Writing, publishing, geekdom, and errata.

Which way to accountability?

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The employee looked even more confused than the customer.

"I'm not sure where that department is," he said. "I'm new here, and..."

"Maybe I can help," I interjected. "What are you looking for?"

They told me the department - rather far away from mine. "No problem," I said. "Follow me."

Even though it might have made me late for a meeting, this kind of scenario is explicitly approved by my workplace. We are supposed to jump in and help - even if it means we're late for something else. It's obvious why, too. The new employee was visibly relieved, and the customer was thrilled, saying "It's been a long time since I had service like that!"

I think this is one aspect of responsibility and accountability that Seth Godin was talking about yesterday. Even though that customer will never be in my department, they will not make that distinction.

But that's the easy part.

The other aspect - the one that Seth explicitly talks about - is when someone in another department drops the ball. And that part is a little bit more difficult.

My department - or "fiefdom" as Seth calls it - is not under my control. I'm a worker bee, not a supervisor. Any complaints I get about another department go to my supervisor. But even if I was a supervisor, I would still have to channel any complaints through another supervisor (or two, or three) until it finally got to the appropriate department.

I can, of course, do what I can to fix an immediate problem. When the problem is still there, I've been able to intercede on a patient's behalf with another department. But there is very little I can do about a past problem like the ones Seth is talking about.

This isn't to minimize Seth's observation or complaint - he's absolutely correct. The actions of one person in a company reflects on all people in that company. The positive side of that is easy to do. In a flattened hierarchy it might even be easy to deal with the negative elements as well.

But what solutions are there for those of us working for companies that have a traditional hierarchy? When we solve that problem, I think all of us - employees and customers alike - will benefit.

Until then, I can only keep giving directions.

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Big Fish, Little Industrial Pond

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It didn't take me long to figure it out. Of the gathering of geeks, I was the most "cool".

I don't mean in the "geek-cred" sense, but in the sense of the rest of American society. I was still a geek - nobody would debate that - but I also had more social skills than most of the people in the gathering. I had traveled several hours to this gathering of geeks, all of us friends over a computer network that predated the widespread adoption of the internet. (Yes, I did BBSes from 1991-2001, and even ran my own for a few years.) This didn't happen at every gathering like this - and it never happened in "real life". It's still a hot day at the bottom of hell [1] when I'm the coolest kid in the room.

But it has happened, and it felt good.

That same experience has happened in many areas of my life - writing, medicine, athleticism [2], and education. I've been good, or even at the top before. I was a big fish - but in a very, very small pond. And more than once, I'd stick my head out of that pond and find out pretty quickly how small my pond was.

That's the place a lot of mid-sized American (and largely industrial) cities find themselves in. They look at data like Richard Florida's on spiky innovation or the creative crisis in industrial cities and think that they can't compete against Silicon Valley or Seattle or... well, you get the idea. They think - mistakenly - that if you can't directly compete, you shouldn't bother.

But that's a defeatist way to look at it. Rather than try to compete to be the biggest fish in the big sea, instead we could concentrate on becoming a specialized fish. Mudskippers, triggerfish, and many others are well-adapted (and very successful) in their niche areas. They would have a very bad time of things in the open ocean (or a vast lake for those of you who require accuracy in metaphors), but a fish adapted to the open ocean (lake!) would have a hard time in mud flats or hunting like a triggerfish does. If you read the posts I linked to carefully, they are saying the status cannot stay quo, but neither are they saying that everyone has to be enormously, internationally successful overnight.

It goes back to the problem that got us here in the first place - the idea that we have to maximize profits. That is, that we've all got to be the coolest kid around, the richest kid, the most successful kid. And that simply can't be. But we can still succeed.

I wasted years of my life trying to be "cool", and failing rather spectacularly. My life did not start to turn around until I decided to stop judging myself by the cool kids and stopped trying to be the cool kids.

Instead, I just started being myself - and it was only then that I could suddenly discover that I was cool, after all.

[1] And the fact that I'm making a literary joke here should serve as proof.
[2] Not now, but at other times in my life I was vaguely athletic, okay?

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Playing with attachments

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[Steve's note: I reserve the right to be completely wrong in my interpretation of religious texts. And that's more than you'll get from most folks, huh?]

When I first started reading the book Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, I had problems with the concept of "this is it."

And not just because I keep thinking of a Huey Lewis and the News song.

The phrase is repeated a couple of different times throughout the book, and was heavily used by the person who recommended it to me. Something just seemed... wrong about it. I wondered - and even railed, a little bit - against the idea. By simply accepting things as they are, I thought, then there is no room to grow. There is no progress, whether one means spiritually, technologically, or whatever. It seemed to be a defeatist and resigned phrase.

It kept me stalled with the book for months.

Until I remembered the Vinegar Tasters.

There's a wonderful passage in Tao of Pooh, excerpted here. Go read it really quickly and come back. It's a short bit.

::taps foot, hums, waits::

Okay, back? Both the Confuscian and Buddhist viewpoints, as illustrated in the above passage, still have attachments and expectations for a goal. (I'm using attachment in a quasi-Buddhist sense here.) Confusicanism strives for the old order, Buddhism for detachment. But to me, that seems to still be a kind of attachment.

Likewise, saying "this is it" with a sense of "letting go" of our goals and expectations still requires attachment to our goals and expectations. There's a metaphysical prepositional phrase, if you will, tying you to the things you're attached to. Saying "I am here, my attachments are over there" or even "I no longer have attachments" seem to be the same as detachment. Yet in so saying, the attachments are still firmly in mind. Maybe not in front of you, maybe not overwhelming you. Maybe even existing only in the past tense. But they're there.

Instead, think of play-doh. Or building blocks. Or sand.

They are there. They, to steal the phrase, are it. But within them is all sorts of potential - my son spent a good bit of his time at his grandparents playing "Plants vs. Zombies" with Play-doh and action figures. Rather than whine (much) about the lack of a computer game, he used the things there.

They were it, and that was okay.

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Green - A 100 Word Story

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I miss her emerald eyes.

The upload process transferred personalities perfectly. Old recordings of her voice informed the synthesizer; her new body was sculpted after scans of twenty year old photos.

The eyes were never quite the same, always left somewhere in the uncanny valley.

"It will be me, Howard." She had known my feelings, but her fatal virus had left us no choice.

She walks through the door in her new, engineered body. She moves like my wife, says my name like my wife.

Her flat matte green eyes gaze at me.

I shudder, and leave it there, alone.

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Dominating the Conversation

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I had a nice planned post for today - until I saw this post from Resist Racism. It quite deftly meanders from the merely annoying (and often invisible) aspects of white privilege to where acknowledging that privilege openly can expose more bitter - and openly racist - undercurrents.

The post is worth reading for that alone. But there's a problem that I have that they touch on:

But I do know that when white people dominate and control the discussions of race, racism and privilege, we aren’t going to get very far.

I work at being an ally. (I'm a straight white male).

I've had more than a few friends (of color, women, or in some way not fitting the heteronormative stereotype) tell me that they don't want to speak up or speak out, usually followed by the sentence "I just want to live my life."

I've also noticed - and had this confirmed by others - that I get listened to more by folks in power when talking about racism, sexism, or heterosexism than a representative from those groups.

So in situations where someone is being marginalized (even though I'm saying the same thing), or where they do not want to speak out, how can I best be an ally without dominating the situation? Any ideas?

Olive Loaf - A 100 Word Story

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The streets were as alive as downtown Marysville ever got. Jonah watched them eat funnelcakes, scream on cheap rides, and play the carnival games. The annual Olive Loaf Festival had not changed a bit. He remembered trying to explain it to Mary before he came home.

"Small towns, they find something - anything - they can call their own. Some reason to feel special."

Her raised eyebrow had spoken volumes of sarcasm.

Back there he had been a nobody. Now, the festival crowd laughed and swirled around him. Jonah held his picture of Mary and danced down the street with them, smiling.

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Sexism and Fantasy Covers

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I really don't have a lot to add to Jim Hines' discussion of sexism and fantasy covers - I just want to draw your attention to it if you haven't already seen them. Jim's take on this (as with so many other things) is smart, funny, and empathic. (And I'm not seeing him at any cons soon, so I'm not just buttering his ego. Really.)

Part one: Sexism is Not About Your Ego

Wherein the "but that's just the way it's done" defense is busted into nothing.

Part two: Fantasy Covers: Doin' it Right?

In which Jim (and his horde of commenters) point out that good (and even sexy) fantasy covers don't have to objectify women at the same time. With pictures.

Good reading - go take a look.

(Also, this is fair warning to those of you who started reading this blog in the last month or so - the flash-fiction-a-day thing is not normal for me. I normally post a flash fiction a week, and the rest ranges over a wide slew of topics. We'll probably be back to a more normal style of posting in the next week or two.)

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Occupy - A 100 Word Story

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She adjusts herself on the sheet. The technician straps her in and steps out of the room. The table slides her towards the scanner's large ominous doughnut.

"Hold your breath," the computerized voice says. A whir, then: "Breathe."

They saw it first on the x-ray, the little dot now an invading force. "Hold your breath." Pause. "Breathe."

It colonized one lung, lymph nodes, spleen. "Hold your breath. Breathe."

This is what it must feel like to be Iraq, she imagines. "Hold your breath." Her bones ache with cellular Abu Gharibs and Basras. How much has fallen?


"Hold your breath."

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Voice - A 100 Word Story

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Like jasmine, nighttime soft and delicate, heard in the sudden pause of a dozen conversations.
Like curry, seasoning small talk into sublime soul sharing.
Like molasses, soft and comforting, though we're "just friends".
Like pure summer dew, innocent and clear kisses.
Like sugar, delicious and excruciatingly sweet.
Like butter, melting words enhancing our flavor.
Like yellow sliced cheese, once delightful, now blasé.
Like jalepeno, ferocious heat cursing stupid infidelities.
Like ice, a no-taste defined by cold, the absence of heat
Like copper, metallic aftertaste lingering long after the real thing is gone.
Like whiskey, hateful burning but never, ever enough.

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Oil - (totally different) - A 100 Word Story

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Jim nearly bounced in his cleansuit and waved the rest of the lab over. He pointed at the display, where the genetically modified amoeba was eating a grey dot and excreting a small black drop.

Everyone cheered, except Sandra. She was new, and was still learning names and projects. Jim saw, and his gloved hands grabbed the shoulders of her cleansuit.

"I've made an organism that eats plastic and excretes oil! It's a perfect recycler! The shortage is over!"

They were all so excited that they missed the black drop running down the edge of the lab's plastic air seals.

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Oil - A 100 Word Story

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"You didn't get the dressing right again, dear," he called from the table. In the kitchen, she clenched her eyes and hands and took what were supposed to be five deep breaths. She could hear him crunching the salad, despite his complaints.

She tried to sound pleasant and cheerful through clenched teeth. "Oh?"

"I don't think you got the mix of oil and vinegar quite right. Did you call my momma to ask how she makes it?"

"I followed her recipe. Dear."

"Well, you still didn't get it right. Again."

He gasped as she poured first the vinegar, then oil, then a powdery mix of herbs on his head.

"I think it's just right, now."

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Popular Mechanics - A 100 Word Story

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The wrench flies from the engine, close enough that I taste flecks of rust. Grandfather yells, a balding series of spheres in the front seat. I already know I'm worthless, thanks. I wipe the grease onto my ruined shirt, he dabs a pressed handkerchief at his forehead.

The wrench and my hand slide back in. It - he won't identify it - must be held just so. The key cranks, washing the smell of exhaust and gasoline over me.

The car roars to life. He lumbers inside, shouting how he fixed the car.

The wrench smashes a beautiful music through the windshield.

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Exam - A 100 Word Story

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She collects the fee from the nightstand. He rubs his ring finger, counting ribs as her shirt slides over them.

"I gotta run," she says. "I have a exam in biology to study for."

"I had an exam at the hospital yesterday," he blurts.

She giggles. "What grade did you get?"

He remembers the scan full of unexpected metastatic dots.

"They don't give grades." He hopes his smile seems natural.

After she leaves, he rolls upright, lights a cigarette - why stop now? - and stares at the door.

He opens the nightstand drawer, removes the book, and desperately begins to cram.

Virtual Disabilities in Second Life

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The online magazine Life to Life has published an essay of mine entitled Ignoring the Chair in the July issue. (It's written under my SL name of Uriel Wheeler, and starts on page 16.)

Life to Life is, in it's own words "a new free online magazine published monthly for Second Life residents, written by Second Life residents, all about Second Life! Life to Life Magazine is published the 15th of each month." The interface is really quite interesting - it's perhaps one of the easiest on-screen reading experiences I've had in, oh, forever. Even if you're not in Second Life, go give the article (and the whole magazine) a read!

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You mean that corporate radio is a bunch of posers?! Shock!

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Okay, a break from the stories for a moment.

Last night I wrote an open letter to WXEG - a radio station in Dayton, OH. I'd taken offense at the sexist tone of their station ID spots. (It's worth noting that their morning DJ, unlike many others, does NOT substitute sexism for humor.) In my letter, I said that kind of behavior wasn't edgy. In fact, I said it made them out to be posers.

"It's just the radio station's sense of humor," one of my co-workers said today. "They're just trying to be funny."

Sure, it's their sense of humor. Yeah, they're probably trying to be funny. But it's still sexist crap.

And it still means they're complete posers.

It's not the fact that they're picking on people. That's not what does or does not make them "edgy". Look at Bill Hicks if you want edgy. No, really, watch his stuff. Look at Susanna Lee. Look at Dave Chappelle. Hell, look at George Carlin. They're all funny. They all pick on people and point out stupidity, sure. But here's the difference: they point out how stupid the powerful are [1]. That is edgy.

I saw a clip of George Carlin doing the "words you can't say on the air" sketch from 1978. (You can see it here.) Take a close look at it. Watch Carlin up there skewering our nonsensical societal morés... and the vast numbers of people in the audience who were just laughing because they were hearing naughty words. Maybe that's why his standup got so mean in his later years - that disconnect between the comedian who stayed edgy and the audience who wanted fart jokes.

All humor isn't created equal. Sometimes humor empowers - and is edgy as all hell. And sometimes humor just reinforces the same crappy social inequality - the kind that lets, say, a huge media conglomerate pretend that it might be cool.

[1] And if you don't catch how Dave Chappelle is making fun of the powerful and dominant ideology in this country, please go watch all of Bill Hicks' stuff again. All of it. In a row. Without stopping.

Pure - A 100 Word Story

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Snowflakes float lazily as she begins shouting. I do not fight back, and this infuriates her. Crystalline water sparkles in angled sunlight, like the shining stone in her ring that bounce bounce bounces on the floor.

She leaves tire tracks in the driveway, a bit of rubber on the street. Her suitcase, her car are gone, and so is she.

Fat wet flakes fall, coating my hair in age, weariness, fear. They come down down down and fill in the tracks with a coat of purest white.

For a little while, I can forget. For a little while, I pretend.

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Whiskey - A 100 Word Story

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"Aw, hell. Zombies."

Professor Heath laughed from across the bar.

"No, they're whiskey sours."

He drank his, then poured more gunpowder into his shotgun shells. Nicole poured another round of whiskey, then passed out rounds for our pistols.

"I thought," she said, "Romero's zombie movies were a commentary on the mindless nature of modern American society."

"What, nihilism?" I snorted. "It's all mindless and will eat you in the end?"

The Professor stood and smiled.

"There is only one effective response to both nihilism and the undead."

He took aim through the boards on the window and fired.

"Decisive action."

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One - A 100 Word Story

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You scream over the echoes of the bomb: "Call 911!"

Two rescue breaths, just like in the book, move down. Find the xyphoid, ignore the twisted shape of his ribs and push push. Ignore that this kid had shoved in front of you, ignore his shrapnel and his burned flesh on your hands. Push push. Move back up, head-tilt-chin-thrust. He's young, no lines on his face, then the sirens and wounded wail in chorus, remember breathe, breathe. Fingers on his neck, feel for a pulse, feel for breath on your cheek. C'mon, any pulse.

Just a little heartbeat.

Just one.

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Job - A 100 Word Story

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PFC Fenti flinches, but there is no explosion. The driver glances at him, then watches the road again.



Bullets fail to come streaking from the windows. Simmons lights a Camel - irony is cheap here - and blows smoke in Fenti's face.

Spielberg would consider that a cue; the insurgents do not.

Tense, boring minutes pass. A drip of sweat falls from Fenti's head onto his weapon.


No bullets. No IED. Nothing.

He says it: "Remember, it's not just a job..."

When the left side of the hummer goes in flame and shrapnel, it's almost a relief.


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Two stories for the price of free

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Over the last few days, two stories of mine have been published; rather than give you a flash fiction here, I'm going to point you to those stories.

Gestation can be read at Quantum Muse.

Conscious Illusion can be read at Everyday Wierdness.

I hope you like them!

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The Right Size - A 100 Word Story

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The vase twists and falls from his hand, spilling roses across the floor. She holds her mother's old suitcase over her chest, the nobby green 1970's plastic rough against her silk dress.

Her voice is flat: "I'm sorry. You were scheduled to return tomorrow."

His voice is an uncomfortable goiter stuck in his throat.

"Who?" he croaks.

She points at Robert's old VW bus pulling in the mansion drive.

"But..." he gestures at the building, her dress. "Him? He can't give you this. Was there not enough roses? Is the house too small?"

She sighs. "Bigger isn't always better, Tony."

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Burial - A 100 Word Story

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The rain patters cold on my shoulders, the post hole digger, the body of the bird wrapped gently in a Sponge Bob pillowcase. Sarah's soft sobs are muffled by Martha's torso, my daughter's arms tightly wrapped around her mother.

I am finishing when Sarah touches me, the last clod softly packed down with my booted foot.

"Daddy, is Heaven something like Margaritaville?"

I look at Martha; her look away and the mention of Bob's favorite song says more than a strange man's jeans in the wash.

"No," I say, crying with her as Martha goes inside, "It's nothing like that."

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