Fringery, Aug 20

Didn't get back to Edinburgh until late afternoon today. And lots of shows take Mondays off, and suddenly a number of the things I had noted to try and see are selling out...

So first I tried showing up to the last showing of Ceasarean section at the last minute, but they were in fact really sold out. Then I tried showing up at this absurdist Romanian version of Gulliver's Travels, but they were also really sold out. While hanging out in the booking office waiting for returns, though, I ran into Justine again picking up her tickets at will call. (Spoiler: we will learn tomorrow that she hated it.) She did give me a half-price coupon for her show though.

Eventually I decide to get over my frustration and go see:

The Hedgehog Dilemma: This is Felicity Ward, hyperkinetic stand-up comedian, telling the story of breaking up with alcohol and her first-boyfriend/fiance-of-8-years, moving back in with her mom, learning to date, and climbing out again. Hilarious! And it is, actually. She has a weirdly frenetic style, sprinting off on tangents at every excuse. There's a song and dance number about hitting rock bottom, to the tune of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. The last line is "I once was so drunk I passed out during cunnilingus!". Yep. This was an end-rhyme, though mercifully (for you) I can't recall with what. The final resolution was terribly sweet and neatly done: after various romantic misadventures -- including a whirlwind romance with a British man who never calls her back again after she goes back to Australia -- she's moping around in a depression at her mom's house, and some friend swings her some sort of short gig. Based on her previous television experience, she plans an ill-advised silly game-show routine, and is very excited when the props arrive in the post... but in fact it is the care package she sent her British beau 7 months before being returned undeliverable. By sea mail. Emotional crisis, the actual props never arrive, she's forced to go to the gig cold and make something up... and falls in love with stand-up comedy. Awwww.


Fringery, Aug 14-17

Tatyana: Eugene Onegin told through contemporary dance. Part of the more arty/middlebrow Edinburgh International Festival (the one the Fringe was originally a fringe of, before it became a colossus bestriding its one-time host). I've no idea how this compares to other works of its ilk, but I really enjoyed it (and certainly the dancers were extraordinary). They made the very interesting decision to use multiple dancers for each role -- it's stripped down to just 4 characters in the first act, 2 in the second, plus the choreographer herself playing the part of Pushkin. But there are often a dozen or more dancers on stage at once -- everyone wearing the same costume represents the same character. This works surprising well. Telling a verse novel through dance means that you're already representing the characters relationships and actions in a pretty abstract form. (Fortunately I read the wikipedia article while waiting in will call.) Representing them as flocks instead of individuals is just one more step in this direction. So you have one incarnation of Tatyana lying asleep at the top of the set, while the rest dance her dreams. Or Lenksy grabbing one incarnation of Onegin away from flirting with Olga, while a new Onegin slips seamlessly in. Or in the second act, some incarnations of Tatyana dance with Onegin, while others dance with themselves. Some youtube clips.

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: While I hadn't heard of the show itself, it turns out it has a very extensive wikipedia article. The production and actors here were completely great and lovely and I'm not sure what else to say. ("Jesus! I always knew you were British!")

News at Kate: Kate Smurthwaite is a feminist, athiest activist, and a popular interviewee/panel member for political talk shows and the like. This is her stand-up show. (Are there any stand-up comedians in the states that are also regular news commenters?) To give a sense of the experience, she asked at the beginning who thought they might have the most evil job, and when someone volunteered that they worked at the company that publishes, e.g., FHM, the audience gasped and booed. Much mockery was made of the Daily Mail. Fun! My increasingly vague memory impression to give a sense of it: [spoiler tag why not]"So Melanie Phillips wrote this editorial about the NHS. Now certainly anyone who's worked at, or been cared for, by the NHS, we can agree that there are ways it could be better, so far so good. And now Melanie Phillips explains why that is, it's because of... feminism. See, here I thought we were working on rape culture and the pay gap, but no, apparently... Now, let's see what she says, the evidence is, let's see... A doctor was discourteous to her mother. No, really! That's what she says. Presumably it was a gynecologist. I'm not touching that cunt! Melanie Phillips' been in there! Err so, I do use the word cunt, I think it's a great word, but I use it only anatomically. Not true of most comedians you see here, right-wing, left-wing... they'll still say David Cameron's a cunt!. I won't do that. I consider it insulting to cunts. I'm quite fond of mine actually. And it's never sold off the NHS even once."

Mess: This was amazing. Probably my favorite show so far. There are still tickets! (Though I suspect very, very few. Not that this is any use to practically anyone reading this anyway. But the point is that if it is then you should see it.) Anyway, it's an extremely funny, extremely moving, beautifully put together play about anorexia. [extensively spoilery thinkythoughts]So, I'm a sucker for 4th-wall breaking and formal play. Give me a neat metatextual trick and I'll forgive lots. But this play has perhaps the most necessary, *non*-gratuitous use of metatextual tricks that I've seen. Ostensibly, we're watching a 2-person play that recounts the history of "Josephine"'s struggle with anorexia assisted by her friend "Boris". Sort of what you'd think of if someone told you that there was an amateur play about anorexia. It'd be unbearably cliche on its own, even if you'd never actually seen such a play before. Let's call these the level 1 characters. But actually, the real script is a 3-character play: Josephine, a woman whose name I didn't catch, and Sistahl, who together are performing the level-1 play. Level-2 Josephine is playing "Josephine" (and is in fact the same person, some time later). Level-2 unnamed-woman is playing "Boris" (she has a little leather hat to remind us that she's "providing the male perspective"). Sistahl does music/foley/etc. It's not really a play-within-a-play, because the two levels of plays overlap exactly -- we never see the level-2 characters except during their performance of the level-1 characters. But the level-2 characters are awkward and uncertain. They begin by apologizing for the subject matter, for the hole in Josephine's costume where it had to be let out, they argue, you can feel Josephine cringing as her co-players embarass her. As they go, she's desperate for the audience to forgive all the limitations of the staging ("In the *real* version, we'll have a proper set..."; throughout there are asides like ":carefully miming a box: :whispering: Imagine a refrigerator.").

This probably all sounds unbearably Clever, but it does several things for them. First off it lets them acknowledge the elephant in the room and establish a connection with the audience off the bat. It sets up a brilliant bit of incluing -- it's framed as an info-dump at level-2, a parody of over-earnest Meaningful Art: "The installation there, uh, represents Josephine's anorexia; see, the umbrella represents ___ and the medals hanging from it represent ___ and the duvet underneath...", but then in fact everything they describe here is used to great, understated effect later in the level-1 play. Level-2 Josephine's panics and cringes and perfectionism provide a second perspective on what we're being told about anorexia in the level-1 play. At one point Sistahl interrupts ("You know, this scene is going great, but, I have something extra that will *really* make it pop...") and sings an absolutely *brutal* song laying out all the aspects of Josephine's state of mind during treatment that she's trying to smooth over, and Josephine is furious that he's gone and read the parts of her diaries that she didn't give him for the show.

Of course we in the audience know that this is all artifice; the real (level-3) actors are not awkward at all, their performance is brilliant. But whenever this cleverness becomes too artificial and reminds us that level-3 exists, it also reminds us: "Josephine"'s story actually is based on a true story, about someone named Caroline Horton. Who also, in real life, wrote the script. And also, in real life, is standing in front of you, right now. Playing the part of Josephine. In fact the *only* way the script references this reality is by its artificiality. At which point the artifice suddenly collapses in on itself and you realize that the level-1 Josephine's ambivalence about whether she even wants to be healthy is real, and the level-2 Josephine's terror and perfectionism about her play is real, and yet here's the real Caroline premiering her play at the EDINBURGH FRINGE and it's absolutely seamless. The whole thing comes together in the negative space. And did I mention that it's hilarious, and also I cried for probably the second time in multiple years? Amazing.

Anybody Waitin'?: This started a bit late -- probably on purpose, note the title -- so I was hanging out on my own in the middle of an audience jammed into a nightclub and chatting enthusiastically with their friends. Bit of a downer, so I struck up a conversation with another loner sitting next to me, Justine. Turns out she's managing another show at the festival, called Nikotine. What does this have to do with Anybody Waitin'? Nothing whatsoever, but it's thematic, because the show itself was pop dance held together... tenuously. Not so much plot as potpourri. But it flowed, and somehow the one thing all the bits had in common was being 100% ridiculously, infectiously fun. Costume changes! Sometimes in front of the audience! Matching leotards with giant airbrushed leopard faces on the front and sweatbands! Audience members in matching leotards with giant airbrushed leopard faces on the front and sweatbands! Heteroeroticism! Homoeroticism! They actually played the Turn around bright eyes... bit totally straight. Well, queer. You get the idea.

