Thursday, May 31, 2007


Wednesday, May 30, 2007


I's in mah blog, leavin' a lists....

1. Geoffrey Chaucer can hath a cheezburgyr:

2. Lolcode, with a sample from elsewhere:

        YA RLY
                BTW this is true
                VISIBLE "BIG NUMBER!"
        NO WAI
                BTW this is false
                VISIBLE "LITTLE NUMBER!"

Academic discussion of Lolcat dialect found heres.

3. Finally, 101 can has anonymouse confirmashunz of our Conger line. Look at the comment.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Oh cod

Jenny (Lina) and Buster (Omari) had a beautiful decorative platter on the coffee table in front of them. (That's my coffee table, by the way.) I said that what they really should have is a bucket of Grand Banks Cod Pieces... and Alex zipped off to fetch some fish sticks to place on the table instead of the platter.

Obviously, we're going to have to market the aphrodisiac properties of Cod Pieces:

Alex mentioned this about last night:

It also turned out to be much more complex to play back in one scene video that you just shot in a previous scene. Part of the cost of dealing with new digital video cameras is that no one is completely familiar with all their idiosyncrasies, particularly how they interface with computers. The mere fact that you can throw footage from your first scene up on a TV in your second scene is pretty cool. But you have to work all the bugs out before you get to set.

That was one of "the dozens of tasks we flung at (me) on short notice" and I can go into a bit of detail, because folks who look for this info online might find it valuable.

We wanted to record a scene early in the evening, then replay it on a TV in another scene. We used a Panasonic HVX200 camera with many extra bells and whistles. The camera spits out MXF files. That's a proprietary format, and we needed proprietary software to convert it to something we could play on the TV. Final Cut Pro could have done it - but we didn't have it.

In addition to the HVX200, we had a fancy camcorder, and software that could play the MXF files, but not export them to another format. We also had a Mac with iMovie HD.

Our first try was to use the HVX200 to film in DV format - a waste, really - then use that output in iMovie HD. That worked, except that some gadget on the camera inverted the image and iMovie couldn't rotate the frame. I looked online and found a free plug-in that could rotate the frame back to right-side-up, but by that time, the crew had decided that DV quality wasn't up to snuff.

We ended up using the camcorder to film the laptop screen as the MXF clips played.

I'm pretty sure that the takes we did with greenscreen on the TV will prove more useful.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

I wanna get creative

Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours ago, I got to be creative. In the one of the scenes we filmed yesterday morning, Buster asks Tilda for help with a sales presentation. Alex ask me to create the presentation as a prop, with a cover page.

Alex is styling the film as Canadian propaganda - you saw the photo of him petting the giant beaver, right? I knew I wanted a Canadian theme for the presentation, and I nailed it on the second try. Then I drew a cartoon logo:

It cracked up Omari and Johanna. While the camera was off, they came up with an entire business plan and advertising strategy. It was a blast.

The shoots went long yesterday. I learned that it's extremely difficult to film action going around a corner when the crew has little room to maneuver. We left our office set on St. Catherine to shoot at La Table Ronde (a medieval store) in Old Montreal, on a beautiful Saturday night in May during an American holiday weekend. It took me an hour and twenty minutes to find a place to park. Even the lots were full. Three times, a car ahead of me took a spot that had just opened up.

I eventually found parking not too far away, and jogged in with the costumes I'd been transporting. My tardiness did not slow the shoot, fortunately. The scene was a dolly shot (the camera, on a cart, is pushed along a track made of a thick vinyl tube) with characters moving as well, which complicates the maintenance of focus. The store was hot, and sound was polluted with scraping chairs and thumping from the diners in the restaurant upstairs. It was tense, and I think I had the best job of the night, standing outside the store, shushing passers-by.

Tonight we film at Alex's apartment from 5:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. or so.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Second day on set

As Alex points out, Al Goulem has been fantastic, as have all the actors.

Al was not originally on Alex's radar for casting, but I think he's great, so I brought him to Alex's attention with a few clips from "The Tournament". Alex was still reluctant. I don't think Alex could see through the Barry McConnell character to the talent that brought him to life, but agreed to give it a go. At most, the loss was a ten minutes of audition time, and the upside was - well, the upside was what we saw today.

Also, my surgically altered cell phones performed more or less as advertised. Beyond resetting the cell phones, I did have a lot more to do today, which felt rewarding. And the crew are all decent people and the unit has meshed well.

A surprise visitor to the set today was Geoff Uloth, whose girlfriend lives in one of the houses we filmed in front of today. He and I run into each other all the time: I used to borrow projectors from him at Concordia; we both attend MFG meetings; and DUBB contributed songs to one of his brother's films. But today was the first time we chatted.

