how do you say “feng shui” in danish?

Three of the most dangerous words in the English language: “Legitimate tax write-off.”

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We took some time to redo the office in the back of the house last weekend.

I’ve been using the standing desk I got at the Borders going-out-of-business fire sale two and a half years ago, and it works just fine as a computer workstation, but it’s not the best work desk, at least not for my purposes. I write longhand a lot and then transcribe into the computer, so I need quite a bit of elbow room. In the past, that meant I had to do a lot of moving around between two different desks, one for handwriting and one for computer stuff.

Well, thanks to amazing Danish office technology, now I can do both at the same desk. I got an adjustable standing desk from ErgoDepot. It has a lot of working surface (it’s an L-shaped table top that’s roughly six by four feet on the long sides), and it moves up and down at the push of a button via electric motor. You can move it as low as 25″ and as high as 47″. Now I can set the desk to fit the task at hand, not the other way around.

And man, just look at that thing, with the spotlights above lighting up the work surface. It looks like it’s straight out of a goddamn IKEA catalog*. It looks like the space of a hip, professional writer dude who totally knows what he’s doing. In other words, the space of someone who isn’t me. But think about how much easier it will be for me to fake competence now.

*It’s not Ikea. I know this because the instructions were crystal-clear and it only took me twenty minutes to put the thing together.

 

 

daddy used nintendo 2ds. it’s super effective!

How do you glue a first-grader to the couch? You give her a Nintendo 2DS for Christmas:

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She hasn’t moved from that spot since yesterday morning.

We had a low-key Christmas here at Castle Frostbite. No house guests, just the four of us and the doggens. We had our traditional Christmas feast of Surf & Turf (lobster and venison steaks), and pretty much fritzed the day away with eating, drinking, playing computer games, and listening to Christmas music. It was perfectly relaxing.

With the kids at home until the new year, I’m taking the week mostly off from work to tackle Mount Unfolded Laundry and tend various overdue projects around the house. We’ll see if I can keep myself from any serious writing productivity until the end of next week.

Speaking of writing, here’s another Buzzfeed list I’m in:

12 Science Fiction books to look forward to in January

I’m pretty excited about LINES OF DEPARTURE, which has turned out extremely well (and which has been rather effusively praised by just about everyone who has read it already.) I can’t wait until you can all get your hands on it—and this time in paperback and audio. MY NOVEL HAS ASSUMED PHYSICAL FORM. <insert sinister, semi-hysterical laughter>

TERMS OF ENLISTMENT will see a new release at that time as well, with a matching new cover and in the same formats. If you’re asking yourself whether to drop the money on the new version: it has a rewritten Chapter 23, new cover art, and numerous smaller edits, corrections, and improvements. Because it’s a 47North book now, I wasn’t able to roll all those changes into the old version that people purchased already, as my publisher considers the new version a Director’s Cut, so to speak. But hey—they paid a lot of people to make a lot of improvements to the book, so I think it’s a justified position. Rest assured that if you choose not to buy the new version of TERMS OF ENLISTMENT, you won’t miss anything essential.

Anyway, enough post-Christmas self-promotion. I’m just really excited about this new “making a living by making up stuff” thing, and I want to keep that racket going for as long as I can. Hope you all had a great Christmas and happy holidays, and stay tuned for all the stuff coming out of the Castle Frostbite Magic Daycare & Novel Factory in 2014.

mmmmmmmrow.

I think I just found a worthy new contender for the top of my “Cars to Buy When I Have Fuck-You Money” list: the new Jaguar F-type R coupe. (Sorry, Aston Martin DBS V12.)

By Odin, that thing sounds insane.

in which I incur the wrath of steve’s ghost.

In today’s installment of the Munchkin Wrangler Gear Whore Labs reviews, I will share with you my opinion of the Microsoft Surface.

I have a new review policy in place. All items I review in this spot—books, toys, gear, whatever—are paid for by my own cash, not provided to me by someone else. And I don’t review anything until I’ve had a chance to use it on a regular basis for at least a month, preferably two, so the starry-eyed new toy phase doesn’t taint the review.

So two months ago, I decided to take advantage of the deep discount on the Surface tablets right before the new version came out, and purchased a Surface RT 32GB. I’ve been using it every day since then, so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses, especially compared to the iPad (of which we own four at last count—an iPad 3, an original iPad, a WiFi iPad mini, and an LTE iPad mini.) I’ve been a big iPad fan ever since Robin brought home that original model three years ago, which still serves very well as a beater unit for the kids. Robin and I both also own iPhones (hers a 4S and mine a 5), and I also have a MacBook Air, so we’re quite heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem.

That said, <DRAMATIC DRUMROLL>, I’ve come to the conclusion that (for me, at least) the Microsoft Surface is a better tablet than the iPad.

<insert the shocked, sharp collective drawing-in of breath in the audience>

I thought it was neat in the store, which is why I decided to risk $349 on it, seeing how I could have returned it within 30 days anyway if I ended up hating it. But I really didn’t appreciate its strong points until I used it regularly for a few weeks.

The main selling point for me that the Surface RT comes with a full version of Microsoft Office 2013. Love it or hate it, Office is pretty much the standard in the publishing industry, and after hitting a few bumps during the hot-and-heavy editing phases of TERMS OF ENLISTMENT and LINES OF DEPARTURE, I decided that I needed a cheap-ish mobile system for edits on the run that was 100% compatible with the .DOCX files I get marked up by my editors. The Surface has proven just the right pick for the job—lightweight, reasonably cheap, long battery life, flexible to use, and very compatible. But there’s a lot more to like about the thing, especially when compared to the iPad, and particularly when it comes to productivity use.

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That’s the Surface, clad in a leatherette case, with a Logitech illuminated Bluetooth keyboard behind it. I use the Surface without the keyboard 90% of the time and only need the BT ‘board for longer typing jobs, which is why I didn’t see the need for buying either the Touch or Type Covers that Microsoft sells along with the Surface.

The hardware is extremely well thought-out. You can tell that the people who came up with the design didn’t just want to do a “me too” iPad clone, but rather went their own way. Some of the hardware features I really like:

–Built-in kickstand. Simple concept that makes a great difference. The stand is built into the back of the unit and flips out in far less time than it takes for any case origami.

–Sturdy construction. The case and screen feel like you’d have to drop a car battery on them to do any damage. It’s as pleasant to hold and use as the iPad, only in a different, more industrial sort of way.

–Full-sized USB port. Not only can I plug in USB peripherals, I can plug in anything that works on my Windows 8 desktop system. External mice, keyboards, hard drives, DVD drives, memory sticks, WiFi dongles…it all works. If the device has a driver in the Windows driver database, it works on the Surface. That is sort of a Big Deal.

–Wide-aspect screen. Seems weird for a tablet at first, but now the iPad screen looks too tall and square to me. It’s much like back when we switched from 4:3 aspect LCDs to 16:9 widescreens for our desktops. After you’re used to the wide aspect, the other aspect ratio just looks all wrong. Movies play without letterboxing, and text takes up narrower and easier to read columns in portrait mode. (Interestingly, I use the iPad almost exclusively in portrait mode, and the Surface almost exclusively in landscape mode.)

–SDHC memory card slot. Unlimited, infinitely expandable storage! I expanded the internal 32GB with a 64GB SDHC card. So handy to just be able to copy, say, a movie from the desktop to the Surface via SDHC card without having through that Convert-‘n-Sync-via-iTunes routine on the iPad.

The Surface beats my MacBook Air in battery life and portability while allowing pretty much the same capabilities at least as far as I use both devices. It runs Office natively, lasts eight hours on the battery, can use any USB PC peripheral I have around the house, and can use ubiquitous SDHC cards for internal storage expansion and file transfer. All that for $349? Sign me up.

(Yes, I know you can get budget Windows laptops for the same money, but those don’t run cool and silent for eight hours on one charge, and they don’t come pre-loaded with Office 2013 either.)

I’ve come to equally appreciate the software, which is Windows 8.1 RT. It’s visually and functionally the same as 8.1 on the desktop, with the exception that it can’t run Windows legacy apps. (Its more expensive cousin, the Surface Pro, can do that, but more on that later.) The much-maligned new Metro interface of Windows 8 makes little sense on a keyboard-and-mouse driven system, but on a touchscreen, it’s very good. In many respects, it makes iOS look a bit dated in comparison. The touch gestures come so naturally after a while that I get annoyed whenever I pick up my iPad these days and try to do the Windows 8 swipe gestures. It’s much easier to task-switch in Windows 8 (swipe in from the left; pick from the list of open apps) than in iOS (double-click the home button, flick-scroll through your list of open apps). Closing an app in Win 8? Swipe down from the top of the screen, flick it down off the bottom of the screen. Closing an app in iOS? Double-click the home button, flick-scroll through your open apps until you find the one you want to close, flick it up off the screen to close. After using both operating systems for two months side-by-side, I’ve come to prefer the Win 8 gestures.

And Internet Explorer on Windows RT? Full Flash support. Everything plays in the browser without codec issues.

Oh, and how about multi-tasking? Here’s the Surface running two apps side by side in split-screen mode:

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That’s Internet Explorer on the left, Word 2013 in desktop mode on the right. I can write stuff up and have the research and reference material right next to my work. No big deal on a desktop system, but not an option on the iPad.

And not only can you split the screen, you can adjust the split:

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Word 2013 on the left, Twitter on the right. You can make one or the other minimize and give the remaining app the full screen back just by pushing that divider over all the way to the left or right. For productivity, it makes a huge difference, and it’s definitely the feature I miss most when I use the iPad.

For media consumption, the iPad is still the top dog, and the application variety is much greater for iOS. For getting stuff done, however, the Surface runs circles around the iPad.

Are there things I don’t like? Of course there are. No device is perfect. Stuff I dislike about the Surface:

–The magnetic power plug is way too hard to line up and connect. On my MacBook Air, it snaps in when you just move the plug into the vicinity of the jack. On the Surface, you have to line the plug up very carefully and rock it into place, and the feeble magnet only pulls it into place when you’re just about all the way into the socket already anyway. NEEDS REDESIGN.

–The app variety is paltry compared to Apple’s iOS, which had a two-year head start. But it has Office 2013, which is a big advantage for us publishing types.

–There aren’t very many accessories available for the Surface. I had to get a leatherette case off Amazon because none of the local big-box stores carry a damn thing for the Surface other than the (too expensive) Microsoft Touch and Type covers.

–It’s too easy to leave lying around, say, in the bathroom, where your wife may come across it, play with it, and want her own.

Yep…Robin looked at the Surface RT for a little while, and when I told her that the Pro version would run all her legacy Windows apps, she went out and got a Surface Pro 2 for herself. Now she has a tablet that runs Scrivener, Office, and World of Warcraft, with the same portability as her iPad 3, and with the ability to use her specialized PC peripherals. (She plays with one of those mega-multibutton mice because she can’t use both mouse and keyboard simultaneously due to physical restrictions.)

Now, I’m not slamming the iPad here, which is a fine device and still the top dog when it comes to media consumption and general variety and quality of apps. But for us, the Surface has proven a surprisingly capable machine with its own set of strong points that the iPad can’t match. It fits my day-to-day needs for mobile computing so well that I’ve barely touched the iPad or the MacBook Air since I got the Surface. I have to give credit to Microsoft for coming up with something decidedly different from the iPad and even *GASP* innovating along the way. I’m happy with the RT over the Pro right now because it runs cooler and more quietly with longer battery life and quicker startups, but it’s already filling almost all my day-to-day computing needs as it is.

Now I need to come up with some star system that isn’t bullshit. Whatever the scale, however, I’m leaning toward giving the Surface a really good rating on that scale. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good, and it works for me.

puppy play.

 

Henry and Ygraine doing what they do most of the day. (Ignore the messy floor, which I’ve TOTALLY PICKED UP since then.)

This fiber-optic connection kicks ass. That was a 153MB video straight from the iPhone, and it uploaded to YouTube in a minute or so. 50Mbps download speed is very nice, but 25Mbps on the upload makes a great many online tasks a great deal shorter.

beams of light.

Castle Frostbite just got a major Internet upgrade:

fiberspeed

 

I opted for the 50Mbps down/25Mbps up package, and as you can see, Speedtest says we’re getting pretty close to that. Our DSL line was 1.5Mbps down/0.75Mbps up, so this is a significant jump in bandwidth.

And look at that latency. It’s a thing of beauty.

the net is the word-killer.

My brother-from-another-mother Chang has some thoughts on the proliferation of internet-connected smart phones and the way in which they have shaped our social behaviors.

This is a tricky subject to address without coming off as a Luddite. I love the Internet and the social and professional possibilities it has opened up. There are tons of articles out there about the dehumanizing aspects of our always-connectedness, and I agree with some of them on some points, but overall the Internet has been a good thing for me. Without the blog, Facebook, and Twitter, I wouldn’t be in touch on an almost daily basis with so many of my writer friends, for example. Without the readership of the blog, I probably wouldn’t have gotten that initial sales boost when I finally put Terms of Enlistment on the market, and it may not have climbed up the charts to the point where its visibility generated more sales. Without the blog and Twitter, I would probably still be looking for an agent, and I almost certainly wouldn’t have the agent that was at the top of my wish list from the start. I enjoy hearing from readers, and the Internet makes that easier than ever before. Twitter and Facebook are like my virtual water cooler during the day, where I socialize a bit and hear the latest snippets from my friends’ lives. It makes me feel less isolated.

But here’s the thing about the water cooler analogy: Much like you wouldn’t be able to get any work done if you set up your desk next to the water cooler permanently, Twitter and Facebook and the whole big Internet are absolute poison for productivity.

I have three different processes for writing. Most of the time, I work longhand, then transcribe the draft to the computer later and edit things on the fly. That’s my preferred method. If I need to write something on a tight deadline and don’t have time for transcribing, then I use the laptop and write into Scrivener or Word directly. And when I can’t or don’t want to write longhand but don’t want to have the Internet on my writing machine, I get out the Alphasmart Neo.

Guess which method yields the lowest word count per hour every time?

That would be “writing directly on the laptop”, the method that, technically speaking, should be the fastest. But when I write longhand, my word count per hour is often double or more. Call me weak, call me easily distracted, but writing on a machine that is connected to the Great Diversion is absolute poison for my productivity. WiFi can be turned off, but it turns back on too easily, and my brain is really good at justifying just why exactly I need to stay connected. So whenever I use the computer to do my drafting, I end up spending half my writing time checking email, doing Wikiwanders, or checking Twitter and Facebook.

Truth be told, that’s just about half the reason why I prefer working longhand. I do it primarily because I enjoy it and because it forces me to do a word-for-word revision when I type it up, but I also do it because it’s far easier for me to stay on task and get stuff done when my writing implement can’t also be used to check how many people found my latest Facebook entry amusing.

But Brother Chang’s blog post touches on something a little deeper than my boring inability to control myself when I’m hooked up to the Hive Mind. It’s the way in which our computers and cell phones have commandeered our lives. Go to a playground and see how many parents are sitting on a bench with phones in hand while the kids play with each other. (The other day I even saw a dad reading his cell phone while pushing his kid on the swing with the other hand.) People are just glued to their phones all the damn time now. The new place setting in restaurants is knife, fork, cloth napkin, phone. And don’t get me started on how many people I see texting while behind the wheel.

Don’t get me wrong—I love the technology. I love the way in which my phone lets me perform tasks that were not in the realm of the possible before we had smartphones. When I see an item at the computer store, I can scan the barcode and see which stores nearby have the same item for a lower price, and I can read the reviews of the gizmo to find out if it’s a piece of junk. My phone can direct me door-to-door if I have to go to an unknown address. It contains a high-definition video and still camera. And I have the whole Internet in my pocket wherever I go. If information is power, the smartphone is the single most powerful enabler I’ve ever owned.

But boy, does it have its pitfalls.

Brother Chang likens the compulsive check for email or Facebook updates to a rat hitting a lever for a pellet, and it’s very true that this steady stream of tiny rewards has done funny stuff to our brains, reshaped our behaviors in ways that are in many ways indistinguishable from drug addiction. I’m not proud of this, but I know I have lost entire days to the Internet with no productive output to show for it. Our brains have rewired themselves to dispense a little dopamine kick whenever we hear that new message sound or spot the little red number that lets us know others have commented on our Facebook post, and now we can’t stop pulling that lever. You know you’ve lost the ability to live in the moment when you see something beautiful or funny, and your first thought isn’t “That’s amazing!”, but “I gotta Instagram that for peer approval!” And when you can’t make it through a conversation with a friend over a meal without checking your Twitter feed, then yeah, I think it’s safe to say you have an addiction.

I don’t want to give up my iPhone, or the iPad, or the computer upstairs, or the PS3. I’m not going to turn into a Luddite, put everything on Craigslist, and move into a lakeside cabin without Internet access to bang out my novels on a typewriter. I won’t start delivering hand-written manuscripts to my publisher. But I’m going to be more mindful of the time I spend online. I think I’ll start turning the computer off after checking my email in the morning instead of leaving it on all day long. I’ll leave the gadgets in the car when I go out to scribble a page or three at the coffee shop. I’ll eat my lunches at the kitchen table instead of in front of the computer. And I hereby pledge to never even look at my phone when I’m sitting down somewhere with friends, unless the school is calling me to let me know the kids are bleeding from the eyes or something.

(But I’ll still sign up for the fiber-optic service we’ll be getting in a few weeks. I’m curbing my mobile social media use and online time, not going full-out J.D. Salinger. Daddy needs his megabits.)

at least we didn’t fit naugahyde upholstery to the thing.

So Voyager 1 is the first man-made object to officially leave the solar system and travel into interstellar space.

Anyone else bothered by the fact that we sent a thing into space that contains a map to its origin planet and an open invitation?

“Hi, we’re a barely space-faring civilization that you could probably conquer and subjugate with your equivalent of a Boy Scout troop! Here’s a map to our home planet. Stop by anytime!”

Of course, the biggest issue is that we sent out Voyager 1 with an LP on board. We are intergalactic hipster scum.

“These are humpback whale sounds. You’ve probably never heard of them.” <derisive snort by Kurt Waldheim>

crombook laughs at your four winds.

So I bought one of the new Samsung Series 3 Chromebooks, and for all its limitations, I really like the little thing. It has a great keyboard, boots insanely quickly, has seven-hour battery life and a no-maintenance operating system, and doesn’t break the bank. (Oh, and THANK YOU for using a matte screen, Samsung. I hate the glossy ones with a passion, but you can hardly get a laptop without one anymore.)

It’s not a great primary laptop (all you get is the Chrome browser and whatever can run in it), but as a mobile web futz-arounder to toss into your European carry-all on the way to the latte shop, it’s close to ideal. Yes, you need to be connected to the Interwebz to get proper use out of a Chromebook, but there are damn few places I go where there’s no Wi-Fi available (and there’s always cell phone hotspot use). Plus, Google’s document editor has an offline mode, so I don’t need a web connection just to write.

For $400+, the Chromebooks were a little ridiculous, but for $250, it’s a good buy if all you want is a quick and easy little portable web browser with a proper keyboard.

 

übersnappenclicker.

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This? Is quite possibly my new Favorite Thing.

Saying that it takes better shots than the iPhone 4 is like saying that an Aston Martin DBS V12 is a little faster than a Fiat 500.