Category Archives: Science & Technology

Hot Mess: Journey’s End

Putting together Hot Mess: speculative fiction about climate change was a challenge. I wrote two stories I’m extraordinarily proud of. I worked with four other writers, an illustrator and a graphic designer to publish the piece as both an e-book and a physical one.  The experience of releasing the anthology was emotionally and artistically rewarding.

That said, after a lot of thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that Hot Mess has reached the end of its journey.

It’s not that I think the threats posed by climate change are over – far from it, even if there was a historic climate agreement reached in Paris over the weekend. There’s still just as far to go, and it’s just as important now as it was four years ago when the anthology was published. Senator Bernie Sanders, my favorite prospective presidential nominee, has said repeatedly: climate change, more than even terrorism, is the single greatest threat to national security that the US faces.

This weekend’s agreement, which relies on governments around the world cutting their dependence on and use of fossil fuels significantly, is the first baby step towards that. With targets that are to be discussed and met every five years throughout this century, it’s a long-term plan for a long-term problem. Climate change didn’t just happen overnight, after all. Closer to home: Buffalo just smashed through a 116-year-old record because there hasn’t been snow yet. That’s right – earlier today, in Buffalo, New York, in the middle of December, I was walking around in a light jacket.

(And by the way, I’m sorry if I’m rambling a little – there were a lot of different and tangentily-related lines of thought that went into this decision, and putting together a coherent blog about it is harder than I thought it would be.)

When I first thought about taking Hot Mess down, something surprised me. I would have expected to feel a sense of sadness or dread, but instead I just felt…lighter.

Tangent: approximately one million years ago, when I was trying to decide where in England I was going to study for my junior year abroad, I had two choices: Kent, which was the program my university sponsored, and Middlesex University, in London – a program I’d applied to through another SUNY school. Each option has its appeal, and I couldn’t decide which to do. My mom gave me some advice that served me well then and has ever since: When you’re trying to make a decision and you have two choices, imagine you’ve chosen one or the other. Live with that for a few days. See how you feel. If it feels right, then do that. If not…move on to the next possibility. I wound up studying in London, and it was one of the best years of my life.

When I thought about taking down Hot Mess…it just felt right.

So…yeah. I’m not sure that it’s even that important that my thought process on this be clear to anyone else – I’m pretty sure that it’s not, so far, and I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg on the vast cloud of ideas that have led me here. But I do know that I at least wanted to give people a heads up, that Hot Mess: speculative fiction about climate change will be taken offline at the end of this year. I’ll migrate the reviews its received from Amazon and other sales venues to a page here on my site (just to make sure they’re not lost), and that will be that.

In other words, you’ve got about two weeks to decide how many copies you want to buy before this one goes away. Avoid disappointment. Order now. Information below. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

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Hot Mess: speculative fiction about climate change will go out of print in the new year; order your digital and print copies before December 31st, 2015.

Writer Duet: A Great (Free!) Solution for Screenwriting on a Chromebook

When I first got my Chromebook, one of the first things I wanted to do was find a screenwriting app that would let me write plays and screenplays as easily as Final Draft. (Final Draft, for my non-writer readers, is the industry standard for writing in either format.) While there were a few online environments that allowed you to write in screenplay format, they were a) expensive and b) unwieldy.

A quick refresher: because Chromebooks operate in an online, Linux-based environment, it’s difficult to find software that’s compatible with special formats. While most well-known screenwriting software has versions compatible with both Windows and Mac operating systems, so far there’s been very little in the way of creating specialized software for Chromebook. At one point I heard that Google was working to make any app available for their ultra-lite notebooks, but to date there doesn’t seem to have been much progress on that front.

Anyways. I’m working on a sitcom pilot, and one of the practical challenges I’ve had to work with is making my edits to the text. My Windows laptop, which is limping along with the help of both external mouse and keyboard, has my copy of Final Draft on it – but at this point, the program runs so slowly that it’s frustrating to use.

I printed out and edited my script the other day, and was dreading finding the time to break it down into manageable chunks to input the changes.

Enter this morning.

I decided it was worth taking another look for screenwriting software that was compatible with both Final Draft and Chromebooks this morning – after all, the software scene is constantly evolving – and after some searching, discovered two things:

  1. My initial Chromebook write-up is one of the first page of results on the topic of screenwriting on the platform (yay!) and
  2. There is now a workable – and highly functional – Final Draft alternative for writers who are familiar with how that software functions but want to write in an online (Chromebook-compatible!) format.
A blank template for screenplays on Writer Duet.

A blank template for screenplays on Writer Duet.

This alternative is called Writer Duet. And it’s unbelievably powerful, incredibly well-designed, and completely intuitive for anyone who’s already used to writing in Final Draft. It imports and exports to multiple standard screenwriting format, doesn’t require knowledge of markup or formatting, and best of all?

It’s FREE.

That’s right. FREE.

Sure, there’s a paid version (which, at $99 for a lifetime membership is a bargain) but so far the free version looks and feels just like writing in Final Draft.

This morning, while lying in bed icing my back, I was able to edit a 46-page script in a fraction of the time it would have taken on my laptop. There was no lag inputting or processing commands as the document got longer (which has been an issue in Final Draft), the formatting is highly intuitive (perhaps more so than FD), and the output is easily downloadable and back-up-able. Signing up took less than a minute. Imports of documents in .fdx were flawless (.pdf imports less so, but you shouldn’t be saving in-progress docs as .pdfs anyways). The program was so easy to use that I almost immediately recommended it to a friend of mine who’s taking his first shot at writing for the stage. (He was confused by it, but it took me a few tries to get used to FD, so I’m not counting that against Writer Duet at all.

If you’re interested in writing in stage or screen format, and don’t want to shell out $125+ for Final Draft, check out Writer Duet. If you’re on a Chromebook and despairing because you can’t find an elegant solution to the issue of formatting your stageplays or screenplays, check out Writer Duet.

I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

 

Please note, this is not a sponsored blog post, I am endorsing this program because it’s amazing and if you want to write in screenplay format for a Chromebook, it is far and away the best solution I’ve found to date.

Pro Tips: When Your Android Phone Dies

I should really make sure to put this in a protective case before I go travelling tomorrow, I thought, juggling two bags, my phone and a coffee cup while trying to open my car door. I had a busted-up Otterbox at home, but had never gotten around to replacing it, and was planning a trip the next day.

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Irony-hungry trickster god, you say?

Almost before I finished thinking it my phone leaped from my hands, bounced off the ground three times, and lay there. Face down. Like some irony-hungry trickster god had expressly decided to fuck with me. My phone (an LG G2, highly recommended) had taken some spills in the past, but a sinking feeling in my gut told me this time was different. That sinking feeling was right.

You know the rest of the story: shattered screens, insurance claims, phone replacement hassles, data backups, two-hour drives with only the radio to keep me company… But here are two tips that made the process WAY less painful and stress-inducing that it would have otherwise been, and some things I’m doing to make sure I’m covered in the future.

For the now:

  • Did you know Google lets you make voice calls for free in the US and Canada, straight from your gmail account? I didn’t. But holy cow. Without this function I’d have had to drive into work to make my insurance report. You’ll need to allow pop-ups on your gmail page, which you can do by clicking the little puzzle-piece looking icon that will appear in your URL bar. Not only was I able to call my insurance company, but by sorting through my google contacts via my Chromebook, I was able to reschedule a phone meeting from Skype to Google Hangouts, when I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to let the other party know what was going on.
  • Have phone insurance. Whether it’s the pain-in-the-neck version from Best Buy or insurance via a private provider (mine came as an option on my renter’s insurance), have phone insurance. With my renter’s insurance, the total cost was under $20, with a $50 deductible. At Best Buy, it costs something like $10/month, and they tend to take a few days to replace your critical external brain (well, I find it critical, maybe you’re not as tech-dependent as I am). Whichever way you do the math, it’s a better option than being hundred of dollars out of pocket for the replacement.

