Advent Ghosts

2021 has been a challenging year for most of us, and in many cases it’s felt like we’ve had to sit through the sequel to our least favourite film, and this one was even worse. But we’ve come this far, and though we may take with us a few scars and bruises, the year to come is a story as yet unwritten, waiting for us to stamp on it whatever future we dare dream of.

Though before we turn that corner, there’s nothing like a little Yuletide horror story, don’t you think? Whether you’re gathered around the hearth, snowed in on a cold Christmas Eve, or basking in the heat of a Southern Hemisphere summer evening, trying to ignore the strains of Sinatra’s Let It Snow, a little Dickensian tension might add that missing spice to the eggnog.

Here’s my contribution to that fun – a little story, exactly 100 words, about a Christmas Eve that might be…

The Long Tail

The ancient Buick belched darkness across the night. Dilapidated, it mirrored its solitary occupant, dark eyes in a scruffy ball of hair peering past oil stained knuckles.

Gone, the million plumes of yesteryear, flight, his gifts of coal. Now, he hunted.

His red nose led to an address. Electric cars on a solar driveway and behind them, the vintage pickup. He trudged up the driveway, unlocked the fuel cap, and connected a hose.

The takings were small, but sufficient. Back at the Buick, he reclaimed the driver’s seat, and slammed the door.

Ho ho ho, he said, and gunned it.

For a collection of even more entertaining and scarier ultra-short fiction this Christmas, please check out Loren Eaton’s blog, and his 2021 collection of shared storytelling, Advent Ghosts. Thanks for the prompt Loren, and I wish you all a Merry Christmas and an amazing New Year.

Connecting the Dots – Storytelling On The Run

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to devote time and mental energy to my writing or other art interests. But while some responsibilities have placed themselves centre-stage, I can still find time for a little art appreciation, which seems at least as important. Some of that art has come from boardgames and other pursuits I’d not have even considered only a few years ago.

In a year which saw the relaunch of the Star Wars film franchise through The Force Awakens, the Star Wars milieu seemed ripe for a revisit: Disney upended the Expanded Universe, relabelling it ‘Legends’ and giving themselves room to move in the the timeline of a galaxy far, far away. My kids are now at an age where they appear to appreciate the light-vs-dark struggle of the Force mythos, are inspired by starships and lightsabers, and seem more than happy to play Star Wars at home with whatever comes to hand. Then there’s other Star Wars goodies such as Rebels, which blew us all away with Spark of Rebellion.

It seemed only appropriate to get in on the action and, while there, rather belatedly introduce myself to the collaborative storytelling of tabletop roleplaying games. Specifically, through Fantasy Flight GamesForce and Destiny, one of three arms of their Star Wars RPG (focusing on the Force, while their other games delve into the rebellion and the fringes of the Empire).

Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars Force and Destiny Core Rulebook

Turns out that visiting A Galaxy Far, Far Away was only a tabletop away.

Mechanically, I was intrigued by the character and story-building possibilities in these games; in Force & Destiny, characters have specific moral strengths & weaknesses, producing conflict which grows (or decays) their character and in turn affects the story around them. The other branches of the game can enrich this further, introducing the concept of Duty and Obligation for similar effects, creating a dynamic story that’s fun for the group, as well as the storyteller. I’ve started with the one, but can see myself expanding our stories to encompass each of these as time and the wallet allows – the experience has been truly eye-opening.

As the storyteller, the game promotes thinking on your feet, keeping the story engaging and progressing for your audience. There is – as Chuck Wendig so astutely observes – absolutely no allowance for the self absorption or crippling hesitation that is Writer’s Block:

You can’t get writer’s block at the game table. Not as a game master, not as a player. You can’t be all like, “Yeah, I’m just not feeling my character’s actions today, let’s try again tomorrow.”

Roleplaying isn’t writing, per se. It’s collaborative, and certainly not as lonely. But it does exercise many of those same creative muscles, and it’s fantastic to connect that creativity directly with an audience in real time. The magic really comes alive when you describe a scene resulting from a player’s choices and see them stare off into the middle distance, a glint in their eyes reflecting the frame of their freighter’s canopy, beyond which recedes that snowy mountaintop where they learned so much about themselves and their friends.

There may be plenty of reasons why I never got into tabletop roleplaying games earlier in life, most of them questionable, but I’m glad I eventually took the plunge. The social setting also lets me do something else that I occasionally find difficult when writing – dare to be bad. Making the story move is more important than making it perfect. A bit more practice at this and I might just learn that well enough to apply it to words on the page. In the meantime, we’ve enough material to keep practicing that mantra for a long time to come, with gently modified pre-made adventures requiring very little time investment on the part of an overcommitted GM.


Because Conforming to your own UI Guidelines is Hard

My Windows PC keeps prompting me to install Windows 10. It has apparently finished crippling my limited-bandwidth home internet (shared with 4 people), and has now enabled Incessant Irritant mode, in which it regularly pops up a window telling me how I’m missing out on all the new problems it has in store for me.

There was a time I’d have jumped on it, of course, but these days I’m spending my time probably 80:10:10 between Linux, Mac and Windows boxes, and my perspective on computer systems has changed a little:

Time on IT is unproductive time. 3x the OSs means a common problem incurs 3x the IT overhead, so I’m significantly less tolerant of it than I might have been in the past.

If something works well in one or two OSs but not so well in another, I know it need not be so – and I don’t want to waste time on it.

Which of course is what prompted this post… in particular, a Windows 8 ‘feature’ I’ve been ignoring but which never ceases to bug me: the positioning of submenus.


Windows 8 places popup and submenus assuming you use a touchscreen, even if you’re not. While you can change their location with a control panel setting, it’s unavailable unless you install touchscreen support.

Stop and think about those two sentences for a second.

Further, consider the submenu callout – there’s a well established UI pattern at play, with an caret signifying the option will create a submenu. I’m operating in English, so in my left-to-right locale it points right. Exactly the opposite direction to where the submenu will appear.


They’re just messing with us now, right?

Does it make sense to anyone?

Maybe Windows 10 fixes this – but am I only going to be trading one irritating bug for another? Do I have a choice?

Evald – a Lightweight Expression Evaluator for Java

This open source numeric evaluator library can be found on github at


I think I wrote my first expression scripting interpreter when I was about fifteen – albeit on a Commodore 64, using my own scripting language, and with no real target audience or application in mind. Compilers, interpreters and languages were cool – and the Commodore 64’s built-in BASIC interpreter certainly inspired attempts at improvement. Many a future hacker and developer was born of an era when a computer was better described by its initial potential than usability.

I’ve written various types of expression parsers since, professionally, in multiple industries. Motivations varied: Off the shelf offerings were expensive and difficult to maintain, or open source offerings were bloated and glacial, or the particular use case dictated expressions and data handling that were simply unique. I’ve no doubt similar requirements will come up again, too.

In a recent project I had a commercial parser & evaluator component which was unnecessarily slow for what seemed to be a trivial and elementary use case. There were reasons: It was partly bloated because it was using existing general purpose frameworks for its parsing, or because it was handling complex numbers, vectors, matrices, strings, and other data types. But none of these were necessary for my use case. Knocking together something that satisfied my requirements (a fast, extensible math parser and evaluator) looked like it wouldn’t be rocket science and was something I’d done before (and a type of project from which, frankly, I derive an irrational glee).

I also wanted the freedom to reuse it, and having benefited from plenty of other open source projects in the past, release it in a way that benefits others similarly.

So enter evald – an open-source project on Github offering an extensible and fast tree-based expression parser & evaluator in Java. The library is very lightweight and requires no additional libraries (though if you need to run the tests, you’ll need junit). Hopefully the project page provides a good guide to its use.

If you use it I’d love to know, either here or on github. I’m very much a novice at creating open source projects (just trying to work out how ant works enough to make the build script work correctly almost made my brain explode), but it’s been a lot of fun putting this together. Though as with any project, polishing the last 10% seemed to take 90% of the time.

And why call it Evald? Well, finding a unique project name on github wasn’t as trivial as I thought it’d be, and it does fit the simple evaluator/double use case. Though every time I turn the word over in my mind I’m reminded of a line by Alfre Woodard from Star Trek: First Contact, when her character Lily is reminded that the antagonists were called the Borg:

Borg? Sounds Swedish.

Dominion Age

After a lengthy drought, we recently picked up a number of new table top games. Among these were two deck-building card games: Dominion and Rune Age. Having only ever played card games involving the standard English 52-card deck (with the notable exception of Uno), I didn’t even know what a deck building game was, so the learning experience that followed was entertaining in itself.

I’m sure there are better introductions to the topic of deck building games, and getting my head around the strategy took some time. Gameplay aside though, so many of these games were simply beautiful to behold. If you find yourself playing one and are stuck waiting for other players to complete their turns, the illustrations and atmosphere they engender can be their own enjoyment.

Both games seemed deceptively similar at first, which no doubt can lead to some confusion for someone learning one and then the other. In both cases, the player starts with a small, weak deck of cards, and wants to build to a stronger one. Getting there, however, differs completely between the games.

In Dominion it’s likely you want to end the game with a big fat deck of high value Victory cards, giving you more points than your competitor. You can easily spend the first half of your game increasing your buying power (adding more currency to your deck) and the second half spending it (trading or playing those cards for Victory cards). But while it sounds like a generic strategy, it’s not the only one, and there’s a lot of variety in how you go about this: The game (and its expansions) offers a huge number of randomly chosen scenarios, and there’s a depth of strategy to be discovered in interactions between that scenario’s action cards.

In most respects, Dominion plays like a familiar card game – players take turns, build points, and tally points at the end of the game. I was pleased to see how easily everyone picked it up – my six and nine year olds could understand the basics, as could their grandmother, who understands the strategy a little better. I can play it with a variety of people and while the game doesn’t seem random, the outcome (so far) is far from assured.

Rune Age is also a deck building game, and it’s there that the similarity ends. It plays more like a fantasy card-game implementation of Risk (or Civilization, or some variation therein). With Rune Age you play one of several pre-crafted scenarios, which provide objectives, rewards and obstacles for the game. You attempt to turn your small starting deck of weak cards into a small endgame deck of strong cards suitable for your objective – which may be to have wealth, eliminate other players, or defeat territories or monsters. The game is complex, and while it’s possible to have a fast half-hour game with others, the first game always seems to take hours (especially with players who haven’t played deck building games before). The notion that whittling your deck down by eliminating weak cards isn’t going to be obvious to everyone on the first round; my nine-year-old son still thinks the objective of the game is to have the fattest deck of cards at the end.

For depth of play and a far more ‘epic’ atmosphere, I love playing Rune Age. But for playing with family and casual gaming friends, its complexity is its undoing – it’s very difficult to find people with the patience to actually learn the game. It is perhaps the only new card game I have which specifically offers solitaire as an option, a bonus for learning the game, but also not a feature that I don’t expect to be taking advantage of years later.

It’s been a revelation though, having been brought up on board games such as Monopoly, Scrabble and card games like Pinochle and Spades. So many new possibilities opening up – now to find more people to play with.

Ah, Ye Olde Magazine

How long has it been since you visited a newsagent and bought a magazine? For me, it must have been well over ten years. Since 2005, probably the only print periodicals I’d bought had been subscriptions ordered over the internet, and even then, I quickly let my subscriptions to Analog and Australian Road Rider lapse.

I’m a big fan of print: While I have devices on which I could read electronic books, I still buy a paperback to read on the train. Perhaps I enjoy bucking trends – I don’t think you can break new ground by following the crowd – and I remain skeptical of predictions of print’s demise and surrender to our new e-reader overlords. Sure, there are plenty of people reading electronically on the train too, but readership is declining – there are many more playing Candy Crush Saga or trading rants on Facebook.

So why stop subscribing? In the case of Analog, the issues had arrived 3 to 6 months after their issue date, and with both periodicals, I felt the content didn’t represent good value compared to what I could find online, for free. And in the subjects that interested me, whether it be writing, motorcycling or whatever, I knew where to find decent information online. There just wasn’t any way they could compete.

Recently though, I wanted to try something new. I’d been playing with some digital art using Autodesk’s Sketchbook Pro, and I felt that seeing how others use the application would be beneficial. I knew of some great examples online, but nevertheless, the field is new to me. What am I missing? Who can I turn to to provide an authoritative guide for a newbie exploring the field?

Autodesk’s tutorials made mention of a magazine – ImagineFX – which seemed intriguing. Interviews, a heap of art, tutorials, and comparisons between styles, techniques and workflows. My interest piqued, I popped in at my local newsagent to see if I could find the magazine.

Yes, it had been a while. One newsagent had closed. Another had a tiny aisle populated with only motoring and lifestyle magazines, and a lone copy of National Geographic. My local bookstore now includes a newsstand (a disturbing development brought on by declining book sales, a decision to hold less book stock, and to survive through diversification), and while they had a few more magazines to choose from, apart from photography there was nothing catering to the visual arts.

Eventually I found a large newsagent in the city that had the magazine I was after, but the experience had left me with a nagging question: If this is the new model, does it even work?

There are (perhaps) less publications in print, and less subscribers, so sure, retailers can’t afford to stock everything. I could have also spent that time searching for a print magazine instead finding free content online. Or I could have bought the issue digitally online, for (far) less than the retail print copy, and began reading immediately.

Call me old fashioned, or an art snob, but there are two things that don’t sit well with me in this brave new world.

First, there no longer remains an obvious place to find the curator. In times gone by the traditional publishing and editorial process standing behind your bookstore book purchase, or your magazine or computer software, provided some minimum guarantee that what you were purchasing was at least literate, and likely merchantable and fit for purpose. After all, the retailer carried a risk that you’d come back and ask for your money back if it wasn’t. In an emerging era of self published books, self promoting art channels, or ‘early access‘ unfinished computer software, those values have been thrown out, replaced with what at times appear to be the digital equivalent of temporary street sellers hawking their wares and accepting only cash.

Second, I worry the potentially low culture tastes of a mass society mean Google will never be a fitting replacement for the filter that traditional publishing models provide. If the majority are content with a self published first draft they can buy for $0.99 or less, or a website that’s accessible for free, then that’s what you’ll find at the top of your search results. And sure – that’s what Google’s great for. But does it also mean that if you research a field you don’t know, you’ll wade through a lot garbage before you find what you’re looking for?

Who knows what lies ahead. Content delivery via the internet continues to evolve, and so does the audience. I also realise it makes little sense to pine for the past, and nobody can deny there are huge opportunities for people willing to self promote and self publish their work. But what future is this lying ahead of us, recommended by a search engine or hit statistic?

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Broadcast This

Following the horrific events in Paris this last week, someone brought the following tweet (which predated these events) to my attention and asked if this is becoming the norm now: Should we expect the police to be reviewing our every tweet, facebook post, or instagram? Is this a violation of freedom of speech?

It’s tempting to cast this as an infringement on free speech; but in doing so are we employing selective memory and forgetting that freedom of speech is not a universal right in any culture? How often do we overlook slander, trade secrets, non disclosure agreements, pornography laws and other limitations on what we can say, write or display?

And how often are we the ones restricting freedom of speech, as a market? Consider the reaction to European media organisations displaying graphic footage of the Paris killings, whilst also having never broadcast any of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In a Sydney Morning Herald article on this reaction, Paul Colford states, regarding AP imagery:

“None of the images distributed by AP showed cartoons of the prophet Muhammad,” he said.

“It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.”

Yet how is self censorship, presumably to avoid insensitivity or offence towards some portion of the market, any different from state imposed censorship?

Not that free speech is ipso facto a warranty to the worthiness of an opinion; as Randall Munroe states in his comic XKCD:

“I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.”

Freedom of Speech issues aside, perhaps the most concerning factor to the Scotland Police tweet, for social media users, is the notion that personal posts are reviewed by Big Brother.

It’s interesting to theorise the reaction had the tweet been worded thus:

Please be aware that we will continue to monitor by TV and radio broadcasters, and offensive comments will be investigated.

Would anyone have even considered it out of the ordinary?

And the definition of ‘offensive’ aside, do we consider our responsibility when using social media? As Greg Barton stated recently to the ABC:

“It’s natural we have that curiosity to figure that out, but somebody sending a tweet saying ‘I’ve just seen a man in SWOT gear climb a ladder’, the gunman could be hearing that in real time and making a response,”

Is the real problem that by staring at facebook or twitter on our phone, we’ve forgotten the reach of the internet? Should we expect ourselves to have any less responsibility than traditional broadcast media when technology landed us the ability to broadcast information worldwide whilst sitting on a train, playing with our phone?

Merry Silly Season

All hail the Solstice.

It’s the season of the summer solstice down under, and while friends and relatives in the Northern Hemisphere turn up the radiator and pray for Just a little sunlight, please God, before I go insane, over here temperatures in some towns will be up around 120F. The locals are unlikely to be gathering around any lit fireplaces.

Which of course means that the Northern Hemisphere themed Christmas marketing juggernaut makes for an awkward clash between culture and reality: Jolly old men in red suits risk heat stroke while balancing sweaty kids on their knees; liberal dashes of fake snow adorn storefronts, despite the fact that many (most?) shoppers have never seen the real thing away from the TV; families gather to sing Christmas carols with electric candles for fear of starting unstoppable fires in tinder-dry conditions.

Differences aside, it does remain for many of us a chance to catch up with extended family, take a break from work and routine and step back and look at the year past. Small wonder that a few days later many will be making New Year’s Resolutions.

So whatever your climate, or tradition – here’s best wishes to you and yours.

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Advent Ghosts

A few years ago my friend and fellow blogger Loren Eaton introduced me to the tradition of creepy Christmas stories, recounted in the cold as the solstice passed and summer was but a distant memory.

Loren posts links to these at his blog for his Advent Ghosts event – a collection of 100-word stories you should definitely check out.

I thought it was about time I stop making excuses and join in the fun this year.

December 11001

The calendar is encoded, routine. October: Costumed terror, become maudlin. November: Synthetic turkey, vat yams and protein glaze, untouched.

I straighten the false beard and click and creak onto the stage. The Polar set is as last year, backed to forty foot polymatrix viewports. A tourist trap: Polymer snow, a red nosed eThespian and behind all, the creeping canopy of stars. Spectacle.


Our module emerges from darkness. Uncorrected rotation returns unshielded viewports to the baleful glare of a dying star. My armature glows cherry with gamma blast. Memories of laughing children evaporate, like ghosts, one bit at a time.

Embracing the Present

I’ll start with the obligatory It’s been a while since my last post. A few months ago all the local family packed up and flew to the other side of the planet for a wedding. New family, friends and location provided a much needed perspective shift: We spent a week living in the Bitterroot Valley, enjoying a different pace away from the bustle of city life, the day job, and the hundred-and-eleven projects I’m always trying to juggle. On returning, apart from recovering from the flight (what is it with illness and airplanes, anyway?) I had some new goals, new projects (hah!) and consequently this blog sat on the backburner for a while.

But life very much goes on, and life is good.

I’ve been riding the motorcycle a lot more in the last few months; this has partly freed up some time (5 hours a week commuting instead of 12), but it’s also added to life – fresh air, a little bit of the outdoors before being cloistered in the office for the day, and the mental exercise of simply having to deal with the unexpected every day.

Routine is easy and comfortable, but I think it’s also dangerous, perhaps preventing us moving forward, seeing new ways of doing things, or even providing the breadth required to relate to others. Though perhaps that’s not just a motorcycling thing.

Being present in the here & now, as opposed to on autopilot and cruising through a routine, I’m sure can apply as much to crossing the street or watching TV as it does to riding a bike or flying a plane. But perhaps in the latter cases it’s harder to avoid – I suspect it’s hard to survive very long riding or flying without making sound conscious decisions, trying to improve, or analysing what we’re doing. (Maybe my brain is simply lazy, and it’s too easy to switch off and find routine in the other things?)

There’s something else, of course, about training myself to be present in the moment. Rather than wondering what happened, I’m fully tuned in, and the unexpected and random provide that much more flavour.

And ever since getting a helmet camera, they’re that much more shareable.