Happy Birthday, Paul

One of America’s greatest living songwriters turned 71 on Saturday. Happy belated birthday, Paul Simon. I hope you have many more years of music ahead of you.

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Classic Moments: Monty Python — ‘Pet Shop’ (a/k/a ‘Dead Parrot’)

One of my all-time favorites. After all these years, it still makes me laugh.

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Speculative Fiction and Sports

It’s 11:00 p.m. and I’m watching a baseball game between my beloved Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. This is my 41st season as a Red Sox fan (see prior blog posts for my current age), and this is by far the most dismal season they’ve turned in during that span. 2012, the 100th birthday of Fenway Park, has  been a year Red Sox fans will forget just as soon as they can.

While the Sox and the Yanks are tied 3-3 in the 12th inning as I write this, the game is only commanding part of my attention. It’s got me thinking about sports as they appear in fiction, particularly speculative fiction. Speculative fiction, by nature, places its focus on the future, not the present day (urban fantasy being a possible exception.) Consequently, I can only think of a handful of spec fic books or series with a sports setting:

Those are the only ones I can think of at the moment. Why not any stories with soccer, hockey, hoops or lacrosse? Tennis or golf? Surely our descendants will be as masochistic as we are and will continue to play golf. Or what about the 25th century version of the Olympics?

I love sports and have always been a total spaz at them. Nevertheless, I have an urge to write some sports-centered spec fic stories or even a novel. I’ll get back to you on how that goes.

In the mean time, can any of you add to my list? What titles have I not thought of?

PS The Yankees just won the game in the bottom of the 12th. GROWL.

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Music Review: ‘Something Fierce’ by Marian Call

Ever since Dragon*Con earlier this month, I’ve been listening to Marian Call’s Something Fierce CD, which I purchased from the artist herself right after the Parsec Awards ceremony. I first heard her music at the 2010 Parsec Awards, and I eventually bought a couple of her songs from iTunes, including I’ll Still Be a Geek After Nobody Thinks It’s Chic (The Nerd Anthem), which includes a line that I wish I’d written:

I have been a nerd since my first five-syllable word

Brilliance. If you get the chance to hear her perform live, you may get the impression that she does primarily humorous songs (her karaoke song is hysterical.) As I’ve listened to Something Fierce, what has struck me is that these are (for the most part) serious songs, though some are light-hearted. Even some of the light-hearted songs pack some bite:

Well I had a good time sweetheart, that’s for sure
Well I wanna thank you for all your trouble
But if you lose my number now I won’t complain
‘Cause you’re my avocado baby — only only good for one day
‘Cause you’re my sushi baby — only only good for one day

Or this:

Oh, I wish I were a real Alaskan girl
Because I hear that they kick ass
Oh, it’s easy to see why a local woman’s in demand
The guys have to queue up for years to hold your hand
I’d find me some big burly bush pilot boy
I would hook and reel him in and fiancé him
But if he ever double-crossed me or tried to do me wrong
I wouldn’t hardly hesitate to skin, gut, and filet him

Contrast that with the picture she paints to the driving beat in  Temporal Dominoes:

He likes the smell of the incense / she likes her Indian food
The sweltering subway so intense / not a gesture is left unpursued
‘Cause they’re not in the mood to miss miracles
Culling their half-baked assumptions / paradigms toppling untried
Demolishing decades-old hunches / with their eyes all unraveled and wide
At the top of the tide / and nowhere to hide

One of the sweeter songs is Highway Five. Marian Call is from Alaska, and this is her ode to the Pacific Coast Highway:

This is my coast, this is my home, from San Diego up to Nome
Haven’t seen it all yet but I will
And I want to memorize it, every inch, want to remember where I’ve been
I bless these waves, I bless this wind, I bless this grace and all my sins

I love the “I’m okay the way I am” spirit behind Whistle While You Wait:

When it’s the first time you could get to West Hollywood and you’re slathered in sunscreen
And you drive really slow, so you know that they know that you’re another Joe with a dream
And you’re wearing your old secondhand blue jeans
And you keep turning your head at limousines
And everybody else looks so damn pretty
And you’re feelin’ extra grungy and extra indie
Oh it takes a little effort to hold your head up straight
To dress just like you want to, to whistle while you wait
It takes a little effort to not avert your eyes
To trust that you belong there — it might just be yourself that you surprise

The album opens with the happy vibe of Good Morning Moon:

Good morning Moon, love, how you doin’?
I’ve got business with you today
Good evening, Sun, I’ll see you soon
I wake on my own terms lately
Who’s to say we’re upside-down
Who’s to say we’re falling if we miss the ground
Who’s to say we’re going nowhere
If we like spinning ’round and ’round?

