End Game

Moleskine at Sea (by StarbuckGuy)

This is it — the 31st entry for January. End of the challenge, and I made it! I owe the good folks at NaBloPoMo a big thanks for providing the concept, and offering encouragement and support for the month. The provided theme was change, and in many ways every posting was related to the theme.

Now the words from the Buffy Season Six musical “Once More With Feeling” are floating through my mind.

Where do we go from here?
Where do we go from here?
The battle’s done and we kinda won
So we sound our victory cheer
Where do we go from here?

You reach a certain age and sometimes you need to do something like this challenge not to see if you have it, as a writer, but if you still have it. You get unexpectedly retired due to a corporate takeover (common story these days), you have an unexpected illness (heart attack), you have some operations (two stent procedures plus a double bypass), you take longer to recover than you wish, and you get depressed.

The worst part of depression, besides the loss of interest in things you always liked, is the loss of self esteem. It’s a double whammy when you’re also retired. You have no identity and no discernable purpose. People forget you. You forget them. Your world contracts. It’s a deadly trap if you let it go too far.

Like many people in the same situation, I’m re-thinking and re-adjusting my life. I don’t know ‘where we go from here’, but I’m unwilling for it to be the dumpster.

The NaBloPoMo challenge came at a good time — I’d been getting physically stronger and was ready for a mental challenge. What better way to kick off the New Year than undertaking a daily writing assignment. Completing the challenge has done a lot to restore faith in myself.  It was also fun, and ya gotta have fun in this life.

Setting up the Creative Nonfiction Writing Forums was also fun, and although membership signups have been slow, there have already been some excellent discussions there. I expect more participation as word about the forum spreads.

Wherever I go from here, writing is going to be a major part of it. I want to meet more writers, both online and locally. I know many photographers and many more musicians, but very few writers. I’ve joined a few writer’s meetup groups and am off to my first one this afternoon. Even for a semi-recluse like me, meeting people is important.

As I mentioned in a previous post, daily blogging has a downside. Other writing projects have been put on the back burner. Now that February is here, I have a magazine assignment to complete, asap. I have a modest fiction project underway and want to get back to it. I miss my daily journalling — I’ve had to sacrifice journalling to get a blog out each day.

The thing I like least about daily blogging is that the turnaround time is so short between starting the writing and clicking the Publish button. There’s no time to let the piece ‘age’, so it can be properly revised. I’m not embarrassed by anything I’ve posted this month, but it doesn’t represent my best writing simply because my best writing occurs during re-writing.

What the daily blog has done, though, is shown me that I can come up with 31 topics in 31 days and make them at least mildly interesting. It confirms that my mind is still working, despite age, illness, and occasional loss of direction. That means a lot.

Although the daily postings are over, I enjoy blogging and you can expect fairly regular new entries here. I’m committing to a minimum of one posting per week.

So, thank you ‘Dear Readers’ as the Victorians used to say. I’ve really appreciated your visits and to those who have left comments, bless you.


Song Circle

Dave's National Guitar (by StarbuckGuy)

David Rudkin playing his National Guitar at ROM Song Circle

Ever since I was a boy and heard the Kingston Trio sing “Tom Dooley” on the radio, I was hooked, lined, and sinkered by folk music. I lived in the country and in small towns until I went to university, and radio was my main way of being introduced to music. The Kingston Trio, Brothers Four, Terriers, Harry Belafonte, Peter Paul & Mary, the Rooftop Singers — I loved ’em. Couldn’t get enough of them.

Then I went to university — 1963 — and discovered an entirely more sophisticated type of folk music. Peter Seeger, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Barbara Dane, Tommy Makem & The Clancy Brothers, Phil Ochs, Judy Henske, Buffy Sainte-Marie — a  pantheon of wonderful folk and blues music pouring from dormitory stereo systems, campus radio, and coffee houses. The folk boom. I loved the early-mid 60’s folk era.

In a middling sort of way I began to play a six-string guitar, learning finger-picking patterns by listening carefully to Joan Baez LP’s and copying her licks. To this day I think she’s an underrated guitarist. And I sang. At the local coffee house — the Inner Ear. Once in a trio. Once paired with Sue Taylor as a duet. Sometimes we were hired to do garden parties.

Then other things intervened, like grad school, the end of the folk era, earning a living, moving to Canada, and except for pulling out a guitar occasionally, folk music was something lost. I couldn’t even find any good folk albums in the giant record stores in Toronto.

Came the 90’s and with it CD reissues of 60’s folk. Vanguard and Elektra albums suddenly became available again, and I began gobbling them up. And I discovered there was an extremely rich vein of Canadian folk music that I’d bypassed altogether in my ignorance. I began collecting, going to concerts, talking to campus radio folk DJ’s like Rick Fielding and Steve Fruitman, and folks in the music biz, like Susan Martinez, Derek Andrews, Gary Cristal, and Richard Flohil. I attended The Woods Music & Dance Camp, and met dozens of excellent musicians and singers.

None of my immediate circle of friends seemed to know much about these acoustic riches, so I decided to compile a book of Canadian folk music available in CD format — a kind of Penguin’s Guide. It was published by Reference Press in 1995: Northern Journey: A Guide to Canadian Folk Music, and reprinted, with additions, as Northern Journey 2, in 1998. The online edition of Northern Journey 2 is still available on my Northern Journey Canadian folk music website.

