Announcing: Against Stupidity – the Webcomic

Heya readers,

I’m pleased to announce the launch of my new public project, a webcomic named Against Stupidity. From the summary:

Meet Jesse Grunwald.

He just finished two years at community college in Santa Fe. In a fortuitous coincidence, earlier this year, he got offered a four-year scholarship at a Denver university and inherited his grandmother’s estate–a vintage victorian right by the lake in south Denver. Now it’s fall, and he’s moving in. He’s prepared to balance the quadruple demands of keeping up his GPA, holding down a job, making new friends, and keeping repairs up on the undoubtedly shitty car he’s about to buy. Unbeknownst to him, he’ll have to add two more demands–taking care of grandma’s pets, and holding up his magical karmic duties as the only grandchild of the powerful witch Clarita Grunwald.

I hope you’ll join and follow his adventures. Here’s the cover for Chapter 1, Over The River and Through The Woods:

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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)

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Lampshades

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. 

Your Body Is Horrifying, pt. 1

Warning: rambling. -Ed.

It’s common, in trope-y writing, like horror or sci-fi, to intentionally make the reader feel a certain horror in or about their own body. This can also come up in authors who inhabit the ‘weird’ spectrum, like Borges or Murakami.

The thing about this is that it’s so easy. All I have to do is point out that you have a body.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as inhabiting a body. This comes in many flavors. Dualism is an extremely popular one. Your body is separate from your you. Your soul, your spirit, your whatever-you-want-to-call-it: your mind is not a part of your body, so your mind is not made of meat. Things made of meat are gross. We eat things made of meat. But your mind, which you’ve managed to separate from your body just by thinking about it (thinking is magical!), is still, you know, physically bound to your body. You can’t go anywhere that your meat doesn’t let you. You’re born meat, and you die meat.

Gross, right?

Now, there’s a second aspect to this. Bodies die. So we come up with elaborate mechanisms for which our bodies might die, but not us, not really. Dualism is a very strongly held belief in basically every school of thought, even atheism. So it’s not just that meat is gross–meat is mortal, too. Like I said, a lot of us eat it every day without really giving it a second thought. Any notion that your you-ness is all tied up in this meat nonsense is horrifying.

So how can I make sure you feel this? First, I can just tell you. You are mortal. You are made of meat. Like in this hypothetical children’s book from the inimitable Ryan North:

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Or this gem, which Neal Stephenson sort of randomly plops down in the middle of a scene in Cryptonomicon:

The room contains a few dozen living human bodies, each one a big sack of guts and fluids so highly compressed that it will squirt for a few yards when pierced. Each one is built around an armature of 206 bones connected to each other by notoriously fault-prone joints that are given to obnoxious creaking, grinding, and popping noises when they are in other than pristine condition. This structure is draped with throbbing steak, inflated with clenching air sacks, and pierced by a Gordian sewer filled with burbling acid and compressed gas and asquirt with vile enzymes and solvents produced by many dark, gamy nuggets of genetically programmed meat strung along its length. Slugs of dissolving food are forced down this sloppy labyrinth by serialized convulsions, decaying into gas, liquid, and solid matter which must all be regularly vented to the outside world lest the owner go toxic and drop dead. Spherical, gel-packed cameras swivel in mucus greased ball joints. Infinite phalanxes of cilia beat back invading particles, encapsulate them in goo for later disposal. In each body a centrally located muscle flails away at an eternal, circulating torrent of pressurized gravy.

Isn’t that fun? In the first example, North just points out some meat and mortality; in the second, Stephenson makes it super gross. They’re not especially horrifying, I suppose, but they certainly make me nervous and a little squicked out, which is the point.

One thing that is horrifying, in its own special way, is a sci-fi short story (and a wonderful short film version) that does just this (linked above as well), in which the fact that we’re made out of meat is described from the point of view of somebody who is just now discovering that it’s even possible for something sentient to be made out of meat:

“They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”

“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”

“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”

“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”

They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”

“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”
[…]

This upsets the aliens enough that they decide to declare the sector uninhabited, erase all records of humanity, and move on. Later, they muse about how lonely it must be, thinking you’re alone in the universe, except they’re talking about an intelligent crystal or something or other.

So, in order to make you feel weird about your body (which is of course all you are and ever will be), I can:

  • Remind you that you’re mortal
  • Describe your body in excruciating detail
  • Talk about your body as though I’d never seen a body before

And we haven’t even gotten to the part where I have you imagine anything even happening to your body. All of these examples so far are just descriptive.

In Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of the characters has a scar on her face and something wrong with her leg. He tends to mark his characters like this. In 1Q84 one of them has a weird ear. Body marking is also very important in the Germanic epics and sagas. This is the realm of injuries and minor mutilations. It sets people apart as different, or important, or both. That’s all another post though.

For now, man, how weird is it that you have a body?

The Reverse X-Files

In The X-Files,  and many other things as well, the writers have an irksome tendency to have the characters just define things to each other in front of the reader/viewer, who might not know what they’re talking about. It makes me think of The X-Files because in college we had a professor who was really into Darin Morgan, and we studied some of the episodes he’d written in class, as well as a couple he hadn’t.

Naturally this led to watching all the rest of The X-Files during downtime, since we had the DVD’s from the library anyway.

The show made a habit of this. The example I like to use is roughly this.

SCULLY: Do you think this could be an example of telekinesis, Mulder?

MULDER: Telekinesis? You mean the ability to manipulate objects with nothing but the power of one’s mind?

SCULLY: Yes, Mulder.

MULDER: No, Scully, I don’t think this is an example of telekinesis.

I forget if it was actually telekinesis or not in that episode. Anyway, that’s the general formula.

Recently enough somebody reminded me of this scene from Superman, which features a particularly egregious example.

LEX LUTHOR: The San Andreas fault, maybe you’ve heard of it?

SUPERMAN: Yes… it’s the joining together of two land masses. The fault line is unstable and shifting, which is why you get earthquakes in California from time to time.

LEX LUTHOR: Wonderful. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Not only do the authors know that they’re doing it, they’re trying to act cagey by making sure you know they know they’re doing it (“couldn’t have said it better myself!”). Now, there’s nothing wrong with this, necessarily. Tropes are tools, after all. But this particular execution just sucks.

(Going by the TVTropes nomenclature, when done well, this is more appropriately lampshade hanging, and when done especially poorly it’s an as you know, Bob…. My examples above are of the ‘reading the dictionary to the viewer’ variety, which makes me think of The X-Files.)

Anyway, I ran into a sort of reverse X-Files today at work. We’re setting up a new data pipeline using Google Cloud Pub/Sub, which uses a bleedingly obscure word in the documentation, and whoever wrote this is savvy enough to know that you probably don’t know the word, and actually goes out of his way to make sure you know he knows you don’t know the word by linking to the wikipedia article without comment.

For the most part Pub/Sub delivers each message once, and in the order in which it was published. However, once-only and in-order delivery are not guaranteed: it may happen that a message is delivered more than once, and out of order. Therefore, your subscriber should be idempotent when processing messages, and, if necessary, able to handle messages received out of order…

As if he couldn’t be bothered to do any explanation for the handful of idiots who don’t know what ‘idempotent’ means off the top of their heads. Bravo, sir or madame.

Document formatting in fiction

(cross-posted)

Formatting is fun.

Time was, when you were ready to have a book published, you sent off your typewritten manuscript to the publisher and they determined what sort of physical form this would take. Typeface, page size, font size, paper stock, often cover art, hardcover vs. trade paperback, all that stuff.

That’s still true, to a large degree, but all the advances in technology for dead-tree printing have really let us go to town with creative formatting. This can take a variety of forms. I’m going to lead, however, with a historical example.

William Faulkner wanted The Sound and The Fury to be published with more than just black ink on white paper. (Well, he didn’t have anything to say about the paper.) But I do know that he wanted multiple ink colors to indicate the various speakers and time periods and intersections thereof. My recollection from undergrad is that he wanted four colors (or perhaps five if you include black); the Times article above suggests fourteen. At any rate, the publisher said ‘no’, because that would have been super expensive in 1929. (The ultra-deluxe 14-color modern edition linked above sold for $345 at printing, though I doubt this was strictly necessary and is almost certainly a case of conspicuous consumption for lit nerds.)

There’s an interesting discussion of how the new coloration may actually make the book too non-difficult to read. I wouldn’t know, since I read the broke undergrad Penguin Classics version, but it’s an interesting thought. I have the impression that The Sound and The Fury is sort of a rite of passage, and that this makes accessibility a bad thing, to a certain type of person. That’s a topic for another time I suppose.

