December 2005


This morning I stopped at the gas station on the way to work to pick up a soda and a sandwich. It was bitter cold, rain coming down hard and the wind whipping around. As I walked out of the BP, a wave of memory hit me smack in the face: a strong smell of diesel fuel carried on the cold, wet wind. As that smell hit me, and the frigid air blasted me with water, I was instantly back in Russia in 1994/1995.

The apartment block where my host family lived was entered from the rear, the main doors being off a small courtyard designed as a common space between four apartment blocks. To get from the "front" entrance to the street, we would walk out the doors, through the courtyard and down a little alleyway that opened onto the sidewalk. There was a cart vendor who always set up shop in the mornings in that alleyway, catching everyone in the building as they left for the day. Anna (our host mother) would buy these little green packs of brown cigarettes – 120’s marketed to women, a sort of Russian equivalent of Virginia Slims – and smoke one with us before we crossed the street and entered the metro station. Her husband, Sergei, pretended to believe that she had quit several months earlier. We would talk about the coming day and Anna would chat with the vendor and translate small-talk for us and then we would step out of the alleyway into the broad avenue that separated us from the subway station.

Moscow is, despite not really having streets for it, a town that drives just as much as it rides the metro. It’s a lot like New York in that respect – people always say you don’t need a car in New York, but there sure are a lot of them anyway. The streets are always packed in Moscow, everyone taking the white and yellow lines as gentle suggestions more than hard and fast rules.  Every morning, when we stepped out of that alleyway, the wind that whipped between the rows of tall blocks of apartments would grab us and pull, shove ice right up our noses, the air always wet with snow and heavy with the smell of diesel fuel. It would just shoot up my nostrils and right to my brain, and it was the same every morning.

So when that happened at the BP today, I stopped in the middle of the parking lot and just stood there and sucked it in, breathed deep and let it rain right down on me because for a few moments it was ten years ago and I was in Russia again. I’ve always said I wanted to go back some day, and honestly, this morning, it felt like I had.

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If you’re following the saga of one of my D&D characters, a new entry is up over at Pigs Are Good People.  It’s titled "Three Slaads, Two Dragons and One Long Walk," and it summarizes the last two sessions.  With NaNoWriMo over for another year, I’ll hopefully be a little quicker on the draw with these updates in future.

Speaking of NaNoWriMo, in each of the places on iBiblio where I’ve tucked away my NaNovels (2003, 2004, 2005) I have posted a page that describes them and provides a link to the PDF version of each.

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I’ve spent way, way too much time tonight reading over some of the papers presented in a Trinity University class called Games for the Web:  Ethnography of Massively Multiplayer On-line Games.  You can find a number of the term papers from Spring ’05 on the site – all research having been conducted on World of Warcraft, my current obsession.  Some deal with Horde/Alliance relations and the creation of an artificial language barrier that enforces the state of war and the psychological conditions of war-time propaganda, whereas others address sexism, real-world colonialism viewed through the refracting lens of the Warcraft storyline, the reasons people join guilds, all sorts of things.  I confess that the idealistic academic in me – half-strangled in the crib and then kept too drunk to notice time passing by during my own collegiate career – finds it deeply heartening that ethnographers and other academics are looking at the new ways we create communities to see what can be learned there, even if it’s probably just the same lessons of everywhere else (largely that people are pricks).

I was sitting there reading World of Peacecraft and she gets to the part about informal alliances and "grouping" with people whose language you can’t even speak because the game garbles anything they say to you, and I’m like Hey, I’ve done that, me and that Tauren in Stranglethorn Vale, both on the quest to get the stuff and and and and then she’s talking about people seeking "transformative play" and "subverting the dominant, Blizzard-endorsed storyline," and Pants Wilder figuring out that "kek" is Horde for "lol," and… yeah.  I think some of them really nailed their research.  I am not imaginative enough to figure out that people who write add-ons like Babelfish don’t see themselves as somehow fucking with the game or Blizzard or other players but instead see their effort as a legitimate attempt to build on the game that’s already there by creating opportunities for dialogue and diplomacy (or, just as likely, shit-talking, but shit-talking that can be understood nonetheless, shit-talking with a much more human element than a simple /spit), and so I find that whole idea new and revelatory and intensely fascinating.

On the other hand, some of them were oddly chatty, unnervingly informal in their language.  Strange, so strange, to see what other people write in the world.  Nothing wrong with it, but different from how I generally wrote papers in college: dry as dust and struggling vainly for some sort of academic weight.

Speaking of gaming, I picked up Mario Kart DS.  In a word, fun.  Slightly more lengthy:  fun, classic sound, graphics roughly on par with the N64 version, but way too easy.  Maybe I’ve simply played too much Mario Kart, but I walked all over the competition on 50cc’s, all four cups, using Wario on my first time out.  I hope the higher speeds are more challenging.  I didn’t finish a single race where I wasn’t in 1st place – or where the other racers were even visible on my mini-map, for that matter.

I also picked up Burnout for the DS, but have yet to pop it in.  Still, Burnout.  DS.  It’s magic waiting to happen.

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Fallen soldiers rise from the dead… to vote.  You have to see this.  It’s playing on Showtime at the moment – well, it will be several times over the next few days, anyway.  We TiVo’ed it when it ran last night.  It’s an hour long, and it’s part of a series Showtime put together called Masters of Horror.  It’s brilliant.  I can’t tell you how good it is.  It is so goodFangoria’s review is well worth reading – they give it four skulls.  Hell, Village Voice loved it.  To briefly quote their review, which you SHOULD NOT READ if you want to avoid spoilers:  How fitting that the most pungent artistic response to a regime famed for its crass fear-mongering would be a cheap horror movie.

Too true.

I am definitely writing my zombiepocalypse novella, by the way.  I’ve had four people (including one mostly-stranger) tell me they wanted me to do this, so I am taking my usual "oh gods, but it’s so bad" angst about what I write and chucking it out the goddamn window.  I am going to write this sooner rather than later.  It’s fresh in my mind, and I want to get right to it.

After the holidays, but before January is over.

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Gamasutra has a piece up with their first impressions from a game they saw on display at the Serious Games Summit in Washington, DC.  The game is called A Force More Powerful, and it’s – get this – a nonviolent sociopolitical uprising simulator & strategy game.

Awesome.

I cannot express how neat this sounds to me.  Conscript agents, train them in nonviolence, assign them tasks and send them out to (non-)fight The Man.  How much more fun can it get than that?  I want this game.  I want it so bad.  It’s being developed as a coproduction of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, York Zimmerman, Inc. (producers of a number of documentaries, including the PBS mini-series on the history of nonviolent conflict in the 20th century called, unsurprisingly, A Force More Powerful) and Breakaway Games.  If that name sounds familiar it’s because they’re the developers of a number of games friends of mine (and I) have played:  Tropico: Paradise Island, Cleopatra and Emperor.

Gods almighty, I want this game NOW.

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The other night, I dreamt The Boyf and I were in a zombie movie.  The zombiepocalypse had come, yes, even to the small and remote college town to which we had moved.  The dead didn’t rise where we were, not right away – they’re shufflers, remember, and the urban areas were hit first – but we knew that things were wrong out in the world.

For one thing, the TV stations went off the air (after the newscasters were bitten on-camera).  The radio stations went silent.  The power went out, though it would flicker on for a few moments or a few hours from time to time.  Someone in town proposed that perhaps a zombified engineer somewhere occasionally dragged their knuckles across a control board as they staggered back and forth and thus managed to restore power until their return trip turned it off again.  

In our town, we just waited for the zombies to arrive, our defenses in place, our fingers crossed.

A bunch of fratboys tried to form a vigilante gang, but with only middling success.  They were scary but lacked gravitas, so people mainly just went inside when the frat cheese were on "patrol."  They mayor of the town was nowhere to be seen, and a few of us formed a quiet agreement that when the time came we would band together.  I wondered where my friends were, imagined Kath leading them to freedom as our recognized Zombiepocalypse Group Leader, wished desperately that we were back in Durham so that we could work with those we already knew and trusted and not a bunch of untested strangers.  

Personal dramas broke out here and there.  Marriages dissolved, people went missing, rumors flew that the zombies were just outside of town, marching towards us, perhaps even already here and we just hadn’t noticed yet.

The moaning started, way down the mountain (we were in the mountains, and the town itself sat atop a ridge so that the surrounding countryside was all down the mountain no matter what direction you went).  We knew the zombies had arrived.  The frat boys and their crowbars and their bravado were nowhere to be seen.  I remember lighting a cigarette in the dream and passing the lighter to the leader of our group so he could do the same.  We had rakes and shovels and baseball bats and a few guns and it was bitter cold, the lights flickering on and off again, and the moans would waft up the mountain and across the town on the frozen breeze.

Then I woke up.

So now that’s what I want to write for NaNoWriMo next year.

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This?  This is just about the funniest thing I’ve seen all week.  Heck, maybe in several weeks:  The Nameless Dread, aka The Lovecraft Family Circus.  My personal fave is this one, though this is a close second. 

Many years ago I was a regular reader of Spinnwebe‘s old Dysfunctional Family Circus.  Yeah, yeah, the Keanes don’t like it, I’m sure, et cetera.  I still find it hysterically funny.  Thbthbthbthbthbthpth!

Speaking of Lovecraft, I read The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft a few weeks ago.  I’d never read "The Rats in the Walls," but I had read "The Colour Out of Space" and "The Dunwich Horror" previously.  "At the Mountains of Madness" was a reread, as well, but it had been so long that I remembered almost nothing of it.  The stories aren’t great by today’s standards – they are obviously the early ancestors of today’s horror and science fiction stories, with rough edges and Lovecraft’s patented opacity as a wordsmith – but they’re a lot of fun to read and I find it very interesting to read a story and at the same time dissect what about it was supposed to be explicitly horrifying and what was left unsaid to let the reader create their own dreadful circumstance or description.  I am fascinated by taking those sorts of oblique horror stories and juxtaposing them with, say, Christine, a book that includes a lengthy description of how when someone is crushed to death in the back seat in an auto accident, the driver’s first impression is that they’ve been doused with a bucket of warm water because of all the blood hitting them in the head.

The annotations are mostly interesting, but occasionally they’re just nonsense – some of them are simply unnecessary and some of them are pointless.  For example, I’m pretty sure someone who’s sufficiently into Lovecraft to seek out annotated versions of these stories is also going to know what a cyclops is in mythology; similarly, I do find it interesting to learn when Lovecraft has named someone or something after a friend or pointedly sought out and made use of old surnames common to the settings, but do a few instances of such necessitate dithering over every name in the book?  Let me tell you, I have named a lot of characters over the years.  Some names were meant to be significant – Roderick was intended to be a clear allusion to "The Fall of the House of Usher," of course, with his disastrous ancestry and his long descent into a subtle but insidious madness masked by his more overtly "crazy" characteristics – but some were simply the names that occurred to me.  Pitrick Thatcher was named that because the Standard Fantasy Names Act of 1927 requires that fantastical first names sound almost but not exactly like "normal" names and his trade was, in fact, making/maintaining/repairing thatched rooves in his rural village.  One of Pants Wilder’s most memorable characters, Berol Musgrave – doomed priest of a dead god chosen as the temporary avatar of another prior to its birth as a more beneficent and respected power – was named after two brands of office supplies that happened to be present in the room when he was rolling up Berol’s stats.  So, really, when someone who’s a very minor character and might as well be named Villager #3 pops up in a Lovecraft story, I don’t really need a footnote that wrings its hands over being unable to explain why that character is named what s/he is named.

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