Hey Folks: Public Appearance Next Tuesday at Lehigh University

If you happen to live in or around the fine town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, then next Tuesday you will have an opportunity to see me, as I am doing a public event at Lehigh University, from 4 to 5:30 pm, at the Linderman Library. I will be doing a reading, answering questions and basically talking about the life of a writer/blogger/evil genius BWA HA HA HAH HA here in the early 21st Century. It should be a lot of fun. Why don’t you come ’round?

The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Four: My Ukulele

The ukulele, of course, not being a big thing, either physically or existentially, on the list of things I am thankful for. But not everything has to be big for you to be thankful for it, and my appreciation for the uke is genuine.

Possibly the best way to describe my appreciation for the ukulele is to make another comparison. It’s the 80s, and everyone has themselves a Rubik’s Cube. I had one myself, and I have to say I wasn’t particularly fond of it. On the surface it seems like I would be exactly the right sort of fellow to solve one of those things, and perhaps if I really put in the time to learn how to do it, I could have. But in point of fact I was both too lazy and too impatient, so in the end the way I “solved” my cube was to take it apart and reassemble it with all the colors in the right place. It was the Gordian Knot way of solving it, I would flatter myself by saying.

But! There was another one of those puzzles called the “Pyraminx,” and that one I could solve, no problem at all, probably because it had two fewer sides and was thus correspondingly at the correct level of challenge for someone who was as lazy and impatient as I was. Does this mean that I operated at a lower cognitive level than all those Rubik’s Cube solvers? Oh, probably. But, eh. The Pyraminx was fun for me, the Rubik’s Cube was not. And there it was.

Now: Take the guitar. I have a guitar, and have had one since 1990, and I can operate it at a level that is marginally above incompetent, which means I can strum out chords if I can remember where to place my fingers. But honestly, I’m not good enough to say to people, “yeah, I can play the guitar,” without feeling like a total fraud. Part of this is that I’m lazy and don’t actually put in the time required to get good, but the other part is that  suspect I’m just not at the right level of coordination. I’m bad at chording, which means I sound terrible, which disinclines me to keep at it.

But then there’s the ukulele, which is the Pyraminx to the guitar’s Rubik’s Cube. It has two fewer strings, which means a third fewer things to keep track of, and thus chording is commensurately easier. It’s also smaller, which for me seems to make a pretty big difference. And there’s the fact that as an instrument it’s pretty forgiving. You screw up a chord on a guitar and it sounds like hell. Screw one up on the uke, and it sounds cute and winsome. Basically, it’s the perfect instrument to just mess about with.

And that’s me: A guy messing about. I don’t have any illusions about my musical abilities; they are at best moderate — I can drum pretty well, and my singing voice isn’t horrible as long as I stay in my specific, limited range — and no one’s going to call me up and ask me to replace a musician in the middle of a tour. But I do like to play music, and I find having something to fiddle with is both restful and keeps me from being sucked into the computer 24 hours out of the day. For someone like me, the ukulele just plain works.

This is not to say that there are not people who can rock the uke with serious flair, mind you. It’s a serious instrument in the hands of serious musicians. But you can still enjoy it even if you’re not a serious musician. It scales to accommodate the player, is what I’m saying.

For me, I’ve been enjoying learning to play it and learning songs on it; I actually have a repertoire of songs that I can play without having to have the music in front of me, which has never happened to me before with a stringed instrument. Again, I will never play the uke professionally, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to enjoy playing it for its own sake and for mine. And I do. It’s fun to be connected with music that way. And, yes, I’m thankful for the ukulele for doing that for me.

I’m also thankful for it because the same qualities that make it enjoyable for me also make it enjoyable for Athena, whom I have given her own uke. We’re getting some nice father-daughter time out of it. Which is also something to be thankful for, as any parent knows how easily that parent-child time can get away from you. This helps keep it around. And sets it to music. I like that a lot.

(PS: Related, from Amanda Palmer)

Beware the Wikipedia Scrapers

Over at Chaos Manor, Jerry Pournelle sounds an alarm about Hephaestus Books, which at first blush appears to be publishing his (and many other science fiction writers’) works without authorization, and cluttering up the search results of the online book stores with their wares.

I took at a look at it; it seems that what Hephaestus Books is doing is that thing where unscrupulous jackasses scrape Wikipedia for articles on authors and books, prep files to give the appearance of a book, charge a ridiculous sum for the material and bang out either a POD object or an e-document when something is (almost always inadvertently) ordered. Sometimes the Wikipedia-derived nature of this crap is made apparent in the description text, but just as often it is not. If you’re not paying attention you can think you’re buying a collection of books when what’s really happening is that you’re being ripped off.

I first ran across this last year on Barnes & Noble’s site, and to that retailer’s credit, they subsequently changed their search parameters so that this sort of junk falls further down into the search queue. But it doesn’t ever go away, as you can see from this search; scroll down far enough and this crap is still there, not just from “Hephaestus Books” but also from “Fonte Wikipedia,” “Books LLC” and other such folks preying on your inattention. It’s not only Barnes & Noble were this stuff pops up; Jerry Pournelle found this stuff on AbeBooks as well, and I’m sure there are other places this stuff will appear.

Naturally none of us writers want you to get scammed by this crap; I don’t think any of us are any happier about it being out there than you are. Here are some clues to look for to avoid this junk:

1. Generic cover art;

2. Titles that are a list of authors, or of a particular author’s work (usually when we publish an omnibus collection of our works we’ll give it a unique name);

3. Publishers you’ve never heard of before — this is particularly the case with established authors like Jerry Pournelle, whose work is primarily with well-known imprints.

4. Small page counts — if you look at the page counts for this one, as an example, you’ll see it is but 50 pages long. That’s because Wikipedia articles usually aren’t very long at all.

5. Description data which notes the provenance of the material — although not every listing will have this.

Is this stuff legal? Wikipedia’s Terms of Use do allow for repurposing of its content, however it also requires a license notice for the text, so it’s possible that when this crap gets listed without this sort of licensing information obvious and available, it’s running afoul of the terms of use. I’d have to get a legal opinion on that. It’s certainly work following up with retailers on.

Regardless, it’s certainly appears that these people are hoping to get you to buy something other than what you think you are. So caveat emptor, my friends. Pay attention before you click the “buy” button.

How I Voted, 2011

I mentioned over on Twitter that I voted early this year, because I was traveling on election day. This precipitated questions about how I voted, and in particular what my vote on Issue 2 was. All right, here’s how I voted. For those of you following along at home, here’s the Ohio Secretary of State’s page on the statewide issues on the ballot.

Issue 1: This one raises the age one may be initially elected to judgeship to 75 (the current age is 70), and also and independently amends the State Constitution regarding courts of conciliation and the governor’s ability to appoint supreme court commissions.

I voted NO, because among other things in Ohio judges up to age 80 may be assigned to the bench, so I’m not entirely sure what benefit this change offers and I am disinclined to change a working process without substantial reason. Also I’m disinclined to vote on an issue that does two entirely separate and unrelated things (in this case raising maximum age to be elected a judge and the stuff regarding courts of conciliation and supreme court commissions); that’s bad drafting. Moreover the issues regarding courts of conciliation and supreme court commissions don’t seem to be hugely pressing ones; I don’t think they have to be dealt with now. Indeed I want to see a compelling argument that it needs to be dealt with at all, and my general philosophy when it comes to constitutions, state or otherwise, is “don’t mess with them unless absolutely necessary.”

Issue 2: This issues asks Ohio voters to retain (with a “yes” vote) or repeal (with a “no” vote) Amended Substitute Senate Bill No. 5, which was the bill that substantially curtailed the ability of Ohio public employees to collectively bargain, especially in respect to benefits.

I voted NO, because I have the overall philosophical belief that generally speaking people should be allowed to collectively bargain, and while there are several problems I personally have with how unions do things, I don’t think how the Ohio state government dealt with it was the right way to do it; it was basically the attempt by a bunch of politicians who hate unions to cut some balls when they thought they could get away with it. The action wasn’t particularly popular here in Ohio, and the polling for Issue 2 suggests the “No” vote will carry the day. But I don’t believe in polls, I believe in going to the polls and casting my vote.

Issue 3: The issue amends the Ohio state constitution, basically in an attempt to get around any federal mandate to carry health insurance (see: the health care laws passed by the US government).

I voted NO, because as noted before, my general philosophy with constitutions is not to mess with them unless absolutely necessary, and even if I were inclined to agree with this particular proposal, I don’t see why it merits being enshrined in the state constitution rather than simply being a law. And before you ask, yes, I’ve applied this thinking even to issues I would be inclined to agree with, if the issue is to amend the state constitution. That I see this proposal as unnecessary and not beneficial is icing on that constitutional cake.

Also on the ballot where I am: Three local levies, one for emergency services in my township and two for handicapped and social services in my county. I voted for all of them, because I found them reasonable requests and I can afford the rather small tax hike they would entail for me. If you want services, you have to pay for them. In terms of the public servants on the ballot, I voted for the incumbents because I haven’t heard that they’ve been doing a bad job.

And those are my votes for 2011.


Adventures in Mouse Trapping

The shadowy form you see in this plastic container is a mouse, which I trapped in my bathroom after in fled from my dog, which only moments earlier had the poor thing in her mouth. She had been pouncing after the thing in the bedroom, which occasioned us learning that squeak toys are in fact modeled after the sounds that indignant rodents made when they are being hugged with a dog’s teeth. The dog was quite good at catching the mouse but didn’t appear to know what to do with it once the thing was caught, which is why the thing escaped from her, more than once.

It’s unusual to have a mouse in the house at all, because we have three working cats, all of whom we have verifiable evidence of being able to catch and disembowel creatures such as this. So how did this one get into the house? Why, the dog, who apparently caught it during its morning walk and then snuck it into the house to play with it some more. Krissy, who walks the dog in the morning, noted Daisy acting a little funny, cutting short the walk to go right to the door; now we know why.

This animal thus encased in plastic, I walked it out to the bushes and let it go there. Hopefully it will find its way home without further incident, and will learn in the future to avoid dogs. As well as cats and skunks and hawks and snakes and lawn tractors. It’s hard out there for a mouse.