Oculus Rift

I had my first foray into the world of virtual reality with an Oculus Rift, and I thought it warranted a few words of review. I’ve been unusually tight on both time and energy to work on writing, but VR turns out to be another easy way to slip into a secondary world when I’m just too spent to be creating my own.

The Rig

Quick origins story: I built my first rig as a freshman in college. My buddy and I decided we didn’t have enough to do, what with a full load of courses, so we started a (now defunct) hosting company. It was a modest venture, but we did have about 300 customers billing monthly at one time. I don’t have much tangible to show from all the time I sank into that, but it did provide the funding for the first rig I ever built. I don’t even remember the hardware I used, so much having changed since those days. In any case, ever since then I’ve always carried the itch to build my own gaming system.

I fell out of touch with such things for many years, in part because I switched my home and work platform to OSX, in part because gaming fell by the wayside between my later college years and the corporate working world, and in part because I didn’t have the money to maintain a dedicating gaming machine. The itch remained and festered for well over a decade, then finally last Christmas I decided to scratch. I spent more than I should, but what the hell, it’s only money. Or maybe, hash-tag y-o-l-o? Business write-off as long as I develop on there too? Whatever, it’s done now.

Got a snazzy SSD PCI-e HDD that I’ve deployed in some of my database servers, got a Titan X Pascal in there, intel i7, and a gigantic case because I’d forgotten what “full ATX” meant. Wired it up nice and clean to my OCD’s delight, and fired it up:

Virtual Reality

So I had this thing since Christmas and I’ve been utterly amazed by how far games have progressed since the early 2000s, particularly when played on a curved 21:9 monitor (which actually was a work purchase. If you are a developer, look into one of these… seriously). Maybe I should have been content there, but it got me thinking… what else have I been missing in the world of gaming? The last console I owned was an early PS2. The most advanced game I ever played on my iPhone was Bike Race. What else has passed me by?

These idle musing came to a point over on the Fantasy Faction website, where I sometimes dwell in the writing forums. One of the users on there is a VR enthusiast. I’d heard of HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, but I didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t really know if they’d matured as products, or if they were just expensive gimmicks. In any case, a thread led to a few PMs which led to a few YouTube videos which led to yet another slap in the face.

This VR thing is widely adopted and quite mature, and everyone who has used the hardware swears it is the future. Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and others are all fighting to win this market… the following is unusually dedicated, and the reviews unusually unanimous. Well, who am I to argue with the might of the internet? Thee command and I obey.

Oculus Rift

I decided to grab the hardware for this thing and see for myself. It arrived last week:

It took an hour to setup and configure, and just going through the initialization steps, I knew this thing was going to blow my mind. Next I downloaded a few games (Steam has a VR module so it all works pretty easily… you just have to enable “all sources” in the Oculus app). The first one I tried was called Eve: Valkyrie. It’s a space-ship flying game.

And it absolutely blew my fucking mind.

I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. You start out sitting in the cockpit of your little ship. You can look down and see yourself… well your virtual avatar. Your legs, arms, chest. If you move your head around, your body moves too as if your head is actually attached. You can look down and see the foot pedals, look left and see the glass beside you, even turn around and see the back of the pilot seat and the equipment stashed in the back. The response to my movements was 100%, completely natural. As you turn your head, the sounds even track left to right, as they really should. I was THERE.

Then outside the ship the lights come on and the controller starts vibrating. I’m in a launch bay and it’s counting down. When it hits zero my ship gets jettisoned down this enormous track and out into space. It felt like an actual rollercoaster, everything moving all around me. This thing was worth it just for that experience, though of course I’ve played several games since then to try and get the full experience. Some are better than others, but one thing is clear to me: this is the future of entertainment consumption.

Sim Sickness

There is one drawback I’ve noticed, that I can only hope improves. It is very easy to get motion sick using this thing. I’m not one easily pushed to the spins… I made it through a flight in NASA’s Vomit Comet without blowing chunks, after all. I’ve never been car sick or ill from a rollercoaster.

Yet Oculus almost got me there. After an hour, my stomach feels weak and my head is spinning, and I have to get out. Even the next day I felt a little off-balance. I’ve since learned that you need to acclimate to VR, start with games that let you stay stationary, and limit the extent to which you swivel your head around. More frequent breaks are also required, compared to conventional games. This is certainly a disappointing side effect that keeps breaking me out of the immersion, but it is a minor nit to pick compared to the overall experience. I still highly recommend Oculus to anyone, gaming enthusiast or otherwise… just make note of the “comfort level” rating on games, and be sure to start at the low end of the spectrum.

Well anyway, that is my little rant of the day. Hopefully I can get myself back on track with Lunhina, but for the moment I’m allowing this little diversion.

Oh, and Happy new year to y’all. Hope 2017 has great things in store for everyone.

Scrivener on iOS

One week ago, Scrivener launched an iPhone app and updated their desktop application to support syncing projects between devices through DropBox. I tried it out and figured I’d help you do the same.

Getting Setup

In order to work on your existing projects on-the-go, you will need a few things. First you will need a free DropBox account. If you are new to cloud storage, here is the cliff-note version: DropBox is easy to use, they’ve been around a long time, and they keep your files safe and encrypted. Signup for a free account then mosey on over to their download page and get the desktop version of the application. Once installed, this will create a new folder on your computer (Mac in my case):


Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 17.08.36

Only the stuff you put in this folder gets synced up with the cloud, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally uploading all those nude selfies you keep on your desktop. Oh, that’s just me who does that?

Well in any case, once installed, grab your iPhone and give this link a nice press. The Scrivener iOS app costs $19 (here in the USA at the time of this post), but well worth the money if–like me–ideas hit you at random times and demand attention.

Once the app is installed, fire it up and hit the sync icon in the upper left, next to the plus icon:

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 17.14.15

Choose to sync from Dropbox, login to your account, and let the app do its thing. When it finishes, you will notice a brand new folder appeared on your computer in the DropBox folder called:


Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 17.16.26

Nothing else happened on the iPhone, but that is okay.

Syncing your first project

On the computer, go ahead an open Scrivener to your work in progress. Then choose File->Save As… and navigate your way into the Dropbox/Apps/Scrivener folder, and save your project there.

You could just move the project file manually, but I am of the school of thought that having extra backups is never a bad thing. Just remember your working copy (and your synced copy) is now in the Dropbox folder, and the old one is just your backup.

Close down Scrivener and wait until you see the little green check in your Dropbox folder, like in the image above. This indicates everything is synced up to the cloud.

Now switch over to your iPhone and open the Scrivener mobile app. Hit that sync icon one more time, and you are done! From here on out, everything syncs automatically, or at the push of a single button.

The Scrivener mobile app

The app is absurdly easy to use. Once you pick a project, you basically start with a mobile view of the left-hand menu from the desktop app, and you are free to drill down to look at your characters, locations, notes, everything.


If you drill into Manuscript, you can access your chapters and start working away. They keyboard has a cool left/right sliding toolbar that gives you quick access to some of the advanced style features you would expect on a computer:


Congratulations, you are ready to go!

Once you have made changes on the mobile app, just tap the sync button and modified files will make their way back up to dropbox, and then down to your computer again, all in a matter of seconds. The next time you open your Scrivener project file (the one in the Dropbox/Apps/Scrivener folder), you will see the changes ready to go.


As with all multi-device syncing, it is a good idea not to edit things in multiple places at once, as this has a tendency to confuse even the best synchronizing software. The safest use case is to have your Scrivener project open in only one place at a time. Leaving your computer? Save and quit. Made a change on your phone? Exit back out before you sit in front of your computer. This way you only ever have your project open in one place.

If you do happen to leave Scrivener open on your desktop then make changes on your phone, be sure to press they manual sync button (the one on the right) before you carry one with further changes on the Desktop:

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 22.06.43

Likewise, if you have Scrivener open on your phone but made changes on your computer, you should make your way back to the app start screen and hit the sync button.

