Rob’s New Podcast- The Department of Nerdly Affairs

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Hi All!

It’s been a while since I posted to my blog, some of which is because of the usual Fall craziness of being a teacher, but now I have another excuse! I’ve been working on a brand new podcast called The Department of Nerdly Affairs with one of my oldest and best friends, Don Chisholm. The podcast is a bi-weekly talk podcast (new episodes every second Friday) where Don and I discuss different aspects of “nerd” arts and culture from a Gen-X’er point of view.

What does that mean? Well, we’re not a “this week in geek” podcast where we discuss the latest news or anything like that, preferring instead to take an in-depth focus on a mix of arts, culture and history with a nerdly bent. Expect a lot of talk about writing, comics, role playing games, books, film, anime, TV, video games, tokusatsu, miniatures, audio drama, action figures, and pretty much anything else that can fit under the category of “nerdly”. While the first few episodes are just Don and I, we hope to bring in some knowledgeable guests to help us chat about some of the topics as well.

If this sounds like the type of show you’d be interested in, come check us out at! The first three episodes, on Writing Sci-Fi, Audience Expectations, and Nerdly Speculators are up as a starter pack for people to check out! We’ve got an episode about Satanism and D&D coming up, as well as a Star Wars themed episode in honor of the new movie. (We’re not a current events show, but this is Star Wars, after all!) You can also find our show on iTunes and many of the other podcasting directories.

Don’t worry, I’ll still be posting here from time to time, this is my home base. But if you’re looking for an extra helping of Rob’s take on things, then head on over to the podcast page and join in on the fun!



A little perspective change on science fiction writing

I’m currently listening to an audiobook of Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, and while enjoying it a thought occurred to me. We often say that Science Fiction is based on the phrase “What would happen if?” and then extrapolate out the story from there, but I think that’s wrong.

Listening to that excellent novel, it occurred to me that “What would happen if?” actually encourages writers to think in terms of events and plot. If I say “What would happen if Giant Bugs from Arcturus dropped from the sky?” You’ll get a picture in your head of giant purple bugs raining down from the sky to eat all of our Frosted Flakes. (Or maybe that’s just me…) Which is fine, and very dramatic, but also encourages the writer to think in terms of big visual elements based around the thing that’s different.

On the other hand, if I change the question to “What would it be like if?” then that encourages a complete different kind of thinking. Saying “What would it be like if?” forces the writer to think in terms of a person or character’s point of view instead of an abstract idea. This makes the writer begin to think the situation through, and reflect on how they or a character would feel going through that situation. This, in turn, produces a better and more relatable story because it’s being drawn out of subjective human experience rather than based on something more objective and less tangible.

Let’s look at a few examples so you can see what I mean. Think about how each pair produces a different idea in your head.

What would happen if the dead came back as zombies to eat the living?


What would it be like if the dead came back as zombies to eat the living?


What would happen if dogs could talk to people?


What would it be like if dogs could talk to people?


What would happen if we found a gate to the stars?


What would it be like if people found a gate to the stars?

See the difference? One is asking you to think outside yourself, and produces plot-based ideas and stories where you have to rethink how to base it around a character. The other makes you think in character terms right from the beginning, and then work out to view that situation from a personal perspective. And, when I think about it, I think most of the better Sci-Fi has actually been based on similar lines of thinking because it comes out from the human experience rather than being based on lofty ideas.

Just my take, anyways.



Review- Dragon Blade (Jackie Chan) (Mild Spoilers)

I just finished watching Dragon Blade, and I have to say I have really mixed feelings about it. It’s a giant pile of awesome ideas and potential wrapped in a badly directed and mismanaged package. The core idea is great- a team of Silk Road mediators in Han Dynasty China lead by Huo An (Jackie Chan) have to keep peace among the 36 different tribes that control parts of the Silk Road which runs between China and Rome. One day, a Roman army shows up on the Chinese border city of Wild Geese led by Commander Lucius (John Cusack) on the run from Rome because they’re fleeing with their lord’s youngest son to keep his elder brother from killing him. The Romans and the Chinese are the two ends of the Silk Road, but this is them meeting for the first time and lots of cultural conflicts and misunderstandings ensue.

Great stuff, and the first half of the movie is actually pretty good with a nice mix of comedy, action, and some cool scenes where each side gets to show off what they can do. It was made for Chinese audiences, but the Romans are played as strong and heroic, and Cusack and Chan are fun to watch together, regardless of how awkward the English dialog is. (And it’s REALLY awkward- this movie needed an English re-write badly, the lines sounding like they used Google Translate on a Chinese script.) I especially enjoyed the portrayal of the Romans as builders and engineers as well as warriors.

However, then the second half of the movie hits and it turns into a nonsensical mess that pretty much squanders everything the first half built up. Things and characters appear and disappear, and stuff happens that makes sense but was never really explained or built up to. You can kind of piece most of it together, but you’re left scratching your head as to what the writer/director was thinking. For example, the version I saw has a bizarre flash-forward to modern day at the end that comes out of nowhere and seems to be part of a whole storyline that was left out except for this final scene. Stuff like that.

I blame a lot of this on the director, Daniel Lee, as you can see in this a movie that in the hands of a good director like Ridley Scott could have been fricken amazing, but was instead reduced to a dog’s breakfast of a film.

I give the first half a B-, but thanks to a D- second half, I can only give the film a C- in the end. Which is sad, because I liked so many things in this film, just not the film itself. See it on Netflix, it’s definitely not worth a theatrical price to see, unfortunately.


Hunter x Hunter (2011) Anime Review


The manga Bakuman is about two young manga artists (Takagi the writer, Mashiro the artist) who work their way up through the manga industry at it’s top selling publication- Weekly Shonen Jump. Written by two veteran manga creators, it’s a masterpiece on many levels, and at its core it’s both a critque of the industry and a how-to for those who want to become future manga artists. Another way to describe it is if Scott McCloud made his incredible Understanding Comics as a story about a young pair of creators working their way up through the ladder at Marvel Comics instead of in textbook form.

In chapter 8 of Bakuman (“Carrot and Stick”) there is a scene where the two young heroes first meet their editor Akira Hattori, and he tells them that there are two types of manga creators- “the Genius type” and “the Calculating type”. The Genius is the natural creator who draws comics they love and because of their natural talent and passion for their subject matter is able to come up with a hit manga that blows the audience away. The Calculator, on the other hand, looks at it from the audience’s point of view and tries to make something that will appeal to the greatest number of people regardless of their actual feelings about the subject matter.

In a lot of ways, through Hattori the creators are talking about classic writer dichotomy – the Pantser who makes it up as they go along and the Plotter who plans it all out – just taken to an extreme. And, of course, in reality just like that classic writer dichotomy, it’s rare for any writer to be a Genius/Pantser or Calculator/Plotter alone as almost all creators are some mix of the two extremes. Even a Panster will usually at least think about what will appeal to their audience, and a Plotter will generally pick subject matter they’re naturally attracted to and passionate about to some degree. (Few people are good at writing things they honestly hate or dislike, especially if they have any choice.)

As a result, it’s uncommon that you can look at any work and say “that was created by a Genius” or “that was created by a Calculator,” because after all, any work is normally a mix of the two and it’s hard to tell how much of each is involved. There are, however, exceptions to this, and one of those exceptions is something I came across on Netflix a few weeks back when I was looking for something to watch which I exercised- an anime called HUNTER X HUNTER (2011).

Hunter x Hunter is a manga/anime about a stubborn 12 year old boy named Gon who leaves his home village to become a Hunter- a person who travels the world seeking whatever it is they’ve chosen to seek. In his pseudo-modern fantasy world, there are Treasure Hunters, Monster Hunters, Bounty Hunters, Delicacy Hunters, and many other kinds, who brave dangers to find their targets. All of them, however, much first pass the Hunter Exam, which is where the story starts, and get a Hunter License that gives them free access to the world and status as members of the elite. Gon’s (missing) father was one of these great men, and through following his footsteps, Gon hopes to find him and experience the world himself.

Hunter x Hunter (2011, because it’s the second attempt to animate the Hunter x Hunter manga), which can also be read as “Hunter Hunter,” is perhaps the most calculated anime/manga I have ever seen in 20+ years of anime fandom. It started in 1998, and it’s like someone took all the popular elements of the hit manga of the previous two decades, disected them, and then based on extremely careful analysis produced the most planned piece of storytelling I’ve ever seen. I’m not just talking characters and plot elements, I’m talking story, pacing, backgrounds- you name it, there is not a single original element in this story- none. It’s like they had a computer analyze the history of manga and this was the end product.

Yet, and this goes to the skill of the creator Yoshihiro Togashi (creator of the also hit anime/manga YuYu Hakusho back in the 1980’s) I don’t mean that it’s unoriginal in a bad way. In fact, for what it is, it’s actually very well done, and in fact is almost perfect in a textbook sort of way. Whereas most manga are a rough exercise in creative serial pantsing, with the creators only thinking a few chapters ahead, Hunter x Hunter is extremely well plotted and thought out. Everything happens at a carefully measured pace, everything is introduced at exactly the right time in the right way. The humor is in the right spots, the chapters all end on cliffhangers of sorts, and there’s no sense of it being rushed, it’s a piece of art without a line or comma out of place.

Well, calling it a piece of “art” might be pushing it, it’s really a machine designed for maximum appeal and marketing potential. And, like any machine, there’s a certain cold, mechanical nature to it that keeps it from being in the same class as stories like Naurto, One Piece, and even Bleach, which are also top series from the same era. The creator definitely reaches to those levels, but he doesn’t quite make it because of the calculated nature of it all. It’s like Hattori says in that Bakuman chapter- the Calculator has the greatest potential for a hit and long-term success, but they don’t have the same potential as the Genius has for creating a true smash hit story that excites the audience.

In any case, I’d definitely recommend Hunter x Hunter (2011) as a watch, whether just to enjoy it as a well-told story, or to take it apart as a creator and see how the whole thing was so well put together. Either way, it’s time well spent.


The Street Fighter

When I mention the name Street Fighter, most of you probably picture something connected with this…

This is pretty natural, since the Street Fighter series of video games is a serious contender for the most popular game series of all time, and is without a doubt the best of the console arcade fighting games. However, prior to 1991’s release of Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior, for almost twenty years people would have had a completely different picture in their heads. This one…


1974’s The Street Fighter is perhaps one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made. The short version is that at the start of the 70’s Bruce Lee helped to create a martial arts movie boom, and the Japanese company Toei decided to get in on the action by producing a series of what could almost be called Karate Exploitation movies. Kung Fu was big, so they decided to cash in by producing Karate movies, and their flagship film, The Street Fighter, was based around a rising action star name Sonny Chiba.

The Street Fighter was released in Japan, and then worldwide to massive audience acclaim, and if you watch it then it’s not hard to tell why. The movie is shot surprisingly well with a decent budget, the script is just strong enough to keep it interesting, Chiba is charismatic as heck, and the fights are extremely well choreographed. But, on top of all that, the movie has a unique twist- Terry Tsuguri (Chiba) isn’t a heroic character at all, he’s a bastard of the first order who is more like an chaotic force of nature than a lead character. It’s a movie about lesser villains fighting worse villains, and the innocent people caught between them, and that gives the audience something different than the usual good vs. evil fare that tends to fill martial arts movies.

So, if you’re in the mood for some brutal karate action (it was the first film in American history to earn an X-Rating for violence) with a sense of style and one of the coolest theme songs of the 70’s, then check it out here on YouTube.


Review of the new SJW900 App!

Nailed it! Warning- Lots of swearing.

Voice Dream Reader

I always look for ways to improve my reading speed for books, and recently I came across the iOS app called Voice Dream Reader. It was a little expensive for an app, being $12, but it had glowing reviews and it sounded like what I was looking for, so I purchased it to give it a go.

To say that I was impressed is an understatement. Simply put, Voice Dream Reader is a fantastic program for reading on your iPhone or iPad which reads pretty much everything except Mobi (Amazon Kindle) files. But that isn’t the most important part! It’s real shining area is that it’s an amazing Text to Speech reader that turns any book into an audiobook being read by any of 100 different voices in 20 languages, with more high-quality synthetic voices being added all the time.

So now, I can read something, and then just switch to having it read to me as I go out to walk the dogs or run errands, and all without having to buy an expensive audiobook or worry about losing my place. It also syncs nicely with Dropbox or Google Drive for getting books onto the App with ease.


I’ve already used it to power through one book in record time, and plan to keep using it to help get through my Summer reading.

That said, I should note two things:

1) While the default voice “Heather” is comes with is really good, there are better voices in their catalog, but you have to pay between $2-$5 for each extra voice. The one that most impressed me was “Will”, which almost sounded like a real person.

2) These are still synthetic voices, and there is no comparison between them and the performance from a real audiobook reader. While synthetic voice technology has clearly made huge gains, a real reader brings the book more to life with things like inflection and tone changes that indicate different characters are speaking. Voice Dream doesn’t do that, but it still makes for a pretty good listening experience once you get used to it.


The Power of Privilege

The concept of Privilege (in the modern social justice sense) was coined by Peggy McIntosh in 1988 in her essay White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies, and was intended as a new way of looking at social inequality. At its core, the concept is very simple- we are all born with certain social advantages and disadvantages and we should be mindful of this fact when dealing with/judging other people. It is meant (in its original academic intent) as a lens through which to view society and how people treat each other.

This sounds like a great idea for reducing inequality, and it can be- it’s a tool for encouraging empathy and sympathy with others through self-reflection. We definitely need more empathy in this world, as people all too often get locked into their own little bubbles of “reality” and generally don’t think a lot about the situations and perspectives of others. The philosophy that’s come up to surround the concept of Privilege is that we should be mindful of the advantages we have in life, and be using those advantages to help those around us who are less fortunate. Whether it’s being mindful of the challenges faced by women in a sexist environment, the struggles faced by the LGBTQI community, or even the advantages that being of the dominant social group in a society (white in the United States, for example), using the concept of Privilege to encourage empathy, equal media representation, and equality has the potential to make the world a better place for everyone.

Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

While those passionate about social justice and inequality have been fast to see the benefits of using the concept of Privilege in a positive way, by in large, it has also come to be used in a number of negative ways as well.

1) As a way to force others to do your work for you while feeling you’ve accomplished something.

While the concept of Privilege should be used to further equality, instead it’s become a way to try to guilt people into following your own social agendas while doing as little yourself as possible. This happens time and time again in discussion of the arts and issues of Privilege, where those advocating social justice talk about diversity and the need for more viewpoints to be represented. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing, and diversity of viewpoints is good, but the problem is how and why they’re doing it.

Time and time again on Social Media, I see the same pattern. A discussion thread starts on the topic of inequality in the media or arts, or veers in that direction, and it turns into a giant debate about the representation of minorities in writing, audio drama, comics, film, etc. Okay, that’s fine, we’ve all seen discussions like this and it’s a good and healthy debate to have, but here’s where things will get sneaky.

Next time you see one of these debates, start to count the number of times words like “you” and “you should” and similar statements pop up. Then, for fun, try counting the number of “I” and “we” based statements. You’ll find that “you”-based statements will outnumber “I”-based statements in those discussions almost 10-1.

Why is this significant?

Well, you see, the point of the thread isn’t to talk about how WE are going to make media more equal, it is about how YOU are going to make media more equal. See the difference? It’s a pile of social justice believers trying to guilt each other (and the many more liberal minded people in the audience) into doing their work for them so that they can accomplish their goals while doing as little work as possible themselves. On top of that, it lets those with the social justice agenda feel they have accomplished something (slacktivism) while actually doing very little. I’ve seen countless threads where people will endlessly argue about how YOU should change your art to support their ideas of social justice, but for some reason they never get around to talking about how they are doing it. It’s a game as old as time- why do the work when you can get someone else to do it for you? And Privilege has turned into a big ole stick they can use to force you into it.

The concept of Privilege should be a way to help people reflect on how they can improve their work and themselves, but instead it’s all too often become a tool by which those with social justice agendas push others into furthering those agendas. And, of course, if people try to stand up those foisting their agendas on others, they’re told to “check their Privilege”…

2) To shut down conversation.

Sadly, while Privilege as a concept is meant to encourage discussion and exploration, in reality is it most often used to do the exact opposite. Wielding the word “Privilege” like a club, those in the pursuit of social justice often use it to silence the voices of those that they don’t agree with (because if you don’t agree with their ideas social justice, you’re evil, right?) and if someone says something or argues against them in a public forum the phrase “check your Privilege” is whipped out like a trump card to end the conversation.

  • “But, what if Venusians are partially responsible for their own economic situation and need to find new ways to rethink their lifestyles?”
  • “Check your Privilege! Venusian economics are the result of years of oppression by the Martians! How dare you sit there in your middle class Martian house with your middle class Martian job and suggest that there could be more complex causes to the situation than Martians being evil!”
  • “This was a show written by cats about feline life in the feline community, of course there aren’t any non-felines.”
  • “Check your Privilege! There should be more dog characters, or are you just racist?”

And if you try to argue against those who have slapped down the Privilege card, you are by default perceived to be siding with the status quo/oppressors, and are thus a Cat sympathizer/Martian supremacist who should no longer to be listened to by the community by virtue of your wrong-ness. You have offended the social justice/social media status quo that all right-thinking people should be following, and if you continue to argue you will be unfriended, blacklisted, and no longer welcome at significant social events.

Again, this was a tool for creating conversation and exploring the deeply nuanced nature of society, but now it’s become a tool for those in pursuit of social justice to shut down discussion and free speech with which they disagree- thus accomplishing the exact opposite. Speaking of nuance, this is another problem with wielding Privilege as it is all too often used in social media today…

3) Its very use in debate creates an automatic oppressor/oppressed dynamic

The moment the word “Privilege” enters a conversation, the person using that word is automatically labeling the person they’re using it against as siding with “the oppressor” against whatever minority viewpoint they support, and labeling themselves as a member of (or ally of) “the oppressed”. From the moment the word enters the conversation in a debate context, the person using it is claiming the moral high ground and framing the whole conversation around a struggle for equality that they support. Even if the person they’re using it against has valid points or arguments, it doesn’t matter- they’re automatically on the defensive and perceived by the audience to be supporting the “wrong” position and must now fight to justify themselves and their argument. (Something the person who just whipped out the word “Privilege” no longer needs to do because now they’re standing up against a bully, and who doesn’t want to side with the underdog?)

Going back to the previous point, the word “Privilege” has turned into a conversation killer than automatically gets all “right thinking” people to rally behind you. It biases the conversation, and poisons the whole debate by attacking the character of the person who is arguing against whatever position the social justice advocate is advocating. In a lot of ways, it’s indirectly calling anyone who argues against the social justice stance a “Nazi” and making them argue their way out of being a Nazi in the audience’s minds. (And who listens to Nazis? Other Nazis! That’s who!) This makes the whole argument a losing struggle, and one which will almost certainly end in a meaningless mess, which is natural because…

4) The whole concept of Privilege as used on Social Media is largely meaningless anyways.

The truth is, the whole way people use Privilege in online debate is pretty much a joke. To claim someone has Privilege over others is already a racist/classist/culture-ist statement, after all, we’re all individuals with different life experiences. The first rule of respecting others is recognizing that we all (rich, poor, black, brown, white, purple, polka-dotted, etc.) have our own unique experiences that come from our unique upbringings and that we shouldn’t be trying to label people or lump them into groups. When one person whips out the “Privilege” card, they have no way to knowing what the life is like of the person they’re arguing with, and even if they do know that person, there are so many things about ourselves that we hide from those around us. Taking a stance against “Privilege” is automatically attempting to label and classify others who you don’t know, and don’t have the right to classify. (Or, if you do, they get the right to label and classify you too!)

On top of that, anyone on the internet is automatically Privileged, since most of the world barely has TV, much less internet access. So it’s already a bunch of Privileged people arguing over who is more or less Privileged, which is pretty silly, when you think about it.

Like I said, meaningless.

Final Thoughts

So, after all this, should we stop using the word Privilege and throw out the whole idea? I mean, if it’s doing as much harm as it is good, is it worth keeping around? Like anything, the answer is- it depends. As a lens for viewing society and encouraging self-reflection, I think Privilege is a pretty good tool. It really could help us to make society better by making people think about things outside of their own little Monkey Sphere.

That said, the way people are using Privilege in the social media world has to change. Using it as a tool to beat others into submission to your personal social-political agendas is just wrong, and produces the opposite of conversation and diversity. Change comes from ourselves, and being leaders, not from pushing our beliefs on others and using social peer-pressure to force them to do what we want them to do. True diversity comes from free speech, and people being allowed to say and express things that you may not agree with. While everyone has the right to comment on what others do, and should discuss issues of inequality and social justice, shutting down voices doesn’t accomplish that goal and only breeds anger and resentment.

It’s a complex issue, and I don’t claim to have the answer, but the next time someone whips out the word Privilege in a conversation, think about what effect it has and why they’re really using it. Are they using it to really promote actual discussion of inequality, or just to promote themselves?




TyranoBuilder- Visual Novel creation made simple

I’ve always been interested in visual novels as an art form, to me they’re the idea of Choose Your Own Adventure stories taken to the next level. I also love the sheer democratic nature of them, not only in the choices you can make, but also the fact they’re so easy to make. At least, they are in theory, and software like Ren’py, Novelty, and now TyranoBuilder have been working to make that into a reality.

TyranoBuilder is a “new” (in English) piece of software for graphically building visual novels that’s just been released (on STEAM for $16.99). It lets you make visual novels that you can then sell royalty free as phone apps and on various online stores. It looks pretty cool, and after reading through the tutorial documentation (which I highly recommend reading before you try playing with it) I’d say it’s one of the slickest methods for making visual novels I’ve ever seen.

Scenes are built on a timeline based dragging and dropping various elements into play, which makes it dead simple to put a scene together. Graphics, music, dialogue and other elements can be easily assembled in any way you choose, and then you can branch those scenes off into other scenes which allow the reader to control the flow of the story in any way you see fit.


And while people think of visual novels as being linked to anime, remember that visual novels don’t have to be in an anime style. While it’s certainly the most popular style, I’ve seen them used with pencil sketches and even heard of people using pictures of themselves and their family as the characters in stories! You could also use free 3-D character software like DAZ Studio to generate characters of your own, or some other character building software like Heromachine and use them as part of a visual novel story.

If you’re interested, here is a page of story/planning resources for Ren’py (another visual novel maker, and the biggest player before Tyrano Builder’s release). That resource page, under software, includes a number of pieces of flow-charting software like Chatmapper which could be used to script/plan a branching visual novel story pretty well. And, here is a collection of free backgrounds and character (sprites) for use with Ren’py or Tyrannobuilder:

Visual novels seem to be having a bit of resurgence recently, likely because of services like STEAM and the Apple/Android app stores making them easy to actually sell and distribute as content. Heck, technically even stories like the critically acclaimed Walking Dead “game” are really just a form of visual novel, just with much more playability and advanced graphics. As a result, many different types have popped up, from Space Opera like Sunrider to deep Historical pieces like The Rainy Port Keelung.

If I had the time, I’d probably do a little visual novel making myself! Looks pretty fun and easy!



Jackie Chan: My Stunts

In a follow-up to my piece on What writers can learn from Jackie Chan from last week, I hunted down a copy of the documentary Jackie Chan: My Stunts from 1999. In a lot of ways, this documentary is the 90 minute version of Tony Zhou’s 14 minute analysis, with Jackie revealing all the old-school techniques they use to do stunts in his films.

I have to say that seeing him show off his approach to producing stunt-driven action films is really inspiring. It really shows you how much thought and detail go into what seem like the simplest stunts, and how the movies he does are more vehicles for the Chinese-opera type sequences than they are movies in the traditional sense. I love how much emphasis he also places on the human element, which is something Hollywood has a pretty spotty track record on.

Now I really want to sit down and watch a bunch of Chan’s older films that I haven’t seen yet! Luckily, YouTube has a pretty good selection of them.