Monday, June 29, 2009

Apollocon post-mortem

After a shaky start, Apollocon weekend turned out pretty well. Having stayed up late the night before, as is my M.O., I headed off to Houston from New Braunfels in my PT Cruiser sans air conditioning. I wouldn't recommend this during times of the year when temperatures reach triple digits--as the weather here in Texas has for the past few weeks. It was so hot I ended up eschewing one of my flamboyant convention vests for the sake of comfort, opting instead for a silk Hawaiian shirt Bug gave to me for Fathers Day.

Around 1 p.m. I stopped in Brookshire to interview a subject for the Chicken Ranch book. It wasn't someone who was directly involved with the goings-on there, but he was an important local figure with a prime, front-row seat for history in the making. The interview lasted two and a half hours. I got some good stuff. Unfortunately, my big excuse for not actually writing anything was that I needed to interview X number of people involved with the Chicken Ranch affair to get a well-rounded picture of events. This was the last one of those folks. So now I've got to get off my duff, work up a formal proposal and set about landing an agent and publisher. I also learned where the former Wagon Wheel brothel was located, a discovery that left me pleased as punch. The next time I head through Sealy, I'm getting a bunch of pictures.

I left Brookshire just in time to hit Houston rush-hour traffic. Which was as much fun as you'd guess. I reached the convention hot and exhausted. I touched base with Wil McCarthy long enough to set up an interview with him for 10 a.m. the next morning, then hooked up with Brand Denton, Caroline Spector, Chris Nakashima-Brown and Maureen McHugh for dinner at a nearby Cajun joint. My crawfish etouffee was pretty good, if not particularly spicy, but it hit the spot and revived me somewhat for the rest of the evening, which included the requisite party hopping (Deep South Con's coming to Dallas in '10!). I ended up turning in early around 11 p.m.

The next morning I felt much better. I got to the con around 9:30 and set about organizing my questions for McCarthy. He was running a little late, though, which concerned me. There was a panel at 11 he had to be on, so my time was limited. Fortunately, he turned out to be a fast talker, answering all my questions thoroughly and in plentiful detail, yet finishing in 45 minutes where other folks would take an hour or more. This is good.

My three panels, Cliches in SF, Scarce Commodities in a Space Colony and Writers on the Edge of Forever all went over quite well with lively discussion and attentive audiences. I got soaked by a sudden downpour when I rushed out to the parking lot to roll up the windows on my car, and was more squishy than not the rest of the evening (luckily, I had a change of shoes and socks available). I had good conversations with Scott Cupp and Bill Crider, and with Lillian and Paul Carl as well. Dinner was in the con suite, where they were serving the most incredible banana leaf-wrapped tamales. There was also an exquisite tomatillo/cilantro salsa that wasn't particularly hot, but had such vibrant flavor I didn't mind the lack of heat. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

Much encouragement was met from all parties during the weekend regarding the Chicken Ranch book. Bill and Scott thought some anecdotes particularly amusing, and agreed that it'd make an excellent HBO series. Later that night, while bouncing amongst the half dozen parties going on simultaneously, I was heartened to discover and Aggiecon contingent intent on rebuilding burned bridges and getting that waning con back on the upswing. I don't know if they'll succeed, but they seemed intent on correcting the mistakes of the past two years, and their preliminary guest list is both wise and pragmatic. They welcomed advice, and if they actually take it to heart, they might have a shot. I expect their finances are such that another disastrous year would wipe them out permanently.

Sometime after midnight I departed, reluctantly, and headed to Columbus for the night. I arrived at my parents around 1:30 a.m., and when I got out of my car I was struck by the night sky. It was stunning, with the Milky Way cutting a brilliant swath overhead. Because of the wretched amount of light pollution in New Braunfels and San Antonio, I hadn't actually seen the Milky Way in more than a year. I just stood there, stargazing for 20 minutes, soaking it all in. I even saw a shooting star. Lovely.

Sunday I got up and made it back home in time to take Monkey Girl to a week of horse camp in Utopia, way west of San Antonio. We got back late, and crashed early--all that travel takes it out of you.

