Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thoughts on Kickstarter (and Crowd-Funding)

I just set up an account on Kickstarter and made my first contribution, $10 to help the webseries Lost in the Woods buy a spiffy alien costume for the second season.

Here's the back-story. I met Matt Nielsen, head of Cool Hat Media, while working as a production assistant on an Atlanta movie during late December and early January. He told me about Lost in the Woods, which I thought was pretty interesting. After friending him on Facebook and liking Cool Hat, I saw he was looking to raise funds on Kickstarter. This morning I saw he was in the home stretch and decided to contribute, but by the time I actually got around to doing it, he'd already crossed the finish line. I contributed anyway, with the extra money going to help fund more alien costumes/makeup and some cuts/bruises/mayhem for the cast.

This post isn't just my bragging about helping someone. I've actually been putting some thought into Kickstarter (and crowdfunding in general) for awhile. On the movie shoot, Toria Munoz, another production assistant, told me I ought to try to fund the production of a movie version of "Melon Heads" (already writing the screenplay) via Kickstarter. I was skeptical due to not being well-known enough to raise a lot of money, but another friend (I can't remember who) told me if I wanted to get any money, I'd need to shoot a scene and post the video in order to attract the funding to finish. I already have an idea for the scene I'd shoot (the first real appearance of the Melon Heads and what happens right before), but getting the money together to even do that is going to be problematic and I have a lot of other stuff to do in the meantime. However, it's worth a thought.

In the long run, crowdfunding would be a good way to get around the problem of Internet piracy eroding the incentive to actually create media. If the entire cost of the project is paid for in advance (by people who then get books, movies, etc. to their taste in exchange), that means all actual sales of the product after release are pure profit. Sure the torrents and the like are going to cut into sales, but you won't need to make as many sales in the first place to make the project worth your while. And if the numbers justify a sequel, you have a much larger fan-base now to pay for it.

And this might help save genre fiction, especially short stories. Something I've noticed over the last few years is that the number of paying short fiction markets has plummeted, especially the ones in the middle. One of the things I've seen on Kickstarter is a number of themed fiction anthologies, which I'm told are very poor sellers. I've also seen established figures in the genre like John Joseph Adams seeking funds to start new publications of their own. Crowd-funding these will help compensate for the decline in print media publications that used to publish these stories and could allow for a diversity of thought and content that didn't exist even during the genre's "glory days." Given the consolidation of the book-publishing industry, you could apply the same thing to full-length novels.

Crowdfunding also gives people who complain about the state of the media today the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is. If you want more original films, help fund the production of a screenplay the writer could never sell because it's too "risky" (aka it's not a remake or a sequel of something original that did succeed, years ago). If you think the publishing industry has some bias (be it political or stylistic--I remember some complaints about there being too much cynical, dark material out there), fund a book or anthology of stories that goes against the grain.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Character Interview: Patrido Guzman

Today we're sitting down with Patrido Guzman, a former farmer from Zacatecas, Mexico.

(Guzman is a shorter man, but taller than a stereotypical Mexican. He has thinning dark hair.)

Me: Buenas dias, señor Guzman.

Guzman: Buenas dias to you as well.

Me: So let's get started. When were you born?

Guzman: I was born in 1989 in Zacatecas. My father was a farmer, like his forebears before him. We were better off than many campesinos, since we owned our own land and could occasionally hire help. We grew corn, mostly, but we also had chickens and even some cattle.

Me: Do you have any brothers or sisters?

Guzman: Oh yes. I have an older brother Juan and sister Carolina, my younger brothers Eduardo and Quinto, and a younger sister Pilar.

Me: How was the land going to be divided?

Guzman: Well, there wasn't enough to sustain every member of the family, so we couldn't all get a piece. My father thought it best that all of us get work and education so that whoever didn't inherit the land could still make a decent life. My older brother and sister went to Zacatecas City, where my brother found work in the silver mines and my sister as a teacher. I was in secondary school and studying for university when NAFTA came.

Me: What happened then?

Guzman: Free trade is great in principle, but Mexican farmers cannot compete with American corn, especially when it's subsidized to the point it can be sold below cost. We worked harder than ever before and managed to sustain ourselves in the face of American imports for years, but in the end, we couldn't compete.

Me: Your family lost its land?

(Guzman sadly nods.)

Guzman: Losing the land that had been in our family since before the Mexican Revolution was too much for my father. He died of heart trouble a year after we were forced to sell our land and move in with my older siblings in the city. My mother followed him soon afterward.

Me: I'm sorry to hear that.

Guzman: I couldn't attend university and had to go to work right away to help support the family. My younger siblings had to finish school themselves. I went to work in a maquiladora, one of the new factories NAFTA made possible. The Lord takes and He gives, you know?

Me: Job 1:21?

Guzman: The very one. The money was better than many of the other jobs I could have taken, but I hated working there. The supervisor was a real mula who mistreated some of the women in the factory. I didn't want to lose my job and didn't do anything for the longest time and then when I saw him hassling a widow working to feed a child, I told him to go to hell. I got fired the next day.

Me: Yikes.

Guzman: He got his. When the government started fighting the drug cartels, he was found dead. Whether he caught a bullet meant for someone else or someone decided to take revenge for a sister or daughter he put his hands on, I don't know. Good riddance either way.

Me: So what are you going to do now?

Guzman: Well, I've had friends who've gone to work in El Norte.

Me: El Norte?

Guzman: The United States. They made good money doing even the most menial work, enough to send home and build big houses for their families, put siblings and children through school. I once heard of a man who took over a concrete business when the gringo owner retired and he's a millionaire now.

Me: How are you going to get in? I've heard it's hard to get in legally unless you've got special skills and you said you never got to go to university...

Guzman: Well, I knew a man from the factory whose brother knows someone on the other side of the border. A coyote, a smuggler. Juan and Carolina, they loaned me the money to pay him up-front. No need to work for him for years. We're going to meet up in...well, I don't know you. Maybe you work the limones verdes.

Me: Limones verdes? Green lemons?

Guzman: Sorry. Your Border Patrol. They drive around in green trucks.

Me: Got it.

Will Guzman make it to the United States? If you want to find out, check out my eBook "Illegal Alien."

My Return To Fanfiction.net: A Tale of the Draka

Awhile back, I posted about two alternate Draka timelines I'd written for my alternate-history message-board. Sometime later, I found some people discussing my timelines on another Internet forum and one person complained about how they had to join the site in order to view them.

This morning on a whim, I posted on my Facebook fan page to see if anyone would like to see these timelines and I got three "likes" within thirty minutes. Never being one to disappoint my fans, I started copying and pasting from the original thread, now many years old, and posting them on fanfiction.net.

Behold, "The Dragon and the Bear: An Alternate Drakaverse." The early stuff is up now and I'll be posting the rest of it over the next several days.

Long ago, when I finished "The Revenge of the Fallen Reboot," I said I would not write anymore fan-fiction and would instead focus on my original work that can actually make me money. What I'm doing now fulfills the letter of the promise, since this is material I wrote years ago. Furthermore, I have many, many more Facebook fans now than I did then and providing them with content will keep them interested while I produce more original stuff. Given the popularity of the Draka novels among the alternate-history community, this will also help cement my position among them in preparation for the publication of my original material.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy a world where there's no Stalinist purge, the German invasion of Russia gets stopped a lot faster, Operation Valkyrie succeeds, and the evil Draka get what's coming to them. Robert Heinlein, Carl Sagan, and Pope John Paul II make appearances.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Heart of the Swarm" Opening Cinematic

Got on Facebook a bit earlier than usual this morning and this is what I found. The opening cinematic for Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm in all its glory.



We see just how terrifying and destructive a Zerg assault on a human world can be. We also see just how large the Terran battle-cruisers actually are. Based on their depiction in-game, I didn't think they'd be that big.

Enjoy!

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Death of Stalin and a Different WWII

Here's a alternate timeline from my message-board for your entertainment. It's entitled "Funeral Games" and was written by the user whose handle is Gemellus. It begins with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin suffering a pulmonary embolism soon after the German invasion of Poland, an invasion made possible by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and dropping dead. The new Soviet government repudiates the deal Stalin made and things get interesting...

I'm not going to give away details, but the timeline features...

