Friday, April 18, 2014

The Wisdom of Fictional Characters - on Snow Queens and Mermaids (with free fiction!)

Read through to the end of this one for a complete free short story!

While winter may at last be giving way to spring, a bit of frost has lodged in my household, as it has in those of many of my fellow parents. Frozen, the latest animated musical fairy-tale adaptation from the folks at Disney, has not only made its way into our home but appears to live in near-constant playback. It is rapidly approaching the point at which I think of our TV not as a general viewing device, but as a single-purpose Frozen machine. I'll admit that the story on which it is based, Hans Christian Anderson's "The Snow Queen," is not one with which I was familiar.   The public domain, free e-books, and the Google Books app on my smart phone were able to fix that readily enough. How does the new match with the old?  How does this mirror Disney's earlier Anderson-based film The Little Mermaid? A line in a horror novel I'm currently reading brought these questions to mind.

The  novel in question is Caitlin R Kiernan's The Drowning Girl. It is, thus far, an utterly brilliant book of which I might write a full review after I finish. Kiernan's protagonist, a self-described insane young woman, has somewhat of an obsession with Anderson's "Little Mermaid" story. On seeing the Disney film, she is deeply disappointed at Disney having taken a true story and replaced it with a pretty lie. Did they do so? And did they do the same with "The Snow Queen"? To answer that we need to read and consider the original works.

Illustration of the evil magic looking glass
from Anderson's "The Snow Queen"
It is well-known that many fairy tales, in their original telling, have a darkness or even a brutality about them. Rapunzel's prince has his eyes gouged out with thorns. Cinderella's step-sisters cut pieces off of their feet to fit into the famous glass slipper. The endings are not always happy, and when they are we don't always get their bloodlessly. Some of Anderson's tales have a touch of the darkness we see in the Brothers Grimm, but Anderson's religiousity sews a hint of a silver lining onto this dark mantle. Yes, the little match girl freezes to death alone on the street (see here for my take on this particular tale), but not without a glimpse of the comfort and joy she'll receive in the next world. The Little Mermaid, in the Anderson tale, is not able to win her prince's love. At risk of dying by the sea-witch's curse, she is given a magic dagger by her sisters. With this magic she has a final chance to win back her life by killing the prince's bethrothed, but at the last moment she throws the dagger into the sea, dooming herself. In the final scene, her spirit is greeted by angels, and told that by this act of generosity she can, over the course of years or centuries, earn an immortal soul. Is this a happy ending? It is, but at a cost. The biggest problem with the Disney version is the same as my biggest issue with the Disney version of Rapunzel - in both cases our protagonists make sacrifices for what they desire - Flynn dooms himself by slicing off Rapunzel's magic hair to keep it from the witch, Ariel gives up her voice in a bargain with the Sea Witch. In both cases, the sacrifice is cheapened by not only giving the character the object of their desire, but handwaving away any lasting effect of the sacrifice. Kiernan's character is right: The Little Mermaid lacks literary truth or any real moral weight. We end with a fight scene and a "happily ever after" for all involved.

What of "The Snow Queen" and Frozen? This is an interesting case in that the Disney film bears almost no resemblance to Anderson's tale of Kay, a young boy whose heart is frozen by the titular Snow Queen and his friend Greta, the girl whose faith, purity, and love rescue him. There's one magic element missing from the Disney version: a magic mirror created by a demon through which one sees everything at its worst. The mirror shatters, and tiny shards of it sometimes get caught in someone's eye or heart. Those so afflicted see things in a dark and distorted way, and eventually likewise feel bitter and hateful. In "The Snow Queen",  Kay is so afflicted both in his eye and heart. It is through this dark lens that he finds the evil snow-queen beautiful, and in the end our heroine's act of love not only thaws his frozen heart but also washes away the shards of glass. There's clearly a great deal of metaphor in Anderson's story and what I would argue is an explicitly Christian worldview. While there is a measure of repetition in Greta's varying adventures, the story works quite well and is certainly readable to a modern audience.

Frozen introduces interesting variations on the theme. What's most interesting to me is that the Snow Queen herself is no longer an evil temptress (certainly a problematic archetype to say the least), but young princess forced to hide the magic within her lest she inadvertently harm those around her. The idea of a frozen heart remains, but to far different effect. Elsa, the snow queen, is forced to flee after she reveals her powers by accidentally throwing the entire kingdom into an unnatural winter during an argument with her sister Anna. Here the frozen heart can still be metaphorical, representing the harm caused by being shut-out by a loved one. We're told repeatedly that only "an act of true love" can unfreeze a heart; the story builds nicely to the idea that the male lead will give a "true love's kiss" (as in The Little Mermaid) and thaw Anna's heart. At the last minute we're given a reversal of the usual Disney formula in that Anna turns away from her would-be male rescuer and sacrifices her own life to save her sister. This of course, is the "act of true love", ANna's heart is thawed and the sacrifice is once again returned with no lasting consequence. Even the snowman gets to survive the coming of summer, as Elsa has an epiphany which gives her such fine control of her ice powers that she can give create a tiny pocket winter just for a single comedic sidekick.

I'll say this about Frozen -  in elevating sisterly love over romantic love AND in having the female hero save herself rather than wait for a man to do it this film takes a huge feminist step. It also nicely skewered the idea of "love at first sight" which we see in too many of the Disney princess films. I still think that there's room for improvement, and fear that at the heart of this story there's still not as much truth as their could be.

I'll close with a piece of my own fiction: my take on "The Little Mermaid". Enjoy!

The Second Littlest Mermaid
by Leonard C Suskin

The sea-witch chose the mer-king's second-youngest daughter. It was not  because she pitied her, although she did know how it felt to be in the middle. You explore the same as any other girl, always diving to new depths, but whatever depth you attain, be it your first words, planting your first sea-palm in your private garde, singing your first song, you were always chasing the ones who had come before you. Oh, you still had bright shards of innocence not yet polished smooth by the currents of life, but  there was another after you, wasn't there? One whose innocence was sharper and brighter than yours, and one who everyone knew was the last one. The last egg, the last hatchling, the last to see all things under the sea with bright-eyed wonder, the last to gaze longlingly upward towards the light and the other world.

You know the sea-witch as a villain and think she chose the littlest mermaid. It's a fine tale, told to bring children of the earth closer to the sky. The other story begins under the sea, long before the mer-king's daughters would come of age and be allowed to kiss the sky.

If you listen carefully to the whispers in a seashell you just might hear a hint of it.

The sea-witch visited the royal gardens disguised as a peasant-woman. The king and queen weren't fooled, of course. They knew enough of the old stories to know that any peasant-woman who dared swim into the royal gardens was either a witch or a very brave peasant indeed. They had thought of this, planned for this, hoped for this. Days earlier their second youngest - we'll call her Bella in this tale - had seen her mother taking a bright orange bit of seaglass from within a hiding place deep within her garden. Sea-ferns grew in the rough form of a great sea-beast, with the bright bits of glass and metal hidden in its belly, head, and chest. They were carefully chosen and carefully placed, hidden to all but clever children and parents who see more than you'd think. That is the way of parents everywhere.

"That's mine!" the second-youngest mermaid yelled as she saw the mer-king placing bright orange glass in her sister's hand. It was a lovely piece of glass, orange as the trickle of light that oozed into the shallows near dawn, worn smooth by countless years under the sea. Bella had buried it in her garden days ago, in the very center of her whale-sculpture.

"Now Bella, you need to share with your sister. She's too young to find such treasures on her own. Beside, you buried it. Nobody would even know it was there."

"I know. It's mine. I found it." The second littlest mermaid quivered with rage, the water around her growing all the more salty.

The king shook his head sadly. "I am disappointed in you. To refuse to share with your sister something you've hidden and forgotten... this is not how a princess acts."

The young mermaind whispered, "I hadn't forgotten," to the empty sea as her father swam off.

Was that the moment the sea-witch made her choice? Did news of the small girl's almost-rebellion somehow reach her ears? Perhaps. It is said that she had ears everywhere, that the starfish and the jellyfish and the plentiful krill all follow deep currents to the sea-witch's lair, that they whisper their secrets to her. Perhaps.

A few short days later a peasant-woman came to the royal gardens, as the king suspected. Witches, after all, aren't the only ones whose ears span the sea like a great kraken's tentacles. He knew and smiled when he saw her. He had been wise; his youngest daughter, the strange fey creature always looking airward had never been shunned, never denied the chance to spread her fins. He knew the stories. It was always the least who received the witch's blessing, and always the ones who denied her who would pay.

So the young mer-girls were defferential and polite to the old peasant womn visiting their gardens. They tried hard not to stare at the rotting scales flaking off her tail, didn't look twice at gaunt skin stretched across protruding ribs, swam as close as they could, refusing to recoil from the sweet stink of decay permeating the seawater around her. They were all "yes, m'lady" and "welcome lady" and "would you like to see my garden?"

The witch smiled to herself with an air of detached amusement as first the oldest, then the second, and so on down through the youngest led her by the bony hand (in theirs so soft and supple, the yougest still plump with babyfat) through their carefully tended gardens and well-traveled pathways to the best, most secret parts of the great wreck.
She laughed with them and listened to them and ate too-sweet candies from their hands. The king saw her sitting quietly with the littlest mermaid gazing up at the surface and listening to their daughter's every word,

"I cannot wait until I'm fifteen and get to see the surface, oh, I can't wait. The glorious baubles from the wreck and the great golden light and .. oh, I just know it will be glorious".

The sea-witch listened. The kind didn't notice the second-smallest daughter plucking the sea-witches discarded scales from the ocean floor, but the sea-witch did. Before taking her leave, she hugged the girls farewell, forcing them to hold her a little longer than was comfortable. She knew she was testing their loyalty to their father more than their charity toward an old woman, but that didn't much matter. Loyalty is a fine trait if not taken too far and, besides, she had made her decision long ago.

Before she left the sea- witch told the littlest mermaida secret and asked her next sister a question.

Time passed, the mer-children grew and soon would come of age and get the chance, one year after the next, to swim to the surface. The first children, now young ladies, explored, each a little further landward than the next, each bringing home stories of sky and sun, land, trees, smoke from distant fires. The second littlest floated quietly in one place, brought only the smell of the air and a glimpse of distant ships to disappointed sisters.

She told them she was captivated by the beauty of the light on the water and intoxicating gulps of real air. The sun's warmth was as her sisters had described, the feeling that she'd reached the top and there was no more upward to swim as disorienting as she'd imagined. After a moment to catch her bearings and take in the wonder of it all, she spent the whole of her time in contemplation of the sea-witch's question.

She returned without finding an answer.

The littlest mermaid's story had been told so many times before; the sailor, love, a poorly-made bargain with the sea-witch. How did she think she'd woo a man without her voice? Were he to choose a voiceless mate, would that make him in turn a poor choice? Young love rarely asks questions, and you know how it went. His betrothal to another, her time running out, her sisters' desperate gamble to save her.

The eldest sister took the lead. "I know we could save her. Father would be devestated were she not to perish. As would we all."

The second sister lacked the responsibility of age, and had never been whispered a question or even a secret from the sea-witc. She was cautious. "It was dealing with the sea-witch that brought her here, to the brink of death. Why should we make the same mistake?"

The third sister followed the eldest, leaving the final choice to the second-smallest.

She agreed to go to the sea-witch. She cut her own locks, took them up with her sisters' and swam to the deeps, towards the sea-witch's cave. Downward to the sea-floor, down a deep crevasse, farther and farther from the light until she was swimming blindly, with the miles of rock above  becoming a palpable sensation, something felt and sensed rather than seen. Until she heard the witch's voice. "You've come to make a bargain, yes?"

Tendrils of hair swirled around her hands and wrists tickling her arms, her neck, her face as she swam deeper. On her bare scalp she felt the gentle caress of the deepsea water and a tingle that could only have been the great mass of rock above. Blindly, she extended her hands to make the offer but the sea-witch wasn't going to make it that easy. The sea-witch never made things easy.

"Yes, a bargain. This hair... my hair and my sisters'... for the life of our youngest. We know she'll not win his love today and we know there are no days left."

A heavy silence settled into the cave, barely stirred by the gentle ocean currents.

The mermaid felt the water stir, felt the witch nearing her. She relaxed her grip on the tangles of hair as they were slowly pulled from her grasp, felt something hard and smoothed and carved just right for a mer-girl's grip pressed into her hand. A whispered voice, "it was a fair bargain. The sea will take what it is owed. Her, or the prince... or you."

"I have three other sisters. That's four lives for one. You owe us something more."

The witch agreed to this, but, because witches can never appear to be too generous, asked one more price in return. "Can you answer the question I asked you so long ago, when you were barely more than a hatchling playing in your garden?"

The girl nodded once, sending little wavelets through the cave. "The garden was different because I knew there was a treasure buried within, and with that there could have been more. When it was gone, I knew it was gone, and the garden was just a garden. Lots of things are like that."

The sea-witch pressed something into her other hand, before retreating into the depths of her cave. The mermaid swam upward, with her new treasures. The coral dagger, ready for her sister, and a smooth, shining glass bauble.

With time growing short, the mermaids rushed to the surface to meet their littlest sister. The eldest took the honor of handing over the dagger herself, but the second-littlest didn't mind; Did she mistake the littlest mermaid's tears as she turned the blade over in her hands for gratitude at their sacrifice? Perhaps.

When the other sisters returned to the undersea palace, she waited. She saw her sister's sillhouette at the ship's rail, saw her cast the dagger into the sea. As she felt her body disolve into airy sea-foam the sea-witch's bauble burst, releasing the treasure that had started it all.

The little mermaid's voice.

With arms already melting into foam she reached for it, with lips already disolving she breathed it in and trapped it inside her so mermaid and sea-foam and voice were one atop the ocean.

The waves and wind and time buffeted her and broke her, spreading bits of her sea-foam self throught the world. Each bit had a shard of a voice, and sometimes, just sometimes someone walking on a moonlight shore takes up just the right foam-touched seashell baring the lingering scent of her passing. You can still hear the echoes of her voice to this day, whispering the secret that under the sea there is a palace, and in the palace there are mermaids.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Visit with Savant

Discussion of some project details recently brought me to the Savant Systems showroom in lower Manhattan. In addition to the matter at hand, I was treated to a showroom tour as well as a discussion on their offerings, the overall Savant ecosystem, and where they hope to be in the future.
They know the way to the AV industry's heart.
And liver.

The demo space is laid out the way many such spaces are, as a series of simulated rooms designed to showcase the technology in a variety of settings. There's a corporate boardroom with a conference table, a small classroom, a working bar (complete with liquor), and a variety of residential spaces including a sitting-room and a Theo Kalomirakis-designed screening room. The spaces all have a nice, modern look and are powered by Savant's control system. Many spaces, including the theater, use Savant's video-tiling as well as their control, switching, and transport.

Every demo space gets a Theo Kalomirakis theater. I think
it's a law.
As you may or may not know, Savant doesn't manufacture touchpanels. Instead, consumer tablets (in most cases iPads, although Android support is well on its way) as control interfaces. For some very special spaces I see the value in a commercial, hardwired touchpanel with physical buttons and capable of live video preview. For the vast majority of spaces an iPad is a 10" WiFi touchpanel at a fraction the cost of offerings from Crestron or AMX. The nice thing about an iPad is that it's very responsive - as much if not more so than the latest generation of commercial panels. They took advantage of this in some aspects of the standard GUI design, including drag-and drop and pinch-to-zoom gestures. 

Touchpanel inception.
A picture of the room, including
the iPad with a picture of the room
The residential space broke away from the standard interface to show off something a bit fancier. The iPad there had a scrollable image of the room in which we were standing. Clicking on a room element (a light, for instance) would open controls for that element. Even niftier, turning on a light made the light appear lit not only on the iPad interface, but on the picture of the iPad within the interface. It is, no question, a slick bit of GUI design.

What Savant is known for - at least to me - is their Apple-based control systems. For those who don't know, "Apple-based" is very much literal in this context. If you take the cover off one of their control processors, you'll find an actual Mac mini on the inside. They also have the sort of custom-engraved 8-button decora keypads  one seems from many control manufacturers. A variety of control extenders are available, including IP to IR or RS232. Given the number of extenders available and the capabilities of one processor, Savant claims the ability to run an entire campus including scores of rooms using a single unit (although this would be ill-advised as creating a single-point of failure).

They also showed off their switching and distribution equipment. It's the by-now familiar card-cage style switchers with local inputs, local output, and HDBaseT cards. Like many, their cards are of the four-in or four-out variety. Unfortunately, there are no HDBaseT input cards available yet. These are promised soon.

The front (and innards) of a controller. The rear
of a matrix switch
The rest of the discussion was about software. Savant is very proud of their "Blueprint" programming interface, claiming it to be easier and more user-friendly than competitors. They also boast an energy/resource management platform. This is a very nice thing which I'm increasingly suggesting as a standard part of the integrated control system for large deployments. 

Should Savant be considered a viable commercial alternative as well as a residential solution? They at least are working hard enough to position themselves that way and have enough capability to be a part of the conversation. I'm genuinely looking forward to seeing what's next from them.

Closing with a gratuitous rack shot!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Review: Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett.

This is what the world looks like when the Gods have
much imagination and little mechanical inclincation
Months after its debut in Britain, the fortieth of Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld books has reached our shores. For those not in the know, Discworld is a series of fantasy novels set on a disc-shaped world balanced on the backs of four elephants which travel through space on the back of a great turtle. It is a world described as one created by gods with more imagination than mechanical ingenuity. Pratchett wrote the first of the Discworld books, The Colour of Magic, over three decades ago, and has been lovingly expanding his magical universe ever since. While the first three books read as a somewhat one-note parody of standard fantasy tropes, the series picked up a surprising measure of depth as it moved on, giving us the chance to see the growth of some very well-drawn and memorable characters. Has this upward trend in complexity and quality continued? How does volume 40 stack up to the rest (or to other books with which one might choose to spend ones time?)  Looking at it with a critical eye, Discworld has likely peaked several volumes ago. What we have now is, while pleasant, the literary equivalent of comfort food. It's still funny and enjoyable enough, but too much of that enjoyment stems from familiarity.

The motif of a typical Discworld book is to apply a modern and anachronistic concept to the fantasy setting and familiar set of characters. We've had the city guard and equal-opportunity hiring (including dwarves and trolls), witches and The Phantom of the Opera, trolls and rock music. Raising Steam, set in the Discworld metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, follows Going Postal and Making Money in following reformed scoundrel turned postmaster and chief banker Moist von Lipwig as he plays a part in introducing the first railroad to the Discworld after the invention of a steam engine. What conflict there is arises from a group of ultra-conservative dwarves known as Grags. We've seen them before as the Discworld equivalent of real-world religious fundamentalists. In the past, they've taken the role of maintaining the traditional culture, leaving more modern dwarves glad that someone was doing so as a sort of vague cultural pride. In Raising Steam we see the darker side of this, as heavily armed Grags engage in sabotage, assault, and even murder against elements of dwarven and non-dwarven society which they feel is inpure or non-dwarvish. They've gone from an insular religious order to religious terrorists, and the new steam engine is quite the modern target.

This should be a terrific set-up for a very exciting and interesting installment in the Discworld series, but it never quite came together for me. In the earlier novel Men at Arms, Pratchett introduced the first firearm to the Discworld.  There was not only tension but, in the final reckoning, a real cost in the death of a guardsman introduced early in the book and who we'd gotten to know. There've also been, througout the books, some real growth by several key characters. Sam Vines went from being an honest cop with a drinking problem to the commander of the watch, the husband of a rich society woman, a father, and a man who's come to understand the role of politics even if he doesn't like it. Does that sound like an interesting character arc? It is. Vimes is a terrific character, and watching his growth and development has been a treat. What else do you notice about the character arc I described? It's over. He's learned what he can learn, found his place in the world, and is both content there and almost supernaturally competent. This makes him, as a character, somewhat boring.

Near-supernatural levels of competence and decency have come to suffuse so much of the Discworld universe that the books have come to feel both too nice and too easy. Ankh-Morpork is ruled by a tyrant, which seems bad until you realize that he's an absurdly benevolent tyrant who is also utterly brilliant, a master-assassin, master of disguise, and thoroughly expert at manipulating people. His level of competency and control has grown greatly since he faced, quite a few books ago, a threat to his office.

Overall, this is sounding more negative than perhaps it should. The Discworld books remain great fun the same way a beloved television series remains fun. As it's settled down to later volumes, both Pratchett and his readers seem to have too great a level of affection for the Discworld characters to see them hurt, changed, or even much challenged. It becomes literary conflict as a Harlem Globetrotters game, in which we know the result ahead of time but come prepared to be dazzled. 

There are hints about how technology can transform the Discworld and, by extension, or own. This is one of my favorite lines of thought which, sadly, was not explored further. One of the cultural contributions of tje goblin race is potmaking. Here is one character's thought as some goblins start working on the new railway, perhaps instead of their pots: 

Sir Terry Pratchett. 
...what would happen if goblins learned everything about humans and did everything the human way because they thought it would be better than the goblin way... Will goblins really stop taking an interest in their pots and will humans learn the serious, valuable and difficult and almost magical skill of pot making? Or will goblins become, well, just another kind of human? And which would be better?

This is a lovely metaphor for globalization and a reminder that, as much as the goblins (and humans from far-flung corners of the globe!) have gained from the ability to share, there is inherent a levelling, a smoothing of sharp edges, and a loss of what makes individual cultures special or unique. I do wish that Sir Terry had taken this thought farther, and the hope that he may is as much a part of what will draw me to the forty-first Discworld book as the chance to revel in the familiar antics of the Disc's zany cast of characters. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Looking and Seeing - The World through AV Eyes

Before my AV career I did  a few other things, including telephony and the unparalleled horrors of residential cable installations. One interesting thing about these three fields is each has lead me to a greater focus on parts of our world the rest of us take for granted and fail to notice. If you drive down a residential street with me, for example, I'll notice if services are brought in aerially or below ground, if cable and phone drops are run neatly at right angles or lazy diagonals from the pole, perhaps even if homes are being fed with fiber or copper. A closer look and I'll see if connections are properly grounded. Why? It's simply become part of my world. So to it is with AV. Sometimes as a consultant I can even see things which aren't really there. 

Earlier this year, Molly Stillman asked the following question: Does work in AV "ruin" live events for you? I've never worked in the live-event side of the industry and, for that matter, don't attend all that many live events.  What I do know how to view - and what has become part of my world - is installed AV. What's interesting is the different things that irk or interest me as I've moved from the integration to the consulting side of the world. Over a year ago when I was first seeking work with the SMW team, Tom Shen asked me a very good question: why did I think I was ready to work in consulting? This was part of my answer: a passion I have for the technology, and an eye I develop towards seeing it. If you were to walk through a hotel lobby with me, I'd very likely be able to tell you where they have video monitors, where there are speakers, and what I think they should have done as compared to what they actually did. This game of  asking myself what the designers were thinking, what they should have been thinking, and what I would do differently is one I am constantly playing in my head.

Two recent examples come to mind. One is a digital signage display at my local grocery story (the Douglaston outpost of the New York based chain Fairway). My contractor eyes see a nice Sony display surface-mounted above the deli counter, fed by a signage player of some sort. It matches the similar monitors pole-mounted near the frozen foods. My contractor eyes see that it might be mounted slightly off-true, and that someone left the protective plastic cover on the bezel. These kinds of small installation details are easy to spot anywhere.
Digital Signage in the wild. 

My consultant eyes see something different. They see that if one waits in a natural position a few feet back from the deli counter the display is too high to see without craning ones neck and that if you're actually AT the counter it is directly over your head. Given the pace of the Fairway deli counter, customers standing far enough back to view the content will almost certainly lose their place in line. The content consists of a loop of what appear to be in-house produced cooking and food videos with an overlay including the store's social media address and a few announcements. It's nicely chosen content for a grocery store, but misses an opportunity to highlight anything special in the specific area where it's placed. The consultant in my head wants to push the display back behind the deli counter, adjacent to the pricing board. This is where people will be looking anyway, greatly increasing the attention the sign is getting. As there are more than one of these in the store, content can be adjusted per location; perhaps the deli counter could show sandwich making, the creation of some of their salads and slaws, or give an idea of what we're supposed to do with that hundred dollar a pound Iberico ham I've always been tempted to try but have feared that I lack the sensitivity of palate to appreciate. As things stand, it's a reasonably clean installation with appropriate content. With a tiny bit more thought, it could be something more. And, of course, with a tiny bit more thought and a great deal of extra money the menu board could be replaced with a video wall for something truly spectacular. That's the part where my consultant-eyes see things which don't, in fact, exist. This also might, in all fairness, be a bit of overkill for store signage. 
A good value! 

I'll give you a quick preview of my second example from the wild: interactive kiosks at rail stations here in New York. In addition to form and function, those suggest another theme which I'll be exploring in a future post exclusive to ExpresSHENs, the official blog of SMW (but please remember - whether I post here or there, my opinions are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the SMW team at large).
What do I have to say about this?
Tune in next time!

For the nonce, I'll leave you with a question: with what kind of eyes do you look? And what do you see that isn't there, or that others don't?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Blaming Cerebus - a look at The Order of the Stick

A bit of a departure this week as I sidestep towards an example of serial online storytelling from the world of role-playing game culture. I'll specifically be looking at Rich Burlew's online comic Order of the Stick, now in its tenth year and having just completed the antepenultimate book in its ongoing storyline. The Order of the Stick takes its title from its stick-figure artwork, artwork the characters therein sometimes seem aware in occasional cracks in the fourth wall. So yes, this post is about a stick-figure comic strip about gamers. It's also about more - OoTS has been successful for a long time, and gained a very devoted following (Burlew raised money via Kickstarter to reprint his back-catalog to reach new readers. Out of a goal of just under $60,000 he raised well over a million in what was, at the time, a Kickstarter record).

OOTS began  way back in 2003 as a somewhat one-note satire of role playing games in general and Dungeons and Dragons in particular. This came at a time when I still counted myself among role playing gamers, and the humor somewhat worked for me. Sadly (or not so sadly - I've found much else to enrich my life), I've not thrown dice with a g
Order of the Stick style fan-art
MyNameMattersNot (DeviantArt).
This is that the comic looks like
aming group in years now - likely almost as long as OoTS has been running. Why do I keep coming back for all these years, following the story of an adventure-gaming group which - at least sometimes - seems to know that they're in an adventure game? How has Burlew been so successful for so long with stick-figure artwork? Two factors: first is evolution, and the second is a successful twist of expectations.

Satire can be fun, but very quickly outstays its welcome. OoTS isn't alone in using broad satire to hook an audience into something which eventually grows more serious. Terry Pratchett's early Discworld books, to take another example, were as broad a satire on fantasy literature tropes as OoTS is about role-playing games. Comic book artist David Sims started his series Cerebus as a not too smart or clever satire of various works of fantasy literature, before moving to a not too smart but increasingly serious (and increasingly problematic) philosophical tale. I see it as the opposite of George RR Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice, which started over a decade ago as a grim and gritty take on secondary world epic fantasy and today continues as -- a grim and gritty take on secondary world epic fantasy. Keeping a consistent tone in works such as this runs the risk of creating a thing preserved in amber, unchanging as the world moves on around it. Burlew has successfully avoided that fate.

The very opening of the comic over a decade ago began in media res with a situation very familiar to gamers - a typical "dungeon crawl" in which a group of heroes were exploring an underground maze of rooms and tunnels, fighting various monsters lurking there for no apparent reason. We got jokes about the rules, about how the world subtly changed when the people playing the game switched to an updated version of the rulebook (RPG rules change from time to time; Dungeons and Dragons has gone through various incarnations, now up to the "fourth edition". The four doesn't count various in-between changes [the upgrade on OoTS was from 3rd edition to 3.5 {oh no! Nested brackets! I hope they all close correctly}] , and many groups have their own unique "house rules". Many gamers have very strong opinions on which edition is "best" [with the split usually between traditionalists who want to go one edition backward and futurists who see the latest as shiny and fun]). It's the kind of story that's fun if you're in the middle of that world, but likely wouldn't appeal much to those outside of it. It's also the kind of story which is fun for a fairly short time.

As time went on, a larger story took shape around the initial "joke" strips. There's still a great deal of humor, but the humor has become more of a vehicle for a genuine character-driven stick-figure novel. A recent story arc, for example, dealt with the party's elvish wizard Varsuvius. Ze (I'll use a non-gendered pronoun for zim; we don't know if Varsuvius is male or female) started off as a stereotype: the "blaster" wizard obsessed with gaining more and more power to smite enemies using magic energies. Somewhat early on in the story, Ze killed a young dragon in a scene which appeared inconsequential at the time. Later, we meet the dragon's parent and, to avoid having zir family slain in revenge, Varsuvius is tempted to sell zis soul to devils for more power. The resulting storyline (which I'll not further spoil) calls into question the core assumptions gaming makes about the nature of evil and the role of violence and develops V's character while remaining true to the core personality left over from the "joke a day" times. It was a surprisingly effective bit of storytelling, and a reminder that in today's increasingly accessible media environment one can find notable or interesting works in surprising places.

The moral of the story? Given passion and dedication, something which at first seems silly can become something something special and interesting as it grows with you and the audience. Do you have a wild idea? If so, stick with it, and look me up again in a decade. We'll see where we're at.

Friday, February 28, 2014

On Language, Juggling, Lunchtime in the Park, AV, and Networks

Quite a few years ago I earned the CTS (Certified Technical Specialist) certification from Infocomm. 
Last year I began studying to take the ICND1 (Interconnected Network Devices) in pursuit of my first-ever Cisco certification. 
Last week I started learning to throw a juggling pattern called a 4,4,1.

What do these three seemingly disparate items have in common? At their core, they are all largely about language.
Bryant Park in Winter

We'll start with the end, at 4,4,1. It's a fairly simple trick with which I'm still trying to convince my hands to cooperate. Throw a ball straight up with the right hand, then straight up with the left hand, then zip the third ball straight across from right to left. Repeat in the other direction. Repeat in the first direction again. It looks pretty nifty, and can lead to other tricks.
Office Juggling Selfie!

The part I didn't get (aside from the accurate catching and throwing, which kept eluding me) was the name. Finally, I asked one of the more experienced of the Bryant Park Jugglers. For those of you who don't know, Bryant Park is a smallish park behind the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. It has a lawn in the summer, an ice-skating rink in the winter, a fountain, a carousel, a statue of Gertrude Stein and, of course, jugglers (and ping-pong, and even the occasional super-literate topless women).  The answer was simple: a "one" throw is that quick lateral pass, and a "2" is the ball held in hand for a beat. After that, the numbers sync up with the number of balls one would be juggling: a three is a lob from side to side as if it were part of a three ball cascade. A straight up and down toss caught by the same hand that threw it is a "four" because that's what you throw when juggling four balls. A double-height three is a five because the standard five-ball patter is like a three only higher. Etc.
Bryant Park in Summertime

Why is this exciting to me, and why is it important? For the same reason that the CTS was important, and the same reason that a basic understanding of routing and switching is important. I've described the most important part of the CTS as learning the language of AV; someone who passes might not know enough to install, test, commission, or design an AV system, but they would know enough to talk about it. Knowing the names of various connector types, what various signal formats are called, and other technical terms is the first step to being able to learn more. Before newcomers to the industry for example, can learn about various methods of EDID management and emulation they need to know what EDID is in the first place. To give instructions on wiring, testing, routing, and patching a video-edit system without the assumption that ones audience will understand the terms "SDI", "BNC", "Router", "Patch-panel", or "coax" is  an exercise in frustration; it would be like having to describe what a steering wheel, a tire, or a road is before giving someone directions to your house.

This goes a long way to explaining why I'm approaching network certifications. Not only are modern AV systems are increasingly dependent on data networks in order to function, but future AV systems might actually be components of a larger converged network. Systems being designed and installed today might use network-based protocols such as Dante or  AVB for audio transport, video streams encoded as H.264 or similar, and centralized IP-based control systems. From a system design perspective, different protocols and systems have differing network requirements as well as final AV requirements. This adds another step in evaluating varying technologies 

What was once a simple matter of needing a network port now becomes a more complicated discussion in which ports are needed on separate VLANs, in which a layer 3 switch may be required, in which certain devices need to communicate across networks, in which switches need to be configured with various services or protocols. Suddenly "give me a data port" isn't enough. 

This is different than mere jargon; the phrase "layer three switch" or "balanced audio" or "four-four-one" aren't simply fancy words: they stand for concepts that, absent the language for them, we might not even realize exist. It's important to be able to communicate network or AV requirements in a manner which is understandable and professional. It is vitally important to see these concepts in the first place and to internalize them to the point that they become part of how we think about our jobs and the world around us. For this we need to learn the language. 

I'll have more details on this later (including my impressions on some current technology on the market). For the nonce, I'll leave you to reflect on the importance of language.

And if you happen to be in my city, drop by the park around lunchtime. You might find me there, and we just might have a ball.

Not my good set of juggling balls

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Poem Will Be Like You

Some trifles. First, a few lines of blank verse:

He swore an oath to procreate the Constitution
but spilled too soon his words
on tomorrow's barren news print
None left for fertile posterity.

Those who follow me on social media might recognize the phrase "procreate the Constitution" as an errant auto-correct from somebody else in an ill-advised political discussion last week. The missed autocorrect was, in all honesty, the most interesting part of the discussion and the kind of something with which I might do more (and more ideas are fluttering about in my head), but wanted to share this trifle as one direction in which inspiration can go; it in a way dovetails with our earlier discussion here on inspiration, and leads to a modernism.

One  interesting strain of modern literature concerns itself with what some may call the disappearance of ego, if not the author entirely. Way back in my modern poetry posts I touched on odd literary experiments by writers such as John Cage or Bart Silliman - works in which appear to be discovered or excavated as much as they are created. I would argue that authorial intent absolutely does exist on some level -  the choice to follow a certain random path is, after all, a choice - but once that choice is made the author might hand the metaphorical reigns over to ... fate? The gods? quantum uncertainty? Call it what you may, but the reigns are released, leaving what may be a thing of beauty, may be garbled nonsense, or may be a beautiful thing of garbled nonsense.

Early twentieth-century poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara took this to an interesting extreme in his instructions on "How to Make a Dadaist Poem" (the below copied from here, where I got it from educator Al Filreis):

How to Make a Dadaist Poem
(method of Tristan Tzara)
To make a Dadaist poem:
  • Take a newspaper.
  • Take a pair of scissors.
  • Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
  • Cut out the article.
  • Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
  • Shake it gently.
  • Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
  • Copy conscientiously.
  • The poem will be like you.
  • And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
--Tristan Tzara

The most interesting claim to me isn't the last, that you are a writer, infinitely original but the penultimate step, "The poem will be like you". This is the sort of thing which - especialy in the deeply ironic and cynical present - is easy to shrug off as satire. I see a bit more than that in the Dadaist movement, and find some value in the breaking of barriers of technique, artifice, and even authorship. Does the poem resemble the person who chose a newspaper article to slice up and shuffle? The readers who see it through the filter of their own perceptions? OR is it mere nonsense. What I do know is that many find this kind of thing quite compelling, when the Tzara piece came up in Al Filreis's Modern and Contemporary Poetry class on Coursera (one which I highly recommend) scores of students took to the forums with their "Dadaist poems" and John Cage-style "Mesostics" (one of mine I included earlier in this blog).

Below is a not-quite-successful experiment of my own in this vein; I took the swype keyboard on my phone and drew shapes across the letters, letting the software autocorrect it into words. This takes the the errant autocorrect with which we started this discussion to its absurd conclusion - what would a sentence of ALL errant autocorrects look like? 

And yes, the three small oranges and tin of sardines are to be considered part of this work. I'll leave "why" as an exercise for the reader, but it touches on the ongoing themes of modernism and inspiration. If you need a further hint, the sentence I'm scribing in the video is "I am not a painter"

Rd set xxx ttc c.f. foggy Zach uhh in go sex ad ex's ers fifth HB hubbub on ho Klink knoll tv c

Irish haggis educator 
slugs skid schism 
icebox Evian avian Jarvis 
David racist Koenig garlic deux finch duff 
Assad Fuchs succumb hunting visualization
 Ashburn suburbia whitewash e-book sexual Odessa 
Westbrook stump archived compact 
vaginal January

SanDisk Serbian leak out 
stick hall Westfield catacombs prick search
 Saatchi announcing Saatchi servo insist stingy 
ssh bobbin combing/ in km in km tv cc cm 
lMcMahon mm vBulletin b.s.'m'm cub fangs 
scuffed xyz clean etc c hub b th v

Tv wry ext txt

Etc tug fact catch hubbub exec Gretchen hutch 
urged etc huff t-shirts tv t-shirts r rd c exact revved text
 Gibb dc earth ribbon textbooks dc dry exec Sgt drugs exert 
ex r Feb ten edgy f2f t tv ssh ribbon txt t-shirts Hughes Gucci
 txt bfn fig hub Inc highs had ugh th duh tv ssh raccoon high 
dc fact tax ssh Buffy by tag t.v. Essex vaccine t.v. 
I'm ilk read f2f uhh kohl circ tv
 chubby dazed junk Aziz xxx f2f Chubb hubbub

And that is that. Again, not quite successful, but read allowed there's a certain pleasure in some of the stanzas. I'll close with a thought: this could be polished and refined. TO do so would make it more readable, but blunt the element of randomness and return authorial ego to the process. Would that be a service or a disservice to the work?