Sunday, September 19, 2010

The incredible shrinking junk food

Interesting marketing technique - turn the wrapper into a memo pad and hope consumers won't notice that what's inside that New wrapper has shrunk while at the same time the price being charged for the box has gone up.

Every writer needs a good editor

I got about three pages into the novel I'm currently reading (Moon Pies and Movie Stars by Amy Wallen) before I hit a major blooper:  black and white Jersey cows. 

Granted, the book is fiction, but that doesn't excuse getting your context wrong. So if you're going to name a breed, for Calliope's sake, don't screw it up by making it the wrong color!  If you don't know something, don't try to fake it.  Just leave it out.  Every time an author gets something wrong -- verbal anachronisms (using the wrong slang for a time period), general geography, clothing styles or details (putting zippers on an Old Order Amish girl's dress, for example) -- odds are some reader is going to trip over that blooper.  It's going to distract from the narrative, and the writer is at risk of losing a reader permanently.   

Of course, if Wallen had a decent editor -- and despite the fact she thanks her editor in the acknowledgements section, she obviously didn't -- that editor would have paused at the word Jersey and said "what color are those cows?"  (See photo for answer.)  Just like she would have paused at the description of the El Camino vehicle to wonder just exactly what is an El Camino (Chevy hasn't made them since 1987), and whether or not the details are right on the pin-setting equipment in the bowling alley.  There's a reason writers get told "Write what you know!"  If a piece of fiction isn't grounded in reality, if an author is trying to fake a setting without having done a ton of research first when they're trying to set a story someplace they've never been or describing jobs they've never done, it's going to show really fast. 

Because I work as an editor, every so often a friend or acquaintance will ask me to look at a draft of something they've done.  I always refuse.  My stock answer is I work in such a hard-science area that I'm not qualified to edit fiction.  That's an evasion.  I may not edit fiction now, but that doesn't mean I can't tell the difference between good and bad writing.  The real problem is that I'm a really poor liar, and way too often the draft that's being waved under my nose gives up a distinct cheesy odor.  I don't want the appalled look on my face when I hand the manuscript back to kill any friendships.  It's the job of friends to murmur encouraging words and nurture hope; it is the job of editors to kill dreams.  Your friends will tell you "This is the most romantic story I've ever read!"  Your editor will look at the manuscript, mutter foul words, ask if your goal as a writer is to crank out hack work for Harlequin, and then toss your shattered hopes back at you with a demand for yet another rewrite.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Politics and prognostication

Thanks to Christine O'Donnell winning the Maryland Republican primary, every evening this week I've been treated to various pundits blathering on and on ad nauseum about what's going to happen in November.  Despite the fact that a few Republicans very briefly had the balls to say that she's unelectable in the general election, talking heads like Chris Matthews are persisting in making O'Donnell sound like the second coming of, if not Christ, then Sarah Palin.  Apparently Matthews et al. have forgotten that the ticket Palin herself was on in 2008 lost, and that poll after poll shows the majority of Americans wouldn't vote for her now. 

First, some numbers, courtesy of the Rude Pundit:
For anyone who wonders if O'Donnell can pull out an upset, let's put her numbers in context:

Number of registered voters in Delaware: 621,746
Number of registered Republicans: 182,796 (29%)
Number of votes O'Donnell received: 30,561
By the Rude Pundit's awesome abilities with a calculator, that means she received: 16.7% of registered Republicans (or 4.9% of total registered voters).
Number of registered Democrats: 292,738 (47% of registered voters)
As far as I can tell, O'Donnell is not the complete idiot that some folks on the left would like to believe -- she's managed to support herself by telling a small group of people what they'd like to hear for quite a few years now (also known as the Alan Keyes model of being a perpetual candidate for something and then paying yourself a salary out of your campaign funds) -- but she's also not likely to attract many voters outside that small group. Yes, she may be appealing to her core followers, but that's about it.  Then when you add in the fact that all the stuff that makes her newsworthy -- masturbation is bad -- is the same stuff that makes people check her for the tinfoil hat, she looks even less likely to attract many mainstream voters.
One of the obvious failings of trying to predict anything from primary results is that primaries attract the most impassioned, the most ideologically pure, and the least sane voters.  Really tiny numbers of voters make decisions that the rest of us then get to regret -- and to vote against in the general election.  If Congressman Mike Castle had won the Republican senatorial primary, quite a few Democrats in Maryland wouldn't have cared much.  They might even have voted for him.  They'd known Castle for years, and recognized he's basically a pretty moderate and pragmatic guy.  O'Donnell, on the other hand, .  . . 
My own prediction for November?  I don't have one, but I do think all the hype about a Republican rout and a retaking of both the Senate and the House is more a product of Republican wishful thinking than being reality-based.  The right cranks up its sound machine, and the media play right along and provide an echo chamber.  In general I think any incumbent who survived his or her party's primary this summer is going to be safe in the fall.  There's always a lot of talk about throwing the bums out, but the reality is that once it comes down to the general election, people lean more toward to keeping the evil they know than with voting for someone new.  Then, when you add in the gerrymandering that has turned most Congressional districts into safely Republican or safely Democratic enclaves, the odds of the numbers changing much becomes even slimmer.  
Not that it matters much.  All it will take is for the Republicans gaining even one seat, and the punditry, the chattering classes, will be touting their own predictive abilities, and telling us all the Obama presidency is doomed.  The stupid, it burns.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Summer's over

The 2010-11 snowplowing bill for the Retirement Bunker was in the mailbox yesterday.

Enclosed with the bill was an announcement of a new state holiday:  Shake Your Mailbox Day is October 23.  Michigan residents are encouraged to go out to the side of the road and give their mailboxes a good shake to see if they're sturdy enough to survive being buried in snowbanks.  "If you can shake your mailbox, it probably needs maintenance." 

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Amazing reading experience

A murder mystery in which the heroine does not wander through the story totally clueless (or close to it), and then end up stumbling across the answer while simultaneously acquiring serious physical injuries and waiting to be rescued by some man:  Bone Hunter by Sarah Andrews. 

The book has a number of flaws, but the fact it has an actual thinking, autonomous heroine is sufficiently amazing that I'll overlook them.  Geologist Emily Hansen actually manages to string clues together, comes up with answers before the police do, and then -- this is the absolutely most amazing part -- rescues the LEO who has been assigned to protect her.  Em comes close to dying because of course there have to be close calls:  a helicopter crash, getting shot at and pursued by the bad guys, getting swept downstream by a river that's running stronger than anticipated.  Nonetheless, she's the one who takes the lead when she and the police officer find themselves apparently trapped by the bad guys and figures out where they are in the Utah canyonlands in terms of being able to find their way to help.  She also survives the experience with nothing worse than scrapes and bruises, another amazing outcome in a genre that seems locked into having the heroine end up in  a cast or a hospital bed on a routine basis.

The book also had one of the niftiest murder weapons I've seen in a long time.

The flaws?  Some of it was plotting -- for example, one or two minor characters wander in just long enough to pique a reader's interest but then never do play any sort of role other than stage dressing -- and some of it was just awkward writing in a few places.  Minor quibbles for a genre where the dreck generally vastly outnumbers the good stuff.     

Thinking about work

I shouldn't be thinking about work on the weekend -- after all, one of the charms of being R.I.P. is that supposedly once I step out the door on Friday afternoon I don't have to think about anything happening in the office until the following Monday morning -- but it was an odder week than usual.  It was also one of those weeks that had me once again being grateful I've almost never had to be in a supervisory position (I don't think ordering teaching assistants around counts -- that's not a manager-underling relationship, it's more like master-slave).

In any case, I'm wondering if the colleague who was out sick all week will be back in the office on Monday.  The Atlanta air apparently tried to kill her -- an asthma attack over the Labor Day weekend resulted in a trip to the ER, and that in turn led to hospitalization while the doctors try to stop the wheezing.  That in itself would not particularly noteworthy -- deserving of some twinges of sympathy maybe, but people end up getting sick or injured all the time.  You wish them a speedy recovery, but that's usually about it.

No, this time it affected me -- not surprisingly, when someone's in the hospital indefinitely, co-workers are going to have to step in to cover for that person.  However, we were at a point in our production schedule where the bulk of the editing for the November articles should be done.  Our desktop publishing guy starts layout in InDesign any day now, so at this point every article should be close to the final step in the process. We split what was in our colleague's queue so we could take care of what we all thought would be the final bits to get the articles into production. 

Except it was not the final bits.  Of the 7 or so articles assigned to this copyeditor, none, zero, zip, nada had even gone to the author as page proofs (we send page proofs to the authors for corrections and last minute revisions; we send galleys after layout for a final proofreading before it goes to the printer so they've got two shots at fixing stuff we screw up).  So we kind of do a collective, WTF?! -- a week until deadline and nothing's gone to an author yet? -- sigh, and move on -- and then we start discovering our colleague hadn't placed the graphics into the production review folder.  The manuscripts had references to figures in text, but there were no figures filed where they should have been.   That's when the collective pissing and moaning turned intense. 

We actually have a clearly defined procedure to handling the graphics that accompany an accepted paper:  as soon as we get the downloaded manuscript, we're supposed to move any and all figures into a folder on the share drive so our graphics expert can check them ASAP.  That way if authors submit figures where the resolution is too low, the dimensions are too small, or there are other problems we can kick the figures back to the authors for repair work fast.  More collective pissing and moaning, with probably the lowest volume coming from the graphics expert -- she was actually seeing things a few days early instead of having to go hunting for them at the last minute. 

Bottom line -- I got stuck trying to do a fast edit on several papers that very clearly had not seen the hand of an editor at all yet, despite the colleague reassuring me on the phone that they were all "just about ready to go for a second edit."  Just for the sheer hell of it, I did a line by line comparison of the one that had been in the colleague's share drive folder and the original as submitted, and the only apparent change was the one on the share drive had been run through the software we use for styles -- where I come from, formatting doesn't count as editing. 

And, as I've been doing this clean-up work, I once again found myself thinking I'm so happy I'm not a supervisor -- because if there was ever someone who deserved to have a paper trail built, a less than successful performance review declared, a P.I.P. implemented, and (eventually) a nudge out the door for sheer incompetence delivered, it's probably this colleague, a woman who is extremely likable on a purely social level but is obviously working at a job that she is totally unsuited for. 

The real kicker, of course, is that when I chatted with her on the phone yesterday she was annoyed as hell that our team lead had actually assigned those articles to other editors -- because even though she has no clue when she's getting out of the hospital, and even though she was no where close to having any of them done, she's totally convinced she would have wrapped them all up in time to get everything into production by Wednesday.   

It's an absolutely classic example of most people being incapable of assessing their own strengths and weaknesses with any degree of accuracy.  The least competent workers are always completely convinced they're doing a stellar job, and my colleague is no exception. 

It's also a good example of finding out stuff I really wish I didn't know.  It's always so much easier to commiserate with co-workers when you can halfway believe their bitching. 

Best line in a political ad I've heard this election season

Nathan Deal . . . too corrupt even for Congress.

