Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Secrets of the Illuminati

In the Comment trail, the estimable Ms. Faye L. Booth notes that, on her ISBN-10, the last three digits, including the check digit, are 666: 0-230-529666. So now we have a clue what the "L" stands for. (Faye Lillith Booth? Faye Lucifera Booth?)

Her ISBN-13 lacks this quality: 978-0-230-52966-3. Just to make sure the ending wasn't another 6, I did the 1, 3, 1, 3... multiplication (see previous post), and 978-023052966 multiplies out and sums to 117. Sure enough, the next multiple of 10 from 117 is 120, and 120 - 117 is 3--the value of the check digit.

Crazed with success, I applied the same logic to her ISBN-10, expecting to come up with 6. Instead, in a moment worthy of a supernatural thriller, I arrived at 7.

As it turns out, the old ISBN-10 uses an even sillier system than multiplying by 1 and then 3 and then 1 and then 3... ISBN-10 gets its check digit by multiplying by the declining sequence 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2. So, using the first nine digits of Faye's ISBN-10 (0-230-52966):

0 x 10 + 2 x 9 + 3 x 8 + 0 x 7 + 5 x 6 + 2 x 5 + 9 x 4 + 6 x 3 + 6 x 2

= 0 + 18 + 24 + 0 + 30 + 10 + 36 + 18 + 12

= 148

Now it might seem that we would look for the next multiple of 10...but no. The ISBN-10 algorithm looks for the next multiple of 11, which turns out to be 154 (11 x 14). And 154 - 148 = (hold your breath!) 6 --the last digit in Faye's ominous ISBN-10.

Does this multiplying by ones and threes, or by a rocket-countdown from ten, strike you as just a little bit overcomplicated for the task of slapping a barcode on a novel?

I think there's something more sinister lurking here. Either this is some sort of alien language, or the Enlightened World Masters are sending out wisdom from their caves beneath the Himalayas, or the New World Order is issuing commands leading up to the moment of World Domination, or Adolf Hitler's brain is still alive and has been sending out messages from its bell jar in Argentina...

And why the switch from ISBN-10 to ISBN-13? Does this herald the dawning of the New Age, or the End Days, or did someone come perilously close to cracking the ISBN-10 code?

Something fishy is going on. The only question is, do the publishers, or at least some publishers, know? Or are all of them hapless pawns in some grander game?

Monday, July 30, 2007

"978-0-230-52906-9 reporting for duty, Sir!"

Yep. That's the ISBN-13 for Shock and Awe.

Haven't you always wanted to understand how those worked? No? Neither have I. Nonetheless, I'm behind on two important projects, so this seems like a good time to find out.

Some of this is a little fuzzy to me, so if any pros want to jump in and correct me, please do.

ISBN was started as a UK-only operation by the booksellers WH Smith. It was then adopted for international use by the ISO (International Standards Organization). It jumped from 10 digits to 13 digits on January 1 of this year. The big goal in moving to 13 digits is to bring it into harmony with the overall Universal Product Code system. (I know we've all been worried about this issue.)

The first grouping of digits--the GS1 code--in the UPC system tells you what country manufactured the item. Usually. For example, Bulgarian products begin with 380; Azerbaijani products begin with 476.

But books are handled differently. Books all begin with 978. Even if they're Bulgarian. So, if you're confused as to whether you have a book in your hands or, say, a garden rake, check the first numbers of the UPC. If the first three digits are 978, it's a book. If they are 380, it's probably a garden rake, but whatever it is, it isn't a book and it definitely comes from Bulgaria.

(Just to confuse matters, sheet music used to be 979, but now some books are 979, too. I'm not sure why. So, if the first three digits are 979, try humming the contents. If you can't, it's probably a book.)

So, we have 978-0. The "0" is a language group identifier; 0 or 1 is English (why they need two numbers is a mystery. Perhaps "1" is English as a Second Language? Maybe Irvine Welsh gets his own number?) French is 2, German is 3...

Which is fine, except there are more than nine languages in the world, and English already used up 2 slots. Well, as it turns out, they allow up to five digits in this position, so it can specify up to 100,000 language groups since "0" is counted (well, actually 99,999 since English is squatting on two slots). Now it seems to me that we are actually talking about ISBN-17 here, and that they've made a hash of the whole thing, but as I said before, I'm not clear on some of this.

