CategoryConnections

“I won’t find out all the ingredients till I’m dead.”

My friend Sumana is pretty spry for a retired newspaper columnist. For years she was MC Masala, syndicated in several papers all over the SF Bay, even after she had left it for the other side of the country. I loved the column and read every installment, and I was delighted to see that she recently resurrected its archives on her personal site, nearly a decade after she began that phase of her career. (As befits her growing skillset and shifting direction, she wrote the CMS for it herself!)

From the beginning, the column showed off her skill (and taste) in comedy, cosmopolitan interest in religion, and clever use of parables from both ancient texts and her own life. I still use this aphorism about books and sandwiches to remind myself how to engage with people at social gatherings. I stole quite a few ideas for tiny stories from her, sometimes immediately, sometimes much later; she delivered insights about the nature of attachment that would influence me for years to come.

Over its run, she let her readers in on landmarks in her life in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way: her move from San Francisco to New York, the concurrent shift from one career to another, her wedding—and even personal connections to events on a larger scale, like the end of glasnost.

She was way ahead of the curve, of course, on relaxing vice laws and marriage equality. She showed up early to the fight against manspreading (and manxiety). She preceded me in getting over Aaron Sorkin, and I took way, way too long to come around to her Brian K. Vaughn fandom. And she made some predictions about herself that were wrong in amazing ways: she does, in fact, now give many thousands of dollars to charity, and one branch of her current unpaid public service uses skills she is still developing, and increasing all the time.

Reading back through these, I felt smug and flattered all over again that I got to make a subtle appearance here and there.

Her final column makes me well up with feeling. I first started following Sumana’s blog sometime in 2001, so right now it falls around the halfway mark in the timeline of our friendship. It’s only gained more meaning to me since the first time I read it—I’d never even listened to the Mountain Goats back then!* To this day, she posts regular entries stuffed with insights and links to explore, whereas I didn’t write a damn thing here for all of 2014. I am so fortunate that I was able to make a connection with her back then, and to have followed her with aspiration ever since.

It’s been almost nine years, Sumana; where are you from now?

I shouted, “Congratulations!” She responded, fist raised, “Perseverance!”

By now all this is past the point of relevance

But it needs to get written down anyway. On Saturday morning, September 7th, I woke up feeling grumpy about the way nerds had treated my friend Elizabeth and made the following series of ill-advised tweets.

If you see the numbers under those widgets you can see that they became the most far-reaching things I have ever written. I did not plan for that. They were tossed off, poorly thought out, and not particularly intended to stand in the record. This took a while to dawn on me, and when it did, I considered deleting them. I chose not to mostly because it wouldn’t undo anything, and because I should be held to account for my words.

I failed as an ally and a writer in several ways by writing what I did. The most significant and glaring is that I didn’t ask Elizabeth before posting them. That’s enormous. She and I had talked privately about the abuse she was getting, so it was on my mind, and I am so used to violent misogyny being directed at women who point out flaws in popular culture that I failed to consider her public stance about it. But even if she had discussed the hate more openly, I still should have asked. At the very least I should have reconsidered using her twitter handle, which made it even easier for a new wave of garbage to find her.

Also, as several people have pointed out, those three tweets are not exactly an iron syllogism. Elizabeth wrote a strongly worded post taking a strong stance against PAX; all I did was briefly express disappointment. I still think someone with a feminine name and icon would have received more abuse than I did for that tweet, but I certainly am not doing the kind of work Elizabeth does, and should not have tried to accord myself her stature.

There are other things about my phrasing with which one might well take issue, but those two are the most basic and important: I didn’t show my friend the respect she deserves. I can’t undo that, but the least I can do is point out for other people who want to be allies where I went wrong. I hope this helps someone else avoid a similar mistake in the future, especially if that someone is me.

As for the original matter of the controversy, I’ve been wrestling with it, but the simplest way to put it is that I take a version of Elizabeth’s view. I’m not going to PAX in 2014, I’m definitely not volunteering there, and I won’t be back unless and until they demonstrate change from the top down. It won’t be enough for PAX to come up to the standard of games conventions; from here on they’ll have to be twice as good as everyone else to make me consider attending.

I have dear friends in and around the Penny Arcade organization, many of whom work tirelessly to create safe space, and I’m not going to spurn you or your work for being involved with PAX. But I will say that attending any conference without a clear, detailed, rigorously enforced harassment policy is a bad idea. PAX rose to that standard in 2012, but when internal pressure from the volunteer corps relented this year, they failed again. That alone is a valid reason to stay away.

Some people can’t do that. PAX is a big part of how money works in games, and if the choice is between taking a stance and making your rent this year, I don’t have the moral authority to stand in judgment. I hope you’ve got other avenues for promotion too, though. I won’t see you there.

Peer to Peer

I worked for the Centre College IT department during my senior year. It was 2002. BitTorrent hadn’t reached critical mass yet, and the filescape was fragmented: finding music or software cracks meant risking your boot sector on Kazaa or Limewire or eMule, and I spent weeks cleaning malware off the computers of those who tried. Even so, I knew I had it easy. Just a couple years beforehand, IT had been dealing with Napster.

I had been part of the problem myself, then. Music is so ubiquitous now, from so many services, that it’s hard to remember when it only came in physical form. I only brought a couple dozen CDs with me to college; they, and what my friends would loan me, were all the music I could listen to. Then I downloaded this piece of software, and—while the network creaked and shuddered—my Dell became a boundless playground.

There was so much weird stuff out there, and so many obscene delights: old TV themes, rap skits, Prince B-sides, that wildly misattributed cover of “Gin and Juice.” Oh, also every song I’d ever wanted. Before the advent of decent portable MP3 players, we burned teetering stacks of sharpied CDs, or stuffed them into fat binders; we blew out car stereos and hijacked theater sound boards. Most people go through some kind of music epiphany in college, but I’ll never be able to separate my own from the opening floodgates of P2P distribution. It couldn’t last.

The courts didn’t really kill Napster: money did. I’m afraid for Twitter.

Twitter has to start making money. They’ve decided to make money via advertising. Faruk Ateş can explain why that’s a bad idea, both in selling one’s users and in stifling innovation. I wish I could just pay Twitter to let me keep posting from my third-party client and stop serving ads.

Yet I regret intensely paying to join app.net. Everything I love about Twitter comes from the fact that it’s free, anonymous, open and inclusive: my broke friends won’t be on app.net, nor will the horse books or identity thieves or psychotropic stumble-spelling genius joke poets. But will they be on Twitter? Or will Twitter fuck this up and commit suicide by cash?

It’s mindlessly easy to get music now: free if you want it, fast if you pay. But there’s no playground. The weird is dead. I have no doubt that we will retain the ability to type out 140-character sentences in any number of places for some time to come, and I know that the (vast, vast) bulk of those sentences are throwaways. But some of them are the best sentences we have yet made in English, and they can only exist in the atmosphere of Twitter, the alacrity and transience and irony and fierce, fleeting joy.

Right now, I can carry 281 people I love in my pocket, and pull them up whenever I need to learn something new. Twitter is how I talk to the world. I know this isn’t entirely healthy, but intoxication rarely is. For the second time in my life, I’m high on sharing, and I don’t want it to end.

The time, the distance and the price

This post contains spoilers for Constellation Games up through chapter 30, but it’s not really a Constellation Games post; it’s about Starslip, and contains spoilers for its ending.

I’ve connected the work of Kris Straub and Leonard Richardson before, and not just because they both wrote serialized stories that trade heavily on the importance of artwork in space, calling things into being with poetry, and a pure-thought immortal hivemind end-stage of all life protected by a group of mortals. I could do that thing where I try to assert that they both take place in the same fictional universe, but I’m not going to, in part because the idea of hopping around between infinite possible universes is kind of the point of Starslip.

But I do think they have one thing in common, across all of those:

The One True Pairing phenomenon is real, but it’s a curse. Any two parties so affected are the Keymaster and Gatekeeper of a door that opens into stark, existential horror.”

“Wherever there is a Memnon Vanderbeam and a Princess Jovia, the former seeks the latter. And they never get together. It just. Doesn’t. Happen.

The last Starslip is bittersweet, and a lovely conclusion to a long story. The subtext of the whole conclusion arc, though, is incredibly dark. Out of all infinity, there is exactly one timeline in which Vanderbeam saves Jovia, and he has to make enormous sacrifices to do so, including his own life. The comics we saw in Starslip depict that timeline, but what happens to them in the uncountable others? Uh, this kind of thing.

That’s what I think Jenny and Ariel understand when they kiss. Ariel sees the horror, the mind-destroying vastness of possibility in which they will always be apart. Jenny sees the hilarious impossibility that maybe this is the right timeline, and Copernicus is wrong, and they are the center of the universe after all.

I think that at the beginning, Starslip’s daily punchlines masked the weight it carried in its core, but it carried it all the same. The impact of that weight landing, seven years on, was incredible. It deserves assessment, and I hope to be able to give it some as it restarts its run from the beginning as (!) a syndicated comic. Re-read Starshift Crisis.

Mom’s boyfriend is named Jerry

And he’s a museum curator, and his house (two authentic log cabins that he took apart and reconstructed with a new stone building between them) is filled with historical artifacts and ephemera. It is NOT exactly filled with light, because log cabins are not known for their vast expanses of window, but I tried to get a picture of one such artifact anyway.

The A-Bomb And You

It’s a framed flier full of survival tips for when you are struck by an atomic bomb, obviously from the 50s or 60s. These are unbelievably helpful tips; what’s really tragic is that they were kept secret.

Four Survival Secrets

Allow me to transcribe:

  1. Try to get shielded. Get down in a basement if there is one. Caught in the open, take shelter alongside a building or in a ditch or gutter.
  2. Drop flat on ground or floor. Flatten out at base of wall or bottom of bank.
  3. Bury your face in your arms. Hide eyes in crook of elbow. That will protect face from burns, flying objects, temporary blindness.
  4. Don’t rush outside right after a bombing. Wait a few minutes after an air burst, at least an hour if the bomb explodes on the ground, to let the radiation die down.

I can’t figure out which words to emphasize for amazingness. Is it the admonition about “temporary blindness?” The advice to people caught in the open under a nuclear weapon, which is to go flop in a ditch for convenient body-collection? The idea that you must wait at least an hour for radiation to die down?

Anyway, the best part is the name of the establishment that brought this important, life-saving information to you, dear reader.

Grimm Funeral Home

Hacking xoJane

Important Technology People have been calling RSS a dead technology for a couple years now, but I read more content via feed than ever—292 subscriptions in Google Reader, at the moment. But because my use case doesn’t get as much wheelgrease as it used to, a lot of sites will just throw one sitewide megafeed into their <head> tag and call it done, rather than allowing users to subscribe to substreams. They do this even when their site software supports subfeeds just fine!

Take a blogazine like xoJane. It’s produced by women, and the writing there is smart and honest and very funny. I was introduced to it when my twitter idol Julieanne Smolinski became a contributing editor. But while I knew I wanted to read all her columns, the only autosubscribable feed on her author page is the firehose of ALL xoJane content. That would overrun my Reader, and it would be a pain to sort out Ms. Smolinski’s posts, which are the guaranteed gold I’m after.

Fortunately, for certain values of “fortunately,” xoJane is built on Drupal, which some geek decided should let you subscribe to anything anywhere forever. To get a feed of a given author’s content there, you can construct a URL like this:

http://www.xojane.com/rss?author=Firstname%20Lastname&title=Firstname’s%20Posts

And then paste that into the “subscribe” box in whatever reader you use. For instance, here’s a Julieanne Smolinski feed, and here’s one for Kate Conway, whom I have recently discovered is also great.

Update 2012-08-07: WELP, xoJane broke their individual author feeds. The next-best solution, I suppose, is to follow Kate and Julieanne on their twitters or their tumblrs.

It’s actually “Twitters Brendan”

When I was a kid I had asthma. Growing up largely fixed that, but I still got attacks when I went running in cold weather; since running is the only exercise I enjoy or have ever been good at, I got into the habit of slacking off as the weather got colder. In late fall, for many years, I’d slip into a comfortable lethargy, stop caring about what I ate or how much I moved, and gain a bunch of weight that I’d then try to work off in the spring.

After I started recognizing this pattern I wanted to change it. Because the only motivation I understand is self-mockery on the Internet, last September I made a new Twitter account, WinterBrendan. I’d post as him when I caught myself in moments of sloth, gluttony and self-loathing. He hasn’t actually written that much, which is a good thing! It kind of worked, and I ate a lot better and worked out more (aided by the fact that I figured out how to run without asthma, which deserves its own post).

But WinterBrendan was only the beginning.

Within two weeks of his appearance, SOMEONE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED created SpringBrendan, which is the worst thing that has ever happened. SpringBrendan is a machine gun of incredibly lewd jokes, which, well, fine, except all those jokes have my face on them and people instinctively believe I am writing them. The worst part is that he’s fucking hilarious. The only thing worse than people scolding you for coming up with horrible things is people praising you for coming up with horrible things when you did not, and indeed could not.

There are apparently people who still don’t believe I don’t write SpringBrendan. Look! Here! I AM NOT SPRINGBRENDAN. YOU CAN TELL BECAUSE HE IS FUNNY, AND LIKES HIMSELF.

Unfortunately everyone else likes him too. Around the time this was going on, I realized I was coming up on my ten thousandth tweet. Because my friends (and their friends, and total strangers) seemed to enjoy seeing my face plastered on any old garbage, I took a grumpy few hours and wrote my first Twitter client, RealBrendan. It was pretty simple: a text box that hooked up to my actual account and posted whatever you typed. My 9,999th tweet was a link to it, and my 10,000th was “Go.” Then I went to lunch with a friend.

When I got back I was in Twitter jail.

As soon as people realized it was legit, they had unleashed a hideous torrent of raw, anonymous Internet. I once thought of my followers as a carefully curated selection of clever, thoughtful people with taste; now I know better. RealBrendan only went silent when it hit the ceiling for allowable-tweets-per-hour, which turns out to be 128. I got a lot of texts along the lines of “are you okay???” and “WHAT ARE DOING, TURN OFF,” and one person even figured out how to send DMs as me. Exciting! (If you authorize the Exquisite Tweets app, you can read a complete archive of the horror.)

I revoked the app and was allowed back on Twitter the following morning. I did feel a certain sick fascination with what had happened the day before, so I tinkered with the machinery so that it would maintain a queue and post at a more reasonable rate, then hooked it up to its own new account. Once people figured out there was no more immediate gratification, the torrent dropped to a trickle, but now there’s this kind of anonymous group-fiction thing going and it’s kind of fun.

Because ideas are unkillable, there are other accounts as well, and once again I DO NOT CONTROL ANY OF THEM. Summer called them Brendan-shards, which prompted me to start thinking of them as my Horcruxes, because it would be awfully hard to track them all down and also each one represents a horrific murder. They are GrampaBrendan, JoelBrendan and BrendansMcdald, and I strongly encourage you not to follow any them. Or the other ones. Or the actual BrendanAdkins, really.

Please RT.

Then God hit me with a baguette

Remember when we talked about Gatekeeper? Thanks to Kickstarter and the mighty game white hole who is Jeremy Penner, you can actually play it now, right in your browser! I bet you can’t beat my score (56) (you can totally beat my score).

Arizonans

Governor Jan Brewer scolding President Obama with an upraised finger. She later complained of feeling threatened by him. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was ACTUALLY SHOT IN THE FACE, hugs him at the State of the Union.

I stole this juxtaposition from Racialicious.

The Social Network and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

They’re both stories about white guys sitting down and quietly talking. They also both made a tremendous impact on me: one by reminding me that I must yet reckon with Sorkin, the other by making me aware that le Carré is not just another popular novelist from before my time but an outright craftmaster.

There are other similarities. Everyone is glib, but in Sorkinland people use their flip lines to express their deepest feelings, whereas in le Carré glibness is a rigid fencing match of protocol that may mean nothing or everything. They’re also both stories about a dangerous little man who doesn’t understand women, and about betrayal. But now I’m stretching the parallels out for no particular reason. Le Carré doesn’t sound like Sorkin, he sounds like (he must have been an influence on) my favorite prose stylist, William Gibson.

I didn’t realize until I went back and read the foreword that much of the trade jargon in Tinker Tailor is pure invention, or at least pure extrapolation–a sort of nadsat projected into the past. Now, because language devours itself, some of it has become real jargon. Did you know that the OED can’t find any use of the word “mole” to describe an embedded double agent before le Carré? He doesn’t think he made it up, but then Gibson didn’t really invent “cyberspace” either.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a very good book and you should read it. Then we should go see the movie together.

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