Mr. Deal, a  Republican, resigned from Congress about mid-way through the term in an attempt to cut off an ethics investigation into his creative use of campaign funds while using the excuse that he wanted to focus on his campaign for governor here in Georgia.  (He was partially successful; the Ethics Committee dropped the investigation, but then a federal grand jury started digging.)  He does have a good shot at winning the general election here -- his campaign ads spend a lot of time ranting about the evils of illegal immigration and you can't go wrong in Georgia by hating on the Mexicans -- but you never know.  Roy Barnes has jumped on the immigrant-bashing wagon, too, so mojados may turn out to be a nonissue.  The ads bashing Deal keep hammering away at the idea that Deal may be too busy meeting with lawyers and avoiding prison to focus on governing Georgia.  The attack ads against Barnes describe him as being even more arrogant and socialist than Obama.  Regardless of affiliation, they all have really creepy narration -- the voice-over is so unpleasant that I don't know why either candidate would think the ads will inspire listeners to do anything other than hit the Mute button fast.

Deal's support is strongest out in the hinterlands, Barnes is strong in the cities.  It's the typical Republican-Democrat split.  Barnes was governor once before, so how well he does may depend on whether or not voters, regardless of party registration, remember his administration as having done a decent job.  Not having been a resident of Georgia back then, I have no clue if he was better than Sonny Perdue -- I just figure there's no way he could have been worse.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Pulitzer Project: The Store

This turned out to be another one that I flat out could not finish.  Call me shallow as a reader, but I have a hard time sustaining interest in novels when the primary feeling the main characters inspire is disgust.  I really find it hard to believe this book beat out Mutiny on the Bounty for the Pulitzer prize for best novel in 1933.

Thomas S. Stribling's The Store is the middle part of a trilogy set in northern Alabama, the city of Florence and the rural area around it.  The trilogy follows the fortunes of the Vaiden family, with the first book set during the decade of the Civil War, the second about 20 years later right around the time Grover Cleveland was running for president, and the third is apparently set in the early twentieth century.  Stribling was from Alabama and knew the Florence area well.  His characterizations do feel real.

Stribling is also a decent writer.  Other than his extensive use of dialect, especially when his black characters are speaking, the book flows well.  It would be easy reading if it wasn't so incredibly depressing. 

And why is it depressing?  Well, for a start, a big chunk of the novel is taken up with the white characters pissing and moaning about the fact that the (and I will use the term repeated over and over and over in the novel) niggers no longer know their place.  It's been almost 20 years since the Confederates lost the damn war but they're still not willing to concede times have changed -- they all want to go back to the glory days of slavery. 

Although, come to think of it, that doesn't sound a whole lot different than some of the stuff we've been hearing at Tea Party rallies, does it?  Some things apparently never change.

Then when you realize that as you're getting to know the characters that every single one of them is either doomed (usually through his or her own stupidity and/or greed) or remarkably sleazy, turning the pages becomes harder and harder.  Col. Vaiden figures out his old nemesis, the general store owner, Handback, has a secret that would get him drummed out of the Methodist church if it came out -- Handback is keeping a black mistress, Gracie, a quadroon.  Gracie in turn has a son who is 7/8s white and could "pass" if he lived almost anywhere else in the country; unfortunately, in Florence he's known as "that white nigger," because everyone knows who his mother is, and he suffers even more abuse than blacks who are visibly black because he has the gall to look white.  Gracie fantasizes about leaving Florence, going north and telling people she's Mexican, because she knows both she and Touissant (her son) would be better off someplace else.  She never does, at least not when it would have made a difference, and that's typical of many of the characters -- the likable ones can see a way out, but don't take it; the despicable ones continue being despicable.  (Vaiden also has a history with Gracie, but it's one he never thinks about -- back before the war, he was jilted by his fiancee.  His response to being jilted was to go out to the stables and rape Gracie, who at that time belonged to his family.) 

Col. Vaiden uses the knowledge of the black mistress to blackmail Handback into giving him a clerk's position at the store.  Socially, it's a come-down for Vaiden (he's a war hero, famous locally for his actions at Shiloh, and his family used to have money), but he does need the salary.  It doesn't take him long to figure out that a good deal of Handback's financial success is due to his shady business methods and willingness to screw over the customers who can't complain:  he always short-weights purchases by black customers, for example, giving them 12 ounces of bacon while making them pay for a full pound.  He owns a number of tenant farms, and he cheats his sharecropping tenants, too:  on top of taking the normal share, he charges extra, more than the going rate, for ginning the cotton and having it shipped. 

