the Unending Journey of the Wandering Author

A chronicle of the unending journey of the Wandering Author through life, with notes and observations made along the way. My readers should be aware I will not censor comments that disagree with me, but I do refuse to display comment spam or pointless, obscene rants. Humans may contact me at thewanderingauthor at yahoo dot com - I'll reply as I am able.

Location: New England, United States

I have always known I was meant to write, even when I was too young to know the word 'author'. When I learned that books were printed, I developed an interest in that as well. And I have always been a wanderer, at least in my mind. It's not the worst trait in an author. For more, read my writing; every author illuminates their heart and soul on the pages they write upon.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Latest Carnival of the Vanities Is Open

I encourage you to go on over to this week's Carnival of the Vanities (#206), hosted by Lil' Duck Duck and check out the wonderful entries there. The Ducks are hunkered down hoping Ernesto will leave them in peace, so why don't you drop by and offer your good wishes?

The Wandering Author has plans to spend the day with cousins I have never met from Ireland, so I won't be posting anything else today. I will check out the carnival entries tonight or tomorrow, though, and I've already left a comment for the Ducks.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

USDA Employee Threatens US Food Supply

Since the information I located is available to the public on the Internet, and the text I am copying consists of my own comments, I have no reason to believe there is any legal impediment to my posting it here. I urge all of you who read this to tell your friends, contact any media outlets you can think of, and otherwise make sure this story gets covered. My impression is the government would like to hush it up.

The comments below this paragraph are exactly the text of the message I sent to the FBI on this issue, with two exceptions: I have replaced the url in the message with a text label and hypertext link to the site where this appeared, and I have used actual italics in place of the asterisks used in plain text for emphasis. It is not my intention to become a "news" blog, but this is alarming enough that I decided to make an exception.

This is secondhand; I discovered it online. If you go to NoNAIS there is a post there "USDA Identified As Terrorists" which includes a comment the site received making a terrorist threat. The site owner traced the IP address back to the USDA. I obviously don't have the means to verify this, but it concerns me.

If the USDA has disgruntled employees willing to go this far - they inspect our food supplies - they have access to them! Is our food safe? The site owner responded to a comment I made asking why the USDA was handling this internally and why the FBI was not handling it by stating the FBI hadn't seemed interested in other incidents of possible illegal behaviour. I'd like to know why not. I think the FBI should look into this, carefully.

I have also contacted various media outlets with my concerns. I think this needs to be a major investigation; if there is one unhappy employee at the USDA, how do we, the public, know how many more there might be? How do we know our food is safe while the USDA has access to the food supply if this is not investigated in a major way?

Writing Matters

I've noticed it in passing before, but I took a good look at the Lonely Moon Short Fiction Contest today, and I was hooked. I wrote a story for it, and e-mailed my entry this afternoon. It still hasn't been posted, so the link is only to the main page. I hope it didn't go astray; if it isn't up by the morning, I may resend it with an apology in case they're just slow.

I looked over some of the other entries, and I won't be winning anything, but I had fun doing it, so in that sense I've won already. No, I'm not just being modest. I do think my story is better than some of the entries, which I won't name. It definitely isn't as good as a few of the best entries, though. It's just as well I didn't read them beforehand.

The funny thing is, I just finished Moonstruck and sent it in when I had another idea for a story titled Traitor Moon. There is only one entry allowed per author, but I just may write it anyway, and post it here. I hope I can find the time to do that tomorrow. In the meantime, I've been thinking about my challenge.

One person commented that it "ain't broke" so I shouldn't try to fix it. That's good advice, but it is nice to vary things a bit when writing. One idea I'm considering is to have whoever starts the story off write a very short story, say 250 words. Each of the others would then write a new segment, showing the same events from the viewpoint of a different character who witnessed them or was involved.

The problem is, I'm not sure if that will work out well or not. Comments on the subject are welcome; the other possibility is a challenge very similar to Brandon's. Since I'm meeting an Irish cousin I've never met before on Wednesday, and Amin's challenge ends next Monday, I'll probably set it for next week. Anyone interested in signing up should let me know; I already have Brandon down for it.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Rich and Complex Brew

Over the years, I've read many accounts of events during the London Blitz. With the exception of official 'incident reports', every single one was interesting. Even a few of the official reports managed to capture and hold my attention! There was something about the conditions, the circumstances, and the attitude of the British people that makes for fascinating reading.

Even a person of mediocre talent could write up a collection of anecdotes on their experiences during the Blitz and make it a success. There are other subjects like that, of course. Thrilling events, extreme situations, intense drama, all make the job of grabbing and holding the reader’s attention much simpler. But, delightful as they are, such distractions can also hamper an accurate estimate of an author’s ability.

The truest measure of a writer's talent is taken when they are writing about ordinary things. Only the best of authors are such keen observers, such discerning connoisseurs of detail, and such careful craftsmen with words that they can take the ordinary and mundane and transform it into something wonderful. Anyone capable of this sort of alchemy is a writer worth watching.

The blogosphere is packed with people who write about their jobs. They whine about their bosses, their co-workers, and their customers. Most visitors to these sites read just long enough to see they’ve found yet another blogger bored with their dull, dead-end job before they depart to seek something more colourful, or something funnier.

Generally, only those who work at interesting or exciting jobs write blogs worth reading. Now, working as a barista at Starbucks is not the sort of career I’m inclined to consider exciting. Getting discounts on coffee has its temptations, I admit. Nevertheless, the only kind of buzz I ever expected from a Starbucks was, of course, the one you get when you drink their coffee. Working there? That seemed as likely to prove interesting as drinking decaf.

Most baristas would probably agree with me. But there is one barista who not only finds reason to write about her job, she even makes it sound interesting when she writes about it. She serves up a rich, complex brew of stories, blended from the choicest moments plucked from each fresh workday. I find myself looking forward to the next installment of her adventures. On those days when she doesn’t post, I miss my flavourful cup of insight into what, in anyone else’s hands, would be a very dull world indeed.

Only someone with serious talent is capable of transforming this type of job into the delicate aroma of life, filtered through a writer’s mind. I hope she publishes a book soon; I have only two fears. The first is that I won’t know about it in time to be first in line at the bookstore the day it comes out. The second? If she leaves her job at bux, I’ll miss my daily fix of barista brat even worse than I’d miss my daily fix of caffeine.

The absurd thing is, I don’t think anyone else at Starbucks even knows about the best PR they’ve ever had. There’s a lot of irony there; one incredibly talented person, working an ordinary job and writing about it for the sheer love of writing, has done far more to make me think fondly of Starbucks than every penny they spent on advertising ever managed to do.

Tales of the Bearded Toad - Challenge Complete

Brandon's challenge is done early; the story is posted at Tales of the Bearded Toad: 7 Parts: A Collaboration. If I can be forgiven a bit of bragging over a story I wrote a portion of, I think it turned out wonderful!

I will definitely be doing something similar. I won't post final details yet, since I think it's best to do the actual challenge over the weekend. I've toyed with other ideas, but I think Brandon's basic structure worked out so well, I may just keep that.

It is late, but I just couldn't resist posting this tonight. If you haven't seen the full version yet, read the story, then come back and tell me what you think.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Flashes of Scenery

I just noticed this story linked to my post Ten Ways To Spot A Scam. The story begins here. It's laugh out loud funny, and I can just imagine how much work it must have taken to pull together. And that's not counting time spent setting up all those links. It's also an interesting lesson in finding ideas anywhere.

That may be why I enjoy wandering the blogosphere as much as I do. I have a long list of blogs I want to spend further time reading, as well as those I plan to link to. For a writer, there are so many things to learn, and so many routes to new ideas. I have to discipline myself so I don't spend all my time just absorbing all the glimpses into other lives.

This need for discipline explains the new organisation of the links in my sidebar. I intended to sort them out alphabetically as soon as I could find the time, and when I did so, I removed a few links to 'dead' blogs. I also decided to sort them into two lists; those blogs I couldn't keep from reading every day, and those I found interesting but was able to limit my visits to.

No insult is intended; the division is purely a matter of various factors. Some of the blogs are ones that don't seem to be frequently updated, so there is little sense in visiting them daily. Others are ones I discovered once I already had a long list of favourites, and I simply had to keep that list as short as possible.

It was only after I had finished editing my template that it occurred to me some bloggers might feel slighted. I fear some of my readers may misunderstand my intent, so I am thinking about reorganising my links again soon. I haven't done so already because I am saving my efforts for writing at the moment, and I want to decide on a method of organisation I will be happy with before I go to all the trouble of moving links around again.

In truth, moving the links probably requires less than half the time it takes me to write some of my posts, but it feels longer. Time speeds by when I'm writing. I enjoy what I'm doing, and I don't begrudge the time I spend on writing. Moving links, however, is just another boring but necessary task.

I think much of life is like that; our reactions depend less on the actual time and effort required than on our own opinion of what is involved. I have several ideas for new posts; I've found several postings on other blogs I can't resist commenting on. I had hoped to begin today, but I've had a nasty bug the past few days, and I was still feeling too wobbly to tackle too much serious writing. And as soon as I'm feeling better, I'll need to tackle some of those boring but necessary tasks.

In spite of how I felt, I did manage to take part in Brandon's challenge, over at Tales of the Bearded Toad. Thinking of a way to continue the story, without taking too much opportunity away from those who will follow me, was an interesting experience. In fact, I may just use the paragraph I wrote as the germ of a larger idea.

However, I had enough fun with that challenge I am considering doing something similar. Suggestions are welcome; I haven't yet decided the exact form my challenge should take, although I do have a few ideas in mind. If enough of my readers are interested, I will try to post more about that in a few days.

Progress Report

I am still working on my tribute to Frank Esposito. I have enough research to work with, although I'd still appreciate hearing from anyone who knew him if they wouldn't mind sharing their memories. I've begun writing the post, and have some idea what I want to do with it. It is one of the most difficult things I've written, though. I may not be able to do his memory justice, but I want to do the best I can.

More than that however, confronting a single individual, and considering what he was like, in order to write about him, is emotionally wrenching. I suspect many of the others who've volunteered for this project have had the same reaction. And it may be one of the most important benefits of the 2,996 Project. Each of us who has volunteered will have had the opportunity to confront the reality of 9-11 on an individual and personal level.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The 2,996 Project Honouring the Victims of 9-11

I just learned of the 2,996 Project, an effort to honour each of the individual victims who died on 9-11. Although I fear the task of providing a fitting memorial tribute for any of these victims is beyond me, there is little time left and I felt I owed it to those who sacrificed far more to sign up.

As my readers can see in the sidebar, I will be honouring Francis Esposito, who died at the World Trade Center in New York. Since I have just signed up for the project, I know little about him. I will be conducting my own research to learn more, but I do urge anyone who may have information to contact me. If his family or friends happen to read this post, I would be humbly grateful for any stories you could share with me about Francis. I hope to do his memory at least some justice, and welcome your help.

As a professional genealogist, I do have some idea where to look for information, but that will be primarily cold, impersonal facts. If it is possible to do so, I hope to show some of the human side of a man who died as an innocent victim of hatred. I hope that I am capable of that task; I doubt any writer could feel confident of his skill under these circumstances. But I do promise I shall do my best.

To all my readers; I will attempt to keep posting on a regular basis, responding to your comments, and visting your blogs to offer my own comments, as time allows. But I hope you will all understand this project takes precedence. There may be a delay before I respond to you; the memory of Francis Esposito deserves a thorough effort to research his life, and to write a memorial that, I hope, will compel readers to remember that life.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

I Find Real Gems On the Web

A fellow blogger and writer suggested a couple of very good blogs in one of her comments on my previous post. When I visited the first of these blogs, and read the header, I assumed it must be little more than a stunt. DBA Lehane, at Short Short Fiction writes a new story each day, using's word of the day in each story.

What's more, he limits each story to no more than five hundred words. Now, those of you who don't write probably feel that limitation would make things easier. Well, I can tell you from experience that coming up with an idea for a story, then exploring that idea in such a short work is not easy. Very short stories often require more time to write than longer ones.

To incorporate a given word in each story, with no time to plan ahead and ponder suitable ideas, would only complicate the task. So, when I read all these things, I first suspected DBA Lehane must be doing no more than a clever stunt. Granted, it would be an impressive stunt even so, but I didn't imagine it could be more than that. His own disclaimer that these were rough drafts only confirmed my suspicions.

Then I read the most recent story. It was actually a very good first draft of a very readable short short. Not only that, but he casually tossed in, near the end of the story, an idea so staggering it would make a great premise for a novel! Of course, after that, I had to read another. And then another.

I haven't had the time (yet) to read every one of these stories, but each one of those I have read is good. I haven't come across a single story yet that isn't worth the effort of polishing up for publication. Yes, there are minor shortcomings. The wording can be a bit rough in places; as he warned, these are not final drafts. Some of the efforts to include the word of the day make for awkward phrasing, or introduce an implausible note into a character's voice.

Be assured, though, these are minor flaws, and the stories are real gems, even if unpolished. Clearly, I owe DBA Lehane an apology for my thoughts. His project is intriguing, and it challenges me. Such a writing project, if adhered to, can't help but develop your abilities. I am tempted to do something like this myself.

However, the very idea is daunting. If you think it sounds easy, you are not a writer. No writer, even those fortunate souls who seldom need to labour over the keyboard, would dare take such a demanding project lightly. If I do decide to attempt a similar project, I want time to consider what I can realistically manage to do.

For one thing, I have already made up my mind to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. Any additional project would need to take that into consideration. Either I will need to plan for an interruption in the schedule I set for myself, or perhaps I will begin once NaNoWriMo is over. Whatever I decide, I will post more here later.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Pardon the Interruption

Although I have enjoyed writing many of these posts, blogging is a form of writing I am not yet comfortable with. It has virtues, I don't doubt that. I enjoy reading the blogs I link to. And I think some aspects of blogging, such as the need to post frequently, and the relative spontaniety, will help me develop those areas of my writing.

The trouble is, I intended this blog to be a somewhat random collection of thoughts, opinions, concerns; whatever I happened to feel like writing at the time. This will be my tenth post, and as I look back over the previous posts I have written, they seem too random, almost uneven. Then again, it is hard to read your own work objectively.

So I would like to ask each one of you who reads this blog to let me know what you like, and what you don't like, about it. The more comments I receive letting me know when I have succeeded in interesting you, and when I have failed to do so, the better I will understand how to keep your interest. And you do want to read an interesting blog, don't you?

If you like at least some of what you see, then I ask you to forgive my experimentation. Skip over the posts you don't like, but pay me a few more visits, both to let me know your opinion of how I am doing, and to see how all the experiments work out in the end.

I hope you'll decide it was worth it; while every author may be compelled to write what is inside them, every author also wishes for an audience, or they wouldn't put their thoughts on paper. And I do thank you for your attention, however brief it may turn out to be.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Ten Ways To Spot A Scam

I'm sure everyone has received one of those e-mails that begins "I am Mr. Charles Taylor, son of the late Charles Taylor....who secretly hid eighty million dollars...". Yet in spite of how obvious it may seem that such e-mails are scams, at least a few people fall victim to them. If no one bit, the scammers would turn to some other type of scheme.

I have received hundreds of such messages, and analysed them carefully for clues and common traits. The result is a list of traits that should make any recipient think twice, no matter how tempting visions of easy millions may be.

10: The subject line, and often the message itself, are in all caps. This is one of those points that makes me wonder how scammers ever succeed at all. All caps are widely considered rude, few people use them, yet a significant percentage of scam e-mails I recieve continue to "boast" all cap subject lines, and a few are even written all in caps!

9: The phrasing of the message sounds stilted or odd. Even common words may be misspelled. Sure, all of us make the occasional typo, but most scammers did not grow up using English as their first language.

8: You are addressed in terms of unusual familiarity for a stranger. They may call you Dear, without using your name. Or they may offer a lengthy apology for contacting a stranger when such contact may be unwelcome. These, it seems, are awkward attempts to make you feel you can trust your new correspondent.

7: The message is sent from one e-mail address, but you are asked to reply to another address. The scammer is afraid some one he sent out his messages to will report his activities and have that address shut down, so he has another one to remain in contact with those foolish enough to reply.

6: The person contacting you claims to be either the relative of some deceased dignitary, a government functionary, a manager in a bank, or a barrister. There are scams that do not include any of these elements, but these are the most popular.

5: You are urged that "utmost secrecy is essential". One reason or another is advanced why you must not tell anyone else. Someone out there is willing to contact a stranger with these details, but they're afraid of what will happen if the stranger talks to anyone? This is a sure sign of a scam.

4: The message appears to be from someone deeply religious, who now wishes to give away an immense sum of money they have somehow acquired. They need your help to do this, of course. First, deeply religious people belong to religious organisations that will gladly accept their money. And no one needs help to give away money!

3: Your prospective "business partner" admits up front that what you are about to do may be unethical. The idea here is that many people assume if a person admits to doing something wrong, they must not be concealing anything. Which, of course, is wrong. Many people are happy to admit to some minor fault in order to distract others from much worse.

2: One of the most subtle scams involves a message asking you to help combat scammers by cooperating with some distant government and providing them with information. Of course, they can't let you contact the actual government, so they provide a "special" link or some other means of contact for you to send them information. If you are in doubt, contact the embassy of the government in question, on your own!

1: Perhaps the most dangerous scam is the one that suggests you actually are the missing heir of some obscure distant relative you've never heard of. Such things do really happen occasionally, so how can you ignore such a message? There is a very simple way to tell the difference. While there really are "missing heir finders" who locate those with a right to unclaimed estates, and expect a fee for their service, they will not ask you for money up front. Sometimes, a lawyer or someone else may have been instructed by a judge to locate a dead person's heirs; in that case, any payment they are due will automatically be deducted from the estate. In other cases, a missing heirs firm may locate you on their own initiative; when they ask you to pay to be given the details of the inheritance you are due, they will always ask you to sign an agreement that they receive a percentage of any amount you are entitled to claim. If you don't get any money, they get nothing. Any other arrangement is a scam.

