Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

In the introduction of his latest book (which can also be found on Goodreads), Patrick Rothfuss notes that The Slow Regard of Silent Things is "a bit of a strange story". He's right.

Most of the time authors are trying to write an entertaining story, and so they choose their words to pull the reader into the story and keep them there. But sometimes the subject an author wants to relate doesn't fit the traditional form of a story. Somehow the elements such as dialogue, three act structure, and character development don't quite fit the spirit of the work. Their intrusion onto the page would pull the reader out of the fiction just as abruptly as a poorly chosen word.

If Pat had managed to write this in the usual style, it would have lessened the story. The character and her surroundings, her history and thoughts, would have lost their depth. Instead he chose to use the tools of poetry. The pages are sprinkled with alliteration and wordplay. Meanings are bent to fit with tone and theme. Proper structure is intentionally broken or ignored for the sake of how it will feel when read.

Pat has said that the book "doesn't do a lot of the things a classic story is supposed to do." He's right. But if I sit quietly I can hear a faint echo of dialogue. I think, maybe, that I can see a shadow of structure in the darkness. I could be wrong, but there may even be a hint of character development. Some stories invite the reader to consider what might be hidden under the surface. With its layers of mysteries and its conventions discarded, this story practically compels it.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things probably isn't the right kind of book for every reader, but I found it to be perfectly suited to its setting and main character: strange and beautiful.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Very Brief Rant on User Interface Design

Back in the olden days of the previous century, I learned the phrase "Angry Fruit Salad".  It was usually used to describe the user interface for PC programs which often looked something like this:

(Yes, I know this is a modded version of a Unix program, but I worked with an awful lot of 
awful PC programs that looked pretty much the same)

Fortunately, computer companies moved away from such cluttered, optic-nerve-searing interfaces. They worked hard to make programs easier to use and look more like the natural world around the user.  The color schemes were more restrained and the objects on the screen were made to look like ... well, actual objects.

(I tried to find a nice example from Microsoft, but they never were very good at making an attractive interface.  
Some Windows versions were better than others)

With that in mind, you can probably imagine my reaction to the interface designs of the past couple of years.  For some reason we've gone back to two-dimensional Angry Fruit Salads.

(I think Windows 8 may have been designed by retired Air Traffic Controllers)

(Apple's iOS 8 actually manages to one-up Microsoft by packing 
more visual clutter into a smaller space)

To add insult to (optical) injury, Apple has switched the text on their smallest displays to a thin-stroked, sans-serif font that is much harder for my middle-aged eyes to see.

Maybe this is some kind of strange nostalgia for the fashion of the 1980s.  If so, I hope it passes just as quickly.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Episodes of Firefly I'm Glad Were Never Made

Like most fans of Firefly, I get kind of choked up and depressed thinking about what could have been. Lately though, it occurred to me that a second, fourth, or tenth season might not have turned out as awesomely as the first.  Then I started to imagine what might have been if Firefly had been renewed and had been subject to all the studio pressures, budget cuts, and creative brain drain that have plagued other long-running TV shows.  With that in mind I present the following list of Episodes of Firefly I'm Glad Were Never Made.

1. The entire episode is told from Wash's (first person) point of view after he was horribly injured and is completely paralyzed.
2. The episode where Serenity flies too close to a black hole and is sent back in time to Earth-That-Was.
3. The all-musical episode with songs like "Jayne Polishes His Pistol," "Leaves in the Wind," "Shiny," and an emotional duet between Mal and Inara.
4. The Firefly Christmas Special.
Image stolen from Almost Nerdy
5. The episode that begins with Zoe dying off screen because Gina Torres precipitously left the show after a pay dispute.
6. The entire season where Mal and the crew leave the ship, become employees of the Alliance, and work in Ariel's capital city.
7. The episode where the crew of Serenity is turned into puppets.
8, The string of episodes where Simon leaves the ship and the crew is joined by Kaylee's ten-year-old, super-genius nephew.
9. The episode where Jayne is on trial for murder and the majority of the episode is a bunch of clips of Jayne from all the other episodes stitched together with shots of the crew giving testimony on the witness stand.
10. All the episodes in the seasons after Mal left and his cousin Mark took over as captain.

Ten years of Firefly might have been fantastic, but maybe we are actually better off the way things are.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Workplace Poem #2

"We could pull the whole table from the external system
and then process the records locally"
As the words left my mouth I could feel the focus
of the room shift to me like
a giant magnifying glass overhead
and all discussion came to a grinding halt
My mouth, oblivious to the screaming of my higher brain
continued in a feeble attempt to encourage others
to speak by providing an example
"It's only ten thousand records"

The silence roared through the conference room
rattling the ductwork and stifling the
insectile hum
of the fluorescent lights overhead
Most everyone looked confused and some were annoyed
and even the office manager
who was delivering the tray of cookies
seemed uncomfortable

The meeting had started well with plenty of banter
and talk of who was to write the specs
and who would maintain the task list
and who was to get the customers on board
with the whole thing
But then there was the simple question
the perceived roadblock with a solution that seemed
to be standing in front of them all
waiting stunned by their obtusity
and I had to go and say it

There was enough dead air to let me know I was only an intern
and therefore not qualified to even state a preference as to
which cookie I should eat

"We have to watch how much traffic goes over those lines"
warned the network guy

"If any of that data is at all sensitive we should probably
set up some kind of secure connection"
said the hardware guy
who was also a part-time auditor

Then Larry
who taught himself to program on punch cards
who always wore white poly-cotton short sleeve dress shirts
with 1970s pointy collars and a small cigarette burn on the front
chose to weigh in and everyone (to my relief)
turned to listen

"The processing algorithm is pretty simple
we could dynamically generate the code
and call an RFC on the external box
to have it connect by sftp to retrieve the code
and then process the records and the transfer them
back to our system through a web process
then we can fill the main table with a direct
SQL update"

The discussion started back up with much ebb and flow
the merits of this and the drawbacks of that and
the inherent disastrous pitfalls of the other
and after a while as it died down
and it was pretty clear there was no acceptable solution
the boss
with his shiny tassel loafers that looked like they were
fresh out of the box and never worn and probably cost more than
my annual income ever would be
looked thoughtful for a moment and then got an idea

"Why don't we pull the whole table from the external system
and then process the records locally"

and to my eternal shame
I simply nodded in acknowledgement of his brilliance
like everyone else in the room

[written and posted to Facebook quite a while back]

Friday, August 29, 2014

Workplace Poem #1

As the vultures circle the cubicles,
alighting now and then to pick
at the remains of a career,
I watch the living stagger about
trying not to stare at the walking dead
lurching past.

They superstitiously clutch their talismans,
project plans in progress and
fifteen years of service badges,
in the hope that they are immune to the plague
while their neighbors steadily fill
cardboard coffins.

And as the day's end nears and the few still standing
struggle with the guilt of survival,
I think I have made it. But then the chime,
the call of Gabe in HR,
and I begin the slow march to the
conference room.

[written and posted to Facebook quite a while back]

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Amazon - Hachette Problem

The dispute between Amazon and Hatchette seems like it's intractable.  On the one side we have a retailer that wants a larger share of e-book revenues on the grounds that it bears more of the costs for sales and distribution, and on the other we have a publisher that wants to retain the larger share of the income for the intellectual property that it owns. Both sides seem to want to cut out the other, even though doing so would harm themselves.  Amazon won't have a product to sell without the publishers, and Hatchette won't have access to as much of the market without Amazon.

Meanwhile, the customers and the authors are stuck in the middle.  The customers see a monopolistic system with overpriced products, and the authors feel like they're getting the crumbs after the publishers and retailers are done feasting.  Something is going to change, but it's not clear how or who will end up benefiting.

Of course, I have a solution.

It occurred to me while talking about this issue with some other authors at the Origins Game Fair this past spring.  I got some confused looks, which usually tells me that either I'm way off in Loopy-land or that I'm not expressing myself clearly.  In the hopes that it was the latter, I'll try and detail what I was thinking.  If it's the former then hopefully my insane natterings will provide amusement for someone.

The Customer is the Problem

The core issue here is that people are, to some degree, inherently lazy and don't want to spend lots of time shopping for books.  If there's a chance that they might save a huge amount on the price of a new book then they might check two or three online retailers to find the best deal.  What they're not going to do is search through dozens of websites for the best deal when all of them have pretty much the same price.  This is the core reason why Amazon has done so well.  They essentially have ALL THE BOOKS, and do a reasonably good job with customer service.  Most people don't bother with other online bookstores anymore - if it's not on Amazon then it must not be available.

So what we need is an online retailer that provides access to ALL THE BOOKS, can compete with Amazon, and can allow publishers (and authors) access to the customers in a way that lets them get a bigger share of the revenue.  I think there's a way to do this.

Now Here's My Plan ...

For convenience I'll refer to our hypothetical online retailer as Fnordbooks.  The first thing Fnordbooks needs is access to ALL THE BOOKS, because without that it will fail.  The full listing of all of the books in print can be obtained by buying a subscription to a product logically called Books In Print.  Bookstores, publishers, and the like buy access to this database, which tells them what books are out there, who publishes them, when they're coming out, etc.

That gets Fnordbooks all the details about the books.  Add in a gaggle of geek programmers and now when a user goes to they can enter a book title or author or keywords into a search and get back the full information about the book.  So far, so good ... but they can't buy it yet.

For the next part we'll start by helping the publishers.  Each publisher can list which books they want to sell, and at what price.  Any publisher, big or small,  could sign up.  Even a self-publishing author could do it.

The trick is that they've got to do the actual shipping.  Fnordbooks would act more as an intermediary, kind of like eBay or Amazon Marketplace.  Fnordbooks takes the order, keeps track of the customer preferences and such, and processes the payments (taking a small cut).  Fnordbooks would also keep track of customer's ratings of the publishers to encourage the publishers to ship in a timely fashion.

If a publisher doesn't want to handle the shipping themselves then they can make a deal with a third-party fulfillment service to handle that part.  Maybe they'd get together with some other publishers to set up some kind of co-op.  That would be up to them - Fnordbooks wouldn't really care who's actually shipping the book to the customer as long as it gets there.

Now that I think about it, e-books could be an exception in that Fnordbooks could handle the delivery as well.  There isn't much more overhead in shipping e-books than there is in running the website and payment processing.  Again, Fnordbooks would take a small cut of the price for this - not nearly the 30% that the big retailers are asking.

Here's the Trick

We need to remember that a customer isn't going to bother with a retailer that doesn't have ALL THE BOOKS.  If Fnordbooks doesn't give the customer access to the book then they're going to go somewhere else, and stay there.  So for all the books that Fnordbooks doesn't have a direct source to the publisher, it offers up a link to where the book can be bought through Amazon (and/or other big book retailers).  Amazon has an "Associates" program where referral links provide a small cut of the price back to the associate who set up the link, so this fallback option would still provide a bit of income to Fnordbooks while allowing the customer to get what they want.

And Another Thing

Amazon doesn't carry every book.  If Fnordbooks doesn't have a publisher supplying the books directly and Amazon doesn't carry the book, then Fnordbooks needs to go one step further.  For those titles Fnordbooks would provide a link to WorldCat's listings of where the book can be found in a Library, and even where the books can be found online for free, such as Project Gutenberg.  In this way Fnordbooks can provide access to more titles than Amazon - truly ALL THE BOOKS.

Lastly, I'd have Fnordbooks set up as a non-profit organization.  It's not necessary, but it'd be nice to have a competitor to the big retailers that doesn't have profit as a main motive.

The way I see things, someone is going to do this sooner or later.  Heck, Google Books is already partway there - see their listing for A Dwarven Cookbook for an example.  It's only a matter of time before someone puts all the pieces together.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Origins Game Fair - 2014

June 11-15, 2014
Greater Columbus Convention Center
Columbus, Ohio, 43215, USA

Origins is only a few weeks away, and as with the past two years I'm on some panels and selling books as part of The Library. I'll probably even play some games again this year (I think I've actually played more games in two years of Origins than I did in my first ten years at Gen Con).

Here’s my schedule for seminars this year:


Food in Fiction  (5:00 a.m.) - In Fantasy and Science Fiction, any food is usually in the background.  Most often it's presented as setting or set decoration and ignored by the viewer. Sometimes though, it seems to take on a life of its own and can even become the center of the plot.  This slideshow explores the fictional foods in television and film, highlighting both the good and the bad. 


History in Fiction  (12:00 p.m.) - It might make sense for you to create a detailed backstory to help you put the current events of your novel in context. Or perhaps you want to scratch the serial numbers off a real event so you can use it in your story. The authors on this panel will tell you how to get it done.  [with Dylan Birtolo, Jennifer Brozek, and John Helfers


Making Old Tropes New  (Noon) - Boy-meets-girl, beauty and the beast, clandestine affairs with vampires. How can writers make old tropes new again?  [with Sheryl Nantus and John Helfers]

Origins is a blast, and somehow it seems to be small and personal while still being absolutely huge.  Stop by the seminars or the author's area in the dealer's room and say "Hi".

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Gen Con 2014 Schedule

Gen Con Indy 2014 – August 14-17

The Gen Con website is now allowing people to sign up for events, so I thought it would be a good idea to post the events I'm running.

Sadly, I'm not part of the Writer’s Symposium this year, so my schedule is limited to my regular two events for Blackspoon Press and one for Medieval Cookery.  Of course I'm easily roped into conversations about these (or other) topics and have even set up impromptu unofficial seminars from time to time.

SEM1454435 – Real Medieval Feasts  Curious what medieval feasts were really like? Come learn about real feasts and medieval cuisine. Topics include: feast foods, common myths, and the strange things you can find in medieval cookbooks.
08/14/2013, 8:00 PM, Crowne Plaza : Pennsylvania Stn B
SEM1454436 – Build Your Own Language  Fictional worlds often include languages to make their setting more believable. This seminar will help you create your own language, suitable for adding color to a game or novel.
08/15/2013, 8:00 PM, Crowne Plaza : Grand Central A-C
SEM1454437 – Cook Like a Dwarf, Eat Like a Halfling  How do you write a cookbook for a culture that never existed but everyone knows? The authors of "A Dwarven Cookbook" talk about the origins of the recipes in their cookbooks..
08/16/2013, 2:00 PM, Crowne Plaza : Victoria Stn C/D

The registration site says there's only 1 ticket left (out of 50) for "Real Medieval Feasts" on Thursday evening, but don't let that stop you if you're interested in attending.  There's usually plenty of room - and if there's not then Gen Con will likely move me to a larger space.