Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Belated Christmas

The Wife just gave me my final Christmas present of the year--mainly because the post office just delivered it. It's a new secondary mirror holder for my telescope. The old one, you may recall, has deteriorated over the years (it's close to 30 years old, after all) and no longer adjusts for collimation. It also doesn't hold the secondary mirror securely, which introduces a good bit of wobble and shiftiness to it. None of these things are good.

The replacement is a nice model from Astrosystems, which features four-point collimation adjustment. This ought to make lining up the mirrors much simpler. The only downside is that the old secondary holder is so deteriorated, I'll most likely have to destroy it to take it apart and remove the mirror. The trick is to not scratch the mirror in the process. Fingers crossed...

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Death of journalism goes mainstream

I'm stumbling across this disturbing bit of new a little bit later than other folks (although not many seem to have talked about it, so maybe nobody cares) but it strikes me as a serious development in the world of journalism: the newsroom at the Dallas Morning News now answers to the advertising department.
Anyone who thinks advertising will influence news copy is "so far off-base. That's not going to happen at all," said Rich Alfano by phone. Alfano starts Monday as a general manager at the Morning News. His responsibilities include the sports department, as well as health care and education.

That's very reassuring and all, except for the fact that it's a bald-faced lie. Look, I worked in this environment for the year I spent with Prime Time Newspapers in San Antonio. I, too, was assured of editorial independence and the non-interference of advertising and promised puppies and bunnies and my very own DVD of "All The President's Men." The reality was very much different. From day one, advertising sent me a steady stream of story "assignments." Part of my mandate was to increase circulation of my two magazines, which--call me crazy--meant producing dynamic, interesting stories, but my initiative normally earned not kudos, but complaints from advertising folks because I hadn't "cleared it with them" first. Advertising regularly made editorial changes without my knowledge, deleting sources and quotes if that particular person/business hadn't bought a prerequisite amount of ad space. And--forgive the appearance of hyperbole for this next bit--but I felt very much like a prostitute (or what I imagine some prostitutes must feel like) whenever I was required to write a positive, ad-driven feature article on some topic or business that appeared little more than quackery to my eye. Any type of counterbalancing view was, of course, forbidden inclusion in the article, lest our advertisers complain.

Why didn't I simply resign rather than whore myself and allow any sense of journalistic integrity to be trampled? Simple: I had a family to feed, and the economy was sour. Job prospects were few and far between. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet, no matter how soul-numbing it becomes.

I found an interesting section deeper in the article:
Who decides conflicts between advertisers and journalists? Whose values prevail?

Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at Poynter, said the editor-publisher relationship works well "when you have two people who are respectful and understand the other's responsibilities and (who) listen well."

"I'd be looking for training for both the section editors and the general managers," McBride told me by phone. "The section editors will need to understand more about how the business side works. And business people will need to understand the principles of independent journalism."

This sounds good on the surface. But in my direct experience, the ad reps and business managers have no journalism background, and what's more, they have zero interest in learning anything about editorial. I can't count how many times I've heard "Advertising drives this train. Without ads, there wouldn't be a paper for your stories." Well, yeah. But without editorial content, your paper is the Thrifty Nickle or, in this cyber age, Craig's List. Last time I checked, they didn't award Pulitzers for "Ad Rep of the Year." I clearly recall the few times I tried to explain some editorial decision to an impatient ad rep, they listened in a sincere, earnest manner then promptly asked when I could make the changes they wanted in such a manner that made it clear to me they hadn't actually heard a thing I'd said.

The difference, now, is that 50,000 circulation monthlies and 25,000 circulation dailies are bush league compared to the Dallas Morning News. But I guess that's no longer true. The Dallas Morning News is now bush league as well. How long before the Washington Post and New York Times follow?

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday Night Videos

It can't really be Christmas without the Kinks, can it? "Father Christmas" is one of the most poignant, subversive holiday songs ever written, and puts to shame all those self-important, ham-fisted trainwrecks such as "Christmas Shoes" to shame. Almost brings a tear to my eye.

"Have yourself a very merry Christmas, have yourself a good time,
But remember the kids who got nothing, as you're drinking down your wine."

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Greg Lake.

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A Christmas gift of fiction

I hope the holiday season is treating you and yours well. In the spirit of the season, I'd like to offer you a Christmas gift of fiction. Apostate Treasures, LTD. is now live and ready to be read over at No Fear of the Future. It's not exactly a Christmas story, but I feel the themes are relevant to this time of year. I hope you enjoy.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Night Videos

Here's the obscure holiday classic, "I Believe in Father Christmas," from Greg Lake, he of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame. Coming from this group (and a re-recording being included in the ELP box set "Return of the Manticore") you know it has to have complex arrangements and be rife with symbolism. I don't think I was prepared, however, for the bludgeoning of Vietnam-era imagery that fills the latter half of this 1975 video. It's somewhat surreal watching today, with our current wars in the Middle East juxtaposed by the peaceful scenes that open the clip. Enjoy.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Ray Stevens.

Now Playing: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Christmas Album

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Climate change is, like, hot air

Is it just me, or is Sarah Palin's assertion "Climate change is like gravity – a naturally occurring phenomenon that existed long before, and will exist long after, any governmental attempts to affect it" akin to saying "Flooding is like gravity - a naturally occurring phenomenon that existed long before, and will exist long after, any governmental attempts to affect it" whilst standing on a dam as people upstream abandon homes to the rising waters?

Now Playing: ZZ Top El Loco

Monday, December 14, 2009

Joe Haldeman named Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master

CHESTERTOWN, Md. – Joe Haldeman will be honored as the next Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master for 2010 by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The Grand Master represents SFWA's highest accolade and recognizes excellence for a lifetime of contributions to the genres of science fiction and fantasy.

SFWA President Russell Davis announced the decision after consulting with the Board of Directors and participating past presidents. The presentation of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award will take place at the SFWA Nebula Awards® Weekend in May. The Nebula Awards weekend is available to the general public with advance registration.

“Giving the Grand Master is one of the true pleasures of serving as the President of SFWA,” said SFWA President Russell Davis. “Being able to give it to Joe Haldeman--a past SFWA president, an extraordinarily talented writer, a respected teacher and mentor in our community, and a good friend--is not just a pleasure, but a genuine honor. I can think of no one more deserving that I’d be more pleased to recognize.”

The author of 20 novels and five collections, Haldeman remains one of the most popular science fiction writers working today. His landmark novel, The Forever War, won the Nebula, Hugo and Ditmar Awards for best science fiction novel in 1975, and spawned two follow-up novels, Forever Peace and Forever Free. In total, his writings have garnered him five Nebulas, five Hugos and a host of other awards as well as numerous nominations. Other notable works include the novels Camouflage, The Accidental Time Machine and Marsbound as well as the short works “Graves,” “Tricentennial” and “The Hemingway Hoax.” His latest book, Starbound, is scheduled for a January release.

Haldeman is the 27th writer recognized by SFWA as a Grand Master. He joins Robert A. Heinlein (1974), Jack Williamson (1975), Clifford D. Simak (1976), L. Sprague de Camp (1978), Fritz Leiber (1981), Andre Norton (1983), Arthur C. Clarke (1985), Isaac Asimov (1986), Alfred Bester (1987), Ray Bradbury (1988), Lester del Rey (1990), Frederik Pohl (1992), Damon Knight (1994), A. E. van Vogt (1995), Jack Vance (1996), Poul Anderson (1997), Hal Clement (1998), Brian Aldiss (1999), Philip Jose Farmer (2000), Ursula K. Le Guin (2003), Robert Silverberg (2004), Anne McCaffrey (2005), Harlan Ellison (2006), James Gunn (2007), Michael Moorcock (2008) and Harry Harrison (2009). Until 2002 the title was simply "Grand Master." In 2002 it was renamed in honor of SFWA's founder, Damon Knight, who died that year.

About SFWA

Founded in 1965 by the late Damon Knight, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America brings together the most successful and daring writers of speculative fiction throughout the world.

Since its inception, SFWA® has grown in numbers and influence until it is now widely recognized as one of the most effective non-profit writers' organizations in existence, boasting a membership of approximately 1,500 science fiction and fantasy writers as well as artists, editors and allied professionals. Each year the organization presents the prestigious Nebula Awards® for the year’s best literary and dramatic works of speculative fiction.

Now Playing: The Heads No Talking, Just Head

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Night Videos

What would Christmas be without Ray Stevens? Well, I suppose it'd still be Christmas, but I suspect it wouldn't be as much fun. Here's the piano-playing funnyman with his remake of "Santa Claus is Watching You" from his album "I Have Returned." I have to say, "I Have Returned" is one of Ray's most inspired efforts top to bottom, and the inclusion of "Watching..." (which is, oddly enough, a remake of Ray's own classic from the 60s) is just icing on the cake.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Eartha Kitt.

