Friday, December 31, 2010

Star Cube Tiaras!

I've been playing with Blender 2.55 (beta) and making some virtual objects. It's fun, and since playing with a paper and a compass is my idea of relaxing, it's mostly relaxing, too.

I wanted to make a tiara of stars. So I fiddled around and managed to create a Python program that would calculate the angles and make stars with as many points as I wanted. Blender draws virtual objects by collecting a set of points together and then associating them into sets of object faces; the whole collection of points and faces is called a mesh. I even got to use the golden ratio, phi, to make the star's arm's lengths come out the right length to make a perfect-looking five point star.

Then I discovered that the Python function that rotates meshes, bpy.ops.transform.rotate, is on the bug list. Meaning that it doesn't work. Meaning that I can't be lazy and use a program to place perfect five-point stars in an arc around the crown of a tiara.


After a short sulk, I decided that the functions that create cubes, spheres, and other objects still work -- and they have built-in bits for rotation and placement. So. Here we go: Tiaras. Some day the bpy.ops.transform.rotate function will be fixed....

Monday, December 27, 2010

Lava Lamps and Gazing Globe!

This holiday season, I received a purple and orange Lava Lamp and a stainless steel gazing globe. So of course I had to make a Shrine!

I am so happy.

And thankful. I love Lava Lamps, and I've been sort of pining away for my old green gazing globe, which had an accident a few years ago. I am hoping that a stainless steel one will prove to be more robust.

More photos here:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lunar Eclipse Haiku

For part of an early birthday celebration, I got to recite lunar eclipse haiku poems while dressed in a purple smoking jacket and sipping sherry. These are the ones I wrote; some are inspired by Izumi Shikibu and some are inspired by the cloudy sky which threatened to hide the eclipse.

☽ ☀ ☾

Heaven's blinds are drawn
Moonlight filling up this house
is from memory.

☽ ☀ ☾

Now no one will see
My lover's shadow darken
the pillows' whiteness.

☽ ☀ ☾

The moon reenacts
the solstice sun's shadow play
-- with or without clouds.

☽ ☀ ☾

I can't see the moon.
Honey, who turned out the lights?
Oh, it's just the rain.

☽ ☀ ☾

Like tomorrow's moon
with no trace of blushing shade -
my heart clothed in clouds

☽ ☀ ☾

I fancy the moon
doesn't fret about the clouds
when shadows visit.

☽ ☀ ☾

Tonight I shall go
To the palace of shadows
The moon lights my way.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lunar Solstice Eclipse

Just back from watching the eclipse.

I didn't think we would see much of it. At first, as we walked up to the reservoir, it looked like there would be too many clouds in the way. Around 10:40 PM DST, a crescent moon appeared in rents in the cloud cover, only to be whisked out of sight.

There was quite a crowd at the reservoir. The quiet and refined group was made up of the astronomy club. The other group was more interested in howling at the moon and doing some sort of spiral dance.

We got a little sprinkled on, but persevered as the crescent moon became thinner and thinner. I managed to get a few views through a telescope - once of a silver sliver, and once of tattered shreds of cloud passing in front of an dull orange totality.

A cold front passed through, and I was sure that it was going to rain really hard (it didn't). So we left. A little later, we hit a dark spot on the sidewalk and noticed that the moon was a brilliant orange right above Orion. We stopped, thankful to be away from the howling circus (which we could hear in the distance).

We sang (quietly) old Christmas carols and various Neo-Pagan songs as we traveled from dark alley to dark alley. It was a wonderful close to an early birthday celebration (which included family, friends, chocolate, sherry, and haiku eclipse poetry).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The First "No L"

The first noe- /
the ange- did say /
was to certain poor shepherds /
in fie-ds as they -ay. /

In fie-ds where they /
-ay keeping their sheep /
on a co-d winter's evening /
that was so deep.

Noe- / Noe- / Noe- / Noe-
Born is the King of Isrea-

Friday, December 17, 2010

Mathematical Sculptures

Here's more sculptures.

I've lit each sculpture with three lights, a white one above, a green light from the left, and a blue one from the right. This creates some interesting blue and green anti-shadows.

I used to make these sorts of designs on an old HP graphic computer (with thermal paper) back in 1983.

Of course, the "computer" was more like a programmable calculator. And it didn't have a 3-D graphing function (that I was aware of).

After I had made a few of these things, I realized that some of my color-blind friends are not going to see them so well. Sorry.

Originally, I had red and blue lights, but they made the shadows "pop" in a way that was confusing.

All of these were built by a Python script. The script builds a list of points in three dimensions (vertices), then passes them to Blender. Then the Python script tells Blender which vertices are connected into faces. This should be a solid virtual object.

I sent one to Spaceways to see if it would print, but it wouldn't. I believe I didn't tell Blender to make the models small enough for Spaceways' "printer," and so it got auto-rejected.

I might go back to simply building compound models from simple geometric shapes, rather than using a single complex object.

Creating with Blender and Python

Here's the sorts of 3D sculpting I've been doing with Blender and Python. Looks like I need to add a background, but you can kind of see that this is a smooshed sphere if you click on the link to the larger picture.

OK. Back to the holidays.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Request

So when my family asked what I wanted for Christmas, I said I wanted something like this:

The Antikythera Mechanism in Lego from Small Mammal on Vimeo.

They seem confused by the request. I'm not sure why.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Halogen Mania and Information Essay

Today I replaced a 300 watt, 120 volt halogen bulb in a torchiere. Oh. My. Goodness. Words cannot express the exuberance that flooded through me this morning when I transformed our dingy gray morning kitchen nook into a Shrine of Brightness. I probably frightened a half-dozen Twitter and Facebook followers with my manic hymns of thanksgiving (and video).

All I can say is that last Winter's "creative slump" is very definitely connected with the light levels. So don't take away my electric Summer unless you want a reenactment of Psycho, directed by Ingmar Bergman.

In other news, Amanda on Facebook asked: "At what point does society decide we've collectively stored enough information about ourselves? We worry about losing any scrap of information, but, how much information has been lost to the sands of time already? Will what we save now really matter? Would it have helped us to know how many times a day Beethoven picked his nose or how he drank his tea?"

And my light-induced reply:

"Our storage habits are cheap right now; if they became more expensive they'd slow down. Yes; we're building a gigantic data Ozymandias -- but! Marketers take the information and use it to sell stuff. Google and FB make the storage cheap because they've tricked us into becoming data miners for our friends and family.

So sure: if you pick your nose at the same rate and in the same style as Beethoven, then Have I Got A Deal For You! And if you drink Lipton black tea an double strength, steeped for 5 minutes in boiling water, then may I suggest this Sri Lankan Assam tea pack and electric kettle? And we all know that the tea-drinking constituency is an important voting bloc.

Now add to that how Picasa and Google Pics can help you use facial recognition software to help you "organize" your pictures and we've all got a little virtual piece of the Panopticon right in our living rooms, dens, offices, and bedrooms.

So yes, electronic information hoarding is about vanity; it's also about money and power. Er, Yes; I love the freedom of a Net Neutral internet. Why do you ask?

So -- to apply a short essay I read about Wikileaks and how conspiracies manage information -- to stop the endless data collection, we need to make it harder for the conspiracies (Google, FB) to trade information with each other so they are unable to pursue their goal (selling stuff).

The essay posited that Wikileaks does this by forcing the conspiracies to tighten communication between cells in an attempt to control information, thus stifling themselves into ineffectiveness.

I don't know if this leads to a consumer (us) strategy of posting more Cat Videos (and porn) to fill up the networks' bandwidth, or of adapting a strategy of mis-information about ourselves, or of creating fake web surfing applications to use our accounts to surf random sites and make web browser cookies unreliable or what.

But here's where the vanity part of it comes in -- we want our friends and family (and potential readers for those of us who are writers) to be able to find us and see what's up with us. So there is little chance a Bayesian content generator FB app being written or widely adapted soon.

And of course, once Google and FB no longer can use our accounts to build marketable profiles of our consumer and voting habits, there goes "I can haz free InterNets Now."

