I Want to be an Awesome Robot: Inspirations and Influences

Involvement in the indie RPG scene impressed on me the idea that there’s no shame at all in openly discussing your interests and inspirations. I want take some time to talk about the things that inspired I Want to be an Awesome Robot and instilled in me the kind of humor that makes the book work. Remembering, researching, and writing about these things turned out to be intensely nostalgic in some cases. Does everyone have works that influenced them when they were young, little treasures dug out of weird corners of pop culture? I didn’t expect this project to lead me to dig up quite so much of my own past. I ended up ordering new copies of a bunch of books I used to have too.

Ask Dr. Science

“Where does the other sock go when you unload the dryer? The answer is of course B. Demons take it.”

Way back when I was in elementary school my dad got an audio tape and then also a book by “Dr. Science,” a comedy character from Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater. It was first and foremost a radio show on NPR, but I never managed to actually catch it on the radio. Instead I listened to that tape over and over, sometimes even letting Dan Coffey’s voice lull me to sleep, and I read the book cover to cover more than once. Duck’s Breath seems to have disbanded apart from the occasional reunion, and Dr. Science is down to a WordPress blog . It was my first exposure to the kind of beautiful lies delivered with an air of unflappable authority that John Hodgman later perfected. Dan Coffey would explain, without any shred of doubt in his voice, how money is a kind of fungus, about the kind of protective clothing he wears to divide by zero, about how to create life in your own bathtub. There was also a single TV special, The Ask Dr. Science National Science Test , which someone put up on YouTube, presumably from a VHS tape. It’s exactly the kind of relic of my past that I wish were better preserved than it is. The local PBS and NPR stations (KTEH and KQED) loomed large over my childhood.


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Washington DC

I don’t do very much traveling, so when I do it’s kind of a big deal for me. In recent years I’ve averaged about one plane trip per year, and they’ve tended to be either for conventions or to visit my sister Rachel. My trip to Washington, D.C. was in the latter category. Her husband Chuck is an all-around awesome guy, and his IT job has a way of flinging him around the country every now and then. Before they were living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I got to visit them there twice and it was really amazing. When I got my 2011 tax return I decided to spend it on two things: a new TV and a trip to see Rachel. So, I got a 40″ Sony TV and plane tickets to D.C. It took a while to figure out what local stuff I wanted to do there, but I knew for sure I wanted to go see the Library of Congress, and I had ever since I first learned of its existence on Reading Rainbow.
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I Want to be an Awesome Robot

A while back I hit on the idea of putting together some weird comedy stuff about RPGs. This had a lot to do with the fact that I’ve been obsessed with John Hodgman and his trilogy of Complete World Knowledge, and I started writing a thing tentatively called “Beautiful Lies: An Untrue History of Role-Playing Games.” I had been thinking of making it into a series of blog posts and/or podcasts. On the other hand I also hit on the idea of doing a daily calendar type thing like Hodgman did in two of his books. Coming up with 365 things just about gaming was a pretty daunting task even if I allowed myself to make stuff up, so I ended up expanding the project to encompass just about anything I could convince myself to write about. The calendar became “Today in Geek History,” and I started working on sections about anime, Japan, food, conventions, and more. I also started writing some sections that are simple, honest memoir.

I haven’t settled on a title for the book yet. I was initially using “Yaruki Zero: The Book” as a placeholder, but it’s gotten to the point where it’s definitely much broader than my RPG blog. It’s a mix of parody, almanac, and memoir, and covers just about everything that interests me. Looking at other books in the “collection of comedy stuff” genre for title ideas isn’t all that much help, and the only thing I’ve got so far is something like, “I Want to be an Awesome Robot.” Then the cover could be a stock photo of a vintage toy robot.

The almanac aspect is pretty interesting by the way. I hadn’t thought to look at them for ideas before Hodgman mentioned that they were a major inspiration to him, but I’ve been looking at the Old Farmer’s Almanac and other books of trivia. These books feel like they come from another world, and yet they’re oddly charming. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is full of useful information on dates, weather, astronomy, gardening, etc., plus stories, recipes, and corny jokes. And while the contemporary almanacs are very well-researched and use legitimate meteorological data, the ads in them are for the weirdest fringe stuff: strange religious tracts, blatant snake oil, and psychic healers. I can’t help but imagine there are kids in rural areas who attended the FFA at school, and for whom the almanac was a window into a bigger world in the same way that Radio Shack and Bud Plant catalogs were for me. That also gave me some ideas for some new sections to add to the book, most notably one called “My Dumb Recipes.”

I’ve got about 40,000 words written already, though I want to get up to at least 60,000 and fill in several of the sections I started before the first draft is done. I also want to commission some artwork, and I’ll need some stock photos and layout and so forth. I’m thinking of self-publishing it when it’s done, but that’s a ways off anyway. It’s a very different kind of writing from what I’ve been doing so far. I’ve written comedy stories, and I’ve written non-fiction blog posts, but I’ve never really tried to blend the two. Delivering silly lies with a straight face is tremendously fun.

Over on my Tumblr I posted up some rough excerpts from the book, including several entries from the Today in Geek History calendar. I also put the list of 700 catgirl names up on the Neko Machi site. I’ll most likely be posting some more excerpts here as I make more progress, and I aspire to do a daily podcast of the calendar next year.

Image source: Josh McIntosh

Ufology

And apparently I’m still getting over the shock of having the new site up and running and going nuts posting stuff. Since the site is named “Studio UFO” I suppose I should do a post about the actual subject of UFOs. [1] By and large I’m a skeptic and a materialist. That doesn’t stop me from finding wonder in the world, but there’s plenty of wonder to be had without making shit up. Human beings have a tremendous capacity for acts that inspire me to hope, even if they’re at least as capable of evoking despair. I prefer to put the phenomenon of ufology in the former category as much as I can, despite the fact that I can’t take the actual truth claims seriously.

In a universe that contains, at a conservative estimate, 9 sextillion stars, it’s all but guaranteed that there’s intelligent life out there somewhere , but the observable universe is also 46 billion light years across. The idea that spacefaring aliens have visited us is not impossible, but certainly improbable. More importantly, I’ve yet to hear of an alien sighting that couldn’t be explained by the treacherous nature of the way the human brain processes things. Memories are a thing we construct rather than record, and the pattern-matching system that let early hominids spot predators before being eaten has a way of producing false positives. The kinds of false positives that lets you mistake a clump of leaves for a wolf that wants to eat you don’t interfere with your ability to survive, but the kind that let people see patterns in politicians and natural phenomena interfere with our ability to rationally understand the world.

None of which means I think UFO believers are bad people. I’m sure some of the things I think are true will turn out not to be, and I suspect that includes some of the stuff that helps me get through the day. UFO believers come in many varieties, but I think a lot of them are people who want something to give them hope and a way to make sense of the world. [2] A while back I read Gregory L. Reece’s book ” UFO Religion ,” [3] a skeptical but warm look at the many ways people relate to UFOs. Some people are just following what they think is the truth, and try to maintain a scientific approach. Others have founded religions, and I very strongly suspect that the founding of the likes of Raëlism wasn’t so different from that of Christianity and its ilk. The dividing line between cynicism and sincerity can be hard to see, but the people preaching about aliens seem to have by and large bypassed teachings of hellfire at the very least.
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Novel Writing

And now I will blather about some of the novels I’m trying to write. A lot of what I write has a tendency to come out as young adult fiction or something like Japanese light novels. I don’t know how to feel about that, but if nothing else it’s a genre with a definite market.

UFO Girl

UFO Girl is going to be a series of books about a teenage half-alien girl named Janet Smith. Specifically, she’s half-Altairan, and in the story the people of Altair look human apart from having metal antennas a la My Favorite Martian . In the first book, UFO Girl and the End of the World , she has to find a way to stop an asteroid from destroying the Earth. Along the way Janet and her mom run into the Greys, the Men in Black, the Ro-Man, a bunch of weird ufologists, the catgirls on the moon, and fiendish agents of Planet X.
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Getting Started

“Studio UFO” was originally supposed to be a label for me doing freelance translation work, but for a variety of reasons that didn’t really happen, and I’ve been leaving this domain with the same unused page for ages. The other day it occurred to me that with the web changing a bit I have a bunch of stuff that doesn’t quite have a proper home anymore. My RPG stuff has a good home in the form of my Yaruki Zero Games blog, but with LiveJournal all but dead among my social circles, DeviantArt shambling along with its own B.S., and avenues like Google+ and Twitter being geared towards shorter, less customizable stuff, I decided I needed a new web space of my own.

This is going to be kind of an eccentric “everything else” site, covering basically everything of mine that isn’t either RPG-related or able to fit in 140 characters. That’s going to include what personal stuff I’m willing to put online for everyone to see, my non-RPG writing, and maybe ill-advised musings on other stuff in real life. I’m going to be posting up stuff about, for example, the novels I’m working on, in much the same way as I post about RPGs I’m working on over on YKZ. Like my RPGs I really need to get my shit together and actually finish things, and like with RPGs self-publishing is looking more and more attractive. But, we’ll see.