Friday, 28 June 2013

Friday Flash Fiction - Supervolcano

"I have to go, you know I do."

"But I love you!"

A single tear of fire escaped Ember's eye and wafted off into the breeze, flickered and died. He brushed her cheek with that warm, soft touch she had grown so fond of.

"I love you too."

He remembered their parting like it was yesterday. The memory of his human lover, Elizabeth, was the only thing that kept Ember going. That, and knowing it was only he, the last fire sprite, who could save the world.

The wind whipped at his hair, and he reached to pull his short burlap cloak tighter around him, before remembering how he had consumed it the night before, for warmth. Across the valley ahead, Ember saw the billows of smoke rising. He could smell the sulphur even from here, and a part of him thought it smelled like home. Ash fell like snow, tickling his nose here. Closer to the supervolcano, it would choke the air.

He checked the egg in its pouch - still intact - leaned his weight on his hiking staff and trudged on down the hard-packed soil.

The valley was dry and dead, covered in a delicate crust of salt. It crunched under his feet and sizzled away, the little trapped moisture evaporating from his body's great heat.

It was painful, like walking on broken glass. Every step, with its pinpricks of water and incombustible salt, sent needles of pain shooting up through Ember's feet to a spot just above and behind his eyes. He grimaced through the pain looking for any breaks in the monotonous salt landscape. Any dried old branch, any clump of withered grass, even just a gap where he could stand on hot sand. There was nothing in sight. Just the salt and its relentless stinging underfoot.

Halfway across the valley, Ember's feet had swollen to the size of footballs. They looked like crystal clubs, with an accumulation of salt on every side. They stung and ached. He felt he couldn't go on, and fell to his knees, the walking staff no longer supporting him. He let out a yelp of pain as the salt bit into his knees and shins, fresh skin that had not yet burned. He whimpered and sat there, wallowing in self-pity. The sulphurous smell of the supervolcano called him on, and the phoenix egg needed to be delivered, but he couldn't take one more step. The only thing he had left to eat was the staff itself, his grandfather's.

He looked at the staff, at the volcano, back to the staff. He noted its intricate carvings, the carefully hand-burnt patterns that coloured them. He took special note of the delicate head, carved somehow in three delicate concentric shells, one inside another, like spiderweb eggs of oak. He would eat that part last.

Among the many things Elizabeth had taught him was to appreciate old things that take time, details and artistry, love of fine work. She was a sculptor who dabbled in photography, and they met while Ember was just a teenager, really, stoking a bush fire with glee. She had been photographing the fire, the damage, the ashes left behind, for a new sculpture on loss. Ember had just been burning everything in sight, consuming old wood and new, houses, trees, bushes, animals, anything he could get his destructive hands on.

She shouldn't have been able to see him, but something caught her eye.

"Who ... what are you?" she asked, blunt and to the point. It was the first thing he loved about her.

He had looked around for a few seconds, trying to decide if she was looking at him.

"Yes, you," she said, with a laugh.

Their giddy romance lasted just a few months before the world started to burn and Ember realised his phoenix egg - his most prized possession - would renew the whole planet if dropped into the supervolcano. And he was the only one who could get close enough to the heat.

While he was reminiscing, Ember noticed, he had eaten most of the walking staff, leaving the delicate head. It had given him enough strength to keep going for now, and the pain in his feet had lessened. He stood and walked on, the salt plain pain feeling like nothing more than a faint tingle now. He clutched the egg protectively and reached the lip of the caldera. The true eruption had not yet begun - the magma was still building pressure below the surface - but it was too hot already for any human to survive. Ember felt the phoenix egg twitching in his fist. It felt the heat, too, and was getting ready to hatch, but he needed to get it deep down first. There was only one way forward. Ember opened his mouth wide and swallowed the egg, being careful not to crack the shell, though really there was little danger of that. He leapt high in the air and dove into the caldera, burrowing into the earth with his internal heat, burning up and pushing aside soil and rock like the volcanic flow he was going to meet.

