Monday, August 31, 2009

Spawn of the Giant Stuffed Penguin

Sometime this afternoon, the conversation turned to kids. Not just kids kids, mind you, but real live in-the-flesh kind of children, the ones who constantly bump into your knees and marvel at how much taller you are than them.

I don't have such a good record with kids. Personally, I do like them (particularly with a little barbecue sauce and some grated cheese), but they don't seem to like me for some reason. It might be because the voice scares them, or it could be because my eyebrows give them nightmares. Whatever the case, I'm okay with kids, and the real question is whether or not they're okay with me.

For these occasions, I carry around a nice "children" anecdote. I won't tell it now because it loses something in the writing, but suffice to say that it involved a one-year-old child and a Snoopy doll. Said incident, by the way, ended with the head of said Snoopy doll being thrown in my general direction... and that confession alone should give you an idea of how I am with kids.

Despite the anecdote, however, someone dared to throw the question over to my side of the table: "So what about you, Sean? How many kids would you want to have?"

I figured that the "barbecue-sauce-and-grated-cheese" comment would have gotten me run out of town at that point, so I threw back the only response I could think of:


"That is," my friend said, "if you want to have kids. Do you want to have kids?"

I thought for a moment. This was an interesting question, if only because I hadn't quite thought about it yet. I'm still a young man, after all. I'm not exactly about to shackle mysel... er, settle down to family life just yet.

"Well... yeah," I said. "I'd like to have kids someday. I mean, it'll probably be a while by the time I have them, but I wouldn't mind the wait.

"Thinking about it a little further, I'd say that two or three of them would be nice. The issue when you have only one child is that he or she usually has nobody to play with, which puts some undue pressure on either the parents or any outside friends. Having two kids would probably resolve this, but then you get the question of an elder/younger relationship, and I'm not sure how healthy that would be.

"So if it's possible, I'd rather have three kids. That would raise the possible conflict of an elder-middle-younger relationship, but I figure that the internal dynamics would balance it out — you can have a majority clique at any point, I imagine. That, and the middle child would inevitably be a bridge or a mediator between the other two.

"The only question that remains, I think, is the matter of age. I'd prefer the kids to be spaced about two or three years apart, so that they can share knowledge and contacts within similar generations. It takes quite a bit of pressure off the other factors, I think, when their constant contact with each other helps ensure that the older ones can literally help train and educate the younger ones. I find that siblings usually tend to take different paths in life, so three children would probably imply different interests and specializations of some sort.

"I'll throw the question back, by the way," I said. "What do you think?"

This brought some silence over the table for a few minutes.

"I think," my friend finally said, "I'd like three kids."

"Any reason why?"

"Uh... no. I'd just like three kids."

And somewhere in the world, a mother is asking her child about a decapitated Snoopy doll.

If Titles Could Talk

After thirty years' worth of reading, I've come to a fateful conclusion: It's possible to determine the base contents of a literary or artistic work merely by reading its title.

I imagine that this discovery will change our way of life as we know it: Soon enough, we'll be able flip through literary collections in a heartbeat, finish poetry readings in a fraction of a second, and sleep through movie screenings that would otherwise steal a good two hours of our lives. From there, it shouldn't be a great leap towards coming up with a mutual cure for AIDS, SARS, H1N1 and all forms of cancer; generating renewable fuel resources; solving world hunger; and determining the true meaning of life as we know it.

That, or it was those baked mushrooms I had for dinner. Whatever it is, it doesn't matter, because you're getting the list whether you like it or not:


...the title of the work has a colon in it, or a number at the end — "I am part of a series that everybody has since stopped reading."

...the title is a common phrase — "My title was the first thing that came to mind after the last chapter was finished."

...the title has only one word — "My writer couldn't think of an interesting title."

...the title has five words or more — "My writer couldn't think of an interesting article."

...the title mentions a specific historical or contemporary figure — "I have absolutely nothing to do with said historical or contemporary figure."

...the title summarizes the story in its entirety — "My writer just wasted two thousand words and three hours of effort."

...the title has a typographical error — "My proofreader is checking the want ads right now."

...the title is a word that doesn't exist — "Your only motivation for reading this article is to find out what the heck the word means."

...the title has a subtitle that involves the word "God" and multiple exclamation points — "I was created by the Philippines' newest National Artist!"

...the title is "Untitled" — "Please kill me."

Fire for Fighting

Something's been wrong with my desktop computer over the past couple of days, and all of the symptoms were there. For one, the system wouldn't shut down properly — something would always interrupt the shutdown and ask me to terminate a running process. On top of that, anything that I downloaded — however small it was — would inevitably run into connection issues. But when I realized that my Google searches were being redirected to completely different (and ad-laden) sites, I realized that I had a problem.

My ability to make completely useless distinctions automatically told me that I was dealing with some malware here. There was something in the system, all right, but it wasn't necessarily a virus — a virus, after all, implies a payload of some sort; it's supposed to do something bad to your computer. Plain old adware normally puts a lot of pop-up ads on your computer, which wasn't the case, so I figured that whatever was in my system had been created for far more insidious purposes. Like, say, password thievery or backdoor hacking.

The first thing I did, then, was to enter my symptoms into a search engine (watching out for the redirection, of course) and figure out what I was dealing with. Yes, it was malware. Yes, it was a password stealer, with security compromisation on the side. Yes, it was a strain that was difficult to remove, which I was to find out later.

Most of the sites I visited recommended a single piece of free software which I could download, install, and run... and that's what I did. So I just sat back, waited patiently for the slower-than-usual download to finish, then double-clicked the handy little Windows icon and watched it do its stuff.

Except that it didn't. The silly thing wouldn't install.

I hit the internet forums again and noted that some of the more recent strains of malware were advanced enough to prevent corrective software from functioning... which was just great, really. I've run into enough malicious code in my life to know that this thing wouldn't be deleted easily; I just had to find the right combination of moves that would defeat it.

After a few attempts at booting and rebooting, I found out that I could run the antivirus installation as long as 1) I changed the name of the installation file, and 2) I performed the installation shortly after I booted up the computer. (I can only assume that it took the malware a while to figure out what I was doing.) The installation turned out successful, although it ran into a problem near the end... which I took as a sign that my digital interloper was trying to fight back.

Chortling to myself, I got the software to scan my computer, and after an hour's work, it easily identified the source of all my woes. Gotcha, sucker.

Cleaning it took all of ten minutes, after which I did what I normally do after a good cleaning session — I restarted the computer and ran the scan again. At this point, however, I ran into the bad news: The second scan indicated that the files were still there... which meant that the bad code was either resisting removal, or reconstituting itself in some way.

I cleared the harmful files again and ran the scan without rebooting. This one told me that the threat had been removed. After a skeptical restart-and-rescan, however, I was told that the malware was still present in my system. I guess there was some sort of method by which it was rebuilding itself, then.

Fortunately, by this time, I was able to put a name to my imaginary little opponent. I could identify a couple of primary component files, as well as three or four supplementary files that were written in random ten-character filename strings, presumably to evade detection. In short, I had a fair idea of where the problem was coming from, and the only question involved killing the stupid thing.

At that point, I fell back on my recovery console — this little backup tool that allows me to get into the operating system without running any of the files there. A few nerve-wracking minutes later, I was looking at the obnoxious little buggers from the safety of my digital crawlspace, and manually zapping them one by one.

From there, I restarted the computer and ran one final scan. This one gave me no issues whatsoever.

I don't remember when I started fighting these sorts of things, but I feel as though I've done a whole lot for someone who doesn't even have in-depth experience in this sort of firefighting. I figure that it's because of the wide range of tools that we have available for our convenience nowadays — any person with at least half a brain for technical analysis would probably be able to combat these things in their spare time.

In that sense, it brings to mind a question that someone asked me once... something about why I never seemed to write about things like computer viruses in my few sci-fi stories. If only that person knew about what strange, real-world experiences I've had in that regard...

Saturday, August 29, 2009


If you're wondering exactly what I do in order to cool off after a day's work, I can give you the regular suite of answers: I read books. I walk around malls. I sleep till noon. And I play games.

It's probably the latter item that distracts me on the Internet nowadays. While I do spend a bit of time in the evenings chasing my email and doing one bit of writing or another, I'm usually too tired to conceptualize and execute entire blog posts in one sitting. Thus, I play games.

And lately, the most prominent of those games has been Grid.

Grid is a remarkable Flash game of the puzzle persuasion, something that immediately caught my mind from the clean execution to the strange gameplay. What the game does is that it gives you a layout of various glyphs, each one contained within a given cell. One of the glyphs is a power source, which means that any other glyph connected to it can therefore supply that power to other glyphs that are similarly connected. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to rotate each of the glyphs such that power is supplied to the entire grid.

There are, of course, some hitches: You can't change or swap any of the glyphs, which means that you can only rotate each of them in their current positions and figure out how each one of them fits in the final configuration. You can only rotate a glyph is power is being supplied to it, which makes for quite a bit of frustration and fine-tuning. And you can't have any "loose" connections in the final grid, which means that every glyph must be clearly connected in all available connections.

Take the configuration below, for example.

Rotating each of the glyphs correctly gives us the following correct solution:

On each level, you're given a limited number of moves (rotations); it's often plenty for you to finish the level, but completing a grid within a smaller number of rotations gives you a higher score.

The games gives you 35 such grids to solve, and they gradually escalate in difficulty. The previous grid, for example, is one of the earlier ones — the first grid that you get to do for yourself after the tutorial's completed. Further grids tend to be head-scratchers...

And after a while, of course, the grids get more and more confusing. Whoever put this thing together tested the level design quite well.

And if you get far enough (the game saves your progress via unique ID), you can graduate up to the malevolent, labyrinthine jigsaw-like conundrums. You run into stuff that requires you to plan your moves well in advance, stuff that forces you to double back and redo old configurations, and stuff that just plain takes up the whole screen. In the later levels, you might even run into all of them at once.

That grid above is level 31 out of the 35, which is the most recent one that I've managed to solve. It's the first one that's taken me more than one session to finish, which means that yes, I was working on it for a week.

I imagine that my time on this game will end fairly soon, seeing that I'm only three or four grids away from completing everything. I'm going to miss it when I finally finish; it's one of the better games that I've come across, and I've recommended it to a few people so far so that they can suffer as I do.

Sure, it has some significant mental requirements to begin with... but I do look for those games. Otherwise, well, I'd have to fall back on my other online diversion, which involves untangling a bit of string...

I'll probably leave that for another time and another discussion, though. I just need to get to that 32nd grid right now...

* Grid, of course, is the property of, which offers "the sweetest games online". Seriously, they have some pretty good stuff on their site. Don't sue me over the free publicity, guys, or at least not until I manage to complete all 35 grids first.

* Planarity is the work of John Tantalo, and is an insidious time-waster if I ever saw one. Who would ever think that untangling string would be so addictive? Don't sue me either; I'm all tied up at the moment.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Lowest Output Yet

No, I'm not dead yet. Just busy... I've got a slew of marketing promotions to prepare for the next couple of months, and on top of that, I've got a few device tests to run through. The new manager also reported for her first day of work last week, so I'm allocating a small portion of my time towards making sure that picks up on her tasks and duties.

To make a long story short, I've been getting home by about nine or ten every evening, sitting down to a late dinner, then taking a quick bath and dozing off with a shock of wet hair. My barber's probably going to have a field day next month, but that's not the point here. The point is that I'm usually rather drained by the time I sit down in front of the computer.

I find it a little strange, really, that I'm unable to come up with much in the way of good ideas whenever I'm dog tired. Hypothetically, I don't think that it's really possible for my mind to "tire out" (although it does get migraines from time to time), so psychological fatigue is the only reason I have left: In a sense, between paper and bedsheets, I invariably choose the bedsheets.

The irony is that I don't even sleep early most of the time; I spend a couple of hours reading in bed. In the last month, I've gone through four Lillian Jackson Braun novels, Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a six-hundred-page book of ghost stories, and a little more than half of Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana. If anything, I've at least caught up on some of my reading.

Of course, I still want to catch up with this month's output, which will certainly mean trying to write at least six blog posts by the time Monday comes around. We have a long weekend going on at the moment, so that should make things a little easier. It'll still be about two posts per day, however, when my expected rate goes at about one-thirds of a post per day. (Sometimes I wonder if I should just go and complain about the government; I'd probably have a lot of writing fodder in that case.)

That'll be a good resolution, I think: "Write more." I should take a more proactive stance on this, perhaps, and expend more willpower to write as opposed to flopping onto the mattress whenever I get home from work. It's not mental block after all... it's just psychological fatigue.

That said... I'll start tomorrow. The bed feels too good to leave right now.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ask a Silly Question...

For the record, I work for a marketing agency right now. I'm a Digital Producer, which means that I do the following things:

1) I manage any changes that need to be made to clients' web sites, and

2) I set up any online or email-based requirements that my clients need.

In short, if my clients need anything that has to do with the local Internet technologies, I'm the person responsible for planning them out and making sure that they work. It's harder than it sounds, particularly when you take into account the fact that most people don't have much Net savvy to begin with. I often have to advise clients as to what's possible (e.g. tracking peoples' browsing history on a single click), and what's not (e.g. setting up a Google search for colored text).

That said, it's a little complicated to explain, particularly to the previous generation of adults. Most of them have heard of the Internet well enough, but their eyes tend to glaze over the moment I go into specifics. On top of that, there's the occasional acquaintance, store proprietor or barista who asks me what I do for a living — and if anything, I usually don't have enough time to discuss the whole thing.

Nowadays, whenever somebody asks me about my job, I usually make up something on the spot. Sometimes it's reasonably accurate and sometimes it's not, but it's usually satisfactory enough for people to smile, nod, and let me get on with my day. The strange thing is that I'm not even sure if they're even listening.

I have to admit, however, that it was fun to come up with some of these, which were all mentioned at one time or another:

— "I'm the office slavedriver. I have my own official bullwhip and everything!"

— "You know how they need somebody to do the voice samples for commercials? That's me."

— "I'm the babysitter for my boss's dog."

— "Oh... something that involves squids, diamonds, and asphalt."

— "I have a job? I guess that would explain the building I enter each morning."

— "I'm in charge of training the office slackers. They just finished my introduction to Bejeweled last week; I've got plans to start them on Zuma next, but not before they pass that exam on Tetris that I prepared yesterday."

— "I'm the James Earl Jones impersonator."

— "I park peoples' cars, shine their shoes, and put vinegar into the coffee cup when no one's looking."

— "Let me put it this way: Bubu, the god of vacation leave forms and missed deadlines, needs an unfortunate patsy to do his divine bidding."

— "I'm the guy who writes all those neat little taglines on those movie posters."

— "Yes, I work in radio. I'm the guy who screams into the mike whenever they have a caller who they want to go away."

— "I'm the guy they call in whenever the underwear models don't show up."

Oddly enough, most of the people I know still don't know what I do for a living. You'd think that they'd know by now.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hard Blink

I don't remember what triggered the topic of conversation, but somehow my brother and I ended up discussing a bit of Sci-Fi on the way home. At the top of the list, I think, was the matter of what literary elements made Science Fiction, Science Fiction... and the question of why some people would argue that some of these elements were preferable over others.

There are plenty of Sci-Fi subgenres, I would imagine. On the one hand, you have your space-opera clones involving bald starship captains and lightsaber-wielding farmboys. On another hand, you have your post-apocalyptic scenarios, usually involving ratty postal workers and people who bear an uncanny resemblance to Mel Gibson. On yet another hand, you have your slick martial-arts-and-slow-motion affairs, often involving machine code and bullet time. There's no shortage of literary elements out there, much less for Science Fiction in general.

We started out with the concept of "traditional" Science Fiction and the recent Hugo Awards argument that it caused, but we didn't get into too much discussion there. After five minutes, I think, we just agreed that we didn't have a clue as to any real distinction between "traditional" and "modern" Sci-Fi — if only because any contemporary take on the genre was likely to become dated after a few decades. "The writers can reinvent the genre all they want," I remember saying, "but that sort of creativity does little against the possibility that someone might grant the 'old-fashioned' label to their work in the future."

Fortunately, we pushed forward into more interesting territory: What would it take, for example, for a contemporary Science Fiction story to be considered "cutting-edge"? I mean, over the last thirty years, we've covered such things as (*deep breath*) aliens, robots, space exploration, extra-terrestrial locations, weapons, war, love, transportation, games, cyberspace, virtual reality, cybernetics, apocalypsis, morals, genetics, humanity, cloning, replication, temporal manipulation, religion, the human psyche, divination, oppression, guardianship, life and death... to say little of any other theme or scrap of a technological future that was written down by some fevered mind somewhere.

The best we could offer was that "cutting-edge" Science Fiction involved using a new element in there somewhere, perhaps something that hasn't seen much of the light of readership yet. In a sense, the genre has to resemble a lot of other genres in their race to constantly reinvent themselves. At the very least, it's certainly hard to define — if I knew what it was that gave the "newness" to any short story, then I'd have the Hugo Awards committee licking my boots right now.

I did point out, however, that for a genre that offers tangible benefits to technological progress, the Science Fiction genre doesn't seem to be concentrating on this aspect. Sci-Fi, after all, was a contributing factor towards such fields as Internet Technology, Artificial Intelligence, and Cybernetics... but the modern efforts seem to be lighter on 'practical use' and heavier on 'cool concept'. After all, what did the concept of bullet time ever do for the real world?

I remember holding onto one concept that I've never been able to work into a successful story, and that's the idea of the neural implant. In case you don't grasp its implications just yet, that's the idea of having a computer grafted onto your living brain; maybe it's a chip that's attached to the front of your temporal lobe, and maybe it's a mechanism hooked up to the base of your skull. It's made the rounds before — most notably in Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell writings — but I can't seem to let go of it as a strangely practical idea, one that we might see within our lifetimes.

My brother was surprised at how far I had considered the idea. For starters, I felt that a convenient interface was possible. Imagine seeing your normal field of vision as a 'screen' of sorts, possibly through some transparent film implanted on the insides of your corneas. From there, you would be able to view information, communicate to people, and possibly issue commands to external implements. You could get a nice weather report the moment you woke up each morning... or perhaps turn on the coffeemaker from across the room.

"The problem with that," my sibling pointed out, "is that you'd get information overload."

"Not when you have a way to turn the interface on and off as needed," I countered. The best I came up with was the concept of a 'hard blink' — a very fast double-blink not unlike double-clicking a computer mouse; it was a little awkward but certainly possible.

It's a strange dream, of course, but I'm aware of at least a couple of developments in that direction. There are some research laboratories, for example, that will implant little identification chips under the skin of your arm so that the security facilities at your building can automatically identify you as you walk in. It's not too far a cry from those security cards and fingerprint scanners that seem to close off a lot of our offices nowadays.

And then there's the macabre practice of implanting similar identification chips into our pets (as well as inanimate personal belongings), so that they we can hypothetically find them if they ever get lost. Those are stories, I think, that people really can't make up... but in hindsight, perhaps we should have.

I have to admit that I'm not too well-versed in the debate between "traditional" Science Fiction and "contemporary" Science Fiction, but as opposed to searching for the concepts that would satisfy one or the other, there's also the possibility of looking for "practical" Science Fiction. It would be like having the same interesting concepts, I imagine, only with the implication that we might actually be wearing them one day.

But then again, I'm obviously not the best authority on this subject — I have yet to write something practical when it comes to Sci-Fi, for instance.

I would be interested to see if anyone somehow takes the idea and runs with it, though. That, and I'd probably buy the book, too.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Disclaimer: August 2009

* The font is called Christopher Hand, and it's available here. Nice, isn't it?