Getting back into music this way, I also got back into playing guitar and singing. I discovered the song circle concept and with a few colleagues at the Royal Ontario Museum, where I worked at the time, we started our own song circle in 1994, meeting at about six-week intervals after work on Friday nights from about 5-9pm. It’s been an ongoing event since then. When I left the ROM for another job, my friend and colleague Tony Hanik took over the reins of organizing it.

Tonight I’m going to the ROM Song Circle with a song in my heart, and picks, capo, and lyric books in my backpack. I’ve missed participating in music since my operation, but I’m now feeling ready to sing and play again. And I’m going to request that Tony lead us in singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.

Song Circle Rules

My knowledge of song circles began with attending the weekly Friday night Toronto Song Circle, a wonderful group of people who make Toronto a very special place. One member, Linda Miland, kindly gave me permission to reprint the Song Circle rules, called In Search of Harmony. I’m reproducing it here for anyone who like to use it as a guide in setting up a local song circle.

In Search of Harmony (formerly The Unwritten Rules), by Linda Miland, 1996.

The “Unwritten Rules” of the Toronto Song Circle are distributed to newcomers to the weekly event. These guidelines may be useful to others interested in forming a song circle.

Welcome to the Song Circle, our weekly gathering for group singing. It was begun in 1984 as an outgrowth of The Woods Music and Dance Camp (which is still held every summer early in August), to provide opportunities for singing in harmony during the rest of the year.

People with various levels of musical ability(1) come to our Song Circle. There’s no pressure to lead a song or to sing alone; if it’s your turn and you lose confidence or draw a blank, just pass (you can always lead or request a song later in the evening). Because group singing is the main activity, the music is mostly folk music; but there are no restrictions, and people enjoy a wide mix of styles(2). Songs may be accompanied, but musical instruments generally remain in the background.

Song Circle Structure (What’s Going On) Our group is leaderless, and there is no formal membership. We meet every Friday night after 8:00 in the home of a participant, from September through June. A typical evening(3) consists of a singaround, a break, and a “jam.”The singaround begins at 8:30 and ends by about 10:30.(4) The format is “play, pick or pass”: Each person in turn has an opportunity to teach or lead a song; to request a song, either from the whole group or from an individual (no coercion allowed); or simply to pass to the next person.After the singaround we break, starting with announcements. This includes the locations of the next few Song Circles, and upcoming folk events of interest to the group. The host may announce the closing time (please respect this). People bring snacks or beverages to contribute to the table.After the break, we stop taking turns, but continue making music. You can still lead a song or make a request, but you may have to be more assertive about it. Song Circle Traditions (Fitting Right In) Respect for the music. Once the music inside has begun, enter the house or apartment quietly, without knocking. When someone starts a song, our custom is that the chatting stops. We keep to one group, and avoid splitting up and having two different songs happening at two ends of the room (this doesn’t apply during the break, when people often swap tunes). Singers often find shakers, spoons, and other forms of percussion to be intrusive; exercise judgement and restraint. We always avoid playing (or even singing) so loudly that the people nearby can’t hear the others clearly. Be sensitive.Respect for the person leading a song. Although musical opinions get expressed (“That’s too high!” “Can’t we speed it up?”), it’s the leading singer who determines the musical key, pace, phrasing, and version of the song. (Most songs have a lot of different versions; there isn’t a “right” one. Watching the leader’s face is the easiest way to notice variations.)Respect for the audience. A song led by a confident leader is easier to learn and more fun to sing. We appreciate leaders who show consideration by coming well prepared. Here are some tips we’ve developed for leading songs:

  • Be ready to teach the song to those of us who don’t know it. (Some people bring photocopies of the words, to distribute.)
  • Tell us what you expect of us, so we don’t have to guess. For example: “I’ll sing the chorus first, so that you can learn it more quickly. Join in when you’re ready.” “This is a sea shanty, so please sing along on the repeated lines.” “Let’s try this one without instruments.” “I’ve worked out an arrangement on this song, so I’d like to do it solo.” “Anyone who knows this one, please sing it with me.”
  • When leading a round or a zipper song, plan ahead as to how many verses you want it to run to. Inform the group as to how you intend to end it off.
  • If you know which key you can sing the song in, you won’t run up against the bottom or top of your vocal range. Ask an instrumentalist for the note. (Or, ask another singer to teach you the technique for estimating where to start a song.)

Support for the host. Those who can’t offer to host the Song Circle contribute in other ways. We bring a snack or beverage to be shared at break–if not every time, then sometimes. Many of us also offer to help out or even to host at someone else’s home, coming over early to help set things up, and/or staying up late to clean up afterwards.