Okay. 978-0. A book, and in English. Now, 230. Turns out 230 is the publisher code--apparently Macmillan New Writing. Looking through other books shows 330 as the number on most Pan books, 405 on Macmillan, 333 on Macmillan Children's. But, once again, we arrive at something that doesn't quite add up. They claim that are almost 700,000 publisher codes assigned worldwide. (They also mention that a publisher can have more than one code.) Looks to me like that would take six digits, not three...Hmm. So is this actually ISBN-23?

We've got 978-0-230 explained. Sort of. 52906, I'm happy to say, appears to be the item number. I have no idea how this is assigned, but I can tell you the numbers for the first 6 MNW books are 00000 (North), 00009 (The Manuscript), 00010 (Dark Rain), 00050 (Across the Mystic Shore), 00137 (Taking Comfort), and 00185 (Selfish Jean). They continue to begin with zeros up until Eliza Graham did something peculiar that altered the fabric of the universe and Playing with the Moon vaulted up to 52887. (Though Pandora's Sisters, published later than Eliza's book, is 01828.)

We seem stuck in the 50,000s now, thanks to Eliza. In August, The Great North Road (52889), then Shock and Awe (52906, remember that number!), then The Herring Seller's Apprentice (52965), and finally Cover the Mirrors (52966). So, it's going up, but darned if I understand this system

That last little number (9, in the case of my book) is a really odd check-sum to see if the ISBN number makes sense. Here's how it works. There is a multiplier for the first 12 numbers--either 1 or 3. The multiplier alternates 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3... You multiply this times the ISBN number and sum it up. Like this:

9 x 1 + 7 x 3 + 8 x 1 + 0 x 3 + 2 x 1 + 3 x 3 + 0 x 1 + 5 x 3 + 2 x 1 + 9 x 3 + 0 x 1 + 6 x 3

= 9 + 21 + 8 + 0 + 2 + 9 + 0 + 15 + 2 + 27 + 0 + 18

= 111

Now you take the result, 111, and find the number you need to add to it to round up to the next multiple of ten. In this case, the next multiple of 10 is 120, and 120 - 111 = 9, so the number is 9--the same number as that last little digit in 978-0-230-52906-9.

What's the point of that, you ask? Well, I can now tell you, with certainty, that the card you are holding in your hand is the Jack of Clubs. Right?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Hemingway Myths

...[Y]ou'll probably sound like second-class Hemingway... To me, it's only worse than sounding like first-class Hemingway. But, then, it takes all sorts.
aaaaaaaaa--Ursula K. LeGuin

I’ve been working up to a post or two or three on the topic of dialogue tags, and naturally the subject of Ernest Hemingway crept into my mind. I have mixed feelings about Hemingway; when he is good he is damn near perfect, but when he is not as good, he sounds like a parody of himself. One big risk of being a stylistic innovator, I suppose. (And I’m not crazy about some of his philosophy of life, either.)

But there’s no doubt that he opened up a whole new world of writing style. Certainly Chandler and Hammett wouldn’t have been possible without him; but it’s easy to forget that his stripped-down style also made possible talents as diverse as Carver and Vonnegut. Only a few years before Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises, Fitzgerald could still add a dialogue tag like “…argued Lucille skeptically…” in The Great Gatsby, without anyone wincing. (I love Gatsby and reread it often, but I have to take a deep breath when I come to his dialogue tags.)

The odd thing is that descriptions of Hemingway’s style are at odds with—or at least huge oversimplifications of—how he actually wrote.

#1. Hemingway Abhorred Adjectives and Adverbs

Adverbs are much demonized (and rightly so in certain cases), though most of us can’t reliably recognize whole classes of adverbs. (More on this in another post.) Hemingway eliminated many of the –ly type adverbs attached to obvious verbs (though by no means all of them). On the other hand, he was often adjective-drunk in his writing. There are two reasons Hemingway seems so adjective-sparse. First, he tended to use common, unobtrusive adjectives; and, second, he tended to place both his adjectives and adverbs in unusual positions in the sentence. Consider the following, which is not what Hemingway wrote in the opening pages of A Farewell to Arms:

The sun showed dry, white pebbles and boulders in the bed of the river. The clear water moved swiftly, and turned to blue water in the channels.

Dry, white pebbles. Clear water. Moved swiftly. Blue water. Adjectives married to (and just preceding) their nouns, and the –ly adverb following on the heels of the verb. All those adjectives and adverbs are in the sentence Hemingway wrote, but the actual sentence runs like this:

In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.

The adjectives and nouns may still be married, but they are living separately, and each one of them is more alive than when placed before us in the thudding adjective-noun pattern that is the first resort of most writers. (There’s a weakness in his approach, though. Hemingway’s restructurings often require an excess of verbs of existence—"were" and "was" in the sentence above—and these are inherently a little flabby. But the vigor of the sentence could make up for any number of “is” verbs.)

For those who still think Hemingway avoided adverbs and adjectives, check out this sentence from The Sun Also Rises:

We went in through the heavy leather door that moved very lightly.

Door gets two adjectives and moved gets two adverbs. And “heavy leather door” is just your standard thud-thud-thud construction. But just take a look at how our boy Ernie positions the modifiers in the following short passages from the same novel:

It got dark and we could feel the country hot and sandy and dark outside the window…

They were beautifully colored and firm, and hard from the cold water…I took the trout ashore and washed them in the cold, smoothly heavy water above the dam…

Whatever people want to say about Hemingway, they really ought to stop saying he stripped his prose of adjectives. (For fun, try and recast those sentences in more conventional rhythms. Good luck.)

#2. Hemingway Wrote in Short, Direct Sentences

I suppose I could have killed two or three or four birds with one stone by using this sentence to deal with Hemingway’s use of adjectives, adverbs, and sentence length and sentence directness. From the short story The Capital of the World, we have:

“And a good one,” said the picador and walked out of the dining room, gray-jacketed, trim-waisted, bow-legged, in tight breeches over high-heeled cattlemen’s boots that clicked on the floor as he swaggered quite steadily, smiling to himself.

Tell me that’s devoid of adjectives and adverbs. Tell me that’s short and direct. The sentence is heavily ornamented and as Byzantine in its own way as anything Henry James perpetrated. Case closed.

#3. Hemingway Seldom Used Dialogue Tags, and When He Did, He Used “Said” Exclusively

This is only true in the context of the times in which he wrote. Certainly Hemingway was very sparing with adverb-laden tags...most of the time. And often he wrote long passages of dialogue without attribution after the opening volleys—but only when he had two characters in isolation (often disparagingly referred to by others as “ping-pong dialogue.” Lose track at any line you’re in trouble; despite Hemingway’s reputation as a master of dialogue, you often can’t tell who’s speaking unless you’ve been counting: Bob, Jim, Bob, Jim, Bob, Jim…hey that's interesting...Jim, Bob, Jim…oh, shit, where was I?)

But if Hemingway attributed a question, he used asked. And he didn't only restrict himself to said and asked, either. In one fourteen-page story ("The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio"), we also find three suggesteds, two answereds, one explained, and one began. Nor are his tags adverb-free: in the same story, we find "said Cayetano softly," "said politely," "said proudly," and "said deprecatingly."

I'm not sure where people get the idea that Hemingway never attributed dialogue if it could be avoided, and that if he were pushed to the wall he would grudgingly throw in said. People who make this claim have either never read Hemingway with close attention, or they have him confused with someone--Elmore Leonard, perhaps, who'd let you chop off his fingers rather than commit anything other than said.

So, in summary...Hemingway used plenty of adjectives, and a smattering of -ly adverbs. He sometimes wrote in simple, direct sentences, but when it suited him he also wrote in complicated, strongly structured sentences that are minor marvels of architecture.

And he said a lot more than "said".

Monday, July 23, 2007

How Workshops and Critique Groups Go Bad

As I said earlier, regular workshops and critique groups can be vital helps to writers at some points in their careers; and some writers, even pros, find a group that works for them indefinitely. Most writers, though, will find that at some point they need to move on. The following is my list of ways groups become counterproductive.

Family Dynamics. Put a group of humans together for any purpose and they become a social organism that mimics the structure of family and society. And once family dynamics, good or dysfunctional, are established, it is hard for any member of the family to break out of their assigned role—the good kid, the black sheep, the mom, the dad…

There is comfort in being part of a family. But it is also a sort of rut, and your writing won’t evolve if you never leave home. Writing is lonely work, and there is always a tendency to use workshopping or critiquing as a way for writers to get together and socialize under the guise of working. Great—but it might be better to get together for drinks and keep the chapters out of it.

Homogenization. Your previous chapter was a killer—intense, fast-paced, edgy (or perhaps, lyrical, hypnotic, gorgeously languid). The group loved it. But your new chapter, the members of the group point out, just doesn’t have the same qualities…

Maybe that’s a problem with your chapter. But perhaps it’s a problem that tends to arise when chapters are considered one at a time. If there is a chapter a group loves, they will tend to pressure the writer to use that chapter as a standard for all subsequent chapters. And while each one written to that standard may be excellent considered in isolation, a whole novel written in this fashion will tend toward monotony. Variations in tone and pace are one of the joys of reading a novel—and one of the things likely to be eliminated when chapters are considered only one by one.

The Cliché Scorecard. Most how-to writing clichés have some reasonable foundation. But some writers learn these as ‘rules’ and trot them out as though they are playing a game of ‘how many animals can you find hiding in this picture?’ (This can be especially bad in formal workshops.)

Showing isn’t always better than telling. A sympathetic protagonist isn’t always ideal. Authorial omniscience isn’t always bad. Shifting point of view in the middle of a scene is not always off-putting or confusing. A gun over the mantelpiece in Act One need not always be fired by Act Three.

And two heads aren’t always better than one.

I’d never discourage anyone from joining a workshop or critique group, especially when they are in the early stages of developing their skills. But I’d never discourage anyone from leaving a workshop or critique group when they feel it is no longer useful.

You can still be friends afterwards. (Or is that still-be-friends thing only after divorces?)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Critique Groups and First Readers

When I first began writing in earnest, I found ongoing workshops and writing groups to be of great help. The comments I received on my own pages might or might not be useful to me, but I found reading other people's material--especially unsuccessful material--to be invaluable. It is so easy to see problems, and possible solutions, in other people's stories; it is easier to see you own problems and errors "by reflection," as it were.

Real-estate agents have a dictum that the optimum property to buy is the cheapest house in the most expensive neighborhood. Some writers have an equivalent rule that the ideal is to join a group where you are the least skilled writer. Easier said than done; most ongoing groups of skilled writers aren't seeking new members, and if they were, they probably wouldn't be seeking someone whose skill levels were well below the group's average.

I know one well-published and accomplished novelist who has been in the same writing group (of other professional novelists) for years. She still seems to get great value from it. My experience with critique groups has been quite different; for me the usefulness of the group has a natural lifespan, and if carried beyond that point the group dynamics tend to fall into a bit of a rut.

I also think that for many of us the usefulness of regular feedback wanes as we gain experience. Being able to present chapters of your first novel as you fight your way through it can be vital to the unconfident (Is this working? Does it suck? Am I crazy?) or to those who need deadlines to produce any work (though I don't think those in the latter category have much future as writers). But once a writer gains real traction with a novel, they are liable to outpace the reading and critiquing capacity of any regularly scheduled group.

I'm no longer involved in groups; I don't find feedback on individual chapters to be useful. (In fact, I find them to cause problems, as I will discuss in the next few days.) But I am blessed with a half-dozen great First Readers who read my first or second drafts and respond. I may not find feedback on chapters to be useful, but I find feedback on a whole novel to be vital, because it is at this level--the architecture of the story--where I'm still uncertain of my skills and choices.

Half of my First Readers are writers themselves, and can give feedback in mechanical and technical terms. But the non-writers are just as valuable, because they are simply responding as readers. "I didn't like Fred" or "I wanted to see more of Jill" or "I thought the middle was a little slow" are the kinds of comments that are often more important than the detailed critiques (and recommended fixes) writers are prone to give one another.

I may never be involved in another writing group; but thank god for my First Readers.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

MFAs, Community Colleges, and University Extensions

A while back, when I mentioned that my friend Rufi Cole had won a scholarship to the University of Virginia MFA program, the redoubtable Jeremy James suggested that this was the worst thing a talented young writer could do. I have to say that, given a scholarship and a stipend, two years with nothing to do but write sounds like something that ought to be grabbed with both hands, both feet, and, for those of us who can, with our prehensile tails as well.

