What’s with all the moon stuff?

I have added a couple of widgets over in the sidebar that show the phase of the moon. Why? Because when the moon gets back to new, I’ll be somewhere in the ocean around Iwo Jima, staring straight up and burning my eyeballs as the moon passes between them and the sun. Total Eclipse of the Sun, baby, and I’ll be there!

I added two different moon phase thingies because one was more aesthetically pleasing, while the other held more cultural interest. If you hold the mouse over the Japanese characters, you will be given important information about how to carry out your day. If you can figure out what it means.

I’ll be writing more about this adventure as I gear up for the cruise. A boat full of astronomy geeks! Woo hoo!

Shadow Gate

“Uh, oh,” I thought as I picked up Shadow Gate. I’d bought it in a hurry while at the Atlanta airport, and I did not look closely at the cover. It was a big fat fantasy novel and I like those, especially when traveling. I didn’t read it on the plane, however, and so it was a few days ago that I pulled it off the shelf of books waiting to be read. That’s when I looked more closely at the cover. “Book two of Crossroads,” the fine print on the cover said. Crap.

“Uh, oh,” I said again as I flipped through the pages in front. There was a map. Not generally a good sign. With trepidation, I began to read.

Things started off well. I met a character who, apparently, had been killed in book one. Only, she’s what you might call “sort of dead”; she can walk around and talk to people and in fact can kick some pretty serious ass. She has become a Guardian, a person with great power and the responsibility to apportion justice in the land. One of the central themes of the book, and one I enjoyed exploring quite a lot, is what happens when those given the power to maintain justice turn around and misuse it instead. This gives all the adventuring and conflict a higher purpose, and many of the people we like are struggling with the issues, and sometimes making decisions that are morally questionable. Add cultural differences and you’ve got quite a yummy stew of ideas.

But let’s get to those two uh-oh’s, warning instincts that I have come to trust. I’ll start with the simplest one: the map. As a rule I’m suspicious of books with maps, for a couple of reasons. Writers often confuse a big stage with a big story, and have people tramping all over the place for no real reason. My story The Monster Within has travel, but there’s no need of a map. I kept the geography unimportant, and focussed on the people in the places. In this case, I looked at the map a couple of times at the beginning, but then gave up on it for two reasons. First, what little information it did impart it did poorly, second, much of the geography that really mattered for this story was off the edge of the map. As ‘outlanders’ interacted I really wished I knew how their domains connected. Oh, well. Ultimately, the exact locations of things wasn’t that important, and when I mentally threw the map away the reading experience improved.

Then there’s the ‘book two’ business. The cover of this book reads:

Shadow Gate Book Two of Crossroads.

What it should say is

Crossroads: Volume 2 of n – Shadow Gate.

Or, as I think about it more, perhaps the title should be:

Crossroads pages 781-1564

When I buy a book, especially in an airport, I expect a there to be a story contained between the covers. Airport selections are limited, and the chance that I’ve read book one of a series is small. Still, optimistically, I began to read this volume, and at first it seemed like Ms. Elliott was on my side. The mostly-dead character awakens, and we fast-forward ahead about twenty years. Many of the characters that are introduced subsequently weren’t even born when Marit became a Guardian (presumably after the end of the first volume), so I got the feeling that we were off to a nice fresh start. There were cultural traits and slang words that seemed to be taken for granted, but I worked through them. The writer could have done a little better welcoming new readers, but it wasn’t a big deal. Then there was a huge battle that was never depicted, but the aftermath drove much of the narrative. Characters appeared only to disappear again almost instantly. Hm. I started getting the feeling that I was seeing events that had been in book one, but were now being shown again from a very limited perspective.

Still, the narrative chugged along with good characters and big developments portrayed from very human perspectives. Morals and ethics of different cultures contrasted and clashed. The nature of the evil that threatens the land becomes clearer, but is plausibly self-justified. Bad people die. Good people die. The bad guys have the upper hand, but we see all the characters heading for a major confrontation. I was hooked.

It was the promise of the major showdown, and lingering hope that my impression at the start that book two was not merely a continuation of book one that kept me going. (Although, would it kill Ms. Elliott to be more selective with pronouns? To start with “he” after a break and go for a page and a half without naming the character is annoying to say the least.) On I read, and as I learned more about the overall power struggle among the Guardians the more interested I became. This was obviously the grand struggle that would span the entire series, while this book would resolve one specific part of that struggle. Wheels within wheels, I thought. We’ll take care of some personal conflicts, perhaps between Shai (who is shy) and the woman who torments him. Or maybe Kesh and Elidar will realize they have a common goal. There are about a dozen of those threads as we draw to the end of the volume, as well as some extra problems caused by conflict in faraway lands.

There is no ending. No smaller wheels within the larger plot. This is not a story, but an episode. It even ends with a cliffhanger. Once again I have shelled out my hard-earned cash to read a story only to discover at the end that I have merely invested in an installment, and I will have to purchase an unknown number of volumes over an unknown number of years to get to the end of the story. I could have set the book down at any point and be no worse off. Books like this should say in big letters: CONTAINS NO ENDING!

Note to Kate Elliott: Let me know when the entire series is published. I liked your writing enough to give the story a try — once you’ve finished writing it.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Please don’t adjust your set…

Just playing around with background images. You know, for something memorable. Branding. Something that people will look at and say “Now that’s Muddled Ramblings and Half-baked Ideas!” Or, failing that, “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargggggggghhhhhh!”

Although my sweetie likes this background, I expect it will be temporary. Let me know what you think!

The Spam Index of Popularity

If the popularity of figures in the entertainment industry is proportional to the number of times a person appears in Internet spam, then Megan Fox and Miley Cyrus are currently at the top of the heap. I’m not sure who either of those people is, but their names appear before the word “nude” more than any others who appear in the (pre-filtered) spam comments for this blog.

Their agents should be right on top of this trend, and get them the big bucks.

Awkwardlicious

The road trip was a success! Two went south, and three came back. In the meantime we saw a not-very-rough rough cut of “this is Awkward”, the latest Brat?i Síg?í production. (Although, I must admit my participation in this one was more limited.)

I must say the cut looked pretty good! Our editor made a decision that was a bit out of the box but worked really well, and the assembled audience laughed out loud often. Perhaps they were an easy crowd since many of them worked on the flick, but much of the laughter was genuine. I was among the laughers.

Between screenings of “This is Awkward” the old classic “Pirates of the White Sand” played (an edit I had not seen before), and also pulled in its share of chuckles and guffaws. Overall, it was a successful evening for our little production.

The trip back north included the other half of the Seeger Bros., who is visiting here in San Jose for a few days. Maybe we can put together a movie!

Could it be? Another road trip already!

Yep, tomorrow we load up the other car for a trip back down to Los Angeles. The event: a screening of This is Awkward, a series of four very short films directed by fuego, and executed by an assemblage of film professionals. You might have heard about it somewhere. My sweetie and I starred in one of them, and it was a hoot! Another one is based on a story I wrote and adapted for the silver screen (which was then re-adapted to the circumstances of the location). I’ve heard interesting stories about the other scenes as well.

So, if you’re in the LA area on Tuesday, June 23rd, I’d love to see you at the premiere! Things start at 3 p.m. and will continue from there. Drop me a line if you want directions.

A Science Question

While living in Prague I probably drank more tap water than anyone else I knew, but I drank plenty of bottled water as well. Since I was a) environmentally aware and b) lazy, I ended up with a large collection of bottles waiting to go to the recycling bin up the road. After a while I began to observe a pattern, and as I packed up the apartment to move back to the states I took a brief timeout to document the phenomenon. Please observe exhibit A:

shrinking bottles

The bottle on the left is the youngest, the oldest is on the right. The burning question for today is, “why are the bottles shrinking over time?” All the bottles were stored with lids on, some with dribbles of water in them. Sometimes the water had been carbonated, other times not. Bottles do not puff back up when the apartment is particularly warm, nor can I find any other thermal explanation that would not even out over time. Age (on the scale of months) is definitively a factor.

So what’s going on? Is there a chemical reaction with the plastic that is reducing the number of gas molecules inside? Is there a sort of one-way membrane effect going on that lets air molecules out but not back in? Most likely the pressure is lower in the bottles than outside, due to the plastic wanting to revert to its original shape — unless there’s something about plastic that makes it want to shrivel up like that.

Any chemists out there want to hazard a guess? Physicists? Mechanical engineeers? UFO conspiracy specialists? Science Fiction writers? I’ll listen to any theory you care to offer.

Filming Murder, Sincerely

It was a gray Saturday morning in Los Angeles, with the occasional misty rain. My costar and I were running a bit late for our breakfast meet-up with the director, a delay caused largely by my inability to get out of the hotel room with everything I needed. We were both groggy, having not slept well despite a comfortable bed at the Hilton (a hotel whose motto should be “we charge extra for that”). Chalk it up to anticipation for the events of the day.

Yours Truly stretching his acting ability to the limits by putting on shoes

Yours Truly stretching his acting ability to the limits by putting on shoes

Breakfast was nonetheless pleasant. Eggs over-easy (flipped too soon) and decent pancakes at a place called Twain’s on Ventura Boulevard. fuego, Harlean, and I managed to communicate while blessed caffeine worked its magic. fuego told us stories from the previous days of shooting. I’m really looking forward to seeing the other episodes — especially the one I wrote. Eventually fuego had to go pick up our Director of Photography and a bunch of gear. He left us with a map to the day’s location and an hour to kill.

Getting a shot of the prop script over my shoulder

Getting a shot of the prop script over my shoulder

The location was a beautiful house overlooking Universal City. (The sound guy later pointed out the set for ‘Desperate Housewives’ below us.) The crew set to work and they all seemed competent as far as I could tell. While this was not nearly the size of production as “Moonlight Sonata” there was still plenty of stuff to set up. Once again we were shooting on a Red, although the lens kit and lighting package were more modest. The sound guy and his assistant were on the ball. While that was going on my costar/make-up tech went to work on my face. Soon we were ready to shoot.

fuego frames the shot of the producer coming up the stairs

fuego frames the shot of the producer coming up the stairs

The first few shots had no dialog, which was good. It gave me a chance to get comfortable and get in the flow of things. At the same time, I haven’t the slightest idea how my facial expressions work onscreen. Too much? Not enough? I guess I’ll know soon. In the end there were quite a few shots to put the action together, getting me from reading a screenplay up the stairs with an extension cord and into the bathroom where my wife was bathing.

There was a rather long break while the crew put gels over the windows in the bathroom to adjust the light color. Meanwhile Harlean took care of her own makeup and we went over our newly-redrafted lines. (The original lines were overtaken by events, particularly the time of day we could shoot.) Finally everything was ready, the special effects guy and his helper showed up and went to work, and we broke for lunch. At that point I was ready to just get going with the dialog, but the ribs were delicious.

Tinting the bathroom windows.

Tinting the bathroom windows.

The afternoon went smoothly, as far as I could tell. Nobody complained about my acting to my face; and Harlean did a great job — such a good job we added a line to let her exercise her pissed-off/sarcastic vocal tone (the one that will make her all the rage in Hollywood). A blow-dryer took a bath, sparks flew, breakers popped, and I said the line “This is awkward” about a dozen different ways over the course of the shooting.

One thing I can say as an actor, I’m not the sort of guy who complains about doing another take. There’s always something I want to fix about the last performance. In fact, as I sit here now, I think I’d like one more go at the speech that leads up to the blow-dryer toss. I think I could have been a lot more expressive, with more expansive gestures. Generally more mood-swingy, edging toward euphoria.

Preparing the bathtub

Preparing the bathtub

Next time.

The day ended with director, DP, and the two actors enjoying a beer in a Studio City living room, watching the sun set over Universal City. It felt good, having it behind me, having a general feeling that I didn’t mess things up too badly. Over dinner that night we made plans to get back together when a rough edit is done. I wonder what I’ll see.

Note: You can see a bunch more pictures at my gallery.

Road Trip Supplies: Then and Now

The following is a simple table of the food I bought for my solo road trip a few weeks ago and the food my sweetie and I packed for our trip together this weekend. You may draw your own conclusions:

Solo With my favorite road-trip partner
Beef Jerky Honey-Roasted turkey sandwiches on sourdough mini-baguettes
A big container of cookies A big container of cookies
Half-gallon of cranberry juice A whole bunch of fruit juice boxes
Almonds The same package of almonds
I could swear there was something else baby carrots
grapes
Packed in the grocery bag they came in. Packed in insulated bag with blue ice.
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Wakey wakey!

This morning I awoke abruptly to the beeping of an alarm clock. There ought to be a law. The annoying sound chased away the dream I was having; my sweetie and I had gone to the moon and we were setting up in a nice little house. I was trying to figure out how to take a video to prove we were there, one that couldn’t be faked. As the beeper beeped I was trying to juggle in low gravity. It wasn’t going well.

Six minutes later, as the snooze alarm tried to convince us that yes, it really was time to get up, I was turning down the opportunity to be a drug distributor in Prague.

Six minutes after that… Let’s just say that there was a lot of snoozing this morning.

Road Trip!

That’s right, kids, tomorrow my sweetie and I will be hitting the open road, just the two of us, a few clothes, and a cooler full of munchies. Good times!

We’re heading down to Los Angeles where my brother is currently hanging out. He was working on a movie, but it got canned, so instead he’s devoting his time to making a series of short films all tied together thematically. My better half and I will play a married couple, in a very very short film based on a story that first appeared right here at Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas — though I didn’t write it. (The story was posted as a comment before I moved the blog to the new platform, so it’s in the old comment system.)

fuego and company will also be filming a short based on the original blog episode that inspired the comment, and a couple of other shorts as well. Filming is under way already, but I haven’t heard how it’s going. They have a good crew of people and a good camera, though, so I’m optimistic.

Upgrading the Search Function

The other day I wondered how many times I’d used the phrase “You don’t have to thank me” in this blog. No problem, I thought, I’d just pop the phrase into the search feature over on the sidebar and let it tell me.

The only problem was, it didn’t give a very good answer. It also included partial matches, which would have been all right if it had either a) ranked the results, or b) shown a little excerpt of the resulting matches with the searched-upon words emphasized. The built-in WordPress search function does neither. Off I went to find alternatives.

One option was to hook up Google to do the search. That’s a pretty good option from a functional standpoint; nobody is as good at ranking results and showing you a bit to help you with your decision. The downside is that it’s pretty ugly. My (very) brief search made it appear that I wouldn’t be able to do much with the results. My search for Google-based solutions was brief because I found another WordPress plugin called “Better Search” which did in fact return ranked answers. Hooray!

Only, not so fast, Sparky. The plugin is still young, and doesn’t provide much in the way of customizing the look of the results, either. The good news was that the source code is right there and I thought it wouldn’t be too tough to rearrange things a bit to make it much easier to customize. The plugin author had already done the mysterious, magical steps to allow a template file to work, all that was left was giving the template the power. So I did that, and sharpened up some PHP skills while I was at it. Now if you do a search, you will see that the results include a relevance ranking. The result page is still pretty ugly, because I haven’t finished tweaking my new template for my site. (I tried to start with a general one that would be useful to others.)

Then, I typed “You don’t have to thank me” into the search box and got… No matches found. What? I know I’ve used that phrase before. I tried removing the word with the apostrophe, in case that had something to do with it. Nope. Eventually I got down to the word “thank”. No matches.

Here’s the thing: MySQL, the database I use, has built this fancy full-text matching thing (which I learned an awful lot about yesterday), but they’ve optimized it for huge sites. There is a list of common words they throw out to reduce the number of matches. Six of those words are “you”, “don’t”, “have”, “to”, “thank”, and “me”. Wow. To make things worse, I can’t change the list. Only the big boys who have their own servers can control the list. Those are the ones least likely to want to change the list, but there you go.

There were some other annoying “features” of the MySQL Full-Text search (exact phrase matching doesn’t work like you’d think, for instance), but some of those I suspect are the result of my provider using an older version of the database.

Now, I can put up with the limits of MySQL (this morning i was coding in my head the algorithm for showing an excerpt with emphasis), or shift focus and let the Goog or it’s new arch-rival bing do the heavy lifting – and the formatting. Why can’t this stuff just be easy?

Edited to Add: Well, that blog episode went obsolete in a hurry. I’m currently using a Google sidebar thingie that is visually acceptable (and adaptable). Play around with it!

There is a feature of the Better Search plugin I was using that I will miss – it kept track of recent searches and produced one-click links in a cloud that showed popularity. I guess it’s not a major loss, since not that many people search here, but I liked it.

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Night of the Avenging Blowfish

The first thing you notice about Night of the Avenging Blowfish: A Novel of Covert Operations, Love, and Luncheon Meat by John Welter is the humor. The book is downright funny, and not just a one-note sort of funny. At the start we are with a group of Secret Service agents who may (or may not) have been challenged to a baseball game by the CIA. The game will be played at night, in an unknown location. The challenge on the bulletin board may be a prank. The Secret Service men are eager to form a team, primarily because their boss doesn’t want them to. Silly? Perhaps, but no less silly than living your entire life ready to shoot anyone who looks like they might want to harm the president. No less silly, but a lot less painful.

Doyle is one of those agents. He and the other bachelors in the service sometimes go out drinking, to look at the women in the bars they will never meet. It’s hard to have a romance when you can’t even say where you work. Doyle has another secret, one all his own, to share with no one. He’s so desperately lonely that he’s starting to crumble. He’s also in love with a married woman whom he can never, ever tell about his feelings.

He’s also in a bit of a pickle at work. One night during a visit to the White House kitchen, he finds the chef preparing Spam for a state dinner. The president, it seems, made a comment that the chef took personally. The chef also tells Doyle that tonight’s paté will actually be cat food. Doyle decides that Spam poses no threat to the President so it’s not up to him to interfere. In fact, he’s amused by it all. Unfortunately, the Spam is exposed (though not the cat food), the chef is fired, and Doyle’s inaction angers important people. Eventually (with Doyle’s help) the episode develops into a political scandal (“The president is an elitist!”) that leads to the Chief Executive eating all sorts of awful local dishes, which in turn leads to protest from animal rights groups…

It gets complicated. Meanwhile, the baseball team, dubbed the Avenging Blowfish, continue to practice playing in the dark, and Doyle learns that the object of his unrequited love might — just might — return his affection.

The dialog in the book is crackling sharp and very funny, even when dancing around dark subjects. People speak almost in code, conversations twisting with deliberate misinterpretation of others’ words, layers of negatives, and an understood agreement to not understand. This is particularly true when the Secret Service and the CIA talk to each other. I was reminded of Joseph Heller several times while reading, and then noticed that Heller was quoted on the cover, endorsing the writer.

For all the silliness, the book has a heart. It’s a love story, and Doyle, speaking privately with us, feels emotions with a force that threatens to break him, and he can never, ever tell anyone about them. Occasionally I thought the author went a bit overboard with Doyle’s private expressions of hopelessness, but the language was powerful enough to pull it off. Doyle is a good man, and he’s in a tough place for someone who has emotions.

One thing I can say for Welter: He ended this novel really well. Progress made, understanding reached, but life is still complicated, the way life is. Doyle does his job, supports his friends, and hits a home run.

Or does he?

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Blogs and Bloggers

A Facebook friend of mine posted a link to a NY Times article about the high failure rate of blogs. I couldn’t read the article without registering (so I didn’t), but that won’t stop me from commenting on it! You don’t have to thank me; it’s what I do.

As I pondered the short life span of the typical blog, I decided that bloggers fall into a few categories, and failure can (usually) be predicted just by identifying what class the blogger is a member of:

  1. People with nothing to say. Unscientifically, I’d say this is the vast majority of blogs. Many of these blogs might better be described as journals; the content is really meant for the consumption of the writer, not any audience. After a few weeks, anecdotes about the crazy antics of Fluffy the cat get old. After a few months these stories get old even for the blogger and he quits. Some people have a treasury of a few really good stories, and those will keep them going for a while, but when the well runs dry the blog fades away.
  2. People who lack the skill to say what they want. I suspect that this group is fairly small, as most people who lack language skills probably don’t start blogging in the first place. The exceptions to this rule, I suspect (having done no research) are found in sport blogs and political blogs, where passionately held beliefs are undermined by the complete inability of the writer to express himself.
  3. Interesting, articulate people with unrealistic expectations. When the blog doesn’t become famous overnight and the blogger realizes she must devote time to it almost every day for months for it to have even a remote chance of catching on, they quit.
  4. Interesting, articulate people who embrace the medium and do it for the pleasure of doing it. They produce what we in the industry call “good blogs.”
  5. People who, despite having traits from categories 1-3, continue to blog, rehashing old material and catering to a microscopic audience. Even as readership remains constant for several years these writers delude themselves into thinking that their blog sucks less than most blogs.

On a purely unrelated note, as Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas celebrates its fifth year of contributing to the noise of the blogosphere, the MuddledRamblings.com business cards I designed say at the bottom, “Sucks less than most blogs!”

Fundamentally, I think most bloggers want to be read. A growing audience is the payoff — more people reading, more people commenting, lively discussions triggered by the words of the blogger. It seems obvious, but when it comes right down to it, most blogs are not read. Personally, I don’t read that many blogs, and comment on fewer still. There are just too many of the damn things. Blogs that don’t produce consistently excellent posts, with some thematic connection between posts, are not going to grow big audiences. (The exception to this is the celebrity blog, where people read just for the name.) I’d have a much better chance at a large readership if I wrote a blog strictly about software engineering on a particular platform rather than just posting whatever drivel pops into my head.

I just like writing drivel, is all.

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New “About” Page is up.

My “About Jerry Seeger” page is now a long, rambling muddle, as befits the rest of the blog. Let me know what you think! Any mysterious incidents from the past I neglected to distort mention?