Musically, her vocals remind me a lot of Joni Mitchell circa Court & Spark. The arrangements are tight and the production is never over the top. I recommend this CD to anyone looking for intelligent songwriting and creative melodies. If you get the chance, check out her live act (her tour schedule is on her home page.) I saw her twice this year at Dragon*Con — at the Atlanta Skeptics party and again at the Parsec Awards. She brings humor and energy to her performances, at which she plays somewhat unusual percussion instruments (manual typewriter and rain stick.) I hope she makes the trip east to Dragon*Con every year.

Any other Marian Call fans out there? Chime in in the comments.

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Make the Box Larger

Book collection

Jennifer Povey offers an interesting perspective on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series:

It’s my opinion that The Hunger Games and its sequels are the best anti-war novels of recent time. They deserve to stand next to Joe Haldeman’s Forever War (a different take on the fate of the veteran). I hope that the popularity of the film will pull the books out of the young adult ghetto and put them in the hands of the parents. On the other hand, perhaps it IS the children, the future leaders who need to read it.

So. Why the heck has The Hunger Games been classified as young adult? It’s actually fairly simple. It’s a sad fact of the publishing industry at present, and something I’ve seen myself, that if your protagonist is under 18, the industry classes your work as ‘young adult’. I’ve written pieces not intended as young adult but with teenage protagonists and I inevitably get told ‘send it to a young adult magazine’, so I’ve seen this myself.

And this has to change. Not every book with a young protagonist is suited to teenagers and will be enjoyed by them. I don’t know for sure whether Suzanne Collins did intend the books to be adult fiction and was funneled into YA by industry suspicions…hopefully one day I’ll have an opportunity to ask her. But I’m afraid that is exactly what happened.

I find this interesting because my youngest son, a high school senior who would himself say that he is not an avid reader, devoured those books a couple of years ago. On the basis of that purely unscientific sample of one, I concluded that they are YA titles. I have not read them yet myself and cannot offer my own conclusion. However, Jenna knows literature; I’m more inclined to read the books having read her opinion.

Her other point about the way publishers pigeon-hole certain books is spot on. Worse, the inability to easily classify a book makes publishers less likely to buy it. I don’t know how many writing panels I’ve attended where at least one of the authors mentions that he or she had trouble selling a book because publishers didn’t know where to put it on the shelf.

As a writer who hopes to move beyond self-publishing some day, I find this frustrating. I submitted Purgatory to a lot of agents and publishers, and for the most part I received form letter rejections. Maybe they didn’t like it, but maybe they didn’t know how to classify it. It’s part comedy, part speculative fiction (the time-travel element), part spiritual/religious, and party buddy movie. As I write this, the final episode of the podcast version has been downloaded 3,211 times, so apparently a few thousand people liked it enough to listen to all 12 episodes. That makes me think that its chances with publishers were hurt because it’s not easily classified.

I don’t know what the answer to this is. Publishers are businesses; businesses need efficient ways to market products, ways that assure buyers that they’re getting what they believe they’re paying for. I get that part. However, I also think they probably pass on a lot of good books (and I don’t just mean mine) because they don’t fit the pre-existing mold. I won’t even begin to compare anything I’ve written to Harry Potter, but I have to wonder how many series that are just as enchanting may be languishing on hard drives because editors don’t recognize the potential. J.K. Rowling certainly got more than her share of “thanks-but-no-thanks” letters before Scholastic bought The Sorcerer’s Stone.

Once upon a time, a book about a kid who turns out to be a wizard was too outside the box. I think the lesson here is to make that box a little larger.

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About Social Media, Employers and Employees









Reporter Michael Doyle describes some disturbing actions by a few public employers:

“Like” the First Amendment? Then prepare for a fight, as courts and employers figure out whether a simple click on Facebook deserves free speech protection.

It’s 21st-century technology meets an 18th-century Constitution, and the real-world implications are starting to erupt.

In rural Mississippi, two firefighters and a police officer are serving 30-day suspensions because they hit “like” on a controversial Facebook post.

In Virginia, a sheriff’s department employee said he was fired for “liking” a page sponsored by the sheriff’s political rival. One federal appellate court already is being asked to weigh in; others surely will follow.

“As we continue to develop new media and new means of expression, it is important to ensure that they are constitutionally protected,” Rebecca Glenberg, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said in an interview.

When users click “like” on a Facebook post, their names are displayed next to the post. They’re also visible to other users.

The Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering the case of Hampton, Va., sheriff’s department employees allegedly fired for using Facebook and other means to back their boss’s rival. One employee communicated the support by clicking “like.” Another wrote a Facebook post.

A trial judge concluded last April that “merely ’liking’ a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.” He said it wasn’t the kind of “substantive statement” that courts traditionally have protected.

The subsequent appeal is the first to consider whether a Facebook “like” falls under the First Amendment, Glenberg said.

Underscoring the case’s importance, the ACLU and Facebook have filed separate friend-of-the-court briefs urging free speech protections.

“I am not aware of any other instances of an employee being fired for ’liking’ something,” Glenberg said. “There is, however, a trend toward employers monitoring employees’ social media use, so the potential for this sort of thing is certainly there.”

All of the examples in this story are of public employers — fire departments, law enforcement agencies, etc. There is no mention of private businesses taking these sorts of drastic actions. Still, it raises some serious questions about the rights of employers versus those of employees. If an employer has the right to discipline an employee for actions taken (or not taken,) it follows that the employer enjoys a certain amount of control over that employee.

Should that control extend to what an employee does on Facebook or other social media? Does the answer change, depending on the type of employer and type of job? Does the answer change, depending on the nature of the employee’s action? Consider these hypotheticals:

  • An employee of Joe’s Pizzeria clicks the “like” button on the Facebook page of Mike’s Pizza & Knee-Buckling Wings. Mike’s is one Joe’s major competitors.
  • The employee of Joe’s leaves a comment on Mike’s Facebook page, saying, “Have you tried the new butterscotch-flavored wings at Mike’s? They may be the greatest invention since Bud Light.”
  • The employee of Joe’s tweets, “Grabbing a pizza at Mike’s as soon as I get off work.”
  • The employee of Joe’s leaves a one-star review of Joe’s on Yelp.

Should Joe’s Pizzeria have the right to discipline its employee for any or all of these actions? Conversely, what if Joe’s has a Facebook page and the employee refuses to “like” it? Should Joe’s be able to discipline its employee for that?

These are difficult questions that will only become more frequent. Employers have a right to expect a certain amount of loyalty from their employees, but does that right have an ending point? If so, where is that point?

We live in a time where employers have a great deal of power in the employment relationship. The U.S. economy has not yet recovered all of the jobs lost during the recession that began in late 2007. Private-sector unions have been in retreat for years. Anecdotes about abusive employment practices enjoy a large and sympathetic audience, which is why the media loves to run them. Rightly or wrongly, these stories plant the impression that those fortunate enough to have jobs have the deck stacked against them.

In this context, the issue of employer control over employees’ private actions is magnified. It might seem less important if the unemployment rate was four percent instead of eight (the key word there being seem.) No one had ever heard of social media in the late 1990’s, which was the last time the unemployment rate was that low. It’s a whole new world today.

I don’t pretend to know the answers to the questions I’ve just posed. As an employee myself, I have an emotional reaction to the stories cited in the story I quoted, but that doesn’t mean that employers don’t have a valid point. As a society, we are going to be having this conversation for a very long time — on blogs, in the courts, and in the halls of our legislatures. It is likely to be a messy one. Place your tray tables in the upright position and fasten your seatbelts, because there will be some turbulence.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Sound off in the comments section. Just please keep the discussion civil and polite. Much obliged.

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Guest Appearance on ‘The Functional Nerds’

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending a few minutes chatting with John Anealio and Patrick Hester of The Functional Nerds podcast. It was a lot of fun, and they were very gracious hosts. John has been a guest on The Geek Side of Life, and I’d like to have Patrick on the show sometime soon.

Hope you enjoy!

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Random Thoughts For a Thursday in Mid-August

What does one think about while sipping coffee at 6:00 a.m. on a mid-August morning (aside from, “I’d rather be asleep right now”)?

  • To state the obvious, this has been a brutally hot summer. The last few days have brought some cooler temperatures, but for much of the last two months, the humidity machine has been working overtime. I love summer, but the cooler temps are a relief.
  • I can’t help thinking about Elvis, who departed this world 35 years ago today. It was one of the first “milestone” events I’m old enough to remember.
  • My recovery from Olympics withdrawal continues apace. With effort, by next week I’ll be able to stop humming the theme music NBC played during its coverage.
  • Only 14 days until I leave for Dragon*Con!
  • My Geek Side of Life podcast has been on a bit of a hiatus. I recorded a short story the other day and plan to get at least four or five more recorded soon so I can get back to a regular release schedule. I’m also brainstorming possible interview subjects. Ideally, once September hits, I’d like to release new episodes every two weeks for at least the rest of 2012.
  • This has been a lost summer for Red Sox fans.
  • I had a great four-day reunion last week with my college roomies. Just like every other year, it went way too fast and I’m left anxiously looking forward to next year.
  • I registered for two races this month. The first, a four-mile run through Syracuse’s south side, was last Saturday. I turned in a mediocre time of 40:15 (my pace has slipped from a nine-minute mile to 10.) The next one is a 5K in Syracuse’s Inner Harbor a week from Sunday, and I hope to return to better form for that one.
  • I’ve been contacting book bloggers to see if they’ll review Purgatory. Only a couple of takers so far. Apparently, I’m not the only person with this idea. Book bloggers get deluged with requests like mine.
  • I turned 51 last month. Am still in denial about my age starting with a 5.
  • I’m a politics junkie, but this year’s campaign has turned me off in a major way. If this is what passes for discussion about America’s future, then we will all be supremely uninformed on Election Day. Whoever wins the election will have half the country hating him because of the things his opponent said (and because of some of the things he said.)
  • If this is Thursday, that can only mean that the weekend starts tomorrow!

