Category: Random Thoughts

The practice of Haruspicy

So, I’m trying out Nanowrimo again this year. It’s never worked out very well for me in the past, but what the hell? I need practice at writing consistently day by day, so I’m focusing on that and letting the 50,000 word goal for the month fall where it may.

I came to a point in the manuscript where a character was reading entrails. As you do. And it’s easy to find an article online about the history of haruspicy (hello, Wikipedia), but I needed a little more information on how it was actually practiced. For verisimilitude. I’m not planning on sacrificing any sheep or chickens. As far as you know.

And I came upon this nice explanation of the ritual and translation of the quadrants of the liver that were used for divination. Of course, it’s a little weird in that it suggests you use an egg instead of a sheep’s liver to perform your own modern ritual. I figured it was a pagan website of some sort, which is cool. But then I noticed the url. University of TN-Knoxville. Apparently, it’s the website of an associate prof, although not in Classics as you might imagine, but electrical engineering and computer science. You just never know.

Anyway, it was exactly what I needed for research. So go, alma mater, you stay weird.

The guillotine is a more personal death

I’m reading a few pages of Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval every morning at breakfast. It’s about the interconnectedness of America, France, and Russia in the years around the French Revolution. This morning, I read the following passage about the Russian Catherine the Great:

“[Upon hearing of the beheading of King Louis XVI,] for three weeks she was in mourning and wore black; when Marie Antoinette was beheaded, the despair cut even deeper to the quick: she wore black for six weeks.”

This is the same woman who was overjoyed at such atrocities of war as:

A battle with a Turkish battle fleet where fire from Molotov cocktails spread to multiple ships and left a sea of carnage afterwards. “For two weeks, the bloated, burned corpses, more than two thousand, were found floating in the Liman. The river eventually turned green.”

The storming of Ismail, “it was one of the most horrific massacres of the century, and, really of any modern century. By day’s end, nearly 55,000–a staggering figure–were dead: at least 12,000 Russians, which paled in comparison to the Turkish toll: about 40,000. By contrast, at Yorktown, there were just 80 American casualties and 500 British…. Though pained by the heavy loss of men (for her part, the empress, with her typical singleness of purpose, was not), Potemkin was ecstatic….”

What’s my point? I’m not sure I have one, but I find the contrast fascinating. Thoughts:

1. My first thought was that this was the surest condemnation of aristocracy that I had ever read. Any system of class which can make one set of people out to be more human than another is corrupt and, dare I say it, evil. I normally don’t even believe in the concept of evil, but maybe that’s what it is, a system that can blind us to the humanity of other people.

2. What is there about our own “modern” systems of government that will seem hopelessly and self-evidently wrong in a more progressive future? (Which is not guaranteed by any means. And even if history bends in that direction, it may not take a straight course. After all, the mess of the French Revolution did not bring freedom immediately, but Napoleon.) I recall the hair-pulling and bombastic rhetoric about socialism these last few years: once the emotion of the Red Scare has passed from that word, how will it be viewed in two hundred years? How about capitalism? Will it be the savior that certain parties preach or will we look back after the next big financial crash (in a few years?) and wonder what we ever saw in such a corrupt concept?

3. The battle between the “Turks” and the “West” (can one really call Russia the West? Probably under Catherine.) has been going on for a long time. And we still have disproportional responses. About 3,000 dead on September 11; anywhere from 150,000 to half a million Iraqis dead in the Iraq War. When will it end? Supposedly the West is Christian. Turn the other cheek already. Turn the other cheek.

As you can see, this makes for cheerful breakfast reading. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The good thing about reading even such grim history from this distance is that I know it all turns out for the best. Now to keep our current generations from fucking it up.


E-mail: Real Life Inventory Management

I hate inventory management.

I’m not talking about retail, I’m talking about the “game” mechanic that exposes the hoarder in all of us. In most computer role playing games, your character(s) have a limited inventory space in which to carry all of the shiny things they find in that dungeon or abandoned space mine. It evolved from the rational mechanics of tabletop Dungeons & Dragons which places a limit on the amount of weight you can carry. It was annoying there, but computer games have taken it to new levels, and it rarely involves actual weight anymore. Here is more about it on TV Tropes… but follow that link at your own risk–you could end up browsing tropes for the rest of the day.



My name is…

PAMTRM_BadgeBased on a post by Hart Johnson on the ABNA boards mentioning the Reintroduce Yourself Blogfest, I decided to put up a short description of what you have stumbled onto, whether on purpose or inadvertently.

About me: I own and manage a couple of small businesses with my wife (and we work really well together because we very rarely attempt to kill one another). Many years ago, I got a degree in English from the University of Tennessee Knoxville (in my four years there, I never went to a football game, which is heresy to the natives). I’ve been scribbling in one form or another since I could hold a pen. My first book is available self-pubbed over there on the right, and I should have a short story being published by a respectable online publication in the next few months, and my latest novel, which is unpublished, is currently entered in ABNA.

About this blog: I wish it had a theme–albino goldfish or hair extensions for poodles or anything really. But it doesn’t. It’s about the random things that I care enough to write 300 to 1000 words about at a time. These are usually writing, publishing, politics, video games, books, TV shows, movies, comic books, and typewriters. But it could be anything, really.

And that’s about it.


A Brief History of My Typewriters (part 6)

Odds and Ends

There are a few other typewriters in my collection that don’t fit into the three main brands of Royal, Olympia, or Hermes. I’ll wrap up with them.



A Brief History of My Typewriters (part 5)

Hermes: The Last Gasp

After my Olympia phase, I thought I would just go back to my Royal KMM to finish up the manuscript I was working on, but another brand that was fondly spoken of was the Hermes. (I thought I remembered one being up for auction a while ago used by Cormac McCarthy, but that was an Olivetti. However, Kerouac did use a Hermes 3000.) Unable to be content, I went on the lookout for Hermes typewriters.



Blogs and Marketing (with Fruit and Meat!)

Marketing your writing with a blog is like a grocer trying to sell meat by giving away fruit.

Maybe Joe likes fruit, but that’s no guarantee he’s going to like your meat. He might even be a vegetarian. Conversely, Pam may like meat, maybe she’s been coming to buy her prime cuts from you for years. Maybe she doesn’t eat much fruit, and she wonders why you’re giving away all this weird foreign fruit instead of discounting her regular meat purchase.

As you may have surmised, I love a good metaphor. I really love taking a good metaphor to its breaking point.

John Scalzi was well known for his blog before he ever became a bestselling science fiction writer. He had been giving away fruit for years. So most of his customers, at least those who weren’t vegetarians (or didn’t like sci-fi), were willing to take him up on his meat special (when his novel Old Man’s War was published). But there are those who like his novels, light military science fiction in the early Heinlein tradition, who are quickly put off by his somewhat liberal leanings and tendency to blog about them. Often, an inflammatory topic will elicit an outraged comment to the effect that “I will never buy any of your books again.”

Orson Scott Card was comfortably in my top three favorite writers in high school and college. The first couple of Ender’s Game books and Seventh Son books remain favorites. Prime cuts. But in the last decade, with the transparency offered by the internet, I’ve learned a lot more about Card’s politics, and frankly, his strange fruit has soured my taste for his literary offerings.

So if you’re a writer, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that you should blog to market your work. If your personality is perfectly in tune with your books, that might make sense. Even then, you are going to do or say something that will piss someone off and lose readers. You also could gain like-minded readers who like both your fruit and meat. My point here is that it’s likely to be a wash. Card seems to be doing fine even though he’s pissed off half the blogosphere. Ditto Scalzi.

I’m going to blog for myself and anyone who happens to stumble along and think what I type is worth their time. Basically the same way I write books and stuff.

Write what you want. What’s the point of it otherwise?

I don’t think this holds true just for writing. Most good marketing is just human beings sharing what they’re interested in and think is cool. Word of mouth is the ultimate. Trying to goose people into buying crap they don’t want is manipulative and douchebaggy. Telling people what’s cool is being a good human being. Which do you want to be?

Then be that kind of marketer.


A Brief History of My Typewriters (part 4)

The Quest for Olympias

Beginning to type my manuscript on the little Royal Arrow gave me a tactile connection to the machines that I’d never had before. I had to research and find more about these curious creatures, partly as a practical matter, to get the typewriters in working order, and partly to find out what other options there were. So far, I’d only had Royals. What else was out there?

