Friday, July 11, 2014

On Exercise

I read the Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds, almost every day. He often recommends things he finds on Amazon. Often as not, I'll check them out--particularly, authors. Some months back, he linked to a treadmill desk.

I have some experience with exercise equipment. I get excited about something I see advertised, then talk myself into buying it. I then spend a few weeks getting excited and using it faithfully. Then my ardor fades and it ends up unused, gathering dust in my basement.

My wife knows this and we have an agreement that if I spend more than a nominal amount, I need to involve her in the buying decision. Most of the treadmill desks I saw on Amazon were in the hundreds of dollars. When I broached the subject, she pointed out that I had a treadmill that I was not using. Hmmm. So, I started using the treadmill in hopes of getting an upgrade.

This notion of upgrades spilled over to the television I keep next to the treadmill. THAT I could and did buy. The next time I got on the treadmill, I noticed I was juggling remotes and had no space for them and the book I was reading and a pad for taking notes. I needed just a little space to put these things on.

Shortly thereafter I got out a tape measure. If I had just one foot just at the height over the treadmill, that would work. How wide? About three feet. But it would have to be stable. If I made the space L-shaped, it'd be a lot like a proper desk top and it would be stable if I have a couple feet by four feet on the right.

At this point, I started laying out how this desk top could be cut from a 4x8 sheet of plywood. But how would I hold this desk top up?  I help with the toddlers at church and they have these hand-made tables for the kiddos that are held up with 2x4s. So, I could make a framework of them and attach the desk top to this.

I spent the idle hours of a few days drawing this up and working out the simplest joinery I could think of. Simple, because I didn't want to exceed my limited carpentry skills. And I came up with a nice bill of materials.

One Saturday last spring I had breakfast with my friends, then went to Menard's, a local lumber yard. They sell 4x8 sheets of plywood that are already finished on one side. I snapped that up and a bunch of 2x4s, some 1x3s and a box of deck screws.

The hardest part was sawing the desktop into the proper L shape with a handheld circular saw and rounding the corners with a saber-saw. We used a sophisticated Maxwell-House coffee can gauge to get the curved corners to the right radius.

My across-the-back-fence neighbor did the hard parts for which I'm grateful. After that it was an easy matter of cutting boards to the right length and screwing them together according to plan.

Turned out that I miscalculated and needed one more 1x3. So, I didn't finish until the next day after I bought another board.

I didn't keep careful records, but I spent less than $100, one day of labor, and a lot of obsessive planning on the project.

All in all, I'd say I made a better investment in lumber and time than I have for any other exercise-related expenditure. I've been on the treadmill on most days for at least a half-hour. In fact, I wrote this while walking and standing on the treadmill.

It was a fairly straightforward project. If you'd like to do one like it, feel free to ask me anything. I'll post some more pictures here and on my facebook page.

This shows the desk as you stand on the treadmill facing forward. If you don't like the view, that's a problem.

This shows the strip of adhesive LED lights I bought to spruce up the appearance of the treadmill desk and maybe see the treadmill display better.

This shows how the desktop is held to the 2x4 legs which hold it up.

This shows how the rails at bottom and almost top keep the legs square. Everything was screwed together using deck screws.

This is looking right at the desktop. The pre-finished birch plywood is worth the $44 I paid for it.

This shows the treadmill under the desk.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Nemesis

Larry Correia is the best action writer in the world. He understands guns and he understands fighting. If the dates worked and if I believed in reincarnation, I'd say he was Louis L'Amour come back.

But I don't believe in reincarnation. And that's my one gripe about Larry Correia's novel, Nemesis. I'll come back to this later.

In the preceding novels of the Monster Hunter International series, we've been introduced to the original Combat Accountant, Owen Z Pitt. Over the course of the next few novels, Pitt nukes a Lovecraftian entity (something I've always wanted to see), then introduce the Alpha werewolf (and his yooper chick girlfriend), and then he trashes Vegas baby.

I had a chance to reflect on my first review of Mr. Correia's work and I realize how far he's brought me. I used to absolutely despise the horror genre with no inclination toward anything but mocking it. There was always a lot of screaming and helpless people flailing about while someone really stupid takes forever figuring out that triffids or aliens are allergic to seawater--as opposed to well aimed hot lead at high velocity. Hurray for Larry Correia for showing us that maybe our weapons can have some effect on the monster.

The pattern of Mr. Correia's Monster Hunter books of late has been to tell an interesting foreground story and mix in a big of the backstory that answers questions about the more interesting characters. Alpha explained how Earl Harbinger became a werewolf and learned to cope with it. Nemesis is like Alpha in this way.

Nemesis turns the focus on Agent Franks of the Monster Control Bureau of the US Federal Government. In Larry Correia's universe, the story of Victor Frankenstein's creation is "based on a true story." And after bouncing around Europe for a century, Agent Franks runs into George Washington, doesn't kill him, and contracts with Benjamin Franklin to work for the US. This beats being a Hessian mercenary, but Franks has one stipulation in his contract...

Do NOT try to make any more frankenstein monsters. If you do, Franks agrees in his part of the contract to do everything in his power to destroy the project and the government who authorized it.

So, this leaves you one guess about what the inciting incident of Nemesis is. Yup, the government and the shadowy Special Task Force Unicorn (STFU) decide to create a bunch of weaponized frankenstein monsters. Not that the original is not already a formidable weapon...

Lots of action ensues.

Is there gunplay?

Yes. Lots of gunplay.

Are there fistfights, knife fights, sword fights, and heavy blunt object fights?

Yes. All of the above.

Is it a lot of exciting fun?

Definitely.

When the STFU, led by the evil albino named Stricken, realize they've bit off more than they can chew, they call in monster hunters from all over the world. Leading to some dandy firefights in unsavory parts of Washington DC and exurban Virginia.

Of note are the Vatican monster hunters who want to know if Franks is still abiding by the terms of "The Deal." What's most intriguing about the Vatican hunters is summed up in two words: combat exorcists. Yes, I want to hear more about these guys.

This brings us to that bit about Nemesis and reincarnation. I've tried to avoid spoilers to this point, but if you want to read the book before you read the following paragraphs, I'll wait.

Waiting...


Still waiting...



No, it's OK, I'll be here when you get done...









Spoilers ahead...





When asked what Agent Franks is, he always says, "Classified." But he ends up telling his bosses at the government this is classified. He gets away with it until he says that to the Archangel Michael, with whom he fought when he fell with Lucifer and one third of the angels in heaven.

Yes, that Archangel Michael.

Let's back up a bit. Have you ever wondered what a soul is? I know I have.

You see, according to Mr. Correia's cosmology, every human soul is an angel who's been granted permission to inhabit a human body. When any baby is born, some angel who's on a waiting list gets the green-light to take up residence. Somehow, only approved angels get the chance, and when they do get the chance, they forget everything that went before. This leaves the fallen angels imprisoned in Hell, but sometimes they find a way to escape Hell, whereupon they wander Earth influencing humans to do evil.

This is quite similar to the scheme C. S. Lewis put in his novel "That Hideous Strength." However, instead of reanimating a dead human brain to serve as a fallen angel's presence in this world, Mr. Correia posits that when you make an empty human shell, like a frankenstein monster, then any fallen angel can "possess" the body. This is consistent with the bible stories wherein the Savior casts out demons.

The notion is that a human body is a sort of receptacle that can house a soul. This is a dualistic schema wherein body and soul are completely different sorts of stuff. You can see this is where the reincarnation folks are coming from. A soul may be victimized and murdered in the first reel of a Bollywood movie, and be reincarnated in the 2nd reel to exact his revenge two decades later in the 3rd reel. This was going on in Babylon 5 when the Minbari noticed that some of their best souls were missing and had been getting reincarnated into Humans.

I think it is a Mormon notion that souls of men are all unfallen angels put here on Earth for a reason a Mormon might explain better than I could. This drives the backstory of Agent Franks, a fallen angel of some distinction who escapes Hell, comes to Earth, and inhabits a body of corpse parts enervated by alchemical means sometime in the 17th century.

This is a cool idea even if I don't believe in it. I think a soul is an emergent property of a sufficiently advanced neural network. But my idea doesn't matter as far as Mr. Correia's story is concerned, it's just a quibble. It doesn't hurt the story, it just serves as a distraction to the philosophically minded who will step outside the story for a bit to contemplate the transmigration of the soul. (I'm not suggesting Mormonism believe in reincarnation. It's different from that.)

The debate about where and how the soul comes about is a lot older than anyone reading this. If it is a matter of Mormon doctrine, no argument will suffice to change a Mormon's mind. Nor would I want to argue to this end.

I don't think it is possible, but if Nemesis could be written in such a way that the reader was not distracted by metaphysical considerations. In a story with the supernatural as the main source of conflict, I suppose metaphysical considerations are a necessary component.

How many stars? 5 well earned stars.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Freebies

I've been involved with software for a few decades now and one of the things I really enjoy about software is how it costs nothing to reproduce and redistribute. This means that a lot of it gets given away freely. Linux is like this. It's free and you can run Linux on your laptop for just the time it takes you to download it and put it on your machine.

And then there's the Internet. Do you want to find all the web pages that talk about kittens? Do a google search and you'll get hundred of links to sites related somehow to kittens. And what did you have to pay for this? Nothing! It's free.

Aside: The Grammar Nazi would like to point out that it is "free" or "for nothing" or "freely" and that it is improper to say "for free". But don't take him too seriously, because he left out all the commas in that last sentence.

If you have a smart phone, you can go online to one or another web site and search for applications. And if you're lucky, there's an app for that. And most of the time that's free, too. Which is great.

If you're a writer, particularly an indie writer, you may have noticed that your biggest problem is obscurity. The people who know you look up your work on Amazon or wherever, and they can buy it for a nominal amount. But you aren't rich and famous because nobody knows to look up your work on Amazon.

One approach that indie writers adopt is giving away free samples. You can find some of their stories for sale for $0.00. This is in hopes that you'll realize you like their work and you'll buy other stories at $3.00 or more.

One thing I've discovered that does NOT work for me is offering a free minimalist smartphone app, that has all its best features teased, but unavailable unless you pay for an upgrade. It's gotten to the point where there are things which I just naturally expect to be free, and it is unreasonable, but I resent it when someone expects me to pay for it. It's like internet news sites that are hidden behind a paywall. I won't pay, I"ll just go somewhere else that doesn't charge.

If I change roles, and think of myself not as consumer, but as producer of software, of ebooks, of cell phone apps, of music, of videos, etc. I have a problem with this attitude. As a producer of works art, I'd sort of like to get paid for it, otherwise I'll starve. Or do something else.

So, I've got an opportunity to build my reputation online via giving away freebies, but I can't start charging for anything I've been giving away. Once I start charging, it's like the girl who's been giving you sexual favors announcing that henceforth she's raising her prices to match the hooker standing on the corner. It changes the entire dynamic.

However, suppose you've enjoyed the sexual favors of some toothsome lass and after you're enjoying the afterglow, she casually mentions her favorite brand of champagne, or chocolate. This will transfer some of the good feelings you've recently gotten from the free goods to these other goods. You may then realize that you're thirsty for champagne or hungry for chocolate.

What I'm saying here is this:

The only thing you can reasonably expect from a freebie give-a-way is a referral.

Suppose you give away a really great iPhone app. You won't be able to raise your prices, but if that app creates value for a lot of people those people will think well of you. And if you ask them to refer their acquaintances to a related-but-different product, I think you can reasonably expect them to mention it. For instance, I might give away the sound track, but sell a movie. Or give away an iPhone app, but sell computer consulting.

The trouble with indie writers giving away book A in hopes of driving sales to book B is that the reader of book A holds in her hands proof that the book can be reproduced so cheaply you can give it away, so there's little reason to believe book B is not produced just as cheaply.

If you're an indie writer who wants to drive business to your stories, you'll have to find something related-but-different that you can give away freely. And all you can expect from that freebie is some gesture of gratitude on the part of the recipient. I don't quite know (yet) what that related-but-different freebie might be, nor do I know how to create a system that enables gestures-of-gratitude.

If you have any ideas, let's hear them.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Violence Never Solves Anything

There are things that I wish were true. For instance, there are Christians who believe everyone is going to heaven, or that the Kingdom of Christ will seamlessly emerge from a continual improvement of the human condition. Sadly, I find reasons to think these things are not true. Wishful thinking does not make things so.

I wish that my pacifist friends were right. I wish we could educate people to beat their swords into plowshares. I wish everyone was as civilized as my pacifist friends.

The mantra "violence is not the answer" is one of those things that I wish were true. And I wish that humoring this sort of wishful, magical thinking was not evil.

Evil?

Violence is learned behavior. The aggressor in a violent confrontation has already acquainted himself enough with violence to believe he can successfully engage his target. The target can counter with violence provided she has the training, experience, and tools of violence.

People better acquainted with violence than I have opined here and here they make a convincing case that violence DOES solve something: namely it can effectively thwart a violent attack.

Social Justice Warriors speak of something called a "rape culture" and stress the need for "education" while they deprecate those who educate self-defense. They do this because self-defense education is education in violence.

Every so often some madman steals a gun and runs amok shooting up some gun-free zone or another. These stories become tragedies when the victims respond in a pacifist fashion. But teachers need not be packing heat to thwart such an attack. They need to recognize the reality of human evil and be prepared to respond with violence to thwart it. However, this is another form of education in violence.

The strong emotions about rape or school shootings arise because these events falsify pacifist wish-dreams.

Friday, June 13, 2014

You Have Been Disqualified

This happens in episodic television enough for me to notice, but it also works with any franchise.

Or maybe I should say doesn't work. Because I'm thinking of a story-killer. Something that takes your reader out of the story, moves him/her to close the book, then throw it out the nearest window.

A friend mentioned a TV series I do not watch and described something the heroes does which is revolting. I won't tell you which show, so I'll describe something similar.

Do you remember in Huckleberry Finn, where Huck is describing a steamship accident? A boiler exploded, but "nobody was killed except for a couple n------s." At that time, using the n-word was as common and as accepted in the South as it is between black people today. However, were I to use that word in this post even for illustrative purposes, it would attach a taint to everything else I might write.

Suppose you're watching a story and the hero sort of cavalierly suggests killing the black guy to advance the plot. You'd be outraged and you'd rightly disqualify everything else the writer had to say. In my friend's case, she's a cat person, and the TV show rather callously dispatched a feline. Now, my friend hates the show.

When you write something that is a disqualifier, you convert your readers from either a fan or someone who's indifferent into an enemy. If you want to turn me from a fan of your TV show into an enemy, dishonestly or ignorantly malign Christianity. For my friend, it is cruelty to cats.

A fan will say "yeah but" when someone points out something stupid in a story. I watched a lot of really crappy Star Trek Next Gen episodes, because I was such a fan of the franchise. And my wife would point out how stupid things were, and I'd say, "yeah but." I had this lingering love for the Star Trek franchise that caused me to make excuses.

My friend, on the other hand, is now an enemy of the show. It can't do anything right. Every weakness in the writing is a glaring omission to her. When you hate something, anything and everything associated with it gets seen in the worst possible light.

Suppose you don't care that Third-World Bohemian Have-Nots hate your story. Then you can go ahead and malign them in your writing.

If they cannot generate sympathy for their cause, they make a great punching bag. That's why Christian businessmen are great villains. Everyone knows, or knows of, a Christian who's been a jerk toward someone. Don't believe me? Three words: Westboro Baptist Church. And nobody feels sympathetic towards businessmen, unless they're the victims of bigger businessmen. (E. g. Old Man Potter in It's a Wonderful Life would be a sympathetic figure if someone opened a Walmart at the edge of Bedford Falls.)

But in the main, you want nobody to hate your story.

Trouble with that is many writers are oblivious to the things they write which disqualify. If you aren't a cat person, you may not appreciate how passionately a reader will react when you feed tabby to a monster. OK, then we'll just feed the black guy to the monster. Right?

Last week I saw a Bollywood movie, Kambakkht Ishq wherein Sylvester Stallone makes a cameo appearance in the 3rd reel. The scene is a satisfying actioner: The guy drives into the wrong neighborhood and is stopped and threatened by toughs. A fight ensues and he tells the girl to run. Despite having done a great job in the first two reels of literally cutting up Akshay Kumar, she runs and screams. The bad guys give chase with bad intent. Until they run into Sly who proceeds to beat the bad guys senseless.

Though the girl's flight and rescue is quite acceptable to an Indian audience, I can imagine my feminist friends' heads exploding. The girl is helpless? She is potential victim in need of rescue? Disqualified!

I know a fellow in my writers' group who is perpetrating a perfect trifecta of suck. He has a story with an unsympathetic protagonist. This guy is a tormented captive, but he responds in a weak and passive way. And then gets rescued. And then he turns into a woman. And then gets captured and tormented again...

Wait. HE TURNS INTO A WOMAN? What's with that? And then gets raped? And doesn't undergo any sort of character development? Oh, and did I say the story has all kinds of vaguely wrong biblical symbology?

What editor in this or any century, in this or any world would say, "I think this will sell."?

There are certain expectations one brings to a protagonist. They don't kill babies or innocent animals. They don't passively go along with victimization.

The story was laughably flawed to begin with, but once the protagonist changed sexes, the ick factor took over. Maybe, a writer who is a transexual could pull this character off, but not a straight white man. Once the author indulges in the shark jumping BS it brings to light all his other other problems. 

I call this category of writing mistakes "disqualifications." They are immediate shark-jumps. You absolutely must avoid them. And the only that you are going to avoid them is by being sensitive to people and how they respond to your prose.

That includes being sensitive to people who are not like you.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Wedding Pact

Occasionally I'll see a movie and feel disappointed and/or unsatisfied afterwards. Then I'll ask myself why. And this is what happens.

Wedding Pact is a romantic comedy. And I've blogged about romantic comedies before here.

The set-up is pretty cool. A guy and girl find they've reached the end of four years of college, having known and liked one another, but never actually dated. At a graduation party she points this out and asks him that if they still aren't married after 10 years, why don't they marry.

I really, really loved the premise, but it hides a terrible secret the casual viewer might not catch.

And so as you'd expect 10 years elapse and they're both single. He learns of this and embarks on a road trip to find the girl and remind her of the promise to marry.

We then learn that he has carried a torch for this girl since he first met her on the first day of college. In any story you should see character development. In this story the character arc should be obvious. Something is lacking in this guy's character that prevents him from successfully romancing someone, anyone. And since the girl never marries either, there's something in her character that should similarly sabotage her romantic success.

Whoever wrote this movie never got around to thinking these thoughts. As a result, it sort of stumbles around and ultimately uses a deus ex machina (in the form of a biker gangster) to force a happily ever after.

So, gentle reader, let's suppose you've been called in to script-doctor this turkey. Suppose you agree that the premise is sound. Now, here's an assignment for the reader: devise some creative solution to explain why 14 years elapse, they like each other, he doesn't marry someone else, she doesn't marry someone else, but they don't marry each other.

The cool thing about answering this problem is that it can drive the plot into some really interesting (as in fresh and original) ground. Obvious solutions: he's caring for a sick aunt or she's obsessed with her career should be avoided b/c they are so UNORIGINAL.

I played this game with my wife and she suggested that his older sister and her husband died right after graduation leaving him to care for his twin 8 year old nieces who 10 years later grow up and gone to college. My suggestion to her was that he's afflicted with some kind of narcolepsy so that every time he is stressed he falls asleep. And every time he's about to tell a girl he loves her he nods off, whereupon she breaks up with him.

We could fuse these two ideas by giving her the nieces to take care of. Then the nieces and the narcolepsy can create complications in the second act. Particularly, if the nieces believe some false report about the guy. Meanwhile, he's had a decade to understand his narcolepsy handicap and to devise a clever technological solution (involving a dead-man's switch and a videotaped explanation)--that will malfunction to create a Dark Moment. But the nieces feel bad for their earlier interference and they save the day somehow.

Sadly, the movie Wedding Pact did nothing even close to this. He starts out the movie as a loser, which creates initial sympathy, but he never really outgrows being a loser. He never asserts himself, but passively accepts the help of the deus ex machina character.

I think it is safe to assume that you should expect each romantic comedy to start with two potential lovers who each have some character flaw that they have to overcome in order to find love. Then it is the job of the storyteller to put them in situations where they each identify and fix the flaw. Unless you're writing a tragedy...

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Trickster Noir

(I got ahold of a pre-release copy of Trickster Noir that I used to create this review.)

There was a TV show called Mannix that I used to watch long ago. The hero was a private eye. It seemed like every week he'd get in a scrape, there'd be a lot of tough-guy action, and as often as not someone would put lead in him.

But he would tough it out and solve the crime or whatever. Then he would retire to his sickbed to recover in time for next week's adventure.

If you haven't read Pixie Noir, I will try not to spoil it more than to say the hero doesn't die at the end, but he does get hurt.

Unlike Joe Mannix, Lom, the pixie bounty hunter, doesn't get all better before the next episode starts. That episode is Trickster Noir.

There's some cleaning up to do of messes left over from Pixie Noir. First, there's a nest of ogres who need to get hunted down. Happily, there's a friendly bigfoot who doesn't want the attention the ogres are attracting. And then there's Bella's friends and family who are pretty good with guns and bomb-making. The ogres don't stand a chance.

That gives Lom time to heal before getting on with the main business of the novel. If you know anything about American Indian lore, you may have heard of the Raven spirit. Seems he's got a problem and can't or won't go to Siberia to solve it himself.

And the Fairy court has a similar mission in Japan. Lom and Bella figure they can kill two birds with one stone if they combine both missions.

Of course, they need a decent cover story to explain to all the gossips why they're heading to the other side of the world. And they oblige by providing not one, but two weddings.

Ms. Sanderson may be a bit too anxious to depict the chastity of her protagonists. And a bit too elaborate in the wedding planning. Maybe this is because I'm male and leave wedding planning to the fairer sex. I appreciate the fact that Bella and Lom wait until their union has been solemnized in a manner appropriate to their respective cultures before they consummate their relationship.

One of the things I intimated, but did not state overtly here is that I think sexual congress belongs within the context of monogamous marriage. Stories that show 007 jumping from bed to bed should also show his inability to make a permanent connection with anyone. I believe it is untrue to depict sexual promiscuity seamlessly settling into happily ever after without significant negative consequences.

But that's just my opinion and I've no desire to make you feel bad if you do not share it.

Ms. Sanderson does not preach at this point, but she does belabor the good example of Lom and Bella enough to notice. And when folks notice they get the idea you might be preaching.

There's been a recent flap wherein Social Justice Warriors have insisted that story be sacrificed on the altar of The Message. They insist that you have just the right number of transgendered third-world bohemian have-nots depicted in a caring and sympathetic fashion. Frankly, this is a demand that writing become preaching.

Preaching is just as annoying when it is anti-Christian as when it is pro-Christian. If you absolutely must put a Message into your writing. Then encode it in the first letters of each sentence where it won't club the reader over the head with the subtlety of an Eskimo dispatching a baby seal.

Happily, you'll find no such clubbing in Trickster Noir. It is as much fun as Pixie Noir. A lot of questions about Ms. Sanderson's world-building are nicely answered. And as many backstory questions are left unanswered. What exactly did Lom do to get on the wrong side of the law? And what unhappy fate befell his first wife? I guess we'll just have to wait until Ms. Sanderson's next "Noir" novel.

Five stars.


Those more worthy than I: