Thursday, March 31, 2005

Fruits of Habitual Rapt Attention

Most of my ideas for things come right before I go to sleep. When I turn out the light, it's as if that change in lighting triggers some synaptic firestorm; my brain's attempt to ward off the impending darkness. I let it do it's thing, and then promptly role over and go to sleep.

Since I've been thinking about writing lately, in particularly the self-publishing space of blogs, my latest late-night thought regarded this subject.

Which I promptly forgot.

Fortunately, my morning ritual of reading the paper help me remember. I'm a print-news junkie. I need my fix. Sure, there's news sites on the Internet, but I like feel and smell of the newspaper itself. Not that the news tripped my memory back onto S. Idea Way. The only section of the paper that I read with habitual rapt attention is the comics page.

So here's my grand idea:

Artists could use blog software to post up a daily web-comic.

Ok. So, it's not so grand. Most ideas are merely an integration of existing ideas anyway. Bill Gates is a fabulously wealthy individual because of this.

The reason I think it is a pretty good idea is that the blog software provides much of the infrastructure for publishing, hosting and archiving of the material. Images can be posted very easily. Good blog software provides a way to publish to a particular server if one would want to control the hosting environment.

A few friends of mine have attempted to do this. They usually quit after a while due to complexity (ok, perhaps also due to artistic flame-out). Perhaps removing some of the technically hurdles would make it easier to get started.

I did some searching for this and, as far as I can tell, no one is doing this. People write about comics (rather like I write about writing), but no one uses blogging as a medium for comics themselves. As with serial fiction, it could be a place to use some very interesting comic formats.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Part of a Balanced Breakfast

I've been reading a lot of Alexandre Dumas recently. Well, up until I started reading Louise de la Valliere, which is a court novel and absolutely boring.

The fact that the novel is boring isn't quite my point. Dumas wrote all of his major novels (The Three Musketteers, The Count of Monte Cristo) as a serialization in one of the Parisian papers. This brought me to wonder if there was a place for this type of fiction in the new medium of blogs.

(An aside on the word blog: I'm not sure I'm a fan of the new word. It seems a bit crude, but I suppose that words that are basically slang usually do.)

I first I thought that perhaps I had come up with something rather new (almost slipped into a pun). But I immediately rethought this idea as it is the 21st century and therefore there is nothing new. So I did a brief search on Google to find out what's out there.

Here's a few (I've only read the authors' introductions to their works, so I can't attest to the quality of the works):

There are, as well, a few sites out there that blog about blog related fiction (again, that word).
  • Blogfic - which has much more interesting things to say than I do
  • BlogNovel - which is like that guy at a party who the only thing he does is introduce himself, otherwise he seems to shy to interact. Maybe he'll warm up.
There are other forms of blog related fiction which may seem a bit more creative. This is the use of the blog as fiction in the form of a blog. There are similarities to the use a letter as a way to advance the story; Mary Shelly's Frankenstien is one good example. The story proceeds in what might feel like real-time to the reader. The author, on the other hand, probably has a pretty good idea.

One thing about writing in this fashion is that, in order to publish on a regular basis, posts are short and first-draft-like. I consider this a downside. I think there needs to be a reasonable amount of polish on a work. This allows the author to tell a complete story. If it is serialized into very small chunks, as a real-time blog would appear, it becomes difficult to keep track of. Again, Blogfic puts it better:

Serial fiction can get harder to write as you get further in, with plot threads left dangling and more characters than you can remember without a Rolodex. It can get just as hard for the reader – especially the non-dedicated reader who doesn’t want to start at the beginning and read a year’s worth of blog entries just to catch up. If your blogfic sells itself on the strength of an ongoing story, you’ve got challenges in making that story clear to the reader, and making sure that any given entry will hook them enough to want to read more.

The more I look at this subject the more interesting the area becomes. The medium of hypertext alone provides interesting ways to right a story. The concept of hyperlinking a story is something I haven't seen before. Parts of a story could be leaped, skipped, and repeated simply by the way the author uses these links. It like the "choose your own adventure" novels. There definitely could be some interesting ways to use the technology.

I don't plan to leap out into this new and uncharted fictional medium. I'm still a pretty crappy essayist. No sense in becoming a pretty crappy fictional blognovelist.

