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Writers' Block--Not

"Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." -- Gene Fowler

I was reading The Most Of Nora Ephron today when I came to her essay near the end on revision and how she writes. It made me want to come clean about my own writing habits.

 I have never had Writers’ Block. Not once in 62 years of life, 52 of them as a writer. I have written approximately 10 million words for pay and countless millions more for my own amusement. I have written a novel (a terrible one called Vernon Jones, Super Scientific Detective, inspired by the Tom Swift books I loved as a kid; I was 12 when I wrote its 120 single-spaced pages. It has mercifully been lost to the ages), dozens of radio scripts, the book for a musical, hundred of wire service stories (“that’s not writing, that’s typing”), hundreds of local radio newscasts, hundreds of newspaper articles, numerous press releases, a published non-fiction book (Aspirin Therapy: Reducing Your Risk of Heart Disease, Walker and Co., New York, 1979) hundreds of scripts for television software reviews, thousands of articles about computer technology, and dozens of proto-podcasts. I wrote my last word as a professional in October, 2001. Since then I have written hundreds of thousands of words in my blog.

 And in all that time, faced with all those blank sheets of paper (or, since 1975, blank computer screens), I have never once been “blocked.” I have never known the feeling Gene Fowler describes above, which is apparently quite common among professional writers, especially screenwriters and novelists. As I said, I’ve only written one novel and never written a screenplay, so maybe I’m just in the wrong line of work to have that experience. To tell you the truth, very few journalists I know suffer from Writers’ Block. You can’t. The tyranny of the deadline is relentless (I have included a quotation on that subject at the end of this essay). The kind of delicate flower who suffers from Writers’ Block does not usually last long in journalism.

 In fact, my favorite quotation about my writing abilities comes from A.J. Liebling, a New Yorker writer, who said of himself, “I write better than anyone who writes faster and faster than anyone who writes better.” That’s me; the single most productive staff member of The Tech, Computer Systems News, Information Systems News and InformationWEEK. In fact, in August of 1985, I wrote one-third of IW.

 I’ve always suspected I avoided block because my writing has always been “reality-based.” I don’t have to dream things up; I just report them. It doesn’t hurt that I type quickly, and think almost as quickly as I type.

 Which brings me to the other point Ephron makes, about how revision improves writing. She came to this realization in her 20s. I have never come to it. I am working on a memoir with a coach, and that writing undergoes revisions. But otherwise, no, what you see is pretty much the first draft, and 90% of the time I am proud of it and happy with it. I did do a lot of revision in my early days as a journalist, but, like Ephron, it was mostly on the first paragraph, or the “lede” as journalists call it. Break the back of the lede and the rest of the story will fall into place. When I think of all the reams of paper I ran through before word processing… Now that there is no editor looking over my shoulder, now that I practicing a more discursive form of writing, I’m not sure I can do better than the stream of consciousness I type at about 40 word per minute. I enjoy writing it. I hope you enjoy reading it.

 Now, as promised, the most vivid description of the nature of deadlines I have ever read:

 I can tell you what its like to work for a newspaper. Imagine a combine, one of those huge threshing machines that eat up a row of wheat like nothing, bearing right down on you. You're running in front of it, all day long, day in and day out, just inches in front of the maw, where steel blades are whirring and clacking and waiting for you to get tired or make one slip. The only way to keep the combine off you is to throw it something else to rip apart and digest. What you feed it is stories. Words and photos. Ten inches on this, fifteen inches on that, a vertical shot here and a horizontal there, scraps of news and film that go into the maw where they are processed and dumped onto some page to fill the spaces around the ads. Each story buys you a little time, barely enough to slap together the next story, and the next and the next. You never get far ahead, you never take a breather, all you do is live on the hustle. Always in a rush, always on deadline, you keep scrambling to feed the combine. That's what it's like. The only way to break free is with a big story, one you can ride for a while and tear off in pieces so big, the combine has to strain to choke them down. That buys you a little time. But sooner or later the combine will come chomping after you again, and you better be ready to feed it all over again.
--Ray Ring
from the novel Arizona Kiss

San Jose Saxophone Christmas (SaXmas)

On and off for the last decade, I have driven an hour to San Jose, practiced for two hours and then played two one-hour concerts of Christmas music along with 199 other saxophones. Details of San Jose SaXmas can be found here. I enjoy it, and I go when my schedule allows, which includes this year. For the first time, I actually had family members watching; my nephew and his girlfriend, who live five blocks from the first venue, and my elder daughter M and her boyfriend, who lives in San Jose. That made it a special thrill, supplemented by a truly great hot chocolate being sold outside the Fairmont Hotel, across from the temporary Ice Rink that is set up as part of Christmas in the Park (if you live down there, give it a look). Next year, my daughter M may join me and the others (she played Alto in high school and college).  Because of their presence, I have some close up pictures this year.

Note that I am the only one playing in this picture. Could it have been staged?


This is more like what it really looked like. Careful where you stand: otherwise all you'll hear are tenors and baritones playing harmony. Stand over to the conductor's right, where the Altos carry most of the melodies.

This and That: Pournelle stroke, Sony

My dear friend and former colleague,  Dr. Jerry Pournelle, is recovering from a stroke. We have rarely agreed on matters political, but he is an excellent author and I consider myself fortunate to call  him my friend. My prayers are with him.

Stephen Coquet writes:

This guy hits it on the head: with regard to Sony's capitulation. 

We should send a petition to Sony Pictures: Sirs: Your movie probably sucks, But if you will show some gumption (you could look it up)and release it , we, the undersigned will go see it in a theater.

I'd sign that petition.

Christmas Message

[Note: We're headed out for Hawaii for a week]

In the fine old tradition of journalists who recycle their holiday messages year after year, here's the 15th  rerun of my Christmas message since Dec. 21, 1998 (with a few slight modifications).

Season's greetings to one and all. Apologies to those of you who feel oppressed by the season. I know Christians, atheists and Jews who feel the seasonal oppression in equal parts. Oppression and depression. I'm sorry. This message isn't going to cheer you up, much.

This is a time of year that has inspired some of the most brilliant writing in the English language. It ranges from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (which single-handedly revived the celebration of Christmas as a major holiday in the English-speaking world), to the sturdy newspaper editorial entitled Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. In more modern times, we have, among other things, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and the unforgettable Bill Murray as Scrooge in the Dickens adaptation, Scrooged. (Not to mention Olive, The Other Reindeer. Never seen it. Love the pun).

Alas, like so many of us, the muse seems to have taken off early. I briefly considered, as I do every year, throwing in some of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas In Wales which Fr. Harrison West and I recited several times at Benson High School assemblies (long before he was Fr. West). But then I decided just to do a quick Christmas column.

What is Christmas about? It can be about the birth of Jesus, but for most of us it isn't. It's about many things.

Christmas is about singing (or listening to) Christmas carols. My favorite annual Christmas party, bar none, is the Christmas Caroling party held annually by our best friends. They're Jewish, and so are many of the party goers. Joyful voices raised together. Doesn't matter if they're not in tune. Doesn't matter if some of the lyrics are Christian claptrap. Jingle Bells, White Christmas and Here Comes Santa Claus, along with the rest of the secular Christmas liturgy are just plain fun. I love doing  "Five Golden Rings" every year with my friend Norm hen we sing The 12 Days Of Christmas.

Christmas is about family and friends. It is about Egg Nog (or fat-free "Holiday Nog") and all the rest of the seasonal food. It is about the children.

It's about traveling, at the worst travel time of year, to be with your family. This year, we are headed to Kona, Hawaii with our adult daughters for a week in the sun. 

Christmas is about family traditions when you're a kid, and the blending of family traditions when you marry. In childhood, my family stayed at home on Christmas, my wife was always a Christmas runaway. My lights went up the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year and came down the Saturday after New Years. Vicki's went up on Christmas Eve and came down on Boxing Day.  There aren't as many lights as when the girls were little. That's OK.

We've had artificial trees for years. M asked for a big real tree her freshman year at college, so we put a 14-footer in the library in 1999; then R asked for one and got it in 2003. This year -- just a little tabletop tree with Chinese decorations. But it's a fancy artificial tree, prewired with two kinds of lights and a remote control, modeled after a White Vermont Spruce. We bought it in January 2008, at an after-Christmas sale in an artificial tree store. The lights are starting to burn out; I don't know how long it's got.

Christmas is about giving thanks. Thanksgiving is the official holiday to give thanks for our good fortune, but nothing says you can't do that at Christmas as well. Every Christmas morning when I wake up with my health, my wife, my children, and my brother as part of this world, I count my blessings. Mine are beyond counting. I hope yours are too. I have adult-onset diabetes, but there are lots of worse diseases in the world. Mine, at least, is under control. I almost died in a car crash in January 2007, but I'm still alive. My wacky ticker made me faint, and now I have a defibrillator/pacemaker. Beats the alternative.

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six...

Christmas Without Tears

The lovely and talented Harry Shearer and his lovely and talented wife Judith Owen took their "Christmas Without Tears" show on the road again this year. The last showing was Thursday in Evanston, Ill. and it was sold out. If you're interested, keep an eye on Harry's website starting in November. I was privileged to watch their San Francisco appearance on Tuesday Dec. 16. In theory, the show has two parts, local talent singing their own holiday songs, then a sing-along. On Tuesday, the first half lasted from 8:15 to 10:15. I love a good Christmas sing-along, but I did not want to risk missing the last BART train home. And, frankly, I'm not much of a late bird on weeknights. As it was, I didn't get to bed until 11:30.

But enough about logistics. Harry and Judith do not announced the first act lineup prior to the show, so the guest artists are a delightful surprise. On this occasion, they included Dan Hicks (who looks good for 70 and played two original Christmas songs), comedian Will Durst, some lovely female vocalists whose names I did not catch, monologist Josh Kornbluth (A Communist Christmas, 1964) and Drag Star Countess Katya Smirnoff-Skyy (a 6-foot-3 redhead). Everyone was in great form. Harry performed his financial crisis/Santa song, and Judith sang Harry's Christmas for Satan (a Spinal Tap creation). Harry accompanied Judith on what I can only describe as a bass fiddle in the shape of a acoustic guitar. It looked like a guitar, but sounded like a bass fiddle. I have no idea what it is called, and I couldn't find it on the Internet. The show, like all of Harry's Christmas tours, was a fundraiser for musicians and mental health charities. It was well worth $40! If you love Harry, go, and try not to worry about the time.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

This film has, to put it mildly "enjoyed" remarkably mixed reviews. It presents like the middle episode of a trilogy, with an inconclusive and unsatisfying ending.  But as for the rest, I am going to go along with the analysis from the Slate Culture Gabfest. Clearly this is a feminist film, with a strong, empowered female figure at its center. The question is, do we want our daughters to grow up to be girlfriend/love interest or the protagonist. My daughters are both protagonists, and I would wish for nothing less for everyone else's. Jennifer Lawrence turns in a good performance as does the regrettably late Philip Seymour Hoffman. There's a lot of death, destruction and Donald Sutherland, but some moments of hope as well.

This and That

The Sony Hack and the Yellow Press: Aaron Sorkin: The Press Shouldn’t Help the Sony Hackers. I think Sorkin is exactly right. He quoted Princess Bride, but I will quote Douglas Adams: This must be some interesting new definition of newsworthy with which I wasn't previously familiar.
Which didn't stop me making fun of the situation. I made the HumorLabs list:
The Top 11 Surprises Found in the Hacked Sony Emails
 9> "'After Earth' is in the red, because we had to pay theaters to show it."

Humor Labs: Two on one list!
11> "The Merry Wives of Windsor" was originally called "Ye Old
    Real Housewives of Windsor."

 8> The famous buffoon wasn't named John Falstaff. His original
    name was Donald Trump.
India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, aims to rebrand and promote yoga in India
Two from Daniel Dern
Goodbye Dr. Dobbs (which was briefly the parent of just after I edited the site), in turn linking to
the editor's farewell.

Also Hobbit trailer parodies. The Hobbit Games. (lots of other hits in this category, no surprise.)  Plus this, suggested by a friend:
middle-earth-the-office parody from SNL.
I joined Pottermore and got sorted into Ravenclaw
The ubiquitous Ken Jennings is running a news quiz at

Gerard "Gerry" Leeds (and CMP): Memories

I posted a brief note on Dec. 1, when I heard of Gerry's passing. I have yet to hear of a memorial service; if there is one, I hope someone lets me know. Some people were telling stories of their relationship with Gerry on Linkedin, in the CMP Alumni Forum, but I'd rather tell mine here.

When I started in April 1979, there were only 100 employees. I was the only editorial employee in the San Jose office; accounting often mistook me for an advertising salesman. My friend Richard Parker had gone to high school with James Alkon, who was an editor at Computer Systems News. I applied for a job there. Instead of being interviewed by an editor, I was interviewed by the dynamic and colorful CSN publisher, the late Tom Cooper. We talked over breakfast at the Fisherman's Wharf Sheraton in San Francisco. He recommended me to the editor, Al Perlman, who took my résumé to Gerry. At that time, Gerry still had input on every hire in the company. He took one look at my résumé, which featured five jobs in five years, and told Perlman, "Hire him if you want, but he'll be gone in two years." Al hired me.

Ironically, Gerry was right. My intention was to use CSN as a holding job until there was an opening on the San Francisco Examiner, whose business editor, Dave Dietz, promised me the next opening on the business news staff. He reneged on the promise, and I ended up staying at CMP not for two years, but for 20 (on and off).

Flash forward to Comdex in Las Vegas in 1981. It is breakfast time, and I am dining with Al and a few other CSN staffers. Gerry is sitting across the room. He sends a bottle of champagne to our table, then drops by to explain. "I was wrong Paul," he said. "I thought you'd be gone in two years, but you're still here." When he said it, I realized that I had worked for CMP longer than I had for any other employer. He was pleased to hear that.

One of the most wonderful things about CMP was the annual summer conference, when all the sales and editorial employees were gathered for a week on Long Island to meet, mingle, learn and party. For the 10th anniversary summer conference in 1982, spouses were invited. My wife and 18-month-old baby came, but we weren't sure whether to bring the baby to the party, and if not, how to arrange child care. I mentioned the problem to Gerry, who said, "The woman who used to watch our children is still in the area," Thus, he loaned me the family nanny for the night. It was a great party, made better by the presence of my wife.

[Gifford Pinchot IV spoke one year at summer conference, and introduced CMP employees to what he called the Jesuit Rule: "It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission." A few months later, Gerry confided in me that hiring Pinchot as a speaker was "a bad idea." Another year, Penn and Teller came and taught a CMP executive to do the disappearing scarf trick.]

In  early 1984, I left CMP for a few months. When I returned, Gerry asked me up to his office and inquired as to what I wanted to be doing in five years. I told him I hoped I'd still be working for him. "No you won't," he said. "Here, let me take you downstairs and introduce you to someone." He introduced me to his son Michael, who was working for some other CMP Publication (one of the travel publications, I think). "Paul, this is the next president of CMP. Michael, this is one of our best employees." And thus began another warm relationship with the Leeds family, that lasted until the family sold the company in 1999 (and has continued on an occasional basis since).

Gerry and his wife Lilo ran an amazing company because they were amazing people who actually cared as much for their employees as they did their profit, and passed that attitude on to their children, who succeeded them at the helm, and to the senior officials of the company. [In fact, I know first-hand how much Gerry cared about the employees; he  found it very frustrating, in the late 90s, that he no longer knew the name of every employee; there were then 1,000 of us] Twice during my career, the unit I was working for disappeared. In neither case was I laid off; when the Leeds family was running the place, good people were kept until a position could be found for them. The third time, when CMPNet imploded, UBM, the new owners, showed no such reciprocal loyalty. I was out.


The only negative experience I had at CMP involved an executive whose rise was always a mystery to me. He was based on Long Island, a prequisite for promotion to senior positions at CMP. During 2000, CMPNet was suffering 33 percent turnover. The two units I ran, and had zero turnover. That's right. Zero turnover. He was not my immediate supervisor, but we were having lunch because we'd known each other for nearly 20 years. I asked if anyone in Manhasset had noticed that I ran the only CMPNet units with no turnover. "I can't answer that," he said, "Since I am not your supervisor, and this is work-related feedback, I would need your supervisor's permission to tell you." I have always felt that was the most stick-up-the-ass response I ever got from any CMP executive on any subject. He later ended up advising my division to lay me off (six months after both my units were shut down). I resented it at the time (and ran an anniversary column of my layoff for years), but I've gotten over it. It would have been nice to get one attaboy for running a piepond of tranquility in a time of unrest, but apparently I'll just have to congratulate myself for it. It was a very un-Leeds conversation, but of course, by then the Leeds were gone and the long, slow slide into oblivion (under this mystery executive's hands, among others) had begun.

To Seattle by Train

I finally did something I have been meaning to do for decades. I took a long ride on a private railcar. I am still interested in riding on one like the Virginia City, (how can you not love a car with a fireplace), but in the meantime the Silver Solarium will have to do. It has been meticlously restored by its owners. If you ride, ask Bert to see his PowerPoint--the amount of work required to rennovate the cars was eye-watering. This car and its two sisters are examples of the epitome of American rail car construction: Vistadome cars built for a mid-20th-century streamliner train. They are moved around by being attached Amtrak trains. Amtrak reminds me of what friend the private pilot says about flying in a private prop plane: "Time to spare? Go by air." Thanks to the shuttling of the Coast Starlight onto sidings to allow freight trains to pass (a violation of federal law known as the "Amtrak Two-Step") the Coast Starlight is often hours late. That's fine if you don't care. We didn't care. Although Vicki is not a train buff and generally does not sleep well on trains, she consented to join me and agreed she had a pretty good time.

We engaged the suite, which has a double bed that can be made up into two large seats during the day. Since we spent all our time in the dome and the observation car, we left our bed set up all day so I could take two naps and V could take one.

The train was an hour late into Emeryville. We were the only passengers getting on the Silver Solarium, so we were greeted by name. We were served dessert in the dome car and hit the sack at about midnight. We were up at 7 the next morning, in time to see some beautiful Cascade mountain scenery along the Natron Cutoff between Weed, California and Eugene, Oregon by way of Klammath Falls. There wasn't a lot of snow (we passed a trackside snow gauge that measured up to 12 feet of snow!), but enough to slightly improve the scenery. Railroads are remarkable when they consist of single-track right of way, miles from roads, towns and farms. They are so much narrower than highways. The views were unique and amazing.

The food was great, all cooked on board from scratch. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner on board. Alcohol was free for the asking, as were soft drinks.

You may say to yourself, "Well, Amtrak has sightseer cars." Well, yes, but for reasons I found hard to explain, windows on the top of the Vistadome car (and the front and back of the car as well) make for a better viewing experience than simply having large windows on the side.  We also enjoyed the observation lounge at the back of the train. You've probably seen pictures of these loungers; a dozen easy chairs arrayed around the side with a rounded rear window offering a view behind the train. It was comfortable and pleasant.


Among the classy touches: fresh flowers everywhere



In the Silver Solarium Vistadome car, you can see out the sides, the top, and toward the front of the train.




I have seen many pictures of an observation car, but until this trip I had never ridden in one. The height of comfort! Of course, there were only 14 of us in the private section of  the train, which tended to keep the crowds down.

This and That

I was just last night talking about the post-war German Economic Miracle (Wirtschaftswunder), and today I run across this: “But is the “Texas Economic Miracle” just an artifact of high energy prices and improving …” here 

Yes, I am the Paul Schindler who predicted, in 1985, when the Macintosh was a year old, that it wouldn't be a success in business. I stand by that opinion. You can see the editorial  at 23:13 in this edition of The Computer Chronicles. If you haven't seen it before. Or even if you have. 

We had lunch in Seattle with a high school friend of V's and her husband. We ate in a place on Pioneer Square that the friend has frequented for decades, Il Terrazo Carmine. Fantastic decor, fantastic food, but as always, the company was more important than the food. Still, if you like Italian food, you should try this restaurant. We had dinner in Seattle with friends at The Pink Door, a hard to find but quite excellent restaurant near Pike Street Market. The food was great; the lasagna is a speciality. It is open late; our reservation was for 10 pm. We stayed at the Alexis hotel in the heart of downtown (a short walk from the train station, but don't walk it at night; it's a heavy homeless area). Pricey but worth it. Free hot chocolate in the lobby during the wiuter.  The hotel's restaurant, the Bookstore Bar and Cafe looked like a nice place to have a drink, and served us a delicious breakfast.