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.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

_The Mount_ by Carol Emshwiller

I've heard the idea that young adult novels are a pocket of innovation amongst today's literature expressed in several venues recently, and seen it on the web, most recently on BoingBoing. But I'd already formed the habit of checking out the Young Adult books at our local library now and then. Recently I found a gem: The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller.

The hallmark of a great young adult book is that the perplexed adult reader ends up scratching her head, wondering "Why is this called a young adult book"? And the only answer, generally, is that it has a youngster as a protagonist.

I think it was my wife Tanya who pointed out that this automatically eliminates, for the most part, a lot of activities that parents don't want their kids reading about. If the kid protagonist acts like a kid, the book's probably okay for a kid to read. That means an author aiming at the Young Adult bookstore category doesn't necessarily have to pull punches or aim low.

The Mount doesn't do any of that. It's about a young man who grows up on an Earth dominated by aliens, where only vestiges of human society are left. It's sensitive to the compromises inherant in being someone valued by a social order that inherantly discriminates against your kind. And it comes up with better than ordinary solutions.

The book begins with Charley, the protagonist, as a prized young Mount. The aliens of the book, who are called Hoots, breed and raise humans to be ridden and shown off. Charley's trouble starts with how he has to figure out that he has a problem at all: he's an important Mount to an important master, and so he's treated well and told endlessly about how lucky he is.

There are graphic examples, though, of how badly things can go for an unlucky, or more likely recalcitrant, mount. So Charley is slowly able to figure out that the situation is unjust. How he reacts to that, while still caring for his "little master", make up the bulk of the book. And the fact that he never loses sight of his fondness for his "little master" is what makes the book stand out as a weird and wonderful work.

Here's another review I found online for this book.

Monday, July 07, 2008

You owe it to yourself

Every now and then, when I want a laugh, I read the back of a can of Tony Chachere's Original Creole Seasoning. I keep it on the table and I use it all the directed:

Tony Chachere's world-famous Original Creole Seasoning is an extraordinary blend of flavorful spices prized by cooks everywhere. You owe it to yourself to experience how much it actually enhances the flavor of meats, seafood, poultry, vegetables, eggs, soups, stews and salads, even barbecue and French fries -- There is no finer seasoning! Use it anytime or anywhere on any type of food.
I like to read it out loud sometimes, in stentorian and commanding tones.

I also like how it says "even barbecue and French fries" when those are really obvious targets f0r a seasoning composed mainly of red pepper, garlic powder, and salt. They don't mention how great it is on cantaloupe. Yes, cantaloupe.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Precoined words

I hope this word doesn't already exist, because I want to invent it. I want a word for the situation that exists when you go to make up a new word for something, and there's an obvious combination or construction, but that word already has a more specific meaning, so you can't use it.

Here's an example. Say that for some reason, modifying or decorating the roofs of cars became popular, and specialists started to offer their services for modding your car. Calling such a person a "cartopper" would make sense, if we didn't already have an object with that name.

Or there's the reality show type where someone shows their survival skills out in the wilderness. Such a person could be called a survivalist, if that term didn't already have other connotations.

So we could at least console ourselves by saying that the good term had been precoined, right?

Yeah, I know. It doesn't make me feel any better either. I'm gonna go get my car made into a convertible at the cartoppers' while I sulk about it.

A spray of tiny atomic bombs

I was reviewing my journal, where I sometimes make notes in a category of "Kids Say the Darndest Things"...and I found one that happened last summer. I had just returned from trip to San Francisco with my wife, and we brought my older daughter a silk outfit from Chinatown, complete with a parasol.

She put it on and proclaimed herself Parasol Girl, who can fire beams from her parasol, and when she spins it, it spits out a spray of tiny atomic bombs.

That's my girly-girl. This is, presumably, not a girl who is going to grow up having nightmares about giant bombs that are ticking over and preparing to blow up.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Best reason to use XML for casual writing: diffing

I've been experimenting with using an XML system to do my fiction writing. I started a story where I'm doing the draft in XML. I didn't do this lightly, and I would until recently have advised anyone who asked that XML was too much trouble for short or one-off projects. I use one all the time at work, and I still would have said that. Two things changed my mind: the XMLmind editor, and the Dopus system.

Dopus is a system that makes installing a DocBook-based XML system dead simple, and XMLmind is a free XML editor with a usable GUI and built-in support for DocBook XML.

Those tools made it possible for me to set up a home system without a lot of effort, and then edit the files in a GUI similar to an ordinary word processor. Plus, DOPUS includes support for RTF output, so that meant I could convert the XML to something a publisher might expect.

At the moment, I'm not using many XML elements; I don't need them. I'm using the DocBook article document type, because I'm writing a short story and that seemed to fit best. I've done some very minor customizations to the output...things like making elements disappear, so that I can have hidden text notes in my source. I love that.

But the deal clincher was this weekend, when I had some trouble getting net access. I hadn't updated my home files with the ones from work, and I'd worked on the story file during a lunch break. So ordinarily, I wouldn't want to edit the story file, if I'd been using a word processor file.

I still didn't want to edit my file, because of the way I merge changes between home and work. But I made a copy of my original file, and then when I sat down today after having synced my home and work file trees, I simply used a diff tool to compare the old and new files. It was easy to move the new text to the older file, while retaining the changes I'd made in the old file.

