Archive | December, 2020

And the 2020 Bantha Award goes to…

31 Dec

There are so many book awards, would anyone notice if I just made one up? When I see an award on someone’s book that I don’t recognize, I always check to see if it’s legitimate. How true is that for the rest of life? And how much do I want to fact check everything?

For example, there’s a book by an acquaintance of mine, and as a result, I really want to like it. It has a seal that says, “Readers’ Favorite, Five Stars.” I’ve tried reading it twice–the story’s okay, but the formatting is so awful that I don’t understand who is talking and when–I never got past page 20. You spent so much money on a custom cover, sprung for a sticker because this is self-published, and someone to sell your books at a con, and you couldn’t spring for an editor?

It turns out that Readers’ Favorite is a website that does free book reviews, has contests, and offers proofreading services to authors and book access to readers. However, since you can just buy a roll of stickers to put on your books, as long as your free review got five stars, it makes me wonder how authentic this is. Plus in 2020, they proudly proclaim that they are “featuring 800+ winners and finalists in 150+ categories,” makes me think I could sweep the alternate history urban fiction category this year. 🙂 Okay, this is obviously a money-making ploy, and it’s a good one, but how many people would do the research to catch it?

About 30 years ago, the accreditation movement started getting steam–it might have started earlier, but as a new teacher, this was the first I had heard of it. ISO 2000 certification was the rage in the factories I worked with, but in the early internet, no one outside manufacturing executives had any clue what ISO was or why they should care. It’s actually rather impressive when you research it, but it only really impresses other manufacturers, not your customers.

Private schools and public colleges suddenly all got accredited by these mega-agencies that no one had ever heard of. Unless you’re working in a private school, have you ever heard of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges? No? Well, it’s very important if you want to convince American colleges to accept your high school graduates if you’re teaching them in Malaysia. In fact, this accreditation got so bad that now there’s an accreditation association for accreditation associations!

Damn–I wish I got in on this scam. Convince people that you’ll make them authentic and pocket their money; you’re selling air! It’s gotten so crazy that there are fake accreditation agencies for fake colleges! You know, the diploma mills for schools that don’t actually exist? On a more insidious path, there are fake colleges that have an office that purely exist to allow foreigners to come in student visas, and rake in Department of Education funding.

This post is getting way too long–so I better continue it tomorrow. However, I am curious, what are areas that you’re familiar with that you know people are trying to scam with fake awards/certifications/accreditations? Let me know in the comments below!

Everything Zen? I Don’t Think So.

30 Dec

It’s easy to love the fanatic; their passion and drive speak to everything that we don’t have. However, no one stays in that state forever, because the demands of real life eventually pull us away. So should we shun the moment or embrace it?

I was reading a blog by Bryan Wagner titled You and Constructive Zen, in which he talks about the importance of saying no. Learning to realize that you have too much on your plate and that you can’t help another is important to keeping yourself balanced. In other words, the middle path between asceticism and sybarism that Buddha was going on about.

Let me just preface this by saying I’m not a Buddhist, but I’ve struggled with the spiritual high–the trying to achieve it and the disappointment coming down from it. I think that’s why the idealized Buddhist monks act they way they do–if you don’t have any belongings apart from your robe and begging bowl, then naturally, you’ve got little to worry about losing. However, I do want to emphasize “idealized,” because the Buddhist monks I’ve met have real problems, too. There’s politics at the temple/monastery, some smoke like chimneys (so they have to be getting the money for cigarettes somewhere), and others are struggling with their college classes (that someone has to pay for).

Does that mean that clerics have to be ascetic all the time? No, they’re real people–and that’s the point! Sooner or later, you have to come out of your meditation and have a meal, go to the bathroom, or sit on a corner and beg… which is not a pleasant experience. I was talking to an American Zen Buddhist (grew up in that faith) about his going to temple, and he just looked at me confused, because in his tradition, going to temple is the antithesis of what you’re supposed to do. You might get together to meditate, but normally, you’re supposed to be by yourself. In a sense–fundamentalist Buddhism.

