(1) Tue Jun 05 2012 09:40 Constellation Games Author Commentary #28, "Someone Is Wrong On The Outernet":
I found this little sketch I did for Sumana during the second draft, when I first completed the chapter with Ariel and Tetsuo playing Temple Sphere. It shows the Tool of Justice guardian-caste strapped into his cockpit, upset about Tetsuo having landed on top of his ship. It also invites Sumana to enjoy peanut butter cookies.
I invite you to enjoy peanut butter cookies as well, but I don't have any prepared. Instead I made you a Twitter archive, and this commentary. The spoiler thread from last week is still open, but no one's posted to it, so perhaps the time for spoiler threads has now passed. Anyway, commentary:
- This is where Ashley (I'm gonna call her Somn from this point, as
Ariel does) comes into her own as a character. A little late, you
say? Yes, but it was at least partially
intentional. Constellation Games is a soap opera, and soap
operas have character arcs. Characters come and go, their influence on the
plot waxes and wanes.
Curic was the most important non-Ariel character in part one, and
although her character never stops gaining complexity, she'll never
be that central again. Dana and Jenny were built up in part one to
become central to part two. Tetsuo had two peaks: one at the end of
part one, and one here at the end of part two. To a first
approximation, part three is a story about Ariel and
So yeah, I could have taken care of this a little earlier, but it's
better to build up characters as they become important, than to
introduce them all at the start and keep some of them under the heat
lamp for most of the book.
- Somn's scene replaced the deleted scene I showed you back
in chapter 25. I gave Ariel's "we're the most adaptable" attitude to
Somn. You're used to seeing it from a human in an SF story, but it's
pretty interesting to see it from an ET who's having a nervous
breakdown because she can't live up to it. And now you see why I
couldn't have Tetsuo tell Ariel his Purchtrin name--he won't even tell
- The Somn scene was added in the third draft; in the second, she didn't have any decent characterization until chapter 31, which is way too late.
In the third draft, Somn's Purchtrin name was Pruv. I didn't like this name, in particular because it sounds more like a Farang name. But everything else I could think of was one of those SF women's names that ends in a vowel because that sounds female to American ears. Then I noticed that I'd already come up with a much better name for this character, a name she'd incorporated into her human name as a way of holding on to it.
I don't beat you over the head with it, but in "The Time Somn Died" you can see where "Ashley" came from, too.
- More callbacks! When Ariel had that gut-wrenching conversation
about having to lie about everything, he was carrying the stolen Scotch
decanter in his bag. And now he's lying to mom about the
decanter. Damn! Originally you didn't find out what happened to the
decanter until chapter 31, but that was just dumb. It's way more
effective revealed here.
- Texas Hold-'Em is the third and final real-life game mentioned in the novel. As with the other two (Tennis for Two, Conway's Life), I couldn't fictionalize it because I needed to make a joke about the name.
- In general I came up with game names before designing the games,
and What-The-Fuck Creek was one of the very first names I came up
with, way back at the start of the first draft. I knew it had to be a Gaijin game as soon as I had the name.
- "Saved your ass in the temple of Nahadoth" is a reference to
N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy. Nora founded my current writing
group, and I repaid her by misspelling her name in the
acknowledgements. (Update: I did it again, in this paragraph, even though I was writing about misspelling her name!)
- Speaking of name mistakes. In a repeat of chapter 15's "Kinki Bwi" incident, You'll Only See Kis Echo! was originally named You'll Only See Kis Shadow!. I totally forgot that I'd changed the name, and when I added the new Tetsuo scene to chapter 33, I called kim You'll Only See Kis Shadow!, a mistake that made it into the printed book.
- There was significant pushback to the format of the email exchange between Jenny and Bai, even though it was identical in format to email messages you get every day. I did change it a little to ensure that you see the entire email thread one message at a time, rather than with replies interspersed.
The email exchange was originally between Jenny and Bruce, and due to the difficulty of denoting who was talking in email with no "Jenny said" type cues, I came up with the possibly genius idea of having Bruce write in Twitter-speak. So "ayn rand" was originally "@aynrand", etc. This tied into other jokes like Bruce saying "Lol" at one point instead of laughing.
Anyway, I got rid of all that crap when I got rid of Bruce. Bai is already ditzy enough without also having Bruce's weird netspeak. So now you must must distinguish between the two characters solely by the fact that Jenny uses capital letters and Bai doesn't. (This is also the difference between Curic and Ariel in chat.)
Now that you've seen Your Quiescent Achievement and met
You'll Only See Kis
ShadowEcho!, I wanna talk a little about the Gaijin. I
designed this species to force me to write outside my comfort zone. I
don't get pushed that far outside my comfort zone in Constellation
Games, but I'll be able to in any future Constellation stuff I
write. Here's how it works:
"Vanilla" introduced the ur-Gaijin, a male named This Guy Loves
Salt!, a cheerful bloke who was effectively the manservant to a
foppish Inostranets named Geshmu. I was never sure what their
relationship was, why This Guy Loves Salt!, a member of a
post-scarcity civilization of anarchists, was willing to spend his
days literally carrying around his "boss" in a briefcase. I figured it
was a case of two eccentrics who'd found each other.
