Thursday, December 2, 2010

Regarding Wedding Photos, From An Editor's PoV

I have recently acquired an unpaid internship editing wedding photos, to fulfill a graduation requirement. I have found that I rather enjoy the work, the people who work there, and even the building's quiet location, which is so near to both a peaceful lake and the insanity that is deep downtown Orlando.

The passing-thought purpose of wedding photos is to record the event that is supposedly the happiest day of your life. The cynical corollary is that the event is so expensive you'd better be able to re-enjoy it for many, many days afterwards. The purpose of editing wedding photos, as far as the bride is concerned, is to make her special day look as pretty as possible. As far as editors are concerned, the purpose is to generate money. For photographers, the purpose is to allow them to pay less attention to things like white balance, lighting, exposure, and crooked shots. An idealist would say this allows photographers to focus their attention on getting the most romantic and memorable shots. A cynic would say it's so the photographers can be lazy.

I contend that the true job of an editor is to make the bride, the groom, and the whole event appear, in recorded form, the same way the couple should be remembering it for the rest of their lives - a beautiful and holy beginning. More importantly, an editor tries to make the bride and groom appear, in recorded form, the same way they actually see each other in real life. So we take out the imperfections and the rough edges. We add a little glow. We make the sun shine brighter. My favorite weddings to edit are the ones where the groom cries because he's so happy. It feels like finding a four-leaf clover. At that point, it doesn't matter what the cynics have to say, or how expensive the wedding was, or why the photographers take photos or why the editors edit, because what matters is not the purpose of the photos - it is the purpose of the wedding.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Removal of Obligation for Myself

For a while now, I've been striving to blog every Wednesday and Saturday no matter what, with few exceptions - though they have increased lately, what with various stresses from school, etc. I briefly considered finding a niche for my blog, but upon determining that my main reason for blogging is my desire to practice my writing, it seemed less important to try to gain a particular readership, do the niche thing, etc. I thus remove, starting now, the self-imposed obligation upon myself to write every Wednesday and Saturday, and will therefore only write here when I please, once again. My hope is that when the semester ends I'll get back to writing semi-prolifically, possibly more than I was already, for at least as long as I have a decent amount of free time.

Yours truly,

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Storytelling Exercise: Dwarf Story, Part 3: P'kin Explains

P'kin laughs. "I'm not really going to kill you. Calm down. You're just stuck here til morning. Or you could try to walk home, but I hear the city is dangerous to walk this late, alone. So relax and I'll tell you why we've yet to be discovered by anyone besides you." He takes his own whistle, now finished, and waves it in my face a bit to show that he really did whittle mine so quickly. He then places it in his pocket, leans back, and suggests I get comfortable.

"The luck I have, to be in one of the few stations that does not run twenty-four hours. I have no chair. Are you going to whittle one of those too?"

He looks confused for a moment, and then stands and gestures like a gentleman at his seat. "Milady."

"And then where will you sit?"

"I am a dwarf. Does not your lore tell you how comfortable we are with the Earth? I will sit on the ground. It is not so damp over here as it is down that way. You may mind it, but I do not."

I sit in the chair in the alcove, and he settles onto the ground outside it, where I was standing before. "I don't like to believe everything in lore," I say. "While it also speaks of your folk as skilled craftsmen, which is evidently true, there are conflicting pieces of lore regarding your people's size and temperament. Why should I believe any of these things, without seeing for myself?"

"Fair enough. Know this, then - we do like the Earth. We live under it, actually, or many of us do."

"Many? And you chose to tunnel from the subway, and somehow managed this without people seeing you? Nothing is making sense."

"Then, Dinah, let me make it make sense. You have made the assumption that this bit of tunnel has existed for a very long time. It has not, and it is incomplete. You have also made the assumption that we tunneled from the subway. We have not. We tunneled from where we live underground, over to here. We were hoping to keep the wall between us and your subway system for just a while longer, until this tunnel is truly complete, and looks more like a proper dwarf-tunnel should. But I confess, I saw no danger in letting a fellow whistler find me. It seemed better, anyway, than to drive you away and let you alert the news-folks about this place."

My head spins. "But what do you and your people want with us? For that matter, where are the rest of you? Where is the rest of the underground? This tunnel, as far as I have seen, has no way of entry besides the way I came in, and ends rather visibly just past those lanterns."

"Ends? My dear, that's a door."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Extra Post: I Found Me At A Crossroads - A Poem

I happened to get inspired. The Dwarf Story should return on Saturday.


I found me at a crossroads, and I had two ways to choose
It seemed each had its own to gain, but one had more to lose
And each one had a guarding man, who knew his road quite well
I thought it best to take the time, and find what they would tell
I tried first he with kinder eyes and face that was clean-shaven
"Sir, tell me, does this road you guard lead to some kind of haven?
Or misery, or challenges, or happiness, or friends?"
He smiled kindly, saying "I've not seen yet how it ends,
But I like this road, so straight and true; I find the work exciting.
No time for love, I'll grant you that, but it never seemed inviting."
I pressed for more, but he said less, so closed-off was he now
So kind yet so impersonal, he frightened me somehow.
So then I asked the other man, with earrings and a beard,
"Sir, tell me, what is down your road? The normal or the weird?"
"Why yes," he said, "and more than that; I've seen so many things,
The road meanders senselessly and I take all it brings
I've driven in a chariot, befriended large and small
I've loved, I've lost, I've worked, I've taught; I fly before I fall
There's much to see and much to do. I'm always entertained."
"Is it dangerous?" I asked him. "Yes of course!" Then he explained,
"I've been shot and stabbed and poisoned and I've twice been hit by cars,
But that's alright - the danger never makes it very far,
And I keep walking onwards, like I've always done before.
I'm beginning to believe this road will never reach Death's Door."
I thanked him for his time and I stood still to contemplate
For neither seemed ideal, and I did wish my choice could wait
I asked the men if somewhere else another road did lie
The first man handed me a map and then he bid goodbye
The second handed me a sword and said, "The road is free
To the traveler who makes it his - or hers, as it might be."
So I set off with sword and map to find what was ahead
To take the road or make the road - the road I chose instead.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Storytelling Exercise: Dwarf Story, Part 2: Dinah's Whistle

The dwarf is comically similar to the sort of dwarves and trolls I've seen in classic European fantasy art, so much so that I can hardly be surprised at his appearance, nor pretend not to know what he is.

"You're a dwarf," I say.

He smiles, and clearly cannot even pretend to be offended. "Aye, my dear, that I am. And you are a human. A human, and alone. My whistling tipped you off?"

"I heard a voice. Then I whistled, then you whistled."

"Ah yes. It is because of you that I am whittling this. Well…" He gives a few more touches of the knife to the whistle. "…have whittled is more accurate. It is for you, that you may whistle louder, more melodiously, and more accurately. Not that you are a bad whistler, but that if you enjoy it so much, you ought to do it even easier."

I take the gift he is offering and examine it. It is beautifully crafted of some sort of dark, thick wood, with a place to put a string through and several holes so that I may make a multitude of sounds.

"I thank you. This is beautiful. You made it very quickly indeed, if what you say is true."

"Would you like proof?" He opens the top of the school-desk and removes a chunk of the same wood. "I'll make myself a matching one, as we chatter. Only, let me make some quick adjustments to yours, so they aren't mixed up." I hand my gift back to him. He takes a leather string from the school-desk, puts it through the string hole, and closes the desk. "What is your name?"


"Could you spell it? That is no dwarven name, nor an especially common human name."

"It isn't that rare, either." But I spell my name, and as I do, the dwarf quickly carves each letter into the side of the whistle, in strange and lovely script. He hands it back to me. Before my second thanks has left my mouth, he is already whittling the other piece of wood, and it is already resembling a whistle. I never knew such thick hands could move with such dexterity.

"So you know my name, dwarf, but what is your name?"

"I am P'kin. That is spelled with an apostrophe, and I am very much considering putting an 'i' in its place. I would like something more easily pronounced by you humans."

"P'kin. I am already used to it after one go. You needn't change a thing. Do you expect to be encountering many of us?"

"How difficult was it for you to find me?"

"Not that difficult at all, but presumably you've been here a very long time without being discovered. Unless you kill or kidnap everyone who comes down here."

"You seem awfully unafraid for someone who believes that to be the truth."

"You have given me a whistle. If that were the truth, you would be a very stupid kidnapper indeed, for I can call for help."

"You have already missed the last train. The only folks left in the subway are the bums whom nobody would miss."

