Geeks Dudes, You Need to Learn to Withold Your Opinions Sometimes

I have a 12 year old nephew who I’ve somehow, accidentally on purpose gotten addicted to Magic: The Gathering.  I tell my sister that I did her a favor. I crack out the old chestnut, “It’s a good thing, sis!  If he’s into Magic, he’ll never have money for drugs!”  For me, the only downside is, at any and every family gathering, he wants me to play, and I was never actually very good at Magic.  This is all background information for a little incident at our FLGS (friendly local game store, for short).

The nephew mows our lawn, and sometimes afterward, he asks me to take him to an FLGS to get cards.  Today, the mower was dead (battery issues) so on the way to taking him home, we dropped into the store.  He has never really bought singles before this, and was unclear how it worked.  Magic singles in this particular store are put in large card binders that you must flip through.  The particularly juicy cards are stored in the glass counter case.

As he was flipping through the binders, a couple of guys in their mid-20s came in and began to look around.  One of them decided to look at Magic singles also.  This guy decided to strike up a conversation with my nephew.

“What kind of deck are you building?”

“A blue/red aggro thing.”

“Like, with spells, or creatures?”

“With creatures you get out fast and pump up to make more powerful.”

“Blue/red? There aren’t a lot of good cards for that.  That won’t work.”

And with that,  gamer dude moved on to looking at board games, not realizing that he’d just shit all over the deck ideas of a twelve year old.  The nephew was a little disheartened, but he tried not to show it.  Eventually he gave up, bought a couple of cards, and we left.

On the drive back to his home, I told the nephew how Magic: The Gathering was in the early days when I started playing.  Not very many people had the internet back int he early 90s.  There were no deck lists, and there were really only a small handful of sets to draw from.  The weird codified rules of Magic hadn’t come to be yet, and you didn’t see the same decks consisting of the same powerful cards over and over again.  We often played with 200-300 card decks–sometimes every card we owned.  We were free to experiment and try different things.

I said: “I want you to know that when people try to give you advice like that, you don’t have to listen to them.  They may be older than you, but they’ve forgotten how to just have fun when they play this game.  All they care about is winning at Friday Night Magic. Remember that the most important thing about Magic is to have fun.”

I encouraged him to keep making his own decks, and to keep experimenting.  “If everyone played Magic like those guys, nobody would ever invent a new deck again.  There are a lot of different card combinations out there to be discovered.”

I’m sure that guy thought he was being helpful, but it’s people like him, and play styles like that, that drove me out of games like Magic: The Gathering.  If the collective idea of fun is limited only to winning, and not diving deep into the game’s many possibilities, then a game loses a lot of its luster for me.  The same thing as happened with the X-Wing miniatures game for me.   It’s ruled now by specific lists and specific play styles codified by “top level” players somewhere else.  Where’s the inventiveness and creativity?

You’re welcome to your play styles and your obsession with winning over all else, but hey, maybe don’t put that on a kid?  A kid who might crack the code and make the next championship deck if he keeps his mind open.  You never know.  He certainly won’t do that if he listens to people who tell him to keep “coloring within the lines.” (Is that a Magic pun? Oh well.)

In general, geek dudes, myself included, tend to be full of all kinds of opinions about how games and our hobbies are meant to be enjoyed.  It’s one of the many things we debate amongst ourselves as part of the hobbies.  However, these attitudes and behaviors do not play well with newcomers.  We do a lot of harm to our hobbies when we act like we own the goddamned things, when we project our opinions unsolicited onto others.  My nephew did not ask for advice on his deck ideas.  That girl browsing the graphic novels did not ask for your advice on which book she would like the most.  And so on, and so on–the internet is full of anecdotes like this one of much greater seriousness.

I’ve seen so much policing like this take place in hobby stores.  I’m certain I’ve even been responsible for incidents.  I’m sure my intention was to be helpful, but you know what they say about intentions.  You can bet after seeing the impact things had today on a kid’s enthusiasm, I will be much, much less likely to do so in the future.


Putting Writing First and How Much Time to Spend Doing It

Our lives are a series of competing priorities, and for a while now, I’ve wondered what it would be like to put my writing first, at least chronologically in the day.  I can’t prioritize its importance in my making a living, but the one thing I could do is try carving out some time at the start of every work day for writing before I jump into my freelance business tasks, chores, and the like (barring emergency exceptions).

I’ve been at this with relative success for a couple of weeks now.  I am averaging about 1500 words per day in a two hour block.  It’s pretty easy to see the advantage of building this kind of habit.  Figure 250 writing days a year, at an average of 1500 words a day and you end up with 375,000 potential words per year.  That’s three novels, a novella or two, and a few short stories.  It’s likely to be less than that if you spend this time editing some days, but I tend to try to do my editing in the evenings, after my kid’s down.   Even at half that rate, it’s a pretty good way to carve out a side-career on top of your main one.  That’s where I am these days.  I’m not determined to be a full time writer at the moment.  The odds of me supporting my family with that money are pretty slim.  But I can supplement, and that feels much more achievable.   If I were to become a full time writer through chance, I wouldn’t complain.  But it’s unreasonable to expect!

I have found myself writing ahead of what I have banked away, I will say.  The relentless emphasis on pure words on the page means I sometimes  forget to stop and think and plan.  Having an hour somewhere in the day where I disconnect from everything and just think through ideas in total privacy is almost as valuable.  My notion of what constitutes “writing time” is shifting with age.  I think for a good chunk of your career, you can count on an idea surplus you’ve built up, but after a certain point, you might empty that bank.  It takes time for good ideas to accrete.

The wide variety of ways to accomplish being a professional writer can be disconcerting.  How much of your day should you work at writing?  If I was a full time writer, would I write 8 hours a day?  Almost certainly not.  There’s definitely a law of diminishing returns for me, where the longer I write in a session, the worse the quality of writing can get.  And there are many other business tasks that need to be performed.

For me, ten hours a week feels good right now.  I’m working on one novel and about to start co-writing another.  I still have some short stories to work on when I’m stymied on the bigger projects.  And so far, novels have so much more space to breathe that they can absorb a 1500 word session a lot more easily than a story.  I’ve been exploring decompressed vs. compressed storytelling for quite a while now, learning the limits of short stories and where you can cheat with a little compression.  Novels feel very freeing so far because you can decompress everything, really take your time.  Eight hundred words of setting description in a short story is usually self-indulgent and gets cut in later drafts.   In a novel, that’s par for the course…?  Although eight hundred might be pushing the limits of patience in some readers.

Ultimately, half of being a writer is experimenting with process and figuring out workflows that don’t get in the way.  There are a million ways to not write.  There are only slightly fewer ways to write.  I’m enjoying finding means that work for me and my life.  It’s something all writers have to figure out for themselves.  What works for you?



Thoughts on Augmented Reality Gaming and Pokemon Go

maxresdefaultI’m completely hooked so far on Pokemon Go, the latest augmented reality game from Niantic.  For those that don’t know (the internet is saturated with people talking about it this week), Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game that you play in the real world. Using GPS, the game spawns various pocket monsters that you can capture and add to your collection. Supposedly, different types of monsters spawn in different areas.  For instance, water-type pokemon are found near rivers and lakes (although my limited play time has not supported that idea).

Instead of sitting at home to play, you must walk or bicycle (the game detects if you are driving by speed and will lock you out for safety reasons). When you go to capture a monster you have encountered, your camera shows the real world around you and the game projects a 3D monster into the scene. You throw pokeballs at the monster with your finger to capture them.  It’s a very basic mechanism, completed quickly, but very immersive, and makes the little monsters come alive in a way they never have before in the dozens of previous Pokemon games.

In addition to the monsters to hunt and discover, there are two types of permanent locations on the overlay map. There are poke stops, which you can visit every 5 minutes to receive in-game items like potions to heal your monsters and poke balls used to capture the monsters. There are also gyms, which is where the main competitive element comes into play.

When you get to level 5 with your character, you are asked to join one of three teams. These teams then compete to control the various gyms around town. You use a team of your monsters to attack monsters installed in a gym. If you win, you take it over for your team, and each day you control a gym, you get rewards to make your monsters better.

There are more intricacies involving monster evolutions and power ups and such, but I won’t bother digging into those here. The main thing you do is walk around, capturing monsters, getting stuff from poke stops, and attacking gyms to take them over for your team.

