For He is the Kwisatz Haderach

Twice I’ve tried to write a blog article about Steve Jobs.  I was trying to artfully connect an appreciation for his legitimate business and technological contributions to my disdain for how he (and Apple) are objects of veneration.  I just couldn’t find the right tone for it.

Actually, the article didn’t start out to be about Steve Jobs.  It was going to be about Edward Tufte.

Quick show of hands: who knows who Edward Tufte is?  I see you, you there with your hand straight up, doing the Horshack “ooh, ooh, ooh!” thing.  You must have gone to one of his seminars.

Edward Tufte is widely considered (among those who consider such things) as the godfather of data visualization.  His magnum opus is “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, which he self-published in 1982.  He advocated a number of principles in how to display information, with the primary one being the presentation information that works at multiple levels all in one display.  A classic chart that he presents as an example (and has distributed at his seminars) is the Carte Figurative (1869), which shows the size of Napoleon’s army on its ill-fated expedition to Moscow in 1812, and then on its ignominious retreat.  The army’s size is shown in line thickness, its progress against distance and landmarks (usually rivers).  The part that really jazzes Tufte is that it’s mapped against the temperature, to show how that worked against Napoleon.

So what does Tufte have to do with Steve Jobs?

Well, when people listen to Tufte, they become converts to the religion of rich data visualization.  They put the Napoleon map on their cube walls and try to apply Tufte’s lessons on mundane data that doesn’t have the six dimensions of the Carte Figurative.

Same thing with Steve Jobs.  Sure, he co-founded Apple, invented the Mac (with interface ideas liberally lifted from Xerox PARC), founded NeXT Computer, launched Pixar, and resuscitated Apple upon his return.  He also impressed people with his monochromatic wardrobe, his pseudo-spiritualism, and his magnetic public speaking.  He managed to convince millions of people that not only are Apple products great, they speak to how different and creative and special you are.  You, and the millions of other people who bought an Apple computer or an iPhone.  You’re all different and special.  He represented perfection in brand creation.

What makes people want to dress like him, though?  Or imitate his speech or physical mannerisms?  He’s got a pretty remarkable resume, but why the idolization?

I think it’s because Jobs was so comprehensively successful.  He not only visualized the products, he could get a team to work to the same vision.  Then he could speak to it and sell it.  What’s more, he was seen as being deeper.  He wasn’t just a tech geek inventing a cool box.  He himself believed that he was changing the world.  That sort of confidence (and arrogance) can be pretty impressive.  A lot of people would like to emulate that.  They won’t all be in the right place at the right time (Apple, 1981) or have the money to revolutionize movie animation.  So they dress in black mock turtlenecks and buy Apple products.

Jobs was hardly the first in this mold.  I’d say there are some strong parallels to Thomas Edison.  There’s the engagement in multiple fields (electricity and light bulbs as well as movies, for example).  But largely there’s the establishment as an icon of American innovation and technology-is-cool.  How many early 20th century engineers do you think got their start by reading about Edison and wanting to imitate him?  I even had a classmate in college who was a great admirer of Edison.

Personally, I was always more impressed with Tesla than Edison, and preferred Gates over Jobs, but these men were icons in their own right.  The common thread of them all was that they not only pushed their field as far as they could, but they served to inspire the rest of us.  No matter what operating system we use.


Writing Out of the Box

I’ve written plenty of novels, novellas, and short stories.  I’ve got a hard drive full of them.  While those forms have their own conventions and structure, they’re pretty similar.  In fact, to even a dedicated reader, there may not seem to be any difference at all as an art form.  As a lay person, we can be impressed with the fundamental differences of sculptor working with clay instead of metal, or a musician playing classical instead of folk.  But how different is the authoring process depending on the end-structure of the written form?

Maybe I’m a bit of a geek on the subject, hence my enthusiastic re-blog of another blogger’s article on the creation of graphic novels.  I’m just fascinated by the craft and skills that an expert uses to handle different problems.

A couple of years ago I had the idea of turning one of my personal favorite books of those I’ve written, A Tall Tale of Two Short Animals, into an animated movie.  Progress on this idea was made in two areas: I bought some cheap animation software, and I turned my novel into a screenplay.

I’ve been told I write very visually, which I have always taken to mean that I tend to focus on describing the scenes and action taking place, rather than intense internal thoughts or philosophical exposition.  In the writing process, this means I actually visualize scenes as movies.  However, it’s quite a different thing from actually putting it together as a screenplay.

Think about how a movie opens.  How do we learn who a character is, even something as basic as their name?  Excepting the approach of using a voice-over, which is viewed as being the clumsy way out, you start with the main character interacting with another character.  Somebody uses their name, and early scenes start to give us an idea of the nature of the character.  Sometimes a subtitle can be used to amusing effect: I’m thinking the TV show “Burn Notice”, which will show something like “Pancho – Assistant Crime Boss” to make sure we know who we’re looking at.  But usually, the idea is to introduce the characters and the story as naturally as possible.

The problem with the story I’d chosen to adapt was that it’s about a talking dog and rabbit who live in a place called the Magic Land.  Yes, go ahead and roll your eyes at that: it sounds cheesy.  However, it worked great in writing stories for my daughter when she was younger, and I still think it’s fun.  Anyway, since the story didn’t take place in this Magic Land, I had to somehow set the stage so the audience would accept a talking dog and rabbit showing up in Montana and doing crazy things.  This involved writing an entirely different introductory scene than the book had.

A lot of the rest of the story was easy enough to adapt, and a considerable amount of text was removed.  Actions were changed into stage directions which were usually more plain and direct: a screen direction isn’t supposed to develop narrative tension the way descriptive prose would.  In a movie, the director and the editor do that.

Anyway, I’d say I learned a lot from the experience, and you can go here to see the result.  In the end, I ran aground with the animation software, since I can’t draw and I didn’t have six months to spare to make the movie.  I was rather hoping there was an “Easy” button included.

Another idea I’d had bouncing around for years was graphic novels and comic book.  I actually considered turning the same novel into a graphic novel, where I hit the same snag regarding artistic talent.  Still, I was intrigued by the notion of serializing stories and creating a periodical out of it.  This used to be quite common – most of Charles Dickens’ novels were published as serials – but it’s rare now.

What I decided to do was to take the starting point of a pulp publication in the 1920s.  The main content, then, is four parallel stories set in that period.  This has already led to some interesting twists as characters run into each other like character cross-overs on TV shows.  It also leads to one of the tricky things about doing a serial: knowing what happens next.  When Dickens writing his incredibly long novels back in the 1840s and 1850s, he was setting up mysteries that he didn’t necessarily know how he was going to write his way out of.  Now, there’s an obvious solution – outlining the story some distance in advance – but it’s been kind of fun to write just a chapter at a time and see where things go, making sure to end with a cliff-hanger or plot twist.

I’ve also filled in the periodical with chapters from novellas that I have never published on their own, and then recently I decided to include out-of-copyright stories by other authors.

The other real challenge with this sort of structure – and the one I’d give to any aspiring writer – is that when you get into it, it forces you to just keep writing.  Got a deadline!  Gotta keep things going!

The end products are all linked from Old Wombat’s Monthly, and I’m hoping they’re as much fun to read as they are to write!

Fiction Has a Best-if-used-by Date

I always wanted to be a writer.  More specifically, I originally wanted to be a reporter, an idea probably grown from the tours of the Chicago Tribune press rooms – I mean, the rooms where the printing presses actually were – when my mother worked there in the classified ads department.  Those were still the old days, when the presses weren’t overgrown laser printers.  They used metal type (called slugs).  The actual words were formed on the slugs, and they’d be melted down after the print run was over.

But I also wanted to write books.  I think I had some idea that writing was a form of immortality.  You wrote something, you saw it in print, and then it was something that could never be undone.  It was Richard Nixon’s bell that could not be unrung.

