Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Batman Doesn't Belly Dance"

When you attend a Halloween party with a Comic Book / Cartoon theme, you’re going to run into your fair share of heroes from Gotham and Metropolis.1 Batmen and Supermen are fine and all, but I’m not the type to choose a mainstream character or snag my entire get-up from a costume shop. Besides, I wanted a costume no one else would duplicate. With an award for “Most Obscure” up for grabs, I went very obscure.

I became the Escapist.

I’m the one on the right.

Never heard of him? Don’t feel bad; neither had anyone else. He’s only appeared in two publications, and the first of those was a novel. In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, two young cartoonists in the ’40s create the Escapist to profit from the popularity of Superman as America enters the golden age of comic books. Their hero roams the world looking to cast off the chains of tyranny and free oppressed people everywhere.

Thankfully, the Escapist’s second appearance was in comic book form. Otherwise, I’d have had no idea what he looked like.

If you’re wondering, the chains are real. I got them at Lowe’s. The hair isn’t. The wig was the only part of the costume procured from a Halloween store, but it looked genuine enough to even convince people who’d met me before that it was my real hair. The key is made of foam, the mask cut from a fat quarter of fabric, both items purchased at Jo-Ann’s. The rest of the Escapist’s wardrobe was furnished by Target.

So, after everyone I talked to at the party had to ask who I was supposed to be, it came time for the awards section of the evening. As expected, I was nominated for Most Obscure... and then lost out to a member of the Justice League.

Who is this? That's the Question.

Admittedly, I’d never heard of the character before. He looked familiar enough, and was confused throughout the night for either the Blank from Dick Tracy or Watchmen’s Rorschach.2 It was this confusion that netted him the award.

I’m not bitter. If the award had been monetary in nature, perhaps I would be, but instead I am merely amused. Now, if you don’t mind, I have some enslaved people to liberate.

1 The final tally from last Saturday: 3 Batmen, 3 Robins, 2 Batgirls, 2 Clark Kents, 2 Supergirls, and 1 Lois Lane. Oh yeah, and one villain for them all to fight: The Riddler. Two, if you count Hanna Barbera’s Dirk Dastardly.
2 Here’s some trivia for you: Originally, the Question was going to be in Watchmen, but Alan Moore was denied permission to use his name, and thus Rorschach was born.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Think of It as 50 Pictures

One commodity has long eluded the effects of inflation. For decades, the going rate for a picture has held steady at one thousand words. Looking at it that way, writing 50,000 words during the month of November should be a breeze. That's, on average, only 1 2/3 pictures a day. Pretty easy, right?

You try it.

I’m not being facetious. I’m saying: Try it. Really.

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.1 For those who participate, the goal is to write a novel in 30 days. That prospect may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be; no one will judge you if you don’t reach the 50,000-word plateau, or if your story doesn’t turn out as masterful as you had imagined. It’s a first draft, after all. Get your ideas down on paper and see where they lead you. You can always go back later to refine the writing.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo twice, and on both occasions I’ve fallen far short of 50,000 words, but I still think of each one as a success. For my first attempt in 2006, I talked of 50,000 but set myself a more realistic goal: 17,500 words, or about two hundred more than my previous longest (unfinished) work of fiction. Not only did I achieve my (lesser) goal, making the story my longest to date, but I fell in love with the outlandish tale I was creating. For the first time, I truly felt like a writer.

I kept at it. The following November, I took a break from that novel to start a new one, and bested my previous year’s tally by a few thousand words. I kept at that one, too, for a little while, but inevitably I was drawn back to the other tale.

Three years later, I’m still hard at work on that same novel I began in 2006. I did revert to my usual glacial pace after that first month, but I’m inching ever closer to a completed first draft. Earlier this week, I even surpassed the 100,000-word threshold.

I’m planning to do NaNoWriMo again this year, but once again with my own goals. I won’t be starting a new novel or striving for 50,000 words, but I will be striving. I may aim for 20,000 words, or 20 days of writing out of 30, or 3 completed chapters. Even if I don’t reach those targets, I still succeed, for I will have written.

You don’t have to play by their rules; just use this as an impetus to get you going. If you have an idea that’s itching to get our of your head, stop thinking about it and start writing. Hell, if I can do it, it can’t be too hard.

You try it.

