Sushu has a comic up about the ever-vital topic of squatting and Asian toilets.
She wrote, laid out, drew, inked, shaded, and lettered the whole thing during the time I spent inking one panel of my last Yuki comic. She works fast! I work slow |:-(
Workin' hard on the next comic. I penciled most of the panels before deciding that it sucked: the flow was all wrong, there was way too much text, and it did nothing to advance the plot. Grar.
It put me in a pretty grouchy mood, but taking a walk with Sushu cheered me up and helped me figure out a better direction. So I started over with a completely different punchline, salvaging a couple of panels from the first version and redrawing everything else.
The finished product is gonna be worth it, but man, I've penciled almost twice as many panels as I should have. I need to get better at revising in the writing stage before I sink time into drawing. But then again, sometimes I don't know whether something will work or not until I see it laid out visually.
Maybe someday I'll post a gallery of all the stuff I've drawn for Yuki Hoshigawa that didn't make it into the strip. There's a lot.
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.
Sushu's comics class
Sushu taught a class on making comics to her students as an extracurricular activity over the past week. (Sushu is cool.)
Some of the resulting students' comics are now online. The common theme was "Knights" -- they were supposed to do a story about "somebody saving somebody" whether that meant literal knights or not. The results are... well, let's just say they're high school students and for some of them this is their first time drawing or writing a comic. But some of them are really cute.
I can't work on Jiang Hu if I don't understand Wu Xia
Remember that Chinese martial arts novel game that I was all excited to work on with Sushu a couple months ago?
We've done a couple of playtests which were kinda meh. And we've talked around and around in circles about what the game needs. But we haven't made much progress at all, and it's because of me. I'm sure it's been frustrating for Sushu, because she'll want to work on the game and I'll be like "I have to ink my comic" or "I have to practice the accordion" or "Not tonight dear, I have a headache".
The real reason I'm not being more helpful is because, as I know realize, I don't understand what she wants Jiang Hu to be. It's really her baby, not mine, and I'm fine with that; I just want to support her. But she doesn't have enough role-playing game experience to understand what I mean when I talk about role-playing game stuff, and I don't have enough Wu Xia knowledge to understand what she means when she talks about Wu Xia stuff.
Sushu keeps giving me examples of awesome scenes she wants to have happen in the game, and I can respond only in abstract, theoretical, non-helpful ways because I don't recognize any of the tropes she's referencing, I don't understand the larger plot structure she's implying, and I don't understand what motivates the characters involved. She can explain it with a lot of words but I don't grok it on an emotional level. Sushu grew up reading these stories; I didn't.
Imagine if you were trying to describe your Tolkien-esque fantasy game idea to someone who had never read any fantasy novels of any kind, and whose sum total lifetime exposure to the genre of fantasy was that they had seen the movie Shrek and two episodes of He-Man. That's pretty much the boat I'm in with the Wu Xia genre.
I know a little bit about real-life martial arts, but it turns out that's actually anti-helpful. All it helps me do is to to complain about how unrealistic Wu Xia fight scenes are. Which is beside the point; they're not supposed to be realistic.
Last night Sushu helpfully tried to get me to understand Wu Xia better by showing me an episode of some Chinese TV drama where the emperor was posing as a member of a "salt gang". And I was like "WTF is a salt gang?" And she paused it to explain...
And, like, half an hour later we had gone into detail about the social, legal, and economic systems of Qing-dynasty China, relations between labor and merchant groups, etc. A "salt gang" is apparently a highly structured black-market labor union that provides workers for the salt trade between coastal regions and cities upriver, using violence and intimidation to eliminate non-salt-gang competition for jobs, thereby supporting a certain wage level, and which is tolerated enough to act openly and have a public headquarters despite being illegal.
Is this the sort of thing I have to know to understand Wu Xia novels? Is it the sort of thing I would have to know to play Jiang Hu the role-playing game?
So in short, I'm totally the wrong person to be helping Sushu with this game. It's not just that I haven't read any Wu Xia novels, it's that I don't have the right cultural background to understand them even if I did read them. It could take me years to aquire the right level of cultural competency.
I'm sorry, Sushu. :-(
Sexy witch doodle
Here's a drawing I did of Sushu as a sexy witch.
It was a comic drawing exercise at Slave Labor Graphics where we were supposed to combine a person in the room and an object in the room into some kind of imaginative scene. The object I picked was that skull chandelier (yes, that thing's real). Sushu was leaning over a table drawing so I just turned the table into a cauldron.
Giant Robo Cosplay
Yeah, ACen was like two months ago, so sue me. Like I said, I've got a lot of blomiting to catch up on.
Me and Sushu decided to go as characters from Giant Robo. I'm Taiso (the dude who swigs sake from a jug and spits fire) and she's Youshi (the barbarian woman with the magic extend-o-pole), who are husband and wife in the cartoon too, appropriately enough.
Both of our characters are originally bandits from the ancient Chinese story of the Water Margin, better known to anime fans by its Japanese title, Suikoden. Sushu's character is a man in the original story, so, um... they took a lot of license with the adaptation, I guess.
One more cosplay pic: this is our friend Rachel from the U of C anime club. She's a character from Zeta Gundam (don't know anything else about her, never having seen Zeta Gundam). And her costume was so cool I can't resist posting it:
In the background on the right you can see the sheet music to Yakusoku wa Iranai, which my accordion teacher Denis helped me figure out and write down. (Yes, I brought the accordion to ACen. I'm not real good yet, but my goal is to get good enough by next year that I can jam out with The Spoony Bards.)
Denis was really amazing at figuring out the song. I had found some sheet music for piano on the internet, but I was having a lot of trouble figuring out how to rearrange it for accordion. I brought Denis a YouTube video link and said "I want to learn to play THIS." He watched it, got a real strange look on his face, then started feeling it out on the keyboard, rewinding, playing again, feeling out the notes some more... then he turned to me and said "You picked a really good song! This is a beautiful chord progression. It's going to be really hard to play, though. Hear that? That's an inverted ninth chord... you don't have a button for that but you can fake it by doing this..."
Yeah. Yoko Kanno doesn't fool around. It is a hard song, but it's so beautiful.
Oh, by the way, note the first comment on this Yakusoku wa Iranai video:
dude i really love this song!! my mom was always playing anime music when i was really little and this is my FAVORITE!!
Dude. That made me feel so OLD. Gah.
Saddest game of Trollbabe ever
Sushu ran an amazing game of Trollbabe with me as the sole player. Recap and discussion about it is up on her livejournal so I won't repeat it here. Suffice to say it was the saddest game ever, in the sense of "most poignant" - it almost made me cry. Not because I wasn't having fun, but because -- well, read my comment on the livejournal entry to find out why.
Trollbabe is a good couple's game, not only because it's well-suited to one-on-one play (Trollbabes are typically loners) but also because so much of the content is about relationships (character relationships are the only way to earn more re-rolls than you start with) and gender roles.
I came home today to find Sushu passed out on the bed, an empty salami package next to her head.
I LOL'ed. It was like finding Homer passed out next to an empty donut box, or something.
That Sushu, she loves the salami.
Moving to Palo Alto
We've been feeling for a while like it's about time to move out of our current apartment. It's got a lot of drawbacks - the water from the faucets is yellowish and metallic, the dishwasher has never worked, the landlord won't fix anything, and the tiny concrete slab they call a "patio" is too drippy to be usable.
Sushu's parents happen to have a spare house in Palo Alto, so they asked us if we'd like to live there and pay rent to them.
(This is how badass Sushu's parents are: When they came to this country, they owned nothing but $30 and some pans. They were smart and worked hard and started a successful business and now they have "spare" houses in Palo Alto. It's a real "American Dream" kind of success story.)
The only drawback of the new place is that it triples the length of my bike ride to and from work - from 15 minutes to 45 minutes. A 45-minute bike ride is just barely still doable. For days when it's raining, there's a bus. The bus takes just as long, if not longer, than biking, since it takes a circuitous route and stops every ten yards.
December in the bay area is very rainy and dark; just about the worst time to be trying out new long-distance bike rides. I spent last week figuring out biking routes and bus stops by trial and error, getting to work late, wet, and tired, and getting home later, wetter, and tireder. It put me in a bit of a grouchy mood, but I think I've figured it out now.
