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The Larry Allen Patent-Pending Idea-O-Matic™ Idea Generator (dead tree edition)

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

I think every aspiring writer has at one time or another wondered where to get ideas for his stories. I read somewhere that this was a question Harlan Ellison was asked regularly enough that he had a pat answer: “A little idea factory in Schenectady.”

The place must have closed. An extensive web search yielded neither a phone number nor an email address. Pity.

So I thought “Hell, I’m an engineer, I’ll build an idea generator!”

The technology proved to be remarkably simple. At first I was thinking of software, but I realized that even that offered more sophistication that was needed.

The key ingredient was a package of Avery microperforated business card stock, # 08471. Afer a few hours on the computer and a few minutes with the laser printer, I was equipped with a stack of about fifty cards, each with a classic science fiction theme or idea printed on it, i.e. Artificial Intelligence, On The Moon, Flying Cars, etc.

I shuffled the deck and dealt three cards face up:


            Time Travel     

            Drug with side effects

Hmm. Star Trek, The Original Series. City on the Edge of Forever

Wow, this thing really works. Lets try it again:

            Child with special powers 

            Alien invasion 

            It wasn’t a simulation

Orson Scott Card. Ender’s Game

Yikes! This is amazing! Eat your heart out, Harlan. Schenectady, indeed. Harrumph!

Oops, gotta go now, I just got an idea for a story!

On the Beach

Friday, August 17th, 2012

If it’s a particularly warm and pleasant morning, and if I wake up early and in a particular mood, I’m likely to pull on a pair of swim trunks and take the 3-mile bicycle ride to Menauhant Beach. At 6:15 AM or so the place is desolated. A few hours later it will be overrun with tourists, but at 6:15 I have it to myself. The wind is dead calm, and in a few moments I’m floating on my back, enjoying the serenity, the views, and the occasional shriek of a seagull.

And then I hear it. Barely audible in the distance, at first I mistake it for the sound of some sort of mini-bike or go-kart. But then it resolves itself in my mind.

A bagpipe!

Whoever is playing is working at it – I can hear him struggling with the fingering. But his rendition of Amazing Grace is quite recognizable, and the imperfections seem to make it sound even more heartfelt and authentic than when I’ve heard it played by a pro.

For a while, I relax and enjoy the serenade, but I can’t leave this undiscovered. I swim to shore, towel off, get dressed, and start biking in the direction of the sound. The strange organization of fences around the parking lot (and the fact that a channel runs through the middle of it) delay me a bit, but eventually I thread my way to the source. The fellow is wearing a tee shirt and shorts (not a kilt), and staring out toward the water. He’s wearing ear protection.

For a while, I just lean back against my bike and enjoy the music. Eventually he pauses, notices me there, and unseats an earplug. “Hope I didn’t scare you,” he offers by way of introduction.

I tell him I’m a long-time admirer of the GHB and was enjoying his work from the other side of the beach. We chat for a while; he’s been training for slightly more than a year and just recently transitioned from the chanter to an actual set of pipes. I ask how he found an instructor and he tell me that he’s a police officer, so he had no problem. Somehow that makes complete sense to me. Apparently his wife won’t let him practice at home, so he’s here on the beach. Pearls before swine, in my opinion, and I never met the lady.

Unfortunately today is a work day for me, so I bid him farewell and begin the ride home. And I as I hear his music recede in the distance, I reflect on how I always wanted to learn, but never got started. Some research online yields a few resources, which all seem to converge on a single book. Its now on its way from Amazon. You never know.

I love this place.

The Writer’s Group

Monday, June 11th, 2012

At the suggestion of many, I’ve joined a writer’s group. We meet to share and  critique each others work, and hopefully improve our skills through the experience. I’ve got a short story in progress that depends upon a unique ‘twist’ at the end to make its point. I’d shared it with about four people before submitting it to the writer’s group, and only about half the readers ‘got’ the ending. So I rewrote that part, making it more obvious.

Then I sprung it on the group. Only about half the readers there got it, and of the two that didn’t, one was the member I was *sure* would get it.

So, its back to the drawing board, I guess. There was a suggestion to drop a clue or two early on, but I’m not sure how I can do that without tipping my hand.

