Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Great DOS Game Updated for Today

Back in the DOS and Windows 3.0 days I found a PC game that gave me hundreds of hours of fun. It was actually rather addictive.

Sherlock is a tile-based game that harkens back to the word puzzles we've seen in magazines for years. You may recall the one - you have a couple that throws a party and invites guests. Based on the clues given -  this person is not with that person, this couple brought a pie, another couple brought a main dish, etc., you figure out who each couple is, what color car each drove, what dish each brought, and so on.

I was never good at the word puzzles in magazines. I'd get everything mixed up. Then I discovered Sherlock, which had something like 6,999 iterations. I was somewhere in the 4,000s when I got too busy to play and it didn't work in Windows anyway. I moved on.

The important thing was that I got rather good at it. Because I'm a visual learner, the tiles that showed which items were already a given (known), which people or items could not be next to each other, and which ones were next to each other or only two tiles away from each other, all made sense to my brain. The game has a timer, too, so I worked on solving the puzzles in under 10 minutes to increase the challenge.

An important thing happened to me as a result of playing this game so much. It trained my brain. When I took the GREs (Graduate Record Exam) in the 80s, which I had not been required to take for my master's degree, many of the math questions were word puzzles.

For example, you own a tree farm and one type of tree must be planted next to another while a third tree type cannot be planted next to the first type - and so on. But your plot area must contain 6 types of trees. You have to carefully arrange the plantings so the answer works for all the tree types.

I quickly drew grids on the question sheet for each of these math questions and worked through the clues as if it were Sherlock! And I did well on the math questions; better than I have ever done before - a large increase in my scores.

Imagine my delight when I recently searched for Sherlock and discovered a Windows version! Everett Kaser owns the copyright to Sherlock and other logic and puzzle games "intended to stretch your mind." There's a free download that lets you play 5 iterations of each variation. You can start out with a fairly easy variation, 3 sets of tiles, move up to 4, then 5, and so on, up to 8.

I spent the $20 to get the full version, after trying the free download to make sure it really was the same game I remembered. I don't have a lot of time to play computer games, but this is one game that helps me keep my mind sharp. It even lets me know when I 'm too tired to think clearly because I will overlook simple clues and make dumb mistakes. That's when it's time to take a break.

Appropriate for every age, Sherlock can be a great way to introduce word math puzzles to yourself or your children.

Image of the tile game Sherlock

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year - 2013 is Here

Good morning to all. I'm sure many people won't be up for a few hours yet while others have already begun their day and their new year with vigor. I've been up for a few hours and felt it was time to say hello to the world - and I'm finished with my morning's email.

What was 2012 like for you? Was it a good year? A lousy year? A so-so year? ...the year you got engaged, or married?. ...the year you found your soul mate even if he or she doesn't know they are that yet?

For me, 2012 was filled with mixed blessings and messages. Too many people are still out of work - which is why part of my job has shifted to Job Readiness activities. I have a great volunteer/intern who, unfortunately, has just gotten a job and will be with me fewer hours per week. But I'm glad he got a job. I figured he would - he's got a good skill set and is very intuitive. Give him a project and he can take it to the first and second draft level with few questions and lots of good ideas.

Human Pyramid - teamwork
I have a number of volunteers who each have various talents; together, they cobble together the skills necessary to keep our community technology center, Cyber Cafe @ Malden Square, open and functioning. That's no easy task, as most of them are senior citizens with moderate computer skills and we have a growing population of people coming in who require help at the computer.

My database volunteer, a young man who wrote a user guide for it and trains all the new volunteers in its use, has given his two-week notice. His family is moving to Texas due to his dad's job promotion. See: mixed blessing - their good news is my bad news.

Our lead computer instructor, also a volunteer, has helped us transform our courses to a model that supports job seekers who must be able to complete online forms, fill out applications on kiosks, and manage their job search while dealing with the frustration of rejection after rejection - or no response at all.

The fact that many of them are no longer eligible for unemployment insurance, as of today, makes their situation all the more dire. Rent and other bills to pay but no more money coming in - more than 1,000 residents in my tri-city area - means more frayed nerves and clients who feel they have no one who will listen to them; certainly, they don't believe the federal legislature has listened to them.
[Update: 1/3/13 - Unemployment Insurance was extended by Congress at the last minute - a welcome relief to millions of unemployment Americans.]

My own situation is as mixed as work. I worry that my 12-year-old van won't pass its inspection this month. I stick to a pretty tight budget - more by need than by choice; there just isn't any 'play' money available and certainly not a lot to spend on the van.

2 smilies turning toward each other and back to front
On the upside, in December I completed my novel, a murder mystery set in New Hampshire 30 years ago, in five-and-a-half months - on time for my own deadline - on time for submission to a first crime novel competition. I feel pretty darned good about that!

Now I wait; can't do anything with it until the end of March when the judging is completed. I'm not anticipating a win, but I'm a big believer that you can't win if you don't play. So I'll wait patiently and work on the next novel in the series.

I've re-edited a short story I wrote many years ago. I'm trying to find a way to make it available for download on this blog or somewhere else - a freebie as a salute for getting my first novel done. Even though they're in totally different genres (the short story is in the sword-and-sorceress genre), it's the writing that's important, not what genre it is.

