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Below are 20 journal entries, after skipping by the 20 most recent ones recorded in The Blair Hippo Project's LiveJournal:

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Thursday, September 10th, 2009
2:59 pm
Joseph Doing Well
Last night, my best friend Joseph Benedetto went into the ER at St. Margaret's in Pittsburgh because he was vomiting blood. He stayed there overnight. An endoscopy this morning revealed a sizable bleeding ulcer in his stomach, which they will try to treat with medicine rather than surgery. At this time he's scheduled to remain in the hospital for one more evening for observation.

I saw him over my lunch break. Mentally and physically, he's doing about as well as can be expected. He's in good spirits and generally comfortable.

If you'd like to get in touch with Joseph, ping me and I'll send you his room and phone numbers.
Saturday, August 29th, 2009
5:24 pm
Improbable Excellence
Imagine a movie made as a Plan B when the original product, a dreaded Movie About A Video Game, falls through.

The movie is a serious-minded science fiction piece with a number of important characters that will exist exclusively as CGI effects, which must interact realistically with live actors; but the budget is only about a third of what the screenplay implies it ought to be.

The director has never directed a feature film in his life.

There will only be two characters with enough screen time to allow the audience to connect with them emotionally. One is a bipedal crustacean CGI effect. The other, the protagonist, is a thoughtlessly racist martinet nebbish prone to bad decisions who spends the entire movie desperately over his head. He will be played by a buddy of the director's whose only acting experience is a few of the director's prior short films, and who will be asked to improvise the bulk of his dialog.

Go ahead. Imagine this film.

You're picturing a cinematic train wreck, right? A wretched mess doomed before the first scene was even shot? It just screams direct-to-video, assuming it even gets completed; Christ, it would take a minor miracle for this movie to even be watchable, right?

Well, you can see for yourself. The movie exists. It's called District 9, and it's in theaters right now.

And it's not merely "watchable." It's fucking awesome.

An alien ship appears a couple of miles above Johannesburg, South Africa. The world watches and waits for it to do something ... and waits ... and waits ... and waits. When we get sick of waiting and cut our way into the thing, we find over a million non-human refugees crammed inside, filthy and in the process of starving to death. South Africa gives them a large plot in the middle of Johannesburg -- the titular District 9 -- and evacuates them there, giving them a place to live while we figure out what to do next.

Thirty years later, "what to do next" turns out to be relocating them somewhere else, because god dammit, South Africa is tired of having a slum crammed with over a million dangerous non-human dipshits smack in the middle of its largest city, and nobody else wants the fuckers.

And that's where our movie begins.

The eviction process is headed up by Wikus Van De Merwe, the aforementioned martinet nebbish. Things go badly -- surprise! -- and Wikus soon finds himself hunted by the people he once worked for, because....

Nah.

That would be telling.

This movie flat-out works. It's framed as a documentary, but it doesn't get hung up on the conceit. When it needs to show you something that the documentary crew couldn't possibly have seen it does so; but it holds onto that gritty feel, making the transitions virtually seamless. The CGI aliens are convincing and quite alien. And Wikus ... ah, Wikus. On paper, he's a hateful, petty little man, but actor Sharto Copely gives him such clueless amiability that he at least earns the audience's pity. That's not much, but it's enough to get the audience to care about the guy, and get us involved in his journey, and Copely makes the gradual emotional transformation completely convincing. From concept to casting, making a movie that rides on the shoulders of a guy like Wikus doesn't require "balls" so much as "bat-shit insanity," and yet Copely and director Neill Blomkamp pull it off.

And I haven't even mentioned this thing's an action movie. Movies this thoughtful rarely have this much visceral impact. Or is it that movies this action-packed are rarely this intelligent? Whatever. The plentiful action scenes work just as well as everything else in this movie, which is to say really damn well.

It's not perfect. The significant human characters outside of Wikas are often too over-the-top sneeringly foul for my liking, and there's one "I'm so eeeeeeeeevil!" speech in particular that shouldn't have escaped the cutting room. The cartoonish nature of the bad guys undercuts the movie's social message -- sure, denying legal rights to a group of people leaves them vulnerable to the predations of sociopaths. But that's not nearly as insidious as exploitation at the hands of people who don't precisely intend harm but have no reason to either treat them as equals or to question a host of very problematic assumptions.

You know, guys like Wikas.

And District 9 raised a few very interesting questions within its own universe that it didn't seem very interested in exploring. In particular, the aliens really are dangerous and (with only one exception the movie shows us -- well, one and a half) pretty damned stupid. How does that alter the moral calculus about what's to be done with these people? The movie makes it very clear that the current situation represents the wrong answer, but nobody even seems to look for the right one.

Ah, well. The movie had plenty else on its plate.

District 9 is intense, engrossing, and unlike every other action movie I've seen this summer, doesn't punish you for leaving your brain in gear. It's also very dark and occasionally quite grisly, so viewer beware if that ain't your thing.

I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. If your tastes include blood-stained sci-fi action-adventure, I highly recommend it.

Because seriously, how often to you get to walk into a theater and witness a goddamn miracle?
Thursday, August 27th, 2009
6:15 pm
It Makes Vampires Fat
I just got my cholesterol checked, and, short version:

My circulatory system appears to be made of liquid bacon.

I need to correct this. Hello, exercise.
Friday, July 24th, 2009
2:11 pm
Triangulation: Dark Glass
It's live, baby!

I'm scurrying out the door to get to the convention where I'll be selling it. But in the meanwhile, if you're curious to see the book, Lulu.com awaits your order!
Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009
12:57 pm
Also, driving back from HP, I watched two cars play Right of Way Chicken; they both lost
I now have approximately 150 copies of the anthology sitting in my game room, awaiting distribution to contributors and reviewers, and sale at Confluence this weekend. It looks great. I'm really proud that this is the note I get to close on as Traingulation's editor.

And since I seem to be doing a lot of movie reviews on here, others I've seen this summer....

