January 2014 Archives

Writing Prompt: Too Clever By Half

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Originally posted as a response to the Reddit Writing Prompt A man gains telekinetic powers and uses it to rack up money... however possible.

"Eight, black!" called the croupier, and Steve smiled again as another stack of chips was deposited next to his in the "1st 12" box on the roulette board. He'd won twice in a row now, for the seventh time that night, so his theory and execution were sound. He could put the ball wherever he wanted, just by concentrating on it as it spun around the wheel.

His first attempts earlier that night at a different casino were clumsy and only occasionally successful, almost to the point of exhausting his bankroll. He managed to string together a few consecutive wins, but when the croupier gave him a hard look after his last win - when the ball had bounced on both adjacent numbers before landing in one that paid him - Steve thought it best to continue his work at another casino. He had let himself lose every so often now in order to not attract attention, and he was certain his manipulations were smooth enough to be unnoticeable.

Now it was time to cash in and cash out. The croupier spun the ball in the track again, and Steve pushed his pile of chips from the "1st 12" box a few inches to cover the 7. Some other players scrambled to put their own bets on 7 before the croupier called "No more bets!"

Steve focused on the ball as it dropped off the track towards the number pockets, and, without the expression on his face changing one iota, bounced it out of the 22 pocket that it hit first and arced it gently into the 7, three pockets away.

"Seven, red!" called the croupier as the table went wild. Several people came over and pounded Steve on the back like he'd just won the lottery, which, in a way, he had. Somebody pressed a drink into his hand and he tossed it back without a second thought. He pulled his chips off the table, flipped a $500 one to the croupier, and made his way to the cage. Several minutes of congratulations, photos, and paperwork later, he headed back to his room with a check for $143,207 in his pocket.

As he got off the elevator on his floor, he noticed that the hallway seemed to stretch on forever, and with each step his room got further and further away. It was made doubly weird by the fact that he was walking through knee-high molasses, or at least felt that way.

Steve awoke in the middle of the desert with his luggage, a headache like he'd never had before, and a note pinned to his chest.

The note read: "You think you're the only guy who could do that? You think you're the first guy to try it here? You think we wouldn't notice? Well, we've fixed that problem. Have a nice life."

Steve absentmindedly pushed his hair back off his face, and that was when he noticed the bandage on the top of his head.

Writing Prompt: This Changes EVERYTHING

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Originally posted as a response to the Reddit Writing Prompt A drunken angel tries to reveal an important secret to you.  It was a contest, but I didn't win :(

She wobbled uneasily towards my table and unceremoniously plopped down across from me. Even three sheets to the wind like she obviously was, she was still ridiculously gorgeous. In fact, if twenty-year-old me had sat down to design my most perfect woman, Weird Science-style (and I did. Oh, did I), she would have looked exactly like the angel who now sat opposite me.

But twenty-year-old me was thirty years gone now, and women like her approach fat fifty-year-old men for one of two reasons. I hooked my thumb into my wallet pocket to forestall the first; as for the second, well, maybe I could buy her a drink and see if we could come to an agreement.

"I'm not that kind of a girl," she opened, with an unusually steady voice given her obvious state of intoxication, "In case you're wondering, which you are. What's your name?"

That was unexpected and kind of unnerving. "Uhh, Steve."

"No, it isn't. It's Sean Patrick Fitzgibbons, which is about the Irishest name that ever Irished. You couldn't be more Irish if you were born next to the Blarney Stone. Which you weren't, but your grandfather was."

Alarm bells were starting to go off now. This woman, who appeared shit-faced but sounded sober as a judge, knew my name and the circumstances of my grandfather's birth, and I had gone from unnerved to borderline freaked out. I took a deep breath and tried to come up with a logical explanation. I'd told the story more than once of how my great-grandmother went into labor while waiting for my great-grandfather to finish kissing the Blarney Stone, so she could have heard that from someone. Or a friend could be using her to play a joke on me.

"You have me at a disadvantage. What's your name?"

"Gabriella. Descended from Heaven with an important message for you. And get your thumb out of your pocket - you look ridiculous, and it wouldn't stop me from pickpocketing you if I were so inclined." She handed my wallet back to me.

"OK, good one," I replied as I put my wallet back into my pocket. I looked around the bar for likely suspects, but nobody was paying any attention to us. That in itself was unusual - every guy in that bar should have been staring and drooling. "Who put you up to this?"

"I'm here on my own. And since you're going to take some convincing, here goes: you dated three women simultaneously in college without any of them finding out about the other two. You told no one, not even your roommate. You broke it off with two of them and married the third, and you live in fear that she might find out, even though you've been married for almost thirty years. You picked this bar today at the last minute rather than Zeke's Tap Room because you remembered that they had a Sunday special on Sam Adams. You developed a hole in your left sock as you were walking in here because you cut your big toenail funny last night."

"But... how..."

"We see everything. Hear everything. Know everything - past, present, and some distance into the future. The phone behind the bar is about to ring. The woman behind me turning towards the restroom will collide with someone exiting the restroom. Tony Romo is about to throw a pick-six."

"Well, that last one is a gimmee. This is December, after all."

"Point taken. But do you believe?" Gabrielle got the waitress' attention and signaled.

"I don't know," I replied, as the phone behind the bar rang. "I might just be the target of the most elaborate episode of Punk'd ever."

"So elaborate that they cancelled the series eight years ago just to throw you off the scent?"

"Point taken." Behind her, I could see two women colliding and apologizing to each other, followed by an explosion of cursing from the knot of Cowboys fans at the end of the bar. "Aren't you supposed to have wings and a halo?"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "That's just how the old masters decided to portray us. Fine. Here."

She opened up her purse so I could see inside. It was like looking out an airplane window into an infinite cloudbank. I could see a glowing tiara and a miniature pair of fluttering wings, as well as something else I couldn't make out.

"Where's your flaming sword?"

She sighed. "Catholic school, right. By the way, those were some very impure thoughts you had about your tenth-grade English teacher. You abused yourself forty-seven times thinking about her."

She reached into the purse and pulled. I saw the pommel of a sword for a split second, then just a pillar of flame.

"OK, OK," I said hurredly as I pushed her arm down, extinguishing the flame as the purse closed. And not a moment too soon, as the waitress arrived right then bearing a tray with at least a dozen shots on it. Gabrielle flipped her a gold coin that looked for all the world as if it had been minted in Julius Caesar's time. Surprisingly, the waitress accepted it with a smile and sashayed away.

"Did you just pay her with a gold aureus?"

"You know I did. And she knows I did."

"I collect coins as a hobby - "

"I know."

"- and I know that coin will fetch somewhere between -"

"$80,000 and $650,000, depending on the vagarities of the auction. She's a smart one - she'll find a good broker and net $585,233."

"Fine. You're an angel, descended from heaven. Why here, why now, why me?"

"Because" - she flipped back shot #1 - "the tequila" - shot #2 - "in Heaven" - shot #3 - "is" 4 "complete" 5 "SHIT!" 6.


"Seriously? No. Who do you think invented tequila in the first place? I'm here, now, because I need to tell you something. Something vitally important that will completely change the way you look at... everything." She motioned me closer and leaned in herself. "Pro wrestling... is real."

And then she passed out, face first, angelic head bouncing off the table twice before coming to rest.

Trying to Repeat the Mistakes of the Past

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Crossposted under the Reddit Writing Prompt "Facing extinction in a in a war with a brutal alien race, a mankind that has forgotten how to go to war reaches into the past and clones its greatest, but most evil Warmasters. Will our monsters save us?" (link)

"First Commissioner, we have defeated the enemy on New Cornwall and Aries III, and have fought it to a standstill on XM435. However, Plusepheron, Malachiteris II, and all three moons of Blen have all been Converted, and there are reports of enemy probes entering the Spinward Reach."

"We can make the tools we need, but we don't truly know how to wield them. The Colonization Wars were generations ago, and no one now living - anywhwere - even remembers an ancestor who fought in them. Humanity may have evolved as a warrior-conqueror species, but apparently we have also evolved right out of it. Without some way of regaining that warrior spirit, humanity is doomed."

"There is one possibility, First Commissioner. The small-scale cloning experiments on Laboratory to resurrect ancient species from fossilized genetic material have succeeded beyond the scientists' wildest dreams. They think they can successfully clone a human. It will require all the resources of Laboratory, and it will take six months to grow the clone to adulthood, so we will only have one chance."

"Agreed. If we can't turn the tide in nine months, we will all have gills and antennae within the year. Have you identified a candidate?"

"Yes, First Commissioner. The most brutally effective conqueror in Earth One's history. Starting with only a few associates, he seized control of a medium-sized nation in less than three years and conquered a third of the planet in only five more. It took the combined forces of every other nation five years to stop him. He is particularly known for his ability to motivate seemingly ordinary people to do whatever he wanted, no matter how heinous it appeared to be."

"We need that kind of ruthlessness now; we will deal with any consequences later - if there is a 'later.' Proceed with the project, and God help us all if it does not succeed."

[six months later]

"First Commissioner, I regret to inform you that the cloning project has failed. The subject's physical body was created perfectly, and all genetic testing showed 100% congruence with the donor. However, the subject shows none of the traits we were expecting to see. He shows no leadership aptitude, he cannot seem to develop public speaking skills, and he fails to grasp the most rudimentary military or diplomatic concepts. In fact, he shows no propensity to violence of any kind. He is not the man we need to win this war, and it is too late to try to develop another."

"I suppose it was too much to hope for, to overcome millennia of cultural change in just a few months. Just out of curiosity, what was the original conqueror's name?"

"Hiller, First Commissioner. Adolf Hiller."

Red Lobster Universe

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Today's reddit WritingPrompt  ("One of your most vivid childhood memories was just planted as a cover-up.  What really happened that day?").  Note: it's fiction, but based on a faulty memory of mine that put a Red Lobster in that spot.

There's a Goodwill store on West Main Avenue in Kalamazoo, Michigan, just east of US-131 on the south side of the road.  Before it was a Goodwill, it was a Cheeseburgers in Paradise.  Before that, it was a Red Lobster.  But I'm the only person who knows that.  People disagree about what was there before the second-string Jimmy Buffett eatery - some say it was a Taco Barn, others think it was a TGI Friday's, still others are pretty sure that it was a vacant lot - but to this day I haven't met anybody else who knows what I know.

And that's because the Shadow has blinded them.  Or, more correctly, made them see something else.

I, however, can see it plain as day in my mind's eye: the 'b' in "Red Lobster" would flicker and occasionally go out whenever the A/C unit kicked to full power.  There was a pothole in one of the handicapped parking spaces big enough to dump a wheelchair.  If the wind was strong enough, the front door would occasionally catch a gust and slam all the way open, making a "BANGwubwubwub" noise as it hit the wall and the plexiglass vibrated (they'd given up using actual glass in it after about the fourth time it shattered).

I know all this despite never having been to the restaurant myself.  I don't know how I know; I just know.  What I don't know is why the Shadow has blinded everyone except me.

== end ==

There are a few directions I could go from here - my original approach was to do the inverse of the prompt - *my* memory is correct, everyone else's is wrong - but a couple of other possible avenues opened up as I was writing:
  • The narrator is convinced he's correct, but he's just crazy.  There is no Red Lobster, there is no Shadow, and people disagree about what was there before because, well, they just don't remember or pay attention all that well.
  • Yes Shadow, yes Red Lobster, and all kinds of occult things happened there that the narrator was (an unwitting) part of.
But the one I would go with if I ever worked on this thread some more is this:

The narrator's name is Red, he once had a sister who was in a wheelchair, but she's gone now.
Update to yesterday's entry about what I thought was a giant Aha! given away during an Android Developers Backstage episode: if I'd actually *read* the article I linked instead of just linking it because of the headline, I would have seen that Google actively encouraged thinking that 4.4 would be Key Lime Pie:

This is why many of Android's employees and partners believed the next Android would be named after the generic key lime pie dessert, even though nothing was ever formally announced. According to Lagerling, it was all a part of Google's master plan. You see, if Google made a big deal about keeping the next Android version a secret, it would have only gotten more attention and eventually, someone would have leaked a KitKat wrapper or something along those lines. Instead, Google was open about using the Key Lime Pie nomenclature as a decoy where, even on the Android team, only a very small, tight-knit group of individuals were privy about plans to change gears and roll with KitKat.

When Google announced that Android 4.4 would be known as KitKat, it seemed to catch the community by surprise.  It seemed that while it was still in development, all the Android pundits assumed it would be called Key Lime Pie (in keeping with the alphabetic dessert theme), but I had never seen anything official, quasi-official, or leaked to indicate that would be the case other than it being the most obvious dessert that began with 'K.'

But now it appears that Google was using that name internally; either that or one of the developers is the most subtle troll I've encountered in a while.  In Episode 2 of the Android Developers Backstage podcast, Chet Haase and Tor Norbye are joined by Jeff Sharkey, a development engineer on the Android Framework team, and this little exchange happened:

(either Chet or Tor) How about folders, like directories in which other documents are contained?  Like, you, an application may want you to specify the folder where they're going to store a series of data files?

Jeff: Right. So, in KLP we don't have the ability to repres- to, like, pick a folder, um,  it's something we might think about adding in the future. [emphasis added]

Neither of the other two made any attempt to correct him, and I'm guessing the reason for that is that they all were accustomed to calling it Key Lime Pie right up to the second that Google cut the deal with Nestle.
I'm trying to come up with my own design for an Arduino-powered garage door opener as opposed to just Googling "Arduino garage door opener," since that'll take a large part of the challenge out of learning how to do it.  However, since I currently know almost nothing about Arduino, it is a near certainty that I'll look back on the words below and laugh.  Or maybe cry.

I'll use a wi-fi shield to connect the Arduino to my home network and wire the output to the external terminals of the opener.  I'll then write an Android app that will display a big red button if the device (in this case, my son's phone, and I imagine I'll be sideloading it) is connected to my home network.  Pressing the button on the app will trigger the Arduino to send the appropriate signal to the opener.
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A Taco Bell Aftermath Waits For No Man

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A recent trip to the restroom got me to thinking.  Generally, people trying to get out a door have right-of-way over people trying to enter: airplanes, subway cars, elevators.

Bathrooms don't work that way, do they?  In the event of conflict, the person entering almost certainly has far more urgent business than the person leaving.

Of course, the rule flips around again when it comes to individual stalls.  Except that one time.  Sorry about that, Chief.
In order to get the "works for 10 hours" that they claim, their criterion must be "will maintain at least 71 degrees... in a 70-degree room."

New Project: Arduino Garage Door Opener

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My son got me an Arduino starter kit for Christmas, which is something I've always wanted to get into but just haven't for whatever reason.  Now that I've got one, I've got a great project idea - hook it up to my Wi-Fi and my garage door opener and control the opener from an app on my phone.  I'm sure it's been done already, but I'm going to see if I can figure it out on my own.

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I was grinding away on the treadmill not too long ago when I noticed a hot spot on the bottom of one foot that wasn't anywhere near any of the usual suspects (outside of the big toe, outside of the heel).  It wasn't bad enough to quit so I just set it aside and pushed on.

When I finished, it was pretty tender, so I checked it out.  Sure enough, there was a small blister right in the middle of the arch - a spot that had never given me any trouble before.  I couldn't figure out why I got a blister *there,* doing a workout I'd done fifty times before (10K at 10mm pace).

I finally cracked the code when I got home and dumped out my gym bag.  We have two long-haired cats (a 12yo Maine Coon and a 9yo Longhairedsomething (picture not available)) and a Golden Retriever, so we fight a constant and probably ultimately doomed battle against pet hair.  I wear New Balance compression socks, which have more spandex across the middle third of the sock to provide additional arch support.  When I turned the sock inside out to throw it in the washer, I realized that the extra spandex had acted like velcro in the wash and had picked up a compressed ball of pet hair about the size of a chickpea... right where I had gotten my blister. 

How I failed to notice this when I put my shoes on, I don't know, but now part of my pre-race prep is making sure my socks are free of hairballs.

Homebrew Telestrator

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I recently picked up this tablet from Monoprice and I've been trying to figure out how to turn it into a telestrator to annotate my ridiculously one-sided Michigan football highlight reels
and Moving Picture Pages. If I can make an MPEG using the real-time drawing actions on top of a JPG background, I think that'll give me what I need.  Stay tuned.
So why now, besides the obvious New Year's resolution motivation?  Because I read this Cracked article and decided that even though I'm not exactly the target audience, there's always more I'm capable of doing.  This passage in particular is what grabbed me (interestingly, it's not the one in which the author says basically "you're not a writer unless you write"):

Don't like the prospect of pouring all of that time into a skill [in the author's case, 20,000 hours "to sand the edges off my sucking"] ? Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the sheer act of practicing will help you come out of your shell -- I got through years of tedious office work because I knew that I was learning a unique skill on the side. People quit because it takes too long to see results, because they can't figure out that the process is the result. [emphasis added]
I quit writing in large part because I was reading lots of people do it so much better and I concluded that I didn't have anything to add.  In particular, I quit writing about Michigan football because MGoBlog is IMO* the ne plus ultra of non-offishul-Journalizm sportswriting, and anything I wrote on the subject would be at best a glissando fart into the wind by comparison.  So why bother?

Because MGoBlog didn't spring fully formed from the mind of proprietor Brian Cook.  It started out with some good stuff, some iffy stuff, and some WTF stuff.  But he kept going, and now it's his day job.  I bet *he's* put 20k hours into it since 2005.  Which means the correct response was not "I'll never be as good as MGoBlog, so I might as well quit," but rather "I might not ever be as good as MGoBlog, but I'll only get better if I keep going.  And along the way, I'll produce other worthwhile stuff."

*[full disclosure - I'm a Michigan football fan.  I'm certainly biased on MGoBlog's awesomeness, but really, check it out if you're a fan of any college football team]

Insert 'Resurrected Blog' cliches here

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Apparently no actual qualifications are required to be a writer except to declare oneself as one, so now I am a writer.  Now I suppose that means I actually have to write, and the more you write, the better you get.  It's not like I'm brand new at this; I blogged pretty regularly from 2001 to 2007, and I've tried to restart a couple of times since then, but now I'm giving it another shot based on Don't Break The Chain (attributed to Jerry Seinfeld but I'm sure others have thought of it too).  And since I just stumbled across that advice today (even though the Lifehacker post is from 2007), this post will have to count as yesterday's Big Red X and I'll have to come up with something else for today.  It's kinda like NaNoWriMo except less focused.  Call it NaBloWriYear.

And it occurs to me that I just wrote a mashup of every 2003 'Hey, I'm starting a blog' post with every 2004 'Hey, I'm restarting my blog' post.  Take a look at the categories on the right to see what I've done in the past, and I'll do my best to bring something worthwhile to the table to keep you coming back.

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