A Tale of Two Pizzarias

Today I ate chicken and artichoke flat bread for lunch. I typically avoid pizza and similar foods since I am working toward a long term goal of weighing two hundred pounds or less. But there wasn’t much on the menu that looked good so I decided to give it a try. It was delicious and the portion was adequate but appropriate for my diet. It was delicious. It reminded me of the pizza at Gabatoni’s in Springfield, IL.

Gabatoni’s was a legendary spot from my childhood. I think I was six when we moved away so I must have been pretty young most of the times that we ate there. But I remember the flavor of the pizza sauce they put on their pizzas. It was secret blend of spices known only to the Gabatoni family. It set the bar high for my standards in Italian food.

The crust was also especially good. It was very thin and crispy except for the tenth of an inch or so right beneath the sauce and toppings. There it was soft and flavorful. And the cheese on top was always brown but never burned.

They cut there pizzas into trapezoidal pieces instead of the more traditional wedge shape. They were also smaller than the wedge shaped pieces but there were more of them. This made it seem like there was an endless supply of pizza to me.

Later, the summer before I was a Junior in high school, we moved from Paducah, KY, a town that didn’t have any notable mom and pop pizzerias that I was aware of, to Murphysboro, IL. Murphysboro was the county seat of Jackson County Illinois and as such was home to the County courthouse. Across the street from the courthouse was an establishment called The Jackson Bench. In spite of its overly clever name, it too featured extremely good, rectangularly sliced pizza. For quite a while, several months actually, we ate dinner two or three nights a week at the Bench.

At first the excuse was that we were still moving in, then it was that mom and dad were having a beer with the Spanish teacher at the high school, one of dads colleagues. It seemed strange that no one seemed to find high school teachers drinking in public scandalous. My dad didn’t drink because he was diabetic. My mom did drink because she wasn’t. The other couple were ten years or so younger than my folks, probably in their twenties. They both drank. It was a social context that I had never seen before. I enjoyed hearing the stories they told as we sat around a big table and shared a large pizza.

There have been other outstanding pizza places that I have known in my life but none made quite the impression on me as these two establishments did. I intend to go back to Springfield some time and see if the pizza at Gabatoni’s is as good as I remember. I’d stop by the Jackson Bench but it is nothing but a concrete slab.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Book Stores and Stationary Stores and Libraries, Oh My!

I was on my way to the store the other day when I noticed that another one of our local brick and mortar bookstores had closed down. It was all fairly abrupt. I had been in to buy a book and a cup of coffee just a few months ago. I don’t think the chain has gone under yet but this is the second store of theirs in town that has closed down in the last couple of years.

I have a weakness for bookstores. I love to browse through them. I love to smell the smell of printers ink and paper. In recent years the smell of coffee has also been common in book stores.

I also like stationary stores. I love browsing through different types of pens, pencils, and notebooks. I love the rulers and triangles and French curves. Recent additions have included printer paper, printers, ink cartridges, thumb drives, laptops, and other digital accessories. The frustrating thing is that they often don’t have exactly what I want in stock. I have to order that from their web site. But that gives me a chance to realize that I don’t really need it after all.

And then there are libraries. They aren’t as much fun as bookstores and stationary stores are. But they have other draws. First of all, they’re free. They have large collections of books that you can browse through and borrow. They have lots of interesting literary programs. You meet lots of need people there. Some of them have similar interests.

Best of all for me is the Downtown Writers Group. I have learned more about writing from these folks than I ever did from a book on writing. Once or twice a month we get together and share what we’ve written with each other. In turn they express their impressions and ideas on what has been written.

The results are magic. You find out what you are doing wrong that you couldn’t see because you were two close to your own piece to see what is wrong with it. You learn what works and what needs clarifying. You find logical inconsistencies. It is a remarkable time.

The thing that concerns me is that these places may become extinct. As more and more people shop online, small, locally owned shops are disappearing one by one. The internet and computers are powerful tools but they are helping to undermine local book  stores and stationary shops.  Support them before they are all gone. Buy locally when you can.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Rant on Education

There have been so many advances in the past twenty years but we still haven’t learned how to distribute this new knowledge evenly. For example, Sol Kahn of Kahn Academy discovered that math instruction was exactly backwards from how it ought to be. Instead of instructing the students in the techniques of mathematics during their daily classroom interaction and then assigning problems as homework, it was much more effective to assign tutorial videos on You Tube and have the students work problems in class where the teacher was available to help them if they were having problems.

This model isn’t appropriate for instruction in all subjects but it illustrates the arbitrary nature of our teaching techniques. And in many cases, we know how things ought to be done but because of resistance to or lack of awareness of advances in pedagogical techniques, students continue to suffer through ineffective classes often learning the subjects in spite of the instruction they are given instead of because of it.

Someone suggested that someone who was going to college to be a businessman shouldn’t be required to take Chemistry or Biology. I disagree. I think we should concentrate on providing a good, solid general education to our college undergraduates and leave specialization to graduate school.

I also think we should put more emphasis on mastery of material in primary and secondary school. How can we expect people who haven’t entirely mastered algebra, for instance, to succeed in advanced algebra. In the current era of education there seems little justification for teaching students in classes stratified by age. They should be allowed to progress through the curriculum at their own pace.

These issues often arise because in many places we have an inadequate supply of properly trained, enthusiastic teachers. And why should we have enough good teachers when we fail to pay them a competitive wage. Teachers can make more money working in industry than they can doing the most important job in the world, teaching our children. This has been the case for the last forty years with no sign of improving. Until we value our educators and reward them when they do a good job teaching our children, we will continue the inevitable slide into widespread ignorance.

In the final analysis, education must happen in the student. Teachers are at best midwives for the knowledge that is brought forth in their pupils. But so many teachers in schools currently are glorified baby sitters.

I hope I am wrong. I come to these conclusions with limited observation of the schools from the outside combined with my observation of the quality of education that they produce. There are still well educated people in our society but in general it is in spite of the schools they attended.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.


The idea for this post came to me in a dream last night. I realized that one of the problems that plagues modern society, largely because of television and the internet, is impatience and shortness of attention span. We want pictures instead of words. If an article is too long, we want someone to read it, summarize it, and tell us what to think about it.

Articles that have any length to them are often pointed to along with the annotation TL;DR, which stands for Too Long; Don’t (or Didn’t) Read. This is sometimes accompanied by commentary on the article. There are any number of things wrong with this. First, how do you know the person that is summarizing the article in question isn’t leaving out significant points/ For that matter, how do you know that they aren’t injecting their own spin that wasn’t even in the original article? Maybe they don’t mean to do these things but they do it unconsciously because that is the way they interpreted (or misinterpreted as the case may be) the article.

By not reading it yourself you are not filtering the ideas through the lens of your experience. You have a unique perspective on the world based on your experiences and values. If you are interested in the topic that the article is written about, you should take the time to read it so that you can understand it in your own personal context.

We need to spend more time reading succinctly written articles from many different points of view. When we have this fodder to think about, we can come to our own, personal conclusions. We may even have our own ideas to contribute to the discussion. This is the way that rational people decide issues of profound importance.

We have become a society of impulsive behavior. Instead of thinking about a topic and writing their considered thoughts, we read a summary and write a 140 character tweet. Or even more likely, we just retweet someone else’s 140 character tweet. Few profound thoughts can be expressed in 140 characters or less.

We don’t teach critical thinking in our schools any more. We haven’t done so in most schools since I was in high school forty years ago. We rarely require students to read things, think about them, and rationally express their opinions on them. Critical thinking, if it is developed, is left for individuals to acquire on their own. The vast majority of people never bother.

TL;DR – most people are ADHD, semi-literate, and impulsive. Go read a book.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Life Revision

I watched a TEDx talk by Felicia Ricci about revising your life. Her point was that you learn what you want to do by doing it. She also maintained that life wasn’t ever completed but was in a constant state of revision. This coincides with the conclusion that I have come to as well.

I have spent over forty years working with computers. I have repaired them, built them, programmed them, and taught courses about them. I have enjoyed doing all of these things for the most part. I have become a master computer scientist.

Lately I have been developing my skills as a writer. I have written at least seven hundred and fifty words a day for over seven years. I have twice written fifty thousand words in a month. I have written over fifteen hundred words a day for the past year. I am approaching a modest level of achievement as a writer.

I have been a musician since I was eight years old. I even worked as a professional musician for three summers while I was in college. I have taught guitar lessons on a couple of occasions. Now I am thinking about teaching guitar again.

I am feeling the need for a change. I’m not sure which way that change needs to take me. I am trying as many things as I can. I am listening to my reaction to each of them. Nothing has struck a chord with me yet. That means I just need to keep looking.

I have an unrequited urge to accomplish something great. I am not afraid of hard work. I am afraid of failure. I am afraid that I have nothing great within me to create. I confront that fear every time I write a blog. I confront that fear every time I write a story.

I confront that fear every time I go to work and continue to practice my profession of computer science.

I think perhaps I’m all these things, a computer scientist, a musician, a writer, and a teacher. The challenge is to be all of these things without fear. I need to do the best that I can whatever I am doing at the moment and accept that with joy and humility.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Some of the Reasons I Am a Ham

Every fall the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) holds their annual Simulated Emergency Test (SET). One Saturday in October we “hang out” on the air like we might on any typical weekend. Of course we know that this day won’t be a typical day but we try to act like nothing is up. At a given time the exercise director will make a call on one of the local repeaters declaring the beginning of the exercise.

The call will go out for an operator capable of acting as Network Control Operator or NC. The NC is in charge of directing traffic during the exercise. Communication is directed to the NC by transmitting your call sign. The NC responds by identifying the station that he wants to communicate with. They conduct their business and then the NC will call on another station. This helps keep everyone from trying to talk at once. That could have bad consequences in the case of an emergency situation.

We train all year so that we will be ready to operate in an emergency but there is nothing like an exercise like the SET to see how well you have prepared. We are checking to see how quickly we can get into place and set up in the case of an actual emergency. We establish relationships with the local representatives of our “served agencies”. Served agencies are everything from volunteer fire departments, organizations that operate shelters, to governmental agencies that have larger scopes of responsibility than they have budget to exercise those responsibilities.

Our national ham radio advocacy organization, the Amateur Radio Relay League, has a slogan that they are quick to use to describe the role of Amateur Radio, “Amateur Radio, when all else fails.” It is a testament to our ingenuity, our attention to detail, and our dedication to our families, our neighbors, and our communities.

I often hear people, especially younger people who have grown up with the internet, ask what is special about ham radio? I can do all that with my cell phone and the internet. While much of what they say is true what they don’t realize is that cell phones and the internet are dependent on infrastructure. Ham radio prides itself in its ability to operate in the face of massive failure of communication and power infrastructure. We have batteries and generators. We don’t depend on cell towers or fiber optic trunks for communication.

We also have a culture of life long learning. We teach each other new technologies and new techniques. We build kits so that we understand the technology that we use from the ground up. We build antennas, radios, compact racks to facilitate our ability to grab our equipment and go. It’s an inspiring activity to be involved with.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Calendar is Our Friend

Planning to do something and actually setting aside the time and doing it are two different things. They’re related but distinctly different. I’ve been planning to visit the town where I grew up for a very long time now. But I can’t seem to save up the money, put it on the calendar and do it. I’ve had some degree of luck with my writing but that’s because I’ve either set up a daily goal or I’ve had external deadlines imposed upon me.

It’s high time that I learned to set goals and place deadlines on myself. It is a lot easier when you have someone else to do it for you but in the final analysis, how you spend your time and what you accomplish are up to you. I’ve spent way too much of my life working for someone else and letting them set the schedule for me.

To that end I’ve started shopping around for software, preferably free, to help me correlate my schedule with my goals. The procrastinator in me thinks I should write it myself so it meets all of my requirements. The pragmatist in me knows that will never work. Without some kind of scheduling tool, imperfect though it may be, a project of that magnitude would never get off the ground.

I’ve spent some time Googling the topic. I’ve read some articles in Wikipedia. I even noticed that my favorite database app, Airtable, was talking about how it added support for Calendars. When I looked for it in the iPhone version, it wasn’t apparent. That makes me think that you’ve got to set up the Calendar view with the web browser version of the app. You may even have to use that version to consult the calendar. I suspect the iPad version of the app may support the Calendar view as well. It does have more screen real estate to work with.

Back to the point. I don’t care if I have to go to a stationary store and buy me a paper calendar, I need to get my writing schedule down where I can look at it, compare how I’m doing to what I planned, and replan based on what I’ve learned. This as true of my musical aspirations and my programming projects, not to mention my ham radio activities, as it is my writing.

So, what I want to know is how come it has taken me sixty two years to figure this out? What might I have accomplished if I had started using a calendar in my teens? Why isn’t this part of the public school curriculum? What can I do to help change this? I definitely have some thinking to do.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Tao of Art

It’s funny how it sometimes takes a long time to understand things that are right in front of your face. I’ve lived around artists of one sort or another, visual artists, musicians, actors, writers, for most of my life. I have observed the way they interact with each other and the rest of the world. I’ve known since I was eight years old that artists were usually more flawed than “normal” people. But when it came to my idols, be they rock musicians or science fiction writers or film makers, I was blinded by my admiration. I didn’t see that they were only human.

As many of my idols get older and die I am beginning to appreciate how great they were to create their exceptional art in spite of their human foibles. I am left humbled and even a little bit ashamed of myself. I let the petty details of life stand between me and the artist that I wanted to become. I gave up on filmmaking, acting, music, and writing. I continued to dabble but I quit putting my heart into it.

Now I’ve reached a point in life when my career is winding down and I am beginning to understand the way of the artist.  I realize that I’ve been creating my entire life. I’ve just been hiding my talent away. Part of the challenge of being a professional artist is putting your art out there to be seen (or heard) and commented on by other people. It’s hard putting part of yourself on display like that.

I was given the incredible gift of learning to be an actor at the age of eight. After two summers of summer stock, I was over the hard part of live performance, being intimidated by an audience.

I played guitar professionally for three summers in western theme parks. I supported my spouse when she took her arts and crafts to craft shows. I knew how to engage the customers and sell our product. It was all performance of one sort or another.

But after all these years, I have finally realized that I have lost the knack of putting my art out there for people to appreciate. I am working on regaining the knack by writing these blog posts and various stories. I realize that there is a lot of work to be done. Much to be learned about crafting stories that engage people’s attention. That contain characters that they love and want to see succeed at whatever endeavor that they set out to accomplish.

I understand that we only grow as people by meeting and overcome the challenges that we are faced with. And furthermore, the characters in our stories are the same way. They need challenges and adversity to grow and become the people that we want them to become. After all, these characters are all just proxies for us and our aspirations. When they win, so do we.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Eulogy for Jerry Pournelle

I have written on several occasions about the REAL source of most of my computer education, namely Byte Magazine and the other computer hobbyist magazines of the late seventies, eighties, and nineties. It is with great sadness that I report the passing of one of the more colorful characters of that era, Jerry Pournelle. He wrote the column “Computing at Chaos Manor” that was always the first thing I read each month when I got my copy of Byte.

He was honest, funny, and he demanded a lot from his computers. He was the first spokesman for the users. Before Jerry’s column, most of the articles and columns in computer magazines were written by people that were enamored with the technology for its own sake. Jerry had no use for hardware or software that didn’t work as promised and had a particular hate of vaporware which he delighted in reporting was coming Real Soon Now™.

He also wrote science fiction. In fact, that was his day job, the way he made the bulk of his living. I read and enjoyed his stories. They were always top notch from start to finish. He was an artful craftsman. He was also a clever businessman. I loved the books that he co-wrote with Larry Niven where they would hole up in a motel room in the middle of nowhere and write a novel where Jerry wrote one chapter and Larry wrote the next. Never was alternating points of view more distinctly written.

Jerry named his computers. Long before naming computers became commonplace due to having to distinguish them from each other on the network. He named his machines because he worked with them intimately and it helped him talk about the characteristics of each. For example, he called his IBM PC Lucy Van Pelt, after the Peanuts character. He claimed she was a fuss budget, and he was right.

He bought computers to use, not because he was smitten by the technology. He was the user that we all wished we could afford to be. These machines were not cheap. On the other hand, Jerry got sent a lot of products to use and review. A positive review from Jerry was worth its weight in gold for a struggling new startup or even a well established company. It was a mark that your product was relevant and useful.

My heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends. Jerry will be missed by all of his fans. Pick up a copy of one of his books or look up his columns in the online archive of Byte Magazine. It would be a fitting tribute to a grand master of Science Fiction and computer journalism.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

A Writer’s Perspective

I’ve been a fan of Graham Norton, the Irish host of the BBC Graham Norton Show and, as I discovered tonight, author of a number of books, for quite some time. I was watching a You Tube clip of his appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert last night. It was funny to see two people who were both more comfortable being the interviewer, talk about the tricks of their trade. Graham admitted he felt strange being on the other side of the interview desk.

They mentioned his first novel, Holding, about murder in a rural Irish town. Then they talked about how if he tried to promote his own books on his chat show in England he would be fired on the spot.

I look forward to reading his book. As I’ve mentioned before, once you decide to seriously pursue a career as a writer, your perspective changes on everything you read. It is an enhanced awareness. You are looking at the piece you’re reading on multiple levels. You’re still reading it for the story but now, you are also looking at how the story is put together, the development of the characters, the unfolding of the plot, all things that you took for granted before you started trying to write yourself.

You find yourself listening to other people’s conversations at the next table in restaurants to hear what dialog sounds like. You research the strangest topics. For instance, I found myself reading a Wikipedia article on Zero Point Energy trying to understand how it might be a plausible power source for a transdimensional ship that I was writing about in a story.

I have learned by reading a lot of science fiction that the best technology is that which is plausible but remains unexplained. We take existing technology for granted now, why should we treat technology any differently in the future? It always helps though, to do a quick sanity check to make sure you’re not too far out in the weeds with your speculation. I like to try to hold my leaps of faith to one per story.

The hardest thing about learning to write fiction is to sit down and do it. It goes pretty much without saying that the first draft is liable to be atrocious. Unless you are Robert A. Heinlein, who famously said to never rewrite unless an editor asks you to.

You’ve got to spend the time putting words on the page. That is the only way you learn what works and what doesn’t. That and the comments from your critique group and the editors that are kind enough to offer constructive criticism along with their rejection slips.

I’ve started a new hobby. I am going to collect rejection slips. That way, if I submit something to be published and get a rejection slip, I can add it to my collection. And if I get accepted, that’s it’s own reward. I’ll let you know how that works out.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.