When he broke through to the high-pressure magma, he was spent, and it burned through him to the phoenix egg in his belly, whose fire-life infused the molten rock. The magma did flow to the surface, but now it brought life, and the Earth was restored.

A week later, Elizabeth sat in her garden, mourning her lost love, when a young bird, the size of a crow but whose feathers shone in reds and yellows and a strange hint of blues, landed nearby. The way its crest fell to one side made it look just a little like Ember, and she smiled for the first time since he had left.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This very strange combination of events is a result of this Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge.
PPS - My random draw of elements was "Dying Earth paranormal romance featuring a perilous journey and a mythological bird".

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Saving energy

I don't think Earth Hour goes far enough. Rather than encouraging us all to switch off our lights and computers for an hour a year, we need to have an ongoing commitment and culture of reducing our energy use. Driving less, turning computers off when they're not needed, keeping less food in the fridge. Whatever you're doing, you can probably save more energy every day than the 4-cents-worth you save during Earth Hour. Apparently a good way to encourage home energy savings is to print the neighbourhood average usage on electricity bills. People see that as a challenge or a competition, and they react accordingly. If your electricity provider doesn't do this, you should ask them to start.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I think most electricity providers in Australia do that.
PPS - And why wouldn't they?

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Writing better software

People are starting to expect more quality from their software these days, and I think that's a good thing. There comes a time in any discipline when we stop expecting things to go haywire and start assuming that what we get will be worth our time and money. There are some problems with those assumptions, especially when development tools are cheap and readily available, because that's like expecting every piece of fan-fiction in the world to be on par with the works of professional authors. Programmers get better with practice, just like anyone.

But for professional software, we expect a high standard. Our industry reply is usually "But software is really hard, you guys!" That's true, but you know what else is really hard? Designing cars and airplanes. Building skyscrapers. Surgery. Humans accomplish hard things all the time, but with the right tools, training and discipline, we pull it off.

That's something I think we're still lacking in software. There are not as many talented software developers in the world as you might think, and even fewer software project managers. Our tools are often problematic on their own, because those, too, are software projects. In many cases, developers seek to give quality by reducing scope. Most mobile phone apps do just one thing, and with such narrow focus, they can do it pretty well. It's business software that always seems to feel half-baked and full of bugs.

So how do we raise the bar on that, first remembering that good software developers are hard to find and there is no magic process that will fix everything? I think we as software developers need to suck it up and start expecting more of our own software. Test it to death before letting anyone else see it. Make sure you don't need to treat it in a certain way to make it work properly. Don't settle for half-done. And practice. Deliberately think about what went wrong and what you can do to make it work better in the future.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I am often disappointed by my own efforts.
PPS - And that's just when I am my only customer.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Avoiding queues

I was accosted on the street recently by someone from a small startup company obviously doing a kind of market research, or else a uni student doing an assignment. He asked a lot of questions about queues, knowing the state of a company's appointment schedule before you arrive and knowing busy times in advance. I'm guessing his company aimed to sell a service to businesses (doctors and restaurants mostly would be my guess) where customers could find out busy times and schedule their appointments for less-busy times, and could be informed in advance if their appointment was going to start late due to schedule overruns. That mostly sounds like a kind of limited calendar sharing and alerts system, and I wish them good luck. I'm curious about how it would actually work. Presumably once you start running late as a business, you send SMS alerts to your customers who have upcoming appointments, and after a month or two you get a map of your typical week and your busy and slack times that helps you spread out your schedules appropriately. It does sound good, but I think it would be difficult to implement alongside existing scheduling systems.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I didn't sign any NDA, so I think I'm okay to tell you all this.
PPS - And even if not, I don't think they'd find me.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Security camera warnings

Security camera warnings are not meant to make anyone feel good. They are designed to scare people. You, yes, you specifically. If they were meant for the "good people", they would say "Good news! For your protection, cameras are recording here 24 hours! We've got your back!" Instead, they always say things like "WARNING: Security cameras recording in this area 24/7. BACK OFF, CRIMINAL." The absolute nicest ones I've seen are still kind of passive-aggressive, saying "Smile! You're on camera!" which is still meant as a threat. I think this says a lot about the mindset of putting cameras up everywhere.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - In some places, I'd rather have them than not.
PPS - But in general public places, they cost more than they're worth.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Friday Writing Update

This week I started outlining from the beginning of my novel, and I think it's going well so far. The real test will be when I try to edit it down and tighten it up. The outlining, at this pace, is going to take a few more weeks, but I really don't want that to be the only writing I do until then. Maybe next week I'll put the final touches on Sunnybank, which has now been reviewed through Critters, and try submitting it for publication at last.

I should have done that a while ago. The problem is that, even with a market list, I have trouble finding somewhere that might be interested in publishing it. I'm self-rejecting it before I even submit it. I also got so much feedback that I haven't even read it all yet. And I fear rejection. I waver between hope and despair. I'll get through it. I just need to do so faster.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I guess I don't devote a lot of my time to writing.
PPS - I don't write on the weekends at all.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Knowledge and speed

Knowledge is not obsolete. It creates a human connection when we know the same things in our heads instead of having to look them up. Imagine trying to get in with a new crowd, but you have to look up their inside jokes on the internet every time they're told. You'll be the one laughing five minutes after everyone else stops, by which time you've missed everything else. You need that social bonding and shared culture information in your head. Your brain is faster than the internet, and it's the only thing fast enough for social interaction. What's more, this is always going to be true. Even if you had something like Google Glass looking it up for you automatically, trying to push answers back at you in real time, there would still be a delay.

Also, there are some things that you won't know how to look up, no matter your search skills. What kind of maths to apply to a certain situation is one example that springs to mind. If you don't know that Return on Investment is a form of simultaneous equation situation and know how to solve them, how long is it going to take you to look that up and learn how to do that maths?

Lastly, sometimes search just fails. If someone uses the wrong term for something, or misuses an existing term, your search will be off the rails before you begin unless you know how to correct it. Or if you're searching for something obscure that is overshadowed by something much more popular with a similar name, like Michael Bolton the computer programmer for Initech rather than Michael Bolton the musician. Lots of obscure things are, well, obscured by mainstream things online, just because they are named the same or similar to each other.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I wouldn't say I hold a lot of useful stuff in my head.
PPS - This post inspired by this TED talk.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Change your tools

My use of tools is always changing. I'm never quite sure that I've discovered the best way to accomplish some task, and I am quite often rewarded with a revelation. Recently I've changed note-taking tools on my phone, my media synchronisation, my action list program and my news reader. Some of those weren't by choice. I've changed web browsers and operating systems over and over, re-learning things in the process. I've changed programming languages and platforms several times too.

My point is that I am always willing to challenge my own status quo, even for small gains. I think it's a valuable mindset to have, but I would, because it's mine.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I don't know if you should change something that works just to change it, though.
PPS - I change because there's often better software available, and I just didn't know it.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

All-in-one touch screen desktop computers

I've noticed that traditional desktop computers are going away, being replaced by laptops or, more recently, all-in-one touch screens, because Apple did it. I was kind of annoyed that the traditional tower would go away, because that's the type of computer I've bought and built in the past, but I just realised that those all-in-one touch screen desktops are close to what I've wanted for a long time. I've wanted to see how a huge touch-screen desktop would work, and these smaller options are the beginning of that change.

You do give up a lot when you make an all-in-one desktop, though. A lot of the time, it's power and upgrades, but it's been years since I did any upgrades of my own PC, and power always increases. The one thing I'm worried about is having the screen break before the rest of the all-in-one device. By the time that happens, you'll have to replace the whole thing, because replacement screens will be outdated parts.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - On the whole, though, I think it might be a good thing.
PPS - As long as you can attach external speakers. Built-in ones tend to suck.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Dilbert and humour

In one sense, Dilbert is quite often not funny at all. It is just absurd and somewhat familiar to office drones like me. We recognise certain situations and we wish we could handle them with the boldness, callousness or rage depicted in the comic strip. Does that make it more of a catharsis than comedy? I think so.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Scott Adams' own theory of humour would suggest Dilbert is meant to be funny on the Recognisable and Cruel dimensions, and maybe Clever and Bizarre.
PPS - To me, it might not be cruel or clever enough, or too bizarre.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Friday Writing Update

All my writing time this week has been spent on editing and self-critiquing the second draft of my first novel, and I have come to two distinct realisations. First, I've been spending a lot of time just reading it and figuring out what worked and what didn't when what I really wanted to do from the start was reduce it to an outline and rewrite it. There's some good stuff in there, but also some glaring holes, dead-end plots and out-of-nowhere revelations that need foreshadowing. I don't need to re-read the whole thing twice to get a handle on that.

The second revelation is that, even during the writing of that book, I got better at it. The very beginning is disjointed, and I remember writing it in first-person, present-tense, then running out of steam very quickly. I switched to third-person, past-tense, with many points of view, and I still think that's not ideal, but by halfway I had clearly found a kind of rhythm. I was also trying to build to a climax, but clearly had no idea how to get there.

So, in short, I might have been wasting my time over the past few weeks, which kinda sucks, but this second draft thing is as new to me now as writing a first draft was at the time. You've got to start somewhere, right? Tomorrow, I'm going back to the beginning and doing this for real, outlining properly, editing and tweaking that, then fleshing it out again into a proper second draft.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I was going to try another Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge, too, but I couldn't make anything of my randomly-selected TV show style mash-up.
PPS - I got "Arrested Development" and "The Walking Dead". I only watch one of those.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Spare keys

After locking myself out of the house recently, I figured I'd better get onto the task of keeping some spare keys outside, just in case of emergency. And, yes, obviously "just don't forget your keys" is the first step in all of this, but there are several circumstances where you might find yourself at home, locked out, through no fault of your own, and it would be good to have spares available.

Then I thought, hang on a minute, my phone is a wireless communications device, and so is my garage door opener. If I could just have an app on my phone that triggers the garage door remotely, that would be ideal! Why hasn't anyone done that yet? Well, they have. You need to do some hardware hacking to get a Bluetooth receiver wired up to the motor in your garage, but once that's done and your phone is paired, it's pretty easy. I'm not super-confident with electronics myself, though, so I'm not sure I could do it without ruining my motor or at least voiding the warranty, but a setup like that would have saved me a bus ride and some embarrassment. Then again, so would a fake rock and some spare keys, but that's not nearly as cool.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I can never think of where to hide spare keys.
PPS - Mostly because every place I think of seems too obvious in hindsight.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Collecting culture

We are all meant to be curating our own collection of culture, or at least that's what I gather from the hundreds of websites devoted to social sharing of cool pictures and videos we find online. So how do we do that when our websites and our tools are always being revoked, changed, locked down and sued? The answer from, say, Facebook would be "come and do it here!" but if another video site forbids embedding, then no website is a complete suite for cultural curation. Even keeping a list of bookmarks synchronised to disk is no good, because websites die or change all the time, or some video owner decides that their creation is no longer going to be available outside the USA. Now most of the world is screwed.

We need the most simple, basic tools that allow us to download - yes, download, copy and keep - that media, in case your website melts, and we need ways of cataloguing it and sharing it with each other. Those methods may change, but the fundamental concept behind it all is that the preservation of our culture requires that it be free of DRM, free of limits and locks, available to copy and share with each other without any exceptional tools. That's what made the web great. Taking it away again is not going to make it greater.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Well, for a short time, it might make it better for some few people.
PPS - And for those people, that's all that matters.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Internet and languages

The Internet is bringing a lot of people together from different backgrounds and languages, but we don't seem to be learning each others' languages. That's kind of interesting. We might expect that, with a lot of people speaking a lot of different languages online, it would be beneficial to pick up at least a few more words in other languages, but since the web also has rough translation tools and lots of people that do speak your own language, we haven't exactly built the inverse Tower of Babel here. It may be that people seek out information only in their own language anyway, or perhaps it is forcing a lot more people to learn some English, and I don't notice because that's what I speak.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'd like to be using Duolingo to learn another language.
PPS - But even with the mobile app, because it speaks aloud, I have to schedule time for it, and a lot of my time is already allocated.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Mobile apps change the industry

If apps only sell for a dollar, developers will only make apps that are worth one dollar. That could end up being a problem for the software industry in general. If the best developers, who could be improving our operating systems or writing better productivity software are all trying to replicate the success of the latest mobile app instead, then the lure of the app marketplace will actually stagnate the entire industry. Instead of working in teams for companies who need good software to do a better job, they'll be working alone and trying to grab their slice of the pie, $1 at a time.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And when the app bubble bursts and they come back, nobody will know how to work in teams any more.
PPS - Or this might just be irrelevant hand-wringing and everything will be fine.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Friday Flash Fiction - A Wolf With a Chainsaw

WARNING: Today's flash fiction is rated MA15+ for graphic violence. Seriously, I feel like apologising for this in advance.

So I've been reading Chuck Wendig's blog, and occasionally he posts flash fiction challenges. I'm a bit behind on these, so this contest has already closed, but I wanted to give it a go anyway. The challenge (found here) was to have two random genres chosen for you from a list of 20 and write a flash fiction piece in the combination of those genres.

I got "splatterpunk" and "fairy tale". Therefore, I present for your disgust "A Wolf With a Chainsaw".
"WOLF!" cried the youngest pig as he crashed through his older brother's twig door and slammed it behind him. Before he could explain, the sounds of a chainsaw starting up could be heard coming steadily closer.

RRN-RRN-d-d-d-d! RRN-d-d-d-d!

The pigs looked at each other with wide-eyed terror, considering and dismissing their options with great speed. All the while, the chainsaw sounds grew closer.

RRN-d-d-d-d! RRN-RRN-d-d-d-d!

"He's crazy!" said the younger pig, known as Kevin. "What do we do?"

His brother, Francis, was marginally more calm. "We have to get out of here. Run to safety."

As Kevin was about to ask where they would find anywhere the maniac wolf with the chainsaw couldn't get to them, the chainsaw sound, now right outside, revved up and the walls started splintering.

RRRR! RRRR! The twigs shattered and flew away as the chainsaw carved through the wall and door, making a crazed diagonal slice. After a moment's pause, it poked through the wall again, cutting diagonally down the other way, forming a huge X in the wall. Bits of twig fell away, making some triangular holes, but it was far from a door yet.

"Little pigs, little pigs, let me in!" screamed the maniac wolf, poking his snout through the gaps.

"Get away! What the hell do you want?" asked Francis.

"I want" began the wolf, licking his lips, "dinner!"

At that moment, Kevin smacked a plank of wood into the wolf's exposed snout, which withdrew quickly from the hole, howling in pain. He revved the chainsaw again, and managed to make it sound angry, as much as such things are possible.

The wolf cut more slices in the wall, making a jagged door for himself, and burst in brandishing his motorised weapon, eyes wide and bloodshot, breathing quick and shallow.

Kevin and Francis squealed and ran in opposite directions through the small house, looking for hiding places or a way out. None were good enough to evade the wolf's keen sense of smell.

He found Kevin in the kitchen, trying to shelter under the table, so he raised his chainsaw and brought it down in the middle, laughing hysterically, cutting right through the wooden surface. He had almost reached the terrified pig when Francis whalloped him from behind with a cricket bat.

The wolf yowled, then extracted his chainsaw from the table, turning it on Francis. Francis took another swipe at the wolf, but he was too slow. The wolf dodged out of the way and swung his weapon down, sawing through the pig's left front trotter. The blood sprayed out, and in his panic Francis waved the limb all over, spraying blood in all directions - over the wolf, on the walls, on the floor, over his ruined kitchen table and his younger brother, before he regained enough composure to stuff the stump under his other arm and clamp down to stop the bleeding. The wolf held his chainsaw in just his left paw for a moment to pick up the severed trotter and gnaw on it for a second. He smacked his lips in appreciation.

"Yes, little pig. You'll do very nicely."

Francis yelped and dashed for the front room, aiming for the door or the hole the wolf had made, when the door burst inwards. Francis couldn't see who it was standing there, bow and arrow raised, but it was too much. He stopped dead in his tracks and felt that this was the end. He was going to die.

A woman's voice from the door said "GET DOWN!" and Francis ducked without a second thought. He heard a bowstring release an arrow which thunked into something meaty behind him. Turning to look, he saw the wolf with a hollow shaft protruding from his heart, channelling the high-pressure blood out in great gouts, dripping from the end in blobs and spurts, pooling on the floor in front of him. The wolf, his face still a mask of surprise, his chainsaw dropped by his side, fell to the floor and flopped forwards, pushing the arrow right through and out his back.

Kevin appeared from the kitchen and called out to the shape in the doorway, "Snow White! It's so good to see you! Thank you!"

Snow White smiled. "My pleasure, pig. Now," she nocked another arrow and aimed it at him, "how fast can you run?"

So what do you think? I couldn't really figure out how to write the sound of a chainsaw. Maybe I should have just embedded a sound file.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm also pleased with my pig names.
PPS - I could only think of two famous people called "Bacon", though.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

We should gender-swap the next superhero movies

I think, just for kicks and balance, the next round of superhero movie reboots should be gender-swapped. Not the weak-sauce "distaff counterpart" characters, but real, from-scratch reimaginings. Not Batgirl. I want to see Batwoman, a kickass, strong, independent crime fighter. Bring on Patricia Parker, Clarice Kent and Beatrice Wayne!

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And Tanya Stark, while we're at it.
PPS - We really should try a female Doctor Who, too.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Nature and humour

One aspect of my sense of humour that I think a lot of people don't share is that I think it's funny when the simplest acts of nature screw up our best laid high-tech plans. Like when an endangered falcon nests on top of a mobile phone mast and the phone company is forbidden from fixing it by removing the bird. For some reason, I find that quite funny (not to the level of "hilarious", but funny). Or when our best engineers are outdone by everyday creatures, such as bumpy whale fins being far more efficient than our best airfoil designs. In light of those types of incidents, I think it's silly to keep thinking of ourselves as the Biggest, Brainiest Beasts, because it doesn't take much for nature to kick us down and laugh.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Then steal our lunch money.
PPS - Or something like that.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Networking for getting published

A big part of the process of getting published these days seems to be networking with famous authors, agents, editors and publishers on Twitter. This assumes, of course, that famous authors will care who you are and allow you to transition from "fan" to "follower" to "friend". If I were super-famous and had hundreds of people clamouring for my attention 24-7, I think I'd be selective about who I allow to monopolise my time. I don't have time to be online and interacting with an ever-growing swarm of bees, each of whom thinks they are my NEW BESTEST FRIEND EVAR! and really wants me to please read their manuscript and put in a good word for them with their publisher/editor/agent. It sounds like a lot of work because it is. It is the process of becoming someone's real friend, which takes time, and is not always successful.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Well, actually, it just means becoming a professional acquaintance, which is a bit easier.
PPS - But still not something I would have the energy for from their side.

Monday, 3 June 2013

I can't watch eye-related horror

My biggest ick factor comes from eyes. When TV shows, movies or stories involve eye-related torture or horror, I squirm. I'm not sure what makes me that sensitive to eye trauma, but it might be that I'm a pretty visual person. It's very easy to imagine something coming right at my eyes in the worst possible way. Once that image starts playing in my head, it keeps repeating on a loop while I feel like physically covering my eyes to protect them from the imaginary horror. Does anyone else have that problem?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There was at least one Farscape episode I had to look away from.
PPS - Oddly, though, disembodied eyes don't bother me.