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Container of bubbles

This feels very weird.  I’m writing on a netbook from a hotspot in a Starbucks in Renton (that’s south of Seattle).  It is noisy in here, and 80% of those present here have their faces buried in computers.  This isn’t a coffee shop; it just looks like one.

It feels so Seattle.  It’s even cloudy outside, with rain threatening.  Air’s humid, though it’s not cooking hot.  And not a single person in this Internet terminal that happens to serve coffee would voluntarily have a conversation with any other person, unless they met here on purpose.

This is what I do not like about cities.  I understand wanting to have one’s bubble of not dealing with random people; I really do.  But if you look at this situation right now, this place of ass-numbing hardwood chairs and crappy music, it is all just a container of bubbles.  There is another human being three feet from me on the right, and if I tried to have a conversation with him, I would absolutely shatter all the social rules.  I would be marked as fundamentally odd, probably dangerous, and quite irritating.

Technology may be connecting us with people far away, but it is isolating us from people who are close enough they could grab each other’s junk without leaning.

My dumbest computer user ever

You’ve all heard the computer-idiot stories about the executive who complained that his computer’s coffee cupholder no longer retracted, right? I have a true-to-life one.

Before I was a computer shaman, before I was an assistant MIT at an investment company that managed ten-figure sums, I was a computer salesman about five miles from the Micro$oft campus.  I worked for a very wise entrepreneur from Taiwan, Mr. TeLung Chang.  Mr. Chang (who had literally been an American longer than I had) gave me opportunity, guidance and consideration.  I returned his kindness by being contrary, troublesome and having the highest profit margins in the company, so I was a mixed blessing for him.  He passed on in 2008, and the world was the poorer for it.

This was from 1988-1990, and the main computer sold was the AT (80286) clone in some form or other, gradually giving way to 80386-based machines.  IBM was trying to make the world want MicroChannel PS/2 machines.  The world was laughing at IBM’s doddering distance from reality.   A woman named Nancy bought an Acer 900 from me, a great big can of an AT clone.  She ordered it with the standard 1.2MB 5.25″ floppy, a standard 40MB hard drive, and the usual 640K of RAM.  It was for her plastics company in south Seattle.  She had bought it over the phone, and picked it up while I was at lunch, so I never met her in person.

That afternoon, I get a call. It’s Nancy.  “Jonathan, Jonathan!  My computer’s no good!”

“It doesn’t work?”

“No, it doesn’t.  The disk is broken.”

“Your hard drive won’t start up at all?”

“No, I don’t have the hard disk, the little one.  I have the big kind, the floppy kind.”

I then had to explain to her the the hard disk was inside the case, and that the 3.5″ disk was actually a floppy, just with a firmer case, so yes, she did in fact have a hard disk. Then:  “So what exactly is the problem?”

“Well, my disk is broken.”

Clearly we weren’t communicating.  “You must mean that the floppy drive is broken, then?”

“Yeah.  It’s stuck.”

I brightened.  “Oh.  So there’s a floppy stuck in the drive and it’s not working?”


“Just out of curiosity, Nancy, what’s on this floppy? Is it important data?”

“No, it’s my dose disk.”  At this point, I admit, I put the conversation on speaker so my colleagues could hear the rest of it.  Mr. Chang would most definitely not have approved, so I’m glad he didn’t come upstairs right about then.

“It should boot up to a C: prompt.  How come you put a DOS disk in?”

“Well,” she snipped, as if explaining the obvious to an imbecile, “I opened the manual that came with it and it said to insert your MS-dose diskette in drive A.  So I did.”

I then had to explain to Nancy that we had actually loaded DOS on her hard drive when we assembled the machine, and that while we included the DOS manuals and floppies because she’d paid for them by buying DOS, she did not need to do anything with them but hang onto them.  Might be useful to look up some DOS commands, if need be.  Then back to the problem-solving:  “So this is your DOS floppy and it’s stuck in the drive.  Is the arm broken?”

“There is no arm!”

“Then there must be a little spindle where it used to be.  Perhaps somehow it came off.  That could explain this.  Is there?”

