My Life In Neon

Sci Fi / Fantasy writer Autumn Nicole Bradley – Dream in digital, live in neon

Reset: A game by Lydia Neon

Screenshot of Reset by Lydia Neon

Play Reset

Reset is a game about the bizarre, frightening, and exciting possibilities for kink in the cyborg / transhuman future.

Who can you trust with your source code if you can’t trust your Administratrix?

Reset was created with Twine as part of the Big Chaos Twine Jam.

 

Play Reset Here

 

 

I suffer from Patulous Eustachian Tube

This post was originally marked private by mistake. So some of this has changed.

I suffer from a Patulous Eustachian tube. It’s an ear disorder where my Eustachian tubes pop open and so when I speak, it sounds as though I am shouting into my own ears (it’s called autophony). I’ve had this problem since 6th or 7th grade, but I never knew what it was called until today. I’ve seen a number of doctors about it, even to the point of surgery, but it was never properly diagnosed.

I used to sing and act.

Yes, that’s past tense. In high school I was in 4 choirs, and I was always in rehearsal for a play at the local theatre. It’s part of why I went to college for film and theatre. I wanted to perform and I wanted to direct performers.

But toward the end of high school, the problems with my ears started to get worse. Projecting my voice became difficult because even speaking at a normal volume is the equivalent of shouting when the tubes are open. So I started seeing doctors and specialists about it. They diagnosed me with having a deviated septum in my nose, the result of having broken it as a toddler and the tissues healed side-by-side instead of along the broken edges. That deviated septum was causing constant blockages in my sinuses. Now, those blockages may have changed the pressure levels in my nose to the point that my Eustachian tubes were popping open, and I will say my sinuses are amazingly clear since. But it didn’t solve the real problem.

So when I got to college, I ended up dropping out of choir. I took fewer acting roles and refused to practice outside of rehearsal. There was a “cap” on how much volume I could muster because as I took a deep breath to ready myself, the tubes would pop open. I started breathing more shallowly, using more muscle and less air for speaking, developing a hoarseness to my voice that made singing difficult. I also have severe stiffness in my neck from holding my head in a position that doesn’t let the tubes pop open.

The only time I can speak at a normal volume is when my head is upside down.

This has bled into every aspect of my life. I don’t sing anymore, I don’t act. I avoid speaking whenever possible. I avoid speaking for extended periods. I have a weird facial tic where I am flexing my muscles oddly in order to keep the tube closed. I have a sharp sniffing habit from trying to force it closed by air pressure, which is very dangerous to the ears themselves, but it’s all I can do.

In the past two months, it has gotten significantly worse. Now, my right tube is always partially or fully open. My left tube pops open fully fairly regularly. I became fully aware of how bad it had gotten during exercise walks with my mom. I would find myself unable to speak after a short time because of this. It also came up due to the physical work I am doing for transition: making a conscious effort to relax my neck and shoulders, voice retraining, posture. All these things make it harder to hold a pose that keeps the tubes shut, and it has made me very conscious of why I have been so stiff all these years. When I relax, the tubes open. Cause and effect.

But now I am looking into solutions. It’s been 15 years, so my situation is very advanced relative to those who find help from home remedies like herbal teas and cutting caffeine. The other home remedies are: cut chocolate, cut sodium, cut exercise, gain weight. Seriously. Those are the home solutions.

My ADHD meds would normally make this situation worse, but it was so bad already that there wasn’t much damage they could have done.

At this point, I am probably looking at surgery. I will be trying to schedule a specialist visit next week to take care of this once and for all.

I cannot express how much relief I feel just by knowing that this problem has a name, and there are possible treatments for it at last. Finally, there is hope.

I want my music back. I want my acting back. I want to be able to speak to people without worrying how long I’ll be able to keep talking. I want to be able to relax again.

Steam-powered Automata and Machine Intelligence

Over at the S.W.A.G. boards, a discussion popped up that really struck a chord with me, especially the part about machine religion. The question as I interpreted it came down to this: how would intelligent machines behave in the absence of their creators?

Any discussion of machine awareness must also include some discussion of machine learning. What degree of self-awareness is necessary? I can open up my computer’s device manager and I am immediately informed that my computer is aware of what parts compose the whole. It also knows it is connected to the Internet and it’s identity relative to the outside world; it has a name for use in private networking (PsychicToaster) and one for use in the outside world (its IP).

Now, that’s all very well and good, but we still don’t consider that on the same level as our own self-awareness. Why not?
We built machines to think in a way that we do not: sequentially. We have the equivalent of a computer network in our heads, computers have the equivalent of a super-neuron. We do relational thinking, they do sequential thinking. Naturally, any sort of machine consciousness will be different from ours until we build computers more like our own brains. (Actually, there are scientists working on that exact premise)

Artificial intelligence as we know it today is still just a gross approximation. Almost like a model of intelligence rather than functional intelligence. Purpose-built machines can beat people at game shows, but you can’t put Watson in charge of a band saw without completely rebuilding it and programming a new band saw interface. (Although things like the Wolfram Alpha project are trying to address that, too)

There’s also the inherent biases of the creators. We are trying to build machines that are intelligent like us rather than trying to build machines that are intelligent in any way possible. So, we shape their sensory devices around our own, even though a machine could “see” better by a combination of other sensory devices: magnetic resonance, direct electrical stimulation (e.g. a wired internet connection).

There’s a ton of possibility for some truly alien thought processes and reasoning for machines, systems of morality that have no relation to our own, or only a tangential relationship to our intent for them. (I, Robot anyone?)

I don’t think you’d see anything we would consider irrational, such as machine religions, except as a complete inversion of that: some previously unconsidered element is introduced into the program code as axiomatic, forcing the machines to believe it in spite of all evidence. A hyper-rationality based on flawed input, rather than irrational or emotional motivation.

How To Write Better Dialog 3: Subtext

Or: What-the-Scene-Is-Really-About

Subtext is all the information about a scene that is communicated indirectly in the hopes that the audience will understand it without it being stated outright. It’s the stuff that’s on the characters’ minds when they speak. It motivates their word choices and their actions. By these choices, we can then infer a great deal about what is really going on in the head of a character.

In books, there is an additional layer to subtext. There’s the subtext of the scene, and there’s the subtext of the dialogue. The subtext of the scene is anything that never appears on the page at all. The subtext of the dialogue is whatever is not spoken by the characters (but which can appear in the accompanying narrative). There is a place for both and there must be a balance.

Subtext is tied directly to motivations and premises. In other words, you need to answer these questions:

  1. What does the character want that the other characters in the scene can provide?
  2. What does the character believe is true about the world and their situation?
  3. What status transactions are at play?

Concerning the first, this isn’t about what the character wants in the Big Picture Narrative Arc of your story. It is about what the character wants right now, and from that person. It could be as major as getting a general to agree to drop a nuclear bomb to as trivial as seeking validation from a friend that the main character is doing the right thing. They may not even be conscious of their desire, particularly in the case where a scene is driven by status interaction rather than objectives.

The second is about premises, which I dealt with here.

In other words, what is the scene really about? And what is each conversation in the scene really about?

Dialogue Subtext

To reiterate, dialogue subtext includes anything that the characters don’t come out and say directly. But this information can appear in the narrative around it. This includes dialogue tags, italicized thought passages, omniscient narrator explanations, footnotes, or whatever other conventions you are employing in your work.

Typically, subtext of this sort is filtered in some fashion through an unreliable narrator. If it is an omniscient third person, it may be the point of view of a historian documenting the events and it may be shaped by their ignorance. If the book is first person, or limited third person, it is colored by the bias of the point of view character for that scene.

“Are you going to the beach this afternoon?” Toby asked.

The asshole knew very well where Caitlin was going; he was just trying to trap her into admitting it. So she shocked him into silence by giving him exactly what he was asking for: “Yes. With your brother.”

You can see where understanding Caitlin’s thoughts gives us some hint about what Toby’s motivation is. As the scene continues, we may find out that Caitlin was wrong in her assumption, or we may find out she was exactly right. What’s important is that we know why Caitlin came out and admitted the truth: it was a defiant expression based on the belief that it would work out in her favor.

It’s sometimes thought that omniscient narrators can’t use this because it becomes “telling” instead of “showing.” However, omniscient narrators certainly can employ this to create dramatic irony. With the reader having access to the thoughts and motivations of both characters, the drama of the scene is driven by the audience knowing that the characters are just misunderstanding one another.

In a certain variety of first person and limited third person where the narrator is narrating from far in the future, they may have attained a degree of omniscience. You may see passages such as: “I found out later that Patricia was lying to me from the start, but at the moment, I was taking her at her word.” This is another way of introducing dramatic irony where the narrator comes out and states that the character is about to make a mistake in judgment.

Another important element of dialogue subtext is using dialogue tags. This isn’t about using tags to spruce it up and add variety in place of the word “said,” though. When building subtext, the dialogue tag should be there in order to tell us something that is not readily apparent based upon the words used in dialogue.

“I hate you,” she said with a smile.

“I’m proud of you,” Joe said, but it was a toss-off comment. He hoped Riley would be satisfied with the praise and leave.

“They’re destroying the city!” he shouted gleefully.

Scenic Subtext

Scenic subtext is the tricky one, but if you’ve been following the prior two articles, it should come as no surprise when I say that status transactions, and premises and biases are your hammer and screwdriver when building in subtext. Once you understand what a scene is really about, what the characters believe is true, and how the characters relate to one another, you shouldn’t need to have characters explaining themselves to one another. If you understand those aspects, then it will flow naturally.

Some writers prefer to save subtext for its own separate revision pass. The thought is, writing scenes without subtext lets them get to the point sooner so they themselves know what the book’s “roadmap” is. Then they go back and scrub the scenes of the “telling” dialogue and let the audience infer more. I happen to like this method myself because it frees you up to just write the damn scene, without getting hung up on crafting a Checkov play on every page in the rough draft. Once you know what the scene is really about (possibly because a character has come out and said it), you can hold that thought in your mind as you break it down and build it back up in revision.

If you are doing it by revision passes, the simplest way to add scenic subtext is by removing unnecessary dialogue subtext. Unnecessary dialogue subtext can be seen as an attempt to explain scenic subtext. Contrast that with necessary dialogue subtext cues which, if removed, meaningfully change the nature of the scene. This is particularly apparent in the case of dialogue tags and dramatic irony. Don’t remove necessary subtext cues.

If you’re building from scratch, don’t just have characters answer questions directly, or respond to provocation for the sake of it. Each time you put a ” ” on the page, consider why that character is speaking and what they hope to accomplish with their speech.

How To Write Better Dialog 2: Premises

When people come together to discuss a topic, they bring with them all kinds of assumptions and biases about the topic. If I say the words “labor union,” it instantly conjures up all of your feelings on the matter. Some of you will be predisposed to be hostile toward any discussion that does not involve dismantling them. Some of you will be equally biased in favor of them. And at no point can a constructive discussion take place unless we have some common ground or room to negotiate.

Our characters have the same kinds of predispositions and biases. If you are writing a fantasy story that involves magic and monsters, then it’s a sure bet that every single person in that world has an opinion about magicians, or a personal story. Even if they are as rare as a two-toothed narwhal, people have probably at least heard of them. If they haven’t heard of them, then they probably are disinclined to believe magicians even exist!

However, more often than not, I come across dialogue in novels and movies where a topic is introduced (about which characters of different backgrounds would likely have divergent views) yet everyone is on the same page about it. You end up with a group of people who stand around agreeing with each other, or even when they disagree, they are bickering over the details.

This happens when everyone in a discussion accepts the premise of the conversation.

Premises

Premises are the assumptions that are built into a conversation. They are based upon word choice, which is informed by biases. We are not always conscious of these built in assumptions, even when we are the ones asking the questions.

For example, if a character asks the question “Why do labor unions deserve legal protection for their collective bargaining rights?” then there are certain assumptions buried in the question:

  1. The belief that rescinding collective bargaining rights is a legitimate option. Without this premise, any answer given would be irrelevant.
  2. By raising the question at all, it implies that the person asking it believes it should be done. Otherwise, they’d have never raised the issue.
  3. Use of the word “deserve” implies that it is a privilege that must be earned.

How does this relate to dialogue in fiction?

I picked something politically charged and divisive on purpose. The confrontational nature of the question makes us want to respond to it. Whether we agree or disagree, it is demanding a reaction. When we write, it is easy to slip into the trap of making characters respond to provocation because we would respond to provocation.

But let’s say you wanted to show that your character is not just some author avatar spouting your personal morality, so you put them on the opposite side of the debate. You dislike unions, so you write a character that defends them.

Now, the trap is that even if the character answers the question by saying workers deserve protection, they have still accepted the premises of the question. In other words, if the character says: “Unions deserve legal protection because without it, management’s right to take legal action would be an unfair advantage because management has the financial means that individual workers do not,” then they have still unintentionally agreed that it is a valid topic for debate, and that workers must prove they deserve the additional protection.

The character’s act of disagreeing is unimportant because they have already validated the central premise, and revealed an underlying bias on the part of the author that has crept into the work. Whatever heated debate is taking place on the page is no longer drama, but sock puppet theatre.

Some other situations:

  • If your characters are building a wood shed and get into a protracted debate about what color the shed is, they have already agreed to the premise that the shed ought to be built in the first place.
  • If your characters are arguing about the morality of using demonic magic to stop an even more powerful demon, they have already agreed to the premise that demons are evil and the use of magic must be justified.
  • If your characters are sailing a ship and they argue about whether three point sails are better in a storm than four point sails, they have already forgotten the obvious advice to bring the sails down during a storm.