But there are limits to what you can achieve by yourself, which is why the greatest spiritual highs I’ve had have been on retreats, camps, things that force you to get away from the demands of the real world to focus on those moments. I’ve broken into song in an open field, wept openly at the edge of the corn, and felt the touch of the Creator in those quiet communal moments. But it doesn’t last–it’s not supposed to.

My favorite interpretation of the story of the Sacrifice of Issac (Genesis 22) is that when his father was lifting up the knife to kill Issac, the angel was holding the knife back; which meant that Abraham couldn’t see the angel, but Issac could. In the next chapter, Issac was blinded–so one interpretation suggested that after you see an angel, Issac was “blinded” to the normal affairs of the world, which is why he couldn’t see that Esau was so bad later on, but also why he just followed in his father’s footsteps (sometimes literally). He lived in the spiritual high so much that it made him blind to the duties of being a patriarch of a wealthy family.

So… be constructively Zen; don’t fear the connection with the Infinite, but don’t beat yourself up for “falling short of the Glory of God.” Find the spiritual in the mundane and understand that you are fallible about to become transcendent.

How did I do? Did I capture the Middle Path well? Do I have no clue what I’m talking about? Let me know in the comments below!

“Then I will be the Singer and not the Song…”

29 Dec

It’s funny what will strike you at weird moments. My son and I were watching a TV show from about 10 years ago and a song was used in the background that took me back to when I first heard it. How is it that memory is keyed so haphazardly?

It was actually a really good cover of that song–Roll the Dice by Beth Orton–my friend burned the entire album off Napster (yes, it’s THAT old) after I exclaimed how much I liked one of her songs. Interestingly enough, I really like the Superpinkymandy album, which was all moody and really innovative. Then she went more pop-ish and I lost interest. (shrug) So it goes. That happened to Toad the Wet Sprocket for me. Loved their albums up to when they did the Friends songs, which was far more pop, and they lost everything that I liked about them. But hey, they probably sold more records, so what do I know? 🙂

Getting back to the song–the cover was really good, and keyed to someone else’s memory–it was used first on an episode of the O.C. (a show I have never seen) five years earlier than the show I was watching, and apparently, people really enjoyed it there. My guess is that although we could–in theory–recall every memory we’ve ever had, only the stuff that has an emotion tied to it can come faster to the surface. I mean, if I really try, I can start thinking about my childhood home, start imagining what was in there, and then remember certain mundane things that happened there.

But, of course, I wouldn’t have gotten there if I hadn’t used the stronger memory of the place–the emotion of other memories tied to that location–to find the other memories hiding below the surface. For example, if I need to think about the two years I spent in Lawrence, Kansas, I instantly remembering cooking the green peas that we grew in our backyard, because that was an accomplishment for a six-year-old me. Then it gets to making grilled cheese sandwiches with dad, playing with Rachel and Stephanie up the hill, and drawing pictures on the cinder blocks that some construction firm so kindly left for us for four weeks. 🙂 I can’t remember what our living room was like, but I remember the kitchen, my bedroom (vaguely), and my dad’s office.

So I get to the how–now to the why. Why is our memory coded like that? My thought: it keeps us sane. If we had instant recall of everything we ever did, my God, would that drive us crazy! I remember watching a great documentary called Born on a Blue Day, which is all about an autistic man who can do complex math very quickly and can learn languages incredibly fast. An amazing accomplishment to be sure, but it comes at the cost of being unable to function in other parts of life. He has a functional disability–other people with the same condition can remember the weather on any day of their life, but only to the effect that it was hot, or rainy, or cold. As superpowers go, he got the short-end of the stick.

Have you got a better theory? Can you remember extreme detail about mundane things? Have you been blessed/cursed with an eidetic memory? Let me know about it in the comments below!

