Thursday, March 5, 2015

The foreskin of your heart

They will beat their swords into plougshares
Isaiah 2:4

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.
Deuteronomy 10:16

I read a piece in the New Yorker over breakfast about a group of activists I have known about for years and not paid enough heed to. They live in poverty, serve those in need, and break into US nuclear installations to protest nuclear weapons' threat to the human race. Many of them are Catholic priests and nuns, and many of their leaders are over the age of fifty, as far as I can tell.

My reaction is not really about this article. This article is just a flashpoint, igniting a magazine of old powder.

When you read this post, you'll think I've been possessed by a ghost out of the era of settlement houses. This is not new thinking. But blow off the dust and listen anyway.

But these people, who spend their hours and days on this earth in service, are the kind of human beings I look up to. These are the kind of people I have known for a long time I should be like. Faith helps them accomplish what seems to me like a mammoth task: reconciling personal desires with social needs.

I am not a Christian, and I will never be a Christian. I also have no problems with atheists. If you are able to take action and be strong without an object of faith, then I am just as impressed by you. I used to be an atheist myself. I am neither an atheist nor a believer now. The word agnostic is not a correct characterization either. I don't have a word. I am in in the middle of a long time of transition, and I do not know what the result of that transition will be.

In the United States, during the time I have been alive, mainstream cultural trends have encouraged us and provided us with excuses not to value un-cosmetic sincerity, to view solid faith in something intangible, unprovable, and at times injurious, as evidence of lack of intelligence and critical insight, rather than evidence of discipline and a source of strength in solitary suffering.

But reconciling one's self with social needs, rising above personal discomfort and even agony . . . that's hard. And it helps to have faith to turn to in your suffering. Faith may give your suffering meaning, or may, even better, be an analgesic to ease the pain. It may give you company in isolation, lift you up when you are falling, be a bridge to sanity when you begin to lose your grip, and free you when you are captive.

Faith has become associated, in the United States and in other places as well, with small-minded people and groups who do things like hamper gay rights, prevent women from accessing healthcare, campaign against governmentally-supported social safety nets, or tell other people how to live their lives. Or blow people up. (Although I'd tempted to argue that faith is a tool of power in those instances, really I have no idea). It has been portrayed as no more than a tool to blind and placate those who might otherwise rise up in their own defense.

When we feel faith, we learn to be afraid of going crazy, of losing touch with reality, or being viewed as having done so. We learn to be afraid of becoming so devoted to an ideal that we cross over into violence, metaphorical or literal, forcing our ideas one way or another onto other human beings, and hurting other people.

We have learned to value comfort. We learn that it is acceptable to want what we think is reasonable—a well-paying job, a satisfying sex life, a secure retirement, some treats of one kind or another—and frankly, for folks who have spent their lives having very little, I think that reaction IS reasonable. For folks raised in comfort, coddled and protected, it is evidence of weakness and sloth, and I indict myself in that.

We whine, internally or externally, when we do not have the things we want. We justify allowing ourselves small and big luxuries when people in this world are starving, and some of the agencies trying to help them are ineffective. We see people in those fields, especially young people but also older folks, accepting low pay, long hours, and a lack of both short and long-term security, and maybe not even effectively supporting the action and service they give their lives to, in organizations that are or become unworthy of their devotion. We watch people come out of the nonprofit industrial complex1 in the States or abroad disillusioned and disempowered. And looking at these examples, valuing our comfort, afraid of suffering, afraid to lose our relationships with people outside of that world, we speak big and act little. It's hard to be a bridge between “normal” people and people absolutely committed to a mission and a goal. It's difficult to be brave when you are young, when you have been protected and kept comfortable, when you feel you have so many things to lose.

In my weakness I seek out personal comfort and indulge my fear and laziness.

I watch others labor in obscurity, suffering, at great personal cost, for the good of the most vulnerable of us and for the human race as a whole.

The individuals in Plowshares, and many other activists and advocates around the world, are human beings who, even in their worst moments of adversity, have tried  to help other human beings, through service, protests, or legal action.
They work to hone themselves into tools for making positive change in the world.
There are many brave young people, but I am overawed by the wisdom and toughness available to older folks who have gained wisdom and insight from other people and their own experiences. I am not so young anymore.

And I look at myself periodically, make excuses and give into fear. I cling to things and activities, and the people associated with them.

My battle would be different from the battle of Plowshares. Nuclear weapons are one of many threats. It is hard to choose. There are so many battles, and they all seem related, tangled together like spaghetti. 

I am not ready to walk away from what I have now to do this. I know there must be a middle way, and one that can make use of the skills and connections I have.

I don't know where to start, or how much I have to learn to give up.

Or perhaps that's just a rationalization.

Maybe taking this conversation outside of my head will get it somewhere.

I want to be alive so I can live up to my potential by using it for what it should be used for.

1(Although nonprofits, or NGOs as they are called elsewhere, have  a special role in the US, a place where there is a long tradition of relegating social service and advocacy activities to independent organizations, frequently missionary ones. It comes out of the perhaps overrated American preference for self-reliance and independence which helps to both fragment our nation, and give it openings to move forward in one region when another remains stuck in a previous era. The lack of federal oversight helps to make school funding and other social provision terrible in some places, but also has made possible the slow legalization of abortion, interracial marriage, and gay marriage. But I digress.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Culture, humor, and pain in majority-male cultures

This is not a response to any single event or conversation. It sprang fully formed from my brain this past weekend, fertilized by many years of input. Hence I am sharing it now.

The goals of this piece are:
To make unconsciously learned or instinctive cultural behaviors visible
To make the intercultural effects of those behaviors visible
To encourage self-assessment, introspection, and dialogue among readers

Please pass it on. It is written in somewhat pedantic language, so you may need to "translate" it.


1) Not de-norming or making value judgements
In this piece I am not going to characterize any individual, behavior, or group as anything -ist. I do understand the importance of de-norming injurious viewpoints and behaviors, and I am not an apologist. But because my goal with this piece is to encourage self-assessment and dialogue, and labeling folks' behaviors is likely to cause them to become defensive and stop listening or thinking, I think it is important in this argument to start from a place of description.

2) Duplication and nomenclature
I have not done any research to find out whether anyone else has come to the same conclusions I have. I am likely duplicating the work of any number of sociologists, cultural theorists, anthropologists, cross-cultural specialists, and psychologists. I may not be using the right terms for things despite some acquaintance with anthropology. However, I am writing this anyway.

3) Model
I am using majority male cultures as a model here. However, this model could be adapted, with appropriate adjustments, to other circumstances. To be honest, I do not know enough about majority female cultures to comment on them or their characteristics.

The uses of humor in multiple western male cultures

Why western?
Because although these principles may be applicable outside of the cultures dominant in North America and Europe (and I am pretty sure they are, including in some non-dominant cultures in those regions), I am not confident of my knowledge, so I'm circumscribing the argument in this way.

Who am I to write this?
I am both an insider and an outsider in male culture, as a member of a different gender the majority of whose social interactions, acquaintanceships, and close friendships have taken place in mostly male subcultures. This positions me well for an anthropological assessment.

Important note:
This assessement does not necessarily apply to all males. However, just as one can talk about American society although individual Americans may not all reflect cultural trends, so too one can talk about cultural trends in a male culture without taking into account all males.

Description. A tool used in multiple ways.
Some hurtful humor is not intended by its interlocutors as an attack. Instead, they may be functioning within a cultural context that may not be shared with their listeners. This description aims to raise their awareness so they can make sure what they say is consistent with their expressed values.

1) Community norming and toughening the young: "You've got a lot to learn, young Jedi"
Norming. When new individuals join communities, they are exposed to a lot of norming behavior from existing members of those communities. The intent of this behavior is to help these metaphorical neonates to acculturate and adapt to community expectations, or to enforce their compliance.
Training. In socially supportive communities, elders often engage in similar activity with the goal of preparing juveniles for successful lives in the adult world. Members of subcultures or minority cultures often feel intimidated by what they experience as the dominant culture; thus a higher premium is placed on preparing juveniles to defend themselves.
Selection. Individuals engaging in community reception or elder mentoring may also consciously or unconsciously be weeding out the "weak" perceived to not be worthy of their effort or of membership in their communities.

2) Strength testing and dominance behavior: Building social hierarchies
When two males encounter each other, they may engage in dominance behavior to determine which of the two has or will have a senior position in the social hierarchy. This is true of other animals as well as humans. "Teabagging" an opponent in an online game is one example of this kind of behavior.
3) Expressing affection: "We can do this because we are us"
Just as males may punch each other on the arm to express affection, so too aggressive language may be used to reinforce an existing bond, indicating that even normally confrontational behavior is unimportant among comrades.

4) Blowing off steam: "Pants off"
The demoscene, a computer arts subculture, has a concept of "pants off" -- like watching football in one's underwear, a context in which one can relax. This is relevant to other circumstances in which a recreation period follows one of intense stress and effort. Playfighting also fits into this category.

5) Self-defense / demonstrating superiority in  a position of insecurity

Classic example: geek or nerd intelligently insulting dumb jock in a movie. Omega males also try to do or successfully do this in real life; so do other vulnerable individuals and communities.

6) Expressing fear
This can be fear of an "other" or fear of what oneself is doing, and be used to defuse a situation.

Potential effects of humor that may not be considered by members of majority or dominant groups
When a member of a historically dominant group makes a joke to or at a member of a historically vulnerable group in a way that refers to the second individual's status, this may be intended within the context of one of the concepts described above. However, the meaning that will come across is most likely to be "You are less human than I am, and you are beneath me."
If an individual or an organization has specific goals or values, what goals or values would expressing this message reinforce?

Is what you say and how you act consistent with your values? Are you aware of intercultural differences that may result in what you say not expressing what you mean?

Take this not as an accusation, but as a call to brains (instead of a call to arms).
You are capable of more than you realize.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A marvellous illusion! A terrible surprise! : short sf about moments of realization

Most of this is recent. And this list is not exhaustive (partially because it only includes stories freely available online).

This is some of my favorite sf of the past several years . . . and a bit longer.

The Water That Falls On You from Nowhere, John Chu

Safety Tests, Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Skin In the Game, Sabrina Vourvoulias

The Best We Can, Carrie Vaughn

Exhalation, Ted Chiang

Cookie Monster, Vernor Vinge

Real Artists, Ken Liu

Breakaway, Backdown, James Patrick Kelly

Heaven Under Earth, Ailette de Bodard

Seventy-two letters, Ted Chiang

Arbeitskraft, Nick Mamatas

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Internet flamewars do not matter.

This is my view on internet flamewars. I have lost friends over it. I have effectively left a community over it. That sucks but it is life. 1) Do not engage with trolls. 2) Do not argue with folks who try to give you feedback. 3) Do not rush to defend those you care about. Instead: 1) Disengage. 2) Listen or ignore. 3) Encourage those you care about to do the same. Contact them in private; do not ignore them as you ignore events--I have made that mistake.

Social justice matters. Internet flamewars do not matter. Act in the real world. Every petition I sign, every word I say online means nothing. What I do in the real world matters. Important arguments can be had over time. They do not need to happen in an instant.

We are all flawed human beings. Be a critical thinker. Challenge yourself, and challenge those you care about. In private, if need be. If you cannot challenge someone, you cannot be close to them. And if you cannot take their challenges, you cannot be close to them either. What happens in private is as important as what happens in public. What happens in the real world is more important than what happens on a screen.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Fear and education: some slightly disorganized thinking about the big picture

 Will . . . computing once again become a task for underpaid young women like those who were the first "computers"?

History is a mosaic of biographies. No one piece will give you the whole picture, but a dataset can. Google the search term "social history" and you'll see what I mean. Look up Surviving Poverty In Medieval Paris (that I am very pleased to see, unusually for an academic book, is still in print and has gone into paperback), and explore how it draws comparisons between the lives of families struggling on "workfare" in 1990s America and those of the children, people with disabilities,  and women supporting each other in the fourteenth century. Or see how economic mobility was crushed by the rise of the guilds and the disempowerment of wives and journeymen in Women And Gender in Early Modern Europe (ed. Merry Wiesner, 2nd ed).

Promo ad for The Tudors, a series on HBO

But if history is entertainment, merely a market sector created to churn out meticulous accounts of five-hundred-year-old martial infidelities, duels, and weddings that could, with a few changes, just as easily appear in People magazine today, who gains?

Those who benefit from a population without critical thinking skills.


This past September on Metafilter I heard about a program in the category of educational experiences now referred to as a "hack school" or "dev bootcamp".
It is called Hackbright Academy, and is open only to women.

Ensemble, repensons le monde. Croisons l'art avec la technologie. La recherche culturelle avec la consience sociale. (Together, rethinking the world. Crossing art with technology. Cultural research with a social conscience.) Technology as pretext for art and pathway to solving social problems. Note the video game controllers in the figures' hands. An advertisement for Concordia University in Montreal's Design and Computation Arts Program from the Montreal metro, November 2013.
 I asked some of my multitude of friends who are actually working developers what they thought of the idea and they said it was laughable and not a good investment.

Two other students (both women) who I spoke with at the Ruby training I attended last year were telling me about how they yearned for geographic flexibility and a level of self-sufficiency that non-technical workers are less able to cultivate in a tight job market.

Around the same time I heard about Hackbright last fall, the New York Times covered a similar school founded in Paris, 42, this one aimed at students who don't have access to the lycées that, to make a gross oversimplification, are something like France's equivalent of Ivy League universities.

It is old news (or ought to be) that there is a tiered system of education in the United States too; community colleges and for-profit vocational schools like DeVry and ITT Tech versus state schools and "safety schools" versus the selective liberal arts colleges and research universities that always seem to rise to the top of the rankings in US News and World Report.


Did you know that folks going to school on the GI Bill after the Korean War could end up studying at places like Duke University, and go from being the sons of machinists and policemen who work in box and glue factories to being tenured philosophy professors?

Did you know that the children of immigrants, the first in their families to go to college, could attend a public university in California for a mere $75 a semester, come in being told to be lawyers and come out anthropologists?

I'm pleased to see that a critique of the rising inequality of the United States has finally made it into the likes of Newsweek . . .


Six months after I learned about 42 and Hackbright, reports that California is requiring that the "hack schools" in its jurisdiction be regulated to prevent fraud raised ire from the same kinds of folks who vote ambitious venture capitalists just graduating from business school onto town councils of places where moneyed transplants and large corporations are remaking the landscape.

And perhaps licensing money motivates California, but to say that money, or the beckoning spectre of it, doesn't motivate those who cry foul would be a libertarian bedtime story. It certainly motivated those defending Bush-era tax cuts they would never benefit from. Complicated relationships between money and governance go back to the days of the gonfaloniere and before.

What I don't see discussed in the business and tech articles now covering this phenomenon is the economic impact of all of these "hack schools", as some stories call them.

People come in with dreams -- not just of paying jobs where those are scarce on the ground, but of economic security in an era of adjuncthood, of contracting, outsourcing, downsizing, and stagnant real wages that began around the time I was born and has lasted for my entire life, an era that lasted through the dot-com boom for all workers except tech workers, who only after the crash began to feel the pinch.

People come into the "hack schools" dreaming of choice. They want a choice of where to live and who to work for, a choice that comes of having skills in demand. They want to be free of abusive bosses and demeaning work environments. They want self-respect and good treatment that will be reinforced by society's view of them as intelligent people, as worthwhile citizens. Often they want to be in a position to give back, to save the world, to change the world, to create, too. All of these dreams are caught up in computers, in access to technology and choice, agency and respect.

Will the "hack schools" merely accelerate the deskilling of a still comparatively well-paid and secure occupation, assisted by new tools, frameworks, libraries, CMSes, and similar? Will the dawn of personal computing, when the young white male "geniuses" of Silicon Valley emerged from their mythical garages to cries of adulation from the press, come to seem ridiculous as computing becomes once again a task for underpaid young women like those who were some of the first "computers", assisting at Bletchley Park and BRL during the Second World War?

After all, this is a field already threatened by outsourcing, historically occupied (and ferociously defended with the the tools of sexism and racism) by middle class white men. It is becoming even in the US a poorly paid occupation for guest workers with few rights, or locals who fill up A+ Certification classes at for-profits like ITT Tech, and don't have the luxury of time and money to spend on learning concepts as well as specific technologies. 

Several "hack school" programs have said things along the lines of expecting 60 to 90 hour weeks of their students. Perhaps this is not just a requirement of a time-constricted curriculum, but a preparation for a caffeinated culture and the all-or-nothing, crunchtime or layoff world of the tech workplace, seen especially in game development, for example? The kind of brutal intitation experienced by medical students and engineers, a way to weed out the women, people with disabilities, and anyone considered "unworthy" to earn a decent wage?

A worker with freedom of choice is threatening to most employers. Pay is not just about scarcity or complexity of skills but prestige. The framing of work and workflows shape how workers move in the marketplace. Control prestige, supply, and framing and you control your workforce.

I am not a student of the history of architecture, but I wonder if it is significant that minimalist design came in after the revolution in Russia, after a first Gilded Age (we are now in the second) marked by violent strikes, as labor movements grew strong and union jobs became a reality for at least white male workers in the vocations . . . for a time. Perhaps the intricate architectural ornamentation of 19th century buildings was a factor of the powerlessness of journeymen as much as any design trend. I'm sure someone has written a thesis on this topic . . .

The computer changes labor because telepresence and communication at a distance are possible, automation is possible, easy access to information is possible, detailed statistics are possible. And as knowledge becomes disposable, either quantifiable and thus crystalizable, or unquantifiable and thus uncapturable, the worker becomes disposable as well. The worker becomes an interchangeable part, just like the parts of the Model T (cf the essay "The Spectre of Uselessness" by Richard Sennett in The Culture of the New Capitalism).

Perhaps all the gold miners all rushing to Alaska are signs of an end, rather than a beginning.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Chattopadhyay's Recentering and the logistics of dissemination

"the opening of the critical discourse would in turn lead to a greater demand for, and increase in the amount of, translated literature available. New technologies—crowdsourcing, for instance—can be used to sustain a translation industry."
- from "Recentering Science Fiction and the Fantastic: What would a non-Anglocentric understanding of science fiction and fantasy look like?" By Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay

Chattopadhyay's remarkable article suggests approaches to scholarship, criticism, and potentially distribution of what I am going to call imaginative literatures in this post across languages. There's a lot to digest here, and I am still digesting it. What I have to say may be uninformed and unoriginal. But in admiration for this work of scholarship, I find myself wondering how to help realize one of its proposals . . . which may already have been realized. This may be a silly thing to muse about, or to think about the way I am thinking about it.

I don't know enough about business, about political science, and about managing people or working in collectivist organizations to fully grasp the hurdles such an organization like the one this article makes me imagine would face.

But I do perceive opportunities and potential, and hope that by sharing these thoughts (and I cannot be the only person to have had this reaction) others who do have that background and those skills, along with a healthy dose of self-awareness, might be able to realize it.

And of course this notion would have to be realized in a just way within the context of dynamics of power related to intersections between culture, nationality, gender and sex, language, race, physical personhood, class, religion, ethnicity, political structures, and economic structures.

  • Could something like an Imaginative Literature Translation Collective serve the translation and potentially also copyediting needs of authors from many languages and help them to get published in anglophone and other language publications, as English could serve as a bridge-language? 
  • Do templates for this kind of organization already exist?
  • What existing approaches to various kinds of projects might be applicable to an organization like this?
  • Is this kind of organization needed? 
  • Could this imaginary organization work in tandem with the efforts of bilingual and multilingual scholars promoting multilingual imaginative literature? 
  • Do authors and scholars have the time to coordinate networks of translators to facilitate crowd translation? 
  • Could this thought experiment of an organization do so without costing authors money until publication, and not much then?
  • Could it do so while recognizing in some fashion that potential authors, translators, and copyeditors may be facing, as Anil Menon very effectively put it, situations in which "career choices have a life-or-death quality", and cannot afford to give their time away for free?
  • Could it do so without becoming or being viewed as a pet project of a handful of invested people, or a means for the centralization of power in the hands of a few?
  • Could it do so without living or dying based on the ability of a few individuals to give away their time and money?
  • Could it do so without depending on grants from one or more governments and entering upon the obligations and restrictions inherent in that dependence?
  • Could it truly be a collective without descending into chaos, living up to the political implications of a non-capitalist means of organization but still support its members who live in a primarily capitalist world?
  • Could it avoid succumbing to colonialist imposition, the insertion of a intermediary organization where none is needed?
  • Could it be accountable and open to its members, sharing financial information, addressing concerns, and striving above all to help authors and translators of imaginative literature?
  • What would encourage the members of this organization to stay invested and involved?
  • How would existing publishing houses respond to authors translated in this manner?
  • What about authors who do not speak any English; what or who will facilitate their connection to publishers in other languages?
  • Would this be a non-governmental organization / nonprofit, or a business (even a business run at a loss)?
  • Could this organization make a difference for the benefit of authors during the present era of publishing?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Computer Chess

Memo to the VAX-dwelling Morlocks and their ilk: So today we saw a very strange movie called Computer Chess. I didn't know anything about it, hadn't seen the trailer, anything, but we decided to go to a movie. It was an odd hybrid of a fractured concept, decent acting, intentionally terrible production values, and some moments of abstract surrealism, and surreal verisimiltude. I thought it was some terrible indie some local guy made, then I found out that it was made in Austin, and is playing at a bunch of theatres. One of the theatre staff almost apologized for it beforehand. Which was even weirder. So there you have it. Trailer

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Argo is a well-made narcissistic propaganda film for the CIA

nk they represent the target audience. The opening shots of the film provide historical context, and encourage the viewer to identify with Iranian protesters (with a soupçon of the vicarious frisson many young Western bourgeois seem to have felt while watching the "Arab Spring" unfold), but after that, Iranians are presented in this film as a threatening, flat, undifferentiated unit, except for the Canadian ambassador's maid, Sahar, who doesn't get a personalArgo has beautiful cinematography and lighting, excellent set dressing and costumes, tight editing, and some nicely framed shots. Affleck's primary focus in this film is himself, playing Hero CIA Agent, lining himself up for some Major Award while he remains inexpressive as usual (but behind a beard this time; at least he can modulate his voice, unlike Keanu Reeves, another famous block of wood). For bonus points, he is whitewashing, or more correctly Anglowashing, Antonio Mendez (the historical Hero CIA Agent his character is based on, who is of Mexican ancestry), as is usual in Hollywood (cf Cloud Atlas, many more). We get a gratuitous shot of his carefully gym-built hairy chest at one point, to drive the point home with no subtletly whatsoever. His secondary focus is, as a unit, the group of mostly young white Americans who were extracted by the Hero CIA Agent in question, and who I found conventional, decadent, self-interested, and bourgeois in this portrayal. I thiity either, except as Noble Servant (and why the f*ck should she protect the Americans anyway?) From sharp or blank-eyed women in chadors to disheveled men in beards and army greens or suits, Iranians in this film are caricatures and set dressing, presented through the American eyes of Ben Affleck's character and American news broadcasts and pictures. Protesters' slogans aren't translated, most likely to make them threatening and unintelligible. (I found myself identifying with the protesters at the beginning more automatically than any other group, with a flashback to one of the few protests I've been in, and found myself more afraid for the men who climbed over the gate than any other character in the film. "Oh sh*t, the Americans are going to shoot them" is what actually went through my mind. This is not me waving my liberal credentials, this is saying that the film did sway me, but not in the way it intended, I think.) I think the popularity of this film, like Persepolis (which also encouraged sales of the book) has a lot to to with trying to capitalize on, and build, unrealistic American views of Iran, and build a case for war in Americans' feeble little minds, as well as bolster the reputation of the CIA, which is a secret police agency presently engaging in a secret war against Afghanistan's population via drone strikes which our saintly president refuses to talk about (although I'll give him credit for the good things he has done, and better him than Bush). I also found it interesting how the soldiers defending the embassy in the film ignored their commander's instructions not to use tear gas unless necessary (whatever that means). It was also unsettling how unsympathetically the writers and director presented him for trying to reason with the protesters. I do not know if this reflects historical events or not, but I find myself thinking of how superior officers who ordered soldiers under their command to torture let those soldiers take the full blame for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Other folks have made the same argument as me . . . Oh yes, and Argo does not exist in a vacuum I came away from this film having imbibed a political message, but not the one intended. I now have a reinforced sense that loud and physical public protest is a civic duty, and one I too often shirk.

Monday, December 10, 2012

If not now, when?

"As we sit here in these negotiations, even as we vacillate and procrastinate here, the death toll is rising. There is massive and widespread devastation. Hundreds of thousands of people have been rendered without homes. And the ordeal is far from over, as typhoon Bopha has regained some strength as it approaches another populated area in the western part of the Philippines.
Madam chair, we have never had a typhoon like Bopha, which has wreaked havoc in a part of the country that has never seen a storm like this in half a century. And heartbreaking tragedies like this are not unique to the Philippines, because the whole world, especially developing countries struggling to address poverty and achieve social and human development, confront these same realities.
Madam chair, I speak on behalf of 100 million Filipinos, a quarter of a million of whom are eking out a living working here in Qatar [as migrant labourers]. And I am making an urgent appeal, not as a negotiator, not as a leader of my delegation, but as a Filipino . . .
I appeal to the whole world, I appeal to leaders from all over the world, to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face. I appeal to ministers. The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people.
I appeal to all, please, no more delays, no more excuses. Please, let Doha be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around. Please, let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to find the will to take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?
Thank you madam chair."
--Naderev Saño, lead negotiator for the Philippines at the COP18 climate talks, Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

International SF in the Arisia films room

Scott "Kludge" Dorsey has run the Arisia Films Room for a very long time. And I do mean FILMS. Not video, not DVD -- 35mm and 16mm films, many of them hard to find, and selected with care. Because of Kludge, I saw Sleep Dealer (, a near-future sf film from Mexico which had limited if any distribution in the US. He's shown silent films and brought in an organist, even hunted down and shown works in Vitaphone format. He's even shown high-quality fan works, like the HP Lovecraft Society's Call of Cthulhu. He also gets cheesey B movies too, and art movies, and old NASA footage, so there's real variety in the schedule. And now he's bringing Baikonur (, which I am cautiously yet still VERY excited to see. I'm hoping it will take a critical perspective on colonialism and ideas of progress and empower its protagonist. We shall see. To quote the present draft of the Arisia Films program: BAIKONUR "Alexander Asochkov plays the part of a space-obsessed young man in a Kazakh nomad tribe. His family roams the desert, scavenging debris left from space launches at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and he aids them by tracking them as they fall on his radio. The law says that "anything that drops from the sky we can keep" but when a beautiful French astronaut falls to earth in a space capsule there is a question. In the end, all of his greatest dreams come true, but not in the way he expected. Variety calls it a "cross-cultural fairy tale" and it is just that, a science fiction story happening today. Beautifully photographed and magnificently acted, this film hasn't got US distribution, so this is the only place you will ever see it. In 35mm, 1 hr 35 min. Russian with English subtitles. " Showing: Friday 6pm Saturday 12:30 and perhaps even, if enough people vote for it, in the Audience Choice timeslot 9am on Sunday Want to see it? Just go to Arisia 2013, with writer guests of honor Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes. Note: the films program description is aimed at US viewers because of the location of the convention. If you live somewhere else this film has distribution and are interested, you might be able to see it in a theatre near you (it was released in Russia in 2011).

Friday, June 8, 2012

Botanicula: this is our world

Ok, I'm cheating. I haven't even finished this game and I'm writing a review. I wasn't intending to write a review. I don't write game reviews. Sometimes I'll say a sentence or so to a friend.
But I have been rendered incapable of not writing a review of Botanicula.
Here there be spoilers--if you care about that. Short version: play this game. Long version: I'll explain why.

I didn't read any reviews, just watched the teaser and character sketches. I knew I'd enjoy it, because I enjoyed Samorost 2 and Machinarium (I've played Samorost 1 as well, but wasn't as impressed). Amanita makes games I like, and even when the game itself has been simple, I've enjoyed its style. The music in Machinarium led me to Floex, a pseudonym of Tomáš Dvořák, who wrote it. His latest album, Zorya, has a track on it called Mecholup which I have left on repeat for an hour before. Gone to sleep listening it, woken up, kept listening. There aren't many songs that can claim that distinction. But I digress.
The setting is fecund, teeming with crawling and flying creatures, tiny and huge, beautiful and ugly, ridiculous and ethereal, all with their own stories, songs, idiosyncracies. And the team of main characters is just that -- a team, not an individual hero. All of them have different strengths they can bring to each challenge they collectively face.
It is a story of community, a story of not being able to go it alone. It's a 180-degree turn from Machinarium, set in a often bleak junkyard city of fading grandeur sparsely peopled by robots, with a focus on machines and machine life, and a solo hero lead. Machinarium is a story which very much feels as it if were created by young men (and the goal of the game is to save the hero's girl), but Botanicula . . . I said to my husband "there's so much grossness and cuteness, the kinds of things that would appeal to little children, the kinds of lessons that would occur to you after having kids. Somebody had a kid."
The cards that you collect over the course of your experiences in the game remind you of who you've met . . . it's like drawings from a nature walk, a reminder of where you've been, even when you change maps. I can imagine a parent asking a child to retell the story, practice recalling events in order, but even as a adult paging through the cards as their inhabitants move and make characteristic noises, I find them charming. There are so many scuttlers and creepers and buzzers, pollinating, exuding spores, breaking out of their eggs, laying eggs, bursting into song. So many sweet little details -- like the way the team says "yoohoo!" leaping across a branch, or the victory music that plays when you accomplish the first few goals. So far the puzzles haven't been very difficult, but they seem to get harder as you go along.
The environment brings together the sky and the earth, both of which we visit. They're two different worlds, but the trees bind them together, earthily alive and yet celestial, capable of miracles . . . just like the creatures who live there. The strange glowing life of the trees is the life of the things that live on them, an immanence . . . Buzzing life cycles are inescapable: the unnatural horror we encounter again and again in the stories of bereaved creatures we meet (more and more damaged as the story goes on) is balanced by the calm, even silly presentation of creatures that eat one another, or that tear apart the tree's leaves being born. Their is a natural violence, different from intentional evil.
For beneath it all is a vein of menace. The threat of the strange spectral spiders, and the evidence of their passage.
The characters we meet are emotionally engaging. Many of them, especially as the game goes on, have -- presented in terms understandable to a child -- been through truly terrible things. Worse things as the game goes on. It is a landscape of war. I've read too many stories like this, set on the planet we all live on, not to understand what I am seeing. Although Amanita's designers have the skill to defeat even this knowingness . . . .
Thinking of that makes me start to cry, even though in the game it is just something I am dimly aware of and push to the side. Everything doesn't immediately make sense when you see it; the awareness grows on you. There's an emotional range here that I have never seen in a game, innocently cheerful characters frolicking along in a landscape stained with horror.
I think there was a point where the player helps a character whose partner has been killed commit suicide. Either that, or clicking just continues the storyline to take them offscreen. I don't know. I'm not sure. But the character . . . goes away. And is reunited with the one they miss, taken away with a lot of others of their species who I imagine also having been killed by the spiders, by a great big bee acting as a metaphorical Charon. As an adult, I can't help but see death there. Then and when other characters go offscreen in certain ways. I find myself thinking of the beetle-man whose head was torn off for sport.
I didn't understand it at the time, but now I do. It's very simple, very elegantly presented. So much is ambiguous, everything said without words, said with motion, music, sound, pictures. A child who cannot yet read could understand it. And the main characters seem like children, in their wishes, at one point, when they are talking to a djinn. I think of the four questions of the seder. The four children. (Although here, there are five).
At one point in the game, we see an astronaut land on the moon. A recording of Buzz Aldrin starts, talking about "one step for man", but he is interrupted. A tentacle draws him into a crater. We see that in a wishdream granted to one of the main characters. It is ridiculous, but it is also true, almost a gloss on theodicy, or a mirror for the other horrors of the game. And I know that this isn't a throwaway moment, not in the context of the other things I saw.
If anything carries on the spirit of Sendak, of Bradbury, of the writers and artists who shaped my childhood, among those two whose recent deaths have reminded me with force of everything I had forgotten, it is this game. A game that comes face to face with wonder, and with atrocity.
If anything proves games can be an artform, it is this game. No game has even gotten at me like this (mainly because I haven't played enough IF).
I recognize this world. It is so beautiful and so painful, so painful because it is so beautiful. So painful because it holds nothing back, but presents it so simply that at first one cannot understand, like a child, but grows to understand with time.
And it is silly and endearing and hopeful at the same time.
Play this game.
EDIT: July 6, 2012. So I hid this entry after posting it because I was embarrassed, but having finished the game, I'll stand by my assessment. Its deceptive simplicity, its silliness and seriousness, make Botanicula a classic. It's breadth, inventiveness, biomimeticism, and depth of emotion make it unique in my experience of games. Maybe I haven't been playing the right games.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Brief post about "Summer Wars", excellent new film by Hosoda

This is not a well-written or incisive post, I am tired and need to get to bed ASAP, but I had fun.

Just got home from seeing the New England première of "Summer Wars", a new anime film by Mamoru Hosoda, also the director of "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time". Not sure when official release will be, but 2011 Hugo voters, add this to your lists! Yum. Q&A was even not that bad, some good questions.

Definitely sf, interesting parallels between new and old forms of social networking; a pride in Japaneseness (beautiful image of many fortified houses which won't make sense out of context, and a tracksuit sort of uncle who proudly tells tales of how their ancestors defended the land despite becoming ronin in the era of the Tokugawa shogunate) -- will also be familiar.

Despite the colorful friendly cartoon animal white background Murakami cyberspace (which he said he designed the look of to appeal to women and girls since the black background with neon stripes cybersapce is always in internetty things that appeal to boys, and the film is full of strong female characters), there is some actual as Mike says leet hackerism in this, resorting to pen and paper and even mental mathematics for some serious equations, which makes up for it.

If you've seen "WarGames" or enjoyed Neuromancer, or indeed films by Kubrick (who Hosoda names as an important influence here, and specifically named "Dr Strangelove") you'll enjoy this movie. Which also has a touch of "Real Genius" to it --- I don't know all the anime it resembles.

I don't want to say more, for all I know I've given spoilers, although I don't think so.

I will say a few things that might spoil it for you . . .

Do you want to play Global Thermonuclear War?

Really great bit later on too when they're trying to cool the supercomputer they borrowed and one of the uncles steals the ice to put around grandma to keep her cool instead, which poses a the middle of the summer in an ancient house with no electricity . . .

You have to highlight above this to see the spoiler. saving you ( :

A short entry about "Drawing with Code"

Intending to return to "Drawing with Code" at the deCordova (which is generally an excellent museum, I've never gone there and been bored); they gave us two free passes thanks to the issues with the shuttles.

Got two copies of the catalog, which at $3.95 has got to be the cheapest exhibit catalogue EVER. Nifty looking. It looks like a stack of punchcards, and except for two accordion sections, that's basically what it is. The display font is I think an old OCR one or maybe VT-100, it looks familiar anyway. I took some pictures because the museum doesn't have any pictures on their website. They'll give you as good a sense as images can taken by a lazy person using PhotoBooth on their Mac and a piece of masonite using available window light can.

There's a first page card, an essay accordion, a checklist of all works in the show (dammit I want to get ahold of those animations), then "figures" of some of the works in the show, and a last card with info on programs at the museum about the show (not mentioning the event at MIT which they do mention on the website and which I want to go to).

They were also showing a documentary on computer art published by Siggraph 1999 which I find myself wanting, but knowing Siggraph, it probably costs three SID chips and a firstborn child. Oh well, can watch it all the way through when we go back.

This is old hat to a lot of people, but to me to see the ancestors of demos in a gallery, and see ASCII art on a wall . . . . it makes my brain explode. The idea of something I just think of as fun and geekily wowzing genuinely having artistic legitimacy . . . I had inklings already for a variety of reasons, but it hadn't really hit home.

More than the events I've organized (or am organizing) in Montréal, more than @party itself and all the people showing up (which made me happy), this made me realize that I'm not wasting my time. And I can't quite articulate why yet.

I'm glad I got sucked into the demoscene before I really knew about the artistic legitimacy and history of computer art; I mean, I knew about some of the animation side of it because of what R showed and taught me, but that was it. Far different experience watching something on Youtube and standing there in a gallery. It just makes finding out that much more awesome.

I'm really looking forward to the rest of the Cyberarts Festival.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

@party invite

It came in 9th of 20 something entries at Breakpoint.

Watch it at

page on Pouet

@party results up; first photoset up; tweets; videos

Results have been up for several hours on the website

Oxygenstar's photoset

9:33 PM Jun 19th djphiliptan

10:02 PM Jun 19th djphiliptan

10:37 PM Jun 19th djphiliptan





Jimmy the Horn


Jason Scott


Nick Montfort's blog


Video from GAMBIT Game Lab group member

Video from Oxygenstar

Archived live stream from Saturday night (forgot to hit record Friday, but jscott got that)

Live stream of Sigflup's @party entry "I'll Bring the Beer", with audience reaction.

Somerville Open Studios 2010: A fun first wander for me!

Spent most of yesterday (once I was functional) at Somerville Open Studios, for the first time. There are maps available on the street in colorful holders at various locations around town. You walk around the town and see various artists' work. It is free to enter all of the exhibition spaces -- whether they be in homes or art centres, there is a free shuttle as well (although we walked -- good exercise but murder on my left knee and feet in the sandals I wore by misjudgement), and many folks have little bowls of munchies. Tashari chose the places we went -- Mike's been before, but he had no preference -- and Mike and I ended up walking not only from home to Davis to meet her, but as far as Union Square, and all over, from noon to 6 or so. Amethystmoon gave us a ride home from our last stop, at a potluck for a new project and teaching space called Artists' Asylum (no website yet) which will have equipment ranging from soldering irons, sewing machines, and jewelry-making tools to a C&C router (they already have the router), drill presses, and the like. Saw bits of Somerville I'd never been to before, and got to visit Reliable Market, a spiffy Korean grocery store, where I got my contributions to the Artists' Asylum potluck (which had lovely food) and Tashari bought me my birthday present, a pair (two sets) of the flat metal Korean chopsticks I've been trying to find again ever since I dated Argonaut (I'll use the code name since none of you will know who he is and he shares a name with someone else I know) back in the spring of 2003.

I intend to visit 1 sometime today, the studio/apartment of friends of Tashari's who live not far from us -- Sydney Hardin (who I've met at Tashari's parties, I suddenly realize) and Eric Herot. It was one of Sydney's works at the Somerville Museum group show that encouraged me to do so -- a painting of Sarah Palin as a blow-up lovedoll against a waving American flag. The workmanship was astounding -- the curves of the plastic painted in a style strongly reminiscent of Lichtenstein, but a content and conception entirely fresh and new (to me at least). I linked her name to her website above--some of the content is, as might be gathered from the URL, entirely NSFW.

Yesterday we visited a tiny fraction of the community-wide exhibition, moving across the map from west to east. If I were rich, I would have bought several pieces. As it is, there are one or two low-priced very small landscapes and gouache pieces I looked at seriously as gifts, but I'm still not sure if I'll get them. Wish we had R with us, he would have enjoyed himself. : (

25 and 26 are right by each other. Tashari sells supplies to many of the people at 26, so she had a fun time talking to them. My favorites there were Kent Vienot, who does cartographically inspired prints with engaging detail and color choices, and Jane Goldman, whose watercolor and printmaking work were, impressively, almost indistingusihable, and who was doing very interesting things with shadows.

Then, because I'd never been before, Sarah brought us to 15, Museum of Modern Renaissance, by Nicholas Shaplyko, and my brains exploded. Besides the obvious influence of Russian church and folkloric art, their most recent pieces have a Mesoamerican influence. Tashari and Mike don't like it very much with the smooth gradients and too many colors, but I was in absolute heaven, and I intend to attend the concert there on May 8 (need to find and double check the flyer) somehow -- Gypsy violinists and dancers + old Masonic hall turned into what feels like a church of art = fun. There are fantastical creatures everywhere, the influence of Russian ikons, of William Blake, and in recent work, as I said of Mesoamerican glyphs and monuments -- everywhere. Delicious. I was enthusing about it for ten minutes after we left.

We proceeded to 43, which I also enjoyed, specifically the work of Bekka Teerlink, who I told about Arisia and Boskone and strongly suggested that she exhibit there, saying "I can see your book on YA sf novels, you could sell to publishers, you really need to get it under editors' eyes" -- and I meant it too. There was a painting that even had the perfect place for a spine to go in its middle, not because it was any less detailed, but just because of its layout. She's the person whose mini-landscapes I wish to buy. Her best work isn't online, but I grabbed a few of her postcards with a truly standout surreal painting of a little blond girl in a frilly pink dress leading an iguana on a leash, standing motionless at the edge of a field full of oil derricks. It is the kind of painting that looks as if it ought to go with a novel; all of her large works are. She is technically skilled but imaginative as well . . . very excited to discover her. Maybe I'll be bad and go back today and get one of those little landscapes, just for me. Yow.

It is around now that it becomes clear that genre work has spoiled me; I tend to get bored by paintings with no fantastical element. Well, I lie because plenty of the work I found interesting or well-executed yesterday isn't fantastical, but a lot of it is . . . strange.

We next visited 55, Bill Chisholm. He is very good at portraying volume and weight; found his avocados (with evocative pallette-knife work), mushrooms, and onions ( good treatment of skin fissures) most satisfying. Had a nip of wine, too, which served to quiet my bothersome knee a bit (I'm a cheap date).

Our next stops was 69, where nothing leapt out at me particularly besides Christine Price Hamilton's beautifully geometric paper lanterns, and the space itself, which is used for theatre and arts activities. It is a lovingly restored old Armory building. For some reason they did the interior in purple. It works.

We proceeded to 71 and 72, The Somerville Museum and the Art-For-All Studio. Only two pieces jumped out at me there -- the one by Syd and a photograph, I don't remember the artist -- Dickey might have been his last name -- with the title "Glamour", with a slightly bent magazine photographed through a chair arm with a blonde wig draped over and near it, giving the impression of a flattened, twisted face -- very Surrealist, and more effective than I make it sound. At 72, standouts included Jen Levatino, Nancy Wood, Nancy Kramer, and Michael Harnett, who doesn't seem to have any of his most impressive work online -- detailed strip paintings which combine a medieval flattening of scale with some Escherian touches. The 3rd on the page I've linked to above hints, but the resolution isn't great. I saw at least two paintings I would have bought if I had the money in his studio. The strong, supple lines in a sketch visible through the narrow door to her corner of the attic drew me toward Jennifer Levatino's muscular, classically inspired work, and her technically accomplished brushwork and surreally costumed characters engaged in metaphorical-feeling activities kept me there for a bit. Of course they're not online, but I loved her sketches and final work with a Greek serpent motif. The most jarring and fascinating of these was a woman (in the middle of a cornfield) treading on said bug-eyed bearded serpent (which appears to be oozing crude oil) in a stance rather reminiscent of Apollo defeating Python, holding a Swiffer mop as Apollo might hold his spear. She is wearing Superman underpants, a faded tshirt, and a kerchief on her head. I wrote down the atparty website address (hadn't had the foresight to bring cards) for Nancy Wood, whose work is mathematically inspired, and one of whose detailed line drawings, a series with spheres, and another painting that reminded me very much of Murakami Ryu's work (this last does not appear to be on her website) all appealed to me. I'm not usually into work like Nancy Kramer's, but her color sense appealed to me.

We only looked at tiny fraction of the work on display in one half of the 66/67 pair better known as Vernon Street Studios, although we did see some folks we know.

Our final stop before proceeding to the Artists' Asylum potluck (in the same space as Arisia Storage, on Windsor Street) was Hilary Scott, who was the artist guest of honor at Arisia a few years back. His family's house is a hoot; I pretty much knew what to expect, and I still enjoy his work, which has been lauded enough that I don't need to go on about it . . . except that unlike seeing his work at Arisia, seeing his garage workshop made me itch to make things in a hopeful way. I think this impulse will bear fruit in the next year, and I bless him for it. Seeing older work and work-in-progress, discovering that he was self-taught, and his willingness to explain what materials he used to make several of his sculptures inspired me. There are people whose enthusiasm and positive outlook are infectious . . . ( :

From his place we walked to the potluck (I need to get back to Reliable Market). Our travels also laid the foundation for further artistic explorations in the area -- Tashari said she'd never been to the deCordova Museum (same thing with some of the folks I know at Gambit, startlingly) and Hilary Scott has a show on at the Higgins Armory which I have wanted to go see for a while . . .

I think I shall make Somerville Open Studios (both days and better shoes, next time) a tradition. Yowza. I feel motivated to make art again, and not just to fill compo categories either.

This year's Blockparty photos

Notacon/Blockparty 2010

Monday, November 2, 2009

How to run a bone marrow registry drive (at a scifi con)

A slightly different version of this article I wrote (edited for folks in the midwest versus the northeast) ran in the most recent issue of Midfanzine 4, edited by Anne K.G. Murphy. Thanks Anne!


1. Why?

More than 35,000 patients per year, many of them children, are diagnosed with conditions treatable by marrow or stem cell transplant, including leukemia, other cancers, and genetic diseases.

When someone needs a bone marrow transplant and none of their family members are a match, the registry searches for a donor whose tissue type profile is compatible. 70% of people requiring a transplant need an unrelated donor.

A person looking for a match may find one potential donor in a pool of 20,000, or 1,000,000, or more. The most likely match for someone is a person of the same or a similar ethnic background. No one is guaranteed a match, regardless of background, but ethnic minorities are especially underrepresented and have even less chance of finding a matching donor. Then they have to hope that person is on the registry.

You might be the match necessary to save a life.

Many people do not consider donating because they may not know they can help, but also because they have misconceptions about the donation process. Drives are a great venue for getting folks' questions answered.

Scifi cons bring lots of people together. The Heinlein Society and other organizations use this opportunity to replenish our blood supply (always in need of donors) and you can use this opportunity to spread the word about the bone marrow registry and even add new people to it!

2. How the registration process works

*Either go online or to a drive and make sure you are eligible to join the registry (although there are many registry organizations under many names, they share their data with one another).

*The kit includes a form, labels, and two to four Q-Tips or cytology swabs (like Q-Tips except brushy instead of cottony). Potential donors swab the insides of their cheeks, fill out the relevant forms, label their swabs and swab holder, and they're all set.

3. Convention divisions/div heads who may be involved
*Whoever's handling fan tables
*Member services/Registration (if you want to use their card chargey machines)

4. What you need

+Somewhere to be.
A site (in the case of a scifi con, usually the primary hotel or convention center)

To make sure the operators of the location as well as the convention committee understand what you are doing. Some of them may think the registration process is more involved than just doing a cheek swab and balk.

+Location, location, location.
A table, preferably in a high traffic area (near registration is good) like a hotel lobby. If people are doing a blood drive onsite, it often makes sense to be near the blood drive or its donor intake table. Coordinating your efforts and cross-promoting with folks running blood drives at conventions is a Good Idea. Everyone wins!

+A registry organization to work with.
You can look online for one in your area. Registries with offices across the US include Be The Match (also known as the National Marrow Donor Program) and DKMS. Red Cross offices often have a relationship with the National Marrow Donor Program. There are also local blood services all around the country -- in New York, for example, there's the New York Blood Center -- and many of them have bone marrow registry offices. If you can't find info on their website, call them up (an out of date website doesn't necessarily mean a bad organization, they may just not have money for a redesign right now . . . ). Once you decide what registry organization (whether local or national) you are going to work with (and it makes sense to make some phone calls and shop around before you make your decision) your liaison with that organization will be able to give you a lot of helpful pointers on getting together money or making sure you have what is needed to run the drive. Some registries will send people to staff the registration table (although even then you can still contribute work at-con promoting the drive, especially at a big convention). Others will just send you forms. You will always have some contact there, but make sure you understand how much support they will be giving you. Some registries also may not register men who have had sex with men since 1977, citing their concerns about the statistical likelihood of those individuals having been infected with HIV. Caitlyn Raymond International Registry (which does drives in New England) accepts healthy donors regardless of sexual orientation, and there may be other registry organizations who do the same in your area. This is also something to consider when you decide what group to work with, although your region may not have a group of that kind, and if that is the case, you should STILL organize a drive with the organization you find to be the best fit anyway (lives get saved either way), but make sure to mention your concerns where appropriate, as nothing changes when people keep their mouths shut.

+Working with money.
Sometimes, you'll need to raise money, and sometimes you'll need a way to take it (cashbox or access to the card chargey things at registration, for example, although the old-fashioned carbon-swipe things don't require an internet connection, heh, and neither does a cashbox). Private insurance plans based in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire are required to cover the cost of tissue typing for the bone marrow registry, which varies from region to region (deductible and co-insurance do apply), so if you're running a drive in one of these states, you're home free (the registry organization will often cover the cost of a few out of state donors if you have them, although it is always good if folks can pay and are from out of state that they do pay, and make it easier for poorer folks to join the registry). Often even if registries charge potential donors a registration fee to defray the cost of typing they will still be subsidizing some of the cost. You can raise money to defray registration costs for a drive the same way you would raise money for anything else -- talking to local organizations and businesses. Make sure you speak with your liaison at the registry you work with to figure out how to best handle this element of the drive where applicable.

Good ways to promote your drive:
*on the website, as well in as any other web presence for the con you can get onto -- LiveJournal, Facebook, MyFace, Twitter, Ning, etc.
*flyers and buttons are your friend. Consuite may let you put flyers on some of te tables. Registered donors or members of the drive team (whether already on the registry or added at the convention) wearing buttons or tshirts promoting bone marrow registration is excellent.
*in the pocket or souvenir program (pocket ads are cheaper)
*fun slogans. On the Heal Emru flyers, it is "You Can Be A Hero!" One of the registries has buttons that say "Will You Marrow Me?"
*at Arisia, a convention in Massachusetts, the blood drive folks did a skit at Masquerade opening (halftime also works). Is there a big event (or are there a number of big events) at your convention? Those are good times to promote the drive. The events division is your friend. Talk to them *early* and *often*.

5. Useful Resources

*List of registries around the world

Be the Match (NMDP)


Search tool for listings of members of the American Association of Blood Banks

How-to on running a drive from Be The Match (mostly connecting you
with one of their drive liaison people)

How-to on running a drive from DKMS (mostly connecting you with one of
their drive liaison people)

Caitlyn Raymond International Registry (If you want to register online
with them on your own, you can! This is that page)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The demoscene comes to Boston!

June 18-20, 2010.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Science fiction double feature: "Moon" and "District 9"

So I decided to splurge and saw three movies this past weekend. "Up" on Friday (which was surprisingly okay, although I have very snarky things to say about the previews and some beef which I can't quite recall with the opening animation) as well as the two named above. In this post I'm going to address them. They were surprisingly well matched for an evening of science fiction cinema, more well made and insightful than I have seen in a long time, perhaps ever.

I will flag spoilers, but to some extent every review has some spoilage involved; if you want to come to something without preconceptions, don't read any reviews.
You can go read the argument about this subject on if you need to bitch about it.

First, synopses. "Moon", directed by Duncan Jones, is about a miner named Sam Bell who is on a three year contract to babysit excavating machines and send Helium-3, which is apparently valuable as an energy source, back to Earth from the dark side of our moon.
"District 9", directed by Neil Blomkamp, is about marooned aliens who show up in a ship which appears over Johannesburg, South Africa. The government provides them with humanitarian aid (they are starving) and then puts them in a refugee camp, which becomes a slum more like an open air prison than anything else, and forbids them to interact with humans.

Both are topical in their own ways, although there's a more important message at the heart of Blomkamp's film than Jones'. That's a pity, because Jones*' film has a better signal to noise ratio.

Whether you're hearing about the film for the first time here or you've read a more detailed synopsis elsewhere, it should be clear that "District 9" is intended to explore apartheid. The advertising campaign has mostly involved signs like these and these I wonder how many people have dismissed the message as another movie ad campaign and given it no more thought, and how many people have noticed and felt disquieted. I don't remember seeing the signs anywhere until I visited the restroom at the movie theatre, and if I didn't know the context I'm not sure it would have gotten through to me, depressingly enough. I think the folks it was supposed to get through to, in ways other than as a movie ad, it didn't get through to, and probably just made folks who don't need to be reminded uncomfortable. See the second photo.

Historical apartheid seems elided in the film somehow, but telltale traces of history seep through. Although we see a number of Black characters in middle management at MNU, the government agency tasked with controlling the aliens, most Black characters are soldiers or Nigerian arms traders. Wikus, the White Afrikaner main character, calls Black subordinates "boy" and they call him "boss". At one point when a White Afrikaner soldier has shot an alien who was standing right next to Wikus' second in command, a Black man who is addressed by name maybe once in the film and whose name I cannot determine online (which is significant, I think), he raises his arms in surrender, as if he were the one being threatened, and then lowers them when he realizes what has happened.

I also realize at some level I have a fundamental problem with the rhetorical strategy of comparing humans with aliens when trying to get sympathy for the humans in question. It may have something in common with the techniques of the famous essay "A Modest Proposal", but nonetheless...that pins down why I didn't entirely engage with "District 9".

Skillfully executed special effects and disturbing parallels to events in the real world made me feel physically ill several times. Weta did a beautiful job. That said, Hollywoodization dilutes the film's message, so strong in its first half, but lost with the break from documentary format. There are a few feeble relapses later on, using security cams, but ultimately the switch from documentary to dramatic film format marks where the film loses its critical lens, pun very much intended.

SPOILERS AHEAD; highlight text to read.

It makes sense that the hero-izing of Wikus begins at this point, when the viewer is encouraged to empathize with his physical suffering and maltreatment at the hands of his callous father-in-law and biddable MNU personnel. His torture at the hands of scientists and doctors becomes a stand-in for the historical torture and murder of Blacks in similar circumstances (whether under interrogation or as unwilling participants in medical "research", see similar stories here: Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present), as if that could redeem him when previously in the film he was marked as a villain. In a particularly disturbing scene early on, he burns a shed full of alien babies in ovo, comparing the noises caused by their destruction to popping popcorn and offering their disconnected nutrient feeds to the invisible documentarians and his coworkers as souvenirs or trophies. Later on, he separates an alien child from its father, Christopher Johnson, who he leaves to die, selfishly trying to get to the alien ship so he can stop being part alien. He suffers a crisis of conscience later and rescues Christopher, who then stands by him as he attempts to fight off a platoon of soldiers headed up by a very durable White Afrikaner soldier (can't remember a name) who keeps showing up throughout the movie (in fact threatened Wikus' second in command) and may unfortunately become a cult hero for some teens watching it, of course.

I'm sure the director is trying to make Wikus a gray area, a complex human being--callous and tender, innocent and cruel, developing over time to an awareness of the harm he has done, perhaps--but instead all that comes across is inconsistency and weakness. Perhaps that is intentional too, but when he is unsubtly positioned as The Hollywood Hero Who Saves The Good Aliens this is pretty problematic...

The image of Wikus suffering as he is forced to fire various alien weapons with his transformed arm, serving as MNU's intermediary, forced to shoot a helpless alien (when previously he treated them callously) is clearly an allegorical and semi-sympathetic portrayal of "innocents" working for the system in apartheid South Africa . . .
Interesting that, to the end, his still calls them prawns. I think you can figure out the real world parallel for that term on your own.

I'm also not sure what I think of the Nigerian arms dealers. On the one hand, Blomkamp is clearly trying to position MNU as the White bad guys (headed up by Wikus' father in law) and the Nigerians as the Black bad guys, so that it has heroes and villains from both races and can claim evenhandedness. Maybe there are historical parallels; at this point I don't know and don't care. Certainly the idea of consuming a creature to gain its abilities isn't alien to various people who practice witchcraft in some parts of Africa--in fact, I've heard various lurid stories about rare animals killed, or small children or people with albinism murdered or kidnapped so parts of them could be used for spirit medicine--and it provides the head of the Nigerian gang with a reason to chase after Wikus and add additional tension to the plot. But I suspect most audiences won't get it, and as a result we'll have just one more stereotypical "movie savage who eats gross things" added to the American memory. It bothers me. Maybe I'm missing something. At this point it isn't really about reality, it is about messages, and the message in this film gets strangled by the desire to make an action movie. Maybe the studio did it. Maybe Peter Jackson did it. Maybe Blomkamp himself made that decision, bceause he thought if he kept viewers in their seats with sensationalism the actual message might seep in, a message better expressed (if still problematically so, look at the logo at the top of the page...funny thing, the logo on the District 9 website has a Black hand instead of a White one) in spinoff websites like this one

One of the first things I said to Mike after exiting the theatre is that "Moon" will become a classic,

SPOILERS AHEAD highlight text to read

not only because it was well made but because it is such an artifact of its time. And when I said that, I wasn't referring to the obvious relevance of alternative sources of energy, I was thinking of laid off auto industry employees and particularly returned soldiers who may see it and identify with its protagonist. His injuries and accelerating decline at a young age; the fitness routines has has to go through; Gerty's cognitive testing; the image of new clone Sam rescuing old clone Sam, or carrying him, now a fallen comrade, to the crashed transport to die, and the company's instrumental treament of him. Beginning with dominance struggles and hostility, two versions of the same man only three years apart interact like father and son, or older and younger brother. I love the sequence where they pretend not to hear each other, first when new clone Sam is practicing with a boxing bag and drowning old Sam's questions out. Heck, when the first ignore each other it makes me think a little of Solaris but without the creepiness. This film is a study of male psychology as much as it is a portrait of a man going to pieces.
That it looks as good as it does on what is apparently a shoestring budget is also admirable.
Set dressing, lighting, costuming--all well done.

Both Mike and I also found "Moon" to be an admirable piece of hard sf. Sam's pathetically pointless exercises intended to prevent bone loss and his eventual death due to what had to be radiation sickness resulting from his lengthy (probably inadequately shielded) stay on a planet with a negligible atmosphere are the first two things that come to mind. But there's other stuff as well, like the face display on Gerty, which reminds me of current efforts in experimental robotics with facial recognition and emotional expression. Also the small plant area (probably not his only source of oxygen, I think). And although some would take issue with Gerty assisting Sam, my sense is that it was programmed to protect and safeguard him, hence it listening to the company operatives when they present not allowing Sam outside the dome as a protective measure. Gerty is bound by Asimov's laws of robotics, and so it didn't break its programming, it simply acted within the bounds of what was permitted to assist the center of its world. Mike suggested if it were some sort of AI it might understand in some fashion the similarity between its role and Sam's, as slaves of the corporation, and I can see that as well. But that is a gaping weakness in the plot, its admission of Sam being a clone and other essential details, after original demurrals. I'm also puzzled how he managed to damage the gas line without Gerty noticing and stopping him, surprised that there weren't more cameras everywhere, and wondering whether the "rescue" team would notice there were two missing spacesuits instead of one. Maybe new spacesuits were packed with each Sam. I wonder how his room got cleaned up and each set of personal effects got destroyed after the end of each iteration as well...

Films like this and Sunshine (which failed in a multitude of ways, but tried valiantly) are the sort of realistic hard sf people need to see to understand what sending humans into space means, to consider the ethics of that decision. Because I doubt as many folks as see these will read James Patrick Kelly's "Breakaway, Backdown".

These were good movies to see together.

SPOILERS AHEAD highlight text to read

Like most Hollywood movies, everyone in "Moon" is White, as far as I could tell, and its message was about personal identity, masculinity, and class. But both films try to tell stories with themes we struggle with here in the real world, and there a similarities between the protagonists, who both go through agonizing processes of physical disintegration as they are refined into heroes. They vomit, they lose teeth, they tend suppurating wounds, and interestingly, both of them have injured hands. Both are victims of powerful organizations with a vested interest in using these men's bodies, whether for labor or as sources of valuable biotech. Surprising we don't see more movies about women like this, unless I missed them, since usually the folks who get treated instrumentally are women, particularly women of color, not white men.

But of course, the viewer of most science fiction films is probably assumed to be a white man between the ages of 20 and 40, and if you want to get through to them you have to give them protagonists that look like them. Right.

"Up" was surprisingly good, but I have issues with the whole idea of South America as a mass of unknown jungle, empty of inhabitants. Also, the trailer for Disney's new Princess and the Frog movie had me breaking out in a rash. Apparently you can only have a Black princess when she has to kiss an amphibian, because of course you aren't going to ask one of your pale as paper White girls to do that, no! And of course if she's Black, it has to be set in New Orleans, a stereotypical French Quarter tourism New Orleans, with very likely some nonsense stereotype voodoo and hoodoo folded in, gag. Right. Typical Disney. Did you hear that man was a a Nazi?
And no, Jasime doesn't count in this case, she's not Black! And "Aladdin" has its own issues...

Amusing tidbit: Jones is also known as Zowie Bowie. He is the son of David Bowie, the fellow who wrote "Space Oddity", which was played during television coverage of the Apollo moon landing 40 years ago this year. Watch my poor brain pour out of my ears. I'm sure I'm not the first person to note this, given that Wikipedia mentions it; also, the guy who did the music, Clint Mansell, composed for "Π" as well, a movie Mike loves.