Tuesday, January 31, 2006

State of the Shire addresses

The American State of the Union address is, I think, a somewhat unique feature of governmental procedure in world history. Kings, emperors, and conquering generals have addressed their councils, senates, and advisors for thousands of years. But how many leaders were constitutionally required to report on the state of their states to a co-governing body before the United States constitution was put into place?

I feel the process has been perverted over the past couple hundred years, just like the principle of Separation of Church and State. The Founding Fathers were afraid to allow any particular religious group gain actual governing power, and thus use that power to advance their religious philosophy. Today's application of the principle forbids city and county governments from putting Santa Claus on their front lawns because someone may be offended by the presence of "religious iconography".

Something has been lost in the interpretation of law.

And, of course, now whenever an American president speaks to the nation or its leaders, the opposing party has to have "equal time" to counter every point he makes. I don't recall the constitutional necessity for boring the American people with ad hominem political rhetoric.

But maybe the worst sin is the fact that presidents now use the State of the Union to advocate their political points of view and mention in a by-the-way manner that the nation has a few problems and some strengths. The sooner we kick politicians out of Washington, the better off we'll be.

Anyway, now that the ranting is over (and I know people would say this post would be better off without it), I have wondered what some of the Shire leaders would have said, had it been their constitutional duty to report on the State of the Shire.

Take Bucca of the Marish, for example. He was the first Thain of the Shire. Unlike George Washington, who all but predicted the War Between the States, Bucca assumed leadership over a relatively unified Shire. Like Washington, Bucca presided over a nation which had just won its independence in a terrible war. The ancient Kingdom of Arthedain (Arnor) had been destroyed by Angmar, and Aranarth, rightful king of Arnor, elected not to re-establish the monarchy. So the Shire chieftains elected Bucca to be their Thain -- their war-leader and, presumably, chief spokesperson to groups outside the Shire.

Imagine Bucca assessing matters after his first year in office. "Friends, Hobbits, fellow Shire-folk. Lend me your ears! Today we celebrate a year of plentitude with platitudes and plenty. We're alive. We have food to eat. And our families are safe. So, what the heck? Let's eat!"

Gorhendad Oldbuck, maybe in his first and only State of the Shire speech, might have said something about the way the Shire had become too crowded. "My fellow Shirefolk. I speak before you today a Hobbit in dire need of freedom: freedom to breathe, freedom to live, freedom to thrive. The old Shire has become too bloated with wealthy, insufferable, Fallohidish hobbitry who have no sense of what it means to settle down and live comfortably. Perhaps I shall abdicate this office of my fathers and seek a more peaceful respite across the Brandywine river, for the hills there are gentle and the trees sway quietly in the breeze...."

Isumbras I, first Thain of the Took Line, of course would not have hesitated to set the record straight in his own report to the Shire-moot. "Fellow Hobbits of the Shire. I, Isumbras I, humbly suggest to you that our Shire today is better off than it has been in many a century. Not since the days of the King have we known such peace and providence as befalls our good nation this day. We have purged ourselves of the extreme and bitter remorse for an imagined pristine time in our past. We stand today strong, proud, and fast before the coming winter...prepared to reap the harvest of hard work and gentle burdens. I give you a toast, to the Shire (the crowd roars back, 'The Shire!'), and say, 'Let us eat!'"

Isumbras III, in his last address (Shire Reckoning 1158, Stewards' Reckoning 2758): "My fellow Hobbitry. Though the night be cold, the hearth be warm and there is food aplenty. Eat up and rejoice in the sure knowledge that our homes are safe and secure against the creatures of the wild. Come the spring, we'll bask in the warm sunshine and be sure of planting a great crop for a bumper harvest."

Ferumbras II, in his first address (Shire Reckoning 1159, Stewards' Reckoning 2759): "I stand before you a hardened but not bitter hobbit. I am sure my Dad, had he lived through the Long Winter, would be as proud of the Hobbit nation as I am today. We are survivors. We are winners. We are -- okay, okay, let's eat!"

Paladin II (Pippin's father) spoke sharply in Shire Reckoning 1418 (Steward's Reckoning 3018): "Beloved Hobbits of the Shire. I tell you today there are some as whose ambitions may lead them blindly down the wrong path. But we are Shire-folk, proud and well-fed. Believe me well when I say that no Took shall tolerate any nonsense from Outsiders. Are you with me, or are you just going to eat?"

Paladin II in his address of Shire Reckoning 1419 (Steward's Reckoning 3019): "Told you so. Okay, okay, let's eat!"

Salsa dancing in Houston and Other Folds in Space

Well, for lack of a better idea, I'll say something about my most recent visit to the Tropicana night club, located at Fountain View and Richmond. Saturday night several of my friends and I decided to go check out Grupo Kandente. I have seen this band once before: in March 2004 at Ringside in Sullivan's Steakhouse on Westheimer. Ringside no longer hosts Latin dancing, and though I don't miss their dance floor (my friends do for some strange reason), I do miss the great (and sometimes not-so-great) selection of Latin artists they brought to Houston.

Tropicana does bring in other artists, and they have a really nice wooden floor, and I can usually get a table even when I forget to call in a reservation, so they do okay in my book.

Saturday, I was sitting at the traditional "Michael Martinez" table, watching the free dance lesson that German organizes get started. All of sudden he came over to me and said, "I need you to do a favor."

"What's that?" I asked, realizing the last-minute table was about to cost me something.

German (pronounced "herr-man", by the way) reached into his coat pocket and took out a digital camera. "Would you please take some pictures of the class?"

So, for the next hour, I ran around the club taking pictures of about 40 dance students, presumably to be used on the Tropicana Web site. If you see any weird angles that remind you of old Batman television show reruns (remember how all the criminal hideouts were filmed at a 40-degree angle?), well, those are probably my shots. I did my best to get action shots, but the camera was a bit weird for me. I'd press the button to take a picture and the camera would use about 3 seconds to focus itself.

Naturally, I had to use my precognizant abilities to determine when the optimal moment for snapping a picture in the future should be.

German graciously thanked me nonetheless, but I did get a few good action shots of him with different students. The still images don't do him justice. Although I know he was picking girls he has taught and danced with before to demonstrate moves, he is still a great dancer and can generally make anyone look good.

That said, I've found myself drawn more to Plaza 59 over the past few weeks. Plaza 59 is located on Hillcroft next to U.S. Highway 59. They have a smaller dance floor than Tropicana but they are very stylish and have a good stage and sound system. Mary Frometa and Mary's Band play there on many Saturdays. My friends tease me constantly about being Mary's biggest fan, but I can usually persuade the group to alternate between Plaza 59 and Tropicana on the weekends.

I don't quite yet have a "Michael Martinez" table at Plaza 59, but I can usually get a reasonably good table when I make my reservation. They know who I am, so that's a good thing (but don't get me wrong -- these clubs get to know their clientele -- they don't bow and scrape just because Mr. Martinez comes rolling in).

And just to test out the "EDIT HTML" feature, let me throw in a random plug for my new SEO Specialist page at Michael-Martinez.com. Yes, I think I have figured out the obvious at last. Never use COMPOSE mode on Bloggger.

I caught some of the Monday reruns of Stargate-SG1 on SciFi this evening (it's a rare Monday when I manage to do that), and I noticed in "Torment of Tantalos" (the 1st season episode where SG-1 takes Catherine Langford to another planet to find her long lost love, Ernest Littlefield) that the MALP was moved up onto the ramp in front of the gate before they activated the wormhole. Daniel even walked up there to put something on the MALP, so the two shots of the MALP on the ramp are clearly well-designed intentional shots.

You have to wonder how long it took the SGC to fix up a second MALP after the initializing wormhole shot out and dissolved the first one (on the ramp) into sub-atomic little nothingness. I can see a couple of MALP wheels rolling back down the ramp (in my mind) and the gateroom tech saying, "Oops" as General Hammond (who was a bit stiff and officious in the first season before he started to warm up) turns to Sergeant Siler and says, "Airman, I want another MALP on that ramp ASAP after the wormhole has stabilized."

They learned a lot in the first season....

On that note, I think I'll cut this one short, especially as I have nothing else to say. With any discipline and luck, this blog won't get mired in the traditional "Today I brushed my teeth and walked the dog" kind of posts.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Waiting for Dixie on the synaptic bus...

Dixie and I have been working together since May 1997 when she volunteered to help hand-edit the Xena Online Resources directory. Xenite.Org was only a couple of months old at the time. By the end of November, I had to turn control over the entire domain over to her while I moved to a new house and dealt with other personal issues. At the time, Dixie claimed she didn't know a thing about birthing no babies -- I mean, running computer networks.

How the years have changed her. And me. And us. Now Dixie is a sysadmin or techsport or something like that for a university in Texas and I, once a highly sought-after programmer, now sell insurance for the sixth largest brokerage in the U.S. (and I'm still highly sought after, but I promise I'll pay the bills as soon as possible).

As the years have passed, I've transferred responsibility for a lot of the technical details of operating the Xenite network to Dixie. I do this partly out of guilt and partly because she has access to resources that I don't (at home, people, at home), and partly because I don't enjoy system administration. In fact, I pretty much hate doing it. Maybe that's why I've spent over half my life doing some sort of system administration.

The guilt comes from a day when I decided to reboot the Xenite server over a telnet connection. That was the day I learned you don't reboot Web servers over telnet connections. New Zealand actor Kevin Smith had passed away only a few weeks before and our server was being hammered by immense traffic due to CNN featuring our Kevin Smith forum on their hourly reports of his death. Thousands of Kevin Smith fans came pouring in to our forum to share their grief and their words of comfort for his family (I was told at the time that Kevin's family and friends, including many of the people associated with the shows he participated in, visited the SF-FANDOM forum to read the fan memorial threads).

Well, Dixie was a huge KS fan. Still is. And, heck, I had a soft spot for the guy, who went out of his way to send a special videotape greeting to the Hercules and Xena fans at Dragon*Con when he couldn't attend the convention. His message was one of the most hilarious and heart-warming 15 minutes of special attention any actor has ever given to his fans. He had no way of knowing how his ad lib comments would be received, but the fans loved it. I was offered money for that video. I wish I had kept a copy, but I returned it per my agreement to my contact.

So, I accidentally wiped out the only archive in the world containing several thousand messages of love and devotion for Kevin Smith. We had no current backup at the time. Dixie struggled for four days to get that archive back. What makes me really sick, years later, is that last year she told me she is now sure she knows how she could have recovered the data. But we reformatted the drive and it's gone. And no one can ever forgive me for being stupid.

Well, I can't. So I let Dixie do the dangerous stuff even though I've wiped out dozens of computers and brought back dozens more from the brink of death through my career. It's not that I lost my nerve. It's not like you're afraid to go skiing again after slamming into a tree at 60 miles per hour. It's just that you realize that you hate to do something so much that you don't take the necessary precautions or exercise the diligence you should. I was irresponsible and lazy because I didn't want to take the time to fix a minor problem the right way.

But as I've shifted more and more technical responsibility to Dixie, I've sensed that she has pulled back from me. Or, it's just that she has become immensely more useful at work and they shift more responsibility to her and she just pulls back from the technical world. So, now Dixie likes to ride her Harley on the weekends and I try not to nag her with stuff that I am perfectly capable of doing myself. I'm irreversibly guilt-laden and lazy. Or maybe I'm just a little bit jaded. Xenite has gone through so many server crashes that Dixie and I just shake our heads and say, "Yep. We need to write down exactly everythng that needs to be done to get the system back up and running."

But we don't do that. Instead, we spend the next six months to a year slowly fixing all the problems that really could be fixed in a matter of days if we would just write down the little tasks we need to do as we do them. Because we spend a lot of time trying to remember what it took to get everything in place the last time we fixed stuff. For a low-impact design Web site, Xenite.Org sure does an awful lot of stuff under the hood.

I first met Dixie in person at a Dragon*Con. She came up to me at the end of a session and started talking like we were old pals. She forgot that I have people do that to me all the time. In fact, in the old days, when I was younger, especially at college, people went out of their ways to talk to me and I'd spend 30 minutes wondering who they were.

Once I started becoming "famous" ( as a programmer doing conferences, road shows, and teaching or helping with classes) I got used to complete strangers comig up to me and resuming conversations we'd had online months in the past. Not that I ever had a clue what they were talking about, but I learned to smile, pretend I understood who they were and why they were relevant to my life, and if I was lucky they'd eventually come to their senses, realize I was lost, and gently guide me back to the edge of techno-humanity's sub-culture.

So imagine how my life became after I started making a name for myself with Hercules and Xena fans, and Tolkien fans, and who knows what other kind of fans. Now there are Michael Martinez fans. I've spent whole days walking around with groups of fans asking me questions and acting like I am the center of attention. It's a great feeling and it makes you want to give something back to the people who express so much interest in you.

Anyway, here was this strange woman talking to me like we'd known each other for years. I suddenly looked down at her name tag and realized that, yes, we had known each other for years and she didn't miss a beat. "You don't know who I am, do you, Michael? You don't even recognize my voice." I didn't grovel too much after that.

But that's why I keep Xenite going, I suppose. I don't really do it for me or my ego any more. I do have a sense of "If I stay the course, I'll be able to celebrate a 10-year anniversary in 2007". There are not many Web sites that have hit the 10-year mark yet. I do it because I like the people who like me, and Dixie likes me despite my flaws, and many of you like me despite my very blunt, straight-from-the-heart, "I'm so right because I've had to argue this point a thousand times before and no one has changed my mind yet" way of trying to be a considerate, helpful, big-hearted guy.

But to keep Xenite going, I have to keep Dixie going. So once in a while I start calling and emailing her and after a few weeks of playing hard to get she'll call me or email me or somehow connect with me to let me know that, yes, Xenite is still on the schedule of Dixie Rounds. The latest Waiting-for-Dixie request is a blog at a new domain we'll be launching...soon... for Tolkien fans. I had hoped to get the site going this month, but I've been very busy myself. In fact, I've been so busy I've spent entire weekends avoiding anything that seems like work, and working on Web sites seems like work.

But waiting for Dixie reminds me of how intimate relationships can change over the years. I've had a few that changed. Someone loses interest or both people lose interest and one day you wake up and realize the relationship is over.

Which has nothing to do with me and Dixie. But whenever I get like this I think about something she said to me one time. We were on our way to the Texas Rennaissance Festival and somehow talking about relationships (quite probably it had something to do with all those girls I kept falling into infatuation with because Dixie spent a lot of her time rolling her eyes). I was probably gushing about how it is so cool to have girls do the chasing on occasion. Women don't like to hear that.

"What is the problem?" I said as Dixie rolled her eyes for the upmteenth time. "Why can't the girl do the chasing?"

"Because that's just not the way it's done!"

Well, Dixie had told me a few stories about her courtship with Kim, her husband. I pointed out that she had admitted me to on more than one occasion that she knew she wanted to marry him before he asked. WELL before he asked. "Yes, but I let him chase me until I caught him," Dixie explained.

Hm. Does this mean I'm running into a Dixie trap somewhere down the road? Will she one day hand me a present, maybe a copy of "Sysadmin For Lazy People" when I finally pop the question, "Dixie, will you please fix the server?"

I do have to admit that Dixie's remark had a profound impact on me. I've since come around to realize that, yes, I the man have to do the chasing. Why? Because the girl decides who she will catch.

So when I'm with my very traditional Vietnamese girl, and she is laughing at my jokes and holding my hand, and looking at me out of the corner of her eye, I wonder, "Am I chasing you until you catch me, or am I already caught?"

Well, I suppose if I don't run in the wrong direction or try to remotely reboot her server via telnet, Linda will eventually get me out of Dixie's hair.

And then maybe she'll get some work done on Xenite....

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Good news -- You can save a bundle ...

No, it's not a GEICO car insurance commercial. That article I mentioned in the previous entry looks like it will receive the corporate legal department's blessing, but I've decided to drop one point from it.

It's a list of ways that companies can reduce their health insurance costs. As the article made the rounds for comments at the office before submission to the book's author/editor, one person indicated one part didn't quite make sense to her. I finally decided to drop that section rather than revise the article and send it around again (because there is a time factor).

So, what won't you see in the book?

Basically, it addresses something called "Deductible Creep". Many companies, as their health insurance (major medical) premiums increase from year to year, try to keep their costs down by raising deductibles and co-insurance slightly. Let's say the company plan calls for a $250 deductible. That means that employees are expected to pay $250 out of pocket for medical expenses like hospital emergency room visits before the insurance picks up the costs.

Well, in any given year, especially for companies that have one or more employees who make major claims (surgeries, cancers, and other serious illnesses requiring hospitalization), insurance premiums can be increased by anywhere from 2% to 20%. The annual average increase is usually in the range of 8-12%. Most companies celebrate when their insurance agents deliver increases of less than 5%.

Still, if you're paying $4200/year per employee for 100 employees, a 2% increase is about $8040. A 10% increase is over $40,000. A lot of companies will say, "We can just raise the deductible another $250 and save that $40,000."

True, but that makes life harder for employees. The company saves money but the employees who have to pick up that extra $250 in medical expenses see their purchasing power decrease.

Today, after several years of raising deductibles, many companies now find themselves with deductibles in the range of $1500-2000. Their major medical insurance is no longer looking so good. This kind of erosion of medical coverage at the employee's expense contributes to attrition, because there is always an up-and-coming company whose revenues can absorb the cost increases. In fact, as companies expand their work forces, they are more inclined to increase their medical insurance budget significantly from year to year.

Many people feel a $500 deductible is reasonable, and one way a company can hold the line on major medical insurance is to look at the average annual increases over the past five years and allocate that much additional revenue to the budget for the coming year. So, in a year where you get hit with a cancer claim or other major claim, you've budgeted say 7% for your annual increase and the agent says, "It's looking like a 15% increase." Instead of raising that deductible another $500 you may only have to raise it $250.

The article goes into ways that you can reduce those costs for your company and your employees, but this particular point deals more with accounting and budgeting. Insurance is all about managing risk and part of managing risk includes managing your budget. Still, for an article of bullet points, this item seemed a little more complex and confusing than it should be. And since I'm under the gun, I decided to just drop it from the list rather than seek approval for revised wording.

To be honest, I wanted to include this point in the article because I'm just amazed at how many companies say they want to help their employees but they balk at innovative ideas. Instead of picking up supplemental indemnity plans that reduce their major medical premiums and keep those deductibles and co-insurance low, they just raise the deductibles.

Actions speak louder than words. Often, the book-keeper's sense of frustration determines how a company makes its purchasing decisions. The cost of replacing employees who leave to take "better" jobs is seldom if ever factored into a decision to change insurance plans.

Oh well.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

What a week we weave, when we practice to ... something

My car is making a weird noise, so I'll have to take it into the shop or wait until it falls apart while I drive down the road.

On the other hand, some interesting things have happened this week. I was asked to contribute an article to an upcoming book. It seems like an interesting opportunity so I'll be glad to get that done. And I'll do some horn-tooting here when I hear the book is published (sorry -- it's not Tolkien-related).

And I was invited to join the blogging team at SeoMoz. SeoMoz is a search engine optimization resource that was recently featured in Newsweek. There are several outstanding features about the site, including its "Beginners Guide to Search Engine Optimization" (one of the very best tutorials I've ever read on the subject) and its "Search Engine Ranking Factors" document. SeoMoz is well worth a visit for those two articles alone, but there are many other cool things happening at SeoMoz.

Rand Fishkin is a neat guy, if only because his name lends itself to pulp fiction spoofs ("My name is Rand. Rand Fishkin. I plug web sites for a living, but that didn't stop her from walking in my door one fateful night while I was making a baloney sandwich..."). He's familiar with my posting in various SEO forums, and we've exchanged emails a few times. Rand takes criticism very well and keeps an open mind. That doesn't mean he agrees with everything I say, which is as it should be.

So, when he invited me to join the blogging team, I told him I wouldn't dream of passing up the opportunity to play Bad Cop to his Good Cop.

And I closed my largest deal at work so far. I don't tell people what I do for a living these days because I left the IT field a little over a year ago (well, actually, technically, almost two years ago). I'm waiting to see if I can build a successful career in this industry before I make a big fuss over it, but I'm now a licensed insurance agent, selling commercial property and casualty coverages (buildings, general liability, strange liability, etc.). The stories I could tell about this industry are pretty amazing, and kind of scary. But since I don't want to be listed as the next candidate for jail on the Texas Department of Insurance's Web site, I think I'll keep the stories to myself for now.

Although Texas did just implement a new law that requires licensed agents to report any probable fraudulent situations they encounter. The incentive to turn in a competitor who may be doing something illegal is pretty strong: we break the law if we don't report our suspicions. Hopefully, someone with a clear head and a lot of experience in insurance matters will conduct a fair investigation. After all, it could be me who gets investigated, so what goes around comes around.

And Matt Tinaglia won a little contest I ran on the Endor discussion group. Matt, for those of you who don't recognize his name, edited the Parma Endorion eBook and Understanding Middle-earth. Sorting through a pile of Michael Martinez essays is not easy, even if you enjoy reading them. Matt had to make some hard choices, and then he had to persuade me to accept them. Some people would tell you I ain't so easy to persuade.

So, I decided to see how difficult it would be for people to find this blog before I started promoting it openly. It was more difficult than I imagined, but after I posted a second group of clues, Matt jumped in and found the blog. He picked what I feel is the most interesting prize I offered: a feature article about him on Xenite.Org. I'll toot that horn when the article is finished and ready to be posted.

I've been updating pages on Xenite this week as well. It's boring, tedious work but it has to be done. In fact, there is always something that needs to be tweaked, fixed, or updated at Xenite. I sometimes wish I had used a content management system to build the domain, but then I look at CMS-driven sites and though they seem pretty they lack character. I mean, they have character, but their sub-sections don't often stand out in unique ways.

Xenite came into being after I'd already created four sites. I just thought it would be cool to have a domain to host all the Web sites I was making. It never even occured to me to promote the domain itself as a content resource until Tom Simpson (of Xenafan.com) wrote to me to compliment my Xena sites. He added a quick , "BTW, you may want to create an index page for the domain." Oops.

So, you can all thank Tom Simpson for inspiring the megasite that Xenite.Org is today. His blog is located at http://www.tomsimpson.org/ and some day I'll figure out how to embed links with actual anchor text (but don't anyone tell me, because I'd rather not turn this into a megablog - you have no idea of how dangerous a little technical know-how is in my hands).

Finally, I need to start working up a publicity campaign for the Inklings Rountable of Houston's March dinner. We're going to celebrate the 50th anniversary (give or take a few months) of the BBC's first radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. That was the Terence Tiller adaptation, not the one you can buy on cassette tape or CD.

Why are we celebrating this anniversary? Jane Chance asked me the same question. I gave her a Tom Bombadillian (or more likely Goldberryin) answer: "Because".

"Because" is all we need to celebrate a 50th Tolkien anniversary. After all, it will be another 50 years before we can celebrate the 100th anniverary so we might as well get the partyin' in now.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

January 2006 Google update gets underway

So far, most people in the SEO community appear to have not noticed that Google is rolling out a new update. So, nothing new there. They'll start to take notice over the next few days, especially since I've announced the update in a couple of forums, like in Spider-Food's (http://forums.spider-food.net/index.php?act=ST&f=5&t=3882&st=0#entry12035) January 2006 Google update thread.

While it's too soon for me to know what this update is about, the early indications are remarkably similar to what I saw at the start of the horrific February 2005 update, in which Google de-cached millions of Web documents. For numerous queries, you'd see hundreds of URLs come up without any titles or descriptions. It was extremely painful to many Webmasters who had essentially done nothing wrong. I'm sure the searchers weren't happy, either.

The strange thing about that update was that I was able to get new content listed in Google on a weekly basis. So, some of Xenite.Org's older content was de-cached, but everything new was added. The new content didn't always rank well, but it eventually started dominating targeted listings after the update finished.

It looked like Google simply dumped its cache and started recrawling the Web from scratch. I estimate it took them about 6 weeks to reload all the cache data through new crawls.

Matt Cutts (http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/), a Google engineer who is friendly with the SEO community, recently said that Google pushed out a data refresh in December. I don't think it was significant (maybe just Toolbar PageRank and new backlink data, both of which are useless to anyone who wants to do good search engine optimization). Matt also warned people that Google will soon (relatively speaking) roll out a new algorithmic update called Big Daddy. I don't think what we're seeing today is the Big Daddy update, but it may be the preamble to that.

Last year's February 2005 update was, in fact, a preamble to an algorithmic update released over the Summer. Big Daddy probably only differs from the previous update (in terms of significance) in that it has been dubbed with a nickname by Matt.

So, I'll be collecting more information as the days roll by. I'm hoping we're not going to see another massive de-caching. While Xenite.Org lost some traffic, our network survived very well. But many smaller sites were just absolutely devastated. The pain was continuous, deep, and exhausting. And, naturally, most of the SEO gurus who moderate various forums had absolutely no clue as to what was going on. People would complain about their de-cachings and many of the "experts" would tell them to get more links.

Some day the core SEO community will figure out it's not all about links (their latest nonsense is a contest you can read more about at http://www.xenite.org/features/google/v7ndotcom-elursrebmem.html if you like Michael Martinez rants). Then the search engines will really be in trouble.

In the meantime, the "black hat" SEO spammers have launched their latest attack on Google and it's looking ugly. This time, they are putting massive dollars on the table and hiring professional freelance writers to produce tons of fluff content. It will be far more difficult for Google to filter the new sites that are coming out because their algorithms won't know what to look for.

I'll guess that we should start to see the first of the new generation of spam brigade sites around the end of February, maybe early March. I have to admit that the freelance money is starting to look good. I have been tempted to go for some of the contracts myself.

Be afraid, O ye searchers. Be very, very afraid.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Cookies! Cookies! Cookies!

It should have been an Elvis movie. A stray drifter gets lost driving down the road and he pulls into a small shopping center to ask directions (I know, men don't do this, but it's an Elvis movie).

So he meets up with a cute little girl selling...Girl Scout cookies (or, in an Elvis movie, it would probably be Green Girls Cookies or some imaginary girl organization). Naturally, Cute Big Sis is helping out with the sales, and Elvis finds a reason to stay around, sing a few songs, get into a fight with her jealous ex-boyfriend, and duly impress Dad, who is a sour curmudgeon who owns the shopping center (whose mortgage payment is overdue, of course, so Elvish helps do a fundraiser).

What could go better with cookies, besides milk?

Yes, it's that time of year again. Moms and Dads (and cute big sisters, maybe) are out in force selling Girl Scout cookies. No office or grocery store entrance will be safe for the next six weeks, give or take.

I'll order a few boxes and maybe give one to my girl friend (unless I'm not in the mood for the "Are you trying to make me look fat?" discussion). I'll hoard them at work. I'll store them at home. If I am feeling generous, I may give some to friends (although I don't do that much any more). One year, I spent $70 on Girl Scout cookies (and that was just one order for 35 boxes). People thought I was crazy. They all said I should be about twice the size I am. Problem was (and remains) that every time people get around your GS cookies, instead of breaking out into song and trying to win your heart, they just dive right in and help themselves.

Alas! The glory days are over. I'm not able to chow down on half a box of cookies a day and stay at the same weight as I was 20 years ago. I have to work out twice as hard for twice as many weeks to keep the weight off.

And to add insult to injury, the Girl Scouts changed their supplier contract about 20 years ago. Now, the current cookie provider has some nice recipes and all (love the Peanut Butter creme cookies), but the old Chocolate Chip cookies were to die for. You just cannot find anything like them any more (Chips Ahoy and Keebler don't count). About the closest I've come is Mother's Chocolate Chip cookies, which I buy at a local H.E.B. Never heard of the brand before. Have no idea of who makes them. But they are almost like the old Girl Scout cookies.

I went to the store for bread, milk, cheese slices, and aluminum foil last night. Somewhere along the path of product-laden isles, I actually put those four things in my cart. But I also acquired a few other I-can't-live-without-this things, including Mother's Chocolate Chip cookies. Why? Because I remembered that a guy at my office had promised his wife he would start taking orders, but he keeps forgetting to bring in the order form.

Every year I anxiously browse the order sheets and cruise strange, unexplored grocery stores, hoping beyond hope to stumble across that one treasure the Girl Scouts lost and seem destined never to recover: those delicious Chocolate Chip cookies they used to sell. I think the company was based in St. Louis. I don't know if it's worth making a pilgrimage to St. Louis, but I've been sorely tempted to organize a Million Cookie March just to demonstrate to Girl Scouts of USA that, yes, there is a market for chocolate chip cookies.

Then again, as long as I can grab a bag of Mother's, Chips Ahoy, or Keebler's chocolate chip cookies, I suppose I'll just make sure I keep enough milk in the house and hope for the best. Who needs to walk off all those pounds anyway? I get exercise just dodging all the little girls trying to take my money as I go to the store for bread, milk, cheese, and aluminum foil.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

I made the law books! (Sort of)

I'm not sure I want every post here to be a "I did this! I did that!" kind of post, but cool things do happen to each of us occasionally and you want to shout it out to the world.

So, last year I was exercising the usual diligence and scanning the Internet for unauthorized copies of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, 3rd Edition (technically, I look for all editions but the eBook is pirated the most). Why should I be concerned about who copies a free eBook?

Well, the chief reason is that the eBook (which has enjoyed over 1,000,000 authorized downloads through various distribution sites) adds value to certain Web sites. Those sites asked for my permission to distribute the book (and http://www.free-ebooks.net, the first authorized distributor, made it possible to give the eBook away in the first place -- we didn't have the server resources to launch the project). So, I do my best to reward the people who work within the law and respect the intellectual property rights of the people who produced that eBook (me, Matt Tinaglia, Anke Eissmann, and Rich Sullivan).

But another important reason is that I chose not to monetize the book. Therefore, I'm not about to let anyone else make money from it. When I find eBay listings for Parma Endorion, I have them removed. eBay likes to give people a lot of crap. They want you to fill out a ridiculous 4-page form. I refuse to do it. I've nonetheless had several eBay listings removed despite their protests that they are complying with the DMCA. (In my opinion, eBay is making it as difficult as possible for people to police the auctions because they don't want to deal with what they might deem to be trivial complaints -- however, when you have to police millions of potential unauthorized distribution points, filling out 4-page forms for every stuck-up site is NOT an option).

Google recently caught my attention. I found a copy of Parma Endorion on the Blogger service a few months ago. Did I just whine about eBay? You have no idea of what it takes to get Google to acknowledge you even have a complaint, much less what you have to do to get them to take action. And Google has an entire department devoted to handling these complaints. (Google bought Blogger.com a while back, in case you don't know.)

The amazing thing is, I have no idea of how they expected the general public to find out how to file a proper complaint. Because, in September 2005, Google had not published DMCA complaint instructions on their Web site (they have now provided instructions at http://www.google.com/dmca.html -- and they still don't tell you that this is where you file blogger.com complaints).

And if you think you can just call up Google and say, "I need to make a DMCA complaint", forget it. The receptionist is polite and sweet, but she's been clearly and firmly educated in how not to disclose information on the telephone (well, she did reveal one thing that made it possible for me to get through). You have to know a name in order to get past the front desk.

I don't feel that is in compliance with the spirit of the law, but now that Google has published specific directions on how to file a DMCA complaint on their Web site, it's probably a moot point. To be honest, and generous, I would guess that Google has gone through so much growth and so many public relations fire storms that they just cannot get to every detail in as timely a fashion as officious twits like me would prefer.

But being stone-walled by a girl who answers telephones is not a problem for me. Okay, I do market research all day long. I know how to find people on the Internet. I can probably get to most people's home addresses and telephone numbers within a matter of hours (you should be concerned about how easy it is to find you, actually).

It took me at most about 30 minutes to come up with the names of several people who were able to respond to my complaint. I picked the person I deemed to be the most appropirate and most likely to help and called Google again. I asked for that person. Yes, I think the girl recognized me (I had left my name before -- and for all I know, half the people at Google have heard of me because of my pontificating in the SEO world, though perhaps I speak too highly of myself once again).

So, I got through to voice mail and left a polite message. No matter how angry and upset you are about something, whenever you are about to make another person's life difficult by complaining to a third party who has power over them, be polite. Only once did I ever run into a brick wall through politeness, and on that occasion money was doing all the talking. But let me not digress this one time.

So, Google replied to me with an email (okay, I also called the person's cell phone and left a message there, too). The email explained that I had to send them a fax. The email explained what should be in the fax.

Once I got through to the right people, to their credit, Google took swift and appropriate action. They removed the blog with the eBook text (and the guy didn't even break up the chapters into separate posts -- it was all one long post). So, chalk up another one for intellectual property rights owners, and the free-wheeling, wild west style of the Internet is reined in just one more complaint's worth.

So, how did all this make the "law books"? Okay, it's not exactly a law book, but http://www.chillingeffects.org/ documents the enforcement of intellectual property rights on the Internet. As a copyright owner (and defender) who has had to file many infringement complaints through the years, I at first was a little shocked and disappointed to find my Google complaint archived on their Web site. But after browsing the site and seeing its purpose, I concluded that what they are doing is really kind of cool. It is in the public's best interests to show how these kinds of complaints are handled. The site doesn't tell the whole story, of course. Their concern is whether the DMCA (which I consider to be a particularly stupid law) is being abused, more than anything else. So they are documenting the "chill" that is settling in over the Internet as people like me (and people not like me) seek to enforce their rights.

One of the chilling aspects of this site is that I was not advised by Google that what I felt was a private correspondence (they sure weren't making information public on their side) was being disclosed to a third party. Well, okay, I need to reread the DMCA again to see if they have the right or the obligation to disclose DMCA complaints and actions taken (disclosure is usually a good thing -- it makes everyone accountable). Yes, the DMCA complaint page says they will forward the complaints, but remember that Google hadn't made that clear with respect to blogger. They still don't. Try searching for DMCA complaint guidelines on blogger.com and blogspot.com (http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=site%3Awww.blogger.com+dmca http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=site%3Ablogspot.com+dmca).

So, I'm not about to start filing complaints over the release of a couple of faxes that may, in fact, help people learn how to file a DMCA complaint with Google. I can tell you that the very specific wording in the second fax was provided to me by Google. They told me in no uncertain terms they would do nothing if I did not make that statement under penalty of perjury. If you file a complaint, be absolutely sure you follow their guidelines to the letter, because they'll nit-pick you.

So, to read my complaint, go here: http://www.chillingeffects.org/dmca512/notice.cgi?NoticeID=2340

If you scan down to the bottom of the page, you'll see a question from their FAQ: "Why does a web host or blogging service provider get DMCA takedown notices?"

What people need to understand is that the real chill is not the enforcement of rights that I and others have to pursue with the Internet. The real chill is that there is so much infringement out there we have no hope of stopping it. We can only hope to make a dent in it. The law is too unfair to intellectual property rights owners because it puts the burden of proof on us as well as the burden of enforcement.

That means I will have to spend the rest of my life arguing with the eBays and Googles of the world, and if my heirs care as much about my creative works as I do, they will have to devote at least another 75 years to doing the same thing.

We need a better system.

I am a Nielsen family!

I have two phone numbers. I suppose most of us do, now. I almost never answer the land line, and never expect to have anything but fun when I do answer it. Everyone who knows how to reach me calls my cell phone.

Well, last week the land line started ringing at the same time every evening. I thought, "That's one persistent telemarketer". It got to the point where as soon as the phone rang I would pick up the receiver and hang up immediately. That's rude, I know, but who calls you at 8:00 PM every night? I have no interest in buying whatever they are selling.

So, the calls persisted into this week. Monday evening I finally gave up and answered the phone. "Hello?"

"Hi, I'm so-and-so with Nielsen Marketing. We've been trying to reach you --"

Well, I apologized right away. Nielsen Marketing! Hey, these are the guys who make and break television shows. Nielsen Marketing! They get mentioned in every news article about television brand and schedule decision-making.

Nielsen Marketing! I hate these guys.

Do you have any idea of how many great shows died because Nielsen Marketing said too few people were watching them? Star Trek, the original series, Mel Brooks' When Things Were Rotten, Lance Link: Secret C.H.I.M.P., Simba: The White Lion, Skippy, Gilligan's Island, The Queen of Swords -- the list goes on.

This company traumatized not only my childhood but also my adolescence and my adulthood. I almost never watch television any more because it just doesn't pay to become emotionally invested in quality television entertainment (that's a bit of an oxymoron anyway). In the age of Jerry Springer, Oprah, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, American Idol, and Pimp My Ride (well, that's actually a cool show) there is just no point to sitting in front of a television set any more. I almost only watch TV when I have to get my oil changed.

And it's all thanks to Nielsen Marketing, the people who select those infamous "Nielsen families" who never watch any decent shows. I mean, come on, who cares about Kelly Ripa or some overfed cook who doesn't know how to prepare a hamburger? I don't like Nielsen families. I imagine them to be the bluebloods of American viewing audiences: inbred, snobbish, and incapable of making an intelligent choice between Friends and Stargate: Atlantis ("How you doin'?").

I always wondered where Nielsen got these families. They were supposedly scientifically chosen, randomly selected, blah, blah, blah. Yeah, right. They never came calling on my family. We watched television all day long. Heck, my mother couldn't sleep unless she left the television set going all night (drove me nuts and out of the house before I was 18). We could easily have filled twice as many diaries as any Nielsen family. At one point, every member of the family had their own personal television set. If I wanted to spend an afternoon watching Gilligan's Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Rockford Files, it was no problem. My sister liked Baretta and Starsky and Hutch. Somewhere along the way, I even learned a little about Luke and Laura.

So, here I am, years later, minding my own business, living my own life. I've gotten past the "Who are these Nielsen families?" stage. I figured they get into the program and stay on it for life. Nielsen probably has a secret vault somewhere with dossiers stuffed beyond limits with television viewing habit data for their select group of living room rats. Well, they won't know anything about my favorite programs.

All of these deeply etched facts blazed through my mind as I finally realized I had the third most evil organization in American history (after Microsoft and Google) on the telephone.

"We select families on a weekly basis to participate in our research program," the voice on the other end of the line said.

Weekly? Did you say weekly basis? There had to be a catch. Maybe he was just prequalifying me to see if I could undergo the secret tests and rituals to earn admission to the inner core, the long-term program. He knew I'd always wanted to be a Nielsen family.

"You know," I said coolly, "I did this for Arbitron."


"Arbitron? The radio rating service?"

"Oh, yeah. Several people have told me that."

So he went on to explain how the program works. But I wasn't listening. The phone dropped from my hand. Nielsen isn't influenced by past experience with other media rating services. My hopes were dashed. My dreams were shattered. My revenge would be incomplete -- but wait, I had one more card to play.

"You know, I only watch three programs: Stargate, Stargate: Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica."

"Would you consider yourself to be Hispanic, Mr. Gonzales?"

Yes, on top of everything else, he was calling the wrong number. Mr. Gonzales no longer had my telephone number, it was mine. And maybe he lives around the corner from me still, or maybe not. All I know, however, is that my one chance to teach all those "Nielsen families" a lesson was slipping through my fingers. So, thinking quickly, I said, "Yes, but my name is Martinez".

Well, to make a long story short, I signed up. I get the diary. I'll be recording my three shows during a sweeps week. I'll be important. I've made it. I'm somebody now. I'm a Nielsen family.

So hate me. Hate me deeply. You know I'll hurt you for the rest of your televsion viewing life.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Dinner and a movie would have been easier...

Some of my friends wanted to go dancing Saturday night, so I agreed to reserve a table at Plaza 59. I only asked for 6 chairs. Usually, if I ask for more than 6, no one shows up. If I ask for 4, we get 10-12 people. So I decided to go for 6 and see what happened. I lost count somewhere around 10.

The real problem is that almost no guys showed up. Now, the ladies in our group will dance with other men if asked to, but they generally like to dance with guys they know. Besides me, there were two other regulars from the group. One lady brought a couple of her friends, so technically there were four guys. At one point I counted 7 women at the table and I think there were a couple out dancing at that moment.

Needless to say, I barely had a chance to sit down all night. It's nice to be asked to dance every now and then, but the man is expected to do the asking, even when we're outnumbered and surrounded. They look at the men in the group with a demanding glare. If you hold your ground long enough, someone will cave in and ask you to dance with her. And then you have to hear cute remarks for the next few weeks about how a lady is not supposed to ask, the gentleman asks. Yes, I know, but sometimes I just want to catch my breath, listen to some music, chat with friends, or maybe, just maybe Miss "I shouldn't have to ask you" is dancing with the latest of a long string of guys who wait in line for the opportunity to ask her to dance.

For the record, I did ask to dance her twice Saturday night. That earned a special thank you.

Women can dance longer than men. I know that for a fact because, frankly, I lose interest after an hour or so. The girls will stay on the floor all night long, or nearly so. I like to just bask in the music, soak in the scene, and sometimes just watch the other people. Saturday, things reached a point where I had to just sit down and turn away from the people at my table. Mary's Band was playing and several of them were teasing me about how Mary is "my" girl (she probably doesn't see it that way).

What can I say? She's got the magic. But the band is well worth sitting out a few dances for. They played some of the songs I know in their first set but a couple of my favorites were left out. Such is life. Say, "La vee".

The only weird aspect of the night is that one of my friends was hinting around that she wanted to fix me up with a cute friend of hers. I danced with the girl a few times but tried to be just polite enough not to get myself into trouble. I'd met this girl once before and came away feeling as though I had made all the impression a soggy wet towel does.

Of course, technically, since I'm seeing someone, I'm not looking for anyone. So why is it that now I'm not looking, opportunities abound?

Say, "La vee".

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Well, maybe just a little something about SEO

I get involved in so many things, one thought pushes another out. I'm sure I read that in a story somewhere, but can't remember which one.

Anyway, yesterday (January 4, 2006) should be hailed as "Matt Cutts Day". He unleased a truckload of useful information on his blog. Matt has stated that the blog is his personal forum and he doesn't necessarily speak for Google. So he occasionally (too often for me) talks about non-Google stuff. But when he cuts loose on Google stuff, he's good.


I wonder if this blog uses rel=nofollow? Hm. Too bad for Matt if it does, because his is one of only 3 or 4 SEO-related blogs I would actually recommend on a regular basis. I also like Rand Fishkin's blog at http://www.seomoz.org/blog.php (I haven't figured out how to embed links the way I want to, yet, but don't anyone tell me -- I'm figuring this out as I go along).

I posted some excerpts from Matt's blog at http://forums.spider-food.net/ which is one of the more sane SEO forums one can find. They rarely get all the hysterical whining and backbiting flames that certain other forums are prone to.

The three Golden Rules of SEO are:

1) Links are stepping stones on the path, not the key to the door

2) Eventually, you have to give the surfer content, and the sooner the better

3) The people who make the most money in every gold rush are the ones selling the picks and shovels to the miners

Not another word..really

I'm sort of all written out. I just finished a long commentary on the fourteenth section of "Beowulf" for the Endor discussion list. We're going through the poem from start to finish. I suppose it's mostly me going through it at this point. Someone on the list proposed a study of "Beowulf" last summer. I think we finally started it in the Fall, and I've been struggling to find time to stay with it through the holidays. There is just so much going on.

"Beowulf" was probably the first bit of ancient German/medieval folklore/adventure I ever encountered. When I was in the fourth grade, I was attending an experimental school in Dade County, Florida (in Coral Gables, actually). The various grades were divided up among "cones". We didn't have classrooms. Each cone was a building with its own study centers, kitchen, arts and crafts room, and what seemed (to a 9-year-old child) like immense electronic folding doors that could be used to divide the cones into sub-sections (temporary classrooms).

The audio-visual resources were fantastic. Although the lesson plans were structured for classroom teaching, kids were often sent off to work on their own in special study groups. Teachers and teachers' aides came around to make sure we did our work (so, naturally, I got away with all sorts of mischief). One of the cool things I always looked forward to was sitting in the little booth to read the film strips. I got to read "Beowulf" and several other neat stories that way.

So, no, I wasn't reading the full poem, but it was an exciting rendition complete with a recorded narration and a little "ding" or "beep" to tell me when to move the film strip to the next frame. It was almost like being inside a Viewmaster, those 3-D "glasses" things that you would put round picture disks into. The Viewmasters showed you 3-dimensional pictures of pupets. Sort of like watching still shots from the old Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stop-motion photography movies.

I studied Norse myths for the first time in the fourth grade, and just absolutely fell in love with all those Germano-Scandinavian tales. Thor went thundering across the countryside in his chariot. Loki was scheming by his side. Huge giants towered over them. Beowulf ripped off Grendel's arm. School was almost fun in those days. My friends and I used to make little bows and arrows in the arts and crafts room and we'd have feuds and wars in the study areas when the teachers looked away. Experimental schools were very, very different places from the traditional sit-the-kids-in-the-classroom environment.

So, I tend to get enthused when I revisit "Beowulf". There's all sorts of neat historical and cultural stuff in the poem. Beowulf would not have looked anything like the man in the poem if he really lived. I can just imagine the traditionalists of the "Beowulf" poet's day lambasting him for not sticking to the original tales, for embellishing the old standard with new-fanngled ideas. He probably took a lot of heat but received a lot of praise, too.

So, anyway, I'm all written out.

Don't really have anything to say.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

I was a Compuserve Imp!

I spent an hour scouring old CD archives of Xenite.Org and my earlier Web sites (yes, I actually had other Web sites before I settled on the Xenite domain). I was looking for a Web page that hasn't been available since at least 1997, I'm guessing. Maybe it stayed up longer than a year. Why? Because the memory fades, names become garbled, and I just don't always have that encyclopedic recall for which I am so famous (ironically, I never had it -- but only my friends, family, and co-workers would know to tell you that).

I recently received an interesting email. Let me tell you, with as much email as I get, that's saying something. After all the spam deletions, filters, whatever, my hitting DELETE, DELETE, DELETE, it seems my inbox never keeps less than 500 to 600 emails at a time. Usually, I try to organize it when the count gets up to about 1,000 emails. Then I file everything away and live with a false sense of organization for a week or so. But I digress.

I recently received an interesting email. We have a contact form at Xenite.Org whereby people may write to me, Dixie (my partner), or the Administrators (there are four of us, when you count Stripe and RobRoy, who oversee the forums at SF-FANDOM). There may be other people you can contact, too, but I digress again. So, we received an email asking for free promotion of an SF literary site. Now, normally, we don't respond, or we (as politely as possible) write back and say the equivalent of, "Thank you for taking the time to write to us, but we regretfully will not be linking to your site."

We get a bajillion link requests and I really do understand what those Webmasters are hoping to accomplish. But Xenite's linking policy has been shaped by years of abuse from unwitting Webmasters who follow the bad advice given out in various SEO forums (and I've given some of that bad advice, but that's another digression).

Once in a while, we get an interesting request, though. Sometimes a charitable organization strikes a chord in our hearts. Sometimes, someone actually offers something that interests our community. Most of the time, the emails equate to, "Hey, I'm now promoting my book on the Internet and since Xenite offers free book promotion services, I thought I would also ask for a link to my Web site." Sorry, folks. It doesn't work that way. We offer the free book promotion services so we don't have to keep up with a thousand bajillion links to Web sites about books we don't have time to read (we don't do reviews, either, but I've still got a couple of books I was supposed to review years ago -- guilt forces me to turn down all requests these days).

So, who should write to us but Weston Ochse? Weston who, you say? Actually, I don't know Weston myself. But let me share Weston's email with you:

Press Release


Come participate in the shared world experience of Muy Mal, scheduled to premier on January 1, 2006 online at www.muymal.com.

What is Muy Mal?

Muy Mal is a shared world created by Michael Oliveri, John Urbancik, and Weston Ochse. It's a world very much like our own, similar in time and place, but just about thirty degrees off of reality. This is a world in which magic never ceased to exist, where evil waits around every corner and where creatures walk side-by-side with everyday folk. Muy Mal is a world that is a very bad place.

Each writer will explore their own corner of this world, though readers can expect some crossover between tales. Characters may make cameo appearances for example, and major events will affect every story. This is not collaboration so much as it is cooperation, and readers will be welcome to witness as much or as little of the world as they see fit.

Each story will be serialized, and each writer may spread their work across several serialized pieces at a time. An overall title serves as an umbrella for each writer's work, and each individual tale will carry its own title as it unfolds chapter by chapter. These titles are:

Chronicles of the Black Bishop by Weston Ochse
Seeker by John Urbancik
Asphalt & Alchemy by Mike Oliveri

Muy Mal is also an experiment in the delivery of online fiction. Thanks to the power and flexibility of WordPress, the stories will be accessible in a familiar, blog-like structure where each new chapter will appear at the top of each writer's section. Similarly, links will be available so readers may drill down and focus on specific serials. There will also be RSS feeds for each author so readers can pull content directly to their feed reader rather than visit the main site.

Unbelievably, Muy Mal's contents are Free. All of the work posted to the site is licensed under a Creative Commons license, specifically the "Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License." In English, this means readers are welcome to download and/or print the stories out to their heart's content. Give copies to friends and neighbors! We don't care, so long as the work is presented with bylines of the respective writer, it's not altered, and not used commercially.

In even simpler terms: read it, enjoy it, and please don't screw us.
If you have any further comments or questions, feel free to contact us.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Muy Mal - http://www.muymal.com/
Mike - mike at muymal.com
John - john at muymal.com
Weston - weston at muymal.com

Okay, just as I was about to hit the DELETE key, I realized I knew one of these guys. John Urbancik's name seemed so familiar. Where did I know that name from?

Oh, the wheels of the old memory mill began creaking and groaning and finally it came to me. John was an IMP from Compuserve. I remembered exchanging messages with him. Heck, he and I may even have exchanged IMPCrits.

The IMPs are The Informal Association Of Writers IMPatiently Waiting To Be Published. Originally, I think the name was more along the lines of "The Informal Association of Writers IMPatiently Waiting To Be Admitted To The Compuserve SFLit Forum's Writing Workshop", which was/is organized by Sasha Miller and Roger MacBride Allen. I left Compuserve at the end of 1997 or maybe in 1998, so it has been a LONG time since I hung with the SFLit forum. But from 1993 or thereabouts until 1998 or thereabouts I was pretty active on CompuServe. I got involved with the SFLit Forum and became an IMP.

Like several other fellow IMPs, I went on to get published (not self published, as some people like to misinform the public -- I was making sales years before I decided to self-publish). My writing career took a different path from what I had originally hoped for, though. Whereas many IMPs sold short fiction and novels (Ann Marston was an IMP), I ended up selling work-for-hire non-fiction and a lot of essays about Hercules, Xena, and ... um ... some fantasy world called "Muddle Worth" or something.

There used to be a fair number of IMP Web sites around, but I guess people have moved on with their lives. The IMPs are still an active critting group at Compuserve's SFLit community, so I think people should check them out. Dave Bollinger is no longer leading the group, but I think Lisa Mantchev (whom we knew as "Candy" back in the day) is now one of the co-leaders. Mike Resnick was sort of the inspiration and spiritual mentor for the group. He wrote some tutiorials for the IMPs that were available for free download from the old Compuserve Forum (before Compuserve killed itself, it had a tremendous advantage over the Internet and AOL and was just an unbelievable resource -- but then they came out with Version 3.0 and it was all downhill from there).

Although I have never met Mike Resnick, I understand that he meets (or has met) with a fair few IMPs at various conventions. He used to drop by the weekly IMPChats once a month or so when I was still active on Compuserve.

Writers groups come and go, and quite a few of them have produced successful writers. Nonetheless, the IMPire earned a special place in my heart because it had a serious working philosophy and people who joined had a serious shot at learning how to write well and how to write to be published. If I can get published, anyone can get published.

Well, okay, I can think of a couple of people who should never be published, but if David Day can do it -- well, he wasn't an IMP, so forget him.

There have probably been hundreds of IMPs, to be honest. How many of us got published? I don't know. Unfortunately, the younger generation of IMPs doesn't seem to be documenting their success (or goals) on the Web like the old gang did. And, okay, I'm bad for taking down my old IMP pages. But I just never had a chance to update them. Like Edna says in "The Incredibles": "I never look back, dahling!"

Except when I run into an old IMP. So, yes, we're promoting MuyMal.com on Xenite. I trust that John Urbancik still remembers a few things from the IMPire's rigorous training regimen. I'm willing to recommend a few good old IMPs when they come asking for my help.

If you're curious about who the other IMPs were, I can drop a few names. Some of them are still actively writing (including Lisa and Ron Collins, one of of the original three IMPs). I wish them all well. Exchanging messages with John has inspired me to consider creatng a new IMP site. I'll try to do it by the end of the first quarter 2006 (hint: That could mean anything on the calendar, but I promise I'll try).

Other old IMPs whose names you should look for include Jason Tanner, Martin Crumpton, Jeff Carter, Charlene Brusso, Jennifer Cush, Louise Rowder, Ann-Marie Horcher, James Hartley, Christopher Holiday, Steve Schiff, Randy Dannenfelser, Lisa Silverthorne, Lyn Nichols, Adrienne Chafee, Martin Sutherland, Adrienne Gormley, Michael Kelly, Josh Langston, Bill Cornett, Mitch Stein, Derek Paterson, Bill Allan, Barb Galler-Smith, and Bruce Talbott.

Even if you haven't heard of these folks, some of them are still producing today. I would like to think they all are, but I've lost track of them all. My goal is to find as many of the old IMPs and see what they have been up to for the past ten years.

I'll let you know when the new IMPsite is ready (and it will explain a great deal more t han I have here).

When in doubt, change something

A friend and I checked out a new club here in Houston over the weekend. We got to talking about meeting girls (a natural guys-in-a-club topic, I suppose).

He has noticed in the past that I don't agonize over the problem. Well, of course, I'm seeing someone now (and we talked about her) but I haven't quite sold him on the value of learning to read body language.

As we stood at the bar, talking about the signs women give to men they are interested in, he asked me questions like, "So, what do you do first? Make eye contact?" Yeah, eye contact is good, but it may not mean anything.

Funny enough, as he asked that question, I noticed a girl walking toward us from the patio. She reached up and patted her hair. I thought to myself, "Who is the hairflip for?" There was a reasonably talk, dark-haired guy walking past her -- typical stereotype. I figured the hairflip was for him.

So, my friend and I go on talking about body language and confidence and dressing nice and all that. The girl walks around us and gets behind the bar. A couple of the other bartenders now come over and talk to her. My friend has his back to her, so I can look him in the eye and still see her over his shoulder.

"It amazes me how much confidence you have in your current relationship," my friend says. "How do you know this is the one?" Well, I don't know if she is "The One". But I do know that whenever I'm with her, I come away with a high that lasts for a couple of days. I don't get that feeling with other girls and I like it. So, I keep doing what I'm doing.

"And has she just 'be friended' you, yet?'" my friend asks. Ah, yes, the mythical "Let's Just Be Friends" kiss of death. Every guy fears it. Every guy hates it. I've had a few girls "BeFriend" me in the past.

Funny thing is, most of them ended up wanting to date me because I took them at their word and just became their friend. I didn't realize they were trying to say, "Hey, dude, I think you're a loser in the game of love and I don't want to be with you." So, imagine their surprise when I (naively) just made them friends and included them in my world anyway. I got to spend more time with some of those girls than their supposed "boy friends".

Of course, I lost all romantic interest in them. One girl said to me, "You know, you had a great chance with me three years ago."

I said, "Three years? After you said 'Let us just be friends?'"


I said, "Honey, you had your chance. You made your choice. I moved on. I never looked at you that way again."

Well, not entirely true. I realized later on that there was one day where we were lying on my living room floor, side-by-side, and I looked over at her and wanted to make out. I realized -- years later -- she looked so sexy because she wanted to. And there were other moments that came to mind, like when she literally rubbed herself on my back one day.

That's a very blatant "I want you to touch me in THAT way" move, and more than one girl has since done it to me. But I was so young, so naive, and had so moved on.

The thing is, a girl BeFriends you for any number of reasons, but the most common (I think) is that you (the guy) come on too strong, too fast. You're too needy, too uncertain, too into the one girl. You have no confidence. A lot of guys will ask a girl if they can kiss her. Dude, just try it. If she pulls back, stop yourself, say nothing (do NOT apologize), and act like it didn't happen. She'll let you know if she has a problem with it or not.

The thing is, when you're just getting to know a girl, you're all nervous and anxious. Yeah, she's hot or cute or just really, really nice and great. But she doesn't get to see you relax and see how much fun you have with your friends. Guys get so into one girl it just kills them. How does the human race ever manage to survive? I'm beginning to think that maybe only 1-in-4 or 1-in-5 men actually ever has any children. The rest just think they do. I hope I'm wrong.

So, my friend and I are talking about this supposed kiss-of-death that girls do just to "spare a man's feelings" (honey, if you don't like him, say so and get it over with -- if he freaks out, he'll get over it and the process will help him mature a little).

In the meantime, the two male bartenders go off to clean glasses or do whatever it is bartenders do when things are slow. But the girl, who I admit is kind of cute, keeps straightening her tight shirt, patting her hair, glancing at me, etc. And as she's doing this, my friend is asking, "So, are you dating any other girls?" Nope. I've lost almost all interest.

And there are a couple of other girls whom I came so close to wanting to be with. I mean, if Linda were not in the picture, one of them would be. But never tell a girl she is your second choice.

We moved on to how women size men up in three seconds. It's instinctive. They just glance at us and know within a moment whether we have potential. "Yeah, and the first thing they check is the shoes!" my friend ejaculates. He's right. A lot of girls start their man-scan at the feet and end at the top of his head. Three seconds: one second to scan, one second to evaluate, and one second to make the decision. After that, you're either "Maybe, I want him, or Fugeddaboutit!".

Well, my friend was waiting for the club owner to come in. She was like this totally hot lady with really cute beautiful sexy friends and he just wanted me to meet them. I finally said, as the bartender girl walked past us, "Do you know the bartender?"

He looked over at her and I saw the wheels spinning in his mind. "No. Why do you ask?"

I said, "You should go ask her name."


"Because she wants me to and we both know I won't".

My friend just stared at me in shock. For about the third time that evening (and this was by no means the first time in our friendship he has said this), he blurted out, "Man! You are SO arrogant."

Yeah. But she still wanted me to chat her up.

Sorry, girl. I'm not looking right now. But in a few years, my friend may have that confidence thing nailed down. I hope so. He's a great guy, not a "Nice Guy", but he's still working on the confidence. Then he'll understand why I don't care if he says I'm arrogant.

Yes, I'm arrogant. Some JRRT fans say that, too. But at least now I don't have to wait three years for a girl to say (if she ever will), "Hey, you had a chance."

I'm learning. I'm learning.