Thursday, September 30, 2010

Who is to blame?

"Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it." I've always loved that saying. Why does everyone talk about the weather? It is something that impacts everyone--the sun doesn't shine only on certain races, genders or social classes. The weather is an equal opportunity event.
Something else that people discusss, but rarely do anything about is ethics. Hang on! Don't let your eyes gloss over just yet. Give yourself a chance to think about this for a moment.
One of the classes I took in college was "Values and Ethics". There was one story in particular which I recall quite well: The Ring of Gyges. It was a story told in Plato's Republic. Basically, the ring of Gyges had the ability to turn the owner invisible at will. The question the story asked was, "would a typical person be moral if he didn't have to fear the consequences of his actions?"
But what if you had another type of power, aside from turning invisible, that you made you feel like you didn't have to worry about the consequences of your actions? "Like what?" you may ask. Oh, I don't know--have you read the news in, let's say, the last 100 years? How many public figures have been "caught" for doing something wrong and ended up going to jail? When I lived in Connecticut, the governor was "caught" taking bribes--so was the mayor of Bridgeport. Both went to jail.
Why would they do that? Did they honestly feel that with their power they could do what they wanted, and therefore didn't care if it was "right" or not? Or was it because of the pressures around them?
In the book, Utopia, Sir Thomas Moore basically said, "If the leaders don't provide the common people with the means to support themselves, and the people are forced to do whatever they can to survive, whether or not it is considered legal or ethical, it is the leaders that are to blame."
Sadly, I've seen this happen in corporate America--and it is getting worse. Bosses are making more demands on employees because with the high employment rate, people are willing to do just about anything to keep their jobs. Some of them are even willing to do things that are by their very definition are unethical, but they see it as their only way to survive. If the so called "leaders" of a company are making such high demands that the only way some people can truly compete is by bending the ethical rules, who is truly at fault? Plus, if all you hear from the leaders is "results, results, results!" and ethics is only discussed after someone is "caught", you have to wonder--where is the focus?
Don't misunderstand me. I believe everyone controls their own choices. But consider this: imagine you had children at home who were starving. You go look for food, and spot a loaf of bread at the same time 3 others did. All of you need it. What would you do to ensure you got that loaf of bread? Would you fight them for it? Steal? Kill?
At one of my jobs, we had to take a very long and intense class around ethics. At the end of the session, the teacher summed it up with two sentences. #1 "Just because it is legal, doesn't make it ethical." #2 "Treat others the way you want to be treated."
Hmmm. I know I've heard that second statement somewhere before . . .

Sunday, September 26, 2010

It's a sign!

My wife has a silly sense of humor--which is one reason we've been married for so long, I'm sure (you can read into that statement what you will). We've lived in several different parts of the country--Utah, Idaho, Connecticut and North Carolina. We've driven across the country, as well as taken several long road trips. In doing so, we've noticed signs or other odd things along the way. Some of them make sense--others I'm sure can be explained, but where is the fun in that.
Here are a few examples:

Are we looking for a particular rock or will any rock do?

You mean this road wasn't build just for me?

Does this mean a truck is stuck ahead? If so, why would they spend the time making a sign instead of just removing the truck?

Dang it! I was about to pass all willy nilly.

Yes, I agree. A truck should drive will all its wheels touching the ground. This is a good reminder.

Ah good! A place where my trailer can drop a duce if it needs to.

What isn't shown here is that the sign before asked, "Can you spot the dot?" This is the answer.

I believe this one has to do with a mime stuck in a box.

Most of the time, these are closed. I'll say, "Look, the weigh station is closed." My wife will respond, "No weigh!"

Doesn't this contradict itself?

Well, at least this sign has come to grips with the fact it doesn't know what it is for.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Weighing the weight of waiting

"In a world of what we want, is what we want, until it's ours" is a lyric from Train's song Calling All Angels. Pretty deep insight, right? After all, how many times have we desperately wanted something and when we finally got it, we took it for granted?
Is that just how we are as human beings? Or is it something else? Another popular saying is "The best things in life are worth waiting for." Why is that exactly? Is it because once we actually get it, we say, "WOW! That was so worth the wait!" Let me suggest another meaning to that saying: it isn't the actual getting of the item that makes it "worth it", it is the fact that we had to wait to get it.
Alright, that's a deep concept--but hang in there with me for a moment. Let me give you an example. My oldest daughter, Kelley, really wanted an ipod touch for her 14th birthday--so much so, she told my wife and I about it last March. With her birthday not until September, and the cost of an ipod touch, my wife and I struck a deal with her: If she would save up $100, we would pay the rest for the ipod. That gave her 6 months to do so.
As a 14 year old, she can't exactly go out and get a job. She can, however, save her allowance as well as the money she would get from occasional babysitting gigs. I don't know about you, but the thought of saving $100 when I was 14 seemed downright impossible--but she did it.
Then came the next part. A few weeks before her birthday, it is announced that there is a new version of the ipod touch coming out. It was so new, we had to order it ahead of time to make sure we'd have it for her birthday.
It arrived, and she knew we had it, but we told her she needed to wait until her birthday--which was about a week away. She was so excited, she actually counted down the days. Finally, the big day arrives and she is given her ipod touch.
I have no doubt in my mind had we gotten the ipod back in March when she first wanted it, it wouldn't have meant that much to her. Plus, she wouldn't have gotten the newer version. I am so proud of her for saving up the money and waiting for it. It was a valuable lesson--for her and for me.
I believe it wasn't the actually getting the ipod touch that made the whole experience wonderful, it was overcoming the challenge of saving the money and waiting for it that truly made it worth it.
Other great songs that deal with this concept are Queen's I Want It All and Chris De Burgh's I Want It, (And I Want It Now!).
Often what we want is only a mouse click away. Before clicking, perhaps we should pause for a moment and ask ourselves, "Is this worth waiting for?"

