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This isn’t even counting BAX, which would technically make this year’s begin in fucking February

There’s this thing called con season. It is mostly called that by people who make and sell things at conventions, which are warm-weather phenomena, beginning in March of each year and winding down in the autumn. I don’t currently sell things, but I find myself talking about it anyway, because con season has been the dictator of my travel plans for several years running.

There’s Gamestorm twenty minutes north of me, in Vancouver, Washington, and then there’s a local house-sized gathering called Nemocon in May. June sometimes has a Fabricated Realities in Olympia and always (I hope) has Go Play Northwest in Seattle. This year, for the first time, I am flying to Indianapolis to go to the nerd-gathering granddaddy, Gen Con. (It’s hard to explain exactly why I’m going in much the same way that it is hard to explain why Indianapolis holds a convention named for Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.) And then there’s PAX in September, and Geek Girl Con the month after that, unless I go to Indiecade too–and then at last we rest. Until it starts again.

It’s kind of grueling. I’m going to have to cut back in 2014: I want to travel more outside the US, and save money, and this shit devours that budget. But what do I cut? The answer would be easier if “what” didn’t so easily swap out for “whom.”

There are a lot of variations on the con circuit: some people do tech conferences, some people do sci-fi cons, some people do cultural gatherings or music festivals or films and documentaries. All these gatherings have a rationale for getting lots of people together at a specific time and place, but over time, I suspect, the rationale becomes just that. I used to go to gaming conventions to play as many games as I could fit into a weekend. Now I play games at gaming conventions because that’s what my friends are doing.

Weddings, funerals and cons. You don’t get together just to do the thing, you get together because the thing you do is the way to concentrate as many of these far-flung people as you can. Many of the people I love are locative: available in a specific place at at specific time and then too quickly dispersed. Jackson and Joe and Joe and Ben and Matthew and Chris and Elizabeth and John and Shannon and Paul and Tony and Daniel and Twyla and Andi and Ryan and Lily and Will and Lisa and everyone I’m forgetting and everyone I have yet to meet. We only get so many rounds of this, in the warm season of our lives, and it’s hard to think about missing any of them.

Friendships With Women

Last September (oh dear) I said this on twitter:

The most rewarding and important thing you can do in this life is to seek out, cultivate, and invest yourself in friendships with women.

I phrased that as a prescription, because I wanted to see how people would take to it, and also I’m kind of a dick. It was actually a description that felt intuitively true. I tried to explain myself a few times, and failed, and then let it go quiet, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I still stand by my statement; here is the best I can do to unpack it.

The structural integrity of the system in which I live depends on men reducing women to their perceived sexual value and women being set against each other to diffuse their strength against inequity. This is awful.

If you are a man, the friendships you build with women will break parts of this structure, and put something new and better in their place. If you are a woman, I believe the friendships you build with other women will help restore the power that is yours by right and birth. If you occupy a place elsewhere in gender, I suspect you will find both of the above are true.

I am speaking from my lived experience, about the things I’ve seen through the women I know. Those are far from the only things friendship offers, and this isn’t really meant to be a generalization to the set of all people, not least because I have never been a woman. What I know about the power of female friendship is the way I grew up: watching my mother build a community of support and affection with the women in her church and school, who together accomplished remarkable things. I’ve tried to replicate that at every stage in my life.

Here’s the selfish part: the women I know are amazing, and have made my life amazing through their wit, kindness, generosity and patience. When I’ve invested in those friendships, they have yielded incredible and unexpected rewards in the real world, beyond the mere fact of my improvement as a person.

I owe myself to Monica Willett, Karie Miller, Leigh-Anna Donithan Roman, Maria Barnes, Amanda Brasfield, Lisa Brown, Emily Anderson, Leonor Linares, Sumana Harihareswara, Holly Gramazio, Erika Moen, Zoe Trope, Alison Hanold, Elizabeth Sampat, Anne Bradley, and more I know I am forgetting. Look for the women who will be to you what they have been and are to me. You cannot anticipate what your life will become.

Sandbank Diner

For my 10,000th tweet I created the monster called RealBrendan. When I noticed that I was approaching 15,000, I wanted to do something along the same lines, if possibly a bit less splashy and horrifying. I’d been playing around with the “real name” field on my Twitter profile, disturbing a lot of people by changing it to Dank Nerd Basin (an all-too-accurate anagram of Brendan Adkins). When I went to visit New York last weekend—a great trip I should really write up here as well—Leonard, who was also graciously hosting me, helped me unlock this particular weird joke.

I’ve crowdsourced my name. If you mention @BrendanAdkins in a tweet, and if there are 20 or fewer characters in that tweet (ignoring URLs and usernames), and if those characters contain a B, R, E, D, A and two Ns, the new bot will pick it up and set my “real name” to that. It checks in ten times an hour, and it takes the most recent valid submission.

A lot of people were doing full anagrams or superset-anagrams yesterday, which were delightful—And Snark In Bed, Nard Skin Benda, Danken d-brains, Kind Banner Ads, BADSKINNY DICKKISSER—but you don’t have to work “Adkins” into it at all if you don’t want to. As of this writing, it’s “Brendan poops?!?” and I encourage you to make it anything else as soon as possible. (THANKS, ANNE.)

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.

Valence

This is probably my last Constellation Games post. Spoilers up through chapter 32, and hints about the ending.

Back in the mid-20 chapters, Ariel misdiagnoses Curic with ambivalence, a feared mental condition among the Farang… of ninety million years ago, and not exactly a concern to the unimaginably advanced Farang of the present day. Curic does not suffer from ambivalence, even if her crossselves operated at cross purposes. The sneaky thing about this is that of course Ariel was mistaken, he was taking medical advice from the late Cretaceous. The sneakier thing is that Curic doesn’t suffer from it, but everybody else does.

Somn is ambivalent about her whole place on the contact mission; she wasn’t expecting to find lifeforms, much less anyone she’d have to learn to talk to. She certainly wasn’t expecting her husband to hare off to another planet while she’s trying to hatch their kids. Jenny can’t decide whether she wants to make art or money, nuke Ariel or sleep in his bed. That’s the same Ariel who told one woman he loved her while he left the planet to chase another, and who’s trying to live in outer space and his old house from Texas at the same time. Bai’s ambivalence is stark: he goes to enormous effort to make his imaginary girlfriend a real person, and absolutely cannot handle it when his imaginary girlfriend starts acting like a real person. And said girlfriend herself…

Man, Dana. Because Constellation Games is written by Ariel, most of the narrative is about him feeling hard done by, but he’s got nothing on her. Smoke spins her off by jamming an Alien behavior model onto a mashup of ancient Farang cultural knowledge, a pubescent video game and Bai’s phone app save file. That save file is something to be reckoned with, actually—remember how she was driving the plot before she was even sapient?—but that’s still a pretty messy starting point from which to approximate human behavior. Add the fact that she’s an indentured servant: she gets paid for her translation work (and starts her job while two days old), but she has to live in a piece of paper in Bai’s pocket. No wonder she tried to dissolve Crispy Duck the second she was asked for business advice. Being able to multitask on phone calls isn’t the same as the freedom to leave.

That is, she can’t leave until Ariel fires her and Bai dumps her. Dana is left without a purpose or a friend, as the only being of her kind in existence, and she can’t even masturbate (the other half of her raison d’être) to feel better. That’s the kind of situation that induces suicidal depression in humans.

So how does this tie into ambivalence? Dana is a child of Smoke, and therefore fractal. She’s made of minds all the way down. Ariel’s interview with Her is the closest he sees to what’s going on inside Dana all the time: a mass of individuals adding up to something greater, with a collective voice but a lot of conflict underneath. Which Dana was the one placing that first phone call to Ariel, and which was the one simultaneously having sex with Bai? Which one tried to get them both to enter into a polyamorous relationship, and which one clearly sabotaged the whole thing? When she finally gets Ariel to agree to have sex with her on Ring City, she claims she has to hang up for a second. Which Dana calls back? Which Dana, in a subjective eternity of despair and loneliness, found the will to move forward?

Dana may not even know the answer. Constellation Games is a book about trying to deal with the strange loops in your head, all the minds that are bound to you: your crossselves. Both halves of Curic were trained from birth to deal with the person who lives in their body while they sleep, the Other that neither will ever truly meet. The other characters don’t get that training, and the best they can do is emulate the little plastic board that came with the Brain Embryo. You write down a message in a marker you can’t erase, and you hope the rest of you will see.

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

Story Hacks: Tenth in a Series

Did you know that when you describe something in terms of a color, you are also describing it in terms of symbolically? It’s true! Here are the many things that colors can represent in fiction.

  • Black: awesome death stuff, bad people, whores
  • Red: blood, bad people, whores
  • White: nonwhores (don’t overdo this)

That’s all! You can go home now.

Today’s Hack in a Nutshell: WHAT other colors

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.

Greenland

This is a Constellation Games post. Spoilers up through like chapter 23, I think. And a little one from later than that.

Friends, Greenland is a place where souls go to dry out
It is a vast and terrifying place of ice fields and tundra

—Andrew Bird, “Dear Old Greenland”

It’s a giant ice sheet punctuated with muddy volcanoes, it plunges into darkness for months at a time, and it has a deliberately deceptive name that imputes verdant happiness to a vast, empty, terrifying desert of cold. It’s a pretty good metaphor for divorce.

I thought the Greenland Treaty got mentioned pretty often in Part Two, but I just went digging around in the archives and I am wrong—it’s introduced only through one line of Leonard’s patented sidelong exposition in chapter 17, and not really elaborated on, except that it allows for exit and entry visas again and that it gets signed right after Ariel’s difficult meeting with Her. Leonard did give the game away a bit in his chapter 17 commentary by connecting Ariel’s flirtation with Tammy to the Constellation’s offering more technology to Earth. The exchange and the treaty represent a slight warming of relations between the UN and the Constellation after the whole “stealing Antarctica” incident, but things are still a bit chilly. Both sides are hurt and pissed, and the one who really suffers is the kid.

Ariel ends up with one room (a spartan thing without any of his clothes or toys) and one group of friends who live near the cool parent, and another back on Mother Earth, who gets full custody. He pouts about it, then throws himself into a project, up until the Constellation sneaks through a port to kidnap him for a frightening but exhilarating night of bugs and friends reunited and sexual pair bonding.

Then the BEA shows up to literally break his home.

For people born in the twenty or so years before I was, the gradual introduction of no-fault divorce throughout the US was a shattering redefinition of how families worked and failed and recombined. For people born in the twenty or so years after me, like Ariel, it became almost a passage rite: if you didn’t expect it to happen to your parents, you knew that it was at least a possibility for your friends’. Ariel’s parents are still together and happy, actually—probably a spoiler!—so to put him through an equivalent amount of emotional damage requires something at a planetary scale.

There’s this big, dark, horrible cold thing trying to destroy him, but Ariel’s just trying to make a video game about growing up. It’s actually an adaptation of a foreign game, commonly referred to as a port.

“You know how you make a port?” said Fowler. “You have to use a black hole as a lathe.”

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