Sunday, 9 August 2015

Nine Worlds 2015

Whew! Back from 9 Worlds, and it was much fun. I learned a lot about podcasts, listened to skeptics talk about fairies (Deborah Hyde), spent a lot of time on the history and academia track, listened to panels on death, gothic literature and a cage fight between SF and Fantasy, enjoyed the panel on diversity in LARP, and many other things.

badge

This is Dr Simon Trafford who presented Why Sing Pop In Dead Languages and explained how Dead Can Dance has transformed Christian period songs into vaguely spiritual-sounding neoclassical gothic mush (yeah, but I like that stuff).

pagan

This is Jensen’s gin. I tried both their Bermondsey (London dry) and Old Tom (pre 1830’s style) gins, and both are really great.

gin

more gin

Now I have to get something off my chest. Dystopian fiction featured heavily this year — from the Arcadia or Armageddon and I Predict A Riot panels to Vanessa Thompsett’s excellent Dystopian London In Fiction (which was absolutely spot on, discussing how Huxley, Orwell and Moore change the psychogeography of the London we know to create their dystopias). I say this:

Dystopia is not the same as post-Apocalypse.

The panelists repeatedly conflated these two terms, and although there is overlap they are not the same thing. Apocalypse is nearly always about scarcity and community. Dystopia is about social control, unfair living conditions, arbitrary laws and non-transparent hierarchy structures, etc.

Of course dystopia can arise in a post-apocalypse world (e.g. H. M. Hoover’s Children of Morrow). But it was a bit annoying to hear The Road being referred to with some regularity in the Utopia/Dystopia conversation.

Props to the awesome Geoff Ryman for (a) calling out the lack of utopian vision in modern fiction (and pointing out that ISIS is at least someone’s utopian vision) and (b) plugging Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland which is an example of a progressive yet utopian novel (when a lot of utopian concepts are regressive and pastoral — compare that to dystopias which are post-industrial and feature travel, advances in science, etc.).

For a proper post-apocalyptic vision I did enjoy Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge — so much I bought the book:

knowledge1

knowledge 2

Yes, it’s popular science but all good fun and very level headed — a laundry list of different things you would need to get society running again after a collapse, from food and water to fuel, transport, communication (the printing press!) and very interestingly time and place, i.e. how to make an accurate calendar for agriculture, and how to navigate to places. If you want a shortcut for game research, this is pretty good.

All in all another fine convention, thoroughly recommended.

notes

going well

Monday, 4 May 2015

On Violence

Guy Windsor has been thinking about violence lately.

I’ve also been thinking about violence. I started when Jeremy Clarkson punched Oisin Tymon; before Ken MacQuarrie’s findings on the incident around the 25th of March, even before the change.org petition to reinstate Clarkson passed the million mark on the 20th.

I have no opinion on the BBC’s handling of the case. I don’t care if the BBC used this altercation as an excuse to rid themselves of Clarkson; it’s far more likely that they tried everything they could to avoid sacking him, given his export value.

These are the interesting facts:

  • 1,000,000 people demanded Clarkson be reinstated before they knew the facts
  • Clarkson showed almost immediate remorse, took responsibility for his actions and took steps to make amends
  • Oisin Tymon offered no resistance, and afterwards wanted to put the whole thing behind him
  • Before the full facts were known The Times ran a lifestyle article on celebrity meltdowns and how Tymon’s case wasn’t unique… and how any producer worth their salary would have a contingency plan — by bribing a chef to stay late, etc. (unfortunately I expect the link is behind a paywall. But here’s Katie Hopkins blaming Tymon and telling him to “man up”)

What was in the minds of Clarkson, Tymon, the Times editors, and the 1000000 people asking for Clarkson to be reinstated?

