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Sometimes I have to send letters to school, in order to help teachers deal with my offspring. Here are a couple of examples I found when I was clearing out old correspondence from my files.

Letter The First, Concerning An Unusual Lunch

Dear E---

No, the addition of cold porridge to Jake’s lunch is not an attempt to recreate some kind of Dickensian 19th century cruelty. As a matter of fact, Jake has conceived a violent dislike of sandwiches, and he insists that cold porridge is entirely preferable to the terrors of two slices of bread with Unknown Substances lurking fiendishly within.

Why this is so I cannot say. I mean, Jake eats pickled octopus with every evidence of delight. He enjoys olives, and pickled champignon mushrooms, and quite likes  curries. Yet the prospect of a sandwich — even the most innocuous of cheese-and-tomato sandwiches — appears to fill him with a kind of nameless dread sufficient to drive him into the arms of cold porridge.

Admittedly, I make very good porridge. Today’s sample is made from a muesli, and it’s full of all kinds of fruit, spiced with nutmeg, and sweetened with brown sugar. I ate a bowl myself this morning, and it was excellent. However, it was steaming hot at the time. I don’t mind cold porridge, but I doubt whether I’d choose a bowl of cold porridge over a nice cheesy sandwich.

Still, there’s no accounting for taste.


Letter The Second, Concerning Dress Code Variations

Dear L---

Regrettably, Genghis' garb may not entirely meet desired standards for the day. The major reason for this is that Genghis chose to wait until this morning to indicate the relatively strict requirements for this event, leaving us less than no time to locate or acquire all the items he’s supposed to have. To a lesser degree, he lacks some of the items he’s asked for because we simply haven’t purchased them.

Sneakers, for instance. Genghis destroys sneakers. We got him some. They lasted an eyeblink. The elastic-sided boots he routinely wears not only look more ‘uniform’, but they last — often as much as six months!

Track-suit trousers are another example. For some reason, Genghis' track-suit trousers seem almost to have kneeholes pre-cut in them. Our best efforts at the stores never seem to change this. We get Genghis track-trousers. We inspect them carefully for holes. We come home. Suddenly they have holes in the knees. Genghis is wearing black corduroy trousers today. They look smart, and unlike every single set of track-trousers he owns, there are no holes in the knees.

As for the green jumper... That’s probably a parental failing. I guess there must be some parents who can keep track of a kid’s green jumper through music lessons, sports sessions, regular school trips, and a never-ending cyclone of play sessions involving countless other children the same age, ALL of whom have remarkably similar green jumpers... but unfortunately, I can’t seem to do it. I don’t get much help from Genghis, either. He seems actively to loathe certain articles of clothing, taking every possible opportunity to abandon them, exchange them, annihilate them, or just lose them outright.

Genghis does not seem to like his green jumpers. I think he fed his last one to a bear.

