Archive for January, 2012

I almost called today’s piece Deus Ex Machina because I’m writing about a machine in my novel.  Okay, it’s a bad play on words.  But this last weekend an engineer friend asked about a machine Layla has.  In The Compass Master I call it simply the ascender, and it plays a pivotal role near the climax by getting her up fast to a high place.  She just slides her rope through the do-hicky, gets into the harness, and WEEEE!  Up she goes.

How realistic is this, you ask?  I mean, just because we’ve seen such technology in the movies doesn’t mean it’s real (hello, Mythbusters).  And the way action film thieves or ninjas or soldiers simply zip up ropes and get out of trouble fast strains credulity, doesn’t it?  Like, why aren’t they using a climber’s REAL ascender — those little metal handles that have to be laboriously moved one hand grip at a time as you work your way up a mountain or wall?

Well, I’m happy to report that Layla’s ascender is based on a prototype I read about in a little blurb in an obscure magazine (Innovation, which by the way has some real cutting-edge tech info) that happened to be lying around the office at work.  Being a pack rat for articles with info I figure I might use in a story, I cut it out and kept it handy.  Sure enough, I soon applied that one-paragraph piece to Layla’s arsenal of tools.  I kept a few of the basic facts by writing that Layla bought a prototype of the machine from an MIT student who invented it.  On the fictional side, I make his Atlas Powered Rope Ascender, as it’s called, smaller and easier to cart around in a duffel bag along with her other burglary/scholar  tools.

Turns out I was really on target about a smaller version.  That article appeared in 2007, and since then the student has come a long way – he seems to have established his own company.  The Atlas PRA is now being tested by the Marines, and some of the company’s “products are available to U.S. Government personnel only.”  Wow – Layla really got in on the ground floor, didn’t she?  One of those Atlas devices is the APA-5, the “Lightweight Power Ascender” currently under development by the Office of Naval Research.  It can go from 0 to 5 feet a second and weighs about 15 pounds.  How cool is that?  Layla’s version is even lighter, I’ve decided, because she doesn’t need its lifting capacity of 500 pounds   Here’s the link to that Atlas page:

So there you have it.  A little blurb about an obscure researcher’s prototype contributed to a key scene in my novel.

How about you?  Have you ever stumbled across information or an article or TV show or something that solves a problem in your plotting?

Today I’ve got something special for y’all.   As some of you may know, my blog pal Robert Read,  a fellow writer who did such a great job critiquing my manuscript for The Compass Master, just also happens to be a serious practitioner of Olympic weightlifting.  What some of you may not know is that this sport is a superb way of getting in shape for Layla-type action-hero activities.

And so to enlighten you, Robert has generously agreed to be a guest on this blog today.  Here is his superb essay on the art of Olympic weightlifting.   Enjoy!

“The fountain of youth of has been found, and it shaped like a heavily loaded barbell.”

Olympic weightlifting is a basalt island thrust up amid a slopping, surging ocean of diets, fads, crazes, trademarked farragoes of Oriental philosophy melded to Western iron and snake oil.  Until it was adopted by the recent fad of Crossfit, it was considered an advanced technique that was mostly done by serious college and professional athletes.

Please don’t confuse Olympic weightlifting with the Mr. and Ms. Olympia competitions, which are  body-building competitions primarily about who can take the most androgenic male steroids without growing, or while retaining, tits.

Olympic weightlifting is what they do in the Olympics.  Both men and women compete in distinct weight classes.  The highest weight classes of course favor very large people.  All the other weight classes favor strong, athletic people, who are not terribly tall in proportion to their weight. Women who compete are small and strong.  They are thicker than fashion models, but still very attractive, at least to  me.  Men who compete tend to have Herculean physiques, by which I mean heavily muscled and not slender, with low body fat but not shredded the way body-builders are during a competition.

This is a picture of Piros Dimas, an Olympic champion.

And below is a picture of Melanie Roach, an American Champion.

