An old travel diary, part 2

I begin to fear my hair will never be dry again.

Not because it rained – though it did rain, sort of, off and on for much of the afternoon, interspersing patches of wet with some extraordinarily lovely golden sunlight – but because Edinburgh is even on bright, sunny days sort of quietly damp; no amount of brushing is sufficient to tame the frizzy halo I acquired almost immediately upon stepping outside.

Ah well. There’s a lot to talk about today so I’d better get on it.

Breakfast was…well, I hesitate to say “the full English” for obvious reasons, but yes: the return of the English Breakfast that so haunted Mark during our walk in Cornwall that by the end of it I think he might’ve stabbed someone for a pancake. Still, time dulls all such things, and both of us tucked in rather happily. (We beat the Whitings to breakfast – quite a rarity! They must’ve been very tired indeed.)

Had a chance to talk a bit further with our landlady as well; she’s Hungarian. And there’s been a good bit more talk of the Brexit, as well, as a number of people are sounding a bit panicky over the result. (In the news, anyway; the actual local Scots are uniformly enraged to varying degrees.)

Anyway. Our first stop for today was Edinburgh Castle, at the top of the Royal Mile. Although it was early, the buskers were out in force; a young, hipsterish man made a puppet play the cello, and there was of course the ubiquitous bagpiper. (Something I forgot to mention yesterday: our time to first piper on day one was a whopping…two hours.)

The castle was relatively thronged with visitors today, and I heard a remarkably huge array of languages as we wandered through it. There’s an audio tour that guides you through the various buildings and exhibitions, and it’s surprisingly well-produced – also very informative. Lots of it is of course tangles of dates and times and military actions, but all the same I feel I came away with some highlights. A little cemetery for dogs – the beloved pets and mascots of a variety of regiments, officers, and governors. The remnants of a war prison, including some rooms hung with the hammocks the prisoners would have slept in and some spectacular ships and boxes made of bone and wooden scraps…and even some bone dies meant to be used to forge money, for the very enterprising captives.

A tiny but interesting museum devoted to the Royal Scots regiment, who I think I can say were some remarkably hardcore motherfuckers. The whole place was full of stories like “one of them fell at the Battle of Waterloo while carrying the regimental standard. A comrade tried to take the flag, couldn’t pry it from his grip, and eventually resorted to just carrying bearer and standard both. So impressed were the French by this act of gallantry that they withheld fire until both men were behind their allies’ line.”

There’s also rather a lot of fuss over a gentleman I’d never heard of named Charles Ewart, whose claim to fame is capturing the French standard at the Battle of Waterloo. (Literally, capturing the flag.) For this he’s earned himself a painting hung in the great hall at Edinburgh Castle, with its unusually well-preserved medieval hammer-beam ceiling and a built-in spy hole for the laird to keep an eye on his nobles.

It is rather easy to forget, living as I do in modern day Canada, exactly how heavy the emphasis once was on war and soldiering as intensely honorable, even honor-bound, but good lord is it impossible to escape in the UK. Edinburgh Castle contains a pretty remarkable reminder or two, the aforementioned museum included of course, but there’s also an extraordinary war memorial the size of a small cathedral, a really rather beautiful example of 20s/30s design which honors, of course, the men who died in “The Great War.” It is both sort of poetic to see, and also sort of tragic, knowing as I do that less than twenty years later another conflict along even grander lines would come along.

A huge block of green marble holds a silver casket containing a register of the honoured dead, with St. Michael above with his nets, and each panel of the walls of the place is elegantly inscribed with a variety of the war dead (chaplains, the naval men with “no grave but the sea,” etc.) above a bronze relief showing them in action. Below that, a “register of honor” – a list of names, bound in red leather on a lectern.

Also housed in Edinburgh Castle are the “Honours of Scotland” – the Crown Jewels. Yes, Scotland has its own and here they are, displayed alongside the Stone of Destiny, upon which Scottish monarchs sit to be crowned. Unlike England’s Crown Jewels, these escaped destruction at the hands of Cromwell – there are a variety of stories about how they got smuggled out of the Lord Protector’s reach, including ‘stashed under someone’s dress’ and ‘disguised in a bundle of seaweed.’ When Scotland joined the United Kingdom, the Honours Scotland were placed inside a giant chest – easily large enough to hold a refrigerator – and sealed away until, many years later, Sir Walter Scott spearheaded an effort to go dig them up.

Astonishingly, they were in pretty great shape and all the pieces were still there. Even more astonishingly, there was a piece there that wasn’t there before: a wand, tipped with crystal and made of the same precious materials as everything else. To this day nobody has any idea what on earth this was for or how it got there. Paging Kenneth Hite.

What else do they keep at a castle? Guns, of course. There is, of course, “the one o’clock gun,” first conceived as an auditory signal for the boats in Leith harbour to accompany a visual one. (Why one and not noon? Well, as the guide says, the Scots are famous for their thrift, and ammunition is expensive.) The one o’clock gun is still fired today, though the modern artillery piece is a far cry from the cannon that must once have served this function.

Speaking of cannons, there’s an epic example at the castle as well: “Mons Meg,” a bloody HUGE thing that fired stones about the width of my torso and weighed something like six tons. Somewhat impractical to use, of course, and so as armament technology improved she was increasingly only fired on special occasions until at last a charge blew a hole in her side; too heavy even to smelt down, she was left to rust for some time. After some time away in England for display she was eventually welcomed home – literally, with some degree of pomp – to the castle battlements, where she’s still on display, hole in the side and all.

At around this point it was lunchtime, so we stopped at a small cafe (haggis, again!) before stopping in at the Writers’ Museum.

This small but fun for book people museum is nestled into the former home of a wealthy lady, and features exhibitions on Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. All of them are fascinating little collections of paraphernalia of the lives surrounding each author: Robert Burns’s sword cane, Scott’s canes (he was lame from a childhood illness), Stevenson’s ring inscribed with the name given to him by the Samoans among whom he passed his last days (I forget the word, but it translates into “Teller of Stories.” If I were to swipe, Nathan Drake-like, a ring from a museum, this would be the one.)

There was also a cabinet on display. Unremarkable in itself, but the plaque revealed that this cabinet had once stood in Stevenson’s bedroom…and that it had once belonged to Deacon Brodie. Brodie was a model deacon by day…but by night, a dissipated man of many vices. Sound familiar? If it does, it’s because he’s the probable inspiration behind Stevenson’s tale of Jekyll and Hyde.

Also in the room? A cool little diorama of the Jekyll and Hyde tale, left anonymously at the museum by some interested patron. Better still, it’s one of many that this person left anonymously at different literary sites around Edinburgh, with inscriptions on the back that these items were meant to honor libraries, books and reading. Awesome, anonymous artist. I hope that whoever you are you’ve seen that the museum has your work on display.

Our next stop was all the way down at the other end of the Royal Mile: Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s home when she’s in Scotland. This will, incidentally, be in about a week, so it’s probably a good thing we happened along now.

Holyrood is an intensely symmetrical place. Lots of pains taken to present balance – and, in the apartments open to the public, to present an avenue of increasing opulence and impressiveness for visitors to be escorted through on their way to meet the monarch. Plaster ceilings and painting after painting after painting of James and Charles (both Jameses and Charleses, really) and tapestries of increasing impressiveness eventually culminate in…the King’s Bedroom, a room in which the King almost certainly did not actually sleep, but rather conducted very small and intimate meetings in the presence of a preposterously elaborate and expensive bed. Odd choice of a meeting room but I suppose that is the 1700s for you. Amusingly, the king who designed it also had it done up with paintings that liken the monarch to various mythic heroes, including Hercules.

Beyond that is a long gallery. Which is…exactly that; a long, long gallery full of paintings. These have a certain similarity of style to them, and as the audio guide explains this is because they were all painted by the same Dutchman, who was commissioned to do a portrait of all of the king’s ancestors going all the way back to the 300s. That’s a lot of kings and queens; enough that he was banging these out at about a painting a week. (Part of me wishes I could see the writeup of that job on Clients From Hell.)

Also in the palace are the apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots, who as we know had a hard time picking a good man and suffered greatly for it; his ambitions are shown plainly in a heart-shaped bauble on display in the chambers, along with many other trinkets of the time. Lots of memento mori jewelry, a lock of Mary’s hair, hand-embroidered purses and such by the queen, etc. (One item was labeled only “Memento mori of the Winter King.” What a Feylord was doing there I’ve no idea, but it seems something like that should be less unassuming.)

The special exhibition this time was absolute Karen Nirvana by the way: an exhibition of gowns and hats worn by the Queen at various times throughout her reign, accompanied by an array of fashion plates and such. As a costume fan myself I also enjoyed these, though maybe not AS much as my mother in law. (I have to say, though, NOBODY’s hat game is as good as Her Majesty’s.)

On our way to dinner we stopped for an unusual errand: locating the grave of Adam Smith so Mark could add him to the list of philosophers at whose grave sites he’s been photographed. As it happens, we took the wrong turn to start with, and a long rainy few minutes were spent hunting up the grave – but we did find it and the photo was taken; amusingly, people have scattered a good bit of money at the gravesite, as though so doing might bring economic mojo to the one making the offering. (We added a Canadian nickel to the collection.)

A quick dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant later it was time for the ghost walk. This too was amusingly touristy, if well-presented; our guide was a young lady from Surrey named Amandine who regaled us over the next few hours with gruesome tales of torture (Mark got to serve as demonstrator for her digression on flogging), local ghosts, and the body snatchers…well, serial killers…Burke and Hare.

We toured the “vaults” in the process, demonstrating one of Edinburgh’s most curious features: the place is built in layers. Here, the vaults that supported a massive bridge were eventually walled in as the city grew (and the bridge is indistinguishable in most places from an ordinary street.). These, naturally, became havens for all sorts of unsavoury types, and are reputedly haunted by all manner of things, from lost children to a mysterious angry thing they simply called “The Watcher.”

I don’t think we saw anything in the way of actual manifestations or anything, but it was a diverting evening, and it concluded with a drink in a rather cute little cellar-pub at the end, where more stories were told for a time before they turned us out into the night (and we promptly discovered that you can’t simply go south if you want to go south, as going south and down might mean you end up below the level of the street you want to be on.). Eventually we returned home for an hour and some of writing (for me) and for Mark watching the Brits be conflicted about Brexit, some terrible game shows, and a bit of Predator 2.

An old travel diary, part 1

This is one of a series of journal posts from a trip I took years ago (as of this writing) and am posting here so as not to lose them.
I have never been very good at sleeping on airplanes.
This is pretty deeply unfortunate if you find yourself in the position of having to sleep on one or potentially go 24 hours without rest.  But here we are.
Our flight out was a surprisingly brief seven hours on Brussels Airlines.  As very long flights go it was a pleasant trip; everything about the Brussels Airlines planes is simultaneously rather adorably Euro and rather surprisingly twee.  Safety videos featuring cheery cartoon birds.  Sugar packets that say “Hello, sweetie, here’s some sugar.”  Given that their slogan appears to be “We go the extra smile,” perhaps I should not have been surprised.
Despite the surprisingly pleasant service, I completely failed to get even a bit of sleep.  Thirty minutes perhaps, no more.  The dry, strangely hot plane, the occasional stabbing pains in my hands, and the turbulence that seemed to hit the moment I got comfortable conspired against me, as did the fairly extreme thirst (note to self: buy a damned bottle of water for the flight home.)
Our descent into Brussels prompted Mark to make a quip about how all the people look like meeples from up here, and I can sort of see why – the Belgian countryside is indeed pretty damned reminiscent of an Agricola board or something.  It looked green and damp, a silvery gray sky overhead.
The “damp” is real, to be sure; walking off the plane I was promptly smacked in the face by a wall of still, humid air that clung even as we entered the terminal, which is…surprisingly modest, considering that Brussels is the heart of the EU and all. 70s-ish carpet, molded plastic chairs, that vaguely pinkish granite-look tile I remember from department stores of times gone by.  I’d expected something a bit more grand.  Certainly something with a bit of air conditioning at the very least; I feel I can barely breathe in here.
It’s been nearly impossible to get onto the Internet in the airport, for some reason, but we’ve managed it long enough to learn that during our flight England decided to bail on the EU.
I really can’t think of much to add, sleep-deprived as I am; the vote was close, and I expect at least some of the 30% or so of people who didn’t turn out will be having regrets about that.  Scotland won’t be leaving though.  Which I suppose means it isn’t really the “UK” any more, is it?  …Ugly.
Ah well.  In the absence of other entertainments, I suppose I shall go for a bit of a walk before the next flight to Edinburgh.
— Much, much later —
Well.  I’ve now been awake for pushing 29 straight hours, so goodness knows if I can stay conscious long enough to finish and send this.  But here goes.
By the time we landed in Edinburgh everyone had been awake far, FAR too long, and this manifested in some interesting ways.  Karen developed a kind of tunnel vision, focusing so intently on our need to locate a taxi that she kind of ignored our need to get money (or mine for a SIM card; I still haven’t got one as of this writing.)  I started to lose the ability to stay conscious if I wasn’t actively doing something.  And Mark got horrifically maudlin and Enid-ish at the same time.  Absolutely none of this was helped, naturally, by the part where three flights arrived at the same time leaving us with a massive lineup in security to go through…or the part where Brussels was having some kind of labor strike, leaving us all in some doubt as to whether our luggage would in fact be there when we went looking for it.
Fortunately, it seems we were spared that particular indignity, and we were soon free to wander about the country.  Our first local was our cabbie – gregarious in ways I don’t often see from his Toronto cousins, and pretty keen to talk about his reaction to the Brexit vote as well, decreeing it a sad day for Scotland.  (This sentiment was shared pretty widely among the Scots we met today, but more on this in a minute.)
The next twenty minutes were a little surreal, as we drove through Edinburgh.  The buildings here are generally made of stone in various shades of gray and brown, though doors and shopfronts are pretty vibrantly colored.  It’s as though someone took the streets of Bath, all Georgian-flavoured, and nestled them into a colorful bed of The Annex.
Our guest house is run by a very helpful woman who is also very much not Scottish; after dropping off our bags, collecting our keys, and changing into fresh underclothes, we set out pretty much immediately to go on an orientation walk.  A few minutes’ argument eventually saw us settling in at a cozy little cafe that would not have been out of place in Toronto for some carrot soup and smoked salmon sandwiches…and then the walk continued.
Edinburgh grew up around the central spine of the Royal Mile, a pretty, steeply-slanted street that links Edinburgh Castle at one end with Holyrood Palace at the other.  Along it, you can stand at pretty much any point, fling a rock, and hit either a site of historical significance, a touristy spot, or both.  In the course of today’s explorations we walked almost from one end to another, including a long side trip to the parallel Princes Street, the city’s major avenue for high-street shopping.
Our initial scouting trip revealed:
  • A museum of surgical history.
  • A writers’ museum.
  • A ghost tour, which came recommended by the travel book I got.  We booked a run for tomorrow night.
  • Statues of David Hume and Adam Smith, along with a monument to Sir Walter Scott.
  • Kids playing in a bouncy castle thing.
  • A busker dressed up as a cowboy.
  • St. Giles’s cathedral, which was hosting a textile art exhibition of scenes from the Book of Revelation.
  • Some lovely views.
…and “Mary King’s Close,” which we explored later in the evening, after obtaining some British pounds at last.  This is an odd architectural phenomenon in Edinburgh: from the Royal Mile, tiny, narrow streets run down at a steep angle toward the river, buildings perilously tall and perilously close to one another.
And “close” is indeed how these little streets are known.  You can still see scads of them leading away from the Mile.
For reasons I do not yet fully understand, it was decided at one point to park a brand new shiny administrative building right on top of some existing closes, turning them effectively into cliff dwellings of a sort.  Here, the poor lived twelve to fourteen to a room in houses with ceilings too low to stand fully upright in; era they kept twenty or more cows to a single shed; here they hurled buckets of raw sewage down to the loch below, where today there is a train station.  The presentation was eager and energetic, if a bit tourist trap-y; the girl guiding our tour reminded me of Kate from high school.  Something in all that raw, naked enthusiasm.
It reminded me of something one might see in a Dark Souls game, or a D&D city.  The poor crushed together in a not-quite-underground.
At one point, just before our tour, we walked past St. Giles’s cathedral to find a protest apparently in progress.  Hand-lettered signs read “1 <3 No Borders” and “You are welcome here,” and a series of angry Scots shouted things through bullhorns to an appreciative audience.  Both the audience and the speakers were interestingly mixed; at one point a young mother with a kid sitting on her shoulders got up to speak.
Police were on hand, but the last I saw things were going along peacefully; the crowd began its downhill march down the Royal Mile toward Holyrood Palace as we ducked down into the closes.
Exhausted, we visited a local pub, the Old Bell Inn, for dinner.  A real local spot, this, full of people who were obviously there every Friday and who were settled in apparently for the duration with pints coming plentifully.  The food was hearty – Mark had haggis and I had a steak and ale pie – and maybe a bit heavy on the pepper, but satisfying.  The live music for the evening was starting up just as we left, but I doubt very much we could have stayed conscious much longer; exhausted, we staggered back to the B&B and fell into bed.
I have some patchy memories from walking back: little snails crawling along a long stone wall, nibbling at (?) the edges of some trailing purple flowers.

It’s that kind of day

“That kind” being “the kind that is celebrated with one or more prescribed elements, usually requiring the expenditure of money.”

I am going to quietly opt out – though I am planning a special meal this evening – and instead offer up this rather charming example of nerdy matchmaking:

Inkwell Ideas’ “Distinguishing RPGs Chart.”

Now you, too, can find the system that is destined to be your soul mate.

Or, you know, perhaps we can all eat honey-based products instead.  St. Valentine is the patron of beekeepers after all, as well as the patron saint of engaged couples and epileptics…

La difference

I think if there is one thing I could say I have learned in my years of being married to someone, it’s this: My husband and I are different people.

No, wait.  I tell a lie.  The truth is that if there is one thing of which I must continuously remind myself in my years of being married to someone, it is that my husband and I are different people.

We are different people.

There are many similarities between the two of us, and some of them are beautiful.  We both love nerdy pursuits, including video games and anime; we both enjoy new technologies; we love food and travel and feel, all told, very happy to have found someone who is complementary to our own way of being.

But we are different people.

This is important to remember.  This is important to remember because if I forget, then I will find myself wondering “why can’t he just think about this the way I do?” or “why doesn’t he seem to be having as much fun with this as I am?” or “why doesn’t he understand?” or “why can’t he just maybe not do that, this once?”

We are different people.

He has interests that I don’t have.  And it’s good that we should want to do different things sometimes, that neither of us lives a life in the shadow of the other.  Even the things that we enjoy most in geekland are subtly different: since my rediscovery of Dungeons & Dragons, I have learned that if I am one hundred percent honest with myself and could choose only one geek activity to participate in for the rest of my life I’d probably choose tabletop RPGs over video games.  I suspect that for him it’s the other way around.

I like video games a lot, sure.  And if I’m on my own for a while, that’s a great way to spend some leisure time.  But if I have the choice…if I’ve got people who are willing to join me in telling a story together…I’d rather do that, frankly.  I’d rather feel the companionship of a few other creative types, the sensation of being really active in the medium I am experiencing.  (In fairness, much of this probably has to do with the fact that when he and I play games together he is usually the one doing the driving.  In this age of high action, my poorer twitch skills just can’t keep up.)

I love having somewhere to go in the evening – a movie, a friend’s house, a game night.  To me these are rewards for completing a day, or breaks in the routine of work/eat/sleep.  To him, that’s a schedule without any free time, even if the thing that’s planned only eats an hour or two.  Never mind that he might be having fun at one of the scheduled events, that’s still time that isn’t his.  We both like to have things to look forward to – but where for me those things tend to be “martinis and animation on Friday,” for him that tends to be “an entire day with nothing at all scheduled in it.”

It would be easy to look at something like this and think that I am saying these are things that must change, that we must be more like.  I don’t think that’s so, though, not really.  It is only that I must remind myself of this fact, and keep it in mind, and try always to understand.

We are different.  And that’s all right. Love abides.

My new culinary hero

I bought the household a cookbook for Christmas.

This was (is) part of the household’s new year’s resolutions, which include eating better and other nerdier ones which we’ll get to later.

The cookbook is Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, and two months out I think I can safely say it’s been a great purchase.  In that time, I have learned from this book:

  • How to make chicken stock.  This alone is an invaluable piece of information, and Bittman is correct – it’s totally addictive once you learn how much better homemade stock is than canned.
  • How to wash and prepare a leek.  Who knew that the best way to really get them clean was to slice them almost in half lengthwise and fan them out?  (Well, he did, obviously.)
  • How to core a cabbage.
  • How to make popcorn on the stove.
  • How to prepare risotto.
  • How to roast your own red peppers.
  • And probably a lot of other things I am forgetting about.

It’s light on pictures, except for the informative line drawings used to demonstrate the various cooking techniques – but you know what?  I’m fine with that, and this is coming from someone who typically prefers her cookbooks liberally laced with nigh-pornographic food photography.  This is a practical book that is full of practical advice, and while it may not have as many pretty pictures as other cookbooks I have known, it DOES have a heaping helping of useful tables, ideas and suggestions for modifying recipes, and (most important of all) a good index in the back.

Bittman’s writing style is breezy, easy to follow, and has just a touch of humor in it that makes recipes for even food that scares most people (like risotto) seem less intimidating.  When an instruction comes up that might seem bizarre to a novice chef like myself, he actually tends to take the time to explain why it is that, for example, you don’t bother to peel the onion you’re putting in your chicken stock.  It’s like having a kitchen mentor that hangs about comfortably within range if you need to ask a question without being dogmatic or intrusive.

And with two thousand recipes, if you can’t find something to add to your repertoire in here, you’re probably not trying hard enough.

This one’s a winner, folks.  Consider it next time you’re hitting up the cookbook section.

There should be more things made of string and construction paper.

I spotted this this morning (at BoingBoing) and it made me think.  There seems to be a quiet but distinct design camp in digital entertainment these days that is weary of things rendered in slick, shiny pixels.  Instead we get the pleasing layers of cardboard and fabric and string that make up levels in a game like Little Big Planet (link goes to Google Image Search) or the soft sculpture universe of Kirby’s Epic Yarn.

And I thought: You know, I’m kind of tired of things looking perfect.

I love sitting down to watch old monster movies, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or anything else made before the advent of CG in everything, and I have to say…I miss the old days of special effects.  They weren’t always perfect, but they had mass.  They had weight.  You could see the actors reacting to them.  And you admired the cunning of the special-effects men and women who made it all happen.

I’m tired of things being too perfect, too glamorous, too glitzy, even when the glamor is all about thick-necked space marines or lining up the perfect headshot.  I’m tired of the culture of triple-A or nothing.

I wonder if this DIY aesthetic means that there are more people besides me out there who also crave more things that are legitimately DIY?

Judging a fake by its cover

Well, MY week’s been crazy busy.  How about yours?

I can’t tell you what part of the busy-ness is in reference to except that it involves reviewing and will eventually be online somewhere else, I hope.  But even aside from that, I’ve had an ill relative to tend, and of course about a million job applications to fill out, it seems.

Still.  That is no fun to talk about.  Let me share something actually interesting instead.

This article about an exhibit on fakes and forgeries in art is fascinating (can’t remember where I picked it up, unfortunately; apologies to misplaced link person!)  I am particularly intrigued by the author’s comments on why we think fakes and forgeries are cool: they appeal to some deep-seated inner something or other in us all that suggests that when you get right down to it, art is a scam.

Of course, this had me contemplating other recent forgery furors, such as all that business about Obama’s birth certificate…I wonder if the same principle applies?  Perhaps some of those people who believed he wasn’t really American-born clung so tenuously to that belief for the same reason…it spoke to some inner instinct that told them the entire political system was nonsense, a scam, a fraud.

(I shall refrain from offering my own opinions on said political system, however.)

On another hand, Naomi found this very interesting little survey about book covers and their impact on book purchases.  I’ll wait while you go have a look.

Intriguing, no?  Looks like a lot of people do judge books by their covers, proverbs aside.

Then again…Is there really anything wrong with that?  These days, when there are so many books to choose from…how do you make sure yours gets noticed?  You put a striking cover on it, that’s how.

More importantly, though, I am finding that I agree with the comments that a good cover should really try to capture visually the essence of the book.  No wonder the survey-takers felt that cliches were offputting; they don’t really tell you much, do they, about what kind of story you’re in for?

I have to admit I’m as much of a sucker for a well-designed cover as anyone, though I’ll put the book back if whatever’s inside doesn’t sound interesting.  I’ll have to try the reverse some time – go pick up covers I find really UNattractive and see if what’s inside will motivate me to buy the book anyway…

Essential resources for internet culture

Last night we had some visitors (hooray! visitors!), both sociology professors (this happens when you move in certain social circles, it seems.)  And, as will happen when you put people who study sociology for a living in a room with people who studied sociology – and in my case anthropology – in school, we fell to talking about the various weird and wonderful ways that internet culture develops.

…Okay, sometimes just the weird ways.  But you get the idea.

The point is, eventually we ended up on the subject of cultural memes on the internet, how they develop, and how one can go about keeping pace with them.  We eventually whittled the essential resources down to:

  1. 4chan.

    I won’t link to this here, and I especially will not link to /b/ – let it not be said that I have led anyone down that particular path unawares.  However, it is true that 4chan in general and particularly /b/ serves as a kind of collective id for internet users – a stew of primordial thought-genes constantly colliding and combining with one another until finally one of them becomes strong enough to achieve escape velocity and appear on the internet at large as a meme.  (Hmm.  Some very mangled quasi-scientific metaphors there.  Ah well.  Somehow that seems appropriate in this case.)

    The thing about 4chan is that it is akin to the abyss.  If you gaze long into it, it gazes also into you.  And there is, occasionally, some very, very disturbing stuff on 4chan.   You must be prepared to accidentally encounter it if you brave that wilderness.

    If you’d like to learn more about 4chan without actually taking the plunge and going there, there’s always the convenient entry at That Wiki.

  2. Encyclopedia Dramatica.

    If you’ve just spotted something on Twitter, for example, and aren’t sure why the heck this seems to be so relevant to anyone, you could do worse than look up the mystery thing on Encyclopedia Dramatica.  Odds are good that you will find at least a little about the object of your interest there, along with a heaping helping of satire (and yes, very possibly trolling.)

    Be advised, of course, that ED is a parody of an encyclopedia, and treat information discovered there accordingly – as jumping-off point rather than definitive reference.

    Read more about Encyclopedia Dramatica at That Wiki.

  3. Know Your Meme.

    This meme database/video series is perhaps my personal favorite of the meme resources.  In addition to a spiffy little database of memes with origins and dates, there is also a series of charming little videos explaining selected memes, why some people find them funny, and where they come from.

    What’s especially awesome about these is that you can easily send videos explaining (for example) “Om nom nom” to your parents and they’re very likely to be able to get the idea, even if they don’t spend much time on the internet normally.  Couple that with high-quality video presentation and a friendly browsing environment and you have a winner.  Of course, the high production values mean that Know Your Meme isn’t quite as up to date as we might sometimes like – but it’s a small tradeoff, really, considering.

    Read about Know Your Meme at That Wiki.

  4. And, to a lesser extent, the mighty TV Tropes, of which we have already spoken.

Of course, none of these are Reference Resources in the academic sense, so I wouldn’t recommend using any of these for a research paper (unless of course you are doing so as primary sources!)  But they are good fun, and good ways to keep yourself posted on what the bizarre thing that just landed in your inbox is.  So go forth and explore.  (Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. ;))

On a mostly unrelated note, this smartphone app is genius: it turns your to-do list into a roleplaying game, awarding you points for every task you complete.  I love the idea, but feel it is rather tragic that I didn’t think of it first.


Recently The Boy and I had one of those discussions.  The sort that begins with “You don’t get out enough.  You should go find some groups to join.”

He is probably right, of course.  I don’t get out enough, as is probably evident from the glee with which I pick up any invitation that comes my way.   And so this week I have promised to begin the long and arduous process of hunting for something to do.

Problem one: I appear to be in one of those phases of ennui where nothing seems particularly exciting.  Perhaps this is the weather, which has been stultifyingly sticky and motivation-crushing.

Or perhaps not.  There is also the part where if one is very bored very consistently for a very long time it becomes difficult to get excited about things.

Problem two: I am naturally a somewhat shy person, and the idea of going someplace all by myself and talking to a bunch of strangers is a front runner for most terrifying evening’s “entertainment” ever.  I am not partial to loud, crowded places, so just wandering down to the pub and schmoozing isn’t really something I’m keen on.  Never mind that I am not dating, just looking to expand my social circle.

Problem three: It’s difficult to justify to myself the notion of taking part in any new activity that does not seem to have some immediate relevance to my job hunt.  Of course, on the other hand, it’s probably not conducive to mental health to spend as much time as I do obsessing about that, either.  Does having more fun make you more likely to get employed?  I wonder.

Still, I have gamely plowed through all thousand-odd meetup groups on, and found a couple that might maybe possibly be kinda sorta interesting, except then we get again to problem one.  It’s hard to imagine myself getting brave enough to overcome my shyness without being really interested in whatever is going on out there.

It’s a heck of a first world problem to have, I suppose.  I am not starving or homeless or hiding in a war zone from people who would like to massacre me and my family.  I am just under-stimulated.  The other day I was told “Your brain is like a greyhound cooped up in a tiny apartment; it needs to get out and RUN.”  This seems accurate.

Frustratingly, the thing I feel most like doing is rounding up a friend or two and working on something creative together – writing an adventure or something, perhaps, for fun.   Unfortunately this is impossible, as my social circle is so busy as to make it just this side of impossible to arrange contact, and anyway most of them are going through some Very Bad Things right now and aren’t feeling up to much.  Hence the need to meet more people, and we are back where we started.

How does one go about auditioning for friends?  I always met people through people, before.

And why is there not a more convenient listing of all the social groups there are in a place?  Someone should get on that.

Those of you who prefer it when I just post things: Please enjoy this man’s loathing of Bella Swan, which mirrors in many ways my own. (via The Boy)

Alternately, there is some amusing video game nostalgia here at Kotaku, and the art of cheating has apparently gotten much more high tech than I remember it – or so sayeth Neatorama.  Still not doing it for you?  Try this list of weird things stolen from hotels (via Apartment Therapy).

Character-driven storytelling with Primetime Adventures

Some time ago, because I am a very bad girl, I picked up a copy of the .pdf of the roleplaying game Primetime Adventures.  Today, I finally got around to reading it.

The Elevator Pitch

Primetime Adventures is a game where you and your friends work together to create a story in the style of a prime time TV show.

The Assessment

I like it.  Don’t know if I’ll ever play it, but even if I don’t, there is high-quality material to be mined from it no matter what system I’m playing in.

The Details

PTA is a pretty easy system to like.  It requires very little in the way of materials, setup, or prep time for the game master – odds are excellent that aside from the PTA rulebook you already have everything you need lying about in your house.  It’s also pretty much entirely genre-independent and will support any sort of story you care to dream up, provided that:

  • The story you want to tell includes strong character-driven elements and
  • You have the right group.

Having the right group is of course important for any game – and certainly reams of paper and piles of pixels have been devoted to the subject – but more than almost any other system I’ve ever looked at, PTA relies on your group’s ability to work together and compromise.   This begins at the very instant you make the decision to use the system – the first session of any campaign is always devoted to the pitch session, where the players work together to decide what genre and tone they would prefer and establish the length of your imaginary television show’s “season.”

After that, the players work together to create the ensemble cast that will populate the show, and work out what their character’s central issues and defining traits will be.   These traits can be called on to gain advantages and extra cards when the time comes to negotiate conflicts – but more on that in a moment.

Each session of PTA is an “episode,” naturally, and each episode proceeds in a very democratic sort of way.  A scene is proposed, the players work out the outlines of what the central conflicts will be, and these conflicts are played out as other players (and audience members if any) look on.  Conflict resolution is diceless, and relies on a standard deck of playing cards to determine both who will get the result they desire and who wins the right to narrate the scene.  The narrator will describe what happens, and you’re off to the races.  New scene, everyone!

Some of you might be thinking that this sounds like you spend a lot of time sitting around listening, and you would be right; in this sense PTA is probably not a game for impatient folks.  On the other hand, literally every moment of the game encourages contributions from other players to the action: players who are not participating in a scene can even spend some of their resources to tip the balance of a conflict they are watching in a direction they think is most interesting.  It’s not hard to imagine how some players would be put off having their story so heavily impacted by the peanut gallery – again, the key here is getting together a group of folks who don’t mind that sort of thing.

Whether you mean to actually play the game or not, however, the rulebook is well worth reading just for the very sound advice it gives on getting quickly to the core of how a character can contribute to dramatic situations (via his or her Issues) and how to identify and employ well-placed, satisfying narrative scenes in a collaborative medium.  This stuff is gold – no matter what system you’re playing, attention to details like these can very simply just make your game better.

Let’s pretend, for example, that you’re playing D&D.  D&D tends to be much more action-heavy than PTA, and tends to rely on the whims of the dice, rather than the metagame-level agreement of the players, to produce its narrative.   Sure, you’re not going to be plotting out your scenarios months in advance, but what if you’re planning a session that will really let one of your PCs shine?

You could do this overtly, by choreographing a grand set-piece battle – but you can also play some subtler tricks using the guidelines offered in PTA for characters in supporting roles and emphasize your featured PC’s conflicts and troubles by setting them in counterpoint to scenes or subplots involving other PCs.  You’re setting your rogue up for a confrontation with his father, poised even now to betray him?  You could play up the need to take care whom you trust by having your unworldly paladin encounter a devious con man – or really drive the knife home by setting your warlord up to depend on his former mentor in a time of desperate need.  When the mentor comes through and the father lets down the side, the contrast should make the drama of the situation all the more poignant.

This is the sort of thing PTA is designed to enable – using the conventions of well-told TV tales to punch up the character dramas that keep audiences tuning in every week.  It may not matter to the folks on the couch all that much what happens in the overarching Villain-of-the-Week plot…it’s the characters and the interactions between them that really keep the audience coming back.  And there is room for more of that in almost any game, regardless of genre or degree of rulesy crunch.

If You Only Read One Thing

Read the explanations of “Issue” and “Screen Presence” (pages 12-14), which will explain the basic mechanics of how a character-driven story arc works.  For bonus points, add in the basics of scene creation on pages 26-31.  Players and GMs alike can benefit from asking themselves what the scene they’re engaged in is really “about” and what it’s meant to play up.

If anyone out there has actually tried PTA, I’d be happy to know what they think.

Happy gaming, everybody.