The Little Things

I have always loved pens, but it wasn’t until my mother gave me a nice pen for my highschool graduation that I realized I could buy nice pens for myself. Since then I’ve bought pens impulsively. I’ve saved up for pens. I’ve looked at pens on line and lamented the fact that I cannot afford them.

This might seem pointless, and on some level it is. But I spend a lot of time writing with pen and paper. Writing is a hobby of mine and why shouldn’t I invest in my hobby. If you can afford it there is no reason to feel bad for improving your daily experience.

I’ve always liked computer peripherals and in the past few years I’ve probably spent more money than most on them. But during this quarantine I’ve bought a full desk mat, a second mechanical keyboard, a bluetooth keyboard, and an ergonomic mouse.

On the surface all of these seem small, and they are. If you look at the big picture none of them matter. A notebook is a notebook. A pen is a pen. A keyboard is a keyboard.

None of these matter.

Unless they do.

If you have the will and the ability it is entirely worth investing in any of these. It’s easy to discount any one of these but if you use just one of them every day it’s easy to get hooked. If you use one of them every day it’s easy to justify investing.

The hard part is that once you invest you get sucked in.

If it’s pens you soon get sucked into deciding whether gel, fountain, or ballpoints suit you best. If it’s computer mice you wont stop at wires vs. wireless, you’ll start agonizing over the weight. If it’s keyboards you’re wondering about the material of the keycap, the type of switch, the travel distance, and much more. There is a lot to care about. And there are a lot more hobbies that I care about.

My point is that whatever you hobby is the little things matter. If it’s something you do for work or that you do every day it’s worth investing in. If you have to do it it’s worth enjoying.

For many these purchases seem like extravagances. They are. There is nothing wrong with not being able to afford or not wanting to chose to spend money on the newest pen or keyboard.

No matter what you want or prefer, if you like it or use it you shouldn’t feel bad investing in it. Life is short. You might as well invest in the tools that you use everyday.

A Dice Rolling and Story Writing Adventure

Writing prompts are a great way to get the creative juices flowing. Unfortunately, it’s been quite awhile since I found one that really inspired me. Instead of scouring the internet in hopes of finding one I decided I would make a few of my own with the help of Dungeons and Dragons.

You should be able to use a standard dice set to go through these. Let’s see what we create!

Genre – d6

  1. Space Opera
  2. Sword & Sandal
  3. Science Fantasy
  4. Urban Fantasy
  5. Cyberpunk
  6. Atompunk.

Place – d10

  1. Large Crowd
  2. Festival
  3. Temple
  4. Underground
  5. Ocean
  6. Ancient Forest
  7. Prison
  8. Grasslands
  9. Ruins
  10. Bank

Main Character – d8

  1. Rogue
  2. Priest
  3. Guard
  4. Prince
  5. Prisoner
  6. Mystic
  7. Soldier
  8. Healer

Objective – d20

  1. Save the Prince
  2. Get rid of a cursed necklace
  3. Hold them off
  4. Escape from the guards
  5. Get rich quick or die trying
  6. Go unnoticed
  7. Find the missing children
  8. Break through the walls
  9. Track the goblins back to their lair
  10. Sell the stolen cargo before the guards find it
  11. Make it through the tunnel alive
  12. Track down a band of thieves
  13. Find the hunter Bolland, he never came back from his trip last week.
  14. Save the Corish Ambassador from a mysterious assassin
  15. Get your friend to a doctor
  16. Evade the pirates, no way can your ship take them on alone
  17. Escape from your captors
  18. Steal the King’s crown
  19. Blackmail an important official
  20. Stage a coup

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to figure out how to write a story about a science fantasy temple healer who wants to get rich more than anything else. If I complain just remind me that I brought this on myself.

Cheng Ho Shipyards

Lately I’ve been having fun designing ships for my Red Suns setting in Affinity Designer. I admit this artwork isn’t going to win any awards, but I really love how easily vector art allows me to communicate the images I have in my head.

Lately I’ve been focusing on more mundane designs produced by the designers and engineers working at the Cheng Ho Shipyards. In a universe where humanity still largely orients itself along the old NATO vs. Soviet Lines, Cheng Ho operates its shipyards exclusively within neutral systems and will license their designs to just about anyone.

Their design philosophy is simple: affordable, robust, reliable. Cheng Ho ships are solidly built with an emphasis on minimizing both expense and crew requirements. This philosophy has led to them becoming one of the largest design firms in the settled worlds.

The six ships here are their most popular designs and can be found operating in every major star system.

Worldbuilding: Sparrows

A few weeks ago I made a post about Flicker Lamps. Magical communication devices used in the early days of exploration in my Sprawling Iron series. While they became an essential part of managing large empires they were hard to mass produce and had several properties that made security difficult. Furthermore, the could only be given to specific individuals and could not be distributed by governors as needed.

This limitation proved to be especially inconvienient when it became more important to be able to communicate with agents sent to unexplored lands or diplomats dispatched to negotiate with local governments. Eventually, sorcerers devised a new means to rapidly communicate over long distances. Sparrows.

These ceramic birds are small enough to fit in the palm of a person’s hand and infused with a minor air spirit capable of animating the clay and providing it the power of flight. A person wishing to send a message via sparrow must first hold an image of the intended recipient in their mind as well as their general location. Once they do this the sparrow will animate and the user can speak their message allowed. After the sparrow hears the message it will take flight and attempt to find the intended recipient, once it does it will repeat the spoken message and be ready to used again. In some cases, written messages and maps may also be tied to small loops on the bottom of the construct.

Sparrows are small enough that ships, armies, and individuals can carry many of them and allow regular reports to made. But they do come with some limitations.

  1. Distance – sparrows have a limited range, typically not more than a few hundred kilometers. For longer messages they are typically sent to a central administrative hub the possess a flicker lamp or telegraph office capable of passing on the message.
  2. Recipient Identity and Location – the sender must know the recipient and their general location. If either of these are incorrect the sparrow will not be able to deliver its message and will not give its message to anyone else.
  3. Message Erasure – once the message has been repeated there is no way to get the sparrow to repeat it. Recipients must be sure that they are paying attention and hope that they are in a quiet place.

To get around these limitations, many governors and administrators have at least one person on staff tasked with receiving sparrows and accurately transcribing these messages. Oftentimes they are given special quarters and offices in secluded areas to ensure that they have access to a quiet environment and are relatively free from intrusion. These sparrow handlers are often targets of bribes and even assassinations as eliminating or compromising them can disable an enemy’s communication network.

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Affinity Designer: An Amatuer’s Perspective

I have always wanted to draw. When I was little I thought I wanted to be an artist. Since then I’ve turned to science and writing, but art has long been an aspiration. I can draw some exquisite cartoon monsters but when I’m trying to worldbuild I struggle to draw the images that are in my head.

Why does this matter? Why can’t I just put the images in my head into words? Despite the cliche, a picture really is worth a thousand words, and a picture can immediately capture feelings that would take pages to describe. When I’m making notes for myself I often make quick sketches for own use that are not at all worthy of being shared publicly. So what is a writer to do?

Recently, I’ve discovered vector art, and it has been a godsend.

This spaceship was one of my early creations. Perspective is still difficult for me, as evidenced by the thrusters.

Rather than drawing every line with a stylus, you work with a series of pre-made shapes than can be combined and contorted to your liking. Your computer treats these shapes as a series of mathematical functions, which allows you to resize your work as much as you want without any pixelation. At first this doesn’t seem any more useful than PowerPoint’s shape tools. With time and a bit of imagination you’ll see what possibilities the medium offers.

For my vector art I went with Affinity Designer, a low-cost alternative to the Adobe Suite.

My first impressions of the software were a little underwhelming. What was I supposed to do with a bunch of rectangles? This simplicity is the beauty of vector art. You start with a selection of basic shapes, but you can endlessly manipulate these shapes to get whatever design you want. This makes it great for making diagrams or for people with shaky hands like me.

More than anything else, the great thing about this software and this medium, is that it makes it easy for writers and worldbuilders like me to put the images in their head on the screen in a way that you can feel comfortable sharing. You might have seen a few of my recent worldbuilding posts featuring artwork I made with Affinity Designer. Sure, they aren’t going to win any awards, but they’re clean and presentable and that’s really all I’m looking for.

This flicker lamp from my Sprawling Iron setting was made after I had a bit of practice. It’s the first in a series of magical communication devices I am making for the setting.

Beyond the few beginner-friendly tools, Affinity Designer has a plethora of tools that are a complete mystery to me. Someone with more artistic ability and the time to tinker can make some really amazing pieces of art as evidenced by countless reddit posts.

So should you try Affinity Designer? For only $50 it’s an attractive option for more casual creators who don’t want to commit to an Adobe subscription. But if that’s too much for you, there are free vector programs like Inkscape that may be worth a look. But if you have the $50, or if the software is on sale, I’d say go for it. Affinity Designer finds a good balance between price, polish, and usability. Plus it’s a lot of fun.

Worldbuilding: Flicker Lamps

Now I just need to assign meaning to the trinkets on the bookshelf…

When the nations of Oliad and Danacia began to realize their imperial ambitions they were faced with a challenge that they had never confronted before. As their colonial holdings expanded they were faced with the question of how their central authorities could quickly send directives to their scattered generals, admirals, and imperial governors. This was in the time before the invention of Sparrows and the telegraph, and neither kingdom had access to the Soul Stones used by older empires.

The solution that both nations settled on were the Flicker Lamps. These devices were made by taking a fire spirit and splitting it into many parts. Each part could then be sealed in a glass lamp and sent overseas to important governors and military commanders with at least one remaining in the homeland.

An individual with the proper training could then operate the lamp by causing it to flicker in coded patterns that would then be repeated by every other lamp in the set. This allowed messages to be quickly sent across great distances.

There were drawbacks however. The first being that they were expensive to make and required at least some sorcerous training to operate. Because of this they were typically only issues to important governors and high ranking military commanders who were responsible for passing messages on through more conventional channels.

There was also no way to send a message to just one lantern in a set. A message intended for just one person would be sent to all connected lanterns. Every set of lanterns was expensive to make and traveling with multiple lanterns, especially while on campaign was difficult. To address this most nations using these lamps created special codes that would be known only to certain lamp holders. This was not a perfect system and often led to information leaks when outdated codes were used, but it worked well enough for most communications.

With the later invention of the telegraph and Sparrows these lanterns fell out of use. But they are still kept as museum pieces and curiosities, and sometimes still employed by enthusiasts and secret societies.

This is the first bit of worldbuilding that I’ve posted in awhile. Don’t worry! I plan to post more in the coming weeks. Check out this link here if you want to see what else I’m up to. You can also follow me on twitter @expyblog!

Does the Perfect Fidget Toy Exist?

Confession time. I LOVE fidget toys. When I was a kid my mom used to to put all sorts of knick knacks in our stockings for Christmas. To this day I seem to be the only one who actually liked getting them and this minor obsession has continued to this day. For this post I searched my desk for my three most used fidget toys to try and decide which one is the best.

Our three contenders.

Tom’s Fidgets Flippy Chain

Our fist contender is admittedly underwhelming at first glance, but it’s simplicity is part of its charm. It’s a simple, repeated motion that is perfect for fidgeting when you’re on edge (if you look closely you’ll see that I broke one of the orange rubber bands during my qualifying exam). My only complaint is that sometimes the two rings get stuck and it takes a few seconds to get them back into working order. If it weren’t for this occasional stumble I’d say this chain is the perfect fidget toy.

Fidget Cubes

Our second contender should look familiar to many. Fidget cubes got very popular for awhile and for good reason. If you need to keep your hands busy they’re a great option. Each side has a different option so if you’re only allowed to own one fidget toy, this is one.

That said, there is one very important thing to remember; price matters. There’s a surprisingly large difference in quality between the $20 and $5 options. The $5 knock offs you find at walmart? They can be good, but if your first one was maybe $15 like mine was then the difference is clear. That $15 might seem like a lot but when you’re buying something with so many moving parts that quality difference matters a lot.

Lifidea Alumnium Alloy Fidget Toy

This one is simple. You have a cube, made from smaller cubes, and you break apart the big cube and continuously refold the smaller cubes back into the bigger cube. Like the Flippy Chain the movements involved are relatively simple but perfect for idle fidgeting. The only real complaint I have with this toy is how quickly the paint wears off. Admittedly the color doesn’t matter much for something like this, but it’s still nice to have a set of desk toys with the paint still attached.

The Winner

So which toy wins?

It’s a tough answer for such a simple question. If I had to choose I would say the Ligidea Alumnium toy. It has a nice repeated motion that doesn’t get fouled up like the chain does, and any shortcomings in quality are not as obvious as they might be in knock off fidget cubes.

So if you just have to buy one, buy either the Lifidea Alumnium toy or the authentic fidget cube. Or buy all of them. The more people who are buying these things the more options will be available for anxious graduate students like me.

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