When I was thirty-two, I was a 240-pound ball of goo.  I began a standard Olympic weightlifting routine in about 3 months had become a muscular, slightly overweight man of 240 pounds. I went to a small local competition (I had to drive 250 miles to LSU) where skinny teenage football players outlifted me.  Those three months changed my life. I had lifted weights, run, and biked for all my life.  No other fitness routine or diet has had such a profound impact on my body as did Olympic weightlifting.

Olympic lifting is, on the surface, simplicity itself.  You take a bar and lift it over your head.  You do this in two legal lifts.  The first is the snatch, in which you raise the bar over you head to locked elbows in a squat, and then stand up.  The second is called the clean and jerk.  It consists of two movements.  The clean is raising the bar to your throat, the jerk is raising the bar overhead to locked elbows and standing straight up and still for one second.  Doing it, however, is not simple.  It is 50% raw strength and 50% technique.

It is, however, elegant, because you need no more equipment than a bar and enough room.  No cages, benches, shirts, belts, pulleys, or machines.  As you get better, it does help to have special shoes which don’t squish down when you have a heavy weight on your shoulder or your arms, and it is nice to have platform where you can drop your weights safely, and it is nice to have a good Olympic bar with bumper plates made of rubber rather than iron for the same reason, but I had none of those things when I started.

You can clean and jerk about 50% more than you can snatch.  A body-weight clean and jerk is respectable.  Body-weight-and-a-half would be locally competitive. Double body-weight is world-class.

We must ask ourselves: why do so many people believe something so simple is so effective?  Why is this better than a complex battery of machines?  Why should we believe that the clean-and-jerk is a total body exercise?

In the first place, you must understand that Olympic lifts are the most intense action that a human being can exert in 2 to 5 seconds.  Sprinting 40-meter dash or less comes in a distant second.  Both lifts are performed in a very short period of time, as explosively as possible.  The lifts are, essentially, weighted jumps, recruiting as much of the human musculature as possible.  The lower back, the glutes, the hams, the quadriceps, the calves, the trapezius, are all used in the initial pull.  The abdominal and intercostal muscles are exercised to maintain thoracic pressure.  A heavy pull can only be done while holding your breath—trust me on this, or try it.  A heavy pull causes the biceps to grow; I don’t know if this is because you contract your biceps to stabilize your arms, or because hormonal changes make all of your muscles grow, but I did no bicep exercises at all for 3 months and my biceps got bigger from my Olympic lifting routine.  The completion of the lifts, where the bar is overhead, again exercises the entire back, the shoulders, and triceps.  The lifts even exercise the gripping muscles of the hand and forearm.  (The lats, used in doing chin-ups, are the only muscle that is not exercised by the Oly lifts, the exception that proves the rule.)

I weigh 220 pounds today (I am 46), and clean and jerk about 154 pounds a few times in my normal workout.  That is nothing to crow about. Many, many high school boys and girls, if you take body weight into account, do better.  But forgetting that for a moment, understand that I am raising the bar to the full 7-foot extension of my arms over my head.  I am 5 foot 10, and the bar starts about a foot off the ground (due to the diameter of the plates) so I am moving 154 pounds through 6 feet of motion in about 5 seconds (because I stop to take a breath and narrow my stance after the clean and before the jerk.)  This of course does not include the two raisings of my own body-mass which is a necessary part of the exercise.  This is a tremendous amount of physical work, in the sense of physics, that is being done in a short period of time. (Actually, to be precise, it is about 1000 foot-pounds of work.)  In physics, we call work per unit time: power.  More than any other sport, Olympic weightlifting is about maximizing power.

Since I normally exercise at somewhat less than my one-repetition maximum exertion, I would typically try to clean-and-jerk 154 pounds for 3 repetitions, with no rest, or only a few seconds, in between reps.  This might take about a very intense 45 seconds.   I feel light-headed and my heart is audibly pounding after this.