Yours sincerely

It's possible that things like this may go some way to explaining the occasionally troubled relationship between my family and various schools...
So, Sydney and the Blue Mountains and large chunks of NSW are in deep trouble from bushfire, earlier than ever before. Brisbane is breathless, hot and dry except when the hailstorms sweep down out of the west. Summer has come early to most of Australia, it would seem.
Not so much down here. It's been cool and rainy since... actually, I can't remember. March? April? We had a week or so of sunshine about ten days back, but mostly it's just been chilly, and damp.
I'm not complaining. The place is green. Stuff is growing everywhere. I don't have to water the strawberries we put in, nor the new figs, nor the new miniature peaches and nectarines. We had the usual blaze of flowers for spring - more every year, as the bulbs divide underground. So many flag irises!
But it's a tough time. Natalie's working double-time at the moment, putting together a bunch of complicated training modules for online use as well as doing doctor duty. And of course, the schools demand more of the kids at the end of the year. Why? I don't know. But it seems every week there's another performance, another show, another exam, another meeting. Back and forth, back and forth.
Genghis isn't helping. He's long wanted to play cricket seriously, and we finally found a cricket club where he could join. It's in Launceston, of course. I understand that there is one out here... but I'm damned if we've been able to make contact with them. So Genghis plays with South Launceston. They train Sundays, they play Monday afternoons from four-thirty to eight pm. Tuesday nights, Genghis rehearses with the Launceston Youth Theatre Ensemble for their upcoming Robin Hood. Also, Jake has orchestra at his school.
Wednesday evenings is ju-jitsu. Thursdays is for emergencies... like the book launch next week. When else were we going to fit it in? Friday nights are for orchestra. And all of these, except ju-jitsu, are in Launceston.
Back and forth, back and forth.
I took our beloved old cat Toxo to the vet this morning. Things aren't looking good. He doesn't keep much of his food down any more, and his arthritis is increasingly troublesome. The vet says that the lump alongside his jaw is very likely to be a cancer. He's being biopsied and blood-tested today. It was difficult enough to get him down there, so we'd better get it done as thoroughly as possible. Natalie will pick him up this afternoon after she drops the kids to ju-jitsu.... of course, I'll be staying down there to teach.
When I got back from dropping the cat off at the vet and chasing up handbills to advertise the book launch, I discovered there were about twenty cows in the paddock below the house. That wouldn't have bothered me, except they wanted to snack on my trees: apples, apricots, almonds... even figs. I chased the bastards down the hill a ways, then rang around to discover who was missing several tonnes of bovine. Then I darted back out and chased the fuckers away from my trees again. At last, the owners arrived and I chased the damned cows down the hill, and helped them cross the highway back to their home territory. I don't think I even lost any of my trees.
Aurora Energy still hasn't got back to us about our solar installation application. Fifteen working days, they said. They lied. No surprise: like every other electrical utility company, they're shit-scared of home solar, and they're heel-dragging to try and discourage people as far as possible. But we need that approval. There will be extensions happening in December/January, and we want the solar done at the same time, thus saving several thousand dollars. I'll phone Aurora tomorrow and explain the situation to them carefully and diplomatically, but I have no doubt we'll have to get down to threatening them with court action, so I've gotta get the ducks lined up in a row for that one.
Is that it? No, of course not. There's a multitude of things that need doing. The grounds need a really good cleanup, but I haven't time. Not right now. And I'm supposed to be at a lung clinic next week, but since I didn't manage to follow up after the lung testing regime (I was supposed to see my local GP, go on some kind of asthma medication... but there was all that vasectomy stuff, and I just didn't make the time) I'd better cancel and reschedule that. And then try to find time for the GP and the asthma programme, etc.
Also, there's the MA. Lots of work to be done there. I'll be seeing my prof in mid-December. Much progress is expected. Some has been made, but not enough. I really have to get moving on that.
Also there's the novel - or rather, the sequel. And a bunch of short pieces. And promotions. And... isn't Christmas looming? Oh, that's right: Genghis' birthday. Must organise that too.
The rye grass is coming in all over the place. I'm back on the anti-snot drugs. It's better than sneezing fits, sure, but I'm not enamoured of random drugs at the best of times. Twice a year: once during wattle-blossoming, once during the rye grass. But the wattles are in bloom for at least a month, and the rye-grass for two, or three. Pfeh.
I need to clear about two weeks on my schedule. Not chase kids. Not run back and forth to Launceston. I need to load up the trailer with piles of useless junk lying around here. I need to fell a bunch of wattle trees that have sprung up in the wrong areas. I need to cut up a lot of deadfalls for next year's firewood. I need to find several solid days for the MA, and for the novel, and for other writing.
I'm not going to get any of that stuff.
It's raining.

Well, I'd better face up to it. I'm going to have to build a proper website, get myself a domain, go through all that shite. I'm going to have to centralise and link together my various web presences once and for all.


Because of this:

That would be the link to my first published novel, as yet only through Kindle on Amazon. (Forgive me... but it works.)

I think I can put a shinier picture here, if I try.

Oh, yep. There it is.

I like the cover. (If you happen to like the cover, by the way, you might wanna talk to this chap: -- he was very co-operative and good to work with.)

Oh, you wanna know about the book?

Uhhh -- first in a series of... several. Looks like urban fantasy/horror/thriller, but there are layers not yet revealed. The most important thing about it is that it is fun. It was fun to write, and with any luck, I've managed to make it fun to read.

That might not seem like much of a goal, but I realised that over the last few years, in the course of trying to refine my craft to the point of impressing publishers, I'd lost sight of the sheer fun of a good story. And I looked at the way the marketplace is changing, and the number of successful and effective ebooks and self-published books, and small-press books, and I thought: I'm doing this wrong.

So, ladies and gentlemen and others of all variety -- here it is. And at this point, things have to change.

I'll keep this blog, but it will be personal, family, political, etc. I'll probably run a link to it from a dedicated Flinthart/Writer website. And I will make the effort to write about writing and being a writer and all that good shit on the dedicated site.

That's the plan, anyhow. In the meantime, I'm hard at work on the next book in the series above. I'm also carving my way through the master's degree, and trying to rustle up a couple of short stories.

Thanks and kudos to Tehani the amazing editor/publisher of Fablecroft, and to Adam for his very fine cover. And thanks to everybody around here who has offered kind and encouraging words over the years. I don't have any copies of this thing to give away yet, but when I do, I'll find a way to make sure I can pass a few over.

(Oh -- and in other news, wearing two pairs of underpants at once has helped a lot. I can walk again, and standing up doesn't even hurt for the first fifteen minutes or so. Most of the colours have faded from my less mentionable bits, but the swelling is still a little alarming. How long does it take a scrotum to come back down to a reasonable size, anyway?)


Look, the operation itself was nothing much. Couldn't have taken more than half an hour. When they walked me out to the recovery area, there was another bloke in a one of the chairs, having a bit of a laugh at my mushy efforts to talk through the fast-fading sedatives. Maybe twenty minutes later, he was gone -- and they walked another bloke through the door, and it was my turn to giggle at him.

He had it worse than me, mind you. I've been through enough minor surgeries to know what to expect. Oh -- and the fact that the anaesthetist had to try three times before he found a useful vein probably helped me remember the situation, whereas the new bloke wasn't even certain he'd been through the operation yet. I reassured him that yes, they'd done the job and all he had to do was sit and recover.

The anaesthetist was actually a bloke I know - very decent chap - and I don't blame him for having a bit of trouble. My skin is notoriously leathery. This isn't the first time I've confounded the needlestickers. I hate it, because when they have to struggle and the toughness of the skin keeps them from feeling the sensations they're used to, sometimes they slide the needle alongside the vein rather than into it. That really fucking hurts.

Aside from the leathery exterior, there was the fact that I was under strict instructions not to eat or drink for six hours before the procedure. Given that my appointment was for 1115, that mean nothing to drink from 0515... which effectively meant my last dose of water was about 2200 the previous night, and I was somewhat dehydrated. Note for future reference: either get a later appointment, or get up bloody early and have a decent drink.

I can't say I felt particularly good for the rest of the day. Didn't need the prescription painkillers, though: a bit of paracetamol was enough to see me through. A week? No worries!



The discolouration kicked in about a day or so later, and slowly spread. And the swelling, yep. And the discomfort. Not simple pain, but pain associated with movement. Discomfort, you see?

But what the hell. My various mates online were all happily telling me how they were playing touch footy and kicking the ball around just a day or so after the event. Obviously, things were gonna get better, right?

Well, today I called the surgery because the nurse who tried to call me on Monday had a bit of a fail-attack. The conversation went a bit like this:

"Hi. Yeah. It's me. You didn't manage to reach me, so I thought I'd call back. I've got a couple of concerns, really. Mostly about the swelling. I kind of thought it would be going down, five days after the event."

- What size is it?

(Flinthart thinks: jeez. How do I describe this? Happily, the nurse comes to the rescue.)

- An orange? A grapefruit?

(Flinthart thinks: oh, good. Fruit. I can work with fruit.)

"Well, if we were talking an orange it would be a very damned healthy navel orange. In fact, we really are much closer to the grapefruit end of the spectrum. Only you should maybe think more in terms of ripe avocadoes or even eggplant for colour, eh? Not all over, mind you. There are blotches. Big ones. And the specific shade of purple kind of varies. Puts me in mind of dependent lividity, really. And that's a bad state of mind to be in with regard to one's scrotum, I think."

- Is it hot?

(Flinthart is now completely flummoxed. How hot should a scrotum be? Should he account for the obvious inflammation and bruising when discussing the hotness of his 'nads?)

"Ah. Well... you know scrotums, right? It doesn't seem..."

(Flinthart trails off. The nurse offers no help, but that's okay because Flinthart's brain has kicked into gear.)

"Oh! You're worried about infection, aren't you? Oh, well, there's no increase in pain or tenderness, no spreading redness, no obvious focal point, no fevers and no localised warmth that can't be accounted for by the fact that my scrotum looks like I lost a fight with Peter Dinklage. Does that help?"

- Oh, good. Yes, we do worry about infection. Look... if it's just the swelling and discolouration...

"After five days!"

- You can try an ice-pack.

"Yyyyyyeah. Did that. Didn't much like it. Didn't seem to do a lot of good, either."

- Well, these things can take a while. Look, why don't you call us back in a couple more days if you're still concerned.

"Oh. So... this is within the normal parameters? For post-vasectomy scrotum behaviour?"

- Reasonably.

"Oh. All right. I'll... call back if anything untoward happens, then.


And there the conversation closed. Leaving me - where? Well, the good news is that this apparently is within the normal spectrum of things. The bad news is that my end of the normal spectrum is a hideous shade of purple, with orange and yellow around the edges. And what, exactly, might be considered untoward enough to justify another phone call continues to elude me. I'd recognise infection, sure. But what else is there? As far as I'm concerned, a blotchy purple, highly tender scrote the size of a moderate grapefruit is pretty fuckin' untoward. Since that's obviously not untoward to the scrote-manipulating medical fraternity... I really have no idea what MIGHT be considered alarming.

I've seen those photos of the poor African bastards with elephantiasis, carting their hideously swollen 'nads around in custom-made wheelbarrows. Is that untoward? Or is that just another shade of the normal post-vasectomy scrotal spectrum?


