Monday, April 30, 2012

One Way Ticket To Midnight

I write a lot of fantasy and science-fiction based stuff (often with elements of horror). I enjoy dealing with exotic settings, alien cultures and mindsets, and strange powers. Just about the only sort of power I don't regularly play with is... how to say this? ...anything involving Time. Traveling through time, manipulating time... the thing is, time is so fundamental, so essential to the way people look at the world, that any time it appears in the story it's going to require an awful lot of attention and some very careful handling. This brings me to the following rule of thumb:

Don't include time-based powers unless they're the focus of your story.

Because otherwise... well, let me demonstrate the sort of thing that happens if you haven't thought your time-based powers through very carefully. This actually happened in a roleplaying game, though it was years ago and I'm probably misremembering some of the details:

The battle had been long and the fighting fierce, but the outcome was no longer in doubt. Our enemy had underestimated our strengths, and the men and beasts that served him had fallen by the dozens. To my right, Adiam released his prepared spells, blasting and battering his targets; to my right, Nadrick's twin sabers carved a line through the enemy ranks. I had taken a new form especially for this battle, immensely strong and nearly invulnerable; what my claws couldn't pierce, I broke or hurled aside.

The enemy fell back, formations collapsing as they gathered to protect their master. They were too far beneath his control to ever consider flight; they would fight to the last to protect him. Yet few enough of them remained, and those were not sufficient to hold us back. We could see our target, standing on a slight rise at their center; a position chosen so that he could survey the fighting and loose spells of his own. Now the unmistakable sight of defeat greeted his eyes; if he would turn the course of battle, he must do it soon.

From across the field, I saw him draw something from his belt and raise it over his head: a scroll, or something like it. A scrap of parchment, perhaps. A gust of wind tugged at his robes, then fell still. "You will not take me!" he cried, and his voice rolled across the field like the sound of a great bell. "I have a one-way ticket to midnight!"

Saying this, he tore the parchment in half. Power rolled out from where he stood, its weight unmistakable though we could see only its effects: our enemy and all his warrior-slaves were gone. The sounds of fighting were absent; only the cries of the wounded and dying filled the afternoon air. Nadrick, with a speed I could never hope to match, had hurled one of his sabers. It spun across the empty hilltop and fell to the ground somewhere beyond. Adiam stood startled, the guide words for his next bit of destruction ready on his lips.

For a moment, we all looked at each other. Adiam spoke bitterly: "The fiend has escaped us."

"Perhaps," I said, and they both turned to look at me. "Did he not say, 'midnight'?"

Adiam nodded slowly. Nadrick started to grin.

"It lacks an hour or so of sunset," I said. My voice was a throaty growl in this form, but it couldn't be helped. Until we'd checked the wounded, I wouldn't resume a human configuration. "That gives us, what? Five or six hours to prepare, if he will reappear here." We all considered that. "We can eat, and rest, and be fresh when he arrives battle-weary."

"...And lay traps," said Adiam. I could see his mind spinning as he considered the possibilities. He, too, was smiling now.

"He'll be dead before he realizes his mistake," said Nadrick.

...Which was about the point where the Gamemaster called a sudden and panicked halt. Apparently the "one-way ticket to midnight" had been a staple of his former gaming group, a way that bad guys (and eventually the players) could absolutely and irrevocably escape from danger. But all it actually did was project them forward through time; they would reappear in the same place, except at midnight. And that meant that those of us who were "left behind" in the normal flow of time could reach the same place, just by waiting... and the escape that appeared to happen instantly for those who used the Ticket would give us several hours while we made the same passage though time in the more ordinary way.

Time-based powers are messy. They don't balance well with other powers; either they're an absolute and nearly-unbeatable advantage, or they're very nearly useless. To make them work at all requires far more attention than they're usually worth - unless, of course, time and/or time travel are the focus of the story, in which case you're balancing them against other time-based powers.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Zombie Defense For Exhausted Parents II

Let me set the scene. It was about eleven o'clock on a Saturday morning. I'd been up most of the night with my son, who had a fairly nasty case of croup. They'd sent us home from the emergency room - after a heavy dose of Tylenol and two hours on a nebulizer - with a prescription for some sort of steroid. On top of that, we'd used the last of the children's Tylenol, and needed more. So I was getting ready to drive over to the pharmacy when it happened.

After a night like that, I was not exactly at the top of my game. I probably looked it, too: I'd splashed some water on my face and brushed my teeth, but I was still in the same outfit I'd worn to the emergency room. But what the hell, it's not like I was heading out to a club to pick up chicks. I was thirty-six and married, with a three-year-old boy and another son on the way. What I wanted, more than anything else in the world, was to get the damned meds so I could go back, lie down on the couch, and watch videos with Firstborn until we both felt better.

So I went into the garage, and I pushed the button to open the garage door. And as it was going up, I realized there was somebody standing just outside. By then I was between the car and my wife's van, but I stopped and waited. By the time the door was all the way up, I could see the sagging, pale flesh, the torn clothes, and the unkempt hair. It was looking up at the ceiling - at the garage door, I think - and then it looked down at me. That's when I knew it was a zombie: its eyes were withered. That wasn't possible, but at the time the impossibility of the situation didn't bother me. My first thought, I swear to God, was this: Oh, this is just what I need right now.

The zombie lurched and started shuffling towards me. I backed up a couple of steps, then went around the front of my car. It stopped, because the car was now between us. The smart thing to do would have been to go inside the house and block the door, but to be honest I barely even considered it. We needed medicine, and I was going to get medicine. Besides, all the weapons were here in the garage.

So I moved up along the driver's side of the car, and the zombie came to meet me. Or, at least, it tried.

In life it had been an overweight, middle-aged white guy. In death, its fat had... solidified, I guess, and it couldn't quite wedge itself in between the side of the car and the camping equipment. I think it was then that I noticed the broken arm - you know, just in case I'd needed any more evidence that this wasn't just a prankster in a costume. It was reaching out with both arms, but the left arm just kind of... dangled. Everything below that elbow was hanging loose.

Well... Back when my son was born, I put all the weapons in the garage. I locked up the ones I could, particularly the ones that might seem attractive to a small boy or his friends. (I've dabbled in a variety of martial arts over the course of my life, and I have a wide variety of weapons and training equipment.) Some of those weapons were too long to fit in a case, so they wound up leaning against the cabinet where everything else was locked away. As a result of this arrangement, the first thing that came to hand was a hardwood staff.

That was fine with me. I held it like a spear and jabbed the zombie in the chest. I wasn't gentle about it; I heard something crack, and a sort of groaning exhale escaped the corpse's lips. It grabbed for the staff with its good arm, but I kept pushing and drove the zombie backwards. It weighed more than I did, but I had braced myself - and its balance was horrible.

It stumbled back a step, then fell over backwards. I wrenched the staff back as it fell, and managed to keep hold of it. I heard the back of its head strike the concrete with a crack.

So I changed directions again, and went back around the other side of the van.

The zombie was still lying on its back. Its arms were moving, but it didn't seem to know how to get up - or even roll over. The staff gave me plenty of reach and more than enough leverage: I hit it in the face, again and again. I basically just kept smashing the staff down until it quit moving. Then I did it a couple of more times, just to be sure.

And then I used the staff to shove the thing off my driveway. For a moment I just stood there looking at it. Then it occurred to me that there might be more of them, so I looked down the side of the house, then went and looked both ways down the alley. Nothing was moving. All right, then.

I went back inside and told my wife to call the police. Then I got in the car and drove to the pharmacy... because God damn it, we still needed medicine.

This actually came to me as a sort of vision, in much the circumstances I just described - just, without the zombie. The garage door was going up, and I thought, "What if there was a zombie outside?" And then I realized I was just too tired to care. I was, however, vastly amused by the idea of a lone parent averting the Zombie Apocalypse just because he was too tired to panic properly. Thus was this scene born.

Steampunk Shop

So this advert showed up on my Facebook:

I was a lot more excited until I realized that they were probably just selling props and costumes.

C'mon, folks. All I want is an aether fluctuation detector that really works. Is that really too much to ask?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Classic Tai Chi video

Here's a piece of history: a Tai Chi video from 1937.

I should really go find some of the Northern Praying Mantis videos, too...

Filler: Semi-Random Links

Stuff I thought was worth reading:

"That's why you don't have any friends."

Petition: All Christians: Publicly affirm that being gay is no more immoral than is being straight.

Fundraising for Texas Planned Parenthood - with a twist. Note: the campaign has been so successful that its originator is currently requesting that people donate to Planned Parenthood directly.

Water for people wants to help ensure that people have access to clean water.

Unwrapping the Onion is the sort of story that replace Culture War "issues" with the firsthand experiences of real, non-abstract human beings. It's best if you start with the first entry in the series and go from there.

Is the Vatican actively trying to save Catholicism by destroying it? Seriously, what are these guys thinking?

Slow Jamming The News is just awesome.

10 Tips for Dealing with Online Criticism includes helpful advice for anyone, I think. Plus, it has a troll.

7 Commonly Corrected Grammar Errors (That Aren't Mistakes)

Also from Cracked,
The 7 Most Elaborate Dick Moves in Online Gaming History
clearly reveals why human beings should never, ever be given super powers.

...So that's me. What are you reading?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Zombie Defense for Exhausted Parents

So Secondborn woke up at four in the morning. I became aware of this when he went running out of his room and down the hall, shrieking like a miniature banshee. I went and intercepted him, picked him up, and tried to comfort him. He, meanwhile, continued shrieking, only rather closer to my ears than he had been before. (He'd made it all the way to the back door, and seemed confused about why it was so dark outside.) So I took him into the kitchen.

Apparently, he was hungry. I have no idea how I deduced this - in fact, I'm not entirely sure how I was upright - but I handed him a hunk of string cheese and some crackers, and he scarfed them down. I think I got him some water, too. He calmed down once he had food in front of him, and about twenty minutes later I was able to set him back on his bed and watch him go right back to sleep.

So now, as you might expect, I am just the least little bit tired. But, being... well, me... I can't just say, "Wow, I'm really tired," and let it go at that. Oh, no. No, my brain keeps right on going, and immediately wanders off-track: "Wow, I'm really tired. Also, the Zombie Apocalypse is probably eminent. In fact, I should try to pay attention for the screams of my co-workers and the breathy moans of the hungry dead. Am I too tired to fend them off?"

I'm sure that many of you are also wondering about that last question. After all, parents who are awakened by small children in the wee hours of the morning are seldom in any condition to remove the head or destroy the brain when the undead come calling. Fortunately - you'll be pleased to learn - nature has provided for us even in such terrible circumstances. We benefit from the classic evolutionary defense known as Mimicry. You see, parents in this condition are nearly indistinguishable from zombies. We stagger around, unsteady on our feet; we moan softly under our breath; our metabolic and neurological activity drops to the bare minimum necessary to sustain the spark of life. Recent testing has revealed that this uncanny similarity is so convincing that in 80% of test cases even the undead themselves cannot tell the difference between an exhausted parent and another zombie.

So, should you find yourself in this terrible circumstance, where the dead have risen from their graves, civilization is crumbling around you, and you are far too tired to consider a more active defense, remember this important safety advice: Just Go Home. If you stagger away from your desk and out to your car, the odds are quite good that the zombies will never notice you... especially if they're distracted by your more active (and hopefully panicking) co-workers.

Mimicry is a defense commonly found in nature.
Can you spot the exhausted parent in this crowd of zombies?

This important safety information has been brought to you by your friends at the Department of Unnatural Resources.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Combat Theory 02: He's Dead, Jim

Last night, I watched the movie Arena while I was folding laundry. (This is not an uncommon combination of activities, unfortunately. The days when I could set aside time and fully devote my attention to a movie belong to a distant and possibly mythical past; life with children does not permit such an abundance of free time.) While I don't intend to review the entire movie, I am going to talk about it in terms of writing (or in this case, choreographing) realistic fight scenes. The fight that I'm using as an example takes place in about the first three minutes of the movie, so the spoilers should be minor and inconsequential; nevertheless, there are spoilers. You have been warned.

I should also point out that there's going to be some discussion of violence and injury here, so if that sort thing squicks you out, you really shouldn't read any further.

Right, so: the movie opens with two men fighting in a faux-Roman arena. One man is armed with a pair of swords, shaped roughly like the Roman Gladius but about twice as long. The other is armed with something that I'd consider a voulge - a type of polearm with a large, cleaving blade on one end.

My first impression, of course, was: This is not an even match. They're on open ground, and the polearm has a clear advantage in reach. To have any chance at all, the swordsman is going to have to avoid getting killed long enough to move closer so he can launch attacks of his own - not easily done. And if he does get close enough to attack, he's going to have to kill or disable his opponent quickly, before the polearm clobbers him. If the guy with the polearm gets in a successful attack, then the battle ends even more quickly. So, either way, I'm not expecting a long fight.

But the choreography cheats around this problem, and does so reasonably subtly: with lots of maneuvering and dodging and throwing kicks or punches at strategic moments. There are even a couple of disarms, as the swordsman manages to disarm the polearm guy, only to have the polearm guy take one of his swords away. (This pretty clearly indicates that they're both vastly better at unarmed and disarming techniques than they are at actually using their weapons, but never mind that.) Also, in the course of this, they manage to slice each other up a bit - though, this being Hollywood, nobody actually goes into shock from pain or loss of blood.

Finally, though, the one with the polearm manages to knock down the swordsman, reclaim the voulge, and bury the cleaver-blade in the swordsman's kidney, parallel with the spine. (It's not really an attack, at that point; it's a splitting-logs-with-an-axe sort of motion.) The fight is finally over.

Boy, howdy, is it over.

However, at this point the fellow running the games surveys the audience to decide whether the fallen gladiator should live or die. This was where my Suspension Of Disbelief collapsed like a pup tent in a hurricane.

The defeated gladiator has just had one side of his torso smashed open with a polearm. At the very least, the blade has almost certain split his kidney in two. Given the size and shape of the blade, it's probably done a number on his intestines as well, and quite possible more: split one or two of the lower ribs, sliced across the diaphragm, punctured a lung. It missed the spine, so he's probably not paralyzed, but even with immediate attention from an expert trauma team in a fully-stocked emergency room and the best first-world antibiotics available, I'd give him no more than a one-in-four chance of survival. Probably less than that; I'm guessing, here. An EMT or the right sort of medical doctor could give you a more accurate estimate.

So asking the audience if he should be spared is, in all likelihood, a bad joke. If he's not dead already, he's almost certainly in shock and bleeding out: well on the way to dying. (And, by the way, every second you wait on the audience response is a second closer to him being dead.) The blade of the voulge may be tamponading the worst of the internal bleeding, but that won't last long.