My first sense that this was, perhaps, not really the way things worked came from going to the Brandeis University Used Book Sale in the parking lot in Old Orchard Mall in Skokie.  It was a book lover’s paradise: endless tents full of tables of old books, a temporary world’s largest used book store (with apologies to Powell’s Books in Portland and the South Side of Chicago).  I went a couple of years in a row, and I noticed something.  I kept seeing some of the same books, year after year.  Multiple copies of them.  They were big hard cover books, some still with their old 1960s or 1970s dust jackets intact, if slightly worn.  These books were the #1 best sellers of their time, now completely forgotten.

A notable example of this is the works of Robert Ruark.  He’s barely known today, probably mostly favored by those who consider that he brought a semblance of literature to the genre of hunting journals.  Still, his 1955 best seller “Something of Value” was turned into a movie starring Rock Hudson, and “Uhuru” (1962) and “The Honey Badger” (1965, published posthumously) were probably as well read at the time.  Now, some might comment that the first two works I mentioned dealt with relatively dated subject matter, namely the transition from colonial rule to independence in Kenya in the early 1960s.  Some might also comment that the writing, while moderately enlightened, still preserves a certain odor of the ingrained racism of another era.  I’d argue that this is beside the point.  There were too many other books on those book sale tables that had the same sort of glitz in their past.

Since Ruark died a year before I was even born, that could all look like some rationalization of past popularity.  So here’s a more recent example.  In 1987 I was doing my stint in consulting boot camp in beautiful St. Charles, Illinois.  By chance, I sat at the same table as a fellow from Minneapolis named Andrew Black.  We were working from 8 in the morning to 10 at night, mostly writing COBOL code on coding sheets, but we still had time to socialize.  Andrew told me about Edward Abbey, and he also told me about Stephen Vizinczey.  Vizinczey was a top writer, Andrew said; someone to be reckoned with.  Get my hands on “The Innocent Millionaire” (1983) and devour it.

So I did.  I also found Vizinczey’s “In Praise of Older Women” (1966) and “Truth and Lies in Literature” (1985).  While I found both of the latter books somewhat boring, “The Innocent Millionaire” grabbed me and held on.  I’ve always been impressed by writers who can really draw out an emotional response from readers, and this Hungarian-born writer struck me as the best I’d ever seen.  Commenting to anyone else I might find, I compared Vizinczey to Joseph Conrad: an Eastern European who learned English as a second language and then became a master of its writing.  Such luminaries as Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess made similar comments about the quality of Vizinczey’s writing.

Thirty years later, do bookstores block your way in with tables full of his novels?  Do we talk about Vizinczey at cocktail parties?  Do we pre-order his new books and mark our calendars with the arrival of his latest work?

Nope.  He hasn’t published a book since. says that he’ll have a book released in 2011 (and I’m writing this in 2015), but no book has apparently made its way to press.

Now, this could easily go several other ways.  Fame is fleeting.  The publishing industry is more commercial than ever, and there is no place in it for Stephen Vizinczey.  Maybe “The Innocent Millionaire” didn’t quite set the world on fire the way some of us might have thought it should.

Or maybe we should just remember that the words printed can become as much a matter of the past as those old printing presses under the Tribune Tower.

I think it’s a truism of journalism (or journalism school, which I never attended, switching to engineering so as to avoid a language requirement which I ended up fulfilling anyway) that journalism is not literature.  Your deathless prose will be used for wrapping fish tomorrow.

Well, guess what – all writing is like that.  Rather than looking for deep cultural insight on why Vicinzey’s amazing prose has failed to become a cultural touchstone, we might be better served to see just how rare it is for fiction to last.

Still, have hope.  While most of the imperishable works of ancient Greece were lost when Rome fell, they surfaced again hundreds of years later, preserved by the Arab peoples and passed back to Europe when the northern and western barbarians were settled down enough to appreciate them.  Maybe that will happen to some of our writing, too.

Are Virtual Presents Really Presents?

So it’s the eve of the Great American Gift Exchange Month, and the question I’m asking myself is: is it okay to give e-books as presents?

Stay with me here.  It gets philosophical for a bit.

To start with, what makes something socially acceptable as a gift?  Does it have to have required sacrifice, or, to put it another way, does it have to have cost time or money?  Does it have to be personal to the recipient?  That is, if you hand out little cellophane bags of cookies to co-workers or neighbors, that’s a goodie bag, but some cookies you make for some special, that’s a present?

Does it have to be useful?  Because we all want small appliances and kitchen utensils for as presents.  Or, failing useful, does it have to have artistic merit?

How about it being something someone wouldn’t buy for themselves.  Hurray for ugly ties and tacky decorative objects.

Does it have to be tangible?  My best wishes for the coming year are a greeting card sentiment, not a present.

Maybe it’s anything that the giver and the givee can agree is a present, because it relates to the bond they have.  Prank gifts like a yard full of plastic flamingos or exploding cigars fall in that category.  (I nearly wrote “guitars” in that last sentence – if you see them in stores next year, I patented the idea already!)

So how do gift cards stack up against these questions?  Purists have argued that a gift card isn’t personal, didn’t require any sacrifice of time, and is barely tangible.  In certain past years, I’ve been part of present exchanges which consisted of everybody handing around Amazon gift certificates, so in the end, everybody was buying themselves something on Amazon.

Which brings us to e-books.  For a while, there was a complaint that you couldn’t go to Amazon (or other purveyors of fine imaginary objects) and buy an e-book as a present.  That personal gesture of picking out a book for someone to read wasn’t available, which left us with … gift cards.  Amazon at least now offers this minor nod to genuine gift-giving.

But I have a special case.  You see, for the past several years, I have given presents of my own books to family and friends.  They’re my primary audience, since I write as a hobby.  When I give someone a physical book, it’s tangible, cost money, and entailed some sacrifice of time.  There’s a minor personal touch involved, as some folks don’t get every one of the year’s books: I filter on whether a book is likely to be appreciated.

This year, though, I want to give out e-books.  It seems most people I know have e-readers now, so it simply makes sense to me to give them a virtual book, not a physical object.  It also saves me money, not the least in shipping costs (damned books are heavy!)  Somehow, though, giving someone an e-book I wrote seems a lot like sending someone a website link.  It cost no money, consists of nothing tangible, and is negligibly personal.  If I flatter myself, I may claim some artistic merit, but let’s not be ridiculous.  I’m not giving out personally signed Picasso miniatures here.  It just doesn’t feel like it’s a present at all.

At least with a gift card, you can put it an envelope or a stocking.  What am I supposed to do?  Give everyone a small box with a slip of paper that says, “A gift is waiting for you in your email”?

Missing History Makes Fiction Come Alive

One of the things that fascinates me is the little changes in our world that we don’t even really pay attention to, but which make a difference in setting historical context.

Quick example: lane stripes.  I recall reading an article about how a movie was being made in Chicago near the Armitage L stop.  The production was paying the store owners to redo their storefronts to make it fit the period for the movie (around 1910, if memory serves), and they even paid the CTA to dress up the L stop.  A production designer also discussed how they had to remove the lane stripes from the street.

Yes, the whole system of double yellow lines, white lines, and so on that usually make up the easy question on the driver’s license tests.  Somebody had to think of it, right?  And somebody had to decide that it should be used on every single street in America.  So, for a lot of streets, at one time there was no striping, and now there’s striping – and who remembers that there was ever a change?  Most change in the world around us is so gradual, we don’t even pay attention, but if you make a leap – like a time traveler or a reader of fiction – you’d notice things like that.

Less tangible things change, too.  Former Chicago mayor Jane Byrne died last week, bringing to mind cultural memories of her time as mayor (1979-1983).  I found it interesting to read Martin Oberman giving sober reflections about Byrne’s time as mayor, when my recollection is my friend Scott Bernberg’s imitations of Oberman (as alderman of the 43rd Ward) screeching, “Jane Byrne is a menace to this city!”

We also used to joke about Byrne’s style of oration, which (as I recall) consisted largely of reading her speeches.  The standard joke had her at the breakfast table with her husband, Jay McMullen, reading, “Good morning … Jay.  How are … you?”

Some things feel like they should be more substantial.  I recall reading an article about a baseball player reflecting on getting to the major leagues back in the 1950s, and how he got pranked by Eddie Stanky.  Apparently players used to leave their gloves in the field when their team was at bat, and Stanky had taken the other player’s glove and hidden it under second base.  The amusement to be found there may be an acquired taste, but the curiosity remains: what?  Ball players left their gloves in the field?  I mean, I remember playing ball in the park, and not everyone bought a glove, so you left yours out in the field for someone else to use when it was your turn to hit, but major league ballplayers wouldn’t have had the same problem, would they?

And when did they stop doing that?  Wouldn’t there have been some kind of rule change, maybe a player hurt after he slipped on a glove in the outfield?

And there was.  According to the linked story, a rule change was instituted in 1953 banning the leaving of gloves on the field.

Even better, the story I found with a quick Google search nicely ties to my point: the original question had to do with the movie “42” (about Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier).  That detail of players leaving gloves on the field was a part of setting the atmosphere, and when a story teller (be it a writer or film maker) correctly includes a detail like that, it draws the audience in deeper.  I haven’t seen that movie, and I imagine no attention is drawn to the detail, but that’s just perfect.  Just let it sit there so you can breathe it in.

I just re-read “Time and Again”, by Jack Finney, which is perhaps the ultimate in historical fiction.  The premise of the movie is that time travel is possible if one can immerse oneself completely in the time one wants to travel to.  (A similar premise was used in the movie “Somewhere in Time” with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.)  Naturally, when that’s the basis for the story, the details had better be pretty solid, and Finney did a marvelous job at it.  The narrator travels from New York in 1970 (the current time when the novel was written) back to 1882, and he’s coached on all the details of life in that time.  How to ride the L, how to dress, verbal expressions to use, and so on.  It’s a fabulous book, and succeeds at translating the reader back to 1882 in New York.

Still, fiction gets to be fiction, and Finney admitted in the afterword that he took a liberty in his otherwise perfectly researched book.  The Dakota apartment building was used as the starting point for the narrator’s time travel, but it wasn’t built until 1885.  Sometimes you just can’t let facts stand in the way of a good story.

Researching Fiction

Just finished putting out my latest book, “The People’s Tribune“.  This was probably my most amibitious book to date.  It followed a different structure than I usually follow, skipping over large periods of time to get to the next important event, and mixed a narrative with diary entries.  It was also more complex in trying to get inside the head of the main character, as I am not a twenty-something woman in 1890s who might have feelings for another woman.  Definitely violates Ernest Hemingway’s dictum of writing what you know.  Maybe this was too much of a stretch for my talents, but I’ve given it my best shot.

An additional challenge was the research around the time and place.  I’ve read some good articles about how much research to do on actual locations, with a general attitude being that one shouldn’t let geography (or technology) get in the way of a good story.  Particularly notable in my mind is a line in “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella (the book that became the movie “Field of Dreams”) where the narrator drives down Lake Shore Drive in Chicago and sees the ivy on the walls at Wrigley Field.  You can’t see Wrigley from Lake Shore Drive, and you can’t see any ivy from outside the park.  Kinsella surely knew that (some years later I got his autograph there, but I neglected to ask him about it).  However, it was atmospheric to the story, so I give him a pass.

In a lot of stories, you need to be able to set the scene.  You can describe a generic office plaza in a city you’ve been to and get away with it.  Similarly, in most stories, you don’t need to get too specific on current events.  They’re either well enough known that the details are not a challenge, or they’re obscure enough that you can do what you want with them.

In “The People’s Tribune”, I had to get things right with both.  The story is set in the 1890s in Chicago, and Karin Arvesen, the main character and narrator, is a reporter and a newcomer to the city.  We would be seeing the places and events through Karin’s eyes, and she would be providing details, because that would be part of her experience.  So, for example, where was the Chicago Tribune located in 1892?

I found a great resource: the University of Illinois at Chicago has a site with bird’s eye views of Chicago’s downtown in 1893, including descriptions of many of the prominent buildings.  This gave me not only the physical location of the Chicago Tribune then, but the internal layout of the building.  A University of Chicago site on Chicago in 1890s was also useful.

