Wednesday, December 30, 2009

One fictional object

This is one of those speculative questions, which is to say that it's fun to discuss but otherwise useless in the real world. Here's the game: If you could have any one fictional object, what would you want?

The rules are:
  • It can't exist in the real world. (You can't ask for the Hope Diamond, for example.)
  • It can't be boring. (Okay, so that's subjective. Sue me.)
  • You have to explain why you'd want it.

My son, for example, probably wants a tank that turns into a giant robot. My wife might be interested in having her very own TARDIS. For myself, I'm torn between a Power Ring and Blue Beetle's scarab. (Both of my answers basically amount to Vast Supernatural Powers, only they're item based; both include the possibility of personal space flight, self defense capability, and an enormous amount of personal resources.)

What would you want?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Why are they always carnivores?

When Professor Montague found the cow in his kitchen, he assumed it was just an end-of-semester prank. The animal looked confused, but docile. It had scuffed up the linoleum, but hadn't done any harm otherwise. So he led it out into the back yard, and called the the police - and then Animal Services - to take care of it. It was at least an hour later before he realized that Domino, his black and white cat, was missing. At the time, he assumed that the cat must have escaped while the cow was being brought in.

Domino showed up two days later; the animal shelter called the vet, and the vet called Professor Montague. He retrieved the cat with a certain sense of relief, and a few curses in the direction of whoever had let Domino escape. The cow, he could live with - he thought - but losing his cat was more serious. The police weren't much help. They didn't have any idea who had brought the cow into his house, or how. Come to that, they seemed to be a little confused about what had become of the animal afterwards. Realizing that he would probably never get the whole story, the Professor went back to writing articles and did his best to forget it.

A month later, he woke up with a cow lying on top of his bed. For several minutes he remained convinced that he was actually asleep and dreaming. It was only after he'd managed to worm his way out from under the covers, and put in his second cow-related call to the police, that he decided this was actually happening. Given the damage to his bed, and the condition of the animal - it didn't seem any happier about this than he was - he would have preferred to be having a nightmare. To cap the matter, Domino was missing again.

The professor spent the rest of the night wondering how it was even possible for someone to get a cow into his bedroom (let alone onto his bed) without his noticing. The man from Animal Services was even more puzzled; he called the next morning to tell Professor Montague that someone had apparently broken in to their facility, taken the cow, and left the professor's cat. "If it's a prank," he said, "it's awfully elaborate." Professor Montague agreed, and went to pick up Domino.

By the time it happened again, he had changed all the locks on his house, installed an alarm system and motion-sensitive outside spotlights, and taken an active role in the local Neighborhood Watch. He could not imagine who might be doing this, or what point they might be trying to make. He was only a little less puzzled about how they had managed it.

This time, he was standing in the kitchen. This time, he saw Domino twist and grow. He saw the cat's fur shorten, the teeth flatten, the bones change shape.

He saw the paws become hooves.

He saw, and he could barely believe it. His first thought was that he must be dreaming... But nothing else happened. There was a cow in his kitchen, looking at him. His second thought was that he must have lost his mind... but surely the authorities would have noticed if they'd been collecting imaginary cows. It was the utter, surreal mundanity of the scene that finally convinced him... and then he started to laugh.

Professor Montague lives in a small house, with a cat named Domino. Once a month, when the moon is full, he takes the cat outside and locks it in the small barn in the back yard. On the rare occasions when someone asks about the barn, he says it's a storage shed. He never talks about Domino, and he never tries to document the change. When he comes back in the morning, he takes the cat back inside the house. Domino usually spends the rest of the day sleeping; but then, that's how Domino usually spends his days.

You can blame my wife for this one. Seriously, though, why are were-beasts always predators? And why are the default forms always human?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Where writers get their ideas (sometimes)

The concrete pipe let out in a creepy old abandoned natatorium. There was something in the water - something with slick, blubbery flesh, and tentacles. I went to get weapons. When I came back, there were more of them... and they had people trapped in the dark. (Don't think 'prisoners.' Think 'pantry.')

The things didn't like the light, and they fled when I cut them; but there were more of them than I'd expected, and those tentacles had a lot of reach.

If I'd stayed asleep, I might have found out whether I cleaned out the nest, or whether they got me, too. Stupid bloody alarm clock.

Friday, December 18, 2009

More Thoughts on Santa Letters

E-mails for Santa come in from all over the world. A rare few are in other languages - Russian, once, and probably a couple of others - which give the local elves some interesting challenges. (The current state of tranlation software leaves a lot to be desired.) It's the Internet, of course, so in theory anyone with a connection can submit their letter; but I've never found a pattern for why Santa receives e-mails from some areas but not others.

There are, however, some interesting patterns in the kinds of letters that come in. The e-mail form allows people to write to either Santa Claus or Mrs. Claus. While the submissions vary from year to year...
  • Maybe nine out of ten letters to Santa are want-lists. Most of the rest are general greetings, kids who haven't been nice (but are really trying), or things like that. A rare few, like the one in the last post, are more interesting,
  • Mrs Claus, on the other hand, receives e-mails on all sorts of topics. A major theme last year was girls asking for boyfriends or True Love for Christmas. (Mrs. Claus spent a lot of time pointing out that her husband basically runs a toy factory, and promising to forward those requests to Cupid the next time he's over for tea.) Probably one in four of Mrs. Claus' letters are odd in some fashion.
  • The adults who are asking for help always ask Santa. That means that at least once a year, we get a really heart-wrenching e-mail from someone who has had a terrible year. Frequently they are somewhere completely else - Idaho, Washington state, Ontario - where we couldn't reach them even if we had the resources to do that sort of thing. Some of them are actively depressed, and we send those over to the local counseling service.
  • Kids who are asking for help usually ask Mrs. Claus. (One boy wanted to move to the North Pole and become an elf. I don't think he was kidding; he sounded really unhappy with his home life.)
  • Santa usually receives about five times as much e-mail as Mrs. Claus. I'm actually surprised it's not higher.

So, yeah. No real point to make here, just some observations. It's a strange job, but somebody's got to do it...

The Best Santa Letter Ever

It's an open secret that I, erm, help Santa with his e-mail each year. That is, children (or adults) can submit a note to Santa using the form on the Santa's Village website, and Santa will send them back an e-mail.

This is, for the most part, a simple task. Santa has been answering letters for quite a long time, so he has a ready-made selection of common responses and general well-wishes. It becomes trickier, and more time consuming, when someone includes a question that requires a more specific response. Santa doesn't ignore those questions; that might lead someone to think he isn't real. On the other hand, Santa never tells whether someone is going to get a specific item or not; that might spoil the surprise.

Then, of course, there are... let's call them "technical difficulties". Santa receives e-mails from people who mistype their e-mail addresses, misspell their own names (or the names of their children), and generally make it more difficult it should be to figure out whether they've been Naughty or Nice. The average response time for Santa's e-mails would probably improve by 20% if people would just use capital letters when they type in their names.

Every once in a while, though, Santa gets a letter for which the typical Christmas responses are just... inadequate. I'm not talking a slightly off-beat Christmas request, like a new Ferrari or Alan Rickman (though Santa has, in fact, gotten requests for both of those). These are e-mails that take the whole purpose of Santa Letters, thumb their noses at it, and head boldly off in some other direction. This one - my absolute favorite example of the genre - dates from 2005, so I don't see any reason not to reproduce here. And so, without further ado:

From: M[redacted]
To: Santa Clause
Subject: Free the reindeer

Please free the reindeer, and use a motorized sled instead. Also, go on a diet. It's better for your health.

Clearly, this could not go unanswered. Just as clearly, this was not a child who would be satisfied by bland reassurance that she had been good this year, and that Santa was coming soon. Another sort of response was required.

From: Santa Claus
To: M[redacted]
Subject: M's Letter to Santa

Dear M,
Hello from everyone at the North Pole! Let me clear up a few things you may not understand. All employment at the North Pole is voluntary. Both Elves and Reindeer enjoy generous salaries, a comprehensive insurance program, and a lavish 401k program. Your concern is appreciated, but this is a family operation – not a sweatshop.

Naturally, I have no wish to contribute to the unemployment rate of magical flying reindeer. Personal considerations aside, the Reindeer are quieter and much more environmentally friendly than a mechanical sled would be. And, of course, they can get me all the way around the world in a single night, which would be impossible using a motorized sled.

Your concern for my health is also appreciated, but the extra weight helps me keep warm.

We all enjoy making your Christmas Special. Now take good care and get to bed early on Christmas Eve, and before you know it I'll be visiting you!

Lots of love from
Santa Claus


Sometime it's worth taking the extra time to do something right. Santa got a nice little thank-you note back from the child's father, too.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wednesday Evening Music: Christmas Carols To Avoid

When I was living in Lawton, Oklahoma - over a decade ago - I got a job selling eyewear in the mall.

The mall was not the only significant feature of the town of Lawton; but, well... we're talking about a town that effectively tripled its population (on paper) by annexing the local Army base, Fort Sill. We're talking about an area where they occasionally bused students in from the surrounding communities so that they could see what a mall looked like. It wasn't, in other words, a town with a lot going for it.*

Anyway, the mall started playing Christmas music the day after Halloween. I have ranted before, in various places, about the fact that there are only about two dozen actual Christmas carols in existence, which is ridiculous given how many Christmas albums get recorded each year. Even relatively new Christmas songs seem compelled to borrow melodies from existing ones; and having hundreds of different musicians produce their own versions and arrangements doesn't even begin to make up for this fundamental lack of variety.

The mall, as I said, started playing Christmas music right after Halloween. Those of us working there had to put up with an unbroken stream of Christmas carols for nearly two full months.This is a bad situation, and Lawton - being Lawton - made it worse. You see, the mall only owned two CDs of Christmas music. Two. That's all. Playing maybe - maybe - ten songs apiece, in random order, for two solid months. This alone should violate some sort of Geneva convention, but I'm not done yet. Oh, no. It gets worse.

You see, each CD had a version of "Walking in a Winter Wonderland." I don't care who sings it, or how it's arranged musically - and neither of these versions was the least inspired on either account - this is one of the stupidest, most annoying songs ever composed. It's horrible, execrable, irredeemable. And we heard it, over and over and over and... Gah. Just thinking about it makes me want to fetch a whetstone and prepare for a homicidal, axe-wielding frenzy.

Once we even got to hear both versions, back to back. Gah! No sane and loving god would permit such things to happen. Ia! Cthulhu ftaugn! Blood!

...Ahem. Pardon that. I'm just going to go... wash up... and maybe burn these clothes... and wipe the fingerprints off the axe handle. I'll, uh, I'll be right back.