For the future:

  • Have a USB OTG (on-the-go) cable to hand. Without having pre-installed software onto my phone, this is the best option for unlocking and accessing my files. It allows you to connect a mouse to your phone via mini USB, and I’ve spent the last half hour looking to see whether I can get ahold of one at any local store. Not even the local Walmart (or any of the five Walmarts within driving distance) keep them in stock. Major fail, major annoyzballs. If you’re very clever and very handy, there are instructions on making your own with a soldering iron – or a lighter, or matches – but ten minutes futzing with teeny weeny copper wires made it clear that metalwork of any sort is really not my calling. Wound up ordering one from Amazon; even if I replace my phone before it arrives, at least this way I’ll be able to get back precious photos of the nieceling. Which brings me to:
  • For gods’ sake, BACK THAT SHIT UP. I used to have a direct upload from my camera to one of my cloud drives; when I moved to my new cell phone provider last year, I didn’t take the time to set up phone photo backups anywhere. DUMB. Just dumb.
  • Install a remote-access option on your phone. I’m hoping to get AirDroid set up once I get my hands that USB OTG cable; it lets you access your phone from a PC or Mac (and now has a web interface).
  • Consider rooting your phone. Apparently there are apps out there that now root your phone quickly and easily, as opposed to a few years ago when you had to have technical know-how to do it. Rooting your phone gives you more access and control over its software and accessing your data. Easier to do before the fact than after.
  • Buy a goddamn phone case that fits and works well and will protect the screen of my replacement phone in the future. Because, well, duh.

Hopefully, you’re less of a klutz than I am, and hopefully that means you’ll never ever ever have to go through this process. But if you do, hopefully the above will help you navigate the loss of your external brain more easily.

Malawi Needs Medicine Bottles

Early on in dealing with the back injury that laid me low last year, I realized there were going to be a good number of prescription medication bottles floating around my apartment. I couldn’t stand the idea of throwing them all away. Thinking of the sad state of American medical care, I thought, “There’s got to be some kind of art project in this.”

I thought my chance had come last Halloween, when my friend and I did a joint costume at a science-themed Halloween party. She was “old medicine” (Victorian dress and a bottle of “snake oil,” a.k.a. whisky) and I was “new medicine” (a fluorescent orange t-shirt with a billion empty prescription bottles hot-glued on) and the whole thing was pretty hilarious.

wpid-screenshot_2015-03-11-19-09-19.pngAfter the party, though, I still couldn’t bring myself to throw away all those little orange bottles. So I threw them in a storage container and figured, sooner or later I’d find the reason I was hanging onto them.

That reason turned up in my Facebook feed the other day. A friend posted a plea from a group called The Malawi Project, asking that people clean and donate their old medicine bottles to help provide safe and clean medication storage to the people of Malawi.

wpid-0314151851.jpgEarlier tonight, I started cleaning my old medicine bottles. It took two and a half hours, but  I boiled, scraped and cleaned each bottle  (the remnants of glue were particularly annoying). It wasn’t fast, but after a while I got into a rhythm, and at the end I had a full box of medicine bottles that I’m going to post out to the Malawi project this week.

wpid-0314152131.jpgI know a lot of people who take regular medication, and while it’s a little time consuming, this is such a great way to help others and keep plastic out of landfills. Set up your laptop, start up a show you enjoy, and presto – a few hours later, you’ll have done something to help others in a really concrete way. And if you do, leave a note below – and help spread the word!

Your Health, Your Advocacy: What I’ve Learned About Communicating With Doctors

Image by caroline_1, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

Image by caroline_1, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

Recently, a friend posted this piece about doctors who “came clean” regarding the state of their ability to interact with patients during the course of treatment. It confirmed a few things I’ve learned over the course of the last year, and while I’ve wanted to write something about this for a while, it’s the piece that pushed me over the edge.

For those who don’t want to read the full article above, I’ll summarize: doctors are overworked and exhausted, drowning in medical administrative work, and this affects their ability to take a holistic and thorough approach to patient care. Patients who advocate for themselves often find that they ultimately reach diagnoses their doctors might not originally have reached.

There are two prominent examples of this in my own life.

The first example in my life where advocating for myself proved critical in receiving a correct and complete diagnosis has to do with the back injury I suffered earlier this year. I say “back injury,” but as it turned out there was a second issue that my doctors initially missed. (And I’d like to say here that I am extremely impressed by the service and treatment I received from my doctors; they were empathetic, consummately professional and fantastically coordinated in their treatment plan, and I would recommend them without reservation to anyone in the Manhattan area who required an osteopath, pain management specialist, or physical therapist. Drop me a line if you need their information.)

Initially, it was clear that I had a back injury, and as the horrific pain (I’m talking a legitimate 9 on the pain chart, only because I wasn’t passing out) I experienced started to diminish with treatment, I was sure something else was wrong. There was a second source of pain, which hadn’t been clear from the start. I was shown a diagram that demonstrated how the pain could be connected to nerve issues in my back, and we attempted treatment to address that source (which helped, if only slightly). Finally, after shuffling between two doctors (different specialties within the same practice) insisting there was something wrong in my hip, I was sent for another scan. What did it reveal? Additional issues. With my hip. Had I not kept insisting something more had gone wrong, the second issue might not have been discovered or treated, and I would still be in a fantastic amount of pain every day instead of the dull ache that currently intrudes on my day to day life.

The second example is a little more detailed and a little more personal.

I’ve largely avoided posting at length about personal mental health issues on my blog; apparently this is the issue that pushes me over the edge in that regard. It’s that important to me that people understand the critical nature of advocating for their own treatment. So here goes.

I’ve battled depression and anxiety for many, many years, beginning in my mid-teens. I’ve been on and off so many medications that in recent years I’ve had to go back and check records to determine what I’d already tried, because for over fifteen years, nothing worked. Or rather, medications and herbal supplements might briefly take the “edge” off a battery of symptoms I won’t get into here, but crushing depression always came back, and the coping mechanisms I was able to use tended to be self-destructive and insufficient. I would push forward with various doctors and medications as much as I was able, in short spurts, then despair and retreat when it became clear that I’d just spent months trying out a new treatment option that was ultimately unhelpful.

Just over a year ago, that changed. I had finally found an excellent cognitive behavioral therapist, who had recommended me to an excellent psychiatrist, and was seeing both concurrently, but as the stress of the holiday season set in, my symptoms started becoming more and more pronounced. Frequent, severe panic attacks were the least upsetting of my symptoms, which (if you’ve ever had a panic attack, you’ll know) is really saying something.

Through conversations with friends whose mental health experiences sounded similar to mine, I decided to start tracking my mood with a simple chart: every day, I checked off a box that indicated whether I felt depressed, “elevated” (i.e. more energetic/focused/productive than usual) or neutral. I tracked what medications I was taking, how much sleep I was getting, my alcohol intake, whether I had panic attacks, and more. On a daily basis. For three months. And saw a pattern starting to emerge. And rather than looking like a straight line with a few dips during depressive episodes…it looked more like a series of hills and valleys. The valleys were deeper and the hills weren’t as pronounced, but they were there.

Armed with these charts, I went back to my psychiatrist and we started having a new conversation. We started looking at different types of disorders and categories of medications. I brought up treatments that other friends had mentioned, and in an interesting turn of events one medication that had helped them wound up being the same thing another family member took (for a different reason). My doctor agreed that we would try this new treatment option.

And unlike the antidepressants I’d taken on and off for over fifteen years, the new medication worked.

I don’t mean like, “took three months to build up then gave me moderate relief,” either. I mean, two weeks after I started titrating up this particular medication, I was already feeling better. Within a month I had cut down significantly on separate anti-anxiety medications. Two months in, when my back went out and I found myself lying in bed for the better part of four months (before I could undertake even limited/minimal physical activity), I was stunned at how well I was able to maintain a positive outlook (with obvious, justifiable, and normal bouts of self-pity and sadness).

I felt like myself again – the self I hadn’t seen much of and had been trying to get back since things started going south in my mid-teens. Coupled with regular CBT sessions, the new medication brought me back to a place of emotional equilibrium, of being able to step back from situations and consider things from a more objective viewpoint without flying off the handle or melting into an emotional puddle. I let go of my self-destructive, unhelpful “coping” mechanisms, and didn’t miss them.

And none of it would have happened if I hadn’t taken an active role in figuring out what was going on, and advocating for myself with a doctor who, while (again) extremely competent, would not have had the information she needed to help make an accurate and overlooked diagnosis. Furthermore, a few months in, when I was feeling kind of physically gross, a friend mentioned that the medication I’d started taking could result in depleted amounts of a necessary vitamin, and I went to my Primary Care Physician to request a blood test. It turned out my vitamin levels were low, and I started taking supplements. Probably not life-threatening, at least in the short term, but if I hadn’t sought out that information and brought it to my PCP’s attention, I wouldn’t have known – and after taking the vitamins for a short while, I again felt an improvement in my day-to-day physical activities.

Finally, a third example, from the life of a friend who has recently gone through a heartrending and difficult experience: in the aftermath of her ordeal, she had a gut feeling that something was still wrong, but nothing showed up until she insisted the doctors perform a specific scan. When they did? They uncovered an issue that could have put her life in danger further on down the line.

What I’ve learned from my experiences and those of the above friend and others is this: we are all the best advocate for our own health. We are the ones who, barring actual cases of hypochondria, know when something is wrong. (And even a hypochondriac knows something isn’t right, it’s just that they think it’s something physical instead of mental. The signpost is still present.) It is our responsibility to both communicate with doctors about our concerns in a firm and informed manner, and in a way that helps guide them towards correct diagnoses and effective treatments

This doesn’t mean running off to Google and arriving at the doctor’s office with stacks of printouts from WebMD. It doesn’t mean insisting “I have XXXXXX disease because such-and-such.” It does mean doing some basic research, talking to others, keeping records of our own fluctuating bodies and minds, being aware of our own “normal” and our own “abnormal,” and in some cases, leaving the care of one medical professional for the care of someone who will listen to what we have to say.

In my own experience, I found I received better responses and care when I brought facts to my doctors’ attention rather than pointing them in the direction of a specific diagnosis (or making suggestions of potential sources of discomfort, rather than end-of-line diagnoses), and this makes sense: by presenting my own “diagnosis” as fact, I would narrow the scope of what my doctor might look for. Walking into mental healthcare professional offices and repeating a diagnosis that I’d been given at age 17, for which no treatment had been effectively found, resulted in doctors looking for solutions to that problem. Walking in and saying, “I don’t feel well in X, Y and Z ways, and here is some raw data I’ve collected, what do you think?” resulted in a real dialogue about me and about my health, without (to as large a degree as possible) the baggage of what had turned out to be a years-long incorrect diagnosis.

It’s not always easy to speak up when you feel your doctor may have overlooked something, but if they’re a good doctor, they’ll be glad you did. If they’re not, or if they’re dismissive, or otherwise make you feel as if you’ve done something wrong by advocating for your own treatment? Then you know it’s time to look for a new doctor. Looking back, the doctor who had made the first incorrect diagnosis about my mental health disregarded the most important question I asked her, and while I can hardly blame my 17-year-old self for letting the question go, if I’d known more at that time in my life I would have looked for a second (and third, and fourth, and…) opinion.

If speaking up on your own behalf is not something you feel capable of doing, then bringing along a friend or relative who can advocate for you is another solution to this problem – but it still relies on knowing yourself, knowing your body and mind, and being willing to communicate with another person about your thoughts and feelings in an open and frank manner.

Have you had experiences where advocating for yourself with a medical professional resulted in learning that your gut was right when it came to your diagnosis? If so, and if you’re comfortable sharing, I’d be interested in hearing about it in the comments below.

Writing for Rain

A photo my friend's wife took of Lake Shasta, back in June.

A photo my friend’s wife took of Lake Shasta, back in June.

California’s in the middle of a drought. Did you know that? I knew it, in a weird, quasi-intellectual way, but I didn’t really connect with it until earlier today when I read an article about a family that literally cannot flush their toilet in the night without a bucket of water.

I was in NYC during Sandy and we had water through that entire miserable experience. (Not everybody did, but we – me and my roommate – did, so.) We could flush the toilet. It was far from pleasant, but I could heat water on my gas stove and play Little House on the Prairie or Downton Abbey or whatever, and wash my hair.

A few years ago, myself and some other writers contributed to a book called HOT MESS, and the only one of us to tackle the idea of water issues looked at it from a perspective of a drowning Venice – in other words, a place where too much water was the problem, rather than too little.

California is in the third year of a drought, folks. And I’m not talking LA or SF or any of the other major metropolitain centers, though they’ve certainly had their share of gross weather. I’m talking about families that can’t take a shit without filling their toilet with a bucket, first.

I grew up on the Great Lakes, so my water anxiety has always been about how the lakes might be exploited by people who had less access to water, and what that might mean for the Great Lakes region. I’d read about places like Las Vegas, or other Southwestern cities, and wonder why someone “out there” might think they had a right to go somewhere so inhospitable, create a city that needed more water than they had, and then turn around and deplete the resources of another part of the country just to sustain their unsustainable consumption.

Of course, now I realize this could be argued for almost any natural resource in almost any region on earth (Oil? Food? Lumber? Fish? Natural gas?) and more importantly, I realize it doesn’t really matter. I read this piece about water last week. Does it matter that the mother the article talks about asked her kids to take shorter showers? Does it matter that they didn’t?

Not really.

There’s nothing – I mean, NOTHING – that I know to suggest that might help the current situation in California. But my friend, who runs a farm, who’s had a couple bad years and whose situation could get a whole lot worse if the drought doesn’t break, asked that I pray, dance or write in hopes of getting them more water. I don’t pray, and my back situation is still too tenuous for me to be much of a dancer for social justice.

So I’ll write for water.

Between writing this blog and posting it, courts in Detroit ruled that residents there have no human right to free water. While I recognize that water access in cities must be paid for, willfully depriving human beings of a substance that is literally necessary to life seems to be a cruel solution that has no place in a country that professes to be concerned with human rights. Shutting off efficient delivery of water to individuals does not seem to me to be a reasonable reaction to individuals’ inability to pay for it.

SHORT FRICTIONS, Coming Up Shortly!

A robot I met some time ago, on the Upper East Side. Not in any of my stories. But doesn't he look dapper?

A robot I met some time ago, on the Upper East Side. Not in any of my stories. But doesn’t he look dapper?

For the last month or so, I’ve been receiving helpful comments from wonderful people who’ve taken time out of their lives to prepare for advance reviewing of SHORT FRICTIONS – my upcoming collection of short stories. Their assistance has been invaluable, and the book you’ll eventually read has already been made leagues better thanks to their thoughts and comments.

So when do you get to check out this fabulous new collection of stories about vampires, robots, evil corporations and more?

One thing’s for sure: it won’t be long, now!

I’ve met with the designer – the stylish Sarah Hartley (who was responsible for the gorgeous cover of HOT MESS) and she’s working on some frankly brilliant ideas for the SHORT FRICTIONS cover. I hope you’ll like it. I know I love what she’s thought up so far.

I really can’t wait to share this collection of shorts – and a play! – with all of you. Most have been written in the last few years, with one outlier that dates back to my college days. Some, you may have seen in other places in the past. Others are fresh and new and clean and excited to be allowed out into the world.

The e-version will likely debut in August on several platforms, shortly ahead of the print one, and don’t worry – I’ll keep you updated. Just enter your info into the subscription widget – upper right hand side of this blog entry to make sure you don’t miss the new release. Or give me your email address (I’ll never sell or share it), below: