Sunday, October 29, 2006

A little music in your digital life?

I highly recommend Music Thing, a UK blog by Tom Whitwell about music online and off. Recent posts of interest:

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Blithering

After the 2004 presidential election, I decided I'd heard enough of President Bush. Since then I've avoided his speeches. But today I caught a sound bite of him on NPR, addressing a rally of Republican voters and vowing to "bring justice to the terrorists." (When, of course, he was looking for the phrase "to bring the terrorists to justice.")

And listening to him pronounce "terrorists" as "terrrrrrisssts" makes me crazy.

Have we ever before had a president with a feebler grasp of the American language? Yale (his alma mater) should be cringing with shame.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A few words about icons

I rarely customize my desktop with icons, but today I needed one for a special project. I went over to the Icon Factory, which has freeware for individual use as well as royalty-free images developers can license for use in professional applications.

Browsing the freeware collections, which date back to 1996, was a trip down memory lane. In addition to some tech nostalgia (remember eWorld?) I found icons for Larry Niven's Known Space books, and icons for the cult SF TV show Lexx. Plus lots of Star Trek icons. My favorites for visual impact are the eye-catching Smoothicons done by the Icon Factory team. And Kate England's Private Eye icon sets (there are three of them) turned out to be irresistable for a mystery writer.

Icon Factory recommends getting Pixadex, which organizes your icons the way iPhoto organizes photographs. The program is $18.95, but there's a free demo version.

Think you're having a bad day?

I arrived home from the hairdresser shortly after noon Friday and was distinctly puzzled to find a cat I'd left inside the house sitting out in the front yard. I was even more puzzled when I unlocked the front door, heard the bathroom fan, and found the bathroom steamy and filled with wet towels. And down in the basement, the washing machine was running.

Yet no one was around, and I knew Zorg was downtown at work.

When I checked my email a few minutes later, I found the explanation in a message from Zorg. But I had to read it three times before I could believe something like this had really happened. Talk about a bad day at the office!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Life's essentials

There are a dozen or so commodities in our household that are so wonderful I can't imagine any substitutions. Neutrogena soap, for instance. Apple computers. Yorkshire Gold tea. Catman cat furniture.

I haven't written about the cat trees for a while, and it's because there's a tendency to take them for granted. These are not the flimsy cardboard trees carpeted in shag you find at the pet supermart (and see at the dump). These are cat trees made of solid lumber and plywood, covered in tough sisal and industrial-strength sheared wall-to-wall. They hold up against herds of leaping, scratching, shedding cats, and withstand a yearly cleaning with carpet cleaner. We have three that are at least 12 years old.

Two of them were custom orders with plain wood (instead of the usual carpeted) bases. That's because my old cat Bosco (now long gone) had been trained by a previous owner to use carpet scraps as a litter box. He saw a carpet, and he went. I painted the plywood bases with clear polyurethane and those trees were pretty much safe.

Post-Bosco, we acquired a fourth Catman tree, one of the Townhouse line (a model we nicknamed "The Alien" for obvious reasons). It's Sheba's favorite perch, with a view of the neighborhood, the Sound, and Zorg's computer screen when he's playing World of Warcraft. But recently, our elderly cat, Betaille, has decided this is where she wants to pee. Despite our vigilence about keeping the door to the room closed, Betaille's gotten past us frequently enough that the carpeted base of The Alien is now beyond cleaning or deodorizing.

So today I hauled it out on the front porch and began taking it apart, hoping to salvage the top portion and affix it to some alternate base that would have less appeal for Betaille.

I discovered more long screws and heavy nails (countersunk!) in that cat tree than in our entire front porch. Even after removing all of the diagonal braces, it's impossible to get at the countersunk nails that hold the base to the main pole. So tomorrow I'll be sawing the sisal-wrapped pole itself.

After visiting the Catman Furniture site and seeing that The Alien sells for $316, I am certainly inspired to salvage that top portion!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Make food, not war!

My undergraduate degree is in psychology, and I was fortunate to study at a university with renowned programs in cognitive, behavioral, social, educational, community, and organizational psych. The medical school also had a plethora of Freudian analysts who were happy to teach the occasional undergrad seminar in dream analysis. Since few of the professors associated with each other across program boundaries, it was like studying in a half dozen different departments.

Although I ended my academic career specializing in community anad educational psychology, my real affection was for behavioral -- "rat lab." I conducted research on choice, looking at both cognitive and motivational factors surrounding rats' decisionmaking. In one experiment, my rats learned a Y-shaped maze with two branches. The extremely long branch led to a substantive food reward; the short branch, to a skimpy snack. The hungry rats quickly figured this out. I began lengthening the long branch to figure out how far they'd trek for the big meal. There was also an (unauthorized) experiment in which I trained a rat to drink whiskey, then took it in my pocket to a sleazy bar filled with depressed grad students. I sat at the bar, ordered two shots, and plopped my rat companion in front of one of the glasses. We drank. The grad students stared blearily, probably afraid to admit what they though they were seeing. It may have been one of the better dates I went on during college.

I continue to conduct behavioral experiments at home, most of them involving our large herd of cats. This morning, I made a discovery that surprised me. Sheba, our deaf white cat, has a history of savagely attacking the next door neighbor's gray cat. In the past two years, they've called a truce, as along as the gray cat stays in her own yard. If she comes into our basement, which she does, Sheba has carte blanche (or is the cat blanche?) to attack. Which she does.

The neighbors left on a trip last night, and, sure enough, this morning their gray cat came into our basement and up the stairs to our kitchen. Sheba was in the kitchen, waiting for her breakfast, and her eyes went wide, then dark and beady, when she saw the interloper. I got in between them long enough to give the gray cat a head start back down to the basement, and then I lugged Sheba across the kitchen. Undaunted, Sheba kept heading back to the basement -- until I got her favorite pepper turkey cold cuts out of the fridge, and dangled a slice in front of her nose. She followed me docilely to her bowl and chowed down, the gray cat completely forgotten. Since Sheba, unlike my rats, is not kept in a state of perpetual hunger, I thought this was pretty impressive evidence of food trumping territorialism, even in a low-motivation state. Make food, not war!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Music for your movie

The meme is "Soundtrack of your life." (Ganked from Voile et Vapeur but customized for iTunes) Here's how it works:

1. Open your iTunes Library
2. From the Control menu, select Shuffle
3. Press Play
4. For the first question, type name of the song that's playing. Add some lyrics if you want.
5. When you go to the next question, press the Next button in iTunes (and so on)
6. Don't skip any songs and try to pretend you're cool...

Here goes my soundtrack:

Opening Credits: "Riot in Cell Block No. 9" by Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen

"There's a riot going on!"

Waking Up: "It's Obdacious" by Greg Piccolo, from the swing dance collection Roll Up the Rug Volume 2

First Day At School: "Collide" from a jazz EP by Malcolm Burn and Rachel Yamagata

Falling In Love: "Young Love on the Dance Floor" from I Got New Shoes by the Albion Dance Band

"There's always someone trying to cut in..."

Breaking Up: "What About Me?" by Richie Havens

"My world is slowly falling down..."

Prom: "From Hank to Hendrix" by Neil Young

Hmmm, well, I didn't go to the prom. We had an anti-prom and I think it ended up with us taking hot cocoa to the Quakers who maintained an anti-war sit-in in front of the Nixon White House.

Life is Good: "Walk on By" (the Robert Gordon version)

Mental Breakdown: "For No One" a Lennon/McCartney song, but this version is by Bruce Lang

"The day breaks, your mind aches..."

Driving: "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams

As David Levine observed, "obviously iTunes is telepathic."

Flashback: "Take It Away, Leon" by Leon McAuliffe & His Western Swing Band

Flashback? This one definitely predates me.

Getting Back Together: "Let's See How Far You Get" by BR5-49

Not particularly optimistic.

Wedding: "Let Me In" from Takin' My Time by Bonnie Raitt

Hmmm. Did we have a wedding song? The processional was "Dodi Li"; the reception was all Zydeco.

Paying the Dues: "I'm a Long Gone Daddy" from Timeless by Hank Williams III

The Night Before The War: "Kaulana Kawaihae" from Facing Future by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

A very sweet sounding song, but I don't understand Hawaiian.

Final Battle: "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Perkins

Hmmm. Maybe my fight scene was a pie fight?

Moment of Triumph: "Lights of Cheyenne" by James McMurtry & the Heartless Bastards

"Out on the horizon, the broken stars fall..."

Death Scene: "What's Going Ahn" from Radio City by Big Star

"Oh, no"

Funeral Song: "The Newz Reel" by Charles Sawtelle

Very lively tune. Must be an Irish funeral....

