September 8th, 2010
I keep thinking about the idea of geek culture, and I’m increasingly uncertain that it really exists. This started a little while ago, and I blogged about geek culture as some sort of nebulous, all-inclusive community for everyone who loves… geeky things. And the more that I consider this, the less sense it makes to me. I’m going to turn to Wikipedia for a fairly standard definition of culture (one of its meanings, at least): “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.” I’m sure that some geeks do have “shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices,” but are they specific or deep enough to really define a culture in the traditional sense?
I started thinking about this even harder during the fallout from Penny Arcade’s dickwolf comic. In the angry blogging that followed, there were a lot of criticisms made of “geek culture” (especially in the comments of these posts) as a culture supportive of misogyny and bullying, among other things. That hasn’t been my general experience in my little corner of geekdom! There are assholes (I prefer to call them “dickwolves”) everywhere, of course, but I’ve generally enjoyed a community of geeks who are supportive and friendly. I don’t want any part of a culture that’s full of dickwolves, whose “shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices” are cruelty towards others and especially towards women. That’s not my geek culture.
People have noted the negative experiences they have experienced within specific aspects of geekdom – rape jokes in WoW, dismissal of women in gaming, bullying in forums, etc. First of all, those things exist everywhere. They are not a defining characteristic of geekiness, or a shared practice among all geeks. They are bigger than geekdom. I suspect they’re more prevalent among specific geek communities, which illustrates my next point – I think geeks have become too diverse to be grouped into a single “culture.” The MMORPG geeks are different from the Trekkies, the cosplayers, the comic book fans, and all of the other people with niche interests that are considered “geeky.” Sure, they have things in common. They like… something. A lot. And they may like it enough to let it become a major part of their lives, to define them a bit. But I can’t think of any overarching “shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices” between all of these groups (and more) that would really define them as a single culture. If it’s passionate interest, then hockey fans and hotrodders would also fit into geek culture. If it’s being interested in non-mainstream stuff, then some of the people we’ve considered geeks should be kicked out as previously geeky things become mainstream.
I’d welcome discussion about this, because it’s really intriguing. I started thinking about this as if this culture really did exist, and now I’ve basically flipped my position. And I guess my next question is: does it matter?
August 19th, 2010
I wrote this for the Wil Wheaton/John Scalzi Fan Fiction Contest to Benefit the Lupus Alliance of America that ran earlier this year, and wrote a bit about the process in a couple of posts. I didn’t win, but it was fun!
Continue reading →
August 1st, 2010
Last week, Wil Wheaton blogged about whether Comic-Con is hurting nerd culture through the infiltration of mainstream media and Hollywood types. His take? No – this evolution may be disappointing, but our culture will persevere.
I actually think the Comic-Con discussion can be extended to much more than just a single convention – what we perceive as “geek culture” is becoming a bigger part of the mainstream with each passing year. Comic book movies. The Big Bang Theory. A successful Star Trek re-boot that pulled in much bigger box office returns than it would’ve if it had been seen by die-hard Trekkies alone. These ventures can be bittersweet for geeky fans – we’re getting what we want, but only sort of, and tainted by Hollywood’s desires for big stars, fancy CGI, and re-writes of plots that we know and love into something “marketable.” This has blurred the line between geek and mainstream. You can love Star Trek, or Tron, or Spiderman… and not be perceived by others as a geek. Sure, it’s a little different if you get into thematic collecting, or cosplay, or RPGs. But over the past decade, we’ve seen a shift. It’s normal to like video games, computers, science fiction, and comic books. It’s no longer just for the pocket protector crowd. So what does it mean to be a geek anymore?
I’ve always seen geek culture as an acceptance that you can like whatever you want, and enjoy it in whatever way you want. You can break down Primer into a poster-sized timeline of cause-and-effect and concurrent time travel events. You can get into deep philosophical debates about the relative merit of Joss Whedon shows. You can write RPS MPREG fanfiction about the actors from Lord of the Rings. And that’s just… that thing you do, as your own flavor of geekiness. I can’t stand geek elitism. You don’t have to like Star Wars to be a geek. You don’t have to speak Klingon. You don’t have to play D&D, or own any dice at all. All of this makes geek culture hard to define, and increasingly harder as we also see the shift into mainstream.
The more I think about it, the more I don’t care. I don’t need to be defined by a word, or be a part of a nebulous culture. I’m glad there’s a convention where people can wear amazing costumes, play the latest unreleased games, and see a panel about their favorite movie, television show, or comic book. I’m a little less thrilled about all of the movie adaptations, mostly because I’d like to see more original content on the big screen (but that’s another rant for another day). You don’t have to like all of it, or see it as a part of geek culture… whatever that is. However I look at it, there’s simply more out there for me to see.
July 6th, 2010
I’m a pretty big fan of Yelp, especially since it now dominates the user review market for restaurants. There’s a bit of controversy from professional food critics about what all of these public voices contribute to the dialogue about a restaurant, but I’m largely in favor – Yelp provides a platform for reviews that are diverse, up-to-date, and prolific. When I wanted good sushi near Millbrae, California, I turned to Yelp, and found a place with over 600 reviews, most of which were positive. The reviews gave me a lot of insight into the place: what’s popular, what’s worth avoiding, the best times to visit, and thoughts on the menu from sushi newbies and lovers alike. That’s much more information than I’d get from a traditional restaurant review. Are there useless reviews mixed in there? Yes. Does Yelp have astroturfing from restaurant owners, staff, or their friends? Yes. But if there are enough voices present, it should be largely unbiased.
Yelp helps me find new restaurants, and it also helps me make informed decisions about whether a restaurant will suit my needs. Looking for late-night sushi in DC? Yelp made it easy for me to find a place that serves a limited sushi menu until 2AM – and to see that diners have mixed feelings about that menu. I especially enjoy using Yelp when I’m in an unfamiliar city, as it helps me pick interesting places to try when I don’t have a lot of time, information, or direct input from locals. This usually works out very well.
But I’ve discovered an interesting aspect of being an amateur critic – it opens me up for criticism, too. Today I got two pieces of strange Yelp feedback. The first, a private message entitled “that’s not true,” which didn’t offer any context for the following rebuttal:
I don’t have kids, dogs, and I didn’t touch anything. And he still acting like a freaking bitchy Queen. The guy was a real class A dick. You must be a friend of his…
My first reaction was, “Whaaaa?” This totally came from left field. But then I had an inkling that it could be in response to my review of The Gold Bug in Pasadena. Many reviewers commented that the owner was rude, but I’d had an excellent experience and shared it. Apparently that makes me a liar. But I returned quickly to confusion when I found that the author of the private message never reviewed this place. Somehow, she feels like I’m invalidating an experience she had that she never shared? I’ll say it again, “Whaaaa?”
But today was apparently a red letter day for Yelp insanity, because I also got a comment on one of my restaurant reviews from the business owner. This occasionally happens, and my experiences have been uniformly positive – if I offer praise, the owner thanks me. If I had a concern, the owner apologizes and promises to look into the matter. Wholly satisfying. Not today, however. A few months ago, I reviewed Rhode Island Reds Cafe in Hyattsville. I wasn’t too impressed, and wrote a few paragraphs (Yelp encourages reviewers to be detailed) about my experience. Well, this apparently confused the owner, who said:
yikes, she’s got a lot to say. How come? Does she dislike me or is she being friendly? I don’t want to know.
While I recognize that it’s technically possible to dislike someone and be friendly… this is a bizarre response to my 3-star review. Apparently, I got off easy – here’s what he said in response to a 2-star review:
You ” did not have a great time ” ,so you post a bunch of crap about my business?! You found me pretentious- as you write “A CERTAIN AMBIANCE” I don’t have foam containers. Nothing I sell costs $13.00 dollars. Delicous thin crust Roman style Pizzas,$10. $6.50 for gourmet sandwiches with a side, nice salads? Beers and wine unavailable elsewhere. It’s Italian influenced, not fucking French .Everone tells me my prices are LOW. A pan from a boob like you is actually good for my trade. What do you do that’s worth a damn? Type? Whine? Do something useful, like drop dead. Regards Red.
…wow. Several reviews mention that the owner is gruff, surly, or some other flavor of unfriendly, but I’d upgrade that assessment to batshit crazy. Advising a customer, in a public forum, to “drop dead” is nuts – especially when you consider that his overall Yelp rating is 4 stars! He doesn’t have anything to worry about from a couple of poor reviews when the majority are positive. I updated my own review (without changing my star rating) to reflect my reaction to his retaliatory commenting – I won’t be eating there again.