My heart beats faster at these words, for I am typically cautious, not courageous. At best, I am stuck here until morning. At worst, he really is going to kill me.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Storytelling Exercise: Dwarf Story, Part 1: Into the Tunnel

I am walking through a tunnel under New York City. I didn’t know it was here; I don't suppose anyone did. I thought I heard a voice through a crack in the wall of the subway system, and when no one was looking, I moved the bricks aside, as they were unexpectedly loose. I move cautiously through, using an LED keychain flashlight to help me see. The walls are brick for the first thirty to fifty yards, but suddenly and irregularly turn to walls of dirt and stone. I listen and hear dripping, not very far off. I cannot see light at the other end of the tunnel. I walk farther until I can hardly see the light behind me, and still there is no sign of the end. I whistle a tune - the echo is far away. A small voice calls from the location of the dripping. I need to hurry; I mustn’t miss the last train home, yet I want to explore, and save the voice if there is a person in trouble. I walk faster, towards the dripping and the voice. I whistle again, feeling it is more innocuous than speech if someone dangerous resides here. Someone whistles back. The tunnel twists suddenly to the left, and as I peer down it, a lantern is lit, above. The ground, which has been hard soil and stone until now, is moist where I stand, and forwards of me. It seems the tunnel slopes downwards. I shine my flashlight ahead, take a few steps, and lanterns suddenly light on the ceiling, one by one, for about half a mile – where the tunnel appears to dead end. I turn off my light and place it in my bag. To my left, I see a wooden door, oddly shoved into an oddly-cut alcove. Cautiously, and with a whistle, I open it – to find a fairy-tale-style dwarf sitting at a stolen school-desk, whistling and whittling a whistle.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bronze and Interactive Fiction

For a class I am currently taking, we were required to play through a piece of interactive fiction called Bronze, by Emily Short. You can download it here to play through it yourself, though if you don't have Zoom (on Mac/Unix) or Frotz (on Windows), you'll need to download that first in order to play. They are linked on the same page as Bronze. Alternatively, there is a Frotz app for iPhone/iTouch (and possibly other devices) that comes with Bronze, if you prefer a portable version.

I fell utterly in love with the piece, or game, if you will. After playing through Bronze, we were required to write reviews about it, and I am offering mine here. Please note that if you want to play though it spoiler-free, you should play it BEFORE you read the following. You don't have to play it at all to read what I have written, of course.


After playing through Emily Short’s Bronze, an interactive fiction take on Beauty and the Beast, and achieving its four endings, I had to go watch Disney’s happy version of the story to cure my daydreams of Bronze’s haunting and vivid twists. The characters, rooms, and objects crafted by Short form a deep and disturbing world, fitted with puzzles that effectively engage the reader and force exploration of the text-based castle.

In this version of the story, the player becomes the protagonist, the nameless Beauty, who is returning from a week-long visit to her troubled sisters and negligent father. It is darker than the usual love story, and is presented in fragments. Examining objects and looking around rooms gives bits of the background between Beauty and the Beast, using Beauty’s memories as a creative way of giving information. A contract book, a room full of castle records, and the personal notes of an enchantress named Lucrezia provide more direct information. Finally, once the player dons Lucrezia’s shoes, the Beast occasionally invades on the protagonist’s thoughts with commentary and further story. These methods of delivery are indirect, elegant, and rewarding - the more the player seeks, the more the player will find.

The built-in puzzles force the player to seek more, and to explore the castle. The first puzzle is simple – locate the Beast. The Beast, however, can appear in one of many of the rooms that are open to the player when the game begins, and will not appear until half have been searched, so that the player is forced to explore. Each further puzzle presented involves a goal, and its sub-goals. To destroy the contract book and free the servants, one must enter the crypt, but a complicated string of tasks is required before the player can bring light into its darkness. Each series of tasks opens more rooms, more of the story, and more possible endings, until one of the four finales is achieved.

Though it is easy to get lost in the story, it is not so easy to get lost in the castle, thanks to a few innovations. The castle has fifty-five rooms, and spans multiple floors, but Short evidently wanted the complexity to enhance the story without furthering the confusion. She included a status bar that shows the name of the current room, how many rooms have been visited, the total number of rooms, the directions the player can go from the current location, and which directions the player has already visited. That makes it easy to walk the castle and keep the compass directions straight. The directions are always stable; if the player leaves a room by going west, going east again will return the player to the original room. Short also included a special “go to” command which, when followed by the name of a room or object that the player has seen, will bring the player directly to that room or object. After all, the protagonist has allegedly lived in the castle for some years; the player is merely drawing on her knowledge.

The protagonist at first appears to be in love with the Beast, which plays on expectation. As the story is revealed, the relationship between the two seems more tenuous. Dialogue plays its part here, when the player is shown old conversations between the characters, when the player finds and wakes the Beast, and when he speaks to the protagonist via the magic shoes. He seems remorseful, and when the protagonist summons the woman who enchanted him, she learns why. All the endings reveal Beauty’s ambivalence regarding the Beast, which is the author’s intent – the only bronze object in the game is the one that viciously destroys the Beast.

The subtlety and complexity of the story, characters, and location of Bronze create a gripping piece of interactive fiction, and the puzzles lead the player through the tale and the castle like an enchantment. I couldn’t put it down until I’d reached every ending.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Short Post: Intent to Graduate

I've been getting e-mails lately, begging me to fill out the various forms necessary in order to graduate my university in May. I did much of it last night, after caffeine-pill-taken-after-7-PM-induced insomnia kept me wide awake until 5 or 6 AM. It's a bit weird, to think I'll be done with college (unless I someday go to grad school) in several months. It seems like a terribly long time off, yet these forms keep asking for my GPA and my courses completed and what I got out of my time at UCF as though they'll be kicking me out tomorrow. It is strange, indeed.

So far, it has been a four years far superior to high school, yet I certainly hope these weren't the "best years of my life" as some people claim them to be. That would be ludicrous.

Future retrospection will possibly (probably) ensue when it comes time to actually walk in the mortarboard, or when I get my diploma. By the way, I hate graduations. I'll only be walking because my dear parents and boyfriend evidently care to see it happen. Which is fair, I suppose.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hundredth Post: Retro Retrospective

I tend to not tag my posts. I also tend to write about old-fashioned things (about ten percent of my posts, apparently). So, for the hundredth post on this blog, I hereby give you a collection of my old-fashioned blog posts to date. A sort of retro retrospective.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why Physical Books Beat E-Readers

My bookshelves are beyond full. I've got books in front of books at my normal home, and a couple shelves that are full at college. I don't look forward to when I graduate and have to combine those sets of books. Yet, I contend that physical books are superior to e-books and e-readers.

First of all, physical books contain history (as a quality, not necessarily as the content). That's why used-book stores feel like magic. Somebody owned, read, and probably loved those books previously. Some of those books were gifts from one person to another. Some contain markings, names, or dog-ears. You don't get that history in an e-book. When you buy a new book, you start creating that history. You'll remember buying it, where you were when you read it, or things people said to you when they saw you reading it, every time you pick up that copy again. Items have associations. And, items have imperfections that are gathered over time. When I pick up my well-loved copy of Carrie Pilby, it's obvious that it's been read over and over, by me and a few people who have borrowed it from me. E-readers have far less room for associations.

Books also look lovely on the shelf when you're not reading them. Granted, the e-reader takes much less space, but the book-filled shelves can make you look more educated to people who come over. Plus, if you're an out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of person like I am, it helps to have the books in constant sight, reminding you to read them.

The feel of books is very important to me as well. To begin with, I like that different books feel different. Why should my hands respond the same way to both a textbook and a small paperback novel? The Complete Works of Shakespeare should feel more daunting than Artemis Fowl. Also, some books have strangely-cut pages, some have fancy embossed titles, and some leather-bound books have special leatherwork in the spine. Real books are tactile. E-books are not.

Related to the ability to touch the outside of the book is the ability to peruse the book itself by turning paper pages. I do appreciate the ability to run my hand over a page, to flip pages in search of something, or to look at the top of the closed book to see how far my bookmark has traveled thus far - a measure that means more to me than the precision of "425/550 pages" at the bottom of a screen. I'll grant that there's convenience, portability, and a considerable cool-factor to the e-reader, since it lets us carry a library in a purse, but I just can't give up the paper.

If you're not a sentimental old coot like I am, then an e-reader is probably for you. Except that if there's an Alas, Babylon-style incident and we have no electricity for ages, you'll have maybe a week of battery power before you have nothing left to read, either. Even if you have no time for entertainment, what with all that surviving, when we no longer have Internet access we'll need certain factual books to help us survive - except that if you had any, they were all digital. And that would be terrible.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

6 Reasons to Plant a Tree

I'm no eco-hippie. Let me start there. Besides a preference for being barefoot, I have little in common with the eco-hippies. However, I like plants. I like flowers and trees and the smell of freshly-turned earth and freshly-mowed lawns. So, I was pleased when my mother brought home a little baby tree from Ikea for me.

