January 30, 2011

What's Cooking?

It being Sunday I am getting set to make Bran Muffins. Everyone in my family likes to cook. My wife and daughter are easily capable of producing restaurant quality meals. What may surprise some is that my son is an equally good cook. He is a very capable artist (he designed the book cover you see on the right) and he brings those artistic skills fully to bear in his cooking, especially birthday cakes. Given that he has three kids, he will get plenty of practice.

As a parent you never know what part of you will leave an impression on your kids. For sure there are some things about me I wish I could have left out of their growing up, but I feel that a love of cooking is something that my kids definitely got from both of us. Seeing not just the mother but the father in the kitchen cooking and helping sends a message that can't be faked.

In case you are interested, you can find the bran muffin recipe I use here. Bon apetit!


Ingredients

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups Kellogg's® All-Bran® Original cereal
  • 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil

Directions

1. Stir together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

2. In large mixing bowl, combine KELLOGG'S ALL-BRAN cereal and milk. Let stand about 2 minutes or until cereal softens. Add egg and oil. Beat well. Add flour mixture, stirring only until combined. Portion evenly into twelve 2 1/2-inch muffin pan cups coated with cooking spray.

3. Bake at 400° F about 20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm.

January 26, 2011

Writer's Notebook: Quan Loi

(One of a series of notes to self for future pieces.)

Like any veteran, the memories of war occupy a prominent place in my heart and soul. When you first get back you are still in the war for several months. Then you put it away and get on with the business of life. But as you near the finish line you find yourself looking back from a safer distance and things you couldn't or wouldn't look at before can now be held up for introspection in the mind's eye.

Ground Zero of my year in Vietnam was Quan Loi, a working French rubber plantation about 90 miles north of what is now Ho Chi Minh City. It was there that my tour of duty began and ended. In between were many other places where I worked and put in my time, but Quan Loi is my personal Vietnam.

On Day One I was a scared newbie who didn't even know that the war was a 7-day a week enterprise with no weekends off. On Day Done I was a thinned out darkened shadow of a man I no longer knew when I looked in the mirror.

Today, forty years after, that year is one of many peaks and valleys that form my interior. I look around at the thousands of returning and emerging veterans and wonder what they will be thinking 40 years down the road. I wonder if they are as angry as I was, as dazed and numbed as I was. Probably so. I know the men and women who marched down that road in the years and wars before mine felt the same things.

Understand this, those of you who never went through it: The war never stops trying to kill you. Understand that, and you will understand more than most do.

January 24, 2011

Climate Change

Climate change is likely to be the predominant scientific, economic, political and moral issue of the 21st century. The fate of humanity and nature may depend upon early recognition and understanding of human-made effects on Earth's climate. James Hansen 2009
I spent a couple of years blogging about climate change. I came to one simple conclusion. If the science if correct (a big if for many people) then it is already too late to do anything other than to begin to adapt to a world that very likely will not be the same for your children and their children as the world you see around you now.

Every decision your children and grandchildren make about where they live and what they do will be influenced by the looming uncontrollable changes to our climate. Some of these changes will not be so bad. As usual, the affluent will find a way to cope. It is the billions of poor people who will bear the brunt, as they already are.

If you think that being in a wealthy country will isolate you from the social and economic and political consequences of climate change you are wrong. Certainly your military industrial complex doesn't think so.

My advice to you is to get into this, do the reading, make your own conclusions. I don't update PlanetRestart.org at the moment but there is a large collection of useful links. And remember, this isn't about us. It's about our children and their grandchildren.

January 22, 2011

Slime Molds


Slime molds are everywhere. We have all seen them, although we may have not recognized them as such. From mysterious piles of dog barfy looking stuff to the scaly fungus slowly devouring a fallen tree to the wonderfully delicate structures that dot our lawns after a rain storm, slime molds are busy doing their thing.

Just what their thing is and how it works is a mystery that holds the answer to a question we are just learning how to ask. The question concerns the way in which complex structures exhibiting unexpected and unpredictable behaviors can emerge from simpler parts without any type of centralized operating instructions.

Just something to think about on a Saturday morning.

January 19, 2011

The City of Woe

I just got back from a road trip to Boston. It's about a 9 hour drive taking the route I use through Connecticut into New York and then through Pennsylvania on into Maryland. Most of the time is spent listening to music on Sirius and looking out the window, usually at the traffic but sometimes at the passing scenery.

