Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Robots with the Ability to Power Their Own Movements

New Scientist Breaking News – Methanol-powered artificial muscles start to flex

Notable quote:

bq. “One day you could find yourself sitting in a bar next to a humanoid robot, who is taking a shot of vodka to give himself the energy to go to work,” jokes Ray Baughman, a nanotechnologist at the University of Texas at Dallas, US.

Oh, I think this might just serve as good fodder for a sci-fi milieu element. I like!

Currently Gaming

I find myself in the ‘predicament’ where I am playing way too many different games right now. On the down side, sometimes it’s hard to decide which game to play. On the up side, I have plenty of variety and if I’m not in the mood for one game, I have several others to choose from. I’m finding that I am increasingly drawn toward games with story, a far cry from the days of Pong and Super Mario Brothers. The reviews below are only partial reviews, since every single one is a game in progress currently.

Advent Rising for Xbox “Advent Rising”:http://www.adventtrilogy.com is the first in a trilogy under development. The game developers signed SF&F author Orson Scott Card onto the project to help develop both the story and the dialogue, and you can certainly see his imprint in various places (e.g. FTL(faster-than-light) communication, the ansible).

The storyline itself is captivating. Humanity is on the brink of total annihilation. A race of aliens who call themselves the Seekers have travelled the universe under the guise of peace in search of all human colonies. The Seekers see themselves as the most advanced race in the universe, and they want to keep it that way. However, certain religious prophecies have spoken of another race, humans, that will rise to a higher evolutionary plane, taking their place at the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder. So, the Seekers are systematically hunting down and destroying all humans they find.

In Advent Rising you play the part of Gideon Wyeth, a human pilot who is fated to become the first human to trascend, acquiring the power to ultimately rid the universe of the Seeker pestilence. You fight with him through many battles and revel in the acquisition of new strength and power. ((Gideon acquires powers like Lift, Aeon Pulse, Surge, and Negate)) The story drives forward at a breakneck pace, leaving hardly enough time to catch your breath. It is a pleasure to play a game that has a great plot. The dialogue and voiceacting is excellent. Gideon even has the ability to fire at two targets at once, if you switch back and forth between very quickly.

There are, however, a handful of downsides to the game. Some of the forward movement in the story, particularly at the beginning, is a little bit rushed. It is almost as if the writers simply want to get you to ‘the good stuff’ and so hurry past some of the key development points. The mechanics are also a little bit clunky, with the auto-targetting system forcing to look somewhere that may not be in the direction you want to go. ((Though, once you get used to the system, it gets much easier to handle.)) Advent Rising also attempts to follow in “Halo’s”:http://www.bungie.net footsteps by rendering the gameplay and cutscene graphics as you go. This sometimes causes the game to slow down and stutter, an annoyance at the least and a fatal hindrace at the worst.

On a scale of 5, I give the story a 4.5 and the gameplay mechanics a 3.5. If you love science fiction and video games, I recommend it.

Burnout 3 Ok, so I don’t go exclusively for the story-driven video games. Sometimes it’s just fun to get a fast-paced game to play purely for the fun of it. In “Burnout 3”:http://www.ea.com/official/burnout/burnout3/us/home.jsp your only mission is to win as many races as possible and take out as many opponents as you can. The more gold medals you win, the more cars you earn. Races span the USA, Europe, and the Far East.

The more opponents you crash, the more cars you earn. The more points you acquire, the more cars you earn. Get the picture? It’s high-speed, high-action, and high-intensity paired with a diverse soundtrack. As the driver you get to race everything from coupes to muscle cars to circuit racers to semi trucks. If you want quick, mindless action that tests your reflexes, then Burnout 3 is the game for you.

On a scale of 5, I rate Burnout 3 as a solid 4.5 for both fun and mechanics.

Kingdom Hearts A video game that features “Disney”:http://disney.go.com/home/today/index.html characters. A kids’ game, you think, right? Not so. “Kingdom Hearts”:http://www.kingdom-hearts.com/language.html has quickly become one of my favorite games.

Someone is unlocking the doors between worlds, causing each world to blink out of existence, one by one. It is up to Sora, as the wielder of the Keyblade, to figure out why as he searches for his friends Riku and Kairi. He teams up with Donald and Goofy as they search through numerous worlds to solve these riddles, meeting dozens of familiar Disney faces along the way. The voiceactors feature many of the same people who were cast in the original films.