Up: I'm now to the point where all I have to do is see "Pixar" on a movie and I'm there. Doesn't matter whether the subject matter interests me one whit, doesn't matter if the trailers look like they were cobbled together by stoned ferrets. Pixar has yet to release a movie that I haven't enjoyed. It's liable to happen someday, but until it does, they have my loyalty in a way no other studio does.

Up continues the tradition. It's not on par with The Incredibles or Wall-E; I'd liken it more to Ratatouille or Monsters Inc. It's pretty middle of the road by Pixar standards -- meaning it's one of the best damn movies you're liable to see this year. It's whimsical, witty, smart, with excellent animation ... you know, all the stuff you'd expect from this crew. I read somebody else (I forget who) comment that it probably has the saddest opening fifteen minutes of any talking dog movie in history, and I'd stand by that -- and point out that those opening fifteen minutes showing the cranky old protagonist's life thus far are a masterpiece of efficient storytelling.

And the talking dogs are fabulous.

Especially Dug.

Oh, yeah. If a golden retriever could talk, that's what he'd be saying.

If it's still playing near you and you haven't seen it yet, I recommend correcting that oversight.

Moon: A little movie I wouldn't have even known about if my friend Emily hadn't organized an outing to go see it. You probably haven't heard of it. Made just as the writers' strike was kicking into gear, they got effects done by shops desperate for work and made the absolute most out of their shoestring budget. It's basically a one-man show; Sam (Sam Rockwell) is the caretaker of a mostly-automated mining colony on the moon. It's a three-year gig and the isolation has worn heavy on him, but he gets to go home in a couple of weeks, so, yay! His only companion is Gertie, a mobile AI voiced by Kevin Spacey in full-on HAL 9000 mode.

But then ... things start happening.

I don't wanna say what, because much of the joy of this movie (and it was a joy) comes from figuring out just what the hell is going on. I will, however, say that early on, it hints that the whole thing is going to be either a lonely crazy guy's hallucinations or a modern retelling of Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

I've never been so happy to be wrong about a movie. It's much more interesting than that.

It's a movie about ideas. It's not explodey SF -- it's thinking SF, and there are damned few of those movies around, let alone one that executes itself this well.

Marvel at how well Sam Rockwell carries this movie almost entirely by himself, leave your brain firmly in gear, and enjoy -- while you can. It's not in wide release, and may be out of theaters already.

Harry Potter and Some Damn Kid Who Vandalized a Chem Textbook: Eh. What's to say? I thought the book was enjoyable but flawed to the point where it's the weakest in the series, and the movie follows suit. I was hoping the movie would find ways to address the book's major problems (rambling, unfocused, episodic plot structure; Rowling's love of "What a TWEEST!" at the expense of playing fair with the audience; the painful character regression of Luna and [especially] Nevil), but it didn't, and managed to add in a few of its own. The girl who plays Ginny is officially An Issue; it's very nice that the producers are staying loyal to the actress who's played her since the beginning, but she has no screen presence and Ginny's underwritten to begin with. Harry's incredibly passive and just along for the ride. And no battle scene at the end? Not that I felt it was that important, but seriously, the movie lacked cool wizardy bits as it was....

At least Tonks's Jr. High crush on Lupin was replaced by a pair of emotionally mature adults. So that's something.

It's competent and certainly has enjoyable stretches, but it's far from great and is just a set-up for the next installment that doesn't try nearly hard enough to stand on its own. Catch a matinee or wait for the dollar theater if you're a fan of the books, and wait for Netflix if you've just been following the movies.

(Edit: Got Nevil and Luna in the wrong order. Luna's still a flake, but she deserved quite a bit more respect than the main characters gave her after the end of book five; however, that can be explained by Teens Being Assholes. Nevil, on the other hand ... grr. Grr, I say. I'm actually glad he wasn't around for much in the movie; I detested how Rowling handled him in the book.)
Monday, June 29th, 2009
12:50 pm
... Starring Megan Fox's Ass
Okay, so yesterday, I compared Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen unfavorably to a (literal) car accident and dropped a Plan 9 From Outer Space reference. I feel like I ought to explain a bit.

The Plan 9 jibe was not random, nor was it an attempt to imply Transformers: ROTF was somehow a candidate for Worst Movie EVAR. (If I was going there, I would have called it "Transformers: Hands of Fate.") I very, very literally got a Plan 9 vibe off this movie; I commented to the friends I saw this with (Jamie and Paul) that this is the movie Ed Wood would have made if he'd had a budget and more technical skill, and I stand by that assessment.

For those of you unfamiliar with the work of Ed Wood Jr., this is not a Good Thing. It is a Bad Thing. Wood loved cinema, but he didn't understand it at all. His movies imply that he didn't know concepts like "Visual Storytelling" or "Narrative Structure" even exist. Both his love for the medium and his complete ineptitude at using it shine through in his work. Plan 9 is the movie a little kid would make: "I'm making a movie! That's awesome! And what makes movies awesome? Stuff happening! Like flying saucers! And zombies! And sometimes, people have to talk, so I'll throw in some bits where people talk, because movies have people talking, and movies are awesome! So here's my movie! With flying saucers -- over HOLLYWOOD! And zombies! And people talking! Isn't it AWESOME?!?!"

If you've never seen Plan 9 From Outer Space, I'll save you some pain:

No.

No, it is not awesome.

And neither is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

I prefer movies that treat the audience like we've got brains and stuff, but the truth is, I can enjoy dumb movies. If I walk into a theater expecting something pretty and shiny and brain-dead bloody stupid, I'll walk out with a smile if the movie had fun with its dumbness. This is Michael Bay's strength -- he blows shit up real good. Plot? Plot is just there to stay out of the way and take you from one blowing-shit-up bit to the next. Characters? Okay, those are sorta handy, so you should give them some good lines -- particularly when shit is blowing up around them.

I'm a remarkably simple creature sometimes.