Even if he did manage to survive, he'd be looking at months, maybe years, of recovery and rehabilitation before he could even consider fighting again. And that's assuming that his injuries didn't cripple him in one fashion or another.

Real fights to the death tend to be over very quickly, especially when weapons are involved. This is why most sport fighting has some equivalent of the Queensbury Rules, and why a lot of historical duels made allowances for stopping at first blood. Otherwise, you lose a lot of fighters to death or maiming. Armed combat generally isn't about two men wearing each other down until one or the other can't continue; that's much more the province of unarmed fighting. Fights involving weapons tend, by nature, to involve much more decisive injuries. There are exceptions, of course; but that's the way to bet.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sabaton To Keep Me Awake

Trying to keep myself awake at work. Since I might not be the only one with this problem, here's some Sabaton to help you get moving:

Filler: Wombats

Apparently I have nothing interesting to say today - and, honestly, I don't really have time to write anything anyway. (Can you say "busy season", boys and girls? I knew you could.)

So, in honor of Firstborn's obsession with the critters, I'll offer you some videos of wombats to help you while away your workday. (Or, alternatively, you could take a look at the opening for my movie script.)

Join the wombats below the cut...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Second Sick Kiddo

So, Firstborn got antibiotics and immediately started feeling better. That was a couple of days ago. Last night, Secondborn produced a high fever - like 103 degrees - and sure enough, he has Strep too. Both boys are currently on the couch watching Elmo, like so:
This is... really not how I'd hoped to start the weekend. But, okay, we'll figure it out. We have resources; we can afford medicine; we can spell each other so everybody gets sleep. But still... Oy.

Real Work Conversations: Y'all

Co-worker enters our office bearing a cup full of Hershey's Kisses.

Co-worker: "Would y'all like any Hershey's chocolates? Oh, you're the only one in here."

Me: "S'okay, it can still be y'all. It'll be the Royal Y'all."

Friday, April 20, 2012

Another contrasting graphic

It just occurred to me (forgive me, I'm slow) that the atheism graphic referenced in my previous post is almost certainly a response to this description of Christianity:
...That makes the follow-up graphic seem a whole lot less random.

Contrasting views of atheism

First, this one (which seems to be making the rounds on Facebook):

In response to which, somebody came up with this one:

I've mentioned before that it's actually much, much simpler than that. Atheism is just the belief that there are no gods; or, even more defensibly, the lack of belief that there are gods.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

World Vision

Over at Charity. Mercy. Restraint., S.Z.B. suggested sponsoring a child through World Vision. I did some looking, and they look like a good, responsible outfit - plus, they appear to have a strict policy against proselytizing.

Think about it. It's a way to do some tangible good in the world.

The Good Old Days before the Internet

So, Matt Mikalatos invited his readers to share their memories of The Time Before The Internet for the benefit of the young'uns that might not understand what life was like without it. Since that called up some amusing memories, I'm reproducing - and cleaning up - my response here.

All right, here you go: I remember dialing in to a BBS server on a 2400 Baud Modem - man, that was waaaaaaay faster than the old 1200 Baud models used to be! And once there, you could post messages and read other people's messages - in plain text, no avatars. No graphics at all, in fact: if you wanted graphics, you had to make them out of ascii characters.

Let's see if that still works... No, not in the blogspot editor. So I'll use a jpeg graphic of a text graphic - how's that for irony?

There you go: St Basil's.

Dragging and dropping to move files? Nope. Anything you wanted to do, you did with text commands. Even our video games were text-based.

Oh, and that server that we dialed into? It had a 1 MB hard drive. Yes, you read that right. It was really that big - I mean, absolutely huge, we were never going to be able to fill up that much storage space.

Well, you know, until we did.

We didn't share URLs for sites; there weren't any. We shared phone numbers for BBSs and other servers. Search engines? Ha! No such thing.

Ah, the good old days...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sick Kiddo Update

It's strep.

I don't know about you, but my day is complete.

Sick, sick kiddo

Firstborn has come down with something - probably the same thing I had Monday. He's feverish, he's nauseated, he's lethargic. (Seriously - Beautiful Wife offered to let him play video games yesterday, and he said, "I think I'd rather just lie here." Clearly, something is terribly wrong.)

So if you're reading this, odds are very good that I'm home watching the kiddo. But that's okay, really. It's all part of the Joyous And Fulfilling Bonding Experience that is life as a parent.

Update: I have now dropped Firstborn off with his Nana, and I'm back at work. Got a decent amount of sleep last night, buy I got it in two- and three-hour chunks, since I had to keep waking up and checking his temperature. Oy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

From the Search Logs: Man Eating Daffodils

Someone, it seems, stumbled across this blog while doing a search on "human eating daffodils". As you all know, I'd love to help this person... but in this case, there's kind of a problem. It's... well... it's the syntax.

If the search was for (pictures of, or information on) a "human, eating daffodils," then I'd say it's a bad idea. At least, this home cooking site includes it on a list of poisonous/non-edible flowers. I'm not saying you could use this to speed up your inheritance from rich old Uncle Ambrosius, but I'm betting that eating daffodils could make you pretty sick.

If, on the other hand, you were looking for "human-eating daffodils," then I'm sorry to report that the Mad Science Consortium has not finished refining that particular project. We have carnivorous daffodils available, and they do eat people. Unfortunately, they also eat birds, squirrels, house pets, mice, snakes, insects, and rubber tires. (One prototype was planted a bit too close to the water, and cleaned out our Mutant Koi pond.) Designing a strain that feeds exclusively on human beings turns out to be surprisingly tricky. Rest assured, however, that sooner or later we will overcome the remaining obstacles and produce a species of daffodil that feeds exclusively on humans.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Notes from the Mad Science Lab: Scruffy 2.0

A while back, as you may or may not recall, my neighbors' dog Scruffy managed to dig his way into the vents for the crypto-zoo. This was a costly mistake for him, since Cuddles or one of his friends found the dog shortly after his landing.

However, I couldn't simply leave it at that. Out of the goodness of my heart - well, okay, in order to avoid any troublesome public accusations and possible legal action - I cloned Scruffy and sent him home. Since I didn't want a repeat of the incident - well, okay, and because I can't resist tinkering - I gave Scruffy 2.0 human-level intelligence, so I could explain his situation and tell him to stay away from my yard. Well, okay, I gave him my idea of human-level intelligence... that is to say, close to my own, and outstripping his nominal owners by several orders of magnitude.

Well, guess what? Today Scruffy dropped by my yard again. And he dug down just far enough to trigger my alarms. (I added them after his progenitor's misadventure, and the dog really shouldn't have known they were there. That he figured it out, I take as a clear tribute to my own skill at genetic manipulation.) He was sitting beside the hole, waiting for me, when I came out of the house.

So I invited him inside. It isn't every day one meets an intellectual equal, after all - and the main house doesn't give away any of my secrets, anyway.

Scruffy wants my help. His opinion of his, erm, "owners" - well, it isn't any better than my opinion of them. He'd been tutoring their ten-year-old son in dimensional convergence equations, until the boy had come and told him that they would have to stop because dogs couldn't talk, let alone do physics. The boy had learned this from his parents, and Scruffy... took offense.

Now he wants my help. He says, to be blunt, that I owe it to him for making him this way. Frankly, I think he ought to be grateful about that, rather than demanding; but it's worth considering that he knows enough to make real trouble for me if he puts his mind to it. And what he's asking isn't so much, really. He says he can take care of the mother and father, and impersonate them well enough that nobody will even notice for years. He's already hacked their computers, so he's probably right about that - and he doesn't need my help for it, in any case. No, what he wants me for is to take over the care and schooling of "his boy" - their son.