1 As opposed to the Nanorhino, scourge of microbiology students everywhere.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

My Shortest Post Ever!

Official diagnosis: Bronchitis.
Told you it wasn't the heinie flu.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Eh, I’ll Procrastinate Tomorrow

I have long been a major advocate of putting off work. I’d always get it done, and on time, but pen wouldn’t hit paper (or finger hit keypad) until the last possible minute.

In middle and high school, I almost never started a paper or project – no matter how large – until the night before it was due. I then ascended to the level of Master Procrastinator during my first semester of college by regularly beginning papers for one English seminar about 1-2 hours before the class started. Nor did I stop procrastinating once I left the cozy confines of academia. Bills get paid on the last possible day. The litter box isn’t cleaned until it stinks to high heaven.1 Hell, just two weeks ago, I uploaded my 10 Top 10s for 10/10 post with under 10 minutes to spare.2

My thinking has always been this: If the deadline isn’t looming, I can be doing something more fun. That could mean watching a DVD, playing an online game, taking the dog for a walk, or any of a hundred and sixteen other possibilities. The best distractions are always the ones that have nothing to do with the task at hand. So, imagine my surprise last week when I realized that for the past two months, and for the first time in my life, I had begun practicing Productive Procrastination.

It wasn’t that I was mowing the lawn or doing laundry as my procrastinatory activity. Yes, such tasks would indeed be considered productive (particularly by my fiancée), but it was more than that. Somewhere along the way, I began choosing diversions that would undoubtedly have a positive impact on the very thing that I was delaying.

In this case, I am delaying writing my novel. Coming up with the ideas is fun. Having written entertaining material is fun. However, the actual process of getting the words on the page can be quite difficult, and at times disheartening. In the past, I would find solace in activities similar to those I mentioned earlier: movies, games, and the like. Yet, since I started this blog back in August, such instances have become rare.

Sometimes, to procrastinate from my writing, I write. It’s not fiction and it’s not for my novel, but by composing posts for this blog I am now writing more often than I did previously. In doing so, I’m honing my craft (and if anyone other than friends and family were reading this, I’d also be developing a fan base).

Sometimes, instead of writing, I read… about writing. For my birthday, I received a subscription to Writer’s Digest, and I’m also currently delving through Stephen King’s On Writing and Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Through these and other sources, I’m collecting copious tips to improve my plot, characters, pacing, etc., as well as gaining insight into how to best undertake my eventual search for an agent. At some point, I might even learn how to be concise.3

So what if I’m not writing my novel at this very instant? It’s all part of my master plan to improve as a writer, which will be readily apparent when you get to read my final manuscript. I’ve always been a procrastinator: I can’t change that. But I can change how I procrastinate. Why not let it work for me?

1 As opposed to low heaven. I have absolutely no qualms about offending the olfactory senses of the lesser gods.
2 Yes, I’m fully aware that if you look at the time stamp, it appears I had 22 minutes to spare. I’m not sure if Blogger records the time when it first auto-saves, or if its clock is simply off by 15 minutes. Either way, I hit “Post Now” at 11:53pm. So there.
3 Doubtful.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Knowing Me, Mine is Probably Obtuse

Over the past few weeks, I have unabashedly subjected my friends and co-workers to the cough that wouldn’t die. It all started about a month ago with my biannual sinus infection. Luckily, that coincided with a planned week of vacation, and I shed the malady quicker than usual.

Or so I thought.

Within the week I had developed a dry, hacking cough. After a fortnight, the cough had morphed into a wetter, more phlegmish version of itself,1 which it has remained to this day. However, other than my occasional need to hack up a lung, and perhaps a slight drop in energy levels, I’ve felt fine.

I certainly didn’t feel sick enough to go see the doctor. Besides, the last time I went, back in February (when I’d been done in either by food poisoning or a virulent flu bug), my physician saw me for a grand total of one minute and simply told me to “rest up, and drink plenty of fluids.” Of course, I was charged full-price for such sage advice.

So, yesterday, I did what anyone in my situation would do: I consulted WebMD.

If my self-analysis is correct, I have a little ol’ thing called acute bronchitis.2 This might help to explain not only my extra-cheesy title for yesterday’s post, but also the horrible pun contained in the preceding footnote. (After all, I’d never stoop to such depths if I were in full health, now would I?)3 As for acute bronchitis, it’s rarely contagious. There are no antibiotics to prescribe. And it tends to go away on its own after a few weeks. I just need to rest up, and drink plenty of fluids.

Only this time, my doctor isn’t getting a dime.

1 As opposed to Flemish, which could have been disturbing in its own right. Exhibit A: The works of Hieronymus Bosch.
2 Aw, aren’t you a cute little bronchitis? No, no you’re not. God, no. Ew.
3 Um, don’t answer that.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Finally, A Mystery I Can Sink My Teeth Into

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce is an expert when it comes to poison. She spies on people, picks locks, and takes other people’s property. She lies to the police. Oh, and did I mention? Flavia de Luce is the heroine in this particular story.

She is also eleven years old.

It’s interesting to me that Alan Bradley, at the age of 70, became a first-time novelist by enlisting an 11-year-old girl as his narrator, and that the tale unfolds in England, a country he had never visited prior to completing the book. Nor was this the book Bradley set out to write; he was in the middle of writing a standard detective novel when Flavia showed up and hijacked the scene. Shortly thereafter, he scrapped that story and started anew.

In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Flavia de Luce discovers a body in her family’s garden. Lacking confidence in the local police, and not squeamish in the least, she sets out to find out what happened before the cops do. Unlike the last book I reviewed, this one plays out more like a traditional mystery, albeit with an unorthodox protagonist. And unlike the one I reviewed before that, the many analogies Bradley peppers his narrative with all make sense. Indeed, they’re often quite reflective of Flavia’s eccentric personality.

It’s certainly entertaining fare, but Bradley does take liberties at times. In a couple of instances he conveniently has Flavia’s memory fail in order to keep certain details a mystery, a technique which likely wouldn’t be as tolerated if the detective character wasn’t a child. Some of the adult characters open up to Flavia, and — surprise! — they share the very information she needs to propel her investigation forward. And precocious though she is, Flavia seems to know much more than an 11-year-old should about all sorts of topics. Perhaps this is because of her high level of intelligence, her copious reading, and the blissful lack of reality shows in 1950, when the story takes place. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was because she was written by a 70-year-old.

The mystery itself isn’t really anything to write home about.1 It has its twists and turns, as well as one or two unexpected moments, but with the clues Bradley provides along the way, the intrepid reader will have it all figured out before the big payoff comes. Nevertheless, it’s enjoyable to follow along as Flavia pieces it all together, because one rarely knows what she’ll do next. That’s also why, when the sequels come out (The Weed that Strings the Handman’s Bag arrives in March), I’ll be transporting myself back to 1950s England for yet another piece of pie.


1 For you youngsters who may not know what this is, ‘writing home’ was something people did before the advent of e-mail. For you youngsters who may not know what that is, ‘e-mail’ was something people did before the advent of texting.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Give That Man a Medal

Much has been said over the last few days about President Obama winning the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Many people are of the opinion that he doesn’t deserve the award, to which I say: They’re absolutely right.

I wholeheartedly believe in Obama’s ideals and his vision, and I hope he'll be able to achieve most of what he has set out to do. However, the selection committee has bestowed this honor upon him only eight and a half months into his presidency, based more on his intentions and the world’s expectations than on his actual accomplishments. This isn’t only premature, it’s also unfair to the candidates with far greater achievements to date, those who don’t have the backing of the U.S. Treasury and might actually need the $1.4 million prize to help further their cause. I’d say the selection committee put the cart before the horse, but that wouldn’t be a particularly apt metaphor. It’s more like they gave the cart and the horse credit for traversing the whole of the Oregon Trail without ever setting foot outside of Missouri.1

Wait a minute... I’m two-thirds of the way into the first draft of my debut novel. I’ve already fostered exceedingly high expectations for the book among friends, family, and co-workers by merely divulging a few minor details.2 And once my masterpiece is finished, I intend to take the world by storm. So, why haven’t they handed me the Nobel Prize for Literature yet? Or, at least a lesser prize like the National Book Award? It hardly seems fair.

Obama hasn’t yet earned all of the acclaim he's received, but he’s just getting started. Over the next three (or seven) years, he’s sure to undertake initiatives far more worthy of the Peace Prize than anything he’s done so far. Of course, when that day rolls around, they’ll give it someone else.

I’d stake my Pulitzer on it.

1 Will Obama even be able to overcome the obstacles ahead? In another month, he might fail in his attempt to ford the Colorado River and lose 2 axles, 167 lbs of food, 3 sets of clothing, and Hillary (drowned).
2 Political assassination and invisible monkeys.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

10 Top 10s for 10/10

  1. City of God (Cidade de Deus, Brazil)
    Kids dealing drugs in the slums of Rio. Simply astounding.
  2. Amelie (Le fableux destin d’Amélie Poulain, France)
    Quirky, imaginative, and hilarious, with amazing heart. (And Audrey Tautou.)
  3. The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, Germany)
    Before the fall of the Berlin wall, no secrets allowed.
  4. Rashômon (Japan)
    One story, four differing viewpoints. Akira Kurosawa at his best.
  5. Infernal Affairs (Mou gaan dou, Hong Kong)
    A groaner of a title, but better than Scorsese’s remake.
  6. M (Germany)
    And the world is introduced to the magnificent Peter Lorre.
  7. Oldboy (Oldeuboi, South Korea)
    The second twisted installment in Chan-Wook Park’s revenge trilogy.
  8. Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, Japan)
    The only movie listed in which people turn into pigs.
  9. Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Mexico)
    A little girl's imagination runs away with her. And us.
  10. The City of Lost Children (La cité des enfants perdus, France)
    Ron Perlman, former circus strongman, saves children from mad scientist.
  1. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
  2. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
  3. Mom’s Marijuana: Life, Love, and Beating the Odds, Dan Shapiro
    Not just here because Dan’s my cousin. A phenomenal read.
  4. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
  5. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson
  6. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Cadavers, Mary Roach
  7. Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, Stefan Fatsis
    Competitive Scrabble players are really really really really weird. Really.
  8. Maus & Maus II: A Survivor's Tale, Art Spiegelman
    His father's survival of the Holocaust, with Jews as mice.
  9. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss
  10. Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell
    A whirlwind tour of presidential assassinations: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.
1 I wonder if the books without subtitles get picked on.

  1. 13
  2. 42
  3. π/6
    After all, who doesn’t like a nice slice of pi?
  4. -4442
    Eight six seven minus five three oh nine. Good times.
  5. A googolplex
    No way in hell am I typing all those zeroes.
  6. 5,318,008
    This one’s for Gabe. Just flip your calculator upside down.
  7. 232
  8. i
    i never had any imaginary friends. Just an imaginary number.
  9. n2
  10. “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” performed by Peter Boyle and Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein
    What? It’s a number. A musical number. (I never stipulated.)
2 Not really meant as a footnote. (n squared is awesome!)

  1. Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson
    Absolutely perfect. My only complaint: Watterson retired way too soon.
  2. The Far Side, Gary Larson
    The gold standard for the anthropomorphization of animals. (Especially cows.)
  3. Zits, Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott
  4. Pearls Before Swine, Stephen Pastis
  5. Dilbert, Scott Adams
  6. Fox Trot, Bill Amend
  7. The Boondocks, Aaron McGruder
  8. Non Sequitur, Wiley Miller
  9. XKCD, Randall Munroe
    Only online, the Holy Grail for math and science geeks.
  10. Anything other than Zippy the Pinhead
Note: I made this list prior to discovering Basic Instructions.

  1. Jets with friggin’ lasers attached to their heads. Duh.
  2. Laseroff™ brand laser repellant
  3. A well-placed anvil
  4. Remote-detonation remora
  5. The entire Spanish Armada (preferably before 1588)
  6. Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli
    Why him? When you think about it, it’s patently obvious.
  7. Point behind it and say, “Hey, is that a wounded sea lion?”
  8. Here’s a hint: Sharks are ticklish.
  9. Double-barreled squirrel launcher
  10. Your pal Hemo, the hemophiliac
  1. Nat
    Reserved for family only. Sounds weird if others use it.
  2. Nate
    Simple, yet effective. Only my darling sister would say otherwise.
  3. Nate the Grape
    A take-off on the old classic. It never really caught on.
  4. Nate the Skate
    Courtesy of my middle school librarian. Not used once since.
  5. Wilson Kid
  6. Knewt
    The K is silent, but you’re supposed to pronounce it.
  7. Snooty McWilsonpants
    Sure, I could have put "Nate Dogg" here, but why?
  8. Nathar (of the Hill People)
  9. Natest the Greatest
  10. Cap’n Bill
    I’m not a captain, nor is my name William. Discuss.
  1. Firefly (2002-2003)
    Superbly written space western with stellar cast. Fox really blows.
  2. Carnivàle (2003-2005)
    Carnies during the Dust Bowl. Like little else on television.
  3. Invader Zim (2001-2003)
    Gir is, quite possibly, the best character ever written. Doomidoomidoom.
  4. Spy (2004)
    The. Best. Reality show. Ever. Nothing else even comes close.
  5. Sports Night (1998-2000)
    You don’t need to like sports to love this show.
  6. Freaks & Geeks (1999-2000)
    Back before Apatow hit it big, his shows never lasted.
  7. The Critic (1994-1995)
    Two fewer seasons than Duckman, if you can believe that.
  8. Fawlty Towers (1975-1979)
    John Cleese managing a hotel. Really, what could go wrong?
  9. Dead Like Me (2003-2004)
    Mandy Patinkin leads a band of undead soul suckers. Kinda.
  10. The Powers That Be (1992-1993)
    'Twas laugh out loud hilarious, with a side of politics.
The State and The Office (British version)? Sadly, neither qualify.

  1. Democratic Republic of the Congo, 50 pts.
  2. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, 39 pts.
  3. Bosnia and Herzegovina, 38 pts.
  4. Czech Republic, 35 pts.
  5. (tie) Central African Republic, 35 pts.
  6. Mozambique, 34 pts.
  7. Republic of the Congo, 33 pts.
  8. Kazakhstan, 30 pts.
  9. (tie) Kyrgyzstan, 30 pts.
  10. United States of America, 29 pts.
Bonus trivia: My cat hails from a 25-point country.

  1. Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky (22:29)
  2. Alice’s Restaurant Massacree, Arlo Guthrie (18:37)
  3. Allegro Ma Non Tanto, Concerto #3 In D Minor, Sergey Rachmaninoff (17:21)
  4. Tetragrammaton, The Mars Volta (16:42)
  5. The Lightning Strike, Snow Patrol (16:28)
  6. Goodbye Sky Harbor, Jimmy Eat World (16:14)
  7. Monolith, The Beta Band (15:49)
  8. Finale: Alla Breve, from Concerto #3 In D Minor, Sergey Rachmaninoff (14:33)
  9. Third Eye, Tool (13:47)
  10. Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore: A. Vade Mecum, The Mars Volta (13:10)
3 Wherein “greatest” is not subjective, but refers to track length.

  1. Spruce Goose Chartreuse
  2. Desert Island Maroon
  3. Mister Pink
  4. Seared Umber
  5. Let’s Make a Teal
  6. Marty McFly Yellow4
  7. Green with Ivy
  8. I Don’t Give a Flying Fuchsia
  9. Blue-Green Aquamarine Turquoise Sea Breeze
  10. Clear
4 This could alternatively be called “What Are Ya? Yellow”

Disclaimer: These lists are, of course, just my opinion. Obviously, I haven’t seen or read everything under the sun. And I may have accidentally left something off one of the lists. But most likely, if you don’t see your favorite book or movie or show or whatever listed above, that’s because it sucks.

Oh yeah, and to quote Columbo, just one last thing.5

5 Every description / footnote shares one characteristic. Kudos if you noticed.

Friday, October 9, 2009

I've Had a Few

Regrets? Mine have always come with a silver lining. Yes, I wish I’d spent a semester studying abroad in college, but if I had, I’d never have taken the Advanced Drawing course that led to, among other things, my excruciatingly detailed life-size self portrait.1 I rue the day I broke my hand, but by being forced to take the bus to D.C. rather than drive, I made a good friend out of the deal. Even my brief encounter with the mossy precipice back in August netted me a camera upgrade and this fancy new blog.

However, my latest regret, which I have been lamenting these past few months, will likely never have a moment of redemption. In mid-2007, my company’s stock price peaked at over $100. Then, with the company linked financially to every big-name firm that went belly-up during the 2008 crash, the stock dropped precipitously throughout the year, bottoming out below $3.50 on March 6, 2009. I had a chunk of money set aside that I planned to invest in something, and I knew I should jump at it, but I just couldn’t get myself to pull the trigger. I’d already talked myself out of buying at $29 and $19 and $9. What if it dropped further? What if the company imploded and I was left with nothing?

In retrospect I clearly should have taken the chance, but as they say, hindsight is always a show on CBS with Andy Rooney. Today, our stock sits back up at $29 and continues to inch higher. If I’d made the plunge back in March, I’d have already octupled my money. Octupled. I could kick myself for being so stupid. And it’s not just about the money. By hesitating on that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I’ve probably also ruined any chance of retiring when I had originally planned.2

Obviously, money isn’t everything. I’ve got great friends and family, a decent job, my health, and I haven’t nearly plummeted to my doom in over a month. Nevertheless, if I’m ever going to become a multi-bazillionaire, I suppose I’m really going to have to finish writing that novel. I’d be working on it right now, except…

Octupled?! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

1 In it, I’m holding a rubber chicken.
2 Next Tuesday.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

It's Not Rocket Surgery

My first thought was that it had to be a joke. A parody. There was no other explanation. Clearly, such a headline had to have been pulled from the pages of The Onion, a site which I knew CNN had partnered with before.

But no, they were being serious. It linked directly to’s technology section. The headline? Scientists discover massive ring around Saturn.

Were scientists getting stupider? Was this Flowers for Algernon all over again? Sadly, no. Turns out what they were talking about was a completely new ring, undiscovered until now despite its gigantuan1 size. And how is that nobody had seen this thing before? Well, the scientists say, it’s because the ring is nearly invisible. I almost believed this until I took a look at the picture that accompanied the article. And then the realization hit me.

Scientists aren’t stupid. They’re blind.

1 What? Of course "gigantuan" is a word. It means "astrocolossal."

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Do you remember back when you could go to a diner and get a large three-egg omelette or a stack of french toast for under $4? I sure do. It was today, right around lunchtime.

If you ever find yourself in Worcester, MA1 and in the mood for breakfast, head on down to the Gold Star Restaurant on W Boylston St. Great food, good-sized helpings, and prices straight out of the 1980s. I had myself a delicious kielbasa-and-cheese omelette, and one of my compatriots had what she referred to as the best pancake she’d ever eaten. Two of the three of us couldn’t even finish our meals, and the entire bill came to a hefty $17. Just get there early, especially on a rainy day, or you’ll be standing out in the cold for a while, watching everyone else enjoy the scrumptiousness.

1 Not that I’m suggesting you go there. I said “if”...

Friday, October 2, 2009

German for No

On this date nine long years ago, I began working at a little insurance company known as The Hartford. After a five-minute interview, I was hired as a web design consultant, and at the time, since I was planning on a career in computer animation, I expected that within six months I’d leave both the company and the state in my wake.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. Instead, I settled into the job, and although I still wonder how far I would have gotten with computer animation, I’m happy I stuck with web design. Now, in commemoration of my anniversary, I thought I’d share 9 of the more interesting bits of trivia from my tenure:

  • I have worked in 3 different departments under 4 different managers across 5 different buildings, while getting shifted around between 15 different cubicles.

  • In 2005, one of my co-workers vanished. As in, off the face of the earth. For three whole months. His boss had no idea where he was, nor did his ex-wife, his daughters, his bartender… we felt like background characters in an episode of CSI or Without a Trace. And then he suddenly reappeared. In a hospital. In Miami. This is a guy who I had worked with for about 4 years, without incident. He sent an email saying we’d all have to get together for drinks at some point and he’d tell us the whole story. Then, I think he may have disappeared again.

  • Somehow, my name ended up on a patent application.

  • At lunchtime one fateful day, I was eating from an open styrofoam container of chili that sat upon my desk. I don’t recall how it happened, but the container started to tip toward me. I tried to stop it, to catch it, but failing to do so, I quickly stood up so it wouldn’t spill on me. When it hit the ground, it didn’t land on its edge and tip over. The bottom of the container landed flat, causing the chili to explode upwards. It spattered into my face, and onto my shirt and pants. Little specks of chili somehow found their way to the furthest reaches of the desk, and onto the back of the computer monitor. To this day, although all the stains have been removed, one of co-workers can always spot when I’m wearing “the chili pants.”

  • Shortly before I shifted out of one department, its name was changed to GSD, which stood for, I kid you not: GBD Solution Design. That’s right, the name was an acronym (technically, an initialism) within another acronym (again, technically an initialism). And they didn’t see anything wrong with that.

  • For a month and a half, I did my job completely left-handed. No, not on a bet; I’d merely broken my right hand in a simple disagreement.1

  • For a while, my commute was a simple 3-mile journey down a single 2-lane road. One morning, two separate school buses tried to run me off that road. The first ran a red light in order to pull out in front of me from a side street, and less than a mile later, the second kid-filled yellow behemoth switched into my lane without warning, forcing me to swerve and slam on my brakes. Yay, flat tire.

  • I once worked 26 hours in a 30-hour period. I do not recommend this. Not only will all your work go for nought when everyone cancels out of the meeting you scheduled, neglects to read the document you compiled until four months later, and then opts to undertake absolutely none of the recommendations. But you’ll also get, as more than one doctor told me, “the worst case of mono [they’d] ever seen.”

  • A few times a year, we’re required to take online certification courses on topics like ethics and information protection. (One of the latter had a hokey pirate theme, complete with an animated squawking parrot, and locations like Internet Island and Compliance Cove.) It was in one of these highly professional courses that I came across this bit of sage advice: “Handle e-mail as if you are sharing your fork.” Truer words have never been spoken.

1 The wall started it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


The City & The City
by China Miéville

A woman is found dead in an alleyway in Besźel, and the investigation into her murder leads directly to Besźel’s sister city of Ul Qoma. The lead investigator must cross into foreign lands and contend with a different language, a dissimilar culture, and taut political tension. One city thrives as the other falls into decay. This all sounds like a pretty standard set up for an international mystery, doesn’t it? Well, here’s the twist:

Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the exact same physical space.

China Miéville’s The City & The City is easily one of the most original books I have read... which probably helps to explain why it took me so long to really get into it. When I first heard the premise, I assumed the cities would be like parallel worlds, accessed via some manner of portals or rifts in space, similar to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. But that wasn’t it at all. It was actually something far more difficult for me to grasp.

Okay, say there are two people standing on the street in front of you, side by side. One of them could be in Besźel, the other in Ul Qoma. Or vice versa. Or, they could both be in the same city. It’s all a matter of perception. Citizens in each of the cities are taught from an early age to instantly recognize their nation’s style of clothing and architecture, their choice of vehicles, their mannerisms and accents, and “unsee” all those that are distinct to the other city. Thus, people have to ignore (or, unconsciously maneuver around) half of everything they see and hear outside, unless they happen to be on a street that is fully part of their own city. If they don’t unsee such things, they’ve committed a crime, and are at the mercy of Breach, the entity in charge of policing such violations. Add in the fact that the majority of the main characters have names like Tyador Borlú, Lizbyet Corwi, and Qussim Dhatt, and you may begin to realize why I initially had trouble getting into the story.

However, once I was finally able to get past all that and begin to understand the myriad of complexities involved, I began to enjoy it. For me, the mystery itself often played second fiddle to the peculiar world Miéville created. As for the characters, the majority of them were relegated to third fiddle.1 Few possessed enough personality to really stand out without being thrown into some unusual set of circumstances.

Also, I rarely, if ever, saw the twists in the narrative coming. This was partly a product of the unique world Miéville invented, but it was also because he provided little in the way of tangible clues. Inspector Borlú’s revelations come in clumps, rather than at a slow trickle, and seldom because evidence points him in that direction. Nevertheless, each twist exhibits Miéville’s inventiveness all the more, and messes with the reader’s perceptions of perception. Sure, some of my questions remain unanswered,2 but I like books that screw with your head a bit.

The City & The City isn’t your traditional mystery, and at times, that aspect of it may leave you wanting. Nor is it what you might expect from a sci-fi/fantasy novel. (It sure wasn’t what I expected.) But with a fair share of both genres, and a whole boatload of originality,3 it’s unquestionably an interesting read.


1 Barely a notch above viola.
2 How do you tell if a foreigner is in your city or the other? And what of casual photography? It’s not like you can Photoshop someone or something out of your picture if have to unsee them as you’re doing so...
3 Just don’t look at the boat. It may be in the other city.