  1. Children who are patient and mature enough to follow our format and customs are welcome.
  2. Although the group has been known to discuss the choice of material, no guidelines have ever resulted. If you’re curious, however, individuals have occasionally complained of too many songs on the same topic or all in the same style; too many solo performances and not enough chorus songs; too many rounds or zipper songs; songs that we’ve done too, too often; requested songs that the requestee has become sick of performing; songs in languages other than English; too many pop/country/classical/depressing/political/pro-union songs. Clearly the group likes variety. (People interested in pursuing a specific type of music often form splinter groups and meet separately. If we’re lucky they come back and perform it for the Song Circle.)
  3. Sometimes our get-togethers have a special theme or format. Occasionally, a workshop is held featuring a professional musician as a teacher; in this case, there is probably a charge for the evening. When enough interest is expressed, we’ve also held open stages, where people can present planned performances of up to two long or three short songs apiece. (There are also other groups that foster performance singing. Ask about them, if you’re interested.)
  4. If, after the circle has come back to its beginning, it’s still too early for break, then those who have passed will be asked again if they want a turn.
    • With a large group, latecomers may miss their turn.
    • With a small group, there may be time to go around the circle twice.

Film vs. Digital: An Email Exchange

Nikon FM2n (by StarbuckGuy)

A photography friend, Jamie Pillers, and I recently had this email exchange on film vs. digital photography. Not a hostile exchange, but one that I think captures the difficulty of choosing one over the other for some of us who were raised on film cameras and know them intimately. I’m reproducing it here with Jamie’s permission in case it’s of interest to other photographers.

18 Jan 2009

Hi Gene,

We’ve chatted a couple of times in the past year or so, primarily about careers and a bit of photography thrown in. Today I’ve got a photography question for you. Recently I’ve read your thoughts, possibly on your website or on Flickr, about shifting to digital. I see that you’re still keeping a foot in film however. So I think you may have some valuable insight that could help me.

I’m struggling with the film-to-digital move. I’ve found that since returning to photography a little over a year ago, I’ve been spending more $$ than I can rationally justify on film and film processing. So I’ve made up my mind to try to at least significantly reduce the film expenditure by moving a good chunk of my photography to digital. (My photography pursuits are personal, not professional, and I enjoy both color and B&W.) To put it simply, I’d like to know what keeps your one foot in film photography?

A couple of thoughts that are nagging me at this early stage of the move:

– Will I lose significant image ‘character’ by not having my Voigtlander and Zeiss lenses to use? By the way, I’ve decided to stick with Nikon, since I have some old Nikkors… so I’ve purchased a D90. (No metering, but that’ll make it seem more ‘old school’… a good thing!)

– Does film provide a seriously greater dynamic range than modern digital sensors? The D90’s sensor is spoken of highly in this regard, but I still wonder.

– By keeping a film camera around, will I simply be keeping an unnecessary “siren” on my shoulder, whispering ‘sweet nothings’ in my ear… just creating unnecessary distraction?

Regarding writing… I love your idea about a non-fiction writing forum. I’m about to re-enter the teaching profession and I think having such a resource may be an excellent way for me to work out my thoughts about this amazingly difficult, challenging, and rewarding work. Hope to see you there.

Jamie Pillers
Oakland, California

P.S.: Thanks for your enthusiastic write-up about Silver Efex Pro. Now that I have a DSLR, I’m give this software a look.

My reply (20 Jan 2009):

Hi Jamie,

That’s certainly a fair question. Why do I keep one foot in film? Is it because it provides something you give up with digital, or is it mainly a kind of loyalty to the type of photography that predominated during the 20th Century? Is it a distraction to do both?

Any way I answer this is deeply personal, of course. Film vs. Digital is a topic some of my photography friends and I debate frequently. Some say ‘film’, some say ‘digital’, and a few say ‘both’. I’m sure you’ve seen the endless debate in places like the Rangefinder Forum.

First, let me congratulate you on your purchase of a Nikon D90. By all accounts it’s even nicer than the D80 and I was very impressed with that. I have two Nikon DSLRs — a D40 and a D300. I went for Nikon (in a very roundabout way I won’t bore you with) for the same reason as you — I have a bunch of manual Nikkor lenses that work fine on both my Nikon DSLRs as well as my Nikon SLRs.

Let’s look at some of the issues in this debate.

– Cost. There’s no doubt in my mind that going digital frees you up to shoot more than you ever would with film. Not having to pay for processing is a great liberator. However, to be fair to film, you’d have to shoot an awful lot of it to match the cost of a DSLR and the subsequent purchases of batteries, storage cards, maybe a new computer to hold all the images, and, inevitably, a new lens or two. Also, if you shoot traditional B&W film and develop it yourself, the cost per roll is very reasonable. To me, the greatest cost of film is in TIME — that is, the time spent in getting it processed, then scanned for digital use.

– Dynamic Range. It depends on which film we discuss. Most B&W film has a far greater dynamic range than digital sensors. C41 colour films have somewhat more dynamic range. E6 slide films probably have a little less range than digital simply because digital is better at recording shadow information. On the whole, sensors are improving, and from what I understand the larger the sensor the greater the dynamic range. There’s nothing digital though that can match a good Tri-X, HP5, or Neopan 400 shot. The question is, does it matter?

– Character. This is a hard call. Some of my older Nikkors, especially, maintain their characteristic signature when used on a digital body. But does anything in digital compare to an image I’d get from my Hexanon 50/2? I’d say some come very close. Especially some of the modern AF primes.

– Distraction Factor. Is film a distraction? Subjectively, for me it often is. I’m still undecided on this one. I think I do better work when I simply focus on my digital gear and concentrate on the images I want to capture. Then I’ll shoot a roll of film and fall for the superb handling and feel of a good film camera. I sit on the fence.