That's a bit of a problem. I mean, I already have a son. I don't need two. And I don't particularly need an apprentice, especially one who's younger than most of my minions. Training him, and keeping up with the paperwork for homeschooling, would be a big drain on my time and energy... though I could always create artificial tutors, I suppose.

The alternative is to do away with Scruffy 2.0 before he has a chance to reveal me or to implement his plan. That might be tricky, depending on what preparations the dog has made...

Drat. I should have implanted some sort of tracking/observation device while he was still in the growth tank. Oh, well - too late now. Lesson learned.

Meanwhile, I've asked Scruffy to coax the boy over to my house. If he impresses me, then most of these considerations are moot: I'll teach him, and Scruffy 2.0 can do whatever he feels is necessary. But if he's just an ordinary boy, we're going to have a problem.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Our Very Own Superhero: Lightning Zapzers

Firstborn has created his own superhero: Lightning Zapzers. Lightning Zapzers wears a red cloak with a silver lightning bolt on it, and (naturally) has lightning-based Superpowers.

The cloak was the origin of the superhero, I think. Firstborn actually owned the thing, and while it eventually got lost it has not been forgotten. (You know what? While I'm thinking about this, I really ought to replace it. He got a lot a mileage out of that cape...)

So anyway, Lightning Zapzers has been a recurring theme in Firstborn's play. Whenever superhero stuff comes up - notably last night, at McDonalds, where they're doing Green Lantern Happy Meals to promote a new animated series - Firstborn eschews the established heroes in favor of one that he created himself.

Now, personally I think that's awesome all by itself. But Lightning Zapzers is a pretty cool guy. Among his more notable powers are the ability to brrzap Bad Guys with lightning, and the ability to swing around on his lightning rope.

This is particularly funny to me because I just finished playing Infamous, a video game in which the main character - you guessed it - develops lightning-based superpowers. I'm currently working my way through the sequel, Infamous II, and the night before last I acquired a new power. That's right, I can now swing around on lightning ropes. So the guy I'm playing, Cole MacGrath, is pretty much the grown-up version of Lightning Zapzers. And yes, I realize that the game designers did not rip off my five-year-old son's ideas, but as a parent I'm still vastly amused by the similarities between the two.

Lightning Zapzers is so cool that he actually has his own theme song. (This was a costume party, and they decided to stage a little talent show at the end. The boy who went before Firstborn decided to sing the Spiderman theme song, from memory. When Firstborn's turn came, he decided to sing a song about his own superhero, and made one up on the spot. I'm not sure whether or not he realized that the other boy already knew the Spiderman song, but I'd lean towards 'not'.) So, if you think you're worthy of the unalloyed awesomeness that is The Ballad Of Lightning Zapzers, join us below the cut:

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Empire Risen, Empire Fallen

Cassia leaned back from her desk with a profound sense of exhaustion and relief: the book was finished.

It was her third book, the final installment of the trilogy, and it had been tough going. The setting which had so excited her while writing the first book now seemed stale and bland; so did the hero, Aemon... and her heroine, the sorceress Mikala, had started picking up on her feelings. Never mind that Aemon was the rightful heir and the only hope for the future of the realm, never mind that he'd grown and developed over the course of the books, never mind that he had finally drawn the Sword of the Sidrohim and gathered an army to bring against the Black Priest. He was still a spoiled little brat of a prince, whiny and arrogant by turns. Every time he started bemoaning the fate that had robbed him of his parents, or brooding about the battle to come, Cassia - and, by extension, Mikala - found herself wanting to drop him down a well.

She could have forced it. Maybe she should have; her agent would certainly have been happier. But the story would have felt less true to her, so she didn't. Instead, she watched as Mikala's frustration grew; she watched Aemon continue his quest, oblivious to the alienation of his strongest ally and nominal love-interest; and she wrote it all down. The rebellion began, and Aemon led his troops into battle. He faced off against the Black Priest, blade to blade, while Mikala held back the worst of the enemy's powers. And when the battle was done and Aemon was safely on the throne, Mikala walked away - and Cassia wrote it all down.

...And now it was done. The story was resolved, the hero and heroine were triumphant - and wiser, if not happier. Cassia been typing on the laptop in her office, with the shades down and a single lamp for light; Ignore Everything And Keep Writing had been her mantra for the last few days. And it had worked.

So, now what? Food, first, she decided. Then call Mason and tell him the story is ready. Or as ready as I can get it, anyway. She rose from her desk, and stretched - and then yawned. What time is it, anyway?

She opened the door to hall. There was light at the far end, spilling in from the windows in the front room. Daytime, obviously. She detoured through the narrow kitchen, and stopped at the sink to splash water on her face. She glanced at the clock on the microwave, but it was blank.

She blinked at it, twice, but the little glowing numbers still weren't there. Weird. She tried the light switch, but nothing happened. "Power's out," she said aloud. That meant that the laptop had been running on battery power for some unknown amount of time. The lamp she'd been using was just a flexible LED light that plugged into the USB port, so it wouldn't have been affected by the power outage. Suddenly panicked, Cassia went back to her office and made sure she'd saved her work. Then she shut the laptop down, and unplugged it. She didn't want it damaged when the power came back on.

She went back to the living room and picked up her phone, which told her two things: first, that it was about eight-thirty in the morning; and second, that her phone had no signal. Probably the phone company having trouble with the network again, she thought, and tucked the phone back in her purse. Her apartment complex was frequently a dead zone for cellular service.

Well, that was fine. She needed food anyway. She'd take her bicycle, and go see if she could find an open restaurant. Her phone would probably work fine once she was away from the complex, too.

Cassia had just stepped out onto the balcony when she saw the people milling around on the grass below. The aimlessness of their directions and the peculiar jerkiness of their movements didn't register for a moment. Then she stopped and looked at them, seeing the torn clothes, the dark stains on mouths and hands, the shambling, stumbling, and limping. One woman was just a torso, dragging itself across the sidewalk by hands and elbows, trailing a long string of intestine behind it. That isn't possible. But she was seeing it.

The low building that housed the front office was a burned-out shell. Cassia vaguely remembered hearing sirens at one point while she was writing; how long ago had that been? A chapter or two... No, she had no idea. Civilization had collapsed around her, and Cassia hadn't noticed.

She'd been busy writing.

Tip o' the Hat to Martha Wells for the story idea.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Danny Bhoy on National Symbols

Scottish comedian Danny Bhoy talks about national symbols:

A bit better

I did get some sleep last night, and - as I suspected - a lot of yesterday's melancholy was a direct result of being tired, stressed out, and slightly ill (hopefully just from allergies). I'm still feeling... delicate, I guess, is a good word for it... this morning, but that's a distinct improvement.

And now, back to getting things done.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The widening gyre

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

I took a couple of days off at the end of last week. I stayed home, played video games, did some cleaning, read, played with the boys.

And I slept. I slept for about twelve hours, one night. Presumably I needed it. I didn't really try to get things done; in fact, the only goal I set was to relax as much as possible. And for those two days, it worked.

And then Easter Weekend hit - like a cartoon safe falling from the sky. Squoosh! I don't understand why it was so difficult, but it was. We weren't overscheduled, particularly. But we wound up trying to do some things (and get some things) that threw us off our usual weekend schedule. Also, a shift in the weather brought us a massive cloud of allergens for the weekend. And suddenly I was tired again, stressed out again, burned out again.

(I'm talking about myself, here, because hey, it's my blog; but the Beautiful Wife is every bit as tired and worn as I am, and probably more so. Yesterday, I attempted to help her with a last-minute problem, and very nearly spent a lot of money getting something shipped overnight, only to discover that I could check out a copy from the library for free. That's half an hour of my life that I won't get back, but at least the problem is solved.)

Everything takes more time and energy than it should. Often it takes more money, too.

We're thinking about trying to move. At this point, I don't even see how that's possible. We can't get the house clean for even ten minutes; there is no way on Earth we can do enough to sell it. And there's no way we can buy another house without selling this one.

Oh, and this coming weekend? Secondborn's birthday. He'll be two. Party's on Saturday. Plus, there's a trip to the local renfaire on Sunday. So it'll be a busy, busy weekend. If my sister-in-law comes into town (with her husband and their three girls), it'll be even busier than that - her husband's birthday is on Sunday.

I'd better not be getting sick. I don't have time for it.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

Here at work, we "finished" (more or less, anyway) a complete redesign of our main public website, just in time to leap into the rest of the busy season. That would be stressful enough, but we're also sorting out job responsibilities - and as the web group, my boss and I are suspended between Information Technology and the newly-integrated Communications Department. It's nothing as formal or deliberate as a struggle for territory - the tension is a natural result of the fact that both IT and Communications have a direct interest in the website - but the result is about the same. The floor keeps shifting under our feet.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and /everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It seems like everything I'm seeing on the news is either immediate bad news, or bodes ill for the future. It's an election year, so naturally I expect a certain amount of silliness, theatrics, and genuine extremism; but these things just seem to be getting worse and worse. At least one of our major political parties is actively determined to dismantle the social safety net (and Pastor Rick Warren, in a recent interview, bravely upheld the right of poor people to starve with dignity rather than have any sort of government aid be made available to them), impose draconian legal requirements on women seeking abortions (which, last I checked, was still a perfectly legal medical procedure), and suppress voting rights under the utterly-transparent guise of preventing voter fraud. If this season hasn't featured a deliberate assault on women's rights, then it's something so close as to be indistinguishable.

Meanwhile, the recession - a problem with a well-known, historically established solution that we apparently lack the collective will to implement - is still lumbering along. Major corporations and their political proxies are actively fighting against any attempt to reduce the damage caused by Global Warming, and in many cases against the broad scientific consensus behind the whole concept. Research into alternative energy sources is almost non-existent, and while we won't run out of oil any time real soon, our entire civilization is entirely reliant of the stuff. (Seriously, without industrial farming methods, we can't feed the world's current population. We can't even feed half of it. A friend of mine makes a pretty good argument that if our current infrastructure were to really collapse, we wouldn't be able to stop at medieval technology levels; it would knock us all the way back to a hunter-gatherer society. And that's after an apocalyptic drop in the human population.)

(I'm beginning to think we deserve it.)

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

A church in Middletown, PA recently decided that they needed to demonstrate how Christians are persecuted by staging a terrorist attack on their own youth group, complete with at least one real gun. This traumatized a fourteen-year-old girl so badly that her mother filed a police report. The Pastor's response, when questioned about this?
"Now we know what we have to do in the future," Lanza said. He said he doesn't plan to shy away from the practice, which he called a valuable learning tool.
There is so much wrong with that, I don't even know where to start. And I tell myself that this is just a bunch of fringe whackaloons, that Christianity hasn't really come to this, but right now I'm having trouble believing it.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

One of the blogs that I read regularly - Accidental Historian and Unreasonable Faith seem the likeliest two candidates - observed a while back that the Roman Empire knew how to make aqueducts, and plumbing, and various other things that were essentially gone by the Middle Ages. Somewhere in there, people just decided that they didn't want to know how to do those things anymore. It took centuries to recover and rebuild that knowledge.

I look at the anti-vaxxers, and I can't help wondering if I'm watching our current civilization do much the same thing.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

...And I'm one of the lucky ones. I have a job. I have medical care. I have a wonderful marriage, and a spectacular (if exhausting and occasionally infuriating) pair of boys. I have money. If I can stay in this job another twelve years or so, I'll have retirement - and that's pretty damned rare these days. I can afford food - hell, I can afford to eat out. My problems are First World Problems - stressful and annoying, to be sure, but hardly life-threatening.

But still I'm stuck with this terrible lethargy. It's hard to focus. It's hard to remember what needs to be done, let alone do it. Those two days off really helped, but they weren't enough. I still have this feeling of being worn away, little by little; of being... not stuck, exactly, but still unable to change direction; of things spinning slowly but inevitably out of control. I'm sure that's what got me to thinking of Yeats.

So I'm going to take a deep breath. I'm going to stop trying do Everything, Right Now. I'm going to go to sleep as soon as I get the boys down, and if I can I'll get a good night's rest. And in the morning, when my head's on straight again and I can actually look at problems as things that have solutions, I'll pick something manageable and fix it. And then I'll do it again, with something else. And eventually, things will fall into some sort of order. Right?


Beep Beep

I'm working on a real post, but for the moment please amuse yourself with this:

Be warned, however, that you may find yourself humming it at random times for the next several days.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Professional Artists make me crazy

I just finished putting together a list of artists for a website. Out of the two hundred (or more) artists listed, something like three quarters included links for their websites; call it one hundred and fifty links, more or less. Of those links, three - three! - were complete URLs. Two were, and one actually had the complete format.

Every single one of the rest - all hundred and forty-seven or so - had to be corrected as it was entered into the list. No, that wasn't time consuming at all. One of them wasn't even a website; it was the artist's email address with a "www" tacked on the front. Yes, really.

I wish I was making this up.

And despite my best efforts at tweaking and troubleshooting the links, two of them simply don't work. At all. The sites they gave us links for don't exist. Many of the others - maybe two dozen of them - work just fine, if you're willing to sit and wait while they try to load. Two more of them don't load; the site is there, but there doesn't appear to be anything on it. Several have technical problems - broken links, missing images, not enough contrast between the text color and the background color - that are obvious from even a cursory glance at the homepage.

Look, not every webpage needs to be masterpiece of aesthetics and professionalism. When I come to a website, I'm generally looking for information. As long as I can find what I'm looking for, I'm good. But if you're trying to make a living as a visual artist, your online presence is important. Either learn how websites work, or find someone who knows what they're doing to build your site for you.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bunnies, It Must Be Bunnies

By the time Susan White arrived on the scene, the police had already evacuated the survivors and set up a temporary perimeter. The things, whatever they were, were still loose; but at least they were contained within those boundaries. So far, anyway. They hadn't shown any penchant for climbing, flying, or leaping over things yet, though Susan knew as well as anyone how quickly that could change. But rules were rules, and the days when she could walk in and start fixing things were long, long past. They had procedures to follow now, and while she sometimes found the delays irritating, she really couldn't see that as a bad thing.

So she waited in the trailer that was serving as a command center for the local police, pretending to sip her coffee while Don talked to Captain in charge of the scene.

Don Massey was a forty-year-old ex-cop, and looked the part. His hair was neat and trim; his build was neat and trim; his mind was neat and trim. He knew the way law enforcement worked, knew how to talk to the police and be accepted as one of them. None of that was the reason he'd been accepted into the Watch, but it certainly was helpful. As a petite young woman, Susan had never been able to get the police to take her seriously. Even Don required occasional reminders.

"Nobody knows. They woke up this morning, and there were eggs all over the complex. They thought it was for an Easter egg hunt, maybe something the management had set up. And then, about an hour after dawn, they started to hatch. And inside the eggs were bunnies. Cute, fluffy, little bunnies."

"...And then they started killing people." Don's voice was a gentle rumble. "Jesus."

"Exactly. We lost the first two officers to arrive on the scene. After that, we started using the shotguns from the cars and setting up the fence." The Captain was a woman: tall, clean limbed, with rugged features and a no-nonsense manner. "We brought out as many people as we could, and ordered the rest to stay indoors."

Don shook his head in sympathy. Then he flicked a glance at Susan, but she responded with a miniscule shake of her head. Bunnies that hatch from eggs and kill people? No, I've never heard of anything like that.

The Captain saw the exchange, but kept her attention on Don. Despite that, Susan almost liked her: she wouldn't care who got things done, as long as they got done.

"You did the right thing," Don told her. "Whatever this is, it isn't a random incursion. Someone set it up."

"Better not be," said the Captain. "There aren't supposed to be any portals within miles of this place." She looked slightly affronted, but Susan had been watching people's expressions long enough to catch the hint of relief underneath.

"Has your reader managed to turn up anything?"

The Captain shook her head. "She says it's inside the perimeter, whatever it is, but she can't get a fix on it."

"All right. I'd like to take her with us, if that's okay." Don glanced at Susan again; this time she nodded. Anything that might help them track the source of this attack was welcome.

The Captain nodded. "I'll have her meet you at the gate. Do you want some men to cover you while you work?"

"Four, with shotguns - and anything they can use for armor." Susan suppressed some misgivings at that, and rose when Don did. She left her coffee, still full, on the chair.

* * *

The gate was just a section of fence where the connections were detachable. Two officers swung it open, while two more covered the opening with their shotguns.

Two officers stepped through, and Susan followed them in. The reader - a tall, pretty woman named Anita - moved with her. Like the other officers, she carried at shotgun. Susan wore a gun at her belt, but it was mainly a mark of authority; any situation bad enough that she might actually need it, pretty much guaranteed that having it wouldn't do her any good.

"They know we're here," said Anita quietly. "They're watching us."

Susan nodded. She wasn't surprised that the bunnies were more than dumb animals. This whole affair reeked of dark magic. What sort of person would hatch man-eating bunnies out of eggs on Easter morning?

Don and the remaining two officers crossed the perimeter, and the officers outside swung the gate shut again. "Slow and easy," Don said. "Susan, Anita, see if you can find us a direction."

Susan looked around, studying the complex. The apartments were built in two-story buildings, nicely maintained. There wasn't a lot of damage on the surface, not like some of the scenes Susan had been called in on, but she could see the corpses... and the pieces of corpses. The smell of blood permeated the air, making her a little crazy. We need to finish this quickly, before it spreads. She didn't know it would spread, of course, but years of working with the Watchers had given her a profound appreciation for just how bad a worst-case scenario could get.

"They're different," Anita said quietly. She looked distracted, but Susan couldn't see her actually doing anything. That was no surprise, though; with Human powers, she usually couldn't. "They're different, but there's someone looking through all of them."

Susan took a moment to translate that, and decided that Anita was talking about the bunnies - so they were individuals, summoned or created, and under the control of a single master. Good. We find the master, we end the threat. She motioned them further into the apartment complex, staying out on the sidewalk, in the open, where they had a nice, uninterrupted line of sight. She looked around as they moved, cataloging movements in the grass, behind the bushes.

"That's why I can't find him," Anita said. She sounded more present now, which meant she probably wasn't using her powers; she was just analyzing whatever she'd sensed. "His mind is too spread out. And it's definitely a him. Angry, too."

"We'll find him," Susan told her. "Stop here." This was a nice, open area, where the sidewalk forked and headed off in two directions. "Protect yourselves. Don't cover me. Don?"

"Got it," said Don.

Susan sprinted forward. She reached the nearest pair of beady little eyes before the rest of them could react. The beast was still rabbit enough to panic and freeze, and Susan caught it by the scruff of the neck and raised it to her lips. Her fangs nudged through the fur and pierced the flesh.

Susan drank.

She heard gunshots behind her, and felt several of the bunnies flash past her, but her flesh was suddenly misty and elusive. None of them could touch her.

The bunny, half-drained, was gasping in her hands. The other rabbits had quit attacking her; she smelled like one of them, now. Susan raised her captive from her lips, brushed fur away from her mouth with her free hand, and nipped the tip of one finger. Still holding the captured bunny aloft, she let a drop of her blood fall into its mouth. It twitched once, shuddered, and then relaxed.

It was hers; she could feel it. And through it, she could feel the mind that had controlled it. "There!" she yelled, pointing at an apartment door.

She threw a glance over her shoulder as she raced forward. Don and the police officers were still standing, though one of them was bleeding from a gash on his forearm. A circle of frost surrounded them, where Don had raised his defense. While the others were still looking around, Anita was gaping at Susan. Well, she couldn't be much of a reader if she didn't figure out what I was.

The door was reasonably solid and well-mounted, better than Susan expected from an apartment complex. She hit the door and bounced, too light to break it open. Picking herself up, she tried the knob and found it locked. For a moment, she hesitated. She could hear the others pounding their way up behind her, their feet amazingly heavy on the pavement. "Come out," she called. "It's over."

Three feet to her right, a window exploded outward and a giant bunny hit the grass and sprinted away. This was no final guardian; at this size, it had to be the master making his escape. Susan flung herself after him, and skidded to a halt almost immediately. A half-circle of flames blocked the hundred-pound-bunny's way, courtesy of Don's particular ability. The master was trying to get past it, fighting panicky rabbit-instincts by sheer will, but he didn't have time to master his new form. Susan jumped on top of him before anyone had a chance to shoot, and broke a foreleg with a furious wrench.

A moment later there was a naked man laying under her, swarthy and thickly built, gritting his teeth and clutching at a broken arm.

"Be still," she told him, and he froze. "You're under arrest. My partner will read you your rights; that's the modern way of doing things. But if you don't submit, I'll settle this in the old way. Do you understand?"

The man tensed, then bowed his head. "I understand," he said, in heavily accented English.

Susan reached down, searching, following the sense of darkness and cold. It would be something on the body, a ring... an amulet. Yes. There it was, about where she expected, hanging on his chest. She reached around the back of his neck, caught the chain, and drew it off of him. She was watching carefully: he seemed human enough, but there were some beings that couldn't live without a connection like this. After a moment, she was satisfied that he wasn't one of them. Which meant she could remove the bulk of his power without killing him, which meant he was finished.

* * *

"...A resurrected Assyrian bunny-cultist with his own personal portal?" Don looked dubious. "Seriously?"

Susan nodded. "That's what he says, and I don't see any reason to doubt him. The casting of the amulet matches Assyrian patterns, and we've called in some archaeologists to question him further."

"So why the bunnies? Why that particular apartment complex? Why was he killing people?"

"It's hard to tell," Susan told him. "His English isn't that good, and I don't speak Assyrian. But it looks like he was a leader of the Gonim Fac Tern, the Priests of the Sacred Hare, and when he woke up he was deeply offended to find the symbols of his faith being used in Christian celebrations. He'd been trying to adjust to the modern world, which was how he wound up in that apartment complex, and had no idea just how widespread that particular bit of appropriation was; he thought maybe it was just his neighbors being blasphemous or heretical. So he decided to teach them a lesson."

Don was silent for the space of a deep breath. Then he shook his head. "We don't judge them," he said, like he was repeating a mantra. "We just bring them in."

Susan nodded. "Once the archaeologists get done asking him everything they can come up with, we'll work on bringing him into modern life - a bit less haphazardly than his last attempt. Who knows? Someday we may be working with him."

Don made a noise halfway between a growl and a groan. "Not me," he said. "Two cops, three dozen civilians... I'd kill him myself."

No, you wouldn't, Susan thought. Don was too much of a cop himself, too tied to doing things by the book. But I understand the impulse. "It's hard," she offered.

Don looked at her. "What about you? You keeping that one bunny?"

Susan looked away, then grinned. "Yeah. It's mine now - my own personal hellbunny, to guard my tomb while I sleep."

Don snorted at that. "I think you just have a weak spot for cute, fluffy things."

Susan shrugged. "Maybe a bit of that, too. But it should be safe enough; it can't get out of its cage, and without his portal our boy can't control it. Even if he got the portal back, he'd have to re-establish the connection directly. But, yeah - one more stray animal to take care of."

Don grinned. "Hey, that rabbit helped us find the bad guy. If you want, I'll feed it when you're out of town."

Friday, April 6, 2012

Bunnies and Boys!

So recently we went to get some pictures taken of the boys, for Easter (and posterity). They were done in a small photography studio in somebody's home, with bunnies. Since it's almost Easter, I'm going to share them with you:

The rest of this entry is courtesy of my wife, and lifted shamelessly from her Facebook feed:
So, tonight I am reading Secondborn a story. Firstborn comes to stand in the doorway and says, "Did you get what I sent you?"

Me: "What? No...."

Firstborn: "I'll send it again."

He yawns, one of those horrible, big yawns. I start yawning too. He giggles. I giggle.

Firstborn: "One! One yawn!" Then he KEEPS yawning, and I keep yawning, until I'm yawning, giggling, and crying at the same time. Over, and over, this happens.

Firstborn: "Ten! Ten yawns! Muhahahahha!" Then he FINALLY leaves. My face is wet with tears and I can't stop yawning!
Clearly, I'm making good progress towards my goal of raising future Sith Lords.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Notes from the Mad Science Lab: Fastest Motorboat

I tried out my new motorboat today. It was a wonder.

I've spent months working on this - Mad Science requires a certain amount of perseverance, as you all well know. And this particular design was a work of art.

The hull was composed of an alloy that... well, let's just say that the United States Military would bankrupt the country if it meant they could get their hands on something like this. You can get the structural strength of an inch-thick piece of tempered steel for the weight of a piece of paper. And that's using it straight, with no additional bracing behind it. If that wasn't enough, I rigged it to produce an electrostatic field that actively pushes the water away, decreasing friction enormously.

The engine... well, actually, the less said about the engine, the better. That sort of knowledge wasn't safe for the general public. I mean, if Tesla had been working with my alloys, he could have gotten his designs to work. And the power source was the water itself - for all practical purposes, unlimited! Stored power was still a problem; I need to work on creating better batteries. But as long as the boat was moving, it would have power.

I don't know how fast it went. After all that time and effort spent to make the boat pass over the water as efficiently as possible, I didn't think to install any sort of speedometer. I can tell you that once I opened the throttle, it passed a powerboat like it was standing still, and raised a wake that... well, I might accidentally have capsized the dock. Which was quite a ways away at that point, I might add.

The boat rapidly acquired a sort of skipping motion - not quite hovering, but definitely not plowing through the water, either. And the faster - and longer - I went, the harder those impacts became. Traditional seat designs are simply insufficient for a boat like this, I learned - even with the addition seat belts and webbing that I'd added.

It wasn't the impacts on the water that ended the experiment, though. No, the boat was more than strong enough to handle those - and if human bodies aren't, well, they'll just have to be improved to match. No, what ended the experiment was an island, which appeared - rather unexpectedly - right in front of me. Naturally, I tried to turn aside... which point I was forcibly reminded of the downside to running a boat which was designed to minimize contact with the water. It has nothing to grip when it's trying to turn.

Fortunately, my kinetic-absorption undergarments worked perfectly. I survived the crash with nothing more than light bruises and a slightly stiff neck. Unfortunately, my newly-built speedboat immolated itself against the side of the island. I'll have to rebuild it essentially from scratch, which will take most of the summer if not longer.

...And I was so hoping to work on my tan. Not to mention watching my son water ski at a substantial fraction of the speed of sound. Oh, well. Maybe next year.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

From the Search Logs: How To Mock Atheism

I keep a fairly close eye on the analytics for this blog. Not only does this tell me how much traffic it receives and what pieces are popular, it also shows me what sorts of search terms bring people here. This is often deeply amusing. Why?

Well, a lot of these searches bring people to posts that... um... probably aren't exactly what they were looking for. This, of course, makes me sad for that poor person, who couldn't find what they sought. So, on occasion, I'll take one of those search strings and write an answer for it. I like to think of this as a public service.

Today's search string is: "how to mock atheism".

Naturally, as an atheist myself, I'd love to help... except, I'm not entirely sure how to approach this. I mean, I'd think that if you had some particular reason to want to mock atheism, you'd already have some idea of what it was about atheism that you wanted to mock. At least, when I set out to make fun of something, it's because something in particular about that item or topic has struck me as specifically deserving of mockery. So the fact that you're looking for a How To guide suggests that you're already off to a bad start.

But, y'know, okay. You're sure that atheism needs to be mocked, even if you're not quite clear on why. You can still come up with something.

For starters, assume that atheists don't have any valid reasons for our lack of belief. The moment you consider that we might have some sort of point, your mockery will go off-track. Instead, assume that we're too stupid, gullible, or willfully ignorant to see the clear and evident Truth. Alternatively, just assume that we already know the truth, but refuse to admit it.

Whatever you do, you absolutely must avoid speaking of atheism in atheistic terms. Instead, talk about how atheists use the free will that God gives them to defy Him. Or how we use the brains that God created for us to doubt Him. Make it clear just how foolish we are to be ignoring our eternal peril - maybe compare the atheist to someone floating in the middle of the ocean who keeps refusing to climb into the lifeboat. That one always goes over well.

Feel free to quote Bible verses showing how foolish unbelievers are. Even atheists believe the Bible is true, after all. And we've got to be spectacularly misguided if the Almighty - or at least the Apostle Paul - took the time to point us out for our foolishness. God doesn't bother with the little everyday stupidities, after all. He saves His time and attention for the big stuff.

Lastly, don't forget to talk about how empty and meaningless our lives are. Atheism denies God, after all, so if the atheists are wrong then they're going to spend eternity in Hell - and if they're right, then life is meaningless anyway. It takes a special sort of person to carry on with a faith like that. You've got to be really in love with your sins to choose that willingly.

And there you go. That's how you mock atheism.

I know, I know: I shouldn't be helping you with this. What can I say? I'm an atheist. Mocking things is what we do. It's one of the few pleasures left to us without God in our lives. Admittedly, we prefer to mock things that are Good and Right and True, but in a pinch we'll mock anything, ourselves included - as you can plainly see here.

So now that you've seen how it's done, go forth and make fun of us!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Important Safety Tip

Quick safety tip for North Texans right now: if you see a tornado coming towards you, "Drive through it" is NEVER the right answer.

This is a specific application of a more general rule: Do not get your safety practices from Hollywood thrillers.

My Testimony

Reading the Rachel Held Evans piece "15 Reasons I Left Church" (and considering related reflections via Slacktivist) reminded me, once again, that my testimony runs the other way. I left the Church. I didn't come back. But...

There wasn't anything the church did that drove me away; there wasn't any unpleasantness. In fact, the church I grew up in was - within the limits of human social groups - friendly, encouraging, and supportive. Scare tactics were almost non-existent; there was a sort of unstated understanding that we do the best we can and trust in God to forgive us when we fall short. There wasn't any conflict with science; Genesis, read poetically, was compatible enough with what we understand of the origins of the universe and human life.

And despite this, despite being raised in a distinctly Christian environment, despite having no particular complaints with the church or the faith (honestly, I'm still far more irritated about some of the things the Boy Scouts put me through), there came a time when I simply couldn't believe, any longer, the things that I'd been taught as a child. Things that had seemed so marvelous and compelling - that Jesus would willingly die on the cross, to save all of us - just didn't make sense to me anymore. And I went back and forth with that for a few years, and then tried to explore other things for a few years after that, and eventually concluded that I just don't have it in me to believe. I am, basically, a materialist; which makes me functionally an atheist. And I don't feel that as any particular loss.

If my life were a fairy tale, I'd be the boy who ignored the warnings and stepped off the path - only I wasn't punished for it; I found that the forest wasn't so scary once you were in it, and the wolves and boggles were often friendly, and the simple act of exploration was tremendously rewarding. And I lived happily ever after, or as close as anyone ever does.

I don't know how to square that with the Rachel Held Evans piece. Relationships are complicated, and she's talking about why she left a particular relationship - and, in her follow-up post, why she came back. Those thoughts seem to invite a certain focus on how to keep people from leaving, and how to bring them back after they've left... and that's not a focus I can share. I'm not interested in coming back, and I doubt I ever will be.

So on the one hand, I don't really have a counterpoint for these sorts of reflections - I don't have anything against people finding their way back to Christianity, or finding their way to religious beliefs of any sort, really; at least, as long as those beliefs aren't actively harmful. I don't want to offer my experience as some sort of opposition to anyone trying to rekindle their faith, or even just looking to see if such a thing is possible. But on the other hand, I do think it's pertinent to point out that sometimes the reasons why people leave the Church don't reflect any particular failure on the part of that person or the Church, either one. Sometimes relationships just don't work out. It isn't always something that can be, or should be, fixed.

And if I'm wrong, and there is a God out there, and if He's anything like he was described to me long ago, then He understands that...


Monday, April 2, 2012

Books and Related Recommendations

Since I'm hip deep in the busy season and not getting a lot of my own stuff done, I thought I'd promote other people's work. These aren't reviews, as such - they're just things that I'm reading and enjoying that I think more people should know about.

First up: New Friends by Jeffrey Jordan Mills. In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I've known Jeff since college; so, among other things, I've known for quite a while that he could write like this. While the story is about high school students, and told from the perspective of a high school student, it's perfectly enjoyable for adults, too - at least, if you don't mind being reminded of some of the more ridiculously uncomfortable and embarrassing elements of going through puberty. I wouldn't, in other words, classify it as a Young Adult book, unless Young Adult books have gotten a lot more brutally honest than I remember them being.

For a brief overview of the plot, I'm going to borrow from the product description on Amazon:
Adam Barrow is a Disposable Friend for most of the girls he knows. He gladly serves as their confidant and problem-solver until he is no longer needed. It's fulfilling work, though not always entirely gratifying.

When a mysterious new girl appears at his school, Adam is captivated (as is to be expected), but he quickly learns that Lydia Sinth has secrets like none of the other girls who have sought his counsel.

Already struggling through the quagmire of puberty, Adam gleefully takes on the additional burden of Lydia's unbelievable secret.
I would offer one small correction: Adam doesn't so much take on the burden of Lydia's secret, as agree to help her keep it secret while trying to unriddle her himself.

Next up: Pulchritude, by Ana Mardoll. Full disclosure again: I consider the author an iFriend, in that I follow (and comment on) her blog, and have corresponded with her online, but have never met her in person.

Pulchritude is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, so for most readers the basic plot will already be familiar. This telling, however, takes that plot and looks at it character by character, exploring personalities, motivations, and conflicts. Beauty and the Beast has always been a story about finding love in spite of flaws, and the characters here certainly have their share of flaws to overcome - or, if not overcome, at least reconcile. By exploring those flaws, and the ways in which the characters deal with them (in themselves and each other both) Ana Mardoll creates a compelling new version of an old and well-known story, at once fascinating and diverting.

Last up: Tales of the Emerald Serpent, a shared world anthology. I haven't read this one; it doesn't exist yet. It's a Kickstarter project, which means that if enough people pledge to support it, it will get produced; otherwise, the book never happens and the folks who pledged money don't pay anything.

Shared World Anthologies, for those of you who aren't acquainted with the concept, are an interesting sort of project. The idea, basically, is that a bunch of different authors get together and write short stories set in the same world. Generally, the authors involved are working from the same source material; often, they'll correspond and interact, so the events of one story may be mentioned or even expanded in another.

Tales of the Emerald Serpent features stories from several very good authors, including Martha Wells (whose work I've recommended before). So please go help this project out; I really want it to get published so I can read it. You can pledge at varying amounts of money for varying rewards: a $5 pledge will get you a copy of the ebook version, for example, while a $30 pledge will get you the ebook, a couple of bookmarks with art from the project, plus an 8.5x11" print of the book's cover and a pdf copy of the Builder's Guide. Check out the site for the donation levels and their associated rewards.

...And that's it for me; comments are open for anyone who wants to talk about their own projects, or other things that they'd like to recommend.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

New housing plan

We've been trying to clean up the house and look at moving into something larger. In addition to the boys needing more room, my parents are getting older and it's entirely possible that we'll need to have one or both of them move in with us with the next few years. Our current house, much as we love it, just isn't up to that. So, we need to find something else... and that means getting this house ready to sell.

Getting ready for this is a big job, and it's going to be nearly impossible to show the house while we're living here with the boys: it won't stay clean for more than five minutes at a stretch. Plus, there's some general work that needs to be done: paint, tile in the bathrooms, and like that. Maybe the foundation, too, but hopefully not. So, yeah: there's a lot to be done.

Fortunately, I think I've found a solution. It's a reasonably inexpensive houseboat at a dock on the Trinity River, not too far from downtown Dallas. The bank is willing to give us a loan, too - apparently they can process this faster than they could a house, or something. I don't understand banks. Anyway, rather than trying to find a new place that's large enough for all of us and all our stuff, the new plan is to throw away (almost) all our stuff and move everybody into the houseboat.

I figure we won't need things like television, DVDs, and video games: fixing up the boat will keep us busy enough. (It needs work on the roof and some of the fixtures. Oh, and the wiring - we'll need to replace that completely. And either fix or replace the engine, but that won't matter unless want to move the thing.) The boys can play on the dock, or go swimming in the river if they need more exercise - when they're not helping out, of course. It'll be a longer commute, of course, but I think it'll be worth it. And when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, we can just cast off and float away, safely out of their reach.

So that's the plan: houseboat. Happy holiday, everyone.