The advantages are many. There's free oranges. There's more space. Washer and dryer are inside the house and don't cost quarters. There's a jacuzzi, which seems to be broken right now, but will be nice if we can figure out how to get it working. I am already salivating at the prospect of turning the garage into my own private workshop for various mischief. There are no longer neighbors right on the other side of the wall, so I can play accordion after 9pm and not worry about the noise. The kitchen has miles and miles of counter space. All this and we'll actually be paying less in rent.
And Sushu has a much shorter drive to work; short enough that she could start biking, which is a fair trade-off for my longer ride.
Palo Alto (Spanish for "Tall Pole" or "Tall Tree") is the site of Stanford university, which makes it essentially the dark heart from which the evil blood of Silicon Valley flows. I didn't think it was possible, but Palo Alto is even more frou-frou than Mountain View. It's, like, full of "old money", or as old as money gets in California anyway. Living here will give me lots of opportunities to write snarky blog posts making fun of the snobs and yuppies.
For my friends in the area, I'd like to have a housewarming / board-game party once we're fully set up (sometime in January probably) so you can all come and enjoy the space. Stay tuned!
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!
Taiko new year's festival
So I'm about 2 months late blogging this, gah. So behind on the blogging.
Our Taiko dojo held an O-Shogatsu (Japanese new year) festival on Jan 2, the day after we got back from our trip to New York City. We rearranged everything in the dojo to make room to set up chairs for an audience, and played a total of six songs to a packed house of about 70-80 people, mostly friends and family of the players. Sushu's parents came, and Chris brought one of his friends. Everybody contributed to a potluck lunch. (I brought onigiri of course - this was when we were still moving so I had to run back to the old apartment to use the rice cooker, blah!)
Me and Sushu are still in the Beginner 1 class so we only played in the first song, Hachijo, and then moved off to the sidelines as the more experienced students played more advanced songs. Mysterious songs with names like Omiyage, Rakuda, and Umi.
My camera decided to break that day so I didn't get any good pictures of me or Sushu performing but we're visible in the background in these pictures:
Before the actual drumming performance we also did mochitsuki, pounding steamed sticky rice with wooden mallets to make mochi, which was passed out for the guests to eat with azuki beans, nori and soy sauce, or kinako (toasted soy flour). Mochitsuki is a real fun activity but I've done it before so I recused myself to give other people a chance to try it.
Thanks to Virginia who took these pictures and shared them. All photo credits to her.
We dropped out of the taiko class for most of January while I was traveling to Brazil / MIT and we were moving house, but now we're back with it. I'm enjoying it a lot and I want to stick with it and get good. Something about the dojo discipline, counting in Japanese, yelling loud kiai in unison and beating things with sticks. It's primal and cathartic and it reminds me of doing Aikido back in the unheated police station dojo in Kamaishi. I find it very satisfying.
It worked! HUZZAH!
It worked! I was able to fix my broken touchscreen laptop using the replacement Passive Digitizer that came in the mail. Held my breath while starting up. Slowly reached out a trembling finger, ET-like, to touch the screen... and it works again! Pencilbox works! I can finally finish developing Pencilbox and make art with it!
One thing I didn't expect from this process: how much of the inside of a modern Fujitsu laptop is held together with tape. It's a thousand-dollar piece of hardware, you would think maybe it used a more solid construction method than a second-grader's construction paper valentine. But no. It's tape all the way.
Thanks to Sushu for plugging in one of the teeny tiny connectors that I kept fumbling with my fat chubby fingers.
Sushu's first time role-playing
Sushu wrote a great post about her first ever time role-playing, wherein she was a dwarf in what sounds like a pretty lame 2nd ed D&D game. It's really good, go read it! Especially if you're an RPG designer.
She posted it after a conversation we had in the car about the first-time-role-playing experience. It got me thinking about how D&D is most people's introduction to role-playing, but it's not necessarily a very good introduction.
It's actually quite a specialized and quirky game based on a very certain set of assumptions that don't apply to roleplaying in general. Think about the seemingly very simple question:
DM: "OK, what are you doing now?"
There are so many ways to interpret that. If role-playing was pitched to you as an interactive storytelling or improv theater type thing, then you might reasonably interpret that question to mean something like "what do you do to pursue your character goals" or "what do you do to pursue your interest in an NPC" or "do something to portray your character's personality".
But that's not what the DM means. In D&D, especially the older versions, that question means very specifically: "I'm about to spring something horrible on you, but first I'm giving you one chance to announce preparations your characters make to prevent yourselves from being completely screwed."
The right answer, depending on the situation, may be "build a fire and set a watch", "listen at the door", "put the guys in heavy armor at the front of the line", "search for traps", "listen for noises", "poke the thing from a distance with a pole..." each of which prevents a certain type of screwage.
And of course none of this is actually written anywhere in the rules, so you have to learn by trial and error. (There was an old educational Apple II game called Odell Lake where you were a fish of some kind. If nothing seemed to be happening it meant you needed to dive as deep as possible because an osprey was about to swoop down and grab you if you were on the surface. The only way to learn this was by dying to it once. A lot of old-style D&D gameplay was like that.)
Or maybe the DM was saying "What are you doing now?" just because he's out of ideas and is looking to you to make something happen. Funny, these are two completely different questions that mean opposite things.
There's also the fact that you can't just play any character you want in D&D. You need to cover certain bases in your party in terms of classes. You need to have amusing interactions with the other characters in the party BUT no serious disagreements that might threaten the mission. You also need to make a character who would have motivation to go into dungeons and look for treasure (if it's that kind of game) OR a character who would have motivation to join a motley crew of travelers on an epic quest to save the world (if it's that kind of game). Better find out which kind it is. And even if your interest in fantasy gaming comes from Tolkein, you better not try making a Bilbo-type character who just wants to lead a normal life and get reluctantly dragged on adventures. That really, really doesn't work. So there are all these unwritten rules about what kind of character you need to make for the game to function.
Finally there's the part about "what was happening on a meta level" as Sushu describes it, which I think of as "the social level", aka "what the real-life players are doing at the real-life table". I'm kind of embarrassed to look back on how many years of role-playing I did in a state of complete ignorance of the social level. I came to it through computer games, remember, so I didn't expect things like "people's feelings" to matter. All I knew is occasionally there would be some weird flare-up and somebody would get really angry and storm off, or would lose interest in the game, or would start rebelling and declaring nonsensical character actions, and I wouldn't know why. But in hindsight it's blindingly obvious that somebody was feeling disrespected on the social level, felt their ideas were being ignored or they were being treated unfairly or just weren't getting the fun they expected out of the game. And that was invisible to me because everything seemed to be going fine for the characters.
When Sushu talks in her sleep
She says stuff like this:
"YES! If we loosen our hands, then we will lose nuclear power forever!"
She said that, just now, in her Very Serious Person From History voice, like she was arguing something in front of the U.N. I wonder what she's dreaming about.
Ever since I discovered this amazing technology that makes free food out of dirt, sunlight, and water I have been wanting to try more of it.
Besides, subsistence farming skills will be very important for survival after modern industrial civilization crumbles, so I figure I should start practicing now.
The vegetable patch behind the house. Sushu's mom has been using it but she said I could take it over if I want to grow things there.
But first, harvesting what's already there. Garden spinach is SO GOOD. It tastes way more spinachier than spinach from the grocery store. We made spinach omelets, spinach quiche, spinach salads, spinach stir-fries...
and spinach hats.
I bought some tomato, basil, and bell pepper seeds (they're like $2 a packet from Safeway) and planted them. Yay seedlings!
Since this picture was taken, three of the tomato plants and one of the basil plants are now safely in the ground and growing nicely, but all the bell pepper plants shriveled up and died when I left them out in the sun on a really hot day. |:-( I started some more pepper seeds; I'll be more careful with these.
(Random fact: Did you know the bell pepper and the jalapeno pepper are the same species? Capsicum Annuum, it's called. So are others like the cayenne pepper, serrano pepper, and pepperoncini. They're all just different cultivars. The reason the bell pepper isn't spicy is because it has two copies of a recessive gene making it unable to produce capsaicin.)
Where should we live?
Sushu and I have been talking about living abroad somewhere for a year, to see more of the world and have some crazy adventures together.
This would be way more difficult after we have kids. Which, everyone keeps telling us, gets more dangerous and complicated after about age 30.
Doing the math, that means that if we're going to go live in another country for a year, we should do it soon.
Next question: Which country?
Pros: I speak the language; I know people there; good food; has a Mozilla office; plentiful inspiration for drawing comics; beautiful scenery; snow; natsukashii
Cons: Insanely expensive; Mozilla office is in Tokyo, my least favorite city; Japan discriminates against Chinese people; it would be really hard for Sushu to get a job that's not a crappy English teaching job; can be kind of depressing sometimes with all the conformism; "been there, done that"
Pros: Sushu speaks the language; it would help me learn the langauge; great food; relatively affordable; Sushu has family; Sushu has connections that could help her find a job; has a Mozilla office; could tour all sorts of awesome Chinese historical sites; snow (in the north)
Cons: Internet censorship; Mozilla office is in Beijing; polluted; government is really scary; not entirely sure how they feel about American immigrants in general
Pros: Fantastic music; beautiful beaches; rain forest; highly active local open source community; friendly people; multi-racial so neither of us obviously sticks out; affordable
Cons: Tropical diseases; crime; neither of us speaks Portuguese; food (other than churrascaria) not that good; no Mozilla office (yet); no snow
Pros: Beautiful nature; people speak English; multiple Mozilla offices (Toronto and Vancouver); friendly people; multiculturalism; snow
Cons: Food not that good (sorry, fans of poutine and Tim Horton's). Not that different from living in America which kind of defeats the purpose of this exercise.
Pros: people speak English; get to know my family roots; beautiful nature; snow; I know a couple of people there; Viking historical sites; active local open-source community; green technology
Cons: Kind of depressing, especially in the winter. Food not that good (seafood should not come in a metal squeeze tube). Not sure how they feel about Chinese people. Conformism. High taxes.
And that's it for the countries I've spent enough time in to have an opinion on. There are plenty of other countries in the world, though, and we could pretty much take our pick. Any suggestions?
2 years with Sushu
Last Sunday was the two-year anniversary of our wedding.
Now if TV commercials and sitcoms have taught me anything it's that men are thoughtless slobs who forget anniversaries, and women are matrimony-obsessed harpies who crush mens' balls for forgetting anniversaries.
My actual real-life marriage once again fails to live down to pop-culturally mandated expectations. I was like "Hey our anniversary is coming up" and Sushu was like "Yeah I guess, why, do you want to do something special?"
It was also the second weekend in a row of attending wedding receptions and getting seated at the "miscellaneous people the couple barely know" table. It's like June is some kind of wedding season or something, right?
The first one was the wedding reception for my Moz Labs coworker Ed and his new wife Sue-ting; the second was for Sushu's high-school friend Mary and her new husband John. The former was OK since I knew a few people there, but the second was three hours of nearly unbearable social awkwardness that made me want to crawl under the table and hide.
Amusingly, both receptions were at Chinese seafood restaurants and the banquet menus were nearly identical. First the plate of seaweed/jellyfish/baby octopus/roast pork appetizers, then the plate of deep-fried shrimp paste balls with crab claws inside, then the egg-drop soup, the mushroom and bok choy stir-fry, the fried rice, the steamed fish, and finally the lobster at the end. It's like both restaurants were following the exact same master plan.
So anyway I was really glad to be done with the boring wedding party and I wanted to spend a nice Sunday with Sushu.
For breakfast I made some crepes and we filled them with some of this amazing peach jam that Sushu's mom made from the peach tree in her backyard.
I played a little Minecraft with Aleksa as I usually do on Sunday mornings. When I logged on, here's what I found in front of my house:
We got some sandwiches from Safeway and had a picnic on a sunny park bench in a public flower garden in Palo Alto, talking about what we want to do with the next few years of our lives.
I proposed going to the beach. It's pretty awful that I've lived in coastal California for three years now and I've barely ever been to the beach. It's because we live on the marshy south end of the bay; to get to anything like a real beach you have to drive across the mountains. We briefly considered Half-Moon Bay but then decided to call up Jeremy in Santa Cruz and see if he wanted to hang out with us. (He did!)
Jeremy's roommate advised me to jump straight into the ocean. I knew it was a trap -- the current coming down from Alaska keeps the Pacific quite chilly off the central California coast, much to the surprise of many tourists -- but I didn't care; it's about the same as the north Atlantic waters of my youth, cold but refreshingly cold, not unbearably cold. Sushu and Jeremy kind of gingerly tested the waters while I rode some breakers and got completely draped in floating mats of kelp. Sushu got suplexed by a big wave and was still picking sand out of her hair hours later.
I want to learn to surf!
We had some yummy seafood burritos for dinner and gossiped about grad students, interns, old friends, etc.
Jeremy is learning to play guitar! He's still at the phase of strumming basic chords but it's pretty cool that he's decided to learn. He played "Burn the land/ boil the sea/ you can't take the sky from me" as well as some girly pop-country songs. It sounded good! His singing skills are coming along too. I hope we can jam out together sometime soon!
We played a game of Agricola which came out to a tie between Jeremy and me with Sushu close behind. (Note to self - building a 4th room in the hopes of using the regular Family Growth space on the last round doesn't work when you already have more people than rooms thanks to "Family Growth even without room".)
It was pretty much a perfect day. We said "screw it" to the many niggling responsibilities that usually occupy us and spent the whole day rejoicing in each other's company.
The next day, Monday, was when Sushu left for her European vacation. As a teacher, she gets the whole summer off, so she can travel for several weeks whereas I have to ration my twenty days off each year. So she flew to Rome with plans to make her way through Croatia and Slovenia with her friend Joanne, and rendezvous with me a week later in Istanbul.
Her flight left at 6am so we got up at 3:30 am and I drove her to the airport. (She was going to take a taxi but I volunteered since it would be the last time I'd get to see her for a week.) I was in a weird headspace from waking up in the middle of the night, kind of manic and giggly. I got back and tried to sleep more, with little success.
I started this post by touching on the dismal stereotypes about married life in our culture (stereotypes that manage simultaneously to be sexist against men and against women, and no, two wrongs don't make a right). I want to deconstruct those a little more.
I keep seeing dudes here and there with the shirt that's got the silhouette of the married couple and it says "GAME OVER". (There are a lot of variants.) I just can't understand that mindset. I'm like: "Game Over, you... won?" What, you want to pursue relationships with women... but oh no, you might succeed with one of them, and that would be bad because it precludes... further pursuing relationships with women? Make up your mind sir: do you want a serious exclusive long-term relationship or not? If you do, be happy when you achieve one! If not, then find women who have a compatible attitude and are open to a casual fling or a poly relationship; those women exist and there's nothing wrong with such an arrangement if it makes you both happy. Just, don't be in such a rush to marry someone you don't get along with, only to immediately start complaining about it. Geez.
I feel I've only gained, not given anything up, by getting married. I always found flirting and dating entirely stressful and unpleasant and I'm happy to be done with them. It's not like bachelorhood was some kind of glorious Bacchanalia. In my experience it consisted mainly of working late, reheating something for dinner, reading a lot of web pages, and then masturbating myself to sleep. (I can admit that on the internet, right?) The dudebro conception of monogamy -- as some kind of unjust, boner-killing imprisonment of the male's inherent bonobo-like promiscuity -- is in its way just as unrealistic as the happily-ever-after Disney Princess version.
What's being married really like, in real life? I can describe only the experience of being married to Sushu (I highly recommend it to anyone ;-P )
Lao Zi said that the most virtuous people are simple. (I think? I can't find the quote right now. Or maybe it was Confucius? Sounds more like Lao Zi's style though.) Anyway I feel the same applies to relationships. What I've got with Sushu is delightfully uncomplicated. She's my best friend. There are no hidden meanings or mind games. We say what we want and then we negotiate from there, like adults, from a place of respect, openness, and trust.
Being able to share everything with her has added an incredible depth and richness to the fabric of my existence. Every experience of these past few years, large and small, has been far more satisfying because Sushu has been a part of it. They've been the best two years of my life by far, despite the fact that I dislike the area I'm living in.
When we're apart for more than a day I start missing her terribly.
The rest of our lives is far too short a time to spend with someone as compassionate, creative, adventurous, honest, trustworthy, hard-working, fun-loving, and sexy as Sushu. I hope for many, many more years.
Treading water: summary of a typical frustrating week
Monday: get up, regret leaving my bike at work on Friday so I have to take the bus. Get in just in time for my first meeting of the day, have meetings non-stop one after another until 4 or 5 pm. Too exhausted and irritated to get any coding done after that. Regret not having done more coding last week.
Meet Sushu for dinner, eat out because there's no time to go home before my accordion lesson. Drive to accordion lesson. Regret not having practiced accordion more last week. Apologize, make excuses.
Tuesday: put clothes on, notice "University of Chicago Aikido Club" t-shirt in closet, regret dropping out of Aikido in 2008 and never finding the time to go back to it.
Try to catch up on my never-ending flood of email, or at least flag the most critical ones to respond to and delete the rest. Regret not responding to old e-mails or instituting some better kind of e-mail sorting system. Think about all the people who offered to work with me on cool ideas, regret never having had the time to write back to them.
Read about the Japan tsunami, regret never finding the time to keep in touch with the people in Kamaishi.
Go to the game store on Tuesday night to make my toy soldiers fight other people's toy soldiers. Regret all the time I spent painting them instead of doing something more useful.
Wednesday: deal all day with interviews, write-ups, debriefs, random people asking me questions on IRC, random people stopping by my desk to interrupt me with questions, random people with test pilot data requests. Regret not having written more code on Tuesday. By the afternoon I've almost caught up to where I was when I left work the previous Friday. Right when I'm on the verge of starting to be productive, it's time to go.
Go to Chinese family dinner, regret not having studied Chinese at all during the last week and not being able to follow the conversation any better than I could a week ago. Apologize, make excuses.
Thursday: look at the newly filed Test Pilot bugs, try to remove the duplicates, close ones that need closing, test and accept patches where they've been uploaded, requrest code review where something I wrote needs code review, and correctly sort the rest. Regret not having a better unit test suite. Regret not having written more code on Wednesday. Feel like the bug list never gets any shorter.
Come home, think about what to do on my one night of the week with nothing scheduled, think about all the creative projects I've started, regret not finishing any of them.
Friday: It's a nice day out. Look at the mountains in the distance and regret not spending more time outside enjoying nature.
Look at emails about upcoming all-hands Mozilla meeting, regret not having had the time to pay attention and plan a session for it.
Leave work just when I'm starting to be productive, once again. Time to go to my Smallville role-playing session. Role-playing is supposed to be fun, so why does this feel like an obligation? Have to take the car since it's too far to bike and not near public tranist. While driving, notice expanding waistline, regret not biking more, regret eating out at restaurants so much and not cooking at home with Sushu more.
Smallville role-playing session is mediocre because I'm not putting in the time and effort to make it good. Regret not having read the rulebook during the last week. Regret not having made characters who gel better together.
Saturday: go to taiko. Upon leaving taiko think of how little I know any of the other members and regret not spending time to get to know other them better. Rush to roleplaying sessiona fterwards (Mouse Guard this time); regret not having finished reading Mouse Guard book and not having prepared better. Eat out again.
Sunday: think of all the creative projects I've started, wonder which one to work on today. Play Wizards online with Aleksa, regret not being able to see my family more than a handful of times a year. Do laundry for the week and regret never having time to fix all my pants with holes in them. Buy groceries and regret not eating healthier or cooking more often. Write a blog post, think about all the other things I meant to write about, regret not blogging in the last week. Whoops, the day and then the evening slipped by without any work done on any of my other projects.
Where does the time go? How can I always be rushing from one activity to another and never feel prepared for anything or feel like I'm geting anything done?
Even at work, it seems like I never have time to get any work done, because I always have a full plate of all this... I don't even know what to call it... these trivial tasks that never stop multiplying, and somehow each one is too important to skip, but they never add up to anything either.
It's like I never do anything properly because I'm always too busy with all the other things, that I'm also not doing properly?
How is it that I've trapped myself in obligatory activities six out of seven days of the week, and although they're all things I chose to do, none of them is what I really want to be doing? Have I sliced my time up into chunks too small to be useful?
It seems every few weeks I'm getting on an airplane to somewhere, and when I get back I'm even farther behind on everything. That's not helping.
I keep telling myself "I'm really busy right now, but I just gotta get through this busy chunk and then I'll have time to do all the things I wanna do". But I've been saying that for years now. I think it's a lie. It feels true, but that's just because the future always seems free. Problem is, the wide-open future keeps turning into the cluttered present.
Ultimately if I want to do more of some things I'm just going to have to do less of other things.
The worst part is all the creative projects I've started and can't finish.
Sushu asked me recently, "Have you ever... finished a project?"
I was quiet for a long time. I can name some small projects I've finished (making a costume, learning a song, making a present for someone, making a comic page), and some projects for work, but I've never finished a big, personal project. I just kind of work on them until I get distracted by a newer, shinier idea. I'm always starting and not finishing so the list of projects just gets longer.
Another day, Sushu got very frustrated that I haven't followed through with any of the projects I said I would do with her. Jiang Hu and learning Chinese, especially. I'm always busy either with work stuff or with self-imposed obligatory social activities and when I'm not doing one of those things, I'm getting absorbed in yet another solo project I've invented for myself to do. It's like, when I do finally get some free time, I want to use it on something that doesn't take a lot of mental energy, and that usually means a solo activity.
Now, Sushu is talking about wanting to "form babby" (or, as people who have not had their language corrupted by internet memes call it, "have a baby") sometime within the next few years. This thought kind of terrifies me because if I am feeling the time crunch now, imagine the time crunch when I am one half of the team responsible for foiling a human larva's attempts to kill itself 24/7. I keep thinking about how my mom said she didn't get one solid night's sleep for the first six or seven years of Aleksa's life. It sounds like a safe bet that work and family duties will be all I get to do.
So basically any idea for a creative project I have, I either need to get it done in the next let's say two years; or I will have to postpone it until like 2025 when the baby is old enough to ignore for a few hours. (Longer, if there is more than one baby)...
Damn. Two years. It's like finding out I have two years left to live. I need to seriously rethink my priorities. I need to start saying "no" to a whole bunch of things and just eliminating them from my schedule entirely.
Stuff Sushu made lately
Sushu wrote a really good essay about the feeling of not fitting in.
She also designed her ideal handbag, bought some fabric, and sewed it up.
Right now as I type this she's sewing her self a Shinsengumi Halloween costume. (The shinsengumi were a counter-revolutionary samurai group during the Meiji Restoration, and heroes or villains of many an anime.)
Sushu is cool.
My first real attempt at Chinese calligraphy
A present for Sushu. 良师益友 (liang2-shi1-yi4-you3) is a phrase from Confucius describing "Good teachers and good friends" which certainly fits Sushu!
Man, my strokes are sloppy. I have a lot to learn.
1. Time getting home: In a job like mine, quitting time is highly variable. After my last meeting of the day it's up to me how much longer to stay, although late afternoon/evening time is often some of the most productive for programming so I usually want to stay later. The time I get home further depends on whether I bike or take a train, which depends on whether it's raining, etc. Left ot my own devices I might get home anywhere between 5:30 and 8pm. When I lived alone, I didn't even think about this. But it inconveniences Sushu when she doesn't know what time I get home. She can't plan around it, she doesn't know if she should eat dinner without me, or what.
Easy solution: any day that we don't have something prearragned I email her to let her know what time I'm coming home. We figured this one out in the first year and it hasn't been much of a problem since.
2. The wait cycle: Say we were planning to take a walk together after dinner. But then I start reading something, and while Sushu is waiting for me to finish reading, she starts sketching a comic. Then I finish reading, but she's sketching a comic, so while I wait for her to be done with that I start doing some accordion practice. Then she finishes sketching but has to wait for me to be done practicing so... We could cycle like this for hours and never leave the house.
Now when Sushu's doing something waiting for me, she'll say out loud "I'm wait cycling". And vice versa. This usually ends the cycle rapidly. (Sometimes just naming a problem gets you most of the way to fixing it.) We just figured this one out this year.
3. Social event warning: I'm an introvert. I have energy for only a limited amount of socialization per day. The last thing I want to do, after getting home, is have to talk to somebody I don't know. There were some times in the first year when I would get home and then find out that somebody was coming to visit or that we were going to somebody's house. It stressed me out.
Now Sushu gives me a couple days' advance warning of any potential encounter with strange humans (and usually offers me an exit strategy).
4. Time horizon for trip planning: Sushu likes to plan trips a few months ahead of time, reserving plane tickets and hotel rooms way in advance so she can relax until it's time to go. I have trouble even thinking about anything two months in the future -- two weeks is about my time horizon at which future events start to feel concrete; anything beyond that feels like "someday". It used to be that Sushu would start making reservations and ask me questions like "Do you want to stay in Trujillo or Chiclayo on Wednesday night?" and I'd be like "Where the hell is Trujillo? How should I know?". She'd end up planning the whole trip herself and be frustrated that I wasn't participating, and then later when the trip entered my mental time horizon I would realize I had missed my chance to give input.
We're still working out a solution to this. For our latest trip planning (we're going to Peru next month) I told her I needed some time to clear out space in my head. We scheduled a weekend to do the planning. I bought a guidebook, a Spanish phrasebook, and a paper planning calendar (the only one they had at Office Depot was a "kitchen calendar for moms" with purple flowers all over it; talk about pointlessly gendering products. Whatever, I like purple.) I've been reading up on Peru and writing trip details on the calendar; it helps make things more concrete, and this time I feel like I'm having more input.
5. Bedtimes: Sushu needs to get up earlier than I do. So she needs to sleep by 11. But sometimes I want to stay up later than that. But it turns out she has trouble falling asleep until I come to bed. So if I stay up late, it limits how much sleep she can get.
Just this week I resolved to go to sleep the same time as her every night. I'll ask what time she needs to wake up, and aim to sleep 8 hours before then. If this gets me on an earlier and more regular schedule, great! Bonus.
None of these are, like, huge romantic sacrifices or hardships or any of that. They're just minor things that we're gradually figuring out to make living together more functional. I think mutual willingness to keep doing small adjustments is important to make relationships work in the long run.
Last week there was a lunch at work, and after some discussion it turned out every single person at the table was married to somebody from a different culture than them.
For example, Jinghua's Chinese, she's married to Oscar, who's Venezualean, but the two of them met in Denmark; Oscar's parents live in Canada and his brother is married to a Romanian.
And that's not as unusual as it used to be. Everyone at the table had a story about negotiating a compromise between their family's marriage customs and those of their husband's family or wife's family.
This is the future! International families are on the rise, and may even eventually become the norm. We're just a little ahead of the curve, here in immigrant-heavy, majority-minority Silicon Valley.
I hope that in the future, this trend will make people less eager to go to war, because more of us will stop and say "Wait a minute, I have relatives over there in [Iran/China/Russia/Israel/America]. They're not as bad as you're saying."
(Then again, maybe I'm too optimistic: lots of North Koreans have relatives in South Korea and they're still technically at war.)
The biggest obstacle to learning programming
You know, the whole "integration" thing. Getting almost anything useful to happen on the internet beyond static web pages requires knowing how to at least get a web server talking to a database, or how to call operating-system APIs and/or browser APIs, for networking, graphics, etc. And most practical projects these days will involve stuff happening in several different languages on several different computers. Calling other people's code is the difference between a toy program you write for a class assignment, and an actual software product.
I spent a lot of time explaining the basics of APIs and how to call them, libraries and how to install them, how programs communicate across the network using HTTP or whatever, and so on.
There are lots of tutorials for explaining for loops, if-then, and functions -- but not tutorials for this kind of stuff.
And it's a huge oversight! After all, like half of learning a new language is learning how to use the library (module/package/framework/etc) system for that language - how to find other people's code that does what you need, how to install it on your computer, how to call their functions from your code. Learning th syntax of the new language is the easy part compared to that!
And APIs, man, what the hell. Sushu's looked at API documentation before, but didn't really know what an API is, and found the documentation cryptic and inscrutable.
I explained that API documentation sucks because it's written by programmers only under duress from their managers - programmers who would rather be doing almost anything else. It's usually out of date because the API gets updated but the docs don't. And worse, API documentation is always written for an audience of expert programmers - we assume that anybody reading API docs is already an expert, so nobody ever writes "My First API" for an audience of new programmers.
Meanwhile, we professionals put up with terribly written API docs because we have to - that's why we get paid the big bucks, because we can't give up and say it's too hard; we have to make it work somehow when it's integrated with other people's crappy and poorly-documented code. Writing code is actually a very small part of professional software development. It's the easy part! The harder and much more time-consuming part is figuring out how to interoperate with other people's code - looking up API documentation, installing libraries, resolving dependencies, deciphering error messages, etc.
I think most non-programmers would be fairly amazed to realize how much of a programmer's day is spent Googling stuff. Googling to find answers to questions like "Is there a Java library to parse JSON?" "How do I talk to a SQL database from Node.js?" and "Why is the Twitter API rejecting my OAuth credentials?".
We don't even teach this stuff in college computer science courses, not really. People either figure it out on their own, in the course of doing some other project, or they drop out.
Fellow computer programmers: We are failing really badly at teaching people how to program. Knowldege is power. By failing to teach, we're hoarding the power of computers for ourselves and failing to share it with all the people who could take advantage of it to improve their lives. Maybe some programmers like to think that what they do is really hard and really special and that most people couldn't do their job, but I disagree. Programming well requires learning some new habits of logical thought, but it's not fundamentally that difficult. We've been making better and better programming and debugging tools for ourselves over the years, we've shrunk the modify-run-test loop from hours down to seconds, the internet has made it easier to read sample code and to get help, and as we've gone from assembly to C++ to Python we've eliminated most of the non-essential complexity from our programming languages.
But people who want to learn are getting stuck. Not stuck on functions and variables and loops, because those are pretty easy, and there are actually a lot of good tutorials for them these days. No, people are getting stuck on APIs and libraries and all the other difficulties of talking to existing code, which are needlessly opaque and obscured by jargon. There are really good tutorials for learning programming but I can't think of any decent tutorial for learning APIs or libraries; there isn't even a good tutorial for learning what APIs and libraries are, let alone how to find, install, decipher, and use the right ones. There's a whole bunch of context that beginners are missing, habits of thought that they don't have, which they need in order to ask the right questions to find and use existing code that does what they need.
We're currently not offering any way for beginners to get past that wall. If somebody could solve that problem it would be a huge step towards making programming more accessible.
In Search of the Unknown (dungeon module B1)
Holy crap, guys, tomorrow is my last day at Mozilla and I'm leaving for China on Friday morning. It's like I'm starting a whole new life. I'm excited! The future has a sense of wide-open possibility again, like I haven't felt for a long time.
My life has been too comfortable the past few years, which paradoxically depresses me because I'm like "Is this as good as it's ever going to get? Is the rest of my life just going to be a slow decline?" Something in my psychological makeup needs the unknown, needs weirdness. I have to believe in the possibility of growth, and growth requires encountering things outside my experience. I can't imagine a utopia or a heaven where I'd be happy, because they all sound so dreadfully boring.
Somebody asked me recently whether I was scared of leaving my job. No, quite the opposite: I'm scared of staying in the warm, stifling embrace of a well-paying job for so long that I turn into a Boring Person who plays office politics and acts entitled to his salary and hasn't questioned his beliefs for a decade. I need to get out there and fight for myself again. Worst case scenario, I said, if my next thing doesn't work out, I can always go get another software job. My interlocutor was like "No! Don't give yourself a backup plan, that will make you hesitate! You gotta commit!" He was a burn-your-ships and smash-your-pots kind of guy.
So yeah! Here we go! In Search of the Unknown!!
Sushu has some much more practical thoughts about getting ready to go to China (and Tanzania!)
The Proving Grounds, and other comic scripting advice
As I've complained about before, it's hard finding usable advice for writing comics.
So I was pretty excited to discover, via random internet searching, a column called The Proving Grounds, by a writer named Steven Forbes. In each installment, a reader submits a draft of a comic script, and Forbes rips their horrible ideas to shreds. I mean, provides helpful feedback!
It's aimed at people who are trying to break into the American weekly-comic-magazine market, so there's the assumption again that writer and artist will be two different people. Nevertheless, there's a lot of good, useful stuff here about panel-to-panel flow, story pacing, dialog, establishing shots, and what is or isn't drawable. Plus I find it really entertaining when Forbes calls somebody out for "white void", "moving panels", or being "magically delicious" (when something we should have seen earlier appears out of nowhere).
There's another, newer column on the same site called Points of Impact which goes through comics published that week (mostly ones I've never heard of) pulling out graphic narrative devices to talk about why they work or don't work. I'm getting some useful ideas out of this one, too. The rest of the site is not so relevant to my interests.
Sushu's been working on scripting a new comic project of her own. She wrote a good post about killing your headcanon, among other things.
Sushu's Tanzania adventure
Sushu's back from Tanzania now. She was gone for two weeks.
During a boat ride off the coast of Zanzibar, when swimming with the dolphins, she accidentally dropped her glasses into the Indian Ocean. After that I spent about a week worrying about my poor wife, wandering blind around Africa. At least her friend Joanne was there to take care of her.
She sent me her prescription info and I ordered her a new pair of glasses from a local optical shop. They came in on Monday, so on Tuesday I brought them with me when I went to pick her up at the airport.
We were SOOOOO happy to see each other again! Yay, Sushu! <3 <3 <3 She brought me back a present - a double-headed cowhide drum from Tanzania.
She's written about the people she met, about Bagamoyo village, and about Zanzibar. You should go read her posts!
Alternative Press Expo
I'll be at APE in San Francisco this weekend helping table for Sushu's China Comics.
The 80s mecha anime game - Pitfalls of scene framing
Last night was the final session of our Prime Time Adventures game in which we were playing a 1980s combining-robot anime series called Crystal Armor Resonator. Since it's an 80s anime, the cold war is still going on in the future. I was running. Sushu played Ken, the red pilot (half-American half-Japanese) and Chris played Dmitri, the blue pilot (Russian). This game started early this year, with a three-month hiatus while we were in China. I've almost never had a campaign survive a hiatus like that, but miraculously we managed to reconstruct what was happening from our notes and memories and finish up the series.
In last night's session, Sushu and I had a miscommunication which almost derailed the game. We managed to get it back on track and finish it, but we spent the whole car ride home talking about what had gone wrong and why that one miscommunication had been so awkward and frustrating. We worked through some issues in how we role-play together in general as well as in how we play this particular game that were quite illuminating.
It was Sushu's turn to start a scene. She had just resolved a fairly major subplot in her previous scene (taking down the evil alien clone that had replaced Commander McAllister) and she was at something of a loss about what her character should do next. So she asked me, "Where's Indigo/Zero right now?" (Indigo/Zero = the main villain at this point, a human terrorist leader who hooked himself into some psionic technology to try to gain control of the aliens' bioship larva and became a hideous fusion of human, alien, and machine.)
I thought for a second and said "After he fled the battle in the previous episode, he took off with the splinter fleet of aliens under his control and hid somewhere in the system. Nobody knows where he is right now."
(If you've never played PTA, you should understand this is not a game where the GM prepares the plot. There was no "real answer" to the question of where Indigo/Zero was; it's not like his location was marked on a dungeon map behind a screen, or even decided in my head. He could be anywhere. That's a baseline assumption of this kind of play.)
So, since I didn't know myself and I figured it was something none of the characters would know, I said his whereabouts were unknown.
I wanted that to be a prompt, not a roadblock. It's the last episode of the series, obviously there's got to be a final confrontation with the villain. I want the protagonists to find and defeat him! I don't even want finding him to be a challenge, particularly. This wasn't like a Star Trek type of game where we would focus on the use of science skills to track down the bad guy.
So by "nobody knows where Indigo/Zero is right now" I meant "He could show up at any time to attack you, or you could go look for him and fight him." If Sushu had said Ken wanted to go hunt him down, we would have done that, and we would have made up handwavy explanation for how the pilots find him. I would have accepted pretty much any plan either player offered, or I would have had an NPC scientist suggest one, or I would have had Indigo/Zero conveniently choose this time to come out of hiding and attack. Because the important thing is getting to the next cool fight scene, not the exact in-universe mechanics of how we track somebody through space.
But I communicated poorly, and Sushu heard "nobody knows where he is" as a roadblock: "Nobody knows where he is, therefore you can't go attack him" and she got frustrated. She felt like I was trying to force the game in another direction and steering her away from the plot she was interested in following. She got stuck trying to think of how to get Ken involved in the new plot direction she thought I was trying to push.
In a way this was a version of one of the oldest types of RPG "stalemate" situations - the one I first experienced playing RIFTS with Googleshng back in the 90s, where the GM is expecting the player to offer a direction ("What do you do next?") and the player is expecting the GM to offer a direction ("What's going on right now?"). Each person wants the other one to give them something to respond to, so play is deadlocked until somebody steps up.
PTA actually has a really good system for resolving this stalemate. It tells you exactly what each player is responsible for. In our case it was Sushu's turn to request a scene, so by the rules she was supposed to say 1. whether she wanted a plot-focused or character-focused scene, 2. where she wanted that scene to be set, and 3. what's the general sort of activity going on in that scene. Given those three things, the Producer (me) is then supposed to set the scene, narrating what the audience would see on screen, who's there, what's going on, etc. Then we start role-playing from there.
So by the rules I was expecting Sushu to say something like "I want a plot scene in outer space where we fight Indigo/Zero and his minions." Or, alternatively, "I want a character scene where Ken and Dmitri talk about how to unite the human nations against the common foe" (which happened later). Under the rules, she's got full authority to request that, regardless of where Ken is or what Ken does or doesn't know. It's then my responsibility to make it happen.
But there's a pitfall here. The scene-request system only works when everybody approaches it from the right stance, namely "What would be a cool scene to happen next in this show". It falls apart if you try to think too logistically, or try to think too much in-character. Trying to request a PTA scene from a "What SHOULD I DO next?" stance instead of "What do I want to SEE next?" leads to analysis paralysis.
Last night I think Sushu was constraining herself a little too much to Ken's point of view. She played Ken as a hotheaded, rush-into-things character (He's the Red Pilot, of course!) in contrast to our Star Wars game where Sushu's character was a tactical genius fleet admiral. She pointed out that since Ken wants to rush into things, it's harder to step back and think about the situation on a meta-level than it was when playing the Star Wars fleet admiral. It was easier for her to do top-down scene requests in the Star Wars game because it's closer to that character's head-space. But role-playing Ken, she really just wanted to be pointed at an enemy so she could go rock out.
Technically, in PTA it shouldn't matter if you're playing a genius or an idiot, because it's the player who requests the scene, not the character, and the rules grant all players exactly equal authority for scene requests. If your PC is a tactical genius then I'll narrate the scene you requested as happening exactly according to your plan, whereas if you're playing The Tick I'll narrate the scene as something you bumbled into at just the right time thanks to dumb luck.
But it's really interesting to hear about how the character's personality and your state of immersion can make it easier or harder to make use of certain rules.
Anyway, as producer I should have done more to recognize the in-character/out-of-character dilemma she was stuck in and help coax her out of it. I should have offered some more suggestions and tried to see what kind of scene she really wanted, then reminded her that we can always come up with a way to make it happen.
I know what this feels like; I've been on the player side of this in previous PTA games. E.g. that time playing Gruchakla the Wookie Jedi in our Clone Wars game two years ago. I was in that "I am Gruchakla, what should I do next in this situation?" kind of mindset, so I started thinking all strategically and logistically about what my next move should be to have the best chance of completing my misison. Which is the bread and butter of some role-playing styles, but PTA doesn't support it at all. Everything's way too hand-wavy; all the spaceships travel at the speed of plot. A strategic decision would depend on having solid answers for sorts of stuff that is just not defined solidy in a PTA game.
At the same time, you don't want to completely throw out the coherency of the fiction. You've got the freedom to request any scene, but you want to constrain that to respect what's already been established, otherwise your show becomes an incoherent series of vignettes. So the scene requester has to consider plausibility to some degree. And if you think that some scene clashes against a solid part of the fiction (like, if you think that "the fleet whereabouts are unknown" is a solid thing that you can't push back on) then you tend to self-censor about requesting scenes that would contradict it.
What's solid and what's flexible is highly genre-dependent. In an 80s combining-robot show, who forms the head might be an inviolable plot point, but alien fleet locations are highly negotiable. (Aliens can and should show up any time you need one for a fight scene!)
I think it's the Producer's job to clearly communicate what's to be treated as solid and what's hand-wavy, and I wasn't doing a good enough job of that last night. There was another example: A scene where an emissary from the aliens wanted to negotiate with Dmitri. I was playing this NPC as a someone who didn't understand humans too well, having only recently come to acknowledge them as sentient beings at all. He offered to not conquer earth in exchange for help killing Indigo/Zero (which the heroes wanted to do anyway) ... "Oh, and also we want your warp gate technology."
I didn't really have an agenda for how this should go; I was just playing an NPC. I was thinking of "this is his starting offer, he's asking too much, but maybe make a counteroffer?". Both Chris and Sushu seemed to interpret it as "the aliens will never offer you a fair deal, negotiating is a dead end."
And if that's their decision that's fine, but I think I need to do more to signal "This is a starting point for negotiating, not an end point." I'm the Producer so I have authority over lots of things. But "Authority" doesn't mean "my word is law", it means "the buck stops with me". Just because I say something doesn't mean it's carved in stone! This is an improv game; we're all making stuff up as we go along.
So, takeaways for improving my skills at running PTA:
1. Recognize if somebody is thinking too tactically and remind them it's a TV show. (Sometimes I need to be reminded of that myself -- like when I start trying to bring too much realistic physics into a giant robot space battle.)
2. If somebody's having trouble thinking what scene to request, offer some suggestions, and try to see if maybe they're stuck on something that they assume they can't do for some reason.
3. More clearly express when I'm stating something that's a solid fact in the fiction vs. when I'm offering something as a hand-wave or a starting point for negotiation.
Sushu also wrote a post about the game session from her point of view.
I love this present
OMG OMG check out what our friend just gave us. We look so cool! |:-D
Yo Russell Crowe, I'm happy for you and I'ma let you finish, but Norm Lewis is the best Javert of all time. OF ALL TIME!
Saw the new movie version of Les Miserables with Sushu's family on Christmas morning. Thought it was really good! I cried a little.
That might have had less to do with the quality of this particular adaptation and more with the fact that this is the first time I followed the story all the way through. Kind of ashamed to say it, but when I saw the stage version years ago, I couldn't follow the plot. I was like, who are all these new characters who just showed up? What are they singing about now? What the heck is this barricade they're fighting over? (Answer: it was a failed student uprising in Paris of 1832, between the second French Revolution and the third French Revolution.)
I found the movie a lot easier to follow. There's a lot of stuff from the book that is really hard to portray on a stage but can be shown in a movie -- like Valjean dragging Marius through the sewers; I had no idea that was a thing that happened until seeing the movie version. So this was the first time feeling the emotional impact of the story. I could do without so much of Marius' man-pain and I wish Cosette got some character development of her own instead of just being a symbol to inspire the men, but overall for a story written in the 1860s it's pretty good.
And it's got some amazing songs. I've been kind of obsessed with it. Me and Sushu sang a lot of numbers from Les Mis on our road trip to Seattle. I'm gonna ask my accordion teacher if I can learn some of those songs next!
Sushu told me that, back when she was in high school, she once planned out an epic Les Mis / Rurouni Kenshin crossover fanfic. (She had to abandon writing it because she couldn't reconcile 1830s France with 1890s Japan in a historically accurate way. Of course.) That's my awesome wife for you, everybody!
It was very sudden. Tuesday morning she was fine, Tuesday afternoon when I came home from teaching she was too sick to get out of bed. She's getting better now, but she had a 103 degree fever on Tuesday. I had to write a bunch of emails to her school to ask other teachers to sub for her. Cooked her a lot of soup and oatmeal, while trying not to catch it myself. I was very worried about her. If her fever hadn't been mostly gone this morning I would have taken her to the hospital.
This year's flu is really bad. Get shots if you haven't already.
I Finished My First Real Comic Today
Today (a week past the due date) I finally turned in the finished version of "We Can Regrow That For You", a 10-page science-fiction comic, which will be published in the upcoming anthology Sci-Fi San Francisco by Skodaman Press.
This is kinda my first "real" comic, in that it's a finished, self-contained, original story, that is being published in print by somebody I don't know. I'm even getting paid (a little) for it!
Finishing it was an ordeal. My plan was to get it done before leaving on my trip to New Jersey-New York-Connecticut-Massachusetts, but I started too late, had to bring the work with me, and ended up spending almost the entire week desperately trying to finish the comic! I'm afraid I was rather rude to all the people I visited, trying to multitask between visiting them and inking pages with a stylus on my laptop.
It didn't help that I was doing it in GIMP. Screw you, GIMP.
Today was a week past the due date. I really, really should have started earlier. Luckily, it was still accepted.
I still wouldn't be done if Sushu hadn't volunteered to step in and save my butt. Besides proofreading and feedback, she also did the majority of the inking and shading. The actual lines you'll see on the finished page are mostly hers. I asked the publishers to please put both our names in the byline, since it turned into a team project.
Things that "We Can Regrow That For You" Taught Me About Comic-Making
The thing I'm least happy about with the finished story is how cramped it feels. Honestly, the idea that I picked was a bit too complex for ten pages. But I didn't have time to think of a simpler one, so I had to go with it. As a result, some pages are overcrowded. Pages 2 and 3 are both nine-panelers, which is seriously pushing it.
Working under a length limit was good for me, though. Spilling over to an eleventh page was not an option. (Good thing, too, given how long ten pages took.) It helped me learn to think of dialog as a limited resource -- you can only squeeze so many lines into a page, and only so many words into a line. But there's so much that needs doing! Backstory exposition, character development, plot advancement, expressing conflict, telling jokes, etc etc. Spread that duty across the limited lines of dialog and every line has to be carrying a lot of weight. Double or triple duty.
I don't think my dialog in this story is particularly great, but at least I've eliminated all needless lines. Dialog is almost always better when it's shorter.
Finish Your Shit
It's not good to go through life with one "master" story you're perpetually "working on". Because then every idea you have wants to get into that story. They have nowhere else to go. All those extra ideas clinging on to the sides of the story like refugees on the last bus out of town, making it unweildly, weighing it down. The story becomes too big to finish, so you're always doing it but it's never done.
Cough, Yuki Hoshigawa, cough. (The irony is that Yuki Hoshigawa was itself originally supposed to be a quick project to do for practice before I got into the big story I really wanted to do, which was my Epic Space Opera.)
It's better to have multiple smaller stories so ideas can go into each one as they fit and no one story gets overly bloated. I only thought of "We Can Regrow That For You" a few months ago, and now it's done! That's a good feeling. I haven't had to give it years of rent-free lodging in my brain.
Me and Sushu are still figuring out how we work together on creative projects. We've tried to do some before which kind of fell apart. But I think we're starting to figure out what it takes to make it work: We have to know which one of us is in charge of the vision. The other one just helps with the execution. In this case, the comic was my baby and Sushu helped me execute. The Chinese learning game got a lot easier to work on once we accepted that it's Sushu's baby and I'm just executing.
Sometimes collaboration creates something mysterious. Sometimes Sushu saw something in my sketch while inking it that I didn't mean to put there. I didn't mean to give the waitress on page 8 a huge ridiculous bow tie, but Sushu thought she saw one, and somehow it works, so there it is. Who created that bow tie? Neither of us did! It's spooky.
Fiction Is Just A Fancy Word For Lying
Like, duh, right? Fiction is made up. But it still surprises me how fake everything about my story is.
Most of the writing I've done in my life has been nonfiction -- blog posts, argumentative essays, lab reports, expository technical writing, etc. There's a set of facts which are the fixed stars in your firmament; your task is to put them in order and explain them in a coherent and maybe entertaining way.
And when you read fiction, if it's any good, you experience it like a true thing. Like you're peeking into another world where all this stuff is really happening. It seems like there's a fixed set of facts there, and the author is just guiding us through it. And fanfic writers sure do care about getting the "facts" of their canon right.
So there's a misconception I had when I started trying to write fiction that it would be like this: there's a world in my imagination, I open a channel to it somehow, observe events there, gather a set of "facts", and then guide the reader through those "facts" in a logical way.
But no. Everything about telling a story is artificial. Everything. There's no facts. There's no alternate world. There's just me, drawing a bunch of lines, and making a bunch of decisions about what I want my lines to express.
Nothing is sacred. Every time I catch myself thinking of a certain plot point as fixed and necessary, I'm wrong - there's always something else could happen instead. The order of events is flexible. Characters' personalities are flexible. Basic assumptions about the setting are flexible.
It's like sculpting with mist. There's just nothing solid there.
If the end result resembles naturalism, if the reader believes for a moment that the markings on paper represent a consistent alternate world, it's only because the magic trick worked.
This means that the writer's experience is never going to match the reader's experience. The writer doesn't get to have the reader's enjoyment of discovering this world - no more than a a magician can be fooled by a trick while they're performing it.
The Character Just Took Over, Man
Speaking of magic tricks: Sometimes authors talk about a character having a mind of its own and telling the author where the story should go.
I'm not sure what's going on there, man. Maybe if you're writing a new entry in a series and have some long-established characters and you need to stay true to them. But when you're writing a character for the first time? You decide who the character is. Whatever you make them do, that's who they are. For any given character there are infinite possible interpretations, which you narrow down with each word or action you give them.
I do think that sometimes you write a line for a character and suddenly the character clicks, like you just discovered who they are. That's happened to me a lot. With role-playing game characters especially. But the character still doesn't have "a mind of their own". It's just that you discovered a characterization that works for you.
That said, consistent characterization is really fucking important. Nothing ruins a story faster than character motivations that don't make sense, or that are plain missing. Bogus science can be hand-waved, but if your people don't act like people, nothing can save your story. So out of all the magic tricks, "this character has a mind of their own" is the most important illusion to create.
Most of Writing is Rewriting
The reader experiences the story beginning to end, as a series of fictional events. The writer experiences it first draft to last draft -- as a series of decisions to be made, blanks to be filled, plot holes to be fixed, etc.
The story would ALWAYS be better with another rewrite. But at some point you have to call it good enough and start drawing. One good thing about working under a deadline is that the deadline forces you not to be a perfectionist about the rewriting.
My original idea changed a lot in the development. Like, the first draft was just Zach and assorted background characters. Julia and Pedro didn't exist yet.
I rejected my original ending for being all talk with nothing interesting going on visually. I think this was the right choice. Repeat it with me: Comics are a visual medium. If you have a whole page of talking heads to draw, something is wrong with your script.
After I wrote a better ending, I realized I had some empty roles to fill, so Julia and Pedro were invented to fill them. I think it's a way better story with them in it.
The original idea, the inspiration, is what gives you motivation to start working, but don't cling to it. You'll have other ideas. Sometimes the original idea is just a stepping stone to something better.
A lot of story problems are the result of seams between different drafts -- this page will be at revision 5 and this other page at revision 6, as it were, and they don't quite line up. Sometimes a page is full of holdovers, stuff that was needed in revision 5 but doesn't matter in revision 6. Sometimes the holdovers stay in for a while before you notice them. It really helps to have someone else read it over and point out the seam for you.
Like, in the first draft, it was important to show Zach interviewing for the job and getting hired. That took up page 1 and part of 2. The interview stuff stayed there for several revisions before I finally realized that it was a relic. There was no need to see the interview: I could tighten things up a lot if Zach wasjust already part of the company when the story opens. Several panels on the finished pages 1 and 2 were originally drawn for the interview scene and then repurposed -- that's how late in the process I figured this out.
An unexpected benefit of drawing comics is that it makes you look more carefully at the world around you. Because you might need to draw anything. Random everyday objects you've never tried to draw before, that would not usually be a subject of art: there they are in the background of a panel! Better find one and figure out how to draw it.
Walking around town when my brain is in "comics mode", I see things I wouldn't normally see. A person with a cool hairdo that I want to swipe for a character. A neat old building that would look good in the background of a panel. The shape of a tree. Etc.
On Science Fiction
The science fiction that interests me most is what-if stories about social change. Which means you need four parts:
- the what-if: the new technology or whatever and the rules for how it works
- the society: how does this new whatever do to affect the tangle of unspoken rules and assumptions we call culture
- the characters: what do the changes to technology and society mean for the characters
- the themes: what are you trying to say about, you know, the human condition and stuff. Hopefully something more interesting than just "oh no, this technology/social trend is really bad". Write a blog post if that's all you want to say
The themes and characters are what the story's about. The what-if and the society belong in the background.
A lot of really shitty science fiction has been written by writing the what-if and the society and ignoring themes and characters.
Balancing themes, characters, and world-building is really hard! It's hard enough to get one of those things right, and when you try to do them together, sometimes they fight each other. Science-fiction fans, including myself, love to nitpick stories where the world-building isn't quite consistent. But trying to do it myself has given me a newfound sympathy. I'm starting to think it's a valid artistic choice to favor the emotional impact of the story over the consistency of made-up science if the two are irreconcilable. Nerd heresy, I know.
Will The Audience Get It?
There were a lot of things I wanted to say in "We Can Regrow That For You". Themes and ideas I didn't have space to explore in depth. So I just hinted at them. I have no idea how many readers will pick up on the hints, but they're there.
Readers hate being bashed over the head with something obvious, right? I figure it's better to hint at things and let the reader feel smart when they figure it out. Instead of telling the story directly, you describe the edges of a story-shaped hole and let them fill in the blanks.
That's what "Show, Don't Tell" is about, right? It's really more like "Show them one thing by telling them another thing"
The story, in my head, is a cloud of marvelous possibilities. I hope that in the reader's head, it becomes a cloud of marvelous possibilities as well. But in between, it has to be flattened to pass through the narrow, limited, linear medium of scratch marks on paper, that can only hint at the story I imagined. I can only hope that whatever story the reader creates in their head, inspired by my scratch marks, is meaningful to them.
Tai Chi Zero (Me and Sushu made a podcast)
After Taiko practice every Saturday, we usually hang out with our friend Chris in Oakland for a few hours, watching anime and kung fu movies, role-playing, or playing board games.
After that there's an hour drive back from Oakland to Palo Alto. There's not much else to do besides talk about what we just watched or played. That leads into talking about two of my favorite topics - game design and storytelling! We've had a lot of interesting conversations on this weekly ride home.
Last week, as an experiment, I decided to record us and call it a "podcast". 99% of podcasts on the internet are just an hour some friends giggling about their inside jokes anyway (people seriously need to learn to edit that stuff out). Surely we can do better than that!
This week we mostly talked about a kung-fu movie called Tai Chi Zero. It's notable for incorporating steampunk elements and comic-book-style visual effects into the story of a very dumb guy with a "berserk button" literally growing out of his forehead.
If there's enough interest in it for us to keep doing them, I'll make a proper page with an RSS feed and stuff. For now here's just a link to the raw mp3 file. Total length is about 40 minutes.
Contents with timestamps below the fold:
0:00 - What's this podcast.
1:12 - Tai Chi Zero and its incorporation of other media
- Comic-style visuals
- Connection to martial arts novels
- How ridiculous this movie is / 4th wall and trope awareness
- Literary chinese/cultural background
- Skipping through time and space, split-screen, saving time
10:50 - Comparison to Sherlock Holmes
- We don't like sherlock-vision and shakycam
- Showing the audience what's going to happen before it happens
- Time confusion
- The unspoken plan guarantee
- Jono is slow on the uptake
18:45 - Why are all the women in this movie needlessly in love with boring tophat guy?
- The mistake of making a character's backstory more interesting than the real story
- Crossdressing is "fucking hot"!
20:35 - A tangent about playing loner characters in RPGs
- You can't non-consensually involve Cyclops in your kink!
27:30 - Back to Tai Chi Zero and Top Hat Guy.
- Everybody in the village has the same name?
- Top hat guy introduced too late
- Too much brooding before we know the reason why
- What a slap in the face!
34:55 - What happened to that rebellion, anyway?
- Jono was confused by the change of plot direction.
- Jianghu prologue scenes
- In western fiction that the story is about whatever is the biggest threat introduced up to then
- Internal kung fu: a typical Wuxia McGuffin