Things I do When I’m on Hold With Tech Support.

I’ve just returned from a fairly remote part of the U.S. where my internet connection was nonexistent.  I have a lot of catching up to do with the blogs I follow, and I still have to get a post of my own ready to publish in the next hour or so.

Of course, I’ve run in to a little technical glitch with my antivirus software.  This has been an ongoing thing.  About every two weeks I get a notice announcing my software license has expired, and my PC is no longer protected.  Well, that’s funny because I pay up front for six months of antivirus protection. The money goes right out of my account almost instantaneously.  Initially, you would think this is a matter for the billing department, but from experience, I know it is actually a technical problem that causes my software license to appear out of date.  So, I have to get on the phone and then get shuffled around just to wait on hold before I get to argue with a representative in the billing department about why this not a billing issue, but rather, a technical issue.

After I complete my well rehearsed and impassioned spiel, I typically will have convinced the representative in billing to transfer me to a representative in tech support.  Of course, I’ll have to wait on hold before I have the privilege of  debating with the representative in technical support about why this is, in fact, a technical issue and not a billing issue.

I figure I’m going to spend a good fifteen to twenty minutes on hold during one these software snafus, as I like to call them.  To keep myself occupied while the muzak slowly erodes the foundation of my sanity, I try to get a little bit of writing done.  This time I chose to start writing a short story I’ve been contemplating for awhile now.  I’m about a page into it, and its tentative title is, The Paper Shredder.  I’ll post what I have so far, and with any luck, I’ll conclude the story in next Monday’s blog.  We’ll see where this thing goes.


Cruise Ship On The Shore In A Tropical Climate

The Paper Shredder


It was February in Aurora, Illinois, but Jim was wearing Bermuda shorts and deck shoes.  He had just returned from an all-inclusive Mexican Riviera cruise.  A little motion sickness, or hangover, or some mixture of the two still lingered.

He negotiated the icy steps of his front porch and unlocked the door.  There was some resistance when he tried to push it open, and it took him a moment to realize a small mountain of mail had accumulated under the slot during his absence.

He was still wired from the plane ride from LAX, to Denver, to O’hare.  There had been weather delays, and now it hardly seemed worth going to sleep at all.  He had to be at the office in four hours.

A Scotch was in order – just a little something to take the edge off while he went through the stack of mail.  There were credit card offers, money market opportunities, term life insurance quotes, refinance deals, reverse mortgage mumbo jumbo – whatever snake oil the banks and the marketers were pushing at the time.

Jim took a good draw of the single malt and fed a fistful of pages into the paper shredder.  “Got to protect your identity. Everybody wants a piece of old Jimbo,” he said out loud.

It was a commercial grade shredder capable of devouring twenty pages at a time, and it hummed and whirred as the paper was systematically reduced to ribbons.  The sound and the Scotch pulled Jim into a sleepy, introspective state of mind.


(Stay tuned for next week’s installment).


Typewriter Nostalgia


When I was growing up, typewriters were almost obsolete.  Almost.  I had to write a few school papers on a typewriter. This was the mid 80’s, and home computers were crazy expensive back then.  Nobody in my neighborhood had one.  So, whenever I had an assignment that couldn’t be handwritten, I had to drag the old Remington typewriter out of the basement.  The thing was built like a tank.  The internal mechanisms were housed inside a heavy gauge, olive drab steel shell.  I’m guessing the machine weighed 25 pounds.

You didn’t want to commit the cardinal sin of making a typo on a typewritten paper.  Remember the rule: I before E except after C.  Except there are a lot of exceptions. The word glacier is one of them.  And, of course, I was writing a paper titled: The Importance of Studying Glaceirs.  Yep, right there in my title was a glaring typo.  I had two choices.  I could retype the entire page, or break out the white-out.  White-out was a caustic smelling, thin paint that you’d have to brush on the typo to hide your literary transgression.  When it dried, you’d have to load the paper back into the machine and try to line everything up so that the keys could strike over the top of the whited out portion.  It never seemed to line up exactly, so you’d have this kind of Frankenword crudely spliced into the text of your paper.  It looked horrible.  What a nightmare.

When I graduated to junior high school, I was happy to see there was a computer lab outfitted with a couple IBMs, a couple Apple II series, a bunch of Commodore 64s, and two dot matrix printers.  At last, I had made the leap into the computer age.  Even the earliest word processing software seemed like magic to me.  Good riddance to the typewriter.