I often daydream about developing special XML elements for use in stories...things that would store the chronology of the story, or mark character names for retrieval. I kind of hope I never get around to any of that, because I think I'd use markup as an excuse to avoid writing new stuff. But having all of your data in easily-manipulable text format, and yet being able to output it as RTF, PDF, or HTML, is a big win.

Homemade play dough is worth it

I've made homemade play dough twice, and it is super worth it. If you don't have kids as an excuse, then borrow some. That's what I did when people first started making those big indoor playscapes and I was too old to go in but too young to have kids of my own. But I digress.

I needed to make pink playdough in quantity for my daughter's third birthday, so I dug up this recipe, which I'd stored a couple of years ago. The proportions are simple and it works great. I got the recipe from a page which calls it "Cooked Play Clay II."

Here's my version of it.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup water
1/2 cup salt
1 tsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
food coloring

Toss the ingredients directly into a saucepan and mix them. Add the food coloring last; you can control the color by adding a drop or two, stirring, and then deciding whether to add more. You can also add more late in the processs, and you can try adding some and not fully mixing it, for a fun effect.

Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the consistency changes from a batter to a dough. Cool until able to handle and then knead on a floured surface.

That's all there is to it, but the magic is when the consistency change happens: it happens fast. As an adult, I get a bigger kick out of making it than playing with it, because I'd rather use a clay that holds details better when I'm working on sculpting something. But the kids love it, and I don't worry about them using it up...I know I'll make more.

It's odd, in a way, that anyone would make and sell play dough as a commercial product. I mean, people make and sell all kinds of things that we could make for ourselves at home. But play dough is odd because one company has heavily marketed and sold it and I doubt most people ever consider making their own. And it's just not rocket science. It's fast and easy to make, and it's satisfying. Give it a try.

Here's a page that has the cream of tartar recipe and a couple of others.

Here are some other recipes; some of these look interesting, but I haven't tried these.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A month of writing and a draft to show for it

Last month I vowed two write every day, and to work on my "The Wonder Kid" story until I had a draft I could send to friends to read.

I'm happy to report that I did both of those things. And the combination of the two goals worked pretty well to get me to do more work.

This month I'm going to try for something similar, but the new goal is to finish a draft of a new story, "Dragon Hunter". Whereas "The Wonder Kid" is one I've been working on for quite a while and a longer one, about 18k words, "Dragon Hunter" is really new, I've only had the idea since about May, and is intended to be short, around 5k words.

Heh. I thought "The Wonder Kid" was going to be really short too. In fact I wrote a fairly complete draft of it in short order back a couple of years ago when I first had the idea. And then I reworked it and nuanced it and complicated it and wrote an ending and then replanned the whole thing around a different ending and...meh. I hope I won't be doing any of that rigamarole with "Dragon Hunter" but I can't promise that. What I can do, though, is set a goal to have a readable draft by the end of this month. Like I just said. And maybe that will make the difference.

Let's hope so, because I'd like to prove I can write a short story in less than two years.

I was gonna end this post there, but I don't think I can do that. I have to defend myself against myself. :) I can write a Madrigal Dinner play script in a month, month-and-a-half. The difference is structure and outside requirements/outside deadlines...deadlines outside of ME. It's harder to resist an episode of Law and Order if the only deadline enforcer is me. Whereas when I know I have to turn something in to another person, I'll skip all TV and write for two to three hours a night for a whole week. I know because I did that this May. :)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The pink party

My youngest daughter had been clear about it for weeks: she wanted a pink party, and daddy was going to make it. We interrogated her repeatedly on the subject, and she was (unique amongst all other two year olds in my experience) consistent: a pink party, and daddy was going to make it.

My wife was looking at being out of the country with my oldest for the three weeks prior to the party, so she was going to have to leave the party prep in my hands anyway. She kept trying to resolve the pink idea to something more specific: pink princesses? Pink unicorns, maybe? Maybe she was all about the singerPink?

But I was pretty happy with the pink theme. It was wide open, really. I spent an enjoyable afternoon with my 8 year old daughter cutting pink construction paper into various shapes: a couple of fairies, some mountains and sea gulls, dragons and bats. I even made a couple of princesses, although they ended up looking more like the Burger King.

My wife returned from her three weeks away (never again, I say, never again!) and was rather pleased with my preparations. Had I sent out invites? Yes indeed. Did I have presents for the pink princess? Certainly. Decorations? Of course. Was the barbecue grill fueled up and ready? Naturally.

Then she bumped into a friend and discovered that friend had been left off the invites. That revealed that there were three families, out of about ten, whom I'd failed to notify at all. So, not so impressive at that point.

But we had a blast. We were frantically cleaning and decorating when people started to arrive, and so we just merrily drafted them to blow up balloons and tape streamers to the walls. After ten minutes of that, I asked the Pink Princess if the place was pink enough.

"No! More pink in here!" she said. So we added more pink to the living room.

Folks wore pink by request. My giant of a neighbor had a Real Men Wear Pink T-shirt ready for the occasion.

The final coup, though? Thank you notes. I took the construction paper decorations off the walls and used them to make the notes, and had them done the very next day.