Cyberspace Open Finalists

I was wondering whatever happened in the Cyberspace Open – the organizers seemed happy to find any excuse to email contestants earlier but I hadn’t heard anything in a while. I went over to check things out and found that the finalists have been selected, but so far no mention of the YouTube voting for the big winner.

You can read the top three here, if you want to see what a winning entry looks like. The prompt for this round was to write a scene in which one character has been betrayed by a confidant, and confronts the betrayer.

A hearty congratulations is in order for all three. They made something that sparkled and shone in the eyes of their peers. Not bad for a day’s work.

I considered whether to put my own thoughts on the top three here, but the contest is still going, and I don’t want to come off as a sour-grapes kind of guy, picking at the flaws of writers who scored better than I did in the previous round. I’ll just say that I think one of these scripts is substantially better than the other two, while another had nice moments but seemed fundamentally flawed.

It was a good exercise for me to read them, because there were several places where I could tell that the writer was not getting everything out of their head and onto the page (writing time was very limited, after all). In the future I will try to identify those places in my own writing, before I leave my audience flat.

Edited to add:
If this page is any indication, they have decided to go back to the old format (a ninety-minute period for the finalists to craft a third scene) for the next iteration of the contest. (In fact, that is the same page as last year, just with the dates changed.) This is either to make the contest work better in conjunction with the Screenwriting Expo or it’s an indication that the current format isn’t working out. Or maybe both.

I hope they get the kinks worked out — it’s a cool contest (despite my frustrations). As you will see in the comments, I wasn’t the only one wondering what was going on over there.

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High Desert Storms

Rolling out of Los Alamos at the bright-and-early hour of 10am, I realized two things: First, that it was a day to find little, wiggly roads I’d never taken before, and second, that I’d forgotten my toiletry bag. I was already going forward, however, and at times like that I’m quite simply incapable of turning back. Stopping for gas in Totavi was difficult enough.

It was not a day for driving with the top down. The first significant showers hit as I was passing Cuyumunge, but it was a small storm cell and I was through it quickly. I took a right turn at Albuquerque but only stayed on the Interstate until the turn-off for Quemado.

I’ve been through Quemado plenty of times (haven’t we all?) but only going east-west on Highway 60. Today, for the first time, I decided to take the little north-south highways down through the last echoes of the rocky mountains, the spine of the continent.

Immediately I knew I’d made the right choice. I had NM 117 almost entirely to myself, except for the State Police cruiser I passed almost right away. A good reminder that today was about the road, not the destination. No need to hurry.

As I crossed the continental divide I had a massive storm feeding the Atlantic off to my right, lightning flicking and flashing with abandon (thunder in my little world provided by Social Distortion), and ahead a smaller but no less electric storm dumping into the Pacific. The latter would be my host for the last few miles into Quemado.

After a brief fluid-related stop in Quemado, where I had a pleasant conversation with a local, mostly about the weather, it was further south on NM 32. That was a fine bit of roadway right there, and hopefully next time it won’t be bucketing on me so hard I can’t look anywhere but the road. Cruising down a narrow canyon by Apache Creek was especially nice, and exceptionally rainy.

After the signage confused me a bit in Reserve (roads that don’t show up on my maps accompanied by a turn that felt like I was going in the wrong direction), I got myself on US 180 for another southward leg. It was only sprinkling off and on, and I had a little more attention for the world around me. After I came through something-or-other pass (elevation six thousand something) I started to notice patches of white flowers along the roadside, sharing space with purple-blossomed thistles. The white flowers looked like poppies as I motored past. Very pretty.

There is a section of US 180 past Glenwood that is a) Under construction and lacking all markings, and b) 35 mph speed limit. I, in my “what’s the hurry?” attitude, was doing 55 mph along there just to keep the people behind me from running me over. Then it started to rain. Did I mention the rain before? Yes? Well, that wasn’t rain. This was rain. Lashing, blinding, dumping, end-of-the-world rain. No stripes on the road to key on. I slowed down, and those behind me (who had tail lights to track) got even closer.

some sort of white flower

some sort of white flower

The good thing about those really intense storms in the mountains is that they are relatively compact. Soon after the twisty-curvy by Braille was over there was a turn-off for a scenic view, and I took advantage. I did not want to see any of the people who had been behind me again, ever.

Along the road up to the overlook there were more of the white flowers. I stopped and took a couple of pictures, but I was standing in the rain and didn’t have the patience to get the really good shot. I did notice, however, that despite the petaled, poppy-like flowers, the stems were bristly and stiff like a thistle. Perhaps I was looking at some Frankensteinian hybrid of a gentle garden plant and a thug from the wrong side of the tracks, botanically speaking. (If I were in charge, the plant would also be able to uproot itself and shoot poison darts. I saw no evidence of these abilities today, however, so there’s no need to panic… yet.)

Not far south of the rest stop was a turnoff I’d been debating. NM 78 broke off the “big” road and headed west into Arizona. I was still enervated from the previous downpour adventure, but I decided to give the little road a go.

When I turned onto 78, there was a sign reading, “Steep grades and sharp curves. Trucks not recommended.” Music to my eyes.

I hadn’t got far when I saw the battered old pickup some distance ahead of me hit the brakes. Hm. I got closer and as i came over a rise saw what he had. There was a pretty decent river flowing across the highway. Still, an old pickup got through, so why should someone in a low-slung sports car worry? With all due caution (I have a friend who lost his engine to high water), I forded the river, came out the other side in second gear with a sigh of relief. On I went, but not very far before I encountered the next river. I noticed that where the river flowed off the pavement on the downstream side there was a pretty significant dropoff, with a waterfall I might have appreciated more if the Bronco coming the other way weren’t trying to get over on my side to avoid a big rock. We all got through just fine in the end, Mr. Bronco waited for me to pass. Good thing, too, because I didn’t have a free hand for the window control.

The four fords went something like this:

  1. Holy cow! I hope I can get through this.
  2. Stay calm, take it easy.
  3. Don’t get cocky, sport; that kills engines
  4. I should have my camera ready for the next one.

Of course, there was no next one, but I did manage to get my phone ready for pictures just in case. From there 78 became steeper and I made a note to add this little ribbon of asphalt to the list of the best drives in the US. I suspect it would be better to drive it eastbound (better to be going uphill for the steepest parts), but my buddy in the pickup and I were treated to one heck of a beautiful and active drive.

Thistle

Thistle

Have you ever smelled a pine forest after a heavy rain? Something about the bed of needles on the ground (that’s my theory anyway) gives it a smell that is like no other. A little sharper than other forests. It’s incredible.

Down, down, and more down, the sort of down that affects your mileage, on twisty-windy roads, trapped behind trucks pulling camping trailers, but that was all right. As we came out of the mountains I almost stopped at a wide spot on the road that had one of those desert views, where you can see across multiple time zones, and you can see the rain falling over there and the sun shining on that mountain and a hell of a lightning storm off to the north.

Did the Navajo think the Earth was flat? What about the Apache? Seems like a question we need answered.

At the bottom of AZ 78 I was faced with a choice. I pulled over for a moment and consulted my not-very-good road atlas. (My previous was Rand McNally and was much better.) I decided on US 191 all the way down to Interstate 10. As I mototed along the flowers gave way to succulents. An occotillo-like plant a vivid green against the red clay. Yuccas and either skinny barrel cactus or stunted saguaros. Cholla and woody shrubs in the overgrazed areas (the contemplation of which triggered a get-poor-quick scheme for another day).

(Note to self: If I ever need a good movie location with an impressive bridge with no traffic that we could maybe even blow up, there’s one next to Highway 191. Ample parking.)

I rejoined civilization in Safford, AZ, a farming town and then some. Not sure, but it might have been cotton in those flooded fields. Safford seemed like a nice place on my flyby, with a sense of community if the signs for this and that event are to be believed. After my high-altitude excursions, however, I could really feel the heat.

I stayed true to my highway headed due south of Safford. On the stretch between Safford and Interstate 10 I saw three things that I claim are thematically related. Just don’t ask me what the theme is.

I saw decay. The human settlements along that stretch of road had obviously seen better days. Even some houses that at 60mph looked like they had been pretty nice once lay abandoned. There were still plenty of people living there, but whatever had been supporting that community is gone. A ghost town in the making, populated only by people with nowhere else to go.

I saw plenty. The yuccas’ long stalks were bent over, forming weary arches. At first glance this is in harmony with the human plight of the town, until you realize that the plants are bowed over by the weight of their own fruit. The yuccas, at least, seem to be doing well this year.

I saw waste. For most of the way south, US 191 is a simple, well-maintained stretch of two-lan blacktop. Then, without any change in circumstances, there is a section that is divided highway, and then a section of perfectly adequate two-lane again, and then back to divided highway. I’m sure someone somewhere can tell me why it’s critical that US 191 be upgraded, but seriously, I’m not buying. I thought at first I was looking at stupidity, but then I realized I was most likely looking at the price tag for the vote of a powerful senator on some other issue. “We’ll send one hundred million of other people’s dollars to Arizona if you vote for…”

If you study those three observations long enough you’ll see an important convergence, a glistening polyp of knowledge that will make this whole crazy thing called life make sense. When you find it, let me know, ok?

Freeway! High speeds (except where there’s construction)! The entertaining route is rarely the fastest one, and there was still a long way for me to go. I was already exceeding the speed limit when I hit the top of the on-ramp. Time to fly!

Only, directly ahead loomed a big-ass storm. We’re way in the south of Arizona at this point, right? This desert could eat your pisante desert for breakfast, and wash it down with a glass of burning sand. Yet there in front of me is a rainstorm. Careful readers of this blog, those who keep score and try to catch my continuity errors, will note that the last time I drove this stretch of road, it was a white-knuckle gullywasher experience. That time I found myself in an America’s Best Value Inn, and likely that will be my last time with that chain. It sucked and cost a lot.

This time the plan was to fly Best Western. In the days of my months-long road trip they were the most likely to have Internet access, and that made me a fan. Right now they’ve got a buy-two-get-one-free special working. I hope to figure it out. Anyway, I was thinking, as I approached this storm, that if I saw a Best Western sign then my day was done.

I saw one such sign, in Hickox (Willcox?), and got off the freeway. I navigated the flooded roads for a while, never spotting the promised hotel. Finally, I saw the tall standard in the shape of a Best Western sign, empty. The hotel has apparently severed ties with my preferred chain. I drove on, into the mouth of the storm.

It was all pretty much routine, except when I was passing a truck, with a car in front of me, when we all together hit a section of the pavement where the water sheeted up. I never lost traction, but I was completely blind, all the glass of my car completely covered by torrents of water. Somewhere to my right was a big-ass truck. To my left, the median. Ahead, who knows? What if that driver hits the brakes?

My first fumbling act was to flip the wiper speed lever up to full blast. It wasn’t until several seconds later, the crisis passed, that I even realized I had done that, for the effort was completely futile. Water was dumping on me far too quickly to be wiped away.

I tapped my brakes, partly to send a signal to people behind me but mostly just to know they worked. I clenched the wheel, invented newer and better curse words than have ever been uttered before, and forgot them. Then we were through the crisis, all still alive, and slowly I got my heart under control.

Total time elapsed: maybe fifteen brick-shitting seconds.

That’s the thing about the road. It doesn’t care how much you love it. It’ll kill you anyway.

Sunset in Arizona

Sunset in Arizona

Now I’m at a Motel 6 in Casa Grande, Arizona. It’s nice enough, and it’s cheap. (Not as cheap as the hotels in Tucson, though. Those who plan their trips should try to sleep there.) Internet is extra here, but my phone can get me some Internet love. Tomorrow I’ll put up the photos. I bought a toothbrush and toothpaste at the truck stop across the street.

4

Need a Name for a Society of Monsters

Let’s say you’re part of a bunch of immortals who have been around since ancient times. Let’s further posit that you feed on people and are better than normal humans by any physical measure.

There was a time when there were only a few of you — the First Ones — and wherever you were at the time, you gave your species a name in the local language. That name would translate to “super-humans” or “immortals” or “silent killers in the night” or something like that. Something badass.

Unfortunately, time has passed, as it tends to do, and language has changed with it. That badass name doesn’t mean quite what it used to, either phonetically (I spent the last half-hour looking up the phonetic match for “douche” in Sanskrit and Sumerian but didn’t find anything useful), or perhaps the actual meaning has changed into something entirely different, the way “lesbian” has.

Any thoughts or ideas are welcome!

Storytelling Advice

The best advice I can give to aspiring filmmakers is get a good opening and a good ending and get them as close together as possible.

— Steve Sabol, President of NFL Films

All storytellers should take this to heart, especially long-winded ones like me. The story I’m working on right needs to be tight.

Dust in the Wind = Opportunity

While driving through southwest Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle, I noticed that the horizon was brown — the air is as dingy and grim as the air in Los Angeles ever was. It is tinged with particulate pollution that at one time was part of one of the richest topsoil systems on the planet. Now our soil is floating on the breeze, not doing anyone any good.

It’s time to do something about it.

Back in the prairie days, before the plow reached the plains, there was grass to hold down the soil. Then came farmers and soon after came the dust bowl. When there wasn’t enough rain, crops withered and the desiccated soil was exposed to the wind. These days, the main reason we don’t have more dust bowls is irrigation. Mighty pumps draw water from below the surface and spray it on the crops. This is still not as effective at erosion control as the prairie grasses were, and the activities of farming just plain raise a lot of dust. Not much one can do about it.

Or is there? What if we could do something about the other element in a dust storm — the wind? Slow the wind down and the air won’t be able to carry as much particulate matter. If we can slow down the wind enough, we might even begin to accumulate soil from less-enlightened neighbors.

Oh, I hear you now: “Hold the phone, there, Sunshine! Slow down the wind?” Yeah, it sounds crazy, I know, but in fact we already have machines that slow down the wind, and as a special bonus they give us electricity. Yep, windmills are machines that take energy out of the air and turn it into juicy, useful, power. There are already wind farms popping up in Kansas, giant pylons standing in neat rows across the very fields that are losing topsoil to the wind.

The difficulty with the current setup is that the windmills are put way up in the air, where there is less interaction with ground winds. This is done on purpose, as the giant rotors’ primary purpose is electricity, not erosion control, and the wind is steadier up there. (Also, it makes sense to get those giant rotors up where they won’t be whacking into things.) For this job we’re going to need windmills closer to the ground, which probably means many smaller windmills. Since efficiency at generating electricity is no longer the top priority, we can put them closer together. Each will generate less electricity, but the rows of them will make a more effective windblock.

How much do windmills slow down the air? I’m not really sure, but I’ve heard about habitats being affected downwind from them. It’s all a matter of taking enough energy out of the system.

That might be enough to make a difference, but we can add a low-tech modification to our fields to deflect the wind up off the ground and into the whirling blades. Simple scoop-shaped fences, perhaps configured in V shapes, can funnel the air whooshing along the ground up and into the windmills. More electricity, even less soil erosion. I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the water needed for the crops was reduced as well. Less water per acre means more land can be irrigated, which means more food.

The fence system assumes that wind usually comes from the same general direction; I imagine that when the wind is blowing parallel to the fences they might do more harm than good. Judging by the way the wind farms are set up, I think the direction is pretty steady, however. The V-shaped fences may prove to be a hassle for the farmer; modern machinery likes straight lines and big circles. Perhaps the fences could be replaced by long rows of grape vines. They would be less efficient at deflecting the wind but they would provide a significant additional crop. Another type of food makes the farmer less vulnerable to crop-specific pests and to random market swings.

I picture the ideal field as having some of the giant turbines to slow down the air up above, with rows of closely-spaced windmills below to slow the surface wind. Air moving over the field would be slowed enough that it’s carrying capacity was reduced, and rather than picking up sediment would deposit some of what it was already carrying instead. Free dirt!

The cool thing about this get-poor-quick scheme is that while it may not have the same immediate return on investment of a traditional wind farm, the watts per acre will be pretty high. Assuming energy prices keep climbing, it could even pay for itself. Then, when the aquifer runs out and the dust bowl returns, maybe America will still be able to feed itself.

Leaving Lawrence

I drove off the campus of Kansas University at about noon, playing my new Boxcar Satan CD louder than is strictly necessary. I went south on Highway 59 for a few miles until it crossed 56, which seemed to be going more or less my direction. It was an older stretch of road, more inclined to roll with the terrain rather than blast through it. Around Baldwin City I stopped and applied sunscreen (only a little too late) and carried on, enjoying the rolling hills and the barns. There are a lot of barns on that road; large and small, stone and wood and brick, red and white, ramshackle and tidy.

Traffic was light, polite and scrupulously obeyed the speed limits. I’m on the Santa Fe trail, which appeals to me, because Santa Fe is my next stop.

Jim Gunn asked me if I’d learned enough at the workshop. I said I’d learned all I could, but we’d have to see if that was enough. My brain is like a glass, I said, and knowledge is beer. Right now the foam is up to the rim; once it settles we’ll see how much beer is actually in there.

While saying goodbye, several of my fellow writers said (more or less) “You have to finish your novel! I have friends that will love it!” That’s encouraging, and flattering, but now I have to write the damn thing. These other good folk have constructed in their heads what the story will be like, and they like the image. But can I live up to those expectations? I don’t have a single chapter in final form yet.

I guess time will tell. All I can do is string the words together while wearing a quirk of a smile on my face, and hope the funny comes through in the darkness. For there will be darkness.

3

Congratulations, Spain

The boys from Madrid and Barcelona managed to work together, and scoring only nine goals in the entire tournament, have become world champions.

I was pulling for Spain, as in general I prefer finesse over brute strength. I would have been much happier, however, if the winning goal, which came at the most dramatic moment possible, when overtime was almost expired, had not been scored by the most flagrant flop artist on the pitch. He will go down in history for scoring The Goal, rather than for being The Big Whiny Whistle-Baiter. Except in these pages.

An indication of the state of the sport: At one point a Dutch player was breaking away. There was contact. Rather than fall down and draw a whistle, he tried to score. The announcers questioned his judgement. FIFA, we have a problem.

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