Nonetheless, I understand what Jeremy means. Some outstanding writers have emerged from MFA programs over the years—John Irving and Michael Chabon come to mind—but I’m not sure the overall effect of MFA programs has been beneficial to storytelling. MFA grads are typically competent stylists, but much of the fiction they produce is cautious, unimpassioned, and a little on the precious side. This is the nature of academia; though there are some professors who encourage a robust approach to fiction, there is an overconcern with the clever, the precious, the metafictional—the kinds of stories that appear in literary journals published by academics for the reading pleasure of other academics (mainly their contributors). “Genre” is considered an ugly word, and in some quarters even “story” is considered suspect. American and English fiction both did quite well prior to the MFA, thank you, and some would argue that it did better. People like Chabon (and like my friend Rufi) were already well underway with their novels before they were admitted to their MFA programs.

There’s some wonderful writers teaching in MFA programs (Peter Carey, for example), and some university English departments employ luminaries like Joyce Carol Oates (though I wouldn’t count on spending one-on-one time with her just because you’ve enrolled at Princeton), but most of the writers at major MFA programs and top universities are academics who write, not writers who teach.

For my money, I think the best place to look for writers as teachers is in the community colleges and the university extensions. Face it: most writers would rather be writing, and if their income from writing were high enough, they’d drop the teaching gig. Many of the MFA folks and the university professors are professional academics rather than writers. The community colleges and extension programs, on the other hand, are filled with real writers—people who use teaching as a way to pay the bills while they keep on writing. And many of these folks will promptly fade out of academia when and if their writing garners enough ongoing cash. A surprising variety of writers have taught community college or extension courses; back in the 1980s, before his career really caught fire, you could have taken classes at a number of colleges from noir novelist Lawrence Block. (Larry Block at a college? Who would have thought?)

The big trick is finding a good teacher and a good format. The first requirement for a good teacher is that you like their stuff—or, if you don’t actively like it, that you at least appreciate their craft. (I’m constantly astonished that people sign up to be taught writing without first reading some of the teacher’s work…but the majority of students don’t. Weird, very weird.)

The second requirement is that the writer can teach. Here, you’re on your own. The fact that someone has writing chops is no guarantee that they’ll run a good workshop. All I can suggest is that you ask around.

And, a good format? Here I have only one criterion, but it is absolute: Pages must be photocopied and passed out for review the following week. Standing up and reading aloud is nonsense in a workshop. Writing needs to work on the page, and shouldn’t be influenced—positively or negatively—by delivery. How writers paragraph their material is important. How they weave dialog into their narrative is important. How much white space the reader sees is important.

Indeed, everything about the page is important. Reading aloud should be a last resort—for example, if you are ever in a prison camp, writing in blood on toilet paper, without a copier for a thousand miles.

Not that I have strong opinions on the subject.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Summertime, and the livin' is prickly...

July in SoCal. The June Gloom is over and you can finally go in the ocean without a wetsuit. (It still isn't warm by any means. No matter what the Chamber of Commerce would like you to think, the Japanese Current runs past here after curving under the chin of Alaska. It's never really warm in the ocean here except in a relative sense.)

Out in the front yard, our Trichocereus Peruvianus bloomed last night. Lovely (if faint) scent, and a blossom that has a ten-inch span. All that effort, yet the blossom only lasts two days at the most.

There's a lesson or metaphor or something lurking there, but I'm not sure I want to know what it is.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Can Writing Be Taught?

One seldom hears this question asked about other subjects. The answer is too obvious. Can painting be taught? Of course; indeed, any college can outline a sequence of disciplines that must be mastered to learn the craft. Can physics be taught? Sure—and it’s hard to imagine learning much of it all on your own. Music, which seems to me to rely heavily on inborn gifts, gets taught every day; I’m given to understand that this is what music teachers engage in.

Yet it isn’t uncommon for people (often professors of English) to claim that writing can’t be taught. I’ve often wondered why one hears this so much. Sometimes it may be a matter of envy (“I have to publish refereed papers on the use of images of illness in the works of Virginia Woolf—and Williams, over in Creative Writing, all he has to do is comment on a few student short stories!”) or self-justification (“I tried to learn to write, but I never made it as a writer—clearly it can’t be taught!”). But more often I think it's a result of unrealistic expectations.

Very few physics students, even those who do quite well on their exams, end up as brilliant researchers. Few dancers, even though they know every move and transition, become principals at the Met. Few musicians, even those trained by the best, make a living at performance or composition. Rising to the top of a field requires not only training and discipline, but talent and luck as well. Yet no one argues that because talent and luck are needed for a brilliant career that physics or dance or music can’t be taught.

One of the problems, though, is that so much of the learning of writing is self-teaching—self-teaching through years of reading, self-teaching through writing and failing. Musicians face the same sort of long self-education, listening to music in all spare moments, exploring different kinds of musical forms, and devoting hours to practice. I don’t know any good writers who aren’t lifelong voracious readers (though I’ve met plenty of people who don’t read much, but think they’d like to write), and most good writers I've known have long been serious spare-time scribblers.

When a student who has been a lifelong reader walks into a writing class, she is likely to have a subconscious grasp (perhaps a firm grasp, perhaps one that is a bit more slippery) of elements like rhythm, diction, pacing, and characterization. Often the teachers and other students respond by calling her ‘talented.’ And this student may well be ‘talented’—but much of her skill quite likely comes from sheer obsession, from years spent swimming in a sea of words.

Can writing be taught? Sure. But it's easiest taught to those who have already spent years teaching themselves. There's nothing mysterious about that.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My Dumb Day Jobs, Part II of II

There's no point in going to college in America unless have a clear plan and you're going to study something practical, especially if you're spending your own money (or, as in my case, getting by on a combination of loans and working and scholarships). So naturally I majored in...

...(ta-da!) music. And then switched to biology. And then switched to chemistry. And then switched to physics. At this point, they graduated me before I had time for further switches, so I went to work at the Oregon State Department of Energy, where I was in charge of building computer models of the interface between the power grid and alternative energy sources.

I did rather well at this job. So well, in fact, that I was offered a degree fellowship at the East-West Center, a think-tank in Honolulu; you did your research at the EWC simultaneously with doing your graduate work at the neighboring University of Hawaii. (The University of Hawaii: Truth; Knowledge; A Great Tan.) That's how I ended up with my MA and PhD--though the tan never really seemed to take, and I remain an unreformed Whiteboy. (That's Doctor Whiteboy to you, though, pal.)

I’d gone to the East-West Center planning to work on alternative energy in the Third World, but it turned out Third World countries were too busy trying to sort out their problems with oil to give a damn. Alternative energy they already had—most of the population used wood or cow dung as their main energy sources, and as for solar water heating and space heating, well, who needs heating in Sri Lanka? (I did publish some work on solar refrigeration and solar icemakers, though. But simply raising the topic--yes, it can be done, and no, I'm not joking--always made people giggle.)

So I was hijacked off into “downstream” oil (that is, everything that happens to oil after it comes out of the ground). It turned out that, with physics plus chemistry plus computer programming skills plus a background in environmental issues, I was good at it. Who knew? I tackle many different kinds of problems, and still keep my hand in on the alternatives and conservation side of things, but here’s a typical project:

The Kingdom of Ruritania says they are tired of all the sulfur pollution from, say, diesel fuel, and decide that every oil refinery in Ruritania needs to install diesel desulfurizers in their refineries. The multinationals then set up a loud outcry, and present charts and graphs proving that this will cost Ruritanian consumers billions of dollars that ought to be spent on luxuries like food instead. (The program will also cost the company billions of dollars that ought to be spent on necessities like executive bonuses, but that's another issue.)

At which point, I and my pals arrive for the first of many trips to Ruritania. We typically find that a) the position of the companies isn’t quite correct, and b) the government hasn’t proposed a very logical approach, and c) there is a better way of achieving the desired results.

When we submit our conclusions, one of four things happens:

1) Our recommendations are accepted, or
2) Our recommendations are ignored because the government has bigger problems, or
3) A military coup renders the whole thing irrelevant, or
4) The government adopts some utterly different and unexpected strategy because the French have offered them amazing loan terms to buy French technology (usually espresso makers or weapons) which, while unrelated to the problem at hand, is offered at an irresistable price.

The James-Bond-style glamor of building computer simulations of obscure energy technologies is, I admit, all too obvious, but there were other benefits as well. To name only a few: dysentary, non-infectious hepatitis (too long in Third World petrochemical plants, no doubt), shingles, intestinal parsites, and, after a trip to Hanoi in the mid-90s, a case of encephalitis that left me for a few months with slurred speech and an inability drive a car or walk unassisted or even read. (I'd be a great writer were it not for the brain damage.)

So, despite the great fun of all that, I came up with a brilliant career move: I became a writer. Pretty crafty, huh?

I've cut back to consulting on a part-time basis. Part-time consulting is a pretty nice gig for a writer, since the work tends to be divided into projects, without anything to do in between. Of course my present income isn't sufficient to, as the divorce courts say, support me in the style to which I've become accustomed. So I unashamedly sponge off Pamela.

Over the years, one or the other of us has always had a good job. (Just never both of us at the same time.) But luckily, I'm soon to be a published novelist--the surest road to financial security this side of panning for gold in the Yukon.

Actually, panning for gold is what Jack London did (and went broke at) before he became a writer. The man must have had a great career-guidance counselor.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

My Dumb Day Jobs, Part I of II

On my recent visit to the UK, several people asked me what it was I did to earn a living. I’m not sure why there’s so much interest in my day job. Perhaps I don’t look like someone who could hold a job at all. Or perhaps I dress in such a peculiar fashion that people wonder if I’ve run off to join the circus. Or perhaps I just seem unemployed and dangerously likely to ask to borrow money. In any case, every time I took off my hat in London, passersby tossed coins into it, which seems to suggest something was a bit off.

Well, I’m going to explain this once and for all, starting with what I did before my present job. (Sorry you asked?)

I dropped out of high school in my sophomore year, and also elected to leave home (if a hard kick in the butt can be described as electing to leave). Naturally, any number of stupid jobs followed. I did a lot of farm labor--which is respectable enough--but my special gifts unerringly led me to the dumbest possible jobs in the entire agricultural sector.

For example, I was for a time a Chicken-Catcher at a large egg ranch. Yep, the job is exactly what it sounds like—I ran around and grabbed chickens that had escaped from their cages. As it turns out, chickens don't really care to be grabbed; though I suppose it's a safer career than, say, Rat-Grabber, or Cat-Grabber. If you keep hold of their feet you can carry up to five chickens at once for brief periods, although if they start to flap you look like an angel from a very low-budget fantasy movie.

At another gig, I moved flat-laid irrigation sprinklers, which involved unhooking 20-foot sections of pipe in the areas that had been watered, and then, with a partner, sinking calf-deep into the mud as we carried it over and reconnected it on the next dry land. The whole process looked a lot like films of Hitler's retreat from Russia, and left your shoes weighing in at about 12 pounds each. (Doesn’t it seem like there’d be a better way to do this? As it turns out, there is, and was, but it involves an advanced contraption called "the wheel.")

Best of all, I was night watchman at a mushroom farm outside Salem, Oregon, spending evenings wandering through giant heated warehouses filled with stacked trays of steaming cow manure, checking the temperature and humidity. Every time you came through, the mushrooms would be noticibly, creepily, bigger. I knew mushrooms could appear overnight, but having them get larger by the hour was unsettling.

My supervisor at the mushroom farm had been in night work at the site for at least thirty years and was proud, by god, of the fact that he hadn’t seen the sunshine since the Korean War. He looked like you might expect, too, pale, squinty, and fragile, with a wispy little ciliated mustache. There were invariably half-filled baskets of mushrooms sitting around, and I was invited to take them home. (Pamela and I ate a lot of broiled mushrooms for a while there. Believe me: even a hobbit would get tired of them after a bit.)

I also worked on a dock in Alaska offloading slimy halibut, each the size of a modest dining table. According to my calculations, halibut are ten percent slime by weight, so a four-hundred-pound flounder could provide at least forty pounds of slime. (Had to throw away my clothes when I quit that one). I washed dishes, hoed weeds, sowed seeds, and, for one memorable day before some bozo in a skidder lowered a log onto my leg, set choke for a fly-by-night timber operation. (If you don't know what setting choke is...well, you probably don't care.) And, oh, yeah—I was actually an encounter-group facilitator at the Redlands Free Clinic, wherein my main skill was to be able to stay awake for 24 hours at a stretch and hug people while they cried. (Of all the jobs I’ve ever had, that was probably the job I was best suited for. I can stay awake, and hugging doesn't require any great precision or training.)

Oh, I almost forgot—I and a friend were for a very brief time the world’s most unsuccessful drug dealers. By unsuccessful, I mean that by the time we were done, we owed money. It turns out we were better consumers than salespeople. (Hey, gimme a break. I was 16.)

Now, all this was quite amusing, but too much of the amusement was at my expense, so at some point I weaseled my way into college from whence I stumbled into my present so-called career. And this leads us, in the next post, to a singularly uninteresting story...

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

A Book-Marketing Masterpiece

Over on Pootle-and-Rat, the estimable Neil Ayres (aka Rat) has posted a link to Miranda July's wonderful marketing site for her book No One Belongs Here More Than You.

I found her marketing blitz not only amusing but effective (that is, she's sold me a copy). Check it out--and note the little "next" arrow down in the lower right-hand corner. Keep clicking even when it seems the tour has ended.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Hieronymus Lives!

Back in April, when Pamela and I were in Germany, we took a dash down to Gruyeres, Switzerland. (A real dash--although we spent three nights, I received mail from our rental-car company telling me I'd been issued an automatic speeding ticket by a camera in some Swiss tunnel. I still haven't seen the ticket, so I have no idea what this is going to cost me.)

Gruyeres. Yep, the cheese place. Now, I quite like cheese (there's a line there about fond of fondue but I haven't got the patience right now), but the reason for our trip was to visit the H.R. Giger Museum.

Gruyeres is a Renaissance walled village perched on a wooded hill (with the Alps as a backdrop). It has about 1,500 inhabitants, a village church, a graveyard, a castle--the usual, but all remarkably well preserved, and almost distressingly scenic.

We weren't there to immerse ourselves in the glories of the past, however (though that aspect was pleasant enough). For some reason, Giger has elected to place his museum in Gruyeres. Our boy Hans-Rudi is indeed Swiss, but he isn't Gruyerian (is that a word?). Something about the town must have caught his eye. So he established a museum of his own works--and, across the little cobbled street, built what must be the coolest bar in the universe (see next pic).

Perhaps he simply wanted to annoy certain people. One of the websites that sings the praises of Gruyeres is less than enthused about his museum: "This, though, is as nothing compared with the truly nasty H.R. Giger Museum. Giger...bought one of the old houses, and has turned it into a showcase for his unique brand of grotesque art, sexualized surrealist visions of machine-like humanoids, nightmarish cityscapes and fantasy-porn gynaecological obsessions crowding over three dark and unpleasant floors... Heaven help Gruyères."

Giger--the Oscar-winning artist who designed the movie (and creature) Alien--is indeed challenging. And spending hours in his museum does in fact leave one a tiny bit unnnerved. To me, this is evidence that he's the real thing--an artist. After a few hours, he knocks you off balance.

Fortunately, your balance can easily be restored in his lovely biomechanical bar, no more than a dozen steps across the street. Above, my partner Pamela relaxes at a window seat with a glass of the local Pinot Noir. By the time you've been through the whole museum (and marinated in a couple of glasses of wine), the arched vertabrae supporting the ceilings and the electro-organic chairs of the bar seem rather restful.

Even the wall of distressed fetuses backing the single booth to the west seems pleasant after a while. All in all, the effect of the museum and the bar is like a prolonged immersion in the memento mori art of the medieval monasteries. Given enough time, waves of horror are as calming as waves on the sand of a beach.
Stanislav Grof--probably the most important thinker in psychology and psychiatry since Freud and Jung got the ball rolling back in the post-Victorian days--is an unrepentant Hans-Rudi Giger fan. He thinks Giger's artwork represents, in its various forms, the aspects of the four perinatal matrices of birth trauma, and links them to the collective unconscious, so-called 'past-life' experiences, and a thousand other primitive birth-and-death scenarios.

I have to agree. Giger is disturbing becasue he touches on something fundamental. Hieronymus Bosch and Hans Holbein did the same, though they were tolerated because they couched their work in a religious tradition. And the Mayan stone carvings, and Balinese masks, and Javanese Wayang plays, and the Mexican Day of the Dead--they all dance to the same beat. (Even if the fellow cited above thinks it's 'truly nasty.')

One thing I didn't mention is that the Giger Museum has Giger's collection of other artists' paintings on its top floor, and also has an annex with changing exhibits of individual fantastic or surreal artists whom Giger thinks the world needs to see. It's rather generous of him, really, since the whole affair could have been a celebration of himself; but Giger's actually a pussycat. (A severely self-tormented pussycat, but a pussycat nonetheless.)

If you're in the neighborhood--'the neighborhood' being the middle of nowhere roughly halfway from Basel to Geneva--drop through. If nothing else, it's a cute town. And has great fondue. And sells absinthe. What else do you need?