I'd had "Plant a tree" on my bucket list for a while, so I was especially happy to be able to cross it off, but I never really had any reasons for putting it there in the first place. So, I shall now retroactively make reasons for planting a tree.

  • New plants are happy. It is delightful to plant a new plant. I love the combination of hope that it will grow into something lovely, and fear that it will die because of my foolish or neglectful hands. It is also healthy to grow plants, to be around plants, to put effort into nurturing plants and yet not have to worry about plants like you do pets. Plants are little uncomplicated centers of life. And they have such lovely shades of green.
  • You'll learn something about growing plants. Even if you are terrible with plants and the tree dies (or accidentally gets mowed), you'll learn something about plants, and what not to do with them. Gardening is very much a practice-oriented hobby. I used to be terrible at keeping plants alive, but I think I've learned some of the secrets. One of them is to choose easy plants.
  • You'll get to enjoy the tree as it grows. It seems fairly simple to take care of little trees. Water them, sun them, don't let the lawn guy mow them (perhaps start it in a well-drained pot and transplant it later), and you'll have a tree if you keep it up! Put in a little effort for the ongoing joy of your own personal tree. Even when it's a seedling, a tree is a pretty thing, and it is typically enjoyable to look at pretty things.
  • It's an exercise in selflessness. Face it, you probably won't get to enjoy much of this tree. By the time it's big enough to climb, you'll be too old to climb it without injuring yourself. It's even likely you'll move from this particular property and have to leave the tree behind, to be enjoyed by the folks who move in after you. So maybe your kids or your grandkids or the kids of the future buyers of your home will enjoy it. Grow the tree for them.
  • It's an exercise in thinking 4th-dimensionally. "Thinking 4th-dimensionally" is a Doc Brown phrase that refers to considering how something will be in the future, or how it was in the past, instead of only how it is in the present. In this case, when you see a baby tree, you should also see how it will look when it gets large. There is an extra challenge in this when Ikea doesn't bother to tell you what kind of tree they gave you.
  • You'll make an eco-hippie friend smile. Eco-hippies love when people plant trees.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Spoiler Alert: I Still Don't Have A Niche

Blogging advice sites and Ryan's mom have suggested that I find a niche for this thing. As if it's so easy to just choose a passion and then write about it twice a week until the end of time/the end of the Internet/the end of this life-chapter.

My thought process, distilled and rearranged into something pseudo-normal, has been approximately as follows:

I must have a passion. I'm a passion-having sort of person. I probably have so many passions that if I chose to write about just one, I'd start to miss the freedom to write about the other things, and then where would I be? I'd be unenthusiastically writing about passion A because I came up with a wonderful post for passion B which will never see the light of day. I just can't do it.

Of course, if that were true, you'd think all these posts about various passions would just keep coming to mind and I'd never be at a loss for blog topics.

Well, let's get specific. I like writing. That's almost a passion. I'm passionate about God. I like Leverage. I like tech. I like fantasy and science fiction. I'm interested in smart people and puzzles and smart-people things. Politics? No, I got jaded a while ago. At my old, old age of 20. Maybe I could write about nerdiness. Nerdyness. Nerd-ness. Or I could devise a goal, Julie and Julia style, and write about that. Just completely upset everything that my readers have been expecting for so long...which is, I suppose, to expect exactly nothing in particular and take what shows up. Maybe they like that.

I can't write about writing. That's too meta. I could write about God, the Bible, and Christian topics, except it's already being done all over the Internet, and by people who know better than I do. Anybody who wants to read regular posts of that nature hardly even has to step out into the Internet. So that's no. Politics is about eight times as "no" because it has a similar problem and also I hate it. Maybe tech, except that Gizmodo would make anything I do feel laughably piffling. I don't have any insiders who could give me bleeding edge tech for subject matter, and I have no way of coming up with truly new topics on my own. And with tech, if you're not new, you're essentially pointless. Or nostalgic. I could blog about old-fashioned things.

I could turn my blog into an outlet for short stories of the science fiction and fantasy variety. Ha. If I could come up with two of those per week, I'd be trying to sell them to magazines or compile a book so I could actually get paid for writing.

I could write a blog about Leverage. "This week's post will compare The Rashomon Job with Memento and the original Rashomon, and will discuss it in the context of nonlinear storytelling." This is starting to sound like a good idea. I'd better stop.

Maybe if I had a project, I could blog more easily. Why am I even blogging? Mostly for writing practice, and to prove that I can regularly write on a constant deadline for a long time. And because I get ideas for things and want to share them somewhere consistent.

Look at that bottle of white-out. I don't use white-out very often. Probably because I don't handwrite things very I COULD BLOG ABOUT OFFICE SUPPLIES.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mercenary - A Poem

I wrote this poem while I was a counselor at Youth Camp this summer. I haven't posted it yet, and I would like to share it with you now.


The Prince
, advice for despots, gives a word for hiring swords
Hire not one mercenary, for they'll take no man as lord
They will fight for any creature that provides them with a wage
They should not be trusted - this is what is written on that page
But the Enemy I know is a strategic one indeed
He will hire any fool to make the Christian soldiers bleed
And few mercenaries ever become loyal to his cause
But he keeps them his by way of chains and claws
Oh, at first it seems he'll pay a prize of stately size and weight
And he'll tempt you with some smaller sins, so you'll accept his bait
So the Devil gains a soldier, though the man is not aware
Is he loyal? Well, the Devil does not care
For the smallest sin is helpful to the war against our God
Which is why the Devil's method seems to us a little odd
"Go ahead," he says, "and try be good, it matters not to me,
I still will gain by your hypocrisy."
I quit your camp, O Prince of death, yes, hereby I resign
I long instead to fight for only He Who Is Divine
My service ends, I'm finished here, I'll do no more for you
No, not alone, but Christ will make the words I say be true
I will not be your mercenary, Enemy, I will not be
I take my sword and leave you, Satan - I have been set free.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Portrait of a Floridian Autumn

The high temperature today is eighty degrees Fahrenheit, which means jeans and a long sleeves or I'll be chilly on the way to class, especially if I walk in the shade. I have lived here too long to find weather in the seventies warm anymore. But, it is delightful. It is perfect. After a few weeks of regular rain, heat, and humidity, the air is completely breathable again and has been for a few days. I hold my breath daily waiting for it to cease, for the sun to become painful again, for the air to gain its signature Floridian moisture and stick awkwardly to my skin so that I am relieved to be indoors. It hasn't happened yet. It will. It is only early autumn.

The moment the weather starts to cool down after a relentless summer, I start thinking about Christmastime. Soon, the temperature will stop its inevitable teasing fluctuations and stay truly cold for a couple of weeks. I'll be able to wear gloves and scarves and boots all the time. For now, I'll stick to sweaters and flip-flops, or t-shirts and fuzzy socks. Odd combinations for odd weather in an odd location.

The trees are staying stubbornly green, of course. Around December, a few will unenthusiastically turn orange, and I'll still wonder why the others don't try. It is hard now to believe that there are worlds to the north where nearly every tree bursts into the colors of flame, dropping leaves for adults to rake and children to crunch. I have seen it, I have lived in it, and it is still hard to believe because it has been so many years.

I won't pretend that autumn here isn't nice. The flowers last a lot longer here, and the weather can be delightfully surprising, alternating between warm sun and cool breeze. Since the rain has become far less frequent, we live under a sky of dauntingly endless blue. We still have Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the new school year - all very important staples of autumn. I just wish the seasons would be a bit more obvious; I am not a fan of their of subtlety.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On Suspense and Solid Stories

"Of course, I'm being rude. I'm spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don't have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It's the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me." --the narrator, Death, in The Book Thief

The book I am currently reading, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, has a particular quality that I adore. Not only does it not rely on suspense, it deliberately flouts it. It tells you that something will happen, and then it deals with the details of it later. My first taste of a book that did this was Slaughterhouse Five, which completely throws suspense and linear story out the window. Among other things, the narrator keeps pointing out that someone named Edgar Derby eventually gets shot to pieces. The first time it is mentioned I found it almost appalling, but it soon became meaningless, almost humorous. Vonnegut regularly refers to him as "poor old Edgar Derby" as if the only thing that matters about his character is the fact that he eventually gets shot to death, and yet, as if the death hardly matters at all.

