Encoded Conversations

The food table at Occupy Madison's general assembly

Yesterday, being Tuesday, I had lunch with other Realtors.  I don’t talk much during these lunches – I go because they’re a great way to leech a variety of knowledge from other Realtors without having to learn it via experience myself.  I frequently walk away from these lunches irritated with their priorities and their outlook, but better informed.

The conversation over yesterday’s lunch focused on comparing various local school districts.  All of the other Realtors were older than me (most Realtors are older than me) and they spent a great deal of time waxing nostalgic for when the Madison school district was the desirable one, while the suburban schools nearby were considered shabby.  Apparently things have switched.  Now, Verona, Middleton and Oregon have the more attractive school districts.

I may have spotted this movement's answer to the Tea Party's adoption of the Gadsen flag

I was listening to this conversation very intently, in part because their understanding of current perceptions don’t match mine.  Finding out what great transition had occurred to demote Madison schools, why on earth they seem to think sending your kid to West high is tantamount to child abuse, was really important to me.  They talked about their reasons, but even though I hung on every word, I couldn’t figure out what they were saying.

“The way I see it, kids are still so moldable in elementary school, it doesn’t matter if they get exposed to certain things you wouldn’t want.  As long as the family moves before middle and high school, and most of them do, it should be okay.”

The whole conversation was like that.  There’s something unsavory in the Madison schools that your kids could be exposed to if you attend.  I couldn’t figure out what that unsavory element was, though.  Poor people?  Black people?  Hispancis?  Hippies?  The conversation was coded thoroughly, and I didn’t have the key.  They’re worried about something, and everybody else in the conversation seemed to know what it was.  Maybe I would if I’d been around town longer, or if I had kids.

Most of the people in this photo were occupying the Capitol before occupation became all trendy

This isn’t the only time I’ve been in this situation.  My second time in Madison, when we were looking for an apartment, the property manager for the very last place we saw, the only place that met our very basic requirements, upon hearing about the other places we’d seen said, “Well, the equal housing protection act won’t let me tell you what kind of people don’t live here.  But this is a time when people are getting home from work, so if you look around the parking lot, you’ll see that the people in those places aren’t here.”  Don and I walked away deeply confused about who two people moving up from the South side of Chicago (and at least in my case, sorry about it) are supposed to have filled in for “people.”  We never figured it out, be remain offended on their behalf.

Perhaps it’s just my brain over-decoding things where it can consequent of being thwarted, but I’m starting to read the constant questioning in regards to the Occupy Wall Street movement along the lines of, “What are their goals?” and “What do they hope to accomplish,” as a code for, “I feel okay, why don’t they?”  and “They can’t accomplish anything.”  This is probably unfair of me; most of the people asking those questions are likely as sincerely fuddled as they claim.  But I can’t help wondering how the answer to “What is that?” isn’t obvious.

I still remember screaming when Bush answered Wall Street's collapse with very un-capitalistic bail-outs. And then screaming louder when the only other angry people willing to get organized were the Tea Party.

It’s what happens when a swath of disaffected people start talking to each other while they’re still invested in society.  It’s the precursor to something big.  That something could be anything from the French revolution to the dissolution of an entire generation’s political and social investment.  It’s what comes before the London riots, the Arab spring, the existentialists taking over Parisian cafes.  It’s a generation waking up to say “What the fuck?” and trying to solve it with conversation and jazz hands.

I’m in such deep wait-and-see mode over the whole thing I’m not even willing to put my current opinions in writing – they’re changing with each new story from a different city.  But I will say this: The Occupy Wall Street people are not afraid to name their enemy.  They are not afraid to list his crimes.  And they are not afraid to confront him directly.  The coding in their conversations centers on running from anything like hierarchy or leadership, from stepping on the toes of allies.  And their codes are transparent.  If they accomplish nothing else, I hope they carry that much out the other side of this.  I like knowing who “those people” are.

I have finally read Game of Thrones

My response to it was pretty much as follows.

Prologe: That was nicely creepy, but really, chasing people then slaughtered by monsters?  How very identical to every other epic fantasy prologe ever.

Pg 18: A direwolf?  Seriously?  Owie.

pg 57: Wow, that was a great image to end a chapter with.  I think I trust this Martin guy and am eager to keep reading.

pg 85: Oh, there’s the killing everybody told me I’d like.  Yay!

pg 229: This is going nowhere good for the seven kingdoms

pg 423: Tyrion is my favorite.  And Daenerys.  And Arya.  And Jon.  I hope Sansa has to marry Joffrey, though.  She deserves him.

pg 761: Beautiful.  I am so desperately hoping she burns the whole world.  Except when I’m reading somebody else’s POV.

pg 807: If Martin dies before finishing the series, I’m going to say mean things about his corpse.

This gave me all the immersive trusting the writer experience I kept hoping for Wise Man’s Fear to knock me over the head and give.  Everybody who said I’d love the way Matrin treats his characters, you were so unspeakably right.

I Love Sociopaths Because They Can’t Love Themselves

Do you ever have a character type that you can’t help but love, and whenever that sort of character shows up, whatever they’re in gets 80% better?  I do, and it’s the sociopath who is having fun.  I blame David Xanatos for winning my heart at a tender age but really, it’s more than that.  The Dark Night is my go to for a feel good movie because, let’s face it, it’s great to watch somebody who is good at what they do work and enjoy it.

Which is why everybody everywhere should stop what they’re doing right now and go watch Luther.  It’s a six episode BBC series about a brilliant police detective with a strong moral code and a bad temper.  That’s nice.  What it’s really about are sociopaths.  Some of them are having fun.  Some of them really aren’t.  And some of them aren’t actually sociopaths despite their best imitations, which makes them dramatically more dangerous.

Oh, and did I mention that the first episode’s featured sociopath is fabulous and, rather unconventionally, female?

Review continues, with spoilers, below.

Continue reading “I Love Sociopaths Because They Can’t Love Themselves”

Games I love: Age of Steam

One of the beautiful features of being a modern adult is that we still play games, not sports, but games.  There are multiple industries dedicated to giving us games to play.  I like games – being a grownup is awesome.

My current game obsession is with Age of Steam.  The premise as that it’s early days for the railroad industry, and you’re a would-be tycoon trying to make it big.  It then proceeds to be the most soul crushingly accurate rendition of running a start-up I have ever encountered in a game.  This makes my logistical-planner brain happy on levels I can’t describe.  You (realistically) start off in debt, and go into more before the game is over.  There is no paying that debt back – it will haunt you forever.  Just like with a real company.

Masochistic obsessions with realism aside, the mechanics design in this game is a testament to balance.  It plays 3-6, but the game is radically different depending on how many people are playing.  More players shortens the number of turns which is great both for time management and because the board fills up much faster.  That dramatically changes the scope and nature of your planning.  My biggest hurdle in mastering this game was my tendency to plan for the very long term health of my railroad, meaning I haven’t optimized by the time the game is over and I’m in second again.  With more people in the game, the immediate, short term stakes are much more important.

This game is not quick, and it is not gentle, so this is not a good party game (unless you’re partying at my house – my parties are strange).  But it’s worth having just so you can make an event of it.  Six people, some hors d’ouvres, and 3-4 hours will give you an experience you won’t soon forget.  And if they’re the right six people, it’ll be a fabulously positive one.

Disney and Harriet the Spy

I’ve been in the magical world of Disney for a couple days now.  My feet ache, I’ve met my sun exposure quota for the decade, and my pores are oozing sun block.  But the food is excellent, the company fabulous, and I found a way to make money this week.  I win.

My only real complaint is that the environment is so consistently imposing saccharine, wish-fulfillment magical thinking on me that I feel like I’m being mugged by Walt Disney and force fed sugar-coated, pink pony roofies.  My childhood obsession with the Little Mermaid is no secret, and I’m not ashamed of it, but I have serious issues with the Disney world view, even when you don’t dig into the misogynistic, WASPy, cultural appropriation blah blah blah.  Even on the surface, it’s problematic.  The movie I was into as a kid didn’t have a whole lot to do with the actual movie – I couldn’t care less about coming of age, finding your place in the world, or helping my parents accept that I’d grown into my own person – I wanted out, and badly.  Do me a favor and picture baby Anaea, gussed up in pink Ariel paraphernalia, and cosplaying the entire movie, but in reverse because Sebastian had it right, life on land sucked.  I’ll still be here when you’re done laughing.

The problem with the Disney package is that its so utterly divorced from reality that any halfway observant kid is either going to shoehorn the content into something else, or have their suspension of disbelief utterly shattered.  I think that’s why the Lion King never did it for me – it’s about going back to the bad place you ran away from and having everything work out great.  Uhm…not in any reality I’d ever seen, and there was no way to fix it.

Allow me to take a moment to over share a bit. The last, (probably only) book to make me cry was Harriet the Spy. I read it on the advice of my fourth grade teacher, who made several insightful (pointed) book recommendations that year.

For those of you who haven’t read it, Harriet the Spy is a book about a young girl who is different in that subtle sort of way that leaves you utterly isolated from your peers, deprecatingly-indulged by well intentioned adults, and in her case, fairly neglected by her parents. She wants to be a writer when she grows up, so she keeps a journal where she records thoughts and observations. And her semblance of a functioning social life is shattered when a classmate steals the journal and shares its contents with her classmates. Harriet gets sent to therapy and…I must confess, I don’t remember much past that point, I was too busy feeling utterly traumatized to form memories.  Maybe it did sell out at the end and I’ve blocked it.

You see, I was Harriet.

I remember the parallels as the book opened being terrifying (and wondering what “fink” meant), because it was touching so close to truth, and I was sure I’d get betrayed.  Then it kept right on being honest.  This book connected with me in a way literally no other book ever has, and it’s probably the reason I made it out of the fourth grade. You see, before Harriet the Spy, there was nobody else in all the world like me.  Ariel had been great and all, but sea witches are hard to find these days.  With Harriet, I knew there were enough people like me that somebody wrote a book about it, somebody else published it, and enough people talked about it that my fourth grade teacher in the middle of backwoods nowhere, before the internet, heard about it and suggested I get a copy. This implied that childhood would not, as it appeared to be near doing, kill me.  Maybe if I waited long enough, I’d get a chance to do something desperate and get out.

There were other books in later years that gave me similar validation, a reassurance that I wasn’t original, or alone, but Harriet the Spy was the first, and I spent an hour on my parent’s living room couch, frightened my mother would come in and I’d have to explain why her stoic daughter was a weeping puddle, and frightened that if I went to hide in my room it would prompt her to check on me.  I couldn’t begin to explain to her why that book upset me so much.

Last weekend, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote in the WSJ about how much grittier YA has gotten in the last forty years.  She’s upset because foul language, rape, incest, drug abuse, and mental illness are upsetting and, by showcasing them to youth in literature, we risk harming them.  She’s lost her mind.  More precisely, she’s out of touch with the audience she ostensibly represents as a YA reviewer.  Maybe she was a happy child who had everything go well for her.  Perhaps ponies and rainbows were all she needed to feel right with the world.  Good for her.  You can still find all of that in YA, and if that’s not enough, I’m sitting in the Mecca of synthesized sweetness and innocence.  She could move here.  I needed Harriet.  And Valentine Michael Smith.  And Dagny Taggart.  I needed things that could tell me I was okay in the world, by showing me a believable world.  Foul language, rape, incest, drug abuse and mental illness…yeah, that sounds like the world to me.  Wishing hard enough?  Sorry, not to this audience.


After four years of living in Madison, I finally made it to WisCon for the first time.  Up to this year it’s just never been in the cards for one reason or another, and I never thought much about it because, hey, there’s always next year.  This time around I realized that, actually, I’m cursed and was never meant to make it there.  I figured this out around 6:45 EST last Thursday, when Frontier told me that my flight was delayed and they probably couldn’t get me back to Madison until Saturday.  As it turns out, I was not the only person nearly trapped in New York and trying to get to the con, and as far as I know, we all made it by begging rides from Milwaukee off various friends.  What this meant was that the night I had set aside for sleeping between visiting my sister for her graduation and the con was instead spent watching for cops hiding among the rabid orange cones of Jefferson County on my way home from Milwaukee. (Oh yeah, Wisconsin is broke – that’s why they’re completely redoing the highway again)

To summarize a very full 3 days, WisCon kicked ass.  Walking in, I knew approximately four people there in the flesh, and maybe a dozen more via the magical interwebs.  Once I got there it turned out I knew a few more from my occupying the Capitol, which I really should have expected but hadn’t.

The panels were, I am sure, uniformly brilliant and spectacular; in a complete reversal of my prior con attendance habits, barely made it to any panels because I was distracted by actual interaction with people.  I’m okay with this.  I did make it to the panel about the protests, after much trepidation over whether or not I should go.  Ultimately I went hoping that it would either be a discussion for locals about ongoing strategy, or an info session for non-locals to explain the messy details (which I could then steal from for my own explaining purposes).  Instead it was mostly locals venting to each other and patting each other on the back.  It seemed to work for most people, but I regret skipping the Military SF panel for it.  I also went to the Dr. Who panel where I had a great time.  Killed much time after the panel disagreeing with people, which is always fun.

As I was badly sleep deprived and either on the verge of developing a cold or suffering from the local flora’s unmannered breeding habits (I still can’t tell which) I spent most of the con wondering where my words went.  I think I burned my limited wit quota Friday night when I gave a command performance of the Epic of Gilgamesh in 7 Minutes or Less at the FogCon party.  The audience was good, I ran over time, and somebody threatened to make me do it as a panel at FogCon II.  I suspect between con-madness and FogCon mead he won’t remember my name and nobody else will be subjected to my rendering of conversation between Gilgamesh and Enkidu with only the word, “dude.”  Otherwise, I’ll have to figure out how to do the Ramayana in under ten minutes.

I definitely have going back on my calendar for Memorial Day next year.  Maybe next time I’ll, I don’t know, not leave the state immediately beforehand.  And I’ll definitely plan differently so I can dress up for the gender floomp. (Sure my cargo pants come from the men’s section, but they’re no good for dancing in)

BTW, any of you who took bets on whether I could spend a weekend with feminists without inciting violence, you are bad people and owe me a dollar.

Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

There are lots of things in the world worth liking because their form is pretty, even if they completely lack substance or content; Easter eggs, Avatar 3D, most boquets. My weakness for pretty prose is no secret, but I’m not sure the extent to which I induldge is widely known. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to talk to you today abotu Lit Fic. Yeah, I read Lit Fic (along with everything else under the sun).  There’s not usually much in it – the genre says “character-driven” when they mean, “boring.”

This is why I was so pleasantly surprised by The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I knew Michael Chabon could turn out a pretty sentence, and I knew that lots of people really liked this particular book, some claiming it was one of those secretly genre books (it’s not), but I didn’t actually expect much from it. (Spoilers below) Continue reading “Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”

Wise Man’s Fear

‘I trouped, traveled, loved, lost, trusted and was betrayed.’  Write that down and burn it for all the good it will do you.

– The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind is, hands down and without argument, my favorite epic fantasy novel ever.  Its world building is so thorough, so developed, and so rational that I’ve handed copies to dyed-in-the-wool hard sf fans and they thanked me.  I don’t care which element of fiction is the one that draws you, this book nails it.  To repeat myself: This is the book that takes a look at where every other book in the genre goes wrong, stares hard into that abyss, then cackles madly as it skips away. It’s not perfect, but nobody cares.

So it’s sequel had a lot to live up to.  It did not break my heart.  It did not disappoint.  If, somehow, you’ve read Name of the Wind and haven’t yet picked up The Wise Man’s Fear, go do that.  Don’t be afraid, it’s safe.  If you haven’t read either, I do not care what your preferred genre is, (unless you don’t read fiction) go get both of them.

Rampant spoilers below the jump. Continue reading “Wise Man’s Fear”

The 100,000 Kingdoms

I just finished N. K. Jeminson’s 100,000 Kingdoms. I’ve been looking forward to reading this for a while – its description sounds like a book written for me. Having read it, I am now a little concerned about the possibility that I might someday meet N.K. Jeminson. (I actually could, we’re on at least one privateish mailing list together) The reason I worry about this is because depending on how effective my censors are that day, the conversation could very well go like this.

Me: Hi!
Nora: Hello.
Me: If I eat your liver, will I absorb your powers?
Nora: What?
Me: I want your prose. Is your prose-power centered in your liver?
Nora: Are those fava beans?

You see, there are some books where, as I read them, I get completely distracted by how very, very jealous I am of how very, very gorgeous they are. I can cope with this perfectly well for the books where their only redeeming quality is that the prose is pretty. Nice writing isn’t enough to make a book worth reading. But then you run into books where they’ve got everything else going on too, rich characters, a fascinating world, a plot rife with deep conflict and high emotion that doesn’t touch on melodrama, and, well, I get a little jealous. Or a lot jealous. Gone with the Wind took me two months to read, because I kept having to stop and figure out where Margaret Mitchell is buried.

At least with The 100,000 Kingdoms I was so busy loving every bit of it while I was reading that it wasn’t until I stopped reading to do things like brush my teeth or go to work that I realized there really was only one acceptable ending for the book (which it delivered beautifully) and that I’m a deeply, deeply twisted person. Yeah, this was a book so engrossing that the only reason I called any of the reveals was that I was responsible and went to sleep in time to be a coherent person at work. That doesn’t happen very often. I mentioned immersive reader mode when talking about the Vinge stuff – I was still in it a good hour after I finished the book.

And that’s all I’m going to tell you about it. Because I could give you all sorts of details, but I wouldn’t do it nearly as well. And it’s fairly short, so when it eats your soul, at least you’ll get it back soon.

Julian Comstock

I finished Julian Comstock last week. I was really looking forward to it, both because it was highly lauded last year, and because I utterly adored Spin. I have an incredible weakness for stories that are slow and simple, building up to a climax that is astonishing, wonderful and a bit surreal. Howl’s Moving Castle the movie is an easy example of doing that perfectly, and if you’ve got a few more hours, so is Spin. Which is why, a week later, I’m still bummed that I didn’t adore Julain Comstock.

Below this line, I spoil setting, characters and premise. I saved the lj-cut to hide spoilers about the ending.

The subtitle is A story of 21st Century America, and herein lies what was probably the biggest problem for me with the book. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future where society collapsed with the loss of oil and a Christian fundie church based out of Colorado Springs has risen to power over a US that includes Canada, and looks more like Imperial Rome than its republican predecessor. In short, a frighteningly plausible future for a tale of (mis-)adventure and coming of age. Yet it feels extraordinarily 19th century, from the way movies have deteriorated into a combination of film reels and live performances, to the language that reads like a 19th century novel written with modern sensibilities. This was definitely done on purpose, and it was done well, but it’s a choice that made it extremely hard for me to get into the book. I wanted it to be alternate history instead – which would have savaged the plot as is – and it consistently insisted on being set in the future.

The prose style wouldn’t have been quite so frustrating if the 19th century tropes hadn’t affected the plot, especially early on. All of our introductions to the Dominion church read like familiar lampooning recycled from Twain et al, and I found myself getting frustrated that there was nothing new there, no added depth. The matching to 19th century standard went so far as to include widespread illiteracy among the lower classes, despite being just a handful of generations away from current times, with a major Protestant church in power. If Catholics had taken over, I’d be able to buy it, but Protestants have always been a force for literacy, what with people needing to be able to read the bible so they know which parts to quote out of context what to believe.

In short, I spent a lot of the book distracted by needing to nit-pick the scenery, which was a problem.

Another major problem for the book, at least for me, was that it’s meant to be funny. And it was, starting around page 200. Up to that point most of the humor was at the exclusive expense of Adam, the narrator, but it didn’t quite make it past the “frustratingly naive” standard and into “amusingly naive” territory until well into the narrative. Once it got funny, it got quite funny – everything with Otis (a giraffe living in Central Park) was fabulous, and Calyxia (Adam’s rebellious, Québécois wife) was a gem. When I say funny, I mean giggling by myself in a restaurant, face-palming on a plane funny. It’s possible that it just took me 200 pages to get over the prose kicking me and it was funny the whole time. If so, I’m very sad the prose kicked me that long.

Why did I keep reading it when I was halfway before it hooked me and found most things up to that point annoying? Well, it’s got to do with the other problem I had with this book: It felt an awful lot like Spin. I was hoping for another slow build to stunning climax. I got a gesture toward that. I also got another story about an unusually intelligent, powerful, enigmatic man Vague spoilers for the ending