End Credits: "Raisins and Almonds (Rozhinkes Mit Mandelen" from Tradition by Itzhak Perlman

Wow, how European.

(And, did I ever luck out. After I'd completed the meme, the next song on the shuffle was Tom Lehrer's "Smut." That would have been hard to explain...)

Friday, October 13, 2006

It's Friday. It's catblogging.


...and isn't Kaylee excited!

Horsey moments

When I think back on hot political and social issues of the past few years, what I often remember about them is a David Horsey cartoon. Horsey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist (who happens to work for the Post-Intelligencer), has an unparalleled ability to portray a group, or a movement, as an individual. My all-time favorite Horsey drawing showed individuals from four Seattle communities each expressing his or her own group's highly intolerant NIMBY attitudes. The more distinctive their appearances and language, the more hilarious was the underlying similarity of their views. My runner-up favorite Horsey is one of Deborah Senn (remember her?) digging ferociously in the couch cushions to find the remote control while a TV screen in the background showed her victorious opponent for the Senate race, Maria Cantwell.

Today's Horsey (Oct. 13) is a tasteful and delightful take (really) on the Foley scandal featuring the Republican elephant and a young member of the Christian Right.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Where the ebooks live

Having recently been involved in the editing of an ebook, I was rather taken aback to realize there is little infrastructure for publicizing and selling ebooks. The book review sections of publications and online reviewing sites decline to review ebooks. You won't find ebook authors doing readings at bookstores because bookstores sent print books, not ebooks.

As we go about trying explain and market the new ebook, I've come to a few realizations about why ebooks are having trouble catching on.

1. They got off to a bad start: A profusion of proprietary ebook reader software confused and frustrated consumers. Six or seven years ago, with the advent of affordable high-speed Internet access and the dotcom boom, ebooks looked hot. While some viewed them as a boon for writers, traditional publishers saw them as yet another way to make money on existing merchandise: Now people who found lugging books around inconvenient could read those same titles as digital files on their laptop computers or PDAs. Major booksellers teamed up with software developers to create proprietary software for reading their books (even though Adobe had developed Acrobat, which was soon well integrated with Windows and the Mac operating system.) Some companies even marketed proprietary ebook reader hardware. Unfortunately, these all these products launched just about simultaneously, with the result that readers soon discovered that whatever they wanted to read probably didn't exist for their software or their reader. And thus the very appealing idea of walking up to a kiosk at the airport and downloading the book of your choice never came about. Consumers gave up on ebooks, and so did the major players. (Though Sony is trying it yet again.) It's interesting to note that this scenario is in contrast to the development of the iPod and iTunes. Apple beat competitors to the market quickly enough to set a clear industry standard for music, plus allowed the most common type of pre-existing music file, mp3, to be played.

2. They were oversold: ebooks were marketed to a wide audience based on vague enthusiasm, instead of to narrow audiences based on specific advantages. Are ebooks better than print books? Not necessarily. The experience of reading a long work of fiction while chained to a desktop computer, or squinting at the tiny screen of a PDA, turned off many readers who like to read in bed, on a couch, or in the bathrub. However, nonfiction ebooks, focusing on "how-to" topics, have won followers exactly because, for that type of topic, the ebook format is superior to print. Ebooks allow you to keyword search a book's contents; to move between sections of a book using internal links; to print out instructions and checklists for use elsewhere (ideal for project management, home improvement, cooking, etc.); and to obtain an ebook in a matter of minutes in order to solve an immediate problem (travel guides, cookbooks, educational information, etc.). To see an example of some successful "how-to" ebooks, check out the Take Control series.

3. Online "how-to" sites have evolved into stiff competition for ebooks. Pretty much anyone who is using online sites to download and print out "how-to" information is a good prospective buyer for an ebook. But the ebook finds itself in direct competition with the "how-to" websites. These sites make money through ads and subscriptions; few of them want to send site visitors offline to read a ebook! Thus a site with the audience the ebook publisher wants to reach is the site least likely to review the ebook.

I'd love to hear your comments and observations. Do you currently use ebooks? If so, what software and what formats do you use? What types of titles are you buying?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

How novel

Just came back from a class on structuring your novel by Matt Briggs, author of Shoot the Buffalo (winner of the American Book Award). It was impressive how much information he was able to deliver to us in just a few hours.

I not only came away with some ideas for outlining a new mystery -- I saw immediately the ugly structural mistakes I'd made in my first (unpublished) one.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Boot up and dance

Those of you who are dancers will have a field day with this.

New journalism

Under no circumstances should you miss the Oct. 16 cover of Time magazine. My faith in mainstream journalism has been tentatively renewed.

(Mystical Forest posted a copy of the cover today, and at first I thought it was a spoof. But no!)

Lost weekend

I've been sick with a strange sore throat all weekend, and slept through most of the day today. As a result, there's a pile of plant clippings still sitting the middle of the back yard waiting to be lugged out to the compost bin. And we had to order in a pizza for dinner.

I woke up around 6 p.m., but then Zoe hopped up on the bed and snuggled up, resting her head on my shoulder and gazing soulfully into my eyes...while...purring...hypnotically...

Back to sleep.

Now I'm up and making a list of what I need to do tomorrow so I won't have to do anything strenous, like think.

• move clippings into compost bin
• yoga class
• ghost-blogging
• move boxes of summer clothes into attic (while the cats are outside, so they won't go rooting around in the attic and in the walls)
• clean out closet in office, which is currently impassable
• babysit neighbor's daughter for an hour
• call John and see how the rotator cuff surgery went (ouch!)
• cook polenta and veggies for dinner

Please excuse the dust

The Mysterious Traveler Sets Out has migrated from Blogger to the new Blogger Beta, and there is weird re-publishing of old blog posts going on. Your patience is appreciated!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Three surprises in the garden

I could see more than a dozen apples on the columnar apple tree, the first time there's been a significant crop since I planted it two and half years ago. One apple went to my mom's to be dipped in honey at the Rosh Hashanah dinner. The rest I'd decided to use for a pie. The surprise was that after I finished patting down the thickly-leaved 8-foot-tall apple tree, I came away with 22 apples!

The next surprise was a bright fuchsia-and-white dahlia. It appeared to be growing on a rhody, but on closer inspection I realized that the late-bloomer, planted only a month or so ago, had come up through the adjoining bush. If this dahlia winters over as well as the more established dahlias we have, it should be amazing next year. (Photo to come.)

The third surprise was Big Tony. That's the name I've given to the very large dark gray tabby whose been gobbling Betaille's leftovers in the back yard for the past week. This cat is big, with a long muzzle; he looks like something that should be on display in the zoo. Today he and Betaille came into the house together and Tony proceeded to eat every scrap of cat food in sight. Zoe glared at him balefully, but Sheba was surprisingly uninterested. Zorg was able to touch him, and I got in a quick pat. Though he looks well-groomed, Tony has the timid demeanor of a stray; he didn't seem as though he'd venture into a strange house unless very hungry. We haven't seen any local "lost cat" posters, and there's no mention of him on Craig's List or in the newspaper classifieds. Since he gets along with Betaille, he's certainly welcome to keep her company and enjoy the second heated cat bed in her shelter. He's a better tenant than a raccoon.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Healthy pet food

I sometimes feel guilty about feeding my cats commercial pet food, but there is no way I'm about to start grinding, chopping, and serving raw meat and bones for them. Nor do I like having to schlep off to shop in little pet food boutiques for tiny expensive tins of food that are supposedly more healthful -- particularly when all four of our cats leave the healthy food untouched in their dishes and yowl stridently until we bring out the Fancy Feast.

Enter Pet Promise.

Available at local supermarket, Pet Promise is a line of wet and dry foods endorsed by health expert Dr. Andrew Weil. Apparently Weil wanted food for his own dogs that was free of "animal byproducts," the garbage leftovers from the meat industries. He eventually found a company making pet food from hormone-free, human-grade fish, chicken, and beef and teamed up with them to bring it to a general market. (For more on the emerging pet health food field, see this Mother Earth News article).

Pet Promise has just debuted, and you can find promotional coupons for it in many supermarket mailers. (I just got one from QFC.)

I purchased a bag of the Pet Promise mature formula dry food at the Ballard Market last night, brought it home, and put a bowl of it in front of our notoriously finicky elderly Himalayan-Abyssian. (Finicky? This is a cat that approaches even a dish of its favorite food as if the dish were about to explode.)

The verdict? Betaille dug right in. Ate a whole bowl of the stuff. Now I'm trying it out on the rest of the herd.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006