Now Playing: The Beach Boys Christmas With the Beach Boys

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Bunny love

With the trauma of losing Holly the kitten last week, Fairy Girl had started neglecting her bunny. She hadn't been playing with it and letting it out of its cage as much as she should for some time now, but last week she stopped interacting with it completely, beyond giving it food and water. I gradually realized this because said bunny, at one point pretty tame and affectionate, had grown aloof and skittish. After her initial denials, Fairy Girl admitted to ignoring the bunny. She set up a baby gate in her doorway and let the bunny out for the night so that it might get some exercise.

Around 11 p.m. I walked past her room and stopped when something caught my eye. I looked closer into the dark room, and realized the bunny (a mini rex) had somehow climbed onto the bed and was cuddled up next to the sleeping Fairy Girl, watching me alertly. I rousted The Wife out of bed to see, as nobody would believe me otherwise. Later, around 1 a.m. when I finally shut down and turned in for the night, I checked in on them again. The bunny was still there, fast asleep.

Now Playing: Vince Guaraldi Trio A Charlie Brown Christmas

Friday, December 04, 2009

Friday Night Videos

Holy Happy Holidays, Batman! What's Catwoman doing singing Christmas carols?

Easy, Boy Wonder. Julie Newmar, Lee Meriweather and Michelle Pfeiffer are the only women of ferocious feline perfidy we need concern ourselves with.

What about Halle Berry?

Old chum, some evil is simply too menacing even for the Dynamic Duo. Enjoy the song.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Exile.

Now Playing: Andean Fusion Christmas Classics vol. 2

Unexpected houseguest

Last night--with the possibility of snow, yes, snow, in the forecast for today--I brought in some of my potted passion flower plants, because, you know, I didn’t want them to freeze. I didn’t check them over too thoroughly at the time, because it was cold, I was tired, and with the stress of losing our kitten still weighing heavily on the family, plants were pretty far down the list of things I wanted to concern myself with.

Lo and behold, this morning I found this little fellow had set up shop on the window blind of my office where I'd stored the plants overnight. The caterpillar must've been sheltering under one of the leaves, and the warmth of the house revived him enough to start looking for a nice place to pupate.


I counted half a dozen chrysalises outside this morning, and those caterpillars may take months to complete the metamorphosis because of the cold weather, but because of the warm, cozy conditions this one's found, I expect it to emerge as a beautiful Gulf fritillary butterfly sometime within the next two weeks. By the time I return home tonight, it'll have fully shed its skin and fully turned into a chrysalis. I'll post pictures when I can.

Now Playing: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Christmas Album

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A traumatic day

The neighbor's dogs killed our kitten. The girls discovered her as they were heading out to school. Of all the ways for your children to start the day, this one I would recommend the least. I physically ache from the relentless stress, am exhausted from the emotional toll.

She wasn't technically a kitten. Santa brought her last Christmas, but she was unusually small and still acted kittenish. Therefore she was our kitten. There was an extended sequence of events that happened last night--which I won't bore you with here--that if any single thing had gone even slightly differently, the kitten would still be with us.

We've never been on particularly chummy terms with these neighbors--their uncouth dogs have been destroying the fence between us for several years now--but this pretty much puts a capper on it. Had I the money available, we'd be moving post-haste.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

What it was was football

Despite what many folks have assumed, I'm not in a bad mood today. Nor was I last night after the football game. I'll not go so far as to say I'm happy--that's just silly. I very much wanted the Aggies to upend the sips, and from the way the team played, they very much wanted the same thing. So a loss is a loss, and that stinks. No moral victories, etc.

But if there's such thing as an honorable loss, this was it. The Aggies, picked "Most Likely To Be Lambs At The Slaughter" by pretty much every sports pundit in the nation, traded haymakers with the no. 3-ranked sips all night long and refused to quit. That fumble by Christine Michael's second-half fumble turned into a 14-point swing, robbing the Ags of a potential touchdown while allowing the sips to score one of their own. A rare Jerrod Johnson endzone interception also hurt, as did the missed chip shot field goal near the end of the game. But those were all legitimate mistakes, as opposed to blown calls or other unsavory developments. And the Ags worked their way back into the game each time, except for the final minutes

But how about Jerrod Johnson? Wow! His numbers matched those of Heisman hopeful Colt McCoy, with one difference--as Colt was shredding A&M's young, slow and bottom-ranked defense, Johnson was picking apart one of the nation's most highly-touted. I woke up this morning to see national as well as state media mentioning Johnson as one of the top Heisman candidates for 2010 based on a losing performance. I don't know if I've ever seen that before.

So no, I'm not happy with the loss, but it came against an undeniably great team that may well end up national champions. But watching that game, I saw a lot more good stuff than bad from all those underclassmen Coach Mike Sherman threw out there on the field, and with another strong recruiting class coming in, for the first time in many years I believe the program is headed in the right direction, and eagerly look forward to A&M's bowl game and the start of next season.

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Friday Night Videos

From around 1983 to 1989 I was a huge fan of Exile. I'd grown up on country music, and after the former rock group--led by songwriting talent J.P. Pennington--redirected itself toward the country charts following a string of artists including Alabama scoring big hits with covers of their songs, I jumped on the bandwagon. I even saw them perform live at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo in 1984. They simply wrote good, catchy music, and would continue to do so until an awkward single "Super Love" broke a string of half a dozen consecutive no. 1 hits. Shortly thereafter, most of the core lineup left the group, the ensuing albums flopped and by the early 90s Exile disbanded.

None of those songs are featured on today's installment of Friday Night Videos. Instead, we're going to enjoy their first--and biggest--hit from the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a disco-era power ballad that was a no. 1 hit for four weeks in 1978. The band actually re-recorded a country version for their 1986 greatest hits album, but for my money the original is still the best.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Ray Davies.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Half moon with seas

I shot this half-moon image using the eyepiece projection method (which I used for the photo in the previous blog entry as well). The eyepiece used was a 15mm GSO-manufactured SmartAstronomy Plössl. You can tell by the purple fringe and lack of sharpness in the southern region how the seeing conditions were not optimal. Still, I think it's a decent representation of the lunar seas of the eastern hemisphere, starting with Mare Imbrium at the terminator, then as we go clockwise, Mare Serenitatis, Mare Tranquillitatis and the small Mare Nectaris, with the larger Mare Fecunditatis directly to the east and the circular Mare Crisium off there by its lonesome.

This next shot was taken of the moon's heavily-cratered southern polar region with that same 15mm lens coupled with a 2x Barlowe.

With the 50D's Live View and high resolution, I hope to try my hand at some longer exposure deep-sky objects before long. Provided I can find some skies with less light pollution, and can manage a decent polar alignment, of course.

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Mare Imbrium at the terminator

Encouraged by a forecast of good conditions from the Clear Sky Chart, this evening I set up my 6" Newtonian telescope with the hopes of testing The Wife's Canon 50D on some astrophotography. Before sundown I attempted to set up a proper polar alignment for the tracking motor. Alas, my polar alignment wasn't spot-on, as there was some obvious drift in the viewfinder. And double alas, as high, thin clouds swept through around 7 p.m., degrading viewing just enough to make it frustrating. And triple alas, because by 7:30 p.m. the temperature had dropped to the dewpoint, and everything started getting wet as the sky grew hazy. I finally gave up and packed it in.

I did manage to fire off a few shots of the moon before things got too bad, however. The Wife's Canon 50D was pretty darn impressive. The Live View feature is a wonder for focusing. I'd struggled mightily in the past, but by zooming in 5x on Live View, I was able to manually adjust the focus until the craters looked tack sharp, as the popular saying goes. Conditions weren't optimal for great photos, but I did get a few of moderate quality. Below we have Mare Imbrium at the terminator:

This is the northern region of the moon. The mountain range sweeping up from the terminator is Montes Apenninus. The broad, flat area to the left is Mare Imbrium, and the one to the right is Mare Serenitatis. The large crater in the center of Mare Imbrium is Archimedes, with the smaller craters to the right Autolycus and Aristillus, in order. The mountain range that arcs back toward the terminator is Montes Alpes, and the crater right there at the far end, bathed in shadow, is Plato, a whopper more than 60 miles across.

Now Playing: Dave Davies Unfinished Business

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Piggyback mount

Get your mind out of the gutter! I posted a year or so back regarding my refurbishment of my Meade 465 Newtonian telescope, a long, involved process made even more long and involved by my obsession with detail, due no doubt to daddy issues (relentless criticism of project flaws will scar a fellow for life, I tells ya). With my telescope in serviceable order, I've begun thinking more about astrophotography, which I've attempted off and on for more than 30 years with varying degrees of success. I mentioned earlier this summer that I was beginning construction of a home-built Piggyback mount, which would allow me to attach my Canon XTi (or The Wife's 50D) to the tube of my scope and let it ride "piggyback" for long-exposure tracking shots.

Now, most of the astrophotography I've attempted has been through the telescope, either "prime focus," in that the telescope itself is used as a large mirror lens (f/5 fixed aperture, 762mm focal length I think), and also "eyepiece projection," in which an eyepiece is inserted between the camera and mirror to project a magnified image onto the camera's sensor. Those are great for Deep Space Objects or planetary photography, but some sky elements, such as constellations, the Milky Way or Banard's Loop are so large they won't fit in the field of view. Because they're faint, they benefit from long exposures, which means tracking is necessary. Hence, piggybacking a camera on the scope is an ideal solution.

Well, after I started this project in June, I set it aside after cutting and drilling the block of wood that would serve as the piggyback base. I'd bought the screws and cinch to attach to my scope, but that's as far as it went. As these things are cyclical, yesterday I pulled out the supplies for this project and sanded the block down and puttied in many grooves and imperfections of the wood, then sanded it smooth. Today I layered on several coats of primer, sanded it down once more, then applied several more layers (stopping only because the can of primer emptied). After a suitable drying period, I sanded it smooth with 600 grit paper. I have to say it's not perfect--there are still imperfections--but I decided to rein myself in and say "close enough" is a better allocation of my efforts than obsessive perfection. It is pretty darn smooth, however, and once I start layering on the Claret Red Metallic tomorrow--I've got two cans' worth, matching the color of my scope--I'll wager that few people will be able to recognize the humble 2x4 origins of the base. The mount could reasonably be finished by Thanksgiving, but realistically, I'm shooting for the first of December, considering all the travel and other demands on my time I'll be facing over the next few days. Still, the thought has me excited. I expect good things from my EF 50mm 1.8 mk I lens, or The Wife's Tamron 28-75mm 2.8. Both are very sharp and fast, and should excel at starfields and big, faint objects like the North American Nebula and Banard's Loop. We'll see. Winter has some of the best astrophotography targets, and if the weather cooperates, I'll share my efforts here.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Friday Night Videos

A bit of Ray Davies brilliance for the season, since we haven't had any Kinks-related content for quite a while. This live version of "Thanksgiving Day" is great--Ray's instincts on acoustic arrangements are always spot-on--but the studio version is even better, if you can believe it. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Drive safely next week!

Previously on Friday Night Videos: Jet Screamer and the Violent Femmes.

Now Playing: Dave Davies Rock Bottom: Live at the Bottom Line

Night shoot

I had a night shoot with the model Violet Grave tonight. She's done a bunch of goth work, and wanted something more glam for her portfolio. I've been following Dustin Diaz's photo blog, and wanted to try some nighttime strobist-style shots. Violet and I got together right after sundown, along with her son, and trouped about New Braunfels looking for the perfect shots. It's late, and I'm tired, but I think we got at least a few keepers. Here's the last shot we got right before the rains chased us indoors.

Maybe I'll get the hang of this photography thing yet.

Now Playing: The Kinks Kink Kronikles

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

So... the wedding

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: If someone suggests that simultaneously being in a wedding, riding herd on three kids and photographing said wedding in an official capacity is a good idea... it isn't. Can't say as I recommend that degree of multitasking. It's Wednesday, and I'm still exhausted.

The wedding itself was very nice. My brother John and his bride Tami were perfect hosts. More importantly, they enjoyed themselves. With all the stress they were under planning this thing in the months leading up to it, there was real concern they'd have a heart attack, mental breakdown or both. But starting Friday with the rehearsal, they were in full-on blissful enjoyment mode. Which is the way it should be. All of our extended families were there (and got along) and friends and acquaintances from all over attended, having themselves a grand old time from what I could tell. I ate and drank and fixed flat tires and chased little ones and on more than one occasion I slipped away from the wedding party to take pictures. Here's one I'm particularly pleased with, of the ceremony inside the new St. Mary's Catholic Church in Fredericksburg.


I also managed to work in a few infrared photographs. No, none of the wedding party--we're not ready for something like that yet--but I got this nifty false-color image of the old St. Mary's Catholic Church in Fredericksburg, significant in the fact that this is where John proposed to Tami.


I'd like to point out that the old church was build in 1861, while the new church was "only" built in 1908. They're both mighty impressive buildings. The entire wedding gallery can be viewed at Lisa On Location.

Now Playing: Talking Heads More Songs About Buildings and Food

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday Night Videos

A little retro-future rock to set the mood for this fine Friday: Jet Screamer from The Jetsons doing his all-time classic "Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah," a catchy ditty with lyrics penned by Elroy Jetson.

And here's something to wrap your heads around--even though this wasn't a hit until the year 2062, the Violent Femmes actually covered the track in 1995. Give a listen:

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Hall & Oates.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

A question for journalists...

Does anyone else out there find themselves compulsively correcting their typos, tense, capitalization and punctuation in emails, blog posts and even Facebook/Twitter updates? Even in informal communications where it shouldn't matter?

Dear Lord, I can't even bring myself to "LOL" online with a straight face...

Now Playing: Clandestine The Haunting

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Journalism, I shall avenge thee!

So I got a call this evening from a young student working for the Association of Former Students at Texas A&M. I listened to her spiel as she worked up to asking me for money. As soon as the invitation to make a financial gift left her lips, I countered by asking if Texas A&M had re-instituted a journalism degree.

I know what you're thinking: This was an unfair ambush I'd been prepping for years. And yes, it was. But I was nice. We have students just like her at Texas State who have the thankless job of manning phone banks to try and get alumni to give back to the university (and I have to say, the A&M students have a much easier time of it). So I was nice to her. I waited patiently as she checked with highers-up to find out that no, there is currently no journalism degree at A&M, but there are some classes that can be taken. I kindly informed her--pointing out that I had nothing against her personally--that the program had been dismantled in 2004 and until the university re-instituted a meaningful journalism program I would be withholding any direct financial support. She asked if it might have been a state-wide initiative across all universities in Texas. To my credit, I did not laugh (as all you University of Texas, North Texas and Texas State journalism graduates are now doing) but instead gave her a history lesson, how Robert Gates killed off journalism at A&M back in 2004 in an effort to rid himself of an unwanted dean of the College of Liberal Arts. How A&M was made a laughingstock in media far and wide as it was pointed out the school had abandoned the field to the perceived "Burnt Orange conspiracy" in journalism.

Yes, five years on, the bitterness is still close to the surface with me. I suggested she pass my screed along to those who take note of such things, pointing out that many A&M journalism graduates from years past may well harbor feelings similar to my own. Once the university does revive a journalism program with an honest-to-goodness bachelor degree--not, I hasten to point out, a minor or "specialization"--then I will once again be happy to lend them my financial support. But not before. It actually was quite a pleasant conversation, and she confessed to not knowing A&M ever produced journalists at all.

For those of you who might be curious about such things, I did not get into the whole Cepheid Variable can of worms. Yes, I'm bitter there as well, but an entire department/degree carries more weight than a student organization, even one that was so influential on me.

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Monday, November 09, 2009

Let me up! I've had enough!

Talk about a packed weekend! Friday was a Girl Scout sleepover at the Girl Scout house in town, and I was recruited to give an astronomy presentation. I took the moon and Venus globes along, but more importantly, the Maroon Barsoom telescope. On the downside, seeing conditions were horrible, as there is an unbelievable amount of light pollution in that area. Also, there was little to see in the sky that would interest adolescent girls, as the moon didn't rise until well after we'd packed everything away and it started getting foggy at that point as well. Deep space objects were out because of the light pollution, and aren't that exciting to kids, anyway. Luckily, Jupiter was available with all four Galilean satellites lined up to one side, and this seemed to impress the troop sufficiently. After that, it was home for me and the Bug, who didn't really appreciate being stuck with Daddy for the night, and made it clear he'd trade me in for Mommy in a heartbeat.

The next day, after picking up the women folk, we packed up and headed to Columbus for a photo shoot. It was an extended family group shot, with some break out sessions included. Some of the participants were obviously more into the session than others, but by the time the sun went down The Wife had gotten several hundred good shots and was feeling pretty positive about the keeper-to-delete ratio. We crashed pretty hard that night. Sleep comes easy when you're exhausted.

Sunday we were up bright an early to do a morning bridal shoot. Yeah, we pack a lot into our trips. The shots came out very well, but during the outdoor session I made the mistake of walking away from the light stand just as a gust of wind (it'd been very still all morning) came up and blew it over. Nothing was damaged except for the shooting umbrella (which, fortunately, looks like a straightforward fix) but the lesson was learned--always anchor the light stand when shooting outside, windy or not.

Following the bridal shoot, we gathered the kids and were on the road to the Texas Renaissance Festival by 9 a.m. We arrived shortly after 10:30 and gave each child a limited amount of spending money, all of which was gone within the hour. At this point I realize my camera's batteries were almost dead. I'd forgotten to recharge the night before. Joy. Fairy Girl got a few shots during the parade and mud show for school (she's doing a report on medieval life, which isn't the same as Renaissance life, but her teacher thought it a good starting point) but it finally died just as the joust was getting under way. I did manage to get this one shot of an actress blowing bubbles to the delight of hordes of children and many adults as well. I had to wait almost 20 seconds before I had a clear shot, but sometimes one is all you need:

By the end of the day, it was starting to sprinkle with the promise of heavier rain in store. I found Istanpitta, a medieval music ensemble that I enjoy, and picked up their CD "C'est la fin," a collection of dance music from the middle ages performed on period instruments. After listening to it on the drive home, I'm thinking I like their other album, "Chevrefoil," a tad better, but it's still a fascinating collection of ancient music.

We rolled back into New Braunfels around 8:30 p.m., and The Wife dropped me off to pick up my PT Cruiser, which had been in the shop for the past week (and parked for the prior 6 weeks) because of a bad wheel bearing. They finally had to resort to cutting the old, decrepit bearing away (so mangled it had become) to replace it, but the long and short of it is that I have my car back. Then the family unloaded from out expedition and collapsed into bed. Exhaustion will do that to you.

This morning I figured out that the gas gauge in my brother's Blazer is inaccurate. In that the Blazer was out of gas despite showing an eighth of a tank remained. This is good, because the alternative was a ruined on-board computer, which is much more costly to fix than an empty gas tank--I just wish I'd known this a week ago when the darn thing stranded me on I-35. Ugh. Fingers crossed that this week is somewhat more sedate and restful by comparison.

Now Playing: Istanpitta C'est la fin

Friday, November 06, 2009

Friday Night Videos

Hall & Oates were really, really big by the time I started high school, but with their album "Big Bam Boom" they broke away from the strict blue-eyed soul sound they were known for and rocked a bit more. Their video for "Out of Touch" was (and still is) pretty darn impressive, and it actually gives viewers a bonus song, opening with the instrumental "Dance On Your Knees." Great stuff. Enjoy!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Ray Parker, Jr..

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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Politics as unusual?

There's been a lot of commentary in the media over this off-year election cycle, referring to the results as a "Referendum on Obama." Republican candidates captured the governor's office in purple Virginia and solidly-blue New Jersey, and GOP commentators are spinning this as the nation turning its wholesale back on Obama and the Democrats.

Or not. It's possible, just possible, the Republican gubernatorial candidates were the better candidates in these elections. In Virginia, the popular McDonnell led Deeds pretty much wire-to-wire and was expected to win, whereas in New Jersey, incumbent Corzine had become a symbol of Wall Street excess and stayed in the race even after Obama and other party officials tried to talk him out of it. So, in essence, we have two Republican victories that have been pretty much anticipated for months.

I find it curious, however, that GOP spinners aren't mentioning results from New York's 23rd Congressional District. What? You haven't heard of it? That's the district where national GOP blowhards like Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson and Rush Limbaugh attacked the official GOP nominee Dierdre Scozzafava for not being right wing enough, eventually driving her out of the race (!) in favor of third-party wingnut Doug Hoffman. This falls in line with the talking points coming out of last fall's Democratic landslide, in which unrepentant right-wingers insisted the reason Democratic moderate and liberal candidates won was because Republican candidates weren't right-wing enough. In the following year, we've seen the Republicans tack a hard right, purging their ranks of moderates, most notably seen in the defection of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter to the Democrats.

So the national GOP talking heads drove the moderate Scozzafava from the race, paving the way for "ideologically pure" Hoffman to roll to victory in a Republican stronghold has elected a Republican congressman in every election for the past 100-plus years.

Except that Democratic candidate Bill Owens, a retired Air Force captain, won NY 23 despite Republicans outnumbering registered Democrats in the district by a 45,000 vote margin. And overlooked in all the hoopla surrounding the GOP victories in Virginia and New Jersey, this congressional victory actually increases the Democratic Party's margin in the House of Representatives. Ouch. How's the Pyrrhic victory feeling now, Hoffman?

The long and short of it is, I don't think any national trend can be determined by these off-year elections. The country's uncertain, but the universal groundswell the Tea Party crowd would like us to believe is sweeping over the country simply isn't there. If unemployment is hovering around 10 percent this time next year, then yeah, the Democrats and Obama are going to be in trouble. But with signs of economic recovery coming with more regularity (Ford made a profit?) I would expect jobless rates to show at least moderate improvement by mid-2010. And if health care legislation is passed--in whatever form--charges of the Democrats presiding over a do-nothing congress will be blunted. I still expect Democrats to lose seats in the House and Senate come 2010, simply because that's what happens in mid-term elections with a new president, but I anticipate that it'll be more in line with historical norms as opposed to the Gingrich revolution 15 years ago.

Guess we'll find out how much of a guru I am 12 months from now...

Now Playing: Blue Öyster Cult Workshop of the Telescopes

Monday, November 02, 2009

Bloom County

Ain't It Cool News is a mixed bag at best for me these days, what with its crudity and self-importance, but every once in a while they come up with well-written content that reminds me why I bookmarked them a decade ago and have been a regular visitor ever since. Today they have a new interview up with Scott Dunbier, editor of the new Bloom County: The Complete Library.

My love affair with Bloom County dates back to 1983, before I'd ever read a single strip in any newspaper. Growing up as a book-loving kid, Columbus was a virtual wasteland. No bookstores, unless you count the best-selling paperbacks at the checkout lines in Wal Mart or the Brookshire Brothers grocery store. The local library had an anemic SF section, and I lived for visits to Victoria, so I could spend my carefully hoarded dollars at Waldenbooks. In this context, imagine my delight when a bookstore opened up in downtown Columbus! Unfortunately, it didn't last long, due probably in no small part to the fact that it carried very few actual books. But as I was perusing their selection--single books arranged on sparse shelves like some museum display of rare crystal--I came across "Bloom County: Loose Tails." I'd never heard of this before, but flipping through I was taken with the artwork and found the content hilarious. In fact, one of the opening strips--cited by Breathed in the interview linked above--in which Senator Bedfellow meets up with a farmer who's doing great business growing marijuana instead of corn and invites the senator to "Take a few pounds home to the wife." Man, that was comedy GOLD, and the joke still holds up. Brilliant timing and execution, not to mention fine artwork. I bought the book on the spot and still have it on my bookshelf to this day.

It was shortly thereafter that I discovered Bloom County in the Houston Post. Needless to say, that became my favorite newspaper for the next decade, and I don't think it entirely coincidental that the Post went belly-up shortly after Breathed ended Bloom County. I became a genuine devotee of the strip. I clearly remember Breathed lampooning Texas A&M during the whole mid-80s "Let women into the Band" controversy, with the punchline of "Mainly manly moral values." Those strips have never been reprinted, although presumably they will be now in this "complete" collection. As a junior in high school, I got a Bill the Cat tee-shirt that I wore for years until it disentegrated, ala Jerry Seinfeld's "Golden Boy." I bought every collection as they appeared, and even had a Breathed-signed copy of Bloom County Babylon, which a guy named Paul "borrowed" and never returned my freshman year of college. He cheated at Dungeons & Dragons, too, so that tells you his moral character. I had a Bill the Cat for President poster on my bedroom door throughout college, which I believe my brother John inherited eventually. In high school I bought a plush Bill the Cat doll, a scraggly thing, which I had up through my years in Temple on a perch of honor atop my bookshelves. Somewhere between then and now it vanished, which blows because those same dolls go for $100 or so on Ebay today. The Wife remembers it, so it either walked off with a visitor at some point, or it may be packed away in a long-forgotten box from our various moves over the years. Either way, I miss it.

I have the floppy 45 rpm single of "U Stink But I Love You" and "I'm a Boinger" from Billy & the Boingers Bootleg. My fave college band, Dr. Love and the Erogenous Zones, made "U Stink But I Love You" a staple of their playlist back in the day, although they didn't have a tuba solo.

The current prize of my Bloom County collection, however, isn't Bloom County at all. It's volume 2 of Berke Breathed's Academia Waltz self-published while he was a student at t.u. That's right--my favorite cartoonist of pretty much all time (tough call between him and Charles Schultz, but Breathed was more of my time, you know?) is a tea-sip. Horrors. But I'm not alone, as Bloom County was the most popular strip in Texas A&M's student newspaper The Battalion for many, many years until it ended. It's also the only syndicated one the Batt ran--after Breathed pulled the plug, the Batt comic page was strictly local. Academia Waltz ran for several years in The Daily Toxin and is somewhat crude in content and execution as you'd expect a student comic to be. But flashes of genius are also evident, as is Breathed's cynical with and sense of the absurd. Early incarnations of Steve Dallas and Cutter John are present, and Breathed recycles several strips later on in Bloom County. I stumbled upon my copy at the Half Price Books off Broadway in San Antonio back in 2002. I normally don't look through the humor section, but for some reason that day I did--it was a very small set of shelves--and Academia Waltz immediately caught my eye. I had to look at it for several moments before it actually sank in what I'd found. And the price was $2.50--for context, these go for hundreds to collectors these days. Needless to say, I've been exceptionally happy with the pickup, and even emailed Breathed to express my pleasure and request he put out a collected volume of his early Academia Waltz strips for us die-hard Bloom County fans. Alas, his response was negative, although he congratulated me on my find, pointing out that it was "worth a lot of money."

So now IDW has released the first volume of The Complete Collection, with Volume Two due in April. Finally I'll get to see those long-forgotten Aggie strips. There will be some Academia Waltz as well, but only a taste. Most importantly, there will be many early strips that have never been collected, strips that predate my discovery of this great comic strip, which means there is new Bloom County for me to read for the first time in decades. Yay!

If anyone is stumped as to what to get me for Christmas, consider this a big hint.

Now Playing: Eurythmics Greatest Hits

Friday, October 30, 2009

Night shoot

Even though I've been doing a lot of photography work lately as a poorly-paid assistant to The Wife, I haven't actually done any photography for my own amusement in quite some time. That includes work with models or infrared, which is unusual. My work on the Chicken Ranch book, and the Turkey City workshop story took up a lot of time and energy, yes, but shooting the Strutters reunion for Texas State and various wedding events are more to blame, I believe. In light of that, and The Wife's upcoming photoshoots where I'll be a busy assistant but doing little in the way of actual image capture myself, I set about to schedule myself a photo session with an actual, living, breathing model to whom I am unrelated. You know, to shake the rust off and try something new.

To my delight, I was able to book a shoot for next week in Austin with a talented newcomer who, in the space of just one month, has become very much in demand among central Texas glamour photographers. We're going to do an urban night shoot, using the state Capitol building and 6th Street as our backdrops. She has nothing like this in her portfolio, and jumped at the opportunity. The only problem was that I'd never done anything like this, either. And with lighting being one of my weaker areas as far as photography is concerned, well, that's a recipe for disaster.

Enter Dustin Diaz, aka "Lifesaver." Mr. Diaz is a photographer, and a darn fine one at that. What makes him special in this particular context is that he has undertaken one of those 365 challenges, in which he attempts to take a photo every day or the year. Specifically, he's undertaken this challenge as a theme, using off-camera strobe lights in a variety of creative ways (such small flash setups being commonly referred to as "Strobist"), blogging about it, AND POSTING EACH LIGHTING SETUP along with camera and flash settings for each photo. WOW! Now that's what I call dedication. I also call it extremely useful, because although he uses Nikon and I Canon, I've been able to discern enough information to give me a general idea of how to approach this looming night shoot.

But as book smart and street smart are two different things, I knew I'd be a fool to go into the shoot with no practical experience, so last night, after dropping Monkey Girl off at dance practice, I scooted over to downtown New Braunfels for a few proof-of-concept shots. It was too windy to use an umbrella reflector, unfortunately, so I went with a bare flash instead, which gives a harsher light. Using myself as a model was a challenge with focus and setup of the shots, obviously, and the aesthetics weren't too inspiring, either. But I persevered, and came away with several dozen shots that were well-composed with acceptable lighting. I even got confident enough to try a few little tricks, such as using a star filter for a few shots. Here's one of the more interesting results:


I'm pretty confident at this point that I can take some moderately competent single-light night glamour shots, so the shoot won't be for naught. I could do more with multiple strobes--gelling the light for different colors would be very cool--but alas, I'm not capable of that level of creativity yet. Still, I pull this off, I'll have increased my competence as a photographer by one more notch. That's not bad at all.

Now Playing: The Mamas & the Papas 20th Century Masters

Friday Night Videos

Here I was, all ready to treat viewers of Friday Night Videos with the Toyes' notoriously subversive parody of "Monster Mash" titled "Monster Hash" when to my dismay, I discover there isn't a single decent video to that song extant. Not even a tolerable fan video. So if you want "Monster Hash" for Halloween, you'll have to hunt it up on your own. Instead, I'll follow the path of least resistance: Here's Ray Parker, Jr., before Huey Lewis successfully sued him for ripping of "I Want A New Drug," doing his thing with the Ghostbusters theme song:

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Electric Light Orchestra.

Now Playing: The Smithereens 11

Monday, October 26, 2009

Happiness is Turkey City in the rear-view mirror

So, I survived Turkey City. Significantly, I finished "Where the Rubber Meets the Road" Friday with just enough time to print out 11 copies for the workshop participants. On the downside, the story clocked in at 9,000 words--a full 4,000 more than the stated 5,000 word limit--so everyone there exhibited some form of shock and/or horror upon seeing the massive stack of my manuscripts.


I always go into these things with a mixture of hope and dread. Hope, in that the people there will confound my self-doubt and extol the genius in my work. Dread, in that my biggest fear is that they'll ferret out the very inadequacies in my prose that taunt me mercilessly. With "Rubber" I entered the critique particularly exposed, as I'd originally conceived the story as a 5,000-word jaunt and it ballooned on my uncontrollably. It became progressively more difficult to write as the deadline loomed closer, and there was a lot of literary flailing about as I crammed everything but the kitchen sink into it in an attempt to work through various plot and character deficiencies. The ending, in particular, was a mess--not one I wanted, but one I settled for because I couldn't think of a poignant, against-the-grain resolution that satisfied me.

The other writers jumped all over that stuff. It seems that the places I were unsure of myself and story were pretty transparent to the readers. The elements of the story with which I was most confident were the ones that worked best for everyone else. Which makes sense, but is interesting nonetheless. The happiest revelation came in that the bat cave scene--which I'd worried muchly would be derided as tacked-on and out-of-nowhere--proved the most popular sequence in my story. In fact, Bruce Sterling, who so laser-like identified what I was trying to do with my previous Turkey City submission "Europa, Deep and Cold," why I failed and what I needed to do in order to fix it did the same thing here again with "Rubber." This time, he distilled my problems with five straightforward words: "The story ends with guano." Which, in hindsight, makes a whole lot of sense, and lends itself to my desire for a conclusion that finds some measure of victory in failure. Bruce described the story as "a business caper" which hadn't occurred to me, but is true, since the economic element is the whole plot motivator. Chris Nakashima-Brown called it "an Aggie version of Mad Max" which is indeed true, although the only A&M connection is the fact I graduated there. It's more of a Tejano Mad Max, but however you define it, there are Mad Maxian elements in the futuristic dystopia.


Other positive comments focused on the economy and the decaying future I'd constructed for the story. Often, money is a mere MacGuffin, but I succeeded in showing the desperation, the hardscrabble need for it and where the green stuff actually goes. It's a scavenger economy where the deck is stacked heavily against the little guy, but one I succeeded in pulling off, even if one reader remained unconvinced by my underlying assumptions. My story's biggest failings (beyond the universally-reviled ending) were character and motivation. Which I can't argue with. Motivations changed several times as I was writing the piece, and the result is inconsistent at best. That will be a challenge to fix, but it shouldn't be insurmountable.

My biggest problem to tackle is the ending. Using the bat cave as a climax makes sense on many levels--particularly since it got raves because of the tension it evoked. I can't follow that with anything that isn't anti-climactic. But turning that "failure" into an inadvertent win is going to take a lot of work to keep it from coming off as a Deus ex machina or a "Why didn't they just do that years ago and avoid all the crap they just went through?" kind of ending. I guess challenges like this exist for me to prove my salt as a writer.

For anyone who's interested, I published more pictures from the workshop over at the No Fear of the Future blog.

Now Playing: Johnny Cash American IV: The Man Comes Around

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday Night Videos

I haven't featured Electric Light Orchestra on Friday Night Videos for a while, so here's a goody: "Hold On Tight." The video itself doesn't make a lick of sense in relation to the song, but that doesn't matter, because I'd happily watch all of the fake movies featured therein. "Jungle Lust" is particularly intriguing with all the bizarre anachronisms (not to mention the title) but it's undone somewhat by being in color. Ah well, can't please everyone.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Hollies.

Now Playing: Johann Sebastian Bach Harpsichord Concertos 1

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A few errant lines

Apropos of nothing, here's a short exchange from my in-progress Turkey City story, "Where the Rubber Meets the Road." It amuses me far more than it should, so I feel compelled to share.
Lupe lit up a grapevine and blew the harsh smoke out the window in a long, tenuous stream.

"You been smoking the vine a lot, lately," Manny said.

"Can't afford tobacco and dope interferes with my sunny disposition," she answered, braking and swerving enough to avoid a pair of panicked emus running along the concrete median barrier. "You rather I take up drinking on the job?"

Now Playing: Bowling for Soup Drunk Enough to Dance

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Made some good progress on "Where the Rubber Meets the Road" last night, to the point where I have only three scenes left in the story to get down. They're big scenes, though, and I'm doubting my goal of finishing tonight so that I can do a once-over tomorrow is realistic. Wordcount's all screwed up because of my issue with Courier, or lack thereof, so I'm not clear how much I actually wrote. More than a thousand words, certainly.

Two things struck me last night at the end of my writing session. Firstly, I didn't have any legit reference for a particular item's cost in my future economy. I'd just made up a number that suited the story, but that's as far as it went. A bit of research this morning revealed that my "invented" cost was actually very much in line with my background world building. That's nice when it happens. The other thing I learned was that I'm woefully ignorant of a tangential technology that key, though minor, role in the narrative. I knew enough generalities to fool myself into thinking I could fake it-- until it came time to actually write that part. Oops. Hand-waving will have to suffice for now, because time for more thorough research is a luxury I don't have.

Time remaining to Turkey City: Two days.

Now Playing: Shania Twain Greatest Hits

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What happened to Courier?

Okay, so maybe I'm unobservant. So sue me. I've written a considerable amount in the past year, but for various reasons I haven't paid close attention to word counts and manuscript format. But with the Chicken Ranch sample chapters and the current Turkey City WIP, accurate word counts have suddenly become more relevant.

So tell me, what the hell happened to my Courier font?

Courier, that plain, dull, workhorse font that pretty much every manuscript formatting primer swears by for its uniform character spacing and ease of word-count calculation, has vanished from every single computer I work on. How did this happen? When did this happen? Why did I not notice before now? I first noticed this on my old Dell 4600, my home office PC that I do the vast majority of my writing on (I use Word Perfect to write with, just so you know). A month or so back, I did a complete re-install of Windows XP because of some lingering instability issues, and over the course of several days, re-installed all of the software I normally use. At this point, I noticed that some of my writing--those using the courier font, natch--were showing up with ugly square blocks where the quote marks were to go. If I tried to print, the whole document reverted to "Courier New," an invention of Microsoft's that is over-sized and not a particular favorite of mine.

No problem, I though. I'd simply move the files to my laptop and print from there (the laptop running Windows Vista--not my personal choice, but hey). Lo and behold, no Courier there, either. With growing concern, I pulled out a huge CD set of clip art and font files I keep on hand. No Courier there, either. Nor was plain Courier to be found on my computer at work (which runs MS Word). I'm finding Courier (W1) and Courier PS. There is a whole family of Courier New variations, and also Adobe's Courier Std variants. But no plain, simple Courier.

Did I miss the memo on the planned obsolescence of the Courier font? You folks out there paying more attention to these kinds of things, what are my font options for manuscript formatting?

Now Playing: Prince The Black Album

Sunday, October 11, 2009

How to photograph in the dark when you have no flash

So tonight The Wife had the big Texas State University Strutters 50th reunion to shoot. It's the largest photography contract she's gotten to date, and wanted me along because 1) I knew more people there than she did, and could help manage the interactions, and 2) there were so many people there, a second camera was almost necessary to cover all the different situations that needed to be photographed.

Only one problem. We only have one strobe to share between two cameras--my Canon 430 EX. Since The Wife is the better photographer, has the better camera in her 50D, and the better lens in the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8, there was no doubt that she'd have the flash by default. Which left me in a quandary--since the reunion was being held in the San Marcos conference center, lighting would be abysmal. It always is in hotels. My Canon XTi produces very noisy images above 800 ISO, and even 800 can be marginal. Assuming I'd be using my EF 50mm f/1.8 mark I lens wide open, there still wasn't enough light available to produce anything but murky images. On-sight testing proved this true. I was in real danger of becoming a useless second photographer.

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, so I invented, in pure Strobist fashion. I have an old Nikon-mount Star-D SDG480 flash I inherited from my father-in-law. It's at least 20 years old, and strictly for film cameras. The voltage feedback would likely fry my camera if I tried to use it, and the whole Nikon-Canon incompatibility is an issue as well. But we do have a set of CyberSync radio triggers. I mounted the transmitter to my camera, then attached the trigger to the Star-D, wrapped the cord around my palm and slipped the bulky receiver/trigger into my sleeve. Holding the Star-D strobe in my left hand and my camera in my right, I made the rounds and took more than a thousand photos. I downloading all of them now, which is why I'm typing a blog entry and not asleep. For the most part, the jerry-rigged light source worked. I had to go full manual on the controls, and often the old flash charged too slow leaving me with dark images, but I got significantly more keeper shots than I initially expected. I felt like an old-time photographer, walking around and holding that T-rail with flash powder in it. The only thing missing was a huge puff of smoke.

I hope to not have to undergo this particular experience again, however. My hands are sore from the awkward setup. A flash bracket would've helped immensely in this situation, but were not rushing out to buy one. Instead, with the payment for this job, The Wife is getting one of Canon's nifty 580 EXII strobes for her camera, which means I'll get mine back and all will be right in the world.

Anyone curious to see our work can visit Lisa On Location. The first batch of Strutter images should be uploaded into a gallery by Sunday evening, with more to come throughout the week.

Now Playing: Pink Floyd The Final Cut

Friday, October 09, 2009

Friday Night Videos

The Hollies. "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress." Fantastic song, and one that takes me back to my college days, watching Aggie baseball games at Olson field with the legendary D.D. Grubbs in the announcer's booth. I still hate LSU.

Is it just me, but would John Fogerty covering this song be anything but sublime? Have a great weekend, folks!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Pink Floyd.

Now Playing: Silly Wizard The Best of Silly Wizard

Thursday, October 08, 2009

New MEMORY: Music of the spheres

Please try to contain your obvious shock and disbelief at the news, but I've published a new chapter of Memory over at No Fear of the Future. I know, two weeks in a row is almost unheard of lately. This marks the 41st installment of my Moorcock/Zelazny/Vance cosm-spanning heroic adventure, the one in which Flavius comes eye-to-eye with something far larger than himself, searches for his lost sword and winds up doing a fairly passable imitation of Bilbo Baggins on the Forest River:
Flavius sat in the dark, barely breathing, praying the Ketza'qua would go back to sleep... or whatever the gigantic serpent did.

The eye snapped back open, the strange, emerald glow spilling over Flavius. A subsonic rumble rose up from deep inside the Ketza'qua. Its massive scales clattered against themselves like a cavalry charge across a field of cobblestones. The buoyancy spheres shifted again, and Flavius hastily considered the inherent instability of his footing. All around, the protesting groans and whines of cables and scaffolding reverberated through the spheres.

The Ketza’qua sensed opportunity amid the chaos. The opportunity for freedom.

As always, feel free to comment, recommend to your friends, blog about, send money or anything else The Story compels you to do. Or ignore it quietly, the choice is yours (but Flavius may take exception...)

Now Playing: Various artists Celtic Moods

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


This has not been a good year for my passion flower hobby. The drought took its toll. The relentless heat wave took its toll. There were times, I confess, that in my carelessness I over-watered, and that took a toll as well. And then there were the caterpillars who stripped down not only my Incense and caerulea vines, but also consumed several more rare plants I had potted up, a trauma from which said smaller passis never recovered. The long and short of it is that I lost a bunch of plants this year, when my goal had been to replenish my collection to make up for those lost last year. Included among the casualties are my vitifolia, my Lady Margaret and my beloved p. tenuilobas and p. mexicanas. I just couldn't catch a break. Even trades for new plants fell flat, with cuttings refusing to root for me. My frustration is not insignificant.

So imagine my utter surprise and delight this weekend when I discover my p. edulis flavicarpa blooming. It's only done so once before, and I'd been considering whether I should pull it out of its pot to make way for something more willing to flower. The sneaky thing had grown up all through my pomegranate bush and begun flowering--I count a dozen or more buds--on the sly. Many more flowers are set to open. It's an attractive flower, with white petals and a panda-looking purple-black center. It also has a sweet licorice scent. Now, I don't like licorice, but this is a pleasant odor, soft and mellow, not sharp and astringent like that of anise. I've tried pollinating it with my incarnata flowers--some of the few passis that have survived the summer for me--so we'll see soon whether or not it will produce fruit for me. Here's a pic:


Now Playing: Clandestine To Anybody at All

Fahrenheit 451

Monkey Girl started 5th grade this year, and last week we learned from her teacher that she's reading at an 8th grade level. This prompted obvious parental pride and a discussion of books The Wife and I read in high school. The Wife mentioned she'd read Stranger in a Strange Land as assigned high school reading, and I just about choked, what with all of Heinlein's sexuality and free love themes running throughout. I answered that the most scandalous thing we got in Columbus was Fahrenheit 451. Monkey Girl entered the conversation at that point, and her interest was piqued.

"What's that about?" she asked.

I explained that it was about censorship and the control of knowledge. Books are illegal, and "firemen" go around with flame throwers, burning books when people are caught with them.

"Cool! I want to read that!" was her response. Yes, my heart went aflutter.

Except that I couldn't find my copy. I know I have it in paperback, but after searching my bookshelves several times, and the book cabinets and boxes as well, I gave up. It's vanished. So I broke down and picked up a 50th anniversary paperback from Half Price Books--the one with the tattered cover art made to look like an abused hardback originally published in 1953. Monkey Girl was pleased, and we had a conversation about different cover designs and editions of books. She was particularly impressed to learn about the legendary asbestos edition.

She's got it now, mixed in amongst the three or so other novels she's reading simultaneously. I've let her know that I've got more Bradbury if she wants it.

Now Playing: Clandestine Music from Home

Monday, October 05, 2009

To the Batcave!

Last week the family and I went on an expedition to Bracken Cave, home of the largest bat colony in North America. It's also the largest concentration of mammals in the world, with 20 million Mexican free-tail bats concentrated in a cavern approximately 100 yards long (the underground complex itself is thought to be somewhat larger, but a wall of guano has blocked any further exploration). There is an old vertical mine shaft at the back end of the cave through which the army used to harvest guano for gunpower manufacture. The pungent stench of ammonia coming out of that hole is staggering, easily burning nostrils and making eyes water uncontrollably.

The main opening to the cave is at the bottom of a sinkhole maybe 50 yards across. The angles of the sinkhole are such that the opening (above) appears to sit on more or less level ground. Not true. The sink hole is pretty deep, and obviously wide. The bats spiral out in a vortex that is very, very impressive. They create their own wind as they emerge. And do they emerge...

The Bracken Cave is a breeding colony. The males arrive from Mexico in the spring. As soon as the females arrive, the males depart for scattered bachelor colonies--one is located under the I-35 overpass at Walnut Street in New Braunfels. The females give birth to their pups in the cave. The temperature in the cave would normally be a steady 70-something degrees, like most Texas caves, but because of 20 million warm bodies packed in tightly and tons of guano decomposing on the floor, temperatures hover above 80 degrees at the floor of the cave and rise to 110 or so at the roof.

Ammonia and CO2 concentrations in the cave are lethal to humans. Doesn't bother the bats, obviously. The floor of the cave is also crawling with carnivorous, flesh-eating beetles, which brings to mind a potential setting for a new Indiana Jones film. With 20 million bats in the colony, it takes nearly four hours for all of them to exit each night. For comparison, the famous Congress Street Bridge bat colony in Austin is home to about 2 million bats. Carlsbad Caverns is home to about 400,000. When the bats exit Bracken Cave, the plume shows up very clearly on Doppler radar. Amazing stuff.

Because days are getting shorter, the bats don't exit until a good bit after sundown, so lighting was problematic for photography. We hope to return at the height of summer, when they emerge before sunset, and attempt some more shots under better lighting conditions. But for not knowing what we were doing, I think our shots are better than could be expected. All in all, it's an awesome sight.

Now Playing: Aerosmith Pandora's Box

Friday, October 02, 2009

It's official: Rick Perry wants to burn in Hell

"That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved."
-Benjamin Franklin, 1785

Let me preface this by saying that I'm not a death penalty opponent. I believe there are some crimes, and some criminals, that are simply too heinous to be dealt with in any other way available to society at this time. In light of that, the death penalty should be applied with utmost caution and respect for the gravity of said punishment. Texas Governor Rick Perry apparently believes a skewed reversal of that maxim applies to after-the-fact investigations of Cameron Todd Willingham's execution for the arson deaths of his three children--better to cover up the wrongful execution of an innocent man than to jeopardize a reelection campaign. That heavy-handed intervention has invited a scathing editorial from the Dallas Morning News:
Since Perry signed off on the Willingham execution in 2004, his own accountability is at stake. So perhaps it's no surprise that two days before the Texas Forensic Science Commission was to proceed with the case this week, Perry replaced the chairman and set things back.

This has the stink of avoidance for political reasons. It sends the message – intentional or not – that the governor was displeased with the speed and direction of the inquiry.

Critics are on the mark in comparing it to President Richard Nixon's "Saturday night massacre," when he replaced top Justice Department officials as they were tightening the noose in the Watergate case. Perry's heavy hand suddenly has that creepy Nixonian feel.

Perry has put forth the simplistic argument in the past that 1) Texas doesn't execute innocent people; 2) if someone was executed, then they were obviously guilty; 3) if you have evidence to the contrary, please see clause 1. And according to Perry, scientific experts aren't really "experts" unless they deliver reports supporting the governor's preferred conclusion.
But Gov. Rick Perry has not let expert reports or modern science shake his belief that Willingham must be a murderer. So certain is the governor that he's delivered his own guilty verdict without bothering to wait for the Forensic Science Commission's own conclusions in the case.

Perry flippantly dismissed the findings of "supposed experts." Just in case his sarcasm wasn't evident, he added air quotes with his fingers to dismiss the nationally respected scientists.

The governor says he's seen nothing that would cause him to question this capital murder conviction. That's disappointing.

Perry, of course, is telling the truth. I'll wager dollars to donuts that he hasn't so much as skimmed the Forensic Science Commission's conclusions or related reports simply so he could hold onto this flimsy thread of plausible deniability. What's the definition of a tyrant? Someone who'll do anything, damn the consequences, to hold onto power?

Here's some additional reading on the topic: Texas Governor Defends Shakeup of Commission,
The governor was in office when Mr. Willingham was executed on Feb. 17, 2004. He denied the condemned man a reprieve even after a detailed report by an arson expert said the evidence that Mr. Willingham had set the fire was flimsy and inconclusive.

and the New Yorker piece that brought it to national prominence:
Todd Willingham, looking on, appeared to grow more hysterical, and a police chaplain named George Monaghan led him to the back of a fire truck and tried to calm him down. Willingham explained that his wife, Stacy, had gone out earlier that morning, and that he had been jolted from sleep by Amber screaming, “Daddy! Daddy!”

“My little girl was trying to wake me up and tell me about the fire,” he said, adding, “I couldn’t get my babies out.”

While he was talking, a fireman emerged from the house, cradling Amber. As she was given C.P.R., Willingham, who was twenty-three years old and powerfully built, ran to see her, then suddenly headed toward the babies’ room. Monaghan and another man restrained him. “We had to wrestle with him and then handcuff him, for his and our protection,” Monaghan later told police. “I received a black eye.” One of the first firemen at the scene told investigators that, at an earlier point, he had also held Willingham back. “Based on what I saw on how the fire was burning, it would have been crazy for anyone to try and go into the house,” he said.

As a father, I'm horrified by the very idea of losing my children this--or any other--way. But to see how Willingham went from tragic victim to railroaded scapegoat is beyond the pale. Remember, Rick Perry's the same person who's pandered to secessionists in recent campaign events.

Perhaps he does not fear Hell because he has no soul?

Now Playing: John Mellencamp Mr. Happy Go Lucky

Friday Night Videos

I had a different video lined up to feature today, but then I realized my Aggies are playing Arkansas tomorrow at JerryWorld in DFW. How often do I get to feature cool old Pink Floyd video in such context?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Van Halen.

Now Playing: John Cougar Mellencamp Uh-Huh

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Memory of Chekov's gun

I've just published a new installment of Memory over at No Fear of the Future. This marks the 40th chapter (chapter being a loose identifier, since they're generally so short), but the first after an unacceptably long gap--it's been just about two months since no. 39 went up in late July. This one's a bit longer than average (does that make it "A Very Special Memory"?) but it's not two months' worth longer, unfortunately.

