The Top End


For my birthday this year I did something a little different. I flew to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory to teach school kids how to build Lego robots. A small group from my office was heading up and they were a person short. I’d had some related experience at an earlier job, and Darwin was on my shortlist of places to see, so I jumped at the opportunity (and then asked my wife, who kindly said yes).

The entire flight up I had my nose glued to the window. We didn’t quite go over the red centre, but we went awfully close. I finally got to see some red dirt! (#1 on my Aussie bucket list) The dessert is beautiful. Way more colourful than I’d thought it would be. Most of the colour seems to follow what must be seasonal waterways. There were also some stunning views where you could see a roadway down the middle of the landscape with dessert on one side, and grasslands on the other. I guess just having a concrete barrier was enough to break up the encroaching sand and let the new growth get started.

After landing in the city I had a chance to take a short trip around downtown. Its a sizable community by my standards, but feels very small. Most buildings are one or two stories tall, and the CBD is made up of small shop windows along quiet streets. It reminded me a lot of PG in terms of the feel of the city.

One other thing that stood out was the large indigenous population in the area. In particular in the city parks. I don’t know the community well enough to fairly describe them, but I can safely say that there were a lot of people hanging out in small circles or sleeping in the shade. While I definitely got the feeling that poverty and substance abuse was in play, I can’t say for sure if that was the case, or just my own bias from back home where that’s very definitely the case. On a few occasions I tried comparing what I was seeing with what I’ve seen before and was rebuked. This was something different.

One thing that I did think was weird was that I couldn’t make my way down to the water. I tried finding the beach but didn’t have any luck. When I got back to the hotel someone told me that there’s a very good reason for that: the beach is home to giant salt water crocodiles. They live in the ocean along the top of Australia, and Darwin was built in the middle of one of their natural habitats. One of the ladies I met told me that it felt like a cruel joke to be so close to beautiful beach, in a city that is 32-34° 360 days a year, and not be able to swim. To help out a bit,the city maintains several inland outdoor swimming pools that are freely available to locals looking to beat the heat.

That night we visited the Middle Markets, a good and stuff market that takes place along a safer stretch of beach. You still didn’t see anyone in the water but people did get a lot closer to the edge. The markets are the place to be on Thursday nights and thousands of people showed up in style (big caravans and deck chairs) to grab a bite and watch the sun set.

On our second day in the city we went to a nearby school to help Grade 5&6s learn about robots and programming. I won’t go into much detail other than to say that it was a very fun, and very rewarding day.

That evening my colleagues surprised me with a mini birthday celebration. I had this lovely pin, silly hats, dinner, wine and churros for dessert.

The third day was a bit of a strange one. I couldn’t do too much, as most of the tours ran at odds with my flight home. But there was one thing I could do that seemed really unique I ended up tagging along with my colleagues again as they drove an hour towards nowhere to visit a school in Bachelor, NT. This is a city of about 480 people, half of which come from the local indigenous community. They had a small group up there building much larger robots for a competition later in June. I. The short time that I was there I met with about a dozen different folk from northern Queensland and the northern territory. I also go to take explore the school grounds for a bit which were lovely. Tropical climates are totally foreign to me and just about square metre contains something cool to look at. Pics below. I joked with one of the guys at the school that even the toilets were amazing – after stopping in for a pit stop I spent the next five minutes admiring large butterflies, teeny lizards, exotic spiders and a bunch of other interesting critters.

We ended up very very close to Lichfield National Park, which is the home of those giant magnetic termite mounds. I didn’t see any of the giant mounds, but there were plenty smaller mounds on the local school grounds. It looks like they crop up at the base of a tree or thick shrub and then grow as the little guys feast. There were a few places on campus where the mound had got a few feet high and the associated tree had been cut short.

I think that by any Australians standards it was a pretty dismal trip. But I still get a big thrill every time I see something that’s not North American. Termite mounds, stubby palm trees, crocodile infested waters – it’s all amazing. Meeting some of the folk from the local indigenous community and sharing some stories was equally incredible. On top of that, working with the kids is always me sly rewarding. Nearly three classrooms joined us, and nearly every kid there (and a few of their teachers) had a blast.

Q&A with Brandon Sanderson

This week I was able to attend a Q&A with writer Brandon Sanderson, notable in his own right as an author, but especially interesting to fantasy fans as the man chosen to finish the Wheel of Time series (tl;dr) following Robert Jordan’s passing.

Over the hour, he answered a lot of interesting questions, but the two most compelling topics centered around his writing process when taking over from Robert Jordan, and his feelings regarding publishers and electronic publishing. I’m summarizing a lot here, but I thought the points were worth sharing.

On the topic of how to finish someone else’s work.

This was the big set of questions, and it was definitely cool to hear how someone goes through the process of writing the final portion of a very long, and very loved, fiction series.

He said a bunch of things, most of them intertwined, but I’ll try to separate out some of the key points. He started by noting that he had a very different writing method, style, and life experience from Robert Jordan, and therefore opted very early on that he would complete the story, but would not attempt to make it seamless with the previous books. Things like matching Jordan’s wording choices (eg. cobblestone vs paving stone) he threw right out the window, considering that it would be more effort to align than it was worth. He also specifically called out the differences in the battle scenes, pointing out that Jordan’s experience as a veteran gave him a very different perspective on the writing that Brandon didn’t share.

On the issue of methodology, he described himself as an ‘outline’ writer. Someone who creates an outline, then starts at the beginning and works his way through to the end. Whereas Robert Jordan was more of a ‘gardener’, or someone who gets and idea and then nurtures it through to completion. This meant that when he got the source material from Jordan’s widow (~200 pages all told), there were whole plot threads that had been completely written already, while other perspectives only had some rough notes sketched out. Fortunately, this played well into their mutual styles. Brandon took the notes and fit them into his outline model, marking the ‘Jordan’ chapters as essentially done (at first draft quality) and then started going through the process of filling in the blanks.

From his perspective, the story was well planned when he got it, but there was a lot of writing left to do. The actual writing part took him twice the effort of a normal book, because he had to do so much additional research, by way of going back through past work, to fact check and such. But, it sounded like the the general process wasn’t terribly different from normal writing once he’d got the outline done and finished fitting in Robert’s notes with his own.

On the topic of publishing, electronic and otherwise.

Brandon had earlier made a comment that he really enjoys eBooks. When asked what he would add to the world of eBooks to improve the industry / technology, his first answer was ‘nothing.’ He felt that a lot of the biggest problems had already been solved, and the most active topics weren’t that interesting to him. The ‘solved problems’ that he noted were:

  • The feeling of reading a book. People have had access to electronic content for a long time, but reading electronic content didn’t really take off until eInk solutions became widely available.
  • The size of a body of work. With print publishing, there’s a minimum, and a maximum page count that authors have to consider. Electronic publishing gets rid of both.
  • Distribution. Here, he touched on how it’s nice to have wide distribution channels, how it’s nice to be able to easily sell volumes of work (instead of individual titles) and how its cool to be able to support serialized work.

Whereas the problems that people were working on involved adding more interactive or multimedia components to books. Something he felt didn’t make sense in the context of written fiction. I think I agree – it reminds me a bit of the old encarta encyclopedias that included all kinds of cool movies and stuff. While that was fun, ultimately we went back to mostly written text and images.

After some further prompting, he did come up with something that he’d like to see: a good system for supporting third party annotations of written content, similar to directory commentary content on DVDs. This would be really cool for a lot of fiction nerds for sure.

On the topics of Publishing, self-publishing, and other financial issues.

The final things he spoke about were more monetary, and not linked to the technology so much. Like most people, he feels eBook costs should come down, and royalties to authors should come up. This was really interesting fodder for a lot of people, who started wondering ‘why not self publish?’ Brandon spent some time talking about the work that his publisher does (it was a lot), and how he’s very happy to outsource that labour to someone else. However, he did figure that the costs of outsourcing were perhaps a little off. I followed up with him afterwards and he gave an example that a large publishing house might offer 25% of net sales back to the author, where a small business would offer 50%. He figured that neither value was perfect, and would like to see it somewhere in between. I won’t put his suggested value here, but it really was a marginal increase over the lower of the two values.

I’ve had a lot of discussions around royalties and self-publishing with friends, but most of them aren’t making their livelihood from these activities. It was nice to hear some of these numbers from a someone who is, especially considering that it wasn’t just ‘I want more money!’  Even at his higher percent of net, if you also considered that he’d like to see the net cost fall by 10 or 20%, you could see that he wasn’t just asking for change for the sake of personal gain, but because he genuinely felt there were some financial imbalances given the nature of the industry today vs a few years ago.

Pandanggo Sa Ilaw and Filipino Christmas Dinner

Sarah and I were lucky enough to be invited to a Filipino Christmas party this past weekend, and oh my goodness the mountains of food were absolutely incredible. While I know very little about the Philippines in general, I’m certain that this is a place that never let’s you leave the table hungry.

Aside from the food, we got two glimpses into some more cultural events through traditional dances and games that went on throughout the afternoon. The most impressive dance by far was the Pandanggo Sa Ilaw — in which each dancer balances a candle in each hand and on top of their head. I’d heard about this dance from a co-worker (she does this in her spare time), but had never actually seen it done before.

After the dinner was done, the adults had set up a pinata-like game for the kids. Someone had created a kind of chandelier out of bamboo, and tied pieces of candy to it using small pieces of string. The chandelier was connected to a rope, which in turn was connected to a Filipino woman standing on a chair on the other side of the room.

The way the game ran, the lady would slowly let the chandelier drop from the ceiling and then pull it back to just above the reach of the pirana-children below.

When the chandelier first dropped, it was like the raptor feeding scene in Jurassic park. The kids went wild, and all grabbed candy with both hands at once. The lady in the corner struggled to regain control of the chandelier as it shook violently from side to side, but eventually it rose above the masses, and the lady let the kids have a quick break to unwrap their goodies before starting a second time. She also used this time to get a much firmer grip on the rope.

The second time, she was a little more cautious, but her opponents were a little wiser in their approach.  Instead of grabbing for the candy, they all jumped up and grabbed the chandelier itself. The combined weight of the kids managed to send the chandelier crashing to the ground – and the Filipino woman soaring through the air.

The kids, now covered in candy, had no idea that they had just introduced the other woman to the miracle of human flight. The woman, however, was not to be deterred. She dusted herself off, hung another chandelier from the roof, and kicked open a window so that she could dangle outside to give herself extra leverage. That was the last that we saw of that game, but I have no doubt that she gave the kids a good run for their money on the second round. That, or she was launched clear over the building and into the Seine.