I Submitted My Writing!

(And I won a prize)

It’s been a goal of mine for a long time to submit a piece of my writing to something. I did try a flash fiction contest with little luck, but the contest that I’ve really had in mind for the past three years has been an annual writing contest held by the school of humanities at my university.

Every year, students are invited to submit works of poetry, fiction/drama, or non-fiction. There are three potential winners in each category, although the judges reserve the right to not award any prizes in a particular category. Graduate and undergraduate students also compete separately, so in a way, there are actually six winners per category.

Anyway, I’ve been telling myself I would enter this contest ever since I started graduate school here three years ago. Every year so far, I’ve either forgotten, or I’ve felt that I didn’t have anything worthy of submission. This year, however, was different. A friend reminded me about the award, and I set about polishing a pair of short stories that I had been working on for a while (contests are allowed two submissions per category).

So I did it. I polished both stories, and I hit the submit button. Then I spent about three weeks frantically checking my email.

To be honest, I felt that my chances of winning something were pretty good. It still felt great when I got second place. It was amazing.

The past several years I have grown a lot more comfortable with sharing my work. I’ve even gotten to the point where I am honestly proud of my work. Still, it’s great, fantastic even, to have this kind of affirmation.

Anyway, I won second place in Graduate fiction. I was over the moon. The story that won was “Einherjar” it’s the second entry into an anthology that I’m writing titled “Tales from the Golden Fleece Inn.”

I am actually very proud of what I have done with this series so far. By focusing on vignettes, I really feel like I’ve managed to bring these characters to life. Honestly, I have focused more on the banter than the plot, but I am happy with the result.

The moral of this story is to submit. Don’t be afraid of putting yourself out there. The more you do it the better it will get.

And if you want to read the story that won second place you can find it here.

Organized Labor and its Lessons for Fiction

For the past several weeks, commentators and labor activists have been waiting to see how the union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama would turn out. We’ve heard for several years about the working conditions inside Amazon facilities, and the pandemic only brought more attention to the situations that warehouse workers have to deal with. It really shouldn’t be surprising that Amazon employees would start to unionize. I also don’t think it was a surprise that this effort was voted down.

Except for a few groups like police unions, I think labor organization can only be a good thing. Wealth inequality is a big problem on both an individual and societal level. Anything that urges people to advocate for their own well-being and community is a good thing. 

​I also think that this outcome carries with it a lot of lessons. Union leaders are already talking about how they intend to change their strategy in the future with a new emphasis on public relations and national-level campaigns instead of local votes and agitation.

I’ve written before about what I believe the purpose of small businesses should be, but as a writer and worldbuilder, I see a lot of lessons to take from this. As much as many “centrists” and commentators on the right like to complain about politics in television and video games, it needs to be remembered that art is inherently political in all its forms. The creator’s beliefs are bound to find their way into the finished product, even if they did not mean to do so when they first started.

I myself prefer to design settings that are roughly analogous to our world’s 19th and 20th centuries, and if they aren’t directly analogous, there is still a heavy influence.

I tend to do this because I have always had a fondness for steampunk and dieselpunk and gunpowder fantasy. Classic sword and sorcery are still fun, but I like to see fantasy tropes played out in a more modern context and to put characters in environments of intense chance. The industrial revolution generated huge amounts of wealth for the upper class, allowed cities to grow, and pushed workers to organize. Old class systems declined in prominence. New ones rose to take their place. Established oligarchs fought to keep their positions while the lower classes fought to bring them down or replace them. And of course, as we see time and time again, every time a Republican is elected to office, common people can be convinced that their oppressors are their friends.

I am especially interested in this right now because it just so happens that labor unions are a major part of my current WIP. In it, the Whalvian Empire is going through a period of political and economic turmoil after its victory over several of its neighbors. My protagonist is put into a position where many in his company town have decided to unionize. He is torn between his desire for safety and stability and his sympathies for his fellow workers. Reading these articles has already given me a lot of new thoughts about what kind of internal conflicts and pressures our fictional characters might have to wrestle with.

What does the public think of unions?

Unions in America are weak. Many of the things we enjoy today are thanks to unions, but public support has fluctuated over the last fifty years. Fewer people are members of a union or know someone is. Negative biases and misconceptions need to be overcome by organizers both among workers and the general public.

Do the workers feel like the union understands their concerns?

One thing that stood out to me in one NYT article was a quote from a Black woman working in Amazon’s warehouse. She said that the union reps tried to connect Black Lives Matter to their labor organizing efforts. This individual said that they did not feel that racism was a concern in their workplace. Obviously, one anecdote does not give us a full picture of what the working environment is like with respect to race. However, effective campaigning relies on figuring out what potential supporters are concerned about and focusing on how that can be addressed. People are much less likely to care about fixing problems that don’t seem relevant to them.

Do workers feel like they have something to gain?

I was glad to see that workers were taking steps to unionize, but I’m was not surprised to see it voted down. There is a lot that could be done to improve the conditions inside Amazon warehouses, but the pay and benefits that come with working with them are superior to those offered by other employers in Alabama.

In the United States, the days of hiring armed Pinkertons to deal with strikers are long gone, but that doesn’t mean workers who attempt to unionize are not putting themselves at risk. There are basically no protections for workers who are working to organize. If those workers feel like they are already better off than their neighbors, then it’s unlikely they will want to put their job security at risk.

Are workers being told the truth about unions?

Employers have a key advantage. They can require employees to sit through “info sessions” about why unions are bad. They can make employees fear for their jobs. And depending on the employee, this may all reinforce preexisting biases.

Does the government protect workers?

In the wake of this defeat, unions are already talking about adopting a new strategy that focuses on high-profile endorsements and a public relations campaign to influence policy creation. I think this is a good choice. There are a lot of misconceptions about unions, and while I support workers unionizing, we as a country really need to do more to establish an acceptable baseline for workers.

But what does this have to do with speculative fiction? Why don’t you get off your soap box?

Okay, fair. I just spilled a lot of ink to share my own thoughts about current events, but that is because it’s a conversation worth having and because an artist’s environment will influence their art.

And it should influence their art. I generally dislike overanalyzing books in search of deeper meaning, but I think the context of the author’s beliefs can still add a lot to a reader’s understanding. I also think that pitting characters against relatable challenges makes the experience more meaningful for the reader.

A world of wizards and mind control and other fantasy elements would make the experience of workers and striking workers very different. But in the end, people just want a few things. They want safety for themselves and their families. They want to be able to put food on the table. And they (should) want to build a better future for their children.

Real-world events lack the allure of fantasy but trying to understand them yields dividends in inspiration. Fiction changes minds and writers have a big role to play in shaping public opinion.

Animals That Should Have Been Domesticated

Creating fictional animals is hard, but there is another way. Instead of inventing your own animals, just use animals that are dead.

And no, I don’t mean the dead cat that you saw run over in the road. I’m talking about the world’s megafauna. The massive animals that once roamed this world and are now long gone. I know I’m not the only one who has ever looked at a picture of one of those beasts and thought “I wish I could pet that.”

When I see one of those pictures I see a lost opportunity. I see a creature that could have lived alongside humans. Horses and dogs and cats are great, I love them. They have their place in fantasy and I don’t think that they can be replaces. At the same time, why create new fantastic creatures when we can draw on Earth’s past? So here are three extinct animals that I think would have been really cool to have as pets.

Ground Sloths

Modern sloths are cool but I am not sure what they could be used for

Listen, I know that sloths seem useless now. Cute, but useless. But I really think that they are capable of great things. Imagine those claws! Imagine that size! I’m not imagining these things as a mount (but they could be) but imagine how useful those claws would be for diggin or pulling our tree stumps, or how the giant sloths could help to carry heavy loads. A traveling merchant with a ground sloth would be really cool.

Saber Tooth Tigers

I wonder if those teeth could be turned into knives…. Photo from Wikipedia

The decline of megafauna is often linked to the spread of humanity because we tend to kill everything. One thing that may have suffered from the decline of megafauna is the the saber tooth tiger that hunted them.

Now I know, a big cat with teeth that big can be scary, but imagine if we befriended them. They were suited to hunting big things, we were (are) suited to hunting everything. That doesn’t mean we don’t need help. Sure, dogs are great, maybe the greatest, but imagine a giant house cat with giant fangs charging towards your enemy. That beats any dog.

Woolly Rhinos

I’m just saying, one of these would be way scarier than a horse.

Everyone loves a rhino. If you’re like me as a child you only got to learn about the rhinoceroses that are native to far off lands. You might also have been upset to learn that we used to have an animal as ubiquitous as the woolly rhino right here in North America.

If bread in sufficient numbers these animals would have been so much better than horses. They come with horns! Just imagine for a second the rohirrim mounted on rhinos charging into ranks of unprepared orcs.

What extinct animals do you wish were still around today? Let me know in the comments!

If you like content like this and want access to exclusive updates make sure you subscribe to my newsletter. Sign up before 4/15/2021 and you’ll be entered in a giveaway. And don’t forget to check out other posts, like my recent review of the Drop Alt.

Five Months with the Drop Alt

There are a lot of mechanical keyboards out there. Many of them are “for gamers,” and you can find a keyboard with that gamer aesthetic for under $100. However, if you start looking for enthusiast keyboards, the prices can quickly get into hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Why are these so expensive? It’s really a matter of supply and demand. Enthusiast mechanical keyboards are a niche market. Many designs are either made by small companies or by enthusiasts. Many of these kits also need to be assembled by the user. The selection and soldering of components can take a lot of time, knowledge, and tools. So if you have a few thousand dollars you can pay someone to build it for you.

Luckily, as the hobby gains steam, there are more and more options for people who want to dip their toes in the mechanical keyboard ocean. One of these options is the Drop Alt.

What is the Alt?

The Drop Alt is a hot-swappable mechanical keyboard, which means that the switches can be added and taken away without soldering. They just pop into place. As soon as I learned this, I was sold, I ordered the high-profile version without switches, but a low-profile variant is available as well.

Once I had the board picked out I went with switches. I knew I wanted linear switches, switches that press down without a built in “clicky” sound of a tactile bump. I settled on the Gateron reds. These switches were great, but I eventually swapped them out for Gateron blacks. This was just due to personal preference, I knew by this point that I like linear switches but I wanted a switch with more actuation force. This is the great thing about the board being hot-swappable. If you aren’t sure what kind of switch you like you can try another.

The keycaps I picked out were the the Drop + Matt3o MT3 /dev /tty keycap set.

I picked these out because I liked the color scheme and I have been extremely happy with them. The PBT plastic that they are made of is durable and the keycaps themselves are nicely contoured for comfort during extended writing sessions.

Mods

One thing I knew going into this is that some enthusiasts have complains about the sounds that some of the keys on the Alt make. Most of these issues relate to the stabalizers, the metal bars that help hold larger keys like shift and enter steady. They default stabalizers on the Alt have been known to rattle. Now, this may or may not bother you, but eventually, it started to bother me, and so I decided to make a few modifications.

The first thing I did was lube all of the stabilizers so that they would move more smoothly. I used a small paintbrush and some Teflon grease I keep around for my trombone slide, but many recommended some kind of krytox grease.

Then I did the bandaid mod. This was considerably more annoying to do, so I only did it on the space bar, which was the one that still annoyed me the most when I was done lubing the stabilizers. The bandaid mod is simple. All you do is cut the pads off of a couple of bandaids and place them between the base of the stabilizers and the circuit board to cushion the stabilizer’s impact against the circuit board when you type.

These mods might sound complex, but they really aren’t. I just made them difficult because I did them impulsively and didn’t really think about what my plan was before I started.

Is the Drop Alt Worth Buying?

In my opinion, absolutely. I wanted an excellent keyboard, one that I could customize to my liking and occasionally tinker with. I was not disappointed. If you don’t want to dip your toes into assembling your keyboard, you might be interested in something like the RK61, but I whole heartily recommend the drop alt.

Buy the Alt if you want:

  • To experiment with different types of switches.
  • To customize your typing experience without a soldering iron.
  • To have a quality mechanical keyboard that you will likely enjoy for years to come.
  • To have something that you can both enjoy and occasionally tinker with.

If you go with the high-profile variant I recommend getting some kind of wrist rest as well to enhance your typing experience.

Three Titles that Prove Academics Do Have A Sense of Humor

Even for academics, it’s easy to assume that academic publications and conferences have to be dry, stuffy affairs where everyone pretends not to be bored out of their minds. In many cases, this is true. Fun and passion are thrown to the wayside and replaced with “formality” and “professionalism.” Luckily for us, there exists an elite cadre of academics who try to inject some fun into their work.

Now I realize that some older academics dislike this disregard for decorum, but I think that it’s a good thing. For two reasons.

  1. Fun titles grab a reader’s attention.
  2. Many people pursue advanced degrees out of a passion for the field. There’s no reason that passion can’t be put on display.

So let’s all take a moment to appreciate these three wonderful academic paper titles.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Flow Chemistry

I’ll be straight with you. This is not the only review paper titled “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to ___” that you can find. But it is the first one that I have come across. Other papers following this theme include subjects such as virology and particle imaging.

I like this so much because these are all review articles. Articles meant to describe the state-of-the-art and serve as an introduction to the important work being done in a particular field. Someone trying to familiarize themselves with a new field will read these reviews first. And familiarizing yourself with a new field is hard. That’s why I like these titles so much. It’s the equivalent of the authors offering novices in the field a kind reassurance of “DONT PANIC.”

Rocks are heavy: transport costs and Poaleoarchaic quarry behavior in the Great Basin.

I learned about this paper just the other day while listening to Tides of History. In short, rocks are heavy and because their weight influences how they are prepared at the quarry before being taken to their destination. If home is far away, more work will be done on the rocks at the quarry to reduce their weight. It’s a great reminder of how important practical and seemingly mundane concerns have shaped human history.

Will Any Crap We Put On Graphene Increase Its Electrocatalytic Effect?

This article is a perspective. It’s similar to an op-ed in many ways. The authors did collect data to help make their argument, but the article is in many ways an opinion. In this case, their opinions concern graphene.

Graphene is an allotrope of carbon and is a popular thing to study these days. What makes graphene so interesting is its electrical conductivity. By adding other elements to graphene, a process known as doping, scientists can change these conductive properties. Doped graphenes are frequently studied for use as catalysts.

The authors of this paper basically argue that just about any element appears to increase the electrocatalytic efficiency of graphene and that many researchers who publish these results are looking to increase their publication count rather than contribute to their field. In order to make this point, the authors took bird droppings, added them to graphene, and observed an increase in its electrocatalytic effect.

I love this article. You can almost taste how salty the authors are.

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Win A Free Mug

I love coffee. I love mugs. I have far too many mugs. That shouldn’t be a surprise though, writers are basically required to own too many mugs and drink far too much coffee. Coffee is to writers what ants are to anteaters.

To celebrate the sacred bond between writers and their coffee, I have decided to hold a giveaway.

How do you sign up for this giveaway? It’s simple! Just sign up for my newsletter by April 15th. On April 16th, I will select one person on the mailing list at random, and they will receive one of these mugs. Whichever mug they want, in fact.

Just make sure that you remember to check your spam filter for the confirmation email. Only people who are fully signed up for the newsletter will be eligible to win.

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  • Only the mugs listed in the post “You Need These Mugs” will be considered as prizes.
  • My family and significant other are not eligible to win.
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Magic Systems: Soft Versus Hard

crop female future teller with tarot cards on table
Photo by Lucas Pezeta on Pexels.com

Everyone wants to be a wizard, right? You know, the squishy caster who cowers at the back of the party and throws fireballs through every open door?

Magic is at the heart of the fantasy genre, so it’s no surprise that writers and worldbuilders spent a lot of time designing their magic systems. It’s hard.

Designing a magic system is all about finding a balance between power and plot. The magic should empower characters and in some cases it may even resolve conflicts, or cause them.

The hardest part of designing a magic system is making it feel like it’s an integral part of the world. Magic is more than just a tool, in a world where magic exists it would become an integral part of religion, culture, maybe even science.

There are many, many varieties of magic you could make for your world. But one of the first things you should decide is whether you want a soft magic system or a hard magic system.

Soft Magic Systems

Soft magic is, well, magical. Soft magic systems have few defined rules and may not have formal spells. A practitioner of soft magic might be Gandalf for example. We know Gandalf is incredibly powerful, but we don’t really know what his limits are. Much of this is because he uses magic rarely, but you get the idea.

A soft magic system might draw power from creativity, psychic energy, or feelings. The limits of the caster may be defined by their physical or mental stamina. Soft magic systems are best for settings where the magic may be rare. In order to preserve the suspension of disbelief, a small number of practitioners who appear rarely or use their power sparingly. Otherwise the magic becomes a crutch and the audience will begin to lose interest.

Hard Magic Systems

Hard magic is hard because it has hard, defined rules. You could think of these magic systems as a bunch of “if then statements.” For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn features practitioners who know that if they consume x metal they will gain y power.

Hard magic systems are great for settings where magic is common and will be used frequently. Set rules let your audience know what to expect, but they don’t have to be boring. Let’s say you magic has five core rules and each of these rules is used by most characters in just one way. This doesn’t mean your characters are limited to just five spells. New uses for magic can be interest by new combinations or applications of these five rules.

Which One Is Better?

I tend to prefer soft magic systems myself. I’m a big fan of The Force and of the magic of the Farsala Trilogy. But that doesn’t mean soft magic systems are the best. Hard magic can also be incredibly interesting. Just because magic has defined rules does not mean that it can’t be “mystical.” Rules don’t have to be explicitely shown to your audience. If your magic is consistent your audience will begin to pickup on what the rules are. In this case the rules are more for your own use to make sure that you do not get carried out.

In the end, whether you should go with a hard or soft system depends on your story and your story’s needs. How common do you want magic to be? How powerful? Who uses it? What is it good for?

What’s the best magic system you’ve seen? What was so great about it? Let me know in the comments below!

You Need These Mugs

I have too many mugs and now I’m looking at more. Because I am suffering and my wallet will soon suffer I’ve decided that you all have to suffer too.

There will also be a lot of amazon affiliate links here, so by suffering yourself and buying a few mugs you will be helping me to un-suffer. Thanks in advance.

Stardew Valley Coffee Mug

If you’ve ever played Stardew Valley then you know how important it is to keep your energy up while you’re working in the fields. I’ve always thought that some of the things, like eating flowers to get energy, is a little weird. But coffee, now that’s REALISM.

Lego Coffee Mug

I love Lego, and I love mugs, so this one seems like one I need to have. I am a little curious how it holds up to the heat, but it would still have a good display piece. Plus I could use all my spare pieces.

This Is The Way

I know its official name is now Grogu, but he will always be Baby Yoda in my heart. I can imagine Grogu guzzling a gallon of coffee when Mando isn’t looking.

Pour Your Coffee Pot Into A Smaller Coffee Pot

It’s pot-ception! Although this listing makes me wonder if someone could make a lid that makes drinking from coffee pots possible. Is this an untapped segment of the market? Possibly.

Check Out This Mathy Mug

I don’t get some of these references, but I’m not an engineer. I do like to make fun of engineers though. Mainly because they can make more money with a bachelors than I will be able to make with a PhD. It’s okay though, I’m not bitter or anything. Unlike coffee.

I Donut Care

A good pun is like good whiskey. It burns, but it burns SO GOOD. Donuts are the same way. Except it does the opposite of burn, because you’re gaining calories as you eat them.

Bitch Better Have My Bells

Like Tom Nook, I love money. So if you buy this mug, you’ll help me get money.

Planet_Insert Name

I’ve been working on a new setting. It’s a grimdark science fantasy setting inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune. I will not offer specifics at this time.

But I have had ideas for a planet. A planet that is relatively young and dominated by volcanoes and magma flows. This planet is called Corsan.

The humans on this planet care most about the valuable ores that are continuously pushed to the surface by the constant eruptions. The ruling class live in large citadels, anchored to the planet’s crush by deep pylons.

From their citadels they reap the profits of an army of slave and convict workers who are forced to work the dangerous lava fields. These workers are in turn watched over by an army of cloned janissaries.

Five years from now I will be free.

Five years from now I will walk into the Overseer’s office.

Five years from now I will receive my pittance.

Five years from now I will leave.

Five years from now I will go somewhere cold.

Five years from now I will be free.

Miner 44-0372 died in a sudden pyroclastic event 4 days after writing this.

Constant eruptions make mining easy, and this planet excels in the production of weapons and ships. But this planet’s population remains low. Too low to risk open war.

What scares the rest of the Empire is this world’s willingness to depend on clone soldiers.

Clone is not the right word, but the best word. The Citadels do not just grow soldiers. They grow servants and maids and gardeners and whatever else they need. These clones are very expensive, which is why House Gravin refuses to use clones in the mines.

To do this they do not draw on any one genome. They pick and choose from the specimens that enter their prisons. Because of this their clones are not true clones. Their clones are amalgams of those who pass through. From one batch to the next there are subtle differences introduced by the engineers. But no matter the differences all are unflinchingly loyal to House Gravin.

The most concerning part of this is therefor not the number of clone soldiers, but the potential of the clone soldiers if House Gravin ever decides to grow more.

So why does this planet matter?

Well, it doesn’t. Not in intrinsic worth at least. House Gravin buys criminals from other houses. These criminals are then set to work in House Gravin’s mine for a much shorter term than they would have served otherwise. But the real value is in the genes.

House Gracin depends on cloned soldiers. Something that most other houses would not want to risk. By bringing in greater amounts of genetic stock the House’s gene wizards have more choices to choose from.

There are some places on this planet that remain free. Escaped prisoners and occasional escaped clones have found refuge in the poles of the planet. In these relatively cool areas they have made their home in the empty magma tubes. They sell ore to smugglers and hunt native insectoid lifeforms for sustenance. Their lives are hard, but they live their lives the way they want to.

House Gravin is brutal, but I think I could imagine brutal-er. This setting is still in its early phases, and there is a lot of room to grow. What kind of house would you imagine? Let me know on twitter @expyblg.