The Light, It Burns

For about the last two years the bulbs above my cubicle at work have been blown out, as have many of the others in my part of the office. This resulted in a nice cozy workspace, soft light from my two desk lamps and my computer screens. Not dark, but comfortable.

When I arrived at work this Monday I was dismayed to find that someone had replaced every single blown out bulb, bathing the office in a bright artificial glow. Worse still, because of the placement of my light, the light balance in my cubicle is thrown off, really bright to the left, still kinda dark to the right even when I switch on my desk lights. It’s a sudden and disorienting shift to my environment. It’s giving me a headache.

Now was a writer I pride myself on being able to work anywhere. I have configured my gear and what I carry to make writing on the go a snap. And my work programming environment is tuned to my needs as well. Two screens, whimsical desk decorations and my own coffee maker. I don’t want to be some fragile baby bird who can only survive if the conditions are just right. But like a bird I do like to nest and my cubicle was one of those nests.

My office downstairs at home is comfortable. The desks are a dark color and my three desk lights provide enough illumination for the surfaces but not so much as to blind me. I have the option of an overhead light when I need to see more of my under the desk spaces, and I can easily switch it off when I don’t. The whir of the dehumidifier is comforting to the point that it’s jarring when it isn’t running.

On the go I like dark coffee shops, or book stores with are illuminated but not oppressive. I like white noise, the only thing my office at work still has going for it with all of the blowing fans. The worst place I ever tried to work was my library’s quiet rooms. Bright, quiet and feels like you’re sitting in a tomb.

Part of my annoyance is that the change was sudden and since all of the bulbs are new, they are at the point of being their most oppressive and artificial. The office used to be this bright when I started working here, and truth be told I don’t have that much control over my environment here. I’m trying to get used to it, though I’m seriously considering unscrewing the bulbs or coming to work wearing sunglasses.

Do you like where you work? What makes it a comfortable space for you?


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Poochie 2.0

Heard a story on the radio this morning that touched a bit of a nerve. Apparently, for $100,000 a lab in South Korea can clone your dog for you. NPR did a profile of a couple in Louisiana who did this with their dog Melvin, twice.

There are a number of troubling things about this, and to NPR’s credit they did a good job of touching on them. For starters the eggs for these clones need to be harvested from female dogs and placed into surrogate mothers. The procedure is often unsuccessful and requires multiple attempts to produce a viable clone. And most clones have defects that can cause them to be sickly.

But as all science fiction writers have a tendency to do, let’s set aside all of the medical complications and consider the question from a more ethical perspective, assuming eventually the technology will get better.

The US Humane Society estimates the owned dog population (in 2013) to be about 80 million. Another 6-8 million dogs wind up in shelters, with approximately 2.7 million not adopted each year. That’s 1 dog for every ten people in the United States. Clones don’t appreciably affect this population (NPR reported the particular lab has only produced 600 or so cloned dogs), but there are still many dogs out there who are alive and need a home.

Okay, dog over population is bad, it’s why Bob Barker always told us to get our pets spayed and neutered (and not because of his amusing last name). But again, not my point.

We lost our first dog, Simon, about a year and a half ago*. Like the family in the radio piece, it took two dogs to replace him, our beagle-boxer Riley (who we adopted from a shelter 3 days after we put Simon to sleep) and Murphy, a beagle like Simon who we adopted a few months ago. Simon was a great dog, very chill, but always greeted me when I got home. Those last days with him were hard as a tumor in his brain caused seizures, but he still was able to enjoy walks, and even a Five Guys Burger.

Losing a pet is hard. It took us a while to grieve for Simon and every now and then Murphy gives us a look that reminds us of our dog when he was younger (though we’re doing a better job at keeping Murphy thin). Riley and Murphy are very different dogs. Riley is playful, energetic, a lot taller even though he can curl up surprisingly small and isn’t much of a snuggler, though he has his moments. Murphy is a lap dog (at least he thinks he is) who I suspect would explode if he wasn’t on a human for more than an hour.

Cloning Simon, I would have missed out on the new experience of my dogs now. And cloning anything, a pet or even a loved one is trying to deny a fundamental part of our nature.

Things end. People and pets pass away. It’s sad, and it can be hard to deal with sometimes. But I can’t help but feel like cloning a pet is denying that truth, trying to set aside grief, to cheat death. But it’s a trick. A dog might be a genetic duplicate, but that is not everything that made it who it was. Even a cloned animal is still a different being than the one that preceded it. Part of life is about letting go, and letting others into our lives. Simon had a happy full life with us, and we’re trying to do the same for Riley and Murphy.

$100,000 could help hundreds of dogs. You could pay the adoption fee for the whole Franklin County Animal Shelter with that kind of money, and let families who might balk at the upfront money still provide a loving home. You could pay for medical expenses for older dogs and help them live a little longer with their owners. You could buy free bags of dog food for needy families who otherwise would have to give up their pet.

I understand this Louisiana family’s choice. But I can’t help but think of it as selfish, offensive, and ultimately self-defeating.

* My wife has had other dogs, but this was the first one she adopted herself. I came along a couple of years later so he predated me.

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Review: Supreme – Blue Rose, Stylish but lacks substance

Supreme: Blue Rose

Writer – Warren Ellis, Artist – Tula Lotay


Diana Dane is an unemployed investigative reporter tasked by the mysterious information broker Darius Dax to uncover the mystery behind a golden arch that fell on the town of Littlehaven. What is the meaning of the word “Supreme” emblazoned on the arch, and who is Ethan Crane? And should Diana Dane trust Dax or the warnings she hears in her dreams?

This is a reboot of a reboot of a rebooted super-hero series. Yes, superhero. A little Wikipedia research reveals Supreme (a la Ethan Crane) to be a Superman analog first created by Rob Lefield and rebooted by Alan Moore. Diana Dane = Lois Lane, Darius Dax = Lex Luthor, etc. Moore introduced a meta element to the comic involving “revisions” that reset reality, in part to account for the different styles and approaches of the writers working on the title. There are many versions of Supreme, Dax, and Diana Dane. Some memories seep through to the current version, and some retired versions are taken to the Supremacy outside time.

Ellis maintains this conceit, revising the world into a much less heroic version (possibly a side-effect of Erik Larsen’s despised run of the comic). The latest revision has destabilized the boundaries between reality and powers from the distant future are trying to repair the damage either by triggering another revision, or removing key people into the safe future. The plot is largely disconnected and highly stylized, interspersed with scenes from a television show called Professor Night that somehow is connected to the revisions.

I’m okay with having to work to make sense of what’s going on. As a fan of Finder, I’m used to not all information being provided to me at once (though Carla does make use of extensive footnotes that do clear a lot up). You can do a stylized story as long as it crystallizes into something magical at the end. What we get from Ellis is a data-dump explanation and an abrupt unsatisfying and inconclusive ending.

Tula Lotay’s artwork is the highlight of the book, giving an ethereal sense to both reality and dreams. She draws a lot of ribbons and shapes interspersed with the story, like an old photograph with scratches or blurs. It’s really unique and gorgeous to look at. It reminds me a lot of the best parts of Fatale.

Ultimately this story fails to engage new readers to be part of the Supreme mythos. In a world where we can keep hitting the reset button, why should we care about these particular versions of the characters? But it’s Ellis’ execution that fails to captivate most, evoking a sense of the mysterious but lacking any real mystery.

(3 Stars | Hopefully Tula’s artwork can be applied to a better story)

Sidebar: My Wikipedia research did uncover a villain by the name of Televillain who apparently can enter the reality of television shows. He kills Monica Gellar in “The One Where Monica Gets Shot” and then is accosted in real life. Now that would be an interesting comic to read (Images from ComicVine).




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“We are biological creatures”

The two-part TED Radio Hour series on screen time has been a fascinating listen for the last two weeks, and you owe it to yourself to listen to the whole thing. There are countless inspirations for stories or blog posts in that tight 120 minutes.

One of my favorite segments was from Abha Dawesar, discussing how computers distort our sense of time and our presence in the now. You can find her full talk here.

Dawesar speaks of a “digital now” separate from the physical present. The “digital now” is made up of all the connections trying to distract us or lead us down the rabbit holes of the internet, the trending topics on twitter, books our friends our reading, all the little places we spend our time online.

I have a fairly mid-90’s or early-00’s experience of the net. While I have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, I use Facebook primarily for amusement, and Twitter largely for puns with my friend Brian and a few links to interesting writer posts. But I have experienced the “digital now” and how fleeting it can be. Often I will want to write a blog post about something going on in the physical or digital present, but by the time I’ve reflected on the event and formed an opinion the moment to discuss it has largely past.

I don’t like being a reactionary writer. Quick writing ends up being sloppy, half-formed, far more arrogant and self-righteous than I ever intend to be, and pisses people off more people than I’d like. Every time I’ve posted something without really thinking about it, I’ve regretted it. Thankfully those regrets have been few and self-contained.

But my sense of time is still governed by computers even if I’m not the most outgoing or plugged-in sort of person. Anyone who has spent time transferring a lot of files from one place to another has felt what it is like to be slave to a machine. I carry these little black boxes around with me, or little colorful fingers, and they all have to be organized, categorized, equipped. Just because I don’t have a smartphone doesn’t mean I don’t like my tablet, or my laptops.

My grandfather had a desk under his stairs he called the “nerve center of the whole operation.” No computer, not even a typewriter if I’m remembering correctly, just papers and pens. My nerve center is more akin to the 90’s stereotype of the hacker, sitting in my dark basement lit up only by screens surrounding me on all sides. I go to sleep with a tablet at my bedside and my morning routine is governed by checking my websites as much as it is emptying the dehumidifier.

Here’s where I can confirm some of Dawesar’s assertions. Few of the memories I’ve formed in the last year that are lasting and meaningful have had anything to do with computers. They’ve mostly had to do with my dogs and my wife. And I have “lost time” many times when using the computer, frittering most of an evening away working on one project or another without realizing it was almost time for bed. Technology is another thing in our lives that demands attention.

I don’t know if I share her faith that people will pull away from technology of their own accord. While I can acknowledge that a walk outside is more physically restorative than sitting in front of a computer for hours, I really have to force myself to do it. Sometimes writing is refreshed by a change of venue, but it is still staring at a screen, just in a place with lighting that induces glare, with plugs that are too far away and chairs that aren’t quite as comfortable.

But we owe it to ourselves and our children to strike some kind of a balance, to not stare at a screen all of the time. Maybe that means leaving your screens in one part of the house, and not bringing them into the others. Maybe that means deliberate and scheduled time with those you care about.

There’s an old cliche that says nobody ever died wishing they spent more time at the office. I suspect the same rule applies to spending more time on Facebook.

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Motivational Malaise

When you’re writing, you’re writing.

Seems simple enough, but here’s what it boils down to for me.

Some people blog in place of working on their current “work in progress”. There are times where we think of writing as a finite energy that can only be applied to certain things. If I wrote a blog post today, then I didn’t write 500 words for my book. Writing in this model is like socializing for introverts. I may enjoy doing it, but I need a recharge and I’m only up for so much of it.

As I’m getting older I’m becoming a much more introverted person, so I understand this idea pretty well. And sometimes I act like it with my writing, assuming that I need the same recharge period if I’ve done a burst of creative output that I would need after going to a party with a lot of people I don’t know.

But I actually believe writing breaks the conservation of energy principle.

Time is a finite resource, creativity isn’t.

I have more to write about when I’ve been writing. Basically, this makes sense. One of the main topics of this blog is writing about writing and often thoughts for blog posts come from something I’ve been working on recently, a problem I’ve encountered, a new method I’m trying out. Other topics are fed much more by reading or listening to the radio, particularly the technology posts, but the desire to write them comes from … well … writing.

This isn’t about the spark of an idea, it’s about the motivational energy it takes to turn that spark into something on paper. I’ve thought a lot about this energy as habit, as discipline, and that’s not incorrect. But I think it still misses the point. When you write consistently, you can reach a point where you are typing faster than even modern computers can keep up with, where you just want to keep going even if it means you’re going to be late. Where it feels like you don’t have enough time to get it all down, where you are literally itching to work on something and it distracts your mind from everything else.

This is writing in the extroverted model. Spending time with other people energizes you. Writing energizes you. And not writing is draining, something you have to break through, a barrier you have to knock down.

I’ve been feeling … well … blah the last couple of weeks. Nothing’s been wrong physically, and I’m not significantly more or less busy than life always is. I just haven’t felt like writing and I let that be enough of a reason not to do it. This happens from time to time, often after spending a lot of effort on writing. I tell myself it’s because I’m tired, but I’m not really. I have the same ideas I want to write down, the opinions, the scenes from books that won’t leave my head. I’m just not in the mood to translate them into words.

Well, that’s just silly. Time to get back to work.

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Review: They’re Not Like Us Volume 1

They’re Not Like Us Vol. 1: Black Holes For The Young

Writer – Eric Stephenson, Artist – Simon Gane


Tabitha has heard voices all her life and she’s had enough. No one will believe the voices are real, not her parents, not her therapist, no one. After a failed suicide attempt, Tabitha wakes to the face of a man who tells her that not only are the voices real, but she’s not the only one with abilities.

But the man who calls himself “The Voice” doesn’t care about saving people. The world has done nothing to help people with strange gifts, so why should they help the world? With their abilities they can take anything they want, and they’re willing to kill for it. And the first thing Tabitha must do if she wants to be part of their group, after surrendering her name, is kill her parents.

Eric Stephenson does very stylized work. His other well-known comic Nowhere Men, imagined the fab four as scientists and brilliant engineers. He’s good at concepts, but not always execution. It’s clear that some of the characters are more or less evil than The Voice and there’s a fair amount of manipulation going on, but there’s really not anyone to root for. If you find out that all of the people in a room have killed their parents so they can beat people up for cool vintage headphones, you’re not going to like those people. Sure some of them are more broken up about patricide than others, but they all did the deed.

The majority of the plot involves Tabitha (called Syd by The Voice) trying to reconcile finding other people like her with the terrible things they do. She can understand some of the vigilante justice part, attacking perverts who can’t even see where the hit is coming from, but that’s not the same as saying that regular humans are somehow less than you. She’s angry that her parents subjected her to psychiatric treatment, that they didn’t believe her, didn’t try to understand her, but she doesn’t want them dead.

Jordie Bellaire’s colors evoke a period feel to the comic though it’s set in the present day, while Gane’s lines give most characters an angular feel, pointy chins. and smirking expressions. True emotion does come through for Blurgirl and Syd, but for most others the look is mostly self-satisfied even when it’s not supposed to be.

The final confrontation with Tabitha’s parents is a nice bit of closure, but the setup for the next arc doesn’t have me that interested. The Voice is just a manipulative bastard, and I’m not sure I want to hear him talk anymore.

This looked interesting, and chapter one ends with a good hook. But by the finish I was ready for it to be over.

(3 stars | Expected more from this)

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Be nice to Alexa

My wife and I spent much of this weekend re-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Hulu. One of the disadvantages to binging shows on Hulu is that you are subjected to the same commercials again and again. I have a newfound hatred for Draft Kings and any other fantasy football league websites.

One of the other recurring commercials was for Amazon Echo, the next generation Siri or Cortana or whatever Google calls its talking computer. Echo is a small cylinder with an omni-directional microphone and speaker that can respond to voice commands. It’s the closest thing we have to standing anywhere on the starship Enterprise and asking “Computer?” I definitely want one.

Echo’s avatar is named Alexa and all queries are prompted by saying “Alexa … turn on the lights” or “Alexa … tell me the news.” Having seen this commercial at least twenty times, something began to occur to me about the user’s behavior. He was being rude.

I’m not just referring to commands like “do this”, “do that”. That’s part of Alexa’s job. The part that bugs me is where Alexa is telling him the news and the user hears an interesting tidbit about NASA and new planets. He cuts Alexa off and asks “Alexa … do aliens exist?”. On topic, but still cutting her off in the middle of a sentence.

There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Lwaxana Troi is addressing the ship’s computer (a bit meta since Majel Barrett voices the computer in addition to playing Mrs. Troi). She says please and “thank you dear” to the computer, or herself depending on how you look at it. Her justification is that computers are making us all impersonal and just because it’s a machine doesn’t mean she should be rude (an attitude Dr. Pulaski had to learn gradually with Data).

Alexa is actually better than the Enterprise computer (no offense to Majel). The Next Gen voice has a “computer-y” edge, more akin to Siri’s delivery. Alexa, at least how she’s portrayed in the commercial, is conversational and clear. We get visual feedback of her talking through the light circle. Echo is really an advance in interactive computers. Not an AI yet, but with sophisticated programming.

So why does this matter? Well for starters if we want to bring gender politics in briefly, Alexa is a female voice. She’s being ordered around by a man, and not allowed to finish telling him about NASA’s new discovery which frankly is more interesting than his dumb question. Now some of you careful studiers of the commercial might have noticed that he does at least seem interested in what she’s saying (we hear a “huh” after the initial news tidbit). Again I need to emphasize how many times I saw this damn commercial.

If you were in the next room, and you didn’t know Alexa was a program, maybe you’d think our user was talking to someone on the phone, and that would be perceived as rude. If you were a child, and impressionable about gender roles and how we should treat other people, you might pick up on the exchange. And this is before we even consider the possibility of sentient artificial life, which seems far-fetched, but is still a very real goal of programmers. Computers are wonderful tools, but someday they may be more like equals (if we’re looking at the human race generously).

Now I’m the kind of guy who yells at computers when they don’t work. I don’t slam my monitor screen like Rosa Diaz, but I’m pretty close (given my tower a thwack or two). But maybe Echo should get us to reconsider that behavior, or at least change how its advertised.

And oh yeah, Menards, commercial metal roofing looks terrible. Last roof we’ll ever buy, my fanny. Seriously, Hulu, would a little commercial variety hurt you?


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