general news


So here’s how behind I am: this site has been running the WordPress Twenty Eleven theme since 2012 or so. Now that the Twenty Twenty-One theme has just shipped, I decided to upgrade to the Twenty Twenty theme.

A few features and differences:

  • A lot more space and readability, with better typography (I think)
  • Much easier to read and navigate on a mobile device.
  • The stuff that used to be in the sidebar has moved to the bottom of the page. Look below to see things like archives, links, recent posts, and all that jazz.
  • I nuked the little “share to social media” stuff because nobody ever used it.
  • There is a privacy policy. This is stupid and useless, but at some point Google will probably ding me points because I don’t have one. Bottom line, I don’t collect data, and don’t sue me.

I think that’s it. Let me know if you see anything obviously broken.


Book layouts in Apple Pages

I do my book layouts in Apple Pages. Yes, I should be using InDesign. No, I don’t want to pay $35/month for something I use once a year. Apple Pages worked okay for layouts until version 5.0 came out in 2013, when they tried making the OSX and iOS versions have parity with each other, at which point they removed hundreds of features from the desktop version and said, “everything in the desktop version works on your iPhone!” (This, coupled with the move away from Intel, makes me fear the future, when there is no real Mac anymore, and they just have expensive iPads with keyboards, and they are useless for real work. That’s another rant.)

Anyway, Pages has evolved in the last seven years, and now I don’t have to keep an antique copy of Pages 4 to do layouts. I’ve done two books this year, mine and Keith Buckley’s, and Pages has more or less worked for them.

Here are my tips on how to lay out a book in Pages. This is not a complete guide, but maybe it will help you avoid any problems.


  • I write in Scrivener, then either copy/paste all of the text into Pages, or export to a .DOCX and open that in Pages. I’m sure you could write the whole thing in Word or Google Docs or even in Pages. Whatever works.
  • I usually set everything to Body (see below on setting it up) and then go back and fix headings and first body paragraphs and such.
  • After you do this once, make a template of that doc with all of the text scraped out and use that next time.
  • I lock down all of my text before it comes to Pages. The spelling/grammar in Pages is better than Scrivener, but it’s still pretty piss-poor. I hate to endorse this, but Google Docs has a far better spellcheck because it’s constantly being trained on millions of words of text per second. I usually paste my locked text into Google Docs, do a check, and reconcile everything in Scrivener.

Numbering and sections:

  • Document (the upper right corner button) > Document > Facing Pages gives you different left and right page layouts, which is what Pages broke forever.
  • Always use section breaks, not page breaks. (It’s a bummer there’s not a keyboard shortcut for this.)
  • In Document go to the Section tab, and set Section starts on to Right Page. (If you set this once before you change your page breaks to section breaks, it will ripple through the rest of the book. If it doesn’t, you might need to set this manually in every section.)
  • You’ll have a bunch of front matter sections (title, copyright, TOC) and then the actual chapters. In the section where chapter 1 starts, set that to start at page 1. The first page of the first chapter should be 1. Leave page numbers off of every section before this. (Technically, the cover page should start with i, then go ii, iii, iv, etc (lowercase) through all the front matter, but you don’t need to get cute and show those numbers unless this is an academic journal.)
  • In each section on Document > Section, it should be Match previous section and numbering should be Continue previous section. You should also set Left and right pages are different, and Hide on first page of section.
  • Also on the above, you should set Section starts on to Right Page. This will result in every odd page being on the right, and every even page being on the left. This also means every chapter starts on the right page, with an odd number. Yes, this will result in blank pages. Books have been printed this way since the sixteenth century. Pick up any book that wasn’t self-published by someone in MS Word and look at the right page number. Trust me on this.
  • …But, if you have a blank left page, this will screw everything up in Pages, of course. Blank left pages won’t count against numbering. So page 15 has text, page 16 is blank, and the next chapter starts with page 16 on the right.
  • To fix this, you need to restart numbering with the correct number of the left page on the first page of the chapter. Don’t do this until your book is fairly locked down, because you’ll just have to redo it every time you add or delete a page.
  • I always create a Header & Footer – left and Header & Footer – right and assign them accordingly. Put author name in the left header, title in the right. I’ve also seen book title left, story or chapter title right.
  • I usually left-justify the left page number and right-justify the right. Marie, if you’re reading this, feel free to tell me I’m wrong here. I just noticed every David Foster Wallace book you designed centers them, and every one before you doesn’t. Maybe left/right went out of style in the early 00s and I didn’t get the memo.
  • By the way, my “bunch of front matter” (and everyone else’s) is the following sections:
    1. A right page that’s just the book title and nothing else.
    2. An “also by” section on the back of that page.
    3. A right page that’s just the book title and author name. Maybe your press name and logo, but whatever.
    4. On the back of that, the copyright info and notice.
    5. Starting on a right page, The TOC.
    6. Also starting on a right page, any introduction, publisher’s note, preface, dedication, or whatever else. (Nobody ever reads any of this, so don’t waste your time. Trust me, I wrote book introductions.)

For the Title style used at the start of chapters:

  • Delete any blank body paragraphs above or below the title. Each chapter should start with a single Title paragraph, then the body text. Don’t add a bunch of blank paragraphs to add space.
  • Click on a Title. In Format (upper right button) go to Style tab, and set After Paragraph to the point size of your Body style (probably 11)
  • The Before Paragraph doesn’t work for the first paragraph in a section. (But you can use Pages on your phone! It’s great!)
  • A hack: Go to Layout tab. In Borders & Rules, set a top border of a single line. Make it 70 pt wide, then set its color to white. Select the top position, then put in an offset of 50pt. (If you could simply make this offset 130pt, that would be great, but you can’t for some damn reason.)
  • After fixing the title once, make sure to update the Title style (a button will appear next to it when you make changes) so changes percolate to the rest of your Titles.
  • I shouldn’t need to tell you that your titles should be sans fonts and your body text should have serifs.

Body text stuff:

  • Go to an indented (i.e. not-first) paragraph and update Body so that’s the default style for all of your body text.
  • Set that style to use justified text.
  • Make a Body-first style based on Body that has no indent. Use that for the first paragraph of each chapter.
  • I always assign a shortcut to that style to make it faster to use. I usually set Title to F1, Body-first to F2, Body to F3, and a Body-centered to F4.
  • I’m not into Drop Caps, but if you like having the first letter or first word of your chapter four or five lines tall like a Gutenberg bible, they finally fixed this in Pages. Go to Format > Style and there’s a Drop Cap option. Pick a style and set this in your Body-first style.

I’m probably forgetting stuff. And I’m sure I’ve pissed someone off by saying not to use a sans font for the body text. Also, I wrote this at the end of 2020. If you’re reading this in 2027 and none of it works anymore, it’s because Apple has changed everything seven times. Anyway, hope this helps.


Vacation, CDs, Drones, Etc

  • I still have a new book out.
  • I am on vacation from writing for a bit. I don’t want to get into the next thing, and want to take some time off. But I am also going stir crazy not writing every day, and the last time I took more than a few weeks off, it suddenly turned into like ten years. It’s really hard to build up momentum again when you come to a dead stop.
  • I am still hopelessly addicted to I think I could watch it for hours.
  • I realized yesterday that I completely missed the CDs-in-cars era. The two cars I had in Seattle from 95-99 had tape players, and on longer trips, I’d sometimes use a cassette adapter to play a MiniDisc in it. Then I didn’t have a car from 99-07. We bought two cars in Denver in 07, and both of them had CD players, but by then, it was all about the iPod with the built-in aux port. I think the entire time I had the Yaris from 07 to 14, I used the CD player maybe twice. So I never had those CD holders that went on the sun visors.
  • My Kinesis keyboard from 2011 is starting to randomly die. It’s no wonder, after eating pretty much every meal at the computer and typing millions of words with it. I used to get about a year or two out of the old Microsoft keyboards, so ten isn’t bad.
  • The Jimi Hendrix estate put out an official release of the Maui bootleg from 7/30/70. (Here) I’ve had another version, but this one sounds much better, and has the song order fixed. The original audio is fairly bad, and there were high winds that made the various bootleg versions mostly useless. This one sounds much better. Here’s a longer review of it on pitchfork. I’ve enjoyed the live work from that last tour the best, because it’s when he was sick of the hits, and more into the long jams, which makes you wonder what that unfinished fourth album would have sounded like.
  • Every time we go to Maui, we always go to this place called the Hui No’eau Visual Arts Center. The Hendrix shows were at the A’ali’ikuhonua Creative Arts Center. The two are about six miles apart, and one could double for the other if you were filming a docu-drama and were careful about your blocking and angles.
  • I am not going to Maui this year. Not going anywhere, but that’s obvious. I have almost two weeks off, but will be here, probably watching youtube.
  • I bought a drone. A DJI Mavic Air 2. It is very easy to fly, except finding an actual place to fly it. There are a lot of airspace restrictions, and then various parks and private property are also off-limits. I had to register the drone with the FAA, and it uses GPS so it’s locked off from flying in various places. Like during the forest fires, they geofenced off areas where first responders were. And you can’t fly by the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • I’ve been flying a few times around Alameda, near the old Navy base. I’ve shot a lot there, but I’m still learning, so the footage isn’t great. It’s surprisingly good, though. With the gimbal pointed forward, it looks like a sweeping crane shot. With the gimbal down, it looks like the spy satellite or drone footage from an action movie.
  • I’ve been obsessed with this dumb idea of taking the play history out of Apple Music (somehow) and feeding that into a lightweight CMS of some sort so I could scribble down various notes on songs, like as a journal or blog of sorts. I’m not sure how I’d get this to work, and I doubt it would be very interesting. Plus the minute I got it scripted or programmed, Apple would break whatever API I used and it would stop working.
  • I heard they are going to tear down Brownstone apartments in Bloomington and put up some gigantic thousand-unit townhouse compound or something. My memory of Brownstone is that me and Larry went there once to go to some girl’s party. The place was typical stadium-adjacent student ghetto housing and was falling apart 25 years ago. Larry ripped out whatever techno dance thing was in the tape player and put in the GG Allin album Hated in the Nation. Everyone was watching a Pauly Shore movie. One of the girls there said she watched Forest Gump every day for a year straight, and she loved him so much she wanted to date a man with an Intellectual disability.
  • I also remember that when my car blew up three days before I was to move across the country in 1995, I turned down 14th street and pushed the car for about a block to get out of traffic, and I ditched it overnight right in front of the same apartment complex.
  • You can’t fly a drone anywhere on the Bloomington campus. The airspace of the entire area is shut down by the university unless you have a special permit, and I imagine they don’t hand them out to anyone.
  • I need to lay off the Bloomington stuff before I suddenly decide I want to write another book about college.
  • I can’t believe it’s only Thursday. It feels like this week has been seventeen days long.
  • I also can’t believe Christmas is in a week. This will be the first Christmas I’ve ever spent in California, which is weird considering I’ve lived here since 2008.
  • It has been 46 and dreary and raining on and off, and I guess that’s winter now.
general news

My New Book The Failure Cascade Is Out Now

I have a new book out. Here’s the link:

This is another collection of short pieces, like Ranch: The Musical except it’s thirty-four pieces and roughly twice as long. It’s also a bit of a departure because although it contains a few super-short flash pieces, there are also four much longer stories. I felt a need to stretch out some stories a bit, and spend more time in them, so instead of a bunch of sub-thousand word things, there are some that go beyond the 3000-4000 word mark.

This isn’t like a major departure from what I’ve done in the last few books, but it is starting to move away from it. For almost ten years now, I’ve tried this absurdist/gonzo thing, and I feel like I’ve painted myself in a corner a bit. I’ve burned a lot of cycles creating a persona I now can’t stand. I’m not exactly ready to go off and write murder mysteries or tales of martians or anything, but I feel like the part of my personality I’ve mined for stories in all of my books in the 2010s has been stripped away, and I need to start doing something else. I write about this a bit in the title story of the book. I could babble more about it here, but I won’t.

This was a difficult book to pull together. I mean, the problem was this year, 2020, and everything shitty that happened to all of us. I took a little break after Ranch, and when I went off to Vegas in the first week of March, my goal was to hole up in a suite and spend seven days starting to build out this work-in-progress which was to become Atmospheres 2. And just as I got into that, the whole world ended and we got locked down and… well, you know the rest of that story, and it’s still ongoing. As the pandemic built, I worked on the book, and got it above 100,000 words. (The original was 60,000.) But the more I got into it, the more it didn’t make sense. And the idea of writing a manic book of post-apocalyptic non-linear madness wasn’t that appetizing, especially since I was spending most of my day doom-scrolling through a reality that was that but worse. So I set that book aside a couple of months ago, and started collecting together the core bits for this book.

Also: thanks to John Sheppard for sounding out all of my stupid ideas on this and the usual daily help with everything. Also Jeff O’Brien did an editing pass at the last minute, and Don Noble sold me a cover design that I ended up not using, but it was still cool as hell and now I need to write a book to match it.

The cover was shot by yours truly, on my 2017 trip to Mendocino. The whole series is on flickr. (If you ever need cover art, all of my stuff is CC, so just ask and I’ll send you full-size masters for free.)

Anyway, here it is. Let me know what you think, and thanks in advance to everyone who grabs a copy.


Day 768

I think it’s actually like day 223 or something, I don’t know. I have lost track.

768 and 863 are magic numbers to me. I think I explained this before a long time ago, probably in the now-dead glossary. When I worked at Montgomery Ward in high school, I sold paint. Wards actually had really good house paint, probably the best retail paint you could buy. They did not white-label their paint; they owned a company called Standard T Chemical, which may have been from the days when Mobil Oil owned Wards. I once tried painting a black shelf with a single coat of white paint, no primer, and it covered it with no second coat. Anyway, Wards paint came in two lines: a ten-year and a fifteen-year. They were available in 768 and 863 custom colors. I can’t remember my own phone number, but those two numbers are burned into my brain forever.

I just realized – they stopped selling paint in maybe 1999 or so, and the warranty on the 15-year is long over, not that it would do any good to show up at the headquarters of the company that bought and revived Wards as a cheap Skymall-type catalog company and insist on some replacement paint.

Life lately has been more of the same, work disasters I won’t get into, and inadvertently obsessing over politics, which I really don’t want to do. All I know is that I won’t be going back to Indiana any time soon, at least until there is a COVID vaccine and a majority of people have taken it. I honestly don’t know the holiday plan right now, but it’s not something I’m terribly enthusiastic about right now.

Sarah is in Davis for the week – rented a house and is hanging out with her nephews and sister there. It is profoundly weird to have the house to myself. I ordered a pizza and watched the new Borat (a few lols there, but mostly eh) and I’m in bachelor mode for the week. I should be writing, but that never seems to work out. When I have the place to myself, or when I have the week off, I always end up writing less than normal. No idea why. I need a routine, I guess.

Paragraph Line has two books out: John Sheppard’s latest, and a new one from Keith Buckley. It’s been a while since we’ve worked with a writer other than me or John, but Keith’s a long-time friend from Bloomington, and his book is great. The only bummer is I’m not about to push something out the door myself. I’ve been struggling with a big book all year, hoping to get it out by December, and it’s not going to make it. Maybe I can scrape together another collection before then. We’ll see.

After a few false starts, we have a day of fall. (Forgot to knock wood – looks like it’s in the low 70s next week.) I’ve still been in heavy nostalgia mode, which is problematic. The cool weather reminds me of Bloomington in October, and that’s a whole k-hole for me to fall down. When I had all of the Comcast madness a bit ago, I had to unload and move a large storage shelf in my office so they could get to the network box, and I accidentally cracked open the box of journals and started reading. Never good. The nice round number of the year 2000 isn’t a good place to jump into, at least when I’m trying to do other writing.

Got a new Apple Watch for my anniversary, and burned about a day doing the upgrade cycle for that – had to upgrade the phone three times, the watch twice, etc. I now have an EKG and a pulse-ox monitor, so I know I’m not dying of an undiagnosed heart or lung disorder, so I’ve got that going for me. I also got a new Apple TV as a work anniversary gift, and that was easy to set up, but like the last ATV, it’s not an earth-shattering piece of gear. I guess it has Siri now. And apps, not that I can think of any apps I need on the TV at the moment.

I still have no idea what to do with this 2017 MacBook Pro with the busted battery. I sort of forgot all about it, in the mad rush of a million other things going on. It still has AppleCare until December. I was going to just mail it to Apple, but when I chatted with them about opening a ticket, they said I can’t mail in a laptop with a defective battery, because it’ll bust open and light a FedEx plane on fire ala ValuJet 592. And I can’t get an appointment at an Apple Store to drop it off. They suggested going to the store right before it opened and begging for mercy. It’s not time-sensitive, other than the December deadline.

I just realized the other day that I have taken almost no photos this year. I usually shoot maybe 2500 photos a year, and right now, I’m at 934. I haven’t had any of my real cameras out since the Vegas trip, and I didn’t take that many pictures when I was there, either. Either I need to take up food photography (and gain another twenty pounds) or I’m going to have to take some serious trips after this is over.

Speaking of writing, I need to get back to that.


not a significant source of fiber

  • In the middle of book layout mode. Not for me, but for John. Will be a good one, stay tuned.
  • I do book layouts in Apple Pages. I was thoroughly pissed when they abandoned the original Pages and moved to this iOS-like bastardized version that dropped a bunch of features, but they’ve slowly added back enough features that I can use it again. I should be using InDesign or something, but I do about two book layouts a year, and can’t afford to pay Adobe monthly to not use it.
  • I don’t actually use Pages to write, though. Still Scrivener. I guess it’s been a few years since I’ve done one of those writing tools posts, and maybe someday I should do that again.
  • It is smoky and there are fires and all that jazz. I don’t want to fixate on that news. Yeah, it’s bad out. I stay indoors all day anyway. Still, very depressing, etc.
  • I passed the ten-year mark at my day job today. This is the longest I’ve worked at any job. Second place is the almost-six year span I put in at the same place before they were acquired.
  • I fell down a k-hole watching videos of people restoring old sailboats, and I may need someone to talk me out of buying a thousand-dollar boat, spending $350 a month parking it, and another hundred grand fixing it, all before I actually learn how to sail.
  • Meanwhile, I don’t even have the energy or motivation to wash my car. Not sure how I’d restore a boat. Or learn to sail.
  • I’m trying hard to finish a book by the end of the year. It’s currently the third-biggest book I’ve ever written, behind Summer Rain and that journal compilation nobody bought. That’s all I can say about it right now. If I can’t get it under control in the next couple of months, I’ll probably punt and put out another short collection.
  • I’m not sure anyone will buy this book, either. I don’t know what happened to Amazon, but it’s dead dead, sales-wise. They really want me to buy ads. Sigh.
  • I almost started playing bass again, and actually practiced two days in a row, but it’s pretty much impossible for me to get to it on a daily basis, especially during the work week. Wish I had more time, but I don’t.
  • Currently at war with Comcast over my stupid internet connection. They gave us this data cap and we constantly go over it, with both of us working from home. (I think I already wrote about this previously.) So they suckered me into updating to this new unlimited plan with a different modem. The second I got the new modem going, I started seeing insane dropouts where my ping speeds go to two or three seconds for no reason. It might be a bad modem. Might be a wiring issue, although the last modem worked fine for ten years. I called them and got the “what browser are you using? maybe you have too many bookmarks?” bullshit. They’re rolling a truck next week, but I expect more “you’re holding it wrong” and maybe a bonus case of COVID from the technician.
  • I should make a list of everything I read since this quarantine started. I haven’t bought many new books, but I re-read a ton of stuff. Like I re-read the entire bibliography of Chuck Klosterman, Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, and Charles Portis. Also re-read half of my own books, for some damn reason.
  • I have cats bothering me because dinner is four minutes late, so I should get to that.

Day 167

I don’t really know how many days into the lockdown we are. I suppose I could figure it out. I also suppose I could update more here, instead of just when something breaks. But there’s not a lot otherwise going on.

So remember last year when my iPhone 8 blew up? Almost exactly a year later, the replacement started swelling again. I wasn’t planning on upgrading for a while because I was fully paid up on the old one, and I figured the year-old replacement would last until Apple came up with a reason for me to get a 12 or a 13 or whatever. Well, there’s my reason. I bought an iPhone 11 Pro, and paid far too much for it. The Apple Store near me is open in a limited fashion now, so I did an in-store pickup, where I showed up at an appointment time, stood out on the sidewalk, and got the phone brought out to me. I bought it straight-up instead of dealing with any of AT&T’s byzantine payment plans. That part was easy enough.

The migration, which is supposed to “just work” did not work. It took me four tries, about a half day. I thought I’d just sync the old phone to my Mac, then plug in the new phone and restore to it. I don’t know why it took so many tries to get this to work. One thing I noticed after my first fail is that the cable I bought a year ago and the cable that came with the phone were different. They are both Thunderbolt (aka USB-C) to Lightning, but there’s some internal difference. The same thing happened with the laptop last May. There’s some subtle difference between USB-C and Thunderbolt, or there’s some difference between data cables versus charging cables versus fast-charging cables versus… whatever. And of course all of the cables are white, and look identical. I found out that some of the newest cables have a very light gray number on them, like instead of the RGB value of #FFFFFF for white, it’s #FEFFFF, and you need a jeweler’s loupe to read it, and then you have to google the value, and it’s on the seventh page of results because the first six are rumors about the next iPhone or something.

The new phone has a larger screen, but is about the same size. It has Face ID, which is fairly useless. First, it can’t identify me with no glasses, or with a mask on. Also, I’m in the habit of grabbing my phone and unlocking it while it’s still in my pocket or on the way up, and that’s impossible now. I also can’t unlock it while it is on the dashboard of my car. Also, I bought the battery case, so the phone is far too heavy and thick. I am almost sure I will drop it in the near future. And the gestures to use it with no home button are annoying.

The new camera is interesting. It has a portrait mode, which simulates a low depth-of-field lens, which is nice. It also has a wider lens, which is good for landscape photos. There is a night mode, which might be useful if I ever leave my house at night again, which won’t be any time soon. Overall, the camera stuff is neat, but for this price, I could have bought a nice DSLR or mirrorless camera.

* * *

Another Apple semi-fail is that the Airport Extreme I bought a few years ago was showing its age, or maybe having Sarah work upstairs full-time was requiring better WiFi coverage. I have bad luck with routers and they always seem like a perishable product; after two or three years, they just go rotten, and no firmware update or restore will make them better. Apple doesn’t make routers anymore, so after much research, I ended up with a Ubiquiti Amplifi HD. It works, but I’m not in love with it. First, it took a few tries to get it started. (They insist that you reboot your cable modem during setup, which makes no sense, but it didn’t work until I did, so I guess that’s my fault.) It uses a cutesy phone app for all configuration, and I’d rather have an actual browser-based admin. I also wouldn’t mind better logging or something (I’ll get to that in a second) but it seems to work fine. I have the router downstairs, and the mesh stations in the living room and upstairs, and it has roughly doubled performance up there, so mission accomplished.

* * *

On to the next problem. Right after I got the new phone set up, Comcast started complaining that we were close to our data cap of 1.25 Terabytes. They’ve waived the cap for the last few months because of COVID-19, but now that COVID is completely cured and everyone has returned to the office, they’ve started charging people for going over again. Wonderful.

This started the anxious exercise of trying to figure out how we’re using so damn much bandwidth. Of course, plugging in a new phone meant it automatically had to redownload every app and a bunch of big updates, so that’s probably fifty gigs. And as I looked at my machine, I realized my Backblaze cloud backup was then uploading that fifty gigs of updates, so I got double-taxed on it. I installed a copy of Bandwidth+ and Little Snitch to try to figure out where all of my data usage was coming from, and man that is horrible.

First of all, Apple is downloading monster updates constantly. Every little point release of iOS or MacOS is at least five gigs of data, and on my desk, I’ve got three different devices. And like I said, those are all getting backed up. (I stopped doing that, so that’s some savings.) But it’s also amazing how much a Mac will change over the course of a day. I started scheduling my Mac to back up at midnight, and it would send a few gigs of data up. Then I’d wake up, do nothing for nine hours, and Backblaze would say it had a half-gig of updated files ready to back up. I’d look, and it was all crazy iCloud stuff, the Mac recording Siri suggestions even though Siri was deleted, tons of deltas on files in the calendar and email programs that had been doing nothing. I have no idea how to stop any of this, but with two Macs in the house doing this, there’s like ten percent of the 1.25 TB right there.

Another thing with Little Snitch – ok, so this is a program that will fire up an alert every time anything tries to make an internet connection, and then you can set up automated rules to allow or block certain things. It also shows you what programs are using the internet, and tracks their usage. (My router problem: I wish I could do this for every machine in my home, like at the router level. I know if I spent two grand on a pro Cisco router, I could do this. But my little consumer one won’t.) Anyway, it is amazing how much some programs hit the outbound connection. Like if someone in my house even says the word “Adobe” I get a dozen outbound connection requests. Creative Suite is basically a piece of malware that happens to have an image editing program in it.

Facebook is also particularly bad. Even though I think I’ve disabled whatever video auto-play is in FB, it will hit this one video CDN continually, preloading things it isn’t showing me, to a tune of a gig per every few minutes. I know, quit Facebook. But it’s amazing how blocking that CDN saved me a ton of grief. Even better, I spotted the CDN that auto-loads those annoying videos that pop up any time you go to any news web site. Life is much better after I blocked that thing.

Oh, about the data cap. After much research, I found there are a few options to remove the cap. One is to straight-up pay them $30 a month. The other is to lock into their new xFi router ecosystem, and rent a new modem, and they will remove the cap for $25 a month. I currently rent an older modem of theirs for $14 a month, so they sent me a new router, which I will immediately put into bridge mode and ignore all of their new features, which probably don’t work. I hate to pay that $11 a month, especially with how high the bill is already, but $11 versus obsessing over this every time I launch my browser is worth it.

* * *

Not much else is up. I’ve spent a lot of time walking at NAS Alameda and have a ton of photos I should probably organize someday. Other than that, it’s been work, work, work. I have another “vacation” coming up, so maybe I can do something productive that week.


Save the Cat

I don’t think I’ve talked about Save the Cat here yet, and how I used it to structure a book. This isn’t a “learn to write so you can make millions like me” blog, so I don’t know how important or useful it is for me to document this. And spoiler alert, the book I wrote using this method did not sell a million copies. But as I’m thinking about book ideas now, I keep coming back to this. So here goes.

Save the Cat! is book by screenwriter Blake Snyder, which describes his method of structuring and outlining a screenplay for maximum impact. It’s essentially a refinement or maybe simplification of the Syd Field “paradigm” or three-act structure, mixed with a healthy dose of the Joseph Campbell hero’s journey/monomyth thing, which has been beaten to death by any number of screenwriting gurus/hacks such as Christopher Vogler, George Lucas, and anyone who has ever made any money for Pixar.

There’s a lot covered in Snyder’s book, but if you’re writing a screenplay using his method, you basically follow these steps:

1) You create a logline. This is an elevator pitch, or a one-sentence explanation of exactly what happens in the movie. What’s important is that you start by writing the logline. You don’t write it after you’ve written the book. If you can’t explain the movie in a sentence, you can’t sell it, and you might not even be able to write it. It’s also important that the logline says what the movie is and not what it’s about, or where it’s set, or how it feels, or anything else. But most importantly, you need to get a logline that works before you do anything else. If it doesn’t work, you need to keep at it until it does.

A good exercise is to sit down and write the loglines for a bunch of existing movies. Three groomsmen go to Las Vegas and lose their about-to-be-married buddy in a blackout drunken bender, and have to retrace their steps to find him. An off-duty NYPD cop goes to LA to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists, which he must stop. A captain is sent up the river in Vietnam to assassinate a colonel who has gone crazy, or is the war what’s really crazy? A rich guy meets a prostitute with a heart of gold and falls in love. Whatever. 

2) After you get the logline, you come up with a title. Maybe the title changes later, but you do this first. It’s part of the refinement process, making a logline that summaries everything and making a title that explains it. So if, for example, if you pick a stupid title like The Journal of the Whills, and everyone you pitch it to thinks it’s stupid, you might want to keep hacking at it until you come up with something better, like Star Wars.

3) Snyder says there are ten different plots, and everything falls into one of those ten buckets. Anyone can argue it’s really 20 or 12 or 2, but he has ten. He has a sequel to the first book that goes through a ton of Hollywood movies and says which of the ten it falls into. Like the logline exercise, a good practice item is to learn the list of ten, and then go through existing movies and determine which plot they use. (There’s an entire message board where people argue about this.)

I’m not going to explain all of plots, but the ten include stuff like Monster in the House, Dude with a Problem, and Superhero. The categorization isn’t always obvious, and it’s not strictly by genre. The movie Jaws is a Monster in the House even thought it isn’t in a “house” per se. Alien is also a Monster in the House, but the house is a spaceship. You have a monster, you put it in the house, you put people in the house, you somehow piss off the monster with a Sin — something monetary or greed-based is always good — and then the people have to either get the hell out of there or somehow stop the monster.

4) One of the core tenets (and points of criticism, but I’ll get to that later) is that Snyder has a really specific 15-step outline that every screenplay should use. And each step takes up a specific number of pages. The fifteen steps form a three-act structure with the first act taking up 25% of the script, the second act 50%, and the third act 25%. I’m not going to dump his fifteen steps here; if you’re curious, google “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” and you’ll find them. If you follow the book, your plot should not only hit each of the marks in the list, but it should spend the specific amount of time on each step. If it doesn’t, it means (according to him) that something’s wrong with your plot, and you need to brainstorm it a bit more. 

A quick example is how he beats out Act One for a script. The first beats in his outline are Opening Image, Theme Stated, Setup, Catalyst, Debate, and Break into Two. Basically, you’ve got some guy in an office/kid in a space desert/private dick hired for a job. You open with some first-impression image of their dull office park/a monstrous castle in the distance/a dreary factory/a beat-up frathouse. You spend about ten pages describing the “before” and their everyday drag. Somewhere in there you state the theme, like in Office Space, the theme of “every day is worse than the last.” And then on page 12, some catalyst appears, like the droid your uncle bought shows a hologram of a princess asking for help. Or Captain Willard is given a mission. (Every military movie has someone being given a mission on page 12.) But you don’t take the mission right away; you burn the next dozen pages in conflict, because your uncle wants you to work on the dirt farm and you’ve got shit to do. Or you’re not sure you’re supposed to use your superpowers for good, because you’re just a kid in high school. At the Break into Two moment, the protagonist basically choses that he’s got to get off his ass and launch into Act Two. Luke’s Aunt and Uncle get turned into charcoal and he tells Obi-Wan they need to sell the landspeeder, find a dodgy pilot, and find this princess. Peter doesn’t go into work on Saturday and do his TPS reports. John Connor has to bust his mom out of the loony bin and stop the bad Terminator. The monster enters the lair. The protagonist’s life suddenly turns upside down.

One important thing about this formula is you have to hit each of those five parts, in that order, with those page lengths. If you cold open the movie with Luke and Han racing toward Alderaan, you miss all the foreplay of building Luke into this boy-turned-hero. If you don’t have the period after the Catalyst where Luke isn’t sure what to do, it’s not as exciting when he does decide to do it. There’s similar structure defined for all fifteen points in his outline.

5) You divide a board into four strips, one for each quarter of the movie (act 1, act 2 part 1, act 2 part 2, act 3) and you get 40 index cards, one per scene. You outline each scene on the cards. There’s some junk about putting the emotional change and the conflict of each scene on each card. The basic goal though is that each card has a purpose, contribututes to the rise, has its own conflict. None of the cards are “spend five minutes showing cool stuff for no reason/” When you lay out the cards, you pace yourself and avoid overloaded acts and black holes. A lot of writers have an Act 3 problem, where a ton of stuff happens in Act 2, and then Act 3 has a giant “and stuff happens” black hole between the turning point and the resolution. So you’re supposed to use this board with index cards to identify the cards clumping together and the empty spaces with no cards and adjust accordingly.

6) Once you have the 40 cards and the number of pages from the 15-step outline, you start typing. I used Scapple to make my virtual cards, then imported them into Scrivener, and was able to use that to create all the blank documents I then filled in with actual writing.

The book also has a bunch of sloganized rules on writing that might be helpful, but read the book if you want to get into that. One example is the title of the book: Save the Cat. You want your protagonist to do something in the beginning to make everyone want them to win. Another one is Double Mumbo Jumbo, which is the argument that you can get the audience to believe one bit of magic, but it’s hard to get them to believe two. You can have zombies, and you can have hobbits, but if you put both together, people won’t buy it. But he states this example, and then gives several counter-examples that have made billions of dollars. Like Spider-Man has the kid getting bit by an atomic spider and turning into a wall crawler. But at the same time, it has the Green Goblin dicking around with chemicals that spill and turn him into a monster. By his rules, this is too much suspension of disbelief. But every superhero movie is going to have Double Mumbo Jumbo, so… whatever. 

There are a lot more rules, many having to do with developing your good guy or your bad guy. One that I found useful was Six Things That Need Fixing. You give your hero a laundry list of problems, which sets them up so there’s payoff when the things happen. He’s stuck in a small town, his parents are assholes, he can’t get laid, his friends are losers, his job is stupid, he wants to go to college and can’t afford it. Then when the catalyst comes, you have these various goals adding to the conflict, and when the journey starts, he can start ticking off boxes from this list. Lots of other little tricks like that exist, some that work, some that don’t. The important thing though is the logline, the genre, and the 15 steps. 

* * *

OK, so why did this interest me? I don’t write formulaic fiction, and I definitely don’t write movies. I write a lot of nonlinear fiction, plotless fiction, gonzo fiction. Unlike every book reviewer on Goodreads, I don’t think there is a problem with plotless fiction. I believe anything experimental is important, and I think a lot of the tools mainstream writers use daily evolved out of people pushing the form in experimental writing. Telling writers they have to adhere to plot is like telling painters they have to paint pictures that look like they popped out of a Polaroid camera. The fact that there isn’t more plotless fiction is honestly a travesty, but that’s probably another post.

It bugs the shit out of me that people dismiss my writing because I often don’t use plot or follow formula. After Atmospheres came out in early 2014, I fell into a deep depression because it was my favorite book I’d ever written, and it didn’t sell, and the only real feedback I got were from people who weren’t the target audience for the book immediately dismissing it with the word “plotless” and that was it. And that made me really want to write something that was so insanely plotted, there was no way somebody could say that it wasn’t. I wanted to write a book with a bulletproof plot, just out of spite. So I studied plot, and I read dozens of books, and I ended up getting hung up on the Snyder book.

Save the Cat isn’t really meant for fiction. Books aren’t film, and there’s a lot more room for more complex narrative, things that couldn’t be shot, things that can develop in a reader’s head. That said, very formulaic fiction is totally like film, so StC can easily be used for writing this.

As I was studying StC and thinking about a possible idea for this next book, I watched a bunch of movies and carefully outlined and summarized them as I wrote them, trying to find the StC plot points. I also logged the times in the movie when these events happened. This completely validated Snyder’s formulas. I did this with three movies: The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Blade Runner. All of them hit the exact points in Snyder’s 15-step beat sheet within a few minutes of accuracy. (All three of these were what Snyder calls a “whydunit,” which is basically a whodunit except you already know who, and you want to know why. Every crime noir is a whydunit. Every whydunit has a protagonist get knocked unconscious by a hitman at exactly the 90 minute mark, denoting the start of Act Three. It’s uncanny.)

I then went back and read Falcon and some other Dashiell Hammett hard-boiled fiction, and it more or less followed the same outline. The only issue with fiction is you have to fiddle with the page numbering. A script is 110 pages; a detective novel is about 200. So your first act is going to end at about page 50; you reach your All is Lost moment at page 150, and so on. And obviously writing fiction is more verbose than screenwriting; you’re going to end up with more words on the page in prose form, rather than the fancy indenting and whitespace you get out of Final Draft.

(I actually just looked this up again, and in 2018, a YA author wrote an official franchised book on using StC for novels. I haven’t read it, and this was released years after I did this. From the Amazon reviews, it sounds like it’s a rehash of the first StC book, but for novelists. So, I guess some people are doing this.)

* * *

There are many criticisms of Snyder’s book. One is that Snyder is a hack, in the “those who cannot do, teach” way, because he only wrote two released movies that were not exactly masterpieces, and a few loose episodes of a kids’ show. (He also died at age 51, so maybe with more time, he would have had his Citizen Kane. Or maybe he would have just churned out a StC sequel book every year.) 

The main criticism of the method is his strict adherence to specific page numbers for each transition in the movie. Your script must be 110 pages. The catalyst must happen on page 12. The finale must start on page 85. Because of this, the adherence to the ten genres, and the same basic tools for problem-solving means that, according to some critics, all StC scripts are basically the same. I agree with this assumption, and it’s a problem.

There are a lot of devout followers to Snyder’s rules, and this is pretty obvious in Hollywood. I know I will get a lot of shit about this, but I personally feel like every Marvel or Pixar movie follows this strict structure religiously, and that’s turned every summer blockbuster into a Mad Libs-like script where the only things that change are what’s filled in the blanks. Yes, every one of the 167 Spider-Man reboots drastically changes something about his powers or his origin story or how hot his aunt is, but go back to what I said about loglines a while ago — you’re changing the how or the where. You can change Bruce Wayne to be more edgy or more campy or more cartoony or more 21st-century or a metaphor for why we shouldn’t be in Iraq, but you’re still following the same outline. His parents will always get killed on page 25. And if you wrote a script for Marvel that didn’t have ten pages of origin story right after the theme was stated, comic book fans from around the country would flock to your house and beat you to death with collectible figurines and drag your corpse through the streets like you were the deposed leader of a third-world country. It Absolutely Must Happen according to template.

There’s a vicious cycle with this, because when producers and yes-men are trained to recognize this structure, and see this form making money, they will only green-light movies that match the formula exactly, and then we only see movies with this outline, which means in the future, the only movies that get financed… well, you get the drift. If you’re tasked to write this year’s Batman reboot and you turn in a 450-page script that burns 87 pages pondering Bruce’s childhood before even talking about his parents getting killed, you’re going to get a ton of red pen on your pages, and see very little movement in your bank account. Stick to the formula. And if you want to write some Richard Linklater Slacker movie that doesn’t follow the curve in exactly 110 pages, you can fuck off to indie-land, deliver pizzas to make the nut on your film stock, and release direct to video somewhere. 

This is an unpopular opinion, but I have the same feeling about best-selling kindle books. Writers structure page-turners in a very specific format, and readers are placated when they hit the same plot points at the same marks, and are pissed off when the Act 3 collapses too quickly or whatever. Books that meet this exactly are reviewed higher, which pumps the Amazon algorithm and spurn higher rankings. And then the sequels have the same structure to promote more sales. This is a race to the bottom, and it’s not art. It’s how people sell vitamins and energy drinks. I know, sour grapes, my writing sucks, and I’m a shithead for saying Marvel movies are formulaic. But something is getting lost by people feeling they need to match this formula. Every book is quickly becoming the same.

* * *

Despite the arguments against it, I tried the StC method, and I wrote a book using it. (This was six years ago. I won’t even mention which book, but you can figure it out.) There were some good things to the process. One is that I often don’t title my books until the end, and my book descriptions are almost an afterthought. Starting with those made me much more confident about the direction I was going. And the 40-card process made me figure out a few dead ends before I started writing. I have a bad habit of coming up with a great idea, writing a ton, and then the whole thing falls apart when I get into Act 2. With this, I knew exactly what would happen before I even started writing. That made the writing happen much faster, and I was much more confident about what was hapening. It was easier to keep on track, and figure out exactly what I had to do on each page.

One misconception with any of these Lego-like writing systems is that they don’t do all of the work for you. There’s a lot involved in figuring out exactly what the logline should be, who the characters are, and how it should all go together. You can’t take an idea like “guys selling drugs” and plug it into a mad lib template and have Pulp Fiction pop out of it. Mining and working ideas is hard; this system only really defines the pacing of how they work out.

I went into the process with a basic setting, an idea of a main character, and an idea. The beat sheet gave me a transformation or an application of that idea, how the protagonist struggled with the idea, and it forced me to use a certain number of characters to move the protagonist through the outline. It helped me develop my protagonist, and differentiate the other characters, not only to make them more interesting, but to make them more integral to the movement of the plot.

Another big thing this helped me with is the dynamics of the plot, the movement. Snyder has this saying, “Turn Turn Turn,” which is that a plot doesn’t just have to move, it has to intensify at each step. And this helped me a lot in my Act 2 to Act 3, which is what I always screw up in a book. I was able to raise the stakes through the plot in exactly the right proportions, but it also made it so my chases were more than just moving from point A to B really fast; it gave meaning to the chase, which brought the reader through the outline.

* * *

I really enjoyed writing the book, and I liked the structure of it. It developed well, and the experiment was a success in that way. But short story long, it did not sell. My faithful readers thought it was way too off-brand. “Serious” science fiction readers didn’t get it, and nitpicked the plot. (There are some other factors involved, and maybe I’ll write about that someday.) I proved to myself I could do it, but that I didn’t need to. I went back to writing weird non-linear stuff that doesn’t sell, and I guess that’s my lot in life. I sometimes think if I had the perfect idea, I’d do this again, but I think a lot of dumb things.

Anyway, this is the most I’ve ever written about plot, so I better get back to writing without it, before someone takes me seriously.



    • I just “got back” from a one-week “vacation” I had to take. I couldn’t go anywhere, and I couldn’t sleep in, because Sarah’s office is the bedroom. So I had plenty of spare time to watch the news, which was just a bad idea.
    • A week ago, as I was closing in on one of those deadline-of-the-year projects, my crown fell out. It was the same one I lost back in 2015 while on vacation in Indiana. I got ahold of my dentist, but it took a week to schedule a repair on it, because of COVID stuff and reduced schedules. I went on a Wednesday afternoon, and had the shortest trip across the Bay Bridge I’ve ever seen, ever.
    • My dentist is at a mall (Tanforan) and I did a quick lap (outside) before I went in. One of the anchors is Target, which was business as usual, mostly. There’s a JC Penney, which was closed, and a Sears, which died earlier this year. So there was a certain creepiness, but there’s also a BART station there, and people always illegally park at the mall, so it wasn’t that vacant.
    • There were a million various protocols: take a giant quiz the day before on where I’ve traveled and how I feel, etc; wait in the car and call them when I get there; come in with a mask on; temperature check; the same quiz, but sign and date it; wash your hands (timed); rinse your mouth with peroxide (timed); then mask off. The room was lined with plastic like I was about to get executed by the mafia. The dentist and assistant were in full protective gear, masks and shields and gowns. The crown was fine, and the re-glue was a two minute job.
    • Speaking of abandoned malls, I went to Hilltop last week, in Richmond. Couldn’t get in, although the Walmart was open, with people lined up outside. I did a lap outside the mall, which was eerie. The most ironic thing is that the JCP and Sears parking lots are now being used for storage for a ton of those Amazon sprintster delivery vans.
    • Also went to Sunvalley out in Pleasant Hill. They had Jersey barriers at every entrance, closing off the entire parking lot; every door and window was boarded over with plywood. Took a long walk around the outer ring of the lot, and it all looked a bit too surreal.
    • JC Penney put out their list of store closures for their bankruptcy. The Elkhart store at Concord Mall is on the list. I could probably write a part 3 on the death of that mall, but I’m too lazy. University Park isn’t losing theirs, and none of the Bay Area ones are slated for closure. I mean, they all will close in the future. But those aren’t in the first round.
    • Spending a lot of time walking NAS Alameda, trying not to fall down the k-hole of researching what the base used to be. Luckily, it’s so poorly-documented I don’t have much to go on.
    • There’s more, but nothing I want to discuss here. The world is a crazy place right now.

Ode to a 2017 MacBook Pro

So I was in a meeting yesterday, looking over at my Mac, and the lid didn’t seem to be closed all the way. My only thought was the usual “Apple doesn’t make them like they used to” and I ignored it. A few hours later, at the end of my work day, I went to unplug the laptop and go sit on the couch and write, and I noticed the side of the laptop was popped open, and the battery was swollen.

God damn it.

I got this machine at the very end of 2017. At the time, it was the top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook pro you could buy from the Apple Store inventory without a custom order. It was great and slim and bigger than my last one, and way too expensive. I moved everything over, went on a trip for Christmas, and when I got home, it was completely 100% dead. No battery, no lights, no plugging in a different power cord, no magic reset NVRAM bullshit, it was flat out DEAD. I went to the store and after much bitching, a manager gave me a brand new one, and a “sorry, that happens.”

I’ve never been 100% on this machine. It had the magic touchbar thing, which is completely useless, except there were no function keys or escape key anymore, so I had to use it. I shut off the other shit, because I constantly hit it while typing. And the typing is bad, too. In the quest to make it thinner and cooler, they put in this dud keyboard that felt like typing on an Atari 400, and even a piece of dust would break a key. There was also the lack of any ports other than TB3, which required a new set of dongles. The machine always felt creaky and weird, like I’d accidentally bend it at some point. I also had some random weirdness with macOS High Sierra, and never dared move up another version.

So anyway, swollen battery. I looked up how to replace it, and it’s a 58-step procedure that involves a heat gun and re-epoxying parts and brain surgery-level disassembly. Nope. Normally, this is where I’d cart it off to the Apple Store, since it’s still under warranty. Not an option during SIP. I called Apple, and my only option is to mail it in and wait a week or ten.

I didn’t want to upgrade. I was hoping to get at least three years out of this machine. But I needed a computer immediately. I ended up going to Best Buy’s web site and buying a new machine, then driving out to Pleasant Hill and doing the weird touchless curbside pickup. You reply to a text to tell them where you’re parked, and a gloved and masked worker comes to your car, looks at your ID, then puts the box in the trunk. Very weird.

The migration went predictably bad. The old and new machines couldn’t see each other on WiFi. Using the Thunderbolt cable to connect the two computers doesn’t work, because there are 167 different types of cable with the same exact connectors, and the “power” version of the cable isn’t data-ready or something. I thought I should just use the backup drive, but before I could do that, the system said it needed to download ten gigs of updates, and it futzed with that for an hour. I plugged in my CarbonCopyCloner bootable clone of the old drive, and it sat for six hours, then crapped out in the middle of the night because it was trying to copy the entire backup, including every file I’ve changed or deleted in the last three years. I restarted it, and six hours later, the files were more or less there.

Then began the real problems. First, I jumped forward to macOS Catalina, which means every 32-bit app on my machine is now broken. Then the barrage of “xyz wants to use your address book” and “abc wants to write to the hard drive” and “123 wants to see your location.” Some damn thing kept asking for my keychain password. It took seven tries to get iCloud to log in. I couldn’t get it to “trust” my iPhone. Adobe’s app manager got stuck in a login loop until I completely uninstalled everything Adobe and started over. The IR remote receiver I have didn’t work anymore. Etc etc etc. I think I’m about halfway stable now, but expect at least a week of fuckery until this calms down.

I seriously think this might end up being the last Mac I buy. We’re entering a dark period like the mid-90s, when Macs were twice as expensive, twice as slow, didn’t use any standard peripherals, and crashed constantly from a bloated OS. The current macOS keeps getting more and more stupid, as they try to unify with the mobile OS and push services more. Rumor is strong that Apple will dump Intel in the near future and move to their own ARM processor, which will be just like the PowerPC days, making Windows emulation impossible.

The problem is, what do I buy instead? I’m too tightly coupled to my other mobile devices. And Windows is horrible – I use it every day on my work machine, and it’s not an option for me. Going back to Linux seems unspeakable at this point. I almost feel like buying a typewriter at this point.

The new machine seems okay so far, now that it is stabilizing. The keyboard is improved somewhat, and feels closer to my 2014. The screen is slightly bigger. The build quality feels a bit better. Same drive size, same memory. More CPU, more cores, and I think the battery is better, but I haven’t gotten that far into it yet. I’ve got to figure out what to do with the old one, when the world is normal, or I give up and mail it in.

And usual reminder: BACK UP YOUR MACHINE. It saved my ass this time, yet again. CarbonCopyCloner, external drive. Anyway, let’s see if I can get more stuff done on the new machine.