Rejecting the Premise

It is a time honored tradition in public relations, advertising, and politics to attempt to establish a premise ahead of time. It’s also referred to as “framing the debate.” Less experienced rhetoriticians often fall into the trap outlined above where they react to the provocative statements of the other side without questioning the assumptions inherent in the statement or question. Over time, however, people learn to reject the premise before responding.

To use the prior example, “Why do labor unions deserve legal protection for their collective bargaining rights?” some responses might be:

  • “Why are we discussing hard working citizens when it is a corrupt political structure that is causing the problem?”
  • “How many jobs should a person have to work in order to support their family?”
  • “No one in management is having trouble making ends meet, so why is this a problem?”

All of these responses share one thing in common: they brush aside the premises of the original question before dropping in a new set of premises of their own.

Rejecting the Premise for comedic and dramatic effect

Let’s face it. Tit-for-tat arguing can get the blood flowing but we only watch it as a spectator sport to either root for our side, or to listen to what nonsense the other side spouts. As writers, we are aiming to craft characters and scenes with greater depth than a Facebook argument.

Rejecting the premise can be the source of immense drama, and it tells us much more about a character than an argument does. Let’s re-examine the scene from the previous article, and this time we will examine the premises rather than the status transactions.

Julie pushed open the doors to the board room. The meeting of her fellow directors was already in progress.

“It’s about time you got here,” Seth said. He threw the copy of the report on the table and shoved toward Julie’s seat.

Julie picked it up to read without sitting down. She skimmed to the report’s conclusion. Seth started speaking but Julie held up a hand to silence him until she finished. “Change of plans,” she said. “We’ll be going with David’s proposal.”

“What?” Seth shouted. “David’s never even seen Denver!”

“It’s the continental U.S. How different can it be, really?” David asked.

“Plenty. Do you remember—”

“That’s enough, you two,” Julie said. “Seth, I understand your concerns, but Taiwan just isn’t feasible right now. You understand why, right?”

Seth opened his mouth to protest, but instead he nodded and took his seat.

When Seth calls out Julie for being late, he is trying to establish a dominant position. His choice of words and his defiant act of shoving the report across the table rather than handing it to her indicates he is operating from a particular set of assumptions:

  1. Julie’s tardiness deserves commenting on.
  2. He expects her to justify her tardiness.
  3. His time is more valuable than hers.

Julie doesn’t take the bait. In effect, she refutes Seth’s premise by not responding to a deliberate attempt to provoke her. She is saying, “Your comments on my behavior are not legitimate enough to merit justification.” That reaction (or non-reaction) creates more dramatic tension than if they had broken down into bickering.

Tit-for-tat bickering is a way to release dramatic tension, not build it! When characters argue, they are laying their cards on the table. To build tension in the scene and in the reader, you want to do the opposite: hold things in reserve until the last possible moment.

We see her put this into practice in the following sentence when she cuts off Seth before he can press matters. She has now established new boundaries for the discussion: they will be discussing what is important to her, and on her time.

Now, we have conflict. Seth wants one thing, Julie wants another. More importantly, they are doing all of this in front of an audience. The implicit conflict becomes explicit when Julie makes the statement that they will not be going with Seth’s plan, but with David’s.

Seth lays out that David has never been to Denver. Implied in his statement is the underlying assumption that: “Unless David has seen Denver, he does not have the expertise or the authority to speak about the plan.”

Now we have an example where a character unintentionally accepts the premise. David directly responds to Seth’s statement, hoping to convince Julie that Seth is wrong, and that he knows what he is talking about. But, in accepting the premise, he has already slipped into Seth’s trap: any justification he makes will be weaker than Seth’s statement.

Julie rescues him (and the scene) by cutting off the bickering before it goes too far. In effect, she rejects Seth’s premise that David must have seen Denver in order to have sufficient knowledge. Once again, we build dramatic tension because the characters do not accept one anothers’ premises. That dramatic tension is resolved with Seth conceding.

Comedy

We can use the same technique for comedic effect. I won’t break it down as much here because the structure of refuting the premise is the same for comedy as it is for drama. The only difference is the tone of the scene. Any dramatic event can be played for laughs by changing the tone.

Joss Wheadon is a master of building comedic scenes upon characters holding divergent assumptions about the world. Any scene between Mal Reynolds and Jayne Cobb in Firefly would serve.

