Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Writing Prompts - First Sentence 1

(I've been looking for some writing prompts I can use to fill time on the train between work and teaching, and ended up purchasing this ebook from It's broken into 18 chapters or so, and claims to have 1,001 writing prompts. I figured it'd be a worthwhile exercise to build my scene writing skills, so here's the first - I hope you all enjoy it. This story comes from a section where the first sentence is provided for you - the first sentence is in bold below.)

When her cell phone rang she groaned, because she couldn’t believe that he was calling her again. She stared at the phone, torn between answering it and ignoring it completely, while the strains of her ringtone – “You’re the Best” by Joe Esposito – filled the apartment.  With a sigh, she thumbed the “accept” button and put the phone to her ear.

“Yeah, Joe, what is it? No, you didn’t leave your toothbrush here. I can be so certain because it was the last thing I put into the box before I left it on the porch. Of course I remember, because I knew that would be the thing you would ask about. I’m not being unreasonable. Well, what did you expect? Right, understanding for the man who slept with my sister. Uh huh. Right. Yeah, I’m sure you had absolutely no say in the matter. No, stop – you know what? I’m done with this. I’m hanging up. Don’t call me again.”

She ended the call and, in a fit of anger, threw the device across the room. It bounced off the carpet a couple times before landing on the other wall, leaning at an obtuse angle against the white-painted molding. It took a Herculean effort to not look up at the empty rectangles and ovals, the negative space in the smoke-laden paint signifying the destruction of happy memories. Seven years of happiness, ruined within a week. Sure they had fought sometimes, and lately they’d been going through a dry spell, but how could he do that to her? With the one person he knew would hurt her the most?

She sighed and poured herself another glass of wine, absent-mindedly swirling it in the glass as she wallowed. It was bad enough that she had put up with his smoking for so long. Now she was going to have to paint the walls to get rid of the evidence of a life gone wrong. Figures that even after he was gone, the bastard was still making work for her.

She took a few deep breaths, then a healthy sip of wine. As she swallowed she heard her phone again, the vibration of the ringer amplified by its position against the wall. She glared at the phone, and decided that she was done pandering. She was done dealing with the asshole that had never showed her consideration. She sipped her wine and watched the phone until it stopped flashing, falling quiet. She was done with that part of her life.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Video Game Review - Mass Effect 3

I recently finished Mass Effect 3, and I am left conflicted. On the one hand I've greatly enjoyed the series, and feel that the content team has created a very rich universe with a detailed and interesting history to learn about. That being said, I had a few issues that I wanted to get up on my soapbox about:

  • First, a pet peeve: Decimate (v) - to reduce by ONE TENTH. See the first two definitions here. I get that people are trying to change the meaning of the word because they don't understand it, but this shit should have been caught during the "peer review" process Bioware is so proud of (the same one that failed them on the ending, according to reports). Just because a word sounds cool, that doesn't mean it's OK to completely bastardize its definition, regardless of what the unwashed masses have come to believe that the word means! Looking for a cool synonym for destroyed? Why not try demolished, or annihilated, or eliminated, or ravaged., or any of the actual synonyms for destroyed?
  • That being said, there were some truly moving moments in the game's story. There were also some areas in which the dialog sounded like it was written by a 14-year-old Call of Duty fanboy. The sad part is that the quality of the rest of the writing makes the inferior text stand out, tearing at my eyes with horrible use of invective. I swear at one point I saw Shepard say something along the lines of "Git 'er done!" I know the game was delayed for six months, but that doesn't mean you give up on quality control completely!
  • Finally, another pet peeve of mine: if I'm playing a game with achievements, why not give me those awards when I actually, I don't know... achieve something?! Kill 100 enemies with Incinerate? Cool, that's actually something worth striving for. However, doling out gamer points like breadcrumbs as you advance through the story doing things you have to do anyway only calls attention to the fact that your game's gameplay sequences serve as nothing more than interstitials between cutscenes. The time spent designing these bogus achievements (things along the lines of "Completed story mission 1, completed story mission 2, completed...") could have been used to design achievements that actually add something to the game. It would have given me something to do while muddling through your combat system (which made the mistake of trying to be one of the standard brown shooters that are so popular with the kiddies lately), which could only have added to the gameplay. Instead, as a result, the entire experience just comes out flat.
  • Along those same lines - maybe it's the way I play, but I only found the gameplay exciting once - right at the end of the game. All the rest of the time was "hide, shoot, hide, shoot, move, shoot, yawm." That being said, I do like the new movement options as opposed to prior games in the series, and I feel that the combat system has come a long way.
Some of these are kinda nit-picky. I'll admit to that. Like I said - I did overall enjoy the game, but it was definitely not gaming perfection. What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Theme Story - A Kickstarter Campaign

(The theme this week was to create a Kickstarter campaign for an ancient invention. Here's my attempt)

Have you had ENOUGH of filthy gutter water?