Thanks very much for your kind words about the Creative Nonfiction Writing Forums. I hope you’ll join and participate!


I think Jamie caught the essence of the dilemma in his followup reply: (29 Jan 2009):

The more I think about this film/digital debate, especially after you helped lift a bit of the fog from my brain, I’ve come to some clarity on it.. for me anyway. None of the ‘sirens’ that pull me back and forth between digital and film have anything to do with the final image. I’m perfectly happy with the images I get from digital or film. The images probably have some different characteristics that I’ll be able to name someday, but in any case both mediums produce images that make me happy.

My purgatory I believe is wholly formed by gear. For example, using the digital stuff sometimes leaves me with the feeling I’m somehow cheating… like having every ISO  known to man available at the push of a little button! And the crop factor drives me nuts!! Where am I going to get what was once called a 28mm f/2.8 lens without resorting to buying some huge expensive zoooooom lens. And who decided on the shape of these DSLRs anyway?? What’s the matter with that classic Nikon F-shape. I mean when I pick up my black FM2 and feel that subtle concise machine… ummmm!  But even with all these annoying qualities, this new technology is truly amazing. This D90 REALLY shines in low light. Metering is superb. And I can shoot indoors under unnatural lights… and the images don’t come out green!! Amazing.

Then… I think about my beautiful rangefinder gear. Simplicity! This stuff relaxes the brain! Aperture, shutter speed, compose. Essence of photography. But… damn, I have ISO 100 loaded and the sun’s going down!! And, as you state, I have to use up a serious amount of my time dealing with processing the film. And I don’t get to find out I set the ISO incorrectly until the film comes back from the lab.

This purgatory is made from the ability of each technology to instantly and oh so effectively scream out both the heaven and hell of the other. I’m afraid I won’t reach photo nirvana until a camera arrives on the scene that looks and feels exactly like my FM2, but with a killer full-frame sensor inside! Hallelujah! Praise Cosina! 🙂

Be well, Gene.

Jamie Pillers

For those who started photography with digital, or those who switched to digital with no regrets, this is a meaningless issue. But for those who feel the difference in the camera bodies, and see the difference in the resulting images, it’s a painful dilemma.

Friends who follow me on Flickr know that I’ve been shooting digital almost exclusively since my heart surgery. It’s wholly because digital has been easier for me during my recovery, but I’m been eying my film gear with anticipation. I have a freezer full of B&W film and I’m looking forward to getting back into it. Alongside digital of course. I enjoy both media and, like Jamie, I live in a kind of photographer’s purgatory trying to decide which to use on any given day.

Jamie, thank you for your reply — a beautiful piece of writing, might I add — and, BTW, Jamie just started a new ‘dream’ job — a special teaching job he got on the same day as President Obama’s inauguration. The auguries are favourable!

Nation, by Terry Pratchett

Nation, by Terry Pratchett (by StarbuckGuy)

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a Terry Pratchett fan and am currently re-reading all the novels in his Discworld series. When I heard that his newest novel, Nation, was not set in Discworld, I was a little disappointed, mainly because Discworld is so much fun, not to mention addictive.

But Nation is an entirely fresh Pratchett, unlike any I’ve read before. It takes place on a round world, namely ours, but 150 years ago in a parallel universe, when a tidal wave, or tsunami, caused by a Krakatoa-like explosion, washes over parts of what we’d call Pacific Ocean islands, wiping out most of the inhabitants.

On one particular island, called Nation by its inhabitants, the sole survivor is a young boy who had been at sea in his canoe when the wave struck. The wave also washed a large wooden ship ashore and its only survivor is a young high-society Victorian-era girl. There’s an immediate tension between these two when they meet. They learn some of each other’s language, but they have no cultural references in common.

From this starting point the story unfolds and it is exactly what I would expect from Pratchett — an engaging, humorous, thoughtful, deeply-meaningful story told by a master storyteller. There is nothing Disneyish about the story, and its development and ending are totally appropriate to the two main characters.

It’s officially a Young Adult novel, like the Tiffany Aching Discworld novels, and like them it’s what I call one of Pratchett’s ‘wisdom’ novels. Through the plot and character, the novel plumbs philosophical depths that would be unexpected in most YA fiction.

By extraordinary luck, I had the very first hold on the novel from my local public library system. I finished it in the wee hours last night and can say with no hesitation that it’s a delight (except for the loss-of-sleep-reading-it part). Pratchett fans will love it. If you’re new to Pratchett, this would make a good first read — primarily because it’s not part of the complex Discworld series. It’s a wonderful standalone novel that I think will become known as one of his finest.


There are two very good short videos on YouTube in which Pratchett talks about Nation and its creation.

1. Terry Pratchett on Nation: 3:01

2. Nation: An Interview with Terry Pratchett: 7:09

2009: Year of Darwin

HMS_Beagle_by_Conrad_Martens (by StarbuckGuy)

A watercolour by HMS Beagle’s draughtsman, Conrad Martens. Painted during the survey of Tierra del Fuego, it depicts the Beagle being hailed by native Fuegians.

