Thursday, June 10, 2010

Where’s (the) Wally?

I haven’t yet posted a blog in June. For regular followers of my blog (and, again, I want to thank you both) this might be somewhat disappointing.

Or it might be a profound relief. Maybe you think I’m finally getting the therapy I need. Sadly, no. But then, sadly, yes.

I’ve always been confused by the process of novel writing. I know it takes work. I know this because I wrote one once. It remains unpublished, but I’m not overly concerned about this, because reading it with a fresh eye I can appreciate the complete pile of crap that it is. It’s reasonably well written, even if I do say so myself, but it doesn’t have much of a story to tell.

This year I have been proudly launching into a novel that I hope will be well received by publishers and readers alike. Over the past five months I have tried to persevere and have managed to knock out a respectable 7000 words or so. The story’s at the point where things are going to start happening.

Two weeks ago today my workmate, Bill, sent me the link to the Southern Cross Novel Writing Challenge (nicknamed SocNoc). I clicked and learned that the object is to knock out a 50,000 word novel in a month. There’s a similar challenge run worldwide in November, but Kiwis are enjoying the early summer then; we need a good cold month with a long weekend to take something like this on.

But Bill said: “I’ve signed up. I’m going to do it.”

Which was like saying: “I double dog dare you.”

And you can’t turn down a double-dog dare, right? So, I trawled my mind and dredged up an idea I’d had about 15 years ago, a sequel to my unpublished first novel. Except this time something actually happens. So I signed up for the challenge.

Now, to complete the 50,000 words in 30 days you have to average just under 1700 words a day. Eleven days in, you should be about to hit 19,000 words. As part of the challenge they ask you to update your word count daily. Bill, arguing the: “if I’m going to fail, I’m going to fail spectacularly” case, has been sitting on 2060 words for most of the week.

And there’s a handful who are still sitting on the big doughnut.

It’s odd how some people hit the literary wall, too. Like one writer shot up to 22,000 words really quickly, and then hasn’t updated the word count in about three days. Another went from almost nothing to more than 28,000 words last weekend, and hasn’t really shifted from there for two days.

Now, the reason I haven’t posted a new blog for June is that I’ve decided to take the challenge seriously. I mean, double dog dare, right? I started with a hiss and a roar, hammering out the story and was rapt at the way it seemed to be telling itself. I found this highly entertaining. Then I hit the wall; except the wall didn’t stop me, it just slowed me down. I knew this was going to happen though and I prepared for it by surging ahead early on. So, 11 days in, I am aiming to have kicked 35,000 words on target for 50,000 by Monday.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Light of Meaning

I only live about two kilometres from where I work. Nevertheless I encounter 11 sets of traffic lights on the journey to and from work.

Growing up I thought I had my head around how traffic lights worked. Red means you stop. Green means you go. Orange means go faster.

Yes, my father was a lunatic uninsurable driver. We used to go on vacations and wonder at what point: a) the car would break down, and b) how serious the crash was going to be.

This is a man who once drove into a bridge. I mean a bridge! It’s not like it jumped out in front of him.

My mother would sit in the front passenger seat with a death grip on the dashboard and occasionally yelp: “MIND!” as my father wound out the straight six to squeeze past some hapless victim who just happened to be in front of us.

In the days before speed cameras there used to be speed trains as well. This was where one driver would take the punt that there were no cops on the road up ahead and floor it. Then all the drivers behind would think: “Well, they can only catch one of us” and follow the fast guy.

Right, back to the point.

I was a bit surprised to discover that red means stop, green means go, and orange means stop if you can do so safely before you reach the intersection. I always follow this rule. I also know that it’s technically called “amber”, but Amber is a girl’s name, not a bloody colour. It’s orange, OK?

Now, what I can’t work out is what happened to the other people who sat and passed their driver’s license test and are presumably privy to this knowledge.

It seems we all fall into one of these categories:

  1. I’ll stop when it goes orange, if I can do so before entering the intersection.

  2. If it goes orange and I’m reasonably close, I’ll floor it to get through the intersection lest I have to lose two minutes of my life stationary and watching traffic.

  3. If I floor it now I might get to the intersection in time to catch the orange light.

  4. It’s red, but the cars stopped at the just-turned-green light haven’t had a chance to move yet, so I can get through without getting hit.

And I saw all of these on the way to work this morning. Despite numerous ads on TV warning about intersections and the city publicly announcing the installation of red-light cameras, people still run the risk.

I only have one word for them: Morons.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mr Author Type

I sit beside the fashion editor at the newspaper. Now I'm not saying anything about exorbitant profit margins in the cosmetics industry, but she gets sent shitloads of stuff for free.

Absolute shitloads of stuff. We're talking everything from perfumes and face creams to chocolate cakes and calculators. She's got drawers full of shoes. Designer handbags turn up on her desk. Every day more packages are turning up.

I've only had one letter delivered to me since I started working here three years ago. And I think that was from the tax department.

Fortunately the fashion editor works on a principle known simply as: Share the love.

