Randomness for the Holidays

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1. Interesting etymology of holiday terms. Video.

1a. The classic holiday story “The Little Match Girl” which I’d never read.

2. Feeding the Poop Log: A Catalan Christmas Tradition.

3. The Tiny Desk Holiday Special.

3a. More Music: Christmas carols performed by goats.

4. Nine Holiday-themed D&D enemies to throw at your players.

4a. Holiday beers.

5. Are poinsettias really poisonous, and other Christmas questions, answered by Science.

6. I judge adaptations of A Christmas Carol by the way they depict the ghosts, and this right here is the perennial winner:

7. Last (and you knew this was coming), if you need a last-minute gift, ebooks like my new Twenty Palaces novella, The Twisted Path, are cheap and easy to deliver.

“We’re not in a prophecy.” “Let the past die.” “I’m scared.” Three short reviews

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I think that, if I group my reviews together, I can keep them short. So I’m going to try that.

Bright

Everyone who creates a fantasy with a contemporary setting has two major issues they need to address. Okay, it’s more than two, but as far as I’m concerned, these are the biggest.

First, the stakes are bullshit.

Second, monsters are not effective stand-ins for victims of injustice.

The first is pretty straight forward, I think. In the normal course of things, I care as much about who becomes the next arch-duke of the sewer goblins as I do about whether some complete stranger I’ll never meet is going to wear a blue hat or a green one. It’s made up. It’s not connected to me. I just don’t care.

Worse, when fantasy has a contemporary setting, the plot is always about *preventing* some terrible event. If the heroes aren’t fighting like hell to keep a mcguffin out of the villain’s hands, they’re doing their best to break up a ritual. That makes the most dangerous consequence the characters are facing into a threat that’s never realized.

That’s why, when I was planning Child of Fire, I set it in a small town where the villain is the main source of jobs for the locals. Hammer Bay will die off if the heroes end the bad guy and they lose all those jobs. That’s a stake that people understand and care about. (Also, the ritual happened long before the story started.)

Bright, at least, avoids the shitty ritual climax, but it still trots out a bunch of folderol about a Dark Lord who will return if the villains can blah blah with the mcguffin. It never happens. I knew it wouldn’t happen. I didn’t care.

And do I really need to explain that second pitfall? You don’t illuminate human injustice by dehumanizing the victims of injustice. It’s even sketchy to do it to the perpetrators of injustice, although there are ways to make that work. But the victims? No. Just, no.

As for the movie itself, it’s not good. The end is dull. The beginning is unpleasant because of that second pitfall above. The middle is buoyed by a few interesting action scenes but too much of it is too dark.

The first time I heard Netflix was going to make a Will Smith movie about a cop with elves and orcs, I thought they meant Law & Order: Angmar. That would have been interesting. Once I heard they were going to set it in modern LA I knew it would be crap.

The Final Jedi

I’ve been calling this film by the wrong name on Twitter as a joke, and now it’s begun to feel more right than the right one.

Seeing it a second time was a smart choice on my part (pats self on back). Having the ending spoiled, and knowing who was going to succeed, and which elements that I was originally rooting for turned out to be terrible, made the intent of the film much more clear.

I wonder how many people, conditioned to cheer on the hotshot pilot and the bold plan, were prepared for the way that plot line turned. The more I think about it, the more I suspect that some viewers’ disappointment lay in that unexpected feeling of futility and dismay.

It still feels a little long, but I liked it much more a second time.

The Punisher

I’ve seen this show three times now, and I’m more impressed every time. It very much wants to be divorced from the MCU that it’s nominally a part of, and frankly, that weakens it. It’s hard to imagine these villains in this particular setting operating without trying to recruit superpowered people or acquire high-tech weapons. And frankly, that’s what I was hoping to see.

The show gave me something else: a military/spy thriller about a CIA coverup combined with a drama about veterans and PTSD. And it was beautifully shot and acted.

I’d suggest a few of the roles could have been cast better. The actress playing Medani has the worst accent of all the non-Americans playing New Yorkers, and the guy playing Billy isn’t physically frightening enough to match Bernthal’s Frank Castle. He looks more like a successful divorce lawyer than a
deadly killer.

What’s more, unlike most of these Netflix Marvel shows, the pacing is solid. Not breakneck but there are no episodes that feel like treading water.

Turns out, it’s a solid show, but not a Marvel show.

Randomness for 11/8

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1) Why you should crack an egg in your coffee grounds.

2) “Why these all white paintings are in museums and why mine aren’t”

3) Dungeon Hobo Signs

4) Five Tips for Preventing Sexual Harassment We Apparently Need

5) An expanded list of Netflix genres, with links: “Dramas starring Virginia Madsen,” “Gritty Biographical Music and Concert Documentaries,” “Successful Korean Revenge Movies”

6) “Optimization is a form of calcification”: Cory Doctorow on a decade and a half of life-hacking.

7) Every Batman: the Animated Series Villain Ranked from Worst to Best.

Mohawks, Barrel Fires, and a Few Nice Shots: a highly qualified defense of episode 7 of STRANGER THINGS 2

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This post contains spoilers for the second season of STRANGER THINGS 2. You should only read it if:

a) You have already seen the show
b) You actively like spoilers
c) You enjoy discussions of storytelling but have no interest in this particular show.

Moving on: episode seven, is widely regarded as the weakest episode of the entire show, for good reason. It steps away from the setting we, the audience, are invested in, and it drops all of the regular characters except one: Eleven. (I should start calling her “Jane” but I’m not ready to move on.)

Do we care about Kali and her band of punk murderers? We do not. Kali herself has a few nice moments, but the rest of the group never gets a chance to be funny, or charismatic, or to have a worthwhile goal the audience can root for. Their dialog isn’t clever or witty, either. They make fun of Eleven’s clothes, for god’s sake, by singing “Old MacDonald”.

The members of the gang say they’ve been “saved” by Kali, but that’s something that needs to be shown, not told. If you can’t actually show why these punks are so dedicated to her–and all it would take was to show Kali using her power to calm someone’s panic attack or withdrawal symptoms–then it seems that the real reason they’re with her is that they really enjoy is robbing and killing people.

And no cutesy slow-mo walk is going to make that palatable.

As 80’s nostalgia, it’s dumb and also pernicious, on the level of an episode of QUINCY, ME.

Frankly, STRANGER THINGS has always played with the other people’s ideas. The whole show is an homage of one kind or another, but those old tropes are either actively pleasant (like the boys riding their bikes around the neighborhood) or their given an interesting tweak (see: Steve Harrington). Kali’s gang has zero interesting tweaks, and all the barrel fires and in-jokey graffiti in the world can’t make them pleasant.

Authors like to encourage newer writers to steal anything they like, because each writer’s individual voice will make these old tropes their own, but this episode proves that’s not always true.

But why talk only about the episode’s flaws?

First, there are a number of lovely little storytelling moments that elevate the show above the schlock it’s mining. Not just the steadicam single shot that turns 180 degrees to show both the gang’s pov and the cops’ pov or the edit from Kali’s face reflected in the van’s window to Eleven’s in the bus window, but a bunch of smaller choices, too. Each little edit from the moment Eleven sees the picture of Ray with his kids to the moment she TKs the gun from Kali is perfectly structured. Brava to the director.

Second, the show gets some much needed girl-to-girl time.

One of the problems with STRANGER THINGS is that its female characters are so isolated from each other. The women and girls on the show are surrounded by dudes and maybe a mother. Eleven has Mike and his pals. Max has those same boys and her step-brother. Joyce has her sons and Hopper. Nancy has Steve and Jonathan.

I’m convinced one of the reasons fans had such a strong reaction to Barb was that, aside from being a sort of Everywoman among all the TV-beautiful actresses, she was half of the only woman-to-woman peer relationship on the show, and that’s not something they can afford to throw away.

The scene with Kali and Eleven on the roof is a moment that the show needed: a scene of bonding and caring between female characters. They had an opportunity to revisit that at the beginning of episode nine when Max met Eleven, but they shrugged it off for an understandable but unwelcome moment of jealousy. (If season 3 doesn’t open with Max and Eleven as the best of friends, I’ll be seriously disappointed.)

This episode was also a mentoring moment. The show has routinely showed how much stronger Eleven’s powers were becoming, but with Kali she managed the leap that justifies the climax.

Third, it provides space for an unexpected escalation of the stakes.