Memorial Day Post

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

One of the nice things about moving is that all around you is new again. When we lived in New York, there wasn’t much I could see around me that I hadn’t seen thousands of times in the past. That’s not so any more.

Yesterday, I decided to take care of a self-imposed errand that had been in the back of my mind since we moved here – to bicycle over the Sagamore Bridge, along the north canal bike path, and then back over the Bourne Bridge. I’ve driven over these dozens of times, always lamenting that I couldn’t just stop and enjoy the views. Much easier to do so on a bicycle.

About a mile or so west of the Sagamore Bridge, I briefly noticed a monument of some sort above and to my right. I took several seconds to think through ‘I want to finish this ride, no, I’m not in a hurry, probably its not worth looking at, maybe it is…’ and screech to a halt. I turned the bike around, pedaled to the monument, and climbed the twenty or so steps to its base.


Quite the contrast to a beautiful spring day, the morning haze just starting to lift.

I imagine of all the ways to go, drowning in a breached submarine has to be among the worst. Small solace that a war was being slowly, painfully, won on the surface above.

The monument speaks of 3500-plus men who realized the importance of what they were doing, and did it. I’m indebted to them – if they hadn’t done so, I’d probably be writing this in German. Or given my religion, more likely not writing it at all.

I can’t help but reflect on what those men were at the age of eighteen, and what I was at that age. It wasn’t that many years that separated us – only about thirty or so. But somehow, they ‘got’ something that I didn’t, and I’m only beginning to understand now. Why? I’m not sure; it bears further investigation. But in the mean time, I can still be grateful for their deeds.

Rest in peace.

On planning

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

A few weeks after the Big Trip, when I reflect back on it I can’t help but marvel over the ordinariness of the flying part. A combination of planning and flexibility resulted in the vast majority of the trip going according to schedule, and when it didn’t, we were able improvise, adding a new, interesting city (Savannah) to the itinerary.

But when you think about it, planning and flexibility are opposites. Eisenhower got it right when he said “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Our plans provided a baseline from which to stray, and a willingness to do so made the trip run smoothly.

Back in another life, I held a management position in a Fortune 500 company, and remember getting into a heated discussion with another employee. (Associate? Staff member? Cast member? Your call). She was part of a four-person department dedicated to enforcing the rules in their standardized planning book for product development. Unfortunately, the rules were so constraining that pretty much nothing got done unless they were bent or broken, which was something I had the authority to do. I summed up my feelings about process at that time of it by saying “… I’m not a big fan of it; it stifles creativity and deals poorly with exceptions.” I still feel that way now, but the years (about twelve of them) have made me less vociferous on the subject. Or maybe its just that I’m now twelve years removed from that environment.

Two days before our trip, I painstakingly entered thirteen flight plans into my on-board GPS. Over the course of the trip, I flew eight of them, entered three more, and flew only two of those. But having them on tap provided a foundation, and creating the first thirteen was good practice for the others.

Probably I should read up more on Eisenhower. He may have some other good advice.

Eclipsing a tradition

Monday, April 16th, 2012

This one’s been in the works for a while. Five years, at least. Over that time, it appears I’ve created something of a tradition. Around November, I decide that it would be a Great Idea to fly my own plane down to the Bahamas. This is not a particularly challenging flight aeronautically; basically you fly to Fort Lauderdale and make a left. It only becomes non-trivial when things like money and time become factors. In other words, in the Real World.

So at the appointed time, usually a bit before Thanksgiving, I continue the tradition by sending $10 off for the appropriate charts, after which I start drawing lines, looking at hotel rates, and adding up numbers. And then, after a while, I look at my bank account and my work schedule, and I quietly fold the chart up and put it on the shelf.

But last year, I decided to do something different. I set up an automatic monthly transfer to an unused bank account, and three months before the target date, I started informing my clients as to when I’d be out of town. So in principal, this should actually work. Two weeks, 2500 miles, two countries, six cities, ten airports, and at least one mouse (we’re stopping at Disney World on the way back). Doubtlessly there will be some anomalies along the way, but that’s okay – I’ve built a few extra days into the Master Plan.

More as it unfolds.