This means that every now and then she will load up a table with crap she's been sent and we vultures in the department will pick the bones clean. I haven't had to buy shampoo in more than two years. I've got high priced Baldessarini eau de toilette sitting on my desk in case I start to waft during the day.

Of course I also have a tin of gravy, a rice steamer and a martini glass. I have no excuse for these. Random stuff just gravitates towards me.

Anyway, under the principle of "share the love" I was this week given a small, blank booklet. It's about 20 pages long and only the left-hand pages are lined. I didn't know what to do with this book and vaguely considered writing some poems in it.

But poems are difficult to write when you have nothing to say. I mean, you've read this much of my blog posting and I haven't actually said anything, right? I am soooo wasting your time right now.

But I love you for it.

So, my solution to my blank book dilemma was to go back through three months of tweets and pick out what I considered were my best ones. Then I either copied them or developed them a little. It was fun.

I managed to fill the booklet, despite Internet Explorer posting a warning saying I was running a script that might be causing the system to run slowly and would I like to stop running this script (ie, Twitter) now, yes or no? *Click no* By the time I got back to February tweets, it was displaying this message three times before it would show me more tweets, and then another two times afterwards. Which was a pretty passive-aggressive way for Microsoft to tell me: "Please will you stop running this fucking script!"

Anyway, I've titled the booklet "Laze Against The Machine!" and I will actually publish it one day when I have some money. But here are a few samples of what's inside (apologies if you follow me on Twitter and have seen them all before):

  • I'm so boring that this morning I tuned out of a conversation I was having with myself.
  • I was nearly killed by a freak Mexican wave.
  • Yesterday I accidentally set a ratite trap. This morning I'd caught two ostriches and a moa.
  • Beware of puns! It can be dangerous when a phrase turns on you.
  • I went to a bulldozer fight. The matador didn't stand a chance.
  • You can't drive me insane. It's not far; I can walk from here.
  • I called the suicide hotline. The guy was fantastic. Told me exactly how to tie a noose. Took me through it step-by-step.
  • When Evolution comes, I'm going to be first against the wall.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Mammoth Technicality

Here’s an interesting little argument for you to start with somebody.

Years ago there was concern that elephants were soon to become extinct. Hunters and poachers were shooting them, even on wildlife parks, and making off with their tusks, because some people somewhere got it into their heads that ground up ivory was a good base for organic viagra. Or they wanted to carve little figures out of tusks and sell them to tourists at vastly inflated prices.

Well, we still have elephants roaming the African wilderness because of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species; CITES. And also because people started shooting poachers, who aren’t an endangered species.

It prevents elephant ivory from crossing international borders, effectively stemming whatever tide of elephant tusks was flowing. There’s still probably a black market trickle of elephant ivory, but now that people need a CITES certificate authorising the possession of their ivory, the demand is so much less.

One alternative the hunters have found is in the frozen wilderness of Siberia. For three months a year they can get out there and happily and legally dig up mammoth tusks. Because mammoths are extinct there is no problem, except that the “hunters” have to spend two days defrosting the ground around the tusk before they can get it out.

Now, according to my good friends at Wikipedia, there are an estimated 150 million mammoths buried in the Siberian permafrost. So there’s no real danger that the trade in mammoth ivory is going to dry up any time soon.

Meanwhile, scientists are optimistic that one day they will be able to sort out differences in mammoth and elephant DNA and eventually a little half-tonne woolly bundle of joy will be delivered via a surrogate elephant mother.

Can you see where I’m heading with this?

At the moment of mammoth birth, technically the woolly mammoth will no longer be extinct, but will be an endangered species. Therefore CITES kicks in and the tusk hunters are out of business.

Or will they argue that the newborn mammoth is not of the same species as the 150 million others floating around the Siberian underground? Because scientists have dicked around with the DNA and used DNA from another animal to effectively build this new species of mammoth, is it still a proper mammoth?

I think there was a similar argument circulating when Jurassic Park first came out. If such a park were possible, would the animals there technically still be dinosaurs?

Well, that’s one for you to argue about with somebody. You can make a fair case for both points of view.

If some alien species found a strand of human DNA and filled in the holes with, say, chimp DNA, would the result still be considered human? Fortunately, that’s one for the aliens to debate. But I'm pretty sure you'd find the results in Temuka.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Shelling Out At McDonald's