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

I've been really busy. I keep meaning to post. Thanksgiving was fun. We decorated my folk's Christmas tree Very Early. We caught a rotovirus.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Card Prototype

Here's a photo of the card prototype. Looking at it, I can see that I need to add the date of the lunar eclipse.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reving Up for Christmas Lunar Eclipse 2010

Today I started to think about our holiday card. This year there's a lunar eclipse within hours of the winter solstice, and I wanted our card to be about that.

I folded blue construction paper into quarters. I used a ruler to find the center of the quartered paper, and then used a compass to figure out where to cut a circle out of the paper and some circular slits. Then I got out a white piece of construction paper and cut out a white disk. I colored part of the white disk black and fit it into the slits in the blue paper. I cut an arc-shape out of the blue paper so I could write legends on the white paper disk.

Viola! Instant move the disk and see when the eclipse takes place (in universal time). I moved the white disk through the eclipse cycle and wrote the time of the beginning, total and end of the eclipse in the arc-shaped window.

I showed Mark.

Me (holding up eclipse dial holiday card): "See?!" (moves white disk)

Mark (mixing pie crust dough): "Hmmm. It looks geometric - it needs to look festive."

Thank goodness for reindeer punches!

Me (two white paper reindeer leaping over the moon window later): "See?!" (moving the disk to the full eclipse position)

Mark (cleaning pots and pans): "That's more festive, but you're going to have to include an instruction manual with that card or no one is going to get it."

Me: "But. But... (points) I put little arrows around the rim of the dial..."

Mark: "I thought were were just going to send pictures this year because you didn't want to do craft project cards."

John: "Well. Yeah... I was thinking of that when I was using a craft knife to make all those little slits... which is why there aren't too many...."

Mark: "See; why don't you make a few for the folks you know will like them?"

Me: "But it's the eclipse!"

Sigh. Maybe I can just print out a link to NASA's Eclipse Web Page.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

4J School Board Budget Blues

Back from a school board meeting. Eugene's school district, 4J, faces a 2011-12 budget shortfall of 27-38 million dollars. The superintendent is making a bunch of proposals in order to stay within funding.

Tonight's meeting was for community input. I only have observations.

  • I wonder how the 4J district could normalize the district's revenue stream -- it looks like 75% of the district's income comes from state and federal sources it has little control over.

  • Most Eugene parents would like the teacher to student ratio to be somewhere around 1:18 to facilitate teacher workload and to enable a student to have some individual tailoring of a curriculum to learning-style.

  • My feeling, based on parent comments about K-8 schools is that most parents want a school size of roughly... 20 students X 3 classes X 9 grades = 540 students in order to preserve accountability in student interactions (i.e. they want community control to keep the 8th graders from bullying or dealing drugs to the kindergartners).

  • Every school in Eugene is a niche school. Add to this that most Eugene parents feel entitled to school choice and can be cultish about the school they're in. This turns arguing about which schools to save and which ones to axe into arguing whether to be shot or hung.

  • The school board was asking for input on dealing with the budget, and got appeals to save or target specific schools. It was like watching penguins jostle each other over leopard-seal infested waters. To be fair, it seems to me (looking at the list of school closures) that folks were asking "Why are you targeting my school?" because the school board hadn't made it clear that they're targeting old or small buildings and moving the kids into newer or larger buildings to save money. At least I think that's the logic behind the closures.

  • Nobody spoke about proposed furlough days and reduced class year. Wow. Just wait until unsupervised kids are hanging out at the bus terminal and downtown library because there is no school and mom and dad are working.

No easy answers. And I wonder what all the home school folks think about this.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Blinking Glasses

Mark got these at a fundraiser for breast cancer. He thought that they'd be good Halloween glasses -- and they were, as long as one wasn't RollerBlading. They do blink from one side to the other, so that makes Mark a little dizzy; luckily, I am not so easily unbalanced.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hair Today...

For a few weeks an uneasy feeling stirred within me. This usually happens around Halloween and Groundhog Day. I resisted it last spring.

I thought I'd resist it this fall, too; but I was wrong.

Something had to change, and it was going to be my hair.

I will miss the Fabio Moments, and the Byronic Deliveries when I clinch an argument by unbinding my hair. I will miss being the envy of people who want long hair. I will miss those autumn afternoons when the wind, the leaves, and my cloak orchestrate with my hair to pause traffic. I will miss ruffling locks flowing behind me on moonlit RollerBlade nights.

And so I got the scissors. When I managed to get my hands into the thicket closer to my skull, I realized how the three-year-old, twelve inch ends were dryer and more brittle.

I will not miss the pony tail induced headaches. I will not miss waking up with my face underneath a tangled veil. I will not miss my hair falling into my food, toothpaste, or shaving cream. I will not miss ineffectual hair scrunchies failing to reign in my hair after twenty minutes. I will not miss Mark complaining about John-hairs in the drains, on the floors, in the car, in our bed, in the dryer filter or in our dishwasher.

I finished up with some electric clippers.

I will save lots of money on Aveda Products. I will enjoy the security of hats Velcroed to my head. I will rediscover the sensuous electrical bristly nape of my neck. I will enjoy the startled looks of surprise and delayed recognition. I will take advantage of the unconscious increase in respect people give me when my hair is this short.

A few more images at Picasa.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Behind on NaNoWriMo

Well... it looks like life is throwing some obstacles to writing my way. And I'm down on my NaNoWriMo count. And... now that I'm looking, I really type a lot more slowly than I thought. I'll need a combination of luck and staying focused to get back on track of 16,000 words by Monday.

Friday, November 05, 2010

NaNoWriMo Day 5

NaNoWriMo is interesting. I'm a little behind the suggested word count. If anything participating this month is good for showing me when my writing process is working and when it isn't.

As for the story... well. At this point I have two main characters, a handful of minor ones, the setting, and a very vague outline. As a result, I've got a lot of dialog. The two main characters are from an unpublished short story, so they're the most in focus.

In physical terms -- I feel it in my right shoulder, the one that wants to seize up, when I type for too long without breaks or with bad ergonomics.

And with that... back to writing.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Starting NaNoWriMo

I've been telling myself that I need to write a novel if I'm going to get anywhere as a writer. So, I'm taking the plunge and trying out NaNoWriMo. If I can manage to write about 2000 words a day, that will be good. I'll attempt to write about some characters from an earlier short story. What follows will be a lot of editing in December.

In the mean time, I must not research how to build a hydraulophone. Even if Heron of Alexandria might have built one... hey! Wow! I never heard of a pyrophone before.... um, I mean...

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Fifteen Authors

Someone issued another FaceBook Challenge: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who've influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.

So. Okay... in no particular order:

Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling -- Yes, they are editors, but ... Yes, I have many of the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies. I have another little gem from the mid-80's (oops, I thought Datlow edited it too, but it's only Windling) called Faery! It's very cool, and we're not talking sweetness and light sensitive new age fair folk, either.

Jane Yollen -- I like her use of language and her humor. Touch Magic explores the boundaries of truth, myth, and language in story telling. Merlin's Booke is a collection of Merlin stories, and it's interesting to see how she has created variations on a theme. Cards of Grief is a science fiction tale exploring the boundaries between legend, myth, history, power and gender.

Ronald Hutton -- While a historian not a speculative fiction writer, his books on English Neo-Paganism have influenced me greatly. Specifically, I like how he takes a look at founding myths and their histories. My favorite is Truimph of the Moon, and I like his collection of essays, Witches, Druids and King Arthur. I need a copy of Stations of the Sun.

Starhawk -- Her genius (and fatal flaw) is finding a poetic metaphor that best captures complicated issues. It's her fatal flaw because it sometimes leads her readers to reason by analogy or to base conclusions solely on imagination. But, hey - I read The Spiral Dance, Dreaming the Dark, and Truth or Dare and was transformed. I don't care for her novels as much as her non-fiction, but I do like some of her short stories.

Issac Asimov -- Three. Laws. of. Robotics. Okay, and Psychohistory. He pretty much defined the genre of the science fiction short story.

JRR Tolkien -- Language! Elves (and not your punky snowboarding pretty-boy Elves, either)! Beauty that is Perilous in its ability to Enchant and Transform. Ents! and Stars! OK... short on female characters who aren't trophy princesses... but still. If you haven't read his short essay On Fairy Stories, stop what you're doing now.

CS Lewis -- Probably my favorite book growing up was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I also liked A Horse and His Boy. I completely missed the "Aslan = Christ" thing until I was much, much older. The Screwtape Letters were interesting at first, but tiresome to read.... and at the time I read it (decades ago) I wished Perelandra were much shorter.

Sheri S Tepper -- I loved her nine-volume series set in the Land of the True Game. I love her sarcasm. I love most of her social commentary. Of her more recent writings, I enjoyed The Family Tree.

Mercedies Lacky
-- Whenever I need to read an entertaining story, I turn to Valdamar (at least in its earlier stories). Although it was fun to have an out gay hero like Vanyel Ashkevron, I like the stories with Tarma, Kethry and Warrl the best.

Ursula K Le Guin
-- Another language author. I read the Earthsea trilogy when I was eleven or twelve, and the Lathe of Heaven a few years later. What I like about her stories is that she's able to create complex and believable characters from a range of genders and ages.

Mary Stewart -- The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment were my gateway books to the Arthurian Romances. I loved them. Merlin in these stories was gritty and his magic was downplayed by his use of psychology.

Sprague de Camp -- I'm not sure when in my teen years I bumped into Harold Shea, the Incomplete Enchanter, but I loved the idea of literally jumping into stories where magic worked. I'm not sure that it would be one of my favorites today, but it certainly influenced me in the 1970's.

Marion Zimmer Bradley -- I was never much of a Darkover fan, but I did like her Lythande short stories and I adored the Sword and Sorceress series.

Charles de Lint -- I need to re-read some of his works. I particularly liked Greenmantle; I prefer his fantasy over his horror. I also liked the way that he used language, his use of music, and how he had the natural world inform his magical world.

Patricia C Wrede -- Before she wrote Talking to Dragons in 1985, she wrote one of my favorites, The Harp of Imach Thyssel. I loved most all of her World of Lyra stories.

Emma Bull
-- War for the Oaks. Early 80's rocker meets the Seelie Court. It's like Labyrinth, only grittier and with better dialog. I re-read it every so often and am always pleased.

Orson Scott Card -- Sure, I liked Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, but I like his short stories a whole lot better. They have a masterful use of language and he is wonderful at giving story endings a little twist. And, uh, no -- I don't agree with his personal politics.

I wanted (and still want) to write like these folks when I was a kid. When I think about my own writing in comparison, I can in part trace the wonder of connection, a love of language use, and humor back to the above authors.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Halloween RollerBlading

Our street is pretty quiet -- and it wasn't raining -- so Halloween night I decided that I was going to watch the house and distribute candy outside. On RollerBlades. In a black cloak.

The best part about distributing candy on RollerBlades isn't the part where I lean up against a shadowy corner of the garage, then silently roll forward toward surprised trick-or-treaters -- although that's fun.

The best part is swooping along the street, silently, my black cloak billowing out behind me; my body still and poised, yet in smooth motion; a floating flapping part of the night. And, of course, there's appropriate music playing in my head -- usually by John Williams.

Man, I need to do more nightly RollerBlading -- I used to do it all the time . . . sigh.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Designs on Halloween

Here's a shot of the "meta-pumpkin" I carved last night. I should have stopped there because in a late-night fatigue-carving fest, I made the following mistakes: forgetting that pumpkin flesh is not cardboard, being surprised by the thickness of this pumpkin, and making the designs a little too big.

This was the original design. Mark accused me of making another klansman-style ghost; I thought ghosts were supposed to have pointy heads. Using circle sections probably didn't help. I tried a retro look with a Scooby-Doo phantom as a model. Um, no pictures of the finished product (nothing to see, here; move along...)

Scary kitty! I got the head a little -- er -- "off". Mark says this one looks like a Cubist style cat. I like it; I just need to put the head back onto the body. If we'd had another pumpkin and more time, I would have tried to carve this design.

I got a little compulsive on this one. I never could get the legs to come out right.

Yep. I used a compass to make this bat, too. (Background on loan by an artist-friend going through his Pollock stage.)

And... all our Halloween preparations have been lit by the comforting green glow of our Lava Lamp!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Fall Thursday

Halloween bats adorn our house this year. The big Balinese bat kite is in an upper corner of the living room, and various-sized bat cutouts are stuck to the lamp shades.

The fall weather has come to the Willamette Valley. It is dark and gray today. I have just realized that it is very dark, and that I should turn on a light so that I don't begin to hibernate.

Thank goodness for Lava Lamps, although I have to install a timer on the thing to make sure that I don't loose a half-hour staring at the green lava blobs rising and falling and merging into each other.

Oh! And I need to submit a story -- right now!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

More "Girl Genius"

As I found myself reading more and more of Girl Genius, I found myself drawn to it and I wondered why. The art was fun, but I wanted to take a closer look at the story elements.

The world of Girl Genius is a world ruled by "Mad Science" -- which isn't really science, but rather science fantasy. There's nothing wrong with science fantasy, Star Wars uses it all the time. Specifically, Girl Genius is set in a 1900-ish Europe that uses a Newtonian kind of pre-petrol mechanical technology: think the machines from Flash Gordon, only substitute the nuclear power and gas with wind-up springs and coal. For medical technology, think Victor Von Frankenstein, with a few (essentially) magic potions thrown in.

In terms of aesthetic, think Jules Verne and Alphonse Maria Mucha -- Oh; remember Princess Leia from Return of the Jedi? (Did I mention the (mostly) cheese- and (not quite as much but still nice) beefcake?) -- with a little bit of Art Deco on the edges. This is probably the appeal of Girl Genius -- the romanticism of the late 19th and early 20th century, and artistically (or divinely) inspired but ultimately knowable technology.

Turning away from the physical world building, we come to the social setting. In Girl Genius, Europe (excluding England) is held together by a despotic overlord. Vassal barons and princes administer local fiefs. So that's another reader hook: The Age of Empire! Hey -- wait a minute; what other science fantasy story had an Empire ?

The society is stratified as follows:
  • Sparks -- these are genius scientist: might be good, might be bad, but they're definitely crazy (it's the "Mad" in "Mad Science")
  • Royalty -- It seems that a large number of royals are also sparks.
  • Minions -- Non-sparks; the go-fers.
  • Jägermonsters -- mutant, jar-head, vaguely Germanic, comic cannon-fodder. Think flying monkeys, only with no wings. Think Klingons, only more slap-stick.
  • Other specialized soldiery -- it seems every other little kingdom or spark has its own, pseudo-Balkan legion of costumed military.
  • Local peasantry -- somebody's got to be conscripted into the armies or at least form a torch-carrying mob.
  • Constructs -- think cousins to Frankenstein's Monster
  • Clanks -- in-world slang for semi-autonomous (steam or spring-driven) mechanical devices
So in this world, who you defer to and are deferred to by depends on if you are a spark and how good of a spark you are. Sparkiness in the world of Girl Genius is a quality you're born with. It's the renaissance Great-Chain-Of-Being meets The (New Style) Force; it's rolling an 18/100 for your IQ in old AD&D. It's what you've got to work with, so don't waste time trying to be something you aren't; if you're a minion, be the best minion there is -- because there's no way you'll be a spark.

In terms of Story Goodness, it's fun to read about Special People doing Special Things. The down side is that it can lead to a focus on The Chosen One. Girl Genius attempts to defuse The Chosen One Syndrome by having conflicting prophesies and information.

Having a stratified society means many story elements revolve around the characters discovering, redefining and rediscovering power relationships.

Zooming in from the cultural to the individual characters, we're never completely sure if a character is someone bad trying to be good, or someone good trying to be bad. The only thing we're mostly sure of is that most of the major characters, who are almost all sparks, are slightly crazy (or have a fanatical devotion to something). Probably, good versus bad is the wrong metric; a closer one would be self-centered or other-centered. The sparks are still mostly crazy, though.