The effect on the body is to stimulate the fast-twitch muscles as much as possible.  These are the muscles that have poor endurance, but can deliver great power for brief periods of time.  They are also the easiest to stimulate to growth in the human body.  This maximizes the impact on the physique, and maximizes the human readiness to respond to brief, emergency situations, such as jumping away from an oncoming vehicle or fighting.  Things that Layla Daltry, the heroine of Helena Soister’s novel, has to do.

I prefer scientific evidence, but unfortunately we don’t have rigorous studies based just on Olympic lifting.  I would like therefore to present to you my own personal opinions, based on surmise, anecdotes, and certain amount of educated guessing.

I think everyone should learn to do some Olympic lifting and do it on a regular basis.  I do not mean that everyone should make this their sport, or do the Olympic lifts every workout or even every week.  I just mean that it should be considered a standard exercise, along with pushups, situps, and chinups.

The weaker you are, the more benefit you derive from a small amount of Olympic lifting.  It will make a strong man a little stronger, but it will make a weak, bird-boned little old lady a lot stronger.  A weak person of course will not be lifting a heavy weight—but will still derive tremendous benefit from it.  An empty bar weighs 44 lbs.  There are plenty of people who would benefit from the exercise of lifting 44 lbs over their head.  I wish I had been able to get my grandmother to do it as she aged and became frail and eventually died.

We know that load-bearing exercise fights osteoporosis.  It stands to reason that Oly lifting, which is surely the most load-bearing of any exercise, does so in spades.

The Oly lifts strengthen the back.  I am surrounded by people at work who are nearly debilitated by back pain.  I can’t prove that the Oly lifts prevent back injuries—in fact, you may pull a muscle in your back doing the lifts.  But a strong back prevents much more serious back injuries.

The Olympic lifts are basically weighted jumps.  They increase the capacity known as “vertical leap”.  When I was lifting a lot my vertical leap went from 6 inches to more than 2 feet.  Under a standard ceiling, I could jump up flat footed and touch my elbow to the ceiling.  I could touch the rim of a 10 foot basketball goal (I never could dunk, however.)

I believe the lifts make you look more attractive.  A small amount of Olympic weightlifting is not going to make anyone thick or blocky or anyway unfeminine. If a woman feels she is getting too muscular, she can just stop.

The short, intense exercise of weightlifting does not provide all of the cardiovascular benefits that longer-duration exercise, such as running, swimming, biking or walking provide.  However, it does control high blood pressure, and it does increase the volume blood that heart can pump with each beat.

In summary the benefits of Olympic lifting are:

ñ     Making you stronger,

ñ     Fighting osteoporosis,

ñ     Preventing back injury,

ñ     Improving some aspects of cardiovascular function,

ñ     Increasing vertical leap and jumping ability,

ñ     Exercising almost every muscle in the body in a single action, and

ñ     Improving the physique.

So, no matter who you are or what your fitness level is, I recommend you find someone who knows how to do the Olympic lifts with proper technique and make them part of your health regime.  Don’t worry about how much you can lift, just focus on technique, and strength and power will come.

None of us will live forever, but we need not go gently into the night.

So for a second time, I had no luck on the ghost hunting front.

Last night (Sunday) I went down once again to the office in the old building where I work.  I was at my desk working for about an hour and didn’t leave until 10:30.  Okay, maybe that’s not the ideal “dead time” of one a.m. to three or whatever it’s supposed to be.  But I did walk down the stairs slowly and expectantly.  I hung out for a little bit in a couple hallways along the way.  Still I got nada.

Granted, I really didn’t try hard enough.  I didn’t sit quietly for a long time in one place.  I also realized that a part of me couldn’t let down my guard.   See, that’s kind of a hard thing for a woman to do if she’s in a big, silent old building at night all on her lonesome, because then the last thing she wants is to hear or see or feel someone nearby who isn’t supposed to be there.  Course, we’re not talking ghosts in this context but instead some creepy human.   So now I realize this deeply ingrained self-defense barrier that’s built into a lot of us ladies might be standing in the way of my finally having a ghostly experience.  That and my lack of being a “sensitive,” which I’ve written about here before.

So anyway I think I just gotta get used to being in that building on my own, sit quietly in one place for a spell, and RELAX.

And on that supernatural note, there was a related funny story in the news…

Well, maybe it wasn’t so funny to us Colorado folks — in fact we were pretty sad about it.   As you may know, on Saturday the Broncos got slaughtered by the New England Patriots in a very big play off game.  And before the game the spotlight was on the teams’ respective quarterbacks:  Tim Tebow for the Broncos and what’s-his-name Brady for the Patriots.

Anyway, Tebow has become kinda famous for being a major holy guy (and a good guy, which I respect) who prays every chance he gets (SNL had a great skit about an annoyed Jesus telling Tebow to stop bugging him so much and lighten up).  But that didn’t matter to a group of witches in Salem, Massachusetts (I am not making this up) who decided to cast a spell so that their Patriots would win.  Of course the media got the story wrong and said the witches put a curse on Tebow.  But the witches said nu-uh, we’re good witches so we don’t do curses, only blessings.  And in this vein they blessed Brady out the wazoo so that he’d play one hell of a game.

Well, Brady just plain creamed Tebow.

A part of me wishes this whole ceremonial blessing thing had some reality to it and that these modern-day witches truly have a power that made a difference in the game.   Might make for an interesting paranormal novel, wouldn’t it?

As I mentioned here before, for Christmas I got a new (reconditioned) computer.  You have no idea how much I really, really need it.  I mean, my old computer is  more than 10 years old and it has a huge old honkin’ monitor instead of a flat screen.  As for the operating system — it’s prehistoric.

So really it’s kinda ironic that I haven’t hooked the new one up yet.  But this is because a) the new flat screen arrived only a couple days ago since there was only so much I could carry through an airport, so something had to be shipped home; and b) I’ve got years’ and years’ worth of old files on my old computer, and I am way overdue going through them and deleting and thinning them out.

You know those TV shows that reveal sad, pathetic hoarders living on top of mountains of possessions and crap and personal treasures and trash and too many boxes and furniture and twenty or thirty feral cats and other stuff? Well, that’s how I am with my old writing files.  The rest of my home is fairly organized and clean and spacious.  But the files on my computer and on a few memory sticks and in file folders and in a few boxes are just, well… overwhelming.

So are any of you the same?   You have lots of outdated versions of your manuscripts lying around?  Gobs of outdated chapters on your C drive?  Electronic notes on characters and plots and other literary flotsam and jetsam that you wrote years ago?   Well, if you think you’re bad for clearing out your defunct literary efforts, you should see what’s on my old computer.   It ain’t pretty.

See, one of the problems I have is my historical novels and a thriller like The Compass Master called for many megabytes of research.  Sure, my book is finished  and published, and I’m readying two more novels (historicals) for publication.  And I simply don’t NEED to hold onto what must be hundreds of pages of research.  So why haven’t I let go of this stuff?

One reason might be that I’m plagued with insecurity.  What if someone challenges my authority on some facts in my books?  What if a reader questions my sources?  I mean, real historians seem to keep their bibliographies and sources for an eternity.  Maybe by doing the same for my fictional work I’m attaining a kind of legitimacy.

But that doesn’t explain the umpteen versions of old chapters of manuscripts I’ve kept.  Or the mess of odd notes to myself that I can’t understand.  Or the lists of possible names for characters.  Or the entire manuscripts I’d rather see go up in flames than ever allow them to go into print.

So anyway I’ve started clearing away some of these literary garbage piles, and you know what?  It feels good.  I feel like my brain is getting cleared out right along with my computer.  Like I’m undergoing a kind of personal feng shui and my mental energy is flowing again.  And that once I get my new computer up and online I’m gonna be SO careful what old files I load onto it.  If I ain’t sure about other files, they’re going on a memory stick which can sit in a drawer until hell freezes over.

Problems solved.

First off, I want to pause and make an announcement…

My friend and fellow writer Robert Read has an exciting new blog about an educational charity he’s started.  It’s called Public Invention for All Mankind, and it’s all about people coming together and supporting, encouraging, and coaching inventors who are trying to create things that will help other people.  I highly recommend checking it out.

Go Robert!

And now for the topic at hand…

This is one of those days when my brain is foggy and my concentration sucks like a Hoover and I swear that simply stringing a few entertaining sentences together is beyond my literary capability.

Hence  I’m kinda copping out by writing about a literary-slash-movie dust-up that seems to be taking shape over the upcoming release of the Hunger Games movie (which I am SO looking forward to!).  To whit:  how does Katniss of the Hunger Games trilogy compare to Bella of the Twilight series?

Here’s a article that appeared on about this topic:

As you can guess I’m fascinated by this because I created action heroine/scholar Layla Daltry, and yes she’s a grown-up in a thriller and not a teenager in a YA, but good and bad characters come in all shapes and ages and genres, and for me Katniss was a revelation of how superb and captivating a YA protagonist can be.  I mean, even the first chapter of Hunger Games blew me away.  Within a few pages author Suzanne Collins established Katniss’ character, her family, her situation, and her dark world and had me begging for more.  As for Bella in Twilight, I must confess, as I’ve done once before in these web pages…

I never read the Twilight books.

I tried.  I really did try.  I picked up a copy in a bookstore and read the first couple pages and skimmed a few scenes about Bella in her high school classes and her problems and feelings and…

OMG I just so didn’t care.

Then when the movie popped up on TV I tried to watch it.  But all I could think was… Why is Bella always in a funk and looks so depressed and why is that guy beating her up and oh good here comes her rescuer but I think I’ll change the channel and when I flip back to the movie she still looks so unhappy, and I remember that a couple friends who read and liked the series still complained that they sometimes wanted to whack Bella up the side of her head and tell her to snap out of it.  And I also remember how a couple guys in the office saw Twilight and they couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about and Bella so didn’t do anything for them.  Then there was the funny and snarky “Why I Hate Twilight” link I came across:

Then again, millions of sold copies means there’s something in the Twilight series that clearly speaks to a lot of young girls and grown women, and more power to them.  But as for me, I’m sticking with Katniss and Hunger Games.  Then again, the covers of the original Twilight books are brilliant and real works of art, while the covers of the HG trilogy are for me just serviceable.

Back At Last

on January 2, 2012 in Misc 6 Comments »

Wow, I’ve been gone way too long from my own blog, haven’t I?

Hope y’all had a splendid long holiday.  Me, I came back from visiting my Mum to a credit card bill that made me hyperventilate.  But at the company where I work our paychecks are issued in such a way that we end up getting an extra week’s pay at the end of the year.  For me, that extra money is gone already.

And speaking of my job…

I’m updating this entry at my job because, except for the interns, NO ONE ELSE IS HERE IN THE OFFICE!  Which means the office was supposed to be closed for today, January 2.  Which means my bosses really screwed up when I heard them on Friday saying seeing you on Monday to each other when in fact they meant Tuesday.

I coulda stayed in bed.

But here I am at work so I’m updating this blog and I’ll get a couple tasks done and then go downstairs to the little workout room and exercise for an hour or so.  Because I’m so gonna make this trip into work worth my time.

Wow.  Starting out the New Year and I’m already messing up.

But other than that and my usual end of the year financial squeeze, all is well.  Someone I know (friend of a friend) called me last night to rave about The Compass Master, which boosted my tired spirits.  LOVE what he said:  “It’s Dan Brown on steroids.”  Unfortunately he also pointed out two typos he came across.  Ouch.  But hey, if there turn out to be no more than a few typos in my fat novel, I’ll be okay.  Except that I already want to spend money I don’t have by getting them fixed.

My apologies to all you splendid fellow writers whose blogs I’ve barely visited since B.C. (before Christmas).  I did make hurried peeks at a few, but only left one or two comments.  I missed you.

See you here again in a couple days.