I revised my search in this subject, thanks to Ten Reasons Why, and The Synthetic Cafe.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Ah, Paris Posted by Hello

Practice Makes Perfect

I've found that the best time to write is in the morning (not surprisingly, the book I've read on the subject seemed to say the same thing). Moreover, I've found a place for it.

I can't write at home. Maybe it's because I live in a one-bedroom apartment. Given my part-time schedule, it's beginning to seem like a small one-bedroom. What it really doesn't allow me is a place to work without all of the distractions of home. My office is in the dining area. My dining room table is in a corner of the living room. My living room has the TV. You get the idea.

On my days off, I go to this coffee shop down the street. Wi-fi and coffee, the two things I need. I also find the noise to be useful. It's sort of a curtain from the quiet. The quiet is my distraction. I have a really difficult time concentrating when my brain is allowed to go where ever it likes.

This all comes back to time and place. I've decided to try and go the coffee shop every morning. Big sacrifice, eh? This requires an earlier morning, but I'm hoping that the daily practice will improve my writing. It's the one thing that I think the books on writing have right: daily practice will improve one's writing.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Round World Jump-Around

I'm doing a little jump around on my travelogue writing. I'm working on a brief summary of my recent trip to Paris. I know it will be brief, as it was a moderately uneventful trip.

It sits at the forefront of my mind, though. I've been thinking a lot about moving. Paris is beginning to top my list. I don't speak French. I don't know anyone in Paris. I just love the city, I love the people. On the whole, it would be a fantastic place to live.

I wonder if the Parisiens think this. I know they have large amount of civic pride (hard to imagine this is true when they let there dogs and drunks piss in the streets). Some might say it is arrogance, but I'm starting to think it might be well deserved.

The problem, as I see it, is that it would take the willingness to up and move to another country. I really think I could only do this if I had a job to start when I arrived. This, I hear, is difficult to get these days. The EU has made it very difficult for foreigners to obtain work visas. I've haven't done a lot of research in this area, but I should really give it a shot.

Here are the steps (according to
  • Find a job
  • Obtain a work permit
  • Obtain a visa de long séjour
  • Go to France
  • Apply for a carte de séjour
For anyone outside of the EU, finding a job in France is extremely difficult, for the simple reason that France has a very high unemployment rate and will not give a job to a foreigner if a citizen is qualified. France's membership in the European Union adds another twist to this: France gives first priority for jobs to French citizens, then to EU citizens, and then to the rest of the world. In order for, say, an American to get a job in France, s/he has to prove that s/he is more qualified than anyone in the European Union. Therefore, the people with the best odds of working in France tend to be those in highly specialized fields, as there may not be enough qualified Europeans to fill these types of positions.

It sounds like I have my work cut out for me...

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Ludite Morning

I went snowboarding yesterday. A million muscles cried out in pain, and then were silenced.

Thank God for ibuprofen.

It was damn good fun, but today is probably going to be extra lazy. Writing is, in my opinion, a difficult task on a good day. But it will be extra difficult to do today. My mind is lazy, hampered by pain killers and caffeine, among other things necessary to make movable in the day.

I wonder about that as I get older. How much artificial support am I going to need to get by? Pain killers and anti-depressants now, but what about the future?

There are a lot of science fiction authors who will have people implanted with a variety of devices. These aren't your pacemakers, but things to enhance one's quality of life. The strangest of which are implants for connecting people directly to machines. This is one idea that I find my self thinking Luditic thoughts. That makes the world to close to the inner workings of ones mind.

Look at the state of the Internet now. Even though it has been mainstream for ten years now, it is still a backward frontier. There are pioneers, bandits, entrepreneurs and pirates. It's generally lawless. Not some place that one would want to just open up their mind. Imagine needing a firewall built into your brain.

I'm not railing against open-mindedness, mind you.

A lot of infrastructure will be needed before we can really move to this level. Currently, it is just a representation of data, put together in such a way that it is understandable and navigable. It is in no way a reflection of reality, nor a real place for communication. The internet has to become more of a construct of reality then what it is today.

We need to enhance the way we use the internet to communicate. Email, instant messaging, chat aren't quite there yet. They lack the visual cues that complete human interaction. Face-to-face communication is both more informative and more satisfying.

Maybe I'm old fashioned. I've tried these new types of communication. I still prefer a phone call over email, and face-to-face over the phone. I need that interaction. I need that emotional connection. Weird need, considering how much of an introvert I am.

I don't have any solutions to suggest, at least not ones that have already been thought up in the universities and corporate research labs. It's going to be interesting to watch how things evolve. Maybe I'll shake off my ludite nature and welcome it.

Friday, March 18, 2005

I was remembering this morning about cereal box prizes. When I was really little, I think when one of the Star Wars movies was coming out (the good ones), there was a promotional thing with som cereal that had a record in it.

A record.

That was so cool. It was a very flimsy, cheap record, probably the size of a 48. It had some Star Wars music on it, some R2D2, that sort of thing. It was incredibly creative, in terms of marketing.

Now days, I've seen cereal boxes that have CD-ROMs in them. I don't see these as very interesting or eye-popping. The technology is so common place. Records, at least for me, were a real prize. They weren't terrible common in our personal children's library. This made them special. Now days kids have there own computers and games already. Something free out of a cereal box or a happy meal isn't going to be that compelling.

Anyway, just a strange memory...

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A New Kind of Drug

For some people, myself included, blogging is the new drug. There's something addictive to writing on a regular basis to an unseen (and perhaps non-existent) audience. Maybe it's more like street preachers, minus the street...and maybe the preaching.

Well, wait, let's think about that for a minute. There are two types of blogging. One is journalistic. Each post is a story, written (at least in the case of good blogs) in the form of a news piece. The author has the same sense of duty of the street preacher: the need to get the message out. The other is egoistic. The message is internal to oneself. The author is talking of ideas, feelings, or events that occur in his or her own life.

Which gets back to it being drug. It similar to talking to hearing one's self speak. Those guilty of this aren't saying things for the benefit of educating others. They do it because the get off on hearing how "smart" they sound. It's a fix, pure and simple.

Before I started this post, I was jonesing. Now I just sit back and ride the high.

Imagine the shakes, if I lost my access...

Monday, March 07, 2005

Editing, Schmediting

It seems to me that editing in blogs is, more often than not, an afterthought. I noticed this with my last post (which had a great deal more editing than usual). The ending of the post is a bit awkward and with a little editing and rewriting might be better.

That's indicative of another writing problem that I have: I can't write endings very well.

Usually, it has to do with the fact that I don't know where I'm going. I don't visualize where the ending needs to be. If it's fiction, I don't think about the resolution when the idea of the story is gestating. I've been working on this to some success. I've begun the habit of not even starting if I don't have an ending. This has been helpful, in one respect, in that I don't start something that I can't finish. The downside is that I start alot less.

In non-fiction, on the other hand, I usually am just rambling on about some particular topic. Here's an example. Say I was writing a short piece on writing endings. The piece might just ramble on for a while, until I get bored. Another thing that might happen is I get distracted (or, as the case has been while writing this piece, I have to go back to work). When I do return to writing, I've lost the train of thought that I was riding on. So I'll just end it.

Trouble with endings seems to aflict many writers. Robert Heinlein wrote some of the worst endings I've ever read. His endings always seemed to consist of the main character getting overwhelmed by events (physically), passing out and finally being rescued by some outside forces. That's total crap.

Not to say that I'm a writer. I'm just making observations.

How's that for an ending...

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Travels in China

This is an extended version of an email I sent to a friend a few years ago. It's been two years since I took a trip to China and I've been revisiting it mentally.

A few years ago, I saw this PBS series with Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame) called "Around the World in Eighty Days." One of their stops was in China with a boat trip down the Yangtze river, through an area called the Three Gorges. The program talked about this dam project that was displacing huge numbers of people and basically destroying the Three Gorges through flooding. I thought to myself, how cool would that be to see something that will soon be irrevocably changed.

So fast forward to March of 2003. I finally got enough vacation and cahones to actually take this trip. I bought a ticket and a guide book and went to China for three weeks.

The first day in Beijing had one of the most surreal experiences I've ever had traveling. I was up and out of the hotel by 5 am. It was foggy and snowy that morning with the city yet to awake. I walked at least three miles from my hotel to Tienanmen Square in the cold snow down a wide street. On the way all of these high-rise buildings loomed like giants, sleeping where the stood, eyes shut and unaware of this tiny American making his way through their lair.

The square itself was empty of people, closed off by police for one reason or another, so it was this large plane of monuments the where dimly visible in the snow and fog. It was a good introduction to three weeks pretty full of isolation in a crowded country.

I froze my ass off that morning, as beautiful as it was.

I did the usual tourist things, but given that March in Northern China is almost as cold as Minneapolis, there weren't a lot of tourists. At times I had the entire great wall to myself. I have some pictures with out a single soul walking along it for miles.

There are these little places that sell these giant pancakes. The cakes are more multi layered, like a dozen crepes stacked together. Half of one made for a decent breakfast. I made fool of myself trying to by one. First off, I didn't know how to ask for a half. So I just ordered a whole one. They looked at me skeptically. I made some signs for a half, a sort of chopping motion, while saying “half” in English. This got a number of giggles from the four other people in the six-by-six stall. One of them asked me a question that very much sounded like “Are you tall?” I grinned and nodded sheepishly, not really understand why one would ask a question that could be answered by visual inspection. This got a roar of laughter from the whole pancake crew.

When I returned to the States I asked a friend of mine, who spoke Chinese, what this might have been. It turns out they were basically asking me “Are you was stupid or something?” My answer of yes still stands.

I took a very long train ride down to the Yangtze's and caught a boat down the river through the gorges. Buying the ticket for the boat was a bit of a challenge. I really needed someone to write it down for me before hand. Instead, I had to point in the phrase book at various words and parts of sentences. I was trying to piece together the idea that I wanted to buy a second-class ticket on the next boat out of town. This took about twenty minutes to get the idea across. The woman pointed my in the direction of the correct ticket window. The woman behind the counter asked me, in perfect English, “How may I help you.”

The boat was a cool experience, due to the fact that there were only five native English speakers on the boat, all of whom stuck together, like out of some 19th-Century British Empire scene.

The trip down the river was fascinating. The cities along the river were mostly demolished, as if War had visited and left his mark. It made for eerie mornings. Skeleton cities with skeleton crews: a few residents in these cities still tried to maintain there life there. They just refused to go.

Looking just passed the ruins of the old cities, one would see the new cities. These gleaming white cities had been thrown up in under five years. Both the demolition and the construction were amazing. It always left me thinking what a force to be reckoned with the Chinese will be. Look what they can do by hand.

There was a small, side trip on a estuary through an area called the Little Three Gorges. This was a more claustrophobic set of canyons. It was beautiful. That's not what really sticks out in my mind when I think of the place.

We stopped for a few hours on a rocky beach. There were fifty or so tents where food was served (full menus) and trinkets were sold. Even with that, it was very pleasant place to sit and relax. When we got back on the boats and everyone was taking their seats, this man punched his wife in the stomach. He didn't say anything before he did this, just hit her. I was so angry and yet so stuck in my chair. I didn't know how to get involved. If it had been in any English speaking country, I'd like to think I would have done something (probably resulting in me getting my ass kicked). All that seemed to happen was another woman yelled at him for a while and he sat down.

That's become my memory of that place. Not the beauty of the gorge, or the serenity of the
place, but this awful aspect of human nature.

The boat trip stopped short of Wuhan, my destination. The damn was nearing completion, so it was no longer possible to travel all the way through. Only three weeks or so after I returned to the States, the Chinese began flooding the Gorges.

Eating was one of my travel fears in China. I had been basically eating pot noodle for about three days, and finally saw how skinny I had become. I probably had dropped down to a buck-forty-five. Not really where I wanted to be.

Wuhan was one of the only cities that really made me feel uncomfortable. It was more of a center for farmers, and for me, just a place to kill some time.

I was taking a train to Shanghai. I went to the train station a little too early and spent a lot of time. Most of the time was spent reading and being stared at by all the farmers. There is no cultural stigma with staring in China. Being the only Westerner in the train station, I was definitely different and, therefore, interesting. This took some getting used to. I was taking the advice of the older British ex patriot from the boat trip. Just stare back. This would stop them from staring after a while.

This experience, as well as the fact that a majority of the passengers-in-waiting had packed there belongings in seed bags, should have hinted at the experience to come on the train to Shanghai. I shared a six-person sleeper “cabin” with one other gentleman who spent most of the time sleeping or quietly reading his paper. There were very few other people in the sleeper cars. And no-one spoke English.

There were a couple of little kids on the train; brothers, I think. The younger of the two decided that I was interesting enough to talk to. He began to speak to me in rapid (i.e. standard speed) Chinese. My reply to this was, in English, “I don't speak Chinese.” This seemed to make the boy very angry (well, as angry as a five- or six-year-old can get). He got very close and pointed his finger in my face and began, as I could only imagine, to lecture me on the thoughtlessness of visiting a country with out learning the language.

All this lecturing made the older of the two very embarrassed. It made me highly amused.

Something like thirty-nine hours later I made it to Shanghai. Thirty-nine hours on a train with no one to speak to and only copies of Hamlet and Henry V to read is a totally alienating experience. This speaks to the whole trip, but I've never journaled more then when I had no-one but myself to talk to. At least I didn't' become totally crazy and talk out loud.

Most of my time in Shanghai was pretty mundane. Shanghai is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in China. That being said, I spent most of my time eating and drinking coffee. I needed the relaxation time after all the more adventurous things of the past two weeks. And, yes, I admit that I went to Starbucks. The employees there spoke some of the best English I had encountered.

I stayed at a beautiful old hotel-turned-hostel right on the river. The Astor Hotel is on the Chinese equivalent of the Historic Registry. For seven bucks a night, I highly recommend it.

It was there, in the bar, that a young English woman explained to me that the English are completely useless. This was not the first time on this trip that this was explained to me. A young lawyer on the boat trip had put mentioned this as well. I wonder if this is an opinion of the younger generation. It has stuck with me though.

Don't get me wrong. I love the English, as I love the Irish, the Aussies and the New Zealanders. I just like this self-deprecation about an entire group of people.

At this point in the trip, things were on an inevitable slide towards completion. I had been traveling for two weeks, with a week remaining. I have always maintained that in order for a vacation to be a true vacation it must be at least two weeks. It takes a week to decompress from normal life and then the rest of the time is spent enjoying the holiday. The last week is spent anticipated the return to normal life. One is ready for this return and welcomes it. This feeling permeated my last week.

I did more of the touristy things in Beijing (thank God for express trains). Nothing was that memorable at that point. I was certainly more comfortable with the city and the people. This allowed my to push a little deeper into the side streets. I didn't really look as much, though. I was ready to go home.

All in all, I have very fond memories of the trip. I felt very much like a savvy traveler. While I was there, SARS had broke out in southern China and we had just invaded Iraq. These things made feel even more like an intrepid traveler. They kept me watching what was going on in the world while I was enjoying the escapist experience of the tourist. Even though the dangers of the worlds seemed close, I still felt the need to continue on.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

I take a ballroom dance class.

There, I've said it. Yes, I take a ballroom dance class. I've been taking this for the better part of the academic year.

Why, one might ask?
  • I enjoy it.
  • It's a useful skill, a gentlemanly one.
  • Err...and I get to dance with a number of young women.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Wheels a Spinnin'

I spend a lot of time spinning my wheels. It's winter here in Minnesota, but that's not the point.

There are a lot of moments where I'm just waiting for things to happen. Running tests, compiling code, syncing to the phone. So I get a lot of little moments to think, read, or otherwise occupy my time.

I suppose, given that I am at work, that I should be doing something useful. It is Company Time after all. But I think this is a valuable use of time, personally.

I'm thinking that these early posts are generally going to consist of me babbling on about the act of babbling. Not all that terribly interesting, really. Its exercise, pure and simple. There's a little portion of the brain that needs to be stretched and worked out, in order to begin to write about anything of meaning. That's what the books say, anyway.

I'd say that my writing knowledge has only come out of a few chapters of one book on writing (aptly called "On Writing"). I've been learning a little about pacing and theme and that sort of thing. I never really took any courses in writing. An attempt at a distance learning course, but that didn't really work out. I'd still like to write. I just need a few tools to force me to write on a daily basis. Again, it's a matter of exercise.

Since I'm working part time, due to grad school, I've had a few extra days a week to work on school related activities. However, I found that I wasn't really spending my time thinking about my subject of choice. I was reading, writing, thinking,etc. But not about Computer Science. So I dropped my class and I'm pretty much thinking I'm out of the program. Funny thing is, I've done more thinking about Comp Sci then I ever did while in class this semester. Go Figure.