Transformers: ROTF isn't merely dumb -- it's incoherent. It has no fucking idea what it wants to say, so it just keeps saying stuff in the hope that it will somehow start to make sense. It chucks one half-baked subplot after another onto the screen in the hopes that you'll find one of them appealing. It litters its own landscape with superfluous characters that surely somebody in the audience will relate to and love, right?

It does this with enthusiasm and glee and a complete disregard for why any of this crap actually needs to be in the movie, resulting in the most tiresome, ass-numbing two and a half hours I've ever spent in a theater. It desperately needed somebody somewhere in the creative process to say "No." "No, we should not include that subplot, because it's dumb and adds nothing." "No, we should not include this character; he's irritating as hell and serves no purpose." "No, if we include these characters, we'll owe an apology to every black person in the fucking United States."

Ah, yes. The Twins. Mudflap and Skids, I think their names are -- I seriously don't want to waste time looking them up on IMDB. (The Spill.com crew refers to them as "Step" and "Fetchit.") Take Jar-Jar Binks, turn him into a robot car, and give him a lobotomy and a lobotomized clone, and you have The Twins. You probably think I'm exaggerating for effect. Should you ever subject yourself to this movie, you'll realize I'm not -- probably when you notice one of them has a gold tooth.

But I digress.

Nothing in this movie makes sense -- not intellectually, not emotionally, not even viscerally. The action scenes -- what the audience is fucking well there for -- are a mess. Robots are slamming each other around. Which robots? How bad are they getting slammed? Well ... the red blur is Optimus, and the yellow blur is Bumblebee, the freakishly huge blur is Devastator, and the two faux-jive-talking retard blurs I want very much to see dead are The Twins; everything else ... dude, your guess is as good as mine. The bits that carry you from one bewildering setpiece to the next are ineptly paced and stuffed with ludicrous illogic that might actually be tolerable if either the jokes worked (they don't) or the characters elicited some emotional reaction other than annoyance (they can't).

And the plot? Well, apparently, the Decepticons are so desperate for "Energon" that they're going to turn the sun's rays into gasoline, causing them to incinerate every piece of the universe they touch ... no, wait, sorry, that's Plan 9. The Decepticons are actually trying to blow up the sun.

You probably think I'm kidding. Heh.

The movie can't stay out of it's own way long enough to let you enjoy the shiny bits -- which are themselves generally crap. It feels like the work of somebody who has absolutely no idea how to make an entertaining movie and is intent on chucking movie-like components in there in there until it congeals into an actual film -- and when it doesn't, the only solution is to keep chucking more stuff into the stew until he finally runs out of money.

And that's the kicker -- director Michael Bay knows how to make a damn movie. He's the master of Big Dumb Fun. He knows how to entertain the hell out of an audience.

And people were entertained, apparently; damn thing raked in piles of cash over the weekend, and scored a bewildering 21% on the Tomatometer. (One out of every five movie critics actually liked this thing? Jesus.)

It would seem that Ed Wood was simply born too soon.

Worst Movie Evar? No way. Thank you Mystery Science Theater 3000 for showing us how bad bad can really get.

But worst movie I've ever paid to see in a theater?

...

I'll get back to you.
Sunday, June 28th, 2009
7:59 pm
Of course, if anybody had died, I'd probably have a different opinion
So I'm driving home this afternoon. On the interstate, this black Lexus comes screaming up behind me while I'm passing another car. My reaction is that the driver may slow his punk ass down and wait for me to finish passing. I pass, I merge back into the middle lane, and the black Lexus goes tearing around me.

And then, as he's swooping from the leftmost of the three lanes to the rightmost, he goes onto the shoulder, clips the cliffside, and emerges from the cloud of dirt to slam into the median divider.

In full "I did NOT just see that!" mode, I pull off the side of the road and call 911. (By the time I get my cell phone on, they already knew about it. Yay for no diffusion of responsibility.) Moments after his car came to a halt, I see the driver stagger out of it towards the side of the road. I take a few moments to collect myself, pull the fire extinguisher out of my trunk, and walk up to the site.

There's really not anything I can do to help out. Some other samaritans in front of me are tending to the driver, and sound like they know what they're doing -- and what little first aid training I had was a looooong time ago. Driver is not a happy camper, but he's alert and responsive. I see a little ways ahead a Subaru hatchback on its roof -- the dirt cloud obstructed my vision of the accident, but it looked like the Lexus clipped while pinballing from the cliff face to the median barrier. Both occupants are out of the car and are in better shape than the other driver -- between them they have a single mild leg cut.

Other cars are stopped. One guy is saying that he was moving from the middle lane to the right lane to get to the exit ramp. Said it was clear when he looked, but as soon as he pulled over, the Lexus nearly drove up his ass. Apparently the Lexus driver slammed on the brakes to keep from driving through the guy, and the cruelty of physics commenced.

Last time I saw a car flipped over, it burst into flames -- which is why I have a fire extinguisher in my trunk in the first place. The extinguisher wasn't needed.

I hung around long enough to give my name and number to the driver of the Subaru and the motorcycle cop who arrived on the scene. They closed down the road just as I got back to my car, so I waited for them to load the Lexus driver into an ambulance and sweep the loose debris off the road. Traffic must have been at a dead stop back into Pittsburgh.

Nobody died, and the guy with the most serious injury was ambulatory. Could have been much worse.

I was rattled enough that I drove three miles past my exit on the way home before I even remembered I was supposed to take it.

And yet....

And yet, that was not the most awful thing I saw today.

Because I was driving back from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Or as I shall be referring to it, Transformers 9 From Outer Space.

It's. That. Bad.
Wednesday, May 20th, 2009
12:22 pm
Tape
Tina and I watched "Tape" last night, an interesting, obscure little movie from '01, with a cast of three and directed by Richard Linklater. It's low-key, as talky as movies get, and simply screams "adapted play," but on the balance I enjoyed it. It asks you to pay attention and draw your own conclusions.

