Thursday, August 31, 2006

Teaching the human body to kill cancer

CNN just published an amazing story about a potential cure for cancer. Researchers at the National Institutes for Health retooled 17 patients' immune systems to kill their cancers. The researchers adapted a virus to modify immune system cells from the patients to seek out and kill their own cancers. The patients were then subjected to chemotherapy to kill off their immune systems. Their genetically re-engineered cells were then introduced to their bodies and the cells killed off the cancers.

The research has raised eyebrows across the cancer treatment community.

This news arrives with a special poignance for my sister-in-law's family. They just learned that my sister-in-law's mother has lung cancer and may not survive more than a year.

It's too soon for this radical new therapy to be widely used, and my brother and his in-laws and all their friends can only hope that other treatments will emerge to help battle this highly destructive illness. It's a pity we cannot put people in to stasis to wait for better treatments, although such a radical move would have devastating consequences on their lives in other ways.

Back in the 1980s, I subscribed to an interesting magazine. Each year it was retitled. I think it was called Science '80 when I first learned about it and became a subscriber. In 1981 it became Science '81, and so forth. The magazine was written for mass audiences and it was the best magazine of its kind at the time. Unfortunately, the magazine failed in the mid-1980s. Many of its writers apparently went over to the rival publication Discover, the quality of which improved radically afterward.

Well, there was an interesting article in one of those old Science 'YY issues about a man, call him Uncle Ted, who fell asleep somewhere around 1957 (give or take a few years). His family took care of him for something like 25 years. He sat relatively undisturbed in a chair in a living room in a relative's house.

An entire generation of children grew up around this sleeping man. He barely moved. His family checked on him regularly but rarely if ever were able to feed him or administer any fluids. I believe they had to change his clothes a few times and they kept him as clean as they could. But he sat in that chair for about 25 years and slept.

Are you thinking of Rip Van Winkle?

One day, a physician came to visit the family. She asked who the sleeping man was. "Oh, that's just Uncle Ted," she was told. Gradually, the physician learned that Uncle Ted had been asleep for an entire generation. She was naturally amazed, curious, and fascinated by the medical implications of such a condition.

The doctor persuaded Uncle Ted's family to admit him to a hospital. There the staff subjected him to a series of tests and discovered that his metabolism had almost completely shut down. Not entirely so. There was just enough metabolic activity to keep Uncle Ted alive (or sort of alive) for about 25 years.

With the family's permission, the doctors implemented a treatment to speed up Uncle Ted's metabolism. He revived quickly and regained awareness. He woke up in the hospital and understood where he was. Relatives came to visit him but the staff carefully monitored Uncle Ted's progress. And they witheld from him the knowledge that 25 years had passed. They even managed to find a library to donate 25-year-old newspapers for Uncle Ted to read.

Does it sound like a great story? Unfortunately, there was no happy ending for Uncle Ted. As the days and weeks passed, the doctors at the hospital performed a number of tests on Uncle Ted to determine why his metabolism had slowed down so much and how it had sustained itself for so long. To their dismay, the doctors learned that Uncle Ted had a rapidly developing tumor. I don't recall which type of cancer he had, but it was one of the most aggressive forms. And it was a cancer that had developed in his body before he fell asleep 25 years previously.

Somehow, Uncle Ted's body had mustered the only defense it could against the cancer: it slowed its metabolism just enough to keep itself clinically alive for many years, and by doing so it slowed the growth of the cancer. But when the doctors revived Uncle Ted, they also revived the cancer.

He died soon afterward, but not before his family were able to spend a little more time with him.

Maybe Uncle Ted's metabolic syndrome could serve a useful purpose for many of today's cancer patients if doctors could safely slow down the metabolism enough to sustain life and delay the growth of tumors. But for reasons I have never learned, medical science appears to have passed on this option. Uncle Ted may have just been so genetically fortunate that his body was capable of doing something the rest of us cannot do.

Still, one can hope that one day we'll be able to preserve human life even when we don't yet have the means to cure whatever ails us.

My thoughts are with all those who are involved in the struggle today. Take heart, for work is nonetheless progressing.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Who was that masked musician?...

There's an old recording of the song "Woodstock" (lyrics include "We are stardust, we are golden, we've got to get ourselves back to the garden...") that keeps rolling through my mind. I haven't actually heard it in many years. The most popular version, the one that is always played, referred to on most Web sites, and virtually named as "the best" (not in my opinion) is the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version.

A lot of people have performed the song through the years. If I recall correctly, it was written by Joni Mitchell. Iain/Ian Mathews recorded at least one version (sung a cappella -- without music).

The version I'd like to track down was a studio cut by a glossy pop rock band of the late 1960s or early 1970s. They probably released their version in 1970 or 1971. The lead singer had a very high-pitched but soft voice. The group had great harmonies.

I used to hear this version all the time when I was young, even though it was by that time in my life already a "golden oldie". But somehow the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version (recorded about the same time) became more popular and radio stations stopped playing the smoother version I had grown up with.

When I used to download songs from various services (I stopped doing that because digital rights management just makes the experience too frustrating and the cost-per-song is ridiculously too high), I often searched for the song. I couldn't find the version I wanted, though I listened to many tracks in the hope of recognizing the familiar, haunting chorus.

I've tracked down other songs through the years. For example, Grupo Niche recorded a great Latin/Salsa song called "Oiga, Mire y Vea". Johnny Walden used to play it all the time when he was teaching free Salsa lessons at Elvia's Cantina in Houston. The tempo is slow enough that you could also dance Cha Cha to it.

Well, Johnny didn't know the name of the song or who performed it. I got so frustrated asking my friends if they could name the song one weekend I walked into a music store and started sampling every Latin CD they had. Could not find the exact recording. Then, one night as I was waiting for friends to meet me at Plaza 59, the DJ played the song. I like to freaked out. I asked the hostess to write down the name and artist for me. She probably thought I was crazy.

Okay, I am crazy, but that's beside the point.

Another song that drove me nuts for several years was "Sad Eyes" by Bruce Springsteen. I used to hear it on the radio while I was working late at night for an event management company in Georgia. I loved the song, but never paid attention to the credits when the DJs would name the songs in their playlists. Naturally, the song's popularity waned with time and I heard it less and less often.

But I wanted to hear the song again and listened to dozens of Springsteen hits for months, whenever I had an opportunity, to try and identify the song. Finally, I started searching lyric Web sites to see if I could identify the words, but it had been so long since I heard the song I could only recall the melody. The words had faded beyond recall.

In desperation I sent an email to a Springsteen fan with an extensive site on his career. I asked her if she could help me identify the song, knowing nothing but that it sort of went "aiii-iii-iii". I literally described it that way in my email. She took a guess and suggested "Sad Eyes", which turned out to be the song I was looking for.

Another song that drove me nuts was a Santana tune that I only started to hear a couple of years after it had been released as a single. It was played a lot on radio stations around Houston but also came across many satellite feeds used by restaurants. I was sitting in the Bennigan's at the Houston Galleria mall one day, eating lunch, when the song came on. I thought nothing about it but enjoyed listening to it, and then when the next song started I realized I wanted to buy the CD. I asked my server if he could recall the song, but he couldn't. He asked another server but no one in the restaurant could name the song.

Frustrated, I walked over to a music store and began listening to all the Santana CDs I could find (do you have any idea of many albums Carlos Santana has recorded?). Naturally, I couldn't find the song. Ready to give up, I went up to the sales clerk at the counter and asked him if he could help me identify a song. "How does it go?" he asked. "I don't know," I said. "But I think it has something to do with the moon."

Well, you can imagine how helpful that was. We talked a little more and he tried to coax the melody out of me, but I really couldn't even do that. This song was just so haunting it only wanted to stay at the edge of my memory. "Are you sure it's about the moon?" he asked.

"Well, I think it says something about the moon and the ocean," I replied.

He shook his head and said, "Maybe it's 'Smooth', which is a Santana song." We walked over to the Santana CDs and he pulled the one with "Smooth" on it. Suree enough, that was what I was trying to find.

Another song that took me a few years to track down was "Have you ever loved a woman?" by Richard Marx -- because it's not by Richard Marx, but by Bryan Adams. Well, at least I remembered the title.

Maybe the first song that ever drove me nuts was the one I always thought of as the "flower girl" song. Never knew who recorded it or what it was called, but I loved hearing it every time it came on the radio when I was a kid. Eventually, the name of the band (The Cowsills) stayed in my mind but I kept thinking of it as the "flower girl" song ("I love the flower girl!"). The actual name is "The Rain, The Park, and Other Things" -- which I didn't find out until many years had passed.

It's not that people don't say, "That was The Cowsills and 'The Rain, The Park, & Other Things'," when I hear these songs on the radio. They are often credited. I just start to groove and get lost in the melodies and forget to pay attention when the songs are over. Who wants to listen to a DJ speak when you have the guitars ringing in your ears, the melodies sliding across your bones, and the keyboards fading into a mesmerizing echo of contentment?

These songs are like warm fires on cold winter days, soft couches sheltered from drumming rainstorms, waterfalls playing on golden stones. You don't stop to think that someone is about to tell you who recorded the song. You just want it to go on forever, firing synapses you didn't realize existed. You breathe in the music and exhale dreams and mellowness.

And that's why I want to know who recorded that song...the one about stardust and the garden. You know, the really smooth, karmalistic version that sends you drifting across the misty skies of forever.

Write down the artists' name for me, will you, when you come back down to Earth? I'm never going to remember who they were....

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

SEO Services From An SEO Specialist

Meanwhile, back at the blog, Michael is still occasionally posting.

Sorry about the long silence, but my weekend was very busy as did indeed attend BarCamp Texas in Austin, where I met many interesting people. I gave a presentation called "How to get 100 valuable links in 10 business days or less" to a packed room, and the audience participation was great.

Curiously enough, yesterday (Monday) I was fired from my job for cause. Seems one of the medications I was taking caused me to fall asleep on the job, and that was a violation of the company's employee code of conduct.

Well, such is life.

I've been spending a fair amount of time on the telephone discussing search engine optimization and linking strategies with people. I've been doing search engine optimization since 1998 and have covered most of the hot trends (usually in advance of their being hot).

So, while I'll be earning some extra money as an SEO Specialist for a while, it remains to be seen whether this will be a permanent move for me. I'm in the process of contacting some Texas SEO firms to see what opportunities may be available, but a number of people are encouraging me to break out on my own.

Problem is, I'm not entirely sure of what would be the most productive use of my independent consulting time.

I'm presently engaged in an ongoing reputation management campaign. The contract has a non-disclosure clause (in fact, I usually do work in a non-disclosure framework). Reputation management is more challenging than normal query optimization because you pretty much have to dominate at least the first page of results.

People who have been following my articles at The SEOMoz Blog know I've been writing about linking all year long. So I think I've got some good link-building credentials under my belt, but link-building really isn't part of search engine optimization. It fits into the broader category of search engine placement which encompasses getting sites crawled, PPC (pay-per-click) advertising management, and search engine optimization.

SEOs who achieve rankings through links are either competing in highly optimized queries or are doing things the hard way. And most SEOs who specialize in link building don't appreciate it when I criticize their choices. In fact, there are many good reasons for using linkage to boost rankings: such as when the client won't let the SEO specialist touch the Web pages. If you cannot improve the on-page optimization, then you have to work with off-page factors.

People should naturally wonder if I'll now change the broad focus of this blog and concentrate on search engine optimization advice and tips.

Um, no. This blog is about me, my life, and my thoughts. I occasionally think about SEO but not always. I do other things with my life. I have other tales to tell.

A lot of SEOs do keep running blogs on current trends and events in the industry, and that is precisely why I don't want to write another one. I can pretty much infuriate people just by doing what I'm already doing.

And, yes, I do write the Google Says ... blog, but that isn't so much about search engine optimization as it is about the search engine Google.

Anyway, my services are available for at least a few contracts until I figure out what I'm going to do. I'll be glad to consider a reputation management campaign, a hard-to-place optimization campaign (but I reserve the right to refer anyone I feel needs a 6-to-12 month campaign to some other party), keyword research, and maybe even a creative link building campaign.

Yes, if you're competing for hyperoptimized queries and you really, truly, honestly do need links, contact me and we'll discuss your needs. I am also available for telephone consultations. I've been told my hourly rate is too low compared to other SEO consultants, but for now I'll keep it at the current level. I may raise the price in a few weeks. We'll see.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The phone call that changed my morning drive...

So, I was running late for work this morning and decided not to make any stops. Trying to behave in a guilty fashion, I studiously paid close attention to what I was doing.

And then my cell phone rang. Now, there are a fair number of people who have my number, but I usually recognize who is calling me. Didn't recognize this number but I decided to risk life and limb to take the call anyway.


"Hi, Michael?"


"This is so-and-so with something-or-other Publishing Services..."

Publishing services? I don't remember signing up with any publishing services. Did someone in the publishing industry pass my name on to an authors' scamming company?

"I was calling about your order..."

Don't recall placing any orders with anyone.

"Just in case you haven't received it yet, I wanted you to know that it's on the way."


"So don't be surprised when you get your adult DvD in the mail."

My what?

The smooth, professional voice on the other side of the connection continued blathering on about something as I briefly debated with myself whether I should argue that I haven't ordered any adult DvD. I think the saner side of reason won out when I simply pressed the button to break off the call.

I heard earlier this year that telemarketers would soon be given access to cell phone numbers. Maybe this is the first of many unwanted telephone calls and I'll have to either get a new cell phone number, sign up with the Do Not Call Registry (although supposedly my number is unlisted and unpublished, which to a telephone company only now seems to mean they can charge more money for giving it out), or maybe just have to switch to a more consumer-oriented telephone company (does such a thing exist?).

But I was amused by the fact that this guy was trying to pull the same sort of scam that cheap office equipment suppliers use. They'll call up companies and ask what the serial numbers on copy machines or printers are. If they get the wrong naive person on the phone, they "confirm" an order and have merchandise shipped to the company. Then they send an outrageous bill and make a tidy little profit.

This adult DvD guy may be working a system where he calls men at random, "confirms" their adult DvD order, gets their billing info, and then maybe actually sends a cheap trashy DvD or possibly just runs off and uses the private info to make illicit purchases. I don't know.

I've been receiving an increasing number of phone calls from people wanting to send me $200 worth of groceries and gas or something because I used my credit cards to make purchases (actually, they are reciting the numbers from my debit cards -- which are processed through the Mastercard/Visa systems). Now, I do recall being told about such promotions by my banks, but I always hang up when these "customer service representatives" start to tell me about how I need to pay the postage to receive my prizes.

I'm sorry, but that just doesn't work for me. You're going to give me $200 worth of gasoline but you cannot afford to pay the postage?

I've traced a few of these numbers back to their originators. Some are very well guarded, but one went back to a cell phone in California. So, my national banks are hiring independent contractors to call me from their cell phones to tell me that I have won $200 in gasoline or $600 in groceries but that I have to pay the postage to receive the prizes.


I can see where the new telecommuting economy makes this possible, perhaps even plausible. But frankly if my bank wants to give me $600 worth of groceries, it can send me a letter at its own expense. I am sure it will cost them less to do so than it would cost me if I were to agree to any of these prize phone callers' conditions.

Maybe these people just answer want ads and sign up for low-skill jobs that help them pay their bills. I don't know, but my inclination when they call is to say something like, "I know you have to feed the kids (or the habit), but you need to get a real job."

Instead, I usually just hang up and continue driving to work. But today I felt compelled to blog about it.

They have made an impact on me.

BTW -- if I do receive any adult DvDs, they will be thrown in the trash and I will devote the next 2-3 years of life disputing any attempts to collect for them.

If you're reading this, take me off your list. I might just be inclined to tell the world what your phone number is and who you work for. I can also often find out where you live.

Think about that before you take that low-skill phone job....

Friday, August 25, 2006

What makes a good story?

My grandmother introduced me to the Hardy Boys books when I was about 11 years old. My favorite literature at the time consisted of comic books, the DC and Marvel superhero brands that were beginning to tell complex, multi-issue arcs. Characterization was taking on increasing importance for the comic writers, and they were striving to tell stories relevant to the times. The Hardy Boys books had no relevance to my generation. They were just clean, fun adventure stories about teenage boys solving mysteries.

I remember trying to read one of those books again when I was about 16 or 17. I had outgrown them by that age and they no longer seemed appealing to me. I was well into my developing fondness for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Andre Norton, who wrote for larger audiences. But while I was still into the Hardy Boys I was able to travel around New England or across the country, visit mysterious caves, follow spies and criminals through their futile attempts to avoid justice, and wonder if Chet Morton would ever get a girlfriend (Frank and Joe both had their girlfriends -- why didn't Chet get one?).

Well, mystery writing has influenced modern fantasy in many ways. Andre Norton's books often bring young characters into contact with new cultures, where they have to unravel ancient curses, stop evil-doers from completing nefarious plots, and maybe pick up a boyfriend or girlfriend along the way.

Actually, you rarely read about "dating" relationships in fantasy stories. Men and women (or boys and girls) share adventures and dangers together and then realize by the end of the story that they are soul-mates and just sort of get married (or settle down together). Mystery stories often involve dating scenes, encounters in bars, at museums, etc. Mystery stories are rooted in mundane, everyday non-magical life and their magic consists of the shrewd approaches people take to resolving their various conflicts.

Nonetheless, a good fantasy story draws the reader into its world with elements of mystery and discovery. Just as the mystery story gradually unveils clues that help you put together a larger picture, good fantasy stories gradually assemble all the parts of their milieus so the reader can understand the framework of the characrers' universe.

Science fiction stories can also follow the classic mystery model. C.J. Cherry is a master (mistress?) of enveloping a science fiction universe with intrigue and elements of the thriller. Her thugs carry blasters, lasers, and rayguns; her criminal masterminds speak inhuman languages and have inhuman motivations; her crises and stakes are a bit more weighty than who inherits the family fortune.

It's no accident, though, that many of the greatest science fiction and fantasy writers have written mystery stories, pulp adventure tales, westerns, and police dramas. They transfer the elements of those genres to the SF and F genres to make their stories, worlds, and characters more interesting. A good fantasy story doesn't focus on witches and wizards, dragons and elves -- it focuses on the conflicts and struggles between titanic forces, whether those forces are greed and ambition, personal esteem, or good and evil.

Struggle and conflict are key to every successful story. You can write a novel about a man struggling to make his keyboard work a certain way. You can write a short story about a kid trying to figure out who drank the last of the orange juice. You can write a series of stories about teenagers plotting to take the state football championship away from a rival school. As long as you have a starting point where conflict disrupts the equilibrium of someone's world, and move that character through the struggle to establish a new equilibrium, you can put together an engaging, entertaining story.

And that's what the Hardy Boys books do. They disrupt equilibrium and move characters through a struggle to establish a new equilibrium. But for some reason, they stopped appealing to me as I grew older. On some level, the stories are two simply written, maybe too formulaic and predictable. But there are many fantasy and science fiction stories that are also simply written and predictable. And yet, they can hold the attention of an aging audience.

What is the difference?

I think that J.K. Rowling may have shown us what fails with the Hardy Boys through her Harry Potter novels: Frank and Joe never grow up. They move from adventure to adventure and are always the same. Harry Potter changes with each new book. He gets a little older, a little wiser, and he remembers the successes and failures of his previous adventures. He is accumulating baggage and taking his frustrations and ambitions into the future with him.

A timeless story follows the growth of one or more characters. In The Lord of the Rings, by the time we get to the final page, Sam Gamgee has grown from the little gardener who crawls around Mr. Bilbo's Bag End to the Master of Bag End, and there is a satisfying, if saddening, feeling of finality and completion when he takes his daughter into his lap and says, "Well, I'm back."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

BarCamp Texas changing venues

Just got home to this email:

BarCamp was built on the spirit of Spontaneity, Flexibility, and Teamwork -- so, in true BarCamp fashion we are changing venues in the 11th hour. Due to unforeseen circumstances, The Thistle Café has decided not to host BarCampTexas. But don't despair -- the event will go on as planned (BIGGER AND BETTER THAN EVER). Thanks to the tireless dedication of your hosts, here is your new schedule of events:

Friday Evening (August 25th) Pre-Event Mixer: 8:00PM til ...
Location: Epoch Coffee (map)
Austin's newest and only independent 24hr coffeehouse is located just minutes north of downtown, in the North Loop neighborhood. Courtesy of GeekAustin, we will be pouring Austin's own Live Oak Hefeweizen .

Saturday (August 25th)BarCampTexas: 12 noon - 10PM
Location: Elysium (map)
Following the departure of Thistle Cafe, Elysium has graciously offered to host BarCampTexas. Elysium is a 4 time winner of the Chronicle's Best of Austin award for best dance club.

Saturday (August 25th)
BarCampTexas Brunch 11AM - 2PM at Triumph Cafe ( map)

Additionally, all presentations in the main stage area at BarCampTexas will now be podcast! We will have two screens setup for presentations at the venue on Saturday Afternoon. One 6x9 screen with front projection, and one 7x10 screen with rear projection (on the main stage). We will have signs and people posted outside the Thistle all day Saturday to direct campers to the new venue. I look forward to seeing you all at the Pre-event Mixer tomorrow night at Epoch Coffee -- Remember the Beers on us!!! (Be sure to pack your ID's if you are planning to drink).

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Great Girl Scout Cookie Conspiracy

I am constantly amazed at how much people insist on ignoring facts that inconveniently get in their ways.

Take, for example, the people of Lebanon. Their country was nearly bombed back into the stone age by Israel because they've been allowing Hezbollah to store weapons in their homes and mosques. Now, are the Lebanese people saying to the world, "Maybe we should not have leased out our houses to store weapons"? Nope, they are decrying Israel's "crimes against humanity" without admitting that Lebanon essentially violated the Geneva Convention.

Take, for example, the thousands of people across the United States who have been influenced by media polls to view the war in Iraq as separate from the war on terrorism. Never the mind the fact that Osama Bin Laden's supporters have been flooding to Iraq for several years in a hopeless, mindless effort to attack American forces. The root cause of the war was ignorance. We didn't go in for the right reasons, but just as the American War Between the States changed its focus from states' rights to slavery, there has been a fundamental change in the focus of the Iraqi war.

Take, for example, the city of Houston's newly announced policy of not pursuing vehicles that break minor traffic laws. The thinking behind the policy is that too many high speed chases are resulting in death and injury. Okay, maybe the police need to rethink how they pursue people who break the law. But if someone runs a red light, shouldn't that person be given a ticket? Or should we just wait until they run one red light too many and kill someone? I have to agree with the officers on the street that this policy will be counter productive. If a police car turns its lights on behind me, I will stop. I won't try to outrun them. But how many other people will think, "Hey, all I have to do is speed up and I can get away with it"?

Take, for example, the search engine optimization specialists who disagreed with Google engineer Matt Cutts about the value of writing useful articles that readers will love. "No, Matt," they say, "you don't know as much about search engine optimization as we do."

People who are well-schooled in nonsense fail to recognize the truth when it comes beating down their door. That is the power of propaganda. That is why Islamic fundamentalists want to destroy secular schools in Afghanistan and replace them only with warrior-training Islamic schools. That's why some people insist that Frodo spoke to Gollum on Mount Doom, instead of the One Ring (which said to Gollum, "Begone! And trouble me no more. If you touch me ever again you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom").

That's why, when the Girl Scouts come around every year, we buy their cookies. Yes, this is really all about Girl Scout Cookies. It's an evil conspiracy, intended to bring Americans to their knees (because we'll be too fat to see our toes). You've been trained to think that the Girl Scouts are just trying to raise money for their non-profit activities. But the truth is far more insidious. They are slowly poisoning our society with trans-fats, processed sugars, and cute pictures on boxes.

Don't believe me? Just wait. They'll be knocking on your door within a matter of months. Then see if you can resist the urge to buy. You won't even stop to think about their diabolical scheme. You'll just sign on the dotted line, along with me and all the other people conveniently ignoring the facts that get in our ways.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

SciFi not renewing Stargate-SG1

It was bound to happen. In fact, technically, it's happened once before. Stargate-SG1 will discontinue production at the end of the 10th season. Hard-core fans of the show are already mailing tissue boxes (you have to watch "Children of the Gods", the first made-for-television movie that launched the TV series) to SciFi executives in a bid to get them to change their minds.

MGM, which produces the show, says it will look for another distribution vehicle. That may mean another network or possibly direct-to-market syndication. Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda was the last marginally successful syndicated show outside the Star Trek franchise. Things don't look too hopeful in that area. One of the biggest problems with direct syndication is that the scheduling runs all over the map. Fans in one city get to see their favorite show at 6:00 PM on Saturday and in another city they may have to watch it at 3:00 AM Wednesday morning.

MGM could also consider going direct to fans over the Internet. Battlestar Galactica is selling previously-aired episodes over the Internet. Will the model support original production for a 10-year-old television franchise? Hard to day. In anoher 5 years, we'll almost certainly have high quality original productions made for the Internet and maybe released on DvD as an afterthought.

If SciFi feels comfortable letting the series end production with the 10th season, after having just barely squeaked into the Guiness Book of World Records for longest running SF television production (The X-Files previously held that distinction), they probably didn't have much faith left in the show anyway. And one can only hope that the Ori saga is at least reasonably resolved (with the usual toenail hanging out the window hint of a future rematch).

The Ori have actually proven to be a more interesting foe than the original Goa'uld. The show has remained faithful to its premise, that Earth is taking on every space alien in the universe masquerading as a god, but the Goa'uld were too mechanical about the process. The Ori, as ascended beings, at least have metaphysical advantages over humanity that makes our guys the underdogs. It's a bit more satisfying to see the SGC win one against the Ori than when they won encounters with the Goa'uld.

Well, all good things must come to an end. Stargate: Atlantis will continue in production, although I suspect it will only last another year without SG-1. The Wraith are not a very interesting enemy and the whole nanite-based replicator threat has also been dealt with in one way or another. If the best Atlantis can do is dip into the old SG-1 episodes for inspiration, it may just be time to put the entire franchise to bed.

Monday, August 21, 2006

That's What Friends Are For...

I don't remember who my first friend was, besides my older brother. Our family says we were inseparable when we were very young. I remember swimming with Rick, taking naps with him, dressing up for church with him, going on picnics with him, fighting over who got to sit on the highly coveted arm rest in the back seat of our great grandmother's Cadillac.

There were days of fishing, walking through empty lots, sitting on buses, going to movies, visiting relatives, and just playing around the house. Sometimes people would come over and visit and older kids would spend time with me and Rick but I don't remember them. Their just blurry faces without names.

Maybe my first best friend was a boy named Edward. His family lived across the hall from my family and we were in the same grade at school. I think sometimes we were in the same classes. We played after school and on the weekends and ran around and got into trouble together. One day Rick, Ed, and I decided to walk down the street to visit a city park. It was a pretty cool park, as I recall, with neat stands of trees that the kids could hide and play in, an attendant who gave out games and toys, and the occasional visiting clown and puppet show.

So the three of set off down the street and Ed's mother came out to give him a candy bar. "Don't be a litter bug," she admonished him as we walked off. Well, needless to say, once we were out of site, he wanted to throw down his candy wrapper and I wanted to turn him to the Mothers' Litter Bug Patrol. I must have shouted "Ed's being a litter bug!" half the afternoon.

We were friends about 2-1/2 to three years and then my family moved. Eventually, we settled in another town and I went to another school. I didn't really get along with the other kids or know who they were until the morning the principal announced birthdays and put my name on the list. This big scary kid with his arm in a cast walked up to me, slapped me on the arm, and said, "Happy Birthday, Michael! Now you're one of us".

Us was the 9-year-old fourth-graders as opposed to the 8-year-old fourth-graders. As I recall, the kids in that school made a big deal about when you were born. Their pecking order was based almost entirely on birth order. Naturally, the oldest kid in the class was the leader. He's probably road-kill on the highway of life by now, but that's beside the point.

Somehow, someway, I overcame my fear of the big scary kid in the cast and learned to be his friend. It helped that his older brother befriended my older brother, so we often spent a lot of time together, older brothers sort of looking out for younger brothers and younger brothers keeping each other occupied and out of the older brothers' ways. We had some great times with those guys, and there were some sad times. I remember when their dog, an Irish Setter, was hit by a car. I never thought I'd see a big scary kid cry, but Steve -- the older brother -- was mature enough to let his tears flow freely.

We were walking down the street one day, toward Steve and Johnny's house, when we saw smoke coming from their garage. A car had caught fire and it burned part of the house. Steve and Johnny's parents decided to renovate the garage and turn the front section into a pub. They immediately had the coolest house in the neighborhood, and I got to visit it almost any time I wanted to because I was Johnny's friend. That was my first lesson in life about "It's not what you know but who you know."

A year later and my family had moved again. I tried to stay in touch with Johnny because my grandparents lived close to his family, but I made a new friend. I don't recall how I met him, but Keith and I started exploring the city of Miami Beach as only a 10-year-old and 9-year-old boy could do (he was older, so he was sort of the leader, but I was beginning to assert myself by this time). There was no neighborhood where we were afraid to go. I got into a few fights by crossing the wrong boundaries, but my adventures were endless.

Half the stuff we did was probably illegal. Maybe all of it. We'd steal seltzer bottles and have water fights. We'd sneak around people's backyards to look at their landscaping (they had some cool houses back then). We explored new buildings under construction, condemned buildings not yet torn down, empty houses no one knew what to do with, and hotel swimming pools. It was easy for a group of kids to go swimming in any hotel swimming pool. All we had to do was show up and act like we were there with mom and dad. It was scary the first time and boring by the third pool (too many people in it, too much salt water).

Sometimes Keith and I would accompany my older brother Rick and his friends, and sometimes we'd hang with other friends. There came a day when we were downtown somewhere and ready to go home. I flagged down a passing bus, jumped on, paid my fare, and turned around. Keith was standing in the street. "Come on!" I said.

"I have no money," he replied. "I'll see you later."

I looked back at the bus driver and he said, "Make up your mind, son, but I can't give you a refund."

Without thinking I leaped down into the street and the bus drove off. "Why did you do that?" Keith asked me as we set out on a 3-mile walk.

"Because you're my friend," I said. "That's what friends do, isn't it?"

I hope so.

Through the years, I've had many friends come and go. I move around a lot and it's hard to stay in touch with them. But the best friends I've had never stopped to think about how quick and easy the ride home could be. They always jumped down into the street to be with me, ready to face the next adventure, whatever that might be.

That's what friends are for, isn't it?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Traveling to Austin, TX weekend of August 25-27

I will be hanging with other search marketing people in downtown Austin at the first annual BarCamp Texas. It's a techie/geekie rally being organized at the Thistle Cafe in downtown Austin near 6th and LaVaca.

If you see me there, come up and say "Hi".

Friday, August 18, 2006

Why I don't call government agencies...

Earlier this year, someone mentioned a specific type of government report to me. I needed to know what this report was, but the guy's accent made it difficult to figure what he was referring to. I sent an email plea out to my co-workers asking for insight. Several people wrote back and suggested I contact a specific government agency and ask if they could figure out what the guy was talking about.

I didn't feel I had enough information to justify that kind of long, involved interaction with the government. To explain myself, I shared the following story with everyone. I only infuriated one person by forgetting to strip that person's reply from the email, but I think the story got my point across (and, yes, we did eventually figure out what report the guy was talking about).

Let me tell you a little story.

When I was in college, I was getting financial aid. I needed to get that stupid report from the government every year on which my Pell Grant and other funds were assessed. One year, I moved about the time the report was mailed to me. The U.S. Post Office doesn’t forward confidential documents sent out by the Federal government. I called the Post Office and asked for an emergency intercept. I had to talk to three supervisors before getting the Atlanta Postmaster General (or whatever his title is) on the phone, and he authorized the intercept. I had to go down to the Post Office and fill out a form, but it was too late. They had already sent the report back.

So I called the government agency that issued the report and they said, “If the Post Office has returned it, we have burned it.”

I said, “You burned it?”

“Privacy laws require that all returned confidential documentation be destroyed. But you can request a duplicate report. It will take three weeks to process.”

By this time, I had to have the report into the financial aid office within a week or I would lose my government grants and scholarships. Other financial aid would not be sufficient to make up the slack.

So I said, “May I speak to your supervisor?”

The supervisor was very understanding and apologetic and said, “I cannot do anything for you. You’ll have to speak to my boss. She is in Kansas City (we’re in Iowa/Idaho).”

So I called Kansas City. The super-supervisor in Kansas City was very understanding and apologetic and said, “I cannot do anything for you. You’ll have to speak to my boss. He is in (Iowa/Idaho).”

So I called Iowa/Idaho and got: “I cannot do anything for you. You’ll have to speak to my boss. He is in (some Midwestern city).”

I called the Midwest. I called Boston. I called Washington D.C. Washington sent me back to the Midwest.

This last call resulted in, “No one can legally do anything for you except the agency administrator. He works in Washington.”

“But I just talked to Washington and they referred me to you.”

“I am a regional director. I know what I am talking about. You have to call Mr. So-and-so at this number.”

So, I called “this number” and the secretary answered with, “Under-secretary So-and-so’s office.”

I said, “UNDER-secretary?”

“Yes sir.”

“As in, he reports directly to a cabinet-level official?”

“Yes sir. What is the purpose of your call?”

I explained what was up. We were on day two of this bureaucratic journey. The Post Office had informed me if the report didn’t go out this day, I would be out of college the next week.

“Mr. So-and-so is not in right now. I’ll have to take a message.”

I said, “I don’t mean to sound rude, but is he really going to call me back?”

“It’s his job, sir. He’ll call you.”

Sure enough, two hours later, an Undersecretary in the Department of Education called me back, listened to my near tear-stricken tale of bureaucratic grief, and he said, “I do have the authority to authorize an emergency copy be overnighted to you. I will do that because, frankly, no one has ever come this far before.”

So, I got my report and stayed in college.

Okay, cute story. Maybe I should have submitted it to Reader's Digest or something, but my point is that you don't just call a government agency and get a simple answer to a question.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Magic healing powders...

I woke up with a sore throat earlier in the week. I thought nothing of it, maybe gargle with an antiseptic a couple of times and it will go away. But then I got a sniffle, so I took a decongestant. Okay, I'll spare you the icky stuff. I thought I had like an allergy attack or something. But after agonizing through three days of not being able to breathe, swallow, or move -- after sucking down alternating doses of Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen (it does help with the aches) -- after not knowing which way is up a couple of times -- I headed out the door this morning and drove to my doctor's office.

Thar be highway construction around Houston, so I had a long drive ahead of me as I took the back roads. I figured, I might as well call and see if I can get an appointment. Maybe the day of the drop-in visit is done. Good thing I called, because my doctor was not in this morning. Oh, yeah, I thought. It's Thursday. I know what he does on Thursday mornings.

So I randomly went with the first available doctor in the house. Never saw the guy before in my life, but when a man is feeling small enough to want to see a doctor, any doctor will do as long as there are scheister lawyers in the phone book.

I had woken up with this image of going to see my doctor, however, so that I could ask him for The Good Stuff, the Magic Healing Powders they always hold back until you're so sick they just absolutely have to share them with you. I wanted the magic healing powders. I was prepared to offer any convenient sacrifice that would appease his dark spirit. I was tired of feeling pain in my ears because my throat is sore. I was willing to pay for a prescription. No more of this, "You got any free samples this week, doc?" Just give me the piece of paper and I'll be on my way.

So I got to the doctor's office (which is a huge building, sort of a megaclinic that lots of doctors share so they can charge exorbitant fees) and promptly locked my keys in my car. That was okay because I didn't realize I had done that. All I could focus on was getting up the stairs, avoiding pregnant women by the elevators, and staggering into the right office so I could say, "I'm Michael Martinez and I'm here to see Doctor whatshisname...."

"Please fill out this form," I was told.

Now, waitaminnit. I've already filled out forms twice. How many times do you have to fill out forms just to get Magic Healing Powders? I mean, come on. It's not like they haven't photocopied my driver's license, insurance card, and address a dozen times over. These doctors share a clinic. They split fees and profits. They cover for each other on those weekends when they visit their wives or girlfriends. They each need their own piece of paper saying, "I, Michael Martinez, being of sound mind and body, do hereby affirm that I'll pay the exorbitant fees my insurance company eschews paying by whatever means necessary"?

That just ain't right.

But like the sign in the waiting room says -- well, technically, there is no such sign -- but if you don't sign the stupid piece of paper that they'll use against you in court, you don't get the magic healing powders.

So I signed the paper and sat down and waited. A guy came in right behind me and said, "I'm here to see Doctor whatshisname. They said I could see him at 9:30 AM."

I wanted to scream, "NOOOooo! That's my timeslot!" Double-booked in a doctor's office and I still didn't know I had locked my keys in the car.

Well, he had never crossed the threshold before, so fortunately for me (I think) he had more paperwork to fill out. They called my name and took me to waiting room number 2 before he turned in his clipboard.

Why does a doctors' office need two waiting rooms? I have no idea. Technically, I went to pre-examination room 3 first, where I was weighed ("Your scale is broken, miss") and asked why I had come. ("Oh, I was in the neighborhood, just thought I'd drop in and see if anyone had some spare donuts").

Why do people go to doctors' offices? I thought it was because we're sick or injured. Nope. Today people were flooding into this megaclinic for annual physical exams. Apparently, my doctor lives in part on the taxes that people pay to the local school systems because he and his colleagues spend part of their time giving physical exams to bus drivers.

Have you heard the joke where the bus driver goes into the doctor's office and says, "Doctor, it hurts when I do this with my arm"? Yeah, I've heard it too. Several times.

So school is about to start up, or has just started up, and we're spending all the taxpayers' money determining that bus drivers are capable of taking themselves into the doctors' offices. In the meantime, where are my Magic Healing Powders? I mean, there is a sample closet right in the hallway. I could almost smell them.

Well, after I had read about half of a Business Week magazine I had no interest in, someone called my name. "Great!" I thought. I'll just ditch the magazine and go see the doctor and get my magic healing powders.

Why do I always leave the magazine? Do you have any idea of how difficult it is to get a halfway interesting magazine in a doctor's office? And who knows where that magazine has been? Why do I even pick them up in the first place? Sick people have been reading those things. And bus drivers.

Well, whomever sat alone in Exam Room number 4 before me had left a couple of magazines. Obviously, they didn't have a sore throat, throbbing ears, and icky stuff in their chest. They could think clearly. So I picked up the Reader's Digest Special Humor Issue (Note: do not ever read the Reader's Digest Special Humor Issue again!).

I read the magazine. I looked at the pictures on the wall. Yes, this doctor puts pictures in his examination room. His practice includes helping a local high school football team and wrestling team. One plaque contains a letter from an 18-year-old boy thanking the doctor for sewing him back up and helping him go on to State Finals.

"Ohmigod I've got Doctor Frankenstein!" I thought.

I stared in horror at the pictures of young athletes lying in agony on fields around the state of Texas. This guy was in every picture, happy, smiling, loving his work. I started pacing, wondering if I could break out through the wall should Doctor Buzzsaw come through the door with a machete and a weedwacker.

Instead, I listened to various bus drivers talk about--whatever it is that bus drivers talk about during their annual physical exams. I ran through nearly all my cough drops.

"This guy won't get the magic healing powders joke," I concluded. My last grasp on sanity for the morning slipped away, vanishing in a dimly lit examination room I feared I might never leave again. Perhaps I had died and this was the Hell to which I had been consigned for eternity. I looked at my watch at 10:30 AM and saw that it was 10:30 AM. I had been here for an hour for my 9:30 AM (last minute) appointment and all I knew about this doctor was that he sewed kids up so they could go on to state finals...and he knows a lot of bus drivers.

Okay, the door opened and in comes this congenial man. "Hello, Michael, how are you feeling?"

Do you really want to know? I almost asked. But my throat was so dry all I could croak at him was, "Not so good."

He took one look down my throat, asked if I smoke (I don't), and said, "Looks like this is going around."

Oh, cool. I'll be the first of many people suffering in long lines at Houston area doctors' offices while the bus drivers get their physicals. Well, at least I now know what I'm up against.

He quickly wrote out a little prescription. And then another one. He said, "I hope you feel better in a few days," shook my hand, and bid me adiea, fare well, good-bye, and may have mumbled something about "Thank god it wasn't another bus driver" as I stumbled toward the clerk waiting to take my money.

What about the keys? Oh, yeah, I realized what happened when I got to the car. Fortunately, I carry a spare set.

And, yes, I now have my magic healing powders. I feel better already.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dancing with death on American roads

We killed more than 2100 American children on our highways in 2003. That's almost as many American soldiers as have died in Iraq since we first invaded.

The loss of American children to alcohol-impaired drivers receives less attention than the loss of American soldiers in a several-years' drawn-out war. Not to diminish the loss that the families of those soldiers feel, but a co-worker occasionally points out to me that we murder about 8,500 of our fellow citizens each year (data opens up in a spreadsheet you can download from the F.B.I. Web site).

I've only witnessed one murder in my lifetime. I hope I don't see any more. But I've had many near-misses in traffic accidents. American drivers may or may not be any worse than drivers in other countries, but we certainly don't devote enough effort to helping each other survive on our own roads. While I cannot do anything about the murder rate (other than to not add to it), I can (and do) strive to help keep the road accident death rate as low as possible.

The earliest near-miss I recall happened when I was 17. I was driving an old Ford LTD down a highway when the hood front hood flew up and I nearly spun out of control. Somehow, I managed to stop without careening into the cars beside me. Several vehicles stopped around me and the drivers got out to make sure I was able to get under way safely. That particular stretch of road was a bridge spanning the Savannah river between Georgia and South Carolina. Had I lost control of my vehicle, no one would have been able to get out of the way.

Not long after that, I was driving across the same bridge when two large semi trucks coverged upon me. One came in from the left and one came in from the right. Neither driver made any attempt to slow down or even honk at me. Our three lands became two lanes in less distance than I had available to accelerate past them. I had no choice but to hit the brakes and only barely got out of the way as the two trucks came side-by-side into the merging lanes. I didn't get so much as a backwards look from either driver to see if I was okay.

Truck drivers are generally regarded as being among the safest drivers in America. They are taught to be extremely careful when navigating their vehicles, and they are not allowed to drive more than 10 hours per day. But accidents still happen, and they are not always due to the truck drivers' negligence. My father once told me about a truck than ran amok on a Texas highway. The driver was apparently high on PCP or something and he drove up the wrong side of the highway, hitting vehicles and running over people.

I remember being forced off a busy street in Marietta, GA by a local business delivery truck that just jumped into my lane. I had to drive up onto a sidewalk without thinking to avoid being crushed. The girl who was with me at the time didn't even have time to panic (not that she was prone to panic -- but you'd think I'd at least have the satisfying memory of a blood-curdling scream). I could have hit a pedestrian, but the whole thing happened so quickly, I just never had a chance to think.

When I was 18 I took my sister and one of her friends to visit my grand-parents in Flroida. As we were coming back, somewhere on I-75 north of Macon, a heavy thunderstorm cut loose and showered the highway with some of the heaviest rain I have ever driven through. I tried to do the right thing and slow down, but everyone else on the highway kept driving at 60-65 miles per hour. This was at night and the traffic was bumper-to-bumper (most likely this was a holiday weekend, but I don't remember the exact date). I had borrowed my brother's old Pontiac Le Mans (and gotten a speeding ticket on the way down to Florida, so I was really trying to be careful).

Well, slowing down was just not an option. So I stayed where I was in the right lane and just hoped no one went sliding off the road. A huge semi came up behind me. Another one came up beside me. Suddenly, to my horror, the semi on my left decided to move into the right lane. I hit the horn on the steering wheel to warn him off. Nothing happened. My sister's friend stared at the truck in petrified horror. My sister, who had been sleeping in the back seat, shot up and stared at the steering wheel as I beat on it frantically. No horn sounded.

I had half a second to look over to my right to see that there was barely any shoulder to the road. I might have been able to ease off a little and started to move that way, but the truck driver behind me beat his own horn and flashed his lights. The truck on the left shifted back into his lane. Had I fully moved onto the shoulder, which was very soft, maybe I would have been able to stop. Maybe we would have gone flying off into the trees lining the highway. I don't know.

A few years later, while returning to Atlanta from another Florida trip, I decided to take the I-285 bypass around the east side of the city. I don't know why I went that way, but I was very tired. At the time I lived on the northwest side, but I-75 comes up in the southeast corner of Atlanta. So I drove off onto what I thought was the exit for I-285 east. It turned out to be an exit road, and as I drove in pounding rain at 60 miles per hour down this two-lane road, I thought to myself, "This doesn't look right."

The next moment I saw those right-arrow signs that terminate a stretch of pavement, indicating a road is making a 90-degree turn. I swerved as well as I could to avoid the signs but went flying off the end of the road. I actually got some elevation out of the angle of the pavement, so the front end of the car pointed up into the sky (and I saw nothing, as not only was it raining but I was also driving at night). After a moment, as I was screaming those famous last two words all Americans scream when they think they are about to die, the front end of the car angled down and I saw a field of mud in front of me.

I couldn't think of anything else to do but gun the engine. I hit the mud with a big floopy splash and pounded the gas pedal and wiggled the car back and forth. All I cared about was that I keep the vehicle moving because I didn't want to stop in the middle of a muddy field. I probably didn't have enough money for a tow truck (this was back in my college days, I think).

Well, I managed to wiggle out of that field and got back on the highway and drove home a little more awake than I had been.

Feel like you would be safe enough with me at the wheel? I've got more hair-raising stories.

There was the time I was driving down a snow-and-ice covered highway (at a very low rate of speed) and hit a patch of black ice. My car went spinning across the intersection where that highway crossed another busy highway. I ended up facing the wrong way but on the correct side of the highway. All the other cars around me stopped and waited for me to get my bearings, turn around, and go on about my business. That same day, I watched a Cadillac slide off the road and into a ditch, so I guess I was lucky.

There was the time when an ice storm came through Atlanta and I found myself driving down a narrow road. Don't recall where I was going (probably home) but I hit another patch of black ice. This time I knew enough to turn the wheel against the direction of the spin. That forced the car to slide straight rather than left into oncoming traffic or right into the very deep ditch beside me. I slid for many, many feet until I came to a full stop. I was on my side of the road and pointed in the right direction. When I tried to go forward again, the car started to spin out from under me into the ditch. That was just a very dangerous section of road.

There was the time I went through an intersection during a rain storm and my car spun out across the intersection as other cars passed through it. I didn't know what hydroplaning was until that night.

There was the time I was driving down U.S. Highay 41 in Marietta, minding my own business, when some idiot decided he was going the wrong way. He hit his breaks as he approached me from the opposite direction, cut in front of me, and turned around. I hit my brakes so hard my car spun out of control. By the time I stopped spinning I was facing north (I had been traveling south) in the northbound lanes. The idiot drove off without so much as a "Sorry about that -- I'm an idiot!"

Another time I was stopped at an intersection, sitting in a left-turn lane. There was a van in front of me, also stopped. Traffic was coming in the opposition direction. Some kid on a motorcycle pulled up beside us and then cut across the intersection. He got through okay but the lady driving the van decided she had enough time to do it, too. The cars coming the other way went screeching and careening in various directions, including the guy who ended up hitting me head on.

And then there was the time I pulled into a right-turn lane, began slowing down, and the cars in front of me opened up a gap and waved another car to make a turn in front of me. I slammed into that car hard enough to knock it off the road. The paramedics tied me to a board and hauled me off to the hospital. I came out of shock a few hours later and that's when I started to feel the pain of whiplash.

Through all these accidents and mishaps I did have sense enough to wear my seat belt. I've learned, since I was a foolish young driver, to slow down, look ahead, and assume that the other guy is an idiot who doesn't bother to look where he's going. I'm not in such a hurry that I have to get anywhere that fast. I wish other people felt the same way. If I miss a turn off, I don't hit my breaks and back up. I wait for the next exit. There is always another place to stop and turn off or turn around somewhere down the road.

But it takes most drivers a long, long time to appreciate that. Too long, in some cases. Thousands of people die in otherwise preventable accidents every year. We don't devote the resources to teaching ourselves how to drive responsibly on our roads that we can.

Cindy Sheehan lost a son in Iraq, and she has devoted her life to bringing the troops home to America. Frankly, in my opinion, if she devoted all that energy to helping make our highways safe -- to teaching people to drive more responsibly -- she'd have a better chance of helping to save lives that will otherwise be needlessly lost.

As for the murder rate: well, we need to figure out why people cross that line and see what it takes to discourage them from doing so. Maybe improving economic opportunities here at home will help -- maybe improving them in other countries will help. I can only take up one cause at a time.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Is Walgreens trying to overcharge us for medicine?

I stopped by a Walgreens pharmacy at lunch today to see about getting a prescription refilled. As one might expect, the pharmacy was pretty busy, so I had some time to kill as I waited at the "Drop Off" window. I noticed a sign on the wall beside the pharmacist's station which read: "Cardinal (new line) Items to be Ordered (new line) Wait for the P.O. to finish printing (new line) Avoid generic items at all costs". Order days and times were printed below the "avoid generic items" line.

Someone had highlighted that "avoid generic items at all costs" directive. The highlighting could mean anything. Cardinal, for example, is capitalized like a proper name. Is there a company named "Cardinal" from whom Walgreens orders medicine? Do they avoid buying generic items from that compamy?

Does a directive to avoid ordering generics "at all costs" in any way reflect a general policy by Walgreens toward selling medication to the general public?

My prescription, so far as I know, is available as generic-only. It's an older medication and only costs $10. My insurance company won't pay for it, so I bear the burden of the cost out of pocket. This prescription replaced another prescription I felt better about, but my insurance company decided to stop paying for that medicine. They decided there were other medications I should be taking instead.

Doctors have a lot of leeway when it comes to prescribing medicine. Depending on what condition or illness they are treating, they may go with some very old, well-documented medications or they may try newer medications. They have to take into consideration what other medications you are on, as well as whether you drive or operate heavy machinery, drink, use illegal drugs, etc. Any otherwise safe medication can become toxic if you mix it with the wrong substance. Pharmacists, too, are supposed to check that you are aware of possible interactions and so forth.

Nonetheless, American medical treatment is now driven to some extent by the contracts negotiated between insurance companies and pharamceutical companies. Insurance companies don't just pay for every prescription. They actually exempt some medicines, unless a doctor provides written verification asserting that the prescription is medically necessary.

What does medically necessary mean? My doctor, careful to avoid incurring any liability, sort of shrugged and said, "It can mean that the doctor feels that is the best medicine for you regardless of cost. It may mean that the doctor has tried everything else and nothing else worked well enough for his or her satisfaction."

The doctor's job is to do whatever medical science and your insurance company and ability to pay will allow to restore you to desirable health. Technically, his job is to diagnose what is wrong with you and prescribe a treatment. But we have empowered our insurance companies to dictate treatments through negotiated contracts. Now, if an insurance company cannot get a discounted price on a particular medication, the insurance company can refuse to pay for a prescription unless a doctor says it's medically necessary (and even then I'm not sure if the insurance company is legally required to pay or if that's just a contractual arrangement).

So, what does Walgreens' policy have to do with all this? I don't know. But I do know that Walgreens, being a publicly traded company, is responsible to its shareholders (the largest of which may very well be mutual funds that represent you and me) to maintain a minimum level of profitability. That requirement for profitability means that Walgreens has to cut costs wherever possible. Maybe they only order generic medicines from certain companies because they get better prices from those companies. Financially, that's good for you, me, and our insurance companies.

But is Walgreens really getting the best deal possible?

What if my $10 medication could actually cost me $5 through a different provider? My doctor didn't think the pharmacy would matter, but there are thousands upon thousands of prescription medications and hundreds of corporate entities involved in the distribution of medicine. How can one doctor know if my $10 prescription always costs $10?

More importantly, is it possible for Walgreens, CVS, and other large pharmacy operators (including Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and KROGER to name just a few major retailers who dispense medicines) to increase their profits by negotiating favorable contracts for generic medicines?

The more money Walgreens charges for each medicine, the more potential profit it can make. That's good for shareholders, maybe good for store managers if they have any bonus incentives based on sales, but not so good for you and me.

Of course, the pharmaeceutical companies benefit from higher prices, too. Some of the pharmaceutical companies are publicly traded, or owned by publicly traded companies. So when the pharmaceutical companies make lots of money, the value of your and my stock or mutual fund portfolio increases. That's good for us. Except we're making money by charging people full price for prescriptions that their insurance companies don't pay for. That's you and me.

People often complain that the pharmaceutical companies charge too much for new medicines. The pharmaeceutical companies allege that they incur massive costs in developing new medicines. The process is painstakingly slow, given that they are evaluating thousands of substances for effects on various other substances, and eventually they begin to evaluate the effects of some of those substances on living creatures, and eventually on living people.

Someone has to be paid to fill the test tubes, write down what happens, to buy the test tubes, to clean the laboratories, to deliver supplies, etc. I can see where multitudes of little costs add up.

And the pharmaceutical manufacturing process complicates matters, adding to the costs. Did you know that pills, powders, and tablets are made in batches that have to be sample-tested? If the samples test below a certain quality, the whole batch has to be destroyed. So what our quality-control procedure ensures is that the medicine you buy is at least as good as the minimum standards for composition. You may actually get a little more medicine (in a statistically insignificant amount) than you're supposed to. Batch testing ensures uniform consistency of medicinal composition.

That means the pill you buy today is chemically identical to a similar pill you buy two years from now. But how many batches get thrown out because the sample tests don't measure up? Hopefully, not as many as used to be thrown out. But this is a critical reason for why pharmaceutical companies are interested in developing space-based facilities for mixing chemicals. The less gravity is involved, the easier it is to get uniform composition of compound substances. The fewer batches have to be thrown out.

Maybe Walgreens negotiates contracts with companies that throw out fewer batches than other companies for generic medicines. I don't know. But seeing that curious notice really set my mind to thinking. This doesn't necessarily happen every day, but I suppose we do actually have a good reason to continue going into space: it will save the insurance companies some money and increase the profits of the companies in our stock portfolios.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Militant Islamic Fundamentalism: The Satanic Religion

The Koran does not teach Muslims to hate or kill Christians and Jews. It does accuse Christians and Jews of being hypocrites, and Judeo-Christian literature (including both the Old Testament and the New Testament) is filled with similr complaints. If the Jews accuse their own of hypocrisy, and if the Christians accuse their own of hypocrisy, should anyone wonder that other peoples will accuse us of hypocrisy.

There are fundamental principles of Islam which should sound familiar to many Christian: God (Allah) will judge the righteous and the unrighteous. He will repay all offenses at a time of his choosing. And men should leave it to God to determine who is right and who is wrong.

But like the Biblical books that speak about hypocrites, the Koran also contains passages that rail against the unbelievers who pretend to be good Muslims. In The Cow, the book opens with:
[2.1]Alif Lam Mim.

[2.2] This Book, there is no doubt in it, is a guide to those who guard (against evil).

[2.3] Those who believe in the unseen and keep up prayer and spend out of what We have given them.

[2.4] And who believe in that which has been revealed to you and that which was revealed before you and they are sure of the hereafter.

[2.5] These are on a right course from their Lord and these it is that shall be successful.

[2.6] Surely those who disbelieve, it being alike to them whether you warn them, or do not warn them, will not believe.

[2.7] Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing and there is a covering over their eyes, and there is a great punishment for them.

[2.8] And there are some people who say: We believe in Allah and the last day; and they are not at all believers.

[2.9] They desire to deceive Allah and those who believe, and they deceive only themselves and they do not perceive.

[2.10] There is a disease in their hearts, so Allah added to their disease and they shall have a painful chastisement because they lied.

[2.11] And when it is said to them, Do not make mischief in the land, they say: We are but peace-makers.

[2.12] Now surely they themselves are the mischief makers, but they do not perceive.

[2.13] And when it is said to them: Believe as the people believe they say: Shall we believe as the fools believe? Now surely they themselves are the fools, but they do not know.

[2.14] And when they meet those who believe, they say: We believe; and when they are alone with their Shaitans, they say: Surely we are with you, we were only mocking.

[2.15] Allah shall pay them back their mockery, and He leaves them alone in their inordinacy, blindly wandering on.

[2.16] These are they who buy error for the right direction, so their bargain shall bring no gain, nor are they the followers of the right direction.

These verses could easily describe the followers of Al Qaeda, who clearly have taken it upon themselves to exercise judgement against their fellow man, disregarding the teachings upon they were raised.

These verses could easily describe the Islamic insurgents in Iraq and other countries who, hating Al Qaeda, nonetheless pursue Al Qaeda's policies of attacking and terrorizing their brothers.

These verses could also easily describe various Christian fundmentalist groups that form militias and embrase white supremacy.

Hatred and hypocrisy go hand in hand. Philosophically, they are the children of Satan, his two most influential and widely followed teachings. Hate your brothers and show them no mercy. Disregard the teachings of God, his prophets, and apostles if they become inconvenient barriers of fact.

History is filled with so-called Christian abuses of other peoples. Missionaries, priests, and self-proclaimed apostles and prophets who have enslaved, massacred, and made war upon non-Christians in every generation have served the causes of hatred and hypocrisy well. They have driven more people away from knowing God through the eyes and words of Jesus Christ than Islamic revolutions.

Militant Islamic groups, however, are the brothers of Christian Crusaders and Militant Mercenaries. They all serve the same false god. They all brutalize and terrorize their brothers. They all disregard the teachings that were handed to them with love and reverence.

Some people say that Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike all share different views of the same God. Jesus taught that salvation may only come through him. The Jews do not accept Jesus as their Messiah but they believe their Messiah will one day come for them. Muslims learn that if their good deeds outweigh their evil deeds, they will be rewarded in Paradise; or, if they die as martyrs defending Islam, they will immediately be sent to Paradise.

Of course, before Islam can be defended, it must be attacked, and right now no one is attacking Islam. The militant Islamists who speak about their fallen suicide bombers and soldiers as martyrs are utilizing deceit to mask their sins. They only commit evil deeds in the name of Islam, so by the teachings they have been raised upon, they have no hope of achieving paradise.

If the United States wanted to stamp out Islam, it would have to begin at home. There are millions of Muslims who live in the United States, both as citizens and as resident foreigners. Many hundreds of thousands of Muslims visit the United States on business and for recreational purposes. All of these people would have to be subjected to persecution, torture, and murder if we wanted to separate our nation from Islam. Of course, we've done nothing of the sort.

In fact, at a time when Satanic-inspired militant Islamic fundamentalists are continually shouting "Death to America" and plotting ways to kill Americans, the American people are more consumed with the debate over what to do about 12 million illegal immigrants (most of whom are Hispanic Christians).

If the Islamic world ever rose up in a mass war to destroy the western nations that merely allow all peoples to live side-by-side in relative peace, we would undoubtedly crush them. Wars built on lies seldom have lasting consequences. When Christian knights stormed out of Europe to seize lands held by Islamic peoples, they only accomplished moderate and temporary successes. Some Christian groups have continued to live in those lands down to this day, but they don't control the regions their ancestors once held as conquerors.

When Islamic revolutionaries spread their faith across the Mediterranean world with war and blood, they were acting more out of political ambition than for any other reason. They were no better than the Christian Crusaders who came after them.

Jihadists and Crusaders alike are brothers in evil, hatred, and intolerance. They know nothing of God's love for man, or of forgiveness or salvation. Only time will tell whose teachings are correct or even close to correct. As a Christian I believe that God loves all his children, and he waits as long as possible for each to see him in the proper way. He waits even though he knows relatively few will ever truly walk that path.

Satan is more popular than God because he has more prophets and apostles. It's easier to deceive people with lies that inflame their misery and poverty than it is to induce them to accept what they have as being sufficient. In fact, when the 9/11 attacks occurred, President Musharraf of Pakistan was asked (on international television) what he thought led to the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalist, which he -- a lifelong Muslim -- also denounces. He named the cause in one word: deprivation.

Deprivation spreads poverty and misery across the world. But if there is one lesson that millions of Christian and Jewish families learned, and that millions of Islamic families also follows, it's that you can improve your life upon Earth without abandoning your faith. It's not easy to rise up out of poverty. But history is filled with rising and falling middle classes. When a culture develops a middle class, it usually comes from the development or acquisition of new skills and knowledge.

Education is the enemy of poverty. Poverty is the foundation of militant fundamentalism in all religions. People who feel they have nothing feel they have nothing to lose. Following the path of hatred and murder therefore seems as easy and rewarding as any. It's a golden path, lit by many false lights of promise and hope. It's the Satanic road down which Osama bin Laden and his followers have foolishly and hypocritically tread. For them, even by Islamic standards, it's too late. They cannot possibly do enough good with their lives to counterbalance the evil they have done.

Ironically, if they were to accept the teachings of Christ, there would still be hope for them. But they appear to have burned that bridge. That is because they are true infidels (unbelievers). For them, there is only one god, a false god. They just call him by the wrong name.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Planning the August social calendar...

Well, actually, my social calendar tends to fall together at the last minute. However, I haven't been able to do as much dancing as before my surgery so there have been dancing posts mainly because there's been relatively little dancing. I have helped with some classes but even that is starting to taper off. I don't think I'll be helping with many classes this month, for example. Not even Gloria's Houston Ballroom Dancing Classes.

Well, that's the way life goes, sometimes.

