Thursday, January 31, 2008

Applying Myself

Tomorrow is the early application deadline for Clarion West. I don't need the $100 tuition discount, but it was a good way to get myself to write for the last two weeks, and I'm all done--I just hit "send" on my application email. Wish me luck!

At D's suggestion, I revised and submitted the first 27 pages of Spaceship Castle, my latest NaNoWriMo novel. That was the easy part. Writing a 3-page synopsis of the novel, something I'd never done before, took a lot longer. And the personal essay--a "description of your background and your reasons for attending the workshop"--was the toughest part by far. I don't like to talk about myself, as you may have guessed, and I'm a horrible salesman.

D deserves all the credit for helping me get those 800 words out. I searched the web for guidance on how to write the essay, hoping to find some samples from previous workshop attendees, but there was nothing out there. So, in the interest of making information accessible and useful, below is the complete personal essay from my 2008 Clarion West Application. And no, I'm not worried about anyone plagiarizing it. If you really want to be a writer, you have your own stories to tell. This is my story.
I am an orphan of the Space Age. The first thing I ever wanted to be was an astronaut, and it took me a long time to accept that it wasn’t going to happen. I was born after the last man walked on the Moon. I was thirteen years old when Challenger exploded. And there’s a good chance I’ll die before humans land on Mars.

The good news is, I’ve also been able to watch science fiction take over the mainstream media. The first television show I ever saw was Space: 1999. My first movie was Star Wars. But the real good stuff was in books.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been reading speculative fiction. My first love was hard science fiction--Asimov’s Foundation novels, Niven’s Ringworld series--but I’ve also enjoyed a lot of fantasy, horror, and other weird tales. I like to think I’ve expanded my horizons from merely the known universe to places that could never exist outside their authors’ imaginations.

I started writing my own stories in grade school, copying plots from Tom Swift adventures and hard-boiled prose from spy thrillers. I knew I wasn’t very good, but I kept at it, and I got better. I was first published in my high school literary journal. In college, I started my own web site, and people from as far away as Australia sent me email saying how much they enjoyed my short stories.

In the last quarter of my senior year, I took a writing class with Ursula K. LeGuin and Pat Murphy. I had to pinch myself when I first saw the listing in the course catalog. It was a great experience, and really got me excited about writing.

After graduation, I took a software engineering job at a Silicon Valley startup. The next few years were a whirlwind, and my writing fell by the wayside. I still dabbled, but I never found the time to finish anything. It was easy to listen to managers and coworkers telling me what to do with my career instead.

Seven years later, at Worldcon in San Jose, I ran into Pat Murphy again, and she asked if I was still writing. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I told her I hadn't been submitting stories anywhere. Sadness, and disappointment, but not surprise.

The startup had folded by then, and I had moved on to less rewarding jobs at larger companies. During a bad stretch of unhappiness with work, I started taking acting lessons. The first class was on February 1, 2003, the same day that the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven died during re-entry. I cried. I was thirteen years old again, listening to the radio, not wanting to believe it, not knowing what to do.

In class, I found that I was always picking apart scripts and wishing that the characters were less one-dimensional. I realized that I was more interested in writing my own dialogue than speaking someone else’s.

So I looked for other ways to scratch my storytelling itch. I started running treasure hunts with my friends, and my favorite part was making up narratives to glue the events together. I finished writing my first complete novel in 2005, thanks to NaNoWriMo, and am now working on my third. I’ve had several 500-word vignettes published online. But I’m still missing something.

I know I can write. I write emails every day, I take great meeting notes, and I have a blog that nobody reads. But I also know that I can improve. So far, I’ve just been fumbling around and getting lucky with my stories. I still have trouble with structure and character and probably a raft of other things I don’t even know about. I believe that Clarion can help me identify those problems and figure out some solutions.

Writing fiction is the most challenging and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I’ll never be an astronaut, but ever since I started reading about aliens and spaceships, I’ve also dreamed of being a writer. (After all, what good is visiting another planet if you can’t tell the story?) And that is still possible.

