Saturday, December 10, 2011

NaNoWriMo Wrap-Up, Reestablishing Rythyms

With a little over a week having passed since NaNoWriMo's conclusion, I'll be working to reestablish the normal biweekly frequency of posts on the Nexus blogs.  This year's NaNo was marginally a success, even with Skyrim's intervention, but my plan to complete the draft and chronicle my progress on Fictional Matters went up in smoke. 

I was forced to suspend work on the doujinshi project in NaNo's favor, so now begins the unpleasant task of delving back into the fold.  One positive result of the November hiatus is the opportunity to further hone my skills with Photoshop and drawing in general. Though my skill with penciling and lineart are nearly where I need them to be, I still haven't gotten the hang of coloring or applying values, whether in traditional painting styles or manga tones. I'm almost afraid to go back to the pages I did in October for fear of the amount of work that will need to be done.  But the sooner this doujin is finished, the sooner I can move on to the next one.

Monday, October 31, 2011

State of the Nexus: 2011-10-31

With NaNoWriMo 2011 less than a day away, Goods to Buy, Watches to Wear, and this blog will most likely be on a November-long hiatus while novel writing takes up most of my time. On the other hand, Fictional Matters will benefit from the NaNoWriMo frenzy with daily updates of my progress and perhaps reflections on the NaNoWriMo process as I'm going through it. My goal this year is to not only make the 50,000-word threshold, but to have a full first draft completed by November 30th. That means to meet that goal, I'll need to write anywhere between 60,000 (the bare minimum I'd estimate Project "Wander" to require) to 200,000 words in the next thirty days. So be sure to stay tuned to Fictional Matters for all of the NaNoWriMo craziness this November!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

State of the Nexus, 2011-10-21

In preparation for the time commitments of NaNoWriMo, and also to get myself acclimated to the schedule of updating several blogs more than once a week, I've changed the update schedule for Fictional Matters, Watches to Wear, and Goods to Buy to every Wednesday and Saturday.  Things might drop off sometimes in the course of November, as I'm expecting this year's project to well exceed the 50k-word minimum, and I'm planning to do my best to get a complete first draft done by Nov. 30th.  With just over a week to go before November, I've begun reviewing my old notes and conducting new research to make sure I have the background and milieu information that I'll need, and will probably start working through some preliminary outlines in the last days of October.

At the same time, I've completed the sketches for my first doujinshi and am now about a fifth of the way into inking the pages.  I expect the inking to go more quickly than the sketching, but everything that comes after that - screentones, drawing in word bubbles, etc. - will be completely new territory for me, and I'm not sure how quickly that will go.  As much as I hoped to get the doujinshi e-published by the end of October, allowing it to do its thing while I'm plunking away at NaNoWriMo, I'm doubtful it'll be ready in time.  
I'll arrange to post some of the work I've done for the doujinshi on the Nexus in the near future, and will start experimenting with digital "painting" techniques and software with the goal of producing the doujinshi's cover art in a more colorful medium. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

State of the Nexus, 2011-10-13

In each State of the Nexus post, I'll be addressing (on a monthly to bi-weekly basis) the goings on in the Nexus Blog Collective and other Natty Words ventures. 

This month, work has continued apace to get the core three blogs on a regular post schedule.  I'd decided on a Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday update schedule, but may look into a Wednesday-Saturday twice-a week approach until I get the pacing right withour neglecting other projects.

The primary project this month is getting the doujinshi I began in September finished and on the market.  What originally had been conceived of as a 16-18 pager became 30 in my initial storyboarding, and is likely to make that mark, as I've just finished the rough sketch for page 26.  I'm not sure there'll be a market for it, but it's something that I've been meaning to do for a while now, and a great way to force myself to get more familiar with my digital drawing tools and drawing more frequently in general.  I have a couple of sequels loosely in mind if this one manages to attract enough custom, and ultimately the skills I hone in working on these doujin will eventually be put to use in penning a longer, more serious work.