Pro tip

If you are like me, about half of your ideas strike you while you are lying in bed, lights out, sleeping wife beside you. I am a big fan of the accessibility feature on the phone that lets you invert the screen colors, and I’ve linked it up to the triple-click on the home button (Settings->General->Accessibility->Accessibility Shortcut). When an idea strikes in the dead of night, a quick triple-click later and I have a great nightvision-preserving non-wife-awakening editor:


Lastly, if you have one of the new iPhones (6, 6S, or later) that supports the “3d touch,” make ample use of this trick. Force touch anywhere on the keyboard, and suddenly you get a mouse-like cursor that you can steer around with your thumb, helping you jump around with ease.

Kindle Oasis

I just got my first Kindle last Thursday: the new Kindle Oasis. In the past I’ve used the Kindle app on my iPad or iPhone, but it’s just not the same. I am in Costa Rica a lot and reading on the beach is one of my “ways to unplug.”  Unfortunately, with an iPad it’s a great formula for instant blindness. When I saw this new model had literal MONTHS of battery life and was small enough to throw in my back pocket, I decided to give it a shot.

Here is the little guy:



Really feels good in the hand, light as anything, and comfortable to hold.  You can turn the whole device upside down to switch hands and the screen flips (and the page controls, to stay consistent). I even tried it lying down in bed and it doesn’t get confused when I am sideways, which is good.

The back-light is great. It can be very subtle, or brighter than I would ever need, and I see very little dent in the battery after some hours use with the backlight.

It was quick to sync up to my Amazon account.  In fact, I am not even sure how it did it.  While I was configuring it, I started to enter my login info, but the moment it had my email it logged me in without a password.  The damn thing must know I just ordered one, and when it saw the same email it took a shortcut. I’m actually a little disconcerted by that, but I have reasonable confidence in the software engineers at Amazon to know what they are doing with that stuff.

It fits in the palm of my hand, though not comfortably for reading, but as a measure of size:


The reading screen is the about the same width as a standard mass-market paperback, and maybe two-thirds as tall.

Not much else to add! I recommend the Oasis strongly to anyone with older Kindle products looking for an upgrade.

Review: The Cycle of Arawn

I just finished reading the trilogy, The Cycle of Arawn by Edward W. Robertson.


As a trilogy, this was a bit of a mixed bag. The first book was so slow I barely got through it. By the mid-point of the first book, I was quite sure I would never finish the series. Finally the time tested (and youth-approved) mantra “why the hell not” got the best of me, and I forged on. The second book gets better by leaps and bounds, and the third book I wasn’t able to put down almost at all. The TL;DR version would be this: If you have the patience to get through a slow (book-long) build-up, you will be quite satisfied by the end of the trilogy. Otherwise, don’t bother.

The very first thing I want to say is that Robertson’s prose is absolutely spectacular. It is the main thing that kept me going when the characters felt dull and the plot meandering. Seriously, it was such a delight to read, it sustained me. The humor and dialogue (especially in books 2 and 3) are endlessly brilliant.

Book 1: The White Tree
What bothered me the most here is that the characters are all photocopies of each other, and I mean all of them. They ALL have the same dry sarcasm and glib nonchalance, and it made reading the dialogue dull as anything. Sure it was clever sometimes, but doesn’t anyone think differently in the world?  Additionally they all seemed to have the exact same moral philosophy, which stole any depth from the various scenarios, or at least left it solely to the reader to consider on their own. Perhaps this is why it’s so easy for the secondary characters to come and go as they do without any sense of change in the plot, as they do more than once.  Ultimately, the book develops very little real tension or sense of forward progress, and many times I had to force myself to pick it back up and remember what was going on when I had put it down.  The final conflict in the book is the endpoint of a trek that never felt particularly justified or necessary, so I moved through it without a real sense of urgency or risk.

Book 2: The Great Rift
The characters come into their own here, and the dialogue gets much better.  Additionally, the moral distinctions between the characters not only appear, but begin to contribute to the overall dynamic and conflict in a way that is much more interesting.  Again, the prose is brilliant throughout.  If you are a writer, I’d recommend this series just to sample the writing.  Plot-wise, I don’t really see why this book has to happen at all, but if you just go with it, things get much more enjoyable. Worldbuilding and settings are more maturely presented, and on the whole its a slightly above-average experience.

Book 3: The Black Star
We get a new POV here, and frankly, a much more engaging one. The tension and character dynamics are worlds better than previous books, and the twists and turns are much more expertly done. The prose continues to be fantastic, and I really-truly laugh out loud multiple times in each chapter. The only thing holding back this book is the sense that the main character is more-or-less invincible, which does reduce the tension a bit.  However, the added POV and the far more interesting inter-character dynamics are very enjoyable and real, and the plot finally comes together in a way that builds tension and keeps pace.  This was an excellent book.

So on the whole, I am glad I read it, but I would hesitate slightly before recommending it to someone unless they have the patience to work into a story that can, at times, feel meandering and pointless.

Review: Violence A Writer’s Guide

Today I am reviewing Violence: A Writers Guide, Second Edition, by Rory Miller.

Rory Miller is an ex-military guy / detention officer, and gives writers tools and information about what real world violence really looks like, and why. It is very useful to adjust your character’s mentalities, reactions, and also descriptions.

The first part of the book describes the mentality of someone entering into a potentially lethal situation, and it is really not what you would think if you have never spent time in that world. The psychology that comes into play when you actually could be dead in the next minute is different than you might think. There is also discussion of how people react to such situations, how it actually feels to “freeze”, and what things become hard to do when adrenaline suddenly hits, how long it lasts, etc. There are also interesting gender differences between the adrenaline release profile.

Then he goes into some specifics of different kinds of weapons. There was a lot of treatment of guns.

Finally, he goes into a lot of detail about what injuries actually look like, what they feel like, what they smell like, sound like, etc. How people react to different injuries, how long they can keep consciousness… and how they die, and what that whole process looks like. Some of this was pretty disturbing, but it is all the stuff anyone who has actually fought to the death (hopefully our characters rather than ourselves) would know. And would never forget.

He links out to a dozen or so external articles and images. Maybe ~3 of the links no longer work, most of the rest were really disturbing (he warns you). One showed what a machete actually does if you swing it into someone’s face, for instance. That is an image I would rather not have seen, but then again, it is something some of my characters should have burned into his brains… and something others would be totally unprepared for.

There are a lot of useful tidbits for how an experienced fighter should think, what things should draw their attention, and what kinds of injuries and damage they can take and deliver…. and likewise, an inexperienced fighter.

On the whole, I would say a worth while read.

Watchplate.com Review

I am one of those nerds who jumped on the Apple Watch fanclub, stayed up until midnight, and made it into the second delivery group for my Stainless Steel 42mm Milanese watch.  After a lot of trolling macrumors.com, the watch finally arrived, and so the first thing I did was…. send it off to a stranger to dip it in chemicals to slightly alter the hue of the material.

In fairness, it was also done in solidarity with a fellow forum member, who decided to start this company with the support and prompting of the macrumors community (myself included), so I was more than happy to contribute.  I was order #11, and us early birds, he gave us a $100 kickback if we would help spread the word on social media.  Being a student of VFX, I decided to play with youtube, and see if I could come up with something.

It turned into a bit of a project, including watching a lot of this guy, to learn how to photograph jewelry.  And of course, a lot of hours on videocopilot.net.

The folks at WatchPlate.com add a plating of 35 micron of 24K gold, which is much more than normal jewelers use, and hopefully means it will last longer.  [ UPDATE: In order to match the hue of the Edition more closely, WatchPlate.com is now using an 18K plating process, rather than the 24K depicted here. ]

Here is the video I posted to youtube.  I am particularly proud of the intro frame, made in AfterEffects.

This is what my photograph rig looked like when it was done… it is totally hacked together with paper taped to an old 5-arm light I had in college, and a sheet of yellow colored-paper to act as a reflective bar:




The results were quite good, if I do say so myself.  As close to professional as you can get from a couple lights, an empty bucket, and a Sony camera.



Avatar 3D IMAX

Neytiri with bow

I finally saw Avatar (in 3D IMAX no less).  I realize I missed this train by a little, as Alice in Wonderland has done a job of pushing Avatar out of most of the 3D theaters by now.  Nonetheless, I wanted to write out my thoughts on this remarkable experience.

The Experience

I am really struggling to recruit words suitable to describe “the experience” of Avatar in 3D.  In place of any poetic inspiration let me simply state that it was utterly the most immersive sub-reality I have every lost myself in.

I have heard many people arguing that the 3D did little to enhance the movie, but I could not disagree more.  I am a regular to the movies and I am not ashamed to admit that I can get lost in a good story – I can relate to some characters, and even respond to events emotionally.  But I have never forgotten that I was watching a movie (cliché sentiment notwithstanding), no matter how drawn I was to the story.  When the credits began to scroll after Avatar, it was actually jolting and disorienting when I realized where I was and how long I had been there.

In examining my memories of the movie, I find that my mind has attached a huge number of senses, emotions, and details to the images — a level of perception that I associate with real life memories, but a level far beyond the internalization any past movie has invoked.  I am not sure exactly why this was the case, but I do think it was largely the 3D.  I mean, there were scenes where I felt inescapably within the frame, for instance scenes in the forest where you can see (and almost feel) the bugs flying right around you (as well as around the characters).  Scenes where the trees and the animals seemed so real and familiar (however alien) that they pull you in.  Many very simple scenes where just the basic existence of actual space and distance was so strikingly familiar with real-life, and simultaneously so foreign to “the movies”, that everything was reversed.  Much like Jake, for three hours the real world was through my polarized glasses, and the other world was just a dream.

The Story & Characters

Loved them all.  Clearly this was not the most original movie as far as the conflict and resolution is concerned.  It reeks of Dances with Wolves, among others.  However the unique context that the story was recast into, and the very relatable journey we observe makes the plot largely rewarding.  I was also very happy to find none of the key junctions were predictable.  There were several climactic moments where my heart was pounding fit to burst with anticipation, and I could fully expect any number of things to happen next.  Some of these moments were very touching and even frightening.

The science in the movie is covered just shallow enough to be ostensibly complete, which I think does a great service to the experience.  Many sci-fi movies get lost trying to justify and reason how they accomplish certain feats, when they don’t need to.  It is enough for us to know that the brain patterns of the Avatars are linked to the humans… it would have only slowed the story if we had to go into how any of it worked.  The mystery also helped us relate to the main character, Jake Sully, who himself is not a scientist and likely unfamiliar with the inner workings of the technology.  In this way, as well as in our first experience with 3D, we get to explore the same sensations of realism and discovery that Jake is experiencing in the movie.

I found the Na’vi (and in particular Neytiri) very engaging, and very powerful.  Their faith and spirituality is easily envied, as is their strong camaraderie and precise harmony with their surroundings and their purpose.  They were entirely believable, and entirely relatable, despite the heavy physical differences between them and humans.

The human characters were perhaps a little less relatable… in particular Colonel Quaritch.  I did see a trace of regret in Parker Selfridge (the RDP administrator), making him feel human, albeit of an unpleasant cast.  But to the contrary, Colonel Quaritch seemed evil beyond the reasonable scope of his character, to the point that his cynical analogy to Cameron’s view of humanity was overly apparent.  None the less, the overall effect was excellent.

The Special Effects

Being a student of 3D myself, I was blown away by the realism of the CG characters.  The textures, the lighting, the mastery of the skinning / rigging was unbelievable.  The Na’vi’s eyes are deep and engaging, and their skin reveals every detail of reality, right down to the freckles and blood vesicles.  Mixed with the beautiful landscape and inspired flora, fauna, and wildlife, I was completely awed throughout the movie.  One of the final scenes in particular caught my eye.

Neytiri and Jake

Just stunning.  Here we have a human being propped up by a CG character… they two are touching, and on each of them you can see their shadows interacting.  Even on Jake’s mask, you can see the reflection of his hand touching Neytiri.  On closer inspection of the animation, you can see Neytiri’s skin deforming exactly as you would expect under Jake’s pressure… this is revolutionary all around.


The movie was all around inspiring, deeply touching, and wonderfully presented.  Like many, I feel a strange pull to return the world I was a part of for a few short hours.  The experience was so real and wonderful, it has left me craving more.  For now I await the BlueRay (which incidentally should be here in a week), but I know that without the 3D it will not be the same as it was before.  I am keeping my fingers crossed for a fall re-screening, which the rumors suggest is in the pipeline.