Jan 15, 2014

Rebooting River Song

[Hello, sweetie.  Spoilers.]

Steven Moffat, the current showrunner for Doctor Who, has unintentionally done something remarkable: he turned his viewers into literary critics.  The struggle to express his many, many failings, to contrast his creative decisions with previous writers, and to dig down to root problems with the show, has made better readers and storytellers of everyone involved – except, of course, for Steven Moffat.  I have opinions of a whole range of things, and I don’t want to clutter this blog up with them, but there is one character I want to talk about at length and I’ll hope you forgive me for veering off into fandom just this once.

When they restarted the show after ten years off the air, Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner brought it back with a new set of themes.  Off screen, the Doctor – our hero – killed off the two most important races in the show, including the Time Lords – his own people.  Not just a few – all of them.  Their demise and his guilt echoed throughout the writing and made coping with loss and the peril of rebirth two of the central themes of the show.

It resonated so well, not just because grief is a compelling subject on its own, but because during that ten year gap, most of us fans had grown up.  It made sense to put everything that was in our past in the Doctor’s past too, to have him go through the same loss of innocence we did while he was away.  It was a wonderful resonance between content and the context.

That wouldn’t be the last time the Davies era played to the structure of the show for dramatic effect. In David Tennant’s premiere episode after the exit of Christopher Eccleston, the Doctor collapses and is incapacitated.  “Is that a different face, or is he a different person?” asks Jackie, as she and the other characters become increasingly alarmed.  When he finally comes to life, his first act is to give a speech about how he isn’t sure who he is yet.  He goes on to give a brief, but dashing, jolly, and genuinely funny performance in the last few minutes of the show, proving (the actor/character’s) worth.

But the end of the Davies era was the most resonant, with half of the season (and four post-season finale episodes) devoted to marking its passing in some form or another.  Fans were, and still are, extremely attached to David Tennant’s performance and to Davies’s writing, and the final season, more than any other, was precious.

 

River, River, River…

This was the context in which we met River Song for the first time – a character who went from being one of the show’s best characters to one of its worst.  In the original script by Steven Moffat, River appears as someone who has traveled with the Doctor in his future, and even had an intimate relationship with (and as it’s implied, married) him.  River is adventurous, focused, competent and energetic.  She’s exactly what we’d expect from someone who’s been traveling with him for a good long time.  She kicks some major ass.

At the same time we meet her, we’re aware of something else.  It appears that Rose Tyler will be returning to the show to play a part in the season’s end.  Rose was someone the Doctor fell in love with, although he couldn’t be arsed to admit it – even in the moments before she was trapped in a parallel universe, and they were separated forever.  To hear that the Doctor will one day have a similar relationship to the one he had with Rose is a little unsettling, but also hopeful.

Just like Rose, River ends up saves the Doctor’s life, dies in the process, and is saved at the last moment but banished to live in an alternate world inside a computer with her crew, a loss that the Doctor has trouble coping with.  The story worked so well, not just because it gave a glimpse into the Doctor’s far flung future, but because it echoed Rose’s story. River Song is Rose Tyler.  She’s the person Rose could have been if she hadn’t been stranded in her own parallel world, if she had traveled longer with the Doctor.

We got a glimpse of the transformation Rose was undergoing right before she left the show.  Her mother counts it as a loss, but Rose is dedicated to her new life as a time traveling heroine.  In fact, when Rose returns, she has grown quite a lot and become very similar to River – dashing, confident, knowledgeable, and courageous. The fact that River exists gives us a little hope that sometime, someone experienced all the things that the current spate of companions keep losing out on.

This is a good story.  In fact, it’s a great story.  It’s one of the best of the era, I’m not afraid to say.  Moffat’s two scripts for this season – Silence in the Library and Blink – have become go to episodes if I want to introduce someone new to the show.  So I keep wondering how he could have written such a great script for that season when his writing as showrunner has been…

Bad.  Really, really bad.  Characters appearing with no introduction and little justification, ideas thrown squashed together into an unappetizing mush, terrible pacing, weak character motivations, shallow disposable concepts, poor, witless, and outright obnoxious dialogue.

But most of all, I can’t imagine why he’d so cavalierly bring back River Song, after giving her such a perfect story that ended in a heroic and redeemed death.  That sort of decision is treading on dangerous ground, and requires the kind of empathy, skill and craftsmanship Moffat has never really mastered. She reappears, as a recurring character, with the same personality and many of the same experiences she had before.

River was so good as the snapshot of a character at the end of a journey, but Moffat continued to write her the same way in her own past.  Her personality, with all its competence and bravado, seem to be timeless, and her relationship with the Doctor doesn’t seem to have really had a strong genesis.  They interact the same way they did right before she died.  She didn’t grow from her travels, and he didn’t grow from his time with her.  The trust between them is never really in doubt.