I've invited folks from my online mystery writer's group to guest blog in this space. We'll see how many decide to do that. It will be fun to have another voice - even many voices - appearing here. And you'll get to discover writers you may never have known about before.

Use the comments section to share how you plan to spend 2013. I don't think resolutions are worth much because so many of us never follow through on them. But what plans do you have? What are you just dying to do that you have begun or are beginning - even if you began it in 2012, what is it? Speak up. Share.

...and Happy New Year!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Heart and Soul - A Special Grant Program for 501(c)3 Charities

 Today (12/3/12) is the first day of  the Community TechKnowledge (CTK) Foundation's 2013 grant opportunity for non profit organizations.  Dubbed the Heart and Soul grant, CTK asks organization to describe the heart and soul of their organization in a short poem.

CTK recognizes that the heart and soul of every nonprofit organization is the passion and commitment of its members (staff, volunteers, clients/patrons, board, other stakeholders) to make a difference. CTK's Heart and Soul grant supports the mission of non profits and honors the front line folks who quietly make that difference for their organizations.

What's the Prize?

One eligible nonprofit will receive CTK's main prize:
  • A $10,000 cash (unrestricted funds - a rare opportunity for nonprofits these days) and
  • A professionally written and recorded song by the Grammy Award-winning group, The Original Blind Boys of Alabama.
 Additional prizes for other nonprofits include: 
  • $10,000 HHS Grant — available to an Austin, TX-area nonprofit specializing in the provision of At Risk Children and Families — a gift from the Cipione Family Foundation of Austin, TX.
  • Two $5,000 Grant Awards to two US Nonprofits
  • Five $1,000 Grant Awards to Community TechKnowledge, Inc. customer organizations attending the 2013 Outcomes Immersion Certification Training
  • $20,000 in matching cash grants to nonprofits for CTK software purchases
  • Three autographed guitars: one by The Original Blind Boys of Alabama, one by Los Lonely Boys, and one by Sunny Shipley

Grant Application Period:

Grant Opens: Noon: December 3, 2012 (Central Standard Time)
Grant Closes: Noon: January 7, 2013 (Central Standard Time)

How to Apply:

Submit a 4-8 line poem expressing the heart (& soul) of your nonprofit organization's service mission through CTK's website.

The application process is easy. The most difficult part is likely to be creating that 4-8 line poem.  Get your pens ready, sit back and close your eyes, and visualize the heart and soul of your favorite nonprofit. How does it fulfill its service mission? What does that look like, in words? Can you feel it developing a rhythm? Maybe if you put it to a simple tune, it'll be easier to write.

Good luck, my friends.

What is the CTK Foundation?

The CTK Foundation was established by Community TechKnowledge, Inc., an Austin-based technology company that provides software and services to over 10,000 nonprofits in the US and UK. The CTK Foundation Fund is committed to the recognition and celebration of the work nonprofits and seeks to promote the use of technology in managing the accomplishment of their mission.

What Do Previous Winners Think?

 Here's a short video clip of a previous winner.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

About Blogging - or - Blogging Startup Hints for Writers

I was recently asked if I would write a newsletter article on blogging for an online writers' group.  I suspect the request was more about the mechanics of blogging - how to get blogging space and get started - as opposed to the process of writing a blog.  After all, blogging is writing ; it's just that you get to decide when, where, and how to publish what you write.  That's part of blogging's attraction.

There are two primary ways to get started with your blog, with a third alternative that's a combination of the previous two. 
  1. Find a blogging service that will give you space - free or for a fee.  They become your web host; you publish your writing on their servers.  They provide the blogging tools (platform) so you don't have to do much technical setup. 
  2. Purchase a domain name and web hosting space from an online host; do your own technical setup to publish your blog using one of any number of free or fee-based blogging platforms. You publish your writing on the web host's servers.
  3. Purchase a domain name and web hosting space from an online host., use a blogging service to write your blog posts, and publish your writing to the web host's servers, not the blogging service's servers.
1. Blogging Service
There are many blogging services available. Just do a web search for "blogging services" and you'll get a ton of results that you can check.  Here's one result that compares a number of blogging services and tools (platforms) for you:

Once you select a service, you complete their forms and select a name for your blog.  Your blog will be published at a URL that looks something like this: http://maryjone'  That's the address you will give to friends and readers.

While the really technical setup will be done for you, you will have quite a selection available as to how you want your blog to look.  Expect to spend an hour or more on these next steps.
  • Selecting a template: This is a predefined setup that provides the overall look - color scheme, background, fonts, layout of elements on the page, etc.
  • Fine-tuning it to your needs: You'll have options to customize the template to suit you.   

2. Domain Name & Hosting Space
This is more technical than using a blogging service, thus the proliferation of bloggers who use blogging services.  Even Geeks like me, however, use blogging services (more on that later).

To claim your own domain name, you need to decide on a name, then register and pay for it.  Create a unique name that nobody else has claimed on the Internet.  It is fairly easy to find out during the registration process if your unique domain name has already been claimed by someone else.  The difficult part is coming up with a new name if that happens. Make sure you have one or two alternatives handy so you can switch names if your first choice is taken.  For me, it was pretty easy to come up with a unique name that I thought no one else would have claimed.  How many people would have named their domain, Claire'sCorner-OnMyMind?

