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[No comments] Situation Normal Author Commentary #6: Miscellaneous References: Today I'm covering items adjacent to the text but not really part of it, and a slew of little Easter eggs and miscellaneous references I put into the book. The next essay will be the last one in this series, and it'll provide an exciting peek at what is happening next.

Back in the days of Constellation Games, I put up a special post solely for spoiler-filled discussion. I'd like to do that again but I feel the time for special spoiler posts has passed. So if you got any kind of question about SN, just go for it, either in comments to this post or on Twitter/Mastodon.

The cover

Let me get this out of the way first: I know everyone hates the Constellation Games cover. I'm probably the only person alive who likes that cover, and since I wrote the book the appeal is wasted.

So when it came time to design the Situation Normal cover I decided to leave it to the professionals. To stop me from bothering the designer like a helicopter parent, editor Athena gave me a form to fill out ahead of time. I located the professional (Brittany Hague, who I've worked with before) and filled out the form and generally left her to work.

On that form, asked to summarize the overall emotional feel I wanted the cover to go for, I wrote: "I want to capture the moment you realize the pin is no longer in the grenade." I don't think there's a better summary of Situation Normal. Here's a longer quote from the form; I was asked to list some covers I find inspirational:

Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – I really like the way this interrupts a traditional SF cover with immediate peril and humor. This exact idea won't work for Situation Normal because it carries the implication that the failure was sudden and unexpected, but it always makes me smile.

Joseph Heller's Catch-22 has had a number of covers in different languages. The more literal covers make it look like a stereotypical war story, but most of them use juxtapositions to convey the underlying theme—trying to survive a war while trapped a system that is simultaneously broken and working as designed—in a way that really speaks to me. Here are a couple examples:

  • This audiobook cover depicts a bomber with its crew and loadout as a ready-to-assemble plastic model. Human life and military hardware are treated as interchangeable and equally disposable. I really like the schematic feeling here, and the "toy" look drives home the novel's point even as it makes it impossible to take the message too seriously.

  • I think this one is too realistic to be really strong, but it carries off the theme by grouping a set of dog tags (which every airman is issued) with the Distinguished Flying Cross (a special award for heroism).

  • This is the cover I'm most familiar with. Despite its overall simplicity it's not my favorite—in particular, I think the bomber in the lower right is superfluous. However it does carry off the juxtaposition I'm talking about, by showing a silhouetted figure in military uniform doing a heel-clicking jig. The silhouette calls to my mind the chalk outline of a body at a crime scene, and the "Kilroy was here" symbol popularized during WWII.

Brittany's core insight was to juxtapose several story elements into a schematic framework that depicts causality the way comics do, creating a Rube Goldberg machine with a most-likely-fatal "punchline".

Not gonna go into a lot more detail on the cover because the finished product is almost all Brittany, and here's Brittany on the topic. I'll mention one little Easter Egg: the gun in the first "panel" of the cover looks a little different from the stereotypical SF ray gun because it incorporates some design elements of an industrial nailgun.

The content note

The content note at the front of the book was the last thing I wrote. Athena mentioned that Candlemark & Gleam had gotten a lot of complaints through the Kindle system about typoes in Constellation Games. Now, I know of at least two serious errors in Constellation Games (peoples' names are wrong) and one day I hope to do another press run to fix them, but I'm not talking about legitimate errors here. I'm talking about words like... just skimming Constellation Games to find an example... "pakpapur". Which I suspect I composed from spice-sounding English words like "paprika" and "pepper" but which is also clearly a made-up space alien word.

Apparently at one point these Kindle complaints reached such a pitch that Amazon threatened to flag Constellation Games as a low-quality typofest, surely with a deleterious effect on sales. So Athena suggested I add something to the beginning of the Situation Normal manuscript explaining that "uhaltihaxl" and "Dwap-Jac-Dac" are spelled that way on purpose and there's no need to write in unless you find a regular English word being misused. (This certainly happens! I found some in the final manuscript while writing this commentary!)

My first reaction was, I got really defensive about this request. This is a novel where major characters murder each other, and you want me to put a warning at the front of the book about spelling? I don't think every book needs a content warning at the front, but a lot of bad shit goes down in Situation Normal, and if I'm going to put any kind of note at the beginning of the book it's got to be a heads-up about that.

This turned out to be the key to compromise. I wrote one last piece of in-universe text, as though Situation Normal were a potboiler adventure novel published in the Terran Outreach and stocked alongside the Down Under Crew novelizations. This fits in conceptually with the main theme of the novel—people living and dying by fantastic narratives. It lets me do the content warning, and incidentally I can explain the spelling stuff, in terms of an in-universe standards body which sets down how to transliterate words between languages. It's still pedantic as hell, but hopefully it doesn't sound patronizing.

Which reminds me: Situation Normal was originally written in Commonwealth English, that being the in-universe "human language" by the same science fiction logic that makes Narathippin "the uhaltihaxl language". I converted it to American English pretty late in the process for the same reason I wrote the content note: apparently Americans see "honour" or "manoeuvre" and smash that "Report Content Error" button. I edited Arun with a lighter touch to keep his voice, and there are still some vestiges of Commonwealth English: word choices like "solicitor" and phrases like "in hospital".

Hidden quotes

A lot of authors work little pop-culture references into their writing in ways designed to stand out only to readers who get the reference. I've caught a few in my time, Thomas Pynchon does this a lot, but the one that always stands out for me is Neal Stephenson working "I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition" into The System of the World.

There are several hidden quotes of this sort in Situation Normal; here are the ones I'm most proud of (rot-13ed because apparently I consider this beyond mere spoilers).

  • "Bu zl Tbq, Orpxl, ybbx ng ure ohgg."
  • "Vg'f yvxr n xvaq bs gbegher."
  • "V'z gryyvat lbh, vg'f n fnobgntr."

As with "Hi, I'm Daisy!" in Constellation Games, I did not name a character Becky just so I could use that line, but once the name was set, it was inevitable.

Finally, a rather ominous instance where Situation Normal quotes itself: Mrs. Chen uses the phrase "clear perspective" in a way that implies she knows something she probably shouldn't.

Miscellaneous references

The "Princess Denweld" story is the exact opposite of Ender's Game: a teenager getting a video game to do something horrible. This isn't a direct quote, but Den's "it is essential that we continue" is a reference to the Milgram experiment.

Becky planning a heist entirely in The Down Under Crew references is itself a "Darmok" reference.

The name of the fantasy novel Myrus is reading, The Object of Power, is a truncated quote from 1984: "The object of power is power."

The wirchak woman who owns the bou-tique in chapter 14 is, in my mind, played by Margaret Dumont. Becky's hatred of clothes shopping comes courtesy of direct personal experience.

In Constellation Games I made a big deal about the cma, miles-high treelike organisms in Alien Ring. In Situation Normal this is flipped: regular Earth trees are regarded as monstrous freaks of nature and no one else has anything nearly that big.

The Fist of Joy Youth Festival was modelled after the World Festival of Youth and Students, a Cold War-era festival for bringing together Communist youth for athletic events and cultural exchange. I say "Cold War-era" but these are still going on! The most recent one was in Russia in 2017. Anyway, since Myrus and the other council kids claim to have defected, adults see them as politically aligned with the Fist, and the Festival as a convenient way to make them someone else's problem.

The beverages on the refugee ship that are not "anything like coffee" are a little Hitchhiker's Guide reference; so are the actual hitchhikers who work as day laborers on Jaketown, and Den's really impressive feat of hitchhiking at the end.

The "shiny white outplastic" that Ohrsi uses to whittle his four-dimensional sculptures was inspired by what is IMO the most disturbing MST3K skit: the Klack commercial from First Spaceship on Venus. I just went and looked up the skit, assuming my mental image of outplastic came from the general feeling of unease it evokes, but no, the outplastic is right there on screen.

Somewhere between "reference" and "inspired by true events": Bolupeth Vo's story about his demi-uncle double-dipping at the blood bank to get on Home Front Heroes came from a letter I read in a WWII-era issue of The American Magazine, where people would send in their takes on how they were doing their bit. Someone really did the blood donation thing, and lived to write in about it. Apparently this was common! I just read The Fly Swatter, a biography of author Nicholas Dawidoff's grandfather, who also gave an unhealthy amount of blood during WWII.

From the "incorrectly regarded as references" file, Cheryl from my writing group told me there's a character in the Hunger Games series who's very similar to Merikp Hute Roques, host of the successor to Home Front Heroes. I assure you that I have not read these books and this was not intentional. After looking around the Hunger Games wiki I believe Cheryl was referring to Effie Trinket. So go ahead and imagine Merikp Hute Roques as Effie Trinket with a beak.

Similarly, the Great Motto of the Terran Outreach (Universi sumus una hac in re, "We're all in this together") is not a Brazil reference; I wrote that before I'd seen Brazil. But same vibe. BTW I forgot to credit Seth David Schoen in the acknowledgements for his Latin translation of the Motto. Thank you, Seth!

Random stupid error

In the final draft, the population of Jaketown is inconsistent. It's reported as three thousand and five hundred. I understand how this happened, but I remember triple-checking it. Really frustrating. The correct answer is three thousand.

Bookending

I can always tell when a movie's about to end because the director starts paying off the bookending they opened up early in the film. But it's much easier to see in film than in books, because books take longer to read. So I'll cut you a break: here's some of the bookending I put into Situation Normal:

  • Churryhoof starts the book by taking peoples' children away, and ends up with a child of her own she can't get rid of.
  • Gearu's self-depiction as a gelded male in the "Princess Denweld" story is explained by what Rebtet tells Churryhoof during their sex scene: "The War Duties Board told Gearu that if it came back alive they would let it reproduce."
  • Jesus's gentle 'Scis me?' is mirrored by Thrux's petulant "Don't you know who I am?"
  • Arun's "Nothing out here wants your blood." == DRAMATIC IRONY. Really proud of that one.
  • In the opposite of dramatic irony, Arun and Yip-Goru carefully foreshadow how dangerous Yip-Goru's timeshare asteroid will be, but when Sour Candy actually gets there, Ohrsi is very chill and happy to share the space.
Again, you have any questions, post them in the comments. I'll see you next time for the final essay!

[Comments] (2) Situation Normal Author Commentary #5: Deleted Scenes: The first draft of Situation Normal was about 182,000 words. My original concept was a science-fiction Song of Ice and Fire-type epic with many overlapping points of view. Unfortunately, this made the novel unsaleable—that length is the main reason you didn't see this novel years ago. Fantasy readers will devour 182k words and come back for the other two books in the trilogy, but science fiction novels usually run around 80k-100k. Constellation Games is around 120k which is already really big.

To sell Situation Normal I had to cut the word count down to no more than 150k. (Final count is about 147k.) I also rearranged scenes to dramatically cut the number of POV switches—frequent switches work for television but put too much cognitive load on a reader.

To get to 147k I had to cut a couple subplots and some fun scenes. In today's commentary I'll list the main ones and mourn them with some choice quotes.

The bakery that only sells flowers: First, a scene that was rewritten rather than deleted. I did a lot of "writing the other" in this book, and took critiques from a number of sensitivity readers. I want to highlight a big change I made with the help of a sensitivity reader.

In the draft I sold, when Den enters the awareness station on Magna Carta she is overwhelmed by a "horrible stay-away smell" which turns out to be Churryhoof's must telling Den, fellow uhaltihaxl female, to scram. Sensitivity reader: "[T]his was such a sort of familiar scene (older-lady sexuality is stinky and embarrassing) that I kind of wanted the exact opposite."

When I get any kind of critique, I try to find a way of addressing it while also improving the story in other respects. That attitude short-circuits my defense mechanisms and moves the focus away from whether I personally think a critique is reasonable.

In this case I do think the critique is reasonable—that was lazy writing— and the sensitivity reader also provided a good solution. "The exact opposite"—Churryhoof's pheromones smelling so good that it makes Den woozy—made just as much sense as the cliche I'd written originally, and was a lot cooler.

Coffee: In the second draft I wrote an introductory scene that basically does the job of "Four Kinds of Cargo." It walks you through the Outreach, the Fist of Joy, the differences between them, and the fact that they're about to go to war.

The scene stars Styrqot, everyone's favorite doomed dad. Just before the war starts, he's importing a shipment of coffee beans from the Outreach. He gets a cursory inspection from Outreach customs, and then a more thorough inspection from the Fist. One of the customs inspectors mocks Styrqot for importing luxury goods instead of going off into glorious battle.

"Due respect, ma'am, I won't take this from you. I ran logistics in the last war."

"Oh, the war we lost!" said the mehi-peri. "Well, thank you for your service!" She hopped down off the pallet. "Excuse me, didn't realize we had a fuckin' hero here."

Stung by this rebuke, Styrqot decides he'll do one little military job and call it even. Of course the 'job' turns out to be transporting Vec to Cedar Commons, and you know the rest.

There's a little twist at the end which might make it plausible to turn this scene into a bonus story, but it's not my best work. In the draft I sold, I cut "Coffee" and moved the Battle of Unicorn Sector to the start of the book, so we could open with an exciting set-piece. But eventually I moved that scene back to its original place, to preserve chronological order. The book now starts exactly as I originally wrote it: nice and quiet, with Hiroko waking Becky on Cedar Commons.

Overall I feel like I tried a bunch of flashy stuff to sell the book, but it didn't make the story any better and I should have focused on cutting the word count.

Fish Dinner: In the first draft, our first glimpse of Sour Candy is from Kol's point of view. Immediately after Sour Candy lands in the ocean on Cedar Commons, Kol pops the hatch and goes up with Arun to scrape flash-baked carp off the spacecraft's hull:

"[These fish] are supposed to be neutral," said Kol.

"They're invasive, is what they are," said Mr. Arun Sliver. "Whoever terraformed this planet spent about a centishift planning its ecosystem. We're going to get very tired of eating this particular fish."

This is why you see the Sour Candy crew handling fish in the subsequent scenes, and why Kol calls the land-in-the-ocean maneuver the "Fish Dinner" in chapter 34. This scene still happens but I don't need to show it, and cutting it left space for a much better Sour Candy introduction in the final draft:

To put it in cinematic terms, Becky arrives on the scene, is taken hostage, and brought on board Sour Candy; but the camera doesn't go into the ship with her! It peels off and starts following Kol as he climbs into the stolen hovercar. The POV has changed and we are now seeing things from the "enemy" perspective.

Admiral Norton: In the final draft, Mrs. Chen shows up to Cedar Commons immediately after Sour Candy bugs out. She gets there quickly because she never stopped tracking Sour Candy after "Four Kinds of Cargo". This definitely keeps the story moving, but there's a great scene I cut, where Churryhoof brought Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka back to the fleet in disgrace, was relieved of command, and lectured by an Admiral Norton, apparently one of her mentors. This is the "tradition of glorious suicide" scene I mentioned in my weblog a while back.

Something was seriously wrong. When your superiors chew you out, there are certain rote phrases that tell you approximately how fucked you are. Norton was not using those phrases. For instance, "completely unacceptable", "colossal blunder", or the most popular, "no place in this Navy." ... What was this "lapse in judgement", "cannot have front-line officers" crap?

The mystery of why Churryhoof is being given the kid-glove treatment, given the horrible thing she did on Cedar Commons, was solved when Norton announced that Churryhoof was being reassigned to Echo Division under Mrs. Chen—Chen heard about that horrible thing and saw it as showing a promising Echo Division mindset. Chen and Churryhoof then go right back to Cedar Commons, which in retrospect was kind of silly, so it's a good cut overall.

Until I made this edit, Brown v. Board was a pretty big operation, crewing maybe fifty people. Because of this edit I had to make it much smaller—I couldn't have dozens of people left on board after the loss of the scoop, because everyone except Churryhoof must be moved quickly offstage. So now Brown v. Board starts out with a crew of seven. This caused some rank inflation—do you really need two officers on the equivalent of a Swift Boat?—which I didn't bother fixing, under "ten percent more accurate than Star Trek" rules.

Here's a fun paragraph I cut from the return voyage to Cedar Commons, when Churryhoof sees Mrs. Chen seemingly dead (she's actually on an Evidence trip). "No acknowledged rank" is a thing from earlier drafts. You can see why I had to cut this bit, given all the explanation I just had to give:

Perhaps it is indicative of a personal flaw that Churryhoof's first instinct was to eulogize. Mrs. Chen may have been a cranky old human who considered herself Churryhoof's superior despite having no acknowledged rank, but there are only two good ways for a spaceman to die, and dying quietly in bed en route to a war zone splits the difference in a way guaranteed to please nobody.

And this might be my favorite joke in the whole project, a rare moment when Situation Normal flat-out becomes a Star Trek parody. Mrs. Chen is quoting Churryhoof from a book she assumes they've both read:

"I happen to know it's required reading at the Academy."

"There was a lot of required reading at the Academy," Churryhoof said, "and I didn't necessarily do all of it."

This joke would work great in Star Trek: Lower Decks, so feel free to take it! BTW, other moments I consider pure Star Trek parody: the death of Captain Rebtet, "scan for life signs", and the bit where Kol solves a problem by reversing the polarity. The space marines calling Dr. Sempestwinku "bones" is a loving tribute, not a parody.

Mexican Coke: In the first couple of drafts, there was a point where a) Becky had left Sour Candy, b) Cedar Commons was under occupation, c) Myrus was at the Youth Festival, d) the Navy personnel were hiding out at the Cametrean monastery. At that point there was an act break and the story skipped ahead a few weeks, letting things mellow for a while. I removed this gap to make the story move at an even pace. This gave me the opportunity to cut a lot of scenes, including one I really like. During this gap, Becky emigrated to a planet called Ototho and set up her marketing consultancy to the Fist of Joy:

It was going all right. A little data modeling, a little advice the customer could have gotten elsewhere, and some good old American flim-flam. The customers kept quiet about her. They were embarrassed, like cheating spouses. You could imagine two businessmen talking shop at a pub. "I know this American lady, she's worked with brands." Business grew by word-of-mouth.

We see Becky with Kugeif, a client whose business sells snack foods. Sales are in decline, and he blames his ugly packaging. He wants sleek, modern branding, like Coca-Cola has. But after analyzing his sales data, Becky concludes that the guy's ugly packaging is actually driving sales to hipsters in trendy neighborhoods. The working-class authenticity of his packaging is making his product more upmarket than he originally intended:

"Be listening to me!" said Becky. "Coca-Cola is owning a thousand companies like yours. Their boys are working all day long to be seeming like a small business instead of a you're-knowing-what. They're inventing some crusty bastard like you, not offensing, and pretending he's owning the company instead of them. They're making the packaging ugly so it looks like your boy came up with it. They're faking it. You are having the real thing, and hipsters are loving the real thing."

"The real thing!" said Kugeif. New possibilities were dawning in his mind. "Like Coca-Cola."

Unfortunately, halfway through this scene, the Errand Boy, having chased Becky down, makes his way into her office unannounced and really harshes the vibe. I love this scene because apart from the horrorshow at the end of Situation Normal, it's the only time we get to see Becky being good at marketing. In the final draft, the Errand Boy is much faster on the uptake, intercepts Becky en route to Ototho, and we never get to see what might have been.

Cardparticleboard: And what did Myrus do all those weeks he was at the Youth Festival? Well, he and Professor Starbottle took a very detailed trip through the Fist of Joy Youth Festival Equipment Library, looking for wood. This gave me a chance to name-check technical equipment from other science fiction stories, but as for wood, the cupboard was bare—a real obstacle to Myrus's plan to teach Starbottle woodworking. So Myrus got the idea of making wood—particle board—out of all the empty cardboard boxes lying around the Equipment Library.

Apparently something like this happened offscreen, because in the final draft, Starbottle mentions the particle board procedure in his letter to Den. I researched this while writing it and it does seem possible to make extremely shitty particle board out of cardboard, but who would do that? You'd have to be a civilization completely without trees... who did business with a civilization that had lots of trees...

Hiroko's un-venture: In the first few drafts, Hiroko didn't get sent to prison with Dwap-Jac-Dac, Tellpesh, and Heiss. She claimed to be a civilian, and was sent to the Youth Festival with Myrus and the kids, to provide adult supervision. At the Festival, she pieced together intelligence to figure out that the Outreach was losing the war—something that is no secret in the final draft.

Hiroko went with Myrus from the Youth Festival to Nimar, where she re-met Becky and had an unpleasant time with her and Arun. Luckily, Hiroko escaped Nimar with nothing worse than a busted foot, rescuing Myrus and fleeing into the Hestin box. She in turn was rescued by Ethiret-Jac et al. and ended up on Sour Candy as the latest object of the Chief's affections—exactly where she ends up in the final draft.

TBH, separating Hiroko from the other Navy personnel was mainly a way to torment Myrus with proximity to his crush. In this trajectory Hiroko had very little character development and not much to do. Fortunately, those drafts also featured two extra grunts, Mantri and Zaid, who also didn't do much.

So I moved Hiroko to the Arzil storyline. I changed her military specialty from "intelligence analyst" to "pilot". She got Mantri and Zaid's scenes and ended up with their rre inside her. Her old scenes were cut, or went to Myrus or Arun. She's still not the best-developed character, but I cut almost all her POV scenes, so it's less important. (Hiroko's one POV scene in chapter 4 is the last vestige—I tried and tried and couldn't cut or rewrite that scene. Hiroko's the only person on that side of the planet!)

Here's a little scene I cut from the Youth Festival. Hiroko, the POV character in this scene, has discovered Myrus's estrus (musth, I guess) and is trying to let him down easy.

"You want to hear a funny story?" [Hiroko] said, in a normal tone of voice.

"Not... really?" said Myrusit.

"I had a girlfriend back when I was working at Jonar Solutions," said Hiroko. "Uhalti lady. And I tell you, Myrusit, she always fell hard for the girly types. She'd be sitting on the train next to some ditzy redhead with the big cleavage and her horns would unroll, like a cartoon, sproing! And then she'd be in quite a fix, because, take it from me, ninety-five percent of those girly-girls are straight."

"I fail to see the humor in this story," said Myrusit.

"Well, let me finish. This eventual girlfriend of mine. Her insurance didn't cover antiestruals, so she drank lots of licorice-nel tea. She'd carry around a big Thermos of tea all day. And one night she's at the Seven-Eleven, waiting in line with her box of Soothing Fragrance licorice-nel tea, and this uhalti guy gets in line behind her. And she sees that he's also holding a box of Soothing Fragrance licorice-nel tea.

"And he says 'Hey, you wanna...' and she says 'I'm gay.' This is supposed to be the end of the conversation. But this guy can't drop it. He has to try to back out gently. So he turns purple and stammers 'Uh, oh, yeah, I am also gay.'"

Hiroko snickered. Myrusit's face was a face of stone.

"And if that isn't funny enough for you, she dumped me by throwing a snowball at my head and running away."

In the final draft, Tellpesh's story about boot camp kinda fills in for this story. I only regret I couldn't find a way to reuse that cartoony image of the horns unrolling.

Crinoline White: The single biggest cut: a massive subplot starring a really fun character. See, after Becky goes AWOL from her job on Cedar Commons, the two brands involved—Trellis On-Site Security and Eserion Natural Resources—have a passive-aggressive conversation that ends up with Trellis hiring an assassin to hunt Becky down and murder her.

Crinoline White, the assassin who takes the job, is a glamorous super-femme lesbian who seduces her way across the galaxy before boarding Sour Candy, posing as a passenger. In what's now Chapter 23 we hear of someone "whose species and gender was unknown because they were wearing a black Cametrean shame robe with a one-way veil"—that used to be sneaky Crinoline.

In the final draft, when Becky encounters the Errand Boy, she has some internal monologue that he's not acting like a hitman 'cause hitmen "just garroted you while you sat on the toilet." In the draft I sold, Crinoline did in fact garotte Becky while she (Becky) was walking to the head on Sour Candy. In an epic action sequence, Arun captured Crinoline, Becky peed her pants, and they all ended up with radiation burns from exposure to space:

Arun cracked the hatch. "We've taken some X-rays," he told the rre outside. "We all need to visit the medical chamber."

"Isn't the medical chamber the thing that takes the X-rays?" Becky asked.

"I mean, we were bombarded with X-rays from the gas giant," said Arun.

In Chapter 27, when Sour Candy is docked at a space station and Yip-Goru comes in and says thon found some replacement capacitors, that's a generic bit of spacecraft maintenance I slipped in to stand for the hull damage caused by the Crinoline/Arun fight.

In the draft I sold, Crinoline is the reason Becky flees Sour Candy. As soon as Crinoline leaves the medical chamber, the Chief starts making eyes at her and, in a massive room-reading failure, suggests a threesome between herself; Crinoline; and Becky, the person Crinoline just tried to murder. This is Becky's cue to leave along with Arun. Crinoline replaces Arun as the muscle/negotiator on the Sour Candy crew, and the book ends just in time for the Chief to dump Crinoline for Hiroko. Crinoline, like Becky before her, flees the crew, joining Kol in his Tok-Bat.

Although Crinoline is hilarious and her scenes are great, it's questionable whether you, the reader, really want fifteen thousand words of her during an already crowded book. The good news is that cutting Crinoline made Becky and Kol much more active as characters. In the draft I sold, they both stuck around Sour Candy much longer than they should have, waiting for Crinoline to force their decision. Now each makes the decision on their own. Becky decides to leave much earlier than she used to. Cutting Crinoline also let me bring in the Errand Boy earlier and foreshadow him as a threat to Becky.

The biggest downside of this cut is that Crinoline is a match for the Sour Candy crew in a way that poor Becky never is. She has an awesome fight with Arun, plays chilling mind games with Kol, and her absence makes the Chief much less important to the novel than she was to "Four Kinds of Cargo". When I cut Crinoline, I had to cut a key piece of dialogue where the Chief explains why she does what she does:

"Let's paint the Fist on the ship and get it over with," said Crinoline. "Me and Yip-Goru don't care about the Outreach. It's fine. It's just some paint."

"We will not paint anything!" said the Chief. "This ship is freedom! In the Fist everyone else tells me what to do. In the Outreach some brand has always gotten first where I want to go, and makes me pay for my pleasure. In these societies, the only free person is the criminal. So I build this little space in between, where a few people can be free."

I would really like to rearrange the Crinoline scenes into a side story for you, but I'd have to make up a whole new final act. Even if that person in the Cametrean shame robe is Crinoline, there's obviously no fight with Arun, and when Sour Candy shows up at the end, Crinoline ain't with them. So it would probably be a story of her pursuing Becky, forever one step behind, until she gets iced in the big space battle or something.

I had to leave one little hook for Crinoline's story in the final draft: the "adorable soldier-boi" in Chapter 27 who checks Becky and Arun into the refugee ship. Her name is Xiaofei and prior to the Battle of Unicorn Sector (where she got zapped with Evidence) she worked in Outreach Navy communications under the call sign Mudskipper. I wrote a great scene where Crinoline seduces Mudskipper, taps into her capital terminal, and uses the Navy's military context to track Sour Candy. Could still happen!

Dodgy wodgy: I cut the very last scene before the epilogue, set in an Outreach minimum-security prison—basically a hotel you can't leave. Kemrush (Myrus and Den's dad) and Maskitenny (Den's mom) are confined in a cell awaiting trial for their part in the Jaketown draft-dodging mishegas. Someone looked at their disposition contexts, noticed they were a 'couple', and decided to do them a favor by putting them in the same cell, but they can't stand each other. Like a rom-com running in reverse. The scene isn't great, but I really like this bit of worldbuilding:

When he was four Kemrush had spent a year on scholarship at an English-intensive boarding school for uhalti children. The house pudding was what the kids called wadxy or wodgy, although in English it was simply called "pudding". A bland lump of cake lying like a waterlogged corpse at the bottom of a dish of white cream. If you ate with eyes closed and the utmost focus, you might detect a hint of citrus flavour, but sensory deprivation does strange things to suggestive young minds, so who can tell?

Dodgy wodgy, they'd called it. That was the term. Sharing a cell with Maskitenny Xepperxelt was dodgy wodgy: a punishment presented as a reward.

Anyway, when Clear Perspective mindfucks all the Outreach brands, the hotel brand running the prison decides that the Jaketown draft-dodgers are political prisoners—bad PR—and it has a guard release them.

This scene wouldn't work in the current draft because the whole point of the Den/Myrus project is to concentrate Kemrush's genes, and Maskitenny would have put a stop to it if she'd come to hate him. Like I said, not a great scene, and cutting it let me cut Kemrush as a POV character, but it does show you that the parents survive.

[No comments] Situation Normal Author Commentary #4: The Fictional Religions: The theme of Situation Normal is what happens when you let a narrative drive your life, and religious belief is the O.G. of letting a narrative drive your life. There's one religion mentioned in "Four Kinds of Cargo" (Cametreanism) which I wanted to flesh out in Situation Normal. Having created one, I wanted to make more, so that it wouldn't look like Cametreanism represented my opinion of religion in general. As with alien species, I wanted to create a diversity of alien religions, and I wanted each religion to have some crossover appeal beyond its species of origin, so you wouldn't just have "the uhaltihaxl religion", "the rre religion" (or 'rreligion'), etc.

Babylon 5 has a fictional religion called Foundationism which is an in-universe attempt to refactor all human religions and find the good bits that they have in common. This was an inspiration to me because it jibed with my 21st-century experience of religion. Other SF religions, notably Bajoran mysticism, seem more premodern.

I have a suspicion that JMS thinks Foundationism is the way to go in real life ("he's written a document that covers the history and principles of Foundationism, but has to date been debating whether to release it or not, partly for fear of being 'elroned'"), so I want to make it clear that Jalir, Hasithenk, and Cametreanism are completely made up, with no spiritual value beyond what you can get from Buddhism, Stoicism, or Star Trek fandom.

Jalir

A touchy-feely religion based on a specific long-ago incident, the Two Epiphanies, which is dramatized in the book and which completely changed the rre species' concept of itself. I have just a couple things to say about Jalir. First, the touchy-feely part was designed to counterprogram the stereotype of the rre as killer parasites, just as pain debt counterprograms the opposite stereotype about uhaltihaxl. Second, the Two Epiphanies scene was written to be super disturbing, to set up a mystery as to why a dying human (Spaceman Heiss) would find satisfaction in having that as his last rites.

At the end of the book, in another death scene, the mystery is resolved, and you see how a story based on rre biology provides comfort to a dying humanoid. But I suspect a lot of people won't see a mystery here at all. They'll figure out the message of the Two Epiphanies during Heiss's death scene. It doesn't seem that big a leap to me. I'm interested in hearing what you think.

Hasithenk

Hasithenk is paranoid Stoicism, the shifty-eyed worship of Murphy's Law. It posits that the universe is indifferent to the point of hostility and the best you can do is roll with the punches. It's a good religion for a species like the uhaltihaxl who get pushed around a lot.

As the uhaltihaxl become less pushed-around, Hasithenk is dying out rather than spinning off a 'prosperity gospel' variant. Because of this, Churryhoof is the only faithful Hasithenk practitioner we see in Situation Normal—as a military officer she has an ongoing relationship with Murphy's Law. The story she tells Dr. Sempestwinku in Chapter 26 is, I imagine, the kind of story people share in church.

Myrus's dad seems like an Easter-and-Christmas type worshipper, which explains why Myrus knows the terminology but doesn't believe. Den is so hostile to Hasithenk ("a children's story") that she relishes using it as a way to manipulate Gearu. There's also Kol, whose 'belief' is more of a suspicion, but who shows that Hasithenk has some cross-species appeal.

We see little glimpses of the day-to-day experience of Hasithenk—the interminable church meetings, the mysterious engraving plates in the scriptures—which are taken directly from my experience growing up in the LDS church. The iconography of Providence comes more from Catholicism, her ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ mimicking Christ's posture on the cross. And Thrux is inspired by the Shrike from Dan Simmons's Hyperion books—specifically Hyperion. The sequels go into too much detail about the Shrike's hit points and special attacks for my taste; it's much cooler as a mysterious "it sees you and you're dead" thing.

Thrux is the focus of the Weird Thing in a book that otherwise plays by normal science fiction rules, analogous to what happens in Constellation Games when (rot13 spoiler) Nevry naq Wraal xvff. Churryhoof's religious Moment of Awesome here is my little tribute to the very best part of Star Trek V.

Christianity

Just a palate cleanser before we get to Cametreanism. Becky Twice grew up going to a social-justice multicultural Baptist church, and I made none of that up, but I made sure to mention an Uhaltihaxl Jesus in the Echo Park Baptist Fellowship's array of Jesus iconography, to show that human religions also have appeal beyond their species of origin. (Echo Park is near where I grew up, BTW —I learned to swim at the Echo Park Pool.)

The inaccurate depiction of Jesus we see in Becky's Evidence trip is because Starbottle doesn't really understand any of the religions he's weaponizing. That Evidence works on Jeong, though, so apparently accuracy is not super important.