As a simple example, think back to any of the old Looney Toons cartoons where a character runs off a cliff but doesn’t fall. The dramatic tension is built on challenging the audience’s assumptions, namely the assumption that gravity works. The character holds a mistaken belief that they are immune to gravity (or a mistaken belief that there is still ground underneath them). The longer the character defies gravity, the more tension is built on the part of the audience because they are having their belief directly challenged by the fact that the character is not yet falling. To resolve the tension, the character falls, complete with the stoic “Uh oh” face. (Then, once audiences started to accept the premise that characters could defy gravity, they played with it further by having the characters sometimes scurry back to the cliff successfully only to throw some other sort of reversal at them.)

Conclusion

Give your characters the ability to reject the premise of discussions. It builds greater dramatic tension and reveals more about the character’s own beliefs and biases. In short, it gives them greater depth.

How To Write Better Dialog 1: High and Low Status Players

Raise your hand if you’ve never struggled with dialogue. First, you’re lying, and second, if you’re not lying then you aren’t pushing yourself to improve as a writer.

Well, there are a few pieces of advice I picked up from my screenwriting and acting days:

  1. Dialogue is the last resort of the desperate storyteller.
  2. People are always pursuing objectives; understand what your characters want from one another and you’ll know why they are saying what they do.
  3. You can only have two people sitting on a park bench talking about the nature of art if one of them knows there is a bomb underneath the bench. (This last one is paraphrased from another source but it’s been a long time since I heard it; I no longer remember where it was.)

The first one mainly applies to screen and stage, since they are visual media and you have someone’s performance and action on screen to carry the scene when there is no speaking. On a page, the text is there whether it is dialogue or narrative, so the rule isn’t as hard and fast as it is for the screen, but in general, if you are falling back on dialogue to do the storytelling, then you need to re-examine your plot structure.

There’s a perennial piece of advice for writers which states: Show, don’t tell. Put simply (actually, how can it be put simpler than that?) your objective should be to have your characters take actions that demonstrate their desires and personality, rather than describing them on the page. You may have also heard this as Direct Characterization and Indirect Characterization. We should know that the villain loves dogs by the fact that he has a bronze statue cast of every dog he’s owned on display in the front hall of his downtown Metropolis office tower, and that their pedigree is lovingly etched into their plaques. In addition to being a unique quirk, it reveals more about the character than just: “he liked dogs.”

It is the second two that I will be focusing on in this series of articles. Number 2 relates primarily to Status Transactions and Premises, while number 3 can be summed up as Subtext.

Status Transactions

Keith Johnstone introduced the world to the concept of “status transactions” in his book on improvisational acting, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre I was introduced to Keith Johnstone’s work during my screenwriting class with Doug Heil while at UW-Oshkosh. (You can find Doug’s own book on screenwriting, Prime-Time Authorship, at Amazon.com) Impro is a book for actors and directors, but in it he posits that human interaction can be described in terms of relative social status. The way we interact with one another on a status level says more about who we are than the actual content of our speech or actions.

In other words, the difference in relative social status of two characters and how they react to that difference is more important than what they say or do.

I’ll break down the part that’s most important for writers concerned with dialogue:

  1. High status roles and low status roles are determined relative to one another. A parent has higher status than a child in that a child is expected to defer to an adult’s authority, and outsiders will most likely think the child is being disobedient rather than that the parent is being unreasonable. An older child has higher status than a younger. A well-respected grad student may have more recognized status than a tenured professor due to past circumstances. (Already you can see how status can drive dramatic tension!)
  2. When interacting with others, people will attempt to raise and lower their perceived status, either to achieve an objective or to return to their comfort zone. In Johnstone’s own words:

    A person who plays high status is saying, “Don’t come near me, I bite.” Someone who plays low status is saying, “Don’t bite me, I’m not worth the trouble.” In either case the status played is a defense and it’ll usually work.

  3. People have a status they are most comfortable with. Some people are not comfortable being deferred to. Some people reject any efforts to overrule their opinions. We all have a preferred state we wish to be in, and sometimes circumstances force us outside that state.

    [When a status play works] It’s very likely that you will be increasingly conditioned into playing the status . . . You become a status specialist, very good at playing one status but not very happy or competent at playing the other.

  4. Drama comes from either a disagreement over relative status, a reversal of expected status, or characters forced outside of their preferred status. Just think of how much character drama is based upon conflict between lovers or coworkers who cannot get along, or the classic fish-out-of-water scenario where a character is suddenly invested with a great deal of authority, or has an empire they have built taken away from them. (Brewster’s Millions is a brilliant example of this.)

Example

Let’s play with this a bit. We will be using Julie, Seth, and David as our sample characters.

Julie pushed open the doors to the board room. The meeting of her fellow directors was already in progress.

“It’s about time you got here,” Seth said. He threw the copy of the report on the table and shoved toward Julie’s seat.

Julie picked it up to read without sitting down. She skimmed to the report’s conclusion. Seth started speaking but Julie held up a hand to silence him until she finished. “Change of plans,” she said. “We’ll be going with David’s proposal.”

“What?” Seth shouted. “David’s never even seen Denver!”

“It’s the continental U.S. How different can it be, really?” David asked.

“Plenty. Do you remember—”

“That’s enough, you two,” Julie said. “Seth, I understand your concerns, but Taiwan just isn’t feasible right now. You understand why, right?”

Seth opened his mouth to protest, but instead he nodded and took his seat.

Let’s break this down.

The first thing that happens: Julie walks into a meeting already in progress. We aren’t certain of Julie’s actual status relative to these people yet, and Seth immediately takes her to task for being late. He is deliberately trying to lower her status and raise his own. With that one sentence he is saying, “You are late and deserve less respect,” and, “I should be the respected authority here because I am allowed to pass judgment upon you.”

Next, Julie ignores his criticism. She could dispute him, but that would involve accepting the premise of his statements. If she argued with him at all, she would be acknowledging that he has the right to pass judgment upon her. (More on premises next time!) As soon as she does that, she is demonstrating that he was correct that his status was higher than hers. By ignoring him completely, she rejects his status claim as being beneath notice.

Then she silences him with a gesture. She has now turned the tables entirely: she no longer needs to speak to make him respect her authority. By his silence we know that Julie is the real authority here, and that Seth’s power play has failed.

When she announces her decision, it rekindle’s Seth’s desire to spar with her for control. Now he has not just his prestige among the board at risk, but his position in the company: if David’s idea is chosen, David’s status rises and he misses an opportunity. So he needs to reassert himself and make Julie back down.

Since he already accepted the lowering of himself a moment earlier, he then tries to drag David down to his level by calling him ignorant.

David, not as disciplined as Julie, disputes his claim by observing that he has all the knowledge he needs. It is a weak claim, and Seth has successfully dragged David down with him. As we see in the next moment, Julie separates them like bickering children: she now sees both of them as being so far beneath her that she can address them in an infantilizing manner.

Her final question to him, “You understand why, right?” is a direct challenge. But it is also a trap, because if he disagrees he is saying he does not understand. (Again, more on premises later) Instead, he lowers himself further by allowing her to speak to him in a parent-and-child manner reminiscent of “You understand why it’s wrong to steal from the cookie jar, right?” The poor treatment may leave lasting damage to their relationship going forward, but it may also stave off future status struggles long enough for them to put their “plan” into action in Denver.

Conclusion

Next time, I will be examining conversational premises in greater detail and addressing how accepting and rejecting premises plays into dramatic dialogue.

The Early 1900s Were Cooler Than You Thought (My trip to the Museum of Science and Industry)

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I went to the Museum of Science and Industry in downtown Chicago. The highlights:

  • A working Foucalt’s Pendulum (Two, in fact. Read the article if you don’t understand why something so incredibly simple can demonstrate something so profound about our world.)
  • Jim Henson’s Fantastic World with a whole section devoted to The Dark Crystal
  • Fast Forward, kind of a Popular Science/Popular Mechanics exhibit where I got to play with a Reactable! (See it in action) Needless to say, I would love to have one of these to use in live performance.
  • The U-505 Submarine. A German U-boat captured in WWII. It’s an amazing piece of engineering and war history. Not to get all war-ranty, but I’m not one that is typically prone to romantic idealizing about war being a noble venture. But there are parts of it that are truly awe inspiring. This view actually moved me to tears. It’s impossible to convey the feeling you get when you see this thing and understand what it means that our grandfathers and uncles built and used these things to kill each other.

I will admit, I was actually moved to tears multiple times inside the museum. There are a handful of things that will make me cry, and amazing and humbling feats of human achievement are one of them. For those keeping score at home, I have also readily admitted to weeping at the sight of The Millennium Clock Tower during my visit to the UK.

But in the upstairs of the Science Storms exhibit, they have a collection of what can best be described as early electrical odds and ends.

They have one of the (if not the) largest Wimshurst Machines ever built on display.
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Leyden Jars, an early electrical capacitor:
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An early Tesla coil. (They had a modern Tesla coil mounted on the ceiling creating artificial lightning above a circle of couches. I admit that Tesla coils are Fucking Cool, but not exactly the best atmosphere for a tea party. Unless it is the coolest tea party ever.)
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Big Daddy’s little brother? (It’s actually a fire fighter’s helmet.)
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Twenty Years In The Making

I beat Final Fantasy 1 with my dad this weekend while I was back home. That may not seem like an accomplishment to most experienced gamers, considering the prevalence of things like the Single Character Speed Run, or The Final Fantasy Challenge. But there’s a story to this one.

When I was a young boy of 8, I broke my arm in a BMX jumping accident. No gore, just a dislocated elbow that bent the wrong way. It’s a lot cooler to talk about than it was to go through, but having gone through it, I say it makes for a very fun thing to tell people. “I once bent my arm backwards at the elbow!” However, in my month-long recovery, I could do two things with my left hand: hold a piece of paper in place (no escaping homework!), and work the D-pad of my NES.

So, being the sympathetic (or addiction-enabling, I haven’t decided) parents they are, Mom and Dad bought me Final Fantasy. Having grown up already on a steady diet of Mario Bros, Zelda, Gauntlet, and River City Ransom, I was ready to devote my entire after-school life to this new game.

The one thing I hated about it was the battles. Too frequent, too boring. Somewhere along the way I lost that initial hatred of JRPGs’ core game mechanic long enough to enjoy the real classics like Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI, and Chrono Trigger, but at this young age, I was just a little too impatient. So I would run from every battle.

Now, I realize there are Low Level Challenges premised on this very idea, or even the Low Level Class Change Challenge that involves running from every battle until the Castle of Trials. However, this was my first play through and I had no idea what was in store for me or what I needed to prepare for. I had no handy walkthrough to tell me all the stuff I needed to successfully complete a low level challenge.

Therefore, my policy of running from every battle because battles were boring had three predictable consequences:

1) Eventually, I was so low level that running away took more rounds than fighting. (Did I stand and fight anyway? No.)

2) Boss battles took ages because I’d have to restart from my last save which meant doing the entire dungeon over again.

3) When I finally reached the Temple of Fiends Revisited, I had no chance in hell of beating Chaos.

All throughout this, my dad and I would take turns with the battles. Unlike me, he would actually fight through them, with me cheering him on to run so we could get back to the “interesting” stuff, which for me was exploring, buying new gear, getting the airship and getting the class change.

(I will admit: I am a sucker for upgraded sprites. If you tell me a game has a class change and the new class has an upgraded sprite, I will love it in spite of all other mechanics. Warsong, I am looking at you.)

By the time we beat Tiamat, my arm had healed and I was just playing to beat the game. I was in such a rush to the end that each day I would make another two or three attempts at beating Chaos. To explain for those who have not played (and kudos to you if you are still reading), to reach the final boss, you need to defeat all four previous bosses in order, and then fight the final boss, all in one dungeon. Which means no saving after each one. (This was changed in the DS and iPhone ports, thank god.) I would just play right through to Chaos, fight, lose, and try again. I know now that the much more profitable course of action would have been to fight through right up TO Chaos, cast Exit, save, and do it again a few more times. (In fact, this experience is probably what taught me that very fact.)

So, rather than watch me repeat this cycle of wasted hours and futile attempts at the final boss for another week, my dad stayed up all night leveling up our party. According to my mom, he got up somewhere “in the 80’s.” My dad wanted it to be a surprise for me, so he didn’t say anything before he left for work. Some of you can see where this is going.

That morning, I woke up and said, “I’ve had enough.” I started a new game, with a new party, and resolved to actually fight all the battles on the way to the end. I only had time to beat Garland, the first mini-boss, before school. So I went back to the Inn, saved my game, and hopped in the car.

To my dad’s credit, he didn’t say a word about his prior night’s work being destroyed. When I told him I started over so that I could be strong enough to beat Chaos, he just grinned and said, “Is that right?” It was years before my mom told me the real story of what happened that night, and being the gamer that I am, it haunted me ever since.

I have long since sold my original NES on eBay and swapped my collection for emulators. It’s easier, more convenient, and suits my PC lifestyle. But this year, SquareEnix released an updated iPhone port of the Dawn of Souls version of FFI, so I paid the $8.99 for it because I knew it was the only way I was going to beat this game. I knew I’d only play it during all those inconvenient times I didn’t have anything better to do: buses, subway, Amtrak. Luckily for me, this weekend I had just reached the Temple of Fiends while I was home.

Around 8PM on Monday evening, after four attempts (made so much easier by being able to save one step in front of Chaos), I beat Final Fantasy 1. I brought my phone downstairs to the living room and my dad and I crowded together to watch the end sequence play 20 years after he had deserved to see it. Looking at it now, I read the final text and think it is the cheesiest writing ever, and Dad agrees. But it was worth the painfully bad writing to be able to share it with him.

Fallout: New Vegas Liveblogging – Day 2

9:12 AM

1) I don’t care if it’s a sin to tell a lie.

2) I’ll tell you where you can shove that big iron on that hip.

3) There’s only one Johnny with a guitar, and that’s Johnny B. Goode. And you, madam, are no Chuck Berry (or Marty McFly).

10:03 AM

Holy shit radscropions are tough. Not enough armor piercing ammo at this stage of the game.

The hand-shaking scrap metal statues are awesome. One thing New Vegas did right is their landmarks. That’s what narrative architecture is all about: something to draw you towards, and then something to reveal when you get there. A rollercoaster, giant statues, a big cross. I can’t wait to see what the rest of them are.

10:27 AM

ALJFEOIJW:OIJF WOIF:WOWEI JF:WBFWBUEF!!!!!

I’ll corrupt your data, assholes!

I just lost everything back to the gunfight in Goodsprings.

FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU

10:51 AM

Insult to injury: now my graphics card is acting up.

Fallout: New Vegas Liveblogging – Day 1

I’ve decided to do something a little goofy. I’ll be liveblogging my Fallout: New Vegas experience.

11:01 AM:
[singlepic id=117 w=320 h=240 float=right]

Installing right now. It actually surprised me that this was a Steam-based installer, even on the the disk, which meant had I not been a Steam user, I’d have had to sign up for Steam to verify my game.

Up side: It’s Steam, so even without the disk I can still get it again.

Down side: Eh. I’m not a fan of online DRM. But I can understand the desire for it to delay (not stop) piracy. Also, since it’s Steam, it means I can’t choose an install location. It has to be where Steam puts it.

Feedback so far: Needed a DirectX update and Steam patch. Slowing things down.

11:07 AM:

HOLY MOUSE SENSITIVITY BATMAN!

Even turned all the way down, mouse sensitivity is WAY too high. If anyone has a solution to this, let me know in the comments. The fixes posted for Fallout 3 don’t seem to work.

Found it here

11:19 AM:

For those who got the Mercenary Pack with the game, the instructions leave out one crucial step. After activating it on Steam and downloading it, you need to actually activate it for the game. This takes place before the game is running.

In the launcher, there is an option called Data Files. Select that. Once your Mercenary Pack is finished downloading it should appear in this list.Click the little checkbox next to it. Now hit play and you’ll have it in game.

Also: Hardcore Mode

It’s in the manual, but if you’re flipping through the game options before playing, you might see it here. You can’t turn on Hardcore Mode until after you create your character. Don’t worry, you’ll get to be hardcore soon enough.

[singlepic id=118 w=320 h=240 float=left]

11:39 AM:

Intro was classic cool. The “War. War never changes.” still gets me every time.

New things: You’re not a vault dweller this time. That surprised me. Also, it seems as though Vegas’s vault is Vault 21, which makes sense. (In a tabletop game I had made it the Lucky 7 Vault)

As you can see in the screenshot, the character generation is meta-included by use of one of those goofy novelty machines that tells you everything about your sex drive for the low cost of a dollar.

12:41 PM:

So, I created a luck/intelligence monster as I usually do for Fallout games. We’ll see how that goes now that there’s no Gifted or Bobbleheads. There’s still Intense Training though. I also chose the Wild Wasteland perk which I guess is some sort of weirdness magnet.

The distinction between magazines and books (for temporary and permanent skill gain respectively) is a little annoying, mainly because it becomes a pixel hunt mousing over every single book in the game again.

2:17 PM:

Rounded up a posse to kill some outlaws. I feel like I’ve played this intro storyline before. Still, with a wild west flair, it’s still a lot of fun.

Encountered some strange graphical glitches during the sandstorms, though. We’ll see if it happens again.

Seems like some objects don’t get cleaned up properly when fast traveling. They remain floating nearby or their emitters travel with you.

3:02 PM

Found the prison that’s been taken over by the prisoners. Ever since the original Fallout I’ve wondered why we’ve never seen a prison as a location. They seem like natural places to go in a post-apocalyptic scenario: fortified, stocked, and usually remote.

Good lord the music is annoying. I kept the radio on the whole time while playing Fallout 3. But New Vegas’s music rotation is so short that in 20 minutes you’ll hear all it has. The reason I find it annoying is I like the radio updates from the DJ. Looks like it’s time to find a fan-made patch already.

5:30 PM

Last one for now. Time to take a break for dinner.

I found some red balls on a ridge near Goodsprings. They were next to a body of a guy named Jimmy, and pointing off northeast. I’m wondering if this is tied to my Wild Wasteland trait? Perhaps there will be more and with them one can triangulate a location?

I’d love to post a screenshot of it, but the screenshot is corrupted. Great.

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