Friday, November 30, 2007

28K Words Later

Note: Thanks to Andy for the title.

Ridiculously, I left myself in a position this year in NaNoWriMo where I needed to write 17,000 words on the final day.

Fortunately for me, I've got a few extra vacation days I have to burn before the year ends, and today was the perfect day because there was no way I was going to be able to write that much if I went into work.

With one hour to spare, I reached 50,093 words.

The problem came about fifteen minutes before that though when I reached about 49,700 words.

I had actually finished the entire story, and I was 300 words short.

It was my first crack at a children's/young adult novel, so I knew it would be shorter than past attempts, but I cursed my ill luck at falling just under the mark. I had to pad it somehow with at least 300 words of filler to reach the finish line.

The obvious solution to this, of course, was a zombie attack.

Please enjoy the last few hundred words of my novel. They will not be included in any draft after tonight. Please keep in mind that I have been writing for awhile and I'm frankly stunned I am not weeping blood from staring at this screen all day.

Some context - the story is about an immigrant family from Germany. One of the characters is named Franz, and he lives on a horseradish farm. That should really be all you need. None of this is about to make any sense anyway.


Franz walked over the crest of a hill. The world was his to explore now, and he had been traveling for many days.

Never could he have anticipated what he would see on his first trip off the farm to another town.

“Hello there,” he shouted. It looked a nice town and the people approaching seemed like normal, good-hearted folk.

Until Franz realized that one of them was gnawing on a human arm.

“S&*%,” Franz muttered. “I knew it would come to this sooner or later.”


Franz pulled out his 12 gauge. With a click-clack he cocked it.

“Time to do some horseradish farming, m%th$rf&#@ers. And by ‘horseradish farming’, I mean zombie killing.”

Franz charged down the hill, the battle cry of “JIBBLY JIBBLY” spewing from his lips.

Zombies, of course, know no fear. But if they did, they would have feared the sight of Franz and his 12 gauge tumbling down the hill.

Franz gave both barrels of business to the zombie gnawing on the arm. The zombie head exploded in a spray of blood and brains.

“I’m f%&#ing Jackson Pollock,” Franz said, “and I’m here to make some abstract art.”

Three zombies rushed him from the right. He turned and shot the first one clean through the neck, the head landing on the ground and spinning like a dreidel. “Happy Hanukkah,” he cried. He then did a full flip over the head of the second zombie in the group, shooting straight down as he did into the top of the skull of zombie #2. “That’s my Gallagher impression, b%&#h,” he shouted as the head popped like a ripe watermelon.

Franz realized as he landed that he was out of ammo. “Why the hell did I only pack six shells?” he wondered allowed. Then the zombie ate him.

Unfortunately for the zombies, they didn’t know that an elite force of ninja warriors was already on the way.


I smell a Newbury Award.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Congrats Everyone, We Did It

In a previous post where I listed some of the crazy searches that were bringing people to the blog, one of them was "beaten with a shoe".

Well I just wanted to let you know that a spike in traffic has led to this blog being #1 on the Google results if your search is "beaten with a shoe". It is also the #10 most popular search that leads people here now.

Congratulations, you depraved weirdos.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cat Update

I've gotten a couple of emails since I posted about the poop machine, er, I mean cat.

To quickly recap, Jules and I got a previously traumatized cat with some wacky problems. I even went so far as to drop some money on a cat behavior consultant, thereby earning myself some of the most palpable shame I have felt in years.

Anyway, the update is this: the cat has had two teeth extracted by the vet, one which was cracked and the other which was abscessed and was one of the most gnarly things you will ever see. Pumpkin also is constantly on some kind of medication for her ears which get this gross goopy buildup if left alone for a couple of weeks.

The cat at this point has cost us more money than I even want to think about for fear that I will start lighting money on fire in an effort to ensure a greater degree of value/amusement for my dollar.

In all seriousness though, the cat has been better behaved since those teeth came out. She still poops next to the litter box, but we have at least mitigated this problem by putting the boxes in the basement where nobody goes anyway. Of course, having said that, the cat did decide to drop a bomb in my office this morning after I didn't close the door the previous night, so I don't know that there's really progress so much as there is rationalization.

But at least the cat doesn't yowl and holler nonstop and is definitely much more low key than it was before. She's also the most affectionate cat I have ever seen.

This much headache over a cat and some of you actually have kids. I can no longer tell which of us is more insane.

The Novelling Continues

This is not going quite as well as last year.

In 2006 I wrote pretty consistently every day. The goal is 50k words in November is easily attainable if you just hunker down and spend an hour or so every day plugging away. In the big scheme of things 1,667 words per day isn't that much.

However, you can make it very challenging on yourself if you only write 9 days out of 27.

As you can see from that report the days that I have actually sat down to write I've cranked out some pretty good totals. However I've now put myself in a position with 4 days to go where I need to average 5,500 words the rest of the way.

It's doable. I'm going to give it a shot.

I could make excuses: wedding planning, holiday travel, blah blah blah. But that's all they would be: excuses. The bottom line is that there are definitely a few days in there where I could have gotten writing done and haven't done it.

That changes today, and I'm going to do my best to hit the target. I even took Friday off for a last minute push. It's like school all over again!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Flawed Machine of Memory

The most horrifying idea is that what we believe with all our hearts is not necessarily the truth.

-Dr. Elizabeth F. Loftus, Professor of Psychology

My future mother-in-law came for a visit last week and through the weekend to help finalize a lot of the wedding plans. It was a very accomplishing weekend and I think everybody feels that things are coming together nicely.

During lunch yesterday before she left for the airport, she asked me a very simple question. "How long have your parents lived in Georgia?"

Without too much hesitation I answered that it had been over ten years. For the last few years I have distinctly remembered them moving to Atlanta right around the same time I left for college.

The problem with this is that it is patently false, and I realized that as I said it yesterday at lunch. I suddenly remembered that I used to go home to Exton, Pennsylvania to visit every now and again for the first couple years while I was in college.

My parents are probably reading this and are horrified. How could I forget something so simple?

It's weird because I didn't forget going home. What got screwed up in my head was the timeline.

It was a pretty disturbing thing though, and my mouth kind of hung open there for a moment as I realized that there is a lot of fuzzy stuff during those first couple years of college. It was an altogether stressful time, but forgetting/misremembering something so basic really shook me up as I tried to reconstruct just what the heck happened during those couple years. As I said, I had a lot of memories but the order of events is all jumbled up.

I've always had a curiosity for human behavior. Things like mob behavior and memory, particularly as it applies to law, are really revealing about what we are. There are all sorts of examples of people being absolutely convinced that they remember something, and that memory becomes witness testimony, only to have completely contradictory evidence surface later that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the witness was mistaken in what they recalled.

One of the most famous cases involving memory is the Mary Bowman case in the UK. The short story is that in 1978, 44-year old Mary Bowman was found dead as a result of a lethal mix of alcohol and Valium in her body. Open and shut. Twenty years later however, her daughter, Diane, begin to vividly remember details about her mother's death, details which contrasted starkly with the simple explanation of an overdose.

Diane was five years old when her mother died in 1978. But now she remembered her father had abused her as a child and that he had murdered her mother. She recalled him punching her mother, hurling her against the fireplace, and force feeding her sleeping pills and alcohol.

Despite having no actual evidence to back this up, the police took the allegations very seriously and performed further investigation. They exhumed Mary Bowman's body, and the pathologist who performed the examination declared based on bone samples in the original autopsy that there was no doubt Mary Bowman had been strangled.

Keep in mind that Diane Bowman's new memories didn't suggest that her mother had been strangled. Not only that, there were a number of serious issues with the pathologist's declaration.

Regardless, on the basis of this Thomas Bowman was arrested, twenty years after his wife's death. Thomas Bowman had already been convicted of an unrelated sex offense involving an underage girl, so there wasn't a lot of sympathy for him.

Thomas Bowman was found guilty of murder in 2002 and sentenced to life in prison.

The whole story is incredible and I encourage you to read all about it. I can't seem to find anything after 2005 regarding the case, so if anybody knows anything I'd be interested to hear.

The whole point of this is that we rely so much on memory, and yet it has been shown to be an often deeply flawed device. Take for example the "lost in the mall" technique developed by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, quoted at the beginning of this post.

In this experiment, Loftus read narratives to subjects supposedly provided by family members and asked the subject to describe memories of the event in as much detail as possible. What the subjects did not know is that one of the "memories" was completely false, conjured from thin air. About 25% of the subjects would recall the made up event in vivid detail, regardless of the fact that it never happened.

Initially the study was criticized since getting "lost in the mall" is something pretty innocuous. But since then the experiment has been recreated with much more outrageous false memories, such as hot air balloon rides, near drowning, and animal attacks that never occurred. Amazingly, the results are similar.

So I suppose there is some small comfort that my jumbled order of significant events during a 2 year period at the beginning of college isn't an entirely uncommon occurrence. It still has me pretty spooked though. Your memory isn't just an extension of yourself, it's pretty much one of the most important things that helps define you. It strikes me as a very human thing to create a narrative out of your memories, a story that says you've made progress, you've grown, you've overcome some obstacles and prevailed. If you can't trust the order of events though, you can't trust the narrative. You can't trust yourself.

But on the other side of the coin, being aware of just how flawed the memory mechanism can be can help you from being fooled. It can force you to be more critical. It can force you to keep a more open mind. And these are all good things.

For now, though, I'm just trying not to think too hard about it. After all, I've got a novel to write, and at least that's one narrative entirely in my control.


It should be noted of course that scientists do not universally agree over Loftus' results or any of this stuff I've discussed.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Turn Your Poop Into Cash!

In a chat earlier today with the LastBestAngryMan, he informed me of a new drug that may be sweeping the nation.

Perhaps the cat's pooping habits may be of some use after all!

I don't want to think about what two straight posts on feces is going to do to my search statistics.

The Scoop on the Poop, or How I Became a Yuppie In One Transaction

Remember Pumpkin?

Unfortunately our emotionally scarred cat has been causing some troubles at home. Troubles in the shape and smell of poop.

Not using the litter box is apparently a common problem for cat owners, so for the first couple of weeks we just figured it was a matter of figuring out the combination of factors that would make the cat comfortable.

For the first few days Pumpkin used the box consistently, but then one day for reasons unknown she dropped the kids off on the kitchen floor instead of at the beach. Despite a thorough scrubbing of the area (using ammonia free products), she would just pick a different spot near the box to do her business.

Obviously we took the cat to the vet assuming there was some kind of problem, but the vet found nothing medically wrong that would explain the behavior. He suggested we confine the cat and retrain her.

We did this and sure enough the cat started using the litter box again. For 4 days. Then the poop started appearing on the floor.

Another visit to the vet and he prescribed Valium, saying it had to be a behavioral problem. Valium for a cat already seemed pretty odd to me, but hey he's the doctor.

It certainly seemed to calm the cat down at night, but didn't stop the poop machine from continuing her habits.

Since then we have tried dozens of things, including:

- Larger litter box
- Multiple boxes
- Multiple litters
- Feline pheromone relaxers
- Thorough cleaning of all boxes
- More toys
- Aluminum foil in places where cat has gone outside the box
- Food in places where cat has gone outside the box
- Vinegar in places where the cat has gone outside the box
- Leaving TV on while gone with birds playing in continuous loop
- Night lites
- Cat Behavior Books
- And Many More!

Absolutely nothing is working, and I'm starting to get concerned that all these efforts might just be exacerbating the problem.

The latest in this long list is keeping the cat in our bedroom since it seems to suffer some separation anxiety when it doesn't know where we are. This is probably a product of past treatment before we got her. We've made sure to play with the cat regularly and give her some catnip about twice a week (as per cat behavior books) to try to get her more relaxed. It's difficult to tell whether any of this does any good with the Valium right now, but overall I do think the cat seems more relaxed than she did on her first day home.

However, last night Jules caught the cat using the litter box to pee, after which she calmly stepped out of it and went to town right there on the floor of our bedroom.

At this point I don't think I've seen Jules this upset and stressed out since taking the bar exam. I know that there is some reason for the cat's behavior and she's not doing it to intentionally enrage us, but it just never seems to get any better.

Most info suggests that the cat is "middening", which is an extreme form of marking the heart of a cat's territory if it feels threatened. If that is what's happening, the frustration is that we can't figure out what is threatening the cat. It seems that it is just a lot of built up stress from past treatment and possibly fearing that our long absences during work hours mean we are abandoning her. I'm grasping at straws here.

Now, about five years ago I would've just suggested giving the cat back to the foster home or dropping it off at the SPCA. However, this particular cat has been in several homes before ours and dropping an adult cat off at the SPCA is basically a death sentence. We've spent a lot of money at this point trying to pinpoint the problem and we've grown attached to the cat, and the programmer part of me really wants to debug what is wrong. Finally, I don't want Jules to be upset that we somehow failed the cat. That probably sounds pretty lame, but the look on her face when we took the cat to the vet and they told us they would need to keep her overnight for testing was pretty heartbreaking. I don't want to imagine what her face might look like giving the cat away permanently.

So, with all of this in mind, I finally made a move that firmly places me in the category of "psychotic yuppie pet owner". I went and paid for a cat psychologist.

For $165 you get a 1-2 hour phone consultation followed by a month of daily follow up. The pragmatic part of me says this is a silly way to spend money, but when I consider the fact that we've probably spent 3-4 times that already on vet visits and trips to the pet store trying to solve this, I figure the worst that happens is the problem doesn't get fixed and we're no worse off than when we started.

A friend rightfully pointed out to me the following: "The You of five years ago would kick your ass for this." I assure you the shame is palpable.

But I also believe that one of the internet's greatest purposes is to make all shame public. And so it is in that spirit that I present myself for your mockery.