Reading

While I was working on my Undergraduate Degree – so many years ago, now – I got involved with a program intended to help promote literacy.  It was called Time-to-Read – it’s a program sponsored by the Time Warner company.  So, twice a week I woke up at 7:30 in the morning – earlier than any self-respecting undergrad ever gets up – and hopped on my bike to ride a couple of miles out from the campus to an elementary school on the underprivileged side of town.

There, I worked with a couple of students – a different pair on each of the two days I went – using the Time-to-Read readers – little pamphlets with kid-friendly news stories and word games – to give the kids a little time to practice their reading in a more private, personal setting, for about a half an hour outside of normal class.

It was a humbling experience.

And it put my own experience and history into perspective.  We were never wealthy, growing up.  Our family clung tenaciously to the underside of the Middle Class, trying to climb up during the good times, but never letting go during the tough ones.  Through all my years in public schools, I don’t recall a one where we didn’t qualify for Free or Reduced Lunches.  But there were two advantages we had that so many others lacked that made us children of privilege: a mother with an unwavering devotion to the quality of her children’s education, and books.

During our primary school years, my Mom never failed to take an opportunity to be a part of our education.  She volunteered at school.  She helped with and checked our homework.  She and my father went to every Parent-Teacher night.  During the summer, she had us read and practice math, reading, and writing from a set of educational books they’d bought for us.  We thought it was pretty draconian to make us do homework during the Summer, but in retrospect I have to thank my mother for that.  It set me up not only for a lifetime of learning, but a lifetime of over-achieving in my education.

But I’m especially grateful for the books.  No, not those education books we had to read out of over the summers.  I mean the novels.  Several dozens of them, maybe hundreds in all.  I never took a full count.  Even if you count out all the romance novels on my mom’s shelves, there were more than enough books to fill my childhood with fantasy, science fiction, and adventure.  And I’m thankful for my parents’ examples.  My parents read.  My dad less so as the years went by, for lack of free time, but by then there were so many books that it didn’t matter.

I always credit Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles with starting my love affair with Fantasy (I’ve blogged about that before), but that’s most probably because those books were the most accessible to me at a young age.  There had always been fantasy and science fiction books in my family’s house.  (I think it’s a genetic thing.  I have an uncle who collects statues of dragons.)

My history with books, and with reading, and with education all were starkly different than that of the kids I was working with on Time-to-Read.  Where my family clung to the underbelly of the Middle Class, the families of these kids reached for it in vain.  Where I was a white boy in a white-dominated society, these kids were not.  Where I had loved to read from a very young age, these kids struggled with it.  By the end of the year, I felt like my efforts had been for naught.  Their reading skills seemed no better by the end of the year than they had at the start.  I felt like a failure.

I didn’t participate in the Time-to-Read program a second year.  Partly, I was dismayed by my apparent failure to have a positive impact on these kids’ lives.  Partly, I was profoundly uncomfortable being confronted with the stark truth of the twin liabilities of race and class: of being the “wrong” race or of the “wrong” class.  I thought I understood what it was to be poor, but I began to suspect that I did not really understand it at all.  Today, I wish I could go back, and find some way, any way, to help those kids improve their reading skills.  What a difference that could have made, if I’d done a better job?

I was reading in Parenting magazine recently (which my wife and I now subscribe to) that reading skills are perhaps the single most important indicator of future success.  Literacy changes everything.  It really isn’t hyperbole.  Reading has made me who I am.  I love to write because I love to read.  And now that I write a blog, it’s hard to express just how much I appreciate my readers. 

Reading will continue to be important – in my life, and in the life of my children.  I already spend time reading to my B.T., my as-yet-unborn child.  Not every night, unfortunately, yet.  It’s a habit I need to get into.  But every few nights, we pick one of the children’s books we’ve begun collecting off the shelf and I read to him.  As time goes on, I hope to make reading to my children at night, before going to bed, a regular part of the evening ritual.  Because it matters.

Perhaps that’s a long, rambling post.  But it’s something I’ve been thinking about, lately.  I hope you’ll promote literacy in whatever neck of the woods you find yourself. 

Happy reading.

User Error

So, a user-generated error (i.e. I goofed) caused tomorrow’s post to be published along with today’s.  I unposted it, and it will appear again tomorrow morning.  It’s the article on Reading, for those of you who already saw a link to it via Facebook or Twitter.  I don’t know if the Facebook or Twitter will re-update when it reposts tomorrow.  We’ll see.

