Screen Gogs

Prague, in the summer, is a beer-drinkers paradise. Beer gardens dot the city, the people watching is unparalleled, and the long, warm days make it wonderful to sit inthe shade of an old tree and sip a fine Czech pivo while writing.

Unfortunately, that same pleasant sun makes it nearly impossible to see the screen of a typical laptop. Even in the shade it’s just too bright out there. I had been designing in my head a special “writing outdoors” laptop with an ultra-bright screen. They have them, but they are power hogs, so the rest of the computer would be taken up completely by batteries. There would be no optical drive and maybe even no hard drive, just enough flash RAM to hold the OS and Jer’s Novel Writer, and a USB port to use for file transfer.

But then I noticed something. I can hardly see my phone screen at all when I’m wearing my shades, but if I turn it 90 degrees, there it is. The light is polarized. And there lies the key to outdoor laptop use. Construct the screen so that the light is polarized in a particular direction. Create glasses that are extremely dark except for light polarized in that one tiny notch. As Voltaire would say, “Voila!” The relative brightness of the screen would be increased without burning through batteries.

I don’t know what it would take to make lenses that were that specific to a particular polarization angle and very dark in all others, but I bet it could be done.

Best of all, Geeks would finally be able to get some fresh air and sunshine.

Thoughts about Jer’s Novel Writer

That will change eventually, of course, but I just heard from someone who upgraded their software solely so they could use Jer’s Nove Writer. Pretty cool, but it reminds me to take time out from putting in features that help me write and edit to put in features so that people can pay me for the software.

Tootin’ my own horn here a bit today. I’m just too excited about the vision for this software that’s growing in my head.

One of the key things that differentiates Jer’s Novel Writer from other writing programs is the margin notes. I recently upgraded the margin note system with features that I thought were pretty cool at the time. Tonight I was putting together a sample screenplay project for one of my faithful beta testers and it really started to come home to me just how unbelievably powerful these notes can become, without interfering in the writing process at all. Those cool new features were just a stepping stone. Tonight I saw the future.

I have long said that every word processor will have margin notes eventually. The idea is just too good, too useful, to ignore. Some guy programming in his jammies part-time can never keep ahead of the big dogs. Or maybe he can. Here’s why my program is different than everyone else’s: I spend more time writing with it than I do working on it.

Books ‘n’ Stuff

How many books do you own?
Maybe 40 or so, only about fifteen here in the Czech Republic. I gave away hundreds of books before heading out. Very few of them will I miss.

What was the last book you bought?
I bought five books at once: Communicative Czech, Winter Warriors by David Gemmell, Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, Women In Love by D. H. Lawrence, and No Saints or Angels by Ivan Klima

The first in the list is a textbook, the second is a fantasy novel with some pretty good characters. It says its number eight in a series but this writer does what I wish more fantasy writers would do: put an entire story between the covers of the book. This is something I’m going to have to deal with soon – I hope.

The next two I got because I had heard that these guys knew how to use language and I haven’t read much that was written in that era. So they’re kind of like school to me. Tess was a pretty good read – talk about your “Life’s a bitch and then you die” story. The language is flowery but not too overdone, and I did become a better writer for having read it. I also learned far more than I wanted to about farming techniques in rural England.

I have been meaning to read something by Lawrence for a long time, and Women in Love was one of his more controversial works, so I chose that one. I haven’t finished it, but I still pick it up from time to time. The language is rambling and repetitious when not contradictory, but what gets me most is that people say and do things that just make no sense to me at all. That the characters are also confused isn’t much consolation to me.

The last one is by a popular Czech writer, and it was fun reading as people visited places that I know know, like the crematorium near where I live, and the big graveyard nearby. I also learned more about recent Czech history, throwing off the communists and dealing with the aftermath. Yes, it’s very Czech. It’s a good read, though.

What was the last book you read?
72 Essays on the Czech language or something like that. I have it in the bathroom.

Name five books that mean a lot to you, and that you’ve read more than three times.

  1. The Monster Within by Jerry Seeger. I’ve read this book many, many many times. I’m reading it again right now. No book means more to me than this one, and I still love to read it. Now if I can get it published…
  2. The Fool’s Progress: An Honest Novel by Edward Abbey. To be honest, I have not read this three times. There’s one part, I know it’s coming, and it hit me so hard the first time I read it, I haven’t been able to get past it again. It’s a damn good book.
  3. The Princess Bride is so much more than the movie there’s just no comparison. Ironically, it starts a little slow, just like the book he is supposedly transcribing. I have read this one out loud more than three times.
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – need I say more?

I know, I can count. My powers of recall don’t work that way; I’ve got a couple more on the tip of my brain. I’ll add one in a little while when I think of it.

Challenge five people to fill this out on their blog:
Aser, Cheryl, Jerk McSwede, Delia, and um — the people that read this aren’t really a bloggy bunch. Not the ones who leave comments, anyway. Someone else out there, step up! Jerk McSwede, you can just leave a comment with your answer.

Note that if you use the above links to buy any of the books (or anything else, for that matter) I get a kickback. They sell cars over there, you know.

Gold Class, Baby!

fuego and I went and caught the new Star Wars movie the other night. I’d heard it didn’t suck as bad as the previous two, so I was up for it. It was the day for my czech lesson, and that just happened to be in a part of town with a theater fuego had been telling me about.

Gold Class.

Here’s how it works: You pay too much for your movie ticket, then before the movie you hang out in the lounge paying too much for beer. While you’re out there, you tell them when during the show you would like them to bring you more beer. You give the staff your seat number and pay too much for the beers they will bring you. Not American prices, mind you, just more than you’re used to paying here.

When the time comes they open up the doors and everyone goes in. By “everyone” I mean all forty people, if the show is sold out. it doesn’t take long for everyone to make their ways to their La-Z-Boys, settle in, and get comfy. Feet up, reclining, appreciating the sound system, I was ready to do some serious movie-watching. Well, almost ready – the previews were just finishing up when the first beer arrived. Bravo!

I suppose I should say something about the movie as long as I’m here. I’m happy to report it did suck less than episode 1. I never saw Episode 2 (not in English, anyway). fuego and I exchanged some snide comments during the movie; at one point the Obi-Wan has nasty little robots crawling around on the outside of his spaceship. Skywalker pulls off some flying miracles to clean them off. You know, because Jedi knights can’t manipulate matter from a distance. Oh, wait. they can. They just seem to forget that at the most inconvenient times. Yoda, at least, seemed to keep some grip on his own abilities when faced with crisis. It was the same in the Matrix sequel: If the power you have imbued your hero with is inconvenient, pretend it never happened. Didn’t someone ask the writer, “Hey, wouldn’t he have used the Force here?” And probably someone did, but the writers were too lazy or not creative enough to invent situations that would truly be a challenge to a jedi, instead hoping that we wouldn’t notice.

There were times the writing was terribly hackneyed, and times good writing was massacred by bad acting. Samuel L. Jackson put in his worst performance ever in any movie, somehow caught at the center of the vortex of stupid lines delivered badly. It hurt to watch sometimes.

On the other hand, Sith-boy (I must confess I don’t know the actor’s name), the new Emperor who will take three more movies to overcome, did a really good job. So many movie productions forget that not only do you need a star as the hero, you need a good actor for the villain. The power of Star Wars has always been the bad guy: Darth Vader, Darth Maul (I was sorry to see so little of him), and Sith-Boy. This guy has been all that’s buoyed up the last few episodes, though Frank Oz has helped as well.

I was interested in seeing this movie because it presented a great storytelling challenge: spin a good yarn that holds up even though everyone in the audience knows the bad guy is going to win. Send people home satisfied. But it’s a great opportunity as well, to write a story where the good guy wins but the seeds of his destruction three movies later are planted. “Into exile go I must.” “He still has good in him, I know it.” “Don’t you remember? you killed her.”

One more bitch: R2-D2, in this episode, could fly, combat dozens of war-droids, and generally kick ass. I missed one part where he got away from a bunch of bad guys or reduced them to scrap or something because my next beer had just arrived, but you get the idea. Compare this to the little trash can that gets captured by the glowing-eye guys in episode IV. Did all those systems break in the intervening years? Sure, sure, I know it’s hard to keep a story consistent over that great a scope, but don’t you think as they were writing R2 into the prequels they would have asked, “hey, why didn’t Obi-Wan recognize R2 in episode IV?”

Call me a nitpicker if you want, but stuff like that bothers me. I know what it’s like to try to get all the little pieces of a big story to work together, but they had friggin’ years to get it all together. The last night before they called their script final, they should have sat down and watched the original Star Wars. Their best work. They should have asked themselves two questions: “Do they fit?” and “Does this cheapen the original?”

Of course, episode IV, the original, had nothing to live up to. Partly because of that, because there was nothing to compare it to, it became the definition of the best, and Lucas has been behind the eight-ball ever since, getting castigated for making movies that are merely good, and hearing people like me say “Back when I was a kid your movies weren’t nearly as childish.”

In the end, I think the difference comes down to acting. The original had a bunch of unknowns (not for long) and one recognized great, who played in an action movie with grace and aplomb. It is unimaginable to me that lame, flat, dead, stilted acting like I just saw would have been tolerated on the original production. If you’re blowing a million bucks a millisecond on VFX, perhaps you could say, “Let’s do that scene one more time. This time, pretend you’re acting.”

It may not sound like it, but I really didn’t think the movie sucked. It was better than most other pre-constructed blockbusters. I’ll tell you this, though: I could have done a lot better. A lot better. I could kick that movie’s ass at a fraction of the cost. With a mere seventy million dollar budget I will make a movie that outgrosses all the Star Wars movies combined. I guarantee it. So come on, Hollywood, put your money where my mouth is.

Meanwhile, if the movie’s huge, spectacular, and overhyped, there’s only one way to go. Gold Class, baby.

The Sound of Power

I was walking down the street today, the main shopping drag here in my ‘hood, looking in the windows of the little shops, thinking about lunch, when I heard the roar. The source of the sound was obscured by a parked truck, but I didn’t need to see it to know what it was. After the initial burst it settled into a throaty, uneven growl, the sound that only an American V-8 that’s been tuned for maximum power can make. It could hardly idle at all; the thrumming was choppy, rolling down the busy street.

Perhaps it had difficulty idling, but when the driver touched its throttle the glittering silver coke-bottle Corvette purred like a sabre-tooth dreaming of meat. It eased from its illegal parking place and stalked away.

Episode 15: Year of the Rat – Conclusion

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

Jimmy Slick sat forward, eager. “You’re sure you want to hear this?” I asked.

“As a personal favor to you, I’ll deliver your message,” he said. He knew he was taking a chance, but the urge to know was driving him now. Hidden treasure didn’t matter to him, knowing about hidden treasure did.

“Then tell them, my so-called friends, whoever they are, that I don’t know where the map is, but I know someone who does. I’ll give them the name for a small slice of the pie.” Who’s the rat, now? I asked myself.

“A map, huh? Who has it?” asked Jimmy. I glared at him over the rim of my drink. He shrugged. “I had to try, didn’t I?”

“Just tell them that. By the time you get word to them I may already have the map. The price goes up then.”

“You’re playing with fire, Charley. Better to just come clean and duck out. They’ll still think well of you. Well enough to not kill you, anyway.”

“Now, Jimmy, I wouldn’t want to put you in a tough spot like that. A lot of people want that map, but there are others who don’t want it found at all. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of any of them. Just deliver the message.”

“How should they contact you?”

“Be back here tomorrow – alone – with the answer. If they’re interested in playing nice, my friends, my enemies, I don’t care who as long I get paid and I get my ass out of this mess, if they’re interested you bring your answer back here tomorrow.”

“All right.”

“Alone, Jimmy.”

He hesitated, but in the end he knew I already knew he couldn’t promise that. “That may not be my choice.”

“If you are not alone, I will know it, and I will take the map elsewhere.”

“You’ll bring the map tomorrow?”

“No. Tomorrow we talk about the price of the map. I will also be talking to some people who want it destroyed. I have no problem with lighting it on fire and leaving the treasure forever lost. I’m not getting any of it anyway.”

“So there really is treasure.”

I shrugged. “I haven’t seen it.”

“But there is a map.”

“I haven’t seen it.” It would go very badly for me if there was no map.

“But you smell it.”

“Yes.” Rats have a keen sense of smell, and I was the biggest rat of all. But Lola Fanutti hadn’t been particularly forthright either. She was going to hear about this conversation soon enough, and that wouldn’t go well for me. Shooting me would be as easy as blinking for her. She might not have counted on Alice, however. Mrs. Fanutti figured she could manipulate me, but her charms weren’t going to work on Alice. As long as my secretary could prevent her from contacting her people I would have room to work.

Jimmy Slick was watching me. “You do smell it.” He shook his head, trying to figure whether to admire me or pity me.

We sat in silence, sipping our booze, contemplating what the future held for us, if anything. Conversation in the bar ebbed and flowed, the same tired stories that are told in every bar everywhere. “And then I socked him,” one of the interchangeable patrons said. “That’s what I think of your clock!” I never seemed to have stories like that. All my stories are complicated and uncertain. I’d tried spinning a yarn at Jake’s a time or two, but I never got very far. A man getting blotto on gin doesn’t want to hear about your mistakes.

I was enjoying the quiet when Jimmy said, “I think there’s something you should know.” He took another sip, still not sure he was going to tell me. He decided. “A bunch of Europeans showed up recently. They have lots of guns. Cello’s not happy about it.”

“I imagine he wouldn’t be.”

“There’s something else I’ve heard,” he said. He lowered his voice. “I’m not sure if this is true or not. There’s always rumors like this going around, and usually they’re bullshit.”

I nodded. His business was spreading the fertilizer, mine was picking through it.

“Friend of mine said he saw Vittorio Fanutti. Last week. Fanutti was mixed up in this, so watch out for him. And whatever you do stay the hell away from his wife.”

I think I held my poker face. “The Contessa?”

“That’s the one. I don’t know much about her, but everything I have heard is ugly. She was Fanutti’s favorite assassin. If he’s gone then someone else will be pulling her strings. It doesn’t matter; if you see her, run the other way as fast as you can.”

“How would I know it was her?”

Jimmy nodded grimly. “When she slides a knife between your ribs.”

“That’s not very useful.”

He shrugged. “There’s nobody that scares me more. She has no soul at all.”

“She might be offended to hear you say that.”

“Nah. She likes that kind of story to get around. It’s good for business. You can’t buy a reputation like that. You have to earn it. Let’s have another round. On me.”

I held out my hand, palm forward. “I’m buying. You’ve earned it.”

He rocked back in his chair. “Damn, Charlie, you’re not dead yet.”

Tune in next time for: Never on a Sunday!

Advertising reaches a new low

They have the Monaco Grand Prix playing here in the bar, and I’m mostly able to ignore it, but something just caught my eye I had to mention. One of the cars had a flat tire, so they switched to a camera on the car facing directly backwards so we could watch the smoke trailing behind as the car sped around the track toward the pits.

“Star Wars” the rear wing of the car proclaimed. (You may not have heard – there’s a new Star Wars movie out.) I thought to myself “those guys lucked out. They’re getting bonus exposure for their advertisement and their car’s still in the race.” The car pulled into the pits where the crew was waiting. They put on a new tire, topped off the gas, and the car was back out on the road. A textbook pit stop.

The crew members were all dressed as Imperial Storm Troopers.