South Park Self

Monday Wol generates spontaneously on cacti in stick-figure silhouette

I am loving the slow, whimsical randomness of the XKCD garden, which is still sitting in a tab on my Chrome, gently accreting to no fixed rhythm or timetable. Mine has had a cat on a goat for a while, and a rather pleasing shark-fin in the birdbath, not to mention platform octopi. Today it grew a wol. Every now and then I fiddle with its lighting in a desultory sort of fashion, but it's such slow-motion cause and effect, it hardly feels instrumental. I am still inexpressibly charmed by the whole thing.



My subject line is breaking the David Bowie resolution, because {Weekday} Wol has its own inexorable logic. Not even David Bowie is that surreal. Does it count that I was playing his cover of the Pixies' "Cactus" in the car this morning?
South Park Self

I want eagles in my daydreams, diamonds in my eyes

Class of 16 third-year students, and only two have seen the new Star Wars. The fuck? what's with the youth of today? the movie was huge and mainstream and seen by bazillions of people, but apparently senior Humanities students are not among them. I despair. Genre-shamed by my own students. Particularly because I'm trying to teach fanfic, and it transpires that I no longer have mainstream popular texts in common with my class. They grudgingly admit enough of a passing familiarity with Avengers or Sherlock that my burbling wasn't entirely opaque. I suppose it's not technically genre-shaming because they all watch Game of Thrones, but I refuse, basically on aesthetic grounds. I am unable to admire nasty people.

I am Disgruntled. Fortunately this amazing Tumblr conversation has just made me giggle outrageously for ten minutes, because Science! in the service of Dodginess is a lovesome thing, god wot. "I have no deeper explanation for why human females can dissolve rocks with our genitals. It simply is."

I am also in a horrible fatigue slump, and am perpetually exhausted, which is achieving new heights of horrible because I'm also insomniac like whoa and dammit, which means I stagger into bed, largely incapacitated with tired, at about 9pm and then stare at the ceiling for two hours. And when I sleep, apparently I hallucinate very small stained-glass knights with lances coming through the walls. Vividly. Contemplating firing my subconscious. Apart from anything else, it's giving rise, at extremely infrequent intervals, to particularly disjointed flow-of-consciousness blog posts.

(My subject line is Bowie's "Blackstar", from his last album, which is amazing and rapidly becoming one of my favourites. It is relevant only in the most lateral and tenuous of sleep-deprived fashions).
South Park Self

boys always work it out

oh god I can't believe it, the evil magic of Tumblr has ended up addicting me to an online webcomic about cute American college boys playing hockey. The American version of hockey, i.e. on ice. Ngozi's Check, Please! is weirdly poignant, bizarrely socially aware and basically adorable, mostly because Bitty (small cute gay Southern boy who bakes), and because of the locus of well-intentioned awkward anxiety that is Jack. The comic and fan responses to same have inexorably infected my Tumblr feed over the last couple of months. The fanfic is lovely. Of all the things I ever thought I'd find myself doing, enjoying web comics about cute American college boys playing hockey significantly doesn't make the list in any way at all.

As revenge, because it's my only defence against this sort of thing, I shall proceed to dissect it ruthlessly, and with maximum use of polysyllables. I think the thing appeals not just because it's well written and beautifully drawn, but because it self-consciously appropriates and subverts the classically heteronormative and traditionally ideologically ugly setting of the frat house. The male sports team/frat house is a homosocial space whose construction generally implies sexism, toxic masculinity, profanity and all-out grossness, but Ngozi's version of it is resolutely and redeemingly utopian. There's enough grossness and profanity to be vaguely realistic, but the stereotypes are lovingly deconstructed: homosociability is mutually supportive, socially aware, irreverent without being destructive. This reaches its apotheosis in Shitty, the team's Gender Studies wonk and part-time nudist, because apparently "Every hockey team should have a hipster who wears floral snapbacks and shouts about the ironies of male sexuality in the American collegiate Greek system while waiting in line for the pong table to free up." Characters rip into each other cheerfully, both on and off the ice, but the teasing is free of malice. Bitty's gay identity is open, and unquestioningly supported by the team; his endearing personality, which is approximately what you'd get if Tintin embraced the twink stereotype slightly more flamboyantly while more or less continuously baking pie, exists in beautiful relief against the far more macho vibe of the rest of the team.

Part of what Ngozi is doing here, I think, is to present as primary text something which has the sensibility of fan fiction straight off the bat; like slash fic, it posits male relationships in an idealised mode, one in which homoerotic elements, whether literal or subtextual, are celebrated rather than being denied, by the characters and setting as well as the writer. (The college setting is the fictional Samwell, presented as being the most queer-friendly campus in America.) The comic is thus inherently self-aware, existing in dialogue not only with its own raft of external texts (character Twitter feeds, the writer's blog with additional comics, headcanons and occasional character Q&As) but with the whole fanfic paradigm itself. Quite my favourite bit of the series is Johnson the existential goalie, who's a minor character whose hobbies include "breaking the fourth wall": anything he says is metacommentary on his own and the other characters' existences as comic book characters, and he cheerfully acknowledges his own purpose as a device for furthering various narrative arcs. The really good fanfic has him popping in to comment on the difference between his own characterisation in and out of canon. It makes my narrative-fondling toes curl in girly glee.

So, weird but true: I have to admit to enjoying web comics about cute American college boys playing hockey. Because life's odd like that. In a good way.
South Park Self

too old to lose it, too young to choose it



This just made me giggle for ten minutes straight, and quite made my Monday. British actors are the best, and who ever suspected Prince Charles of comic timing?

It is still the Year of Bowie Mourning, so my subject line is not, in fact, Hamlet. "Rock'n'roll suicide" is not, however, entirely thematically unrelated.
South Park Self

a saviour machine

This is a piece of fan-fiction that posits the Avengers taking over the American presidential election, and I love it very, very much. It's acute and funny, but it's also a beautifully-encapsulated demonstration of exactly what fanfic does. Superheroes are already about wish fulfilment, and most importantly about agency - they are a response to the increasing complexity and scale of our lives, in which our own agency is nil in the greater scheme of things. Superheroes are a projection of our desire to make a difference. So this fic externalises that desire and makes it literal by injecting that utopian notion of agency into one of the most obvious and hopeless examples of large-scale dysfunction in our current environment, namely the American political system. Fanfic does for narrative what superheroes do for social evil - it gives us control. It must be a horrible feeling of helplessness, to be American and to feel that there's no way to stop the obvious asinine stupidities of Trump rampaging bullheadedly over the American political landscape. I'd take a Tony Stark puppet government in a heartbeat. Clean energy in three years, socialised medicine in five. Fanfic and superheroes both have power because their ultimate engagement is not with reality, but with utopia.
South Park Self

grown inside a plastic box

For some reason the recent Garden XKCD won't load on my work computer, probably because complicated campus firewalls or something - you go to the page and all it gives you is a revolving tree silhouette with the word "LOADING" and a flashing ellipsis, with the mouseover "Relax." I thought that was the whole strip, and it was perfect - that's exactly what you do with a garden, relax and wait for everything to load.

Currently I am delighting in a random corner of my real-life container garden which is slowly and carefully loading three butternut squash plants, the result of me, in a fit of pique at having an entire tray of baby marrow seedlings eaten off at ground level by cutworm, madly planting 6 seeds from a butternut I happened to have for dinner one evening. I'm fairly useless at seeds, a 50% germination rate is bloody good by my standards, but as long as I can keep the neighbourhood tomcat from jumping on them in the course of his flee-the-garden escape route when I shout at him for stealing my cats' food and/or spraying in the passage, they seem to be doing well. In the meanwhile, the XKCD comic is growing things under lights on my home computer, although I cannot as yet persuade it to produce anything other than a row of identical boring trees. I love the way Randall Munroe's mind works, the controls for the lights are elegantly simple.

In a tangentially related note (technological replications of biological processes?), I give you Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group, because delightful. They solemnly and meticulously catalogue the taxonomical classifications of the little plastic widgets used to close bread bags.

In other news also not unentirely related to the unduly artificial mechanical replication of actual life processes, last night Machete Order brought us to re-watch Attack of the Clones. I had honestly forgotten (a) most of the movie, I clearly blanked it in sheer self-defence, and (b) how utterly terrible a film it is. Seriously: the plot sucks, the script blows, the dialogue is beyond lame and unnatural, the greenscreen is ungodly clunky, the "romance" "plot" is the unconvincing bumping together of two wooden effigies, one of them loutish, and the whole represents the utter triumph of overbudgeted CGI over reason, taste or the faintest replication of actual life. Unsurprisingly, given that it focuses on the CGI clashes of droids and clones rather than actual people, the whole thing can be summed up with "Newsflash: I don't care." Honestly, George, it takes a special level of anti-skill to make giant battles between droids, clones and Jedi knights actually boring.

We still have to endure Revenge of the Sith, although probably only when Jo gets back from AfricaBurns. Anyone know any good drinking games? I have time to train my liver up a bit...
South Park Self

cold tired fingers

Gawsh, this blog thing, I'd forgotten. It has been a Somewhat Medical couple of weeks, with the minor op for the Weird Finger Bump followed by a lurgi and a doozy of a glandular resurgence, which means I've been flattened and faintly choked for about ten days. Seriously, minor sinus/throat infection thingy and it feels as though a horde of inept vampires have been chewing on my neck, enthusiastically but without much actual skill. They are too fumbling to break the skin, but my current levels of flattenedness suggest they're draining blood by some sort of vampiric osmosis. I'm still somewhat exhausted, despite two full weeks featuring exactly two days of work. It really hasn't been an easy six months on campus, I think we're all feeling the tension.

On the upside, the Weird Finger Bump turns out to be a cartilage tumour, which is a benign/non-invasive thingy known technically as an enchondroma, which is a lovely word that bears repetition just for the monk-like chanting effect. Also, I'm associating it vaguely with camels, or possibly the inner wibbly bits of plant cells. I have a neat 3cm slash in my finger, which meekly dissolved its four stitches in a week and is otherwise inoffensive, although it was bloody and rather painful for the first week and large tracts of it were blue and yellow from bruising from the local. The hand, it transpires, is unduly full of nerve endings. On the upside this kind of tumour has a very low chance of recurrence. It has also been headed off at the pass from its purportedly characteristic party trick, which is to grow gently into the bone until it's exerting enough pressure to fracture it. Foiled! Foiled, I say!

I have, regrettably, been a complete and total hermit for the last two weeks, because exhaustion, and my apologies to all the lovely people I haven't seen much of. On the upside, I have played entirely through Knights of the Old Republic and about two thirds of the way through the sequel, which has contented the Star Wars jonesing more than somewhat, and has incidentally revealed the following:
  1. Narrative clearly trumps graphics any day, these are really old games with really clunky visuals, and I'm still absorbed. I have also recently played Bioshock 3 and Dishonoured, both of which are really pretty, and neither of which I have finished because bored and railroaded. Or, in the case of Dishonoured, undue up-front fridging.
  2. I am at a level of expertise with these games where I recognise the actors' voices (because Bioware really has recurring favourites they keep using from game to game) within about half a sentence. Since they have cunningly seeded the love interests with the voices of, respectively, Kaidan and Cullen, my two go-to romances from ME and DA, I'm basically doomed, romancing anyone else feels like infidelity. On the upside: Carth.
  3. Dear sweet whistling Chadra-Fan, but the plot of KOTOR2 is a hot mess. It really has too much plot, insufficiently controlled, and its quest structures bugged way beyond hell and gone. Not a quality construction, although productive of a certain player curiosity which propels one through the high levels of wtf in sheer curiosity as to how this whole insane edifice is ultimately going to shamble, clanking and groaning, to a conclusion. My prediction: bits will fall off.
  4. Lightsabers. LIGHTSABERS!!
South Park Self

the pills that I took made my fingers disappear

Occasionally I wonder if I actually, you know, have a brain, because possibly going in for an MRI (very minor, there's a weird bumpy thing on my finger that the specialist couldn't figure out) was not an intelligent thing to do only a week after discovering, courtesy of sports traffic, the exact parameters of my problem with being hemmed in. I'd thought it was crowds. Enclosed spaces have never really been an issue; I rather like caves. But when they put me on my face on the table with my hand strapped into a complicated box thing, and roll me into the MRI tube with strict instructions not to move, it turns out I have a small, perfectly formed panic attack. Weirdest feeling, lying there hyperventilating with my heart rate climbing and sweat breaking out all over my body, and my whole being consumed with the desperate, flailing urge to MOVE! at any cost, preferably to thrash and plunge and make a break for it. Flight or fight. It's very odd, knowing it's completely irrational and being completely unable to switch it off.

Fortunately, I am addicted beyond redemption to random link-following on Teh Internets, and a couple of weeks back it was something-or-other that mentioned, in passing, that flight-or-fight responses can be short-circuited if you focus on a breathing pattern where you breathe in for a shorter count than you breathe out. Which I read at the time with a certain degree of scepticism, thought "Huh. Probably woo." and promptly forgot about, until it was recalled by the desperate realisation that a quick sedation was in the offing unless I did something. And, huh. Turns out it's perfectly accurate. Breathe in for count of two, hold for count of one, breathe out for four. It was enough to manage the panic and gradually, over about fifteen minutes, bring it down to something perilously close to trance state, which was fortunate, because they kept me in that bloody thing for over an hour. Apparently fingers are merry hell to scan, small and fiddly and difficult to hold still; they ended up having to pump me full of dye to see what was going on. When I finally emerged I was slowed down and pleasantly calm to slightly stoner levels - in sharp contradistinction to all my muscles, which were in spasm from being motionless for so long.

MRIs sound incredibly Millenium-Falcon for the high-tech things they are - there's a great deal of banging and thumping and ticking and weird "whum-m-m" noises, and that bit where it mutters "muh-muh-muh-muh-muh" to itself very rapidly. They stick you in earplugs before shoving you into the innards, which is somewhat merciful, it's very loud. It's also very varied; an image seems to be built up as a composite, which entails scanning at varying degrees of current through the electromagnet, and it responds with a fair repertoire of noises. Possibly the most frustrating part was not being able to identify what exactly the machine was doing with each different noise it made. Generally I enjoy high-tech medical equipment, and will demand explanations of what's happening with a shameless mongoose interest, but you can't ask questions if you have to lie motionless and focus on your breathing so as not to freak out completely. "For Science!", I kept telling myself, but I'd prefer to know what Science.

It also makes very cool pictures with way better resolution than an x-ray, and reveals that I have a weird body which won't do things in any standard way. I have a lump, slowly growing larger, just above the middle knuckle joint on my middle right-hand finger. It's been there for years; it's briefly agonizing if I bump it, even lightly, and has started to ache randomly even when I don't. The MRI doctor was Baffled, Watson, Baffled! - he said it might be a "very complicated ganglion", which is a nerve cluster lumpy thing. Or a cyst, because it takes dye, which suggests there's fluid there, although it's also too hard for a cyst. The orthopaedic surgeon is concerned because it's grown large enough to start pressing into the bone, which will eventually weaken the bone and invite random breakages and things. He's hauling said Mysterious Lump out on Tuesday just to be safe, probably with an element of frustrated curiosity with which I completely empathise. Apparently I am scheduled for One Minor Op Per Year until further notice, and this is mine for 2016. At least it's interesting.
South Park Self

tiny, shining objects, glass, beads, dew-drops

One of the things I did while I was on leave was actually to watch some movies, in an attempt to reduce the reproachful, tottering Pile of Unwatched Doom. (Currently embarked upon Star Wars: Clone Wars, which is so far vaguely cool, although its Anakin may be unduly... chiselled.) Two of the actual movies were the most recent Studio Ghibli offerings, both of which were lovely in rather different ways.



Arrietty is based on Mary Norton's classic children's book The Borrowers, which I ended up re-reading before I watched the film. Lord, I'd forgotten how harsh and claustrophobic and threatening a story it can be - the world of tiny little people living in the corners of normal human existence is precarious and paranoid, and the books are rather despairing about human attitudes to things that are tiny and powerless and vulnerable to being categorised, diminishingly, as either "vermin" or "cute". The Studio Ghibli version is slightly less cruel, but the story still fits naturally with the usual Ghibli preoccupations with environmental destruction, and with the sense of a fragile species watching their specific niche eroded inexorably by unthinking humanity. That being said, the film is beautiful, particularly in its sense of nature, and in its visual fascination with the contrasts and whimsies inherent in very small people interacting with very large things. It manages to retain the spirit of the Norton ending while still providing a sense of uplift, which is quite a feat. I enjoyed it, but it also made me realise that "enjoy" isn't really a word I ever applied to the books, they're too uncomfortable.



The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is very much more folkloric, and I've added it to my considerable list of fairy-tale things I should probably write papers on. Unlike Arrietty, which has a very standard Ghibli aesthetic and animation style, Princess Kaguya is something of a departure, its visual feel far more impressionistic and watercolour, and astonishingly beautiful. The recognisable folkloric motifs of the peasant man and wife who find a tiny, magical child in the bamboo grove very quickly give way to an exploration of the mannered artificiality of the Japanese medieval nobility - "Princess" as social construct rather than naturalised fairy-tale icon. (Don't worry, the mad fantastic elements snap right back into place). It's a sad story, and one which is as concerned as Arietty was with the importance of unfettered identity, and the idea of agency in, and celebration of, the natural world. It also has sweepingly fantastic sequences which are simply breathtaking, and it packs enough of an emotional punch that it made me cry at a couple of points. I loved this; it's very much its own thing, difficult to find comparisons, but I'll re-watch this over and over.

(My subject line is Bowie's "Glass Spider", which is weird and fairy-tale all in its own right).