I looked at Mary Frometa's calendar and she has a very solid schedule all month long. She'll be performing at Cantina Laredo on Thursdays and Fridays and then at Plaza 59 on Saturdays. On August 20, Mary's Band will appear at La Strada, which is a nice Italian restaurant on San Felipe near the I-610 interchange. The last time I was there, they had a string quartet playing Celtic music.

I guess Italian music just isn't very popular at La Strada. What can I say?

So, I'll probably budget some time and money to catch Mary's Band at one of the restaurants this month. Maybe the Sunday brunch will work out.

Tomorrow evening the friends and I will be converging on Elvia's Cantina on Fondren. Mi Rumba is supposed to be playing, and the new dance floor seems to be usable.

Speaking of my dance buds, a fellow named Ivan moved back to Norway without telling most of us. I called him last night and woke him up in the middle of the night. Sorry, Ivan. Everyone in Houston wishes you the best with your new job, and the ladies all miss dancing with you.

Coming up the weekend of August 26-7 is BarCamp Texas, an informal conference of search engine placement and Web design professionals. They are expecting up to 1,000 people to attend. I met Erica O'Grady, one of the organizers, Tuesday evening and she convinced me that this should be a fun event to attend. I'll do my best to be there. Basically, you get all the conferencing without formal breakout sessions. There will be a planning white board where people will write what they want to discuss at which times.

If I can make it, I'm thinking of suggesting a session called "100 quality links in 10 business days" to see how many people would be interested in that.

Last night we had the monthly dinner of the Inklings Roundtable of Houston at the Hobbit Cafe on Portsmouth (we say "on Richmond" but it's really on Portsmouth, one block over).

The group was a bit thin this month because several people were out of town or at a community meeting concerning Houston's plan to drop a rail line through Richmond Avenue. Frankly, I don't see where they would have room to put the thing. Nor can I imagine who would ride it.

But I don't use Richmond Avenue as much as I used to.

The Inklings Roundtable discussed the wars of Middle-earth in some depth but conversation drifted off topic. Our usual coordinator was not present as she is dealing with a health issue. We all wish her the best.

The next dinner party is planned for Thursday, September 14 at the Hobbit Cafe again. The group has pretty much decided to settle there for the next few months, I think. The ambience is nice, especially now that we have a walled-in patio with a closable door. On evenings when we have larger groups we'll have to take a different room.

I will do my best to attend the dinner parties through Christmas, but I cannot make promises. We'll probably toast Bilbo and Frodo's birthday next month, as September 14 is actually the appropriate day to do this (I think -- I have to calculate it every year). September 22, which most people celebrate on, is the wrong day because that is the date on the Shire calendar, which is not the same as our calendar.

Hm. So, here I am planning the September calendar in an August post. Well, that's the way life goes. I may do some other things this weekend. Haven't decided yet. I need to be careful not to wear myself out, as I'm tired of "recuperating" from surgery.

But ya'all be sure to have a great weekend, and those of you who can't, our thoughts and prayers are with you and your families.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

There is not enough time in the day

One promise, one commitment can change the speed of time. Time is not relative to mass so much as it is relative to massive commitment. I cannot possibly accomplish everything I have set out to do because I just run out of steam and have to stop and eat or sleep.

In the movie "Time Cop" Jean-Claude Van Damme steals up behind Mia Sara as she looks at clocks in a store window.

"There is never enough time," he says.

"Time enough for what?" she asks.

"To please a woman," he replies.

"Then you had better hurry," she says.

The problem with hurrying is that we seldom have enough time to do things fast. In the movie "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen", Alan Quartermain (played by Sean Connery) tries to teach Tom Sawyer (played by Shane West) to shoot at extremely long distances. "Take your time," Quartermain admonishes Sawyer. "You have all the time in the world".

The first time they share such a scene, Sawyer shoots too soon and misses his target. In the movie's finale, naturally, he takes his time and aims well and hits his target.

When I try to relax, I often have enough time to realize that I really want to rush. Rushing wastes time and compresses it. But mostly rushing just causes you to do things you normally wouldn't do when you were rushed.

I remember one 4th of July (an American holiday) where I had to go into work on a special project. A girl who did not have access to the building (I was a manager and had a key) was waiting for me. I overslept (I don't recall why) and flew down the highway. Well, I was speeding about as much as I normally speeded when going to work, but on the 4th of July there ain't no one else on the highway to hide you from the police officers with their radar guns.

So naturally I got a ticket and the officer didn't buy my "I was just keeping up with traffic" excuse (he said something like, "Son, you were the traffic, so that don't count").

Needless to say, getting the ticket made me 20 minutes late, whereas had I simply driven the speed limit I would have arrived about 5 minutes late and I wouldn't have gotten chewed out by a girl who really didn't want to be in that neighborhood by herself on a day when no one else she knew would be coming around the parking lot.

Ah, memories.

I sit here at 1:30 in the morning typing into my blog because I want to get the blog done for the day so I don't have to worry about whether I wrote anything interesting throughout the day. The burden of writing a blog becomes a massive weight on the soul. "Have I said anything anyone gives a damn about today?" is a frequent thought.

Frankly, I rarely say anything that anyone actually comments on. Most of you surf in, read my page for a few minutes (I should be grateful you don't leave immediately) and then you go on with your lives. But I'm left grasping at a moment that has already slipped by because I didn't have enough time to write the next Pulitzer-winning blog entry.

And people wonder why I use Blogger anyway instead of putting a blog on one of my own domains. The truth of the matter is that I like simple blog interfaces. Dixie doesn't. She wants buttons and gizmos and links and tabs and things that are so complex I'll never use them. Maybe she would use them if she blogged but she doesn't blog she hogs -- that is, she rides a hog. Or is that a chopper? I'm not sure because I don't have time to look up which nickname goes with her motorcycle. She doesn't have a Harley-Davison, if that matters.

Maybe she just has a 'tweeler.

Mark Twain reportedly once wrote, "I apologize for the length of this letter but I didn't have time to write a short one." I might as well point out that every time I quote him, someone inevitably says, "Wasn't that Voltaire?" (or some other famous person from history). I have no idea, to be honest, because I don't have time to look it up. Proper research would require that I weigh all the attributions and sources against one another and determine who the final authority is and then come back and fix the blog to accurarely attribute the remark to someone.

Screw all that, I said it.

Hope you got something out of this, because I don't have time to write anything else.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

When the soldiers come home...

I was reminded last night that while our news media have done their best to persuade the American public to oppose the war in Iraq, they have done very little to ask people to help the soldiers who have sacrificed their limbs in our service. Whether you agree with the war or not, the service people who represent our country in overseas conflicts alter the course of their lives by taking wounds which deprive them of hands, arms, legs, and other portions of their bodies.

My father, after he retired from the U.S. Army, took a Civil Service position as a physical therpist on an Army base. During the 1960s and 1970s, he helped to rehabilitate soldiers who returned from Viet Nam. I remember watching those soldiers quietly move along through hospital corridors and from building to building in wheel chairs, on crutches, wrapped in bandages, missing limbs, eyes, and parts of their lives.

While many wounded veterans go on to live productive, generally happy lives, it's no coincidence that as a group they experience higher rates of substance abuse and suicide than many other groups of people in our society.

Serving in Iraq can be a very thankless job. American citizens, watching their favorite television news sources, reading their favorite print or online news sources, rarely see how the rest of the world perceives us. While American citizens are often warmly welcomed by other peoples, American soldiers may be viewed with suspicion, disdain, and open hatred.

One group of soldiers in Iraq "adopted" an Iraqi orphanage operated by The Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa (whose career is not without its critcs). The American soldiers brought gifts to the children and visited them. But one day Iraqi insurgents told the sisters that if they ever saw American soldiers playing with the children again, they would kill all the children.

While this kind of insane behavior goes on in Iraq all the time (remember that Al Qaeda is determined to drive us out of Iraq by killing as many Iraqis as possible), our soldiers were hardly proselytizing the children. They were just attempting to show some compassion for people whose lives they have affected in many ways.

American citizens ask why we can't send more teachers and doctors to Iraq. Well, the truth is that most of our teachers and doctors would be slaughtered by the insurgents if the insurgents had their way. All that stands between such slaughter and the survival of our people in Iraq are the American armed forces and their Iraqi counterparts.

If we have paid a heavy price for a conflict that will be questioned and challenged for decades to come, the Iraqi people have paid an even greater price. But they cannot turn their heads aside and ignore the needs of their wounded people because every day brings new wounded people.

Americans, on the other hand, are more concerned about when our troops will come home (which in itself is a worthy desire, so long as we don't have to turn around and send them back) than they are with ensuring that those soldiers who have not only come home already but who are also suffering permanent disabilities from their service in Iraq receive adequate care and opportunities to move on with their lives.

The United States government has established the America Supports You Web site for all our service people, but there are many American citizens who -- perhaps because of media bias, Mel Gibson movies, or whatever -- don't really trust their own government. I won't even go there, but if you want to know more about how you can actively help support our troops -- especially those who have made great physical sacrifices while serving in Iraq -- visit Wounded Warriors.

The Wounded Warriors organization was founded in 2003 to provide direct assistance to soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq who have been disabled by wounds received in conflict. It's a little known fact, I think, that our government provides only limited medical and rehabilitative services to soldiers and veterans. The increasing cost of operating a government has a lot to do with that, but mostly the pork-barrel spending that our elected Congressmen and Senators engage in constantly (during peacetime and wartime) has come in part at the expense of veterans.

Every year, my father has seen his benefits gradually erode despite serving this country through World War II, the Korean War, and part of the Viet Nam War. He devoted over 24 years of his life to the U.S. Army, but the U.S. government's thanks usually amounts to, "Dear U.S. Veteran, the Congress of the United States, in collusion with the President, has determined that your services -- no longer being required -- are worth less to us this year than last year."

We may not have the Federal budget to take care of our wounded veterans, but we can certainly do something more directly. I will continue to promote Wounded Warriors here and across the Xenite network for the foreseeable future. In a few days, I'll add banners to our rotation of advertising (most of which is for non-commercial content on the Xenite network) that promote Wounded Warriors and help make people aware of this vital service.

I have long been a critic of American foreign policy. I feel we create more animosity and distrust throughout the world by our short-sighted pursuit of "key American interests" than by any other program our government or society implements. But I will never mistake the faithful service of our military personnel for anything other than an act of love by Americans and future American citizens for their fellow citizens.

Jesus told his disciples that the greatest thing a man can do is give his life for his friends. Over 2100 Americans have made that sacrifice for our friends in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for us here at home. We don't yet have to constantly worry about whether our buses will blow up, or if it's safe to stand in line at the grocery store, or if our children will be slaughtered in school. Maybe, just maybe we'll find a way to keep ourselves from becoming that vulnerable to terrorism.

But for now, we have many wounded warriors who have returned from the wars abroad, who need our help. Because of modern technology and medical science, some of those wounded warriors who would have given their lives for us are still here. We should not forget them. We should not hide from them. We should not wait for the Senators and members of the House of Representatives to stop catering to their special interest groups and put real American needs at the top of their selfish agenda.

We can support our troops now, especially the ones who have come home for good because of the sacrifices they have made on our behalf.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The booleanization of human science fiction and fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy have become too predictable. They are largely booleanated now.

Science fiction generally falls into two categories: spaceships and ray guns (aka space opera) or not spaceships and ray guns (not space opera). Generally speaking, if we're dealing with space opera, someone is trying to take over something (usually the Earth, the universe, or some sizable chunk of real estate in between). If we're not dealing with space opera, mankind is doomed either by the environment (which might include monster asteroids, exploding stars, escaped viral weapons) or his own stupidity (we fail some critical evolutionary test or we just toy with certain extinction via some new discovery).

Fantasy is more liberal. It falls into the Tolkienesque or not Tolkienesque categories. Tolkien loved epic fantasy, high adventure, save-the-world intrigue and suspense. Anything else is whatever people have tried to do to distinguish themselves from Tolkien. In either case, Terry Pratchett will tell you that he does it better than Tolkien and then immediately issue a retraction saying he was misquoted.

In the old days, science fiction was more about science than fiction. Writers would try to unravel the consequences of mankind's use (or misuse) of science -- primarily technology. Spaceships-and-ray guns was predicated upon the assumption that we would take all our petty conflicts and ambitions to the stars with us, when we finally figured out how to reach them; or that anyone else out there whom we could possibly understand would have to be so like us as to be bringing their petty conflicts and ambitions to our star.

Prior to Tolkien, fantasy was largely about the individual journey. It could have been written as a parody or satire, or just as pulp adventure fiction. Worlds might have been at stake (Egdar Rice Burroughs frequently threw the fate of Barsoomian civilization into the capable hands of John Carter of Mars), but the stories were about the individuals saving the worlds. Tolkien turned all that on its head and showed us that fantasy can be about the worlds that individuals strive to save (and ultimately lose anyway).

It took about 30 years before Tolkienesque fiction became mainstream fantasy. Prior to 1980, a lot of fantasy books followed basic pulp adventure or pseudo-medievalist intigue patterns. Mary Stewart strongly influenced the pseudo-medievalist school of fantasy with her Merlin novels. So did Anne McCaffrey with her medieval dragons in space Pern adventures.

After the 1940s, pulp science fiction began moving away from spaceships and ray guns, although we had plenty of pulpish SF for decades. Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein opened doors and minds with regurgitated pulp adventures and concepts that gradually expanded the horizons of their fiction. By the time they finished writing, they were both writing really weird stuff -- mainly, I think, just to avoid rewriting all the neat stuff they had already written.

We tend to look at "Classic SF" (or "SciFi" as Hollywood as commercialized it) as stories that once made you think. But true Classic SF didn't make you think. It made you daydream. You wanted to go there, wherever there was, and be part of the adventure itself. You didn't want to be riding a gondola in a virtual theme park of words. You wanted to pick up the ray guns and blast the space pirates, pilot the ships, kill the bug-eyed monsters, win the princess (or prince), and be the hero.

Classic Fantasy, on the other hand, did make you think. You had to picture everything in a certain way or the stories didn't work for you. Yes, milieu science fiction stories require that kind of inventive imagination, but it's often been said that milieu science fiction is fantasy disguised as science fiction. What distinguishes true science fiction from other types of fantasy is that the science is integral to the characters or the stories.

Real science fiction actually tends to be very boring. You can get so wrapped up in the science, you don't have much of a story. Or the story becomes depressing because it dooms mankind in some fashion. Orson Scott Card's Wyrms, C.M. Kornbluth's "How To Serve Man", and Asimov's Gaia-controlled Galactic empire relegated mankind to being a second-rate species incapable of surviving on its own. We are doomed because we are inferior. That's not the kind of stuff I want to read.

Good science fiction is hopeful and looking forward. It doesn't question our place in the universe, it suggests where we may want to go and how we may want to get there. It doesn't wrangle with whether you can move a ship across 10,000 light-years while the Earth experiences 10 days of "relative time". Real science fiction assumes we find a way to cross oceans of ignorance and darkness, lighting paths for future generations to tread. Real science fiction assumes that time travel will be a ride in an amusement park that doesn't put the park visitors in danger. But to get to the theme park, we may have to solve a few time paradoxes along the way.

Good fantasy is fun-filled rollicking adventure. It doesn't matter if the world is at stake. All that matters is that the world is fantastic. Modern fantasists insist this means fantasy must include magic. "Without magic," Marion Zimmer Bradley once told me, "all you have is an adventure story".

I'm hardly in a position to challenge MZB's judgement. But I'm going to do that now. I don't think she was completely right. I would put it this way: "Without magic, your story must still be about something fantastic".

Fantasy is distinguished from science fiction by what we consider to be possible. If a concept is scientifically validated, then a story based on or incorporating that concept is probably science fiction; otherwise, it's fantasy. That's not a very good rule, in my opinion, but it's about the only rule we have. Unfortunately, people now rely upon the crutch of inserting spells and incantations to show they are using magic and therefore they are writing fantasy.

But Arthur C. Clake has often been quoted as saying, "Any sufficiently advanced technology seems like magic".

Technology is simply what we contrive with wheels and gears and motors. Biologists, for example, have engineered whole new species of microbes through chemical-based technology. No wheels, gears, or motors were directly involved in the processes. Illusionists (stage magicians) have engineered whole effects without using gears, wheels, and motors. But we have advanced the technology of illusion through chemicals and machinery as well as through technique.

Technology is best defined as "the way we do things what whatever we have available". If all you have are your hands, you can devise a technology such as a martial art, a sign language, an exercise regimen, shadow-making, etc. Put a tool into those hands and you expand the number of technologies you can contrive.

So who is to say we cannot eventually devise a technology that looks and acts so much like traditional magic that it requires spells and incantations? Then what sort of story do we have? Is it fantasy because it has spells and incantations, or is it science fiction because our spells and incantations are simply catalysts that engineer effects through scientifically devised media?

Science fantasy, which blends elements of science ficton and fantasy, has been around for decades. Gardner F. Fox wrote several series of pulp adventure books about heroes like Kothar and Kyril. The magic of their worlds might or might not have been based on science. Andre Norton threw wizards and engineers against each other numerous wars and adventures.

In a way, science fantasy pretends that there is no distinction between "science fiction" and "fantasy". They are one and the same, just dressed up differently to look distinct from one another. Science fiction is androgynous fantasy. Fantasy is dumbed-down science fiction. Both have become formulaic and rebellious, trying to be different from what they once were.

The foundation of both science fiction and fantasy is "what if?" What if we could fly on dragons? Would it matter if they had to chew stone to burst into flame or if they were genetically engineered? What if we could send bolts of energy from our hands? Would it matter if those energy bolts were fired by microscopic mechanisms that Mom and Dad planted in our bloodstream before their Mad Scientist lab was shut down?

What if we could fly? What if we could travel back in time without having to disassemble our molecules and reasaemble them in the past (not taking into consideration the fact that those molecules and/or their constituent components existed back then)? How we fly, how we travel back in time, how we reach other worlds are all matters of mechanics. If the mechanics seem reasonably approachable through our current scientific ideas, we say we are writing science fiction. If the mechanics seem beyond the reach of today's ideas, we say we are writing fantasy.

Star Trek was considered to be science fiction when Gene Roddenberry first launched the series in part because he asked science fiction writers to help imagine the Star Trek universe. But he couldn't help fantasizing certain elements of the technology: warp travel is bogus; teleportation by disassembling molecules and "beaming" them across the universe is ridiculous; phaser is just a fancy name for an adjustale strength (laser) ray gun.

Today, scientists propose that it may indeed be possible to traverse the physical universe at speeds measured in multiples of the speed of light -- if only we can find a way to slide along cosmic strings, which may retain physical characteristics of the early universe where the speed of light had no limit, or had a different limit.

Today, scientists "beam" molecules across rooms by disintegrating them and reconstructing exact duplicates elsewhere (but how would one ensure that a living creature's consciousness transferred to the reconstructed molecules at the other location?).

Today, we walk around with cell phones that bounce signals off of satellites so that we can speak to people on the far side of the planet. We have begun to develop beam technology weapons systems that resemble the ship-mounted rayguns of classic SF. And our computers are more powerful and store more information than Captain Kirk's voice-activated, colored-button monolithic duotronic systems. In fact, we are experimenting with quantum computer technology that, if taken to its fullest potential, will allow us to create new tools and things on the spur of the moment, based on improbabilities.

And then where will our science fiction be? Perhaps reconstructing the past because it's too slow to keep up with the future? Will the historical novel become the next great science fiction paradigm? Pseudo accuracy has become so important that authors spend months, even years researching miniscule details about how things were done in the past. Medieval Europe has become the standard by which fantasy worlds are measured (even though Tolkien blended his medieval European influences with Biblical, Greco-Roman, Babylonian, an modern influences).

We will rebel against the compulsion to imagine the future by reconstructing the past. The sciences of reconstruction have already begun to permeate our museums and schools. We devote whole television shows to reconstructing past events. MythBusters reconstructs scenarios that lead us to ask silly questions (such as, "Can you survive the impact of a falling elevator hitting the bottom of its shaft by jumping at the last instant?" -- No).

And reality television fabricates scenarios that simply are not true in an attempt to push our imagination further. We have gone from Divorce Court to Cops to Survivor to Paris Hilton mixes fruits and vegetables simply because we are bored with the old false realities we created for ourselves. Perhaps the future of science fiction lies in imagining how we will pretend to be gods, creating whole universes that only exist in some limited fashion.

Virtual reality will become so yesterday. And it will all seem like magic.

That's when we'll start rebelling again, writing non science fiction to avoid replicating our past accomplishments. And we'll take the magic out of fantasy because it's all explainable if you put enough theory into it, so we can write non fantasy.

Either way you cut it, we only leave ourselves with two choices. That's just human nature. A real alien might be satisfied with no less than a third choice.