Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

16 Nov 2023, 11:15 a.m.

In Retrospect, Surprised We Didn't Notice The Adjacent "Mostly Harmless" Joke Available

Leonard and I frequently play edutainment webgames, and thus we're slowly getting better at various realms of human knowledge. Recently we've added a few new games to the rotation. Metaflora has clarified for us how little botany we know, and Birdle is a daily reminder that there are SO MANY DIFFERENT BIRDS. We read the Cornell University "All About Birds" page for each day's bird and thus learn, for instance,

Ghostly pale and normally strictly nocturnal, Barn Owls are silent predators of the night world. Lanky, with a whitish face, chest, and belly, and buffy upperparts, this owl roosts in hidden, quiet places during the day. By night, they hunt on buoyant wingbeats in open fields and meadows. You can find them by listening for their eerie, raspy calls, quite unlike the hoots of other owls.

Replace "predators" with "inhabitants" and "open fields and meadows" with "the Fediverse" yeah, I know like eight of that guy.

If we play a geography game like Globle, sometimes we go check out that country's page on English Wikivoyage (example). Wikivoyage is the Wikimedia-affiliated, freely licensed, openly editable travel guide, and the template for every location is:

  1. [Intro]
  2. Districts
  3. Understand
  4. Get in
  5. Get around
  6. See
  7. Do
  8. Work
  9. Buy
  10. Eat
  11. Drink
  12. Sleep
  13. Connect
  14. Stay safe
  15. Cope
  16. Go next

I am a sucker for the "stay safe" section and basically want to make a beeline for it every time. Yes, tell me about the scams, natural disasters, discrimination, and other gotchas specific to this region! The "sleep" section for particular cities or islands often includes brief, evocative reviews (as when one listing mentioned that the staff were "motivated," implying that other hotels' staffs are not). And we usually say "Cope" in a voice that implies the speaker is utterly at the end of their tether.

(Also I love that the basic phrasebook Wikivoyage produces for each language includes a translation of "it was a misunderstanding" or, as I have misremembered it, "This is all a big misunderstanding!!")

Leonard has noticed a pattern that we especially find in the ""Understand/Get around/Buy/Stay safe" sections. In "Understand" we learn that the people of this country are generally curious about and hospitable to foreigners, regardless of their government's attitudes. In "Get around" the writers warn us about local driving conditions, usually indicating that traffic is chaotic and drivers don't follow the law, and explain how to use local transit, suggesting we ask locals for directions because they'll be very friendly and helpful. In "Buy" and "Stay safe" writers caution us not to get scammed by street sellers and tourist-trap bazaars. We've found very few exceptions to these three themes, so Leonard's decided that this seems to hold true nearly worldwide: "people are friendly/they drive like maniacs/watch out for scammers."

There's a genre of short scifi, particularly published on Tumblr, that imagines how aliens would view ordinary humans - what would they find remarkable about us? (Examples, example.) Leonard asked me the other day: don't you think this is what they'd think of us? Don't you think this is the reputation we'd get with them? Friendly con artists who drive unsafely and too fast.

Which does give me another lens through which to understand his science fiction.