Most of us watching these Netflix miniseries recognize by now that the climax is spread across the last two episodes, and the big oh shit! moment comes at the end of the episode just before that climax.

STRANGER THINGS 2 thwarts that expectation in a pleasant way. I was genuinely startled by the end of episode six, when the baby demogorgons begin to climb out of the hole, and there’s Chief Hopper looking incredibly vulnerable in his hospital scrubs.

It’s a nice cliffhanger, arriving as it does an entire episode early, and all of episode seven leaves us dangling off the cliff. Personally, I enjoyed the anticipation, but I would have enjoyed it more if ep seven had been a little stronger.

Fourth, it expands the world and sets up Kali as the villain for season three.

The show wisely opened the second season with the gang on the run from the cops, then Kali’s nosebleed and tattoo. That it later fumbled those elements doesn’t negate their importance in continuing and expanding the story. Eleven can’t be the only test subject in this world, and the others can’t be duplicates of her.

Season three will need to introduce other kids with tattoos and powers (all of them little girls, if they’re smart), and it will need Kali as one of the villains. Establishing her as a betrayed sister in this season was a good move.

Besides, you can mine a lot of terrifying moments out of a horror show where people can’t trust their own senses. Season three can’t get here fast enough.

So, to sum up: the episode had a lot of necessary and worthwhile elements, but was hobbled by the thoroughly ham-handed way it handled the supporting characters. Definitely a weak moment, but still interesting.

How about that! A Buzzfeed Video worth watching (about TV settings)

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This is my first time trying to embed a video from Twitter. I’m curious to see how it turns out.

And btw, I did binge S2 of Stranger Things when it premiered overnight, and it’s terrific.

“You have nothing but a war inside you.” Final Punisher trailer and premiere date

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The show airs on Nov 17, which is less than a month after it was announced. I wonder if Netflix is hoping to build anticipation by delaying the release day announcement as long as possible.

Not that it matters, since I’ll be binge-watching it on the first day, and I won’t be watching previous Punisher movies to get myself in the mood.

Here it is:

One thing I didn’t realize at first was that this is the same day the new Justice League movie premiers. Marvel is literally counter-programming DC’s big gamble. And as much good will as DC/Warner earned with their Wonder Woman movie, I’m not all that excited about it. I hope it’s great, but I suspect it’s not.

One quibble about the trailer: nothing that I noticed suggested they are going to introduce superpowers into the series. If they don’t, that would be a huge mistake. It’s one thing to have a 13-episode action miniseries. That can be a lot of fun if they manage to vary the fights: context, situations, resources, etc.

But how much more fun would it be if they threw in a scene where Castle has to take on someone who’s bulletproof? Or someone who can regenerate?

All I’m saying is that the MCU is full of untapped resources. Put that shit on screen.

[Added later: Comments off because of a deluge of spam]

For God’s Sake, Don’t Talk in the Elevator: The Social Media Pitch

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[Added later: This post has been included on Joshua Palmatier’s blog round up of posts about creating pitches. If you want to read more (after you finish mine, ‘natch) check it out.]

The elevator is a terrible place for an elevator pitch.

The idea behind an elevator pitch was that maybe someday Earnest Hopeful, young production assistant at Big Wig studios, might unexpectedly find himself alone in an elevator with Mr. Big Wig himself! How could he best describe his movie idea so that Mr. Big Wig falls in love with it, gives it the green light, and casts William Powell and Veronica Lake to star. Earnest has to be prepared! His pitch has to be shorter than the elevator ride but compelling enough that Mr. Big Wig invites young Earnest to get off at his floor.

But that’s not why we need an elevator pitch. In my entire life, I’ve never had reason to talk to a stranger on an elevator unless I couldn’t reach the button for the floor I wanted.

No, elevator pitches are supposed to be for the writer, and for social media.

For a long time, elevator pitches were mixed up with the idea of the “log line”. Log lines were the short descriptions of TV shows or movies that appeared beneath the listings in the TV Guide. But, if you went online during the late nineties hoping to find advice that would make you a pro, creating a log line for your story was commonplace advice. In that context, the log line was:

[Protagonist] struggles to [goal] in order to [what’s at stake] to prevent [terrible price of failure].

Or something like that. It was always a little different each time, but the basic Mad Libs of the thing are in that line above.

The point of a log line was to show beginning writers where their story could be found. It was about [Protagonist], not a million side characters. [Protagonist] was in pursuit of [goal] because [what’s at stake] was so important. They didn’t laze around mom’s basement, feeling sorry for themselves. And so on. It’s a fine way to highlight the important parts of a certain kind of story (essentially: stories that are like movies or tv shows, which is where these ideas come from) but it didn’t apply to every sort of fiction.

Eventually, this Mad Libs-ed log line idea merged with the elevator pitch to become the most basic way a writer could describe a story. It told you where to go with the story. It told you what mattered. It was extremely limited and limiting.

But it’s a tool, and all tools are limited. When we teach writing, it’s much easier to gas on about basic story construction than what most new writers really need: the skills and judgement needed to organize sentences and paragraphs in an enjoyable way. That’s what I really needed to study but that shit is hard to teach in a 300-word blog post or message board thread, so instead the internet filled up with “How to make your protagonist compelling” and Freytag’s Pyramid.

So, has an elevator pitch/log line ever been useful to me before I wrote a first draft? Yeah, actually, in short fiction. The format has helped me keep the story from spinning out into an unpublishable length.

For novels, which are a complex, sometimes digressive form, no. Not ever.

After the book is started, I’ve found some use for these pitches/log lines. Has the plot started to wander? Have the characters motivations become jumbled? Does this one particular scene seem to be going nowhere? That’s a good time to remind myself what, specifically, each character wants and what’s in their way. When I’m blocked in something as small as a few lines of dialog, filling in those blanks can help point the way forward.

But really, the elevator pitch is the social media pitch. It’s the short description that fits inside a tweet (oh for the luxury of a five-story elevator ride) that piques readers’ interest. It may not sell the book, but it might get readers to download the sample. I didn’t have one for the Twenty Palaces books, but I did for The Great Way: “An epic fantasy trilogy about a sentient curse that destroys an empire.”

At one point a reader asked me if I hadn’t gotten that wrong: shouldn’t elevator pitches focus on the character? Who’s the story about? What are they trying to do? This reader was focussing on all the log line essentials: Shouldn’t I fill out that Mad Lib? I responded by saying that a pitch should highlight what’s most unique and compelling about a book. If that’s the lead character and their goal, awesome. Going that route is easy enough, and it can be effective. If, instead, what’s unique and compelling is an apocalyptic tone and a weird antagonist, then some other format has to be created. The Mad Lib of a log line is a fine tool to start with when organizing a pitch, but it’s a poor fit for a lot of books. Sometimes the work has to be done without that tool.

For example, the pitch for A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark was: “It’s a pacifist urban fantasy with a hero who’s a cross between Auntie Mame and Gandalf.” Nowhere does that define her goal (which is to solve a murder) or what awful thing will happen if she fails (because she doesn’t know at first and it’s supposed to be a fun surprise) but it does highlight what I think is unique and compelling about that book.

Currently, my agent is shopping One Man, a fantasy/crime thriller, and I’ll have to create a social media pitch for it. That means I take a sheet of scrap paper and list elements that I think are fun/unusual/exciting. Not all of them will make the cut, but lists gives me something concrete to work with. Should I focus on the protagonist, a former golden boy responsible for the deaths of those nearest to him, who now bears unknown magic? The setting, a city built within the skeletons of two “dead” gods (both killed while fucking)? The plot’s macguffin, a piece of forbidden healing magic that might lead to civil war?

Nah. For me, the most unusual and interesting aspect is the stakes. The protagonist isn’t trying to destroy a magic ring, or defeat an evil army, or slay a sorcerer-king. He wants to rescue an orphaned little girl that no one else in the whole world cares about. They’re small, personal stakes for a book filled with fighting, magic, and impending war, but that’s what makes it interesting to me. Will readers feel that same way? It’s impossible to know. Fantasy readers like their stakes to be big. Epic, even. Will pitching the stakes in One Man push people away from a book they might love if they read it?

I haven’t worked that out. But then, if it were easy, everyone would do it.

That’s my take on so-called elevator pitches. Once in a long while, they’re useful during the writing process, but they’ve become necessary after the books comes out to help attract readers. Start with a log line, if you want, and make a list of unique and compelling elements that you believe will intrigue readers. And good luck. None of this is easy.

But please don’t talk on elevators.

“There it is again.” A Mini-Review of The Defenders

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First, the show has flaws.

Second, I enjoyed it a lot. A whole lot. Spoilers upcoming.

Third, kicking the Netflix version of Iron Fist has become something of a competitive sport, but I think The Defenders is an explicit effort to rehab the character after what Scott Buck did to it in Season one of Iron Fist. And it was successful. In The Defenders, they took the foundation laid in Iron Fist and had some fun, making Danny Rand a likable character.

Not that people want to admit as much.

Fourth, there were some odd choices with the other three main characters.

For instance, everyone is in a holding pattern when the story starts, no matter how long it’s been since their last season ended. Danny is hunting The Hand but not having much luck. Jessica is… what? She’s not taking cases. She’s not helping people. She’s drinking and hiding out. Even in the MCU version of New York, which has been wrecked by aliens and overrun by ninjas, I can’t see how she’s covering the rent in her trashed apartment.

Matt is doing pro-bono work. Does he really win an 11 million dollar settlement for that family and get nothing for himself? Plus, he’s not putting on the Daredevil suit anymore.

(That bit of dialog in the subject header is my favorite in the show, and obviously the “it” is that red and black suit.)

Okay. They’re the good guys, and each has to be established with their own quirks. But only Luke Cage has a real excuse for being stalled: he ended his series by going to prison.

One thing I liked about the show was the way it gave an episode for the four heroes to establish themselves and reintroduce themselves to the audience. I liked that the second episode paired them off. Then the end of the third brought them together.

Fifth, the fight scenes mostly worked, thank god. Even when they were jumbled and mediocre, like at the beginning of episode 4, they still mostly worked.

That fight at the end of episode 3, though, was hot.

The worst choice came in the final episode, where the inexplicably dropped a Wu Tang Clan song into a fight scene, to show the heroes turning the tide of the fight. Honestly, it’s as if someone pointed out they had the rights to the song, and they had a fight scene, so they should be combined! Because that always works!

Except it doesn’t. The way it’s shot, the setting, everything, works against it.

Sixth, I thought the villains were great, except Bakuto. The mild-mannered bad guy thing is played out. Yet another Scott Buck mistake.

Seventh, Jessica Jones really needs to learn karate.

Eighth, you should watch it.

“Are They Expecting You?” “Not Like This.”: The Rehabilitation of MCU’s Danny Rand

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The Defenders came out last Friday on Netflix and a lot of people continue to kick Finn Jones for his portrayal of Danny Rand. While I understand audiences hated him in the first season of Iron Fist, I want to argue that Jones was not at fault, and that his performance in The Defenders proves it.

First of all, if you hate the idea of Danny Rand as a “mighty whitey” racist stereotype (and who could blame you, he is), The Defenders isn’t going to change that. He’s still the rich white kid who returned from a magical ancient Chinese city with a superpower that proves he’s the best.

But just as Dr. Strange tried to blunt the racist aspects of that character’s origin by turning The Ancient One’s monastery into a home for people from many continents, The Defenders tries to do the same for K’un Lun. The five immortal bigwigs in The Hand aren’t just enemies of K’un Lun, they were cast out centuries ago, and they’ve been trying to get back home ever since. What’s more, they’re a multi-racial group, including actors Babs Olusanmokun, Ramon Rodriguez, and of course Sigourney Weaver.

Is The Defenders trying to recast K’un Lun, which looked like a vaguely Asian never-never land in S1 of Iron Fist, into something less offensive? It seems so, and that’s a choice that should have been made from the very start.

Should the show have cast an Asian-American as magical martial arts hero Danny Rand? Sure, but considering how things turned out, I’m glad they didn’t.

Here’s why: S1 of Iron Fist had massive problems. It was shoddy and trite. The dialog was a godawful wreck, and no one seemed to understand what they needed to do to make Danny likable. But all of that could have been shrugged off if they’d paid real attention to the fight scenes. Instead, the martial arts was rushed and sloppy, then edited until it was impossible to enjoy. The whole thing was a mess.

And Finn Jones took the heat for it. Audiences didn’t care that he wasn’t the one choreographing the fights, they just blamed him for what they could see. And they didn’t care that he was put into trite situations and given on-the-nose dialog, they were annoyed by the character and blamed the actor.

Casting an Asian-American actor wouldn’t have changed the limited time allotted to rehearsing fight choreography, and it wouldn’t have made Danny’s conflicts with the Meachums any more subtle. Fans blame the lead, no matter who he was, and that would have gotten ugly. An AA actor would have taken all the heat that Jones got, plus he would have had jerks accusing him of being an affirmative action hire.

That feels like a dodged bullet.

Which brings me to The Defenders, and Finn Jone’s role in it. It seems to me that the showrunners have made a concerted effort to make Danny someone the audience can like, and they don’t do it by remaking him into a generic hero guy. They do it by taking the character from S1 of Iron Fist and letting him grow.

They also let him be badass in his fight scenes.

To address the latter first, Danny gets a fight in each of the first three episodes, and to be honest, the very first one in the prolog of the pilot, isn’t a winner. It’s dark, has lots of edits and frankly made me worry about the show.

In the second, he fights Luke Cage, and it’s the first genuinely fun fight scene. It’s played for humor, but there are real stakes, too, and even though Luke shrugs off all of Danny’s attacks (except the last) it’s shot and choreographed in a way that makes Danny look quick, graceful, and dangerous.

At the end of the third episode, the show brings all four heroes together for their big (obligatory) Netflix hallway fight. It’s no surprise that it starts with Danny fighting by himself, and that it’s a terrific scene. After all the shitty fight scenes in Iron Fist, it was great to see the character cut loose.

Later, when Matt Murdock enters the fight, he’s just as cool but with an entirely different fighting style. Where Daredevil has a boxing/MMA sort of thing going, Iron Fist has old school wu-shu body turns, sweeping kicks, and roundhouse punches. It makes a nice contrast between them.

Unfortunately, once you get to the fight scene that opens episode five, the shots are cramped, the action confused, and Danny’s choreography not nearly so distinctive. It’s even more evidence that much of what we like about the characters comes down to the writers and directors.

As for Danny personally, at the start of the season, he’s the same guy at the end of Iron Fist: still fighting The Hand because it’s his sworn duty/destiny, even though he doesn’t really understand why. Still tormented by the fact that he left K’un Lun unguarded, and that The Hand attacked while he was away. Still telling everyone he meets that he’s “The Immortal Iron Fist, sworn defender of K’un Lun.”

He still hasn’t accepted that the life he’s led, with its mystical cities and dragons, is so far outside the experience of most people that they just can’t accept it.

But the events of the season, especially his interactions with the other heroes, change him. He’s often played for laughs, still telling everyone his origin story (which the other characters don’t want to do), and still young and impetuous.

He’s learning, though. His story arc for the whole season has him stepping away from a personal vendetta and moving toward the sort of heroism that Luke and Matt embody. He’s also given a bunch of fun, light-hearted moments where he either bonds with the other characters or they deflate his portentousness a little. He’s not a perfect guy, but he’s not the annoying twerp from his own show.

I get that people hold an animosity to the character based on both the character’s racist underpinnings and the awful first season of his own show, but judging by my Twitter timeline, slamming Danny Rand has turned into a competitive sport.

All I say is: if you’re going to watch The Defenders (and if you like superhero stories, you should) do it with an open mind, even if you feel burned by season one of Iron Fist. With new showrunners, new writers, and new choices, it’s worth seeing this new take on Danny Rand, especially since he gets a lecture from Luke Cage on his own privilege, and he takes it to heart.

I want to write a review of the show, but I never seem to make time for reviews anymore. I always have too much to say and not enough free time to type it all out. Maybe soon.

Randomness for 7/17

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1) Innovative ancient weapons. It’s weird to discover at this late age that the “hand on a stick” from HAWK THE SLAYER was a real thing.

2) Which font should I use on my Kindle?

3) Joseph Heller’s extensive hand-written outline for Catch-22.

4) The Black Person’s Guide to Game of Thrones.

5) A leading happiness researcher says we’re giving our kids bad advice about how to succeed in life.

6) Improve your bowling game by noting the hidden oil patterns on the lanes. Video.

7) An Absurdly Complete Guide to Understanding Whiskey.