Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Introvert Writer (In)Action

A man I know saw me writing at my keyboard the other day, shaking his head in disbelief. "I don't know how you do it." I asked him what he meant. "I mean--just sit there, doing nothing. I couldn't stand it, I'd go nuts."

I explained, as politely as I could, "I'm a boring guy, I like the quiet."

Active, social people--extroverts, I love 'em--often do not understand introvert professions. Until the man showed up, I'd been sitting at the keyboard, yes (I do take walks on occasion to get away from the screen). But where was I going virtually with my machine?
  • Cape Canaveral to RSVP for the SpaceX launch I'm attending Monday. 
  • Philadelphia, to correspond with Darlene the Science Cheerleader, who will be at the launch, too, because of the SciCheer payload going up on the rocket. 
  • New York, to review a website for which I might want to write.
  • The International Space Station itself, to see what's being done with the aforementioned payload.
This doesn't just happen when I'm writing. I could be sitting down reading, or along a street, on a boardwalk, or on a bench at an airport or theme park, just sitting quietly and thinking. It's vexing behavior to talkers because they're processing everything aloud.

If someone asks me, I describe myself as "boring" because it takes too long to explain everything that's buzzing around in my head, and as I've learned through long, hard, and painful experience, everyone doesn't want to know everything I'm thinking. Let's take a typical example: taking a long walk through some of the more expensive neighborhoods around Southwest Orlando, where I'm currently living. I'll walk for anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple hours, outwardly just looking at things. If I see people, I might wave, but I keep walking. I come back sweaty, exhausted, and refreshed. So okay, what was I thinking about for two hours?
  • Wondering how many square feet some of the lakeside mansions are, how people use the space, and how often.
  • Speculating on how many people around said lake own a boat and how often they use them.
  • Noting the varied architectures in the neighborhood, from Colonial to Italianate, Spanish, French, and Frank Lloyd Wright American. 
  • I wonder what most of the people who own these homes do (or did) to earn their money to afford them.
  • Noting that suburbs tend to spread outward as the "city" spreads, I wonder what some of these homes will look like subject to urban blight, vandalism, or urban blight (I am not a fan of cities).
  • Counting the number of lights and security cameras around particular homes or walled complexes, wondering how much security they really buy and at what cost.
  • Speculate on just how close we might be to a violent revolution against "the rich," on what side I'd stand in such a revolution, or whether I'd even have a choice in the matter (I'm house-sitting in one of these neighborhoods).
  • Wondering why some rich neighborhoods decide to build sidewalks and some do not. If it's a neighborhood/volitional choice, I then wonder what statement the neighborhood is saying about pedestrians.
  • Reminding myself that I need to buy new walking shoes soon.
  • Wondering what the circling police helicopter was looking for--not me, fortunately.
  • Thinking, not for the first time, that I really don't want a big house, expensive luxury car, or all the worries/responsibilities that go with them.
  • Wondering what the zoning laws are like for "upscale" neighborhoods.
  • Speculating on the diversity of the inhabitants' ethnicity, politics, and interests.
  • Avoiding road kill, trash cans, yard waste, and animal scat.
  • Tuning out my thoughts occasionally and just looking around or listening to iTunes.
  • Alternating between "winging it" on which street to explore and checking my Maps app to see if I'm going the right direction.
  • Wondering, not for the first time, why there area always so few residents visible. I walk past mile after mile of well-tended yards, and most of the vehicles I see belong to the paid landscaping people. 
  • Wondering what the landscaping guys think about these neighborhoods.
  • Piecing together a list of features I would want in a home if I had "more money." This is more than an intellectual exercise--my house-sitting days end in October. 
  • Realizing, with this latest move (Illinois-Florida-Virginia-Alabama-Florida again), that I once again have the opportunity to reinvent myself and my life, and then trying to figure out what I might want to be.
  • Wondering what rich neighborhoods on alien planets look like.
  • Wondering just how legal it is for gated communities to keep pedestrians off the sidewalks.
  • Checking the email on the phone and realizing that I have a few more task requests from Science Cheerleader.
  • Trying to guess how useful or productive I'll be later in the day after wiping myself out from a two-hour walk.
  • Planning where I'll go for my next walk.
If I had tried to talk aloud about all that, I would be exhausted. But walking time is loose-mind time. the brain can roam as the body roams. I enjoy the contemplation that can often only come from solitude or time away from other people. Yes, it's "unsocial," but if you read the list above, you can see how social my concerns and random ruminations are. I'm not thinking the thoughts of an alien (okay, at least not most of the time), but I'm turning over thoughts in my head that don't always make for typical or easy social conversation in a country dominated by sports, TV, and politics.

So there you have it: that's what "doing nothing" looks like. Are you sorry you asked now?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Poetry Interlude

I write this stuff every now and then. Enjoy or ignore as you see fit.