The mechanics of the game are very simple to learn and use, and the story so far has been first-rate. Sora has been exiled from his island home and thrust into the heart of the action as the Keyblade has chosen him to be its master. Now, Sora must track down the keyholds on each world and lock them to prevent their total destruction. He makes many friends and enemies along the way to discovering the secrets of these strange circumstances.

Disney and Squaresoft have created a believeable world where Disney and Final Fantasy characters can co-exist. I am looking forward to seeing how this chapter ends and where Kingdom Hearts 2 (scheduled for distribution at the end of this month) picks up.

On a scale of 5, I rate the story a 5 and the mechanics a 4.5.

The Legend of Dragoon This is a bit of a blast from the past. “The Legend of Dragoon”:http://www.rpgdreamer.com/lod/ is one of my favorite PSOne games. It was developed by the same people who brought us the Final Fantasy series. The story follows Dart as he strives to save the world from ultimate destruction. Along the way, he discovers his fate to become one of the legendary Dragoon, humans chosen to wield the power of the dragon in the fight against evil. He pairs up with six others, all who become Dragoon along the way, and together they move inexorably toward the final confrontation.

One of the things that I most love about this game is the ability affect the battle _during_ the actual attack sequences. Dragoon is built around the turn-based style of gameplay that the Final Fantasy series is famous for. Your character comes up, you select the action for him (or her) to perform, and then sit back and watch as the character carries out that action. In Dragoon, you take an active part in helping reinforce each of your characters attacks by helping them complete their ‘Additions’. Each successful completion boosts the strength of the attack and unlocks more powerful additions.

The Legend of Dragoon is a strong game with a great story. The dialogue is a little stilted, as is typical of any Japanese game that has been translated into English. However, I think you will find that you can overlook the awkwardness and see a terrific game with an exciting story to drive it.

On a scale of 5, I rate the story at 4.5 and the mechanics at 4.5.

I have two other games currently in progress, “Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando”:http://www.us.playstation.com/content/ogs/scus-97268/site/ and “Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory”:http://www.splintercell.com, but I think I’ll call it quits here for now. I’ll likely review these two at a later date, after I have gotten a little further through them.

SF Writer’s Who Blog

Big on the Internet: SF writers who blog by Carol Pinchefsky – Intergalactic Medicine Show

Over at the “Intergalactic Medicine Show”:http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com, Carol Pinchefsky has written an interesting article about the number of science fiction writers who blog. And now that she mentions it, I _have_ noticed that a lot of the bloggers I’ve met along the way also seem to be aspiring writers of speculative fiction. Now, I realize that this will in no way be representative of the population as a whole, since my readership is far too small for such things, but this is the time for everyone (even those of you who simply lurk) to speak up.

Continue reading SF Writer’s Who Blog

What We Don’t Know…

Random thought that’s probably an obvious ‘duh!’ statement – the fact that we don’t know nearly everything there is to know about science is the very thing that allows us to write science fiction literature. Pretty obvious statement, I know, but it did occur to me that if we knew everything there was to know about science, about the universe and all its workings, we probably wouldn’t have much left to write about that would be all that interesting. Much of science fiction is based upon what we know, but so much is speculation about what we don’t know. ((Hence, the reason that science fiction is lumped under the heading of ‘speculative fiction’.)) But then again, maybe we would still be able to create interesting science fiction works even if we _did_ know everything, simply because so many of the concepts and principles in science are so big and so awesome that they would continue to wow us, no matter how well we knew and understood them. It’s just that, with the passing of time, new ideas lose their novelty and become ideas that we take for granted. ((See, the automobile, communication technology, etc.))

Fantasy literature has a bit more of a free reign, of course. In fantasy writing we create entirely new worlds, where the rules can be just about anything we want them to be. The fundamentals are pretty hard and fast, of course – we’re required to have human beings in our stories, else we don’t have a common point of reference and cannot understand the principles and concepts contained therein because the landscape would be entirely and utterly alien. ((The same goes for scifi.)) But the rules of magic and power can come under whatever rules we, the writers, can come up with from our own heads. What we know or don’t know about the real world has little effect on what happens, or can happen, in our new world.

Then again, maybe science fiction can do this, too, though possibly at the risk of alienating every hardcore, hard-scifi aficionado on the face of the planet. The only real rule that scifi has to adhere to is that the story centers around some sort of technology that does not yet exist. ((Or one that could _never_ exist.)) Beyond that, it is the author’s choice what actual scientific knowledge the stories embraces, if the story centers on any such concepts at all. Either way, what we don’t know can only help us as authors of speculative fiction to create fantastic worlds where virtually anything is possible.


“The trials begin tomorrow.” The older man was leaning against the rail, watching as the waves slid past beneath the bow of the ship.

“I cannot wait. I’ll likely not sleep tonight,” the younger one replied. He stood a couple paces off, facing his elder. The water held no interest for him, such was the intensity of his reverie. His eyes held that distant look that bespoke visions of far-off things.

“You’d best try, Ciphero. The trials are not for the weak, as you well know, and those who lack sleep will find themselves at a distinct disadvantage.”

“Yes, of course, Elder Mast, you are right. Perhaps Lycil can draft a sleep serum for me if I have trouble. Her antidotes have always proven most helpful.”

“Be cautious, Ciphero. She, too, travels with us for the trials. You may find her less accommodating, and less trustworthy, now than you have in the past.”

The two were silent then, Ciphero now joining his teacher in gazing out across the endless sea. The brief silence was broken by a smallish voice.

“Excuse me, sirs.” Startled, Ciphero and Elder Mast spun to face the source of the voice and determine the identity of the intruder. It frightened both of them to see a young girl, obviously no more than eleven or twelve years of age, standing less than three feet away. The girl’s proximity to them was alarming in itself. Both masters of their craft, they had either become far too secure in these somewhat familiar surroundings, or this girl possessed a stealthy skill far beyond her years.

Elder Mast was the first to regain his composure. “And who might you be, little girl? I have never seen one so young as yourself on this ship before.”

“I am Rith,” she declared boldly, “and I have a question.”

“What is your question, Rith?” Ciphero asked. His heart was still pounding heavily in his chest, and he hoped his voice didn’t betray how unnerved the girl’s sudden appearance had made him.

“What are these trials you speak of?”

Elder Mast fixed her with a glare. “We do not joke about such things on this ship, young Rith! If you are here, then you know what the trials are. There is none who goes to the trials who does not volunteer to do so. It is impossible to attend any other way. To feign ignorance is a great disrespect and insult, both to the trials and to all who undergo them.”

Rith returned Elder Mast’s glare with a heat of her own. “But I am not a volunteer for the trials. I am here against my will.” The elder shifted as if to strike her. She felt her body grow tense, but she did not back away. “I was kidnapped,” she shot, as if defying either of these two men to contradict her.

Ciphero laid his hand on his companion’s shoulder in order to calm him. His eyes, though, never left the girl’s face. He could not believe what she had just said, yet her face begot no lie.

“You were-”

“Kidnapped. Yes.” Rith nodded once to emphasize her confidence.

Ciphero glanced at Elder Mast and was reassured to see that the worry displayed on his teacher’s face mirrored his own inner fear.

“Who was it that brought you here, Rith?” the older man asked.

She shook her head slightly. “I don’t know his name. He was very tall, skinny, and his bones stuck out from his skin.” She lifted her shirt slightly to reveal a darkening bruise on her side. She grinned, almost apologetically. “He had to carry me. I put up a fight.” Her bemused expression turned thoughtful. “And he wore a low, black hat with a wide brim.”

Ciphero turned to face his teacher. His voice was urgent, a hoarse whisper. “We cannot take her even to the captain, elder. He is the very reason she is here.”

Elder Mast responded, not bothering to conceal his voice. “I agree, Ciphero. You are right. Something is dangerously amiss. Things are changing, the magical barriers are breaking down, if someone can be brought aboard against their will, especially someone so young as Rith.” He turned to face the girl again. “I am afraid, Rith, that once someone has come aboard this ship, they are bound to remain. There will be no returning to your home until you have gone through the trials with the rest of the candidates.”

“But elder,” exclaimed Ciphero, “no one so young as she has ever gone through the trials, let alone survived them! Not even all who are here will survive, and we are all experts in our own trades.”

