Hack This Look

A Wearable Computer For The Moderately Tech Savvy

So, lately I’ve been getting questions about some pictures I’ve posted of myself, as well as tweets about my wearable computer situation. How does it work? Does it work? Where did I get it? Does it work.

It does work, and I put it together out of off-the-shelf consumer electronics, which I’ll link to below. Please note I’m using Amazon affiliate links throughout this post — if something sounds useful to you and you click on it and buy it, then I get a small advertising commission, which I will probably blow on alcohol. So by all means, proceed.

My target here is people who, like me, are moderately tech savvy: not afraid of computers, a heavy user of them, and interested in taking them further, but not devoted to learning the technical ins and outs

A little background: I got into wearable technology for the same reason anybody does: I want the ability to beam my own personal power song directly into my brainpan 24/7, like I’m a character on Ally McBeal. That’s a very common problem so it’s also one that has a ready solution: bone conduction headphones. They allow you to hear audio from a paired device while leaving your ears open, and if you have a propensity towards hats and wigs, you can wear them anywhere without notice.

I’d never seen the point of Bluetooth headphones before – one more device to keep charged, one more valuable piece of hardware to lose – but once I figured out a use for them, I found a whole lot more uses. I also finally found a use for a digital assistant, as I could use my headphones to interact in a limited way with my phone without pulling it out. Voice commands allowed me to get more out of the basic function of the headphones, as I could control playback in more sophisticated ways than the buttons on the headphones allowed.

Soon after I added a Galaxy Watch to my gear loadout, which also extended my ability to interact with and receive information for my phone without laying hands on it. At around the same time, I invested in a Microsoft Universal folding keyboard, a lightweight and sturdy laptop-sized keyboard I could use to type on my phone anywhere there was a flat surface. This let me leave the laptop at home when I was going somewhere to write.

Not long after that, I discovered the Vufine, a wearable display device that I could use to keep my phone screen private when writing in public, or get visual information from my phone while walking around. It was at that point I realized that my push towards portability for my writing operations and wearability for my tech were working towards a convergent point.

My dream, my goal, has always been to have total convenience and total continuity in my work environmen.. the ability to pick up my work and take it with me, to continue it anywhere, whether I was sitting on a plane or riding in a car or standing up or laying down or basically anything, ideally with as little a change in the interface and environment as possible.

Cloud computing and mobile technology has done a lot to bring that dream closer to reality, but it hasn’t really got us there. The change in fashions from clicky-clacky physical keyboards to on-screen ones was a backwards step in terms of being able to type comfortably at a decent speed in many positions, and reclining or reposing with a phone held up in front of your face when you’re tired enough to feel like kicking back is a great way to drop a phone on your face.

So, I started to wonder what it would take to put together a wearable computer. Not just wearable technology that interacts with computers, but the whole personal computing experience, prete a porter and ready to go.

Surely that’s the sort of thing you’d need some serious engineering chops to… engineer? That’s for the sort of people who go into Maker Spaces and say, “Excuse me, but you got your Arduino in my Raspberry Pi.” The closest thing we’ve ever had to a wearable computer was Google Glass, and they noped out of the consumer market faster than you could say, “You put a camera on what?

Well, it turns out that we live in the future, and with a little creativity and some willingness to go very slightly outside the intended usage of some of the components, you can put together a fully functional, user-ready, internet-capable wearable computer running Windows 10 and basically any kind of office software you might need for about the price of a laptop.

“Which laptop?” you might ask. Well, I mean, that depends a lot on what you need it to do and what trade-offs you’re prepared to make. There’s a lot of flexibility in some parts of this exercise, but I’m going to say you can have a decent work computer for a writer or blogger or office drone for right around $500.

Which is not nothing! I was very lucky that I already had a number of the necessary components on hand from earlier, incremental steps, and I got some help with the rest. I don’t think the expense would be worth it for everyone.

Instead of trying to explain the use cases for it, I think I’m going to just tell you what it lets you do and then figure that will either appeal to people or not: you can have a computer that can run all day with a screen floating in (but not obstructing) your view, that no one else can see, that you can use anywhere regardless of the presence or absence of any particular working surface. It just works. It goes with you and it works.

So how do you assemble a wearable computer for yourself without having to have any special tools or particular technical chops? The same way you put together a desktop one: you take a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse, and some speakers, and you connect them to a computer tower, and then you plug the monitor and tower in and turn them on. Then you just tidy up the cords a little, let Windows set itself up, and start choosing your desktop wallpaper.

It’s really as simple as that.

I’ll tell you how I did it, in case you would like to do the same. Some caveats: what you’ll get will not be a high-end gaming computer but something more comparable to a decent, reliable netbook. A little slow to run webpages with complicated Uis, fine for office functions, reading, playing videos. You’ll have to adjust some of your expectation about things like comfortable text sizes, but the trade-off is the most portable computing experience you’ll ever… experience.

You’ll be able to watch videos in perfect privacy on a crowded bus or plane. You’ll be answering emails and drafting memos in the backseat of a rideshare. You’ll be able to lie on the couch or in bed and stare at the ceiling while you hammer out your next chapter or blog post in perfect comfort.

Your results will vary, but you may even be able to write an essay while pacing around the house or the backyard. The only two things I’ve really asked for in my life is the ability to write using the same tools and medium whether I’m laying down, sitting comfortably, or walking around, and I can do that. Mission accomplished.

What You Need

Here’s what you need. Once you understand what we’re looking for and why, may substitute other components that serve your needs better. Just make sure you understand the power needs of the main components before you start messing with them or with your power source. The items I’m listing here all play well with each other.

1. A Pocket PC, or some other kind of computer on a stick. These are smaller than cell phones, slightly bigger than (but very similar, in principle and operation) to) a smart TV streaming stick, and you can find ones with similar specs for slightly more or slightly less than the one I linked to, which has 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage. You can save some money by going down to 2 GB and/or 32 GB, buuut you’ll be paying more than half price for half the power, and that doesn’t seem like a great trade-off.

Pocket PCs are meant to be portable, not mobile. They’re like the big league version of keeping your work files on a thumb drive, and one step up from having a whole operating system on athumb drive. The idea is you take them somewhere where there is a screen and the necessary peripherals, and plug them in. Our idea is that you take the screen and peripherals with you.

On that note, you’ll need a double-ended HDMI adapter like this one to plug it in to our mobile display, which is…

2. A Vufine+. This is your monitor, and unless you want to spring for more RAM or storage capacity, this is the big ticket item at around $199. You can save $100 by getting the original model Vufine, but that lacks a key feature I think you’re really going to miss: view modes, which lets you adjust zoom by clicking the button on the back of the device. If you’re iffy enough on the Vufine, I’d suggest buying from the website (which touts a 90 day free trial) rather than trying to save money on the cheaper one.

The Vufine has a bit of a learning curve compared to a typical computer monitor, so I’ll be making a blog post with the tips and tricks I’ve picked up. I went from worrying it was an overpriced useless piece of junk on day 1 to finding it super easy and useful about three weeks in.

A possible alternative in the same price range would be this wearable display/VR band from Avegant. It’s got pretty bad reviews as a VR device, but good ones as a personal display. I haven’t been able to try it so I can’t speak to its suitability. I think the pros compared to the Vufine would include less fiddly to position and built-in audio, but more of your vision being obstructed.

I feel like it might be better and easier for some purposes than the Vufine, but worse at others. I’d love to try it but I can’t justify the additional expense when I have a solution that works for me, for most of my use cases. So it’s on my Amazon wishlist for now. I’d be happy to try it out for science.

3. A battery/portable charger that can output enough power to run the Pocket PC. I’ve linked to one that can; just be sure your’e using the USB slot closest to the power input, the one marked with a “Power” symbol. If you skimp on the power supply, your Pocket PC might run erratically and then shut down, or fail to turn on at all. Also make sure the cord you use can handle it! Here’s a pack of cords that have the right end, the right capacity, and are nice and short. I usually like longer cords, but you’re going to be wearing these.

Quick note that unlike an actual mobile device with its own internal battery, you will not see a power remaining display on your wearable computer, so you’ll want to check your battery’s power level indicator from time to time. That’s a little inconvenient, I know, but… I’ve operated my wearable computer from 9:30 in the morning until 1:00 at night and still not run out of power. And by this I mean it was on the whole time. Screen on, Vufine and PC both drawing power from the battery. I’ve never had a laptop or phone that could do that, running off its own power.

4. An input device. Here’s a keyboard/trackpad combo that fits in a lot of pockets and pouches, has some cool backlight features, and is wireless over USB. A neat feature this one has is a scrollwheel, which meeans if you’re reading something you don’t really have to have your eyes or hands on the keyboard properly, just a finger on the wheel.

Normally I prefer Bluetooth but USB will make setup easier, and also this particular keyboard is one of the more ergonomic for use. It’s much lighter than any cellphone but bigger and better spaced than any physical keyboard from the Blackberry era.

If you’ve got something like the Microsoft Universal I mentioned above, then when you do find yourself with a table or desk or counter or tray in front of you, you can plop it down and have a full-sized keyboard. In that event, you can just set your handheld one down next to it and use it as a trackpad.

Sidenote: While I was researching for this, I discovered someone invented a “wearable keyboard and mouse” combo, which is actually a little string of sensors you wear on your fingers. It takes input using a specialized tap code which they claim can be mastered in about an hour and a half. Reviews are mixed. I am intrigued but not willing or in a position to throw money at it to see if it works — I already went out on several limbs getting to this point, and don’t wish to push my luck. So it, too, is wishlisted.

Sidenote to sidenote: If anybody sends me either of the wishlisted items, I will provide a thorough review after testing them.

5. Unless you go with a different HDMI display that includes sound, you will need some kind of audio output. The open-ear bone conduction headphones I mentioned above pair well with the Vufine along the theme of being private while not obstructing your senses, but I prefer to keep those paired with my phone. You can use any Bluetooth earbuds or headphones. I’m not an audiophile, so I can’t make a lot of serious recommendations here. Honestly, this is the one thing on the list you’re most likely to have something suitable on hand.

If you get the specific items I’ve mentioned for 1 to 4 — the Pocket PC, the Vufine+, the charger, and the handheld keyboard/trackpad — you’ve got like $40 left for earphones in order to come in at $500. If you do spring for the open ear ones, it’s more like $600, but you’re upping the cool factor.

Putting It All Together

Depending on what you have on hand, you might spend a little more getting your components safely wearable. Because once you have all of this stuff, it’s time to put it together. The goal is for it to fit safely and comfortable on your body, so parts of this are going to be subjective. Here’s how I do it: I have a cross-body bag that Is small but big enough to hold all this hardware in one little carefully wrapped package.

I wear it with the shoulder strap cinched up fairly high, so that if the battery pack is standing up in the bigger pocket, the power cord from the Vufine can run down to the second slot and have just enough slack to not restrict my movements, not enough slack that it will snag on things. The Vufine touts a 90 minute battey life, which is enough time to crash four or five drones but not nearly long enough if your goal is to have a ubiquitous computer environment.

So, the Vufine’s default configuration is that you take a little band that comes with it and strap it to the arm of your glasses, like you’re some kind of optometrical ornithologist tracking its migration. The Vufine unit has a little round magnetic peg that fits into a round metal divot on the side, and then you can pivot it up and down. The key is you want the screen really close to the lens of your glasses. Once it’s turned on, you can start fine-tuning the placement. The “neck” has got a horizontal adjustment that slides in and out, and you can swivel it up and down.

Now, despite its name, the Pocket PC should not be run inside a pocket. Again, it’s meant to be portable, not mobile. So you want to attach the included loop/strap to the Pocket PC and then hang it off the bag using any kind of secure clip or carabiner. Make sure it’s positioned so that you won’t be running it into door frames or crushing it against arm rests when you sit down – I hang mine towards the front of the bag. I’m also looking at some self-adhesive clip attachments that might let me hook it onto a belt or strap, or the outside of a pocket. As long as the vents are facing outwards, it’s good.

If you’re using the wireless USB keyboard, it’s got a receiver inside the back compartment. Put that in one of your USB slots, and then connect the Pocket PC’s HDMI plug to the Vufine using the Vufine’s cord and the double-ended adapter. Now, this is a pretty long cord, and you’re going to have to deal with that. You can wrap up the excess with a twist tie, you can braid it maypole-style around the strap of your bag. My solution for now is to run the cord under my top and out at my neck – since it hangs down off the bottom of the PC, this works really well. The strap of the bag on top of my shirt helps keep the cord in place once I’ve got it how I want it, which is with enough slack at the bottom and the top that normal movement of the bag/computer and my head doesn’t yank on it.

Once you’ve got everything in place, connect your power supply to the PC and turn it on. If everything worked, a blue light should light up and the fan should come on. It can sound loud in a very quiet room, but any background noise tends to swallow it up. The Vufine turns on with a button at the back of its “stem”.

Turn on your keyboard/mouse combo and you’re ready to go. You might want to adjust some settings in Windows and the apps you use because you’re looking at a very different scale of screen than you’re used to. I’ll have some specific advice in a future blog post. Step one here is just getting a wearable computer together. Actually doing stuff with it is a broader topic.

One thing that will make your life easier while you’re figuring that stuff out and learning how to optimally position the Vufine is understanding its view modes. Each press of the power button cycles through them:

1. The very pretty natural resolution mode, which letterboxes your computer’s display at its normal resolution. Great for watching movies, looking at pictures, etc. Basically, anything visual. Depending on your eyesight and visual preferences, this may be the only view mode you need to use. But while you’re learning how to use the device, it can be hard to position things so you can see the whole screen in this mode.

2. A zoom mode which zooms In on the center of the screen until it reaches the point where the letterboxing is pushed off the screen. In landscape mode, this means the center of the screen is as big as it can get without cutting anything off at the top or bottom. You can’t see the sides of the screen, but this can be really useful for reading some websites.

3. A stretch to fit mode which shows the whole screen, but fills the viewport without cutting anything off. So pictures and videos get slightly squished/stretched, but this is the mode where the screen and any writing on it are easiest to see. I use it for reading and writing most of the time.

I’m going to save the rest of the finer points for later blog posts addressing specific topics. This is just about getting you there. If this catches on and other people do this, I’m sure we’ll all come up with interesting new tricks to get the most out of it.

Travelin’

So, a couple of quick notes.

I am back in Florida. I have with me a proof copy of First Dates, Last Calls, which I am proofreading to try to catch any mistakes or terminally rough spots before I call it final. Some of the stories in it are years old and have gone through multiple rounds of editing before this book was even conceived, but some of them were just written in 2018. Two of them have never seen the light of day before, so I’m making sure they get a little extra scrutiny.

If you’re with me on the social mediums, you might have seen me talking about or wearing a device on my glasses called a Vufine. This is a wearable heads-up display that I invested in when I found it likely I was going to be traveling a lot in the coming months, under the theory that if I could get my working environment as small and portable as possible I could do so with less disruption, and maybe get more writing rather than less done.

I had a side goal of making my actual laptop computer less essential to my operations, so that I don’t have to take it with me every time I go anywhere. There are still some things (such as laying out books) I would not care to do without it, but I think I have figured out how to make the VuFine work as a display for basically everything else I do. It’s not a wearable computer all by itself (it’s a wearable monitor) but if you have something like a Pi or a PC stick or a powerful enough smartphone, it’s pretty easy to rig one up.

I made a Twitter thread about this remarkable device and some caveats/tips for using it effectively, shortly after I got it. Now that I’ve been using it more (and in particular, now that I’ve been through a trip to the airport and plane ride with it), I am thinking making a blog post elaborating on that, because honestly the difference in user experience between before I knew what I was doing with it and after is night and day. I definitely understand some of the negative user reviews, there is a considerable learning curve with it.

But as I type this, I’m comfortably on my side on a couch. I started writing it at a table and I kept writing it on my way over to the living room. It’s really pretty amazing

Anyway. One thing about the travel is that no matter how portable I can make my portable office, it’s never going to be completely seamless to pick up my work and routine and move it from one place to another. So, I’m kind of reinventing some of my approaches to things, and I’ll be talking about that more in the coming days and weeks. The short version is you’re going to be seeing more longform communication from me and fewer Twitter threads.

Which is likely to slow my audience growth, nothing beats Twitter for engagement and visibility, but it will have its upsides in terms of space to develop my ideas.

“What Is Dungeons & Dragons?”

Sometimes you ask someone if they would like to play D&D with you and their response goes along the lines of, “That sounds really cool, I’ve always wanted to play D&D, it seems neat. I just have one question:

What is D&D?”

And honestly, that’s a good question.

This blog post is my attempt to answer it, for anyone else who has been wondering but felt that asking would make them look silly.

Let me start with a little background on why I don’t find this kind of question foolish at all.

See, for as long as I knew it existed, I thought Dungeons & Dragons was the coolest thing in the world.

It would be years after that before I learned what Dungeons & Dragons actually was, though, because in addition to everything else it is…

Dungeons & Dragons Is A Multimedia Empire

You see, I was born in the 80s, which was the first heyday of D&D in pop culture. The first time you could get D&D merchandise in big box stores. The first time you could see it advertised on TV. It popped up in movies like ET. It was a Saturday morning cartoon.

The cartoon was my first real exposure. Most cartoons were based on something, and in the days when narrative arcs in children’s programming were rare and all the money was assumed to be in syndication, most cartoons had an en media res approach where you’d just sort of come in halfway through the picture and no one would explain what was going on.

So when the first episode of the cartoon aired with an opening sequence that starts with a bunch of kids at a fair noticing a roller coaster and going, “Hey, a Dungeons & Dragons world!” and winding up in something called “the world of Dungeons & Dragons”, I just kind of went with it. This was how cartoons were. 

I was a little confused with how few of the toys on the store shelves seemed to have much to do with the cartoon beyond a basic theme, but, eh. Childhood is a confusing time. 

As I got older, I discovered tie-in novels and comic books which, again, had very little to do with the cartoon and often not much to do with each other. Elves and orcs and dwarves and, yes, dragons showed up again and again. But they all featured different characters and were even in some cases clearly set in different worlds.

And that, in a nutshell, is what Dungeons & Dragons is really about: unique characters, unique worlds, unique adventurers.

But I didn’t know that. I just knew that there was cartoon that was both like all the other ones but also like nothing else I’d ever seen, and it was connected somehow to all these other things. 

When I started reading the novels and comics, I would see adds in the comics for gaming supplements that tied into the novels, that talked about going on adventures and fighting alongside the heroes from the novels.

What were they, board games? Video games? I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to know, and so I went and I found out that…

Dungeons & Dragons Is A Roleplaying Game

The best way I can describe a roleplaying game is a game of make-believe that does not immediately end in an argument the first time there’s a question of who shot first or who hit whom or who missed or if the target had their forcefield dog or if the shooter brought their attack dinosaur who eats forcefield dogs.

A roleplaying game is a game of make-believe with rules and structure to it. It’s a game of shared storytelling where everybody agrees on a basic framework for what is possible and what is likely, and one person is given responsibility for figuring out the gray areas and deciding what happens next.

When you play a game like Dungeons & Dragons, you create a character through a process that will likely be at least vaguely familiar to anyone who has played enough computer games over the years – because the computer games cribbed their concept of character creation (along with a lot of other things) from Dungeons & Dragons and its descendants.

In D&D, you define your character by choosing a race in the sense of being Human or Elf or Dwarf or some other fantastical folk, and a character class that broadly describes your special abilities and role as an adventurer: Fighter, Wizard, Ranger, and so on. 

You define your character’s basic abilities in six areas: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma. Your class and background help you determine what special adventuring skills you’re trained in, such as Stealth or Acrobatics. 

Your class gives you special abilities that defy these kinds of broad categorization. Anyone might know Stealth or Sleight of Hand, but a Rogue has special features that lets you use these skills in ways that other characters can’t.

So you create a character according to a set of step-by-step instructions in the Player’s Handbook (the rulebook for D&D) and then you have a character sheet, a paper or electronic form that records all the vital statistics of your character that impact the game. This is a picture of your character at the start of their career as a heroic adventurer. You might be a High Elf Wizard or a Hill Dwarf Cleric. You might be a Dragonborn Paladin, or a Tiefling Rogue.

Once you’ve created your character — often with guidance from the person running the game, who will usually know the rules at least a little bit — the game properly begins with an adventure.

Dungeons & Dragons Is A Social Experience.

You can play D&D with as few as two people — one person to run the game and one person to have an adventure — and in a pinch there are some variants you can play solo, but it’s intended to be a group experience, with each player creating one character as part of an ensemble for the story and serving a different role in terms of the game. 

Some characters are tougher and stronger and fight on the front lines, putting themselves between danger and their allies. The world of online gaming calls this role the “tank”. Tabletop gaming often goes with the more prosaic “meatshield”.

Some characters are skilled specialists, the kind of role that Thorin Oakenshield described to Bilbo Baggins as “expert treasure hunter”. They deal with tricks and traps that crop up along the way, look for creative solutions to problems, and often have ways of tying opponents up in combat or striking precise and deadly blows while the meatshields keep the attention on themselves.

Then there are support characters, who heal and inspire and help the whole party cohere and be greater than the sum of their parts.

Some character classes are strongly predisposed towards one role or another. Others are more flexible. The ultimate point, though, is that with a group of 3 to 6 people, you can have more fun because each character can both do their own things and find things to do that complement each other.

And of course, there’s a lot of fun to be had just sitting around a table (or in a chat server) with friends, playing a game and imagining epic adventures. 

Dungeons & Dragons Is A Storytelling Medium

When you play a roleplaying game, you’re helping to tell a story. The game runner — Dungeon Master, in D&D’s trademark parlance — serves as a narrator who sets the scene and describes how the story unfolds, but everybody playing is also advancing the story through their decisions. 

The basic rhythm of the game is back and forth: the Dungeon Master narrates an opening and describes where the characters are, what they notice about the world around them, and asks what they are doing.

The players describe what their characters do in response to the scene, and the Dungeon Master decides (sometimes by consulting rules or dice) how that goes, and what happens as a result.

Whatever the players did probably wrought some change in the situation, so now it’s back to them to respond to that.

And so it goes, back and forth, until the story reaches a stopping point or the players do. There’s a lot of “to be continued” in gaming, especially as groups get older.

After each session, whether your character won the day or retreated or lost and even died, you’ll have a story to tell about it, one that hopefully binds you closer to the people who were there for it and helps you connect to a wider community of players beyond it.

And if you keep playing over a long period of time (which is often called a campaign), your character will grow and change to something far beyond the original concept you had when you rolled a Level 1 Half-Elf Bard. You might conquer lands or free them. You might restore the power of a lost god, or destroy them, or ascend to the heavens yourself. Long-running campaigns can change the face of the worlds they take place in, becoming the same kinds of epic stories that inspired people to start playing in the first place.

You can lose battles and you can win wars, but there’s no winning or losing the game of Dungeons & Dragons. Not even if your character dies. Because in the first place, you aren’t knocked out of the game — you can make another character. In the second place, it’s fantasy. Magic can heal even fatal injuries, if you can amass the right power and resources. And sometimes people’s best stories are how their character went out in a blaze of glory.

Dungeons & Dragons Is Fun

That’s it. Even with rules, the point of the game is to have fun. The rules are there to facilitate the fun by cutting down on the arguments and second-guessing and give you a framework whereby you can, once you’ve got your character’s features down, just confidently announce “I throw a fireball at his face.” instead of having to inquire, “So, can I throw a fireball at his face? Is that a thing I can do?”

Even the official rulemasters at Wizards of the Coast will tell you there is no wrong way to play and that if a group at a table agrees it’s more fun when they don’t sweat the small stuff or change an official rule completely, then go for it. 

Because it’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun.

And while it can be more fun when you have a strong handle on what your character can do, it’s 100% possible to play without any prior knowledge of the actual rules. It’s not a competitive game and it’s not a guessing game – most new groups have some element of learning as they go, and as long as you don’t mind asking.

Back From There Again

Well, I’m back in… dang, even years after I moved to Maryland full-time and after my parents relocated to Florida, my urge is still to write “back in Nebraska” in these blog posts. Some of my plans for my Florida foray didn’t work out so well. I was planning on blogging, but I wound up getting sidetracked on that. I was planning on doing some virtual poetry readings and other video streams, but it turned out that there wasn’t any acoustically suitable spots in the house. The place I had picked out from previous visits as being farthest away from the noisy spots? There’s an AC unit right outside it.

But, it was still a good trip! I made less progress on those particular fronts but wound up getting way further ahead on other things. I’m going to have my proof copy of First Dates, Last Calls sometime this week, which is well ahead of schedule, and means that I might actually be reading from the physical book at my reading at the Flying Camel on Saturday, depending upon exactly how timely is arrival is. 

I’ve also had some good luck in changing my habits lately, and building better ones, which I think is going to help me reach goals for things like writing, blogging, etc., as I apply them more broadly.

My big insight here is that if you think of life as a game, you have to remember that it’s often easier to alter your equipment than it is to upgrade your skills. A habit, a true habit, takes time and repetition (grinding for experience points) to develop. But if you can change something in your environment, you can make it automatic, or nearly so.

I’ve tried to cut down on caffeine and alcohol in the past. I’ve tried to drink more water. None of this attempts really took. Then I started carrying around a reusable water bottle. It got me drinking water all the time (because it’s right there), and any time I’m drinking water, I’m not drinking anything else. And let me tell you, I don’t want to be one of those boring people who tells you that drinking water will cure your depression’s cancer or whatever, but the more water I drink, the less caffeine and alcohol I find that I need.

I’m sipping a Dr. Pepper spiked with Fireball as I write this, but, you know, I woke up at 7:30 and didn’t need caffeine to get going, or booze to keep going. I just like i.

Anyway. Along those lines, what I aim to do in order to get my blogging habit back on track is just opening up a blank blog entry when I go to bed, so it’s there when I open my computer in the morning. We’ll see how that works. It’s not quite the slam dunk of a physical hack, because it requires me to cultivate a habit (open a tab before going to bed) and there will be times when I need to do something else first or I don’t have anything to say when I wake up. But it’s a start.

Seasons in the sun

So, if you follow me on Twitter you might have noticed I’m in Florida. If you’ve followed me for long enough you know this means I’m engaged with my family. In the current climate, I like to employ a certain amount of obfuscation about my movement which is why I was a little bit oblique about the fact that I was getting ready to travel and why I’m not going to have a lot of details here. 

I will say that I’m going to be down here for a while. The first little stretch is a bit like a chill vacation – each day we’re going to a different art museum or similar attraction. After that, it’s going to be a working trip – helping out around the house while also working on my writing (I’ve got a book to put to bed!) and my political commentary. It’s hard to guess how much time and energy I’ll have, though. Some of these visits have been among my most productive creative intervals. Others have been less so. There’s really no way to know beforehand. I mean, that’s true no matter where I am in the country. It’s not something particular to here.

Anyway, I’m trying a few things different this time around that might help me have a better time managing my spoons. I’ve been hydrating like never before for most of March and I’ve stepped it up since I’ve been here. I’ve got a weighted blanket to help me sleep, which has worked to the point that I slept through at least one minute of my alarm – don’t know if I would have woken up at all but it did wake Jack up, and he woke me up. 

I am such a light sleeper that I have slept through an alarm only once before in my adult life, and that was a time I was physically exhausted.

I have a weighted blanket at home but dang, the availability and quality have seriously improved from the time I got it. I might be looking to upgrade/replace by the time this kind of weather gets to Maryland. When the weather is chilly, I just sleep with a ton of blankets… but Florida-weight blankets aren’t that heavy, you know?

So, yeah. Extra hydration, less caffeine and alcohol (which wasn’t a conscious choice, just a side effect of drinking water all the dang time), and better sleep. This could be a really productive trip. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

But right now is for family time, so for now, I’m just stealing a few moments here and there to do my thing when everybody else is sleeping and I’m not, or we’re all just doing our own things. One thing I’m going to focus on once most of the family has departed and I’m settling in to work is keeping up this blogging thing. I am already doing it more than I was. I’d like to be doing it more than I am.

I’ll keep you posted.

Well…

…I’m keeping up my streak of blogging about every two weeks or so. We’ll see if I can improve on that in the coming days.

It feels a little weird to be talking business at this moment in history, but I really do need to blog more often, and to keep up my other professional obligations.

This week I put in my party proposal for WisCon and my proposal for a trans/genderqueer reading group. Yesterday I had my best writing day in a while – I wrote a very short poem (short enough to fit in a single tweet, even!) as a warm-up, and then a 3,500 word short story, and then another story in the form of a 900 word monologue or prose poem, I’m still not sure how I’d best classify it.

The poem and the poetic monologue were written to use as reading material during my nearly weekly appearance at The Flying Camel. Last week I started doing a virtual reading on Twitter’s Periscope service around midnight on the night of the open mic night. I’d planned to do the same last night, but with the news breaking out of New Zealand I didn’t quite have the right mindset for a public performance and I decided to spend my time reporting Islamophobic tweets on Twitter. Weirdly, all the accounts I found that were spreading hatred of Muslims last night were also engaged in anti-Semitism, homophobia, and racism. Go figure.

Anyway. I’ve got a social engagement for the middle part of the day, and after that I’m going to post the two shorter works to my Patreon. The longer one will be up probably next week. When I write a story, particularly one that’s over 1,000 words, I think of it as having three stages of doneness: complete is when the whole story is there on the page. Finished is when I’m gone over the rough bits. Polished is when I’ve looked at the finished story, and often slept on it, and figured out all the ways to really make it sparkle. I wrote a complete story yesterday in about an hour, but it’s not finished and it’s not polished.

If I’m stuck on what to blog about, I might talk about the story some more, because I wrote it as a way to sort of get over some mental hurdles that have been holding me back in some of my longer ongoing writing projects.

New phone, what’s all this, then?

So, I got a new phone recently. It’s part of my ongoing drive to overhaul my life by getting rid of stuff that doesn’t really work, stuff I’ve just sort of put up with. So when I was shopping for a new phone, what I looked at was something that would do the stuff I use my phone for, but fix a couple of things that were causing problems.

One of the biggest problems was that in getting a screen size that let me use my phone as a work device, it wound up being too wide for me to comfortably hold. Even with a pop socket on the back (which helped a lot), I couldn’t use my phone all day without dropping it at least once, and putting a lot of stress on my hand and wrist.

I could get a smaller phone easily. But one big enough for me to work on yet easy on my hand was trickier.

After a LOT of research, I landed on the Galaxy Note 9 as hitting my sweet spot. It has a nice big screen and is only a very tiny bit narrower than most phones with that kind of screen real estate — but phones that size are only a tiny bit too wide for my hand. I found some similar sized phones that were markedly lighter in weight, but they seemed to get there by compromising on battery life and that’s a high priority for me.

The Note 9 wasn’t the cheapest choice, but I’ve always gone for kind of middle of the road on power… and then struggled in frustration when I tried to write on my phone and it was slow and non-responsive at my typical input speeds. So even though I wasn’t buying it primarily for the specs, I have found using it to give me the kind of profound KonMari-esque sense of relief and release that I was expecting from its shape, but all around. I can write on 4TW and it is so fast. It doesn’t reload my pages every time I switch between them. I can write one-handed using my thumb, two handed with the included stylus (first handwriting recognition thing that actually reads my handwriting!) or if I have a surface in front of me, with a bluetooth keyboard that has similar key size to the netbooks I used for years.

But it’s so much more responsive than the netbooks.

So, I have been writing up a storm. This is my second blog post of the day, the first one being up on my Patreon because it concerns the art and craft of writing. I have another blog post I wrote yesterday that I need to reformat a bit before posting. I wrote a whole short story that I had allotted four hours to write, in about 75 minutes.

Listen, if you’ve followed me for years you know that writing on my phone or other handheld device is not something new for me. It’s always been sort of the holy grail for me, of being able to write effortlessly anywhere and just have it sync to the cloud so I can finish it up on a computer. Some of my devices have been better for that than others. Sometimes I had a real working solution for a while. Sometimes I was kidding myself and trying to make something work that was just causing aggravation.

But this is so fluid and seamless. If I sit at a table or desk and prop my phone up and put my keyboard there, it does amazing things for my focus. I can see the whole screen easily, my eyes are focused right on it. I can type at a really good clip but it’s dang inconvenient for me to flip to a different app or tab, so I only do it when it’s necessary, not out of reflex. My phone is there on the table, not at my side where I can just grab it and check Twitter.

For me, it’s all of the advantages of a single-use word processor (as some authors use) without having to carry around a single-use gadget and hoping it doesn’t break or get lost or die before I can transfer my work off it. It’s great. It’s not cheap, but, you know, my last new phone was in fall 2017. A year and a half between upgrades doesn’t feel too indulgent for someone who uses wireless tech as heavily as I do.

Anyway. The phone is Galaxy Note 9. The keyboard I use is the Microsoft universal folding bluetooth keyboard – that’s an affiliate link, just so you know, but this is a true and wholehearted recommendation for people who can type on a netbook sized keyboard, and who will be using it while typing on a hard elevated surface like a table. Those are the caveats. You can’t hold it in front of you and you’ll be frustrated if you try to use it on your lap. But it’s hardy and robust, with a good battery life – I haven’t had it for long but I bought it on recommendations from people I consider power users when it comes to typing and traveling.

I’ve been learning what else it can do (it can measure heart rate and has a built-in pulse oximeter, among other surprises, and can do streaming video muuuuch better than anything I’ve owned before), but honestly, I bought it with the killer app being slightly narrower while still being a usable size, and finding out it’s great for writing on in any configuration has been enough of a pleasant surprise.

49 days into the new year…

I made the decision late last year I was going to resurrect my blog in 2019, as an actual blog, updated nearly daily. I made this decision because I had started daily journaling in 2018 and it was really good for my emotional and cognitive processing, but it also resulted in me being even more closed off from others than I had been before, because I now had an outlet for my thoughts that wasn’t putting them up on Twitter or throwing them into a blog post.

I did a couple of posts at the end of December because I like to get a running start on my resolutions (that’s the secret to getting anywhere with them, in my experience), and then… nothing. I’ve realized this a couple of times in January and again in February, and here we are about two-thirds of the way through the month and I’m making my first post.

I think the allure of journaling instead of blogging is that it’s so much safer, now that I’m something of a public figure. No one ever tries to start a conversation with my journal, or mistakes it for a dialogue already in progress. Nobody is combing through my journal looking for something they can later impress me by having deduced by reading between the lines and figured out. (Usually wrong. Always creepy. Usually well-intentioned. Still creepy.) Nobody’s looking at my journal ready to pounce on things they think are inconsistencies, as every life inevitably must contain contradiction.

Even as I type this, I can hear in my head as people get ready to go on Twitter or Facebook or email and tell me, “That’s alright! Don’t worry about what other people think! Just do what you want to do!” Listen, there are people who need to hear this. People who need or want a push will go digging for one. This is just me, quietly thinking out loud.

So, this is my first blog post of 2019. I don’t want it to be the last one, or even worse, for every blog post to wind up being an explanation of why I haven’t blogged more lately. So what I’m doing is another thing I started in late 2018, which is to take what works (journaling) and let go of what doesn’t. I wrote this as part of my daily journaling. Why not? It’s part of my routine anyway. 4 The Words, the site I use for my journaling (along with my more creative writing), recently had an upgrade that makes it easier to export or copy/paste formatted text from it.

Here’s some highlights of recent events from my life:

  • I’ve started attending open mic nights some weeks at a local literary cafe and bar called The Flying Camel here in Hagerstown. If you’re local, you can watch my Twitter on Thursdays to find out if I’m going to make an appearance. I will be holding a personal reading there on Saturday, April 20th, at 2:00 PM in support of my forthcoming short story collection First Dates, Last Calls, which will be available for pre-order at that time. I expect to hold a launch party there as well.
  • I’ve upgraded my look to include more hooded cloaks, because if you’re going to sit around in a bar you might as well look like you’ve got an important quest to hand out.
  • I got my first respiratory illness of the year. I came out the other side over the weekend, but my energy levels are still really low – we went out yesterday in the cold and I paid for it by being exhausted today.

That’s what’s going on here. Oh, I also poked my head into my patron Discord server for the first time in a while, back on a day last week when I *thought* was recovered from the cold. Haven’t really had the focus for chat since, but I’ll drop back in soon.

For your consideration.

File under “Better Late Than Never” – I said on Twitter back in the fall that I was going to do an award eligibility post this year, and I’ve re-affirmed that commitment to a few individuals since then. I really hoped to get this done in November, but, you know: everything happens so much. Then it felt like it was too late, though I kept seeing other people doing it after I made that decision.

So here we are, the last day of the old year looking back at what I did in the previous one. This was actually a really good ritual because it helped me remind myself that I *did* do things in the past year, I did a lot of things, including things that I’m very proud of. I’m not actually going to list them all here because I’d rather make this a “For Your Consideration” list rather than “here’s everything thrown in a pile, you figure it out”.

Short Stories

The absolute best thing I published in the last year — certainly the thing that made the biggest impact — is a short story called “You Remember This Story“, published on July 10th. It’s the first piece of fiction I’ve written in a long time that I had people come up to me at a convention to rave about. It seems to have stayed with them.

I’m not going to tell anyone what to do with their ballots but I will say that if you have the time and inclination to read any one thing I wrote while you are considering what to do with your ballot, please read this story. You will remember it.

My second favorite thing I wrote this year is a little vignette called “Table Six Needs Drinks“, published on October 26th. It’s short enough that I think any attempt to describe it would spoil it, but I’m very happy with it.

I had planned to leave it at these two things, in order to highlight my absolute best and avoid competing with myself, but close friends have counseled that I would be doing myself a grave disservice if I did not include one more story in this post: “Indelible“. My hesitation is not based on any fear of the story’s weakness, but rather the fact that it’s not a very comfortable story.

It’s a horror story that was published on October 22nd, and it includes references to sexual assault, substance/alcohol abuse, and self-harm.

Poetry

I wrote a few poems in 2018, but I would say most of them are more writing exercises, warm up sketches, literary doodles. The only poem I would like to put forward for consideration in 2018 awards is “A Wizard of Earth“, written in memory of Ursula Le Guin and published on January 23rd, 2018.

Fan Writing

As most of my meta writing and commentary on fandom politics in 2018 was in the form of Twitter threads, I believe that rather than nominating individual “works”, the best way to recognize that I believe would be to nominate me in the category of Best Fan Writer or similar, in awards where such a category exists.

Final Considerations

So, these are the works I would like to submit for your consideration.

Now, you might be thinking something along the lines of, “But these stories were all self-published on your Patreon! Does that really count as being published, for purposes of an award requiring publication in 2018?”

My answer to that is pretty straightforward: they count as published for all other purposes, including any attempts to subsequently publish them (the first rights are gone) and also under United States and international copyright law. I recognize that there are differing opinions and an ongoing conversation and if you have a strong personal conviction in this area I’m not going to attempt to sway you.
However, if you believe that any of the works above are worthy of recognition, then I would urge you to make your voice heard. Let the people who think otherwise vote otherwise. You don’t owe them any portion of your ballot.

If the question is truly not settled, it’ll be settled by the choices we make, this year and in subsequent ones.

Thank you for your consideration.

Coming clean.

Whew. I think I said in the last blog post that my next one was going to be personal. If I didn’t, then I meant to say it, as a sort of accountability thing, to make sure I actually write this post.

One of the reasons that I tend to fall off the blogging train is that I can have a hard time letting people in and talking about what’s going on in my life, when I’m not sure it would make sense. In a lot of ways I’ve left concerns like shame and guilt behind me, but there are still things that have the power to make me feel like hiding.

As a writer, gamer, and fantasist, I’ve always been pretty good at checking out of my actual life. “Maladaptive daydreaming” is the technical term for when you get so wrapped up in an imaginary world it begins to affect your real life. Add a(n un)healthy dose of depression and the kind of disassociation that can come really naturally if you’re trans and… you know, if you don’t feel like your real life is your actual life, then it’s easy to let things sort of fall by the wayside.

And then you start adding in various crises, emergencies, complicated family situations, political upheaval…

Anyway. I let a lot of stuff slide, around the house and in my office and bedroom in particular, for much too long. To the point that it wasn’t just unpleasant, but unsafe and unhealthy. There were reasons. There are always reasons. Past a certain point, though, it doesn’t really matter what they are. Also past a certain point, the accumulated problems all pile up on top of each other and reinforce one another. I couldn’t get my life together without getting my room together. Couldn’t clean up the room without unpacking these boxes and storage tubs; can’t unpack them without a place to put them that’s not a stack of storage tubs. Need to get rid of stuff but don’t have room to sort it. Way more stuff to throw out than we can reasonably leave at the curb in one go.

Stuff like that.

(Did you know? I’m magical. I can see into the heads of all the people reading this, and I can see ideas forming. You want to tell me about organizational systems. You want to tell me that I can donate stuff. You want to tell me about haul-away services and rentable dumpsters and gig economy programs and you want to tell me what worked for you. Don’t worry! You don’t have to tell me. I can read it in your mind. And also this story is mostly being told in past tense, so that you the reader can understand what’s been going on with me. It’s not a question or a cry for help. No audience participation is necessary.)

So then a couple of things happened in November. One is that the new Netflix series, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, came out, and I watched it. Over and over again, actually. I love… basically everything about it, but one of my favorite things is the character Entrapta. Entrapta has several traits I identify with, including a tendency to get hyperfocused on something to the point that she loses sight of everything else (like me, watching the same series over and over again.) At one point, while listing her reasons for building robots, she mentions that she relies on them for basic hygiene and cleaning.

And after losing her robots to a computer virus, she spends the entire series wearing a dirty shirt.

I mean, it’s a cartoon, everybody’s wearing the same clothes every day even when it makes no sense, but hers has a mark on it that really looks like it’s a stain.

And I thought, that’s me. I know how to do laundry. I know the importance of doing laundry. I actually have a whole fabulous wardrobe of terribly aesthetic outfits. But I’d lost control of my life to the point that I would just roll out of bed and immediately put on the same shirt I wore the day before. I did laundry and showered if I had a trip. Otherwise… bleh. My mind was elsewhere.

So I thought, I can’t actually build magical robots to fix these things for me. I’m not a character in a cartoon, and anyway, that didn’t work out so well for Entrapta. But I could still invent solutions. Innovate. Tinker with my life. Devise processes that would work with me, that I could carry out and maintain even when life goes all squiggly around the edges.

“Conceptual robots,” basically.

The problem was that my life wasn’t at a mainenance level yet, and I had no idea how to get there. My room — both of my rooms — were disasters.

Then I went to visit my family around Thanksgiving, and the day I left, our furnace here broke. For several days, Sarah was the only one home, alone with the cats in a house without heat. I know that cats are cats, they’re pretty good at regulating their own temperatures compared to us, as long as they are out of the wind and the wet, they would be perfectly fine, but I kept worrying about them, because they were a thousand miles away from me.

 

And I kept wondering, what if Sarah woke up and couldn’t find them? And she had to go through my cluttered, dirty rooms looking for them? What if one of the cats was hurt because something fell over? What if Sarah got hurt trying to navigate the mess to get to them?

 

Anyway, I came back to my life in Maryland fully resolved to turn things around… and then had to wait a while because we still didn’t have heat and it was too cold to do much of anything.

But once the heat was back on, I started making plans. Identifying things that definitely didn’t work, both practices in my life and stuff I had kept hanging around. It’s amazing the stuff you can hang onto that doesn’t work any more, or that maybe never worked but always felt like it should, or that kind of works but not really but close enough that you feel bad replacing it with something else.

I had a pretty good year this year, financially. Covering the election on Twitter worked out pretty well for me. I had some money saved up. I… well, I was going to say that I blew it, but I don’t think it was blown. I think it was spent. Invested, even, in some cases. Invested in replacing things that needed replacing, in shoring up the parts of my life that don’t work. I’ve been throwing out clothes that are ripped or faded or falling apart. Replacing tools that cost me more time and energy in keeping them working than they saved. Getting flat pack storage shelves and chests of drawers that let me unpack and organize my possessions.

I’ve thrown a lot of stuff away purely on the basis that it was packed up for over a decade and if I hadn’t needed it in the intervening time, I’m not likely to miss it in the future. That wasn’t my only consideration, mind you. I’ve also unpacked stuff that was packed away for that long or longer that I had been really looking forward to finally having the space to use it.

Anyway, as i write this, I’m typing it on my laptop in my bedroom, which has been 100% transformed. From the day I moved in here, it was more of a storage room I slept in than a living space. Now the floor is clear. I have places to put things away, and mostly they are. There’s one corner of it that still has a few storage boxes I need to finish going through, but that’s it.

I’m typing this blog post in my bedroom because my office? My office is still a work in progress, by which I mean a disaster. It was already in bad shape when I basically abandoned it to the summer heat, which I do in the hottest part of every year, it’s just not energy efficient to cool it compared to the ground floor or my smaller and darker bedroom. But this year I never really went back to it, and while I have started cleaning it, it’s also holding things like a giant pile of cardboard from boxes (the ones I unpacked, the ones my new life tools came in, miscellaneous Christmas stuff) that I need to break down and bundle up for recycling, bags of stuff that I need to actually throw out, etc.

In order to get my bedroom as clean as it is, I’ve had to use the office as a holding facility for stuff I move out of here. I needed the space. Once I have the corner in my bedroom I was talking about cleared out, I’m going to be reversing polarity, and that corner will be where I move stuff out of the office in order to have room to work on cleaning it up.

In the meanwhile, I have made a little space in my bedroom that can function as an office, so I’m not just sitting at the dining room table all day when I want to write or tweet. I have a little podium style sit/stand desk and a chair, and it works pretty well.

I’ve already made some progress on the office. As the bigger of the two rooms, it had even more storage tubs and boxes stacked against the wall. Those are all gone. I’ve cleared out most of the empty cans and bottles that accumulated on and around the desk. I took down the old blinds, which weren’t a great fit for the windows in which they’d been installed and so had a tendency to fall down out of their brackets when I tried to raise or lower them, and replaced them with curtains, which I can just open or close.

Anyway. This is all to say that I let my life become a mess, physically, and I’m in the process of straightening it out. At the peak of my bedroom clearing, I was off of Twitter completely — the need to get my space in order wasn’t the reason I took that break, but boy did it help me accomplish my goals.

When I decided to take the Twitter break, my thought was that I would alternate cleaning with writing and editing my fiction. I had a NaNoWriMo project to whip into shape, and stories I wanted to write. But I discovered something: when you’re cleaning up a mess that is that bad, and you don’t have a lot of space to work with, and you have to make decisions about how to even dispose of the stuff you’re getting rid of and where to put it until you have a chance to, and you have to figure out how to work with what you’ve got and what needs replacing, you wind up doing a lot of creative thinking just to get the job done.

So I didn’t have any creative energy for writing. I’d sit down and I’d open my writing program, and I’d find that I could journal my thoughts, which was useful. It kept me writing something every day. And it helped me process my feelings, and make decisions, and plan out what I was going to do next.

I wrote about 10,000 words every day of my Twitter break. All journaling.

Somewhere in there is where I decided I’m going to start blogging again.

Anyway, I worked for about a week and a half solidly on my bedroom, and at the end of it, it was completely transformed. It was satisfying but also unsustainable. It’s not that I couldn’t keep going like that and power through the rest of my bedroom stuff (which at that point included things like the inside of the closet, which is now finished, and inside some other storage furniture, which is still ongoing) and then the office, it’s that I would be trading one set of addictive behavior for another, and while re-ordering my life is work it doesn’t pay the bills. I’ve been spending and spending money all December and not really making any in return.

So January’s going to be more like business as usual, with cleaning mixed in. My goal for my office is going to have it transformed by the end of the month in a similar fashion to how I had my bedroom at the end of about a week, while also keeping up the bedroom. And also doing my thing on Twitter, as that’s what pays the bills.

Once my office is useable and presentable, I’ll start seeing what I can’t improve around the rest of the house. I’ve already got a couple of things to try to get the bathrooms in a better ongoing condition. This is an old house with a lot of retrofits and a lot of decisions for how to handle problems that we kind of inherited that I think we can improve on.

Anyway, that’s what’s been going on with me, why I haven’t been as active on Twitter in the past month and a big part of why I’ve just been more and more closed off in general over the past few years. Things in my life had been getting worse and my response was to ignore my actual physical surroundings which just made other things in my life worse.

I’m getting a handle on things again, though. Bit by bit, I’m getting a handle on them.