Google Tasks – The Integration Almost Gets There

Believe it or not, but creative projects are much like all other projects in life. Writing a novel consists of a number of steps, and writing a novel on schedule requires completing those steps by the deadline. You can’t just wake up, pour some bourbon in your coffee and expect epiphanies to stroll in through the door. You either treat it like a job, or it doesn’t happen.

To that end, we look at our first entrant in this To-Do List War, the relatively fresh Google Tasks. One of the world’s largest companies took a look at the hordes of task managers out there and all their giant features lists and said hey, we can integrate with gmail. What more do you want?

And to be fair to Google, that one feature is almost enough. They brought the ultimate weapon to the fight – the instant access to your task list while you’re emailing away – and figured that would be enough.

The Google Tasks icon hovers over on the right side, next to the Calendar and whatnot, in gmail’s tableau. In a single click, Tasks creeps in from the right and hangs out, not being all pushy. If you don’t have any tasks there, a pleasant little message informs you of your apparent success. Sometimes I open it to a blank list just to make myself feel better.

Unfortunately, Tasks built out this integration, which functions just like Outlook, and then failed to make everything as easy as Outlook. It’s not just a single click to turn an email into a task, and it’s difficult to sort tasks efficiently or group them into projects. While you can create ‘lists’, you won’t be able to see all your lists at once, sorted into tasks only due ‘Today’, or ‘Tomorrow’, which both Outlook and Todoist fulfill.

There’s also no dynamic dating from typing, meaning it’s difficult to stream-of-consciousness rattle off a bunch of tasks and slot them into their due dates without using a mouse. All of these claims, by the way, are based on me testing them out. I consider myself an average user, not a hyper-savvy savant who can parse out macro hotkey sequences as if by magic. If something’s not self-evident, I’m not gonna find it.

So here we have this killer gmail integration that could be perfect, and Tasks forgets to bring the rest of the war machine to the fight. Everything else is difficult. Subtasking exists, but there’s no templates in sight. It’s hard to move tasks around or color code them appropriately. In short, it’s a bummer that’s going to, nonetheless, be perfect for some people.

And who are those people?

The ones who want a quick and dirty way to digitize their daily tasks and have them hang out in gmail because that’s where they spend most of their time. It’s a perfect melding, and setting a time in the task squeezes it right into your Google calendar. Dynamic dating doesn’t matter if you’re gonna do everything either before or after lunch, and you don’t need templates to note that you’ve gotta get those TPS reports to Bill by five.

But for a novel, or anything that’s going to take weeks and months from start to finish, you don’t want to be starting your list from scratch every day, and you don’t want to retype a 70-step project every time you start the next book. Thus, Google Tasks falls ever so slightly short.

Just goes to show that the biggest weapon doesn’t always win the war.

The To-Do List War

As a way of displacing my own faults in my disastrous efforts to find and stick with a to-do list system, I’ve come to favor thinking of all the apps and websites as equally incompetent armies vying for the prize at the center of the battlefield. In this flight of fancy (and possibly only in this flight of fancy), the prize is me.

So who do we have fighting for the privilege of letting me click boxes, type in due dates, and sync with my Google calendar?

Let’s meet the contestants:

  1. Google Tasks – the peasant horde, this easy to-do-lister offers painless execution that is utterly confounded by larger, more complex project management.

    Strengths: Quick and agile, good at the basics. Has a great relationship with Google Calendar and is easy to access from within Gmail.

    Weaknesses: Too simple to handle project templates, easy nesting of projects within one another, and has a Sword of Damocles hanging over its head due to Google’s willingness to kill products like a hangman during the French Revolution.
  2. Asana – a lumbering war machine built for vast enterprises and team-wide efforts. Loaded with features that are useless for the solo tasker, but stuffed with fun animations that make it attractive nonetheless.

    Strengths: All the nested tasks, due date stringiness, and project templates you could ask for. Asana comes ready to bring industrial-strength features without the sheer scale of something like MS Project.

    Weaknesses: We’re not trying to project plan the Olympics here. Asana’s simply too much for a day-to-day manager. Like buying a Hummer when you live in the city – it might be fascinating for a few days, but then you’ll just be asking why?
  3. Todoist – the savvy crew that brings the right level of sophistication, but lacks the overwhelming firepower to claim the prize straight out, this task manager has the current lead.

    Strengths: Dynamic date-placing while typing the task name saves clicks (e.g. typing buy groceries tomorrow and hitting enter will create the buy groceries task and set it due for tomorrow). Simple click-and-drag for arranging projects and tasks is, well, simple.

    Weaknesses: Pro subscription isn’t expensive, but it’s damn near necessary to make this mercenary group useful. Project templates don’t have an easy relative date function that I’ve found – e.g. set the final due date to X and have all the other tasks swap to X-1, X-5, etc.
  4. A pen and a piece of paper – the old standby that’s been coasting on experience and dependability for a long time now. Always in the running yet never quite good enough.

    Strengths: Best-in-class performance for a day’s tasks. Incredibly satisfying to physically check those boxes. Customizable, and easy to flip back and see how many boxes you’ve checked as a morale booster.

    Weaknesses: Difficult to plot out big projects on paper unless you’re willing to make a big ol’ mess of a journal. Requires a journal, a pen, and having both on you to make adjustments or look up tasks in question.

Is this a comprehensive list of all the task management apps and methods out there? Nah. Is this a comprehensive list of all the ones I’ve tried to use with any degree of effort? Yep. I’ve looked at others and written them off for one reason or another, so these are the four I’m gonna look at more closely and we’ll see which one comes out on top in the end.

It’ll be a no-holds-barred battle to see which of these worthy contenders winds up as the champion of the checkboxes, the king of the kalendar, the duke of the dailies… you get the idea.

Insertion Part Eight: The Beast

Gregor laughed. Shook his head at the sight of the thing, and then laughed some more. He didn’t expect to find this kind of entertainment out here. So far away from any active combat zones, on some long DefenseCorp patrol given to Sever and the Nautilus as a sort-of break. And here he was, face to face with something he’d never seen, never heard of.

The monster was disgusting. A living mess.

Great.

His visor, coated with a super-slick film, washed itself clean of the mud that stuck to every other part of him. Gregor even had to heft twice to pull his hammer out of the grime it’d been stuck in after his swing. Fine. He preferred having to work for his fun.

Holding his maul in his hands, Gregor stared up at the blob. Looked for a weak point. Didn’t find any. Which meant straight ahead.

“Cleared to go in?” Gregor said.

“Cleared,” Aurora replied a moment later, her voice coming clear through their suit’s communications.

They gave Gregor an early break in the laser fire. Sever’s assault weapons would superheat a mud beast like this one and turned it into a boiling mass of crap. Before that happened, Gregor wanted to get his swings in. He double pumped his heels, activating the boost pads in his boots, and Gregor popped out of the mud. He swung the hammer left to right as Gregor flew through the air and connected with the mud beast. Grime and glory splattered all over as the weapon found its mark. Then the hammer head stuck, and Gregor, his momentum still going, flew chest first into the front of the beast. Smacked it like a wet noodle, the hit jarring Gregor’s weapon free — of his grip, the mud still had strong hold of the hammer — and Gregor rolled down the thing’s front, splashing in the water at its base.

On his back, he could see his hammer still sticking out of the creature as Sever’s bright yellow bolts resumed. He had to get the hammer back. Couldn’t risk losing it in the swamp. Gregor tried to sit up when something collided with his face. Pressed him back down into the muck and cut off his vision.

“Gregor, hold on! One of the tentacles— ” Sai, the one who got them into this mess.

“I can tell,” Gregor cut him off. “Get it off me.”

Gregor’s suit registered the ripples in the water as Sai made his way over, while Gregor reached with his hands and grabbed the tentacle slamming his face down into the swamp. Tried to get a good grip, but the slime-coated trunk made for difficult grabbing from a pair of metal-covered armored gloves. Defense tended to trump grip, but, far from the first time, Gregor cursed their suit design anyway.

Fine. Gregor dropped his left hand away to his waist, slapped it against the side of his power suit and popped a small little disk free. Held it up into the air,, just out of the water, and squeezed. A single long blade unfurled from the center of the disk, and once it had straightened, the last quarter of it bent to a right angle, blade to the side. Gregor couldn’t see any of this, but felt the expected vibrations in his hand as the tool spun up. An emergency saw.

Gregor held the blade to the trunk. Felt it dig into the muddy, moldy mass. And just as quickly felt the blade gum up. Snap and break apart. Not surprising – the disks were meant to cut through malfunctioning harnesses, safety nets, and ropes. Not to cleave through a mud monster in the swamps of Dynas.

Gregor felt, rather than saw, Sai collide with the trunk. A shuddering charge, which did nothing. At least that Gregor could tell.

“Use your damn sword, Sai,” Gregor yelled. That was Sai’s whole point anyway. Bombs and blades.

“I wanted to keep it clean,” Sai replied. Because of course he did.

“Where do you think you are? A showroom?”

The pressure increased, and the tentacle pushed Gregor deep down beneath the water’s surface. Till he felt the swamp-floor mud sucking at his back. Creasing into his armor and wrapping around the sides of his helmet. He’d be buried in moments.

All once the pressure ceased. Gregor had his own power again. He pressed his arms, kicked his legs under him, and pushed them into the goop. Propelled his way to the surface. The suits weren’t made for swimming, but the swamp wasn’t an ocean – the shallow and thick water gave Gregor enough heft to pull himself to the surface.

The end of the trunk still stuck to Gregor’s mask, so he couldn’t see, but the little heads-up display, in neon blue letters, told him he’d made it out of the muck. That he could, if Gregor so chose, open his helmet without sending swamp water cascading in. Opening a helmet in a live combat zone, unless in cases of critical malfunction, was against DefenseCorp policy. Voided his insurance – particularly the large payout that would come if Gregor met his demise. Too much to lose, and Gregor had heard DefenseCorp would take any opening it had to keep that payout low. Like most of Sever, family — siblings, parents in his case — waited and no doubt hoped to one day receive the final payout from Gregor’s suicidal career choice.

Gregor set his hands to the trunk again and, without the rest of the tentacle pressing it, managed to tear the suction away from his helmet and launch the limb away into the swamp. The ugly swamp once more made itself visible, and once more left Gregor utterly unimpressed.

The rest of the fight was going about as well as he’d expected. Aurora, Eponi and Rovo were still launching spit-fire at the creature, which seemed unaffected. Its tentacles whirled around, and Gregor saw that some of the them were longer than the shuttle, blazing through the air like swinging tree trunks. The monster made Sever squad dive and roll around. Dodge the swinging limbs, keep from getting sucked in or captured. Or beat down into the muck. Near him, Sai tried to go to work with the blade, but every cut came away with more mud and zero creature.

Gregor could help with that. He turned towards the monster, saw a tentacle start to swim through the swamp towards him. The mercenary squatted and snarled, “Come and get me you bloated bastard.”

The long, slimy limb swept out of the swamp and Gregor jumped, caught hold of it as the tentacle scooped up beneath him. It lifted Gregor up, higher than the creature itself, trying to fling him off. Exactly what Gregor hoped. As a trunk flew over the mud creature’s head, Gregor let go, dropping and spinning through the air until he landed, with a sickening splat, right on the creature’s head. Not that there really was a head, more like the top of a mound.

Gregor glanced left, down. The hammer stuck a meter beneath him, jammed into the side of the beast. Even if he could get to it, how would Gregor swing it before he wound up back in the swamp? One problem at a time. Gregor reached over his back, where, aside from the hammer, hung a pair of heavy assault rifles. Latched into the back of his power suit. Ready to go.

He popped one off, swung it over his shoulder as Gregor knelt on the beast. Pressed the nozzle down into the top of the mound. Pulled the trigger and held it.

A DefenseCorp heavy assault rifle spewed fifty bolts a second. Even without a laser’s recoil, repeated fire superheated the mirrors in the barrel and tended to send accuracy plummeting. The weapon ought to scare the living hell of anything Gregor shot as it filled the air with lethal fire. But the monster was as big as a house, and Gregor was right on top of it. Accuracy was not a question. Terror a secondary concern. Death mattered most, and at this range, the assault rifle delivered.

Bolts bubbled down into the creature, boiling deep holes that, in the moments before mud rushed to fill them, Gregor could see what looked like green-colored flesh. Good to know something lived beneath the gunk, that they weren’t fighting the swamp itself. Real life could be taken, could be scared away or burned to a crisp.

“The fun part’s beneath the mud!” Gregor shouted.

And then he was flying. Hit by a tentacle, soaring through the air. Gregor felt a crack in his back as he slammed into a tree and plummeted face first into the mud. Down and out.

Out of Sight and its romantic repartee

Watching Out of Sight, which appeared on HBO Now at the start of September, was a choice made as part of my knee-jerk search to find strange artifacts of film from my middle/high school years that achieved critical recognition despite being unknown to me personally.

Wow. That’s a paragraph.

Point being, the movie was supposed to be good, I hadn’t seen it, and it being from the 90s all rolled together to make it perfect weeknight viewing. Out of Sight also happens to be based on an Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, which showers the movie in bonus points.

Of the whole movie, though, there are two scenes I wanna mention, and both consist of the two stars (George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez) in straight up conversation with each other. There’s tension around both – in the first, Clooney’s Jack Foley is escaping from prison and has kidnapped Lopez’s Karen Sisco, a cop, and, with the help of his friend, shoved himself and her into the trunk of their getaway car. In the second, much later in the film, the two meet in a fancy hotel lounge to fan the flames of a forbidden fling.

Both scenes lean hard on the stars to carry them – neither one has much in the way of outside action. There’s almost no movement, and while the car scene is occasionally cuts to other events, our stars remain firmly in focus. This could have been a disaster – wooden exposition, or even witty words delivered with forced comedy would have broken the immersion. Instead, we get an exchange that sounds pretty darn real – from the scene in the car:

Jack Foley: You sure are easy to talk to. I was thinkin’, if we met under different circumstances…if you were in a bar and I came up and we started talkin’…I wonder what would happen.

Karen Sisco: Nothing.

Jack Foley: If you didn’t know who I was.

Karen Sisco: You’d probably tell me.

Jack Foley: Just saying if we met under different circumstances…

Karen Sisco: You have got to be kidding.

Now, take those words and read them aloud yourself. Kinda sleazy, kinda blah. You get the impression that Karen Sisco might be about to pour her drink out all over Jack Foley’s head. Instead, Clooney and Lopez honey over the words, charm oozing out of Clooney’s delivery and an exasperated amusement from from Lopez, who seems in disbelief over the whole situation and, too, with herself. Why’s she talking to this guy? Why’s he so ridiculous? Is she actually having fun here, trapped in the trunk of the car?

The situation’s so implausible, but we’re willing to believe it because the delivery, coupled with a conversation that sounds real, makes it so.

Now, in the second scene, at the hotel bar, the stakes are raised. Sisco could arrest Foley at any moment, and the question is… why doesn’t she? And Foley attempts to provide an answer with a line that ought to come off as corny and cliched, but in the moment, because Clooney delivers it with the stammering urgency of someone desperate to make their point, we buy in:

Karen Sisco: Well, does this make any sense to you?

Jack Foley: It doesn’t have to. It’s something that happens. It’s like seeing someone for the first time… like you could be passing on the street, and you look at each other and for a few seconds… there’s this kind of a recognition… like you both know something. The next moment, the person’s gone, and it’s too late to do anything about it. And you always remember it, because it was there, and you let it go, and you think to yourself, “What if I had stopped? If I had said something?”

Jack Foley: “What if, what if?” And it may only happen a few times in your life.

Jack Foley: Or once.

Karen Sisco: Or once.

It’s a freaking fairy tale line, but delivered here, in this way and between these two characters, a bank robber and a marshal, we believe it. The rest of the story almost doesn’t matter because we just want to spend more time watching how these two are going to find a way to be together.

So what’s the point? I guess the point is that with a little bit of tension, fun characters, and dialogue that doesn’t sound like it came out of an 8th grade English class, you can immerse people into your story even without the special effects, the action, or the world-ending stakes.

All you need is two people talking.

A New Morning

Today’s the day. You’re turning thirteen. You wake up, tap your wrist to turn off your alarm, and blink into the foggy early spring morning. There’s a slight pain on your left side, easily written off as a misadventure in tossing and turning while carousing the dream zone. Your head’s a little blurry too, like a signal’s getting interrupted, but that’s just waking up, right?

Your mom calls from downstairs. Breakfast. School. The usual routine demands, and you follow them. All the way through to the shower, the clothes, and while you don’t need a backpack – something your parents laugh about – with all your books and notes stored in the Tama on your wrist, you’re nonetheless checking that you haven’t forgotten anything as you reach for the lift’s call button – it’s a long ride to ground in the stacks – when it hits.

At first, it’s like your skin is burning. Only not just your skin but everything inside it too. Except there’s no flame. No sound either except your own shouting, which you realize you’re doing when your parents run over, their faces showing a deeper kind of fear than you’ve ever seen. This isn’t concern about a skinned knee or the flu, but an existential crisis.

And you know why. You’ve been told, taught, tested. Warned that some anomalies are never caught before it happens. Now it’s happening to you.

You’re kneeling now, hands pressed against the faux-wood flooring, a quiet plea to nature in this metal place. Take a breath, your mother’s saying, and she reaches for you even as your dad tells her not to. You feel her hand on your shoulder and it’s a reaction honed by years of parent-child support to reach up and grab hold.

The burn becomes kinetic, a fiery thrum coursing from your right hand, still on that wood, through your shoulders, your nerves, through your left arm to that clasped hand. You’re looking right at her when it happens, and the shock in those eyes as they turn brown and knotted will stay with you forever.

Next comes your father, unwilling to believe what’s happened, and you, tears doing their work on your eyes, turn to him for answers. You touch his shirt, you grab his hand, and the fire burns again. Sharp, but even in this horrible moment you begin to understand it, measure the flow and, like flexing a muscle, turn it off.

You are a miracle. A genetic lottery winner. A silent house cheers.

Read Your Old Work

Writing, painting (digitally, anyway), and other creative endeavors are some of the few activities where you can look back at your old work and see whether you’ve grown (or regressed!) since you began. Play an instrument and you can probably tell whether you’ve improved, or maybe you took the time to record yourself and post it to YouTube in a early bid to make yourself a star that flamed out amid endless laughter from friends and classmates… where was I?

Right.

At this moment I’m polishing up a prior work whose world I’m planning to go back to for some future stories, mostly because I like the setting and characters enough to hang out with them some more and see what they have to say. Because years had passed between that piece and me coming back to it, I somewhat expected rereading it to be like pulling the dusty cover off an old couch and discovering maggoty, rotting insides. I’d see countless mistakes staining every chapter, a molding frame that wouldn’t stand up to even a cursory inspection, and the general fetid air that comes from a shambling tale told dully.

But here’s the thing – it’s not bad! Things to clean up, sure, but they’re more akin to spare threads sneaking loose or some wood that needs a new stain. Hardly a total loss. In fact, I’d even say it’s readable!

Even with that, though, I can see where I’ve grown. The way I write scenes, now, more complete. The settings more evolved and detailed. So on and so forth. The fun part of this, though, is seeing that the early bars aren’t quite so low, and yet I’ve still leaped quite a bit higher on my latest efforts. In other words, I’m improving, but I didn’t start all that far back to begin with.

And that, I think, is the best part. You get a bit of a boost for yourself – realize you’re not as hopeless, and never were, as you might think you are at the lowest points. Rereading my old work helps give me the confidence to keep going. Those old stories are a measuring stick – not only for how far I’ve come since, but how far I’d already gone when I started.

So, if you have the chance or ability, take the time to look back at where you’ve come from. Might be you’ll laugh, might be you’ll shake your head, might be you’ll find inspiration to keep on going.

Insertion Part Seven: Swamp Life

A sewer. That’s what this planet felt like, and Sai had only been on it for a minute. The fog seeped down in great green-gray sheets, a sticky mist coating his armor, clogging the breathing vents, and sending its rotting odor into Sai’s nose. The filters would kick out anything harmful, but smells could stay. Sai would like to punch whatever engineer probably declared, all those smug degrees running through their voice, that keeping scents could be useful. Sai wouldn’t be making any good judgment calls if he kept coughing like this.

Gregor put his armored fist against Sai’s back as the two of them stood on the drop shuttle’s side. If Sai didn’t take a step soon, Gregor’s weight said, the big man would push Sai into the swamp. Dynas didn’t have crushing gravity, but Sai’s weight, with the armor, would be enough here to drag him down to the depths. Where, naturally, the suit would let him breath. But if things were this ugly up here, imagine what they’d be underneath the yellow-green glop?

“I’m moving,” Sai said, keeping his voice on the squad channel. “Settle down.”

“I’m not excited,” Gregor replied. “We are vulnerable up here.”

If the skiffs could see them through the fog, they’d already be dead, but Sai didn’t argue. Instead, he took the first step down. Off the shuttle and onto what looked like a muddy rock. His foot hit the material, and sank right down through. The metal boot descended, and his leg followed up to his knee before Sai hit something not quite solid, but thick enough to support his weight.

“Careful,” Sai said. “The ground here likes to eat people.”

The others followed, though Sai noticed they stuck to walking on the shuttle itself. Kept to its fins and floating hull. He felt their eyes on him. Waiting to see if he disappeared. If he became a casualty, a statistic.

Well, screw them.

He heard Aurora start talking to Eponi, and decided to take a second step, leaving the shuttle entirely and clomping in the goop. Then a third, though lifting his right leg out from its muddy prison took far more effort than he cared for. His respirators confirmed that the atmosphere was indeed breathable, five times thicker than Earth’s. Humid and drenched. So much so that if they stayed on the surface too long, even their suits would start to rust over.

“Sai, what are you doing?” Aurora sounded like a taut ripcord, one tug away from losing it. “Do you know where you’re going?”

“Standard protocol,” Sai replied automatically. “Get away from a crashed ship after landing.”

“As you may have noticed, this isn’t standard,” Aurora said, then seemed to check herself. “But Sai does have a point. Eponi, you know where we should go? Where’s the station you were heading for?”

Eponi, standing on the nose of the shuttle, pointed off to the distance, to Sai’s left. From what Sai could tell, insofar as the suit’s compass told him, Eponi’s heading went north. A working compass was a small miracle — whether DefenseCorp cheaped out on them or Sever managed to dodge planets with magnetic polarity, the little red and white arrows proved more useless than not on their missions. Here, with visibility maybe ten meters, any distant navigation would be done by non-visual methods. Regardless, the chosen direction didn’t match where Sai had been trudging.

Sai twisted, swung his legs through the muck. Took a step forward. His left leg lurched. Slid back. Something grabbed his foot. A steady pull, no yanks. Drawing Sai deeper into the muck.

“Something’s got me!” Sai yelped. He twisted, the only thing he could see was that damn mist, the burbling, slimy mud. His left hand fumbled for the spitter on his hip. Grabbed it, swung around, and almost pulled the trigger. DefenseCorp standard regs said not to fire without a clear visual of the target — collateral damage cost cash, and came out of Sever’s paycheck.

Sai’s right hand tapped his helmet, pressing against his temple, and the visor flipped from standard to infrared. The mustard greens faded to blackish-blue, except for his own heat, and that of the thing coming after him. The thing had had wrapped itself around his foot, large and roiling.

Sai may have screamed.

“Gregor,” Aurora answered Sai’s panic with a solution. If Sai had to pick one trait about the commander that explained why Aurora held the position, it would be this one: when the tight cord keeping her control snapped, she became razor ice, cold and ruthless. “Jump in.”

“Yes.” Gregor, in his midnight blue suit, reached over his head and grabbed his hammer. Pulled it over, readied it in both hands.

“Wait!” Sai started, hoping for a chance to get away from impending disaster, but one could sooner stop a comet than halt Gregor’s assault. The monstrous man crouched and jumped. All suits came with push pads in their boot soles. If needed, they could supply a microburst of downward force. Add two to three extra meters on a jump. In this case, that gave Gregor plenty of height to swing with his hammer and come crashing down beyond Sai, leading with his hammer. Gregor drove the weapon through the mud, followed by its owner. Sai couldn’t tell what happened, because a wall of muck slammed over him. Mad laughter filled the comm.

Sai flipped back to standard vision, wiped away the dreck and stared at what’d become of his assault armor. His suit had been emerald green. Now, Sai had perfect, foul-smelling camouflage. No metal in sight.

Not that Sai had much time to think about it. Because, with Rovo and Aurora announcing their arrival to the fight with a hail of yellow laser blasts scorching the slime in front of Sai, the thing Gregor had swatted with his hammer rose up from the waters. Then kept rising. Until it stood more than three times higher than Sai himself. It seemed unfair for something that ugly to be that tall. As if mud had suddenly achieved life, and brought along the gunk, sticks and stones to sentience with it. Pieces broke and drifted off of the creature, splashing into the swamp water around Sax.

“It’s got tentacles,” Rovo said, splashing in next to Sai. “Because of course it does.”

Gray and mottled, coated with spots of mold, the tentacles shivered as the thing grew out of the swamp. They draped along the thing’s sides, and Sai counted at least ten, possibly more, with the ends vanishing beneath the surface. Sai looked for a mouth. For eyes. Found none. This monster was a giant blob, one seemingly intent on turning Sever Squad into its next meal.

When My Cats Welcome Me Home

YouTube videos by the dozens (thousands? millions?) show a dog’s twitchy anticipation of their owner’s imminent arrival. The pooch might move from the window to the door then back again, hop a little, their tail wagging back and forth so fast it seems in danger of flying off like a little furry missile. What I’m saying is, they’re excited and they’re ready to shower all kinds of puppy love on the whomever comes through that door.

Now, my cats, of which there are two. They have their own greeting, yes, but if the dog’s is one of love and joy, these cats regard my arrival in the strict terms of an economic arrangement that just became more attractive. A lucky break, if you will.

See, the kitties (correctly) recognize that I am a potential source for food, treats, and the coveted, most desired prize: a couple hours leashed up in the backyard (I hear your questions and I shall answer them at some later date – cat leashing is not the subject of this post, thank goodness). They are willing to provide some cuddle time in exchange for these things, and when I come home after several days out of town, well, they (correctly) perceive I am cuddle deficient.

Like an oil tycoon sizing up a small town for a takeover, they approach with the offer on the table, and it’s one I can’t refuse. Nuzzle here, nuzzle there, ok champ it’s time to go. If I think about pushing back, instead of hired muscle and town debts, the cats turn to endless yowls, scratching at the furniture, and pointed demonstrations of what gravity can do to our small plants, drying dishes, etc.

So I give in. After sitting in planes and airports for hours, struggling through rough sleep in hotels, I don’t have the energy. The cats have me, they know it, and so they get what they want – a chance to chew some grass and hope some chipmunk stumbles into their range.

It’s not quite puppy love, but it’s what I got.

The Setting

As I get closer to publishing the next book, I’ll be writing some posts describing the world in which the story takes place. Mostly because when you create a really cool sandbox, it’s fun to play in it.

Chicago. Somewhere around the year 2100, though most people can’t believe how little’s changed. They’re still working, still buying food from a store, and robots haven’t infiltrated every corner of life. In fact, if you manage to listen in the right corners, you’ll hear whispers about how much better things used to be. How perfection has become anything but.

Promises were made, and those promises float overhead every day. Mechanized overseers, doing the bidding of a new aristocracy chosen not by wealth, not by (as if) popular vote, but by random chance. The drones hover like clouds, cataloging everything – metal angels for the Paragons.

Roll a dice. If the number comes up six, roll it again. Do that four more times and, if you nail that six every time, then you’ve found the odds that’ll place you above everyone else. Anomalies began arising decades ago, and with them came at first the accolades pitched in every superhero story since the dawn of time. At first that’s what they were, too – leaders and champions, guardians of society. 

Humans, though, have a way of spoiling their strengths. The anomalies began to feel used. Yanked around by politicians who needed a smile next to their election campaigns, forced into service by grubby dictators who saw them as another tool, pushed into servitude by normals who saw anomalies as de facto public servants, whatever the anomaly’s own desires.

Play with fire, the saying goes, and you’re going to get burnt. Normals see the evidence in front of them all day long. In Chicago, the Paragon’s tower dominates downtown. Would-be heroes meander, tasked according to the precepts of a world designed to maximize productivity and minimize suffering and that truly succeeds at neither. Greed has changed its stock market for a super-suit. Ambition, like a river, flows around the dams constructed by the original Paragons, those Champions who wrested the world from its discordant dance and froze it in their invincible grip.

Now, that grip thaws. Both normals and anomalies begin to sense, as the Champions grow old, that change is coming. Chicago hums with a new energy, and many hands, normals and anomalies, Paragons and humbled companies, move to use it. The world order doesn’t change often, and there’s only room for one at the top.

Container: A pure economic simulation with boats

The games I grew up with had dice and cards. Lots of random chance that had us yelling in either joy or rage, blaming callous deities for the slight miss of a Yahtzee or the color in Candyland that sent you moping back to the beginning. No amount of pleading would get Princess Lolly to intervene.

Yet, along with my opinion of chaos in life, chaos in board games soured. What had been an opportunity for hilarity, for luck to obliterate skill like the jester executing the judge, seemed instead to be an easy crutch for game design that didn’t want to take the time and craft an intricate dance for its players.

Container does take that time, though the dance is a brash one, full of big molded ships and weighty pieces. There are no dice to be found here, and the one piece of chance, the dealing of secret points cards and the choosing of an opening type of production, are both dealt with randomly and equally. Which leaves the players, upon the opening round, with their own wits and nothing more.

Trades commence. Deals wheel. Production fills the game space with more colored containers while the ships themselves drift from port to port in search of the best deal. If you’re the only person making purple, maybe you price them high. But not too high, because then nobody’s going to be able to afford your luxury goods. Or maybe you want to discount them, try to get them sold off in bulk and make your profits through volume.

When you get those profits, do you spend them upgrading your harbor to store more of those pricey containers, or do you hold it because the Blue Player’s got a full ship and is heading towards the island, full of valuable cargo you want to bid on?

Container is a game of relatively few rules. Within a single round, most of the concepts are clear and strategies emerge. Table talk abounds as the whole game is interaction, though rarely of the negative sort. Most of the time, players won’t know who won or lost till the very end, which keeps everyone invested in shuttling the containers around.

If there’s a negative, it’s the game’s greatest strength. Container is pure economics, and people who don’t have a head for supply and demand, or who have lust for playing price games or trying to cajole someone to please, please, just buy something already are going to find themselves mired in debt and missing out on some of the action. No dice rolls to save you here.

Also, the boats. They’re fantastic. You actually load the containers on them. Talk about killing it with theme. Some nights, all you really want is a perfect distillation of a micro-economy that runs on boats. Container‘s there for you, no doubt about it.