Sunday, July 31, 2011

16366--The Countdown Has Begun

The clock is ticking.  Brick Stone doesn't take a lot of things in Life too seriously.  One thing he does hold dear is his .44 Magnum, so in its honor I've put 44 hours on the big countdown clock.

What're we counting down to?  This time, we're counting down to winning a prize.  To enter yourself to win: leave a comment in answer to the question "What sort of a hero is Brick Stone, anyway?"

Sounds like a contest to me.  Make sure to leave your email address with your comment because the prize is an ebook.

Chosen from among the commenters, some clever soul is going to receive a copy of "The Official Private Eye Handbook".  The countdown ends at midnight on Monday, August 1, so don't dawdle.

Friday, July 29, 2011

16364--Wait, the Jedi weren't the good guys?

Those of us who enjoyed George Lucas' little space sagas thrilled at the highs and lows of their conflict and drama, the politics and warfare, and the mystical struggle between the Sith and the Jedi.  We cheered for the Jedi when they won and felt sorrow for them when they fell.  I imagine most people did.  We were supposed to, after all, since they're the heroes of the stories.  They were the heroes, weren't they?

Somewhere along the way, the noble Jedi began to lose their footing on the straight and narrow.  I guess Yoda noticed it when he realized that the Jedi were having difficulty being prescient.  When your psychic levels of awareness are suddenly all cloudy, it only makes sense that you'd want to know why.  Blaming the Sith seemed reasonable.  A sneak attack is so like them.  It made sense to send Qui-Gon Jin and Obi-Wan Kenobi to find Darth Maul for questioning.  When they found him, though, all they did was fight him.  What happened to "Only for defense.  Never for attack."?  I know Yoda drilled that in to those mavericks, but they never asked that snarly guy a single question.  It just didn't seem to be the Jedi way.

When the Separatist Movement began and an organized faction tried to split away from the Galactic Republic, the Jedi kept themselves out of the politics of the situation.  Good for them.  When pressed into fighting, though, they didn't seem to have any issues with putting a slave force of clones out on the front lines.  Maybe they were desensitized by the fact that the soldiers seemed to have less personality than most droids and were clad in robot-face armor, but let's face facts: the clone army was composed entirely of living men who were bred and trained to serve as soldiers.  They were never offered any other options for how they might choose to live and die and no one seemed to care.  Obi-Wan was told quite clearly that the clones were genetically modified to possess diminished will, making them quite pliant to having orders barked at them, and he didn't even pause to question it.  I suppose these legions of duplicates were never expected to have any sort of lives in the great republic beyond military service.  Assuming their survival beyond fighting separatists, being part of a standing army was all anyone ever intended for them.  Weren't the Jedi supposed to be fighting for everyone or maybe the Old Republic only advocated Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness for people who weren't test tube babies.  Come on, human trafficking and slavery? 

People may have raised many debates over the merits of Star Trek versus Star Wars, but the Federation certainly never condoned abuses like that.  The Federation actually takes things in the opposite direction by banning genetic modification and such, but they had that whole history with Khan Noonian Singh and the Eugenics Wars.  You can't really fault them for trying to learn from their history.  I don't even have a guess at how many people Kirk and Spock helped free from those sorts of oppressions.

Contrasted against another champion of the oppressed, a quick "What would Superman do?" should easily produce an answer of "Not send a hundred thousand slave soldiers into a war they know nothing about simply because it's convenient to the side I support."  Barring occasional encounters with red kryptonite, when you lose your way, Superman typically makes a fantastically unerring moral compass.  WWSD?  This particular issue would hold special meaning for him since among the many accounts of life on lost Krypton, one intriguing timeline (John Byrne's post-Crisis reboot) includes a society-changing war that was the culmination of a dispute over the rights of clones created solely to provide spare parts for citizens.  With the clones as an integral part of their life insurance system, the people were provided a buffer against the rigors of time, injury, etc.  Lucas' Galactic Republic used a variation of protecting the people with a buffer of clones by just sending them out to fight rather than letting them sleep and harvesting pieces from them.

We may find ourselves faced with such considerations soon as we advance from couples having second and third children to provide replacement parts for first child in need to growing new organs to bolster our own quality of life.  This leads to the ultimate debate of sparing our children and theirs the horrors of war and new parts by just sending clones to fight and suffer in their stead.  Strict adherance to economic theory says that first child is priceless and every one after is worth less, so what does that say about originals and clone meat?  Are we willing to risk our souls to save our lives?  When the mass production of military clones makes the whole thing cheap and easy, how long will it take for people to stop considering war to be horrible?  Without strict regulation, how long will it take for cheap and easy cloning to make its way into the civilian market, changing the face of labor and human trafficking?  We'll pay a steep price to descend into a mire of devalued life and overpopulation.  Some will say it's a complicated mess.  I say it's as clear as the Bill of Rights and refer to the aforementioned "WWSD?".

Back in a galaxy far, far away, with all that moral ambiguity Mr. Lucas has unleashed, who are we supposed to cheer for?  It's hard to support the protagonists when you're thinking that maybe they deserved what they got.

So for Anakin going to the Dark Side, the fall of the Jedi Order and the collapse of the Republic into a soul-sucking imperial power, the Jedi may have to accept a charge of contributory negligence.  Maybe we can have another set of movies where the clones develop individual personalities, assert Free Will and rise up against their oppressors...all of them.  Ah, sweet Freedom.  Long live the Clone Rights Movement!

It's something to think about.  WWSD?

Did you notice any other ways that the Jedi might have pushed themselves out of balance with the Force?

16362--Is the Hero of Your Story Really a Hero?

 Coined in English 1387, the word "hero" comes from the Greek "heros", which originally translated as "protector" or "defender".  What is a hero, though?  What qualities define your character as actually being heroic?

Is your hero just holding the title by virtue of being the main character in the story?  There are plenty of those out there and you may know a few.  They lack strength of character, sense of responsibility, compassion for others...Well, you're smart enough to see where this is going.  We're not talking about a heroic hero.

Maybe you're working with a tragic hero who has been set on his heroic path by tragic circumstances.  You know, Superman and Batman sort of heroes who rise from being orphaned into perservering champions.  Some are also obviously superhuman, though that isn't a prerequisite.  In some cases, it adds to the story and in other cases it works better for the hero to be very human, putting life and limb at risk for the sake of others.  Either way, it sounds like you're building a role model worthy of the title.  This is why their level of sacrifice is important.  Batman was orphaned when he watched the murder of his parents, setting down a purposeful path for his wealth and focus and sacrifices yet to come.  Superman had a larger sacrifice up-front with the death of not only his parents but his entire world.  Then, he had to learn how to live among the people of Earth with the unique hidden burden of ever-growing power.

You can have a reluctant hero or a brooding hero or one who eagerly embraces a destined path.  In our modern age, an audience is also likely to encounter a rough-cut anti-hero who doesn't really care about others, but whose goals happen to coincide with some outcome that's good for somebody who isn't bad.  Your hero may even be a vigilante, operating so far outside the law that "right" and "wrong" have new definitions.  The recent film "Despicable Me" was as devoid of law and order as "A Fistful of Dollars", with both the protagonist and the antagonist operating as self-proclaimed villains dedicated to outperforming each other in magnitude of criminal grandeur.  The protagonist only crossed the line at the story's climax when he set his own wishes aside in favor of...OK, again you're smart enough to see where we're going.

Just because your hero isn't a clean-cut milk-drinker who contributes to widows and orphans doesn't mean he has to turn in his badge.  There are a lot of different kinds of heroes.  Some of them wouldn't even get along with each other.  Some use weapons and some are willing to kill to achieve their goals.  Some justify their actions easily while others go through endless internal conflicts.  They're all fine as long as they measure up to getting the part of their job done that dictates they put their own issues aside to fulfill their heroic purpose.  What that purpose is...Well, we've established that you're supposed to be smart and it's your story, so you tell me.  What is your hero doing to earn the title?  What sacrifices and conflicts have challenged your hero to grow into the role?

