2016: A Post-Mortem

far-side-9It’s very cliche to look back on the last day of the year, but that’s what I’m going to do. Just as with everyone else on the planet, there were highs and lows in my life in 2016. I accomplished some things, like publishing my second book, but I missed the mark on many others, like leaving my watch-through of Star Trek The Animated Series undone. Unlike many people, I am compulsive about keeping track of some things in my life digitally, and I wanted to take a look at how I spent my time in 2016 as the calendar turns over to a new year.

First up is my board game playing. I’ve cataloged both my collection and the number of games I’ve played using boardgamegeek.com since January 1, 2011.  That year, I logged 400 board game plays. In 2012 and 2013, my games played went down slightly, to 386 and 364, respectively. 2014 was a larger drop, with 268 games played, almost 100 less plays than the previous year. I played more or less the same amount in 2015, 260 total, including one month where I played a game every day, August.

Even before counting it up, I felt like 2016 would be another down year, and I was right. I only logged 212 board game plays this year. That doesn’t seem like too much of a drop on the surface, right? However, looking closer, I noticed I had exactly 100 plays of Magic: the Gathering logged in 2016. This is due to a game store opening up in my town, and my support of it. However, Magic is one of those games where you play many games each session. For many similar games, like Code Names or Coconuts, I just log one play no matter how many times I play a day. If I do that for Magic this year, I move down to 129 logged plays. That’s by far the lowest since I started keeping track, meaning I played roughly one third as many games in 2016 as I did in 2011!

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-5-54-50-pmIn addition to board gaming, I also use Goodreads to keep track of the books I read each year. Last year, I started a reading challenge, and set a goal to read 20 books. I did that, with days to spare. This year, my goal was 22 books, and I fell far short. I only read 15 books in 2016. I was feeling bad about this, as I hate not meeting my goals, but then I looked at my reading totals for prior years. Since 2012, the first full year in which I kept track, this year ranks as #2 on the list. I hope to read some more compelling books this coming year; several I read this year weren’t very good and I was stuck reading them for more than a month.

Since I love data about how I spend my time so much, this year, I began tracking what movies I watched using IMDB. We watch movies more than we watch TV, and so I knew that my total would be a big number. I just didn’t realize how big. Counting the one movie I watched twice this year (Captain America: Civil War), I watched 123 movies in 2016. That’s… a lot. An awful lot. Admittedly, I often put a movie on while I’m doing something else, like a bit of spreadsheet work, or painting miniatures. Still, 123 movies watched seems very, very high. During my six weeks off in the summer, I was watching, on average, a movie every day, and more than one several times. Movies are something I enjoy, for sure, but I think perhaps they are taking up a bigger piece of my free time pie than they should be.

pac-man-clockThere’s another area of my life that I am concerned about wasting time, and that is something I will call “time eaters”. I’m mainly thinking about three things here. First, social media, primarily Facebook but sometimes Twitter as well. Often, I catch myself watching some stupid viral animal video, or someone cooking a burrito, or a so-called life hack or a dumb political post or any one of a thousand other things that aren’t worth my time. I’ve got to be more mindful about the time I spend on these sites. Another one is Reddit; I read Reddit daily, often multiple times. A few minutes is fine, but when I’m perusing items 500-525 and still looking for something interesting to read, I could have used my time better.
The last “time eater” I want to eliminate from my life going forward are mobile games. Not all of them, of course; many I use to keep in touch with friends (Lords of Waterdeep multiplayer, for example), and others are certainly worthy games on their own (Hearthstone is something I love to play every day). I’m talking mainly about free to play games that use a timer or some other limitation to motivate you to spend money. For me, the biggest offender was Transformers Earth Wars. I love Transformers, and the gameplay was pretty good compared to prior Transformers mobile games (Battle Tactics was terrible). However, you actually end up playing the game less and less often as you progress, which seems backwards, and the rewards in game are not worth the effort. I spent way too much time and (sadly) money for an experience that ended up being nothing but frustrating. I quit playing last Monday and it has been great to not have the tyranny of the cool down timers shaping my life. Mobile games can be good, but I need to be more considerate of what I will spend my time and energy on.

All things considered, I would give myself a B- this year. I didn’t play enough video games, nor did I read enough books. I watched too many movies, played too many dumb mobile games, and consumed too much social media. Next year, I need to be better. I have some goals for myself in 2017, some related to the areas in this post, some not. Next week, I’ll share them.

 

Clone Catcher, Or, A Faded Memory Restored

goodreads-logo-1024x576-7abf5bd8d98b9d10I am constantly amazed by the power of the internet. I know that sounds cliche. But I’m not talking about smart thermostats that let me control my heating and air from my phone. Nor am I talking about the wealth of tutorials and how-to videos that have saved me money on repairing my car and even my clothes dryer. I’m not even talking about the convenience of the cloud. A recent event in my life reminded me, once again, of the power that the internet has to bring together people who share a common bond.

In June of 2011, at the urging of a friend or two, I joined Goodreads. It’s a database of books, and has a very active community. My two basic uses for it are to keep track of books I have read, and to use the recommendations tools to find the next great book I want to read. I love tools like this, and use them across many parts of my life, like boardgamegeek.com for tabletop games, and IMDB for tracking movies I’ve watched.

I am not an active participant in the Goodreads community, but I learned about a group called “What’s the Name of That Book?” and immediately took an interest in it. As I get older, two things are happening to me. First, I’m more interested in nostalgia for my past. Second, my memory of said past gets worse and worse all the time. I pride myself on my ability to recall things, but I just can’t remember everything. And when I can’t, it drives me nuts.

I posted the following request to the group just over four years ago, on November 20, 2012:

Hello all. I am looking for a book I read while in grade school in the mid 80s. I suspect the book was published the the 70s. The protagonist of the book is a young man, who I believe was named Danny. Danny grew up with other kids in a compound.

SPOILERS

As the story progresses, it turns out that there are other Dannys, some younger, some older, being raised in other compounds. Danny was actually Danny 13. At the climax, a much older Danny arrives and inspires the group to revolt. All of the kids in the story were clones of rich people, in various ages, who were being raised for their organs to extend the lifespan of the original.

Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Six people responded fairly quickly, but none of the books they suggested rang a bell. I began to think this memory was based on a TV show or movie I had seen instead. Memory is strange, after all. I devoured plenty of sci-fi stuff back in the day, maybe I took something from Column A, a bit from Column B, and mashed it up into something that never really existed.

Then, last month, a Goodreads user named Toff posted this:

Sounds familiar, like something I might have read between 1979 and 1985 or so. I was thinking possibly one of Alfred Slote’s books, maybe Clone Catcher (main character named Dunn; clones made of rich people for organ harvesting)…

photo-dec-10-3-55-46-pmThat sounded vaguely familiar. I googled Clone Catcher, it took me to an Amazon link with a generic cover. $6.32 including shipping sent the book on my way. I was skeptical that this was actually going to be the book I remembered. Ten days later, having forgotten about the book and the order, I was surprised by a package in the mailbox. I opened it up, saw the cover, and immediately it all came flooding back to me. This was, indeed, the book that I had remembered reading, probably more than three decades ago. I read half the book before our Monday game night that evening, and stayed up reading it in bed until I finished. It wasn’t quite what I had remembered.

The protagonist was not Danny 13, but the titular Clone Catcher, whose last name was Dunn. I think I was mixing in my memory of the Danny Dunn books, which I was also fond of. There is a compound of clones, being raised for their organs, and they do revolt. But that’s really not the focus of the book, which is more a mystery with sci-fi elements to it. The cover really spoils the ending, but it’s a pretty good book. It certainly made an impression on me as a kid.

Another fun part of this story is the book itself. This copy is marked as a discard from the Barnwell Junior High Library. The book seller I got it from is based in Columbia, MO, which is about 2.5 hours drive from here. There is a Barnwell Middle School in St. Charles, MO, so it makes sense that this copy of Clone Catcher originally came from there. The book is a first edition, printed in 1982, but it’s in great shape. A small ghost and candle icon on the spine denote that the book was shelved in the “Mystery” section of the Barnwell Junior High Library. Unfortunately, the due date card was removed from the back page. I would have loved to have seen the dates this little book was checked out.

Isn’t it amazing that somewhere out there, someone took the time to post an answer? That simple act brought back a treasure from my past. Thank you, Goodreads user Toff, whoever and wherever you are. I owe you one! Now if I could just remember the title of a book on prehistoric animals, told in “a day in the life” style, that I read long, long, ago, I would be all set…

Two Podcasts and a Comic Strip!

3591481091_6f63ecfd4eI’ve been very lax in posting news, due to NaNoWriMo, but there are three things I wanted to let everyone know about.

The first two are related to the Tupacast! After a several months long hiatus after we discussed Stranger Things on episode 15, we are back up and running again. It might be too late to listen to our Halloween memories episode, unless you enjoy candy. But it was still a good one. Our most recent topic was the awesome 80s flick Throw Mamma From the Train, which I had never seen before but enjoyed very much.

Episode 16 – Halloween Time!!

Episode 17 – Throw Mama From the Train

The last bit of news is very exciting. I am working with my buddy Brandon Pennington on a new comic strip. We’ve entitled it “Geek on Fleek Comix” which sounds good but who knows what it means? I don’t. We’ve got two strips up so far, and we’re planning to release new ones every Monday and Thursday. Stay tuned for a bigger announcement about the comics soon, but in the meantime, check out Brandon’s Instagram for the latest strips. For now, enjoy the two below!

NaNoWriMO 2016 – Final Update

book-textbookNovember has come and gone, and thus NaNoWriMo 2016 has also come to an end. I started the month with the beginning of what I thought would be a short story. I set a goal to make it a novella by the end of the month. It’s not quite there yet, but after connecting the dots here and there, and taking the ending beyond the bare bones, I do indeed have something publishable on my hands.

This year, I kept track of my output in a Google Sheet. I wrote 21 out of the 30 days in November. I began with 4,640 words, and ended with 26,078 just before midnight on December 1. That is 4,000 words short of my original goal, but I don’t mind that at all. You can see my progress in the nifty chart below. I love data!

So what next? I did write just a bit on December 1, just to get a bit closer to the end. Now, I’m in the middle of taking a few weeks off. I plan to come back to it over the holiday break, finish it up, and get the edits and such going in order to publish as an ebook by February. I have a con appearance coming up in March, and I would like to get physical copies ready for that if possible.

Here’s a final excerpt from the story, which I’ve decided to call “The Thing from the Drive In”. Enjoy!

Then, a deep bass rumble filled the air, and a spiraling burst of light shot out of the marble, heading over my shoulder. I turned as the dazzling lights zipped in an arc across all the rows of parked cars. On the movie screen, the scene changed, showing a closeup of the Thing that Time Forgot. The Thing opened its gigantic maw, filled with huge, razor sharp teeth. The horn on its snout glowed with radioactive green flame. It began to roar just as the blast of light from the marble hit the screen. Thousands of rainbow colored sparks exploded from the surface of the screen, raining down over the first few rows of cars. The Thing let forth a scream of primal fury, but this time, the sound wasn’t coming from the tinny speakers next to the cars. This time, the roar was coming from the screen itself.

 

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NaNoWriMo 2016 – First Update

writing-1209121_960_720I wrote most of the words in my two books during NaNoWriMo, the first in 2013-2014, the second last year. This year, I am continuing the tradition. This time around, I’m actually writing fiction for NaNoWriMo, which his more appropriate since it is supposed to be about writing a novel, after all. I’m finishing up a fun tale I started in April. On Halloween, it sat at 4,640 words, and now, before I begin writing today, the 12th, I’m at 9,425 total words. My goal is to hit 30,000 words by the end of the month. That is short of a novel, in the novella range, I guess, but if the story fits in that space, it fits.

Here’s an excerpt from the new story.

My bed never looked more inviting. I took off my jeans and threw them on the floor, then walked over to the small black and white TV set I got for my birthday and turned the knob. A rerun of one of my favorite episodes of Stellar Warlords was on. It was the perfect thing to fall asleep watching. I didn’t even bother changing into my PJs before turning back the covers and propping myself up on my pillow.

Captain Schattmore of the Spacestar Thunderhawk was stuck on a desert planet with his arch enemy, the Martian Emperor Lar’sonis. Schattmore was one of the coolest heroes in all of science fiction. He was smart as well as strong, and had a predilection for alien women in skimpy outfits. (I wouldn’t mind if my future wife had purple skin and antennae if she was as pretty as Lunetta Ludbaalaup from Galaktika-III.) The head Martian bad guy, Lar’sonis, was a perfect foil to Captain Schattmore. Lar’sonis had four arms ending in claws, a slitlike nose, and enormous glowing red orbs for eyeballs. He wore a suit of high tech armor with all sorts of futuristic gadgets on it.

In this episode, though, aliens had sent these two mortal enemies to a strange planet where they had to fight one another without the benefit of any of their technology. No phason pistols, no communicatrix, no force field armor, nothing. Of course, the planet was full of all sorts of dangerous stuff, like rock slides, a mutant lizard, and atomic solar flares. The Captain and the Martian Emperor had just realized the importance of working together before I slipped off into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Movie Review: Shin Godzilla

godzilla-resurgenceEarlier this month, I was quite excited to watch the newest Godzilla movie. For many, this wouldn’t be a big deal, but for me, it was a very special day. I enjoyed the last American Godzilla movie in 2014, but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the Japanese series. The last of those, the poorly named Godzilla Final Wars, came out in 2004. Twelve years later, Toho Studios  is back with Shin Godzilla. We drove three hours to the nearest theater showing it, the Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City. It was a great experience, start to finish.

I wouldn’t usually mention the theater itself in a movie review, but the Alamo Drafthouse is worth talking about. It was my first time at one of these establishments, and it was probably the best trip to the movies I’ve ever had. Instead of playing boring commercials before the show, we were treated to a delightful series of Godzilla-related shorts. Several vintage trailers for older Godzilla movies made up the bulk of the pre-show. There was a brief bit of a Godzilla Island episode (a late 90s TV series that used actual action figures for the monster scenes). I especially loved the Spectreman clip and Bambi Meets Godzilla. All the quirky stuff they showed us got me even more hyped for the film itself.

I’ve been to exactly one theater that served food other than popcorn and pretzels before. It was less than amazing to eat bad chicken tenders and average french fries while sitting in a standard theater seat. The Alamo Drafthouse does it much differently. A helpful waiter took our order before the movie began. Just as the theater darkened, he returned, delivering our drinks and popcorn unobtrusively. There was a narrow table running the length of each row, very convenient for holding drinks and food. About a half hour in, our burgers arrived. They were fantastic. Connor and I had fries, while my wife chose to have hers on a bowl of greens and other salad-like stuff. Our drinks and popcorn were refilled every twenty minutes or so. Never once did the wait staff interrupt the movie, even when helping other people. The food was much better than I was expecting, and just added to the wonderful time we had watching the movie.

So what about the movie then? Was Shin Godzilla any good? I think it was great, and I’ll tell you why. We are now entering a spoiler zone, so if you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to stop reading.

 

 

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p9-schilling-shingodzilla-a-20160804-870x490Ever since the first Godzilla in 1954, all subsequent movies called back to the original monster. Even when the series was rebooted in 1984, 2000, and beyond, there was always a plot point about the return of the creature. Shin Godzilla abandons this concept. For the first time in over five decades, Godzilla is brand new, something never seen before, without any historical precedent. It’s refreshing to see Godzilla treated in this way. When you don’t automatically know it’s a giant radioactive reptilian monster, it adds to the sense of dread and danger of it all.

Compounding the sheer terror about what Godzilla might be is the shifting appearance of the creature throughout the film. At first, Godzilla is more a meteorological phenomenon, causing floods and such. Then a gargantuan tail and spiky back appear, causing panic. When Godzilla finally makes landfall, it looks far more alien than any version we’ve seen before. Initially, you see large, googly eyes which are almost comical, but then the undulating, tadpole-like nature of the beast is revealed and it’s horrifying. Over time, Godzilla evolves into more and more dangerous forms, before eventually taking on the more traditional bipedal stance. Even in this iteration, however, Godzilla is a far more revolting abomination than it has ever been before.

The historical theme for Godzilla has always been the dangers of nuclear weapons. In Shin Godzilla, the focus shifts away from the threat of external nuclear powers. The context is clearly the Fukushima disaster from 2011. Again and again, the government is portrayed as slow and ineffective in its response to Godzilla. These same concerns have been voiced concerning the release of radioactive material from the Fukushima nuclear plant after damage from a tsunami. In Shin Godzilla, bureaucrats are indecisive when dealing with the threat of the monster, and their ineptitude costs many Japanese lives. After one particularly grueling scene, many of the “old guard” politicians are killed, leaving behind only minor officials who are even less prepared to deal with Godzilla. It’s refreshing to see these new themes being used in a Godzilla film.

downloadOne of the best things about a giant monster movie is seeing a huge creature tear up a city. In Shin Godzilla, the level of destruction is off the charts. Not only is Godzilla now bigger than any previous iteration, it has more raw power than ever before. The classic atomic breath is brilliantly realized, and both awesome and awful in its use. The new ability to shoot beams from the back spines and tail is somewhat controversial, but I felt it made sense and was executed well. There is a sense of absolute hopelessness when seeing the sheer entropic force that Godzilla has. There is a sense of an ever growing death toll, something that is often glossed over in other kaiju films. This gives the scenes of destruction much more emotional impact than you’d expect.

As far as the special effects go, Shin Godzilla easily has the best of any previous Toho film. It compares quite favorably to the 2104 Godzilla, though Shin Godzilla had but a fraction of the budget of the American film. Not once did I think “MAN IN SUIT” while watching. Suitmation was likely still used but it looked brilliant, regardless. The cinematography was quite unique, much different than the standard monster movie fare, and the soundtrack was a great balance between classic themes and modern style. It’s easily the most cinematic film in the series since the original way back in the 50s.

I simply adored Shin Godzilla, and can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a big change from previous films, for certain, but not an upsetting one. The film seems to have been a big hit, and the ending was quite ambiguous, making it likely that a sequel will eventually come. I am very excited to see what direction Toho goes in the next Godzilla film. The little kid in me just can’t wait to see this new, creepy Godzilla take on another monster, if indeed that’s the direction they go. But they might not. That’s fine too, as there are still plenty of interesting stories that could be told with just the Big G alone…

Help Us Raise Money for Sick Kids! Extra Life 2016

extralife_origFriends and Family,

When my nephew Corbin was just a couple weeks old, he got very sick and had to be taken to Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. It was a very scary time for our family, but due to the efforts of the doctors, nurses, and staff at Children’s, Corbin had successful open-heart surgery and he has been in great health ever since.

For several years now, in honor of Corbin, I have participated in a gaming marathon called Extra Life. Extra Life is a fundraiser for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Millions of dollars have been raised by Extra Life since 2008.

This year, I am doing something a bit different for Extra Life: my Pioneers students will be joining me for 12 hours of gaming! On Thursday, November 3, starting at 9:00 AM, we will begin our gaming session. Our goal is to play board games, card games, and of course video games all throughout the day, even after school! The gaming will wrap up at 9:00 PM. We are planning to webcast the gaming session live, and my students will be doing commentary and that sort of thing. Our webstream will be posted at the Pioneers website located here.

I’ve set a fundraising goal of $1000 for us. You can donate by clicking the blue Extra Life logo above. All of the money goes straight to meeting the needs of sick kids, so any little bit helps! I’m looking forward to playing some games, but the best part is doing some good for others while we play!

Thank you!