Bonus book news:

The print shop in Korea had some problems with colour, so our book is delayed. If all goes well, it will begin the print run late next week.

Raanan Weiss and Shlomo Aloni have a book on 101 Squadron coming out this summer as well, but their book covers decades of history. Alex wants to officially launch our book at the Los Angeles IPMS meeting in August but I doubt I'll have the cash to get down there. I may try to do something here in Montreal or at Toronto's Jewish Book Fair in Toronto in the fall.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

First day of shooting

Once the set for Alex's film was dressed, I did a whole lot of sitting around. The small room in which today's shoot took place could not hold all of us and I didn't have one of the golden tickets.

I did, however, pull bubble wrap off an enormous beaver.

Mark and I spent two hours after everyone else left shooting the breeze and talking more Beurling.

Set call tomorrow is 5:00 a.m. I ought to be asleep.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Open letter to Flight Journal

(I e-mailed this to the editor of Flight Journal magazine.)

As a researcher who has studied archives and interviewed participants in the air war of Israel's War of Independence for nearly two decades, "Strange Bedfellows" (June 2007) naturally drew my attention on the magazine stand.

What a disappointment.

Bob Haus's article is riddled with errors and discredited information. Furthermore, it appears that he did no original work to create this article, but produced a compilation of information that he skimmed from other sources.

On the first page, the article claims that shortages of fuel, parts, and mechanics kept the aircraft grounded. Fuel was not a concern, nor was parts, and the squadron functioned with imported Czechoslovakian mechanics as well as many native and volunteer ground crew. The reason the S-199s flew so little was because they kept crashing.

The caption on p. 70 says that the (Israeli Air Force) museum S-199 carries the D.112 serial number. The S-199 at the museum is currently painted as D.120. The caption also says D.112 was the aircraft Modi Alon flew June 3, 1948. It was not, as D.112 had not yet entered service on that date. Alon probably flew D.105 or D.106. Similarly, the caption on the next page states that Baron Wiseberg crashed D.120 on June 4, but again, D.120 was not yet in service on that date. That statement is an error repeated from Cull/Aloni/Nicolle's "Spitfires Over Israel".

It is true that the Jumo 211F could not produce as much power as the DB 605 series of the Bf 109G, but the two engines weighed about the same. The Jumo drove the massive VS 11 propeller that produced much more torque and P-factor (airflow twisting force) than the standard fighter propeller married to the DB 605.

On p.73, Haus writes that the Israelis called the fighter the "Sakeen". This is not so. No one called the the S-199 a "Sakeen" until decades later. The air force and its crews called it a Messerschmitt or Messer.

Also on that page is a photo of Rudy Augarten with "an Egyptian Spitfire he downed." This is another error taken from other sources. A simple examination of the photograph shows that Augarten is leaning against the massive propeller of a S-199 with its wingtip behind him. You can see the 20mm cannon under Rudy's right armpit.

At the bottom of the page, the cutline shows 101 Squadron Spitfires "prior to battle", but this photo was taken after hostilities ceased. Spitfire 31 did not reach Israel until after the war.

On p.74, Haus contends that Alon's victories over the Egyptian Dakotas ended bombing of Tel Aviv. That is only partially true. The REAF stopped sending bombers over Tel Aviv, but REAF Spitfires continued to bomb the city.

Haus has an American bias when he calls the squadron that flew the S-199s the 101st Fighter Squadron. Israel used the squadron-naming conventions of the RAF and called the unit officially "No. 101 Squadron (Fighter)". In use, this was shortened to 101 Squadron, pronounced "one-oh-one" - although some of the American volunteers did call it the "Hundred-First".

Also on p.74, Haus says only 24 of 25 S-199s were delivered. In fact, Israel took delivery of all 25 S-199s, but one was destroyed when the transport carrying the fuselage crashed in Israel.

I could go on, but that should suffice to register my complaint. I have more accurate information at, and in my forthcoming book with Alex Yofe, "Avia S-199 in Israeli Air Force Service" (now in press). It is a shame that such misinformation continues to propagate.

Bonus comedy:

Is Timothy Cullen for real? Either this is exquisite comedy or it's no wonder spec writers have to work so hard to be taken seriously.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Film work

I haven't been doing much exciting, but I have been doing much.

For the short film, I've been calling local merchants and asking them to donate merchandise for use as props. We're willing to put their goods on screen, pretty much front and center if they give them to us for free. For example, we want some cool maple syrup bottles from an Old Montreal store. The bottles contribute to the story, as the film's all about Canadianness, but I still can't help thinking of last fall's brouhaha hiccup over NBC's product placement. I've never had too big a problem with product placement.

The short is based on a chapter of a book, which by coincidence has a second edition coming out in June. We want to feature the book in the short, but the new edition is not yet available, so I'm creating mock copies of the second edition by using covers to cover a third book. The first and second edition are different sizes, so I can't just re-cover the first edition with the second cover. The publisher doesn't want me to disfigure the book inside, which made it a difficult technological problem. I decided on tabs of two-sided tape, which can be removed without damaging the paper.

Monday, I have to drive around town setting up meals for crew and printing out posters to be used on camera. Interesting fact: no matter what time of day it is, the meal served during shooting is called lunch.

My most interesting task is rigging a cell phone to fall apart upon a smash. The inside is held together with Allen screws of a size between 1/64" and 0.05", and I don't have the proper size Allen key. It might be metric. I have to drill out the screws, then reassemble the phone so that it's held together with dots of white glue. That should retain the phone's integrity when handle normally yet release when smashed.

We film this week, Thursday through Sunday.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Wow and two more ows

It's been a whirlwind three days.

Tuesday and Wednesday I spent wearing my consultant hat. I scrounge occasional work as a Mac consultant for small business, and a few weeks ago my friend Joy decided it was time to upgrade. She runs a small graphic design shop and has hired a second artist. Since she'd have to buy a new workstation for him, she decided to upgrade herself and to add a drawing tablet.

Joy (and I) love CRT monitors, but they are on the way out, replaced by LCD flat screens. I looked at La Cie and that company no longer even makes CRT displays. The nice thing about Joy is that money is not much of a factor, so I get to go crazy vicariously. I mentioned the Wacom Cintiq 21UX tiltable monitor with built-in drawing tablet, which has received phenomenal reviews across the Web. I don't think I've ever seen a single product so universally celebrated. Joy wanted to to buy all Tuesday, though, and wasn't crazy about buying that without trying one out.

We drove to the Apple Store in Carrefour Laval, where Dave. the drummer in DUBB (Elvi's band), works as a genius. Two hours later, we walked out with a 3.0 GHz Mac Pro with 30" Cinema display, a 2.66 GHz Mac with 23" display, and a Wacom Intous 3 tablet. Joy also sprung for wireless keyboards and mice. She spent more than $12,000 (Canadian). (I don't charge by equipment cost, but hourly.)

While we waited for the techs to install the wireless cards and extra RAM, I indulged my inner metrosexual and went clothes shopping with Joy. We girls picked out some clothes at Old Navy for her boy and were not surprised when Visa turned down the card after the $12,000 spending spree.

We took the equipment back to her office and I set up the two machines. This was the first time I had the opportunity to use target mode to transfer files between an old Mac and a new one, and I hadn't realized I'd need a Firewire cable to do that. I popped downstairs to pick one up at the nearby Microbytes and spotted Clément, DUBB's band leader and trombonist, on the sidewalk. He works in the same building as Joy.

The files transferred like... - well, like they should. It is so easy and it just works. Joy's IT guy is a big Windows fan and insisted that he could build a similar PC for a sixth the cost. Once we went through what the Macs offer, he changed his tune. He wasn't aware that the Macs use Xeon chips, for example. He's now willing to admit that the Mac is at most a few hundred dollars overpriced. I don't necessarily agree, but even if so, it's a small price to pay for the ease of use - like transfer mode. We left the office with the transfer underway.

I suffered my first new injury the next morning, being yesterday. One foot slipped on our vestibule floor and my other shin came down hard on the door jamb. I don't bruise easily, but I felt every second step I took yesterday.

Joy had a few small problems that I fixed with new software installations and one problem that I can't solve. The fonts used by her widgets are an outline font and impossible to read. It's almost certainly a font management problem. She uses FontAgent Pro to manage fonts instead of Font Book, but I don't know the widgets (and the Apple widget Web page) would fail to display properly with all fonts active. I could troubleshoot this, probably solve it by getting rid of FontAgent Pro, but she likes that software. Maybe it needs an upgrade. Everything went smoothly.

Back home, I got a second new ow, a headache - not a migraine, but a doozy. It took the painkillers a while to dull the pain and once they did, I only managed a fitful sleep, again. This has become a common disturbance. It never used to happen. I'd been hoping for a good night's sleep because today I joined the tech scout to all the locations for Alex's film.

I met the rest of the major crew and we traveled from location to location setting up shots and establish lists of gear and props. At times, I felt useless, but I learned a lot just listening. Our first location was at the office of Richard, an old camp acquaintance of mine. He's real big on history, and we had a nice chat about the Avia S-199 book, which should be in my hands soon.

Richard was not the only person to chat airplanes with me. Among locations, Mark and I had a running conversation about George Beurling, who coincidentally died 59 years ago this coming weekend. We discussed what a story about him would be like. We plan to talk more in the future. Who knows? Maybe this could grow into something. I haven't brought up my mechanima/3-D/music video idea with him yet, but that might be a place to start.

Bonus hunting update:

I've caught no more mice since the first two. They are either becoming rarer or smarter....

Monday, May 14, 2007


I helped the wife move some couches onto the front lawn for an impromptu garage sale yesterday and I strained the forearm muscles that move your fingers.

Wait a sec. Need a little lesson in cool anatomy? Ever notice how you can't flex a muscle in your fingers? That's because there are nearly no muscles in your fingers. Open and close your fingers as you look at your forearm. See the muscles working? The muscles that move your fingers are in your forearm and act through long tendons that pass through your hand.

So I strained those muscles and today whenever I push, pull, or (ow) type, it hurts not surprisingly like a pulled muscle does.

Other than pushing, pulling, and typing, what am I up to? I just returned from another meeting, this one with Peter Downie to discuss the summer course I'll be teaching.

I'm also quite proud that I managed to find four identical cell phones for free this weekend, for use as props in Alex's short. I picked those up this morning. It wasn't as easy as you'd think. My next task for the shoot is to find restaurants willing to barter food for advertising, and then to re-cover some books, also meant as props. (Ow.)

My l33t ranger skill with wilderness traps has dispatched two mice so far behind the TV cabinet. I feel a bit odd about that. The mice hang around inside our walls and maybe eat pet food. They do not get into our people food and if it weren't for their tiny feces, we wouldn't notice them at all. I wonder if I even need to slay them. You don't get many experience points. On the other hand, I'm curious how many there are.

(Have I written that take on it before? I vaguely recall it, but it could be my mind playing tricks.)

Life is not all unpaid work and death-bringing. The wife and I headed out to la Tulipe to experience its Pop 80 Saturday night '80s room.

I liked the selection of music, which generally shied away from the American pop you'd hear at Electric Avenue. Unlike the latter, la Tulipe lacks that Crescent Street vibe - for me, that's another positive. And the drinks are stronger. The room is a converted concert hall/theatre which though full still lets you move around easily. If you go, print out the coupon at the Web site for $2 off admission.

La Tulipe has an intriguing new Friday night event starting this week: a night of new wave.

Bonus link:

I know I've posted a lot of material from other writers recently, even though that's something I try to avoid. (Ow.) Here's more advice, which I'll only link to. Mark Lewis wrote "Top 10 Lies told to Naive Artists and Designers". His advice applies to all creative types, not just graphic artists.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Chicken head

Found and reattached, at least for the weekend.

Wednesday, I attended a production meeting at Alex's and met our DOP, Mark Adam, for the first time. Nice guy. We set the shooting schedule, and I got a handful more work to do there and in ensuing e-mail conversations.

Thursday, I attended a gathering at the NFB. Representatives from BravoFACT (Which is the agency funding Alex's short), the Canada Council for the Arts, and the NFB's Filmmaker Assistance Program talked about funding shorts.

A year or two ago, I thought it might be a good idea to take a swing tune from the Disciples of Ursula Big Band and create around it a flight video made of mechanima (animation using video games). The thought simmered, and I wondered if I could get funding for a legitimate 3-D animation. My idea right now is to use a chunk of my "101" screenplay, polish it into a standalone story, and use it as a calling card. The band wins, I win, and the whole world is richer for it.

There's only one problem. Writers don't matter and almost certainly won't get funded. I need to sell a producer on this.

Mark has directed dozens of BravoFACT shorts, and a feature. I'm hoping to throw my idea against him and see if it's sticky. He's an airplane nut, too.

Back to Alex's story.... You can see some of my work online. I was sent to scout locations in the Plateau area. Alex's preferred choice may not work with respect to the time we have to shoot and the height of the sun in the sky. If you want to take a look, you can see my craftsmanship here. Beware, phone-modem users, it contains 15 photos of about 2 MB each.

You know, someone industrious could upload those photos to Google Earth....

Bonus pet update for Joy:

We lost the last fish today. We are now a mammal-only household, with the exception of some insects and other arthropods. We have a few too many mammals, in fact. We discovered more mouse droppings behind the television cabinet.

Break out the traps!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Freelancing follow-up

I didn't receive permission to post this follow-up to Roblimo's advice in time to include it in yesterday's post. This list comes from Esther Schindler, tech journalist/chocoholic.

I also do think that we need more. There are a bunch of things that you didn't address - topics that, as an editor, I'm wishing that more freelancers understood.

* When I invite you, the freelancer, to pitch articles to me, I expect that you'll spend a bit of time researching the publication (or at least its online site). I have the expectation that a freelancer will want to create an ongoing relationship with me, as an editor who can be a regular supplier of those fancy pieces of paper called "checks", so it behooves you to learn the publication's "voice" as soon as possible. I don't mean just in the way of style, but recognize (or ask) "who is the reader?" I just had a freelancer pitch me a well thought out article that could be great to read, but is utterly useless to the readers of my publication. (If you can't tell from the publication, or honestly can't get your hands on it, it's fine for you to ask who the reader is and what he cares about. This is one way to get into my good graces, as it shows me that you're thinking about the correct issues.)

* If I ask you to provide me with a few article pitches, they should be specific and at least a bit thought out. You don't have to know exactly which products you'll include in your review, for example, but you should at least be able to say, "Several vendors are promising solutions to the old problem of [whatever], and at least a few are offering products under $100. I'd like to take a look at them and see whether they deliver what they promise." If you can name names, great - but it's always a good idea to err on the side of specificity. What I don't want to see are vague ideas like, "I could write something about storage." Once we have a working relationship, that might be feasible; at that point we'll brainstorm based on your interests and my needs. But to begin with, I want to hear about things you know, and I want details.

* Apply the Rule of Three to your article pitches. Give me three ideas, each one in a single paragraph. Tell me what the idea is, why my readers will care about it, and why you're the right person to write this story. In all likelihood, I'll pick only one of the ideas. (Although I'll feel stupid about doing so; however, I rarely want to give anybody multiple concurrent assignments, and surely not when we're new to one another.) Recycle those ideas with another editor, but once you've finished the assignment I give you, it's OK to remind me about one of the "failed" ideas one more time. ("I'm still interested in doing the comparative review of dark chocolate desserts, which I'd mentioned to you last month. Here's why I think it's still a timely story....")

* I've been surprised at how many freelancers expect me to contact them with ideas for them to write about. When I know you, I'll tend to do so, especially once I've discovered that you're really good at covering marketing issues or that you grok the matters important to Notes users. At that point, I'll pick up the phone to say, "Hey, I had an idea for an article we could do about marketing chocolate-covered mouse pads, and I think you're the right person for it." But if you want assignments, buck-o, you're best off to suggest them to me. Otherwise... - well hey, how else will you get to write about the things that really interest you?

* Re: introducing yourself. I've found that it's hard to "get to know" a new-to-me freelancer. Give me some idea of the beats you cover, and the way you cover them (product reviews, news, trend features). Tell me what topics enthuse you; I'd rather assign articles that you're passionate about. Not only are you more likely to spend a lot of time on subjects you care for, but your enjoyment is likely to show through in the text.

* Ideally, I'll send you an e-mail that confirms what we agreed to: "You'll write 750 words for me on the history of chocolate, and how it relates to recent events in the computer industry. I'll pay you $1/word, and you'll get me the text - with at least one screen shot - by November 1." If I don't send you this, it's OK for you to send me a written understanding of what you'll be doing; at least this way we both have a record. (It isn't for CYA reasons, at least not usually, but I know how often, as a
freelancer, I'd forget the details and wonder, "Did I say I'd have that done by the 1st or 2nd?" As an editor, my memory is even worse, as I have a lot more article balls in the air.) You and I are best off if this e-mail assignment letter is very descriptive: this is the angle you're going to take, these are the vendors you'll probably include, etc.

* If you run into trouble with an article, tell me as soon as possible. I'd prefer you err on the side of worrying aloud in my direction, to tell me that "I'm having a hard time getting through to the PR people... if I don't hear from them by Monday, I may ask you to step in." If I know, early enough, that a product won't arrive or that your mom went into the hospital, I have a chance of assigning something else. (Maybe even to you. If it's a product-not-arriving problem, you might end up with two assignments: the substitution and the original review, when the item does eventually get there.) If I don't know about the problem until two days before the piece is due, I'll be in a world of hurt and you'll never get another assignment from me.

* I'll try to send you comments on the text you send in, within a couple of days of receipt. Unfortunately if I need major work done on it, I'll need an unreasonable turnaround period - this is karmic payback for the times you called a PR person and needed questions answered in three hours. I still need you to drop everything and respond to my queries.

* Not every editor sends back your text with queries, though, and (unfortunately) few give you an opportunity to correct errors introduced during the edit process. Don't expect it.

* It really helps me if you write a spiffy headline and appropriate subheads. I might not use them, but at a minimum I appreciate that you spent time figuring out the break points in the article. If we use them, include a deck too. (From a creative standpoint, try writing the deck first: a wise editor once told me that if you can write the deck, the rest of the article is easy. I've found it to be true.)

* And please, please learn to write a useful lead, that draws the reader into the article. In the assumption that most editors will change your lead no matter how good, I've found that several freelancers do a shoddy job at this figuring that "the editor has to earn her pay too." In reality, I've found that most people who don't write a good lead don't have a good article that follows. Make every word your very best. Even if I change your text, I'll appreciate your good writing - and I'm apt to talk with you, the next time, about how you can structure your piece so it fits into what I'm looking for. (If you hope to write for me often, it's a good idea to do a before-and-after, comparing what you sent in to what I published. The more you can approximate our published style, the less work I'll have to do and the more I'll cherish you.)

* This point really varies by publication, but I feel strongly about it myself: for God's sake, let yourself show through. Let your article reflect your personality, your sense of humor, your delight with a cool product, your disgust with a bad situation. That doesn't mean that you should make every article an opinion piece, but pick expressions that reflect who you are. You can still stand on the sidelines as a dispassionate observer, but let it be you standing on the sidelines, not some other bozo. Note, for example, that I always choose chocolate examples; that's part of my online and writer's persona, and reflects a real person who, of course, has the good taste to know that chocolate is an important part of life. I could pick much more mundane and boring examples but this lets me show through even when I'm being very serious. Readers respond to this sense of a "real person", too; I've had readers give me pounds of chocolate when they've met me at conventions.

* Once we've been working together for a while: If you're going to be at a trade show, let me know about it. I may want to guide you for possible assignments. ("If you're going to be there, please make a point of looking at the biometrics devices, and tell me if you think there's something worthwhile for us to cover.") If you're lucky, I'll be there too and we'll have lunch on my publication's expense account.

I haven't touched on getting freelancers paid, on what happens when I edit your deathless prose, on asking for contacts, on the "package" matter (screen shots, side bars, etc). Maybe someone else (who's working as hard as I am to procrastinate will chime in on those subjects.

Bonus notes on nocturnal activity:

I had a migraine last night that took four pills to kill. I paced around my room for an hour and a half until the pain was dulled enough for me to lie down in bed and fall asleep, about 11:30. Until the painkillers kick in, lying down makes the pain worse as the blood vessels enlarge further with increased blood pressure.

I woke up about two hours later, pain-free, but wide awake. I got back to sleep about 3:00 and spent the rest of the night in that same sort of fitful sleep I went through last weekend. So, Alex, that might explain why I would fall asleep on your couch later this morning....

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Freelancing and queries (for Wendy)

In a comment to my last post, Wendy asked me for freelance advice, specifically, how to proceed with a pitch.

The goal of a freelancer is to get a steady gig. That doesn't necessarily mean a staff position, but I suspect most freelancers would jump at one. Freelancing has its benefits but so does a steady salary.

Even freelancers who aren't seeking permanent employment want to be able to place work again and again at the same outlet. It's much easier to cultivate an established relationship than it is to cold call. Still, there's always that first pitch you have to make, and that's what Wendy asked about.

Here's how to do it.

The first step is to identify your audience. Is your work for a newspaper? That's usually not a fruitful path. Newspapers rely more on staffers. As a freelancer, you want to write for magazines. Look at the magazines. Who is their audience? The editors want stories their audience will read, and you want to deliver those. It's better to send one query tailored to a specific magazine's content than it is to shotgun 20 queries to magazines in the hope one might like it.

Next, aim your query at the right contact. You need to find the correct individual at the publication to send your query to. Make a phone call or two to find out who that person is, and find that person's e-mail address. You don't want to query by snail mail these days (I don't think).

Now that you've identified editor X at magazine Y, it's time to construct the query letter. Don't make the mistake of crafting a letter that sounds like you're applying for a job in middle management. Keep it short and specific. Don't ramble. Don't get atmospheric. Sell your idea, sell how you're going to get there, and, once you can, sell yourself. You want to put down why your article is important, who you will interview (you might want to set up some interviews beforehand), and how many words you plan to write (and of course you know how long the magazine's articles are).

I've included some links at the end of this post, most of which have query-letter advice or examples.

One science freelancer told me to start with a query for a 300-word article with some clever news angle. This was for magazines like Discover, Canadian Geographic, etc. I still haven't tried that so I can't vouch for it but it makes sense. A magazine will usually want to test you on a low-risk gamble first. Once you've proven you can do that, you can move up to features.

Reread your letter from the editor's perspective. I've done more as an editor than as a freelancer and I want a writer who turns in work on time and who doesn't whine. "I'll rewrite this as much as you need" = whining. "I'll work so very hard on this" = whining. "I'd be thrilled to be in your publication" = whining. I don't care about your motivation. I care about work on time and at the allotted word count. Avoid the sniveling in your query.

Ideally, you should know what the magazine pays before you query, but that's not always possible since they can offer different rates to different contributors. Don't mention pay in your initial query - wait until they want to hire you. Fifty cents a word is a decent rate, but you may have to start with less than that.

The key to successful freelancing is placing one story in many markets. You can't sell the same story to multiple magazines, but you can use the information you've gathered to write about the same idea in multiple places. For example, if you're working an an article on melamine in pet food for Cat Fancy magazine, you can use the same info with a different slant for Reader's Digest. Query both before you start.

Don't underestimate queries. As a beginning freelancer, you should spent most of your work time on queries. You need to generate income, so your efforts should go toward that - which means working on queries. Aim for one query a day by your second week. Once jobs start to come in, you can cut back, but try to maintain 20% of your time for query work. You are a conveyor belt, and you need to manage work at all stages at all times to avoid dry spells.

Here are some sites of varying quality I found.

Business Guide for Writers - An excellent site with forthright information.

The Beginner's Guide To Freelance Writing - I'm not crazy about the writing style, but some good advice.

The Freelance Writing FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Writing for Newspapers & Magazines - More good advice.

Freelance Writers: Don't Waste Your Time with Query Letters - An alternate view.

I'll end this lengthy post with advice from Robin "Roblimo" Miller, editor in chief for OSTG (best known for maintaining Slashdot).

On Becoming the Perfect Freelancer

As I write this, I am waiting for a story to come in that should have been in my hand three days ago. The freelancer to whom I gave the assignment swore up and down that I'd have it by Monday, but here it is Thursday afternoon and I am late putting together my Friday e-mail newsletter that goes out to 70,000 subscribers because I am missing that one story.

I've heard, "I'll have it to you tomorrow," for three days running, but still no story. I am not going to use this freelancer again.

To an editor, deadlines are not "objectives" or "goals". They are the times after which a story is no longer useful. A writer who cannot meet deadlines is a writer who does me no good. Conversely, one who consistently gets work to me by or before deadline is pure gold, and I will turn to that writer again and again.

I want copy that meets basic AP style guideline most of the time. I want all proper names spelled right, and (since I edit online publications) all HTML tags and hyperlinks to work correctly. I need an extra-strong, extra-terse lead paragraph on every story because my Web sites, like most news Web sites, use a blog format with a main page that shows readers a list of story titles and lead paragraphs or summaries and invites them to "click for more" on each story. If a story's headline and lead paragraph don't entice readers into making that click, I might as well not have run the story in the first place, because hardly anyone is going to read it. And, like it or not, online publishing is a business, and pageviews are our life and breath.

The business end works like this: our company sells between one and five ads on each page, and advertisers pay us a negotiated rate per thousand pageviews. I am not always sure which stories are going to capture our readers' imaginations, and there are many times I will buy a story because I think it is important rather than because I think it will be overwhelmingly popular, but in the long run, from my employers' perspective, my job is to make our pageview count increase every week and every month, year after year, while keeping costs (including freelance fees) per pageview low enough that our Web sites produce higher operating profits every quarter.

Another pressure I deal with is time. I don't have enough of it. I work six or seven days a week, often more than 12 hours a day, and so do my site editors. A writer whose work need a lot of revision takes up a lot of our time, so we are always going to favor writers who turn in "clean copy" that needs little or no proofreading or rewriting.

A professional freelance writer recognizes the business and time pressures faced by editors and realizes that, no matter what other relationship we might have, he or she is a vendor and I am a client. I am not the right person to call at midnight, dead drunk, to complain about your latest fiction rejection or a problem with your love life, no matter how friendly I am toward you during our professional contacts. If you persist in using me as a free psychologist, sooner or later I am going to turn to other writers who are more businesslike in their approach. It is not that I lack compassion; I simply don't have time to listen to very many hour-long tales of writers' woe every week.

By contrast, I have one freelancer to whom I have happily paid an average of $3000 per month for over two years in return for ten 250-word pieces per week that take him less than an hour each to write. This person always turns in copy well ahead of time, rarely makes a spelling or grammatical mistake, and makes sure all of his hyperlinks work before he sends a story to me.

When other tech-oriented editors ask me if I can recommend a writer, this person's name is often the first one I mention. He is not aggressive about selling his work so he is usually grateful for these leads, and every one I give him increases his loyalty toward me. Conversely, the day this man slipped on ice outside of his home (in a small town in the northern Midwest), I filled in for him personally and paid him his running rate for the days he was unable to work even though I was under no legal obligation to do so.

Please note that I have not yet mentioned creativity or writing quality, but have emphasized the business side of the relationship between a freelancer and an editor. This is because I edit news Web sites, not a poetry quarterly. I need accurate reporting and reliability more than I need copy that will make readers mutter, "This is truly elegant writing. Wow!"

I have nothing against creativity, mind you. I'll take it when I can get it, and I will pay extra to any writer who consistently produces work that turns my head (and readers' heads) with its beauty.

But in the cold business of online news, a merely competent writer who turns in accurate copy on time and behaves in a professional manner almost always wins out over an artful writer who needs lots of handholding, turns in stories late, or doesn't bother to proofread his or her work before sending it to me.

(Posted with permission)

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Checking in

I've recovered from a two-day tension headache and a bizarre Friday night in which I would fall asleep and wake up 30 seconds later many times over six hours. I slept it off last night and all's well.

I have a treatment to read and report on for Alex, and the rest of this week is devoted to assembling the JOUR 519 I'll be teaching in June and July and applying for courses next fall and winter semesters. Although I won't be a full-timer for the department next year, I will be able to teach three more courses, if the department will have me. I'm applying for my standard JOUR 202 and 319, and - looky, looky what's available - 428, Online Publication.

I'm preparing 519 now because we plan to be shooting Alex's short May 25-27 and I won't have time then.

After a brief spurt to sixth yesterday, my Irrational League team is again back in eighth where it has lived most of the last month. Slow and steady.... I added Felix Pie in our monthly add/drop, just in time for him to become a bench player. Injuries and changing roles are hurting my team: Matt Murton is a pinch-hitter despite some good numbers; Pie is now a part-timer; Willy Taveras hurt something today; Carlos Beltran's legs are sore; Orlando Hernandez hurt his shoulder; Clay Hensley hurt his groin; and Bob Wickman is out with a bad back.

Boy, I hope I can find something interesting to write about soon.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Pesky peculiarities of CSS

Readers of Alex's blog, Complications Ensue, will have spotted his use of screenplay formatting in a recent post.

He borrowed that from me (see previous post for an example), and the process seemed hunky dory until some users of Internet Explorer v.6 on Windows (henceforth IE6) complained that all they saw was a green browser window.

Somehow, the use of my screenplay style sheets wonked the page display of Alex's blog in IE6. While the reader's complained of a green page, what was actually happening was that the top row of Alex's table-based layout - two orange cells flanking a large green one - was extending downward far beyond the bounds of space and time. Well, close to it, anyway.

Alex used the readers who complained to test things. The way I set up my CSS screenplay format, I have a .screenbox class that I use for a div. One of the properties in that class is width, with a value I set to 400 pixels. Alex narrowed down the problem to the width property. His IE6 users had the problem when the width property was present, and the page looked fine when it was absent.

I have machines with Windows XP here at home, so I tested out subtleties in the CSSes. Alex's testers reported that the problem was present when the value of width was measured in pixels or as a percentage of div width. My testing revealed a problem only when width was a percentage value. Even extra wide values in pixels rendered correctly.

I have no idea why this problem exists, but I didn't have to know why to find a fix.

There's a cottage industry that uses bizarre browser bugs to find ways to disable certain style sheets and/or content in certain browsers. I found a solution that's specific for IE6, as follows:

.screenbox {
list-style: none;
  fakefake: ";
  fakefake: "";

width: 432px;
  /*";/* IE */
background: #eee;
border: 1px solid #333;
padding: 5px 14px;

The bold and indented lines are the hack. They force IE6 and only IE6 to ignore all properties inside them. The "fakefake" properties can be any word that's not a valid property. Again, I don't know why it works, but it does.

If you have any insight into what is happening, please let me know. I think the tables have something to do with it, but I can't figure out exactly how.

Let this information flow freely unto the Googling masses....

Bonus mystery:

Last summer, the Angels drafted a high-school catcher named Hank Conger. Here are a few photos of him:

And one from the back to complete the set. Conger is supposed to be 6'0" and 205 lbs. But does he have a sense of humour? I don't know. That's the mystery. The tags to the following YouTube video are "hank" and "conger". Is this the same guy? What do you think?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Dinner conversation chez nous


Child Two dances around the table singing Hebrew songs. Child One, 12, pipes up.


Do you know any limericks?

Webs chortles. Elvi eyes him.


Not one about anybody from Maine.

She thinks a moment.


Or Massachusetts. Or wherever it is.



Webs cracks up. Elvi turns red.

(More on screenplay CSS styles later, after I decompress.)