Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What will you do with all that extra time?

Eager to say goodbye to the worst economic year since the Great Depression? You'll have to wait a second.

That's because the custodians of time are preparing to tack a "leap second" onto the clock on Wednesday to account for the minute slowing of the Earth's rotation — meaning champagne toasts and Auld Lang Synes will have to come a second late.

-- The Associated Press: Scientists prolong gloom of 2008

Just the facts: the first leap second was added in 1972, and the most recent one was in 2005. More info (and less editorializing) at timeanddate.com.

~CKL

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Xmas Movie Marathon 2008

Every year, on December 25th, D and I spend all day at the movies. We were excited this year because we now live half a mile from Cinetopia, an all-digital venue which is the third best theatre I've ever visited.*

We were less excited after the record snowfall here in Vancouver, and when we saw our slim pickings for movie choices. After checking Rotten Tomatoes, I ruled out The Spirit (17%) and Seven Pounds (28%). Here's what we ended up seeing:

Yes Man
Nothing new or special here, but passably entertaining. Jim Carrey does basically the same schtick he did in Liar Liar, except this time with Zooey Deschanel and Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords' band manager Murray) providing background color. The best scene involves the song "Jumper" by Third Eye Blind, but you can wait to see that on DVD.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The best of the lot by far. Absolutely not what you'd expect from David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), except maybe the visual effects. It wasn't quite as literally magical as I had been hoping, but they just chose to tell a different story than I would have with this Big Idea, and everything worked. I missed Fincher's last film, Zodiac, so I've just added it to the top of my Netflix queue. That's high praise from me.

Valkyrie
If you're really into Tom Cruise, WWII trivia, or eyepatches, enjoy! It wasn't badly made, but as D says: "They told us what happened, but not why we should care." Unless you slept through high school history classes, you know what the ending of this story is, and it's up to the filmmakers to tell it in a way that's interesting despite the foregone conclusion. On that front, FAIL. (For reference, movies that succeeded at this: The Perfect Storm, Apollo 13, Titanic, Recount.) On the bright side, it was amusing to see a raft of great British actors--Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard, Tom Wilkinson--playing German military men with both gusto and whatever bloody accent they felt like using.

Marley & Me
IMHO, it's actually a stretch to call this one a movie. It feels more like a ten-year-old's recitation of the form "and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened"--a meandering sequence of events with only a vague dramatic shape. Yes, it is a tear-jerking experience, but only at the end, and only because of the bulletproof subject matter (the family dog); it's affecting despite its often egregious shortcomings as a story.**

As a bonus, we got to see a flurry of huge snowflakes come down in the afternoon, making for a wondrous white Christmas. Who says there's nothing good at the movies?



(Click through to PicasaWeb to see the snowfall video.)

~CKL

* Numbers one and two were the Pixar screening room in Emeryville and the Arclight in Los Angeles.

** Re: Valkyrie and Marley: I suspect makers of many "based on a true story" films feel excessively beholden to historical facts at the expense of narrative drive and coherence. For inspiration, I would refer those people to Joss Whedon, who had the cojones to retcon his own story when making Serenity--the backstory explicitly depicted for Simon & River in the movie directly contradicts what was stated in the preceding series, Firefly, but Whedon recognized that changing it was the best way to tell the story, continuity be damned. He was right.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tired of Xmas Flicks Yet?

I'm not.

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
The original animated version, not the Y2K Jim Carrey abomination. D and I just watched this tonight, and what's not to love? Directed by Chuck Jones, with Boris Karloff narrating and singing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." Our DVD edition also included "Horton Hears a Who" (1970)--again, the animated classic, and what the hell is wrong with Jim Carrey anyway?--which presents the noble sentiment that "a person's a person, no matter how small."

Love Actually (2003)
One of those feel-good intertwined-relationship ensemble pieces that could come apart if not handled with the right touch, but Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) pulls it off. It does get a bit silly toward the end, but what do you expect from a movie in which Hugh Grant plays the British Prime Minister?

Meet John Doe (1941)
Online critic MaryAnn Johanson argues that this Frank Capra film is "at least as deserving of [traditional Christmas movie] status as [It's a Wonderful] Life -- and maybe even more deserving... while It's a Wonderful Life feels dated, Meet John Doe is still startlingly relevant today." I'm not convinced, but I admit I may have personal reasons to prefer Life over Doe, and the pair does make for a very thematic double feature.

~CKL

Monday, December 22, 2008

As Seen on Twitter



(The episode in question is "Not Cancer.")

~CKL

Blasts From the Past

Back in the summer of 1991 (after I graduated high school), I hooked up a VHS VCR to a monaural VHS camcorder with flying erase head and manually edited together a music video using footage from my home-taped episodes of the first four seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The song was "Kiss the Girl" from Disney's The Little Mermaid, and the subject of the video was the sexual tension between Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher. My friends have enjoyed watching it, and I've now uploaded it to YouTube for strangers to enjoy, too:



Please note that I did all the video editing by hand, without the benefit of time codes. The VCR did have a jog dial (thank you, Sony), but it still took a hell of a long time to sync everything. Did I mention that I actually dubbed the song from a cassette tape of the Little Mermaid soundtrack album, because the sound mix from the movie itself was too noisy, and I just wanted the music? I'm not sure which was worse--matching Data's "la-la-la" mouth movements* (1:03) or the tadpoles jumping over Sebastian's head (1:48).

And no, I really didn't have a life. Thanks for asking.

The next summer, I went back and made more TNG music videos--for Worf, Troi, Riker, and Data. And now you can watch them all on YouTube! That playlist also includes a sixth "bonus track"--a music video I threw together, years later, of scenes from The Abyss: Special Edition set to "Under Pressure." Check 'em out if you're so inclined, and please rate and comment.

Happy Holidays!

~CKL

* Lifted from his ridiculously long password in "Brothers."

It's Snowing

One of the reasons we moved to the Portland area was for the fairly mild climate. My memories of the Chicago-area winters are not happy ones. I do not enjoy scraping ice off my car. Nor do I ever, Ever, EVER again want to spend entire days shoveling the snow off my driveway and sidewalk. A little snow every now and then is a fun novelty, especially if it melts away after a day or so.

When we put Portland on our list of Writer Move location candidates, we compared the weather averages and extremes to the Mountain View weather averages and extremes. In general, we concluded that, yes, there'd probably be some snow here, but that it would usually be minor.

A little over a week ago, we started getting a light dusting of snow each night. Mostly, it blew away or melted in the rain by the next day. So we stayed home and enjoyed some relaxing time indoors. I made my Christmas week menu, and planned to go shopping on the weekend or just before Christmas. Things would probably stabilize by then.

On Saturday, however, it was pretty snowy. Even though it seemed like the wiser choice, we decided not to stay inside. It took us longer than we thought to finish the gifts for our mothers, and if we wanted to have any hoping of them arriving by Christmas, we needed to get them in the mail.

There were a couple of inches of snow on the ground, and the roads were a little white, but fairly well-plowed. The parking lot at the post office was pretty crazy, though; we decided to hold off on the Christmas food shopping until later. Besides, we have two good grocery stores within half a mile. If the roads and parking lots didn't clear up we could always walk.

It snowed again all day Sunday. It's still snowing right now. Fat, fluffy flakes are swirling by outside my window, where they add to the sugary blanket already on the ground. Our windows have more of a yard view than a road view, so went for a short walk this morning. This is what I found:
  • When I walked down the pathway between my apartment building and the parking lot, I sank past my ankles in the snow. (I measured the depth when I got back inside: 7" deep)
  • When I pressed my hand into the snow next to a tire-track in the parking lot, it completely covered my fingers (4" deep)
  • When I dug a finger into the sandy, brown snow on the road outside my the apartment complex, it covered the first joint. (1" deep)
  • Very few cars were on the roads. The two that I did see both had chains.
  • CKL and I aren't the only people who need groceries. Four other people were walking down the street, carrying groceries.
  • When I checked our own car, I discovered that the entire car is glazed with a layer of ice under light dusting of snow.

And that was more than three hours ago. It hasn't stopped snowing since.

But it sure it pretty outside. Today's newspaper says that this area may have its first truly White Christmas since 1937.

Also, the people around here are crazy. A guy just walked by my window. He's wearing black shorts, a short-sleeved white t-shirt, and eating from a half-gallon container of ice cream. But, hey, at least he's got a hat and scarf....

More Xmas Flicks

Because no one asked for it, but I was thinking about it...

Go (1999)
Clever, fast-paced fun with Sarah Polley, Taye Diggs, Katie Holmes, Jay Mohr, and lots of other actors you recognize from their more popular movies. But don't take my word--it's rated 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Written by John August (Big Fish), directed by Doug Liman (Swingers, The Bourne Identity), and you can watch it on Hulu.

In Bruges (2008)
You could argue that Christmas isn't an integral part of the setting for this story, but then I'd have to blow your fucking head off. Okay, not really. But if you're squeamish about violence or profanity, feel free to miss out on this tale of British hoodlums on holiday. Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes; written and directed by Martin McDonagh--it's his first feature after winning an Oscar for his short film, Six Shooter (also starring Brendan Gleeson). Can't wait to see what he does next.

~CKL

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Making Good Art

Okay, I'm back. I spent most of yesterday with that fuzzy, unfocused feeling in my head that I always get after a good cry--it lasted longer than usual, but I'm mostly recovered now. My dad's flying back to Taiwan in a couple of days to be with the rest of his family. There's not much I can do from here.

I also remembered another writer's advice from 2004 on what to do when Things Are Bad: Make Good Art.
I've learned over the years that everything is more or less the same amount of work, so you may as well set your sights high and try and do something really cool.

There are other people around who can do the mediocre, meat-and-potatoes work that anybody can do. So let them do that. You make the art that only you can make. You tell the stories only you can tell.

As a solution to various problems you may encounter upon the way, let me suggest this:

Make Good Art.

It's very simple. But it seems to work. Life fallen apart? Make good art. True love ran off with the milkman? Make good art. Bank foreclosing? Make good art.

Keep moving, learn new skills. Enjoy yourself.

-- Neil Gaiman's Journal: What I said at the Harveys

So here I am, making the best art that I and only I can make. It's what I do. It's what I live for.

~CKL

Friday, December 19, 2008

May your days be merry and bright

I've been pretty useless for anything requiring brain power today--specifically, writing. Grief is tiring. So I tidied up the office (mostly moved boxes into the closet), finished assembling one of the CD shelves in the living room, and digitized an old videotape from high school. Okay, it's not shoveling snow or anything, but it passes for menial labor around here.

I just did my holiday donating online: $99.80 to Family Giving Tree Portland, and $165.96 to Child's Play (split evenly between the Legacy Emanuel and Doernbecher children's hospitals in Portland). Charity begins at home. And it's one thing I can right now do that's likely to do some good.

~CKL

A Death in the Family

My paternal grandfather passed away last night. I got the news by email, which my dad forwarded from my uncle, who was in Taipei with grandpa. They'd just taken him to the hospital that day; it was all very sudden. My uncle didn't want to telephone because he thought it might have been too late at night to call (after 10pm in California).

I called my parents. I'm sad, but I feel worse for my dad. His father just died.

~CKL

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Voting 101

You wouldn't think that correctly filling out a paper ballot would be such a challenge. Sure, you only do it once every couple of years, but the instructions are printed right there. And didn't we all learn to color inside the lines back in grade school? These pictures of actual challenged ballots from the Minnesota Senate recount make me sad.

By the way, if you haven't seen Recount, the HBO movie about the 2000 US Presidential election, it's definitely worth a rental. And the screenplay was written by a superstar!

~CKL

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rhymes with "Reindeer"

Christmas Cheer:



All-natural wreath from Joe's Place Farm. Spirits acquired at Trader Joe's on our last visit to California, because I've been too lazy to go find the nearest state liquor store. At least the local Costco still sells beer.

Christmas FEAR:



Spotted at the local Dollar Tree this afternoon. I really didn't want to think about what "Santa's pole" tastes like. I really didn't.

~CKL

Monday, December 15, 2008

Xmas Flicks

One of our family traditions is to spend all day at the movies on December 25th. But before then, we like to get in the mood by revisiting some of our favorite holiday films. We don't always get around to watching all of them, but the list includes:

It's a Wonderful Life
The first movie D and I saw together, the night we met. When we lived in the bay area, if we weren't out of town visiting someone, we would always go see the Stanford Theatre show on Christmas Eve. We just saw a live radio play production of this in Portland, which was intimate and entertaining and a great example of remixing* public-domain content to create new art.

The Long Kiss Goodnight
D loves this movie, for reasons I'm sure she will be happy to explain.

Die Hard
What can I say? It's a classic, and I'm a sentimental fool. Sure, the action scenes are great, but for me, the heart of the movie is when John McClane is in the bathroom, bandaging up his feet and talking on the radio with Sgt. Powell. That scene, and the whole story, are all about character. (This is also why I don't much care for any of the sequels.)

We just watched The Sure Thing, which D got from Netflix because she'd read about it being a tradition with Connie Willis' family. It wasn't bad, despite being totally '80s, but D noted that it didn't feel like a Christmas movie, even though it's about two college students taking a road trip from the east coast to California for the holidays. The premise was just that--a pretext--and the filmmakers didn't even try to integrate the trappings of the season with the story or the set dressing.

Your turn, readers: What are your favorite holiday films, and why?

~CKL

* Speaking of which, anyone who cares about culture should support Creative Commons.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Snow Day

D woke me up at 9:30 AM today so I could see snow falling--our first of the season here in Portland. It's still going now, and has built up a pretty good ground cover outside.



I haven't lived in a place with snowy winters since I was five years old (for the record: Cincinnati, Ohio). My most recent memories of being in the snow are from weekend trips to our friend Jeff's family cabin in Arnold, or the annual ski trip that Google used to sponsor when I worked there. It's cold outside, warm inside, and it has that holiday/vacation feeling--like there's nothing to do but read, play games, and generally relax. It's nice.

~CKL

Friday, December 12, 2008

Daily Routine, Part 1

On Wednesday, my friend Nils pointed me to Daily Routines, a blog about "How writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days."

He ended his email by asking, "What's yours...?"

When D and I decided to take the next two years off to become writers, we also decided to treat our writing as real work. That meant coming up with--and sticking to--some kind of schedule, so we'd be disciplined and actually Get Things Done. We're still tweaking our routine, but here's the current blueprint:

We take turns being "the boss" each week. This week, I'm the boss, so I got to pick our days off. Our defaults are to take Wednesday and Saturday off, and run errands on Tuesday if necessary. Most other days we don't need to leave the house, and sometimes we don't even change out of our pajamas. (What can I say? We've come to terms with our laziness.)

Unless we have somewhere to be, we tend to roll out of bed between 10 and 11 AM. The first thing we do is take a Body Test on Wii Fit, and do some exercises if we feel like it.

After breakfast (usually oatmeal or cereal and coffee or tea), we spend 2-3 hours writing. Then lunch (usually sandwiches), then another 2-3 hours of writing. When one of us gets hungry, we start making dinner (answers may vary), then watch TV or a movie while we eat. After that it's back to writing until bedtime.

Of course, since we have no other ongoing commitments at the moment, this schedule is infinitely malleable. (That will change once we start volunteering, to get ourselves out of the house and maintain human contact.) For example, sometimes we take an hour off in the afternoon to play Rock Band, and this week, instead of the third writing shift, we've been organizing our photos from the road trip.

More details on the actual writing in Part 2, coming soon...

~CKL

Monday, December 08, 2008

Test Post

If you're seeing this at snout.org, it means the DNS changes have propagated. Please leave a comment!

~CKL

Saturday, November 29, 2008

I think it's high time you knew

Yet another blogmeme via matociquala:

Put your music player on shuffle, and write down the first line of the first twenty songs. Post the poem that results. The first line of the twenty-first song is the title.

Additional: I skipped instrumental tracks, but kept duplicate artists, since many of them were a cappella groups covering others' songs. And the twenty-second song is the title of this post.
    This savage is different to me now

    I've got a girl and Ruby is her name
    Not another drugstore not another town
    Do you have that run-down feeling?
    I'm gonna do all the things for you a girl wants a man to do

    What a fool I was, what a dominated fool
    A key in the door, a step on the floor
    Because you and I were in love
    When in the springtime of the year

    You don't have to be beautiful
    Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice
    Gotta get my old tuxedo pressed
    I feel the night explode when we're together

    Puerto Rico, you lovely island, island of tropical breezes
    I've got a theory that it's a demon
    In every heart there is a drum that beats
    The case was pulled from under the bed

    A world of cheeses, deliciously made for you and me
    Just about the time the shadows call
    Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait
    Magic moments, when two hearts are caring

Thank you, iTunes 8.0.2 on Party Shuffle. Source tracks:
  • Ruby Baby (The Drifters) - The Stanford Fleet Street Singers
  • Not Another Drugstore - The Chemical Brothers
  • Jeremiah Peabody's Polyunsaturated Quick-Dissolving Fast-Acting Pleasant-Tasting Green and Purple Pills (Ray Stevens) - The Stanford Fleet Street Singers
  • I'm Gonna Make You Love Me - Diana Ross and the Supremes
  • Without You (My Fair Lady) - Julie Andrews
  • Shoe Box - Barenaked Ladies
  • Love Song - The Stanford Fleet Street Singers
  • The Mummer's Dance (Loreena McKennitt) - USC Sirens
  • Kiss (Tom Jones) - Prince
  • eleanor rigby vs in my head (mashup) - team9 vs the beatles
  • Lulu's Back In Town (Fats Waller) - The Stanford Fleet Street Singers
  • Tell It To My Heart - Taylor Dayne
  • America (West Side Story) - Marilyn Cooper, Chita Rivera, Shark Girls
  • I've Got a Theory (Once More, With Feeling) - Cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • When We Were Kings (Brian McKnight and Diana King) - Harvard Opportunes
  • Another Nail For My Heart - Squeeze
  • Cheese Roll Call (Animaniacs) - Pinky and the Brain
  • One Sweet Love - Sarah Bareilles
  • Just You Wait (My Fair Lady) - Julie Andrews
  • Magic Moments - Perry Como
  • Cup Overflowing - GrooveLily
  • Love Machine (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles) - The Richter Scales
And yes, as a matter of fact, I am a proud resident of Coverville.

~CKL

67,118 words

Finished my NaNoWriMo 2008 novel tonight. I had been shooting for 75,000 words, but I reached a natural and satisfying endpoint for the story I was telling at just over 67,000.

I considered going back and inserting a few chapters from another character's point of view, to beef up the word count, but I'm not sure that's what I want. There are already two or three other big things I'll have to fix in the second draft, so I want to mull over all the changes before mounting a single, combined assault.

Meanwhile, I've plenty of other things to do. I'm on the hook for rewriting and submitting my "American Gothic" story from Viable Paradise tomorrow. After that, I need to start organizing my notes for the 512 Words flash fiction pipeline.

I've got a lot of ideas and fragments scattered throughout Google Docs and my PalmPilot notes. There's no shortage of ideas in the world, but I've already outlined some of these premises, and it'll be good practice in finishing what I start. Even if it is a decade later for some of them.

~CKL

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hello Stanford

Friend-of-the-blog Loren mentioned that my Class Notes made it into the current issue of Stanford Magazine. If you got here from there, welcome! You can find tales from our summer road trip (featuring Bayla and Jasper) over at Travels With Our Cats.

If you want to read more of what I'm writing, especially science fiction, check out 512 Words or Fewer (also available in podcast form) every Friday, or see my complete bibliography at Stories By Curtis C. Chen.

~CKL

P.S. Sorry you lost the axe on Saturday.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lowered Expectations

I started this year's NaNoWriMo with the goal of reaching 100,000 words, but with ten days left and a current total of 42,717 words, that's probably not going to happen.

So I've revised my goal down to 75,000 words, which is still 15,000 more than my previous high score of roughly 60,000 and will be a non-trivial challenge. All the weekends this month have been useless for writing, but I've still got ten days, and 4,000 words a day is totally doable. I just need to sort out the story in my head. Typing is easy. Plotting is hard.

~CKL

CKL+D Go To OryCon

OryCon 30 starts tomorrow!

You can view our tentative schedule on Google Spreadsheets. We also hope to meet up with our friends Ken & Cera and Kevin & Steph at some point during the weekend. And find a couple of hours somewhere to help out behind the scenes.

~CKL

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Me and Ken Levine



I spent last weekend at Sitcom Room 3, where for two days I got to experience a simulation of the glamorous life of a TV comedy writer. (See? You're laughing already.) As shown above, I was delirious happy enough after the experience that I didn't attempt to do physical harm to our captor host, Emmy Award winner Ken Levine. (Insert Stockholm Syndrome joke here.)

Hats off also to Dan O'Day, who handled the lion's share of logistics for the event.



Here's a brief summary of the weekend.

Thursday: I arrive in LA, go to dinner with my parents (at an eerily uncrowded Chinese restaurant--we were the only diners there all night), tweak their wireless router (my dad upgraded to FiOS), do a little writing, then go to sleep.

Friday: We drive up to Santa Monica and meet my sister for lunch at Riva. Traffic reminds me why I don't live here anymore. Parents drop me off at the LAX Hilton. Walk down to corner gas station for some Coke (cheaper than the $3 hotel vending machine). Meet some fellow Sitcom Room attendees for dinner in the cafe.

Saturday: Wake up bright and early. Realize I didn't bring any bowls or utensils for my in-room breakfast of instant oatmeal, but make do with a couple of lowball glasses and wooden coffee stirrers. Meet some other folks, then get an earful from Ken about writing TV comedy. Walk to Carl's Jr. for lunch. Watch actors perform a ghodawful scene from a fictitious sitcom, get notes from "network" and "studio," break into teams to rewrite. I'm on Team C, the first to finish at 12:44 AM, having survived a logistical curveball two hours into the process and a lot of mediocre Chinese and junk food.

Sunday: Reconvene to watch actors perform the four scenes that each team rewrote. I'm pleasantly surprised by how well our scene works, how many laughs it gets, how little Ken has to say about fixing it further. We break for lunch and another 90 minutes of rewrites, but my team mostly just shoots the breeze. Finally, the weekend ends with a panel of writers talking about the industry and answering our questions. Scatter drill. I enjoy a quiet dinner of pasta, wine, and Heinlein.

Monday: I fly back home. While waiting in the airport, I run into a former co-worker, then watch Strange Brew. Those events are unrelated. I also watch the "Do-Over" episode of 30 Rock, which had been name-checked during Sitcom Room. It's pretty good.

Now, as promised, a few comparisons.

I went into Sitcom Room expecting it to be a lot like a Richter Scales retreat: lots of vulgar humor, lots of brainstorming for concert skit ideas. It was all that, but more focused and productive. I'm not saying the Scales aren't good, but they're not professionals. It's different, being in a room with four other people who all care deeply about good storytelling.

We spent most of our nine-plus hours working through story problems, talking about characters and motivations and the reality and logic of the scene. Very little time was actually devoted to coming up with jokes. Analyzing comedy is hard, but the fundamental truth is that it comes from characters and situations, not jokes per se. And that is even harder to write well.

Some of the advice about "room writing" given during Sitcom Room echoed sentiments about critiquing I got from Viable Paradise: Don't take things personally. Anyone can pitch a bad joke or a bad story idea. In fact, if you do it long enough, pretty much everyone is guaranteed to suggest a few stinkers. The important thing is to keep going. Your first duty is to the story, not your own ego.

The environment of the writing room felt a lot like Game Control, in that we had a problem to solve, and the problem seemed to keep changing. It wasn't as bad as running a Game, since we only had one really big external issue to deal with--all the rest was just us working through revisions of the story.

In other ways, it felt more like a conference room puzzle hunt, because we were trapped in a single room having to work through problem after problem with no end in sight. It was easy to get punchy, but in this case, it could actually be helpful. Riffing about animal husbandry can help generate jokes, but it almost never helps solve puzzles.

Ken and Dan made the rounds all night, periodically checking in with every team to see if we had questions, and I'm particularly proud of our first couple:

"Do we have the budget for a couple of sheep?"

"How do you feel about Hitler?"

Yes, we are the team, as mentioned in Ken's write-up, which agonized over whether to put in a Hitler joke (final verdict: no). We found out on Sunday that two other groups had also discussed it, but none to the extent that we had. We are also the team that used a mirror for a marker board. (Team C: The "C" stands for "Creative!" Or maybe "Crazy." Would you believe "Crunchy?")

All in all, it was a great experience, and I'm glad I did it. I plan to keep in touch with my fellow Sitcommers--two of them live in the Seattle area, one is in London (where D and I may be stopping next June, on our way to Jeff and Marina's wedding), and others are just a Facebook click away.

Would I ever want to make a living as a TV writer? I don't know. But it's on the short list.

~CKL

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why I wasn't writing this weekend

Actually, I was writing; it just wasn't noveling.

I just finished two days in Ken Levine's Sitcom Room, which he gleefully and accurately describes on his blog as "hell-arity!"

My excellent writing team consisted of this motley crew:
  • Gary, a college teacher who travels the world to go surfing;
  • Erica, an art educator who once worked at the Getty Museum;
  • James, a Londoner who understands the fine distinction between "stupid" and "ignorant;" and
  • Jeff, who "looks like a fat George Clooney" (his own words, I swear).
I'll post more details later, including a few photos and comparisons between this and my Viable Paradise and Game Control experiences.

For now, let me just say that I did not expect rewriting ten pages of comedy to be this exhausting. I managed about 1,600 words of NaNoWriMo output after dinner tonight, but my brain is fried.

~CKL

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why I wasn't writing last weekend

This game was called Ghost Patrol. The conceit was that we were hunting and exorcising ghosts. Slime was involved. There was an entry fee, but all the money is right up there on the screen, as they say. I saw - and I only lasted 11 hours - a specially made kung fu DVD, names carved on grains of rice, specially doctored Frisbees, rubber chickens with clues somehow sealed inside, special coinlike objects with words written on them (these were buried in the sand near Crissy Field) and photographs of tombstones with apparent ectoplasm blurring certain words.

Plus, there was a brand-new invention called the SharC, which was a GPS-based range finder thingie (sorry to be unclear - as a friend said, explaining the Game is sort of like explaining the Internet), special software to be loaded into a laptop, plus an extensive handbook that included a list of I Ching ideograms, a Chinese calendar, the periodic table of the elements, descriptions of all known ghosts with "photographs" of same, a color wheel, a Morse code chart and ever so much more.

-- Jon Carroll, "Forget it Jake, it's the Game," San Francisco Chronicle, November 12, 2008

Team Snout had a great time playing in Ghost Patrol, which was a well-run Game by any standard.* The fact that it was put on by a first-time Game Control (lowkey, Desert Taxi, and many helpers) makes it even more impressive, and speaks to the increasing strength and camaraderie of the bay area Game community.

I admit, when Snout first started running Games, I was a bit possessive and even defensive about making our events "better" than previous ones in some way. Now that we've run a few Games and I have a bit more perspective, I'm glad that every new Game seems to be improving on its predecessors. A successful event is good for everyone involved, and trying new things and sharing those experiences allows all of us to learn. Think of it as evolution in action!

For that reason, and a few others, I'm very excited about next fall's Muppet Movie Game. It'll be interesting to hear from another GC as they're actually planning an upcoming event, and to compare how they do things with how we've done them in the past.

Now, though, it's back to NaNoWriMo for a couple of days, then off to The Sitcom Room next weekend. Life is busy. Life is good.

~CKL

* By GC's own count, they only had 13 FAILs and one major hint line snafu. Read more in the GP Forum.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Day After

A selection of this morning's Twitter messages:

Damn it, I have a headache! I thought electing Obama would FIX THINGS!
-- John Scalzi (eater of Schadenfreude Pie)

Prop 8 passed. Goddammit. I will continue to fight for equality for all people, and stand up against bigotry.
-- Wil Wheaton

and at least 4 was defeated. Abortions for all, miniature American flags for others!
-- Michaela Schlocker

Everyone on the subway is making eye contact and grinning. But there's also this look of shock, like none of us trust the fortune.
-- Mary Robinette Kowal

To recontextualize a phrase: AMERICA: FUCK YEAH!!!
-- Chang Terhune

Michael Crichton died?! :(
-- Felicia Day

On a related note, I will continue to buck the growing trend of using LoudTwitter to feed one's LiveJournal. A bunch of text messages strung together is no substitute for a coherent sequence of sentences, paragraphs, and ideas. Better to let your fields lie fallow than sow them with salt.

And my friend Ammy has some encouraging thoughts on The Battle, Not the War.

~CKL

Historic, Wot?

D and I watched the election results and speeches last night via BBC News's live Internet video feed. It was nice to get a more international perspective on the whole thing, and the uncooperative satellite connection to Kenya was amusing, but SRSLY, soliciting commentary from Gore "grumpy old man" Vidal and John "antagonistic blowhard" Bolton? Sometimes I feel like the British are still making fun of us.

The good news:


(image from Flickr, shout out to mschlock)

The bad news:


(Los Angeles Times)

I mean, come on. WTF, CA? Los Angeles county went yes on Prop 8? LA county? Where's the gay mafia when you need 'em?

~CKL

Sunday, November 02, 2008

NaNoWriMo Has Begun

That's National Novel Writing Month to you. My current progress:



D and I got a head start at a midnight write-in on Friday, and an after-hours library write-in on Saturday night. Then we totally slacked off today and played Rock Band and watched movies and ate pancakes. Tomorrow, it's back to work.

It's going to be a bit of a crazy month. Since I've won NaNoWriMo the last three years--by writing at least 50,000 words during the month of November--I decided to challenge myself this year to write 100,000 words. There are also practical reasons for this upping of the ante; most novels run around that length, and my output is going to be a meandering, bloated first draft that will need to be cut by at least 25% to have any chance of selling.

(On a related note: this will probably be my last NaNoWriMo, at least as a participant. Since I'm spending the next two years working toward becoming a professional writer, pretty much every month should be a novel writing month for me. I'll likely stay involved to some degree, since the community is a lot of fun, but I'd feel like a bit of a ringer.)

Anyway. As if reaching 100k wasn't enough of a challenge, I've also booked every other weekend this month. Next week D and I drive down to the bay area for Ghost Patrol; the weekend after that, I go to LA for The Sitcom Room; then we fan out at OryCon 30; and finally, our friend Mike and his girlfriend Amy have invited us over to their house for Thanksgiving. At least the last two events are local.

But it's all in the NaNoWriMo spirit. As founder Chris Baty says in his book: "If you have a million things to do, adding item number 1,000,001 is not such a big deal."

~CKL

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Creepy Gaiman

Three days ago, in Manchester, UK:



If you believe their blogs, Neil and Jonathan both enjoyed themselves.

I'm confident that Coulton will have similarly entertaining surprises lined up when we see him in Portland on January 24th.

~CKL

Friday, October 31, 2008

Sherman Alexie pwns Stephen Colbert

My favorite part is at the very end, when Colbert knows he's been pwnd and can't even summon a comeback:



Just before D and I watched this, we had a brief discussion about how it made more sense for even outlandish people (like Socialist presidential candidate Brian Moore) to appear on The Colbert Report than The Daily Show, because on Colbert you are almost guaranteed to appear less idiotic than the host, whereas Jon Stewart and company will just make fun of you on Daily.

~CKL

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Depressing Quotation of the Day

"Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."

Thanks a lot, John Adams, and happy birthday to you too.

~CKL

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Where in the World?

Propagating my friend Marko's travel meme...

Five really interesting/beautiful foreign places I’ve visited:
  • British Columbia
  • Niagara Falls
  • Taiwan
  • Mexicali
  • Hawaii (that's a "foreign place," right, Cokie Roberts?)
Five countries that are high up on my List of Places I Want To See:
  • Italy
  • China
  • Israel
  • England
  • Australia
If I could speak one more language fluently, I’d like to be able to speak:
  • Spanish
If I had to trade my citizenship for another one, I’d most likely move to:
  • Canada

~CKL

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I Voted Yesterday.

The government here in our new home conducts all elections by mail, so D and I have already cast our ballots. If you can vote early, I encourage you to do so.

Yesterday, I helped decide legislation and appoint leaders and officials for Clark County, Congressional District 3, Legislative District 49, the great state of Washington, and the United States of America.

I voiced my preferences regarding transportation, euthanasia, and health care in my community. I chose the people I want to represent me in the state Supreme Court, the Governor's office, the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, and the White House.

In black and white on a piece of paper, I exercised my right and privilege as a citizen of this republic.

I voted.

What the fuck have you done lately?

~CKL

P.S. If you live in California, please vote NO on Prop 8 next Tuesday. Also go read Ex Machina, a learned political science treatise disguised as a comic book.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Truthful TV Title Cards

From glark.org:







See the original post for more. I want these on T-shirts.

~CKL

Classic Trek FTW

"Let's put it this way: Kirk kissed a lot of ladies, and none of them were his sister."
-- Stephanie Reid-Simons, "Star Trek ain't Star Wars, J.J.!" from armchaircommentary.com
I, too, have my doubts about next year's Trek reboot. Abrams does some things well, but Lost didn't really find its genre way until he stepped back and let some other folks drive the island (I love you, Brian K. Vaughan).

I'm not a big fan of the new bridge, as pictured in Entertainment Weekly. But D laughs out loud every time she sees Chris Pine's smarmy mug on the cover. "He's perfect," she says. She may be right. Even if his eyes are the wrong color.

~CKL

jra's thoughts redux

My friend Jeff, late of MSF and now in the UK, recently started blogging again. He's a smart geek who cares. You should read his stuff.

~CKL

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Charity Begins at Reading the Fine Print

While preparing myself for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I browsed the nanowrimo.org web site and saw a "Get Sponsored!" link. Intrigued, I clicked, and was initially pretty happy:
You can get friends and family to sponsor your novel-writing month through Firstgiving.com. All proceeds from sponsorships go to NaNoWriMo's parent 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Office of Letters and Light to pay for this year's Young Writers Program and adult main program.
Cool, right? Then I went over to firstgiving.com to see how this sponsorship thing works, and got one page into the signup process before hitting disappointment.

Now, I've talked about online donation services in the past, and I don't want to get any more hate mail than necessary. So let me just quote part of firstgiving.com's Terms and Conditions (my emphasis below):
Firstgiving will (i) be paid and process on-line donations (“On-Line Donations”) made by individuals or entities (“Donors”) through the Firstgiving Service; (ii) comply with the Privacy Policy in the form set forth at http://www.firstgiving.com, (iii) hold the funds received through On-line Donations in a non-operating bank account; (iv) remit funds to the designated non-profit or by check or electronically to the bank account the On-Line Donations, less (A) a service fee of 7.50% of on-line donations collected via the Firstgiving service, (B) 3.3% for fees collected for all online event registrations processed through our system (only applies if Firstgiving’s Paid Event Registration module is used). These fees above are inclusive of all credit card processing and banking fees; these fees are subject to change at any time at the discretion of Firstgiving...
I understand that any service like this needs to charge a fee. They need to pay for web hosting, staff, credit card and bank fees, and so on. But seven and a half percent? That's more than twice what most credit card processing fees run (around 3%). That's more than the sales tax in some states. Maybe it really is the least they can charge and still get by as a business. But knowing that only $18.50 of a $20 donation will actually make it to the charity still rubs me the wrong way.

So please, if you're thinking of giving any money to NaNoWriMo, just write them a check. It'll only cost you a postage stamp and an envelope, and they'll get every cent of what you donate. And don't forget, it's tax deductible.

~CKL

Pulp Direction

Today is the birthday of Lester Dent, creator of Doc Savage ("The Man of Bronze"). Writer's Almanac describes his formula for writing a 6,000-word pulp story:
Dent wrote more than a thousand pulp fiction stories, all with the same formula, which he detailed in an article that explained an exact formula for writing a 6,000-word pulp story.

Here is the formula for the first 1,500 words:

1. First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved — something the hero has to cope with.
2. The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
3. Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
4. Hero's endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1,500 words.
5. Near the end of first 1,500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.
The complete formula is online at The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot. In Dent's own words: "No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell."

~CKL

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Now We are on iTunes

I just realized that I hadn't actually announced my latest project here. Last week, I launched a new blog, 512 Words or Fewer, where I'll publish a flash fiction story every Friday and post audio of myself reading that story.

The podcast of those readings is also available via iTunes:



Subscribe now, and tell your friends! I've committed to a story every week for at least one year, so by next October there should be roughly 26,000 words and 3+ hours of this stuff.

~CKL

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Closing the Tabs

Installed a new Firefox extension today (RetailMeNot, if you must know), so it's time for a restart. And I might as well clean up these tabs while I'm at it:

Stanford Magazine and the Interstitial Arts Foundation are both looking for short stories to publish--up to 2,500 words by November 5th and 4,000-10,000 words by December 2nd, respectively. I probably have a better shot at the latter, which is likely to more receptive to genre (rather than "literary") fiction.

I really shouldn't be spending more money right now, but these Gamestop coupons are awfully tempting.

A fellow Viable Paradise graduate's (not my class, but still my tribe) short story "Chrono-Girl Vs. Kid Vampire" has been published online.

The latest issue of ACM Queue is online. Probably my last, since I didn't renew my membership for next year.

GrooveLily has posted "The Flash Point," another demo track from their new show Long Story Short.

Courtesy of Lifehacker, links to two things that sound cool but I don't really need: Windows registry hacking and a utility that clears all the "Recently Used" lists in Windows.

Viable Paradise linkage: Jim McDonald's recommended Emergency Kits and Elizabeth Bear et al.'s seriously serious Criminal Minds fanfic, Shadow Unit.

We need some kind of toy hammock to keep things from falling behind the corner bookshelf in the living room.

More things I really don't need: USBCell rechargeable AA batteries, a $50 Stargate mirror, and a $40 print of Serenity Valley.

I don't remember why I was looking at the Superstruct Game.

Another VP alum got her poem published online at Expanded Horizons.

A great collection of photos from VPXII--thanks, Alberto!

Charity art project to fight malaria, co-sponsored by open-source screenwriting software Celtx.

Writing links from VPXII.

Researching uses for our ancient WiFi access point: Avaya/Lucent/Orinoco RG-1000 Residential Gateway notes and WDS page from Wikipedia.

More from VPXII: Preditors and Editors™ and First Lines from Famous Books.

Read Free Star Trek Comics Online!

Last but not least, Writer's Digest reveals 28 Agents Who Want Your Work. But that list was published in August, so they're probably swamped with queries at this point.

~CKL

Perspective

"Everyone's really self-employed. If you work for a company, you just have one client," says Gregg Fisher, 35, founder of Gerstein Fisher, a New York financial-planning firm. "If they fire you, you're out of business."

-- "6 financial milestones before 30", MSN Money

Except, of course, the IRS doesn't make you pay that silly extra tax.

~CKL

Monday, October 06, 2008

Almost Famous

My friends Crissy and Elena feature prominently in today's San Jose Mercury News story about the city's annual Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon:
Eschewing the mental "zone" that long-distance runners try to enter, Crissy Gugler and Elena Melendez decided they would stop, get down and boogie at every musical stage along the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon.

"We do this every year, more for the music than for the running,'' said Gugler, 37, of Sunnyvale, who teaches hula hoop at night and didn't want to talk about her "boring'' day job...

"It's all about dancing to great music,'' said Melendez, a 35-year-old singer from Mountain View, "and a little running, too...''

Gugler and Melendez didn't care about finishing times. Decked out in black and shiny silver outfits, they would have looked like authentic rock queens on the stage if they didn't have to wear those big race numbers pinned to their clothes.
You gotta love the local news.

~CKL

Sunday, October 05, 2008

I Really Should Be Writing

Instead of browsing teh internets. And yet...


HowManyOfMe.com
LogoThere are
44
people with my name in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?



~CKL

The io9 Guide To October Science Fiction

A handy, printable calendar showing sfnal media events in October. Includes conventions, author appearances, book and DVD releases, movie openings, and new episodes of TV shows. The "new comics" dot on Wednesday is unnecessary, but overall, a nice planning aid for trufans (especially those on the west coast).

read more | digg story

Friday, October 03, 2008

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die

Skip ahead to 2:05 if you must. Yes, you do recognize her from Dr. Horrible; and no, you should not judge. Simply enjoy.



~CKL

Short Answer: NO

Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten's September 21st piece, titled "Illiterature: Can a computer judge fiction?", includes 385 words of custom-built slush. An excerpt:
JASMINE AND LAURENCE

By Gene Weingarten

The two lovers writhed as one, entwined and moist, like a spool of twine that had been dropped in the toilet.

"Oh, Laurence," Jasmine moaned, her breath the color of warm air.

Jasmine had a very complex character arc. Actually, it wasn't an arc so much as a parabola that could be expressed in Cartesian coordinates as an asymptote with polynomial coefficients, viz., y2 = 4ax, x2 = 4ay. In short, Jasmine was really hard to fathom, the way it's hard to fathom why you sometimes have to type "www" to access a Web site, but usually you don't. Also, she had very perky breasts...

Ow. Ow. My brain hurts.

The point of this exercise was to test a software product--advertised on craigslist, natch--which promises to "electronically analyze the quality and commercial viability of a work of fiction and prompt changes that will make it better." The software, of course, proclaimed that the above text showed "emotional depth," "motivational punch," and "resonance."

Riiight.

I don't even trust the grammar and spell checkers in Microsoft Word. I have absolutely no confidence that editorial judgment, a much more complex undertaking, can be automated. Unless, of course, we're talking post-singularity, and then all bets are off.

In the meantime, I'll stick with good ol' human critiques of my work. Because when I get published, they're going to be the ones buying my books.

~CKL

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Beginnings

Something Scalzi said at Viable Paradise (paraphrased): "Your first sentence buys you the first paragraph. Your first paragraph buys you the first page. Your first page buys you the first chapter. Your first chapter buys the next one."

In that spirit, here's a collection of first lines from college application essays--specifically, Stanford's class of 2012. Some of these could be (and some probably are) hooks for really interesting stories. My personal favorite is "I have old hands."

~CKL

iz mai birfday

I thought there would be more lolcats on this subject, but I guess it's a bit common.

Today is also former President/peanut farmer Jimmy Carter's birthday. I recall with unusual lucidity a moment from my childhood, when some friends and I were playing with a wind-up toy that was a peanut with Jimmy Carter's face--like the Planters mascot, but with eyebrows, nose, and teeth clearly caricatured to resemble President Carter.

The thing I remember most vividly is our discussion of what to name this toy. Should he be "Jimmy Peanut?" Or "Peanut Carter?" Even then, over twenty years ago, I was concerned with nomenclature. It's the details that reveal character.

Now I'm off to have some fun. I leave you with this thought:
"A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful, and restrained. It can afford to extend a helping hand to others. It's a weak nation, like a weak person, that must behave with bluster and boasting and rashness and other signs of insecurity."
-- Jimmy Carter

Many happy returns of the day.

~CKL

Monday, September 29, 2008

Back in the World

I'm home after an exhausting and exhilarating week at Viable Paradise XII. I spent all day Saturday traveling, was pretty much useless on Sunday, and only regained the mental capacity to make actual decisions late this afternoon. (Speaking of which, my wife is a saint for putting up with me.)

Today, we stopped at the Portland Ikea (again) to pick up a dresser for our bedroom closet. We also ordered a bed for our office/guest room, to be delivered tomorrow, and got me a Vancouver library card. The unpacking goes slowly but surely.

After spending an entire week writing, talking about writing, thinking about writing, and hearing about writing, it's a little disorienting to be back in a place where other things seem more important and immediate. But at least I know I'm not alone. I met a lot of amazing people last week, and I hope to keep in touch with them for many years to come.

~CKL

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Surprise to No One

C'mon, I read Making Light. What did you expect?

You are a
Social Liberal
(78% permissive)

and an...

Economic Liberal
(25% permissive)

You are best described as a:

Strong Democrat




Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid


~CKL

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Jumping on the Memewagon

Take a picture of yourself right now.
don't change your clothes, don't fix your hair...just take a picture.
post that picture with NO editing.
post these instructions with your picture.


 

I call this one "Scenes From an Earthquake."

~CKL

Viable Paradise XII Daily Schedule

If you're interested in that sort of thing:

 
 
 

~CKL

I Miss Aaron Sorkin

But at least we still have Sorkin parodies, like this West Wing homage from Maureen Dowd:
OBAMA I appreciate your sense of humor, sir, but I really could use your advice.

BARTLET Well, it seems to me your problem is a lot like the problem I had twice.

OBAMA Which was?

BARTLET A huge number of Americans thought I thought I was superior to them.

OBAMA And?

BARTLET I was.

OBAMA I mean, how did you overcome that?

BARTLET I won’t lie to you, being fictional was a big advantage.

-- "Seeking a President Who Gives Goose Bumps? So’s Obama," New York Times, September 21, 2008

(Thanks to my friend Mike for the link.)

~CKL

Friday, September 19, 2008

I'll Fly Away

I'm headed back east today, crossing the country again for a writing workshop on Martha's Vineyard:

Viable Paradise: The workshop you've been searching for.

So I probably won't be blogging too much for the next week or so. But I'm sure you can find some other way to amuse yourself. Hey, what's this?

~CKL

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Gamer Syndrome

This past Sunday, the Seattle Times ran a story titled, simply, "The Game." It's about those weekend-long puzzle hunts that I often discuss here; in particular, it's about one which took place in Las Vegas in 2002 and resulted in one participant, Bob Lord, being paralyzed from the neck down.

Lawsuits followed, of course, and the dust has mostly settled now. There's still a devoted Seattle Game community, mostly Microsofties, but they've only attempted one large-scale event since 2002--most of their energy has been focused on smaller and often Microsoft-centric activities (e.g., intern puzzle hunts). Which is fine; Microsoft casts a long shadow, but I always thought one of the strengths of the San Francisco bay area Game scene was the more, shall we say, open-source nature of it.

Not to reinforce stereotypes or anything. What happened in 2002 was tragic, and I don't doubt that if it had happened to a bay area GC, we'd all have been gun-shy for the last six years, too. The silver lining is that more and more Seattle teams have been traveling to bay area Games, and in doing so proven that Google and Microsoft (or, at least, their employees) actually can play nice.

But let's get back to Bob Lord. Here's how the Seattle Times described his thought process as he headed into the wrong mine shaft, where he would fall and break his neck:
The clue also had an unusual message: "1306 is clearly marked. Enter ONLY 1306. Do NOT enter others." To Lord, this was just another clue, perhaps a head-fake from Game Control. Enter 1306? What could there be 1306 of in the desert, he wondered. Parking stalls? Telephone poles?

Lord led the way until his recalculated bearings pointed directly into an opening. He flashed back to the video dropped from the helicopter: This must be the right place, he thought.

The "NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!" spray-painted in fluorescent orange was no deterrent. Again, Lord flashed back to an earlier point in The Game: "NO!" had been part of a previous clue. Absorbed in his own musings, Lord missed one other salient clue: the number 1296 spray-painted in blue next to the opening.

Followed closely by other team members, Lord walked into the opening nearly 100 feet, until the only light was the LED screen on his GPS.

His team members heard him slip. Bob? they called. Bob?

Nothing.

Now, one could make an argument for personal responsibility. One could say that the warnings not to enter that mine shaft were obvious and explicit, and any reasonable person would have heeded them. But, without assigning any blame, it's important to remember that The Game is intended to remove its participants from reality.

The goal of every Game Control is (or should be, IMHO) to create a fantastic experience which would be impossible in their players' normal lives--as one Gamer described it, "like being the star of your own action movie." The Game challenges you to do things you never thought you could, take risks you might not even imagine otherwise. Nowadays, this is the stuff of reality TV, but when I started playing in the mid-1990s, you couldn't get it anywhere else.

And behind the scenes, pulling all the strings, making the impossible into an alternate reality, is Game Control. Especially on your first Game, it's easy to fool yourself into thinking that they're all-powerful. How did they hide that clue in a cash register receipt? How did they build this amazing electronic device? It seems plausible that they could anticipate and plan for every contingency.

(The truth is that it's an awful lot of work. The two most important qualities for a successful GC are adaptability and resourcefulness. You can never anticipate everything, but when things go sideways, you have to deal with it. If The Game is an action movie for the players, it's an entire season of 24 for GC.)

And all that willing suspension of disbelief can lead to what certain theme park employees call "Disneyland Syndrome." As the wonderful Teresa Nielsen Hayden (kayn aynhoreh) describes in Making Book:
Disneyland Syndrome is simply forgetting that you can get hurt; that walking hatless in the sun for ten hours, not eating or drinking except at whim, can hospitalize you. That if you lean over the boat railing you can fall in, that water over your head will drown you if you can't swim just like in the real world, and that if the paddlewheel of the Mark Twain runs over you your chances do not improve.

She goes on to cite other places where Disneyland Syndrome occurs, including Las Vegas, giant suburban shopping malls, and Yellowstone Park, where the introductory pamphlet includes the admonition "Don't seat your four-year-old on the bear's back in order to take pictures" (paraphrased, I'm sure).

I would add The Game to that list. Despite the fact that you're locked in a weekend-long battle of wits with GC (they present clues, you solve them, repeat for 30 hours), you're still under their wing, following their lead, protected by their power. At least, that's how you feel. Except it's not real. You just want to believe. But wishing does not make it so.

~CKL

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ticket Master of the House

A couple of days ago, our friend Karl tipped us to the fact that Neal Stephenson would be in Portland next week, at a ticketed author event promoting his new book, Anathem. I, of course, immediately went to buy tickets for D and myself. The venue very helpfully* offered a link to buy tickets online through Ticketmaster, which I did.

HOWEVER. Can you tell me what's wrong with this picture?



Let me break it down for you. The actual tickets were only $5 each. For each ticket, there was an additional $3.90 "convenience charge," and on top of that, a $3.60 "order processing fee." Grand total: $21.40 for $10 worth of tickets. That seem right to you?

The good news is, I was able to exchange some of my American Express Membership Rewards points for these tickets, so I didn't actually have to part with any real money.

And now, for no particular reason, I will quote some lyrics from the hit musical show Les Miserables:
When it comes to fixing prices
There are lots of tricks he knows
How it all increases, all them bits and pieces
Jesus! It's amazing how it grows!

~CKL

* They also kindly informed me that the ticket purchase "does not include [a] copy of the book."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sitcom Room, etc.

Today, I registered for Ken Levine's Sitcom Room, wherein I will spend 33 hours in a hotel with 19 other TV writer wannabes, working in a team of 5 to rewrite and improve a comedy scene.

That happens one week after Ghost Patrol, during which I will spend 30 hours in a van, competing against 21 other teams, working with my team of 6 to complete a marathon puzzle hunt.

Of course, this all takes place in the month of November, also known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), when I'll be pounding out 50,000 words of a first draft.

Before then--just over a week from now, in fact--I'm flying back east for Viable Paradise. I'm stocking up on sleep now. Starting tonight. Really.

And, on October 3rd, something wonderful will happen. (It will continue happening for at least the next year, but that's another story.)

My point is this: Break's over.

~CKL

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Spore-22

Twenty-two is probably about the total number of hours (so far) that I've spent playing Spore or fiddling with the Creature Creator. I also felt like I was living a Catch-22 paradox this afternoon, when I ran into a crash-to-desktop bug several times. D and I have played our first creature up to the Space stage, but now every time our homeworld gets attacked (which is way too much--a different gripe, see below), after we fend off the invaders and try to save the game, CRASH.

Now there's probably bad code there, but there are also two big design flaws: no auto-save option anywhere in the game, and no way to save the game while you're in a planet's atmosphere. You have to go into orbit before you can save, which means switching view modes, and that's when the crash occurs. You can't save without going into orbit, you can't go into orbit without crashing the game. Grr. Arg.

The debugger in me is curious about what's actually causing this problem--one forum poster thought it might be a bloated graphics cache file, but further experiments disproved that hypothesis. Other suggested workarounds include turning all the graphics quality settings to LOW, or performing a very specific sequence of actions after an attack. None of them seems reliably successful.

The gamer in me is annoyed that EA might have rushed this thing to market and forced its biggest fans to become beta testers. I know it's a complex simulation and all, but Half-Life 2 and Portal never crashed on me once. Not once. Maybe I should just stick to waiting two or three years before trying a game, so I know my hardware will exceed the system requirements. Nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure.

All that said, Spore really is a remarkable achievement. D and I still have problems with the twitchy camera and movement controls, and the Space stage requires way too much micro-management, but overall, it's amazing how much fun the game is. When it's not crashing.

~CKL

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Understanding Google Chrome

Can't wait to download the new web browser from the big G? Pass the time by reading the Google Chrome comic book by Scott McCloud (author of the seminal Understanding Comics), which summarizes a lot of technical detail very well. I also know a few of the people featured in the comic, and it's a kick to see their line-art alter egos.

I'm a big believer in using comics to communicate difficult concepts. I love Larry Gonick's Cartoon Guide series, and I even used his Cartoon Guide to Statistics as a reference for one of my first projects at Google. Hey, I'm an engineer, not a mathematician.

In my last year at Google, I started an internal company blog called "Googley Comics," featuring humorous illustrations which employees would often email around--fake propaganda posters, Google-centric parodies of other art, etc. Most of the stuff was pretty esoteric or inside baseball, as you might expect, but they were fascinating cultural documents, and I thought it would be nice to have a central archive collected and annotated somewhere. I wonder if anyone's still maintaining that blog.

Here's one of my own Dinosaur Comics knock-offs:



~CKL

Monday, September 01, 2008

JoCo@PAX08

Jonathan Coulton is a fine musician and showman...





...a gentleman, who will share the stage with a lady...



...and, sometimes, a bit of a dick.





~CKL