People generally like to avoid spoilers. I understand this to a degree. I have seen Fight Club, after all. The first time you see it, if you don't already know the twist, you see the story one way and receive a tremendous surprise. The second time you see it, you see the exact same story in a completely different way. It is a story well-crafted. However, there are plenty of cases where the so-called "spoilers" are essentially worthless, in that they don't change the preceding story at all. Consider my experience reading Harry Potter.

I wasn't allowed to read Harry Potter when I was younger. By the time I was in high school and the sixth book was out, my parents didn't care anymore and I was finally curious enough to try the series. I was still in the first chapter of the first book when my dear friend Casey said, "Oh, you're reading Harry Potter? In the sixth book, Snape kills Dumbledore." I didn't know who either of these people were, and by the time I did, it still didn't affect the story preceding the event. Poor old Dumbledore. But it didn't make a difference that I knew it was coming.

One of my main troubles with stories that rely on suspense, or that rely on the audience not knowing something, is that I like to re-read books and re-watch movies. If I like a story, I want to experience it again. Yet, if the foundation of the story is the element not known, then I can't possibly enjoy it a second time, unless I am a profoundly forgetful person.

Therefore, what I seek is the story well-crafted. I seek a story with good characters and with jokes that still make me giggle when I hear them for the thirtieth time. I seek a story with layers and small details, things I might not catch the first, second, or fourteenth time. I seek a story that takes place somewhere I'd like to go and can't, like Narnia or Middle Earth. I seek a story that tells the truth through fiction. I seek a film that is beautiful or a book that evokes beautiful images. I seek the stories that still come to mind even when I haven't read or watched them in ages. I seek solid stories with a solid foundation.

Of course, there are many things besides suspense that can destroy a story, for me. If it is told poorly, if most of the characters are awful, or if I can't relate to the premise, I likely won't be interested. But the issue of suspense, of the story that focuses on the end instead of "the machinations that wheel us there," is an issue that can bring any otherwise-decent story to its knees.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Human Rest Requirement

I find myself willing to contend that, when we have a lot of work to do, we need to take breaks and yet we don't need to take breaks.

I realize this makes little sense thus far. Do kindly humor me until I have explained.

Some time last weekend I had the awful realization that the list of things I had to do this week was monstrous. There were tests, there were assignments, and there were things to do for the club I run on campus. I decided that the best way to deal with the problem was to schedule my entire week, Monday through Saturday, to within a precision of half an hour, and then follow that schedule exactly.

It worked perfectly until I started to feel burnt-out. I had allowed myself about half an hour for each meal, and eight to ten hours of sleep each night. That seemed like enough rest, and I wasn't sure why I was feeling so fatigued. More baffling was that this occurred about mid-Tuesday.

I faced two major options: take a break, or suck it up and keep going like this for the rest of the week.

So, I watched an episode of Leverage, thereby giving myself a forty-five minute break for something frivolous and enjoyable. I then skipped an unnecessary class to do something more useful, and my productivity rose through most of the evening. I was also much happier.

Through the rest of the week, where I found myself finishing items early, or when I realized I'd allotted much more time for something than I would need, I permitted myself to cease working for a bit so I could watch shows or read books or otherwise chill out. My productivity and general mood were likely much higher as a result.

So, we need breaks. At least, I need breaks.

I also know that we can't always afford to take a break. I thought I would have literally no time this week, and I was wrong, but if I'd had just one more assignment due, I probably would have been in that situation. The other side of this human rest requirement is that we often can continue longer than we thought possible.

That is, we do not actually need breaks nearly as often as we think we do.

If I had pushed through Tuesday, Wednesday, and the rest of the week without a legitimate mid-day hour of uselessness, I probably would have been fine. Productivity may have decreased as I continued to fatigue, and I may have become quite unpleasant to deal with, but I would have survived. At some point, I might even have gotten used to it. However, if I kept going, I'm fairly certain I would have gone insane. I haven't tested the limits of this and I don't intend to.

So my point, I suppose, of this end-of-the-week stress-dump, is this:
  1. You do not need breaks as often as you think you do.
  2. You do need breaks more often than never.
Have a good week and see you on Wednesday!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Fro-Yo Trend

I love frozen yogurt. I love it even better when it's self-serve, costs under 50 cents per ounce, is available in multiple flavors - at the same time - and has a ridiculous amount of possible toppings, which you can apply yourself. If you somehow haven't tried one of these magical fro-yo places, which seem to be appearing everywhere, you should. Right now. I'll be here when you get back.

Have you gone yet?

I was introduced to this phenomenon over the summer. One day, my mom sent me a text message that said something to the effect of, "There's a new frozen yogurt place called Redberry. It just opened today and they have free samples. You should go check it out." I wasn't really planning to go, but my boyfriend and I had nothing to do, and we went. The deliciousness, the wide selection, the low price, and the modern decor left me amazed. Redberry, I wondered, where have you been all my life? Apparently, one of the selling points for frozen yogurt is that it also has health benefits. I think that's because it makes you smile.

Later, I saw something come up in an ad on Facebook that said, "Pinkberry coming soon to Orlando!" Pinkberry? I thought, Is that like Redberry? Are there more of these wonderful places? When I arrived back at college at the beginning of this semester, I flipped through one of the student-targeted coupon books and counted coupons for four different fro-yo places in the area. When in the world did all these fro-yo places show up?

The first one around here may have been iKiwi. I had seen it, and heard about it, but I never had a reason to go in. If I had known what wonders lived inside, I could have asked so many friends to meet for yogurt instead of for coffee. At least I can do that now.

Of course now, there are others. The only one I've tried so far, besides Redberry, is Simply Frozen Yogurt, and it had the very same style establishment - that is, it was also very, very good. I still haven't been to iKiwi, nor have I tried Mochi, Mix, or Menchie's, but I will certainly try all of them if given the chance. As for Pinkberry, it turns out it isn't self-serve. Neither is Freshberry. That does not, however, preclude them from being delicious frozen yogurt experiences. If anyone is interested, I'll gladly do a follow-up on this blog post, with a little investigative journalism regarding which yogurt place reigns supreme.

There are quite a lot of them, though. I was fairly convinced they mushroomed overnight some time in June. After doing some research, it seems that it's actually old news in the other Orange County, and probably other parts of the country as well.

About three years ago - as in, just before the recession - fro-yo places started appearing all over the O.C. in California. Last year, places started closing. According to one article, it was because of the over-saturated market, the under-stimulated economy, or both. It is almost strange, then, that around the same time, my university's paper published an article about how the new craze was finally arriving here, with iKiwi. If you troll the news nowadays for Orange County, CA, regarding frozen yogurt places, you'll still see a mix of some places closing and other places making updates to what they do.

Remember back in 2008 when Starbucks, which really was everywhere, ended up closing a whole bunch of stores? Remember how you can still find them all over the place? The yogurt trend isn't over, either, and in Orange County, FL, it seems it's just beginning. Mmm.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

7 Reasons Why Leverage Is An Awesome Show

My hands-down favorite television show is Leverage. I know it is my favorite because I like to watch at least one episode every day that I have time. I don't watch a lot of television, so this is incredibly unusual for me.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Leverage, the premise is as follows: Four professional criminals - a hacker (Alec Hardison), a grifter (known as Sophie Devereaux), a hitter (Eliot Spencer), and a thief (Parker) - are brought together for one job, and an "honest man" named Nate Ford is brought in to coordinate the job and to keep them in check. When it's over, they find they have a taste for working together, and they decide to find jobs helping good, average people whose lives have been destroyed by evil rich people and corporations. The average people can't do anything to save themselves, and the people who hurt them are usually outside the law for one reason or another, so the Leverage crew comes in to provide, well, leverage.

So why do I love it?