A name I ran across frequently was Olympia. Certain of their typewriters were supposed to be the best, a marvel of German engineering and some of the finest machines to type on. Harlan Ellison continues to write with the Olympia SG-3. In fact, the standard of their line was described by some as the Cadillac of typewriters. I had to have one.

Olympia SM-9

Olympia SM-9. Ugly, but damn good.

The first opportunity came when I spied an Olympia portable on eBay, the SM-9. Turned out the seller was not that far away, so I drove down to pick it up. It is in excellent condition and works like new. The feel of the keys is very nice, and much more forgiving than the hard glass keys of the old Royals that I own. It still scooted around a little because even though it is big, it’s still a portable. If I had only been interesting in writing by typewriter, I probably would have stopped here, but I was obsessed.

Olmpia SG-1

SG-1. Even uglier.

I wanted to get my hands on the Cadillac of typewriters, with a paper loading lever that looked a bit like the arm of a slot machine. I wanted an SG-1 (no relation to the Stargate crew). I found one on eBay for a reasonable price and purchased it. It took about two months to arrive. By the time it showed up, I had given up on the sellers, and assumed that I’d been taken for a ride. Instead, they were just very slow and had no idea how to pack a typewriter. It came in a big cardboard box loosely stuffed with bubble wrap. The SG-1 had probably rolled around like tennis shoes in a dryer while in transit. It smelled like the bottom of an ashtray (a smell that is apparently more common to old typewriters than has been my luck to find) and it didn’t work.

SM-3 cases

I love the SM-3 cases–like little silver UFOs.

In a fit of impatience while waiting on the SG-1, I had bought an SM-3. This is the 1950s version of the Olympia portable. They are the best-looking Olympia machines of the bunch. The one I found on eBay was a sort of creamish-tan with an odd italic typeface. It also suffered from subpar packing–there was a slight scuff on the top where it had come loose in transit. And there was a problem with the spacebar not fully engaging on occasion. With a little ingenuity, I was able to fix that problem.


SM-3, italic font.

The SM-3s are solid little typers. Their action is as smooth as any I’d tried up till that point (spoiler: the Hermes eventually win out) and they are really comfortable to type on. The only thing that I don’t like about them is the carriage shift–having to lift the carriage with my weak pinkies is not fun. Perhaps my fingers would strengthen up over time, but I prefer the basket shift of the SG-1 and later SM-9. (Where the typebars themselves raise and lower instead of the whole carriage.)

With my newfound confidence after repairing the minor issue with the SM-3, I turned more seriously to the SG-1. I don’t recall exactly what was wrong with it… I believe one bar had simply become disconnected during transit–apparently a common problem. I almost felt bad for demanding a partial refund from the eBay sellers, but remembering the sorry packing job they’d done, I got over it. After all of the frustration and anticipation of being able to type on the Cadillac, what was my impression?


Built like a tank. Types a bit like one, too.


If any SG-1 lovers are reading this, I’m sorry. The downside of old typewriters is you can never really know if how they type now reflects how they performed new. Someone else may have one that’s in better condition than mine that I would love. Maybe if I knew better how to perform maintenance on mine, it would work better. But after all of the blood, sweat, and tears, the SG-1 simply didn’t do it for me, even with all of the cool buttons and features.


The redhead.

My last Olympia was another SM-3. This one I found on Craigslist, but in Michigan. While we were on a family trip up there, I’d checked to see if there were any interesting typewriters in the vicinity. I did mention that I’d been obsessed for a while, right? This one is a little maroon number than is in just about mint condition. It looks great and types well.


A Brief History of My Typewriters (part 3)

The Royals: In Which I Begin to Type a Book


Royal KMM & #10 (with Dragon Alduin)

Many years after I picked up the Royal #10 at an antique store, I found another Royal Standard (code-named KMM, though I would not know that for some time) at a neighborhood garage sale. It has a metal tag on the back labeled “METHODIST PUB. HOUSE 2242”, so it apparently came from the offices of the official publisher of the Methodist church. The Royal KMM is not as sexy as the #10, but after trying my hand at several other typewriters, it remains my second favorite one to actually type on.

Royal Arrow

Royal Arrow (with Manga Spawn)

(A brief aside: there are two kinds of manual typewriters, Standards and Portables. Standards are much like our desktop computers, not meant to be moved from one spot because they are heavy as a mofo and cumbersome. Portables were the laptops of their day. Even the portables seem pretty heavy by our modern sensibilities, but maybe they had bigger muscles in the past.)

Which brings me to the Royal Arrow portable that my brother-in-law Tyler got me for Christmas about 5 or 6 years ago. It was supposedly the same model that Hemingway used in Key West.

Typed page

First typed manuscript page (with dragon egg)

I had run up against the 20,000 word wall in the novel I was working on, and in an attempt to shake up my routine and free my brain from its block, I decided to tap out a few words on the old manual. It was a learning experience. For one thing, I soon discovered that portables do not sit still very well while you type. They need a typewriter pad of some sort because they do not weigh enough. Tacky kitchen drawer liners were the cheap and easy solution that I eventually came across. Still, a portable will simply not remain solidly in place if you type with any speed, which eventually led me to the full size standards. But this little gem was the one that got it all started.

I don’t have the Royal Arrow anymore. For about a year, I haunted Craigslist regularly, looking for any cheap and interesting typewriters for sale. Mostly, I discovered that people assume old crap is worth more than it actually is, simply because it’s old. But one day I noticed a listing from someone seeking a typewriter for their little girl for Christmas.

Royal Arrow keys

Glass keys – pretty but hard on your fingers.

Apparently, she was making up stories, a budding writer, and had gotten it in her head that she needed a typewriter to put them down on paper. How could I resist? I wanted her to have a good, working typewriter rather than the piece of crap that her parents were most likely to find on Craigslist, so the Royal Arrow became a Christmas gift for a second time. I hope she enjoyed it even half as much as I did.


A Brief History of My Typewriters (part 2)

The First Typewriter

The first typewriter I owned was electronic, back in high school, with a primitive word processor that had about 2K of storage. When touch-typing on it, you would type in a word or two, then the daisy wheel would spin into action to attempt to catch up with you. It had a bizarre rhythm that I never really liked, but I didn’t know much different in those days. Sort of: click click click click click hmmmm CLACK CLACK CLACK CLACK CLACK. Which almost made me want to type a word and wait for it to catch up because otherwise its hammering daisy wheel was out of sync with my thoughts.

The first typewriter I ever used was my mother’s Selectric II when she worked as a secretary for Commerce Union Bank. Now that had a wonderful sound. The constant electric hum harmonizing with the sharp percussive notes of the golfball typehead striking the paper in perfect responsiveness to one’s tapping of the keys.

But other than these two experiences, I didn’t grow up using typewriters. I learned to type on a computer. My first IBM clone (as they were known in those days) did have a tacky keyboard, so I can see how I might have been longing for something more responsive than the bland, quiet keyboards of today. But after my brief encounter with the electronic typewriter and my very error-prone method of typing and correcting, I was sold on the easy, instant editing powers of word processing.

Royal #10

Royal #10

So I didn’t buy my first old typewriter with any intention of using it. The thing just looked cool. Glass panels, exposed chrome, glass-top keys. Design and function meshed in a beautiful way that hasn’t been common in industrial design until perhaps Steve Jobs came back to Apple and started his decade-long stint of making computers pretty.

It was in an antique shop that we just happened to stop in while visiting some friends in Oak Ridge. I think I paid $25 for it. My friend Michelle almost laughed her head off at me the next day when I tripped and fell, scrapping up my elbow but saving the typewriter from damage. The typewriter and I made it home intact and it became a display piece. The ribbon was dried up, so I couldn’t have typed with it if I’d wanted to.

I had a brief glimmer that I might have stumbled on something rare and valuable, but I soon discovered that typewriters are not worth much. Not in money. If you pay hundreds of dollars for any typewriter made in the twentieth century, you’re probably paying for the effort that someone has put into restoring it, perhaps with a hefty ignorance tax. Considering that they were the ubiquitous office machine for eighty or ninety years, it’s almost a wonder that there aren’t more around. When future archeologists dig up our landfills, they may be half dirty diapers and a quarter old typewriters.