Becoming Comfortable with Failure

If you have ever taken music lessons you know what failure is like. For an hour each week you’re stuck in a room alone with your teacher while they constantly interrupt your playing, make you repeat the same few measures over and over again, and tell you that you haven’t made enough progress that week. None of it’s personal, or at least it shouldn’t be, they’re hard on you because it’s their job to help you identify your weak points and help you get better.

Ideally, the same is true for group meetings in graduate school. Though many PI’s like to make their criticisms personal, the real purpose of group meeting is to identify what needs to be fixed and where to go next.

The same is true for writing. Now, I am not a published author, but I do write a lot. Short stories, blog posts, research papers, research proposals, fellowship applications. I like to think I’m reasonably good at it.

The most important thing about writing, just like music and research, is to accept that you might have made mistakes at it and work to fix them. Mistakes, poor word choices, terrible plots, all of them can be fixed as long as you actually write it down first. Don’t worry about how it sounds or reads in the moment, just write and plan to fix it later. If you never write, you’ll never finish.

It’s also important to realize that everyone needs an editor. It can be easy to take edits personally, but remember that an editor is just trying to help you. The meaning of your writing might seem obvious to you but that is because you wrote it. A saying or turn of phrase might make perfect sense to you but might not be as commonly understood as you thought. Other edits might be because you and your editor just have a different style.

Most importantly, the project you’re working on now doesn’t need to be your magnum opus. It’s enough to finish the project and take what you learned from it and apply it to your next one. The longer you work at something the better you will get, and you will always look back on your past work and think of how much better you could have made it. Doing the best you can now will allow you to do even better late.

So rather than worrying about perfection, worry about done.

If you like content like this and want to see more, give me a follow on twitter or consider buying me a coffee. Or…you could check out my new one-page rpg game on itch.io!

Tales From The Golden Fleece Inn

“Stupid,” Sarah mumbled to herself as she trudged along. “That was stupid.”

She shouldn’t have gotten involved, should have done a better job of hiding those papers. Now all her accounts were gone, and she was alone and cold. She touched her hand gingerly to the side of her face. It was still tender. Would it bruise? Probably.

Where was she?

She looked around. She had taken off running from her apartment and how she was on a street she didn’t recognize, and she was severely underdressed for the weather. Her watch said it was nearly midnight…

This is the first story in a series set in The Golden Fleece Inn, an ancient establishment located outside of the material plane. Continue reading on Wattpad.

Gravity Wells Are Best Avoided

Jack hated landings.

He had been born in microgravity. He had grown up in microgravity. He had enlisted and spent, not accounting for relativistic effects, fifteen years Ship Time serving in microgravity. His job was simple, he went places, and he killed things. He had become an expert in boarding actions and close quarter combat in microgravity. For him, zero gravity was the default.  

Ships? Great. Space Stations? Perfect. Asteroids? Sure. Moons? If he had to. Planets? Hell no.

Planets had forests and animals and germs and far too many variables. He preferred the close, cramped struggle to the death where he could see his enemy and they could see him. Where all that would determine the outcome of the fight were his own skills pitted against those of his opponent. Planets had snipers and alien viruses and storms and earthquakes and well, you get the idea. In Jacks mind, gravity wells were something that humanity had evolved beyond and returning to them was pointless.

So basically, he really fucking hated landings.

He especially hated landings made in boxy little shuttlecraft that handed likes bricks in atmosphere while he was crammed into the shuttle with fifty other marines all of which were not suited at all for ground combat. He especially hated being sent down a gravity well as part of some hair-brained rescue scheme to protect some random colonists from an unknown assailant of unknown strength.

And he really, really hated landings made in a boxy brick-like shuttle that was hit by a surface-to-air missile that killed both of the pilots instantly, decapitated three of the soldiers sitting across from Jack, caused the shuttle to rip in half as it hit a low-lying cliff and come to rest in an alien corral forest in hostile territory far away from any possible backup.

When Jack came to he was hanging from his restraints inside the shuttle next to those of his fellows who had either been kills or incapacitated in the crash. He heard gunfire outside and from the sound of it someone had gotten the shuttle’s autocannons working and was making extensive use of them. He had no idea who they were fighting, no idea what was going on, but he knew what his job was. He undid his restraints, grabbed his low-velocity carbine designed for shipboard actions, not ground combat, and went outside to see what they were dealing with.

Jack hated landings.

Geopolitical Conflicts: Using Geography to Add Conflict to Your Setting

The first thing I do with every setting is I decide on two or three countries that I want there to be. I imagine what their economies and governments will be like, and I decide if I want them to be naval power, a steppe empire, an isolated enclave, or whatever else. Then I get to work on the map and I design the map so that themes I want for each country are complemented by its surroundings.

I benefit greatly from hindsight here. While the future of a nation is not predetermined, its geography can play a huge role in its development, and I can draw on the events of the past to design the geography and conflicts I want for my setting. So let’s look at a few examples.

A Small Country with a Big Impact

Land mass doesn’t always correlate with influence. It can help of course. Russia for example is huge and benefits from a wealth of natural resources. But Britain is smaller than some US states and yet at one time it ruled much of the world. Give a small nation a resource or circumstance that it can exploit and it can play a huge role in world events.

Waterways are one of my favorite ways to do this, and we can look to Turkey, Panama, Egypt, and Iran for real world examples. Istanbul’s location on the Bosporus allows whoever owns the city to control the sea lanes that pass through it. This brought the Ottoman Empire into conflict with the Russian Empire on multiple ocassions. Russia was denied the warm water ports it craved for as long as it lacked control of the city, and Ottoman control of the straits allowed them to cut off Russia’s connections with the allies in WWI. The other countries meanwhile control major canals or straits vital to world trade, and their ability to constrict that trade gives countries that might otherwise be only a regional power a way to exert influence on a global scale.

Technology and political convenience can also grant influence to an otherwise small country. Imagine if Google had been founded in Cuba. More likely though, in a world where superpowers are vying for influence, a small country that happens to have something that a superpower wants can extract a lot of concessions from them.

The weakness of this later approach is that the benefits a country reaps will be be greater in the short term than the long term. Sea-lanes have been vital for centuries, but technological superiority or political priorities might shift in a matter of decades. Of course this could be a conflict as well and you could choose to focus on a country that is struggling for relevancy in a changing world.

A Big Country with a Big Impact

Big countries with lots of resources and ample space have a lot of room for population growth. The hard part is their size. With such long borders and so many people inside them there bound to be lots of neighbors to pick fights with and lots of internal dissidents. The country better have a robust communication infrastructure or it’s going to be hard for orders from the center to reach the periphery.

The type of government is going to be important here. Are the leaders able to address the needs of the people? Are they able to keep the peace between all the different regional factions that are bound to be present? A large country with a lot of resources can have a big role in world affairs, but without a strong foundation and internal stability it’s bound to fall apart if enough pressure is applied from the outside.

One of the challenges with a such a large country is that there’s a lot of detail to be fleshed out, but there are also plenty of small stories that can be told. Or you could write up a few vague descriptions and leave the Big Country as a boogyman that your characters sometimes have to deal with.

The Isolationist Island

Island nations are perhaps the only nations in the world that actually have a decent chance of keeping all foreigners out. A coastline can be fortified and defended in a way that no land-based border can.

This isolation may not be complete. There may for example be designated ports where foreigners are allowed to trade, but if the island has enough natural resources they may be able to keep their isolation going for a long time.

The problem of course is that it’s easy for the world to pass them by. Sure the citizens might be happy living on their island, safe from the problems of the world, but before long the world is going to come knocking and the island might very well find itself out-matched.

There are a lot of opportunities for story and conflict here. Perhaps the island is experiencing a civil war and trying to hide that fact from outsiders. Maybe the island regularly sends agents out into the world to gather information and new technologies and your character is one of them. Or maybe the island has suddenly been thrown open to the world and its people have to adjust to a new and possibly frightening reality.

The Island Superpower

Maybe an island nation wants to isolate itself from the rest of the world, or maybe because of its small landmass it lacks the natural resources it needs to compete in the modern world. Luckily for them both goals can be achieved through a powerful navy and an aggressive foreign policy. Why buy when you can take? And why tell everyone to stay away when you could just sink every ship that drifts to close to your shores?

The sea is a natural focus for any island nation, it’s the only way for any would-be invaders to reach the island after all. With a strong seafaring culture and a little know-how it could easily grow into a naval super power. Because it’s power depends on naval supremacy however, it may sometimes get dragged into conflicts it would otherwise stay away from. Britain in the early twentieth century entered into a naval arms race with Germany thanks to their policy of always having the biggest navy. The arms race was expensive and helped to ratchet up tensions between the two countries. For Germany building a strong navy was just part of joining the international community of major powers, for Britain making sure they outpaced everyone else in naval development was a matter of survival.

You might also write this as an isolationist island nation that has decided to become a superpower, or at least a major power like Japan did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. An island superpower might grown out of a previously isolationist nation that has decided that it must grown and expand in order to be able to compete on the international scene.

Again here there are lots of opportunities for conflict. Isolationist factions might dislike the large navy and feel that it does nothing but get the country involved in foreign affairs. Traditionalists might pine for a return to the “old ways.” Some might think they country isn’t aggressive enough. Or the formerly downtrodden might see all this shipbuilding as a chance to see the world and make their fortunes…at the expense of whoever they might run into.

If you like this content and want to see more consider following me on twitter @expyblog or buying me a coffee or both! Stay tuned for more geopolitical worldbuilding posts like this.

The Golden Fleece Inn

First established in Rome during the reign of Augustus. For nearly two thousands years the Golden Fleece Inn has been a nexus of the supernatural community.

Located deep within the Infinite Staircase, the Inn does not actually exist on Earth, allowing Patrius to remodel every few centuries without regard for building codes or the laws of physics. There are six locations where the Inn can be accessed directly from Earth. Each of these appears as a rundown establishment at the end of an alleyway or a dilapidated part of town and is heavily warded by Patrius to make accidental discovery by mortals unlikely.

The six cities on Earth from which the Inn can be located are Rome, Istanbul, London, Kyoto, New York City, and Jerusalem. No matter which door a visitor enters through they all find themselves at the front door to the Inn next to the bouncer. Each city then has its own exit door somewhere in the Inn, while the front door also serves as the exit to the Impossible Staircase. The Inn is also accessible via a short journey through the Impossible Staircase from St. Petersburg, Baghdad, Chicago, Cairo, and Mexico City.

Some guests would prefer that the Inn accept currency other than silver denarius. The Stiltskin Trust Co moneylender in the corner is normally happy to exchange currencies, but often attempts to trick customers into making other bargains.

Both the owner of the Inn and its staff are notably eccentric and have a strong desire to look after the wellbeing of the Inn’s guests.

Patrius – a human sorcerer of indeterminant age. Patrius appears as a middle aged man with slightly greying hair and is usually wearing a purple button-down shirt. He is an extremely powerful sorcerer who uses earth magic to extend his own life. Most of his time is spent sitting in his alcove where he can listen in on conversations. If a guest attracts his interest he will normally invite them to sit with him where he will ask about them about themselves and make occasional notes in his guest book. In the early days of the Inn he was known to disappear for years at a time without explanation. Nowadays his absences have grown much rarer and last for a few days at most.

Ted – the hulky, shirtless, tattooed bouncer sitting in the broken recliner is a troll named Ted. He takes the Inn’s no fighting rule very seriously and doesn’t care about much else. A few years ago someone introduced him to Chinese food and became addicted. Now regulars often bring him offerings of egg rolls and lo mein. Ted is almost never seen without his trusty silver battle axe which stands almost as tall as he does.

Gib and Gob – the kitchens are run by a pair of scaly green imps named Gib and Gob. No one actually knows which one is which. Regulars insist that their cooking is second to none, and they are right as long as the two have had a few years to practice their new recipes.

Dan – A tall and skinny young demon with four arms and horns growing from his forehead. Dan tends the bar and is an amazingly talented mixologist. His true passion however is for coffee and he has several customs blends that he makes for guests.

Bog/Boggie – the Inn’s resident boggart who takes care of the housekeeping and serves as a messenger for Patrius. It takes the shape of a large cat with a silver collar around its neck and a chain that drags along the floor. When it’s not busy it can be found sleeping in front of the fire in Patrius’s alcove.

The staff are exceptionally loyal to Patrius and the Inn, but the place wouldn’t be the same without its regulars.

Nathan – an NYU graduate student studying creative writing and folklore. Nathan is not magical in least but wandered in by accident on day. He’s been coming to the Inn ever since and it has become his favorite study spot.

The Captain – an old mariner who always smells like fish and wont stop talking about the time he wrestled a polar bear. He appears to be some kind of ocean demigod but has never revealed who his parents are.

Doug – the president of the NYC chapter of the Black Dog Motercycle Club. He and his pack come nearly every night.

Arito Taisho – a shinto priest and talented psychic. He comes to the Inn regularly to play cards with Doug and the rest of the pack.

Belesunnu – a middle eastern woman of few words. She has a talent for wind and earth magic and mostly likes to challenge over-confident men to games of darts or archery contests.

Gerark – an elderly bugbear who works for Stiltskin Trust Co. He sits in the corner most days with his magic circle, ready to exchanger currencies and seal magic contracts.

Jasmine/James – a shapeshifting succubus/inccubus who runs a small supernatural escort business. They have helped people hide more than a few skeletons and is generally the one to go to for information about the current state of the supernatural. They are often seen smoking with Patrius in his alcove or giving Dan feedback on his newest coffee blend.

If you like content like this and want to help me making more consider buying me a coffee.

Tips for Surviving Graduate School

This is a weird topic to write about. Here I am starting the third year of my PhD and I still feel like I know nothing. It’s a fun combination of Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning Kruger Effect. But I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things about surviving grad school at this point.

Now, to be fair to my imposter syndrome, I am in no way an authority on these topics. But as someone who has several labor-intensive hobbies and doesn’t want the degree to consume their entire life, I feel like I’ve learned a few things from trying to be productive in both areas.

Get Some Sleep

This is one that I am REALLY bad at. I’ve always been a bit of a night owl. Left to my own devices I’ll stay up all night and sleep until noon. It’s hard, especially if you’re like me and a burst of motivation always hits you right before bed time. But it’s worth it to develop good sleep habits. As hard as it is, if you start going to bed earlier you’ll feel more rested and you’ll be able to wake up earlier. This last bit is important because it makes you feel like you have more time in the day and you wont catch yourself staying up late trying to squeeze out a few more drops of productivity. An all-nighter wont make you more productive, it will just make more tired.

Make Time for Other Things

I have a lot of hobbies that work often gets into the way of. Some semesters are going to feel more hectic than others, but you should still make time for your hobbies. Even if it’s just a few minutes before bed you’ll be glad you did. What’s even better is if you try and make time every evening and on the weekends for the things you enjoy. It’s really hard to feel good about your work if it’s consuming your life. Plus the things you work on outside of work can make your work better. Reading and writing as hobbies have made me feel much more prepared for presentations and research papers. But don’t think your hobbies need to also make you better at work.

Be Realistic About How Long Something Will Take

When I first joined the lab I’m in now I constantly felt unproductive. No matter what goals I set for the day I never met all of them and I felt terrible about it. That changed when I realized that it wasn’t that I was doing poorly in lab, it was that I wasn’t blocking out my time effectively. I wasn’t giving myself enough time to complete each task and the result was that I felt like I wasn’t getting anything done.

I fixed this by setting one big goal for each day in the lab and a few of what I like to think of as stretch goals. When I go into lab I normally have one experiment planned. I go in thinking “today I will complete this reaction” or “I will do x number of titrations.” Those are my main objectives for the day and I devote most of my energy to those. If I find myself finishing these early or having to wait for a reaction to finish I work on my stretch goals. These are things that are nice to get to in a given day but don’t need to be done right then. Stretch goals might be cleaning glassware, doing a literature search, or processing data.

Once I started doing this I instantly felt more productive. I was being more honest with myself about how long something would take me to do and I didn’t feel like I needed to do more once I got home. You will also find that you get faster at a lot of these tasks as you gain more experience.

Take Advantage of You Laziness

Some mornings when I get into the office the last thing I want to do start work in the lab. All I want to do is sit at my desk and sip my coffee. So that’s what I do. I sit down, turn on my computer, sip my coffee, and use that time to see what’s new in the world of science. For me that normally means looking at few American Chemical Society publications. Specifically Inorganic Chemistry, Organometallics, Chemical Reviews, and Accounts of Chemistry Research. I normally have a few keywords I’m looking for in the titles. Anything with the words cobalt, iron, or spin crossover get at least a quick glance. Or a quick download to the folder of files I tell myself I’ll read eventually. I have found a lot of great references that I’ve ended up citing later this way and learned about new fields that I hadn’t heard of before. Not only will doing this help you stay up to date on the latest research, the more time you take to read and review material in your field the more comfortable you’ll feel talking about your own work. It always feels great to whip out a relevant paper in the middle of group meeting that no one else has seen yet.

Listen to Your Undergrads

Universities have tons of social events, clubs, and resources to be taken advantage of. You probably don’t realize a lot of them are there. Talk to and listen to not just your fellow graduate students, but undergrads and staff too. Even if the undergrads in the section you’re a teaching assistant make you pull your hair out its worth listening to them talk. Remember, many of them are on campus 24/7 while you may only be there for a few hours. You can learn a lot about other departments and the resources available on campus if you listen to them while giving them zeros on their lab reports.

Oh yeah, sometimes they have some good research ideas too.

Cultivate Your Social Skills

You don’t need to become a complete extrovert, but it pays to talk to other people around campus. After spending all day on experiments it helps to know a few people down the hall who might want to grab pizza with you. Or they might call you up if they have an extra concert ticket. More practically, it helps to have people you can go to for help whether it’s help studying or getting access to an instrument in their lab. Science is collaborative and in most jobs you’ll have to work together with other people so it pays to get started now.

You Know More Thank You Think You Know

In graduate school you’re surrounded by competent people. So much so that it’s easy to think that they know more than you or know their project better than you will ever know yours. It’s important to remember that if you are in a graduate program you already have a bachelors. You knew enough to get one degree in your field and now you’re working on another. You know your project better than anyone and you know a lot more in general than you think. The more you talk about your work and your field the more confident you’ll feel. Even if it’s hard at first.

If you can’t tell already I have horrible sleep habits and I’m always tired. If you like the content I post here consider buying me a coffee to help me get through the day.

Twenty Questions to Ask About Your Fictional Country

  • What is the climate like?
  • Is it landlocked, coastal, or an island?
  • What resources are present?
  • What is the terrain like?
  • Are their any natural barriers that would impede movement?
  • Where are the sources of water?
  • How many languages and ethnic groups are present?
  • Have any of these people been recently displaced?
  • How is society organized?
  • What form of government is there?
  • Do the people look favorably on the government?
  • What religions are practice?
  • Is there a state religion?
  • Who are the country’s neighbors?
  • Is this country more powerful than its neighbors?
  • What are the country’s major industries?
  • Is the country dependent on its neighbors for any important resources?
  • Does the country have any colonies abroad?
  • Are any parts of the country’s territory contested by its neighbors?
  • Does this country have any historic rivalries?

The Best Things About Bending

Elemental magic is hard to do right. The four classical elements are so ingrained in us that we all are likely to add elemental worldbuilding into our first settings, but it’s hard to do well. The four elements have been done so much that it’s hard to be original. It’s hard to make elemental magic feel like it’s really a part of the world and not just a later add on.

Yet the elements are so pervasive that the internet is full of people showing off their elemental magics systems where they very creatively include their own elements like shadow, mud, or even magma.

There is nothing wrong with making an elemental magic system. It comes naturally to us for a reason. But if you want to your elemental magic to work it’s going to take a lot of effort.

Of the very limited selection of examples I have been exposed too I have only seen two instances of elemental magic done well; Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, and Avatar the Last Airbender.

Unlike Avatar, Codex Alera has six elements, not four. Each element has it’s uses, but some elements are clearly more useful that others. To be fair, the characters are at war for just about the entire series and for obvious reasons the characters are most interest in the elements that help them to kill the enemy. In Avatar the elements have a place in daily life and each can easily contend with the other. As much as I love Codex Alera, the world of Avatar just feels more alive.

Physicality

This is something that can really only be done in a visual medium, but Avatar does it so well. Not only is each of the four based in a different marital art, different styles have their own variations.

For me the most obvious example of this are the pro-benders. Their quick jabs and evasions evoke images of professional boxers, and the bending they do reflects that. They’re all about quick attacks and evasions and it shows. Against a real fighter not constrained by the rules of the ring they quickly fall short. There movements are of peoples trained to do one thing well rather than master their element.

What’s the best thing about this? For me it’s that practice gets results. In most fantasy it can be hard to show characters getting better with magic. In Avatar their magic is so tightly linked to their movements and thinking that it’s almost impossible not to. A bender’s philosophy and mindset impact their bending in a very visible way.

Balance

Elemental magic is so common that it’s hard not to have prejudices.

Earth, Water, Air, Fire. Which would you choose? Which is the best?

In fantasy that has a four element system we don’t always get an equal view of each element. Everyone expects fire to be aggression or water to be healing. Avatar may not give every element the same amount of screen time, but they each have the same amount of potential. Every element is shown to have its own limitations and strengths but none is ever made to look weaker than the others.

In fact the best benders, like Iroh, take the time to learn from the other elements and see what practices they can incorporate into their own art.

Incorporation

Each of the four nations is inseparable from their element.

Too often in fantasy, magic is treated as something separate from the rest of society. In the Avatar universe magic is inseparable from the larger society. The trains and mail in Omashu are moved by earth benders. The builds in the Norther Water Tribe are clearly built with the help of water benders, and the the Fire Nation could not have had its industrial base without the fire benders to power the furnaces.

This arrangement brings obvious inequalities to mind. What can a normal person do when bending is so prevalent?

It’s an important question to ask and one that doesn’t get enough attention in the Legend of Korra. What do non-benders get?

Even so, the prevalence of bending in these societies becomes even more important. What happens when technology progresses? What happens when the non-benders no longer need the benders? While not fully addressed in The Legend of Korra, it’s still an interesting question that fantasy should address. What does magic do when it can’t hide?

Conclusion

Avatar the Last Airbender is an amazing series. I’ve loved it since I first saw the pilot in a hotel room when I was ten. Any time I thought I might want to make an elemental magic system I’ve turned to the wiki and realized that I simply couldn’t beat it.

It’s not the magic, or setting, it’s how real everything feels. The entire world is infused with the love of its creators and speaks to the wonders that can be achieved by a few dedicated worldbuilders.

What I most love about Avatar is that the otherwise cliché elemental magic can be innovative in the right context. Any magic, any idea, can feel real in the right setting. It speaks to the strength of good worldbuilding and it has been in my mind ever since I saw the first episode.

Really though, the best part of Avatar is that the magic doesn’t feel like magic. It just feels like a part of the world.

If you liked this post and want me to help me stay up making more content like it consider buying me a coffee.

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.