This is not hand soap

Posted on: February 8th, 2018 by Nathan E. Lilly

People think in symbols but the symbols in our mind are not the actual objects themselves. That is to say: when you think of an apple, that apple is not real. This is the treachery of symbols. The symbols in our mind don’t always match the reality of an object. We think we know how to use an object based on the symbol in our mind that we apply to it.

This leads to encounters with objects like this:

We automatically interact with an object as if we know what the object is based on the symbols in our mind. It’s second nature.

This object is perfectly functional: push on the top; liquid squirts out. But good design isn’t just designing an item that functions. It’s designing for expectations. No matter how well designed a widget may be, people expect certain things in certain contexts. They expect certain interactions to produce certain results.

The Joshua Tree

Posted on: January 23rd, 2018 by Nathan E. Lilly

As preparation for launching Space Westerns magazine I began researching Western-genre fiction. I wanted to be familiar with the tropes, plots, themes, stock characters of a Western so I’d recognize them in a Space Western story. So I read John G. Cawelti’s The Six-gun Mystique, and David Mogen’s Wilderness Visions, and Jane Tompkins’ West of Everything, and Matt Braun’s How to Write Western Novels. Now when I watch Star Trek, I don’t just see colonists and Starfleet and Klingons; I see homesteaders and the U.S. Cavalry and the Mexican Army. When I watch Star Wars I don’t see Han Solo and Chewbacca and Boba Fett; I see The Lone Ranger and Tonto and The Man with No Name. It dawned on me: this is just another example of designer Robin Williams’ The Joshua Tree Principle:

Many years ago I received a tree identification book for Christmas. I was at my parents’ home, and after all the gifts had been opened I decided to go out and identify the trees in the neighborhood. Before I went out, I read through part of the book. The first tree in the book was the Joshua tree because it took only two clues to identify it. Now the Joshua tree is a really weird-looking tree and I looked at that picture and said to myself, “Oh, we don’t have that kind of tree in Northern California. That is a weird-looking tree. I would know if I saw that tree, and I’ve never seen one before.” So I took my book and went outside. My parents lived in a cul-de-sac of six homes. Four of those homes had Joshua trees in the front yard. I had lived in that house for thirteen years, and I had never seen a Joshua tree. I took a walk around the block, and there must have been a sale at the nursery when everyone was landscaping their new homes—at least 80 percent of the homes had Joshua trees in the front yards. And I had never seen one before! Once I was conscious of the tree, once I could name it, I saw it everywhere. Which is exactly my point. Once you can name something, you’re conscious of it. You have power over it. You own it. You’re in control.

I see “Joshua trees” everywhere now.

Neanderthal Art?

Posted on: January 17th, 2018 by Nathan E. Lilly

Neaderthals lived in Europe and parts of the Middle East approximately between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago. We’re discovering that they are more like modern humans than we previously thought they could be. How to Think Like a Neanderthal gives a good overview of what we currently know. Neanderthals were social, cooperative, family-oriented, planned ahead, and displayed mechanical skills. They made tools, wore clothes, used fire, and possessed some form of language.

The fact that they possessed language, no matter how simple it may have been, is interesting. Language is a symbolic communication system. In the strictest sense, a symbol is a (sometimes arbitrary) mark, sign, or sound that is understood to represent some other thing. If Neanderthals had language then they must have been capable of thinking in symbols.

They were capable of thinking in symbols, but did they create art? They certainly made artifacts. They made stone and composite tools; we have evidence of fire-making. We also have indications of artifacts that we can intuit no useful purpose for: lines carved in stone; lines incised in avian bone (raven’s wing with seven regularly spaced notches). We can’t say that these markings were symbolic, but we can say they were most definitely done purposefully.

We know that they gathered pigments (black manganese dioxide and red ochre), but we don’t know if it was for what might have been body art or for what may have been medicinal purposes. The evidence for painting is slight. One contender for a potential Neanderthal cave painting exists in Spain. It shows a series of mandorla shapes with lines drawn across them. These works are dated to the time and location where Neanderthals may have coexisted with early Modern Humans, so it may end up not being work by Neanderthals at all.

It’s still possible, it may even be likely, but we currently have no conclusive proof that Neanderthals created anything that modern Western culture would recognize as art.

Neanderthal art resources:

The Naming

Posted on: January 9th, 2018 by Nathan E. Lilly

It didn’t start with Ursula LeGuin, who says in The Wizard of Earthsea that discovering someone’s true name gives you power over them. Since ancient times people would have a secret name, known only to those closest to them. This lives on in our middle names, and every child knows they’re truly in trouble when their mother uses it. To the Ancient Egyptians, the name (ren) was a part of your very soul. When captured by the cyclops Poylphemus in the Ancient Greek epic, The Odyssey, Odysseus claimed his name was Outis (meaning “No one”). It is only after Polyphemus, deceived and blinded, learns Odysseus’ true name that he is able to curse him, and delay Odysseus’ return to Ithaca (yet again). Even in the bible, Adam gives names to all the animals and God gives him dominion over them.

And so it is in Art. The graphic designer Robin Williams in her book, The Non-designer’s Design Book tells us the story of her discovery of the joshua tree. The gist of it is this: until she learned of the tree by name, she never really saw it before. And she came to learn that joshua trees were planted extensively throughout her very own neighborhood. Until she learned their name, they didn’t exist.

The same is true for anything else. We typically draw things using symbols: tree, car, house. Using other symbols for the parts: eyes, nose, lips. From plants and animals, to anatomy, to machines. Once you name something you have a handle with which to grasp it. Look at drawing a spider…

A child’s first attempts at drawing a spider might look like a dot with some legs.

…and they learn that spiders have eight legs.

…that spiders have eyes.

…spiders have fangs.

…legs have joints.

…the body has two main parts, the cephalothorax and the abdomen, and all the legs attach to the cephalothorax.

…spiders have two smaller grasping legs, called pedipalps; and the fangs really have two parts: the chelicera and the fang.

…and so on, until you’ve learned enough about spiders that you can draw them 99% realistically. Until you can name, very nearly, all of their parts: pedical, coxa, trochanter, spinnerets, etc.

Repeat ad nauseam until you can draw the entire world.

But, you can’t know everything. You can’t know all the names.

2018 goals

Posted on: January 1st, 2018 by Nathan E. Lilly

It’s 2018. I’m alert and active again. Who knows how long it will last?

Here’s a written account of what I promised myself I’d attempt to get done this year…

By the end of 2018 I’d like to have:

  • Painted 50 paintings
  • Ran a cumulative 1000 miles
  • Written 50 blog posts (49!)
  • Posted 12 videos on YouTube
  • Created a portfolio of 12 graphic design works
  • Practiced the trumpet for 50 hours
  • Run a 5k race in under 24 minutes
  • Run a marathon in under 5 hours
  • Lifted 1000# in the big 3 lifts
  • Settled my remaining SF/F/H debts

Projects I’d like to complete this year:

  • Launch a new SF/F/H online magazine with an associated podcast
  • Edit and publish one anthology/collection
  • Create and publish a mobile app
  • Write and submit a technical article
  • Write a fiction story
  • Write one non-fiction book
  • Write a novel

    …and a number of other projects that seem to be either too presumptuous or too crazy to post about them yet.

    Will I get it all done in 2018? Probably not. If you accomplish all of your goals in a year then they probably weren’t big enough. Anything worth doing is worth overdoing!


    Posted on: August 30th, 2016 by Nathan E. Lilly

    I’m currently entertaining existential and nihilistic thoughts. Chalk it up to too many years of thinking too hard. I have a great family, great friends, great career, great coworkers. I’m a happy and optimistic nihilist. Digging up the past; looking forward. Trying not to hold myself back. 

    I don’t even know if I want to share my inner thoughts. There’s a certain strangeness in the process of unblocking yourself. I feel like I’m physically dragging my creative self out into the lime light. It doesn’t want to be there. I know it needs to be. That’s a coping device to deny pain and ward off vulnerability. Not that I’m in any great pain.

    I can’t say anything more than: the purpose of life is to be alive.

