December 31, 2008

2008 in Blog Posts

This was my first full year of blogging, and I'm pretty happy with what I accomplished. Here are some of the posts that have gotten the most attention.

For some reason, a bunch of people do Google searches for the word "loner." A lot of them end up at this March post on why Facebook is just about the right amount of interaction--maybe.

Blogging really started ramping up in May, with a short essay on the costs of breaking rules in writing (and why I'll do it anyway) and a guest post on science blog content at Greg Laden's Blog. The guest post just goes to show that if one wants lots of comments, one should talk about PZ Myers. Also from May, my recipe for the perfect margarita has stayed popular. Please just remember that it's dangerous.

In June, I flexed a little blogging muscle (with much help) to get a problem cleaned up that should already have been fixed, told a little story about too many ex-boyfriends, and spelled out my motto.

July brought one reason it's sometimes better to be vague in your science fiction than to be wrong, a lesson in how not to take critique (the closest I've come to jumping into the framing debate), and some musings about the utility of offense as a concept.

August featured a pair of posts on Muslim censorship of fiction. One event was very high-profile, with an interesting dimension not much talked about. The other was much quieter, perhaps deservedly so. Also, my views on "tolerance."

September was the start of my career in poliblogging. I put up my first post on Bachmann and weighed in on the economy, looking at the reasons the social safety net isn't obsolete and at the failure of our long-standing economic policy. Oh, and apparently I get into arguments occasionally.

I continued to beat on Bachmann in October. "Realists" and libertarians got theirs too. I also summarized a very long set of arguments over whether the concept of human races has any biological validity. Short answer: no. Then I went and got myself called a science blogger by a bunch of people by writing about the value of diversity. That was weird. To lighten things up: sensical nonsense and writing for wildly diverse audiences.

I got a little more sleep in November, but I still managed to make people cry, talk about religious belief, wave a flag for the defective, and argue about belonging and identity. That last one contains one of the more interesting comment threads on this blog--better than the post itself, I think.

December has seen me mashing up science and fiction in ways I never thought I would. I committed fanfic as illustration and used the literature/pulp debate to talk about how the language of science can be exclusionary. This month also produced what is already my most linked and viewed post ever: How to Hijack a Thread. Apparently, this "meta shit" works for people. Who knew?

So what will 2009 bring? There are a couple things in the works, here and elsewhere, but I'm not not one to count chickens and all, so you'll have to wait. Mostly, I hope the new year brings me the kinds of friendship and food for thought that the old one did.

Have a very happy new year, everyone.

December 30, 2008

Rarefied Air

Every once in a while, something comes along to remind me what an atypical life I've built for myself. This time it was someone reacting skeptically to PalMD's statement that he worries every day about balancing work and parenting, 'cause, you know, guys don't really do that. Um, what? I wanted, as usual when confronting the combination of rudeness and ignorance that can be the internet, to step on the fingers responsible.

So I stepped back instead. Was there any reasonable place for the doubt to have come from?

Yeah, there was. A lot of fathers really do overestimate their contributions to the household because they're doing more than their fathers did and more than the world tells them they must do. "Equal" parenting, when broken down by what each partner actually does, is often not equal.

So why did I have to step back to remember that? Because in my world, things don't usually work that way. Really. This is my world:

  • Lots of child-free couples. Some because they don't like kids. Some for medical reasons. Some because pursuing vocations and avocations at the same time doesn't leave much time for good parenting. Some because the desire for children doesn't outweigh the hassles of becoming gay parents.
  • Adults who are unpartnered for various reasons. No parents in this group.
  • Stay-at-home parents of both sexes who decided they'd stay home, not for financial reasons, but to work on their art. They were mostly delusional, at least while the kids were too young for school.
  • Gay parents who by default won't be breaking things down by stereotyped gender role, because the trash would pile up or they'd starve.
  • Two-career parents who truly co-parent, usually with the help of family located nearby, because otherwise, they wouldn't get any child-free time to share with each other.
  • A few divorced parents with joint custody.
  • Finally, way out on the periphery, a couple of couples who do things more "traditionally." Dads who bring home the paycheck while Mom is primary caretaker. Even there, Dad comes home from work at a decent hour and unwinds by playing video games with the kids. Any work that has to be done in the evening is done at home after the kids are in bed, which means Dad won't be getting credit for face time in the office.

This is my life. These are my friends of my generation. Does this look anything like the rest of the world? No, and I like it that way. I arranged it that way. But it does give me an unusual outlook sometimes.

In the end, I was a lot more gentle with the uncomprehending commenters at denialism blog, because it made me sad to think they don't live in the same world I do.

But really, y'all are welcome to move here anytime.

December 29, 2008

Thin Ice

There comes a point, at least once in every Minnesota winter, when the worst thing that someone can do is try to keep the sidewalks free of snow. Most of the time, we want clean sidewalks but not always. With months to go yet before we see warm, dry ground, we've already had a few of these days here.

They come in two flavors. The first kind of day when benign neglect is helpful is the melty day. This is when the ground is still rock hard, but the sun comes out and a warm breeze blows in. Piles of snow shrink and flow away--toward the frozen-over storm sewers. Then the sun sets.

Two things can happen at this point. The water can mix with the packed snow still on the sidewalk and turn into a slushy mess that eventually freezes with boot- and bikeprints all over the surface. It sounds ugly, but the alternative is for the water to flow in thin, smooth sheets over a clean sidewalk. The result is an patchy skating rink, tilted slightly toward the street and traffic. I'll take the rough ice.

The second kind of day when maintenance is unhelpful is the very cold day--with snow. By very cold, I mean right around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Snow at these temperatures is pretty rare, since air that cold is very dry. It generally requires warmer air up where the clouds are. But it does happen.

When it does, all the businesses downtown get out their power brooms to keep the snow from building up on the sidewalks. This is what they do for any snowfall, and I'm usually happy to see the brooms. Usually, they make my walk much easier. Not on the cold days, though. When slightly damp snow hits a 0-degree sidewalk, it sticks, and no broom is going to get it back up. All the broom can do is knock the snowflake flat.

Power broom, aka sidewalk polisher.
Usually seen with a weather enclosure.

Once again, the safest place to be in on a sidewalk that no one cares for too zealously. It won't be clean, dry pavement, but it won't be a highly polished surface either.

So what do you do when you're stuck walking on the shiniest of ice? Again, two scenarios (aside from getting down on your ass and scooting along the ground). The first, and most popular, is the penguin shuffle. This involves tiny little steps to keep your feet under you and hands held somewhat stiffly by your sides, ready to be thrown in whatever direction is needed for balance. It also involves small cheeps as the inevitable slips and slides still occur.

The other option is much faster. It will get you plenty of strange looks, though, as it will be less familiar looking to most people, even if no dorkier than pretending you're a penguin. If you do tai chi or bellydance or practice any number of other forms of exercise that place a high value on strong, smooth movement, this will be easy. It'll still feel funny, but you'll get the hang of it.

Bend your knees.

Really, that's it. That's the best advice for walking on ice. Bend your knees as much as is comfortable and keep them bent as you walk along. You'll find you don't lift your feet as much, so they're always near the ground. When you do start to slide a little, your legs be in a position to deliver maximum power, flexing or extending, whichever way you need to go. But you won't need it as much, because your center of gravity will already be lower.

Thus ends today's lesson on ice. I didn't really have a point in writing this much about it, but it seemed, somehow, that if I was going to deal with as much of it as I already have this winter, I ought to get something out of it.

A blog post will have to do.

December 28, 2008

Elite Bastardry

I consider myself as pretty egalitarian, but I may have to start rethinking that assessment. This is the third Carnival of the Elitist Bastards to feature my blog. And this one comes with a rank in Starfleet. How cool is that?

Okay, it might be more cool if you knew what I was talking about. The Carnival of the Elitist Bastards is a fairly new blog carnival, formed in protest of the political fetishization of the "average Joe." It celebrates excellence, expertise and a wee bit of justified arrogance. For the record, the included posts do justify the arrogance, if I do say so myself (which I do).

So go check out this month's carnival at Submitted to a Candid World. When you're done and wanting more than this month's short list can provide, head on over to Cafe Philos for last month's. Excellent reading both.

December 27, 2008

Atheists Talk--Perry Hackett and PZ Myers

2008 has been a fun and interesting year in the life sciences. The Nobel Prize in biology was awarded for making animals glow. Evolution of complex, novel mechanisms was demonstrated in bacteria better known for making people sick. Scientists sequenced the genome of the woolly mammoth. We'll chat about all this and more.

Joining us in the studio to discuss all the exciting developments in 2008 will be Dr. Perry Hackett, geneticist from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. In the second half of the hour, we'll also be speaking by phone with Dr. PZ Myers, biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris and prominent atheist blogger. Interviewing them will be artist Lynn Fellman.

Listen to the show tomorrow, December 28, at 9 a.m. Central time on AM 950 KTNF or stream it live (use zip code 55401 if you're from out of state). You can also subscribe to the podcasts on iTunes or through our feed.

If you want to meet the cast after the show, join us for brunch at 11:00 at Q. Cumbers in Edina.

December 26, 2008

Are Words Trivial?

Last week, Kelly McCullough committed "writer heresy" over at Wyrdsmiths by suggesting that the individual words one uses while writing a story just aren't that important. Bill Henry came back with the expected defense of words as a writer's stock in trade:

Or to use the terms in which this idea is typically framed, "content" and "style" aren't radically separate things, which exist independently of each other.

The story ("content," the "story itself," "what happens in it") and the way you tell it ("style," "phrasing," the words you put on the page) aren't materially distinguishable from each other.

I'll get back to Bill's argument in a bit. For now, let me just note that Bill is an excellent writer of literary speculative fiction and a respected academic copyeditor.

As usual, I mostly agreed with Kelly--with our differences being attributable to the fact that I'm primarily a character writer and he's not.

I care about the words to the extent that I care about voice, which is a good bit. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about which words and types of words a narrator would and would not use.

That is to say that words are important because of how we individually use them. For the most part, people who speak a shared language use the same core set of words. But it's in the differences that things get interesting. They can tell us volumes about the speaker. They can tell us where the speaker comes from, how educated they are, how culturally isolated, their age, their gender.

These unshared words tell us the identity of the speaker.

Bill and Kelly wrestled each other to a mutually respectful standstill, which might have been the end of the issue for me if a blogstorm hadn't occurred. It started with an appearance by Abbie of erv on Bloggingheads in which she expressed her frustration once again with sensationalized scientific reporting.

Along came a couple of journalists to tell us why Abbie wasn't qualified to have an opinion on the subject. Among the reasons: "She's bragging about the fact she can't write." Dr. Isis unfortunately, while giving the self-important journos a good smackdown, fell for this criticism and suggested a copy of The Elements of Style for would-be scientists. Even Abbie...well, here:

I cant write. But I still have a relatively successful science blog.
I dont want scientists to be intimidated by blogging because 'they cant write'. You dont have to be a professional writer to talk about your research with the general public. I thought I made it clear that I highly respect blaggers who have the ability to write well and talk about their favorite science topics (I mentioned Ed and Orac), but I do not want scientists to think they have to write well to interact with the public directly via blag.

For the record, Abbie writes entertainingly and informatively about retroviruses--specializing in HIV--in a lovely patois of scientific terms and apostrophe-free LOLspeak, spiced with fangirl squee. My background in biology is so deficient (I'm working on that) that I don't have the vocabulary to follow a lot of posts on specific biological mechanisms, but I can follow Abbie. Despite her protestations to the contrary, the woman can write.

So why doesn't she think so? Why do half the science bloggers I read for entertainment and information apologize for their writing (the other half being people who never apologize reflexively), even those who can make people cry on demand? Luckily, along came Bora to fit this debate into its place in a larger discussion of how science is conducted.

Academic science is a very hierarchical structure in which one climbs up the ladder by following some very exact steps. Yes, you can come into it from the outside, class-wise, but you have to start from the bottom and follow those steps "to the T" if you are to succeed. But those formal steps were designed by Victorian gentlemen scientists, thus following those steps turns one into a present-time Victorian gentleman scientist. But not everyone can or wants to do this, yet some people who refuse are just as good as scientists as the folks inside the club. If you refuse to dance the kabuki, you will be forever kept outside the Gate.

Insistence on using the formalized kabuki dance in science communication is the way to keep the power relations intact. Saying "don't be angry" is the code for "use the rhetoric at which I excel so I can destroy you more easily and protect my own spot in the hierarchy". It is an invitation to the formal turf, where those on the inside have power over those who cannot or will not use the kabuki dance. This has always been the way to keep women, minorities and people from developing countries outside the club, waiting outside the Gate. If, for reasons of your gender, race, nationality or class you are uncomfortable doing the kabuki dance, every time you enter the kabuki contest you will lose and the insider will win. The same applies outside science, e.g., to mainstream journalism and politics.

This is why some people in the academic community rant loudly against science bloggers. If they cannot control the rhetoric, they fear, often rightly, that they will lose. Outside their own turf, they feel vulnerable. And that is a Good Thing.

I love this analogy, in part, because kabuki is such a perfect counter to Bill's argument about story and words. In kabuki, movement is just as important to telling the story as the words are. The story does exist independent of the words. This shouldn't be any surprise, of course. West Side Story is no less powerful because it abandons Shakespeare's words for music and dance. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are people to tell it.

Now, to be fair to Bill, he's talking about the process of deciding how to tell the story as much as anything else. Even so, what's wrong with finding value in the informal, the unshaped, the impromptu? Beautiful, deliberate language has its audience, but it doesn't resonate with the masses in the way that the story behind it does--look at most bestsellers. In fact, for someone without the education or cultural background to make that kind of language familiar, it can be very alienating. It can obscure the story.

Just as the formalized language of science can obscure the knowledge it contains. It is no accident that the people who questioned Bora's point about who is disadvantaged by the formal practices of academic science were British male scientists. Whose dance of manners do they think science adopted?

Words are trivial to these scientists only because their words are being used. The words that define science are the same words that define these people's identities.

Words are not trivial to those for whom English is a second (or third or fourth) language. They are not trivial to those whose regional dialects are used as a shorthand for ignorance. They are not trivial to those who don't understand that a word like "ambitious" can be an insult that everyone but them will hear because ambition is what's gotten them past all the barriers to their participation in science. They are not trivial to those who have grown up with a language that has moved on. They are not trivial to those who want to understand their world but can't afford the time or energy to specialize in a field.

Words are not trivial, but they should be. It's the knowledge that should be important.

To bring this back to the writers' side of the discussion again, Laura Bradley Rede of the Death Pixies summed up the whole question brilliantly at Wyrdsmiths:

If I may go all Zen koan on you, I think words are the bucket for the water that is the story. The bucket shapes the water, it helps deliver the water, it keeps the water from being lost. But you can't drink the bucket. :)

There is value to being able to speak a common language with a common grammar. It can smooth things immensely. But any language that doesn't adapt to new circumstances dies.

I find no small irony in the fact that the people who are keeping the language of science from dying--by updating it, by carrying it into new cultures and new corners of the culture it comes from--are the people whose language skills get so little respect. These are the people who are making words trivial again, and for that, they should be thanked. Instead, the clamor against them is so loud that even they don't know the service they're providing, despite their audiences telling them repeatedly.

So, once and for all and for the record, you guys are wonderful writers. The fact that you write differently than someone else is a reason to be proud, not for apologies. Or in other words, thank you for the water.

December 25, 2008

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away
Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more
Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

I prefer this version of the song to the newer, cheerier lyrics. Although the author says he wasn't thinking of the war when he wrote it, the words of separation seem all too appropriate today. More than that, it says we can still celebrate when things aren't perfect. It tells us to hope for the future but to make a holiday out of what we have today.

The "cheery" version, on the other hand, tells us everything is better right now and is going to stay that way.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on, our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
From now on, our troubles will be miles away
Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

It is a nice idea, I'll admit. But I don't think I want to depend on it. I don't believe anything will always happen "from now on," but I do believe we can "muddle through." That's what hope is all about.

So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

December 24, 2008

And I Thought I Was Obsessive

Well, I am, sometimes, but nothing like this guy.

This is a detail--a small detail, mind you--of the candy Battle of Helms Deep that this guy and his siblings and girlfriend built last Christmas. It' just have to go see it.

There are catapults.

Thank you, Katie. I think.

December 23, 2008

30 Things Meme

A bunch of friends are meming on Facebook (yes, verbing weirds language), and rather than confining a bunch of random blather about me to a friends list, I thought I'd post it here as well.

1. I think we had more snakes when I was growing up than any other kind of pet. The mice didn't count. They were snake food.

2. I've never broken a bone (I think; not sure about my finger), but I sprained my back when I was in my teens.

3. I went to six elementary schools, three in sixth grade.

4. I wear three rings pretty much constantly. All were made by the same jeweler, based halfway across the country, and were purchased over eight years.

5. Both of my most serious ex-boyfriends ended up at Harvard for postdocs.

6. My cats have all had abstract nouns for names.

7. I did not do well on the swim team when I lived in Georgia. However, even years after moving back to Minnesota, I could still kick anybody's butt at swimming.

8. I was part of a trio of friends in my early teens. I'm the only one of us who survived past age eighteen.

9. I've skinned a squirrel.

10. I was one paper short of a college degree for nine years.

11. I spent much of my life up to about age seventeen afraid of everything. I don't know that I'm over that, but I've mostly stopped noticing.

12. I still haven't forgiven one junior high gym teacher for thinking I was faking what turned out to be arthritis.

13. I've been invited backstage at First Avenue, but I turned it down because I knew it was the equivalent of a date.

14. I "sneak" up on people all the time, but we usually both jump because I'm not trying to be sneaky.

15. Despite stage fright that's never fully gone away, I've been onstage as an actor, dancer, musician, singer and writer. Now I'm hosting a radio show.

16. I'm the slowest eater I know.

17. I would love to play with my hair color more, but I don't like coloring over my gray.

18. I've been scuba certified, but it's been almost 20 years since the last time I was diving.

19. Twice, I've gone on road trips to Canada on a whim.

20. I can cook ridiculously elaborate desserts with multiple layers, techniques and components. I'm no good at bread.

21. I used to take embroidery to class and do it during lecture.

22. I went an entire year without eating dairy, because things like pancakes made me throw up. It seems to have mostly worked, although I still can't drink plain milk, and ice cream sometimes still equals poison.

23. I'm a highly competitive person. Therefore, I rarely compete.

24. I don't do the polite Minnesotan thing. If I say I have no preference, it's because I don't. If I do, you'll hear about it.

25. I've seen my father twice since I turned eleven. The first time was at my wedding.

26. My favorite kind of lie is the one that tells most but not all of the truth.

27. I have yet to figure out any "rules" on what kind of music I like. I thought I had, then Beck came along. Fit the rules, but I said, "Eh."

28. I've only been stung once by a bee that I remember. I did everything right, but the stupid thing flew into my hair, got caught and panicked. Got me on the temple.

29. I use full capitalization and punctuation in instant messaging. It's faster for me than adjusting to text speak.

30. Coming up with 30 things to share was difficult because, despite blogging and occasionally treating Facebook status updates like performance art, I'm really bad at talking about myself.

December 22, 2008

Explanation Please

I recently overheard an exchange that boiled down to a woman telling a man who was obviously quite close to her, "Oh, the work you do is so important and wonderful, but it's too complicated for me. I just couldn't understand it if I tried."

I wanted to cry. For him. Her I wanted to shake.

How lonely it must be to have someone dear to you tell you that putting your intelligence to good use raises a barrier between you. How lonely to have embraced a vocation they won't work to understand. To know that if you talk about the ins and outs of what you do, the little things that make it fascinating, challenging work, you'll be speaking to the air.

She, on the other hand, has no idea what she's missing.

I wanted to invite him to come over and tell me about his job, and not just because the whole situation tugged at my heart (or because he was smart, articulate and kind of cute). My reaction to finding someone immersed in the esoterica of a field I know nothing about is somewhere between a friendly chat about their day and a job interview combined with taking a life history.

If I were to persuade him to talk, despite the inhibiting presence of his lovely whatever, we'd start with the basics. "Where do you work? What's your job title? What kind of training/education is required for that?" Then we’d hit the big question: "What do you actually do day to day?"

If I were lucky, I'd get an answer that I didn't understand. More likely, I'd have to prod a bit for details. I would try very hard not to glare at the whatever at this point, because I'd know the generica I was fighting to be a product of the incurious reactions he receives every day. (Just a note, the genders here are entirely situational. This also happens with them reversed.)

Eventually, though--assuming neither of them decided I was a stalker--he'd hit details that meant nothing to me. That's when the fun would start.

"What is an XX?"

"How do you do YY?"

"Can you explain how ZZ works?"

You've seen the classic maze-solving screensaver, right? The one that draws the maze, sends out a line that randomly takes each turn until it hits a wall, then backs up to the last unchosen branching and picks a new turn over and over until it finds the exit? That's what this conversation would look like if it were diagrammed. Of course, in this case, each branch would be a new concept or process I needed explained and instead of hitting the wall, I'd gather enough information to understand the next higher explanation.

The conversation would end only when he was dragged off by his whatever or when I had a pretty good picture of what he did do with his day. At no point would I ever say, much less think, that I couldn't understand what I was being told. If I needed more explanation, I'd just ask.

I really have conversations like this--about people's jobs, hobbies, PhD projects. As a result, I know a fair amount about things like brewing, systems architecture and administration, the politics of management in industry and academia, fundraising tactics, how to tease apart two very interesting proteins that are widely considered to be the same but may not be, church history, etc.

Am I an expert in any of these things? Oh, no. Not even close. I can't do any of these things that have been described to me. Deep knowledge and practice are what make an expert, and I've acquired neither. All I can do is understand what I'm hearing and ask intelligent questions.

So what do I get out of it? I could say that I get material for writing, which would be partly true. A shallow knowledge of many things can lend richness and realism to a fictional world, as long as the writer understands her limits. I could say that I get the friendship of extremely bright people, which is much more of the story, but still not complete.

The other thing I get out of this is the chance to test myself against a new field, a new idea. I get something the person who says, "I can't understand that," will never have.

I get proof, over and over, that I can.

December 20, 2008

Atheists Talk--Lori Lipman Brown

The Establishment Clause is the first item in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The freedom from state-sponsored religion is the first right granted in the Bill of Rights. But pride of place doesn't mean that this right is simple to maintain. No right is.

Any group that doesn't speak up for its rights will lose them. Lori Lipman Brown will talk to us about how the Secular Coalition for America lobbies "to protect the rights of atheists, humanists, agnostics, freethinkers and other nontheistic Americans." Lori will be interviewed by Steve Petersen, board chair for Minnesota Atheists.For more information on the show and for related links, visit the Atheists Talk website.

Listen to the show tomorrow, December 21, at 9 a.m. Central time on AM 950 KTNF or stream it live (use zip code 55401 if you're from out of state). You can also subscribe to the podcasts on iTunes or through our feed.

Holiday Xenophilia

The thing I don't get about the War on Christmas hoopty doo--

Let me start by saying that there are plenty of things I do get about it. I get the place it plays in distracting people from their real problems and who created them. I get the formation of group identity (the "persecuted majority") and consolidation of power in the hands of a few people who created the issue they promise to solve. I get that fear = attention = advertising dollars. I get all that.

What I don't get is why anyone is willing to play along when it means narrowing the definition of the holidays.

Much of the richness of the winter holidays is in the variety of traditions one can experience. Just within Christian religious traditions, one finds extended observations such as Advent and brief Christmas Day services. One finds Latin masses at midnight and parents leaving work early to see their kids play stagestruck camels and sheep. Music is provided by pipe organs and massive choirs and folk singers with acoustic guitars.

But it is outside the Christian observances that one finds the wealth of experience that keeps the cold, dark days from being bleak. Lights abound, of course, but they may be faerie lights, plastic figurines, bonfires, candles, oil lamps or even volcanoes. And noise, the joyful noise of fireworks, crackers, ratchets, whistles, horns, drums and blowouts is everywhere.

We must have food and feasting to keep us warm, of course. Will we have goose or lutefisk? Brisket or prime rib? Turkey or curry or spaghetti? Drink wine or cider, mulled or straight? Maybe eggnog? Finish with plum pudding, krumkake, potica, doughnuts, panettone, jalebi, stuffed dates or frosted sugar cookies?

Many of us give gifts. Are they large or small, and how does giving follow patterns of social obligation? Do adults receive presents at all, or are gifts only for the children? And who gives them to the children? Is it only family or some fantastic figure? An overgrown elf, a pagan god or a saint? Male or female, adult or child?

As I was growing up, Santa meant the extra-cool presents in stockings on Christmas Day, after all the family presents were opened. In my husband's stepfamily, Santa comes on Christmas Eve. The children bundle up after dinner and take a walk, watching the sky for Rudolph's nose. Once enough energy has been run off, one of the older children, in on the joke but happy to get out of the house for a bit, points to the red blinking light on an airplane overhead and declares Santa to have been spotted. Back at the house, all the adults have miraculously fallen asleep, and Santa has left oranges and candy in the shoes on the hearth. The fire may now be lit and the big presents opened.

Some people fill their holidays with a mad whirl of concerts and parties. Some spend weeks hardly leaving their kitchens. Some people bring family together to nest, and others take advantage of empty exotic vacation spots. Some shoulder the responsibilities of making tradition for all, and some grasp the opportunity to be children again. Some simply continue about their everyday lives as though the rest of the world weren't going a little mad.

In short, there are as many ways to observe the winter holidays as there are people to do the observing. Why would anyone look at this big, messy time of noise and cheer and decide that only some tiny part of it is real and valid? Why would they use this occasion to separate themselves from their neighbors when they could come together over something as simple as a piece of sweet bread?

No matter who is calling for them to do it, why would anyone turn their backs on a million traditions meant to bring warmth and light and community? Why embrace the dark and the cold?

Why spend your holiday--ultimately--alone?

December 19, 2008

Top 10 Movies You Haven't Seen

Today, teh interwebs are all about the movies. So, in the interest of giving Greg some choices to ponder and Mme. Piggy a list to carry her into the winter, here are my favorite movies that you probably haven't seen.

1. A Song Is Born: a bunch of jazz greats in a very silly movie with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo.

2. Streets of Fire: Michael Pare, Diane Lane, Rick Moranis, Willem Dafoe, Robert Townsend, a sledgehammer duel and one of the two best soundtracks of the eighties.

3. Black Widow: Debra Winger and Theresa Russell in the kind of cat and mouse movie that's usually reserved for male leads.

4. The Women: the 1939 version. See why the remake was doomed from the start to live in the shadow of the original.

5. Born Yesterday: also the original, because Melanie Griffith is no Judy Holiday. Wide-eyed patriotism at its finest and funniest.

6. Strictly Ballroom: good luck sitting still--and not gaping at the surrealism.

7. Down by Law: Roberto Begnini, Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch, ice cream, bunnies and jailbreak.

8. Deathtrap: twists, turns, reversals and one of the first big-name gay smooches in the movies.

9. What a Way to Go!: the costumes! The cast! The deaths!

10. Keeping Mum: sweet black comedy as only the British can do it. With Maggie Smith. Rowan Atkinson is the straight man.

So, what overlooked gems have I missed?

Movie Meme

I was all set to write a serious blog post, but why do that when someone hands you a meme on a platter? (Thanks, Greg.) This comes via Facebook, which is why it's text- instead of formatting-based.

Rules are simple: Xs next to movies you've seen, and if you've seen more than 85, you apparently have no life.

(x) Rocky Horror Picture Show
(x) Grease
(x) Pirates of the Caribbean
( ) Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest
( ) Boondock Saints
( ) Fight Club
( ) Starsky and Hutch
(x) Neverending Story
(x) Blazing Saddles
( ) Universal Soldier
( ) Lemony Snicket: A Series Of Unfortunate Events
( ) Along Came Polly
( ) Joe Dirt
Total so far: 6

( ) A Cinderella Story
( ) The Terminal
( ) The Lizzie McGuire Movie
( ) Passport to Paris
( ) Dumb & Dumber
( ) Dumber & Dumberer
( ) Final Destination
( ) Final Destination 2
( ) Final Destination 3
(x) Halloween
( ) The Ring
( ) The Ring 2
( ) Surviving -MAS
(x) Flubber (orignal only)
Total so far: 8

( ) Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle
( ) Practical Magic
(x) Chicago
( ) Ghost Ship
( ) From Hell
(x) Hellboy
( ) Secret Window
( ) I Am Sam
( ) The Whole Nine Yards
( ) The Whole Ten Yards
Total so far: 10

( ) The Day After Tomorrow
( ) Child's Play
( ) Seed of Chucky
( ) Bride of Chucky
(x) Ten Things I Hate About You
( ) Just Married
( ) Gothika
(x) Nightmare on Elm Street
(x) Sixteen Candles
( ) Remember the Titans
( ) Coach Carter
( ) The Grudge
( ) The Grudge 2
(x) The Mask
( ) Son Of The Mask
Total so far: 14

( ) Bad Boys
( ) Bad Boys 2
( ) Joy Ride
( ) Lucky Number Sleven
( ) Ocean's Eleven
( ) Ocean's Twelve
( ) Bourne Identity
( ) Bourne Supremacy
( ) Lone Star
(x) Bedazzled (original only)
( ) Predator I
( ) Predator II
( ) The Fog
( ) Ice Age
( ) Ice Age 2: The Meltdown
( ) Curious George
Total so far: 15

( ) Independence Day
( ) Cujo
( ) A Bronx Tale
( ) Darkness Falls
( ) Christine
(x) ET
( ) Children of the Corn
( ) My Bosses Daughter
( ) Maid in Manhattan
( ) War of the Worlds
( ) Rush Hour
( ) Rush Hour 2
Total so far: 16

( ) Best Bet
( ) How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
(x) She's All That
(x) Calendar Girls
( ) Sideways
(x) Mars Attacks
( ) Event Horizon
(x) Ever After
(x) Wizard of Oz
( ) Forrest Gump
(x) Big Trouble in Little China
( ) The Terminator
(x) The Terminator 2
( ) The Terminator 3
Total so far: 23

(x) X-Men
(x) X2
(x) X-3
(x) Spider-Man
(x) Spider-Man 2
( ) Sky High
( ) Jeepers Creepers
( ) Jeepers Creepers 2
( ) Catch Me If You Can
( ) The Little Mermaid (With a happy ending? Are you kidding me?)
(x) Freaky Friday (original only)
( ) Reign of Fire
( ) The Skulls
( ) Cruel Intentions
( ) Cruel Intentions 2
( ) The Hot Chick
(x) Shrek
( ) Shrek 2
Total so far: 30

( ) Swimfan
( ) Miracle on 34th street
( ) Old School
( ) The Notebook
( ) K-Pax
( ) Kippendorf's Tribe
( ) A Walk to Remember
( ) Ice Castles
( ) Boogeyman
( ) The 40-year-old-virgin
Total so far: 30

(x) Lord of the Rings Fellowship of the Ring
(x) Lord of the Rings The Two Towers
(x) Lord of the Rings Return Of the King
(x) Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
(x) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
(x) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Total so far: 36

( ) Baseketball
( ) Hostel
(x) Waiting for Guffman
( ) House of 1000 Corpses
( ) Devils Rejects
( ) Elf
(x) Highlander
( ) Mothman Prophecies
( ) American History
( ) Three
Total so Far: 38

( ) The Jacket
(x) Kung Fu Hustle
( ) Shaolin Soccer
( ) Night Watch
(x) Monsters Inc.
( ) Titanic
(x) Monty Python and the Holy Grail
(x) Shaun Of the Dead
( ) Willard
Total so far: 42

( ) High Tension
( ) Club Dread
(x) Hulk
( ) Dawn of the Dead
( ) Hook
(x) Chronicle Of Narnia The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
( ) 28 days later
( ) Orgazmo
( ) Phantasm
( ) Waterworld
Total so far: 44

( ) Kill Bill vol 1
( ) Kill Bill vol 2
( ) Mortal Kombat
( ) Wolf Creek
( ) Kingdom of Heaven
( ) the Hills Have Eyes
( ) I Spit on Your Grave aka the Day of the Woman
( ) The Last House on the Left
( ) Re-Animator
( ) Army of Darkness
Total so far: 44

(x) Star Wars Ep. I The Phantom Menace
(x) Star Wars Ep. II Attack of the Clones
(x) Star Wars Ep. III Revenge of the Sith
(x) Star Wars Ep. IV A New Hope
(x) Star Wars Ep. V The Empire Strikes Back
(x) Star Wars Ep. VI Return of the Jedi
( ) Ewoks Caravan Of Courage
( ) Ewoks The Battle For Endor
Total so far: 50

( ) The Matrix
( ) The Matrix Reloaded
( ) The Matrix Revolutions
( ) Animatrix
( ) Evil Dead
( ) Evil Dead 2
( ) Team America: World Police
( ) Red Dragon
(x) Silence of the Lambs
( ) Hannibal
Total so far: 51

( ) Battle Royale
( ) Battle Royale 2
( ) Brazil
(x) Contact
( ) Cube
(x) Dr. Strangelove
( ) Enlightenment Guaranteed
( ) Four Rooms
( ) Memento
(x) Pi
( ) Requiem for a Dream
( ) Pulp Fiction
( ) Reservoir Dogs
( ) Run Lola Run
( ) Russian Ark
(x) Serenity
(x) Sin City
( ) Snatch
( ) Spider
(x) The Sixth Sense
( ) The Village
( ) Waking Life
( ) Zatoichi
( ) Ikiru
( ) The Seven Samurai
( ) Brick
(x) Akira
Total so far: 58

Well, looking at the list, 58 drastically understates my movie viewing. Where is my Thin Man, Strictly Ballroom, Born Yesterday, Real Genius, Galaxy Quest, Streets of Fire? Where are Gene Kelly, Gregory Hines, Rita Moreno, Judi Dench, Rowan Atkinson?

This list has the distinct feel of having been put together by a forty-something American guy with a horror movie fixation and a teenage daughter. Or is that what it means to not have a life?

Still, it's an opportunity for everyone to see how many movies I don't see.

December 18, 2008


Woo hoo!

And they're still deciding the Coleman challenges (i.e., votes for Franken or no one). AND the absentee ballots will be counted

For the first time, I'm starting to hope.

December 17, 2008

The Way to a Girl's Heart through her grammar.

It beats a little faster when I meet someone who always knows the difference between "insure" and "ensure."

I breathe a little more heavily when apostrophes are all in their places and only their places.

My cheeks flush when someone knows to use "whether" instead of "if."

My toes curl at the proper use of semicolons.

I bite my lip over someone who never puts "less" in the place of "fewer."

We won't even talk about what happens when I see "try to" instead of "try and." No, no we won't.

Or maybe I'm still sick and need to go crawl back into bed. I think I'll take a good book with me. Good night and good grammar, all.

December 16, 2008

For Dr. Isis

Everyone's favorite domestic and laboratory goddess asked for her very own music video shout out, requiring only something "she can shake her ass to." After some thought and a whole bunch of video searching (hey, it takes a while when you stop to listen), I think I found the right song for the woman who never sleeps. And while this video does start slowly, if The Cat Empire doesn't make her shake her ass, I'm the wrong person to help her.


December 15, 2008

Sam & Max Rules

A bit more than a decade ago, my husband and I played a bunch of LucasArts adventure games. Remember, this was pre-Episode One. Pre-Grim Fandango not being released for Macs for that matter. LucasArts was still okay then. In fact, they were pretty cool.

Sure, the Indiana Jones game was kinda dull, but Day of the Tentacle was a geek's dream. Personally, though, I preferred Sam & Max Hit the Road. It's still the most surreal game I've played, although Psychonauts came close. But even Psychonauts' meat circus (really) didn't quite compare to the combination of conspiracy theory, circus freaks and roadside attractions that was Sam & Max. Gator Golf, anyone? A bigfoot underground? How about a rotating restaurant atop the world's largest ball of twine?

Still, my favorite part of the Sam & Max gameplay was the dialog. It was menu based. All the options tended to be snarky, but there were a few that would get a person decked in real life. Really funny, but nothing you'd actually say unless you wanted to end the conversation immediately.

The first time we came across one of these, we looked at each other, figured out how much progress we stood to lose, and picked the least helpful option. It got about the response we expected--a nasty, angry (silly) retort--but then the weird thing happened. We still had all our other dialog options left. There was no penalty for being nasty. This made a lot of sense in the game, since Sam and Max were both psychotic, but it took a little getting used to.

From that point on, we always chose the funniest, least productive dialog first. After all, if we picked the less-funny, productive stuff, we moved forward in the game and lost our chance at the funny.

Then we went even further. We decided we liked playing by Sam & Max rules, so we adopted them in real life. No penalty for the funny first response, even if it isn't very friendly.

I don't recommend this for everyone*, of course. It takes timing and a good sense of how much distance must be kept from the truth in order for something to be funny. Most of all, it takes both a willingness to explain and a willingness to listen when a joke goes awry.

For example, my husband has recently discovered caipirinhas and likes to have one in the evening. We even bought an ice crusher for making them. Since he had a final this weekend, he's also been studying most evenings. Last week, as he was making a caipirinha and preparing to study, I joked that he was going to need to bring one to his final.

He got a little huffy and declared that it was one drink over several hours and--oops. I stopped him and invoked Sam & Max rules.

Then I explained. He's never taken a psychology class, but luckily, that doesn't mean he doesn't know anything about the subject.

"You know how context aids memory--you're more likely to remember something in the same circumstances you originally encountered it?"

He nodded.

"Okay. This is one of the things that get mentioned in a variety of psychology classes. Every time it's come up in one of my classes, there's always one student who just has to say...."

He grinned. "So I guess I should bring beer to my finals."


Thus was disaster averted. But that's the thing about Sam & Max rules. You can't play by them with someone you don't trust or who doesn't trust you. You can't play with someone who won't explain when the meaning isn't evident, or with someone who won't take explanations at face value, or with someone who can't tell when the joke falls flat. Playing by Sam & Max rules takes a lot of work.

But when it works, it's very silly fun.

* It's taken me time, but I have eventually come to realize (not understand, mind you) that not everyone's life and friends are a traveling comedy routine.

December 14, 2008


For Glendon, because, yeah, Soft Cell rocks.

Monoculture (2003)

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye (1981)

And what Marc was doing in between:

My Love (1999)

December 13, 2008

Atheists Talk--Maggie Argiente

You wouldn't think an advertisement asking people to be good would be controversial, would you? Apparently it is--if you ask them to do it for nonreligious reasons.

The American Humanist Association's Maggie Ardiente will join us to talk about the reaction to their holiday advertising campaign and about the Winter Solstice. She will be interviewed by Scott Lohman, president of the Humanists of MN. For more information on the show and for related links, visit the Atheists Talk website.

Listen to the show tomorrow, December 14, at 9 a.m. Central time on AM 950 KTNF or stream it live (use zip code 55401). You can also subscribe to the podcasts on iTunes or through our feed.

December 12, 2008

Bettie's Gone

Damn. I thought this might be coming, but I didn't want it to be true. Bettie Page has died.

Don't know who Bettie Page is? Yes, you do.

The Bikinis

The Bondage

More Bettie
Official Site
Bettie in Opera Gloves
Bettie Page by Olivia

December 10, 2008

History Repeating

Betül and I have been exchanging music videos behind the scenes, but this one's too good not to share with everyone.

Propellerheads with the Incomparable Shirley Bassey

How to Hijack a Thread

Or, A Primer in Antisocial Attention-Seeking

Lay your groundwork. Watch the group interaction. Make yourself known to the community. Engage on a topic or two. Piss a few people off so they'll react to you reliably later.

Watch for your chance. If the blog is any good, the host and/or community practices some sort of moderation, active or passive. You'll have to catch them on a busy day or heated topic to get them to feed trolls.

Commit to the campaign. Prepare not to have a life for the duration. Refresh frequently and respond to everything before anyone else can. Drown anyone speaking in good faith in an avalanche of comments.

Build a fire. Say something known to be controversial. Be sure to compliment community members--in the most backhanded way possible. Extra points for dog whistles.

Make yourself the injured party. Recharacterize any objections to your statements as referenda on your character. Loudly protest your ignorance of even the concept of a dog whistle. Of course you didn't say that. Abuse yourself sarcastically in strong terms to show how misunderstood you are.

Limit your scope. If the conversation happens across several blogs, pick the one you want to make your own. Most of the community will gravitate to the comment threads where real discussion is happening, leaving a smaller field for you to manipulate.

Divide the community. Pick out a couple of people to side with. Ideally, these should be people with a history of both arguing with the community and making at least occasional good points. Agree broadly as soon as they say anything reasonable, so that anyone else who wants to agree with them must also agree with you.

Deflect topical discussion. Engage with everyone who still wants to discuss the idea at hand. However, don't engage with them on the topic. If you can turn them to talking about your behavior, this is a plus, but any sideline or distraction will do.

Deny group authority. Insist that if anyone wants to judge your behavior, they must also judge the behavior of all community members by the same standards. Point to their reactions to your bad behavior as bad behavior that also needs to be censured. Ignore the fact that you haven't contributed to the community in the same way they have.

Prepare to lose. You've almost certainly chosen a blog where your disruption will be noticed. After all, that's what you're there for. The problem with avoiding chaos is that these people have come together for a reason--to talk to each other, not you. They're eventually going to go back to doing just that, closing up ranks, and you're going to have to find a new way, or a new blog, to get anyone to pay attention to you again.

December 09, 2008

Too Pissed to Talk

Dixon said he was denied at least $16,000 in benefits before he fought the Pentagon and won a reversal of his noncombat-related designation.

"I was blown up twice in Iraq, and my injuries weren't combat-related?" Dixon said. "It's the most imbecile thing I've ever seen."

Meshell, who is appealing her status, estimates she is losing at least $1,200 a month in benefits. Despite being injured in a combat zone during an enemy mortar attack, she said, her wounds would be considered combat-related only if she had been struck by shrapnel.

--Injured veterans engaged in new combat, LA Times

December 08, 2008

All I Want for Christmas

I'm apparently not the easiest person to shop for. By request, I have a wish list around somewhere, but I don't maintain it. My husband does, and come late summer or fall, he has to ask me what should be on it.

"Um, I don't know."

Yeah, I'm annoying. Mostly, though, I'm just not big on stuff. I already have too much. Even books, to which I'm thoroughly addicted, have overrun their allotted space and threaten to overrun their allotted time. If I'm going to add to my stuff, I'm usually very picky about what it is--not the frame of mind in which to receive gifts.

We hardly give gifts of stuff for Christmas anymore, except to the kids in the connection and a very few people whose gifts speak to us during the year. ("Psst. I belong to XX.") For the past several years, the grown-ups have received a donation--last year to Fisher House--and cookies. Lots of cookies. I'll happily spend time baking that I'd resent spending shopping in crowded stores.

For some reason, I'd never thought to ask for similar gifts in return. Then, last Christmas, or maybe it was Solstice, some friends gave us a critter from Heifer International. Or rather, they gave it to someone who needed it, for whom it wasn't stuff.

So this year, my wish list is simple. There are still a few things left on it from prior years, but what I really want are microloans. I want to build a pool of money that I can send off to the unstable parts of the world to help someone create a little stability of their own. I've got plenty for myself these days.

If the money comes back, it can help someone else. Over time, if I manage to persuade people that this really is the kind of gift I want, it can help lots of someones.

If it doesn't, well, it was a gift to begin with. I won't begrudge someone else a gift as well.

December 07, 2008


I know you've always wanted to know what I sound like, right? Of course, you say, which is why I went and picked up a radio/podcast gig. It was all just for you.

Okay, the truth is that Mike is moving up from host to cat-herder for the Minnesota Atheists Sunday morning radio show, Atheists Talk. They needed new on-air talent to try to take his place, and Mike asked whether I might be interested. I believe the email said something about being a radio goddess.

This morning was the shakedown show with many lessons learned along the way, but we all came out of it still pretty happy with each other. I think I'll be doing this again. Next time, I might even tell people about it beforehand.

Oh, and if you do actually want to hear what I sound like, or listen to Austin Dacey, who had much more interesting things to say than I did, the podcast is available.

December 06, 2008

An Odd Year

DrugMonkey has posted an excellent year-in-review meme that involves posting the first sentence of the first post of each month of the year. Since 2008 was my first full year of blogging, and since almost none of my current readers won't have read that far back, I must play.

Let's see what the blog has to say for itself.

January: There's a character I've been wanting to write for a while but probably won't until the next book.

February: This is one of the cooler memes I've seen.

March: I don't know his name, but he's awfully cute.

April: I've been involved in a few discussions lately in which public school education and teachers got pretty thoroughly dissed.

May: So I'm on this client team at work, one of several.

June: I am not a specialist.

July: Yesterday at work, despite my best efforts to check off the 1,001 tiny things on my to do list and to clean out my inbox so I can figure out whether there's anything that never made it onto the list, I spent much of my time on two Projects That Will Not Die.

August: Transcriptase is the new site where some writers who had material in the Helix archives have reposted their work.

September: One of the local high schools has a gay-rights student club.

October: Like any good narcissist blogger, I like to see what search terms people are using to find my blog.

November: In my last post, I talked about the many excellent reasons to vote against Norm Coleman for senator.

December: When I was looking at old Animaniacs videos, I noticed that there seems to be a drive to bring them back (although there don't seem to be any results).

Uh, huh. Interesting. Some politics, some writing, some work (of all things), some silly. It all sounds about right, but it does raise the perpetual question. Can anyone tell me what this blog is about?

From Out the Past

Facebook dropped a present in my lap today. Well, not literally. He's several states away, and my lap is hardly the most appropriate place for him. But you get the idea.

You probably have one, too, but I keep a short list of people I'd really love to catch up with but have no hope of ever seeing again. They were absurdly important in some part of my life that doesn't exist anymore. They're the folks whose friends I haven't seen in years, who used to hang out in places that are long gone.

This one was from junior high and high school, another one of the art/science geeks. He was, in fact, one of the infamous Physics Males, although far from the worst. He was also the guy who introduced me to the fact that I'm a very, very scary person. Not that he could explain why I was scary either.

Aside from being mutually terrified of each other, we got on quite well. Then came graduation and poof! He was gone. I saw him a few times after that, but stupidly, I always let some really good excuse get in the way of just sitting down with him for however long it took to properly catch up.

The friends who still connected us to each other drifted away, and more than fifteen years passed without us seeing or talking to each other. I thought about it, but with a name that common, I wouldn't have known how to track him down if I'd tried. My name, of course, had changed, so even if he had been motivated to find me, it would have been tough.

Then, today, he commented on a mutual friend's status update. Fifteen minutes later, we were Facebook friends and exchanging notes (which we never did in high school). All due to nearly passive technology.

I love living in the future.

December 05, 2008


I'm in a bar on the west bank in Minneapolis. It really wants to be a dive bar, but nobody appears to have told the chef or the bar manager. So I've just had an excellent dinner and a pint of Surly Furious.

I'm there to see a show. More accurately, I'm there to hang out with my husband as he takes pictures at the show.

See, the headliner is MC Frontalot, the recognized father of nerdcore rap, and I'm just not all that into nerdcore. It falls into the category of things that make me happy because they exist but which I don't personally need to deal with. It's funny stuff, but too much of it is deliberately awkward. Perfectly in character, but not what I'm looking for in music.

Let's just say that my hopes for the show aren't high.

I feel bad for the local opening act. We missed them while eating, and there are only about a dozen people in the stage area when we get there. They played to no one.

Then Schaffer the Darklord (STD) comes out in a long black hooded cloak with his black box, and things start to get interesting. He dumps the cloak after the first song and raps in a purple shirt and black suit. Oh, he's a geek all right, but he's also been a musician longer than nerdcore has been considered a genre. And it shows.

Highlights of STD's set are "Nerd Lust" and "Night of the Living Christ."

Undead messiah with the entire world
Turning into zombies like him
You'll die for him because he died for you

We take a break before the Front comes on. I chat a little with Schaffer (once he peels off a drunken fangirl), and pick up both his albums.

Then the lights go down again. Time for the main act.

Frontalot starts by gently coaxing all the geeks in the audience onto the dance floor and up next to the stage. The audience has grown by this point, but it's still nothing like crowded. Then he announces that this will be an all-request show.

This is when things get truly surreal. Half the audience raises their hands. I kid you not. They raise their hands. At a rap show. This is when I know I am not a TrueGeek(tm).

(MC Chris, not Frontalot, but you get the idea.)

To top it off, once people are called on and make their request, they have to roll for it. D20. Now, it works out that everyone who requests a song that had been rehearsed gets to hear what they want, but they still have to roll.

It also somehow works out that most of the songs from the new album get requested and played. This is a very good thing, because the new album is much more up my alley. Less awkwardness, more music. Still geeky as hell, but danceable. Need I mention that I am the only person demonstrating any proficiency at dancing? (No, pogoing does not count.)

"Bizarro Genius Baby" is the first single off the album. Other gems are "Secrets From the Future," about how laughable future generations will find current encryption, and "Origin of the Species," which is saved from Poedom by two words. Needless to say, we pick up another album.

All in all, it's a good night, much better than expected. I'm still not gung-ho into Nerdcore, but when someone posts some, I now give it a good, solid listen. The stuff is getting much better.

Of course, I still haven't heard anyone top the original master of the genre.

December 03, 2008

Ensign Sparky, A Fable

Sometimes, things just collide in my head. In this case, it was these posts from Dr. Isis and these posts from DrugMonkey. This particular story, however, is in no way their fault. Yeah, it gets a little strange in here.

Ensign Sparky heard a high-pitched scream and ran forward, pulling out his phaser. Rounding the corner into the Enterprise's dining area, he saw only his captain. Confused, he looked into the corners of the room.

"Ensign!" It came out as a squeak.

Sparky turned back toward his captain and took in the details he had missed in his haste. How could he have failed to note that Kirk was crouching on a chair? His hairpiece askew, his lower lip clenched in his teeth--those were things he could have overlooked. The cowering posture? Not so much.

Kirk cleared his throat. "Ensign!" His voice dropped back to normal.

Sparky snapped to attention. "Yes, sir!"

"Is it gone?"


Kirk pointed to the floor without letting go of his legs. "Is it gone?"

Sparky looked around, unsure what he was supposed to be seeing. Just as he was about to declare the room clean, he saw movement near the replicator. It was just a tiny flick of...was it a tail? Then it was gone. He marched to the replicator to investigate.

"Be careful!" Kirk's voice drifted upward again.

Sparky pried loose the panel below the chute. More than a dozen tiny things scurried out. He didn't know what else to call the half fuzzy, half leathery creatures that rushed away into shadows.

Kirk screamed again. "Get them! Get them!"

Doubting the propriety of permanently zapping anything that moved like his favorite pet lizard, Sparky set his phaser on its lowest stun setting. As the ensign moved around the room, Kirk squeaked out bloodthirsty encouragement. Then, just as Sparky stunned the last of them, the captain screamed again.

Sparky whipped around. Another of the strange creatures was wriggling its way out of the guts of the replicator. He stunned it too. "All taken care of, sir."

Kirk was still huddled on the chair, staring at the replicator.

"Uh, sir?"

Kirk blinked but didn't look away. "Get me out of here."

"Yes, sir." The captain didn't move. Not sure what to do, Sparky stepped up and held out a hand. "May I help you down, sir?"

Kirk shook his head vigorously. "There might be more of them!"

"Yes, sir." Sparky stepped around behind the chair and tugged on its back. The chair didn't move but Kirk wobbled. He squeaked again.

Sparky sighed. "May I carry you, sir?"

"Of course, ensign."

Scooping the fetally curled captain into his arms wasn't easy, but Sparky managed. Kirk relaxed slightly.

Once they'd passed through the doorway, Kirk uncurled enough to run one finger along Sparky's collarbone. "Blue isn't really your color, ensign. Do you have any engineering background?"

Sparky swallowed. "No, sir."

"Tactical it is, then." Kirk snuggled closer to Sparky. "You'll look so much better in red."

Sparky didn't say anything. He knew about Kirk's young men. Everyone did. Cushy assignment while it lasted but all too likely to end in disaster when Kirk got bored.

Luckily, they heard footsteps ahead just then. Kirk pushed frantically at Sparky's chest. "Put me down!"

Sparky was happy to oblige. The captain straightened his shirt and his hair.

A small squad in red came into sight just ahead and stopped. Their leader stepped forward. "Captain, we heard a report of phaser discharge. Is everything okay, sir?"

Kirk waved away their concern with an excess of nonchalance. "Nothing I couldn't handle." He looked down. "Still, you may accompany me to the bridge."

Sparky was trying to slip away when he felt the captain's hand on his shoulder. "You too, ensign."

Kirk tapped his communicator. "Bones meet me on the bridge in..." He glanced from Sparky to the floor. "Oh, better make it right now."

Sparky had never been on the bridge before. It was a little intimidating, especially when Kirk made him stand just behind the captain's chair as he chewed out Dr. McCoy.

"Bones, you said this was all taken care of after the Tribbles incident. You were supposed to recalibrate the ship's contraception field for every new animal brought on board."

McCoy looked somehow even more sour than usual. "Damn it, Jim, I did. The creature you saw matches the description of Chekhov's new pet, and Nurse Kelly and I recalibrated the field for that."

"Doctor Kelly." A young woman stepped out from behind McCoy. Sparky noticed that she was wearing nonregulation boots to very good effect. "I'm every bit the doctor that you are, McCoy."

Kirk held up a hand to forestall an explosion from McCoy. "Then perhaps, Dr. Kelly, you can explain to us what happened."

"Of course." Dr. Kelly shrugged, which did fascinating things to the hem of her tunic. "Dr. McCoy didn't allow me to test the contraception field thoroughly."

"What!?" Sparky thought McCoy's head might explode. "I told you to use the standard protocol!"

"Standard protocol is to test the males, McCoy. This little creature has six sexes."

Kirk smiled. "Six? How interesting. Why didn't you tell me this, McCoy?"

"Damn it, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a veterinarian. Who cares whether some animal has six sexes or thirteen?"

Full-on squabbling broke out between McCoy and Kelly. Kirk tapped his chin thoughtfully with his forefinger. "Thirteen? Really? Hmm."

Eventually, Spock stepped between the doctors. "If I may?"

Kirk started from his reverie. "What? Oh, yes. Bones, nurse!"


"Whatever." Kirk looked at Spock. "You were saying?"

"It seems only logical, captain, that one should test a device in all the sexes available. Human ideas of contraception depend on a standard male-female model, and if the device is only proven to work on males, any females who come into contact with a nonstandard sex may not be protected--obviously, as today's incident shows."

McCoy exploded in earnest at this point. Sparky could barely make out the words, although "green Vulcan blood" was repeated several times.

Dr. Kelly moved away from the fight toward Uhuru, who looked suddenly upset. Sparky was confused. Hadn't she heard McCoy swear at Spock before? Everyone else on the ship had.

The doctor and the communications officer left the bridge together, and Sparky thought it was a wonderful idea. However, as he took a step toward the door, he heard Kirk clear his throat.

"When you boys are done fighting and making up, do see if you can't do something about keeping these things from breeding. I'll be in my cabin when--" He looked over at Sparky. "I'll check back in later."

The captain caught Sparky's arm on the way to the door. "Walk with me, ensign. We need to discuss your transfer--and your uniforms."

Sparky sighed and resigned himself to the inevitable. "Yes, sir." They left the bridge.


Peggy tagged me with the new 5-56 meme. It combines an existing meme (fifth sentence on page 56) with a guessing game.

- You can pick and choose the books to find the most interesting sentences.
- At least five of the books should be fiction.
- Try not to use books that are so obscure no one could guess what they are.
- You can give hints, if you so desire.
- Tag some other bloggers to pass the meme along.

I don't know how much good this information does as hints, but here goes. All are fiction. I went with writers I've met and at least chatted with, so as I write this, I'm not sure how interesting the sentences will be. Most of the authors don't live in Minnesota. There are fourteen authors for the ten books, but only thirteen are listed on the covers. Of course, one of those is a pen name, so the question of who is actually credited is, well, complicated.

1. The worst were one her arms; the biggest burn, under her chin, was the size of her palm.

2. Though I preferred to think of it as vengeance.

3. She drank too much and invited the forge's handsome foreman to her new bed.

4. Can't he find satisfaction interfering in the lives of his parishioners and browbeating them to feel obliged to invite him to dinner?

5. I wince as he probes around the edge of the prosthetic arm, feeling the scarring.

6. Steep-roofed old townhouses still lined its narrow streets, but bits of their elaborate stonework had given way to the elements and bits had been stolen to replace other bits.

7. Bella slid the score gently across the table toward me.

8. 'You could have asked me to stay the night,' she said, in her cold-stone voice.

9. Gringras was sitting on the fire escape above her, his legs dangling down.

10. I lay on my side facing away from her, my hands clutching my injury.

I tag Mme. Piggy, Greg, Lou and anyone who recognizes one of their books above.

December 02, 2008

Globalization and Global Awareness

I almost went into work the day after Thanksgiving, even though I had the time off. Why? I have coworkers in Mumbai, and the only way I was going to find out how they were doing was to log into the intranet.

In the end, I stayed home. I realized that whether I knew or not made zero difference to what was happening there. In fact, I don't know any of these coworkers, have never spoken to them.

But I was still relieved yesterday to find out that they were all safe, freaked out to hear that one had been rescued from one of the attacked hotels, and hurt by their losses of friends and family. Even not knowing them, the tie we share, just by working for the same company, makes the whole tragedy more real to me.

We talk a lot about the pitfalls of globalization, but we don't talk much about the positive side effects. There are frequently improvements to infrastructure, standards of living and education that go along with companies dumping even small amounts of money across the world, but I think the connections made across national borders are nearly as important.

Would we know nearly as much about child labor practices if someone weren't able to point at people and tell them that what they're wearing was made by an eight-year-old? Isn't it harder to think of someone as completely other when you see them marked with the same brands that surround you? I know it's much harder to think of world tragedies as distant events when my company tells me that the people they're affecting matter to them and should matter to me.

This doesn't just happen through business, of course. I've traveled outside the U.S.--four countries. I went to school with someone who moved to another. Through this blog and others, I know people who are personally affected by events in at least a dozen countries, just off the top of my head. Because I mentored an exchange student for a while, I know more about the presidential politics of one former Soviet country than anyone else I know will ever find interesting.

Still, I work for a company with offices in more than forty countries (I think; I don't have to keep that straight anymore). That's a large chunk of the world about which I get "this is the scope of events but everyone is okay" messages. That's a large chunk of the world that heard that I was okay when the 35W bridge collapsed last year. That's a lot of people who aren't ignoring each other.

For all the problems of globalization, this little piece of it is a very good thing.

December 01, 2008


When I was looking at old Animaniacs videos, I noticed that there seems to be a drive to bring them back (although there don't seem to be any results). As much as I loved Animaniacs, if I were going to bring back one cartoon from the nineties, it would be Freakazoid! It just doesn't get any more surreal than this.

The Wrong Crowd

Getting Out of the Superhero Business

(I'd completely forgotten his girlfriend was named Steff.)

The World's Most, Uh, Thorough Spit-Take

Conversational Norwegian

Oh, Freakazoid, please come back.

November 30, 2008

Hot Is Heavy

I don't usually feel the need to point to one of Zuska's posts and say, "Yeah, what she said." She's got a strong voice and when she's not reaching her audience, it's usually either because they're unreachable or because they already agree with her in principle and are arguing over details.

This week, though, Zuska put up a post about the ephemeral nature of hotness that I think missed its audience. The first half of the post talked about her losing her thick, abundant (hot) hair to illness, but the bits that everyone seemed to focus on were:

Hotness is a great thing, but unfortunately it comes with an expiration date. Bodies change, making hot fashions simply unwearable; joints develop aches, making fashionable footwear unbearable; hair thins and loses luster and just looks plain terrible.


Wide hips, sensible flat shoes, poor hairdo - yeah, that could be me in those photos. Dr. Isis, I'm not asking you to mask or stifle your total hotness (as if a domestic and laboratory goddess even could!) and I admire your efforts to create mass cognitive dissonance through conflation of "hot", "mama", and "scientist". Just maybe be a little kinder to the old crones in the audience.

The comments could largely be summed up by this one:

Ah Zuska, you know true hotness is a state of mind.

This is fine. This is all well and good and true as far as it goes. The problem is that Zuska wasn't merely talking about age. She was also talking about health.

Hotness, even as something that doesn't relate to the external characteristics that people have little control over, requires resources. It takes time and attention and energy and money--more time and attention and energy to the extent that money isn't available. (You've read John Scalzi on the costs of Being Poor, right?) These are resources that people who are dealing with illness and disability frequently don't have.

When we value hotness so highly, we place additional burdens on those who already have too many. We ask those who want nothing more than sleep to maintain labor-intensive standards of grooming. We ask people with arthritis to iron clothes. We ask those in pain to be pleasant and "graceful." We ask people with depression to keep a positive attitude.

We can tell them that we don't require any of this of them, that all we want is for them to get better or to do the best their disability will allow, but we have to know that they're sick or disabled in order to deliver this message. Most illnesses and disabilities don't come with marquee lights. The message that hotness is required for the fullest participation in society doesn't limit itself to the healthy, able-bodied population, because we don't know, can't know, who that is.

If you think the ill and the disabled don't feel this pressure, ask yourself why organization such as Locks of Love and Heavenly Hats exist. Ask yourself why patients in long-term care are cheered up by a gift of pretty clothing or by something as simple as having their hair styled. Ask why those with disabilities are cheered to see others like them as models and athletes--among the hot.

Does this mean that the hot among us shouldn't revel in being hot? Nah. For one thing, that's never going to happen. For another, what they're actually reveling in is, in large part, health. Having good health and having the resources to enjoy it are things worth reveling in. They are more rare than they should be.

I just think people should know that this is what they're really enjoying and know, as Zuska and I and many others do, that it may not last.