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The Amplified Man
Like regular man, but more!

Date: 2009-12-20 00:36
Subject: Ride Report--12/19/09
Security: Public
I don't normally do these, since I figure there aren't a lot of people in my life who really care too much about my bike riding, but Elaine has also been challenging me to ride more, so I've been trying to, and maybe writing about it will help me keep my enthusiasm up.

A lot of that enthusiasm has been helped by the fact that I received some money from my parents for a new bike this year. I'm still keeping my old bike (following the old cyclist adage, "The number of bikes you have = n; the number of bikes you need = n+1") but that's a road bike, and while it's fast, it's also got narrow wheels and a very forward-leaning position, so it's a bit treacherous to ride in poor weather.

So this past Thursday, I picked up a GT Traffic 4.0

It's a well-designed ride, I feel. It's what bike companies call a "hybrid," which just means that it's a general-use bike rather than something super-specialized. It has highly reflective paint, good derailleur, a top bar bumper so it can lean against things without getting scratched up, and so on. It's on the lower end of the GT range, but it's not a cheap bike by any means--I had thought about getting a higher-end bike from Target or Wal-Mart, but the problem with that is that, while the frames are usually pretty good (and usually heavy, since they're steel), the parts they use are really, really cheap, and they wear out fast. My dad took a Huffy I had for several years when they visited in September because it was so worn out that it would have cost about $250 to fix, and once you're spending that kind of money on a bike, you may as well save up for a new one that won't wear out as much.

Anyhow, after a day or so of toodling along the side streets, I figured it was time for a real inaugural ride, and what better day to do it than today?

Actually, the bad weather was one of the reasons I picked today, since it allows me to get a better feel for what I have to do if I want to winter commute, which is why I got the bike in the first place. So I bundled up, ate a burrito, and prepared myself for the trip.

See that chiseled jaw? Those shining eyes? That jaunty smirk that taunts the new day? Remember that, because it will be very important in just a bit. That, and I'm so pretty.

Anyhow, after preparing my water bottle and backpack, I took off. since this was the first time I was doing this, I took the wuss safe way and stayed on the sidewalk. The temperature about this time was 40 degrees and sprinkling a bit, so it was cold, but not freezing.

The ride itself was only about 3.5 miles according to Google, and since I stayed on the sidewalks the whole time, it wasn't very exciting. I stopped halfway to drop some movies off at Blockbuster, then proceeded to my real destination:

Oh, yes, the orange fortress of Homitude. Why? Well, because I needed a tarp so I could store my new bike outside. Obviously, the purchase of some stuff necessitates the purchase of more stuff.

Of course, the first problem I ran into is that no one really expects someone to come to Home Depot on a bike because, you know, you're probably buying pylons or rebar or something else really manly that needs a truck to haul it home. (PROTIP: One does not "take" stuff home from the Home Depot. One "hauls." If going to Home Depot wasn't work, bosses, wives, and other non-workman types wouldn't want us to go.) So parking my bike was a problem. Maybe I could find a small enough steel girder to wrap my lock around, a support beam or a fence or...

Oh, hey, that's convenient.

So I run in, grab my tarp, and head back home. Overall, it was a pretty ho-hum sort of ride, other than the conditions I was in, but I got to learn a lot about how to ride in less-than-pleasant weather:

One: I need a balaclava. You remember that glorious visage from just above? Yeah, it turns out that when people can see your face, the elements can also see it. It wasn't so unpleasant that I couldn't ride, but if the weather gets colder or wetter (which it will), I need to protect it. I also need a pair of gloves or mittens that are waterproof, and I have a pair of motorcycle goggles that one of my brothers got me last Christmas that I can use to protect my eyes--even on an overcast day like that, it would have been nice to not have to deal with flying cold water randomly stinging my face.

Two: UnderArmor cold-weather gear is awesome. I had a pair of thermal leggings on, and even though I only had jeans on over that, they kept me plenty warm. My upper base layer is a thinner exercise shirt, but if the UA shirt works as well as the leggings did, it may be worth getting. Don't get me wrong; I was warm enough, but we'll see.

Three: Upright biking is awesome in a totally different way than road biking. On my road bike, I feel in control because I can go fast. When you get in the higher gears and start pushing, or when you get a nice straight downhill slope and the speedometer hits 25 or 30 MPH, it's a pretty good feeling. Even on the flats when you can get 15-17 MPH, it's nice to cruise along at that speed using only your body as the engine. But all of that kind of riding takes energy and attention, and with this bike, I can ride in a way that reminds me of being twelve, when I was old enough to go lots of places on my own, but not old enough to think that I could drive soon. The bike is more stable, a little more cushy because of the wider tires and saddle, but it's more freeing as well. I don't worry as much about the ride when I'm on that bike.