Morning: This is a hard play to describe, and I notice that all the publicity and reviews seem to concur, since they mostly don't even try. However, Amal gave me the perfect way to describe it! It is about Penryn wide-eyed youth, but as teenagers. The writing and acting were superb; the overall effect is nihilistic and extremely unsettling. [Spoiler (click to open)]It's written to use a naturalistic dialogue style, with people ignoring questions, changing the subject, never quite being clear about what they mean, and it's very effective at creating this liminal feeling: what's going on here? oh awkward social situation! okay, or... sex! or... sex with messed up power dynamics... okay, but he's into it-- or is-- no... oh, yes. :look away: :look back: yeah she's definitely raping-- OH FFFFF-- :deep breath: right. Or maybe not because her friend will kill him first? Not that they every say that -- she just smashes a plastic bin to bits with a giant metal bar. Next to his head. Then they spend the rest of the play talking around it. Or for character motivations-- am I looking at teenage narcissism buckling under stress and a lack of coping strategies? Or sociopathy? I'm leaning towards the latter but... Also, thank goodness it never tries to generalize about "youth today" or anything like that -- it's there if you want it, I guess, but the concreteness of the dialogue keeps the feel throughout that these are specific people, in a specific situation. Which is interesting, because the actual stage is cluttered and abstracted -- the actors play with hand-held lights, there's an empty aquarium full of water the main character tosses props into at various points. Plastic sheeting, bits of sandwich left on the floor. But it works. I guess it's the same thing in the dialogue and staging -- many details, none of them explicit, keep the impression of being groundeded in a concrete, specific situation, while leaving lots of room for ambiguities and impressionism in interpreting what we're seeing. It's a neat trick. Anyway, very glad I saw it. Not sure 10am was the best time, title notwithstanding, but glad I saw it.


Profoundly dissomething

Sunday night, I'm driving back to Edinburgh from Aberdeen alone. It's a pretty straightforward drive -- motorway and dual carriageway most of the way. (Translation for Americans: "motorway" is British for "freeway", and "dual carriageway" is British for "freeway that has bus stops".) Still, the last time I did this I got profoundly lost in the last few miles, and recovering was a bit tricky -- this is maybe the 10th time I'm driving on the left, likewise the 10th time I'm driving a manual transmission... the only thing that saved me was my phone, and even then. So this time I set everything up before I even started -- phone plugged in to the stereo, navigation running, a few albums queued up -- though for some reason the music player *insists* on scrambling the order of every album as loaded. I thought I fixed it, but a few minutes of driving make it clear that this is not the case, and pulling over to mess around with it would be too hard.

I'm pretty sure there's some analogy here to the ambivalence that explains why I'm here in the first place instead of, for example, at home and working at Google. Anyway.

So I drive for an hour, and as I'm approaching Dundee (and the only turn between Aberdeen and Edinburgh), focused on navigating the sudden string of roundabouts and (uphill) traffic lights, grooving to some instrumental track, my phone suddenly interrupts the music in its synthesized voice to say:

At the roundabout, go straight onto A90. Fitter, happier, more productive. Exit the roundabout onto A90. Regular exercise at the gym 3 days a week. Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries. At ease. Eating well. In 100 yards, turn right onto A90. A patient better driver. A safer car baby smiling in the back seat. Sleeping well, no bad dreams. No paranoia. Turn right onto A90. Never washing spiders down the plug hole. Keep in contact with old friends. Enjoy a drink now and then. Will frequently check credit. Continue on A90 for 21 miles. Fond but not in love. At the roundabout, go straight onto A90. Ring road supermarket. No killing moths. Exit the roundabout onto A90. Car wash also on Sundays. No longer afraid of the dark or midday shadows. At the roundabout, go straight onto A90. At a better pace, exit the roundabout onto A90. No chance of escape. Not self-employed, concerned but powerless. An empowered and informed member of society, pragmatism not idealism. Tires that grip in the wet. A good memory. Still cries at a good film still kisses with saliva. No longer empty and frantic, like a cat, that's at the intersection, slight left onto A90, the ability to laugh at weakness. Calm. Slight left, healthier, continue on A90 for 19 miles in a cage, on antibiotics.