The internet is little but image management—
black and white facts or opinions or jokes
posted in bright, moving colors.
Yet such things do not move me
Those moments come only with real presence:
actual flesh, real blood, sensuous touch.
Or sometimes those moments are solitary--
--a moment between me and my head
--or a shiver of wind in a landscape of the real
--or a tremor of recognition in a book
when I see myself in plain words on the page.
A hundred public “happy birthdays” suffice to a point
yet in the end, it is the private message
the unseen kindness that matters.
The technologists keep promising the magic
of the real, and people keep craving it
awaiting the virtual real
instead of seeing and loving the actual real
all around them.
Perhaps someday they will get there and
millions will share
quiet moments…
…with those they love without really being there
Those of us who already live in our heads
will have reality at yet another remove
from the experience in our heads
Maybe it will feel the same
Maybe we won’t know the difference
Maybe the new real will be no better or worse than
the old reality we were born to live.
Some claim we’ve been living this way all along:
always at one remove from reality
because we cannot experience it directly:
a Platonic shadow dance forever beyond our grasp
The world is too strange and hurtful and wondrous
to think that way.
At this moment, at this blurring border between
ever-receding reality
and ever-approaching dreams
I can only assume that this world is real
It deserves to be enjoyed and appreciated as it is
(or as we perceive it to be)
and lived as if it all matters.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book Review: Equal

The genre known as dystopia--negative utopia--consists of a story where some awful part of human behavior has taken hold as the ruling philosophy of society, or when some good part of our natures has been taken to some awful extreme. Such is the case of Equal, a book brought to my attention by its author, W. J. Costello.


The high concept of this novel is one where a future America has become much poorer, grubbier, and unhappier because society is now ruled by the notion of radical equality. In this dystopian future, people are regulated in their careers--five years per career, with everyone doing the same tasks in the same age range, up through age 50. Those individuals with gifts aesthetic, physical, or mental are kept in place by ear-mounted machines called Equalizers, which operate on the brain or the body to keep people from exceeding their peers.

In the midst of this dynamic, we have a sheriff who is put in charge of chasing a "runner," someone who's trying to escape from the society. Instead of catching this runner, a woman, he falls in love with her and thus has to do some thinking and make some choices about the society he lives in. The sheriff (I'm sorry, I can't recall the title now) has a nemesis, a fellow sheriff who's an utter sadist who somehow hasn't been apprehended himself.

There are a lot of elements here that could be the basis for a cracking good yarn: you've got the love interest, you've got a chase, you've got a dystopian society that gives the author an opportunity to comment on society today and where certain behaviors could lead. But, but, but. I had a difficult time with this book. I commend the author for completing a full, novel-length story and for making a more action-oriented version of Ayn Rand's Anthem. However, this work would have benefitted from some judicious editing on multiple levels, especially in the narrative style.

Leaving new-author mistakes aside, my biggest challenge I had with the world the author posits was the discrepancy between the level of technology the people use on a daily basis--blacksmiths and fireplaces and swords--and the level of sophistication needed to produce the "Equalizer," which can do anything from dumbing down the intelligent to making the attractive less appealing. Someone has to ensure that those tools work and keep working, which implies a high level of education that the society's organization would prevent.

If the author decided to write a sequel (full disclosure: W. J. Costello sent me a free electronic copy of the book), I would recommend that more attention be given to filling in some of the blanks on how such a society is formed, what the landscape and technologies look like, and how people interact. There are undoubtedly excesses to be founded in our current society, just as there are in the author's dystopia. The trick, as always, is conveying the true impacts of those excesses on societies and individual souls.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Best of Bartacus

Actually, that title is probably misleading. There are undoubtedly pieces of writing I've done on this blog that I really enjoyed producing, articulated cogent philosophical points, or were just fun to read. But in the end, I don't have control over that--my readers do--and I love all six of you. So here they are, the top nine most-read posts on this blog since I started this foolishness X years ago:

Science Cheerleaders, Etc.
This was a piece I wrote just before the first public performance of the Science Cheerleaders at the USA Science & Engineering Festival in 2010. It's a list of accomplished, beautiful women. Wow. Who'da thunk such a thing would be popular?

National Security, Nontraditional Threats, and Other Things
This was a follow-up piece I wrote after attending a "Stammtisch" discussion at the home of the eminent NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Advanced Concepts Office Deputy Manager Les Johnson. I consider the traffic on this post to be more of a reflection on Les's prominence than mine.

Images and Commentary: ISDC 2008
This is a rather long summary of my thoughts regarding the 2008 International Space Development Conference, which was hosted in Washington, DC, that year. I was still a gung-ho space advocate at the time and had yet to attempt the hubris of running my own. Little did I know...

Changes Since Europe
This was a bit of a debrief from my three-week trip to Europe in 2009 (ah yes, back when I had money to burn!). It covers the basic question of "Did the experience change me?" and also includes a list of places I'd missed and would like to see on a subsequent trip. Well, maybe I'll have money again when I turn 50.

Potpourri CLIX
The format of this blog has changed over the years. Once upon a time, when my free internet time wasn't consumed by Facebook, I used to post a selection of links/stories that friends had shared with me and commented on them as I saw fit. I'm not sure what made Potpourri CLIX (159, for you non-Romans out there) so special, but it's been read a lot. Thank you to whoever's paying attention.

Who, Me, A Space Cynic?
This was an extended summary of a discussion several friends ("Space Cynics") had on David Livingston's "The Space Show." And to answer the title, yes indeed, I'm a space cynic. Unemployment will do that, but so will watching the dynamics of the space business.

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises
I'm not certain how this review got so much attention. Lots of Batfans out there, I suppose. Two items of note in my commentary: I never did write a blog about the jerk who shot up a theater waiting to see The Dark Knight Rises, and I have not, as of this writing, seen Man of Steel yet. These things happen.

Interview: Camilla Sdo
My interview with a rubber chicken that happens to be a mascot for NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). The popularity of this one I understand--Camilla and I have promoted it ourselves now and again. And really, who wouldn't enjoy an interview with a rubber chicken?

Thoughts on War in Space
Last one in the list here. This post was written in response to a request from fellow blogger Lin to comment on the concept of space warfare.

So there you go: when people come to this site, those are the most likely posts they're reading. If you've taken the time to read anything else, I appreciate it. This site doesn't get nearly the traffic my professional blog gets, and that's perfectly fine. Totally different market and probably a different readership. But for those of you who read this or the other blog and provide your comments, thank you. I assume I'm either writing to "the world" or nobody, so it's always nice to know that someone besides me is reading this foolishness. And on that note, I'll share a quotation from the Muppet*Vision 4D at Disney Hollywood Studios:

Sam the Eagle: Will you stop this foolishness?!?

Gonzo the Great: What sort of foolishness would you like to see?

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Becoming the Object Lesson Guy

So with the end of the year also came the unfortunate fact that I am now unemployed. Nothing evil happened (unless you want to call government shutdowns and sequestrations cutting aerospace programs evil), but I'm on my own now with only so much money in the "rainy day fund."

What to do? Well, anyone who knows me understands that I've been trying to get back to Orlando, Florida, since I left there. I left the area because I couldn't find work in my chosen career, aerospace technical writing. As it turns out, after ten years away from sunny Florida, I found myself in a similar situation. I figured if I was going to start over again, I might as well start over and struggle back where I'm happy.

Over the past few days I tried getting an apartment. This turned out to be problematic. Apartment complex owners all have the same application and background check process, and they all want the same thing: proof of income 2.5 times the monthly rent. I'll probably get there eventually, but I'm not there NOW.

The options were:
  • Try to rent from private owners who didn't use the Standard Apartment Application Form.
  • Try to sublet from someone.
  • Crash with friends.
  • Crash with family.
The first three options cost money. The fourth did not. QED, at the tender age of 45, I'll be moving back with my father and stepmother temporarily. I've got a house-sitting gig in March, but for a little more than a month, I'll be one of those infamous boomerang children. My goal is to NOT be that guy for an extended period, so I'll be making the rounds, working the room, pressing the flesh, whatever it takes to get back on the employment rolls. It offends me to have to apply for unemployment. This will be the first time in my life, and I'd honestly prefer not to. I didn't apply in Alabama until December and then I did it wrong. Frustrated with the Byzantine paperwork, I've given up on filing here and will try again in the Sunshine State...unless I get work, then I'll retract that application so quickly you'll be able to hear the sonic boom from the government wallet snapping shut.

Anyhow, here I am: working on Plan B. Or C. I've lost track. But if you're reading this and you're employed, allow me to be your Object Lesson for the day. If you haven't start setting aside a liquid account for a "rainy day fund," do so now. This is different from your retirement savings or your checking account. Ideally, it's something that's a CD or money market account that can be liquidated quickly if you need it but otherwise is doing something useful for you and not just sitting there idly tempting you. And make the fund 6-9 months. I had a fund good for 3-4 months, which has been extended by occasional paychecks the last couple of months, but it can't last forever, so I've got to go back to basics: 1) get income flowing again, 2) reduce expenses.

2014 is going to be interesting. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Movie Review: Ender's Game

Note: This is strictly a review of the movie. If you're interested in comments about any controversy surrounding the movie, you'll have to read elsewhere. 

So fans of the book Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card have been waiting for a movie version of the book to come out for years. Even the author has been impatient. The last time this discussion was in play, they were considering Jake Lloyd (the little bowl-cut runt who played ten-year-old Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode I). I for one think this current iteration was worth the wait. This is an amazing science fiction film. Heck, it's just an amazing movie!

General concept: It's the future, 50 years after Earth was attacked by a race of insect-like creatures from another star system. The aliens--Formics--were beaten by the actions of one leader, Mazer Rackham. Since that time, Earth has been preparing to fight back against the Formics and has, if you can swallow the premise, been training an army of children ages 10 to 16 to lead the charge. At the center of this process is a series of simulated laser battles in a zero-gravity arena in orbit above Earth. The people in charge of this army, such as the character Graff (played pitch-perfectly by Harrison Ford), go to great lengths to observe special children whom they believe can beat the other kids in the arena. A lot of this involves subjecting the would-be "leaders" to some of the worst bullying possible.

Into this world is born Andrew Wiggin, nicknamed "Ender," who is born as an unprecedented "third" child because his other two siblings were so brilliant. The reason for needing permission for the third child are now lost to me because it's been over 20 years since I read the Nebula- and Hugo Award-winning book. As the "game" gets tougher and tougher, so too do the stakes for Ender, especially as the kids move further into space. I won't go any further into the plot for fear of giving away spoilers.

What impressed me most about this film is how well it captured the story, spirit, and essence of a well-written book. The primary elements are there, from Ender's sadistic brother Peter and empathetic sister Valentine to the manipulative Graff to Ender's group of peers, who are alternately hostile or respectful, depending on what they learn from him. The special effects are top-notch, as one would expect for a SF film made today. The acting is not too overdone--the stoic and harsh Ford is, much to my surprise, the biggest scenery chewer in the cast, though Ben Kingsley as a Maori runs a close second. The kid they got to play Ender, Asa Butterfield, gets Ender right as well, at so far as I remember him: simultaneously sensitive and dangerous when pushed to the edge. The action moves along a bit too quickly in places, but it doesn't sacrifice story cohesion. In fact, given that the film clocks in at a brisk 114 minutes, they probably could have taken a few extra minutes here and there to better cement some of the characters and their relationships.

There are a few sequels to Ender's Game, and the movie does leave a bit of an opening for any of those sequels to happen. I enjoyed Speaker for the Dead as well as the third book, Xenocide. Card has also written two or three other "Ender" books, which I believe are near-term sequels set in the same universe and concern other characters from the novels. Those didn't attract my attention quite as much, but Speaker won also won the Hugo and Nebula Awards and so is worth remaking.

Ender's Game gives me hope that Hollywood can stop making dreadful derivative science fiction flops and will start mining the tremendous riches of the best the genre has to offer. The techniques of filmmaking have at last caught up with some of these classics, it only remains for good directors to hire good actors and designers to render them faithfully on the screen. Ender's Game has received that treatment. Let's hope others will follow.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Optimism Isn't Easy

Many of my friends comment on how "positive" or "optimistic" I am. Well, good. I'm glad I've got you fooled. Optimism is work, my friends. Most of the time I have the energy to put in that work, but it is not easy, for several reasons:

Pessimism Runs in the Family
Not everyone has it, though I'm reasonably certain my father and his mother had it. Maybe it's an Irish thing--a strong belief in Murphy's Law.

Pessimism Can Be Learned Through Experience
I've written elsewhere on these pages about my experiences with bullies, their enablers, and others in my peer group who gave me some very sharp lessons in human relations in my first 20 years. Bullying creates a paranoid mentality in the victim wherein they think that any attempt at positive behavior is an innocent-seeming prelude to something bad happening. It is damned difficult to overcome this expectation.

Pessimism is Easy
Occasionally bits of actual wisdom fall out of Limbaugh's mouth; here's one: "Being pessimistic is the easiest thing in the world. There are no books on how to teach you negative thinking." The human brain, I think, is conditioned to expect a saber-toothed tiger to jump out or lightning to strike nearby at any minute. We're wired, to some extent, to be fearful as a way to keep us alert to our surroundings. But in the social realm, it takes a special sort of thinking mind to realize that you can plan for negative outcomes and actually turn them to your advantage.

Since high school (or so), I've had to at least put on the impression of a positive attitude, partly because negative Ned is no fun to hang around, and partly because it's good discipline for my mind: act positively and eventually you might start thinking that way. I read somewhere that just the act of smiling sets off certain chemicals in your brain--like it or not--that cause you to think positively. Okay, so I'll go with that. Smiling, optimism, and positive attitude are all things that can be forced at times, but they can be done. Do them enough times and you start to believe them.

That's not to say it happens all the time, but at least I'm trying. As those goofy cartoon characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? sang:

Smile, darn ya, smile!
You'll find the whole world
Is a great world
After all!

Here's hoping. If I can't manage that attitude today, I'll fake it 'til I make it.