What Have I Become?

It all started out innocently enough. After my last nervous breakdown, during recovery, my parents gave me an old scuffed-up aquarium, which I proceeded to fill with dirt and old leaves and rotting plywood. And pillbugs. For a while, it was fun to watch them breed and run around and poke each other and chew on my fingers when I picked them up, but soon, I wanted more. So, when I wasn’t busy with my Modern Algebra class, I spent many irrational hours sifting through leaflitter in my parents’ back yard (my own back yard being not quite large enough to house a single moth) looking for millipedes. Then I was peeling the bark off dead trees, on the hunt for the big scary centipedes that lived back there.

When I got what laughably counts for my sanity scraped back together, I returned to my home with my aquarium of extremely well-fed, pampered pillbugs and millipedes in tow. But I’d caught a bug–sorry, that was terrible–and there is no cure. I’d fallen victim to that little-known scourge: invertebrate addiction. I’ve always liked invertebrates. So few of them are nasty and hairy, and they never call me “psycho kid” or yell at me because there aren’t any dry towels or make funny faces when I ask them on dates. Unfortunately, the cephalopods–my very favorite class of invertebrates, on account of including the nautilus, the cuttlefish, and the octopus, any one of which is probably smarter than I am–are practically impossible to keep in captivity, and I’m the kind of half-autistic obsessive-compulsive who likes his nature in a very neat rectangular container where he can poke at it at whenever he likes. And, being so intelligent, I figured it would be pretty cruel to keep an octopus or a squid in my tiny-ass house (tiny ass-house), so I went looking for another kind of invertebrate that I could keep in my tiny-ass house.

It was then that I discovered snails. I’d added a few snails to my terrarium when I was first setting it up, but I soon learned of a much larger, much less everyday variety: the apple snails. Good old Pomacea diffusa. And then I sighed melodramatically and thought “Aw gee…I could never afford an aquarium to keep them in…” But then one day, I was at the petstore. And I saw snails running around their fishtanks. They had tentacles growing out of their faces and eyes without pupils and sharp teeth and iridescent orange marks on their sides, and they were cheap, and I bought five. And, because I am an idiot, tried keeping them in a gallon Mason jar. They reacted poorly, but my parents, probably worried that I was going to destroy the entire animal kingdom at this rate, gave me a little ten-gallon aquarium as a birthday present. And I, being, once again, an idiot, thought “Filtration? Filtration’s for weaklings!” The snails disagreed. So, several hundred gallons’ worth of water changes and about fifteen dead shrimp later, I had an aquarium, inhabited by nothing but snails and shrimp.

But I wanted more. I couldn’t settle for just one kind of snail, I wanted all species of snail. Soon, I discovered that the tanks at the petstore were infested with Malaysian trumpet snails, cute little invasive bastards who like to dig in sand and pop up as if to say “Fuck you, I’m a snail, I go where I want!” And the petstore, pretty much at their wits’ end on how to get rid of them, happily gave me twenty for free. And on a later visit, they, with a mischievous look in their eye that I didn’t recognize, happily gave me five common pond snails, the deadly scourge known as the European physa.

Then, my first snails laid eggs, providing me with my next novelty fix for a while, but after the eggs hatched, I had more snails than I knew what to do with, and so I emptied out a second terrarium I was starting and turned it into an aquarium just for overflow snails. And my parents, glad that I finally had a hobby that didn’t involve vivisecting woodland creatures, happily gave me a seventy-five gallon aquarium that used to house our dear boa constrictor. I turned it into a terrariaum. I bought hermit crabs and pestered them endlessly, trying to get them to snuggle with me like little hard-shelled kittens. Then, as always happens in the summer, I found my house overrun with field crickets, which I immediately caught and forced into slave labor, that slave labor being the endless manufacture of insectile cuteness.

And the other day, it finally occurred to me what I’ve become. When I was younger, I played Pokemon on the good old GameBoy. And there was always that one pain-in-the-ass bastard who hung out at the edge of the tall grass, waiting for some hapless beginner to wander through, all his Pokemon half-dead from the endless battles with pigeons and caterpillars in the dreaded Tall Grass, and then sprang out and challenged said trainer to an inescapable battle, at which point he would deploy fifteen fucking caterpillars and kill all your Pokemon.

Well, I realized the other day that I’ve become that guy. I’ve become some bizarre real-world analogue to the tall-grass Pokemon bastard. I am a collector of strange animals. All that remains now is for me to put them in little containers and walk around looking for someone else who happens to have their own container of water snails and challenge them to a duel. All I have to do is wait…

Re-Boot

A while ago, I promised some big(gish) news. Well, here it is: The Life of an English Major is getting rebooted. I’m switching to a new username and moving to a new patch of land in WordPress country. After four years (has it really been…?) I find myself a completely different person than the whiny, mucus-filled, befuddled lunatic who booted this blog in the first place. Don’t worry, I’m still a whiny, mucus-filled, befuddled lunatic, and I plan to do a lot of things the way I’ve been doing them since the blog began. Here are a few of the Life of and English Major set-pieces that won’t be going anywhere:

  • Visual Numbers: It’s true, I’m an English major now, but I do still love Math. A year ago, Math and I had a messy divorce after a long and increasingly loveless marriage. Now that I’m married to English and my ex and I have reconciled, I’ve decided to stay married to English and just have a steamy affair with Math behind English’s back. And what all that torturous mess means is: I’m going to keep up Visual Numbers, my (sort of) long-running series of posts visualizing the beautiful patterns that lurk in numbers, along with whatever interesting mathematical ramblings I manage to concoct.
  • Random bits and pieces: One reader found my blog by Googling “insect crawling up the rectum.” And I’m always seeing amusing targeted ads here and there. May it ever be so.
  • Stuff for writers: I love to write. I also love to write about writing (mainly because it’s a lot easier to write about it than to actually do it). I’m sure now that I’m actually almost kinda semi-serious about it, I’ll have more to say.
  • Reviews of stuff: I do love to give my cynical and often simpleminded opinion about things, and I shall continue to do so. Less simplemindedly now, I would hope.
  • Netlogo simulations: I do still love to program in NetLogo, and if I should happen to write a decently amusing simulation, I’ll let you know about it.
  • Random ideas like this one.
  • Random speculations and musings.
  • Unwise experiments with food and dangerous chemicals.

Hopefully, I’ll also come up with a few new things to do. In addition, there’s going to be a lot less random bitching and whining, half-baked ideas, and a hell of a lot more spelling and grammar checking (when I saw that I’d written “it’s” where I should have written “its,” I died a little). And there’s not going to be any politics. None. None at all. I have reached an advanced stage of serenity an disillusionment when it comes to politics. I’m going to take care of my little patch of the world, and that’s all I can hope to do. Let the politicians argue about the placesettings on the Titanic.

The re-vamped Life of an English Major should be up and running soon. See you there!

How I Beat Writer’s Block

Ah yes, the famous writer’s affliction strikes again. But this time, instead of grovelling at Writer’s Block’s knees, whimpering for it to please go away and let me write, I kicked it in the ass, hurled it off my porch, and threatened to pull off its gonads if it ever came ’round here again. This isn’t some sort of guide, and this solution will probably only work for me, but here it is, how I beat writer’s block.

First, the backstory. I’ve just recovered from a week of semi-insomnia and maybe a month or two of lousy writing. Now that I spend the bulk of my time shoveling different kinds of composted shit, writing has become just about the only useful thing I do (unless you count honing my Fallout skills and learning how to cook lentils), so it was pretty damn distressing when the old WB left me with nothing but Fallout and beans.

But like I said, this time I didn’t curl up on the floor and whimper. This time, I kept fighting it, trying to beat it. So, the first key thing when it comes to beating writer’s block is PERSISTENCE.

Of course, no amount of persistence could fix the fact that I was subconsciously pretending to be Stephen King. The solution to that little problem came when I made an effort to RE-DISCOVER MY VOICE. Which didn’t do me any good as long as I had no stories I felt passionate about writing, so I WROTE OUT MY FRUSTRATION. The result was this: A tiny story called Writer’s Block, and the solution to my problem. Enjoy!

*          *          *

WRITER’S BLOCK

I was scowling at the computer screen when she came in. She was the last person I wanted to see, and I couldn’t get rid of her. As I heard Andrea sitting down next to me, I let out a small sigh.

“You’re looking rough,” she said. I shot her a frown and turned back to the computer.

“Writer’s block.” She took a sharp breath.

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah…don’t worry, I’ve got it under control.” She leaned forward and read what little there was to read over my shoulder. When she slumped hard back into the chair, I knew what was coming. When I looked over at her, she was rolling her eyes.

“Wow….read enough Stephen King lately?” I glanced to the computer, and then back to her, turning in the chair and eliciting that mousey squeak from its poorly-oiled bearings.

“What?” She smiled up at the ceiling with mock innocence.

“Nothing. Just a familiar style, that’s all.” Now, I turned the scowl I’d reserved for the computer on Andrea. Her mocking sarcasm was hard enough to take on a good day, and it was not a good day.

“You’re saying it’s unoriginal.” She looked up at the ceiling again.

“’I stole one last glance at the old pocketwatch as it tumbled down into the sewer drain. The light of the setting sun flashed off its face for a moment, and then it was gone. Hopefully, forever.’” She looked at me with those scalpel-sharp eyes of hers, and gave a similarly sharp smile.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, if you’re writing for Hollywood.” I felt my face flush immediately, and put up a noble battle against the urge to stand up and shout at her.

“That’s not Hollywood!” I barked. She rolled her eyes again.

“Wow…nice to meet you, Mr. I-Can’t-Take-Criticism. New in town? No, I think you must’ve been here a while.” I realized my nails were digging into the arms of the chair, and I tried to slow my breathing and calm down. With her still smiling that goofy, incisive smile, it was difficult.

“I can take criticism.”

“Clearly not.”

“I can!”

“You can’t. If I told you what I wanted to tell you, you’d hit the roof and then yell at me to leave.” The fact that she was right was infuriating, as it often is.

“Tell me.”

“No.”

“Stop playing games!” Andrea’s smile broadened.

“You really don’t want to hear it.” I sighed, my anger finally exhausted.

“No, but I probably need to hear it.” Some of the sharpness went out of her eyes, and her smile grew softer.

“Now there’s the right way to ask. But you have to promise me you won’t yell.”

“What do you care if I yell.”

“Promise me.”

“What does it matter if I get angry?”

“Well, we can’t have you getting your blood pressure up, can we?” she mocked. I almost wanted to shove her out of the chair.

“Fine. I promise.”

“Good.” She folded her hands and leaned forward. “First of all, I have a suspicion that I know where this story is going. Let me guess: main character buys weird pocketwatch from old gypsy, discovers it has supernatural powers, uses them, pays dearly, finally decides to get rid of it.” Her rightness continued to irk me.

“I wasn’t sure where I was going with it,” I lied.

“Fine, I’ll pretend that’s true for the sake of argument. But what the hell’s the deal with the style?”

“What’s wrong with the style?” My face was getting hot again, and I was leaning forward, trying to bore into her skull with my eyes.

“It’s forced, and like I said, it’s pretty Stephen King-ish.”

“Stephen King’s a good writer.”

“Right. Stephen King is. But Brad Gorham pretending to be Stephen King is something of a hack.” I could feel my carotid artery pulsing against my shirt collar.

Nothing came out of my mouth but a long, drawn-out Hhhhhhh. I couldn’t bring myself to say the H-word. I stood up (the chair squeaking like a rat), and balled up my fists. Andrea, as always, did not look concerned.

“Sit down. You’re not going to hit a girl, and even if I was a guy, you wouldn’t hit me because you know that I’m right and you’d feel terrible afterwards.” After standing there for a moment drowning in bile and breathing my own hot exhaust, my fists loosened and I sat back down. “Besides, I didn’t actually call you a hack. I called Brad-as-Stephen-King a hack.”

“You know how easily other writers influence me.”

“Stop making excuses. Like it or not, you’re trying to be Stephen King.”

“I’m not!”

“Oh, shut up,” she said playfully, “You are, and you really ought to stop lying to yourself. You’re trying to be Stephen King, because you like his style. But I can tell from the expression you had on your face that you don’t enjoy his style. You don’t like trying to write in his style. It’s too hard, and it’s no fun.” She was right, and my anger had been replaced by rueful concession.

“Okay. So what do I do, then?”

“It’s obvious.”

“No it’s not.”

“Yes it is. Get back in the groove. Find your style again.”

“How?”

“I don’t know, you’re the writer.” That made me smile a little, and Andrea caught my smile and magnified it. “Try writing from your own perspective.”

“What about, though? I lose interest in everything I try to write.”

“Well, write what you know. Write about writer’s block.”

At the front of the house, a key rattled, and the knob made a clunk sound. The door squeaked (sounding nothing like a mouse), and heavy footsteps thumped down the hallway.

“Sounds like George,” said Andrea, getting up from the chair and turning to leave.

“Wait a second!” I protested, swiveling to face her as she paused in the doorway. She looked down at me.

“What?”

“We’re not finished yet!”

