Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 ProFor the past year I’ve been searching for a replacement for my laptop, a Dell Inspiron 1501, which is a serviceable but aging laptop that came with Windows Vista 32-bit installed. I upgraded it without too much trouble to Windows 7, and then again to the Windows 8 beta, but truth be told, it’s been getting a little slow.

And bulky. Especially in airport lines. Ugh.

For a long time I was considering purchasing an iPad to replace it. But Microsoft has won me over with their Type Cover keyboard and 10-inch screen, and a bevy of features that really make this laptop/tablet hybrid a wonderful complement for just about any writer. In fact, it really has become the one-stop shop for my entire writing workflow.

For starters, it runs Scrivener. The iPad does not, at least not until the publishers of Scrivener release the planned iPad version. Scrivener is a word processing program that many novelists use because it comes with a slew of other tools that writers find useful that more conventional word processors simply lack, making it well worth the $40 price tag. Strike Number One for the iPad, as well as the Surface with Windows 8 Pro’s cousin the Surface with Windows RT, was their inability to run this program.

One of the issues with using a program like Scrivener is that it currently only exists as what Microsoft is calling a “Windows 7 app”, meaning it’s the version that exists on any previous version of Windows–it opens on the Desktop. This means that some of the interface items are small, but what it has going for it is that it works with the touchscreen just fine. The scroll bars and drop-down menus are large enough to manipulate with your finger, though tapping on specific documents or images in the Binder may be somewhat hit or miss, even though the Desktop has been sized to 150% of what you’re used to–a must for the Surface Pro’s 10-inch 1080p screen. The only app that I’ve found that doesn’t work with the touch screen is Chrome in Desktop mode. You’ll definitely need the Touch Cover or Type Cover’s touchpad or a bluetooth mouse to use that program.

The capacitive pen also comes in handy for jotting down quick notes as well as maps and sketches. When I’m previsualizing my novels, this tool has been surprisingly useful. I didn’t really consider it when I was looking for my laptop replacement, but it is very useful. Whenever I need to draw a map or brainstorm, I can open up a paint program and just start drawing.

But moreover, the Surface Pro packs portability into a usable form factor that helps me write without sacrificing the typing speed I’m used to on a full-sized laptop like the Inspiron. I purchased my Surface Pro with the Type Cover and the two together fold nicely into a folio form factor, making it easy to carry, and the kickstand allows you to set up in your favorite Starbucks or Panera Bread.

The Type Cover features real, depressible keys that feel like a real laptop keyboard and doesn’t feel cramped to boot. But then again, I don’t have thick man-fingers, so your mileage may vary. And if you have long fingernails, the texture of the Type Cover may be off-putting, as it’s something akin to a chalk board. So if you hate the feeling of fingernails on a chalk board (it doesn’t make the sound), you may not like the Type Cover. The feeling of my fingernails against this type of plastic was weird for me at first, but I was able to get used to it.

Using the Surface Pro in its kickstand mode on your lap–basically like a laptop–comes with a few caveats. For one thing, its small size may require some people to do a bit of a balancing act with it, although I didn’t have much of an issue with it myself. What I did have a problem with was that the Surface Pro Type Cover does disconnect and then reconnect often enough when using it in my lap to be annoying, so I purchased a lap desk and those problems disappeared. I think that particular issue may be because while the Type Cover is still solid enough to type on, it’s still flexible enough to trigger the Surface Pro’s built-in sensor that detects when the keyboard is folded behind the screen. It does this so that when you use the Surface Pro in tablet mode, your fingers’ inputs on the keyboard won’t be registered and mess up whatever you’re doing with the touch screen.

When you plug the Surface Pro in, you just snap the plug onto the lower right side of the Surface Pro, and it clicks in easily enough. You still have to fumble with it, but not nearly as much as you would with the Surface RT. And not once did I experience a time where I plugged in my Surface Pro and the charging indicator on the plug did not light. It works every time. The power brick is nice and small and also  comes with a USB charging port on the side, so if you’re using an external hard drive on the Surface Pro’s only USB 3.0 port, you can at least still charge your cell phone on the power brick. As a side note, since the Surface Pro only has one USB 3.0 port, I purchased a USB hub, although I haven’t had to use it yet.

If you are planning on being out and about for more than four and a half to five hours, you will need an outlet to recharge. My Surface Pro lasts about five hours before needing recharging, but if I’m using Dropbox with Scrivener, I do always make sure to disable syncing while I’m writing. The automatic syncing combined with Scrivener’s always-on auto-save feature drains the battery even faster, about as fast as streaming video, which means you’ll only get about two to two and a half hours of battery life if you don’t turn off Dropbox’s syncing.

Microsoft recommends you plug the Surface in whenever possible to maintain battery health, as long as you discharge the battery completely about once per month. Since replacing the battery will require sending it in to Microsoft, do be sure to follow this advice if you end up picking one of these up.

But there’s more than writing that you can do on this thing. Another hidden feature of the Surface Pro for writers is that if you’re heading to any book signings or convention appearances, you can set up the Surface Pro on your table to display your book covers using Windows 8’s built-in slideshow screensaver. The Surface looks sleek and stylish and it will draw people to your table.

And even though it’s primarily intended for content creation and business, it’s a brilliant consumption device as well. Using the Surface Pro’s built-in Mini DisplayPort and a third party Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter, I’ve been enjoying all sorts of content on my 1080p flatscreen television that I’ve previously only been able to watch on my desktop computer; streaming video of Once Upon a Time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. This device combined with the streaming service of your choice pretty much allows you to cut the cable once and for all, assuming you don’t watch sports. And when I don’t want to sit out in the living room, I can disconnect it from the TV and take it to bed as well.

Keeping up with Facebook and Twitter is also a breeze. I use the official Facebook app along with the MetroTwit app for Twitter, both available for free through the Store app on your Start Screen. And if you want to read an eBook, or even proof your own (which is another use for the Surface Pro), there is the free official Kindle app for that as well.

If you’re a gamer, the Surface Pro comes with an onboard Intel HD Graphics 4000 chip, which I’m told will run a few older games and newer ones that are not as graphically demanding. Civilization V runs great. Skyrim not so much. It runs Minecraft at about 25 fps in a city-like area that my friends and I have built, which is enough to be functional on the go. When you only have undeveloped land in view, the frames-per-second does pick up a bit. Just don’t try capturing video. Since I’m a huge Minecraft fanatic, I can’t say that Minecraft performance wasn’t a factor in choosing the Surface Pro over an iPad.

Other Surface Pro reviews have talked extensively on the machine’s ability to keep cool, so I won’t waste words here. Unless you’re gaming, you likely won’t hear the fan sound. This machine has been designed from the ground up to be as quiet as possible.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you’ll probably want to purchase the 128GB version. Much sturm und drang has been made regarding the amount of onboard file storage, or rather the lack of it. But it’s only so much noise. 128GB is more than enough space for me right now, since I deal mainly in text files. You won’t be storing years and years of photos on this machine, but that kind of thing probably belongs on your desktop and in the cloud. And speaking of the cloud, I use Dropbox to sync my writing between my desktop and work computers and the Surface Pro. I can also use Microsoft’s cloud solution called SkyDrive, and probably will to hold other data I want to take with me. With my programs installed and files from Dropbox, I still have 76GB left over to do with what I please. This will be excellent for digitizing some DVDs or Blu-Rays for my upcoming trip to Kansas in a few months. 

And to be honest, I can’t wait to head back to Kansas with this thing. One of the reasons I sought a hybrid PC/tablet was to avoid going through airport security with a full-sized laptop. I don’t know about you, but I hate having to take out my laptop from my bag and set it in its own bin. It takes up unnecessary space and is, quite frankly, a chore that benefits no one. Since the Surface Pro is a tablet as well as a PC, I don’t necessarily have to do so anymore, and that will be nice. I can leave it in my bag and nobody will care.

When it comes down to it, I haven’t been able to think of a single need that writers would typically have that the Surface Pro can’t fulfill. The Surface Pro really is the writer’s perfect companion. I can write, edit, make eBooks, publish, watch movies, play games, and do it all on the go. It looks sleek and stylish and can serve as a great display of my novel covers for book signings and convention appearances. Hopefully later models improve on the battery life and find some way to solidify the keyboard so that I can use it as a laptop without needing a lap desk. But aside from these two issues, I can’t really think of anything I would change.

If you’re a content creator, find a Microsoft store and test drive it and see if it works for you. And then if it does, get it. It’s well worth the price of admission.

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Wreck-It RalphI loved this movie, and everyone who has played a video game in the last thirty or forty years should go see it. You’ll never be able to catch all of the visual references on one viewing. You’ll have to go back again and maybe buy the Blu-ray. :)

It also has an awesome theme, and like any great art, it probably takes multiple viewings for people to tease it out completely. First off, there be spoilers ahead! So don’t continue if you haven’t seen the movie.

This movie is first and foremost an exploration of human purpose and identity. Who are we and why are we here? Are we merely our base animal instincts? Or are we something more? Do we have a reason to be here, and what might that reason be?

Ralph is born to be a wrecker, and he believes that’s all he’ll ever be. At the end of each game, he’s tossed off the building and into a mud puddle by the residents of Niceland, and when the arcade closes for the evening he’s shut out in the cold and left to his brick pile while the Nicelanders throw parties. They don’t treat him like a person with feelings, but as the character he plays in the game; a bad guy. For Ralph, enough is enough, and he sets out to become a hero in some other game.

Along the way he meets Vannelope von Schweetz, who believes she’s a glitch from the racing game Sugar Rush. She is her game’s hero, but she has been displaced by the villain Turbo, who masquerades as King Candy. Turbo left his older racing game and took over Sugar Rush, hiding the memory of the game’s residents so they wouldn’t realize he was an outsider. But he failed to delete the hero Vannelope and instead turned her into a glitch. As a glitch, Vannelope is rejected by everyone else in Sugar Land. Since she doesn’t have her true memory, her quest largely mirrors Wreck-It Ralph’s search to transcend his programming and become something he doesn’t believe he already is.

Along the way we meet Sergeant Calhoun, who is dealing with identity issues of her own. She must overcome programmed memories of losing her husband on their wedding day to her game’s villainous bugs because her wedding day was the one day she didn’t check the perimeter. Until she overcomes her tragic past, she will continually dismiss the romantic advances of Fix-It Felix.

These four characters, Wreck-It Ralph, Vannelope, Turbo, and Calhoun are each on their own quests to find their true identities. Is Wreck-It Ralph only what his instincts say he is? Is Vannelope who others say she is? Is Calhoun her past? Can Turbo remake himself into something he wasn’t designed to be, but wants to be by his sheer willpower?

Calhoun’s is perhaps the easiest to examine. She learns she isn’t just the sum parts of her past. She can transcend the bad things that happened to her and find happiness again.

Vannelope’s story powerfully illustrates that the search for a true identity involves risk. Because she is now a glitch, she can no longer leave her game. When a machine is unplugged, the game and everything in it disappears. So if Vannelope becomes a racer, the players may complain about her glitching. Since she can’t be fixed, the machine would then be unplugged and hauled away, which means Vannelope will die if she fails to appeal to the players. To save Vannelope from this fate, Wreck-It Ralph wrecks the car they made together. Later Ralph realizes his mistake. There is no safe way to find your true purpose. You can either risk your very life, or at least what your life is at this moment, or you live with the broken wreckage of your dreams, spiritually dead and broken yourself.

You may notice I’m using the words ‘purpose’ and ‘identity’ interchangeably. That’s because they’re the same thing. We are what we were made to be. Which brings me to Ralph. At the start of the movie he attends BAD-ANON, a support group for video game villains. The group facilitator Blinky says that you can’t change who you are. That is true as far as it goes. But what if you have a case of mistaken identity? The group’s motto is “I’m bad and that’s good. I will never be good and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.” But Ralph proves them all wrong. He’s not bad. He becomes the good guy who saves Sugar Rush. He has to use his wrecking talent to do so, which gives him the peace that his talent can be used for good ends. And in its proper context, that talent informs his purpose, which is to give players of his game a fun experience. He is not meant to be bad. He is only meant to play the bad guy. At the beginning of the movie, even Ralph himself believed he was a bad guy, but his character arc shows that we are not our programming. Our DNA is not our destiny.

And almost as if the writer of the movie intended to put an exclamation point on Ralph’s change, Vannelope too rejects her role as a princess when she is restored to her rightful programming and memories. She jumps out of that pink frilly dress and into her street clothes and advocates for a constitutional democracy. She is not her programming either. She was not meant to be just a princess, but a racer who gives joy to players. The details of how she accomplishes that is up to her.

And that leaves Turbo. Not content to be the star of his own game, he took over someone else’s. His character arc reveals that there is a limit to our quest for our true identities, that it is possible to go too far. True, DNA is not destiny. But we each have a true purpose, which is. And we ought not go against our true purposes (going ‘Turbo’ as the movie says) and do something that we are not designed to do. Like Turbo, that brings a spiritual death as surely as Turbo/King Candy found death while trying to hold onto his false identity.

Like Ralph, we must acknowledge our DNA. Ralph was made to wreck things. But we must live our true identities, which doesn’t lie in our DNA. Ralph’s purposed identity is to bring joy to players. Many of us realize we’re not living our our true purpose in life. What this movie does is to help us realize that if we’re stuck in that soul-sucking place and we don’t want to be, then we don’t have to be. We aren’t our job, our past, the way we were born, or who others say we are. It tells us that our inner fulfillment can’t be found in those areas because our purpose can’t be found there. You don’t have to accept any of those identities because they aren’t your true purpose. You are you, with a special purpose of your own. But do you have the courage to search for it, even at the cost of your present life?

The movie threads the needle between the conflicting messages in our culture that say we can be anything we want to be and that we are nothing but our animal instinct. Too many movies fall into one camp or the other. But DNA is not destiny. We are more. Much more. And that’s the genius of Wreck-It Ralph.

My middle grade novel The Lightforce Rebellion is about the same theme. In it, young Zach must find his way back home from the fantastical world of Foronar, and to do so he needs to find his true identity and embrace it, confronting death or the possibility of being trapped in Foronar forever. It’s all thanks to Soren, a cult leader who wants the power to remake the world for the greater good, who even goes so far as to tasks his adoptive daughter Erika to trip Zach up and thwart his quest. Zach doesn’t know it yet, but he’s not just another kid from Kansas. And like Zach, Erika’s destined for something greater. But can they set aside their differences and reach their potential?

If you enjoyed this blog post and Wreck-It Ralph, you’ll love The Lightforce Rebellion. Please support me so I can write more great blogs and stories by buying my novel. The Lightforce Rebellion makes a great gift for your kids or for the reader who loves young adult/middle grade books. Just click here to read some reviews and choose from any of the fine retailers where The Lightforce Rebellion is available. And thanks for reading. I really appreciate it.

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Wii U Deluxe Bundle. And the color I’ll be getting.

Wii U’s pricing and bundle information was released this week. For a long time now I’ve been skeptical about whether I’d get one on launch day. I’m focusing less on gaming these days and more on writing and other things, because I realized games just weren’t the ideal way to tell a story, or to receive a story. The gameplay keeps getting in the way. 😛 So did I really need to get a new console at launch? Not really.

But I still love Mario, Zelda, Star Fox, and so on. So I guess I’m neither a hardcore nor casual gamer. You could say I’m a classic gamer. I like the classic franchises and new iterations of those games that I grew up on.

So when I heard that three of those games were being released, Super Mario Brothers U, 007 Legends, and Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, I decided not to hold off for a price drop. I’m still not going to get one right at launch. But I will probably get it within the launch window sometime.

The system itself is great in several aspects; it looks like a great all-in-one entertainment device. That’s something I never thought they’d do. It’s got the classic Nintendo games. We don’t know a lot about Miiverse, but it has the potential to be a great online experience. I’m guessing Nintendo will hold back its full potential until after Microsoft and Playstation’s next consoles launch so that they won’t copy their ideas.

I’m disappointed that the system will once again have previous-generation graphics. Not that I will be able to tell the difference. I’m not used to playing games in HD with fancy particle effects everywhere. I’m used to ten-year-old graphics of the GameCube and Wii. So even the ~3-year-old graphics of the Wii U will look like a big upgrade to me. I’m also a little disappointed that Nintendo still seems to be keeping some remnant of their friend code system around. Sure, they’ve simplified it and made it easier by giving you one friend code for all of your games, but I’d like to have a username, thanks.

It’s a system with good potential. It’s not going to win hardcore gamers over. Nintendo’s just stuck with that issue and will probably never have them until Nintendo gives them an XBox clone. But for everyone else, the ones who don’t play FPS’s all day, it’s looking good.

And Iii would like to play.

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I love how the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation take a thematic aspect of the A story and tie it into the B story, or vice-versa. I suppose it’s a staple in the bag of television writing tricks, but this is the first time I’ve really noticed it being used so effectively in a television show.

For example, in the season 5 episode “Imaginary Friend“, the little girl in the episode points out to Troi that she has an imaginary friend now because every time she makes friends, her father is reassigned to another base or starship, and she has to leave her friends behind. At the end of the episode, the being that posed as her imaginary friend actually became her friend, but because the being lives in the nebula, the girl has to leave her new real ‘imaginary’ friend because the ship itself is leaving the nebula. Except this time she’s recognized the value of real friends.

I suppose what’s unique about it is that the series typically treats these connection points as throwaway lines. They don’t preach at you or hang a big literary neon sign above them. You don’t notice the connection unless you are really paying attention. When watching this show as a kid, it never occurred to me that there were themes. I was far too interested in the details of the plot, like how the creepy little Sara Stanley knockoff with the red eyes was trying to feed off the ship, to notice the themes. They were just adventures in space to me.

I think it’s a sign of a well-structured story that the thematic overtones are infused into each subplot rather than just the main one. There is just something elegant that emerges about the structure of a story when it happens, makes it that much more attractive to readers; similar to how mathematics equations are at their most elegant when they are presented in their most simple formulation. Because when they are simple, their meaning is infused into every aspect of that equation. There are no extra steps, nothing that cancels itself out or is otherwise extraneous. Everything contributes to its meaning and purpose.

The same must be true of storytelling.

Most newbie writers probably don’t get this, and I’ve read some professional ones that don’t either. The books that have always been some of my favorites were ones that did not have extra scenes just because they “needed” to be there to add length or pick up the pace or whatever, but were ones where every scene contributed to the story theme.

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Everyone has got to watch this!! Brilliant costume.

A question though. Why isn’t it fair that only one person has this costume and the guy with the camera doesn’t? Maybe Camera Guy is just envious and protestations of fairness have come to mean that.

I am envious too. I fully admit it. :) Even I, who hates parading around in front of others, would walk around in this.

Check out Anthony the costume maker’s Youtube page here.

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