*A short Nazi-Soviet War instead of our world's swift annexation of the Baltic States and the Winter War with the Finns.

*A peace treaty ending said war that involves a population swap of three million Jews for millions of ethnic Germans living in Soviet territory. The one time I have ever actually used the phrase, "good job Commies," considering what would happen to these Jews if history had continued as it did in our world.

*Japan's land empire in Asia is dealt with a few years ahead of schedule.

*Germany still manages to pull off Battle of France in a similar fashion to our history and establish their Vichy puppet regime. However, the Italians do something rather unexpected...

*The Soviets don't ignore all evidence of the coming German attack and take certain steps...

*The German Resistance is about to do something. Let's hope it works out better than in our history...

I think it's pretty interesting and well worth a look. I'd definitely read a book set in this timeline.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Consequences of a Westerosi Kingsmoot...

In early December, I blogged about an interesting fan-fiction written by a fellow member of my alternate history forum entitled A Parliament of Fowls: The First Kingsmoot of Westeros. Catelyn Stark persuading Renly and Stannis Baratheon to put their feud aside and join forces with her son to fight the Lannisters has led to an entirely new political order in the continent, a full-blown elective monarchy. That had some very interesting consequences...

These consequences are being explored in the sequel, The Glory of Ice: Reign of the Mockingbird. As those of you who are into the series know, the mockingbird is the personal insignia of one Petyr Baelish, more commonly known as "Littlefinger." As one of the most devious political operators in Westeros, he managed to finagle his way to the Iron Throne by doling out all sorts of political favors and manipulating everybody. All is peaceful for the moment, with the notable exception of the Iron Islands falling into civil war while the united Westerosi army--led by the lords of the Vale Littlefinger had promised lands to--gathers to curb-stomp them. However, A Parliament of Fowls ended with Stannis Baratheon seeing the following vision in his sorceress Melisandre's flames:

Stannis stared deeper into the flames as they kept dancing. And little by little, they morphed and changed. Stannis saw things he never thought he would. He saw himself being paraded through the Seven Kingdoms as a hero. He saw the Wall and the war. That great second god the red woman kept harping about approaching the North with all his icy might. He saw death knocking at the gates of Castle Black and approaching the doors of Winterfell. Stannis saw steel clash on steel and the Iron Throne shake from the quake of the Seven Kingdoms breaking apart once more. He saw the four directions of the earth clash in an eruption not seen since the doom came to Valyria. He saw a field of flowers burn and the sun darken. He saw a wolf and a stag go east, a lion roar, and a kraken tangle with a titan sitting on a throne of blood and bone. And finally he saw himself in a cloak of crows.

The kraken is the symbol of House Greyjoy and the Titan of Braavos is Littlefinger's family crest, so I imagine the war for the Iron Islands is going to be nasty and Littlefinger is going to get thoroughly unpleasant. Silver Phantom 2 holds the theory that he's a full-blown psychopath, as elucidated in Matt Staggs' essay. I am generally skeptical of branding prominent evil people as psychopaths--I view the idea of "ponerology" as essentially a eugenicist conspiracy theory held by extreme leftists, and evil people like Hitler and Stalin have demonstrated the capacity for emotional attachment that would disqualify them from being true psychopaths--but Littlefinger doesn't have to be essentially a highly-functional brain-damage case to be a real scumbag.

(I hold that Littlefinger is psychologically normal but is essentially a much, much more powerful male version of Sansa Stark who learned that life was not a song and ended up embittered and generally nasty as a result. Psychopath or evil neurotypical, either way he's a highly dangerous man.)

Looks like it's the calm before the storm...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

My Friend Eli's Hilarious, Cynical Song

My friend Eli Banks posted this song he wrote in 2002 (when we were both juniors or seniors in high school, depending on which side of the summer it was) on Facebook. It goes to the tune of "My Favorite Things" and took 23 minutes for him to write:

People whose breath smells like ranch flavored Pringles
Speed limit drivers who use their turn signals
Geniuses, intellects, no one's a fool
These are the people I see at my school

Really fast walkers who know where they're going
People whose insight is constantly growing
Someone you couldn't refer to as "tool"
These are the people I see at my school

When I'm angry
When I'm hungry
When I feel irate
I simply start thinking of kids at my school
And then I start feeling great!

Good taste in music and beautiful fashion
Students who care who are learning with passion
Good human beings who follow the rules
These are the people I see at my school

Nobody drinks and nobody does drugs
Walk through the halls and start giving out hugs
Everyone's loving and everyone's cool
These are the people I see at my school!

When I'm angry
When I'm hungry
When I feel irate
I simply start thinking of kids at my school
And then I start feeling great!

For the record, this was written during his "glory days of sarcasm and bitterness." Those who didn't particularly enjoy high school or know people who didn't should get a kick out of this.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Authoritarian Spawn of Sandy Hook

Ever since the Sandy Hook shooting, there has been a lot of oxygen expended on various "solutions" to the mass-shooting problem in the United States. The problem with many of them is that they're potentially if not outright dangerous to the liberties of law-abiding citizens.

Right now, the conversation is being dominated by the topic of gun control, which as you all know I am generally not a fan of. I'm willing to consider increased funding to make sure the background-check system works (a gun-owner friend called it a joke during a Facebook discussion). Although I initially viewed New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg rather unfavorably, a lot of his ideas (minus the assault weapons ban) make sense. Heck, I've even suggested some of them on my own.

However, a lot of people with much more extreme agendas are using Sandy Hook as a platform. Certain elements of the media are trying to rebrand "gun control" as "gun safety," which is dishonest. You have people suggesting total gun bans. I've seen people claiming online--even people I consider friends--that if people aren't willing to renounce their right to bear arms in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, they're evil and selfish. I once saw an Internet commentator saying that "society" decided to end slavery, something that many people objected to and was ultimately a very costly effort. However, if "society" decides to take the same steps to change the availability of certain makes and models of guns, it would be for the best. This isn't just apples and oranges--it's comparing apples and rotten vegetables. You even have people petitioning that the NRA be declared a terrorist organization. The chance of that getting anywhere is rather small, but never underestimate how dangerous people who can vote can be if passions are aroused.

Another issue being discussed is increasing resources available for helping the mentally ill. The Virginia Tech shooter was involuntarily institutionalized as a threat to himself and others at one point, while the Tucson shooter demonstrated warning signs. The Sandy Hook shooter's mother was preparing to move across the country to get him help. Providing more resources to assist those who are mentally ill would be a good way to prevent these things from occurring again.

However, this can get very dangerous. Deinstitutionalization happened to a large degree due to abuses and poor conditions in the mental institutions of the time and those could recur very easily. After all, people in institutions might not be able to coherently describe anything done to them and it would be easy to write off any claims of abuse they make as being the rantings of a crazy person, if they can even get word out about their being abused at all. A member of my alternate-history message board (the one whose handle was Snarf, who wrote that Draka-cop story I blogged about years ago) has Asperger's Syndrome and said decades ago, people with Asperger's who might have been able to function on the outside with counseling, medication, etc. were simply institutionalized.

And Asperger's Syndrome gets into an entirely different issues. There have been attempts to link autism with the shooting already. Although this article and the articles it links to debunk the idea that people with Asperger's Syndrome are particularly violent, the damage has already been done. There are people out there who are claiming people with these conditions are unfeeling and dangerous, don't view other people as human, etc.

News flash--the condition that causes people to not view other people as human (in general, as opposed to being indoctrinated to dehumanize particular groups) is called psychopathy, not autism. However, just because something is false doesn't mean people won't believe it and that's dangerous because these people can vote.

I'm not predicting everyone with Asperger's Syndrome (or people who might not have a clinical condition but are simply quirky or not considered "normal" by their peers) are going to get rounded up. However, there are more subtle dangers--cruel peers who might maltreat some sufficiently "weird" kid (and if said "weird" kid eventually snaps, they'll no doubt claim all along they knew something was wrong with them and treated them as they deserved), arrogant know-it-all school officials (whose actual knowledge of such things can be summed up in the phrase "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing") recommending unnecessary or even destructive "treatment" ideas, etc. Thousands of well-meaning (or less well-meaning) school and community officials all across the United States can be more dangerous than the U.S. President.

And to top it off, earlier this week I found an article that flat-out makes eugenicist arguments alleging genetic predisposition to mass murder. I am not so reactionary as to immediately claim applying the concept of heredity to the mind as well as the body is a Nazi idea, but humans are not lower animals governed solely by instinct. A few years back, I read Social Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and one thing that struck me was the massive amount of brain development in the first year or two of life. This development is so profound I can't help but think it would play a dominant role, not heredity.

And this article not only makes neo-eugenicist arguments, it calls for blatantly authoritarian solutions, including "lifelong surveillance" of people with alleged "massacre genes." This is not only creepy and evil, but it's blatantly unconstitutional as well. Is there any authority in the United States that could issue a warrant authorizing this sort of thing? It certainly couldn't be a state court, as people often move throughout their lives. Maybe the foreign-intelligence courts that can issue roving wiretaps could in theory, but that's not their bailiwick.

I am not so lacking in empathy that I think (most) people advocating these positions have evil hearts. However, people with good intentions and a willingness to use state power to implement them have committed terrible evils in the past. I am not suggesting we refuse to make any changes to anything out of fear of some worst-case scenario despotism, but we need to tread very carefully. And most of all, we shouldn't be ignorant.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Compromise Idea for "At The Mountains of Madness"

I was looking over my Twitter feed this morning and found the following link:

Guillermo Del Toro Will Try To Make AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS Again

For those of you who are not up on Lovecraftian lore, At the Mountains of Madness tells the tale of a scientific expedition to an Antarctica that encounters horrors from beyond Earth. Del Toro has been trying to adapt the story into a film since at least 2006, but ran into problems with the studios due to there not being a love story or a happy ending and later due to him wanting to make it R-rated and the studio wanting it PG-13. The latter seems to be the primary problem right now.

Here's an idea that I'm sure has been discussed behind closed doors but nobody has mentioned it publicly. How about a PG-13 theatrical release and an R-rated (or even unrated) director's cut for the DVD? I'm assuming the studios want a PG-13 rating because the less restrictive the rating, the more likely the movie is to make money and the studios' primary responsibility is to sell a product. Although the hard-core fans will no doubt complain, they can always buy the more "authentic" DVD later, making the studio even more money.

Although I can understand why Del Toro wants it R-rated as opposed to PG-13, one can have a more family-friendly product without compromising one's artistic vision. The Lord of the Rings movies were PG-13 and they were incredibly violent--it's just they had no profanity or sex/nudity. Since At The Mountains of Madness lacks a love story, that largely eliminates the nudity/sexual content issue and given how the story is of a university expedition in the 1920s/1930s (a more educated group of people in a more generally polite time), one can reduce or eliminate the profanity entirely.

(I haven't read the actual novella so I don't know if there's even any swearing in the book to start with.)

You also don't have to wallow in gore to have horror. I've only seen one Alfred Hitchcock movie (Dial M for Murder), but I've heard that a lot of his materials is really suspenseful or frightening. And these movies were made in a time when there were formal restrictions on movie content and greater cultural opposition to more extreme depictions of violence, sex, etc. And although the Lord of the Rings movies have plenty of violence, there's not a lot of blood. For At The Mountains of Madness, maybe they could depict the characters' horrified reactions to finding members of the expedition dead rather than (long) depictions of actual mutilated bodies? That might even be scarier, since the audience might imagine something even worse than what Del Toro could put on-screen. The dismembered corpses can be saved for the director's cut.

Del Toro might not even need to cut a lot of content to make At The Mountains of Madness PG-13, considering how in recent years, the PG-13 rating has gotten rather stretched.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Second Napoleonic Wars: An Alternate History Scenario

I was checking on my alternate-history forum this morning and I found the following scenario:


Although I took a class on 19th Century Europe in college, I don't remember a whole lot about Napoleon III, the Austro-Sardinian War, etc. Given how I do remember a lot of discussion about Garibaldi and Italian unification, that is rather odd. Either way, late 19th Century Europe is generally not an area I'm interested in.

That being said, this is a very interesting scenario. The point of divergence from our history is that King Frederick William IV is not incapacitated by a heart attack in August of 1857. This leads to Czar Alexander II feeling more secure about his western border, which makes him more open to an alliance with Napoleon III against the Austrians in support of Napoleon's plans for Italy.

Right now, the Austrian Empire is foundering, with its armies even more devastated by this timeline's version of the Battle of Solferino, Emperor Franz Josef himself under siege in Italy, and Russian armies occupying Austrian Poland. Something very significant just happened, but I'm not going to reveal any big spoilers other than it's, in TVTropes terms, a Crowning Moment of Awesome for both Garibaldi and Franz Josef.

Faux historical documents from later in the timeline reference this period as "the second Napoleonic Wars" and timeline author (the user whose handle is yboxman) referenced how a general European war wasn't provoked by the four smaller wars of the late 19th Century even though it easily could have been, so the mayhem is just beginning. Furthermore, American Civil War hasn't happened yet, so we might see someone (President James Buchanan or his successor, who may not be Abraham Lincoln this time around) gambling on a short, victorious war to paper over sectional tensions and/or try to jump on Britain's back a second time and hope things go better than 1812 or the Union and the Confederacy ending up on opposite sides of the European conflict and making this a world war.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Book Review: "Crosstime Road Trip"

The Cross-Time Road Trip by Chris Nuttall begins simply, inconspicuously, as momentous events often do, when Army brat college student Erica and her trio of geeky male friends finding a mysterious gadget at an electronics sale. They take the device back to the boys' souped-up RV and set it off, transporting the RV into a parallel world where their college is a post-apocalyptic ruin. Thus begins an adventure across time and space a la the old television program Sliders,only significantly goofier and with more inside jokes.

Full disclosure: I know Chris from the alternate-history message-board I've referenced before and like my review of his novel The Royal Sorceress, this is part of a review-for-review swap. However, I'm not going to go any easier on him than any member of my writing groups.

For starters, if you're part of the online alternate history community, you're going to like this one. The story pokes fun at teenage Third Reich enthusiasts who crop up from time to time, overbearing forum administrators, and other tropes common to communities like AH.comCF.net, and History Alternate. In fact, most of the cast members are based on fellow forum members. It references fairly obscure AH works like the Draka series and hangs lampshades on tropes like how our traveling friends can understand the residents of other timelines where English might not even exist.

(There's a downside to this--unlike The Royal Sorceress, this novel is extremely niche.)

The novel is pretty amusing, although it's more sly and clever than laugh-out-loud. I'm not going to name many specific jokes to avoid spoilers, although I did like the treatment of an immortal Alexander the Great. It's also a fairly quick read--I read the whole thing over the course of today, albeit with lots of breaks for meals, writing Christmas thank-you notes, e-mail, etc.

Although The Crosstime Road Trip is a complete story in and of itself, both the wider world Chris has created and the ending allow for many more adventures for our heroes. I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel or sequels. Given how AH.Com: The Series went on for several years (I wrote several episodes myself under the handle MerryPrankster), I think there'd be a market for this.

That being said, the novel does have some flaws. There are some places where the writing could be more concise. An unrequited-love subplot is never really dealt with, although there was an opportunity for a comedic love triangle between the characters involved. A character's description of her culture comes off as taking shots against both religion and sexual taboos. Although it's rather brief (and to some degree necessarily for the resolution of the plot), it may annoy some readers.

The passage of time is rather problematic--in most of the worlds they visit, it seems Our Heroes are only there for a few hours or days. They do spend a lot of time in one particular place, but not more than a month or so. However, they're described as being gone for months, something that would conceivably have consequences. It would have been better if no time had passed while they were gone a la The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Also, there's a reference to a novel being written about their adventures, but given the amount of time it takes to actually publish a novel, the only way it would work in the timeframe implied would be if it was banged out immediately and published onto sites like Amazon Kindle Direct or Smashwords.

(Hey Chris, if you want to riff on the eBook self-publishing phenomenon in future installments, maybe the success of this novel plays a key role in funding future adventures? Or to take a page from my recent experience and the experience of many other authors, Our Heroes have to deal with online piracy?)

Overall 6 out of 10. If you've got Amazon Prime, this would be a better borrow than a buy.