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What if?

As a child, I would often ask questions that began with "What if . . . ?" Now, I'm sure some of these questions were fairly valid, like, "What if I tried to sleep with a baseball cap on?" or "What if I put orange juice in my cereal instead of milk?" (side note on this: I actually tried that with a bowl of Capt'n Crunch once. The experience was something I rather not repeat)
But then I would ask my mom questions like, "What if the grass was purple instead of green?" or "What if I could jump so high that I could jump over the house?"
How would you respond if your child asked such questions? I'm sure I'd come up with some sort of smart-alecky answer like, "Well, let me throw you over the house and tell me how that works out for you." Granted, that wouldn't be the best way I could answer that.
But the "what if" questions were just my little mind trying to figure out the world around me. My curiosity would sometimes get me into trouble, like discovering what would happen when you mix vinegar with baking soda--but not before you put food coloring in the vinegar to make it purple. The result was . . . messy.
However, I once in a while would put my "what if" mind to other, less destructive uses. In the 80's, we had an Atari game system. There was one game, I forget the name of it, where you would play with a partner. The goal was to run through castle type of maze to gather treasure and avoid getting touched by the monsters. If you got touched by a monster, your "health" would go down. But not to worry, if your partner "touched" you, your health would go back up.
The tricky part was finding a partner that could stay close to you pretty much at all times. It wasn't easy. So, using my "what if" mind, I took about a couple of the controllers and "fixed" them so one controller was hooked to two wires that went into the gaming system. The result? Whenever I moved the controller, both of the little characters would move together in perfect sync. Needless to say, I broke every record in that game.
But my "what if" mind didn't stop as a child. It is still there, asking all sorts of questions. How do you feed such an insatiable beast? You become a writer! So much of The Hidden Sun, and the follow up book I'm just finishing really started with me asking the question, "What if . . . ?"

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Honestly! It's an orange.

Any type of art form will have its critics. Actually, that's a fairly negative way of phrasing that. Let me try again. Any type of art form will have its fans. And of these fans, many will have different reasons for liking something.
When reading reviews of The Hidden Sun, it became clear to me than men liked the action while women liked the romance. Almost across the board, people enjoyed the characters and the twists and turns. Many struggled with the names I invented, so much so that I've added a whole new page on my website dedicated on how to pronounce them.
And then there are those who couldn't get beyond the technical issues in the book (I'm talking about grammar, editing mistakes and the such, not plot points--the plot was GREAT!).
It reminds me of an art class I had to take in High School. In order to graduate, you had to fulfill certain requirements. Example: you needed to have so many math or science or English classes and such. One of these requirement was around art. It could be fulfilled if you were in the band (I don't play an instrument), or in chorus (I have a severe case of athlete's voice), or drama (I was rather shy back then) or art classes. I defaulted to the art class--since there was nothing else I could really do.
On the first day of class, the teacher set out a bowl of fruit and asked us to draw it. I looked at my classmates as they went to it. Some had special drawing pads, many had several different types of pencils--various widths and such. Me? I pulled out a lined paper and my #2 pencil. I think I even sharpened it before I started drawing. Here is what my drawing looked like: The teacher had us hand in our work at the end of class. When I turned mine in, she asked, "Is this some kind of joke?" I answered, "No. I did my best." Her response? "What are you even doing in this class?"
That was a good question. My answer? I never went back to that class again. I would just skip it, or "sluffed" it as we called it back then. Yes--I failed the class. Fortunately, I was able to get into the radio program we had at the school and that ended up counting as my art requirement (though I went in as an engineer to fix and maintain the equipment).
Lesson learned from this? You can't please everyone when you are doing anything creative--whether it be art, music or writing.
Final case in point:
A good friend of mine took an art class in college. One of his first assignments was to draw a tree. With pencil and paper in hand, off he went on his quest. He found a particularly attractive tree and sketched it. The next class, the teacher had the students bring up their drawings and he would grade them from 1 to 10 (10 being the best). After a quick glance over of my friends drawing, he wrote the number "6" in red at the top. My friend was none too pleased.
The teacher said that they could do the assignment again if they wanted to improve their score. Off he went, this time adding more detail and shading to the tree. He spent a good couple of hours working on it. Again, he took it to the teacher, and again, the teach gave it a quick glance over and wrote the number "6" on it.
My friend was given one last chance to improve his score. He set aside a whole Saturday and drew the tree. He caught little nuances in the bark he had missed before and added them. He played with how the light shone through the branches and leaves. He added some of the ground around the base of the tree to show the root system. It was amazing.
Excited, he took his drawing to the next class. The experience helped him see things he had not seen before. Proudly, he displayed his work to the teacher. After a quick look over, the teacher took his red pen and on the paper wrote a big number "6".

