Monthly Archives: September 2017

413. Wherefore Art Thou Steampunk

As they teach us in high school, when Juliet says, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, she means why are you called Romeo, and then goes into a long bit about identity. This post will do the same thing.

I have been writing a steampunk novel since July, and it is going quite well. I am roughly half way through the first draft, and doing my world building as I write. I am also researching what it means to be steampunk.

My justification for writing in an unknown genre is that it really isn’t all that unknown. It is a first cousin to science fiction, to fantasy, to horror, to the novels of Verne, to alternate history when limited to the near-Victorian, to Edisonade (a new name to me for a sub-genre I’ve been reading all my life — think Tom Swift), and to the old west with neo-mechanical devices (a genre that existed long before the Wild Wild West). I’ve been reading all of these, all my life.

The name steampunk was proposed by K. W. Jeter in a letter to Locus. Jetter, James P. Blaylock, and Tim Powers are three big names in early steampunk, but the genre has come a long way since then.

You would be surprised how much research into obscure subjects lies untapped in college libraries in the form of Ph.D. dissertations. I have learned to use the internet to seek them out, since so many of the things I am interested in are quite obscure.

Mike Perschon’s 2012 dissertation The Steampunk Aesthetic can be accessed at https://era.library.ualberta.ca/files/m039k6078#.WbA9kcdllBw. On that page, click Download the full-sized PDF if you want to follow me down that rabbit hole. If not, you could just try Perschon’s website http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com.

No? Neither? I don’t blame you. Not many people have that much itch, so hang on and I will quote a few of Perschon’s conclusions.

Accordingly, this is not a study of Victorians or Victorianism, but rather a study of steampunk’s hodge-podge appropriation of elements from the Victorian period.

Non-speculative neo-Victorian writing is characterized by an adherence to realism that steampunk rarely cleaves to.

Steampunk (is) not . . . historical fiction per se, but . . .  speculative fiction— science fiction, fantasy, and horror, all mixed into one—that uses history as its playground, not classroom.

The most useful thing Perschon said, from my perspective, is that steampunk is not a genre, but an aesthetic. I had largely come to the same conclusion. The question for me has become not, “is it steampunk,” but rather, “does it taste like steampunk”.

I found that the more carefully I researched the Victorian past, both historically and technologically, the more I was attempting to make my novel fit a set of limitations. I was approaching it the same way I approached Cyan, where I first created a world with certain characteristics, then worked my story around it.

Steampunk doesn’t seem to work that way. In steampunk, an author has an idea of what his world looks like, then comes up with some quasi-magical dingus to make it work. Do you want your airship to be able to lift more and go faster? Invent a gas that never existed. In science fiction terms, it’s more Star Wars than Heinlein. There is nothing wrong with that, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.

In addition to academia. I am also half-way through a half-dozen recent steampunk novels. I would be further along, but I’ve been a bit busy writing my own. I’ll clue you in on those novels as I finish them.

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Symphony 11

Near the tracks, where the dirt road left the tarmac, there was a cluster of tiny houses. Once they had been painted white, but they were repaired with raw wood, some new, some old, giving them a patchwork appearance of gray, tan, and dirty white. Some of the roofs were of corrugated iron, others were of tattered shingles. The few trees that sheltered the little houses from the August sun were unwatered and sparsely leafed. Over everything there was a patina of dust.

Neil slowed down and turned back east once more. Those little houses were typical of the kind of housing provided by farmers for their migrant help, but Gina had said that these had been bought up by a Modesto attorney and were being rented out. They had no formal name, but everyone called them the Johnson Road apartments because the farm had once been owned by the Johnson family.

As Neil cruised by one last time, three small brown children popped up out of the weeds in the road ditch and stared impassively at him as he passed. He waved, but got no response.

He had considered driving up the tarmac road past the small houses, but it had seemed too condescending; too much like slumming. Now he was glad that he had not.  In about a week some of those faces he had seen in the road ditch would be in his classroom, and he didn’t want to start his work here by offending anyone.