To give more meat to her character, Moffat resorts to burdening her with more and more hacked together backstory, retroactively making her into - and I think this is in order: a convicted murderer, the daughter of the Doctor’s companion Amy Pond, part Time Lord, a psychopathic assassin sent to kill the Doctor, Amy’s previously and since unmentioned black best friend, and the Doctor’s wife, sort of, technically, maybe. The more we see of River, the less compelling a character she becomes.

Her new role in the show doesn’t resonate – not with the themes or structure of the show, not with the other stories developing around her.  It clashes with the compelling story we thought Moffat was originally telling.  It invalidates all the reasons we liked her.

 

Start from the Beginning; Tell me Everything You Know.

So maybe bringing back River Song was just a bad idea.  But still, I think her story could be good – really good – if only it were written from an understanding of what made her original appearance so compelling.  We needed to see her genesis, how she got to be the amazing woman we knew she could be, because that journey is what she represented originally.  She doesn’t need to start as a 19 year old shop girl like Rose did, but she needs to start somewhere.  I like the idea of the companion being a proper analogue to the Doctor, so let’s shoot for that and imagine her as one of the captains we met during the Davies era – an Adelaide Brook or Zachary Cross-Flane.  She would be someone who has leadership skills and knows a lot about the science and technology of her own time period, but still isn’t quite prepared to travel through time.

In her original appearance, she promises the Doctor that one day he will trust her completely.  What if she doesn’t mean just relative to his past, but in the time since they first met?  I’d give her some deep flaws like the ones Jack Harkness had at first.  She could be a thief, a smuggler, a hijacker, an arms dealer, a con artist.  (Not, as Moffat would have it, in jail for a crime she didn’t actually commit because reasons.) She could be part ally, part villain – not in the kludgey way Moffat turned her into a villain, with all the nonsense about her being the victim of some sort of Manchurian Candidate plot in space that absolves her of her actions.  Her villainy could come from self-interest, self-doubt, and her inability to kick old habits.  She could be Han Solo taking his reward and leaving the rebels to die.  She could be Jayne Cobb betraying his crew because the money was too good.

Throughout the show, we’d see both of them struggle with the trust that the Doctor, knowing her future, feels compelled to place in her.  She’d ask why he trusts her, and he’d tell her he just knows her, and he can see promise in her. This would echo the feelings of the viewers – can this new showrunner, the person who created this character, do justice to the show we love? Can we trust him? Other companions who meet her would be wary, just like River’s crew was wary of the Doctor when they first met him.  The whole system with the diary and the time jumping could be, say, the result of a temporal anomaly River created out of motives that seemed villainous, but actually turned out to be heroic.  The diary would represent deeply felt dedication to a relationship that was already complicated before the time shenanigans came into play. The entire arc would be about the rewards of making leaps of faith and trusting people, just like River’s original story was.

After they begin their new time hopping relationship, the Doctor might wonder whether River’s death might be one of those events that can be in flux, and whether she might live if he were to just stop answering her calls for help, walk out of her life and never see her again. (Then again, he knows he WILL meet her one day, in his past, so he can’t escape it.  In one episode, she might call him and not be there when he arrives, making him realize that he can’t bear the thought of not seeing her in the time she has left.)   He’d be doing the same thing we are – wondering when River’s time will be up.

The future River could appear in the show too.  She was sent to live in a computer program where she could experience “any era to live in; any book to read.”  She’s an archaeologist with the whole of human history at her fingertips.  The future River could still carry on her work, adventuring through cyberspace, finding hidden connections in the datastream, uncovering the secrets of the past.  And at some point, she could share what she’s learned with the Doctor – and we’d get a nice hit of dramatic irony as he’s hiding the source of the information from her past self.

In the end, saying farewell to River would be one of the last acts of Matt Smith’s Doctor, marking his passing with a loss, but knowing that River will be reborn, just like the Doctor is destined to when he regenerates.  It would be a story that actually resonated, echoing back through her own death and the stories of characters we’ve met before, in harmony with the realities of the show.

Oct 15, 2013

A Little Fable About the Benefit of the Doubt

In 2007, I worked in a tiny open air market, selling lovingly crafted jewelry. I actually made money doing this; all my bills got paid, even if I didn’t have a lot of extra income. Naturally, anyone who was pushing people away from our market was a real threat to our livelihoods.

We got a new guy – a photographer. His strategy for making sales was to hit on pretty girls who wandered near his booth. It didn’t work. They walked away from him in a hurry, and in doing, they walked past all the rest of us.

In the car at the end of a particularly poor day, I told my boyfriend I was frustrated with this guy. “He probably doesn’t know he’s doing anything wrong,” the boyfriend said.

The next time I saw the photographer harassing a girl, I very gently called him out. I told him that his behavior was pushing my clients away, and to please tone it down. He apologized, but he didn’t stop the harassment.

“I’m sure he’s an all right guy,” my boyfriend said. “I talked to him and he seems pretty cool. Just give him a chance.”

For months, the photographer didn’t stop or slow down. He kept doing it. I would set up my shop as far from him as possible, in the hopes that his victims might NOT feel endangered by the time they got to me. “It takes time to learn these things,” my boyfriend said. “Some men are just hardwired for it.”

And then, shit exploded. The photographer came into the space, behind my displays, and told me I was oh so wrong. Another girl had given him the stink eye and walked away even though he only harassed her a little bit this time. I told him he should stop harassing them altogether. He told me that these girls were clearly asking for it with the way they dress. I told him they didn’t dress that way for him. He said that was bullshit. I asked him to leave my booth and never return.

I packed in a huff that day. I was mad, and worried. Other people had seen the argument, and I knew they would blame both of us. I knew the guy would never stop after I’d told him off so strongly.  In the car on the way home, my boyfriend snapped. But he wasn’t mad at the photographer.

“What is WRONG with you?” he yelled, “Why can’t you just give him the benefit of the doubt?”

Oct 12, 2013

Impromptu Swag Review: Zipper Magazine

From time to time, I review the physical objects from various transmedia projects. If you have a project and you want to send me something for review, drop it in the mail.

Usually, I review things I get in the mail from ARGS and the like. This edition of swag review is something a little different – something that just randomly fell on my desk yesterday morning.

zipper1

This is Zipper magazine. It’s a promo mag for Levi’s Orange Tab, created by their dedicated agency Levi’s XX, and it’s being handed out at music festivals. That’s right, today I’m reviewing a piece of event swag. A print project, no less.  More shocking still, it’s a piece of branded content.  The scandal!

Before we open this beauty, let me tell you the remarkable story of how I ended up with this copy of Zipper.  My parents found Zipper on a swag table at the Austin City Limits music festival.  It was not handed to them by a street team member; it was on the table where promo items go to die.  My mom picked it up, looked inside, and decided to keep the magazine.  It was so funny and interesting that she brought it home with her.  And then, about a week later, she picked it up again and started reading it aloud to me.

This is the trajectory that most brands hope their event swag follows – but most of the time their stuff just gets thrown out, or tossed in a swag bag and forgotten about.  Which is to say that Zipper is a good piece of tangible.  Really good.

zipper2

The cover of Zipper is no put on or gimmick.  Inside is a tone-perfect 60-page Rolling Stone-style rock magazine set in Topanga Canyon, 1972, complete with album reviews, letters to the editor, classifieds, local news, profiles of area DJs, horoscopes, and 16-page feature following a fictional band called Witches Hat on tour in Amsterdam.

zipper3

 

Yes, that is a photograph of a man playing a flute to some tulips.  Opposite, copy proclaims, “The flute in question is now hung in the Cincinnati Museum of Rock Curiosities, next to Eric Clapton’s appendix.”

The photography in this mag has a very distinct voice, tongue and cheek homage to the era.  The members of Witches’ Hat meander through a flower-filled wood, relax drinking in a booth at a blues bar, and take a piss on the side of their tour RV. A fictional groupie holds a bright orange telephone to her ear as she pauses in painting her nails, a look of excitement on her face.  A retired frontman sits in a field carving wooden mushrooms.  Oh yes.

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Caption from the mag: “Bryan plans to carpet Mirkwood Paddock with more than 3,000 hand-carved mushrooms by the year 1980.”

The writing is similarly delightful, managing to capture the joy of reading genuine old magazines.  (I’ll admit, at first glance I thought Zipper was a mag out of my mom’s vintage collection.)  The tone is earnest and passionate while being genuinely funny, with little details added in for realism.  The result is a certain flavor of dry humor that reminds me a lot of Welcome to Night Vale, only set in the hip 70s microcosm of Topanga Canyon instead of a vortex of supernatural madness.

“I’ve always been a big fan of Witches Hat, ever since they were still Dirty Wurds in the late 60′s,” the feature begins. “I was still a teenager when Mind Potato was released, and it completely rewrote my musical DNA. Many inner parts of my mind are still potato shaped even now.”

“Every lyric from the album is tattooed on Bryan’s left thigh,” reads one highlighted quote. “We know a yogi who also does micro-calligraphy.”

One classified reads, “SIGNED SOCCER BALL. Unsure of name, could be Pele, could be Pete. Take a chance! Box 178″

And then there’s the local news.

zipper5

There are 60 pages of Zipper, and almost every paragraph is like this.