The most striking part of the trip is the passage through Fishkill, NY. Atop a low hill sits the Fishkill Correctional Institution, the place where my first novel ends and my next will begin. As you go from east to west you flow backwards in time from a blond brick square building reminiscent of a very large college dorm to a middle building of similar architecture done in red brick to the earliest structure, an ominous castle in time-worn red brick, complete with turrets. It sits there brooding over an otherwise bucolic setting, a stark warning to any passerby of what awaits wrongdoers.  

Lasciate ogni speranza indeed.

January 14, 2011

A Late Christmas Present

Just got a wonderful Christmas present from my son. He is currently finishing up his doctorate at UVA but has always been a very good artist. He designed a cover for my just published book, The Magpie's Secret. You can see it on the front page of the site.

He did a wonderful job, especially with the magpie. I suggested to him that he might want to go into cover design as a sideline while he wraps up his dissertation. Or he might pursue cake baking and decoration, something else he is exceptionally good at.

I'm off to Boston for the weekend to visit with my sisters. Hope you all have a safe and wonderful weekend. A good time to consider the life and tragic death of Martin Luther King Jr., especially in light of the ugliness in Arizona. Political hate and violence is unfortunately as American as apple pie. We just don't like to admit it.

January 12, 2011

Entanglement

The concept of entanglement lies at the heart of quantum physics, something to do with what happens to photons (the building blocks of light) that are emitted when electrons change energy levels inside an atom. In a way that no one understands, photons become entangled with each other such that even if they were an entire universe apart then a change to one would affect the other.

Let's pretend for a moment that we actually understand what the hell that means. Here is my question. There are bazillions of photons, of which God only knows how many must have become entangled over the course of eternity to date. Seems to me it just stands to reason that you and I might have some entangled photons floating around inside us . . . which would make us entangled.

Below is a poem I wrote a while back entitled Entanglement. I planned on using it in my book but never did, although I ended up using the idea of a debris field to describe my character's emotional life. Here it is for what it's worth:

Everywhere I go, I see memories of you,
The debris field of a heart broken by promises.
Soon that is all I will have, just memories.
But at last even memories fade, leaving only
Wisps of neurons that reach out to each other,
Forever entangled in the dreaming world.

January 11, 2011

The Eighth Circle

Where is Dante when we need him? Who better to render judgment on a figure as wretched and perverse as Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church. He and his followers plan to picket the funeral of little Christina Green, the 9-year-old child who was killed during Saturday's attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Can you imagine what Dante could do with a figure as despicable as Phelps? If it was up to me, Phelps would get an immediate all-access pass to Hell, perhaps in the Eighth Circle, where hypocrisy and political corruption are punished. Or maybe he is better suited for the Ninth Circle, where traitors find their eternal doom, for he has betrayed every principle we would associate with any concept of Christianity.

I could see Mr. Phelps stuck alongside Lucifer in the frozen lake that lies at the core of Hell, for surely anyone who would contemplate picketing the funeral of any nine year old girl never mind one who perished in such terrible circumstances must have a heart as cold as ice.

January 9, 2011

Emergence

My original plan was to write fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes a single concept serves as a springboard for both genres. For example, I am writing a short story and an essay that have a single theme in common: Emergence.

Wikipedia's essay on emergence has more than you probably want to know on the subject, but this states the concept in fairly simple terms: "An emergent property of a system ... is one that is not a property of any component of that system, but is still a feature of the system as a whole. ... An emergent behavior or emergent property can appear when a number of simple entities (agents) operate in an environment, forming more complex behaviors as a collective."

A good example is the automobile. Take all the pieces and lay them out on a garage floor. They will remain in place from now until the end of time until someone puts them together to make an automobile. Then you can start the engine and go anywhere you want. The ability of the car to move is a feature of the whole system that is not found in any one part. The ability of the car to move is the result of a number of simpler subsystems operating as a collective to form more complex behavior.

One more quote from Wikipedia: "The emergent property itself may be either very predictable or unpredictable and unprecedented, and represent a new level of the system's evolution." Need an example. Look in the mirror.We didn't start out this way. Over time things evolved and out of that process emerged whatever it is that makes us . . . well, us.

So here's the "what if" that I think drives every good story. What if a system of interactions that we use every day suddenly does an unpredictable and unprecedented jump shift, causing some new property to emerge that changes everythning? I'll give you a hint. You use it every day.

