

I'll always be a treeware guy at heart, I like the feel of an old book in hand, and the batteries never run out, but I'm a dinosaur and I can hear the nasty little egg-sucking mammals skritching around down there in the underbrush ...

At the risk of repeating what I've offered up here before, some things:

An ebook version of a short novel that sells for $6.99 makes the writer about four bucks a copy each one that sells.

The major publisher's paperback version of that same book makes him seventy cents. A hardback? Maybe two or three dollars, per, depending on the cost and royalty, but that's with a $25 cover price.

There are between three and five million Kindles, more or less, floating around. Ten times that many iPhones and iPods, and probably this year alone, four or five million iPads reach consumers. Not to mention Sony readers and laptop computers.

At Smashwords, you can have your book translated into HTML, Java, RTF, Text, PDF, ePub, mobi, palm doc and LRF, and if you qualify, have an ISBN # your book can be sent to all the major ebook houses to be put into their catalogs.

Doesn't cost you anything. No advance, and you won't hit the bestseller lists until you are already on them, but even so, you can sell a handful and still make some money.

For the fun of it, I checked with Lulu.com to see what a POD paperback would run.

You are gonna love this: $21, plus shipping. That could come down a little, but you can't list anything that size for under almost twenty bucks -- they won't let it out of the house for general sales, and my cost if I want to buy them? Fifteen dollars apiece. On Lulu, I make nine bucks per copy. If it sells on Amazon.com, how much of that $21 do I get?

Seventy-eight cents.

Wonder how many of those I'd sell? Probably about as many as sold of the other title I put up there, which is to say hardly any.

People talk about how they love paper books, but they vote with their pocketbooks more often than not.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Under Siege

If you are martial arts folk, you know who Steven Seagal is. If you missed all his movies back in the day -- before they started going straight to DVD without theatrical release -- he was an aikido action star.

These days, he has -- had -- a reality cop show in New Orleans -- and sings the blues.

Figuratively and literally, on the last. And he's not bad as a singer/player, though Son House's reputation isn't in jeopardy there.

Seagal is also a Buddhist, and supposedly the current reincarnation of a high lama, too.

There has always been some controversy about the man. Something to do with whether or not he was a covert op. Or if he was in bed with the mob. He was cagey about claims, but when asked about being a spook, he would smile and allow as how he couldn't talk about it, a classic no-comment that might as well have been spoken aloud as yes, when in fact he was never.

I got a secondhand story from a buddy who told me he and a Vietnam pal used to bump into Seagal and get him going, on stuff about which he was supposedly an expert and about which they were experts. They'd make up hardware, he said, M-59 grenade launchers or somesuch and watch him nod -- Yeah, he knew about those ...

At one point, he was being extorted by some wiseguy, and the feds stepped in.

There is some question as to which other martial artist kicked his ass. (I've heard that Seagal invited a stunt man on the set of Under Siege, the well-known and regarded "Judo" Gene LeBell, to put him in a choke-hold so that he could demonstrate an escape -- only the escape didn't work and he was rendered unconscious on the set. Always a bad idea to allow somebody like LeBell to get the hold, and then try the technique. Or even have him in the same room.)

And here of late, Seagal is getting accused of sexual harassment.

How low the mighty have fallen. Read the sordid tale here ...

Mystery Projects R Us

Got another secret project cooking about which I may not speak, but it looks to be a real hoot and I'm already cranking on it.

Someday, when these things either come to pass, or wither sere on the vine, I'll let you know what they were/are, but suffice it to say that it's always a blast to work with smart people on fun stuff, and that's the case on the latest mysterywerk upon which I find myself dancing.

Stay tuned. Sooner or later, all will be revealed.

Well, maybe not all. Some ...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Art Director R Us ...

I was doing a little more research on ebooks -- with the iPad/iTunes bookstore coming online, there's another dog in the hunt, and a fairly big hound, too, and while it's maybe not quite time to ditch paper and leap into photons whole hog, the industry is changing. Somebody just came out with a conversion program for the Mac that lets you create ebooks from .RTF files, Legend Maker, from ZappTek, looks pretty spiffy, and from the demo version, even I could learn how to do it.

And there is Smashwords, which will take your manuscript, chew it up, and spit out files that can be made available to all the big e-pub catalogs -- Amazon, B&N, Stanza, iPad, and, apparently even as POD on Lulu.com. I love it that their convertor is called MeatGrinder ...

I've been dabbling with this kind of stuff a bit, as you can see from the PDFs for sale here and the links to Amazon.com for Kindle titles.

I'm thinking maybe one of my current projects might be one I could use to take a wider shot at this market. My agent isn't thrilled with my old retired spy novel, I'm not going to rewrite to her direction, and maybe it might be one that could go viral out there in the land of electronica.

Never know until you try.

You have to generate covers for ebooks, at least in some venues, and I've done a couple I thought worked well enough -- Master of Pamor, The Digital Effect. With a few minutes and a camera that shoots to a flashmem card, you can create one easily enough. Cover doesn't have to have anything to do with the contents, I've learned, long as it looks interesting.

I think this one above might catch a certain essence of my novel.

I'm thinkin' hard about this ...

George Scithers


Science fiction fan, editor, writer, and publisher George Scithers, has died, from a massive heart attack suffered two days ago. He was eighty.

My connection to him was that he bought the first story I ever sold, and several thereafter. At my first-ever science fiction convention, SunCon in Miami, 1978, I was a two-story pro, neither of which had been published yet, and I walked up to Colonel Scithers to introduce myself. He wore a hideous sport coat -- I never saw him in one that wasn't loud enough to hear coming before you saw it -- was running something at the con, said, "Hello," and promptly put me to work, moving furniture.

Welcome to sci fi, monkeyboy. Here, move those chairs next to the wall over there ...

We exchanged letters with stuff I submitted for years, and for a long time, I had his first acceptance of my story, "Heal the Sick, Raise the Dead," framed and up on my office wall. He reprinted the story in an anthology, and used it as a good example in a how-to-write book he later did. I always thought he liked like a miniature version of Isaac Asimov. We bumped into each other at cons. He was quite the character. I haven't talked to him in years, but it's still a shock.

AdiĆ³s, George

This Month's Black Steel



Alan's catalogue is up. Go have a look.

What You Think You See ...


There is a site I sometimes drop by for various and sundry discussions. I won't say where, to protect the innocent ... or the guilty. I'm not sure which in this case, but attend:

There is a poster there. Call him, oh ... Rudy. He says he is seventeen, a resident of Greece. Rudy is one of the most astute, well-educated, brilliant and erudite seventeen-year-olds I have ever come across ... or he is not -- if you get my drift.


He could exactly as he claims. A Greek kid his age, for whom I assume English is second language, who has spent a great deal of time immersed in literature to the extent that he can offer comments that bespeak a deep and wide experience with the subject. He would be a real jewel, even if perhaps lacking a bit of polish. All that knowledge, and yet still able to run with juvenile delinquents and enjoy boyish hijinks, as evidenced by some of his postings. A literary bright light, but still just one of the gang.


At seventeen, I was parsecs away from the education and writing ability of this kid. We might as well be from different species, and not to brag, but at seventeen, I was the third-brightest person I knew, and wider read than either of those two I considered smarter.


If, on the other hand, he turns out to be a thirty-five year old man pretending to be half his age? Maybe not so shiny a bauble. And somebody, in such a case, with some ulterior motive that might or not be respectable. Could be a writer looking to see if Young Like Me is the same as Fat like Me or Black Like Me. Never know.


Or a troll with a personality quirk. Look how I can fool all these maroons ...


This would be easily put to rest if the members of that web-group all got together at a local restaurant for burgers and conversation. You could look at them and see if they were male, female, old, young, whatever.


Why, Rudy, how does a seventeen-year-old come by all that gray hair?


The nature of the internet, however, is such that what you think you see isn't always what is there. It is an anonymous medium by its nature, and more so when the folks who drop round to visit don't favor anybody with real names that can be at least given a cursory examination.


There are reasons to use a pseudonym. You could be somebody famous who doesn't want the attendant hoopla when you are trying to have a simple conversation. You could be in a position where making certain kinds of opinions known might cause you personal grief or harm. Whistleblowers still get fired, and if you libel somebody, you can get sued. Good, valid reasons to keep who you are under wraps.


Still and all, I know some of the posters who ostensibly use their real names, at least in some cases, can allow me to follow a trail and see if there is a person behind the screen nom.


Somebody who creates an avatar part and parcel and holds it up? You might think you are talking to an old man who is a young woman, or vice-versa, and while it might not matter, sometimes one predicates one's conversation upon the belief that the other guy is telling the truth. If you are five asking how to tie your shoes, you might get a different response than if you are fifty asking about the definition of literature.


When it comes to truth, it doesn't matter who says it, of course. But the weight you give a statement might be different if the speaker is offering something that requires a certain experience or existence he or she doesn't have. If you are going to tell us what it is like to be something, best you have that under your belt or it might be suspect. I can tell you what it is like to be me, but I can't offer much expertise on what it is like to be a young black woman from Mobile, Alabama, and if I do, you might want a second opinion. If I claim to have been on the ground in Vietnam as a solider, I am lying. I wasn't there. I can research it and maybe fool you, but that's not the point.


All of which is to say that if you are having a conversation on the internet and you don't know to whom you are speaking?


Caveat lector ...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Postcard Country

Now and then, I realize that we live in postcard country. We did a short camping trip in the Gorge, just got back. Little park that caters to windsurfers, just this side of Hood River. Water access isn't open to vehicles until next month, so the place was mostly empty. Here's what it looks like at the Columbia.

Double-click on the image and have a look.

The only drawback is, in the Gorge you are never far from an active railroad track, and the trains sound their horns at the crossings; at a decibel level required by federal law loud enough to rattle your teeth. One crossing of which was really close to where we were parked. I could hit the passing trains with a rock thrown underhand, and they zipped past every hour or two all night. Even so, after a while, you tune them out ...

Lot of ground squirrels for the dogs to get all excited over, too.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

No Longer in Kansas, Darthy

Forgive me, but these odd thoughts arise from time to time, and I have to listen to them, so I might as well inflict them on you ...



video

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Unhappy Daze

Sport hero and movie star scandals don't mean squat in the grand cosmic scheme of things. Rich, talented people with too much free time get into trouble -- lot of them never got used to hearing "No." and they feel entitled. Part of the bread and circuses, and tune into ET for latest on Charlie Sheen, too ...

I confess that I sometimes do watch ET and Extra, when the News Hour on PBS has a couple of experts micro-analyzing the lead-up to the credit crisis for the seventeenth time and I don't feel like using my brain while I eat supper.

But there's a lesson in the Jesse James/Sandra Bullock debacle that I haven't seen much mention about I thought I'd offer.

We're hearing a lot of "Poor Sandra!" and "What a scumbag he is!" Both are true, but Bullock, however her heart has been broken, isn't entirely innocent here.

As I understand it, when Sandra and Jesse hooked up, he was still married, and his then-wife was pregnant. So whatever story he spun for Bullock about how it was over and all, she knew he was cheating on his wife, and she was willing to go along with that.

Something about bad boys that draws women like a candle does moths.

Paul Simon: A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. Seems to work for women, too.

Here, a couple of parables and and old saw that I think relate:

A man walking on a snowy day sees a viper on the ground, shivering in the cold. The snake says, Oh, please, pick me up and warm me in your pocket, sir, else I'll die.

The man says, No. You're a viper, you'll bite me and I'll die!

I won't! I swear. Please!

So the man picks up the viper and puts him in his pocket. And after a while, the snake warms up and bites the guy.

You bit me! the man screams.

And you know what the snake says, don't you?

You knew what I was when you picked me up.

A variation of this one stars a frog and a scorpion on the bank of a river. The scorpion wants a ride across. The frog demurs. The scorpion says, Think about it. If I sting you while we are crossing the river, you'll sink and I'll drown. That'd be insane.

This makes sense to the frog. Hop on.

Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog. Dying, the amphibian says, Why did you do that!
You'll drown!

And the scorpion shrugs. It's my nature, he says.

Old Saw: Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas. (Not strictly true if you use Frontline™, but you get the intent.)

Jesse was a bad boy. I dunno how much of that was part of his appeal for Sandy, but she knew what he was when she picked him up. He deserves most of the blame, of course. But she gets a little bit, don't you think? He was cheating on his wife -- and she knew it and went along with it.

Karma can be a real bitch.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I Got It Wrong

I think I posted this little movie a couple years back, and the explanation of it, but I came across it while cleaning some files out, and thought it worth repeating for those who might not have seen it before.

When I was a kid, I loved close magic, especially sleight-of-hand. Anybody could buy and learn how to do a big trick, and such things do take a certain amount of ability, but doing a trick with the audience standing close enough to touch you and amazing them with nothing more than skill and pure legerdemain impressed me more. Especially, for me, coin tricks.

Back in the days before video players, you saw a television show once, and maybe in the summer, a rerun of it, but there was no way to call it up for study. One evening, I think it was the old Maverick TV series, there was a scene at a card table and one of the gamblers rolled a coin across his fingers.

I was mightily impressed, having never seen that before.

Today, you can can go on YouTube and chose from a dozen tutorials, step-by-step how-to instructions. Here is the trick I saw:


But I only caught it the one time, and when I sat down with a half-dollar to try it, I made a fairly big mistake: Which side of the hand the roll was done on. It was a knuckle roll, across the backs (dorsal sides) of the fingers, just past the knuckle joints.

For some reason, I remembered as having been on the other side of the hand, the palm-side, and on the tips of the fingers. I resolved to teach myself how to do it.

It was a bitch, the trick. I think I wore out a couple half-dollars by dropping them on the concrete (or into the pool) as I sat on a lifeguard's chair one summer, fiddling with the coins.

Eventually, I practiced it enough so that I got fairly adept at it.

Then one day I went to a magic shop. I think it was at Disneyland, but it might have been Berg's, in Hollywood, and wanting to show off, demonstrated it to the guy behind the counter.

Wow! he said. That's cool! I've never seen that one before!

I was puzzled. I got it off an old TV show, I said. Maverick, I think. Years ago.

Oh, you mean this? Whereupon he showed me the knuckle roll. Anybody can do this, he said. I've never seen your trick before.

I realized he was right. I'd misremembered what I'd seen, and in my effort to duplicate it, had wound up inventing (or maybe re-inventing) something else altogether. Probably somebody else did it first, but I've never met anybody who claimed it.

How weird is that?

My version:

video

IPad

My sometime-collaborator Reaves got an iPad. And one of the reasons is that it has a function, that while found in laptops, is useful because the iPad is small enough to tote around comfortably.

Reaves has Parkinson's, and after two neurosurgeries, has mostly lost the use of his voice. Brain works -- well, as much as it ever did -- but his speech has been greatly impaired. With the iPad, he can type in sentences, and the thing will then translate them into speech. Not perfectly -- the way these things work involves splicing together sounds based on spelling, but for the most part, the speech is understandable, and where correct spelling might not give a useful sound, phonetic spelling can sometimes. And one can store a collection of stock phrases, just like the kids do for texting and click on them. Introductions, common questions or responses.

At five or six hundred bucks, this isn't the cheapest solution for this alone, but you do get the book and newspaper and magazine readers and movie viewer and all those other neat iPhone and iPod applications, too.

The Perfect Storm

"The Perfect Storm," by Gazdapavo

The subject of teaching and learning arose on Rory's blog, and another spirited debate cranked up. I spoke to it there, and thought I'd add a couple thoughts here.

Doing and teaching are related, and now and again, you get a world-class doer who is also a world-class teacher, but I suspect that's fairly rare. They aren't the same skills.

Why, the question was, did world-class martial artists seldom produce students who were better than their teachers were?

It seems self-evident to me -- if you are at the peak of the pyramid, there's not much room there, and if Einstein expected to see many of his students blow past him, he might be disappointed. And if you are a better doer than a teacher?

If you paint the Mona Lisa, what does your student have to do to top that?

The road to world-class is long and hard and while many start, few will make it. The nature of the journey.

Physical skills by a doer aren't always easy to transmit to a learner, and, as I pointed out, genetics matter. A guy who is six-four and two-ten isn't going to ride a winner in the Kentucky Derby no matter how much he wants it and how hard he trains -- unless all the other horses drop dead in the gate.

Watch the video in the posting just prior to this one. The Ross sisters doing their singing and contortion act in the 1940's. Outside of the Cirque de Soleil, I've never seen anybody do anything like this. I expect you haven't, either.

My chances of learning how to do that are zero. Your chances are zero, too, unless you are six or eight years old and you start working on it now. That level of flexibility is almost impossible to achieve if you don't start training before puberty, and even then, the amount of work and dedication to achieve it will be a herculean task. Injury can derail you at any time, and you don't see many old contortionists still active in the business. And it helps to be female.

