Monday, June 27, 2005


One of the hardest things to get used to about living in Ireland has been adjusting to the metric system. Learning the metric system requires a complete rewiring of the old grey matter and I just don't know if the dendrites are up to forming new pathways. I think it's much more difficult to learn a system of measurements when you already know one because you don't think of the new measurements in relation to themselves, you think of them in the context of the system you already know.

I've developed a series of approximations and bizarre quasi-formulas that helps me get by, for the most part.

Kilometers to Miles
I'm a runner, so this one is a bit easier for me to wrap my head around. I've done loads of 5-kilometer runs and know that the distance is around 3.1 miles. So, to get from kilometers to miles, I multiply by 3 and divide by 5. For example, what does 12 kilometers equal in miles?

(12 * 3) / 5 = 7.2

Check my work. And remember, I said these were approximate. I'm trying to figure out how far I have to run or how close the grocery store is - I'm not doing chemistry experiments or brain surgery. Close enough is good enough for my puposes.

Celsius to Fahernheit

I have dim memories of this one from high school. I know it involved the fraction 5/9 but I don't remember how. I also know that I found it scary. But then, I found most math scary in high school and that's why I'm a writer and not a veterinarian.

My cheat for C to F is to take the temperature in Celsius, double it and add it to 30. It gets me close although the pattern doesn't hold for temperatures much past 90.
(Which is okay because it just doesn't get that hot here.)

Let's look at a couple of examples:

12 C = 24 + 30 = 54 --> 53.6, so essentially 54.
3 C = 6 + 30 = 36 --> 37.4, in the ball park.
25 C = 50 + 28 = 86 --> 82.4, close enough for government work, I think.
40 C = 80 + 30 = 110 --> This is where my cheat totally breaks down. My father-in-law recently had a temperature of 40 C. I did my quick mental math and thought that it had to be wrong. Sure enough, 40 C is around 104 F.

You can find a great temperature converter here.

Kilograms to Pounds

This is a toughie for me. I think it's because it defies my brain's attempt to force comparisions and logic on this strange new world. It seems to me like if it takes more kilometers to make a mile, then it should take more kilograms to make a pound. It's just a mental block sort of thing because when you think about it, I shouldn't have this expectation at all. One group measures distance, the other measures weight - it's beyond apples and oranges territory and right into pineapples and kumquats. But this is just the way my mind thinks.

My dad told me his sister's tried and true formula to get from kilograms to pounds, which was "Take half and then subtract a little." I try to reverse it - double it and add a little.

I'd guess the following:

55 kg = 125 pounds --> It's actually 121.
100 kg = 220 pounds --> And in fact, it's 220.46.
17 kg = 34 pounds --> It's actually 37.47.

To check my work (or your own wild guesses), go to google and do a search like:
55 kilograms into pounds. The first result it returns is the exact answer. Cool, huh?

Stones to Pounds

You're probably thinking "stone, that doesn't sound very familiar or very metric-y to me." And you would be right on both counts. Stone is an arcane imperial measurement that has somehow weathered the tests of time in Ireland and the UK, especially in regard to the weight of people. It's not uncommon to tell someone what you weigh in pounds and to have them say "What is that in stone?"

A stone is 14 pounds, which is a damn awkward number to multiple if you don't happen to be Rainman, which I most definitely am not. And forget about dividing by 14. Luckily, I am not in the habit of announcing my weight to people, so I haven't really come up with a Pound to Stone conversion formula.

I do have occasion to go from Stone to Pound though,so I do a bit of math trickery. Say you weigh 15 stone. That's 15 * 14, which just about gives me brain freeze. So I think of it as

(10 * 15) + (4 * 15) = 150 + 60 = 210

This will bring to an end Ann's Messed-Up Approximate Math Class for today. Ounces and liters, pints and liters - that all eludes me. Maybe because they still (and I hope always will) serve Guinness by the pint.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Stuffing Envelopes

Last week, I applied for a job that I really want. It looks like it would be a challenging and fulfilling position writing marketing-ish Web copy for the research department of University College Dublin. As far as workplaces go, it just can't get much cooler or much more geographically desirable than UCD. Plus, since it's where Peter and I spent a bit of time during the early months of our relationship, the campus has a special place in my heart.