January 8, 2011

The Magpie's Secret

Well I up and did it. I published my novel, The Magpie's Secret, using Smashwords. When I started out I had visions of a traditional print book, but the deeper I got into it the more I saw that e-books were the way for me. I really see this as an increasingly attractive alternative to traditional publishing, and it sure as hell is a lot quicker. I was an editor for 20 years so I don't mind the process of rewriting and proofing and then doing it all over again if that's what it takes to produce a clean piece of writing. As for the quality . . . well, I'm hoping you all will be the judge of that.

It took a while to settle on a publisher. What impressed me about Smashwords was the tools and advice they provided to help you prepare a clean version of the book in the various formats. Also, they are very upfront about the deal you are making and the cut you will get out of any sales. Of course, as a first-time author any sales are icing on the cake as far as I am concerned.

You can download a sample (about 50% of the book) at the link above. Anyone interested in being a reviewer of the book need only e-mail me at magpies.secret@gmail.com and I will send a full copy in either Kindle or Nook format or as a pdf file.

January 7, 2011

Book Review: No Small Matter

Every day at lunch I take a few  minutes to walk over to the library and browse through the new collections. Since I am on the Library's Board of Directors it keeps me in touch with the daily goings on plus new additions to the collection.

For the last couple of days I have been browsing through No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale, a collaboration between art and science that has yielded a stunning new way of looking at a world we never see. The goal is to present through photography a way of looking at and thinking about how life and nature work at the smallest scale.

What I find so powerful about the book is the way in which it leads the reader to understand how little we know about the such fundamental things as water and the role it plays in the chemistry of living and non-living things. That's assuming we know exactly where that line is, which after reading this book you might not be so sure about any more.

This is a wonderful work of art and some of the most lucid science writing I have ever come across. Makes you thing anew about the vast void that exists in our understanding of just about anything.

January 6, 2011

Finding Freebies for My Nook

Being a cheap bastard, I have been trying to find free material to load onto my Nook. Calibre is a terrific source for magazines and newspapers, but I wanted some books as well.

Of course there are literally thousands of free books out there, most of them written 100 years ago. Not a problem if you like the classics, which I do. Still, I wanted something a bit more contemporary so I got onto the Maryland’s Digital eLibrary Consortium, a wonderful service available to any library card holder in the state of Maryland.

But first you have to download something called Overdrive, which is for audio books. Then you have to download something from Adobe for e-books. Then you have to find a book you want. Turns out almost all of them are on hold. So I went to the audio book section and downloaded an audio book. No problem. But when I transferred it to the Nook I was told that the format is incompatible.

Ah the joys of the digital learning curve.

January 4, 2011

Calibre E-Book Management

I got a Nook e-book reader for Christmas. I am totally loving it. This doesn't mean that I wouldn't have been as happy with a Kindle. Maybe I would, but I definitely am very pleased with the Nook. Anyway, I don't have any interest in the Nook vs. Kindle issue. Both have their good points and bad points, pretty much like everything else in life.

In the course of finding tools to help me with my e-book collection, I came across the Calibre E-Book tool. Calibre is an open source e-book library management application. You can save e-book files to Calibre and from Calibre to your e-book which is in itself very helpful. It has a terrific file conversion feature which is a must for anyone thinking about creating his or her own e-book.

But even if you don't own an e-book reader, this is a great piece of software to have. My favorite feature is the Fetch News feature which enables you to download articles from hundreds of different magazines and newspapers from all over the world either on a one-time basis or whenever you schedule them. Calibre includes its own e-book reader so you can browse your downloads without ever leaving Calibre.

Bottom Line: This is a must have tool even if you don't have an e-book reader.

January 3, 2011

My First Post

Actually that's not true. I've been hosting my own blogs for years, but I've switched to this venue because it seems a whole lot easier. Plus I have just written a novel entitled The Magpie's Secret and apparently you won't be seen as credible unless you have an author blog and a Facebook page. Well, one out of two ain't bad.

Like the magpie in my title, I am drawn to bright and shining objects and tend to collect a wide array of thought jewels that have nothing in common expect that they caught my mind's eye. Most of the posts here will reflect themes in the book or in other stories that I am either writing or thinking about. These include the Vietnam War, politics, the natural world, global warming, science, and music.

Maybe not so much politics any more. Frankly it is time for the younger people to take over. My aging cohort has done quite enough damage. Honestly, I'm sick of the politics of the edge, be it left or right. Common ground and common sense is what we need, but the only thing we seem to have in common these days is an uncommon amount of anger. Thanks but no thanks. As someone once said, include me out.

So welcome aboard. As the logo says, if you are booked on the Titanic you might as well go first class.