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hearing the punchline first

"Well duh! It was ground this morning." Does that sentence make any sense to you? It really shouldn't. It is a punch line for a joke. So why did I write the punch line first? Like with most my blogs, to prove a point. The joke starts like this: A woman walks into a coffee shop. She goes there quite often and knows all the workers by name. However, today she goes in and there is a new employee. The young man seems nice enough, but doesn't really appear to know what he is doing. The woman talks with the young worker for a moment and finds out it is his first day, and his trainer went home sick earlier. She orders her regular drink and the young man looks confused for a moment but then goes about his work. In the mean time, the woman gets a call on her cell phone. The young man comes back a little bit later with the coffee cup. The woman pays him, still distracted while on the phone. While exiting the store, she takes a sip and then promptly spits it out. She spins around and says to the worker, "This coffee tastes like mud!"
There are certain TV shows I watch and never miss an episode. For almost all of these shows, I make it a point never to watch the following week's previews. Why? Because most of the time, they give too much away! Movie previews (aka trailers--but don't get me started again on why they call them trailers) are often the worst offenders. There are countless times I've been watching a movie and during a tense moment I've thought, "OK, based on the previews, I know what is going to happen." It ruins the experience!
Or how about the times when there is something shown in a movie preview that never ends up in the movie? Let me get this straight--the scene is good enough for the preview to entice people to see the movie, but not good enough for the movie itself?
I'm not sure if the people in charge of the previews think the general public have no long term memories or not, but why include shots of the final part of the movie in the previews? It's actually rather insulting.
So, when it came time to write a teaser for The Hidden Sun, I wanted it be interesting enough to get people to read it, but not really give anything away. So, how did I do? Well, to be honest, it could have been better. I like the write up on the webpage and the press release more than what is on the back of the cover. Also, I couldn't help but give a few things away, but I promise you this, once you read the book, you'll see how much the preview doesn't give away. In fact, I've actually had people get mad at me because they claim the preview isn't really what the book was about. I see their point, and I politely disagree. Everything in the "preview" of The Hidden Sun is in the book--it actually proves my point that people feel the need to know everything about a book or movie before hand to judge if it is good or not.
In the end, I'm writing an open letter to the preview makers: Make the previews interesting without ruining the movie / TV show / book. Give your audience some credit.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Natural Flavor, Revisited

In a previous blog, I pondered exactly what "Natural Flavor" was and why it was in so many different items. I'm sure there is some sort of scientific explanation for what it is, but where would be the fun in that? I kinda like how it is all mysterious and such.
I honestly intended to leave "Natural Flavor" alone. Really. I had voiced (or written as the case may be) my opinion on the matter. However, it seems that "Natural Flavor" won't leave me alone.
The drink for dinner tonight was lemonade--or something pretending to be lemonade. I'm a virtual coinsure of lemonades (I guess that is a hobby you pick up when you don't partake of the strong drink) and this, my friends, was no lemonade.
Now my sweet wife tried to explain that there wasn't enough of the mix left to make real lemonade and it was actually just slightly flavored water. However, it was yellow and smelled lemony--watered down or not, it was something I needed to investigate.
As to not get sued, I will not reveal the brand of the alleged lemonade. But as I examined the container, a couple of things caught my attention right away.
#1. It clearly states on the front that there are no "Artificial Flavors" in this mix. (Again, see my previous blog for my feelings on that matter)
#2 Its selling point is "Lemonade Drink Mix. Naturally Flavored with other Natural Flavor." Wait . . . what? "Naturally Flavored with other Natural Flavor?" What does that even mean?
So, off to the back of the label I go. There has to be some sort of explanation. But no! The ingredients were printed right where the lid joins with the jar--and when the lid was opened, the list of the ingredients was obliterated. How you mock me you faux lemonade!
Hello! What's this? Below the ingredients in bold are the allergy warnings. Let's see here. This "so called" lemonade may contain traces of milk, eggs, coconut, wheat, soy and . . .tilapia. Tilapia? Isn't that some sort of fish?
Alas, if only the lemonade had traces of lemons in it. Sigh.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Bonus review posted!

There was actually a review done back on August 12th that I missed. Oops! It’s from a teenage young woman’s point of view of The Hidden Sun. It’s a good read. She picked up on some excellent points. It can be found here.