Part of this moral ambiguity is that, in addition to power relations, no matter what social strata one comes from in Girl Genius, one has An Ulterior Motive:
  • Finding the Lost Kingdom
  • Finding the Secret Power Artifact
  • Returning Home
  • Total World (or at least European) Domination
  • Clearing the way for a vaguely messianic person
  • Keeping the Secret Identity a Secret
  • Destroying, Containing or Subverting a Perceived Threat

Now add on a few Dysfunctional Family Dynamics:
  • My Dad is a Ruthless (Benevolent?) Despot
  • My Mother wants to possess me so she can further her evil plans to rule the world
  • My Single Parent is too busy with Byzantine double-crosses to pay attention to me
  • My Sibling has become a cyborg
  • My primary caregiver is a ravening control-freak who makes modern-day helicopter parents look like permissive hippie-'rents.
  • Our family had to create its own version of a witness protection plan
and you have a typical Girl Genius character. In summary, a character can be summarized by their place in the social strata, their self- or other-centeredness, their ulterior motive, and their dysfunctional family dynamics. Gee, is this sounding like it might resonate with... say, teenagers ? Or game-designers.

Throw in cheesecake, beefcake and meta-reference,... and... serialize !

Oh, right -- and, like Star Wars, there are huge machines blowing up in the middle of battles. (Hmm; Star Wars, only with dirigibles...)

Can't forget that.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Quick-N-Dirty "Girl Genius" Description

I recently, um, read Girl Genius. It wasn't fun at all; it was, er, research into the Gaslamp and Steampunk genre.

My quick and dirty description of Girl Genius is...
  • Film The Wizard of Oz on the set of Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang (painted by Alphonse Maria Mucha).
  • Have Caractacus Potts in the Role of the Wizard, played by Jack Nicholson -- or, better yet, Stalin.
  • No; wait, have Dr Victor Von Frankenstein in the Role of the Wizard -- er, I mean Stalin.
  • Substituting for Dorothy is Tank Girl, played by Very Busty Emma Watson.
  • Instead of Flying Monkeys, think vaguely Germanic, comic-relief Klingons.
  • Multiply the Winkies (the singing, pike-toting guards of the Witch's castle) a few times and put them into slightly kinky leather harnesses.

So, it's sort of like a softer-core Heavy Metal with more gallows humor, prat falls, and clothing. Oh, and more wind-up toys.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Short Story Business Model

Lately I've been thinking about the business model for writing and how it affects the short story form, writing as a vocation, and the publishing process.

It must be in the stars or something. For starters, KWAX is holding its bi-annual fund drive, Realms of Fantasy is closing (after a resurrection lasting 18 months), and I've just read about a web standard that would stream fonts.

For those of you just tuning in, there's a notion that writers write short stories, submit them to a market, the market buys the story and pays the author. The market turns around and submits a collection of stories it has bought to readers (and advertisers), and receives money for their efforts.

A writer at my level receives five cents a word from professional short story market sales. That's $50 for 1000 words. To put that into perspective, as a technology trainer and maintenance guy, I made roughly $20 an hour; so -- assuming I sold every story I ever wrote -- I'd have to write, edit, polish, and send out 400 words every hour (or, 2400 words in six hours every day) to make the same amount as I did helping folks with their computers (but without health insurance).

The short story submission process (at least for me) has a 90-95% rejection rate -- meaning in practice, I write ten times as much as I actually sell. (So to factor in non-sales, make that production rate 4,000 words an hour or 24,000 words in six hours in order to sell one 2400 word short story).

This is, of course, assuming that there are markets out there buying my short stories. There are, but if I limit myself to the science fiction and fantasy genres, the number of markets falls.

And this brings us to Realms of Fantasy, which is another sad statistic in the trend of paper publications versus electronic ones. Following the news of Realms' second death, the editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, a free on-line speculative fiction market, Twittered that he was tired of being blamed for print media's death.

(As an aside, Clarkesworld pays ten cents a word. They publish two short stories a month and occasional collections. Authors may only be published in Clarkesworld twice a year. The stories I submit compete with those by Cat Rambo, Jay Lake, Mary Robinette Kowal, Robert Reed, Peter Watts, and Nina Kiriki Hoffman -- so it's sort of like Writers of the Future, only for seasoned writers; or the lottery.)

In summary: short story writers work hard to produce stories that have to be submitted multiple times before they're sold (if they sell at all) to a professional market. More experienced (and presumably better) writers sell more. And print markets are going away.

The question becomes: if the demise of Realms of Fantasy is part of a trend of subscription print publications giving away to free electronic publications, how should short story writers adapt?

The secondary question is: if the market shrinks so that only a few free on-line publications (i.e. Clarkesworld, or something like The New York Times) default into accidental monopolies, how can a new short story writer get published at all, much less make any kind of money?

One answer is: "Sorry, honey -- to quote Ms. Le Guin, 'writing to make money is a damn-fool idea.'" I think this is very true for the short story form. It seems to me the folks making a living writing are writing novels (except that only the Glam Stars of writing don't have some kind of day-job or sugar-spouse). So write because you like to write, because your short stories and a dollar will get you a cup of tea at the cafe.

Another answer is, in the age of the internet, writers (and other artists) might try to become their own editors, publishers, and debtors -- in other words, their own content providers.

Some folks post their writing and put an "electronic hat" at the end; a PayPal button and a text along the lines of "If you've enjoyed this story, please contribute whatever amount you'd like." I'm not sure how well this works. Based on my experiences busking at renaissance faires, it probably helps to be well known, have a little dog, or be five years old. And really loud.

Then there's the proposed streaming type face model. You pay me (the writer) a small monthly subscription fee, and that allows you access to my short stories. Bruce Holland Rogers does this -- he e-mails a short story a month to paid subscribers. I haven't spoken with Bruce about how well this works, but I do know that Bruce has a day job.

Of course, the difficulty with self-publishing is that one has to build a subscriber base. Which means marketing, social networking, and other business things that take away from time spent writing. Perhaps authors could band together to form a kind of "authors' web ring" -- in addition to the PayPal button at the end of a story, the author puts in a button that takes the reader to another story by another author in the ring. Your mileage with a distributed editorial board may vary.

To go in a different direction, I could widen my scope: write non-fiction (because, as Ellen Kushner notes, people say they only want to read The Truth), romance, or take a cue from Dan Brown and write cliffhanger-ending chapters in a thriller. Or would that simply delay the inevitable -- science fiction and fantasy are simply the first, but all the print markets are going?

Maybe in the age of the internet, the short story form and the written word are going by the wayside. Entertainment consumers want icons they can press, and content they can watch or listen to (and fast-forward through). I can see a hybrid web site with a story inventory like AnthologyBuilder only with Pandora's interface (wait, isn't that PodCastle, and Escape Pod?).

If written short stories are no longer in fashion, but audio-books and video are, perhaps I should create a training program that teaches people how to those. After all, isn't that what all those writing seminars and workshops are all about? Which isn't writing; it's writing about writing.

Or maybe I should just go work for Google.

Thoughts? Comments? Answers?

Monday, October 18, 2010

When Authors Twitter

I've been following some authors on Twitter. I wanted to see what they were doing, so following them on Twitter was a kind of electronic job-shadowing.

Writers' updates on Twitter break down into the following:
  • I wrote 10,000 words today.
  • I'm locked in my office, in the middle of writing 10,000 words.
  • I _wish_ I wrote 10,000 words today.
  • Announcements about chocolate/coffee/tea/cola/wine.
  • I'm at [cool place], with [cool person(s)] doing [cool things].
  • Read my book/article/blog.
  • Home/Pets/Family/Health updates.

Probably what I've learned is
  • the folks who have books for sale on bookshelves are more likely to be Tweeting the first two types of messages;
  • the other updates really don't tell me much about the craft of writing; and,
  • Ursula K. Le Guin does not Twitter.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dream of Being Killed

Last night I had a dream... it was a spy dream, with lots of intrigue, romance, and flying. It wasn't the pleasantest of dreams, sort of a mix of being on the run from killers and being stuck at Arcosanti.

We join the dream in progress, near the end:

In the course of the dream a flying assassin, sent from my boss, managed to kill me (this is the second time last night someone in my dreams had murderous intent). I'm not sure how, I think I was shot from the air. In some ways it was a refreshing change from when I've been some Mongol Lord's Concubine killed by assassins because someone thinks I know too much (I hate it when that happens).

What was different about being dead this time was I wasn't simply lying there in a suspended, timeless blackness -- this time I had a vision and the assassin taunted me. The vision started out with blackness. Then a narrow orange track unrolled upwards at the middle bottom of my sight and cut the black in half. I recognized it as a Hotwheels track. I was looking at it from above; then there was a perspective change, and I was looking back along it as it disappeared to the vanishing point.

From the vanishing point I heard the accented voice of my assassin. He sounded vaguely Russian, like Arnold Schwarzenegger. "So, you're finally dead." he said. "Can you feel that?"

I had a vague sensation of pressure, more like my spine was expanding or compressing because bones in my feet were being crushed together and everything was connected.

"Eh, you're disconnected, then," he said. Somewhere along the way the Hotwheels tracks disappeared and I was floating in darkness.

Surprisingly, the dream went on. I'd crawled into an old half-abandoned hotel lobby. I managed to prop myself up in a hallway niche and look across the hall at a mirror in an opposite niche. I was in a kind of three-piece suit: dark jacket, white shirt, pocket hankie in a breast pocket. The suit was slashed with all sorts of horizontal two inch slashes. As I rose, (and as I inhaled, too) green iris swords grew out of the slashes. I couldn't see my legs, but I had a very strong impression that my torso was attached to my lower body by a very large thick iris sword. I hunched down a little and the plants -- which I'm pretty sure were growing out of me -- contracted.

I'm not sure what this dream is trying to tell me. Somewhere along the lines it's telling me not to weed iris beds and not playing Second Life just before bed. But I think that's not the main message.

I should add that while there are some elements in this that remind me of some dream elements that I've managed to turn into a short story, I'm not quite sure how any of this could be part of any fiction I write ... unless...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

When Writers Are Startled by Traffic

Last night, as I was walking to the local Red Box, I was surprised by a taxi. It was behind me.

I had taken two steps into the crosswalk when alarm bells went off in my head. A car engine. Behind me and to my left. Getting louder. I simultaneously jumped back and looked at a taxi as it careened past me, straight through the intersection.

The taxi had zoomed down a hill behind me. The driver's ability to see me probably wasn't helped by the fact that I was wearing my Grey-green Cloak (which Mark insists is going to get me killed some dark night) and that the crosswalk sight-lines are blocked by an electrical box. (And I always assume Eugene drivers are trying to kill pedestrians, anyway.)

The crossing light was still green, so I crossed, clutching a Scooby-Doo DVD to my chest. And thinking, "What if the taxi had turned right and I had been killed?" The very fact that I was returning the video had been one of those life bifurcations; it's possible that Mark could have been crossing the street at that time instead of me.

What if my ghost was given a chance to go back five minutes -- would I try to change the choice? (Yes, I'd just seen Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.)

What if I really had been hit and didn't realize it? Maybe I was some sort of Grey-green Cloaked Phantom, eternally trying to return a Scooby-Doo DVD to a Red Box two blocks down the street? Would I always appear before a corner accident to presage another traffic death? Or would I haunt the corner to keep pedestrians from it?

I safely spent the rest of the journey returning the DVD to the Red Box and myself to my home, imagining ninja moves I would have to make to jump over careening taxis next time.

(Uh, no; I still plan to wear the Grey-green Cloak... why do you ask?)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Creative People's Desks

Creative people and their desks. I think I"m in the "if I filed it away I'd file something away forever" camp.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Writing In Longhand

This weekend I had the luxury of writing longhand in an espresso drive-through turned cafe on the coast. Actually, make that cafe expansion tastefully added onto the long side of a drive-through. The cafe was narrow, but wide enough to accommodate a truncated bar and some tables. Luckily, the stereo was low, and alternated between manic "let's dance while I sing risque words", and "I'm depressed that you don't love me (which is my fault)" music.

I think what helped was that there was not enough room in the cafe for any major distractions. Okay, and the rain was coming down sideways, so even if I did want to go outside, I would have gotten blown halfway Newport.

I wrote in longhand using an archival ink pen into my small black sketch book there for about three hours. What I noticed the most was that my hands didn't out-pace my thoughts. Word processors, which I love, sometimes make it to easy to write what I want; and then the sentence looks at me and sort of says, "Now What?"

Using the pen and page, I was able to kind of work ahead of the transcribing process, with the result that my writing was less stop-and-go than it is with the keyboard. When I was ready for a break, I sketched little pictures for a few minutes and then got back into the writing.

Um, yes; for once the stories that other patrons were telling sparked story ideas (instead of being irritatingly distracting). And I suppose the cocoa helped, too.

PS: Thank you, Mark, for letting me have a large chunk of time!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Painting from the Met

I actually have a red and silvery shirt a little bit like this... No hat, though... hmmm.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Baptism and the Liturgiacl Cycle

My niece was baptized over the weekend. This is the garment she (very briefly) wore. I am unsure of the lineage of the robe -- I believe my father's father wore it, which would make it a christening gown from around 1910. In any case, I wore it to my baptism, as did my sister and numerous cousins.

I'd always assumed that it was completely hand made, but looking at the stitching, some of us are pretty sure that machines were involved at some point.

The baptism presented some challenges for me personally, as October 3, 2010 was not exactly a cheery day in the Episcopal Liturgical Calendar. Specifically, Psalm 137 reads, "Happy shall be he who takes your [the daughter of Babylon's] little ones / and dashes them against a rock." And Luke 17:5-10 has some interesting things to say about salvation and master-slave relations.

However, I was able to overlook two-thousand year old scripture (by repeating "It's a metaphor" to myself between winces) and appreciate a ritual that knits a family together into a community bringing up children well.

And the readings don't come close to the reading a few baptisms back: "Better to throw the child into the Red Sea with a millstone around its neck than bring it up in a wrong relationship to God."

So kids, repeat after me: "God is not a gang-leader with a list of retaliations for previous slights -- and even if He is, it's not okay for you hurt infants and toddlers."

Forged by a Roommate ...

Okay. This is too funny -- and weird -- not to share.

Nathan Koren, one of my apartment mates from Arcosanti, took my WOTF photo and added some bits from John Boorman's "Excalibur."

Saturday, October 02, 2010

John in a Tuxedo

I was recently sent some photographs from the 2007 Writers of the Future Workshop. I haven't gone through them all yet, but this one stuck out.

I am not sure what part of my acceptance speech this is, but it looks like I'm about to say, "Let us pray." Or something. I'm guessing that I'm making an astronomy reference. Or else I'm threatening to sing "I Feel Pretty."

There's something to be said for the power of tuxedos -- a lot of the photos I'm in I look goofy (and happy). Okay, I probably look just a little goofy in this one, too. And this is a good thing to remember when I'm beating myself up about writing.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Oct 1 2010 Writing Update

This week I managed to clean up a manuscript and send it out. It was good to get it done. And then I just happened to find a story at a professional market that had a similar setting. I was initially terribly annoyed because in the competitive world of speculative fiction, writing a story that could even remotely considered derivative of already published story is about the same as two folks showing up at the Ascot Opening Day in the same hat.

After swearing (the house was empty), I consigned myself to the platitudes: great minds think alike, and anyone who thinks they're original has never studied history.

Next week's manuscript is the fun manuscript with the post-read plot-disintegration. It's a fun goofy read with mistaken identity. I need to clean up the more confusing aspects of it -- in other words, figure out how to let the reader know who is who without tipping the characters off or making them seem stupid.

The third manuscript I've been working on is for the Wordos' Halloween Shorts Reading. Like many of the short stories I've been writing lately, the story wants to explode into a novel and I've got a mangled mess of plot, vignettes, dialog, and character sketches.

4000 words worth. That's 3000 words too many. With no actual story. Yet.

I'm sure that's a metaphor for something....

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Late September Writing Update

Taking a short break from Laundry for a writing update:

Working on too many drafts. Manuscript one is fun and goofy, and needs some cleaning up because, as one critiquer put it, "it was fun reading it and then I got to the end and started thinking about it and the plot fell apart."

Manuscript two is pretty much where I want it. I'm of the opinion that readers are either going to really resonate with the story, or they're really not going to. There's still a few clarification points I need to work on, and I should consider the parts where it drags (and see if I can get the word count down by a thousand words).

Manuscript three isn't really even in rough draft form. It's supposed to be a Halloween short, but it could easily be longer than 1000 words. Last night I came up with a funny scene, so I'll write that as a stand-alone to keep the word count down.

... and then there's those other manuscripts in various stages of post-critique form...

On the submissions front. Insert "it's a buyers' market" submit-reject cycle here. Let's just say it would be nice to make a professional sale. One of my friends told me that I write quirky stories, so it looks like I have to find a quirky (and professional) market to sell stories to.

OK. Blogging isn't writing... off to write.

Friday, September 24, 2010

I'm Mike Bebe ?

Mark and I bumped into some old friends, and during the course of the conversation, Mark said that I had written myself as Mike Bebe from my Story on Analog's Web site.

I'm Mike Bebe? I was thinking I was more the gay English astronaut. I mean, Mike's problem (and the whole story outline) was part of an experiment created by a bunch of people. So I'm not quite sure how I am Mike Bebe (Mark says it's because my Mike is so self-questioning).

I guess the writer is always the last to know.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bollywood Wishes

Oh. Right. I guess I should add that yesterday I spent far too much time watching The Guild's Bollywood Video.

I sometimes wish I could have a Bollywood Video day. And in case anyone isn't sure what this means, it means that I want a small (OK, it's probably larger than I think) movie crew to follow me around and turn a day of my life into a set with a cast of whirling dancers, flowing silks, slow-mo doves, and gyrating entrance tableaux.

Oh! I know, it could be a writing process number! (Pause to wonder how many of the Wordos would agree to dance Bollywood style....)

If I can't have that, what I would like to watch is a Bollywood version of "Zorro, The Gay Blade." (Come on, you know you want to see Lauren Hutton whirling around the plaza handing out fliers for the People's Independence Committee to a dancing chorus of Los Angeles villagers while Esteban and his soldiers circle around the edges.)

First Day of Autumn

Happy Equinox (again). It's officially Autumn. This is the time to scurry to finish up projects before Winter. I'm hoping that this time around Winter doesn't hit me quite so hard, but it's good to plan in case it does.

So; time to finish up stories and make sure that manuscripts are at markets!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Writing and Personal Tropes

I had an interesting discussion with the post-critique group last night. We were talking about personal tropes and the merits of working with them or against them. One person reviewed his manuscripts and saw that the themes of water, buoyancy, drowning, and suicide made frequent appearances.

Having recognized a personal trope, the question became are personal tropes something a writer avoids to prevent works from falling into cliche? Or does a writer develop a personal trope in order to work it like a poet works with the sonnet form?

The discussion turned to writers like Asimov and Vonnegut; you pretty much know an Asimov story when you pick one up -- so what makes Asimov's style work (as opposed to falling into cliche)? And yes, there was a brief envious stop where we lingered over writers lucky enough to have personal tropes in sync with a well paying market.

We wrapped up the discussion with a short foray into working with story. I'm struggling with a manuscript that has some specific images and scenes, but I can't get the connective plot into focus. So do I outline outline outline, or do I let the images roll in my head. There's something to be said for seat-of-the-pants writing, and it's how I write a lot of what I write, but it can take a long time and when there's pressure to produce produce produce a slower process can be frustrating. Sometimes I think I should just write poetry. Near the end of the discussion, someone who feels like he outlines the life out of his stories expressed the desire to move closer to my writing style.

Does your writing have a favorite or reoccurring theme? What do you do when you discover a story treading familiar paths?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Happy Equnox 2010

Happy Equinox a little bit early. This year the Equinox is Wednesday evening, September 22 2010 at 08:09 PM PDT.

This photo was taken at the coast a while back. Stone circles with driftwood gnomons are the kinds of beach sculptures I like to create. Since this stick really isn't straight up and down and the ground isn't level, this sculpture really doesn't tell time per se -- although it could be used to guestimate how long we'd been at the beach (15 degrees is one hour). If we had stayed long enough, I would have continued the path shown by the three stones into a much longer eliptical path.

For me personally, the autumnal equinox is the time of ending projects and distribution. Hmm. I think I have a few loose ends that need ending.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Rules for Reading a John Story

I was joking around with some Wordos that I needed to make a set of Rules For Reading a John Burridge Story. So here they are.
  1. Recall that John will have probably written the manuscript listening to a combination of the following artists: and that it's entirely possible he's been singing
    • songs from Jesus Christ, Superstar
    • The Ladies Who Lunch (Company)
    • Happily Ever After (Once Upon a Mattress)
    • Liaisons (A Little Night Music)
    • At the Ballet (A Chorus Line)
    to himself. Suddenly, the story makes more sense, doesn't it?

  2. Keep in mind the movies which have had a major impact on John (and therefor his psyche and artistic aesthetic):
    • *The Wizard of Oz
    • The Yellow Submarine
    • Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang
    • Tron
    • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
    • The Life of Brian
    • Zorro, The Gay Blade
    • The Empire Strikes Back
    • Labyrinth
    • Excalibur
    • *Toy Story 2
    • **Moulin Rouge
    Be aware that John probably has abandonment issues, and the starred *movies will make him cry (and in fact, he had to take a small break writing this list because the Cowardly Lion, Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl, and Christian the Penniless Writer were singing a maudlin chorus of "When She Loved Me" in his head and he had to distract himself imagining Buzz Lightyear and the Flying Monkeys in a fabulous Bollywood number, "Lasers Are a Boy's Best Friend." ).

  3. Assume that John has assumed that you can read his mind, and therefore you know what thoughts are rattling around in John's head - after all, he knows.

  4. While John isn't schizophrenic, he does have a wildly vast and apparently random association network of ideas. This means that, at least in John's head, everything is connected to (or may be made to connect to) everything else.
    Four corollaries to this over-arching pan-connection are
    1. John loves meta-reference.
    2. John may treat the number of links from A to B and the links from B to Q as the same (because it's obvious! I mean, diamonds can be made to lase, so not only is "Lasers A Boy's Best Friend" kind of funny, lasers and diamonds are scientifically related).
    3. John thinks most of the connections are hysterically funny or deeply spiritual (sometimes both).
    4. John will be perplexed and bemused that the rest of the human population doesn't think the same way he does (you mean you can't see Nichol Kiddman in a Buzz Lightyear outfit?).

  5. John not-so-secretly wishes to speak, dress and act like 1800's era landed gentry from some BBC produced, PBS aired television show. This means that at least one of his characters can be expected to speak like a Lord Byron or Jane Austin understudy.

  6. One of John's fallback characters, often the protagonist or major character, is the Very Clever Naive Child. The VCNC is probably based on CS Lewis's young girl characters. John uses the VCNC to outwit Ineffectual Adults, as a voice to criticize societal norms, or as a way to not have to create a complicated adult character with complex emotions (because, well, not every character can be a Vulcan. Or Dorothy Gale.).

  7. John has this thing about semicolons, colons, and dashes -- it's not a problem; he can stop any time he wants to.

  8. John's primary mode of thinking is visual and he loves creating and reading eye-candy. If you are confused about a story element, chances are very good that John has a sketch of it in the little art book he carries around with him. So the character, action, or setting has to happen because there's a picture of it, and it's just So Cool!

So there you have it; the latest installation of rules. Armed with these and The John Is Writing Game, navigating a John Burridge story should be a snap.

Oh, wait -- I'm supposed to write a compelling story about a sympathetic character with an interesting problem... um...

"The classroom clock ticked away precious minutes Frank had to write the essay on the prose of Burridge. He'd done stupid things to try to get Sheryl's attention, but taking this Contemporary Speculative Fiction class was at the top of the list...."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Writing Tarot Cards

It's that time of year when writers write about fortune tellers and the tarot. So I thought I'd post about things that make me wince when authors write about the cards in urban or historical fantasy.

The One-Card Spread. One mistake a writer can make is to reduce a character's tarot card reading into an interpretation of a single card. Focusing on only one card is akin to casting a horoscope based on a person's birth or sun sign, or assigning a character a personality based on hair color.

Most tarot readings involve dealing out about ten cards into what is called a spread. While some spreads have a card designated "the final outcome," not all spreads do. Remember, the final outcome card is always modified by the other cards. Generally, a spread will have cards for the recent past, the present, and a possible future; it will indicate resources and obstacles; and it will have a card that is indicative of the client's character or current state of mind.

An Excruciatingly Detailed Spread. This is the flip side to the previous pitfall. Unless you're writing a guide to giving readings, or a story for a tarot anthology, overly detailed readings are like overly detailed fight scenes. The more detail an author includes, the more likely someone familiar with tarot will spot a mistake (or at least a different interpretation). All the story's reader ultimately cares about is what the cards say and what they mean emotionally to a character.

Over-Specific Cartomancy. The fortune teller deals out the cards, looks at the client, and says, "Tonight, your boyfriend, Steve, will be hit by a red Matrix while he is walking back from Seven Eleven, sipping a Pepsi...." In the stories I've seen this level of detail in, the cards have been cursed to always foretell disaster.

Alas, the cards usually aren't that specific, and if you write them that way, the audience members will wonder why tarot readers haven't won the lottery. A lot.

Take a cue from the Pythia of Delphi and make any advice from the cards obscure (although if a character is convinced the King of Swords in the "obstacles" position is their mean old Uncle Ben, that's an entirely different matter).

Popular Misinterpretations. Probably the most common mistake authors make is forgetting that there are seventy-eight different tarot cards and focusing on one of the more famous ones. Unfortunately, the famous cards are commonly misunderstood because they have emotionally laden and misleading titles.
  • The Death Card. Out of all the cards writers choose, Death is probably the most overused and abused tarot card in the deck. If a character has Death show up in their tarot card reading, that does not mean they are going to die; it means that they are going through some sort of transformation, like graduating from school. Repeat after me, "There is no death; only transformation."
  • The Lovers Card. Second after Death, the Lovers card is the other most overused and abused tarot card. The Lovers is not, as its name implies, about falling in love, it's about choice. A character getting the Lovers in a tarot reading isn't assured of a good romance or love.
  • The Devil Card. This card isn't about Lucifer, Satan, or the powers of Hell. It's about willfully being bound to things material and denying the spiritual aspects of the world.
Remember, like most anything, if you're going to write about tarot cards, a little research is your friend. Most tarot decks sold in the United States come with a little guide book of simple meanings. If you can't get your hands on a new deck's guide (or even if you can), find someone familiar with the tarot to be a first reader.

All Tarot Cards are from the Rider-Waite Deck. Most readers are familiar with the Rider-Waite deck, which is an author's freebie -- but don't forget a quick description if the cards are being used for those readers unfamiliar with them.

Tarot cards go back to medieval times (at least), and they looked differently than the Rider-Waite cards developed around the turn of the 20th century for the Order of the Golden Dawn. Remember to have your Regency, Elizabethan or Arthurian characters use precursors to the Rider-Waite deck. Older decks may have different suits. I've seen medieval (non-tarot) playing cards with suits based on hunting (leashes, horns, etc), and typically older tarot decks call the suit of wands or staves the suit of batons. I've also read a fantasy story where the suits were (I believe) ores, waves, flames, and clouds.

Contemporary decks may feature round cards, feminist themes, Art Nouveau aesthetics, collage decks, cat and dragon decks, and even a deck commissioned by Aleister Crowley (more on him below). There's even a deck based on the Rider-Waite deck where everyone is wearing clothing -- it's the sort of deck one could use to give a reading for one's grandmother and not have her have a heart attack when, say, The Lovers appear. (Assuming she didn't have a heart attack when the tarot cards were first mentioned.)

Aleister Crowley's Thoth Deck. Ah yes; I can already smell the stench of sulfur rising from the deck. Whenever an author wants to show that the tarot cards are evil, the card reader is evil, or that dirty work is afoot, out comes Crowley's Thoth Deck, with the Lust card (his version of the Strength card) right on top. It's the story equivalent of having a bad guy from a movie clack a rifle magazine, sell drugs, or molest children.

If you really want to show that the card reader is wicked, have them over-charge their clients, lead them on with promises of future secrets revealed at the next reading, and make them lie during readings to set the client up to fall in love with a fellow charlatan.

Remember, an ethical card reader will remind a client of the client's responsibility to make their own life choices, so if you want to show an evil reader, make their tarot reading style unethical.

The Tarot Cards Come Alive. This isn't so much wincable as it is has been done before in contemporary fantasy (and comic books), which is not too surprising since many modern tarot guides suggest that students have a focused daydream on a particular card as part of a meditation on its meaning.

Just, um, play nice with the card folks who are naked, okay?

Shrewsbury Singing

One of the difficulties in open air Renaissance Faire performance is that the players can often be heard quite a distance. This can be an impossible situation if you're, say, a harper trying to busk in the same county as a bag piper.

The Pearwood Pipers joined all of the madrigal singers at Shrewsbury on the main stage for a giant madrigal-fest. There's nothing quite like singing bass in the company of seven or so other accomplished bass singers.

However, several rounds of fa-la-la-la-la-ing later, the belly dancer dumbec ensemble fired up.

Let's just say Fair Philomena loses out to Fatima.

So as we prepared to sing Strike It Up Tabor, I said, "Hey, can't we sing this to the time of the belly dancers?"

And, uh, I just happened to have a tambour in my hand.

So the next thing I knew, I was shimmying in the center of the World's Fastest Rendition of Thomas Weelkes' little song.

In retrospect, I'm pretty sure that Thomas Weelkes was not born in the wagon of a traveling show. Which is too bad.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Oyster Girl Gymnastics

One part of the Pearwood Pipers' routine is an acted out version of "The Oyster Girl" song. One of my friends says that I play The Oyster Girl all too well. I think it's the way I hold the basket.

For this particular performance (Sunday, 10:30 AM), the Pearwoods had moved into the hay bale seating, about halfway into the house of the main stage, in order to attract more guests to our show. So my back stage changing area was a little farther than it usually is.

The previous song, "New Oysters" is about twenty bars; plenty of time for me to hurry backstage, fling a white chemise over my Renaissance garb, replace my nice hat with a rattier one sporting a mop for a wig, and stuff detachable green sleeves into my chest to create instant bosoms.

Then comes the tricky part: running off a stage, vaulting several hay bales, snagging a basket full of oysters from a fellow Pearwood Piper, and propping myself up against the central canopy pole.

In four bars.

Just in time to be "a pretty little oyster girl." (PS: "oyster girl" is Elizabethan for exactly what you think it is.)

Luckily, I did not break a leg.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"The Faire Is Open To All"

The Shrewsbury management kindly allows me to organize and lead parades. One of these is the Opening Parade. Making the Opening Parade happen involves running around the Faire with deer antlers on a staff, giving three curtain calls to about one hundred people (this includes frightening the merchants who are still setting up their stalls), then leading them in parade and song at the appointed hour through the faire grounds and out through the opening gate to greet our first guests.

After we were through the gate and facing a queue of guests, there was improvisation and singing. And then I flung my arms wide and proclaimed, "...Our Faire is open!"

I looked at the ticket booth built in on the right side of the main gate.

It wasn't open.

Ergo, no guests have paid admission.

Ergo, they can't enter our Fine Faire (which is Now Open To All).

And I've just run out of pre-planned improvisational lines. I very cleverly said the first thing that came into my head, "...and the gate's closed."

Leaping like an over-caffeinated MC with a band and an audience but no stage, I pretty much assaulted the ticket booth. Pounding on the wooden windows frames and shutters with my fists, I shouted, "Open! (pound!) Open the gates! (pound!) In the name (pound!)of the Virgin Queen (pound!), open the gates!"

And they did. It was a Capricorn's Dream Come True.


(PS: About five minutes later I realized that possibly the ticket takers and change makers might not have appreciated a frenzied actor turning their booth into a percussion instrument, but I asked and they apparently thought it was great.)

More Shrewsbury

During the Shrewsbury after-hours show, I got to lead all the Faire players in a sing-along of "Hey Ho, Nobody Home" as a ground underneath Lady Gaga's "Telephone."

It didn't quite work out the way that I expected it to because there were tempo problems. I attribute this to
  1. me not leading tempo very well,
  2. people not singing because they're listening to what melody I'm going to sing, and
  3. the whole thing falling apart because people were laughing too hard.

The next morning someone asked me to sing it again -- so I have pretty good proof that not only am I the funniest person I know, I'm the funniest person some other folks know.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Top Moments at Shrewsbury

The 2010 Shrewsbury Faire was a lot of fun. Over the next few posts, I'll relate some of the bright spots.

Dancing the Abotts Bromley Horn Dance.

The Bromley is a folk processional danced in England on Wakes Monday (usually around Labor Day). It is one of the few (if not the only) processionals to survive both the Reformation and Cromwell. The procession we do has regional differences from the way the folks in Britain dance it.

This year we had so many dancers who knew what they were doing, and we had an extra contingent of drummers and recorders to fill out the processional tune. This abundance and the hypnotic melody enabled me to very briefly lose myself in the procession. I know that it's going well when I can perform the hey formation and then just glide right into the horn clacking section.
I was speaking about the Bromley. I found myself comparing the Shrewsbury Bromley to the Southern Fair and British Bromleys and saying, "... so, at Shrewsbury we perform the Bromley the way that... Leslie... Engle... taught it to me." Which was weird, cool, terrifying, and aging all at the same time because
  1. it makes me A Living Link to Leslie Engle,
  2. it's fun to use a faux-English accent and say "Living Link", but
  3. I'm to young to be a Living Link.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Charm Bracelet

This was my Grandmother's charm bracelet. When she traveled, she'd get a little charm from the place she visited and added it to the links. I'm not sure when the custom of charm bracelets started, but I'm guessing it died out in the late sixties, as the last charms were acquired then.

Her birthday's in a few weeks; she died when she was 99, and would have been 101 this year.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Pausing Before Shrewsbury

"Now is the month of Maying / When merry lads are playing / fa la la la la / Each with his bonnie lass / upon the greeny grass / fa la -- "

Hey! Where did all these pirates, Elves, and chicks in chain-mail come from ?

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Why I Like The Pleiades

Why I like the Pleiades
  • They're really blue. They're the sort of blue I would like to wear. They're the sort of blue that belongs in diadems. They're the sort of blue that I would put into starship controls to let everyone know that the machinery is running optimally, making the starship skate along the stars like an Olympian Champion over the ice while Clara Rockmore plays Saint-Saëns' "The Swan".

  • They look like a tiny Big Dipper. This tiny Big Dipper is in the back of Taurus, the Bull, and it used to be an archery test to see how many of the little stars one could make out (and therefore, presumably how well you could see a target).

  • Their Japanese name is "Subaru" or "The Daughters of Industry," and you can see them on the hood of every Subaru car. Seeing them in the sky usually makes me say "Subaru" just because it's such a fun word and I wonder what the proper pronunciation should be.

  • But I think the reason I like them the most is that they (along with Orion) used to let me know if I had stayed up way too late as I was walking home from campus back in the 1980's. Sort of like a mother or a cadre of older sisters. Their reproach was silent. You'd look up, and there they'd be, silently to the left of the front porch if it was still before midnight, and just as silently to the right of the porch if it was after -- and you knew that the farther to the right (west) they were, the harder the next day was going to be. They were beautiful to look at.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Why I Like Antares

Why I like Antares.
  1. It's big and red, like the planet Mars; that's why it's called "The Rival (Anti) of Mars (Ares)." The star is an astronomy, a language and a mythology lesson all rolled up into one bright red package.

  2. It's the heart of Scorpio, the Scorpion. Scorpio is one of the few constellations that actually looks like what it is (in this case a really big scorpion). And it's wicked cool if only for the reason that if I'm going to have to be looking at a scorpion, at least this one is made up of twinkly stars, is light-years away and is unable to sting me.

  3. And finally, and best of all, every time I see Antares, it's an excuse to channel my Inner Nichelle Nichols in her role as Lt. Uhura and start singing "Beyond Antares."

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Jupiter and Europa

The other night, I had a chance to watch Europa come out from behind Jupiter. (Kids, don't try this at home unless you want to lose your night vision.)

We'd been out in the country, away from the city lights, for about three hours. I'd say it was 11 PM. The Milky Way appeared in a blaze of glory from Sagittarius through the Summer Triangle, to Cassiopeia and Perseus. I stepped up to the telescope's eyepiece, mindful of the piercing cone of light which would resolve as (very) bright vision of Jupiter. I eased my sight onto the focused light, aware of my spasming right eye and contact lens.

Jupiter was as big as a button compared to the pinpricks of the stars. It was milky with bands of pastel red and orange. Three of the moons, Calisto, Ganymede, and Io, shone brightly in a line about ten o'clock to Jupiter. On the planet's opposite side, appearing as a goose pimple on one of the gas giant's darker bands, I could just discern Europa.

"Call the Pope," I joked, as Europa pulled away from Jupiter, and rose like a new bright star. Jerry Oltion pointed out that the telescope we were using has a much better resolution and magnifying power than Galileo's. But still, as I write this, I can't help but
  1. think about how I know that I'm looking at smaller bodies orbiting a larger one and so it's easier for me to attribute Jupiter and Europa's light show to Kepler's Laws of Planetary Mostion
  2. wonder how many modern people like myself have witnessed a moon coming out from behind a planet through a real live optical telescope.

I think I'll stop here before this turns into an intersection of science and religion essay.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Astronomy with Jerry Oltion

Last night Jerry Oltion and I went traveled a little East and South to the hills above Eugene for a little star party.

I was kicking myself for not packing a camera so I could take photographs of Jerry's telescope, which is a large reflector (I want to say he has an eighteen inch primary reflector) with a focal length of about eight feet. I'm trying to remember if Jerry's built this one from scratch, or merely (?) ground the mirror. He's able to fold it up so that it fits in his VW bug. There is no tube; the eyepiece and side reflector are held in place with by a kind of scaffolding of metal struts. Jerry has machined the struts so precisely that he doesn't have to worry (too much) about the optics not working after telescope assembly.

Jerry knows the sky very well, so he swiveled the telescope around to stars like Antares, a host of globular and open clusters, and various nebulas. I think one of the coolest sights through the telescope was a ruby red carbon star. It's a star that has accumulated a carbon ash atmosphere, which the sun heats up so that it is glowing like BBQ coals.

We also spent the evening looking for Sol-like stars within twenty light-years of Earth. This meant we spent an awkward moment or two realizing that we could remember back to 1990 and what we were doing then and what we would have done differently. Luckily there were no twenty-year-olds there to chime in, "I was a baby back then."

The most dynamic viewing was of the International Space Station. With Jerry helping out -- OK, really doing most of the work -- I was able to track the ISS in his telescope as it appeared in the west and arced north through the sky. Doing so was counter-intuitive as the image is reversed, so I had to push the telescope up when it appeared the ISS was falling down out of the field of vision.

When the ISS first appeared, I saw the sun reflecting off of its solar panel array. This appeared as a bright, yellow-white square. As we tracked the ISS, the solar panels were tracking the sun, so they appeared to change from a white square to a reddish diamond. Jerry's telescope was able to follow the ISS after it had dimmed beyond human eyesight.

And, of course, I got home very late.