    So, as long as I can, I’m going to wake up every day; love my family; get some exercise; paint a little; and make some jokes. I’d do some dabbling, but I just don’t think I could stick with it.

    My father’s eulogy

    Posted on: August 30th, 2013 by Nathan E. Lilly

    My father—born August 30, 1948—passed away on January 12th, 2012 of complications due to lung cancer. This is the eulogy I wrote and read at his funeral.

    When your father dies, you sit down and think about what they say a father should be and what they say a father should do. There’s an unspoken measure that is held up to a man as a father. You think about what they say a father is supposed to do, and reflect on whether or not he did it. We didn’t play catch. He didn’t teach me to ride a bike. To tell the truth, I don’t think either one of us were athletically inclined. But he did so many other things…

    I remember sitting on his knee watching Tarzan and Abbot & Costello and Star Trek. He taught us to be brave and how to laugh and to be excited about the possibilities of the future. He taught us how to play chess. While we were younger—before we outpaced him in ability—he would play video games with us. That eventually led to him buying us our first real computer—a Commodore 64—and he was just as excited as us to be programming it. We spent hours writing programs in BASIC and saving them to a cassette drive (and eventually a 5¼" floppy disk). For Halloween one year we programmed an animation: a werewolf baring its fangs interspersed with random flashes of lightning that we displayed in our window on a television screen. This was in the 80s, when it was all but unheard of to do anything like that. We went apple picking; we went camping; he helped us with homework and class projects.

    You’re led to believe that being a good father just happens. But when you stop to think about it you realize: good doesn’t just happen. Good things take a lot of work. As a child, there’s so much your parents do that you’re completely unaware of. As a child, you’re only vaguely aware of mortgage payments and food bills and the effort of getting to and from work.

    It was the things that we often didn’t see directly, things that we really weren’t aware of—that when you stop to think about it and finally realize how much work it must have taken to pull off—it was these things that eventually made the most impact. When Christopher and Adam and I were in cub scouts the Cub Master stepped down. My father stepped up to fill that position. Our father spent countless hours in pack meetings and den meetings and committee meetings and planning and training. We didn’t see all of that preparation. What we saw was father & son camping trips, and trips to nature centers, and blue&gold banquets, and skits by the campfire. We only saw the tiniest bit of time that was the result of all that work. He’d hold pack meetings outside at local parks, and teach us about cooking outdoors, and the proper use of knives, and first aid and safety. Making an outdoor oven and baking muffins with freshly picked wild blueberries while camping is something I’ve shared with my own children.

    And I wonder how much more he did that I’m still not aware of. I’m absolutely sure that there’s so much more. My father’s children show only the tiniest part of the work that he did as a father: Nadine became a strong self-sufficient woman and mother; I went on to college and a career in Web Development; Christopher joined the armed forces and went on to repair medical equipment and form an army of his own; Adam is managing his own small business. I can only imagine the lifetime of work that I didn’t actually see that went into making all of those good things just happen.

    Science Fiction themed races that must be created

    Posted on: March 8th, 2012 by Nathan E. Lilly

    I ran at the Warrior Dash and Run For Your Lives and now I’m becoming obsessed with obstacle runs. Run For Your Lives really opened my eyes to their potential. After giving it some thought, here’s a list of geek themed athletic events that I don’t have the time to make happen but I would really like to run in:

    The Reaver Run

    “If we run, they’ll have to chase us. It’s their way.”

    You’d thought the Reavers ignored you, but they must have circled back… There’s nothing left to do now but run! Kick your engine into high gear, disable their traps, dodge their grapplers, avoid any Alliance entanglements, and do a crazy-ivan back to the Core Worlds before the Reavers can get you. Post-race refreshment: Mudder’s Milk!

    Race into Mordor

    “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”

    Attempt to cross the Misty Mountains, run through Khazad-dûm dodging goblins, take refuge in Lothlórien, travel down the River Anduin, run from the orcs sent by Sauron, evade Shelob in the tunnels of Cirith Ungol, and climb the Black Gate of Mordor to drop your ring into the Crack of Doom. A simply epic race, this might work well as a marathon although the expense of obstacles over a 26.2 mile course might make it cost prohibitive. Post-race refreshments: A beer so brown (that comes in pints).

    The Running of the Leaves

    “Despite its name, the leaves don’t do any of the actual running.”

    Bring your fall weather friends to this race to help the autumn leaves of Equestria fall (those lazy leaves). Start at the park, gallop through Whitetail Wood (make sure you look where you’re going), over the bridge past the waterfall, canter past the steep mountain path (don’t take a wrong turn here), back through the maple trees in the Whitetail Woods (look out for the sticky maple sap), and sprint to the finish back in the park. Can you win without the use of your wings? Post-race refreshments: Not sure, but there will be no fudge.

    Track to the Future

    “Of course we run. But for recreation. For fun.”

    Run from the Libyan terrorists around Twin Pines Mall. Avoid Biff and his gang. Race through the crowd at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. And finally, race past the clock tower at 88mph to generate the 1.21 gigawatts to get back to the finish line where you started—at Lone Pine Mall. Whatever you do, don’t interact with your past-selves, the results could be catastrophic. Post-race refreshments: a Tab or a Pepsi-free.

    Pokémon Dash

    “Rapidash escaped using Run Away.”

    Hold down the B button to take advantage of your Running Shoes. Run over hill and dale through the many different obstacles such as cobblestone, forests, beaches, water, swamp, and lava pools. Use the appropriate pokémon that you catch along the way to run on the easy path for certain obstacles. Post-race refreshments: Pokémon evolution shots.

    Escape from the Death Star

    “I’ve outrun Imperial starships. Not the local bulk cruisers mind you, I’m talking about the big Corellian ships now.”

    Many Bothans died to bring us the plans for this race. Sneak into bay 23-7, up through the detention level, rescue the princess in detention block A-A-23 (actually, have her rescue you), tromp through the trash compactor to discover incredible new smells, swing across the chasm to the adjacent the bridge, dodge storm-trooper blasters, avoid being struck down by Darth Vader as you finally exit the Death Star and jump to hyperspace. Extra points if you do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Post-race refreshments: Bantha milk.

    Mythos Marathon

    “There are memories of leaping and lurching over obstacles of every sort, with that torrent of wind and shrieking sound growing moment by moment, and seeming to curl and twist purposefully around me as it struck out wickedly from the spaces behind and beneath.”

    The Great Cthulhu, the Great Old Ones, the other Elder Gods, not to mention Shoggoths, Deep Ones, Elder Things… there are too many dangers to name. Just don’t stop running. Post-race refreshments: A sip from Lethean streams.

    Super Mario Parkour

    “Our princess is in another castle.”

    Save the Princess by racing from castle to castle through the Mushroom Kingdom overcoming obstacles such as vines, pipes, blocks, jumping boards, and flag poles. Defeat Goombas, Koopa Troopas, and Bowser’s other forces or lose one of your three lives. Collect power-ups and find bonuses and secret areas. Post-race refreshments: Nintendo Super Mario Bros. Power Up! Energy Drink (yes, this exists).

    Like I said, I don’t have the time to make these events actually happen, so if you do, please, take these ideas and… run with them.

    Introduction to running from zombies

    Posted on: January 25th, 2012 by Nathan E. Lilly

    At the request of “Tequila” Matt Black, our reluctant director of mischief: this is a post for Zombie Troopers of Pennsylvania members about how I got started running and about how to get into shape for Run For Your Lives.

    Matt says that he never runs because he’s not being chased… when the zombies come, he won’t have that excuse. It’s best to train now—they’ll eat the slow ones first.

    Don’t join the ranks of the undead: Consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program.

    First of all, this isn’t about losing weight, or fitting into the swimsuit this summer, or addressing your body image issues. This is about running from zombies…

    Getting started is the hardest part. When I first started running I decided to commit to running 15 minutes everyday on a treadmill at the YMCA. Between work and family it was an easy (and short) segment of time to commit to without being able to find a reason to talk myself out of it. It became second nature to drive straight to the YMCA after work, and run on a treadmill, without taking too much time out of my day. Eventually I began running longer, but getting into that 15 minute a day habit was key for me.

    I was never a runner when I was younger, so I started slow and worked up to running faster speeds within the same time limit. I didn’t know how fast I was supposed to be able to run. I didn’t even have the goal of running a 5k race when I started. When I finally did race, after a good 10 months of running on a treadmill, my first 5k was a small local race. I finished in 25 minutes (about 8 minutes per mile) and placed third in my age group. Running outside on the road was much different than running on a treadmill. I’d recommend trying some outdoor runs early in your training.

    If, like me, you’ve never run before, here’s a program to take you from the couch to running 5k (that’s 3.1 miles) in 9 weeks. I wish I had had this program when I had started running. You start by training for 20 to 30 minutes 3 times each week—alternating jogging for 1 minute with 1½ minutes of walking for 20 minutes. Eventually, over the next 9 weeks, you work your way up to running the full 5k distance (if you started now you could just about be ready for the Run For Your Lives event in Atlanta). Once you can run for a full 5k, then you can start working on cutting down the time it takes you to do it.

    If you think that you need expensive running shoes, well, you don’t. They’re overrated and some people even run barefoot. A simple low cost pair of gym shoes should suit your purposes. You’re likely to already have a pair.

    If you think you’ll need access to a treadmill, there are plenty of inexpensive options: many gyms are offering $20/month memberships (like Planet Fitness, who runs a limited time deal as low as $10/month). I spend more than that on video games. To save even more money, you could also check with your employer to see if they have an Employee Wellness Program and check with your health insurance to see if they offer discounts for gym memberships.

    So, just start running—no excuses. You can worry about refining your technique later. Don’t wait for warmer weather, or the beginning of next week, or next year’s resolution. Run on a treadmill; Run on the road; Run early in the morning; Run late at night (get some running safety lights). Most importantly: just get started.

    Running with zombies

    Posted on: January 21st, 2012 by Nathan E. Lilly

    I ran in the first ever zombie run—Run For Your Lives—on Saturday, October 22, 2011 outside of Baltimore, Maryland. It was a 5k obstacle run (much like Warrior Dash) with the added difficulty of “live” zombies on the field.

    Here’s my head-cam video of the run:

    My race time was 35:34.5 which they say was a 12:26/mile pace. It was a much better time than I had expected, especially since I had to pause so many times to dodge zombies and the hills were so steep on the second half of the course. I finished at #669 for the runners who survived and #1012 overall.

    Event runners tips for next year:

    The major issues all centered around the size of the crowd. I didn’t experience problems like these at Warrior Dash, so I’m chalking it up to inexperience and hoping that as they run more of these events they’ll go smoother.

    Parking, Busing, & Lines

    I was there early so getting into the parking area wasn’t a problem for me. I heard there was a very long line of cars waiting to get in a little later in the day. On my way out I got stuck in the mud. They’ve already addressed the parking situation for next year by moving the location.

    Because the wait for the buses was so long I’d recommend placing more porta-potties near the bus pick-up and before check-in.

    I had arrived and parked my car an hour before my run time, as they recommended on the site, but due to the long lines (and bus delays) I didn’t run until an hour after my allotted time. Luckily the event was flexible enough to allow for it. Next year I plan on arriving 3 hours before my run time.


    The shirt that I received was a nice shirt for running, but I was really expecting a commemorative t-shirt printed with the race logo, location, and date—the race medallion was very nice though. I guess I was a little spoiled by Warrior Dash, where they gave you a printed race shirt, a warrior hat, and a medal.


    For a first year event I think it ran fairly smoothly. The three different channels for the runners at the start of the race (appetizer, entree, and dessert) was an awesome idea. It allowed faster runners to choose a path in the beginning where they wouldn’t immediately get trapped behind very slow runners. The zombie makeup was phenomenal (watch the video to see for yourself).

    I didn’t stay for the Apocalypse party, but I plan on doing so when I run again in 2012. I also hope to start a petition to get a race scheduled in Pennsylvania. I definitely recommend giving this run a go. Visit the Run For Your Lives website to see if they’ve scheduled a race near you.

    Local Conventions

    Convention Finder:

    Search by Postal Code

    Find Conventions by Postal Code: