Category Archives: Dumb Ideas

“Sweetie, if you don’t let me come, I’ll adopt a Hynerian baby!”

In the last few weeks, I’ve run into several people who knew me during my old writing days, and they don’t really believe that I’ve quit. In many ways, I don’t blame them, because they can’t kick the writing habit, so they can’t believe that I’ve gone cold turkey. Well, I get the usual “you’re doing a blog, so you’re still writing” garbage, but that’s like saying I’m still a drug abuser for popping a couple of aspirin. For the sake of argument, let’s presume that the discussion of what constitutes a writer involves those who write for publication and/or payment, in a venue which they do not have direct control. I know this will offend the self-publishing obsessives, but I haven’t offended anybody in the last few hours, so it’s their turn.

It’s not that I don’t miss writing in general. I miss the communication. What I don’t miss are the mindgames that go with traditional publishing of all sorts. I don’t miss having an editor/publisher sit on a manuscript for months or years. I don’t miss being rewritten without warning (especially when I volunteer to take on rewrites) and having to take the hit when the editor screws up. I don’t miss having articles gutted because an article submitted by the editor’s girlfriend ran five pages over, and she threatened to go postal if the editor so much as changed a single word. I don’t miss book and magazine distribution nightmares. I don’t miss having to wait six months for payment on articles, or of editors magically deciding “we can’t afford to pay until we’re profitable,” and then going out of their way to make sure their publication remains unprofitable. I don’t miss editors who still owe me money for dead publications from fifteen years ago who move to a new one and assume that I’ll play the same game. Most of all, I don’t miss having to commiserate with friends about how utterly terrible and horrible it is that one venue or another went under, when what you really want to howl is “I’ll see it in Hell, sucker!”

Amazingly, these people still wonder why I’d give up the glamor and lucre of writing for science fiction magazines for raising carnivorous plants. Heck, some even get offended that I won’t come back.

In the past few days, though, I’ve reconsidered my stance. I can actually thank my local grocery store for this, because one quick peek through its Periodicals section demonstrated that there’s no reason why I couldn’t hop back, just long enough to pay for a new greenhouse and about 50 acres to put it on. All I need is the right gimmick.

Red Harvest front

By way of example, when passing through the periodicals racks, I usually focus on the magazines. Going through the books these days, though, is like wandering through the Marianas Trench. I’ve been far enough away from publishing that all of the denizens are odd to surface-born eyes, and some have all of the lurid fascination and danger of vampire squid and gulper eels. That’s actually unfair to vampire squid and gulper eels, because they can survive in the wild without assistance. The current trend in vampire/angel/werewolf/shapeshifter/witch romance novels is the literary equivalent of those “fruit cocktail trees” sold in garden centers: graft on enough scions, and someone will buy it just because it looks too strange to survive.

With the collapse of Borders last fall, it’s obvious that both the publishing industry and the publishing distribution industry are both in trouble. Both lost a huge market, and now they’re throwing whatever they can against the wall to see if it sticks. Hence, it’s hard not to ask if some poor overworked editor isn’t channeling the spirit of Max Bialystock and offering contracts for the science fiction equivalent of “Springtime For Hitler”. Hence, this viperfish of a title in the rack this morning:

Red Harvest back

Yes, you’re not just looking at a Star Wars novel. You’re looking at a Star Wars ZOMBIE novel. One of a series. To quote one of literature’s greatest fictional orchid enthusiasts, “PFUI!”

Next, there’s the “Featured” area of the periodicals section, better known as the “Pay For Play” area. Most days, this is filled with the latest issue of D magazine, highlighting its latest “Top 283 Left-Handed Vending Machine Operators Willing To Pay Us For a Full-Page Ad” cover story, but today? Today is a very different day. Today, the Featured area is full of the latest publishing sensation: three volumes of Twilight slashfic, with the serial numbers barely filed off before publication.

Featured entry in the Periodicals section

Fifty Shades Darker

I have to admit that this is absolutely brilliant in an odd way. Why kill yourself on creating original situations and characters when you can just high-grade the background of an established universe? Better yet, why kill yourself further on creating something truly unique, when (as Norman Spinrad noted fifteen years ago) a chimpanzee could type out a manuscript for a Star Wars novel and it would still make the New York Times Bestsellers list?

Fifty Shades Freed

Twenty years ago, my younger self would have been offended by this. Enraged. Screaming at the top of his lungs at this sort of gibberish taking over bookshelf space. In those intervening two decades, though, I’ve noticed that for all of the outrage, the final determination as to the success of these servings of literary Hamburger Helper is the famed invisible hand of the market. Yes, some of these sell and sell well, but the writers tend to disappear. The worst fate of all: the books go out of print, and they stay out of print. Or, to put it another way, these will probably be about as well-read and well-appreciated as the unauthorized rewrite of Gone With The Wind in the Nineties. And so it goes.

This is why I’ve decided not to complain and kvetch about this state of affairs, and I’m planning to use it to finance an expansion of the plant business, if not the opportunity to buy a new house. If I can’t get a three-book, six-figure contract for my crossover Absolutely Fabulous/Farscape slashfic, featuring the erotic exploits of Edina Monsoon and Pilot, then I’m just not trying hard enough. All editor queries welcome…

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Introducing the FreakBeast

It had to come to this. The song was absolutely correct:

I know this because I was informed by Network Solutions this morning that this blog has nowhere near enough photos of cats on it. You wouldn’t believe some of the things they said they’d have to do to me if I didn’t rectify this. Tasers. Sawdust. Hipster poetry. By the time they mentioned “Nickelback concert”, I caved. I mean, what would you do?

Because of this, it’s time to introduce the youngest employee at the Texas Triffid Ranch. Meet Leiber.

Leiber, the FreakBeast

As can be told by his intense expression, Leiber doesn’t care that last Friday was his tenth birthday. He also doesn’t care that he was named after a much-beloved enthusiast of felines of all sorts. In fact, were I to have known how dopy this cat was when I first adopted him, I would have named him “Niven” instead. He’s a sweet cat in his own way, but he’s also so dumb that he trips on the carpet pattern at times, and I wish I were joking. About the carpet pattern, that is, because it’s hard to explain to guests that he has a walking problem. If this cat could speak, the only English he could manage is “Humperdidoo!”

I don’t want to imply that he’s completely worthless. He has some intrinsic value, in some alternate reality where the common currency is manufactured from cat vomit. He’s very good, VERY GOOD, at tripping people in the dark. He’s a master at screaming helplessly at the occasional invading mosquito, even if he couldn’t catch one with surface-to-air missiles and a complete fire team. If universities offered degrees in “chewing on vinyl shower curtains for no readily apparent reason,” he’d have a Ph.D. We started referring to him as “the FreakBeast,” because his grasp of English is right up there with his grasp of French, Latin, Urdu, and modulated armpit farts, and he responds to that as much as he does his given name. This either suggests that he’s intensely intelligent and just refusing to blow his cover until the interstellar invasion fleet arrives to blow up the sun, or he’s exactly as advertised. Humperdidoo!

Now don’t get me wrong. I may give him an inordinate amount of grief, but I’m also incredibly fond of the little monster. He has a thing about trying to sleep on my hip, so I just comment that he has something in common with the Czarina: riding my butt while I’m trying to take a nap. He can’t quite meow, so his vocabulary of meeps and chirps is exceedingly entertaining. He’s also the first cat I’ve ever had that fetches thrown items, leading him to drag his favorite toys for us to chuck across the house. In other words, trying to find unique things about him, other than noting that his base skill consists of shedding defensive hairs like a terrified tarantula, makes us no different from any other cat owner on the planet.

No matter how much one loves a cat, every cat owner has the same dream. Namely, looking the little furball dead in the eyes and telling him “It’s time for you to get a job and earn your keep around here.” Even better is being able to tell the cat to get a job worthy of his skills and aptitudes. This is why Leiber has now been appointed the official Triffid Ranch Social Media Officer. It’s a role for which he’s perfectly suited.

Leiber, the FreakBeast

Yeah, you can see the expression in his eye. That’s not glowing hellfire and severe radiation. That’s ambition.

Oh, my aching brain

One of the curses of having interesting friends is that they can be a bit too interesting. See, they share things. Horrible, mind-altering things. Things that leave me in a little fetal ball, crying “Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me?” and looking for sharp instruments with which I plan to trim my fingernails to the shoulder. And those are just with the puns. No, some of these disturbing images and concepts are so foul that I immediately share them with the Czarina.

Back twenty-five years ago, I worked as a groundskeeper for a now-long-defunct Texas Instruments site in Carrollton, Texas, and I had quite the assemblage of odd co-workers. One’s name was, quite literally, “Bubba”, and I’m pretty sure that this was his legal name on his driver’s license and birth certificate. Bubba was an absolute salt-of-the-earth guy in his own way, except for one particularly vile habit. See, he had a thing for various gas-producing victuals, ranging from Ranch Style Beans to Mickey’s Big Mouth Ale, and he wasn’t afraid to share the end output. Problem is, he’d wait for just the right moment, right when our natural instincts to trust our fellow man were at their height, emit a silent-but-deadly that could char the nose hairs out of a dead rhinoceros, and then ask innocently “Do you guys smell barbecue?” Yes, in fact, we did, as the delicate scrollwork that used to be our sinus bones was turned into smoke and ash.