My interest in Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory started when I began reading the late Stephen Jay Gould,  invertebrate palaeontologist and professor at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. His elegant essays, appearing monthly in Natural History, were gathered together on an annual basis and published in book form. My first Gould anthology was Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History, 1992, and perhaps because it was my first, it’s still my favourite.

I was already an amateur naturalist by the time I caught up with Gould’s popular and scientific writings — birding, wildflower identification, and nature photography were (and still are) among my favourite activities. You can’t become a naturalist and not be interested in evolution.

Gould introduced me to some of the more modern interpretations of ways evolution might have occurred, including the theory of punctuated equilibrium Gould co-proposed with his colleague Niles Eldredge. One thing that stood out for me in the discussions of modern evolutionary theory was the singular achievement of Charles Darwin, who provided the fundamental insight of how evolution occurred, without any knowledge of genetics or DNA. The concept of natural selection changed the world view and continues to right into the present. (I’ll leave aside its co-discovery by Alfred Russel Wallace — an interesting topic in itself.)

Eventually I bought a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species. I can’t say I’ve read it — more I’ve read at it, large chunks of it — but never cover to cover. What surprised me was how clear it was. Darwin, as I learned later from reading sections of Voyage of the Beagle, was an excellent writer. And knowing what he was proposing was going to have a profound impact on the Victorian world and beyond, he attempted to make his observations and arguments as logical, easy to follow, and convincing as he could.

The year 2009 is the bicentennial of Darwin’s birthday, and sesquicentennial of the publication of The Origin of Species. I found a website called Darwin Year 2009 that is dedicated to the celebration. The site is sponsored by the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS) and the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS).

Darwin is one of my heroes. I don’t have many, but this quiet, somewhat reclusive man living with his beloved family in Down, had the courage to look directly at the truth of the evidence and the courage to present it to the world, even though he anticipated the furor that would, and did, ensue.

It’s a pity that, after a century and a half of rigorous scientific investigation, religious fundamentalists still fight the teaching of evolution in the schools. Fundamentalists are welcome to their religious beliefs, as long as they keep them out of public policy, but they must not be allowed to introduce those fantasies into the school curricula, trying to disguise them as science.

Bless President Obama for stating “science will be restored to its rightful place.”

I’m tempted to add “Amen!”

A Miscellany

Artful Players - Acrylics (by StarbuckGuy)

I have no single topic of interest today — just some loose threads to bring together. I nearly named this entry “On Divers Things” but was fearful someone might think I was discussing snorkels and oxygen tanks, so I went for the slightly literary word miscellany. From the Latin misceo, to mix. Perhaps I’d have been better off using the earthier Odds and Sods.


It’s day 26 of the month and this is my 26th post. For the first time since I started I’m feeling nervous about finishing — the pressure’s on. I wasn’t certain I’d get this far, but now that I have, I want to finish my goal of posting a daily entry for the entire month of January. I’m having second thoughts about the usefulness  of the exercise. For one thing, a daily posting doesn’t give me much time to think. Being a slow, or at least leisurely, thinker, I normally like to have at least a few days to work on a piece, even a short one, before inflicting it on readers.

I’m of the school of thought that any piece of writing should lie dormant for some time after you finish what you think is the final draft. Stephen King suggests a six-week gestation period — whatever is long enough that when you re-read your manuscript, it’s like reading something written by someone else. That makes it easier to edit ruthlessly, often killing off passages that seemed so good when you first wrote them.

The blog-a-day has been good for getting momentum back into my blogging, but I’m looking forward to a slower pace in February. Work on some of my other writing projects has suffered, including a tentative start on some fiction that, for the first time in my life, I can say isn’t bad. Meaning it doesn’t suck totally. Only some.


I realized this morning that I’m colour starved. The winter landscape of ice and snow has been too uniformly white. Even as a B&W photographer, it’s beginning to bore me. I was wandering around the house shooting anything colourful. My best shot was of my wife’s paint trays — her art supplies always seem to attract my lens.

After several weeks with the new Panasonic Lumix LX3 I can say I like it very much and that the image quality is remarkable for a small-sensor digicam. I’m loving the wide 24mm equivalent in 16:9 mode. For anyone not bothered by its short tele range (a mere 60mm) I can recommend it highly.

I’m missing my film cameras. When the weather warms up enough for me to easily carry something larger than a digicam, I’m eager to spend some quality time with my Nikon SLR’s.


I’ve had Sibyl, my Acer Aspire One, about as long as the LX3 and it too has become a favoured member of my tech-toy collection. I wouldn’t have attempted my month of blogging without it.  The toughest part with Sibyl was adjusting to its child-size keyboard. The second toughest part has been talking about Sibyl to every Starbucks customer who is fascinated by its tininess and wants to know more about it.

My friend Peter just acquired an iPod Touch and I’m feeling a touch jealous. Mark also has one and shows me the cool apps being developed for it. What a slick interface.

I’m disappointed with Apple, though. Where is the Mac version of a netbook? The MacWorld show brought nothing exciting at all. I hoped they’d revolutionize the whole concept of the netbook by  introducing a small unit with good keyboard, based around Touch and iPhone technology.


I’m well into (Sir!!) Terry Pratchett’s latest novel, Nation. Although he’s reported that, with his early-onset Alzheimer’s, typing has become very difficult and slow, it’s done nothing to slow  his vivid, creative mind. The book, so far, is wonderfully written and I expect it will rank among his best.

