Whither Atomic Zombie?

I made a banner for Tales of the Atomic Zombie, and I eagerly uploaded it to the site. Then I poked around the site’s control panel to find where to change the page templates to include the new image.

No such luck. Because I use a free account I can’t change the actual pages, only change colors and add links. It’s possible that there’s a different template that includes space for a custom banner; I’ll dig through the collection of available templates to see. I may have to shell out a few bucks for one, but that’s okay. I love this banner, and I’m really proud of having drawn it myself.

I mean, look at this thing. Awesome, right?

Tales of the Atomic Zombie

Awesome atomic banner!

Anyway, don’t be surprised if the look of the site changes in the next month. It’s time to make these pages atomic!

Review: Brick and Mortar Book Recommendation

I told you about that book I got at Aunt Agatha’s. You know, the one that Jamie recommended when I went in to sell a book. It was A Cold Day in Paradise by Steve Hamilton. I’ve got an embarrassing amount of unread books, so at the time I put it on a nearby stack with a mental note to get to it soon. Since I had mentioned it in a blog entry, I thought I’d like to read it fairly soon and follow up with a review.

Not of the book — a review of the Jamie recommendation system.

Now that I’ve finally had the chance to read it, I am happy to report that the recommendation did well in all categories. Let’s break it down.

Customer data

Here’s what Jamie knew. I’d come in to sell back a mystery novel that I hadn’t liked. It had grabbed my attention with its setting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My stated objections centered on the lack of action and of general threat.

Additionally, he knew that I am a big fan of the Hard Case Crime line of new and reprinted noir. These include works by authors like Donald Westlake, Lester Dent, and Mickey Spillane. They tend to be violent, pile up the corpses, and involve a bit of enthusiastic back stabbing.

Alignment of book content

The first correlation of the book’s content to known user data is that the action of A Cold Day in Paradise centers in the Upper Peninsula. Specifically, the murders happen in and near Sault St. Marie, and the protagonist lives just a short drive away. Since the setting was what had attracted me to the book I’d returned, this is a strongly relevant component of the recommendation.

As for addressing my objections to the other book, Hamilton’s novel has a gun fight, a couple of brawls, a murderous stalker, and an extremely suspicious sheriff. This certainly addresses my desire for more action and danger. Here again the recommendation scores well.

Moreover, the book has a great pulp feel to it. The hero is fallible, a cop who retired because he froze and carries a bullet near his chest like a badge of shame. He’s afraid of guns and still has nightmares about the incident that ended his career and his partner’s life.

As a reader I wanted him to succeed, to conquer his fear and start living again. This is important to me. A plot is a series of events, but a character interacts with those events and struggles to gain even the smallest bit of control over them. That’s a story, and that’s what I’d returned the other book for lacking.

Conclusion

Jamie took my statements about the book I’d sold back, mixed them with knowledge of my purchase history, and made an accurate and effective recommendation of a book I would like.

“Well,” a convenient paper tiger may reply. “So what? Amazon does as much.”

Here is the difference.

While Amazon knows my book purchase history (and my item ratings, if I used that feature) it doesn’t know why I’ve bought them. Was it the writer? Genre? Appearance of a big damn spider? The word zombie in the title? When Amazon recommends something to me it’s based on algorithms comparing my recent purchases with the purchase histories of other users, playing the odds that people who buy enough similar items will have the same general taste.

It’s a good attempt, and honestly I find a lot of cool stuff based on these recs, but the price is having to sift through a lot of things that I don’t want at all. Sometimes it takes a few pages of recommendations to find something in which I’m vaguely interested.

Jamie got it in one try. I recommend his recommendations.

The Mathematics of Planning an Evening with Amanda Palmer

I’ve agreed to go to an Amanda Palmer concert this fall. The feeling I get from YouTube clips and online comments is that her shows are not exactly orderly affairs. I’m down for some occasional disorder, but I get very anxious when leaving the familiar too far behind.

I’m a fan of Palmer’s work, and of her impressive dedication to working hard, so I’m comfortable with the evening artistically. It’s bound to be an enjoyable concert. The problems start with the venue, St. Andrew’s Hall. I’ve heard of the place but never been there. Unfamiliar location: +2 anxiety

It’s in Detroit, which doesn’t bother me in itself. I know a lot of people who seem to believe that Detroit is a city that exists in a post-apocalyptic alternate reality, where gangs roam the streets on customized jeeps with buzzsaw attachments. On my visits I’ve only seen urban decay, old men, and old prostitutes. Maybe the gangs are seasonal. Wasteland: +0 anxiety, +1 depression

The trouble I have is that I’m not familiar enough with Detroit to be confident of finding the venue. Or parking, for that matter. Yes, I have GPS with my tri-corder. I don’t like leaving that in my car while going into the grocery store for five minutes; I’m certainly not leaving it there for an hour and a half. If I took it into St. Andrew’s, I’d be focussed on it instead of the music. So, no GPS. Navigational challenges: +1 anxiety

Then, of course, there’s the matter of the crowd. Once the music starts I should be fine, but until then my brain will be screaming at me about all the danger represented by people who don’t even know I exist. Stupid brain: +2 anxiety

Why am I going if I’m looking at 5 points of anxiety and 1 of depression? Well, I can’t let this crap rule my life. A concert may not seem like a big deal, but the more I show my brain that I’ll do as I please the easy it gets. I want to play ukulele on open mic nights. I want to attend comic conventions and introduce my work to new people.

I want to go see Amanda Palmer in concert.

Fortunately I’ll be going there with Phil — co-worker and fellow villain on City of Villains. He’s familiar with St. Andrew’s Hall and area, so that’s -3 anxiety right there. Having a friend to distract me from the crowd is at least another -1 anxiety, so I’ll just be dealing with 1 point each of anxiety and depression. That’s perfectly manageable, and the concert should leave me happy and excited overall.

It should also leave me very tired for work the next day, but that’s okay. I’ll just grin maniacally. Let someone else worry for a change.

5 Marriage Tips That You Can Really Use!

Wendi and I have been married for nineteen years. If we were an agency or consultancy of some sort, we could claim 38 years of marriage experience between us. Sounds impressive put that way. “Put our 38 years of marital experience to work for you!”

(Note to self: look into monetization of marriage.)

From my vast stores of lessons learned, I offer the following relationship advice.

1. Money matters when you don’t have any

Living check to check creates stress that can spark arguments when your desires conflict with those of your partner. A purely hypothetical example that totally happened: I wanted $100 worth of comics each week, and Wendi wanted to eat. With limited income, something had to give.

Fortunately, we can afford food again.

2. Unite against a common enemy

It’s human nature to unite against whoever is winning. Adding a willful and uncontrollable being to the family can give the two of you something to oppose together. A cat or a particularly spastic dog is the ideal marital companion, providing an unceasing stream of objectionable behavior that you have to find some way to jointly foil and suppress.

Do not attempt to use children for this purpose. They’re cunning enough to turn the tables on you, and if treated with hostility they may grow up and write essays about what a jerk you are.

3. Don’t sweat the small stuff

Does your honey have a turn of phrase that drives you crazy? Does your baby have an inexplicable fondness for a certain singer whose voice drags nails on the chalkboard of your mind? Let it go. If you can’t handle those things, you’ll never survive issues like unemployment and Japanese schoolgirl figurines.

4. Your face is less important than your relationship

You’ve done something stupid. You were wrong. You made a mistake. Your instinct is to save face in front of your partner so they’ll see you as the perfect being you think they think you are.

Well, you’re not perfect. Everybody already knows it, especially the ones who live with you. Admitting to errors builds trust both ways and brings you closer together.

Of course if your mistake involves getting closer to another partner, I would humbly suggest your face is beyond the power of plastic surgery to repair.

5. Zombies

Wendi has learned to accept seeing a zombie movie every now and again. She even enjoys them on occasion. This is the ultimate secret of our marriage. It’s sympathetic magic; just as zombies are hard to kill, so is our marriage.

Just ignore the shambling, rotting horror stuff. The analogy sort of falls to pieces there. So to speak.

The actual importance of this lesson is that it’s clearly so personal that it’s utterly useless as general advice. This is the internet. It’s not much like a series of tubes, but it’s a lot like millions of people sharing their thoughts without anything like facts or research. If you’re seriously expecting to find useful advice on the net about a topic with any degree of subjectivity, you’re going to be quickly surrounded by zombies.

There, I Said It

You’d think that I might have admired my high school English teacher, that she had inspired me to pursue my BA in English and had imparted wisdom that guides my life to this day.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I thought that Mrs. White was unimaginative and didn’t really understand literature at all. She was inarticulate in her obsessive love for Emily Dickenson, and I hated the poet until a college professor explained her merits. Mrs. White taught English as though it were history. Names and dates were important, not for context but for providing objectively gradable information. When she did venture into analysis it was simply regurgitation of what she’d been told long decades previously, when analysis consisted solely of cramming stories into rigidly defined types.

As for wisdom, the words I recall most fondly are a stream of curses.

Our class was about to read “Catcher in the Rye”, and a few students would be spending their time in the library instead. This is because their parents found the book objectionable, and not for being dull. With the affected children still in the room, our teacher explained.

“It’s because of a word. ‘Fuck’. There, I said it. Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

Carpet Bomb

Dropping F-Bombs all over the place!

She kept talking, but all of us were still processing what had just gone down. Old Mrs. White had just carpet-bombed us with F-words! We didn’t expect to hear that from any teacher, much less from our prim English teacher.

Perhaps we should have expected it, as she liked to regale us with tales of her rebelliousness. You see, when she married her cousin she wore her glasses.

Finding Waldo

Last night I went to back-to-back shows of Cinematic Titanic. For those not hep to my jive: Cinematic Titanic is five alums of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, sitting on the sides of a stage, making fun of a bad movie as the audience watches it.

It’s more fun than you’re probably thinking. You’ll just have to trust me on that.

Last night’s targets were “Rattlers” (experimental bio-weapon sends snakes to spree-killing) and “The Doll Squad” (all-women team of agents try to stop Michael Ansara from… doing something).

Between shows I ran into some former colleagues, and I joined them for a snack while we discussed terrible cinema and great comics. They failed to ditch me, so I sat with them for the second show. Much fun was had by all, especially by Jeff who got a couple glares from a woman sitting in front of him.

I was alone for the first show. While I’m okay with going to see things by myself, the long wait before the proverbial curtain rises is always a test of my resolve in the face of screaming nerves. It’s worse when there’s a crowd in place of a line, as there was last night. Clutching my satchel — to protect me, not it — I began scanning the lobby for any signs of the doors opening.

No luck. Time crawled, as did my skin. To distract myself I invented a game. Actually, I started playing before I realized what I was even doing! (Good brain. Give yourself some dopamine.)

I call it Finding Waldo. Here’s how it’s played.

1. Scan the crowd until you spot someone distinctive in some way. They should be far enough away from you that they could disappear in the crowd. This is Waldo.
2. Look somewhere else for a while. A minute or two, whatever you please.
3. Now find Waldo.
4. Repeat until you no longer have to play Finding Waldo.

It’s a simple game. You can’t really win, and honestly you kind of lose just for playing it, but it kept me relatively calm I could go find a seat.

A Tasty Role

A few weeks ago my friend Tracie asked if I’d be available for a small part at noon on Sunday. She’s taking film classes, and for one project they needed a waiter to pile food on the table during an awkward dinner conversation. It sounded pretty simple, and I had the time available. Plus, hey! Free Chinese food!
The weekend approached, and the shoot got cancelled. The restaurant where they’d arranged to film had been closed due to a family emergency. The crew would have to find a new location and reschedule. I made good use of my reclaimed time by sitting on our couch and watching TV.
Tuesday, the text messages started. We were on for Sunday again, this time at 8:30 in the morning. Oof. I had said I’d help, and I could make it, so I agreed. Also, there’d been a rewrite, and I was now the male lead.
Tracie: Can you play an asshole?
Some might say it’s the role I was born to play, although I’ve never been comfortable with that side of my personality. In fact I’ve spent the last few decades learning to be a decent human being, fit to interact with others. But I’d agreed to help, even if it had been under different circumstances. I condensed this into “sure”.
I asked if I was still the waiter, and she told me that the waiter was gone. I’d be the bad boyfriend now.
She had one more piece of advice.
Tracie: Wear anything an asshole would wear.
I decided that meant to dress normally.
I showed up at the college a quarter to 10:00 on Sunday morning. The time for the shoot had been mercifully pushed back by an hour and a half. I hadn’t questioned this, just gratefully accepted the new reality.
Another thing I never questioned was what had happened to their previous lead jerk. I’d helped on a couple of student films before, and one thing I’d learned is that things will go wrong whenever there’s an opportunity. The reason that it takes so many people to make a movie is that the ones who aren’t minimizing problem opportunities are busy wrestling with the more opportunistic problems.
We got off lucky in that we were only shooting for a three-minute scene.
But that was to come. At this point in the narrative, I’d just arrived. With the aid of my trusty tricorder, I found the building where Tracie had said to go. I was a touch early, so rather than call her for further instructions I decided to take a quick tour of the facility. To my surprise, I immediately stumbled into our location.
Tracie and her classmate Lindsay were setting up lights in a small lounge. There were some tables and cafeteria chairs, and bright light shone through a skylight three stories above. With careful framing it would look like a food court. This made sense when I got the revised script. No waiter, no restaurant, just a place where a woman could try to end a relationship over a meal.
Frame from student film "Dim Sum"

For over 2 hours I ate Chinese take-out and behaved as a cretin.

(screen capture used with permission of Tracie Diamond)

That’s right: try. I was going to be a terrible boyfriend who’s so self-involved that he can’t tell it’s over. As far as my character was concerned, this was all leading up to two or three minutes of sweet, sweet love.

As I finished reading, my victim arrived. Jayne and I were introduced, and we all went over the plan. The food would be ordered at 11:00, and we’d start filming when it arrived. Until then, Jayne and I would rehearse while Tracie and Lindsay got the lights and other gear set up.
Then the wheels fell off. Some manner of musical worship extravaganza kicked off in an auditorium next to the lounge. The minister/MC very kindly warned us about what would be happening, but the upshot was that we’d need a new location where the sound could be controlled.
Tracie and Lindsay settled on another lounge on the other side of the building, near the entrance I’d used. I don’t remember for certain, but I think it was about 12:30 by the time we were settled in and had acquired the food for the shoot. Starving, I shovelled take-out into my gullet.
Big mistake. The reason we had to have the food was because I’d spend the next two hours force-feeding myself in take after take. Part of my character’s jerkishness (jerkiocity?) was consuming around fifteen cartons of take-out to his girlfriend’s one and expecting her to pay for half. I didn’t have to actually eat that much, but nearly every shot of me required me to be chewing or swigging down Coke from a 2-liter. Then there were the close-up shots of me cramming more food into my mouth while still chewing.
Lindsay wanted me to eat some egg rolls and dumplings for some additional shots. Already stuffed well past full, I made a game attempt. As I bit a dumpling in half, I felt my throat blocking itself off protectively. I couldn’t even taste the food anymore. Disgusted, and forcing myself to swallow, I tossed the remains of the dumpling onto the table.
“Great!” Lindsay encouraged me.
When we were cleaning up, Tracie asked me if I wanted to take any of the left-over dumplings. I politely declined. It’s going to be a while yet before I can even think about having Chinese food again.