Sunday, May 29, 2011

SIWIK@16: Loneliness

Hey, it's me, your older, more experienced self, sending advice back through the years. It's actually been a while since I wrote that last note -- over four months by my calendar -- but knowing that you're going to read all of these between the summer of 1983 and the late spring of 1984 makes it hard to feel a sense of urgency with these things. Sorry about that.

You may remember me writing this in that previous note:

Next up, the bad news. These hot chicks are not all desperately looking to have sex, and they're certainly not all looking to have sex with you.

I'd intended this as a friendly reminder that having sex isn't the be-all and end-all of every friendship or relationship you're going to have with a woman, especially if she's attractive. However, I now realize that there's something I should have mentioned in the context of 'not every hot chick is going to want to have sex with you'.

'Not every', in this context, means 'none'. And it's mainly your own fault. There are three things specifically working against you:

1. You're heavy. Well, 'heavy' is putting it lightly. You're huge.

This is a problem, because you're living in a society that considers obesity to be unattractive. It's a bigger problem, because, despite how much you may decry the 'shallowness' of women who can't look past your weight, you feel exactly the same way -- not one of the women you're going to end up pining for over the next 25 years of your life is remotely as huge as you are. Why should you be surprised that the women you're attracted to don't find your weight attractive when a big part of the reason you find them attractive is that they're shaped like normal people?

And yes, I know you have a ready-made reason for why you don't want to lose the weight "just to get a girlfriend" -- that you'd eventually gain the weight back and lose the girlfriend because you weren't the guy she fell in love with, despite that being the guy you are. Very admirable of you, but it's not going to make you any more attractive.

2. You occasionally give off unpleasant odors.

Yes, I know it's not always easy for a huge guy to daintily clean every part of himself. And yes, I know that sometimes the food you eat comes back to haunt you in embarrassingly smelly ways. But remember that girl in gym class you thought was attractive, until you noticed the distinct odor of feces every time you spent more than a few minutes around her? That was pretty off-putting, don't you think?

You're going to go through long stretches of time like this, and your friends aren't going to be of any help, because you don't smell like this all the time, and they'll think it's impolite to point it out when you do. And you're not going to notice it yourself most of the time, because it's amazing what you can get used to when you're around it all the time.

I'm not just talking about poo, either. You're actually going to be kicked out of a dentist's office at some point in the future because your breath is so bad that she can't stomach working over the cesspit of your open mouth. So there's that.

But both of these are really just symptoms of the bigger point...

3. You don't care to take care of yourself.

You know how your mom nags you all the time to clean your room? You know how you feel that, once you're out on your own, you're finally going to get away from that damned nagging?

Trust me, she actually means well.

You're not going to want to bring anyone over to any of your living spaces, because they're disaster areas. Sure, you'll tell yourself that they could be worse, that you at least don't have rotting food lying around, but that's just because of your odd childhood being friends with someone living in a house that, the moment his family moved out, was condemned as a health hazard. That's not the benchmark you're trying to beat here.

Of course, though you realize you're embarrassed to bring anyone over to your place, you're not embarrassed enough to actually keep it in order, any more than you'll keep yourself in any more order than strictly required.

And that's going to make you a very lonely person.

You'll have friends, plenty of them, and good ones too. It's just that, after you've lived with them, they won't quite be as excited about your friendship as they were.

It's also not going to be surprising when you get out of town and finally find yourself having girlfriends, because when you're away from this 'comfort zone', you'll find yourself making more of an effort, knowing that you have to work a bit harder to 'fit in'. I'm not sure how to get you out of that 'comfort zone' on a regular basis, but if you can find a way, your adulthood is going to be a lot less lonely.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Snuggie and the Web Calendar

Long ago, there was a county where people lived and grew food.

The wealthiest family in the county grew apples, and they were acclaimed to be the best apples available at any price. Other families grew other crops, like corn or beans, and they weren't as wealthy as the family that grew apples, but that was OK because everyone had enough.

Then, one winter, as some of the poorer families were meeting to drink and pass the time, the eldest son of one of those families observed, "You know, apples are a very profitable crop. I don't see why we can't all grow apples, and then we'll all be wealthy!" The others nodded in agreement, and went home to tell their families, and word spread like wildfire.

That spring, all the other families in the county plowed under their fields and threw out their seed, planting apple trees instead. At harvest-time, the square was filled with families selling their newly-grown apples.

Two months after the harvest, everyone was dead. From apple poisoning, most likely.

The story doesn't begin with Jonathan Coulton, but he's the guy you're most likely to recognize, so we lead with him. Earlier today, Coulton posted an essay to his weblog; a rambling, largely thoughtful musing on a couple of 'money guys' who seemed to think that Coulton was largely a fluke and that his success as a musician -- enough to earn a living doing nothing but his chosen trade -- probably wasn't a 'viable business model'.

On the one hand, I think the so-called money guys had at least one reasonable point: if you're planning to go into business for yourself, and your business model is "I'm going to be Jonathan Coulton," then you're probably not going to make it. After all, there's already someone in the market with much more expertise and experience at being Jonathan Coulton that you have, so you can't help but fail to measure up.

On the other hand, Coulton pretty much makes the same point in writing, "'Writing a song that gets discovered on Slashdot' is not a business model, any more than 'putting sleeves on a blanket' is a business model." Which pretty much seems like it should be common sense, but apparently requires some re-iteration. (More on this later.)

It's what Coulton wrote next that got me thinking:

I make songs that are good and then I sell them (and concert tickets, and Tshirts) to the people who want them – that’s my business model, and it’s patently obvious that it’s replicable because I stole it from every other recording artist in the world.

The first thing that struck me was that Coulton's making a value judgment that's not really necessary, in the sense that he's saying that his songs sell because they're 'good'. I'm not here to argue with Coulton; he's entitled to his belief, and I'm sure he puts a lot of work into his music, and his fans would almost certainly share his opinion. No, my point is just that something doesn't necessarily have to be 'good' to be salable. (If you don't believe me, feel free to browse whatever week on the Billboard charts you'd like for the past few decades. I'm sure you can find something to criticize.)

The point is not that Coulton's songs are (or are not) good; people like them. Considering how much music Coulton has given away, I'd argue that people liking his songs isn't really the point, either, since what he seems to be selling most is entrance into a lifestyle decision -- one where being a nerd is awesome and flying one's freak-flag is celebrated. Consider, Coulton is also currently organizing his second cruise -- this is a guy who can sell out cruise ships, which arguably isn't totally about the music (though in his essay Coulton says he rarely tours or does concerts any more), but about being able to say that one was on a cruise ship with Jonathan Coulton.

Coulton has found an audience that identifies with him and is willing to pay for the privilege of showing their sense of identification. Before we go on, let me say that there's absolutely nothing wrong with this whatsoever; Coulton has every right to make a living based on people wanting to identify with him. But we should make it clear that, insofar as there's any 'business model' here, that's the real business model.

Coulton drops a lot of names that are arguably as famous or more famous than his, but the trick works for people less famous, too. My best example: Lojo Russo, who started out playing for "hippies at ren faires" (to borrow Coulton's phrase), and whose closest brush with fame is probably being turned down for the Minneapolis Lilith Fair in 2010 despite winning the fan vote.

You don't even have to restrict yourself to music: there are any number of authors, both of fiction and non-fiction, who've cultivated small yet devoted fan-bases and seem to be able to earn a living catering to those fan-bases. Supernatural teen romance is the hot topic of the day, but it works in sports as well, where Rob Neyer turned a gig as Bill James's research assistant into book deals and a long-running engagement as one of ESPN's best commentors. Heck, for that matter we could even mention my personal nemesis, Aaron Gleeman.

So the business model works even if it doesn't make you internet-famous. Or, well, it works for some.

The thing this reminded me of, and the main reason it got me thinking, was an internet argument from a couple of months back. Coulton himself is saying that the business model works, but he's not advocating that everybody go ahead and try it. The argument started when somebody did.

Justin Vincent, a self-described 'solopreneur', posted an essay on his own blog called "Entreporn, The Fallacy That Wastes Your Life". He's reacting to a venture capitalist referring to so-called 'lifestyle' businesses as "dipshit companies", which is to say, the venture capitalist is uninterested in investing in such businesses. However, in reacting to the unnamed VC's derision, Vincent swings too far into hyperbole:

The absolute truth is that each and every one of us can build a business that can support us. We don’t need to build a million dollar business to survive. We just need a regular paycheck. Just like the paycheck that we already get working for someone else, except it’s a paycheck we pay ourselves.

If you build a micro business it means you’re your own boss, you make your own rules, you live life on your own terms.

If you genuinely have the spirit of an entrepreneur inside of you, it’s perfectly possible to build a $10k/month webapp business that can set you free.

But even better, once you have the knowledge that comes along with building a succesful (sic) $10k/month business, you also possess the exact same knowledge that it takes to build a $100k/month business.

Somebody decided to call bullshit on this idea:

As pg points out, the ideas that led to the businesses that have formed the infrastructure that enables web lifestyle businesses could not have, themselves, been lifestyle businesses. Someone has to think big, take risks, and deploy significant capital in the interest of a dramatically better world. If you don't want to be that person, great, but don't tell the risk-takers that they're "wasting their lives". Would you say the same to scientists who take big risks? Artists?

Boil it down, and the message is simply this: no, not everybody can succeed doing what you're talking about.

The specific avenue of attack chosen was to point out that somebody has to run a 'non-lifestyle' business to allow the folks who want to run 'lifestyle' business to have things like phone service and commercial-class internet connectivity. He could just as easily made a different point, in defense of the inevitable attack against his argument by someone who develops a web calendaring/time-tracking app, by pointing out that there are plenty of other online time-tracking tools out there. Plus there are plenty of OS-specific or hybrid-OS/web time-tracking and project management software packages out there.

One web calendaring app or geeky folk-rock musician is interesting, two is even more interesting, and three can make a suite or a super-concert. Twenty, though? Fifty? Two hundred? At some point you're going to find the population self-organizing on a bell curve, and there's no guarantee that you're not going to find yourself either in the bulgy middle or at the stinky tail end.

But most cringingly, though, is that guys like Vincent and other 'bootstrappers' seem to believe that you can not only make this a working business model, but do so in a small timespan, along the lines of a three-to-five year business plan.

At first glance, looking at Coulton's career, you might actually buy into this, since it's been just over five years since that famous Slashdotting (of Coulton's song "Code Monkey"). Then consider that Coulton's first studio album actually came out in 2003, and that Coulton himself likely honed his craft in any number of unknown, anonymous exhibitions between that date and his Yale college days in the early 1990s.

There are almost certainly still fields where a dedicated practitioner, after years of seasoning, can stumble across a moment of greatness and ride it to, if not fame and fortune, then enough of each to live on. But I wouldn't bet on being able to follow in Jonathan Coulton's footsteps.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


In many role-playing games in which character creation is done on a point-buy system (Champions, GURPS, etc.), the games contain concepts called limitations and disadvantages (or something similar).

A limitation is generally applied to a character power or ability, and specifies a situation or condition in which the power isn't as effective as it usually is. (doesn't affect wooden items, damage reduced by range, etc.) A limitation can instead specify a drawback that occurs when the power or ability is used. (character takes damage equal to damage inflicted with power, etc.)

A disadvantage is generally applied to the character as a whole, and can run the gamut from the character taking extra damage from a particular attack form, being harmed by environments or substances that are normally harmless, having particular psychological quirks, having special physical requirements (a special diet, for instance), or even some genre-specific disadvantages, such as a secret identity in a superhero game.

The reason to take these game elements is that they provide cost-breaks or even free building points to add to your character. Having a power ring that doesn't affect the color yellow costs fewer character points than having one that isn't limited like that.

In every point-buy RPG I've ever played, there has been a rule that generally boils down to this: A limitation that isn't limiting, or a disadvantage that doesn't disadvantage the character, isn't worth any points. The best example I've seen is a character with a 'cosmic awareness' power that allows her to know pretty much everything about whatever she's concentrating on, and then tries to get building points back by taking the disadvantage 'Blind' -- if her cosmic awareness provides all the information that her sight would normally provide, then being blind really isn't limiting to the character, since she can just use cosmic awareness to get the information she'd normally get from her eyes.

However, there are some situations where a disadvantage or limitation seems limiting, but really isn't, based on the full suite of other abilities or powers the character has purchased. These kinds of situations can provoke arguments between players and GMs based on whether the character's limitation meets the criteria for the 'not limiting thus no points' rule.

To avoid these arguments, I've come up with a concept I call CITS (Character Individuality Too Severe); if a character has a disadvantage, but always seems to be able to use a power or ability to avoid the effects of the disadvantage whenever it's presented, I'll declare CITS on the character, reducing the point value of the disadvantage to zero, and consuming experience points (or whatever in-game currency is used for character improvement) until the amount of points gained from the disadvantage is 'paid off'. To avoid this ruling, the player must describe some situation or set of situations in which his powers and abilities would not be able to avoid the effects of his disadvantage. (In other words, the player has to explain to me, the GM, exactly how to trigger his disadvantage.)

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Steve Trevor Paradox

Stories about time travel frequently mention, and are sometimes focused on, the most famous of all time-travel paradoxes, the Grandfather Paradox:

Say you were able to go back in time, and in doing so, caused your grandfather to die before meeting your grandmother and giving birth to one of your parents. You create a paradox in which, since one of your parents isn't born, you can't exist to go back in time to kill your grandfather, but if you don't exist to kill your grandfather, nothing stops him from meeting your grandmother and giving birth to your parent which means you do exist to go back into time...

Pretty mind-bendy, eh? Well, after watching the animated Justice League season one ending episode, The Savage Time, I've found a different, somewhat less mind-bendy paradox.

I should start by saying that the DC Animated continuity of the Justice League and its characters is fairly different than the continuity of all other appearances of the DC Comics characters depicted. In both the original Wonder Woman comic book as well as the 1970's television series, Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor worked together against their mutual enemies. In the Justice League animated series, however, the princess Diana of Themiscyra takes up the Wonder Woman regalia and departs for 'man's world' in the initial episode, Secret Origins. The Wonder Woman of this story universe doesn't meet Steve Trevor until traveling back in time to attempt to undo a change that allows the Nazis to win World War II. (No superhero team's story arc is complete until they've visited Nazi World, after all.)

So the Justice League goes back in time, helps defeat the Nazis, and returns to the present. The episode (and the first season) ends with Diana going to a veterans' home to see Steve Trevor.

How does Steve Trevor respond? That's the crux of the paradox.

To Wonder Woman, almost no time has passed since meeting Steve Trevor as a dashing ex-spy in the past and seeing him again in the veterans' home in the present. To Trevor, however, decades have gone by, most of which didn't include a Wonder Woman at all. Here would appear to be the options:

a) Either Trevor remembers Wonder Woman enough to recognize her when she first appears as part of the events of Secret Origins and helps found the Justice League, in which case he might legitimately wonder why she didn't visit sooner, or

b) Trevor doesn't remember Wonder Woman ever existing until the moment she returns from the past, in which case it makes perfect sense.

The former isn't such a big problem. The latter, however, is. If Wonder Woman's changing of the past back to its original shape erases her existence prior to her return from the past, then the world she's returning to isn't the same as the one she left -- for starters, where does she come from now, since no one on Themiscyra will remember her?

What about previous Justice League episodes, where the League was only successful because of her presence (as in Secret Origins)? Or other episodes where the League only learns what's going on because of Wonder Woman's actions (as in Paradise Lost)?

Of course, it's not a paradox if version a of events above is true. But in that case, why is Trevor so happy to see Diana?