Journal Archives - December, 2003
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It's been a long November, and all I really have to say is: W00t!
A little over 30 days ago, I set out to start a writing challenge I coined BaMoTTuSto -- a story each day (except Thursday nights, when my work schedule is execrable) during November, in homage to NaNoWriMo.
A month later -- 22 stories and 4 pieces of culturalia later -- and 40,532 words later ... it's over. And despite falling asleep in my chair at least twice, and writing some stories which make me wince (and some which make me proud), I survived the month with my muse intact.
Heck, there are even some more unwritten stories where the rest of those came from ... if I'm lucky I'll be able to keep the momentum up.
Anyway, I have to adjust to having this be a journal again. I also have to adjust to playing catch-up on all of the tasks I delayed during November; I've got a to-do list as long as my arm. I may be AWOL sporadically -- but I do have news to report, and I'll try to get to it as soon as possible.
While you're waiting, I would be grateful if you, my loyal readers, would help give me some feedbax on BaMoTTuSto. I've set up a reader poll summarizing the stories and asking for your pick of the month's top three. Go vote! (If you're not a Livejournal user, you can leave your nominations as a comment to the poll post, or speak out in my forums.)
We interrupt this well-deserved writing dry spell in order to bring you the following world news you're already hearing everywhere else you turn: Saddam Hussein has been captured.
... I bring this up only so I can proceed to ignore it for two whole glorious days. You see, I work at a newspaper ... but this broke several hours after deadline, and it's now the beginning of my weekend.
The coverage of this is going to be a sheer media bombardment. The discussion of this is going to be a sheer public frenzy. In our immediacy-driven world, the last place any sane person would want to be in the next 48 hours is in the middle of a media center, immersing oneself in the latest inconsequential details like the color of his suit or what he had eaten for his final pre-capture meal.
But I'm free. I'm going to sit out the next two days in glorious, blissful ignorance -- doing some programming, or maybe some TTU editing -- and only reluctantly return to the land of the frothing-at-the-mouth once some of the furor has started to die down.
I recommend you all do the same. He's not going to get un-captured in the next 48 hours, and the pundits aren't going to get any less opinionated as the relative trivialities beyond the fact of his capture filter through the merciless news cycle.
More substantial posts to come over the next several days; I'm going to get a head start on my two days of rest.
Okay, time to break my writer's block. Please humor me as I core-dump and splatter the contents of my weird idea lobe onto the keyboard ...:
I'm still illin' today -- the sore throat and temperature have kicked in, and it's amazingly obvious it's the flu now if it wasn't before.
And I have come to the conclusion that, despite not having stepped into a single retail outlet nor bought a single gift this holiday season, Christmas shopping is demonstrably and directly responsible for my coming down with this virus.
See, one of the negative effects of the holiday season -- not the worst one; that's the ubiquity of Christmas music, but that's a rant I've already written -- is that it directly increases my workload.
Christmas means holiday shoppers. Holiday shoppers mean more merchandise. More merchandise means more advertising. Newspapers profit from ad revenue, so more advertising means bigger newspapers. And that's not even to mention special inserts such as the yearly Holiday Gift Guides -- which aren't my responsibility, but which pull coworkers to other tasks that would otherwise be helping out with the paper.
In short, I simply have more work to do and the same amount of time to do it in. I have been finding myself laying out pages at up to one-and-one-third times my normal rate. (This is made possible largely by throwing creativity to the winds -- taking the first headline that fits and not caring about making it witty and perfectly accurate -- and abandoning all but the most basic quality control. Neither one of which I am comfortable with, but you do what you have to when a deadline is staring you in the face.)
This year, with more experience under my belt and stricter budgets in our department, it hasn't been the massive overtime binge it was last time around. Instead, it has significantly increased my stress levels -- and since stress does a number on the immune system, and this Tuesday and Wednesday were two of the most stressful days in recent memory, this is one of the factors I blame for succumbing to the flu.
So it's Christmas' fault.
Oh, sure, Christmas didn't directly expose me to the virus -- that would have been one of my roommates; it's been going around the house, and I'm the last to fall prey to it. But it's not their fault; they caught it from somewhere, too, and even there I can see glimpses of the cold, evil hand of holiday cheer. It's not enough that Christmas has to drive people's minds to ruin with a frenzy of commercialism -- now it's attacking our bodies too.
(Confession: That last paragraph was merely an excuse to write the phrase "cold, evil hand of holiday cheer." And my apologies to anyone actually enjoying the season. You go have fun and do your thing. I'm just ranting in a semi-incoherent viral state.)
So. Spacy on Saturday; illin' on Sunday; rallying on Monday; and fending off a minor runny nose on Tuesday. I am forced to come to one of four conclusions:
Speaking of magic, I conquered my long-standing, fundamental aggravation with physics today.
It took me nine and a half years, and a paramour on a technologically advanced distant alien world, but I finally figured it out.
* * * *
A high-school education full of incessant questions to my math teachers couldn't drive that paradox out of my head (and my faith in physics never had a solid foundation while it remained). Nor could a college degree -- though that did serve to convince me that I had no real career as a practical mathematician while it lay submerged in the dark swamps of my mind.
It's amazing, really, how you can spend an entire phase of your life practically defined by such a problem. Although I knew I wanted to pursue a technical path in life, that one single aggravation drove me away from applied math into pure math. Then, when I discovered that the only sorts of pure math one could pursue without calculus were such deep, fundamental, spend-your-life-whacking-your-head-against-the-same-wall things as number theory and topology, that aggravation (and an inherent need to be more of a generalist) essentially drove me out of math entirely. I escaped with a degree in the topic, sure, but I left college burnt out and have spent most of my life since then working with words, my other lifelong obsession.
You're seeing the result of those circumstances, certainly, but I don't think even conquering that aggravation would have stopped me from writing. What it would have done is a matter of speculation, but I have little doubt I would have ended up drifting into computer science eventually, working with the language of computers instead of the language of men.
I'd be much higher paid, certainly; I'd probably have gotten caught up in the dot-com boom and bust to a far greater extent than I did. In short, since the majority of my living circumstances and moves around the country have been dictated by finance, conquering that aggravation back at the beginning would have thrown my whole earthly life onto a radically different path.
For an issue that momentous, it certainly was a tiny little thing. The epiphany was almost an anti-climax. It took just a single sentence to fix ...
* * * *
"But those are just simplifications of a more general equation," Cipher said.
I stared at her in puzzlement, trying to recall the detritus of years-ago physics classes.
She paused, setting aside the notes on the worldwide lattice proposal that had prompted my griping, scribbling some equations on a blank spot on one of the many sheets of paper scattered around the dining table.
There had been some detail of the lattice -- some quirk of spacing, or perhaps interaction with ley lines -- that relied on a trick of calculus just beyond my ability to parse. She hadn't been asking me to double-check the numbers; I would have cheerfully admitted it wasn't my bailiwick if that were the case. She'd simply asked for a second opinion (or, more likely, eighty-seventh -- but she wanted mine, which is always a wonderful ego boost) on the general soundness of the idea and what complications the basic proposal might have overlooked.
I had struggled with the calculus, but I just couldn't connect the dots. The idea was simple enough, but without understanding why it worked, I had not been able to offer anything constructive. I had gotten grumpy at calculus again.
"I've never been good at this," I had said (referring, as she knew, to calculus and not math in general -- we'd gotten together in the first place, after all, by comparing notes on the Twin Prime Conjecture). "Ever since finding that weird slip back in high school, I just haven't felt like I could trust calculus. That it was somehow incompatible with basic algebra. Obviously, that's not the case, because calculus works and doesn't break algebra in the process, but nobody ever gave me a satisfactory explanation why."
"What weird slip?" she had asked.
"Almost the first two equations they teach kids in physics classes -- dealing with motion, the relationships between position, velocity, and acceleration. Distance equals rate times time, d=rt; velocity equals acceleration times time, r=at," I had explained. This was familiar ground. I'd launched into the same rant for years any time the subject came up. "The problem is that if you use the basic substitution property and just plug the two equations together, logically distance equals acceleration times time squared, d=at2. But that's not the actual equation -- it's d=1/2*at2.
"I understand why; that's not the problem. I understand why you can't just use substitution -- there's all these special cases; that the two equations make different assumptions, that d=rt assumes a constant rate and r=at describes a changing rate -- but that's the problem! I feel like calculus just throws all these different contexts at you, and the rules change arbitrarily based on what you're doing, and if they change arbitrarily enough to break basic mathematical principles --"
That's when she broke in with her line.
My high school math teacher and I had argued in circles for hours over the missing 1/2. It always seemed to end up boiling down to "Because it works. Suck it up." I honestly had no initial problems with physics -- and the accompanying calculus -- but the insistence that I just had to accept a set of arbitrary, non-intuitive ground rules wore on me. (Perhaps it was small wonder that I enjoyed set theory so much in college, with its questioning of the foundations of mathematics and what logical foundations one could lay for the idea of numbers themselves and basic arithmetic.)
I always wanted the why. I never got the why. I provisionally accepted the new rules of calculus -- the ideas of integration, differentiation, what have you -- on the basis that it was just another way of shuffling numbers around ... but then I found what looked like a collision with the more basic rules. When I couldn't get that resolved, it was the more complex stuff that had to get discarded, or at least pushed away.
I nearly pulled the paper out of her hands as Cipher finished writing. dt = d0 + r0*t + ((rt - r0)/2)*t. There it was. The missing one-half. Any proper physicists in the audience are, I'm sure, wincing, because the equation above isn't calculus, it's algebra -- but Cipher, in her wisdom, gave me just what I needed to see with a few flashes of the pen, and it gave me the flash of insight I'd lacked for so long.
If you make all of the assumptions that go into the basic d=rt and r=at equations -- constant acceleration and/or constant velocity, zero initial distance, etcetera -- then everything neatly disappears in a hail of zeroes and leaves you with just the basic high-school rote memorizations. No acceleration? Then rt equals r0 and the last term cancels out, leaving the familiar d=rt.
When you start from a standstill but accelerate at a constant rate (r0 is zero), the first two terms cancel out and you're left with the equivalent of d=1/2*at2; r=at, after all, and you have d=(1/2*r)t because you're taking the average speed over that time period and "r" (that is, rt) is the maximum velocity (the minimum being zero). Exactly why this works out to one-half is indeed a matter of calculus, not just simple arithmetic, but that was never really a point of contention for me. Suffice it to say that for constant acceleration, averaging the values is a convenient and reliable shortcut.
Typed out, this all looks very foolish in retrospect. It certainly was easy enough for her to correct me on it, and I feel silly that I've gone all these years somehow never making that flash of insight just how to link how the two "r" terms sneakily differed.
Well, I even knew that. I just couldn't connect it with the apparent paradox of mine in a way that made sense algebraically. I've known since high school that it worked, I just couldn't figure out how it wasn't breaking the rules.
Nobody had ever, in as many words, explained them to me as parts of a whole before. They were always just "special cases," equations unto themselves. Weird little aberrations that mysteriously worked in certain circumstances. And of course writing a general equation for motion takes up pages of solid text, so nobody in their right mind shows a high-schooler the 96-term equation just to explain that 93 terms cancel out for these two special cases; but nobody ever took the time to link the two equations and explain that, no, really, they do link together. And somehow I never got around to the epiphany on my own, and was left with the impression of physics/calculus being based on arbitrary stacks of rote memorizations, all of which were first principles unto themselves and had to be maintained in memory all at once.
I wish I'd had Cipher to show me this ten years ago. Of course, if you want to talk about having lives being thrown onto radically different paths -- if I'd been able to learn this from Cipher ten years ago, I'd have been a practicing mage and astral explorer back in high school ...
It seems like in the last few days I've been having a lot of these moments -- of feeling overwhelmed by contradictory emotions.
Perhaps it's that in trying to remember 2003, I'm blowing through it all at once. The loss and loneliness -- the love and joy. The creative urge -- the frustration. The focus -- the ennui. It all hits your brain at once, and all of a sudden you don't know what to think.
It's the opposite of apathy -- you feel too much. Isn't it ironic, then, that it ends up having the same effect?
Between lingering flu remnants earlier this month, the game Star Control II, some wonderful time spent with loved ones, and the aforementioned paralysis, I haven't said much -- which isn't to say that I have little to say. (The flu, for the record, was more devious than previously depicted. It did end up giving me the entire list of symptoms I thought I'd dodged -- but it gave them to me one at a time. The general malaise kicked in right after my last post and lasted for a day or two.)
Be that as it may, New Year's is, for no good reason, one of the year's most meaningful holidays to me. I'll save the year-in-review post for a day or two, but I did want to share how I spent the stroke of midnight -- desire to write or no. (I'm writing this after the turn of the year, but because of the way Baxil Standard Time operates, it's still the 31st until I post this and go to bed.)
* * * *
In an effort to get home before midnight so I didn't have to spend the turn of the clock in a sterile office or behind a steering wheel, I left work at a little after 11:20 -- a bit later than I'd hoped, and, I soon realized, not quite early enough to compensate for the drizzling rain.
Another one of those moments of overwhelm spun by as the road receded underneath me. Just as it had earlier, while completely alone in the office, trying to ignore the celebrations being shown on the TV live from the East Coast. A new year, full of life and promise, full of joy, the gift of simple survival -- and then a guilty solitude, a tangible memory of loss. A son who, for the first time, wouldn't be waking up to the dawn of the turning of the calendar.
I turned the thought away, but the ghost of seven months past floated back once more in the car. I looked down at the clock on the dashboard, and a strange clarity washed over me like the steadily increasing rain against the windshield: At nearly the stroke of midnight I would be passing by the spot where the cat had died.
One obvious course presented itself, and I touched bases with Thea to let her know my plans. She wasn't happy with the idea. She wanted me to go home; there would be bright lights and people, life and connection. And I did want that, yes -- I wasn't thinking to start the new year on a downer note, but to end 2003 with a final send-off, a moment of closure, of deliberate solitude and darkness. After some seconds of deliberation, she asked to be with me then, to at least keep me from being alone. I agreed, grateful, and drove onward into the steadily worsening rain.
By the time midnight crept up, it was pouring. I very nearly decided to abandon the idea and drive on home, but some stubbornness and sense of honor kept me from passing by the site. And as it turned out, I did reach that section of the road with just a minute or two left to spare. I pulled over, shut off the car's lights, grabbed my raincoat from the front seat, and stepped out of the car into a wall of water.
It wasn't quite what I expected: For a relatively rural highway at midnight in the middle of a downpour, it certainly was busy. I walked in a circle around the car, eyeing three sets of approaching headlights, and finally sat down on the hood of the car with a sigh, feeling water seep through my pants, hoping to wait out the intruders and then claim the darkness as my own.
The first vehicle passed, driving out of sight behind my back. The second and third, going the opposite direction, roared by, and I watched their taillights recede. A fourth set of headlights approached from behind me, gradually growing brighter -- and then halting, their shine casting my shadow down the road.
I slid off the hood and walked around the car. Sure enough, a large SUV-style vehicle, with a pair of extra floodlights mounted on an overhead rack, had pulled up behind me. A man in a green raincoat was walking toward me. With a badge.
I hailed the officer good evening -- it turned out he had been the first vehicle I saw, and had turned around when he saw me stopped. I assured him my car was in good shape. "It's sort of silly," I said self-consciously. "I killed a cat here last month --" I'm not certain why I felt the need to fib about the date -- "and, well, this being New Year's and all, I wanted to stop ..."
"And reflect?" he finished, sympathetically. I nodded.
"I do appreciate your stopping," I pointed out. "If I really were stranded out here -- it would be no fun, spending New Year's this way. I'm sorry for wasting your time."
"Naw, that's okay," he said. He turned to go. "You really should put on your blinkers, so that you don't get sideswiped by a drunk driver or something. Happy New Year's."
"Thanks. Happy New Year's," I told him, and fumbled for the hazard lights as he began driving off again -- back the way he'd originally come from.
As his taillights disappeared around a curve in the road, I switched the blinkers back off; their intermittent glow was too distracting in the darkness. At least, with the officer's disappearance, I had the stretch of road to myself.
Thea and I didn't get much contemplation time. We stared at the rain-slicked asphalt, giving a moment of silence to Cobalt, Glineth and the nameless feline. I looked around and briefly weighed climbing the steep hill at the road's shoulder for a little more isolation, but decided I couldn't trust the slick grass and unstable mud to bring me safely back to the highway even if I did manage to scramble up the slope. My ears caught the distant crackle of gunpowder. Then, mere seconds later, more headlights rounded the corner.
I crouched against the car to wait until they passed, but quickly realized the moment was gone; I couldn't get into any proper introspective mood after the cop's visit and with traffic passing by at a more or less constant rate. At least -- I thought, heartened -- I had gotten that brief moment of closure I'd hoped for, even if it would have been more satisfying as a longer stay.
I slunk back into the car -- raincoat dripping all over the upholstery -- and drove on. As I rounded the corner, I saw the source of the earlier gunpowder noises.
Someone was setting off fireworks up on the ridge near Rough and Ready.
In the middle of the pouring rain, with an audience of perhaps a dozen random travelers, tops, someone was defying the weather to carry on the grand American tradition of blowing things up to celebrate major holidays.
... We all have much to celebrate. I have much to be thankful for. Life goes on, and we've made it through a sometimes turbulent year.
Another year lies ahead. Those of us still here to enjoy it should do so -- all the more so when we think of those who won't make the journey with us.
After all, death is a gift that eventually comes to all equally -- but not everyone is given the chance to truly live.
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