Maintaining even the modest publishing goal I set back in January 2008 of 1,000 words weekly has grown increasingly difficult to meet. For various reasons, the day job is consuming more and more of my energies, and family takes up a great deal of what's left. After that, non-fiction writing projects--such as the research-intensive Chicken Ranch work in progress, as well as paying gigs like interviews and book reviews--have muscled past my fiction to the top of the queue more often than not. I'm not a particularly fast writer to begin with, and I'm learning that outside of certain narrowly-defined parameters, I'm not one who can multi-task on several writing projects simultaneously. I started writing Memory as an experiment, a learning experience, and I'm learning a great deal. My production rate stinks, but I suppose that's part of the experience.

I am, however, no longer flying entirely by the seat of my pants. I started the project with very little set in stone: I had two characters, Flavius and Parric. I had what I considered to be a pretty nifty MacGuffin in ongoing assassinations of Flavius across the multiverses. And that was it. The setup allowed me some leeway in telling an origin story via shorthand introduction of a far more extensive history and relationship between the two protagonists, but beyond that I didn't know more than the readers. I didn't know why Flavius was being killed, although I do now. I didn't know why Parric refuses to use only a tiny fraction of his vast power, but I do now. I've yet to get a clear picture of the ultimate resolution, but I know how they get there. I see some of the events between here and there, and new characters who've yet to be introduced who are, for the most part, as vague and mysterious to me as they are to you, the reader.

What is particularly fun is that I'm just now getting into a part of the story where my subconscious was way ahead of me. Neil Gaiman mentioned this curious effect back in my 2002 interview with him, and the following exchange illustrates what I've started experiencing:
Your Sandman stories were essentially complex, serialized epics in a marginalized medium. As your stature as a writer grows, I can't help but see a parallel with the career of another product of Great Britain, Charles Dickens. Have you ever considered the parallels between your careers?

I don't know if I particularly considered parallels. I do remember, toward the end of Sandman, I was reading Bleak House for pleasure. There were points in there where I'd go, "Okay. You know what you're doing with this. You don't know what you're doing with this. This is just something that you're writing to fill in a few pages, but you're putting something in that may become important later. This is something where you think you've done something that isn't important, but actually it will become important to you later."

I recognized the beats. I recognized the technique reading that. There's a level on which you know something when you're going into a story, but a lot of the stuff will turn up on the fly and you'll use it. You have to sort of learn to be open to the infinite. You learn to toss balls in the air, not necessarily knowing how they'll come down, but knowing they will be descending at the point where you'll need them.

Terry Pratchett had a character in a book recently--the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, who quit before they became famous. His name was Ronnie Soak, and Terry had written him without knowing which horseman he was. He just named him Ronnie Soak, because it sounded like the right kind of name. There came a point where he was writing Ronnie Soak going past a shop window in which everything was reflected, and you'd see his name reflected in the window. And it said "Kaos." That was the moment where the penny dropped for Terry, who this character was. You can ask yourself questions: Did you know this unconsciously before? And when you're involved in serial narrative, you don't necessarily know.

So is that kind of sub-conscious, serendipitous writing unique to the serial form?

No, what it does is . . . In the serial form, you realize early on you are locked in. In normal writing, if you're working on a novel, and you get to chapter 11 and you realize you need a gun in the desk drawer, you just go back to the desk drawer when we saw it in chapter two. You make sure that you mention there was a gun in it, and when people read the book, they go "Ah yeah. Got a gun in the desk drawer." When somebody goes for it in chapter 11, it's there.

You can't do that if people have already seen that drawer, and they've already seen that it was empty in chapter two. So you learn to make decisions without necessarily knowing why you've made that decision. You'll put a gun in that drawer because something has to be in the drawer, and then in chapter 11 you'll look around and go, "Oh my god, I need a . . . Oh, I've already put it there." That is a very weird and specific kind of thing.

If anything, the whole serial nature of fiction taught me not to go for perfection. You know, perfection—you're heading for the horizon. You'll never reach it. Get to the point where you've done enough, you're willing to let it go, it's as good as it's going to be. Let it go. Move on. Do the next one.

The influence of Moorcock is obvious in Memory with the infinite multiverse setting. When I reached the point of the story where Flavius and Parric came to the Eternal Dominion and the Palace of Un-pic Ja’ab, I'd recently completed Jack Vance's mesmerizing Dying Earth series. I'd been enamored of the relentless parade of wonder Vance slathered his work in, taking Clarke's maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. Vance's far-future Earth was pure surrealistic fantasy, but steeped in the conceit that our primitive minds simply couldn't comprehend the technology underlying the impossible inventions. I seized on that idea--inelegantly I admit--to throw the kitchen sink into the invention of the Palace of Un-pic Ja’ab. The peq, the em Naga-ed-der, the echoes of Mote in God's Eye reproductive issues amongst the Eternal... these were great fun to come up with. The most Vance-like invention, however, was Ketza’qua, the colossal, extra-dimensional serpent creature enslaved to hold the Palace aloft. At the time I first wrote it, I was simply trying for an absurdly incredible image through which to stress the separation of that alien cosm from ours.

I hadn't realized that I was actually writing the scene in which Chekov's gun is introduced. The Ketza'qua is a very, very big gun. Those of you who've read chapter 40 of Memory will understand that the trigger has just been pulled. I hope you approve.

This writing stuff can be fun sometimes, eh?

Now Playing: The Kinks Something Else

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another crazy questionnaire!

Got this from my boss' wife via Facebook, so I can ignore it only at my peril. And I'm not willing to risk it.

1. What was the last thing you put in your mouth?
My index finger.

2. Where was your profile picture taken?
Our kitchen.

3. Can you play Guitar Hero?
Ha ha ha!

4. Name someone who made you laugh today?
Today hasn't been one for laughing. Potential crisis seems to have been averted, though, so I'm sure the Bug will give me some giggles this evening.

5. How late did you stay up last night and why?
Stayed up 'til midnight or thereabouts, writing of course.

6. If you could move somewhere else, would you?
Australia's always had a certain appeal, and I've gotten along with all the Australian authors I've met. Plus, Flight of the Conchords with their "Crikey!" and "Billabong!" humor really appeals to me.

7. Ever been kissed under fireworks?
Not that I can recall. Now, I can vouch for kisses that have caused fireworks!

8. Which of your friends lives closest to you on FaceBook?
I live with The Wife and Monkey Girl, so they count, right? Aya and Chris, our next-door neighbors, would be next in line.

9. Do you believe ex's can be friends?
Depends on how ex they are. Also, psychosis plays a big role.

10. How do you feel about Dr. Pepper?
I feel it should be spelled properly, sans period.

11. When was the last time you cried really hard?
Probably when I learned Freebirds was canceling their secret shopper program and I wouldn't be getting five free Monster burritos every month anymore.

12. Who took your profile picture?
The Wife. She's crazy talented that way.

13. Who was the last person you took a picture of?
The Wife. We had a fun photo session a few nights ago.

14. Was yesterday better than today?
Yes. Today was nerve-wracking. Tomorrow is looking up, though.

15. Can you live a day without TV?
Can and do.

16. Are you upset about anything?
Not at the moment. "Relief" is the operative word.

17. Do you think relationships are ever really worth it?
What an asinine question. There are some that most definitely aren't, but relationships in general aren't just worth it, they're indispensable.

18. Are you a bad influence?
I try to be.

19. Night out or night in?
Looking forward to more nights out as the kids get older. Right now, they're all in.

20. What items could you not go without during the day?
Computer. Doesn't even need the internet. I suppose an actual typewriter could do in a pinch.

21. Who was the last person you visited in the hospital?
My mom.

22. What does the last text message in your inbox say?
I don't get text messages. I delete them unread. I am such a Luddite.

23. How do you feel about your life right now?
Whoo. Roller coaster of late, but the potential of a good, clear path forward seems realistic.

24. Do you hate anyone?
Hate is such a strong word. There are quite a few people who repulse me, however.

25. If we were to look in your FaceBook inbox, what would we find?
Lots of old, undeleted messages. I never clean that stuff out.

26. Say you were given a drug test right now, would you pass?

27. Has anyone ever called you perfect before?
If they did, I'd refer them to question 26.

28. What song is stuck in your head?
Nothing stuck in my head, but I'm listening to Jimmy Buffett sing "Pencil Thin Mustache."

29. Someone knocks on your window at 2:00 a.m., who do you want it to be?
The Texas Lottery Commission with a check for $20 million.

30. Wanna have grandkids before you’re 50?
Hell, I don't want grandkids before I'm 60!

31. Name something you have to do tomorrow.
Hopefully, buy a new shirt.

32. Do you think too much or too little?
Too much. I'm the king of over-analysis

33. Do you smile a lot?
When the occasion warrants.

Ok - if you have time - copy this - delete my answers and add yours. Tag me in your note so I can see what you said!

Now Playing: Jimmy Buffett Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads