Thursday, July 27, 2006

Canadian TV show seeking Battlestar Galactica fans

A Canadian television show is looking for Battlestar Galactica fans. Visit our Battlestar Galactica Forum to learn more about how you may have a chance to appear in a major documentary about Battlestar Galactica.

And since I'm plugging BSG sites, I might as well suggest you check out our Grace Park fan site, our Guide to Battlestar Galatica Episode Guides, and our World of Battlestar Galactica.

Now I'm really going to hit the road. Soon....

Michael in the news and on the road

A reporter from Toronto called me yesterday to check facts for an upcoming article that mentions The Lord of the Rings. I doubt I'll be given any credit, but if I can find the article online I'll post a reference here.

In other news, a new book due to be published in August (next week) features an article I contributed. This is the Streetwise Small Business Book of Lists and my article provides suggestions on how companies can save money on their health insurance.

Not as exciting as how long Luthien's dress was in The Silmarillion, I suppose, but it gets you from point A to point B. And I'm still amazed at how much money companies waste on health insurance. I think they should be providing it for their employees, but they just don't understand how to save money on it.

Here is the official promotional copy for the book:

Are you a business owner or manager? Here’s the only book you’ll need! The Streetwise Small Business Book Of Lists (Adams Media; 2006) is a collection of over 500 critical lists of information every business owner or manager needs to know to make decisions quickly and manage more effectively. Painstakingly compiled from hundreds of business experts, publications, government resources and websites, the Streetwise Small Business Book of Lists is a one stop answer book for every business owner's questions. Learn what are the lowest-cost franchises to start up, the ten things to consider before buying a new phone system, the most popular ways to decrease your company's health insurance costs, the top methods for speeding up your cash flow, the most effective steps for reducing travel expenses and much more! For more information and more lists, please visit!

And you can buy a copy at Amazon. Who lost a recent order of books for me, so that I had to write and ask for a refund. Oboy. Well, that was an anomaly, I am sure.

And later today I'll be taking flight for Spokane, Washington where I'll be the guest speaker at MERPCon II. I'll admit I did not promote this event as much as I should like, but the last couple of months I've just not had the kind of energy I am used to having. Anyway, Hawke Robinson organized the event and I agreed to do something very special. He'll be giving away 10 autographed printed copies of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, 3rd Edition.

These are the only authorized print copies of the book in the world. I'm not saying I won't authorize other copies in the future, but it's not like I have a schedule or anything. They are full color copies. I hate to say it, but if you see autographed copies on eBay after this weekend, they may be genuine. But I still don't think you should buy Parma Endorion. It's a free eBook, after all.

Anyway, the fact that I'll be getting on airplanes this afternoon and evening pretty much rules out any more blogging for the week. I'm scheduled to be back in Houston Sunday night, so I guess I'll resume blogging Monday evening. After 3 hours of dance classes.

Maybe it will be Tuesday before I can get back into the game....

Have a great weekend! Don't get smitten while I'm away. I hear it hurts.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

U.S. foreign policy implements a domino effect for Islamic fundamentalists

The recent conflict in Lebanon took me by surprise. I have to admit I haven't paid much attention to Lebanon for about 20 years, but I have always had some interest in the country because when I took a History of the Modern Middle East class in college, I was assigned Lebanon to study. Each student in the class had to read up on the recent history of his or her assigned nation and make an oral presentation.

One of the neat things about that class was that the professor invited some Palestinian students to speak to us about their situation. At the time, we didn't know much about the lives of the Palestinians. On that particular campus, they were often greeted with suspicion by American students in part because they tended to be very cliquish. The Iranian Islamic revolution was only a few years old at the time, nd I suppose many Americans looked at Middle Eastern student groups as potential radicals with a political agenda. In that sense, the 60s were not very good to us (to steal a George Carlin line).

In a world where your people are constantly greeted with distrust and only viewed through the eyes of those who have been harmed by rogues and radicals, there are probably only a handful of ethnic groups who can understand the transformation of Palestinian society. Ironically, two of those groups are Jews and Gypsies. To this day, Gypsies have no national homeland, and are not likely to get one. But the Jewish people took back Israel after the Second World War -- with the blessing of the United States and other western nations -- and in doing so created the Palestinian Diaspora.

Displacing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians could not have had anything but a negative impact on U.S. foreign policy. Even though by the 1980s many Palestinians had come to accept the fact that Israel would not go quietly into the night, they still insisted they had a right to a nation of their own. After all, they had lived together in the region for more than a thousand years. They had earned some sort of right of nationhood if we Americans had earned one with less history and ethnic homogeneity behind us. The students who spoke to our class said they only wanted a homeland, and they could live beside Israel if that was the most equitable solution to be worked out.

In reality, the Palestinian students on U.S. campuses were not responsible for designing and implementing Palestinian international policy at the time. Some of those students may be today's Palestinian leaders, but they shape their policies in the wake of current events. One of the options that Palestinians have always held out for is compensation by Israel or by someone (like the United States) for the land that their families lost when the state of Israel was formed. The problem is, if you just dump billions of dollars into bank accounts for Palestinians around the world, it's almost guaranteed that much of that money will be transferred to organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

That's a bad thing, especially for the Palestinians. While they may have grievances they feel can only be resolved through warfare, the truth is that if they were given such compensation, if they were permitted to squander it in a hopeless war to destroy Israel, they would forfeit all future right to sympathy and assistance. We would not simply be funding terrorism and a war against Israel, we would be turning our backs on the Palestinians by buying them off, turning our backs, and saying, "Now behave or we'll punish you."

An ultimatum like that can only lead to disaster.

But what does that have to do with Lebanon? Well, one of the chief causes of the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s was the Palestinian issue. The influx of Palestinian refugees proved to be very destabilizing for several Arab countries, including Lebanon and Jordan. King Hussein of Jordan got so fed up with the Palestinian Liberation Organization that he threw Yasser Arafat and his followers out of the country.

Lebanon, which at one time had been touted as the jewel of the Arab Middle East, lacked the resolve and the resources to maintain its authority. The civil war ultimately spurred the rise of militias to protect and advocate the policies of each of more than a dozen ethnic and religious groups. The Palestinians therefore found a refuge in a war-torn country where they could develop their military power and threaten Israel.

In my oral presentation, I surveyed the stronger militias (I identified over half a dozen strong ones but about 15 altogether) and concluded that it would take about 50,000 foreign troops to restore order in the nation. One of my classmates asked me where I thought those troops should come from. I felt the United States and Israel would not be able to impose order. "Maybe Syria," I suggested. But I didn't really know much about Syria at the time.

Well, as things turned out, Syria did send about 50,000 troops into Lebanon (at the time of my presentation, they only had a military presence in the Bekaa valley). And Israel subsequently created its buffer zone in southern Lebanon to counteract Syria's influence and to hold hostile militias at arm's length. The resulting division of Lebanon into client regions really only created a new problem, and did little to solve the old problems. Israel's withdrawal in 2000 created a vacuum that Syria was quick to fill.

Still, when the Lebanese people demanded that Syria withdraw its troops, and Syria complied (thanks to growing international pressure), I held out private hope that we might actually see some improvement in Lebanon. After all, the United States has long since given up its official "We don't engage in nation-building" position. Maybe we would turn our resources and experience gained in Afghanistan and Iraq to helping the Lebanese people.

In a nation like Lebanon, which was not being ripped apart by warring factions, I thought, maybe we could refine our nation-building skills without having to worry about creating yet another political drama here at home. And yet, the Bush Administration (perhaps for good reason, given Arab distrust of U.S. foreign policy) seemed uninterested in helping Lebanon rebuild its military and other institutions to a level capable of managing the nation.

As in Somalia, where President Clinton threw away an opportunity to not only help a people truly in need but also to help stabilize a nation which has had an increasingly destabilizing influence on nations around it, President Bush allowed the Lebanese situation to deteriorate to the point of disaster.

Today, Somalia is falling under the control of the Islamic Courts Union, which has chosen as its leader a man who is believed to be a supporter of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. It's only a matter of time before the United States sends troops back to Somalia. The only force standing between us and Somalia is Ethiopia's army, which may be more powerful than the Islamic Courts Union's militia, but as Ethiopia becomes drawn further into Somalia's conflicts, Eritrea will become increasingly anxious not to allow Ethiopia to create a client state. Worse, Ethiopia has no incentive to help Somalia establish a strong central government, since Somalia actually invaded Ethiopia in order to help ethnic Somalis living inside Ethiopia.

Historically, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea are politically insignificant players in the United States' foreign interests, but their squabbling has led to the formation of a wild, degenerate non-state in Somalia that has fostered anti-American sentiment and an environment ripe for breeding new terrorist camps and campaigns. If Osama Bin Laden can figure out a way to slip past the Pakistani military, how long will it be before he heads to Mogadishu? And how long would it be before we send in marines to find him?

Lebanon's situation looks grim right now because Israel is destroying the country's communications and distribution infrastructure to prevent Sryia and Iran from resupplying Hezbollah. As in Somalia, the United States is only proposing to send in relief supplies and hoping the rest of the world will deal with the problem. But what are we going to do if the other old militias reactivate? Many of their former leaders are still alive. And though today they are supporting Hezbollah because Israel appears to be punishing Lebanon indiscriminantly (for refusing to disarm Hezbollah as the United Nations called upon Lebanon to do), eventually even the most hard-core Sunnis, Druze, and other groups are going to get fed up with Hezbollah congratulating every Arab martyr it creates and decide to do for themselves what Israel really cannot do.

Our nation-building campaign in Afghanistan has been somewhat effective, but not entirely so. The failure of the Afghan National Police to form an effective organization is largely our responsibility. We have, for reasons no one can really explain, handed off the issue to the U.S. Department of State, which had neither the resources nor the qualifications for creating a national police force. What undermines our efforts most in Afghanistan is the fact that the Afghan National Army cannot perform the role of a police force. To maintain civil order, Afghanistan needs a reliable police force that can defend itself against insurgents.

Iraq has struggled with similar issues. At least in Iraq they have more recruits to throw at the problem. The Iraq army is already twice as large as the proposed size for the Afghan National Army, which was projected to be 70,000 strong. The first time I read that only 70,000 troops would be authorized for Afghanistan's defense forces, I thought to myself, "Huh? How can they possibly take care of business with so few troops?"

On the surface, it seemed like Afghanistan's neighbors (especially Iran and Pakistan) did not want a large armed force in the region. Their foreign policies had been shaped by decades of civil strife which kept Afghanistan weak and focused on its own inner turmoil. Why create another powerful nation in the region? And the Afghan ethnic groups themselves find it difficult to work together, although they once had a very stable government and society under the former Pashtun monarchy.

I have always felt Afghanistan needed at least 150,000 soldiers, and as the Taliban continue to disrupt the stability of Afghanistan's new society, I'm beginning to think that maybe 200,000 would be better. But right now Afghanistan only has about 30,000 soldiers. They are better equipped, trained, and led than the 15,000 militia the Northern Alliance had when the United States led an international coalition to invade Afghanistan, but those 30,000 soldiers simply are not capable of handling the Taliban. And until Afghanistan can deal with its internal threats without international assistance, we'll continue to send soldiers to Afghanistan. In all likelihood, we'll maintain a military presence there for at least the next 10-to-15 years, if not longer, even if only in an advisory and training capacity.

Iraq's problems are more complex than Afghanistan's. Although Afghanistan has to contend with Al Qaeda as well as the Taliban, Iraq has to contend with an insurgency led by Saddam Hussein's former military, Al Qaeda, Iranian interference, and now sectarian violence incited by Al Qaeda's constant bombing campaigns. The United States has concentrated more resources on building Iraq's army and national police because the situation there is more dire. Iraq has become the center stage of the war on terror because a horde of terrorists have slipped into Iraq in the hope of dying on U.S. bullets.

If we refuse to turn back to Somalia, problems in that region will continue to grow more complex and draw more nations into strife. The increasing piracy along Somoalia's coastline will continue to threaten international shipping. I suspect it's only a matter of time before a permanent international naval force is set up to protect the shipping lanes. Ethiopia and Eritrea may eventually go to war to prevent each other from controlling Somalia. And Al Qaeda's influence in Somalia may increase to the point where they can actually set up new bases.

We need to stop being so timid in our foreign policy. I have long criticized the United States' forign policy for creating more problems than it solves, but my point is that we have to engage fully in nation-building programs. Lebanon needs to get rid of Hezbollah as soon as possible, and the best path to ridding Lebanon of that evil plague is to enable the Lebanese government to undermine popular support for Hezbollah by taking way their social functions. Lebanon needs more than just a robust economy. It needs a social safety net, a welfare system to take care of its poor people.

And when we go back into Somalia, probably under a Democratic President (I seriously doubt that the American people will allow the Republican party to retain control of the White House after Bush leaves office), we need to quit being so squeamish. We also need to send in people who understand Somali customs and who are capable of building rapport with the Somali people. They are not going to be very happy under the thumb of the Islamic Courts Union for very long. As the Afghan people learned, and as many Iranians have long known, allowing Islamic Fundamentalists to form a government is a formula for ensuring that people will be oppressed, tortured, and deprived of basic human rights for a long, long time. We'll have one more opportunity to work with the Somalis to show them really, truly mean them well and only want them to be able to live in peace and security and to prosper as a nation.

We need to stop pretending we're too big to mess around with smaller nations. We have a long guilty conscience about how we interfered with smaller nations from the Phillipines to Nicaragua, but look what we accomplished in Europe after the Second World War. Look what we accomplished in Japan. If we set out to do things right to begin with, we can achieve immense success. We didn't colonize those nations or turn them into puppet states (West Germany notwithstanding, when the time came for reunification, Germany took the initiative and pretty much ignored U.S. reservations over the possible consequences).

For now, U.S. foreign policy is creating new breeding grounds for terrorism faster than we can send in the troops to squash the terrorists. We need to stop doing that. We need to reshape our foreign policy so that we effectively engage with the Arab and Islamic nations that truly need our help and show them that we aren't just arrogant conquerors. The next time a nation starts to slip into anarchy and chaos, we need to take some pre-emptive action to help its government build up resources so that we don't have to go in and rebuild them.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The mean face of American politics

I have almost never seen Condoleeza Rice smile. I guess I'm just lucky that way. Whenever I see her on the television news or in online news articles, she always seems to be frowning or grimacing or just looking mean and ornery. Seems to me that, when the U.S. has a shrinking list of close friends and allies around the globe, we'd want our leading alternative to President George W. Bush's face to be friendly and open.

Don't get me wrong. The President is usually looking a little friendly and open...maybe a little too open...but he obviously has his detractors in the Democratic party. But they don't say many bad things about Condoleeze Rice. At least, I hardly ever see them say anything bad about her. She seems to have an anti-Democrat propaganda coating or something.

Condoleeza Rice puts on the mean look in January 2006 In a "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Mr. D?" expression, Condi Rice managed to almost look humane at some brouhaha conference in January. When interacting with her fellow diplomats, Secretary Rice seems to put on a very imposing air...some people would say she is arrogant. I think she is just trying not to reveal too much about her inner conflicts and emotions. She holds back so as not to seem vulnerable. Perhaps.

Almost graciously accepting an award from the NAACP, Condi gives the press another opportunity to make her look inhuman to an unsuspecting public.Even while accepting an award from the prestigious political/social organization the NAACP, Condoleeza Rice managed to stop and grimace in apparent embarassment. Does she not like the limelight? One wonders if she likes her job.

President Bush gives newly appointed Secretary of State the traditional air-kiss congratulations.When Condi accepted the position of Secretary of State, she looked just absolutely thrilled to be appointed to follow in Colin Powell's footsteps. Or maybe she was trying to think about how she could wheedle her post into a sex-magnet reputation the way Henry "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac" Kissenger did.

Frankly, I think she looks like she would rather have been kissed by a pumpkin at that moment in time. But it's been noted by more than one blogger that the Bushes, who genuinely seem like good people, are a bit offsetting. Laura Bush, in particular, has been criticized for using closed, reserved body language when interacting with the public.

First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice aim their phasers at wide-ranging targets during a panel discussion. When the First Lady and the Secretary get together, how much are they really together? They are looking at different people in this picture where they seem to be genuinely laugh and smile. Mrs. Bush has her hands crossed in front of her, like she is trying to control herself. Condoleeza's hands are hidden below the table. There is a sense of total disconnect here, as in the picture where Mr. Bush kisses Condi.

I have to agree with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations that it doesn't seem possible to be able to negotiate with a terrorist organization like Hezbollah. Their purpose in existing is to destroy Israel. How do you negotiate with someone who wants to destroy you? When Europe tried that policy in the 1930s, it was called "Appeasement", and Neville Chamberlain will always be remembered for foolishly saying there would be "peace in our time" on the eve of World War II.

Secretary Rice greets Prime Minister Siniora of Lebanon in July 2006 as Israel and Hezbollah behave like Lebanon doesn't exist.Still, if you examine this picture of Condoleeza and Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora carefully, you'll notice that he is a being a gentleman and is leaning over the table to shake the Secretary's hand. Their smiles seem almost genuine, but his reveals some stress. I think he'd rather be eating raw cabbage at the moment, but that's just me. And if he doesn't want to be in that meeting, his feelings more likely have something to do with the situation back home.

Hezbollah is about the worst possible enemy Lebanon could have right now. Yes, Hezbollah operates social services and feeds the poor. They also hide missiles and weapons in the homes of civilians and don't care how many civilians die in their insane crusade to destroy Israel. Frankly, Lebanon would benefit more from trying to raise wild hyenas than taking up arms for Hezbollah.

Still, the Lebanese people have a right to make their own stupid choices. If they want to support Hezbollah, then they are in no position to be asking the United States for help. Condoleeza seems to be projecting that message subtly. In other pictures with diplmats where she actually smiles, Condi stands beside the diplomats. Here she waited until there was a table between her and the Prime Minister (okay, maybe she has no control over the photo op schedule -- maybe he was the one who wanted the barrier).

She is shorter than the Prime Minister, so he has to extend his hand into her territory to welcome her to Lebanon. But he is nonetheless barely in the picture. The photographer was more engrossed with Condoleeza than with the moment.

Condoleeza Rice greets Hu Jintao of China.When Condi met Hu Jintao, she shook his hand and smiled. She even faced him, although she was standing slightly in front of him. In politics, where formal state dinner seating is arranged on the basis of who is not presently killing whom, position and proximity mean everything.

China has the ability to lob nuclear missiles at the United States. Lebanon is known here mostly for its Middle Eastern cuisine and the fact that Hezbollah killed over 200 U.S. marines in 1982 with a truck bomb. So President Bush has graciously sent Condoleeza Rice to Lebanon so that she can tell the Prime Minister in no uncertain terms that the United States won't cut off arms shipments to Israel until Hezbollah stops firing rockets into Israel.

In a rare moment of honest clarity, many Arab leaders briefly condemned Hezbollah for attacking Israel unexpectedly. It has been noted by the American media that the sentiment expressed by those Arab leaders will probably erode, if it hasn't already, as the amount of human suffering in Lebanon increases. Of course, you hear little to no sympathy for the many Israelis (Jewish and Arab) who have been forced from their homes by Hezbollah's crusader rockets.

It's obviously okay in the Arab world for murderous organizations to butcher innocent Arab children. After all, you don't see much outrage across the Arab world for all the car-bombings in Iraq that target innocent civilians, many of them children. It's like all the militant Arabs are determined to fight the U.S. by killing as many Arab children as they possibly can. Somehow, that stretegy seems worthwhile to the crusaders in Hezbollah, Hamas, and Al-Qaeda.

Is there any wonder why they can't win wars?

But the real sad aspect to all this is that the United States just doesn't act like it really cares, either. We present a mean face to our friends, we stand in front of them, we hog the pictures, and we don't act like we want the fighting to stop.

You know, I'd rather see Hezbollah get trashed than continue to send rockets into Israel, but if they would all just stop killing each other, things would improve very quickly. The Arabs in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq could flourish if they focused their efforts on building up their economies. All the energies they put into hate, prejudice, and racism would be better spent preparing their children for the future.

If Condi were just a bit more warm and open, maybe she would get that message across instead of the "We're so big and we don't have to care about you" message that seems to radiate from every photo op,

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Son: Mama Was a Den Mother...

Doesn't quite have the ring of "Papa Was A Rolling Stone", but I went on a trip through time today. Actually, I went on a couple of them.

They say bad things come in threes. Of course, most of us know enough people, read enough news, do enough things that we can usually find three similar events to put together to give credence to the folklore. If we didn't need our thumb to cound three fingers and our index finger to make a point while counting, maybe we'd say bad things come in fives. I don't know.

Last week, two of my fellow employees lost one of their parents each. This week, my boss had to leave after getting an emergency call about his mother. I hope she's all right, but I rather suspect I'll soon be contributing a few dollars for another sympathy bouquet.

I still have both my parents but all my grand-parents are gone. A few years ago Michael Sinelnikoff, who played Professor Summerly on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, said something to me about how he felt when his parents died. "They are the last barrier between you and your own mortality, Michael". I understand better now what he meant, because I know it's only a matter of time before I lose one or the other, and then both will be gone.

My mother and I have had our ups and downs, but she was indisputably one of the most giving people I have ever known. She sacrificed herself in so many ways for others that I am amazed she continued to give love and care -- often receiving little in return -- for so many decades of her life.

As long as I can remember, my mother took in other people's children, other families if necessary, when they needed help. There was never too little food at our house, or too few beds, or too many problems that we had to shut the doors on someone else who had nowhere else to go, or who could not open their hearts to their own families.

Mom had a temper, like so many mothers. I always knew I was in trouble, wrongly or rightly, when she used my full name. Any other time it was "Mike" or "Michael". But if she started out with "Michael" and ended up with "Martinez", maybe tossing in something else in-between, I generally knew it was time to hit the road or stand still and endure the storm that was coming.

However many unhappy moments there may or may not have been (most of them clearly my fault), I barely remember them any more. I recall the times I needed a mother to kiss my booboos, or sat and laughed over some ridiculous joke with close friends and family, or struggled to master the intricacies of Scrabble (my mother, grandmother, and aunts were vicious Scrabble players). I remember many trips on the road, watching mountains, forests, and cities passing by. I remember cats, dogs, puppies, kittens crying in boxes, and babies needing nurturing. Mom was there for them all.

She never felt she had a purpose in life if she didn't have someone to take care of. She worked as a nurse, or as a lab technician, or as a book-keeper -- always getting some doctor or small business through one crisis or another.

She took on the responsibilities of being a Cub Scout Den Mother when my first Den Mother had to move away. We carved soap, walked on coffee cans, built miniature soapbox racers, wove whips, cut out Indian head-dresses and loin cloths, and did a million other things that Cub Scouts do across two scouting packs and three years of meetings, projects, and screaming boys trying their best to impress the Den Mom.

She worked for two "family planning" clinics. One was actually an abortion clinic. Both advocated birth control as solutions for the problem of teenage sex. But the abortion clinic didn't deal with the consequences of teen sex so much as it dealt with the consequences of rape and incest. She walked out one day when they put a 12-year-old girl on the table. "That could be my daughter," she said to the doctor.

Mom liked to party. She could dance all night. She played a mean game of gin rummy, which she taught to me one year when I had trouble sleeping. I preferred regular rummy to the gin version, but even then she sometimes waited until she was ready to go out before laying down her cards. Oooh, that made me so mad.

Had it not been for my mother, I never would have had the resolve to call every bureaucrat between me and an Under-Secretary of Education one year when I was in college. I watched her take up so many causes, lodge complaints with so many authorities and radio stations and newspapers or whatever, it has always seemed natural to me to stand up for what's right, to shout down the wrong-doers, to insist that government employees serve the public.

Not that they don't try to do their jobs. Of course they do. But I guess Mom was just one of those people who didn't like bureaucracy. She married a soldier and divorced a civil servant. My mother and father married and divorced each other so many times I think even they lost count.

At least they tried to keep their family together. But in retrospect I think Mom lost her feelings for Dad when she went through her last pregnancy. She had a son, my little brother, and he only lived a few minutes. The doctors came to my father and said, "We can save your son or your wife, but your wife has the best chance of surviving."

What kind of choice is that to give a man? What husband and father wants to deprive his family of a mother or newborn child? Dad chose Mom, and I don't think she ever forgave him. But if he had lost them both, would he have forgiven himself? Would my older brother and sister and I have forgiven him? There was just no way to make the right choice. But Mom was never quite the same after that day, though she had many nurturing, unconditionally loving years left in her.

My second time trip today occurred as I finally got home. I heard an airplane as I got out of my car. Those little single-engine propellor planes fly overhead all the time, and I hear them at all hours through the nighht. I like the sound of airplane and helicopter engines as they fly overhead. I don't really know why, except that -- like the sound of heavy construction equipment at work -- I find the sounds comforting.

Today, as I looked up, I saw the little airplane fly overhead and I suddenly realized why they have never bothered me since I moved to Houston. I was taken back to south Florida, when I was a kid. In those days, we lived in some areas that were still not quite suburban in nature. Sometimes we lived in the city, and sometimes we lived on the outskirts. But there were always planes flying overhead, sometimes trailing advertisements in the sky, sometimes just passing overhead. And there were always houses under construction, tall buildings going up, and big machines moving dirt and rubble.

When I was in preschool, or I guess they called it nursery school then, Mom dressed me up in a little Air Force jumper suit. I suppose she thought I looked cute. I thought it was sort of a cool thing to wear. The other kids asked me if I was in the army. "No, this is the Air Force!" I said proudly.

I was gathered with other kids in a little church-like building at the Elliot School (I think -- maybe the church place was an after-school hangout). I stood outside in the yard one day looking at airplanes as they flew overhead. One of the teachers sat beside me and she said, "If you wave your arms like this, sometimes the planes will wave their wings back at you."

I believed her, so I stood out there and waved my arms at the airplanes as they flew overhead. After a while, one of them waved back. I guess I got lucky that day, because I am sure that 3-year-old boys are pretty hard to spot from the air. Maybe the plane was just in trouble. I don't know, but it definitely waved its wings.

I remember the old diesel buses that had bars for windows. I used to ride them sometimes, although more modern air-conditioned buses were in widespread use by that time. But there was one route where my brother and I often went to central Miami Beach to go roller skating, or to visit a movie theater, and the buses on that route were the smelly old diesel burners. I just got used to the smell of diesel and the sound of diesel engines.

They relax me. I know when the big machines are operating that everything is all right. People are living their lives peacefully. And Mom is baking something in the kitchen, or getting ready for another birthday party, or packing the car for another trip across country.

Of course, now all the houses are built. Many of them have probably been torn down. And those fascinating new buildings are probably dilapidated old buildings in seedier parts of town. And Mom no longer has any children to mother, not her own who have grown up and moved on, nor anyone else's. Other mothers have stepped in to take on the role of surrogate Mom, Den Mother, and Neighborhood Maven.

I hope they show their kids what unconditional love really is, because we see so little of it in the grownup world.

The Wars of the Links

Google keeps raising the stakes in the linking business. Google AdWords buyers have recently been caught off guard by the changes in AdWords quality scoring which have, for some people at least, resulted in higher advertising costs. Now SE Roundtable is also reporting that Google is eliminating affiliate sites from the program. If you don't sell your own merchandise, the days of generating traffic through Google AdWords for your Web site are coming to a close.

On the other side of the coin, click pirates are now banding together to defraud advertisers en masse. That's three links to SE Roundtable in one post, but they have done an excellent job of covering many aspects of this issue.

On the one hand, Google is making it more expensive for advertisers to advertise, they are pruning their advertiser program to get rid of the most motivated advertisers, and click pirates are devising new methods of stealing money from Google and its advertisers. PPC advertising is really taking it on the chin this year.

And alternatives are few and far between. MSN's AdCenter hasn't really grabbed the spotlight away from AdWords. And Yahoo!'s delayed release for Project Panama only makes me wonder if they'll come in behind the pack once again.

But while ad servers like Google, MSN, and Yahoo! roll out improved services and tighten their requirements, organic search results are also undergoing radical changes (at least at Google, and possibly at MSN). In the long-running community discussion of the so-called Google Sandbox Effect, John Scott's link probation argument has taken on more credibility over the past year as Google continues to beat up on Webmasters who buy and sell links.

Through my analyses of numerous sites and anecdotes that people share in various SEO forums (as well as reading those insufferably dense patent applications), I have begun to suspect that Google is looking at persistence in linkage and content. "Persistence" is a measurement of how long something stays in place. A persistent link hangs around much longer than a transient link. Are paid links simply more transient than non-paid links? In many cases, I believe so. After all, as soon as the advertiser stops paying for the link, the link goes away.

Some advertisers have paid for the same link placement on certain sites for many years, so if any of those links have been discounted by Google, they obviously are not only looking at persistence. But Google has definitely invested some time and effort in evaluating link ages and how to determine which links are new and which links are to be trusted.

As advertisers struggle to comprehend the implications of Google's link analysis efforts, the old Reciprocal Linking Wars have been largely revived by Dirk Johnson, a well-known reciprocal link program manager who is calling out "SEO gurus" on their claims that reciprocal linking is dead.

Bruce Clay responded to Dirk on the LED Digest on July 17 (Dirk replied on July 18 but the archive is not yet available). When someone asked Is Reciprocal Linking Dead? at HighRankings Forums, Dirk jumped in with guns blazing and the moderators were a little caught off guard. When they asked him who he was upset with, Dirk pointed to SEO gurus who don't usually post at HighRankings.

On the one hand, he was responding to the general SEO community in a very popular forum. On the other hand, he was using a forum to nail people who don't normally post there. The belief that Reciprocal Linking Is Dead is fairly widespread. People would not be asking if it's dead if there weren't other people saying it's dead across the Web.

Business operators like Dirk are seeing their livelihood threatened. People trust them to build up linkage to their own Web sites, and they want good links. Dirk argues strenuously that he, at least, brokers quality reciprocation -- he won't hook you up with a Viagra affiliate page. Which is all well and good, but people are nonetheless becoming increasingly concerned about whether reciprocal linkage "still works".

In some ways, it never worked. For years, the SEO community has been swaggering around like drunken sailors, swilling every link-building strategy and theory that any idiot could cook up. And some of the most well-known, highly respected link gurus in the SEO field are just that: idiots. They don't know what they are talking about when it comes to achieving high rankings at Google. They honestly believe that Google has always determined rankings mostly on the basis of linkage, which is about as far from reality as one can get. Google has always used a relevance scoring algorithm to which their famous PageRank scores have been added for good measure.

It is possible to pound your way to the top through relentless linking, but damn that's a lot of work for such little gain when other, less labor-intensive methods are available (and always have been). And what's worse is that reciprocal linking -- when I and a few other "link pirates" started organizing it for search engine manipulation a few years ago -- worked best when you linked to sites not competing for your search expressions. But as concerns of quality have emerged, people have become more convinced they should only link to "relevant" (related by topic) sites. Which, in effect, reduces the power of reciprocation. It levels the playing field.

Leveling playing fields is all good for Google. You have to go back to competing on content. So then, should people stop reciprocating with relevant sites? I don't think so. I recently agreed to add a link to a C.S. Lewis site whose operator naively asked me for a reciprocal link. How he got through my filters, I don't know, but he's got a non-commercial site with quality content that is relevant to my audience and I agreed to give him several links (I don't even want one back) and I'll run a banner ad for him if he sends me the banner.

Why did I do that? Because linking to good content is good for everyone, and newer sites or less popular sites can benefit from reciprocal linking if their partners are large, well-crawled, high-traffic sites. I don't mind helping out the little guys on occasion. I was a little guy once, myself. I know how hard it is to get traffic.

BTW -- C.S. Lewis fans should check out The C.S. Lewis Society Web site.

My point in recouping all this boring technical stuff is to underscore just how much more difficult it is becoming for new and obscure Web sites to gain powerful promotional linkage. The debates are heating up, not settling down, and there is a lot of conflicting opinion and information out there regarding what works and what doesn't.

You don't know if that link you buy will get you anything other than some branding visibility and traffic (if even that).

You don't know if that reciprocal link you just gained will get you anything other than some branding visibility and traffic (if even that).

You don't know if that PPC ad you took out will be shown or for how long it will be shown if your landing page doesn't meet quality guidelines. And you don't know how many of the clicks you pay for are legitimate clicks.

All of these strategies have come under fire and close scrutiny because of the abuse that has been directed at the search engines. Billions of dollars are at stake, and there is a growing community of people who are hungry for shares of those billions of dollars. Unfortunately for most of them, they'll never realize much gain for their efforts.

To be a successful spammer, you have to generate thousands of pages of fluff content and you'll be constantly working to devise new strategies to circumvent search engine filters.

To be a successful click pirate, you have to generate thousands of apparently unique and untraceable clicks, and you'll be constantly working to develop new resources to stay one step ahead of the click police.

To be a successful link pirate, you pretty much just have to keep producing tons of new content that is persistent. How does that make you a link pirate? Well, there's a little more to it than that. But, ar!, I'm not about to share all my secrets, mateys.

Yo ho ho and a battle of links!

Monday, July 17, 2006

The truth about white bears

Some days, you just cannot help but think about the white bears. The more you try not to, the more you feel compelled to think about them. That's the thing about white bears: they never quite go away.

Worse, once you step on the white bear treadmill, there is no getting off. Failing to avoid thinking about white bears is a loss of innocence. And it's the most contagious of diseases, completely viral in that it passes from person to person with the merest hint of contact.

White Bear Syndrome began in the late 1980s or early 1990s with a university study where students were placed in front of computers and told to write about anything they could think of as long as it wasn't about white bears. The restriction on white bears made it impossible for the students to not think about (much less type about) them.

The news media heard about this experiment and carried a story about it. So not only were those poor students contaminated for life, anyone who read the newspaper and magazine stories about the project was equally forever doomed to always think about White Bears.

You cannot not think about White Bears, because if you try to put them out of your mind, you are thinking about not thinking about them.

The White Bear Conundrum is a metaphorical example of communication. You cannot not communicate. Refusing to contact or acknowledge someone is a tacit admission of something about your view of that person. You may be intimidated, frightened, awestruck, angry, or just totally zoned out in a state of euphoria. But the choice not to initiate contact or not to respond with someone you know when that person is available is in itself a communicative action.

Think of when two people argue, and one turns their back on the other, covering their ears. The actions indicate that the first person is trying to close out the other person. "You are no longer part of my world," the actions say. "What you say is no longer important to me."

Silence is a tool of communication that parents use to discipline their children. It's a tool of communication that children use to rebel against their parents. Silence is the utmost insult because it conveys to the other party the sense that they are not important enough to be addressed. Public shunning, once widely practiced throughout America, was an extremely effective means of controlling a population. People rely upon each other to meet all sorts of needs. If we are being isolated and shunned by the community, we have been cut off from the network that enables us to survive.

White Bears emplify the other person. Once you acknowledge the other person, you can never not acknowledge that person again. You may go out of your way not to speak to, look at, or listen to someone -- but such extreme avoidance is itself an acknowledgement of the other person. That person becomes a black hole, warping space and time to such an extent that you move away from that location.

We each have an event horizon around us, which can be thought of as a the point of contact between us and other people. Your event horizon includes a visible range (you can identify people you know well at a distance of several hundred feet by the way they dress, walk, run, or gesture). You event horizon includes an audible range, and your event horizon includes an olfactory range. But we also have other ranges. Letters delivered by mail, electronic messages, telephone calls, and advertising media comprise a much vaguer but very broad event horizon. Some restraint orders specifically forbid people from appearing in public in ways that may impact the other people seeking the orders.

And one cannot get a restraint order against a White Bear. A White Bear is always near or far, but is never gone. Unless you can erase your memories completely, the bears will always be with you.

So if you think about White Bears, try to think about the more pleasant ones. A fun memory brightens your day, and as long as you embrace the light you won't need to fear the dark.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Another Hobbit Feast Under Wraps...

The Inklings Roundtable of Houston held its monthly dinner party at the Hobbit Cafe on Richmond last night. We switched back from the Black Labrador in part because of sentimental reasons (I guess) and in part because we felt like the Black Lab was no longer treating us nicely.

The Hobbit Cafe enclosed one of its porches while we were patronizing the competition and I have to admit that small though the room be, it was fairly quiet. The Hobbit Cafe is one of the noisiest eating places I've ever been to (perhaps because it's always packed?) so a quiet side room is a major plus.

The dinner topic was "Hobbits" and we only digressed into Balrogs for a couple of short whiles. I have no idea of why, but several people became fascinated with calculating how far Gandalf and the Balrog must have fallen in the movie (failing to take into consideration that they had no idea what the Balrog was made of). They concluded the distance fallen must have been about 5.6 miles (approximately 29,000 feet, or about the height of Mount Everest).

One of the Hobbit-related topics that came up was where the little guys came from, always one of my favorite mysteries. We know that they first hit the legends and history books in the Vales of Anduin, but they didn't always live there and one of my speculations through the years has been that they migrated to the northern Vales of Anduin from lands east of Mirkwood early in the Third Age. I would guess maybe around the end of the 5th century (when the first Easterling invasion of the Third Age occurred).

We also delved deep into just exactly how Bag End was conditioned. Apparently (according to The Hobbit) it had tiled floors and paneled walls. What sort of wood-paneling would a Hobbit hole have? We didn't look through the books to find out, but some rooms were devoted mostly to clothes. I asked what Bilbo would have done about moths and several people suggested he would have used cedar paneling. Do they have cedar trees in England? (Not that the Shire is to be equated with England, but rather, did Tolkien even think of cedar trees)?

According to The Royal Forestry Society Cedar Trees Are Not Native to the British Isles. Cedars are, in fact, relative newcomers. There are several species of trees called "cedar", but some are actually from the Juniper family. Cedars are native to dry, rocky regions and are found in high altitudes like the Atlas Mountains, the Himalayas, and such. Tolkien only uses the word "cedar" twice in The Lord of the Rings. Once when describing groves of trees near Rivendell and in "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit", where Sam adds a fallen cedar branch to his campfire.

Nonetheless, cedar trees are mentioned often in fan fiction and Michael J. Brisbois talks about them in "Tolkien's Imaginary Nature: An Analysis of the Structure of Middle-earth" (Tolkien Studies 2.1, West Virginia University Press, 2005). People must just like the way cedar trees (or juniper trees) smell, and they make an everlasting impression. Of course, every girl wants a cedar chest for her hope chest, right? Or maybe cherry wood. But I digress.

Next month, we'll be singing and/or reciting songs from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and any other Tolkien book or source we can think of. And after we have gotten tired of that, I guess the topic will be "The Wars of Middle-earth" (for no particular reason, although this summer marks the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, which many people feel had a strong influence on Tolkien's writing).

Thursday, July 13, 2006

SEOMoz knocked offline

It looks like so many people were trying to use SEOMoz's new Page Strength tool that they overwhelmed the server. That's my guess. I called their office and spoke briefly with Brandon, just to make sure they were aware the server was offline. They knew it was dead, so they were working on the issue.

Maybe someone tripped over a power cord at the Network Operating Center where the server is hosted. But I saw so many people blogging about the Page Strength tool over the past couple of days that I suspect the entire SEO industry simply tried to use the tool.

So now we're waiting for SEOMoz to come back online and give us the official spin on what caused them to spin out of control.

Page Strength is SEOMoz's new metric for gauging how effectively a Web page (URL) has been marketed. It's a much better measurement of success than Google's much manipulated PageRank and Alexa's much manipulated rankings. No metric will be perfect, and a number of people have already pointed out some things about Page Strength that they don't like. But it's a much better metric than the search marketing industry has had for a very long time.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Evolution of a Web site

What is it about white Mexican cheese dip that elicits so much passion from people? Now that Hercules, Xena, and The Lord of the Rings have all ended production, the most frequent topic in my email is Xenite.Org's White Cheese Dip site. This is also the single most popular URL on Xenite.Org, although larger content sections such as Xena Online Resources still get more traffic across all their pages.

My email backlog includes dozens of restaurant names and locations, personal anecdotes, and recipe variations. Most recently, a Wal-Mart employee wrote to tell us where people can look in their local Wal-Mart stores for the Kraft white American cheese.

I can't keep up with all the white cheese dip email. It's a static content site and updating the various pages is time-consuming. I wish I could just go in and add stuff as it comes by, but that takes more effort than I can muster. It's just an endless stream of comments, thank yous, requests for more information, information sharing, and occasional requests for links.

I could set up a forum, but there are already many cooking/recipe forums out there. And, frankly, I don't know enough about cooking to be very helpful. I've actually succeeded in burning water outside of research laboratories. Making the cheese dip would have been a true challenge if the recipe weren't so simple. All you have to do is grate some cheese, add some low-fat milk, and stir over low heat for about 5 minutes.

Well, Dixie and I have been discussing (on and off -- you know how we drift into tangents with our lives) ways of converting Xenite.Org to a content management system. Personally, I hate CMS-driven Web sites. They look ugly, they are usually difficult to use, and every time the software is updated it seems like you have to change 400 bazillion template files. It's always a major project whenever Dixie upgrades the VBulletin software we use at SF-FANDOM's science fiction and fantasy forums.

Nonetheless, I have so much content -- including older sites that were taken offline "temporarily" and never restored -- to maintain that Xenite becomes older and more dated with each passing day. Which isn't to say that I'm not constantly adding new content, updating old content, fixing links, etc. It's just a massive, massive undertaking and I no longer have time for it.

So the plan is to upgrade Xenite.Org's look to a CMS later this year. We're not sure when. The future is usually a wide-open book for us. I've got other projects in mind, lined up, scheduled, planned, promised, and waiting to be launched. There are IMPs around the world waiting for me to contact them about interviews I want to publish.

Well, anyway, keep the email coming. I know it's sometimes a year before I reply (and in many cases I probably never reply). When I created Xenite.Org I just wanted a place to consolidate four Web sites that I had created. The URLs were all on different domains and I just thought it would be cool to put them all in one place. And then I created some forums. And then I added some new sites. And then....

And now here we are, almost 10 years later, and Xenite looks nothing like what it once was. But sadly it's also not as active as it once was, in terms of how much content I push out. The more content you add to a domain, the longer it takes to add an equivalent percentage of new content.

Among the ideas that Dixie and I have kicked around are setting up a blogging community (Wow! There's an idea no one has tried before). Not just a random come sign up for free blogging community. Rather, it would be an invitation-only we'll promote your thoughts and essays blogging community. And I've got another Web site planned that should be interesting and entertaining for people.

But where am I going to find the time to get it all going? No idea, but I'll find it eventually. I had hoped to do some work on the Web while recovering from surgery that first week home from the hospital. That was a naive plan. Maybe if I had taken the Vicodin the surgeon prescribed, I'd have been able to sit at a computer all day. But then I'd now be looking at drug-induced fluff that would really be out of this world.

So, now that I'm finished ranting, I realized I could have used this time to add some comments to the White Cheese Dip site. Timing is everything.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Fly Moves On The Dancing Grooves

You know, I've only sat in on a couple of Hip Hop classes, but last night I was just blown away by how many girls get into it. Gloria Jones started offering Hip Hop classes in Houston again this week and the turnout was just amazing. But if there were more than 5 guys in the class, I couldn't find them. It was like standing in a sea of girls, all wiggling and jiggling and hopping and....

Guys, you look totally stupid out there in the clubs, trying to wave your shoulders back and forth while the girls do their moves. And if you're wondering why you can't meet more girls when you go out to the clubs, here's a clue: get yourselves into a friggin' dance class.

'Nuff said.

Not that I'm actually in the Hip Hop class. Wish I could do it, but it's not a good time for me. Maybe in a couple of months. Latryce, the teacher handling the class, is absolutely cool and she's got like college degrees and competition dance experience and can pick up any dance move you show her in about 3 seconds. She dropped by the ballroom dancing class where I was helping out and partnered with me. "Do we get to do anything other than the basic?" she asked.

"Not in this class," I answered. "It's the Beginner Ballroom."

She looked disappointed and I started laughing. "So why are you dancing?"

"I just want to move."

Hey, I'm cool with that.

And I would say that Latryce will be moving through the Hip Hop classes for a good while to come. I'm sure she'll retain more than enough students to get a pre-Intermediate or Intermediate class going next month. They almost didn't have a room large enough to handle her class last night. And people came in after the class started to ask if they could sign up next month.

Um, I don't think you need to worry about that. Hip Hop is probably here to stay at Dance-Passion for a while.

And there were plenty of people coming out to dance in the Ballroom class. There were even a lot of guys who showed up for the Two Step class. In fact, there were more guys than ladies in the Two Step class (don't worry, folks -- Gloria usually rounds up extra partners once she sees a class has an imbalance). Ladies, if you want to learn to dance Two Step in Houston, click on the link to Dance Passion and contact Gloria.

So, enough with the dance studio plugs. Did I go dancing this weekend? Yes, I went dancing. I actually went to the Houston USABDA (United States Amateur Ballroom Dancing Association) monthly dance Saturday night. Maggie and Sylvie joined me after Maggie got off work, and we Cha, Foxtrot, Waltz, or something.

I danced more than I intended to, to be honest. Women kept asking me to dance. I must have been dressed nice because my ballroom moves are still not there. We nearly got trampled in the Waltz -- probably because half the other guys' moves weren't really there, either.

Well, at least the half who danced near me. You'd extricate yourself from one collision and some other idiot would come dancing into you. Gentlemen, I don't care what dance style you're practicing: it is your responsibility to avoid collisions on the dance floor.

Maggie got bored with the ballroom thing (she used to do it all the time, so it's more of a new experience for me) and suggested we go to Plaza 59. Now, I hadn't bothered to check Mary Frometa's schedule so I didn't know if she was playing there. I hadn't bothered to call for a table, either.

But off we went to Plaza 59, and Jessica the hostess graciously gave us a table (I'm beginning to think this is why Maggie keeps me around). Mary's Band wasn't there. Instead, they had a DJ all night. At some point in the evening, he started playing Reggaeton (sort of Hip Hop mixed with Merengue). I don't like just dipping my shoulders back and forth, so after about 20 minutes I went and asked the DJ if he would play some Salsa.

Yeah, he played some Salsa. He devised a mix on the fly and nearly medleyed the dancers to death for about 10 minutes before he calmed down and just let the songs play through.

At one point, he put on something (I forget what) and everyone got off the dance floor. So he got on the P.A. system and said, "Where did all the dancers go?"

Hey, that's life in the DJ business.

There were probably 2 women for every guy at Plaza 59. Maybe more. I had my 2 women with me, and the table next to us had two girls sitting by themselves, and the table next to them had 4-5 girls sitting with 2 guys. Everywhere you looked, there were girls dancing with girls, and hardly a guy standing by himself. The biggest total loser in the world would have failed only by standing at the bar with blinders on, sucking down drink after drink and passing out.

Not that it was a player's game. I just mean any guy at the club who wanted to dance had no problem finding a girl to dance with. Which is kind of unusual. I guess when Mary isn't there, a lot of the regular male dancers don't show up.

Which is not to say the floor isn't crowded even when Mary isn't around. At one point I gave up trying to dance with Sylvie. People were flying into us, kicking us, etc. I decided discretion was the better part of valor. But Maggie wanted to dance, so I decided to try sneaking up by the stage. I was turning around at one point and a girl came flying into me, knocking me up onto the stage.

My cat-like reflexes saved everything but my dignity, and to add insult to injury, Maggie refused to dance with me on the stage (we had plenty of room, but she didn't want to be in the limelight).

The evening proceeded in a crowded fashion until after midnight, when I decided I was ready to leave. It was at that point that two things happened.

First, the DJ started playing disco music from the 1970s and 1980s. I couldn't believe my ears.

Secondly, Maggie decided she had to have one last dance.

So out we went onto the floor as the Village People (and half the drunken crowd) yelled out, "Yyyyy-EM-Cee-A!" blah, blah, blah.

I did the only thing I could think of to save the moment: I started spelling out the letters with my arms (it was all the rage when I was in college). By the time the second refrain started, half the other dancers were trying to spell out Y-M-C-A with their arms (I won't say whether this is a skill that needs practice).

I don't disco dance much. I can dance like a crazy fool and sometimes do just for the fun of looking silly on the dance floor, but it was way too crowded and I was way too tired. My energy levels are not fully recovered from my surgery (in fact, my doctor waited until a month after the operation to tell me it can take up to six months for people to fully recover from an operation -- he knows about my blog, so I hope he sees this and feels guilty).

Anyway, Maggie and I discoed until she realized I was going to draw attention to us as the new round of Hip Hop songs started playing, and then like most women do when I start putting on the Fly moves, she panicked and said, "Okay. I'm done!"

And that was the end of my dancing weekend (well, Monday was after the weekend)....

Monday, July 10, 2006

Fast food goes down a long way...

When I was very young, my brother and I used to love going to Burger King. Children are easily amused, but in those days the burgers really were flame-broiled and we hadn't heard of McDonald's, Wendy's, or Jack-in-the-Box. We lived in south Florida, where the original BK really was king. The most serious competition came from Royal Castle.

I don't know why, but I remember one Burger King restaurant in particular. I have no idea of where it was, if it's still there, or if it's even still a Burger King. But they had a long open-flame conveyor belt and they would put the beef patties on the belt and send them down across the flames. All the kids would run down the production line (on the outside) and watch their burgers cook. The meat reached the far end of the belt, fell off onto a second belt, and came back down toward the cash register.

A worker would scoop the freshly scooped meat off the belt, put on your freshly warmed bun with all the fixins', and wrap it up for you.

I don't remember when Burger King stopped cooking the burgers fresh in front of you, but I do recall the change in taste. Yuck! I rarely eat BK any more. Microwaving beef patties after they have been cooked is just not fine with me.

But I occasionally stop by Wendy's, McDonald's, and maybe a few others (including Krystal, which opened a store in Houston last year). In fact, since my surgery, most of the fast food I've eaten has consisted of McDonald's small hamburgers. On a good day I can eat all of one hamburger and maybe part of a small order of Fre-- American fries.

So, I had to attend a lunch-time class at work today, and therefore slipped out of the office at 11:15 to grab a small hamburger and fries at the nearby Mickey D's. While I stood there waiting in line for them to do whatever it is they do with the meat in the back (I get the impression it's not freshly fried at Mickey D's, either), the store manager came out and asked if I had been helped.

He then not-quite-berated his employees for making me and other customers stand around while they hurriedly shoved fried meat and potatoes into bags. I watched one guy pull a freshly cooked basket of potatoes out of the grease and proceed to drown them in salt.

"Why am I here?" I asked myself.

"It's fast, the burger is small, and you're paying less than $3.00 for the privilege of rushing back to the office with that oh-so-full post-surgery feeling."

Frankly, I've stood at greasy open-fire grills that looked more palatable. Part of the problem, though, was the manager. When he wasn't looking over his workers' shoulders, he was sitting down interviewing someone for a job, or rushing around asking customers if they were being helped.

High pressure fast food is more about passing quality surveys and corporate benchmark performance standards. I watched this same restaurant go through a corporate inspection only a few weeks ago. You could see how nervous the employees were. The managers on duty were walking on egg shells. The corporate office people were walking around with clipboards in their hands and conferring in hushed tones. They made extra sure to point out some of the teeniest complaints possible, aiming for that one better level of service.

McDonald's, here's my take on your pressure-tank process: ease up and cut your employees some slack. Sometimes, I'd rather have hot, fresh food than something that has been sitting out under a warmer light for 10 minutes.

I could go to Whataburger, except I don't think there is one near my office and I have no idea of what I would do with all that meat. I can't eat it all. I'd be in agony from the belly ache for a week.

I could go to Krystal, but that's a good 10-minute drive from work and I'm not sure I could even eat their 3-burger combo (the side order of Fre-- American fries is huge). I met one of the managers at the local Krystal earlier this year. He seemed like a nice, laid back guy. He watches his employees, too, but he didn't seem to be riding the herd like a Gaucho who hasn't been paid in six months.

There is a huge level of difference between the ambience of Houston's lone Krystal restaurant and the high-speed BurgerNet connection you get at the local MickeyDs. I think if they were not located on every corner, most people would probably not visit Mcdonald's very often. The food is definitely not the reason for why I go. "Here's your salt, Mr. Martinez. There may be some potatoes with it."

They call it "fast food" for a reason, but I think it's gotten to be a little too fast. I miss the fun of racing down the counter, watching my patty cook over the open flame. But if I'm fortunate enough to have kids, I hope by that time someone will have figured out that they don't need loud noise, busy managers, and plastic playgrounds just to learn how to enjoy a freshly cooked meal -- even if it is fast food.

Disclaimer: No white bears were used in the making of this post.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Wanted: Great SF Merchandise Program For Large Content Site

I've just posted a major announcement at Spider-food's marketing forum. I've had it with Google AdWords,, and AllPosters.Com. And And SideShow. And all the other stupid advertising programs I've signed up with.

What is it about ecommerce that merchants cannot understand? They'll do anything for spammers (who admittedly bring in a lot of revenue) but when a genuine content provider wants to sell some merchandise, they do everything possible to screw up the deal and make working with their service a nightmare.

Here is what I want from merchants:

  • Valuable, interesting merchandise that is NOT being sold on every other SF site on the Web
  • Easy-to-search catalogues that don't make me click on a dozen check boxes per page out of 15-20 pages
  • Straight HTML links
  • Dead link reports that say, "The referring URL was XXXX"
  • Monthly email commission reports
  • The ability to upload a template into which you insert the straight HTML text links and image links (for images hosted on YOUR server) to create pages I can download for my site
  • Reports that simply show: how many people I sent you, what they bought, how much I've earned, when you'll pay me what I've earned
  • Co-branding. I link to you with your logo, you link back to me with mine. If that's too much trouble for you, then you don't need my visitors and I sure don't need you. I'm sick of this one-way traffic B.S.

Here is what I do NOT want from merchants:

  • Javascript. You can take your Javascript "dynamic store" scripts and shove them where the sun don't shine.
  • Poor search tools. If I type "Conan the Barbarian" into your search interface, don't give me Conan O'Brien. That's not asking much. I'm an experienced programmer. I know darned good and well that this is the easiest type of search to make happen.
  • 1 item displays. What is up with that? I'm not going to insert 1 item on each of 50,000 pages of content. That's not happening.
  • Separate commissions for search tools. If I put your search box on my site, you had better pay me exactly what you would pay if I send you someone through a text link.
  • Links that attempt to open your pages in the visitor's browser window. Since I don't know if your server is hung up, I don't want my visitors to be twiddling their thumbs when your link turns out to be busy or dead.
  • Anonymous dead links. Stop removing merchandise from your catalogues without notifying the people who link to the merchandise. It makes us look like we don't ever update our pages. I'm not going to click on every link I have listed from your catalogue each day just to make sure it still works.

Frankly, I'm about ready to sign off on affiliate sales. I've made more money from Internet consulting for the past couple of years. I kept the affiliate pages going because people like to browse them. Dixie rolls her eyes every time I add a new model or actress poster store to our affiliate section, but they get a lot of traffic and those pages send traffic to other areas in Xenite's network. So guys like to look at pictures of scantily clad women. Big deal.

But now it's just too much trouble. If there is a merchant out there who is offering some unique merchandise, and you haven't yet recruited every other big SF site out there into your program, stop by the Spider-Food forum and tell me about your program. Just make sure you don't waste my time or yours by trying to persuade me that your Javascript is better than Amazon and AllPosters'.

It's not.

It's stupid. I'm sick of it. And I am NOT going to put any more Javascript ads on my network.

That's a major clue to the ecommerce community that depends on guys like me to send them traffic.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Outrunning the bear

Someone just posted on a forum I visit an old saying his father used to share with him. "Son, you don't have to outrun the bear; you just have to outrun the guy next to you."

Another poster followed up with his granddad's version of the aphorism. Two friends are running away from a tiger. One friend says to the other, "Why are we running? We'll never outrun a tiger!" The other friend replies, "I don't have to outrun the tiger -- just you!"

In life, the bears and tigers are always chasing us. Let's throw in a lion for an occasional oh, my! And we're always trying to get away from them in a mob. The bear could be failure (to win the girl, to win the competition, to pass the class) or the bear could be old age or the bear could be unwanted change. Or it could be your past, welling up to overtake you and draw you back when you're trying to go forward.

Things never stay the same, but they hardly ever change. That is, every day brings us new challenges and opportunities, and every day we face them with pretty much the same set of tools and experiences we had the day before. And yet, ten years can pass and we do everything differently.

Ten years ago I was sitting in a cubicle in another office, typing on a computer, watching two girls wash a car. That was the longest car wash of my life.

Five years ago I was sitting in yet another cubicle, barely able to type because of a back injury. I had to sit with a laptop computer in my lap because I was literally too weak to hold up my arms. The pain was excruciating, and yet I managed to drive to and from work every day. It took six months to recover from that injury.

A couple of weeks ago, my doctor said it may take me up to six months to fully recover from my surgery.

I think I'd rather watch girls wash a car.

Some days, my bear seems to be all the essays I've written about J.R.R. Tolkien. I'll admit there are times when I sort of wish I hadn't written them. People sort of expect me to always have something to say about Tolkien. I'm kind of burned out on the topic, although yesterday I discovered a new facet of Tolkien studies of which I've been unaware.

It seems a few people familiar with James MacPherson's Ossianic poetry books have been suggesting, at least since 2004, that Tolkien was influenced by the poems. Ossian is the purported Scottish Homer, a blind bard who lived around the 3rd or 4th century CE who compiled or composed a group of poems about his father Fingal and other Gaelic warriors.

English literature scholars and enthusiasts going all the way back to Dr. Samuel Johnson (who started the sad process of butchering the English language's hopes of ever becoming a phonetically spelled language) have proclaimed MacPherson's book a hoax. Of course, he has his supporters who point out that references to Ossianic poetry predate MacPherson by 2-300 years, as well that some of his older contemporaries claimed they had heard the poems performed before MacPherson was even born.

Whatever the truth of MacPherson's translations may be, if he did influence Tolkien not too many people are aware of the connection. I'm not sure how strong the connection could be. Tolkien didn't borrow a great deal of obvious Celtic traditions for The Lord of the Rings but there are several notable borrowings in The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.

So, after I have had a chance to read up on MacPherson, maybe I'll be able to give the bear one last race before I move on. Really, all I have to do is outrun the next guy, and he may not yet realize there is a bear chasing us.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The long handshake of hello

Fans of Julie Tam will be glad to know that she has resumed blogging. She took down all the older entries so you'll be browsing fresh, new content. And she is posting links to her broadcast reports on the blog, but the station she works for only keeps them up for 1-2 days.

Why be so cheap, Fox 41? I've taken longer than that to draw a breath and say, "Hi, there."

She has removed all the links to her friends (boo! hiss! One of those girls picked some nice songs -- I should have bookmarked her site). UPDATE: Nope. I looked at the wrong page. Julie still has friends.

And moving on from the unavailable (she's engaged, guys) Miss Tam, I have to say a little something about white bears. Wait, I'm trying not to think about white bears.

No white bears.

Do not think about ....

Well, Ken Lay died. I did not own any Enron stock nor did I play an Enron stockholder on television, but there was a lot of ill-will toward Mr. Lay around Houston -- and some good will. How much he was responsible for the whole meltdown will probably always be a point of contention in the business history books. But having worked for a few personality-led corporations, I have to say that the corporate culture starts at the top.

My best wishes go to those who loved him and will miss him.

Menawhile, back at the ranch, a group of scientists want to construct a giant starshade to screen out light from distant stars so we can study the light from their orbiting planets. Sounds kind of cool, but what are they going to do when they find out someone at the factory stepped on a corner of the fabric three years after it's been put into position?

Anyone here remember what happened with the Hubble Space Telescope? We had to send a shuttle up to fix it -- more than once.

Waitaminnit. I see how this can spur space research. We'll spend billons of dollars to send this space umbrella out beyond Pluto's orbit and when we discover that it's snagged on a hook or something, we'll spend billions' more putting together a long-range intra-system space craft capable of supporting human life in some abominable fashion for ten years. That's about how long it would take to send out a repair man and his family.

Can you imagine the first exchange of signals after he arrives at the space umbrella?

"Houston. I need a larger screw driver...."

Ten years in space with your wife or girlfriend. Picture the backseat driving arguments.

Her: "You nearly hit that asteroid, dear. Please be more careful."

Him: "Honey, it's all run by computers. NASA plotted this trip out all the way to the umbrella."

Her: "That's why I stay by the emergency exit, dear. I'm part of plan C."

Him: "What's plan B?"

Her: "We flag down a passing UFO and ask for help."

There are no white bears in far as we know.

Still here...

As you might have guessed by now, I've been off the Internet for most of the past four days. I'll get back to the regular blogging later today.

In the meantime, try not to think about white bears.