This is where it gets a bit technical (or geeky, as I like to say).  Using the example name from Option 1 above, the URL for Mary's blog if she owned her domain name would be "http://maryjone'"  The domain name is the set of characters immediately preceding the .com or .net or any Internet extension.

In the first example, the URL was "http://maryjone'"; Mary Jone's name came before "" and was separated by a period.  The period in a domain name separates certain parts of the address from other parts, much as street #, street name, city, state, and zip separate physical addresses.  Whatever immediately precedes the extension is the actual domain name.  It's good to know this because it can help you ferret out the spam that hits your mailbox or spot faked URLs that might otherwise lead you to a site you thought was your bank or a reputable organization.

Anything preceding the domain name that follows either "www." or the two forward slashes "//" (if there is no "www.") is a subdomain; it is using a separate space on the domain's server but giving it a unique identity.  You will be the only one who has access to the data in that space unless you give someone else your login and password.

If you have a choice when setting up your domain, select the option to have but not force the "www." because domain names no longer need it.  Most people today just type in the domain name and are directed immediately to the site.  If you force a "www." on them and they don't type that in, you may lose visitors because they cannot find you.  If you don't have the "www." as an option, however, you may get an advertisement page or something else that isn't you. 

Understand that there are two parts to owning a domain name and getting a web host.
  • You claim (and thus own) a domain name through an Internet Registrar.  You pay an annual fee of anywhere from $8 - $20 dollars for your domain name.  
  • You get a web host through a web hosting company and pay a monthly fee.  Expect web hosting to cost anywhere from $3 - $12 and higher per month.  Many web hosts offer discounts for paying annually or paying for multiple years at one time. You can pay a lot more for additional services, higher bandwidth (if you expect thousands of visitors to your blog), or other customization to their standard packages.
Not all Internet Registrars are web hosts.  Not all web hosting companies are Internet Registrars.  Luckily, most web hosting companies will handle your domain name registration for you through an Internet Registrar so you can sign up for web hosting and claim a domain name at the same time in one process. 

Again, back to your search engine. This time, search for "web hosts."  Your results should include many, many options and a number of reviews.  To get you started, here is one review site that came up in my search,

Once you have your domain name and web host, you begin the technical process of setting up your blog. It makes sense, if you choose this option, decide on a platform first (more on that in another article) and choose a web hosting company that has that platform available and will do the installation for you.  Most web hosts have several options to choose from, so you should have no difficulty finding one that suits your budget and has the platform you need.  Expect to spend a few hours customizing the platform. 

3. Combining Domain Name Ownership & Web Hosting with Blogging Services
This is a popular alternative as it gives you your own domain name on a web host but the technical setup and management of your blog is minimal.  Even though I'm a hard-core Geek, I use this option for some programs, including my personal blog and several community resource sites I manage.  For the non-Geek or the Geek who doesn't have a lot of time to manage technical issues, it's the best of both worlds. 

Start by selecting and setting up a blogging service.  Get all your template selection and customization done and off your mind.  Start blogging.  Write to your heart's content.  See how it looks.  Make it work for you.

Meanwhile, you can search for a web host and register your domain name.  Once you've got that, there is some more technical work to do and your web host and blogging service will provide the information you need.  The Help files or Help Center in both these sites should have the information you need.

Your goal is to Redirect your blog from the blogging service to your domain .  Start at the blogging service technical area (setup, maintenance, whatever they call it) and search for that information.  What they ask for or give you for redirecting your blog is what you must get from your web host.  Print out or write down what you need, then go to your web host and find that information.  Back at your blogging service, it is often a matter of filling out two or three items on a form to get your blog redirected.

The best part of this method is that you will continue to log in and write your blog from the blogging service.  They've made it easy for you and it will continue to be easy.  Everything you post will automatically be forwarded (pushed is the term you'll often hear used) to your blog. 

One bonus you get with Options 1 and 3 is that you will have your own e-mail address at your domain name.  You can use your Gmail or Yahoo Mail or other accounts for general purposes and use your professional writer's e-mail address for your writing.   

Good luck!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” ~ Louisa May Alcott

Two weeks ago, I posted that I felt the book was halfway written.  So what has gone on in these past two weeks?  Have I written many chapters, solved the mystery, or have I even written at all?

The answers are 1.5, yes and no, and yes and no.  Hmmm ... am I making any progress here?

Actually, yes, I've made a lot of progress.  I had a number of fully developed and written chapters and a few scenes written but as yet unplaced.  These scenes did not affect the murder but completed an element of the back stories that go along with the main story.  Back stories can help the reader understand the characters better.  They let you gradually see how the characters think and interact, giving you some insight into how they tick.  Sometimes back stories provide essential background about the setting and create situations that help the author move the main story along. 

Over the past two weeks, I found good spots for the scenes that weren't yet placed in a chapter.  This is helping me keep to a fairly consistent page length in my chapters.  It's not absolutely necessary that every chapter have the same number of pages.  But it helps me to feel as if a chapter is completed when it matches the flow of the other chapters, moves the main story along, and develops the characters and setting a bit more.  I feel as if the pace of the book is on target when there is some consistency to chapter length.

I write mostly in the early morning - and have been getting up around 5:30 many days over the past few months to write this book.  That early hour is unusual for me.  I typically need 7-8 hours of sleep each night to function well the next day.  And I work until 7, 8, even 9 or 10 many days; so I go in to work between 10 and Noon.  I eat dinner as late as 8:30 or 9:00 and nap a little, then wake up for an hour or so and go back to sleep between 11:00 PM and 1:00 AM. Early for me has been 7 AM -- until lately. 