I’m out of coffee. Time to start the day. What are you thinking about today?

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Random Thoughts Upon Returning From Vacation

I got home a few hours ago from a very quick trip to New England. We left Saturday morning for Boston, met up with my oldest son (who is a law student there), and started eating. With intermittent breaks, we ate pretty much for the rest of the trip. In between, we visited Boston Public Garden, the North End, Newbury Street, the New England Aquarium, caught a ferry ride, visited Harvard and Kenmore Square, went to Newport, Rhode Island, spent many hours on the beach, walked the Cliff Walk, did some shopping, and did I mention that we ate well?

Here are some random thoughts I have about the trip:

  • If everyone in the world could spend at least three days a year relaxing on the beach, the world would be a much mellower place.
  • I love the short commutes and easy lifestyle in Syracuse, but there is definitely something energetic about big cities that is a really nice change of pace.
  • What on earth inspires a man to approach a total stranger on the beach and start preaching to him about how his new acquaintance is destined for hell if he doesn’t believe in Jesus? By the end of the conversation, I was sincerely sorry that I had turned off my iPod.
  • Harvard is even more impressive in person than it looks in movies.
  • My unscientific estimation is that every seventh car in Newport is a Mercedes.
  • If you like pizza (and I believe that includes the majority of this blog’s readers), you owe it to yourself to visit Jimmy’s in Brookline, MA.
  • The guy sitting outside an Italian bakery in Boston’s North End Saturday night, playing The Carpenters’ greatest hits on his saxophone? He is so going to be a character in one of my books some day.
  • Ditto for the twenty-something girl who sat outside a clothing boutique in Newport all day yesterday, playing blues on her electric guitar.
  • The waiter at Russell House Tavern in Cambridge who noticed that I left two bags under our table on Sunday, and who ran out of the restaurant to give them to us before we got too far away, is going straight to heaven.
  • No matter how much sunscreen you think you’ve put on yourself before you baste in the summer sun on the beach, it’s not enough.

Have you gotten away yet this summer? If so, what are your random thoughts? If not, what are you looking forward to? Chime in in the comments.

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My Backlog of Books To Read

People tell me that life allegedly slows down during the hot summer months. Given that I have yet to eat dinner before 8 p.m. this week, I feel a bit skeptical about that statement. However, let’s stipulate that it might be true. A tradition of summer here in the States, particularly the northeast where we savor warm days, is the summer reading list. The thinking goes that people go on vacation, perhaps visit the nearest ocean, and bring a pile of good books that they’ve been saving the rest of the year.

Then there are those, such as myself, who find self-restraint in bookstores and libraries exceedingly difficult. We don’t stockpile books over just one year; that is a practice for amateurs. No, we typically have inventories of unread books that are divisible by 10. When we pass a yard sale, our first thought is whether they’re selling any good books. We go into Barnes & Noble “just to look around;” of course we’re not going to buy anything. And, the teetering piles of paperbacks in our closets notwithstanding, we can’t seem to leave the library without a couple of titles tucked under our arms, promising ourselves that we’ll read them quickly.

Can people like me be helped? Nah. But we can write blog posts listing some of the books we own and plan to eventually read. Here’s a sampler from my hoard collection:

  • Knuckler: My Life with Baseball’s Most Confounding Pitch by Tim Wakefield with Tony Massarotti
  • Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress
  • 700 Sundays by Billy Crystal
  • Haywire and The Ties That Bind: Tales of the Breaking Dawn, both by Justin Macumber
  • Nocturnal by Scott Sigler
  • The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  • Dragons of Winter Night by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
  • The Witching Hour (Lives of the Mayfair Witches) by Anne Rice
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
  • A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin
  • Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer
  • The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

And this is just a fraction of them. You’ll be forgiven for thinking I need a 12-step program.

What it’s in your book pile? List them in the comments, because I clearly need more reading suggestions. And have a great summer!

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