Thursday, March 29, 2007

Standards and Practices

Over the years, I've been told a fair number of times that this blog is a good one. That's a rare compliment that helps set me apart from the other sites on the web, I have to admit, and I'm very thankful for anyone who's told me such a thing.

Despite everything, however, I have yet to understand exactly what they're talking about.

I don't set out to make this blog a good blog, mind you. I merely heard a suggestion that I should post my thoughts online in some regular format, and I eventually found it to be a nice method of practice and experimentation. In short, the only reason why I'm here is because I like having a place where I can write. It beats buying notebooks because your hand doesn't ache after a few hundred words, and it beats starting up a bunch of files in some text editor because you can see how your reading audience thinks and reacts. I write in this blog simply because I like writing in this blog.

The problem, I figure, is that such reasoning usually doesn't gel with any notions of "quality". I suppose that if I had specifically set out to make this blog a good one, then I'd be rapturously happy at any compliments that came my way. As it stands, however, I don't feel that I put a lot of noble effort into such a purpose... and therefore I don't feel much in the way of pride for this conglomeration of scribbles. It's a lot like hammering together a chair from some random pieces of wood: The resulting piece of bastard furniture may just win the praise of a dozen art critics, but that doesn't really matter when all you wanted in the first place was something to sit on.

That's not to say that I don't try to keep this place in top shape, of course. If you're going to write somewhere, then you might as well make certain that it's clean and organized. If you're going to take on a few themes, then you'd best be sure that you know how to handle them well. And if you're going to do it with an audience in mind, then you had better put together some rules that can dictate your pace.

I have quite a few of those rules, mind you. I don't push them on other people (because they have a right to put together their own blogs, of course), but I'm willing to recommend them to anyone curious enough to try. I don't know if these things make a good blog or not, but they just happen to be the standards I follow. If they end up working for anyone else, then that's just gravy, I suppose.

1. Edit, edit, edit.
I suspect that this has more to do with my writing experience than anything else; I just hate getting back manuscripts from my editor and seeing red marks all over the pages.

I've noticed that good grammar is practically an essential component in a blog, if only because we don't want to engage in miscommunication of any sort. People are likely to read our thoughts only if there's a modicum of sense in them; If we make our writings impossible to decipher, then no one's likely to bother trying to figure them out.

I take this one step further, and make sure that I make as much sense as possible before actually publishing an article. I am literally my own worst editor: I punch the Backspace key so often that it occasionally stops functioning, and I excise entire paragraphs if they even so much as offend my desire for alignment. I can never keep an accurate count of my posts because I have so many unfinished bits and pieces lying about.

But for all the inconvenience, the countless hours of editing usually tend to pay off. I can read through most of my old posts without the possibility of groaning at some misplaced word, or jumping back to edit a single incident of misspelling. At a point where you have over four hundred articles available for reading by anyone and everyone, I'm at least glad for the peace of mind.

2. Know who you are.
There are a lot of blogs out there, all of which reference a lot of different interests. There are political blogs devoted to posting well-thought-out opinions of current events. There are food blogs dedicated to identifying the best tastes (or combinations thereof) in the universe. There are media blogs set to praise (or bash) the latest offerings on stage or screen.

This, mind you, does not imply that we should look for some sort of uncharted niche and then force ourselves into it. It's quite the contrary, actually: We should be free to write about whatever we darn well want, and do it however we darn well want. You can be a pasty-faced introvert who writes about riding his tricked-out hog down the city highways, if you want. Go ahead; Nothing's stopping you from doing that.

Except, of course, that most of us pasty-faced introverts don't write about that sort of thing. Maybe we write about smoking, wenching, and getting tattoos. Maybe we write about bladed weapons. Maybe we even write about quiet games of chess, if we can stretch things to that point. It depends on who you are, really: Whatever you write should depend on who you are.

I've been around long enough to realize that I'm not a political-minded person. While I like good food (I mean, who doesn't?), I'm not familiar enough to write about it. And even though I do favor certain forms of media over others, I'm simply not involved in much of the industry to make a good show of it.

I am a short-fiction writer, though... so I write short fiction. I play games and do exercises in probability, so I write about those as well. And I'm a proponent of the weird things in life, so you'll find more than a few of those accounts here, too.

I know that we can write whatever we want. But I also know that we should also be true to ourselves, whoever we happen to be.

3. Clean up.
I like being able to find things with a minimum of fuss, so once again, this might be more personal than anything else. But, overall, I find it difficult to see anything wrong with cleanliness.

I have a lot of stuff I can place on this site: I can put up a shoutbox, for instance. Or I could put up a counter of some sort. Or maybe a blogroll -- a lot of people have that. Or maybe a multimedia graphic of some sort...

The way I see it, I can plug in all of the above and have a cluttered-looking site with a bunch of flashy elements... or I can just ignore them all, and have a site that I can explore during my quiet moments. You know which option I eventually got around to choosing.

This is not to say that you can't put this stuff on your own site, of course; If you want to work it in somehow, then go for it. What I figure, however, is that a blog isn't made a blog by the number of add-ons or customizations it has; a blog is ultimately judged by the sum of its entries. And if you come up short on these entries, then all the jewel-studded animated GIFs in the world probably wouldn't be able to save you.

4. Listen to the audience.
There is one major difference between writing a diary and maintaining a blog, and that's the fact that you've got an audience to worry about over here. This isn't some private correspondence, after all.

With that said, as with here and everywhere else, the audience is king. We might be the ones writing the posts and setting up the site, but they're the ones telling us whether or not we're doing okay by them. This doesn't mean that John Q. Public is right all the time, of course, but if the audience talks, then we'd better lend them an ear at least. Whatever they say should be at least worth listening to.

I feel that our involvement shouldn't just be limited to seeing how our readers move and react, though. The setup of the general blogosphere is such that, if somebody's willing to read your works, then chances are that that person's got an online journal that you can read, too. Every writer has to put down his pen (or keyboard) every once in a while and become a reader; I believe that it's always useful to get a sense of who other people are, what they do, and what they write.

In a nutshell: We can't keep working with ourselves all the time. We've got to realize that there's a world out there.

5. Get into the habit.
One of the things about maintaining a blog is that you can't just write one entry and then walk away. If we're going to make an investment in this sort of thing, then we should at least make it a sizeable one. Otherwise, well... why bother?

The trouble is that it's easy to lose track of time despite any resolutions to the contrary. I've seen people start personal journals on a high and enthusiastic note, only to quickly forget their online presence and end up posting about once every three months or so. It's a lot like getting drunk on that first bottle of tequila and then encountering a hangover so great that you completely forget about the liquor cabinet.

Any site that gets updated infrequently, I feel, is about as bad as no site at all. They both get around the same number of visitors, in any case.

Nowadays I update this blog with a specific goal in mind: I try to put in at least ten articles per month (including the monthly disclaimers we all know and love). Sharp-eyed readers will probably have noticed that the "Recent Posts" section on the right-hand sidebar always shows the ten most recent entries on this blog; This is because that little section happens to be the measure for my efforts. If it's filled up properly, then I know I'm doing good. If it's not, then... well... I've got to catch up somehow.

Ten posts a month, if you think about it, is equivalent to about one post every three days. That's also equivalent to over a hundred posts per year... and that's a number to be proud of, no matter how you slice it. I may not necessarily be going for a "good blog" here, but I constantly aim for those one-hundred-plus posts. I hold a lot of self-fulfillment at stake merely by imposing that big, round number on my personal sensibilities.


Yes, those are some incredibly detailed personal "rules" up there. I can assure you that I try to follow each and every one of them, though. I like to think that the logic is quite sound for each one.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, however, I don't do all this so that people can tell me that I have a good blog. I think that this is a nice blog myself (otherwise I wouldn't be writing in it), but I don't expect people to see this in similar rose-colored glasses.

What I really do, however, is that I simply make sure that this is the kind of place that I like posting in. This isn't much different from cultivating your own garden, I think. You can have the geraniums here and the sunflowers there and the crab grass in a little ring somewhere... but it's ultimately your own garden. If you make it for yourself, then you make it for yourself -- but there's still bound to be some form of aesthetics in there, regardless.

We each make our own rules for everything that we do, much less something as incredibly unimportant as running our own blogsite. What we have yet to understand is that these have to be good rules in one way or another -- and that they'll ultimately determine how satisfied we are in the long term.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Food, Glorious Food

I just finished up my most recent freelance assignment, which involved interviewing an up-and-coming restaurateur over a complimentary dinner. My article's supposed to extoll the virtues of his nice Italian restaurant for an advertisement, and it's due tomorrow. The catch is that I've got a busy workday planned, and so I had to finish the entire eight-hundred-word article tonight. (It took me a grand total of three hours, if anyone's curious enough to ask.)

My publisher agreement prevents me from posting the article here, so you'll have to pick up the magazine if you want to see my work. (It remains to be seen, however, as to whether or not I'll tell anyone its name.) What I will do, however, is take a page from the foodie blogs and write about the experience of trying out a new restaurant under the auspices of its owner. It's a nice place, mind you, so I was going to recommend it to a few people anyway. This way, everyone gets an idea of what I'm talking about.

For now, though... it's two in the morning already, and I've spent the last three hours doing nothing but writing, surfing the Net for inspiration, and clutching at a rapid rundown of ideas. It's time for me to sleep.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Closet Blues

Last week my mother finally got to cleaning out the closet she once shared with my father. This was a momentous occasion for my siblings, primarily because it's been seven years since our Dad passed away. The notion of suddenly cleaning out an entire collection of gewgaws and knicknacks -- seven years after we should have done so -- somehow says a lot about my family's compulsion to hoard stuff.

If there was anyone who wasn't likely to see it as a momentous occasion of any sort, however, it was me. I was too busy laughing at the irony of the whole situation.

"What's funny?" my mother finally asked me.

"Eminem," I said.

"What's that?"

"You know..." I said, "Eminem. The American rap artist."

She shot me a dubious expression. Granted, mom wasn't exactly the kind of person who appreciated rap music of any sort.

"You know..." I said, and started rhyming:
I'm sorry, Mama
I never meant to hurt you
I never meant to make you cry
But tonight I'm cleanin' out my closet.
I would probably have gone into the rest of the song if it weren't for the fact that it's something that you don't do in front of your own mother. (It's much like saying mushy stuff to your girlfriend, come to think of it.) In any event, she didn't recognize the song regardless of my stellar impression.

"What kind of a song is that?" she asked.

"Er... ah... nothing, really."

"Is that really a song?"

I scratched my head. "Er... forget it, ma. Just forget it. Nevermind."

I get the feeling that she recognized the song over what little TV she watches, however, because two hours later I was the proud owner of a small plastic black comb and an eight-year-old can of shaving cream. "You might still be able to use them," my mother told me.

I glanced at the instructions written on the side of the can. Not only was the stuff eight years old and unopened... it also had a flammability warning written there in big white letters. A flammability warning on a can of shaving cream, for crying out loud.

"Isn't this kind of dangerous?" I asked her.

"It's just shaving cream. You never use shaving cream."

"It looks like it's going to explode any minute, ma." (That, mind you, was as far as I suspected. The canister resembled a time bomb so much that I could hear it ticking.)

Dubious look again. "It's not going to explode."

"It says that's it's flammable right on the side of the can! It's got a stern warning telling us that we shouldn't compact it in any way!"

"Yes, but it's not going to explode."

I ended up leaving the can for the sanitation workers to pick up, along with precise handwritten instructions against their doing anything to it. Lord knows that we could have done with far fewer requests for Christmas money in December, but I wasn't about to grant anyone the ignominy of being killed by an eight-year-old can of shaving cream.

And then there was the matter of the aftershave. It was Mom, who found it, of course... sitting inside an old, beat-up velvet-lined box that was probably used to hold expensive watches in its heyday.

"Old Spice," I said, reading the label. Dad was an avid fan of Old Spice, for some reason.

"You can use that too," she pointed out.

I scrutinized the vial. It was so old that the label had yellowed and peeled off in quite a few places. Moreover, it was obvious that the aftershave had hit the decade mark some time ago: the substance had actually eaten through some of the coating on the inside of the bottle.

"I can't use this," I said.

"You don't use aftershave. You should use aftershave."

"I can't use this," I told her again.

"Why not?"

"Because," I said, lifting the bottle up to the light, "I think it's alive."

Score one more item for the sanitation workers. I actually left a second message out for this one, explaining that it was a substance more fit to be sealed in lead-lined containers and buried twenty feet underground. That probably gave them a bit of pause before they just chucked it into the nearest landfill, I think.

Thankfully nothing else has come to light ever since. I think it has more to do with the fact that I made good my escape not long after the aftershave incident, though. I mean: There is a time to hang around and watch, and there is a time to just run like hell.

I still have the small plastic black comb, I think. It's the only thing I recovered from my Dad's lost stuff, and I decided to bring it with me to my new office and lock it away in a secure trolley.

For all I know, it's going to grow teeth and attack me one day. But then... that's why I double-locked it inside my office trolley, right? :)


Once again, I'm busy.

Apart from the fact that I'm supposed to wrap up changes for that textbook I'm writing, my Microsoft Excel suddenly spontaneously combusted not thirty minutes ago. So now I'm double-checking all the Excel files I've got, just to see if the computer was so kind as to corrupt any of them.

I've noted one victim so far: My notes on the Antaria setting. Based on the number of times I've had to construct and reconstruct that over the years, I'm beginning to think that my computer has something against it. (In hindsight, posting the first stories here probably does a lot towards archiving them.)

In addition to that, I'm heading to work five days a week, eight hours a day (or a reasonable equivalent, for now). That has curtailed most of my blogging, but I'm still aiming for at least ten posts per month, regardless.

Fortunately there's a long holiday coming up on the first week of April. Unfortunately, I've got another massive tournament event taking place on the weekend before that, so I won't see a general slowdown of duties or anything. I work, I stop, I work again. C'est la vie.

So far I haven't seen any problems with the other Excel files around here. Now I just have to figure out what to do with another lost year's worth of work.

Again, c'est la vie.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Forgot Your Password?

Login passwords are obviously integral to the modern Internet lifestyle. Your e-mail account, your personal weblog, your online banking account, your YouTube favorites, your eBay console, your bulletin board memberships, and your instant messaging windows will all need an appropriate password before you can get inside and start doing whatever you want.

This is why we have utilities that exist for the sole purpose of helping people retrieve lost passwords. The most common of these is the "Forgot Password" setup, which sends your forgotten alphanumeric code over to one of your e-mail addresses. It's quick and easy, and unless some identity-thieving offender also has access to said e-mail address, it's fairly secure.

Less popular, however, is the Security Question method. This is a more difficult password retrieval setup where the login system will ask you a question that (presumably) only you can answer. In fact, this setup is common to a lot of e-mail services -- if only because it would obviously be pointless for the system to send a copy of the lost password to your inaccessible e-mail address. :)

As you would probably imagine, the questions themselves tend to be very personal in nature. Yahoo! Mail, for example, offers a selection of nine Security Questions for its e-mail users, ranging from "What is your father's middle name?" to "Where did you first meet your spouse?". You'll notice, of course, that these questions were carefully chosen so as not to reference any answers that may normally appear on any personal information forms: None of them ask for a date of birth, for instance, or for the street name on one's permanent address.

The "fringe" nature of these Security Questions, however, also mean that they can be forgotten under the wrong circumstances. What if you can't remember where you met your spouse, for instance? Or what if your all-time favorite sports team somehow changed over the years?

In addition to the above, the syntax might also turn out to be a problem; Most Security Questions will require no less than an exact answer. Questions like "What is your favorite pastime?", for example, might turn out to be liabilities two or three years down the line. And that doesn't even consider such intricacies as punctuation or personal turns of phrase.

I once had an e-mail address whose Security Question was set to "What year did you start writing?". If you're thinking that this would turn out to be a foolish question, then you're right -- it did: A couple of years later, in my efforts to reactivate the account, I tried a few hundred different responses ("1992", "1992.", "92", "1992!", "Nineteen ninety-two") before I discovered that I was merely a "'92." away.

Nowadays I try to use literary questions when it comes to this sort of thing, mostly involving works of fiction that I conceptualized but never actually wrote. Some examples that I've gotten away with have been the following:

"What dragon has but one arm?"
"What is the name of the crystal fan?"
"Who said 'Ducks would make far better messengers'?"

Yes, they're weird. But in the back of my head, they each have only one answer that is totally unmistakable, and they are therefore secure.

Unfortunately, e-mail services nowadays discourage customized Security Questions; I assume that there's a higher chance of forgetting the corresponding answers as time goes on. Instead, most of them offer users one choice from a set selection, much like Yahoo's nine. I personally subscribe to "What is your pet's name?" myself, if only because nobody outside the family even knows that I ever had a pet at one time or another. (That, and I usually screw up the syntax a bit just to confuse them anyway.)

With that said, however... there's bound to be some point in the future where I can't help but forget the answers that I originally laid out. Maybe I'll have acquired some form of chronic absent-mindedness, maybe I'll have gone senile, or maybe I'll have suffered a debilitating head injury. With a bit of luck, it'll be a while before I encounter any of these situations. But when they do happen... well, I'd probably have nothing left to do except to open up a brand-new account.

On the other hand, e-mail isn't necessarily eternal. We're going to have to let go of all those messages sometime.

I just hope that, when the time comes to open a new account... they'll let me set up whatever question I want. I have this great question about chocolate and cardiology that I'd like to use...

Friday, March 16, 2007

Fighting Back

My brother and I were heading home from work earlier this week, and he was telling me about how one of his co-worker's blogs had been used as the source for a plagiarist's writings. From the way he described it, it sounded like a pretty bad case: Said plagiarist actually went as far as replicating every single entry, right down to the points where he/she shifted around a few words in a feeble attempt at "originality".

My brother was pretty incredulous about the entire discovery, and he asked me why anyone would want to do such a thing. I gave him the first few reasons I could think of: Maybe it was done for the revenue from any number of ad services. Maybe it was done for academic ends -- perhaps for a good grade or something of the kind. Or maybe it was simply because the person wanted to attract attention with a bunch of well-written posts. When you ask yourself why a plagiarist plagiarizes, you can literally come up with any number of reasons right then and there.

I'll admit, of course, that plagiarizing entire blogs is a relatively rare occurrence. You'll probably run into the issue here and there, yes, and they'll be mostly for things like recipes, quotations and thesis arguments. Copy an entire blog, though, and that's tantamount to sticking your name on a book that somebody else has written: It's blatantly offensive, it's incredibly obvious, and you can't claim ignorance anywhere down the line. Simply put, it's a situation where nobody can possibly find a way to defend your actions... least of all, yourself.

We soon got about to discussing what could be done about the matter. It's not as though there's a regulatory body for blogs, I mean, and we haven't quite gotten a presence in international courts just yet. (Don't get me wrong, of course -- we do have a place in copyright law, and can argue our cases very effectively.) Solutions to plagiarist efforts tend to involve taking matters into one's own hands more often than not nowadays, though.

At that point, I threw him the two options that were sitting at the forefront of my mind. For simplicity's sake, I referred to them as the "subtle method" and the "noisy method", and they were based on reactions that I'd observed over the past couple of years.

The "subtle method", I explained, involved direct contact with the offender's blogging service (and possibly law enforcement, depending on the victim's mood). The vast majority of blogging services frown upon plagiarism: No one in their right mind patronizes a portal that condones this kind of theft, after all. Reporting a plagiarist to his own blogging service should -- under the right circumstances -- spark an immediate investigation. Any targeted offender is likely to wake up one day to find his "work" completely gone -- or worse, tagged and archived as evidence for use in litigation.

And in case anyone out there is thinking that these circumstances are unlikely: Have a good look at those terms of service that you signed for your service or hosting provider. There's a good chance that there's a fine-print clause there that allows them to shut sites down in this manner.

The primary benefit of the "subtle method", of course, is that you go straight to the source. This allows an authority to witness the offense for themselves, determine the extent of the damage to your reputation (as well as theirs), and effectively cut the plagiarist from its roster of sites. This is not to say that this method doesn't have a catch, though: It's also possible that your service provider might simply delete all files associated with the offender, destroying any possible evidence of the person's crime and/or identity. It remains up in the air as to whether or not you have the right to request that they retain a copy of the site in question, too -- they only have so much server space, after all.

I figure that most people probably go for the "noisy method", to be honest. This involves putting up a post on your own blog that summarizes the offense and warns people against visiting the plagiarist's site (without providing any clickable links there, of course). If the plagiarist is the sort who continues to read your blog, then he'll realize that you've found out about his activities without your needing to confront him directly. At that point, only the most fearless of people would go as far as to actually plagiarize your accusation on plagiarism; In any event, you'd have the advantage of momentum then.

The "noisy method" doesn't stop there, though: In addition to putting up a blog post on the matter, it is best to contact as many people as possible and request for links to your post. This will not only spread word throughout your local blogging network, but it will also increase the page rank of that post in any number of search engines. That way, anyone who actively looks for your writings will find your disclaimer first.

The catch with the "noisy method" is that you'd have no guarantee of resolving the issue. A patient plagiarist will simply ignore your efforts and wait until the uproar dies down. You can't shame a person into retreat if that person holds no remorse for his or her actions, after all. This doesn't detract from your primary benefit, though: Using the "noisy method" will at least leave your constituents informed of the offender's presence. From there, however, it could become a question of how far you're willing to tolerate it.

There was also the possibility of contacting the plagiarist directly via e-mail, I explained, but I felt that this would accomplish nothing beyond scaring him or her into deleting the offending site and covering their tracks. The option is still there if you're looking for a quick and easy solution, but it doesn't really discourage the person from simply doing this to someone else. Worse yet, you might run into an unrepentant plagiarist who will end up either ignoring you or stalking you. (This is your own personal e-mail address you're using, right?)

At that point, I raised the fact that one had a few preventives against plagiarism. This blog, for example, posts a personal disclaimer once every month, and maintains a Creative Commons License on top of that. What these do is that they place a statement on the blog that actively tells readers that they can't steal anything from it without your knowledge and support. I like to think that this invalidates the standard defense of many plagiarists -- the one that says that internet sites (blogs included) constitute free information for their own advantage. I mean, it's a little difficult to claim that you can conveniently grab stuff from a web site when that web site clearly states that you can't.

My brother asked if anyone's stolen any of my writings from me yet. I told him that I didn't know of any such incident, as far as I figured. I thought that every writer was bound to run into such a problem at some time, though.

"That's because you have a really obvious writing style," he said.

"I do?"

"Yeah. It would stick out like a sore thumb if anybody copied it."


In any event, I eventually told him, the measures were there. The last thing I wanted to do after all, was run out of time to write just because I was too busy setting up all the security screens.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

I Want My Mountain Dew!

Anyone noticed that quite a few of the convenience stores seem to be out of 600ml Mountain Dew bottles these days? Weird.

And it's not just the 7-11s and the Mini-Stops and the gas station outlets and whatever franchises there are in the area, mind you. I haven't seen a single bottle of Mountain Dew for a couple of weeks now, despite having visited two supermarkets over the last fortnight. I think I'm going through a slow, subtle withdrawal period as a result.

Yes, I know that the stuff is unhealthy. The fizzy yellow stuff is reputed to have more caffeine than a similar serving of coffee. In addition, enough doses will pump you with a total amount of sugar so high that it can cause your pancreas to malfunction. That, and apparently citrus-flavored drinks are the prime culprit when it comes to the weakening of tooth enamel. Based on what the nutritionists tell us, consuming massive amounts of Mountain Dew will one cause you to freeze up, keel over, and die twitching.

But darn it, I think it tastes good. And darn it, I can hardly find it anywhere anymore. What's the PepsiCola company up to, anyway?

If someone were to come up to me right now with a conspiracy theory involving inflated market demand, price-fixing, and aliens dressed up as drag queens, I would probably believe him. Anything to give me some closure here.

I find it bitterly ironic that Mountain Dew has few proper replacements on the shelves. I'll admit that Zest-O's dalandan soda has been pretty good so far, but it doesn't seem to have the same tang. Otherwise the only other choice I've got is the lemon-flavored stuff under the Virgin brand, and I'd rather drink drain fluid if it ever came to that.

I assure you, though: I'm not addicted to the stuff. Honest.



Aw, geez. What the heck happened to the Mountain Dew around here? I'd probably kill for some of the stuff right now.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Impossible Odds

Algren: There was once a battle at a place called Thermopylae, where three hundred brave Greeks held off a Persian army of a million men... a million, you understand this number?
Katsumoto: I understand this number.
- The Last Samurai

300 -- directed by Zack Snyder, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller -- should be out in the theaters right now. Despite the hokey advertising (What kind of a tagline is "PREPARE FOR GLORY!", anyway?) and the overly dramatic preview trailers, the film seems to be getting quite a few good reviews. It's already on the top of my "must-watch" list, which is kind of unexpected for a two-hour epic involving scores of sweaty, half-naked men.

I'm a sucker for underdog stories. You probably know them very well: They're the ones where a tiny group of people must stand (at heavy disadvantage) against a numerically, skillfully, and/or technologically superior opponent. They're the ones where the beleaguered forces realize that their only recourse is to fight and die, simply because they have become desperate men. And if there is any single truth that must be realized in these situations, it is that desperate men have nothing to lose.

Simply put, underdog stories represent some of the most redeeming qualities of the human spirit: The drive to defend one's home or beliefs to the very end, the ability to free oneself from fear and regret, and the resolve to never surrender even against overwhelming odds.

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie
- Simonides' epigram, Thermopylae (version by Pressfield)

The Battle of Thermopylae happens to be one of the best in this regard: A force of three hundred Spartans, given allowance to surrender to a massive Persian army, instead elects to make a suicidal "last stand" because the freedom of all Greece hangs in the balance. That Thermopylae ends up buying enough time for the rest of the Greek army to mobilize and finally defeat the Persians only makes the story much more sweeter -- it gives a lot of relevance to the struggle, and lends nobility to the Spartan cause.

I find it interesting, moreover, that the conditions have to be just right in order to produce such heroic moments. Under different circumstances, any story that involves small groups of people going up against massive numbers of enemies could be seen as idiotic and foolhardy, much less heroic and redeemable. When James Brudenell, Lord Cardigan, led over six hundred men into direct artillery fire in the Crimean War (an exploit later recorded as The Charge of the Light Brigade), the result was seen as pure tragedy brought about by battlefield miscommunication. When George Armstrong Custer decided to march two hundred men into a six-hundred-strong force of American Indians at the Battle of Little Big Horn, his move was derided as an act of pure stupidity and self-delusion, and this response stains his reputation even to this very day.

Nowadays, however, wars are fewer and far between... and when they do actually occur, they're a far more precise and organized affair than the ones we hear about in history class. Modern underdog stories are far more personal in nature: They end up focusing on the integrity of individuals rather than groups of people. Assuming that we've become more civilized over the past few centuries, these stories see a lot less in the way of actual killing. Nevertheless, the odds still end up being far from agreeable.

"He didn't do it again, did he? Yes he did."
- Tim McCarver, Fox commentator,
after David Ortiz's winning hit on Game 5
of the 2004 American League Championship

Sports suddenly come to mind. Sporting competition frequently sees areas where underdog stories can occur, and we see a few of these crop up every now and then almost as if in response. We all know that the crowd loves an underdog; How can you not like someone who decides to give everything he's got despite the overall realization that his best might not be enough? Jesse Owens did pretty good for himself in the post-World War II Olympics. For that matter, so did the Boston Red Sox in one of the most incredible comebacks of all time.

What we don't find memorable in sports, however, is the agony of defeat. This is probably where the underdog aspect finds its difference: Lose a basketball championship to a superior foe, and it doesn't matter how valiant you were or how much blood you shed -- you still lost. Lose a battle to overwhelming odds, however, and there still remains the chance to be memorialized and remembered, depending on the significance of your struggle.

On the other hand, I suppose, putting sports and war together doesn't necessarily make for a fair comparison. Even the best athletes get more than a little forgotten, after a good long wait... whereas history tends to be the best marketing firm of them all.

That's where the underdog story becomes very important, I think: It helps spread the tale to generations upon generations of new listeners. It tells people that men can come together and hold their ground against anything that could compromise their home, their beliefs, and their selves. In that sense, it helps ensure that any legacy of noble and effective struggle will always be present no matter how far we go into the future. That should be the same for war as it is for sports and other areas we haven't covered here.

In the end, that says something about humanity. It says that we're perfectly willing to watch and listen to tales of glory and honor, of strength and victory, of death and defeat. And hopefully enough, it says that we're willing to ask ourselves those very same questions when the time comes.

We each will have our own finest hours. We're all bound to assume the role of the underdog at some time. The question lies in just what we plan to do then.

Katsumoto: What happened to the warriors at Thermopylae?
Algren: Dead to the last man.
- The Last Samurai


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Sometimes You're Just Too Tired to Write

Yes, I just came from three straight whole-day meetings. You haven't done anything quite so ... corporate... if you haven't spent eight straight hours in a sweaty air-conditioned meeting room with a set of colleagues who feel just as trapped as you are.

At least now I know why there seems to be a great sense of camaraderie among the people in my new workplace. When you have to slog through a bunch of hour-long meetings in order to hash out plenty of long-term plans (for even more meetings, no doubt), it's easy to bond with those people who are in the exact same predicament. It's like being trapped on a desert island together and getting rescued at the same time.

That's all I'm going to write, actually. It's almost midnight, I've had a long day, and I'm looking at even more meetings tomorrow. I do have nothing against staying up a little later than usual and pushing the writing envelope again, but I want to end the week on a high note and show them that I can take whatever they can throw at me. That goes for whether the pressure involves mounds of paperwork, or loads of meetings.

But I'll be back soon. I've got a ton of things to write about, and right now the ideas are too strong to be suppressed. They can kill me with work, you see... but they'll never take my freedom.

That, and my first paycheck is arriving next week...

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Disclaimer: March 2007

I'm still trying to adjust to life in a new office, so my postings might suddenly become sporadic over the next few weeks or so. I'm trying to find my groove as soon as possible, seeing that I've still got a computer studies textbook, a large-scale gaming event, and a couple of copywriting gigs to wrap up in the meantime.

What that means is that this month's disclaimer will have to come pretty straight. I figure that that might be the best thing to do at the moment, since I've been getting a few reports on literary ripoffs and plot thieves lately. This is not much of a surprise; I believe that this time of year sees a lot of students scrambling to submit their final treatises and a lot of media writers rushing their editorial proposals. I'm sure we all know that plenty of temptations abound.

There's a lot of content on this blog, and it's wide open for all Internet users to access and read. This is why I ask -- no, "demand" would be a better term -- that anyone perusing this blog be made aware of the following items:

- Everything written on this blog is completely original. This means that the unfortunate writer in this case (Sean) invested hours -- sometimes days -- of his time putting these articles together from scratch. As a result, these posts reference a lot of personal viewpoints, complex analyses and literary approaches.

- The only exception to the above comes in the form of quotations and references from other sources, which are occasionally used to supplement articles or otherwise provide them a base to stand on. These references are always noted along with the articles themselves; If you own one of these references and do not feel that I have not given you proper acknowledgement, feel free to contact me so that we can negotiate.

- You are welcome to use anything on this site for your own purposes, as long as you contact me for permission before doing so. I am not an unreasonable man, and I am not likely to ask for any compensation so long as your intended uses are free and justified. If you utilize any of this site's contents, however, then you must include a reference to their originator (that's me) via this blog.

- I reserve the right to deny any intended uses of my work, including but not limited to use in disreputable publication, spurious opinion, informal research, or out-of-context quotation. I have a particular bone to pick with that last one: I do not appreciate the idea of my words being twisted around to say something against my own beliefs or potentially harm other people.

- I have a Creative Commons License placed on the bottom of the right-hand sidebar to provide me with some international backup on potential issues. I encourage people to have a look at its terms and general legalese for a more comprehensive view of what we can and can't do.

- Finally, I don't care who you are or how you think blogs should be treated: If you take anything from this site without my foreknowledge, I will seek justice in the form of: a) Demands to remove the offending content from any site or publication that is using it; b) Just compensation in any form, shape or size of my choosing; c) Legal process or litigation; d) Any other creative means I can think of... and I assure you that I'm a very creative person.

Generally, however, all that plagiarists normally do is compound my sadness. We're all perfectly capable of writing our own masterpieces, after all. So why go as far as to steal somebody else's second-rate stuff? We should know that we can do it on our own, and that we can do it better than anyone else.