* This may reflect my bias rather than consensus reality. I have few fond memories of Lawton, but a lot of that has to do with it being the setting for a rather difficult time in my life, rather than the town itself (necessarily). This was also some time ago, so things might have changed since then.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Writing Resources Revisited

Back in July, I posted about online writing resources and several of the classes that I've found helpful. One of the teachers I mentioned, Laurie Schnebly Campbell, is offering a class in January of 2010, on the general topic of working past the things that keep you from writing. So, if you're having trouble with your writing (organization, motivation, writer's block), or you're just interested in tips and tricks to help your writing process along, go take a look. I took a similar class back in... April, I think... and found it really helpful.

Information on the class can be found here:
http://www.neorwa.com/index.php/Workshops/Workshops

You can learn more about Laurie Schnebly Campbell at her website:
http://www.booklaurie.com/

Friday, December 4, 2009

We'll Pay You For The Inconvenience, Part 2

This is a follow-up to a scenario introduced in the last post. If you haven't read that one already, please do; this will make vastly more sense if you read them in order. The first story I wrote in response to that thought experiment, though fun, ignored some of the more complicated variables in the scenario. As a result, I was left with a sequel running around loose in my brain. It looks like this:

Opening shot of a bus driving down a two lane highway in the middle of nowhere.

VOICEOVER: "Two years ago, my father ceased to exist. I don't mean he died or went away. I mean he was never here."

Camera angles in on bus.

VOICEOVER: "My mother doesn't remember him. She doesn't remember being married, or giving birth to me. Hell, I'm not sure she even remembers what it was like to be happy."

Cut to inside bus, where a young man is slouching on a seat. He is scruffy, dressed in jeans, workboots, and a faded jacket.

VOICEOVER: "So when something appeared in my apartment, I ran. I've been running ever since. I live off the grid now, keep my head down. It doesn't help. They're still looking for me."

Young man looks out the window, sees old woman on roadside, then settles back as the bus passes by.

VOICEOVER: "But that's okay. I'm looking for them, too. There's a gun in my bag. A knife, too. I'd carry explosives if I thought it would make any difference. My jacket has holy symbols from a dozen different religions sewn into the lining. And right now, I'm working my way down to South America. Because my Dad's down there, somewhere in the Andes. And I will have him back, if I have to break the world to do it."

...But We'll Pay You For The Inconvenience

The following thought experiment was suggested by someone in a comment thread on another blog:

Suppose you are approached by an auditor of reality, who informs you that due to a clerical error you were born with the wrong race/gender/sexual orientation/etc. The auditor has no choice but to correct this error immediately, but by way of compensation will offer you a one-time lump sum payment. Knowing that from now on, people will deal with you as if you are and always have been your new race/gender/sexual orientation/etc, but that you will retain all your current skills and capabilities, how much do you feel would be a sufficent compensation?

I tend to do my thought experiments in story form, so here was my first response:

Michael turned to look at the figure beside him. He was, simply, surprised beyond the ability to form a coherent reply.

The figure was humanoid tall, lean, and faintly transparent. In addition, it seemed to emit a faint golden glow, though it was hard to be cure with the lights on and a white wall behind it. Everything else about it was in a constant state of nearly superliminal flux. "Did you hear me?" it asked, in a voice possessed of that same nothing-and-everything quality. "I need to discuss a small clerical error with you."

Michael swallowed, and finally found his voice. "In my bathroom?" he asked.

"Yes," said the apparition. "We are in your bathroom. I am an auditor, and I am here to correct an error."

"You've come to give me my Vast Supernatural Powers?" Michael asked hopefully.

The auditor continued unfazed. "No. There was a clerical error. You were born to the wrong parents, in the wrong place. You must be removed to your proper place, and this must be done now. Some compensation can be made for the inconvenience."

Michael hesitated, sorting questions in his mind. It never occurred to him that he might be dreaming, but then that sort of thing seldom occurred to him when he actually was dreaming. "How does that work?" he asked. "I mean, if you move me to, say, China, I'm probably going to stand out."

"You misunderstand. You will be placed in your intended role, including the necessary body. You may keep your memories and skills, if you wish, but everyone will treat you as if you are and always were as you should have been." The auditor was briefly hermaphroditic, then slipped into a broad-shouldered, round-bellied male body; it hair and face continued to cascade through a variety of features. "What compensation would you wish?"

"I'm being retconned?"

There was a pause. "Yes," said the auditor, "that is an apt description."

"And I'll have a completely different body?"

"Yes."

Michael reached for the toilet paper. "...Where are you putting me?"

"South America, in the Andes, near..."

Michael raised his hand. He didn't know enough geography to make sense of anything more specific than that. "And you won't, or can't, give me vast supernatural powers."

"No. Continuity is vital."

"But you can give some compensation - something you can slip into the world without spoiling the continuity? Money, or something like that?"

"That is correct." The auditor's voice was still strangely toneless, but Michael thought he detected something like relief.

"And I can't just refuse? I mean, I like my life, mostly."

"No. The error must be corrected. If I do not redirect you, then I remove you. Continuity is vital."

That sounds ominous. "Could you set up a gold mine, or something that would provide a steady source of modest income for me?"

The auditor paused again. "That could be done."

Michael stood and pulled up his pants, then turned to flush the toilet. When the roar died away, he looked at the auditor again. It was female now, with thin and curly silver hair, but then he blinked and it was younger, emaciated, darker-skinned. "Sure," he said. "Why not? I'm new here, I don't have that many friends, I've got no children - that I know of - and I'm not really going to miss this place. Set me up with a nice place to live and a steady source of income - and let me keep my memory and skills - and I'm good."

"It is done." The world seemed to shimmer, and suddenly the auditor's constant fluctuations seemed solid and unchanging. Then reality folded in around them again, and Michael found himself on a mountain path. He was aware of a weight on his back, and (partly as a consequence) aware that his body felt wrong. It was only when he tried to reach for the weight on his back - and nearly pitched himself face-forward onto the ground - that he realized what had happened. His hand was a hoof; his arm was a leg. The weight on his back was probably a set of saddlebags, and if the auditor had kept its word, there was probably a modest amount of raw gold in them. He turned his head, and saw the mouth of the mine in the mountainside behind him, saw dark-skinned men in grubby clothing loading up another beast of burden.

He'd kept his memories and skills, and even (possibly as a bonus) his intellect. There was a gold mine, to supply a steady income for him. No doubt there was also a nice place for him to live. He wasn't sure how much help that would be to a llama, though.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Wednesday Morning Music: Operatic Rock

It's snowing this morning. The ground's not cold enough for this to make any difference - that is, the streets aren't frozen, the snow only piles up on top of cars and shrubbery, and for all practical purposes this might as well be (a very cold) rainfall. Despite this fundamental wimpiness, it is the first snow of the season.

I'm celebrating by listening to My Winter Storm, by Tarja Turunen. This belongs to an (arguably) relatively recent genre, which I'd characterize as Operatic Rock or perhaps Operatic Metal. This sort of music is characterized by heavy metal drum and guitar riffs, balanced against more orchestral (classical and/or operatic) arrangements of other instruments. Themes and lyrics tend to focus on fantastic subjects, and the word 'melodramatic' should go in there somewhere, too. A lot of these bands are fronted by female singers, usually with operatic training.

I say this is "arguably" a recent development, as a lot of (what I grew up calling) heavy metal has always had its roots in classical and operatic themes; Queensryche is an obvious example, but you can also see the tendency in Iron Maiden, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (which is - or was - also the band Savatage, and has a nice cover of Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King", from the Peer Gynt Suite) and, well, a bunch of other bands. (Apparently I'm too brain-dead to come up with decent examples, and too lazy to do research. Sue me.) I would argue that Evanescence also falls into this general category, though you're certainly welcome to disagree.

I stumbled onto this through one of my i-Tunes forays; I was looking for music about wolves, and pulled up "Seven Days to the Wolves" by the band Nightwish. This led me (by way of the "if you liked this, you might also be interested in" feature) to Within Temptation, Tarja Turunen, and After Forever; all very much in the same genre.

Then, a little while back, someone recommended a pair of albums by the band Kamelot: Epica and The Black Halo. Taken together, they form a retelling of the story of Faust. That, in turn, led me to the bands Epica and Katra, which are also doing interesting things from similar influences. (In fact, the lead singer from Epica makes a guest appearance on one of the Kamelot albums.)

For people who like this sort of music, these are all relatively well known bands. That being the case, I'd like to introduce one that I believe is more obscure: Xandria. I only have one of their albums - Salome The Seventh Veil - so I can't speak for their earlier work. Salome, however, is quite good, and incorporates some middle eastern influences into their songs. If you like this sort of music, and you don't know them already, give 'em a listen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You Might Be An Asshole If...

I do a lot of reading online. Some of it is one-way - that is, it's a piece of text, and the only interaction comes from someone reading it - but a lot of what I read is interactive: message boards, comment threads on blogs, things like that. These are basically conversations, but conducted in text rather than sound.

Generally, I like this approach. Text conversations tend to be better thought out than spoken conversations, and if you're not sure what someone just said, you can go back and reread it. There are tradeoffs, of course - since you can't see stance or expression, it's hard to tell when someone is being ironic - but if you're willing to extend the benefit of the doubt and/or ask for clarification when needed, that doesn't have to be a problem. Also, I like to sit down and assemble my thoughts into a unified whole - and I can do that in text a lot more easily than I can while speaking.

Recently, though (say, within the last year), I've encountered several situations where one or more people takes advantage of the medium to be extremely rude. When someone pointed this out, they did not apologize; instead, they continued to be rude, or became even more rude. (I realize that this is actually quite common, but I generally stick to sites with good moderation and well-developed communities; so I don't run into it, much.)

I don't generally interact with those sorts of people. I don't need the grief, and there's never any benefit to it. Having encountered two of them in relatively close succession, however, I find myself considering the pathology of the behavior.

So, without further ado, I present the Top Five Signs That You Might Be An Asshole:

5. A lot of your fun comes from making things less fun for other people. (This doesn't mean you're superior; it just means that you're mean.)

4. You focus on winning the debate and/or showing how foolish your opponent's belief/opinion/stance is. (This is fine in an actual debate; but treating every conversation as a debate is a mistake. That's true even if it's only about a certain topic. This behavior is doubly foolish, as it fairly well guarantees that not only will you not get anything out of the discussion, but you won't convince anyone else, either.)

3. You defend your behavior by saying that people spend too much time being polite instead of saying what they mean, and/or complaining about people being "politically correct". (It is, in fact, perfectly possible to polite and clear at the same time.)

2. You're certain that you're strong, and the fact that other people get upset with you demonstrates their weakness. Alternatively, you're certain that the reason people get upset with you is because they know you're right (which is basically the same thing). (Anyone will get upset if someone pushes the right buttons. Also, can we stop with the lame metaphors and self-aggrandizing imagery? Honestly...)