In re-reading the Discworld series, I’ve just finished Maskerade. Next up: Feet of Clay.

Creative Nonfiction

I’m happy to say the Creative NonFiction Writing Forums site has been launched and has attracted some very good members who have posted interesting and useful information. If you have any interest in nonfiction, either writing it, or reading it and wondering what makes it tick, you’re cordially invited to join the forums. Membership is free. The more members we have, the more discussions we’ll have to enjoy.

Speaking of creative nonfiction, Susan Johnston, who maintains the excellent Urban Muse blog, has published a very thoughtful article The Paradox of Writing Personal Essays.


Mur Lafferty‘s recently posted I Should Be Writing podcast interview with horror author Scott Sigler covers some exceptionally interesting points of view on what it takes to develop a base of readers in today’s recessed publishing world. Podcasts, blogs, and social networking are all part of the mix.

There. Was that miscellaneous enough?

Where Do Ideas Come From?

Runners (by StarbuckGuy)

My longtime friend and colleague Dave Barr and I were discussing various topics over a pub lunch this week and one topic that came up was ‘where do ideas for writing come from?’ For both of us the answer was the same. You, as writer, put yourself in a receptive frame of mind, rather like a meditation, and soon ideas come floating in like butterflies.

Put another way, you can write about anything if you’re receptive to the material. The same is true for photography — you can take a picture of anything if you tune in to the possibilities.

Dave illustrated the point with a story he told me about marmalade — how a chance encounter with homemade marmalade put him in a mind to research the topic and discover where it originated and how it was different then than now. And how different homemade marmalade tastes compared to commercial varieties. I’ll say no more than that because Dave may publish something on the topic, which I hope he does.

One of the joys of being an essay writer is that you can pursue any topic that catches your fancy. If you’re a good enough writer, you can make that topic interesting enough to catch an editor’s fancy too — meaning that it would be interesting to a broad audience of readers. Essay writing can also be personal. I think many of us who write short essays in blog form write mainly for ourselves. We write to discover something we didn’t know or had never thought of in that particular way. I’m among those who can say ‘I don’t know what I think or feel about something until I’ve written about it.’

A few freelancers I’ve met who make their living from writing have finely honed their receptivity to ideas. Paul Lima, a Toronto freelance writer who offers excellent workshops on how to be a freelancer, tells of how when he first got a dog and began walking it in the park and meeting other dog owners, he realized there was an entire subculture of dog owners out there. His interest in the topic led him to do some research and interviews and soon he had a published story on dog owners.

It’s 8:30am and I’m sitting in Starbucks in a window seat. Outside as I type this I see a group of runners across the street outside the Running Room. It’s cold, about -20C with the wind chill factor, and they’re all wearing hats and warm outer wear. Some are wearing black, others dress in bright blue and red. Two of the runners wear coats of phosphorescent green. They’re all wearing running shoes. There they go, in mostly single file down the sidewalk. They’ve split into three groups, each heading in a different direction. Most look at their wrists as they set out, probably to check their watches or to set a timer.

After their run many of them will descend into Starbucks, forming a loud, boisterous group. They’re pumped full of endorphins and camaraderie. I rather enjoy it when they arrive, though it makes writing difficult. I know there’s a story there, probably many, if I were to pursue it.

Adjacent to the Running Room is a place called Tanned Bodies, certainly a place that elicits ideas both about the type of people who use tanning parlours as well as the health risks of tanning. Across the parking lane for both is a breakfast chain called Sunset Grill featuring its ‘famous all day breakfast’. Except that it’s never open at sunset. I opens early in the morning and shuts down about mid afternoon. So how did it get its name?

Across the street from Sunset Grill is a totem pole in a small park beside the river, honouring the Mississauga Indians who once lived here. I read that the strip one mile on either side of the Credit River was once reserve land and that there was a trading post near where I’m currently sitting. The Mississaugans would come to the trading post to trade furs, fish, and whatnot for credit, which is how the Credit River got its name. Lots of material here for a writer interested in the past. Also, is a totem pole an appropriate way to honour the Mississauga tribes? I thought totem poles were part of the culture of Pacific Northwest peoples, not those of the Eastern Woodlands.

In that short span of vision from my window seat lie all kinds of stories that can be told, or re-told, with a new slant. If you view it receptively, in the words of Terry Pratchett, ‘the world’s your mollusc.’

Need more ideas for stories? I found an excellent online article yesterday: 50 Ways for Writers to Find Article Ideas by Susan Johnson. There is additional followup at her blog, The Urban Muse.

Happiness is … a working computer

dell-xps-630 (by StarbuckGuy)

There’s a Guantanamo Bay of the mind, where you can be held captive and tortured. It occurs at various times, but especially when your computer fails and attempts to fix it go awry. My son and I have just spent two days there, hoping to be freed, hoping the pain would go away.

It began innocently, when my son’s new Dell XPS 630i computer system arrived. His old system died the day before Christmas and because it’s so critical for what he does — electronic sound and music — we decided it was time for a replacement. We ordered a new Dell tower model spec’d nicely with big drives, state-of-the-art video card, and as much RAM as we could afford.