In the mean time, I apologize for my goof.  Not that there’s anything wrong with reading tomorrow’s post today, but if I left it up today, there’d be nothing to read tomorrow!

Spring in My Step

I’ve been contemplating this little short bit of prose for the past week or so, and thought I’d go ahead and share it.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever goes back and checks on the Groundhog, to check whether his famous forecasts are really all that accurate.  I often think about this in March, when it’s been six weeks or more since the coddled marmot’s eponymous day.  Sometimes my thoughts go in unusual places.  How many people give the groundhog a second thought this far out from February 2nd?

I most recently thought about the groundhog in mid-March.  We had a few uncharacteristically cold mornings that had followed a warm and sunny weekend.  As I was on the way to stop by the pet food store to pick up a refill on Shasta’s favorite meal before making the long trek to work, I noticed the tiny white flecks that swirled in the air and pelted my windshield light the lightest, coldest of rains.  Snow flurries in March!  Not the first time I’ve seen that, but in my part of the country, it still seems a bit out of the ordinary.

It was the last gasp of a dying winter.  The days were warming.  Over the past week, I’ve watched and wondered as the world around me sprouted, like clockwork.  Walking Shasta to the dog park under trees that look like nothing so much as pink and purple and white puffy clouds, so covered in tiny flowers they were.  It’s the same everywhere you turn.  I live in a long-established neighborhood in a small craftsman-style bungalow.  Trees line the sidewalks.  Here and there are small parks with bigger, older trees, but most of the trees on the walks are younger, and their exuberant flowering is the surest sign of their youthful optimism.

They’re full of life.  Full of hope for the future.  Hope for a warm, wet, rainy summer and long days of sunshine and thick green leaves.  It’s hard not to get caught up in the wild longing for Spring and new beginnings, in those moments out about the neighborhood with Shasta and with Dear Wife.  There’s no reason not to get caught up.  There are problems and challenges for another day, but in that moment, with Spring blooming from every bud, there is no need for problems and unhappiness.  There is only need for laughter and singing.

I’ve been lucky so far.  My allergies haven’t really been acting up this year.  They’ve been waning in the past few years, growing dimmer.  Sometimes my eyes still itch and water (especially in Fall, when the pines paint the world in yellow pollen), but the sneezing and wheezing and stuffiness feel like a thing of the past.  I have my theories why.

In these moments, I wonder.  How would I describe this?  I would I write about the Spring?  What would my characters say, or think, or feel when they see the world coming back to life with soft pastels and pale greens?  What does it mean, in the context of their stories, and their challenges, and their adventures?  Or is their no Spring where the live?

I don’t know.  But when it’s this nice outside, I don’t need to know.  At least, not until it rains, or I feel the longing to sit down and write building up inside me again.

Happy writing.

A Short Note On Modeling Class

Decision Modeling, that is, not that other kind of modeling (I don’t have the appropriate assets for that other kind of modeling).  Class last week had a very interesting lesson embedded in it, and we’ll be learning more this week about that, I think.  It’s was about weighted averages, and the hidden logical fallacy buried within them.  It’s this: when we apply a “weight” to a weighted average in which we are assigning relative importance to various attributes of a decision we are trying to measure, we are implicitly assigning a constant exchange rate between the various attributes.  The weight basically means this: I would trade this much of attribute X in order to gain this much of attribute Y.

Most people, the professor contended, don’t think that deeply about what the weights they are using mean.  Further, he suggested, most of us don’t really have a constant trade-off that we’re willing to make.  The more we have of something, often, the more of it we’re willing to trade to get something we have less of.  As the relative difference between the two diminishes, so to does the amount we’re willing to trade.  Weighted averages don’t take this fact into consideration.  Whether there’s an answer to this problem-solving conundrum, I don’t yet know.

For this week, there’s a chance I may be late or non-existant with a few of the normal daily updates.  I haven’t missed a day in over two months, but there are a number of deadlines and other higher-priority tasks hitting this week that will require my more immediate attention than this blog.  So, if I miss a day or two this week, my sincerest apologies, in advance.  It is only because it is unavoidable, if so.

Writing Quote: There’s Nothing to Writing

I somewhat borrowed the title of Friday’s post from this quote, which I’d seen several times in my never-ending quest to find suitable writing quotes to share here, but never before shared.

There’s nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. 

~Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith

I hadn’t shared this quote because, frankly, it’s a bit macabre.  I almost didn’t use that title and, in choosing to remain with that title, I almost wrote a postscript explaining my feelings about using this gruesome imagery as a metaphor for writing.

