Thursday, May 23, 2013

Gamechef 2013

It's a work in progress - but here is my 2013 gamechef entry so far.

The prompts are pictures this year, and here are the ones I used and how I interpreted them:

I took the person on the double-sided arrow as a ghost; someone in limbo. Alternately, as a representation of people precariously poised between success and failure, good and evil.

I took the skull with a snowflake embedded in its cranium fairly literally, to evoke winter, stasis, and death.

I took the worm exploding out of the apple to represent summer, corruption, and latent sins bearing fruit.

I structured the game and story around these ideas. I haven't really had an opportunity to playtest it, so we'll see if it flies. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

In Defense of Writing Like a Maniac

So I started NaNoWriMoing seriously last year and I feel as though some defense of the practice is in order, given the jibes it gets from serious writerly circles for producing so much low-quality work. Though really, does it need any defense except that it's fun and productive? I honestly don't understand why writing anything, even drek, with your free time should be looked down on. It seems like a pretty respectable hobby to me. But I do think some defense of Wrimoing as a valuable tool for aspiring 'serious writers' is worthwhile.

I had half-heartedly participated a few times before I actually took it seriously last year. My word count was always laughably low and I usually got distracted halfway through. I didn't think you could write anything of decent quality in such a short period of time and honestly that level of volume terrified me. At least, without descending into half-baked drivel.

As a novice writer, if that's the correct term, my major problems were with length and finishing pieces. You can always improve your writing, of course, but there comes a time when it is obvious that your competence in one area has reached its maximum until you deal with your other inadequacies. I don't remember slowly building up my ability to write reasonably sized, complete short stories; I remember a series of startling breakthroughs. College got me past the 15 page mark - I minored in creative writing and simply having to turn in that first big assignment was enough to get me over the production hump. Having someone demand a 15 page, finished story from me if I wanted to pass the class turned out to be what I needed to get over my finicky production anxiety.

From there, I worked my way up to the 30 page mark through sheer enthusiasm and effort. Now that I had seen it could be done, I could go big! I could write a long short story. Of course, the classes also helped me polish up my work, once it had forced me to produce something to polish. It seems obvious, but it's actually quite hard to internalize that you can't make something perfect until you've started making it period.

The subsequent improvements to both my work and work process eventually made me feel like I had permission to have some professional aspirations. I finally felt like it was worthwhile to suit up and send out submissions to journals - and of course I finally had something to submit. Trying to get published is a brutal process composed largely of form rejection letters even for people much more established than I am, but even so three or four of my (extremely) short stories have made it out into the world where other people might read them. I'm still trying to chase down publication in a more widely read journal, possibly even of a story longer than a thousand words, but as far as I can tell there are two keys to getting published. One is persistence and the other is production. Having read the blogs of other writers who are further along in their careers - some of whom were generous enough to make their submission and acceptance rates public - it became quite clear to me that they were writing at an incredible volume that far outpaced mine, without sacrificing quality.

For me, NaNoWriMo has served the same function for the 100 page mark that the creative writing minor did for the 15 page one. And you know what? Those behemoth stories are easily some of my best writing, definitely higher in quality than the things I've actually had published. I also have had much more fun writing them. Now, it's much harder to get your book published as a newcomer than it is to get your short story out there. I'm not even thinking about dipping a toe into sending query letters out on these (I'm also not totally done with my pet project). But now I have confidence and facility with volume. I can crank out 50,000 words in four weeks and even if half of them are crap, I'll still have something I can use. Those 50K words don't have to all be part of one magnum opus - you can write an entire short story collection in that time instead. If your goal is to be a published, widely read author, that rate of production is probably necessary.

It's true that writing at that pace can lower the quality of your work. However, writing constantly raises your lowest bar. You get to a point where you improve through sheer bloody-mindedness. The distance between your best and your worst work closes and then you can narrow it further through ruthless editing. After there's something there to critique.