And the number one indication is... ::drumroll::

1. You say things like "everybody makes mistakes" or "I've been wrong before" but somehow there's never any possibility that you might be wrong about the topic at hand. (Um, yeah. Really. Huh?)

Also, you get bonus points if you make a habit of communicating poorly and then acting smug, offended, or both when people misunderstand you or ask for clarification.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Back when I was cool...

In the overall course of my life, I have very seldom been "cool". As a youth, my interests were geeky, and my fashion sense was... idiosyncratic. I was reasonably athletic, but I had a deep aversion to team sports. I read books - all the time - and I was generally very quiet.

So I wasn't really a target for teasing - not much, anyway - and I did have friends. But to a lot of people, I was sort of invisible. (In eight grade, I had a girl look at me and say, "I remember you. You're the one who was always sitting in the back of the class, reading those huge books." My reaction was something like, Yes, we've had classes together for years, and you're just now figuring out who I am? She was right about the books, though - one of the teachers had given me his old D'n'D manuals, and those things were huge.)

Occasionally, though, I did get a chance to be cool. When I did, I savored it. And every once in a while, I like to dust off those memories and take a look at them.

This one actually took place in graduate school. I was getting ready to graduate, and I'd dropped by the Registrar's office for... I don't remember. Something I needed.

Now, the Registrar himself was an older man, tall and a little gangly. He was quite friendly, and extremely willing to help. His secretary, by contrast, was the dragon guarding the castle gate: unfriendly, unhelpful, and always trying to send people elsewhere. At the time, I thought her presence was the result of some sort of law of Conservation of Bureaucracy: a counterbalance for his essential helpfulness. Looking back, I think she was probably just trying to make sure that he could get some of his own work done.

So I approached her desk with some trepidation, and was relieved to find it empty. Not entirely relieved, because it was really empty - there was nobody there at all. Now, the Registrar's office was set up with the secretary's desk out front, separated from the public by a middlin' tall counter. If you were standing at the counter, the desk was in front of you, and the door to the Registrar's office was behind the counter, on your right.

So, I kind of leaned over the counter and looked back into the main office. The Registrar wasn't there either, but there was a trio of undergrads, holding papers and deep in conversation. I was so relieved at not having to deal with the Dragon that I decided not to interrupt them - at least, not immediately.

While I'm standing there waiting, there comes a very loud POP! A wall of thick, grey smoke starts curling up from behind the screen of the monitor on the secretary's desk. This, clearly, calls for immediate action, so I lean around the counter again, and call in through the doorway: "Pardon me, but your computer's on fire."

A nicely dressed young man comes out of the office and takes his place behind the counter. He has clearly failed to notice the smoke. He asks: "What can I do for you?"

Well, what could I say? I smiled, met his eyes, and said: "No, really. I wasn't kidding. Your computer's on fire." And I gesture at the desk behind him.

He turns around and sort of freaks out: startles visibly, and then rushes over to the desk and starts scrambling around on his knees, looking for the power cord under the desk.

I decide that this is getting out of hand. I'm not sure just how much of a fire hazard the thing really is, but it can't be doing any good to leave it sitting there smoking. So I come around the counter, grab the power cable at the back of the monitor, and pull it out. The smoke stops, and the kid stands back up, looking relieved.

I stepped back around the counter, and he got me whatever it was I needed. While he was doing that, the other two came out and stood around the monitor, probably trying to figure out what to do with it. I took my whatever, and rode off into the sunset.

And that, my children, is one of the very few times when I was actually cool.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mawwiage is what brings us together...

"Like so many contemporary philosophers, he particularly enjoyed giving helpful advice to people who were happier than he was." ~Tom Lehrer

I like being married. Oh, maybe not in general; I mean, I can picture quite a large number of situations in which being married would be inconvenient, annoying, or downright nightmarish. But I like being married to The Beautiful Woman... and I liked being married to my Supposed Former Wife well enough that I was willing to get married again after my first marriage imploded.

At one point, I had intended to spend some time on this blog talking about marriage: about what makes it work, about warning signs indicating that it isn't working, about mistakes that I see people making... and I can't. At least, not in general terms.

Marriage is different for everyone. Don't take my word for it; look around. Anyone who thinks that there's a single {formula/model/piece of advice} that will {help/work for} everyone is clearly delusional. (By extension, this means that probably a full third of all the self-help, new age, and Christian living books on the market are a complete waste of your time and money.) The best general marriage advice I can come up with is this: "Find something that works for you."

I can think of an addendum: "...and stick with it for as long as it works." I can also think of a couple of corrolaries: "Know yourself well enough to realize what you want and what you need, and how to tell the difference between the two." "Make sure your expectations are realistic." But, basically, it comes back to finding something that works for you.

I still have a few specific rants on the topic. (In fact, I wrote one on the topic of "It Just Happened" back before I even had the blog.) So I'll probably be coming back to the subject.

There is one other point I'd like to make, which is also a corrolary to the "find something that works for you" rule. It's this: Just because something doesn't or couldn't work for you, that does not mean that someone else is doing it wrong. I say this particularly in relation to the Homosexual (Etc.) marriage debate which is currently occupying a certain amount of our national politics, but it's good general advice, too. There's a natural Human tendency to think that the way I do something is clearly the best way, especially if it works so well for me. By extension, it's easy to think that anyone who doesn't do it that way must be ignorant, or insane, or possibly immoral.

But, well, people are different. And anything built from people - as marriage is - is naturally going to vary depending on which people it's built from. And that is, actually, the way it's supposed to be.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A call to arms!

Ladies and Gentlemen, the holidays as we know them are in danger. They are losing their history and their significance - the very things that give them meaning. I'm here today, on this very blog, to issue a call to arms.

The problem, my friends, is Christmas. In the early days of Christianity, Christmas was a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Over the centuries, Christmas became the dominant winter holiday in Western Civilization. In the process, it crowded out other mid-winter celebrations. (For example, few people really celebrate Chanukah anymore, and Saturnalia is forgotten by everyone except a few history buffs and pagan revivalists.)

Christmas has also become more commercial, and as a consequence, more secular. This, as you might imagine, is a problem. The occupation of our stores and public areas by Christmas decorations, Christmas music, and Christmas merchandise could, perhaps, be tolerated in conjunction with the holiday itself. But! Brethren, but! Christmas is no longer content with its dominance! For the last several years, Christmas has insinuated its agents into other areas of the calendar. I am convinced that its goal is nothing less than the total occupation of year!

Thanksgiving has already fallen! If we don't rally our forces, Halloween will be next. I estimate that at their current rate of expansion, in less than ten years the forces of Christmas will occupy all but a handful of days on the calendar.

Some of you will no doubt disagree. You may say, "Christmas is just trying to secure its borders. Let it have Thanksgiving - it'll stop before it reaches Halloween." I tell you, friends, appeasement will not work! We must fight back, and we must fight back now, before we are overrun! You may say, "I can't take part in the war on Christmas." I tell you that you must! I call upon all of you to join me! We must turn the tide of aggression before it's too late.

But a final word of caution, before we begin. War is never a pretty business. A battle against such a venerable and well-loved adversary, one which has done so much good over the years, must be undertaken soberly, and with a full understanding of our mission. Our goal is not to destroy Christmas - never think that! We fight only to halt its militaristic expansion, and drive it back to its traditional borders. With that in mind, I give your our rallying cry - a cry which will serve to remind us what we're fighting for, yes, but also when to stop the fighting.

"Twelve days - and nothing more!"

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Why Superhero Movies Suck

I grew up reading comic books - a lot of comic books. Marvel, DC, First (until they went out of business), and several independent titles. I was a huge fan of Sandman, which should surprise absolutely nobody; I also read a lot of X-men and related titles. Grimjack and Grendel were formative influences on a lot of my writing and gaming, and more recently I've been enjoying things like the new Blue Beetle and Girl Genius.

The recent run of comic-based movies should, by rights, be a source of considerable enjoyment for me. It's a logical transition (since comics, unlike books, are primarily a visual medium, which should make them vastly easier to convert into movies). And, frankly, since Hollywood's ideas for movie projects tend to get more than a little inbred, it's hard to be anything other than happy that they might have found a source for new material.

And yet...

Many - even most - of the recent superhero movies have left me feeling... impatient. I might even go as far as "bored". So I would like to make a suggestion, to any Producers who might be out there reading this:

If you're making a movie based on a well-known comic property - the sort of thing that might be considered a cultural icon - please don't feel compelled to muddle through the entire origin story before you actually start the plot.

Seriously. We know Spider-man got his powers after being bit by a radioactive spider. We know Superman fell to Earth from Krypton as a baby. We know the Fantastic Four were bombarded by Cosmic Radiation. "How I got my Powers" is almost never the interesting part of a superhero's story; it's a distraction from the rest of the movie. If you absolutely have to include the origin story, at least establish the main story conflict first.

Thanks.

Friday, November 6, 2009

An Observation On Moral Responses

Credit where credit is due, this is not my own observation. I found it in the comments on this thread over at Slacktivist.

The post, and the comments, are focused on a little chart that lays out the possible outcomes of helping/not helping someone who is/isn't in need. There are four possible outcomes:
  1. You help them and they need it: they get the help they need.
  2. You help them and they don't need it: they get help they didn't need/deserve.
  3. You don't help them and they need it: they don't get the help they need.
  4. You don't help them and they don't need it: they don't get help, but they didn't need it anyway.

I should really stop at this point, and recommend that you go and read not only the original post, but the comment thread that follows it. If you're even vaguely interested in moral philosophy, there's a lot of good stuff there. The observation that really stopped me, though, was on page 2 of the comments, submitted by JR. It's {his or her} observation that I really wanted to repeat and emphasize here. So...

Take another look at the chart (or the list o' outcomes). Two of those possible outcomes are good, and two of them are bad. But what's the worst possible outcome?

Go ahead. Take your time. I'll wait.

Ready?

It seems to me that the worst possible outcome is #3: the person in need does not get help. I wouldn't think that this would even be especially controversial. And yet... in almost every conversation I hear about whether or not to help people, there's at least one person who argues as if #2 is the worst possible outcome: someone gets help that they didn't need or deserve.

Now, obviously the real world is more complicated than this. To offer a single counter-point (and there are others), there are plenty of situations where the presence of people taking help they don't need (outcome #2) actively prevent people who need help from getting it (thus producing outcome #3).

Nevertheless, I can't help but think that our first instinct, our gut reaction, should not be "How do we prevent help from going to people who don't deserve it?" The question that should be foremost in our minds and responses is, instead, "How do we make sure that help gets to the people who need it?"

Monday, November 2, 2009

How I met my wife...

I mentioned, in my last post, that the way in which my wife and I got together tends to suggest that some Higher Power was shuffling us around on the Great Cosmic Chessboard - either that, or someone, somewhere, flipped on the Infinite Improbability Drive for a brief spin around the galaxy. A couple of people asked to hear the story, so I'm going to try to oblige. This is a little complicated, because it intersects with several other stories, and I'm not sure I can really sort all of them out and still show you just how ridiculously unlikely it was for me to end up married to the Beautiful Woman.

Let's start with some background (and I'll try to keep this as simple as possible). I graduated early from high school, and went to college out of state. My first two years of college had some enjoyable and memorable moments, but overall I was not very happy. (The technical term is "depressed", though I didn't recognize it at the time.) I was more than a little out of place, and I spent a lot of time alone - more than was healthy, even for a natural loner like me. The summer after my sophmore year, I went to a party with one of my friends from high school, and made the Earth-shaking discovery that not all colleges were like mine. Dizzy with revelation, I transferred.

This turned out to be one of the best things I could have done. I was still decidedly odd by the standards of the school, but I wasn't the only one; and I quickly stumbled into a small tribe of people who were not only odd, but odd in a lot of the same ways I was odd.

It was in this context that I first met the Beautiful Woman.

She was, of course, dating someone else. (Actually, when I first saw her, she was halfway through a fairly thick science fiction novel, and utterly engrossed in her reading.) In point of fact, she was dating one of my friends, a charismatic fellow with a flair for melodrama and a truly awe-inspiring inability to actually finish anything, ever. They broke up fairly soon after, but one of my friends and I both made a point of telling the Beautiful Woman that we really hoped she would continue to hang around with the group. She did, and the fellow she'd been dating got over it, and we all went on to have a lot of fun together.

I was, at the time, also dating someone else, someone who went on to become my wife (after college), my ex-wife, and (after seeking an annulment so she could join the Catholic church) finally my Supposed Former Wife. So the Beautiful Woman and I never dated in college. Instead, we hung around a lot, occasionally wrestled in the student center, and generally drove each other (and my then-girlfriend) completely crazy.

This continued until, I think, the semester before I graduated. At that point, several members of the tribe had graduated already, and the group was basically coming apart. The Beautiful Woman essentially quit speaking to me, and spent her time elsewhere. At the time, I didn't know whether I'd done something to offend her, or whether she was just going her own way. (It turns out to have been a bit of both.) So, shortly before I graduated, I left her a mixed tape and a note of conditional apology. ("If I did something to offend you, I'm sorry.") She wasn't in at the time, so I left it in the office of her dormitory.

I went on to graduate, get a job, leave the job for grad school, and... drat, I'm going to have to include a few more details. Okay, here's the relevant bit: I enrolled in grad school along with a friend from the tribe, who had graduated a bit earlier. We wound up in Stephenville, Texas (Tarleton State University), partly because a pair of gay, Hasidic rabbis - also members of the tribe, or at least closely affiliated with it - had bought some land down there.

Right, so - just before my final semester of Grad School, I got married to my college girlfriend, who was A) graduating and B) going into the Army as a nurse. I finished my degree and moved up to Lawton, Oklahoma to be with her, thus beginning an even more purgatorial time than my first two years of college. I was, again, very isolated (and I do not "break the ice" easily or quickly); I was unemployed; and I was not happy with the marriage, either. This went on for about three years. I should note for the record that my then-wife was not in any way to blame for this.

Somewhere towards the end of that period, I drove down to visit the Rabbis on their ranch. This was mostly in an effort to salvage my sanity by getting the Hell out of Lawton for couple of days, though it might also be fairly described as "running away from my personal problems". It had been at least six months - probably closer to a year - since I'd seen them, so we were mostly catching up. And it was in their house that statistical probability went right off the rails.

That was the same evening that the Beautiful Woman decided, purely on a whim, to call the Rabbis; and I happened to be standing next to the phone when it rang, so I answered it. I have no idea which of us was more surprised. At this point it had been at least six years since we'd last spoken; and it had been quite a while since she'd spoke to the Rabbis, as well.

We talked a little, and made arrangements to get together for lunch the following day... because, y'know, after a coincidence like that, how could we not?

We met at a Chili's, got a table, and placed our order. Then the manager came by, and told us that they needed the table for a large group which was coming in. She offered to give us our lunch for free if we'd switch tables, so we did, and she did. This was unprecedented in my experience, at least as unlikely as the phone call that reconnected us in the first place. It's the sort of thing that simply never happens.

After that, we kept in touch by e-mail. Soon after, my marriage imploded and I moved back to Dallas; a few months after that, the Beautiful Woman and I got together; and we've been together ever since - three years of dating (mostly long-distance) and now seven years of marriage. We have a three year old boy, and another one on the way.

And that is the ridiculously improbable way in which I got (back) together with my wife.

Edited to add: I don't think "miracle" is too strong a word, here.

Varieties of Religious Perspective

For anyone wandering in unwarned, this thread is an outgrowth of some comments over at another blog: Slacktivist. The idea was that the commenters there, if they were interested, could come here and talk a little about their background and religious views/beliefs/opinions.

This is not the sort of thing I usually put on this blog, so I'd like to put down some ground rules before we get started:

  1. This thread is for sharing your beliefs, views, and/or experiences. It is not for proselytizing, and it is not for debating the merits of those beliefs (your own or anyone else's). If you can't tell the difference, please don't post. I do not have active moderation enabled, but I will edit, disemvowel, or simply remove posts if it really becomes necessary.
  2. By the same token, if someone says something that you find offensive, please do not respond. Bring it to my attention, and I'll deal with it. (I don't really expect that to be necessary, but you never know.)
  3. This group has a wide variety of backgrounds and beliefs. Please remember that everyone posting here is doing so voluntarily, for our mutual education and enjoyment. Be friendly, and enjoy yourself.
  4. I have no idea whether this blog has length restrictions on comments, or what those restrictions might be. I therefore recommend that you compose your response elsewhere, and paste it in; that way, if it's too long, you can put the rest in a second comment. (Also, hopefully, you won't lose your work.)

So that's pretty much it. I'll start:

I post on Slacktivist as Michael Mock, just as I do here. If you go back far enough, I also used to post as Jack Grey, but that was years ago. I am, more or less, a militant agnostic with animist and pantheist tendencies.

I was raised Episcopalian (so I tend to expect church services to involve fancy clothes along with a lot of kneeling, standing, and sitting; to be fairly formal and ritualistic; and to involve a certain amount of incense). Unlike a lot of former Christians, I didn't ever really reject the church. I was a bit asocial as child, and church was just one of a long list of things that seemed very important to everyone else and didn't make much sense to me (c.f. team sports, cars, fashion). I didn't so much leave the Church, as wander off and never come back. I fiddled around with other belief systems for a while, and finally settled into my current agnosticism.

I don't really believe in G-d - at least, not as He is usually described - and I have some doubts about the historical existence of Jesus, but I don't really consider myself an Atheist, either. The reasons for that are a little complicated, but mainly come down to two points: I don't think the (non-)existence of G-d is a provable assertion, either way; and I am very aware that I look at the world in ways that are not strictly rational. (So who am I to throw stones?) Some examples...

  • There are places that are... alive... for me, in a way I find difficult to describe. Sacred, but not to any particular god; haunted, but in a good way. Hence the 'animist and pantheist tendencies' in my blurb.
  • Chi (or Ki or Qi) - the flow of energy through the body. I'm an amateur martial artist. I've actually felt this. I'm also pretty sure it doesn't exist, at least not in any empirically verifiable fashion. Nonetheless, it's a useful lense for looking at (this piece of) the world; it allows me learn and describe some subtleties of movement for which English lacks a good vocabulary.
  • The way my wife and I got together. It's the sort of scenario I could never include in a book; nobody would believe a coincidence that improbable. I detest words like "fate" or even "synchronicity", but quite frankly it's hard to look at the situation and not think that some sort of Higher Power was involved.

The other reason that I don't consider myself an Atheist is that I don't see the point in arguing about beliefs that I see as fundamentally harmless. I am aware that some people see religion as intrinsically harmful and repressive, but I tend to view it more like Art: it's just something that people do. Individuals will do it to a greater or lesser extent, and it may be used to promote either the nobler or the baser elements of human nature, but it's not particularly good or evil in itself.

Oddly, the one area where I really do have strong feelings has to do with what you can and cannot prove (or even reasonably assert); it makes me a little crazy when people start defending their beliefs (or attacking others) using logical fallacies, unsupported assertion, etc. etc. etc. This is why I classify myself as a 'militant' agnostic, and why I'm looking forward to seeing what Froborr does over at Fluffy Iguana Cookies.

That's pretty much it for me; anyone else want to play?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Morning Music: Monsters and Beasts

For our last musical selection before Halloween, I offer you monsters and beasts:

Animal I Have Become - Three Days Grace
The Beast - Concrete Blonde
Beauty of the Beast - Nightwish
Monster - My Ruin
The Monster Is Loose - Meatloaf
Monster - 3
The Monster Mash - The Misfits
Monster - The Hangovers
My Beloved Monster - The Eels
Monster - One True Thing
Little Monsters - Charlotte Gainsbourg
My Spine (Is The Bass Line) - Shriekback
Monster - Fred Schneider

Bonus features might include "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails, if you happen to be throwing that sort of party...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Magic Changes The World, Part II

So I'm back to thinking about the world of Gai, and in particular the economy. When I first put it together, I had in mind a more-or-less feudal system, in which the aristocracy were all wizards - 'wizards' being used here to define people who can do more or less anything with magic, as opposed to those who can only done one specific thing or group of things. Since wizards are about 2.6% of the population (a bit over one in fifty people), it's a fair bet that not all wizards are aristocrats; it's also safe to assume that the aristocrats are generally more powerful than other wizards (owing to both selection and training). Of the rest, most are either hedge wizards or non-practicing; there was also a knightly order composed of wizards.

Given that magic in this setting lends itself to creation and transformation, and given that a relatively large portion of the population is capable of this, what does that do to the economy? Start with a simple example: what do you use for money, if one out of every hundred people (or so) can duplicate {coins, bills, gems, and/or precious metals} more or less at will? Do you create something more difficult to duplicate (the Star Trek solution)? Or do you go with a barter economy? (That would make taxation more difficult, and banking nearly impossible, I think... but since the aristocracy are all wizards, it might work anyway.) Similarly, how does this affect trade? If a significant portion of any community can create (or duplicate) more or less anything they need, what would you trade for, and why?

I'm actually going to leave this here. For one thing, it's sometimes more fun to look at questions than answers. For another, it doesn't affect the current story (not directly, anyway). In the current, post-post-apocalyptic era, trade is going to be mostly barter, and it will be quite important, especially among the smaller communities. (Some things are going to be easier to make than others, and not everyone is going to have the same level of skill; if your community's wizard specializes in, say, healing rather than transforming objects, then you may have to import building materials, or arrange some sort of exchange program.) That said, I'd like to have some idea of how things used to work, because that will affect the expectations of the current generation, the ones who are rebuilding their world.

Obviously, I'm not an economist; but my understanding is that most of modern economics is built around the concept of scarcity - value is established by things that are hard to get. The concept of a "post-scarcity" economy, in which more or less anything can be easily obtained (thus making everything effectively free), causes current economic models to implode; it's a bit like trying to divide by zero. Some science fiction (Star Trek is a notable example) has played with the idea, but so far I haven't found much detail.

Fortunately (for the sake of my sanity), my world still has scarcity; it's just that magic changes what sorts of things are scarce, and who controls the means of production.

And that means it's time to do more research.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday Morning Music: Ghosts

Keeping with our "Halloween is almost here" theme... Songs about ghosts:

1. Boy and the Ghost - Tarja Turunen
2. Cold - Of Shadow People
3. Ghost - Indigo Girls
4. Ghost Love Score - Nightwish
5. Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man - Concrete Blonde
6. Ghostriders - Die Apokalyptischen Reiter (because Johnny Cash sounds better when performed by a German death-metal band)
7. Ghostwood - Lothlorien
8. Letting the Ghost Out - Soma
9. Ode - Hungry Lucy (actually, the whole album - "Apparitions" - would work)
10. The Ghost in You - Soiuxsie and the Banshees
11. The Ghost Song - The Doors
13. The Haunting - Clandestine
14. The Long Black Veil - (pick a version you like; I'm partial to the Mick Jagger/Chieftains rendition)

For bonus tracks, you might include "I Am Stretched On Your Grave" (traditional; I happen to like the Kate Rusby version) and, of course, "Ghostbusters" by Ray Parker Jr. Feel free to post your own suggestions in the comments.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Magic changes the world, part I

I've been thinking some more about the world of Gai, which is the setting for Warrior's Legacy. (Warrior's Legacy was the first full-length novel I actually finished in over a decade; unfortunately, I had a kid right after I wrote it, which has effectively prevented me from reworking Warrior's Legacy - or completing much of anything else, for that matter.) What the book needs is not so much a second draft as a complete rewrite*. In preparation for that, I put together a large file of world-building material, which you can look at here if you're interested.

However, there are at least two elements of the world that I think I need to look at more. Both of them are directly related to the way magic works, so let's take a moment to recap the relevant bits:

1. Magic ("Gai-Cha") is a sort of tangible energy field that surrounds and permeates the world.
2. Essentially everyone can sense magic, and most people can do at least one or two little things with it; some can do a variety of related things; and a very few can do almost anything.
3. There are two (arguably three) major limitations on the use of magic in this setting:

  • You can't affect the flow of time; this is sacrosanct. (This includes any sort of long-term prophecies; those don't exist in this world.)
  • You can only directly affect things within about twenty feet of you. (A lot of the flavor in the setting comes from how you get around this.)
  • You can't raise the dead. (This is the arguable one; it's theoretically possible, but very difficult.)

4. Magic in this world lends itself especially well to shapechanging and other sorts of transformation. In addition, essentially any injury short of death can be healed: lost limbs can be regrown, nerve damage can be repaired, etc.

The other thing you need to know about this world is that it's post-post-apocalyptic; that is, a planet-wide civilization collapsed (almost completely) about sixty years ago; there are now two big nations, a handful of smaller nations, and scattered settlements in varying degrees of isolation. There are also a lot of ruins.

So, back the two bits that require extra work: these are medicine and the economy.

Medicine is probably the simpler of the two. For most of the world, all medicine is done with magic. (The exception is Loklaria, which has antibiotics, nanites, etc., mainly because they despise magic.) Magic is freely available - a little over 1 in 50 people have the potential for full-on wizardry, and healing (of some sort) is reasonably common among the 'small magical talents' that most people have. So, most injuries and diseases can probably be addressed, even in relatively small communities. As in the real world, major injuries and serious (or prolonged) diseases may require the services of a specialist. Unlike the real world, healing requires little equipment, so it's probably a lot more common to bring the healer to the patient than it is in our world. (There are likely to be situations where it makes sense to do it the other way around, too - some holy places are aspected towards healing magics.)

Isolation is still a problem, just as it is in the real world; if you can't heal yourself and you can't get help, you're in trouble. So, in this post-post-apocalyptic setting, there's probably a market for traveling healers, and local healers (even of minor or moderate skill) likely get a fair amount of respect for their work. There are also going to be some traveling scam artists, too; either outright frauds, or just not as skilled as they claim.

This is long enough already, so I'm going to cut it off here. I'll look at the economy - specifically, how you have a working economy when 2.6% of the population can theoretically create (or transform) more or less anything they need - in another post.



* In fairness, my brother and his wife - who were two of my three best proofreaders - think that the book in its current form is good enough for a first novel. I can't say (I don't trust my bias), but I think there are some fundamental problems with it, which could be corrected by a full rewrite if I can ever manage to do that. I've talked a little about that in my older blog entries.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wednesday Morning Music: Blood and Vampires

Keeping with our Halloween theme...

1. Bad Blood - Siobhan Fahey
2. Black Poison Blood - Kill Hannah
3. Bleed - Tapping the Vein
4. Blood - Casey Stratton
5. Blood - Faster Pussycat
6. Blood, Brains, & Rock'n Roll - Zombie Girl
7. Blood Moves - Deadman
8. Bloodletting (The Vampire Song) - Concrete Blonde
9. Cloud Blood - Ani DiFranco
10. The Vampire Club - Voltaire

What am I missing? (I'm sure I ought to have more than this...)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

When Romantic Metaphors Turn Creepy, Part I

Just in time for halloween: what if those sweet, romantic sayings were just a bit more literal...?

Jason met Shannon in his Sophmore year of college; she was a Freshman. They met at a party in his fraternity house; most of her sorority was there. She was on the swim team, and planned to major in Nursing; he was working on his MBA, ran track and cross-country. They'd talked the night away, and he'd walked her back to her room.

Now Shannon was finishing her Junior year, and Jason was getting ready to graduate. The time had clearly come to make a decision. Jason knew what he wanted; now he could only hope that Shannon wanted the same thing. So he had gathered everything he needed, and then invited her over.

He met her at the front of the dorm and escorted her up to his room. His roommate was out, and wouldn't be back for hours; it was just the two of them.

Her eyes brightened when she saw the flowers, and she smiled at the box of chocolates. Dark chocolates, of course; that was what she liked. She turned to look at him, but he smiled and stepped around her. She took a step after him, and they stopped at the dresser where he had arranged his gifts.

The flowers were the most prominent, of course, but the chocolates were leaning against them so as to be more visible. Shannon picked up the box, looked it over, and set it aside. Jason watched with nervous pleasure as she picked up the roses. She sniffed at them, and started to turn towards him. Then she saw the small, velvet-covered box that had been hidden beneath them, and froze.

"Oh, Jason." Her voice was full of anxious wonder. "Did you really...?"

He nodded and reached for the box. He pulled the top back - it opened easily on its hinges - to show her what was inside. It sparkled in the light from the window.

"Yes." His voice was choked; he swallowed and tried again. "I want to give you my heart, Shannon. And I can only hope..."

"Oh, my love," she answered. "Of course I'll give you mine in return."

She reached into the box, her eyes fixed on the shining object within. "It really is lovely," she said...

...and pulled out the scalpel.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sign of the Times

A while back, the City was doing some roadwork in our neighborhood. They dutifully marked off the important areas with cones (effectively blocking one side of the street), and put up signs to explain that this was now a construction area. So, when you entered that area, you saw UNDER CONSTRUCTION, and as you left you saw END CONSTRUCTION.

What you didn't see, for months on end, was any actual work going on. As far as I can tell, the entirity of the project involved setting up signs and cones, and then leaving them in place for a very, very long time.

Thus it was with considerable amusement (and just a hint of satisfaction) that my wife and I noted that someone had modified one the signs (with spray paint). (Well, spray paint and snark.)

The sign now read:

pretEND
CONSTRUCTION

...Which was pretty hard to argue, under the circumstances.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thursday Morning Music: Zombie Songs

Right, so we're coming up on Halloween. (Surprisingly quickly, too - time flies when you're on the run.) So, to help you prepare, here's a list of zombie songs. (Please note, these may not be the most child-friendly songs on the planet...)

1. All You Zombies - The Hooters
2. I Could Always Eat Your Brain - Harley Poe and the Dead Vampires
3. Nobody Likes You (When You're Dead) - Zombina & The Skeletones
4. Re: Your Brains - Jonathan Coulton
5. The Zombie Dance - Haloween Kickerz
6. Zombie - Nellie McKay
7. Zombie Blood - Adam Paranoia
8. Zombie Dance - Alice Cooper
9. Zombie Jamboree (Back To Back) - Harry Belafonte
10. Zombie Killer - Leslie Hall
11. Zombie Me - No More Kings
12. Zombie Zoo - Tom Petty
13. Zombies Ate My Brain - Tartouf

And, for my own personal amusement, please add:
14. Strangers In The Night - Cake (off the Stubbs the Zombie soundtrack)
15. If I Only Had A Brain - use any version you like; I actually prefer the Mirror Ball Associates for this one, but The Flaming Lips also have cover of this...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Bechdel Test

I was recently reminded of the Bechdel Test. For those unfamiliar with it, it's a very simple test. In order to pass, the book/movie/episode/whatever must have: 1) Two female characters 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something besides a man. It's worth noting that this has no connection whatsoever with whether or not a story is any good; the latest remake of Journey To The Center Of The Earth (the one with Brendan Frasier) is quite an enjoyable film, and utterly fails this test - on requirement 2 - but that's because the whole setup involves isolating the three main characters, of whom two are male.

I like to think that the stuff I write generally passes this test. That's not because I actually try, it's just that my characters tend to have bigger problems on their plates. And a bit of re-reading with this in mind might actually surprise me - I may not do this as well as I like to think. Genre makes a big difference, too - in a romance novel, for example, you'd pretty much expect to see the characters discussing relationships most of the time.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Pekiti Tirsia Kali

Tonight I visited another martial art. I won't call it a school, precisely, because it's basically a guy teaching out of his house. I've looked at this art before, but it was several years ago. Tonight was a strong reminder of why I liked it. This particular style is called Pekiti Tirsia Kali.

The first thing to realize it that was meant to make people ready to fight as quickly as possible. So it starts from weapons, and works back to unarmed from there. The main weapons it uses are machete and knife; it also has some gun-oriented components. This has a certain bloody-minded appeal for me.

Secondarily, it's surprisingly compatible with things that I've already done. It recognizes and trains the Six Harmonies, though it doesn't refer to the concept that way. (The Six Harmonies are hips-and-shoulders, elbows-and-knees, and hands-and-feet. To produce power, they are coordinated in any larger movement - hence, in harmony.) The stepping and stances are compatible, too: angular steps, very mobile, with attention to both closing and exiting. A lot of their attacks are built along diagonal lines, making them very similar to some of the Long Fist movements used in Mantis.

I have a few minor issues - the main one being that their idea of a "long" weapon is a machete. My idea of a long weapon is a staff or spear. I am not entirely sure that those weapons don't exist in this style, but they're certainly not part of the introductory curriculum. I'm also not sure whether this style works mostly with single weapon, or whether they ever use paired weapons.

But it's interesting, it's close, and it's no more expensive than anything else I've looked at. It's firmly focused on weapons, and I could probably get quite a bit out of it in the six months or so that I have available. I could do a whole lot worse than study this.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wednesday Morning Music: Odd little techno bands

I recently stumbled onto a pair of bands: Son of Rust and VnV Nation. I mention them together because there's a certain musical similarity - though they're not identical by any stretch of the imagination - and because I found them both in the same way: searching random words or phrases on i-Tunes. And, of course, because having found one song (each) that I really liked, I felt compelled to investigate further, and then to buy more of their music.

Both bands feature some wonderful dark imagery, striking lyrics, and (of course) the musical skill to really drive it home. If you aren't already acquainted with them, I'd recommend that you check them out. (The first song I found from Son of Rust was "Strange". The song that hooked me on VnV nation was "Nemesis". In both cases, I had put that particular word into the i-Tunes search bar and was just browsing through the results.)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Saturday Morning Staff Meeting

On Saturday I started a seminar on the Yin Shou Gun ("Yin Hand Staff") form. The name refers to the fact that both hands use a palm-down grip throughout most of the form. (I was going to link to a video, but the ones I'm finding don't look much like what we were doing. They're very pretty. We're not doing 'pretty'.)

The class is over at the Fort Worth school, which is a bit a of a drive, but it's only once a week so it's manageable. That also gives me a whole week to forget what we went over in the previous class, but in this case I have a small advantage - I've done this form before, or one very like it. Visiting the Fort Worth school was like Deja Vu all over again.

We did a few sequences to get started (and to get a feel for how this particular form works), and I wound up working with one of the Wing Chun students. (I studied Northern Praying Mantis, back when I was formally a student there.) This was interesting to watch, as some of the stepping that I consider basic to mid-level material apparently doesn't exist in Wing Chun at all.

Prior to Saturday, I had been seriously considering taking up Wing Chun. It's a much smaller martial art than Mantis - less to learn, fewer forms to memorize - which would be good, given that I don't have all that much time to devote to it. It also works at very close range, which means you can practice it in relatively small spaces. (Mantis, by contrast, is best done in a gymnasium or outdoors.) Unfortunately, since my main interest is weapons, and the stepping for most weapons is very different from the way Wing Chun sets up, Wing Chun is out.

That leaves four possibilities, from the original list. In no particular order:
  1. Aikido - $100/month, good exercise, staff/sword/knife, workable schedule.
  2. Pekiti-Tirsia Kali - $100/month, stick/knife, inconvenient schedule.
  3. Kumdo - Prob. $100/month, excellent exercise, all swords all the time, inconvenient schedule.
  4. Mantis - $50/month, weapons in weekend seminars only, convenient schedule.

Bugger. When I write it out this way, it's almost a toss-up. I guess I should confirm the cost on the kumdo, but... I dunno. We'll see.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Today's Made-Up Word is...

As part of my ongoing efforts to help improve the state of education in America, I will occasionally use this blog to introduce words with which the average reader may not be familiar. In fact, I can pretty well guarantee that my readers won't know them already, since I'll be making them up as a go along. No, no - no need to thank me. It's all for the Greater Good. Today's word is:

Efeffiny: The sudden, overwhelming realization that you've just "F-ed" something up; an extremely unpleasant epiphany. Example One: "I had my efeffiny right after I formatted the hard drive." Example Two: "As I was climbing down from the bar stool, I had an efeffiny: eight shots in a row was a bad, bad idea."

Feel free to add your own examples in the comments.

(This was actually a direct result of mishearing a friend of mine. He was talking about FF&E - Furniture, Fixtures, and Equipment - on one of our local construction projects; the sentence was something like, "Yeah, we're about to the FF&E." Given the way this particular project has gone, my inference wasn't entirely unwarranted.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Marriage is what brings us together, today...

In discussing one of my wife's friends - and, in particular, the love life of said friend - I observed this woman is capable of taking a tiny seed of drama and cultivating it until it becomes a giant drama bush that threatens to overwhelm yard and home alike. (I'm not sure what the botanical specifications of drama bushes might look like, but I suspect there's a marked resemblance to kudzu.)

Later, in a related conversation, I observed that I was extremely happy that my wife and I keep most of our drama out of our marriage. Drama is, by its nature, unstable and prone to collapse, and thus a poor building material for a lifelong commitment. Marriage should instead be the bedrock, the solid foundation upon which towering edifices of drama are built.

This will probably prove relevant to someone, somewhere, under some exceedingly strange circumstances.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wednesday Morning Music: Appalling Covers

These are all songs which A) were originally composed by other artists, and B) have been.. re-envisioned... in ways that strike me as really funny.

Baby Got Back - Jonathan Coulton
Holding Out For A Hero - Frou Frou
Ice Ice Baby - Richard Cheese
Iron Man - The Cardigans
Let's Do It - Joan Jett & Paul Westerberg
The Metro - System of a Down
Need You Tonight - Gilli Moon
Ring of Fire - The Texas Gypsies
Rock Me Amadeus - Sturmgeist
Seasons in the Sun - Too Much Joy
Stairway to Heaven - Brave Combo & Tiny Tim

Feel free to leave your own recommendations and suggestions in the comments.

Monday, September 14, 2009

About September 11th

I don't think there's any way I can write this without insulting anyone. I don't know; we'll see. But another anniversary of September 11th has rolled around, and several people have been moved to comment on it, and that's led me to re-inspect my feelings about the event. And what I find...

I don't think it should be a holiday. I don't think the attacks on the twin towers should be commemorated - not this way. A monument at the site, fine. A tribute to the dead, sure. But yearly memorial services? No. Let it go. Let's move on.

I've hear people talk about September 11, 2001 as The Day Everything Changed. I still hear people say things like that. And I just don't buy it. Not only does it not seem that way to me, it didn't even seem that way to me at the time.

I came into work, and they had the TV on in the server room. Somebody - I think it was the CIO - told me that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. While I was making my tea, another plane flew into the second tower. I thought, Well, that settles one thing. It wasn't an accident. And then I went back and sat down at my desk. I may have been the only person in the building - possibly the only person in the United States - who wasn't all that surprised.

The thing is, I'd been reading for years - at least as long ago as the early eighties - that this was the way warfare was headed. Not big armies and big machines on the field of battle, but small groups or even individuals operating semi-independently. Yes, I pulled up news reports to get more information; but I wasn't particularly scared.

What I really remember is Bush's address in response to it. It was good speech; it hit all the right notes. We would not be cowed. We would find the ones who did this and make sure they couldn't do it again; and we would do it right, without making new enemies and with a real effort not to harm the innocent.

And if we'd actually done that, things might be very different now.

I don't want to dismiss the tragedy. Nearly three thousand people died, all told, and in a fairly hideous and spectacular manner. Count in the friends and families of the deceased, and you have a monstrous amount of pain and suffering. I don't want to sound like that doesn't matter - it does - but, well... in 2008, 37,261 people lost their lives in traffic accidents here in the U.S.A. In 2007, it was 41,259. (Source) I don't think their pain and suffering - or the effect on their families and friends - was any less than it was for the victims of the September 11 attacks. But since they weren't killed by terrorists, the world at large pays them very little attention.

I suppose what I'm trying to argue for, here, is some perspective. The world didn't change; it's always been like this. The whole goal of terrorism is to scare people. As a result, it seems to me that the best response is not to memorialize our fear and grief, but to move past it and make the world better.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Running with the Geeks

Sadly, this is not too far from the truth...


(Courtesy of http://xkcd.com/)

My problem is that I simply don't enjoy exercise, and I don't have the discipline to force myself to do it. So in order to get any exercise, I have to find something that I enjoy doing, which just happens to be good exercise. This is how I, as a sword geek, ended up studying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (which has exactly nothing to do with swords) for a year and a half.

Now I'm hoping to find something that will let me play with swords, and also happens to be good exercise. Aikido looks like the best option so far; I'd do taijiquan (Tai Chi), but the only school I know which includes a serious emphasis on weapons use is based near Washington, D.C. - so the commute is a bit prohibitive...

Wednesday Morning Music: Ain't through Alive

1. Ain't No Cure For Love - Leonard Cohen
2. Ain't Nobody's Business But My Own - Ella Fitzgerald & Friends
3. Airplane - Indigo Girls
4. Airwaves - Thomas Dolby
5. Alberta Postcard - Trout Fishing In America
6. The Ale is Dear - The Real McKenzies
7. Alice's Restaurant - Arlo Guthrie
8. Alice Everyday - Book of Love
9. Alison - Elvis Costello & The Attractions
10. Alive - Meatloaf

Sunday, September 6, 2009

I've still got it...

I dropped Theron off at my parents' church this morning. My parents were going to be a little late, and they're keeping Theron overnight. Since I wanted to drop the Podling's overnight bag in their car (instead of leaving it in the nursery with Theron), I took the opportunity to look around. This was partly just a way to pass the time, with perhaps a bit of nostalgic curiosity mixed in; I haven't really looked around the inside of that church in twenty years.

When I'd finished looking at the classrooms, I went outside and found my parents' car. I dropped the overnight bag in the passenger seat and locked the car behind me. Then I went across the parking lot, to see what they're doing to the Scout Hut. (It looks like they're putting in some sort of garden.) Then I wandered over to my car, and put my laptop back inside. Finally, I wandered back towards the sanctuary to make sure my parents were safely ensconsed.

In the process, I was accosted by one of the ushers, who wanted to know why I was wandering around the parking lot in a particularly suspicious fashion.

This sort of thing used to happen to me a lot when I still had long hair. It hasn't happened much recently, probably because it's hard to look suspicious when you're hauling a three-year-old around. It's nice to know that I haven't lost my mojo.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Another Martial Arts School

So, my sister-in-law and I have been looking at local Martial Arts schools. We haven't had a lot of time, so we're basically hitting one a week. Results so far have varied from disappointing (good instructor, bad students) to pleasantly surprising (much better than I'd seen that style taught before), to last night's entry... which was interesting.

I'm reluctant to name names, especially on the less impressive schools, so bear with me.

Last night's entry was a small, local Kung Fu school. The instructor offers three sorts of classes: a forms class, a sanshou (free-fighting) class, and Tai Chi. We arrived in time to watch the very end of the forms class, and all of the sanshou class.

The forms class had four students, in the 12-15 age range. The forms had a very Wushu feel to them - flashy stances, wobbly-bladed swords, dramatic movements. (For those unclear on the distinction, Wushu is Communist state-sponsored Kung Fu, and tends to be more of a performance art and less of a fighting style; as part of the performance, it uses thin, flexible blades on any weapons.) This was a little disappointing, as I have no interest in studying swords that aren't actually swords.

The next class was the sanshou class, which was what we'd mainly come to see. I was particularly curious about how one would teach sanshou, as I tend to think of it as something you do as part of learning a style. In this case, the students were a young man (maybe eighteen), and a woman who looked to be in her early twenties. They worked on basic kicks, basic punches, and some stepping, either in the air or targetting pads. When they were targeting each other, they wore oversized boxing gloves. Apparently the sanshou class involves some knee and elbow work as well. This was Kung Fu stripped down to its fighting essentials... which is to say, it was basically just kickboxing. My reaction (which mirrored my sister-in-law's almost perfectly) was essentially, If I wanted this, I'd just study Muay Thai and have done with it.

As I said, it was interesting. The instructor was good - he could demonstrate exactly what he wanted, fast or slow, and his movements were graceful, balanced, and coordinated - but he managed to completely avoid everything that I would actually want to study.

At one point he asked what we'd studied, and we told him that we'd done a little bit of Northen Praying Mantis. (This is known as "hiding your tip". We've actually studied more than a little of it.) This led him to show a little bit of a mantis form, and explain that mantis moves were too flashy for real fighting.

There two problems with this. The first is that the phrase "praying mantis kung fu" doesn't actually tell you that much. Why? Well, first, Northern Praying Mantis is a completely different style from Southern Praying Mantis; aside from the name, there's no connection between them. Second, Northern Praying Mantis has several different branches, which do things differently - sometimes very differently. To further confuse the issue, at one point there was an effort to preserve and consolidate all styles of kung fu. As a result, there is now a mantis form in what is usually taught as "Shaolin Kung Fu".

I believe this last is what the fellow last night was thinking about. Because of its history, that form focuses on the distinctively mantis movements, and - if taught as part of wushu - actually will be more of a showy, display style. But that's the mantis form, not actual Mantis Kung Fu.

So that's the first problem: he didn't know what we were talking about.

The second problem is this: if someone comes to your school with prior training in another style, don't dis that style. First of all, even if you're familiar with the style, you don't know how they were taught. I've seen some good styles taught very poorly, and I've met some very formidable practitioners of styles that I would otherwise dismiss. You never know. Second, if the person liked that style, they're likely to feel insulted when you talk it down - and that's not the reaction you want from a potential student. Third, and most important, it makes you sound insecure about your own style. Again, this is not the impression that you want to make.

Seriously. Don't be that guy.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

There was a time...

There was a time when I ate fairly healthy meals, got a lot of regular exercise, and spent anywhere from three to five hours writing, nearly every night.

Some days I miss being a teenager...

Of course, there are an awful lot of good things in my life now that just weren't possible then, but why let realism interfere with a well-crafted fit of nostalgia?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Wednesday Morning Music: End of the World

Rather than proceeding alphabetically (though I'm sure we're going to come back to that), this morning's selection is a playlist of songs to listen to while writing about - or waiting for - the apocalypse.

1. Nemesis - VnV Nation
2. Faded Flowers - Shriekback
3. End of the World - Great Big Sea
4. Save a Prayer - Dune
5. From The End Of The World - Electric Light Orchestra
6. (Nothing But) Flowers - Talking Heads
7. Stand Or Fall - Glow
8. Strange - Son of Rust
9. Waiting for the End of the World - Ideal Flaw
10. Lonely In Your Nightmare - Duran Duran
11. Bad Moon Rising - Rosa Chance Wells
12. Red Skies - Gene Loves Jezebel
13. Love at the End of the World - Sam Roberts

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? What would you play if the End was Nigh?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fanction as Writing Practice

I've been writing Fan Fiction (fanfic, for short) for over a decade, now.

Fanfiction, for those who don't know, is basically the practice of writing your own stories set in another author's world and/or using another author's character(s). It's a surprisingly common activity; or perhaps I should say, it's an unsurprisingly common response to reading a fun and well-told story: "I wish I could be there, doing that."

(The comic Girl Genius includes a humorous interlude which focuses on the creation of fan fiction by a character from the world of the comic. The interlude begins here, and runs about seven pages; it is entirely separate from the main storyline, so reading it will not spoil anything from the rest of the comic. By the way, if you aren't already reading Girl Genius, you should be - it's exceptionally well done. Or, do the authors a favor and buy yourself a copy; it's available as a printed comic book, too.)

Like any other sort of writing, fan fiction can be done spectacularly well, hideously poorly, or anywhere in between. It sometimes gets a bad reputation, usually owing to one of three reasons:
  1. It's fundamentally derivative. That is, it is based on someone else's work (by definition).
  2. A lot of fanfiction is very badly written - poor grammar, frequent spelling errors, and misused words abound.
  3. Fanfictions frequently borrow characters created by other authors, and use them in ways that are inappropriate, and sometimes deeply disturbing.

I want to stop and elaborate on that last item for a moment. I once read (as part of a class on Science Fiction) a fanfic in which two characters from the original Star Trek series were trapped on an alien planet. This was not, if you'll recall, an uncommon occurrence. In this case, however, the two characters were Spock, the half-Vulcan who almost never showed emotion, and "Bones" McCoy, who was perpetually angry at Spock's failure to act more human; and the event which trapped them was "psychic storm" which prevented them from beaming back to the ship and threatened to burn out their minds. The climax of the story had them huddled together, with Spock performing a Mind Meld to get them through the night - a strange sort of intimacy for these very different, somewhat antagonistic men. The story was well-written, and very true to the characters, but it was also exploring psychological territory that the original TV show would never have approached. I suspect that, for the author of the fanfic, that was precisely the point.

There are a great many fanfics in which the author has inserted an "idealized Me" character (often referred to as a Mary Sue) into an existing series. These stories tend, by their nature, to put the author's Id on display, often with disturbing results. As an example - which, for the sake of your sanity, dear readers, I will not link to - I offer a fanfic in which a teenage girl was accepted to Hogwarts. She was (unsurprisingly) exotic and attractive, and quickly turned most of the students on to her favorite bands and her goth style of dress. Where it gets disturbing is the bit where, in very short order, she is sleeping with Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy, and Professor Snape - and suffering great angst over the question of how she could possibly choose between them.

Despite these criticism, there are a great many people writing fanfics, and some of them are actually quite well-written (which, for me, generally includes being true to the source material).

My own experience with Fan Fiction is, as far as I can tell, a bit different from most. I first stumbled onto it when I was looking for information on the Bordertown series of books. Bordertown is a "shared world" anthology (or series of anthologies, really). In other words, different authors all took the same setting and wrote their own stories in it. (The series also spawned at least three full-length novels, from authors who wanted to do more with their characters.) So, naturally, the group that I had stumbled onto did the same: took the setting, and wrote their own stories with their own characters. This differs from the usual run of fanfiction mainly because the "original" characters are left almost entirely alone.

Later, I stumbled onto The Grey Tower, which is set in the world of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books. This was, again, entirely accidental; I was doing a search for a particular type of Japanese polearm. The Grey Tower, despite being set in a world created by a single author in a (quite long and excruciatingly detailed) ongoing series, uses much the same approach as the Bordertown group: everyone has to create their own characters - you can't use one from the books - and Grey Tower events must always take place "offstage" in regards to the original series. Moreover, characters and events have to be true to the spirit of the series; you can't introduce psychic powers, or a new system of magic, or that sort of thing.

So, granting that my experience with (and practice of) fan fiction is a bit unusual, I tend to think that it can actually be quite good as writing practice. That's particularly true if you're looking to polish your style a bit before starting on your own projects. Here's the thing:

To keep your setting internally consistent, you have to pay attention to the details. This is true regardless of whether you're inventing your own world or borrowing someone else's. In order to stay true to the original author's work, a fan fiction writer has to make a fairly close reading of the source material, and then do some careful analysis of how things work, and what does and doesn't fit in that setting. That same sort of thinking - How do these things work? What can we do with this element? How does this ability change the way our society works? - is quite valuable when you sit down to create your own worlds.

In my own fan faction, I do not use published characters. When I do use other people's characters, they are always from people I know, with whom I can consult to make sure I get the details and the behaviors right. This is, again, good practice for characterization.

Sites like The Grey Tower actually offer classes to help with some of these elements. They have an introductory class, which includes several lessons designed to help you explore your character. Other classes, such as Writing Combat, address other areas of writing. You can also get feedback on your writing (sometimes even if you don't want to hear it).

Now, obviously not all authors of fan fiction are going to put this much thought, or this kind of thinking, into their work. For the ones who do, though, I think that writing fanfics can be a good way to improve one's writing in general. Most people are eventually going to want to move on to creating their own worlds and their own characters, but spending some time really exploring someone else's world is not a bad way to start.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bad Horror Films: Dark Ride

BHF: Dark Ride
Lionsgate Films, 2006


Okay, so this is basically just me watching a Bad Horror Film. I do this a lot, and I usually speculate about how things might have gone if the script had been just a little bit... different. Usually, for Bad Horror Films, this means wondering what might happen if the protagonists had even a little bit of intelligence or common sense.

Tonight's selection Dark Ride. It's one of the Eight Films To Die For - except that they've been doing this for at least three years, giving us a bare minimum of twenty-four films to die for. I've seen others in this collection, and the quality varies widely. However, the rating information on the back of this one promises "strong grisly horror violence and gore, sexuality, nudity, language, and some drug content." So however bad the writing and acting may be, it'll at least have a few redeeming features...

I should warn you, as a courtesy, that there will be spoilers in this post. Don't read ahead if you haven't seen the film, and want to be surprised by the plot. (On the other hand... Come on. It's a Bad Horror Film, one of the most predictable beasts in the jungle. How surprising could it be?) Anyway, you have been warned.

Previews: It's always a good sign when the previews themselves have an R rating.
...Dear gods, I think they've decided to preview all seven of the other films.