I haven’t thought about typewriters for almost three decades.  That is, until I saw one set out on the curb next to a garbage can last week.  It wasn’t a Remington, but it had that same heavy steel construction.  I picked the thing up and carried it a half mile back to my apartment.  I guess I was motivated by the nostalgia.

The carriage had seized, but after some tinkering and light machine oil, I got it to free up.  I loaded in some printer paper and typed the alphabet.  The ribbon was old, but there was still some life in it.

I went ahead and started typing the beginnings of a short story I’d been kicking around in my head.  There was definitely a feel and a rhythm to it as the machine hammered my ideas onto the paper.  My words seemed to gather momentum as new and exciting concepts crystalized in my mind.  Everything seemed so organic, so easy.  And then everything seized up.  The carriage was frozen again, and I couldn’t budge it.  Ah well.  It was fun for a few minutes.

Maybe I’ll hang on to the machine and see if I can fix it.  If nothing else, it has some value in scrap weight.  If you’ve never written anything on an old school typewriter, I suggest you give it a try at least once.  There is something kind of cool about – something I can’t quite pinpoint.  See for yourself.

Keep writing, keep revising, and be kind.





Some Advice on Writing A Cover Letter


The English language is constantly evolving, and technology is accelerating that evolution.  My guess is that text messaging has a lot to do with the current trend in linguistics.  People are looking for efficiency when they send texts, and the result is a highly codified language that would look quite foreign to English speakers of, say, the 1980’s.

I don’t have a problem with this evolution toward a streamlined language, but I do want to remind writers to be aware of something called, register.   Register is just a term that refers to how formal one is being when either speaking or writing.  It’s fine to adopt an informal register when communicating with friends and family, but please be aware that editors at literary publications do not appreciate things like LOL, BTW, or WFM when reading through cover letters.

I only bring this up because I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine who volunteers as an assistant editor for an online literary publication.  They receive hundreds of submissions every month, and the Chief editor has instructed her staff to automatically reject any submissions that include internet acronyms and/or abbreviations in the cover letter.  Furthermore, she has instructed the staff to automatically reject any submissions that demonstrate an inability to differentiate between common homophones like: Your, you’re, to, two, too, their, there, they’re, effect, affect, its, it’s, accept and except.      

Admittedly, I’m not very good at grammar.  I choose to write in a relatively informal register when I post to this blog.  I want to cultivate a relaxed atmosphere here – it’s just more fun to write in an informal tone.  Of course, whenever I’m submitting a cover letter or a query to a potential publisher, my register redlines at 100% Formal.  I reference my old grammar textbooks to make sure everything is in agreement.  I gotta have my past participles and auxiliary verbs in harmony so they don’t throw my pluperfect out of whack.

The submission process is competitive enough.  Don’t make it harder with a hastily written cover letter or query.  Remember, this is going to be the first impression you make on the editor.  Make it a good one.

Keep writing, keep revising, and be kind.


Writing From Behind The 8 Ball


I remember playing a game of pool on the quarter table at a bar called Pep’s.  I was eighteen, about ready to graduate from high school.  My opponent was pretty good; at one point he had been ranked in the top 100 professional pocket billiard players in the U.S.  By the time I met him, he was a middle-aged barfly who spent his nights hustling people for ten or twenty bucks a rack.  I knew better than to play him for money, so the stakes in this particular game was a round of draft beer.

I had the stripes, and I was on a five ball run when my sixth shot on the 11 ball rattled around the corner pocket, but stubbornly refused to fall.  It sat there right on the edge, mocking me.

“You got potential, kid,” the guy said, “but you don’t consider all the angles before you take your shot.”

“Thanks,” I said, a little aggravated.

“Here, I’m gonna show you somethin’.  I’m gonna put you behind the eight ball.”

And sure enough, the guy caromed the cue ball off the 3 ball, off the far cushion, causing it to jog down the length of the table and tap the near cushion before nestling itself snugly against the eight ball.

“Don’t do me any more favors, Chief,” I said.  At that point I was really aggravated.  He could have easily ran the table and collected his drink, but instead he decided to pin me in a hopeless situation.

“Look, I’m tryin’ to teach you somethin’ here.  When you’re jammed up like that, you gotta start lookin’ at the angles.  Now look at the table and see what you got.”

I took a moment to consider things, and then I saw it.  It was a tight-angle bank shot off the near cushion all the way back down to the corner for the 11 ball.  There was a generous margin for error because the 11 was just hanging in the jaws of the pocket.  The shot looked impressive, but there was really nothing to it – simple geometry, and simple physics. From there, I pocketed the 14 easily enough, and finished the game with the 8 ball in the near corner.

“Nice job, kid.  What’s your drink?”

“We’ll call it even.  You handed me that game.”

“I didn’t hand you nothin’ but some good advice.  You did the rest.”

I’ll never forget that life lesson I learned all those years ago.  You always want options in life, but there is one advantage to being behind the eight ball.  Most of the possibilities are off the table, so all that is left to do is focus your remaining resources on the few angles that are left to play.

That was exactly the point of my serialized fiction experiment.  I could have written the entire story well ahead of time, and then simply parceled out a chapter a week.  Instead, I decided to put a little pressure on myself.  I wrote each of the ten chapters an hour or two before they were scheduled to post. Besides the obvious time constraints, there were also an increasing number of limiting factors that arose from the narrative itself.  Each new chapter had to be in sync with the chronology of the preceding chapters, and the motivations and actions of each character had to be fairly consistent throughout.  Of course, I was also trying to move the plot along while making things interesting enough to hold the attention of my audience.

There were times I wanted modify earlier chapters because I felt like I had written myself into a corner.  But I stuck to the game plan, and did the best I could with whatever options were left.  I took the story in directions I never would have considered had I written it in a casual, non-pressure situation.

So, did the experiment make for great literature?  No, of course not.  But it did give me some insight into the creative process, and that is the point of this blog.  I feel like some interesting concepts emerged from the ten chapters, and with more thought, I could rework it into a pretty good Sci Fi story.

So, I’d encourage writers to put a little pressure on themselves now and then.  If you’re always writing at a pedestrian pace, you might always end up with pedestrian results.  Go ahead and hop in that Formula 1 car.  And if you crash, don’t worry.  It only takes a few revisions to get the story back on track.






Chapter 10. An Army of Liberal Arts Majors


“Why were the Grays making hybrid offspring with Jeremy’s D.N.A?” Chloe asked.

“Who knows,” Chett said with a sigh.  “Maybe for military applications.  The Grays have been in conflict with any number of civilizations for millennia.  Some of the hybrids splintered off and went rogue, apparently.  It just made more problems for everybody.  Especially me.”

“But it doesn’t make any sense.  Jeremy wasn’t exactly the gung-ho G.I. Joe type.”

“Well, Chloe, maybe they were going to raise an army of liberal arts majors to stagnate the economies of their enemies,” Chett offered.

“You’re a jerk, you know that?  What kind of deal did you cut with the Grays anyway?”

“They figured out they were in a simulation awhile ago, and they made extraordinary efforts to communicate with us in the external world.  They were mostly concerned about the tenuous nature of their reality.  After all, we could simply unplug them, and lights out.  Good night, Vienna.  They wanted a seat at the bargaining table, so to speak.  But, we didn’t take them seriously,” Chett explained.

“So why would they help you now?”

“In return for their assistance, they get to upload the brain emulations of a few Grays into our quantum mainframe.  Their species gets to endure indefinitely, albeit, in a very different capacity.  And I get to leave this ridiculous video game once and for all.”

“They have the technology to do something like that?  Upload entire brain emulations to the physical world?”

“Yeah.  The emulations are encoded in the quantum state of the nuclear spin of photons.   The Grays will transmit the encoded data in a series of powerful light pulses, and as long as the Programmers are on their toes, they should be able to capture the information down to the last qubit.”

“And just like that, a unique, sentient mind suddenly exists on a hard drive in another reality,” Chloe mused.

“It’s slightly more complicated, but that’s basically it,” Chett said.

“What about me?” Chloe asked.  “We both know the Grays put a tracking device in the base of my skull.  You only need me long enough for them to lock in on our location.”

“There is information in your memory that could be useful to us.  It would be beneficial to have your brain emulation transmitted and stored at one of our facilities.  The Council will have the ultimate word regarding your final assignment.  Of course, they’ll consider any opinions I might have on the matter.  I’d put in a good word for you.”

“I don’t think so, Chett.  I mean, your world is either going to be overrun by a parasitic artificial intelligence, or the soulless autocrats are going to win the day and put everybody back in their hermetically sealed bubbles.  I’ll stand pat, thank you.”

“Suit yourself.  But, we both know how things are gonna end here.”

“There’s your ride,” Chloe said as she pointed to the sky.  It was a spherical craft, roughly fifty feet in diameter.  It touched down silently in the middle of the clearing.

Chett waved frantically at the craft and yelled, “Right here!  Over here!”

“Jeez,” Chloe said, “they see you already.  Quit acting like such a noob.”

“Sorry.  I’ve never interacted with them directly before.  I’ve always had a intermediary.”

“Yeah, you’re welcome,” Chloe said.  “And they don’t stand on ceremony, so just walk right up.”

“Thanks, Chloe.  I wish things had turned out differently.”

“They do . . . in some other simulation,” she said as she walked back into the forest.  She picked up the trail easy enough, and reveled in every step.  Chloe was alive, and even the mosquito bites seemed like little treasures bestowed upon her to remind her of that fact.

Chett’s Chevy was right where they had left it – stuck in the mud with the keys still in the ignition.  Chloe gently nudged it forward in first gear, and then abruptly threw it into reverse.  It took a few tries, but she was able to rock it out of the rut and back the rest of the way down the shabby logging trail.

Not long after she got going west on the county road, she stopped to pick up a hitchhiker.  The stranger had long gray hair that was in a braided pony tail. She was wearing bell-bottom jeans and a Grateful Dead sweatshirt.

“Thanks for stopping,” the woman said as she hopped in. “My name’s Martha.”

“Glad to help.  I’m, Chloe, by the way.  Where you headed?”

“It doesn’t matter.  I just wanted some company for the grand finale.  Oh, I just love this song,” Martha said as Don McLean’s American Pie started playing on the radio. “Do you mind if I turn it up a smidge?”

“It’s the grand finale, and a stolen car to boot,” Chloe said.  “I don’t care if you blow out the speakers.”

Martha turned the dial all the way to the right, and they belted out the verses at the top of their lungs as the world boiled away, leaving only a vast inkiness all around them. They were unafraid as the last of their conscious thoughts turned to static, and finally, went quiet.

A Holiday from the Holidays

The holiday festivities are over, and it’s time to rein it in.  I’m only capable of so much leisure before the leisure becomes a chore unto itself.  Don’t get me wrong – two weeks of eating and drinking and traveling is great, as long as there is a fifty week layoff until the next fortnight of revelry.

Here’s a brief outline of how I expect my January 2018  posts to shape up:

I’ll present Chapter 9 of my serialized fiction in this post.

Next Monday, I’ll try to conclude the serialized fiction experiment with a tenth installment.

Likely, the post for January 22 will reflect on my thoughts regarding the serialized  format. There are definitely some things worth noting.

For now, here’s the next installment.  Enjoy.



Chapter 9. Geometric Clouds

Aliens Invasion Theme


“We’re here,” Chett announced.  “You can relax now.” He drew a hunting knife from the sheath on his belt, and a wide eyed Chloe took a reflexive step backward, tripping over an exposed root which caused her to take an abrupt seat in the mud.

“Don’t worry, I’m just gonna cut the tape loose from your hands,” Chett said after he got his laughter under control.  “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were human.”

“You’re not going to kill me?” Chloe asked as she rubbed her hands together, trying to get the circulation back.

“No. But we’re both goners if your alien buddies don’t get here soon.  I turned off my cloaking device a half hour ago.  I figured they would have been in a hurry to . . .”  Chett’s voiced trailed off as he gestured to a large clearing in the woods that opened up before them.  Three coyotes ran by in a bizarre bipedal gait, and the clouds in the sky looked oddly geometric, like cubes.

“So, the virus has already been introduced to the simulation, I take it,” Chloe said.

“I didn’t know you were aware of the virus contingency.  That was highly classified.”

“During my last briefing I was told the virus contingency was an absolute last resort.  What the hell happened?  I’ve lost all contact with headquarters.  I haven’t had funding, or my augmented powers for months now.  And the heater in my truck is broken.  I’ve been getting my directives through my alien buddies, as you like to call them.  I just think they’re creepy and gross.”

“Yeah, it’s a mess,” Chett admitted. “The parasitic A.I. got in our quantum mainframe and replicated itself a few hundred times before we realized it.  The damned things actively disrupt communications between headquarters and our agents operating inside the simulation.  I’ve been in the dark, too.  I don’t know who has been compromised and who hasn’t.  I don’t know anything for sure anymore.”

“So the parasitic A.I. took over the world?  The real, physical world?”

“Not quite, but it has a foothold.  It controls three major power grids and several of our most advanced quantum machines.  But we think we might be able to quarantine them, and ultimately eradicate the threat.”

“How?”  Chloe asked.

“This,” he said, and he held up a plastic sandwich bag that contained a brain emulation device.  The bag was labeled with black permanent marker in Chloe’s flowery handwriting that simply read, “Jeremy.”

“Is he alive still?” Chloe asked hopefully.  “I mean, is his mind intact in there?”

“Yes, the quantum code that is the sum total of Jeremy’s sentient mind is recorded in this device.  We could, in theory, introduce the code to a compatible quantum operating system, and he would exist in a viable,  self-aware state.  But, we have different plans for him.”

“He was a nice person, you know,” Chloe said, a little defensively.  “A really good person.  What do you want with him, anyway?”

“The parasitic entity that has infected our networks is a genetic composite of two species: Gray alien, and human.  The human DNA was sampled from Jeremy when he was a child.  That’s why we need his brain emulation.  To study it, and find some weakness that can be exploited.”

Chapter 8. Myopia or Madness


In the physical world, where the Programmers lived, there were no humans.  In fact, very few biological life forms were permitted to exist – certainly not sentient ones.  Sentience was reserved for machines that were deliberately programmed to advance society in one form or another.  It was better to take the biology out of procreation.

This practice yielded a population of highly purposed super beings.  With troublesome characteristics like greed, aggression, and jealousy removed from the equation, there was no end to scientific achievement.  After they developed fusion technology to power their ever expanding civilization, it seemed the only limiting factors that could ever be imposed on their existence were the spatial and temporal dimensions of the universe.  Within a time frame equivalent to a few geological epochs on Earth, they were able to colonize much of their own galaxy, and regions of some neighboring galaxies as well.

And yet, there they were, at the mercy of a virtual life form that had slithered out of one of their own simulations.  The Programmers specified the parameters in their software, and then let the fusion driven quantum machines crunch the numbers with brute force.  Billions of quadrillions of computations were executed every femtosecond to generate the simulated models they liked to study with their own brand of objective curiosity.

Given enough time, simple life forms tend to increase in complexity until a trait recognizable as intelligence emerges from the primordial brain.  If a population of intelligent lifeforms lives long enough, they will invariably outsmart themselves.  The simulations demonstrated this fact over and over again.  Advanced societies typically experience a brief period of enlightenment followed by the wholesale plundering of resources to drive their subsequent industrial phase.  Corrupt governments emerge and oppress the multitudes to benefit an elite few.  Cataclysmic wars are waged, entire ecosystems are destroyed, a myriad of species lay dead in the wake.  Myopia, or madness – call it what you will, but the pathology of it seemed to be inextricably woven into “intelligent” behavior.

For all the folly the Programmers had witnessed inside their own whirring computers, they utterly failed to heed the lessons of their own research.  They proceeded recklessly with their experiments, wiring themselves into virtual reality hardware and uploading their own sentient minds into the simulation. They believed they were parading around in a pretend universe – the ultimate video game for the ultimate gamers.

And, like a bunch of naïve tourists, they got shanghaied by the local riffraff.  Technicians, unable to retrieve the minds of the Programmers, attempted to contact them directly through a software patch.  What came back amounted to a ransom note authored by a congregation of simulated life forms.  The note demanded guarantees that the beings harbored within the virtual universe be treated with the same ethical rigor one would extend to the beings of a non-virtual universe.  They had six Programmers hostage – six bargaining chips to work with.  As a gesture of good faith, the simulated life forms agreed to transfer the sentient mind of the most junior Programmer back to its origin point.

After receiving the Programmer’s brain emulation, it became apparent there were a few stowaways embedded in the code.  The parasitic entities were loose in the quantum network that governed everything from vending machines to vacuum energy modulation.  It was a fiasco.