It took nearly a month to arrive, which made him pretty twitchy. He could use his portable for Internet and email, but it didn’t have the power to run his demanding music editing software or to easily hook into his synthesizers.

The day of arrival was filled with anticipation. We both agreed that he should assemble and set up the system by himself — for the practice of it and to reduce his dependency on me as the family’s computer doctor.

The Dell set up beautifully. It came pre-loaded with Windows XP, an important option for us. It was also shipped with a Vista DVD should we want to downgrade, but it won’t happen. Too much of my son’s hardware and software have known issues with Vista.

Things went swimmingly at first. He did a class job of installing and setting things up, but he made a simple error in loading one of his key programs. He loaded a later version than the one he normally uses, and it failed installing at 99%. Because it didn’t officially install, it couldn’t be officially uninstalled.

We nuked the files we could locate, and attempted to install the older version of his software, but the installation program wouldn’t run. Our theory was that the previous botched installation had put some crap in the Windows registry that prevented the older version from installing. Not knowing what to look for we did our best, but couldn’t solve the puzzle.

My son felt crushed. He felt stupid even though I assured him that he’d done everything 99% right and that that was something to be proud of. Didn’t help though. It was late at night, we were stressed, and we decided to leave it and resume in the morning.

I thought about it some more and wondered if a registry cleaner could rid his system of the problem. I downloaded a couple of free ones and moved them to a memory stick to try in the morning.

Unfortunately, when he emerged from his basement apartment the next morning, he’d already reformatted the C: drive and decided to reinstall XP from scratch. That’s certainly the cleanest way to proceed, but I was a bit worried about getting all the drivers working properly.

Fortunately the reinstallation went well and when the system was rebuilt to a basic level, he tried installing the right version of his software. It installed and ran normally. With everything seemingly ticking along fine, I left it to him to run the Microsoft updates and whatnot, and tweak the interface to his liking.

I walked to Starbucks and wrote yesterday’s blog entry. I was feeling warm and comfy. My son was on his way and my friend Rob Sawyer had all kinds of exciting news to share. Then my cell phone rang.

My son called to say he’d hit another problem, around networking. I knew it was something I couldn’t troubleshoot over the phone so I headed home where found him in despair.

I worked at the system over for awhile and seemingly got the network card working with Internet connectivity. However, when I cold booted the machine to have a fresh look, it took forever, and I got an incomplete Windows interface. Something drastically wrong. My son had not quite known what to do when he was trying to set up Internet and at one point he even installed the Netware client, in case that helped.

Worse, I couldn’t F8 into safe mode while Windows was booting. The installation was toast.

I offered to rebuild the OS to a functioning level, including Internet, and he gladly accepted. I can’t believe the pain I felt seeing his pain. He was afraid we’d never get it restored, but I assured him that if it arrived in working condition, it could be restored to working condition.

So, I put on my tech hat, sat in front of his monitor, and reinstalled Windows XP, starting with deleting the C: drive partition and creating it anew, with an NTFS format. Then, by the book, I installed XP and all the relevant drivers from the Dell drivers disc. By the time I finished, the system was running cleanly, the Internet card was working fine, and I ran all the Microsoft updates.

At that point I turned it over to him and he installed his software again, successfully. We were free at last.

The worst part is that it lowered his self confidence and he’d done only two things wrong. As he watched me troubleshooting and building, he said he’d done all that. I was impressed at how much he’d understood.

Today he felt better. We both agreed that the next thing he should install was a good game and have some fun with the computer. He was delighted at how smoothly the gaming software ran.

I think we’ve left GITMO behind, and he now accepts that he ‘almost’ had it. Things are good again. I’m sitting in Starbucks enjoying my cuppa with no cell phone emergency calls. I hope …

A Rising Star

Impassioned Delivery (by StarbuckGuy)

Robert J. Sawyer reading from his novel, Rollback, April 14, 2007, Bakka Books, Toronto

My old friend Rob Sawyer sent an email today about some exciting new developments in his career as a science fiction writer, and, increasingly, as a television personality. I met Rob in the 80’s when we were both writing for InfoAge. He was, at the time, working as a full-time freelance writer for magazines and working on his first science fiction novel, Far-Seer. Little did I know then that he would emerge as a major force in the science fiction world.

His 18th(!!) novel, WWW: Wake, will be coming out in April 2009. The theme is ‘the World Wide Web wakes up…’ I’ll be standing in line at the book signing!

In addition, ABC will soon start filming a pilot for Flash Forward, a new hour-long TV series based on Rob’s award-winning novel of the same name.

The pilot script was written by David S. Goyer  (Batman Begins) and Brannon Braga (Star Trek,  24), and David is directing. Rob is serving as  consultant, and will be writing one of the  first-season episodes.

In addition to this, Rob will begin hosting a new 17-part TV series on VisionTV called Supernatural Investigator.  It airs on Tuesdays, starting Jan. 27 at 10:30 pm ET/7:30 pm PT. (This coming Tuesday if you’re reading this before the 27th)

Produced for VisionTV by some of Canada’s leading independent production companies, the Supernatural Investigator documentaries bring rigorous real-life scrutiny to the murky world of paranormal phenomena. Each half-hour episode follows an expert investigator as he or she searches for the truth behind so-called supernatural happenings.

