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Stalking the Wild Muse

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Being an engineering left-brain kind of guy, the whole realm of artistic inspiration and how to cultivate it is a bit foreign to me. The best advice I’ve ever heard, though, was to identify the time and circumstances when you muse is present, and try to replicate those conditions.

Your mileage may vary, but for me, it’s oh-dark thirty, first thing in the morning. There are no distractions, my mind is fresh (if not a bit foggy), and if there’s a flow of ideas to be had, that’s when it will happen. So, being blocked on a story that was about 90% done, I’ve been trying to get some traction on it on and off for the last few weeks.

And you know something? If you put your mind to it, you can still be distracted at six AM. Email, that news site you wanted to get a peek at, the client project that’s behind schedule and could use some extra hours… and so forth.

One of the things I have not seen mentioned in articles about creativity is the idea of traction. On this particular story, I was very happy with how it began, the characters, their tribulations, and how the story was flowing. Only one problem – I didn’t have the foggiest idea of how it would end. So I spent each night, as I was falling asleep, thinking about the final scene, where the protagonist, the Big Boss, and a few other had to resolve the core conflict of the story.


So I passed the first third to my writers’ group. The feedback was quite positive, and I got some good suggestions for improvements. I also now had an implied contact to finish the damn thing.

But one thing that also came out of the review was that Rebecca, a minor character, was a good one, and I realized I wanted her to play a bigger role. So I wrote her into the final scene… and all of a sudden, the scene congealed.


The last three thousand words almost write themselves. Sure there’s some fine tuning to be done, but I actually like the way it ends. And having reread it a bunch of times (a habit of mine with new works), I’m still happy with it.

It will be interesting to see how the writers’ group feels about it. But whether it stands as it is or experiences a major overhaul, the logjam is broken.



That Engineering Mentality, Again

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

There’s a claim that True Engineers (whatever that means) never rise very far in corporate environments because they’re more interested in solving problems than fixing blame or positioning themselves politically. That’s consistent with my experience in the corporate world, but this is more about the first part of that: having a need to solve problems.

Take the cover artist I’ve been working with recently. They’re doing very nice work, at a very reasonable price. I get along great with my contact there, he seems to understand what I’m looking for and he’s receptive to doing as many iterations on a project as we need to get the job done. But it seems that he stand me up on just about every other Skype conference call we schedule.

Why? Because the power in Columbo, Sri Lanka is unreliable as hell, and very often he’s in the middle of a blackout when we’re supposed to be communicating. We’ve managed to at least work out a system of text messaging when he’s in the dark, so I know what’s going on. But that’s a band-aid, not a fix.

I did a bit of research and eventually found  the web site of Sri Lanka’s electrical utility, the Ceylon Energy Board. There’s a section in the FAQ entitled “How do Island-Wide Power Failures Occur”, which makes me think they’re a fairly common occurrence – my contact there is most likely not making excuses. Okay, one more reason to be happy that I’m living in the First World.

But their reaction to the power failures is what surprises me. If we had them in my hometown with any frequency, you can bet that within  a few months there would be a backup power unit next to each PC, cables running across the floor to a stack of car batteries in the corner of the room, and a cellular access point buried somewhere in the rat’s next of cables to provide internet connectivity. But there, the reaction seem to be to just wait around until the power comes back.

Is this a contrast between engineers and lay people? Or between Americans and Sri Lankans? Or perhaps something else? Whatever it is, the correlation between willingness to engage in problem solving, and productivity, is obvious.

Channeling all that increased productivity in a useful direction, however, can be more challenging.


Test Pilot, Again

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Nobody wants their airplane to fall out of the sky. So there’s an annual ritual called, with great lack of originality, The Annual. Once a year, a certified mechanic disassembles, pokes, prods, inspects, tests, verifies, and in general works his way from propeller to tail, looking for problems. If no problems are found, this is only nominally expensive.

There is no upper limit to what it might cost.