Cametreanism

In "Four Kinds of Cargo", Cametreanism is presented as a generic oppressive, no-fun religion. We hear a couple fragments: "Cametreans are isolationists," "space travel is a sin". These puritans control Quennet, and Terequale Bitty made a deal with them because it was the only way she could get off-planet and into a life of space adventure.

At the same time, Terequale Bitty's attitude doesn't seem unusual. The quenny in "Four Kinds of Cargo'' love space adventure stories. They devour Extension Navy, even though it's shoddily produced propaganda designed to delegitimize whatever rumors you might have heard of the universe outside Quennet.

My idea for Situation Normal was to tie these two threads together by making Cametreanism a religion derived from a science-fiction fandom. Space travel is a sin because the Cametre stories show space as an environment degraded by our presence. Cametreans are isolationists because any contact with the outside universe makes it clear that the Cametre stories are completely made-up.

The Cametreans are right about one thing—they are characters in a science fiction novel—but they're wrong about which novel. When the abbot is arguing with Tellpesh-Tia he's so confident that he's going to show up again at the end of the book, and nope!

I don't think it's disrespectful to say that there are deep similarities between a fandom and a religion based on a holy text. Even if you do think it's disrespectful, it's by no means an original observation—Futurama had a religion explicitly based on Star Trek. The concept resonates with me, I think, because of my Mormon background.

Mormons have some sacred books that include quite a few... continuity errors. When a certain type of person learns about the continuity errors, they feel they have no choice but to leave the church. And Mormonism teaches kids to seek out the truth and hold to it no matter what, making it all the more likely you will grow up to be the type of person who has to step away after discovering the truth.

Compare this to actual Star Trek, which is full of inaccuracies and continuity errors, and it's not a big deal—it's fun!—because everyone knows this stuff is fiction, and with rare exceptions, the inaccuracies don't affect the moral core of the show. Someone who models their life on "what would Captain Picard do?" (not a terrible idea) is treating Picard as a moral yardstick, not an infallible guide.

In "Four Kinds of Cargo" we glimpsed a theocratic strain of Cametreanism that's brittle against continuity errors. We don't see much of the Bronze Age Bastards, but they're a weird militant offshoot devoted to destroying things that aren't "canon". In the monastery on Arzil, we see a strain which treats the religion more as a fandom. This is not only more humane and closer to the original author's intent (insofar as any of this was intentional), it also gives you a more accurate approach to the holy texts.

When Ethiret ran the Arzil monastery, he did wacky stuff like hosting movie nights and expanding the definition of canon. Quennet found out what he was doing and sent over a quenny abbot to deploy the iron fist of orthodoxy and put a stop to all that. But like James T. Kirk, Qued Ethiret can't be constrained by orthodoxy of any kind. His whole schtick is coming up with "fucked-up, impractical plans" that work when they shouldn't. That's canon, folks!

And the abbot recognizes this! He can't imagine a plan to get the Navy grunts off Arzil, but he knows Ethiret can. And he really hates that a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the religion means creating and tolerating playful unorthodoxy.

The idea of putting things "in sync"—taking real events and slotting them into the continuity of the Cametre stories—is a satirical exaggeration of the real-world process by which we compartmentalize our knowledge to resolve cognitive dissonance. This is most explicit when Ethiret talks about his two sets of memories, and there's a little Easter egg for LDS folks in there, where Ethiret mentions putting a forbidden thought on a shelf.

Syncweed, the drug that gives you some conscious control over your own cognitive dissonance, is an essential precursor to Evidence, the drug that rewrites your brain by guiding you through a hallucination. We see versions of syncweed that work on quenny, corestin, and humans, which implies that Starbottle's epilogue vision of neutral Evidence is a real possibility.

Syncweed and the process of putting events in sync are where my idea of Aquadale Selmar as a PKD-like figure shows through the strongest. Specifically it's reminiscent of the use of Can-D and the Perky Pat layouts in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

Postscript: Mystery solved!

In an earlier essay I mentioned a book called Twister that I read when I was a kid and couldn't find any trace of online. As it happens, I just started reading Vonda McIntyre's Starfarers, and she mentions that book in the intro! How fortuititous! The book is Twistor, by John Cramer, which explains why I remember it being called Twister but couldn't find any trace of it online.

I've ordered a copy of Twistor, so pretty soon we'll see how accurate are my recollections of l33t h4x0rs and alternate universes.


Next Tuesday comes what I expect is the one you've been waiting for: deleted scenes! We've got 'em in abundance. You'll meet Crinoline White and Admiral Norton, antithrill to Hiroko's un-venture, and see Becky successfully set up her marketing consultancy. See you then!

[Comments] (1) Situation Normal Author Commentary #3: Space Aliens: My favorite part of writing science fiction! If you've read Constellation Games, you already know that I love designing alien biologies and cultures. In Constellation Games, each alien species had its own histories of war and privation, which they'd transcended to become part of a classic SF multi-species alliance. In Situation Normal, I came up with two different takes on the "multi-species alliance" trope and had them fight.

Not for the first or last time, the setup in Situation Normal comes out of a throwaway line in "Four Kinds of Cargo". Specifically, when Kol goes out onto the Outreach space station he mentions "humans and their Outreach lackeys." This implies a) the Fist sees itself as an alliance of equals, with the Outreach dominated by humans, and b) there are at least two "lackey" species. Basically, the Fist of Joy is how Star Trek's Federation sees itself, and the Outreach is the Federation we actually see on screen most of the time.

Some of the Fist species have some flavor (e.g. the rest of the Fist are squeezing the jetk into a gender binary where they don't really fit), but overall they're designed to feel like a disorganized mob where no one is in charge and you can't even keep track of everyone. The key line here is:

Myrus wondered if a species could quietly join the Fist of Joy without anyone noticing. With everyone thinking someone else had invited these weird-looking people.

Whereas the Terran Outreach is an empire consisting of three species with well-defined cultures (plus brands). As Arun sarcastically puts it: "the nasty humans and their uhalti pets and their rre attack dogs."

Uhaltihaxl

The fundamental alien concept for the uhaltihaxl is pain debt, which makes them capable of feats of physical badassery despite a reputation as fluffy sheep people.

The book starts hitting "fluffy sheep people" early. The first thing we hear about uhaltiaxhl is the mayor of Jaketown saying they "aren't warriors by nature." The "hoof" in Churryhoof's name is designed to subliminally lock in "ruminant". And Myrus is a fluffy sheep person. He gets a moment of pain-debt-fueled badassery near the end, but all he wants is to read fantasy novels and make furniture. Churryhoof and Den are the ones who do bad stuff, and the surprise (I hope) is that they don't need pain debt to do the really bad stuff—I'm thinking of Churryhoof's decision to draft the council kids and Den's cold-blooded manipulation of Gearu.

The "six percent" conversation in Chapter 24 is important here: Churryhoof drafted the wrong kid. Myrus is in the six percent of uhalti who would never hurt anyone, and Den is at the other end of the bell curve, able to kill without remorse.

The other alien feature of the uhalti is that their extreme gender segregation means no incest taboo. You're not even supposed to know who your relatives are, so it can't matter, right? In various drafts I went back and forth on whether Den and Myrus were actually related and/or romantically interested in each other, leading to a kind of wishy-washy Arrested Development level of humor.

In the end my editor wanted me to make the uhalti as weird as possible, so I went all the way in the final draft, adding the tradition of concentration of genes, and Maskitenny's and Kemrush's attempt to put it into practice with Den and Myrus. And, of course, the nearly-successful human attempt to wipe out that tradition, such that Churryhoof (who's very conservative), is happy to see it being kept alive.

One minor feature of the uhaltihaxl that I think should be present in the next release of humanity: in chapter 16, Myrus is able to "close his ears" by an act of will and not hear something annoying.

Rre

The rre are a body-snatching species who are also a colony-intelligence species. It's a similar trick to Her from Constellation Games—a collective intelligence whose components are individually intelligent—but much more fine-grained.

The rre are the opposite of the uhaltihaxl: they repulse humanoids and have a horrifying biology but are generally nice people. They were built out of a few features of Yip-Goru as described in "Four Kinds of Cargo": 1) ungendered pronoun, 2) hyphenated name, 3) lives in a metamaterial suit.

Having set that up, Yip-Goru turns out to be an unusual rre. Most of the rre we see are squares, hyper-loyal to "the rules" (Dwap-Jac-Dac, Tip-Iye-Nett-Zig) or some higher sense of morality (Tia, Ethiret-Jac). Yip-Goru is bitter, cranky, and only out for thonself.

Yip-Goru's late predecessor, Yip-Goru-Toco, is mentioned a couple times in Situation Normal. My sketch is that Yip-Goru's unusual attitude stems from trauma from being trapped in a suit and attached to Toco's dead body for a long time. But this didn't come up and was too gross to put in the story for no reason.

The metamaterial suit was mainly used a way to introduce the sanitized, human-friendly version of the rre to the reader. It's abandoned pretty quickly, as Dwap-Jac-Dac takes things in a... different direction.

The Fist of Joy

The many species of the Fist of Joy are designed as Star Trek-style forehead aliens—humanoid, but superficially different from humans and from each other. "From each other" is the most important piece because the contrast I'm setting up is actually between the Outreach and the Fist.

Since there are three major characters—Kol, the Chief, and Qued Ethiret— from these forehead-alien species, I needed to demonstrate that there's diversity within each species, and it's not a Planet of Hats thing where all the egenu are walking down the street like this.

I did this by creating minor villains whose personalities are maximally different from our heroes. The self-made Chief is mirrored by the credentialed Dr. Cwess, and sensitive Kol by the sadistic Vec. Bolupeth Vo, who draws a sharp distinction between "real life and something you'd see in the damn 3-tank", is mirrored by Qued Ethiret, who makes no such distinction.

The Errand Boy is the only major jetk character, and he's a big villain, so I ran the process in reverse, giving a number of "regular folks" bit parts to jetk: the receptionist at the Long Term Memory House, the Mormon missionaries, one of the kids in the model ICSA, and Tvez the pilot.

Brands

In Connie Willis's novel Bellwether you get phrases like "word came down from Management", and only late in the book do you discover that there's a character named Management who said that stuff. The core idea behind the brands came from a similar joke. Our experience with real-world brands (e.g. on Twitter) makes it easy to read "Strigl Modern Design did X" in the passive voice, and you don't learn until pretty late in Situation Normal that "Strigl Modern Design" is a specific person.

A couple things happened to this idea en route to the final draft. Basically, keeping you in the dark that long would not have been funny, because unlike with "Management" the fact that brands are AIs is important to the story. The most important change here is in Chapter 4, where Hiroko uses the three-ring binder to enact Trellis On-Site Security, and Jaketown on the other end finds someone to enact Strigl Modern Design at her. There's a conversation between two brands, with both sides of the conversation are mediated through humanoids.

This introduces "brands" as a satirical take on the real-world phenomenon of people switching in and out of a corporate voice. When the literal brand-as-character AIs are introduced, it's hopefully less of a shock because you see who was making the humanoids do that. After that reveal, I expanded the scenes between Den and Gearu to establish the fucked-up relationship between brands and the rest of the Outreach—something that in previous drafts was primarily Crinoline White's job.

There was some lighthearted editorial debate about how to format brand speech. Up to the final draft, brand speech was written as narration, to throw off the reader and convey the "gets in your head" feeling of a brand connecting directly to your capital terminal:

"This gentlebeing wants me to talk to you about a factory."

The hless factory.

"Presumably some kind of munitions factory," said Tellpesh-Tia.

My fallback idea was to set off brand speech with dashes—what I always think of as "James Joyce quotes"—but we settled on French-style guillemets. Italics and underlines were out because they were being used for mental asides and rre native-speech.

One of my big missed opportunities in this book is that because of the scenes I happened to cut, we almost never see brands taking action on their own. Almost always they are doing what someone else told them to do. This makes it difficult to see them as moral actors until the very end, but I assure you, they are moral actors.

Humans

And finally we have the humans: Becky, Arun, Mrs. Chen, and Professor Starbottle. I gave them the same treatment I gave the Fist of Joy aliens. There are huge differences of attitude between Becky (born and raised in the Outreach), Starbottle (born and raised in the Fist), and Arun (born in the Outreach and had to flee).

Because there's no need to convince human readers that humans aren't all morally the same, I was more free about casting humans as pure villains. In "Four Kinds of Cargo" Mrs. Chen was depicted as a little sleazy, but she's despicable in Situation Normal; and if you're a consequentialist, Starbottle is the worst person in the whole story.

This only shows up in the background, especially after I converted from Commonwealth to American spellings (we'll talk about that later), but Earth culture of this time period is dominated by India. Everyone in the Fist of Joy has a very superficial understanding of American culture, but Kol makes a pretty obscure joke about the Mahabharata (about the "Tata Yudhisthira" hovercar which abruptly loses altitude) and assumes the Chief will get it. The Errand Boy misreads a fact about Hindus as a fact about humans in general. The government of the Outreach is a parliamentary democracy with a civil service; not, for example, a Galactic Senate. Just a counterweight to how US-centric these space opera settings often are.

Languages

Surprisingly, this novel's language design also comes from a decision made in "Four Kinds of Cargo". The language used in that story is Trade Standard D, which implies that language barriers in this universe are handled with trade languages rather than automatic translation, and there are at least three more of these things.

In Situation Normal, languages are almost always rendered as English (so you can read them), but this rendering is done in different styles depending on which other languages the speaker knows (a fun trick I learned from Keith Laumer's Retief stories, also used in Constellation Games) and the fluency of the POV character.

The clearest example is Trade Standard A, the Fist's military language. When Kol hears people speaking A over the radio, it's rendered as idiomatic English, because Kol himself is fluent in A. When Churryhoof (who learned A in the Academy a long time ago) overhears Styrqot and Vec speaking A, it's rendered in a way that makes visible the underlying structure of the grammar. Through Churryhoof, we see that Trade Standard A sentences are stacks, with nouns pushed onto the stack and verbs popping from the top.

Styrqot's line as heard by Churryhoof: "To the military, the research project, the brand operates, the benefit accrues." is literally: "The benefit of the research project operated by the brand accrues to the military." and idiomatically: "The brand is just running the research project for the military."

Trade Standard B and D are two languages that work together. D is designed to be really easy to learn (Becky needs to learn it quickly for plot reasons) because it just doesn't have most of the stuff you'd want in a language designed for literature or flirting. That fancy stuff is isolated in Trade Standard B, which acts as a mixin language that you can drop in and out of while speaking D.

This shows up so subtly that I could have ditched it, but I think it's a cool idea. Merikp Hute Roques refers to "boring old Trade Standard D" because for the sake of her Outreach guests she's not including much B in her patter. The comedian in the casino is working almost entirely in B, which Den understands, as befits her would-be future in marketing. Jac is fluent in A and D, but to be effective as a con artist in the Fist thon needs Ethiret's fluency in B.

For characters who learned English through Trade Standard D, their English speech is mainly rendered as a sequence of noun phrases. This is most obvious with the Chief ("Kol, the dramatic reveal!"), but we also see it in the video ad for the Youth Festival ("Our decision to send you there!"). You see how this works in detail at the Youth Festival itself, where Myrus watches a sentence get translated from English to D, and the response get translated in the opposite direction.

I had to add some clarifying bits to make it clear that the Chief doesn't talk like this all the time! She's a native speaker of Trade Standard D, so when she talks with Kol, she sounds like she does in "Four Kinds of Cargo". Only her English (in scenes where Becky is the POV character) is noun phrases.

The flip side of all this is the way Becky, a native English speaker, encounters Trade Standard D. To start with she has no sense of the language's words or syntax—it's a wash of anxiety-inducing "harna harna" sounds. After watching the Down Under Crew dub with the Chief, she can pick up individual words if they're spaceship-related. By the time she goes off on her own, she has a clumsy grasp of D, which is rendered as all of her verbs coming out as gerunds. ("Thinking I Yip-Goru anticipating a war happening.") At the very end of the book, Becky becomes aware of the linguistic underpinnings of her reality, which I dramatized by using punctuation characters to mark up different parts of speech in the text of the book.

Crazy Rooroo does business mostly in his native language, switching to D only when talking numbers. Since he learned English through his native language, his English is rendered differently than the Chief's; he tends to use weird prepositions, a bit like Tetsuo from Constellation Games.

The Cametrean abbot's vocabulary includes a lot of portmanteau words designed to sound like neologisms from bad 1970s sci-fi: "genemod", "newsfax", "farcall", "litstash", "tintshots", etc.

Kol has native fluency in all relevant languages, a purely practical decision I made because otherwise the book would be impossible to read.

No information is available about Trade Standard C.

[Comments] (2) Situation Normal Author Commentary #2: Worldbuilding: Welcome back to the commentary grotto. Please, help yourself to an olive. Today I got some high-level notes on the worldbuilding for Situation Normal. In future entries I'll be going into much more detail on two very important items—the space aliens and the fictional religions—but today is a more grab-baggish look at the choices I made when customizing an off-the-shelf space opera universe. As always, spoilers (and olive pits) are ahead.

from "Four Kinds of Cargo" to Situation Normal

The single biggest worldbuilding source for Situation Normal was worldbuilding I already did for its prequel, "Four Kinds of Cargo". Over and over again I'll be telling you that some major piece of the novel originated in a throwaway line from the story. But there are also many tonal differences between the two that you probably wouldn't notice, except I'm going to point them out here.

Most obviously, I changed some of the names around at editorial suggestion, to avoid ambiguity or assonance (both of which cause readers to conflate names). The main reason I did a Retcon Edition of "Four Kinds of Cargo" was to let you go back and forth between story and novel without being confused by abrupt name changes. I don't think the names are a big deal one way or the other—"Terran Extension" and "Terran Outreach" are the same kind of nonsense. I changed "the Captain" to "the Chief" because Situation Normal contains numerous characters who have "Captain" as a military rank, but no equivalent of Master Chief or Chief O'Brien. That sort of thing.

Since there's no expectation you've read the short, Situation Normal only contains explicit references to "Four Kinds of Cargo" when that's necessary for continuity purposes. Mainly we need to refer to Terequale Bitty, the crew member who dies in the first sentence of "Four Kinds of Cargo" and who in Situation Normal is replaced, briefly, by Becky Twice. Becky sleeps in Terequale's bed (if you can call it sleeping) and inherits her coffee mug. The details are just Easter eggs—if you haven't read "Four Kinds of Cargo" it may seem weird that Sour Candy had a quenny engineer, and I don't explain it. What's important is, that engineer just died and her stuff is still on board, which makes room for Becky and sets up the expectation that the crew on Sour Candy changes pretty frequently.

In Situation Normal we learn that crew members usually leave Sour Candy not because they die ("Four Kinds of Cargo" sez Terequale Bitty was the first fatality) but because they're romantically involved with the Chief, who dumps them. Were Terequale and the Chief lovers? I never had that in mind, and it doesn't fit with how anyone remembers Terequale in "Four Kinds of Cargo", but statistically it's likely.

Becky joins Sour Candy despite not having any of Terequale Bitty's skills, because the most important thing is having an odd number of people on board to prevent votes from ending in a tie. (This may also explain Kol's bad decision to hire Mrs. Chen in "Four Kinds of Cargo".) This was more prominent in an earlier draft of Situation Normal, where at one point there were four people on the crew and they couldn't agree on anything.

In Situation Normal it's revealed that Mrs. Chen has been tracking Sour Candy, whereas in "Four Kinds of Cargo" it seems more like she's doing psyop work against Quennet. Going over "Four Kinds of Cargo" and reconstructing what I may have been thinking back in 2012, it reads like Mrs. Chen was trying to get to Terequale Bitty or turn her somehow. So it's a little weird that immediately after infiltrating the crew ("Four Kinds of Cargo") she'd go right back to secretly tracking them (Situation Normal).

In "Four Kinds of Cargo", Arun is described as not just the heavy but the negotiator. At the beginning of Situation Normal we see him pull the "Bertie Wooster routine" on Becky, but apart from that he doesn't negotiate very much—in particular, the Chief handles the drug deal with Rooroo.

In the final draft of Situation Normal there are three references to the Cametrean tradition of ritual cannibalism (as modified by Kol in "Four Kinds of Cargo"), all of which come from people mocking Ethiret and none of which are explained. The first draft contained actual cannibalism: the food served at the monastery was not neutral soup, but a Tupperware containing a jellied corestin arm:

"Our late sister Clovak," said the quenny. "Ethiret's partner in crime. An intestinal infection killed her. We're not eating that part."

Finally, this is more of an Easter egg, but the purple dress the Chief wears in "Four Kinds of Cargo" comes from the rasme thau casino Den visits at the end of Situation Normal—Den is given an identical dress even though she's a different species with a different body shape. It's the equivalent of the humiliation necktie they give you at the fancy restaurant if you dare show up without a tie. I'm assuming they still do that but maybe it only happened in sitcoms. I will say I've been to a couple fancy restaurants in my day, and I always made sure to wear a jacket and tie to avoid Den's fate.

The title

The very first title of this book was The Furniture War. Once I'd written a bit I wanted to call it Heavy Evidence (now the title of Part Two) but was foiled by genre reading conventions: that sounds like a mystery novel. Instead Sumana and I started calling it Explosion of Honour, a title I never seriously intended to use, but which set the mood as a parody of those Baen military fiction books with goofy cover paintings.

Sumana came up with the title Situation Normal while we were brainstorming over dinner and from that moment on the book never had any other title. There are other books called Situation Normal, and there will probably be more in the future, so I hope we can all get along.

Evidence

In 2007, I was doodling a novel set in 1960s Earth, called The Man From ARPA. A programmable hallucinogen fit with its countercultural phone-phreaking theme. This is a quote from my notes:

A family of "targeted hallucinogen" drugs called Evidence that induces specific hallucinations or hallucinations intended to evoke specific reactions.

So Evidence has been in my head for a while. However, this idea did not work with The Man From ARPA at all—the level of neuroscience you'd need to create it is way beyond a 1960s level. Even in the space-opera future, the Fist of Joy can't pull it off without cheating.

Instead of The Man From ARPA I wrote "Vanilla", an unpublished novella featuring a synthetic hallucinogen that was not called Evidence but had a few similarities. "Vanilla" became Constellation Games, and Evidence finally saw publication with Situation Normal. At this point The Man From ARPA is well in the rear-view mirror, but the phone-phreaking plot is still a remote possibility—the core concept is clever and I haven't seen anyone else use it. It would probably be a short story, not a novel, and set on another planet, because I don't like doing historical research.

Timekeeping

Keeping time in terms of "shifts" shows up in "Four Kinds of Cargo" for the same reason I use 2x notation for everything in "The Time Somn Died". In a story with no human POV characters, time won't be measured in "hours" or "days", and using those words will take the reader out of the story. This is always a challenge because making up fake timekeeping words also takes the reader out of the story, without even the benefit of explaining how long a period of time has elapsed. A "shift" is a way humans have of keeping time that isn't directly tied to the planet Earth, so it served the purpose.

I expanded the "shifts" idea a little in Situation Normal: the Outreach does keep time using "hours" and "days", even though this doesn't make sense outside of Earth—part of the Outreach's human chauvinism.

At some point I calculated exactly how long a shift was and calibrated all the times in the book based on that number, but that was a while before the final draft and if you try to make everything line up precisely I suspect you will be disappointed. The one rule that has to work for plot purposes (it's part of Yip-Goru's conspiracy theory) is that a kiloshift is approximately one Earth year. This would make one shift about 8 hours and 45 minutes—approximately the length of a "shift" of 20th-century American work. In the end this doesn't matter and you can get through the book on Becky's vague sense that "[Fist] sitcoms ran five centishifts, so ten hours maybe?"

The Fist measures volume in the creatively-named "volumes", though in the final draft this is only used once, in a way that's ambiguous. ("A volume of Terran bourbon!") I'm gonna say the ambiguity is intentional.

I dunno how the Fist measures distance; fortunately it doesn't matter because of the way FTL works. Astronomical distance is measured in terms of the time, or number of skips, it will take to get there. Speaking of which...

Skipping

I read a book around, like, 1989, which I've never been able to find since. I think the book was called Twister, so good luck finding it, and I'm pretty sure I read an ARC, so maybe its name changed or it was never even published. Anyway, in this book our intrepid scientists are trying to invent a teleportation machine. Instead, they make a machine that can "twist" a spherical volume of space, swapping it with the equivalent volume in a parallel Earth where humans never evolved.

In "Four Kinds of Cargo" the mechanism of FTL space travel is not really spelled out, because I think that stuff is boring. But you gotta spell it out in a novel that spans most of a galaxy, and I like to have a mechanism that gives me some constraints and plot toys, rather than just handwaving it and making space the size of Rhode Island. In Constellation Games the FTL mechanism is ports—moveable wormholes that connect two previously separate points in spacetime. This gives me some cool plot toys, most of which were stolen by the video game Portal, and the rest of which you can read in that novel.

In Situation Normal the FTL mechanism is skipping, defined as the thing I suspect those scientists in the book I read were trying to invent: something that swaps one spherical volume of space with another. This gives me lots of cool plot toys: skip overlap, questions of what is "spherical" given that mass distorts spacetime, and FTL as something that happens in discrete bursts (with capacitors that discharge) rather than continuously—more Battlestar Galactica than Star Trek.

The idea of encrypted matter, which shows up at the very end of the book, is an idea I've had for a really long time and wasn't originally related to skipping as an FTL technology. I think at one point I intended to use it as a plot point in Constellation Games—something related to the shipping containers—and I will probably use it again in another story. It's too cool an idea to only use once as a minor plot point.

Some other things I remember about the mysterious sci-fi book, in case you want to try and find it where I have failed: there was a hacker character, possibly named Gordon, who frequented a l33t hax0r BBS with a false front. The hacker character would suffix "-o" to statements for emphasis, e.g. "sounds like some bullshit-o."

Infrafictional works

Constellation Games was full of fictional media and works of art, and Situation Normal keeps up this enjoyable tradition. The only fictional video game in Situation Normal is the Snake-like game bundled on Myrus's replacement Fist of Joy terminal, though I cut a couple when I cut Crinoline White's storyline—Kol uses online games to launder money.

More prominent in the novel are the crime dramas which first made their appearance in "Four Kinds of Cargo"—primarily Nightside, Undeclared, and (Becky and Den's favorite) The Down Under Crew. Over the course of Situation Normal, a number of characters take inspiration from these dramas as a guide to life, which makes perfect sense as Situation Normal is the same kind of story. As Myrus says, "no magic or future stuff, just normal people in normal spaceships doing crimes."

Jammer Readout!!, the Chief's origin show, is a different sort of crime drama, and IMO the book's most direct connection to Constellation Games. The rasme thau have just made contact with aliens who have brought them new technology (the videocamera) and introduced them to a complicated wider universe. So they use the technology to have wacky fun and play out their feelings about the complicated universe. I modelled Jammer Readout!! after corny low-budget sci-fi like 1980s Doctor Who.

My elevator pitch for Situation Normal is "the Coen Brothers do Star Trek", and my elevator pitch for Aquadale Selmar's Cametre stories is "Phillip K. Dick does Star Trek." I asked myself what kind of science fiction would inadvertently become a religion (as opposed to you-know-what), and I think that's a pretty good answer. I'll cover Cametreanism in greater detail later, but here's a detail about the books themselves: Selmar's novels are the ones with "Cametre" in the title. In Cametre's Clutches, Doing Without Cametre, Through Cametre's Prism, etc. The titles that don't specifically mention "Cametre" are short stories: Don't Go Out There, The Second Copy, The Kind Permission, etc. Doesn't really matter.

Myrus spends the story reading a novel called The Object of Power, and you see little clips from it at one point as he searches for the dirty bits. The Object of Power is my attempt to play out what a fantasy novel would look like in a space-opera universe, where you have magic but also space aliens and interstellar travel. I don't read a ton of fantasy, so the style of those excerpts was mainly inspired by stories and novels I've read through my writing group.

In earlier drafts, the interactive "Princess Denweld" story Gearu and Den improvise was a generic medieval high-fantasy story. I never enjoyed rereading those scenes, so while embarking on a late-stage project to make the uhaltihaxl more alien-feeling, I rewrote "Princess Denweld" to feel more like a medieval high-fantasy story written by uhaltihaxl as opposed to humans. This gave those scenes some sci-fi oomph and made them more rereadable.

Naming

In addition to changing names from "Four Kinds of Cargo" I spent a lot of time working on new names, and new naming rules, for new types of characters. Hetselter Churryhoof's name went through several variants early on as I was establishing the rules for uhaltihaxl name construction. Her original name was "Wabang Kannakannary", but that sounded too much like a human name.

Eventually I figured out that uhaltihaxl names, like the word "uhaltihaxl", needed to sound awkward on the English-speaker's tongue. For this I used weird enjambments and little bits of chopped-up English words (similar to how I made Alien surnames in Constellation Games).

Myrusit and Denweld were the only major uhalti names I never changed. Tellpesh was originally "Tellhesher", Myrus's dad (Kemrush) was originally "Kenressy") and Den's mom (Maskitenny) was originally "Tensenny". Watkerrywun, the fake name Hiroko gives Tellpesh when bamboozling the spaceport manager, turns out to be the name of the colony where Tellpesh grew up.

"Professor Starbottle" is the name of an astronomer in The Goddess of Atvatabar, an 1892 hollow-Earth novel. While writing the first draft I read a history-of-science book that mentioned this novel, and the cool name fit the character, who "bottles" the numinous and distills it into Evidence. His full name, Thaddeus Ganapathy Starbottle, is intended to evoke Groucho Marx's high-status clowns.

Styrqot's name was originally "Styrriqo". I like that name better but it's the same rhythm and has the same rolled R as "Churryhoof", so changed it to reduce cognitive load.

The name "Dwap-Jac-Dac" is probably the deepest cut in the book. It's a reference to one of the meetups I held in the mid-90s in Bakersfield for my BBS, Da Warren. The meetup was called DWAP-JAC-DAC and it stood for "Da Warren Annual Party - Jabbacrats Anonymous Conference - Dvoren Awards Ceremony." Yes, I pulled it off—the reference of a lifetime!

A quiet running joke in Situation Normal is the apparent impossibility of finding a precise English translation for the name of a Fist of Joy spacecraft. Hiroko translates Sour Candy as Bad Sugar, Mrs. Chen translates it as Sweet-and-Sour, and Crinoline (RIP) translates it as Tsundere. Churryhoof translates Small but Sharp as Little Dagger. The Errand Boy translates Unreadable Signature, the name of his own ship!, as Small Illegible Smear.

As for the Outreach Navy, all their spacecraft are named after important political documents from member governments, in parody of/tribute to the over-long ship names from the Culture books. These went in and out of the book as necessary. Some of the ones I cut that I remember are Tryst With Destiny, Akset Swy Stands Ready, United States v. Frankie, and A Few Suggestions For The Incoming Government. You may be interested to know that The Case of the Armie Truly Stated, a very GCU-ish name for a Light Combat Platform, refers to a real pamphlet from the English Civil War.

I believe the only civilian Outreach ship we see is Jaketown, which is named after my friend Jake Berendes. It's a simple but pleasant joke of taking the tradition of naming early American colonies after royalty (Jamestown, Williamsburg, etc.), and applying it to some random guy named Jake.

Outreach colonies with names like Fallback and Temporary Junction are inspired by the planet in Larry Niven's Known Space universe called We Made It; also by some Discworld characters whose names bear Cake Wrecks-type mistakes due to a poorly-thought-out naming ceremony.

A few Navy characters have the position of "Master of Drone" on their ship (Dwap-Jac-Dac on Brown v. Board, Churryhoof on What is to be Done?, Ja-Iyo-Cat on Magna Carta). This is a reference to the Roman military/government position of magister equitum, "master of horse".

The name of the capital terminal is a dense pun: it's a computer terminal that goes inside your head, but it's also the interface through which you experience capitalism. "Capital" and "terminal" are both antonyms ("first" and "last") and synonyms ("deadly").


The next essay is devoted to a single, awesome topic: space aliens. How do you make twenty-six species of forehead aliens feel distinct? You don't! Lots of pro tips like that coming right to you, on Tuesday the 12th!

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Cogito, Ergo Sumana
Sumana oscillates between focus and opportunity

: Compassion Heist: I just devoured All the Young Men, a memoir by Ruth Coker Burks with Kevin Carr O'Leary. In just a few years, in 1980s and 1990s Hot Springs, Arkansas, a young single mother became the hub of a mutual aid network to help gay men dying of AIDS. You may have read a 2015 article in the Arkansas Times about her work.

In 1986, 26-year old Ruth visits a friend at the hospital when she notices that the door to one of the hospital rooms is painted red. She witnesses nurses drawing straws to see who would tend to the patient inside, all of them reluctant to enter the room. Out of impulse, Ruth herself enters the quarantined space and immediately begins to care for the young man who cries for his mother in the last moments of his life. Before she can even process what she's done, word spreads in the community that Ruth is the only person willing to help these young men afflicted by AIDS, and is called upon to nurse them.

That bit in the middle of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck tears up the letter. You know?

As she forges deep friendships with the men she helps, she works tirelessly to find them housing and jobs, even searching for funeral homes willing to take their bodies -- often in the middle of the night. She cooks meals for tens of people out of discarded food found in the dumpsters behind supermarkets, stores rare medications for her most urgent patients, teaches sex ed to drag queens after hours at secret bars, and becomes a beacon of hope to an otherwise spurned group of ailing gay men on the fringes of a deeply conservative state.

Throughout the years, Ruth defies local pastors and nurses to help the men she cares for: Paul and Billy, Angel, Chip, Todd and Luke.

This book is of course a moving story about love and care. But also it's -- as Leonard put it -- a compassion heist.

When her work with AIDS patients started, Burks was selling time-share vacation homes. And she brought that same persuasiveness, resourcefulness, and stubbornness to her volunteer work. No one willing to draw blood for tests? She learned to do it, and literally came through the back door into the government health department to drop it off for anonymous testing. She weaponized her straight-white-Southern-lady privilege whenever necessary and possible to get her guys treated fairly by landlords, doctors, and bureaucrats.

And after the federal government finally started funding work, Burks started getting pushed out. Agencies wouldn't hire her because she didn't have a college degree, and of course out of sexist discrimination as well.

I'm a little bit used to the story of scrappy activists raising money with drag shows and concerts and bake sales -- the exemplary depiction may be the film Pride, and if you haven't seen it, you're in for a treat. But the next act of the story, where institutional funders start to show up but bypass the folks on the ground -- if there are movies about that I'd like to know.

Most of All The Young Men isn't about that. It's about carework, love, witty retorts, raising a daughter with a found family of drag queens as her uncles, battling stigma and prejudice, and Burks calling on her huge network of neighbors and friends to get things done. Recommended.

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: New Free Ebook Sampler from "Getting Unstuck: Advice for Open Source Projects": I've written and released a sampler from my upcoming book on rejuvenating open source projects: Getting Unstuck: Advice for Open Source Projects. It's like a lengthy trailer in text form.

You can get this 38-page ebook for free when you subscribe to Changeset Consulting's email newsletter (1-10 updates per year).

Getting Unstuck sampler cover

Who this book is for and what you should get out of it:

You are about to get an open source project unstuck.

Maybe a bunch of work is piling up in the repository and users are getting worried, waiting for a release. Maybe developers have gotten bogged down, trying to finish a big rewrite while maintaining the stable release. Maybe the project's suffering for lack of infrastructure — testing, money, an institutional home.

You noticed the problem. So that means it's up to you to fix it. Or you're getting paid to fix it, even though you didn't start this thing.

A while ago I blurted out the phrase "dammit-driven leadership." Because sometimes you look around, and you realize something needs doing, and you're the only one who really gets why, so you say, "Dammit, okay, I'll do it, then."

After reading this book, you should be prepared to:

  1. Assess a legacy project to decide whether you should get involved.
  2. Settle into a legacy project and become a competent and credible contributor.
  3. Take charge of a legacy project on a project, people, and financial level.
  4. Execute transformative change in a legacy project.
  5. Make a legacy project more sustainable, and pass leadership on to someone else.

This sampler is a free 38-page ebook (PDF, ePub, and MOBI available) that includes:

  • Introduction (including my controversial? "Basic assumptions about open source and the tech industries")
  • Conducting a SWOT analysis (assessing a project's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, with example analysis of the pip project)
  • How to start thinking about budgets and money (including two exercises)
  • Teaching and including unskilled volunteers (with twelve specific tactics)
  • An outline of the full forthcoming book

Thanks to Julia Rios for paid services editing and producing this book, including the cover! Julia is a Hugo Award-winning editor as well as a writer, narrator, and podcaster, and is available for freelance work!

A special note for my blog readers: I'm keenly interested in your feedback once you read the sampler. Have you solved any of these problems in a different way? Would a different structure, for each chapter or for the book, help you better? Did any of my examples or phrasings particularly ring true? Are there things I've written that you have found useful and that you hope I will incorporate into this book? Email me with "Unstuck" in the subject line.

Next: In 2021 I'm looking forward to finishing this book and either self-publishing or working with a publisher. And I will likely bring this sampler from behind the subscribewall once I produce a new edition of it that can have a "the full book is coming on [date] from [publisher]!" line. In order to do that, I need to finish the book proposal, submit it to publishers, and get cracking on the rest of the book.

Get the sampler for free when you subscribe to Changeset's email newsletter (1-10 updates per year).


: Graduating From The I-Didn't-Graduate Dream: I used to have dreams that, oh no, I didn't actually finish high school and need to go back and finish a class or exam. I hear this is pretty common.

I thought I'd graduated from college with a bachelor's, found out I'd actually made an administrative mistake that meant I needed to take one more summer class, and took my diploma home and tacked it onto my wall near my bed. I have not had "oh no I didn't really graduate from college" dreams; I figure this is because the memory of actually going through that incident and its aftermath cemented into my head that I really do have the degree. (However, when I recently got a fundraising email with a subject line like "A Message From The Chair of the Political Science Department at UC Berkeley," my reflexive reaction was "oh no they're taking my degree back!" So I suppose I still have issues, just differently configured.)

Then I got my master's degree a few years later. By then I was an adult, and school only took up part of my time (it was a nights-and-weekends program); I figure that's why less anxiety has clung to those memories, and thus why I don't think I've ever dreamed that "oh no, I didn't actually finish and need to go back."

This is all preface. My brain still scrabbles to provide me with anxiety dreams involving having to do more school, but with a twist. Like: some time ago, I dreamed that I had made some commitment to go through high school AGAIN, for the sake of some kind of experiment or similar, and was gritting my teeth and doing it all over again. I didn't want to, and I knew I already had postsecondary credentials, but still!

Or last night, when my dream included -- all mushed up with other stuff, like losing my cell phone (one that I last used in like 2016), trying to get a membership at a zoo using a coupon that wasn't cutting the price as much as I'd been told, seeing Jay Blades from The Repair Shop in an outdoors production of Hamilton while crossing a small river on a boat that was falling apart -- me fretting over whether to complete my second bachelor's degree. Dream Sumana knew that she already had a bachelor's and a master's, yet had at some point nearly completed a second bachelor's in some other major and at some other college. But not completely! So I was trying to figure out: should I finish those last few classes to get that second bachelor's? I don't need it at all! And yet I was nearly done with it, why quit when I was nearly done?!

I woke up and talked about this one with Leonard, and with my mom when I called her. Often my dreams are ways of processing things I'm dealing with. What was this new twist on the "need to finish school" dream doing? Maybe a few things.

It's about the frustration of being "nearly done," as I am with a few work projects, and as so many of us are with the pandemic. We hope.

It's about the frustration with wasting something that I have put a lot of work into, in opposition to the danger of the sunk cost fallacy. Which is something that comes up for me fairly frequently, though I don't often articulate it.

It's about the aspects of college life I do miss: narrower concerns, a time mostly before the September 11th attacks (which happened my senior year), frequently seeing and chatting with lots of friends and acquaintances. And it's about the unrequitable desire to do those four years over again, better, with the wisdom I have now about who I am and what I need. I feel that desire especially keenly when I've been admiring people younger than me who are accomplishing great things, which is only going to happen more and more as I age. The way I can counter it, when I have my head on properly, is to be grateful for and proud of where I am now and what I've done and what I'm doing, and the people I've snagged into my life along the way.

It's about a longing for a more structured endeavor with clear, externally-set win conditions. Right now I run my own business within a new market category that I am defining, I am writing a book and I am deciding how and with whom I will publish it, and the end of 2020 is coming up soon and no one but me can define whether I have used this year well. Sure would be a relief if someone else could authoritatively tell me whether I'd succeeded. But perhaps maturity is accepting that you are the only person who gets to decide that.

And perhaps this is a transitional stage towards my brain finally taking "but you still need to do more school" out of rotation on what Leonard calls my "golden oldies" of anxiety dreams. Turn the dial to something new.

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: Two Upcoming Sumana-Talks-At-You Events: Most urgently: You have just over 24 hours to back the Mermaids Monthly project on Kickstarter, supporting a fun, independent speculative fiction magazine for 2021. If you back at the $100 “Subscription, Pin, and Poetry” pledge level, you'll get invited to a special Zoom party where I'll perform stand-up comedy.

And: in late January, I'll speak for the first time at Linux.Conf.Au, on "How To Get A Project Unstuck -- And Fixing The Skill Gaps That Got Us Here". You'll come away from this talk with steps you can take, in the short term and in the long run, to address this for projects you care about. Ticket sales are now open for LCA (which will of course be a virtual convention). Buy a ticket if you'd like to see my talk live and participate in questions-and-answers!

This talk will draw from the same material as the book I'm writing on getting open source projects unstuck. I aim to teach the skills open source software maintainers need, aimed at working scientists and other contributors who have never managed public-facing projects before. And I hope to have more news about that project soon!


: On Realizing There Was Still Some American Exceptionalism Lurking In My Brain: One of the most valuable things I treasure about the Internet is that I can have a glimpse into the lives of people who live a very different life from mine. I regularly read the blogs/journals of people who live in Israel, Singapore, India, the UK, Australia, Malaysia, and more, not to mention other parts of my own country. The people whose lives I follow include clergy, therapists, parents, medical workers, students, lawyers, and more. I attempt to read at least a little by people I disagree with, or I'm not sure I agree with, or who hold jobs that in a better world might not exist; Granola Shotgun, Patrick Skinner (context), and LadyLovesTaft are thought-provoking, entertaining, edifying. And I appreciate getting geographical breadth in my feed.

Because of this mix, some of my info feed includes blogs by people who live in countries that have effectively controlled COVID-19. Reading one of their "what I did this week" posts is like reading a blog by someone who is rich, or by a man going on a long solitary hike as a fun vacation (while women get advised to never go alone). Their world and mine have diverged; the sphere of my capability is as a marble next to their planet.

We talk so much about the Constitution but our constitution was so weak.

I am a patriot but I thought I was a thoughtful one. This year has brought home to me how much American exceptionalism was still lurking in the corners of my head.

The bigotry I can notice in myself always has this fuzzy shadowy aspect -- it's in the gaps, the moments where I subconsciously think that I don't have to take [person, news, idea, work, etc.] properly seriously, the assumptions I make about what categories someone or some country's going to fit. Or, I learn individual facts -- that trains are cheaper and more frequent and more convenient in many countries I've visited, that my colleague in Norway has used easy electronic transfers to receive and pay money all his life and has never seen a paper check, that folks in Melbourne just call an ambulance for a stranger in trouble and don't worry about cost, that a bunch of people I know in Europe or Australia make their livings working part-time and don't have to figure out how to pay for health insurance -- but I have a mental block stopping me from adding up that two and two are four.

For several years, in conversation, whenever a foreigner complained about some aspect of the US, I would jump in, get ahead of them, get the crowd cracking up by reciting a litany of my country's deficiencies, apologizing for them on behalf of us all. Our utterly insufficient transit network, imperial measurements, all our paper money is the same size and shape and color, the health care disaster, the wars ... I've lost track, it's been a little while since I've given the spiel, since this sort of thing was usually something I said to tourists. But, I realize now, on some level it was always superficial and I did not take to heart how deeply my country was behind, was worse.

"We're number one!" No, we're not. To claim superiority without first assessing whether you're right, or on flimsy grounds, is arrogance. We are arrogant. I am arrogant. Wish I could say "was" but this is not the Rumpelstiltskin story and naming the problem does not make it vanish.

I am not a man and I am not white, but I think the particular bouquet of feelings I am feeling is like feelings a thoughtful white person or man might feel -- thinking that I knew that I was not the center of the world, but stumbling and noticing, in my disorientation, that clearly I had not yet decolonized my mind as thoroughly as I'd thought.

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: Reflecting on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The other night I watched two films in a row: Knock Down The House, the documentary about four progressive candidates running to unseat Democratic incumbents in the 2018 US election, and Douglas, Hannah Gadsby's comedy special.

They're both very interesting, and afterwards I read and thought a bunch in particular about what's striking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's political career.*

Making expectations explicit

In Douglas, Gadsby starts the show with a lengthy table of contents, telling you what she is going to do, saying that she would like for everyone to have their expectations properly set. She calls her shot.

In Knock Down the House I noticed a related thing that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did -- talking explicitly about expectations. When Crowley tried to tie her to scandalous local politician Hiram Monserrate, her retort included an explicit refutation of the de facto way that "women tend to be made responsible for the actions of every man in the room". She brings to light an implicit expectation that underlies the smear, which makes it possible for her to explicitly refuse to meet it.

In this exchange Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates one of the skills that makes her an aspirational figure, a role model for so many marginalized people: live and in the moment, she can notice an unfair or misleading criticism coming her way, refute the specific criticism, and then name and categorize what's illegitimate about the criticism so as to defuse it and get the upper hand (and point out the problem to all watching).

This is such a powerful skill. I see it in Ocasio-Cortez, in Sarah Taber, in Rep. Katie Porter, in Alexandra Erin, in Tressie McMillan Cottom, in siderea, and in some other public intellectuals and activists and politicians (often women) who are unapologetic and sharp in their fast-paced analysis of illegitimate criticism. It's like they don't just deflect the object coming their way, but they also X-ray it and show everyone the schematics so we can build our own shields too.

I don't think I have this skill. I think it really helps to have gone through the school of hard knocks, which they have way more than I have. And it helps to have a ton of practice in fast-paced live oral argument, which I've probably atrophied in recent years since so much of my work is in written conversation.

But, in organic conversation, when conflicts crop up, I think I do a tolerable job of stepping back and asking (to myself or out loud): what mismatch of expectations brought us here? Which is definitely useful.

Analytical and organizing skill

You can watch the part of Knock Down the House where Ocasio-Cortez analyzes the difference between two campaign mailers and predicts their effectiveness. This is an example of the level of skill in analysis and organizing that Ocasio-Cortez brings to her job. Which is less surprising when you remember not only that she was a promising researcher as early as high school, and that she worked as an organizer for the Sanders campaign in 2016 and got a bunch of experience in on-the-ground political work.*** The skill she demonstrates in articulating progressive arguments in compelling ways is not just a general gift of gab; it comes hand-in-hand with wonky behind-the-scenes research and thinking that brought her to those positions, and deep and specific expertise in what disengaged voters need to hear to get them to turn out at the polls.

Ocasio-Cortez's college peers remember her as brilliant and driven, often calling her "the smartest person I know" -- which reminds me of similar phrases frequently popping up in people's recollections of Hillary Rodham. The first time Elizabeth Warren met Hillary Clinton (in May 1998) she had a similar experience.

Back in October 2008 I wrote about Obama's success and noted: "people used to think the Clinton machine was the best there was. But with the right tools, investment in time, and leadership, a networked/egalitarian group will beat a linear, top-down group." Hillary Rodham went to law school instead of taking a job with Saul Alinsky's new training institute. What if she'd leaned harder into the organizing model? I think with Ocasio-Cortez you get a glimpse of what kind of independent political force she might have been.

Beauty

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is conventionally beautiful. She is not only pretty, she frequently deconstructs beauty standards, and she has choice words for haters who think she is only pretty, but, as Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, you need to acknowledge her beauty to understand some of the dynamics around her place in politics:

I believe the right’s attacks on AOC (and a few of the left’s to be honest) are a visceral reaction to their inability to control what they see is her only legitimate source of power.....

We also feel icky about pointing out that someone is attractive and that is a certain kind of power because powerful women make us squeamish. And beauty as power makes us deeply afraid for our own self-worth.

Gadsby would probably agree with something Ocasio-Cortez says in the Vogue video (hat tip to kristi for highlighting it):

Our culture is so predicated on diminishing women and preying on our self-esteem, and so it's quite a radical act - and it's almost like a mini protest - to love yourself in a society that's always telling you you're not the right weight, you're not the right color, you're not the right, you know, whatever it is ... When you stand up and say, 'You know what? You don't make that decision. I make that decision,' it's very powerful. But that doesn’t mean we can't have fun.

Trusting one's own judgment

And, to reinforce that point about figuring out what expectations of you are legitimate, and tying that to authenticity, the Vogue article continues:

Just over two years ago, after defeating a 20-year incumbent and winning what was seen as the biggest upset of the 2018 midterm election primaries, Ocasio-Cortez was thrust into the spotlight at just 28 years old. "I went from working in a restaurant to being on cable news all the time," she recalls. "I initially really struggled with that. At a certain point, I just learned that you cannot get your feelings of beauty and confidence from anyone but yourself ... If I'm going to spend an hour in the morning doing my glam, it's not going to be because I'm afraid of what some Republican photo is going to look like ... It's because I feel like it," she says with a smile. Here, she picks up Fenty Beauty's Contour Stick, which she glides lightly down her cheekbones, over her forehead, and around her jawline. "I'm not trying to change my features or shape-shift -- I'm just trying to accentuate my existing features," she says as she adds a touch of the cream-to-powder pigment to her nose. "I'm not trying to make it look bigger. I'm not trying to make it look smaller ... I'm just trying to show people what I got."

When I get past reticence to advertise my company's services, to realistically say "I am one of the world's experts on [thing]," I too am just trying to show people what I've got. I remember N.K. Jemisin's articulation, for fiction writers:

...care better. I think the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic valuation .... is a fundamental part of the transition from amateur to professional, perhaps even more than pay rates and book deals and awards and such. .... How do you know your judgment of yourself is sound? .... But for pro writers -- and I include aspiring pros along with established ones in this designation -- it's an absolutely necessary transition. Otherwise you spend all your time caring about the wrong things.

The incentives you can see, the appealing and obvious ones, will often try to make you care about the wrong things. This means that integrity comes with inherent discomfort -- but by demonstrating integrity in public you can reduce the difficulty others run into when following your path. We've only gotten to see Ocasio-Cortez's integrity in action for a few years of public service so far. I look forward to seeing who follows her path.


* I have a caveat for Knock Down The House; it seems like the filmmakers made some misleading choices in the sequence of scenes in the NY-14 primary race.

In particular: The film makes it seem like Crowley fails to show up for a candidate forum in the Bronx (instead sending Councilwoman Palma as a surrogate), and then, maybe weeks later, he calls the Ocasio-Cortez campaign and agrees to appear on a TV debate with her. The implication is that her growing popularity, and news attention to his surrogate gaffe, have possibly shamed or scared him into agreeing to a fresh debate.

But in actual fact, the TV debate was on June 15th, and the in-person debate that Crowley skipped was a few days later, on June 18th. Here's the order things happened in, as far as I can reconstruct**:

  1. [not sure when]: Crowley does not attend a debate; this is not shown or mentioned in the film, but here's a tweet about it
  2. May 17th: AOC shows up at a Crowley office to request a debate
  3. May 24th: agreement to a debate on NY1
  4. June 15th: NY1 televised debate
  5. June 18th: Crowley sends a surrogate to an in-person debate in the Bronx; we see this at some length in the film
  6. June 21st: a somewhat quickly organized additional in-person debate (which we see briefly in the film) at the Jackson Heights Jewish Community Center (since Crowley was the chair of Queens's Democratic organization, Ocasio-Cortez wrote: "Not a single local Dem club would host a primary debate (my opponent is their Chairman). These organizers took it upon themselves to host their own."
  7. June 26th: Election Day

This is particularly difficult to reconcile with a bit of audio the filmmaker uses, where Ocasio-Cortez wryly says (just after we are shown footage of a Pride event from June 17th) that Crowley didn't show up to a 100-person event, but now wants to debate her on NY1.

The way I can sort of square the circle is if the filmmakers are using audio recorded before June 15th, and the skipped debate Ocasio-Cortez is referring to is the first debate that Crowley skipped (and which the filmmakers have no footage of).

In any case, the filmmakers are compressing and reordering stuff to strongly imply a particular narrative that is not congruent with the chronological record, and once I come across a discrepancy like this I gotta wonder what else in the film I should question.


** Twitter's advanced search options are helpful here, especially daterange search. Here's a search to get all of Ocasio-Cortez's tweets between May 1st and May 31st of 2018.

As long as I'm talking about the research I ended up doing for this post: Reddit user lpetrich seems to be a solid contributor to the world of AOC fandom. Thank you for your posts, lpetrich!


*** When and how did she choose to run? There's a little confusion on this point. In college she took an interest in politics as an intern for Senator Kennedy but then, as she put it, switched to more work that would have a more direct impact. She never thought she would get back into politics or policy again. So, what's the sequence of her brother nominating her to Brand New Congress, BNC's six-month vetting process, and her deciding to take that nomination? Did she hear from BNC before her road trip, or after?


: Ashwatthama (The Elephant): I read the comic book version of the Mahabharata as a kid (thank you, Amar Chitra Katha!) and many of its stories stayed with me. As I recollected in a newspaper column in 2005:

Yudhisthira is an incredibly virtuous man, and is in fact the son of the god of dharma (righteousness and duty).

Yudhisthira has never spoken a lie. The gods so smile upon him that his chariot floats an inch above the ground, never touching the dust.

But, as the days of war drag on, he knows that he must get a psychological edge on his opponent. So Yudhisthira has an elephant bought and named Ashwattama, the name of his opponent's beloved son. Yudhisthira has the elephant killed so that he can honestly say, with his opponent listening, "Ashwattama is dead."

As planned, this breaks the other warrior's heart, and he recedes from the battle.

But because he lied, Yudhisthira's chariot falls upon the ground, never to float again.

In the comic book version (Issue 36, "The Battle At Midnight", page 29):

battle scene, text in accompanying post

So now, he replied: "Ashwatthama is dead." Adding in an inaudible aside -- "Ashwatthama the elephant." As soon as the lie was uttered Yudhisthira's chariot touched the ground.* [We see Yudhisthira standing in a chariot in the background, and Drona in the foreground, visibly overcome.]

Hearing the news from Yudhisthira, Drona fainted. Dhrishtadyumna rushed toward him. When Drona gained consciousness, he could not gain his earlier strength. Yet he killed Dhrishtadyumna's horses. [We see him take aim at some horses with his bow and arrow.]


* Because of his righteous conduct Yudhisthira's chariot was always four fingers' breadth above the ground.

It surprised me to see this, going back to the comic, because I honestly remembered the speech bubble looking like:

ASHWATTHAMA the elephant IS DEAD.

Anyway, now you know one particular reason why Four Seasons Total Landscaping reverberates inside my being like a perfect joke outside of time.

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Leonard and Sumana's personal notebook
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20 Minute Croissant Dough | Edd Kimber | The Boy Who Bakes: Genious?

http://www.geoguessr.com?v=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%3D: Champions!

http://www.geoguessr.com?v=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: If it's in Botswana, we're gonna find it.

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John Chadwick's weblog

[Comments] (1) Being an example of the believers (Timothy): I taught SS Lesson 41 the other week, which covers a lot of stuff (they all do), but I chose to focus on what it means to be a believer. Literally every time I sat down to prepare for this lesson, I ended up on a Mormon blog to re-hash recent events. It became a real distraction. I finally began to discipline and focus myself about two days before it was time to give my lesson. I was literally a wreck; I had no direction for this discussion.

Then I had an idea. On the chalkboard that Sunday, I wrote four names on the board: Nephi, Laman, Moses, and Emma Smith. The names of four believers, two brothers from the Book of Mormon, the Old Testament prophet responsible for re-establishing Judaism and Israel after the Egyptian captivity, and the wife of the first modern day prophet of the LDS church.

Under each name we listed their attributes. Then we had to collectively agree on one word that best fit each person: Nephi was recognized for his valiance; Laman for his worldliness; Moses as a lawgiver; Emma for her longsuffering. We then discussed that under the umbrella of attributes assigned to the term "believer" is the individual brands that follow. So the question becomes, what will be our individual brand as a believer? Will it be attributable to the Word of Wisdom, will we choose to be known for keeping a set of laws, or will it be for our zeal, or love, our compassion, etc? None of these is right or wrong per se, though there may be an individual answer that is better for us. The takeaway: play to your strength as a believer, and use your brand to make the world a better place.

This exercise literally lasted the entire length of the class, about 30 minutes (we were cut short due to the overrun of the Primary Program that day). I walked away feeling much better about life, and am particularly looking forward to my lesson next Sunday on the Epistle of Peter. Should it be successful, perhaps I will post more.

The manual, I might add, contained none of this, which is what I love. The prophet sets the curriculum, but I get to wrestle with the Spirit on the who, what why, and how (when and where are also outside my jurisdiction). It's been a great blessing in my life to study the material and try and direct the material in a direction that can be beneficial to many, including myself. I'm grateful for this calling.

[Comments] (4) Why I stay: It's probably safe to assume no one reads this blog anymore, because I don't post very often. I normally find Instagram to be my safe place, because who doesn't love pictures of food, cats, cool scenery, and the like, without the vagueness, fighting, and incorrect doctrine that is Facebook?

But today something happened, and I feel like talking about it. Perhaps this is the perfect outlet; I get to say it, and no one will read it, and thus no one gets offended (again, a huge perk of not being on Facebook).

My Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has added to its handbook a new category of apostasy: same sex marriage. Now children living in SSM families cannot be baptized until they are 18, and until they disavow the sins of their parents. While the former makes me wonder, and the latter makes me curious (the who, what, when, where, why and how of the disavowal intrigues me), on the whole I've added one more reason to my list of why the Church just plain no longer works for me.

That being said, I stay. Don't get me wrong. I've often thought about leaving, if for no other reason than to make a point. The point being: you are wrong, and I therefore shun you. But really, that's a silly way to make a point. The Church continues without me, and I lose a part of me in the process.

So I stay. I stay because, despite this policy (the same policy exists for children from polygamous families by the way), despite the PR embarrassment we call Prop 8, despite the fact that we oust those that question things, despite the fact that Republicans=Mormonism, despite the fact that no one can give a good answer for why women cannot hold the Priesthood, despite the fact that I never knew until July that Joseph Smith married a 14 year old girl and translated the book of Mormon with a brown stone inside a hat, despite the lame attempts to explain the Priesthood ban as anything other than the flaws of good men, this is my home.

I currently have the calling of Gospel Doctrine teacher. Which means, during the 180 minute church block, I am effectively in charge for 40 minutes of that time, roughly 25%. I have spent the last year, during our study of the New Testament, to use this time to achieve the following: (1) Focus more on Christ and less on silly things that often takes up valuable church space, including missionary guilt, defending the family (whatever that means; no one wants to abolish families), and pornography for the 5,000th time; (2) Challenge the class to read the scriptures with fresh eyes, to see things they never saw before, even though they've read the stories since they were children; (3) Contribute to a class environment where their voice can be heard (ie, I'm a facilitator, not a lecturer); (4) Help us feel the Holy Ghost in class, and follow its promptings to be better people the next six days.

I personally believe I fail at this more than I succeed. But the fact is, I currently have the opportunity/responsibility to be the change I want to see in the church. And that is way more powerful than walking away and being forgotten within a week.

I also stay because I don't have all the answers. So while I currently am at odds on probably 20 or so doctrinal and/or procedural aspects of the church, I recognize that I could be wrong. And until I receive my own personal revelation on these matters (something I'm working on, but for personal reasons seems to take time for me), I just can't write it off. The truth is, despite these obstacles, the church has been good to me. I've learned inside this church the joy of giving, the humility of receiving, to wonder and awe at the notion of sin, forgiveness, and the atonement, and to find purpose in mortality. And while I know I could have learned these elsewhere, I learned them here.

So I'm sticking with my Church. Because I believe I have a part to play. I can show people by the way I live my life that the Church tent is big enough for all, that the Church is not threatened when people bring their questions or their baggage along for the ride, and that the Church can still be a safe place where compassion is the rule and not the exception. So I stay.

test: test

the 'Go-to': Everyone has a go-to phrase, something they say when they don't know what to say. For Mary Poppins, it was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, for example.

For Dalton, it's 'you're funny!'

He seriously says it to adults when they say something to him and he's not quite sure how to respond. It normally gets a laugh in response, so perhaps HE is the funny one....

[Comments] (2) a funny thing happened on the way to the playground: Kids these days:

Maggie: I got invited to Ronan's birthday! Susie/John: Who's Ronan? Maggie: A boy from school. Susie/John: Are you friends with Ronan? Maggie: No, but he invited me, I think, because I'm a good example at school and he wants to say thank you. (Editor's note: Doubtful this is true, but glad my daughter has a pure heart).

John: I'm going for a walk. Maggie, want to ride your scooter? Maggie: No, I'll just walk with you dad. John: But it's going to be a long walk. Are you sure? Maggie: Yes. If I ride my scooter, I can't talk to you about things.

Dalton: Dad, I'm tired of being the cutest. I do NOT want to be the cutest anymore. (Editor's Note: Sienna is now the cutest and Dalton is the happiest).

Legoland is a pain because Sienna can't go on anything. Unlike Disneyland, the king of all amusement parks. The kids fight in line about who gets to take their turn with me. I may not have been cool at school, but I'm officially the favorite dad in this house!

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Rachel Richardson's weblog

I really need to check my job at the door: ...of the bookstore. The other day in Foyles I had to physically restrain myself from re-organizing some Beast Quests that were in the wrong order. Tonight in Waterstones I found myself recommending The Sky is Everywhere to someone looking for a gift for a 15 year old. What can I say? 3 years in a bookstore and old habits die hard.

Overheard in Stoke Newington:
1:"The only good thing about David Cameron"
2&3 in unison: "There's nothing good about David Cameron."
1"...is his taste in music."

Whigs and Tories: I went to a "mustache and wig" party as a Lib Dem supporter, but no one got it.

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My Seussical Life

Backward Thinking: When planning a Redbox return, I felt a fleeting anxiety that I had not hit "rewind" on my movie. That was a strange throw-back.

[Comments] (3) On that note. . .: I'm back to the blog and intend to update more steadily than in the last five years. Among other reasons, I stopped blogging because I was overwhelmed by how popular blogging had suddenly become. Does anyone else get overwhelmed by the thought of an internet audience beyond a handful of family members and close friends? I like to be a bit more off the radar, I guess. But I'm back.

Dear Mr. Fellowes:: Is this Masterpiece Theatre or soap opera disguised in period dress? Downton Abbey, how you frustrate me!

First Sweat of Spring: I did some impromptu weeding of the garden today. Actually, first I locked myself out of the house and then dug around in the dirt while I waited for the locksmith to arrive.

[Comments] (1) Ratings: "Do I make the best guacamole in the world, Mom?" Atticus asks.

"You definitely make fabulous guacamole." I assure.

"Well. . . I am for sure in the top three."

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Obituary: Here is the link to Mom's obituary, printed in the Bakersfield Californian on Tuesday. The death date is wrong, it was actually May 5, 2006

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Jill Whitney's weblog

Funny things: I heard today...

"There are nice ones and naughty ones like 'Hey lets make Icecream sundaes tonight' is nice, while 'Hey babe, I'll bring the nuts and chocolate syrup if you bring the cherry' is naughty."

"Can you believe I'm seventy and still wearing a g-string?"

"I'm going to choke on my ice!" "Don't worry, it should melt before you expire."

[Comments] (2) Museum of Ancient Life: Yesterday we went to the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving point. I don't care what your philosophy is on how or when or why dinosaurs etc, existed they are still cool to learn about. I hadn't been to the museum in years but it still was fascinating to walk around. Of course my favorite was t-Rex and the giant shark. I still remember years ago when all of my cousins were in town and we pretended to throw Lorna in the shark's mouth, I ducked from the caveman skeleton that was throwing a rock, and Frances posed with the archeologists because we were sure to be related!

[Comments] (14) Precepting: Newsflash... I get to precept this semester in the ER at Ogden Regional Hospital. I am so excited!!!

[Comments] (1) lazy: I have nothing much to report except that I am LAZY. I have always known this, but I realize that I really just pretty much do nothing most of the time. I guess it's becaus I have to be so efficent at work and school, that I can't do it at home. oh well.

Current Projects: -catching up on my scrapbook. Doing ok except I haven't started BB season and I just printed 200 new pics. Yes seriously at least 200. I have an addiction. -Finishing my recipe book. I am frusterated because I can't find my 34th ward RS cookbook and it has recipes I need. Otherwise it is looking awesome. -Cleaning my room. Not doing so well, let's be honest. -Laundry. Hate it, need to desperatly do it. and for the love it's FREE finally, why don't I just do it already!?! -petting the dogs and watching TV....very good at this.

Random thought: I went to the movies (finally saw Indiana Jones) and there was a poster that disturbed me... "No children under 6 allowed in rated-R movies after 6 p.m. Keep your child safe." ummm last time I checked children under 6 shouldn't go to rated-R movies period. Not to mention before 6 anyway...

New favorite quote: "All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another." -Anatole France

[Comments] (1) My new job: I love my new job a lot. It is a lot of fun actually. I am working as a nurse at the new Intermountain Medical (aka the Death Star or Mother ship), on the 12th floor. This building is SO tall, and the view is spectacular. I can't wait until I am a registered nurse and get to play with the IV's here, but I can do everything else as an LPN. Yay for the real world...it rocks!!

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Michelle Walch's weblog

[Comments] (3) School: So I am currently attending UVSC. I have had an ok experience and am ready to move on. Next semester I will be attending Blinn at Bryan, TX. I am very excited because I will be 2 hours away from my house instead of 22 hours!!! I am going to get a degree in early childhood education and am very pleased with my degree. I am currently reading a book that is called A Man's Search for Meaning written by Viktor E. Frankl. If you haven’t read this book, i suggest that you do! It has changed my way of looking at things. Take care Shell

[Comments] (1) School: So I am currently attending UVSC. I have had an ok experience and am ready to move on. Next semester I will be attending Blinn at Bryan, TX. I am very excited because I will be 2 hours away from my house instead of 22 hours!!! I am going to get a degree in early childhood education and am very pleased with my degree. I am currently ready a book that is called A Man's Search for Meaning written by Viktor E. Frankl. If you haven’t read this book, i suggest that you do! It has changed my way of looking at things. Take care Shell

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Our Family Recipes
New experiments and old favorites

() Cookie Cookie Cookie!: I was going to go to the library after Maggie's nap, but she didn't take a nap, and also it is snowing and really blowy. So, instead I made Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies. Cookies! If you have been blessed with one of mom's family recipe boxes, this is in there.

1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons flour
1 cup quick cooking oatmeal
2 T unsweetened cocoa
3/4 t. baking soda
3/4 cup butter
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 t. vanilla
16-ounce package chocolate chips
1/2 c. walnuts, chopped
Mix dry ingredients in a small bowl. Beat together sugars and butter in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla. Stir in flour mixture until well-blended. Fold in chocolate chips and nuts. Drop batter by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets. Bake for 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees. Let stand on sheets 3 minutes. Remove cookies to racks to cool.

Susie the Chef says: 16 ounces of chocolate chips is a ridiculous waste of money and chocolate chips. I put 1/4-1/3 that much. I also didn't put nuts. Even though the batter was pretty dry, I felt like the cookies had a lot of butter in them so I might use a few tablespoons less next time. Next time: yes, they were very yummy!

() Yummy in my Tummy: I've been trying out a lot of new crockpot recipes in an attempt to make feeding my family easier, faster, and yummier. Yesterday I put two chicken breasts and half a jar of spaghetti sauce (Ragu was only $1 at Smith's and I had a coupon - I haven't bought spaghetti sauce in years!) and let it cook on both settings for who-knows-how-long. I served it with whole wheat pasta and parmesan cheese and it was yummy. Probably the easiest meal I've ever made!

I also made an eclair cake at John's request. I made chocolate sauce from scratch because I only use it for eclair cake and I am out of money in my grocery budget this month. It was easy and super yummy. I couldn't find mom's recipe, so I 1/3-ed one I found online:

1/3 c. cocoa
1/2 c. water
1/2 c. sugar
Boil for 2-5 minutes.

PS: I uploaded some cute pictures of the bug to our picture blog - click on "Pictures" to the right. And read all my latest articles while you're at it!

() Taco Stack: I was a good wife and made dinner tonight. This isn't the recipe I kept the page for, but it was yummy!

1 lb ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1 can diced tomatoes
1 can tomato sauce
1/2 package taco seasoning
12 corn tortillas
shredded cheese

Brown ground beef with onion in skillet; drain fat. Add tomatoes, tomato sauce and taco seasoning. Place 1/4 c. meat in bottom of a 9x13 baking dish. Place two tortillas side by side on meat mixture. Top each tortilla with some meat mixture and shredded cheese. Repeat until each stack contains 6 tortillas layered with meat and cheese. Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes. Cut each stack into quarters. I served it with sour cream and green onions.

Also, Tasha inspired me to make babyfood so I bought a butternut squash, baked it, and pureed it in the blender with a bit of water. It is delicious! Maggie liked it too. I'm not sure it was any cheaper though. I will have to try some other recipes.

() Apple-Cheddar Soup: I made this earlier today and it is so yummy. I think I put too many potatoes, because it was kind of chunky.

1/2 c. finely chopped onion
1 T. butter
2 med. potatoes, diced
2 c. apple cider
1 t. fresh thyme
1/2 t. salt
dash cayenne pepper
1 med apple, peeled, coarsely chopped
1/2 c. milk
2 T. flour
4 oz (1 cup) shredded cheese
fresh apple slices

Cook onion in butter. Stir in potatoes, cider and seasonings. Boil. Simmer covered 15 minutes. Add apple. Simmer 5 minutes until potatoes are tender. combine milk and flour - stir into soup. Cook and stir until bubbly. Whisk in cheese until melted. Top serving dishes with apple slices and fresh ground pepper.

() Fondue for Two: Last night John and I celebrated our anniversary at The Melting Pot. Maggie got babysat by a couple in the ward with two little boys and had the best time.

We enjoyed our yummy fondue meal, but it was very expensive and now that we've done it I don't think we'll go back. We especially enjoyed the dessert fondue. The waiter told us how to make the cookie and/or graham cracker crumb covered marshmallows (just dip the marshmallows in water), so now we can just do that at home. We were thinking what a fun FHE activity that would be to do with young kids.

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[No comments] Maggie Draws: Maggie is really getting into her artistic side. She spends a lot of her free time drawing. She enjoys the Wings of Fire and Warriors (cats) book series and draws and creates characters from them. She’s taken a few live online drawing classes through Outschool. She asked for a drawing tablet for Christmas and has started doing some digital art. I’m very impressed with her work.

[No comments] Dalton Bikes: Lately, Dalton has been meeting up with friends after school and going for bike rides alll over town. This morning he and I biked over so he could show me a tree that he climbed - all the way to the top. It was pretty awesome. I gave him a lecture about stopping at stop signs and only crossing the street at crosswalks and we rode home. I love seeing my kids play outside.

Glitter on the Highway: Sienna to Arthur: it’s not that I don’t like Gibson. I love him. I’m going to marry him unless something else comes up.
She then started singing Achy Breaky Heart, followed by Love Shack, songs she apparently learned through Go Noodle.

Except. Sienna has been working with a speech therapist to overcome her pronunciation of the “sh” sound - it comes out “s.” So she was singing “Love Sac” over and over and I couldn’t stop laughing. Honestly, I don’t even hear her mispronunciations, but that one was loud and clear.

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Guests take over Crummy while Leonard is away

[Comments] (1) () The Eagle Has Landed: We made it. I'm writing this now via some neighbor's wireless.

[Comments] (13) () The Right To Bear Fardels: During a recent summit The Poor Man made some nonsensical remark denying that there's any humor in C.S. Lewis or Shakespeare. One of those half-drunk "contrarian = sophisticated" bits of bollocks.

In refutation, I've found my favorite (so far) joke in the Bard: Act III, Scene 2 of Hamlet, the bit about Guildenstern, Hamlet, and the pipe. Gertrude has sent Tweedlecrantz and Guildendee to check on why Hamlet Jr. is acting so crazay. Our goth protagonist asks Guildenstern to try playing a recorder.

GUILDENSTERN
I know no touch of it, my lord.

HAMLET
It is as easy as lying. Govern these ventages with your fingers and thumbs, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.

GUILDENSTERN
But these cannot I command to any utt'rance of harmony. I have not the skill.

HAMLET
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play'd upon than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.

In the four-hour Kenneth Branagh version this little rant is especially breathtaking.

() Geeks, Fire, and Dangerous Things: Seth and I were at Defcon in Las Vegas this weekend. Seth got our friend Praveen to bring Seth's giant Fresnel lens to the con when Praveen drove out on Saturday. The Fresnel lens is roughly 1 meter in diameter. On Sunday afternoon, as the con was winding down, we took the lens (wrapped in a black sheet for safety) out to a quiet back lot behind the convention hotel and, though the sky was overcast with a thin cloud layer so that we could not focus direct sunlight through the lens, we set some stuff on fire. Seth brought four pairs of welding goggles and two pairs of sunglasses for the group, plus safety gloves for whoever held the lens. It was about 102 degrees out, scorching hot even with the clouds, but before the heat drove me back indoors, I watched Seth and David Weekly burn a brown spot into the side of an aluminum can; turn a piece of wood to charcoal; set aflame and burn through a handful of dry grass; and light an onlooker's cigarette (placed on the ground, not in his mouth!). They also tried unsuccessfully to melt a penny and a quarter. I guess it's not as easy as I thought to burn through your money in Las Vegas.

[Comments] (1) () She's an ENIAC: From phone conversations today I gather that Leonard and Frances are visiting the American Computer Museum. In contrast, I'll be enjoying Will Franken's comedy shows tonight, whose most computer-related joke is probably his absurdist "voice command for file cabinet" bit. You can get a hint of that style in his "Show!" clip.

Note to local comics I saw in the back room of a pizza place last night: it is possible to do good spam and Match.com jokes. Please try harder.

() Mr. Joad's Wild Ride: Today Annalisa and I start our drive out west. On our first trip out, we lost a mirror in the middle of Nebraska at 80 mph, ran over a tumbleweed in Colorado, got our truck towed in LA because it was in 7th Heaven's shot, and almost rented Charles Manson's quaint Topanga getaway... here's hoping for a less exciting trip. Here's also hoping that I will be able to post while I'm on the road. California, here we come!

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The Weblog of Joe and Louise Walch

Gregg Easterbrook: The Man Who Defused the ‘Population Bomb’ - WSJ.com:

Gregg Easterbrook: The Man Who Defused the ‘Population Bomb’ - WSJ.com

Amazing story. I read about this back at BYU and still am amazed at this man's life and life's work. He wrote some interesting articles debunking neo-Malthusian histeria back in the 1970s and 80s. He's a real hero and an example of human selflessness that is rarely replicated. May he rest in peace.

Interesting quote:

Borlaug told me a decade ago that most Western environmentalists "have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists in wealthy nations were trying to deny them these things."

Epicurean Delights sans the Jail-time:

We tell our kids to "Just Say No" and yet we allow them to dump cup-fulls of this addictive white powder on their Cheerios.

Favorite quote:

Though difficult to estimate, sweet sensations evoked by sugar-sweetened foods and drinks are probably one of the most precocious, frequent and intense sensory pleasures of modern humans.

Have I been missing something?!?

Ideologyweek: News as Only We Wont to See.:

The mocking introduction “Let's try” of Newsweek’s “Our Mutual Joy” foreshadowed all one needed to know about the incredibly condescending treatment of religion by another ‘general interest’ magazine going through its death throes. In an attempt to shame (the true meaning of which, like ‘tolerance’ and ‘love’ has become unfashionably anachronistic) the vast majority of Americans who are Christian, The “living” Bible is deconstructed and vivisected to reveal the Christian’s folly. The article author asserts her moral authority in calling on Christians to strive toward ‘more just’ ideals over the ‘unserious’ drive towards “chaos, depravity, [and] indifference.”

Newsweek would have us believe that the homosexual activity practiced in days of yore condemned by Paul were nothing like the civilized and enlightened homosexual practices of today, and then insinuates that David and Jonathan were gay lovers. Perhaps things have changed; not the enlightenment of gay sex, but the corruption of true brotherly love that Paul commends to his followers.

The article then goes on to explain that the overarching theme of the Bible is acceptance, citing Jesus reaching out to the woman at the well. Nary a word about Jesus’s constant injunction to sin no more, or the real theme of the Bible which is to totally deny oneself in discipleship; not indulge in ‘needy’ relationships. The doctrine of the Bible is that because of the fall everybody has a predisposition to act contrary to our true nature of Justice and Holiness, but that we are to refuse such impulses; not embrace them.

Newsweek argues:

So the frustrating, semantic question remains: should gay people be married in the same, sacramental sense that straight people are? I would argue that they should. If we are all God's children, made in his likeness and image, then to deny access to any sacrament based on sexuality is exactly the same thing as denying it based on skin color—and no serious (or even semiserious) person would argue that.

Perhaps this last bit is what I find to be the most egregious error and beneath contempt. It blasphemously insinuates that God Himself just might be a homosexual and then equats the sexual impulse to skin color or gender. It is similar to the slave-trader’s assertion (to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson) that there are those who are born with saddles on their backs and others born with boots and spurs; except in this case, those born saddled are humanity and the booted master is the animal impulse. It totally rejects humanity’s agency and responsibility, and is totally antithetical to the Bible’s core message. A person who is born black cannot change that fact. A person who is born female or male will always have that identity etched on every cell of the person’s body regardless of the number of surgeries or hormone therapy. Sexuality, on the other hand, is a learned behavior which every civil society in history has regulated and restricted, and to ignore that basic fact of biology and history is not merely unserious, but dangerously stupid.

This shockingly arrogant treatment of the Bible by an author who probably has about as much knowledge of the Bible as an 18th century grammar student (or less) wends its way through blissfully ignorant aphorisms like:

Jesus does not want people to be lonely and sad,

and then quotes such luminaries like “Miss Manners” and “My friend the priest James Martin.” Of course, if one only wants to obstinately promote one’s own viewpoint, then there’s no need to include people who may not be one’s friends or even have the same opinions as oneself. This is evident in the article which never includes any divergent opinion or even the treats the reasoning behind Christian (or classical pagan for that matter) opposition to homosexual marriage as anything but a silly straw-man.

What is the true reason that the majority of people in over three dozen states have voted in free and fair elections to affirm marriage between a man and a woman? It’s not hatred of Gays, OR EVEN HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH GAYS. It is the fact (one that is lost on the post-modern left) that there are essential differences between men and women. Those differences are profound and reach the whole dynamic range of the human experience. Those differences are etched on every cell in the bodies of Men and Women. To paraphrase Sartre, there is no escape from gender differences between men and women. Men and women are intrinsically, essentially, and absolutely different. Society has an interest in guarding the procreation and sustainability of itself. In so doing, society has every right to ensure that the healthy and diverse influences of both male and female are included in the raising of children. Both genders play essential and important roles in the flourishing and procreation of humanity.

When looked at from this light, homosexual marriage advocates are actually arguing not for inclusion, but for exclusion since it is they who would gloss over the important gender differences that are essential for the raising of properly socialized human beings. Homosexual men simply cannot parent with ‘maternal flair’ no matter how hard they try or how many flower arrangement classes they attend. Furthermore, the homosexual relationship is, by definition, barren. It is wholly impossible for a new human being to be created except from genetic material from one man and one woman. It should be in society’s interest, if society is to persist, to ensure that there is pairing of the right kinds of people (male and female are the only possible option) sustain civilization.

This is why I found Newsweek’s chief editor, John Meacham’s comment so utterly oblivious to reality:

“Religious conservatives will say that the liberal media are once again seeking to impose their “agenda” on a God-fearing nation. Let the letters and e-mails come. History and demographics are on the side of those who favor inclusion over exclusion.”

Excuse me? History and demographics are on the side of those who favor inclusion over exclusion? Has the cavalier John Meacham (of whom I expect better as a historian) seen the fertility rates of San Francisco? Does he know anything about the demographics of the barren Blue Northeast vs. the Red Bible belt south? Quite the contrary to John Meacham’s facile dismissal of the (procreating) majority of Americans, it isn’t gay families who will see the explosion of influence and power in the world. He should look at the statistics: the most common name of babies born in Brussels: Mohammad, Toronto: Mohammad, Amsterdam: Mohammad, Paris: Mohammad, Sweden: Mohammad. What would America look like if it were Muslims instead of the dreaded Catholics controlling the Supreme Court? Does John Meacham really think that the world is demographically moving towards total acceptance of Gay Marriage? Perhaps he should check his statistics and hope it’s the Bible-thumpers or Mormons (who are the only ones approaching Muslims in fertility rates) whom demographics will favor.

And perhaps John Meacham should check on the demographics of Newsweek, which is nose-diving into oblivion.

“Sources say that the magazine is considering slashing up to 1.6 million copies from Newsweek’s current rate base of 2.6 million, which would put the magazine’s rate base at 1 million. Newsweek declined to comment.”

Resources: Natural Law and Homosexual Marriage

A Biblical Understanding of Marriage

National Review: Newsweek Comes out of the Closet

"That Wasn't Quite the Change We Envisioned":

Certainly Obama's recent appointments to his cabinet have been reassuring as I've outlined in my previous post, but some in the Left seem to be getting a little anxious. This story from Politico sheds some light on this subject.

