The Valkyrie Project is free on Amazon!

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It’s no April Fool’s joke: From March 30th through April 3th, The Valkyrie Project is free, as in beer (and who doesn’t want free beer?)

If this is the first time you’ve heard of The Valkyrie Project, here’s the back cover synopsis:

Men in a black hovervan grabbed Ana’s brother off the skywalk as she took him to school. That was sixteen years ago, but Ana hasn’t let it go. It doesn’t help that their parents left her to fend for herself. And it definitely doesn’t help that Memo still sends her cryptic messages from, well, somewhere.

Ana took the job at the US Intelligence Agency so she could use their resources to find Memo. Unfortunately, that also means she has to work for them.

So when a shadowy organization know as the Continuum starts going after the people that the agents of the Valkyrie Project are supposed to protect, Ana finds herself facing down technology decades ahead of its time, as well as questionable decisions the Agency has made.

She understands that there’s a lot of classified material in the Agency, but when those secrets include modifications they’ve made to the only man she’s ever considered falling in love with, Ana has to decide where to draw the line.

Does she want to fight an elusive, exceptionally well-armed enemy for a government that treats its employees like drones? Or does she really just want to find her brother?

After you get your free copy, don’t forget to add it to your To Read list on GoodReads!

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Dope Machines (The Airborne Toxic Event)

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I’m not going to lie, I did not have high hopes for the new album from The Airborne Toxic Event. I’m not sure I’m even supposed to like them (or at least not to admit to it publicly) since they’re not quite mainstream enough to be truly popular, but definitely not weird or indie or hipster enough to be cool. But lead singer Mikel Jollett is a (former?) writer and essayist who named his band after a section of a novel (White Noise) and based a song and video on the short story The Hitchhiking Game (by Milan Kundera). I was intrigued enough to read the story (spoiler alert: it’s a bit depressing, but does help to bring some nice context to the song and video). And the excellent Such Hot Blood, which stood out even in the rest of 2013’s array of amazing music, was enough to get me to buy tickets to their show at the Vic (and I can generally count the number of concerts I go to in a year on one hand with fingers to spare).

At that show, though, the band debuted a couple of new songs… I could tell they were new not just because I’d listened to most of their popular songs enough to recognize them, but because they heavily featured synthesizers and drum machines. My first thought was: “Ah, they’re entering their synth and drum machine phase.” I’m generally in the camp of “That Doesn’t Work Out So Well” when it comes to that stage of a bands career…

Then they released “Hell and Back” on the Dallas Buyers Club soundtrack and while it was still heavy on the synths and computer generated drums, it was as upbeat and rocking as any song on any of their previous albums. While I consider myself more patient, and less “What have you done for me lately?” 24-hour-news-cycle ADHD than most of America, I’ll admit that after more than a year from the release of that song, my interest waned. I am on the band’s email list, though, so I did get a notification of the upcoming release of Dope Machines when they announced it. My thought at the time was something along the lines of “Yeah, I’m sure I’ll remember to listen to that at some point.”

Luckily, I also follow them on Spotify, so I got another alert when the new album was available there and figured I’d take a listen. (Even though as a Tech Lead/Engineering Manager, I get a lot less “headphone time” than I used to a straight up coder)

Shoque!

(Perhaps) Needless to say, I was suitably impressed. At least enough to write this blog post about it. :) While the album is not a solid burner like Such Hot Blood, it only has 2 real dud songs among the 10 tracks. Much better than I’d expected. And while I’m not usually one to do a track-by-track breakdown, I’m procrastinating a bit from doing other writing, so here goes…

1. Wrong – (Doge Nels says:) Such synth; such Casio keyboard drum line. And yet… And yet… I kind of love it. Mikel’s voice and lyrics are the same, and they ease the transition. The general mood and feel of the song is the same as most ATE… so it works. The first sign that not all hope was lost.

2. One Time Thing – Less Casio… Storytelling… Metaphors… Sort of fuzzy and gritty with a good build up to take us into the title track….

3. Dope Machines – A little Jack and Diane hand clapping with the first real guitar riffs on the album. Continues to build from One Time Thing – another good thing that ATE does well: blending songs into each other (sequencing, I believe?).

4. California – Moving back to more traditional ATE but with fake drums. Talk about her dress, Mikel. Do it. Update it by mentioning Tumblr. What? Yeah. Part Some Time Around Midnight, part Elizabeth, I was kind of surprised how much I liked this one… It seems a bit cheesy and abstract, like a hint of something that’s not really there. But a couple sharp points dig in and stick with you…

5. Time to be a Man – Now I really want to hate myself for liking this one. Especially since I should be too old for it… but yeah, it still strikes a chord in my heartmind that say “Nels: it’s time to be a man.” More of those sharp, pointy details than the previous song, you can tell this is really something he felt; to the point where I can see him sitting down to write this song with a specific event in mind.

6. Hell and Back – I really like this one, but it almost seems out of place on this album. It’s kind of too much upbeat, pounding (I want to say thrashing, but that’s clearly not the right word – might be time for the Great Courses Vocabulary Builder…) Even my wife knows this… I put it on a mix CD for her (we have a CD player in our car, so I make Driving Mixes) and she didn’t like it, but I put Wrong, Time to be a Man, and Chains on the latest CD and we both like those in the car.

7. My Childish Bride – I’m kind of ‘meh’ about this… It is clearly the descent into the slow part of the album… Like it’s hanging off the cliff between acceptable ATE and the ATE that I don’t listen to. Also, “my childish bride”? Super pervy. Even if it was just the same music with different lyrics it would be better… but it makes me feel a bit pedo every time I listen. “We stare at each other like a sister to a brother” – come on dude… If we’re not supposed to imply incest from that, then maybe my mind is like my bowling balls (always in the gutter). If this came between two other good songs, then fine, I’d probably be cool with it. But since it leads into the next two, all I can think about it what comes next…

8. The Thing About Dreams – Yawn. At least give me a power ballad or something if you’re going to go slow like this… I’ve been listening to each of the songs as I write these reviews, and this is the first one I’ve had to skip through. Awful. I literally can’t even.

9. Something You Lost – Didn’t I just listen to this song and hate it? Pretty sure I did. At least take the fairly decent lyrics and put them with some music that doesn’t make me want to click the -> button as fast as possible.

10. Chains – Holy Hell. If ATE had left off the previous two songs, this album would only have 8 songs on it. (Fact!) But the entire album would be so much more awesome for it. This song gives me chills at the beginning. You can just tell that something awesome is coming. Build it up, guys. Build it. Call it The Storm Redux for the Dope Machines era.

One final chapter to the story… I got an email from the band saying that they were releasing an acoustic album along with the electro one on the same day. Nice! I thought: Maybe that will make up for the two disappointments that I got when I bought the very reasonably priced Dope Machines off Amazon… except, oops: The acoustic album is apparently only available if you buy Dope Machines from their web site. Buzzkill! I feel like I should get the album for free just to make up for The Things About Dreams and Something You List (yes, those songs are really that bad). Instead, my plan is to write the band and see if I can send my Amazon receipt showing my purchase of Dope Machines in exchange for a download of Songs of God and Whiskey (which it seems you can’t even stream anywhere just to listen to it without buying it…).

To be continued (maybe sort of) …

Update
After emailing my Amazon receipt to the Gmail account associated with the merch site for TATE, I got a link back to download the Songs of God and Whiskey for $0. So: Awesome. Thanks guys! (No review on that one yet…)

Guilty Pleasure: The 100

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tl;dr – No seriously, The 100 is a good show.

Okay, longer version, it’s not a great show. I mean, it is on the CW after all, but when it started last year (by that I mean last TV “year”), I had cut out a show that had become a bit of a chore to watch for the few good moments it provided, so I had space available if the right show came along (read: a Science Fiction show). I liked the premise of The 100 (even though the idea that somehow a bunch of space stations could be launched just in time to avoid a nuclear war is a bit of shaky leg to stand on). As soon as I saw that it was based on a book, I checked on Goodreads and almost decided to stop watching the show because the book sounded pretty awful. A lot of the things that people complained about in their reviews, though, were things that were clearly hard to pull off in a book, but could actually translate well to a TV show.

Now even though the CW was the only major network to win a Golden Globe this year, I still have a hard time taking any of their shows too seriously. Not that I don’t watch them – I’ll give anything a try if it looks interesting. I just know going in that if it’s on the CW, it’s more likely to be an adult equivalent of a Saturday morning cartoon: It’s great if you’re given permission to indulge once a week, but if you get the chance to watch a show that’s on past your bedtime you’ll take that over the cartoons in a second.

So with expectations low and grains of salt at the ready, I dove in to the 100 like the ship that took the titular group of juvenile delinquents back to the surface of the Earth.

It would be easy to nitpick the show and point out all the stuff that is dumb or poorly done, but as I was brainstorming, I realized that most of the missteps were things that a lot of scifi shows and movies have gotten wrong or done badly, so I’m going to skip to the parts that this show does well and rises above the mistakes it makes or stuff it has to gloss over to make it work…

And with that, I’d like to start with the YA tropes that the show manages to avoid (while sometimes only very narrowly), because, well, that’s a lot of what makes it good.

Tropes avoided:

  • Love Triangle Centered on Main Heroine (and subsequent vacillation between two preternaturally hunky dude men – yes, there is an element of this, but Clarke’s choices are not exactly Stud and Studlier)
  • the-100-super-hotties

  • The Kids Do Everything (and adults are treated either as wise mentors or annoyances)
  • (The corollary:) Where Are The Parents? Obviously they’re not doing a lot of parenting in the first season because that’s the point…
  • No matter what your ‘soul mate’ does, you should forgive them (okay, they fall into this trope a bit with one of the relationships, but avoid it in others)
  • The Mary Sue (I mean, would you really want to be any of the characters on this show?)
  • Everyone Is A Beautiful White Person (yes, there are lots of attractive white people, see the picture at the top with 5/6 main characters being white; but when you add in a lot of the almost-main characters, it gets a lot better; I mean it’s not like this shot…)
    vampire-diaries-cast

So, bravo for that. But wait – there’s more!

Besides just not being a stereotypical YA show, there are things that The 100 does well for a TV show of any genre.

+1 for:

  • Relatively realistic cast size. It’s not just six people constantly trying to fight every battle. It’s clear that the people in the picture at the top of the post are the main characters that we need to care about, and they do take part in most of the conflicts, but I can think of at least five other major characters who play an important role in the first and second seasons (though they’re not necessarily the same five major characters, which also expands/improves on this idea). You can tell (if you over analyze things like I do) that the show runners are really trying to keep the NPCs involved and also trying to add some new characters and giving the newbs conflicts that we can actually care about (even the antagonists).
  • Realistic leadership conflicts. Especially in the first season, there’s a lot of realistic (for TV) internal and external conflict surrounding the leaders of the kids on the ground and the adults in space. Bonus points for avoiding a lot of the angsty YA type of conflict that could have easily taken over the whole show.
  • Dealing with the science, at least a little bit… They do explain why the people from space are able to survive the radiation on the surface (solar radiation from being in space! I doubt that’s realistic, but it sounds somewhat plausible and not too hand-wavy).
  • References to past episodes, settings, and conflicts. It’s a small and minor thing, but I like that the kids eventually revisit the ship they came down in. Also, when Abby jabs at Kane about her electroshock punishment. People have memories and it’s nice to see that the writers do too.
  • Foreshadowing. While a lot of the show seems to be progressing a lot faster than necessary, they do a good job of hinting at things in the first season and seem to have laid some groundwork during the second season for things the characters could do in the future.
  • The new Game of Thrones style intro for the second season. It is quite clearly a total ripoff, but it’s also very nicely done and demonstrates that someone is actually thinking and caring about the show. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that at the start of the season.
  • **** Spoiler Alert ****

  • I’m going to try to not even really spoil this by being vague about it, but I have to mention it because it’s one of the best things about the show so far: the plot/character arc that takes place in episodes 5-8 of the second season is one of the braver things I’ve seen on network television recently. (And perhaps spurred the intro mimicking GoT? I can totally see someone in the writer’s room saying: “Well, if we’re going to do this, we might as well have a Game of Thrones intro for the show” and then they were all like “That’s actually a great idea!”)
  • **** End Not Really A Spoiler ****

So there you go. If you haven’t seen it, the first season is on Netflix, and I’d imagine the second season will be up in time to get caught up for the third season. (Also, according to Netflix, The 100 is “recommended based on my interest in Snowpiercer”, so that’s a good sign, right?)

By The Numbers

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This is probably more appropriate for a simple “Ask the Twitterverse”, but this way I can make it more than 140 characters since there’s some follow-up…

Writers: What numbers do you track with regard to your writing?

I listen to podcasts where they interview writers and a lot of them mention at least something related to word count goals. I also read 2k to 10k: Writing Better, Writing Faster, and Writing More of What You Love, and Rachel Aaron talks about how she tracked her time and writing output fairly meticulously (at least for a period of several months).

I also get more obsessed with numbers during NaNoWriMo and also when it gets toward the end of the year and I have a lot of numbers to work with.

Anyway… Here are the raw and/or calculated numbers that I try to track on a year-to-year basis:

  • Total words for the year
  • Average words per day
  • Average words per week
  • Highest word count day (and date) during the year
  • Highest word count week (and date) during the year (as kind of a back-of-the-napkin analysis of productive times)
  • Words per individual project (since I’m usually working on 2-3 things during the year)
  • Total words in November (for NaNoWriMo, obviously – to compare to previous years)
  • Word count by week (I forgot to do this for 2013, but it seems like a good way to identify productivity patterns and use that to enhance my scheduling)

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Besides tracking numbers to be able to do retrospective analysis, I also use them during the year (along with some basic spreadsheet functions) to calculate things like:

  • Words needed per day to hit goals (~111,000 words this year)
  • Words needed per day to match last year’s total
  • Words remaining until 1,000,000 written total (since March 2011)
  • Current average per day and current average per week

It’s always fun at the beginning of the year when a big day of writing pushes my average to numbers that are totally unattainable on a year-long basis… or at the end of the year when a similar day cuts down the number of words needed to hit my goals like a Hammer of Dawn tearing through a Berserker. (Can you tell I haven’t played video games recently? I should have a GTA or Destiny related metaphor here…)

Anyway…

Is there anything else I’m missing that other people keep track of?

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On Stranger Tides

I thought of calling this “Hey, I’m famous!” but that seemed way too arrogant.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but see this is some sort of milestone as a writer: I’ve been pirated!

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And downloaded 6 times already at that!

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Yes, I’m happy about it. If I were a full time writer, maybe I’d be more upset, but if I were a full time writer, then I’d actually be making money off my books, so I probably wouldn’t even worry about it. My opinion is if someone is going to illegally download your book, then they weren’t going to buy it anyway. And if they actually decide to read it and end up liking it, perhaps they’ll tell someone who will pay for it. (Or they’ll give it to someone who will read the first book for free, and then decide to purchase the next book… So I guess I should get on that instead of blogging about how famous I am.)

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