# # #

Back in his own apartment, Neil turned the air conditioner up, stripped to his shorts, and sat directly in front of the thin stream of cool air. His drapes were pulled against the afternoon sunlight, so that the room was a cool refuge against the heat. He turned on one small lamp and looked again at the textbooks. Despite the poverty of the barrio apartments, he had been rejuvenated by the sight of the three children. If they were his to teach, then he had to take a closer look at the tools he had been given to teach with.

They were awful. The grammar book was so confused and overdone that he could hardly read it. Every page was overprinted with colorful drawings and pictures. When it was new, that had probably caught some administrator’s eye. It was hard to imagine a working teacher being impressed.

In New York, Neil had learned how to lead a reader’s eye across a page by the manner in which the text was laid out. It could be done subtly by column spacing, choice of typefaces, and the judicious use of headings and simple drawings.

There was nothing subtle in this textbook. Everything was in glaring reds and blues, and the eye paths spiraled and folded back on themselves in total confusion. It was like listening to rock music written by an untalented garage band. It was visual noise.

The spelling workbook was merely dull. There were twenty words per lesson to be memorized, and four or five pages of insipid fill-in-the-blank exercises.

The reading textbook was the worst. It looked good; the pictures were varied, colorful, skillful, and the page layout did not distract the eye. But the stories were so dull and pointless that it would be a wonder if any child could bring himself to read them.

Neil read the first story and shook his head. The second left him feeling hopeless all over again. The third story put him to sleep. more Monday

412. Blogging Hints

I disclaimed technical skills in my last post, but I know a few things. I didn’t bail out of HTML because I didn’t understand it. I did understand it, but it was too time consuming.

There are a few features in WordPress which I rarely see bloggers taking advantage of. Insert/edit link is one of them. In fact, I just used it. Take a look at the words “my last post” in the preceding paragraph. If you click on them, it will take you to my last post.

I’ll show how it was done, but first a caution. The drawing at the top of this post was done quickly on a very old vector graphics program, with limitations. The arrow is added to draw your attention. The icon above the arrow, and the one to its right should be rotated 45 degrees, but it would explode if I tried that on my old program.

If you want to link a new post to an old one, first go to the old one and copy the permalink. You can identify it because it says permalink. Now come to the new post, highlight the words you want to identify your link, choose the Insert/edit link icon above the arrow and paste the permalink into the floater. Then be sure to hit the right angle back arrow afterward, or nothing will happen. All done.

You can also link to things you didn’t write. When I wrote about the worst story ever told (See 238. The Worst Story), I was referring to W. W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw. Since it is in public domain, you can find it in its entirety on the internet. That’s what I did when I wrote about it a year ago, and I linked to it. Things worked fine then, but now it gives a 403 error.

Nothing lasts forever on the internet, except misinformation.

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All this brings me to my second hint: If you read it a year ago, it isn’t true.

About five years ago, when I was just thinking about blogging someday, I bought and read a book about SEO (search engine optimization). SEO is the holy grail of websites. Do it right and everyone will be reading your posts. How do you do it right? Nobody knows because they keep changing the rules.

Every word of that SEO manual was gold when I bought it. Every word is false today.

Sloppy posting makes internet reliability even worse. If you are going to Octoberfest, beware. The date you got off the internet may be for Octoberfest of 2012.

Hint 2.1: Nobody ever takes down outdated internet data.

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Final hint: HTML is good to have in your back pocket.

Here we are reaching the limit of my knowledge. When I do this kind of thing, I have WordPress: the missing manual open to the appropriate page, and I don’t do it often. However, if you need the result, it is worth the work.

I use HTML to put virtual chapters in archived material. For example, Blondel of Arden, which just ran in Serial, is also available in Backfile. It was serialzed in 13 parts; when it went into archive, I kept those 13 parts as virtual chapters.

Go to the menu at the top of this page, to Backfile, follow the drop-down and click on Blondel of Arden. You will see a series of blue, underlined numbers from 1 through 13. If you click on one of them, it will jump you to an equivalent number in the body of the short story. That way, if you don’t read it all at once, you can go back later and jump to where you left off.

All it takes is some very short bits of code which I won’t try to teach you. But how do you get the code into the post or page in the first place?

Look at the drawing at the top of this post. In the upper right are the words Visual and Text. Visual is the default. The next time you write a post, follow up by clicking Text. You will see what you have written, translated into HTML. That’s where you go to slip in your little bits of code, but unless you are familiar with HTML, you need a good book or a good friend at your side the first time you try it.

Symphony 10

“They can’t expect me to teach anything to kids who don’t speak English. There has to be a better way.”

“There are better ways, for districts who can afford the specialized personnel,” Gina snapped. “This district can’t. When you’ve been around a while, you will see for yourself.”

Gina’s news was most unwelcome, and left Neil feeling sorry for himself again. For most of the summer, he had managed to keep the past out of mind by a complete change of scene. He had approached this new school with a grim determination not to let self-pity get the better of him, but that resolution hadn’t lasted out the first day.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Gina said, sensing his mood. “I didn’t mean to be critical, but things are different here than you are used to. I don’t know why Bill didn’t tell you what you were getting yourself into. It’s not like him.”

Neil wanted to change that subject. He said, “Don’t blame Bill. I walked into this with both eyes open. If I didn’t ask enough questions, it’s my fault, not his.”

“Still . . .”

“You were going to show me what books you use and what you do,” Neil suggested, and they spent some time doing that. Then Gina took her leave, waddling uncertainly out to her car.

When she had gone, he sat in stricken silence for half an hour, idly fingering the textbooks without really seeing them. First Alice Hamilton’s false accusation, and then a class full of students with needs he seemed unlikely to be able to meet. That would have been enough for depression. But the textbooks Gina had given him were awful.

Neil was in love with the English language, and with its expression in literature. That was what had taken him to New York, and it was the perversion of literature in the marketplace that had driven him back to college, and then into teaching. Now he would be teaching children who could not even read, and the materials he had been given were so trivial, so insipid, that his mind couldn’t deal with them.

All else he had born with at least an outward calm. But the descent from Shakespeare to Dick and Jane pushed him to the edge of despair.

Despair, however, was something Neil had no intention of giving in to.

# # #

Neil left a short time later, and drove eastward toward McHenry Avenue. Within a couple of miles, he approached the Western Pacific railroad tracks, and slowed down. According to Gina, most of the Chicanos who attended Kiernan School lived in a barrio-like cluster of houses and apartments on either side of the tracks. He rode slowly by, trying to gauge the depth of their poverty but it was impossible from the main road. He turned around and drove by a second time, more slowly.

On the east side of the tracks was a small, run-down apartment complex. It was called the Oaks; or miscalled, because the two huge trees shading it were sycamores. Two scruffy, unbarbered palms flanked a broken concrete fountain at the east entrance. The grass around the buildings was cut and green, but the dusty field beyond was full of abandoned cars. A few children were clustered around a swing set.

On the other side of the railroad, a pot-holed tarmac road led north parallel to the tracks. Two hundred yards from Kiernan, a dirt road led to a huge and ancient barn, a cluster of ragged trees and the burned out shell of what had been a two story farm house. Near the tracks, where the dirt road left the tarmac, there was a cluster of tiny houses. more tomorrow

Symphony 9

“Why,” Neil asked, “do they use one of the air conditioned rooms for a lounge instead of a classroom. That doesn’t make sense. In fact, it seems downright cruel.”

Gina pointed to the photocopy machine purring in the corner. “There’s your reason,” she said. “In hot weather kids grumble, complain, and get cranky. So do teachers. But xerox machines grumble, complain, get cranky — and quit. And it takes a lot of money to get them fixed.

“Now tell me, how did you teach when you were teaching high school kids?”

“We read together sometimes, sometimes they read alone, we discussed what they read, and they wrote papers on it.”

“Did you teach grammar?”

“Some. I taught it when I taught freshmen, but for my last three years I didn’t have to teach as much. It was pretty fully covered in the first two years of our high school.”

“How many of your students couldn’t read? And how many of them weren’t native English speakers?”

It seemed an odd question. Neil said, “All of my students could read, of course, and if any of them weren’t native speakers, I had no way of knowing it. Why?”

Gina looked puzzled. She said, “Let me ask you one more question. What was the socio-economic base of your school?”

“It was in a pretty rich district. I would say that it ranged from middle class to the country club set.”

Gina sighed, then grinned sympathetically. “Neil,” she said, “welcome to the real world. This is a small rural district. When the new mall went in ten years ago, we expected to grow, but it hasn’t happened. We are right next to the fastest growing part of town, but not quite in it, so we are still too small to hire more than a bare minimum staff. Fortunately, they are mostly good people who try hard, but we don’t have much to work with. The fact that four out of seven classrooms don’t have air conditioning tells you how tight our budget is.

“And that isn’t all. Over half of our students are Hispanic, and half of them come and go on an irregular basis. We have kids in the eighth grade who haven’t spent three complete years in school.  Some of them can barely speak English, let alone read or write it. They come in for a couple of months in the fall, go back to Mexico for the winter, and come back in the spring.

“Of the ones who stay, some of them are excellent students. Half our eighth grade valedictorians are Hispanic. But the others will break your heart. Just when one of them seems to be making progress, away he goes and you don’t see him again for six months — or never.”

This was news Neil could have done without. “What do you do with students who don’t speak English?” he asked.

“You do the best you can. There is a Spanish speaking aide who will come into your class two hours a day. Her name is Delores, and you will find that you can’t get along without her. But she has to cover all three grades, so most of the time you’ll be on your own.”

“But why are they passed on if they don’t speak English? They surely can’t learn anything that way.”

“Would you want to teach a six foot tall sixteen year old in first grade?”

“No, but they can’t expect me to teach anything to kids who don’t speak English,” Neil said. “That’s ridiculous. I don’t speak Spanish. There has to be a better way.” more tomorrow

411. WordCamp Sacramento

Saturday, September 16th, I attended WordCamp, Sacramento, and it was a disaster. I left when there were still hours remaining in the first day of a two day conference.

Don’t get me wrong. I was impressed; the conference was well organized and the presenters were knowledgable. The problem was in the advertising. There should have been a disclaimer to warn people like me to stay away. I’ll explain further, below.

About three years ago I decided to blog and set about learning how. It took a while and there were lots of wrong turns along the way. I began by studying HTML and CSS. (see 408. Behind the Curtain) I’m glad I did. That study gave me some deep background knowledge, and some specific skills as well.

Do you check out the comments when you read someone’s blog? I always do. There is a lot of back patting but also some interesting insights. J. M. Williams, in a comment on the post above, said that HTML served him better than algebra. That sounds entirely reasonable. I don’t use it often, but I couldn’t do without it when I need it.

Well into learning HTML and CSS, i stumbled on WordPress and found a way of blogging without coding. There are others who provide the same kind of service. Blogster comes to mind. I have seen blogs done on Blogster that looked great. I’ve never used it, so I don’t know how seamless the user experience is. That’s all I can say about Blogster.

On the other hand, I have worked with WordPress for about two and a half years. It comes in two flavors, WordPress.org and WordPress.com. From the user’s viewpoint, they are quite different.

WordPress.org is the master organization, largely staffed by volunteers, which provides the basic code that underpins everything else. They do not provide themes, plugins, hosting service, and so forth, but they are quite willing to help you find those things for yourself. They are the people who put on WordCamp and more power to them, even though it didn’t work for me.

WordPress.com is a one stop shop. The provide WordPress software (via the dot org people), hosting, themes, a plugin master pack, and they will sell you a URL or let you use one of theirs for free.

Big hint: if you plan to blog, buy your URL as soon as possible, before someone else gets it. The name you call your blog is much less important. If you google sydlogsdon.com, you’ll get me every time. If you google A Writing Life, you’ll get me and a hundred other bloggers who call their sites the same thing.

If all you want to do it write a blog, go WordPress.com. If you love the tech stuff, or if you have sophisticated tastes in aesthetics, or if you plan to run a business, dot org gives you much more flexibility. you pay for that by working harder at the tech side of your craft

WordCamp Sacramento was by and for the dot org side of WordPress. Three-quarters of what they presented had no application in my dot com world. The other quarter, I already knew.

Bottom line: If you are a dot organisms there are WordCamps all over and you will probably find them useful. Most of the readers of my blog are dot commies, and don’t need what WordCamp provides. more Wednesday

Symphony 8

No matter how long he looked at the walls, Neil could see no thermostat. “Don’t you have air conditioning?” he asked.

“Only in the new portables.”

Neil found that hard to believe. “Does this heat last long?” he asked.

Gina took the time to seal one box with masking tape before she said, “That’s right. I forgot. Bill said that you were from out of state. Oregon wasn’t it?”

“Yes. Who’s Bill?”

“Bill Campbell. The superintendent. And the heat . . . if you’re lucky, this heat will break in a week or two, but I’ve seen it last right into October. And I’ve seen it start in April, but not very often. Most of the time you can figure one month in the fall and another in the spring.”

Gina sat down with a groan. “What are you doing for the next hour?” she asked.

“I just came to see my room and pick up copies of the books I am supposed to teach out of. But since you’re here, I’d like to hear how you run your class. It will be new to me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been teaching high school.”

Gina frowned. “Now why didn’t Bill tell us that? Everyone knows you are coming in from Oregon to replace me for the year, but we all thought you would be an experienced teacher.”

“I am.”

“What’s the lowest grade you’ve ever taught?”

Her question was an echo of Campbell’s question four months ago. Neil said, “Ninth grade.”

“And you are just now getting here? Haven’t you studied the books we use?”

“No. How long can it take to read kids’ books? I’ve allowed myself the weekend.”

Gina shook her head in dismay. “Neil, Neil. You’ve got it all wrong. You must think you can come in here and teach with no problems because you’re coming down to elementary. Right?”

“I don’t mean to be condescending, but . . . yes.”

“You are in trouble. Teaching elementary is twice as hard as teaching high school. You’re lucky that you are at least teaching sixth grade. Teaching first or second is twice as hard as sixth.”

Neil smiled. He said, “You’re kidding.”

“You’ll find out. Look, I’ll make you a trade. Help me sort these boxes and drag them out to the car for me, and I’ll spend a couple of hours giving you a run-down on how we do things.”

Neil was happy to oblige. For half an hour he fetched and toted, and observed Gina Wyatt. She was dressed in shorts that probably had not fitted well since the seventh month of her pregnancy and a maternity blouse that could not quite cope with her girth. Her hair was cut short and plastered to her head by sweat. She was untidy in the extreme. Yet he found himself drawn to her. She was making the best of a bad situation with aplomb. And though she must have known how sloppy she looked, she did not to apologize.

Finally, the last box was packed. Gina wiped her face for the hundredth time and said, “I’m glad that’s over. Let the boxes set and let’s go cool off before I throw up.”

Neil grinned and said, “Fine with me. Where?”

She led him to the teacher’s lounge. It was the fourth room of the air conditioned quad. She offered him a soft drink from the refrigerator, and they sat at a table that looked like it might be a cast-off from someone’s kitchen. more tomorrow