Not that any of this will stop me from continuing to Yelp. I have opinions and will continue to share them with the world. Isn’t this why I blog?
July 5th, 2010
This year, I got a slight reprieve from my busy work schedule to take advantage of my screener pass to SILVERDOCS. As usual, I assembled an ambitious schedule of film screenings using their clever online tool… and made it to less than half of the things I’d picked. With selections as rich and provocative as these, there’s really only so many documentaries my brain could handle in a day. Add in some physical discomfort – freezing cold theaters, periodic hunger pangs, and an increasingly tired ass – and I discovered my limit was roughly 3 films per day. Here’s day 1 in review.
Continue reading →
July 1st, 2010
I completed my Wheaton/Scalzi UnicornPegasusKittenFic tonight, making final adjustments and corrections a few hours before the deadline. I started working on the story right after the contest was announced, writing in fits and starts throughout the month. I meant to get it handed off to my beta readers a little earlier than yesterday, but I immensely appreciate the quick turnaround! I got great feedback about typos, geeky elements, and some quirky turns of phrase. I’m very happy with the result. While the contest has no requirement of exclusivity, I’m going to keep my story unpublished until the results are known. It seems more fun that way.
In the end, it wasn’t so terribly painful to write a piece of real person fiction (RPF). While I created a rather fantastic backstory for my piece, I avoided making changes to the essential characters or personal lives of the real people I was depicting. Their lives were the same, just transplanted to a ridiculous scenario. This made the whole thing more comfortable. I wasn’t ignoring the fact that they both have wives and children (though I also didn’t really write about their families, as that moved into creepier private territory), and I attempted to incorporate well-known aspects of their lives and proclivities. I also didn’t delve into particularly personal details – there was no speculation on what Wil Wheaton is wearing under his kilt in the painting. I avoided romance entirely, because that seemed like it would require me to ignore the real lives of real people and get a little too personal. I’m sure it would’ve been possible to write something respectful and entertaining about the obvious homoerotic undertones going on there (hello, giant spear!), but I steered clear and feel good about that.
I blogged and tweeted a bit about my discomfort with RPF, and a friend commented, “There’s a thin line between historical fiction & RPF but I think it’s there.” And that got me thinking: would my creepy feelings about this experience have been different if I’d been asked to write a story about two historical figures who were no longer alive? I think it would have been a lot easier, and my friend nailed the reason with a follow-up tweet – “Some historical figures are like characters now.” Yes! I don’t feel like it’s as weird or disrespectful to write fiction about historical figures who are long gone. Their lives have become part of our public record, and well-respected scholars have already dug into their histories. Reading the Wikipedia entry about John Quincy Adams feels far less voyeuristic than reading the one on John Scalzi. If I write John Quincy Adams into a sexual situation, he isn’t going to read it and be creeped out. His children aren’t going to read it. His descendants could read it, but that dilutes the weirdness – especially with a well-documented historical figure. No one would wonder about how I got so much deeply personal information about John Quincy Adams. I could write about where his children went to school or his medical records… neither of which would be appropriate if I was writing about John Scalzi. Time makes a huge difference here.
This also raised the question of whether Ben Franklin/John Adams slash fanfiction exists. I am assured that yes, it does – not only does Rule 34 assure it, but there’s a healthy little community of authors who write fanfiction based on the musical 1776 (plus those who write general historical fiction about the era). But, Mr. Adams!
Will I be writing more stories about real persons, living or dead? Probably not, unless there’s a specific request. Part of the fun of writing fiction is the ability to create worlds and characters from scratch – and writing about real people means you can get your characters wrong. I could be persuaded to write about that unicorn-pegasus-kitten again, though. He was a charmer.
June 28th, 2010
I’m a regular consumer of fan-created products – I read fanfiction, watch fanvids, and enjoy fanart in a variety of fandoms, and often enjoy those products almost as much as I enjoy the original works. In fanfiction, I definitely have specific tastes about pairings, settings, canon-compliance, etc. I’ve blogged in the past about fanfiction that makes me uncomfortable, but there’s one entire genre that I really dislike – real person fiction (RPF).
I usually avoid RPF entirely, but I’ve been working on a submission for the Wil Wheaton/John Scalzi Fan Fiction Contest to Benefit the Lupus Alliance of America, which asks writers to create a short piece of fanfiction to explain a largely inexplicable work of art featuring those two geek celebrities. So I am not just thinking about RPF, I am writing RPF. Ugh. And this has taken me places that I didn’t really want to go in fannishness.
I wanted to write a story that captures aspects of John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton, their personalities and their personal lives. This means I have to do research. On present-day, living people whose blogs I read. This feels really, really creepy. To carry my plot, I needed to know a little about Wil Wheaton’s family tree. Looking at genealogical information made me feel like a stalker. Finding out about his favorite arcade games and favorite beers was slightly less creepy, as he has blogged about those things. But I feel like an intruder when I need to dig a little deeper.
When I see RPF, it often concerns me that the creators don’t see the line between fantasy and reality, that they’re blurring the characters with the people who portray them. Writing about a sexual relationship between two real people, who you don’t know, that frequently discards and disrespects their real personal lives… it’s creepy. I suppose it’s related to fannish obsessions with specific actors because of a love for the characters they play. I find it even weirder when the fiction isn’t about actors that play other characters – like Mythbusters slash fic. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman are real people with families and separate lives outside of the show. I can’t find any excuse for writing a story that ignores the fact that they are each married (or, worse, has them cheating on their wives) to place them together. (And crap, now I had to look up info about Adam and Jamie for their personal details! It burns us.)
I suppose I could modify my story to omit the details that take me places that I don’t really want to go. But that also means omission of the little nuances that make my characters closer to the real people, that would hopefully give me an edge on realism and resonance with the real people I’m writing about. Or I could accept that these are two blogging, tweeting celebrities who regularly put themselves in the public eye. I’ve tried to be very considerate about the details I’m including, and perhaps that’s the best I can do. I’m avoiding anything that can’t easily be discovered through their own websites, Wikipedia, or a really quick Google search. I guess that makes me feel slightly better?
At least the contest prohibited explicit sex. I… can’t wrap my brain around the alternative.
June 28th, 2010
For a couple of years now, I’ve served as a screener for the SILVERDOCS film festival, a documentary festival presented by the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel. The AFI operates a gorgeous restored theater in Silver Spring that happens to be across the street from Discovery’s headquarters, and this serves as the backdrop to the week-long festival. The theater screens a combination of indie films, foreign films, and older films (often in thematic series) during the rest of the year – the sort of place where you might be able to catch some Jean-Luc Godard and The Muppet Movie on the same weekend.
Being a screener means I watch 40 documentaries over an 8-week period and give the festival staff my opinions on each of them. I get a mix of shorts (under 40 minutes) and feature length films to watch, and I am obligated to watch all of them in their entirety. As I understand it, SILVERDOCS receives over 1000 submissions each year and selects under 10% of them for the festival – odds are, I’ll mostly screen things that don’t make that cut. Last year, I didn’t screen anything that was shown in the festival. This year, I screened one short and one feature that were selected. I’ve taken a vow of secrecy and can’t tell you which ones, though.
I screen a lot of student films and a lot of foreign films. I see a lot of not-quite-final cuts (unfinished audio, missing stock footage, incomplete titles) and an equal, if not greater, number of “final” cuts that should see a little more time in the hands of an editor. Sometimes I screen things that I know should be great, could be great… but don’t deliver. Other times, I screen things that are based on a premise that I don’t think would make a great documentary, no matter how polished the product. And then in my 40 films, I screen a few gems. In my reviews, I attempt to tell SILVERDOCS why that film grabbed me and why I think it would be an excellent match for the festival. And then it’s out of my hands and I have to wait until they announce the slate.
The screening period always seems to fall during a period of real-life stress – in the late winter/early spring, which is a peak season for business travel and deadlines. As I scramble to keep up with my screening batches and their own deadlines, watching films on planes, in the middle of the night, over every meal, sometimes I question, “Why do I do this?” Lots of reasons, I suppose. I get to watch 40 documentaries that are largely unreleased and unavailable to the public. I get a special pass to the festival, allowing me to attend conference sessions, film screenings, and events for free. And I get the bragging rights of saying that I was a screener, that I helped make SILVERDOCS what it is. But most of all, I think it makes me a better creator.
In watching all of the films, my 40 screeners and the ones I catch at the festival, I see the whole spectrum of documentary filmmaking. I get immense insight into the creative and technical process that goes into these films. I see their successes and their flaws, both of which are highly informative. I’d like to think that I learn something from all of it – better storytelling, new communication styles, and frequent reinforcement of the importance of tight editing. If there’s one single thing that separates the cream of the crop at SILVERDOCS, it’s excellent editing.
Today marked the conclusion of SILVERDOCS 2010, with a few screenings in the coming week, and I’m both relieved and disappointed that it’ll be several months before my next screening opportunity. I watched a number of truly outstanding documentaries this week, ones I hope will get distribution so I can share them with others. It’s a pleasure to take part in this annual festival of documentary storytelling.
June 18th, 2010
I entered a “geek dad” contest through ThinkGeek because, well, I have a wonderfully geeky dad! For better or worse, he’s been a huge influence on the person I’ve become – a person who loves science fiction, airplanes, computers, and astronomy. And guess what! My geek dad mini-essay made the top 20!
So I humbly ask you guys to take a moment and vote for your favorite essays. You get to pick three, and you don’t *have* to pick mine (#6, Sara M. from Maryland!)… but I know the other contenders are campaigning and I have to show that I can use my geek powers for good.
Voting only goes through 4PM EDT today, so vote early
and vote often. And share if you’d like to give me even more of a boost!
May 11th, 2010
I’m posting this from the bathroom counter in my hotel suite – it’s the spot where I seem to have the most reliable internet signal. Oh, hotel wifi.
This is my last night in Chicago, and I’m spending it relaxing in my room. I had a short trip, but I’ve already been really productive and packed a lot in. Besides, the weather is total shit right now (windy, rainy, cold) and I’m not keen on being out in it. I got here on Sunday night and went straight to my hotel, the famous Palmer House. Gorgeous lobby, a weird blend of historical and hip in public areas… and really stuffy, Victorian-decor rooms. Too much brocade and whatnot for my hotel tastes. I had a reservation for a much more bland Embassy Suites for the other two nights, and I like the space of a two-room corner suite with three sinks and two televisions and just little old me!
I wasted no time on Monday, checking out bright and early to get stuff done and see the city. I had a voucher to see Hubble 3D, so I walked to Navy Pier. I’d actually gotten a coupon for two tickets, two sodas, and a bucket of popcorn. I ended up eating popcorn for lunch because that bucket was the size of a trash can. The film was good, I had some gripes about a few science communication points, but if you can still go see it – wow. It’s visually spectacular.
I grabbed a cab to Lincoln Park and shopped for a while. Bought some makeup and got ice cream at Vosges. Curry-coconut ice cream FTW! I ate that while I walked a couple of miles through a seedy warehouse and steelworks district, headed to Wicker Park to check out some shops. Those didn’t pan out, so I walked another few miles and tried again. No dice. Walked another few miles to Humboldt Park and tried again. At this point, I was tired and hungry and realized that it was 3.5 miles back to my hotel. I kept telling myself, “One more mile and if I can’t make it any farther, I’ll catch a cab.” An hour later, I was at the hotel, my hips and ankles were on fire, and my pedometer said I’d walked just over 14 miles. Google Maps corroborates this. Ouch. Not bad for someone diagnosed with arthritis at 27, right?
I collapsed in bed last night (after grabbing some shameful Taco Bell takeout because I couldn’t be bothered to try harder than that) and had to get up at 6:30AM to get to the day’s meetings. It poured all night with 35mph gusts of wind, howling wind that woke me up repeatedly, and I decided to take a cab. My joints thanked me. But things cleared up a bit in the afternoon, and I needed to walk off some tension. I walked along the harbor for a while before cutting into the city streets, which meant I couldn’t even catch a cab if I wanted one. I barely made it the 3 miles back to the hotel. And now I’m really stiff and sore and DEFINITELY not walking much tomorrow. I like to see a city on foot, and I’ve done 10+ mile days in other cities like NYC and Boston and Seattle (where every ridiculously angled uphill block should count as three). But this was pretty intense, and entirely self-inflicted. Oops?