Now, a quarter of a century later, I’m regularly reminded that I associate with friends who carry on the scientific, theological, and philosophical tradition, as if Bubba were right there in the cargo elevator with me. While they might not physically subject me to a haze of hydrogen sulfide and methane, the effect on brain tissue is much the same.

Case in point. My friend Bon Steele was apparently at the garden center today, and she passed on a photo of a kid’s garden starter kit. Specifically, by way of this, I learned about the Growums line of gardening kits, and I can’t argue with the basic idea. It was one of the characters that burned my frontal lobes. Namely, the introduction to “Frank Cilantro“.

Yeah. Frank Cilantro.

And that’s when it went wrong, Your Honor. “Elvis Parsley” was to be expected, as would “John Lemongrass”. My mind doesn’t go that way, and suddenly I was picturing similar kits with “Jerry Gardenia“, “Jello Bicalcarata,” “DeeDee Romaine“, and “Turner Vanda Blarcum“. I realized how far I’d sunk when suddenly the thought of naming a plant “Nancy Spathophyllum” almost, ALMOST, made sense. Sorry, but NOBODY is going to eat an onion nicknamed “G.G. Allium” if they’re even remotely familiar with the reference.

And then it really got to me. Suddenly, I realized that I had the perfect spokesfigure for a new line of high-intensity herbicides. A pernicious weed with thick-frame birth control glasses and smarmy smirk, that hyperfocused on one subject and wouldn’t shut up about it, before being burned down to the soil line by a welcome rain of poisons and acids. The world’s ready for “Coriander Doctorow,” isn’t it?

Oh, don’t look at me like that. This is your dead rhinoceros moment. Besides, what’s he going to do: sue for copyright infringement?

Peering upon Hello Kitty hell

So far as I can tell, and as far as the chronicler of Hello Kitty Hell can attest, almost nothing in this universe is too foul, too sacrosanct, or too pure to be turned into a licensing tool for Sanrio’s Hello Kitty juggernaut. And yes, I mean the term “juggernaut” in its original sense, as in “something that demands blind devotion or merciless sacrifice.” Ar-15 rifles, age-inappropriate halloween costumes, pipes, sex toys…I’m waiting for Hello Kitty-branded Mars rovers and thermonuclear weapons next.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the Hello Kitty cult has infected gardening. And that’s fine. Really. Much like being one of the only businesses in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex that hasn’t received a “Best of Dallas” award from D magazine (mostly because the main qualification for being one of the 783 entrants in each and every category, as announced every month, is paying for the advertising space), the Triffid Ranch is and will always remain Sanrio-free. No Hello Kitty planters, no tomato stakes, no terraria, and no cow manure compost. With the last, that would be redundant.

However, I can understand the appeal of attaching one’s products to an existing brand and running with it, hoping that this translates to business for the company’s other products. I just need to find something a bit more wholesome than Hello Kitty. You don’t think that Peter Jackson would have any issues giving a license for a line of Meet the Feebles garden gnomes, do you?

“HI! I’m Johnny Knoxville, and this is ‘high-tech beekeeping.”

Oh, get a load of this

When I first moved out on my own in the Eighties, I used to work with a gentleman who regularly said “There are some ideas so stupid that you’d have to go to school for years to come up with them.” Admittedly, he was talking about some of the genius ideas coming out of Texas Instruments at the time (the fact that our CEO at the time has a technology school named after him is roughly akin to naming a culinary school after Jeffrey Dahmer), but I can only imagine how much he’d have howled upon seeing some of the goofy high-tech “green” items being offered today. I suspect that if I went to his gravesite and told the marker stone about Philips’s proposed urban beehive, I’d hear Boris Karloff-level laughter coming from the ground for weeks.

It’s not that I have issues with the concept of urban beekeeping, although it’s becoming less a matter of a legitimate hobby and more of a bored hipster attempt to have something to distinguish them from the urban chicken keepers and goat herders. (Seriously, guys: go for raising alligators. I can guarantee you that nobody’s doing that in their back yards, and you might get some upper body strength in the process.) It’s that in a lot of cases, existing techniques and materials exist for a reason. I’ve met plenty of legitimate urban beekeepers who do what they do partly because the traditions work, and partly because they’ve learned, often through quite a bit of pain, that you need to know more about bees than what a quick Google search can give you.