Ultimately, I decided to use it because I couldn’t think of anything better to express what I meant.  The imagery is a bit gruesome, and puts me in mind of someone who is psychologically compelled to cut himself as a means of self-expression or to gain attention – and that’s not a comfortable thing to be thinking about, by any means.  But as a metaphor, it’s frighteningly apt: when we write, we open up the inner workings of our hearts and minds for the readers to see, unfolding it on the page.  The result of pouring out our hearts is visible for all who look to see it.  Sometimes the process is painful, but still we feel compelled to do it, either because this is how we define ourselves, or because we have an overriding desire to be acknowledged and understood by others. 

When I was writing earlier this week, one thought struck me as interesting.  I talk about all of this stuff with Dear Wife.  But sometimes those conversations go in a strange way.  Dear Wife often already knows what my opinions are, on any given subject.  We may have talked about it before, or it may simply be obvious to her because of how well she knows me.  Often, she doesn’t want to hear more, because she already agrees with me, and whatever I might say would simply be extraneous to her.  And maybe my thoughts and ideas aren’t sparklingly original.  Of course I love her, and the fact that we agree on such a wide range of topics and issues is a credit to our marriage, I believe.  But in such cases, I still want to express myself.  I still need to express myself.  And anyway, I do it better in writing than I do in spoken word.

Which, I suppose, is why I’m here, writing.

All that said: I’d rather be writing science fiction & fantasy stories.

More Magical Mayhem, etc.

As promised, Friday should have seen some new material on the Magical Lexicon go live (assuming I had the opportunity to update the pages).  I thought I’d share a little about the process for creating and updating the Magical Lexicon.  First, I thought I’d point out that the “Magical Lexicon” tab that you see in the tabs across the top only points to a sort of “portal” page for the lexicon.  It describes the project, in general, and tells how to read the various entries on the lexicon.  Because the Lexicon is already huge and will only grow even more huge as time goes on, I had to divide the entries up alphabetically.  You’ll find links to each of the alphabetic pages in the lexicon in the sidebar to the right (and links to each page on the Magical Lexicon tab above).

So, the process: the lexicon exists primarily as an Excel file.  The reasons for this are manifold: even though Excel is not the ideal format for text (most of which the lexicon is), it does have the advantage of being more easily and readily sortable across several columns.  So, I can alphabetize it by each word, or sort it by each of the various classifications.  Excel also allows me to do some nifty things that automatically sort different alphabetic bits onto different tabs.  So, for instance, there is one main tab that has all the terms on it, and then a tab for terms starting in A through C only – sorted automagically! – and so on.

So, to get this into WordPress for posting, I have to copy from the relevant alphabetized tabs first into a Word document.  I found this to be necessary because copying directly into WordPress caused some funky things to happen.  Then I copy into WordPress, and I have to verify that everything lines up properly and it doesn’t break WordPress’s column and line-wrapping.  Then, because each of these pages already exists, I’ll have to do this all on the day-of, on which I want to post it (unlike normal posts, in which I set a future publication date, I don’t want to take down these pages that have already been published by resetting their publication date to the future again).

The process of finding definitions and new terms consists mostly of Googling, looking up words in online dictionaries, on Wikipedia, and in any other relevant resources.  Sometimes (like this time) I’ll find the information I uncover gives me a host of new words to add and define.  I’m not interested so much in being completely comprehensive – this is a lexicon, not an encyclopaedia – but I do want to be thorough enough that a visitor to this site could learn enough about the mythology and folklore of the magical that they could come away informed and equipped to do more thorough and deep research.

So, this week we have brand-new terms added, new definitions for words already in the list, and updated definitions for words that were already defined.  These include:

Aeromancy, Alomancy, Allomancy, Auspex, Auspices, Austromancy, Bibliomancy, Cartomancy, Casting Lots, Ceraunoscopy, Cheiromancy, Cleromancy, Devil, Dowsing, Extispicy, Faustian, Geomancy, Haruspices, Haruspicy, I Ching, Lithomancy, -Mancy, -Mancer, Nephomancy, Numerology, Oneiromancy, Palmistry, Pyromancy, Rhabdomancy, Scry, Scrying, Sortilege, Taromancy, and Tasseomancy (along with definitions for all those in the A through C range).

Updated definitions include Augury and Cantrip.

New definitions include Dark, Demon, Demoniac, Devil, Devilry, Diabolic, Diabolism, Diabolist, Divination, Divine, and Divine Magic (obviously I’m working on the D’s; all the new -mancy words, for instance, came about when I started working on the definition for Divination).

So, as before, take a look, as it interests you, offer suggestions to update or improve existing definitions, or new terms you’d like to see added.

Happy Writing.

Opening a Vein

I got to thinking this week about what it means to write a blog, and what it means to be a writer.  I’ve been sharing some fairly personal things recently, and honestly, that’s a hard thing to do.  I worry about what people will think about what I write, and about what I think.  Especially when I write something that’s very personal or potentially polarizing.

With the advent of blogging, Facebook, Microblogging, and Twitter, the world of “writing” and sharing has definitely changed.  With each new wave, the process of writing has become more personal, more intimate, and more widespread.  Now, anyone can be a writer, and they can write about anything.  But few people stop to consider where to draw the line, or even whether there should be a line.  With something like Facebook, we post personal details and share photos and we take no care to what we put up there because everyone on our Facebook is a “friend”.  All of my posts to this blog are automatically mirrored on Facebook, for instance, with links back here.  But let’s be honest: I don’t actually know everyone on my Facebook, and I only have somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-ish “friends”.  From what I’ve seen, that’s a lite-weight number of Facebook friends compared to peers in my age-cohort.

My generation came of age in tandem with this technology.  We’re not quite Gen-Xers and we’re not quite Gen-Yers.  We remember a time when this technology didn’t exist in the same way that we remember a time when we used to watch Saturday Morning Cartoons (okay, I would still watch Saturday Morning Cartoons if I could, but that’s beside the point).  And we tend to fall into two camps (the same as every other generation): those who are Extroverts, and use these tools as extroverts would, and those who are Introverts, and who use these tools with a combined sense of curiosity and apprehension.  Me, I’m an Introvert who’s learned and developed many but not all of the skills that come naturally to an extrovert, allowing me to act like an extrovert in certain controlled situations.

But, as an Introvert, I think a lot about how I present myself and how I appear to others.  I wonder and worry furiously about whether people will appreciate me for who I am, and respect my opinions and ideas.  I think about it at an almost analytical level.  All humans – even introverts – have a fundamental, genetically-coded need to feel acceptance and validation from others.  It’s inescapable, it’s part of who we are.  As a writer – by which I mean, not someone who writes, but someone who writes as a fundamental and inseparable expression of self-identification – that also means I take it to another level.  Not only do I think a lot about what someone thinks about me, I am deeply concerned by what someone thinks about what I write.  For an introverted writer like me, what I write becomes an extension of myself, the words on the page (or the screen, as the case may be) an extension of my thoughts and of my mind.  Because I am a writer by self-identification, I find that I must write, and I must write in a way that is true to myself.  And I want people to read it.  And to like it, or agree with me.

On the other hand, I realize that if I want to make a career of writing some day – even if just a side career – that how successful I can become depends largely on how many people will regularly read (and like) what I write.  Still, I know that not everyone will always agree with me.  So, I think about how to hedge my bets, to ensure I can be true to myself, and still maintain the maximum amount of likeability in what I write, so that I can build the largest possible audience.

Case in point: the issues of politics and religion.  Both are intensely powerful personal forces in my life, in the sense that I have very strong opinions about both.  People, in general, tend to have strong opinions about both.  And, as another general rule, they won’t typically agree with mine.  When I set out on this path, therefore, I promised myself I wouldn’t write about either of these topics.  I wanted to build an audience.  I wanted people to like what I write (and by extension to like me enough that they’ll continue reading what I write).  Avoiding these topics, I reasoned, was necessary to insulate myself from extraneous criticism and inflammatory comments (criticism that directly concerns the quality of my writing is a different issue; I readily accept and even seek such criticism as that).  It was also a thin veil to help protect my privacy, just a little.  But not writing about these issues, particularly when I have strong, passionate views on them, was also a little false with myself. 

Clearly, I don’t have the answers to these insoluble questions.  Ultimately, I chose to separate my thoughts, and to start a second blog where I could discuss politics (but still not religion).  But then, this week, I broke both rules in discussing both politics and religion and then linking to it from here.  In part, I did so because I wanted to be able to answer to a “discussion” I had inserted myself into on Facebook (having already set up my blog with that cool, behind-the-scenes technologification that posts everything I write to Facebook).  I did that, again, because of those strong opinions I mentioned before.  But also, because a part of me wanted to share that bit of myself, even at the risk of a negative reaction from my readers.

These are issues I’m still struggling with.  Today, they don’t matter so much.  I’m a small-time blogger averaging less than a hundred hits a week who’s only been blogging online for a paltry few months.  But what effect, if any, will it have on my long-term career development?  I mean, both in the business world, and in the writing world?  It’s not easy to answer these questions.  Mine is the first generation that’s really had to grapple with these particular questions.  Norms and customs around these issues are still in their formative stages, even a decade-and-a-half later.  It’s a question we’ll answer, in time.

Happy writing.

Standard Operating Procedure

This week in my project management class, my project team had to present the “pro” side of a debate on the question of the value of companies setting standard policies and procedures for all projects.  And by “pro” side, I mean, we were arguing for the statement that “establishing standard policies and procedures for all projects across the company is a waste of time and money”.

The debate was initially a challenge for me, personally.  I came into it with a background in a company where the problem was a complete lack of standards and policies, with regards to projects.  With that experience, it would have been easier to argue for why standards are necessary.  However, part of the stated point of these debates, according to the professor, is to learn multiple sides on these issues so that we can be more effective project managers.  So getting assigned to argue the stance opposite to my initial mindset had the potential to be instructive in that regard.

In th end, I think our group made a moderately persuasive case for our side of the debate.  I think our presentation was weak in a few areas, but our case was really a simple one.  My part of the debate centered on the unnecessary “bureaucracy” that builds up around standard procedures.  You know the drill: pointless reams of paperwork that take up all your time and prevent you from focusing your energy on the task at hand.  They cost the company money, delay a project’s completion, and increase the risk of project failure.  At least, that was our assertion – and we did have some evidence to support it.

Naturally, there’s also evidence that without standard policies, projects suffer from scope creep, grow wildly out of control, balloon in costs and are never completed.  Unfortunately, the opposing team didn’t really spend time in their presentation talking about those points, or they’d have had a far more persuasive argument. We won’t be able to see the results until next week, but I have a strong feeling our team at least nominally “won” the debate.  It didn’t help that one member of the opposing team was a former member of the U.S. Army, and spent the majority of his speaking time singing accolades to the U.S. Military.  Now, I’m an “Air Force Brat”, as they say, and justifiably proud of the tradition of service in my family (even though I chose not to follow that route), and of the relative merits of our military.  But from a project management perspective, this guy spent entirely too much time waxing ecstatic and relatively little time dissecting the relative strengths and weaknesses of the military’s fabled discipline and how this applies to the topic at hand.  And for an audience of MBAs – most of whom have relatively little background or interest in the military – there were better examples.  It also didn’t help the opposing teams argument that at least one of their team members admitted during his part of their presentation to the need for flexibility in policies and procedures – which was central to our argument.

Our argument wasn’t against the need for policies and procedures, but against the need for standard policies and procedures that are universally applied across a company regardless of project type.  And we fairly well demonstrated that a marketing campaign project, and a technical R&D project, and a resource-intensive logistical project are all very different, and need different and flexible policies and procedures to govern their execution.  And in that way, we defined the nature of the debate and essentially owned it.

Looking back, then, I think I actually did learn something from this excercise.  I went into it very unenthusiastically because I thought my experience had already taught me the need for standard policies.  But it’s not the lack of standard policies and procedures that hurts projects in the company where I work.  It’s the lack of any policies and procedures.

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Me, My Religion, and Healthcare

I promised myself – and you, dear readers – that I would not address my political beliefs in this blog.  Still, the passage of the Healthcare bill recently is too momentous not to comment on.  That said, there is a way around my self-imposed prohibition: a separate blog.

So, if you find yourself curious about me, my religious beliefs, or my stance on Healthcare Reform, I invite you to follow this link (Note: the link has been removed for privacy reasons.  If you’re interested in reading my thoughts on this topic, leave a comment on this post and I can pass you the link personally, but for now I’ve decided to keep this generally a little more private going forward.).  It is a deeply personal (and lengthy) essay on the topic that addresses several points that will be of most interest to those who share my religion but not my politics.  This may be the last and only time I ever link my other blog here.  Regardless of your political persuasion, I hope you’ll stick with me on my writing and living journey.

A caveat: if you do follow that link, I ask you to read only the post in the link, for now.  I started this separate blog as a place for me to express my political opinions without fear of reprisal.  That being the case, I occassionally paint with a very broad, and potentially offensive brush, depending which side of the aisle, if any, you ascribe to.  I expain my reasoning for shifting course on that and creating this post there, but posts on that blog prior to today’s don’t adhere to my personal standard of professional and courteous writing.  Ergo: caveat emptor.