Also on the agenda for October is laying the necessary groundwork for this year's NaNoWriMo project, codenamed "Wander."  It's actually a story idea I've had for more than ten years now.  But I'd tabled it because I felt I needed more experience before tackling something so ambitious and different from the sf/f fare I usually work with.  With several NaNoWriMos under my belt, though, now may be the time.  I need to line up the story arcs with historical dates and events, and flesh out the plot details, but I'm optimistic about my chances of NaNoWriMoing a successful rough draft.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Misc Thoughts: On Life & Faith, Part One: Free Will

The rather feeble attempts by characters in Dexter Season 6's inaugural episode to explain religious beliefs to the titular homicidal sociopath (who is understandably mystified by the largely incoherent ramblings yet earnestly curious about the subject) have made me reflect on my own views on faith and religiosity.  This reflection was also tempered by the sad announcement of Steve Job's passing last week, and subsequently flecked with thoughts on life, death, and the legacy a person leaves behind.

My perspectives on these subjects have been hard-won.  They are the products of years of uncertainty, introspection, and a deep and abiding fear of nonexistence that honestly kept me up at night.  While it will inevitably result in a very lengthy post, I thought I'd take the opportunity presented in this week's Nexus of Misc update to share my viewpoint in the hope that its presence on the internet might prove helpful.

For life to have any meaning, free will is a necessary predicate.

This tenet reflects the notion that all things derive their meaning from the actions that can be performed on or through them.  Those actions, in turn, acquire meaning only if they are undertaken from the context of a choice.  And a choice can only be a choice if the individual making it is actually able to select between two or more actions - that is, if that individual possesses the faculty of free will.  If we concede that there is no free will - that the "choice" of actions is illusory and any given person "chooses" to undertake an action because he or she is, in truth, only capable of perform that particular action in the given context - then we can derive no meaning from that action . . . or the individuals or objects that it may involve.

Take, for example, our notions of criminal responsibility.  Implicit within our justice system is the notion that individuals can - and should - be held responsible for the consequences of their actions.  A convicted murder is punishable for taking another person's life because he or she intended to do so, and accordingly structured his or her actions with the purpose of killing of another human being.  While it is the act of murder that society finds abhorrent and which brings about the deplorable consequence of a dead individual, the law traces causality - and responsibility - for that death back to the murderer's choice to undertake the murder.

If the act of murder occurred because the murderer considered at least two options - to kill, or not to kill - and choose the former, then it was the murderer's decision that brought about the murder, and it is that decision for which the murderer can be held accountable.  If, on the other hand, the choice was illusory and the murderer could not "choose" to do anything but kill, then culpability for the death falls to factors beyond the murderer's control.  If there is no free will, the murderer is reduced to a mere object: just as the gun is not morally culpable for firing the deadly bullet because the murderer pulled its trigger, the murderer him or herself is not culpable for pulling the trigger because that action was determined by outside factors; in effect, his or her own "trigger" was pulled, and he or she, like the gun, could not help but perform the action he or she was designed to do.

Simply put, without free will, an action cannot be assigned a value like "bad" or "good," because no choice could ever be made, and therefore no other action could have been taken in its place.  The badness or goodness of any given action is determined by its relationship with alternative actions; if there are no alternatives, and the action is the only thing that could possibly happen, then there is no frame of reference by which it could be described as "bad" - or more precisely, "worse than" - or "good" - or "better than."

This tenet does not prove that we actually possess free will - arguably, like God Himself, free will is an abstraction that defies quantifiable proof - but it paints a very bleak picture of what reality is like if free will does not, in truth, exist.  This makes the notion of free will extremely attractive, a notion that we may assume to be true simply because we're better off if we do.  Ultimately, we are in no worse position to assume free will exists and be proven wrong than to assume that there is no free will, and be proven right.  As a result, there is no risk in accepting the notion of free will as an article of faith.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Nexus of Misc Feature: How I Lost 60 Lbs In 18 Months

This post is the first of a weekly series of feature posts that will only appear on the Nexus of Misc.  And I figured one of the best ways to kick off the series would be to address a topic that I'm sure those who know me - and have seen me in person in the last year or so - have been wondering about.  For those who haven't, I can sum it up in eleven words:

I lost roughly 60 lbs between November 2009 and May 2011.

I've been on the heavy side of things for most of my life, but I reached maximum mass around the first half of 2009, where a combination of bar exam stress and cortisone side effects had me at a weight of 180+ lbs.  (I can only estimate, because at the peak of things I didn't have the heart to weigh myself.)  For someone who's 5'4", that's on - if not beyond - the borderline of obesity.  In the timeframe described above, I lowered that weight down to the low 120s, and have maintained my weight in the mid 120s since then.

A number of people have commented on it, and a few asked me what I'd done to bring about the change.  I did my best to explain on the fly, but the complete answer is complicated, and doesn't lend itself to pithy explanation.  Like a long, relaxing stroll, it involves a winding and languorous path.  One that, like most worthwhile journeys, begins in an unexpected (and, on reflection, somewhat unbelievable) place.

My journey began when I read Naoki Urasawa's eight-volume series Pluto in one night.

A Break in the Rhythm of Things

Some history is in order to put it all in context.  Naoki Urasawa is the talented mangaka behind the critically acclaimed (and much longer) manga series Monster.  Monster tells a sweeping tale of mystery, suspense, horror, and loss, in a world populated by a profoundly human cast of characters.  It is the cathartic equivalent of a gut punch to the solar plexus, and it is one of those stories that resonates within you long after you've finished reading it.  It is a quintessential story that matters (and will be memorialized as such in an upcoming Stories That Matter post on Fictional Matters).

I've encountered novels so compelling that I was unable to put them down until I'd read them through completely; Monster was the first manga to do the same to me, and its story spans (I believe) eighteen 150+ page volumes.  As a result, I read it all, from volume one to volume eighteen, in a single 12-hour span.

Pluto is equally captivating as a story, but it contains an added draw for an otaku like me: it is a reinterpretation of one of the seminal story arcs of Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy series.  Astro Boy will always have a special place in my heart as it was my first anime series (and, in most respects, the first full-length anime series produced in Japan), but it also overlaps with one of my foremost science fiction obsessions: human-like robots and the philosophical exploration of artificial intelligence.  This grand triumvirate of elements - a compelling plot, a connection to a childhood mythos, and an exploration of issues very near and dear to me - made Pluto one of the most poignant stories of my adult life.  When I'd finished reading it, I was compelled to simply sit alone and reflect on what I'd experienced, to process it all on both a conscious and subconscious level.  So consumed was I in processing it all that I ended up skipping meals for that day, which broke up my usual food routine.

Strangely, despite not eating, I wasn't hungry.  I suppose I was too caught up to notice any hunger pangs.  Eventually I needed an outlet for all the things I'd thought about, and ended up writing my first short story in several years over the course of the next couple of days.

The break in my usual meal cycle made me realize that the cravings that usually accompanied my eating habits could come second to more urgent needs.  It just so happened that the month of November was not only NaNoWriMo, but a month in which a last-minute book project at work consumed a great portion of my time and attention.  Between the two, I was kept busy enough that I could eat less, and be too preoccupied with work to attend to lingering feelings of hunger or cravings.  In time, I found that the cravings disappeared, and my appetite at mealtimes seemed to have grown smaller as well.

Life Imitating Art: Painting My Avatar

The results of my changing habits became apparent to me, as I ended up losing around 10-15 lbs by December 2009.  It was enough to motivate me to take active steps toward continuing the weight loss.  I purposefully cut out snacking, and kept my portions at meals sensible.  My entry into Facebook around this time mean that I needed to draw myself a new avatar, and that need coupled with my weight loss efforts gave me the opportunity to literally draw a picture of the me I wanted to become.  Though drawn in an anime style, I daresay it still resembles me, albeit an idealized version that is far thinner than I was at the time I drew it.  In that way, the picture became a kind of target for my weight loss progress, a visual representation of my end goal.  It was an avatar I forced myself to grow into; instead of modifying the image to match what I looked like, I would modify what I looked like to more close resemble that image.

That same avatar is the one I currently use throughout the Nexus of Misc Blog Collective, and I'm happy to say that its resemblance to me (or is it my resemblance to it?) grows more striking with each passing day.

The Final 20 Lbs: Tim Ferriss's The Four-Hour Body

By the end of 2010, I had shaved off around 40 lbs but began to plateau as far as my own makeshift weight loss efforts went.  A sample post on Gizmodo lead me to read Tim Ferriss's The Four-Hour Body, in which he  introduces the tenets of what he called the "Slow-Carb" diet.  The introductory chapter to the diet can be found on Gizmodo.  Essentially, it advises the dieter to avoid eating "fast-carbs": heavily processed foods, or anything that can be white in color (with a few exceptions, eggs, cottage cheese, and cauliflower among them).  Ferriss's subsequent chapters explain how to take the diet to more extreme levels, but I only applied the basic tenets to my eating habits.  In a matter of months, I'd succeeded in dropping another 20 lbs, and ended up right about where my avatar image had placed me over a year earlier.

Since then I've relaxed my eating habits to include the occasional off-limits item, but I still maintain the 7th-day binge meal cycle espoused in The Four-Hour Body to keep my metabolism from downshifting.  I've also taken a few pages from his exercise chapters and now include some swinging repetitions with a 40-lb kettlebell along with an ever-increasing set of push ups (I'm at 45 reps now, an absolutely unheard of number when I was heavier.  As a high schooler, my max was around 10.)  The interesting thing is that even though I've relaxed my eating habits and my weight (and waist/hip size) appears to have stabilized, I've noticed that the vestiges of my abdomen's paunch (the last element of my appearance I'm hoping to winnow away) is slowly disappearing.  Once it's gone, it'll be a matter of homeostasis as opposed to an active change, which, with my revised eating tendencies, should be less of a challenge.

Take-Away Lessons

So now that I've told the full story of my shedding 60 lbs in a year and a half, what can we learn from it?  I'm no doctor or health professional, and things will inevitably vary from person to person, but these are the personal lessons that I've taken from my experience:

The first thing I discovered is that the hunger and cravings can be overridden by more pressing matters.  If you're too busy to eat odds are you'll be too busy to feel hungry, too.  You can use that to help you surmount the initial - and in my mind, most monumental - obstacle of weight loss: changing your ingrained eating habits.  Once those ingrained tendencies have been loosened up a bit, things flow much more easily.

Another lesson is that setting a tangible goal - whether its a particular weight or waist size, or a image that you work toward, as in the case of my avatar - can give you both direction and motivation to see your efforts through.  It's also extremely rewarding and self-affirming to set a goal and then achieve it through discipline and force of will.  Through this experience, I'm convinced that willpower - and, underlying it, the fundamental choice to make a change in one's life - is the essential element in undergoing any lifestyle change.  I suspect many of those who "try" and "fail" in making those changes actually do neither: they don't fail at weight loss because a part of them never really committed to trying to make the change, the part that is too ingrained in the status quo or averse to the uncomfortable aspects of the change to want to see it through.  True commitment, in the form of a complete conscious decision to effect a change, is the essential cornerstone of any lifestyle improvement.

Finally, the last lesson is to not be afraid to look for help when you need it.  When I'd reached the 140s and found myself plateauing with my own methods, I knew that I still wanted to lose another 10-20 lbs and that I would need to find some other methods to effect that change.  The Four-Hour Body's publication was most timely in that regard, and if it hadn't been available I'm not sure I would have been able to attain my goal.  Whether help comes in the form of a guidebook or the advice of a friend, acquaintance, or health professional, it's important to acknowledge when its available, and when accepting it may be a necessary step in achieving your personal goals.

Monday, September 26, 2011

This Week In The Nexus: 2011-09-26

Welcome to the inaugural "The Week In The Nexus" post, which will be a weekly series that highlights some of the content you'll be seeing from the other Nexus blogs.

Fictional Matters: This week kicks off a series of posts looking at NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, which has taken place every November since 1999.  We'll explain what NaNoWriMo is, how to get ready for it, and where the ideas for novels come from.

Watches to Wear: A new Watch Primer post that talks about movements, the first Watch I'm Wearing feature as well as the initial"Watching the Watches" entry.

Goods to Buy: More selections on what to buy, and how to determine whether something is worth your money.

As for the Nexus of Misc itself, it will feature posts that look at the blogging enterprise as a whole, as well as special content that otherwise wouldn't fit on any of the other member blogs.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My History with Keyboards & Keyboard Review #001: Filco Majestouch-2 Linear R Limited Edition Tenkeyless FKBN87MR/EB2

My fascination with mechanical keyboards began with the metallic twang of the Model M attached to the first computers I used as a child.  But my initiation into the realm of modern, mechanical-switch keyboards can be traced back to a visit to Akihabara in 2008.  My primary business in Akiba was at the Mandarake doujinshi store, but once I'd finished up there, I explored that particular back street and found the Clevery 2 computer store, which specializes in peripherals, particularly keyboards.

(Sadly, going through my pictures folder, it looks like I didn't snap up one of the store itself.  Guess I was too starry-eyed at the time.  This image comes from the Clevery website.)

I tried my hands on every keyboard they had on display there, and in the end, a sturdily built (and $100+!) 104-key model with the name "Filco" emblazoned on it won me over.  Only the fact that I had come to Tokyo on a midnight bus from Osaka--and that I would be further laden down by the stacks of doujinshi I'd acquired from Comiket 73 on the trip back--kept me from purchasing it then.  Upon my return to the states, armed with the magical keywords "Filco" and "Majestouch," I discovered the forums, and was initiated into the world of cherry mechanical keyswitches.  I soon determined that the keyboard that had won me over had Cherry Black linear keyswitches, but that most typists preferred the softer touch of the tactile Cherry Browns.  Trusting the consensus, I purchased my first full-size Majestouch, with Brown switches, from beNippon. Over time, I would sell off the full-size for a tenkeyless model (one without the number pad), and expand my collection to include tenkeylesses with Black and Blue (tactile with a *click*) Cherry switches, along with a Topre Realforce 87U and a Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2.

I thought my foray into mechanical keyboards would end there, until I discovered through geekhack that Filco had released a tenkeyless model with the elusive Red Cherry switches--and, more than that, that it was available through Amazon.   I immediately searched for it, and--despite a general moratorium on purchases I've imposed around tax time--purchased it.  There were twelve left in stock when I came across the product page, meaning that after my purchase there were 11.  I briefly wondered if I'd been too hasty, adding yet another $100+ keyboard to my stable. 

The remaining 11 keyboards were gone by the next day.

My hope in purchasing this Cherry Red keyboard was to find a middle ground between the smoothness of the linear Blacks (which was my favorite Cherry keyswitch) with the lightness of the tactile Browns.  This was the general description of the Reds on geekhack, so I felt fairly confident that I'd finally found the best of both worlds in this keyboard.

Now, as I type this review on it, I can say that I have.

The "Limited Edition" keyboard came with the red WASD keys, while I had a spare red ESC from my other Filcos.  The keys depress with the same light touch that are the hallmark of the more well-known and widely used Cherry Browns (also used, for example, in the Kinesis Advantage Keyboard), but without the tactile "hump" in the resistance curve that I personally find detracting.  Within an hour of switching to it, typing has become more natural to me as it has on any of the myriad keyboards I've used before.

 (Close-up of the red WASD keys)

(As with the Filco with Black linears, the caps and scroll LEDs are red in this 'board.)

I've yet to use this 'board for gaming purposes, but as I tend to be a button masher, I suspect that the Black linears are still king in that department for me.  Nevertheless, I feel quite confident that I've finally found the keyboard I've been looking for these past three years.  As a writer and editor, the keyboard really is the definitive tool of my trade, and having one that suits my typing style so well makes every task that much more enjoyable.

(The 'board comes in a understated black box with simple lettering.)

Beyond the keyboard itself, the other gem of the experience is learning that Filco keyboards are now available on, as they are sold by the Keyboard Co UK (and fulfilled by Amazon, meaning that super-saver shipping applies!).  While the 87-key, tenkeyless version is sold out at the time of this writing, the full 104-key version is still available.  Also available are tenkeyless versions of the 'board with tactile Browns, linear Blacks, and clicky Blues, as well as full 104-key versions with Browns (in a Metallic Blue shell!) and Blues.

Fictional Thought #001: Revisiting the Rejection Pile for Kernels of Truth

It's been more than five years since I last sent out short fiction submissions, and on a whim I decided to look back at those stories.  I've always been a bit embarrassed to look back at my older stories--even the ones that made it to print--so up to this point I've simply let the ones that have collected their full measure of rejections collect dust in my files.  Reading Nei Gaiman's short story collection Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, however, made me realize that some of those stories might be salvageable.  Or more than that, truly great stories that I had failed, whether through lack of skill or experience, to tell properly. 

I've only managed to work my way through one and a half of them so far, but the mistakes literally leap out at me from the pages.  This could be either a good or bad thing.  Maybe it means I've gotten much better in the last five years; or maybe it means I was crap then, and I'm still crap (though of a slightly lesser magnitude) now.  I'm prepared to reserve judgment on that determination.  But what surprises me is how clearly I can see the gem hidden within each story--a kernel of cathartic truth (for it is truth that the storyteller seeks to share, though every word from his mouth and character on the page is, by the very nature of fiction, a clever lie) that could serve to animate a story, the way the soul can be said to animate a human being--and the sense of excitement I feel at the prospect of nurturing those kernels into a new form, one hopefully more true to them than my previous attempts have been.  In both cases, it's been so long since I'd written the stories that I had completely forgotten about their kernels, so it's almost as if they are care packages that I'd given to myself, more than half a decade ago.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Fictional Review #001: Sherlock (TV Series)

A post by Lynn Flewelling (author of The Nightrunner Series and The Tamir Triad, both of which will receive their own fictional reviews in the future) on her blog Talk in the Shadows first alerted me to the BBC's modern reboot of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective.  Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and 221B Baker Street are no strangers to either film or television, but the creators of Sherlock endeavored something that previous incarnations dared not to: shed the Victorian trappings of the original books--in which the milieu often plays as vivid a part as Conan Doyle's inventive plots--for more contemporary surrounds.  The result could have degenerated into a flimsy pastiche with familiar names pasted onto characters so disfigured by the "update" as to bear little more than passing resemblance to their origins.  Instead, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (of Doctor Who fame) reinvigorate Conan Doyle's signature duo by seamlessly transplanting them into the midst of 21st-century London.

Heightening the writers' strong script and plotlines are Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, respectively.  Martin Freeman has made a career of playing the everyman, from Tim Canterbury in The Office to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's Arthur Dent, and he plays Dr. Watson's straight-man role masterfully.  At the same time, Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes manages to evoke every eccentricity of the original without the benefit of the man's trademark deerstalker cap, capecoat, or pipe.  Together they possess a strong chemistry that evokes precisely the kind of quirky friendship that underscored Conan Doyle's stories.  Highly recommended for anyone in need of a good story, whether a fan of the original or not.

Available at in a two-disc Series One DVD or Blu-Ray set.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Launch Date: 3/21/2011

Starting on Monday, March 21, 2011, The Nexus of Misc will receive daily updates!