What makes your favorite hero tough enough to have earned the status?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

16363--In Warm Blood (Ch. 7)

Happy Thursday. To help keep my own feet to the fire, I'm using Thursday as my public accountability day. That means, posting a bit of coherently creative output for you to read and feedback on every week. If I perform according to my own intent, what I put here will be available as a whole elsewhere at the same time or shortly after appearing here.

In Warm Blood is currently available as a part of The Official Private Eye Handbook, first book in the CITY OF MAGICK series.  Please, feel free to take a look here, though, and at subsequent chapters. Let me know how you feel about it.  For those of you finding your way here relatively late, no problem. The start of the story is just a click away.

Chapter 7

Circe ran a stylish nightclub called Aeaea, just a few blocks off midtown. There were lots of Greek columns and the furniture was made of marble and wood with throw pillows and tapestries. Red, green and gold colors dominated the sprawling room and the customers were definitely from the dressier set. A night’s entertainment in Aeaea was unquestionably out of my usual price range, but I was having a good week.

With the kiddie cops, flanking me, I had to grease the doorman with two full sovereigns. Once we were inside, the ambiance of the place hit me like a slap in the face from an angry dame. The air was a heady mix of scents--wines, perfumes, sweat--with a soft jazz band backing up a sultry songbird on the stage. Most of the customers were taking in the show with the only ones making competitive noise huddled in shrouded booths. The tables in a couple of booths were hosting card games. Tarot readings were going on in another. The booth beyond that sounded like someone was running a spirited dice game.

“Hey, big man,” an inebriated young woman greeted me as she grabbed onto my arm, “you look like you need to loosen up a little.” She giggled as she pulled me toward a curtained doorway, “Come on! We’ve got what you’re looking for right in here. A little Draught of the Divinity? Quaff of the Kraken? Journeyman’s Potion? Yeah, that‘s the one. It‘ll send you tripping hard.”

“Stone?” Overknight asked after me, pulling on my other arm. “What’re you doing?”

“What I came here for,” I said.

“She just offered you three illegal substances,” Homer said. “Are they serving mind-altering drinks in that room?”

“Keep on counting, boy scout,” I told him. “I imagine they have at least a few more rules they’re breaking.” As we stepped through the translucent silk curtain, I saw a trio gathered around a silver-trimmed, glass hookah. I tapped the nearest man on the shoulder and asked, “What’s burning tonight?”

“Unspeakable Serenity,” he laughed as he waited for his turn to smoke again.

“Is that legal?” Homer asked. “I’ve never heard of that.”

“Easy, Homer,” Overknight said. “Breathe.”

“Not in here,” Homer said sternly.

“Look over there, man,“ I pointed out a few others giggling a few feet away. “Is that Monstrous Nothing?”

“I think it’s Frost and Burning Desire,” Overknight said.

It was hard to tell in the dim light, but I think I saw Homer’s forehead veins start to throb intensely. I walked towards a semi-circular couch with a group of men and girls seated around a low stone table. Some of the revelers were seated or slumped on the couch, a couple on the floor, none of them fully dressed and all of them looking exceedingly dazed.

“Stone, what’re you--?”

“What have we here?” I asked the dizzy couch potatoes.

“Oh, this?” one of the men said, looking to the table and gesturing toward the iridescent purple crystal balls resting on a serving tray. “Just…doin’ a little orb, officer.” The group giggled uncontrollably.

“Yeah,” one of the women said dreamily, holding another of the glowing spheres in her lap, “just…just…orb. Yay.”

“No, that’s doing a little orb,” Overknight said, pointing at the purple sphere. “That,” she said, pointing to an iridescent gold sphere in the lap of one of the girls on the floor, “is a Golden Orb of Temptations.”

That caught Homer’s attention.

“What?“ Homer asked fiercely, suddenly at my other shoulder. “Golden orb is banned across the entire plane and these two blissed out little honeys look like they’d still be underage even if I added their ages together.”

“Let’s see some ID, girls,” Overknight commanded.

“I’d be surprised if they can move,” I said.

“I bet my bra’s older than either one of them,” Overknight said. “Excuse me, Brick. You and you, move over to that side of the couch. You--”

OK, you two amuse yourselves here,” I said, turning to head back to the club’s main room. “I still need to talk with the boss, so try to give me about twenty minutes before you shut the place down.”

I went scouting on my own, getting a little distance from my escorts. Aeaea had a reputation as a place that had to be on any list of places to check if you were looking for a missing person. You couldn’t honestly say you’d made a thorough search until you’d checked at Aeaea. The person I was looking for hadn’t been reported missing, though. In fact, she liked to make sure people knew where she could be found.

“Circe,” I said, approaching the spicy Mediterranean dish. She was doing her usual bit: floating just a few inches off the floor in a few yards of sheer white silk that looked like it was trying to float off her body as much as it was avoiding gravity. Her clothes swirled around her like she was a nymph dancing underwater with hypnotic grace. Like the sea, Circe’s ancient talents for toying with and destroying any man fool enough to disrespect her mysteries and powers were not to be forgotten. “How can so much fabric cover so little flesh? I mean, that must be some powerful spell.”

If nothing else, no one could say Circe didn‘t keep an interesting staff. The first one that came at me was Arlo. He was a cross between a man and I didn‘t know what, but it did still have hair. He had lots of hair. She wouldn‘t tell, but I’d always thought that maybe Circe had found a way to make a guard from hair. “Bad career move, Arlo.“ I caught him by the wrist and hand he had grabbed me with. He was heavy and slower than he needed to be. It didn’t take much effort to send his mass flying across a couple of tables with crashing and clattering furniture and dishes. The upscale crowd didn’t seem to miss a moment of enjoying their evening. They were accustomed to ignoring the help. The second guard looked kind of scaly.

“Virgil! Heel!” Circe commanded sharply.

Virgil hissed at me but obeyed his mistress. “That’ll buff right out,” I said, nodding at Arlo and his mess.

“Brick Stone,” she said in a sultry, voice that I’d seen melt men before. “What’re you doing in here, besides disturbing the peace of my oasis of entertainment?”

I had her attention, anyway, I knew, watching her turn in the air like a ballet dancer, abandoning her routine circuit of flirting her way through the customers without even an “Excuse me.” Well, if nothing else, she wrote the book on being a doxy with moxie, so she knew they‘d put up with her and come back for more. That was part of the allure of her power. “You met with Jack Morgan a few days ago.”

“It never ends. Why do people like you always come to me in search of the lost?” she asked, the icy stare from her pale eyes trying to pierce the armor of my private eye trench coat (standard issue).

“You mean, besides your vast wisdom?” I asked. “You draw men like ice cream trucks draw eight-year-olds, sweetness.”

“Why, Mr. Stone,” Circe said, taking my hand and leading me to her private booth, “I do believe you’ve added flattery to the amalgamation of your charms.”

Someone had obviously invested in a word-a-day calendar. A single candle flickered at the center of the round table, pushing back some of the shadow that shrouded us. “It would’ve been ungentlemanly of me to lead off the conversation by talking about your reputation.”

“Indeed,“ she said, her tone momentarily colder. “People do come here just to have a good time, you know.”

“It’s the ones who don’t leave that become a concern. There‘s a rumor going around that you have sirens up on the stage to lure men in here.”

“My darling, men are far from complicated. Merely having women here would be enough to bring men here,” she explained as she waved a hand at somebody and set in motion a flurry of servers. Our tabletop was suddenly covered with an assortment of dishes, sporting bread, cheeses, oil, honey, wine and meat. “If not that, then alcohol and moderate quality food. Aeaea offers all three.”

“Well, there’s a marketing campaign if I ever heard one,” I said. “I wasn‘t staying for dinner.”

“This is just an appetizer, darling,” Circe explained, dipping some bread in both oil and honey. “Be my guest.”

“I had a late lunch with friends, actually, but thanks.”

She paused slightly and forced a smile. “You still won’t break bread with me after all these years? I’m crushed.”

She was lying. No matter how many years all her magics let her pass without showing or whatever else was within her powers, lying was one thing I figured I could always count on her to use. “I’m just a private gumshoe, Circe. You know your prices are way out of my league.” It’d be a cold day in Hell when I’d go to Circe for food or drink. “So who’s up on the stage singing the blues?”

“Those two? Didn’t you read the marquee?”

