Monday, September 23, 2013

That Time Of Year

Well, we had a good run.

We got onto the Vitamin D supplement thing, and this winter, the kids had a great run. Not so much as a cough or a sniffle. All the way into early spring, clear as clear could be.

But with one thing and another, somehow Nat and I fumbled the ball, and we forgot to keep reminding the kids about the Vitamin D. Meanwhile, a particularly nasty brute of an URTI smashed into the schools.

Last week was shitty enough. The Mau-Mau went down on Friday with a fever. Not life-threatening, no, but persistent. It didn't respond particularly to either ibuprofen or paracetamol. And it just sucked the energy out of her. All Friday, she mostly lay in bed. Same on Saturday, after Nat had to leave for Brizneyland. Same again Sunday.

Sweat-soaked sheets. Her room reeked. I changed her bedding twice in two days.

Monday the fevers were intermittent. I had to take the boys to school, so the Mau-Mau came with me and she lay on the couch at the place in Launceston while I tried to work. Same again Tuesday.

The fevers stopped sometime Tuesday night, but by then she was so full of snot and mucous that she couldn't sleep, and when she did, she'd wake up and vomit. A quarter to three in the morning: I got up and changed her bedding and her pyjamas again, because she'd puked up a mess of slime. She was distraught. It took me ages to comfort her and put her back to sleep.

Wednesday nobody went to school. I wasn't taking the Mau-Mau on a forty-minute car ride over a winding mountain range in the driving rain and fog. Fuck it.

Thursday and Friday she improved incrementally. More interested in food. No fevers. Still the oceans of snot, though.

Today is Monday. (I think. I'm pretty tired.) As of yesterday, Genghis has been running an ugly fever that doesn't respond to ibuprofen or paracetamol. At least he's not sweating his sheets soggy. He's got a sore throat and a cough, but no sign yet of puking. I'm glad of that much, anyway.

Meanwhile, Jake has the cough and the sore throat and the headaches, although he doesn't seem to be getting the fever. Yet.

Natalie just told me she's got a sore throat.

At this point, I'm still fine. One has to wonder how long that will last.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. -- George Santayana

Some time in the dim dark ages of the 70s, there was an ugly election in Afghanistan, and the government that resulted therefrom wound up "calling in Soviet help". Without looking up details, my recollection -- as a child of about twelve -- has it that essentially, the Soviets manipulated events to provide them with a pretext to invade Afghanistan.

Why? Well, you know. Everybody else has done it at some time or another. So why not? Anyway, the why of the matter isn't germane. What you need to know is that for the next ten years or so, Afghans and their allies who didn't much like being part of the USSR put up some very seriously stiff resistance. The irregular fighters who opposed the Soviets were called "Mujahadeen" (or variations on that spelling) and were lauded as heroes in the Western media. 

Alongside the Mujahadeen were the Taliban, a religious group nobody seemed to know much about. But the Taliban were very effective in kicking Russki Buttski, so the media wrote them up as good guys too, and largely ignored the utter hell that followed in the Taliban's wake.

During this period, the Russians and Americans weren't good buddies. (Stop me if I'm going too fast, okay?) But with both sides having a lot of nuclear sunshine tucked away, ready to bring out if anybody started to fling the poo-poo, neither was willing to directly confront the other. And thus, both the Soviets and the Yanks did a lot of surreptitious supporting of various militia groups around the world.

So: the CIA thought the Mujahadeen were a bunch of Righteous Dudes, and they flung a lot of money, training, and rather expensive and advanced missile hardware at them. They were fighting the Russkis, right? They must be good guys, right?

Imagine everybody's surprise in 2001, a decade or more after the whole USSR-in-Afghanistan thing was just a memory, when a cluster of civilian aircraft were used to wipe out the World Trade Centre in New York. And who was behind that? Oh -- that would be Osama Bin Laden, one of the men who also supplied and trained and supported those self-same Mujahadeen fighters the CIA had been backing. 

When the smoke from the WTC cleared and the Yanks were ready to look around and find someone to invade, what was their first port of call? Why, it was Afghanistan! Apparently, pouring money and training and military hardware into the hands of a bunch of hardcore militia fighters isn't the way to build a modern democratic nation! Who knew, eh? I mean -- who would have thought those Mujahadeen and their Taliban buddies would be so ungrateful that they'd let Osama and his people live and work and train and plan in the wilds of Afghanistan. 

Who'd have imagined that a bit of sneaky (Russian) bear-baiting could turn into the defining political force of the first quarter of the new century? Who would have imagined that cosying up to a bunch of bearded religious fascists could lead to multiple invasions and wars, unthinkable expenditure of money and materiel, the destruction of American civil society, debate and civil rights, and the propagation of terror and oppression across the globe? 

Jeez. That was a mistake, eh? We won't do that again in a hurry, will we?

Except that there's this country. It's called Syria. And the Russians are backing the current government, under a guy called Assad, but there are a lot of people who don't like him, and there's a civil war going on. Mind you, the people fighting Assad aren't just Syrians, no. A lot of them are career jihadists, Muslim fanatic fighters linked to Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. 

So, what does President Obama do? 

Why, he nullifies a US law against supplying arms to terrorist organisations so that the US can provide money, munitions, materiel and training to the Syrian "rebels". Pretty much the way they did to the jihadis back in Afghanistan thirty years ago.

Fuck. Me. Sideways.

Somebody, anybody -- please get me the fuck off this planet before the inevitable shitstorm apocalypse of stupidity kills us all.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Cool Tools: Zulupad Is Fucking Brilliant

Every now and again I run across a chunk of software which is just so damned clever and useful that I latch onto it, and keep it for years. I still do a lot of drafting in a thing called Yeah Write, for example. Reason being that it's the only word processor I've ever seen in which the user interface is deliberately designed to look like, and work like, a filing cabinet. Of course, Yeah Write is also small, clever, neat-looking, robust and reliable -- but seriously, have you got any idea just how good it is to have your own virtual filing cabinet to keep all your ideas and shit?

Still, Yeah Write isn't today's gem. As a matter of fact, I came here to talk about a thing called Zulupad.

Zulupad is fucking brilliant.

Essentially, it's a programme that creates self-contained wiki documents. The maker(s) describe it as "a notepad on steroids". It's a beautifully simple concept. You open a new document, and the first thing it does is create an index page. Write whatever the hell you want there. But here's the good bit. Pick anything you've written. Select it with the mouse. Tell Zulupad to "link" it -- and instantly, it becomes a hyperlink, creating a brand new page based on that link.

Suppose you're writing a book. On the index page, you start listing scenes, characters, locations -- anything. One of your characters is called "Karen Proctor". So you select that name, and you make a link. Immediately, Zulupad creates a new "Karen Proctor" page, and you can write anything you want on that page. Not only that, but wherever you go in the document thereafter, any and every time you write "Karen Proctor" the text will instantly become a hyperlink connected to that page.

Get it? Continuity. I don't know about you, but over the course of a novel, I tend to have difficulties recalling little details about minor characters. But if every time I write the character's name it instantly becomes a link to a page telling me every detail I want to know... hey. That works. That works well.

Then there's the planning of larger projects. Young Genghis is doing a science paper. I put the basic Zulupad programme on his computer (the basic version is free. The pro version costs all of $15) and made an index page for him: Abstract, Introduction, Materials & Methods, etc. Each one of those headings I made into a hyperlink, and on each new page created, I wrote a single sentence explaining what was expected of him.

Before I did this, he was hesitant. Afterwards? He's happier than a pig in shit. And of course, he's making links for all his subjects and his ideas and everything else. The whole paper is coming together.

Now, those of you who write anything lengthy will immediately understand why this is an exciting bit of gear. But let me go a bit farther, and point out that with the pro version you can incorporate images and the like, and you can even save the whole damned zulu wiki as an HTML file. Turn it into a web page, or open it in something like Open Office Writer to print it as a full-length document. Sure, it won't have the whole WYSIWYG desktop publishing look -- but it's so easy to organise your ideas and your information! You can add the layout, the bells and whistles, all of that stuff you can add later.

One final note. Back when I was doing a lot of Game Master stuff for various role-playing games, I would have fucking killed for this little bit of software.

Imagine: you're setting up an adventure/module for the players. You've got a few maps, some images, and a shitload of characters and notes. How fucking good does Zulupad look now?

Put your main map up on a Zulu page as an image. Underneath it, write your outline. List the characters. List the salient points on the map. Make a link out of each and every one.

Now when the characters say "We enter the Old Barn. What's inside?" you don't shuffle through your notes. You just fucking click on the "Old Barn" link, and there it is: all your notes describing the building, the interior, and anything, everything to be found. Not only that, but any significant characters or items therein will appear as hyperlinks. Click on them, and you instantly get the information.

Seriously: I would have happily massacred somebody to get my hands on this back in my gaming days. And now?

Well, I know a lot of people who like to lay out the outlines of novels or scripts by using a big sheet of paper or a corkboard, and a bunch of pushpins and file cards.

Fuck. That. Primitive. Shit.

I've got something faster, easier, and more adaptable.

One more point: when I hit the Zulupad website and tried to buy a Pro version, Paypal spat the dummy. I couldn't manage to get a payment through. I'm still not sure why. But by that time, Elder Son was planning his Education/Extension project with Zulupad Free. And Younger Son was working on his science paper using the same -- so I thought I'd send an email to the maker of the programme, and ask him if there was another way I could get hold of Zulupad Pro.

The man behind the software is a chap called Tom Gersic. He got back to me within forty-eight hours, and provided me with an alternative download.

I am extremely grateful, and highly impressed by his willingness to help out a simple punter. Zulupad is fucking brilliant, yeah -- but Tom Gersic seems like a pretty decent kind of person too.

Thus, my fellow writing-type individuals, I urge you to consider Zulupad. It's small, fast, reliable, efficient -- and it's going into my personal arsenal of tools, where I expect it will do me no end of good.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Your Mileage May Vary: My First Response To "True Blood"

Quite some time ago, I picked up a Charlaine Harris book to read on a flight. I did it because everybody was talking about her "Sookie Stackhouse" books, and the tv series True Blood which grew therefrom.

I admit it. I was hoping to enjoy what I read.

I didn't, though. I found Harris' writing pedestrian and predictable, and the main character -- Sookie Stackhouse -- felt like a prizewinning "mary sue". The book was eminently forgettable, and I promptly did my best to forget it. (As an aside: Tansy Rayner-Roberts "Nancy Napoleon" stories are much, much more interesting and entertaining, if you like Para/Rom. You can get 'em from Twelfth Planet Press.)

Of course, that definitely didn't preclude the possibility that True Blood was good TV. And I've got a lot of friends who swear by it. Well, hell -- I mean, the Hamish Macbeth TV series with Robert Carlyle was delightful, while the series of books that inspired it was... actually, pretty awful.

So today, there I was grinding away on the rowing machine. You want boring? Rowing machines are boring. Boring as a... really, really boring thing. A wimble. Yeah. Rowing machines are as boring as a wimble. And once you look up "wimble", you'll see that's rather boring indeed.

To combat the boredom, I usually run a DVD on a little player while I row. Turn it up, set the subtitles, and I'm good to go. Hell, it's the only way I'm going to catch up on the TV everybody else watches anyhow, right? Well, yesterday I finished Inglorious Basterds, and so I thought: fine. Here's the time I start in on True Blood.

First Season. Episode One: in the machine, and away we go.

Well, crap. Maybe it's just 'cos I was rowing, you know? But I don't think so. I think Ep One of TB stinks.

It kicks off with a lot of lowest-common-denominator sex/death imagery. And while I like the possibilities inherent in 'vampire rights' and Deep South redneckery with vampires tossed in... I didn't get much of interest.

Poor bloody Anna Paquin. If they'd pulled her Sookie Stackhouse pony tail any fucking tighter, her face would likely have split right down the centre. And the character's still a goddam Mary Sue. Don't believe me? Try this site here: Avoiding Mary Sue.

There's lots of sites like this, by the way. This was just the first one I happened to grab through Google. But you'll note the first six warning signs are all right there: the unusually attractive woman masquerading as the 'plain jane'. (It's Anna Paquin. Dress her as a waitress, fine. Scrape her hair back until her face explodes. Fine. She's still Anna Paquin, and no amount of heavy-handed hints dropped about her lack of sex life can change that.)

Then there's the Mysterious Powers: she's a telepath, for some reason. Read's everybody's mind. Oh, but not the mind of the Dark and Mysterious Bill the Vampire. Okay, points for naming him 'Bill', but for fuck's sake: yet another broodingly handsome, dark but pale vampire staring intensely at the heroine (and believe me, if the staring got any more intense in this, poor Bill would likely wind up permanently cross-eyed)

Oh, and of course there's the 'everybody loves her' thing. We find out that her boss is wildly (secretly) in love with her, but can't bring himself to announce it. And of course, Mister Intensity the Vampire finds her fascinating. Of course, to be fair she does initially rescue him from some rednecks who want to drain his blood (apparently it works like a drug on humans?) but that really just leads us to the next Mary Sue point -- the bit where she's heroically rescuing the shit out of people all over the place.

No prophecy (yet) of course. And we don't know yet if her past is tragic and angsty. But the bit where she's every so nice and perfect and two-dimensional... that's all over the screen, baby.

So, there it is. End of episode one, and I was pretty damned happy when the redneck blood-draining types caught Mary-Sookie off guard and started kicking the shit out of her. I'm hoping that's a sign of things to come -- but I suspect quite strongly it simply points to a rescue courtesy of Mister Intense Stares early in episode two.

I own all of Season One. Given the "must see" status so many of my friends have pinned to this series, I will watch all that I have. (Why not? I watched the 1992 Captain America the other day while exercising. It was moderately hilarious, though entirely unintentional in its comedic goofiness.)

But: unless the writing improves significantly, I will absolutely not not bother with Season Two. I don't actually care whose tits they throw at the screen. If I want screen-boobs, there's way more than anyone could ever use on the Internet. I want interesting characters who aren't dull stereotypes (redneck drugpuppies; sassy black gay guys... yeah, you know who I'm talking about).

Oh, and for fuck's sake -- somebody should tell poor Anna to stop gurning. Maybe it's the scant material they've given her in this episode (she has to be Instantly Fascinated by Mister Intense Stare -- and that's her motivation for... ummm... most of it. Which, let's face it, is pathetic) but she seems to have adopted the Nicholas Cage approach to acting in finding her inner Sookie.

Oh, and in other news: the Australian electorate was predictably stupid today, and Rupert Murdoch must be a moderately happy old fart.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Spring: On The Dot

No waiting around this year. Spring rolled up and announced itself, loud and proud, on September 1st. We'd had a little warm weather prior, but nothing unusual for this time of year. Nevertheless, yesterday the sun was out, the air turned warm, the skies cleared, and it was beach weather.

Well, for Tasmania, anyhow.

I had a pretty good Father's Day, for all that it was a confused affair starting on Saturday with kids too impatient and eager to wait. The best bit was the evening. We had Scream, Blacula, Scream! and the original 1958 The Blob all cued up, ready to go. I made a huge pot of nasi goreng, and the Baggins girls showed up, as well as one of the Branch lads, and we hung out watching exceptionally dire cinema, and playing games of Bell-Bottomed Bad-Asses on the Mean Streets of Funk.

Apparently, I haven't actually matured a great deal since share-housing days at university. Oh, sure, I've acquired a certain patina of responsibility and all that good shit, but left to myself, what do I do for fun? Neck a couple of beers, watch trashy movies and play ludicrous games with friends.

And it was a great night, thank you very much. Bell-bottomed etc is a card game; part of a series of card games from Z-Man Games in which you try to build a particularly crappy, generic movie while simultaneously preventing everybody else from putting their film together. Bell-bottom etc reflects the '70s exploitation flicks, making it particularly appropriate for an evening involving one of the Blacula movies. However, I suspect my favourite from the series is Kung Fu Samurai on Giant Robot Island, and we also one Scurvy Musketeers of the Spanish Main.

I managed to win the first round. The title we had to work with was "Sweet Lead Death: The Return of Lethal Sex". (You generate movie titles at the start of the game, using the cards. It's not complicated. But it is silly.) My winning film turned out to be about a Fence (the criminal type) who made a big score and fled to a moon-base, where he waited pensively and alone, hallucinating that there were people chasing him. (I think it must have been one of those fucking awful French experimental flicks from the early 70s).

The films didn't work all that well. We made it through The Blob, although the DVD player started acting up, but Scream, Blacula, Scream simply wouldn't play all the way through, no matter what magic I tried. It's possible I may never know exactly what happens between the new Voodoo priestess and Prince Mamuwalde, the accursed Blacula. Nor will I be likely to discover why Blacula was supposed to be screaming so much. To be fair, I'm okay with not knowing. It was more fun watching the film and trying to identify characters and situations that are portrayed in Bell-bottom, etc.

I managed to dodge the almost-inevitable Father's Day Breakfast In Bed. I hauled myself out of the bed at 0830, a full hour and a half after my usual time of arising, but the late night had slowed the boys up considerably. I came down the stairs to discover Genghis in the process of making me some toast. He scolded me for getting up before my B.I.B, but went on to present me with a kind of conceptual Father's Day Breakfast: a single piece of toast with the words "Happy Father's Day" written on it in squeezeable vanilla icing from a tube. I wasn't expected to eat it: just appreciate it.

I love that kid's sense of humour, so I duly appreciated my conceptual breakfast. Then I had a banana and some avocado on toast.

Which looks a little scant, doesn't it? But that's as it should be. I have negotiated a promise with Nat: if I get down to 100kg, I can find myself a really groovy Long Coat.

I do want myself a decent coat. Ergo: banana and some avocado for breakfast. And this post is by way of reminder to myself...

...right. That's about it.  I have work to do.