At this point, my love for Zipper is pretty much unabashed.  It has a vivid little world, interesting characters, gorgeous visuals and a streak of weirdness laced throughout.  And did I mention all the little details?  The faux black and white and color flats.  The font and layout choices.  The fake filler ads for the Pinballers Society and the Zappa sandwich grill (“Please send me your free guide to toasting sandwiches, including over 50 delicious new Swiss Cheese recipes.”)  The appropriately-paged faux spot color.  FAUX SPOT COLOR. ASHSDBSHVHG!

But, readers, we’re about to venture into choppy waters – for you see, Zipper is branded content. With the rare exception, branded content is not that great.  The branding and the content tend to gloop into each other, and you end up with a sticky, unfocused, disingenuous mess.  I’m happy to say that Zipper is one of those rare exceptions. In the end, I like the magazine more because of its brand tie ins, not less. Will wonders never cease?

All of the real adverts in Zipper are for Levi’s (with three exceptions – period ads for Fender, Jack Daniels and Schlitz) - and oh, these ads.  Gorgeous.  Some of the pieces are played straight…

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….some are period tone pieces…

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….and some are just plain weird.

 

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The spots are done in such a variety of styles that it takes you a while to even notice as you jump over the ads, flipping through to the next piece of content.  Of course, it should have been obvious since the mag is called Zipper.  And every single person in it is wearing jeans. And there are URLS pointing to the Levi’s website sparsely scattered throughout.  And whole zine has an orange color scheme to go with the Orange Tab branding.  But those things occur to you later, after you’ve read a good bit of it.

(There’s also an ad for a free music festival put on by Levi’s which by all accounts amounted to a 1970′s themed Renaissance Fair.)

All of this works because there’s a pretty solid wall between the brand and the content.  Levi’s is essentially playing along with the story rather than inserting itself, ham fisted, into the fictional world it’s created.  They come across as a generous and entertaining host, rather than a sponsor in need of impressions.

That meant taking some risks for the sake of elegance and subtlety.  For example, “Flared Jeans Can Save Your Life” – the story of a hiker saved from a fall by a snagging flare cuff – doesn’t mention a brand name at all.  You won’t see the words “jeans” “denim” or “Levi’s” anywhere on the cover, or any reference to the brand in the magazine copy.  The music festival serves as the in-world call to action, and every URL is fenced off in ad space. In a weird reversal, this fake branded magazine seems to have more journalistic integrity than many real world news outlets.

All in all, this is one of the best pieces of tangible I’ve seen this year.  It’s playful, elegant, funny, and evocative.  I’m keeping this one on my bookshelf – if my mom doesn’t steal it first.  If you want to read it in digital form (which isn’t nearly as lovely as flipping randomly through the physical version), you can find it on the Orange Tab website.

Have some swag you’d like to see me opine on?  Go right ahead and send it to me.

Sep 4, 2013

Laser Lace Episode 1 is Out!

EBook Cover

 

The digital version of Laser Lace Episode 1 is out now!  It went out to Kickstarter backers last night, and everyone else can grab it here for coffee money.

2and3-Society Column and Evermans Ad Back

This digital book is in full color, carefully arrayed, and it feels very much like looking through the physical story packet.

4 - Celia's Letter Front

 

The episode is available right now at Gumroad, and will likely show up in other places as I figure out this whole ebook publishing thing.  I may be biased, but I highly recommend it.

Aug 27, 2013

Easy Hacks for Writing Woman-Friendly Media

Men and women make efficient operating teams on riveting and other jobs at the Douglas Aircraft plant, Long Beach, Calif.

I have a game designer friend who said to me, a while back, that he wants to make things that hang on fewer sexist tropes, but didn’t know where to start. I replied a little sharply, that this shit is easy – and really, it is! – but I guess the question is owed a more detailed answer, so I decided to write up a couple of rough and ready tips.

In case you’re wondering, I do know a little about this stuff.  Through college and after, I wrote comedies for choral dinner theater groups that had a much larger number of women than men in their troupe, because of the way the music was arranged.  So for eight years, I wrote for a genre where it wasn’t even possible to use a male-centric script – a far different environment than today’s film or video game industries.

Off the top of my head, here are ten things you can do when you’re working on a project to help you muddle your way through to a more woman-friendly script.

  • Get out your red pen and your manuscript. Every time a woman is threatened with rape, strike the scene out. Every time a man tells a woman to shut up, strike it. Every time a man vows revenge after the death of a woman, strike it. Every time a woman is captured and has to be saved by a man, strike it. Strike them, even if you have a later reveal that changes the context of those scenes. Rewrite.
  • Write a logline for the story you’re working on. Flip the genders. Write a summary of that story, without changing any of the details from the logline.  If some of the details are better in this summary, change them in a rewrite.
  • Ask at least one woman to give notes on your manuscript. Don’t argue about sexism with them.
  • Pick a scene in your manuscript where a female character takes action. Write down why YOU would take that same action. If the explanation takes more than a sentence, rewrite.
  • Make a list of your female characters. Next to each, write down what the character wants. If the answer is “sex,” “power,” “revenge,” “a husband,” or “nothing,” scratch it out and come up with something else. Rewrite as necessary.
  • Choose two male characters at random and make them female.
  • Make a list of all your characters in order from most to least powerful, considering only their job titles. Move some of the women up the list. Adjust the story accordingly.
  • Look for scenes where your characters fail out of ignorance, flightiness, or plain stupidity. If the character to blame is a woman, change it to a man.
  • Make sure your manuscript passes the Bechdel Test.
  • Watch movies or TV with an outspoken feminist. Listen.

These are just hacks – hardly subtle or foolproof tools, but neither are they difficult to come up with.  If you’re a writer by trade, you can probably design dozens more.  In fact, if you think of any, do us all a favor and share your ideas.  If you do your sharing on Twitter, please cc me (@toenolla), because I’m dying to hear them.

Of course, the best way to learn to write women well is to think about how to write them, a lot.  Read feminist critiques of media.  Force yourself to write more female characters even if it’s more difficult.  Learn the pitfalls and come up with your own creative ways to get around them.  Once you get used to doing it, you’ll find its easy as pie.  I promise.

Jul 11, 2013

Hard Lessons in Project Management

Doing Laser Lace Letters has taught me a lot of things, but project management and time estimation have to be the biggest ones. Some of these have been tough lessons to learn, and really exposed the flaws in my thinking.

Having learned those hard lessons, I present them here.  If you’re a grizzled veteran producer, some of these things may seem obvious – but I have a feeling that this discipline takes a lot of insight to practice properly.

Don’t just guess at how long things will take.  I didn’t know how much time it would take me to get Episode 1 out the door, so I just took a random stab at it – and it turned out wrong.  When I went to figure out how much things would cost, I created a big, complicated spreadsheet to estimate expenses, but I didn’t take that same rigor with estimating time.  The result was predictable: a project with a stable, manageable budget and a messy, slip-prone timeline.

Know the size of your project.  Laser Lace isn’t a full blown ARG with live events, an online game tie in, and daily character interactions, all leading up to a film release.  That’s the scope of project I’m used to working on, and in my mind, Laser Lace is a “small” project in comparison.

Laser Lace was designed not to roam too far and stretch itself thin. It seems the more you concentrate on franchise and story extensions, the less you save the good stuff for your core product.  I cut the extra stuff down to a minimum (episode summary/teaser pages, and the Twitter prequel.)  But even that focused, undiluted story series is still a pretty hefty chunk of work – basically equivalent to a seven-issue comic.  I don’t know anyone who could turn out a seven issue comic series in four months with one project manager/writer and a remote art team.  Do you?  I’d love to meet them.  They must have one of those Tony Stark heart batteries.

Be realistic about your workload.  When I was doing my touch-and-go time estimation, I looked at what I had done in the past, and thought, “yeah, I’ve been producing at x rate, but once the Kickstarter is over, I’ll work even harder.”  In reality, I was already working at an exhausting pace – doing 20 hours of work a day, cancelling all my social engagements, trying to find time for things like haircuts, and burning out regularly.  My inner perfectionist, though, kept telling me I was half-assing it all.  It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that having a budget didn’t endow me with any work superpowers.

Find partners ahead of time.  One of the things I did for Laser Lace was pre-approach some artists and crafters to do work on the project when the time came.  I should have done the same with writing consultants and typesetters, and written them into my budget.  Better yet, I should have had full partners on this project from the start.  The next time I do a project of this scale, it will be with at least one other person.  Preferably two.  Doing everything myself is crazy.  What was I thinking?

Taking notes saves you hours and hours.  One thing about working with yourself is that you assume you’ll make the same decision, or understand every decision, even when there are days, weeks, or months between making the call, and implementing it.  Hahaha, you fool!  Next week you’ll come across a piece of code in your spreadsheet or a plot note and wonder, what the hell?  I’ve forced myself to establish a good note-taking and note-reading habit.  I’m still working on it.

Always be communicating.  When I started Laser Lace, I had an irrational fear of answering email.  I’ve killed that habit out of sheer necessity.  Now I answer most email in one or two sentences, usually explaining what I need next or when we can speak on the phone in more detail.  I go with my instinct more when giving design notes, and don’t waste time trying to finesse or finangle.

Spend time planning.  Plan to spend time planning.  When you’re head down, working on content, you’ve badly underestimated your deadline, and you’re feeling the pressure, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that tomorrow you have to run something to the post office.  I’m still working on putting time into my schedule to step back and look at the big picture.

It’s actually OK to prepare more.  This has been the hardest one to come to.  From the first four items it’s pretty clear that I was (and probably still am) suffering from a manic impatience that creates crazy expectations about how long it takes to do good creative work.  I had a bias against preparation, and I pushed myself to just Get the Work Out – to figure things out along the way.  I didn’t enjoy the feeling of stasis that you got from NOT shipping things.  Now I understand that I could have taken more time to better prepare for the KS launch, and the sky wouldn’t have fallen.

At the time, I felt like that push was exactly what I needed. I was unhappy that my previous project, Research & Development(s), hadn’t gotten as far along as it could – that, a few months after talking about it at StoryWorld, it wasn’t already finished.  I thought that meant I was stuck in a preparation loop – that I was puttering around with no intention of getting to the final stages. (This is a depression thing – where I manage to convince myself that I’m acting in bad faith.)

With the wisdom of Laser Lace in my system, I can see now that Research & Development(s) was pretty much where it should have been in its production cycle – it had a script, interaction design, product prototypes, and was ready to be shopped around to stakeholders, have its team assembled, and move into production proper.  In fact, once Laser Lace is done, that might just be what I do.

Apr 18, 2013

I Actually Think Girls Might Not Have a STEM Allergy

So, I just read a piece by teachers Jonathan Olsen and Sarah Gross titled, To Attract More Girls to STEM, Bring More Storytelling to Science. It features a lot of rather good arguments for interdisciplinary studies, but I just have to weigh in a little because it’s steeped in the blithe assumption that women just aren’t interested in STEM, so we need to be pulled in with other things that aren’t STEM – such as science-related literature, art, and history.

It’s not their fault. It’s a common assumption – and many people in this dark world of ours secretly wish it were true. The mind-boggling thing is that they started from research that should have told them the opposite.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, tracked about 1500 college-bound students over a decade and found that more women had the highest scores on both the math and the verbal portion of the SAT test than their male counterparts. These women were more likely to pursue non-STEM careers after graduation even though they excelled in those fields in school.

Olsen and Gross think this indicates “many girls’ antipathy toward all things STEM.” I wonder how they imagine those girls got their high SAT scores.

These are women who took in everything they could of all the disciplines, and at the end had to choose which to pursue for life. If you’re an ambitious person – the kind who loves to challenge herself, the kind who wants to do great things, the kind who has so far managed to excel in every subject she’s studied – the biggest question that informs your post-graduation plans is going to be, “Where can I achieve the most?”

It’s the right question to ask, even if we feel a little uneasy with it. It’s noble and right to try to be an excellent steward of your own talents, even if it means setting aside other things that you may love.

The best and brightest students are going to ask this question as early and as often as they can. For whatever reason, it looks like, by graduation time, these young women don’t believe they can accomplish the most in STEM. I don’t know why they believe this; you’d have to ask them, but I can tell you that offering a less rigorous curriculum to accommodate them will not help. Girls are smart. We know when we’re being coddled, and we know that once it’s done to us, it sticks. We know how the need to prove ourselves can siphon off our time and energy. We know there are people out there who want to see us fail out of pure spite, and that if we want to get ahead, we need to avoid them.

I feel a little bit of kinship there. I joined the DIY community because I wanted to learn new tools and use them to build new things. I love turning ideas to practical uses and, when the mood strikes me, I do this with a sewing machine. I was mostly self taught, but I used sewing to learn how things are built.  If they wouldn’t teach me to use a miter box or a voltmeter, people would gladly teach me to use a needle and thread – so, I went to town.

From sewing I taught myself carpentry – not just that I learned to do one after the other, but that one *informed* the other. Once you start reverse-engineering people’s handbags, you’ve hit a sort of tipping point. Things start to fit together.  From carpentry, papercraft, and from papercraft, panel design and laser cutting.

So, nobody in the DIY world is wrong when they assume I know how to sew – even if their only reason for thinking it is that I’m a woman.  They’re wrong when they assume I’m ONLY interested in sewing – that I can’t hold an intelligent conversation about biology or 3D printing or audio processing or SQL. To me, that seems impossible – how could I only know one thing? Everything informs everything else; every discipline is connected. I can’t argue that interdisciplinary teaching is bad – it’s brilliant. It’s natural. It’s already happening in the brains of students all the time.

When people assume that you only know one thing, they try to speak that language, even if it’s a poor language for what they’re trying to say.  They’re working backwards, reaching down to make a primitive connection because they can’t understand just how very tall you are.  This is why I’ve grown to despise the Lilypad Arduino.

I don’t hate the actual product – it’s really quite cool.  The Lilypad is a microcontroller designed for soft circuitry – electronics that are worked into textiles. You can sew it into a project and use it to program systems of sensors, lights, and other components. Adding the sewing aspect to it makes things a bit more involved than they would be tinkering with a regular Arduino board, but you can do some pretty neat stuff with it if you put in the time. The reason I’ve come to dread the name is that I’ve had loads of people suggest I buy one – just because I’m a woman and in the room. Somehow this has turned into the microcontroller starter kit for women, just because in theory, it bridges the gap between something we already know and something we want to learn.

I have no doubt I’ll eventually make some soft circuitry project, but I have very little interest at the moment. When you’ve learned something into the ground, doing it needlessly is a suffocatingly boring proposition, so I’m not too keen on sewing a bunch of stuff to learn electronics. I’ll probably do some robotics, since I know how to build things on the laser cutter so I won’t have any problems building the mechanical parts – plus, I’ll get some new and useful skills. Then, I’ll take what I’ve learned in robotics and prototype my piece’s functions on a regular Arduino and a breadboard, then move it to the Lilypad.

That’s my interdisciplinary roadmap. Notice how it plunges right into the heart of STEM to start with, then comes back out to do the actual interdisciplinary work.  I don’t need to add electronics to my sewing to ease myself in to electronics; I’d learn electronics so I can add them to my sewing.

I can imagine that working the other way, but  it involves me letting others take the lead on design and learning very little.  That’s not why I’m here – to play games, to tinker with special tools and learn special lessons, to constantly explain myself or to “make a statement” with my presence; I’m here to learn, and to get things done. I think those young women are here for the same thing.

Feb 26, 2013

AUTHENTIC, she said, IN ALL CAPS

The short: Christy Dena is funding her project, AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS, and it has just over 2 days left to make the cut.  It’s a narration-augmented web game for the iPad about finding the courage to be yourself in a satirical underworld run by quantum theorists.  The demo was nominated for a game writing award.  It’s going to be great.

authentic pointing!

The long: 

She sat down to type.  She paused, hands hovering over the keyboard, a howling coming from the wind inside in the laser exhaust output. She was tired, but the time was now.  Only 64 hours left to go.  It had to be done.

The narrator is a staple of storytelling on rails.  It’s the voice of the novel.  It made The Wonder Years so poignant and Arrested Development so funny.  We mock the poor, neckless narrator of  The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and marvel at the intracies, exaggerations and contradictions it can bring to light in a film like Goodfellas.

Narration in interaction is another matter.  It’s a technical and social challenge to make narration that works together with your player/audience, and all too often this falls flat.  And yet, we’re seeing an indie resurgence of truly amazing narration in games.  Bastion polished the narrator concept to a high gloss, and The Stanley Parable used it to elevate interactive narrative to the level of literature.

So how do we capture some of that magic in a web-based, ARG-like adventure?  Alternate Reality Game players are used to getting their core narrative thread from recap blogs, which lack a certain immediacy and ability to create dramatic moments.

Christy Dena (who, if you don’t know, is a brilliant Aussie transmedia designer with a CV so long you can wrap it around your neck twice) is about to show us, with the help of her cohorts Craig Peebles, Trevor Dikes and Simon Howe.  Their project, AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS, is an iPad app that takes you on an audio tour of the web, adding that core narrative voice to the artifacture of a web story.  The writing promises to be top notch: even the demo picked up a nomination for “Best Writing in a Game” at the Freeplay Independent Games Festival.

The project is halfway to the funding line as I write this, and the countdown has rolled over into hours!  Go check it out, if it sounds like your cup of tea.

Feb 10, 2013

17th Century Paintings of Cheaters

Once in a while, Wikipedia manages to show me something that completely blows me away.  Tonight, I was reading the page for “Cheating” and found a link to cheating-related media at the Wikimedia Commons.  I expected to find diagrams for cheating devices or charts about infidelity.  Instead, there were a small collection of Renaissance paintings depicting card sharps!

Jacob van Oost (I) - Card-Sharpers - WGA16648

Some of these cheaters are really obvious.

Valentin de Boulogne - Card-sharpers - WGA24233

Others are very discreet.

Falschspieler Gerard van Honthorst

When you’re all gathered in the candlelight, there are plenty of shadows to hide in.

La Tour Le Tricheur Louvre RF1972-8

Or just wait till the wine comes around and everyone’s distracted.

Nicolas Régnier - Cardsharps and Fortune Teller - WGA19040

The English title of this one is Cardsharps and Fortune Teller, which makes me wonder.  Were these both common gameroom characters, or are they all working together?

Pieter Pourbus - O trapaceiro

Of course, at the end of the day, you’ll want to kick back and enjoy your ill-gotten gains with your crew.

Jan 29, 2013

Guns, Geek Communities and Mental Health

If I’ve seemed distracted these past few weeks; it’s because the thoughts in this post were rattling around in my brain.  Hopefully, with it written down, they will stop haunting me a bit.

Next week, we will be talking about the role firearms should play in my local hackerspace.  It’s the end of a long series of friction-building incidents and I hope we can come away with something clear cut that lets everyone relax a little.

It’s come to a head partly because of Sandy Hook, and partly because of some antisocial behavior from an admittedly small number of people.  Not just gun-related things like heaping abuse upon Stratasys for cancelling their contract with Defense Distributed; but also general bad behavior like making vague threats, leaving their stuff lying around and trying to shout down people who disagree with them.

It’s giving some people the impression that our space is, as a group, pro-gun and anti-Obama.  They get tripped up when that turns out not to be true.  (Like most hackerspaces, we have no political affiliation and don’t do issue advocacy.)

I’ve spoken to many members who are unnerved by the presence of a dedicated table for reloading shells, and by the fact that people have brought their AR-15s into the building.  But the more disturbing conversations have been with generally anti-gun members who said they want to get their concealed handgun license (CHL) – both to fit in, and to protect themselves against other space members.

In a way, I can understand that.  Our building is open to the public many nights, and open 24/7 to anyone who pays their first $50 of monthly dues. With over 100 members, we’re one of the largest spaces in the nation; so big that some of us may never even meet each other.  Our space is also in a warehouse district, and I suppose if you could thwart a robbery with your concealed weapon, that would be a nice bonus.  But obviously, if our members are afraid of one another, we are doing something wrong.

What really unnerves me, though, is that some members seem to think that everyone at the space should have a CHL. I’ve heard it suggested that members who don’t like guns should take a mandatory gun class.  Our president personally asked me to attend a class on the AR-15, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I’ve made it pretty clear I have no interest in that hobby whatsoever. I’ve even had one of our particularly uncivil members tell me that if he had his way, only the gun owners would have a voice in our organization.  This is a problem, and not just because I’m being pressured to do something I don’t want to, sometimes in insulting ways.  It’s a problem because I should not have a gun.

I have depression.  It’s undiagnosed (because I’m too poor to afford a diagnosis) and treated only with the best self-care I can muster.  At this time, I am proud to say that I’m a fairly happy depressed person.  I haven’t had a major incident in over a year or so.  By the standards of my brain, that’s pretty excellent.  Even given that, I stay away from guns, because they might, in a moment of pain, offer a clear path to fatal self-harm.  Naturally, I don’t want to be part of a social group that constantly tempts me to go down that road.

This is the thing that gets lost in all our debates about gun control.  We talk ceaselessly about how things would play out in a confrontation, about robberies, about home invasions.  What we neglect to acknowledge is that of all U.S. gun fatalities, 57 percent are suicides, including half of the mass shootings that spur on our perennial discussions about the role of guns in our society.  This means that gun users are more likely to take their own lives than the life of another person.*  This is the cold, heavy truth in the pit of this issue: that no matter how we deal with interpersonal confrontations, guns cannot fix this.  More CHLs cannot fix this.  Safe laws cannot fix this.  Teaching children to shoot definitely cannot fix this.

I live in Coppell, Texas – a tiny, affluent suburb where you’re more likely to get busted for pot than threatened with a weapon.**  This incident happened a quarter mile from my home: the mayor of the city killed her 19-year-old daughter, and then herself.  She was under financial stress after the loss of her husband to cancer years before.  She had borrowed the weapon from another mayor, telling him she wanted it to use for her CHL class.  She didn’t have to go through a waiting period, or a background check; she didn’t even need to use the gun show loophole.  He insisted on teaching her to use it first.

I’m willing to bet that in our hackerspace, a self-selected community of geeks, we have an incidence of depression that’s higher than the general population.  But even if it wasn’t, introducing pressure to own a gun into an unrelated interest group isn’t responsible or prudent.  We know better than that – or at least, we should.

The last time we talked about this in a meeting, all that happened was the pro-gun president saying, “Show of hands; who has a problem with us having weapons here?”  This time I’m hopeful for a less intimidating approach that lets everyone have their say, and leaves us all feeling comfortable in the space we joined.

—–

* In fact, FAR more likely, because unlike homicides, the shooter-to-victim ratio in a suicide is always 1:1.

** Based on my recollection from reading the police report for many years, in any given week I see one to six marijuana arrests, and I see a weapons related offense every two to four months.

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