Yesterday I did the fast food breakfast thing.
Technically, the only time you should visit a fast food joint for breakfast is if your previous night’s dinner came in a fifth-of-a-gallon bottle. I’ve always liked the way Americans can talk about “a fifth” of some spirit or other.
Here in New Zealand we don’t have fifths. We have wholes. We’ve metricised ourselves, I’m thinking it was a way to save money.
Years ago we had fifths, except because we’re metricised they were 1125 millilitre bottles. Then at some point the liquor stores decided to abandon 1125ml bottles and just go with 1 litre bottles ... for the same price. I mean, who’s going to quibble over 125 mls? That’s half a cup. Except that you’ve now effectively put your price up about 10 per cent. I dunno. The math on that one is a bit beyond me and I’ve wandered off on a tangent.
So, anyway, I wasn’t hungover, but I did have a hankering for a McMuffin. I pulled into the drivethru and noticed something strange on the McMenu.
A sausage and egg McMuffin would set me back $4.20. But a sausage McMuffin, sans egg, was only $2. Which, through process of elimination, means that at McDonald’s an egg costs $2.20.
WTF? What are these eggs made of? Are they especially talented eggs? Do they cure cancer or something?
“New, at McDonald’s: the SuperEgg, each one individually laid and blessed by the God of Commerce.”
McDonald’s pricing amuses me anyway. When petrol companies put their prices up it’s like this big national news story. “Petrol’s just gone up three cents a litre!” But McDonald’s keeps quietly shifting its prices up with no mention at all.
I reckon, 10 years ago, that egg would have only cost 50 cents. That’s 50 cents shelled, cooked and blessed by the Queen of Good Karma. And even then we would have been “Fifty cents for an egg? Are you crazy?”
And now we’re paying $2.20 for an egg.
Except we’re not.Because the day I pay McDonald’s $2.20 for an egg is the day I don’t buy an egg at McDonald’s.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Brilliantly Bizarre

It was raining, so I popped open my social umbrella and attended the opening night of Sarah Harpur’s first solo act, “Life. Death. Pets.” at the Fringe Bar in Wellington.

If you live in Wellington, or are rich and within flying distance, I strongly encourage you to see the show as it only runs for a few days.

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Sarah beforehand. She has a popular blog, Harpur’s Bizarre, which Google thinks was ripped off, corrupted and used as the name of a magazine somewhere.

Sarah is quite amazing. Who else could simultaneously convey a sense of nervousness and confidence? All while delivering some fantastic material about her life, her insights into death and quite a lot about how, when growing up, she viewed her pets as her children. Her cute, delicious children. Who ate each other (extreme sibling rivalry) and taught her graphic lessons about procreation.

How many people could get the joint rocking to a song about her dad’s death? Yes, Sarah, I want to join the Dead Dad’s Club too. My own old man went in a way not totally dissimilar to yours. I really related.

To demonstrate her inherent weirdness Sarah interrupted the show with an audio-visual presentation from her youth, where she presented her own hilarious interpretation of the Bain Family slayings in Dunedin. Complete with action figures with Bain faces pasted on. See it here (but later because I haven't worked out how to do one of those "open in a new window" link thingies).

It was opening night, so most of the front row was Sarah's family and friends. Which, mixed with the cosy venue, meant it felt like we were all in Sarah’s living room, being treated to an hour of an intelligently unhinged person's brilliant stream-of-consciousness rant.

I sat at the back and recalled attending the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal in 1996. And wished many of the acts there could have been half as good as Sarah.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Finding A Park For Your Satellite

Anyone who lives in a city knows how hard it is to find a good parking spot. We take this for granted.

What you probably don’t realise is that satellite parking spaces are filling fast too.

I discovered this after an interesting Saturday night. I have an alert on Twitter which lets me know when the International Space Station will be crossing over in sight of Wellington. Despite having had this service for at least six months, I have seen the ISS precisely twice. And one of those was sheer fluke.

So on Saturday I was out at Tawa having dinner with my friend Steve and his family. I thought it would be fun to take out some binoculars and watch the ISS fly over at about 6.50pm. I set an alarm on my cellphone to remind me.

It was a beautiful night; cloudless with just a hint of a breeze. The whole family (there were nine of us) piled out of the house with three minutes to spare. I pointed to the south-west and said: “It’ll be quite bright and will appear down there somewhere.”

The binoculars were passed around. The first candidate turned out to be a low-flying plane. Then somebody said: “I see it!” and pointed straight up to a bright star glinting above.

The person with the binoculars said: “Yes, it’s definitely a satellite. It’s moving a little bit and I can see it’s in two parts.”

This made sense, because at that time the ISS had a space shuttle attached. Yet I had seen the ISS before, and it was motoring. It wasn’t just sitting there.

Steve helpfully suggested: “Maybe it’s not the ISS. Maybe it’s a geostationary satellite?”

Well, that sounded logical. But then I noticed that what I first thought was a plane was in fact the ISS. Which seemed fair because I’d previously seen a plane that we thought was the ISS.

But it started me thinking: are there any geostationary satellites sitting above Wellington? Well, I investigated yesterday, and discovered that, no, there are no satellites sitting permanently over the city in which I live.

That’s because apparently a geostationary satellite can only remain effectively stationary if it is directly above the equator. It has something to do with inclination and “eccentricity”.

I’d found a list of commercial satellites in geostationary orbit dated December 2009 and it totalled 287 (an abnormal amount owned by Boeing).

Now, for a satellite to remain in geostationary orbit it must be at an altitude of 35,786km. Adding in the Earth’s diameter we’re looking at an orbiting circumference of 264,924km. So, at this point, in theory, there’s 923km available for each satellite. Which is a pretty big parking spot.

But the owners of any satellites will want to ensure it remains over a certain point of the Earth to get the best signal. This means that even though each satellite “sees” more than 40 per cent of the planet’s surface, there are an ever-decreasing number of parking spots over any particular city.

I wonder how long before somebody starts putting in parking meters up there.