We’ve all been there. You’ve spent a little too much time in the vomitorium, and now you got some on your best toga. What’s worse is your friend Maximus has been wandering behind you for the past half an hour, holding his nose and making loud comments about the freshness of your air. You go to rinse, change, and refresh, but all that remains in your drawing room is a ewer of sewer filth, containing all the poisons the plebians have left in the street. By Caesar, how can a citizen be expected to survive in such appalling conditions?

The solution, fellow Roman, is written in the soaring arches and stout columns of your palisade. We are going to build an Aqueduct – an ingenious method of transporting clean water from the hills outside of our glorious city right to the fountain in your plaza! No more will your hired servant be forced to stand in line with the other slaves and laborers. Imagine a public bath, with sparkling clean water delivered from the coolest mountain springs. Surely Saturnalia will be a much more pleasing experience for all once everyone has bathed in the waters of the gods!

Our Goal

We want to raise MMM Denari to build a prototype, which we will present to the Forum in the hopes of obtaining Senatorial and Imperial backing. The funding will be used for construction materials, engineering, testing, and for suitable honoraria.

Who we are

We are a guild of local stonemasons who are tired of bathing in the same filth as the mudslingers in the hovels down the road. We seek to honor the gods by bringing their gift to the wealthy masses.

Why we need your help

As you know, with our campaigns against the Goths many of the public funds for research have dried up. Your help will supplement this lack, allowing us to make progress for the glory of Rome and the Empire.

What do you get?

Obviously you want something in return for your investment! For those of you looking for something more than clean water, here are your incentives:

·      Donate V Denari or more, and earn a free ticket to the Coliseum. See the great mock naval battles, or relive our victory over Carthage as reenacted by the very Carthaginians we conquered!
·      Donate L Denari or more, and you can own your very own slave used in construction of the aqueduct, pending senatorial and imperial approval!
·      Donate CCL Denari and receive your very own lion! These exotic beasts make great guard animals, and are wonderful with children and vestal virgins.
·      Donate  D Denari, and your own name will be inscribed into one of the arch keystones! Be remembered for eternity!
·      Donate M Denari or more, and you will have your very own signature span of the finished product! Imagine having a private fountain filled with clear mountain water – take solace in the private luxury while knowing that your donation helped to further the empire!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ranting - On form factors

I'm a big fan of e-readers. And by e-reader, I don't mean your Kindle Fire or Nook Color - I'm talking about actual, e-ink-based readers whose sole purpose is to replace the hundreds of pounds of books on my shelf with a single device. Things like the Sony Reader (my first e-reader was a PRS 350), or the Kindle Paperwhite (my newest reader, a gift from my lovely wife and son). These devices are intended to display text, and that is pretty much their only goal. In my opinion, they meet this goal in an absolutely stellar way. I can carry enough entertainment around in my pocket for years worth of idle-time, and the design goals of the e-ink display make sure that I don't end up with a headache for my troubles.

That's why I'm troubled when I see so many people opting for tablets as their reader of choice. With e-reader sales declining, far too many people are choosing an inefficient and incorrect medium to consume their text-based media. For me, the advantages of e-ink over a tablet are as follows:
  • Reduced eye strain. An LCD is basically a bright light shining at your face. An e-ink reader relies upon ambient light, much like a piece of paper.
  • Increased battery life. An LCD takes a hell of a lot of power compared to e-ink, and a lot of it is due to the frequency of the screen's refresh. The more often a screen has to change, the more power it consumes. E-ink displays change only when you switch pages, resulting in batteries that last for weeks. LCD screens change dozens of times a second, resulting in much greater battery usage.
  • Reduced glare and contrast ratio improvements. LCD is a light-based medium, emitting light in order to generate the images we see. This means that if you shine a bright light back at it (say, something like the sun) then the image becomes much more challenging to discern. This is not a problem with e-ink readers, as they rely upon the reflection of light off of their surface - just like a piece of paper. This also results in a far higher contrast ratio - the difference between dark and light areas on the screen. This higher contrast ratio on e-readers allows the eye to do the same tasks with less energy, resulting in the reduced eye strain mentioned above.
The problem I see is that people want one device that does everything they could ask for - a Swiss army knife of entertainment. This results in millions of misguided individuals using their LCD tablets as a repository for their books and reading material, resulting in headaches and unnecessary power usage.

The issue is all about form factor. The central fallacy that lies behind these choices of gadget is that one form factor can fit every need. You see this confusion all over the place. One example is Microsoft's Windows 8 - a desktop OS heavily designed for touch. Touch interfaces can be excellent for some uses, but with the popularity of the iPad and smartphones far too many people think that a touch interface is the panacea for all computer applications. Touch is imprecise, it lacks sufficient tactile feedback for button presses and such, and requires a flexible display to compensate for the lack of resolution available. Furthermore, it often requires additional software running on a device to handle the input. Instead of a device driver generating interrupt requests, you're filtering the input through an application subject to the whims of an OS.

Human experience, at least in America, seems to be far too focused on fads. A new technology, or product, appears and instantly trumps anything even remotely related to it, regardless of the superior technology. VHS over Betamax. Touch-screen keyboards over physical keys. I suspect that tablet computers are quickly doing this to e-readers, and it makes me sad as both a tech guy and as a reader. I'm not looking forward to the forthcoming headaches once all devices carry a brightly-glowing LCD. I stare at a computer monitor too long as it is.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Theme Story - Finding the Theme

(The theme was late for this week, so I decided to be a smartass :) )

A blast of cold air caught the attention of patrons near the door as the man entered. He stood tall at 6’3”, a hulking frame wrapped in black leather and jeans. A few patrons glanced up from their libations, but their gazes quickly snapped back down. This was the kind of place where the curious didn’t last too long. A jukebox thumped weakly on a wall in the back as the man stepped towards the bar, his boots thumping in time with the forgotten country-western number.

The man approached the bar, pulling out a rickety stool and mounting it in a smooth motion that bespoke practice. The bartender, wiping a dirty glass mug with a dirtier rag, raised an eyebrow in the dim light.

“Beer,” the stranger said, his voice gravelly and deep.

“What kind?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

The bartender shrugged and stepped away for a moment, returning with a pale yellow swill in a water-spotted glass. The man took a sip, a sneer crossing his face as the failed pilsner hit his taste buds, then eyed the bartender as he set the mug back down on the bar. The bartender looked back at him, not wanting to back down in his own place, but a hint of fear was clearly visible in his eyes.

The man leaned forward and spoke in a quieter voice. “I’m lookin’ for something.”

“Lotsa folk are looking for something around here. Some of ‘em even found it.” The bartender shrugged. “Makes no business to me.”

“But you know this something,” the stranger asserted. “I have it on good word that you are a man that can find these kinds of things.”

The bartender quirked an eyebrow, his hands ceasing their incessant wiping. “And what kind of thing would that be?”

The stranger leaned forward. “I’m lookin’ for a theme.”

The bartender twitched in surprise, the glass in his hands falling to the ground with a loud crash. The few curious souls in the run-down tavern cast a wayward glance over, and the bartender continued speaking in a much quieter tone. “Don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no theme, sir. And even if I did…”

“Bullshit,” the man interrupted. “You know exactly where I can find a theme, and I intend to have one before I leave here.”

The bartender was visibly trembling now, looking around at the other patrons for support, but they all stared intently into their beverages. With a visible tremble in his hand, the bartender bent over and began to clean up the shattered glass. He addressed his comments to the floor as he spoke, out of view of the rest of the bar. “Now, I don’t know what you heard, but I got out of that business a long time ago.”

“Not my problem,” the gravelly voice argued from above.

“Now, now, that don’t mean I don’t have anything for ya.” The bartender stood, eyeing the man across the thin wooden bar top. “Happens to be I might know of someone who can point you in the right direction, if given the proper motivation.”

“Motivation, eh?” The stranger smirked as he slid a few folded bills across the bar. The bartender looked furtively about before palming the cash, and slid a piece of paper back towards the stranger. As he started to pull his hand back, the stranger’s came down atop his. The bar creaked as the man applied pressure, trapping the bartender’s hand with a painful grip. “I swear, if you’re screwing with me I’m gonna come right back here and rip your lyin’ tongue outta your head.”

The bartender shrugged. “As I said, I’ve been outta the game for a while. This is all I know now.” The bartender looked down, sweat beading on his forehead. “Can I have my hand back now?” The stranger held on for another second, glaring a threat at the bartender, before releasing the hand from the bar. The bartender shook some blood back into his fingers as he eyed the stranger. “Now kindly finish your beer and go.”

The man picked up the mug, draining the contents in a single pull, and stood up. Tossing another few dollars on the bar, the man headed for the door. As he stepped back into the cold, he glanced down at the scribbled drawing the bartender had handed him, and a smile crept slowly across his face.