Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sabbatical Report: Christmas

Welcome to Sabbatical Report #7; for explanations, you may want to read Sabbatical Report 1.

This was Christmas week, which is our year-end holiday of choice, so most of our week was focussed on that.  Christmas Eve is our big dinner night, and we had planned to visit our Sister Family on Christmas afternoon, but various and sundry children with various and sundry germs put the kibosh on that plan.  Still, Christmas was very lovely, even with the tiny amount of sleep I got the night before, and now our house is trashed, so it must have been successful.

On to my sabbatical goals (which are described in Sabbatical Report 3).  As they say on Marketplace, first let’s do the numbers.  So far, I’ve expunged 453 emails out of 500, I’ve expunged 15 todo tasks out of 25, and I’ve completed 69 project hours out of 75.  Now, this is the last full week of my sabbatical, so it may seem that I’ve failed, but let’s not forget that I don’t actually go back to work unitl Wednesday, so there’s some time yet.  Let’s look at the individual goals.

Currently I have 47 emails in my inbox, which fits on a single screen without having to page.  That’s pretty impressive, and, while I will probably try to whittle it down even further, I’m happy enough to declare that one a success even as is.

In terms of the todo tasks, I will probably knock a couple of others off before sabbatical is fully over, but it’s true that I have little hope of doing 10 more.  So I have to declare that one a bust.

Of course, the project hours is really the big one, and there’s only 6 more to go to reach my (adjusted) goal.  I’m feeling pretty confident about hitting that one, actually.  Even though there’s still a few projects that I never even got to start.

New projects I worked on were polishing up my Debuggit module (one new release done, one to go), finally finally getting around to using Dist::Zilla by creating my own plugin bundle (first, very primitive release done, several to go), and starting my super-long-term project, which I won’t reveal just yet, as it’s still very early days on that one.

So all is not lost ... no, all is not lost ... not yet.  Next week, me and my precognitive dissonance will visit: New Year’s Day.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sabbatical Report: Catching Up

Welcome to Sabbatical Report #6; for explanations, you may want to read Sabbatical Report 1.

Family stuff has been fairly light this week.  We put up our Christmas tree, went out to eat at Souplantation, and went to see a movie.  We were going to do more stuff, but it was cold and rainy all week, and we just wanted to chill out at home.

Which gave me time to catch up on my other goals (my sabbatical goals are described in Sabbatical Report 3).  In terms of raw numbers, I’ve expunged 352 emails (instead of 400; a very slight drop from last week), I’ve expunged 12 todo tasks (instead of 20; a major improvment over last week), and I’ve completed 52 project hours (instead of 60), which is very good progress.  I actually completely finished 3 entire projects, which is the first I’ve been able to knock out since the half week way back at the beginning of sabbatical.

First, I identified and backed up all the files I have on this crappy laptop that I haven’t yet managed to migrate to the cloud.  Then, I finally got all my common scripts and config files checked into GitHub.  Finally, I actually purchased a new Linux laptop.  After going back and forth for quite a bit between ZaReason and System76, I finally went with the ZaReason Alto.  System76 is a great company with a lot of fans, but the support at ZaReason is supposedly amazing, plus I like that they’ll give me a choice of many different Linux distros, as opposed to being stuck with Ubuntu.  I’m going with Linux Mint, which is based on Ubuntu, but apparently has fixed most of the stuff that annoyed me about Ubuntu, and delivers the promise of “it just works” that Ubuntu never did, at least for me.

I also put in quite a lot of work on Method::Signatures, and got this close to making another new release.  I have one last problem on older Perls that I’m consulting with the Damian on.  Once I knock that out, that’s all the catching up on that module I wanted to do over sabbatical anyway, so I’ll mark that one done as well.

So that wraps it up for this week.  Next week: Christmas!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sabbatical Report: Cabin Week

Welcome to Sabbatical Report #5; for explanations, you may want to read Sabbatical Report 1.

As I mentioned last week, we spent this week at  Lake Cachuma, which is a county park north of Santa Barbara.  We went up Sunday night and came back Thursday afternoon.  While there, we stayed in a cabin with a fairly awesome view of the lake, although it was pretty chilly the whole time.

The cabin itself was nothing special: just one long space, divided into thirds.  The back third was a bedroom, the middle third was a bathroom on one side and two bunk beds on the other, the front third was a kitchen, a dining room table, and a couch that folded out into a bed.  Microwave, refrigerator, and stove, but no oven—no toaster, either, which was mildly annoying.  But there was a TV with a DVD player, a satellite dish that worked sometimes, and we set up our phones as mobile hotspots so everyone could use their laptops.  It was sufficient.

Monday we tried to go up to the Nature Center, but it was closed.  Went to the general store and bought some touristy crap.  Mostly we laid around.

Tuesday we went into Solvang, primarily to check out the Solvang Bakery, which everyone says is awesome (it’s pretty decent).  Other than that, it’s mainly a place to go shopping for crap that you didn’t really need anyway.  My eldest bought a hat, as did my youngest (although she had little say in the matter, being yet unable to speak English).  We also went to a nifty little New Agey shop where the Larger Animal bought a tiny little Buddha and I bought a “Lucky Horse” (my Chinese zodiac sign).  And we had some tacos that were decent but not overwhelmingly awesome.

Wednesday we finally did make it up to the Nature Center, where we saw lots of animals (stuffed, like by a taxidermist as opposed to a toymaker), and rocks, and bones, and some baby trout, and various and sundry other stuff.

Thursday we spent two hours trying to kill each other packing the truck, then an hour waiting for AAA to come jumpstart the battery that we’d drained while leaving all the doors open while packing.  The drive back was mostly uneventful.

Friday was recover-from-being-on-vacation day.

In terms of my sabbatical goals (refresh yourself on those by rereading Sabbatical Report 3), I’m behind across the board, but that’s mainly because I spent most of my free time at the cabin reading the latest installment of the Dresden Files.  But I finished that already (500 pages in 2.5 days!), so perhaps I’ll get caught up next week.  I’ve expunged 260 emails (instead of 300), I’ve expunged 5 todo tasks (instead of 15), and I’ve completed 31.5 project hours (instead of 45).  Still reasonable to catch up, I think, on everything except maybe the todo tasks, which is looking a bit bleak.

That’s all for this week.  Next week I’ll be doing more chilling at home, with perhaps a few day trips thrown in (I believe La Brea is on the schedule at some point).

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sabbatical Report: Lazy Week

Welcome to Sabbatical Report #4; for explanations, you may want to read Sabbatical Report 1.

Just a quick update this week, as I still have several things to do before we leave tomorrow for Lake Cachuma.

First of all, last week I outlined my recurring personal goals during sabbatical.  Quick refresher: 100 emails cleared out of my inbox per week, 5 tasks permanently removed from my todo list per week, and 20 hours working on personal projects per week.  Well, this week I realized that 20 hours per week was just too ambitious.  So I’ve downgraded to 15 hours per week.  Roughly half as much time as I would spend on $work.  That’s still reasonable, right?

So where are at the end of week 2?  Well, I’ve expunged 202 emails, so I’m still a little ahead of schedule on that one.  I’ve still only managed to remove 4 todo tasks (yes, yes: exactly the same as last week), so I’m less than halfway there on that one.  I’m behind on projects too, even with my revised goal: only 22.5 hours out of 30, so about three-quarters of the way for that one.

In terms of project accomplishments, I’ve moved a bit farther along on identifying any files I may need to get off this laptop.  I’ve also started on (just barely, in most cases) 4 new projects.

First, I’m planning to check all my configuration files into a GitHub repository.  I’ve been carrying around my Linux config files and personal scripts and all that sort of stuff for years using Unison.  Then I switched to Dropbox, but still use Unison occasionally for places (mainly at work) where sysadmins don’t care for Dropbox’s constant pinging out to the Internet.  Now, of course, all the rage is just to check all that stuff into GitHub and then check it out on each new machine.  Since I already have a system to get what I want onto new boxes, I don’t care much about the convenience aspect of it.  But creating a config repo also gets you versioning, so you can check what changes you’ve made over time, which is nice.  Still wouldn’t be enough to push me to make the switch, but the really nice thing about using GitHub is it makes it easy to share your personal scripts with your friends.  That’s what finally decided me.  So now I’m working on cleaning up my config stuff: paring it down, removing anything I don’t have permission to share, making sure I didn’t leave any personal info (like passwords) in the files, etc.

Next is working on my custom Heroscape figures rebasing.  I’ve talked about our C3V work before, and I mentioned that we take figures from other games and reuse them as Heroscape figures.  Some of those other figures have bases that are very similar to Heroscape bases.  And some have bases that are very not.  Those latter have to be cut off their old bases and glued onto new ones.  So far, I’ve purchased the new bases, organized all the figures to get them ready for rebasing, and located all my supplies.  Except I seem to have lost or destroyed my utility knife.  So I need to get one of those.  But I’ve still actually managed to get two figs rebased, including the quite awesome dragon Quahon.

Next up, I made a suggestion to the author of Pod::WikiDoc on some alternate syntax.  I want to start using this awesome module for documenting my own modules—I personally find POD unberably ugly—but I always hate retraining my fingers.  Besides underscore-surrounded words just look like italics to me now.  (Tildes? not so much.)  I’ve forked the repo, cloned it, and started staring at the source in order to figure out the best way to make the alternate syntax work.  This includes brushing up on my Parse::RecDescent skills, which have never been more than neotenous.

Finally, I’ve started doing the background research for choosing a Linux laptop.  I know that Mac Airbooks are all the geek rage these days—the prices aren’t as shockingly out of reach (still a bit shocking), and Mac OSX is based on a version of Unix, and you certainly can’t say it doesn’t just work right out the box—but I’m a keyboard person at heart.  I use the mouse mainly when I’m forced to.  And I had a Mac laptop for a while, and it forces you to a lot.  Like, a whole lot.  Drove me absolutely insane.  Just simple stuff like selecting words without the mouse I found impossible (or so close to it to be not worth making the fine distinction).  Maybe it’s better these days.  Maybe I don’t want to spend the time or effort to find out.  I do want a laptop that just plain works, sure: but Linux has come a long way.  The desktop versions pretty much do work straight out of the box.  The laptops are just lagging behind.  So I’m probably going to end up paying about twice what I would for a Windows laptop that I would strip down and Linux-ize myself, but not the three times as much that a Mac would cost me, which I couldn’t strip down if I wanted to.  I’ve spent many many hours installing / configuring / maintaining Linux on my own.  I’m ready to pay a little extra for the privelege of having someone else deal with it.  So I’ve started the research, and right now I’m leaning towards ZaReason.  Partly because they’ve got some great machines, but partly because they’ll put something other than Ubuntu on it, which I hate.  I’ve tried many many versions of Linux throughout the years—Slackware, Debian, RedHat, Mandrake, Gentoo, Ubuntu, Fedora, and Mandriva, that I can remember—and Ubuntu is close to the botom of that list.  Many people like it, I presume because it’s very “Microsofty” (that is, it’s convinced it knows what you want better than you do).  I, of course, hate it for that very reason.  But I’m really getting disgusted with Fedora these days too.  The incessant need to jam Gnome 3 down my throat, the ridiculously short support windows, and of course the install program snafu that cost me several gigabytes of data that I’m still trying to recover over four years later.  So I’m leaning towards trying out a new option: Linux Mint.  I’m particularly excited to explore the differences between MATE and Cinnamon, and the ease of switching back and forth between the two sounds heavenly.  Anyway, that’s where I’m leaning at the moment.  But I’m still going to do some more research.

So that’s it for my personal goals.  Moving onto the family time for this week.

Monday we were going to go to the National History Museum, but it was rainy and cold, so we decided to do some Christmas shopping instead.  Typically we do the bulk of the Christmas shopping online so we don’t have to deal with any crowds.  But we figured, pre-Christmas-break, on a weekday, in the middle of the day, at our local Town Center strip mall instead of a major indoor mall, we’d probably be okay.  Which we were, other than the persistent danger of freezing to death.  We bought some Christmas candy, went to The Mother‘s favorite jewelry store, ate hot dogs on a stick,* and hung out with some old fat dude who dresses funny.**

Wednesday we were supposed to go see the Christmas lights in Griffith Park, but again that didn’t happen.  We were just being majorly lazy this week.

Friday we did a homeschool field trip to the Getty Villa.  They’re having a Pompeii exhibit.  Want to know what I learned at the Getty Villa?

  1. There were lots of naked women at Pompeii.
  2. There were a few naked men too.  But mostly naked women.
  3. Hercules was so cool that everything he did was immortalized.  This includes taking a piss.
  4. The only piece of art at the Getty Villa that you’re actually allowed to touch is a marble statue of a naked woman.  Seriously, guys: my teenage boy does not need the encouragement.

So that was fun.

And that about wraps it up for this week.  Next week, as I said up top, we’re off to a cabin by the lake.  Which hopefully is quite different from a cabin in the woods.

* Honestly, only the Smaller Animal had hot dogs on a stick.  But we all had the fries, and dug the cherry lemonade.  Yum.

** Note: If you’re not friends with me on Facebook, that picture may not load for you.  But, then again, if you’re not friends with me on Facebook, why do you want to see pictures of my family anyway?  Don’t be pervy, man.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sabbatical Report: Goals

Welcome to Sabbatical Report #3; for explanations, you may want to read Sabbatical Report 1.

This week I concentrated on nailing down what I want to accomplish on my sabbatical.  Of course, I want to spend some extra time with my family, and do a few touristy things, as I mentioned in the original sabbatical report (see above).  But I also want to work on some personal projects, and I thought it wise to give myself some concrete goals.  Otherwise I’ll sit on my ass for 6 weeks and accomplish nothing except watching a lot of TV and eating a lot of holiday candy, and I’ll feel stupid and lazy (and fat) when my sabbatical is finally over.  So I decided to give myself goals.  And I’ve been fiddling with them, trying to get them to a point where they’re achievable, but not too easy.  I think I’m there finally.

First thing I did was give myself a little padding at either end.  My sabbatical is six weeks long in the sense that it’s 42 days, but it’s not actually six calendar weeks, because it started on a Wednesday.  So it’s really like half a week, then 5 weeks, then another half a week.  I decided that my goals would be applied during the 5 week stint.  The half weeks on either side would just be used to ease into it, and then to ease back out of it.

So, during the 5 weeks (of which this week was the first), I’ve decided to accomplish 3 broad goals.  I’ll explain them, from simplest to most complicated.

First, I’ve decided to finally clear out my (personal) inbox.  I got my Gmail account about 8 years ago, mainly as a backup account.  I still had my own business back then.  But, as time went on, and my company’s servers gradually stopped working, my Gmail “backup” became my main email account.  By the time I realized this, though, my inbox was already a mess, and it hasn’t gotten any better since then.  Oh, I read my emails (well, most of them), but I never seem to actually do anything with them.  I need to file them, or delete them, or maybe even reply to them every now and again.  When I looked at my inbox at the beginning of my sabbatical, there were nearly 500 emails in my inbox.  Fine: 500 emails, 5 weeks—all I need to do is clear out 100 emails a week and I’ll start back to work with a clean inbox.  I’m happy to say I’m currently on track (ahead of schedule, even) with this goal: my inbox right now stands at 352.

Secondly, I have a todo list.  There are two sorts of items on this todo list: things that need to be done once and then can be deleted permanently, and recurring tasks.  My recurring tasks, of course, never actually leave the todo list.  They float to the top sometimes, I do them, then I punt them back to the bottom until it’s time to do them again.  These are things like doing my laundry, fishtank maintenance, grocery shopping, etc.  But the one-time tasks are the more interesting ones.  I do the recurring ones—every week, or every month, or whatever—but I do them.  They never get passed over.  But those one-time tasks ... they just sit there a lot of the time.  Over time, they accumulate.  Before you know it, you’ve got stuff on your todo list you’ve been meaning to accomplish for a year and never touched.  It makes you feel sort of lame.  So I decided I would take advantage of sabbatical time to prune that list a little.  I figured, I’ll do 1 task every day.  Then I decided to make it 1 task every weekday—save the weekends for the recurring tasks, and maybe some chilling out time.  5 weeks, that’s 25 tasks, which must all be one-time tasks, and they must all have been on the list when sabbatical started—no cheating by adding new one-time tasks and then doing them, because that doesn’t actually help achieve the goal of shrinking the overall list.  So this week I should have accomplished 5 tasks, but so far I’ve only got 3.  Maybe I’ll sneak in 2 more before tomorrow.

Finally, the big stuff.  Over a month ago, I started making a list of bigger projects I wanted to accomplish during sabbatical.  Some were short, well-defined tasks, like pulling out my old mountain bike and taking it to a bike shop (which necessitates actually locating a bike shop, of course) and either having it fixed, or having it pronounced dead and buying a new one.  I might actually exercise if I had a working bike.  (I probably won’t, but we’ll never know unless we try, no?)  Others were more nebulous, like working on my book, which could go on for quite a while and never see completion.  So the trick here was to figure out how to turn these larger projects, with all sorts of different lengths and levels of achievability, into concrete goals.

My original thought was to just try to polish off X projects a week.  There were several problems with this plan.  First off, some of them didn’t have definitive endings, as I mentioned.  But, worse: I had so many that I would need to polish off one every day to get them all, and that wasn’t even remotely practical.  Plus I’d need to start one, work on it frantically, and take it all the way to completion before I could mark it off and move on to the next task.  That’s too much like work, which is what I taking the sabbatical to get away from.  I need to be able to hop around from task to task, doing whatever mood strikes me, but still working towards concrete goals.  On top of everything, the fact that some tasks would take only a few hours, while others might go on for days, meant that I would have no idea how to make sure I was on track for hitting my targets.

So I hit on the idea of counting my hours.  When I work on work stuff, I track my hours.  (This comes from many years of being a consultant who gets paid by the hour.)  I know that, in a 40-hour work week, I generally achieve about 30 hours of real, solid work.  I briefly considered trying to do 30 hours per week on sabbatical.  I promptly discarded this idea.  What’s the point of being on sabbatical if you can’t slack off a little?  But not too much ... I’m currently trying to achieve 20 hours per week instead.  Of course, so far I’ve only got twelve, so that’s a poor start.  But, hey, I’ve actually achieved a few cool things.

First off, I just released a new version of one of my CPAN modules, Method::Signatures.  This involved fixing a few niggling bugs and just getting things organized and properly put out on the Internet.  I really love making progress on this particular module, because it’s probably the most high-profile thing I’m known for (even though I didn’t write the original version), and I hope to expand on it even more as time goes on.  I don’t know if I’ll ever actually have a Perl legacy, but, if I ever do, this will probably be the cornerstone of it.  If you’re into Perl, you can read more about this latest release on my other blog.

Secondly, I figured out how to make a “lab” (i.e. a personal page for my custom creations) on my favorite Pathfinder site,  So far it’s just an empty page, but you’d be surprised how much effort it took to get even that far.  Google Sites may be an awesome thing (not saying it is yet, only that it may be), but intuitive it ain’t.

Finally, I started working on the project of identifying all local file modifications to my laptop.  This is necessary for upgrading to a newer laptop, which is another project on the list.  So far, I’ve got a list of directories, sorted in order by the modification date of the most recently modified file, with the obvious stuff (like the /tmp directory, or my Dropbox directory, which is already on the cloud and thus doesn’t need to be backed up) removed.

So I’m 8 hours short, but I’m not feeling lame.  Yet.  I may have to revise my weekly goals to 15 hours though.  We’ll see.

Anyway, I have to wrap this up now, as we’re out to pick up yet yet another furry child.  Should keep the holidays interesting ...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sabbatical Report: Thanksgiving

I really should have time to do a real post this week, but I’m lazy.  Sabbatical-type lazy.  So welcome to Sabbatical Report #2.  If you want to know what the fuck I’m talking about here, you may want to read Sabbatical Report 1.

So, I’ve been on sabbatical for half a week so far, and I haven’t done much.  Mainly I’m trying to catch up on all my C3V work that I let slack while I was putting in so many hours at work, getting ready for sabbatical.  I’m one unit away from being completely caught up on my editing duties.

Thanksgiving was in there too.  We decided to forego the turkey this year ... it seems like every year, we all get excited about the mashed potatoes, and the deviled eggs, and the onion casserole, and cranberry sauce, and we eat some turkey out of some weird sense of duty, and then we’re stuck with turkey leftovers for 3 weeks and we’re sick of it the whole time.  So, you know: screw the turkey.  We’ll just have the other stuff.  So we did.

Mainly what I was thankful for this year was sabbatical.  That may very well keep me sane.  Many of us were thankful for our newest family member.  And also for our sister family (who I still need to write a blog about someday).  And various and sundry other things.

Other than that, I’ve mostly just hung around the house.  It’s been nice to be able to stay up as late as I like, sleep as late as I like.  And I sleep pretty late under normal circumstances.  So, not a lot of interesting stuff to report, over all.

Next week may be a little more exciting.  Or not.  Either way, I’ll be enjoying it.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sabbatical Report: SeaWorld Snow Days

Hello, and welcome to Sabbatical Report #1.  When you work for eBay, after 5 years you get a sabbatical, which is 4 weeks off that you have to take all at once.  It’s a way to sort of reset your life, take a well-deserved break from work, and generally chill out.  Next Wednesday, I’ll start my sabbatical.

Of course, I don’t work for eBay, so that’s sort of weird.  I did work for eBay, or at least a subsidiary of eBay (what they call an “adjacency,” for some reason).  But we got sold ... about two months before my 5 year anniversary.  Happily, though, one of the conditions of the sale was that anyone who would qualify for their sabbatical before the end of the year would still get to take it.  (If you didn’t qualify until next year, you just got screwed.)  There were several of us in that boat, including some folks who started after me.  But they all took their sabbaticals already.  I am, in fact, taking the very last sabbatical my company will likely ever give out.

The other thing about sabbaticals is that you try to take them at a time when you can stretch things out.  I decided to take mine right at the end of the year primarily for the reason that there are six paid holidays in there.  Toss in 4 vacation days, and all of sudden that 4 weeks becomes 6.  Pretty smart, eh?

Also, there are a bunch of high-profile projects due at the end of the year, and I don’t feel like dealing with the pressure.

Anyway, during the next 6 weeks, I will be mostly chilling out at home, working on some personal projects, but also doing various and sundry touristy things in the Southern California area.  There will be times when I don’t have time to do a proper blog post, and, on those occasions, I’ll just post something about where we’ve gone and what we saw there.

So this is the first of the Sabbatical Reports.  It’s coming actually before my sabbatical has even started because we had planned to go to SeaWorld during sabbatical, but then we found out that this past Friday was the first day of SeaWorld’s “snow days”, and they reserve that day for season pass holders (which we are, this year).  So we started sabbatical a bit early.

We decided to invite one of the kids from our sister family (p’raps one day I’ll write a blog post about them), so we were six strong heading down to San Diego on Thursday afternoon.  The Mother drove and I worked the whole way down (got a lot of stuff to do before heading out on sabbatical, don’cha know).  We got a decent deal at a Comfort Inn (the picture there looks much nicer than the reality, but it was okay).  We got a suite—there’s just too many of us for a single room these days, especially with one extra kid.

We got in in time to spend a little time in the pool area.  My middle child “fell” into the jacuzzi.  Then we put our bathing suits and got in on purpose.

Next morning we took our time getting up and getting ready.  The park was open until 5pm for everyone, then 5pm - 10pm was for passholders only: there was a special gift for us (turned out to be a manta ray Christmas tree ornament) and fireworks just before park closing.  So no need to rush.

We got there around noon, which means we were walking around the park for about ten hours, minus breaks for food and shows.  We got the all-day-eating thingy so we wouldn’t have to stress about how much food we were getting.  Plus for dinner we got cookies and hot chocolate for free (more season pass holder goodies).  Of course, none of the food was particularly good, but that’s to be expected for amusement park food.

Show-wise, we saw the Christmas version of the Shamu show, which was a lot cheesier than the regular Shamu show (and that’s saying something).  Lots of oozing religiosity and seasonal warmth.  Whatever.  And we saw the Polar Express 4D show, which means we saw a really abridged version of the movie and they shot bubbles at us so it looked like snow.  Nothing to write home about (although here I am writing blog about it, so what do I know?).

We didn’t really didn’t do too many rides.  We rode up in the tower, and the kids did the Riptide Rescue.  Oh, and the Wild Arctic fake helicopter ride thingy.  Mostly we did animals.  The kids fed the sea lions, we all touched the bat rays, we watched the penguins and the polar bears and the beluga whales and the fish and snakes and frogs.  We saw a lady with a tarantua on her hand, a guy with a hawk on his arm, and two women with a beaver on a leash, who came up and sniffed our toes.  Plus the standard dolphins and orcas.

And of course there was the snow, that being the point of “Snow Days.”  There was a small, roped-off area where a snow machine was making honest-to-goodness snow.  The kids made snowballs to throw at each other, made a (very small) snowman, and, most importantly, got to sled down a little hill.  Not much of a hill, mind you, but considering we’re less than 20 miles from Mexico, any sledding at all is pretty impressive.

Add a few overpriced stuffed animals to the haul, and some decent fireworks right at the end, and you’ve pretty much got our entire day.  We were thinking about doing the zoo yesterday, but we decided we were all too tired.  Well, except for my middle child.  He could have kept on going for days, I’m sure.

And that was our first sabbatical trip, before sabbatical even starts.  Hope you enjoyed this brief recap.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dresden Again

Allow me to preface today’s post with a caveat:  It was never my intention to turn this blog into a drooling Harry Dresden fanboy site.  Seriously.

But good God damn.

The last time I talked about the Dresden Files (an urban fantasy series by Jim Butcher), I mentioned that it had gone from being good to really, really good.  That was along about book 7 or 8.  I am now on book 13, and it is no longer really, really good.

It is fucking insanely awesome.

Now, last time I tried to express just why it was so awesome, I theorized it was because of its perfect balance between episodic adventures and an overarching story arc.  And, it’s true: there’s something indescribably delicious about the way it sucks you in with a monster-of-the-week premise until you’re almost surprised to realize you’re hip deep in mythic quest territory.  But I’ve recently realized there’s another element going on here.

I’m a lot like Harry Dresden.

I mean, Harry is generally relatable: he has an affable, everyman quality that makes him instantly likeable, and I’m sure a lot of people will see themselves (or at least bits of themselves) in Harry.  But, for me, it seems to go beyond that.

I first noticed it when Harry was dealing with the White Council in one of the later books.  The White Council, of course, is the organization of wizards to which Harry belongs.  Harry hates dealing with them, because it’s all politics.  Harry hates politics.  I do too.  Harry deals with politics much the same way I do: he’s blunt, he’s abrasive, he bulls his way through, knocking over with main force what he can’t deal with via subtlety.  Yet, as the series progresses, Harry actually gets better at politics, almost by accident.  He still hates it, and he’s still not particularly skilled at it, but he manages to get by, and even score a few points now and again.  I feel much the same way at work: I still avoid the politics, and bulldoze it where I can, but every now and again, just from having survived this long, I manage to score a point here or there.  Just like Harry.

And, once I started to see similarities between myself and Dresden, I couldn’t stop seeing them.  Harry is a wiseass: if you’re familiar with psychic detective Shawn Spencer, you’ll recognize Harry’s tendency towards inanity in the face of danger or authority.  (Harry’s not quite as off-putting as Shawn, but close.)  Harry has a wacky sense of humor, but he also has a lot of pent up anger.  He has an overblown sense of injustice, which is often the trigger for his anger.  He has an insouciant sense of fatalism which leads many of his friends to think of him as cynical, yet at heart he’s a hopeless romantic.  He’s passionate about certain things, and careless about others.  His friends think he’s stubborn, but he doesn’t view himself that way.  He’s desperately loyal to those friends, protective of them, would do anything for them.  Little things bug him; big things roll off his back.  When he says “Oh, come on!  How is that fair??” ... I hear myself.

Harry doesn’t always think of himself as a good man, and yet he always tries to do the right thing.  He knows he has faults, and mostly he’s comfortable with them.  He knows he can be loud, and that he can get on people’s nerves, but he’s pretty much a love-me-or-leave-me guy, so that doesn’t bother him.  He’s direct, and he’s honest, and he has a great deal of talent at one particular thing, which makes him respected by some and laughable to others.  I’m not a professional wizard, obviously, but, as a professional programmer for over half my life, I have experience with being a geek in both positive and negative senses of the word.

Of course, the coolest thing about reading the adventures of someone who’s a lot like you is the parts where he’s not like you.  I am not, as I mentioned, a professional wizard, nor a private investigator, nor do I hang out with vampires, werewolves, holy knights, and various stripes of wild fae.  Harry Dresden’s personality may be close to mine, but his life is far more exciting, which is good, because who would want to read about my boring-ass life?  Harry’s life is anything but boring.  Harry’s life is not always fun for Harry, but it will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Check it out.  You’ll be glad you did.

Recommended Reading Order

Hopefully I’ve convinced you to at least check out this great series.  If you really get into it, you may want to know what order to read things in, and I’m going to help you out.

For the most part, this is a no-brainer.  There are 13 novels in the series, and the 14th is due out later this month.  The publication order matches the chronological order within the fictional world, so you just read them in the order they came out and you’re golden.  The only monkey wrench is Side Jobs.

Side Jobs is a collection of short stories and novellas set in the Dresden Files universe.  Each one contains a short introduction and a blurb telling you where it fits, chronologically.  If you like, you can read it at the point where I read it:

Simple Reading Order:

Read Side Jobs between Changes and Ghost Story.  Do not read it earlier, because the last story in it (“Aftermath”) contains major spoilers for Changes, and don’t read it later, because I think “Aftermath” really gives an important context to Ghost Story (not to mention the useful background info you get from “A Restoration of Faith”).

Or, you could alternately try:

More Complex Reading Order:

It might make more sense to read the stories in the order in which they fall in between the books.  This works very well for almost all of them, in fact; the only problem is “A Restoration of Faith.”  Chronologically, it’s first (before Storm Front, even).  But I think it works much better as a flashback than as an introduction.  Reading it first would be like trying to read New Spring before the remainder of the Wheel of Time books, or trying to watch In the Beginning before the first season of Babylon 5 (both of which I’ve tried).  It just doesn’t work.  There’s too much going on that only makes sense when you’re looking back on it with some perspective.

On the other hand, the rest of the stories are just the opposite: they give context to the books that follow (or at least some of them do).  Certainly I know that if I’d read “Heorot” before reading Changes, a couple of things would have made a lot more sense (for just one example).

So, in the order below, I’ve chosen a good place to drop in “A Restoration of Faith,” and I’ve left the others where they naturally fall.  So this is mostly nothing you couldn’t have figured out for yourself, but hopefully this saves you the hassle of working it all out.  Enjoy.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Random Guest Star

Well, tomorrow is my birthday,* so you’ll get no blog post from me this week.  But, luckily for you, I’ve engaged a guest blogger to keep you amused until my return next week.  This is a story that my elder son wrote for school, and is reprinted here with his permission.  I’ve edited it only slightly; these words are all his, and convey a bit of genetic talent for the craft, if I do say so myself.  Whether he will pursue this or not, I can’t say.  But it seems a promising start.

The Bard’s Tale

There was once a man, many years ago, who was said to be a great bard, and also, the luckiest bard in all the world.  He would travel from kingdom to kingdom, country to country, singing songs and generally enjoying a carefree life.

It was one day that he was in a kingdom, having been requested to play a song for the king.  He played a happy, joyous song, but the king was sad, and simply sighed and motioned for the bard to leave.  The bard slung his lute around his shoulders once again, and before leaving, asked why the king was so sad.  The king said his daughter had been taken away, as a sacrifice to a group of trolls that would otherwise destroy the kingdom, were they not sated.  The bard, being a heroic sort, offered to save the princess.  The king sighed again, and said that he was certainly welcome to try.  The bard ignored the king’s pessimism, and set off for the trolls.

He asked around, and learned the road down which sacrifices were taken, and happily set off.  After a few days of travelling, he came across a forest, which he happily skipped into, singing a merry song.  A group of bandits heard him, and set off to find him.  They leapt out at him, baring knives and crossbows and swords.  The leader walked out and asked for everything the bard could offer.  He smiled and said although he had not much of material value, he had songs.  The bandit leader rolled his eyes.  “Another merry idiot,” he said.  “Open fire.”  The crossbows all fired at once, sending a hail of arrows at the happy bard.  He simply stood still as every arrow missed, the closest simply shooting his hat off his head.  “A fine shot!” he remarked.  “Now, may I have a turn?”  As everyone stood astonished, he took a bow from a pack on his back, drew it, and aimed it at a rock.  It hit the rock, ricocheted into an archer’s arm, preventing him from shooting any more, through the arm, into several more lined up in a row, hitting the chest armor of one, and bouncing into the leader’s shoulder.  The injured fell and held their wounds, while the uninjured stared in amazement.  They all ran, fearing the bard, who happily marched forward, through the forest, and up a rocky mountain path as night fell.

He saw a fire ahead, and the ugly warty trolls gathered around it.  They were lighting it, and intended to cook the princess.  The bard saw why they were a threat to the kingdom: each was as tall as fifty men!  The bard walked up to the colossal trolls, four in all, and introduced himself.  A troll swatted at him with his club, which the bard hopped back from, just in time.  “Well, that was rude!” he said.  The trolls grunted, clearly not conversational types, and another tried to hit him again, which he jumped back from, again.  He slung his lute from his back into his hands, and began to play a song, dancing and jumping, merrily dodging the giants.  He did this for two days (it is said), until the giants all began to tire, and collapsed onto one and another.  He smiled, and walked around the cluster of bodies, and untied the princess.

“My love, I have rescued you!” he shouted, smiling.  He moved his head sideways, expecting a kiss on the cheek.   “Thank you,” the princess said simply, walking down the rocky mountain path.  He followed, asking “aren’t you going to kiss me?”  The princess looked at him and shook her head.  “Just because you saved me doesn’t mean I love you,” she said, moving her hand to brush away branches from a tree.  “I appreciate the gesture, surely, but not enough to marry you, or whatever you intend.”  The bard looked shocked.  “But ... but ... I’m the luckiest bard in the world!  Courting is so simple for me!”  The princess shrugged, and walked off.

The bard sat, sad.  But, he had an idea.  All he had to do was serenade the princess!  Days later, the princess sat at her room in the palace, when she heard music.  Opening the door she saw the bard.  “Look, really, I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I do not love you!”  She shut the doors, but he was determined.  Every day for the next month he sang to her, becoming more and more unhappy with her determination not to love him.

Eventually, she married a prince, and the bard was devastated.  It is said he threw himself off a cliff, singing his song of love.

section break

And there you have it.  I thought it was a bit of a downer personally, but its author says it’s just a story with a message.  And the moral of it is:

Don’t be so fucking cocky that you commit suicide at the first girl who doesn’t return your affections.

Sounds reasonable to me.

* Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you already knew I’m a Scorpio and a Horse, and I’ve dropped a few hints as to which decade of life I’m in, so at this point you should be able to work exactly when I was born ...

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tourney the First

First, the background.

I’ve talked many times about one of my favorite games: Heroscape.  I have even mentioned, in passing, the existence of National Heroscape Day.  Now, obviously this is just an excuse for us gaming geeks to play our favorite game even more competitively than usual, and we all just pulled the whole “holiday” out of our collective butts, but, still, it’s a big day for us Heroscape geeks.  I’ve also mentioned the fact that Heroscape has been discontinued, and that makes keeping things like NHSD alive a bit tougher.  Finally, I have discussed the fact that my middle child, who I sometimes refer to as the Smaller Animal, is also interested in the game, despite his tender age.  He was in the waning days of five years old, at the time of that post.  Now, of course, he’s a much wiser six-and-a-half.

Of course, all these things must converge at some point.  And so they did, a week ago yesterday, at my younger son’s first National Heroscape Day tournament.

Secondly, the preparation.

Now, I didn’t imagine for a second that my son, precocious as he may be, was actually going to be able to handle a real tournament all on his own.  This may be just a wargame where (mostly) adult geeks push around plastic toy soldiers, and my fellow members of the SoCal Heroscape League may be extremely tolerant of playing with young children (which they are, and I’m so thankful for them all), but a tourney is still a tourney, and we take it seriously.  Nobody was going to let him win because he was cute, so I had to prepare for teary losses.  Nobody was going to take it easy on him because he was playing an army that he liked as opposed to something that was truly competitive, so I had to help him shore up his ideas of what a good army consisted of.  And no one was going to let him break the rules just ’cause he was young and inexperienced, so I had to work on getting him to adhere to even those rules that he generally found annoying.

Basically, that meant practice, practice, practice.  And I didn’t have enough time to do it all myself, so I set my eldest to work on it.  He had decided he would go ahead and enter the tourney himself this year (he’s done so before, but he’s also sat out and waited for the after-tournament festivities, when other games that he likes even more can be tackled, like Munchkin, which is his current favorite), so he had to work on his army anyway.  The Larger Animal (natch) is also not prone to taking it easy on his little bro, so there were some useful lessons there as well.  This also helped the apprentice see where his army wasn’t necessarily as powerful as he might think, just from having spanked his father with it a few times (see descriptions of previous battle reports for why he tends to beat me).  He favors elementals, for some reason: I remember when those packs first arrived, and he was just fascinated by them from the get-go.  So his idea of a “good” army is one with as many elementals in it as I will let him field.  It took a while for me to even convince him he needed the elementalist (without whom the elementals aren’t really even an army; they’re more like a pack of disconnected brawlers).

But, the thing is: all elementals aren’t created equal.  Fire elementals kick some major ass, if played right.  Water elementals can be pretty devastating too, plus you really need them for their “water bomb” power, because they’re the only ranged elemental unit in the game.  Air elementals, on the other hand, are just “meh,” and earth elementals are hardly worth their cost.  And don’t even get me started on the huge ice elemental: he’s pretty to look at it, but no way is he worth it unless you know you’re going to be playing on a snow map (which you don’t, in a tournament setting, where you generally play on a different map every round).  So, what I needed to convince the Smaller Animal was that he needed to beef up the fires and waters, scale back the airs, drop the earths and the ice entirely, and bring in some protection for the elementalist, who, being the only thing holding the entire force together, naturally has a giant bullseye painted on his back.

Next we looked at the “backup army.”  Now, each group that holds Heroscape tourneys gets to do things a little differently, and our group (mainly because of my lobbying) adopted a plan last year where you could switch armies in the middle of the tourney if your primary army looked like it was getting its butt kicked a little too often.  We decided to do the same this year as well.  After some discussion, he decided to go with a “dragon army” as a backup.  Which presented another problem: another thing our group has decided on is to use a “restricted list,” which is a common thing for Heroscape groups to have.  The issue is that, as much as Heroscape units are supposed to be balanced, there are a few units which are just plain better than the rest.  These are what we sometimes call “A units” (or even “A+ units”), and, the thing is, if you bring an army composed of nothing but A units, your army is really tough to beat.  But not because you’re a better player, if you see what I mean.  So the point of a restricted list is to level the playing field a bit, and your army is not allowed to contain any more than one unit on the restricted list.  But dragons, being pretty kick-ass units (as you could well imagine) are quite often A units.  In fact, of the 5 big dragons in the game, 3 are on the restricted list, which makes an “all dragon army” a bit of a challenge, not to mention that they’re expensive (in terms of points), and you can’t afford but so many dragons in your army.  But, in the end, we picked one big dragon off the restricted list, one not, and then took one each of the baby dragons (called “wyrmlings”), which are fun little guys to play, to keep the dragon theme going.  An army like this has a fair amount of power, but it also means that, if either of the big guys goes down, you’re essentially only fighting with half an army at that point, so it can be tricky to play well.

Finally, I decided that my son and I would play as a team.  I needed to keep an eye on him, so there’s no way I was going to be able to play my own games anyway.  And this way, if his attention flagged, I could keep him on track, or, in the worst case, just take over entirely for him.

Finally, the tournament.

As you might expect with a discontinued game, turnout is getting lighter.  We only had 8 entrants in the tournament this year, and I brought 3 of them with me.  Which is somewhat disappointing, but I think it just goes to show that I need to put more effort into building some excitement (this year I was too distracted by other stuff to put much work into it).  Also, we’d decided not to allow our new community-supported customs (against my pleadings), which may or may not have contributed to the low turnout (my own theory is that keeping the options open to new figures keeps the game from growing stale).  But 8 people is enough for 4 games per round, and we decided that we could play 3 rounds and then have enough to decide the final standings.

So the 8 were: our host and the Larger Animal, both of whom have a tendency to come in lower in the standings, one guy who typically comes in second or third in tourneys, two guys I knew of but hadn’t seen play in tourneys before, two newbies (one who had only been playing for a few months and one, my eldest’s friend, who we literally taught how to play that day), and the Smaller Animal, who, with me on his team advising and possibly taking over at some point, should be at roughly the same level as I, who am basically very average.  In fact, I’ve come in just below dead center at every Heroscape tourney I’ve ever played in, except one (when I had a bad day and came in very near the bottom).  So, overall, it didn’t seem like a crowded field, and most of the historical heavy hitters were absent.  I was feeling good about our chances.

First game was against our host.  Luckily, he’s one of the most patient players with the kids, and the fact that my little one takes forever to make up his mind about what to do (even if I’m trying to advise him about best plans of action), and even takes forever just to roll dice, does require an opponent with patience.  The elementals were a good counter against vikings and protectors (a squad of winged “kyrie,” or angel-like beings).  Protectors are a great squad—one of the few squads that can both fly and shoot from range—but expensive, which means you can’t put very many of them in your army.  It was a close battle, but the kid and I prevailed.

In the second round, we had the unfortunate luck to go up against the person I considered the biggest threat.  He brought several squads worth of redcoats and a hydra.  By this time, another kid around my son’s age had come and he found he had other things to do than mess around with silly Heroscape games.  So I was all alone against a fellow who had not only beaten me before, but had beaten plenty of other people who had also beaten me.  I didn’t do too bad for all that: I managed to whittle down most of the redcoats, but by that point I had practically no elementals left, and he still had the hydra, which had never even had to enter the battle.  He won on points by a wide margin.

In the final game, after consultation with my son, we decided to switch to the dragons.  We drew one of the unknown quantitiess, and I had to play most of this game alone as well, although my son and his newfound friend joined us toward the end, mostly to roll the dice for our team.  In this game, it was more him advising me than the other way around.  This was a pretty close game too—our big red dragon was uniquely poised to wipe out most of his army, but he also had brought a hydra, and I made the mistake of letting him get a few too many licks in on our green dragon before trying to close in for the kill.  In the end, the dragons took out nearly everything but the hydra, but the hydra took out our whole team.

In the final standings, one of the newbies (not my other son’s friend) came in first, surprising us all.  The fellow who had beaten us in the second game came in second, which gave us a boost in the “strength of schedule” category.  We came in 5th, once again (for me) just south of center.  But pretty decent for my kid’s first time out, even if he did only play about half the time.

So that was the story of my younger son’s first Heroscape tourney.  He had a blast and is already planning out his armies for next year.  I hope we can keep the game alive long enough for next year to be a viable option for him.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

National Heroscape Day Fallout

Yesterday was the Smaller Animal‘s first Heroscape tournament, and I would love to tell you all about it.  In fact, I will ... but next week.  We’re all wiped out, plus behind on chores, plus I’m on call this weekend and I still have more work to do.  Next week, I promise.

It’s a good story.  Not that you should care.  But apparently you do, ’cause you keep coming back.  So stay tuned: it’ll be worth the wait.  Or, if it’s not, I’ll remind of the name of the blog, yet again.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Arcing in Chicago: the Dresden Files

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading the Dresden Files, and it’s getting really, really good.  I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly why it’s such a good series, and I think I’ve finally got it.

Now, don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of very obvious reasons why it’s very good.  First of all, it’s an example of a fairly new subgenre called ”urban fantasy,” which is a moderately cool thing in and of itself.  The standard definition includes the urban setting (natch), plus the supernatural elements, which are typically varied and often unusual.  Oh, sure: there are often your standard vampires and werewolves, but usually an urban fantasy goes far beyond those.  The central idea behind urban fantasy seems to be all the monsters that we’ve ever imagined are out there, somewhere, living amongst us in the modern world, and where better than the crowded, dirty cities, the sprawling metropolises (metropoles?) for the monsters to hide?  If you’ve ever seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and, if not, why not? it’s excellent early Whedon), you’ve probably already got the picture.

But a lot of urban fantasy is more about private investigator-type characters, which means it combines the best of horror fiction with detective stories, usually of the hard-bitten crime drama / film noir type.  Although Harry Dresden is not technically a PI, his status as Chicago’s only openly practicing wizard puts him in the position of finding lost people and items, and helping the Chicago police department on their weirder cases.  So he might as well be.  This is of course a great recipe, but let’s face it: it isn’t substantially different from any of the other urban fantasy series I’ve read.  Well, there’s only two of them, really—Greywalker and Kate Daniels—but they’re both pretty darn cool, at least in terms of concept.  In fact, strictly based on premise potential, Dresden isn’t the big dog in this pack.  And yet he leads it.

Part of that is because Jim Butcher is a stellar writer.  Now, Kat Richardson is no slouch either, although the husband-and-wife team known as Ilona Andrews is a definite step down (repeated consistency errors tell me that they need a better editor, at the very least).  But Butcher is a real cut above the rest: not only does he have a wry, witty style that endears him to the reader, and personally reminds me of first falling in love with horror, reading King and Koontz, but his pacing is insane.  You know how practically every paperback you pick up has, somewhere in amongst all the blurbs proclaiming it to be the best book ever, at least one which calls it a “roller coaster ride of thrills” or somesuch twaddle?  Yeah, well, they never are.  But the Dresden Files is the real deal: after tearing through seven books at breakneck speed, I’ve practically got whiplash.  As a would-be writer, I’ve of course analyzed this to see just how the hell he does it ... my personal pace is pretty deliberate, being acquired primarily from reading folks like King, Straub, and Barker, folks who like to take their time.  I think I’m a bit north of Rice and Jordan, certainly, but no one will ever accuse me of being fast-paced.  Butcher, on the other hand, is practically dizzying.  He does it by starting off the first few chapters—perhaps anywhere from a tenth to no more than a quarter of the book—as normal chapters, regular pacing, nothing special.  But then he picks it up, and he does it by ending every chapter on a little mini-cliffhanger.  I’ve literally taken to choosing my stopping points in the middles of his chapter, because I know if I get to the end, I won’t be able to stop.  It’s almost exhausting.  But exhilirating, too.

And of course the characters are interesting as well.  The central characters, Harry Dresden and head of Chicago “Special Investigations” Karrin Murphy, are well-drawn, with interesting backgrounds.  They have some of those plot-demanded misunderstandings towards the beginning of the series, which I find very frustrating, but those get resolved and then we can move on.  The other characters we meet—Michael Carpenter, Thomas Raith, Billy the werewolf, Warden Morgan, and many others—are likewise interesting, and only a few of them (notably Morgan) are one-note stereotypes.  But, again, that’s not particularly unusual: lots of series have very interesting characters.

No, I’ve finally figured out why this series is so damn good.  Allow me, if you will, a brief tangent.

Let’s think in terms of television series (it’s a bit easier than starting with books).  We can divide the world of television series into two basic camps: episodic, and story-arc.  An episodic series is a series of disconnected stories.  Each episode has little to do with the others.  In fact, you can watch them pretty much in any order and it wouldn’t make much difference.  Almost all sitcoms are like this.  Most of the Star Trek series are like this too, as are almost all crime dramas, and doctor shows (all the CSI’s, all the Law & Order’s, ER, House, etc etc).  In fact, once upon a time, nearly all shows were like this.

But lately there’s been a tendency to try to make the other type of shows: the story-arc shows.  These are the shows where every episode is just part of one giant story.  Now, if you have to worry about your show getting cancelled constantly, you can see why this is a dangerous road to start down.  For just two examples of the cruelty this can engender, we could mention the decent Invasion and the excellent Carnivàle.  But, then again, if your show survives the caprice of network executives, you can end up with a fantastic story.  Six Feet Under, Babylon 5, Twin Peaks ... these are all excellent story-arc shows.  Few other shows are, particularly in television history, but all soap operas are, including prime-time soaps such as Dallas.  The best way to identify a story-arc show is to miss an episode and then see if you’re completely lost.  If you are, that’s a story-arc show.  Of course, that’s a disadvantage too: especially for a long-running show, if it’s difficult for people to jump in in the middle, how are you supposed to attract new viewers?

Now, I say there are two kinds of shows, but you guys know me: I don’t actually believe in binary descriptions of anything.  This, like most everything in life, is a spectrum, and there are all kinds of attempts to blend the two or come up with something in the middle.  It could be something simple, like just trying to apply some basic continuity to an episodic show: actions should have consequences, after all, even in a fictional world.  One technique I see becoming popular these days is shows like True Blood or Dexter, where each season is a story-arc, but the seasons themselves are episodic: with perhaps the exception of the first season, you could pretty much watch the seasons out-of-order and not notice much in the way of oddities.  A slightly better technique is to let most of the shows be episodic, but weave in some story-arc episodes to tie things together.  Monk is a good example of this, as are early seasons of Fringe, before it devolved into the sort of insanity vortex that J.J. Abrams is seemingly inexorably sucked into.

Or, what you could do is make every episode like that.

The only example that springs to mind is the quite excellent Burn Notice.  The vast majority of episodes have a pretty simple basic structure:  The main plot is an episodic one, where Michael Weston helps out the victim-of-the-week with their problem-they-can’t-go-to-the-cops-with.  And then there’s the secondary plot, which advances the overall story-arc of the series, which is about Michael trying to find out who framed him.  So the subplots of the episodes are the main plot of the story-arc.  Every single episode advances the story-arc, but usually only a little, so if you were to miss one, you wouldn’t be lost.  And nearly every single episode is also a stand-alone story, so it’s fairly easy to jump in, even without knowing the whole history, and still enjoy the episode.  It’s quite brilliant, if you think about it.  Best of both worlds.

Now let’s hop back over to books.  Most book series, particularly fantasy series, are story-arc series.  They’re actually one giant book, just broken up for your convenience, so you won’t break your back carrying it around in your school backpack.  In fact, the Lord of the Rings, which is generally considered the original fantasy series, was actually written as a single book, but Tolkien’s publishers made him break it up.  Thus, the modern fantasy trilogy.  But, no matter how many volumes, most fantasy series are one giant story.  Narnia, Amber, the Wheel of Time, a Song of Ice and Fire, Harry Potter, the Dark Tower: all story-arc series.

But of course there are exceptions.  The Conan stories, for instance, are so episodic that they weren’t even published in the “right” order.  There are a few other notable fantasy series like that (the Vlad Taltos novels and I believe the Black Company books as well), and a few that are chronological but still basically episodic: the Xanth books, the MythAdventures series, and some others.  Also, the urban fantasy series that I’m familiar with tend to fall into this category as well.  For instance, at least as far as I’ve gotten in the Greywalker series, the stories are very self-contained; the Kate Daniels book has a little more of a story-arc, but it’s still moderately episodic.

Then there’s the Dresden Files.

It starts out with a very episodic feel to it.  Oh, sure, there’s some background info on Harry dropped in the first book, but it feels like just that: background info.  Filling out the backstory.  Just some interesting tidbits to keep us interested in our erstwhile hero.  Even the second book, which fills out a bit more of our understanding of Harry’s past and his family situation, still feels like just another episode in a show about a paranormal PI.

Then it starts to pick up.  More and more info about who Harry really is and what his past has been like comes out.  Then Harry starts to learn stuff about his past that even he didn’t know.  As I say, I’m only on book 8, and there are 14 (so far!), so for all I know it gets even better as you get even deeper in.  And it seems like Butcher intends to keep on going ... one of the advantages of an episodic series is that you can keep writing it forever, if you like.  Of course, you may not like, and then it can be difficult to stop, as luminaries such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have discovered.  But the Dresden Files feels to me like it has enough of a story-arc basis that there will probably be a natural end somewhere down the line.

I’m looking forward to seeing where this one is going.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Things We Lose in the Timestream

Well, as it turns out, I’m swamped with doing stuff this weekend, so there’s no blog post for you.  Not that you should care anyway, of course.

You know, it occurs to me that occasionally I come along and tell you I’m busy with stuff, but I never actually tell you what the stuff is.  In retrospect, this seems unfair.  You come along (despite repeated warnings to the contrary, even), expecting to see some blather you can kill some time with, and here I am telling you there’s nothing to be read and not even bothering to say why.  Well, fear not, gentle reader: today I shall regale you fully with tales of my goings-on.  And this shall, hopefully, convince you never to wonder again.

So, firstly: often people mention what they’re reading, or listening to, and all that sort of thing.  Right now I am currently working on book 7 of the Dresden Files, and determined to push all the way through to the end.  It’s just getting really good (it was good before, but now it’s really good, if you follow me).  Musically, I recently picked up a digital copy of Extractions by Dif Juz, which is one of the 4AD bands that I somehow missed all this time.  I knew Richie Thomas’ fine saxophone work from Victorialand, of course, but I’d never heard this album before, and it’s quite good.  You should give it a listen if you’re into dream or ambient or that sort of thing.  Visually, I just picked up my Blu-ray of The Avengers, which of course I had seen in the theater, but it was just as good the second time around.  That Joss Whedon really knows what he’s doing behind a camera; I hope he does more of the superhero movies.

Now, of course, all of that is not really keeping me from writing.  There must be other stuff going on around here ...

Well, I do still have a few hours to put in for $work.  I would tell you a bit about my work, but I’ve had to sign so many things at this point saying that I will not ever “disparage” the company that I feel a bit like Stephen Colbert talking about Islam: my company is a great and true company and Blessings and Peace be upon my corporate overlords.  Don’t point, even.  You’ve seen enough of that one.

So, tomorrow I have to do a presentation for my new co-workers (of which there are quite a few), plus I have a meeting about my current project, which I just started, and I’d really like to learn a bit more about it before I have to start explaining it to other people.  But mainly I want to prepare a bit more for the presentation.  I could just wing it, and I’d probably do fairly well, but the more prepared I am, the better I’ll do (most likely), and one does want to make a good impression on people that you’ve just hired.

Let’s see ... what else ... well, there are still some weekend chores left, despite the fact that I generally try to knock those out before Saturday night, or else I find I have no time to myself.  I’ve still got to go to the grocery store, and direct my older children to clean the den so that you can actually walk in there again.  (The youngest is excused from such things, although I’m sure she’d like the floor to be cleared as well, as right now there are a lot of things blocking her from getting to the catfood, which just pisses her off.  Nothing feels quite the same rolling around inside your mouth as a big ol’ handful of catfood.)

In hobby news, the things which are supposed to be my relaxation from other parts of my life occasionally have the power to provide their own sources of stress.  For instance, in my role as a CPAN author, right now I’m about three issues behind in taking care of some issues for the Method::Signatures module I work on, and one of them is for a guy who’s fairly well-known in the Perl world (and, even if you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, the fact that the guy has his own Wikipedia page should give you a clue).  And, in my work to keep my favorite game going, we’ve been working hard to address a number of issues with one of our recent releases.

So, there’s lots to do, and (as always), little time to get it all done.  It seems that, the older I get, the less likely I am to have one big excuse for not doing what I should.  I mean, remember, back in college, when the reason you didn’t finish your essay for class was because of a party (or the resulting hangover), or one of your friends broke up with their boyfriend or girlfriend and you were up all night with them, or you were helping someone move?  But nowadays it’s never one big thing; it’s a million little things, that peck away at your time jot by jot, frittering away your ability to focus in dribs and drabs.  It’s death by a thousand cuts.  But such is the way of life.  The older you get, the more you take on, I suppose, and the more people you meet, the more that end up depending you for one thing or another, in large ways or in small.

Which is all a very roundabout way of saying to you, my oh so persistent blog connoisseur: no cookie for you!  Not this week, in any event.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Perl blog post #10

This week I’ve been catching up on a lot of Perl & CPAN stuff that I’ve been neglecting because of work.  The resulting work was very interesting, and inspired a technical post on my other blog.  Hop on over if you’re a Perl geek.  If not, you’ll just have to wait until next week for something interesting to come around.

If you’re lucky.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

I'm too old for this shit ...

I believe in self-reflection and self-analysis.  (Of course, I also believe that such things are necessarily flawed, but perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post.)  I think it’s important to know what your faults are, what your limitations are.  Of course, I think that sometimes people want to identify their faults so they can correct them.  I have a slightly different approach:  If I can’t identify all my faults, I’m a blind moron, bumbling through life not even knowing the damage I’m doing.  Contrariwise, if I can identify all my faults, and if I could somehow correct them all, then I would be perfect.  I know that I cannot ever be perfect.  Therefore, either I’m never going to be able to see all my faults, or I’m going to be able to see them all but never fix them all.  I choose the latter.

That is, there are some faults that I have that I’ve just learned to live with.  They’re bad, sure, but they’re not so bad, and, if one has to have faults anyway (and, lacking perfection, one does), you may as well have some that aren’t so bad, right?  For instance, I’m too loud.  I have a naturally loud voice, and it carries, and the more excited I get about a topic, the louder I get.  Especially in an office environment, I’ve been asked many times throughout my life to keep it down.  Another problem I have is that I get pissed off at little things.  Not things that people do, so much: more like inanimate objects.  Like if I drop a cup and spill water all over the place, I am pissed at that cup.  This is moronic.  I know this.  But I still do it, and mostly I can live with that.

Now here’s the fault that I wanted to talk about today: I try to be too helpful.  Yeah, yeah, I know that sounds like one of those bullshit “flaws” that you dredge up during an interview.  (“Mr. Jones, what would you say is your biggest failing as an employee?”  “Well, sir, I’ve often been told that I just work too gosh-darned hard.”)  But note that I’m not claiming that I actually am too helpful, only that I try to be.  And, really, it isn’t correct to say that I try to be to helpful ... the truth is that I try too hard to be helpful, which is subtly different.

If you ask me a question, I want to give you the right answer.  If I can’t give you an answer, I feel bad.  Like, unreasonably bad.  Much worse than I would if I were to screw you out of a parking spot—worse even than if I were to screw you out of a job (unless perhaps I knew you personally).  That’s messed up.  But that’s the way I am.  If I give you an answer and it later turns out I was wrong, that’s even worse: then I feel hideously awful.  I have friends that think I have a burning need to be right.  I don’t think that’s true.  My father, for instance, has a burning need to be right.  He doesn’t ever admit that he was wrong.  I, on the other hand, have absolutely no problem admitting I was wrong: I just feel really crappy about it, if I think that someone was misled somehow (and that’s nearly always true, unless you were talking to yourself or something).  It’s sort of like a savior complex, but on a smaller scale.  I don’t feel the need to save people, only help them out a bit.

And, at first blush, this doesn’t seem so bad.  So I go out of my way to help people; what’s wrong with that?  Someone with a savior complex often has the problem of taking care of others so much that they forget to take care of themselves, but I don’t have that issue.  So where are the downsides, and how is this a fault?  Well, there are two main areas that I’ve identified, one smaller, and one larger.

The smaller issue is that I’m so constantly afraid of giving people the wrong information that I often over-qualify all my statements.  Now, I’ve talked before about my fear of absolute statements.  So, in one sense, this is just another facet of that.  But it goes further, I think: if I qualify everything I say to a large enough extent, I can never be giving you misleading information, right?  Many of my friends think I’m wishy-washy.  I don’t think that about myself, but I certainly understand why they do, and this is at the heart of it.

But here’s the bigger problem.  When I think someone is wrong, I have a desperate desire to “help” them by correcting their misconceptions.  Which can be okay, sometimes, if the person is receptive to that sort of thing, but often people aren’t.  And that just makes me try harder.  Which is code for “I’m a jerk about it.”  And, of course, it’s one thing if it’s a fact we’re discussing.  If I can tell you that you’re wrong, and we can look it up on Wikipedia or somesuch, then the question will be settled.  You may not appreciate my correcting you (especially if I did it in public), but at least there’s no more arguing about it.

But suppose it’s more of a matter of opinion.  Now, I’m okay if you have your own opinion about something.  If you have an intelligent, informed opinion, and I just happen to disagree with you, then fine.  I don’t have a need to “correct” you then, because you’re not really wrong.  But, let’s face it: most poeple’s opinions are not intelligent, informed opinions, and that includes mine.  I try (really!) to have the good grace to back down when it’s obvious that you know more about something than I do, but I find that I’m in a minority there, and sometimes I can’t resist either.

Here’s the situation that brought this to the forefront of my mind and inspired this post:  Just two days ago, I was in a meeting with several other technogeeks that I work with.  There were five of us, and were talking about architectural decisions.  For some reason, the topic of TDD came up.  Now, I’ve actually talked about this exact situation before, and I even specifically mentioned TDD in that post.  I also mentioned my good friend and co-worker, and he happened to be in that meeting.  Perhaps I didn’t mention it, but he’s also my boss (everyone in the room’s boss, for that matter).  We don’t usually treat him any differently for all that, but it’s a fact that should not be ignored.

So, suddenly we find ourselves debating the merits of TDD (again).  What those merits are is not important to the story.  Suffice it to say that my friend, and one other co-worker, took the con side, and the remaining three of us took the pro side.  And the discussion got heated.  I found myself geting more and more frustrated as I tried to “help” them understand why TDD was so cool.

On the one hand, it made perfect sense that it should upset me so much.  Neither of the fellows on the con side had ever actually tried TDD.  And it was obvious from the statements they made that they didn’t have a very thorough understanding of it.  Them saying it was a bad technique was basically the same as my six-year-old claiming that he’s never tried a food but he’s sure he doesn’t like it.  It’s just silly, and therefore somewhat maddening.

But, on the other hand, I have to be careful, because I know how I get, because of my fault.  Here are people making a mistake: they’re espousing an opinion based on incomplete information and zero experience.  And, trust me: even if your opinion happens to be accidentally right, that’s still a mistake.  So, I see people making a mistake and I want to help them.  And I know that’s going to blind me to common sense.  (Well, I know it now ... seeing that at the time was pretty much a lost cause.)

And, here’s the thing: the other two people on the pro side didn’t get into the argument.  Why not?  Is it because they were scared to get into it with the guy who’s technically their boss?  No, not at all: we’ve all had technical discussions where we’ve been on the other side from our boss, and we don’t back down when we think it’s important.  So maybe they didn’t think it was important, then?  Maybe.  But I think I see a better explanation.

When your own kid tells you he’s not eating the fish because he doesn’t like it, even though you know perfectly well he’s never tried it before, you can get into it with him.  As the parent, it’s your job to teach your children to try new things, not to be close-minded.  If you don’t, who will?  Because, when it’s someone else’s kid telling you he’s not eating the fish, you just nod and go “okay, sure, kid, whatever you say.”  Because, and here’s the crux of the matter: why the hell do you care?

These other two guys are both younger than me, but they’re apparently much smarter.  The fact that our two colleagues are radically misinformed about TDD and think it’s bad even though they don’t understand it isn’t hurting them one whit.  It’s not stopping them from using TDD: the boss has said he doesn’t believe in it, but he certainly hasn’t banned it or anything.  In fact, he’s been supportive of other people using it.  So why bother to get into it?  Let the unbelievers unbelieve, if that’s their thing.

At the end of the day, who really gives a fuck?

Apparently I do.  Apparently I have this burning desire to convert all the non-believers and help them see the light.  And here’s where we fetch up against today’s blog post title: I just don’t have energy for that shit any more.  I’m looking at myself doing it and thinking, “why oh why am I even bothering?”  It’s not like these guys are thanking me for my “help.”  No, they’re just irked at my stubborn insistence.  And who can blame them?  ‘Cause, as I mentioned above, the longer this goes on, the more of a jerk I am about it.  So, here I am, pissing off people that I care about, over something that really doesn’t make that much difference in my life, just so I can say to myself afterwards that I corrected a misperception.  Seriously: what the hell am I doing?

I really am too old for this shit.  I need to learn to let go.  Today, when I logged into my work computer, it presented a pithy saying to me, as it always does.  I mentioned previously that I’ve customized these quotes, so mostly they’re familiar, but every once in a while it surprises me and hits with something I’ve forgotten, or something that’s just eerily appropriate.  Today it was both.

The aim of an argument or discussion should be progress, not victory.

    — Joseph Joubert

Yeah, good advice.  I think I’d forgotten it, somehow.  I need to try to remember that, next time I have this burning desire to “fix” somebody else’s “wrong” notions.  I’m going about it all wrong, I think.  And my family has a history of high blood pressure, so I need to chill the fuck out.

Ommmmmmmm ...