Today, a check arrived from Brutarian along with a whole bunch of contributor's copies of the current issue--the one with my Allen Steele interview. This made me happy, and rescued me from financial insolvency. I also--and this is a big deal--discovered a folder on my laptop that contained the majority of my fiction and non-fiction writings, up to about 6 months ago. This means that everything I'd lost on the hard drive disaster a month or so back isn't lost after all. My more recent writings are still gone, but that's something I can deal with. Also found some other things squirreled away on the laptop. Yay!

Things are looking pretty good right now, knock wood. This next month I hope to put together a dazzling book proposal for the Chicken Ranch project, which will land me a good agent, a great publisher and a spectacular advance. And I'll also knock out that Wil McCarthy interview for the upcoming Brutarian, because hey, he's a fascinating guy. Good stuff people. Carry on.

Now Playing:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Got my preliminary schedule for Apollocon this weekend. Because of other conflicts, I'm only going to be attending Friday and Saturday this year. And the schedule worked out so that I'm only on panels that Saturday. Which is fine, but it'll be hectic there for a bit. Drop in and say hi if you get a chance.
Sat 2:00PM - 3:00PM
The Edge of Forever, Seattle II
Lee Thomas, Nancy Jane Moore, Bradley Denton, Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Sat 3:00PM - 4:00PM
It Wasn't Always a Cliché, Seattle II
Kathy Thornton, Rhonda Eudaly, Erika Frensley, Martha Wells, Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Sat 4:00PM - 5:00PM
Beg, Borrow, or Steal: Precious Commodities in the Space Colony, Seattle I
Stina Leicht, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Derly N. Ramirez II, Tim Frayser, Larry Friesen

That's a fun lineup of folks I'm paired with. I expect to see some wacky shenanigans on those panels. YessireeBob!

Now Playing: Billy Joel A Matter of Trust

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wedding crashers

This past weekend we had a wedding shoot. The Wife, who has opened up her own photography studio, Lisa On Location, has some weddings scheduled on the horizon. The trouble is, despite quite a few bridal and engagement shoots, she's never shot a live wedding. So I touched base with our old buddy>Don and he agreed to let her tag along as a second shooter.

To make a long story short, at the last minute plans changed and I was free to go along as well. A third shooter, if you will. That was overkill for this wedding--it was a small affair in a tiny church--but opportunity is opportunity, and it gave us both the chance to watch Don's people management skills, which are unsurpassed.

Since I was literally the third wheel, I had to function with what was available. The Wife had the fast Tamron zoom and Speedlite flash, which left me shooting with the fastest lens I own, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 mark I, natural light only. Let me tell you, that was a challenge. The 50mm was perfect for some of the shots, but many times I desperately needed a zoom to go wider or longer in the narrow confines of that country church. I shot aperture priority, wide-open, but realized halfway through the ceremony that some shots had shutter speeds as slow as 1/15 of a second, which practically guarantees blur from camera shake. Grr. On the LCD screen on the back of my camera the images looked fine--it wasn't until I blew them up that the shake became obvious. So I set the camera to full manual and finish out the wedding.

I was convince that out of the 200-plus shots I'd taken, the vast majority would be worthless. Imagine my delight when I found far more usable shots than expected. Now, I didn't get as many keepers as Don or The Wife, but I did better than anticipated. Set me up with a fast zoom lens and I'd do some serious damage. I still need to go through and edit my "keepers" though, so we'll see if I'm still as positive after I've slaved away on Photoshop for a while.

Now Playing: Billy Joel Glass Houses

Friday, June 19, 2009

Friday Night Videos

And now for something completely different... The Dave Brubeck Quartet with a 1961 performance of "Take 5." It's been 50 years since this instrumental with the odd 5/4 time signature became a breakthrough jazz hit, propelling the album Time Out to no. 2 on the Billboard pop charts. Wow, hard to believe.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Talking Heads.

Now Playing:

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Managing interviews

I've been conducting freelance interviews (as opposed to interviews related to newspaper assignments) for well more than a decade (this is a sudden realization that has both startled and disturbed me somewhat just now). (Parenthetical statements also tend to annoy me, which is why I don't normally include them in my writing. So you can indeed see visual proof of my startlement and distrubitude.)

For those 40-something-plus interviews with authors, artists, editors and whatnot, I relied on my trusty microcassette recorder from the newspaper days. I replaced the hardware twice over that time period, but the tech stayed consistent and dependable for the most part. After conducting said interview, I'd then hole up in my office and spend a week or so on the tedious task of transcribing the conversation. Most of my interviews lasted approximately an hour, and would average up to around 5,000 words prior to editing. Even allowing for my somewhat slow typing speed and undisciplined approach to the task, the process was a major time sink. But as I only conduct limited numbers of interviews in recent years, it hasn't been that onerous.

This isn't the case anymore. Upon taking up the challenge of the Chicken Ranch book, I knew that the backbone of the project would be interviews--as many of them as I could manage, with as many people connected to the brothel as I could possibly track down. Which meant far more interview material than could easily be transcribed from my old cassette recorder. I'd have to buy a lot of tapes, there was the issue of organizing them and cataloging and... well, the long and short of it is that I bit the bullet and finally went digital. I invested in a Sony digital recorder of modest quality, but one that came with a built-in USB port so that I could download the audio files to my computer, and from there burn them to CD as MP3 files. I certainly wish I had this capability for my old interview recordings.

The transcription was still an issue, but the Sony device came with transcription software, so that I can control the playback on my desktop as I type it out. Nice. Even so, that's still an incremental improvement over my previous setup. Enter Dragon Naturally Speaking.

Dragon is a voice recognition software package, designed for dictation and the like. Which I don't need, but the ability to convert MP3 files into text certainly got my attention. I found a used copy of version 9 on Ebay for cheap (10 is the current release) and installed it onto my computer. Except... I made a mistake. The used software I bought didn't come with an external microphone for the computer. As I wasn't going to use it for dictation, I didn't worry about it, and skipped the part of the installation where one would train the program to recognize the peculiarities of one's accent, diction, etc. Those initial MP3 interviews came out looking uuuuug-ly when I ran them through the transcriber. Yikes! Talk about counter-productive.

So I bought a mic and plugged it into the computer, hoping to train the software properly to improve the transcription success. Granted, the majority of talking during the interviews is someone other than me, but my questions, at least, can come out in a coherent manner. And even though my Texas accent is pretty mild by most standards, it's closer to that of the old-time Texas folk I've been talking with than the standard upper-midwest voice the software comes programmed to use as a baseline. Except that the software refused to let me train it. Because I had skipped that step upon initial installation, it would not allow me to go back and take a mulligan.

After much angst and failed workarounds, I gave up and deleted the software from my computer, then did a complete reinstall. This time I made sure to go through the initial training steps. Once the tutorial finished, I could go back and train the software at any time. Some of the things provided to read to the computer are tedious beyond belief--business and sales letters, ugh--but others, such as Kennedy's inaugural address and a Mark Twain speech, are pretty darn interesting. It is, alas, a time-consuming project but I want to have the program thoroughly prepared before trusting it with the transcription of my interviews again. Maybe this weekend we'll be ready to give it another shot.

Fingers crossed.

Now Playing: Glasnots Mayfly Matinee

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Caterpillar action

One of the side effects of having an obsession with passiflora is that the plants serve as the sole food source for helliconia butterflies (hey! A Brian Aldiss reference!). The butterfly larvae, also known as caterpillars, eat the passion vines and grow up big and strong. And since passiflora have evolved to synthesize their own special brand of natural cyanide (as a defense mechanism to keep from getting eaten) the caterpillars have evolved to incorporate this cyanide into their own defense mechanisms. It makes them (and the butterflies they turn into) really nasty tasting as I understand it, but more importantly, fills the black spines covering their bodies with a nasty little toxin to ward off predators.

I accidentally brushed against one of these little guys a few minutes ago by accident. I've now got an impressive double line of blisters running across the back of my hand. It's not excruciatingly painful, but goodness, it doesn't feel good.

Now Playing:

Alas, Ebay

For the past several years, I've taken advantage of spring--and my passion for passion flowers--to post plants up for auction on Ebay. I've got a decent collection of passiflora, and there's usually a run of a few weeks where people go simply nuts bidding on plants, along with a few weeks on either side of that where bidding isn't fevered, but still steady. These sales in the past have generated a few dollars which I've used to finance 1) my passion flower habit 2) comic books 3) telescope repair and 4) camera stuffs, among other things.

