Sunday, December 14, 2008

Read books on the Nintendo DS

Nintendo and Harper Collins are working on an e-book reader cartridge for the Nintendo DS. And they're using the free Project Gutenberg books to do it.

There are several things to be excited about here:
- The Nintendo DS is a neat gadget, and every time I look at my son's, I want it to be able to do more than just play games.
- This project involved dropping a simple reader app and 100 free classics onto a cartridge. That's a great idea that gets around the lack of ways to copy info onto the DS.
- It sparks a related idea: there are systems you can buy to write your own DS content. I believe there's a cartridge you can buy that takes a rewritable memory card. It would not be hard to write a reader app for text files; so a homebrew project like this would be doable, and that would make the DS into a pocket reader for any files on a SD-like card. That would be useful.
However, it's probably not enough to get me to shell out money for a system like that. My impression is that I'd be spending about $100 to get going on homebrewing DS stuff. Which my son would love, but I recognize that I'm unlikely to find the time to write much in the way of games. Maybe I should be thinking about this and some other applications for it. I can certainly find the time to adapt someone's text reader, maybe add a few other readers, to make a more general file-viewing application. Heck, I want that on my phone.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

150 rides replaced this year

I've been too busy to find time to crow about it, but on Thursday I reached my year's goal of replacing 150 commutes by working at home or riding my bike. 

I usually just say 150 bike rides, but I count days worked at home, because I want to do more of that and don't want to create a disincentive there. But there were less than ten of those. It's mostly bike riding. :) 

You might ask me what I attribute my success to. And I would tell you that's there's one thing, more than any other, that you can do to make it possible to keep after the biking thing, day after day, rain or shine. And that thing is, live 2.4 miles from work.

Yes sir, if you can just manage to live only 2.4 miles from work, then I can tell you from personal experience, that you can stick with a serious biking program. :) 

Frankly, I'm so close, I'm not sure there are any health benefits to speak of to this program. I can get to work in 20 minutes. I have to really hoof it to break a sweat anymore. :) 

Nonetheless, I'm darn happy with this year's biking. That's a big proportion of my workdays. Next year I expect to do even more. I'd kind of like to go down to one car, but it's hard to be able to cope with family situations and not have another car available. It's worth thinking about though. My car is in pretty sad shape. :) 

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Fred 1 and Fred 2



More detailed pics of my recent sculpey monsters. Fred 1 is the smaller, lighter-green of the pair.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Sculpey monsters...group shots




I worked up a bunch of monsters in sculpey for a craft show, and here are the group shots of them.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Wargame scenery






Photos of some wargame scenery pieces I made a while back.


Friday, November 07, 2008

Halloween 2008 Photos







It would be nice if I could figure out how to format photos on Blogger, but I'm not spending any time on that today. Here you see the modern family decked out for Halloween. We have, top left and moving clockwise, Dr. Horrible from Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog, a Funny Hat, a Viking Pizza Delivery Man, and Cinderella.
I'd like to point out that at least 3 people recognized me as Dr. Horrible, and not just a mad scientist. This is a first among my obscure costumes. However, I enjoyed the fact that even folks who didn't get that I was doing a specific mad scientist could appreciate that I was a mad scientist.
It's all in the retro goggles (cut from an army surplus gas mask that I got in a garage sale). Neither the coat nor the gloves nor the goggles are truly accurate to the Dr. Horrible mold, but the goggles give people the right idea.
My older daughter's Hat costume makes me feel giddy, and I enjoyed how my son put together a mashup costume from stuff he found in our dress-up box. They both seemed to enjoy handling it themselves.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

_Ready, Okay!_ by Adam Cadre

Excellent book of odd characters in high school. The book tells you very clearly up front that a big tragedy is going to happen by the end and lots of people will die, then it goes on to make you care tremendously about these characters. The tension is unbelievable. 

After I saw a post on Metafilter about Adam Cadre's writing, I read one of his stories online (see here) and I requested Ready, Okay! from my local library. I finished it today. 

I think I'm going to put this one on my short list of books to get as gifts. It ought to appeal to anyone. I wouldn't have said the high school setting would have caught me, but the characters and the looming doom did.

There are many surprises along the way. Vonnegut said throw suspense out the window and tell your readers everything; this fellow has done something similar, but he does keep some secrets right up to the end. 

A lot of books about youngsters seem to use the idea of a precocious narrator, but I like it here better than most.  The main character develops some great insights along the way; most importantly, he learns that people aren't usually who they seem to be on the surface. 

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

She's a cat with backstory

My youngest daughter, at three years old, has been crawling around pretending to be a cat a lot lately....ever since we added a Siamese to our family. 

Today she crawled into my lap and told me she was a cat with no family. "Bad people killed my family," she said. That's more backstory -- and more morbidness -- than I'm used to hearing from her. 

Might have something to do with our recently losing our outdoor cat to a neighbor's dogs. There's a trauma. I don't think the dogs even quite knew what they were doing. I think the cat usually gets away, but our outdoor mongrel cat was getting on in years and couldn't make the jump to hyperspace in time. 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

So proud

My wife was gone for four days, and I didn't resort to eating out once. 

Of course, I also forgot to send the boy to Scouts, and the girl to her Dragon Dance lesson. But still. There were three kids when she left, and three when she got back. Victory!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dear Santa

From my Kids Say the Darndest Things archive, my 9 year old's Santa letter from last year. It's the humility of it that gets me:

Dear Santa I'v
trid to be good 
but it din't realy
work anyway can 
I have a nutcracker

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It ain't December yet, but read her anyway

Metafilter posted about Adam Cadre the other day, whom I'd never heard of. His story December is well worth a read...it's about the oddest girl in a family of odd characters. Read it and tell me if you don't find the whole thing expanding in your mind afterward:

Then it was just a matter of figuring out which story to tell first. And that was where things got sticky. Because after thinking about it for a few days I finally decided that most of the family stories just wouldn’t work. Too many of them are kind of... well... pointless, when you get right down to it. Just Julie being Julie, or Jan being Jan. Which is all good fun when you’ve lived with these people all your life, but probably isn’t very interesting to anyone outside the family. Probably? Definitely. I’d actually told most of these stories to my friends and they’d usually just go, "Umm... yeah, okay, thanks for sharing." The only story that I could remember always got a reaction out of people was—
Why, this one, of course.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tia Rosa Megathin Tortilla Chips

I like it when products have a story on the package. I've read the back of our tortilla chips many times. It's a gripping tale:

Finally! Real restaurant style corn tortilla chips!
Lots of chips call themselves "Restaurant Style", 
but taste nothing like the chips at your 
favorite Mexican restaurant. Tia Rosa Megathin 
Tortilla Chips are unique and deliver 
real restaurant flavor!

I have to admire the way the Tia Rosa folks have invented a problem that their product solves. I had no idea there were so many chips out there claiming to be restaurant style chips and falling short. Presumably there are people who buy chips, take them home, eat them, conclude they do not taste like the chips in restaurants, and rue that fact. Rue, rue, rue. I picture their faces turning brown. Like a rue.

Before this, I was unaware of the subclass of chips called "restaurant style." I did extensive research (one google request) and there are at least two other brands out there that call themselves "restaurant style chips". I have no idea what that means.  I love these Megathin chips (not merely super-thin, they're Megathin!), but they don't say restaurant to me. Restaurants vary; there's no there there -- no consistent goal to aim for.

I also like how their story is center justified. Like a poem.

Warmed up or right out of the bag, Tia Rosa Megathin 
Tortilla chips are the restaurant style chip lover's dream come true.

Is that like having the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota? You wanted to have the biggest ball of twine anywhere, but you couldn't compete in the big leagues. But you can darn well be the best in Minnesota.

The bag lists some of the company's other products, including their Megacorn Tortilla Chips. I need to try those. Do they have more corn than other 100% cornmeal chips? Because that would be a feat; I'd pay good money for that.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Funky

I've been in a bit of a funk, for various reasons, and have been valiantly trying to pull my head out, with varying degrees of success. 

It's a mean vicious circle: funk = less writing = more funk. I feel much better if I just have one good writing session. So why don't I just do MORE of that? Writing should by all logic be like crack to me.

I finished the draft of "Dragon Hunter", and was happy with that, and even happy to get back to working on "The Wonder Kid"...but "The Wonder Kid" is 60 pages long and something of a mess of contradictory ideas; I've been having trouble staying motivated to edit it. I'm not sure what to write for it next.

I perked up a bit at the idea of expanding it into a novel, which came from my wife. I would like to do a novel set in the world of "The Wonder Kid". The setting is that of a world of elves and goblins who are in conflict, and at some point the fight generates a bunch of refugees. 

Anyway: whether I'm in a funk or not, the internet generates endless interest, so here are a couple of things:

  • Adam Cadre's dissection of Stranger in a Strange Land is pretty interesting. He even explains how one can cringe at Heinlein's writing and still enjoy the book.
  • I didn't know there was a shorter contest inspired by the Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest, called the Lyttle Lytton. "This story is a murder mystery -- the mystery of a murder."

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Where did the thieves' guild idea come from?

I was working on my elf refugee fantasy setting tonight, and wondering about crime. I've only barely  begun to think about it, but it occurred to me that the standard fantasy depiction involves a powerful thieves' guild...which didn't really seem all that plausible. 

So I took a quick look at Wikipedia, which has an article that cites an early use of the idea by that father of novels, Cervantes. A few strokes of the keyboard revealed that the relevant story, Rinconete & Cordillo,  can be found via the Gutenberg Project, in the collection called The Exemplary Novels of Cervantes. Yes, the internet is awesome.

I've hardly looked at the story, but Wikipedia describes it as involving crime in Seville, with a thieves' guild that one advances in just like a craft guild. 

The other fun fact was that the key modern fantasy use of the idea was in the Fafrhd and the Grey Mouser stories by Fritz Leiber.  That was an aha moment, I'd been trying to think of why the image of a guild seemed so dominant to me....Fafhrd and the Mouser's struggles against the Thieves' Guild were it.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Psych, again

I've gotten a big kick out of Psych, the USA network comedy about a detective who poses as a psychic, using his observational skills to make folks think he's paranormal...and getting the local police department to pay him to help solve crimes. 

Now there's The Mentalist, a crime drama with a similar premise from the serious side. Here we have a fellow who used to be a TV psychic...who now admits he was a fake, and somehow has moved into a job as a detective. I like the fact that he's not posing as a psychic, and that he's able to talk about psychics being fakes. I like the show Medium, too, but I'm bothered by the fact that it's based on the antics of someone who really believes she is a psychic.

SPOILER FOLLOWS...spoiler only for the first episode of The Mentalist.

The Mentalist has the horrific serial killer stalking the main character thing going on, which I don't like. I mean, it neatly unifies the overall story arc. But it risks becoming an obsessive thing that limits the series. I felt like the Profiler show had a lot of that. 
 

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Poid t-shirt

I have been drawing simple cartoon creatures I call Poids; I made this t-shirt for my daughter, by appliqueing felt pieces to the shirt by hand. I was inspired by the vibrant colors of felt you can get these days; I hadn't looked at felt since I was a kid, but there are some nice print designs available now. I hope to do more with poids, but here's the first craft project where a poid has left paper behind.







Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Noguchi filing system

I read an article a couple of years ago about the Noguchi filing system, from Japan. I adopted it almost immediately and have been very happy with it. It takes care of all the papers that are hard to file or that I worry about throwing away. It's quite different from the systems usually used in Western offices. It makes filing of random papers easier, and has important retrieval benefits too.

Here are the important characteristics of the system:
  • You store papers in envelopes. Big letter-size manila envelopes with the ends cut off to make it easier to add/remove papers.
  • You use a bookcase, not a file cabinet.
  • You stand the envelopes up on your shelf.
  • You select one end of the shelf as the front side. You add new files there.
  • When you add a paper to the system, you grab an envelope, write a title at the top, and a date at the bottom, and add it at the front.
  • Every time you pull a file, for any reason, when you're done with it, you return it to the front. As a result, frequently-used files stay at the front, and rarely-used files migrate to the back.
  • Every now and then, check the back of the system, and see what files can be purged from it.
  • If a file is really old and near the back, but you can't bear to throw it out for whatever reason, you can move it to a box. These files are considered "holy files" or "dead files". I can imagine they might be records you don't expect to reference, but keep for legal or tax reasons.
When you need to find something in this system, you just start at the front and start reading titles, working your way back until you find it. You use your intuition as to the date of the file to help you find it. 

The system is supposed to be based on the principle that it's hard to predict the best way to categorize or retrieve an item up front. 

Note that I don't use the holy file/dead file part of this. My file system has so far been small enough that I just purge what I don't need, and if I need to keep it, I keep it. It's likely that in my hybrid system, things that would normally get purged off to a holy file box are already in an existing category.  

I'm not filing a whole lot of things at work anymore. Most information is in e-mail or in computer files. But I find the system useful for things like transaction information; insurance claims; benefits information; and other random things. The virtue of the system is that when you get something that doesn't easily fit into an existing category, you don't have to go make a new category. You just stick it in the file and trust that you'll find it later if you need it, and purge it eventually if you don't.



Friday, October 03, 2008

Clay robots




We got my sister a lap desk from a teacher's supply store, and it was decorated with some cute robot designs in paint marker. So I made some similar robots in clay to go with it.





Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Arsenal of Venice

How is this for a great story setting? The Venetian naval shipyard/armory called the Arsenal pioneered mass production and firearms at early dates.

At the peak of its efficiency in the early 16th century, the Arsenal employed some 16,000 people who apparently were able to produce nearly one ship each day, and could fit out, arm, and provision a newly-built galley with standardized parts on a production-line basis not seen again until the Industrial Revolution.

The staff of the Arsenal also developed new firearms at an early date, beginning with bombards in the 1370s and numerous small arms against the Genoese a few years later.


I'm imagining a story set within this vast organization, against the backdrop of Venetian imperial aspirations. Or something. Venice is a great topic all by itself, but it particularly fascinates me how the Italian city-states were able to maintain far-flung empires.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Maker Faire is coming 10/18

Maker Faire Austin is back again October 18 and 19. We went to this event last year and had a blast. You can get a $5 discount per ticket (if you're getting day tickets) by ordering tickets online, but only if you buy by 10/3.

Maker Faire features dozens of booths showcasing the work of people who make circuits, robots, costumes, art, all sorts of things. It's about enabling people to make things for themselves. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A month of writing every day

This started out as just another post about how I've achieved this month's goal of writing every day, a little hey-world-look-at-me-I-made-it. (Really oughta be accompanied by video of me twirling around in a plaze and throwing my hat up in the air.)

But then I started thinking about this goal that I now often take for granted. It's a great thing when I'm keeping up with it. I've been writing every day, and I did a ton of writing last month too...and that's the pattern of my life. I get home, we feed the kids and put them to bed, and I write for an hour, sometimes two.

I'm watching less TV. It's going to be harder now that a new season of Heroes is back.

The write-every-day goal isn't enough when there are other things going on. But when I pair it up with a goal like "get this contest entry done by the 15th" or "get a draft of 'Dragon Hunter' sent to someone for review by the 30th", it works great.

When I look back at the past couple of years, I can see that I've stepped up my fiction writing; I'm spending a lot more time on it than in previous years, I'm learning a lot, and I'm finishing projects. Things seem to take forever while I'm working on them, but give me an external deadline and I can put everything else aside. I did NaNoWriMo a few years ago...fifty thousand words in a month is something to be proud of.

It's harder with internal deadlines, and I'm not surprised when the Dragon Hunter draft goal has hung around for a couple of months. Now I here I am finishing a readable draft of it -- my other writing goal this month. This makes me very happy -- and lets me get back to the story I put aside for Dragon Hunter, "The Wonder Kid."

I'm getting close to 40. I really want to have a novel project under way when I get there. I can think of no better midlife crisis insurance than that. But I've started novels before. I want to be sure I'll finish this one, so I'm taking my time planning and evaluating several ideas.

And I'll get there, by writing every day.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Dr. McNinja and the Monster

The latest Dr. McNinja story may be the best one yet. I love the wacky weirdness of this long-format webcomic. We're talking about a guy who was born a ninja, but felt that being a doctor was his calling -- despite the opposition of his family. And he has a gorilla for a receptionist.

The latest story concerns the arrival of a fellow who was part of a superteam the doctor joined when he was in college. This fellow's power is to turn into a big purple monster. Maybe he'll eat people. He has a dad who references a certain famous disabled scientist. Their relationship is painful and hilarious. The comic plays with emotions in a powerful way, no matter how silly it may sound. Check it out.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Whistle while you work

I'm always having to try to write while people near me are watching TV or otherwise making noise. The laptop's ability to play music is a big help with that: I just put on some headphones and play some tunes. I don't even bother to load up the laptop with a bunch of music any more; I just head over to the Deezer streaming website and play one of my playlists there. It's free, there's a lot of music available....and I've already invested the time to make several playlists.

My friend Bill suggested making a playlist of songs specific to one writing project, and then playing that list when I wanted to get in the mood for writing. I thought it was silly, but it's the kind of silly thing any writer might do when procrastinating. So one day I made a playlist for the short story I was working on.

And I'm a convert now. It ain't magic, but it's something. I feel like I'm training myself: when you hear Enya and Loreena McKinnit, get to writin'.

Maybe one day we'll have an application that generates hypnotically productive playlists on demand. I could probably sell those. "Guaranteed to make men fear you and women want you!" I'll be back later, I gotta go work on the late-night commercial for that one. 

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Holly Lisle on finishing a novel

I enjoyed this essay by fantasy author Holly Lisle about how to finish a novel. I hadn't encountered the idea of candy-bar scenes before; she defines a candy-bar scene as:

one that you're just itching to write
-- something sweet enough that you can dangle it on a stick in front of yourself so that you can say, "When I've done these next three chapters, I'll get to write that one.
I think sometimes, on a project, I'll write all the candy-bar scenes up front, and then stall on finishing all the scenes that bridge it and tie everything together. It wouldn't have occurred to me to parcel them out to myself piecemeal.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Slightly vicious bear sketch


Here's a bear I drew recently. I liked how this one turned out. He'd make a good subject for polymer clay.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What's their theme song?

What's the theme song of the George Washington High School Crossbred Canine Club?

I like big mutts and I cannot lie!

Three tiny dinosaurs


My three-year-old daughter often asks me to draw things for her. Recently she asked me to draw her three tiny dinosaurs.


But while I was drawing the first two, she asked me to make the third one...a big one. A really big one. So I did. 


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ha! ROM CHECK FAIL!

I can't remember the last time I tried out a game and it made me laugh like this one. ROM CHECK FAIL is a free download that was put together in a few weeks for a game contest. I tried it because someone posted it on MetaFilter. It's made from the sprites from a bunch of old games. The kicker is, it isn't the game it looks like at first. While you are playing the game, the game's graphics and rules change. But the level layout and opponents do not. The game becomes a test of adaptability.

You may start the game as the spaceship from Asteroids, then find that moments later you are Mario or Pac Man. When you change, your abilities change. Sometimes you get dealt a bad hand -- the Space Invaders gun, which can only move left and right -- and you have to try to stay alive until your luck changes.

This article will give you more details about how to play, and you can go here to download the game.

It's a supremely retro blender experience...a mashup of a game. The author was able to create it because he was able to get graphics and development tools off the net for free. Lately I've been thinking that you could try a new free game on the net every day for the rest of your life, and never run out. More and more I've been thinking that you could find one highly recommended, excellent game every day...and still not run out. It's a great time to be alive.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

One big key

I was always fumbling with my keys to find the one that opens my front door. Until my wife found some oversized, decorated key blanks at the store and got us each one. Mine has Mickey Mouse on it. You can't miss it. It's brightly colored and almost twice as wide at the base as a regular key.

"I'd like to be IN the car when it leaves..."

I found a note in my journal about this one...I took my son, then 10 years old, to the dry cleaners with me, and we were getting back into the car. I got in the car, turned it on, and put it in gear without realizing he hadn't gotten in yet. He hops in and says, "I'd like to be IN the car when it leaves."

I believe that's my favorite thing about my kids this year -- seeing them develop good senses of humor.  It's just in time, too, because my son has started middle school, and there are a ton of new expenses. If they're gonna be costly, they'd better make us laugh.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Tree Elf/Yoda Costume Idea


Here's one I'm fond of. I might try this year if my plans to be Dr. Horrible go horribly awry:

Create a costume of a small character, where your head is the head of the character, and most of your body is disguised as a tree. This would be good for a Yoda costume or an elf.

To make this work, you wear dark brown clothes and use foam pool noodles or pipe insulation to make branches that stick up from your back, and you hold branches in your hands, with draping to cover your hands. You wear a doll body (no head) hung from your neck, and fasten the doll's arms to your arms and its legs to your chest. The idea is to make it look like there's an elf standing in the tree.

The biggest problem with this one is that it's likely to be uncomfortable. Well, that applies to almost every elaborate costume idea. That's why I burn through so many costume ideas every year. ;)

I dunno whether the doll body thing is going to work the way I imagine it. This one needs a mockup, but I haven't so far been willing to rip the head off of one of my kids' dolls...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Make batch files that do different things at work and at home

The DOS/Windows batch file, one of my favorite tools. I worry that Kids Today won't learn how to use 'em, not like back in the dawn of the IBM PC, when I used to make menus for people using batch files. And they were grateful for them. Grateful, I tell you!

Here's something easy you can do with a batch file. Say you have a laptop you tote between work and home, and you have want to back up a file before you use it, but only when you're at the office. I say office, but any two computing environments might work. Use this trick to write a batch file that you use to launch the file...backing it up before launching it.

Use the batch IF command to create some behavior that only occurs in one of your environments.

IF keys off of the existence of a file or folder, so you need some distinction of that sort. But usually, you'll have access to some mapped drive letter in one environment that you won't have in the other.

So, write your commands like this

IF NOT EXIST X:\WORKFOLDER GOTO :NOTATWORK

xxx commands to be run when you're at work xxx

:NOTATWORK

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Remove XML/HTML tags using a regular expression

I'm sharing my slow journey through the wonders of regular expressions here. Here's something I learned recently: searching some text for all instances of the regular expression
<.*?>
and replacing it with nothing will quickly remove most XML tags. 
(The key item here is the ?, which makes the expression non-greedy. A <.*> would try to grab all text between the first and last angle brackets on a line; the ? makes the expression grab the text up to to the very next angle bracket.)
I used this in emacs with a replace-regexp command, it was like magic...quick and easy.
I haven't tested this exhaustively...maybe someone else can improve it. I noted that when I took a whole file, some tags that extended across lines didn't get removed. But this only applied to some of the meta information at the top of my file. 

Friday, September 19, 2008

Use clay to hold things together when gluing

My favorite model-building tip this year has to be this one that my brother-in-law Tyson Watkins pointed out to me. I'm sure it's old hat in a lot of modeling circles. But I was having trouble gluing arms and such onto miniature figures, and he suggested using a little blu-tac or poster gum to hold the parts; I used clay, since that's what I had handy. Now I use this all the time, because you can mold a hunk of clay to provide robust support for a part like an arm or a weapon, and then walk away and let it dry.

This'll work nicely in a lot of model-building situations, because typically the parts are not very heavy.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

How many stories have you gotten published, Daddy?

See, I thought I had a wife to puncture my ego, but now I have kids for that too. The job is currently overstaffed and we will be taking on no more people for the purpose of ego denting.

Last week my 11-year-old son asks me, "Daddy, how many stories have you gotten published?"

He seemed to think I'd put a lot of material out there in the world. I had to tell him the number was one, although I suppose if I go back to some school items I could bump it up a little. And I've done a couple of University of Texas Madrigal Dinner scripts that have been performed, but hey, I don't like to brag. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Daddy, waffles can't wash their ha-ands

I was solemnly informed by my three-year old daughter this morning of this important fact.

_Soon I Will Be Invincible_: a supervillain novel


I finished reading Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman last week. I'd been wanting to read this book for a long time, ever since I heard about it. The title was enough, hinting that it would be about superheroism from the villain's point of view.

But the book actually takes a two-character chapter-by-chapter tack, alternating between villain Dr. Impossible and heroine Fatale. 

I liked the tone; the book describes characters who are locked in a slow spiral towards terrible conflict. It manages to deal with super powers and comic-book themes in a more realistic way than most comics. The lone mad scientist's ability to come up with gadgets no hundred-person lab can make is made more plausible by the treatment of Dr. Impossible's history and story as an outsider.  

The premise brought me in, but the language kept me around. Here's Dr. Impossible talking about the moment when he gained his superpowers:

The temperature went on rising. Spiderweb cracks formed on the glass of the containment chamber an instant before the explosion. the pain was like burning or drowning, and it went on and on, unbearable. I wanted to faint, to leave my body. When you can't bear something but it goes on anyway, the person who survives isn't you anymore; you've changed and become someone else, a new person, the one who did bear it after all. The formula saturated my body, and I changed.

And how about this bit where Fatale thinks about what it's like to be normal:

I used to have a real life; I used to be someone who went on vacation to Brazil. I used to be able to walk down a street without getting stared at, and lie on a bed, and talk to a man who would look at me in something approaching a normal way.

Mentiac predicts that in the very far future, the stars will have cycled through all possible stages of their fusion reactions, from hydrogen to helium and so on down the periodic table to iron. And then there will be a true iron age, when every atom in the universe will have turned to iron, everything transmuted by inexorable centuries to basest metal, even high-tech alloys, even diamonds. Everything. In my imagination, iron stars orbited by iron planets float through an iron galaxy in an iron void. But even then it won't be over. There's always a Rust Age. 

Or here's Impossible musing about losing a girlfriend:
My style of work takes a lot of preparation. I build things and test them out. I have to order parts, or cast them myself. I have to pull all-nighters to debug my robots' pathfinding routines before an invasion. It isn't that interesting to other people.
But getting a glimpse of the inner workings of Impossible's mind will be of great interest to other people. I recommend this book highly. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rodian Protester Costume Idea: Han Shot First And We're Not Gonna Take It Lying Down

Since Halloween is just around the corner, I'm going to start posting costume ideas.

Here's a simple one that I came up with last year: A Rodian protester.

Rodians are the Star Wars alien race that claims Greedo the Bounty Hunter as a member. When George Lucas remade Star Wars: A New Hope, he changed the scene where Han shoots Greedo to make Greedo shoot first. This created protest among some fans, generating the "Han Shot First" t-shirt.

So combine a Greedo mask with a "Han Shot First" t-shirt, and you've got a credible Rodian character protesting Mr. Solo's evil ways.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Daddy, what does ponic mean?

A couple of years ago, it was a Sunday morning and the whole family was at the breakfast table. My oldest daughter, then about 7, was talking about hydroponics -- you know, like you do when you're 7 -- and she asked us what 'ponic' meant.

So I tried to answer her...and my wife just had to correct me every time: 

"It's something that has to do with sound, or a hedgehog..."
"No, that's sonic."
"It's when you have a disease and you have it all the time, you don't get well."
"No, that's chronic."
"It's what you take to avoid getting malaria."
"No, that's tonic."
"It's a system for learning how to read by sounding out words..."
"No, that's phonics."
"It's a sort of black dialect way of speaking..."
"No, that's ebonics."
"It's a way of cleaning out your digestive system..."
"No, that's a colonic."
"It's when something is really well known, everybody knows what it is..."
"No, that's iconic."

"Well, then I don't know what ponic means."

This didn't amuse the kids quite as much as it did my wife, but that's plenty for me.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Threatening spam: We have hijacked your baby

Last week I got some spam with the subject line, "We have hijacked your baby."
That's the most threatening spam subject line I can recall. It included a file named photo.zip, so I suppose they're banking on someone being frightened enough to open the file. 

That's pretty callous, though, to play on that particular fear. I wonder what kind of payload that photo.zip file had? Was it a virus that would hijack my machine and make it part of the vast zombie networks I read about? Do we need to increase the penalties for sending spam?

Baling wire and duct tape wireless

I may have actually have impressed my son this week. We received a used computer from my dad that was better than our office desktop computer, so I was swapping computers around to make the older one into a box the kids could use. The main thing I had to do to it was install a wireless card. But after installing the card and its drivers, I still couldn't pick up my house wireless network. 

But every now and then I would briefly detect it. So I thought the problem was with the antenna. I unscrewed it and got out a piece of wire and an old radio antenna from my junk box. I duct taped one end of the wire to the antenna, and taped the other end to the antenna port on the card, then balanced the antenna on top of the computer with a wad of play dough. 

And it worked. We got a strong signal and the internet was ours....briefly. Duct tape isn't holding it forever. I'm going to have to get hold of a connector or something...maybe I can cannibalize the faulty antenna for that. But it was a lot of fun to channel MacGyver for a minute and prove my theory. 

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Goblin, in polymer clay





Here's the first figure I've seriously tried to sculpt, using an armature and a base. He's a 5"-tall goblin.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Donjon: elegant and simple dungeoneering

The only tabletop role-playing game I've really played in recent years has been Donjon, an indy game that I discovered via web recommendations and the Forge website. I bought it as a PDF file. (Here's a review of Donjon that I enjoyed.)

I like it because it's pretty simple and freeform, rules-light and elegant. It has a few concepts and it uses them consistently. You can make up pretty much any character you like with it, and rate them, and still not unbalance the game. You can call your characters abilities what you like...but your character gets the same number of dice as any other, so it'll still be fair.

But the most interesting things about it are in the mechanics that allow the players some measure of the kind of control usually relegated to the gamemaster.

The gamemaster can't and shouldn't make a detailed map beforehand, because players can create landscape and building features during play. This power, normally reserved for the GM, is shared with the players when the players make successful die rolls; the players can use some of the successes they achieve to erase wounds, create objects, or assert reality.

For example, a player who is trying to open a door makes a really good roll and gets 3 successes. Each success can become 1 fact in the game. The player can decide to state things like this:

1. There is a troll behind the door.
2. The troll has her back to the player.
3. The troll's weapon is on the far side of the room.

So it's not just that players are allowed to do this stuff...it's that their access to this power is metered out by the rules of the game. That's fascinating stuff.

One thing I noticed when playing this with my small kids, though, is that one of these more modern, simple, and elegant games -- one that expects you to make most of it up on the spot -- has problems for kids. Kids don't have the vast array of canned creatures, plots, etc. that a longtime genre fiction reader like myself has (or any adult who has watched years of TV). Yes, I know they're watching vast amounts of TV too. Maybe it's the fact that they didn't try to memorize the Monster Manual years ago.

I should probably quit whining and introduce my kids to some of the online resources available for Dungeons & Dragons, and use all of that. I have to admit that though I like the make-it-yourself aesthetic, it sometimes dissuades me from playing, thinking that I'll have to make everything up. You really have to be able to think on your feet.

As soon as I introduced the game to my son, I had to adjust. I'd been thinking of a game world where there were just two intelligent races -- goblins and elves -- to focus on conflicts between them. Nah, he wanted to play a Pixie, because he'd been reading Artemis Fowl. Heh. He's my son, and I let him do it. I could probably have browbeat an adult into letting me have my way as gamemaster. But that's not how Donjon is supposed to be played; you could introduce a new race in the middle of a fight, if you wanted.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hall of Technical Documentation Weirdness

I just feel that it would be wrong to fail to point people at the Hall of Technical Documentation Weirdness.

I'm the octopus of the library

Recently I learned that you can use the Austin library's hold service through the web, and in an amazingly convenient way, to bring books from all over town to your local branch.

I thought the library hold was just for getting a book that someone else had checked out, to make sure you got to read it next and that they couldn't recheck it and keep it out. Or to make sure you got notified when the book got turned in.

But putting the whole library catalog online and automating the hold feature has made it possible to browse the entire library collection, select a book, and have it sent to the branch of your choice. You get an e-mail when the book arrives. 

(To do this, you need a library card and a pin number. You go to the library web site and log in via the My Account link. Then you search for books. When you find one you want, you click the Place a Hold button. That's it. If it's not checked out, it'll probably be at your library within a couple of days.)

As a result, I now have a tall stack of great books to read...including many of the books from the Fables graphic novel series. I'm the octopus of graphic novels, sending my tentacles far and wide to draw them in.

It's been really nice to see the libraries start to stock graphic novels, but I'd just about exhausted the selection at my local branch. When you're able to easily read books from the whole Austin library system, though, you get an impressive selection. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

You Look Nice Today is worth checking out

I have become completely enamored of a little podcast by Merlin Mann, Scott Simpson, and Adam Lisagor, called You Look Nice Today. Apparently, if one can believe the intertubes, these guys were all popular contributors to Twitter, who started this podcast of random humor.

It sounds like three guys talking about random stuff. But it's distinguished by a few things:

  • It has a certain radio morning show quality -- three guys talking -- but it's been edited to remove the boring bits.
  • Each of the three hosts seems willing to follow up on any crazy idea suggested by the others. Someone suggests something. The others take it and twist it and it goes weird fast. This aspect of suggesting, in apparent seriousness, wacky ideas is one of the things I love best.
  • As a result of the above, it's quickly building up it's own language. Hmm. That's not really unique. But I do like the things they come up with.
  • I like the fact that it's very simple. Although it's edited, it's not heavily edited. It's just been snipped.

Of course, I think all three of these guys are really close to my age. So there's that.


The only problem I have with this podcast is that there isn't enough of it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Big broccoli, big chameleon

I was working on a fantasy story this spring, and I had my characters riding ostrich-like birds. I was aware that this was a trite choice, and I was casting about for other ideas, so I asked my eight-year-old daughter for help.

She responded by drawing two pages for me, in crayon. Each page had been divided into a grid of boxes and each box contained a labelled choice. Here are some of the choices she offered me:

Giant Venus flytrap
Mini dragon
Big turtle
Big bunny
Live rock
Giant bear
Big scissors
Live crayon
Pterodactyl
T-rex
Big (hermit) crab
Big broccoli
Big camillion (chameleon)

I really liked the broccoli, but I ended up using the chameleon. So now I've got characters riding around on giant chameleons. They don't change colors for camouflage in their domesticated form, you understand. They just do it to show emotion.

Monday, September 08, 2008

That DOS knowledge still comes in handy: CHKDSK saves the day

Last year we had a power outage and our home desktop computer crashed, and I could no longer bring up the Windows operating system on it.

I thought the machine was completely hosed, but I put the main drive into a USB enclosure that we borrowed from a friend, and connected it to a laptop, and ran a
chkdsk \f
command on the drive, from the DOS prompt.

The command found a bunch of lost chains on the disk, and fixed them, and afterwards, I was able to reinstall the drive and boot it normally. Everything was fine.

Not only that, but I found some e-mail files that had been "lost" before. I assume the chkdsk command recovered those.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

You lecture me...

A couple of Saturdays ago, I took my eight-year-old daughter to Wal Mart. She'd been wanting to go, asking almost every day, because she wanted a particular "Littlest Pet Shop" toy.

She buys it. Then at checkout, she sees a roly-poly lantern she wants. She buys that too.

On the way out, I tell her, "You know you just spent all your money. You should keep some back, in case of an emergency, or something else you want to buy."

She gets real serious. "Daddy, I'm a kid." She waits a beat.

"I don't really have emergencies." Another beat.

"And if there was an emergency, you'd pay for it."

That was true enough. But she kept going on. "The only emergency I'll ever have is a toy I can't afford." "If I really needed something, you'd buy it for me." She said it several more ways, amounting to the same thing, until finally I said, "Stop, stop! I get it, okay?"

Then she said, "You lecture me, I lecture you!"

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Bat cartoon figure


At the risk of ridicule, I will begin to now reveal some of the cute cartoons I've been routinely doodling. In honor of my oldest daughter, a bat...her favorite animal.

Friday, September 05, 2008

NASA is funding science workshops for SF writers

This is a sweet deal. NASA is funding science workshops to teach scifi writers better astro science. It's all-expenses-paid, too. But the catch is, sounds like you have to be a writer with a bunch of publications to your name. This is going to be my favorite use of government funds this year, I think. Are there any other public funds devoted to the furtherance of science fiction? That can't be a big category.

Here's a report on the most recent workshop, from an attendee. He said it was like a mini and very exclusive scifi con. Jay Lake, a writer I've recently read a lot of , was one of the attendees, as well as Mary Robinette Kowal.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Why should we criticize Sarah Palin because her daughter has a baby?

I was catching up on the news and read that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, veep hopeful, has a teenage daughter who is pregnant. I guess that's embarrassing when you're a Republican. But all the candidates in the world seem to be lining up to support the idea that people shouldn't be judged by their kids. I'm sure they'll get no trouble from the vast numbers of voters who are parents.

But I was struck by this item:

She and her husband, Todd, have four children, Track, Bristol, Willow and Piper

That's a heck of a string of unusual names. Clearly they learned as they went along. I like Willow and Piper. But Track? Bristol? Makes me wish I'd named a kid Liverpool.

No: name them Essex and Sussex, but preach to them about abstinence their whole lives.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Printing houses

BoingBoing just posted this one, but I can't resist posting it, because one of my favorite jobs ever was working for a company, DTM Corporation, that made a rapid prototyping device -- a sort of 3D printer that creates physical objects from computer models.

There are lots of different 3D printing methods, and several of the technologies rely on extruding or squirting out pastes onto a surface from above. One company is working on a technology to extrude concrete and make buildings with it. Very spacey, very interesting idea, and there's the thought that we might use something like this to construct habitats on other planets. Neat stuff.

100th bike ride

Today I biked to work for the 100th time this year. Yea me! I have to have a new goal now, since it's only September. I'm going to try to hit 150 ride replacements...that number will include any days I work from home.

I'd buy myself a present, but I just bought a copy of the Grant Morrison graphic novel The Invisibles Vol. 1. I've read about half of it, it looks good. Secret groups associated with magic and battling behind the scenes of the workaday world.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Parenthood is changing me

I understand some things now....the protectiveness that parents feel. I remember before we had kids, I wondered whether I would be willing to sacrifice myself for my kid in some way. I can sort of see myself doing it now.

For example, I'm scared of large dogs. But I think I would fight a medium-sized dog with my bare hands to save one of my kids.

But I don't think I'd face a lion for one of them. I mean, I've got other kids.

Maybe I can work my way up to lion-tamer status. Start with wolves, for example. Is there a computer simulation for this kind of thing?

And heights are right out.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Can I have my search results as a link list, please?

The classic word processing search function isn't so useful in large documents, and there's a much better way to handle things that I've encountered in a few applications: returning search results as a list or report, with one hit per row, and making the rows clickable links back to the location of the search hit in the text. I'll call this a search report.

I want one of these in every future version of every word processor, please.

You've seen this on any web search page. You're just probably not used to seeing it in a desktop application. This feature is awesome, and I'll tell you why.

Suppose you're editing a document for variations on a term like WebLogic. You want to inspect all the places where it's used and make sure they're correct. Maybe you want to use the longer name "BEA WebLogic" in some places, not in others. A good search report will give you lots of help:

  • It'll display a total of hits, so you know instantly how much editing you've got ahead of you.
  • It'll show the hits in context, highlighting the search term.
  • You can use this feature to edit incrementally and check your progress. For example, you can make some changes, then rerun the search and see how many items you have left to fix.
Emacs has a good implementation of this through its occur feature, which also supports regular expressions. You can do lots of fun things with this. I do things like mark lines with special strings so that I can list them....creating touchpoints in my document that I can use to jump around and navigate it. For example, in a text document I create titles and put the marker "@#@" on the title lines, to delineate sections. Then I can issue an occur command for all lines containing @#@, and I get a linked list of those lines...effectively an ad-hoc table of contents for the document.

UPDATED 9/4/08: I was just using Emacs, and realized another neat aspect of an occur search. I couldn't remember a word I'd used earlier in the file I was working on. I knew it ended in "ium". So I did an occur search for "ium." Emacs then splits the screen and shows me the search hits in the lower half. I could see the information I needed without ever leaving the place where I was writing. Now that's service!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pass the buck

Last week I saw a buck deer for the first time while biking to work. I saw a group of seven deer, and they were remarkably fearless. I walked my bike up to within twenty feet of them. One of them actually moved a few steps toward me.

I took ten photos with my cell phone camera, but it has no zoom: none of them were worth looking at. You couldn't even be sure there were deer in the frame at all.

I'm nearly at my year's goal of 100 rides already: the price of gas, and my car's doddering ways, have been phenomenal motivators. Next year I think I'm going to aim for 150 or more rides. And I've been trying to work from home a little to reduce the number of car trips even further. The idea there is to work from home on days when I need to run an errand...because the need to run an errand with my car is the prime reason for ever using my car at all. If I can solve that, then really rainy days are the only ones that'll get me into the tin box.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Space Dwarves in Mjolnir-shaped Cruiser!

If you're gonna geek out on Lego, I can think of no better way than to build a Space Dwarf his own Mjolnir-shaped spacship.

This is right on so many levels.
  • It's a creative use of Lego.
  • It's an interesting spaceship with lots of interior detail.
  • The choice of a Space Dwarf is a nice oddity, and the thing has lots of dwarf-specific details, like a beer stein, a pig for later eating...
  • Mjolnir brings in a nice Thor and comics reference and is highly recognizable. Ordinarily I think I'd hate a spaceship that was shaped like something else. But Mjolnir is holy!
I told my wife about this. She was completely unimpressed. I can't understand this. Did she fail to read Norse mythology, dwarf stories, and Marvel comics?

Oh yeah. She's a girl!

Friday, August 29, 2008

_The Career Novelist_: Don't quit your day job too soon

I am still enjoying The Career Novelist. It's filled with audacious ideas, when you approach it as someone who always-wanted-to-be-a-novelist-with-10,000-maniac-fans-and-a-pony. I just finished a chapter that's all about advising you not to quit your day job too soon.

Maas advises you to wait until your royalties pay enough to cover your expenses. This makes a lot of sense. Other writing monies, especially advances, are more likely to fluctuate.

He also advises getting 3 to 5 books in print and selling well first...saying that this is a strong indicator you've got a tidy authorial brand going, a long-term business. And he admits people aren't likely to follow his advice...that they make this decision from excitement and from the heart.

This is an exciting idea and scary way to think. Why plan on writing one novel? Let's dream about the day when you've got five novels in print and making money at the same time.

But heck, if you don't dream about it, plan for it, how will you ever get there? It's not like I haven't thought this way all my life. But Maas's expression of this is very practical. I know I always saw myself as a published novelist, but I don't think I thought about what it would really take to make a living from novels. Developing a string of books and a loyal readership will take years, and that's what you need to make noveling pay the bills.

I was kind of hoping Madonna would have herself frozen or something

Madonna turned 50 on the 16th of this month. You know you're getting old when the pop star you lusted after in your high school days turns 50. She has plenty of money; I was hoping she'd use some of it to preserve herself or something.

I remember having Madonna posters all over my bedroom when I was 17. I thought they would shock my parents, what with all the crucifixes she wore. I didn't actually have the gutsbad taste to put up posters of someone scantily clad. My mom would have taken them down then, and I'd have been out $5.

So she's 50 now. And I'm almost 40 and I have three kids. So I'm going through the terribly usual feelings, I think. I have days where I wonder what the heck I've done with the 39 years I've had so far. I usually laugh those off, but it's not always easy.

I know: I've been accumulating life experience for future writing...while being a technical writer. Hmm. Perhaps I should have gone into military technical writing. More experience, faster. But in that case, I think I might be dead. Of boredom. Having to number section in 5.4.3.7 format would just about kill me.

But then I pick up my littlest one, or debut a new juggling routine, or actually turn a phrase that I like in a piece of fiction, and I know one thing: I'm getting better at all the things I care about, day by day.

Madonna, if you ever start feeling your age and you need to talk about it, you know where to find me.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Kerbey Lane North has moved

The Kerbey Lane North location has moved ...further up highway 183, to the Anderson Mill shopping center.
Apparently this happened 8/21. I had to hear about it from an out-of-town friend who had the news from in-town family.

Recommended: To Court the King

"To Court the King" is a card and dice game. I played it at Armadillocon and got a kick out of it. It was elegant and easy to learn, and it had pretty cards. I liked that it has a lot of knobs you can twist: every turn, I felt like I had a lot of options...but not so many in the beginning that I felt paralyzed.

The basis of play is throwing dice and choosing to retain or reroll them. You start with three dice on your turn; you roll them, and choose to "lock" one or more of them. Then you reroll the others. Each time you lock a die, you can reroll the rest, until all of them are locked.

You make your choices in order to achieve poker-like combinations such as a straight or three of a kind. When you achieve one of the combinations on a chart, you get one of the game's character cards. For example, if you roll 3 of a kind, you get the Guard, who allows you to bring an extra die into your hand every turn. Every card you acquire improves your dice-rolling abilities.

Some of the character cards allow you to change the values on dice, others add additional dice. In the game I played, it seemed like you had a good chance to achieve one useful combination or another every turn, so your choices centered around which card to aim for in a turn. You're only allowed to have one card of any given type, and there are always fewer cards available than there are players (that is, if there are four players, then there are less than four Guard cards available).

The top card is the King, and when someone acquires it, the endgame begins. Everyone gets one more turn to try and court the King to themself, and the last person holding it wins.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Lolbat references for PVP readers

I love the webcomic PVP, but it has a long history now. Lately when the comic refers to old storylines, I want to go back and reread them. But there's no easy way to find them. I know Scott Kurtz tried a tagging system at one point, maybe it didn't work.

In any case, recently the Lolbat returned to the PVP saga. The Lolbat first appeared back in June.

There, I feel better.

The cat who walks through hamstertown

I told you so. I really told you so. I told you that if we got a cat, we shouldn't get a kitten, because they're nothing but trouble. And I told you that the fact that we already had two hamsters would be a problem.

We let the kitten have the run of the house for the first time yesterday, and while we were out, it knocked one of the hamster habitats off its table, separating it into its many Lego-like components andspraying wood shavings everywhere.

I'm beginning to think that putting the kids' computer next to the hamsters may not be a great idea.

We came home to find the hamster AWOL. Later he was discovered in the mouth of our terrier, a little damp but otherwise fine. Apparently our dog is more than willing to be a hamster taxi.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mushroom Men stories are up on two magazine sites now

I didn't realize the Mushroom Men stories were going to be published on RevolutionSF as well as Space Squid. I'm excited to see that.

_The Career Novelist_ by Donal Maass

This book full of advice about crafting a writing career is available as a free download. I started looking at it a couple of days ago. I particularly like how it identifies several different emotional rollercoasters that one can be subject to...ups and downs that are caused by the publishing process.

I'm working my way through it and making some notes on some of the questions it asks you to ask yourself. I think it's going to provide a lot of value.

He asks you to think about why you write, and talks about writing not just one book, but five or more, to create a growing readership. He talks about trying to keep your books in print while you put out other books. It makes a lot of sense.

(I should mention that I found this because of Gav Thorpe's excellent blog Mechanical Hamster, which is full of writing advice.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Incoming -- duck!

I really hate to unleash this meme on the world, but I'm also too proud of it to keep it inside.

My sister found a great guy and married him. She never considered how that would affect me. Since he was great, I suddenly had a new person to buy gifts for.

The mature thing to do would have been to get to know him. But that's so much work. So I just decided that he liked ducks.

So far, I've gotten him a wooden duck, a rubber duck, and some canned faux duck meat. Before this, I didn't know there was such a thing as faux duck meat. You learn so much when you give.

Lately my sister and her beau have started giving ME duck things. I don't know who they think they are, changing the rules like that, but that's what happens when you let a meme out.

I seriously considered hinting to the rest of his family about his obsession with ducks, to see if I could get them to buy him duckstuff, but I had to draw the line somewhere. That's just mean. Plus, it would be a lot of work.

Last Christmas, my sister and her hubby gave me some boxers with the tasteful legend "Butt Quack" on them. But it was all right, because later, when they went to see his family, his own mom gave him an identical pair.

I swear I've never spoken to the woman.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why is plotting so hard?

So, I've been working on short stories for a while now. And I don't seem to have any trouble coming up with interesting characters, and even with intertwining the story lines of protagonist and antagonist. Well, that's a little tough, but still. No, I can come up with a good story, and even describe it succinctly. The trouble comes when I try to go from the high-level descriptions to a list of scenes. There's always something that doesn't work or doesn't fit. At the high-level, you can get away with a lot of assumptions that don't work when you get down to the details.

I'm forming the impression that this is a problem for a lot of writers, which would be good to know. Then I wouldn't be so depressed and could get down to the business of learning how to plot properly.

Okay, so clearly THAT'S the thing to do...learn how to plot properly. And I'm trying. Here's an article I found that is interesting, because it makes a distinction between plot and story that I think could be useful. It's specifically about screenwriting, but don't let that hold you back.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Soap in a microwave

Do this now:

  1. Cut a bar of Ivory soap into thirds.
  2. Place one piece in a microwaveable bowl and microwave for one minute.
  3. Remove and enjoy foamy goodness.

It looks like shaving cream, feels like sticky powder. The soap expands tremendously. It's a simple chemistry experiment that's well worth doing. This page has a lot more info; among other things, it says non-Ivory soap doesn't have enough trapped air to foam up and will just melt.

Tanya was watching a cooking show called Food Detectives and they did this and she then tried it with our oldest daughter and it was good.

If you get on YouTube you can find a bunch of videos of this.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Wil Wheaton does it

I was all chagrinned about being a blithering idiot when cornering Steven Brust in order to shake his hand at Armadillocon, but I just read about how Wil Wheaton does the same thing, so I'm okay with it now.

Everybody I know was already at Armadillocon

When I got home from vacation and reviewed all my e-mail, I realized that the launch party for the Space Squid issue that my story is in was going to be here in Austin, because of the Armadillocon sci fi convention. I didn't even realize that Space Squid was an Austin-based magazine. But this meant I could actually GO to the launch party.

Then I thought...maybe I should go to the convention too. And it was ridiculous that I'd never been to Armadillocon before. So I thought, well, if I'm going to be a big-time scifi writer who gets published in actual magazines printed on real paper, maybe I should go to the convention too. Sure, they wanted the ungodly sum of $30 for a day's admission, but I had a bunch of cash burning a hole in my pocket. I'd come back from vacation to find out that my project team had won a prize at work, and they gave us all some cash.

So I thought, what the heck, I'll go to the convention. I called a friend of ours and she promised to come help Tanya with the kids while I disappeared for a day. And I went.

Now, the next morning when I got up to leave, I dithered. I delayed. I thought, I'm not going to know anyone there, it's going to be weird.

But the website said Stephen Brust would be at one of the first events. And I really enjoyed the Staples convention that I went to. So I managed to get in my car and get there on time.

Then as soon as I walk in, I see two guys from my college dorm. Then I see the wife of one of those guys...she was ALSO in my dorm at the University of Texas. And eventually I run into Kimm Antell, who though she didn't actually live in my dorm (at least not the same year that I lived in Jester Center) hung out with the same group. Kimm's a volunteer with the con. She takes me all around, introduces me to people, shows me the game room and the con hospitality suite. In the game room I sit down and learn a new dice/card game called "To Court the King" and have a blast.

And I run all over the convention, finding new books, new authors, new magazines to submit to, and new techniques. It's a blast.

The con is really different. I was expecting something like a comic/gaming/scifi convention. But this one was heavily focused on writers and writing. And they do a 3-day writer's workshop every year, so next year, I'm going to attend that.

Later I see the husband of one of my coworkers at the con. Okay, it makes sense really that there would be a lot of overlap among scifi fans, my college crowd, and the Austin computer industry, so I should drop the surprise. But it was a ton of fun to have it turn out that way.

Finally I go to the launch party for Space Squid, where they keep referring to me as "our prize winner." It was hard to get my head through the door of the bar, but I managed. There were about 15 people there. We played a flash fiction game where you get a topic and a prop and have to write something in 15 minutes. I got the topic "Fabulous Demonic Sex" with the prop "grapefruit." I'd never played a flash fiction game before, but I wrote a story about demon sex and then I read it out loud in front of these people I've just met.

All in all, just about a perfect weekend.

Notes from "In the beginning" panel at Armadillocon

One of the panels I went to was about world building. It was called "In the beginning", and featured Warren Spector, John Scalzi, Stephen Brust, and Martha Wells.

The panelists were a lot of fun. Scalzi was great to see; Brust was awesome, his personality flows out and fills the room.

How do you start?
- Brust: I start with the food
...loves this book, Principles of Field Crop Production...if you have steak, you have cows, what are they fed on? defines a ton about your world.
- Wells...doesn't separate world building from char design...they're intertwined...char couldn't be same in a diff world
--world-is-a-character and world-is-character

Do you PLAN to write a series?
- Brust: don't hold shit back for the sequel
- Scalzi: every book should stand alone
- Wells: I didn't intend to do series
- Brust: (About people holding stuff back) It's a trope I call "Wheel of Irritation"
- Scalzi: Old Man's War wasn't meant to be a series

- Know more than you put into the book
Brust: sequels are fanfic of your own stuff. "Wow, this world is cool."
Wells: write what you'd like to read

Brust: Two kinds of narrator, unreliable and the ones you don't trust.
Paraphrased: Everybody makes mistakes, so all narrators are actually unreliable. This also gives the author an out if he makes a mistake. The narrator's mistakes make the world more real.

Brust: A few details of irrationality that the viewpoint char does not understand, but the AUTHOR does, help add realism.
streets that dead end
one house built sideways
Another panelist adds (I think it was Wells?) Japanese concept of the single flaw that points up the perfection of the rest

Who are your influences?

Brust: Fritz Leiber = big influence on him

Brust: A great way to write SF is to pick a writer you like but about whom you hate one thing...."I like Fritz Leiber but I hate that the Thieves Guild is legal."

Scalzi: I used the Heinlein Juvenile structure because I understood it and I knew that it sold. Wholly ripped off the structure.
Says this is a natural development...the Beatles 1st albums were ... derivative...then over time, got more unique style

Wells...was reading a Victorian murder mystery with magic...hated....inspried her to write The Death of a Necromancer

Scalzi: writing nonfic gives me an excuse to learn things.

Scalzi: You know you've done enough worldbuilding when you have fanfic.

How do you avoid "the dreaded info dump"
Brust: Assume the reader is not stupid. Tell the story, not the world. I'm gonna throw some concepts at him and he'll figure it out. Figuring out what the reader MUST know is hard.

Scalzi: Every time I read Dune I see something new.
(Every time he reads Dune? That's awesome. I've gotta go read Dune for the 8th time now...)

Wells: The char must think like a native of his world, not a modern 20th cent person

Brust: likes to invent his own colloquialisms and expressions. "There's the devil to pay." come up wth a replacement.

"To know a profession, learn what jokes they tell each other." Any creative group creates its own language.

Everyone in the story should speak uniquely.

I got a story in Space Squid Magazine!

I got a story in a magazine! When you're approaching 40 fast, there' s nothing like a little bit of encouragement in your creative endeavor to make you feel good.

Last month I entered this writing contest in Space Squid magazine, where you write a short piece set in the world of an upcoming video game called Mushroom Men. While I was on vacation last week, I got e-mail telling me I'd placed in the contest, and they were gonna publish the tiny piece I wrote for it.

(My story is online here, but you'll need a little background for it to make sense. The Mushroom Men world is one where several different tribes of mushroom people exist, some of them are poisonous, and all of them are in conflict. I wondered what it would be like for two hapless mushrooms from different tribes who fell in love.)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

These Googley Eyes Were Free Just For You

It was 7/29/08. My eight-year-old daughter was trying to get me to come look at a "store" she'd created upstairs and I was doing something.

I finally went and looked but I left pretty quick...I got bored with playing store, and wanted to get back to what I was doing.

Then she gave me the note pictured here.

If you can't read it, here's a transcription: "These googley eyes were free just for you, but you didn't care."

The note was wrapped around a pile of plastic googley eyes. Since I love crafts, it seemed like a good enticement to her.

I'll be the dad crying his eyes out in the corner now. :)

I shook Stephen Brust's hand today

Why is it that I can now, after years of therapy, talk to practically anyone at an event like a scifi convention...except the authors?

The main reason I actually got out of bed and went to Armadillocon today was that I'd read that Stephen Brust would be there at one of the first sessions. I went, I saw him on a panel, he was great, but I didn't get a chance to speak to him...even though a friend I saw at the con apparently knows him well.

But I saw Brust as I was leaving the con, and he was being cornered by a fan to sign a couple of books. So I waited and then shook his hand and told him I was grateful he'd come out to an event like this...which sounds great...except I mumbled it and then I said something fairly insane about how I'd heard he'd moved to Texas and I was glad to have him here. In Texas. Like I'm the Texas welcome guy or something. :)

I've read, I dunno, 11 Stephen Brust books. I really like 'em. I can't for the life of me think of anything to say to an author when I meet 'em, though. I always think of that SNL sketch where Chris Farley has a talk show that just says "remember that scene, where you did the thing? That was great." I went to an Octavia Butler book signing once, it was the same way for me.

The books? All 11 of them? They were great, Stephen. Just great.

Brust was a trip at the convention, though. He totally took over the panel discussion and made it a lot of fun. At one point he offered a "free handshake" to the first person who gave him 4 ibuprofen.

The fellow sitting next to me was the first out of the gate. My friend from college. Who knows Brust personally. Well enough that Brust took pills from his hand without question, anyway. :)

Fancy version of "Kill Doctor Lucky" available

I was at Armadillocon today, and happened to see a mighty fancy version of the Cheapass Games favorite "Kill Doctor Lucky." I love this game and I was happy to see it get a fancy treatment with nice game pieces.

The game is a great adult-and-kids game. Kids of 9, 10 or so can play it easily, younger ones can probably manage it though they won't optimize their play, but adults will enjoy it lots as well.

The premise is fun. It's pre-Clue...instead of trying to solve a murder, you're trying to kill the doctor. But the game play is much more sophisticated than Clue's. The reason your attempts mostly fail is that other players can play cards to make you fail. And since the person who kills him wins, the other players always have a reason to try to make you fail. It's a fun time.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Princess Bride Quote-Along at the Alamo Drafthouse

As soon as I heard about the Princess Bride Quote-Along at the Alamo Drafthouse (wow, local icon food/drink/movie place actually has a listing on Wikipedia, that's neat), I knew it was the perfect event for our wedding anniversary. What could be more fun that going to a movie theater with a bunch of other fans and shouting out the words to a classic movie? And what's more quotable than The Princess Bride?

It was more elaborate than I expected...they had goodie bags for us, with bells and whistles and bubbles and inflateable swords, and a little guidebook telling you how to use all the various props. I wasn't too into following their rules, but waving the props around was fun. I suppose this is the same vibe people get from the Rocky Horror Picture Show...which I never got into...but extended to other movies; the Drafthouse does quote-alongs for several different films.

Strange luck: several folks from my work were sitting behind us at the show. And this was after I'd just been to see The Dark Knight at a company-sponsored showing at the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum's iMax theatre. I love how small Austin can often feel. I'm forever running into people I know in odd places around town.

Friday, July 25, 2008

My post-it task list

I'm one of those people who carries a big notebook around full of tabs and task lists. I'm a Getting Things Done aficionado. It's a curse, it's a blessing. I'm used to the stares.

But I've been collecting a few more lately. I never really liked the big list part of Getting Things Done. I disliked how messy a list would get after I'd erased or crossed out a few items. And then I started working a daily short list into my system. There's a "pick 5 important things each day" concept that I wanted to try, and so I used a post-it note for that, each day.

And I was always sticking little notes on my list for transient to-do items, so that they wouldn't afflict my main list. ;)

Finally it occurred to me that I could put ALL of my tasks on post-it notes. So I replaced my tattered to-do pages with a two-page spread of card stock, and I've covered that with ... let's see... 13 post-it notes. This lets me do context-categories, too. I like it. It works for me.

But it makes a funny picture, and it gets me some new strange looks.

I've got a great idea for Risk that I haven't gotten to try out yet

It seems to me that Risk is a perfect wargame for playing on a corkboard or a magnet board. It wouldn't be too hard to make a paper Risk map and affix it to a corkboard, then buy a few cheap sets of colorful pushpins, in several shapes for each color. Then you'd have all the pieces you'd need to play risk, and you could put the corkboard aside or hang it on a wall when the game needed to go on hiatus.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Structured procrastination

I found this essay called "Structured Procrastination" the other day. I can't remember how I got there through the twists and turns of the net, but it made me laugh like no other.

I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered...
It's very true and very wickedly twisted and I feel like I know myself better having read it.

Watch out for poison cats

My oldest daughter, at 8, has assembled a fine collection of Littlest Pet Shop creatures. When my brother-in-law was visiting recently, we used some of the houses and playsets from the line as props in our Warhammer 40,000 games. They were really just about a perfect size, with large windows. The only problem with them was that they were brightly colored and full of flowers and hearts. Not a skull or a chainsword to be found among them.

I think Warhammer overdoes the macho stuff sometimes, but that's part of its charm. Some of the figures are walking around wearing capes and armor, with chains hanging off of them, and skulls hanging from their belts. Spikes on every elbow and knee. Motorized chainsaw swords. The milieu behind Warhammer is dominated by an empire, but it's an empire whose uniforms were designed by bikers.

After a while, Chloe decided that she wanted to play Warhammer. And we noted that the Littlest Pet Shop toys are just about the right size for a large Warhammer figure. She began talking about wanting to play with us.

So we formed the idea of rating her toys as Warhammer figures and playing a game. She immediately decided that her several cat figures should be Poison Cats, with leaping moves and poison attacks. I think we're in trouble.

It's okay if she wins, though. If she wins a few games we might make a permanent wargamer out of her.

Also, I noted that if you filed the hearts and flowers off of one of the toy playsets and spray painted it, you'd have a quick and durable piece of handy Warhammer scenery. You could probably glue some skulls on. So I'm going to keep my eyes open for something like this at garage sales. I don't think my daughter will let me have hers.

Although if we get a game going with the poison cats, they'll fit right in with no repainting required.