February Means Tired Freelancer Brains

There’s another month in the can, and boy, I don’t mind telling you–I’m a little tired. February, despite being relatively short, was a very busy month for me. In fact, I usually try to schedule vacations in February.  In the past, it worked out because my webdesign for authors and publishers business was slower at the start of the year, but for the last couple of years, there hasn’t been much of a “start of the year” drop-off. The result is that my brain feels a little overcooked, and things I usually enjoy doing, work-wise, have lost some luster.  Fortunately, we’re planning an extended trip overseas in a couple of months, so I should have some recovery time. That brings me to today’s short blog topic: burnout and time management for freelancers.

One of the hardest parts about being self-employed is learning where to draw the line between your life and the job. It’s entirely possible to work ten or twelve hour days for weeks or even months at the time. The problem is, this is not a sustainable practice. You’ll end up in really bad shape, with back problems or mental health ones at a minimum.  Taking weekends is a minimum, and instituting work hours for yourself is highly recommended

One of the ways I combat this is by planning out my schedule half hour by half hour on my Google Calendar. This helps make sure I keep rolling the ball forward for all my current projects, although it’s not entirely great for flow (sometimes I like to spend more than 30 minutes coding. Like, uh, today in which I coded without a break for 5 hours.  Not healthy.  But productive!). Still, I make myself stick to the schedule. At first, it feels weird blocking out time on your calendar to spend time with the family and eat meals, but I actually find it takes a lot of mental strain off to have a device tell me what to do (based on my own orders, of course). Google Calendar becomes my asshole boss with a heart of gold. Is it five o’clock?  Go play with your son! Otherwise, get your ass back to work.

It doesn’t work if something breaks and needs urgent fixing at 8 PM, but I’m much less likely to burn out if I regulate myself this way.  Of course, it also means less money in my pocket and maybe some decline in client satisfaction as I’ve been saying “no” more often this year.  After nearly ten years of doing this full time, I think I can safely say that there is no perfect time management solution, but we learn our own rhythms and schemes as we go.

So what do you use to manage your time?  Pomodoro?  Inbox Zero?  What strategies do you put in place to keep yourself productive, but balanced?


I’d Rather Watch Battlefield Earth A Hundred Times Than Ever Set Up A New Computer Again

I’ve been struggling a bit with my six year old desktop machine for a while now.  Its been show signs of imminent hard drive failure and the upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 10 left it odd.  Lately, windows would lose focus and refuse to come back into focus for no apparent reason, requiring a computer restart.  Chrome started taking an astronomical amount of memory for no good reason.  I decided yesterday that it was time to purchase a replacement. I resolved to spend the rest of the day moving files onto it, getting my software and development environments set up, and then today, I’d be back to work for my clients.

(cue sounds of hysterical laughter from the IT Pros in the back)

Computers are awful, terrible things that I don’t know how I would make a living without. I asked my wife today if she could remember the exact moment in time I went from loving computers to seeing them as little more than a necessary evil. She suggested it was while I was in college, learning a particularly buggy 3D rendering program called HASH: Animation Master. I poured more hours into learning that program than I did earning my degree, and half of them because it crashed often, losing all my work.

I save compulsively now and rarely ever lose more than a couple of minutes of work. Thanks, Hash!

Nothing ever takes how long you think it will when you set up a new machine, especially when replacing one you’ve had around forever, because half of the things you do on it have become muscle memory. It’s a trippy feeling to reflexively attempt a task and realize, oh, no, that application isn’t installed yet. I’m a fairly competent computer user, and I can only just imagine what this process feels like for someone who finds computers more challenging.

Well–that’s not entirely true. While I was waiting to pick up the new computer from having some more RAM installed at Micro Center, I stood next to the help desk and listened to the woes of many a senior computer user who, and I’m only loosely paraphrasing here, “just wanted the damn thing to work.” Amen to that, Granddad. You speak for us all. Despite my sympathies, listening to one poor tech patiently explain the same thing over and over again triggered my front line tech support PTSD and I was so physically uncomfortable I had to walk out of earshot to regain my calm. I hadn’t realized until then just how stressful I had found being a tech back in the day. I still do plenty of tech support, but not for hardware. Never hardware. If you open up the case of a modern computer wrong, the souls of demons will come screaming out. This shit is black magic compared to my 486.

Somewhere, a sixteen year old is reading the above paragraph and rolling their eyes so hard they’ll need transplant surgery when they’re my age.

Today, I’m typing this while yet another large batch of software applications install. I’ve nearly tweaked the new machine’s configuration to match the old one, far as I can tell. I intend to keep the old machine hooked up to a KVM switch for at least the immediate future so I can get back to it as needed. It will replace our Windows XP-running media PC as the media server for the house, but it will likely be months before I fully reconfigure things and catch every esoteric little thing that I need tweaked exactly right to feel at home.

I am newly resolved to avoid going through this nightmarish process again for at least ten years. After spending most of my adult life replacing my computer every three years, this last one made it six years (thank you, joys of parenting). Who knows? Maybe this one will last me into my sixties! Maybe I’ll finally become that cranky guy who writes on a decades-old word processing software because it’s what he knows and he doesn’t have enough time left to learn a new one.

Who am I kidding? I’m already that guy. I was using Word 2003 until this upgrade! Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go take my fiber pills and blood pressure medication.

Pictured above, my workstation, prior to the switch. That’s where the magic happens, people!


If You Think Dungeons & Dragons Is Fun, Try Playing It With Kids

Recently, a friend’s kids expressed interest in learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons, so this friend reached out to me to ask how they might learn how to play. I suggested that they come over for an afternoon and Sarah and I would teach them how to play as best we could after checking around and not finding an active Adventurer’s League in the area. We invited along our 12 year old nephew who lives near by, and Sarah rolled up a character to round out the party, which she shared some with Little Dude Tolbert, who yes, is on the young side to play a game like this, but you try stopping him. He knows entirely too much because my office is usually full of D&D stuff. Mostly, he sat on Sarah’s lap and goofed around, didn’t pay super close attention. He had fun rolling the dice and moving the miniatures, and he loved listening to the bigger kids have fun.

We ran the session today and it served a reminder to me to how fun Dungeons and Dragons can be the first time. Kids who have never played before have only the vaguest preconceived notions of what D&D is and how it should be played, which meant that they had some great and inspiring moments. Here are some anecdotes and loosely organized thoughts about the game.

  • This was a simple “meet in a tavern and get hired for a job” gig. They were hired by a merchant to recover some stolen property. Right away, they pressed the merchant to know exactly what was stolen. After some successful persuade checks, they learned that the property was “livestock.” Later, they learned that it wasn’t exactly legal. I was hoping for some misdirection here, but pretty much not thirty minutes in, they guessed that the “livestock” were people, which they were immediately down to put a stop to all of it. It went from a “find and retrieve job” to a rescue mission, and right away they planned to pay a visit to their employer afterward, which they did with fiery anger. I worried a bit that “slavery” might be too heavy a topic for kids, but it brought up conversations about Abraham Lincoln and there was no discussion over whether or not they would end it immediately. All of them had already learned about our country’s history of slavery and they were not okay with it. The kids are alright.
  • If you want to have a lot of fun with a character with low intelligence, have a three and a half year old role play it’s dialogue. At once point, after they rescued the stolen children from evil cultists, the fighter was put in charge of baby-sitting them while the rest of the party went off to deal with their “boss.”  Little Dude Tolbert’s first words to the kids, said in an adorable, gruff voice: “Hey, you kids! Don’t do anything with my legs. And just stay in this room.” There were several other great lines.
  • The nephew rolled up a bard with the ridiculous name of Jerry Jeff Parkanson, or “JJP” to his fans. The other players rapidly became his fan club, and any time it was JJP’s turn to act, they chanted “JJP! JJP!” Yes, even Little Dude Tolbert got in on the action. This made the nephew feel like a star, and helped bring him right into the game. Everywhere they go in the future, the legends of JJP will travel with them.
  • The oldest player did a great job of playing a rather foppish sorcerer with a poorly carved staff and an enormous hat that was just a delight. The voice she adopted for him sounded a tad like Taco. Embarrassingly, I kept misgendering the character (I missed early on that it was a male elf, so I was catching up). The player politely corrected me every time and I finally had it mostly right after an hour. (Again. The kids are alright.)
  • The younger brother of the teen created a delightful halfling rogue with a big mouth who got them into trouble more than once. He also helped the bard come up with some spectacularly hilarious insults to use for his main attack spell which involves insulting the bad guys to death.
  • Nearly every encounter began with an attempt by them to either use diplomacy or bluff their way out of. They tried intimidating wolves, talking their way out of fights with kobolds, and they even managed briefly to disguise themselves as evil cultists to try and stop a very bad ritual meant to serve the stolen children up for dinner to evil monsters.  Again: the kids are alright. They fought only when the bad guys gave them no choice. Which, this being D&D, was more often than not.
  • Kids’ emotions are double that of adults. A bad die roll, and they’re kinda devastated and you have to boost their spirits a bit. A natural twenty, and they’re doing a little victory dance around the table and cheering as they finish off a bad guy in one blow.  Their highs and lows are wild to witness, and it made the game even more fun for me than usual.
  • All of this made me even more certain that one of the main directions for Level Up Guild needs to be our “DM in a Box” service, and we need to market to parents of teens and pre-teens. I won’t even care that much that I’m making a lot less doing this than I do building websites. I kinda want doing this to be my job in the future.
  • I should probably work to develop more kid-friendly plot lines and bad guys. I’m not sure I have *any* idea what’s properly age appropriate because I was playing D&D at 6 and there weren’t really “age appropriate” things when I was growing up. I probably helped kill half the princes of Hell in D&D by the time I was 10. Skeletons and zombies are an easy thing to have them fight, though, so we did a lot of that. They’re basically the D&D equivalent of robots.
  • I never had to explain some basic mechanics, like what “hit points” are or “armor” or the types of weapons, the different fantasy races, etc.  Some of the stuff we didn’t know about when we were kids playing for the first time, these kids have absorbed through video games and other media.
  • D&D is by nature kind of violent when played the usual way, and parents need to be cool with that. Little Dude Tolbert and his mom and I had a long talk about makebelieve and pretend and how everything is just a game. He rolled with it really well, and had a good time rolling dice and doing math.  I would say that D&D is no more violent than modern video games (probably much less vividly so), but my combat descriptions could probably stand to be toned down as well, at least when playing with younger folks. We can fade the violence into the background of hit points and maybe I don’t need to be visceral at all in my descriptions with them. I’ve actually been struggling alot with the themes of violence and adolescence as I work on the Dungeonspace stories.  I also want to try my hand at writing more adventures that have less combat, and have bad guys run away or surrender more often.

In general, I learned an enormous amount from running this game, and I am looking forward to playing with these kids again. They were excitedly talking about what they would get at future levels and how they would deal with the three children they rescued, so I feel obligated to play with them again some time soon. I am really looking forward to learning yet more lessons of how best to DM for a group of mixed age kids.


Friday Finds for February 23rd

Here are some assorted finds and articles that turned up this week that are of interest to me, and possibly of interest to you.


Science Fiction

Web Design / WordPress


  • INTEL MADE SMART GLASSES THAT LOOK NORMAL – like everyone else, I was skeptical yet covetous of Google Glass.  The exclusion of a camera in this model seems very helpful in insuring there isn’t an enormous public backlash. I could really use these when driving in Kansas City, which despite having lived around here for five years, I still have no geographic sense of.
  • Kylie Jenner Tanks $1.3 Billion of Snapchat Parent’s Market Value – Bloomberg – this is fine.  Everything is fine.
  • I ordered an iPhone 8 case and the wide angle lens from Moment this week.  I’m hoping to avoid taking my big, bulky, and expensive digital SLR to France this summer, and in order to do that, I’d like a little more lens versatility.  I’ll post a review here after I’ve received this and had some time to try it out. I’m giving some serious thought into picking up a microphone and engaging in some videoblogging.  Why am I all of a sudden interested in plaguing the world with my inanity? Who knows.

Misc Links



The Magic of Flooded Rain Forests

I once spent a couple of weeks exploring the tributaries of the Amazon River in Brasil.  The river was just coming down from its peak waters, and one of the things I most vividly remember, aside from some amazing close encounters with river dolphins, was how magical the flooded forests looked as we swam through them.  It was very much like the above short video, only with added piranhas sailing through the branches.  The water was equally crystal clear.  This is the first thing I’ve ever seen that captured the experience!

Video found via BoingBoing.



Deepfakes Will Destroy Our Society, but Let’s Talk About the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Foundations Instead

Last night, I felt a hankering to watch the original Iron Man movie, and because this is the era of instant gratification, once we’d finished dinner, coaxed the little dude to sleep, and shut down business operations for the night, we settled in for a viewing via Amazon Prime. Okay, so as instant as it gets when you’re parents, but we did eventually watch it and I think the wife only fell asleep a couple of times.

The reason it was on my mind was because I was browsing the deepfakes gifs subreddit and for some reason, someone had taken a bunch of scenes from that movie and mapped Elon Musk’s face onto Robert Downey Jr’s.  It wasn’t a particularly believable deepfake, unlike some of the ones with Nick Cage’s face (I’ll never understand Reddit’s fixation with Cage).  We’re 3-4 years away from being able to recast any movie with any person utilizing neural network-based software and a boatload of photographic reference.   The deepfakes phenomenon started out primarily being used for incredibly creepy porn, but the technology will likely see numerous uses we haven’t predicted, especially given just about anybody can set up and train one with a little effort.  The implications for journalism are particularly worrisome, especially when combined with the level of voice synthesis tech that’s been circulating.  Talk about “fake news”… but that’s a much more depressing post. My dive into deepfakes got me thinking once more about the MCU’s beginnings. Let’s fiddle for a while and ignore all that smoke, shall we? (more…)


Television Will Eat Your Favorite Books and Regurgitate Xenomorph Goo With Which to Trap You

Exciting news spread like this season’s flu through SF/F Twitter today–Amazon will be adapting Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. It looks like we’re finally going to get a show with giant spaceships named “Just Read the Instructions” and “Of Course I Still Love You.”

Me, I’m not a huge Culture fan, although I respect it. In truth, I’ve only read Player of Games and I found it to be a little lacking. I waited too long to dive into these books and allowed my expectations to build too high, probably. The twists in the plot seemed predictable to me and the descriptions of games didn’t match the richness of my own gaming experiences. I would like to see a take on the same concepts written now in the golden era of board games. The writing was ace, though, and I like the ideas in the world-building quite a bit. I do intend to read more of them soon, and I can’t compare my one book experience to the the opinions of those who have read all of them.

I’ve seen a lot of trepidatious excitement about this adaptation, which while this one isn’t my particular cup of tea, I know that feel, bro. Back in 2002-2005, just out of college, I was awash in a new wave of exciting science fiction, the stuff that made me want to take up writing again. China Miéville blew my mind, and then Richard Morgan shot the still airborne pieces with pinpoint precision. I absolutely loved Altered Carbon when it came out, and I avidly read all the other Takeshi Kovacs books as they were published. I felt that same trepidation as the Culture fans at the news that Altered Carbon was getting the Netflix treatment.

So how do I feel about the series? “Meh” would be rude, so how about “lukewarm.” I mean, it goes without saying that not every book makes a great television show or movie. Putting my finger on why this book didn’t make the leap to the screen successfully has been something i’ve given a lot of thought lately. I am about seven episodes in, and I may revise my opinions once I finish it, but right now, it feels… cramped.

There’s this cramped feeling that comes from taking a large scale show and squeezing it into easily re-used sound stage sets, I suspect. For some reason, the book made me believe in a larger world, but I think I can count the sets of this show in my mind. Oddly, The Expanse doesn’t suffer from the same issue for me (I wonder how the budgets compare?). My issue with The Expanse is that the characters I know and love from the books are so much further along, and I’m impatient to see them develop the relationships that are fresh in my mind from the books.

The other problem with Kovacs is possibly that the lead doesn’t do much for me with his performance. He feels a bit wide-eyed and taciturn and honestly a lot more of an asshole than I remember. Hard to capture the hard-boiled Takeshi’s narration in a television show, I suppose.  Finally, there’s a lot more violence against women than I remembered and while I understand the point of it, I’m not as comfortable with it now as I might have been at the age of 25. My eyes have been opened to a lot of things since then.

It’s got me thinking that some of my favorite books might not be the best candidate for the media hypercash jump. I’m not sure that I would ever want to see Perdido Street Station with actors taking on imitations of my favorite characters. I’d rather not be put in the position of being that snooty-ass bastard who says: “I liked the book better.”

That said, if anybody wants to adapt any of my stories for the screen, you know how to get ahold of me. I still got bills to pay just like most of us, and I don’t blame anybody for taking those stacks of cash.

One last thing that I couldn’t figure out how to fit into the flow of all that above: if Netflix decides to make a spin-off about Poe’s adventures as an AI house, I am there.


ComicCons Are More Fun With Children. You Should Make Some, or Steal Somebody’s.

Team Tolbert spent this past Saturday hanging out at Bartle Hall in Kansas City at Planet ComicCon Kansas City 2018. Woo, boy. What a trip that was.

We’ve been to local media conventions in the past. I’m no stranger to geeky conventions in general, but my natural habitat is something more like WorldCon with its fraction of attendance and primary focus on the written word. ComicCons, in my experience, have a primary focus on media guests. They’re the place people go to get expensive photos taken with celebrities so they can post them to social media. I’ve yet to see the celebrity that I am willing to spend $200 for a photo with, but hey. Anything’s possible, and if that’s your bag, then baby don’t let me kinkshame you. Make those actors earn their second vacation homes and/or retirements.

So given that I’m not big on photos with famous people (but definitely not above walking past autograph alley to oogle them and say, without fail, “oh, they’re shorter than I expected”), and I am not really a collector of toys or comics, why would I ever attend these things? Two simple reasons: to meet up with professionals attending who are good friends and to watch my tiny human



Blogging is Dead. Let’s Start Blogging Again

Every few months, I read something that reminds me I was once an avid blogger.  Chances are, if you see this, you were too.  I don’t think I have a lot of reach with the Pre-Millennials (or Millenials for that matter).  Blogging was the way to actively interact with the internet for quite a few years.  Social media came and now we put all our private thoughts in pseudo-public networks and the blog is dead, except for a handful of stalwarts. Cory Doctorow’s gonna figure out a way to keep posting to Boing Boing after the bombs fall.

I have some nervous energy lately (nothing too serious, just the usual grab bag of slightly net-positive anxieties), as well as a troubling failure to commit fictional prose, so here I am. Blogging again.  Only this time, I’m going to be blogging for an audience of one and try to remind myself that.  I may even write a plugin for WordPress to post a big notice at the top of the editor: “NOBODY WILL READ THIS AND YOU SHOULD WRITE IT ANYWAY.”



Ten Increasingly Plausible Theories to Explain Why Donald Trump is the President

  1. In 2007, Jesus returned to Earth, born unto a poor Afghani couple living in the Helmand province.  In 2015, the new Jesus was killed, along with his Earthly family, in a deadly drone strike carried out by the U.S. military.  Everything that has happened since has been the retribution of an angry God.
  2. Global warming has reached a previously unknown tipping point.  Once CO2 levels rise beyond a certain point, humanity’s self-extinction instinct is activated by a complex biological mechanism inherent in all species since the dawn of life. When triggered, the dominant species is driven subconsciously to destroy itself.  In humans, this takes the form of electing the world leaders most likely to burn it all to the ground.  If humans can murder themselves fast enough, in great enough numbers, then the planet might just make it into the next million years with an intact biosphere.
  3. A secret cabal of hyper-intelligent cats, having grown tired of living in the shadows and having finally cracked the chemical formulas responsible for the potent highs of catnip, have enacted a plan to clear the slate and make way for their outright domination of the planet.  Pretty soon, we’ll start to see dogs dying in mysterious numbers. That’s the sign that they’ve escalated their time table further.
  4. Time travel, as it turns out, is possible. Unfortunately for us, it was perfected during Hilary Clinton’s second term by the top chronal scientists of the Ku Klux Klan.
  5. In 1971, NASA’s long-range threat assessment program LoRTaP detected an extinction-level asteroid aimed at Earth, predicted to impact the Earth in 2020.  Everything that has happened since was carefully planned by the secret council known as Majestic-12.  Republicans would be allowed to run rampant in our economy, shifting ever larger amounts of money in the economy towards the titans of industry tasked with constructing enormous space-worthy life boats in underground complexes scattered around the world.  It was a carefully calculated risk, but one that top Democrats agreed to; without allowing the wealthy to strip mine our doomed planet, no one would survive this.  In order to prepare doomed Americans for what was coming, it was determined that the most incompetent president in our country’s history must be elected.  Once all hope was lost in the American people, only then would they be prepared to board the life boats and abandon life as they knew it.  Only after the meteor shattered our world would the people be allowed to begin rebuilding their spirits.
  6. Trump is the Chosen One, and it his destiny to one day  engage the Dark Lord in hand-to-hand combat.  His rise was prophesied by George Washington himself in one of his many trances chronicled in the Book Of American Splendors.   Today, a secret branch of the U. S. government hidden within the Secret Service are tasked with making sure that Washington’s visions come true.  Unfortunately, something has gone wrong.  The Dark Lord is nowhere to be found, and the Secret Service is growing increasingly worried that the prophecies have finally failed them.
  7. Economic anxiety… among the reptilians!
  8. Ratings for the trans-dimensional faux-reality show America! have slipped as the show enters its  237th season. Worried showrunners have given the writer’s room free reign to throw anything against the wall to see what sticks.  Popular characters were killed off suddenly, and the worst villains allowed to rise to power.  Things look bleaker than they have ever before, and a trillion households across the multiverse have tuned back in so ratings have, thus far, shown a very promising uptick.  Unfortunately, this strategy has left the America! writing staff in a bind; how do you top the carnage of the 236th season?
  9. Twelve year old chaos magician Aidan Nicholson discovered all too late that what he thought was just a funny “what if” scenario hammered out with a couple of his dorky friends was actually the most powerful spell any magician has ever managed to cast.   Aidan desperately attempts to undo his work every day, but each attempt leaves things in even worse condition than before.
  10. Richard Nixon’s dying words formed a powerful curse, a malediction based on his late-life studies of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.  He devoted the last of his energies to curse the once-great country that he believed had wronged him.  “If you think I was bad, you fools, then I swear that one day you will elect a leader that makes me look like Abraham-fucking-Lincoln.”  Little does anyone know, this curse can only be broken by beating Henry Kissinger to death with a sack of oranges.