Make something, then start judging it.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


So, this blog has been pretty defunct lately, and I don't think it's really been very coherent as a 'place to stuff intellectual resources or sometimes my rpgs!'. I officially give up internet; I think I'm going to keep a personal blog instead. I've been wanting to have rants about Society and Queer Things and all that. However, I'd like to have some semblance of anonymity while doing so and this blog not going to have that - so I'm moving things over to a new account. I might use this blog sporadically for fiction and game writing purposes, but for the moment not so much.

If you're interested in reading the new blog, post a comment or email me and I'll give you the link. Cheers!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Notes From the Job Hunt

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming (hah, pun! Second programming post delayed. No?) to bring you some of the results of my now 7 month long job search. Some of it will be philosophizing about it, some kvetching, and some, true to the intent if not always the practice of this blog, will be useful tidbits I wish someone had told me in a consolidated place sooner. In particular, this post is written for all my other friends in exactly the same boat as me. I'm not employed yet, so clearly I'm not a pro, but I've also been doing this for a while and have picked up some tips that cut out a lot of wasted time (and I've had my share of interviews in the last week, which makes me think I’ve been doing something right).

You don't need me to tell you that the job market is terrible, or that this is not the situation our previous lives led us to expect when we hit the workforce. I'm not going to go on about it at length, just acknowledge that it's the way things are and the world we find ourselves dealing with. Of the recent graduates of my very highly regarded, very expensive college, I know very few who are employed at the moment, slightly more who managed to hit grad school without a pause. But the vast majority of us are struggling to get a job with little on our resumes or in our skill sets—usually by now not as a passion but as a necessity. 

I will say this, briefly, before I get to the useful stuff: there are some (few) good things that have come from these grim economic days. Contrary to what I expected, the world has not gotten more cutthroat as jobs get fewer and resources scarcer. There has never been a better time to pull together as a community; the people I know forward each other promising job opportunities almost as soon as they see them, help each other edit their resumes, recommend and refer their friends and colleagues, lend each other their time and resources when necessary. Rather than every man for himself, it has become clear that it's almost impossible to get by without a close-knit community behind you. In a more general sense, from what I can tell it's the nonprofits that are hiring, more than financial companies, law firms, or nearly anything else. (Well, and anything science/tech of course. You lot are never in want of employment.) There has never been a better time to be nice, do good, and make friends with any and everyone you can. That isn't to say you should wheel and deal--anyone who knows me knows I'm not much good at faking things I don't feel and that I hate schmoozing. But you'll be better served if your first urge is to help others, make friends, and be decent.

So how does one go about finding these 'job' things when one didn't major in a subject with a clear career path laid out before it? 

1. First off, the basics. You should have a professional email address and resume--and if you like you can have a professional-ready twitter, facebook, and blog too.  This means using some variation on your name for all identifiers (no references to your favorite movie, D&D character, or leet speak), and if you’re using a twitter, facebook, or blog, posting absolutely nothing you wouldn’t say to an employer’s face.

Now, there are many ways to do a resume. Certainly pretty much everyone agrees that if you haven't won the Fields medal yet and you're under 30, your resume should fit onto one page. In general, people also agree that you should list your complete and most professionally-presented contact information at the top, your college degree and GPA/honors below that, and your relevant previous work experiences with some explanation thereafter. At this link I have posted a template resume with general instructions on how to complete it. It is modeled off of my own, which is in turn the result of a consultation by Chris Furuya of Furyous Consulting many moons ago. She helps people get jobs actually for a living herself, and I recommend reading her advice.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dinosaur Science 2011 or "That's too improbable"

For the past week I was in Wyoming near the Big Horn Mountains, digging up dinosaurs with my paleontology class as the final event in my U of C career. The group of us all met up outside the fossil lab at 3:45 in the morning and took cabs to the airport. A series of little jumps later, and we were in Billings, Montana picking up some rental vans and driving off into the great unknown (literally, as we didn't know our exact dig site until we got our field guides that morning; fossil hounds are apparently a concern and will come and steal bones if your site gets around too much).

First of all, whatever else I or anyone might have said about Montana/Wyoming, they're beautiful states. I mean, really. All the hills have eroded just enough that rock strata peek out from beneath sage bushes and scrub trees, making the landscape weirdly patterned and colorful. A lot of rock walls along the roads there are labelled with the formation (Chugwater, Sundance, etc) and the approximate age of that formation, which was awesome. On our way in we actually got to stop and touch some granite rocks that were formed 3.2 billion years ago; almost certainly the oldest thing I will ever poke.

We also passed the formation above, called The Fallen City. I think you can see why; it's really incredible to behold. Like a lot of the things we saw, I would have loved to be able to hike over and really get up close, but it was miles and miles away, with no roads or trails to it, and we had dinosaurs to go dig up. We did get to stop a lot along the way for mini lectures on the geology of various areas, and I learned that my camera apparently has GPS-related powers and knew where we were.

Eventually we made it to our stated goal of Shell, Wyoming, which is a tiny, tiny town sort of in the northernmost middle of the state. Our home base was a restaurant-convenience/souvenir store called Dirty Annie's, after the sheep-herding woman who built the place. She is memorialized by a truly creepy mannequin in a covered wagon out front.

The day after that, we headed out into the wilderness proper to set up our camp. When it rains, the camp becomes completely inaccessible due to infinity mud. As it was, we just had to get out occasionally so as not to sink the car. There were two drivers, the inimitable Paul Sereno of legend, and our car's driver Erin. Erin is an artist/paleontologist who builds models of dinosaurs for Sereno and for the Field Museum and who played Scandinavian death metal for most of the rides. She also does longsword fighting. In short, badasses. We weren't lacking them.

Our first task, upon reaching our campsite, was to remove the enormous amounts of cow shit that had been deposited there by our neighbors, a herd of cows. Now cows, they don't moo anything like cows are theoretically supposed to. There is no neat 'mooing' sound. There's sort of an eldritch, tortured groan that I guess you could convince yourself sounded like 'moo' if you really wanted to. But anyway. After that, we finally got to open up the site.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Games, As They Should Be...

and all too often aren't.

So I, like everyone else, spend a lot of time playing flash games/video games/avoiding my homework in a deeply unproductive manner. However, I find myself easily bored by most time-waster games and generally unimpressed by what game designers have done with a truly fascinating medium.

Therefore, this week in lists I bring you games that are actually interesting, aesthetically motivated, and worth playing. As usual, I've tried to give my overwhelming attention to things that are a) free b) obscure, as these are probably the two most useful kinds of things I can bring to other people's attention. Also I'm avoiding things that seem obvious--yes, I love the Zelda franchise passionately, but I'm pretty sure everyone knows that they're good already.

Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup has to head this list, just because of the amount of my life I've spent playing it. It's a rougelike (if you hate links, the most important things you need to know are that there's permanent death and randomly generated settings that allow for tons of replayability) that you can download and play for free. It's, unsurprisingly, a dungeon crawl and it is a mystery to me and my friends why it's so much more engaging to us than the hundreds of other dungeon crawls out there.

Certainly the gameplay's good, but it's hardly unique. It has a tileset that makes it feel, for me, much more real than many other rougelikes in which your protagonist is often represented by an '@' symbol (I'm looking at you, Nethack). But it won't be winning any graphics competitions. I think one of my friends said it best when he described it as having "rough edges where the story was ripped out." You wake up in the dungeon, knowing nothing but that you want the Orb of Zot at the bottom. Though you-the-player don't really care much about it, you have to imagine that your character cares quite deeply and has a reason for being there. The flavor text, from the lines of a Scottish ballad that show up for all crappy, dime-a-dozen daggers [He drew his dagger, that was sae sharp/That was sae sharp and meet/And drave into the nut-browne bride/That fell deid at his feit] to the unique descriptions of each enemy, really imply that the world is full and that there's a story you're ignoring like the cold, uncaring player that you are.

It shares some of the qualities that make Nethack much-beloved, such as the presence of Nikola Tesla, Psyche, & co, and the ability to combine objects in innovative ways, but it tries to be self-consciously witty to a much lesser extent. Personally, that suits me. I like being able to take things seriously, often more so than they deserve. That said, Nethack is the only rougelike I know that is available on the iPhone, and it's free, so props to it for that. The controls are a bit clunky, but not too hard to get the hang of. And if you're an addicted enough crawler to download a rougelike to your phone, you'll play anyway. 

I've never beaten the game--and I cracked and started using perma-saves (so, even though death is permanent in Dungeon Crawl, you can make a backup save folder and cheat). It's very hard, but really winning isn't where the joy comes in. The dungeon randomly reshuffles levels and monsters every time, so nothing stays the same from game to game. This makes is eminently replayable and if they ever run out of unique enemies then I haven't seen it. You can play as a bunch of different races and classes, each with their own advantages, drawbacks, and unique abilities, and you can worship a number of bizarre deities (don't choose Xom, trust me). There's a very well-maintained and thorough wiki for Dungeon Crawl that can explain the easiest and hardest characters in detail, and probably answer any questions that come up while playing.

Every Day The Same Dream is a lovely, if somewhat depressing, game. Where Dungeon Crawl is nigh-infinite, EDTSD is very short. Most things I could tell you about the game--besides the fact that it has a great score, attractive-but-simple graphics, and a philosophical angle--would ruin it. It's a small world, the goal of which is to exhaust its opportunities. At least if you insist on thinking of games as having goals, which is inadvisable. 

In The Company of Myself is another drifting, philosophical game with a good soundtrack, but unlike EDTSD there is more of a sense of it being a traditional game. It runs along the fairly basic model of 'You are a little being with the ability to walk and jump. There are obstacles between you and a door at the other end of the screen. Think around them.' However, it has an interesting gameplay innovation, in which you can do a set of actions, press spacebar, and then a small clone of you will start doing what you just did ad infinitum. However, you can interact with these clones and they are necessary to completing the game. All this is coupled with the meditations of your character on his loneliness and isolation, which are very sweet and sad, and make the process of getting through doors much more weighted and unsettling. 

Loved  is a disturbing game. You play as a tiny little creature in a world full of the usual spikes and obstacles to climb. You're being guided, however, by an eerie narrator who gives you instructions. You can follow them or ignore them (and there are times you'd want to do both), but that changes what happens to you at the end and the world around you. Let's just say it doesn't appreciate it when you disobey. It's very sad, creepy, and cute--one of the better portrayals of a fucked-up relationship that I've seen.

Facade is the most awkward game ever. It's first-person, you play as your own gender and name (unless you choose not to), and you are going to visit a couple that you're old friends with. Their marriage is in a disastrous state and you proceed to steer your character through a painfully uncomfortable dinner party with them. What you do influences both how they react to each other and to you--I'm told you can, if you make the right decisions, help them mend their relationship. I just tend to get thrown out. 

Toribash, on a totally different note, is amusing. It's free, like all of the above, and downloadable. It essentially takes an arcade fighting game and makes it a puzzle game instead. You get two very cleanly animated dolls (sort of like artists' wooden models) and can click on their individual muscles to get them to expand, contract, raise, lower, twist, etc. You see a phantom image of what your adjustments will make you doll do once they start moving and can make corrections. You hit spacebar to let them move little by little, and can continue to adjust in your efforts to hit the other doll. Whoever hits the ground first loses. You can play against an unmoving dummy to get a feel for it (it takes some practice) and then go online and fight other people. You can also save particularly awesome or hilarious fights to watch the replay. 

I can sum up in one sentence why you should play Second Person Shooter Zato, even though the graphics are unprepossessing lego-things and there's no plot or anything. It's a second person shooter. There are as many split-screens as there are enemies and you look through the enemies' eyes as your shooter blows them away. I'm so glad someone actually went there. 

Now we're going to get into horror, which is becoming a mini-crusade of mine because it's so pathetically represented most of the time. 

It is with some trepidation that I make this next recommendation, but it has to be done.  Hotel 626 and Asylum 626 are both short horror games put out by Doritos. Because somehow.....bloody, terrible death=tasty chips? I don't know. However, both of these games do some really innovative stuff with your computer and deserve to be longer, advertisement-free games. In my opinion, Asylum is the better game, although Hotel is, strictly speaking, much more of a traditional game. It's a lot easier to actually survive Hotel, for one thing, and you just plain old have more tasks to do, but it's more frustrating and less ambiently creepy.

So, you can only access both games from 6 pm until 6 am, in order to force you to play in the dark. Technically. However, I'm impatient and I cheated and set my computer clock to Moscow time and played in the middle of the day my first go around. Don't do that--I'm sure the dark makes it better. And it's duly eerie to try to log on and be told it's closed. Both games incorporate, with your permission only, your webcam and mike, and can even incorporate your phone number and facebook page if you let them. This lets your face and reactions be a part of the game, reflected in mirrors for instance, and in Hotel it cruelly forces you  to try and actually sing on-key in order to lull a demon-child to sleep. The games use live action for their cut scenes, and the production values are really high. They force you to make some disturbing choices, particularly Asylum, and do the traditional visceral scare quite effectively. The only obnoxious thing is the obtrusion of the Doritos logo into the world of the game, which really only happens once. And in Asylum, there's a secret level that you can unlock either by buying their stupid chips or by spending a moment googling the correct image and printing it--you'll know what to do when you see it. 

On the theme of horror, I'm going to talk about Silent Hill. For a long time. Particularly The Room (4). But I'll add that later, because I'm tired.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Getting to Know Your City (With a bias towards America, because you write what you know. Ususally.)

In the spirit of my major--urban history, ish?--this is a guide to getting to know the city you're in beyond the surface level of getting over misplacing North and forgetting where you park the car.

It's written with an eye to people who recently moved to a new place (and with the inevitable academic slant), but you'd be surprised how much you don't know about they city you've lived in for years. Often familiarity makes everything seem muddy and somehow inevitable--of course it's like this, it's always been that way. A closer look at the history of a neighborhood, the life of a subculture within the city, or the endless political catfight that keeps the city afloat will probably surprise you no matter how long you've lived there--and possibly give you a grip on the issues in time for the next election.

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1. Look as a map of the city, on google maps. Play with the street view. Find a public transit map. Know that while it will be very accurate, digital mapping has its weaknesses and even the all-mighty google will fail to show you everything perfectly. Also google the city's skyline, and look at the different images people have of the city. What do they think it's like? What's the general aesthetic, or the cliche?

2. Take a walk. A long one, through several blocks. Look at the buildings there and think about how they got to be that way--what style of architecture it is, what it tells you about the historical development of that neighborhood, whether it's residential or retail and why, what economic strata it's in, how long it's looked this way. Read the fliers posted on walls and streetlights and see what people in the area care about. Look at the graffiti.

3. When you're done, go look up the local neighborhood historical society, if there is one, and find out if you were right. Which houses were made in the 19th century? When did the park get put in? How long has the area been part of the city?

4. Scope out the coffee shops in your neighborhood. Notice what kind of people eat at which restaurants. Go to that place you never eat at and try and figure out why you haven't been before.

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5. See the cliches, all of them, because there's a reason tourists do that, and actually read the historical displays next to them.

6. If this city is west of the first thirteen colonies, look up its plat map online (For example, Cook County i.e. Chicago). You might try and find a secondary source that explains the plat map too--the interesting part is in understanding the quirks of how the city was first laid out.

Westward expansion in the U.S. was highly regimented, contrary to popular belief. Land was divided up in grid patterns, often with the same exact rectangle set aside for the same purpose in many different cities. One of the earlier patterns in Ohio, for instance, always had the same numbered lot earmarked as a school. Land was sold in plats to private owners, who often later subdivided them for further profit. A lot about how the city later came to be shaped was dictated by these plat maps and by how their first owners decided to develop them.

Also, the insanity of many cities' street layouts can be explained by the fact that landowners could put in streets however they wanted--they didn't have to hook them up to everyone else's. It also helped that the grids were often laid down with scant regard for actual local topography, creating awkward patches and irregular corners where elevation, marsh, rivers, or other geographical features interfered.
Now, most eastern cities were just laid out ad hoc according to the needs of the colonists, but there are sometimes sites like Bostonography or archives of various universities that will still contain maps of all kinds of eastern cities in various stages and through various lenses throughout their history.

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7. Pick a restaurant that serves a regional cuisine you rarely eat, and go to that neighborhood to eat it. For example, Chinatown, Divan, Little Italy, Germantown, whatever. Chicago is spoiled in this regard, but most cities have small ethnic enclaves like this--for instance the Ethiopian restaurants and stores in Washington D.C. Order something you don't recognize, or ask the waiter for a recommendation. Bonus points if you're entirely unsure how to eat it.

8. Look up the city government web page, and scan the constitution. Strong city council or strong mayor? Note that often the constitution's intent doesn't work out--in theory Chicago has a strong council and a weak mayor. In practice? Well.....yeah.

(Fun Chicago exercise--check the last names on political figures of the last century from ward captain up through state senator and see how many of the last names are the same. I have a haunting feeling this will be interesting for many other cities as well.)

8. Read the local paper. Where does the power lie politically, in the state legislature or the city government? The governor? Attorney general? A mayor or the majority party's leader? What issues is the city concerned about? Space? Garbage disposal? Crime? You won't get this from the government web page (well, maybe you will, but they can be hard to squeeze real meaning from if you don't already know a good bit about the city), but you will get this from newspapers, op eds, forums, and the comments section on articles. The Politics section of The Commercial Appeal is a good example for the city of Memphis. Like all papers, it has a slant, but the articles and comments beneath them still give a good snapshot of the city officials and citizens' relationship.

The example I gave was of a particularly mainstream local paper, but specialty papers--say for entertainment-only, or LGBTQ papers, or radical political papers--also have a lot to say, with more detail if less breadth.

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9. If there's a public transit system, pick a bus or train line and ride it from one end to another. If not, go for a long drive to nowhere in particular.

10. The census makes maps nowadays. The 2010 data is coming on a rolling basis, so more and more states are going to appear. In the meantime, these are based on samples from 2005-9. Or there's quick facts if you're not the visual type. Old census data can be interesting too, for the contrast it makes with the present (though I recognize people not inherently fascinated by history and demographic shifts might not want to wade through too much data. Still, having a quick glance can be enlightening if you want to know how the city's changed).

11. Your city, chances are, has a restaurant week, during which the swankiest places to eat in the city offer prix-fixe three course meals, that would normally cost a hundred dollars or more, for somewhere between twenty and thirty-five dollars. You might want to get a reservation in advance, but it will be well worth it. Most cities have a website or somewhere participating restaurants are listed, and it will give you a good idea of what food culture is like in the city. It will also be delicious without impoverishing you.

12. Go to museums. Not just the big natural history/art museum, though you should go to those too. Go to the Textile Museum, or the Audubon Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, or the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago (I've never been to the latter, it's new, but only good can come of it). Little out-of-the-way places like that usually are dedicated to a local luminary, or manufacturing product, or are just about a subject that a small group of people in the area really cared about.

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13. Go drawing/painting/photographing in an area of the city. Don't let lack of artistic inclination stop you--it'll give you a new way of looking at where you are. While you're at it, look at other people's paintings/drawings/photos of the city. What does everyone's eyes seem drawn to?

14. While you're in an artsy mode, find the art galleries. Most cities have a district spotted with small, local art galleries. What's the scene like where you are? Bookstores are also often good for poetry readings, local authors giving talks, that kind of thing. Any universities/colleges nearby will also be full of odd little events, though inevitably they will be somewhat less local in character.