Salient Quote, National Security:

Now Obama’s says that on his first day in office he will begin to “design a plan for a responsible drawdown,” as he told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. Obama has also filled his national security positions with supporters of the Iraq war: Sen. Hillary Clinton, who voted to authorize force in Iraq, as his secretary of state; and President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, continuing in the same role

Salient Quote, Economic Policy:

It’s that liberal Democrats say they’re hard-pressed to find one of their own on Obama’s team so far – particularly on the economic side, where people like Tim Geithner and Lawrence Summers are hardly viewed as pro-labor.

Good, Labor bosses have driven many of American Manufacturing jobs into the ground and resulted in poorer quality products.

I'll continue to look skepticaly at Obama, but for a Democrat who ran as Obama did during the campaign; so far so good.

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Spam As Folk Art
Weird and funny subject lines from spam we've received

2020

() Sentenced: The subject line on this one was ordinary - "Get the Most Out of the WiFi You Pay For" - but the content, aside from the spam links, was a genuinely engaging sequence of sentences:
She wondered what his eyes were saying beneath his mirrored sunglasses. They say that dogs are man's best friend, but this cat was setting out to sabotage that theory. Im working on a sweet potato farm. Grape jelly was leaking out the hole in the roof. The blinking lights of the antenna tower came into focus just as I heard a loud snap. It took him a while to realize that everything he decided not to change, he was actually choosing. Twin 4-month-olds slept in the shade of the palm tree while the mother tanned in the sun. She could hear him in the shower singing with a joy she hoped he'd retain after she delivered the news. Dan took the deep dive down the rabbit hole. She lived on Monkey Jungle Road and that seemed to explain all of her strangeness. Greetings from the real universe. They throw cabbage that turns your brain into emotional baggage. The fish dreamed of escaping the fishbowl and into the toilet where he saw his friend go. The best key lime pie is still up for

debate. Random words in front of other random words create a random sentence. It was a really good Monday for being a Saturday. The paintbrush was angry at the color the artist chose to use. In hopes of finding out the truth, he entered the one-room library. I caught my squirrel rustling through my gym bag. Carol drank the blood as if she were a vampire. He is no James Bond; his name is Roger Moore. The tattered work gloves speak of the many hours of hard labor he endured throughout his life. The beauty of the sunset was obscured by the industrial cranes. He wore the surgical mask in public not to keep from catching a virus, but to keep people away from him. The thick foliage and intertwined vines made the hike nearly impossible. Having no hair made him look even hairier. I am counting my calories, yet I really want dessert. It's much more difficult to play tennis with a bowling ball than it is to bowl with a tennis ball. He decided water-skiing on a frozen lake wasnt a goo

d idea. Shakespeare was a famous 17th-century diesel mechanic. As he looked out the window, he saw a clown walk by. He was sitting in a trash can with high street class. It's not possible to convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising it infinite bananas when they die. If you like tuna and tomato sauce- try combining the two. Its really not as bad as it sounds. It took him a month to finish the meal. Mary plays the piano. He would only survive if he kept the fire going and he could hear thunder in the distance. Today is the day I'll finally know what brick tastes like. If any cop asks you where you were, just say you were visiting Kansas. Weather is not trivial - it's especially important when you're standing in it.

Leonard suspects this is generated by GPT-3.

2016

() Yes: A spam today began:
yes, this is fudong machinery manufacture co., ltd a a professional and experienced supplier
I enjoy the prefix "yes," here. It reminds me of product placement in old-time radio ads, or of the way Stephen Colbert introduced the terrifying drugs from Prescott Pharmaceuticals in "Cheating Death with Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A."

2014

() Spamusement's Ten-Year Anniversary: Ten years ago today, Steven Frank posted the first Spamusement comic, illustrating real subject lines from spam emails with "poorly drawn cartoons". Leonard and I loved it, and to celebrate, here are a few of my favorites. (Spamusement had an unfortunate strain of sitcom-level sexism and fatphobia but there were plenty of strips free from such annoyances.)

I want to especially mention She cant possibly be enjoying this! which Leonard and I treasure to this day every time we ask for a to-go box for leftovers, and this assortment that I suspect of being a "Cow Tools" homage.

Anyway, Steven Frank, thanks for a fun strip.

() They don't make nonsense like they used to: A single morsel of old-school link-free "what are they even trying to do here" spam slipped through my filter last week, like a Queneau assembly of our glory days here at SAFA. Enjoy, and reflect, for do we not, each of us, parallel existing roads?

From: Mars failing before completing their missions, with some failing before they even began. <brendan@orcon.net.nz>
Subject: Madagascar and take on fresh provisions before proceeding onward toward their targets further north.

David Smith, an analyst at research firm Gartner.
Many steps parallel existing roads, but others exist on their own and are classified as city streets.
Hudswell Clarke saddle tank Tubby at Blunsdon. He died in Monrovia in 1935.

() Male Gaze: Ashley Madison spam keeps telling me I am guaranteed to sleep with a married woman. I am a married woman. I sleep with myself every night, and as such, Ms. Madison has nothing to offer me -- or, conversely, perhaps I have been using the site all along unwittingly!

I find that the Ashley Madison spam specifically bothers me, not just because it implies that I am thought of as a promise-breaker, but because it implies a new vice that I'm not used to seeing in my spam. I'm used to spam insinuating that I am greedy, obese, and libidinous, but not specifically adulterous. And the heteronormative and aimed-at-men "sleep with a married woman" spam actually bothers me less than the more equal-opportunity subject lines that aim to include me. The former I can laugh off as male gaze; the latter thinks I am nudgable.

2013

() Monster Breakout Day:
  • Hey alabaastley, 80% OFF. encountered Neologisms
    I really prefer mangled portmanteaus.
  • Be ready in the morning for my new Gold pick!
    I wish you wouldn't stay up all night playing Minecraft.
  • Augmentin is your canon aimed at any infection.
    No, sir!
  • Scare people with your tool today
    Join your village's angry mob.
  • Mr. kevandd, get super prices. death
    Those prices had better be pretty damn super.
  • Monster Breakout day starting off with Monster News.
    It was just a regular day in Monster Town.
  • Do not underestimate the value of free pills
    I'm going to guess... "zero".
  • This Company keeps climbing! You may want to read this!
    "Employee Guidelines for Parachute Allocation."
  • Feel like you're under a pile of bricks? We carry Xanax and Valium
    Also bricks.
  • This May Never Happen Again!
    Oh, I think it will.

2012

() Mockworthy Recruiting Spam: I feel the urge to complain about a particular kind of spam yet feel a little uncouth doing so on my main blog. So then I remembered: Spam As Folk Art! Hi, three people who still follow this feed.

If you were a tech recruiter seeking a project manager or community wrangler, I could see how I would pop up on your radar. I'm not interested -- I'm happy at the Wikimedia Foundation -- but at least I would understand.

But recruiters who think that I must be an engineer, because I've worked on GNOME and I have a GitHub account, make me laugh.

Case 1:

Subject: Hello from redacted name of big tech company!
From: redacted name native to South Asia
Hi Sumanah,

I hope you're well. I came across your profile in Gnome Outreach program.

I hope you're well. My name is redacted and I am a recruiter here at redacted.

I am writing to introduce myself and was wondering if you would be open to confidentially exploring engineering or management opportunities with redacted.

In the event that you're happily employed, but know of any engineers of your quality who may be on the market, please don't hesitate to pass along my contact information....

First: I will notice if you misspell my name. (And you have nearly no excuse, person with name native to the exact same part of India as mine!) Second: I can think of approximately 500 engineers of my "quality" who are on the job market, because I am not an engineer. Within GNOME I worked on marketing, GNOME Journal, documentation, bug triage, and project management.

Case 2:

Subject: Web Application Engineer
From: redacted name of recruiting firm
<p>Hi Sumana,</p>

<p>Are you interested in a new job opportunity? We checked out some of your git repos and we found a job opportunity that fits your skills. Twitter in San Francisco is hiring web application engineers.</p> ....

Yes, the <p> and </p> tags were in the original. Someone wasn't counting on people who read email in plain text. And my GitHub repo has exactly one item of interest (my update to someone's README file), and within Wikimedia's git repositories I've tested the system by adding some comments to an example extension. If that means that a web application engineer role at Twitter "fits my skills" then I am a tuna fish sandwich.

Bonus case:

Speaking of "wait, plaintext?":

Well hello there, and welcome to the latest Ticket Alternative newsletter!

You've opted to receive the text version which is really boring. You can't see any of the pretty pictures we've added or be wowed by the colorful design.

So, click the link at the top of this email to view the online version and we promise to make you smile....

Thanks for reminding me to unsubscribe from the "newsletter" for a service I only signed up for to buy one measly theater or concert ticket, Ticket Alternative! (Oh, and of course, there was no link to the online newsletter in the plaintext email.)
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Sumana Harihareswara's "MC Masala" newspaper columns, reposted
Drinking Problem: We always confused Plaza Lounge and Park Kafe. At least, Leonard did. Then again, he's the one who mixed up the J, K, and M streetcar lines in San Francisco when getting directions. Yes, they share the same terminal stops, but so do we, and that's no excuse for confusing me with Anderson Cooper. We all end in the ocean; we all start in the stream; we're all carried along by [email]@crummy.com. Whoops -- this is the start of the column, not the end. [More]
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Vitamin Talisman: "Let me tell you about raisins," the professor said, prompting chuckles and heckling in anticipation of a good line. [More]
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[Comments] (5) On death and dying: Nothing prepared me for the day one of my kids asked me why do people die?, so naturally when Lily asked me that question I was dumbstruck. We decided to buy the new Pixar movie Up. It came highly recommended by many people including Louise, who is a very tough critic. She rarely thinks anything is "really good" so I thought it really must be good.

Aaron popped it in for the kids. I was puttering around, getting things done, and still haven't seen it. It wasn't until the next day while Gunnar was napping, and Lily was watching it as I was doing the dishes. When all the sudden I heard this sad little voice and teary eyed girl peeking over the arm of the sofa almost begging me mommy, I don't want you to die. Why did Ellie have to die? When will she be back? I want Ellie to come back. I don't want you to leave. Why do people have to die? Where do people go when they die? I felt ill prepared to answer all these abstract questions in a way a 5 yr old would understand. All I could do was hug her and cry on each other's shoulder. I know it was wrong, but I promised her I wouldn't die, at least anytime soon. She was so sad and I wanted to reassure her and make her feel better.

Death is such a difficult topic and I think it is every child's worst nightmare. We talked about heaven and the resurrection and eternal families and I think we both felt better. It made me remember life is short and fragile and as a result I have not yelled at my kids as much this past week. I used to ask my mom what would you do if I died? And she would always say I would spank your little bottom. Death is something I struggle with and definitely don't want a lesson on it anytime soon. So the moral of the story is if you watch Up with your kids you might have to explain the mysteries of the universe with your kids.

[Comments] (5) for your eyes only: So last week, I tried to write a health care post about my health care of all things. A couple hours after I had posted it, my brain reflected on it and I just about died inside to think I just shared with the world my IUD problems. I quickly got to a computer and deleted it and spent the rest of the night feeling sheepish and wondering if anyone had already read my open book life.

Today, I will give it a go again, yet this time about Gunnar and with much less TMI. Gunnar's health care. My poor little baby Gunnar. I adore this little boy. I could eat him for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and still snack on him throughout the day. Gunnar is and will always be my baby. This little guy went in for his "6 month" ophthalmologist appt. He was actually a few months overdue for a proper one since the past two were right before the move and right after the move and weren't proper appointments at all. We finally got the full blown appt out of the way and have been given two official diagnoses. First, our suspicions are correct. Gunnar has intermittent exotropia. Basically, one eye wanders when he is tired or not on his A game or zoned out. He can have surgery to correct it, but it really isn't too bad yet and the Dr and I both agreed that it is something to look into when he is older like 6 or 7 when "kids start making fun of his eyes in school" as the Dr put it, since his condition is very mild right now. Kids are so mean! And they probably will make fun of him, so when he is older and if it gets worse we will look into that, but for now he is ok. Just ignore his wandering eyes if you speak with him face to face and he zones out.

Secondly, his nearsightedness is now a raging -6.50 in both eyes. A whole 1.25 higher than last dilation. He's legally blind, but with his glasses he has near perfect vision, and it is very correctable with surgery if he chooses to get lasik when he is older. All in all, it is nothing serious. He is a happy, healthy boy. Sometimes, as his mother, I wished my body had been able to make his body more perfect, but there my vanity goes thinking I am responsible for creating my beautiful children. They are Heavenly Father's children and he is just letting me borrow them to discover tremendous happiness, and just a touch of torture.

But, there it is. Gunnar's health update. He is turning 3 in exactly 2 weeks so I better get onto making his well baby check up. Then we shall see how much this boy has g r o w n!

[Comments] (2) Burr, it's cold in here: This is all quite new to me, the wearing jackets in Oct and not really letting up. In TX the year Gunnar was born, I was so excited to not have to be my largest in the summer. It may have well been summer because as I recall, it did not get cool until the day I left the hospital with him. Geez, thanks!

Oh sure you might need a zip up in the morning, but by 2:00 you were sweating. I literally NEVER EVER wore jeans from the months of May-Oct. For 6 months I wore shorts every day. Even in April and Nov, the jeans were worn intermittently. But for those 6 months I didn't even look at jeans.

Yesterday, to make more room in my closet, and because I have a large Rubbermaid labeled jeans and sweaters that needed to be unpacked (and still one in the garage), I gathered all my shorts that I haven't worn a single time in a month, and all Aaron's shorts and exchanged places in the Rubbermaid with the jeans and sweaters.

It's not that it has been too bad here, gorgeous weather actually, but if I am not dressed properly my toes and hands will be frozen by 4:00 on. In SA I remember wearing flip flops year round. If it was too cold to wear them, that's ok because I knew by the afternoon I would be fine. It goes like this in the winter-mornings and evenings it is cool. Midday is warm. For a week or two we could have a cold front and then it is chilly, but then it goes away and for 3 weeks you are left with "perfect winter weather" picnic weather if you will. And the cycle continues.

Now maybe I am a tad cold because we haven't turned our heater on past 66 degrees. Perhaps. We are trying to save money, electricity is a lot more here, and all I have to do to get comfortable again is vacuum. (Why does that job make you sweat even in the winter? You are just pushing the thing around.) OR my new favorite thing is what Aaron calls my Back To The Future vest. It is AWE--wait for it--SOME. I have it in a couple colors, and it's perfect. It keeps you cozy at the same time freeing your arms to do household chores without feeling constricted like sweat shirts or jackets do. Plus, Old Navy is having 50% off all their outerwear. (Ok, online they are not quite 50%, they are more like 30% off and they have half the color selection so go to the actual store.) Go and get you one, and if you have an Old Navy card like me, you can get it for another 30% off that making it only $14. It's that awesome.

Now I am looking for some rain boots, because every week it rains cold rain here ALL DAY LONG from anywhere between a day to 5 days straight. My feetsies get cold walking around with wet socks and tennis shoes. So if anyone one knows of awesome rain boots for cheap (you know me, it's gotta be a good deal) please let me know.

[Comments] (1) Brisk: During my early morning run today, the sweat from my hands came out on top of my gloves and then turned frosty. I could tell because I was wearing black gloves and it looked like they had been flocked a little bit. Pretty weird--I've never had this happen before. Yeah, it was cold!

There were four in the bed and the little one said: I love lazy Saturday mornings. I awoke to Gunnar's noise and decided I wasn't ready to get up for the day and that I wanted to see if Gunnar was old enough to snuggle in the morning. Lily is at the age where she will lay down for a couple minutes but I didn't know if Gunnar "got it" yet. I went and got him and brought him in the bed. He knows what snuggling is because at night he always asks for me to snuggle just a minute so when I told him that he went for it.

It's seriously one of my favorite things to do is on a Saturday morning when no one has to be anywhere, just to lay in bed and snuggle and play and laugh with the kid(s). Gunnar is the most affectionate little guy. He leaned over to Aaron sleeping and kissed his cheek and said "I love you daddy". He then snuggled into me and said "I love you mommy, you're my big boy". He calls me that because I go between saying "You're my baby" or more lately "You're my big boy" so now he calls me his big boy too. He knows the difference between boys and girls which makes it that much funnier to hear him say it.

Gunnar leaned over and was pointing to my eyes and said "eww, what's that brown stuff?" I had a little smudged eye liner on from the night before that didn't wash off and he goes "that's disgusting." lol little noodge. Lily woke up finally and came in. Then I got to really snuggle-this girl knows how to spoon. It was the complete family, all four of us in the bed spending time together. It was a great way to start off the day.

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