In an extreme case, it might be judged that the airplane cannot be economically returned to service and must be scrapped. Fortunately that is a rare occurrence. Still, owners sit on their edge of their seats for the week or two that this takes, waiting for whatever bad news might come their way. If you’re the sort of owner who views the entire machine as a black box, then you write the check, however big or small it might be, and fly home.

If, on the other hand, you’re mechanically inclined and pay attention to what’s going on under all that aluminum, you can’t help but wonder whether your mechanic remembered to replace every nut, bolt, cotter pin, hose and cable that he touched over the course of the inspection. So that first flight after the annual can be unsettling. Your preflight inspection becomes more rigorous than it otherwise might be, and you try to become attuned to anything the plane might be telling your. But eventually, there comes a point where you have to push the throttle all the way forward and slip the surly bonds of earth. Perhaps your pulse races a bit more than normal. Or perhaps you circle the airport a few times before leaving the area. But on some level, you realize that you’ve become a test pilot.

As you head away from the airport, you relax a bit and enjoy the scenery. Everything seems to be working the way it should be, which reassuring. Nothing sounds noticeably different, there are no new vibrations, and all is as it ought to be. You touch down at your destination uneventfully, taxi, and shut down. Your neck and checkbook survived the ritual, and you’re good for another year.

And perhaps you reflect on the combination of technology, finances, air density, gravitational force, and age in which you live, and give silent thanks for the fact something as special as the trip you just completed was possible. After all, from the dawn of time until about one hundred years ago, it would have been viewed as a miracle.

Dealing with ‘Creatives’, Part II

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

If you don’t remember part one of this, follow this link. Having been fired by my cover designer after only one cover, I was forced to hunt down a fresh one at And after receiving fifteen proposals in less than a day, I was actually pretty encouraged. Sure, I wasted a month with the first artist, but at least there were more out there to choose from.

A bunch were easily eliminated (too expensive, irrelevant portfolio, etc.) My initial contact was a new artist in New York City, working to expand her portfolio. At first she seemed like a good match, but after some discussion she withdrew from the project, saying it was too complex for her to deliver at a reasonable price. That was pretty much the complaint of my first artist – not exactly an encouraging trend.

So I moved onto the next one, located in (of all places) Columbo, Sri Lanka. Former home of Arthur C. Clarke. An omen?

Well, maybe. I spent a bunch of time Skyping and swapping emails with someone who used just the nickname ‘Black’, describing in great detail exactly what I wanted. I also provided a good amount of information on the story and the characters.

Black took about a week to get back to me. And when he finally did, he came back with something that eventually evolved into this:


Which was, in my humble opinion, a beautiful piece of cover art that really captured the key elements of my story. Far more eye appeal than the first one. Utterly different from what I’d asked for. And almost certainly easier to execute, from a graphic arts perspective, than my original request.

Back in my real life as an engineering consultant, very often I joke about giving clients what they need, in contrast to what they ask for. And here I was, having that exact thing done to me!

What’s ironic about it is that if either of the first two artists had made that leap, I’d be working with them instead of reaching halfway around the world (10.5 time zones) to get an e-book cover made. Now, in both cases, I began my interaction with “…I’m new at this, so I need you to educate me on what’s reasonable to ask for and what’s not.” But neither of them took the initiative to do exactly that.

So it would seem my disdainful attitude about learning how to ‘deal with Creatives’ needs a reassessment. The solution was actually for me to be educated by a Creative.

So pass the humble pie. And, given the end result, actually I don’t mind the taste at all.

What, Again?

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

It looks like this is getting to be a habit. For the second time in as many months, the crew of a jetliner has managed to land at the wrong airport. And this time, to make it more interesting, it was a jetliner full of passengers. On January 12, Southwest Flight 4013 from Chicago Midway airport to Branson (MO) airport (BBG), managed to instead land at Clark Downtown (PLK).