Events were a further challenge.  We tend to think of recent history as being very well documented.  After all, if newspapers were being published, you would think that key events would be clear enough.  Surprisingly not true.  Take for example the burning down of the White City, the Columbian World’s Fair of 1893.  I’ve got one book that says it took place in January, 1894, while another says July, 1894.  A search on the Tribune’s archives failed to turn up anything helpful.  Another resource suggested multiple fires, meaning that maybe both books were right.  The date was important to the story, and I chose to take the July date.  It was better supported and it fit with other events: the Pullman strike was going on then, with fires being set all over the city, so there was a possible connection there.

Another bit of history that remains murky is the story of Cap Streeter.  Streeter ran his boat aground on a sandbar a half mile off Chicago’s lakefront in 1886.  He left his boat there and the sandbar eventually grew (possibly with Streeter inviting people to drop landfill around it) until it merged with the lakefront.  Streeter claimed all the new land as the District of Lake Michigan, belonging neither to the city of Chicago nor the state of Illinois, and proceeded to engage in various forms of real estate shenanigans.  The truth is so foggy that the Wikipedia article on Streeter has sections on “Streeter in Legend” and “Streeter in Reality”, and even the reality is less than certain.  I grew up in Streeterville, as the neighborhood is now called, and was told myths about Streeter even when I was little, so I was inclined to use some of the more colorful and benign bits of the legend.

Then I got distracted.  It had never been answered to my satisfaction why it was that Streeter wasn’t permitted to claim the new land that formed around his boat.  Not sure the story really needed the detail, but I was able to dig up a very useful pamphlet on riparian law and submerged land, which I hope was applicable to Illinois.

I like to think this attention to detail makes the story better and feel more genuine.  At the very least, nobody should be throwing my book across the room, complaining that you can’t see Wrigley Field from Lake Shore Drive!

What you learn when you start a blog

Okay, so there’s lots to get to.  What I really wanted to do was post my new book, “The People’s Tribune”, and talk about the creative and process and the research that went into it.

But no.  I’d been meaning to start this blog for years, and I finally got around to it today.  Starting point: create the blog, and create a new email account for it.  Easy as pie, right?  Ah, no.

First idea for the name of a blog: Witzelsucht.  Taken.  Taken?  Who the heck even knows what it means?

Next: Oldwombat.  I’ve used that for a number of my books.  Strangely, this was reserved.  Not taken – reserved.  Not sure what that means.

So, I had it in mind to match the email ID to the name of the blog.  Yes, and are taken.  So I dipped into some of my less common words (collected into a list in my in-progress work “Skipping Stars”, and largely derived from the invaluable “Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words”.  Analemma – taken.  Galligaskins – taken.  Octochoron – taken.  Taken!  And I didn’t even spell it correctly!

These are all real English words, remember.  Eidola – taken.  Gnomonics – taken.  Pseudothyrum – taken.  Tutulemma – taken.

What strange people are out there that take these for their email address?

The silliest part of it all is that an email address is about as meaningful now as a phone number.  You don’t remember or even write down phone numbers, and you don’t do either with an email address, either.  Once you’ve got the name in your address book, your email tool goes off the person’s actual name.  So this was really unnecessary.  But I was stubborn about it.

Quodlibet. had to be available.  I mean, who even knows what it means?  It’s second definition is “a debatable point; a scholastic dissertation on such a point”, so now you know.  Taken!

Five minutes taken to locate Mrs. Byrne’s dictionary, with a quick visit to “I Always Look up the word Egregious”.

Graphospasm (it means writer’s cramp) – taken.  Griffonage (careless handwriting – sounds perfect!) – taken.  Grammaticaster (a petty grammarian, even better!) – taken.


There was no way I was going to break down and accept an email address with a sequence number in it.  I have my pride.  And my stubbornness.  As it appeared that absolutely every English word, no matter how obscure, was taken as a gmail address, I would have to take another tack.

With a pen holding my place in Mrs. Byrne’s around the letter G, I was not too far from “illuminati”.  Well, that has to be tremendously popular, so maybe a play on words – and thus was found

Back to the blog name, I was braced for a similar exercise there, but “octochoron” was accepted immediately, and a blog was born.