“Of course not, doll,” I told her. “You know I came here to see you and nobody else.”

She gave a coy giggle and stroked my cheek. “Those are The Nightingales, Philomela and Procne, sisters mired in tragedy. The betrayal of a lying king found them in a gruesome love triangle. Their plot of bloody revenge was thwarted when the powers of Olympus saw fit to change them to songbirds.”

“Sounds like a real tearjerker,” I told her. “They’re working for you now?”

“I know what it’s like to need a chance for a fresh start. We managed a deal: work visas and restoration of their human forms in exchange for three nights a week and a few sovereigns to feather their nest.”

“And here I thought they’d work for chicken feed.”

“Nothing comes for so low a price here, darling man,” Circe said, reaching out to stroke my hand.

“What could you possibly want from so simple a man as I?” I asked my seductive hostess.

“Let’s see what you’ve got to offer,” she said coyly.

“Just this,” I said, holding up a little blue matchbook that I’d pulled from my pocket. “One like a thousand others in here.”

“Except that Aeaea’s matchbooks are black,” she said, dumping a platter of bread onto the table. “That one I gave to Jack. It‘s blue because I enchanted it.”

“Of course,” I said. “I should’ve known.” If I was going to come all the way to Circe’s club, I should’ve expected that I’d have to deal with magic.

“There’s something else that seems different about you, dear man,” Circe said, still eyeing me oddly as she tried to probe my unseen depths. “I can’t quite put my finger on it…”

“You know I’m not that easy,” I teased her. “Now, about this matchbook…”

“You got this from Jack yet you don’t know where he is?” she asked. “I haven’t seen him since--”

“I never said he was lost,” I told her. “I’m not looking for Jack. He’s dead. His wife killed him.”

“Well, that makes much more sense,” Circe said.

“Glad I could help,” I said dryly, as if I‘d come to answer mysteries for her. “So…magic matchbook does what?”

“Burn it.”

“I’ve been outside. It’s wet,” I pointed out.

“So?” she asked me. “Light the matches and drop the book onto the platter.”

“Alright,” I said, tearing a match from the book and setting the cardboard aflame. We both watched as the damp matchbook burned. The fire spread across it quickly and changed color from blue to green, blossoming like a flaming bouquet. In a few seconds, the platter surface was nearly covered with a dancing fire. “So…It’s a nice centerpiece. It’s almost hypnotic, in fact.”

“Reach in,” she said.

“Excuse you? Have you been drinking your own absinthe?”

“Do you want your clues or not, detective?” she asked with a sly smile.

“Clues?” I echoed, looking into the fire. “What sort of clues?”

You lit it,” Circe explained, taking me by the wrist and guiding my hand toward the fire, “so you have to reach in and find out.”

“One day,” I said, pushing up my sleeve, “we’re going to have a long talk about how much I hate magic.” Circe chuckled at me. The fact that I amused her would be of great comfort to me in the burn ward. I took a deep breath and thrust my hand into the flame. I was prepared to pull back from the heat, but it was only warm and didn’t burn. Then, I felt it…velvet. My fingers grabbed the fabric and pulled a dark blue pouch from the flames. “Feels like it’s about a pound,” I said, dropping the small bag on the table in front of me.

“Oooh, this is delicious,” the smiling sorceress said, her eyes lighting up ecstatically even as the fire I’d started died out. “Open it! Open it!”

“Keep your toga on,” I told her. “I’m getting it. Sweet mama…”


“It’s a bag of diamonds,” I said, looking at the gems sparkling like ice on fire even in the club‘s dim light. “A pound of diamonds.”

“That’s it? That can’t be it,” Circe protested.

“Well, admittedly, it’s not much of a clue, but it‘s a nice retirement package,” I said, reaching into the bag. “Ah…how about this?” I pulled a folded…postcard from the bag. “Eat at Joe’s.” There was a picture of Joe’s Diner on the front of the card. On the back, someone had scribbled, “Good place to eat.” Looked like it must’ve been a clue. Hmmm…There was a black business card, heavy stock, pricey. “SOC” embossed in gold. Clues that brought more questions. Those were always my favorite. I liked those as much as I did magic.

“Give me that,” Circe said, making a simple hand gesture that caused the bag to slide across the table to her. “You’re going too slowly. I’m doing a set in a few minutes and I’d hate to keep the crowd waiting.”

She dug into the bag with her slender fingers, pushing around through the diamonds, and suddenly smiled. She smiled like a kid with a cereal box toy as she pulled her hand out. A silver chain followed her hand. At the other end of the chain, dangling below her hand, her eyes hungrily studied a shimmering white opal.

“Mine,” she said with a big toothy grin.

“Well, OK, I guess,” I said, eyeing her suspiciously.

“Good guess,” she said, shoving the bag of diamonds back at me. “Be a gentleman, won’t you?”

She turned her back to me, holding the chain out to me with one hand and her long, silky hair with the other.

“Sure,” I said, taking the chain and hanging the pendant from her long, perfect neck. “Something special for the lady who conjures everything?”

“There’s only one way that you could make me any happier tonight, Brick,” Circe said, turning back to face me as she adjusted her new bauble. She sighed, then said, “I know that’s not happening tonight, though. Run off with your playmates. I know you have a lot to do.”

“How do you…?”

“I know a great many things,” she said, leaning back in the booth with a suspicious smile, “now even what lurks in the minds of men, though I can’t believe you’re not staying to hear me sing toni…You have the Monarch‘s Hope! That‘s what‘s different. You have it.”

“Yeah,” I said, pulling the glowing amethyst heart from my jacket pocket. “What do you know about it?”

“Oh, it’s still as beautiful as ever,” she admired. “It’s so old and marvelous, full of potential and destiny. Treat it with care and respect.”

“What’s it do?” I asked her. “What’s it for?”

“I’m sure it will reveal all that it needs you to know in due time, dear detective.”

I sighed again. “You know I’m always straight with you, Circe. Don’t take this personally, but I hate magic.”

She smiled and laughed at me as she said, “I know, dear boy, and I never fail to appreciate the deep irony of your unique situation because of that.”

I also hated the cryptic answers that came my way because of magic. “What does ‘SOC’ mean?” I asked her.

“When is a murder not a homicide?” she asked in return.

“When it doesn’t get to court,” I answered. “This is a business card. Who else was Jack Morgan working for, Circe?”

“Perhaps you should ask the deadly widow.”

“Too late,” I told her. “I put a hole in her chest.”

“Maybe not so late as you think…or maybe later still. You be careful out there, heartbreaker,” she chuckled.


“Good night, Brick,” she said, dismissing me. “Always a pleasure.”

“Thanks for your hospitality,” I said, pocketing my new acquisitions and getting up from the table. “Your company is always a test of my resolve.”

“I’ll see you again soon, I’m sure. Just don‘t keep me waiting too long.”

16361--Secrets You Should Know to Keep Everything From Falling Apart

We all exist in our own private Wonderland that is more often than not summed up in the word: human.  The human creature exists as a churning mass of chemicals all built from microscopic chains of protein.  From there, those spiraling strands of DNA, all the rest of our composition flows.

Proteins, carbohydrates, fat, cholesterol, a whole pharmacy of chemical compounds make a non-stop dance within the confines of our skin suits.  There's a conspiracy of activity striving to keep us alive and thriving.  So if being of sound mind and body is actually important to us, how do we mess it up?  And what can we do to keep our equipment in working condition?

We all know the answer, even if we don't want to face it.  Life requires maintenance.  We can see it in anything that we create.  Machines need to be maintained to keep working.  Cities need to be maintained or they crumble, the territory to be reclaimed by nature.  Houses need to be cared for or they'll fall into disrepair.  The human body is the same.

That means work.  That means eating properly and it means excercise.  Now, once upon a time, this used to be easier.  Before junk food production became major industries and before we started using our brains to think up sedentary occupations for ourselves, we were hunters and gatherers.  Or at least our ancestors were.  They worked hard to survive and exercise came with that as a matter of course.  Those people walked everywhere.  A lot of the time, they were walking to find food, so there was definite motivation.  Food was much more scarce so overeating was no more likely than eating badly.

Today, we've learned to keep the food coming to us and we've crafted a civilization that makes sitting a major part of daily activity.  Instead of making time to rest, we have to make time to move.  I remember Doc Brown explaining it to the saloon audience of 1885 in "Back to the Future III" and even they thought it sounded ridiculous.  "Does anybody walk or run anymore?" Pat Buttram asked him.  Wistfully, the good doctor assured them that we modern descendants would continue the practices for fun and general well-being, but...we've managed to create some large butts.  Watch The Learning Channel for a couple of weeks and you're likely to see a few people you would swear were taking lifestyle tips from Jabba the Hutt.

OK, so if you've decided you don't want to resign yourself to having people deliver platters of food to you on an hourly basis and test the limits of the human body's fat storage system, it's time to get up and walk.  "But why?  Obviously we were meant to store lots of fat." 

Yes we were, because food used to be scarce for humankind for the last hundred thousand years.  Recently, as you might've heard, we fixed that.  We're also built for walking.  With practice, we can outdistance anything we want to eat.  That's how humans used to catch faster, stronger prey animals.  We'd push them till they were worn out, better still if we'd managed to wound them first.  Hunts might take days, but our ancestors learned to walk and run and to track things down.  We inherited a great exercise and a tremendous energy storing system.

Walking is a great exercise that requires no special equipment.  You don't even have to break a sweat for it to benefit you.  Walk thirty minutes to an hour every day and it'll be better for you than trying to run seven hours a week.  "What?  If a little is good, isn't more even better?"

Pull up a chair.  Yeah, more sitting.  I'm going to hit you with two secrets of health and fitness that they won't tell you on the diet pill commercials.  There's a limit to the health benefits you will receive from exercise.  Surprise!  After you've burned about 2500 calories on exercise in a week, you can take a break.  You won't receive any more perks after that.  That's not to say you can't keep training and teach your body to run a hundred miles if you want to; however, if that were your goal, you wouldn't need a push from me.  You would already be out there running.  So for all of you still reading, ask yourself if you'd rather walk thirty minutes a day or run for two and a half hours?  I know my answer.

Now, since I mentioned the commercials, they may have enticed you with images of smiling people sporting low-fat bodies and chiseled abs.  Many people find these images to be very motivating goals.  That's why they use them.  Assuming you're still sitting, I've got another bit of information they're not sharing with you.  Those smiling low-fat people aren't healthy.

To be medically technical about it, the images they're showing you are of anorexics.  Anorexia wasn't a desirable medical state the last time I checked.  Your body uses fat for different reasons, so it needs it.  Hell, your brain is made out of fat and cholesterol.  If you're wearing ten percent bodyfat or less, you're anorexic and so are those models on TV.  By the time of their photo shoot, they've likely dehydrated themselves, too, to really make sure the skin is tight.  That's why you can see their chiseled abs and sculpted musculature...and their ribs.  That's the only way you're going to see yours either.  Do Olympic gymnasts and weightlifters show off their abs?  No.  Their very strong muscles are hidden under fat, but that's OK because they came to perform, not to pose.

You should go do some push-ups.  Start with as many as you can handle and remember to breathe deeply.  Some days do a few less.  Switch it up to surprise your muscles.  Notice how much easier it becomes.  You don't have to set an hour aside for this simple activity, just one minute at a time throughout the day while you're taking those stretch breaks to keep from sitting all day.  You will increase your strength and your stamina over time. 

The great thing about the simple push-up is that you're not just working your arms.  There are a variety of ways to do push-ups and you're going to work your core muscles, strengthening your back and your abdominals, as you go.  That means you're less likely to hurt yourself as you perform other activities.  And since you're breathing deeply, your breathing will improve.  When your breathing improves, everything improves.

Now, when you build muscle, you will become stronger.  You will also become heavier, so don't freak out when you hit the scale.  Another secret ("Man, how come nobody's been telling me this stuff?") is that as you build muscle, your body will store a little more fat.  Don't panic.  I'm not saying that push-ups and other resistance exercises will make you fatter.  Actually, the accumulation keeps a pretty even pace.  If you started at twenty-five percent bodyfat and added ten pounds after a few weeks of strength training, you'd find that you were still at twenty-five percent bodyfat.  That means you've added a few of those pounds in the form of fat.

Getting rid of the fat is a little trickier.  The commercials don't tell you this one either, but there is a limit to how much fat you can burn.  A pound of fat stores thirty-five hundred calories.  It's a lot and it's a lot to burn.  It's even a lot to eat in a day, but we've proven we can do it.  Unfortunately, it's more than we need.  Due to the efficiency of the human body, you won't burn more than two pounds of fat in a week.  If you could, no one would've needed to invent liposuction.  When the commercials tell you someone lost thirty pounds in two weeks, a little math will tell you that it's not all fat.  If it wasn't fat, then it was something that person should've kept (muscle, water, etc.). 

That gets us back to the basics, but that's OK because we're trying to keep things simple.

  • Eat right: protein first, followed by vegetables and low-starch carbohydrates
  • Eat less: unless you're involved in intense exercise, you probably don't need more than two thousand calories a day--no super-sizing!
  • Walk more, sit less.
  • Get regular sleep and drink plenty of water: like I said, basics

Your total body weight isn't the indicator you want to watch when determining your health.   Pay attention to your body mass composition.  If you haven't already, shop for a good bodyfat scale.  For detailed reading, you might look into the writings of biochemist Dr. Bart Sears.  He developed the Zone Diet.  A lot of different diet plans have built on its simple framework and touted themselves as revolutionary (The Miami Beach Diet, for example, was a hybrid that starts as the Atkins Diet and segues into the Zone Diet).

One other bit of exercise you might want to look into is rebounding.  If you think you're not familiar with it, it's basically jumping on a trampoline.  Not the big ones, like in your backyard, which is undeniably a lot of fun.  No, this involves the little ones like you'd find in the exercise equipment department.  There is a difference, though.  The mini-trampoline will cost you about $40 and the "rebounder" about $200.  Unlike most products, though, the difference in quality really is reflected in the price.  Use the $40 model like the $200 model and you'll wear it out in about a month.  A "rebounder" is bouncier, sturdier and designed to last for years.

If you like bouncing on the big ones, you'll probably enjoy the small version.  On the small one, you can bounce inside and get more bounces.  The importance of this is that you're altering the stress on your whole body at once repeatedly.  At the height of a bounce, you're airborne and feeling weightless.  At the bottom, you've momentarily multiplied the g-force stress on yourself, over and over, but without the impact stress of jogging or even walking.  Even though it's fun, ten minutes of that counts as work.  Do a few thousand bounces every week and who cares whether or not you go for a walk?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

16359--"Maya" Means "Illusion"

She was born during WWII and quickly grew into a beautiful and intelligent young woman.  In the sixties, she made her mark in the American Civil Rights Movement and became the first person in her family to graduate from college.

She entered the business world, married and began a family of her own, raising it with loving care.  She continued to make time for her human rights work, helping those who needed assistance in bettering their situations in Life.

As she successfully handled her professional and personal activities, her altruistic pursuits also flourished.  A woman of effectiveness, she became sought after by those who needed her and gave of her time generously.  She has served her family, friends, church, community and her state tirelessly for decades. 

Following the death of her husband, hundreds of people flocked to her side in an outpouring of emotional support.  In the years following his death and her retirement from the business world, she has weathered her own health crises and continued to give of herself as a leader in multiple charitable organizations, civil rights organizations and in her personal relationships.

That's a thumbnail sketch of my mother.

Like her, there are a few things I'm passionate about in Life.  Otherwise, I'm usually pretty easy going and handle things with minimal stress.  One thing that'll raise my ire is people treating my family badly.  I'd like to think that's not too uncommonly held a position.  Thus, like a few neighbors with whom I no longer speak, I hold onto a grudge toward Maya Angelou.

Yes, that Maya Angelou.  "What?  But Phoenix, don't you know she's a beloved public figure and poet and blah blah blah?"  Save it.  I know who she's supposed to be.

I also know that this other civil rights activist, icon of women and minorities, etc. was invited to Indiana several years ago to be honored and awarded in a big public event organized by...RIGHT, my mother.  Fifteen years her junior and eager to host the poetry-spewing, honorary degree claiming, former prostitute, mom welcomed Angelou to join her onstage and speak before an applauding crowd.

Mom was sneered at.  That's right, I said sneered at.  Angelou treated her snobbishly, looked down her nose at her, refusing to speak until mom stepped off the stage.  Ms. "I listen to my people" thought she was too good to share the stage with my mother?  She dissed my mom?  Oh, Hell no!

Mom handled it gracefully, as is one of her great skills.  She's a practiced stateswoman.  Her loved ones present followed her lead.  I've kept silent on the matter for almost ten years now, but today Maya Angelou can suck it!

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Anyone else inclined to drop mom a happy birthday wish, leave a comment and I'll be happy to forward it along.  Thanks for stopping by.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

16358--Twilght of the Supergods

I have a large collection of comics.  Though I stopped collecting a few years ago, I've been a fan of the genre since I started reading.  I haven't been happy with every change the industry has seen, certainly not the decreasing page counts and word counts in this unique storytelling medium.  It saddens me as a writer.  The genre's fusion of words with pictures to tell complex tales has always been a major part of its appeal.  Great writers and great artists have both been important to the whole of the craft.

Of the many creators who have given of themselves through comic books, I've long touted Grant Morrison as one of the great writers of our time.  His new historical tome Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero is one more piece of evidence attesting to that.  If you still doubt it, just ask Mr. Morrison.  Or just read Supergods, he tells you in there what a great writer he is.  My purpose here isn't to review the book.  I haven't gotten into the habit of doing book reviews here, but I'm sure Supergods will receive plenty of the attention it deserves without my input.

Sadly, though, I've seen behind the curtain and learned things about the wizard I never wanted to know.  Naturally, I'm disillusioned.

I'll take a moment to be clear on a few facts: I don't know Grant Morrison, I don't presume to sit in judgement of Grant Morrison and I don't think he owes me anything.  Grant Morrison has contributed to the sum of entertaining moments in my Life, even managing to be impressive in doing so, and I appreciate that.

I'm hard on salespeople and I'm not easy to impress.  I still have vivid memories from the many years when my many readings included many comic books.  Some of the memories I have treasured included reading about "The Bone City of Orqwith", "The Cult of the Unwritten Book" and other gems that Morrison scattered to delighted readers.  These were moments of weird amidst a sea of conventional superhero action.  One of the things that made Morrison's odd offerings stand out for me as a writer was that they actually made me wonder how he thought of such offbeat things.  It's rare for anyone's work to make me wonder that.  Could I ever have thought of such bizarre material?

Unfortunately, among the rich historical recountings offered in Supergods was Grant Morrison explaining how he had made a habit of using powerful hallucinogenic drugs while producing his work.

That was it?  My admiration-inspired pondering actually had an answer other than "creative genius"?  Weak.  "This is Grant Morrison's brain.  This is Grant Morrison's brain on drugs."  I'm no sports fan, but I guess it's like finding out a star player's greatest moves were fueled by steroids.  If this sort of thing extends to Leonardo Da Vinci or Harlan Ellison or Nikola Tesla, please never tell me.

If Grant Morrison wants to use drugs, that's his business.  I wish he'd kept it that way, but I'm not likely to become amnesiac anytime soon.  Knowing takes the luster off some of his writing for me.  Now I know that I or maybe anyone else might well have come up with work just as off the wall if only we'd partaken of the same mushrooms.  The inspired weirdness loses its magic when you show how cheaply the trick was accomplished. 

Maybe part of the difference for me is that I'm a writer and there are elements of my own creative writings that people have asked me "How do you come up with this stuff?" and told me "I could never have thought of this."  I consider that to be high praise.  It's a huge validation to any work to take it out to the public and receive confirmation that it's like nothing else under the sun.  Finding that I can do that without sliding a few bucks to a drug dealer I wouldn't ask to collaborate, I guess produces some bias.  I know there are a lot of people who would argue that different drugs have helped produce art and music and writing for years, perhaps unlocking realms of the brain that their creators might never have accessed otherwise, and I still enjoy the work, but it still leaves me less impressed with the accomplishment.

So we may need to start doing urine testing before handing out "Creative Genius" labels.  How about hair follicle tests for award nominees?  Do you think it would have an impact on music and writing awards?

16357--Work Softer

What's he talking about this time?  Creative process, I suppose.  Creating something, whatever the medium, usually takes some considerable measure of time and effort.  Less frequently than most of us would like does the confluence of elements occur to push us from the beginning of producing a work through to its completion without stopping.  Honestly, if that sort of thing did happen more often, there'd be a lot more creative types noted for being isolated lunatics misunderstood by the rest of the world.

So writers work in bits at a time.  Sometimes we work in large bits and sometimes in small ones.  We plot and plan and ponder, squeezing blood and sweat onto the pages.  Some might say we even scheme.  OK, that was me.  I've noticed on many occasions that writers would make ideal criminal masterminds.  In fact, I heard that the federal government had started hiring writers to conceive terrorist plots so Homeland Security would have a better chance to be as prepared as possible against whatever may come at us.

Whether we're writing fiction or not, we find our processes.  We stare at notepads or computer screens or blank walls or out windows.  We think and feel and we write.  We think of images to describe, lines of dialogue that inspire  and we press onward toward the finish.  Of course, I've also heard that some writers dawdle, procrastinate, doodle and find all manner of other things to distract them from their work.  I'm not pointing any fingers.  I'm sure you know who you are.  You probably just need a break, a little time away from your official workspace.  So you go do some chores around the house or go out for some shopping or a movie, time with friends and family.  For some people, that's all that's needed to come back refreshed and ready to write more.  Some need time asleep, perchance even to dream, to really recharge the creative drive.

Some of us find we're almost never done with writing.  We might step away from the formal setting, but almost everywhere we go and whatever we do we find that some part of our brains are still working, churning ideas to the surface for us to scribble into our handy notepads.  We'll catch an overheard bit of random conversation, or spy a couple in heated discussion and reach for the notepad before we even realize we were doing it.  Then, while you think you're occupied with something else entirely, BOOM!  The innovative solution to sticky plot thread drops in your lap and brings a complex layer of nuance that you hadn't even realized was there all along!  And feel that adrenaline surge as you become aware that your busy subconscious is even more brilliant than you thought it was, plotting behind your back the whole time.  Good thing it's on your side.

Too often it isn't about pushing.  We push for a deadline.  We push through physical or mental weariness.  We push and push ourselves to work harder.  Yet why are we pushing?  We're pushing because there's resistance.  We push and create more resistance.  That can't be good.  We espouse the value of hard work, but also remind ourselves that working smarter is more effective than working harder.  So what can I tell you?  Don't force it.  Step away. Get a little distance.  Breathe.  Work softer.

Is there a method that works best for your own personal madness?  Does isolation and perserverance serve you better than taking a breather?  Is there something else that gets you where you're going?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

16356--In Warm Blood (Ch. 6)

Happy Thursday. To help keep my own feet to the fire, I'm using Thursday as my public accountability day. That means, posting a bit of coherently creative output for you to read and feedback on every week. If I perform according to my own intent, what I put here will be available as a whole elsewhere at the same time or shortly after appearing here.

In Warm Blood is currently available as a part of The Official Private Eye Handbook, first book in the CITY OF MAGICK series.  Please, feel free to take a look here, though, and at subsequent chapters. Let me know how you feel about it.  For those of you finding your way here relatively late, no problem. The start of the story is just a click away.

Chapter 6

Several blocks past the back side of the central courthouse, just past the elevated train tracks that ran about seventy feet overhead, there were lots of little brick and mortar buildings only a few stories tall. They weren’t much to look at, sitting in the shadows of dozens of taller structures. Some of those buildings had apartments or restaurants or music studios or little shops inside. We found a parking spot two blocks away from the building we were after and then went down another alley to an unmarked steel door. It was an out-of-the-way spot. The owner found that to be useful as some of his clients were especially guarded about their privacy.

“I really don’t see it,” Homer said, looking at our surroundings with curious frustration. “You’re going to try to sell us on a museum being down in this rat hole?”

“I never called it a museum,” I reminded him. “You did.”

“There are lots of small galleries,” Overknight said, “displaying--”

“It’s not a gallery either,” I explained as we went inside, “but Declan is an artist.”

“Such flattery is unusual from you, Stone,” Declan sounded off, looking up from his workbench. “Nevertheless, it still won’t get you a discount.”

“I wouldn’t even think of asking,” I assured him. Declan Forester was an artist. He was precise and painstaking in his pursuit of elegance. The products of his art varied from those of most artists because his were created solely for practical uses. Dedicated only to the perfection of his art, he held less concern over who used his creations or how than that he continued to strive toward some personal ideal of elegance.

“You bringing me new customers?” Declan asked even as he returned his attention to his delicate tools. “It’s unlike you to keep such…well, any company.”

“Hi. Jennifer Overknight,” she said. “He said you were the best and we just had to see your stuff.”

“Yeah, hi. Homer DeBrave, big fan,” Homer said, eyeing a bunch of hardware on one of the walls. “That is a beautiful bow. Is that a Mongolian design?”

“Sarmatian,” Declan replied. “A laminated composite of sinew, bone and wood.”

“May I?” Homer asked with a hopeful gleam in his eye.

“You may,” Declan said with a smile.

He was always happy to have someone appreciate his work.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this excited,” Overknight said as her partner reached out for the ornately crafted bow.

“Oooh,” Homer oooh-ed. “This is super-light. Is it enchanted?”

“You tell me,” Declan challenged him with a smile.

Homer ran his fingertips lightly across the intricately carved bone handle and the curve of the bow. “You a hunter or just an archer, Homer?”

“A little history buff and a lapsed target shooter,” he said, test-drawing the bow. “I don’t recognize the symbols carved in it, but the draw…is almost effortless. It doesn’t feel like it’s more than a few pounds. It must be enchanted.”

Declan smiled and said, “It only gives ten pounds of resistance at full draw, but it will fire an arrow over half a mile.”

“Very impressive,” Homer said, replacing the bow carefully on its hangers. “A skilled archer could do a lot with that.”

“Speaking of snipers,” I said.

“Subtle as your name, Brick,” Overknight said.

“Isn’t he, though?” Homer chimed in.

“Speaking of snipers, Declan,” I began again, “who’ve you had in the market for accuser rounds lately?”

“C’mon, Stone,” he said, finally sitting up straight from whatever he was working on under his magnifying glasses. “As with your own, many of my clients value the privacy I afford them. Would you want everyone to know you buy your bullets from me?”

“I’ll sing it from the rooftops and leave a business card on every corpse if you like,” I told him. “Hey, kids, Declan here makes gold and silver bullets for me.”

“Wow,” Homer said. “Astonishing.”

“That must be expensive,” Overknight said, “but I’m sure they’re worth it. He seems to be quite the meticulous craftsman.”

“Not all my clientele require privacy,” Declan said, “but many do and--”

“Do I need to just hunt through your customer list, Declan? You know that’s gonna be bad for business,” I explained, “me bothering all those people, not to mention the ones I have to blow holes in.”

“Stone, be reasonable,” Declan said. “My art is my life.”

“I don’t want to interfere with your art,” I assured him. “I really don’t even want to disrupt your business.” I reached into one of my pockets and fished out what felt like a decently sized diamond. I tossed it to him and said, “I can’t imagine you’ve had too much call for rifle bullets with an accuser enchantment in the last…three days. I’m only looking for one name.”

“For this?” Declan asked, eyeing the gem under bright light and magnification. “It’s beautiful work: flawless round brilliant cut, dazzling clarity…blue-white and, I’d say, just over three carats.”

“That’s got to be enough to pay for a name,” I said, “and any guilt.”

That rock? That should buy…a lot,” Overknight said, her eyes fixed on the sparkling gem the way a dog watches you eat a steak.

“In all fairness,” Declan said with a sigh, “I’d say a bit north of 1200 sovereigns.”

“Oh, mama,” Homer said.

Better than a few weeks of work. “Throw in some bullets and I’ll be out of your hair.”

“Hmmm,” Declan hummed, his eyes lighting up. “You have some of those gold and silver bullets with you?”

“About a dozen of each,” I told him. “Why?”

“I’ve been toying with an idea,” he said, tossing me a heavy copper-jacketed bullet. “The slug is my own blend of electrum. With a generous mix of gold and silver, plus the right etchings and blessing for that extra kick, it‘s perfect for a wide variety of evils and you only have to carry one type of bullet. The power of the magnum load is more than enough propulsion to penetrate anything you should run into.”

“Sounds pricey for the average goon,” I said. “I’m going to have to start shooting higher class scum.”

“If you’re sitting on anymore of these sparklers,” Declan said, “I’d bet you can afford it. Think you can get by with just lead for a couple of days? I‘ll have…sixty ready for you, two hundred grains each, by Monday.”

“Glad I could help you fund your research,” I told him, “and ease the burden of your conscience at the same time.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

16355-- Look, I've only got two feet!

I'm not troubled or disturbed by social media as a concept.  I think the whole thing provides us wonderful tools for reaching out to others.  If you just want to connect with other people, great.  If you're marketing, even better.

The thing that bothers me is that I think we (collectively) might end up with more platforms than we can handle standing on.

Let's be real, there hasn't been a social networking site yet that has given us the ultimate product that answers all of our needs.  They rise, look pretty, draw a crowd and then fade into obscurity when the next one comes along.  All these users must be moving around for something.  We're looking for the next better thing, I figure.

After the great MySpace migration to Facebook, MySpace (who?) was left a virtual ghost town, suffering the effect it had inflicted on its more primitive predecessor.  After Facebook got settled in, though, something different happened.  When Twitter came on the scene, it was different from Facebook.  It was so different, it was slow to catch on with people.  Once it did catch on, users realized the two were different enough that they could coexist.

OK, so Facebook and Twitter have been complementing each other and both are used for social networking and marketing.  Great.  Many contacts have been made and many friends have been contacted and contacts made on each platform have been duplicated on the other.

Now, Google+ has entered the picture.  The most common type of message I've read regarding Google+ thus far has been asking what the purpose of Google+ is.  Admittedly, I have yet to look at it myself.  I've been busy.  I have noticed a few people on Twitter indicating that they were exploring it and then reporting back some of their findings.  Some of those people have extended invitations amongst Twitter followers.

I have to wonder, though, how useful it would be for me to spend time connecting with a smaller number of people on yet another network whose population has been culled from a network I'm already active on.  Fifty of us go off to another place to chat amongst ourselves and then go back to the first place to repeat ourselves to our original, larger network?  There must be a better use of our time.

And leave it to Microsoft to think they have the answer to that.  Microsoft folk have announced their intent to also leap into the social network arena.  This is insane.  How many platforms can one person stand on? 

How long before individuals collapse under an overload from the self-induced media onslaught.  Unless these different platforms are going to talk with each other on some common ground while offering different features and interfaces for their users, like cell phone companies or ISPs, then I may have to look into hiring a staff to keep up with the social networks and then I can just talk with them.

16354--Packing My Shredder for the Museum

Way back in the 20th century, in 1975 to narrow it down, a magazine writer made a prediction about the paperless office of the future.  That concept seemed to become more of a joke, and I made fun of it myself when I was old enough to get into the office workforce and witness the magnitude of paper not just used but wasted in an American corporation.  The reason for that was simple: technological advances that allowed us to communicate more efficiently also put the power to create high-quality documents in bulk quantity was placed into the hands of the masses.  As a writer, I suppose that should be of particular importance because as that technology developed it created desktop publishing.  Worldwide paper usage doubled during the last twenty years of the 20th century.  Some of us have had the privilege of watching the change come in its strange backward fashion. Paper usage apparently had to rise before it could fall, all because of the same technological advances. 

As the revolution that's reshaping the publishing industry continues to accelerate, the cry for going paperless is nearly forty years old now.  Despite the environmental impact (rising paper production has hurt nature) and the economic impact (declining paper usage closes companies and puts people out of work), I've still managed to see a strange humor in it all.

One of the personal observations has come in discussing the shift with my son.  We were talking about the things I did with my childhood Summers compared to the things he does with his.  Among the generational differences that most of us probably notice is that we seem to have been outside more and were more active thirty years ago.  Our daily lives were less integrated with electronics.  Sure, we had video games to play, but some of us were also around to experience a lack of video games transition into the phenomenon of Pong being the new and only item on the video game landscape.  When I explained how Pong used to draw a crowd, my kid looked at me with an incredulous gaze that I must've used during my grandparents' stories of the Great Depression.  I'm glad to have experienced the many shifts, though; these evolutions of technology and industry.  I feel like I'm more comfortable with technology than the boy, probably for a few reasons.  Having lived and understood more changes than the young one, despite most of my years being logged in the last century and most of his in this one, I think I'm handling recent events better than he.

I've always had books and was taught to appreciate them.  I like books.  I'm a writer, so I suppose it's a given.  However, even though I have a lot of books, my ebook collection is growing.  As the revolution is finally kicking the door in and making itself comfortable to watch the continued withering of the print book industry, my son holds up a hardcover book and explains how he loves their feel and will fight their passing.  I chuckle as I wonder if he is representative of those who would fight for the industry, given that in his broad definition of loving books it's acceptable to write in them and lose them.  My respect for them has never allowed such behavior and I still try to handle them with such care that many of my books don't even look like they've ever been read.

I'm a writer.  I have contact with other writers.  We still think of books when we think about our works being published, but we are also very much in touch with the reality of the intangible ebooks.  In fact, the part of my brain that handles processing science stuff really digs the concept of books composed of energy.  Any writer working today should be aware that ebook sales have overtaken pbook sales in the past year.  As a result, we writers have had to flip our marketing plans so that now ebooks are seen as essential and pbooks are increasingly being considered an optional product.  Ebooks are just so easy to produce.  Giving away free copies is a cheaper marketing tool than a business card.

This year Barnes and Noble went away.  This month Borders is following and Amazon began offering over a hundred thousand college textbooks as ebooks with price discounts as deep as 80%.  Wow.  That's going to have some economic impact all through the market.  As a former college student, I'm a little biased and see it as karma coming home to roost.

Like I said, some people are having a harder time with this than others.  When I came to this world, people were still spinning vinyl and I became very familiar with that and all manner of audiotapes.  Then, there were videotapes at home and laserdiscs and videodiscs.  The shift to CDs came in the 80s and I knew video wouldn't be far behind.  Audiovinyl passed on with a simple news story and I don't even recall a mention of whatever became of audiotapes.  Hell, I haven't been into a music store in so long, I couldn't even tell you whether or not they still make/sell those.  DVDs came along as I predicted and Blue-Ray discs are at work to replace those and a lot of home recording is handled by the wonderful DVRs.  I don't even want to count how many videogame platforms I've seen go by.  Did I mention Pong?  Try this: mom used to be a systems engineer for IBM, so I got to play with computers that took input from keypunch cards (go look it up on Wiki, we're not getting into all that), had a footprint the size of my house and delivered less computing power than I'm using to write this.  I'm used to change.  We live in an age where it happens at a noticeably accelerating rate.  Still, pbooks have been a constant companion.  They were here before anyone reading this and now we're watching them fade.  Next, it'd have to be cars and TV to have a similar cultural impact.

I imagine that it'll still be awhile before physical print stops and we stop reading and writing on paper altogether.  The books we have aren't going to just vanish and even if they did, it's not like we're going to lose the function of books.  They're being supplanted by a new information transfer technology.  And look at how long that has taken: almost seven hundred years.  We're talking about what is considered the most influential development in the last thousand years.  It's not just the form of the book that made an impact, though.  The important thing about the book was its mass reproducability.  That qualities that make a book a book allowed for it to be a means of information storage and transfer that hadn't been around before.  That doesn't just disappear overnight, which is part of the point.  Prior to mass production via printing press (1439), books had to be copied by the hands of a few literate people, a slow process that also made them precious commodities, but not just because of the time and effort, also because of information storage and transfer. 

Once upon a time, ideas and knowledge could be lost to the ages every time a couple of smart guys in different towns died without their brilliant ideas for a machine and the engine to run it ever coming together.  If only they could have passed on their ideas to others.  The Dark Ages could've been held at bay by backup copies?  Knowledge not spread can be lost and before you know it, you're out there trying to reinvent the wheel.  And if you die in an ironic wheel accident, somebody else will have to pick up the work from scratch.

I believe my kid's having a harder time with that concept because he's had a pretty static techno-media diet.  He's never lived in a world without cable TV, internet, DVDs, handheld videogames, portable music players...and pbooks.  He's only been through a fraction of what the preceding generation has experienced and is still languishing at an age where he's still in denial about not knowing everything.

Man, I'm glad I never went through that.

Monday, July 18, 2011

16353--A Fire Goes Out

Sherwood Charles Schwartz (November 14, 1916 – July 12, 2011) died peacefully in his sleep a few days ago, survived by a wife of sixty-nine years and four children.

I did not know the man and wouldn't even have recognized him if I passed him on the street.  Still, through his work in American television, Mr. Schwartz made an impact the size of Crater Lake on popular culture.

Love them or hate them, he's the man who created the television series Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch.  The two series went on to spin-off music, cartoon series, other television series, TV movies, feature films and who knows how many trivia questions and other pop culture references.  By no means will I ever tout the two simplistic sitcoms as approaching anywhere near the pinnacle of TV production achievements, but there can be no argument that they've left their marks.

Those two simple sitcoms will probably be the best known portions of Schwartz's legacy.  I have no idea how he felt about the shows, but I'd like to think that he was always able to hold his head up and enjoy his accomplishment.  A lot of creators don't live long enough to see their works appreciated.  Some who do don't enjoy them even then.  Strange as it may seem to some, Tschaikovsky hated "The Nutcracker Suite", but it has been his most popular composition.

Sherwood Schwartz won't be remembered for bringing us fine art, but he did bring us entertainment.  We can't deny being entertained because a lot of people kept watching no matter how many others badmouthed the shows or were indifferent to them.  His best known works might not be well-respected, but he entertained us and he avoided the tabloid scandal nonsense that seemed to become quite common in the years following his work.

Mr. Schwartz can at least be well-remembered for that.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

16345--Rong Writing Made Right

Probably the worst writing advice I've ever received was also the weirdest.  Sadly, it came from another writer I met once.  I don't recall his name, my brain cells devoting themselves to processing and making attempts at rationalizing his strange words overwhelmed their normally firm grasp on names.  C'est la vie.

Years later, I'm not sure if his advice was sincere or if this writer I had a brief exchange with one afternoon had it in his heart to sabotage other writers.

It went like this, "Quality writing should be devoid of ego, so after you write something you need to set it aside.  Come back to it the next day and read it fresh.  Anything you like, you need to discard because that has an ego attachment."  I didn't feel like arguing with this guy, so I said, "I see," and let it go at that.  The philosopher in me really could understand the viewpoint.  By that point in Life, I'd been through a lot of martial arts training and spiritual philosophy stuff, so I was more than a little familiar with the concept of divesting oneself of the burdensome ego.

Still, it never sat right with me.  There were a lot of aspects of Life I could see making a case for leaving your ego to warm the bench and I could even see limiting its influence over my writing, but to throw out any thing I liked felt wrong.  How was that any way to assess your own work?  Assuming the work ever even found an audience, how would you ever even connect with them?  "Hi, everyone.  Thanks for buying my book.  Glad you like it, but I don't know why.  What's my favorite part?  I didn't like any of it."  He might as well have told me never to trust my eyes.  How about, "When you cook, taste the food.  Throw out anything that tastes good to you."

Advice like that I could only see resulting in bad cooking and bad writing.  Personally, I'm glad I chose to eat the many chocolate delights I've baked, the many meals I've cooked and to have written the works that I've crafted.  I put a lot of time, energy and attention into all of them because, y'know, practice practice practice.  That's how you get better at anything.  Whether it be culinary arts, martial arts, literary arts or whatever else you choose to dedicate yourself to, open yourself to what you love love love and practice practice practice.

A lot of us learn by doing.  Some only learn by doing wrong.  Either way, can mean a lot of crispy cookies and burned pancakes.  It could mean broken bones and things, depending on your particular passion.  One of the great things about writing is that the practice paving the road of improvement is rewriting which has no limit to the number of times it can be done.  If all goes well, the more you do it, the less you'll have to do it.

That just leaves the other question.  Weigh-in with your thoughts.  Was it sincerely weird advice or sabotage couched as counsel?

Friday, July 15, 2011

16350--Spice Up Your Book Reading and Make It a Marketing Tool

Let me tell you up front, I'm not suggesting that you start renting formal evening wear.  I mean, if that's your thing and it's working for you, go right on ahead with it.  I don't want to mess with your brand or your personal style.

What I have in mind is something a little different from that and has nothing to do with you not being you.

Over in St. Louis at the Sci-Fi Lounge, the owner is an artist so it only seems natural that he hosts Drawing Club for people to come in and get creative on the first Friday night of each month.  To add to the creative sparking of folks coming in to participate, the head man provides models in costumes.

Whether you use friends or aspiring actors, a few extra warm bodies aren't that costly to have attend an event as it turns out.  Just as a chorus of voices are sometimes used for audiobooks, recruit a couple of males and a couple of females (depending on the needs of your tome) to join you at your next signing event.

It's my understanding that there's a plethora of unemployed actors dying for exposure.  All they need are properly marked copies of your text.  Let them do the reading while you sign autographs or mingle.  You can save your voice for the Q&A.

They don't even need to be in costume.

As a bonus, a video recording of the event can be uploaded to YouTube to provide a perpetual marketing tool for you and your book (as well as providing a little exposure for those helpful actors searching for fame).  If you can work out a way to get some cats and babies doing something cute on-screen, you may get more views than you know what to do with.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

16349--In Warm Blood (Ch. 5)

Happy Thursday. To help keep my own feet to the fire, I'm using Thursday as my public accountability day. That means, posting a bit of coherently creative output for you to read and feedback on every week. If I perform according to my own intent, what I put here will be available as a whole elsewhere at the same time or shortly after appearing here.

In Warm Blood is currently available as a part of The Official Private Eye Handbook, first book in the CITY OF MAGICK series.  Please, feel free to take a look here, though, and at subsequent chapters. Let me know how you feel about it.  For those of you finding your way here relatively late, no problem. The start of the story is just a click away.

Chapter 5

Overknight and DeBrave were stationed out of Midtown Precinct. I had almost dozed off during the rest of the trip, but the smells at the heart of town snapped me out of it. As someone who kept to the legal side of things on his own time, Midtown was my favorite part of the city. As we drove through it, I could breathe in the scents of China, Shamballa, Atlantis, Italy…and some truly great burgers. All the best foods anyone could ever want and some of the hottest nightclubs, were all crammed within a few blocks. Probably the only place in town that did more to service pure indulgence was Utopia. It belonged to Aphrodite, up on the north end near Tannhauser Gate. I’d never been, but I’d heard there was so much sensory delight there that no mere mortal man would ever leave on his own. Anyplace else in town that even came close was doing it on the wrong side of the fuzzy line between bright and dark. To complicate things, some of ‘em were using and abusing dark magics to make their score. I wasn’t one to complain too much, though. After all, the shadowy parts of this town kept me in business.

“Well, we’re here, Cross,” I said to him from his office door. “Was it something important or did you just want some decorating advice? I‘d suggest steering clear of ‘furnished toilet‘ this time.” It had everything but the flies. They’re filthy, not blind after all.

“Sorry for the delay, sir,” Homer said. “There were--”

“I heard,” Cross said. “I was about to put out BOLOs on the lot of you.”

“Your concern is touching,” I told him, “but I really need to get some food in me, so if we could move this along…”

“D.A. Peace is a busy man, Stone,” Cross said, “and I doubt he’ll want to waste time on your smart-mouth comments.”

“Should I have worn a tux?” I asked. “Homer said this outfit would be alright and I‘ve come to trust and value his--”

“Just get to the conference room,” Cross ordered.

“Why do you give the lieutenant so much grief, Stone?” Homer asked me.

“When you’ve known him as long as I have, it’s hard not to,” I told him. “Besides, I’m doing him a favor.  If not for me, his blood pressure would drop so low he’d probably pass out.”

“Oh…I see. How long have you known him?”

“Met him about five minutes before meeting you two.”

“Alright, conference room,” Overknight announced, pausing at the door. “Brick, behave.”

“Have you met me?” I asked.

“That’s why I reminded you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Kick the door in,” I said.

“Let’s just go in the normal way,” she said.

“I thought that was the normal way.”

“D.A. Peace, we have Brick Stone for you,” Overknight said, leading the way into the conference room.

“Good afternoon! Come in, Brick,” he said, standing up from the paperwork he had covering half the table so he could shake my hand. “Thanks for coming in today.”

“No problem, Mr. Peace,” I said. “Staying on the move makes me a harder target.”

“That’s the spirit, Brick,” he said. “And call me ‘Warren’. I’m sure these two are taking good care of you. Do you have any questions about next week?”

“No new questions,” I told him, “and nothing new to tell, except that Ferrari’s getting desperate.”

“I’ve heard it’s getting dangerous out there,” he said. “You’re not getting cold feet are you?”

“Of course not,” I said. “When you dance with justice, somebody’s gonna get their toes stepped on, but just look at her…She’s blind! It’s gonna happen! Does that mean you leave her out on the dance floor just because of a few missteps? Of course not, man! She’s blind! Who would do that? That’s something the bad guys would do, not a good guy. We just keep on dancing.”

“Alright, Brick,” Homer said. “That’s enough.”

“No, no,” Warren told him. “Let him talk. I like the cut of this man’s gibberish.”

“Unless I end up a stain on a wall,” I assured him, “I’ll be there, sore toes and all. We’ve been handed the best chance to stop Ferrari that anyone’s had in a while. It’s our job to take that hand-off and run with it to make The City the best it can be.”

“We appreciate your dedication, Brick,” Warren said. “I’d understand if you wanted to get out of town.”

“In my book,” yes, the Official Private Eye Handbook (standard issue), “you don’t run from anybody in your own home.”

“What about werewolves?” Overknight asked.

“Well, they’re not in the book,” I said.

“Or vampires?” Homer asked.

“You just don’t invite them inside,” Overknight said.

“How about zombies?” Warren asked.

“Well, sure, zombies,” I said. “You get out and set the house on fire. Now if we get overrun by zombies I’m going to visit my cousin, Sand, in Bermuda.”

“That makes perfect sense,” Warren said.

“Oh, I hear Bermuda’s nice this time of year,” Overknight said.

“Alright, then,” Warren said, “I suppose we’re done here for now. Just try to keep your head down and be in court at noon on Wednesday.”

All the concern might be touching, but I knew he just needed me for the conviction. Getting Ferrari out of circulation was everyone‘s top priority and keeping me alive was just a means to that end. Well, nobody said life was all laughs. “I‘ll be there.”

“Let’s hope so,” Homer said as we left.

As we piled back into my Charger, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were getting closer to things hitting the fan.

“What’s wrong, Brick?” Overknight asked. “You seem…pensive.”

“I can’t shake the feeling that we’re getting closer to things hitting the fan.”

“Oh, joy,” Homer said.

“Forget it,” I said. “It’s probably just my imagination. Let‘s go see some art.”

“Art?” Homer asked. “You didn’t really strike me as a museum guy.”

“Probably the last place anyone would look for me on a Saturday afternoon,” I said.

“A strange kind of genius all its own,” Overknight said. “Motor on.”

“It’s simple logic,” I told her. “If bullets are coming, don’t be where they’re flying. If somebody’s looking for you--”

“--don’t be where they’re looking. I thought you had bigger balls than that, Stone. From what I’ve heard, I didn‘t think you‘d be one to go hiding from action.”

“Mr. Stone knows how important it is for him to--”

“Maybe we need to get him some milk and cookies before bedtime,” Overknight said.

“You know Sun Tzu?” I asked.

The Art of War? I’ve heard of him,” Overknight said.

“He says I should choose and control my battles whenever possible,” I said. “That’s not to say I don’t try to choose a lot of them, but I want to make sure that when Ferrari goes down he stays there.”

“And here I thought you were getting wussy on us.”