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:

You can learn more about Laurie Schnebly Campbell at her website:

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?"


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.