Fortunately, no one was hurt, despite the runway at Clark being about half as long as the one in Branson. And the airmanship involved in getting a 737-700 into 3700 feet is quite laudable. Less so the pilot’s navigation acumen.

So, as this is starting to become a regular feature here, let’s take a look at the two airports, as they might be seen from an approaching airplane on a particular heading:





I’ve tweaked the relative altitude of the photos to make the airports look roughly the same size, but I left the runway heading the same on both images. The runway headings  at Branson and Clarke are different by twenty degrees.

If anything, the area around Clark looks more ‘built up’, which might mislead a pilot unfamiliar with the area. In fact the pilot involved, despite having flown for 12,000 hours, had never flown into Branson before.

But this is why we have GPS, and other navigation aids.

Rather than speculate on what went wrong, I’m going to instead take this opportunity to wax a bit philosophical on the whole thing.

I fly little airplanes, and if you survive doing that for a while, you gain a healthy respect for the limitations of your airplane, as well as your own personal limitations. When you’re a complete newbie, you tend to view anyone around you with a pilot’s license as superhuman. And you tend to deify your flight instructor, as well. Which sort of makes sense – after all, you are trusting him with your life.

But somewhere along the line you start viewing other plots, and even instructors, as your peers. At present, I’ve been flying for about 1500 hours, so if I go up with an instructor, it’s entirely possibly I’ll have twice as many hours as (s)he does. Which is fine, if (s)he’s experienced enough to be an instructor, I can almost certainly learn something.

But I still tend to view the commercial pilots, with their 100-ton, 600 mph airplanes and thousands of hours of experience, as… well, if not gods, certainly closer to divinity than I am.

But after a few mistaken airports, and crashes on beautiful clear days, I’m starting to wonder. Perhaps they’re only human after all. And maybe I’m kind of silly for ever believing otherwise. But the whole thing is like finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real. An epiphany. But a melancholy one.

This is going to be good

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

If you know me (and hopefully more of you will moving forward), you know that one of the recurring themes in both the fiction I read and the fiction I write is ordinary people doing extraordinary things. So how could I not take note of Laura Dekker’s odyssey.

In case you don’t remember, Dekker was the 16-year-old Dutch girl who sailed solo around the world in 2012, setting a new record. Here in the United States, we pretty much only got the news about this when she successfully completed the trip. But apparently the events leading up to her trip were nearly as challenging, with Dutch authorities attempting to seize custody of her from her father (her parents are divorced) when he publicly announced that he supported her plan to make the journey. She was 14 at the time.

The whole thing also precipitated a very polarizing public debate at the time. There were those, including the authorities, who called her plan ‘delusional’. And there were others who thought fulfilling her dream was feasible, worthwhile, and worth the non-trivial risk.

Not being a sailor (or at least not willing to sail anything much bigger than a Hobie-cat), I’m not sure I’m in a position to have a strong opinion on whether her plans were reasonable. Certainly they were unusual. But Ms. Dekker was born at sea, and spent the first five years of her life on a boat. Various articles suggest that she felt more at home at sea than on terra firma.

Perhaps the question to ask is what’s reasonable to expect from a 14-year-old. Well, 250 years ago they were raising families. Today, many of them can’t seem to focus long enough to get through a semester of junior high school. On the other hand, there are 14-year olds today working toward scholarships, and I’m sure that the class of 1764 had some losers in it as well. So what’s reasonable to expect from a 14-year-old? Well, perhaps that depends upon the 14-year old. And as far as the Danish equivalent of Child Protective Services is concerned, if the kid’s not being beaten or starved, I’d say how she’s being parented is none of your d*mn business. All things considered, I’d rather live in a world where an occasional young life is lost than one in which the dreams of amazing young people like Laura Dekker are systematically crushed.

But what did I mean by ‘This is going to be good’? Well, one part of the story I wasn’t aware of was that journalist Jillian Schlesinger shadowed Dekker from port to port during the course of her journey, and has created a documentary telling her tale. The work is titled Maidentrip, and the trailer can be viewed below.

No indication as to when the full film will be available; Amazon doesn’t have it,  but it can currently be saved on Netflix. It might be a good idea to do that now, to avoid the rush.


Holiday Message

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

Its easy to get cynical about the holiday season. And if you’re not of the dominant religion, its also easy to start wondering about whether it even has any relevance. But there are universal truths to be had, and one of them is the value of generosity.

Robert Heinlein‘s round-the-world travelogue Tramp Royale was originally written in 1953 and 1954, but not published until 1992, several years after his death. And it wasn’t until last week that I began reading it. Given that it’s sixty years old, it’s held up reasonably well. The Old Master’s voice rings clear, and the inevitable anachronisms read (at least to me) as quaint, rather than irrelevant.

There is a passage where he and Virginia befriend a few young children in Lima, Peru; street urchins, really. The kids were staring forlornly into the window of a toy store, a place they’d never be of the means to enjoy. The Heinleins took them into the store and bought them each a toy, pleasantly surprised that the kids made only modest requests. In describing the event, Mr. Heinlein penned this gem:

One of the real magics in life is the fact that wealth can always be
multiplied by dividing by the age of the donor.

That’s something important to be reminded of from time to time. As a child, my family was not of the means that there was much opportunity to teach the lesson of charity, and I had to start figuring it out for my own later in life. And it still doesn’t come as naturally as it perhaps does to others.

But one of the upsides of getting on in years is that acts of generosity become easier. There’s a huge gray area between destitute and financially independent, and I’m fortunate enough at this point in my life to be living there. Sure, I’d prefer to be on the right side of the bell curve, but the fact that I’m somewhere in the middle doesn’t preclude me from helping some other folks move from the left toward the middle, however infinitesimally.

So as I age, I find myself making donations more frequently, giving gifts where none are called for, and tipping from a baseline of twenty percent rather than fifteen. That extra buck or two at the restaurant is a far bigger fraction of the waitress’s take-home pay than it was mine, and the interesting thing about it is that it makes us both feel good. If there’s a downside, I can’t see it.

There are those who say “Christmas Spirit” is merely the behavior that we should all be exhibiting every day of the year, but don’t. I’d argue that no matter what our average behavior, an annual reminder isn’t such a bad thing.

So Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, or whatever else applies. And remember that no matter what your circumstances, there are those worse off than you, and this might be a good time for an act of generosity.

Technology v. Art

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

I’m not particularly sure I need one of these, but there’s now a company manufacturing a set of gloves equipped with a Bluetooth headset. Just make the traditional thumb-and-pinky handset gesture and you’re on the phone.


I don’t use the phone out in the cold very often so I’ll probably walk away from this particular gem, but the fact that it’s out there got me thinking about technology as a means of artistic expression. From that angle, LCDs, transducers, processors, switches, and so forth are really no different than the paint, brushes, and canvas that a more traditional artist would use. There’s a fairly widespread belief that engineering, or worse yet programing, is not a creative pursuit. While the bluetooth glove is hardly High Art, I don’t think it can be denied that its the product of a creative and fun-loving mind. And if that not at least one good definition of an artist, I’m not sure what is.

What’s interesting about engineering as an act of creativity is that very often the elegance of a creation is visible only to the creator or his peers. There’s a parallel in the traditional art world, with some claiming that certain art forms can be appreciated only by someone educated to comprehend their nuances. This may be true. Or it may be an excuse to conceal mediocrity. That’s a debate for another time. But in technology, an appreciation of its underlying elegance does require familiarity with what it took to achieve it.

This though isn’t new. Consider this:

I have often felt that programming is an art form,
whose real value can only be appreciated
by another versed in the same arcane art;
there are lovely gems and brilliant coups
hidden from human view and admiration, sometimes forever,
by the very nature of the process.

These words were originally penned (keyboarded?) over thirty years ago, but they’re every bit as true now as they were back then. It’s not clear to me whether there are today fewer or more people equipped to appreciate technological elegance, but I’ll take solace in the fact that the technological elegance is out there, and from time to time I have the privilege of looking at another’s work and saying “”Wow!”

I’m glad to be living in a world where technology is so accessible that people are using it to create things like Bluetooth gloves. And the way, if you need a pair, you can get them here.

A Real Tear-Jerker, but More

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

First, go here, and read the article.

Its a touching story, about an honor provided for a man who never expected it, and was left with a wonderful experience to relive during the remaining few days of his life.

Having never served in the military, stories like these resonate with me in a couple of different ways. There’s the part of me that realizes I’m indebted to those who did serve. I can never repay that debt, but I can show interest in and respect for the exploits of the men and women who, essentially, make my life possible. And I can donate to soldier-friendly causes, for those currently in the service as well as those who once were, both the living and dead.

But something else that made this story interesting for me was the camaraderie that Bud shared with the sailors on board the Dewey, The article doesn’t mention Bud’s age, but some quick calculation puts him in his early nineties. Yet there he was, hobnobbing with soldiers one-third his age, like they were old friends. And it got me thinking that there is no past experience in my own life that would afford me such an opportunity. High school reunion? Bah. I asked a friend who attended one  of mine a few years ago about who showed up. He reeled off a list of twenty names. Nineteen I didn’t recognize and the twentieth I remembered as someone who had made my life a living hell back then. So no, I don’t think I would have gotten a reception like EM2 Bud Cloud got on board the Dewey.

Should I consider this a shortcoming? There’s a saying that you should live your life so that the undertaker doesn’t have to lie at your funeral. I’ll call that baseline; I’d like to try for something more. Perhaps a good metric would be to have a decent turnout at my funeral. I think I’m on track for that one, though I’ll admit that for best results, the venue would have to be chosen with care.

When I think about it, given the choice, I would not be willing to endure Pearl Harbor in exchange for what Mr. Cloud experienced. But within my own limitations, devoting a little more energy to broadening my social horizons might not be a terrible thing. Perhaps the writing will be a conduit in that direction.


Town On The Edge of Forever

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Business in Huntsville, followed by vacation in Memphis. No reason to travel all the way back to Boston, with the two destinations less than 200 miles apart.

Road Trip!!!!!

A quick browse of the web reveals that Avis will make this possible for only slightly over one hundred bucks, so the die is cast. A few days later, with the business part of my mission complete, I swing past the rental counter at HSV, sign my name a few times, and get handed the keys to a fairly new Ford Edge. Not quite what I expected (a compact sedan), but the trade of fuel economy for comfort seems like a reasonable one if I’m going to spend four hours on the road. I climb into the thing, turn the key, and get greeted by three separate LCD screens lighting up. That’s two more than in the panel of the Trinidad. Eventually I figure out enough of the touch panel to coax the climate control to a decent setting and tune the radio to an acceptable station. Having been to this area four times in the last few years, I’ve developed a taste for WDRM Huntsville/Decatur; I won’t be able to hold it all the way to Memphis, but its a good start.

With a four hour trip anticipated, but no need to meet my bride’s flight into MEM for eight hours, the previous evening had been spend studying the map to see if anything worthwhile was visible along the route. Corinth, Mississippi was the only town of any size, and it was close enough to the middle of the route to be stopworthy. Being a town of only 15,000 or so, I wasn’t expecting much, but Tripadvisor mentioned a Civil War museum that looked like it might be worthwhile. Route 72 turned out to be a county road, not an interstate, making it a bit slower but far more interesting. Some small towns (be sure to observe the speed limit), fewer farms than I’d have expected, and lots of undeveloped woods. Plenty of rain.

The miles click off on the GPS, and eventually I roll into the teeming megalopolis of Corinth. Its already 1:00 PM, so I opt for lunch first. Tripadvisor mentioned a Mexican place, but I accidentally blow past the address. While I’m turning around, I notice a bar-b-que shack that doesn’t exactly look Yankee-friendly, but what the hell, I’m hungry and what’s a road trip without a little adventure?

The place is one large room, with the obligatory license plates on the wall, soda machine off to one side, and a counter up front where you place your order. There’s a list of specials on the wall encoded with the local crypto key: 4 BN BBQ FF SLW $7.49. It takes me a few seconds but I manage to decode it, and it seems like a reasonable deal when I find out that it includes ‘pop’. The locals look like…well, locals. Lots of jeans, overalls, beards, beer. One guy has his daughter in tow, a blond positioned somewhere between the farmer’s daughter and Lolita. I’m out of place in my business casuals, but the proprietress is still willing to serve me, and even cracks a smile when, between ribs, I give her a thumbs-up about the food. Which was a bit charitable, but what the hell?

Now sated, I program the coordinates of the museum into the navicomputer and head over. The parking lot contains only a single car, and at first I think the place may be closed. But I decide to hike up the hill to the building anyway, and find that it is in fact open for business. I chat a bit with the park ranger/docent and begin my trek. My knowledge of the civil war is limited. Probably the last time I learned anything about it was in high school, and that was years ago. Quick version: Painful, bloody, brother against brother, some question as to whether it was about slavery, or keeping the union unified, or perhaps something else. Possibly it wasn’t necessary. But I suspect most wars look that way in retrospect.

Today’s lesson begins: At the crossroads of two critical rail lines, Corinth was of tactical significance to both the Union and Confederacy. One of the first battles of the war was fought in Shiloh, just a few miles to the Northeast. The losers regrouped in Corinth, which pretty much turned into a hospital. Not that it did much good; a combination of primitive medical technology and typhoid wiped out nearly as many soldiers as were lost on the battlefield. The town was also home to the first of the ‘Contraband Camps’; compounds where newly-freed slaves were fed and educated, and directed onto to the long road to citizenship.

The war lasted four years and took over 600,000 lives. Nearly one in fifty of the 90-year-old country’s population. How might it have played out if the Union had instead offered to ‘condemn’ the slaves, compensate their owners under eminent domain, and turn them free? Sure, it would have been expensive, but so was losing the lives of more than half a million citizens. The idea is not original, nor is it mine. One of John Roth’s characters speculates about it in Unintended Consequences (a definitely worthwhile read, if you can find a copy), But it’s always easy to Monday morning quarterback. And the teachings of the museum suggested that when the war began, people on both sides thought it was going to be a short one. Maybe that’s the case with all wars.

The rain makes it difficult for me to spend quality time contemplating the fountain behind the museum: a long rectangular pool flowing downhill, with each step representing a year of the war, and marble blocks commemorating each battle strewn across the pool, each in its appropriate place on the time line.



Despite the wind and downpour, I spend a few moments out there, and then head back in for a movie that does a pretty good job of reenacting the battles surrounding Corinth, what led up to them, and their aftermath. A short while later, I’m back in the car cruising downtown Corinth, trying with limited success to trace the route described on the ‘historic drive’ map I picked up at the museum. The sites of critical skirmishes now look like nothing more than grassy hills; it’s tough to imagine the amount of blood that was shed there. A visit to the Corinth Contraband Camp park is more rewarding. The site of the original camp is now a park, with bronze statues commemorating the activities of the past.


Tranquil and thought-provoking, at least until the winds knock down a tree that takes the nearby power lines with it. Yikes! By now time is starting to run out, and a short while later Corinth is receding in the rear-view mirror as I continue my trek west toward Memphis. I’ve learned a bit about Mississippi, and my country’s history, which is surely a Good Thing. And I’ve put Corinth on my personal map; if it ever makes the national news for good reason or bad, there will be a personal connection that there otherwise would not have been. But most of all, I’ve yet again underscored my incredible gratitude for the fact that I was born into this particular time and place.

And that’s a Good Thing, too.