Well... I think I've gotta go and change the ice-pack I've got tucked under my personal aubergine now. I'll get back to you folks if there's any real news. But I gotta tell you: I'm very fucking tired of walking bow-legged, tired of sleeping with a pillow between my knees, tired of ice-packs, tired of jabbing pains every time I bend over, tired of struggling to get into the little car, tired of waking up every time I roll over in my sleep... so any of you bastards who want to tell me what a lark all this is: do drop by sometime. I believe I may be able to help you understand the experience more fully. Just... shut your eyes while I swing the cricket bat, okay?
I thought long and hard about publishing this one, but I think it needs to be done.

I don't consider myself any kind of leader type, nor a figure to be emulated. But I do think that the women's movement has empowered women and created a system which increasingly is driven by, and supportive of, what are perceived to be values associated with women. And I think likewise that there is a lack of any such thing for men. You may take your "patriarchal society" comments at this point and shelve them: I'm not interested in the discussion.

What does interest me is doing right by other men. Offering support, information and communication. Hence this post: I'm going in today for a vasectomy.

Now, currently my Internet connection is deeply fucked up. But hopefully later I'll have better access. And by that time, all things going according to plan, I should have some useful details to offer on the entire situation.

In the meantime -- wish me luck!

This one is... interesting. I thought long and hard before I wrote this, but in the end, it comes to this: I've discussed this issue with the school. I've taken it just as far as I can reasonably take it. And the school has told me in no uncertain terms that they're not interested, and not concerned -- and so I see no reason why I can't talk about this incident with regard to my kid.

Buckle up. This one's a doozy.

A few weeks back on the way home from school, Jake seemed a little flat. Naturally, I asked him about his day. He explained that he was a bit unhappy about a 'musical number' they were practicing. Now Jake quite likes music, and he likes performing, so I asked for details.

Well, it turns out that it's part of the "School House" system. Anybody not familiar with the British Boarding School system of divide and conquer in the Name of Sportsmanship -- go watch the Harry Potter movies. Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw -- artificially created blocs of students crossing year/cohort boundaries, permitting internal competition in sports and other arenas.

I more or less understand the purpose of the system. It's supposed to provide a ready-made social network for newbies, offer some kind of support, and meanwhile, subtly indoctrinate a set of chosen values by way of peer pressure. I don't much like it, but it works -- and smart kids can see through it effectively enough that the indoctrination doesn't actually work.

In this case, it turns out that Jake's "house" has this tradition of getting the new year sevens to do a 'musical number' - a performance they carry out in front of the entirety of their 'house'.

"So what are you doing?" I asked him.

"We have to sing and dance," he said.

"I don't really see the problem," I said.

"Well," he said, "We were supposed to be able to choose our own song. But the House officers rejected everything we suggested, and now they want us to perform Beyonce's Single Ladies."

(Insert sound of scratching record here as Dirk wrenches his neck trying to look at his kid.)

"Single ladies?" says I. "You guys want to do that?"

"No," says Jake. "But they say we have to. Some of us have to do the dance routine from the video, and the rest of us are like, back-up."

"Oh," says I. "That's a bit ugly. At least you're not doing it in drag," I said, trying to make light of it.

"Well, they wanted us all to do it in costume, actually," said Jake. "But we got really upset, and now it's only two or three of the boys who have to wear leotards."

(Repeat scratched-record sound, only louder.)

For those of you unaware of Beyonce's signal contribution to modern culture, here's an embed which I hope will work:

<iframe width="560" height="315" src="//" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

And if that doesn't work, here's the Youtube link.  Seriously -- watch this so you know why I was freaked out.

Now, a whole bunch of thoughts went through my head at this point:

  • Who thought it was a good idea to coerce a bunch of 13-year-old boys into an embarrassing, highly sexualised performance in front of their peers?

  • Who the hell thought it was a good idea to put underage boys into leotards and make them dance like Beyonce?

  • What did the school plan to do about the inevitable (these kids ALL carry phones) video footage on Facebook, Youtube, etc?

  • Had anybody considered what would happen if a chunk of said footage turned up on Joe Random-Pervert's computer when the cops were investigating him?

I restrained myself, though. I questioned Jake carefully and at length. I established as a certainty that it wasn't the boys' idea. That they really didn't want to be involved. That the whole thing was being choreographed by an older girl. That teachers didn't seem to have any involvement.

At that point, I promised Jake I'd help him out. I told him I could see no reason why he had to publicly humiliate himself, if it wasn't his choice.