The tipping point away from that idea was the 2009 Star Trek
reboot, which saw Montgomery Scott exiled to Hoth along with an
alien Starfleet officer who Memory Alpha says is named Keenser. I wrote: "Scotty's always
yelling at [Keenser], shoving him around, generally treating him like
Igor... this seemed cruel and even kind of racist of Scotty." Jake
anything dealing with alien races invites a weird "possibly true"
style of racism. which is to say, you can just declare "these people
are not intelligent" or "these people are money-grubbing schemers" or
in the case of the batfaced lackey race, "they respond well to being
bossed around". perhaps this is just their way, so let's not be
You can declare that, but that kind of SF racism is Star
Trek bullshit, because it assumes not just that (e.g.) all Ferengi
are greedy, but that something about Ferengi biology makes significant
cultural or individual variation impossible. For an entire species to be
that one-dimensional they'd have to be... eusocial insects... or
So! Some species (Aliens, Inostransi, humans) join the
Constellation by dumb luck: they happened to get contacted before
wiping themselves out or turning into Slow People. But most surviving
species tend towards conservative, low-impact cultures (like the Dhihe Coastal Coalition of the ancient Farang) that can just
hold on for tens of millions of years.
The Gaijin have the most conservative culture of all. Their basic
culture and behavior are hard-coded into their genes and fine-tuned by
evolution to maintain the complex kin selection that propagates their
three-gendered caste system. When the Gaijin civilization that
produced smart paper collapsed (probably due to an asteroid impact--I
like using those), everyone was sad about all the people who died, but
the collapse of civilization itself was not a big deal. The Gaijin
just moved to the caves and started farming, because that's what you
do to survive when there's no electricity.
Gaijin don't form a hive mind, like Them; they're pure individuals. But
the individuals only come in three flavors, one for each
caste. They're like the Cylons in the Battlestar remake. And
it's not clear to outsiders which of their behavior is voluntary and
which is instinctual. (Not that it's super clear for humans.)
So, in chapter 31 you'll meet a Gaijin male who's shouty and
cheerful and loves doing grunt work. That's just how they are. This
Guy Loves Salt! was the same way, and so is He Sees The Map And He
Throws The Dart!, the guy who organized the Mars mission, and so is the person What-The-Fuck Creek wanted Ariel to be. There are three character classes, and that's it. This idea makes me super uncomfortable, but it's not very different from a lot of other science fiction I enjoy.
Whew! After all that, I have just one question for you: are you ready? Ready for chapter 29, the GAME-CHANGING, CHANGE-GAMING cliffhanger that ends Part Two? Ready for Ariel to say, "That fucking hippie was right."? Ready, dare I say, for some football?
If not, you have a week to prepare. Unless you're going through this commentary simultaneously with reading the complete book, in which case you should take a break and have some herbal tea or something.
Image credits: Yours truly, Luca Masarco, NASA, Eric Fischer (hi!), Pop Culture Geek.
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(1) Mon Jun 11 2012 10:51 Blindsided:
Recently it became my duty to scan my mother's high school yearbooks. While going through the last one (1970, Fremont High in Sunnyvale) it occurred to me to check Wikipedia to see if my mom went to high school with any "notable" people. As a matter of fact, there are two notable people in the 1970 yearbook, and this led to a horrifying realization that came from the yearbook itself. This is probably the only time I'll talk about sports in this weblog, so settle in.
Here's Frances Anne Larrieu, now Francie Larrieu Smith. I like to think of her as "the other Frances." This picture is taken in 1970, the year she wins a national title in the 1500-meter run. Two years later she'll be running the 1500 for America's Olympic team in Munich. In 1975 she'll set the world record for the mile run. She'll compete in the 1976 Olympics, she'll make the 1980 team but won't participate because of the boycott, and she'll compete again in 1988 and in 1992, when she'll be the flag bearer for the American Olympic team. Runner's World will call her the "most versatile runner of the quarter century." Here's her entry in the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Do you see something missing from the yearbook entry of this high school student in the year she wins a national track title? "Astras, Aquatics, Arbor Girl, Nominations Convention, Mothers' Tea." Where's "Track"? It's not on there, because this is before Title IX. Fremont High School didn't have a girls' track team. It didn't have any girls' sports teams.
I hadn't been paying any attention to any part of the yearbooks not likely to feature my mother. I went back and looked. None of the three high schools my mother attended had any sports for girls, apart from an annual "Powder Puff" basketball game which pitted the varsity cheerleaders against the j.v. cheerleaders.
Well, there is a page in the 1970 FHS yearbook about the "Girls' Athletic Association". It shows girls playing volleyball and doing gymnastics. I don't know what this is. It's in with the chorus and the school plays, so I think it's a club. If you were a girl and interested in sports, you joined a catch-all after-school club.
Or there's always cheerleading. In addition to the varsity and j.v. cheerleadering squads, Fremont had squads of "song girls", "flag girls", and "letter girls", as well as the Featherettes, a forty-girl pep club. But no sports teams.
Here's the story from Francie's perspective, as given in a 2012 interview (fake paragraphing inserted for clarity):
I joined a girl’s age group team (the only game in town) that disbanded after a few months. As it turns out, the coach was the new coach at what would be my HS the following year. He invited me to come out and train with the boys at the HS (remember no girls programs in schools back in the 60’s).
My first two years in HS, I trained with the Fremont HS (Sunnyvale, CA) boys cross country and track & field teams. My coach arranged for me to run in some of the boys XC meets but only so I would not miss workout when they raced. The other coaches agreed to allow me to race with the boys with the stipulation that I could not score for the team. He took me to girl’s only meets on the weekends.
In the beginning I trained 5 days week during the school year and never in the summer. It never occurred to me I lacked opportunity because I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing—competing and working towards my goal of winning an Olympic gold medal.