I have severe sleep apnea and the condition took a huge toll on my body over the past 40+ years.  I know I had it a very early age and in 2003 finally asked my doctor for a sleep test.  Once diagnosed, and now under treatment, I feel like a different person from the one who, 10 years ago, was sometimes afraid to drive for fear I'd fall asleep and kill somebody.  Sleeping 10, 12, even 14 hours wasn't enough.  I would find myself at work, writing a report or proposal, and my head would jerk up and I'd discover that I'd been sleeping while still typing.  These are called microbursts of sleep.  Our minds will take every possible opportunity to give ourselves even a moment of sleep when we have been deprived too much.  I now find that I need only 6 hours of sleep many nights and awaken early; refreshed, renewed, and eager to get up and start my day. 

The past week I had intended to add at least one chapter to my book.  But my schedule included a last-minute request to be a panelist at an out-of-state conference on a topic I'd not developed any materials for yet, 2 committee meetings for which I needed to do a little homework before attending, and a late night community group meeting (got home after 10 that night).  I was also getting promotional materials out for an author friend who is doing a book signing this week that I had arranged at a local bookstore.  It wasn't the week for a lot of early morning writing.

After work Saturday, I rested and got back to the book early Sunday morning.  I found places in existing chapters for the scenes that had no home as yet.  I wrote one or two more scenes that were in my head. 
  • Step 1: a total reread from start to finish
  • Step 2: move unplaced scenes into chapters where they seem to fit well
  • Step 3: re-read that chapter to feel how it flows, move some things around in that chapter
  • Step 4: research on names and local history of the area where the story takes place
  • Step 5: (Sunday night) another total reread from start to finish to make sure that changes to chapters maintained consistency with the overall story timeline and that it still felt as if the story made sense
There are about three more scenes pretty well developed in my head that I hope to write this week.  All of this is being done with the aid of notes in a spreadsheet. One worksheet maintains the timeline of major activities in each chapter.  Another worksheet lists all the characters, their backgrounds, roles, and other important features (blue eyes or brown eyes, red hair or dark hair, etc.) that I don't want to mix up if I've mentioned them in the story.  The nice thing about tracking important items this way is that I can add to it at any time, then check the book to see if it makes sense to bring in that information earlier or perhaps later. 

An important bit of work I did Sunday was to rename the location of this murder mystery.  The town is, as yet, unnamed.  The lake and site of the major activities have new names.  For the past few months (I began writing this in July), I used the name of an actual lake and a site name that my research revealed does exist.  I was okay with that for a while because both existed near the location of this story and fit the descriptions and activities.  But 10 chapters into the book, I felt, was enough time to go with good enough.  The site and lake needed unique names; ones that, as far as I can tell, do not already exist.  The lake in the book has many of the characteristics of an actual lake I worked on.  But I included characteristics of several lakes I have worked on to create a composite and don't want comparisons to the actual lake that sits in the area of this story.  I also changed the last names of several characters to use names that are part of the early history for that geographical area. 

Now I have to re-read it a few more times.  Having spent the past few months with certain names in my head it takes a little getting used to as I read or even think about the story, area, and characters with different names in place.  Thank goodness for my spreadsheet that helps me keep it consistent.  Another great tool is search and replace, which lets me make these changes quickly or lets me search for instances of a character's name so I can see if something I've decided fits that character should be introduced earlier in the story. Young writers have no idea how cumbersome it is to have to do these things manually on handwritten pages or with a  typewritten manuscript!  I have done both in my work life and feel blessed to have adopted the computer early on (before the PC!) and to be a baby boomer who is a self-taught Geek! 

Well, it's 6:43 and I need to get onto my story.  I have about an hour to write, then have to shift to work mode and get ready for a morning meeting.  I'll leave you with this quote that seems to sum up this process and my life:

“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
~ Louisa May Alcott

Monday, September 17, 2012

Book is About Half Written

A half-written book is not a half-completed book.  So I'm not at any magical halfway point.  Still, it's a sense of accomplishment to feel that what I've written is about half of what seems to have become standard for books these days.  And I do feel as if I need to start wrapping some things up and moving closer to the finish of this murder mystery.

Some might ask why I'm writing a murder mystery.  There are thousands of them out there.   The simple answer is that I enjoy reading them.  The more complex answer is that is gives my brain some exercise in creating a puzzle to solve.

It's fun to create a puzzle and sprinkle some clues around.  It's fun to create some false clues too. The obvious answer isn't always the correct one.   And that resembles life.  So often we think we just know something.  She did that to him.  Or he did that to her.  Then we discover the truth and it isn't what we thought.  Add a little danger and more mystery, and you give your brain something to focus on throughout the night.  Come morning, you wake up with a whole new twist on your story.

On my lunch break I usually go upstairs and help answer the phones as we have no receptionist right now.  I've used that time to draw a map of the area involved in this murder mystery.  That has helped tremendously.  I'm very visual, so drawing it to have as a reference when I add scenes maintains consistency and accuracy.  I know I haven't reversed the direction of some actions; being dyslexic, it's very important for me to know I've written my lefts and rights and norths and souths correctly.  

Much of what I've read about writing tells writers not to edit while they write.  They caution new writers against mixing the two tasks as they do involve separate lenses from which to view the story.  I can't do that.  I have been writing for more than 30 years.  Much of it has been for business and industry, with deadlines and specific criteria that writing has to match.  Whether it's been a new course for sales reps, a technical manual for software, specifications for a piece of hardware, or grants to foundations, the writing must be done to meet a specific purpose and within a given time frame.  So I learned to write quickly and edit frequently. 

These works often have page, word, or character limits.  That's how I got started writing short stories.  I wanted to improve my telling of a story in fewer words (something I'm not doing right now).  The practice improved my writing greatly and carries over into my work continuously.  I can effectively write posters, flyers, brochures, and other short media with my eyes closed (figuratively).

The first four or five chapters of my book have been written for weeks.  Over these past few weeks, I added more chapters.  But more than anything else, I edited.  I moved some scenes around.  I tightened up some dialogue.  I added dialogue.  I added elements I'd ignored in the first writing, going back and imagining, then adding, the sights and smells of the scenes. 

The Internet has been a blessing in the editing process.  It has so many good resources and authors giving advice that have helped me make people and places become real.  Their advice has guided me in asking questions about the characters and whether they come across as real.  Where is the tension in the story?  Is it all within the mystery itself, or does it exist between characters who are friends and/or work together?  It has been like having an invisible editor available to give me another way to look at and tell the story. 

And that leads to another reason why the book is not halfway done even if the story is. After the writing comes the editing and enhancement.  Someone has to read my book with a critical eye - a very critical eye.  Does the story make sense?  Are the villains too obvious (if you have them in your work)?  Are there typos and misspellings?  In my book, there are many intentional misspellings in the dialogue because I want the reader to hear it in their head as they read.  So I don't want to use any automatic spell-checker (person or electronic) that doesn't give me the chance to say no to an edit or doesn't let me add a word to the dictionary.  Will there be any artwork beyond the cover?  What will the cover be?  Who will draw it?  What will the text look like?  Choices and decisions that all take review, review, review. 

So, I'll stay happy where I am right now doing the easy part - the writing! 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Happy Labor Day Weekend

Whether you choose to spend time with family, clean the garage, work on your portfolio, or just rest, spare a thought to the many laborers over the past few hundred years whose toil and labor built our nations.  Then celebrate the fact that we have a Labor Day to celebrate. 

(And if you're unemployed and looking, hang in there.  I know it's tough, but do your best and good luck.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I'm Baaack!

I haven't written any blog posts for far too long.  I feel as if I've abandoned my blog.  But I have plenty of excuses -- if I really need them.

My blog description says it well - I write whatever is driving me at the time.   So my blog is peppered with political, social, and personal items.  Sometimes I don't post what I'd like to write about because it is too personal.  Sometimes it's too work-related and I must guard the privacy and confidentiality of our clients.  Sometimes I'm too busy writing for work and sometimes I skip blogging in favor of ... READING! 

YUP, I'm an avid reader and have gotten back into the habit of reading books regularly.  Thank goodness for the Kindle because holding a physical book open for any length of time hurts my hands too much.  I'd actually gotten away from some of my favorite authors because of that.  Now, most of them have republished for ebooks and I'm back in reading heaven.

But I am also writing regularly in hopes of publishing a book.  You might think that if I want to publish, I'd be writing every chance I get.  Yet over the past two months I've done more reading than writing. Reading is research for an author and it's not just research into specifics about the storyline the author is working on.  It's a search for writing style, voice, and pacing that helps the author figure out their own style and where to go with their own work.  It helps the author make choices along the road to their completed work.  And it's just darned good fun.  I read for entertainment as much as for enlightenment.  I enjoy reading and want my readers to enjoy reading my work.  As I read and find myself particularly enjoying an author's work, I consider why I enjoy it.  I don't need to emulate that author's style, but I do need to understand why it draws me and even compels me to read everything they publish. 

It's too soon to announce what I'm writing about.  It will take some time to finish this particular book, for it is a full-length novel.  But I have some unpublished works, including some short stories, that I may resurrect and publish.  I've received some good advice from editors when I tried to publish these many years ago.  Taking their advice, I can polish these and get them back out there -- and continue on this larger work.

If you read my blog and want me to post to it more regularly, post a comment that encourages me to stay in touch with you.  Without readers, the blog is merely a personal exercise. 

To Susanna Sturgis, one of those editors who critiqued my earlier work, Thank You.  Your words encouraged me.  You gave me concrete, constructive criticism that has helped me reconsider some choices I was making in my writing.  Maybe we'll meet some day and I can thank you in person.

To all the readers out there, keep on reading!  

To all the writers out there, keep on writing!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year - May 2012 Lift Up the 99%

My fervent wish for 2012 is that we somehow get out of the mess of the past few years, move out of the recession, and that the working class finally gets a real break. 
  • Real jobs that pay a living wage would be nice. 
  • Jobs with stability for the many talented unemployed out there would be nice.
  • Employers that would stop rejecting real people with real skills just because they have been unemployed for more than 6 months would be nice (yes, employers are discriminating against longer-term unemployed because there must be something wrong with them because they're unemployed - in a recession!)
Although a lot of tension and attention has been devoted to the crumbling economy, taxes, and unemployment, we are in a mess.  Our political leaders have abandoned their responsibility and better leadership is being demonstrated by unelected public figures (thanks, Max Gail, for sharing that article).  The #Occupy movement was a wake-up call and we cannot let elected officials go back to sleep. 

Moving into 2012, let us all work for peace, harmony, co-existence, & equity.  Capitalism isn't a crime, but greed at the expense of others and exploitation of workers aren't necessary for capitalism to work.  If we can strengthen the working class, help unemployed workers return to work, and use our economic strengths to ensure prosperity for future generations, we will have accomplished a lot.  I think these should be our goals for 2012 - and we should impress those goals on our elected leaders or remove them from office.

Happy New Year - here's hope for 2012

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Holidays

It's that time of year when stores are crowded with shoppers looking for that perfect holiday gift for family and friends.  Whether you celebrate Hanukkah (just ended), Kwanza, Christmas, just New Year's Day, or no special days, December is always a month that has a lot going on. 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to my family and friends - and you my readers.  However you celebrate this time of year, do something to make it special for yourself and those around you.  Spread a little cheer and do a kindness to someone else.  It's amazing how good that can make us feel.  I've been blessed many times over the years by the kindness of others.  Thank you to those of you who have done this - for me or for others.

Merry Christmas to all and Happy New Year.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Fall is in the Air - and that means Changes

The weather in the Greater Boston area is signalling the end of summer and start of fall.  Within a day we went from 80s to 70s and now, about a week later, we're in the 60s with a frost anticipated for some northern areas tonight.

With the seasonal change comes budget changes for organizations on certain types of funding (funding cycle of Oct-Sept for many) and that means shifting resources to maintain services.  Sometimes it means changing services and it invariably means a rethinking/revisiting how well we are meeting our mission.

This year starts our particularly rough for many.  Funding has been reduced for a great many organizations and programs.  Fuel Assistance this year has a $400 maximum unless more funds are approved legislatively; that's not even one tank of oil!  More and more people are unemployed but out of UI (Unemployment Insurance) funds.  Companies are practicing the illegal but hard-to-prove craft of not hiring older workers or not hiring workers who have been unemployed for more than 6 months.  There's even a petition someone started on the Internet to pressure Monster and CareerBuilder from accepting job postings that state the employer wants someone who is "currently employed."  I haven't seen those job ads, but I'm not job searching.  If I were, and if this is true, I'd be plenty angry. 

As the colder weather moves in and makes things even more difficult for the poor and homeless, we can do something.
  • Start following the budget talks in Washington.  
  • Talk  to our state and federal legislators.  
  • Urge our federal legislators to pass our message along to the Super Committee that they must also focus on revenue generation and not just try to cut back on programs and services. 
  • Volunteer, if you have the time, so local nonprofits can continue their much-needed services.
  • Be vocal about how you are affected by proposed cuts in services
  • Think about ways your community can increase revenues and talk with your local legislators.
 If we think, engage, and work together, we should be able to make a difference in our communities.  Those who are served by our efforts need our help.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Job Changes for Me & I'm Eager to Get Started

I haven't posted lately because I've been holding onto some information that changes quite a bit of how my time will be spent at work.  Now that it's closer to the transition, I can speak a bit about it.

For the past two years, I've been in a split job working 4 days/week working with consumers who need public benefits; either help with the application process or, more and more these days, help with advocacy when their applications are not processed properly or promptly or are outright mishandled.  The other day I devoted to financial literacy education and taxes (VITA).  During tax season, the job split to 3:2 so I had a second day for taxes.  But it is difficult to split your time like this, especially when those 8 or 16 hours don't all occur on the same day and you try to balance how much time you are devoting to projects that require more time than you have available.  Complicating this is the evening hours that 2nd piece of my job entails.

As of October 1st, I'll have only the one job, managing financial literacy, VITA, working more closely with the IDA program (Individual Development Accounts), and employment-related programming/services in our technology center. 

I'm glad my patience has been rewarded with this shift.  If you want to help people get out of poverty, they need to develop assets.  This comes under the umbrella of Asset Development or Asset Formation; in my case, we help people to:
  • develop their financial competence (financial literacy education) and put money into savings;
  • save towards owning as asset such as a home, business, or to go back to school (IDAs);
  • get the most out of their tax return through credits, better advance planning (how to use their refund, setting up withholding properly, file past year returns), and on-time current tax filing (VITA); and
  • become bankable: save towards paying back-owed money to a bank if they've had past banking problems so they can once again open and bank account (2nd Change Banking Account).
You can see how this could be difficult to manage in an 8-hour/week schedule! 

In addition, people need an income to live on, save with, and spend.  Many people have trouble getting re-employed after being on unemployment more than 6 months.  Jobs are highly competitive and many people need help with today's electronic application process.  Without a new job, they'll lose the assets they do have and become a statistic -- unemployed and sometimes eventually homeless.  So beefing up our employment-related services and reaching out to communities that are hardest hit and most affected by our tough economic situation is closely tied to poverty prevention

This also helps integrate our technology center more closely with the overall agency; something I've been working on over the past year with a good amount of success, but only possible because of the help of agency staff who also see the value in this.  Together, we're providing better & more integrated services.

This transition will take time, as people still need help with benefits and we cannot expect other agency staff to know, overnight, all that I've learned in 2.5 years.  But we have good staff who can rise to many occasions.  Together, we'll at least be able to handle benefits applications and possibly refer to other agencies, especially legal ones, for many of the advocacy issues I've been handling.  When state agencies continue to improperly deny benefits or make it difficult for eligible applicants to get benefits, perhaps it's best to let some "legal eagles" take them on and push them to properly train and supervise their case managers. 

That is for the difficult situations.  For the less difficult situations, many of my clients have learned how to advocate for themselves.  This really is a good advocate's goal - empower clients to self-advocate and win on their own; help them recognize that they have the can do attitude and skills to do other things that will move them forward. 

It won't be an overnight transition, but it is an important one.  I'm so glad that our funders and board recognize Asset Development/Asset Formation as a proper and potentially powerful tool in the fight against poverty. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Debt Deal - with Rep. Ed Markey

Last night I was one of about 30 people attending a meeting with Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) to discuss the Budget Control Act and its likely effect on health care.  It was an information exchange, as he presented how the Budget Control Act is slated to play out and then listened to our concerns as to how that will most likely affect health care, ourselves, and our constituents/clients.

The Debt Deal (Budget Control Act) Basics
Markey laid out the "Debt Deal" as having 3 major steps, with Step 1 already complete: passage by the House and Senate and President Obama's signature on the Bill last Monday, August 1, 2011.

Step 1 is designed to trim $917 Billion from the budget over 10 years through spending cuts and caps.  $350 Billion will come from defense with the remainder from discretionary funds, which could include health care areas except Medicare and Medicaid.

Step 2 is the Super Committee, comprised of 12 members: 6 Republicans and 6 Democrats -- divided evenly between House and Senate from each party.  These legislators must hammer out an agreement by November 23, 2011 that reduces the federal deficit by $1.2 - $1.5 Trillion over 10 years and Congress must then pass that agreement as a Bill by December 23, 2011.
  • In this step, nothing is off the table as far as spending cuts or caps or measures to increase revenues. 
  • The Super Committee must reach agreement - i.e., reach agreement by simple majority (7 yes votes). 
  • If they reach an agreement, that agreement goes to Congress as a bill they must vote on with no options for changes, filibuster, or other political maneuvering.  A simple yes/no vote is required.  
  • The Bill then goes to the President for signature, with Presidential veto possible but unlikely. 
Step 3 kicks in only if Step 2 fails totally -- i.e,. there is no agreement --, Congress fails to approve an agreement, the President vetoes the resulting Bill, or it fails to reduce the deficit enough*.  Step 3 triggers automatic cuts in spending that are basically 50/50 between defense and non-defense budget items. 
*Note that Step 3 would kick in, at a reduced level, if Step 2 results in passage of a Bill that is significantly less than the expected $1.2-$1.5 Trillion.  The cuts in Step 3 would be amounts that would bring the total deficit reduction to the $1.2-$1.5T.
    Super Committee
    The 12 legislators chosen for this high stakes poker game have a great deal of latitude in how they slash the budget to reach $1.2-$1.5 Trillion in deficit reduction.  Nothing is off the table, according to the rules of the game. That includes Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs that are actually protected in Steps 1 and 3.

    This step also includes the possibility of revenue generation.  However, when half the Super Committee has already pledged no tax increases, that immediately ties the other half of the Committee's hands.  As Markey pointed out last night, GOP leadership excluded any Republican leaders from the Super Committee who had indicated they were open to raising taxes**. 

    Response from Attendees
    Attendees included some people from Cambridge Health Alliance, two different Alzheimer's advocacy groups, Mass Senior Action Council (they were out in force with half a dozen attendees -- great advocacy!), Hallmark Health, myself from Tri-CAP (also representing the HealthMINT Network and the Heritage Tenants Association), a Mass Elders advocacy group, individuals representing themselves and their family members, and state senators Pat Jehlan (D-Medford) and David Linsky (D-Natick) and a representative from sate Senator Katherine Clark (D-Malden).  Some groups were represented but I just cannot recall their names, so if were there and I missed you feel free to comment on this post and add that you were there!

    Concerns included fears that:
    • the automatic deficit reduction strategy would decimate essential health research and that will result in far-reaching future medical costs that will only increase our debt, 
    • cuts to medicare providers will result in increased health costs to everyone else,
    • no one seems to be talking about increasing revenues to offset the deficit
    • the GOP is playing hardball while we're caving in and that has to stop
    • it's not a negotiation if one side comes to the table refusing to consider other options (i.e., the "no tax increases" stand by the GOP),
    • defense cuts might unfairly reduce VA benefits, and
    • fear that those already slipping over the edge into an abyss of depression, job loss or pay cuts, housing loss, stress, mental health issues, etc. are not finding any relief and this Bill makes that worse. 
    Markey then asked us each to tell him which Step (2 or 3) we would "vote" for so he can go back to the House and talk to his colleagues.  Nineteen (19) participants voted for Option 2 as preferable over the seven (7) votes for Option 3.  He also reminded us that every legislator needs to hear from all of us.  If we want to have a say in the final outcome, we must mobilize and make our voices heard on the subject.  The Tea Party has been very organized and goal-driven; we must do so also if we don't want our worst fears to come to fruition. 