“No, there’s just a slot.  There’s no arm and no spindle.”  The 5.25″ floppies of the day always came with a closure arm that engaged the drive and locked the floppy in place.  It could be removed, or could slip off or break, but never without a trace.  What she was saying was absolutely impossible.  Unless…no, surely not…

“Nancy, where exactly is this slot? On the right side of the case are three rectangular bays, one with a floppy drive and two covered with faceplates, all the same size.  Is it over there?”

“Yes.”  Oh, no…

“Let’s narrow this down very precisely. Where exactly is the ‘slot’ in that area? How high up is it, and how much room does it have?”

Her frustration with my stupidity or obtuseness grew worse.  “It’s right about a third of the way from the top! It’s the width and height of a disk!”

She had.  She had actually managed to stick a floppy into the small, 1/8″ high space between drive bays, failing to notice the authentic floppy drive immediately above it.  I had a sudden burst of hilarity, which I had to strangle.  The effort broke my voice.  “So, what you are saying is that you stuck your DOS disk in the small space between the faceplates, and therefore, you think your computer’s broken?”  I am lucky my colleagues didn’t have worse control; I was beginning to tear up with suppressed laughter.

“Yes!  This is a design flaw!  This shouldn’t be possible!”  Now she was angry.  And I was about ready not to care.

“Well, Nancy,” I croaked, “most people do not traditionally do this.”

“Well, I want it fixed!”  Raising her voice.  I didn’t care.  I summoned my composure.

“No problem.  I can give you two options.  The warranty is not on-site, so for $75 an hour I’ll send a tech out.  He will fish the floppy out of there, then put scotch tape over those gaps so that this ‘design flaw’ will be remedied.  Or, if you feel technically competent to do so, you may open the machine and push it out, then apply the tape yourself.  If none of that is satisfactory to you, you can bring it here, and I’ll fish it out and put the tape on it for you for free.  How’s that?”

“Fine!” she snapped.  “I’ll be there in about an hour!” I’m not sure now if she hung up on me, but the conversation was at an end.  As soon as I buttoned the phone off, my fellow sharks howled with laughter.  At least someone could benefit from this. But it wasn’t quite over.  About fifteen minutes later, Nancy called back.

“What’s up, Nancy?”

She sounded miffed. “I don’t need to bring it in.  The disk slid out while I was loading it in my trunk.”

“Great!  All’s well that ends well, then?”

“Yes,” she growled, her tone making clear that it hadn’t ended well, that she was very dissatisfied with my equipment and me.  Thank the gods.  I hoped she never called us again, or if she did, that she got another salesperson.  It was the last I heard from her.  But here’s to Nancy, who brightened a few days by giving me a funny story to tell.

When one is not on an assignment

Just because I’m not on a writing assignment doesn’t mean I get to goof off all day.  That wouldn’t be good for me anyway.  What to do on such a day?

  • Read.  Authors must read.
  • Respond to a business query about editing work.
  • Find nephew guilty of leaving boxcutter in shorts put in washer.  Criticism–much stinging criticism.
  • Do some financial stuff, since I’m also the $ manager around here.
  • Think for a while about the Ireland book and what needs to happen to it to improve it.
  • Watch Big Brother.
  • Drop off wife’s prescription refills.
  • Blog.

Not an arduous day, though I will pay for it another time when I’m writing for fourteen hours a day seven days a week.  I’ll take the more relaxed days when I have them, remembering the ones where it felt like my eyes would bleed–and a few that left marks.

Rereading: James Michener’s ‘Iberia’

I have come up with a recurring topic idea I’ll continue if people find it interesting:  re-reads.  I have a lot of books, enough that I could not re-read them all in five years, including many to which I later return.  I don’t like to post reviews on Amazon, unless I have a motive; I resent them shipping my content to affiliates.  (Yes, they have the legal right.  Not disputed.  Nor should they dispute my legal right to refrain from donating my content to them.)

When most of us think of Michener, we think of his great historical fiction novels that span great ranges of time.  They walk us through the development of a culture, and in so doing they help us see that culture’s modern residents in light of their forebears.  My personal favorites are The Covenant (South Africa), Centennial (Colorado), Alaska, Texas and The Source (Palestine).

Iberia differs.  It is a composite personal travelogue of the author’s experiences in Spain (Portugal is not really included).  This is that rare book for which hardcover is by far the best edition, because I own it in both hardback and paperback, and the hardback contains many more of Robert Vavra’s excellent photographs.  James Michener met Spain as a very young man, came to know it well, and its people showed him their country as thoroughly as a people can.  Spaniards can be sensitive about the world’s take on their world-shaping, gold-glittering, intensely religious past.  Said world has given them ample cause.  It follows that they considered Michener an honest broker worthy of hidden knowledge, frank debate and candid admission.

What it means for you:  a trove of cultural enrichment.  Think of every social science and humanity discipline applied to a given nation, from history to fine arts.  That describes Iberia with respect to Spain and Spaniards.

Live from Spocon

It is fairly obvious that if you have a blog, and you are at a SF convention in which you were actually on a panel about blogging with the very person who urged you to begin a blog, and you do not actually post anything while there, you Missed The Point.  Okay.

Friday was arrival day and no obligations but to check in (hour and a half in line…better than Radcon).  Much oohing and ahing over costumes.  I was elated that the homespun Rasputin costume I ordered from Jane Campbell arrived just on my way out of town.  The drive up was the usual Spokane trip:  two hours of freeway gliding, half an hour of Spoconstruction getting into town.  Spokane is a pretty nice place, but the city pastime is road repair and delay.

My local con-pal Sharon was present, but would not be for the entire con (had to fly somewhere), so to a large degree this would be winging it not knowing many people.  At the same time, plenty of at least familiar faces.  One great thing about Spocon this year:  half an hour between panels, so no mad rushes akin to college when you had ten minutes to get to your next class and a long distance to hike.  Patricia Briggs is author guest of honor this year (famed for the Mercy Thompson books set in the Tri-Cities, where I live).  I hit CJ Cherryh’s reading from the new Foreigner hardback, always a pleasure.  Decided to bag out of opening ceremonies, which never really attract me, and dine on a sumptuous meal of Coke plus whatever muffins and scones the coffee stand had remaining at 7 PM.  Then off to the Mad Marmot Asylum (a Spocon staple) for about six Marmot Juices and good fellowship with con-friends.  Left before becoming plastered (good move).

Rarely do I sleep well in hotel rooms, and this was the same.  With a 10 AM Saturday panel on Research for Search Engines, I got up, put on the Boer costume in which people seem to find me dashing, pounded a large coffee with about seven shots of espresso, and showed up on time.  Two panelists and only two panel-goers!  I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or to get more nervous.  An okay brunch afterward at the hotel breakfast restaurant, then a very interesting panel on voices and accents in writing and roleplaying.  Then came the panel on blogs/podcasts/ezines, and while I had the sense not to talk a lot–it was called ‘Maggie and CJ understand this far better than I’–it went all right with a small but interested attendance.  Directly afterward, the one that had me a bit rattled, Steampunk through history…and I think none of us were vastly well prepared, but we all chimed in:  the artist, the tinkerers two, and the history guy.  For not being quite sure how to approach the topic, I thought we acquitted ourselves admirably.

Decided on a quiet dinner alone at nearby Shenanigans, a steakhouse and brewpub; very nice.  This is Spocon’s first year away from Gonzaga (Jesuits and SF weirdos not being subject to RC tenets against divorce), so the area around the convention center is getting used to the influx of strangeness for the first time.  Shenanigans isn’t cheap, but neither is it outlandishly priced, and I’d go back.  Took in some music back at the con by the Seattle Knights, went up for a Marmot Juice, then decided that a sore knee and hip entitled me to come back to my hotel room for a bit of relaxation and blogtime.

I have to give Big Chris and Spocon credit for doing a good job here; they have grown the con since it began about four years back, and the many volunteers were pleasant.  One should always be kind to the volunteers, especially when things are going wrong, and this was not really put to a trial this year.  If there were significant catastrophes, they were remedied out of my sight, which means that they didn’t impact me.  That has to stand to the credit of ConCom and volunteers alike.  Sunday will be a short day, really a half-day, as I have to be out of here by noon and things begin to wind down.

What is amazing is that despite Spokane’s size (double the Tri-Cities), the con is half the size of Radcon (Pasco, Tri-Cities).  Surely it’s a longevity matter, as Radcon has been around much longer.  If I had to characterize Spocon in one word, I would say ‘enthusiasm.’  It is still building a name, but they work very hard and their dedication shows.  I suppose I have months to decide if I’ll come up next year, and if so, do I want to do this panel stuff again.  (Radcon doesn’t want my services, which used to affect me a bit; now that I have done it, I see benefits in being able to just attend without obligations and prior study.)  The dealer room was perhaps my main disappointment, being rather lightly presented, and this is likely a matter of the economy (and the lack of stuff I happened to wish to buy).

Your (reasonably) faithful correspondent, signing off from Spokanistan.

What you will have to teach your kids if you let them play Grand Theft Auto

Most people realize that some games are rated ‘mature’ for a reason.  For those who don’t, and figure it’s fine if their kids play Grand Theft Auto series games, you will have to educate them thus:

  1. “You a mock-ass buster fool” is an unacceptable substitute for “I disagree, Dad.”
  2. They should not refer to a water pistol as their ‘strap.’
  3. No matter how hard they try, they will not be able to bunny-hop their bikes over houses.
  4. “Are you dissing my ho’?” is an unsuitable way to ask others to respect one’s girlfriend or sister.
  5. Putting Ammu-Nation gift cards on their Santa Christmas list is futile.
  6. Very, very few stunt jumps can be done on a Big Wheel, and most will not end well.
  7. Why you pull over when a fire truck passes, rather than shoot out its right rear tire and follow it around to watch the crazy maneuvering.
  8. Just because your family sees an Army tank does not mean you now have a Wanted Level of 6 stars.
  9. Sex does not consist of two motionless people in the front seats of a car, facing forward and not touching, magically causing the car to rock.
  10. They cannot escape ‘time out’ or grounding by finding a yellow star police bribe.
  11. It really would not be amusing to park a trash truck across a busy freeway and watch the fun.
  12. Red lights are not just for other people.
  13. Most of the world doesn’t leave its keys in the car at all times.
  14. We didn’t actually go to war with Australia.
  15. Community colleges will not award them an AA in Pay-N-Spray.
  16. They cannot become fireproof by stealing a fire truck and hosing down flaming cars and/or people.
  17. Most of the social comment in the game’s radio stations is a fair depiction of the nation they will inherit.


Being greedy when others are fearful

One of my life philosophies is that if very successful and smart people say things, one should pay careful attention.  This blog, for example, resulted from just such a situation.

I look at the markets today and I see and smell fear.  Never mind that much of the fear is generated by skewed, distortionary indices like the Dow; never mind that the media deliberately worsen it by anthropomorphizing and exaggerating the market.*  Never mind that it’s all based on taking advantage of a fundamentally innumerate public’s emotions.  I can’t change any of that.  I can, however, profit from it.

(*Think I’m exaggerating, myself? Riddle me this, Robin.  When I first started losing money buying stocks because I thought I was smarter than other people, in 1987, the useless, worthless, despised Dow was around 2000.  A 100-point triple-digit loss would be 5% at least–a really bad market day by nearly any measure.  Fast forward to our modern day of Dow 10000+.  A triple-digit loss of 100 today is 1%–essentially the expected daily fluctuation.  And yet today, even today, a triple-digit day (by itself a meaningless threshold anyway, just a number) gets big reactions, reactions like it used to get in the early 1990s.  Why?  This is stupid. If you get taken in by it, or even influenced by it, you harm yourself. And when the media characterizes the market as ‘struggling to hold gains’, you surely can see how stupid that is. The market does not care what it did five minutes ago. It does not struggle. It is not a person.)

Anyway.  My own philosophy on investing is fairly simple:  patient and ruthless.  I don’t use investing as a social responsibility tool.  I would buy Wal-Mart in a heartbeat if I thought I could make good money.  Owning their stock does not help them because the initial offering is already subscribed; if you sell it, someone else will own it.  Plus, if you want to use it as a social responsibility tool, buy up a ton of shares and then vote them against the board of directors, and start shareholder movements that annoy management. That actually affects them.