So that was then, and this is now. Custom formatting is cheaper and easier, yay! I’ll admit that I first started noticing it when I was reading Cell by Stephen King, which would have been, gosh, ten years ago. One of the recurring images is the main character being crushed by a piece of construction equipment. The equipment’s brand is Link-Belt. “Here comes Link-Belt!” is I believe the refrain. But it’s in sort of a font like “Here comes LINK-BELT!” And as it gets closer and closer to crushing his leg (debilitating leg injuries are something of a motif for Mr. King), it gets bigger.

“Here comes LINK-BELT!”

 

“Here comes LINK-BELT!”

 

“Here comes LINK-BELT!”

(To this day, when I pass a construction site on the highway and see a LINK-BELT piece of machinery, I think of that.)

That’s fun. And technology is letting us do more stuff like that in more things ‘cuz cheap production, which is good. It even lets us do some completely bugf— crazy things like this.

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House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski) is, uh, a thing that exists. (I did not take this picture.) It’s weird. Leaving aside the question of whether or not it pulls off what it’s trying to do, let nobody say that it doesn’t try to do it. And it just wouldn’t even exist if it we didn’t have the ability to do something like this for a few (seven) hundred pages relatively cheap. It costs about as much as any other roughly-letter-sized 700-page book. We aren’t talking about asking the publisher ‘can I use Helvetica instead of Times’? We aren’t talking about something like The Sound and The Fury here, where it’s maybe better/closer to the original intent if you have a few extra colors. Cheap formatting is an existential requirement for this book.

Yay cheap formatting! I’m generally in favor of books existing! Really going out on a limb there, I know!

Obviously this is even easier in digital formats. I’m going to go out on another limb and include web sites in that calculation. Philosophically they’re just books with javascript and a database, or perhaps more like the memex, but the relevant thing is, these were all conceived of as digital text, and in this sense ‘text’ means ‘a document’ and ‘a document’ means ‘a book’. (This is a lie, but a convenient one.)

Anywho, formatting is cool, and it lets you do things with a text that you couldn’t do before, and that’s good. Here’s something from the re-draft of (new working title) The World Beyond Eels:

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Eel Pie Island Eel Pie Co.

First, a bit from draft 2:

James F.X. “Nuts” Adams sat on the pier waiting for the eel trawler to come in from the river. He drummed his fingers on the weather-worn wood. It hadn’t been varnished in a while. The splinter under his fingernail could attest to that. He’d just have to go ahead and add ‘re-varnish the pier’ to the chore list back at the eelhouse.

The eelhouse sat up on the hill behind him. EEL PIE ISLAND EEL PIE Co., read the old company sign. (Great granddad must have really strained himself, coming up with that name.) Like the pier, the sign was in dire need of re-varnishing. The whole building was. For that matter, so was everything else in London that had survived the Blitz. It wasn’t quite like that over on the Continent. Mom and dad liked to blame the weather for this, though what a bunch of clouds could have to do with it was beyond Nuts. He preferred to chalk it up to some sort of original sin unique to the English.

It smelled like woodsmoke and eels, inside the eelhouse. Frozen eel, dried eel, eel guts that could probably have been taken out back a little while ago. Empty fish tanks, about half of them shattered, adorned the walls. Eel pies baked in the wood-fired ovens. Nuts, Kate, and Blake sat by a hearth. They were wrapped in blankets and had their hands out to the glowing coals. Kate was still wringing out her hair and drinking brandy. Blake was coughing up river water and Nuts was shivering. Every so often, Kate would add a sentence or two to her story.

The front room of the eelhouse wasn’t a dining room, not quite. It had tables and chairs, yeah, but also a cash register and some supplies hidden poorly under sackcloth. The Co. wasn’t exactly a tourist attraction, but they got visitors from time to time, and it was nice to have a little place for them to sit. A small rack of pamphlets graced the wall by the door and a corkboard with assorted pictures hung from another.

Nuts and Cornelius and Kate sat at one of the tables. They had a little radio plugged in on the next table over. There was an eel pie, one of the big ones, steaming at the table with the radio, and Nuts and Cornelius had slices on plates in front of them. Kate said she wasn’t hungry.

Second, a friend of mine did some drawings!

Here they are, with and without some Instagram filters.