Monthly Archives: April 2015

Earth Day Gardens

One of the easiest things for anyone to do in terms of helping the environment is to desanitise their gardens. Having an entire yard of monoculture grass is not only boring, it’s close to being an ecological wasteland. If you spend a lot of time in your yard playing ball with your kids it could be a good thing, but mostly it’s just for aesthetics. You know what makes for better aesthetic? Butterflies and birds. Many people are moving towards having a wider variety of plants – and more native plants – in their yard, and it is having a beneficial effect. More native wildlife is returning to suburban areas which increases their range and gives them a better chance to avoid extinction. If you live in a flat (apartment block) it’s also easy to participate – just put a potplant with native flowers or vines on your balcony or windowsill; birds and pollinating insects can fly.

In our yard we have small places that we keep as grass so we can sit and play with the kids, we have places that we grow specific plants that we want, and other places that we leave wild (except for removing noxious weeds) to provide a habitat. I want to provide a brief testimony here of some of the cool things that came from this.

Pool 2 Pond: One of the things we did was stop trying to maintain our pool, and instead converted it into a pond. This involved not buying hundreds of dollars of toxic chemicals to dump into the water, and putting in lots of aquatic plants and fish. The kids love it – they have more fun playing in the pond than in the pool, because there’s more things to do. Adult visitors are more leery… Here is a photo of my son’s birthday party, and the kids doing an activity with the pond plants.

Exploring the Pond

Exploring the Pond

It’s a work in progress – we have more plants now, and are learning how the water level changes according to the season – but the thing that most excited me about this process was discovering that dragonflies start their lives as aquatic larvae called nymphs. They need ponds to reproduce, and bodies of uncontaminated water are hard to find near most human settlements. They very quickly colonised the pond.

Dragonfly larvae crawling out of the water to moult.

Dragonfly larvae crawling out of the water to moult.

I love seeing dragonflies zooming around the garden, and it was great seeing the nymphs climb out of the water to become the adult insect. Of course, the kids went insane, they thought it was the coolest thing they’d ever seen.

Leaving Weeds: A tree started growing out of the drainpipe of one of our levels, and I spend a couple of years trying to remove it so that it wouldn’t block the pipe or break the wall. Eventually I realised the pipe was blocked and the wall was solid, and I gave up trying to remove the plant. As it turned out, its growth was kept in check because it was quickly colonised by these little fellows.

This species loves this tree.

This species loves this tree.

Now, humans tend to have a love/hate relationship with Lepidoptera: We love butterflies and hate caterpillars, irrespective of the fact that they’re the same animal. Had there been hundreds of black caterpillars chomping on, for example, my basil, I would have been upset. But this was a tree that I didn’t particularly care about. So we and the kids got to watch the caterpillars chomping away, form a chrysalis, and then become butterflies to flutter around the garden and away across the land.

If you want to watch butteflies, you have to feed caterpillars.

If you want to watch butteflies, you have to feed caterpillars.

Setting aside a corner of your garden to let local plants grow will fill your garden with colour and wonder – not to mention give a boost to various pollinators. Plus things that are just cool, like this leaf insect below that colonised a plant we just left to grow…I don’t know what’s going on with the other insect there.

Big Leaf Insect with smaller friend (or prey)

Big Leaf Insect with smaller friend (or prey)

Enter the Tlacuache: Another cool thing is this dude, the tlacuache, which Americans call an opossum.

Marsupials on the move

Marsupials on the move

This is the only marsupial in North America; they expanded from South America when the Isthmus of Panama formed. A lot of people consider them pests, but just consider the fact that a little furry marsupial might come and visit your house every now and then…you don’t have to go to Australia! They’re nomadic and only live for a few years, and all we did to welcome the tlacuache was not have a dog and to have a space between a wall and a stone cliff where it can safely hang out. Then, after a few weeks, it moves on.

Arachnids with Vinegar: Finally, an honorable mention goes to the vinagrillo, which looks like a scorpion on steroids and with full plate armour. However, instead of a venomous sting they have a rod that lets it shoot vinegar. All they can do to humans is make the house smell of vinegar if they get scared. The vinegar is used to weaken the exoskeleton of the insects and other arachnids they eat…other arachnids like scorpions. That’s right, these fellows eat scorpions, those mean little beasties that can – and have – put my children into hospital in convulsions, because the scorpions can’t get their sting to penetrate the vinagrillo’s armour. So vinagrillo’s are always welcome in my house.

These are welcome to live in my house and eat all the scorpions.

These are welcome to live in my house and eat all the scorpions.

There are probably similar animals where you live, animals that look absolutely terrifying but in reality are harmless, and in fact eat all the things that actually can harm you. For example, in Australia there is the Huntsman spider, a giant hairy scary beast that has a habit of hanging above doors so you turn around and get a heart attack when you see them, but they’re not venomous and eat cockroaches and other spiders.

The Story-telling Genius of Fast and Furious 7

I saw Fast & Furious 7 on the weekend, and it’s one o the best movies I’ve ever seen in my whole life. I’m going to have to rewatch it several times and study it, because it’s one of the best examples of storytelling I’ve seen in ages. Off the top of my head:

It gave the viewer what they wanted. People like the Fast & Furious series for two reasons: Fast car chases and amazing fight scenes. Not every movie has fulfilled this, there were a couple that were very heavy in plot development and character development, and not in a good way (I’ll get to that in a point below). Director James Wan provided this to such an extent that Bloomberg showed the film is mathematically the fastest and most furious in the entire franchise. The car chases were not only fast and dangerous and aggressive in a way that Cars Wars only dreamed of being, they put cars in the air. Completely unrealistic but also completely awesome, and nobody watches these movies for realism. The fight scenes were also amongst the best I’ve seen in western cinema. Normally fight scenes either use moves that would completely fail in a real fight, or have the combatants clearly not attacking/striking each other. In F&F7 we had western style fighting with moves that looked brutal and effective and which looked like they connected. Plus, the scenes were exciting to watch, which I normally only expect in Asian films. The lesson here is quite clear – if your fans like a movie because of particular aspects or features, any sequel should maintain and expand on those aspects and features rather than heading off into a completely new genre.

Efficient character exposition. There’s not a lot of character development in the Fast & Furious franchise, but people do remain in character. In F&F7 the motives of the characters were explained effectively and – most importantly – efficiently. Aside from Letty’s amnesia, each character gets 1-2 minutes max of back story and motive explanation, but which covers everything you need to know to explain their actions in the movie. That opening scene with Deckard Shaw was brilliant; his motives and his character demonstrated in the most effective manner imaginable, in mere minutes. A lot of stories try to flesh out their characters into “well-rounded individuals”, which is great if the story is all about people or relationships. However, if the story is about car races and fist-fights, you really only need to know why the characters are driving and throwing punches, everything else is extraneous and can be cut. You can go too far in the other direction and have characters doing random things for no discernible reason, of course, which is also bad. The key is efficiency in character exposition.

Fat-free plot development. In the same way characters and their motives were introduced efficiently, the plot of F&F7 was full on and lacked any extraneous filler. I was so excited by each development I didn’t notice the movie ran for two and a half hours. As an example I’ll use when Deckard Shaw showed up at the tower. How did he know where everyone would be? How did he get there? We don’t know, and we don’t really care. We don’t really need to know how he got his information and made his travel arrangements, all we need and want is to see him show up and cause mayhem for the protagonists.

Good meta ending. One of the stars, Paul Walker, died in a car crash during filming. The movie was finished using Walker’s brothers and some CGI. At the end of the movie Dom, when asked if he is going to say goodbye to Brian, replies “It’s never goodbye.” (Then there’s another scene which struck me as being put in to give Diesel a chance to farewell Walker). The words spoken by Dom work on a level that says that an actor’s body of work is their legacy, and in that sense they never leave us. That as long as we remember someone they are still with us. It also works on the meta-level that a movie can include an actor’s likeness even after that actor is dead – technology is reaching the stage where at no point will we have to say “this actor will be in no more movies”… which raises concerns about the legalities of using an actors likeness. I don’t think that applies to this movie, as such, but it will be relevant in the future.

My primary goal in writing is to have some finish reading my novel and feel about the book the way I feel about this movie.

Ex-Pat Writer’s Group

I want to join an online group of serious speculative fiction writers that support and critique one another with the aim of improving our writing and our readership.

I suspect there are others out there in situations similar to mine: I’m an Australian living in Mexico who is keen to write and publish SF&F stories. There is a local writing group in Spanish, which isn’t my language, and an English writing group that has some great people who know nothing about genre fiction, so can’t really help me.

So, a group of speculative fiction authors in a similar situation who are keen for a strong online collaborative group which can offer support to each other, challenge each other to improve and to write more, give genre-relevant criticism and suggestions, and perhaps collaborating in writing and/or publishing works.

There are a lot of different media we could use, and I don’t know which would be the best. Examples are blogs, Twitter, Facebook, forums, Skype, e-mail list, whatever works best for us.

If you’re interested please comment or message me on Twitter @Peculiarist

Indie ReCon Starts Tomorrow

Tomorrow the Indie ReCon online convention for independent authors begins; it goes for three days and is free, which is awesome for those of us starting out. It’s based in London, which is several hours ahead, but the presentations will all be available online so it just means I’ll miss the chance to ask questions live.

I’ll be using Twitter for the first time in several years (@Peculiarist) and am planning on attending as many sessions as possible.