Sunday, October 30, 2011

From blood to worse

The Hematology rotation ended on Friday.

Two-thirds of the way gone, and I feel as though I’m running on empty. Here’s why.

Last week our clinical coordinator at the hospital informed us that there were a couple of part-time positions open at another department (Molecular Genetics), for students to help with administrative work. Date-stamping reports and sending them out, filing and photocopying and so on. I applied and got one of the positions, which was great in terms of getting a foot in the door.

It also pays five dollars more per hour than my Saturday job at the used-book store, so that’s good as well. I worried a lot about my finances after paying the final tuition fees. This job is going to help so much in that regard.

The problem is that after putting in eight hours at the lab and then two more hours of work, there’s nearly an hour’s commute home and I drag myself into the apartment, wiped out. Way too tired to blog, which is why this has been quiet lately.

Part of it was also because last week I was running about trying to get my immunization records in order to fulfil HR requirements, so that was exhausting too, and I ended up catching a bad cold that knocked me out for two days. But I’m feeling a little better now, and hoping that I can somehow survive the frenetic schedule until the end of January. I also really need to study more and keep up with writing.

Still, at least I did OK with Hematology. The next rotation is Blood Transfusion, so I’ll be working with the same substance but running different tests. And on that note, in Japan, it’s a popular belief that blood type has something to do with personality.

Forced to quit after barely a week as Japan's reconstruction minister for remarks deemed offensive to victims of the March earthquake and tsunami, Ryu Matsumoto had an unusual explanation for his behavior -- his blood type.

"My blood's type B, which means I can be irritable and impetuous, and my intentions don't always come across," he said Tuesday after his resignation.

If your intention is to show responsibility and remorse, obviously not.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Deserts in fantasy

I grew up in the Middle East so I have a soft spot for deserts and will read almost any fantasy novel which features them. My favorite act in Diablo 2 was also the second one, which is set in the deserts of Lut Gholein.

Creating a distinctive desert can be a lot of fun, too.

1. Terrain

Deserts don’t have to be vast stretches of sand dunes. They could be rocky instead, with great spires of weatherworn stone that fall away into deep canyons, or great expanses of pebbles which make ground travel slow if not hazardous. As for the sandy deserts, sand can be simply sand, or it can be granulated chemicals, salt or the crushed remains of bones. It could be red sand, green sand (like the poisonous desert in Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon) or white sand.

And in Dune, there were drum sands which amplified the sounds of travelers’ footsteps and attracted sandworms.

2. Magical features

I’ve blogged before about unusual physical phenomena, and a desert would be a great place to display some of these. Walls of whirlwinds or sentient sands could provide conflict and action as well.

3. Flora and fauna

It’s fun to imagine the kinds of creatures who have adapted to life in the desert. Dougal Dixon’s After Man and The New Dinosaurs are treasure troves of such imagination, but even existing fantasy creatures can be adapted for a desert life. Unicorns might be black—and partially metallic—so that they can use solar power, for instance.

4. Humans and humanoids

If there are settlements of people in the desert, how do they cope with the heat and the scarcity of water? Are they nomadic, moving from oasis to oasis, or have they simply adapted to the point where they don’t need to drink more than a handful of water per day (and if so, there should be other physical and social modifications).

A great book set in this environment is Colin Wilson’s Spider World Book One : The Desert (out of print, though, and I couldn’t even find a copy on Amazon). The humans, who live in burrows, use giant slave ants to gather water and a tamed wasp to hunt—the wasp injects prey with a neurotoxin. Of course, the humans become the hunted when their spider overlords drift over the desert on silken aircatchers, mentally searching for prey far below.

Deserts can be—and probably should be—as varied and dangerous in fantasy as they are in real life.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Perfect Red

This is the story of a color – and of the lengths to which people went to discover, obtain, steal and synthesize it.

Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire spans the globe and history, beginning with the use of red ochre in Neanderthal rites. Mysticism and metaphor are bound up in this color, and more than one condemned aristocrat wore it to their executions.

Yet a bright deep true red was difficult to obtain, and for painters and dyers that made it all the more valuable. The best dye, though, was derived from the cochineal beetle native to what was, at the time, the Aztec Empire.

And so cochineal passed into the equally-reddened hands of the conquistadores, although most of them preferred gold. From then on it became part of a Spanish monopoly on dye, which the British countered with government-authorized piracy and the French with a spy. If you enjoy history, especially the dramatic swashbuckling aspects of history, this book is a great read, but what really kept me hooked was the introduction of science.

The scientists of that time tried to discover what exactly cochineal was – because after cargoes of dried beetles, smaller than peppercorns, had been stolen or intercepted, no one was quite sure what they were. Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who invented the first microscope, initially mistook them for seeds. As science became more advanced, though, dyes were synthesized—possibly the final blow to an industry that had survived warfare and espionage and biopiracy.

As well as being well-researched, this book is highly entertaining, with several chapters ending on cliffhangers. I even checked Amy Butler Greenfield’s website to see if she had written any other books which blended fashion, history, politics and science into such an absorbing read. Maybe a non-fiction version of The Color Purple? I’d buy it.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Aspen Mountain Press : A horror story

Since I published through a small press, I'm interested in news about such presses, especially those specializing in the genres I write. Aspen Mountain Press is (or was) a romance e-publisher and small press, and although I've never read any AMP books, they had some very distinctive covers.

AMP was established in 2007, so it seemed capable of lasting the distance. But the first signs of problems began in August 2010. This post on the former head editor's blog tells it all - and it's a nightmarish situation.

The story is a long one, but if you're interested in how a press can go very, very wrong, read this. It's unforgettable. Not to mention tragic, because the senior staff tried incredibly hard to pull the press out of the fire and ultimately even that effort was sabotaged by the owner. Apparently she was too depressed to work more than two hours a day, but well enough to cash checks and use royalty money for her personal expenses.

What puzzled me about some of the comments in the blog post, though, were the authors who had received only one or two royalty payments... but who had six or eight books (they specifically mentioned books, rather than short stories) with AMP. That's a lot of books to submit to a publisher which isn't making regular payments. I hope they manage to get their rights back - difficult at best with a publisher which isn't responding to even certified mail - and find a better home for their books.

On that note, the former senior staff of AMP set up another press called Musa Publishing. Although it may be better if writers wait and see how this press does in the long run, Musa has the same great cover artist and a good contract as well.

After the ordeal that was AMP, its writers and editors alike deserve a happy ending.

Edited to add : There's a Part 2 to the story. Authors who received their letters of rights reversion in the mail are still seeing their books offered for sale on AMP's website. The wheels have really come off the bus there.

I have no idea when or how this will end, but at least spreading the news will mean fewer people buying books that are being illegally sold, books for which the writers are not being paid.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hematology rotation

I once said that the two most challenging disciplines in Medical Laboratory Sciences, for me, were the ones beginning with H. So it’s a good thing I’m getting these over with at the start—and Histology actually wasn’t that bad. The first week of Hematology has left me feeling a little wiped out, though.

Hematology is the study of blood, which is partly why there’s so much more of a workload in this particular lab. Not everyone gets biopsies or Pap smears done, but everyone has blood tests. As a result, techs work around the clock. I’ve been on the seven-to-three shift, but that’s fine for a morning person like me.

For the first week I helped run the analyzer. That does the work of testing the specimens; what the technologists do is to interpret the results. Which ones are significant? Are they consistent with the patient’s previous results? What follow-up work needs to be done? Can a result be released if the analyzer has flagged it? When do we need to call in critical values?

And all these decisions need to be made in seconds. At first I didn’t know how the technologists managed to do that so fast—especially given that the screens are full of information—but towards the end of the week I was getting a little better at it. I also set up further tests with the blood and did all right. Though there seems to be a real scarcity of chairs in the heme lab, so I usually trudged home with aching feet.

On the other hand, I found out that the technologists like to get normal samples to use for comparison purposes, and will give student a meal voucher in exchange for some. And as you guys know, I adore freebies. So I let them take my blood and they let me run it on the analyzer, which was very cool. The technologists also proclaimed me “disgustingly healthy” after seeing the printout, so they might be tapping me like a maple tree in the future.

Next week I’ll be in Coagulation, monitoring all the ways things can go wrong with the intricate systems of blood clotting. That’s OK, but I also found out that the certifying exam I have to take in February will cost $499. See why I love freebies?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Thomas Nelson : Send referrals to vanity press

A year or so ago I signed up for Thomas Nelson’s book blogger program (called BookSneeze), and now I request occasional copies of their books to review. The books arrive quickly, there are no obligations to give a positive review and I’ve come across more than one keeper this way.

But a few days ago, the BookSneeze team sent me an email titled “An Exciting Offer from Our Friends at WestBow Press‏”.

Houston, we may have a problem. WestBow Press is Thomas Nelson’s vanity-publishing arm, and made it to the top position in my list of the most expensive ways to be printed. So I thought they were offering me a chance to see my work in print for $999 and up.


Use your blog to earn revenue and guide Christian writers. As a BookSneeze® Blogger, you are passionate about books.

But as a writer, I’m passionate about writers being paid for their hard work.

The WestBow Press Affiliate Program rewards influential bloggers like you with $100 for every referral you make, once that referral publishes their book.

Well, obviously they’ve never read my blog.

I’m fine with earning a little through my blog. Although I draw the line at Google ads and any content over which I have no say, I’m an Amazon affiliate and promote Swag Bucks here as well. On the other hand, that’s because I use both Amazon and Swag Bucks myself, and like the services they provide.

But there’s no way in hell I could promote WestBow Press as a good thing when writers will be $999 poorer right off the bat. Even the ten free paperbacks they get with the cheapest package aren’t entirely free. According to WestBow, “Packages include the cost of the free books, but you’re responsible to pay the cost of shipping and handling.”

Why doesn’t the email suggest I refer writers to Thomas Nelson? Wouldn’t that be a better choice for writers than a vanity press asking for a grand at the very least?

Use your blogging influence to empower others, and earn something for yourself in return. Since there's no added cost or effort required on your part, every published referral is pure profit for you.

I’m not interested in being a Judas goat for any amount of profit.

Other bloggers, especially if they aren’t aware of WestBow’s exorbitant prices, may well sign up for this. But I also hope this attempt to get referrals indicates that vanity presses are feeling the pinch as more and more writers resort to affordable self-publishing instead.

And that’s just fine by me.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Write Agenda : Soliciting donations to burn books

Writer Beware is a watchdog group which collects information on the publishing industry and on literary scams. Its founders, Ann C. Crispin and Victoria Strauss, are multi-published authors as well as being honest and helpful to other writers - and I'm speaking from experience there.

So of course the scammers try to discredit what they say. Normally such bad-mouthing is best ignored, but when I read Writer Beware's latest blog post, a follow-up seemed called for.

Because there's a hate group calling itself "The Write Agenda", and it's called for a boycott of books from anyone who criticizes it. Or criticizes scams, in general. Perhaps that's why I'm on the list too. At least I'm in good company.

I'm not sure what this list is supposed to achieve. Maybe if "The Write Agenda" was a huge group of librarians, booksellers, etc. it would have some effect, but right now it's an anonymous person or persons who can't seem to do more than conduct a half-assed smear campaign. Despite its many claims, websites and sockpuppets, "The Write Agenda" doesn't seem to attract much support (its Facebook page, for instance, has 32 likes).

Anyway, if I were that easily intimidated I would never have left the Middle East.

Not that that's all, though. According to another writer, "The Write Agenda" posted one-star reviews of its critics' books on Goodreads, though these have now been removed. And "The Write Agenda" also wants to burn its critics' books, so they're soliciting donations.

Sadly, they don't have a Photoshopped picture of a collection bin with my name on it, but maybe they'll buy a few copies of Before the Storm anyway. If anyone's doing a Fahrenheit 451 on the books of people who tell the truth about scams, I don't want to be left out. And if money's tight, "The Write Agenda" can always get e-copies.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dyeing and autopsies

Friday was my last day in the Histology department at the Hospital for Sick Children.

Now that rotation is over and I miss it a little, even though Histology was my least favorite aspect of medical laboratory technology. I always felt as though I was memorizing facts about it (a lot of facts) without ever really enjoying the material or the lab work the way I enjoy microbiology.

Worse, after each semester I would promptly forget everything I had studied, meaning the entire process had to be repeated for the next set of exams. Which was kind of depressing.

But the rotation helped a lot. Histology still isn't the most fun I've ever had in a laboratory (that would be the time I had to check on a bacterial culture at a quarter to midnight, so the guy I was dating came with me, and to this day I don't remember if the bacteria were all right). But anyway. When you spend all day working in one field, it's much easier to become proficient in it, and the rotation drew everything together so that all the facts I'd memorized made a lot more sense.

And then I got to see an autopsy.

I've read a lot of Patricia Cornwell's novels - Post-Mortem, Body of Evidence, etc - but seeing the autopsy for myself was... different, to say the least. No description can recreate the sharp smell of formalin, the sweat on your forehead, the sound of connective tissue tearing away, the squishy slippery feel of internal organs. I wasn't sure I would bear up beforehand, but it was all right as long as I didn't look at the face, hands or feet.

Staring at the torso made it easier to think of the anatomy diagrams in my textbook instead. I won't ever want to perform autopsies, but this one was an unforgettable experience.

Finally, on Friday I got a new lab coat because the old one was covered with colorful spots and blotches from all the tissue-staining we'd done during the week. And on Monday I start in Hematology.

Swag Bucks update

I read Rumer Godden's Miss Happiness & Miss Flower when I was nine and loved it, but my copy was lost in transit somewhere between Texas and Dubai. So it stayed on my to-buy list for years, until the book finally came back into print and I paid for another copy with Swag Bucks (affiliate link). Free books rock.

Well, free good books.

But I'm going to hold off on buying any more until it's time for Christmas shopping, and start stockpiling Amazon gift cards instead. Swag Bucks is a good way to earn these, and if you sign up now, you can earn an additional 70 SB by entering the code BIGTIMEBUCKS (which along with the signup bonus means you'd start out with 100 SB). The code is active now and is good until 11:59pm PT tomorrow.

There's also going to be a Swag Code Extravaganza tomorrow, though I'll be starting my next rotation - in Hematology - and will miss most of the fun. Basically, there'll be several codes given out by Swag Bucks throughout the day, meaning 60 additional SB. The first one will be on the Swagbucks Twitter feed at 6:00am PT. This is an easy way to get a few additional bucks.

And if you're signing up, please consider using my referral code. :)