Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday Flash Fiction: "The More Things Change"

Time travel is always tricky, as everyone on Lost now knows. But if it's possible, we're going to figure it out by using science and technology like Daniel Faraday, not with mystical bullshit like, well, every other uncurious motherfucker on the show.

And nobody ever talks about the bureaucracy that would surely grow like weeds around something as potentially volatile as time machines (depending, of course, on whether you believe in the many-worlds interpretation or the immutable alchemist's gate). Well, nobody except Connie Willis. I love Connie Willis.

Read "The More Things Change" at 512 Words or Fewer


Thursday, February 26, 2009

TV Unplugged

Having watched the Academy Awards on Sunday over the air--for free, with a $15 UHF antenna--and having read Saturday's Consumerist post about How To Cancel Cable Without Losing Your Favorite Shows, I felt it was a good time to review our family's own TV watching arrangements.

But before I get into that, I'd like to remind everyone that even though you can follow John Scalzi's example and Amuse Yourself Completely (and Legally) for $100 a Month, it doesn't have to cost nearly that much. Your nearest public library is likely to have enough reading material to suit your tastes and keep you busy for months, if not years. If you're not sure how to find something, go talk to a librarian. They're nice people.

Back to TV. First of all, even though we do have a theoretical 12MB/s connection to TEH INTARWUBS, streaming video still sucks. I'm not sure who to blame; all I know is that even short YouTube videos work better when I pause first and wait for the play buffer to fill. Anything that won't let me do that (I'm giving you the stink-eye, Hulu and Netflix) is useless.

So let's talk about downloading. I'm only going to talk about legal methods for purchasing content. If you're looking for BitTorrent info, look elsewhere. I won't encourage you to do anything illegal, and I certainly can't tell you to download utorrent, or visit The Pirate Bay/, or even watch the howto video presented as evidence in the spectrial. No sir, you won't find any of that here.

Why not watch the "free" (ad-supported) full episodes available on various TV networks' web sites? Well, first of all, it's streaming video, which sucks (see above). Second, and perhaps more importantly, the writers don't get paid for those viewings. I know, most people couldn't care less about this, but even if the WGA negotiated a bad deal at the end of last year's strike, you can still do the right thing. None of that advertising money is contractually owed to the writers, but they do get a cut of your EST (electronic sell-through) dollars.

The good news is, there are only two major players in the online TV market, which means only two crappy applications you need to download and install: Apple iTunes and Amazon Unbox (recently rebranded as "Video On Demand"). Amazon also allows you to watch on their web site, using a Flash plugin, but again: Streaming. Sucks.

Both services charge about $2 an episode. Apple also offers HD versions for $3 a pop, if you really crave those extra pixels.

Both services offer "season passes" (Amazon calls them "TV passes") for most shows. Amazon is better, because they give a 10-cent-per episode discount on TV passes, and they'll offer a pass before the whole season is out. iTunes doesn't always offer a season pass if they don't know how many episodes will be in the season (e.g., for new shows), because they do package pricing, not per-episode billing like Amazon.

However, iTunes does offer "multi-passes" for some shows--The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, for example--which get you the next sixteen episodes (four full weeks; they don't air on Fridays) and an option to renew after that. Amazon only offers their standard TV pass, which continues until an entire season ends; if you cancel in the middle of the season and want to restart later, you'll have to buy individual episodes. If, like me, you never actually watched every single episode of The Daily Show, the iTunes multi-pass is a better deal.

[Aside: I have lately been weaned off the Stewart/Colbert teats by free downloads of The Rachel Maddow Show podcast from MSNBC. I've got the Internet; I don't really need to watch news on TV, but every now and then I like a little commentary. Also, Go Cardinal!]

Finally, both services allow you to export video to portable devices; Apple supports iPods, iPhones, and such, and Amazon works with Creative Zen, Archos, and some cell phones as well as TiVos, Xbox 360s, and Media Center PCs.

If you have a Mac or PS3 or some other considered-exotic hardware, I'm told you can install TVersity or Rivet or similar third-party software to transcode your video for those devices. And, of course, if you've already paid for the content, there's no ethical problem with downloading a non-DRM'd version from the wild when the craptastic DRM mechanism inevitably fails. But I would never tell you to do that.

ADDENDUM: We used to pay over $80 a month for satellite TV. Now that we're only paying for the shows we actually watch, we spend less than $20 a month.

(EDIT: Both services can be slow to release new episodes, sometimes lagging a day or two after broadcast. In general, iTunes seems to be better than Amazon at getting shows out faster.)


Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Sometimes, the humans like to have other humans come visit. Mostly, this happened when we lived in our other house. We'd have a crowd of nice humans who came over every few days. I got lots of pets and playtime then!

Once in a while, there would be a whole LOT of humans for one day only. Bayla and I got locked in our room when that happened. It was boring, but it was okay. I don't like too many strange humans to bother me! Besides, some of the familiar, nice humans would come visit.

Since we moved to the mini-house, there haven't been many human visitors. We either get scary strangers who come in with noisy machines, or we get one human at a time. The one human stays for a little while, usually ignores Bayla and me, and then goes away again.

This weekend we got lots of humans! First, we got one human who ignored us for a couple of nights. Then we got a bunch of humans for one day only. One of the human bunch even stayed overnight.

It's been a long time since we've seen so many humans at once! I remember both of the humans who stayed with us from before, but all the others were new. I thought it would be scary, especially since Bayla and I weren't safe in our room with the door closed this time.