Since it's a university, the application process is very structured and completely anachronistic. They want you to go to a Web site, download a PDF form, fill out the form, and print out six copies. But that's not all. They also want six copies of your CV and a cover letter outlining how you meet the job description's criteria. Then you have to get your application packet into their personnel office by a certain date and time.

When I slid the 36 pages of application material into a big brown envelope, I couldn't help feeling that I was filling the envelope with all my hopes and dreams. It's funny that so much could ride on a stack of black and white papers. I knew that my brown envelope was going to join other brown enevelopes, similiarly filled. I hoped that something about my cover letter and my CV would jump out and put me on the short list.

Yesterday, I had a similar, but even more intense feeling, when I put together a submission package for a leading Irish book publisher. This company has a reputation for finding new authors and taking chances on them. It's how one of my favourite authors (Marian Keyes) got her start. Witty cover letter, tongue-in-cheek bio, earnest writing-oriented CV, the weakest-link synopsis (oh how I hate to write synopses), 50 pages of my first novel and several years' worth of dreams and ambition were stuffed into the big A4 envelope.

When the publisher (or, more likely, her unpaid work-experience intern) opens the envelope, what will she see? Just 60 sheets of paper with black 10 pt Arial type, most of it double-spaced. She won't see the 4am writing sessions, the all-day revision sessions, the tortured synopsis writing sessions. She might guess at my eagerness, but then, that's practically a hallmark of unpublished authors.

But, what I hope she sees, on those 50 pages, are people she recognizes, sympathises with and would like to get to know better. I hope she sees a little bit of herself as a teenager, a little bit of her daughter/neice/neighbor. If I'm successful in that, then even if she passes on the book, then I've still accomplished something worthwhile. My book will live another day, waiting for yet another brown envelope.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Mystery of Bad Endings

I'm a writer, so I understand the two most difficult tasks in writing fiction: (1) creating an opening page that draws the reader in and compels him/her to read on and (2) giving the loyal reader a good ending that ties up all the loose ends in an interesting manner while remaining true to the characters. These are not little challenges and writers who get it right are my personal heroes.

I love mysteries and since I am currently unemployed, I've had a lot of time to read them. In the last 2 months, I'd estimate that I've read at least 20 books and I'd guess that 15 of them were mysteries. Funny enough - I don't write mysteries because I find the whole idea of working out a plot in advance too overwhelming. Maybe one day I'll be able to write a mystery. In the meantime, I can only critique them.

One thing that strikes me about mysteries, as opposed to other genres, is the alarmingly high incidence of bad endings. Not only that, the endings fall into general categories that you can define and then observe in books by many different authors. In my opinion, the bad ending types can be described as such:

The Scooby-Doo Ending

In the Scooby-Doo ending, the author goes to great pains to convince you that Bad Guy X is the culprit. All sorts of false paths are set up for you, the blissfully ignorant reader, to traipse down, convinced that you know who the bad guy is. In the end, when the hero is giving his summary of how he brilliantly cracked the case, Bad Guy X, either figuratively or literally, is revealed to actually be Nice Guy Y or some other equally mild-mannered type. I know what you're thinking - isn't that what a mystery is all about, red herrings and McGuffins and all of that tomfoolery.

Well, yes and no. The Scooby-Doo ending disappoints when it is delivered too patly, when the information comes to easily, when the proper foundation has not been laid. In The Dark Lady, Richard North Patterson does a fantastic job of creating a multi-layered story that his protagonist must unravel a thread at a time. The nuance and subtelty of his writing create a compelling mystery that's skillfully revealed at the end. He rises above the Scooby Doo ending because he's painstakingly laid the proper foundation throughout the book.