I’ve been an engineer for almost thirteen years. After spinning the stock option wheel of fortune several times, I finally hit the jackpot. I didn’t make enough to retire, but I have saved up enough to take some time off and chase this dream. I’m hoping that Clarion will be another great experience that helps me kick-start the next part of my life.

I'll let you know whether I get accepted--either way, it'll be a signal.

Meanwhile, I'm now working on my application for the original Clarion in San Diego. I can't submit a novel excerpt for this one, so I've got four weeks to write the two best short stories I've ever written. No pressure.


Monday, January 28, 2008

"An expensive way to smell poo"

I generally find the product reviews on very helpful. Sort them with the lowest ratings at the top and you'll see if there are common complaints about a product, or if people are just blowing off steam for some other reason. But every now and then, in addition to being useful, a review will be entertaining in the sublime.

N A Cat Lover's review of the CatGenie is just such a review. D found it while researching cat supplies--in particular, litter boxes--for our upcoming road trip, and it is now my distinct pleasure to share this information with you.

Here's an excerpt:
Cat Genie takes the small unpleasantness of daily cleaning the litter and it saves it up and releases that unpleasantness as one big unscheduled, unpleasant inconvenience every week or two. Advanced monitors will ensure that the device failure will occur during the workday, as you prepare for your important meeting with your prospective client. Nothing like cleaning out wet cat poo in your nicest suit. Or, you may be pleasantly awoken in the middle of the night by the repeating three beeps of "there's poo and hair in the hopper." You will become more familiar with your cat's feces every day as the cat genie gently fills your home with the aroma of baking excrement.
Follow the link above to read more. Was this review helpful to me? Oh yes. Oh hell yes.


Friday, January 25, 2008

D's California Voter Guide

It's a week and a half before the California primary, but thanks to the magic of vote-by-mail, D and I have already completed our ballots. Since she's the one who actually reads the entire voter information guide--including the actual text of the proposed legislation--most of the views below are hers. Your mileage may vary.

President of the United States: Obama or Clinton.
I can't speak to the Republican pool, but as far as Democrats go, I would encourage you to vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama (pick one). Not just because they're the only non-white-males, but because, for various reasons, they know what it's like to be hated. They've lived with adversity all their lives, and they wouldn't have gotten this far if they didn't have the strength and the will to keep fighting. Whether you agree with their particular views is a different issue, but I believe they will get the job done. D might specifically recommend Hillary, since Bill and Hillary are really a package deal, and D thinks the country did pretty well under Bill Clinton.

Now, a funny story: I'm registered as a non-partisan (no party affiliation) voter, but since the Democrats are allowing everyone and anyone to vote in their primary, I received two vote-by-mail ballots--one non-partisan, with just the propositions, and one Democratic, with the candidates as well. I'm only going to send back the Democratic ballot, but I wonder how many other people are in the same boat, and how much confusion and extra work it's going to cause our election workers. Do you really need any more proof that the system is broken? It's a bit depressing, really.

Prop 91, Transportation Funds: NO.
This one's a no-brainer. Even the argument for the proposition tells you to vote no, because it's been made obsolete by other legislation already. Did I mention that the system is somewhat broken?

Prop 92, Community Colleges: YES.
Education is a good thing. Yes, it will increases taxes, but D's okay with that. She also likes the establishment of an independent Board of Governors.

Prop 93, Term Limits: NO.
There's a huge loophole in this proposition, and D doesn't like legal trickery. Check out the Text of Proposed Law (PDF) and see for yourself.

Props 94, 95, 96, and 97, Indian Gaming: YES, YES, YES, and YES.
The primary issue here, in D's view, is one of process. Voting down these propositions would overturn an agreement that the Governor has already made with the four tribes in question, and that sets a dangerous precedent. Two wrongs do not make a right. Also note that all four compacts still need to be approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior, so if you don't like it, you can still make a federal case out of it. Literally!

No matter how you vote, the important thing is that you get out to the polls on February 5th and VOTE--yes, even if it's raining, you wimp.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Heath Ledger is dead.

There's going to be a lot of frivolous reporting in the next few days--especially since this year's Academy Award nominees were also announced today, and that's one hell of a juicy juxtaposition--but before you drown in that bottomless pit, here's some perspective from the NYPD:

That's the official police summary of the incident. We all look the same to the Grim Reaper. Death lays his icy hands on kings.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Goodbye to Google

(Pop quiz: Does the title of this post make you think of the Carpenters' "Goodbye to Love," Michelle Branch's "Goodbye to You," or another song? Leave your answer in a comment below!)

After more than four years, Friday was my last day at the 'plex. My feelings about leaving mirror Nathan Stoll's and Kevin Fox's. I still believe it's a great place to work, but it's time for me to try something completely different. More on that later.

Unlike some other bloggers, I've purposefully avoided mentioning my employer or talking much about work. That was not to be coy or mysterious; if you care at all, you can find my complete employment history on LinkedIn. It was just my way of avoiding any perceived or actual impropriety with respect to the disclosure of company information. Now that I'm no longer an employee, it will be less of a concern, but don't expect this place to suddenly become all-Google-all-the-time. It's a great company, but it was never my life.

So what am I doing now? I'm taking the next three years off to do some writing. D and I are planning to move up to Portland later this year, where most things are a heck of a lot cheaper than here in the bay area, and I'm applying to Clarion. We're also going to do some traveling. You'll be able to read all about it right here on the HotSheet.

You might think I'm crazy to walk away from such an insanely successful company, but I've been working in Silicon Valley for twelve years, and this was never what I really wanted to do with my life. It's just something I happened to be passably good at, at a time when people were paying well for those skills. Now that I have the opportunity to chase my dreams, I'd be crazy not to go for it.

I'll end with this bit of NSFW philosophy from xkcd:

Friday, January 11, 2008

Phrase of the Week

Courtesy of BoingBoing:
Browsing the web from Guatemala is always an adventure. Works okay when there's electricity, which hasn't been very steady while I've been down here over the last few weeks (there have been some big blackouts here related to a sketchy power grid, and unusually intense windstorms). What sucks worse than the lights dimming, or DSL or sat bombing out? Constant Google cockblocking.
Read the complete post and further discussion at "(Guatemala) Google is sorry."

In related news, I was a bit surprised that the San Francisco Chronicle would choose to bleep out "cock" in Tim Goodman's TV Talk Machine podcast, but allow the compound "cockblocking" to remain uncensored.

Of course, former US President Jimmy Carter would never resort to using such crude language. He is much more eloquent than that.

I Got What America Needs Right Here

The Onion

I Got What America Needs Right Here

Sometimes I'm a little stupid, maybe, a little slow in the head, so I'm wondering if you can help me get something straight....

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Gmail Pwn4g3

I'm not sure, but I think this might be bad...

What do you mean, you don't get it? Sigh.

"That's worth going to jail for. That's worth anything."

Those are the final words of Cory Doctorow's short story "Printcrime," and I didn't spoil anything by telling you that. But you should read the story--it's short, less than 750 words--before you read about the RepRap, an actual, open-source product being developed in England.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The View from My Parents' House

D and I spent the week between Xmas and New Year's with my parents, who live in Rancho Palos Verdes. Here's the view from their back window, looking north toward downtown Los Angeles:

It's even more spectacular at night, when you can see the city lights twinkling all around. And we saw at least three different fireworks shows on New Year's Eve.

A word on creating panoramic photos:

I always knew there was software to do this, but had never researched it until this week. If you're interested, the short answer is Autostitch--free for non-commercial use, fully automated, and made in Canada. That's what I used to create the image shown above.

Ironically, I found Autostitch by searching for "picasa panorama," thinking that maybe the big G had, you know, thrown that feature in just for fun. They hadn't, but the search results included a news article about photo software, which linked to the Autostitch page. (My initial search, "photo panorama," hit three commercial products at the top of the list, all of which were more cumbersome to download or use than Autostitch, and one of which crashed on me.)