    Congressman Markey, we appreciate your invitation for us to meet with you and give you our input on this critical matter and to represent our constituents' needs.

    Additional information sources for this morning's article:
    Disclaimer:   I attended this meeting as part of my paid job with Tri-CAP and thus "reported" on it in this format.  My views do not necessarily reflect the views of Tri-CAP. 

    Sunday, July 24, 2011

    WordCamp Boston, 2011

    I spent yesterday and will spend today at WordCamp Boston, a conference for WordPress users. I have wanted to add WordPress to my web design toolbelt but just haven't had time to sit down and really play with it. Conferences like this are a great way to shorten the learning curve.

    I typically use Joomla! for web design, but WordPress has come a long way in the several years since my initial research led me to adopt Joomla! as my preferred platform. I'd like to be able to offer clients a choice or, if necessary, make a choice for them with whichever tool seems right for them.

    From the minute I walked into the registration area, I was impressed with the organization and planning of this conference.  The Registration "badge" was a complete portfolio for the conference -- including the information to log in to the network, a complete schedule on the inside (still readable even though it was comparatively small), whether or not you'd ordered a T-shirt, etc.  With hundreds of attendees, it was relatively quiet and very organized.

    Speakers have been top notch too.  One speaker had only one year's experience using WordPress, but he gave a great presentation of Top 10 tips he'd learned in that year.  As an experienced web designer, I came away with some "Ah Ha's" from it.  That's quite good in my book. What I appreciated was that many sessions focused on web design and not just how to use WordPress.  That creates a good mix for people who may know one or two tools but need to create better content, enrich their site, or grow into a more sophisticated use of thie websites (marketing outreach, SEO tools, etc.). 

    I go back today with a better idea in my mind beforehand of which sessions I'll attend.  There is a stream of "how to" sessions specific to WordPress that I plan to attend, as well as some focusing on the freelancer (that's me -- or, as I prefer to say Solopreneur). 

    This has been a great way to spend the weekend; I'm glad I made it this year.  The BU location has also been quite nice.  

    By the way, if you're a Joomla! user in the Boston area, our monthly user group meeting is this Wednesday (7/27/11) from 7-9 PM at the Cyber Cafe @ Malden Square.  Preregistration is preferred although not required; since it's summer, I'd check the website to make sure the meeting is still on before showing up!

    Saturday, May 28, 2011

    How Well Do We Know Our Online Friends?

    Online friendships are great to have. They stimulate online conversation, help you stay connected long distance, and reconnect with long-time friends from the past. You can and your friends can find new people to connect with through each others' friends, and you can gain deeper insight into your friends.

    But let's face it; most of these friends are really acquaintances. That's not a problem; it's just that the word friend has a different meaning in the real world than it does in the virtual world. I understand why though. Which sounds better? Facebook Acquaintance or Facebook Friend? I get it. On LinkedIn, they're called Connections, which is a more apt term. (I mostly use FB, LI, & Twitter for examples here because I'm active on them and can speak directly to their use; this is not a research paper, so I'm not concerned with examining other social media.)

    In the virtual world you can learn a lot more about your acquaintances fairly easily. From the discussions and Q&A sections in LinkedIn, to the wall posts in Facebook, there are a lot of insights into people sprinkled all over the web. Follow someone's Twitter feed (Tweets) for what they read, tweet, and retweet and you have a goldmine of insight available. If they have websites or blogs, you'll find those useful as well.

    Here's a real example from my online acquaintances. I met one of the organizers of PodCamp at PodCamp2 Boston several years ago.  Later we connected on LinkedIn.  I follow this person's blog posts because I find value in the content; they're informative and helpful to my work and life.  In fact, I pull in his blog feed directly to my LI home page, along with the feeds of several other friends, so from one page I can quickly review what they're posting about and stay caught up with their activity regularly.  After a few years, I thought I knew him pretty well, as far as virtual acquaintanceships go.  Imagine my surprise when, last week, I was perusing some virtual thinking websites and found some art from this person.  I checked to make sure it was the same person; yes, it was.  That led me to Flickr, a site that lets you post photos and other images for sharing, where a lot of his art was shared.  This was a whole new dimension to my virtual friend that I never knew existed. 

    Another online acquaintanceship develop in a similar manner.  We had some mutual friends in both the real and virtual worlds.  From reading her blogs (yes, she has more than one), I found that we share more than a passion for technology (which is how our acquaintanceship began); we share a spiritual and philosophical mindset that made me want to know this person even more -- to move an acquaintanceship into a friendship.

    The neat thing is that you can convert acquaintanceships into real friendships over time. After all, we tend to develop strong friendships with people whom we respect. Whether that begins because we share some level of political or religious beliefs, because we care about ecology, enjoy gardening, read or watch sci fi--at some level we have a common bond that draws us closer together and we form a stronger-than-acquaintanceship relationship and become true friends.

    Some might wonder why the virtual world is so popular as a place to connect with others.  My initial thinking on this, which is not scientific or deeply thought through, is that it provides more options than the typical places we meet people.  We work longer hours, limiting our opportunities to get out and meet others.   We want to meet people outside of bars, especially if we are not looking for dating relationships. And the virutal world breaks down geographic barriers for just getting to know others and see what they're all about.

    Those are my thoughts this early Saturday morning.  Do you have any thoughts on this topic?  Use the comments to respond.