The older man’s face expressed the burden of sadness he felt, as he sighed, “There is no choice, Ciphero. The Maiden has laid out the law, and we are bound to abide by it. Let us just hope that this is the _only_ rule that is ‘broken’. Perhaps, once she is made aware of our young Rith, she will exempt her from competing.” His tone conveyed, however, that he did not believe his own words.

Elder Mast held his hand out to the girl. “Come, Rith. Our time has become very short, and you shall have need of such wisdom and guidance as I have if you are to have hope of facing what awaits – and survive.”


Per certain requests, I am going to post up the first chapter of a story I wrote a while back for a discussion forum. I used to play a CCG called “Warlord”:http://www.warlordccg.com but later had to quit, due to lack of local interest and lack of finances to support the game. I joined a discussion forum for the game called “The Temple of Lore”:http://www.temple-of-lore.com and was eventually promoted to moderator status for a section of the board called Anything, where all topics unrelated to the game land. One popular practice there is for people to write works of Warlord-like fiction as they hit ‘milestone posts’ (e.g. 1000 posts, etc.), with the Anything section appearing as a country in the world in which the Warlord events transpire. I wrote Chapter 1 of Fury when hit 1000 posts on the Temple.

Some of the events in the story are specific to the forum, as a way to keep it relevant to and fun for the other people who spend time on the forum. Also, the character names are actually screennames for people there, as you will see. DruidOverlord is my Temple identity and is one of the main characters in the story.

Anyway, here’s chapter 1. Enjoy!


Fury – Chapter 1

The forests of Anything lay in a preternatural stillness. The sun was high in the mid-morning sky, bathing the timberlands in a sweltering heat. An unnatural tension lay over the entire area, a sense of impending tragedy. The air held a thickness to it, making it seem as if every breath drawn might be the last. There had been no rain in this region for several weeks, yet not a sound could be heard for miles. It was as if the natural residents of the forest feared drawing attention to themselves, and in so doing sealing their doom.

Suddenly the silence was split by a bloodcurdling scream of pain and anguish that was abruptly cut off. A body writhed in the middle of a clearing, crawling with dozens of varieties of insects, worms, and other creatures of the soil. Were it not for the human hand protruding from the twisted mass, it would have been impossible to determine the identity of the scavengers’ wrath.

DruidOverlord stood a few paces off from the now-silent victim, watching as the insect pestilence slowly devoured its prey, observing the way in which it crawled in and out of its mouth, nose, and ears, choking off the life of the wretch in a ritual of terror and agony. The victim was still struggling to escape its fate, though with less intensity and energy now as it began to succumb to the ruination of its body wrought by the blight called down by the druid to destroy it. A look of grim satisfaction was set on DruidOverlord’s face as he watched. Only one more death, he thought, and his revenge would be complete.

After a moment, he waved his hand and the earth beneath his victim split open, surging upward and swallowing the body before sealing itself again, leaving no sign of the death that had occurred there only moments before. Slowly, the forest around him began to come to life once again, but he paid it no notice, lost as he was in his own thoughts. Normally, he would have watched until the body had been reduced to a glistening skeleton, savoring each moment of his revenge. But instead of being sweet, his vengeance had become bitter and unsatisfying.

His two-year campaign of blood and terror had brought him to this place, a penultimate stop on a mission of vengeance. Everything that he loved and had held dear had been stripped from him in a period of 36 hours by an organization of schemers and connivers that, until then, had operated in complete obscurity. They had destroyed his home and sullied his name and reputation, making him an outcast among his people. But most importantly, and most painful to his memory, they had slaughtered his family before disappearing again into oblivion. Since that time, he had hunted the culprits down, unearthing a secret society far beyond what he had expected. It had taken a great deal of time, but he had discovered the identity of each and every member of the organization and had made them pay for their crimes in pain and blood.

His anger and seething hatred had carried him through each kill, fueling his imagination as he devised horrific deaths for his enemies, energizing him in a way nothing else had ever been able. His rage had become such that even the earth trembled at his coming, and the denizens of Anything fled from before him.

His passion and determination for vengeance had flagged with each subsequent death, however. The passage of time and the fact that he was nearing the end of his campaign of bloodshed had taken some of the edge off his wrath. He was beginning to lose interest, no longer waiting around to watch his victims be reduced to dust, sometimes even questioning his motives, his desires. He felt as though the darkness of his soul was beginning to abate, and he wondered if it was even necessary to destroy the last of his enemies.

It suddenly occurred to him that in all this time he had never learned the reason why his enemies’ had risen against him. He had never even known they had existed, let alone done anything that might have incurred their wrath. It had, in fact, signaled their very demise by striking against him, when they could have continued to operate unchallenged had they simply left him alone. It puzzled him. Funny how he had never thought about it before now.

As DruidOverlord stood there lost in his reverie, puzzling over this new question, the glen was cast in shadow, the air to his right shimmered, and a shade appeared. DruidOverlord spun to face the shade as a blast of arctic air washed over him. The shade lifted his cowled head, its deathly eyes fixing on him, and DruidOverlord felt his blood turn to ice.

_You falter in your cause, dark one._ The shade’s voice echoed in DruidOverlord’s head.

“Who are you? What do you want?” DruidOverlord challenged, wariness reflecting in his eyes.

The shade ignored his questions. _Your soul belongs to the dark now, druid. There is no hope for your return. You hesitate without reason, your mission incomplete. The memories of your loved ones cannot be placed to rest until the last of your enemies is destroyed._

“What can you know my cause, shade? I know you not, and your is existence only barely tolerated in this plane,” the druid sneered, spitting that last with bitterness and contempt.

_I know what has been taken from you. I know the hatred that flows through you. It fuels your vengeance, and the energy that flows from it can be felt on the spirit plane, as well. Yes, druid, you are known. You are known, and you are watched with great interest. There are great plans for you, dark one._

“Who are you?” DruidOverlord demanded again. “Of what plans do you speak?”

The shade merely laughed, or at least that is what DruidOverlord thought he was hearing. The sound was like bones scraping together, an altogether unpleasant, otherworldly noise that made his skin crawl.

“I am no dark one, shade. I am simply an executor of justice.”

_Yours, then, is a dark justice. The pain you have inflicted on others is worthy of the most evil creatures. Consider this…_

At that, the shade launched a volley of mental images, visions, and hallucinations on DruidOverlord, causing him to stagger and fall. He relived all the torture and death he had visited upon his victims, witnessed anew the bloodshed, the agony, the horror. The immensity of it left him gasping.

After a moment the shade lowered its arms, and the visions ceased. It was a moment before DruidOverlord was able to speak again.

“It’s over shade,” he panted. “I have only one left to destroy, only one to visit pain and death upon, and then I am done. It is over, and I can rest.”

_It is not over, druid! It is never over!_

The shade launched another series of visions on DruidOverlord, this time displaying faces of others that were responsible for his pain. The mental assault went on for what seemed an eternity, a bombardment of images and sensations that threatened to overwhelm him. After a while, a madness began to creep in, and DruidOverlord saw that the conspiracy against him was total, that there was none he could trust. His rage erupted fresh and hot, and he could feel his magic flare to a burning point within him. He opened his eyes and looked at the shade.

“Enough!” A bolt of energy shot from his hands and engulfed the shade in reddish-white light. In seconds, the shade was reduced to ash and the assault on DruidOverlord’s mind ceased. He stood up, looking into the sky, and lifted his arms. Energy crackled at his fingertips, then shot into the air. The gathered clouds turned black, responding to his rage with their own, swirling down and lifting him from the ground to carry him away toward the heart of Anything.


Shed of his guise, in human form once more, the shade stood in the shadows of the forest, watching DruidOverlord depart. A triumphant smile was settled on his face. He continued to watch the broiling clouds speed away as another stepped up beside him.

“It begins then.”

“It was begun when we destroyed his life,” the shade replied. “This is simply the continuation of the plan.”

“He has grown powerful, more so than we expected.”

The shade’s smile turned grim. “Indeed. But that only serves us all the better. The destruction he will bring to Anything will be more complete, more total — and more devastating.”

The other nodded. “For them? Or for us?”

The shade looked at his companion finally. “Does it matter? We need only what he can bring. How he does it is irrelevant.”

The other glared. “Let us just hope that he does not learn of the tapestry of lies we have manufactured against him. If he ever learns that his life, his family, were destroyed for our own vanity, if he ever learns that we started all this just so we could wield him as a weapon…” He did not finish.

The shade looked back to the lightening sky. “Your fears are misplaced. He will not find out. The truth has been carefully concealed from him.”

They stood together in silence for a moment. The other broke the reticence.

“You forget his hesitancy. He is not as completely given over to the dark as you led him to believe. If he turns again, we will not be able to recover. Our weapon, our plan will be irretrievable.”

“It is true — he may yet rediscover his conscience.” The shade paused, considering, the thought clearly unpleasant to him. He nodded slightly to himself, the hint of a smile appearing on his face. “But it will not happen today. Today, Anything will bleed.”

© 2004 James P. Stitzel

New Worlds

When taking the first steps into your new world as a speculative writer, it’s often a good idea to ignore the first things you ‘see’. It’s all too easy to get caught in the Land of Clichés, where the environment in which your story takes places resembles the generic mold for your stereotypical science fiction or fantasy story. Your first ideas about what this world should look like are not necessarily your best, and so it is important to take a second look in order to create a world that is both interesting and unique.

In his book Characters & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card talks about how to create characters that are unique and rich. Part of this process involves taking an idea that might be common and giving it a good twist. Bring the idea in from an unexpected direction, giving it an element of surprise to the reader and thus making it more interesting to the story as a whole. For instance, in my “previous article”:http://open-dialogue.com/blog/?p=177, I wrote about a landscape of hot cinder cones. That immediately brings to mind volcanic activity, which was surely what I intended there. However, had I developed the scene further, you might have found that the volcanic activity, and hence the cones themselves were the product of the war, whose existence was implied by the debris in the volcanic field. The war could have been so devastating that it shook the earth’s balance and brought forth the its fury. Or the volcanic field could have been created by some advanced technology brought by the invaders themselves. Or twist it further, and it could have been created by the aboriginal inhabitants in order to keep the invaders out or even to cover their headquarters or subterranean cities. The possibilities are endless.

It’s a continual challenge to come up with new and fresh ideas in my writing. I am an infant in writing, comparatively speaking, and so twisting ideas to make them unique and new is still very much a challenge, but I hope that as I write more, the process will become second nature and that my stories will be more interesting and enjoyable.

Head In the Clouds

I’ve always had an active imagination (though this has not always been a good thing). As a kid I came up with all kinds of scenarios involving outer space, mythical creatures, superheroes, and far-off lands. And being the avid reader that I was, I only further fueled my imagination by reading just about any book I could get my hands on.

I grew up with TV shows like “Thundercats”:http://www.tv.com/thundercats/show/10078/summary.html&full_summary=1, “Voltron”:http://www.tv.com/voltron-defender-of-the-universe/show/9693/summary.html?q=Voltron, “Transformers”:http://www.tv.com/transformers/show/1880/summary.html?q=Transformers, “Go-Bots”:http://www.tv.com/go-bots/show/6932/summary.html?q=Go-Bots and “SilverHawks”:http://www.tv.com/silverhawks/show/7307/summary.html?q=Silverhawks. I loved the fantastic nature of these shows. I loved thinking about what it would be like to live in those universes, to be one of the characters, to have the abilities to do the sorts of things they did. I spent hours with my friends playing outside, pretending we were SilverHawks or that we could transform into jets and fly at top speed to rescue someone from danger.

If anything my imagination has only grown more active as I have gotten older. The discoveries of science have introduced new possibilities for what could be. I continue to devour science fiction and fantasy novels, where I can travel to other worlds, wield magic or laser weapons, enter a portal and step through time, or any of an endless variety of possibilities. Now, though, I want to add my part to the world of speculative fiction, and I plan to get back to my writing as soon as possible. I’m excited about having been able to submit my first short story to a SF&F magazine, though I fully expect it to get rejected. But it’s a first step at entering the world of speculative writing, and at the least I hope to gain some good experience and feedback. The list of ideas to write about has grown as long as my arm, and I can’t wait to see what stories fall from my head to my keyboard.

Perhaps one of the things I like best about speculative fiction, especially when it is well-done, is how these new and fantastic worlds, these characters who are so different yet so similar to us, can touch old ideas and issues and address them in new and fresh ways. Theology and philosophy are dressed in a new setting, but the issues are the same and must be handled in the same way. And being the theology/philosophy/technology geek that I am, it’s just the perfect blend of a few of the things I most enjoy.