Unfortunately, discussing those conclusions is spoiler-tastic, so in the unlikely event the above paragraph makes you go 'Dude, I totally need to rent this!'....Collapse )
Tuesday, May 19th, 2009
12:39 pm
Random Thoughts from Last Night's D&D Game

  • "The Norse war machine probably won't think it's gay if I hold his hand; he knows full well he'll get lost if I don't."

  • "Way to rouse that rabble! Saving throw vs. sedition!"

  • "Poor paladin. Don't worry, your brother is fine. Granted, he's eating flies, but he's happy about it."

  • "'Polymorph' may be the best spell EVAR."

  • "Why have I not been playing wizard characters in every D&D campaign I've ever been in?"

  • "I never realized the taunting potential of that spell. I wonder how he would have responded if she hadn't sent it in LOLcat."

  • "Locusts for the win!"

  • "A 20' tall hyperactive ten-headed hydra in a berserker rage is actually even more awesome than I thought it'd be."

  • "I regret not taking Quicken Spell as my first-level feat."

  • "If only that paladin had attacked us in a room with higher ceilings, he'd still be alive."

  • "Man, I don't care how expensive it is; if I can do that, I need to make myself a Wand of Dispel Magic."

Monday, May 18th, 2009
12:58 pm
Back From The Retreat
I spent the weekend holed-up in Keystone State Park sharing a couple of cabins with writing buddies, trying minimize real-life distractions and get some actual writing done. And maybe play a game or two.

We've been doing this twice a year for three years now, and it's a good time. The anthology has been sucking up most of my writerly energies, and I was glad to give myself an excuse to focus on my own work.

I strongly considered bringing an existing broken-but-promising piece to see if I could figure a way around the plot issues that are inflating it to an unsaleable wordcount that doesn't really justify itself, but then decided: fuckit. Squonk stories are fun, and if I can produce them more regularly than I have been, I could see myself making one hell of a strong case to a prospective agent considering me as a client. So, Squonk it is!

Just one problem: I didn't have any bloody idea what the story would be about. I do have a few long-term ideas for Squonk and Wendel and Mrs. Tweedle-Chirp and Slowfingers (a character I keep liking more the more I write for him), but none of the story ideas seemed right for the fourth* story. So I decided to force myself to write something, dammit. If it was crap, toss it; and if it's good, or could be massaged into something good with more work, win!

Long story short: I didn't wind up with a complete Squonk story, or anything close to it. I did, however, wind up with an idea and a few pages that I'm very fond of -- spurred by fireside chats at the retreat. I'm posting this one solidly in the "win" column. I'd like to let a few key plot points percolate in my brain a bit before pouring them into my word processor, but I'm very optimistic.

I also wound up working on a much more mature SF piece about virtual reality, identity, intimacy, and sex. I've been kicking it around in my head for a while, but didn't think I was ready to write it yet. I wrote about 24 pages, so I was obviously wrong. I'm probably going to have to cut about half of them; the emphasis is all wrong. The characters are completely disposable outside of the two primaries, and even they need some work if they're going to carry the story. I need to do some work ... let's forget "exploring" their personalities and focus on "giving them" personalities to begin with, shall we? Oh, and I need to buckle-down and do some research, lest one critical theme be born into the world with "FAIL" tattooed across its forehead. But I like the core idea (which traces itself to, of all things, a friend's story about a snake astronaut) and I'm quite pleased with the plot I've come up with. I really think it will compliment the story's concepts and themes very effectively.

So yeah. Good weekend.

And when I got home, zombies.

* -- Yes, I'm on story four. Story three has been written and sent to Escape Pod, but I haven't heard anything back on it. I presume I'll eventually hear something just as soon as editor Steve Eley returns from whatever alternate dimension has gobbled him up.
Friday, May 15th, 2009
1:15 pm
Braintastic
Had to work through lunch, so no big post today.

Instead: play this. Plants vs Zombies. Tell those brain-eaters to get off your damn lawn!
Thursday, May 14th, 2009
12:29 pm
Writing Jerks
"Your protagonist was unsympathetic."

As we made our way through the Triangulation slush, we ran into a number of stories that were undone by their protagonist's loathsome douchebaggery. And since we always tried to give the author some hint of why we were rejecting their story, some variation on "Your protagonist was unsympathetic" often made its way into the rejection letter.

Or at least, it tried to. I always objected, but I know a few slipped out regardless.

I objected because it invites plaintive whines of "But he was supposed to be unsympathetic!" And there are certainly plenty of examples of fictional shmucks who make for compelling protagonists, so it's not like you can safely dismiss the notion of the dickweed main character. So the question really becomes, what about this jerk in particular caused him (and it's usually a "him," possibly because female jackasses don't have mustaches to twirl) to wreck the story?

It's usually due to the author forgetting that in fiction, the journey is just as important as the destination. If the main character is a despicable prick, it doesn't really matter if the story ends with him getting his well-deserved come-uppance; you're insisting the reader be trapped in this journey with a despicable prick. Most readers are going to simply say "No" and find something else to do.

A good protagonist is one the reader cares about -- and the most reliable way to do that is to convince (not "demand" -- convince) the reader to like and empathize with that protagonist. But there are ways you can convince your audience to give a shit about what happens to somebody who's dislikable, too. You can smack him around, and make sure his come-uppance is delivered at regular enough intervals throughout the story so your audience can draw mean-spirited glee from his suffering (a la South Park's Eric Cartman). You can do a bit of wish fulfillment by having him do/say the things that your audience secretly (or, hell, not-so-secretly) wishes they were bold or witty enough to do/say (Dr. Gregory House). If you're really good, you can make the character deep and conflicted enough that your audience is drawn in despite themselves (Gerald Tarrant from "Dark Sun Rising").

But what you can't do -- ever -- is expect your audience to suffer through a protagonist who's dull.

There's nothing inherently interesting about a bully, or an anti-social jerk, or a wizard devoted to eeeeeeeevil. You have to make them interesting, and given that your audience's tolerance for these characters starts at less than zero, it's not going to be easy. So don't pretend that it is.

"Your protagonist was boring."

That's the sentiment I always tried to convey.
Wednesday, May 13th, 2009
12:09 pm
Keeping My Job
I got a job offer last week. Which was unexpected, given that I wasn't looking for one.

Let's start from the beginning.

Several years ago, I was a Tech Guy (and for a while, the Tech Guy) at a startup that made it big and got bought out by Monster. Lots of money changed hands. I wound up with my student loans paid off, and the founders got bona-fide "Fuck You" cash. However, the buyout had a non-compete clause that was ... let's be generous and call it "interesting." Or, let's be honest and call it "odious, punitive, and highly unlikely to actually stand up in court." Whatever. It specified that none of the folks who got money out of the deal were allowed to work with each other outside of Monster for three years after the deal was signed.

Ironically, Monster is a really shit place to work. They bought us out because we'd been kicking their asses in our chosen niche despite having a mere fraction of their resources; and once we were on board, they forced upon us the same myopic bullshit that had made their asses vulnerable to kicking in the first place. The place was every cliche of institutional paralysis and mediocrity that you've ever heard about big corporations. Decisions were made not on the basis of what will work, but what's least likely to get the decision maker into trouble. Protecting your job is your job.

Fuck that.

After about fifteen months, everybody from the old company who wasn't me got laid off. Three months later, I joined them voluntarily. Because walking away with no severance package and no access to unemployment beat the hell out of working for those idiots one more day.

So, there I was, separated from my soon-to-be ex-wife, unemployed, and the entrepreneur I'd helped make a shitload of money for was legally prohibited from working with me again.

Until May 1 of this year.

On May 7, I got an email from my ex-boss. With an offer that wasn't so much a "job" as a "partnership". The words "Vice President of Technology" were in there as well.

It didn't come out of a clear blue sky; I'd had lunch with the guy the day before. I treated it as just getting together with some old co-workers I hadn't seen in a while. He seemed disappointed that I'm happy at my current job, so clearly he had something in mind he was thinking of throwing my way, but I thought I'd taken that off the table by talking about how much I like where I'm at and how little free time I have.

I was obviously mistaken.

The offer was damned intriguing. Salary was less than what I'm making now, but ex-boss said that he'd jack that up once the new business started making money, and I believe him. The guy's always been scrupulously honest with me, even when it wasn't in his best interest to do so. But the real attention-grabber was the equity in the company.

If I'd had this deal in place at the last gig, I would have made an even one million dollars after the Monster deal. I suspect that's why he chose the number he did; he knows I can do math.

He had my attention.

I deferred to think about it, because that's just how I work. I don't like making snap decisions, especially on life-altering issues. For a few days there, I was really doing my best to talk myself into taking it. There's no guarantee that this place will make it big, but I know full well that it could.

But ultimately, I decided against it. My current job is really good. It doesn't have the potential of a million-dollar pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but otherwise, almost everything I liked about working for ex-boss before is here. I'm working 40 hour weeks instead of the 20-30 I used to, which sucks, but even though ex-boss was promising that we could possibly do something like that again with the new gig ... dude. Vice President of Technology. Brand spankin' new company. This is not a recipe for short hours. It is a recipe for loooooong hours.

Otherwise ... I really like the people I'm working with. They're smart and capable; shit gets done around here. I'm very fond of my supervisor, an eccentric alpha-nerd who's personally pleasant, knows more than I do, and is willing to teach. The company has some very sweet best-of-both-worlds action going on: they're still small, but they've been in their business long enough and doing it well enough to be quite stable. Unless the bossman is outright lying to us (which would be out of character), we're weathering the current economic crunch very nicely; it's slowing our growth, not threatening our existence.

It's a damn good gig.

Ex-boss complicated the issue by upping the ante enough to force me to consider it a bit longer but not enough to make it a slam dunk. I contemplated it over the weekend and spoke to him a bit more before deciding that I want to stand pat. As much as I'd love to see what would happen if I worked with him again, I'm just as interested in seeing where this job ultimately winds up. And I'd like to quit doing the IT Nomad thing for a while and stay in one place. The stability won out over the potential riches.

What I think ultimately decided it for me was that as good as IT has been to me, it's not where I ultimately want to make my fortune. To be perfectly honest, the odds that I'll someday support myself as a writer are probably lower than the odds of the job I just declined making me a ton of money. But it's what I love.

And I might yet come out of this whole thing slightly ahead. For the sake of fairness, I told my supervisor that I might be leaving. With my permission, he shared this with the bossman, and the two of them wound up agreeing that I'm probably paid less than what I'm worth.

This discussion will be continued. Yes, he knows I'm deciding to stay, and yes, my negotiating position would be stronger if leaving was still a credible threat, but that's not the kind of relationship I want with my employer. I'm more interested in establishing trust and rapport than I am in milking them for every dollar possible.

Anyway. Lunch is over. Back to work.
Tuesday, May 12th, 2009
12:40 pm
Star Trek: The Quest for More Money
First, let's get the unpleasantries out of the way: it's dumb. Dumb as a bag of socks. Trek has never been a bastion of scientific accuracy or internal consistency, but come on. The scientific illiteracy on display in this movie makes the evolution-based technobabble in "Heroes" look like a graduate-level biology course. One exposition scene in particular kept pimp-slapping me with so much Stupid that I started bleeding into my brain. The BadGuys' backstory, while intriguing in theory, fails in execution because their "mining ship" is, inside and out, an unambiguous Mobile Fortress of Doom. (Seriously, what the hell are you "mining" that requires self-guided torpedoes to hit?) The chief Maguffin is best described as the Lava Lamp of the Apocalypse.

It's the sort of movie that lends itself immense snarkery. It's also a hell of a lot of fun.

It wants to be big fat popcorn spectacle, and it succeeds admirably; this is kinetic big-budget effects-driven action at its finest. It also wants to hand off the characters to a new batch of actors, and does so amazingly well. The worst you could say about any of the main characters is that a few of them were underdeveloped (no surprise, all things considered) and left to the tender mercies of a script that loved it some pratfalls. (I'm thinking primarily of Scotty, particularly when he runs afoul of the previously unseen Wonka section of engineering.) But at best ... damn. Karl Urban owned McCoy; from the moment he comes on screen you know exactly who this guy is, even if you've never seen a minute of Trek before in your life. And Zachary Quinto (Sylar from "Heroes") came through in a huge way as Spock, bringing his conflicted inner self to life in a way that even Leonard Nimoy rarely managed. Nimoy's Spock was an icon; Quinto's is a person. Congratulations, Mr. Quinto: any fears you had about being permanently type-cast as a superpowered psycho are officially laid to rest.

In short, this is a movie of extremes; the bad parts are simply gawd-awful, but what it does well it does very well. Whether or not you enjoy it will depend entirely on which elements stand out the most for you, for good or ill.

(Of course, there was one plot hole that I haven't seen discussed anywhere else yet ... but it's so goddamn nerdy I'm hiding it behind a cut tag.)

Click here for an embarrassing degree of Trek nerdityCollapse )
Friday, March 20th, 2009
11:25 pm
Reaction to the Final Episode of Battlestar Galactica
I went into this episode feeling that, if they could wrap up all the storylines in a satisfactory manner, the re-imagined BSG would have a fighting claim to the title of Best Televised Science Fiction Ever.

Having seen the episode:

I want everybody responsible for writing this to be anally violated by badgers.

Angry, sadistic, rabid badgers.

That are on fire.
Wednesday, January 21st, 2009
10:18 pm
Cover Letters
Cover letters. I've seen a lot of them, and a lot of them are not very good. In fact, they're often kinda bad. In the grand scheme of things, this isn't a big deal; often as not I read the cover letter after I've read the story attached to it, since the story is what I really care about. But I know there are editors who don't share this opinion, and I've seen plenty of writers doing themselves absolutely no favors. So, here's one semi-pro writer and editor's advice on writing the things.

Your general principles are keep it short, keep it professional. Short, because the cover letter isn't the important thing; that'd be the story. You want to throw down some relevant information and give a good impression of yourself as quickly as you can, and then get out of the way. Professional, because you want the editor to know that you know that this is, at its core, a business transaction. Writers are infamous (a bit more than they deserve, but still infamous) for not being able to see this and for taking everything personally. A concise, professional tone conveys "I'm not a pain in the ass; if you like this story, you won't regret having to work with me."

Needless to say -- but probably worth saying anyway -- "polite" is mandatory if you're shooting for "professional."

And always, always, always follow the rules. Some markets lay down very specific rules about what they're looking for in a cover letter (and in submissions in general). Obey them. A specific market's rules always override generalized advice. Those rules often exist for very good reasons -- and one of those reasons could well be "Trim down our massive slushpile by form rejecting anybody too thick to follow our damn rules."

Anyway, here's the general outline of what my cover letters typically look like, along with the logic for including what I do. And, just as important, the logic for what I don't include:
Click here for pedantic cover letter fun!Collapse )


This is not the way to do it; it's a way to do it. It sure as hell isn't required for Triangulation submissions; your cover letter should be whatever you think means putting your best foot forward ... or can even be simply omitted. Really, I'm vastly more interested in the story.

And I'm sure people with more experience and success with me can find some things wrong with this format. I never claimed it was perfect, just that it has worked for me.

But what the hell. It has worked for me, and it avoids the pitfalls I've seen in my own slushpile. Make of that what you will.
Sunday, January 18th, 2009
10:27 pm
Our Very First Ban!
This is my third year working as Triangulation's editor. In that time, I've sent out literally hundreds of rejections, all of them personalized, all of them trying to give some indication of WHY we (my assistant editors and I) didn't think the story was up to snuff. Traditional wisdom is that this is the road to madness, that writers are such inherently egotistical and twitchy beasties that you're inviting great heaping truckloads of grief in you inbox.

Simply put, I've found this to not be the case. Every once in a while, somebody will indicate they're not happy with what we had to say, but it's rare. Most of the time they simply don't answer back (And why should they? They submitted, we declined, end of transaction.), and occasionally we even get thank-you notes for not sending them yet another form rejection. That's been one of the big things I've learned on this project -- most writers are actually very polite and reasonable.

Heck, I've never even had somebody even rise to the level of deserving a ban ... until yesterday.

Behold: Our Very Fist Ban!Collapse )

And to think -- I dared question his professionalism. He sure showed me.

* -- We're not that persnickety, in part because we don't want to be, in part because we can't afford to be. But the better markets sometimes are. So if we spot something tangential to the story that we think will lower your chances of getting accepted by cooler places than us, we're liable to mention it.

** -- Joseph got the honors because, as of yesterday, I'm no longer writing all the rejections myself. It was just taking too much time. So I brought Rejecthulhu to the meeting -- a little plushy Cthulhu who, if he's sitting next to you, orders you to write the next rejection. And then once that's written, you get to toss Rejecthulhu to whoever you feel like. It worked quite nicely.
Friday, November 28th, 2008
6:58 pm
Oh, and by the way ...
I don't think I've publicly said what my prior post implied; I'm unemployed at the moment.

I was working for a consulting firm, and they laid me off when the project I was on ended and no additional billable work was in the queue. Normally, this wouldn't be a surprise, but these guys were representing themselves as more than just a consulting firm -- they claimed they were trying to use the consulting thing to pay the bills while they assembled a team of high-quality coders who could do various internet projects with the potential of really striking it rich. Yet despite being quite pleased with my performance, they cut my ass after I'd been on the bench for less than two weeks.

So, yeah. Rich Applications Consulting has aspirations to be something special, but in practice, they really are just another consulting firm.

They're also a firm that's hell-bent on operating on the cheap. The COO informed me that I was pulling-in the 2nd-highest salary (behind him) of any RAC employee, which was simply stunning; I consented to them paying me at discount rates both because I was working 3/4 time and because the project represented a return to Java after a long absence. IT is just like any other industry in that if you want the best people, you have to pay them accordingly. "Assemble the best team possible" and "Staff-up with college grads and overseas contractors for as little money as possible" are mutually exclusive goals. Something's gotta give.

I enjoyed being the team's old veteran war horse, because I'd built up enough credibility that when I said they were making a mistake, they took me seriously. My opinion was, and remains, that they have some very intelligent people working for them, but the generalized lack of experience is a huge problem. They make mistakes that young companies make but need to stop making if they wish to someday be old companies.

There's a bit of bitterness on my end -- but not so much that it'd prevent me from working with them again. Though the days of me accepting a discounted rate from them for any reason are well and truly behind us. Should they want me back -- which could happen, given that the project I was on still had some work left to be done -- they'll have to pay me considerably more to abandon my search for more stable work. Call it a Don't Fuck With Pete tax.

It's like I told a co-worker -- these guy's aren't scummy. I don't get the impression of any malevolence at work here. But just the same, I should have been watching my own ass more than I was.

As for my current situation, I'm all right. I don't have as much money socked-away as I'd prefer, but between my savings and what my roomate pays me, I should be good into the new year -- though I'll be leaning on my credit card harder than I'd like. I should be eligible for unemployment since I wasn't fired for cause, but it's entirely possible that RAC fucked something up that will prevent me from actually receiving it. I expect I'll find out soon.

In the meanwhile, it's video games, writing, and keeping some truly bizarre hours.
6:03 pm
The Best Part of Unemployment is the Video Gaming
You simply cannot fault Fallout 3 for lack of ambition; this is a game that's striving for greatness. And for a little while, it actually achieves it; the character creation, which takes you from the delivery room to various highlights of your childhood and transitions smoothly into the confusing and frightening night when you're punted out of the underground vault in which you've lived your entire life, is creative, memorable, and does a fabulous job of getting you invested in your alter ego right from the start. The post-apocalyptic wasteland is immense and populated with great flair and creativity; I suspect that you could spend literally hundreds of hours exploring it free-style and savoring all the stories (large and small) that Bethesda Softworks embedded into it.

But as wonderful as the game is at the start, it slowly but inexorably tapers into ... not "suck," certainly. More like "adequacy." The game never stops being fun; it does, however, stop being excellent. And that's a real shame.

It's an issue of gameplay balance more than anything. Ben Croshaw reviewed it with his usual mix of insight and profanity. He complains that if you rob everybody blind the game becomes too easy; he's wrong. The game simply becomes too easy, full stop. You hit a point where every potential threat in the game elicits only a laconic "Yeah, I can take 'em." Ben was a sticky-fingered kleptomaniac, I was a voracious scavenger, and I wound up in the same place he did, I just got there slower. It's the place where stimpacks (functionally identical to potions of healing) are so easy to come by that you just charge blindly into situations where you're ludicrously overmatched, because in order to kill you, the bad guys have to dish out damage faster than you can whack whatever hotkey you mapped to the ginormous stimpack soda fountain you have strapped to your back. When you're struggling with some combination of poor armor, low hit points, and small stimpack cache, it's interesting. When a grenade to your face does less damage than can be healed by one of the fifty stimpacks you have on your person, it's markedly less interesting.

Why? Why are the bloody things so prevalent? Why are they so ruthlessly effective? Why are they not the least bit addictive? (The game has an addiction mechanism for other chemical enhancers; stimpacks are, curiously, exempt.) Why do they cure you of everything that physically ails you? Why even bother adding a critical damage element when you can just heal it with one stroke of the hotkey?

The game has a radiation mechanism that, while not exactly having much to do with real-world radiation, is interesting ... at least for a while. In the early going, when your precious precious immortality-granting stimpacks are a bit tougher to come by, the best way to recover from your wounds is by eating or drinking. And damn near everything you eat or drink is, to some degree, radioactive. Thus, you're always mindful of how much radiation you're toting around, because the drug to get rid of it, "Rad-Away," is genuinely difficult to find.

This mechanic simply ceases to be interesting when you get your own house (which can happen fairly early in the game) and purchase "My First Infirmary" for it (which ain't cheap, but if you're diligently either scavenging the long-dead or robbing the still-living, you can afford it). Once you have this nifty device, you can purge yourself of radiation at will. So the amount of radiation you accrue becomes a big fat "Who cares?", because you can eliminate it, entirely, for free, damn near whenever you feel like it. And your stimpack cache eventually becomes large enough that you can down them like M&M's, meaning you no longer have to screw around with that tainted food or water in the first place.

Again, it's not that difficult to envision a fix. Eliminate My First Infirmary's magic radiation-eliminating properties and toss in few status flags that keep track of when you last ate/drank and start punishing you if you go too long without, and voila -- the radiation mechanism stays relevant throughout the game.

I don't mind that certain problems become easier to manage as the game progresses -- that's kind of the point of improving your character. But I do mind if you hit a point where core problems simply cease to matter, and that's what happens here.

Another example of the game helping you entirely too much is the Fast Travel mechanism. There's a lot of world to explore, but once you find something significant enough for the game to include it in your map, you can travel back to it whenever you chose. (Provided you're outside and not near anything that wants to turn you into lunch, but those are easy conditions to meet.) It prevents a lot of needless and boring tromping over the same terrain you've already visited, but it also means that traversing the map becomes trivially simple. Seriously, if you want to visit a store located Way Over There, you don't even have to change out of your pajamas; you arrive with the touch of a button. It's so easy to get around that the game mechanics wouldn't have changed one iota if it had teleporter pods scattered generously through the wasteland.

If I have to traverse the map with a single clip of ammo and badly-damaged armor, I should be worried, dammit. A simple random encounter mechanism, which the first two games had, would have made the game much more immersive and satisfying.

Warning: Endgame SpoilerageCollapse )

There are other deficiencies. The game is quite glitchy, at least on the PC; I wound up having to re-load games because it had glitched its way into various impassible cul-de-sacs, and I actually witnessed a woman getting married to her imaginary friend. Your helper NPCs have absolutely no impact on the non-combat portions of the game, because other NPCs pretend they don't exist at all; I really wanted to know whether Paladin Cross was still alive and was looking forward to the reaction when I showed up at the Citadel with Fawkes in tow, but nobody gave a shit about either their alleged comrade in arms or their mortal enemy. The conclusion to the main quest is quite rushed; tromping around with Fawkes at my back looked like it'd be fun, but I made the mistake of going to the next portion of the main plot, which immediately tobaggoned me to the less-than-satisfying ending. The risque sense of humor from prior incarnations is gone entirely; Fallout 2 had a porn studio, Fallout 3 gives you a cuddle-hooker. (There was one side-quest I completed just so somebody in this game would get laid, dammit.) The writing was inconsistent; the nuclear war was allegedly about 200 years ago, but there are portions that only make sense if it was much more recent -- maybe just a few years ago. (Little Lamplight, I'm looking in your direction.) The "Local Map" feature is often unintelligible and cluttered to the point of uselessness; If I'm going to be traversing multiple vertical levels, then any auto-map feature really needs to be able to show me those levels individually.

I just spent 1500 words harping on what's wrong with the game -- but it's actually a damn good game. When it's truly rolling, it's immersive and satisfying as hell, with several moments that elicited genuine emotional reactions from me. The side-quests are creative and fun -- Moira's Wasteland Survival Guide was an absolute hoot, and functions as the best tutorial evar. (The fact that Moira sounds a bit like Sarah Palin only added to the fun.) The combat system has enough depth to be interesting without being overwhelming, and the game gives you a wide variety of ways to play it. And there is oh so much to see and do. It's a very good game. It's going to go on many peoples' Best of the Year lists, deservedly so.

No, I harp on the flaws because this game shouldn't have been "very good" -- it should have been fucking awesome. With a little more time, every mistake this game makes is fixable. Give this six more months of development -- six more months of QA testing, of playtesting, of addressing the balance issues that show up at mid to high levels, of adding some crucial elements and getting some of the suck out of that finale -- and you'd have a game that would show up on a whole bunch of Best of All Time lists.

Would that we could all fail so nobly.
Sunday, November 16th, 2008
3:11 pm
Quantum of Stupid
Quantum of Solace is a very smart movie. You can tell because everybody looks all serious and emotional, and after the fight scenes, James Bond looks like he's been in a fight. You know, just like the Jason Bourne movies.

Unfortunately, you can't tell that Quantum of Solace is a smart movie by actually, you know, thinking about it. If you ask yourself questions like "Wait, why is this happening?", the answer is "For a very good reason that you're probably too stupid to understand, now shut up and watch the cool stuff happening!" Like when James swipes a boat to go tearing after some chick in distress. You might think "Maybe he's doing this because she's hot and he wants to bone her," before remembering that James is still emotionally all messed-up from the chick in the previous movie dying, and besides he's still James Bond and just because Serious Realistic James Bond is emotionally all messed up (even by James Bond standards), that doesn't mean he still can't talk hot chicks into fucking him within two hours of meeting him.* ("Come on, people!" you can imagine the movie saying. "He's James Bond! What, you were expecting us to cut his nuts off or something?") You might think maybe he's chasing that chick because she represents a promising and potentially sympathetic lead, which will make you very confused when, at the end of the chase, he dumps her unconscious body off with some friendly looking steward. And then you have to stop thinking because the movie starts smacking you and saying "It's happening because it's happening, dammit! It's James Bond!"

And then you say, "But I thought this was Smart Realistic James Bond."

And then it says, "It is! Can't you tell by how he's moping? You're just too stupid to follow along!"

This is doubly true during the action sequences, which were filmed by an epileptic and edited by somebody with ADHD, who both take perverse glee in concealing what the hell is happening. Some man is hitting another man -- and one of them is James Bond! He might be hitting somebody! Or getting hit! Isn't it exciting? And there are some cars slamming into each other -- James Bond is in one of them! I think a truck just ripped one of James Bond's doors off! Though I'm not sure which door it was! And I'm not even completely certain it was James Bond's! Isn't this thrilling?

And then there's the final action setpiece which takes place in a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Really, a well-maintained, fully-functional hotel in the middle of nowhere. Really, when somebody decides he needs to flee for his life, he flees into the desert because there's nowhere else to flee. And there's a certain line of dialog that will probably make you think "Wait, are they trying to lay the groundwork for somebody making the entire goddamn hotel explode? Nah, that's just retarded." Yes, they are. And yes, it is. This hotel comes pre-equipped with bombs embedded in the garage, throughout the basement, and even in the walls.

Which you might think would put this movie in the "Dumb As Hell" category. But you're wrong! It's smart! Moping! Even in this hotel, which was built from thermite and napalm! Moping! And have we mentioned the bad guys' Evil Plan? It's a utilities scam! Seriously! A utilities scam! In Bolivia! You can tell the movie is smart because their motivations are so banal! Banality of evil! Smart!!!

Look, I don't mind a certain degree of Stupid in my action movies, especially not my James Bond movies -- provided they own up to the Stupid. I can live with an Orbital North Korean Space Death Ray, provided the rest of the movie is suitably fun.**

Conversely, I enjoy the hell out of the occasional smart action movies that wander by, just because I love it when a movie engages me intellectually as well as viscerally. "Quantum of Solace" wants to be that kind of movie -- and it isn't. It really, really isn't. It's not smart -- it's just pretentious.

This movie marks a turning point. The Bourne movies are no longer the smart Bond movies; James Bond is now the dumb Jason Bourne.



* -- And money doesn't even change hands or anything.

** -- And it was.
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