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.

LFG

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 meetup.com, 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.

Have you heard the message?

I have this talent, apparently, for attracting small weirdness.

Oh, it’s little things.  I am the person who will be standing on the sidewalk when a man rides by on a bicycle, and points a banana at me and says “Stick ’em up!”  (I did, for the record.  He said “That’s right!” and rode on by.)  I will comment on a Sherlock Holmes poster in the subway and be drawn into a long discussion with a very quirky aficionado of the steampunk aesthetic.  I will be in the one car on the entire train that has That Crazy Dude in it, and he will spend the entire train ride making threatening holding-a-gun type gestures at another passenger.  I will be accosted by creepy people and asked to pretend my name is Debbie.  I will bump into a guy who tells me my aura would be so much better harmonized if I wore more green.

Sometimes the people I am with will be lucky enough to be around when one of these things happens.  If it’s my husband, he will usually then turn to me and say something to the effect of “This NEVER happens when I am on my own.”

Honestly, most of the time, I like it when this happens.  These strange encounters are sometimes like little presents from the universe, reminding me that yes, the world is a strange and lovely place where all sorts of oddities are possible.  (Man Who Was Making Up Songs About People On The Sidewalk While Playing A Harmonica, I am thinking of you.  You rock.)  Sometimes, on the other hand, they’re kind of creepy and alarming, and then…well, then it is not so nice.

This afternoon I was on my way to have lunch after I finished volunteering.  Had my headphones on, was thinking about nothing much, strolling toward the prospect of Chinese food.

All of a sudden, I registered that someone was, you might say, up in my grill.  A cute girl (Japanese?), nicely turned out in a red dress shirt and black jacket, leaning riiiight over into my path and rather alarmingly into my personal space.   Whoa.  Um, okay.  Normally I leave my headphones in to avoid just this sort of occurrence, but sometimes the people stopping me want directions or something, and with the vague thought of being nice I pulled mine out.

At around this point I noticed she had a guy with her, about the same age, also respectably dressed.  The girl apologized for stopping me and said, in a very heavy accent, that they were students.  Well, they looked like students – university undergrads maybe.  So, okay.

I am not sure what I would have expected next, but it was not what she actually said, which was something like “Have you heard the message about the female form of God in the world?”

Wait. What?

This was about as surprising as being stopped by a stranger and asked if I had seen the Yellow Sign, though oddly enough I think I would have had more of an idea how to respond to that than I did to this.

I am naturally a somewhat shy person – it takes me quite a long time to open up to people at the best of times.  When suddenly confronted by something startling, that shyness tends to kick into higher gear.  And anyway, something seemed weird.  These people weren’t handing out literature or anything, and they looked very normal, except for that rather extraordinary question.  But…I don’t know if you believe in “vibes,” Internet, but there was something about these people that weirded me out, in a way that more overtly “weird” people I’ve met have not.

And so I begged off, stammering something about needing to hurry someplace, and left.  Escaped downstairs to the comforting anonymity of a nice crowded eating place and settled in with my Chinese.

In spite of myself, though, I still find myself wondering what the message is.

The Oz Project

Lately, I have been finding myself with the urge to…revisit.  I am sure there is a more elegant way of saying this.  Probably in French, which has also given us such fantastic idioms as “l’esprit de escalier” – which means literally “the spirit of the staircase, I believe.  What does it mean?  “That thing that happens when you’ve been having an impassioned discussion with someone and you leave and then, just as you’re on your way out, the perfect thing to say occurs to you.”

So perhaps if any language has a pithy phrase for “the powerful urge to revisit things you have known and loved” it is probably French.  I would call it nostalgia, but it is a little more than that: it isn’t so much that I want to get back to some lost age as that I want to revisit these things with new eyes, get to know them afresh – or perhaps “reintroduce myself to them” is a better way of putting it.

This feeling has manifested in my life in several ways lately.  I find myself craving to pick old favorite films from the video store instead of new ones; I think of things I haven’t eaten or read or done in years and years and suddenly feel I want to experience them all over again.

The other day I was telling someone about a passage from one of the Oz books that really creeped me out as a child.  In Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, the titular characters, along with a talking horse, a talking cat, and a farm boy, are drawn deep into the bowels of the earth in an earthquake and have all sorts of bizarre adventures while trying to find their way back to the surface world.  One of the places they visit is the kingdom of the Mangaboos, beautiful but cruel people who are vegetable through and through: there they meet a sorcerous party who essentially challenges the Wizard to a magic duel.

The Wizard, of course, is a humbug magician – all of his magic is tricks and show (at least at that time – he does get significantly more legitimately magic-capable later in the series).  So it is him and a pair of kerosene lamps and a theatrical trick sword against a real magician, who is slowly trying to kill him by stopping him from breathing.  As a little kid this was thrilling to me in a very nasty sort of way, and it clearly left an impression.

The series continues, of course, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Dorothy and the Wizard and their companions get out alive.  But as I was recounting this episode, I thought:

  1. Damn, that series was weird, when I think about it.
  2. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to get away with some of those things in books for kids these days – at least not kids who were the age I was when I was reading the Oz books.  (I started with The Wizard of Oz when I was four.)
  3. …You know what?  I really want to read that series again.

And, being the big nerd that I am, I then went on to think to myself: Wouldn’t it be cool if while I was reading it I did some research on the time and place the books were from?

I mean, I remember how saturated the Oz books seemed to be with what I think of as that turn-of-the-century “Oh, my goodness. The future is so expansive!  Progress will make everyone’s lives better!” optimism.  (Perhaps that is just my memory playing tricks.)  And I wonder how much the world of the early 1900s had to do with the land of living paper dolls, for example.  Were they popular then?

My inner child wants to revisit the series because it’s been such a long time, and because my memories of it are fond.  My inner adult has suddenly realized that it’s probably a lot stranger than I thought it was at the time, and is keen to go back and have a look.  Maybe both of us will learn something, whether about ourselves or about the early 1900s or something else entirely unexpected.

So, it is decided.  We will go back, and have a look.  I have gone to the library’s website and placed some books on hold, and retrieved the first four of the books from storage.

I feel rather like an archaeologist preparing for a dig.  Do I have all the permits?  A suitable Local Guide?  It is exciting and slightly daunting at the same time.

Anyway.  More on this as it develops.  Probably slowly.  After all, there will be a lot of reading to do.