After my sophomore year in HS my coach disappeared. I often wonder if his allowing me to train with the boys had anything to do with his leaving Fremont HS. In the mean time, Augie Argabright had formed the San Jose Cindergals, and I soon joined the team (again the only game in town for girls).
By comparison, here's Carl Ekern, the other notable person my mother went to high school with. He'll go on to play pro football for the Los Angeles Rams. He'll die in a car accident in 1990, and the Rams will name an internal award after him, honoring "sportsmanship, work ethic and commitment to teammates".
Carl Ekern doesn't have a big portrait in this yearbook because he's an underclassman. But he does show up in two group shots. Here he is on the j.v. football team:
And here he is with his older brother Eric on the wrestling team:
I counted 23 pages in the Fremont yearbook devoted to boys' sports, and five devoted to cheerleading-like activities. For comparison I went through my high school yearbook (1996, Arvin High). I counted 22 pages devoted to boys' sports, 15 devoted to girls' sports (there's no girls' football, wrestling, or cross-country, and no boys' volleyball), four pages for the three cheerleading squads, one page for the coed track team (which only has one girl), and a one-page general collage.
These old yearbooks have lots of girls (like my mother) in student government, band, journalism, etc. It's just sports. And I didn't notice because I don't give a damn about sports.
(10) Tue Jun 12 2012 09:32 Constellation Games Author Commentary #29: He Sees The Map And He Throws The Dart:
PLOT TWIST. Please tell me you didn't see that coming. Well, tell me
the truth, but I hope you were just about to figure it out when it
happened. It helps that most of Ariel's really odd behavior (the
unpublished blog posts, "eyes on the prize") ended up in this chapter,
so you didn't have a week to think about it.
The day I brought chapter 28 to writing group, just as we were leaving, Andrew stopped and said "Oooooooh." Ideally that realization will now happen right in the middle of chapter 29.
I've mentioned before that this plot twist was originally going to
be the end of the book (along with a little bit extra which became the
seed of the actual ending). I'm pretty sure y'all would have screamed
bloody murder if that had happened, so it's a good thing that as I
wrote part two I thought of more and more stuff to happen after the
The PDF of part two should be released soon. Here's the Twitter archive. In news of "dammit", the Twitter feeds stopped working last Wednesday, possibly because of this UTF-8-licious tweet, and I didn't notice. Especially furiating since last week featured many classic bits, like Tetsuo discovering The Game and Ariel mocking thrift store T-shirts. So I do recommend you read the in-world timeline for chapter 28.
In news of "non-dammit", I'll be appearing this Sunday on the Cambridge (UK) radio show The Science of Fiction, talking about "Games in Fiction and Fiction in Games", and about Constellation Games in particular. Even if you don't live in Cambridge you can stream it "live" (we're actually recording on Wednesday) over the net, or download the program[me] afterwards.
This is a story all about how Ariel's life got flipped, turned upside down. And I'd like to take a minute—just sit right there—
then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well!
- The second-draft title for this chapter was "Uploadable Content"
but I didn't really want a goofy game reference closing out part two. The title actually came from a source I haven't mentioned once in this
commentary, a source that inspired "Vanilla" and thus the entire
Back around 2002 I wrote a song about a human who acts as a gigolo for
ETs, a plot I reused for "Vanilla". The song ended like this:
His engine's missing an essential part
He sees the map and he throws the dart
He's got to close his eyes, even though it's dark
He sees the map and he throws the dart
He's heading out and he's looking sharp
He sees the map and he throws the dart
She's looking down with a broken heart
He sees the map and he throws the dart
A lesser problem I fixed in the third draft of CG is that a
lot of minor characters who should have names, didn't. Naming a
character lets you use the name instead of descriptions or pronouns,
but it creates additional mental load on the reader. Knowing where to
draw the line is kind of a black art, but I'm pretty sure the founder
of the Mars mission overlay needs a name. In a short story I'd have
combined that character with Colonel Mason, but this is a novel, we
have space to stretch our legs, and I didn't want a human to be
In the second draft it was an unnamed Ausländer who invited Tammy
to join the Mars overlay, but around this time I noticed that "He sees
the map and he throws the dart", the line from the old song, is a perfect
Gaijin name. That line is also a good characterization of Ariel at the end of part two. So we got a name for that character, and a better title
for this chapter, and a hat-tip to this song only a couple people have
- Side note: maps seem to be unusually important to the
Gaijin. We don't see a lot of the species, but we get HSTMAHTTD!, the
smart paper OS is called The Big Map That's Easy To Understand,
What-The-Fuck Creek was played on a map, and a game to be
reviewed in chapter 32 features magical maps. I don't know what to
make of this, but it's a real trend.
- [TK IN THIS DRAFT THE MARS MISSION WAS LAUNCHED AROUND SEPTEMBER 10. IT NEEDS TO BE MOVED BACK A MONTH--I THOUGHT THIS PART OF THE
NOVEL WOULD TAKE MORE CALENDAR TIME. FORTUNATELY, THE DATE OF TETSUO'S
FIRST LECTURE ALSO NEEDS TO BE MOVED BACK A MONTH, SO THEY CAN BE FIXED SIMULTANEOUSLY.]"
I spent way more time that I would have liked fixing stuff like
- "He seduced her with a ten-point checklist" is one of my favorite
lines. (Extratextual spoiler: Colonel Mason did not seduce Tammy at
- After writing Dana's accusation that Ariel made up his
relationship with Tammy, there was a couple hours where I wondered
what if she's right?. Wow! This was the second draft, so there
weren't any "real life" sections per se. And the scene where Tetsuo
and Daisy interact with Tammy didn't exist yet, so Ariel had no
corroboration. What if he is lying about Tammy?
Oh, man, that would be so cool. Unfortunately, that kind of reveal would derail the whole
story. Tammy would suddenly become a non-character and her arc would
serve no dramatic purpose. Plus, there's already plenty of Ariel
lying, and this is a really dumb thing for him to lie about. So I gave
his story some corroboration in the third draft. But it was fun to
consider the possibility that he'd pulled one over on me.
- Speaking of Tammy's arc: this is a tiny spoiler for next week, but
eh. Ariel thought Tammy was his Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she's the
protagonist of a totally different story that intersected Ariel's at
one point. Ariel assumed Tammy wouldn't undergo character development
when she was offscreen, but she did. He is not going to handle this
- The Dana/Bai/Ariel argument was intended to be the capstone of
Dana's plot arc. But you may have noticed that this scene, like this
chapter I originally thought would end the book, is more cliffhanger
than resolution. I really have a hard time seeing this. I tend to
think that if I've created a lot of tension I've done my job. This
scene was the one I mentioned back in 2010, as causing the "where is this subplot
So... there's more Dana stuff in the novel. Stuff I can't imagine
not having. But I wouldn't say her plot arc gets resolved until
the end of "Dana no Chousen."
- The Constellation Library is another thing that went into Constellation Games mainly because it was so important to "Vanilla", the story you'll probably never see. Given that I invented the Her superorganism for CG, I probably could have done something like the Library scene without introducing another ancient, world-weary collective intelligence. But, I'm ultimately glad I kept it, because in "The Time Somn Died" you get to see the working relationship between Her and the Library. Truly, they are the original Odd Couple.
Since the Library scene is just a transcript, you don't get a description of the librarian, but I'll tell you (and you'll see in "Somn") that the Constellation Library is sort of like the Borg collective: a heavily-striped RAID array of brains, running in the bodies of people who died in ways that precluded them uploading (or who just didn't want to upload). The librarian Bai talks to is effectively a zombie.
The "user interface" of the Constellation Library was inspired by how in David Brin's Uplift series everyone's such a jerk about letting humans use the Galactic Library. Here the library itself is a huge jerk.
- It's probably clear from the text, but just in case: Sky Goddess the Myriad Fingers is the jurist's name for the Her superorganism.
- The Library's primary documents are the sort of thing that I can
write and know it's good, but I can never look at again. I don't think
I've changed them at all since the second draft. I could check, but that
would mean looking at them.
Thus ends part two, "Software". The stage is set for "Artwork", the action-packed miniseries that will end the serialization. It all starts next week, when Ariel will say, "It's fucking romantic, okay?" Will it be okay? Is it actually romantic?
AllMost will be revealed! Tune in next week.
Photo credits: Voyager 2, Wikimedia Commons user SeppVei, NASA, Dorothy Harris, Flickr user zdw.
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Wed Jun 13 2012 16:34 Dada Update:
I just finished the prerecording of this Sunday's episode of The Science of Fiction. We had a good time talking about games, how they tell stories, how we tell stories about them, the fact that Dwarf Fortress is 3D now, and so on. But I also got in some plugs for dadaism (via generative content) and Queneau assemblies, and in a move sure to shock the Brits, I read aloud a sonnet generated by Spurious.
But quelle horreur! When I looked closely at the sonnet before reading I noticed that it wasn't a proper Queneau assembly! It was un petit queneauesque, but some of the lines felt wrong. After recording I looked at the code and discovered I'd been tripped up by Sonnet 126 ("O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power"), which only has 12 lines.
The old Spurious code thought the first two lines of Sonnet 127 were the last two lines of Sonnet 126, that the third and fourth lines of 127 were actually the first two lines, and so on for the rest of the sonnets. This of course defeats the whole purpose of a Queneau assembly, which is to let T0 equal Tn0 for some n, not to sometimes choose Tn0 and sometimes Tn2.
Anyway, I fixed the code and now Shakespeare is rolling in his grave at the correct frequency. I also took down the "pure random" sonnet because I've decided that one's not nearly as fun.
Oh, and earlier this week I wrote @DadaBrendan, cashing in on the recent spate of Brendan subminds on Twitter (e.g.). But let's pass lightly over that one.
(1) Sun Jun 17 2012 12:59 Dada Da Dada Da Dum:
My appearance on The Science of Fiction just aired. I talked about how generative art takes advantage of our tendency to find patterns in randomness, and during the discussion Dr Andy Holding had a whizzer of an idea. (I may not be using that term correctly.) After I read a sonnet from Spurious, he said that you could do Queneau assembly on limericks. I said "I may do that as soon as we stop recording." And so I did!
The project's called Dada Da Dada Da Dum. The dataset is the 95,000 limericks from the Jim McWilliam collection. It's a dataset large enough to ensure that the generated limericks rhyme:
How could Orwell have been so mistaken?
Even if true, why be shaken?
He got an erection
I did an inspection
I'm referring, of course, to F. Bacon.
(as as with limericks in general, most of the generated limericks are obscene.)
I'm really proud of this project. Queneau-assembled limericks are very effective cognitive illusions and they're a lot of fun to read. I've created a Twitter bot @DadaLimericks which posts six of these limericks a day, so the fun never has to end. Never, I tell you!
Said Eve to Alonzo, "You may"
Why then, I must carefully say
When she jerked on the chain
And I pooped from the strain.
And a beard on a nude by Monet.
Update: A couple days later I saw the project commenting on itself:
A phoney pop-artist named Hart
I'm dada! R. Mutt Anti-art!
His idea of fun
She cries, "Better run"
And dumb millions took it to heart.
(9) Tue Jun 19 2012 09:31 Constellation Games Author Commentary #30: "Constellation 'Shipping":
Here it is: the weird chapter. The chapter that takes what was
fairly realistic SF and does I don't know what to it. Why? Because, like
Her, I despise being dull. I despise it enough to risk pulling a Battlestar Galactica and ruining the
reader's experience of the entire book. Amazingly, the only major complaints I've gotten so far came from
writing group in the second draft, saying that the emotional tone of
what came before was never as powerful as this. But if you want to
complain, you're welcome to do so.
As you may have gathered from the text, I don't like the idea that
certain fictional characters "belong" together in a teleological
sense, an assumption that underlies a lot of art and fandom. I think
it's lazy character development and I think it encourages people to
think that way about real life, where it's absolutely false.
On the other hand, fiction is teleological, and fictional
characters are puppets. Declaring romantic destiny between two characters is no more
difficult than saying how tall they are. You just have to be careful
not to contradict your statement by the characters' words or actions.
"Explain why Ariel and Jenny aren't together" annoyed me, perhaps
unfairly, because the need for an explanation reminded me of this
assumption I dislike. I mentioned this earlier in commentary, and also mentioned
that I'd decided to include an explanation if I could think of one
that wasn't a cliche. This is what I came up with: the One True
Pairing phenomenon is real, but it's a curse. Any two parties so affected are the
Keymaster and Gatekeeper of a door that opens into stark, existential
This was kind of inspired by a story idea (I don't remember if I
came up with this or read it somewhere) where an intelligence
augmentation technique is invented, but people who use it too much
become listless and nihilistic because they can see the true nature of
the universe unfiltered by the usual coping mechanisms. There's no
plot there, which gives it the hallmarks of a story idea I came up
with, but I'm not laying claim to it.
On the off chance that you are really really bothered by this shift
in the rules of the book's universe, here's an easy out. Ariel is an
unreliable narrator! He's writing this letter to distract Krakowski as
much as to communicate with Jenny. So he exaggerated something that
actually happened. What happens in "Found Objects" is compatible
with either interpretation of Ariel's letter.
(But it totally happened the way Ariel says.)
- Speaking of teleology, what happens to Ariel when he goes to see
Tammy is me directly punishing him for lying to her. The story could
conceivably have gone differently, with a Ariel/Tammy reconciliation,
but what Ariel says in his letter to Jenny makes that almost
- The final paragraph of Ariel's letter, the one that makes it clear
he's about to lie to Tammy, didn't exist in the second draft. The
whole story was ambiguous because you never got that straight answer
from him. In the third draft I knew that his letter would end with
that paragraph, and I added lots of stuff (Tammy's personal allowance
monologue, chapter 27's deleted scene, "she threw up on you" in
chapter 2, "I take the costume off" in 17) so this letter would fit
the story and this paragraph would fit the letter. But then I wanted
to chicken out at the last minute and not include that paragraph.
Why? Because it's really mean to Ariel, given what happens
immediately afterwards. But without that line, Ariel is being
incredibly cruel to Jenny. So I included that line, and that was the
last time I ever felt bad about being mean to Ariel.
- The other major change: in the second draft, Ariel caused
existential nausea in Jenny but not vice versa. This did not
work. There was no explanation for Ariel's superpower; it was
clearly the hand of the author screwing him over. Plus, it made his
letter to Jenny seem spiteful, like "Tammy can give me what you
can't". I don't know when I came up with the idea that the effect
should be mutual. Maybe around the time I got to Ariel's first trip
into space. The OTP explanation, without which the scene still doesn't
work, didn't come to me until I was rewriting the letter itself. But I
must have known it subconsciously from the beginning.
- We're now at the point I can talk a little more about the symbolism of everyone having two names. (I mentioned this earlier, but for the record: Ashley/Somn, Tetsuo/whatever, Curic/Huric, Dana/Svetlana, Tammy/Miss Ion Specialist, Jun-Feng/Bai, and even Phillip/Moe.) Although Ariel doesn't have two names, throughout the book you've seen two of him: the "blog post" Ariel and the "real life" Ariel, each putting forth an account that contradicts the other.
Which Ariel is real? That's like asking which Curic is real. Both Curics are real, and both Ariels are fake. The "real life sections", as much as the blog posts, are written by Ariel to convey a certain impression to you. What you read as "Jenny" is actually a story Ariel tells you about Jenny, and if you read "Found Objects" you'll see Jenny telling a different story.
Jenny's unique in that she has an infinite number of names. She takes on new identities as a hobby. In the chapter 30 flashback, she and Ariel discover that "Jenny" and "Ariel" are themselves forms of cosplay, identities just as artificial as "Skewer Sue". This is the closest they'll come to realizing that they're fictional characters.
(n.b. even Jenny's cosplay identity has two names--Ariel mistakes her Skewer Sue costume for a Taikan-Victory costume)
- The sonnet that begins part three is the one mentioned in chapter 26: "Mom herself was with Tetsuo in the living room, translating
some kind of Pey Shkoy poetry into English." I'm no poet but I think it's not bad.
The Long Way Around showed up in the Twitter feeds back in part one. It'll come up again, and Af be Hui herself will make an appearance, but the importance of this game to its creator and to Ariel is mostly being saved for a sequel. Suffice to say it's a Minecraft-like game about a man who gets fucked over by his government and dies alone on a strange planet. And if you like hunting around for clues, chapter 16 shows what the sonnet's last line refers to.
- Terraforming Mars is difficult because it has no real magnetic
field. You can't just dump more atmosphere onto the planet; it'll boil
off into space. So oxygenizing whatever carbon dioxide is in
the atmosphere is a doubly bad strategy. I think we should just assume
the FERNs are part of a multi-pronged terraforming plan, and not the
whole thing. A terraforming plan brought to you by... Creative
- I have no idea in what sense "FERN" is an acronym for
High-Dimensional Fractal Carbon Accumulator. I've given myself blanket
permission to give lines to Gaijin characters without worrying too
much about what they mean. Sort of like Mr. Jinx from
Starslip. (Actually, there's a lot of Mr. Jinx in This Guy Loves
Salt!, the ur-Gaijin from "Vanilla", and thus in all male Gaijin.)
- Every chapter between now and the end of the book will have some
largeish revelation and/or emotional smackdown. As I mentioned in the first spoiler thread, reading the paperback was
probably better for Part Two, which was a slow burn. But at this point
readers who are still waiting a week between chapters are probably in
a better position to digest the story.
The train we call Part Three is just getting started on its rampage down the track. Destination: the end of the book. Don't miss next week's installment, when Ariel will say, "Your gender-neutral use of 'men' isn't nearly as endearing as you think it is."
Image credits: Flickr user frostnova, NASA, Alan Shepard.
← Last week
Fri Jun 22 2012 09:20 The Least Clever Limericks:
One side effect of downloading 90,000 limericks is you have a lot of data. Actually, that's the primary effect. Given that Dada Da Dada Da Dum requires I classify the limericks by the sounds they use in the A and B rhymes, I thought it would be interesting to tabulate that data and see which rhymes are the most common.
Well, some of the stuff's not that interesting. Here's a stack graph showing the number of limericks using the top hundred A rhymes and the top hundred B rhymes. To me it looks like a generic graph. There's no shocking pattern and no real difference in the way A and B rhymes are distributed.
In fact, there's not much difference between the way A and B rhymes are written. The two most common A rhymes are UW1, the elongated "o" sound used most frequently in "you", "do", and "screw"; and EY1, the long "a" sound used most frequently in "day", "way", and "say". On the other hand, the most common B rhymes are... EY1 ("day", "say", "way") and UW1 ("you", "do", "two").
This is a very disappointing conclusion, but with this knowledge I have been able to write the world's least clever limerick, statistically speaking:
Oh, hi, I was looking for you
I'm bored and there's nothing to do
I've been listless all day
So what do you say
We take off our clothes and we screw
After writing that, I went through the dataset and discovered a naturally generated limerick that comes very close to having minimally clever rhymes! Its only failing is it uses "way" (#3 word for the EY1 sound in B rhymes) instead of "day" (#1):
In an earthquake, the best thing to do
Is to set about having a screw.
When you're done, you can say
In your nonchalant way
May I ask, did the earth move for you?
Here are the top twenty A rhymes and the top twenty B rhymes, each with the number of limericks they're used in and their top three words:
|A rhyme||limericks||Word #1||Word #2||Word #3
|B rhyme||limericks||Word #1||Word #2||Word #3
I think a comparison to a similar corpus of non-obscene rhyming poetry would be instructive.
While gathering this data I fixed a bug in my screen-scraper that was sometimes causing a B line to be treated as an A line, which of course screwed up the meter of some generated limericks. I've also changed the way limericks are posted to Twitter, so that if you go to the @DadaLimericks page the limericks in the archive won't seem to run into one another.
As a bonus/palate-cleanser from those unclever limericks, here's a very clever Queneau limerick that I don't think a human would have come up with:
The North Pole is a little bit shy
And Air France? Just the pure l'eau de vie.
My question today
That this mortal clay
She was born just before World War I.
Sat Jun 23 2012 13:50 Tricks of the Trade:
Realtors subtract one block from all distances, even if it's not "advertised distance to the subway".
"I'm almost at your office. I'm at [x] and [y]."
"Perfect! You're one block away!" [I am two blocks away.]
(2) Mon Jun 25 2012 10:27 How to Follow Instructions:
Last week I gave a talk called "How to Follow Instructions" at QCon New York. It's a talk about hypermedia and code on demand, as well as the not-so-great techniques web service designers (myself included) have been using instead of hypermedia and code on demand. The jumping-off point is this story from my seventh grade algebra class, and the process by which we recognize instructions and choose which ones to carry out.
I was very nervous about the talk, because my work on Constellation Games has taken my creative attention out of the world of REST for the past couple years. To me the talk feels more like complaints from a user than advice from an expert. But it was well-received and I may be giving an updated version of "How to Follow Instructions" at REST Fest in September.
Because of that possibility, the text of the talk is still in flux and I'm not going to immediately put in the kind of work I did to get my 2008 QCon talk online with a transcript. But I have put up a PDF of my slide deck (4.0 megabytes), so you can see what I put on screen. And you can see the rhetorical structure of the talk by getting the LibreOffice Impress file (6.3 megabytes), which includes my speaker notes. Both are licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license, and anything else I produce from this talk will be put under the same license. (As oppposed to stuff like QCon's video recording of me giving the talk, which they'll probably retain copyright on.)
I know from being on the other end of this that even with speaker notes, a slide deck after the fact is more a mnemonic for people who've already heard the talk than a way of conveying the knowledge contained in the talk. So this is more a show of good faith on my part than anything else. At some point you'll be able to read a transcript of this talk and reuse whatever parts of it turn out to be interesting, as happened with the 2008 talk. But for now the slides and notes are what I have to offer.
(1) Mon Jun 25 2012 14:44 Transit of Venus:
I helped pay for my niece Maggie to go to space camp, and in a Kickstarter-like move she sent me in return a drawing of the recent transit of Venus. Or, as Maggie's dictated caption calls it, "The sun and Venus in front of it":
Tue Jun 26 2012 09:21 Constellation Games Author Commentary #31: "The Peaks of Eternal Light":
It's feast or famine! Specifically, it's famine. After a huge chunk of commentary for chapter 30,
I don't really have much to say this week. This chapter cashes a lot of checks I wrote earlier in the novel, and I feel it would be tedious
and insulting to your intelligence to just list them all.
Because there's not much commentary this week, I want to commemorate the beginning of part 3 with "Human Ring", a little toy I made in Minecraft's creative mode. Back around April or so I was jealous of how Andi Buchanan had thought to get Minecraft auteur Vechs to create a custom map for her novel Gift, so I spent a couple hours creating a little diorama approximating what Human Ring and Alien Ring would look like in Minecraft. It's not a game, and it relies heavily on easily-broken tricks of perspective, but you might find it fun to walk around for a bit.
If not, at least there's a couple posts in last week's microblog archive. And there's this list I found lying around:
- I've been banking the peaks of eternal light for a while: 1 2.
- One of the things that stuck with me from Tom Wolfe's The Right
Stuff was that the voice I used for Colonel Mason, the voice you hear from male
airline pilots and air traffic controllers and fighter pilots and
Apollo astronauts and Space Shuttle pilots, all derives from Chuck
Yeager's West Virginia mannerisms. Everyone's imitating the other boys
in the club and their elders, and those elders learned it from their
elders, and the original guys picked it up because they really admired
the way Chuck Yeager took enormous risks without losing his cool.
- As I hinted earlier, as the story wraps up the narrative focus is tightening on Ariel and Somn. Last week was Tammy's final onscreen appearance, and this chapter's Jenny scene is the last in the book. I'm not gonna tell you when every single character drops out of sight (or that they already have), since that would create big spoilers through process of elimination, but I wanted to mention those two by way of pointing out that both of Ariel's final scenes with the women he loves (or is willing to say he loves) end so poorly.
- This chapter includes what I consider to be Ariel's Crowning Moment of Awesome: "I already have this skill. We call it
computer programming." I know that "We call it computer
programming." doesn't really come off as a DUN DUN DUN kinda thing, so
maybe you'd prefer the highly cinematic Moment of Awesome he's got coming up.
But without giving anything away, this here is the moment when Ariel a) decides
to grow up, b) changes the course of history.
- Somn's "No kidding!" is the Purchtrin-English translator censoring something closer to "No shit!" OTOH, "Let's enjoy doing it," which shows up twice, is just a quirky translation of something like "I'm happy to help."
- On October 19, after his conversation with Jenny, Ariel writes something that you won't see until chapter 36. Just letting you know. (This is the out-of-order bit I mentioned earlier.)
Related: even though she's incredibly (and understandably) pissed at Ariel, Jenny was careful to mention the "seven-page letter" in that conversation. She's still willing to keep secrets.
- It's embarrassing how long it took me to realize that Ariel wants
recreate his Austin house. I don't think I came up with that until I
started this chapter. After I'd written Curic scanning his house and
everything in it, and the BEA destroying his house, and then Curic
recreating some of its contents, and then Ariel abandoning his home
planet for a space station where he hates the accommodations.
The best you can say is that I eventually pick up on where my
subconscious wants to take a story. "It's a pretty lossy line but I
receive signals eventually."
- I consider the garbage patch scene to be the world's most accurate fictional depiction of the Pacific Garbage Patch. But with my luck, Kim Stanley Robinson already beat me to it.
- The art references kick into high gear in part three which is
after all called "Artwork". I tried not to refer to real video games
in the novel, but fine artists are fair game. Early on you got fictional artists like Erica Fujii and Trent Fellersen, but now it's mostly real artists.
I dunno how much of this comes through in the manuscript, but
Ariel's knowledge of and taste in art is almost entirely secondhand through
Jenny. Which is why Jenny references highbrow stuff like Picasso and Judy Chicago, but when it's Ariel's turn he compares Jenny to pop surrealist Brandon Bird. Which, as you'll see in the last chapter, is a damn good comparison.
BTW, if you're a fan of Brandon Bird, I suggest you check out the work of my friend Beth Lerman. Among other things, Beth drew Jenny's Twitter avatar.
OK, that wasn't too light. Next week will feature a number of exciting scenes including the book's final full-length game review. It all kicks off when Ariel says "So there aren't any fossils."
Image credits: yours truly, John W. Young, Colin Chudyk.
← Last week | Next week →
Wed Jun 27 2012 09:52 Sumania 2012:
Yesterday Sumana gave the opening keynote at Open Source Bridge. There's video and a transcript. The talk, "Be Bold", may bring to light some issues you hadn't considered when deciding how to get people involved in open source.
Still no video of my QCon talk--another triumph of open source over the enterprise stack, I guess.