Thus, when Col. Vaiden sees an opportunity to rip off Handback, he doesn't hesitate. He ships 500 bales of cotton to New Orleans.  Through sheer coincidence, the river floods right after the cotton is shipped.  Handback thinks it's been washed away by the floodwaters, and despairs -- it's an enormous financial blow to lose the cotton, one from which he might not be able to recover.  Col. Vaiden immediately realizes that if Handback thinks the cotton is lost, it's a chance for Vaiden to pocket the entire proceeds of the sale. 

And that's the point at which I gave up.  Handback was off somewhere having hysterics (and for all I know blowing his brains out), and Col. Vaiden was gloating over the $48,000 bank draft he had just received.  He was beginning to feel twinges of paranoia because he's realized the black crew of the tug that took the barge of cotton down to New Orleans might talk, and Handback will figure out the truth.  He's also realizing he can't go waltzing into his local bank with the check, because for sure the tellers will say something.  He's got to cash the draft fast before Handback can notify the authorities in New Orleans to put a hold on it, but he's agonizing over where and how.

It struck me then that I really didn't care.  I didn't care if Col. Vaiden got away with his scheme, I didn't care if his overweight wife lived or died (based on reviews I read before I started the book, she apparently dies; one of the subplots involves her apparent late life pregnancy, so maybe she shuffled off this mortal coil in childbirth) (one of the more repellent aspects of the book is Stribling's descriptions of poor fat Ponny), I didn't care if Handback kept right on banging Gracie and then going off to church to complain about the niggers and bitch about the Republicans like every other white man in Florence, I didn't care if the white postmaster died of loneliness because he was the only white Republican in town and thus a social pariah. 

The good news about this book?  I checked it out from the library, so the only thing it cost me was my time.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Boys, toys, and railroads

There have been very few times in my life when I've envied other people their hobbies, but a day in August 1998 was one of them.  A question Lisa asked about the railroad tracks that cut through the Retirement Bunker acreage when I did the Rewilding post inspired me to go looking for these photos:

Lisa asked if there are still trains.  The answer is yes, but not every day -- and the fact trains weren't running run daily 12 years ago made it possible for Wisconsin Central to accomodate this group:  coming up the tracks from the direction of beautiful downtown Herman, Michigan, is a parade.

Motor cars.  Railroad motor cars lovingly restored and maintained by people who love one particular aspect of railroad history.  What an amazing hobby. 
And what a great way to spend a summer day in the Upper Peninsula, cruising along the (at that time) Wisconsin Central tracks.  I'm not sure just how many miles they were allowed to use that day, but they started over towards Marquette, drove to Baraga, and then drove back again.  Photo below is the back end of the parade as they head up the grade to Summit.  It's a 10 mile continuous uphill grade with a number of long stretches at 3%, which makes it, for a railroad, quite a hill.  It's one reason trains always go through our place really, really slowly, regardless of direction. 
All the cars were two-man, the type used by track inspectors, not section crews, the same general type my father used for many years as part of his job.  I did not, however, see any cars with Chicago & Northwestern decals in the parade. 

I'm not sure just when the railroads stopped using specialized motor cars and switched to pick-up trucks modified for use on either pavement or rail.  The Old Man retired around 1983, and was using a truck the last year or so that he worked.  From the viewpoint of the workers, the trucks were a huge improvement.  (Among other things, it's a heck of a lot warmer in a pickup in January than it is in an unheated motor car with canvas sides.)

Below is a early '50s photo of the same stretch of track shown above right about at the point where that last motor car is:

The fact they lost it right over the creek makes me wonder if an old wood culvert caved in.  Whatever happened, the passengers on that train were definitely going to be a little late getting to Houghton.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Cognitive dissonance

I haven't posted much about politics lately because the level of magical thinking, scapegoating, and nonsensical sound bites tends to give me a headache if I pay too much attention to it.  It also does not help that way too many politicians are becoming contortionists in their efforts to pander to an extremely small segment of the populace.  Here in Georgia, for example, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Barnes decided to leap on the anti-immigrant bandwagon.  It's really hard to work up much enthusiasm to vote for someone who's decided a good electoral strategy would be to join the "I hate Mexicans just as much as all you other redneck Georgians" chorus.  (I am keeping my fingers crossed that John Lewis doesn't manage to say or do anything wince-worthy between now and November -- I'd like there to be at least one candidate on the ballot I can vote for without feeling vaguely nauseous in the process.)

The bizarre part with all the anti-immigrant hype is that while everyone is busy bashing the federal government for not doing anything about illegal immigration, the data show that the Obama administration has done more in less than 2 years than Bush did in 8 to slow the flow.  Part of it is the economy, of course, but another big chunk is increased enforcement:  more raids on large employers, more deportations, an increased Border Patrol presence.  A lot of the enforcement makes me pretty queasy -- the assembly line token hearings, the well-documented abuses and mistakes by ICE (a fair number of US-born citizens, in some cases persons who didn't even have a Latino appearance, accent, or name, have found themselves swept up by ICE and stuck on a plane or bus to Mexico) -- but nonetheless the numbers don't lie.  There are fewer "illegals" in the U.S. now than there were two years ago. 

Of course, the whole anti-immigrant hysteria is loaded with contradictions.  Undocumented immigrants are simultaneously stealing jobs and sucking off the welfare teat; coming here and staying for years and years and years and just dashing across the border just long enough to drop an anchor baby that will return many years later as a terrorist; and so on.  When it comes to immigration, way too many people seem totally capable of believing two directly contradictory things at the same time without ever seeing the contradictions.  I'm moderately surprised we don't see more people's heads literally exploding.

On the other hand, I have to wonder just how many people still bother to actually think. There have been a number of articles recently about the general stupidity of the American populace -- the dumb things people believe, the apparent inability to look at anything logically, the demands for instant answers and magical solutions, and so on.  I got accused of elitism recently (and unfriended on FaceBook) when a long-time acquaintance, someone I'd know since elementary school, got all worked up about the mosque mess in New York City.  I asked a simple question:  why do you care?  He couldn't answer it, and accused me of calling him stupid.  As far as I could tell, the only thing I'd done was ask him to think.  We've all gotten so used to thinking in sound bites that when someone asks a person to justify whatever line it is they're parroting, most people can't do it.  (And when they realize they can't do it, they get really, really pissed off at the person who asked them to try.)    

I've seen a few discussions on the topic of American gullibility and willingness to swallow sound bites as gospel that place the blame on the current sad state of the educational system.  But that's an example of a contradiction in itself:  if the public school system used to be good but sucks now, how do you explain the geriatric Glenn Beck cheerleaders, the folks who can remember Franklin Roosevelt but are now chanting "no socialism!" while cashing their Social Security checks and using Medicare?

No, I'm coming to the conclusion that the answer to our collective stupidity lies in our collective history:  the generations of immigrants who came to the United States looking to get rich quick, seeking fast, easy answers to their problems, going back all the way to Jamestown (colonists wanting to make a fast buck by ripping off trading with the natives and/or growing tobacco) and the Mayflower (half the folks on that boat were interested in business opportunities, not religious freedom).  We're the product of evolution, generations descended from the gullible, the naive, and the greedy.  I've seen the advertising the steamship companies and railroads distributed in 19th century Europe:  they may not have shown streets paved with gold, but they came close.

The sad truth is that we Americans have never been noted for our ability to think clearly about much of anything -- "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people" (H. L. Mencken) -- and we're not likely to change any time soon.