This post was written, in part, for the most recent ProBlogger Group Writing Project. I was considering doing a post for this project, but at first I couldn't think of a worthwhile contribution. Then a debate I was reading elsewhere convinced me there are still quite a few people out there who really have a hard time believing their sudden "good luck" is really just a scam.

Sew What? I Seek the Unusual and Find An Artisan

Recently, I found myself with an unusual problem. I make it a habit to carry one or more monoculars for viewing distant objects. One of the most convenient of these was also equipped with an especially handy pouch which makes it easy to use. The only flaw is the fact it is made from an artificial "leather" which does not wear well over time.

A recent soaking after I was trapped in a downpour did nothing to prolong the life of this pouch. It was clearly time to replace it. Despite the vast array of consumer goods for sale in store after store and mall after mall, there are some things, no matter how useful or necessary, that are just not easy to find. Pouches for monoculars are just such an elusive item.

In expensive camera and optics stores you can find a very few leather pouches, but they are not available in a range of sizes, and their design leaves much to be desired. I really hated the thought of paying more for the pouch than I had for the monocular, only to wind up with an unsatisfactory makeshift. I came up with what seemed the perfect plan.

I would locate someone who did custom sewing to make a pouch for me; in fact, I'd have them make pouches for all my monoculars, since the others I have are more awkward to use. I am no stranger to research, so I figured I'd just search for custom sewing services in Google, then e-mail some of the most promising candidates.

Usually, I can find whatever I want online within fifteen minutes. Half an hour after I'd begun my search, I was still wading through a list of services that seemed to limit themselves to extremely narrow niches. One site would do "window treatments" but nothing else, while another would do only dresses and skirts.

There were occasional sites that promised a broader range of services, but only for those willing to order industrial quantities. My monocular collection isn't that large, so I had to rule those out. By this time I was feeling quite discouraged. I'd traipsed through stores piled high with goods, only to find nothing that would suit me.

Now I was sifting the wide, almost limitless reaches of the Internet, and I still couldn't seem to find what I sought. No one but the impossibly wealthy can afford to have everything they own custom made, but it is nice to have options. Finally, far down the list of search results, I located a webring for sewing services. I began to make my way through the list of links in this webring, one at a time.

Site after site still offered me no hope at all. I was weary of the search and ready to give up, but decided to at least check all the sites in the webring before I quit. Finally, I found a custom sewing service which, while it didn't exactly offer or mention the type of thing I had in mind, didn't flatly rule it out, either.

I wasn't feeling very optimistic by this point, but decided I had nothing to lose by e-mailing them. I explained I was looking for something unusual, and attempted to describe what I wanted. I was more than half expecting to be told they didn't do that sort of thing. Instead, the artisan who owns this service replied by telling me she was willing to consider making what I wanted, but only if she felt she could do a good job!

She asked me for photos of the pouch I have, and warned me she wanted to consider what was involved before promising to undertake the project. I was amazed, and impressed! I had found a service willing to fulfill unusual requests, but only if those requests fall within their capabilities. And, despite the fact my e-mail made no secret of my desperation, the rough estimate she sent made no attempt to take advantage of that.

True, if she decides she can make them, each pouch will cost me more than it would if it was sold off the shelves in Wal-Mart. But anything made singly, by hand, costs a great deal more than mass-produced junk. I have no doubt these pouches will be better made, and of better materiel, than anything I might find in Wal-Mart.

And, of course, they won't be whipped out at a breakneck pace by slave labourers for barely enough pay to keep them alive and working. A few more dollars per pouch is surely worth better quality and a clearer conscience. All my effort and searching has paid off.

Despite my satisfaction with the result, this may seem an odd subject to blog about. I decided to do so for several reasons. First of all, perhaps I'll make the next person's search a bit easier. Second, and more important to my mind, is the fact that the world has far too few services like this anymore. The dedicated, skilled people who keep them going deserve our respect, our recognition, and our admiration.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Danger Ahead

When I wrote the post "Is This the Real Story Behind the Stolen Sidekick?" on August first, two issues concerned me. The most troubling, in terms of the incident itself, was the public's apparent readiness to attack someone based on limited information posted on the Internet. A recent news story from abroad strongly suggests my concerns were, if anything, too feeble.

I do not believe anyone, even if they are guilty of a minor crime, should be stalked and harassed. And, of course, a web site detailing someone's supposed "crimes" is hardly proof of their guilt. In the United States, we claim to believe a person is "innocent until proven guilty". The fact a web site posts replies implying someone's guilt is not proof of anything. The site's readers have no way of knowing if the "replies" are genuine or fabricated.

Even if every claim made on the "Stolen Sidekick" site is later proven in a court of law, no one could be sure of that at the time they eagerly weighed in to help put pressure on the girl who was accused. In spite of all the self-congratulatory postings on the Internet because it "worked", all this story was really about was a high-tech adaptation of the lynch mobs we claim to be so ashamed of in our history.

But the implications of the story are much wider than that. This episode showed the Internet could easily become a tool to destroy a person's life. Such destruction could be brought about deliberately or accidentally; intent might matter in a libel suit, but it surely doesn't matter to the victim. What does matter is the public's willingness to leap aboard whatever happens to be the popular bandwagon, and lend their weight to the 'cause'.

The victim in this case was a poor girl with little education, so she and her family had no hope of fighting back, but what if you found yourself in her position? Think back to the most irrational, unjust accusation that was ever made against you, and imagine your accuser posting those claims on their web site. Now, imagine that, for whatever reason, the public accepts those claims and it becomes popular to hate you for what you "did".

Even if you are much better educated, and have more money and resources to draw on, do you really believe you'd have a chance of fighting back? If you really are educated enough to understand the hazards of a smear campaign backed by public support, you know very well every attempt you made to defend yourself would be distorted by your detractors until it became ammunition against you.

Those who would defend the practice will claim some people deserve such a fate. While that may be true, keeping a lost cell phone that is technically stolen property is hardly a crime deserving of such a harsh punishment. Neither is leaving dog poop on a subway car, as one of the hapless victims in the news story I linked to above may have done. These are minor infractions; they resonated with the public because they are common annoyances, not because they are heinous crimes.

The other problem is that not everyone targeted in such a manner will be guilty of anything. Do we really want to go around fearing what an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, a former employee or underling, a crank neighbour, or anyone else who feels they have a grudge against us, might decide to say about us publicly? Of course we don't. Which does not mean the answer is censorship. Instead, we need to understand, as a culture, that leaping to attack someone simply because something negative was said about them on the Internet shows you're a bit unbalanced.

Originally, I had intended to say no more about this story. I had a few concerns about it, and the things it revealed about our society, but I discussed those. It didn't seem worth elaborating on the points I had made. However, the article I linked to above suggests the danger is real, and may be even worse than I suspected. Keep in mind that the full effects of any new trend can take quite a while to become apparent.

My other concern was the fact no one had even noticed there was a possible ulterior motive behind the "Stolen Sidekick" story, a motive displayed right on the official site when I first read it. The site was later edited, and that motive played down in the revision, something that did nothing to ease my concerns.

However, there is no way of knowing the real motive, and the fact I spotted a possible one is of note primarily because it highlights the lack of critical thinking among so many journalists. That aspect of the story worries me much less than what it reveals about the possibility the reporters and writers we rely on for information may have no idea how to do their jobs.

What does it matter how many journalists, reporters, or bloggers there are offering facts and opinions, so long as all or nearly all of those who offer them are not capable of thinking critically? Such "journalists" are not to be trusted; they are too easily led astray. Free speech is essential; there can be no doubt of that. What I doubt is that free speech is the only essential.

Accurate information will be vulnerable to suppression by other means than censorship so long as those who disseminate that information are capable of being distracted by cheap publicity stunts or popular opinions. Limiting information in this way is much less visible and obvious than outright censorship. Yet, whether the limitation was intentional or self-inflicted, every one of the many journalists who covered this story seems to have remained silent on the possibility of an alternate explanation which fits the known facts. That ought to keep anyone who believes in the ideal of an informed society awake at night.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Coming Attractions

The feline adventures related below will explain to both of my faithful readers why I didn't manage to post anything Wednesday. With terrorism once again in the air, I hope to post a few thoughts on what writers can do to thwart the terrorists' goals. I am also pleased and excited to let you know that I have recently been in touch with a cousin I have never met who lives in Ireland (she is the granddaughter of my grandfather's youngest brother). She is flying to the United States next Tuesday, and we have plans to meet in about two weeks. I can't wait to meet her and her family! In the meantime, this weekend has become busier than I'd intended, so I doubt I shall find any time to post again until Monday, unless I am able to fit it in later today. In the meantime, for your enjoyment, I have added links to a few more interesting blogs I've come across. And I have still more; there are more blogs I intend to include, as soon as I can find the time to add them all.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Amazing Misadventures of Miss Chef

It so happens I have three cats right now. (One is my son's, but he hangs out with me a lot.) None of the cats is allowed out except on a harness and leash. They love to go out, but there are so many hazards they would have a short life if allowed to wander freely. Walking a cat is very different from walking a dog, although in very specific circumstances my son's cat consents to walk along a path in a fairly normal fashion.

Cats do not like to make a straight journey from one point to another. They prefer to wander, turning aside here, and stopping to sniff there. It is fascinating to watch the way they behave, and pay attention to the things that interest them. So on Tuesday morning, I took all three cats outside. It was the first really nice day we had had in a while, and I wanted them to have the chance to enjoy it.

No mere human can possibly handle three leashed cats at once for more than a minute or two, so I attach their leashes to a tie-out or the trunk of a tree, then take one for a walk within sight of the others. All of them get to enjoy the fresh air and outside scents, and they take turns wandering more freely. It is a system that has worked well for me in the past, so I saw no reason to change it Tuesday morning.

My son's cat, Mandarin, is a great big two year old orange and white tiger cat who lives for these outings. The two kittens, brother and sister, are Tristan Brighteyes, a grey tiger, and Miss Chef (not her real name; to protect her reputation, I refer to her here by the name we should have given her - I hope it's not necessary to explain the second word is pronounced slightly different than usual), a brown tiger.

Tristan Brighteyes and Miss Chef were found, along with their brother Brendan the Baptizer and their sister Lady Victoria Muffin, beneath a pickup truck in a junkyard. It was just after Hurricane Ophelia tore through North Carolina, and they were only a week old and very hungry. Our son, a Marine Sergeant with the Second Tanks at Camp LeJeune, carried around a box full of four tiny kittens for a week.

As soon as he could get leave, he brought the kittens to us, and we bottle fed them and raised them, then found a good home for Brendan the Baptizer and Lady Victoria Muffin. Their story is important because kittens who are orphaned have no mother to teach them what they need to know. Although a special bond often exists between them and their human 'parents', they don't have the skills they need in life, and are unusually helpless on their own.

Tristan Brighteyes is now a robust eleven month old kitten with an eager attitude and a brave heart. His sister, Miss Chef, is more contemplative. She prefers to observe and understand before participating, although she can be very active, energetic, and amazingly skilful at getting into things no one imagined even a determined cat would ever be able to get into. Yet it is impossible to be upset with her, even for a moment.

When she is caught doing anything outrageous, she cocks her head, offers up her softest look, wriggles her whole body, and flirts, as openly and outrageously as any blonde in a convertible bent on escaping a traffic ticket. And it works, on men and women alike. She has fur as soft as any rabbit's, and is the most charming cat I have ever known. She is also the smallest of the three cats, and the most vulnerable.

It is barely possible to walk the two kittens at the same time, so I attached Mandarin's leash to a tie-out and let Tristan Brighteyes and Miss Chef explore for a while. Soon, they were interested in lazing on the ground near an apple tree, so I used a loop to attach their leashes firmly to the trunk, and took Mandarin for a little stroll.

He found something that smelled intriguing, and I enjoyed watching his head move back and forth, sniffing industriously. It occurred to me cats sniffing a particularly fascinating scent have many of the mannerisms of an absorbed reader, and indeed smelling is to them what reading is to us, a way of gathering information about our world. I was reflecting on that when I looked over and saw only one kitten under the apple tree.

I wasn't alarmed, since their leashes are long enough to allow them to reach a clump of tall grass and bushes nearby. Miss Chef likes to hide in the undergrowth so she can observe the world undisturbed. I think she would like to be a scientist. Still, I like to know where they are, and they often tangle their leashes among the bushes and need rescuing. So I strolled over with Mandarin to look for Miss Chef.

She wasn't in sight, so I followed her leash - and came up with a completely empty harness! It was still fastened, but she was not in it. Now, this is a "Roman" harness, usually used for dogs, rather than a figure eight harness such as cats usually wear. They are supposed to be nearly impossible to escape, but Miss Chef had managed it somehow, and was nowhere to be found.

I couldn't see her anywhere nearby, although I was aware her colouring would be a nearly perfect camouflage against the ground. She could be under the trees or bushes not far away, and unless I stood right beside her I'd never notice she was there. Pure terror raced through my veins. I scooped up Mandarin and hustled him into the house despite his protests. I was too shaken up to trust my ability to securely fasten his leash outside.

I ran back out to where Tristan Brighteyes stood watching me alertly. I raced around searching for Miss Chef while frantically reviewing all the things I needed to do if I couldn't find her soon. After a few minutes, the reality hit me that we might never be able to find her. The thought nearly crushed me to the ground; a moment like that puts your life in perspective, and Miss Chef had become a very important part of my life.

I forced myself not to fall apart so I could continue to look for her. I might fear I'd never succeed, but I wasn't about to give up while she could be out there needing me. Tristan Brighteyes was standing, watching me intently. When I passed him for perhaps the twentieth time, I had an idea. I unfastened his leash from the tree trunk and took him with me, hoping he might notice his sister.

Since I didn't have any better idea of where to go, I let him walk wherever he wanted. He seemed to want to go into a patch of brush and trees nearby, and when I followed him, he led me right to his sister! This deed has earned him a new name; Tristan Brighteyes, Hero! I scooped up Miss Chef, who seemed fine, and got her into the house before she could wriggle free.

Then I headed outside to collect her harness and leash, which I'd left lying on the ground. Now that I knew precious little Miss Chef was safe, I could no longer hold myself together. I had to grab something to keep from falling, and I just slumped there, overcome by the enormity of what could have happened, and desperately thanking God that I'd found her so quickly. (I found her within half an hour at most; it only seemed like several centuries.)

When I was able to walk again, I went inside, a little shakily, and tried to compose myself. I even tried getting a little work done. But things weren't going to be that easy. My daughter came over, and after a few minutes she noticed Miss Chef was holding her left eye half-closed and blinking it a lot. When we looked at her, we could see the eye was swollen.

I called the vet about one o'clock, and after I explained the situation, they told me I didn't need to bring her right over; they would see her at two-thirty, unless I noticed any change. Then I should bring her right over without even stopping to call. In other words, something I'd told them sounded quite urgent to them, but they were trying not to panic me.

Of course, I panicked. What else would a normal person do in my situation? I made her carrier as comfortable as I could, and got her to the vet's a bit early. It would have been earlier still, but we don't take our cats to the nearest vet. We take them to a vet's office almost a half hour drive from where we live, because they are the best vets we can find, and we trust them. Which counts for a lot, since we've had a few bad experiences with other vets.

They got an examining room ready for Miss Chef more quickly than they usually do, and by this time I was grateful I hadn't had the chance to grab any lunch. After the vet examined her, he explained she had poked her eye on something and slightly injured it. Apparently such eye injuries can become much worse if they aren't treated right away.

Because we noticed it right away, she only needs to have prescription ointment put in her eyes three times a day for a week, unless there is any sign of complications. I am very relieved to say that her eye shows every sign of healing nicely. And many of the times we've put the ointment in her eyes, her brother studies her with concern for a minute afterward, then goes over to wash her face for her. (Which, the vet said when we called, is perfectly safe for both of them.)

If you don't love cats, you have no idea what you're missing!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Lonely Memorials in the Blogosphere

I like to do a certain amount of random surfing, just to see what I will find. It may take much longer than a targeted search, but I have also found things I would never think to seek by wandering the blogosphere. There is a certain amount of struggling past spam necessary, just as many a walk in the woods requires pushing through tangles of brambles.

Yet there are so many blogs stranded in cyberspace without readers, without recent posts. Some of them are deservedly lost, vapid dithering distinguishable from spam only by the lack of commercial focus. Yet there are other lost blogs whose discovery is akin to hiking in the forest, far from any settlement, and suddenly stumbling across, in a hushed clearing, an ancient slate gravestone covered in moss.

Confronted by such a discovery you cannot help feeling, someone once lived here. There was a life worthy of notice in this place, that is now disturbed only by the wind and an occasional bird call. That is the sense I have when I read a promising blog that lasted for a few weeks, a month, perhaps a season before it was abandoned.

What became of the person whose blog this is? If they were as talented as it would appear from their posts, why has no one heard from them since? I doubt most of them are dead. True, blogging does not confer any special immunity to danger. Perhaps a few of these are true memorials, to someone who shared their thoughts with us for a brief space, then drowned, or died in a speeding car.

Surely, however, that is not the fate of all the missing bloggers. There are too many of them for death to be the only explanation. Somewhere out there, they are alive, yet they have abandoned a part of themselves far off in the blogosphere, to be noted only by a few explorers in the wilderness of little known blogs. What happens to them all?

They have something to say, a fresh point of view to share, or perhaps just a talent for stating the obvious that makes it fresh and interesting to the rest of us. Why would anyone abandon such promise? What pulls them away from something they are so good at? Do they leave because a personal crisis consumes their time, or do they just forsake their talents to throw all their energies into a career that may be dull but promises better pay than writing could ever offer?

I doubt such questions occur to most who stumble upon the few clues they leave behind, but they haunt me. The greater the potential and talent I see in the traces some vanished blogger has imprinted upon cyberspace, the more haunting such questions become. The fact that I may never know their fate, and can only guess, does nothing to ease my mind.

Then there are blogs that are still new, yet offer haunting questions of their own. Someone offers a tiny glimpse into their lives, a chance to get to know them just a bit, and it can be hard not to care what may be happening to them. A Room Full of Noises is one of those blogs that must haunt everyone who pauses to read it.

The author writes poetry that would be haunting under any circumstances. Her language and imagery is far better that found in many published poems. And yet the photos she posts to illustrate those poems, the context they appear in, make them even more haunting. Is she truly safe? I cannot imagine anyone who could write so beautifully abandoning it voluntarily. If there are no new postings to A Room Full of Noises, I shall always fear the worst.

And yet, what can any mere visitor do? We have a hint of the danger she may be in, but none of us knows enough of her life to save her. Perhaps if we knew, we would still find we did not have the means. This must be what a man feels who watches a person trapped within a burning building, knowing he cannot reach them. Will the fire department arrive in time, or will they be lost? He may be helpless, but he cares desperately about the outcome. If you believe in prayer, pray for Ischelle tonight, and for all the others lost out there in the blogosphere.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Blogged Down

When I began, I intended to add posts to this blog at least once every two days. How could such good intentions go astray so quickly? Global warming is to blame. This past Tuesday through Thursday, we suffered a heat wave more intense than anything we ordinarily experience. That heat was accompanied by humidity more oppressive than I would have thought possible.

Normally, I detest dead, stagnant air, and prefer cooling off in the breeze from a fan rather than sealing myself inside a sterile, air conditioned environment. This time, two days before we were cautioned extreme heat would be arriving, I discovered a problem with the insulation on the cord of the big fan I rely on. A swift run to Wal-Mart solved that problem, but fans really were not adequate for dealing with what we experienced.

I was unable to accomplish anything useful; my three cats sprawled in the coolest spots they could find, stretched out with their paws in the air, barely moving until late evening. Wednesday night we had a violent thunderstorm that didn't do anything to clear the air, but did knock out our power for four hours. I had bought a fairly decent battery powered fan a couple of weeks before, against just such a possibility, and I clung to that, congratulating myself on my foresight.

When the weather cooled off, the cats spent the next dawn releasing all of the pent up energy they had been unable to expend the past three days. As any reader who has ever had a cat will understand, that meant I got a lot less sleep than usual. What with heat, sleep deprivation, and a need to catch up with at least a few of the things that had piled up, I didn't have even a moment to consider posting to my new blog.

My original hope was to post insightful discussions of important matters engaging my attention. I still intend to do this, but those posts will have to be scattered among others like this, which are much easier to write. The delay has forced me to consider that there will be other times when I just will not be able to find the time to craft clever analyses of complex topics as frequently as I might wish.

I will at least attempt to offer my readers some glimpse into the life of an aspiring author who does not have nearly as much time for writing as he would like. Perhaps it will entertain some few readers, enlighten others thinking of taking up writing, and amuse those who seem able to fit a few hundred tasks into their day, and still have hours left over for relaxing in the evening.

I have also tinkered with the template for my blog, in an effort to make it more legible on most screens, and I've added links to other blogs I take the time to read when I can spare a moment. If you are one of the very few readers to notice my blog so soon, I hope you will find it worth your while to return. I do apologise for the pun in the title to this post. I know it's horrible, I just couldn't resist.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Is This the Real Story Behind the "Stolen Sidekick"?

Ever since I first stumbled across the story of the "stolen Sidekick", several points bothered me. I waited for someone else to mention them, but so far no one else seems to have considered things that seem obvious to me. This episode garnered so much public attention I am reluctant to allow the discussion to end without voicing my thoughts. This is a lengthy post; my reasoning requires some explanation. I ask only that you read every word before forming an opinion.

On some points, I agree with Evan, the man who wanted his friend's cell phone back. When I find lost property, I attempt to return it to its owner. In the interests of honesty, there were occasions as a boy when I found battered tools lying in the middle of the road, and concluded looking for the owner was pointless. But if I found a valuable item someone might actually want back, I'd try to return it. And if someone asked for their old screwdriver, I'd have given that back, too. I agree, without reservation, this is the right thing to do. The fact that the girl who had the phone wouldn't return it, however, does not necessarily make what Evan did in revenge right.

His response seems disproportionate to the crime. What was at stake? One expensive toy, a cell phone with features only the rich and spoiled could claim with a straight face are necessities (cell phones and e-mail may be necessities, but a blurry camera and all the bells and whistles on a Sidekick?) . An item worth so little to her his friend Ivanna wasn't even careful not to lose it; something she could afford to replace right away. Now, just because someone has money does not make it right to keep what should be theirs. But it does permit them to be more restrained in their efforts to get it back. What a man might understandably do to save his livelihood, is much harder to justify over something he can afford to lose.

What Evan did may have been legal, but he kept claiming it was about what is right, so I won't consider what he was legally allowed to do, but what was right for him to do. It was reasonable and right for him to make a certain effort to recover his friend's phone. But how far did he actually go? In effect, he ruined a young girl's life, and possibly her family's and her baby's as well. This may seem like a strong statement, but consider all the ramifications of what he did.

Through his efforts, her full name, her picture, her age to within roughly six months, her address, and various details of her family and her life all became public knowledge. Yes, he has removed some of those details now, but it is too late. Everyone saw them, they were cached by Google and various other services; there is no way Evan or Sasha or anyone else can say just who may have printed them out, or saved them on their own hard drives. There is no way those details will ever be private again.

As a professional genealogist, I know enough about what a person can learn given certain information that I can say with confidence, Evan has made Sasha an easy target for any identity thief or stalker who singles her out as their victim. Yes, she was foolish, and I doubt even now she understands just how vulnerable Evan has made her. What's more, he has drawn the attention of many thousands of visitors to his site, and made them aware of her; any potential stalker seeking a new obsession had more than enough opportunity to take notice.

As well as endangering her, Evan has humiliated her so thoroughly, and so publicly, this episode is likely to haunt her the rest of her life. Ten years from now, she may apply for a job and be turned down because someone remembers who she is. And he has stirred up hostile feeling towards her among thousands of strangers. More than one person drove by to harass her. It is true he asked readers not to do this, but unless he is much more stupid than he seems, he must have understood that was no guarantee everyone would listen. The only certain thing about his statement is that it protects him against charges of inciting violence.

Only time will tell just how much damage he has actually done to her, her family, and her baby. Will a stalker fixate on her, pursue her and, some day, murder her? Only time will tell. Will her humiliation overshadow her life to the point that, in a year or two, she commits suicide? Only time will tell. As she gradually realises how much he has scarred her life, will she sink into alcoholism or drug abuse in response? Only time will tell. Under the stress of these events, has she already abused her baby? Even the passage of time will probably not reveal that.

Two wrongs do not make a right. No matter how many laws are on his side, Evan had no right to exact such a heavy price for a few hundred dollars worth of techno-toy. Personally, even if Sasha is too uneducated to understand this, I don't think any amount of money would be enough to compensate her for what has been done to her. In fact, her very ignorance, which rendered her effectively defenseless against Evan's publicity onslaught, just makes the whole thing worse. The moment it became obvious she couldn't understand how much harm she was doing herself, it should also have been obvious it was time to stop kicking her around.

In other, minor, ways, Evan's account disturbed me. His comments reveal him to be a hypocrite. He rails against those who dig up personal details of his life, and criticise him for them, then he makes remarks about Sasha's ignorance, the fact she already has a baby, and other aspects of her life that have nothing to do with the cell phone this is supposedly about. In other words, he is free to criticise her personal life, but no one has the right to discuss his, or Ivanna's, personal life. Either it is only about the cell phone, or it isn't. If he can drag other aspects of Sahsa's life into the discussion, his critics have an equal right to examine his life, but he self-righteously rejects that.

I am not faulting his complaints about her racism. No matter what the situation, racism is unjustified. It is the single one of Sasha's traits that makes me least inclined to feel sympathy towards her. Yet she is clearly young and ignorant, and if we are honest, all of us have at least a few crumbs of racism inside us, even if we battle them. That is the legacy of a culture soaked in hate. It isn't enough to justify her remarks, but it is enough to suggest education, and mercy, might be a better answer than playing the role her bigotry expects of him.

What bothers me most about this incident, though, is the fact that there was actually a motive for all the publicity, one no one else seems to have considered. It is impossible to be sure if the whole thing was calculated in advance or not, but it is equally impossible to deny there was at least a motive. It is not a hidden motive, it leapt out at me as I was reading Evan's own words, posted on his own site.

Once thousands of people were reading his web page, and feeling sympathetic, Evan reveals an interesting tidbit. [Ivanna] "used that Sidekick to send email to the consulates in Russia where her only sister was trying to get a visa to come to the wedding (she has been denied twice for no reason)". He explains "I know that you can view the emails online, but that's only if you register with T-Mobile online for that. And you can only register it, when they send an email to your phone."

Evan can stir up the whole world against a young girl, but he can't arrange for T-Mobile to give his friend access without her phone? This type of thing must come up sometimes; if T-Mobile doesn't have a procedure in place to help people in Ivanna's position, why didn't he go after them publicly? It may be wrong to ruin an individual's life this way, but I don't dispute any individual's right to shame a huge corporation that treats them badly. So, if T-Mobile wouldn't work something out for Ivanna as soon as the situation was explained to them, why didn't Evan complain publicly about them?

Ignoring this possibility, Evan claims "Because of this girl's failure to return the phone, my friend's sister was DENIED a visa to come to the wedding (she was supposed to be the maid of honor)". But he already said she was denied twice for "no reason" (it would be interesting to see the embassy paperwork on that). Then he goes on to casually mention, "If you want to help my friend with getting her sister to get a visa, please call and email American embassy in Yekaterinburg, Russia".

So, all this publicity did serve another purpose besides recovering the phone. If enough people contacted the embassy, perhaps they'd change their minds, and issue a visa to a woman who had already been turned down twice. In light of those earlier denials, Evan's claim everyone's help is only needed because Sasha didn't return the phone in time seems like a diversion from the real issue. Consider that, if Evan and Ivanna had simply put up a web site asking for people to contact the embassy requesting Ivanna's sister be granted a visa, few people would have cared. It wouldn't have attracted half the notice the "saga of the stolen Sidekick" did.

Now, I don't know any of the people involved in this, and I don't have any facts beyond the information Evan put on his web site. How much of that is reliable, I can only guess by analysing what he said, and how well it holds together. So I can't be sure Evan and Ivanna got together and planned a clever ‘viral marketing' stunt to persuade thousands of people to put pressure on the embassy to let Ivanna's sister into the United States. But I do wonder. It seems awfully convenient, the way as soon as there was a large enough audience the little matter of something else they could do to help just happened to come up; finally, poor Ivanna let him explain.

When I went back to look up the exact quotes as I wrote this, I found Evan had made the original site harder to access, and included comments about it being too long for most people to take the time to read. Why? I don't know for sure, but his ‘summary' conveniently omits a few details. "Ivanna's wedding was getting closer and closer and since she had not been able to contact the embassy in time, her sister's visa was denied. I tried a last minute gamble and requested that from readers who wanted to help, to please email the embassy for us."

He doesn't mention her sister's visa was denied twice before. As long as the whole thing is Sasha's fault, he and Ivanna had no motive for planning a viral marketing campaign to secure Ivanna's sister a visa. His convenient gloss over the facts only makes me wonder more; was Sasha set up as a pawn in a game whose real goal was drumming up enough publicity to enlist hordes of people to put pressure on the American embassy to grant a visa to someone they had turned down twice before? However petty their reason for turning her down, it seems obvious if the embassy did so twice before they probably would have done so a third time in the absence of a strong reason to do otherwise.

There was clearly a motive. Was there intent as well? Only Evan and Ivanna can answer that, and of course if they planned all this they aren't likely to admit it. It originally seemed I should only name Evan, since I know so little about Ivanna. But if this was planned in advance, Ivanna had to either discard her phone where it was likely to be picked up by a suitable pawn, or hand it over to Evan so he could do that for her.

Whether or not this was a cold-blooded viral marketing scheme, I still think mercy would have been the wiser choice. Evan claimed he was doing this to teach people like Sasha to do the right thing. But I suspect what other girls like Sasha really learned is not what Evan says he wanted them to. They probably do understand, now, it isn't safe to keep something like a Sidekick in case the owner wants it back. But, after seeing the callous way one young girl's life was ruined, they might just decide to stomp on it or toss it into a river rather than give it back to someone who could prove just as heartless. Somehow, I don't think that's an improvement.