While we were camping in the Grand Canyon, I asked Sushu to marry me, and she said yes!
Neither of us is religious, so we're not going to do this in a church. We want something simple. It's going to be here in California for two reasons: First, because Sushu's family and friends are all here; and second, because the weather in the summer is much tamer around here than it is in Chicago, so we can do stuff outside without having anybody die of heatstroke.
Afternoon of Friday June 26th: city hall wedding, with just immediate nuke-you-lar families
Saturday June 27th: Everybody has afternoon picnic in the park, then dinner at a nice Chinese restaurant, then karaoke!
Do not buy us presents! We already have all the kitchen gadgets we could possibly use, and I know y'all need to conserve money. Instead of presents, we'd really like it if the people who come could contribute a service of some kind, like taking the pictures, or playing the music, or telling stories, or organizing games, or serving food, or whatever. (We already have two offers to bake the cake.) That way we'll save money too, and instead of random strangers-for-hire doing all this stuff at our wedding we'll have friends and family doing it. Win!
Five of thems!
There's a blog fad going around where you say "I will make a present for the first five people to respond to this post."
Hmmm. Is this a cool fad or a dumb fad?
I guess it's a cool fad, actually. Making things for people is fun! Five is a manageable number, and I like that it's self-selecting. I'd much rather do this than pick out christmas presents from a store for people I barely know. In fact, I hope this fad becomes a tradition that replaces Christmas!
So yeah, I will make a present for the first five people who respond to this post. You don't get to decide what it is; I will try to make something you like, but it's from me, so of course it's going to be weird.
Sushu's China Comics
Check out this series of comics that Sushu is doing to explain the little everyday things that are different between China and America.
Sushu was in Walgreens the other day and some dumb junior high age kid said "ching chong ching chong" at her.
"Ching chong ching chong" doesn't mean anything in Chinese, but it certainly means something in English, and what it means is "You're not welcome in this country because of what you look like." This is an asshole thing to say to anybody. It is not OK, people.
Apparently the kid heard it on South Park and therefore thought it was funny. I wonder if they thought saying the N-word to a black person would be funny, too. Parents: don't let your kids watch South Park until they're old enough to know the difference between "funny because it's funny" and "funny because it's totally inappropriate and OMG I can't believe they got away with saying that on TV".
The Humanoids went to Whirlyball today as a sort of goodbye-party.
I had never heard of Whirlyball either. Here's how it goes:
Two basketball-hoop-ish things at opposite ends of a room.
Lacrosse-style racket/paddle things for everyone.
A whiffle ball.
Everybody's in bumper-cars.
We played for about two solid hours, with two teams of four. It was a blast!
The bumpercars have a crank instead of a steering-wheel, to make it easier to turn with one hand while your other hand holds the racket. Yes, this is just as awkward as it sounds. If you're not laughing at your own uncoordination, you've got the wrong attitude. Finally, I've found a team sport where everyone else is reduced to my level of incompetence!
Uchi-con on Saturday
The ol' japanese-cartoon-imation club at University of Chicago is putting on their annual one-day convention, Uchi-con, this Saturday. Here's the schedule and the directions for getting there, in case you're interested.
I helped run it the first couple of years. This year I'm going to go as part of Artist's Alley / Webcomickers panel and make my first public attempt to pimp out my webcomic. Hmmm... I'll have to print up some business cards with my URL on them before Saturday.
Addendum: The Chicago Maroon had a very positive article about Uchi-con.
My friend and coworker Andrew Wilson has just started his own blog, called Experimental Theology, with a great post called Rocket Science. It explains, better than I could, how Humanized came to be, why it's now breaking up, and what Andrew is going to do next. Recommended reading!
Replugging a mouse and keyboard
My coworker and friend Atul, who got a Mac recently, put up a really nice article about what happens on a Mac vs. what happens on Windows when you take a USB keyboard/mouse out of one port and plug them into another — the kind of utterly basic thing that we computer people really should have solved by now so that nobody has to spend another second thinking about it.
(Edit: Link updated to point at Humanized weblog instead of friend-locked Livejournal post.)
"He is so hot, it makes my teeth hurt."
So says this blog post by Rene Flores in regards to "Aza Raskin... an absolutely flippin gorgeous 23 year-old man-god".
Hehehe. We are teasing him about it at work today. It's fun.
How to have GenCon without going to GenCon
We haven't spoken in a while. How are things going? I've got a lot of stuff to tell you about.
GenCon was the weekend before last. Lots of my friends wanted me to go. I even got comments on this site, from people I've never met, encouraging me to attend. But heck, dudes, I was all conventioned out. Let's see if I can remember all the conventions and convention-like activites I've been to this year, in chronological order:
- PyCon, Dallas, Februrary
- UchiCon, Chicago, February
- NonCon, Poughkeepsie, NY, March
- Forge Midwest, Chicago, April
- Anime Central, Chicago, May (weeks of rehearsal for this one)
- Outdoor Wars, Kenosha, WI, May
- Bar Camp, Chicago, June
- Euro Python, Vilnius, Lithuania, July
- Aikido summer camp, Glenwood Springs, CO, July (a week-long road trip)
And that's not counting a road trip to Connecticut to visit my sick great-grandmother, a weekend trip to Boston to visit a convalescent friend which almost turned into a gaming con (we called it "Kon Con"), the Python sprint, the OLPC sprint, Art Nights, Nerds-At-Heart meetups, multiple weekend-long business meetings with the Humanized managers, the weekend we spent negotiating with Starman, Saturdays spent interviewing potential Humanized hires, the two or three people I helped to move, the cicada thing with the film crew from NHK, birthday parties, a graduation, and lots of weekends (though never enough) spent playing with Aleksa.
I'm not complaining -- it's a good life, and I'm never bored. But there comes a certain point where I have to say, "You know, no matter how good GenCon is, it would be much more valuable to me to simply have a quiet weekend at home for a change." So I did.
As it turned out, though, several people from the Warhammer 40k forum didn't go to GenCon either, and we ended up meeting at my apartment on that Saturday for some casual battling. Jim came up from the U of C and used his Eldar (which I've been slowly painting for him) to beat up on Brian's Ultramarines, while my Tau were repeatedly murdered by Jason's creepy Necrons. The night before, I got a sudden inspiration; I brought home all the styrofoam from the boxes the Huamnized computer monitors came in, which was a lot of styrofoam, and started using it to make some sweet alien planet terrain for our little men to battle over. Some of it's coming along pretty good, so I might post some pictures later.
And when we were done with 40k we decided to play Puerto Rico.
And then on Sunday, Andrew and Phil both came over and we ended up playing RoboRally, using the optional rules where each player controls two robots, and one of them can't get any flags, it's just there to cause trouble. Let me tell you, playing this way is a hundred times more fun because there's much more reason to bump each other off course and make full use of all those nasty upgrades.
And then on Monday, Alexis and Ben -- who had been at GenCon all weekend, selling Ben's new game Bliss Stage, operating on only about two hours of sleep -- came to Chicago by train from Indianapolis. They were actually in the middle of moving: move out of their apartment in Boston, go to GenCon, visit Jono, then move into their new apartment in Seattle.
Earlier they had actually asked me "Hey Jono, is there anything we can get for you at GenCon?" Whoa!! Uh!! Buh!! Some stuff!! How can I answer a question like that? "Kid in a candy store" doesn't begin to describe it. They had lunch with us Humanoids, and while stopping by the office they reached into their bags and dug out all the Phat Loot they had picked up for me at the con. I reimbursed them $100+ for a copy of Power Grid, a set of Fudge dice, a copy of Primetime Adventures, and of course one of Ben's game Bliss Stage.
Alexis and Ben ended up spending the whole week hanging around my place, which was fine with me. I still had to work, but we did gaming almost every night (and as a result, I didn't get any Aikido practice in. Sacrifices must be made.) On Monday, Andrew and Aza came over too, along with Aza's GF Yoko, and this gamer Amul who I had met through the internet but was meeting for the first time in real life. We all got some middle-eastern food and played a six-player game of Shock which gradually got sillier and sillier as it went on.
Tuesday we tried out Power Grid -- this is the German economic simulation game where you play public utility companies and compete to be the most efficient. Sounds dreadfully boring when I describe it that way, doesn't it? But it's hugely strategic and involving and even Alexis, who normally doesn't like strategy games much, enjoyed it. (And won!) You can play on a map of Germany or the U.S., and build power plants that run on coal, oil, garbage, nuclear power, wind and solar, or fusion. It has an awful lot of bearing on the real world, and I could easily see it being used as a way to teach people about economics, ecology, and geography all at once. Like most eurogames, it's a finely balanced machine with many difficult choices that finishes in just the right amount of time. Plus it's totally awesome if you play in Germany while listening to Kraftwerk and speaking in phony German accents.
Wednesday we went and got Ghanan food at the awesomely sketchy Palace Gate restaurant in my neighborhood. We all tried to order a dish called banku, but the big mama of the place came out to our table and informed us that only I would be allowed to have banku (since I've had it before), while Alexis and Ben must eat beef stew and fried chicken. Something like this happens every time I take friends to the Palace Gate; you order one thing but they say "No, I will make you this instead." It's probably part of some complex Ghanan code of guest/host interaction that we're completely clueless about. Or maybe they're just sick of people getting banku and then complaining that it's too spicy. We didn't do any gaming that night, just stayed up really late talking about weird things while I worked on coloring a comic.
On Thursday, we had one of the worst storms in recent memory. There were trees falling across train tracks and power outages and thousands of people trapped on the Metra. I was downtown at Google headquarters, and I'll tell you about that little adventure in another post. When I got back we played a short test game (a few scenes) of The Shadow of Yesterday using the Planescape setting. This is something I've been musing about for several months, and it turns out Ben and Alexis were into the idea too, so we tried it out to see if it would be as fun as we thought. It was! I've made up my mind that I'm going to try to run a campaign soon usingthis system and this setting.
Friday, Alexis and Ben went to visit her aunt out in the suburbs somewhere, and I just worked late.
Saturday, the Warhammer group and I met up at Mike's house in Oak Park. I felt like I owed Mike an apology, because this one time I arranged a game vs. him at Games Plus in Mt. Prospect, but then I missed the Metra train and there wasn't another one for two hours, and I tried to call him but he didn't answer cuz he was already on the road, so basically I made him drive all the way out there for nothing, and I felt really bad about it. So Saturday morning I baked him a cake and wrote "I'm very sorry" on it in blue frosting. Along with Jason's and Brian's proto-spousal-units Laura and Jen (who were being very good sports in trying out new games and putting up with our nerdiness), we played Power Grid again, followed by a zombie game called "Last Night on Earth" (which I didn't like), and then Citadels (which I know I like, but with seven players it drags on too long). Power Grid was a pretty big hit with the group, though.
Then I got a dinner-invitation call from Alexis to join her and Ben at Ron Edwards' house up in Evanston. Along with Ron and his wife we had some very rare and juicy steaks from the backyard grill, and Alexis made southern-style fried green tomatoes. After dinner we played this crazy card game called Oriente, and had a long involved conversation about game theory, gender relations, martial arts, what Internet forums do to communication, cold war politics, spies, publishing, how to talk about your butt in Chinese, and whether Ben should re-release "The Ecology of Mud Dragons" as a comic book.
Then we all got a couple hours of sleep before getting up at 4 AM so Alexis and Ben could get on the train to their very early flight to Seattle. Then I went back to bed and spent all day Sunday recovering and working on my comic.
So, let's see. I reconnected with old friends, made new ones, got awesome loot, played lots of new games in addition to some old favorites, and got to hang out with some game designers I respect. And I did it without having to go to Indianapolis, wait in line, pay exorbitant registration fees, eat lousy con food, put up with creepy weirdos, or deprive myself of too much sleep. I got all the good parts of GenCon with none of the bad!
I feel like Bender on Futurama: "I'm just going to start my own gaming convention! With blackjack! And hookers! Actually, forget the gaming convention!"
Shock the monkey! Shock the monkey!
In a couple hours I'm getting on a plane for Lithuania to give my presentation at Euro Python.
Last weekend I made a planned-at-the-last-second overnight trip to Boston to see Alexis and Ben. I wanted to cheer up Alexis who is still recovering from getting hit by a car which broke her femur.
Despite the amount of travel involved (I flew into Providence and took the train to Boston, since it was 1/3 the cost of flying directly into Boston), I had a great time. We spent most of the weekend playing RPGs.
So, I finally got to play "Shock: Social Science Fiction", a game I've been wanting to try out for a long time. We did a one-shot and it was four hours of solid concentraed awesomeness. I was inspired to write a review/play report of the game. I submitted it to RPG.net, since they were looking for more SF game reviews. I'm also going to post it here. It's pretty long, and if you're not interested in role-playing you can stop reading now, but otherwise:
1. Why Shock Needed to Exist
I love science fiction. I love role-playing games. So an SFRPG (science-fiction role-playing game) ought to be my favorite thing in the world. And yet, none of the SF games I've tried in the past has been quite what I was looking for. Most SF RPGs seem to fall into two categories -- there are faithful reproductions of popular TV/movie settings, from Star Wars and Star Trek to Firefly and Farscape, and then there are settings which are basically fantasy universes with the addition of high-tech tropes, like RIFTS and Shadowrun and the Warhammer 40,000 universe. While each of the games I've mentioned can be lots of fun in its own way, and each is deeply loved by its fans, I feel like none of them captures the essence of what really good science-fiction is about.
When I say "really good science-fiction", I'm usually thinking of one of those classic collections of short stories by authors like Isaac Asimov, or Arthur C. Clarke, or Larry Niven, or [insert name of your favorite author here]. Each story was a self-contained "what-if" scenario, meant to be thought-provoking above all else. The best of them made us think in a serious way about how human life and society might be transformed -- within our own lifetimes, even! -- by our first contact with alien life, or the beginnings of interplanetary colonization, or the invention of self-aware robots, or by a networked gestalt human consciousness, or any of a thousand other possibilities both marvelous and terrifying. The emphasis was not so much on the exotic life-form or nifty gadget, but on change, and what such changes might mean. At their best, SF stories ask us challenging and uncomfortable questions about the world around us, our future, and our own philosophies of life.
So, that's what I'm looking for, and that's why I get a little bit frustrated every time I open a SF game book and all I find is a bunch of rules for how well a cyborg ork can shoot with a laser bazooka, you know what I'm saying? It seems like most games use SF tropes as setting details, but the emphasis is all on action-adventure. I don't know of any games that captured that speculative, intellectual element of SF.
To sum up "Shock: Social Science Fiction" in one sentence: think of it as an interactive, multiplayer version of one of those classic SF short story collections. Sound interesting? Read on!
2 How The Game Plays
2.1 Creating the Setting
It's sometimes been said that in SF, the setting is the main character. That is, if your story is an exploration of a possible future, then the focus must be on the ways that the future differs from the present. Here we get to the first innovation that makes Shock different from most RPGs you've probably played: instead of giving you a default setting (or a line of setting sourcebooks) Shock gives you rules for creating a unique setting of your own. After all, if the setting is the main character, doesn't it deserve its own character sheet?
The setting creation rules are worth going into in a little bit of detail, because everything else about gameplay depends on the setting you come up with. Setting creation is a collaborative, brainstorming process. The group makes a grid on a piece of paper. On one axis of the grid is a list of real-world social issues. For instance, in the game I played, we chose the issues "Intellectual Property" and "Lack of Due Process of Law" (after brainstorming a much longer list and narrowing it down). Both of our issues were rather academic and technical ones, but yours don't have to be. The most important thing is that the issues should be things the players care about. The game book suggests several issues and recommends scanning newspaper headlines for more.
On the other axis of the grid are the Shocks. The game I played was a short one-shot game with just three players, so we had just two issues and one Shock. If we wanted to do an extended campaign and explore a world in depth, we would have used more. Our Shock was "Ubiquitous computing": Everybody in this world has the Internet permanently wired into their brains. Choosing this Shock pegged our setting as being kind of cyberpunk-ish. You don't have to do anything like that, though; you could choose "interstellar war" as a Shock and play a far-future space-opera, choose "nuclear holocaust" and play a post-apocalyptic scenario, or you could pull a Shock out of the latest issue of a science/technology magazine and play a game set ten minutes into the future. This, too, is a suggestion straight from the book.
Your group must also decide on the "Praxis scales" for your setting. What this scary-sounding phrase means is really just, "What are the different ways player characters can deal with problems, in this world?" You can think of Praxis as being setting-specific stats. Most RPGs have a fixed list of typical stats: Strength, Intelligence, Agility or Dexterity, Health or Constitution, and so on. But when the players create the setting, a fixed list of stats might end up being meaningless. For instance, in a world where all fighting is done with energy-beam weapons and robots perform all physical labor, what possible use would there be for a Strength score? And if you're never going to use Strength, why bother even putting it on your character sheet?
So, to create a Praxis scale, the players think up two ways of approaching a problem which are in some sense opposites. For instance, a good Praxis scale might be "Fighting vs. Negotiation". Each character will have a number that tells his or her position on this scale, so that characters who are better at Fighting will be worse at Negotiation, and vice versa. A setting always has two praxis scales, for a total of four methods of dealing with problems.
Choosing your Praxis scales allows you to focus on the types of conflicts that are going to be important for your characters and your setting. If you wanted to do a style of game heavy on the physical conflict, with a lot of "infiltrating heavily-defended enemy base" type of action, you might choose a Praxis scale like "Combat vs. Stealth", or even "Guns vs. Martial Arts". On the other hand, you could do a game of political struggle over the fate of a group of space colonists, with no physical combat at all, and you might choose Praxis scales like "Reason vs. Emotion" (how does your politician character appeal to the populace?) and "Cooperation vs. Sabotage" (how does your character deal with political opposition?). For a very philosophical game, you might even have "Science vs. Religion" or "Nature vs. Nurture" as Praxis scales -- you just have to deal with classifying everyone's in-game actions according to those scales.
In the game I played, we chose "Self-Reliance vs. Reputation" and "Force vs. Cooperation". This was after quite a bit of discussion where we rejected several other ideas ( "Law vs. Trade", Accusation vs. something-or-other... ). Picking the right Praxis scales for your game is very important, because every action a character takes during a conflict has to be classifiable as one end of one praxis scale, in order to determine the target numbers for your dice. Well-chosen Praxis scales can interact with the Issues and Shocks of your setting in a way that makes the story incredibly cool. On the other hand, Praxis scales that are too narrow, or too vague, or which don't apply to the types of characters you want to play, seem like they could really screw up your game.
With just Shocks, Issues, and Praxis, your setting is starting to take shape, but it's not very detailed yet. That's OK. If you had to create every detail of the setting before you could start playing, you'd never get started! So instead, the idea is to start with a sketchy setting and then figure out the details as you go, answering questions as they come up. To do this, your group must decide who is the "owner" of each Issue and each Shock. (This will often be the person who suggested the idea, but not always). The owner will answer any questions that come up during play about that issue or that shock: "Is the technology capable of doing this?" or "Is it against the law to do so-and-so?" So in the game I played, for instance, I was in charge of the "Intellectual Property" issue, and my fellow players (who I'm just going to call A. and B.) owned "Lack of Due Process of Law" and "Ubiquitous computing". Of course, we were all constantly suggesting ideas, but the owner of each shock or issue has the final say over how something works. Once they make a decision, they write it on an index card and throw it into a pile in the middle of the table. This growing pile of index cards is called "minutiae" and serves to document the details of your setting for future reference.
Here are a few minutiae about "ubiquitous computing" in our setting:
When you've got the Internet in your brain and you look at another person, you automatically get pop-up windows in your vision showing all sorts of information about that person. Your personal network records every sight you see and every sound you hear, so you can recall any of it instantly and perfectly. For this reason, most people have gotten really bad at using their own memories (just like how when writing was invented, people got worse and worse at memorizing 50,000 line epic poems. It wasn't a skill they needed anymore.) Finally, it's possible to steal somebody else's "rig" and plug it into yourself; you know practically everything that person knows, but the danger is that the flood of memories will overwhelm your personality: you'll forget who you are, and think you are this other person instead.
2.2 Shared World, Shared Power
"That's odd", you may be thinking, "What's all this about ownership of Issues and Shocks? Why does a different player make decisions for each aspect of the setting? Why doesn't the GM just make up a setting and decide how everything works?"
Well, that's another interesting thing about Shock. There is no GM!
"WHAT??" some of you are probably thinking. "If there's no GM, who sets up the challenges? Who sets up the goal of the adventure? Who settles rules disputes? Who springs surprises on the players? Who keeps the game from degenerating into total chaos, or worse, total boringness?"
A GM-less RPG is a pretty weird concept for most of us, but there are several of them in existence, mostly obscure indie games. Clearly you can't just take an RPG system like d20 or Storyteller, remove the GM from it, and expect to have a functional game, any more than you could rip the heart out of a person and expect him to stay alive. But you can imagine an alien life form that evolved along a very different path and so doesn't have or need a heart. In the same way, it's possible for an RPG to follow a very different path of design, one where there is not a single Game Master in charge of everything. Instead, responsibility for NPCs, for the details of the world, and for the direction of the story is spread out among all of the players. There are still goals, challenges, surprises, and ways of settling disputes, but it's no longer the case that all of these are the responsibility of a single person. A GM-less game like this must have very clear rules to guide the sharing of responsibility, to say who gets to decide what, and so on. In the following sections, I'll go into a little more detail about exactly how this division of power works in Shock. It's quite clever and, in practice, surprisingly playable.
2.3 Protagonists and Antagonists
I've already explained how responsibility for aspects of the setting is split up among the players. Let's move on: now that the setting is sketched out, we can start creating player characters. Since there's no GM, every player gets to create a Protagonist.
Remember the grid we created for our setting? Each protagonist exists at one of the intersections on that grid, so each Protagonist is based on a combination of one Shock and one Issue. This is not allowed to be the Issue that the same player controls. I owned "Intellectual Property", so I couldn't have played a character with Intellectual Property as his Issue. If I was allowed to own an issue and also play a character based on it, there would be a temptation to decide facts about the issue in such a way as to make my own goal easier, which wouldn't be very much fun.
In the game I played, my character was at the intersection of "Ubiquitous Computing" and "Lack of Due Process of Law". What does it mean to be at an intersection on the grid? The Shock and the Issue are going to be a big deal for my character. His story is going to be about these things in some way. But that still gives me a lot of leeway for deciding who my character should be. Does lack of due process mean that I am an innocent man, falsely accused of a crime? Does it mean that I am a criminal who was unjustly set free? Or perhaps I'm someone in a position of authority who is responsible for due process not being implemented. Hmmmmmm.... I chose the latter. Here's my character:
Raymund Pulaski, Retired Master Hacker
Issue: lack of due process
Shock: ubiquitous computing
Features: Master Hacker.
Zeroed out of all legal records.
Has memorized the Lord of the Rings word-for-word.
Links: Independent lifestyle (Goats!)
Praxis: Self-Reliance/Reputation = 3.
Cooperation/Force = 6.
Story Goal: To fix what he once made broken.
Antagonist: The ARCHoN system.
That's not a summary of my character sheet, by the way -- that's the entire thing! Characters are pretty simple, at least mechanically, in Shock. You can make your character's personality and background as detailed as you want, of course, without any reference to the game systems, so here's mine:
Raymund Pulaski was the main programmer who created the "ARCHoN" system, a massive artificial intelligence which
has replaced the entire judicial system. Vastly more efficient than the old system of courts, judges, and juries,
ARCHoN can decide any criminal or civil case in a matter of seconds, not weeks. As soon as a complaint has been
registered by at least three people (using a convenient web form), ARCHoN goes into action: downloading all relevant
sensory records from the personal networks of the victims, accusers, and suspects, analyzing them, and reaching
a judgment as to guilt or innocence.
Of course, the problem with this system is that it assumes that all sensory data from personal networks is
inherently reliable. Therefore, it's easily fooled by anyone who can tamper with the inputs.
"Garbage in, garbage out..." -- a fact that Raymund Pulaski knows all too well. Before he quit his job, he
put a backdoor into the ARCHoN system and "zeroed himself out", meaning that as far as the legal system is
concerned, Raymund Pulaski does not exist and can never be tried for any crime.
Troubled by the implications of the networked world, and the fact that people are losing their ability to remember
things on their own, Raymund moved to a small patch of land in the Rocky Mountains, where he has been living a
simple, natural life for the past few years, raising goats, chopping firewood, and exercising his biological
memory capacity by forcing himself to memorize, word-for-word, the entire works of JRR Tolkien. He still has his
personal network, of course, and when he goes online he does so under the pseudonym "Feanor" -- the elven prince whose
beautiful, perfect creations (the Silmarils) led his people into thousands of years of suffering.
I didn't decide all of those details about the ARCHoN system all by myself. I hashed them out in discussion with B., who owned "Ubiquitous Computing", and A., who owned "Lack of Due Process". Like everything else in Shock, character creation is a collaborative process. Since you don't even create the setting until all players are assembled, there's no such thing as creating a character in isolation.
As you can see from my sheet above, each character has Praxis scores, and Features and Links, which are a fairly free-form way of describing personality traits, special skills, possessions, and other facts about the character. But the most important things that every protagonist needs are a Story Goal and an Antagonist. The Story Goal is simply what you, the player, are trying to accomplish with your character during the game. The Antagonist is who or whatever is trying to stop you from getting that goal. Your antagonist will be played by one of the other players at the table. An antagonist can be a person, but it could also be an organization. The interaction of Protagonist, Antagonist, and Story Goal is what gives shape to the game.
So in our game, my goal was to "fix what I made broken" and restore due process of law by reprogramming ARCHoN. B. played my antagonist, the ARCHoN system itself, and tried to stop me. B. was also playing his own Protagonist, a sociopathic serial killer named Lawrence (intersection of Ubiquitous Computing and Due Process). Lawrence's story goal was to get away with murder without ever having his identity revealed to the public. Opposing him was a detective named Mycroft, played by A.. Finally, A.'s protagonist (intersection of Ubiquitous Computing and Intellectual Property), was a comic artist who published comics online under the pseudonym "G. Fire" -- smutty comics starring copyrighted anime characters in sexual situations (don't think that this stuff doesn't already exist!) G. Fire's goal was to make money off of his work; opposing him was "Johnny's Mom" (another pseudonym), played by me. Johnny's Mom was the overprotective mother of a teenage boy who found G. Fire's comics in her teenage son's memory and immediately started an online crusade / moral panic to get G. Fire shut down.
So let's see: we got a serial killer, a pornographer, and a guy responsible for the false convictions of probably millions of people. Clearly this is not a game that requires you to play heroes! There's no alignment, and you don't even have to worry about whether your characters could fit together in a "party", because there is no party -- each protagonist is the star of their own story. You pretty much have free reign with your choice of story goals, and again, players are encouraged to discuss them with each other. These choices determine most of what you'll be doing during play, so you'd better pick a Story Goal that you're going to enjoy pursuing!
We don't all play all our characters at the same time -- that way lies madness! Instead, we take turns doing scenes. So when it was my scene, I played Raymund, B. played my antagonist the ARCHoN system, and A. was a neutral onlooker. Not a passive onlooker, though -- she decided all facts about due process, meaning she was in charge of how the justice system actually worked. Once a scene had reached a logical stopping point, we would switch roles and play a scene in another protagonist's story. At no point did our three protagonists meet each other, so in a certain sense we were playing out three parallel plot threads which never met. But since these plot threads were based on the same themes and the same setting, the game felt like it held together anyway.
As I see it, this round-robin style of play cleverly takes care of all of the important services that a GM provides in a more "normal" RPG. Instead of the GM presenting a scenario or mission with an implied goal, the direction of gameplay in Shock comes from the protagonists each trying to accomplish their own Story Goals. Instead of the GM throwing various enemies and obstacles at the players, opposition is provided by the player of the Antagonist. Instead of the GM making decisions about the way the world works, each facet of the setting is owned by a different player who gets final say over it. And so on.
There are a couple very nice results of doing things this way. Since there's no GM, nobody has to spend hours laboriously preparing an adventure before the game starts. Such things have no place in Shock: you sit down around the table, create a setting together, create characters, and play! Speaking as someone who has spent far too much of his free time writing elaborate adventure plans -- only to have them rendered instantly useless when my PCs made an unexpected choice -- the idea of a game that I can play without prepping an adventure is extremely appealing.
It also means that every player gets a chance to express his or her creativity during the game. If you were ever frustrated in other RPGs that what you wanted your character to do didn't fit into the GM's plans, you may find Shock very refreshing. In fact, it's too mild to say that you'll "get a chance" to express your creativity -- it's more accurate to say that the game demands maximum creative input from everyone.
Have you ever been frustrated, in any RPG, by having to feign interest in generic "adventure bait"? The old guy in the tavern with a map to a cave full of treasure? The shady contact offering you big bucks for an illegal corporate espionage mission? ("My character's really not motivated by money", you think to yourself, "but I'd better go along with this or I won't have anything to do tonight." -- sound familiar? ) In Shock, this cannot happen, because everything that your protagonist does is in pursuit of a story goal that you chose, based on issues and shocks that you cared about enough to write on the grid. Not only that, you've got a devoted antagonist dedicated to making your chosen goal as hard as possible. It's like having an adventure custom tailored to your protagonist and your interests. I think that's a lot more fun than following the generic adventure bait.
I'm sure that some of you are still skeptical. "Are you sure this is really a role-playing game?" I can hear you asking. "It's starting to sound more like some kind of group therapy session, or a brainstorming activity from a college creative-writing course!" And that's not an entirely unfair description. Shock does, in fact, require all the players to think a little bit like story authors. But don't worry, I'm getting to the part where we roll dice. The actual gameplay of Shock is tightly focused on the one thing that every game needs in order to be exciting: Conflict!
Conflict in this game can be anything. Depending on what your Issues and Shocks are, conflict in your game might take the form of a massive starship battle, a political debate, a duel of wits between hacker and corporate security, or an argument between two lovers. With an infinity of possible settings, there's no way to have specific rules covering every possible kind of conflict.
So Shock doesn't try for detailed, realistic simulation of every event. This is not "GURPS: Social Science Fiction"! Instead, Shock goes for a system that is extremely simple, flexible, and abstract. In fact, once you're done creating characters, there is really only one game mechanic. This all-purpose die-rolling mechanic, based on Praxis, can be used to resolve any kind of conflict, from the starship battle to the lover's argument that I mentioned above. It just takes a little bit of flexibility from the players to decide how to apply the results of the dice to their specific situation.
I consider this a pretty nice feature. The entire set of game rules is small enough to easily fit inside my head, so there's no need to look anything up during play. I for one hate to have to pause everything in the middle of a fight to dig out a reference for how some spell works. But if you're the kind of player who likes to have a detailed table of weapon ranges and damages and so on, Shock might not be your kind of game.
Gameplay is very streamlined. If you're not in a conflict, you're role-playing freeform. At one point, I wanted my character to steal a pickup truck and drive to Kansas. Nobody at the table contested that, so it simply happened -- no skill rolls, no random encounters, no filler, just "OK, you're in Kansas now." But as they teach in dramatic writing 101, the point of every scene in a story should be to drive towards conflict between characters. A scene never goes on very long before the protagonist, trying to do something, runs into the antagonist trying to mess up his plans.
As soon as the players find something to disagree about, a conflict begins. The protagonist and antagonist each declare a goal, decide what method (from the Praxis scales) they will be using, and then roll dice. Choosing your goal is key, and so there is always a period of discussion and negotiation about what the goals should be before the dice are rolled. An important twist: it's possible for both goals to succeed, or for both goals to fail. For this reason, players are required to choose goals such that "mutual success" and "mutual failure" make logical sense as possible outcomes.
Here's an example of a typical conflict, from the very first scene of our game. B., my antagonist, declares that a SWAT team has just descended on Raymund's little cabin. They've got black vans, black helicopters, rifles, riot shields, all that good stuff. They demand that I come out with my hands up. (My antagonist is the computerized judicial system, so ordering in a SWAT team is well within his power.) My guy is supposed to have total legal immunity, so obviously something has gone horribly wrong. This sounds like the start of a conflict, so we declare goals! As protagonist, I choose first. The obvious goal would be "get away without getting arrested". But my curiosity is stronger than my fear, so I say "My goal is to find out what's going on: who sent them and what am I being arrested for?" B. declares the obvious goal: "They're trying to take you into custody."
(Note that if I had said "My goal is to escape", then B. could not have said "Their goal is to capture you". Those are mutually contradictory goals -- it wouldn't make sense for both to succeed or for both to fail! But since my goal is to find out what's going on, then any outcome is a possibility -- I could get captured and find out, I could find out and escape, I could escape without finding out, or I could get captured without finding out.)
We put this in terms of Praxis. Remember, our choices are Self-Reliance/Reputation and Force/Cooperation. The SWAT team is clearly using Force to try to arrest me. I explain that Raymond is hacking into the personal networks of the SWAT team members in order to access their memories of their orders -- and, if he can, to confuse them, in order to stymie their Goal. Since he's relying on his personal 1337 H4x0r skills in order to do this, we decide that I'm rolling Self-Reliance. This is typical -- it's a matter of interpretation which Praxis defines an action. Like much in this game, the players need to talk it out and reach a consensus before rolling.
After goals are declared, we've each got a certain number of dice we get to roll. Out of that number, we each choose how many are going towards achieving our own roll, and how many are going towards hindering the opponent's goal. You can think of it as dividing your dice between "attack" and "defense". It can be a tricky decision. I have to decide which is more important to my character -- getting that information, or evading capture.
Meanwhile, A. is neither the protagonist nor antagonist in this conflict. Does that mean she sits around being bored? No! She gets to roll a single die, which she can throw in on either side of the conflict, by introducing a new fact about the setting. If there were more players, they'd each get a single die too. Since A.'s character has no stake in the outcome of my struggle with the SWAT team, she can decide based on what sounds like a more interesting direction for the story to go. She decided that in this setting, SWAT teams have all their members sharing a single powerful network, for rapid coordination of their missions. They're like a mini-hive-mind! She put her die against my goal, since their powerful shared network is very difficult for my character to hack.
The addition of this die resulted in a tie for my goal. Exactly on the number, in Shock, means that we're so evenly matched that the conflict must escalate. My original goal fails, but I get a chance to try for a bigger goal and roll again. There's no way I can access any information about the SWAT team's orders -- so I escalate to attempting to bring down the central server of their network, disabling the whole team!
As it turns out, the result of this conflict was mutual failure. I didn't defeat the SWAT team, but I wasn't captured either. I was able to disorient my enemies just long enough to grab a shotgun and make my escape, vanishing into the woods. And that was the end of my character's first scene.
The dice don't tell you exactly what happened -- they only tell you whose goals succeeded and whose failed. The group has to interpret these results in terms of what goals were declared and what Praxis values were being used. There's quite a bit of flexibility here; it's up to the players to go back and narrate how the conflict played out, turning a dice result into an exciting bit of storytelling. This is not a game system that cares about how fast people are running, how badly they're wounded, whether a gunshot hit or missed, or how much fuel your rocket has left. Those sorts of details are left up to your common sense and how you're imagining the scene. So just like setting creation and character creation, the outcomes of conflicts require the players to put in their own creativity, discuss the situation, and reach a consensus.
It's fair to say that Shock is rules-light enough to be almost free-form role-playing, most of the time. But let's be honest: a lot of veteran role-players of any system do most of their resolution by common sense and GM fiat anyway, only occasionally reaching for the rules and dice. What makes Shock different from free-form (and, in my opinion, much more playable) is that the regular use of conflict dice in each scene help to provide structure, focus, pacing, and unpredictability.
2.6 The Dramatic Conclusion
Scenes continue alternating between the protagonists' plot threads until we finally reach a climactic scene for each one. The climactic scene is actually explicitly defined in the rules -- when the antagonist runs out of "credits" (used to buy conflict dice), then it's time for the climactic scene. That's when it's time to play out one last conflict that will decide the fate of the protagonist's story goal.
So you actually decide ahead of time about how long you want your game to run by deciding how many credits the antagonists start with. For our game, we wanted to do a one-shot, so we gave each antagonist 12 starting credits, which resulted in about three scenes per protagonist. That doesn't sound like much, but each scene covered a lot of ground, and it enabled us to finish the game with a satisfying conclusion for each character in a single play session. It took just under four hours from start to finish, including setting and character generation. If we had wanted to do a longer, multi-session game, we could have used the same story goals but more credits, and filled the story out with more intermediate conflicts, more detail, and more subplots before reaching the final conflicts.
This may sound like an odd way to play ( "Pre-deciding when the final scene will happen? What?" ), but I found it quite refreshing. I've played in dozens of campaigns over the years which started with great promise but which ended with a whimper long before the epic plot could come close to a resolution. It's a nice change to be able to say "Let's play a game of Shock with 21 credits" and know that you'll actually be hitting a resolution for those Story Goals after two or three focused gaming sessions.
Let me tell you about how our game ended, because it was extremely cool.
Remember Lawrence, the serial killer? His story was a tense battle of wits between him and the detective Mycroft who was tracking him down. As we got to his final scene, Lawrence realized that his cover had been blown, so he formed a desperate plan: He knew the police would be tracking him by the electronic signature of his personal network, so he went down to the docks, looking for a fall guy. He found a man of his own approximate physical description, snuck up on the guy, bound and gagged him, and swapped rigs with him. The fall guy would be Lawrence for all intents and purposes, and take the punishment in his place.
What Lawrence didn't realize is that the fall guy he picked was in fact Mycroft, the detective, who was down at the docks tracking him. In his haste to escape, he didn't check the identity of the rig he was putting on. And in the final conflict roll, the force of Mycroft's memories in the rig was strong enough to overwhelm Lawrence's personality... and vice versa. Lawrence, now acting as Mycroft, shot the man he thought was Lawrence, and then walked away into the sunset, thinking justice had been served. It was a perfect Twilight Zone kind of ending.
Meanwhile, our copyright-infringing artist had been engaged the whole time in anonymous cyber-warfare, a series of plots and counter-plots and double-crosses involving legions of angry mothers, unscrupulous fans, and the lawyers of the Bandai corporation. There were message-board flame wars and Google-bombing and corporate blackmail and fake pseudonyms and Internet-based pleas for sympathy. G. Fire continued to get more and more ruthless as all of this went on, making the rest of us wonder just how far he would go to protect his right to profit from cartoon smut. Someone pointed out that despite the cyberpunkiness of our setting, everything that was going on in this storyline was stuff that's already happening today. We truly are living in a world that's more cyberpunk than cyberpunk.
In the end, G. Fire threw up his hands and walked away from the whole thing. He gave up on the idea of making money from his artwork, gave up on smut, left the Bandai corporation with their public-relations nightmare, and started a new career under a new name making legitimate, original artwork. A. was the only one of us who failed to achieve her story goals, and yet her character was the only one of us who achieved a happy ending -- or at least personal redemption.
And my character?
I had finally arrived at the physical location of the ARCHoN central processor, in the middle of Kansas, buried underground under a field full of satellite dishes. I went down through the service elevator, evaded the guards by posing as a legitimate sysadmin doing routine maintenance, and logged in directly from the console. I found that the backdoor I had put in all those years ago had long since been disabled, but I was able to log in as a regular maintainer and trick the system into escalating my privileges.
In the final conflict, between me and the ARCHoN system, my declared goal was to reprogram it to re-introduce the element of human judgment to the system. My antagonist's goal was to see me dead.
We both won our rolls...
Under ARCHoN's new programming, in any case where its margin of uncertainty was greater than 0.5, it would select twelve random people by e-mail to form a remote jury-of-peers, and pass judgment only when the jury had reached a unanimous agreement. As soon as the system was reactivated, it immediately tried its first case under the new programming. That case was the case of Raymund Pulaski, on trial for tampering with justice. The remote jury reached a verdict within minutes, and sentenced me to death. A security guard patrolling the building received the APB on his personal network, and responded at once. He executed my character on the spot, before I even got up from the chair in front of the console.
None of us could have predicted any of these endings. There was no script and no pre-ordained ending, neither in an adventure supplement nor in a GM's mind. But the game mechanics, and the combination of each player's choices and ideas, led us all to the perfect dramatic endings for our characters. It was the first time I've ever stood up and applauded my own character's death, let me tell you.
3 The physical book
I couldn't be happier with the experience of playing Shock. But an RPG book is not the same thing as a game experience, and presumably you're reading this review to find out whether you should buy the book, right?
The book for Shock is a small, thin, square, paperback. The cover is bright, shocking orange with black text and no illustration. It's an unusual design choice, but certainly attention-grabbing. Make no mistake, this is an indie-press book: small print run, shoestring budget, amateur artwork. You can feel that it's a labor of love.
What's actually inside? The rules, as I said, are quite simple, and take only a few pages to explain, and there's no such thing as a fixed setting, so most of what you'd find in typical RPG rulebook simply has no reason to be in Shock. Much of the book is taken up with a complete story called "Who Art In Heaven". Taken from an actual game session, this is a story about a race of creatures called "vacuumorphs" -- engineered to survive in the vacuum of space, controlled by an artificial religion, and used by humans as slave labor for orbital construction. The main body of each page gives a fictionalized, in-character account of the story, while the sidebar details what the players at the table are saying, the rules being used, the dice being rolled, and so on. It's a very helpful example as well as an intriguing story in its own right. The rest of the Shock book is suggestions: Where to come up with ideas for Shocks and Issues, how to play an Antagonist in such a way as to make the game challenging for your Protagonist, examples of play, lists of SF stories that inspired the game and how to turn them into playable settings, and so on.
I have only one reservation about the Shock book, but it's a significant one: I'm concerned that the rules aren't presented clearly enough. I was lucky enough to be taught the game by people who had played it before, so this was not a problem for me, but when I read the book cover-to-cover it made me wonder whether I would have been able to figure out how to play if I had picked up the book cold. Several play procedures which are quite crucial do not seem to be explicitly spelled out in the book -- at least, I couldn't find them when I looked for them. Important information such as the maximum and minimum values that you can use for a character's Praxis value are never mentioned in the book. Additionally, the book says something about protagonists spending credits for more dice, but nothing about how protagonists might get credits -- the rules seem to say that only antagonists have credits. We simply played without the protagonist-credits rule, but I'm still wondering whether it was a typo, a missing rule, an accidental hold-over from an earlier version of the rules, or what.
If you're interested in Shock, I highly recommend getting someone who already knows the game to show you how to play, as that's the ideal way to be introduced. But the game is not yet very well known, so it may be hard to find other players. If you are considering buying the book, teaching yourself how to play, and introducing it to your gaming group, be warned that the book may leave you with some serious questions about the rules. (You may find the glyphpress website helpful -- it has a small section of errata, as well as links to play reports, which are an aid to understanding.)
The presentation is not an insurmountable problem, but it is quite annoying that the book doesn't do a better job with explanation. The rules are not complicated, so there's really no excuse. The actual play experience is pretty amazing once you've got the rules down, and I hate to think that the unclear presentation might prevent people from enjoying it.
4 But will I like this game?
Shock is my new favorite role-playing game, personally. But it's not for everyone -- that needs to be stressed. It is a very different type of experience than the RPGs you're probably used to. If you come to it expecting more of the same, you'll be disappointed. If you approach it with an open mind, you might love it or hate it. In this section I'll try to give you some idea of which category you might fall into.
First, your enjoyment of Shock will depend a lot on how you feel about the whole setting-creation idea. If you're the kind of person who buys RPG books mainly for cool background setting, Shock is probably not the game for you. Again, the book contains no setting, only ideas and rules for creating one. You can easily use Shock to recreate the setting of your favorite SF novel or film, or even to recreate the setting of another game. But I predict that the people who will love Shock the most are the kind of people who are wanna-be SF authors themselves, who keep notebooks filled with half-formed ideas for SF stories and settings. Get a few people like that together and they'll have a field day turning their ideas into exciting, playable scenarios. In fact, wanna-be authors will appreciate Shock for another reason: it's a good resource for learning to write SF as well as play it. The elements that Shock stresses as the basis of exciting gameplay -- protagonist/antagonist, setting scenes, escalating conflicts, and so on -- are also the basis of good storytelling, even if you're writing a book and not a role-playing scenario.
Next, I'll warn you that you might be a little disappointed with Shock if you're looking for deep character immersion in your RPGs. Because players in Shock are co-authors in the story, and not just players of single characters, it requires you to put a little bit of distance between yourself and your character. Sometimes you even want your character to fail. As I think I've shown, an ending where your character dies or fails to get his objective can still be very cool. If you're used to thinking of your character as "yourself" then this might be quite jarring. I can't say whether I prefer co-author style role-playing over deep-character-immersion style role-playing; they're just two different things, and you should know which one you're getting into.
Furthermore, I need to stress that Shock requires a mature group of players who can trust each other. You have to be willing to cooperate and to accept each other's ideas, since it is group consensus and not "GM says so" that ultimately determines everything from the setting you're playing in to the outcome of conflicts. I imagine that the delicate balance of player roles and responsibilities in Shock could be easily destroyed if there was a "problem player" in the group -- someone who is unwilling to compromise, who is unwilling to contribute ideas, who is disrespectful of others' ideas, or who is trying to "win" the game. This is especially true since there is no GM to act as referee for the group. Use Shock with caution if you have any doubts about your group's social dynamics.
Above all, the fun you get out of Shock depends entirely on how much imagination you and your friends put into it. Don't buy Shock expecting a ready-to-eat meal. What you're buying is a set of cooking utensils and kitchen appliances. It's up to you not only to do the cooking, but also to provide the ingredients. The procedures of gameplay are just a set of tools. They will help you blend your ideas with those of your friends, add pacing, structure, and excitement, and create a satisfying story out of the mixture. But all the raw materials -- the issues, shocks, characters, praxis, conflicts, antagonists, and so on -- they all have to come from the players' imaginations. This is not a game for people who want to sit back and be entertained, nor for those who want to follow a GM's story and see where it leads. It's for people who want to be active story co-creators. It's a challenge. It's mentally draining. Cooking is work! Some days you'd rather not cook, you'd rather go to a restaurant and consume something prepared for you. But the advantage of a well-stocked kitchen over a restaurant meal is that you can cook something different with it every day for the rest of your life. I feel like I could play Shock every weekend for ten years, going through hundreds of different settings, without ever getting bored or repeating myself. In this way, this one thin little orange book can provide more depth and variety of gaming than an entire bookshelf of expensive, glossy, hardcover supplements.
My closing thought is this: because a game of Shock is built around real-world issues that you care about, your game is going to be a little deeper than just entertainment -- it's going to be a story that's about something. It's going to have some intellectual heft to it. It's going to get you thinking. For this reason, I think that playing Shock can actually be therapeutic: when you're feeling confused about some topic in the news, if you can't decide how you feel about some pressing social issue, if you see a new invention and wonder what it might mean, you can play a Shock game about it. Role-playing it out might help you and your friends work through your thoughts and explore possible consequences. In Shock, I think we might finally have an RPG that does what the best written SF does -- help us learn to cope with the rapid social and technological changes occurring in the modern world.
I'm not dead. I'm getting better! I think I'll go for a walk!
Brief summary of stuff I've been up to lately (more detailed posts to follow)
- Held down the fort at Humanized while the rest of the company went on a business trip to Sweden
- Went to ACEN, confronted my lack of interest in the anime culture, dressed up like a disco baker and did yet another crazy skit that made no sense, but check out the audience reaction. The big achievement of the weekend was baking three loaves of bread from scratch in rice-cookers in the hotel room.
- Went camping in the woods near Kenosha, Wisconsin, with some gamer friends and then took part in a small, friendly outdoor Warhammer 40K tournament there. We picked about two dozen ticks off of our clothes and bodies after tromping into the brush to find a geo-cache.
- Watched the 17-year cicadas emerge from the ground, climb trees, and metamorphose, in my parents' neighborhood, and chatted with a Japanese film crew from NHK who were there taping them for a nature program.
Stuff I'm going to be attempting to get done in the near future:
- STARTING UP THE COMIC AGAIN. This is key. It's been on vacation for over a month, which is much too long. Expect a new page of Yuki's office adventures this Sunday. This is the first weekend in many months that I haven't had anything scheduled that I have to do, so I can spend the whole weekend just drawing (and cleaning).
- Cleaning my filthy apartment
- Running a game of Polaris! Or something
- Posting a bunch of cool pictures on this site
- Re-asserting a more regular Aikido schedule
- Moving Humanized to its new premises, a converted factory building on Ravenswood and Wilson
In serious news:
OMFG Alexis got hit by a car!!
In completely frivolous news:
Yu-Gi-Oh, the Abridged Series. This is the best fan-parody-dub I've ever seen of anything. It takes Yu-Gi-Oh, a horrible toy-commercial anime based on a collectible card game, and reduces each episode to 3 minutes, give-or-take, of solid MST3K-esque hilarity. I've never seen the original, but this still made me laugh so hard I choked on a french fry.
The RpgNet "Creepiest Person You've Gamed With" thread. This discussion thread has been going on literally for years and is now up to something like 4,500 posts, making it something of an institution. There are lots of good stories in there (and by good I mean fascinatingly disturbing and horrifying). Thrill to tales of creepy girls who think they are vampires in real life, GMs who turned out to be drug dealers or child molesters, the Brazillian police death-squad role-players who brought tequila and hookers to the game, and the guy who voluntarily pooped his pants because he didn't want to stop playing RIFTS long enough to go to the bathroom. Gross! Thanks to UCJAS alumni John, who I met at ACEN, for introducing me to this sanity-endangering black hole.
Finally... Starcraft 2! It's about time!
I did a bad thing
Last Wednesday night I did a bad thing...
I played Magic the Gathering. And I enjoyed it! Nooo! Yeah, I played with Kat at the anime club. She only started playing last Fall. I haven't played since Urza's block, which was... what... 2000? 2001? Anybody remember the dates?
We've both been saying "Yeah we should play sometime" ever since the day I just happened to look over her shoulder at anime club one day and see that she was reading Wizards of the Coast's Magic website, but Wednesday was when it finally happened.
We both had to keep reading every card the other person played, since all of mine are so old she doesn't know them and all of hers are so new I don't know them. And so she was all like "Holy crap, only one land untaps a turn? And this only costs 2 mana? They'd never print something like that today!" and I was all like "Holy crap, there are like two mini cards on that card! What the hell is that?"
So yeah, it was fun. I burned out on buying cards and trying to compete in the tournament scene a long time ago, but despite my complaints, the basics of the game are still pretty fun. (It's not a hugely deep game, but it has a very high tactical-depth-to-play-time ratio compared to most games I know.) So I'm not going to get back into buying new cards, but I'll probably keep some of my now-considered-super-old-school decks around to pull out once in a while and show these young whipper-snappers how it's done.
Kat told me about going to a prelease tournament: "Yeah, I was one of four women there. So much pasty white fanboy man-flesh! (shudder)". Me: "I hope everyone had showered, at least." Kat: "Everybody I played against was fine, but I saw a couple people there and was like Oh God Please Don't Let Me Get Matched Up Against Him." Magic is even way more male-dominated than role-playing and stuff. I talked to another female nerd a while ago (this was at Art Night, I'll make that into another post) who said "Yeah, I used to play Magic, but all the other players were like Oh No A Woman You Can't Play With Us Cuz You Have Cooties. So I quit." Isn't that sad? We (and by we I mean gaming culture as a whole) really need to stamp out behavior like that and encourage the girl gamers to flourish. Any ideas?
Anyway, one of the decks I had was this super-cheap all-commons deck which is just a random heap of mountains, goblins, and burn spells, which does surprisingly well. It's all commons so I don't bother putting them in card wrappers or anything. I said "Watch this, I'm going to make every Magic nerd cry" and then I riffle-shuffled them, like a deck of playing cards. Kat laughed, and said "Somewhere across campus, my boyfriend just started crying and he doesn't know why." Geoff saw my shuffle from across the room and started screaming: "OH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING HOW CAN YOU DO THAT TO MAGIC CARDS THAT'S LIKE RAPING ORPHANS NOOOOOOOO!" Seriously, that's what he said, "raping orphans". I expected it would get a disapproving reaction but geez, that guy needs to get a little bit of perspective. Now every time I see Geoff I'm going to pantomime riffle-shuffling just to watch him wince.
Pictures from Uchicon Weekend
The anime club from U of C puts on its own mini-convention (in the biology building, since they have the best A/V equipment, for some reason). This is the fourth year of "Uchicon". Each year we get some local webcomic artists, we get some academic experts who have written papers on japanese culture to come give talks, we buy lots of pocky, we have a video game tournament (put on by the video game club, "Order of the Blistered Thumb"), show movies, and generally have a real good time. The attendance has hovered between 100 and 200 people, so we're still very very small, but it's a great time despite that (and despite some headaches this year when the school bureaucracy, funding committees, RSO advisors, and UPS deliverymen all dropped the ball really bad).
I wasn't involved in organization much this year -- all I did officially was interview some artists, talk on the skit panel, and bake Yakitate! Rice Cooker Bread. (I used live yeast this time and let it rise longer, so it came out all fuwa-fuwa and was a great big hit. Got devoured instantly.) Treated some of the webcomickers to Thai food after the con was over. Since I wasn't doing much organization, I was free to actually hang out and enjoy stuff. We got quite a few cosplayers this year so I went ahead and took pictures of them (all cosplayers love getting attention, right?)
This is one of the Spoony Bards, a local amateur band who play covers of video game music, and who provide the Uchicon soundtrack. They're really quite talented, and they know lots of songs -- you can yell at them "Play something from Chrono Trigger!" and they will, for instance. He's wearing the giant pink head of Maromi from Paranoia Agent which I helped make for last year's ACEN skit.
Rachel from the club cosplaying as Misato from Evangelion.
I don't know her name, but she was on the cosplay panel, and that's an original costume based on the J-rocker style. (If anybody knows the missing names, could they leave a comment and help me out?)
Lina (sp?) from club, as... some kind of maido-san? Wakaranai.
Some girls playing Naruto characters. I remember them from the skit panel, where they said they had seen our ACEN skits from previous years, and something about wanting to come to University of Chicago to be in the club that does the awesome skits (that's a good reason, right?) So I think they were in high school?
Um, I don't know who either of these people are in real life or in costume, sorry.
I don't know who this guy is either or why he's punching me.
This woman talked at the cosplay panel. She has the mad cosplay skills. Here she's San aka Princess Mononoke, but last year at ACEN she was the Great Forest Spirit from the same movie, who I think won the grand costume prize... and WOW she deserved it.
Here's a closeup of the mask from the great forest spirit costume. She told us all the steps she went through to make it, with clay and plaster and latex and power tools and a hair-punching thingy. Wow! Talk about almost-pro at the costume making.
Sunday, the day after Uchicon, I invited some peoples up to my apartment to play Twilight Imperium some more. Aza, Jim, and Phil all came, and by leaving out the special rules and hustling a bit, we actually managed to finish a game in a quite reasonable six hours (Aza, playing the L1Z1X Mindnet, beat us all.)
The phone companies are trying to help the Libertarians destroy the Moral Minority.
Back from a week of not drawing: another Yuki Hoshigawa is up now.
Unrelated: last night I had a birthday party (even though it was Kristin's birthday, and not mine). Mom made an "Enso" cake. It said "HAPPY BIRTHDAY is not a command" and had green leaves and an enso circle. My coworkers all chipped in and surprised me with Twilight Imperium, which is prety much the ultimate in mostrously complicated sci-fi board games -- it's got over 300 plastic spaceships, ten playable races with different powers, a modular board, zillions of cards and tokens, a 40 page rulebook, hidden victory conditions, and a tech tree. It honestly makes Dune look simple. My coworkers know me well, don't they? I was touched. I can't wait to try it out, but it's probably going to require setting aside a whole weekend and recruiting five other people willing to do the same. Then again, that might not be so hard -- they told me that when they bought it, the guy at the game store said, "When you're going to play this, call me up, I want in". In all seriousness apparently.
So me and my coworkers and anime club friends and Phil and Kristin and her friends played charades (we made our own cards so of course we ended up with lots of impossible ones like "Ozone" and "Communism". Just try to think about how you would pantomime that.) And then we played Illuminati (the original non-collectable version) with six players, none of whom had ever played that version before; it got off to a slow start with all the rules questions but it was a riot. Even the most basic statement of what you're doing on your turn in that game can't help but be hilarious. (The international communist conspiracy is funding the underground newspapers' attempt to destroy the Republican party in order to further the agenda of the Servants of Cthulhu!)
Good times, good times. My friends and family are pretty great.
Giant Pile of Random Cool Links
People have been sending me lots of cool links lately. Here are some in no particular order.
A congressman from Oregon goes on a bizzare rant about how There are Klingons in the White House. And not even real Klingons, faux Klingons.
Somebody did a realistic computer simulation of Zombie Evolutionary Epidemology. Inspired by an important point that T-Rex of Dinosaur Comics made about zombies.
For sale: a Plush Rygel XVI from Farscape.
Penny Arcade: If grocery stores worked like video game stores.
Vote for the funniest picture. There's some dumb/crude stuff in there obviously but a lot of them are truly hilarious. The current top 40 are here. This is a site set up by the guy who draws one of my favorite webcomics, XKCD.
Dresden Codak. A webcomic I wish there was a lot more of, but given how intricate the artwork is, I understand why there's only a relative few of them. But man! Oh man! The colors! The surrealism! The philosophical pretentiousness! The D&D references! It's like prog rock in webcomic form! Go there now and read all of the archives! Marvel at their beauty and strangeness! I wanna draw like that someday.
A dude plays the guitar and talks about how much he hates Pachelbel's Canon. You don't know what Pachelbel's Canon is? Yes, actually you do, you just don't know that you know. Go watch this, all the way to the end, it's inexplicably hilarious.
Also inexplicably hilarious and on YouTube: College Saga. If you have ever played a Final Fantasy game, you must watch this. The creativity that went into it is really impressive. The first part is the best; it's diminishing returns after that.
Not funny, but rather insightful: Stephen writes about the 0x10 most ignored rules in free software. I guess this is mostly only of interest to software developers, but it's a good read.
More old links from my friends' livejournals: Sushu starts an interesting conversation about smart and socially alienated kids.
More recently, mah favorite emo-boy Eric recounts this fascinating true story about an encounter with a poor sick man in a wheelchair and the philosophical implications thereof.
That's all I can think of right now. You go read that stuff and I'll get back to working!
Board games are fun!
Well, it hasn't all been work lately. I did take some days off around Xmas and New Year. Some of my old JET program friends (Ben and Evan and Erin) came to visit me in Chicago, and I was really happy to see them again and catch up on stuff (even though I was fighting a nasty cold the whole time). And we hung out and played board games. And Erin took me to a gaming party her friend Zach was throwing -- it turns out this Zach lives less than a mile away from me, but we wouldn't have met if not for this mutual acquaintance from the other side of the world. Ha!
This gaming party was pretty amazing. Dozens of people, who had come from many hours' drive away; multiple tables with games of every genre going on; tons of tasty snacks; the thing went on all night long, long after I left. They had this high-powered solar lamp set up in the living room which did a really good job of tricking everybody's brain into thinking it was still daylight so we didn't get tired.
Around midnight Zach said "So is it time for.... DUNE?" People started talking about this Dune thing in tones of awe and reverence. Zach got it down from the top shelf of the closet: an ancient, tattered box, obviously well-loved and played hundreds of times and taped back together every time it fell apart; he warned us that Dune would take about two hours to explain and another six hours to play. It sounded absolutely fascinating, but I reluctantly decided I had better go home, since I was still sick and I really needed to get some sleep. Lucky for me I got to go back to Zach's place on New Year's Eve and I had a chance to play Dune after all. More on this below.
Also, Jeremy and Cat and Eric came to my place, and we played Settlers of Catan; and this last Sunday, Atul brought out A Game of Thrones and we got together five people to play that. So in one of those weird forms of convergence that sometimes happen in life, I've suddenly had a ton of opportunities to play really cool board games.
I'm contemplating the idea that board games (along with other kinds of tabletop gaming) could very well continue to be my primary form of socialization throughout the rest of my life; and I'm quite happy about this idea. I've met lots of cool people through gaming. I'd rather play tabletop games than play computer games or watch movies. Certainly I'd rather play games than do boring things that normal people do to socialize, like go to bars or parties or go on dates.
(If you think about it, dating is kind of like a game, only the rules are unwritten and undiscussed, and the victory conditions are vague. Or else the victory conditions exist but are unacknowledged, like when people want sex but won't admit it to each other. Man, I hate dating so much.)
So! Board games! Reasons why board games in general are an ideal activity to do with friends:
- More interactive than watching movies or anime
- More personal (in the sense of face-to-face human interaction) than video or computer games
- Not as much of a bottomless time and money sink as collectible card games
- Doesn't require the long-term organization and time commitment of an RPG campaign (nor does it have the same risk of falling flat when the players and the GM are obviously not on the same wavelength -- I'm sure every role-player knows what I mean!)
- Inclusive, in the sense that it's easier to include friends and relations who are not neccessarily hardcore gamers -- people who would never play an RPG or computer strategy game with me can still be talked into joining a board game
There are plenty of bad board games in the world, of course. Unfortunately some of the really bad games are also really popular. I'm thinking here of stuff like Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, neither of which I particularly want to play again, ever. Monopoly is all like "Roll - move - roll - move - roll - move - how the heck does this game end again?" And the answer is that it only ends by the long, slow, excruciating, and mainly luck-driven process of players being driven bankrupt one by one (and then having nothing to do until the game ends). In fact I do not think I have ever in my life played Monopoly all the way to the end. And no, making it "Star Warsopoly" or "Simpsonsopoly" does NOT make it any less boring, people. (Why the heck are there so many licensed-IP versions of Monopoly anyway? It boggles the mind.) Monopoly could perhaps be improved if you modified it to emphasize the trading and building aspects which are the one interesting part, and got rid of the going-endlessly-round-in-a-circle part, and put in a victory condition so that a player could win by achieving a certain score rather than through waiting for the misfortune of others. Hey, you know what? I think I just described Settlers of Catan.
A bizzare historical note: The earliest version of Monopoly, then called "The Landlord's Game", was invented in 1904 by a woman named Elizabeth Magie who created it as a tool of propoganda to promote her economic theories; namely, she wanted to demonstrate how the whole system of owning land and collecting rent is fundamentally unfair! You can read the whole convoluted story here.
(See also interpretations of The Wizard of Oz as an allegory for political issues of the 1890s.)
And then Trivial Pursuit is all like "Who won the Oscar for best picture in some year three decades before you were born?" Gee, sorry Trivial Pursuit, I don't know or care. I guess if all the orange questions are like that, I'll never be getting the Orange Cheese Wedge, ever. This is not fun.
So yeah. Sucky things are popular because they're all that most people know about. It's not unique to games. See also Microsoft Windows, pop music, etc.
But here's some of the really good games I've played recently.
This is part of the "German school" of board games, along with Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico (below). Apparently board games are a really big deal in Germany, and they have yearly game design awards that people actually care about, and so on. What do the games of the German school have in common? From what I've seen so far: tastefully colorful wooden pieces, a theme of peaceful economic competition, elegant and original gameplay mechanics, good balance, low randomness, high abstraction, and the lack of player-elimination or other cutthroat screw-your-neighbor type factors.
So, in Carcassone you take turns picking up random tiles and laying them down to form a map which gradually grows as you play. Tiles show parts of roads, fields, cities, etc. and must be laid down so terrain features match up. When you put a tile down you can choose to claim one of the terrain features on it by putting one of your colorful wooden men (called "meeples") down on the terrain feature. When the feature is finished (the road is terminated at both ends, or city walls form a complete loop, etc) you score points for the size of the feature and get your meeple back. There are a few more rules to cover the details of scoring (scoring fields is a little complicated) but that's the basic idea.
It's very easy to explain and to understand how to play, but there's a shocking amount of depth in the decisions you make. Choosing to claim a feature is kind of like placing a bet that you think that the terrain feature will get completed and end up being big enough to get you enough points to be worth the investment of one of your limited supply of meeples. Sometimes you want to minimize another player's points by prematurely ending their terrain feature; other times it's better to keep expanding their terrain feature so they can never finish it. And if a field that you're claiming and a field that I'm claiming should happen to meet up, our "farmers" are now competing over it; if I end up with two meeples in a field where you have only one, I get full points and you get nothing, but we're not allowed to simply play meeples into an already claimed field, so suddenly we're both looking for ways to start a meeple in a new field and then have that join up with the old field, and it quickly turns into a kind of complicated topological chain reaction that feels a little bit like a 3+player version of Go.
Another German game. Players are running plantations in Puerto Rico and shipping corn, sugar, tobacco etc. back to the old world. The game looks intimidating at first, because it has hundreds of chips and counters and tiles and wooden pieces and stuff, but everything fits together quite logically so it's easy to figure out. You build buildings with various abilities, start plantations, get colonists ("No, they're not slaves, they're... um... Happy Workers!") to work in your buildings and plantations, produce goods, sell goods to get money to buy buildings, and ship goods to get victory points. All the interacting economic subsystems make it feel a bit like Civilization.
I haven't gotten to the ingenious part, though: the turn order. Each player takes a turn choosing a "role", and the role has a benefit for all players. So when you choose the Mayor role, all players get colonists; when you choose the Craftsman role, all players produce goods; when you choose the Builder, all players can make buildings; etc. The person choosing the role gets to go first and gets a slight bonus (one extra good/colonist, or a reduced building cost, etc) as an incentive. Once a role has been chosen, it can't be chosen again until play has cycled all the way around the table and back to the first person again; then the roles reset.
So, the game feels cooperative, because everything you do benefits all players; the strategy is in choosing the stuff that benefits you more than it benefits the others, which requires careful planning ahead and trying to predict what the other players are going to want to pick next. Although it seems cooperative at first, it can actually be quite cutthroat, as you choose roles which screw up your neighbor's carefully-laid plans (and then pretend not to understand why they're mad: "But I'm helping you! Didn't you want to ship that coffee this turn?") There's almost no randomness in the game, so competitive players have analyzed the ideal opening moves to the same extent that people analyze chess openings.
I recommend you play this with a straw hat which you can pass around the table to keep track of who the current Governor is. I did that and besides keeping track it played into the theme which was a lot of goofy fun. Also I kind of want to make my own building tiles just so I can make an "Arreceibo Radio Telescope" building and a "Beat the United States at Baseball" card.
More of a multiplayer puzzle than a game. There are four robots in a sort of maze-layout board (which can be set up different ways for replay value). Various symbols in the maze represent goals; a player flips up a face-down chip which will indicate the goal and which color robot is supposed to get there; then all players compete to find the most efficient way of getting the appropriate robot to the appropriate goal.
So, in practice, you flip up the tile and then everybody stares intently at the board until one player says "I can do it in 12 moves" and flips up a 1-minute hourglass, and then everybody else is racing to try to figure out a way to do it in fewer than 12 moves. When the timer runs out, whoever claimed the lowest number then has to demonstrate that the solution is actually possible.
The robots' movement is restricted in that once they start going in a certain direction, they can't stop until they hit something (thus "ricochet"). Often the most efficient way of getting the robot to the goal involves moving one or even two of the other robots first just in order to give the target robot an obstacle to bounce off of in a critical location. It's quite mind-bending. I was really bad at it -- or rather, I was playing against a few people who had a lot of experience and were really, really good at it.
An Avalon Hill board game from 1979 based on the SF novel. It's been out of print for decades but it has quite a cult follwoing online; there are several sites with instructions for how to construct your own copy of the game.
(There was also another, unrelated, fairly lame Dune boardgame in 1984; it was based on the movie, and therefore had movie stills on all the cards etc, whereas the 1979 one was based on the book only and had super-cheesy hand-drawn artwork.)
So, I've only played it once now -- in an epic session that lasted from midnight until 7 am on January 1, and that doesn't count the 2 hours it took to explain the rules previous to that! But I can understand why people get obsessive over it! It's deep, complex, highly thematic, and very intense.
It's for exactly six players: Atreides, Harkonnen,
the Emporer, the Guild, the Fremen, and the Bene Gesserit. You could play it with less but it loses something, as the factions are carefully designed to have this delicate balance of power. Each faction has a long list of rule-breaking special powers, to the point where every rule in the game is broken by some faction, and half of the factions have unique victory conditions too. There is so much hidden information that every player gets a GM shield. The board is a polar map of the planet. The normal victory condition is to occupy three out of the five Sietches. Each player has multiple leaders, which can turn traitor to other players or be asassinated with poison
or projectile weapons; each player also has tons of tiny army tokens they can move around the planet; battles are diceless and are resolved by an elaborate sort of secret auction modified by Treachery cards, so the winner of any given battle is usually the player willing to sacrifice more. The game is all about diplomacy and backstabbing and bluffing and Spice bidding wars. Any tiny bit of information you can glean about what another player might be holding is highly valuable.
I played the Fremen; they start with almost nothing, but since they're native, they have a cheaply renewable supply of dudes who can just wander on from the edge of the board instead of having to pay the Guild to ship down to the planet like everybody else does. Also the Fremen player secretly rolls the Storm die, so he's the only one who knows where the sandstorm is going to move to; and when the cards are flipped over to show where on the planet Spice appears that turn, if a Shai-Hulud is flipped over, it usually devours all armies on that territory, but if the Fremen are there they can ride the worm instead and take it wherever they want to go! SO AWESOME!! I'm just throwing out concepts here without explaining them, I know, but that's just what the game is like -- there's an insane amount of stuff going on.
My favorite special rule, though, is the Bene Gesserit victory condition: the Bene Gesserit player, before the game
starts, writes down a prediction of which player will win and on which turn; if this prediction comes true, the Bene Gesserit player wins instead. The BG player can of course try to help that player to win in order to make the prediction come true; this does an amazing job of encouraging the BG player to act like the BG, in that sense of "why are you creepy old ladies helping me so much this is part of your 10,000 year plan to breed the Kwizatz Haderach isn't it?"
A Game of Thrones
Here is another epic game of multiplayer diplomacy and warfare and backstabbing based on a book. "A Game of Thrones" is the first book in George R.R. Martin's very historical-flavored epic fantasy series. (When I say historical-flavored, I mean there's barely anything in it (from what I've read so far) that's actually magical; it's practically medieval European history with different names and a different map.)
I played this with four other people who had all read the book (I've only read like the first couple chapters); there was much discussion on the order of "oh man, they made [name of character] way too ugly on this card!" It's a pretty good game even if you don't know the setting, however. All players simultaneously choose secret orders, by putting a face-down order token in each province where they have troops. Once everybody's ready, the tokens get flipped face-up and all the resulting battles get resolved. The secret orders, and the making and breaking of deals which inevitably results, make it similar to the classic game Diplomacy (which I've never played but I know of by reputation). And in a way similar to Dune, each side in a battle chooses a leader card to play which has a strength modifier and various special abilities, then gets discarded to be recycled only much later.
The only random element in the game is these three decks of event cards which get turned up every turn and affect all players. You might get to muster more troops, or there might be a Wildling attack, or certain orders might be off-limits this turn -- or there might be "A Clash Of Kings!" which is the very cool and unique part of this game. There are three influence tracks on the side of the board ("Fiefdoms", "King's Court", and "Iron Throne"), and all players have a relative position on each track. The players who are higher up on a track get certain advantages -- for instance, if you're higher than another player on the Fiefdoms track, you win all ties in combat against that player. The highest spot on each track gets a cool toy; like the top of the King's Court track gets you the Messenger Raven, which lets you change one order token after they're all revealed.
Anyway, when the Clash of Kings comes up, all players bid power chips for position on each of the three tracks. You really want to be high up on all three if you can, but you need to save power chips for various other things as well; and since the auctions are all secret, you don't know how much the other players are bidding until it's too late. The Clash of Kings is extremely tense and hard to predict, and it can completely upset everyone's positions and force everyone to rethink their plans.
You know, if anybody reading this is looking for a birthday present for me, I don't have a copy of Carcassone or Puerto Rico yet... or you could just go on my new favorite website, Board Game Geek and look at the top-rated games there for ideas!
You-know-what on a you-know-where
I am slightly ashamed to admit this, but I just got back from seeing Snakes on a Plane. On opening night.
Alexis is back from China (yay!) and is in Chicago for a few days, so I asked if she wanted to have dinner and go see the movie which was a cult classic even before it was released. Aza and Andrew came too, and we had Costa Rican food at this place that sells oatmeal shakes. Then we watched videos of past ACEN skits and talked about old RPG adventures until the movie started.
Don't ask how the movie was. It was Snakes on a Plane and that's all there is to say about it, really. The audience was more interesting than the movie in a lot of ways -- they were all in on the "joke", such as it was, and they were yelling and cheering at the screen the whole time. Even during the previews people were yelling out "SNAKES ON A HELICOPTER!" or "SNAKES ON A SURFBOARD!" or "SNAKES IN THE NATIONAL GUARD!" The cheering was deafening when the title came onscreen, and when Samuel L. Jackson came onscreen, and at each of his famous lines, and whenever snakes bit a character they didn't like.
All my friends eventually walked out of the theater at different times. I stayed through almost all of it because hey, somebody has to summarize the plot to them later.
Anyway, Alexis is a lot of fun and I missed her and I'm glad she's back and I hope we can go on another road trip someday soon. And she made me realize that -- this might sound silly, but I miss having friends who are girls. Work is all male and Aikido almost exclusively so and apart from work and Aikido I don't see anybody these days.
Anyway, to everybody who sat through part or most of that horrible, no good, very bad (well what did you expect, it's called Snakes on a Plane) movie with me: thanks for putting up with it and me, and I had a good time anyway.
I added user pics
Hey guys, guess what? I updated the code for this website so that commenters all have commenter images. However, this is not one of those sites where you pick an image to upload for yourself. On this site I draw a user image for you. So come on over and post a comment to see what you look like.
If you don't like your picture, or if you'd rather remain anonymous for whatever reason, let me know and I'll change it or take it off.
And hey, I wanted to draw one of Alexis, but I don't have any reference photos and I can't find any on her livejournal... anybody have Alexis pictures? Cuz I'm not good at drawing people from memory.
And by the way, when I was going through the user accounts, I discovered that my mom has created no fewer than SEVEN accounts with different names. Mom: Please pick one and stick with it!
Finally, if there are any other features I could add to this site's backend-code which you would appreciate -- something that would make it easier for commenters, or easier to navigate, or whatever -- please tell me your ideas!
Acen 2006 And What It Taught Me About Myself
A Very Long And Soul-Searching Convention Report
I didn't get one good night's sleep during the week before the convention, because I was staying up late working on my costume and rehearsing our skit and editing the soundtrack for our skit. Thursday night I got maybe 3 hours of sleep, then had a full day of work, then went on a long grocery shopping expedition to get okonomiyaki and onigiri ingredients. Then came carrying many armloads of crap up to the 10th floor hotel room. So by that point I was dead tired, grumpy, and not in the mood to enjoy anything. The hotel room was a party atmosphere but all I wanted to do was sleep. I say this by way of apologizing for my grouchiness. I don't remember too clearly but I think that before I passed out on the bed I snapped at a couple of people who I really shouldn't have snapped at. If this was you, I'm sorry.
The group from University of Chicago was 35 people! Transporting us, our costumes and props, our clothes and toiltetries for the weekend, our food, and our cooking supplies, to the hotel, and getting rooms for all of us, and registering our skits with the masquerade people, and then getting everything cleaned up again and checking out and transporting everybody and all the stuff home: That was inherently a logistical nightmare. Many kudos to Sushu for pulling it off with style (she printed out sheets of who was sharing a room with who, and everybody's contact info) and for keeping everybody from killing each other!
Acen itself is also inherently a logistical nightmare. (So us going there as a group is a logistical nightmare within a logistical nightmare.) Acen has grown to almost 10,000 attendees who all descend on the hotel and convention center for a weekend. Events have to be organized, schedules prepared, guest celebrities flown in, dealers signed up, registration taken, hotel staff negotiated with, and so on and so on. There is a nonprofit organization called MAPS (Midwest Anime Promotion Society) which exists solely to make this one weekend happen, and it keeps them busy for most of the rest of the year.
Now that I've been a part of organizing a small one-day anime convention (Uchicon) at the U of C for two years, I have some appreciation of the massive amount of volunteer labor that must go into ACEN, and for the skills and patience of the people who run the masquerade every year and put up with our insane skit ideas and our last-minute changes and stuff. Every year they get better and better at what they do. This time they had a secondary badge for registered masquerade participants, which solved the problem of knowing who should be allowed into the Green Room.
Anyway, the ACEN people are so cool that I am seriously thinking of volunteering to help staff the con next year. The thing is, I'm not actually all that into anime for its own sake anymore. If somebody else puts it on the TV I'll watch it, but I don't go seeking it out. Most new series don't interest me, and even for the few that do, I feel no need to obsess over them or to watch every single episode. I'm old and jaded. But I still love cosplay and the con experience and hanging out with cool weird people and seeing the insane costumes that other people come up with. So staffing the con might be the thing for me.
My single biggest complaint about the logistics of Acen: the hotel really needs more elevators. There are only four. Our hotel room was on the tenth floor, the events were on the first and second, and I ended up taking those nine flights of stairs many, many times because it was faster than competing with the big clump of waiting cosplayers. At more than one point there was a huge traffic jam because the hotel staff had to commandeer the escalators and one elevator to bring somebody who was having a medical emergency down to street level. The elevator problem was exacerbated by this huge bar that we had as a stage setting for one of our skits. More on that later.
Oh, we usually share the convention center with some boring convention. We avoid stepping on each other's toes but it makes an interesting contrast. Like last year there was an Optometrists' convention. This time it was the Powder And Bulk Materials Expo, an industrial trade show which sounds like it must be the most boring thing on earth. Just imagine if you were a manager at some powder factory and this show was like the high point of your year. Scary thought.
The show is not in the showing rooms, the show is in the hallways.
I have this sorta love-hate relationship with american anime fandom. I love that the fandom is approximately 50% female, unlike American comic-book/sci-fi/RPG fandom where the gender ratio is still skewed. I love their passion, I love how crazy these people are and the amount of work they put into their costumes and their fanfictions and the way they chase after and hunt down their entertainment instead of just watching whatever's on TV.
But when they look back on their lives, this thing that they have poured all their energy into is, still, after all, a commercial, mass-marketed product. It's a passive form of entertainment. They're putting their energy into somebody else's creation instead of creating something of their own.
The anime fans I respect are the ones for whom anime was a gateway to something more worthwhile, like learning Japanese, or making their own comics, or their own animation, or learning to sew kimonos, or something. The people who discover that making is infinitely healthier and more fulfilling than watching.
But they will constantly be replaced by the influx of sparkly-eyed newbies for whom the cliches of anime are still fresh and exciting. I envy the fun these people are having, even as I roll my eyes at the stupid stuff they say. Like when a Vincent (FF7) cosplayer walked past and these two girls went "Vincent-san! Wai, wai!" Their bad and childish Japanese ("wai" is not even a real word, it's like a literal reading of a manga sound effect) is not as annoying as the affectation of it, like affecting a fake British accent or something. I know because I used to do the exact same thing myself.
Trends In Fandom:
Costumes that remain popular year after year include characters from Mario, Zelda, and Final Fantasy games,
and always, always, Vash the Stampede. Vash is a perennial favorite and if you counted the total number of costumes
over all the years that Acen has been running, Vash just might be the most popular cosplay of all time. Not hard to see
why. He's a character who everybody loves from a show who everybody loves, and his costume is cool and highly
distinctive. Even women like to dress up as Vash.
Hentai is mainstream now. I saw a car in the parking garage
had "I <3 TENTACLES" painted across the windows. It's no longer "you
look at hentai eewwww", now it's "Oh what kind of hentai do you
like?" It's quite clearly labeled in the dealer's room, and it's
advertised openly but tastefully. A very popular item for sale lately
is the "Yaoi Paddle", a wooden paddle proudly bearing the word "YAOI",
sometimes "SEME" and "UKE" on opposite sides (if you don't know what
"uke" and "seme" mean... don't ask.) Lots of people were carrying
these around. I met one guy who was collecting signatures on his yaoi
paddle of people who submitted to being spanked with it. He was in a
contest with a girl he knew to see who could collect more signatures.
There is also a "YURI" paddle.
More and more people are brining their kids to the con. There is a generation of anime fans who are now beginning to raise their kids as anime fans. I wonder if the kids will later rebel and become, like, huge Disney fans just to make their parents mad. There was a whole track of children's programming at the con. I saw all sorts of intergenerational cosplay -- like a teenage girl dressed up as that devil girl from Disgaea, with her 40-year old dad as her blue penguin sidekick, doing a skit together. Man. Talk about a cool dad. I hope I am that cool when I'm his age. I wonder what will happen when this trend and the previous trend collide. "Mommy what does YAOI mean?"
There were SO MANY KINGODM HEARTS costumes!!! What the heck? Every way you looked you saw those silly keyblades. Last year it was FFx2. There were like hundreds of FFx2 cosplayers. I think every job of every character was represented. I see why that game is a cosplayer's dream come true, since it's basically "barbie j-pop-star dress-up" disguised as an RPG.
Full Metal Alchemist, Bleach, Naruto. Super-popular new shows I've never seen. And I don't really intend to. (Maybe this is shallow of me, but seriously, what kind of stupid name for an anime is "Bleach"? Is it a story about a laundromat or something? And "Full Metal Alchemist"? Is that what you get when you cross Stanley Kubrick with Albertus Magnus? At least I know what "Naruto" means -- it's that pink spirally fish-paste thing used as garnish in bowls of ramen -- but it's still a dumb name for a ninja anime.) But because I've never seen these shows, I'm missing out on an awful lot of jokes. That kinda makes me sad. But not sad enough to start watching them.
Here's a practical joke I want to do sometime. Come up with a huge elaborate costume that looks like an anime character, and then make up some plausible sounding name for a character and a show which doesn't really exist. So when people ask me what my costume is, I would tell them it's character X from show Y of course. What? You've never heard of it? It just started playing on japanese TV last week, you must be behind the times. Come up with a plot synopsis that makes it sound like the most incredibly awesome show ever. See if I can start an urban legend about this amazing show that nobody has seen.
Costumes I Was Impressed With
Then there was our very own Cat as Maromi from Paranoia Agent which doesn't count for the above list because I helped to make it. Well, I made the infrastructure for the head, Cat did the sewing and everything else. Inside that huge scary pink head there is a bicycle helmet attatched to a latticework of aluminum tubing held together with zip ties and covered with insulation foam. We're all proud of how this came out. Here's some pictures of Maromi from the cartoon show along with a good review of Paranoia Agent (the best new anime I've seen in years).
There was also Guy with huge foldable gun, I think he's from Trigun or something. He had a great idea making his huge gun foldable. That way he avoids inconveniencing anybody when he's carrying it around but he can unfold it to pose for pictures. He's obeying the letter and the spirit of the "4-foot rule" while also remaining true to the character design. That's called being a good congoing citizen, folks.
Sushu made a lovely Kenshin costume over the course of like two days with her amazing speed-sewing skills. This was to be part of the Pretend Robot Pants skit. Aza wore it and got mobbed by fangirls. We were both surprised by this. We thought that Kenshin cosplay must be totally overdone and boring and played out by this point and people would be like "bah, another Kenshin, why don't you try being creative". Nope. MOBBED BY FANGIRLS. Had to pose for pictures every five minutes. He had all these 14-year-olds asking him for his phone number. It reminded me of teaching junior high in Japan. My favorite phrase for situations like that is "juunen hayai" which is a bit of samurai-movie stock dialogue meaning "[you are] ten years too early [to be able to defeat me]". I did not see a single other Kenshin cosplayer at the con. I guess Kenshin is so old and played out that he was ready for a comeback!
I tried to like the Rurouni Kenshin anime. I really tried. The Meiji restoration is such a cool time period, rife with possibilities for nifty historical drama. And it has a really strong central character. And it had good animation and a sense of style. I remember renting episodes of it from the Japanese video store and watching them with a translated script from the internet. I remember getting about five episodes in and then realizing that it had already turned into a boring fight-of-the-week-against-villian-with-stupid-gimmick show, and there were no signs of anything else happening, so I gave up watching it. Some fans told me that I need to watch the Kyoto arc, or the OAV series. Well, I saw the OAV series and here's my impression of it:
The moon is pretty!
STAB KILL BLOOD SPLATTER
The freshly fallen snow is pretty!
SLASH STAB BEHEADING MORE BLOOD
The falling maple leaves gracefully alight on the still pond and are pretty!
BLOOD BLOOD DISEMBOWLING STAB CUT POKE SLASH BLOOD
repeat for four episodes with a brief interlude about shacking up in an abandoned farmhouse
OK, so it was all artistic and stuff, whatever. It was boring. OK, I get it, I get it, every single character
gets chopped up with swords, how much longer does this thing go on?
So, I failed to become a Kenshin fan. Aza suggested that you have to
encounter it at the right point in the course of your Anime Fandom
Arc, as he and Sushu did. I understand. When I was at the beginning
of my Anime Fandom Arc I would watch anything. I was an overzealous
Sailor Moon fan for crying out loud. But now I am at the end of my
Anime Fandom Arc and 99% of anime shows make no impression on me.
Something has to be really oustandingly original and good to catch my
interest these days.
Wanna Try Some Okonomiyaki?
So in previous years I made onigiri for my friends as a way to combat the Con Hunger caused by lack of access to sources of real, non-Pocky food during the convention. This year I decided to go one better and make my specialty, okonomiyaki. I stocked up on ingredients at Mitsuwa and brought an electric hot plate to the hotel room to cook.
Wait, it gets better: I cosplayed as Ukyo from Ranma 1/2, who is an okonomiyaki chef in the cartoon. I sewed a two-layer kimono and painted kanji all over it (Satomi helped with that!) and made a huge 4-foot spatula and a rambo-style bandolier for normal-sized spatulas. Turns out the costume is extremely comfortable and practical for cooking in. And when I was done I stuck the dirty spatulae back into the bandolier, and the fact that they were dirty was part of the costume. In-character cooking.
Cat Nagle brought another electric hot plate and made pancakes and bacon for everybody in the morning. Aza brought a rice cooker and made onigiri. There was also instant ramen and PBJs. So all things considered we had a ton of food. We're still eating leftovers. Next time you go to a con you should do this. Ask the hotel for a room with a minifridge. It improves the experience immensely when you don't have to leave the convention to get food.
We had so much leftover okonomiyaki after lunch on Saturday that I decided to give it away to random strangers. This is an idea I've been toying with for a couple of years, and I finally got to do it. Chopped the okonomiyaki into bite-sized pieces, stuck toothpicks in them, put them on a makeshift tray, and carried them around the con offering them to everybody. Good times! Reactions ranged from "What the heck is this are you trying to poison me?" to "Oh my god that's really good thank you so much!"
I went to Artist's Alley and gave okonomiyaki to the people there, like webcomic artist Dirk Tiede. I've met him before at Uchicon, he is cool. The artists in the alley were more appreciative than the general public, maybe because they are stuck in booths all day and can't go back to their hotel room for ramen and PBJs any time they want, so they think that people bringing them food is a great idea.
Almost nobody recognized Ukyo. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, since she's a secondary character from an older show. And I'm the wrong gender. A few people knew me after I dropped the name.
One person asked me if I was trying to be John Belushi as the samurai delicatessen clerk from Saturday Night Live. What huh?
Oh man am I sick of explaining what okonomiyaki is, over and over. It's not a well-known thing like sushi or tempura, it has no Western equivalent for comparison, and I don't even know of a concise way to describe it. I wish okonomiyaki would catch on and become popular in America just so I wouldn't have to keep explaining it all the time!
One girl was so happy about the gift of free okonomiyaki that she glomped me. Normal social rules of behavior are suspended at anime conventions, apparently, because people think it's OK to just go up and hug random strangers.
"Glomping" is named for the sound effect "GLOMP" used in some translated manga to represent the action of hugging someone by surprise. It happens all the time at anime cons. Some people wear shirts that say "GLOMP ME" even. (One could probably write an essay connecting the glomping phenomenon to anime themes of gender confusion and sexual repression and the kind of romantically confused individuals that the fandom attracts.) Glomping is generally harmless (it is meant to be friendly, not sexual) but I would just like to remind congoers that not everybody is comfortable with having their personal space violated, especially as the fandom expands into the mainstream. I understand now how women feel when strange guys come up and start hitting on them.
It would probably behoove the fandom to create an "opt-out", some easily-recognized symbol that means "no glomping". Something like the handkerchief codes the gay community used to have. Let's implement this before somebody gets sued for sexual harrassment. That would make me a sad panda. Hey, has anybody done a sexual harrassment panda cosplay yet? Dress up as a panda and go around telling ppeople at the con why they shouldn't glomp people without permission?
Tsushimamire and Corny Music
Tsushimamire is an obscure Japanese indie punk-rock band, three women, who played
a concert at ACEN. I didn't get to go to it because I was being Ukyo and
distributing okonomiyaki at the time. But later I met them and got their CD
and they signed it and everything.
I'm listening to Tsushimamire now, and maaaaan, I wish I had gone to
that conert. They are kind of like Shonen Knife but with way more
musical skillz. They are on Benten records, a Japanese indie label
specializing in girlie punk rock and named after the goddess of music.
Come to think of it, I actually downloaded one of their MP3s a couple
years ago when I was browsing Benten's
website and I wanted to buy the album but back then they didn't
take paypal so you have to write them an international money order
which is all inconvenient and stuff. Uhh, that was kind of a tangent
but anyway Tsushimamire is good and you should listen to them.
Tsushimamire is not corny. But I realized, on the way to the con, when listening to Kyu Sakamoto, that there is a common thread uniting the majority of my eclectic musical preferences, and that thread is corniness. I like really corny music. ABBA, Rush, Kansas, Yes, Styx, Queen, Frank Sinatra, Genesis, Kyu Sakamoto, Renaissance, swanky old jazz crooner tunes, lounge-lizard singing, showtunes, japanese enka, prog-rock, psychedelic rock, jazz-rock fusion, '80s synth-pop, Motown, anime theme songs from the 70s, Bollywood scores, funk, disco, the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, Simon and Garfunkel, and so on and so forth. They are all corny and I love them and I'm not going to apologize for it.
I am not one of the cool kids, with their "cool" genres of music, like rap, punk, metal, grunge, alternative, emo, and goth. These are all the genres I don't like. The cool kids are probably cringing with horror after reading the list of corny music in the preceeding paragraph. That's, like, stuff that their parents used to listen to, ewww. It seems to me that the entire driving force behind certain musical genres is "don't sound like your parent's music". Driven by rebellion above all, the cool genres avoid corniness like it's anathema.
(Do you know where the word "anathema" comes from? It's originally greek meaning an offering to the gods; in Greek translations of the Old Testament it was used to translate the Hebrew word "haram" which means something sacrificed to god which is therefore off-limits to the community; "haram" was also used to mean the extermination of idolotrous nations, i.e. anybody the Hebrews didn't like, because they were making those nations a sacrifice to their god. By association with the Hebrew, "anathema" gradually took on this meaning of "off-limits" or "extermination", quite different from its original meaning. In the fourth and fifth centuries "anathema" became the name of a ceremony the Catholic Church used to do, even more severe than excommunication, to banish heretics from the church. There's your trivia fact for the day.)
So many people from anime club have dated other people from anime club that there is a running joke about "animecest" (by analogy with "house-cest", referring to people dating people from the same "house" in the U of C dormitory system). If you actually dug up everybody's personal histories and drew a chart, you might find that nearly everybody in anime club is connected to everybody else via a chain of prior relationships.
I am no exception. At one point, during the convention, I looked around and realized that every person I've ever kissed or snuggled with was all in the same room (except Isaac, he wasn't there, but he doesn't count because the snuggling wasn't exactly consensual on his part). I am happy to say that I am still good friends with all these people. The breakups were all amicable. It could be a lot worse.
This got me thinking. Over the past few months I have given this "relationship" thing a few tries and I have decided that it's not for me. I mean, I used to say that before, but I was speaking from ignorance then. Now I am speaking from experience when I say that I have no interest in dating, sex, romance, etc. I think I just don't relate to people that way. If I like somebody I'd rather just have a good platonic friendship. A relationship is a lot of work, and it's not clear to me what the goals or the benefits are supposed to be. (Yeah, pretty cold of me, I know.) I don't want marriage or kids, and as I have recently discovered after some experimentation, I don't enjoy sex much either. Like, not at all. Also I hate sharing a bed with somebody. I can never sleep like that. It's hot and cramped and sticky and my whole body basically goes WTF THERE IS SOMEBDODY IN MY BED YO and I can't relax.
I do enjoy snuggling. Snuggling is nice, and I will miss it, but snuggling alone is not worth the aggrivation of trying to maintain a relationship.
I'm not looking for sympathy or pity and I don't want to hear anybody telling me "don't worry you'll find the right girl for you someday". No, I really don't think I will. I think romance is just one of those things that I have little or no use for in my life -- like religion, team sports, movies, parties, and TV. (And, as I said above, I am at the point of adding anime and video games to this list.)
This may sound sad, but I feel it's a positive development. The things that I really want to do are too much to squeeze into one lifetime anyway, so if I can cross another major category off of the list, it gives more space for the things that are truly important to me: aikido and electronics and physics and programming and drawing comics and traveling the world and hanging out with friends and family. And RPGs. And making award-winning ACEN skits.
Sweeping the Masquerade
So, the UCJAS (University of Chicago Japanese Animation Society) skit tradition is in its sixth year now. There were three years before I started going to this school when their skits won some prizes. The first year I came here, 2004, UCJAS proper did the infamous Sailor Gendo skit, and because we had too many people to all fit in one skit, we created a spin-off group Pretend Robot Pants, containing me, which did the Pocky-boxes-dancing-Yatta skit (judge's choice award). 2005 UCJAS did Towel Duel for World Revolution and Pretend Robot Pants did Lupin III: the Katamari Caper (first place!). This year UCJAS did Mario and Luigi: What Is Love? Pretend Robot Pants did a skit which has come to be known as Kenshin Matrix.
Our idea, partly inspired by the Matrix Ping-Pong video, was to do a really cool skit, with no dialogue, on the basis of having an extremely well-executed fight scene and a few cool stunts rather than the outrageous humor or musical numbers that most skits tend to go for. We planned it as just a fight between two samurai, and it was only later on that we chose Kenshin ( from Rurouni Kenshin ) and Jin ( from Samurai Champloo, which I haven't seen... man, what kind of dumb made-up word is "Champloo" anyway? ). There are some ninja who lurk in the background and help the samurai to do cool stunts, kind of like in kabuki theater. I was originally going to be one of the samurai, but since I am 1. heavy and 2. decently strong I decided I should be one of the ninjas instead, and have Marcel who is very light be Jin, and have me pick him up.
Every skit has to be presented to the masquerade staff at a special meeting Saturday morning, so the MCs can make sure the skits are following the rules and nobody's going to get naked or get hurt.
I was very worried that the MCs would not approve our skit, because it seemd kind of dangerous what with all the
rapid swordplay and jumping and tumbling and stuff. But we are very professional because we practiced it like a hundred times! So even though we knocked one of the ceiling tiles out during our demonstration, we were still approved. Those MCs are so cool. One more reason I want to volunteer for the staff.
There are certain things that are becoming part of ACEN lore. Like the "Dance" chant, and Stripper Vash. And those guys who dress up as dead presidents with hubcaps around their necks. I don't know what the heck is up with those guys. And the skits put on by UCJAS are becoming part of the lore too. Other skits are actually starting to reference and take influences from us. And I hear tell that this year when the UCJAS skit presented their skit to the masquerade MCs for approval, the MCs were like "Oh my god it's YOU! Nobody else would do something this weird!"
Mwa ha ha ha ha.
While we were waiting for our turn, we watched the stage on the closed-circuit TV in the Green Room.
I forgot how it got started, but between the skits the two MCs started
teasing each other about liking yaoi and the crowd was just eating it
up. "Who wants to write the first slash fiction about these two?"
All sorts of hands shot up in front of the camera. The comedic timing
was perfect. There was also a running joke that we must be on the South
Side since every skit involved stabbing or carjacking or drive-by shooting.
My sister's friend Kristin Stromquist did a very good belly dance (she has been studying it all hard-core lately and developed mad skillz.)
And then there was the skit with the transforming transformer. Sadly, it wasn't very good. There were characters from Saiyuki doing a Backstreet Boys dance, and One-Pound Gospel rendered as a Queen musical, and the Legend of Zelda rendered as interpretive dance, and a really quite well choreographed fistfight between the bald Shinra guy from FF7 and some character I didn't recognize, who obviously had some martial arts training. And the guy who did "Stripper Vash" got together a group and did a very high-quality comedy sketch based on mutliple mistaken identity based on video game character lookalikes. Most attempts to do dialogue-based comedy for Acen skits just flop miserably on stage, but the audience loved these guys and it was all because they had good delivery. There have been so many skits with great ideas which failed because the delivery wasn't good. The Stripper Vash group is one to watch for.
It turns out the masquerade staff is even cooler than I thought. I found out after the fact that roller blades, as used by the UCJAS skit, are so totally against all the hotel rules for insurance reasons that in previous years, people who wanted to rollerskate in their skits had been forced to just glide their feet along and pretend like they were skating and it was totally lame. But this one staff guy, who I think is named Jazz, called all the way up to the guy who owns the CHAIN of Hyatt hotels in order to get special permission just for us to do the roller blades just this once! Because he wanted to see the UCJAS skit in its full roller-blading glory! Wow!
Here is the video of the Pretend Robot Pants skit. (Man, I'm looking at that now, and I totally forgot to put my ninja mask up! How embarrassing.) There are also still pictures starting here. The crowd went wild over this. I've never heard them scream so loud and so long. We got a standing ovation. I was afraid for a second that the stage was going to be attacked by crazed Kenshin fangirls because we dared to have Kenshin lose.
The UCJAS skit was right after us. The gist of it is that Mario and Luigi get dressed up snazzy and go to a bar to hit on chicks, but it turns out to be a lesbian bar. There's a lot more to it than that though. Here is the video of the UCJAS skit. The still pictures start here. They executed it perfectly! All the timing was exactly right, the sound effects happened on cue, the audience laughed in all the right places... it was great! What did I say about the importance of delivery? They got a standing ovation too!
And we both won! We didn't just win, we swept. Pretend Robot Pants got first place and UCJAS got second. U of C dominated ACEN! It will go down in anime club history. When we went out to accept our prizes, Kenshin and Jin did a stage kiss (i.e. no actual lip contact) for the yaoi fans, and we got yet another standing ovation.
Let me tell you about the bar. For the Mario/What is Love skit, we needed some kind of stage setting to indicate that Mario and Luigi were at a bar. Geoff, a first-year in the anime club and a consummate Boy Scout (like, I think he's an Eagle Scout, he's really into it hard-core) volunteered to make us a bar. The thing is he want way overboard and made us this massive, solid, life-sized bar out of wood. It wasn't a prop, it was a real bar that we could have installed in somebody's basement and used to serve drinks for real. He made it with hinges so it could fold up for transport but it was still huge. We had a horrible time getting it up and down between the first floor and the tenth floor where our hotel room was. We had to commandeer the service elevator a few times, something the hotel staffers were not very happy about. That's the main thing I worry about: when we have huge props like that, we're not only inconvenicencing ourselves, we're inconveniencing everybody around us.
The worst part was when we were trying to get The Bar back upstairs after the masquerade was over. This meant we were fighting the post-masquerade crowds to get an elevator. Finally an elevator with space opened up and we bar-carriers yelled out our claim to it. Near the elevator was a girl in a Chii costume, in a wheelchair. I (holding the back end of the bar) yelled out "Let Wheelchair Chii go first!" but Jeremy (holding the front end of the bar) yelled out "No, we have to go now! Move move move!". I should have stood my ground but I gave in to peer pressure and we brought the bar on board the escalator. There was still room for a wheelchair so we thought we could still let her on, but then the doors started closing and we couldn't get to the Door Open button in time and...
OH NO WE STOLE A HANDICAPPED GIRL'S ELEVATOR!
Oh man I feel so bad about this! If I believed in hell I would be worried about going there. They would probably have some suitably ironic punishment, Simpsons-hell-style, where I would be tormented with wheelchairs and elevators for all eternity.
Jeremy said "sometimes when there's extenuating circumstances, you have to be a jerk". OK, maybe, but I don't agree that there were extenuating circumstances. We could have waited another ten mintues for another elevator and nothing bad would have happened.
I wish I had met Wheelchair Chii again so I could have groveled and begged for forgiveness. Anyway, if you should happen to be out there on the internet somewhere reading this page, Wheelchair Chii, please accept my apologies.
Went to Mitsuwa for lunch on the way back on Sunday. Mitsuwa was, as I expected, swarmed with ACEN people who had the same idea as we did.
Aleksa's birthday party was the Sunday of ACEN. I talked Jeremy, Cat, and Sushu into stopping by my parents' house on the way back so we could all say hi -- and because I thought the kids would love seeing Cat in the Maromi costume. I got us a bit lost trying to find my parents' house because I was unaware that La Grange Road is not called La Grange Road north of Roosevelt -- it's called "Manheim Road", so if you're on the Eisenhower Expressway, Manheim is the exit to look for. How confusing. Gradually I am learning my way around Chicagoland, but I am much more familiar with the mass transit than with the highways, for obvious reasons.
Anyway, we got to my parents' house after the party ended, and there were only three kids left, but they did indeed love the Maromi. Cat was pretty tired by that point, so I'm sorry for putting her through the little-kid attack zone. I'm grateful she agreed to it, cuz that's something Aleksa and her friends are going to remember for a long time. I also gave Aleksa a Hamutaro DVD that I picked up at the con.
If you haven't read enough yet, here are links to my friends' LJs where they talk about their ACEN experiences.
Also see this video that Sushu posted a link to: a special on Japanese TV about "Otaku from USA". It's so embarrassing because it's so true.
My friends web pages are more interesting
My friends' web pages are more interesting than mine! Go read them!
Eric has a thought-provoking post about the philosophical problems of pacifism. There are some really good comments there too. Mine is at the bottom.
Stephen has a thread about the Best Five Albums of the 90s. This thread also has some good discussion. I have a lot of trouble thinking of any albums from the 90s. Except for Weird Al, They Might Be Giants, Bjork, and Ani DiFranco, my music collection basically has a gaping hole between 1989 and 2000. I never liked any of the genres that were popular then. I'm sure there was plenty of non-mainstream stuff that was good, I just don't know how to find it. Now, if the topic was best five or ten or twenty albums of the 80s or, praise be to the God of Rock the 70s, that I could talk about all day.
At anime club we just recently finsihed watching a show called "Honey and Clover" I didn't like it so much at first but it really grew on me, and by the end I was hooked. It's hard to describe why it's good, because any description I can give will make it sound really boring. It's about art students. It's about the everyday lives of five students in Japanese art school. There's a little bit of romance and a little bit of comedy but mostly it's about them trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives. Yeah. Sounds boring doesn't it? But it's interesting because it's real life. It feels very honest and uncontrived, almost autobiographical. Characters have problems and relationships that don't wrap up neatly, they just keep going up and down, cuz in real life nothing ever really resolves. And the comedic incidents stay away from the typical anime cliches and are more like the bizzare and random hilarious things that happen in real life. Man also the backgrounds are really pretty watercolors that make me nostalgic for Japan.
Sushu wrote a rave about why it's so good and she does a better job of explaining it than I could.
My Friends Are So Smart
This post is just a general shout-out for my U of C friends, who have been working their butts off lately. Many of them are graduating this quarter and heading off to graduate school.
Sushu just finished her BA of Doom on Friday (40+ pages of Korean and Chinese history that has been destroying her soul for half a year). She's graduating, and then going to Stanford, where she got into STEP (the Stanford Teacher Education Program). Huzzah!
Eric got into the study-abroad-in-Japan program he applied to. He's going to Hakkodate, Hokkaido, this summer! Rock rock on!
Jeremy has been accepted to UC Santa Cruz and Rutgers for computational linguistics. He went to visit both recently, and decided on Santa Cruz. He says the campus is surrounded by redwood trees! Banzai!
Satomi has another year to go. She's probably going to study medical physics and radiology-type stuff in grad school. She just came back from a conference at Columbia ( the one in New York City, not to be confused with the art school Columbia here in Chicago. Or the country). The conference was called the Low-Dose Workshop, and basically the world's experts in the field got together to talk about how they calculate the maximum dose of radiation they can safely zap a cell with. That's so cool. They ought to call the proceedings of this conference "Record of Low-Dose War". Heh heh heh.
Aza is going to Caltech this fall (so we're trying to finish the software before we lose him!) He's going to work on some insanely cool science project or other. There is apparently a professor at Caltech who grows rat neurons attatched to computer chips so he can feed fake experiences into the neurons and observe how they learn. It's The Matrix for rats. Duuuuude.
One thing I'm selfishly happy about is that Aza, Sushu, and Jeremy will all be in roughly the Northern California region, which means that in the future I may be able to go out there and visit them all at the same time. <grin>
I'm almost over a really bad sickness. I missed two days of work with a horrid stomach flu. Felt like a monstrous larva was crawling around in my abdomen taking bites out of various organs. Threw up a whole bunch and couldn't eat anything. It was unpleasant. I'm feeling better now, but my neck is really sore. And I'm in a weird place mentally, so if the content of this post seems disjointed, blame the germs.
Most of my other friends either have already had it or they are just coming down with it. The onset of this epidemic coincided with Isaac's arrival from Portland for a week-long visit. He himself was perfectly healthy and unaffected, and therefore the theory has been proposed that he is a carrier, a "Typhoid Mary" if you will.
I have this electric heater which I use to keep warm in my poorly-insulated apartment in the bitter Chicago winter, because gas heat is too expensive. Man, I hate this apartment. My hatred begins with heat not being included. The electrical outlets are really sketchy. Every time you pull a plug out of one it feels like the whole box and faceplate assembly is going to pull right out of the wall. The sink is hard to turn on and off. The kitchen is too narrow. And I sleep on a sunporch which doesn't retain any heat. I've learned my lesson. Next time I pick an apartment I am going to put way more time into examining the details and not just take the first place that looks kinda good and is cheap.
So anyway I have this electric heater, next to the living room couch, where I have been sleeping because my sunporch room is too cold. And when Isaac was here he sometimes sat on top of the heater to warm his bottom. Usually nothing special happens. But last night he sat on it and huge sparks flew out and the living room circuit overloaded and the lights went out. Not so good. We flipped the circuit breaker and tried the heater again, but it immediately sparked so we turned it off and are leaving it off. This heater was kind of a sleazy number we found when we moved in, and it makes me dehydrated, so good riddance. I'm just going to turn the gas heat back up and suck up the cost. Spring can't be too far away at this point.
A few nights ago I had this great dream that I was doing some stuff, and I found a really cute sailor-fuku to wear. It was navy blue with red trim. I put it on and then I was pretty and that made me happy.
Another night, I had a dream that there was a such a thing as a sex act called an "L-job", but nobody would tell me what an L-job was. They wouldn't tell me, dammit. I was really curious.
Last weekend was that Uchi-con thing, and it was totally rad. You could feel the love. No drama, no crisis, just really laid back and lots of people having lots of fun. We did (or rather, my crazy undergrad friends with the Copious Spare Time did) a better job of advertising this year, so we got more people coming from other universities. And we made a good decision to condense more stuff into fewer rooms, so we didn't have sadly underpopulated rooms like last time.
This amatuer band called "The Spoony Bards" showed up uninvited and set up their guitar and keyboard in the hallway and started playing famous video game music and taking requests. They were pretty good. Definitely added to the atmosphere. Next year we will definitely invite them back.
I played a little bit of Taiko no Tatsujin and DDR, but I spent the entire con hanging out with the webcomics artists who I mentioned in my previous post. They are such totally cool people. The panel ran twice as long as it was scheduled for, since we were having such a good discussion and nobody really wanted to stop. Everybody was doodling charicatures of each other and talking about dramatic pacing and characterization and what influences their drawing style and how often one has to update to maintain an audience, stuff like that. Good times.
I got so inspired to draw that I got back to work on a certain mini-comic that I originally started doing as a present for Aleksa. I finally finished it over my two sick days. After I'm done with this post I'm gonna go scan it in and put it up.
Speaking of webcomics, enough people told me to read Achewood that I was finally pushed over my "people-telling-me-to-read-stuff" threshold and read it. I do not regret it, for Achewood is a very good comic strip. The characterization through dialogue is very well done. After I read a bunch of Achewood I find that its writing style starts to influence my speech patterns. The humor can be absolutely filthy at times, so don't read if you don't like that kind of stuff. You have to start at the beginning; the beginning is not very good, but without it nothing makes sense.
After Uchi-con I went up to my sister Kristin's place on the north side for a bit of an anime party. Her apartment is totally crazy, with big naked fairies painted all over the walls and stuff. I guess they let tenants paint on the walls there because it's all artist apartments. Basically it's like Kristin took her room from home and made it into a whole apartment. It's so Kristin, you know? Saw some Chobits (we hates it) and Naruto (we hates it) and the dialogue-free experimental animation Cat Soup (quite good). I fell asleep on her floor and then went straight from there to work the next day.
Then I realized I had left my keys on her floor, so we had to arrange a morning rendezvous at the Dunkin' Donuts downtown where she works so she could return them. It was a logistical operation worthy of some spy movie, especially because this Dunkin' Donuts is inside a federal government building protected by armed policemen and metal detectors.
Are all your pets named Eric?
Well, there's no sense in trying to hide it anymore: I've got a boyfriend now. His name is Eric and he's an undergrad and he's really sweet and cute. He was apparently crushing on me for a long time. He wrote me a love letter after I broke up with Cat.
P.S. Kissing a man feels just like kissing a woman. Unless he has facial hair.
I'm just a sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania
Well gosh, I go away from my web page for a couple weeks and I when I come back, somebody has hacked it. Those last two posts were not from me. Congratulations, whover did it; I am vaguely honored that somebody thought evilbrainjono.net was worth hacking, and even more so that it was from an Utena fan. I will leave the posts there because they're interesting, but I have changed my password.
Stephen says my RSS feed isn't working with LiveJournal anymore because the file is too big. I'm gonna see what I can do about that.
I haven't had much to write about lately because I haven't been doing anything but work. This last weekend was cool, though! I went out with Cat and had a great time. I got to meet her snakes and cats and mice and fish and her blind roommate. I tried to fix up her home network, but ran into a faulty Ethernet card. We went to a party full of stoner hippies, which was not so cool, and another party full of yuppie Pagans (I was surprised that such a species exists, but not surprised that they live near North Belmont). Played TAIKO NO TATSUJIN (or Taiko Drum Master, as they're calling it in North America). One of the songs it has is Katamari On The Rocks, which is triple-A AAAwesome. She took me to Swap-O-Rama, which is just weird, and to the fabric store to get stuff for my eventual Ukyo costume. And the best part: I got de-virginized at the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Cat dressed up as a "tranny". Man. Rocky Horror. I've never even seen the movie itself before, so this was the full de-virginization experience. It was just... man. Wow. I was frightened and confused and a little turned on. I think I can understand why these people do this; it's really no different from me dressing up as an anime character ( a female one, sometimes ) and singing along with Japanese theme songs. Pity the normal people who don't know what they're missing.
Somewhere in there, I worked up the nerve to give Cat the "let's just be friends" talk, and she took it pretty well. So, that's how that ended up. A big load off my chest! Thanks for everything, Cat! I still think you're sweet.
Random links ahoy
Have some random links to waste time online!
AMV Hell 3. This is a compilation of the hilights from about 200 AMVs ("Anime Music Video"). AMVs are where fans with twoo much time on their hands cut and paste clips from anime and set them to music. There is a contest for AMVs every year at ACEN, but I don't go to it, because AMVs get old really fast. I mean, usually you laugh at a clever juxtaposition of image and song lyrics, but the joke gets old after about fifteen seconds. Which is why this compilation is great: it shows you just about fifteen seconds of each one. Somebody could write an academic paper about this thing -- it's the ultimate short-attention-span, free-association, postmodern cultural blender. And about half of the videos are from Azumanga Daioh for some reason.
Google has taken a lot of flak for censoring itself in order to do business in China. A dramatic illustration of this is to search for "Tienanman" Square on google.cn and then Search for "Tienanman" on google.com.
An awesome speech that Al Gore gave on Martin Luther King day. Really, read this thing, it's good. Tell it like it is, dude. Where was this fire during his 2000 presidential campaign? (Well, acutally I didn't see this speech, I just read it, so for all I know he read the whole thing in a dull monotone. But it sounds firey.)
The Loli Avenger to the rescue! Scroll down past the part about dresses to read about how Japanese kids were rescued from domestic violence because of timely intervention by my old friend Helena.
Jesse Ventura's campaign ad for governor of Minnesota. Where he is an action figure. This is pretty much the coolest political ad ever. And he won! Horay for America!
I ought to check my friends' websites more often! I will compile a list of them here. I ought to make this post into a permanent page. Actually, I ought to add a feature to my blog scripts where I can make certain posts stick to category indices. Hmmmm...
Edit: This feature has been added, and this page is its first victim.
Here's the list. If you have a page that's not here and should be, make a comment and post a link!!
My friend Brian is in the midst of a lengthy cross-country road trip. When he came to our wedding last weekend, he had already been driving for 10 days from Fort Myers, Florida. After staying with us a few nights he's on his way up to Seattle. He's writing about his adventures at a new blog called Lovers' Lanes. You should read it!
Finding and Losing Old Friends in Iwate
So, Kamaishi is still there where I left it in 2003, and it turns out I still know my way around.
I felt slightly disappointed that the crosswalk signs no longer play annoying dirge-like songs to let you know it's OK to cross. Instead they just play bird chirps like everywhere else. Boring!
Being in Kamaishi was beyond natsukashii. It brought back feelings I had forgotten how to feel.
Kamaishi is honestly kind of a dirtball town — picture Flint, Michigan or any other dying Rust Belt city — but it's in a beautful fjord and surrounded by verdant, misty mountains. Somehow I felt more at home there than anywhere else I've ever lived. Maybe it was because it was the first place I lived independently as an adult. Maybe because my lifestyle there was something I constructed up from nothing. I was pretty excited to show "my town" to Sushu.
However, most of the people I knew there were JETs, students, or teachers. JETs and students would have long since moved on to bigger and better things; the teachers would also have moved on, because teachers serve at the will of the Prefectural Board of Education and are shuffled hither and thither every year. That left just a handful of people in the town who might still be around; I had a few six-year-old phone numbers and addresses, but would any of them still be there? I felt sad that I hadn't managed to keep up better contact in the last six years.
Our first stop was here, Sano-san's liquor store, where I used to hang out all the time. I didn't drink then and I don't drink now, but I would go there just to chit-chat with Sano, who is a very cool dude.
He was very surprised to see me when I showed up unannounced on Wednesday. Even more surprised when I told him I was married and wanted to introduce my wife. (Who I then had to go fetch, because she was still on crutches, and so I had left her at the bus stop while I scouted ahead to figure out where the place was. Poor Sushu, stumping along gamely while I ran around all excited.)
We talked about our trip, his family, the world economic situation, how Kamaishi had changed, words that are similar between Japanese and Chinese, etc. Mrs. Sano brought us some tea and cherries. I asked if there was a bus that went up to the Daikannon and before I could say no, Sano was offering to drive us. Again with the Japanese people being incredibly generous and helpful. Sano said business was bad so he didn't have much to do at the shop anyway; he was looking for an excuse to go to the beach.
So first we went to Nebama beach and looked at the Pacific for a while. Sano found a cool sand dollar. He pointed out the island that the American naval warships hid behind when attacking Kamaishi in World War 2 (just beyond the peninsula at the left of the picture above.) Then we stopped by a hotel run by some of Sano's friends and had some onigiri and delicious dumpling things full of brown sugar and walnuts.
The inside is one big staircase, so we didn't go inside, but here's Kamaishi's famous landmark, the Daikannon: a 50-meter statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy. I used to take all my friends here when I lived in Kamaishi.
A jizo statue in the area at the base of the Daikannon.
Sushu in the stupa next to the Daikannon, which is said to have a fragment of Buddha's ashes.
And here she is in the graveyard by the Sekioji temple in Kamaishi — the one I did the colord-pencil drawing of, way back when. So many memories...
Here's Sano's carnivorous plant collection.
Peggy was an Iwate JET way back in the day, and she married a Japanese man (Hiroki) and stayed on. Ben gave me Peggy's phone number, so I called her up and was like "Hey, remember me?". We managed to meet up with her and Hiroki on Wednesday night back in Hanamaki.
I introduced them to Sushu and we caught up on most of the crazy stuff that's happened since 2003. Now she's teaching English at university, and Hiroki makes fishing poles; they visit Canada once a year, and have a relaxing life in the countryside with their cats.
We told stories of how me and Sushu first met and how we got engaged; Peggy told stories from Iwate JET and how I was so young and innocent and naiive when I first started there, and how much she thought I had grown up by the time I left. Hiroki said I haven't changed one bit since then. Saaa...
We had some really good yakiniku, and Morioka reimen noodles, which is one Japanese food that you pretty much can't get outside of Iwate.
Besides Sano and Peggy, the other people I really wanted to introduce Sushu to were Naoko-san and Chida-sensei. But sadly, I lost my contact info for Naoko-san, and I don't remember her last name so I couldn't even look her up.
I did have the phone number for the Chida family's futon shop. I called up and got his wife, and I was like "Remember me? I used to do aikido with your husband back in 2003?" and I asked if he was around... but she told me that he had passed away.
This wasn't a complete surprise. He did have lung cancer last time I saw him. In fact I had been a little reluctant to call because I was afraid I might find out something like this.
Anyway, it sounds like the rest of his family is doing fine; they're not in mourning anymore or anything. They were happy to hear from me and said I could drop by anytime. I didn't have time to do that on this visit, but think I'm going to write them a letter as soon as I'm back from the honeymoon.
I wish I had called or written or visited earlier. I would have liked one more chance to visit with Chida-sensei in this life.
R.I.P. Chida Keiichi — the man who first introduced me to Aikido; who invited me into his family's home for the Japanese New Year celebration, which is a pretty big deal; calliagraphy teacher; father, grandfather; mikoshi carrier; really fun guy to be around at parties; and all-around good friend. I will miss you.
The 1990 Toyota Camry Caper
So my friend Cat has been having a really bad time of things lately. Not only did she have to move back in with her family in Indiana because she couldn't find a job out here, but right before she was set to drive across the country, her car got stolen. Talk about adding insult to injury.
Cat is a really good person and doesn't deserve all this crap to be happening to her. Cat, if you're reading this, I give you internet-hugs!
After she moved, the police actually recovered her car from the thieves (now that it's too late to do her any good). It wound up in a towing lot in San Jose. Cat asked if I could go pick it up for her.
First I called them a bunch of times and got the paperwork figured out. They told me that I could come and pick the car up anytime. (This was a filthy lie.)
Sushu drove me down 8pm after work on Thursday. I was not able to pick up the car, because while there were mechanics working in the lot, the office was not open, so they didn't have any of the needed paperwork. Bah.
I took a long lunchbreak the next day and had Sushu drive me down again. But when we got there, I realized that like a total idiot, I had forgotten to bring the keys. So we had to drive back up to Mountain View and back down to San Jose again. (It's about 20 minutes each way.) Sushu, I'm sorry I made you take so many extra trips.
Finally I was there with the keys, when the office was open, so I got them to release the car (a silver 1990 Toyota Camry) to me. They charged me over $500 for towing fees and storage fees. (This for a car which was worth less than $1,000 when Cat bought it in the first place.)
Then I checked out the condition of the car (dirty, beat-up, but nothing major missing) and got ready to drive it home... but it wouldn't start. No lights, no sign of life, nothing.
We got the guys from the tow lot to give it a jumpstart, and then it worked. Then I drove the Camry back to Mountain View while Sushu drove her Prius back. The Camry has a weird side-to-side wobble that it does at highway speeds but otherwise drives O.K.
I parked it and went back to work, having now missed several hours. When work was done, I tried to start it again, and again it wouldn't start, although the lights were on this time. So the battery wasn't charged all the way, despite having driven it around for what should have been long enough to charge it up? Hmmm. I biked home, got some jumper cables that Sushu borrowed from her parents, met up with Jeremy, and got him to come to the garage and give it its second jump-start of the day.
Figuring that it needed the battery replaced, I drove it to WalMart, which sells car batteries and advertises free installation with purchase. This is another filthy lie, it turns out; even though the website, the sign on the shelf, and a label on the battery itself all say "free installation", when I asked three different WalMart employees about said installation:
- The first one just said "No, we don't do that".
- The second one didn't speak English well enough to understand the question.
- The third one said "Maybe we do that, but I don't know who you'd talk to."
So I carted the new battery out to the parking lot and we popped the hood to see what we could figure out. This very butch lady with a tank top and tattoos, who was standing around in the parking lot, saw what we were doing and came over to take a look. She knew her cars pretty well and, hearing my description of the symptoms, told me it was just as likely to be the alternator that was busted, so I ought to take it to a shop and have it looked at instead of replacing random things.
While we were talking, another person who was standing around in the parking lot, this one a large man in overalls and baseball cap, heard us and also came over to check on what was going on. He turned out to be an off-duty pro auto mechanic (not associated with WalMart in any way) and he pulled his car around to give us our third jumpstart of the day. Or rather, he started hooking up the jumper cables, then noticed that one of the wires on the battery was loose, and tightened it up, and told us to try starting the car... and it started. He told us about cleaning the battery contacts with baking soda so that the wires can make a better connection.
So the lesson is: WalMart staff are entirely unhelpful, but the random people standing around in the WalMart parking lot make up for it! Woo! Thanks random people!
The silver 1990 Toyota Camry is now in my spare parking space at my apartment. It's maybe drivable, if I get it registered to my name and buy insurance for it, and I occasionally do have reason to want to drive somewhere without Sushu (usually for gaming purposes) so think I am going to buy it off of Cat and hang onto it for the time being.
My friends write RPGs!
1. Ben Lehman has sent The Drifter's Escape off to the printers. This is a game he's been working on for as long as I've known him. It's about a homeless drifter wandering across America. One player is The Drifter, and the other players are either The Devil, or The Man. (You know, The Man who is always keeping The Drifter down.) He's releasing it as a book which is a combination of RPG and short-story collection. (Ben, correct me if I'm misrepresenting any of this.)
2. Ben Lehman has also released a game called High Quality Role-Playing as a free download. It's an extremely old-school (i.e. permanent death is one die roll away), low-fantasy world where there are heroes... but you don't play one of them. You play a random joe schmoe, like a beggar or a blacksmith or a peasant, and you're pretty much in way over your head.
3. Ewen Cluney (it's pronounced like "Aaron"), who worked on translating the Maid RPG to English, is now working on a translation of another Japanese tabletop RPG by the same author. It's called Yuuyake Koyake and it's a heartwarming, non-violent game where you play shapeshifting animal spirits who help rural townspeople with their problems.
4. Ewen is also working on two RPGs of his own design: one is called Raspberry Heaven and is a Japanese high-school girls slice-of-life game ala Azumanga Daioh. I got to playtest it with him earlier this summer. I played a painfully introverted and sickly girl who was the world's biggest fan of Dragon Ash. I could feel the potential there, but I felt like the game needs more structure so that the players aren't just floundering. (I ought to do a whole blog post about this.)
5. The other is called Slime Story. You play a jaded suburban teenager who kills stereotypical RPG cannon-fodder monsters (slimes and stuff) as a part-time job, for spending money. (They come through a dimensional portal.) Ewen, like I said to Ben: Correct me if I'm getting any of this wrong.
6. Jake Alley, who I've been designing and playing games with since I was a wee lad, is doing a gaming podcast now. Woot!
7. I haven't heard any updates about these lately, but I know Jake is working on some follow-ups to Glistening Chests based on the same philosophy of tightly genre-focused trope-parodying mechanics. He's got one in the works for horror movies, and another for cheesy Voltron-esque cartoons. (Jake, like I said to Ewen and Ben: correct me if I'm wrong. Also, if you've got links to any info about these projects, let me have 'em!)
24 hours on a train
I bet there's rich folks eatin
on a fancy dinin car
they're probly drinkin coffe
and smokin fat cigars
well I knew I had it comin
I know I cain't be free
but that train keeps a rollin
and that's what tortures me
— Johnny Cash
Me and Sushu took the Amtrak from San Jose to Seattle to visit Alexis and Isaac. We just got to Alexis's house and now we're catching up on internet stuff. The train left San Jose about 8:30 last night, got to Portland at 3:30 this afternoon, and to Seattle just before 8. So we were on the train for almost 24 hours.
We had a very tiny sleeper car, and we got meals on the dining car. It was all very old-fashioned and classy. In the dining car they sat us across a table from other random couples.
I had an interesting conversation with one old dude who was actually in the U.S. army occupying Japan in 1946-48. He wasn't involved in any fighting, only reconstruction work. Dude. Talking to a part of history right there. Him and his wife also had cool stories about participating in democracy in Vermont, where most things are run at the town level, and most things are decided by votes at town hall meetings. The governor of the state was moderator for the meetings of his town of 8,000, and called on people by first name. Now that's democracy! He said the town voted to impeach Bush and the governor at the time, being a Republican, wasn't too happy about that but let the vote go through (not that it means anything, as only congress can impeach presidents...)
The porter in our car was a chatty and very odd man who kept asking us about what we were drawing, talking about selling Amtrak souvenirs on eBay, and randomly saying "Ooga booga!". Also telling us about his other job, which is legally growing medical marijuana for sale to the California government.
There was some very pretty snow-covered Cascadian scenery visible from out the windows of the train; I'd post a picture but I don't have my camera dongle with me.
When we finally got off the train tonight, it felt strange standing on solid, non-moving ground. Kind of like being on dry land after being at sea long enough to get your sea legs; I still felt like the ground was swaying.
Bankuei on fixing dysfunctional role-playing
Bankuei has written up a trio of great posts up about dysfunctional role-playing:
- Common symptoms of dysfunctional roleplaying;
- the historical roots of the big problems: Incomplete texts, wargaming roots, illusionism, and impossible social contracts;
- and finally advice for how to get a functional group together, which boils down to "pick a set of rules you can agree to".
That last one sounds simple enough, doesn't it? But so many gamers have trouble with it. Bankeui explains it pretty well, but I thought I'd offer my own take on it...
Here's how I see it. Most role-players think they've agreed to a set of rules, when they really haven't. Maybe they've agreed to play D&D, but that really only means they've agreed to the game-mechanical part of the rules. That's not enough.
Compare D&D where every player controls one character to D&D where every player controls a small army of hirelings and men-at-arms (yes, this was a common type of old-school play. The charisma and morale rules are there for a reason.) Completely different games. Compare D&D where all PCs are assumed to get along with each other, and backstabbing another PC is effectively against the rules, vs. D&D where PCs work for opposing political factions and are expected to plot against each other. Completely different games. Compare megadungeon-crawling, get-as-much-treasure-as-you-can D&D against backstory-heavy, team-of-heroes-on-a-quest-to-save-the-world D&D. Completely different games.
You've agreed to game mechanical rules (and hopefully a setting too), but you're missing a whole level of rules, something that could be called procedures - basically, how do we play this game? What do our characters DO in this game? How do we decide what type of characters are appropriate, what goals they are trying to accomplish, where the opposition comes from, how the characters are related to each other, whether they get along or not, what types of actions are appropriate for the game or out of bounds... I could go on and on.
These procedural rules are not in the book, but they're just as important to agree on as the game-mechanical rules, and should be considered just as binding. If you don't want players backstabbing each other in your game, make that against the procedural rules! If someone goes all "I stab (other PC) and take his stuff", the answer is "No, that's against the rules", just as if a fighter had tried to cast Magic Missile. As long as you have a game group that is able to talk openly about what the procedural rules, you have a way to fix whatever problems arise.
The biggest problem in role-playing is that so many players are unable to talk openly about procedural rules. They lack the vocabulary to talk about procedures, or even talk about the fact that procedures are missing from their game and must be filled in. Instead, they've got a whole mess of assumptions about "how you're supposed to role-play", based on previous game experiences, that they unthinkingly use to fill the gaps. Thinking that D&D is a single game, they join a group assuming they know how to play... and then wonder why everyone else is playing wrong!
Bankuei puts it all much more succinctly than I can:
"OH GOD POWERGAMERS." Wait. That’s like going, "OH GOD GO FISH" at a Poker table. It’s a discussion that shouldn’t even have to happen- someone wants a different game – why are they playing this game with you?
If role-players were on the whole were more socially functional people, they'd be able to deal with games that are missing procedural elements. They'd just go "Hey, I don't think the way I want to play is compatible with the way you want to play. Let's play something else, or play with different people."
But geeks have trouble with that. Have I ever linked to the Five Geek Social Fallacies from this blog? I should link to it more often - every geek totally needs to read this article.
Because geeks think that friends must do everything together (this is Fallacy # 5), they are constantly trying to get people to play in the same game with each other despite the fact that they obviously have very different, and incompatible, gaming preferences. Put this together with the inability to talk about procedural elements of the game and you have a recipe for huge trouble. Add in the way that traditional gamers treat a campaign like a freakin' marriage, as an indefinite commitment... horrors!
This has a lot to do with what I talked about in a previous post: traditional gamers think what they want is a way to get everyone to play together despite the fact that the players all want to play different games. When you tell them that no, in fact, the answer is to pick one game and play that (via Creative Agenda), they run it through a filter of Geek Social Fallacies and interpret it as an attack on their friendships.
How (video game) RPGs Lost Their Way
How RPGs Lost Their Way - an editorial by Googleshng.
He's talking about video game RPGs, and from the perspective of a hard-core genre fan (i.e. someone extremely familiar with and skilled at a particular game genre, who craves a good challenge).
But it's got a lesson that can be applied to pretty much any form of game design:
When making a game with mechanics inspired by, or based off of, an existing game or genre, be careful of "innovations"! The reason the original game worked was because all of its parts interacted, probably in some pretty subtle ways, to create a certain experience. If you start adding, removing, or changing subsystems without understanding how those subsystems fit into the big picture, you may end up breaking what made the original game work.
E.G., to use one of Googleshng's examples: it's frustrating to die at a boss fight because you were worn down by random encounters! Let's put a free healing / save point right before each boss! Yes, it solves the frustration, but it also nullifies the resource scarcity which was the root cause of all interesting strategic decisions in older games.
Relevant to tabletop RPG design because most tabletop RPGs in history have been basically hacks to D&D that were made without really understanding how all the subsystems in D&D worked together. (I doubt even Gygax really understood them all.)
Anyway, read the article, and take it as an argument for why craft in game design is just as important as "innovation".
Somebody doesn't like Batman!
Isaac's is the first negative review of The Dark Knight I've seen.
Thing is, I can't really argue with any of his criticisms. It's just a question of how much those things bother you, I guess.
Going to Yosemite!
I'm taking the day off work today to drive to Yosemite with Sushu and Jeremy! We're gonna camp out there!
... Well, we were going to camp out there, but I seem to be coming down with a cold now (bad timing!!) We're still going to go, because Sushu doesn't get many 3-day weekend opportunities, but we're going to stay in a hotel instead of camping out in the still-freezing-up-there-in-the-mountains March nights.
(..And I'm NOT BRINGING MY COMPUTER, so I'm going to be completely off the net for once!)
Yosemite (with massive pictures!)
Although I was coming down with a cold, we decided to go ahead with the Yosemite trip anyway. I'm so glad we did!
Yosemite is the closest national park to us, only about 4 hours drive away. It's doable to drive there, camp, and drive back on a regular 2-day weekend. We ought to take advantage of this! I hope we will visit frequently, since there's so much to do there (and many of the coolest trails are closed in March, beyond my ability to hike when I'm sniffly, or both).
Pictures are thumbnails, click for large versions. Some of them are VERY large.
As we drove up into the Sierra Nevada, we saw more and more snow patches that had lasted into late March.
Of course Sushu had to get out and poke them.
Later we would go hiking on trails that were still covered in many feet of snow, even though the air was warm.
Large regions of recently-burned forest have a kind of desolate beauty of their own.
The California mountains are a tinder box in the dry season. Park rangers used to try to put out naturally-ocurring fires in the Yosemite region, until they found out that the giant sequoia depends on forest fires for its reproductive cycle; like some sci-fi creature with Bizzare Alien Biology, its pine cones can't sprout unless they've been burned first. So in trying to conserve them, we were actually driving them to extinction.
Now they pretty much let forest fires burn unless they're getting too close to somebody's house.
No, this isn't Yosemite Valley yet. I'm building up to it. This is pretty but it's nothing compared to Yosemite Valley.
Jeremy goofing around on a log.
He was excited to discover that the bag of potato chips from the Safeway in Mountain View, near sea level, had puffed up like a baloon as we gained altitude and the outside air pressure dropped.
Since I didn't want to chance camping out when I was already sick, we stayed in this here hotel in the tiny town of El Portal. Not a bad view from the balcony, eh? It was relatively cheap since few tourists go to Yosemite in March, and it's a good thing we stayed inside because it was something like 35 degrees farenheit at night that weekend.
Welcome to Yosemite
At the southwestern gate to the park, you drive through this natural rock tunnel. Pretty cool.
And then you get into Yosemite Valley proper and you start seeing things...
The famed El Capitan. (Remember in Star Trek V when Kirk was climbing it and fell and Spock had to catch him with the rocket boots? Man that movie was so dumb.)
Half Dome, maybe the most famous hunk of rock in the whole Sierra Nevada. Gamers who know their dead adventure game companies may know it from the Sierra logo.
OK, enough teasers. You ready for the real "HOLY SHIT NATURE!" pictures? Here we go. Here comes the view which has earned Yosemite the reputation as being one of the most beautiful spots on the entire planet:
BAM! This is called the "Tunnel View" since you see it right as you exit the tunnel on the west end of Yosemite Valley.
That's El Capitan on the left, Half Dome in the back, and Bridal Veil falls underneath Cathedral Rock on the right. The Tunnel View is the only place you'll see all three of them lined up like this.
This is what I imagined Middle-Earth looking like.
I think this might be my new desktop background.
Some people (like John Muir) take one look at this view and fall in love with Yosemite so hard that they never want to leave, and devote the rest of their lives to exploring and protecting it.
This is a large scale model from more or less the same viewpoint as above. Can you match up the landmarks?
Yosemite Valley happened because, in the Ice Age, glaciers scoured their way down the valley of the Merced River, leaving it with steep walls of bare rock. After the glaciers melted, the debris left behind blocked the river's way out, so the whole valley floor became a lake. Eventually the lake filled with sediment and then dried up as the river found its current course. This left the valley with the distinctive vertical sides and flat bottom that give us such dramatic vistas.
Bridal Veil Falls
Not to be confused with Bridal Falls City, for you Dogs out there.
Bridal Veil Falls, visible from the tunnel as a trickle of water, looks like this from close up.
The sun was setting behind us, making this perfect rainbow in the spray and mist from the bottom of the falls.
On second thought, maybe this should be my new desktop background.
Seen Around the Park
Well then. I guess it must be risky to be here during the season when the snow melts.
...Wait a minute, isn't that the season we're in? Uh-oh.
Cower before the MIGHTY MONARCH!!!
Ravens always look like they're up to something sinister.
The last rays of the sun linger on the tops of the cliffs while the valley below is already darkening. The ever-changing quality of the light in Yosemite Valley is one of the reasons so many photographers and painters love this place to death.
Bridal Veil falls isn't the only humongous waterfall in Yosemite. It's not even the biggest.
At well over 4,000 feet from top to bottom, Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America and 5th tallest in the world.
To give you a better idea of scale, the whole waterfall in this photo is just the lowest segment of the waterfall in the first photo.
There's a trail you can hike to get all the way to the top of the upper waterfall, but it's a difficult all-day hike. Next time, when I'm feeling better, I would love to attempt it.
We did take a couple of shorter, but still intersting, hikes on the second day...
Up one the tributary valleys, following the Merced river upstream, you come to a lovely spot called Mirror Lake.
I'm trying something new here: I stitched together a bunch of pictures of Mirror Lake into a panorama, to try to give you a better idea of what it's like being there. The pictures didn't line up perfectly but it still came out better than I expected.
(The full picture is 35 megabytes, so don't click unless you've got some bandwidth to kill.)
This is a close-up of part of the rapids upstream from Mirror Lake. I love how smooth that chunk of water looks, even though it's in constant motion.
We took another hike that afternoon, up a different tributary valley, to get to Vernal Falls (yes, more waterfalls!). If we had kept going up, we would have eventually gotten to Nevada Falls. This chain of waterfalls is called the Grand Staircase.
Here's us on the bridge over the river just below Vernal Falls.
And now for some more giant panoramas...
From one side of the bridge.
From the other side of the bridge.
Think about what they must have had to do to build this bridge! Can you imagine hauling all the materials up here into the mountains, and then climbing across that raging torrent and pouring concrete? The mind boggles.
Anybody know what kind of bird this is? This was a hard picture to take -- the bird kept flying around and I kept missing, but I finally got it.
Beyond the valley...
The Yosemite Valley, big as it is, is just a tiny fraction of the whole park. The park encompasses a huge chunk of the Sierra Nevada mountains, including several giant sequoia groves and a whole separate river system further north.
On the third day, after checking out of our hotel, we went on a hike through the snow to see the Tuolumne giant sequoia grove.
To give you an idea of how deep the snow was, we found some boards on the ground at our feet, mostly covered with snow... and brushing them off, discovered that they were the tops of picnic tables.
Unfortunately my camera had run out of batteries by this point, but you can see some pictures of the sequoia grove in Sushu's photo set.
Keepin' Fear Alive
In support of the March To Keep Fear Alive, Stephen's band Silhavey plays the Colbert Report and Daily Show theme songs. Watch it to the end - Stephen does a hilarious job connecting John Stewart to Hitler... and Justin Beiber!
(LOL @ "What better source of fear is there than schools?" Good job.)
Reminiscin' - how I met Aza
Today is Mozilla's farewell lunch for Aza, who is leaving Mozilla to start yet another new company. That guy's never really happy unless he's starting a company.
I'm gonna miss him, since he'll be up in San Francisco where I'll pretty much never see him. I already barely ever see him even though we ostensibly work together, just because he's usually traveling or working remotely.
Anyway, this is making me think back to how we first met. I was taking his dad's one-time-only special guest course in UI design for the CSPP at University of Chicago; Aza was the TA for it. But we didn't really meet outside of a classroom setting until the Evangelion marathon that UCJAS (the University of Chicago Japanese Animation Society) hosted at Aza's apartment for Suicide Prevention Weekend 2004. We watched every single episode plus the movies, and celebrated with orange jello shots (thanks Jim).
A couple times Aza's roommate Andrew came into the room looked at the screen, looked around at us, made a face, shook his head, and silently walked back out of the room.
In between two episodes Aza called an intermission and put on the Shingo Mama O-ha Rock video. So of course I got up and started singin' and doin' the dance moves along with the video. And Aza looked me up and down and raised his eyebrows and said "How do you know this dance?" And I told him it was the big craze during my first year in Japan, 2000-2001. I used to have a programmable CD player wake me up with that song to make me extra genki on cold winter mornings.
And that's how we became friends. And that led to Aza inviting me to join him when he started Humanized. And the work we did at Humanized got us Mozilla's attention, which led to us moving out to California to start working at Mozilla. And being in the Bay Area led to me meeting back up with Sushu again -- Sushu, who I also met because of UCJAS. Which led us to eventually try dating again and then get married!
So that Evangelion marathon was responsible for not only lifelong friendships but also for my career and marriage. Deciding to attend that party was far more important than any class that I ever took in grad school. If I hadn't gone, my life would have followed a completely different and unknown course. Funny how life works out!
Alright fellow trolls, listen up. I've made the horns but I don't know exactly what kind of hairdo / hoods everybody is going to show up with next weekend. So I don't know what exactly will be the best way to attach all these. Please let me know whether you want me to A. glue your horns to a hairband, B. glue your horns to a pair of hairpins, C. leave your horns alone and let you figure it out, or D. some other options.
Thanks, and see you at ACEN!
I thought we might run into one or two other Homestuck cosplayers. If not that, at least a couple of people who at least got the reference. Oh boy was I wrong.
The Homestuck group photo shoot, on Saturday afternoon, was bigger than any of the groups for any of the actual, you know, Japanese cartoons at this supposedly Japanse cartoon party. Between cosplayers, photographers, and general hangers-on there had to be two hundred people in this crowd.
The con was swarming with us. There were troll horns sticking out of the crowd everywhere we went. It was way beyond my wildest expectations.
These weren't even supposed to be Homestuck cosplay pictures, they just happened to be in the backgrund of the shot.
Everybody was really cool and friendly and SUPER EXCITED about their favorite Homestuck characters. It was a great feeling.
Some other groups might have had better costumes...
but I was proud of the fact that we were the only group with...
...not just four...
...not just six...
But EIGHT of twelve trolls. Felt like an accomplishment. Especially since we gathered from as far away as California, Florida, and New York.
Cat and her new boyfriend Kent didn't hadn't ever read Homestuck but they were very good sports when we asked them to be Feferi and Equius with us. We explained to them a bit about their characters. (We... left out some parts of the Equius explanation. We didn't think Kent was ready for Musclebeasts just yet.)
Sushu made her own Flourite Octet by ordering blank white d8s and coloring them in. I kind of jokingly suggested that she could use my hand drill to drill out the pips, but she actually did it. Across 8d8 that adds up to 286 painstakingly hand-drilled pips. Sushu, you are amazing.
Alexis battled flu and final papers to get her Aradia costume done on time. She looked pretty fantastic. I'm really glad she joined us for this crazy project, despite all the hardship!
Brian was super serious about being Sollux, right down to the vampire fangs and different-colored shoes.
You have to imagine the psychic death-beams shooting out of Sollux's eyes here.
Wait, maybe I can add them in with my mad "Photoshop" (coughGraphicConvertercough) skills:
Isaac made a VERY SCARY Gamzee. He got right into character and lurched around muttering creepy nonsense and HONKing. It kind of freaked me out.
Stephen was REALLY excited about his Eridan costume, maybe even more than the rest of us. He programmed his phone to play Eridan's theme music so he could start it playing whenever he entered a room or strode dramatically down a corridor.
He left us for a while on Saturday night to go hang out with the other Eridans, who had apparently all bonded immediately over their shared romantic angst and desire to murder all land dwellers.
Reactions from people who didn't know Homestuck:
1. "So like... what anime are you guys from?"
2. "Dude it's... evil Peter Pan?"
Reactions from people who did know Homestuck:
1. "You guys look amazing! Can I take your picture?"
2. "PUPA PAN! SQUEEEE!" (running start) (pouncegreet) "TAVROS IS MY FAVORITE CHARACTER!" (hugs)
I tried to warn them about getting grey paint on their clothes but I still got hugged by three or four different excited fangirls. Who would see me from twenty yards away and come RUNNING. My fellow trolls got glomped too, but for some reason being the awkward, wimpy, handicapped troll dressed as his role-playing character got me the most attention. i'M a lITTLE cONFUSED aBOUT wHY tHAT iS.
At the group photoshoot, first we went through each character: "All the Karkats!!" All the Karkats would pose together and everybody would take their picture...
... all the Terezis ...
.. then all the Nepetas, etc.
There were eight or nine copies of some of the trolls, but only ONE lonely Kanaya.
There was only one Rose, too.
But plenty of Bros.
There were more Daves than any other kid. And like more than half of the Daves were girls, crossplaying. There were more girl Daves than there were Roses and Jades put together.
Come to think of it there was a LOT of crossplay (more F2M than M2F). Maybe the inherent bisexuality of trolls attracts a more gender-flexible fandom?
No character, character variant, or prop was too obscure for the Homestuck cosplayers! We saw...
The Mayor of Can Town!
Time turntables! (They hung from fishing line, and really spun!)
Check out Ahab's Crosshairs here. When I see stuff like this I feel jealousy for those who don't have to fit their props on board an airplane to get to the con.
and... Nicholas Cage from Con Air ?!? As a girl?
After that the crowd started treating us like the MSPA suggestion box and just yelled out commands.
Requests to act out their favorite rivalries...
...favorite Strife scenes...
Favorite scenes of tragedy...
And anything else they found amusing.
That's when the dead Daves start piling up. And dead Daves are the enemy.
Towards the end it degenerated into fangirls demanding their favorite crack-fic pairings. (I had no idea Tavros/Gamzee was even a pairing, but Some People were Very Excited about this.)
This one girl brought a copy of the children's book "How Full Is Your Bucket?" and went around asking all the trolls she met to sign her UNSPEAKABLE FILTH.
Me and Vriska played "Explore", the song from [S] WV: Ascend on banjo and accordion. Here's a video of us doing a run-through of the song in our hotel room:
"Explore" ([S] WV: Ascend) from Jono X on Vimeo.
We almost didn't get to play it. The crowd was really rowdy and there was no structure to the event so it was hard to get everyone's attention. We couldn't "just start playing" because the song starts out quiet and everybody would have just been yelling over us. So we needed a momentary hush. Had to push our way to the front and yell "HEY! WE WOULD LIKE TO DO A SONG FOR YOU!" Eventually enough people in the crowd shushed each other that we could start.
This was our first public performance together. We were pretty nervous, and the banjo was hard to hear, but we did it! We didn't screw up too bad and we got a lovely round of applause. Thank you for listening, Homestuck fans! You're awesome!
It was kind of like doing a Masquerade skit like in previous years, except this was for a select audience who understood and cared what we were doing.
ACEN as a whole is less fun than it used to be, because it's gotten so big and impersonal, and because I'm so far away from the anime fandom these days, and the fandom itself is kind of diluted and Balkanized and no longer has much of a shared reference pool. But the thrill of our Homestuck cosplay (seriously guys, this made me SO HAPPY, you have no idea) makes me think that one solution to this is to build your own con-within-a-con for the fandom you care about.
It would be fantastic to do another group cosplay next year. Any ideas?
GenCon was meh
Blogging from the public library at Frankfurt, Michigan.
GenCon was underwhelming.
There were a few neat things there -- a guy dressed as Link who actually played the ocarina; a giant-sized RoboRally board with remote-controlled lego robots that followed the programs the players punched in; Homestuck cosplayers, including a (male) Vriska carrying around Tavros' severed legs; the display case with the winners of the miniature painting contest; and the writer and artist of Erfworld, who happily signed books for me. And the True Dungeon was pretty neat.
But other than that, well... there was a lot of carrying heavy bags around while lost in Indianapolis, a lot of missed connections, a lot of waiting around for people to gather up so we could get food... some napping on benches in hotel hallways due to sleep deprivation... a lot of glitches figuring out the rides to and from the sleeping arrangements that Cat and Kent were kind enough to provide (thanks guys! And thanks again for the pancake breakfast, Cat!).
I never managed to find the role-playing that was supposed to happen with the Forge people at the Embassy suites. I went there at the time I was told it was happening, but I couldn't find anybody. That was very disappointing, since it was one of the main reasons I wanted to go to GenCon in the first place.
Played some Warmachine in the Iron Arena. Extra points were given for fully-painted armies so I didn't have to play against the Silver Horde of the Barren Pewter Wastelands like I often do at the local game store. Got in a 75-point game with both sides fully painted, which was neat. I won a tape measure. (It sounds dumb, but I had broken my old tape measure, so it was actually something I really wanted.)
Alright. Gamers. We have to talk.
We have to talk about the quantity and aggressiveness of gamer identity totems you guys had on display at GenCon. Like, I get that the normal social order is inverted and everybody can't wait to brag about what a huge dork they are. It's OK to care a lot about your hobbies. That's cool.
But, like, would it kill you to be a little more creative about it? Supposedly gamers prize themselves on creativity, but I just saw the exact same tired played-out gamer memes on display over and over again. Guys, that Star Wars pun on your shirt, like the joke about the guy attacking the gazebo, was already old twenty years ago. You guys have ruined zombies, Cthulhu, and "steampunk" forever by reducing them to the stupidest possible cliches and then beating them into the ground. I don't want to hear any more Monty Python and the Holy Grail references ever again, and I hate to tell you this but Army of Darkness was not a good movie to begin with. Neither was Highlander. But apparently what passes for humor in gamer culture is all about getting references; no actual jokes are required.
And the slogans about living on pizza and ramen, or killer GMs, or staying up all night playing video games... it just felt like people were bragging about their unhealthy lifestyles. Ick.
Overall I felt like I would have had just as much fun, with 1/100 of the hassle and aggravation, if I had just spent the weekend visiting some friends and gaming with them. I spent most of Friday night and Saturday morning at GenCon wondering why I had come. I contemplated giving up and hopping on a bus back to Chicago.
I decided to stay for the True Dungeon, though; that was the one thing I couldn't do at a friend's house. Kent was Very Serious about collecting the round plastic tokens which represent treasure in True Dungeon; he had a special sash holding them all so he could pull out a healing potion or wand of lightning bolts right when he needed it. He loaned me a custom set of tokens to boost my Elf Wizard stats up out of the newbie level, since we were going to be playing on Nightmare mode.
Imagine that cool dad in your neighborhood who makes elaborate haunted houses every halloween for the local kids? Now imagine he's got the budget for fog machines, lasers, blacklights, and animatronic monsters, and there's game mechanics to it. A GM standing in the corner of each room announces events, tells you you've sprung a trap, answers rules questions, rolls for the monsters, etc.
There were seven rooms, with fake rock walls. Five had puzzles, three had monsters. Some of the puzzles were quite elaborate, like the one where we had to line up a laser to bounce between ten orbs with mirrors in them, in the right order, to hit a spot on the door. Hit a gong to start the laser, then we've got 30 seconds to try, and the whole party takes damage each time we fail. The monsters were an animatronic gargoyle, an animatronic red dragon, and a (conveniently invisible) astral stalker. You attack monsters by sliding weapon disks across a smooth table to try to land in a good hit location on a monster silhouette. It's like shuffleboard of the damned or something. Each spellcasting class has some random knowledge to memorize (for wizards, it's memorizing a map of the planes); when you want to cast a spell, the nearest GM will quiz you.
There were some tensions between the ten people in the group, most of whom didn't know each other, and some of whom took the whole thing way, way too seriously. (I got yelled at by the bard for wasting a spell in the second room which she thought I should have saved for the dragon.) The puzzles involved a lot of everybody yelling ideas at once. Anyway, we beat the dungeon with only one character death, huzzah.
True Dungeon was a fun thing to try once but I don't think I care enough to go back, and that about sums up GenCon for me as well.
I'm getting ready to go to Tennessee for Andrew's wedding on Saturday. (That's Andrew Wilson from Humanized, who I haven't seen since 2008!) I'm going to play accordion at the wedding reception so I've been practicing a lot, but I need to practice more! I also need to hem this suit that I bought for the wedding, because apparently they only make suits for tall skinny people? >:-/
Yay happy feelings
I just had lunch with a bunch of Mozillians; first time I saw them since I quit. I was kind of nervous, but they gave me a very warm welcome. I was very, very happy to find out that they don't hate me even after this thing went viral.
This afternoon I'm flying to Indiana for Cat's wedding this weekend. I haven't seen her and Kent since GenCon last year (Geez, has it really been a year already?) so I'm pretty excited to see them again!
Last day of my Chinese course
Today was the last day of my six-week intensive Mandarin course. It was three hours a day for every weekday, with reading, writing, listening, dialogues, presentations, tests, etc. I think I made some good progress and it made me feel like I was accomplishing something with my mornings instead of wasting them on the Internet.
Here's the class, minus a few people who didn't show up today.
It's a very eclectic mix of backgrounds. There's a whole lot of Russians, a few Thai people, a couple of Japanese, one Korean, one Spanish woman, a Greek guy, a Canadian, and me.
Our teacher, Ma laoshi, is the one with the glasses in the middle.
A few of my good friends from class joined me for lunch at a fancy restaurant called Waipojia ("Grandmother's") to celebrate our last day together. Left to right: Claire, Shannie, me, and Yuki.
People have told me that once you get over the (large) initial hump, Chinese starts getting a lot easier. I think I may finally have reached that point! More and more of the new vocabulary I'm learning consists of new combinations of characters I already know, which makes things much easier.
The class was all taught in Chinese (it has to be, as many of the students don't speak English) so it was seriously a sink-or-swim environment from the first day. I think that helped me a lot.
I'll need to find some good ways to continue my study now that the class is done. My reading/writing is OK but I need a lot more listening comprehension practice, so I'm going to try watching some Chinese shows or movies (with remote control in hand to rewind and replay each line of dialogue until I get it.)
I didn't quit Mozilla because I hated them. They've been quite good to me. My feelings towards the company are complicated.
Four years, man, that's a long time. It deserved some kind of commemoration. I picked the Mozilla dino-head logo rather than the more well-known Firefox logo because I wanted to show my association with the open-source community, the people and the shared values, rather than with the corporate entity or with a specific product that, who knows, might not even be around in a few years. (Plus, I don't really want my body to look like a launch bar.)
Side benefit: even if you don't know who or what Mozilla is, it's still a red tyrannosaurus head; what doesn't kick ass about that? Nothing!
I got it done at Graven Image in Mountain View. Their founder, a dude named Paco, is quite the artist and is famous for doing all these amazing Geiger-esque biomechanical horrors.
When I was there, Paco was working on a guy in the chair next to me, with a naked blue robot chick on his arm. The two of them were having a very animated disucssion about what are the top five metal albums of all time, and whether Ride the Lightning was better than Master of Puppets, and how could it be a top-five without any Megadeth, get out of here, and does AC/DC even count as metal, and what? you like fucking "Cowboy from Hell" better than "Reign in Blood"? You better check yourself before you wreck yourself! (his exact words).
When questioned, I had to admit that I did not have an opinion on the top five metal albums, as I never listen to any. Paco decided he needed to put on "Reign of Blood" right then so we could all hear its majesty from beginning to end. It was all CHUGGA CHUGGA CHUGGA CHUGGA ANGEL OF DEEEEEATH!!!
My musical horizons were expanded that day. Violently expanded.
Speaking of Mozilla mementos, this little guy was given to me at my going-away party by Gregg Lind (the developer who we hired to take over Test Pilot for me).
Gregg and his wife added the accordion and unibrow. The accordion even has the right number of keys!
I will treasure it forever.
Channel A is a fantastic game
My friend Ewen invented a card game called Channel A where you make up pitches for anime series. We played the new high-quality-printed prototype on Sunday. It is a ton of fun!
Each round, one player takes the role of a producer of a TV station. They choose two premise cards to make a bizzare genre/setting combination. Like "Cyberpunk dystopia + Time travel" or "Space Opera + French Revolution"; this is they type of cartoon that the TV station wants to add to their lineup. Everybody else is making up a show to pitch to the producer. They have a hand of word cards that they can choose from to create a title for the show, and then they explain to everyone what their show is about and how it fits the desired genre.
Of course your hand is full of crazy words that don't go together, so inevitably all the titles imitate the over-the-top word-salad style that anime fans know all too well. Your show is probably called something like "Keichi 120% Lucky Lingerie" or "Super Fighting Fight Fighters EX"; how are you going to convince the table that "Future Vampire Ultra Peach" is not only a show about "high school romance" and "race car drivers", it's the best freakin' high school race car driver romance they'll ever see? An ability to think on your feet and spout ridiculous bullshit with a straight face is essential.
I was surprised that I like this game so much, since I generally hate "LOLrandom!" party games. Channel A is almost identical in form to the game "Apples to Apples". But Channel A is lots of fun for me, and Apples is painfully boring. What makes the difference?
Here's my theory: the reason "zany" party games make me bored is that it doesn't matter what I do. In Apples to Apples I don't do any better if I carefully choose cards than I do if I choose cards at random. (Same goes for Fluxx and Munchkin.) I find that boring because it feels like there's no reward for effort or for paying attention to the game. I'm not hyper-competitive; to enjoy a game, I don't have to win, but I do have to try my best to win; that's where the fun comes from, for me. Games where trying harder makes no difference don't keep my interest long.
But Channel A works for me because it rewards effort - creative effort. The cards are just a prompt; over and over I saw the player with a more genre-appropriate title lose to the player who improvised a better pitch.
Channel A reminds me of Baron Munchausen, in that neither are role-playing games but they exercise a very similar part of your brain to role-playing. There's a similar performance anxiety when your turn comes around. Improv is a demanding activity!
I was amazed at some of the pitches people came up with during this game. With only seconds to think about it, they pulled the most fascinating stuff out of nowhere. Sushu joined our game halfway through and after about ten seconds of explanation she was winning hands with her pitches for "Little Monkey Bride" (Chinese mythology + catgirls) and "Ninja Hearts Z" (tournament fighting + shonen ai), either of which I would totally watch if it was a real show. I was also hella impressed by Ewen's ability to make up appropriate anime names for every character in his pitch without skipping a beat.
I like to think that I have especially creative friends, but I think the structure of the game and the words on the cards did a lot to pull our creativity to the surface. I felt like we could take any of the winning pitches from a Channel A game and turn them into role-playing campaigns or webcomics.
Anyway I highly recommend this game. Whenever the final version comes out I'm going to buy a couple sets to bring to anime conventions with me.
Two weeks in Illinois
Just got back from 2 weeks in Illinois. Since I'm
unemployed "in a pre-revenue startup", I can't afford to fly home for every holiday like I did in past years, so I went for a longer visit at Thanksgiving in exchange for not visiting at Halloween or Christmas. Mom is disappointed, of course, and so am I. The underlying unhappiness here is the unavoidable result of marrying someone from the other side of the country, so there may be no good answer, but I promised to do weekly video chat and to come visit again in June.
Fun stuff I did in Chicago:
- Hiking in the autumn woods at the Morton Arboretum and at Starved Rock with Mom & Dad
- Cooking with the family! After a trip to the Korean grocery store I made tom yum, green Thai curry, miso soup, and braised daikon/lotus root. Of course we made Thanksgiving dinner together too; they did a brined/smoked turkey on the grill, and I hand-braided a pumpkin pie crust
- Meeting Cat, Kent, and Jonathan in Hyde Park for board games
- Learning to play "Always" (the song from Robot Unicorn Attack) as a guitar-accordion duet with Stephen, and meeting his gonzo Homestuck-fan roommates
- Hanging out with Atul again at our old favorite tea-house, talking Mozilla Foundation and having great Russian food with him his dad
- Meeting Jon's roommates and girlfriend, tossing a Frisbee around and playing a Magic: The Gathering "Commander" free-for-all that was a total nostalgia trip
- Passing the Wiimote back&forth with Aleksa to beat Zelda: Twilight Princess together. (After a year of Minecraft being our main game, it feels weird to play a game that's always telling us where to go and what to do! What is this, a job?)
- Helping Aleksa figure out how record screencasts and how to get started modding Minecraft, which might just be the thing that gets her into programming
- Watching Adventure Time and talking like Lumpy Space Princess
- Finding out that Kristin's been doing work for the Onion's video production arm, and watching their videos together (like their spoof of TED talks and spoof reality show Sex House).
I love this present
OMG OMG check out what our friend just gave us. We look so cool! |:-D
What I did when I didn't go to Chicago for Christmas
Two years ago Mom hosted an ugly sweater party. She bought horrible sweaters for everybody to wear ironically. When I showed up at the door, she handed me this one.
"I'll show you!" I said. "I'm gonna enjoy this sweater un-ironically! I'm gonna wear it with total sincerity, every single Christmas from now on!" And so I have done.
I didn't have the money this year to fly home to Chicago for every holiday, so I told Mom she could pick either Thanksgiving or Christmas. She picked Thanksgiving. So for Christmas I didn't go anywhere, and just video-chatted with my family on Skype. (Some weird bug between my webcam and Skype makes my video stream appear upside-down to people on the other end.)
Here's what I did instead.
Christmas Eve, Sushu's family took me to a light show at Six Flags. Partly sponsored by China, it had a bunch of corny light-up and/or animatronic versions of Chinese mythological figures, international landmarks, random Christmasy stuff, etc.
Plastic, bright-blue christmas tree with gaudy lights, flanked by palm trees? Yup, this image sums up Christmas in California.
This dragon made of hundreds of porcelain spoons and bowls was legitimately cool though.
Sushu's bro John and I shared a humongous funnel cake, with strawberries and whipped cream. I scoffed at the offer to use a fork. My hands were disgusting afterwards. I regret nothing!
On Christmas morning we went to see the new Les Miserables movie, about which I have already shared my opinions.
The morning of the 26th I got up early and made sandwiches before we began our road trip to Seattle. We swung through Oakland to pick up Chris and then got onto I-5 north.
It's about a 14-15 hour drive, similar to the distance between Connecticut and Chicago, but with more interesting scenery. On the way we saw massive clouds of migrating birds. We took turns reading out loud from Journey to the West and singing songs from Les Mis.
In the very rural, very conservative northern Central Valley we saw Tea Party signs with ominous warnings ("Watch Out, Congress"; "The Second American Revolution is Coming!") and even a sign proclaiming "State of Jefferson".
Just before I-5 crossed into Oregon, we were rewarded with this lovely view of Mt. Shasta.
We lost time due to snowfall in the high mountain passes. It was well after dark when we arrived in Seattle.
We met Alexis in a grocery store parking lot. I volunteered to drive the next segment, and scared all the passengers half to death when I started to back out of the parking lot across two lanes of traffic. Some kind of brain malfunction had made me literally forget that going forward into a street was a thing that cars could do. I stopped before getting into the road, so everybody was fine, but it's going to take me a while to live that one down.
Then we picked Chris's longtime friend Les. With five people now in our party, the car was pretty well packed. We went to a fancy Chinese seafood restaurant for dinner; a fire alarm went off while we were eating because the upstairs neighbor had dropped a lit cigarette in a trash can and the firefighters had to show up to deal with it.
The next morning, we went here: the EMP (Experience Music Project), a museum of rock music and science fiction, funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.
Rock AND sci-fi? It's like it was made just for me! I'm not going to pass that up, even if it IS housed inside what may be the single ugliest building on the face of the planet, a clashing-color, crumpled-shell monstrosity designed by Frank Geary.
It's basically Paul Allen's geeky souvenir collection on display. You can see the whole thing in a couple hours. Fun, but not much reason to go back. The room where you can jam out on real instruments is the best part, but we had to fight a lot of kids for the privilege.
The monorail runs right through the middle of the EMP building.
I heard from the Seattlites that the monorail is just one of many useless public works projects that Seattle's corrupt city government has used to embezzle citizens' money. It could have been cool except that the tracks only cover six blocks of downtown.
It was apparently the real-life inspiration for the Monorail Episode of the Simpsons.
Later, I totally failed to parallel-park on a steep hill. Something about Seattle made me suck at driving.
We poked around a local anime model-kit shop, hung out at a tea shop run by Alexis' friends, and then went to Les' house where he showed off his Minecraft world full of extremely impressive redstone constructions. (The high frame-rate made Sushu motion sick.) Les is a video game programmer and has worked freelance on many high-profile games. He's a really cool guy and I wish I got a chance to hang out with him more.
The Seattleites took us on a whirlwind tour of all their favorite restaurants. I think I gained about ten pounds. Thursday lunch was a Cambodian noodle place tht made an amazing durian shake, and dinner was an underground Tibetan curry shop. Friday lunch was at a tiny ramen shop, supposedly the best in Seattle -- they make a fresh batch of noodles for lunch, but only enough for like 20 or 30 people, so if you're not one of the first 20 people you don't get any, so we were lined up on the sidewalk 30 minutes before the shop opened.
While in line there, I met Amy, a really cool friend of Ben and Alexis, who is also a programmer. She and I and Les bored everybody else with our programmer shop talk while hanging around a bubble-tea cafe.
I was happy I got to meet such cool people on this trip. But after a few days I was starting to get burnt out on socialization. I'm an introvert by nature; even when I'm enjoying a conversation with a new acquaintance, it still sucks energy out of my invisible socialization-energy meter. When that meter runs out I really need to go crash in my cave of solitude with my books or my computer.
Anyway, we didn't get much more time to hang out because Friday afternoon it was already time to start heading for home. We got to Portland on Friday evening, where we had Hawaiian food with Chris' sister Bianca, and went book-browsing at Powell's. (My haul: How Music Works by David Byrne; Ready, Player One; Vol 1 of Saga; and Level 2 of Integrated Chinese.)
We spent the night at Ben's house in Portland, so that we'd have a shorter drive home on Saturday. Ben himself wasn't there, but his housemate Barry welcomed us. (I've enjoyed reading Barry's blog without ever knowing I had a connection to the author.) He wanted to talk about comic-drawing, which normally I would have loved, but by that point my socialization meter was completely empty, so I'm afraid I rather rudely sat in a corner reading an old copy of Rogue Trader for most of the evening.
Alexis rode back down to California with us, and stayed at our house for a few days more.
A beautiful view driving down out of the mountains, back into California.
Sushu sneaks a picture of the fancy birthday dinner her parents prepared.
At the birthday party, I had a long conversation with Sushu's childhood friend Yipeng. He talks like a sports jock / dudebro, but he's got a really geeky side too, which Alexis and I exposed by engaging him in reminiscience about old Magic: The Gathering cards. We ended with an agreement to play a sealed deck match next time we meet.
On the 31st, Alexis unleashed her Italian food-snob side and made fantastic pesto and tiramisu for all of us, using ingredients we plundered from a bargain-basement Italian food import store in Seattle.
Meanwhile, Sushu and I rehearsed for our New Year's Day taiko performance. It was our first time to join in playing the group's newest song, Kouki Tenmei. Kouki, which the senior students brought back from a song exchange with a taiko group in Brazil last January, is an extremely fast, rhythmically complex song that I've had great trouble learning. There are three distinct parts which, lined up perfectly, have awesome-sounding polyrhythmic interplay. But if one part is just a tiny bit off, it sounds like a chaotic mess.
Since we were in China for three months in the summer, we were three months behind the rest of the class on Kouki, and I was quite nervous about it. So the day before, we set up the world's jankiest practice drums (cardboard boxes attached to stools with bandages) and ran through our parts repeatedly.
New Year's Eve midnight karaoke with Alexis has become quite a tradition. This is what, the fourth year we've done it? Fifth year? We picked up Ben, who had come down to San Francisco to visit his mother in the hospital, and headed to Gamba karaoke in Cupertino. Ben claims he can't sing, but he does a respectable Bob Dylan (some would say that not being able to sing is an advantage for doing Bob Dylan) and he joined me for a very manly duet on "Princes of the Universe". Gamba is amazing because if you pick an anime song -- Rose of Versailles, Utena, Evangelion, Mazinger Z -- chances are they have the actual opening animation to go with it. Sang some Earth, Wind, and Fire with Alexis and of course everybody joined in on "Pengyou" which has sort of become our less-lame replacement for Auld Lang Syne.
Emeryville Taiko keeps the Japanese New Year tradition of Mochi-pounding. Here, Etsuko-san keeps the glutinous rice mass wet while instructing volunteers how to wield their mighty rice-pounding hammers. Sensei and Matt (background) try to keep everyone in rhythm with a festival pattern on shime drums.
Just to increase my nervousness, a film crew from a local TV station showed up during our rehearsal to interview people for a human-interest piece they're doing on Emeryville Taiko's continuing problem with finding a permanent home. (We've had to move between four different practice locations in the past two years -- the noise complaints make it hard to find a lease, go figure.) They wanted to interview me, but I've had bad experiences with being quoted out of context by the media, so I tried to stay off-camera.
The performance went well! I had made all my Kouki Tenmei mistakes during rehearsal, so the real one went pretty well. I even started the song off, which was not exactly how we planned it, but it worked out. Miya, playing the flute solo on Kacho Fugetsu for the first time, was as nervous as I was, but she did great.
Lots of our friends, and even Sushu's family, came to watch the concert and eat mochi. The mochi was made into some really good o-zoni, which I hadn't tasted for almost ten years.
Happy 2013, everybody!
Channel A kickstarter
My friend Ewen's anime-series-concept-pitching game, Channel A, which has been a ton of fun every time I've played it, now has a Kickstarter which maybe you should think about funding!
Pictures from hang-gliding
The field full of cows south of Hollister, CA where we went hang-gliding today.
Boriss getting ready to take off.
Boriss was doing tow-launches today. There's a motorized winch hooked to a long cable, which reels in the glider very fast. Like a kid running with a kite on a string, this propels the glider up into the air very rapidly.
... and then the cable lets go and you just soar. She disappeared above the clouds and didn't reappear for many minutes.
When I heard "let's go hang-gliding", of course what I imagined was jumping straight off a sheer cliff above the ocean, or something.
Nothing like that. I joined a newbie class with eight or so other beginners. They started us on a gentle grassy hill, something you might sled down in the winter.
We'd take turns running down the hill and briefly leave the ground (or not) for a few seconds before landing again. It was a great, non-scary way to get started.
Here's me, getting ready to try it. The guy in the red shirt is Dave, our teacher for the day.
He taught me how to avoid the most common newbie mistakes. "Walk, then jog, then stride", he said. Most people launching for the first time will instinctively stop running and try to jump when they feel the lift under the wing. It doesn't work that way; if you stop running you'll just fall down. You have to keep running while the glider picks you up.
The other thing that's easy to do wrong at first is to grip the bars too tightly. When people realize they're leaving the ground they tend to grab on for dear life. But there's no need; the harness on your back is what's holding you up, and grabbing the bars in a death-grip will just make the glider stall. You have to force yourself to relax and use a very gentle touch.
By my second or third try I was flying. It feels really great! When I was a kid and I had dreams of flying, they always started with me running and jumping off the top of a hill or a staircase or something. Hang-gliding feels exactly like those dreams.
I was expecting to wipe out a lot today, but I mostly landed on my feet.
There were a lot of cow pies in this field. I managed to dodge them, but I saw one guy land right in one. Gross!
A hang glider is something like a tent -- you take out the poles holding it rigid and then the whole thing folds up into a narrow tube shape and zips up inside a bag.
It was a ton of fun! I am tempted to start doing this semi-regularly and get good at it, so I can do towed launches or jump off mountains or whatever.
This month, holy crap this month has been just
For an unemployed person, I'm pretty busy.
The first week of the month I was sprinting on the Legends of Hanyu code trying to get teacher features done in time for Sushu to show it off at a teacher conference. Partial success -- got a lot done, not as much as I would like.
Second week of the month I was doing a week-long statistical modeling / data analysis task for a startup I really like. I was one of a couple candidates they were considering hiring, and they offered this task as a way of letting me prove my abilities. In the process I learned a bunch about applied stats and data mining. That was pretty cool. But I didn't get the job, and I really wanted to work for them, so this was a bummer.
Ah well. If I never failed, it would mean I was sticking to things that are too easy for me.
There has also been... well, read Sushu's dreamwidth for details. It's been hard on both of us emotionally and hard on her physically.
If you follow my twitter you noticed I made some pretty angsty and depressed tweets the last couple of days. I'm worried I might be slipping back into depression. But this time I've decided to talk about it and reach out to people instead of withdrawing and trying to keep it secret.
Jinghua (my old boss from Mozilla) saw my tweets, got worried about me, and called me up to check on me. She's really sweet! She suggested meeting up for dinner that night with the Mozilla user research team (including Gregg who was visiting from Minnesota that day). We had shabu-shabu. It was really good to see them again. Man, for all the things that made me decide to leave Mozilla, I really do love the people I got to work with there. It will be hard to find such good co-workers anywhere else.
This week I wrote and thumbnailed a ten-page comic. Oh, right, I forgot to tell you guys: I pitched a comic idea to this anthology of science fiction short stories set in San Francisco, and it was accepted! The final pages are due on April 1, so I'll be drawing and inking like a maniac all next week to try to meet that deadline.
Even with all the deadlines that landed this month, the job hunt doesn't stop. Sushu's school is looking for a new math/computer-science teacher, so I went in and observed a class on Thursday to see if it's something I might be interested in. (Answer: probably not.) Next I'm trying to set up interviews with some companies involved in building the "smart electric grid".
March was also the month when, out of the blue, I had chances to reconnect at least five different friends who I haven't seen in years. All independently. That was great!
Oh yeah and I went hang-gliding, and played taiko in front of thousands of people at a baseball game. Somehow that happened while all this other stuff was going on.
On the 30th I'm flying to New York City to meet a bunch of people there, then road-trip (or possibly Amtrak) through Connecticut visiting friends and relatives on my way to the big Chinese teacher conference in Boston.
Podcast #2 - Seirei no Moribito
Here it is: Podcast 2.mp3. (35:45, 32.7 MB) Recorded Thursday, May 2nd, 2013.
0:00 - Visiting Chris in the hospital
2:00 - Our anime "book club".
4:40 - Anime cons then and now; the fragmentation of fandom.
8:00 - Awkward homestucks; cutting-edge cosplay.
11:00 - Today's anime: Seirei no Moribito. Kicking butt; pacing.
13:00 - What's this show about? Is it set in the distant past of Japan, or an alternate history, or a fantasy world?
14:00 - Balsa's characterization.
15:30 - Role-playing games and martial arts philosophy.
17:00 - Setting development without infodumping.
18:00 - Introducing characters via their actions.
21:00 - Trying to learn how to introduce characters better in our comics, Squanto and We Can Regrow That For You.
23:50 - Making the outer represent the inner in comicking.
24:30 - What's up with these fake kanji? Is this Japan or not? (round 2).
27:30 - More about the pacing and setting. Characters who aren't good or evil, just trying to live their lives.
29:00 - Balsa's challenges are about trust, not fighting. If she was a PTA character.
31:30 - The prince's character development, and his silly hairdo.
33:30 - Other shows we might watch for anime book club.
35:00 - Robotech and stupid "vehicle" Voltron! "Lying to a child!"
My good friend Chris has lymphoma.
I wanted to post about this months ago, but I could never get the words out. It's old news now; I've told most of you in person. But for whoever didn't know...
At first, Chris just thought he had the flu. Remember that nasty flu that was going around in January and February? He thought he just had a case of that. He had lost his voice and it seemed to be dragging on without getting any better.
But then one day he collapsed on the sidewalk. A stranger called 911 and he got taken to the emergency room. They told him the reaosn he lost his voice was because a 15-cm mass in his chest was pressing on his vocal cord nerves. Uh-oh.
Then he got the medical bureaucracy runaround for like two weeks before finally getting admitted to the hospital and getting his biopsy results: Primary mediasitinal large B-cell lymphoma, which is an aggressive non-Hodgkins lymphoma. In laymans' terms: cancer of the lymph system.
The good news: a new treatment published April 2013 in the New England Journal of Medicine has a 97% success rate.
Apparently, if you gotta have cancer, Chris picked the right kind to get and the right time to get it.
Now he's just gotta go through eight rounds of chemotherapy (three down, five to go) where they drip orange kool-aid into his bloodstream. He's lost his hair and needs a cane to walk, and each time he comes out of chemo he's really weak for a couple days and needs help with basic stuff. He also can't eat anything uncooked since his immune system is not so functional.
The first time we visited him in the hospital, we knocked on the door of his room and a high-pitched voice said "come in" - we thought it was a female nurse in the room with him but it was Chris, his voice having turned all high and squeaky from the stress on his vocal cords.
His voice continues to randomly change day by day between Mickey Mouse and Mumm-Ra. We're hoping it will eventually go back to normal, or if not exactly the same, at least a voice that will let him have a phone conversation without scaring the person at the other end.
The first time we visited him in the hospital, I got all emotional at the unfairness of life, giving him such a terrible disease. My great-grandmother died of brain cancer in 2008 but she had already lived a long and full life, and was pushing 90, so it seemed like less of a tragedy and more like "well, she had to go somehow". Chris is still young and was doing everything right, health-wise. It seemed like a cruel and arbitrary punishment from an uncaring universe.
"Life sucks!" I said to him.
And he said, "No, life is awesome! I want more of it!"
Words of wisdom there. His positive attitude has been an inspiration to me as I've struggled with depression. If he can joke around about having cancer, then there must be a way for me to pull myself out of my negativity spiral.
Punch cancer in the face!
Chris has set up a fundraising site to help pay off the cost of cancer treatement. It's called Chris Punches Cancer In The Face. Please help him out!
On board the Truck Train!
Isaac and Josh are doing this series of video / podcast things where they play Euro Trucking Simulator while they talk about stuff.
In this episode they talk about five questions I sent them:
- What lessons can creators-of-things-on-the-internet-who-are-not-Andrew-Hussie take from Homestuck?
- Is it better in life to fail at doing something big and important or succeed at doing something small and personal?
- Is Zelda more fun when the bombable walls have obvious cracks on them, or when they do not?
- Why is it so hard to play an instrument and sing into the mic at the same time?
- How do I find, or create, a community or tribe of people who care about creative work and pushing each other to be better, given that I'm an introvert and talking to other people is scary?
I expected them to pick one but they did all five! (First though they spend the first eight minutes talking about BeyoncĂ©.)
If you like this video, maybe send them some questions of your own!