Saturday, November 30, 2019

Breaking the Block

It’s a bit later in the year than planned, but Breaking the Block is finally out there.

What writer hasn’t felt the desolate emptiness of the white page, mocking, and remaining stubbornly blank? Summoning words to fill that page can, at times, be an effortless flight of creativity. At other times, it feels like mental constipation.

Writer’s block fills writers with dread because it feels impassable, something we just have to accept and wait for inspiration to strike. But we needn’t be passive victims of writer’s block. We can strike back with a combination of self-awareness and a suitable kit of tools. Breaking the Block provides a collection of approaches to keep the words flowing.

It’s available for $0.99 in all the main e-book formats and will shortly be out on all the major platforms (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks)

For the month of December, readers of this blog can also download it for free in any format from the Smashwords site, using coupon code JF47K

Saturday, November 23, 2019


In case you’ve never heard of Movember, it’s a charity that raises funds and awareness for men’s health. They hold a fundraising drive every November, which usually involves growing moustaches.

This year, my office decided to hold a “reverse Movember”. A group of us who already had facial hair signed up, and all month people in the office placed money on the individual(s) they most wanted to see shave it all off.

I’ve taken part in Movember a couple of times before, where I started the month clean-shaven. Ali hates it! She was happy for me to enter this time - as long as I didn’t “win”.

Throughout the month, there were three or four front runners miles ahead of the rest of the pack. I thought I was safe. There was a lot of buzz and excitement in the office as the organizers counted down the last half hour of bidding. I had to go into a conference call during that time, but the overall bidding was along the same lines. It seemed to be a question of which of the top people would finish up in front, with the other ten of us lagging miles behind.

I came out of my call to find that someone had been doing some sneaky secretive collecting, and literally in the last minute dropped nearly $400 on my name! To say I was in shock was an understatement. Especially when I realized I would have to break the news to Ali. But a deal is a deal, so it had to come off!

Before - yes, I was a bit of a scruff. I normally don’t have a full beard and I keep it trimmed short. But for the occasion I let everything grow out all month.

After - including a drastic haircut.

Overall, the office raised just over $1,300 for Movember, so it was worth it.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Canadian anniversary

This week we celebrated fifteen years since arriving in Canada. We treated ourselves to a nice meal out. The orders were fairly predictable: steak, steak, steak, pizza!

The weird thing is, it hardly seems any time since we were celebrating our tenth year here. Time is flying by these days. We’ve got older, the kids have grown up, pets have come and gone.

Although time seems to be flying in recent years, it feels odd now looking back on photos from fifteen years ago, how much everything has changed. Those days feel like a lifetime ago. Well, for the kids that’s not far from the mark. They were young when we moved. But even I have now spent over a quarter of my life in Canada, and I couldn’t imagine going back.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Federal elections

Every four years I spare a sympathetic thought for our southerly neighbors.

The US has been in campaign mode already for months, and there’s a whole year of it yet to come. Meanwhile, Canada goes to the polls tomorrow for its federal elections. The difference? Official campaigning here started just last month.

That’s right. The entire Canadian federal election process lasts only a few weeks, almost fitting in between two of the US primary debates and barely a blip in the exhausting - and expensive - calendar down south.

The question is, does our fleeting process sell voters short, or does all that effort in the US produce any better outcomes for democracy?

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Captcha calamity

I never really had a problem with the old Captchas, the ones that gave you a distorted word and/or numerals to type in. They were mildly annoying, but I found them easily solvable and the goal at least was laudable.

However the move to sets of pictures with instructions to click on those that met certain criteria drove me insane. I was taken aback to realize it was four years ago that I last vented on this blog about this new torture device. I also noticed that I haven’t encountered many of these, and I realize I haven’t actually seen a Captcha of any description for quite a long time. Clearly site owners have decided this is driving their customers away.

That changed this week, when a team at work decided to use a third-party collaboration product that protects itself with a Captcha.

It was one of those picture versions. I was asked to click on everything with a fire hydrant showing. Some were obvious, but some weren’t. As always, the trouble with these things is that the pictures are so small and grainy it’s often impossible to tell what you’re actually looking at. Yes, it’s a road. I can make out houses and trees. Is that fuzzy blob a fire hydrant or a cat? Impossible to tell.

I spent five minutes of sheer frustration, failing again and again before I finally made it in. If this was a site I was visiting for personal reasons I would have given up right away, but I needed to sign on for work purposes.

Whether or not I’ll have to go through this process again next week is yet to be seen, but the experience prompted me to do some research.

It turns out that it’s not my imagination, they really have been making these things more difficult to solve. It’s the usual arms race between defenders and attackers.

What is more unsettling, though, is that we have permanently lost this particular race.

Machine learning and visual recognition systems are now so good that they can outperform people on these kinds of tasks.

In other words, the test that is supposed to prove you are a human, not a bot, can now be passed by bots better than people. In response, the designers are resorting to making them so difficult that the people they are supposed to admit can’t solve them.

Sounds like it’s time for a serious re-think!

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Sensory overload

I’ve posted a few times before on introversion. Once again, last week we had a two-day leadership conference, which is always an intense experience. This time, the organizers kindly provided a quiet room for people to retreat to, to recharge during breaks, for which I’m thankful.

And, to be clear, these are fabulous events, a great opportunity to hear what’s going on outside our usual working horizons and to meet up with colleagues we don’t often get to see in person. But, unavoidably, they are very taxing on people who find crowds to be draining.

This time, I thought I’d talk a bit more specifically about what “draining” means in terms of sensory overload, and try to convey a sense of how it feels.

When I’ve been immersed for too long in a roomful of people, it gets tiring.

OK, that doesn’t sound too bad. You can fight off fatigue, can’t you? Well, yes, up to a point. But things quickly start to go downhill from there. Here are some of the less obvious sensations that I’m all too familiar with:

Regardless of general fatigue, when the noise level rises beyond a certain point I can’t make out speech any longer. I can hear people speaking across or along the table, but their words are nothing more than a mush of sound. More bizarrely, if someone is speaking nearby the syllables might be perfectly audible but they become incomprehensible. The closest analogy I can suggest is that it’s as if they’ve suddenly slipped into speaking a different language. As you can imagine, this makes dinner conversation in a noisy room impossible.

Moving around a crowded room becomes difficult. It’s as if my vision has narrowed down, I can’t pick out obstacles, and I feel off-balance. I have to plan out even the simplest movements like standing up or weaving between people and tables because I feel impossibly clumsy, as if my body and limbs have invisible extensions making them twice their normal size. I have to focus on the floor at my feet because otherwise I’m in serious danger of bumping into things.

Taking this further, the tunnel vision can get so bad that I don’t notice people moving nearby. So people seem to materialize in my path without warning. It feels a bit like I’m living in a time-lapse video where everything is disjointed and jerky. In extreme situations, I get frozen in place, trapped and unable to move.

Crowds are inherently stressful for an extreme introvert, but in everyday life I’ve learned to manage. But when my energy has been drained by too much exposure, the fight or flight response kicks in big time because everything now feels like a threat. Simply entering a room full of people, it feels like I’m fighting my way through a physical but invisible barrier, the urge to flee is so strong.

In a similar way, there seems to be an impenetrable barrier around other individuals. This makes it impossible to approach and talk to anyone, unless I happen to have a specific reason to do so ... I need to talk to you/ask you about X. This means that small talk is out of the question.

So, when I seem withdrawn and distant in the middle of a crowd I’m not trying to be rude, I’m just overloaded.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Progress - but s l o w

September. Back to school. And we’ve often noticed that after Labor Day it feels like someone flipped a switch from “summer” to “autumn”.

Not that we’ve seen much of “summer” this year. Sure, we’ve had pleasant enough spells, but in many years we’ve practically lived out on the deck from May onwards, and gone months at a stretch without having to cover the furniture against rain. Not so much this year.

And now the evenings are getting darker and cooler, and we are getting used to new routines. Ali is back to a new school year with a new intake of students. Matthew started at college, which is another big adjustment. My own work is unusually intense this year, which often leaves me tired in the evenings.

So, although writing progress is happening, it’s going slowly.

The Long Dark is working its way through the critique queue, getting a ton of feedback. Critiquing is a long process, submitting chapters week by week for comment. Towards the end, my previous novels have generally garnered maybe four or five critiques per week. This time around it’s holding steady at about double that. Which is wonderful, though it carries a cost. Critiquing is a reciprocal process, and I like to make sure I’m giving as much as I’m receiving. But at that furious pace I’m falling further and further behind. I’ll be working to make up lost ground critiquing other people’s work long after my novel is done.

I had hoped to finish and publish Breaking the Block this month, but with all the critiquing effort on TLD that is falling behind. I did manage to go through a thorough round of edits, with just final tidying up left to do, but I have only just made a start on cover art.

All this means I’ve got my work cut out for me if I’m to meet my objective of publishing The Long Dark next summer.
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