To get world-class at anything physical usually requires a perfect storm -- genetics, dedication, skillful training, much practice, and good luck, because world-class anything tends to self-select those who are capable of it. Certain body types predominate. Yeah, you can be a five-seven basketball player in the NBA, but they are rare enough to have it mentioned every time they step onto a court. And you will be a guard, better have a three-point shot from anywhere, and never miss a free throw. Most of the players will be taller because it offers an advantage. No matter how hard you train, being a five-seven center jumping off against one who is seven feet tall? I know how I'd bet that one.

So I'm thinking that world-class doers are usually of the perfect storm variety. And if your teacher has her ten thousand hours in when you walk through the door, and she keeps training and learning, by the time you get your ten thousand hours, she will have twenty thousand hours.

Surely that makes it harder to catch her?

World-class teachers? Same deal. So to have a student who surpasses you requires, essentially, two perfect storms.

There is, of course, a point of diminishing returns, and past it, you don't get better. And old legs tire easier than young ones, and eventually, all flesh is grass, before which it sags and gets less elastic and not as strong as once it was. You can compensate for age with skill, but the fit thirty-year-old outruns the fit ninety-year-old in a race based on speed and power.

The comment Rory made was, why do creatures who should be lions leave footprints like rabbits? And my answer is, most creatures aren't now, and never are going to be, lions. When they grow up, the tracks they leave will be what they had the genetic potential to be. You can be the meanest, bad-ass rabbit you can be, king of the rabbits, but that won't make you a lion.

Potato Salad - The Ross Sisters, circa 1944

Have a look at this -- watch it all the way to the end. Trust me.


Editor's note: A little research: If this vid was shot in 1944, then the sisters -- from Texas -- would have been 18, 17, and 16 years old at the time it was filmed. Just so you know ...

And Yet More Knives ...

Latest from Jeff Crowner's smithy ...

Above, korambit; L-6 steel, with differential heat-treatment,
TeroTuf™ handle, custom leather by David Rider

Below, camp knife, fighting blade, D-2, Terotuf™ paracord loop

It's a Small World After All

My wife just got back from a visit with her sister in Louisiana. Spent a few days, had a great time, and rode the big metal bird home yesterday. Sitting on the plane, she didn't talk to her seat mates until they were just outside Portland. The guy next to her, it turned out, was a science fiction writer.

Oh, really ... ?

She got his card: Chris Jackson. I didn't know his name, nor his books, and he didn't know who I was, but I thought it an amusing coincidence.

Blast from the Past


Got an email from one of the younger brothers of my old running buddy Greg. Back down home for Mardi Gras earlier this year, he came across a box of old papers, and in it, business cards from 1970. Before there were area codes in common use, you'll notice.

Forty years ago.

I remember the school we had, but didn't recall what we called it. "Throwback" was also the working title of a novel we were going to write, concerning our philosophy of physical training, and referring to a time when people were generally fitter and more capable than they had become by the end of the sixties.

The more things change, the more they stay the same ...

Monday, April 12, 2010

Long Shadows


Just got a royalty statement on Shadows of the Empire, a book that came out fourteen years ago and is still in print. The paperback just edged past half a million copes sold.

Good reason to smile on a partly-sunny spring day.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Italian Pukulan Knife


Check out the Italian-made pukulan knife commissioned by silat player Michele De Lorenzi. He wanted a heavy blade, so it is pretty thick, and this one is in stainless steel. Nice toy.

Need a New Doctor?

Photo by Riccardo Gangale, AP

Professor Gabogola is quick to point out that, unlike some witch doctors in Uganda, he does not require ritual human sacrifice. Which is apparently on the rise.


(And if I had to guess, I'd figure that "appelipse" is the kinda-phonetic spelling of "epilepsy." And I love the coupling of the last two words, too ...)

Friday, April 09, 2010

All Flesh is Grass

During all the Civil War stuff, I had occasion to do some research about mortality, during that period versus now.

In 1860, the average life expectancy in what was the U.S. varied a bit, depending where you lived, but it was about 40.

Today, it's 78.

What killed most people in the middle of the Nineteenth Century were infections.
65% of deaths were due to these.


From most to least:


Consumption/phthisis/scrofula [tuberculosis]

Diptheria/croup/whooping cough

Pneumonia/lung fever

Typhoid fever

Brain fever/brain congestion [meningitis, encephalitis]

Cholera infantum [diarrhea disease of infants]

Scarlet fever/scarletina

Erysipelas [cellulites]

Syphilis

Lockjaw [tetanus]

Other infections (influenza, mumps, measles, smallpox, etc.)


The other 35% were killed by:


Old age & heart disease* [neuralgia of heart, dropsy]

Cerebrovascular disease [apoplexy, paralysis]

Malignancy [cancer, tumor]

Gastrointestinal disease

Accidents

Suicide

Maternal deaths from childbirth.


These days? Leading causes of death are somewhat reversed:


(1) Diseases of the heart, heart attack (mainly) 28.5%

(2) Malignant neoplasms cancer 22.8%

(3) Cerebrovascular disease stroke 6.7%

(4) Chronic lower respiratory disease emphysema, chronic bronchitis 5.1%

(5) Unintentional injuries accidents 4.4%

(6) Diabetes mellitus diabetes 3.0%

(7) Influenza and pneumonia flu & pneumonia 2.7%

(8) Alzheimer's Disease Alzheimer's senility 2.4%

(9) Nephritis and Nephrosis kidney disease 1.7%

10) Septicemia systemic infection 1.4%

11) Intentional self-harm suicide 1.3%

12) Chronic Liver/Cirrhosis liver disease 1.1%

(13) Essential Hypertension high blood pressure 0.8%

(14) Assault homicide 0.7%

15) All other causes other 17.4% (includes accidents, war)


Cheerful subject, isn't it?


Frogz!

Detail from October, by Eric Griswold.

So I took the dogs out for little evening stroll a few minutes ago. Around the corner and a ways, there is a little wetland, a marshy pond next to a ditch, just behind the Seventh Day Adventist's Church parking lot. Half a block away from the corner there, I heard this loud, kind of grinding noise, and it got louder and louder. Some kind of machine ... ?

Took me a minute to realize it was hundreds, maybe thousands of small frogs in full throat. I don't know what kind, probably Pacific Tree Frogs -- the voices were high-pitched, shrill, almost like crickets, and it was as loud a collection of amphibians as I heard since leaving Louisiana. I hear them now and then in wet and warm weather, but never this many at once.

So I crossed over and took out my flashlight and shined it into the mire. Caught the reflections of some tiny eyes, and they all shut up, like somebody clicked off a switch. One second, it was like grinding concrete -- the next, completely silent.

Hey, whoa! Somebody up there with a flashlight. Better shut up and stay off the sonar, dude, never know but he's some coonass eats guys like us ...

Always something new going on the neighborhood.

Sundanese Pencak Silat

Bobbe Edmonds, a long-time student and teacher of silat, has put together a six-DVD collection of Sundanese silat, material gleaned from his trips to study at length with Bambang "Bam" Suwanda, at his school in Indonesia.

I could explain it, but Bobbe does it better here.

Me being the kindly and avuncular fellow that I am, Bobbe sent me a set of these for my personal edification; he neither asked for, nor knows I am putting this review and link up.

The footage is from handheld or propped on a tripod cameras, and for the most part is pretty sharp and the sound crisp. You can, from time to time, hear children playing in the tropical background; a rooster as he crows; and at one point, I think, you actually can hear the bamboo growing ...

Hot and wet there.

The disks, which are done so that you can view menus and select chapters, are hand-lettered:

1. Sundanese Pencak Silat: Kembangan
2. Cikalong
3. Benjang, Harimau, Kari
4. Jawa Barat Kombinasi
5. Jagabaya 1
6. Jagabaya 2

The recording was shot to be Bobbe's personal reference, so there aren't any dissolves or fades or slomo with sound EFX, just footage of the instruction, sometimes of a teacher, sometimes with students.

There's a lot of material here, jurus, buah, weapons forms, Some of it is formal, some of it much less so -- shot in hotel rooms or in somebody's house or back yard. Monyet, Cikalong, and even their version of Sera and you could easily learn many of the forms from the vids.

One of my favorite demos is a kuntao form done in a small house, in the dark, in a space that looks to be about six feet by six feet, behind a table with plates of food on it. After the fighter is done, he picks up what looks like a flashlight.

Darkness apparently falls fast in the tropics.

The Suwanda school has a roof with a wide overhang, but is open-walled, and part of the Benjang session is shot during a pouring rain that gives you a great visual and audio of what it is like to live in the tropics when it starts to come down.

I haven't had a chance to watch all the vids yet, but if you are looking for a reference for this kind of art, you might consider contacting him and seeing what he is asking for them. You probably can't find this kind of stuff anywhere else. Look here.


Me 'n' Sisyphus

Steve Rollert's Pukulan Trainer

You know the myth of Sisyphus, the son of the king of Thessaly, right? He was a clever, if bad man, full of hubris, and as punishment for his many sins when he died, he was tasked by the gods to roll a large boulder up a hill. Before he gets to the top, the rock always rolls back down, and he has to start over, and thus he is condemned to this labor forever. If you ever hear the term" Sisyphean Task," that's the referent.

Most recent silat class, I went to pair up with Edwin, as we start into another cycle of blade-against-blade. Guru's method is interesting. We learn a thing, leave and go elsewhere, and then when we come back to that thing again, we bring something new to it. Like building up a statue by using thin layers; eventually, you might wind up with a three-dimensional figure.

For this new, old exercise, one player holds the knife in the common grip, aka the saber; the other uses the ice-pick grip, aka, the ... ice pick grip. Maybe the ... Norman Bates grip?

Each hold its uses. According to our training, one gives you more reach and options; the other works better when you close, and we deem it a good idea to learn them both -- whichever way the knife winds up in your hand when activity commences, you probably don't want to be twirling it about when the adrenaline gets to flowing, and you need to be able to make do. (As Egon told the other Ghostbusters about crossing the particle streams from their proton packs, dropping your blade in a knife fight? That would be bad ...)

I like working knives with Edwin for several reasons. One, he is more skilled. He comes from a different silat background, has moves, and he's been doing the stuff for a long time. You learn more against a better player. (Easy for me -- almost everybody in the class is more skilled than I am with a knife.)

Two, Edwin is taller than I. I kid him, but he's about six and a half feet vertical with an eight-foot armspan. Or maybe it just seems that way. The point is, that a technique that might work fine against somebody your size or shorter might not work against somebody larger. And if it depends on reach, it won't.

The common grip is supposed to give you the reach over somebody using the ice-pick grip, but with Edwin using that with his foot-long practice blade and me with my shorter trainer, he's still got the reach on me. It does matter.

What you learn against somebody with longer reach and a knife is that you better get the block right or get out the way, else you will get stuck. Stab-bed ...

I have mentioned that I am not particularly adept and that I'm a slow kinetic learner. And I might never get that rock to the top of the hill. But if I can get it past the spot where it rolled back down yesterday, that might be as much victory as I can achieve. And if I get to the point where I can hold my own with Edwin? Then I'll have something.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Appearances

If you want to become a housebreaker, here's a tip: Get yourself an orange T-shirt says "Meter Reader" on the back, and a clipboard ...

I looked up from my screen a few minutes ago to see a bearded guy wearing such a T-shirt and carrying a clipboard walking across my front yard, ten feet from my office window, on his way to peep over my back fence. Didn't see a scooter or truck identifying him as working for the gas or electric company.

Probably he was legit; but as I recall from my private eye days, a clipboard, hard hat, and any kind of ID badge on a string around your neck would allow you to snoop around unmolested in a whole lot of places. It was all in the attitude: I have the right to be here -- who are you to ask?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Battlefield Earth

Stagolee

So Robert McDonnell, the governor of Virginia, is declaring April Confederate History Month in his state. The reflexive storm of protest over such a heinous act is, I must confess, hypocritically amusing. On a site I visit, there were a couple of snide comments that sparked my response. I thought I'd share it with you.

I called it "Battlefield Earth:"

Not to defend the Governor of Virginia per se, but looking for tourism bucks in hard times isn't any crime, nor particularly ironic. Last time I looked, the chambers of commerce in places like Gettysburg, Omaha Beach, Hiroshima, Waterloo and Hastings, just to name a handful, do a pretty good business showing off the fields of the dead, and have been doing so for a while.

None of them places in Dixie, are they?

Our civilization is built on the bones of our ancestors, going all the way back.

Some folks even go to see where the Japanese were penned like cattle in California during WWII, and, hey, most of them survived.

Tourists still take the boat ride around the sunken ships in Pearl Harbor, and if you want real horror, drop by the ovens in Germany where the ugliest part of the Holocaust took place. You can stop at the hot dog stand for lunch before take the tour of Auschwitz.

History might be bunk, as Henry had it, but it is undeniably violent, and if you are ever in St. Louis and you go to the Curtis Club, every step you walk in, you walk in Billy Lyons' blood ...

"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"