Then it went back to the music.

Ok, computer, you win this round.

  • Current Location
    off to the gym

JSTOR Clicker

[UPDATE: Actually, the thing linked below was working earlier but officially doesn't quite exist yet so they pulled it down for now. Future not really clear.]

Certain varieties of modern video games have a problem -- they need to waste your time. Giving people interesting things to do is expensive -- think how long it takes to write a book versus how long it takes to read one. If you want people to pay for a monthly subscription, or stare indefinitely at your ads, or whatever, then you can't do it by actually giving them 20 hours of new entertainment every month. So instead they try to find ways to keep you just engaged enough to keep clicking, maybe on a Cow.

It's pure make-work, but it's professionally-produced, mildly engaging make-work, so people volunteer to do it. Note: I'm not saying these things are all bad; shweta_narayan seems to have fun with MMO crafting, which is another variant of the same thing. One shouldn't underestimate the value of professionally-produced time-wasting make-work for surviving chronic illness. I'm just saying, that's the system: artificial tasks imposed from on high to create artificial scarcity with your time and attention as the currency.

Anyway, JSTOR. Giant archive of academic articles, allegedly a public-interest non-profit but with some dubious behaviour. They have tons of old articles that are in the public domain, and legally anyone can redistribute these however they like. But, only JSTOR has them, and they don't have to give them to you unless you follow their rules. One of those rules lets them maintain this monopoly: their terms of service say, you cannot use a program to download *all* the public domain articles; each article can only be downloaded by some person clicking on a link to that specific article, one at a time. Because no-one is going to spend their own time to click on half-a-million links.

I think you see where this is going.

The fabulous Archive Team has set up some javascript and server magic to turn JSTOR into a MMO crafting game. You press the button, you wait while an article downloads, you press a button again, it gets uploaded back to the servers, and a random selection of early-1900s scientific articles goes by as scenery. Except instead of making a Ceremonial Dwarf-axe you're making a freely available archive of classic science. And they have a "post to twitter" button so you can advertise weird articles to your friends!

I'm sort of surprised they don't give XP. Maybe they should!


Filed my final PhD paperwork yesterday.

Aside from a 9-month interregnum in 2004 while applying for grad schools, today is the first day in the last 24 years that I am not a student.

Kinda weird.


So, the author Elizabeth Moon wrote this blog post which has garnered a predictable and wholly justified response.

I really don't have anything to say that can compare to the reactions in those links, nor do I have nearly the historical acumen of some of the other people commenting on her post. (But since she's deleted all the comments, you'll have to take my word for it!) Anyway, I decided to instead attempt the chancy art of Changing Someone's Mind on the Internet. So I commented too, and since some people have requested I repost my comment, well, here it is, for posterity:

I've read your post carefully, and your follow-up comments, and I believe I understand what you're trying to say. I also understand your frustration at people reacting as if you had written some conventional racist rant; there's certainly a distinction between "those people shouldn't have done this because their actions harm the fabric of the community we share" and "those people shouldn't have done this because they're a bunch of nasty little brown people who know only hate", and I generally agree with what you said about the importance of community and civic duty.

But I wanted to let you know that all that given, I still found your post repugnant. Partly for the reason that pnkrokhockeymom articulated better -- that sometimes upsetting people *is* a civic duty, depending on the principles at stake. I too deplore the ammunition that this has given some of the nastiest groups in our politics, and the possibility that they'll use it to help gain power and push through regressive policies. But as holzman notes, the prayer room at this center is needed to *make it possible for community members to practice their faith*. I believe the Founding Fathers would approve of upsetting people in order to achieve this goal.

The other reason this post makes me cringe is that parts of what you say give me the impression that you've taken on more toxic anti-Islam/racist ideas than you realize. It's the uncritical assumptions that this is a mosque, that the people building it are immigrants; it's the annoyance at someone giving a talk about Islam for not going into its fundamentalist and violent sects, and talking about the "forebearance" that we (collectively?) have given Muslims (which ones?); it's the impression I get that you're replying to comments that arguably misread your argument and are easy to 'shoot down', but not the ones that point out your factual errors and missing context. Of course, I don't know you; I could be wrong. But please consider the possibility that you don't know you as well as you thought, either; I know from experience that these kinds of ideas are insidious, can sneak in invisibly from the culture around us, and are horrifically harmful to those on the receiving end (often, in aggregate, more harmful than the rare acts of actual racist or other-ist violence).

You might also consider whether some of the people responding angrily did in fact understand the point you were trying to make, but are responding to these implications -- which are present in your text, whether you intended it or not -- rather just the explicit point you had in mind.

(I so, so hope that posterity doesn't care about this.)

ETA: Some of the deleted comment threads are also preserved here:

first-round prop 8 ruling

Judge White's Findings of Fact, pages 61-62, finds that "California, like every other state, has never required that individuals entering into a marriage be willing or able to procreate." In support of this point, he cites:
Lawrence v Texas, 539 US 558, 604-05 (2003) (Scalia, J, dissenting) ("If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is 'no legitimate state interest' for purposes of proscribing that conduct * * * what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising 'the liberty protected by the Constitution'? Surely not the encouragement of procreation, since the sterile and the elderly are allowed to marry.") [emphasis added]

An excellent question, Justice Scalia. I remain confident in your ability to find some horribly cock-eyed way to answer it, but: an excellent question.


What didn't he see?

So probably some of you already know a depressing fact about free software: its developers are about 98.5% male. That's not hyperbole, it's a real statistic; female participation ratios are about 10-30 times worse than for even closely related fields like professional programming or academic computer science. It's a wonderful, wonderful community in many other ways; I owe it a huge debt, not just for, ya know, writing all the software that makes my computer go and being a force for liberty in the digital age, but for experience, knowledge, friends — a chunk of who I am. And yet...

Anyway, the issue of female participation came up a few times recently on a news site I frequent, and attracted the usual response (neither link recommended unless you need a cure for low blood pressure, though the second has more redeeming features). That response being, of course, a big pile of spin, denial, and derailment. Not exclusively, but. I'm sure you're surprised.

I mostly stayed out of RaceFail et seq., but privilege has really been on our minds around here recently, and, well. These are my people. I'm not sure wading in did much good (if you ignored my advice and followed that link, mine are the posts from "njs"), and I particularly doubt I convinced any of the main offenders. But — in part as a result of RaceFail, in fact — I think I was able to discuss the issues more clearly than in the past. I had better conceptual tools. And perhaps I was able to help a few bystanders learn to see and talk about these issues, and pick up some tools for themselves. I'm not an expert in these things, but my impression is that when women are so rare that they — and other's behavior towards them — are simply invisible, then that itself becomes one of the problem's roots. Expert or not, I can at least make sure that on my little corner of the internet, this $#@ won't go unchallenged. Here's to awareness.

But on a more uplifting note, it's also from the first discussion — esp. Kirrily Robert's keynote that set it off — that I became aware of the Organization for Transformative Works's Archive of Our Own. I knew about OTW, of course — they're a great group fighting for other sorts of creative liberty — but I didn't know about their software development project.

Now, as you know, Bob, their core demographic is fangirls, the sort who squee and write slash fiction and all that, and every Bob knows that that's about the least tech-heady audience you can think of.[1] So then how on earth did they start this project off, anyway? They said, hey all you women who've been told to be afraid of computers, BAM, you're programmers now, try this and report back (click this link it is fantastic, maybe this one too). And that's what happened. And now they have 60k LOC, 20+ coders, all women.

Okay, so that's a simplification and those contributors aren't all newbies pulled in by that post, but: High-octane AWESOME, yo, on so many levels. So screw you, Bob.

* * *

I've recently been enjoying some art games — computer "games" designed as interactive art pieces. It's a pretty experimental scene; everyone's trying to figure out how to make this stuff work at all. And one of those interesting experiments is called Pathways, by Terry Cavanagh.

I recommend it — it'll only take you 10 minutes to play through, and no clicky-clicky reflexes are required.

But playing it with all the above swirling around my head, I couldn't help noticing how very... gendered it is. Not explicitly, and I'm definitely not calling it out as sexist — it's a personal work, and that person is male. Well, but... since the answer to art is art, I just did my own experiment.

I drew some sprites and poked some assembler and inverted it. For me it makes something new. Try for yourself: Pathways Remixed (if you don't have Windows — I don't — then it works well under Wine).

[1] ETA: since it seems this wasn't totally clear to everyone, let me clarify that yes, this is intended as irony.