The movie (finally): Opening shot, empty pier, two girls walking. I'm guessing this is a flashback to set the stage. They're wearing pretty generic school uniforms, look to be late middle school or early high school. They've gotten on a carnival ride... lot of stage smoke, things jumping out. They've been lulled into thinking it's harmless, so it's probably time for one of them to die.

Yep. One of them just got yanked up out of the seat. The one who was afraid to get on in the first place is busily freaking out. Even odds on whether she dies too, or whether she survives to return as a twenty-something. Oh, her newly-dead friend is now part of the ride... and the figure at the exhibit just reached for her. Both dead, then.

Flickery credits interspersed with bits of newspaper clippings and scary images, mostly from the ride. We're about ten minutes into the film now; hopefully we can start the main plot. Newspaper clippings suggest the ride has reopened, spring break is about to start, and there was something about an insane asylum.

Fade to a movie vision of a dormitory... (In the movies, dormitories - and, for that matter, parties - are always a lot more lively and active than they ever are in real life.)

Okay, so... we have the two girls, one blonde and one brunette; and we've already set up the blonde as the slut. The brunette, meanwhile, is angsty about her boyfriend. She's basically having a Define The Relationship talk with her blonde roommate, about her boyfriend. Boyfriend, meanwhile, expresses doubts about whether he still loves the brunette. The boys are pretty much characterized as the taller, socially-aware guy, and his shorter, nerdier friend. We're fifteen minutes in, and I already want to kill all four of them myself.

...And, we've just introduced a third guy - blonde, guitarist, smooth; leaving a female admirer behind to go on his Spring Break trip. He has a guitar, but somehow I doubt that'll be at all relevant later on. Frankly, he comes off as a little sleazy.

Okay, so we've established the five main characters, and I'm not so much hoping for one of them to survive as I am trying to decide which one I want to see die the soonest. This does not speak well of the acting, or the basic characterization. I doubt the effect was intentional.

Ah, good. The spooky gas station. Likely they'll hear about the Dark Ride, or receive an eerie warning, or do something stupid to piss off the locals. Okay, I think I like the creepy old gas station attendant better than any of the kids. Sadly, he probably won't reappear. And, yes, they did find a flier advertising the Dark Ride.

Apparently not content with implying that a lunatic had escaped (during the credits), the script writers have now flashed back to a sanitarium, "Two Weeks Earlier". Abusive orderlies are messing with one of the patients, and they're about to feed him meat in direct defiance of their instructions. So, naturally, they're going to die horribly and the patient's going to escape. Nice spooky growl and an Incredible Hulk-style ripping-out-of-the-restraints scene, though. Good splattery gore, too.

One of these days, I'd like to see a version of this scene where the orderlies are competent professionals doing an unpleasant (and underpaid) job. It wouldn't really change the outcome, and it would be a nice change of pace...

Back to the kids... They've decided to skip getting a hotel, and stay overnight in the dark ride itself. Less obvious than a haunted house, I suppose - but also less logical.

Oh, good. Now there's a hitchhiker. "I bet she's either a psycho or a nympho." Since she's an attractive blonde with no fashion sense, naturally they're going to pick her up. Okay, actually I guess it's just an ugly hat; the rest of her outfit isn't actually that bad. Ah, good, she's acting crazy in a transparent attempt on the part of the screenwriters to build suspense. She looks like a drama major trying to win the Golden Tree of Overacting. ...And, now she's stripped down to a bikini top. She wants to go with them on the Dark Ride, and she brought mushrooms. Apparently pot just isn't enough some days.

Now they're trying to interact... can we please just kill them? Singly, in a group, I'm not sure I care. The psycho hitchhiker is no better developed than any of the others, and she's flaky. I have, however, finally identified the main character; unsurprisingly, it's the angsty brunette. She has distinguished herself, at 45-50 minutes into the film, by staying behind in the van while everyone else goes to explore the Dark Ride. She's also been the main voice of opposition to the whole plan. So, she probably gets pushed into coming inside, but she probably survives the night. We'll see...

Blonde Surfer Dude (hereafter referred to as BSD - he was the one with the guitar) is exploring an upper floor and has managed to turn on the lights. I'm a little impressed that he went inside by himself, as that's a lot harder to do in real life than it looks here. I'd be more impressed if I thought it was supposed to be characterization, as opposed to, say, sloppy writing.

Things are popping out at them in spite fo the fact that they're walking through the exhibit, which strikes me as profoundly unrealistic. That sort of mechanism is usually tied to the progress of the ride. Also, they've just reminded me that BSD is half out of his mind on 'shrooms. Off hand, I'm not sure whether that makes his solitary upstairs exploration more or less believable.

Just a hint, guys: when you're breaking and entering, try to be sober. It makes you much less likely to be caught. Also, it makes you more likely to make good choices if something goes horribly wrong (as things so often do in Bad Horror Films).

Brunette is sitting alone in the van. If she had any sense, she'd be sleeping through the whole thing.

Psycho-hitchhiker just started talking about "negative energy". And it turns out that BSD knows about the twins who were murdered in the prologue. Oh, and apparently there was a deformed kid who lived in the dark ride. Oh, and BSD didn't mention this earlier because he wanted them to come. Now Nerdy Guy is telling them about how the killer was sent to a mental hospital instead of killed - apparently the twins from the prologue were his cousins, and he didn't see fit to mention this, either. It'd be a pretty good campfire tale, right down to the "no really, I know this is true because..." part, except that in this context the two guys are probably telling the truth.

Angsty Brunette just played a trick on her boyfriend, making him think she was dead. Turns out the boyfriend slept with someone else. Boyfriend is really angry about being tricked, and just stormed off. So we've now set up a situation where either the Nerd or the Boyfriend could start killing people... but since we did the flashback to the sanitarium, I'm thinking probably not - independent lunatic is more likely.

We're now at about 1:10, and nobody's died yet. But Blonde Surfer Dude has just left, by himself, to go turn the lights back on, and Hitchhiker Girl has slipped away also, so hopefully we'll make some progress pretty soon. Death... or bosoms?

1:11 - Bosoms.

The rest of the group - now down to the original two girls and Nerdy Guy - are trying to find their way downstairs. Boyfriend is still missing. Someone really should have died by now. I've been interrupted, so I'm not sure just how far along we are, but there can't be more than twenty or thirty minutes left in the film.

Oh, good. I think they've finally found a corpse... and I think it's Boyfriend. Girlfriend thinks so, too. If it's a joke, he has a much better costume than she did.

Yay! Hitchhiker girl's been killed. And BSD just knocked himself out. Psycho didn't stop to kill him, though. There's some possibility that Nerd Guy is actually the killer. It's also possible that this is all an elaborate party game that Nerd Guy planned out in advance, and nobody is actually dead.

The fact that nobody seems to be looking for weapons is deeply, deeply disturbing to me. Oh, and the girls have just separated, further lowering their odds of survival. The blonde roommate is panicking, so she's in no shape to face anything more dangerous than a chipmunk... Ah, good. She seems to be getting it back together. Oh, and she's trying to grab a hatchet out of one of the exhibits. Good for her. Going about it all wrong, but the instinct is good. Naturally, the masked Psycho snuck up on her while she was at it, so now she's running away.

Right, safety tip number two: when you're exploring someplace dark, always make sure you have at least three light sources with you.

Psycho just caught up with the blonde roommate, so she's out, too.

BSD just surprised Psycho on a balcony - I think he was sneaking up on the brunette - and now Psycho is chasing BSD. This is because BSD was too stupid to grab a weapon. Psycho hasn't used anything more formidable than a hunting knife so far, so even a mid-length chunk of wood would do a lot to even the odds.

We've now added a security guard, who's calling for backup from - it seems - outside the Dark Ride. Hopefully the kids will all finish getting killed before their Deus Ex Machina can arrive. Honestly, the standards for psycho killers have really gone down these days...

Oh, good. The backup is a pair of lazy security guards who are probably going to sleep through the whole thing. This is actually smart, pro-survival behavior on their part.

Finally! Psycho just split the security guard's head in two with a short saber or long cleaver. That tends to contradict the "just a big practical joke" theory I was considering earlier.

And now the brunette has jumped out a window. Since she was on the second floor and made no attempt to tuck and roll - she pretty much came down on her hands and knees - she seems to have a sprained ankle. Frankly, she's lucky she didn't break her wrists as well. On the plus side, she's out of the building and in the rain, which ought to make her somewhat harder for the Psycho to find.

Ha! Now she's driven off in the van, leaving Blonde Surfer Dude behind with the Psycho. Good for her. Unfortunately, she'll probably turn back in a fit of abject stupidity and try to save him. This is the moral equivalent of running back into a burning building: it sounds like a good idea, but it usually just leads to more dead bodies. Even odds on whether she dies as a result, or whether she saves BSD. Nerd Guy is still missing, too - so either he's the psycho, or the script writers want us to think he is.

Psycho just caught BSD. BSD is fleeing, but not very successfully. Brunette, as predicted, has turned the van around.

And, the dramatic finale (I hope): Brunette drives the van through the front door, knocking Psycho back into a wall of spikes and saving Blonde Surfer Dude.

Oh, look! Nerd guy just reappeared. Twenty bucks says he was the normal-looking brother of the deformed murderer who lived in the Dark Ride. If so, BSD is about to die anyway.

Ohhhhh, yes. Nerd Guy stabbed BSD, and brunette is semiconscious in the van. Nerd Guy was, in fact, the younger brother of Psycho. ...And, brunette woke up just in time to figure out the relationship. Nerd Guy thanked her for her help, and she's wandered out into the rain. I'm guessing there's some serious therapy in her future.

Final shot is a view of the Psycho's mask, fading back into darkness; possibly hinting that the younger brother will take on the job of murdering people in the Dark Ride.

All in all, not too bad. I'd have more sympathy for the characters if they had been more likeable to begin with, and if they'd made even a token effort to defend themselves, but it certainly could have been worse. The writers held off on the "kids getting killed in a spooky place" part until fairly late in the movie, which would have been a good idea if they'd spent the time developing the characters and/or if the characters had been more sympathetic to begin with. As it was, it just made me impatient.

The ending is a little unsatisfying, too. If Nerd Boy is going to live in the Dark Ride and kill people, he should kill the girl to cover his trail. If not, is he going to be arrested? There are sirens in the background. Is he going to run away? I suppose, since he only killed one person, and the girl was unconscious at the time (no witnesses), he could claim to be an innocent victim... but he's going to have a hard time convincing the authorities, since he brought everyone to the ride in the first place.

Oh, well. Maybe the next Bad Horror Film will offer more chance to critique the characters and their behavior. I seem to have spent most of this one criticising the film itself.