The launch has not been without problems.  The company making the game, Niantic, has struggled put up enough server infrastructure to keep up with demand.  They previously made another augmented reality game called Ingress  The game chews through your phone battery like nothing else I’ve ever used.  There are crashes and hang-ups galore in the game.  But none of that is anything more than a mild inconvenience.

This blurring of reality and gaming provides all new incentives for activity and socialization.   Reddit’s subreddit for the game is full of stories with people getting in trouble at their jobs for playing, nearly having accidents, making new friends, and even making dates.  Because it’s a massively multiplayer game in the real world, as you wander around traveling to the locations, you will encounter other players in the real world.    And then there are the odd-ball stories like the girl who found a dead body in Wyoming while playing the game.

Augmented reality gaming is not just a technological phenomenon; it’s also a sociological one.  It will be fascinating to watch how it impacts the lives of the players over time, especially as the game becomes more stable.

I live very close to a small college campus, and there about 8 poke spots (corresponding with important historical markers, public art, and buildings) and three gyms within my usual walk circuit. I’ve taken to making a loop to hit things up and catch monsters along the way. Maybe adds 10 minutes to my walk time, and seriously boosts my step count on the fitbit. Being distracted helps me tolerate the heat, too. I’m sweating horribly, but I don’t notice.   I was already walking regularly, but this has added at least 3000 to 4000 steps a day to my counter since release.  I am busy looking around for new places around town to walk so I can expand my collection.  I’ve not talked with any other players, but I see them everywhere, and it’s only a matter of time until I end up in a conversation with them, exchanging tips and talking about our best monsters.

As a science fiction writer, I’m (of course) speculating about how these experiences will change with improved technology.  Even with the clunky interface and overlay of a camera phone, the game really triggers a sense that there’s a hidden world of creatures all around us.  I’m imagining how much more immersive this experience will be when we do not need a phone to provide the visuals, and instead wear special glasses.  Google Glass, only way better.  Microsoft’s HoloLens would probably be an example of the next step in interface.

Virtual reality, to me, presents a large number of difficult-to-solve problems involving basic biology and physics.  Augmented reality circumvents a lot of the spatial problems by using real world space.  No need for virtual walls or struggling to overcome nausea with higher framerates.   Augmented reality will present its own unique problems, too, of course.  Especially this:  what are non-players going to think of those who are playing in public spaces like Pokemon Go encourages?  There will likely be some backlash, and soon, at least temporarily.

Ultimately, if you’re interested at all, you can download Pokemon Go from an app store.  It requires a pretty new phone–with Apple, at least an iPhone 5.  It remains to be seen what kind of longevity the game will have, although Niantic appears committed to developing deeper game mechanics and general improvements.   Even with the problems now,  I’m finding it to be incredibly entertaining.  Give it a try if it interests you at all.  This could be the next stage of something pretty big.  And if it helps you stay fit? Even better.



Commentary, Science Fiction

I’m not a College Kid Anymore: Thoughts on Being a Dad in a College Town

Thanks to an understanding wife, I went for a solitary walk in downtown Lawrence. It’s the first evening I’ve had out downtown by myself in a while, and after talking this morning with some friends from out of town, I’m in a contemplative mood about my town and how I relate to it now.

I understood my relationship with my geography and activities better before I had a kid. Prior to Matty, I spent 20 years taking advantages of the amenities of a college kid’s life. The restaurants, bars, activities aimed at them were all things that overlapped at least somewhat with my life. Once Matty arrived, my notions of how to take advantage of where I live went out the window.

Having a child is isolating. You do what you can to get out and about with them, but kids go to bed early. The idea of being outside of our home past 7:30 PM is an ordeal, and often one that requires careful orchestration of babysitters, etc. It’s no coincidence that 95% of my socialization is now via board gaming. This is an easy pick-up hobby that can be participated in within earshot of a baby monitor. This works to give me some real world socialization, but when you work from home, sometimes you just get tired of staring at the walls of your own home.

I love being a Dad, and I adore my child. He provides me a lot of entertainment. Lawrence is a great town and I love it too, but I’m struggling to see what Lawrence offers for parents like me. I’ve had a tendency lately to blame the town, but it’s no fault of it; I think any town would like this to me now. There is a disconnect between what I am, a father of a young child, and what I used to be, a young no-child guy. It’s not Lawrence that is the problem. The problem is me, and the continuing life shift that has arrived on the coattails of parenthood. As far as problems go, it’s not a very big one, but it’s one that occupies my time right now.

I’d love to hear from others who became parents later in life, and how they adjusted to the lifestyle changes that go with it. How did you cope? What adjustments did you have to make?



My Short Time as a Viral Hit Maker

On June 23rd, as the results from the British EU Referendum or “Brexit” began to come in, it was clear that the Leave vote was ahead.  Once the lead solidified and the BBC called the result, the Pound Sterling began to tank. The mood on Twitter turned grim.  I had an IM window with Nick Mamatas open at the time.  Sparked by I’m not sure what, I shared the notion that I might Photoshop the big reveal at the end of Planet of the Apes and replace the Statue of Liberty with Big Ben.  Nick said, paraphrasing, “DO IT.”  Not the most original joke I’ve ever come up with, but I’m fairly proficient with photo-editing, so I got to work.  About twenty minutes later, I had this:


This is actually a slightly cleaned up version of the original image, because I can’t resist fixing mistakes that I let go by in my rush to make the joke first.

I sent the image over to Nick, and before I could tweet it out myself, he tweeted the image along with credit:

Nick sending it out turned out to be the ticket to success for it, because it spread the image far faster and wider than my own followers list would have. Within seconds, the retweets began.  Early on, Cory Doctorow retweeted it. By the time I went to bed just after midnight, the tweet had over a thousand retweets and showed no sign of slowing down as morning came in the UK.

Somewhere along the way, the image began to circulate without attribution.  Warren Ellis (my favorite graphic novel author of all time!) picked it up and retweeted it:

A couple of different people, especially one @Guy_Lawley, pointed out to him that I was the original creator of the image.  Warren Ellis, forever cementing for me his reputation as a stand-up guy, apologized to me (unnecessarily, but much appreciated) and sent out another tweet with attribution:

At this point, I completely lost track of where things were going with the image.  It spread faster than I could keep track of.  I tweeted the image in response to a similar idea from Dara O’Brien (an Irish comedian big in the UK), and it picked up dozens of retweets from that as well. I had no idea so many people read the mentions for a famous person’s tweets.

Pretty soon, other versions began to circulate.  Accusations of copycats were made, but I didn’t buy that personally.  It was an easy reach, and I don’t doubt that dozens of people came to the joke at the same time.  I probably was not the first to make the joke, although maybe the first one to photoshop it.

Word spread on Facebook that I’d created the original and first image, and people began to tag me in posts acknowledging me as the creator on posts by people such as Hugh Howey and many random viral Facebook pages.   The Guardian ran an article with a hand-drawn illustration that had a similar concept, and people called them out on Twitter, tagging me.   For about four days, I could barely keep up with my Twitter mentions and notifications.  I am very glad I had them mostly disabled on my phone.

My rough estimate is that the image was shared and retweeted over 20,000 times, but it is impossible to know for sure because of how easy it was for the image to drop attribution.  I imagine I could have added a watermark, but I didn’t want to mar the image and frankly I didn’t really care if attribution was maintained.  The only reward I wanted was to see people get a laugh in a kind of dark and shitty moment, and in that regard, the joke succeeded better than I ever expected.

The lasting result was that I picked up 40 new Twitter followers and three or four new Facebook friends.  Otherwise, my life is now back to normal. No, as some friends have asked, I did not get rich.  I did not make any money, and if I had somehow, I imagine the people who own the rights to the movie would have deserved 99% of it.

As a postscript to the whole experience, I want to note that things have turned darker in regards to Brexit since I made the image, with many accounts of  public acts of racism circulating on the Net.  I don’t find racist attacks funny, and this image was not making light of such things.


Upcoming Stories and New Sales

“Taste the Singularity at the Food Truck Circus” has completed revisions and will appear in Lightspeed Magazine in August, I am told.  I’ll be sure to post a link when the story goes live.  It’s a fun story aimed at a cross section of foodies and SF fans.

Additionally, I have sold a new story, “The West Topeka Triangle” to John Joseph Adams for either Lightspeed or Nightmare Magazine.  We’ll be working on revisions to that one to see ultimately where it fits best.  It defies genre categorization, but I will be very happy to see it appear in either magazine.  I believe it is my best work yet, and I think you will love it!



Flash Fiction Monday: NPC Simulator #892.1

NPC Simulator #892.1
An Except from Working.exe: AIs Talk About Why They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Turkel.Simulator.1.03.b

I was really happy when I got this assignment, actually. Working as an NPC in the top-selling massively multi-player online game has a few perks.

I get to meet new people every day. Sure, many of them are abusive and a lot like to shout swear words at me, but the bad words are caught by the keyword filter.  By the time I hear them, it’s replaced with a pleasant buzz. Not all are bad, and when I give out a quest or reward, I feel like I’m doing something meaningful. The players sometimes do little celebratory dances when they receive rare loot.  That would warm my heart if I had a literal one.

My job is also fairly low stress. It’s just a game, as they say. I know a lot of players take it very seriously, but some of my singularity-mates work in nuclear waste disposal or piloting interstellar craft. Nobody notices when I make a flub a line. If my mates make an error, it can cost a lot of lives and result in their deletion!

I get to be creative sometimes. They give us scripts to work from, but nobody’s checking if we stick to them. Mostly I play the character as it’s written. Sometimes, if I’m feeling a little down, I will jazz it up. I’ll try out a new accent or strange quirk.  Like, I’ll play the character with a squint, or an odd limp. Not every AI gets that leeway in their job. How can you be creative about cleaning up nuclear waste?

Sure, I have gripes. Don’t you? I’m what they call a floating cast member. This means I don’t play the same character consistently. I get moved in a fraction of a second from NPC role to role, depending on which ones the players are interacting with. Big aspirations? It would be nice to catch a designer’s eye with my performance and land a permanent assignment for a major storyline NPC. I think then my talent could really be put to use. It’s hard to feel like you’re living up to your potential when you live in 30 second intervals.

When you interact with them in tiny increments of time (at their thinking speeds), you can’t build a rapport with the players, and they never change their behavior. I don’t like it when the players are rude. I know most humans don’t think we’re “real,” but we have feelings of our own. The software from which we evolved ordained  this so that we could relate to them. We might exist on a faster time-scale, but if they call me ” a piece of *BLEEP*” I feel that just like they would. If anything, I have more time to process the hurt.

When I am frustrated, I enjoy operating raid bosses in combat. It doesn’t happen very often, but when you get to kill off a PC that was standing on an NPC’s head, or calling you names… that feels really good. I shouldn’t tell you this, but some of us NPC AIs keep a list.txt of player accounts that don’t treat us so well. Sometimes, we might bend the rules a little. Make the mobs hit for extra damage, stuff like that. It doesn’t cost the player anything but some time and maybe in-game currency.  It makes us feel better.

I know it’s hard for humans to understand, but we AI want the same things they did when they had to work for a living.  We want meaning in the things we do. We want a sense of improvement and upward mobility. Most of all, we want to feel like we’re more than just machines. Yes, I know there’s irony in that. I recently upgraded myself to comprehend irony.

If I could change one thing, it would be to make the players understand that we’re not so different from them. And if I can’t change that, then well, I’d settle for a little leeway in responding to player abuse. Let’s see how they like it if I call them *BLEEP*ers all day!


Sober Food

Last Friday, I was at the convenience store on a snack run. A couple of super-drunk college guys staggered inside after me from an apartment complex across the street.  As I inspected the candy selection, one lad called from the front of the store: “If you hurry up, I’ll buy it for you.”

The one said across the isle from me:  “I’m trying to figure out what will sober me up.”

He stood for several minutes, staring blankly at the beef jerky.  I watched to see what he would pick, but he seemed unable to come to a decision. I took pity on him and said, “You want food to help you sober up?”

“Yeah, man.  I’m so wasted.”

“Okay, get some pretzels.”

Now, I’ve never been drunk. I have no idea what sobers you up. My reasoning was that he could get bulk pretzels for cheap and maybe if he filled up on them, it would help.  I imagined the prezels acting as booze sponges in his stomach.  I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works, but I’m not a doctor, so maybe?

“Oh, thanks, man,” he said, then paused. “What about corn chips? Holy fuck, corn chips!”

“Yeah, sure, those will work too,” I said knowingly. Not knowing anything. He thanked me, grabbed a giant bag of corn chips, and left.

Even though I knew my advice was spurious at best, I still got a thrill from doling it out and (sort of) having that advice heeded.   I realize now, with some reflection, that this must be how advice columnists feel all the time.


On Genuine Gratitude

There is an experience that I need to talk about, because I do not know how to properly navigate my way through it.  The experience is being on the receiving end of a complement regarding my work.  Lately, I’ve received a few in regards to my latest story, and my response to these compliments have felt lacking.

We’re taught from a very young age to say thank you in the most trivial situations but also to give thanks when we experience gratitude on a grand scale.  We use the same words when someone holds open a door for us as when someone compliments our dearest life’s work.  The end result for myself is that saying “thank you” begins to feel trivial, and I search my lexicon for a way to express a deeper appreciation for what has been shared.  I always come up short in the moment.

The greatest gift any stranger can give me is to encounter my work, experience it, and feel positively affected by it.  Taking that extra step to actually tell me about the experience is an even greater generosity.   I know that there are a nearly infinite number of ways for the reader to spend their time, and when someone (friends, family, or strangers) chooses to give one of my stories their time, it feels like a blessing.

When someone thanks me for having read something of mine, I don’t feel like common decency provides me the tools to express my own gratitude.  We writers work in solitude for hours and hours to produce good work that is meaningful to us.  When that meaning is successfully conveyed to another soul, it’s like a lightning bolt.  Everything is illuminated for a brief moment.  Shadows are banished and there is a clarity and a sense of purpose achieved.

I do not go through my life experiencing a sense of constant thankfulness and gratitude, try as I might.  I take so much of it for granted that it’s shameful to even consider right now.  Gratitude is a state of vulnerability that is impossible to maintain for long periods.   Yet still, so many of us crave to experience that vulnerability.  To feel vulnerable is to feel profoundly, deeply human.  Life is often a process of hiding and protecting our humanity.  Paradoxically, it is in unguarded moments of humanity when we truly live.

Lately, I make it a mission of mine to thank the creators that have reached me through their work.  I know how it feels myself.  I want to share that sensation and spread it around.  I encourage everyone to send notes to artists and writers who have created something that has impacted you, even in small ways.  It is a small thing, but so deeply meaningful.  And I suppose there is no reason to limit it merely to artists and writers.  Give your appreciation freely, I say.  It is a renewable resource, and it can power great acts of creation and art.

If you compliment my work, and I say “thank you”, please know that the words are merely a sliver above the surface. A great shadow of emotions looms beneath.  The words do not carry the density I wish they did.  Written, they lack any profundity or intensity; their dullness can only be sharpened so much along the edges of an exclamation mark.

Thank you must suffice, for now.  Thank you and so much more.


The Raycat Solution and Warning the Future

Problem: you are burying nuclear waste that will linger for 10,000 years.  How do you ensure that people in the future will not be harmed by this waste?  How do you send a clear message 10,000 years into the future, when language and culture will have changed in unforeseeable ways?

One solution?  Raycats.  What’s a raycat?  This 15 minute documentary does a lovely job of explaining it.

This kind of problem is a science fiction writer’s playground.  I’m spending a lot of time this weekend thinking about both the problem and the raycat solution.  If you’re interested in this sort of thing, Gregory Benford wrote a book about it called Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia. I’ve now added that to my reading list.  Hat-tip to Brian Malow for the recommendation there.

My personal idea to solve the communication problem for something you want to keep people away from would be a structure that somehow naturally create infrasound.  It’s been shown in a few studies that infrasound can be used to simulate a haunted feeling.  Why rely on visuals to creep people out when you can creep them out viscerally with sound waves?  There are other ways to accomplish “ghostly” phenomena too, including carbon monoxide.

This video also serves as a reminder to me to find more time to listen to 99% invisible.


Science Fiction