But it wasn't so bad! The first human who stayed with us put up a shimmery curtain-thing. Most of the new humans stayed on the other side of the curtain. The ones who didn't were mostly just running back and forth through the curtain. They really seemed to enjoy it. A couple of the others came through the curtain to give me pets and attention. That was nice.

I'm starting to remember why I used to like it when my humans had other humans come to visit!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

DIY Oscar Party Kit

Every year, D and I host an Academy Awards viewing party at our home, and we amassed a bit of a following in the bay area over the last decade. Now that we've moved away, our friends Ken & Jerry are carrying on the tradition down there. The following materials are for them, and anyone else hosting an Oscar Party tomorrow, to use freely!

Acceptance Speech BINGO

Reload the "generate card" link and print without headers or footers on card stock. It's always good to do a quick visual check before printing each card, to make sure you don't have any wacky words on there--the Perl script that sifts the word list is far from perfect.

Trivia Slides
View Online / Download PowerPoint File (2.4MB)

We used to print these out and mount them on colored cardboard before taping them to the walls, but lately we've just been running the slide show on one of our laptops. If you download the PPT file, it's already set to kiosk mode with a 20-second delay. If you don't have PowerPoint, you can download the viewer for free.

Printable Ballot
Download PDF (833KB) from

See if your guests can predict the winners! Thanks to TiVo, we can pause the show right before the first award to make sure we've got everyone's completed ballots. I also print my answer key on a plastic transparency slide so it's easier to "grade" the ballots.

Assembling prizes is left as an exercise for the reader. We usually get small tchotchkes and sweets from OTC or the local party store and throw a handful of those into gift bags for BINGO prizes, then make a gift basket (with one trinket related to each of the Best Picture nominees) for the "predict the winners" grand prize. And I gotta tell you, it was tough finding something for Milk.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Flash Fiction: "What You Should Know About Water Rites"

Fun fact: The title of this week's story is the same length as 1.4% of the story itself. Also, the first draft was about three times longer and included a lot of rambling about politics and homelessness. So much for social relevance. I know, I know, just get to the damn magic already. Fine.

Read "What You Should Know About Water Rites" at 512 Words or Fewer


Thursday, February 19, 2009

My new favorite web site:

I found this site in the process of updating my trivia slides for this year's Oscar Party, and am now wasting a whole lot of time browsing through the designs for different countries. It's fun to see what kind of marketing the studios thought would be most appropriate in other places.

And where else (outside of Hong Kong) are you going to see this poster for Milk?

Sorry, Engrish fans, the Chinese title is a pretty straight translation: "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk" (with the first four characters being a rough phonetic approximation of Xia-Fei Mi-Ke). If you want more interesting translations, you'll have to go find some bootleg Star Wars DVDs.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

GC Summit 2009 Debriefing

Thursday night's gathering was a rousing success, thanks in large part to the Shinteki folks, who got us a meeting room and free parking at the San Francisco Zoo. See for yourself:

Thanks also to Larry Hosken, who (via his employer) loaned the video equipment I used to record the talks. They'll be online Real Soon Now. Meanwhile, you can flip through the slides:

All the presenters had great things to say, but I want to repeat just one phrase: RUN MORE GAMES. Volunteer to help playtest or staff an event. Ask past GCs about their experiences. It really is a lot of fun, and it's something every Gamer should try at some point.

Part of it is, as Red says, about giving back to the community, but it's also about challenging yourself even further. If you've played more than one Game, you know you can survive (and, hopefully, thrive) solving puzzles in a van for 36 hours. You've already pushed yourself to the edge of that envelope.

Maybe it's time to explore a bigger envelope.

Run a Game.


P.S. In case anyone's still looking for it, here's my Open Letter to Aspiring GCs.

(UPDATE: You can now view all the presentation videos online.)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday Flash Fiction: "Art Attack"

D read this week's story and remarked that it has the same type of ending as "Antique"--i.e., one character making a flip remark.

I'm also quite aware that it's yet another alien-artifact mystery (like "The Forty" and "Finale") and, though it does have a self-contained conflict and resolution, feels like the teaser to a longer piece (like "Bachelor of Science" and "Ghosts of Earth").*

Am I getting into a rut? You tell me.

Read "Art Attack" at 512 Words or Fewer


* For the record, I am working on longer versions of all three of those stories.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On the Road Again

We're heading out on another brief road trip, this time down to San Francisco for the Game Control (GC) Summit on Thursday and the Cinematic Titanic live show on Saturday. On our way, we'll stop in Redding for a look at the Sundial Bridge. It's going to be a long drive both ways. The good news is, we'll get to catch up on all our podcasts...


Sunday, February 08, 2009

Today has been very relaxing.

We all slept in, even the humans. I like it when everyone stays in bed for hours after the sun comes up. It's very homey.

Then--miracle of miracles--the humans finally listened to Jasper. He's been trying to get their attention for almost a week. But we finally got some catnip. As Jasper might say: "Catnip! I love catnip!"

He does, too. It makes him even more mellow and affectionate than usual. We spent the afternoon alternating between napping and indulging in green, leafy goodness.

I may have overindulged a bit. The humans were in the room to hear my distress, however, and got everything cleaned up in a hurry.

Unfortunately, they took the catnip away. I wonder how long we're going to have to wait before they give us more?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Friday Flash Fiction: "Better"

I've been sick today (in bed until 2pm, on the couch until 6pm, now back in bed), so today's shameless self-promotion is a bit late. The good news is, my friend Jeff already blogged about today's story. So you can just go read his post instead.