Tattooed Characters

As you may know I love procedurals and mysteries. Over the summer and fall I watched a lot of House, which is essentially a police procedural set in a hospital, and then when that ran out I wanted something lighthearted that I could stream before bedtime. For now I’ve settled on Rizzoli & Isles, which is sometimes dreadful but always soporific.

Anywho, the episode I watched last night involved a character who had a tattoo of a QR code. (It was actually a pretty good episode, too.) It got me thinking about tattoos on characters more generally. Marked bodies have relevance in all kinds of fiction, though the one I’m most familiar with is Germanic mythology and Norse sagas. In both, but especially in the sagas, very little physical detail about characters is given. When a detail is given, it’s one of the ways that you know that a character is not only important but different somehow. For instance, Odin only rises to his highest level of significance after he trades an eye for a look into the future.

This is an extreme example of conservation of detail, where you only mention things that are, in one way or another, relevant to the story. These can be scene-setting details and grounding details, or a way of getting to know a character better. In some genres, like historical fiction, a lengthy depiction of the setting is part of the form. In a Victorian Briefroman, an overly-formal description of characters and customs, even if not at all related to the plot, is expected. (I don’t care for the latter specifically because of this, but that’s merely a matter of personal taste.)

This is especially true in time- and space-limited formats like an hour-long mystery. You literally only have time for clues and red herrings and a bit of verisimilitudinous detail. So when this character was tattooed, it was important, especially because it wasn’t the sort of person you’d usually associate with a tattoo. A QR code is also something that contains explicit data, and probably isn’t just an asethetic throw-away. Unless it’s part of an extensive description of Maori tattoos or something else genre- or setting-relevant, then, a tattoo is a pretty important thing to put on a character.

I don’t currently have any characters with tattoos. I’m sure that I will soon, especially in the urban fantasy story that I’m working on (more on this to come!).

Finally, some random questions.

  • If you had a tattoo of a barcode, a normal barcode that represents a number, what would it be?
  • What about a QR code, which (usually) represents a URL?
  • I’ve long thought that a regular expression would make a fun tattoo. What pattern would you match?

Happy new year!

Annual music video:

I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me

2016 was horrid. In many ways it was the final nail in the coffin of the 20th century, much like 1914 finally ended the 19th century. The brief flash of the “information age” has given way to the age of voluntary ignorance; 20th century utopian projects are crumbling (Communism, internationalist capitalism, trans-Europeanism, neoconservatism) as we saw base authoritarianism reassert itself across the world. Oh well.

Interesting time to be alive. Stay frosty.

“Getting News From Facebook”

Every so often, a number becomes part of the journalistic zeitgeist. Sometimes it’s linked to a single factoid, sometimes it’s free-floating. You see it around, and sometimes it’s right, but a lot of the time it’s misleading or just plain made-up.

Brooke Gladstone writes about one of these in her graphic manifesto The Influencing Machine (pp. 49-54). The number in question is 50,000. Specifically, 50,000 human victims. It would pop here and there about a variety of different things. Most recently, it was reported (by Attorney General Gonzalez no less) as the number of child predators online at any time. Before that, it was the number of people sacrificed by satanic cults (remember the 80’s?). Before that it was reported as the number of children abducted by strangers in a year, even though the actual number was maybe 250.

And the more she looked into it, the more she found out that “50,000 people die” every year from… everything! At least, if the media can be believed. Where does this number come from? Gladstone calls it ‘the Goldilocks number’. Not “a really small number… like 200. And [not] a ridiculously large number… like 10 million. It [is] a Goldilocks number. Not too hot, not too cold.”


Recently something similar had pinged my radar. Specifically, that 44% of adults get their news from Facebook. Or from Twitter. Or from social media in general. Or, or…

Pretty shocking, right? I mean, those aren’t reputable news sources!

This number seemed fishy to me because it couldn’t possibly be that high. First of all, it doesn’t pass the smell test – are 44% of adults even on social media? (Yes, barely.) Well, I didn’t look into it myself, but fortunately somebody did for me. It seems to be a case of semantic drift that lends itself to sensationalism. Basically, 44% of adults, as measured by a Pew survey, report that they “get news” from Facebook, either often, sometimes, or rarely. Basically everybody who didn’t answer “never”.

What’s the difference between people “getting news” and people “getting their news”? Well, kind of everything. To get news is to receive an unknown but non-zero number of news items; to get one’s news is presumably to get all or most of the news items one consumes. This dovetails nicely with people liking to report on how technology is ruining civilization, so it’s used that way. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see this number popping up increasingly in the latter context of people getting their news on Facebook, which as we know contains a large amount of ‘fake news’ (a term that with alarming speed became completely meaningless). Etc., etc.

So if you see 44% (or its cousin 68%) popping up in this context, well, now you know.

Gladstone concludes her book by saying that ‘we get the media we deserve’. I’d like to think we aren’t this bad, though.

Privacy Changes and a Word Cloud

Now that my big fish story, The World Beyond Eels, is coming together in novel form, I’ve gone ahead and set the zeroth-draft serial version that I was posting here to private. I’ll be instead taking selections from what I have now and putting a few of them up in the coming days, but just a few. I’m also going to start on a new story some time soon about a wizard named Dennis, and I’ll be putting those up, hopefully serially, since I find that it helps motivate me to write more. This will be especially valuable now that I’m largely in revision mode on Eels, since that can be a slog and remembering to create! is always good.

Anyway, I made a word cloud for Eels that I think is fun, so here’s that. (Made with Tagul)


Write What You Know

In one of my writing classes in college the teacher started us off with an essay about that old saw, ‘write what you know’, and how you actually know a lot more than you think. You might not know a lot about being an undocumented Salvadorean immigrant, but maybe you remember your first time in a strange place and how it smelled different–what it was like to encounter a completely new olfactory profile. Maybe it was alienating or freeing. But the specifics aren’t particularly important now that you have a frame for it. You’ve just leveraged your lived life to add some realism to a strange character. 

And you don’t need a lot of this. A technique that Ray Carver used a lot, and to great effect, is something I like to call ‘pointillistic realism’. He often worked in threes. Just listed three things. One was usually highly evocative:

Mel handed me the saucer of limes. I took a section, squeezed it over my drink, and stirred the ice cubes with my finger.

There’s a Tobias Wolff story where he describes a scene outside as containing ‘teenagers selling oregano to tourists in white shoes’ or a very similar phrase. When I read that the first time I knew exactly what street he was talking about. The street could be anywhere, but you know that kind of street too.

So it doesn’t take very much detail to evoke something, and your life is already full of little details you can include to flesh out scenes and characters. So much of what we experience is universal. You just have to pick the right thing. So by all means, write what you know–but you can get a lot further on that than it seems at first blush. 

What brought this to mind today is, I finally got the perfect picture of my morning commute. One of my characters takes the same train into town in the book I’m working on, and I’ve been imagining what it’s like to do for your first time.

Kenji woke Hideki up when the train got closer to San Francisco. The coastal range wrapped around South San Francisco and and joined with the highway on the left side of the train, and piers full of derelict ships and the biggest pile of garbage Hideki had ever seen greeted him on the right side. Kenji probably could have woken him up at a slightly different time. Hideki wondered if it had been intentional.

They went through a tunnel and entered the city proper. The graffiti that he’d seen hints of as they approached now showed up in force. It was like something out of a movie. There were unreadable words taller than he was, illegal but still beautiful murals, and some things that were probably ‘gang tags’, whatever it is those were. The rest was a familiar enough scene, with pallets leaning against shipping containers and garbage strewn here and there.

Maybe ‘here and there’ was the wrong term. Garbage was everywhere. But the people waiting at the 22nd street station didn’t seem to mind, or even really notice. Hideki got the impression that he’d be seeing a lot more trash than he was used to this trip.


I had an episode of House on in the background last night on Netflix while I was messing around on the Internet. After what would have been a commercial break, it shows House and Kal Penn’s character doing a walk-and-talk and Kal Penn summarizes what they’ve learned about the patient over the last ten minutes or so of story. House looks at him irritably (though does he do it in another manner ever?) and says, “what is this, some sort of recap?”

I find these things amusing. I also find them annoying if they’re overdone, but this just happened once, so it’s fine.

The end.