Next thing I did (after bringing Natalie up to speed and getting her input, of course) was email someone at the school. I explained the situation, and articulated my concerns. I pointed out that we support involvement with the school's social programme... but as diplomatically as I could, under the circumstances, I suggested that Jake really didn't want to be involved. And I ran the above list at them, plus a few more.

Now, I figured there'd be some kind of result. I mean -- this is a high-end private school. Its greatest asset is its reputation. And it seemed to me that the kind of reputation you get from putting underage boys into leotards and getting them to dance like Beyonce was not at all the kind of reputation that an exclusive private school would want. I figured the whole thing had just kind of slipped through the cracks -- that the school probably had a policy of allowing some autonomy to House Officers (students) to help them develop responsibility, and all that.

Truthfully? I figured the teacher would turn up and have a chat with those House Officers -- talk to them about their responsibilities, point out that setting up these young boys to be laughed at wasn't particularly nice, point out that there might even be legal repercussions.

Well, my email was forwarded on to somebody supposedly responsible for the situation. And I got a reply.

I won't quote it directly. But I was assured that there was "no coercion". (Apparently, 13-year-old boys just LOVE putting on leotards and dancing to Beyonce in front of all their House peers.) And I was assured that it was an important part of their socialising, and that it was "all a bit of fun".

Luckily, I also got a written assurance that the boys could withdraw if they wanted.

Did I get an acknowledgement that 13-year-old boys are at a challenging stage of development, and exposing them to sex-role ridicule in front of their peers might not be a great idea?

No. I didn't.

Did I get an acknowledgment that putting underage boys into leotards and getting them to do the Sexy Beyonce Pelvis Dance might conceivably be misconstrued by enthusiastic law enforcement agencies?

Err... no. That wasn't important either.

Did I get an acknowledgement that video of the event on Facebook or Youtube could follow these boys for the rest of their lives, and potentially alter their chances of employment, scholarship, etc?

Ahh... I'll let you guess, shall I?

Did I receive any kind of acknowledgement that perhaps the image of underage boys in leotards dancing the Sexy Beyonce Pelvis Dance might possibly not enhance the school's august reputation as a fine educational establishment?

... heh.

In the end, I ran a few role-playing scenarios with Jake. It was clear that if he didn't want to play their game, he'd get no support from the teachers. He'd have to confront his senior House Officers himself, on his own, and withdraw from the project in the face of the pressure and scorn they could apply. I pretended to be a House Officer, and when he said his piece I told him that it was "All just in fun", and he had to think up a reply. Then I told him  that he'd "be letting down his house-mates", and he had to come up with a response.

Finally, I pretended to be another student, and I called him "a pussy", and "weak", and he had to deal with that, too. We talked about likely outcomes, and discussed strategies he could use to establish his point without inflaming the situation, and I told him that whatever came out, he had the support of myself and his mother.

He went to school.

And when he came back, he told me that first: two of his friends were overjoyed to discover they could withdraw, and promptly pulled out with him. Secondly, he told me that I'd pretty much quoted his House Officers in my role-playing... and also, quoted a few of his fellow students too.

In other words, the peer-pressure system of the House tried to do its job, but Jake was well prepped, and he stuck to his guns. He and his two friends are now operating the sound system. They don't have to wear leotards. They don't have to do the Sexy Beyonce Pelvis Performance in front of a bunch of laughing, video-camera equipped kids. They don't have to try and live this down for years.

In one sense, I'm quite grateful to the school. Jake has learned that "authority" and "responsibility" aren't the same thing, though they should be. He learned that the trust he places in his parents is well founded. (Natalie was with me every step of the way.) He learned how to face peer pressure, and how to stand up for his own rights in the face of a system designed to make him think that "team player" means "willing, subservient, unthinking drone."

I'm really quite proud of him.

But... I have to admit, I am deeply surprised by the school's response. I've done the best I can, I feel. My responsibility for this kind of thing ends with my children. I can do no more than ensure that the school is aware of the matter -- and if they feel that this sort of thing reflects their values, and the image they want to project, it's no business of mine, is it?

I can only hope this doesn't go badly astray. I have to admit: I have concerns for these young boys. If any one of them harboured uncertainty about his sexual identity, this is precisely the kind of thing that could cause long-lasting harm.

I guess I've done what I can.


Well, we had a good run.

We got onto the Vitamin D supplement thing, and this winter, the kids had a great run. Not so much as a cough or a sniffle. All the way into early spring, clear as clear could be.

But with one thing and another, somehow Nat and I fumbled the ball, and we forgot to keep reminding the kids about the Vitamin D. Meanwhile, a particularly nasty brute of an URTI smashed into the schools.

Last week was shitty enough. The Mau-Mau went down on Friday with a fever. Not life-threatening, no, but persistent. It didn't respond particularly to either ibuprofen or paracetamol. And it just sucked the energy out of her. All Friday, she mostly lay in bed. Same on Saturday, after Nat had to leave for Brizneyland. Same again Sunday.

Sweat-soaked sheets. Her room reeked. I changed her bedding twice in two days.

Monday the fevers were intermittent. I had to take the boys to school, so the Mau-Mau came with me and she lay on the couch at the place in Launceston while I tried to work. Same again Tuesday.

The fevers stopped sometime Tuesday night, but by then she was so full of snot and mucous that she couldn't sleep, and when she did, she'd wake up and vomit. A quarter to three in the morning: I got up and changed her bedding and her pyjamas again, because she'd puked up a mess of slime. She was distraught. It took me ages to comfort her and put her back to sleep.

Wednesday nobody went to school. I wasn't taking the Mau-Mau on a forty-minute car ride over a winding mountain range in the driving rain and fog. Fuck it.

Thursday and Friday she improved incrementally. More interested in food. No fevers. Still the oceans of snot, though.

Today is Monday. (I think. I'm pretty tired.) As of yesterday, Genghis has been running an ugly fever that doesn't respond to ibuprofen or paracetamol. At least he's not sweating his sheets soggy. He's got a sore throat and a cough, but no sign yet of puking. I'm glad of that much, anyway.

Meanwhile, Jake has the cough and the sore throat and the headaches, although he doesn't seem to be getting the fever. Yet.

Natalie just told me she's got a sore throat.

At this point, I'm still fine. One has to wonder how long that will last.

Some time in the dim dark ages of the 70s, there was an ugly election in Afghanistan, and the government that resulted therefrom wound up "calling in Soviet help". Without looking up details, my recollection -- as a child of about twelve -- has it that essentially, the Soviets manipulated events to provide them with a pretext to invade Afghanistan.

Why? Well, you know. Everybody else has done it at some time or another. So why not? Anyway, the why of the matter isn't germane. What you need to know is that for the next ten years or so, Afghans and their allies who didn't much like being part of the USSR put up some very seriously stiff resistance. The irregular fighters who opposed the Soviets were called "Mujahadeen" (or variations on that spelling) and were lauded as heroes in the Western media.

Alongside the Mujahadeen were the Taliban, a religious group nobody seemed to know much about. But the Taliban were very effective in kicking Russki Buttski, so the media wrote them up as good guys too, and largely ignored the utter hell that followed in the Taliban's wake.

During this period, the Russians and Americans weren't good buddies. (Stop me if I'm going too fast, okay?) But with both sides having a lot of nuclear sunshine tucked away, ready to bring out if anybody started to fling the poo-poo, neither was willing to directly confront the other. And thus, both the Soviets and the Yanks did a lot of surreptitious supporting of various militia groups around the world.

So: the CIA thought the Mujahadeen were a bunch of Righteous Dudes, and they flung a lot of money, training, and rather expensive and advanced missile hardware at them. They were fighting the Russkis, right? They must be good guys, right?

Imagine everybody's surprise in 2001, a decade or more after the whole USSR-in-Afghanistan thing was just a memory, when a cluster of civilian aircraft were used to wipe out the World Trade Centre in New York. And who was behind that? Oh -- that would be Osama Bin Laden, one of the men who also supplied and trained and supported those self-same Mujahadeen fighters the CIA had been backing.

When the smoke from the WTC cleared and the Yanks were ready to look around and find someone to invade, what was their first port of call? Why, it was Afghanistan! Apparently, pouring money and training and military hardware into the hands of a bunch of hardcore militia fighters isn't the way to build a modern democratic nation! Who knew, eh? I mean -- who would have thought those Mujahadeen and their Taliban buddies would be so ungrateful that they'd let Osama and his people live and work and train and plan in the wilds of Afghanistan.

Who'd have imagined that a bit of sneaky (Russian) bear-baiting could turn into the defining political force of the first quarter of the new century? Who would have imagined that cosying up to a bunch of bearded religious fascists could lead to multiple invasions and wars, unthinkable expenditure of money and materiel, the destruction of American civil society, debate and civil rights, and the propagation of terror and oppression across the globe?

Jeez. That was a mistake, eh? We won't do that again in a hurry, will we?

Except that there's this country. It's called Syria. And the Russians are backing the current government, under a guy called Assad, but there are a lot of people who don't like him, and there's a civil war going on. Mind you, the people fighting Assad aren't just Syrians, no. A lot of them are career jihadists, Muslim fanatic fighters linked to Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

So, what does President Obama do?

Why, he nullifies a US law against supplying arms to terrorist organisations so that the US can provide money, munitions, materiel and training to the Syrian "rebels". Pretty much the way they did to the jihadis back in Afghanistan thirty years ago.

Fuck. Me. Sideways.
Somebody, anybody -- please get me the fuck off this planet before the inevitable shitstorm apocalypse of stupidity kills us all.

Every now and again I run across a chunk of software which is just so damned clever and useful that I latch onto it, and keep it for years. I still do a lot of drafting in a thing called Yeah Write, for example. Reason being that it's the only word processor I've ever seen in which the user interface is deliberately designed to look like, and work like, a filing cabinet. Of course, Yeah Write is also small, clever, neat-looking, robust and reliable -- but seriously, have you got any idea just how good it is to have your own virtual filing cabinet to keep all your ideas and shit?

Still, Yeah Write isn't today's gem. As a matter of fact, I came here to talk about a thing called Zulupad.

Zulupad is fucking brilliant.

Essentially, it's a programme that creates self-contained wiki documents. The maker(s) describe it as "a notepad on steroids". It's a beautifully simple concept. You open a new document, and the first thing it does is create an index page. Write whatever the hell you want there. But here's the good bit. Pick anything you've written. Select it with the mouse. Tell Zulupad to "link" it -- and instantly, it becomes a hyperlink,
creating a brand new page based on that link.

Suppose you're writing a book. On the index page, you start listing scenes, characters, locations -- anything. One of your characters is called "Karen Proctor". So you select that name, and you make a link. Immediately, Zulupad creates a new "Karen Proctor" page, and you can write anything you want on that page. Not only that, but wherever you go in the document thereafter, any and every time you write "Karen Proctor" the text will instantly become a hyperlink connected to that page.

Get it? Continuity. I don't know about you, but over the course of a novel, I tend to have difficulties recalling little details about minor characters. But if every time I write the character's name it instantly becomes a link to a page telling me every detail I want to know... hey. That works. That works well. And it's a fuckload easier than consulting a notebook, or a long and complicated document listing every damned character in the book.

Then there's the planning of larger projects. Young Genghis is doing a science paper. I put the basic Zulupad programme on his computer (the basic version is free. The pro version costs all of $15) and made an index page for him: Abstract, Introduction, Materials &amp; Methods, etc. Each one of those headings I made into a hyperlink, and on each new page created, I wrote a single sentence explaining what was expected of him.

Before I did this, he was hesitant. Afterwards? He's happier than a pig in shit. And of course, he's making links for all his subjects and his ideas and everything else. The whole paper is coming together.

Now, those of you who write anything lengthy will immediately understand why this is an exciting bit of gear. But let me go a bit farther, and point out that with the pro version you can incorporate images and the like, and you can even save the whole damned zulu wiki as an HTML file. Turn it into a web page, or open it in something like Open Office Writer to print it as a full-length document. Sure, it won't have the whole WYSIWYG desktop publishing look -- but it's so easy to organise your ideas and your information! You can add the layout, the bells and whistles, all of that stuff you can add later.

One final note. Back when I was doing a lot of Game Master stuff for various role-playing games, I would have fucking killed for this little bit of software.

Imagine: you're setting up an adventure/module for the players. You've got a few maps, some images, and a shitload of characters and notes. How fucking good does Zulupad look now?

Put your main map up on a Zulu page as an image. Underneath it, write your outline. List the characters. List the salient points on the map. Make a link out of each and every one.

Now when the characters say "We enter the Old Barn. What's inside?" you don't shuffle through your notes. You just fucking click on the "Old Barn" link, and there it is: all your notes describing the building, the interior, and anything, everything to be found. Not only that, but any significant characters or items therein will appear as hyperlinks. Click on them, and you instantly get the information.

Seriously: I would have happily massacred somebody to get my hands on this back in my gaming days. And now?

Well, I know a lot of people who like to lay out the outlines of novels or scripts by using a big sheet of paper or a corkboard, and a bunch of pushpins and file cards.

Fuck. That. Primitive. Shit.

I've got something faster, easier, and more adaptable.

One more point: when I hit the Zulupad website and tried to buy a Pro version, Paypal spat the dummy. I couldn't manage to get a payment through. I'm still not sure why. But by that time, Elder Son was planning his Education/Extension project with Zulupad Free. And Younger Son was working on his science paper using the same -- so I thought I'd send an email to the maker of the programme, and ask him if there was another way I could get hold of Zulupad Pro.

The man behind the software is a chap called Tom Gersic. He got back to me within forty-eight hours, and provided me with an alternative download.

I am extremely grateful, and highly impressed by his willingness to help out a simple punter. Zulupad is fucking brilliant, yeah -- but Tom Gersic seems like a pretty decent kind of person too.

Thus, my fellow writing-type individuals, I urge you to consider Zulupad. It's small, fast, reliable, efficient -- and it's going into my personal arsenal of tools, where I expect it will do me no end of good.


Quite some time ago, I picked up a Charlaine Harris book to read on a flight. I did it because everybody was talking about her "Sookie Stackhouse" books, and the tv series True Blood which grew therefrom.

I admit it. I was hoping to enjoy what I read.

I didn't, though. I found Harris' writing pedestrian and predictable, and the main character -- Sookie Stackhouse -- felt like a prizewinning "mary sue". The book was eminently forgettable, and I promptly did my best to forget it. (As an aside: Tansy Rayner-Roberts "Nancy Napoleon" stories are much, much more interesting and entertaining, if you like Para/Rom. You can get 'em from Twelfth Planet Press.)

Of course, that definitely didn't preclude the possibility that True Blood was good TV. And I've got a lot of friends who swear by it. Well, hell -- I mean, the Hamish Macbeth TV series with Robert Carlyle was delightful, while the series of books that inspired it was... actually, pretty awful.

So today, there I was grinding away on the rowing machine. You want boring? Rowing machines are boring. Boring as a... really, really boring thing. A wimble. Yeah. Rowing machines are as boring as a wimble. And once you look up "wimble", you'll see that's rather boring indeed.

To combat the boredom, I usually run a DVD on a little player while I row. Turn it up, set the subtitles, and I'm good to go. Hell, it's the only way I'm going to catch up on the TV everybody else watches anyhow, right? Well, yesterday I finished Inglorious Basterds, and so I thought: fine. Here's the time I start in on True Blood.

First Season. Episode One: in the machine, and away we go.

Well, crap. Maybe it's just 'cos I was rowing, you know? But I don't think so. I think Ep One of TB stinks.

It kicks off with a lot of lowest-common-denominator sex/death imagery. And while I like the possibilities inherent in 'vampire rights' and Deep South redneckery with vampires tossed in... I didn't get much of interest.

Poor bloody Anna Paquin. If they'd pulled her Sookie Stackhouse pony tail any fucking tighter, her face would likely have split right down the centre. And the character's still a goddam Mary Sue. Don't believe me? Try this site here: Avoiding Mary Sue.

There's lots of sites like this, by the way. This was just the first one I happened to grab through Google. But you'll note the first six warning signs are all right there: the unusually attractive woman masquerading as the 'plain jane'. (It's Anna Paquin. Dress her as a waitress, fine. Scrape her hair back until her face explodes. Fine. She's still Anna Paquin, and no amount of heavy-handed hints dropped about her lack of sex life can change that.)

Then there's the Mysterious Powers: she's a telepath, for some reason. Read's everybody's mind. Oh, but not the mind of the Dark and Mysterious Bill the Vampire. Okay, points for naming him 'Bill', but for fuck's sake: yet another broodingly handsome, dark but pale vampire staring intensely at the heroine (and believe me, if the staring got any more intense in this, poor Bill would likely wind up permanently cross-eyed)

Oh, and of course there's the 'everybody loves her' thing. We find out that her boss is wildly (secretly) in love with her, but can't bring himself to announce it. And of course, Mister Intensity the Vampire finds her fascinating. Of course, to be fair she does initially rescue him from some rednecks who want to drain his blood (apparently it works like a drug on humans?) but that really just leads us to the next Mary Sue point -- the bit where she's heroically rescuing the shit out of people all over the place.

No prophecy (yet) of course. And we don't know yet if her past is tragic and angsty. But the bit where she's every so nice and perfect and two-dimensional... that's all over the screen, baby.

So, there it is. End of episode one, and I was pretty damned happy when the redneck blood-draining types caught Mary-Sookie off guard and started kicking the shit out of her. I'm hoping that's a sign of things to come -- but I suspect quite strongly it simply points to a rescue courtesy of Mister Intense Stares early in episode two.

I own all of Season One. Given the "must see" status so many of my friends have pinned to this series, I will watch all that I have. (Why not? I watched the 1992 Captain America the other day while exercising. It was moderately hilarious, though entirely unintentional in its comedic goofiness.)

But: unless the writing improves significantly, I will absolutely not not bother with Season Two. I don't actually care whose tits they throw at the screen. If I want screen-boobs, there's way more than anyone could ever use on the Internet. I want interesting characters who aren't dull stereotypes (redneck drugpuppies; sassy black gay guys... yeah, you know who I'm talking about).

Oh, and for fuck's sake -- somebody should tell poor Anna to stop gurning. Maybe it's the scant material they've given her in this episode (she has to be Instantly Fascinated by Mister Intense Stare -- and that's her motivation for... ummm... most of it. Which, let's face it, is pathetic) but she seems to have adopted the Nicholas Cage approach to acting in finding her inner Sookie.

Oh, and in other news: the Australian electorate was predictably stupid today, and Rupert Murdoch must be a moderately happy old fart.

User: flinthart
Name: flinthart
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