The I'm-Going-to-Kill-You-So-I'll-Tell-You-All-About-My-Diabolical-Scheme Ending

For simplicity's sake, let's call this the Sitting Duck ending. In the Sitting Duck ending, the hero has somehow gotten trapped alone with the killer. The killer is nearly always overly confident and very pleased-with-self for having thought up the Perfect Murder (TM). Burdened by a need to brag, the killer tells the protagonist every aspect of the clever plan. Sometimes, this information just confirms what the hero already suspects. Other times, it's a load of stunning bricks because the hero never suspected the killer at all. I really don't know which way is more annoying - when the hero is stupid enough to end up alone in an isolated place with someone suspected to be a killer or when the hero is too dumb to figure out the mystery without having it spelled out by the perpetrator.

The thing that irks me most about the Sitting Duck ending is that it always involves some sort of deus ex machine to come to an alleged satisfactory ending. The police bust in at the last minute. The hero discovers a hidden weapon. The killer slips and falls off a cliff. It's lazy, unimaginitive plotting, a sort of "oh geez, I'm at page 300, better wrap this puppy up" ethos that irritates me. Beth Saulnier, whose books are otherwise very enjoyable, has fallen victim to the Sitting Duck ending on more than one occassion. The award for the most aggregious Sitting Duck ending has to go to Judith Kelman for Summer of Storms. Maybe it's just because I read it recently or maybe it's because the protagonist falls into the too-stupid category. I don't know, but if you have some free time on a rainy day, you can check it out for me.

The Absent-Minded Professor Ending

With the Absent-Minded Professor ending is really more than just an ending. It's usually a pervasive running theme throughout the book. The protagonist has some sort of thought gnawing at the back of his or her mind. The thought stays there, like a brain virus, and the protagonist makes mention of it on more than one occassion. Where it messes up the ending is that inevitably, the thought just magically pops into place at the last moment. Ah yes, of course, the postmark on that letter proves that the suspect was in Seattle at the time of the murder, therefore, it must be his evil twin who did the killing.

The Absent-Minded Professor ending can be combined with the Sitting Duck ending or it can stand on its own. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone should be taking mega-doses of gingo biloba, so often does she fall into Absent-Minded Professor-dom. Jonathan Kellerman sometimes has Alex Delaware suffer from the condition, although Milo provides a solid counterbalance. (Interestingly enough, Stephen White, another shrink-turned writer, has a similar dynamic going with Alan Gregory and his policeman friend Sam.) I haven't taken an exhaustive study of this, but I would wager that in 9 cases out of 10, the Absent-Minded Professor ending happens in a book that's written in the first person. I think this is because of the difficulties inherent in the narrative, namely it's difficult to follow the golden rule of writing (Show Don't Tell) when your main character is narrating the story.

That's my take on the mystery of bad endings. If you want to read some writers who get it right, I'd check out Richard North Patterson (especially Silent Witness, which walks a tightrope but delivers in much the same way Dark Lady does), Ian Rankin (especially A Question of Blood and Resurrection Men) and John Grisham's The Partner.

Happy Reading!

Friday, June 10, 2005

Intelligent Design

There's nothing I love more than a well-designed thing. Something that meets the need for which it was intended in a simple and elegant manner. The trouble is good design is hard to find. From the web site with the completely counter-intuitive interface to the push-to-open door with a pull-style handle, examples of poorly designed items abound. Something can look fantastic, but if it doesn't quickly and simply do what you need it to do, then it goes right to the top of my Bad Design list.

Part of the problem with design these days is that we want a single thing to accomplish multiple tasks. It's not just a cell phone - it's also a camera, a PDA, and a mobile e-mail station. That's a pretty big brief for a little phone.

The ability to do a single thing very well is what makes me love my I-Pod shuffle. Its whole purpose in life is to be a small music player. Sure, I can't see what song is playing, but I don't need to. All I need is to have a tiny, light-weight device to play some music. Simple, elegant, perfect design.

I got to thinking about all this design business on Monday, when we took a trip out to Trim Castle in County Meath. The job of a castle is simple - to protect its occupants. Trim Castle has some of the standard issue features that you'd expect in a castle - a moat, outer stone wall fortifications, loads of slitted windows for archers to use when firing arrows at attackers, a single entry point elevated above ground level with retractable stairs or a ladder that could get pulled in when the plundering hoards made their advances.

But the protections at Trim went much deeper than just the steroetypical castle protections. The castle relied heavily on compartmentalization. If attackers managed to get through the door, they'd find themselves in a heavily guarded room. Then, they'd have to get through a massively huge, thick door. The door isn't presently on the castle, but you can see from where the hinges and the bolt-hole were that the door was enormous. The bolt-hole is 8 feet deep. So, say that the crafty attackers managed to defeat the door. They'd find themselves in a sort of airlock room, another guarded room with a thick door preventing them from accessing the main castle area.

For me, the most clever security devices in Trim Castle are the spiral staircases. (Trim has 4 staircases, one for each tower.) Since most fighters were right-handed, the stairways were built in such a way that if you were trying to get up the stairs, the newel post is on your right-hand side. Picture it, you're trying to fight your way up this twisting staircase and you can't see your opponent and your shots are all blocked by a cement post. If you're the "good guy", the newel post is on your left, so you have a clear line of attack on your right-hand side.

The steps are total trip-hazards, on purpose. The steps are uneven in height and have slight variations in shape, so they are not easy to walk up or down. I imagine if you lived in the castle, you'd learn quickly where the wonky trippy steps were. And if you were an invader, you had a good chance of falling on your face - or worse, falling on your back and causing a domino-effect down the staircase.

The castle went through three iterations, with 3 different lords remodeling to their specifications. Security, though, was a common feature. The first incarnation of the castle had enclosed, wooden walkways on the outside of each tower, maybe about half to two-thirds of the way up the castle. These walkways provided excellent vantage points for defending the castle. Their roofs were lined with oilskins, to lessen the chances of flaming arrows setting the whole thing ablaze. But, if a walkway did catch fire, the soldiers were able to step through the window into the castle and then kick loose the supports of the walkway, sending the flaming structure tumbling down on their opponents.

In another phase of remodeling, an embankment was built around the base of the castle. This gave the soldiers another line of defense. They could drop boulders off the top of the castle and the rocks would bounce off the embankment and hit any nearby attackers in the face. Simple, but effective.

There are other examples of elegant security features, but you get the point. A particularly well-design item can also be adapted to changing needs. At a certain point, the residents of Trim Castle felt safe enough that they changed some of the security features into comfort features. For example, a window that would provide a defensible point and an early-warning system was converted into a fireplace for the comfort of the residents. Adaptability works best when you're extending the orignal intention to a related need. Security and comfort are not entirely unrelated concepts, so stretching a security feature into a comfort feature worked.

Good design is difficult to achieve, but if they had it sorted out in 1174, you'd think that with all our technological advancement, we should be able to design things that work and work well.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Irrational Exuberance on Speed

On Saturday, I was checking out and I stumbled across a place that was having an open house that very day and was only 5 minutes from my in-laws' house. Even though we have to find jobs before we can get a mortgage (banks are funny that way), we're trying to get acclimmated to this housing market. It is, in a word, crazy.

If the US stock market of the late 90's was faulted for "irrational exuberance", then I'd say the Dublin housing market suffers from irrational exuberance on speed. We know we're going to end up in a much smaller house, possibly in a dodgy or inconvenient neighborhood, and our mortgage payments are going to be a bit more steep. (On the plus side, interest rates over here are around 3% so that takes a bit of the sting out of it.)

Back to the open house. It was in an area called Sallynoggin, which is a staunchly working class neighborhood. A lot of the houses appear to date from the 1930's and were probably built to house workers, perhaps for the port in Dun Laoghaire, I don't know. The house was tucked away on a street of similar houses, all attached as is often the case in Dublin.

We stepped into the house and into a narrow entryway, which had a door on either side of it and stairs going to the second floor. (Except here, it's the first floor and what I think of as the first floor is the ground floor.) The room to the left of the stairs was billed in the brochure as the third bedroom. I could see it getting used as a family or television room. It had a fireplace and grubby walls that were in desperate need of cleaning and painting, but it did have potential.

The room to the right of the stairs was the living room/dining room. It was a big open space that was also in need of cleaning and painting. In a "what doesn't belong here" sort of moment, I noticed an oven of indeterminate but ancient age. This struck me as odd, until I walked into the kitchen. Then all was made clear. The kitchen was about the size of a parking space and had a sink. That's it. I thought my hallway with appliances in Wheaton was bad. This made the Wheaton kitchen look like a palace.

The kitchen had a door that led out into what the brochure called "the lobby". That's a lofty description. It was basically a tacked on shed with a corrugated plastic roof. The lobby had a door at the end of it, which led to a toilet. I thought "Nice, a 1/2 bathroom downstairs. Little weird that you have to practically go outside for it though."

The garden was excellent. It was enclosed by 8 foot high stone walls. A collection of bushes lined the walls, giving the place a very green look. It's the kind of place you could imagine hanging out and hosting cookouts.

We went upstairs, where we encountered 2 bedrooms. The bedrooms had nice old wooden floors that would probably look great when they're refinished. The planks were nice and wide and it felt rustic and homey at the same time. Both bedrooms had fireplaces and small closets. Old houses over here sometimes don't have closets. (Especially, it seems, the really posh ones. I guess rich people had beautiful hand-carved armoires so they didn't need closets.)

I walked between the bedrooms a couple of times, trying to figure out what was missing. Then it struck me - an upstairs bathroom with a bath or shower. I asked Peter about it and he gestured to a washbasin on a stand and said "That's the shower."

So, let's recap. No kitchen. No real bathroom. A modern day outhouse. No usable appliances. Every room in need of strip-down cleaning and painting. Floors in need of refinishing. Original wiring in need of complete replacing. Probably ditto for the plumbing. Basically, it was 690 square feet of big-time fixer-upper.

We estimated that it would require at least 200,000 euro worth of work to make it a place you'd actually want to live. But with the size of the garden, you could probably slap a nice extension on it. The guts of the house seemed pretty solid. It definitely had potential, but it would require a lot of money and work.

So, what was this little money pit going for? 310,000 euro, which is about $380,000. It's enough to make you cry. When we were out for an evening walk later that evening, we walked up a street near Peter's parents' house. Peter told me that when he was a kid, he looked down on this street because it was fairly working class and not as nice as the street he lived on. I said "You looked down on it then and now you couldn't afford to buy a house on it." That is a sad fact.

I'm not sure where we'll end up. I fear that we're buying at the peak of a bubble and we're going to end up locked into a mortgage with negative equity. But friends of ours bought a place 3 years ago and that's what they thought. Their house has nearly doubled in value. We think if we buy into a gentrifying area, we should be okay. The prediction is that in 15 years, Dublin will have a population of 2 million. And all those people are going to have to live somewhere, right?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Closing Without Closure

As you may have noticed, particularly if you're one of those keen-eyed editor-types, my profile photo is broken. That's because the computer where it lives has been packed up and is in transit to its new home in Ireland. Yesterday, the movers came and hauled away all of our worldly possessions, a very small allotment, since we got rid of all of our furniture. We might still have a bed - I don't really know.

But how could I not know? It's my stuff, right? Yes, but I wasn't there. Peter was though. Peter had all the fun of selling our furniture, supervising the movers (who also packed for us), selling the car, setting up our bank accounts for wire transfers, shutting down the utilities, tying up all the loose ends and attending the closing. And now Peter, like our computers and clothes, is on his way to Ireland. Well, at this very moment he's at least on his way to the airport via a luncheon establishment.

For me, it's a weird anticlimax. Here's this thing that I've waited seven weeks for - the closing on our house. I should be excited. Peter will be here in a scant 12 hours (not like I'm counting). But I feel a little bereft. I loved that house and I didn't even get to give it a proper send-off. I didn't get to take a final stroll through the house and have fond recollections. I've never really met the buyer. I didn't have to sign sheafs and sheafs of paper. I didn't get to slide my keys across the table to the new owner.

It's weird....a closing without closure, for me at least. I'm picturing walking in the front door, into the airy living room that flows into the dining room. I'm remembering that I insisted we get "grown up furniture" for the room - a matching couch and chair in a deep forest green. I'm peeking into the kitchen, which was my biggest complaint with the house when we bought it. I'd dreamed of a kitchen with an island and windows and space. I got a hallway with appliances. But I learned to work with it, to live with it, and I spent many happy hours baking in there.

I'm stepping down the single step into the family room. I'm remembering playing my arcade game - Operation Wolf - a tremendous birthday surprise from Peter for my 30th. I'm remembering all the work we put into the room last year- ripping up the carpet and skirting boards, painting, putting down Pergo, and putting in new skirting boards. I'm going back through the house to go upstairs.

Upstairs, I go first into the library, a little anteroom off the master bedroom. It has been a regular bedroom until previous owners put on the master bedroom addition. Then it became a weird walk-through room. We filled it with bookcases and a futon to create a cozy reading nook, even if the futon mattress was always sliding off.

Another step down into the master bedroom. I remember how it got the richest, warmest sunlight in the autumn. I look out the window at the disaster of a backyard that I created with overly ambitious and under-researched prairie plans. Back through the library and out into Peter's office. Before it was Peter's office, it was "the hottie room" - the bedroom of a 13 year old girl and it was painted bright purple with a hand-made "hottie" sign on a window.

Peter painted it a nice manly green and filled it with computers, CDs, games, and computer bits. For Christmas in 2003, I'd just been laid off and had more time than money. My handy brother Patrick helped me construct homemade bookcases in my grandmother's basement in Cleveland. Then we disassembled them and loaded them into my station wagon. (They were very cleverly designed to be only as tall as the back of the station wagon, about 5 1/2 feet.) I'd hoped to be able to put them together myself, but it was obvious I didn't have the hand strength or the basic skills necessary.

In a series of shrewd airline bumping-acceptance moves, Patrick engineered an overnight layover in Chicago and assembled the bookcases for me. Then he woke up early and went to Home Depot to buy backing material and he put that on the bookcases as well. I stained the bookcases and organized Peter's office into a brilliant showcase, if I do say so myself. Peter was very appreciative of the unique gift - more than just the bookcases it was the office he always wanted but never got around to making for himself. And, it must be said, Patrick saved Christmas.

Next, I look into our little yellow guestroom. I picked out the color - Van Gogh yellow - and I remember painting the room. We hadn't moved in yet, we were just painting a few rooms and getting ready to move. It was pouring rain out and the gutters hadn't been cleaned, so the rain was spilling over. It was noisy, but a comforting noise.

And that's pretty much our house. On this nostalgia tour, I think we can safely skip the bathrooms and the basement. Although I do miss our bathtub already.

We lived in the house for 3 years. It was a good house, despite the small kitchen, ancient wiring that we had to replace, and sewer main that broke at the last minute (right as the buyers put an offer on the house). It was big enough to give us breathing room and escape space, but small enough to comfy and cozy.

Goodbye, little house. You will be missed.