Last year was something of an anomaly, as I was selling off my Dr. Demento CD collection and using that unexpected revenue stream to buy a lot of photography equipment. Some of it verging on high-dollar. I didn't have the luxury of a huge stash of rare radio programs to auction off this year, but I knew there was the old reliable spring planting season.

Except that this year, spring planting season never materialized on Ebay.

I don't know exactly what it was. The unseasonably cold weather that gripped much of the nation through April and May? The crummy economy and unemployment rates? Suppression of the people's vote in the Iranian election? A combination of all three? I dunno. The fact is that sales of plants and seeds have been lukewarm and sluggish. Even largish, semi-rare plants rarely attracted more than a minimum bid, if that. I just finished a 10-day period with exactly one sale. Nobody's even watching my auctions now, much less bidding on them. Drat.

No way I'm going to save up for that Kinks Picture Book boxed set now. And I was so looking forward to it. (Cue sympathy music)

Now Playing: Antonin Dvorák Dvorák: Symphony No. 2; Legends 6-10

Monday, June 15, 2009

New telescope project

Don't worry--it's a small one this time, nowhere near the involvement of my renovation of the Maroon Barsoom last year.

One of the most basic forms of long-exposure astrophotography is the "piggyback mount." That is, the camera--presumably a single-lens reflex (SLR for film or DSLR for digital) is mounted onto the telescope in parallel to take advantage of said telescope's tracking motor for long exposures. Ie the camera can point at one spot in the sky and the Earth's rotation won't cause these stars or whatnot to streak and move out of the frame. The tracking motor compensates for the Earth's rotation, see?

Unfortunately, store-bought piggyback mounts 1) aren't cheap and 2) aren't designed for my telescope, which admittedly is 30+ years old. So I Googled a bit in the DIY corners of the interwebs and came up with a workable solution for my needs. I found a 2x4 in the garage that suited my purposes, measured and then (after clamping it firmly to the table saw, used my router to scoop out a U shape in it. This saves on weight, which is important with telescopes and balance if you're going to successfully track the heavens. Then I cut it to length. It is now a 3.25"x3.25" square. Next up, I need to drill a hole through the broad side through which to insert the screw which my camera will be threaded onto. I also need to cut ends of the "legs" so they will conform to the curvature of my telescope's optical tube. Once this is finished (I'm thinking a day or two--hey, there's no urgency) I'll sand and paint the mount to match the telescope. That's "Duplicolor Claret Red" for those at home who weren't paying attention last year. Once that's finished and dried, I'm going to apply adhesive felt to the bottoms of the legs, so as to not scratch the telescope tube, and them attach a hose cinch to the mount (with felt applied to inside of this as well) to hold it firmly on the telescope.

Afterwards, I should be able to take a range of wide-field images, including the Milky Way and Banard's Loop without breaking a sweat. I also intend to get some of the nifty Astronomik Clip-In filters to enhance my camera's performance. Much fun, eh?

Now Playing: Aerosmith Get A Grip

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friday Night Videos

The Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" from their Stop Making Sense tour is just about the most mind-bogglingly amazing live music performance ever... uh, performed. David Byrne's skeleton must be made of silly string and rubber bands, and I have no idea how Tina Weymouth could run in place while playing for an entire song, much less maintain that level of activity for an entire concert. This clip still amazes me every time I see it.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Eddie Money.

Now Playing: Wyndnwyre About Tyme


Woke up this morning to find the neighborhood abuzz. Seems that sometime last night, unsavory elements broke into practically every vehicle on our block. A firefighter several doors down had a handgun and a GPS stolen. A woman across the street lost a bunch of CDs. From the consternation, it sounded like quite a few people lost valuables. They got into my PT Cruiser as well, but only rifled through the glove compartment before moving on. They didn't touch the minivan. The police were dusting for prints on those vehicles that had been stolen from. They said if I discovered anything missing, to give them a call and they'd add us to the report.

I'm just glad I hadn't left my camera in there as I sometimes do. Scary.

Now Playing: Silly Wizard The Best of Silly Wizard

Monday, June 08, 2009

My weekend

My Weekend
Jayme Lynn Blaschke

On Thursday I drove to Kenedy to interview a person for my book project on the La Grange Chicken Ranch. We met at Barth's restaurant. I had an iced tea and fried jalapenos. He had a Diet Coke. The weather was blistering hot outside but nice and cool inside. The restaurant was quiet, as lunch hour had passed, but 30 minutes into our conversation a group of women who apparently work together came in for an afternoon party or something. Out of an empty restaurant, they naturally chose to sit at a table adjacent to our booth. They laughed and shouted and jabbered for two hours or so, and were still going when I left. Recorded portions of the interview are not of great quality from the point of their arrival. sigh But as Thursday is not technically the weekend, you don't need to read the preceding paragraph.

On Friday (which is still not technically the weekend) I hired an intern. She is an enthusiastic over-achiever, willing to work for no pay to get valuable real-world experience. She's also over-extended herself with senior year commitments, I suspect. This tends to be a pattern with summer interns. We shall see.

Friday afternoon, at which point the weekend had actually commenced, the family went to Landa Park to swim. Monkey Girl and I went to the big spring-fed pool, which is one of the universe's joys. It's like Barton Springs pool, only less Malthusian. Ostensibly, I was there to keep an eye on her in the deep water, but it quickly became apparent that not only could she swim circles around me, she could swim circles around half the lifeguards as well. Hoo. Later that night, The Wife and I watched some more of season 3 Buffy. The ones where Faith kills a guy and goes bad. The Wife drank chardonnay and I drank blueberry ale (store bought, alas, not my own brew). Looking forward to seeing how this resolves. The Faith storyline, not the libations.

Saturday I did not sleep in, which is a shame, since Saturday is my designated sleep in day. Instead, Monkey Girl had a swim meet, so we all got up bright and early and headed over to Landa Pool. Monkey Girl kicked serious boo-tay. She's been moved up to the top heats in her age group. And her dive/entry and turns have improved astronomically since last season. She's a much more powerful swimmer, and it shows in her upper body definition and muscle tone. She finished with two fourth-place finishes, a third and her freestyle relay team took first. Whoo hoo! Her first blue ribbon! Her butterfly--which is also her favorite stroke--has improved dramatically as well. Her upper-body form is very good. Now all she has to do is improve her kick and she'll be taking first in that stroke as well. Overall, she shaved a minimum of six seconds off her best time in each event.

Afterwards, we packed up the kids and dropped them off at their grandmother's in Bastrop while The Wife and I swung over to Austin to take in the Austin Photo Expo. Best part of the event: Absolutely free admission. We enjoyed ourselves. It was laid out not unlike a science fiction con, with a dealer's room (Canon, Nikon, Tamron, Olympus, Sony etc. instead of Edge Books and Adventure In Crime & Space) and three tracks of programming. Being held in the conference center at the old Northcross Mall, there was no evening programming and no con suite. Lots of lens lust, though, and camera lust, and accessories lust there in the exhibitors hall. The Wife tried out the Canon EF 70-200 2.8 IS and fell in love. Duh. The sales woman there asked if we were aware of the on-site discount. Discount? The Wife's ears perked up. I have to admit mine did as well. $350 the Canon rep informs us. I do a quick calculation--that'd be about $1,250, assuming the base price of $1,600 online. We didn't have that kind of money, but that was a great deal. Dare we break out plastic? The deal was too good. Double-checking with the rep, I learned that the discount applied to the MSRP, and after the discount the lens would still set us back close to $1,650. Nevermind. For my part, I'd heard of and seen pics online of the Sigma 150-500mm supertelephoto zoom, but being able to handle one in person really amped my desire up to 11. That's really a solid, well-built lens. The Wife looked at it and asked "How big is it?" I answered 500mm. She responded, "All riiight!" Who says size doesn't matter?


The lectures were packed. Very good attendance, so much so that the venue was inadequate I'd say. I attend a number of writer conventions during the year and this Expo could definitely move up into bigger digs. Of course, then you'd start having to deal with hotel room blocks and probably membership fees, so it might not be worth it. But it definitely has the potential to grow into a full-blown conference with evening events and such. On the way home, we stopped at Austin Homebrew Supply so I could get a packet of Sparkolloid. No idea where my supply has vanished to.

On Sunday The Wife packed up and trekked back to Austin for a bridal photography workshop. She picked up a lot of good techniques, not to mention some killer portfolio shots. I'm jealous, but then she's the professional and I'm just the husband. Although it amuses me how just a year ago she mocked me for my comparatively modest photography expenditures whereas now she looks at $1,600 Canon "L" glass ("White lenses are sexy," says she) and starts figuring the budget.

Once The Wife got home and we reviewed her shots (they're here if you're curious) I potted up some passion vines I'd gotten in trade, then cleared away a heck of a lot of passiflora vines from the front of the house that'd been denuded of vegetation by voracious caterpillars. That evening after getting the kids to bed we sat back--The Wife with a glass of moscato and I with another blueberry beer. We watched the first season finale of Big Love and were more than a little underwhelmed by it. And that was our weekend.

The End

Now Playing: The Police Message in a Box

Friday, June 05, 2009

Get Smart

What a delightful surprise the modernized, updated Get Smart proved to be. As someone who worshipped the original series as a kid, and was utterly disappointed by the tone-deaf, unfunny The Nude Bomb when I saw it in the theater, I was all ready to hate this one. But I've been really impressed by Anne Hathaway for a long time (she may well become a latter-day Audrey Hepburn), think Steve Carrell is a very smart funnyman, and absolutely worship anything Alan Arkin does. So I was willing to give it a shot. I'm glad I did.

That's not to say the movie doesn't have flaws. It falls into that same trap so many comedy/action films do, forgetting to be funny in the run up to the finale. All action, no jokes. That dragged on way too long. The great Terrence Stamp was underwhelming as Siegfried, coming across as more of a generic action villain than the hilarious bad guy from the TV series.

But they got so much right. Hathaway was a fantastic choice to play 99. She held her own onscreen. Her outfits were evocative of the original series and several times her dialogue echoed Barbara Feldon. I loved Bill Murray's cameo as Agent 13 (surprisingly, the agent only appeared in 13 episodes). The use of the shoe phone, cone of silence, Max's red Sunbeam Tiger AND blue Volkswagen Karmann Ghia from the original series, all brilliant. Bernie Kopell's cameo had me sputtering with glee, even as The Wife looked on bemused. Siegfried, who my beloved, deceased beagle Sigfreid Sebastian Bach was named after in part, only appeared in 14 or the original series' 138 episodes. Imagine that. I even called Hymie's appearance, although Patrick Walburton's cock-sure portrayal of the robot struck me as more than a little off-base.

In any event, it's one of the very best of the assorted "TV-to-film" adaptations out there. Faint praise, I know, but this one was entertaining enough, and had just the right amount of heart, to make me look forward to a sequel.

Now Playing:

Friday Night Videos

Hey look! It's Eddie Money and his big career comeback! Love the strategic use of the great Ronnie Spector. This song had a place of honor in the soundtrack to my sophomore and junior years in high school.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen.

Now Playing: Peter Gabriel Peter Gabriel Plays Live

Monday, June 01, 2009

Lucky 13

Thirteen years ago today The Wife and I got ourselves hitched. Three kids, several jobs and two cities later we seem to be still together. Whoda thunk it? We marked the occasion yesterday with lunch at our favorite New Braunfels restaurant, the Huisatche, followed by a photo excursion to the Guadalupe River and a quick shopping trip to Target. In the evening, we put Serenity in the DVD player (having just completed the Firefly series a few nights before) and cursed Fox for their chronic stupidity. Then to lighten the mood, we took in a season three episode of Coupling in which the perpetually befuddled Jeff does a riff on Cyrano de Bergerac that had us both doubled over with laughter. And the Brits get away with saying a lot more than U.S. broadcast networks would ever allow.

In between we reminisced about events 13 years ago, how my lame bachelor party consisted of watching Goldeneye and Species, while the wife was stuck at relatives' who insisted on watching Braveheart. We both agreed our lives would've been fraught with much less angst had we somehow managed to connect in college--we've identified several "ships passing in the night" instances, as it were, which would lead us to believe our eventual connection a thing of fate, were we the sort to actually believe in that sort of thing. Which we don't, but playing "what if?" is always fun.

Now Playing: Taylor Swift Fearless