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Over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, I worked on a DIY project for my home. The idea was to create a Linux-based media center on a Raspberry Pi.
The Raspberry Pi is a tiny but remarkably powerful computer on a circuit board designed by the good folks at the Raspberry Pi Foundation (http://www.raspberrypi.org). It can run a number of different operating systems, including various Linux-based distributions and a stripped-down version of Windows 10. The original idea behind the Raspberry Pi was to create a tool that educators could use to teach young people about computers and programming languages. The official, supported, Raspbian OS is based on the Debian Jessie Linux distribution and comes with educational games, math tools, programming environments, and other software packages for children. But the low-cost computer (about $35 on Amazon) has since proved extremely popular with the DIY crowd, who have used the thing to power everything from robots, to automatic plant waterers, to magic mirrors. Search the web for “Raspberry Pi projects” and you’ll find long lists of ideas, as well as fully developed projects that people have already created using the tiny computer.
I can’t take credit for the media center idea. Many intrepid enthusiasts have been there before me and passed down their experiences in a plethora of web pages, blog posts, and YouTube videos. Moreover, I’m indebted to the many programmers and open source enthusiasts who continue to contribute their time and skills to the Kodi (https://kodi.tv/) and OSMC (https://osmc.tv/) open source projects for the software to make this work. Nevertheless, I had to solve enough problems to get the everything working in my network environment and with my particular digital resources to make the project both engaging and fun.
The end result is a pleasing graphical application that displays on my television and offers a single interface to access and organize my entire music collection, all my collected videos, my digital photographs, and streaming media from various online sources. I orchestrate it all from a small, wireless, bluetooth keyboard or an iPhone application.
The hardware and software components I purchased to create this project are listed below:
CanaKit Raspberry Pi 3 Kit with Clear Case and 2.5A Power Supply – $49.99
SanDisk Ultra 64GB microSDXC UHS-I Card with Adapter (you could do fine with a smaller one) – $14.99
Logitech K380 Multi-Device Bluetooth Keyboard – $24.95
Western Digital My Passport Ultra 1TB External USB 3.0/2.0 Portable Hard Drive – $49.95
MPEG-2 license key – £2.00 GBP (from the Raspberry Pi Foundation)
VC-1 license key – £2.00 GBP (from the Raspberry Pi Foundation)
Total cost of project: $144.88
Americans spend thousands of hours every year watching commercials and viewing advertisements in print and online media. While I occasionally hear complaints, those complaints mostly center around the interruption to their favorite television show or the aggravation of dealing with popups and the other aggressive ads that take over your internet browser. Rarely do people seem concerned about the content of the advertising they watch or the effect it has on the watcher.
Advertisements are designed to convince the consumer of something. The goals vary. I often watch TV for a few hours before retiring for the night. Most of the ads I see could be translated as some variation on the following:
- I will be happier/healthier if I purchase this product. (If only it were so easy. No soap or grooming product I’ve tried has shifted my mood so much as a millimeter. Nor, for that matter, has one ever gotten me laid.)
- I should feel good about this company. (It may contribute millions of pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere every year and pay no taxes, but it’s made up of people just like me, so how could it possibly be bad.)
- This political candidate has my best interests at heart. The other one does not. (I’m actually more concerned about each candidate’s policy initiatives. But those are rarely mentioned in ads—and never in enough detail to allow any rational evaluation of the initiative or the candidate. )
None of the claims implicit or explicit in the advertisements I watched last night were based on anything resembling truth. Not a single one. Some were more subtle in their lies than others, but all of the ads were designed to make me think or feel things that were not supported by fact or reasonable analysis. Yes, burning rubber doing donuts in a parking lot does look fun, but I do not need, nor do I want to pay for the gasoline guzzled by a 300 horsepower muscle car. All of the messages encouraged me to behave in a way which would serve the interests of the company or organization sponsoring the advertisement. Rarely would those coincide with my own. Adults presumably have a greater capacity than children to discern truth from fiction, and thus, to shield themselves from any ill effect from all the messages blaring from every television and computer. But even if I discount the possibility of damage to the mature, according to statisticsbrain.com, the average child will watch 16,000 commercials in a year. What effect does all that advertising have on children whose capacity for rational thought is not fully developed? If nothing else, think of the last time you saw a child screaming for candy in the grocery store.
During the recent presidential election I had to assume that one of the candidates would probably represent my interests better than the other, but none of the ads I saw in the run-up to November 8 were useful determining which one that might be. So Hillary Clinton will do things to benefit families and the middle class. What things, exactly? Are her proposals likely to get past Congress? Nevertheless, I expect the ads were convincing to some voters. After the election, many pundits speculated as to why voters voted the way they did. Personally, I was amazed how many voters were willing to ignore Donald Trumps many offensive statements and vote for him despite any misgivings. Some were clearly swayed by the vilification of “Crooked Hillary” by the Right. (“Lock her up!” Trump supporters chanted. For what, exactly? If were any real evidence of wrongdoing, she would have been prosecuted before she received the majority of the popular vote. Trump, on the other hand, has been party to some 4,000 lawsuits in the past thirty years and is named 75 ongoing ones—this according to USA Today. Crooked indeed!) I wonder if some voters weren’t so numbed by the messages on television—and so distrustful of them—that they simply discounted everything they heard and picked their candidate simply because they perceived him to be more of a change from the current—disappointing—one.
This year, my National Public Radio station significantly increased the number of corporate sponsorship messages they air. Worse yet, they began to broadcast out-and-out advertisements (as well as more frequent promotions of their own content). I feel betrayed. The unspoken contract to which I have been a party for years has been that NPR will not broadcast ads. In return, I will assume less bias in their stories, and I will pay for the privilege of listening to this unbiased content with regular donations. No public discussion, as far as I am aware, proceeded this change of policy. My response has been to redirect my giving to other causes.
Can it possibly be a good thing to expose ourselves to a barrage of untruth every day? I have heard marketing apologists argue that the best ads simply bring to a person’s attention to a product, company, issue, or candidate that they might not otherwise know about. While this is certainly true, it absurdly reductive. Ask yourself this: are the products advertised the most the best ones on the market? Are they any better than the no-name equivalents next to them on the supermarket shelf? They are certainly more expensive. What about the cholesterol medicines pushed on television? Are they better than the generic equivalents? What about other treatments? Shouldn’t my doctor be making such assessments based on clinical data rather than ad-prompted patient requests? Capitalists may argue that exposure to advertising is the inevitable price of economic progress. I would like to examine this idea more closely, for it seems to me that the current state of our country may be the result of a Faustian bargain.
I am finding this election more painful than any I’ve previously experienced. While negative campaigns are hardly new, this one feels different: the personal attacks are more vicious and the disinterest in reasoned debate is more blatant. In previous elections, I could imagine that most people wanted peace, economic prosperity, and opportunity for all (with maybe only a little bit more for the people like themselves), and that their arguments mostly concerned the how of it. In this election, the personal attacks have supplanted civil debate to the point where substantive policy discussions take place off the public stage.
In my lifetime, we’ve never a candidate for national office like Donald Trump. Mr. Trump’s disinterest in facts, his sociopathic disregard for social norms, his antipathy towards immigrants, Muslims, latinos, blacks, women, LGBT folk, and other groups with which he does not identify, and his ignorance of the basic mechanisms of our democracy make him unique among major party candidates. He is a disastrously bad candidate for office.
At the same time, Secretary Clinton is far from perfect. Her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state reflected poor judgement. It endangered the security of her communications and suggests that she felt entitled to disregard rules and procedures that protect the nation and the historical record. That said, the FBI has concluded her behavior was not worthy of prosecution, and I accept their judgement. Despite her behavior, I believe Clinton operates in a world that acknowledges a social contract—a world where it matters whether you tell the truth, a world where experience in government is not seen as a disqualification for governing, and where a person’s record—both good and bad—can be discussed and debated in a sensible way.
Trump throws out all rules of good behavior. He lies blatantly and constantly. One need only spend a few minutes fact-checking to determine this. He encourages racism and incites violence. He brags about abusing women. He claims a God-like capability to make the improbable happen. Building a wall between the US and Mexico and getting Mexico to pay for it would require both the cooperation of the Mexican government and a broad consensus in our own legislative branch. Neither is plausible. He seems wholly ignorant of our country’s constitutional limits on presidential power. His claims about climate change, his ability to defeat ISIS, and his ability to promote economic prosperity are not supported by any scientific data, discernible plan, or economic theory. Trump seems motivated by a pathological need for attention and acclaim. His exhibits no interest in helping others. Trump says he wants to make America great again, but his solutions will come at the expense of all Americans.
We will always have bigots and fools, demagogues and sociopaths. We will always have politicians who begin to equate power (for them) with public good. But it pains me that such a large segment of our population seems to like Trump for the very crude, bigoted, and bullying behaviors I find so abhorrent in him. They appear to prefer an angry demagogue over a statesman. I worry that frustration over our deadlocked congress and general distrust of government spurred by Republican claims about government inefficiency and incompetence have become so strong that a large number of Americans would accept a tyrant rather than trust in our the system of checks and balances defined in our constitution.
I do not understand the scorched earth attitude of some of Senator Sanders’ supporters, people who would apparently rather allow Trump to win than support Secretary Clinton. Regardless of what you think of the candidates as individuals, the policy differences between the Democratic and Republican party platforms could not be more revealing. Failing to vote out of disappointment or anger over Sanders’ loss elevates emotion over common sense, and places vengeance over concern concern for the common good.
I will vote for Secretary Clinton for president. I don’t believe we advance by suppressing the rights of immigrants. I believe Trump’s economic and tax plans will increase the gap between the rich and the poor. I believe Trump’s personal behavior and speech encourage violence and civil unrest. I will vote for Clinton knowing she is not perfect and knowing that she carries the baggage of long service in the public eye. I will vote confident that I have done the right thing.
My first drafts tend to be heavy on dialog and light on everything else. Early scenes may consist of nothing but dialog. Eventually, I go back and add description: expressions, movement, sensations, a setting. If necessary, I compose interior dialog. I consider theme. But for me, the story always lives first in what my characters say to one another.
Good dialog drives the story forward. It entertains. It explicates character. It demonstrates conflict. In a story, it always has a purpose.
Notes on Writing Dialog
Everyone has an agenda. Everyone who talks has a reason for being in the story, a purpose, or a goal they want to achieve. Some possibilities:
- To meet an attractive person
- To network or forward their business or career
- To try to convince someone of something
- To find out something
In this excerpt from Billy Goat Stats, Coach Rocker wants something from Billy, a new freshman basketball player, but he isn’t ready to explain himself, setting up the coming conflict. Not surprisingly, Billy flounders.
“I understand congratulations are due, and not just on your state win. Digger tells me you got MVP at your last game. What was it, 62 points and 18 rebounds?”
Digger, Billy gathered, was Assistant Coach Paulson. They’d met briefly at orientation.
“Yes, sir. But the other team’s point guard was injured. I’d never have made so many—”
“Hold it right there, young man. There are always circumstances. Great players know how to take advantage of them.”
“I’m really not that great—”
“At little humility can go a long way, Billy. You don’t actually want to convince people you don’t deserve your successes, do you? Tell ’em you’re something special and they’ll more than likely believe you. Muhammad Ali taught us that.”
“But he was a great boxer, wasn’t he?”
Coach Rocker showed Billy into his office and waved him to a chair. “So how’s your dorm? Getting settled in?”
Billy didn’t know if it was because he’d won a basketball scholarship, but he’d been given a room in a suite with two other athletes in Brookhouse, a dorm that was only a short walk from the Athletic Center and Basketball Coliseum. The truth was, he’d rather have been nearer the quad with it’s green lawns and shaded walks, but he wasn’t going to complain.
“Meet your roommates yet?”
“One of them. Jason Pritchard? He’s a catcher, I think, from Ann Arbor. On a baseball scholarship. The other is Mike Brooks.”
“Oh, yes, promising shooting guard.” The coach seemed distracted, his eyes flicking back and forth between Billy and the small TV mounted on the wall of his office as if he wanted to catch the scores. “I’m sure you’ll get along.” Coach Rocker’s eyes returned to meet his. “Tulane Sampson is over there too. Nice guy. You have a lot in common. You should look him up.”
Billy knew who Tulane Sampson was. Everyone knew Tully Sam. He was Hoosier State’s star center. Last year he’d led the league in scoring at twenty-seven per game. He was also a black kid from New Orleans, and more significantly, a senior. What in hell did Coach Rocker think the guy would have in common with Billy, a freshman and small-town midwestern white boy who’d played point guard in high school, but would be lucky to get off the bench at Hoosier State?
“Well, thanks for stopping by, Billy. We’ll look forward to seeing you at practice.”
Billy rose, wondering why he’d been summoned to speak to the coach, only to be dismissed so soon. Maybe the coach made a point of welcoming all the scholarship students?
“You be sure and introduce yourself to Tully—421 Brookhouse. Nice guy.”
Everyone is hiding something. We all have secrets:
- How we are feeling
- What we really think
- Our involvement in a crime, conspiracy, or infidelity
In this scene from The Door Behind Us, Jersey reveals more than he intends about his experience as a soldier. Frank’s blunt response is instructive.
“My mama, y’know, she picks at me ’cause she says I talk too much but don’t say nothing. She wants me to tell her about the war, because she’s got this fool idea that talking about it is gonna do me some good—make me less nervous or something. She read this story in the Current about a doctor up in Scotland who’s had some luck treating people with shell shock. They called it battle fatigue, but it’s the same damn thing. I keep telling her I’m not like the fellows she reads about, loud noises just make me nervous is all. Talk, she says. Like I’m gonna to tell her about Lieutenant Heiser getting his head sliced clean off by a machine gun. When she gets ragging on me particular hard, I think about telling her ‘bout that—just to shut her up.”
“Don’t do it.” Jersey, in his own world, was startled by Frank’s reply, and by his vehemence. He looked up to find Frank had stopped tossing fresh hay from the loft and was jabbing randomly at a fresh bale. “She won’t like it.”
“Okay, Frank,” he said, tossing off a ragged salute. “I won’t.”
Dialog is an opportunity to contrast what characters are saying with what they are thinking or feeling, this creates conflict and increases tension.
- Physical reactions may contrast with a characters words in order to create conflict
- Interior dialog may contrast with speech
In this scene, also from The Door Behind Us, Frank is questioned by Dr. Jones about how he came to fall off a freight train.
“You have not said how you came to be on that train or what happened to your friend, Jersey,” Jones prompted.
“The head of school, Mr. Underwood, found an address for me. My father’s parents. They were in Plainfield, but I lost the address. It was in my coat when it was stolen from me on the train. I had no money, and Jersey…chose to stay in Philadelphia, so I jumped the freight.”
The doctor’s eyes glinted from under gray eyebrows. “Did you and your friend have a falling out?” Frank had not realized he was so transparent.
“He wanted to stay at the school. There was a girl—I don’t know. He just wanted to stay. Why do you want to know about Jersey?”
“You talk of him warmly.” Agrippa opened a hand, palm up. “Then, poof, you are alone. Then you fall off train.”
“I was thrown off the train,” Frank said sharply.
“Of course, of course.” The doctor’s eyelids were half closed.
“You think I tried to kill myself.”
“No, I don’t. The idea crossed my mind. The sheriff’s too, I suspect.”
“Why would I try to kill myself?”
The doctor put his thumbs in the pockets of his vest and moved his belly gently as one would rock a baby. “There is the world as we would have it and there is the world as we find it.”
Dialog is a great opportunity—perhaps the best a writer has—to differentiate between characters. Some ways characters may contrast:
- Language or dialect
- Use of obscenities
- World view
- Class or education level
- Favorite topic or bet noir
- Verbal ticks
- Listening skills—or the lack of them
In this scene from Valentine Shower, Reuben has been pining over a misunderstanding with his closest friend. His sister Yaffa comes over to see what’s up. It was Yaffa’s first appearance, so it’s important the reader get to know her.
I swallowed. “Are you here to help me or insult me?”
Yaffa smirked. “Six of one, half dozen of the other….”
“Look, it’s nice of you to come by, but I really don’t need—”
“Oh no, bro. I’ve been waiting for this ever since you reached puberty—and nothing happened. I deserve this.”
Yaffa’s high school years had been marked by unreliable boyfriends, flying hairbrushes, and salty tears. Maybe she had a point, but I wasn’t about to concede it. I chewed.
Yaffa bounced in her seat. “Come on, what is it? Girlfriend trouble? Boyfriend trouble? An online gambling addiction? That would be boring even for you. Oh no, it’s not a porn addiction? Because that’s nothing—everyone’s addicted to porn these days. You can hardly escape from it.”
“It’s not porn.”
“You know it’s okay, right, to touch yourself? Everybody does it.”
I nearly choked on the omelet. “Jesus, Yaffa. Will you give me a second to get my thoughts together?”
“You haven’t had a thought out of place since you were eight. You can’t blame me for getting excited.”
“I resent it, you know, when you talk about me like I don’t have any feelings.”
Yaffa’s glee morphed into seriousness. “Sorry, bro.”
I wasn’t fooled. “Just because I don’t choose to wave them around like a set of great pompoms.”
“Wave what around? ’Cause you know these are natural, right? I can’t help that I was born with—”
“I was talking about my feelings, not your boobs.”
“Oh, right. Never mind me. I’ve been a little sensitive since Boom Boom was born.”
“Yeah, Jim started calling Jack that when he started on solid food and got the worst case of gas.”
“Wow, you actually acknowledge that I’m your sister. I suppose I ought to be grateful—”
I was certain it was part of the nefarious plan, but I was more than ready to spill my guts, if only she would stop talking. “You win! I’ll tell you what’s going on if you promise to not to say anything for ten minutes. Ten whole minutes. Promise, or I’ll throw you out and cut my wrists.” I demonstrated with a butter knife. It was a low blow, but the omelet hadn’t kicked in, and I was still light-headed.
Yaffa pursed her lips and stared for a second. “You’re going to talk about your feelings for a whole ten minutes? You know, it might actually be worth it.”
“Just shut up, would you?”
Yaffa reached for her coffee. “Okay, bro. I’m listening.”
Writing dialog is fun, but it’s also hard work. Done well, it may near poetry-like density of meaning.
I’m at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania tonight to hear about Dr. Anonymous—John Fryer—who famously spoke out against the psychological profession’s classification of homosexuality as pathology at the American Psychological Association in 1972. You can find out more at the HSP website.