There's also the fact that I like to be able to skip curbs and such on it. It's not great for that, since it's not a full-suspension mountain bike, but it can handle the bumps and jostles of urban travel a lot better than my road bike.

Overall, it was a good trip, and I'm looking forward to seeing what longer trips are like, especially a commute.
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Date: 2009-11-22 22:46
Subject: The Lives of Perfect Creatures: Influences
Security: Public
What are LPC's influences?

I've got a lot of good ideas kicking around, I think, but since they're all for games I'm probably not going to get to play, I figured I should combine them all into this one. Let me list some of the more consistent ones:

Aberrant: This is a high-powered superhero game from the turn o the century. It wasn't very well balanced, and people complained that you couldn't make certain types of characters with it. White Wolf (the publishers) responded by saying that it wasn't supposed to create those types of games. It gave off a bit of a mixed message, but it was a good game if you wanted to play someone who was really several levels more capable than any person alive. It's notable because it did a good job at looking at how the emergence of superheroes would change society; the way that talents can fit into and impact the world comes primarily from Aberrant.

Jovian Chronicles: Jovian Chronicles is a hard sci-fi game from Dream Pod 9. It's heavily anime-influenced--Dream Pod 9 has a thing for giant fighting robots. Strip out the giant robots, though, and you actually have a really slick hard sci-fi game. I took the concept for the Solar Police from here, though in DP9's game, SolaPol is more like a really big InterPol rather than "the finest of Earth defending the planet!" vibe that it gives off in LPC. My hope is that the PCs will have a few adventures in space, and SolaPol will be a central factor in that.

Trail of Cthulhu/Unknown Armies: You may recognize Cthulhu from various tentacle horror stories, and you probably don't know Unknown Armies unless you like RPGs. Both of these are modern horror games that focus on the mental effects of learning Things People Were Not Meant To Know. In LPC, I'm borrowing some creatures, since the sorts of beasties that PCs end up encountering in these games tend to be good manifestations of the sickness some people can harbor in their minds. It's an effective tool in a superhero game as well, so long as you don't make the whole campaign into a Call of Cthulhu game with superpowers.

Ex Machina: This is a book put out by the now-defunct Guardians of Order, most famous for their Big Eyes, Small Mouth system, which was designed to model anime games. Ex Machina is a stand-alone book for cyberpunk games, and it's good. It talks about the history of cyberpunk, the influences on it, and it presents four very different-but-still-intriguing-and-creepy cyberpunk settings. I've borrowed some setting ideas from all of the settings in here, but there's one in particular that I'm swiping quite a bit from--people who know the book probably know which one, and that's all I'll say about it now, since I don't want to give anything away to players that may read this.

Mage: The Awakening: If you haven't noticed, I like my modern occult games. Mage focuses on characters that have learned how to manipulate reality and must do so in secret. Talents don't need to operate in secret, but a lot of the atmosphere that Mage creates can carry over into a superhero game as well. It's a good reminder of how to craft a good story and give challenges to people who have supernatural powers.
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Date: 2009-11-18 22:08
Subject: The Lives of Perfect Creatures: United in Fire
Security: Public
So who runs the show?

That's a good question, but in order to understand it, you need to know how we got to the place humanity currently is, so a short history lesson is in order.

In LPC, the United Nations actually disbanded in 1966 when, after their call for the ending of kinetic weapons testing in outer space, the U.S. and Russia pulled out, taking their money with them. Financial difficulties kicked in shortly, and they disbanded soon after that. "The most expensive bit of nothing in the world" went the way of the League of Nations.

The repercussions of a world without the UN are mostly on a humanitarian level: without a global organizer of effort, international aid groups end up having to deal with individual countries far more than they do now. Of course, the presence of the Talent Volunteers, or TeeVees, alleviates this somewhat, as they grow into an international group of superpowered do-gooders that chip in when the world needs it, but it makes the day-to-day help that international organizations provide that much more difficult to achieve.

Until the Builder Ship. Until the destruction of Mercury.

Ever since the alien IAM crash-landed at Roswell, New Mexico, people had known that aliens were present in the universe. IAM even gave a riveting interview on the Dick Cavett Show, and his final words on the interview spurred interest in xenology. It gave religions some time to adjust to the idea of a populated universe, gave world leaders a chance to begin formulating fist contact strategies, gave regular people the chance to understand their new position in the universe. Alien life wasn't confirmed by science until 1977, and the U.S. and Russia made a joint announcement in 1984 about the discovery of an alien empire, called the Builders, that were prevalent in their corner of space. The announcement shook everyone, and after a period of mass suicides and riots, conflicts throughout the globe actually cooled down and stopped over the next couple of years.

In 1985, a huge mass was detected at the edge of the solar system, transmitting the Builder signal. It sat there for almost a year before it suddenly teleported inside Mercury's orbit. It was visible to the naked eye as a dark spot against the sun, and people began to riot once more. And then, on April 22, 1986, the ship moved inward, dwarfing Mercury and, in a breath, smashed it to rubble. After a few moment's pause, as though it were admiring its work, it moved towards Venus. The U.S. and Russia quickly agree to a strike, and all of Earth's arsenal--nuclear missiles, rail guns, space rock thrown by super-strong talents--flew towards the Builder ship.

It took almost a month for the attack to find its target, but on May 18, 1986, it struck and halted the ship. The signal ceased to transmit, and it now sits between Venus and the sun. We've visited the ship, though all reports are, of course, classified so much that barely anyone knows what's inside it, but the mere presence of such an artifact in our solar system shifted the priorities of nations, and in 1992, 26 of the largest world governments signed the Berne Accord, a world defense treaty that put the welfare of humanity before the welfare of nations. And oddly enough, it stuck--the U.S. and Russia immediately stripped themselves of pro-nationalist rhetoric and began to rebuild the idea of the United Nations.

With other countries quickly jumping on the bandwagon, the rebuilt United Nations met on September 1st, 1992, and ratified the Berne Accord and began drafting the new United Nations charter. Not everyone is on board with the idea--China refuses to sign until 1993, when a nuclear test causes a flare-up of Cold War proportions, only for it to be neutralized by multinational talent squads; likewise, in 2002, smaller countries, mostly from the Middle East, South America and the Caribbean, sign a Declaration of Sovereignty to protest the growing influence of the new world group. But the dream of a united Earth stands large, and in 1994, the UN ratifies a new charter with expanded world governmental powers, and renames itself the Human League. With the political support of the majority of nations around the world, especially the more developed ones, the Human League creates the task force it needs to ensure the protection of humanity as it takes its first steps into the stars--the Solar Police, or SolaPol. With a new defense force, Earth looks starboard and plans its next move, keeping in mind the words of an alien first spoken to Dick Cavett almost a quarter of a century before:

"There are many others in the stars. They will come here. Soon."

Next time, I'll post on the current state of affairs with SolaPol, and I'll explain my influences on the creation of this timeline. Also, you should know that most, if not all, of this history until 1992 comes from the 1st edition Wild Talents book. I tried not to plagiarize the words, and I tried not to give away too much, but I hope people understand why I put it up here. Should anyone involved with the book want them removed, I will do so, but understand that no challenge to the copyright is intended by my use. Likewise, SolaPol is something used in the Jovian Chronicles game by Dream Pod 9, and is also not intended to be a challenge to copyright in any way, and I will remove the material if asked.

Finally, the quote from IAM is taken entirely from the Wild Talents book. It's an awesome quote, which is why I used it, but I really can't have people thinking I wrote that. That would be Uncool.
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Date: 2009-11-17 22:34
Subject: The Lives of Perfect Creatures: From Whence They Came
Security: Public
So where do superheroes come from?

If you look at comic books, superheroes have a variety of different origin stories, ranging from "I found a magic X!" to "I'm an alien!" to "I was just born awesome and made more awesome over time!" If there's a crazy story you can dream up, some out-there reason to give someone the ability to transmute toast to bagels, it can work as an origin.

In the LPC universe, if you corner a scientist specially focused on talents and asked them where talents originate, they'll likely start in on the demographic statistics of first manifest--the moment where someone demonstrates talent abilities--and break it down in several different ways, like nation, class, race, what they were doing just before manifest, adherence to a Pareto distribution curve according to more objective measurements of theoretical power levels. They will provide hypotheses on the meanings of different corollaries, and they will offer their own pet theory as to why.

Force said scientist into a corner, make them see how much you need to know, and they will avert their eyes and learn to mumble.