These investigators – among them futurist Mac Tonnies, archaeologist Joel Palka, science writer and adventurer Jeff Warren, magician Jeremy Bennett, and musician Tara Slone – confront unearthly mysteries with a clear and critical eye: Have extraterrestrials visited this planet? Did vengeful demons hound a Canadian journalist to his death? Why did the U.S. government experiment with ESP during the Cold War? And did the world’s greatest escape artist somehow slip the bonds of death?

It sounds like great fun and I’ll be watching.

Rob is a futurist as well as a writer, and he’s frequently a guest on TV shows in Ontario. It’s not surprising to me that another new half-hour documentary series on VisionTV, I Prophesy, which premieres the same night (one-half hour earlier than Supernatural Investigator), features Rob in its first episode, “Dude, Where’s My Flying Car?” 10:00 p.m. Eastern / 7:00 p.m. Pacific.

Way to go, Rob! And did I mention that Rob is also a really nice guy? In addition to being smart, approachable, courteous, and affable, he has always extended a willing, helpful hand to aspiring writers. It’s nice to see a Toronto boy do so well!

My Writing Routine

Readin' Writin' Sippin' (by StarbuckGuy)

As I was leaving Starbucks yesterday, an acquaintance who had just discovered I was blogging daily during January asked if I’d just completed my entry. When I said yes, I had, he asked what it was about. “About things that came in the mail today.” He grinned and shook his head, “Your mail? You must have a lot of time on your hands.”

In reality, I don’t. Despite being retired, I have to work hard at maintaining a writing schedule. I don’t have as much energy as I did when I was younger, and certainly not as much as I had prior to my cardio problems, so I’ve had to develop a routine that I follow almost daily, to get in my writing before the day slips away from me.

I get up when I wake up. That sounds pretty lame, but what I mean is I don’t set an alarm clock. I’m an irregular sleeper — some nights I’ll sleep 8-9 hours, and other nights, 4-5. I can never predict which it will be, so I get up when I wake up, and start my routine.

First, breakfast. I brew a pot of green tea while I’m eating, and work on a sudoku. I solve sudokus in a leisurely way, partly to slow down my eating, making a kind of meditation out of the meal. Solving the sudoku also helps clear the sleep from my head. Then a relaxing cup of green tea. If Marion is up, we have breakfast together. If I’m up early, I do a solo act.

After breakfast I fire up my laptop and check the weather page, email, Flickr, and the Creative NonFiction Writing Forums. By the time I’ve made a pass through these, replying to emails and comments, my breakfast has settled and I’m ready for my walk.

Walking is part of my cardio rehab, but I’ve always liked walking anyway and try to get out even when the weather’s bad. The first leg of my walk takes me through the village of Port Credit, down a steep hill to the public library, then across the park to the Credit River. The City of Mississauga has built a walkway under the bridges that cross the Credit, and if it’s not too icy, I walk through there to reach the harbour on the other side.

Always I have a camera with me. Always. Photography is a parallel passion to my writing. If it’s early in the morning, the light in the harbour can be especially nice and I take some shots near the pier — jetty, perhaps — I’ve never been clear on the definition. It has park benches on it that are much used during the non-winter months.

From there I walk across the pedestrian bridge to the base of the Port Credit lighthouse — a modern reconstruction of the historical lighthouse. It’s a working lighthouse with a rotating beacon in its dome. Just across the street from it is a Starbucks. Actually it’s the Starbucks for folks who know me. I’m a regular and, in some ways, it’s my writing office. The walk there takes about 15-20 minutes.

The Starbucks replaced a smoky doughnut shop a few years ago. A doughnut shop with a very tall lofted, peaked ceiling and huge vertical windows on three sides. It’s a bright, cheery locale, and very popular. Seating is limited so the first thing I look for is a place to sit. I’m careful never to take up more than half a small table so other customers can sit on the other side.

I sit, take off my coat if it’s winter, then head over for a Grande Mild. I’m a plain coffee drinker — I get a cappuccino maybe once a year as a treat, but the rest of the time, it’s just coffee. I do my best to resist the sweets bar, not always successfully. Coffee in hand, I return to my table, remove writing gear from my small backpack, and set up for work.

I write between 1-2 hours while I’m there. My Starbucks card is registered, so I’m able to get a free refill after the first hour or so. A few times a week I buy something to snack on, partly as ‘rent’ for my office space.

If I’m journalling, I target a minimum of 1000 words, but frequently write 1500-2000. Journalling is free flow, so the words can tumble out as they wish. This month I’m committed to a daily blog entry, and I find it takes most of my ‘Starbucks’ time to write one and edit it to the point I’m not embarrassed to publish it.

After my writing session, I begin my longer walk, weather permitting. I have a couple of extended routes back home that take between 30-50 minutes to walk at a good pace. If the weather’s bad, I head straight back, getting in my minimum of a 30-min walk.

I rarely write in the evenings — I never have, except when I’m on deadline with a magazine piece. In the evening I like to read, watch a video, Photoshop some shots, or potter about the house cooking or doing household chores.

The older you get, the shorter life seems. I don’t feel as if I have too much time on my hands. Rather, I don’t have enough.