Thursday, December 12, 2019

Dreamforger

My latest story, "Dreamforger," is now out in DreamForge Magazine. Yes, we've noticed a serendipitous similarity to the names. I really enjoyed writing this story, and was very happy to get it in DreamForge, and not just because of the name similarity. The art for the story is quite beautiful, as you can see by the sample below.


And if that doesn't convince you to rush out and get a subscription, here's a sample from my story:
"What do dwarves have to do with my dreams?"

"Some dwarves forge dreams," I told her. "We make them out of moonlight and darkness, wind and cold, memory and emotion. It's alchemy and magic and forgecraft."

"And you think a dwarf made my dream?"

"If you've dreamed the same dream every night for a year, then it was dwarf-forged. No one else could make a dream that long-lasting."

"Why would they do that?"

"Someone paid him. Could be a rival, or an ex-lover, anyone." I knew a thing or two about ex-lovers and what they could do to one's dreams.

Madison shook her head. "I can't think of anyone. Who would even know how?"

The silence stretched between us, and I returned to adjusting my collector. Finally, Madison asked, "Is that what you do? Make bad dreams for whoever pays you?"

"No. I don't make dreams anymore." Not since the curse.

"Then what do you make?"

"Countermagic for bad dreams." I waited for her to accuse me of teasing her, or maybe trying to con her. That's what I would do in her position.

"Can you make something for me?"

I turned to face Madison. If she had any doubts, they didn't show. She was earnest, desperate. I felt like I was taking advantage of her, but business was business, and I was helping her.
It is, I think, one of my better stories.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Review: Oculus Quest

I got an Oculus Quest because I wanted to exercise more. Really.

For those not familiar, the Oculus Quest is a second-generation virtual reality headset from Oculus (owned by Facebook). Virtual reality headsets place a monitor in front of each eye (or one monitor with each eye only viewing half of it). This gives you a true 3D image, which you can look around in by turning your head. Most headsets, including the Quest, come with hand controllers as well. These create virtual hands which follow your real hands in the environment, allowing you to grip, point, and generally manipulate your environment. They usually come with buttons and joysticks which allow you to move around in your environment and interact with it in less intuitive ways.

I also own an Oculus Rift, the first-generation headset. The main difference between the headsets is one of mobility. The Oculus Rift (and the Rift S, its successor) must be tethered to a fairly powerful computer to work through a long cable. The Quest is untethered. All its components--battery, processor, memory, as well as the screen and speakers--are in the headset. This gives you a lot of freedom. You can take the Quest anywhere--even outside, though that's not recommended, or on trips.

It does make a difference. I can find a much larger area in my backyard than I could in my office with my computer, which gives you a significant area to move around in. You also don't get tangled in the cables as you turn around in the game.

But back to the exercise: I got the Oculus Quest because I had gotten into the VR game Beat Saber. This is a simple game that is also pretty effective exercise. You are given two lightsabers, one red and one blue, and you need to slice colored metal blocks as they fly toward you with the lightsaber the same color as the block, cutting in the direction indicated by arrows on the blocks. The blocks follow the rhythm of dance songs playing in the background (the beat in beat saber). There are also occasional obstacles you have to dodge as they fly toward you. At higher difficulty settings, it can be quite intense, and easily an aerobic workout.

Beat Saber. I'm not doing great here, mainly because I'm trying to capture a picture.
Unfortunately, I can't take the computer with me when I travel, so I thought the Oculus Quest would make a useful alternative. That way I can have an (entertaining) aerobic exercise even when I'm visiting my parents.
The Oculus Quest in the compact, hard travel case I bought for it. 
So, what do I think about it, especially compared to the original? Here are my thoughts:

Advantages

  • Mobile
  • Easy to set up
  • Easier to use even when you aren't traveling--I find myself using it more than my original Rift, even though I have them both in my bedroom.
Disadvantages
  • It feels slightly more sluggish. The sabers feel like they lag behind just a little.
  • There are more glitches. The original Rift had its glitches as well, but this feels like it glitches more. This may be partly because of the games I'm playing, as most glitches seem to be more errors in the game than in the system. For example, every once in a while one of the sabers stop working, and goes spinning off into the void. At one point, for about a week, I was observing freezes and the screen going black in Beat Saber too, but that seems to have been a bug that they fixed.
  • The system isn't as powerful, and so can't handle games that need a PC behind them.
  • Since the tracking is internal, it's easier to move the controllers out of sight of the cameras built into the Rift.
So would I recommend it over the Rift S, the updated version of the original Oculus Rift? Yes, for one very important reason: Oculus is adding Link--a system that lets you use the Quest as if it were a Rift through a single USB C cable. If it works as well as promised, and you get the mobility and the power of a computer when you want it, I'm not sure what market the Rift S will fill.

Now what I'd really like to see is a wireless connection between the Quest and the computer, using WiFi. You'd think it would be possible, since the Quest does have WiFi and is battery powered. Maybe next year.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Diet and Exercise

Back in late July, my doctor informed me that my weight put me in the obese category according to BMI, and that put me at risk for diabetes and heart disease. I don't really trust BMI as a measure of health, since it doesn't take into account such obvious influences as sex or age, and height is reduced to a mere denominator (and I am unusually short). This smart BMI calculator seems more reasonable to me, though I haven't read the research behind it. But I had to admit that my weight was getting up there, and I have a history of diabetes in my family, and I really don't want to be diabetic.

The doctor gave me the option of taking drugs, or trying to lose weight. I opted for the weight loss option, since I’m stubborn that way, and I have boundless—probably misplaced—confidence in my ability to discipline myself.

I've lost twenty pounds since then. Now there's probably nothing more boring than hearing someone talk about their diet and exercise program, but this is my blog, and I wanted a centralized place to point people to when they ask (and I have been asked).

The number one decision I made when I decided to do this was that I wasn’t going to diet and exercise, I was going to change my diet and exercise. This meant that this was permanent, so I wasn’t going to lose weight and stop, I was going to keep losing weight until I stabilized at a new weight, and then, if necessary, change my lifestyle further. It also meant that I was only going to do things that I felt I could live with for the long haul. This meant slower, but hopefully more sustainable, weight loss.

But I wasn’t going from a cold start, either. So let's start with before.

Before

Kristin is a wonderful cook, and I usually eat whatever food she provides. For dinner. For lunch, I'm on my own at work. Usually, I brought a cold cut sandwich and chips, though twice a week I would get food from one of the local restaurants instead—usually a steak bowl with rice, beans, guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo, and lettuce from a local Mexican place, or a steak kebab with hummus, potatoes, and salad from a local Mediterranean place. I'd also have two, occasionally three, 12 ounce cans of Coke a day, sometimes with chips or pretzels for a snack.

For exercise, I would do one of several seven minute workouts each day, using an Android app called 7, but the app has a lot of workouts aside from the original, and often I did a light version of the exercise. I also used dumbbells, doing a weight workout three times a week in theory, in reality more usually twice a week, performing eight exercises, each with two sets of ten reps, using light/medium/heavy weights of 5/8/10 pounds. Finally, I had a treadmill desk, which I used pretty much every day, walking at a slow pace of 1.5 mph for eight hours a week (1:20 six days a week), and a fast pace of 3 mph for two hours each week (on Saturday)—for a total of 18 miles each week over 10 hours.

I had also recently purchased an Oculus Quest virtual reality headset, and started using one of the high intensity games called Beat Saber as a more intense aerobic exercise.

So I wasn’t totally inactive, but there were ways to improve.

After

I had been getting pretty sick of sandwiches, so I was looking forward to changing things up. My doctor had suggested a Mediterranean diet, in particular replacing grains with legumes for carbs. This translated into a salad with meat (or as I like to think of it, steak on a bed of lettuce) and a side of beans or chickpeas. I reduced my Coke intake to one can a day, and my snack to a single serving of flavored, roasted chickpeas. For caffeine in the afternoon, I would have loose-leaf Chai tea, with milk and sugar (but not a Chai latte from Starbucks or similar, as that has as many calories as a Coke, while I'm aiming for less than half that). When I bought lunch, I would switch to the salad with meat theme for one meal a week. For dinner, Kristin moved to more legumes instead of grains and potatoes; but she didn't drop grains and potatoes, or even desserts, entirely.

For exercise, I wanted to increase the intensity while increasing the time spent exercising as little as possible. So I did a number of things. First, I changed the exercises I was doing in 7 to a custom-built aerobic exercise four times a week (easier on my knees than the default aerobic one), and a custom-built long exercise program three times a week that combines a full-body workout with the stretching that I do before weight training. For weights, the first step was to consistently use them three times a week, and also to go from 2 sets of 10 reps to 3 sets of 8 reps. This was one of the biggest time increases. Then I bought some adjustable dumbbells to which I could add weight plates as needed, and I added two new exercises for which I needed more weight: farmer carries and leg lifts. I gradually increased the amount of weight for my exercises, from 5/8/10 to 10/15/20, while going from 8 to 10 reps, over the course of three months. I’ve recently switched to circuit training, doing sets of different exercises in a row without a rest in between, and then resting before repeating.

Next I changed up how I used my treadmill. Rather than doing all the faster walking on Saturday, I started doing half an hour at 3 mph and an hour at 1.5 mph six days a week, and an hour at 2 mph on Saturday (for a total of 20 miles over 10 hours).

Finally, I made Beat Saber a constant part of my exercise, combining twenty minutes of a more intense difficulty level with my aerobic exercise. I used the heart rate monitor on my smartwatch to make sure I was in the aerobic zone as much as possible.

When I plateaued after losing ten pounds, I made several additional small changes. I dropped the legume side dish and started sticking to the meat on a bed of lettuce lunch every weekday while reducing the meat from four ounces to three ounces. I also increased the speed of my fast-paced walk to 4 mph, turning it into a light jog, using my smartwatch to maintain the aerobic heart rate zone the entire time. Finally, I kept the additional hour on Saturday but reduced it from 2 mph pace to 1.5 mph, reaching a total of 22.5 miles over 10 hours.


My office--with treadmill desk, regular desk, and exercise mat. The desk chair has been moved to make space for VR.
The other side of my office, with my weight bench.

So, in summary:

3-4 times a week
  • 7 minute aerobic exercise
  • 20 minutes of Beat Saber
  • 30 minutes jog at 4 mph
  • 1 hour walk at 1.5 mph

3 times a week
  • 30 minutes jog at 4 mph
  • 15 minutes full body workout and stretching
  • 1 hour of weight exercises
  • 1 hour walk at 1.5 mph

Since I only jog six times a week, I can drop it once a week, or even skip all the exercise one day a week if I have another commitment, but I'll try to make up any walking so that I hit the same totals of 10 hours and 22.5 miles each week.

You'll notice that this consists of 2-2.75 hours each day, which seems like a lot. How do I get anything else done? One advantage of a treadmill desk is that I'm not just walking or jogging. I can watch television shows or read my Kindle app while jogging, and at a slower walk I can work on Mysterion or even write. While doing my weight exercises or even Beat Saber, I listen to podcasts or audio books. The only time I'm not doing something else is the 7-15 minutes I'm doing a prescribed exercise, where I need to listen to instructions from my phone. The biggest challenge is finishing the more intense parts before dinner. The walk, and even weights, can come later. Fortunately, we tend to eat dinner late—never before seven, and sometimes not until nine.

So far it's worked, but the temptation to cheat just a little is a constant danger, especially now that I've made real progress.

NaNoWriMo

I don't typically do NaNoWriMo, partly because November is a difficult month for me to set aside the time for it (though my wife and I have occasionally tried JaNoWriMo (there are actually a lot of versions of this)). But I decided now was a good time to increase my writing time. I've only been getting about 2.5 hours done each week since the July reading period for Mysterion started. Now that my work there is mostly done, I've bumped my writing per week up to 5 hours for November, making it a priority to write during my walking time. I used to frequently delay writing until I was done walking, surfing the web during the walk instead, but now I try to start writing as soon as I start walking. That has led to some procrastination from starting to walk, however.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Supervisor of Accountants and the Great Gray Wolf



This story is now out at Cast of Wonders Episode 372. Sometimes the unlikeliest people are called to be heroes. But what sort of heroism can one expect of a lowly administrator?

I was asked today where I got the idea from. As I always tell people, ideas are easy, it's the execution that's hard. I keep a list of ideas to write stories from. They come from all over. When I read a story or book or see a movie or television show, and wonder, "Why didn't the characters do this instead?" (This doesn't mean I rewrite the story with that change--it means I write a story where characters face a similar problem and try my solution.) When I have a philosophical, political, or religious idea, and I think it would be interesting to explore it in a story. When there's some technology that might have interesting implications. When I see something happen in real life or hear about it on the news and think that it may have story resonance. When I dream something. Sometimes just when I come up with a really good punchline. All of these get written down to be mulled over, to build into a robust system and then broken in the story that tells how they fail.

But sometimes I look over that list, and find that I'm just not ready to write any of those stories. It's too ambitious, or the idea's not fully formed, or maybe it wasn't such a great idea anyway. In that case, I start brainstorming. This is when worlds I've created and novels I've written but never published come in. I start thinking about other stories I can tell in those worlds, bits of backstory I can fill in for those characters, sequels and prequels to unpublished, sometimes even unwritten, stories.

And when that doesn't work, I try something crazy. In this case, I decided to come up with a wildly original title, and after that, the story would practically write itself. But it turns out that wildly original titles are hard to write too. I realized my best bet was to avoid cliché or common words, so I went to dictionary.com, and started working my way backwards through its words of the day, trying to figure out if any of the words, or better yet, combination of words, sparked something. I discarded puissant (actually sort of cliché in fantasy), selenotropism, metanoia, and complaisant. But two words stuck out at me, especially when I put them together: "doughty" and "panjandrum". And thus "The Doughty Panjandrum" became the working title of my story, and figuring out what such a person would be like gave me the story's voice.

So it turns out looking up random uncommon words and combining them into a title does work as a method to come up with a great story idea. Who knew?

Friday, August 16, 2019

More upcoming stories

So no sooner had ink dried (digital pixels set?) on the last contract than I had two more stories come through. One I sold two years ago, and one I sold last year. Neither of which have come out yet, but I'm bumping both stories to "probably coming soon."

The Lightning Generator

Back in 2017, I signed the contract to publish "The Lightning Generator" with a certain magazine. And then the fiction editor left and the magazine went on hiatus for a couple of years, and I pretty much assumed that the story would never see the light of day. The contract had a 3 year reversion of rights clause, though--that's the part of the contract that says if they haven't published it in that time, you're free to do what you want with the story--so I couldn't send the story anywhere else until that ended. Now the magazine's a print magazine, and a fairly long reversion of rights clause is standard for those. It takes a long time to go from story acquisition to print. But, man, when you're almost sure the magazine is dead, that's a long time for a story to languish. For the record, Mysterion's reversion of rights clause is 1 year, but we're a online magazine, so things move quicker in that world.

Anyway, I finally heard from the magazine this past week, and it turns out that not only are they not dead, they're publishing again, and they're definitely planning to publish my story. Not in the next issue, but in the issue after that. And as they haven't announced the story yet, I still won't name the magazine. Which may be for the best, considering what I said above. . .

But as to the story itself, here's my description:

When Professor Garson invents a device that can generate lightning and power a city, Morgan Dunworth's job security as an aether engineer looks a lot less certain. And when someone kills the professor for his invention, Morgan is unfortunately the primary suspect.

The Chamber of Winds

I first submitted this story to another magazine I'm not naming back in February of 2018. This is one of the few stories I submitted on invitation (more of a general invitation to people who'd gone to a specific writing workshop, not someone looking for a story just from me). In October, the editor said that they would publish the story. And finally, this week, I received the contract. I'll still hold off on announcing the magazine until it's made public, but here's a little about the story:
Raxtus makes a good living smuggling goods through the Hub, where his Domini masters have portals to all over the world. But it looks like he and his fellow workers will soon be replaced by automatons, and he needs to make sure he's settled all his debts before he's out on the streets.


So that's two stories about people concerned about losing their jobs due to a paradigm shift in technology. Hmm. Maybe that says something about my own fears, or maybe it's just coincidence that these two stories (which are connected, though I'll stay silent on how) happen to be reaching publication at around the same time. That's not all I write about, honest!

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Upcoming story: "The Supervisor of Accountants and the Great Gray Wolf" at Cast of Wonders

Now that the contract's signed, I can announce that I have a story coming out in Cast of Wonders, the Escape Artists podcast of young adult speculative fiction. The story is called "The Supervisor of Accounts and the Great Gray Wolf."

When the king tells the Supervisor of Accounts to the Second Under-Treasurer to jump, he jumps. And when the king tells said supervisor to hunt the Great Gray Wolf that all the knights and huntsmen seem to be avoiding, then he polishes his brass buttons, brushes off his good hat, and blackens his  outdoor boots, all before setting out into the Old Wood.

I'm not sure which episode the story will appear in, but I'm looking forward to seeing it soon.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Mysterion's July submission period is coming to a close

If you've been following Mysterion at all, then you know that we're in our July submission period. Well, or submission period is coming to an end tomorrow, when the month of July ends (Boston time). We're paying 8 cents per word for science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories up to 9,000 words long that engage with Christianity. If you have a story you'd like to submit, the submission guidelines are here.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Domus Lemurum

My story, "Domus Lemurum"--Latin for House of Lemures, is now out in Intergalactic Medicine Show. It's a ghost story set in ancient Rome. Roman patrician Septimus runs a profitable business buying haunted houses at bargain prices, and re-selling them once the troublesome spirits have been banished. But some evil runs too deep to be cast out so easily...

The story's behind a paywall, so only those with a subscription to Intergalactic Medicine Show can read the whole thing, but it will be out from behind it later this year. You can also read the story behind the story, wherein I wrestle with accurately portraying rather dismaying Roman attitudes, but that does contain spoilers for the story.

If you want to read more fiction by me, you can visit my writings page. If you want to read fiction that Kristin and I publish, visit the Mysterion website, and definitely visit our Patreon, where you can support our endeavors. We're desperately trying to reach $200/month, which will allow us to keep up with SFWA's increased pay rate.