That quick Google search was probably where this started: what would you need to keep and enjoy bees in a highrise area? The concept photos sure seem interesting, but it’s painfully obvious that the individual or group that did the design saw cartoons about bees once, and figured “How easy can it be?” Heh heh heh.

As someone who started beekeeping when a random swarm landed in my old back yard in the spring of 1982, the old Scottish frugality kicks in over the idea of housing and caring for a random swarm. It sounds like a great idea, and real beekeepers regularly relate how they get calls from people with swarms in their trees or chimneys, offering to give up that valuable swarm “for free”. However, it’s impossible to tell if the swarm is infested with diseases such as European foulbrood or parasites such as varroa mites, and most keepers won’t bother. The idea that this high-tech hive is supposed to attract swarms, then, is folly.

Oh, but it keeps getting better. Take a look at the concept photos, and ask yourself how this hive is supposed to be installed. Do you cut holes into very expensive picture windows to fit it, or do you have to take out the window and re-fit it? Considering that bees keep the temperature stable in a hive by setting up sentries to fan their wings at the entrance, how will they be able to cool things down with that tiny tube exit? With the goofy plant tray underneath, how do you water the plants if they’re 30 stories up? Even better, since bees take their dead and drop them outside the entrance, how do you clean a plant tray that’s full of dead bees when it’s 30 stories up? In the winter, will the heat of a typical house or apartment, transferred to the hive, keep the bees from settling down for the season? And when it comes to hive growth, how do you allow expansion so the hive doesn’t abandon a too-small space?

Since the main stated purpose of this hive is to collect honey, here’s where everything really breaks down. The promotional material makes a big deal about a smoke attachment that “calms the bees” to allow honeycomb extraction, but this was obviously written by someone who has never worked with bees. Beekeepers use smoke when opening a hive to calm the bees, yes, but that’s because a bee’s basic instinct when exposed to smoke is to prepare to evacuate. To that end, the bees drink as much honey as they can in order to have a food supply if they have to leave: it sometimes calms them, but mostly their full bellies prevent them from being able to sting as readily as they’d like. Speaking from experience, every five “calm” bees is accompanied by one perfectly willing and able to sting, and they’ll gang up on anybody without proper protection. Even those lucky “bee charmers” wear hoods and veils more often than not, just to keep bees out of their eyes, and most folks (myself included) need heavy gloves, veils, and coveralls to keep bees from climbing into every available opening in clothing.

(And while we’re at it, I want to know how the designers of this hot mess thought that users could collect honey from it. Most standard hive comb is a combination of honey storage and cells for raising larval bees, and existing hive designs take into account that queens, the only bees in a standard Apis hive that lay eggs, prefer to work near the base of the hive. Will one of these brave urban first-implementers be able to tell the difference between honey comb or brood comb, know when honey comb is ready for collection, or know how to separate honey from comb once it’s out of the hive?)

And here’s the main critical issue with this whole design. Let’s just say that the person using it is one of those spectacularly lucky individuals who smells right to bees, to where s/he can just reach inside a hive and not get stung at all. It happens just often enough. The problem, though, is that the hive can’t be picked up (and you don’t know how heavy a hive full of honey can be until you try to move one) and taken outside if it’s attached to a window. This means, in order to gather honey (the hive’s stated purpose) or do basic hive maintenance (which isn’t even accounted for in this plan), this requires opening that polycarbonate case inside a house or apartment. The person opening it may be lucky enough not to get stung, but do you want to risk this with anybody else in the building? Even better, after you’ve cracked open the hive and let about 5000 to 10,000 bees loose, how are you planning to get them to go back inside? Ask them nicely?

The fact that Amanda Kooser at CNet fell for this sums up a lot of the current problems with science journalism these days. I have no doubt that Ms. Kooser is well-informed on the latest in consumer electronics, but it’s obvious that she knew next to nothing about beekeeping and didn’t have the time to check with anyone who did. Even better, I can only imagine the phone exchange if she had: “Please excuse me, Ms. Kooser. I have to go laugh myself incontinent, and I’ll call you back as soon as I’ve changed my pants.”

Now, judging by some of the comments over at the CNet article, this missive will be met with the same response from know-nothings who think that any criticism is unfair and overly negative. Let’s see how supportive they are of this idea after the first time they try to open the blasted thing.