(I won’t ask what goes through Hopkins’ mind)

Windsor’s thought experiment considers three different instances of a broken leg, where the emotional response can be neutral, negative or positive; he then applies this logic to Buzz Aldrin’s punching of a certain conspiracy theorist:

I suggest that your emotional response to the injury is at least as important as the injury itself. Deciding whether Buzz Aldrin’s punch was right or wrong requires that you take the context of it into account (I was careful to link to the version of the video that shows the build-up); and determining the damage done necessarily entails finding out how the prick (I will not call him a victim, because he was the victimiser, neither will I mention his name) responded emotionally to the violence. Did it give him nightmares? Probably not. He probably went back to his posse wearing his aching jaw as a badge of pride.

Those involved in the Clarkson case will also have gone through this process of wondering whether the violence against Tymon was justified. In that process some people downplayed the severity of the attack — James May called it a “dust-up” and “not that serious” but that was probably because he’d been doorstepped and sensibly avoided saying something inflammatory. But what about the 1000000 who petitioned for Clarkson, or The Times, or Katie Hopkins? Do they really view physical and verbal assault as the cost of doing business?

And of course we don’t have Tymon’s view on it. He just wants to put it behind him; no doubt it’s been remarkably stressful on him and his family, no doubt it was a horrible incident both physically and psychologically, no doubt he’s wondered if the violence he suffered was somehow justified because of a personal failing. Of course we don’t think about these questions — because he’s a man and men should “take it”, because it’s “not that serious”, because he’s in the realm of Celebrity and Celebs… just do that kind of thing.

And that’s also the Clarkson Effect. People justified on his behalf, even without the full facts, because of his following, and they blamed Tymon and the liberal BBC, not him.

Back to Col. Aldrin, I don’t like to think about whether the punch was justified. That’s a matter for the law. But as Windsor puts it “the person who got punched was using our culture’s restrictions on violence to get away with a different kind of violence”, and I’d probably want to punch him too. Nevertheless I’m glad Col. Aldrin did and not me.

———

Recently Ione Wells spoke out about her sexual assault in an open letter that made national news.

Ms Wells’ letter talks about the way violence is an attack not only on persons but their communities.

I don’t know who the people in your life are. I don’t know anything about you. But I do know this: you did not just attack me that night. I am a daughter, I am a friend, I am a girlfriend, I am a pupil, I am a cousin, I am a niece, I am a neighbour, I am the employee who served everyone down the road coffee in the café under the railway. All the people who form those relations to me make up my community, and you assaulted every single one of them. You violated the truth that I will never cease to fight for, and which all of those people represent – that there are infinitely more good people in the world than bad.
This letter is not really for you at all, but for all the victims of attempted or perpetrated serious sexual assault and every member of their communities. I’m sure you remember the 7/7 bombings. I’m also sure you’ll remember how the terrorists did not win, because the whole community of London got back on the Tube the next day. You’ve carried out your attack, but now I’m getting back on my tube.

I wouldn’t dare compare her ordeal with a celebrity punch-up. But the responses to #NotGuilty say a lot about the culture of entitlement and tolerance for psychological violence towards — which is I think exactly the same root as dismissing the violence towards Tymon and telling him to “man up”, because 1000000 people feel entitled to Top Gear.

———

I was going to say something about martial training — which is necessarily violent, but the intent is not to terrorise or cause injury. At least, not in any decent school. But this post is already a bit long so I’ll save that for another day.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

iPad 2 and iOS 8: How to fix the slowdown

This is a public service announcement. If you love your iPad2 as I do (all those tasty, tasty game PDFs) but after updating to iOS8 found that it now has the responsiveness of a brick, here’s what you can do:

  1. Reset the network by going to Settings > General > Reset > Reset Network Settings. This will clear out all the networks and passwords remembered on your device (you do know at least your home WiFi password, don’t you?)
  2. Turn off WiFi Networking by going Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services > Wifi Networking and set it to Off.
  3. Reduce animations by going Settings > General > Accessibilty > Reduce Motion and set it to On.

I don’t know which of these had the biggest effect; I suspect the first one. iPad is now perfectly usable now, when previously browsing was impossible and even typing was a painful experience. YMMV, of course.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Dream Diary

Something a bit different today. I’m not in the habit of remembering dreams much less writing them down in a blog, but these were so vivid I can recall them hours later.

Dream 1

The first was me being in a school assembly hall (as an adult) watching a film on an old-school projector and screen, sitting next to a woman I didn’t know. This was intercut with scenes of me waking up in the dark in a pool of rubbish somewhere with a dead body next to me, and her somewhere else with a body next to her.

Then I found myself in a third location in an apartment, being held hostage and forced to submit to bizarre orders under threat of hurt being inflicted on my loved ones (which may or may not include the woman in the pool).

The last part of the dream involved me being forced to swallow a fist-sized gobbet of semi-molten gold, held towards me at arms length in a pair of tongs by a six-foot tall assassin in a trenchcoat. I protested a bit saying I can’t possibly do that, and he replied in a rather jovial way that it would all be fine and I could swallow it no problem. I set to trying to deform the ball with my hands, because it was still liquid inside, and maybe if I made it more like a cigar shape I could get it down.

Then I woke up.

Dream 2

The second was in some high-tech office building with a big void in the centre (like the megablocks in Dredd) and the means of getting to different rooms was to wait for a platform to take you across — a platform with no guard rail, just a flat hovering sheet of metal. There were other high-tech things too like the lunch que, where you programmed in your chosen meal (I had a pre-programmed “usual”).

Then in the afternoon there was some kind of military drill where all the platforms were locked down. This was a scheduled thing that happened every thursday, and it meant all the office workers who needed to get to the other side of the building for meetings were forced to climb through crawlspaces and up to service platforms, where they’d leap meter wide gaps to get where they were going. Dozens of people in suits and lab coats and security armour jumping back and forth, and no-one fell, which was a surprise.

Then the dream cut to the roof where there was some kind of real military incursion going on — a lone assailant in a helecopter was shooting the place up, but really it seemed to be a vendetta between them and a corporate employee who also had a helecopter with guns. Eventually one or both of them were shot down, and the first one dispatched the second on the ground by forcing some strange breathing apparatus — it looked a lot like a pair of big blue lips — over the other’s nose and mouth. Instantly the victim’s lips and tongue went blue and swelled up, and they started convulsing as the invading chemical (biological agent, nanotech weapon?) began rewriting the geometry (and function?) of their internal organs, with unpleasant popping sounds.

Then I woke up.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

What do we say to the God of Death?

Last weekend I went to the 9 Worlds convention. It was awesome, and I totally recommend it. The combination of many different cultural tracks and a really strong focus on being inclusive made for a great atmosphere.

This is what I saw:

  • Dr Who Fanvids
  • Archaeology of Fantasy Worlds
  • Urban Fantasy Worlds (All the Books)
  • Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (Retro Fandom)
  • Identity and Sex Work in ASOIAF
  • Whedon vs Tropes in Cabin in the Woods
  • Fight Choreography for Writers
  • Storygasm, including River’s Absolution
  • Bechdel Film Test
  • Gin Appreciation
  • Queer Cabaret, and Steampunk Cabaret
  • “Chains of Transformation” for Fanfic Remixes
  • Assaulting the Narrative
  • Water Dancing with Syrio Forel
  • Marketing Monsterclass
  • Environmental Narratives in Video Games

Needless to say there was also a lot I didn’t go to but would have liked to, owing to clashes. Here are some of the real highlights:

Archaeology of Fantasy Worlds

This was an early start on Friday on the Academic track, and proved to be one of the best talks in the whole Con. The premise was how one would go about archaeology of Middle Earth and other worlds, and what you might find — how one might gather evidence of how dwarven and orcish societies may have interacted over centuries, for example.

Sex Work and Identity in A Song Of Ice And Fire

This one was in a small room in the post-lunch slot. Mostly it covered the dehumanising and othering of sex workers by the various characters in the series. Both panel and audience generally took GoT’s misogyny and sensationalising of the subject as a given, but what made the talk was the attention to detail (detail which I’m not really inclined to dig for myself) such as the way certain characters personify attitudes to be the hate figure when those attitudes are shared by supposedly “good” protagonists as well, or the way most sex workers have not been given real names in the text.

Gin Appreciation

This was on the Steampunk track. For a 10 quid ticket, we got to drink a lot of gin.

The talk began with a history of gin, including a dissection of Hogarth’s Gin Lane and the Gin Reform Act and its effect on bathtub gin-making. Then we went on to distillation methods, which was where I got my chemistry geek on.

The five main ones on offer were:

  • Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell (not bad for a tenner, I can see how this would make a great martini)
  • Adnam’s Copper House Gin (really fantastic herby gin with a lot of character, apparently contains hibiscus botanicals)
  • Plymouth Gin (a very well balanced gin, not as dry as a London Dry gin)
  • Hendricks (needs no introduction, it’s a firm favourite — though we did learn some cool things about its multi-stage distillation)
  • Burleigh’s Gin, a new gin from Jamie Baxter launched that very evening somewhere else in London. Possibly we got to taste it before the official launch, but we were all a bit sloshed by then and having trouble with time. Very interesting one with silver birch and iris flowers.

Of those five, I still love the Hendricks but they were all very fine — even the cheap one from Aldi. The newcomer is apparently rare as hen’s teeth, being a small batch production. Ah, well.

We also learned about enjoying gin with water instead of tonic. I still prefer a decent tonic, but water really brings out the interesting notes in exotic gins like Gin Mare.

Other gins on offer included Hoxton’s with grapefruit and coconut (didn’t like it) and a brussel sprout gin which tasted like a watered-down absinthe.

Storygasm

This was the gaming track. I spent a lot of Saturday gaming, running a Beyond the Wall scenario in about 75 minutes (testament to its pick-up friendliness) and then playing River’s Absolution, a Firefly hack of Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne in the afternoon.

I’ve only played a few GMless games, but the session crystallised some thoughts on the nature of storygames and how they differ from trad RPGs. Some of the players in RA were at ease with the whole shared ownership of the story and scene; others occasionally looked to the facilitator for both descriptions of the scene, and to arbitrate over the scene’s events. Much of this comes down to leadership and decision-making norms in our hobby. Generally the GM provides the leadership when framing a scene, and leaves the decision making to the players. But in GMless games there is no real decision-making: often events are assumed to come to pass, and the game is about exploring why those decisions are made.

That’s all fine when all the players buy in, but it falls apart when you take expectations from trad gaming. In some examples I might make a suggestion that is reasonable in-character, but highly disruptive — such as declaring that I am putting the witch to the sword right now, never mind our journey. Here I’m relying on my fellow players to block me in this action, and they are relying on me to acquiesce no matter what. Such was the case when I jokingly suggested to float River out of the cargo hold and save us an inconvenient journey in the first scene.

I think it boils down to this: it’s counter-intuitive to frame a scene where there is an apparent decision to be made, and then assume that the decision has been made and instead explore only the motivations. I get the feeling that this will always be a hurdle with this type of game.

Water Dancing with Syrio Forel

Finally, I got a lesson from Syrio Forel, First Sword of Braavos! Well, technically the lesson came from Miltos Yerolemou who plays Syrio in GoT.

(No, I haven’t suddenly turned into a GoT fan. I just like sword choreography)

Serious Business
Serious Business

This was one of those things I had to attend just to say I’d done it, but it ended up being one of the best parts of the convention. The lesson was strongly tipped towards choreography as opposed to martial, but was great fun. My only regret was doing it in boots and jeans, which proved to be a bit uncomfortable to train in.

I even got a souvenir:

What do we say?
What do we say?
Not today!
Not today!

With this blade I will be inwincible.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Too Cruel For School

One of our engineers recently professed to being “old school”. What he meant by that was an old-school work ethic, as in you stay until the job’s done, never mind the hours.

But that’s not what Old School usually means around engineers. It has quite a sinister meaning; learning through pain and adversity, being left to try and fail on your own until you finally learn all the tricks that aren’t written down — tricks and that all the older engineers know but won’t tell the newbie, because that’s just the way it was for them back in the day.

Is this what we mean by Old School gaming? I’m not sure it’s anything to be proud of. I know there are some gamers with exactly this macho attitude, that the dungeon is something to be conquered, that deaths are inevitable and that the DM exists to punish. If that’s true the most old-school products I own are probably LotFP modules such as The God That Crawls that take a pretty punitive approach to dungeoneering. The funny thing is the punitive nature of such games is not advertised, it’s just a piece of collective wisdom about D&D and specifically OSR-style D&D that we’ve collectively picked up. OSR games are meant to be hard, stop whining.

Compare this to Call of Cthulhu, which is punitive by design. Punishing the characters is baked into the system yet the Keeper is rarely such an adversarial figure.

I don’t care for the worst attributes of “the Old School” such as being a gatekeeper to a hobby or profession. I’ve seen it in martial arts schools where to be accepted, you need to be punched in the head. I’ve seen it when crossing over from the world of chemistry to chemical engineering. Adversity teaches experience but since we have choice (at least in a hobby) it’s not necessary.

But as Silver says, “our ancesters were wise, yet our age accounts them foolish”. So respect your elders, respect the Old School, learn about it, and then make a choice. Just don’t appropriate the Old School and make it a meaningless phrase.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Why, eh?

A few years ago at Reading I saw Marcus Brigstocke ranting about “guilty pleasures”. The gist was this: when someone says “Twilight is my guilty pleasure” they’re actually saying “Twilight is shite, but I’m self-aware enough that I can appreciate its shittiness, unlike the unwashed masses who take it at face value”.

The guilty pleasure fallacy is elitism by stealth. It’s particularly obnoxious when used by middle-class liberals to describe their relationship with the X-Factor. More to the point, it only appears in the context of adults seeking approval from other adults where the groupthink condemns this particular entertainment.

The same elitism has surfaced in The Slate, where Ruth Graham opines that we should be embarassed to read YA; although in a novel twist Graham appears to be projecting the guilty pleasure fallacy on her peers in the age 30-44 demographic who defend YA as “more sophisticated than ever”.

Yes, it’s a blatant wind-up piece. Cory Doctorow’s rebuttal opens a can of C.S. Lewis on Graham’s ass, and really that’s all you need to take away from the exchange. However there are a couple very obvious strawmen I’d like to comment on.

Firstly there’s the notion that YA wants to be “sophisticated”. That’s a clever use of language to suggest that YA fiction is competing with literary fiction by seeking the approval of an audience that considers “sophistication” to be the highest accolade one can place on fiction.

By Graham’s own admission “this kind of thing is hard to quantify” anyway. Why? Because it’s bullshit. Sophistication isn’t a metric; it’s as subjective as preference itself.

YA is just the latest in a long line of genres that literary fiction has put down to make itself look big — and it’s arguably scraping the bottom of the barrel now that Scott McCloud has taught us how to understand comics, BSG made SF gritty, Game of Thrones has (allegedly) rendered fantasy fit for adult consumption and Joss Whedon is doing his bit for superheroes.

Next there’s the priviledging of present over past with the notion that YA is getting more sophisticated (as a defence of YA). I assume Graham doesn’t believe this, but then she has little time for the classics either if the image of Alice at the head of the article is anything to go by.

There’s also the suggestion that adult readers are consciously seeking escapism and instant gratification, which by inference YA provides and adult literary fiction doesn’t. Really? Is the defining feature of literary fiction that its readers must be masochists?

“Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple.”

“The very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable” is such a broad statement that it’s not credible, and there are enough counter examples. One of the reasons I like YA is the distillation of the monomyth — but the monomyth’s themes and forms go beyond adventure stories and fairytales. While Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey simplifies Campbell’s original work it still demonstrates that a wide range of fiction can be submitted to the same analysis, and works for the same reason: the “hero” has an ordinary world that is upset, crosses a threshold, embarks on a journey and achieves some kind of apotheosis before returning “home” better for the experience. Fiction which misses out these crucial steps can frequently be incoherent or unsatisfying, and the fact that YA often nails this cycle is to its credit.

Most likely I’m preaching to the converted here, since the few readers I get will be fellow geeks and Spec Fic fans, used to the disapproving glare of lit fic. But still, being guilty or embarassed about what you read makes no sense; although perhaps you should be ashamed if you spend all your energy trying to like fiction that you don’t for the sake of someone else’s approval.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Michael Gove Turing Test

Michael Gove and the Turing Test

Brought to light in this G+ post, which included the following exchange:

“But could he pass a Voight-Kampff test?”

“You reach down and flip the education system on it’s back, Michael … it’s trying to turn itself over, but it can’t. Not without your help. But you’re not helping…”

Friday, 30 May 2014

New Favourite Things

Three blogs I am digging right now:

Gin Journey is a quest for the perfect G&T, with lots of tasting notes for more gins than I thought possible. Currently I’m enjoying one of these with Sainsbury’s full fat tonic and it’s jolly nice. Other gins I’ve enjoyed recently are Plymouth, Whitley Neill and of course Hendricks. More to life than Gordons and Bombay Sapphire, eh?

The League of Moveable Type is something I discovered via this blog post. The post also links to this site which covers some revival fonts. Anyway, the League also has a blog.

Finally there’s Macdrifter which I found while looking for Markdown and stayed for this latest post. Cool 404 page.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Old and New Favourites

Weaveworld cover

Nothing like a bit of food poisoning to give you new perspective. For me it was the chance to re-read Clive Barker’s Weaveworld.

This is a book from my late teens, and like most teens I liked my flavours strong and not subtle.  It’s too long, the characters are mostly one-trick ponies, the prose is unnecessary, and the plot swings from being pedestrian to incomprehensible. Still, it resonates very strongly, mainly for Barker’s description of magic.

I prefer The Great and Secret Show (and Imajica, although I read that much later) for magical imagery, but Weaveworld has coloured my perception of what magic should appear to be in both fiction and games. I say appear, because I don’t think there’s any system behind the magic, it’s all texture and the effect it has on the environment. The closest we get to philosophy is probably the concept of Cosm / Metacosm / Quiddity in the books of the Art.

Compared to Immacolata’s  Menstruum and Gentle’s Pneuma, magic in D&D looks a bit agricultural. Barker’s mages usually either know innately how to do magic (the Seerkind), or they’ve seized it through hard work and sacrifice (the Jaffe, Swann), or have been gifted it (Shadwell). Mostly Barker writes about people using magic, rather than the magic itself.

This is probably why Mage: the Ascension appealed to me so strongly (and it cites Imajica in the bibliography). Unfortunately it’s mired in an awful system and an awful political structure, the same clans-and-tribes nonsense inherited from the earlier oWoD games. When I ran Mage the best fun came from mostly ignoring the rules and using the spheres as a rough guide, and pushing all the Traditions nonsense to the background (the characters were mostly Hollow).

I have no idea how magic works in a modern FATE driven game like Dresden Files. My preference is for something completely freeform; a bit like the Everway approach, if that weren’t so light and twee and goody-goody. And looking at FATE (which I have been recently) I’m not sure an Aspect driven game would work either. Of course being my new favourite thing WaRP has a lot of promise, with magic being described in the same loose sense as other Traits. The only downside is there’s not enough to lose; no sanity, no acquiring deformities through paradox, etc. I’ll work on that.

New Favourite: The Anachroneironaut

Now for a new favourite. My new favourite blog is the Anachroneironaut. Amazing gothic illustrations, lovecraftian houseplants, and ink. Check out this amazing piece of art inspired by Perdido Street Station.