Fri Jun 29 2012 11:49 Month of Kickstarter?:
July, my birth month, approaches, and the question on everyone's lips
is, "Question on my lips? Who uses that kind of archaic
construction?" I do, and now that we've gotten that question out of
the way, let's talk about last July's project, Month
My plan was sheer elegance in its simplicity. Every day I would go
list of recently launched projects, scan the ~50 new projects,
bookmark the interesting ones and then put money behind 1-3 of the
interesting ones. Then I wrote about the projects I'd backed on News
You Can Bruise. This was a) a birthday present to myself and b) a
great source of experimental data. Would it be fun? (Yes!) Could I could drive my readers to
contribute to Kickstarter projects? (Not really!) What would Kickstarter's official
stats look like if they only covered projects I, personally, cared
about? (Quite different!) Most importantly, what about the backer
The backer rewards are great. It's like being pen pals with the
Internet. I'm still getting rewards. Yesterday I went and picked up my
ice cream for July 17's Milk Not Jails
project. My laid-back, experimental attitude towards the whole thing
has saved me from nerdrage when the shipment schedule slips, or the project owner flakes out altogether, or the
reward arrives and is just disappointing or lousy.
BTW, flakeouts are very rare, but I gotta name-and-shame Keith
Kritselis of the tesselated cookie cutter project because I did a whole detailed analysis of
his project and now he's flaked out and not delivered anything. Didn't see that coming! I hope he's just flaked out, and not dead or in prison.
Anyway, the actual question I've been thinking about: how about repeating Month of Kickstarter this July, to get a
new data set, a new bunch of rewards, and see how things have
I can tell you right off that I've changed. I am a lot pickier about Kickstarter rewards now than I was last year. I'll like a book/movie/album (preferably electronic), or some food, or a game, or a nice piece of art I can frame and hang up, but that's about it. I don't get any great satisfaction from having my name in the credits, and I'm tired of stickers and patches. I thought those would be great rewards because they're easy to mail and don't take up much space, but turns out I don't use 'em.
And one thing about Kickstarter has changed: usage has exploded. After last year's MoK I kept checking the new
projects page every day, but I stopped after a few months because it was
just too much stuff. I don't have time to read that firehose, so I backed a Kickstarter project to do it for me.
My estimate as of today is that there are
150 new projects posted to Kickstarter every day. I need to
double-check this number tomorrow and possibly update this post,
because it's a statistic Kickstarter doesn't provide. (Update: The actual total is more like 125.)
And here we come to the problem. Kickstarter's UI has not changed. Not in any way that would make
Month of Kickstarter easier to do, and it wasn't that easy to
begin with. 50 projects/day was kinda doable, but I'm not going to look through three times that many, and there's no way of filtering out the ton of projects I almost certainly won't be interested in.
UI is very carefully designed, so after a year of seeing it not change
in ways I think are pretty obvious, I'm starting to think the
absence of certain features is deliberate.
Forget Month of Kickstarter for a minute. Imagine that you, like
me, are really into board games. You want to track all the new board
game projects added to Kickstarter. You can't. There's no way to do this except by going
through the global "new projects" page every day and picking out the
board games. You can see "staff
picks" and "popular
this week" and "recently
successful" and "most
funded" but not "new". (Feel free to prove me wrong--I'd rather
have this functionality than be right about its absence.) It's like a
bookstore that has all the sections you'd expect, biography and horror
and so on, except the "new releases" are all jumbled together and
ordered by release date.
I have a hypothesis: there's some basic incompatibility between
browsing, which is what I want to do, and Kickstarter's user model or
business model. Over the past year, instead of doing things that would
make Month of Kickstarter easier, Kickstarter created a site-internal
social network so that your pals' activity would filter
through to you and you'd find out about new projects that way. I think that's
their user model: money flows to a Kickstarter project through a social
network rooted at the project's creator. Social networks
driven by Facebook and Twitter and just plain advertising (the board
game podcasts I listen to have a ton of advertising for Kickstarter
projects), but also now possible through Kickstarter itself.
Apart from the "Recently Launched" page and a couple others that
aren't as useful ("Ending Soon" and "Small Projects"), every project
discovery mechanism on Kickstarter (and there are a ton) is
based on finding projects ratified by someone else: Kickstarter staff,
or people in your social network, or someone operating
under the name of a trusted brand, or (as with "most funded") just
an unusually large number of random backers.
And sure, this works. I back my friends' crowdfunding projects all
the time. But it means that your Kickstarter project is
guaranteed to to sink without a trace unless you can get someone
else's attention outside of the site. If I'm right, this is
the point of the whole design. We learned from the last Month of Kickstarter that your project will fail if you don't
hustle. Kickstarter makes it clear that hustling is your job by
effectively hiding all but the most-hustled projects. Most site
visitors aren't interested in backing sixty projects to see what
happens. They want to back one or two projects from a curated list. So the system
works for them.
The problem for Month of Kickstarter is that while hustle may or
may not bring success to your individual project, it will not show your project to me unless our social networks intersect. That's not good enough. I need to see a list. But the list needs to not have 150 items in it every single day. I've spent the last eight months doing a project (the Constellation Games author commentary) that forced me to do a big context switch every week. I'm not really feeling the need for a daily context switch, and I certainly don't want to look at 150 projects a day. Last year "Recently Launched" did the job, but this year it won't.
They must have these advanced mechanisms. Whoever puts
together the curated O'Reilly page doesn't trawl through 150 projects
a day seeing if there's one they want to add to the list. But without
access to those mechanisms I can't really do this.
Like I said, I'm gonna give it a shot anyway. But it may descend into me backing projects without writing about them, or I may give up altogether. I've got other stuff I need to work on, and the thrill of gathering another MoK dataset to compare against last year's is probably not worth the time.
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