The truth is that no one is really sure as to what makes a person manifest. Currently, there are estimated to be 12,000 talents worldwide, with the actual numbers thought to have been low-balled to account for talents hiding in the Himalayas and other remote places, serving their village or making themselves out to be gods or some such. They tend to appear more or less proportionately to population density, but that's clearly just the odds. Sudden manifests seem to occur in traumatic or high-stress situations, which has led to many grid sites that offer "advice" on how to manifest by having your friends attempt to kill you without your knowing, or trap yourself in a Houdini-like device designed for deprivation and stress induction. People tend to ignore these now, but just enough teens die each year from self-inflicted wounds attempting to manifest that various governments have yearly ad campaigns to remind people of the futility of attempting to intentionally trigger a manifest.

But come on, that's not what people care about. That's the practical application, you know? What's the idea behind the phenomenon? What's the source?

What makes a talent?

And that's an uncomfortable question.

It's not a scientific process, that's for sure. Governments have been throwing cash at the question since World War II, and no one has come up with a reliable way to create them. (While the creation of such a process would be a huge breakthrough, the distribution of talents doesn't suggest a particular country has discovered it. Some paranoids claim they have, and the resulting talents are simply kept hidden or very subtle, but then they drag in the Trilateral Commission do Majestic-12 and whoever's listening rolls their eyes and goes back to their grid games.) Corporations have attempted this as well, but while some programs report some success, it can't be replicated, so everyone is stuck simply waiting for some to appear, and then pouncing on them with bribes when they do.

So could it be God? The presence of talents certainly hasn't caused a lack of faith in anyone. It has caused more small cults and minor schisms within the various religions, but for the most part, talents are accepted as simply there. The Catholic Church has declared talents to be a method of divine manifestation, akin to a small miracle, but that no talents are or have been the Second Coming, and Jesus was not a talent. Some Hindu brahmans and Buddhist monks believe talents are proof that devotion to the path of enlightenment can reap rewards. Still others claim every talent is a new god, born of flesh and made divine to fight for the souls of humanity. For all the ambiguity of miracles, though, people seem more or less as religious as they do today, though perhaps more jaded--sure, Jesus could walk on water, but that dude on the bus with the dreads and a tattoo of his dog can throw a Hummer a half-mile. Does that mean you should worship him?

Hyperbrains who study the data long enough note a presence of…something. No one has put a name on it yet, but they tend to say that, if you could visually represent all of the data somehow--studies, stories, ethnographies, and so on--you would start to see a picture. No one can agree on what the picture is, or what importance said picture would have, but when hyperbrains start discussing it, they all nod in agreement, their heads bobbing up and down at the same steady rate, and they acknowledge that something is there.

When asked if that something is God, hyperbrains never answer.

So for now we wait. On nights when the sky is clear and the wind is strong enough to carry the scent of leaves around the block, people raise their heads and close their eyes, and as the breeze tickles their eyelashes, they spread their arms and imagine themselves rising into the night sky to take their place as a modern miracle.
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Date: 2009-11-16 22:12
Subject: The Lives of Perfect Creatures: My World in Four Colors
Security: Public
So what does a superhero universe look like?

One of the neat ideas that Wild Talents brought up was the idea of four axes based on color which allow you to rate important concepts to your world, which makes it easy to determine not just what changes, but by how much. Anyone who looks at this and notices the "four-color heroics" concept is right on the money. The four colors are ranked from 1 to 5:

Red: Historical inertia. How much can a talent change the world? 1 means a talent can change history easily, and they probably do all the time. 5 means that can't be changed, and the world looks pretty much the way it does in the real world.

Gold: Talent inertia. How much can a given talent change themselves, especially in the eyes of society? 1 means they're like regular people, who can choose allegiances and change their minds. 5 means that Dr. Nasty will always revert to his innate lust for power and depravity, while Captain Shiny cannot repress his instinct to do good, no matter how drugged up or amnesiac he may be.

Blue: The lovely and the pointless. This was originally used by Alan Moore to describe Wonder Woman's invisible jet--it's those weird things that people should question, but don't. How much do they not question them? 1 means that the only paranormal elements in the world are talents, and even talents are looked at as weird and unnatural. 5 means that Joe Average accepts that sometimes an army of hyperintelligent gorillas armed with death rays invades the city and subjugates the population. That's why we have talents to save us, after all.

Black: Moral clarity. How black and white are issues, especially involving good and evil? 1 means that there are no moral absolutes, while 5 means evil loses because it's evil, and the right choice is always the righteous one.

So what sort of world is LPC set in?

Red 2: It can change, but it takes work and a bit of luck. Talents are often powerful enough that they can shape local events easily, and as they grow more powerful, they can shape larger kinds of events. There are a few talents that have the ability to change the world fairly easily if they so chose, and large groups of them, like the Odd Squad or the TeeVees (short for "Talent Volunteers"), have an easier time of it.

Gold 2: You may have a schtick as a hero, but it's generally easier for a talent to change themselves than a regular person can change their career. Powers may stay the same, but you can remake yourself if you want. Being a talent tends to incur a certain level of celebrity simply because you're special, but the flashier and more powerful abilities can make you more famous if you choose. Life in the public eye means there's less wiggle room for mistakes, and the public has a long memory, but it's still possible to change through hard, earnest work (and a good PR manager.)

Blue 3.5: The destruction of Mercury shot the world from Blue 1 to Blue 3 right quick, and it's shifting more as the world reorganizes itself to prepare for true extraterrestrial contact. Space stations are accepted, but aliens are noteworthy. Flying talents are noteworthy, but not newsworthy by themselves--after all, people have known that some talents could fly since Der Flieger flew into the Olympic Stadium under his own power and lit the torch for the 1938 Berlin Olympics. Science has benefited from the existence of hyperbrains, but there are still some people running around with Quantum Destabilization Cannons or some such nonsense--they aren't too bad as long as they don't do anything unexpected and force other talents to come fight them.

Black 2: We can generally recognize good and evil, but noting someone is evil doesn't make you good. There are a lot of moral grays in this world, and while we have some ideals to strive for, we can fall pretty short in our attempts to reach them. A lot like our current world, huh?

It's an interesting and relatively fast way to come up with superhero histories, and it helps establish some of the social contract of the game as well--for example, if you want to play an alien in my game, that's cool, but recognize that you won't fit in ever. It gives us some rough guidelines to work from, and that's pretty cool.
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Date: 2009-11-15 22:25
Subject: The Lives of Perfect Creatures
Security: Public

All the universe is full of the lives of perfect creatures.
- Constantine Tsiolkovski

I always feel bad about not writing in my LJ, and about not being more of a creative writer. I don't always have time to spend on writing essays and poetry, but I do spend a fair amount of time considering role playing games. So I'm going to try and write more about a Wild Talents campaign I'm trying to start up.

Wild Talents is a superhero game based on the idea that super-powered individuals, called talents, started appearing just before World War II. The first game that came out for this system, called Godlike, was a really gritty supers game, so being a talent didn't necessarily mean you were special--You can start fires with your mind? Awesome. Just be careful not to get shot by snipers or step on a mine or die from a grenade or any of the thousand different ways a person can die in a war, and you'll be a hero.

Talents start getting more powerful after the war, though, and as they do, they begin to have more of an effect on world events. Aliens are discovered in the late '50s/early '60s; handheld computers and the Internet are prevalent by the late '70s; Mercury is destroyed in the '90s, and the event causes world leaders to take the idea of a world government more seriously. The UN, once disbanded, now reforms, and begins to take a more active role in international relations.

The game is set in an alternate present day; the book only describes event up until about 2000, and I've created my own little timeline that borrows from other games like Aberrant and Ex Machina, but I try to keep it fairly recognizable as well--ideas like augmented reality and posthumanism are present, but not to a much greater extent than they are now.

The idea of this…bloggojournal thingy is to get some of these ideas down and to flesh out the background I already have in my head. It feels heavy-handed to give all of this data in-game sometimes, and it'd be nice to get it in a place where people can see it. Some of this is inspired by Mightygodking's blog entries about why he should write Doctor Strange, which after seeing his entries, I have to agree with. I'm hoping that my explanations can inspire some other people and give them ideas as well.

We'll see where this goes. Suggestions welcome.
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Date: 2009-03-01 22:58
Subject: Biking
Security: Public
I love biking. Cycling. Whatever you want to call it. This past summer, I biked to work almost every day (well, every day it was sunny) and loved it. I had about a 20-mile total commute, and I felt a lot better doing it. Right now, I'm itching to get back in the saddle and ride to work, but it's way to cold for me to consider that right now. However, I've been biding my time reading books about cycling philosophy and reading a cool cycling comic strip, Yehuda Moon & the Kickstand Cyclery. It's a neat strip, as far as I'm concerned, but after reading the books and the comments at the bottom of the page of each comic strip, I'm forced to determine something fundamental about the hobby.

Cyclists are a bunch of whiny, cliquish jerks.

I'm sure that there are a fair number of cyclists (bikers? biking enthusiasts? I'm not sure what term to use) that are agreeable folk. However, it seems that there are some really deep lines drawn in the community, and you're either with someone or against them. One of those lines is the racing/commuting divide, where racers look at commuters as being slow and idealistic, and the commuters dismiss the racers and being lycra-clad elitists who feel they can run red lights and stop signs in the name of maintaining momentum. Then there are the vehicular cyclists who hate anyone who uses a bike path, and the helmet haters who feel that being forced to wear a styrofoam helmet is akin to a scarlet A, and the eco-friendlies who despise cyclists who also drive, and the cold-weather cyclists who sneer at those who don't bike in the snow, and...and...and.... 

I love roleplaying games, so I understand where some of the problem lies; whenever you have a hobby/interest with multiple styles, you're always going to have propoents who tout the virtues of their style over all others. But look at a gaming community like, say, RPG.net, and you'll see that the myth of "the best gaming style" is pretty much thrown out the window. There are clear favorites among some people, but few people stand up now and say "MY way is best! Rawr!" and duke it out with everyone who disagrees. (Admittedly, this is most likely due to moderation policies that make RPG.net one of the most civil online forums I've seen, but still.) People accept that the goal is to have fun, and as long as you're having fun, then what you're doing doesn't much matter. Playing Exalted using the rules for poker? Cool. Not my thing, but if you're having fun, then keep playing.

In contrast, look at the comments for the March 1st Yehuda Moon strip, "Suggestions and Sermons." Yehuda (the guy in green with the cap) and Joe (his business partner with the unibrow) are an Odd Couple concept; Yehuda is a year-round lifestyle cyclist who insists steel bikes and leather seats are the best method of biking, and Joe wears his lycra outfits, rides a carbon frame bike and refuses to bike when it's cold or raining. Yehuda's an activist, and Joe's trying to sell bikes. This strip highlights one of the fundamental differences they have--the previous day, Yehuda scared off a couple who wanted information on bike routes in the area by trying to convince them that they could be cycling all over the place for everything they needed to do, and when he asks Joe if he was too preachy, Joe starts digging into him by shouting "Amen!" after everything Yehuda says. It's a fight that's carried over into the comments as well, where the readers start sniping at the other readers who take one side over the other. By the end of the comments, the fight is over which side is right, not about the comic at all, and while I understand that good comics can generate discussion, no one is really discussing anything--they're trying to be right by being loud and/or witty.

Maybe it's my rhetoric training, but I keep looking at the arguments on these sides and wonder why they can't figure out their differences and get their act together long enough to make meaningful change. There are a lot of cyclists out there, but the divisions run so deep that they can't seem to work together long enough to make big changes to promote cycling. I'd love to join a cycling group, but then I'd start to be associated with them, whoever they are, and the lines would start drawing around me as well.

I dunno. I suppose I'll just keep riding and doing my best to promote something I love, but it would be really cool if I could consider myself part of a reasonable group, rather than one with such polarized divisions.

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Date: 2009-02-19 16:34
Subject: The Extent of My Reach
Security: Public
I have a student who has been having difficulty with her latest essay. It involves research, and she can't get access to one of the sources she needs (it's an online source, and her computer won't let her access it for some crazy reason. I've tried to help her myself, and it defies logic, so I know this isn't just an excuse.) She's also been having difficulty with the whole organizational structure, so she sent me an email last night saying that she was giving up because she was stressed, and if I think I could help, I should call her.

I was debating on whether or not I should call. I was leaning towards requiring her to call me, because I didn't want to call her and have a 20-minute conversation about how the paper is too hard and she's busy and she has three kids and listen to her justify to herself why she should drop the class. On the other hand, I am a caring person, and one of the points I pride myself on is my willingness to work with a student if they need help. I've I've adjusted due dates and driven out to the suburbs on my own dime to talk to my students. A community college student isn't the same as a four-year student, and I'm willing to believe that, if I give them a little break, they can achieve the goals I've set. I've been burned by this plenty of times, but I've had enough students prove me right that I keep doing this.

Last quarter, though, was rough at the end. I had a number of students I really, really tried to help, and it just didn't work. I kept hearing excuses, and it started to wear me out. So this quarter, I decided I was going to really, honestly, be stricter on my policies--no late work, half off late essays for one week after the due date, attendance policies are strict, and so on. I haven't been perfect--the attendance policy is one I've slid a little on--but I've felt better about standing by my grading decisions. So when her email appeared in my mailbox after my initial explanation of why she didn't pass her first paper, I wasn't sure what to do. I wanted her to show me she still cared and contact me, but she didn't appear to want to do that and wanted me to call her. I talked to people at school about this, and they said I was pretty nice just to give her my phone number, and that they normally reply by saying that "they understand if you want to drop because this class is too much effort right now" or something like that. I wouldn't catch any flak for replying that way, especially after explaining the situation and giving her my phone number. Still, there was something inside me that felt like that kind of reply was...a cheap way out. She's enrolled in my online course, so it's not like I'll see her in class next week. Calling is the most immediate form of communication I've had for some students.

Eventually, I did call, and we talked for 20 minutes about the requirements. She's going to try it again, and I may end up shifting the due date for her so she can get this done. But after I hung up, I thought about this and realized I was assuming something about my position--that, as the teacher, there's a certain level of trust that automatically comes with that. But some students, especially in a community college setting, don't necessarily have that trust of teachers (or of any authority figure, for that matter.) They see teachers as obstacle placers, people who set arbitrary deadlines and don't budge, even if there might be a good reason because "then I'd have to do that for everyone in class." And perhaps, in order to give her the help she really needs, I had to call her to establish to her that I really do mean it when I say I'm willing to help.

I may yet get burned by her. She might decide to drop the class in another week or two, or she might feed me more excuses in hopes for an extension. But right now, I feel good about the fact that I could reach out to her and give her the help she needed. And I hope that, in ten or twenty years, I'll still be the kind of teacher who's willing to call a student, to make that first gesture to help instead of requiring students to fulfill certain conditions to earn it.
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Date: 2009-02-18 20:48
Subject: (no subject)
Security: Public
Piggybacking off of my previous friends-only post, I saw this article in the New York Times about students' expectations of grades versus the professors' expectations. And when I reflect back on my own experiences, I'm not sure whose side I fall on.

On the one hand, I certainly don't agree with the "more effort = higher grade" crowd. Just because you spent a lot of time writing an essay in my class doesn't automatically meant the essay is good. (This is usually followed up with "Next time, focus less on finding sources to dump into your paper and try writing an actual argument with good logic.") And my grades were hardly reflective of the effort I put into them--my English classes rarely required a whole lot of effort, and even if they did, I usually enjoyed it. Does my relative ease in handling these assignments mean I should be penalized because I didn't sweat over it like a bunch of other people?

On the other hand, I can see that a student's attempts at fulfilling the requirements should count for something. There's a danger in getting too entangled with the story of a student that you want that student to succeed, but in all honesty, I think that the slight adjustment of grades for students you like or respect is part of the system. Heck, in my field, we call that effort "process," and we do consider that in the final grade.

Sadly, though, the majority of student complaints tend to come from people who feel they deserve better. Some do it because they aren't used to low grades; others do it because they think that the teacher might change the grade so they'll shut up. Some--some are just idiots, and they think the world owes them, quite honestly. I don't think the student I was talking about earlier falls under that; those types of students usually end up as real troublemakers, the kind you have to call security on because they're crossing the line. I'm not sure what the solution is, quite honestly, especially in colleges like mine where students may have very different expectations, either due to their high school experiences or to poor social expectations.

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Date: 2009-02-11 09:54
Subject: How To Save Newspapers
Security: Public
That liberal rag of a paper, the New York Times, ran a blog entry by several prominent people in the journalism/ad business on how to solve the current crisis in newspapers. In case you aren't aware, many newspapers are in danger of folding in the next year, including quite a few large ones. As someone who was once a reporter for a small-town paper, I've got a decent sense of both sides of the issue, and it's one that's occupied a bit of my thinking.

The main problem with newspapers, in my opinion, is that they're reliant on a model of business that died a few years ago. True, print publishing in general has been on the skids, but newspapers are hit even more because everything they do has been co-opted by other media. Fewer people are turning to the classifed ads for jobs, for example, and other parts of the classifieds are being eaten up by free services like Craigslist. Print ads also suffer because a newspaper isn't targeted to a specific audience. And many newspapers, especially smaller local ones, use AP and other wire stories (which internet savvy people can find easily online) to help fill ad space that they haven't sold, giving the paper even less original content. And as if that wasn't enough, all of the original content they do provide is often offered on the paper's web site for free, meaning all of those internet savvy consumers--you know, the ones who are slowly replacing the elderly that are both dying off and make up a large percentage of a newspaper's readership--don't need to pay to get the one item they value from a local paper: local news and information.

I don't think it takes a genius to see the problems with the newspaper's business model.

I admit I'm part of the problem; I read the Columbus Dispatch's web site every day, taking a look at the local news and happenings around town. I check out the Crew articles and try to keep up to date on what's happening in local government. The reason I'd never pay for a paper is because I'm essentially paying for a ton of extra advertisements I don't want or need. Elaine says that she enjoys the ritual of sitting down on a weekend and reading the paper over breakfast, and I had the same kind of ritual when I was a kid, but even now, the newspapers tend to pile up outside unread, and out of the entire Sunday paper, the only section we seem to regularly go for is the Sunday comics (which are slowly becoming more reprints of comics like Peanuts and For Better Or For Worse) and the Jo-Ann's ad which Elaine values for the coupon in the back. It takes a lot of paper to make a Sunday edition, and we use about five sheets of it, then recycle the rest. Why should I pay for that? Even Elaine is tiring of having to constantly gather and recycle these papers.

On the other hand, I really do see the value of having local news and reporters. A lot of your daily life is affected by what happens at a local level, even if you live in a small town, and having a local source of information is something every community needs. And as I think more about the local papers I've subscribed to, I think the problem isn't so much that I don't value local news, but that I don't value the current incarnation of newspapers. I would gladly pay money to get the news--it's just that the newspaper is filled with all sorts of junk that I don't want. I realize that ad space keeps the price down, but I don't want a ton of ads. I want the news, and having to flip pages and filter through the ads actively devalues the experience for me. The online articles, on the other hand, are immediately available for free. It's like going to a car dealer and having him say "If you want, you can test-drive this Ferrari for as long as you want. We'll pay for gas and maintenance and everything. But we'd really like it if you would buy a car from us." Why would I pay for something the business is willing to give away for free?

To me, this is the big paradox of the industry, and I saw it a lot when I was working at The Reporter in Fond du Lac. There were days when I would get a call from my editor saying "We need something to fill an extra eight inches of space because we didn't sell enough ads." The dirty truth is that, in a newspaper, the news is the least important item to the business. It's the hook that gets you to purchase the advertising packaged with it. The papers place such little value on their news that they're willing to give it away for free on a web site. Sadly, this is being mirrored by a lot of their "readers," many of whom would call me complaining about the paper and ending their call with "I only subscribe because of the coupons, anyway." And the readers the newspaper would really love to get, the ones who are intelligent and interested and engaged in local affairs? They're also smart enough to realize that the newspaper doesn't value the only piece of their business worht bothering with, so they read it online, if they bother to care t all. Then start factoring in the instant news glut that the internet provides, a growing internet-reliant population, the increase of popularity of digital readers for print media, and the meteoric rise of bloggers as a viable and trusted news source, and you start to see an industry that's not struggling because times are bad, but because their entire business model has been torn out from underneath them in a matter of a few years. The ones who still feed the system, who keep subscribing to the paper, are the ones who can't get regular internet access or don't want to give up the tradition of the paper. (Or coupon clippers. Who I hate. But I'm not bitter.)

So. The article.

The article is, in a grand irony, a blog article available only on their web site, which they offer for free. In it, several big shots, including deans of journalism colleges and the founder of Craigslist, offer their perspectives on the crisis. And I really like this article not for just for the different points of view, but because I think these people offer some solutions that are really intriguing. For example, Joel Kramer's idea of offering more in-depth coverage, but charging people more for access, is a good one, but I think he's stuck on the idea of a newspaper being a print medium. After all, the people who would really love all that in-depth coverage are likely people who rely heavily on their digital devices. Why would they want to lug around a physical newspaper? Still, I would be happy to pay more for a newspaper that actually looked at local issues in depth and provided different facts and perspectives.

I value the local news, and I wish there was an easy solution to the problems newspapers are facing. Unfortunately, the problem appears to be the newspapers themselves, and unless they're willing to change who they are and what they do, I'm worried that local reporting will die a quick death. Hopefully, the publishers will come to their senses and do something fast. Heck, if they can give me the news I want without the ads, I'd even pay for it.

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my journal
December 2009