The God of Continuity

28 Dec

Plot holes can go undetected for years or covered up rather clumsily. They can throw your audience out of the moment and you may never get them back. So how do you avoid that problem?

The easy answer? Get someone to read your story before you publish it. There are so many things that can be caught by having a fresh pair of eyes. For example, in my most recent book, Drag’n Drop, I thought I’d throw in something really cool for the villain to say: “And then I will become the singer and not the song.” To which my friend, “What on Earth does that mean?” Whoops–not everyone got it. So I actually included my friend’s quote in my hero’s response, which allowed my villain to explain what the heck he meant.

In my old writing circle, all of us had one superpower that helped out the rest of us. For example, one of my friends was the Technobabble God. He was more interested in science than the rest of us, so if you had trouble with a particular technology that you were trying to make sound believable, he could give you a line of BS that sounded good, and you put that in your story.

I was the God of Continuity; I found your plot hole and ensured that whatever wacky #*$&@($ idea that you got in your head to put your story that somehow, someway, it would makes sense as part of your plot. You happen to use a digital gate in your story, because you just read Piers Anthony, and thought that turning a ship into an energy signal, and then rebuilding it on the other side was a cool idea. And it is… except that you’ve already established that we use hyperspace gates. So… why another method of travel?

The answer–the digital gates were an experiment by the government to improve space travel. However, they were so expensive that they could only be used on one established route. Duh-da! Your prayers have been answered, writer!

For my father-in-law, he built a world where the colonists had been medieval reenactors who wanted to get away from the modern world. It happened to be a world where psychic powers could be mistaken for magic. So when you run into a ghost of one of the original colonists, and he sees this computer, he didn’t know what it was. Except he should have–and one of his fans pointed this out. So in the prequel, he had to put in a bit about erasing their memories, so that the original colonists wouldn’t be having second thoughts about leaving. Plot hole closed.

If a friend won’t read your book, then it helps to wait a while between finishing your story and publication, then come back and read it again. Sometimes, just giving yourself time to breathe between finishing the first/second/fifth draft and getting it ready for print that you can realize, “Oh, Sancho Panza disappeared for two chapters!”

Is there an easier way to detect (and close) plot holes? Do you have an army of beta readers who can figure these things out? Can you lend them to me? 🙂 Let me know in the comments below!

Not Appearing in this Language

27 Dec

I was watching an Eddie Izzard clip the other night and he revealed a fact that I did not know–English used to have gendered nouns, just like French. But between the Norman invasion and Chaucer, we lost them. Why?

If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, take the word le stylo–the pencil–in French. It’s masculine, for reasons that should be obvious, but if you haven’t taken language courses, the concept of arbitrarily deciding what words are masculine, feminine, or neuter is rather odd to English speakers. The le or la both mean “the,” just changed depending on which word you’re talking to. In Hebrew and Thai, at least, the word is often changed depending on who you’re talking about.

I love linguistics, but to be fair, I really just like alphabets. Actual language and grammar don’t interest me as much as the symbols people use to represent them. However, how English evolved is particularly exciting, and it’s something that I liked to teach my kids back when I taught history. Language evolves–and it’s cool to hear how it does. Here’s a clip of how one linguist’s actor son says Shakespeare sounded four hundred years ago.

According to Izzard–and he’s right–the language of government and the ruling class was Norman French, and remained that way for two hundred years. That’s why English heraldry is still referred to with terms in that language: A field ermine, per bend sinister or with three scallops vert. (NOTE: when I read that back in my head, I realized that is the most disgusting coat of arms I could have chosen.) So English evolved on its own, without any interference from the nobles or the king; it mixed with Norse and eventually lost its gendered terms.

I mean, did we really lose anything? It might be nice to say, “No, she’s my wiffreond,” because the term girlfriend gets misused if you’re a guy, because a female friend is technically a girlfriend, but traditionally men don’t use that term for a non-intimate relationship. On the other hand, I don’t have to remember fifteen terms for woman, depending on their status. There’s a big difference between mædencild, mægden, freowif, and forþwif (female child, young girl, free woman, matron). Heck, we’re using letters we don’t even use in English anymore!

What do you think? Did we lose or gain anything by taking out the le and la out of our lives? Let me know in the comments below!

Avoiding the Doctor’s Office

26 Dec

I don’t have a fear of the doctor–after all, I worked in hospitals for 11 years–but I have no great desire to go see one, even when I’m sick. Is it being cheap, annoyed at taking the time, just stubborn, or do I understand the limitations of what the doctor can do for me?

The answer is all four–sorry to give it away right at the beginning–but there’s no one reason. I certainly have a great respect for what modern medicine can do for me, but having worked primarily in emergency departments, I also know what is routine and doctor’s really can’t do anything about. These are known as Triage/Acutity 5 patients, and they take up so much time, that bigger ED’s actually have separate sections (“fast track” areas) to quickly deal with those patients, so they can leave space for the real cases.

Let me address my issues one at a time–yes, I’m cheap. Even if I had better insurance, it would still cost a significant amount of money to go into the doctor’s office. Thankfully, there are plenty of urgent cares, which do deal with the low acuity patients that ED’s would rather not see, but won’t wait to see a family practitioner. So even if I wait to see the local doc, I still have to pay $35 up front on top of whatever else he wants me to buy. I’ve actually gone to alternative medicine clinics more often because it’s far cheaper.

I also get annoyed at the waste of time. Average visit to the urgent care/ED still run between 2-4 hours, depending on the capacity. I understand why that is the case–the patient can’t, because they don’t see the other patients, or the amount of paperwork that has to be done for every intake, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Especially when you’ve been waiting an hour and the doctor comes in for two minutes, takes a look, and then says, “Oh, yeah, you’ve got X. I’ll write a prescription.” Unless you’re looking for a antibiotic, it’s usually not worth the wait.

There’s also a limit to what doctors can do. A majority of doctors tend to die at home, because if you know what’s killing you, you also know what can be done to stop it. And if there’s nothing–or the price is too high–why bother going somewhere else to die? I’m not saying you shouldn’t go in for testing or a physical every so often, but there’s no point going in for a sniffles.

So there’s the stubborn issue–my mother actually died from it. She was deathly afraid of doctors, and even though the ovarian cyst she had was perfectly and routinely treatable (and probably hurt like hell before hand), she didn’t want to go in. So when it burst–poof, she died of blood loss. (This was thirty years ago, so don’t feel too bad for me; man proposes and God disposes.) However, I have that stubborn streak, and if my kids cut their hand, my first thought is not, “My God, get them to the hospital!” It’s usually, “Okay, let’s get a bandage.” I’m worse with myself; I’m more willing to go for my family members.

What do you think? Do you have trouble going into the doctor’s office? Do you have the opposite problem? What’s your line for wanting to be seen by a medical professional? Tell me in the comments below!

Anger for the Converted

25 Dec

Nihil ex nihilo – nothing comes from nothing. When someone converts to a faith, they have to have left another, and that doesn’t matter if it’s secularism or atheism. When that moment happens, there’s a sense of betrayal by the “faith” you left behind.

I know–weird thing to choose for a Christmas Day post, huh? However, I was reading a lovely post by an ex-Mormon woman who shared her testimonial about leaving her faith, due to her sister’s being upset her previous post about the pagan origins of Christmas. The problem with leaving a fundamentalist group (and this is true, regardless of religion) is that on one hand that group provides a great strong community that you can count on, but the only way they maintain that community is by not veering from their ideals. And to talk about Christmas trees as a Germanic pagan practice, or the date being related to the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, is simply not done.

What this comes from is anger; this is not talked about as part of the convert experience. In missionary faiths, the convert is celebrated, and asked to share their testimony to when they came to the truth. However, they don’t talk about that moment when you realize, “My God, everything I thought was a lie!” That sense of betrayal doesn’t go away quickly or easily.

Contrary to popular belief, the convert leaves their home faith not because they have a lack of faith, but because they believed too deeply. Evangelical atheists (as I like to call them) will tell you all about how religion is the true sin of man, but they only got there because they were a firm Christian (it could be others, but it’s probably Christian) that believed strongly and wanted to know more. My friend who I define as “evangelical atheist” is the son of a seminary school dropout and a recalcitrant nun–you don’t get more Catholic than that.

They hit a point where the questions they were asking weren’t given good answers and came to the realization that there were no good answers. That’s rough. Penn Gillette (THE evangelical atheist) talks about growing up in the Congregational Church of Greenfield, Massachusetts and being asked to leave youth group because he kept pelting the leader with all these questions that he brought to each meeting.

For me, I did what most Americans do–hold two contradictory concepts in my head at the same time. Hanukkah is about celebrating the miracle of lights, even though 1 Maccabees or other contemporary accounts don’t mention it, and that only comes later in the Talmud. I believe the real miracle was the unexpected victory of Jews to win their independence. Christmas does fall at the same time as Saturnalia, but because that was a time when early Christians could celebrate openly, with fear of persecution. Bunnies and eggs are fertility symbols and used at the spring equinox which vaguely comes at Easter (your lunar calendar may vary with the solar one), but that doesn’t stop people from experiencing the resurrection of Christ.

I don’t have to defend my faith because the contradictions are not what I cling to. What I hold to is that God exists and He intercedes in our lives; what I believe follows from those two premises. Everything else is the tradition we choose to follow. Just like family, religion can be messy, and you don’t all get along, but we come together for the important stuff. And the pain goes away… eventually.

What do you think? What brought you to your principles? What kept you strong or made you leave your faith? Tell me in the comments below!

Drag’n Drop is now available!

24 Dec

Through much trial and tribulation, I’m proud to announce that Drag’n Drop, my most recent novel, is now available for purchase on Kindle or in paperback through Amazon, for the low, low price of $1.99! If you ever wanted an alternate history urban fantasy story, now is the time!

A dragon should be able to go wherever he wants, right? But in modern-day Nieuwe Amsterdam (you’d know it as New York), magical creatures are hidden, and citizens of the Staats-General von Amerika aren’t interested in such nonsense like wizards, orcs, elves, dwarves, fairies… and most importantly, dragons, coming to light. However, magic exists and it changed history. For four hundred years, the European colonists have only managed to cling desperately to the coasts, outnumbered by the native tribes that threaten to push them back into the sea.

Caleb, a big green dragon who’s been living in New Amsterdam has seen native invasions come and go, but this time, something’s different. The united tribes have burst through the Cordelyou Line–a massive defense work built along the western border–with a new magic that should be impossible. Now they are threatening to finally destroy the European Settlements once and for all. Threatened with the loss of his home, he gathers his friends–a washed-up wizard and an arcane librarian–to travel across Amerika. His hope: find the source of the natives’ new power, gather an army of magical creatures, and destroy it… before it’s too late.

I’m very proud of my new book–considering it took ten years to come to the light of day–and hope you’ll enjoy it as well. Keep supporting independent authors!

Post-Holiday Relief

23 Dec

There’s nothing like being home for the holidays–not that most of us have a choice in 2020–but as much as we look forward to the holidays, they really are a pain in the rear to actually get there. Dealing with personalities, cooking, cleaning, supplies… is it worth it?

Unlike most of you, I’m already done with my winter holiday. Hanukkah lasts eight nights, but you deliberately try to tone it down compared to Christmas. One, you’ve got more time to get it right, but two, you don’t want to get burned out on latkes and dreidels and jelly donuts too fast, because it’s gotta last a week. This year, we had the challenge that half of the kids’ presents didn’t arrive in time, thanks to the shipping glut that happened due to COVID. However, they’re older now, so when we told them they would get their presents later, they weren’t terribly upset. Besides, they got a pretty good haul so far, so nothing to really complain about.

Then came the perennial problems–not enough candles. This year, we actually got a hanukkiah/menorah for each of us this year, which was a big thing! That way, everyone could light their candles. Each menorah takes 45 candles; start with two, add one every night, and that’s a lot of wax, really darn quick. We actually had a TON of candles leftover from last year, but now we had four menorahs to light. Whoops. By seventh night, we were running out. I ran out to Target and… wouldn’t you know it, they were all sold out, because corporate HQ doesn’t believe there’s enough Jews in Phoenix to send more. However, the nice guy working there pointed me towards some birthday candles which worked just as well (and burned cleaner). We ended up using all but two candles by the last night. Whew!

Of course, I could say this about any holiday. Thanksgiving this year–which I didn’t blog about–was really nice, but my wife and our friends wanted to experiment with a vegan meal. Now, I don’t actually need the turkey or any meat, but there’s a lack of options when you’re being strict about no meat/no dairy.

The sages used to call the month between the High Holidays and Hanukkah the “bad month,” because there was nothing to celebrate. But considering you had to go through three holidays in two weeks, it was good to have four weeks off before the next holiday. Is it worth it? Yes. But just like any vacation, it’s good to recover after you come from the trip. I’ve got vacation coming up next week and I’m hoping to take the kids up to the mountains to see snow, but that’s flexible, based on Mother Nature and the vagaries of timing.

What do you think? Are the holidays worth it? Do you work more trying to relax than you do at your paid work? Let me know about it in the comments below!

This is Why You Hire Staff

22 Dec

Just when you think you’ve done it all before, what should have taken a half-hour ends up taking all morning. So I’m getting my new book, Drag’n Drop, ready to go on the Amazon site and… hilarity ensues!

Now here’s what really chafed my heinie–I actually got all the formatting done on my book text two months ago! Thanks to my generous (and good-looking) brother-in-law, Editor Ed, he actually had a professional artist make my cover. This is a new experience to me. I tried making my own cover for Defending Our Sacred Honor and I thought it came out good… but the more I look at it, the more it looks terrible. So I was rather grateful that Ashley Cser took the commission.

As mentioned, graphic design is really not my thing–which is ironic, because video production is my day job. But composition and performance are two different skills; just because I can find all this cool pictures and video and put them together doesn’t mean I can draw worth crap.

Speaking of which, I’ve got Kindle’s own e-book creator (Create), which works very well, and plugs everything exactly as I need it to. That worked fine. However, when trying to make the paperback version–because to stroke my own ego, I need to have them on my bookshelf–there was one major problem. The cover and the map weren’t fitting within the guidelines.

Getting the cover to work was understandable–after all, it’s the first thing that anyone sees. Ash had drawn the cover; after all, that’s what I paid her for. However, then I had to write the teaser text on the back, and put it all the other graphics. Took me an hour just to get that correct and then manipulate it so the picture appeared in the correct fashion. On the plus side, this will be the first book of mine that has the Albigensia Press icon on the spine!

If you don’t think that’s cool, you can instantly tell which books are professional or not by the publishing house icon on the spine. Interesting side note: All the hardcover books have the publisher icon at the bottom, all the paperbacks at the top. Weird.

Of course, once I conquered that hurdle, then there was that map. Considering I’ve blasted the last three authors who didn’t include a map in their book, I figured this was pretty damned important. However, my original map was pretty low quality, and it was drawn for a standard 8″x11″ page… and my book is 5″x8″. So I had to redraw it, left out a lot of the detail I originally included to fit it on the page, and thought I had it down. Nope. It took multiple tries to get the stupid thing in the right place so it wouldn’t get cut off by pagination.

However, four hours later, I think it looks great. Once you get a chance to see it on December 24th, I think you’ll agree. Yet I wish I had staff I could pay to do this for me–oi! I can’t be the only one who has this trouble. What issues do you have in your workday that you wish you could pass off to someone else? Let me know in the comments below!

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