So when I see a big selloff after a week or two of selloff, I’m not nervous.  I never look at the market without asking myself what I would do if this were the day–the day it plunged 20% followed by another 10% tomorrow.  Having seen that in life, when I see the markets go south, I start doing like Buffett says:  others are fearful, so be greedy.  I am bargain hunting.  I want to buy solid income investments at bargain prices, gaining high yields.  Why do I like income? Very, very simple.  I don’t have to worry about when to sell the investment.  I just collect my money and thank them.  The important thing is to buy so cheaply that your own yield is ridiculously higher than what most people will get.

Waiting, watching and checking cash balances.  C’mere, high yields.  I won’t hurt ya.  We’ll be friends for a long time.  I won’t freak out and sell you in a panic like most people.  It’ll be great for both of us.  Stability, steadiness, profit.

Selkirk Loop

Deb and I have decided to go up North for our anniversary this year.  Taking full advantage of having a live-in housesitter (our nephew can be tasked with this, and little enough is asked of him), we are going to get the heck out of here for a long weekend when the time comes.  We treat our anniversary as a pretty special holiday each year, truly celebrating it, looking back, sharing.  We drink champagne from Mullingar pewter goblets that were wedding gifts from my dear friend Domi, get each other special presents, and generally put effort into it.  This will be #13, which is important because before long, we will surpass the number she had with her ex-husband.

The Selkirk Loop circles from Newport, WA up through Metaline Falls to Salmo, BC, up to a ferry crossing at Balfour, BC over Kootenay Lake, then south to Creston, BC, Bonners Ferry, ID, Sandpoint, ID and back to Newport.  It goes through some very scenic terrain with great side trips and places to visit.  We are stoked:  Deb is an avid camera nut and we have good friends in the region who want to take us for the kind of scenic drive only locals know about.  Best of all, neither of us has been–I have been to Sandpoint, but only briefly, and I was on a mission.

If anyone has been up to this region, we’d love to hear your suggestions!

What not to do to heavily bearded people

This is a public service announcement from an owner of considerable facial shag (not that kind, jeez).

It is okay to stare at a heavy beard.  We are basically used to that.  Your kids will gawk up at us and even hide from us.  We’re used to that, too.

It’s not so okay to reach up and start playing with it without permission.  I have empathy for what pregnant women go through, with everyone rubbing the belly without leave.

It is okay to say you want to braid it.  However, it’s usually not very appealing when actually done.  And if you want to kill the chances of getting to braid it, don’t say ‘it would be so cuuuuuuute!’  Cuuuuuuute really isn’t the look bearded guys are going after.

It is dumb to ask ‘how long have you been growing that?’ Think about it.  Most of us eventually trim them off at the ends (may have done so for twenty years), so the question is pointless (and the first one everyone asks).  I’ve had mine thirteen years.  ‘How long does it take to get that long?’ is an intelligent question, use that one instead.

It is okay to ask if we play Santa at Christmas, especially if (like me) we look very much like a young Santa.

It is very helpful, at dining, to point out if something has gotten lodged in it.  Most of us want to keep our beards very clean.  It is, however, pretty dumb to ask ‘saving that for later?’ No, I really don’t want to slurp stale or decaying food scraps out of my beard.  I’m already embarrassed enough, like most people would be if they got marinara sauce on their white blouse’s cleavage.  If you let me know, I can go to the men’s room and straighten things out, and it was good of you.

It isn’t very polite to frankly remark, ‘I think you’d look better without the beard, I can’t stand beards on men.’  We would not generally say to you:  ‘You really need to put a lot more makeup on, your natural face looks pasty and old.’

It is okay to ask fairly thinking questions about it.  ‘Does it cause problems using power tools?’ Yep.  Have to be very careful.  ‘What’s the worst beard disaster you ever had?’  Got Gorilla Glue in it, had to cut a chunk out.

It is not okay to yank on it.  Surprising we have to mention this, but kids especially do it.  Please don’t let your child do this.

It’s a little intrusive to ask if it’s religious, though I don’t think it’s intrusive to ask the general question about why we grow it.  In my case it’s simple:  I dislike shaving, always did.

If you like it, it’s okay to tell us so.  If you don’t like the way we wear it, it’s not very polite to tell us what we should do to it to please you.  Not unless you’d be okay with us telling you that those jeans make your posterior look pudgy and you should get different ones.