  1. I'd hang out with all five main characters. Normally, in shows, books, and movies, there is at least one main character who is annoying, or hateful, or otherwise generally detestable. I like House, for instance, but I don't care for Taub or Cameron. Yet with Leverage, I'd go for coffee with any member of the crew, any time. I do admit, Parker is my favorite. She's a total weirdo.
  2. There's minimal drama. The characters have a family-like dynamic, except they probably get along better than any normal family. Leverage isn't based on drama. Occasionally it hints at romantic tension between Nate and Sophie, or between Parker and Hardison, but it's a minimal aspect of the show - just enough to keep it realistic. This keeps the show focused on the jobs, instead of on "feelings" or whatever.
  3. They switch roles fairly regularly. They all have "their" job, the skill that makes them useful to the crew - but sometimes, for various reasons, they have to switch jobs. Sophie wants to try taking Nate's place, or Hardison misses a flight and has to verbally walk Parker through the hacking, or they need a guy to be the grifter and Eliot takes the role. This job-switching keeps it even more interesting.
  4. It's more than schadenfreude. Honestly, who doesn't want to see the bad guy get what he deserves? But often in the process of a con, they discover that a lot more people are getting hurt than their client, and that taking down the bad guy will actually save a lot of lives. They aren't just Robin Hood. They're also a sort of stealthy Justice League.
  5. It's got humor, and not stupid humor. Leverage is a funny show. Besides the usual interaction between chill-guy Hardison and the high-strung Eliot, there's also the time Parker pretended to be Björk in order to infiltrate a studio.
  6. The crew solves problems and puzzles on the fly. I'm a sucker for stories about smart, skilled people, and the crew is entirely that kind of people. If they find a wall, they make a door, or they go in through the ceiling. If their plan fails, they come up with a new one, even if time and physics are against them - for, as Sophie once put it, "chance does seem to bend itself to [Nate's] bizarre machinations." They come up with creative solutions to unexpected problems in minimal time, and that is, to me, the most exciting kind of show.
  7. The characters have a bizarre kind of freedom. What makes their creativity possible is that they are essentially unhindered by the law. They don't have to think, "What am I allowed to do?" They only have to think, "What will work best here?" It definitely makes "thinking outside the box" easier, since they essentially removed the box by working outside the law. It's not a good idea for normal, real people, but it makes a wonderful television show.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Stage Fright

Allegedly, when I was a kid, I used to do things like get on other people's stages and dance around, or sing really loudly at my parents' company picnics. Paradoxically, I also remember being described as shy by some people, so I suppose it depended on my mood or the context or some weird tenant of child psychology.

I never seemed to quite get over my bizarre balance of shyness and desire for attention, but I eventually grew some real self-consciousness, and the balance shifted. I developed some serious stage fright.

I signed up to perform at the Youth Camp talent show one year, and I was so terrified in the minutes before I got in the spotlight that I almost ran off, so I could find someplace to faint or throw up. When I was a junior in high school, I signed up for a talent show that was supposed to raise money for a club, and I had exactly the same problem. Both times, I had friends with me who would have forcibly kept me from disappearing if I'd tried. During my senior year of high school, I tried out for giving a graduation speech, and I was shaking so badly that I had to sit down during my tryout and couldn't look at my audience as I read my speech - which, as I heard later on, may be what cost me the chance to speak at graduation and relegated me instead to Baccalaureate.

The question you should be asking is, "None of those things were required of you. If your stage fright was so bad, why did you do them?"

I like attention. I also resent my irrational fears, and I believed that if I just experienced the stage one more time, I'd get over my problem - as if a single, sufficiently epic stage experience would erase all future nervousness.

It doesn't actually work that way.

I had no problems in certain contexts. When I played trombone with the rest of the band, I hardly thought about the audience. But, when I played for Solo and Ensemble, alone in front of a judge, my parents, and a few other students, I shook badly enough that it was harder to breathe into my instrument. I was in charge of the Japanese Club my senior year and could lead each meeting easily, but when I took speech my freshman year of college, a thousand butterflies spontaneously appeared in my stomach before my every oration. And the shaking. I couldn't stop the shaking. It didn't sound much, if at all, in my voice, but I know I trembled every time.

The last "epic stage experience" that I remember attempting was an open karaoke night at a restaurant. I still freaked out, but I still got up there, did the song, and received applause. It was a decently satisfying experience, and it still didn't get me over my stage fright.

I suppose I may be doomed to suffer the physical symptoms of stage fright for the rest of my life. That doesn't mean I have to avoid the stage. When I was taking speech class, I realized I enjoy public speaking, despite my body's rebellion against it. Nowadays, it even seems my only rebellion against it is physical. Immediately preceding my most recent in-school presentation, I could tell my body was having its usual reaction, but my brain was experiencing no nervous thoughts, no mental freaking out. This time, my stage fright was nothing more than a nuisance.

And so, the idea of "facing my fear" didn't ever work quite as planned, but it seems that repeated exposure is successfully desensitizing me. Whatever works, I guess.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Dragonfly Couch

It is amazing how meaning attaches itself to objects, or places, covering them like a shroud and making these otherwise-unimportant things impossible to let go. The wardrobe that led to Narnia had a magical quality that was based on actual magic, but in our non-fiction world, I find that regular things can also have that magical air.

Consider the Dragonfly Couch.

The Dragonfly Couch is a particular two-seat couch, comfortable and upholstered with fabric that features green, blue, and purple squares beneath a pattern of gold-brown dragonflies. It is located in the Honors building at my university. I rarely have reason to go in there when my classes are elsewhere, but I found myself chatting with someone after class, and to get somewhere quiet and air-conditioned, that is where we went. I sat on this couch, and my friend on the couch opposite.

I had been staring at the leaf-like pattern on the other couch for some time before I looked at my own couch and realized I was seated on a far lovelier piece of furniture. I like imagining that I was surrounded by friendly dragonflies. After my friend left, we'd been talking long enough that I'd grown fond of the couch. I decided to stay a little longer to read my book.

It is quiet in that area most of the time, and easy to listen to conversations. I overheard some Honors College people discussing maroon chairs and gesturing towards where I was sitting, and immediately I thought, "Don't take away the dragonflies!" It is a beautiful pattern, and it is a comfortable couch, but I'd actually developed an attachment to the thing - awfully quickly, too. I suppose I'm fond of any place that allows for easy conversation or reading of books. I ran into two other people that I knew in the time that passed before I left, and had short conversations with both of them. That couch, in its loveliness, turned an unfamiliar place into the sort of place I'd like to go hang out in the middle of the day when I want a little quiet between classes. That is what I mean by a magical quality.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Efficiency Failure

I have come to the conclusion that it probably takes me an unnecessarily long amount of time to complete all of my homework assignments. Just when I was starting to think I was efficient, the semester hit me full force and then I realized I was so wrong. Assuming that I don't actually have more homework than the average student, and after examining my behavior when I work on things, I can conclude that I have an efficiency problem.

The main source of the problem is attempts at multi-tasking. I don't mean that I physically try to completely two homework assignments at the same time; that would be madness. These are much more subtle attempts, and I don't know how they worm their way into my work-time.

I start out by working on the assignment, either starting at the beginning or picking up where I left off. A few minutes in, I check my e-mail for anything relevant from the professor or any partners in group projects, which generally leads to me checking irrelevant e-mails just because they're there. If this doesn't lead to something completely tangential, I sometimes check Facebook "real quick" before returning to my task.

Eventually, something about my task will frustrate me. This happens most frequently with programming assignments, because there are so many possible errors and so many ways to fail. It also happens with long, odious tasks, or assignments that I'm fairly certain have to learning value. When my homework frustrates me, I make an effort to focus hard and knuckle down, blocking out all distractions until my problem is solved.

That is a lie.

When my homework frustrates me, my automatic response is to go to Facebook and make a status about it. Then I check my messages and notifications, look for amusing things in the News Feed that "need" my response, and check my notifications again to see if anyone has commented on my status yet. It is so pathetic. Moreover, it probably wastes an unbelievable amount of time.

I then, eventually, think about returning to my task. If I am remotely hungry or desiring of a snack, I deal with that first. You must understand that if, when I'm working, I've entered that magical state of "flow," I have to be close to passing out from hunger before eating anything, but we're assuming that I've just finished a lengthy stroll on Facebook. Before I get to my task, I find a meal or some popcorn or something and waste a little time with that. If it's an especially unproductive day, or my deadline is a little less pressing, I'll watch an episode of Leverage before continuing my work.

"Continuing" isn't especially accurate, I suppose. "Starting" is more like it.

Mercifully, once I've been at a project for a decent amount of time, I do enter that state known as "flow" and can obsessively focus on my task. Comparing me to an object that is the subject of a physics study, I suppose I must overcome my high coefficient of static friction before I get moving, and after that I'll keep moving until an outside force makes me stop.

I suppose, then, I must make an effort to lower my coefficient of static friction. The most sensible way to do that is to ban myself from Facebook and all other non-essential activities for the duration of a pre-set homeworking timeslot. This is presumably easier said than done, but I ought to try.

And I imagine I'm not the only person out there with this problem!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

6 Qualities of Good Professors

As a senior in college, I suppose I've had my share of professors of different teaching styles and personality types. I have found that some of them are much more effective at teaching than others, and would like to provide my observations so that others may learn from them.

Good professors...
  • …care about their subject. Professors who are enthusiastic about their subject tend to be more willing to talk about it for as long as they must in order to get a point across, and they tend to have more of an interest in getting students to learn the material. It is also much easier for students to take an interest in the subject if the professor is really interested in it as well, and that gives us an intrinsic motivation to do the work for the class (as opposed to the extrinsic, and thus less effective, motivation of grades).
  • …care about their students. Remember in "A Beautiful Mind," where Nash just wants to do his research, only teaches classes because he has to, and resents most of his students? Don't be that guy. Good professors actually want to instill knowledge in the heads of their pupils; the resulting teaching is much more effective. It also helps students to try harder for their classes when they know that their professors take an interest in them, and in whether they've learned or not.
  • …teach, and teach well. Your job is to make other people understand a certain subset of information (as far as they will let you - a few horses just won't drink, but most want to). It makes no difference how much you know if you can't convey it to other people. If you have a lot of students skipping class, it may be because they're finding the textbook a much more useful source of learning than you are.
  • …are interesting. Students also skip class because the professor is boring. You may argue that it isn't your job to entertain, and that's true - it's not. But, interesting professors help the subject to stick in their students' minds, and interesting professors have more folks attending class and gaining whatever information they are giving. I would actually rather have an interesting prof who's a real scalawag than a nice guy who can't hold my attention.
  • …keep the class at an appropriate difficulty. By this, I definitely mean you should err on the side of making it a little too hard if you err at all; you can curve it at the end if necessary, and you can help throughout when students need it. By making a class too easy, you do the students an awful disservice. So, create a challenge for us. Give difficult assignments. Make tough exams. Encourage studying, encourage creativity, encourage hard work. Even if we hate you now, we'll love you later.
  • …are available. Don't do the work for the students when they ask for it; encourage them to give it a real shot first. But, answer our e-mails. Be in your office hours. Give students a chance to ask questions during and after class. Most importantly, be willing to help - be willing to teach.

Basically, good professors maximize learning potential. You may get the same paycheck if you don't care and don't try and enjoy your tenure while your students flounder, but if you care at all, then please put in the effort to help us learn. We'll even tell you what works and what doesn't, if you'll ask. If you don't care, however, then please do us a favor and get a different job.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Portrait of a Downpour

Very occasionally, and usually only in rare moments of near-silence, am I aware of exactly how badly my ears are bombarded by sounds throughout every day. I am sitting now, at my desk, with no music playing, looking out my window and watching the rain fall hard on a courtyard devoid of people. Current sounds include occasional voices from my roommates on the other side of the apartment, and the light and beautiful sound of the rain itself. It is as close to silence as I am likely to get.

The air conditioning just came on. Another layer of background noise. The rain is lovely enough to make it easy to tune out. It falls harshly on the magnolia tree that is just outside my window, but the tree hardly takes any notice. It is a straight-down sort of rain. There is no noticeable wind and no battering of windows. Drops fall from the leaves of the magnolia tree, slowly. Many more drops fall quickly from the sky.

The world is greener when it rains. The sky is pale gray, and the tree trunks are dark brown. This version of the world is loathsome to most people, but the world is cooling off after a hot-sun day. I am glad it is a silent sort of rain, with no wind, no thunder, no noise - just soothing. I am glad it is a constant sort of rain, and has been going for some time, yet every moment I fear it will stop - I enjoy it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

If Romeo and Juliet Lived

What if Romeo and Juliet did not go as badly in the end as it did? Suppose their scheme worked. Suppose Juliet's message, that she was faking her death, reached Romeo in time, and she woke up and he was there and they stole away in the night, married, young, and impetuous.

In Shakespeare's version of the story (and the only version I address herein), Juliet is thirteen, almost fourteen years old. People married younger back then, but they generally had the support of people around them in the process. Romeo and Juliet have only Friar Laurence on their side, but even he can't help them any longer, since Romeo is banished and Juliet is presumed dead. Both have fled the city, for years at least, possibly for the rest of their lives.

Imagine, if you will, the last scene in The Graduate. The very end, when Benjamin and Elaine are sitting in the back of the bus, and their smiles fade into uncertainty as they realize the consequences of what they've just done. Now imagine Romeo and Juliet just outside the city, elated at their success. They stop running when they've gotten far enough away, and they give each other the same looks that Elaine and Benjamin exchanged.

Now that I have set up the scene, you must imagine what happens next. Our star-crossed couple must now find a place to reside and a way to make a living. They can wander, but that still leaves the problem of what they're going to eat. They could rely on the kindness of strangers, or the church, but only briefly.

Let's say that they find a church with a kindly friar who is just like Friar Laurence. Let's call him Friar Lor. Romeo and Juliet make it to this town, and enlist Lor's help. He finds work for Romeo and a small place for the two of them to live. As both Romeo and Juliet are used to extremely privileged lives, they have a difficult time adjusting to their new life of hard work, and they start to squabble. They aren't used to marriage, either, or commitment, or considering anything for very long before going ahead and doing it. Romeo is even more impulsive than his wife, which is evidenced by how quickly he fell for Juliet, on her appearance alone, after pining so long for Rosaline, whom he was sure he loved.

So Romeo is working hard, Juliet is staying home or going to the market and trying to figure out how to cook, and they aren't getting along nearly as well as they'd hoped. Romeo sees, across the road, a beautiful young maiden. Truly the most beautiful woman he's ever seen! Ah, but unlike last time, his initial "love" is a woman who not only reciprocates his affection, but is married to him. So Romeo cheats.

Romeo decides he wants to run off with this woman (let's call her Jessie), and approaches Friar Lor for a divorce. Lor, of course, reprimands him, and tells him to return to Juliet and be faithful. He refuses, and says he'll take Jessie and run away without getting a divorce, and simply never wed again. For some reason, Lor tells Juliet what Romeo has been doing, and Juliet, already angry and frustrated at her living situation, flies into a passion and kills Romeo, Jessie, and herself.

The moral of the story is: I hate Romeo and Juliet.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Not Needing to Fix It

Last year, during the school year, my MacBook Pro experienced something that is colloquially called "the plaid screen of death." That is, I turned on my beloved laptop and the screen that greeted me was plaid. Plaid. Tartan. Striped with gel-pen colors and looking very, very wrong. It also gave me a cryptic and frightening error message. It was one of the most disturbing things that my young eyes have seen. After rebooting it once or twice and getting the same problem, I'm fairly certain I started to freak out.

Fortunately, I had a netbook and an iTouch which both allowed me to have Internet outside my dorm (though not inside, for various reasons), and this happened during a lull in the semester in terms of homework that required my Mac. But, I didn't know how long fixing it would take, I didn't know if the hard drive was in tact, and I knew I would have to make the long, terrible, deadly drive to the closest Apple Store. I was not pleased.

The following day, on the morning of my pilgrimage, I had a very early class. I don't remember why I didn't skip it. I was exhausted, I was stressed, I was angry, I was frightened for my computer and my data, and within hours I would be driving unfamiliar roads in highly populated areas of Orlando. For some reason that I cannot now recall, I still decided to wake up on time to go to my 8:30 AM class.

I'd never before understood what to do when someone was having a bad day, especially if I couldn't fix the problem. I understand listening to people "vent," but I never had any clue if I was supposed to say anything or do anything specific if I couldn't fix it for them, or tell them what to do.

The 8:30 AM class was, fortunately, taught by one of my all-time favorite professors, a nice guy who teaches the material in a sensible, linear fashion. By the end of the class, I was actually in a good mood, partially distracted from my troubles and partially feeling like they didn't amount to such a big deal after all. I was feeling hopeful. It was the sort of take-on-the-world feeling that I usually get from a good cup of coffee. And I got this kind of mood-improvement from someone who didn't even know that I had a problem, who probably didn't even speak directly to me that day.

That was about when I learned that I don't have to fix other people's problems to help them through it. Generally, all I have to do is give them some hope and positivity to help them fix it on their own. I will always contend that God gives more hope than ever I can, but besides pointing people in That Direction, I can also, you know, be nice. And stuff.

Incidentally, Apple replaced the motherboard, after which my Mac - and its hard drive - were totally fine.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Beginning Something Again

A long-ish time ago, I had a photo blog. The idea was simple: take and post one photo per day on the blog, with some semblance of title and no captions. It was great until my camera broke, followed by me getting sick of the project.

I have decided to do it again, for a few reasons:
  • I need an excuse to use my camera a lot, get use of it, and get practice with photo composition.
  • It's actually a good way to get some good photos. Not every photo will be amazing, but some will be.
  • It forces me to be more observant, to get out of the house (dorm?) and to look at what I see while I'm out - I don't want a zillion photos of the items on my desk and in my kitchen.
  • When I found the original blog again, after forgetting I'd ever made it or what account I had used to make it, I enjoyed looking back through all the photos I'd taken, and the strange view of those months that the blog offers. I want more of that pseudo-scrapbook. A scrapbook for the lazyman, one level above Facebook.

So, I begin it again, on this Google account, here:

The old one can be found here:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Defining Creativity

People have long been calling me "creative," mostly because I'm good at drawing, or because I was good at coloring or making crafty things. I don't know how creative I actually am, and I don't think artistic ability is necessarily related to being creative. As a matter of fact, most of what I'm capable of drawing or painting is directly referenced from life or a photo; few original thoughts make it into my art, and I have a hard time coming up with anything to portray. "Talented" may describe me, in terms of art, but "creative" really doesn't.

The term "creative" is often used in reference to artistic skill or talent, as though art in its various forms is the only application of creativity. It is not. Actually, one the subjects most often considered to be dry, dull, and devoid of creativity is a subject that requires a phenomenal amount of creativity, especially in its upper levels: mathematics.

How does one solve a problem in mathematics? Or in computer science, or cryptology, for that matter? You know what the solution will look like - an answer that fits, a program that works, words that can be read and understood. You know what the problem is. What you don't know is everything in between. How do you approach it? One step at a time. I love whiteboards for this purpose, because it can get really messy, especially when you take a wrong step. To solve a problem, you mustn't be afraid of being wrong - you just have to try stuff. It needs to be stuff that makes sense, stuff that follows the rules, but within the rules of mathematics (or what a compiler can handle, or in what ways a person can encrypt something), there are a surprising number of ways to attack a given problem. Math students often struggle because they think there are still steps that need to be followed in the same way, all the time, like when we learned long division way back when. It isn't so. Problem-solving requires a creative approach; that is, it requires the ability to work without those color-by-numbers steps, and to instead exploit truths of mathematics to solve your particular problem.

We do an awful lot of students a disservice by failing to teach them the creative side of mathematics and similar disciplines. Creativity is not merely an artist's quality. Creativity is the ability to think beyond the usual, conventional, or obvious approaches. For a mathematician, this may mean replacing part of a problem with an easier-to-use equivalent, or using different branches of mathematics. For a writer or an artist, this generally means finding a unique, effective way to describe an emotion or convey an event. In college, I actually see creativity encouraged in both my artsy digital media classes and my "left-brained" programming classes, but in high school and before, creativity was, for the most part, hardly even considered. And that is a problem.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A 50-Year-Old Man

In about three days, my father will be exactly half a century old.

Good gravy, old man, I didn't think of fifty as old until I phrased it that way. Now I'll be making fun of you for at least the next two weeks.

Anyway, in celebration of this milestone in my father's life, I will give here a brief, biased, and partially extrapolated biography.

My father was born in nineteen-sixty. A good, round year, right at the start of a new decade. Granted, nothing else exciting happened on that particular day (except that a world-record low temperature was measured in Vostok, Antarctica), but that means if he ever gets famous for something, his birthday will be celebrated in a Google Doodle without competition from other events. That is a good thing, indeed.

After he was born, he lived somewhere in Connecticut with his parents and his three sisters, I'm pretty sure. Nothing exciting happened until after high school, when he had roommates. Roommates, cats, and motorcycles. There was one roommate, possibly the one named Joe, who participated in some insanity that involved keeping motorcycles in the apartment and motorcycle parts in the kitchen cabinet. For some reason this made sense to them. Probably because they were awesome.

At some point, my dad found Christ. Additionally, Jimmy Carter got out of office, Ronald Reagan got in, and people could get real jobs again, so my dad went to college. Also, at some point, my dad married my mom. It was in these days that he turned into a real person. He ended up getting a job as an engineer and has been more or less stuck in Dilbertland ever since.

In 1989, something very important happened. My dad became a dad. Therefore, I exist. In 1991, my brother came into existence. In 1999, we moved to Florida for some Dad's-job-related reason, and since then, he's been enjoying a snow-free version of Dilbertland and seems to be fairly happy. He has also taken on the stock market as his hobby. He sometimes mimics Jim Cramer, and it's a little scary.

So, as far as I can tell, he's a good father and a good husband and a decent cat-owner. I also think he's harmlessly insane at times, but as my mother tells me that I'm exactly like him, I won't emphasize that point too much. It's mostly related to pun-making and math-liking and making lists of stuff, anyway.

Happy birthday, Dad! We love you! And you're old now.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Kind of Video Games

My hardcore gamer friends may laugh at me, but there's one particular variety of game that I like, when I have time to play them. I like happy games. No - I like games with cuteness. Or beauty. I like games with cute characters or cute situations, or games that involve beauty, with lovely characters or music or worlds.

I list here, therefore, the video games that I like best, with a link to the Wikipedia page for each. I know you love Wikipedia links.

  • Frogger. When I was a kid, we had an Atari gamestation of some kind, and we had a decent variety of pixel-tastic games for it, including Frogger. Eventually the Atari broke, and if I missed any of the games we had, I missed Frogger. So, when Frogger came out for the Playstation, of course I was elated. My brother and I enjoyed the two-player option (where he played a green frog and I a pink frog), and the different maps and levels. This was not just Frogger anymore. This was intense, complex, Frogger in 3D. It was awesome.
  • Spyro the Dragon. This was another of the games I played with my brother on Playstation when we were younger. I don't think we ever beat the game, but it was still crazy fun. And Spyro was just so cute!
  • Crash Bandicoot. The third of the Playstation games that my brother and I used to play. Although, we actually had both Crash Bandicoot 2 and Crash Bandicoot Warped, and I don't supposed I actually ever preferred one over the other. I especially liked playing as Coco Bandicoot and riding a polar bear.
  • Final Fantasy IX. I have enjoyed much of the Final Fantasy Series in pieces, but the only one I've beaten - twice - is Final Fantasy IX. I also have all of the soundtrack, the art book, and a wall scroll featuring Garnet and Zidane. I don't think I can explain what makes this one so much better than all the rest. I think it helps that the male protagonist isn't so moody, the gameplay was never aggravatingly difficult, the graphics were good, there was no complicated system of orbs and things, and the overall theme was actually "fantasy." One of my cousins showed me the game and I fell completely in love.
  • Pokémon Red, Yellow, Silver, and Crystal. When I was a kid, and Pokémon was ridiculously popular, it seemed like everybody had the GameBoy game and I didn't. I finally got Pokémon Red, started with a Squirtle, and have felt an affinity towards the franchise ever since. My brother got Pokémon Blue. Eventually I also got Yellow. Later, when Gold and Silver came out, my brother got Gold and I got silver, and eventually I also got Crystal. That's where I stopped obtaining the games, but I kept playing them (and exploiting their glitches) for years.
  • Mario Party 7. My boyfriend and his brother introduced me to this. At first I got aggravated when the game would cheat me out of something, but then I learned to accept that after you do all you can do, it is mostly a game of chance, and I decided I loved it. This was my first real exposure to Mario (since we had a PlayStation, not a Nintendo), and it prompted me to start playing versions of Mario World online.
  • Super Smash Bros. Melee. I was only introduced to this in the last few days, and I have decided that I adore it. I love that you can play as all these adorable and lovely characters, and throw Pokémon at each other, and play in different Nintendo worlds. It's just so cute. It's like Mortal Kombat except even more fun because it's adorable. Also, the combo moves aren't completely insane feats of button-hitting like they are in Mortal Kombat.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Still Dirty Words: End of Summer

I have not crossed off a single box on my calendar for the month of August. It has reached that point in the summer where, while much of my brain is trying to prepare for the upcoming semester and life back at University, some semi-conscious part of my brain is trying to sabotage all my efforts by doing things like pretending 10 days is still plenty of time to complete a things-to-do-this-summer list that's as tall as my dad.

"...Artemis was referring to his own mind in the third person, which was a warning sign no matter which head doctor's theories you subscribed to." --Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex by Eoin Colfer

Maybe I do go crazy at this point in the summer. Maybe my Vacation Mind and Work Mind are conflicting as the former is loathe to go to bed and the latter is desperately trying to wake up and suffocate the other. Maybe I am still eight years old and fairly certain that a new lunchbox is no consolation for telling me that my life is on a schedule again.

I do exaggerate. I am also looking forward to the semester starting, if only so this weird anticipation period can end. And so I can clean the apartment. And stop tripping over all the boxes and bags that are accumulating around the house for my brother and me.

My main problem with summer ending isn't really that it's the end of a long, lazy time. It's that at the beginning of summer, I invariably make lists of stuff I intend to do over the Next Few Months, and then I inevitably realize that I have so much Time and so many Tomorrows and can laze around for days watching movies and reading books and going places without feeling guilty. Then I look back and realize, "What have I done!?"

Usually nothing. Wherein lies the problem.

Although, as far as breaks go, this one has been fairly productive, and still has another ten-ish days for productivity to ensue. I could still sew a dress, play my bass, paint a picture of a duck, make a ton of jewelry, write a detailed outline for a novel, paint a dollhouse, crochet an afghan, read the rest of the Bible, learn electrical engineering, and bake a cheesecake.


But I do have much to anticipate this semester, the first semester of my (I hope I hope I hope) last year of college. New classes, new assigned roommates, and a new bathroom rug will help bring it all together. I will not procrastinate on my homework this time around! And I'll surely play my bass guitar all the time, and write tons of stuff, and make my Etsy soar like eagles. And I'll finish reading the Bible and crochet that afghan and I wish Time could stop long enough for me to take a break from existing in it because I could have sworn Summer just started five minutes ago and I did not sign up for this.

And that, dear Reader, is why the words "end of summer" still make me cringe. Oh Freedom, you fleeting thing.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Barbie and Why I Love Her

I was raised without a hint of cynicism for Barbie. There were no philosophical questions about whether her proportions gave girls a bad body image, or whether we were getting brainwashed by Mattel, or whether Barbie was too privileged or too happy or too unrealistic or favored pink too much. There was only me, my myriad dolls, and my mother, who still holds a little bit of bitterness toward the time her mother got rid of all her Barbie dolls without asking her. My mother, who still has shelves and boxes full of collectible Barbies. My mother, who had a subscription to Barbie Bazaar for a long, long time, and still has a bunch of back issues lurking about the house somewhere. My mother, who tended to pass on the next issue of the Barbie catalog after she was done with it, having marked the pages with dolls she found especially beautiful, interesting, or ridiculous. I think at least half the reason I love Barbie is entirely my mother's doing.

When I moved here, my mother was very intent on finding me friends in the neighborhood, and somehow got me together with a girl my age named Allison. On our first day of acquaintance, we were sitting on my floor in a long, shy silence, when one of us finally asked the other, "Do you like Barbies?"

Why, yes.

I pulled down an enormous plastic box full of Barbies and Barbie accessories, and from that point, friendship occurred. She had a more creative mind than I, it seemed, for where my doll world was stuck in the few rooms of a hot pink Mattel house, hers was able to spread wherever she pleased. She showed me how to create rooms just by arranging furniture in a square, and how to create furniture out of other items. Handmade televisions, desks, beds, and trunks were easy, especially if you had a lot of small boxes, and they added an awful lot of character to a doll's room. My dad put two very low shelves in my closet, so I could build a two-story Barbie mansion out of sight of everyone else. Allison's Barbie house spread out over her bedroom floor. And boy, did our dolls have character.

I don't remember much now, except that our dolls' stories were fraught with a high level of soap-opera-esque drama and a little bit of magic. Two of the dolls I used most were a Hollywood Hair Barbie as Serena (i.e. Sailor Moon), and a Ken whose hair I'd Sharpied black as Darien (i.e. Tuxedo Mask). For some reason, my version of Serena was an extremely responsible and grown-up woman, which should crack you up if you know anything about the original version. As for Allison, I'm pretty sure her dolls were all original characters. And, of course, all of our dolls were absurdly stylish - even the maid and butler. Yes, there was a maid and butler. The butler's name was Drake.

So I was brought up loving Barbie, and kept right on playing with Barbie for a few years after other girls my age had decided it was lame, probably because they hadn't taken the same approach to the dolls as we had. I do so love Barbie's versatility. I love how she adapts to and encourages creativity. I love her elegance, which has lasted almost without pause since her inception. I love her history. I think that most of anything, I love how she can bring people together. Mock her, parody her, and say what you will - I do adore Barbie.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Void

I can't help but feel that blogging is an arrogant thing to do. Aside from a very special set of people, nobody asks us to blog, nobody pays us to blog, and nobody suggests that we set up a regular blog schedule. Since this isn't a personal, journal-type blog, it isn't written just for me; that is, whenever I write a post, I make the assumption that someone cares what I have to say. It's a silly assumption. The Internet is a vast void into which opinions and information, true and false, are sent from all sides, all the time, to be judged or ignored by people all over the globe. I feel meek in the face of my task, my self-assigned task: write a blog entry, send it into the void, and know that few people will read it and some will hate it.

It takes a certain level of confidence to blog. I did not realize when I began blogging how unqualified I am, then, as I am fond of second-guessing myself. Have I edited enough? Researched enough? Said something worth saying? Said something worth hearing? It is actually amazing that I ever get a blog entry out.

Some days are more difficult than others, when I am feeling especially meek or especially lazy or especially cynical about the usefulness of blogging. I bang my head against the Blogger's Wall while I remain shackled to my computer and its blinking cursor. I get up and give up for a little while, and I come back and fight with myself about the validity of my circumstances and opinions. "How vain it is," said Thoreau, "to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live." How vain it is to sit down to blog, when you are young and inexperienced at life and talk a lot but have done so little. How vain it is, when your life experiences are not unique except in the "unconditional positive regard," of-course-your-life-is-special sense. How vain it is, when your opinions come from the singular perspective of a life made easy by various blessings like good parents with a good income. I stop myself paragraphs in sometimes, deciding I am too uninformed, or too preachy, or too thoughtless, or too personal, and start over with something else, with rather less passion as my allotted blogging fuel is spent. I often wonder what authority I have to put words out there as I do.

I wouldn't still be blogging if I didn't have a few reasons for doing so. For one thing, I know that some people do like my blog. For another, despite all my difficulty, I do enjoy writing the blog, and getting the writing practice. I also know that with every blog entry I post, I become a little less timid and a little more surefooted as I navigate my place in the void.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Used Bookstores

To my long list of pipe dreams, I should add "own a used bookstore," an inkling that truly only strikes me when I walk into one or watch You've Got Mail. The Shop Around the Corner isn't a used bookstore; it's a small shop for new children's books, but they do seem to have a shelf of old copies of beloved books, and the store has all the quaintness I imagine used bookstores to have. Maybe Meg Ryan helps that.

I think this quaintness is the first thing that draws me into used bookstores. I find old things to be charming, I find small personal shops to be charming, and I think old, worn books tend to be sweet or strange or beautiful. I like that they tend to hide unfamiliar names, lists, and markings in the covers and margins. I like books that have been owned, maybe loved, by other people, and that have been, for whatever reason, left behind or given up or passed along, to be purchased by wanderers who know nothing of their history but will gladly give them a new home and new use.

I also like the idea that strange finds may exist in these stores. I like thinking that perhaps I will wander into some dusty corner of a dusty bookshop, pick up a dusty, misfiled, leather-bound volume with a title that is strange to me, pay five dollars to take it home and find that it is the answer to the Voynich manuscript or the door to Narnia. Or maybe it'll just be a really, really good book.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

On Focus of Occupation

I strongly dislike the idea that I have to choose a path for my life, particularly in regards to my career, and stick with it, never straying. It has long been frustrating to me that we live one life and may have one career, may never see all things or learn all things or do all things while we exist on the Earth. I have rejected the idea of a single career, and preferred the idea of two or three or four careers in a lifetime, some simultaneous.

But how does one manage such a thing? It would likely entail receiving multiple degrees, and would certainly make it much harder to become expert at anything, or to cultivate real passion at anything, or even to have much free time. We are not, perhaps, meant to be so scattered.

So, perhaps I should be a writer only, or at least make that my plan. But what shall I write? Articles, poetry, fantasy, science fiction, biography, science, adventure? Fiction or non-fiction? Literature or the popular style? How much does one need to focus?

Last year, I had a conversation with someone about Focus in this respect. He, too, seemed to reject the idea that such focus of occupation is necessary. As an undergrad, he had gotten a Math major, with minors in Economics, Physics, and Statistics, and he has written myriad papers on myriad areas of math and science. He spoke with disdain of a professor he knew who overestimated the value of focus, a man whose concentration on a particular area of number theory was nearly very detrimental to his career. I thought, well good, someone agrees with me, someone intelligent and in a very effective life position.

Since then, I have given it more thought.

The main basis of Economics, Physics, and Statistics is Mathematics. Every paper this guy has written is about Mathematics. The problems he solves are based in Mathematics. His skill, his Focus, is in problem-solving with Mathematics. He is not unfocused. He has a concentration, and an effective one.

I can't be a tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, AND a writer (unfortunately), but I can be a writer of fiction, non-fiction, articles, poetry, and more sections of the Dewey Decimal System than Isaac Asimov should God be willing for that to happen. I'm good with that.