“Well, you’ve got something to write about now, so hop to it!” She smiled and walked out into the hallway. A second later, George walked in, sweaty from his run and breathing hard.

“Who were you talking to?” he rasped, wiping beads of sweat from his huge forehead. I almost said Andrea, but I stopped. George wouldn’t really understand. But I said something fairly close to the truth.

“Myself.”

Poor Man’s Liquid Nitrogen

Liquid nitrogen is hard to get, and being someone with no connections and a wild look in his eye, I don’t think I could actually get my hands on any, so I have to settle for watching videos of the stuff in action. I was doing that a few days ago, and ran across this video:

Being a good science nerd, I happen to know a place where I can buy dry ice. And, being a good science nerd, my first thought when I saw this video was “Don’t try this at home? Pffft! I know what I’m doing!” So, I made Poor Man’s Liquid Nitrogen (which I’ll call PMLN, because I’m lazy). Surprisingly, I didn’t manage to injure myself, but heed the following warning!:

DON’T MAKE THIS STUFF! IT’S EXTREMELY COLD, AND AS THE MAN SAYS IN THE VIDEO, VERY STICKY. WHEN SOMETHING IS DESCRIBED AS “CRYOGENIC NAPALM,” STEER CLEAR OF IT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED, AND I TAKE NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANYTHING YOU DO AS A RESULT OF READING THIS POST!

Anyway…onward! (But one more note of warning: I didn’t manage to hurt myself, but I did discover that letting a bunch of dry ice fall in your sink drain is a good way to break a garbage disposal…)

What you need to make PMLN. A 20-liter soda bottle, a 3-liter soda bottle, a knife, isopropyl rubbing alcohol (the video recommends 99%, but the best I could find was 91%), and a pair of gloves to protect myself from frostbite.

In addition to being an excellent way to cool things relatively cheaply, dry ice is also a hell of a lot of fun to play with. Warning: dry ice will make plastic brittle, and is a good way to ruin a plastic colander.

Cut the tops off both containers. Poke holes in the smaller one.

Put the smaller container in the larger one (as if you could do it the other way around…) and surround it with chunks of dry ice. I broke my slab up with a hammer, which is a good way to make really, really cold powdered dry ice, which created a lovely crust of ice on the bottom of my sink.

The “cryo-cell” cooling down. If you decide to disregard my warning and try this experiment, note my safety precautions: gloves, a long-sleeved jacket (in case something splashes), and (not pictured) long pants, socks, and shoes. Just in case.

The alcohol has cooled down to the point that it’s no longer boiling furiously. Time to freeze stuff!

Here’s all the stuff I could find to freeze. At bottom: baby spinach leaves. At the top: a leaf from my jade plant.

Julia the jade plant, from whom I stole the leaf. Sacrificing herself for science once again. Houseplants are noble that way.

The spinach leaf going in…

A shattered spinach leaf. As the fellow in the video advises: do not try to eat stuff frozen this way! Not only will it have rubbing alcohol on it (which is not safe to consume, and could, in fact, kill you), but it will be very, very cold and might freeze to your tongue.

A jade plant leaf freezing in the chilled alcohol. Note: you can’t see it here, but that alcohol isn’t actually liquid. It’s more of a slushy gel-type stuff.

The effects of the cryo-cell. It really works!

I didn’t just want to pour the cola from my 20-liter bottle down the drain, so I put it in a glass. Then, being the amateur mad scientist that I am, I thought “I wonder if you can use dry ice like regular ice…” The answer: you certainly can, but don’t do it with cola. The bubbles from the dry ice will agitate it, and make all the carbonation fizz away. So, the cola was flat, but it sure was nice and cold.

Many, many thanks to YouTube user wbeaty for the demonstration that inspired this post. You should check out some of his other videos. I’m not just saying that so he won’t get pissed off that I copied his experiment; his other videos are actually really cool (no pun intended, honestly).

And one final reminder: don’t do this at home!

25,000 Hits!

By now, it’s kind of a tradition that, every time my hit counter passes some random numerical milestone, I present you, dear viewers, with a random gift in appreciation of your visit. And since my counter just passed 25,000 (wow…I know that’s a really tiny number, comparatively speaking , but it’s huge compared to what the site used to get), I thought I’d spread some holiday cheer. I present to you: 25,000 garishly-colored circles:

Oooh! Ahhh! Ugh!

Oooh! Ahhh! Ugh!

To all the people who have gone to the trouble to give my blog a look, thank you. Have a circle. There’s enough for everyone.

A Story for Halloween

My mother is one of those odd people for whom Halloween is a more fun and more interesting holiday than, say, Christmas, or any of the other major holidays. Lately, I find myself following in her footsteps. And so, in honor of Halloween, I present: Hosts, a short (and fairly gruesome, and probably mildly disturbing) horror story. Here’s how I summarize it:

How do you survive as the last normal human, and all others are host to alien Larvae, euphoric and stupid and violently defensive against non-hosts? Gregg thinks he has a solution, but he knows it won’t last forever.

Enjoy, and merry Halloween.

Two-Year Anniversary!

It’s hard to believe. If you’d asked me in 2006 where I thought this blog would be in two years, I probably would have said “Discarded on the metaphorical side of the road.” As it turns out, though, writing about things you’re interested in and actually know something about makes for a much better website than the formula I’d used in the past, which was “Try to make myself look smart and never do any updates.”

A lot has happened since the first post. I’ve started college, I’ve moved out, I’ve become less of a neurotic whiner. If you’ll let me get sentimental, it seems that the blog’s quality and popularity has grown in proportion to my own growth. That is to say, whereas the best thing I could think of to write about in 2006 was the mucus clogging my sinuses, now I can talk about interesting things like heart simulators, chocolate-covered bananas, and writing.

Now that I have a chance, I’d like to personally thank all the people who have left comments:

Royce, madmouser, David Schleicher, paul_k, David Mckenna, frecklesscassie, bzdoz, James Hunaban, Mathias Schindler, distorted, can’t-think-of-anything, collector, thought-of-something, “Guest”, Hercule Alfred, blackexodia, john richards, Robin, truthseeker1234, yassine, John Nash, Alex, Derek (whose comments on my writing I especially appreciate), Torbjorn, Blue Tyson, Michael Novak, schildan, awalkabout, Wes Johnson, chris, Nicanor Moldovan, Hettyfv, Greg Williams, Brandi, Terry Finley, Genghis Philip, harrison, midiguru, anonymous, Daniel, shashan, David Secaecg, legoless, Geoff Hinton, ForHim, Brock Tice, Chris, Dak Rockson, JerryB, amritha, MilKieWee, david, Lymnantaree, Alex, Chuck, Tucker, Anonymous, kingdom media, thomas, Simon, and pythonisms.

And many thanks also to the over 22,000 people who have taken a look at my site so far. Here’s hoping for another two years!

Also, be sure to check in this coming November for updates on my National Novel Writing Month progress! Watch my sporadically climbing word count here!

Culinary Misadventures 3

First of all, sorry about the lack of interesting updates lately. It just so happens that my current interests don’t lend themselves well to conversion into blog posts. Hopefully that’ll change in the near future.

Anyway…

This particular culinary misadventure was, like the chocolate-covered banana, not really a wacky, daring experiment in gastronomic daring so much as “something I thought was going to be good and turned out to be crappy and kinda nasty.”

I bought a blender recently, and as with any such appliance (waffle irons, juicers, and veg-o-matics also fall into this category), I frequently have the urge to blend things in order to convince myself that I actually had a good reason for buying the thing. So, for my lunch today, I thought I’d puree some bananas with yogurt (I steadfastly refuse to use the word “smoothie”; admittedly “pureed bananas” sounds less appetizing, but I have my principles). The problem was, I only had one banana. At first, I thought I’d add some apple to it to bulk it up, but then I discovered that I was out of apples. So I searched my pantry for things that might go well with banana. Genius that I am, I settled on Raisin Bran, thinking “What could be healthier than bananas, yogurt, and high fiber cereal all blended together?” Perhaps I should also have asked myself “What could taste better than bananas, yogurt, and high fiber ceral all blended together?”, because the obvious answer (“Anything”) would probably have knocked some sense into me. I should have known better than to actually eat the stuff when I saw how it looked:

I immediatley found myself referring to this as “not-diarrhea,” to make it more palatable. And honestly, the first few sips weren’t all that bad. Chunkier perhaps than any lunchtime beverage should be, but not all that bad. I added cinnamon and vanilla to the mixture, which complemented the bananas and the raisins nicely. Then, the horrors began.

Little did our oblivious protagonist know, but even as the malevolent concoction sat on his table, it was undergoing a horrible transformation. At first, I thought the impression that it had gotten thicker somehow was just my imagination. But, like someone in a horror movie, this assumption consigned me to a horrible fate.

Within minutes, the stuff had thickened from a pleasant pureé to a palatable slop, and then to a tolerable goop, and finally, to a roundly unpleasant porridge. When I turned the blender pitcher upside-down, the stuff flatly refused to drip out. At this point, it had ceased being a liquid.

Now, to be fair, I can’t say the flavor got any worse. Actually, the stuff wasn’t bad throughout. It tasted pretty much exactly like Raisin Bran. The texture, however, went from that of diarrhea to that of vomit as the stuff sat in the cup, and ultimately, I couldn’t finish it. This picture will show you why:

To get an idea of the texture, take a gander at this video. The color and the consistency of their “Fast Food Smoothie” is pretty much the same as that of my gloop.

Consider this a sort of public service announcement:

Before you buy a blender, consider the potential consequences. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your stomach. Do it for your tongue. Do it for the children.

I knew I should have bought a waffle iron instead.

(That funny-looking object at the bottom of the picture, slightly to the right of center, is my foot. Just in case you were wondering.)

Culinary Misadventures 2

People who know me will tell you that, while I don’t come close to the Fat Albert extreme, I’m not exactly petite. The main reason behind that is that I love my sweets. Anyway, my health took a serious hit this week when I bought a couple of bags of chocolate chips and realized that I could make my own chocolates.

Thus, this week’s culinary misadventure isn’t a misadventure in the same way as making an octopus-and-pickle sandwich; it’s really more of a “gee-I-don’t-know-if-this-is-a-good-idea” sort of thing. I promise to resume eating weird and potentially gross things next time.

Anyway, this week’s misadventure: a chocolate-covered banana. It’s a misadventure mainly because I seriously underestimated just how much chocolate it would take to cover a whole banana. I only thank my lucky stars that I didn’t have, say, a Twinkie, or a container of peanuts, or any amount of nougat or caramel in the house… After discovering that I could indeed melt chocolate in the microwave (and after discovering that, last night, there is indeed a limit to how long you can leave it in there before it starts gushing smoke and emitting a horrible smell), I peeled a nice ripe banana, slathered it with melted chocolate (I’m sure Freud would have a field day with that one), and stuck it in the freezer. This was the result:

The little broken bits laying there are because some of the chocolate pooled under the banana while it was hardening (shut up, Sigmund), and I broke it off because I thought that the minor decrease in the amount of chocolate might somehow push my meal from “terrible idea” to “questionable idea.”

Result: Delicious, although I can feel the chocolate hitting my stomach like a ton of chocolate-covered bricks. Delicious, and also incredibly bad for you. (How cruel that those two always seem to go together) Easy to make, too.

Judgment: 9/10.

Feeling Aged at Twenty

For a while now, I’ve been noticing a disturbing innner trend: I feel old. Very old. On some occasions, I’ve unironically mumbled “damn kids.” No doubt, this is a product of the rapidly-accelerating advance of technology (Singularity, anyone?), but to me, it doesn’t bode well.

You see, I was an early member of the Internet generation, and when the much-touted “Web 2.0”, user-created internet arrived sometime this decade, it only made sense to me. I’ve always been one to try to keep up or at least keep informed of the latest technical innovations. Now, though, I’m finding that I don’t have the energy to run in the twenty or thirty different directions that my brain is pulling me. There’s too much to read, too much to write, too much to digest, too many Wikipedia queries to make. It’s all just too much, too fast.

To me, this is foreshadowing what is to come. Before long, it will be impossible for the standard human being (I like to call them MOSHes (Mostly Original Substrate Humans), after Kurzweil) to keep up, even if they’ve been — as future children will no doubt be — steeped in the nöosphere since birth. Not only is this trend going to push us towards mind augmentation and transhumanism sooner rather than later, but it hints at things to come. Maybe all this Singularity stuff is crap, a “rapture for nerds” as some of the characters in Charles Stross’s Accelerando sometimes call it, but we’re certainly steaming towards some kind of technosocial discontinuity, if a fairly hip (and wipe that grin off your face!) technophile like myself is already feeling dated and obsolete at twenty!

Absurd

Being the sort of person who doesn’t get out much, I don’t often get the chance to make firsthand observations of the more absurd parts of our world. That’s okay, because, sometimes, the absurdity comes and finds me.

Today, while I was out grocery shopping, I noticed a stand set up near the entrance to the grocery store. I took only enough notice of it to build up a little half-hearted hatred of all advertising promotions, but as I parked and walked towards the store, I came to a bizarre realization. The stand, plastered with the logo of a large beverage company (which shall remain nameless), was selling lemonade.

Some cultural context is in order: I am a member of one of the last generations to have the lemonade stand as a symbol of entreperneuership. The lemonade stand was the big capitalist metaphor when I was growing up, the very embodiment of our ideal of the American small-business spirit.

And there, right there in the parking lot of the big chain grocery store that long ago supplanted the independent local movie house, right there, was yet another gigantic corporation, moving in on the territory of the little guy, the sidewalk lemonade vendor. I desperately wish I’d had my camera with me then, because the symbolism of all that was deliciously painful (or painfully delicious).

So, just remember: if you start to get worried that the world seems to be sorting itself out, don’t worry. Proof will arrive momentarily to remind you that it’s still an absolutely absurd place.

Cartoon Me

Greg Williams, a cartoonist for the newspaper The Tampa Bay Observer, is certainly moving with the times. He draws a comic called Blogjam for the Observer based on blog posts from various sources. He took an interest in my long-ago post about the helium shortage, and turned it into a comic. The result? A delightfully-illustrated comic of the post, including a cartoon version of me!

Helium Shortage

You can see the comic here. And be sure to check out some of Williams’s other comics here. And I’m not just suggesting that because he drew me as flatteringly less scruffy than I actually look in real life, but because it’s actually an interesting and well-executed series he’s got going there.

How to Write Well

If you saw the title of this post and immediately started reading it, you’ve got a lot to learn. If there’s anything I’ve learned in all my years as a novice writer of fiction, it’s that it’s pretty much impossible to be taught how to write well. Fortunately, that’s not what I’m trying to do here. Instead, I present a list of helpful suggestions that will not teach you how to write well, but, hopefully, teach you how to teach yourself how to write well (how’s that for a new-agey, wishy-washy sentence?). Here goes:

  1. Read Every Day: This one is vital. You won’t be able to write well unless you are A) some sort of prodigy, or B) you read enough good writing to know what good writing looks like. After a while, you may (as I have) learn to “mimic” other writers’ styles, and after a while, you begin to take bits of style from different writers, until your own personal style of writing emerges. A warning, however: if you intend to write in one particular genre, do not read books exclusively of that genre. The worst thing a writer can do is to become wed to a single genre. This goes especially for science fiction writers.
  2. Write Every Day: This is especially helpful when writing a novel. This has gotten me through two novels and numerous short stories. You don’t have to write much. If you’re not feeling inspired, just write a few paragraphs. If you’re in a better mood, write more. This step is especially helpful, since not only does it keep you from getting out of practice (which happens faster than you think), but it also keeps your plot from stalling or getting bogged down. As hard as it may be, you should emphasize this step even more when your story seems to be going nowhere. The only way you’ll get yourself out of any corner you might have written yourself into is to keep working at it, millimeter by millimeter if necessary, until inspiration strikes.
  3. Don’t Give Up on a Good Idea: If you’ve got a good story idea, one that really speaks to you, focus on it. Even if you have other story ideas, try to focus on the one that you think has the most potential. Don’t neglect your other writings by any means, but remember: they can be continued later on. Here, I like to employ a method I call “seeding”: write a few paragraphs of your new story that capture the feel and the mood of it, and then shelve it until your main story is done. That way, you won’t lose the essence of that story, and you also won’t get distracted from your primary one.
  4. Stockpile Ideas: Whenever an interesting story idea strikes you, write it down. You don’t even have to start writing it, but at least make a note so that you don’t forget it. Personally, I like to do this in a spiral notebook that I use exclusively for the purpose of recording story ideas, but you can do it however you see fit. This is important for those dryspells when you’re feeling uninspired, or when you’re assailed by writer’s block.
  5. Let the Stories Write Themselves: As you accumulate writing experience, you may begin to notice that your stories seem to flow rather naturally, once they’ve got some momentum going. Plot events seem almost to appear out of thin air, and turns of phrase suggest themselves to you. Don’t fight this, it can be extremely helpful and productive. Don’t “take your hands off the wheel” by all means. After all, this is your story. But don’t force it; instead, try to give the plot a gentle nudge in your intended direction.
  6. Expand Your Mind: This one is probably one of the most important steps. It’ll keep your style fresh and help you be more creative, which will help you tremendously when you’re suffering from writer’s block or feeling uninspired, or when you’ve written yourself into a corner:
    • Step Outside Yourself: Don’t write exclusively within a narrow genre (this goes hand-in-hand with Step 1). One of my most fascinating writing experiences was when I decided to take a chance and try to write a romance-based science fiction novella.
    • Experiment With your Style: There’s a school of literary thought called Oulipo that originally developed in France, based on the idea of enhancing creativity through self-constraint. There was one novel (the title of which escapes me at the moment) which was written entirely without the use of the letter “E”. Some authors write in anagrams or palindromes. Get creative. I can especially recommend the letter-omission method, which very powerfully forces you to alter your language and crack open your thesaurus.
  7. Don’t Distract Yourself: Unless you are a supremely focused person, music or external noise will likely distract you from your writing. Even if you think you’re concentrating very intensely, you may find that your writing simply isn’t as good when there’s noise or distractions in the background. I find that radio and most music usually turn my writing to rubbish (I’m listening to NPR as I write this article, which probably explains a lot). An exception I’ve found is the music of Brian Eno, and pretty much any orchestral music. Even better, you can sometimes use music to manipulate the mood of your writing. For example, if you have to write a sad scene, but you’re just in too good a mood to do so, try writing with Moonlight Sonata in the background.
  8. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously: Many serious-minded people have no doubt said things to the effect of “Writing is not a hobby!” The thing is, writing can be a hobby if you want it to be. Contrary to popular belief, you can write without being published, or without ever intending to be published. Actually, some of the best writing (such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, if I’m not mistaken), has been written for the sake of nobody but the author. The problem with taking yourself too seriously is twofold: 1) You may stop enjoying writing, which is one of the quickest ways to start writing badly; 2) You may develop what I like to call an “inflamed ego,” which is the second quickest way to ruin your writing.
  9. Know Your Words: They call writers “wordsmiths” for a reason. If you want to write well, and avoid becoming repetitive or stale, learn all the words you can. Adjectives are very helpful (as long as you don’t overdo it). A good thesaurus is invaluable (the one that comes with your word processor included). Also, remember what they taught you in elementary school (at least, I hope they’re still teaching this): look up any word you don’t recognize, especially if you like the sound of it. I find dictionary.com especially useful for this, since I write primarily on the computer (my handwriting is far too slow to be productive).
  10. Be Original: Whether you think so or not, every writer has at least one unique story in them. Don’t be afraid to tell it. Good writers tend to be the ones that either write something that has never been written before, or find a way to write something old in a remarkable new way. And don’t be daunted by all my superlatives and adjectives, because you can, with practice, write something that’s never been written before, something remarkable.

That is my advice.

Writings Page — Up and Running!

As promised, I’m slowly beginning to merge this site with my two other blogs. Pursuant to that, I’m now posting some of my short stories on the newly-minted Writings page. I plan to update it semi-regularly — that is, on those rare occasions when I can actually get around to writing semi-regularly — so check it periodically. When I’ve finished my revisions on For Ardella (the novella I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2007), I’ll probably post that, too.

A warning: if there isn’t now, there will probably at some point in the future be stuff posted to the Writings page that is not suitable for very young readers (especially if I actually get around to posting For Ardella). There won’t be anything terribly pornographic or overwhelmingly vile and horrible, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend all of my stories for people younger than fifteen or so. But, if you think that you’re mature enough to handle mature themes like sex and death and all that good stuff, then go for it. You have been warned.

SimHeart — Now Available for Download

All right, as promised, I’ve finally figured out a way that people can download SimHeart to play with it themselves. Many thanks to the folks at NetLogo for automating so much of the process, and thanks to MediaFire.com for the free file hosting.

The file is kind of large because, in order for it to work, I had to put a bunch of Java modules into the folder with it, but it shouldn’t take too long to download, even over a slow-ish Internet connection. When you’ve downloaded it, you’ll need to extract the file to your desktop. I recommend an unzipping program like WinZip or WinAce. The program should (major, major emphasis on should) work on Macs and PCs, but I make no guarantees.

To run the simulation, go into the folder into which you’ve extracted SimHeart, and double click on the HTML file there. It should open up in a new window, and you should see the simulation screen. If you don’t, either you don’t have an up-to-date version of Java, or something went wrong in the download process, or I made a mistake zipping the files. If you checked the previous two things, please leave a comment and describe the problem, and I’ll try to help, although I make no claims to be very good at this kind of thing.

Also, I must provide the obligatory legal disclaimer: I take no responsibility if this file somehow damages your system. To my knowledge, there is absolutely nothing in the file that should do so, but you never know, something might have gotten corrupted or damaged along the way. Also, this software is for entertainment purposes only, and should not be taken as any form of medical advice. I’m not sure why anybody would, but you never know.

Download SimHeart 2.0 here.

If you already have the latest version of NetLogo installed on your computer, you can download the muchhere. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, you should go ahead and download NetLogo (you can do that here). Not only will it allow you to download a much smaller file, but NetLogo comes with a whole cornucopia of fascinating little simulations, and there are more you can download from the Internet. smaller .nlogo file

Okay, apparently, that site decided to get rid of the file, so if you want to have a look at SimHeart, you can find it here, on the NetLogo community models page.

If you have trouble with either of these files, please let me know by commenting on this post. If you don’t want to do that for some reason, send an e-mail to asymptote [døt] inverse [át] gmail [døt] com (Sorry about all the weird characters in there, but that account gets enough spam as it is, without ever having broadcast the address on the Internet, so I figured I’d better obfuscate as much as possible).

I’ll try to update the files as I revise SimHeart, but I seem to be at a point where there’s not much more I can do with it, at least not without rewriting most of the code. I’ll be sure to post updates as they come.

Advertising Schizophrenia

Another odd title, I know, but it suits my subject.

You see, over the past year or so, I’ve noticed a very worrying trend in advertising. It isn’t as insidious as the ultrasonic “sound spotlights” (which can beam adverts at you that only you can hear (!)), or as dangerous as all the political advertising that’s going to be plaguing us in a few months, but it is still worrying: all the advertisers have gone insane.

I first began to notice this in car commercials. Then, it was restaurant ads. Now, it’s spread through most of the advertising community. It seems that the advertisers have gotten so good at manipulating us that they think they no longer need to design ads that actually make sense. Perhaps it’s some sort of attempt to bypass our reality filters and inject the “Buy our crap” message directly into our cerebral corticies, but either way, it’s damned annoying.

An example: the other day, I was sitting down with my parents to watch some television, when an advertisement for Kentucky Fried Chicken came on. It showed a bunch of jovial, racially-diverse young people sitting down and biting into Photoshop-enhanced chicken wings (that would probably rate as beauty queens, as far as fried poultry goes, and that, incidentally, look nothing like the real thing; but I guess I should be used to that by now), then, they acted surprised (incidentally, where do they get these commercial actors these days? It must be the suburbs, because only a white suburbanite is so good at dripping with insincerity), and said something like “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that!” Apparently, it was an advert for KFC’s new “Sauceless Hot Wing.” I wasn’t sure I’d heard that right, but I’ve seen the ad a few times since then, and that was, indeed, what I was seeing. What the hell!? Is this what the advertisers expect us to see as “innovation”? “Hey, look, we’ve got a hot wing without any sauce! Buy our crap!” And before someone counters, “Well, it’ll be nice not to get all that sauce on your hands,” allow me to provide a blistering rebuttal: No it won’t. The messiness of hot wings is part of their charm! It’s part of the experience! And people who really like hot wings don’t mind the sauce, anyway.

But this rant isn’t just about fat-fried poultry. Car ads, too, are getting worse and worse. None of them make any sense, or if they do, their messages are painfully obvious. So, apparently they think we’ve become so simpleminded that all it’ll take for us to buy a new car is a bunch of loud music, pretty people, and nice graphics. Well, actually, now that I think about it…that probably is all it’ll take to get most people to buy a car. Sorry, I forgot I was dealing with Americans here.

Well, since I’m already railing against advertising, I thought I might as well rail against something more serious: pre-movie advertising. A week or two ago, I went to see Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (the disastrous result of which can be found here). Before the movie, there was the standard parade of random advertising. This parade has been getting longer and longer, to the point where it has approximately the same length as an actual parade, and is just about as boring. Then, an ad that was recognizably one of the new (schizophrenic) ads came on. It was loud, it was fast, and it was terrifying. The noise and the flashing lights drowned out my thoughts, and I got the extraordinarily unsettling feeling that somebody was trying to crowbar their way into my brain. So, since they haven’t figured out how to actually manipulate our minds (yet), they’ve done the next best thing and figured out how to make it impossible to think. Wonderful. Before long, I’m sure we’ll be seeing ads promoting Ingsoc and reminding us that Big Brother is watching.

Those are my (disjointed) thoughts.

Happy New Year, 2008

I’m aware that this isn’t exactly the most original post ever written, but it didn’t seem right to simply ignore the new year altogether.

I’ve got big plans for 2008. This year, I’m going to experience new things. I’m going to get out there and be part of the world. As cheesy as that sounds, damn it, I’m gonna do it! So there!

Here are a few things I’m looking forward to in 2008:

  • Voting in my first presidential election.
  • Being annoyed at the available candidates in my first presidential election.
  • Celebrating my 20th birthday. Three decades down, probably six more to go!
  • Finally being old enough to start complaining about how easy the younguns have it. Yes, I know that’s usually reserved for people in their sixties, but at the pace things are going today, we twenty-year-olds feel like we’re in our sixties.
  • A whole slew of scientific discoveries.
  • The government’s denial of the ramifications of about half of those discoveries.
  • A whole slew of new films.
  • Being able to ruthlessly shred those films with criticism for being clichéd dross.
  • A potential film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
  • Being blissfully ignorant of the next season of American Idol.
  • All the celebrities that we’ll get to see crash and burn.
  • Ignoring the news coverage of those celebrities’ fiery falls from grace. (Like they ever had any grace to begin with…)
  • And finally…writing a whole bunch of bleakly cynical blog posts!

According to the Chinese calendar, 2008 is the Year of the Rat. As strangely appropriate as that may be, being an election year and all, I prefer to think of 2008 as the Year of the Cynic. That is to say, this is my year!

I wish you all the very best in the new year!

Environmental “Protection” Agency

Since I was young, I’ve always been something of an environmentalist. I haven’t been a passionate environmentalist for years, and here’s why: I gave up. I eventually realized that a government will enact environmental legislation only when it serves them to do so, and that they’ll ignore it when whatever crisis they were protecting themselves against has passed.

It’s a lucky thing I’m not passionate anymore, because if I were, then I would be up in arms right now, yelling in the streets. And nobody wants that.

Here’s what’s gotten under my skin lately: very recently, California attempted to pass environmental regulations much tougher than those mandated nationwide. As California is one of the most polluted states and, paradoxically, one of the most environmentally-conscious — they were the ones, after all, who mandated a quota of zero-emissions (electric) vehicles, before the industry shut them down — this would seem rather logical. And, of course, logic and government don’t mix well, so something went wrong.

I suppose I should learn to expect such things, in this age of do-nothing, get-out-before-the-ship-sinks government, but what happened surprised even cynical old me: the EPA overruled California. Yes, that’s right, I said the EPA. Those letters used to stand for “Environmental Protection Agency.” Given their recent actions, I would recommend we change their meaning to something more appropriate, preferably with a couple of expletives in there. My suggestion is “Excessively Petty Assholes.”

Many will no doubt think this judgment too harsh, but my sordid tale is not finished. California’s regulations were put in place because Californians complain that global warming threatens their water supplies, their agricultures, and — given the increased incidence of forest fires that warming brings — their population. The EPA’s response? “Not on your life!” The EPA actually attempted to claim that there was not a credible threat to justify such harsh local environmental regulations. What!?!? California, as a coastal state, will probably be one of the first states to face a credible threat from global warming. Hell, they’ve already faced a credible threat from global warming! Didn’t they have a terrible fire a few weeks ago?!

It gets worse. The EPA also said that global warming regulations should be nationwide, not local. Right. Because those nationwide regulations were getting passed in a real damned hurry. To me, this looks suspiciously like the current do-nothing administration just buying time until they can inflate their golden parachutes. I just hope that when the forests star to slowly burn away, the coastlines flood and erode as the icecaps melt, the North Atlantic current breaks down, freezing Britain under an ice-age glacier, and the water-shortage wars in Africa and the Middle East spread worldwide, that the fifty years of environmentally-ignorant politicians we’ve suffered through are mostly still alive, so that with whatever breath the toxic atmosphere will allow us, we can all point and laugh at them.

Hm…that was a bit cynical even for me. Note to self: don’t write any more posts early in the morning.

The Singularity

For the past few decades, an idea referred to as “the Singularity” has been bantered about by futurists and technologists. Basically, the theory of the Singularity goes something like this:

Given the rapidly accelerating pace of technological advance, and the fact that, eventually, we will develop artificial intelligence capable of driving further technological advance at a faster pace than human beings ever could, we will eventually reach a point in our advancement where the rate of advance accelerates towards infinity.

Now, this idea may sound rather batty, but just consider this: the Universe formed some 13.7 billion years ago. The solar system, about 4.6 billion years ago. Multicellular life: 500 million years ago. Primates: 5 million years ago. Language: 40,000 years ago. Civilization: 10,000 years ago. The Enlightenment: 400 years. The Industrial Revolution: 150 years. Computers: 50 years. The Internet: 10 years. “Web 2.0”: 2-3 years. Each of these paradigm shifts is happening after a shorter and shorter delay, and, unless we manage to wipe ourselves out somehow (not exactly a remote possibility), then it seems that such a rapid acceleration of technological advance is inevitable.

A much better treatment of this idea can be found in Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near. A fictionalized version of the idea graces Charles Stross’s (probably the best Singularitarian author I know of) book Accelerando. But, since you were nice enough to visit me in this little pocket of the Internet, I thought I’d give you a condensed timeline of the predicted unfolding of the Singularity:

  • By about 2015: Practical artificial intelligence is created and comes into use. The A.I.’s can’t pass the Turing Test yet, but they’re very useful in many venues, and they’re advancing all the time. Artificial-Intelligence methods are used to design new technologies, sowing the seeds of the Singularity.
  • By about 2030: The first practical neural implants enter the market. These implants enhance human capabilities immensely, marrying the speed and stability of electronic circuits with the redundancy and plasticity of human neurons.
  • By about 2040: Human-level A.I. is born. Computers and robots gain civil rights, and begin competing with their human makers.
  • By about 2050: The aforementioned neural-implant technology combines with artificial intelligence and allows human minds to be “uploaded” and maintained in computers. The merging of mind and machine begins.
  • By the late 21st century: Nonenhanced humans are completely “obsolete.” Computing power continues to increase. Nanotechnology allows computers to infiltrate every part of our lives.
  • The end of the 21st century: The Singularity arrives. All of the computing power on Earth merges into one vast super-intelligence, which begins expanding out into the Universe.
  • Sometime next century: Nanotechnology begins dismantling all the matter in the solar system, and some matter in nearby space. All is converted to “intelligent matter” capable of performing ultrafast calculations for a tiny energy cost.
  • Who Knows When: The Singularity-Consciousness evolves to the point that it is capable of manipulating matter and energy on the smallest scales, and thus “reprogramming the universe.” New universes can be created to escape the inevitable demise of this universe.
  • After That: Consciousness controls the entire Universe, and many beyond it. It can create universes at will, and expand infinitely. Frank Tipler calls this the “Omega Point.” Some Singularitarians call this “God.”

The really creepy thing is that, in all likelihood, I, being a young and fairly healthy person, will live to see this. Barring some sort of unfortunate incident, I — and probably quite a large fraction of my readers, too — will live long enough to be absorbed into the Singularity. And, since we will then be able to escape from our physical bodies, we will live essentially forever.

Food for thought, as usual.

The Giant Rubber-Band Ball

Sometimes, I am compelled to do things. Sometimes, as in the case of National Novel-Writing Month, these compulsions allow me to produce neat things like novels. But, at other times, they just compel me to waste a Sunday afternoon making, say, a giant rubber-band ball.

Giant Rubber-Band Ball

What you are looking at is the result of two or three afternoons’ effort. So far, the ball consists of the contents of two OfficeMax one-pound bags of assorted rubber bands, in addition to a core of miscellaneous bands I had sitting around the house. Here’s another picture, this one with a quarter for comparison.

Giant Rubber-Band Ball

My ultimate goal is to (eventually) build the ball up to the size of a basketball. Then, if I haven’t worn my fingers down to stumps or been locked in a padded cell, I might consider going for the world record. I wonder how big the world’s biggest rubber band ball is?

That right there is proof that, no matter what you do, a nerd (such as myself) always manages to have too much time on his hands. That’s the result of eschewing all semblances of a social life…

Personal Best

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This was written at 1 A.M., with very little sleep the night before. I make no guarantees regarding the coherence, or sanity, of the following words.

Psychologists have identified an altered state of consciousness known as “flow.” Wikipedia defines flow as: “the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” A more common name for this state is the clichéd phrase “In the zone.”

Today, for the first time in my life, I have experienced flow. It is the closest I have ever gotten to something that I would call “transcendence.”

As my regular readers will know, I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month, which entails writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Needless to say, that requires an intensity of focus and the utmost concentration. Well, being rather dissatisfied with the novel I’ve got so far, I started writing a totally different story, just something that had been knocking around in my head and that I wanted to get on paper. I had no idea what awaited me.

I’ve often heard fellow writers say that you know your writing is going well when the story seems to take on a life of its own, and sort of “write itself.” Well, that’s what happened. I began writing at 5 P.M. It is now 1 A.M., and I have only just finished writing for the night. I have never, in my entire life, been as concentrated as I was for those eight hours. I entered such a profound state of “flow,” that time became utterly irrelevant. It was not until I pressed the “word count” button on my word processor that I realized just how focused I had become.

Dear readers: today, in the span of eight hours, I wrote (and I swear on my life that I’m not lying) 11,567 words. In 12-point Times New Roman, that is about 17.3 pages. Seventeen pages. This is, by far, the most productive I’ve ever been since I started writing in the fourth grade.

Needless to say quantity and quality are by no means necessarily linked. Actually, I’ve often thought they were mutually exclusive. And I make no guarantees that what I wrote is actually coherent, but still, it’s a feat I did not believe myself capable of. I’m not sure that I’d have the focus to write that many pages if I was just pressing random keys. Hell, under any other circumstance, I’m not sure I could even motivate myself to do that many pages by pressing the return key over and over.

Some people call this strange state “flow.” Others call it “being in the zone.” Still others call it “extreme sleep deprivation.” As cool as it may be, I’m still inclined to refer to it as “a momentary window into madness.”

Memorizing the Periodic Table

Partly out of boredom, and partly out of irritation at never, ever knowing the atomic weight of a particular element, I have decided to embark on the journey to memorize the entire periodic table (well, all the elements up to and including Uranium, at least). But what would even give me such a peculiar idea? Well, blame Oliver Sacks. I was reading through his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (excellent book, by the way, for those who haven’t read it), and I was particularly intrigued by his discussion when talking about numerical savants’ familiarity with numbers: Dmitri Mendeleev, the developer of the periodic table, carried around a deck of cars with the elements’ properties listed on them, and looked them over until he knew them by heart. I’ve always wanted to learn something this thoroughly (and, in fact, I had a set of cars like this myself when I was younger). So, there you have it. I’ll keep my reader(s?) abreast of my progress.

Portal Continued…

Well, by accident, I managed to finish Portal in a single day. Sure, I would have liked to go through it slowly and have a look at all the scenery, but when you get immersed in a puzzle like that, you become like a lab rat in a maze: the cheese doesn’t even matter anymore; all that matters is the goal.

Still, despite that, Portal turned out to be one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s definitely the best first-person-shooter-like game I’ve ever played. The environments were perfectly designed, the puzzles were challenging, but not brain-hurting, and it was incredibly, incredibly immersive. It was so immersive, in fact, that when I became trapped in a room filling with poisonous gas, I realized that my heart was actually hammering. (People who have played Portal will agree with me…for everybody else, that’s just a cruel teaser).

So, my previous conclusion stands: you should buy Portal. If you can’t buy it, or don’t want to, find someone who has (and no, you cannot come to my house. Don’t even try it. I keep vicious attack ostriches).

And one last note on Portal (this may be a semi-spoiler, so don’t read it if you want to keep all the mystery intact):

Read the rest of this entry »

Portal

This morning, I woke up at 8 A.M. Willingly. I didn’t have to get up that early. I could have chosen to sleep in. The fact that I didn’t must mean that today is a special day. And it is. Today, Portal was released.

I have been awaiting this game since last year. For those who don’t understand why, you can learn more about the game here.

It is, as I expected, Portal is one of the most original FPS-style games that I’ve ever seen. After all, what other first person shooter allows you to bend spacetime? And the way the designers incorporated this bendiness into the multitude of puzzles is absolutely brilliant. My waiting, it seems, was not in vain.

But perhaps even cooler than the ability to step through a wall and drop out of the ceiling is the psychological aspect of the game. I won’t give anything away, but I’ll just say that this game, more than any other game I’ve ever played, will mess with your head. You begin to get the distinct impression of being a lab rat. Add to that the confusion of popping through one portal and ending up somewhere you hadn’t intended, and it becomes a disorienting (but incredibly amusing) ride.

If you don’t own Portal, buy it. Unfortunately, you can’t buy it separately from the Orange Box (the game set that also contains Half Life 2: Episode 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2), but Portal alone is worth the US$49.95.

Given all the effusive gushing praise I just heaped on Portal, one might wonder why I have not slipped entirely into a disoriented, game-induced trance. Well, as much as I enjoy it, I’m not always very good at puzzles…so, before I started babbling to myself and pulling my hair out, I thought I’d give my weary brain a chance to rest and work out all the cramps I just caused it.

Many, many thanks to Valve and the other producers/distributors of Portal.