Tuesday, July 28, 2015

How does AI dream of Spire City?

Have you heard of Google's DeepDream project? It basically takes images and runs them through algorithms to identify whatever patterns it perceives, then emphasizing those patterns and running the adjusted image through again and again. At least that's the simplified explanation for what it's doing.  The program at the moment apparently has a tendency to find eyes and dog shapes, as you can see. Well, I decided to run some Spire City images through the program to see what comes out...and it's suitably psychedelic. So without further comment, here are some images (from Worlds Beyond Art and KMD Designs originally), as seen by a dreaming artificial intelligence. (Click on the image to see it bigger.)






Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Last chance to subscribe to Season One!

Episode 12 went out to subscribers and live on Amazon, etc. yesterday. That leaves only a single episode left, "Mint's Arrival." There is still time to subscribe, though. Sign up between now and next Monday, and I'll send you all thirteen episodes at once.

This is the perfect chance for those of you who prefer to read an entire season at once, instead of episode by episode. Get the entire season at one time and read through it at your own pace. But this is your last chance to be a subscriber. After next week, the only way to get the season will be to buy them individually from Amazon or B&N or wait for the full season bundle.

Now I'm planning on pricing the season bundle at $4.99 US, so you'll spend the same thing as if you subscribe, but you'll miss out on subscriber perks, including an exclusive Spire City poem and a special deal on a season two subscription. So subscribe today!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Duolingo update, Dutch

A half a year ago, I wrote an extensive post about my experience learning Portuguese with the Duolingo app. At the time I was just beginning to try to learn Dutch. As of this past weekend, I've completed all the lessons, so I thought I'd share a bit how that has gone.

First, the most obvious thing is that this took me only half the time it took me to get through Portuguese. Is there a learning curve to the app itself, and going through again with a new language is that much faster? I don't think so. Changes in the app itself? They made a few changes to how the app works--instead of running out of hearts and having to completely start a lesson over if you get more than three things wrong, it has a meter, which moves toward your goal with each correct answer and a step backward with each wrong answer. It's a good change, at least for how I learn, cutting back on the frustration of having to do an entire lesson over but forcing you to answer more questions when you do mess up.

So is it just that Dutch is so much easier than Portuguese? Actually the opposite. Portuguese was so similar to Spanish that it was easy for me to slack off, take my time. If I missed a day, no big deal. I could remember the vocabulary and grammar without much effort. I knew Dutch wouldn't be so easy to be casual about. So there was one weekend early on when I missed two days, but otherwise I've done at least one new lesson every day, usually two. I prefer not to do more than two new lessons each day. So if I had any extra time to do more (and more often than not, I made the time), I'd go through one or two review rounds ("Practice Weak Skills") as well.

That's still pretty casual, 10-15 minutes per day. If I were cramming to travel somewhere and wanted to have a good base before I arrived, the app would work for that. You'd just have to do a lot of lessons and have a good balance between reviewing weak skills and learning new.

(Worth mentioning that I think the total number of lessons for Dutch was fewer as well. Not way lower, but enough that it surely affects how fast I went through them.)

So how is my Dutch now? Well, there are really four ways to judge someone's ability in a language: speaking, writing, reading, listening. The app doesn't demand speaking. I do my best to say everything out loud that I can, so I think I could be understood, but it wouldn't be fluent, I'm sure. Of the rest, the lessons are split probably 50%-60% on reading, 30% on listening, and 10% on writing. Then with some basic vocabulary focus that could apply to any of those and bleeds into those categories here and there as well.

So that's probably reflected in how I'm doing on those skills--a pretty solid base for reading, some experience with listening (although it's always only one person doing the spoken parts, so it's specifically her accent and voice I'm used to--same thing with Portuguese when I did that), and a rudimentary base for writing. Probably not too far off how I was with French after a year of college classes or Portuguese after a year of Duolingo... Both of those being Romance languages, I could draw on Spanish to fill in many gaps. Dutch being Germanic, could I do the same with English? For some of it, but not as much.

Favorite sentences: "Vijfentwentig schildpadden zwemmen in het water." That sentence practically sings. And "De vriendschap dat ik had met de kooien koeien was heel special." I'm not sure I want to know the backstory of how that second sentence ended up in the app...

Of course, where am I going to use this? The vast majority of people in the Netherlands speak English anyway (not that I have any real potential to travel there any time soon, either...). It's really just a thing to learn, to connect with my ancestry. I'm hoping to dig around YouTube for videos just to broaden my familiarity with hearing it, and I may try to track down some written works to practice reading. In fact, I have a relative, Egbertus Ausema, who wrote some thrillers in Dutch. I discovered him a while back in Amazon and assumed he was some distant fifth cousin or something...and only just discovered the other day that he was actually my dad's first cousin. Huh. I may have to try to get a copy of one of those books...

And what's next? Not a new language at this point. I've been offered a job teaching Spanish this school year, so I'm going to be immersing myself in Spanish for a while at least. Hopefully still maintaining (and improving!) my Dutch and Portuguese, but not something new. I'd love someday to learn ASL or some non-European language (or both!). Re-try to learn Arabic? Learn Standard Chinese or Hindi or some other Asian language? Learn Quechua? Hmm, just typing it out makes me want to learn them all... But none are available in Duolingo at the moment, and it would be best not to tackle a new language for the time being. Much as I might like to...

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Bonus for Spire City subscribers!

Inspired by the poem in The Pedestal the other week, I decided this would be a great time to offer an exclusive bonus for Spire City subscribers. Eagle-eyed stalkers of this blog may have noticed a new poem listed on my bibliography, which I updated last weekend. Well, here's what that's about:

Next week Monday, subscribers will receive not only episode 11, but also a poem I first wrote about half a year ago called "The Exiles Pine for Home." It's a poem as written by the Neshini immigrants living in Spire City. (Some of you may remember a guest blog post I wrote last January, which appeared at The Oak Wheel, about using in-world poetry as a way to enrich a secondary world fantasy.) I have no plans at the moment for releasing this poem in any other format. It may eventually show up in a bundle of some sort, but the only way to be sure you get this poem is to be a subscriber.

Not a subscriber yet? I know a lot of you aren't keen on the whole waiting part of serials. If that's what's holding you back, then now is a great time to jump in and subscribe. Season 1 is 13 episodes long, so the two weeks between episode 11 and the season finale should give you a perfect amount of time to read them all--and get a bonus poem to boot.

So subscribe now and get your free poem, in addition to all the other benefits of being a subscriber!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

"The Alien Ruins" at The Pedestal

Everyone needs a little poetry now and then, right? I know I do.

So on that note, go check out my poem "The Alien Ruins" in The Pedestal's latest issue. There's even a link at the bottom to listen to me read the poem. Give a listen to my dulcet voice, then, if that's your preference... The entire issue is full of speculative poems, all chosen by the legendary Marge Simon and Bruce Boston, so once you've finished reading mine, bop around to some of the others and get a feel for what's out there in speculative poetry.

Not a lot to say about the writing of this poem. It began with that opening image of an alien stairway that never feels right to the humans who come later, and simply grew from there.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Special deal for Spire City: Contagion readers

As I mentioned last weekend, the first six episodes of season one were, once upon a time (last fall) published as a separate collection, called Contagion. It was discounted at various times and even, for a one-day special, offered as a freebie from Musa's main page. I never got the exact figures from Musa, but I know many people took advantage of both. Episodes 7-13 were also published as a bundle about a month later, but what with time constraints and the like, I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who bought the first bundle and never got around to the second before it was too late.

So...I don't want anyone to feel like I'm charging them twice or taking advantage. For anyone who wants to take this offer, you can get the rest of the season one episodes for just $3 US, by Paypal. What will you get for that? Every Monday from here on out, you'll get the latest episode by email. You will not receive the end-of-season bundle of all episodes, like the other subscription gets you, but you will receive any offers I give to other subscribers.

Is this only for those who bought Contagion? Do you have to somehow prove you bought the other edition? No and no. If you've been buying the episodes individually from Amazon or B&N or if you bought the episodes individually back when Musa was releasing them and only got this far, feel free to sign up as well. No questions asked. (I wouldn't suggest trying to just barrel in starting with episode 7 if you haven't read the first six, though...)

If you have any other questions, check out the Spire City tab above or contact me. Thanks, and happy reading!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Guest Post: Chris Wong Sick Hong

I invited one of the other writers from the anthology Steampunk: The Other Worlds to stop by here and tell us some background behind his story in the anthology. Chris Wong Sick Hong is a writer of slipstream, fantasy, and SF, and you can find more of his work at his website. So here is Chris's post

And a Story Begins

So. A behind the scenes/making of. “Under a Shattered Sky” from Steampunk: The Other Worlds. Let’s begin.

Opening tableau: an image of grey, broken dust-swept plains, lonely under a black sky. Bereft. Barren. When I closed my eyes, that was what I saw. An atmosphere humming with the oboe tones of desolation. Sunsets unwatched, a smaller light fading into oblivion.

Now we need people. Since this is steampunk, that constrains the tech level of any civilizations. It will be steam-based. Possibly British, or at least the American stereotype of British. Tea time marked by the anemic ticking of a dying clock. Cricket in space. Fabulous!

Perhaps nomads wandering the world, eking out survival, but not hope, between sandstorms and sullen oases. One mistake way from desiccation.

But no. Steampunk is gears, you fool. Gears and sand are mortal enemies! That would not be steampunk civilization. It would be a post-steampunk civilization. By the Unnamable Old Ones, what in the realms too fractured and disturbed to be called Hells were you thinking?!

Then again, apocalypses are cool. Cool with a Capital Bowtie and Fez. But with a gritty, streetwise, 90s superhero reboot vibe instead. (Anatomy optional.) Sometimes you need to be strong and dress in black pleather just to get up in the morning, because nothing says “survivor” like skin tight.

Still, that’s been done. And to have a proper apocalypse, one needs proper cities. A small band of post-industrial survivors struggling to survive amid the ruins of what they can now only dream—that’s piquant, disturbing, soulful. A small band of survivors struggling to survive because their environment is too harsh for them to develop metal forging is depressing.

Cities it is. Or rather, a city.

 And the one thing all viable cities need is a water source. So let’s put it on a lake. A deep one, for dramatic effect. Deep, cold, crystalline, pure.

But how did such a city and lake come to be on such an inhospitable planet? Not just how, but why?

Good thing this isn’t geology/meteorology/archeology pr0n. Human nature is strange. People will nitpick the tiniest details to death but leave the big, flying, robot elephants with laser tusks unremarked upon. Anything big enough fades into the background without question. Just make it awesome and move on.

So while we’re at it, let’s blow up the moon—no, two moons!—and crack the sky too. Two moons to make it clear this isn’t Earth. And jagged, purple, ugly scars sectioning off the sky.

Do I need to work out the complex dynamics of the tides that two moons would cause? No, because they’ve been explosively remodeled. Apocalypses are blank checks cashed in Hell by surly tellers in cheap suits. When even the laws of physics can change, everything can be normal.

Back to the city. Industrialization begets standardization. The only way a machine can stamp out millions of knickknacks that other machines combine into more complex thingamajigs is if all the knickknacks and thingamajigs are the same. And machines are notoriously finicky. They need maintenance, especially parts. The more machines that share a standardized part, the more profitable it is for both the machine owners (lower cost of replacement) and part-makers (economies of scale).

The steampunk ethos was born at the beginning of this, in heady times where the Victorian work ethic and fetish for classification were underpinned by copious use of laudanum and cocaine.

Let’s make this—the drive of classification and order, not the drugs—part of the city itself. Like the design of Washington, D.C., USA. All grids and geometric perfection. Then shatter that too. Echoing reminders of a broken world, broken city, broken lives.

Flesh out (or gear out) the steampunk innards and boom: setting.

Now for characters. I like one. One is simple.

Strong. Female. Alone. Survival horror maybe.

Sitting there, waiting to die isn’t very interesting. Simply struggling for survival, not so much either. The daily habits and activities of remote tribes is a National Geographic Special, not a SyFy Original Event! Get with the sharknado, people. This woman has goals.

To find other survivors, whatever it takes.

==

Pause for a moment. Stories are about people. Ellsbeth, our heroine, needs a dramatic arc. Since this is a short story, it must be compressed. A story centers on significant change or the lack thereof. (I think this is from Flannery O’Connor [http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/flannery-oconnor-1925-1964], but I can’t confirm and Google is being singularly unhelpful.)

  1. 1) Ellsbeth can realize something important about herself, or fail to do so.
  2. 2) Ellsbeth can make a choice, for good or ill, that defines who she is and will become.
    1. a. Even if the choice is to maintain the status quo.

But the choice needs to be real. What is she doing. Why is she doing it? What adds depth to the choice? What makes Ellsbeth a real person?

A strange figure, stoically wandering a wasteland while refusing to give in. Why does she do it? Because she doesn’t have a choice. Bullshit. That’s not a story. That’s a cliché. Spaghetti western. No name, no horse, but trusty gun at your side (even though if only has three bullets left, they’re the best darn bullets a guy could have.)

People have issues. Living through an apocalypse is traumatic enough. Leaving the safety of a known area to strike out on what must seem like false hope? Even more mind scrambles. She’ll have issues. Serious ones.

Unfortunately, mentally wounded people are not very easy to relate to, or write. If she’s too broken, she won’t be functional. But she also can’t be a font of bubbling optimism. Any good humor would be forced. And if she’s been doing this for years, that’s certain to have been drilled out of her.

So a general plot. What does she have to do to survive? To make progress with her journey? Jot down a general sequence of events, and…then what?

This is not a story yet. Time to add issues. People isolated from society for extended periods of time start to break. Start talking to themselves and inanimate objects. Maybe hear voices back. That’s it! A Voice! Taunting, snide, rude. Trying to talk her into giving up. And possibly real! This is another planet, after all. We have an antagonist.

But what would the Voice taunt her with?

Any perceived weakness? Character flaws? The pointlessness of it all? Feels shallow.

I wrote lots of potential dialogue. It didn’t do much to deepen Ellsbeth’s character. It felt like B-movie boomstick witticisms. But what could do both?

*thinks*

Reminders of what she lost.

Cue flashback.

==

After that, more struggle in story present, and then the choice. With her entire world gone, even the ruins falling apart, and a miscalculation threatening to take her life, why continue? Even she doesn’t quite believe in her own hope.


What does she do? And whatever she decides, will she even know why?

To find out, order a copy of the anthology Steampunk: The Other Worlds today.