Saturday, January 31, 2009

The ominous drums

1. We watched The Fellowship of the Ring last weekend with 11-year-old Ethan.
2. Ethan bought a Fellowship game for his Gamecube on Saturday and played it as much as we'd let him.
3. I went to bed that Saturday night with visions of orcs and goblins dancing in my head.
4. About midnight, I heard a faint drumming. Da-dumm, da-dumm, da-dum da-dum, repeated, then a random pause, then it would start up again. I thought maybe Ethan had snuck downstairs to play his new game, but I was too tired to go look.
5. I heard it again when I woke up in the morning, so I went downstairs to look....and it was our hamster, Marigold, pushing her new exercise wheel. 

Friday, January 30, 2009

My other city, Quall

I liked the "Other Cities" stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum so much that I had to write one of my own. Here it is. If you get any kind of kick out of it at all, check out the inspiration over on Strange Horizons, where they published 12 of these. There's also a book full of them that you can buy.

The Streets of Quall

The city of Quall was famous the world over for the beauty of its towers, whose crystalline heights were supported by bases of slate, and ringed with shops whose exotic wares countered the stark modernity of the soaring spires.

To look at Quall from a distance was to gaze on mathematical perfection; to see it from street level was to witness the chaos of the bazaar; and in the middle distance the two harmonized as endless activity on a serene backdrop.

The city was the most popular tourist destination in the world before the end, when some began to notice that those who returned from Quall had changed. Eyes bright, they told story after story of the wonders they had seen in Quall, but could hardly remember the details of their own lives. They lit up metal detectors like junkpiles.

We have only the city's word for what goes on there today. The trench around it is a hundred feet deep, scored and maintained by orbital lasers funded by a dozen nations who pay the bills every quarter without complaint.

The city still broadcasts the ads that made it famous, on every frequency, in every language known to man and machine. They form all we know today of the mystery that was Quall.

This post is licensed under a Creative Commons (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0) license. Rosenbaum is running a contest for derivative works, so I'm entering it!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Narrow: Emacs has a command for that

When you use the text editor Emacs, there's a continual process of finding out about new commands that you never new existed, which can be amusing

Here's one I like that I don't think is much like anything you'll see in other applications: narrow-to-region.

Suppose you're editing along, and you want to do some global edits on a chunk of text. To prevent changes to the rest of your document, you might copy the chunk to a new file and make your changes there.

In emacs, you can select the chunk (region) and use the narrow-to-region command. The system hides everything but the selection, and allows you to work on that chunk without affecting the rest of the document. 

When you use narrow, then you need to know the widen command to return to normalcy. Or you'll find yourself searching for strings and not finding any of them, when you KNOW they exist in your document...until you remember that you had made emacs narrow minded.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

200 nodrive days in a year is looking tough

I've finally found a challenging bike goal. Today's the 28th and I just hit 17 days for the month. I thought I'd done more days. There are 22 working days in the month, I had vacation two of those days so I get those free, that leaves 20 days. I missed two days earlier in the month, and I'm probably going to drive tomorrow to take Ethan to a dental appointment. That means 18 for the month. I'm doing fine, but I'll have to stay on my toes to stay on track with this goal.

Weather has been cold and drippy. Cold + wet makes it really hard to stay motivated. Luckily it hasn't actually poured down any rain yet. And unlike last year, I got started on biking right away. Last year my first ride was January 17.

Fantasy sailing ships miniatures game seen at Dragon's Lair

A few updates 1/30/09.

I got to go to Dragon's Lair this past weekend and  saw a miniatures game I hadn't seen before: it features ship models for a sailing ship wargame with navies for humans, orcs, elves, etc. Each navy's ships are of course designed to be distinctive; one of them had dragon-wing sails, while the orc ships had bulky scale armor. 

It's called "Uncharted Seas"; I found a short review here, and here are some pictures of a dwarf navy.  They went steampunk for the dwarves, and really, can you blame them?

I like how the review I cited lists the $50 asking price for the navy sets as a good price. I mean, it probably IS a good price compared to other things, but I'm reluctant to pay $50 for a small bag of miniatures. Even though I know that this is probably a small run item. 

I have a nasty penchant for seeing stuff like that and going "I could make that." I probably won't ever get around to it, but ships in this scale are quite a bit easier to make than figures in Warhammer scale, for example. Not that I can do that either, yet, but I'm getting there. So yeah, I could make that. And I'd been thinking about modelling a sailing ship...the fantasy subjects are actually easier than any real subject would be. I should hunt up some sailing ship rules, see if there are any I like enough to want to build up some ships. Although the project I'd probably enjoy more would be a larger-scale fantasy sailing ship model. These minis are 
between one and four inches long. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Take that death within you

And then I saw that I would not be able to escape. The police were at the front of the building. The sniper was waiting in the back.

Noise from out front. Yelling, barked orders, car doors slamming. The police were making a commotion, hoping to scare me into the running out the back door. It was a standard tactic. They didn't know how much I knew of their methods.

That knowledge was part and parcel of me now thanks to one cop who'd come too close. I had eaten Joseph's mind, I had tasted his experiences; seen what haunted his dreams. A trunk slammed shut, a crate thunked to the ground, latches unsnapped, and I imagined the SWAT team pulling out weapons, jointly hoisting the battering ram, over and over, only the backdrops changing, emphasizing the city's willingness to go directly to excessive force.

All my neighbors had fled except tiny Agnes Bromling on the fifth floor. Agnes was ancient, but sweet, as long as you never gave a hint of disliking cats. Ah, Agnes, forgive me, I thought. 

And then I looked within, to the death within my soul. We all carry it, but most of us are afraid to look at it. I'm afraid too, but I keep going back to that precipice. 

When the cops burst into the front room, I was there waiting for them. I looked at them, and they died, and their souls joined mine.

Four of them, anyway. Four was as much as I could take, but the bodies blocked the doorway; it would give me some time. Now was the hard part: escaping from the building. I'd have to disappear....down the rabbithole.

House, the tortured genius

One topic mentioned in last week's Plan II Perspectives lecture by Wendy Domjan was the myth of the tortured genius. In discussion, House (of the television show of the same name) surfaced as an example. Or rather, someone was trying to cite House as an example of an unhappy genius...and this was the only time I spoke up that evening, to point out that House was an example of the myth, and that we probably accept the character because he fits the myth.

This was funny because the person speaking was citing House to try to prove a point, as if the existence of a fictional character like this proved something about happiness or intelligence. 

But the lecturer had cited this as a myth, and that was the interesting point for me. She said the data doesn't bear out our belief that unhappy folks tend to be smarter. And she'd of course mentioned that negative emotions tend to constrain thought and action to the obvious, in-the-box ideas, while positive ones promote long-term thinking and creativity. 

Monday, January 26, 2009

Gotham Central, Vol 2: Half a Life

Last week I got hold of volume 2 of the comic Gotham Central, which follows regular Gotham City cops trying to solve crimes in the world of Batman. This was an amazing collection; this volume is all about officer Renee Montoya, and it collects a story about her that wasn't actually published in Gotham Central, making a better overall narrative.  The plot concerns Montoya being outed as a lesbian and dealing with that while having to negotiate the maze of Two-Face's emotions as well. It's a great read.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Happiness: Stop doing the things you like

The Plan II program at UT does these alumni-outreach lecture classes every year, called Perspectives. Basically, they take a topic and they have professors from different disciplines attack the topic, and then get quizzed by a panel and take questions from the audience. They run the course as a credit course for students, but hold it in the evenings and throw it open to alumni. I've been to a few of these. 

This year the topic is happiness, and the first lecture was by Wendy Domjan, in psychology. She mentioned some practical how-to-be-happier tips in her lecture, among other things, and here's one: stop doing the things you like.

I think she was quoting some other professor, but it might have been that one of the other professors that were on the panel threw this idea out -- I can't remember. The idea was, every year, pick something you really like -- fave food, smoking, FOX news, whatever -- and stop doing it. For a year. Then when you take it up again, you'll be able to enjoy it that much more.

Domjan tied this in to a statistical statement that on average, people who are members of religions that have some specified part of the year for abstaining from sex are happier with their marriage or their spouses. I can't remember exactly how she phrased it, and definitions matter a lot in these happiness discussions, but you get the idea. 

I did a quick web search but I wasn't able to find any references for this idea, so for the moment I'm just throwing it out there. If you know more about this, let me know.

Storming the Wizard's Tower: I can't wait for more

The fellow behind Lumpley Games and my favorite role-playing-game-I-haven't-actually-bought-yet, Kill Puppies for Satan, has a new game he's working on. It's called Storming the Wizard's Tower. 

Unlike Puppies, this game seems appropriate for all ages. It's only out in beta form, with only the first part of the three-part rules available, and I'm already super excited about it. There's already a web site for it, and you can download a PDF of the first part of the game for free.

I figure I'll likely post more about it when I actually manage to play it or something, but I'm too excited about it to wait to at least mention it. 

It's got something ever other game I've read lacks: a clear outline for how to run a campaign in such a way that the players have a kickass time. Reading it, I see now how much you had to infer to play every other role-playing game. 

Back when I saw my first Dungeons & Dragons set, the blue-and-white rulebook, the game was practically unintelligible. I looked at that slim booklet full of spells and monsters and I was enthralled, but I had no idea how to actually play the thing until someone explained it to me.

Later versions had better play examples, but none of them had a clear overview of how to run a series of interlinked games like this one. "Storming" talks about preparing for each game session by creating a new monster. It assumes that each of the game sessions in the first chunk of the game will be about defeating one challenge.

I love this because I always talk about how most of our childhood D&D sessions would take two hours just to resolve the random encounter with a monster on the way to the dungeon...and then the pizza would arrive and we'd never get to the main event.

Who ever thought a random encounter monster was a good idea, anyway? 

The text seems to have more of what I'd call metarules, or gamemaster guidelines, than actual rules. The combat system and other systems, at a glance, seem simple and elegant, not terribly detailed. And at this stage of my development, I have a lot of interest in that. I'm not going to sit around and memorize the Player's Handbook like I did when I was ten.

Ok, like I said, I'm sure I'll have more to say about this one, but I hate the thought of waiting to post about it. If this sort of thing interests you at all, give it a look. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

Novel next

So I've decided that for my 40th birthday, coming up next month, I'm going to start a novel. Only it's not so much that I'll be starting one, as that I'm converting a story project, "The Wonder Kid," one that's bugged me for three years, into a novel.

On the plus side, I've stuck with this one for a long time; I love working on it, so I believe I can stick with it for a long haul. On the minus side, my lack of success at producing a draft of this one that conveys a small part of what I'm trying to say with it is discouraging. But it feels constrained in the short form, and my wife suggested doing it as a novel, and she's always right, so there you go.

I've been working daily this month on various ideas for expanding it, and on an ending. By my birthday February 23rd, I want to working on prose. But before I start back into writing scenes, I want to have a strong ending to aim for, and a lot of work on outlining done.

I did NaNoWriMo a few years ago, and it was great, but I never quite got a full structure and I didn't write a complete story. A few years before that I worked on a novel and filled something like fifteen notebooks...but I didn't have an ending for the novel, never had a complete outline, and I eventually lost interest in the thing, found myself writing scattered pieces that took the story off on tangents.

So structure is really important to me here. Luckily, I have a lot of that work done for the short story, and a novel will let me do multiple points of view, which will make it much easier to show all the many things that are going on.

The frustration in this story has been to find ways to entertainingly show all the things that make the story have meaning. It's set in a fantasy world populated by elves and goblins, where the elves lord it over the goblin underclass. The intermingling of the races is important.

The races are quite similar, but the goblins are hermaphrodites, which is a huge thing and a very difficult one to write about. I've also got an interracial relationship, and that's tough. Heck, I write that, and I have to wonder what the heck I'm biting off here.

But those thoughts are similar to the ones that have always led me to choose to write only single-point-of-view stories. And I think they are unhealthily limiting. I know I've got something to say with this piece. So far, I've only said it clumsily. But it gets better every time.  I know that I tend to limit myself, and there's no reason for it here.  

Corey Doctorow wrote a piece about writing in the age of distractions that I found inspiring as I embark on this project, and Holly Lisle has a piece about how to finish a novel that is much on my mind. 

For Christmas, I received a long-wanted copy of the book The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. It's really interesting. I'll probably post about it more in the months to come, but the main concept I'm looking at from it right now is called premise. Egri holds that a story should align tightly around one concept, one that he often expresses like a moral. I like this idea but I find it extremely difficult to express a premise, even for a story where I think I have a strong concept. I have a story "Dragon Hunter" whose design and execution came quite easily because I always had a strong idea of what it was about. But I'd find it hard to tell you what that is in less than 150 words. 

I started to say that I want to be ready for my birthday deadline by having an ending and an outline. I've pretty much got the ending planned out now; in the last few days I think I've solved the plot issues. I'm sure there will be more; essentially, my writing process is one of happily writing along then suddenly realizing I've got something in the story that has a huge logic problem. The last ending for "The Wonder Kid", for example, has the main character fighting a monster who for some reason throws heavy things at him but never tries to charge him despite its advantage in size. I feel great about it today so I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'll probably work on the overall outline some more, but the next big step is to actually write the ending in prose.

I've long thought writing the ending of a story first was a good idea but rarely practiced it in depth. Lisle's article made a lot of sense to me though and I'm working on it here; she advocates writing the novel's ending then writing the stuff that justifies it. Luckily I have  lot of work on this plot and setting already, so I'm making a list of the things I need to have shown before we get to the ending. There were key things missing before, like making the main character, a teacher, a likeable one who clearly cares for his students, where my prior draft mainly shows how he gets irritated with his students. 

Heh. I love this contrast and am frustrated by it. This is a great guy here, he loves his students and he works hard to help teach the goblin minority as well. But you can't actually see that in the story at all, it's only in my notes. I thought this fellow's post about how a character is defined by the text alone was useful in this regard. I mean, I know this, but it takes someone else reading the story to point out that they didn't see him the way I did at all. 

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Iterative development and hamsters

Hamsters have not, so far, proven to be the most robust pets possible for our household. Sometimes I wonder about the wisdom of importing a rodent into a household that contains both a cat and a terrier. Especially when the cat sits on the hamster's aquarium.

So we came back from the holidays to find that Boss, our remaining hamster of the two initial hamster colonists, had passed on. Our 9-year-old daughter, owner of said hamster, was heartbroken for about as long as it took to figure out that she had enough money to buy a new hamster.

We went to Petco and discussed the situation with Hamster Pros and handled several hamsters before choosing a new one, larger than the last, and a female -- both factors we hope will improve the hamster experience.

That's how Marigold the Hamster has entered our life, and so far she's a big improvement -- lively and friendly, and hasn't bitten anybody.

You can't do this kind of thing with dogs and cats. I mean, you can, but it takes a lot more patience. I guess you could start with sickly animals or something, but that's no fun.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Can you explain why Wonderella is so funny?

I love the webcomic Wonderella. I was trying to figure out why it's so funny. I think it's mostly Wonderella's attitude: she's not at all what you expect from a superhero. She's self-centered, callous, and casual. People get killed all the time by her hijinks. She's into superheroing mostly for the marketing dollars.

But people have done characters like that before. She's immature too, that helps. I don't think I've quite captured it. She's a colossal jerk, and I love that about her. Go see if you can figure it out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Jay Lake's Dark Towns: A list of the stories

I love the conceit of Jay Lake's Dark Towns concept: whole cities somehow hidden away in the midst of the ordinary world, towns filled with strange customs, weird creatures, odd technology, maybe some magic. He's written about these in several short stories.

The denizens of the Dark Towns are aware of the outside world, which they refer to as "the Cities of the Map".

I bumped into a couple of them in online forums, and then I wanted to look for more, so I check around on Mr. Lake's web site and on the web, but I couldn't find a list of the stories anywhere. He's got a bibliography, but it didn't indicate which stories were Dark Town stories. So I asked Mr. Lake for one, and he was kind enough to respond.

Dark Towns stories by Jay Lake

"A Hero for the Dark Towns", Album Zutique, ed. Jeff VanderMeer, Nightshade Books, Portland, OR, April, 2003

"Sloe-Eyed Jacks and Homicide Kings", Chiaroscuro, January, 2004 (online); now at

"Mr. Scalpel and Mr. Gloves and the Cancer at the Heart of the World", Fusing Horizons #3, July, 2004; reprinted (online) at Revolution SF
I like what happens to the main character in this one, and I like how it brings an outside character into a Dark Town.

"The Lizard of Ooze", Flytrap #4; May, 2005; Reprint: The New Weird, ed. Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, Tachyon Books, San Francisco, CA, February, 2008
I found a download available here. I like how this one brings in taboos.

"The God-Clown Is Near", Dark Discoveries #10, June, 2007; Reprint: Steampunk, ed. Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, Tachyon Books, San Francisco, CA, May, 2008
I enjoyed this one a lot; highly atmospheric. It also reveals a genius for character names on Lake's part.

Monday, January 19, 2009

With the right equipment, you can set toast on fire

Last week, I went downstairs to start breakfast and heard my 11-year-old son start yelling. He was standing over by the toaster oven. I go over there to see two-inch yellow flames streaming up from a hole in the middle of a piece of toast.

I unplugged the oven, grabbed a glass plate and some tongs, and pulled the toast out, put it in the sink and doused it.

This was a new one. I think it was caused by prebuttering the toast. But we can't stop that, can we? Why even have a toaster oven if you're not going to toast prebuttered bread? But apparently, it's possible to overdo it.

From biking to NODRIVING

This year, I'm upping my bike-to-work goal from 150 to 200. But I'm changing the parameters a little. I'm going to count every weekday that I don't go to work as part of the goal. I'm calling these NODRIVE days. So holidays, vacation days, sick days, and especially work-at-home days all count. I feel like this'll help set the incentives right for what is a pretty daunting goal, and make sure that things that are beyond my control don't make me feel like I'm falling behind. And of course since working from home suits the goal of replacing driving, I don't want that to be a negative either. 

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Still enjoying DOPUS for xml work at home

I posted back in July about using a system called DOPUS to do some xml work at home. What I did was start a short story called "Dragon Hunter" and used DocBook xml to write it.

My goal was to find a use for DOPUS, which makes it easy to set up a DocBook xml system that can conver your xml input to PDF, HTML, RTF and other formats. The support for RTF is key with a story, since I expect to use Word format to send stories to editors.

It's been a good experience. I had to switch to a different laptop one day because someone in the family needed to use mine, and it took me only minutes to copy my DOPUS system over to a different device. Then all I had to do was install the XMLMind editor, and I was back in business. This is all because aside from the editor, the system requires no installation; it's just a filesystem that you copy over.

There are downsides. If I want to change some minor formatting thing, I have to edit the XSL parameters and test my changes by rebuilding my document. If it's something I already know about, it's easy, and if it's something I've never changed in DocBook before, then I have to do some research.

It's a tradeoff. If I need something that's specific to this story, it's a cost; but most formatting changes are things I'd want to do in any story, and all of those things are preserved for my use with future stories: I'm tweaking my master story template, essentially, as I go.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Cleaning up a drive: SequoiaView

With today's giant hard drives, trying to pare down a full one can be a pain. When your disk is full, you need to fix it fast because your machine doesn't work well until you get some space back. But you could easily spend a lot of time deleting many small files to no big effect.

Here's a tool you can whip out for this problem. Think of it as radar for selective pruning, rather than clearcutting: SequoiaView analyzes a drive and produces a graphical display of the files on it. Each file gets a rectangle whose area is proportioned to the file size. Moreover, each file is contained in a rectangle for its directory. If this description doesn't help, trust me and try it. You can immediately SEE where your big filespace-hogging files are.

According to Wikipedia, there are similar applications for Linux.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Daddy I broke the window

October, 2008. Everyone else in the family was asleep, and I'd settled down to some crafting at the kitchen table, when I heard yelling upstairs. 

"Daddy! I broke the window!" 

Sobbing. Tears. 

My 9-year-old daughter was convinced she'd kicked the window from her bunk bed in her sleep and broken it. After I got over the initial annoyance, I decided that it was more likely a tree branch had blown into it and broken it. I had to fight my way into her room, though, as she had piled stuff in front of her door. So I yelled at her about that. 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Make video game sounds

From a recent post on Metafilter, I found the application sfxr, a little utility that makes video game sounds. It actually has buttons labeled "powerup" and "explosion." When you click one of these, you get a randomly generated sound, but one generated according to parameters that make it fit its label. I don't know how that works, but all the explosions do sound like explosions...explosions from an early arcade game. After you generate a sound, you can tweak a bunch of sliders to change it, or save it to a file. Great tool for adding sounds to homebrewed games. 

sfxr's author, DrPetter, has a number of other interesting programs on his web site, including a multiplayer boat fight game, netboats, that I want to try out. For some of these he includes source code, so it's an interesting site to explore.

The tool is available for Windows/Mac/Linux. All of DrPetter's programs seem to be offered as zip downloads: give 'em a folder to live in and run the .exe and you're done, no install needed. I love that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Daddy's jungling"

We drove to Wisconsin this Christmas holiday, our usual gig. We made sure the car was outfitted with a new DVD player. This year my wife packed a DVD of the Texas Juggling Society public show from 2007 or so, one that shows me performing. So we got to hear our three year old hollering "Daddy's jungling! Daddy's jungling" from the back seat while we drove.