Storm

The storms in the Greater Central Valley of California never get that impressive, at least not in Yolo and Solano Counties. True, there are floods and worse in this area every few years, but, on the whole, the weather around here is very mild. Today, the air has smelled like rain all day; I went to the Borders about a mile from my office for lunch today to have a light sandwich and work on some math problems, and when I came back to the office, the rain had started. It never got heavy, but it kept up for the rest of the day.

After driving home to drop off some books and change, I went back to Davis to have some dinner and coffee and to go to Evilpheemy’s house for some beer and to watch Dune. With Jennifer gone during the week these days on a project for the Big Evil Fish (hereinafter in these documents referred to as BEF), I find myself spending lots of evenings with friends, watching comedy and science fiction movies, or just spending evenings at cafes; anything to distract me from the fact that I’m alone in this big empty house that my wife and I built together while we were still just dating.

It’s not that I’m unused to goodbyes; much of the relationship that Jennifer and I have had has been marked with goodbye. Up until now, with one two-week exception where she went down to the Bay Area to train on some BEF product, I’ve been the one to go away; spending months at a time commuting up to the Pacific Northwest to my own company’s development office to replicate our development environment or develop a new product; or traveling for a month in Ireland and the UK, without even coming home on the weekends. This time, she’s the one leaving; and this time, we don’t even know how long it’s going to be. It could be just a couple more days, or it could be a couple of months, depending on how her job interview turns out.

Jennifer’s dad travels a lot for his job as well. Last week, I wanted to ask her mother if it gets any easier, seeing your spouse off on a trip like this. On Sunday, Jennifer’s left immediately after church to fly out to Chicago for a 2.5 month project for the same BEF that Jennifer works for. After church, Jennifer and I invited her mother to come along with us. We asked her if there was any place in particular that she wanted to go; she said, a bit mournfully, "Chicago". I knew then what the answer to my question would be, and I haven’t needed to ask it.

It’s selfish of me to feel like this, I suppose. After all, I’ve done a lot more time away from home over the past year than she has (probably at least 50% of the time, now that I think about it). And I know that she doesn’t want to be gone, any more than I want her gone. So I commisserate with her and I do my best to be supportive and understanding, but I still miss her.

By the time I left Evilpheemy’s apartment, the storm was getting pretty heavy. The rain was falling hard, and the lightning was right overhead, making the sky as bright as day at times. Driving down I-80 I can see the big empty fields to the south, and over them the lightning sparks gigantically, almost from one horizon to the other. The sounds of the road and the car stereo drown out the thunder, but I know that it’s there.

And it’s short-lived; by the time I get home the rains have already dwindled to a mere sprinkle, barely noticeable when I step out of my car briefly to check the mail. Behind the clouds, the moon is shining; it’s a half-moon, according to the calendar above Jennifer’s desk, but it’s almost bright enough to be a full-moon. The rain has stopped by the time I get back into my car, and I’m glad for it; I wanted to have Jennifer here with me the first time that we listen to the rain falling on our house.

The clouds above Dixon are breaking apart. Through them, I can see a single star.

Factoring

The self-teaching guide for pre-calculus that I purchased assures me, "Factoring is fun!" (italics in the original).

Factoring, in case you slept through your high school math classes just like I did, is the process of reducing a polynomial into its more basic components. For example, the polynomial

6x²y+21xy+8x+28

can be reduced to:

(2x+7)(3xy+4)

This, apparently, is fun.

There are, I’m told, very good reasons for factoring, especially when you get into functions later on in calculus. I vaguely remember trying to figure out functions in high school, and in my abortive attempts to take math classes in college. Looking over my high school transcript, I see that I got a B in that particular class, though when I tried to take Calculus 21B in college, I flunked; perhaps I should have taken 21A first; what do you think?

The reason why I’m going on about pre-calculus and factors today is because I’ve decided to explore yet another potential career direction. I don’t know if this one will end up going anywhere yet, or if it will be another fizzle; we’ll have to wait and see, I suppose.

It all began when I had a conversation with my co-worker B– a month or so ago; that conversation sort of crystalized some thoughts I’d been having for some time: namely, the question of whether I want to do this computer programming thing for a career, or keep it at the hobby level. I enjoy programming computers, and I enjoy building websites and developing them; and I really enjoy being able to build websites that change dynamically with database updates, and so on. After all, this journal page that you’re reading right now didn’t really exist until you clicked on the link on the previous page; then a script on the server is run, and it pulls together information from a database that I built and it builds the page on the fly and sends it to your computer to read. I love doing that sort of thing; I love it even more when I’m doing it on a command line instead of a graphical window, which is why I I prefer Linux to Windows.

And I love learning how to do new stuff. I love learning C, PHP, and Java. I love figuring out how to build our little network at home (my old laptop computer now serves as a primitive web server, and even has an FTP and Tel-Net daemon running on it, so that Jennifer and I can log into our home network even when we’re on the road), and how to keep it running and secure, and how to put more functionality into it. I love this stuff so much that I thought I wanted to make a career out of it.

Well, having done it professionally for over a year now, I’m beginning to have second thoughts. I find myself wondering if I really want to be just another code monkey, working for just another company, on just another project. Certainly, the idea of having expertise and being "at the top of the food chain", so to speak (as B– put it when we discussing why we each want to learn Java), really appeals to me, but there’s a difference between being excited about taking the lead in the development of an infrastructure meant for the distribution of financial account information over some nameless corporation’s network, versus doing something which — I don’t know; which could be more important, or contribute more meaningfully.

And I have wavered for some time about whether I want to stay with the job I’m in, or hunt down something else. I like my boss, I like my co-workers, and the job itself isn’t all that bad, it just isn’t all that exciting. Sometimes the problems that I solve at work are interesting, and sometimes they’re dull, but that’s just the nature of life in general. But do I really want to be in a career which is distinguished by constant relearning of the same thing, long hours devoted to the job, with little variety in what I’m learning and doing? It’s like automobiles; you can either devote your life to building and maintaining automobiles, or you can use your car to achieve other goals, with enough knowledge of maintenance to keep the car going. This isn’t to say that I have no respect for the people who keep the cars running (or the computers for that matter); I’m just not entirely sure, anymore, that I want to be one of them. I’m not trying to disparage anyone or any field. I’m happy that here are people in the world who really enjoy taking care of cars and fixing them when they break; I’m so happy about it, in fact, that I’m willing to pay money to them to do it.

One of the goals I set for myself to achieve before the age of 40 was to get a Master’s Degree in something. I’ve puzzled over what to get a Master’s in, just because I couldn’t think of a field that I wanted to pursue; or, rather, because the fields I was really interested in pursuing I thought I could’t pursue for whatever reason. I’ve pondered a master’s in software engineering, but that didn’t really appeal to me for the reasons I’ve outlined above; and I’ve even pondered going ot and getting an MBA but there’s got to be more than business.

Well, okay, to make a long story belatedly short, I decided to at least look into getting a master’s degree in ecological systems engineering. It’s a field that I was interested in as an undergraduate but which I never pursued because I thought that the math would kill me. Then I thought to myself, "What the hell: I went to Ireland and the UK and wandered by myself for a month or so; I can handle getting an engineering MS." Half the reason I went on my trip was because there was a little guy inside of me telling me that I couldn’t; now this same little guy is telling me that there’s no way I can pull off an MS in ecological systems engineering. I showed him once, I think I can show him again.

I’m interested in ecological modeling, and in using ecological systems to solve ecological problems. At least, I was once; we’ll see if I still am once I’ve gotten exposed to it.

So I went to some professors and to some graduate students in the department and talked to them to try to get a sense of what the field really is, and what kind of work can be expected of someone in the field, and what I should be doing to get there. Each professor I spoke to emphasized different areas: one thinks that biomass is the way to go, another thinks that wetlands restoration is where it’s at. A third is really interested in the future evolution of an ecosystem just west of San Joaqin Valley. All three sound fascinating to me, and all three, to me, are worthy. And all three would involve heavy computer modeling and development.

Of course, all three of the professors I spoke to, after glancing at my college transcript, told me that I really need to bone up on my math. Serious math. Not "Math for Poets", where you look at an equation and marvel at its beauty and ponder its relevance for mankind, but "dirty math": where you have to know why a sine wave is important for modeling the rate of one bacterium’s methane production.

Hence, the research into math classes at local community colleges; and, before that, the review of precalculus and factoring and exponents and so on.

And then, of course, because I am incapable of approaching this sort of thing without a certain level of angst and second guessing, I just can’t stop myself from worrying that maybe what I’m doing is just giving up on my abortive career as a computer programmer, just because I don’t like the way it’s going. Since my wife’s wisdom usually exceeds my own, I asked her what her perception was, and she told me that it didn’t appear to be the case. And the admissions advisor I spoke to said, "Anyone who’s looking into ecological systems engineering because they think it will be easier than web development really needs to increase their medication. You know that, right?" I assured her that I did, and she replied, "All right then," and handed me more paperwork.

If this is the route that I want to go — and right now, it feels right — then I know that I’ve got a few years of hard work ahead of me. I’ve proven that little guy wrong before, and I’m sure that I can again. But there is also a part of me that wishes I knew for sure that this was the right thing to do.

On the other hand, I have the feeling that if I waited for some sort of assurance that this really is the right course to pursue, then I’ll be waiting for a very long time, and I probably wouldn’t get anywhere anyway.

So, in the meantime, I’ve broken out a pencil and some paper and some precalculus books, and I’m somehow working mathematics into a schedule which is already full of things I want to learn and projects I want to work on.

It will work. No, really.

More Frightening

Apparently, for some people, a call for reasoned action is equivalent to a call for no action. I received the following e-mail in my mailbox this morning (no changes have been made to the original letter):

we must take action…do you suggest sitting here and doing nothing?   If we continue to do nothing we will be attacked again and again….no security precautions will prevent more attacks!   Letters like you wrote promote doing nothing….what a shame so many peole [sic] have your attitude, thats why we were attacked and have done nothing so far

Things like this terrify me, and I am glad that cooler, more rational heads seem to be prevailing against any calls for immediate action against Afghanistan.

So far, we have yet to find out with real certainty who committed the attack on the World Trade Center. The government claims to have strong evidence linking Osama bin Laden to the crime, and I don’t doubt that. But "strong evidence" is not the same as "proof".

So, given that… who do we strike against? Terrorists are like the ants that Jennifer and I have been struggling against in our new home for weeks now. They hide and emerge at random, you have to deal with them when you find them, you set out traps hoping to kill off the colony, but when you’ve done all you can, there are still more waiting to strike. I fear that a war against terrorism would be an ongoing war, bloody and violent and with no real end.

Which is why we cannot strike until we have absolute proof. We have to make absolutely sure that the people we strike against are the ones who are responsible. Or they’ll come back for more later on.

Beyond that, though, is the larger issue of what the terrorists were really trying to accomplish with their attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Were they trying to destroy the United States? It would take a lot more than that to do so. Were they trying to disrupt our daily lives? Well, yes, they did, but a well-written Internet worm would have done the job just as well. Were they trying to frighten and demoralize us? Possibly, but anyone with an ounce of education in American history would know that when America is hit with violence, our sense of togetherness and resolve to stand together only grows. If decades of terrorism has not yet succeeded in destroying the resolve of Israel, a nation about the size of California, why would one strike against the United States, with several times the population of Isreal and a much stronger economy and military to boot, succeed?

These terrorists were intelligent enough to plan this sort of thing out; I have to credit them with enough intelligence to know that demoralizing or crushing the United States would take a hell of a lot more than one single strike, no matter how large. And I believe that they’re intelligent to know that succeeding attacks would be much more difficult because of the inevitable tightening of security that followed the first attack. With airports closing left and right whenever anyone whispers the word "bomb" in a closed toilet stall, further strikes of the same kind would take even more cunning and planning. I suppose it’s possible that other types of attacks could be in the works, but probably nothing with the sheer destructive power that was evidenced on September 11.

At this point, I have come to believe that perhaps the goal of the attack, assuming that there was a long term goal at all, was not so much to destroy as to provoke. bin Laden and others of his ilk have been calling for an Islamic Jyhad, in all defiance of the words of the Qur’ân, for years. If the United States, with or without the support of the rest of NATO, invades Afghanistan, we’d have to move through Pakistan; if we didn’t have Pakistani support (which it looks like we do at this moment, thank God), we’d have to march through Pakistan first, which would be costly and destructive — remember that Pakistan has nuclear capability, after all. An invasion of Pakistan would be destructive on both sides, but we would probably make it, destroying Pakistan in the process — and that would certainly unite the American-hating sectors of the Arab world against the West to unprecedented levels, and that would probably bring about the prolonged armed conflict that bin Laden and his cronies are hoping for.

I have no doubt that we would win such a conflict. I don’t believe that we have God on our side any more than I believe that bin Laden has Allâh on his side, but we certainly have superior military and intelligence forces, and we have proven that our military is excellent at learning from its errors.

So that’s why I find it frightening that warhawks like the one who wrote to me are talking the way they do. It means that the terrorists are coming close to succeeding in what they set out to do on September 11.

And finally, to stage a major conflict would be admitting that it’s all right to accept large numbers of civilian casualties in support of our goal — and whenever you believe that it’s okay to kill an innocent person in the pursuit of revenge or some other cause, you start down the same path of lunacy that led to the attacks in the first place.

I do believe that taking action against those responsible is appropriate; to leave this crime unpunished would be a different type of failure on our part. But I am opposed to stupid or unmeasured actions which would lead, in the long run, to the deaths of millions of people.


On a side note, just to clarify a couple of points. I do believe that there must be increased security, for a number of reasons: first, I believe that there may be more attacks in the making; and second, it’s just good for our comfort level. I would not even consider flying on an airplane right now if it weren’t for the near-paranoid security measures currently being taken (not that I’d be all that happy about it as it is).

Of course, I don’t believe that increased vigilance should come at the cost of our civil liberties; and it certainly should not come to any sort of racial profiling of Arab Americans or racist attacks against them. Now, more than ever, it is time for us Americans to demonstrate to the world that the values which we hold true and on which we are founded continue to inform us today: namely, the values of equality for all people and our willingness to accept as fellows even those who act, dress, and even think and believe differently than we do.

If we can’t hold on to our principles and values in a time of crisis, then what good are they at all?

Slight Comfort

For the past couple of days I have been listening almost non-stop to NPR’s coverage of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on my computer through streaming audio from the KQED website. I’ve listened as people have poured out their pain, as denials were proferred by various groups, as politicians have postured, as nations and peoples around the world have condemned the attack and offered their support to the United States and its peoples. I have kept a separate browser window at all times to follow the news on CNN and MSNBC. Finally, at about 2:00 this afternoon, I shut down Real Player and launched Spinner to listen to some Celtic music. Enough was enough. I didn’t want anymore. I wanted to shut out the world and focus on my work and not think about it anymore.

Of course, that isn’t possible. For the past two days at work, things have been quiet and subdued. At the meetings I’ve been to yesterday and today, the other developers and the managers have been subdued and quiet. Almost everyone has kept a window open to CNN or MSNBC or ABCNews. Of course we get work done. The software gets written, the pages get built, the servers get upgraded, the sales team gets their sales. My co-workers are almost always fairly light-hearted, and even sarcastic to the point of obnoxiousness, but that has changed this week.

Last night, Jennifer and I watched Chicken Run, an inane little movie which we both enjoyed. I was grateful when Jennifer suggested renting it, because I’d been needing to get my mind off of the news. But immediately after the movie was over, we both went upstairs to the office to check our e-mail and see what was new in the world.

This afternoon, after spending twenty minutes on a minor graphics project, I went back to CNN and loaded again the video of the second plane being flown right into the second World Trade Center tower. Big mistake; the horror and the surrealism of the entire situation came flooding back in a huge wave.

I think we’re all still getting used to the idea that this is real. It’s not a movie. It’s not a scene from a television show. It’s not fiction, God help us, it’s real. The screams in the background of that video are more haunting and frightening because of that.

Did any of us in our worst imaginings think that something like this would happen? Well, okay, of course novelists like Stephen King and Tom Clancy have imagined stories of the Apocalypse, the world ending in nuclear war or plague, and maybe there have been political or science fiction thrillers which have started with lines like, "It all began on the day of the bombings."

But who knows if any of that ever really prepared us for the reality of what has happened? We’ve been told time and again that there were no contingency plans for an attack of this magnitude, that none of the scenarios imagined by our defense department included such despicably inhuman acts as were demonstrated on Tuesday morning.

I’ve seen some terrible things said and heard of terrible things done over the past few days. People attacking Arab Americans because of their race. Hate mails strewn about the web. Calls for immediate nuclear attacks on Afghanistan. I’m disturbed by e-mails claiming that all Arab Americans are culpable, and frighened by talk of war against an indeterminate enemy.

And what I can’t help but think about every time I see those videos is those telephone calls. The unthinkable calls made at the last minute to husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. I can’t imagine having to make such a call, and I can’t imagine ever receiving such a call from Jennifer; or, worse, stepping away from my desk one morning which seems like any other morning, and coming back to my desk to find my voice mail light flashing. What must it be like, to know you are going to die soon, to be given the opportunity to say goodbye to those you love and finding that they aren’t available? Or to come back and find that you’ve missed that last opportunity to hear the voice of someone that you cherish and know that you will never see them or hear from them again? I don’t want to think about how the people who had to make those calls must have felt, and I don’t want to think about how it must have felt to take such a call.

The grief we all feel is profound; the grief of those who have lost loved ones, in the planes or in the towers, is beyond imagining.

There have been calls for international unity, there have been offers of aid and support from nations normally hostile to us, there have been thousands upon thousands of people lined up for hours to give blood to help those injured in the attacks, thousands of volunteers helping out, millions of dollars donated to the Red Cross, the United Way, the Salvation Army and other organizations. And there have been the spontaneous expressions of grief and unity and sympathy from all over the world. While they are encouraging and helpful, those who are lost will never return. A destructive war against those who we think might be responsible won’t bring back the lives that have been lost.

So I listen to the beautiful Celtic songs, I read about scientific discoveries being made and about how humanity goes on and about how we struggle to make sense of this tragedy, and express to those directly affected that we share their grief.

And I think about the words spoken by an alien intelligence to Ellie Arroway in the movie Contact, about how puzzling humanity is: "You’re capable of such beautiful dreams… and such terrible nightmares."

This Day

I am having such a hard time finding words tonight. From the first moment when I saw the hints in my mailbox that something was wrong to watching end of the day footage on Fox, I’ve been numb. Jennifer and I have been trying to make sense of all of this, and I can only imagine what must be going through the minds of the families of the victims and those who were there to witness the devastation. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be aboard one of those planes in the last moments. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be trapped underneath the rubble of one of the collapsed buildings, not knowing whether you’ll be rescued, not even knowing what has really happened.

I’ve never had sympathy for terrorists. I’ve had sympathy for their causes, for the innocents harmed by the stupid political games that nations play (I honestly believe that politics have killed more people than any other natural disaster), but terrorists have always struck me as one of the lower forms of life, lower even than Congressional bureaucrats. What point can possibly be worth killing more people than have died in any peace-time man-made activity?

We’re going to be coming to grips with this for a long time. We may never know exactly how many people died in this mindless attack. We may never know why one jet crashed in Pennsylvania instead of reaching its true target. We may never even know who’s responsible for this amazingly well-coordinated attack. Government officials are pointing the blame at Osama Bin Laden, but there’s no real evidence of his involvement right now. No one has claimed responsibility, and I find that more frightening than anything else for some reason.

I know that my own shock and horror are miniscule. I’m still alive and I know no one who was killed or even injured in the blasts. I can only hope and pray that those who have lost loved ones will find comfort, that we as a nation can find the strength to heal, and that we can all avoid allowing our own anger and hatred to overwhelm us and spread the horror even further with racist attacks on Arab Americans or worse.

Amazon.com has set up a PayPal link to the American Red Cross, which needs both money and blood. Please contribute as much of both as you can.

Majestic

A couple of years ago, before Y2K failed to dim so much as a single light bulb at midnight, studying bizarre and wacky conspiracy theories was quite a hobby of mine. I used to spend hours reading through the more bizarre conspiracy sites, looking up black helicopters, Men In Black, the Majestic-12 group, and so on. I enjoyed reading the rants of William F. Cooper, and a couple of others whose name I’ve completely forgotten at this point. And while I never believed that JFK was killed by anything more complicated than a single gunman with very good luck, I always found it intriguing to learn what people thought about the idea that the US Government had signed a treaty with alien visitors to exchange technology for human experimental subjets, or whether the United Nations is set to invade the United States and turn the world into a single government police state.

Personally, I think that believing such tripe is giving way too much credit to the ability of the US Government to keep secrets. Yes, small secrets can be kept for a good amount of time — there are people I know who performed secret operations in the Armed Forces decades ago and who still won’t talk about it — but massive conspiracies just won’t work for long periods of time. It would involve the willingness of everyone involved, from the highest to the lowest, to keep their mouths shut forever about massively important issues, and people just aren’t capable of doing that. And the government, after all, is composed of people who are capable of the same mistakes and screw-ups that you and I are capable of.

On the other hand, it is fun to speculate. Does the government really engage in mind control experiments under the umbrella of MK-ULTRA? Does Majestic-12 really exist? Are there really aliens that maintain regular contact with the US government? And so on. I especially enjoyed making up my own wacky conspiracy theories using the same evidence that many of the other conspiracy theorists out there used (the best ones always claimed that the official denial of the existence of a conspiracy was outright proof that a conspiracy exists — which is sort of like saying that my denail that I own luxury yacht harbored in Boston is absolute proof that I do own such a yacht).

And so now there’s this game, Majestic, an on-line role-playing game which incorporates all of these elements and throws you deep into a storyline involving the conspiracy. But Majestic doesn’t just keep itself confined to the computer screen; oh, no. You get telephone calls, you get e-mails, you get instant messages, you get faxes… It’s an immersive sort of experience. I’d first heard about Majestic at DunDraCon 2001, and I checked it out briefly one night while I was in Portland last March, but I avoided getting involved. I just didn’t have time for it.

But the other day my friend PurplKat sent me an instant message telling me that I just had to check out this game. So I went, I signed up for the free preview and played it through, and found myself getting caught up. I finished off the free preview in a couple of days, and decided to splurge and go for the full experience. The game is meant, really, for people like me, who don’t really have the time to get fully involved in a long term game, so the puzzles are relatively simple and can be solved in a few minutes with the clues that the game gives you. Sometimes you have to go back and look up some things that you hadn’t considered important before, and some times it’s possible to miss something completely.

But my main interest is in the unfolding storyline, which is what I always get intrigued by (I’m the kind of guy who, when playing a game on my computer, almost always turns off the "battle" features, or sets the battle difficulty at minimum so that I can concentrate on the mysteries and plots at hand). Seeing the names of secret groups like Majestic come up, or MK-ULTRA, or HAARP, or even Pale Horse is like re-encountering old friends… delusional friends, of course, but it’s still fun to get wrapped up in a story like this which involves some of the same elements I played around with just for fun a few years ago.

Of course, if you’re the type of person who believed that The Blair Witch Project was real, then, obviously, Majestic isn’t for you. Nevertheless, though, I’ve encountered a couple of people playing the game who believe that "it’s more than a game". One fellow I chatted with joked about "they" tapping our IM conversations, but I did encounter someone who really does believe that the government is keeping an eye on the people who play this game.

I always worry about people like this. When I ran a Live Action Vampire game in Davis a couple of years ago, I included on our website a link with the words "So you think you’re a real vampire?" which led to Bellevue Mental Hospital. There really are people out there who think that they’re vampires, and some of them play in LARP’s. There really are people who think that their Dungeons and Dragons characters have some sort of life outside of the game. There really are people who believe in these "shadow governments" and the aliens and that the United Nations is going to take over at any minute and confiscate all of our guns.

It’s the people like these who give fodder to the anti-gaming nuts, the ones who go on daytime talk shows with stories about how Dungeons and Dragons caused their kid to commit suicide. The truth is that the kid was probably already troubled to begin with, and the game gave the kid an outlet for their troubles. In such cases, I blame the parents for not seeing the signs before hand, and for essentially neglecting the kid’s emotional needs.

But I guess that’s all beside the point. The real point is that I’m getting more deeply involved in this game, and I’m enjoying it immensely. For the small price that it costs and the fact that it requires very little time commitment, it’s worth it.

And who knows? Perhaps there is a grand world conspiracy to let the Illuminati control the United Nations through the extraterrestrials who are breeding hybrids with human beings and using top secret mind control devices developed by the US Government during the Vietnam War to turn us all into slaves of the New World Order. And perhaps Kennedy was killed because he knew all this and was about to tell the truth.

Nah. That’s preposterous. And besides, if I knew, would I really tell you?

But now I’ve got to go. Jennifer and I are headed out to Boston to take a cruise.

In Which Richard Ponders World Conquest, and Jennifer has a Revelation

It was the second day of Dragon*Con 2001, one of the largest science fiction gatherings in the United States. Jennifer and I were taking a break from the panels and the dealer room and the art show and were sitting in the eating area of the hotel’s restaurant, people watching. Past us strolled Klingons, angels, fairies, goths, Imperial Stormtroopers, Blue Meanies… in short, a wide variety of the best and the brightest that the galaxy has to offer. We were seated facing outwards, pointing out costumes and making comments to each other. Most of these comments were nice, of course — Jennifer and I are both, on the whole, nice people — but some were, I admit, downright catty (one in particular that I made to Jennifer: "I love coming to these conventions; I can feel positively slender here!").

I watched carefully and observed how a lot of the people interacted with each other. It’s true that a lot of them have less than perfectly developed social interaction skills, so a lot of them are very shy and don’t interact well with other people who don’t share their interests — with the Mundanes. But even with those folks who had shown up at the Hyatt in downtown Atlanta on Real Business (that probably involved Lots of Money), the conventioneers were polite and civil, which is a lot more than I can say for most of the other people I usually meet in large crowded settings. And it occurred to me that most of these people just want to be liked, somewhere near to the surface; they just don’t know how to express it or act on it. Hence, they are often shy and introverted, but very polite and very courteous.

I mentioned this to Jennifer, who agreed with me. I went on to say, "You know, almost all of these folks are very intelligent and creative. Good problem solvers."

"Mm hmmm," said Jennifer.

"And," I added, "very capable problem-solvers. The ones who have played lots of Dungeons and Dragons are even used to solving problems in teams." Which is true; and, in fact, there are studies which show that teenagers who play role-playing games actually have a lower suicide rate than most other teenagers; and this is usually attributed to the fact that they have learned well how to confront and solve problems as groups.

"You’re right," said Jennifer.

"I know I’m right," I said. "And," I went on, "there is a lot of untapped talent for good here. I bet someone with just the right level of charisma and know-how could mobilize these folks and leverage all of that talent and intelligence into world domination. I bet I could do it."

"Yes, dear," said Jennifer. This is the code phrase she uses which means, "That’s very nice, dear, you go ahead and do that and I’ll just sit here and eat my salad."

So I know that if I do go out and leverage the power of the fan community into world conquest, I’ll do it with Jennifer’s blessing. But I probably won’t. I can’t figure out what the heck I want to do with my own life, so God only knows what I’d do if I had to cope with figuring out to do with an entire planet. So I’ll leave it to someone else to work out the logistics of conquering the world with legions of science fiction fans, fantasy fans, and goths.

On the whole, it was a great convention. I’ve already mentioned how much fun it was to sit and people watch and take in the costumes. The panels I attended — ranging in topic from "The Prospects for Artificial Intelligence" to "Horror in the New Millenium" to "Game Designing in the Twenty-First Century" — were fascinating, and I got to meet at least one of my favorite writers, and have some interesting conversations about whether ant hills could think and how to incorporate horror elements into science fiction games. My good friend Evilpheemy had wanted me to run a playtest of the science fiction/horror role-playing game that he and I have been developing for about four years now, but I honestly didn’t have a chance. There was too much else going on. Next year, when we go back, I’ll try to get in a playtest of the (hopefully) completed game, as well as do some more socializing, and perhaps even attend some of the live music events that they have going on late at night.

On Saturday, both Jennifer and I attended a panel which was entitled, "Science Fiction for the New Millenium," which was supposed to address the topic of what social problems and innovations science fiction would be addressing now that the year 2001 is almost over and cloning, AI, space stations, and cybernetic implants all seem to be becoming realities. In reality, the topic wasn’t very well addressed, because when the topic of ethics in the new century came up, the specific issue of copyright violations on the Internet emerged. One of the panelists — a shortish fellow, well-respected in the science fiction field, and with a reputation for being a bit outspoken (if you know who I’m talking about, you know that I don’t need to name him; and if you don’t, naming him won’t do you any good anyway) — went on a long rant on the topic and confronted one of the audience members face to face; I thought he was going to hit the poor guy. I felt sorry for him — the audience member, that is — but I also realize that it’s practically an honor to be berated in public by this particular writer.

Jennifer became annoyed at the entire situation. We had come to see the topic of "Science Fiction in the New Millenium" addressed, and instead the panel became a forum for addressing one author’s particular hot button. As we left the auditorium, Jennifer looked at me and said, "He may be a respected writer, but he’s a real jerk."

To which one of the people who were passing us at the time and who had overheard us replied, "Yes, but that’s just the way he is."

And then Jennifer said, "Well, I guess you don’t have to be nice to be popular."

Well, okay, it probably wasn’t much of a revelation; I’m sure that Jennifer already knew that, after all. But I had already come up with the title for this entry and I needed a story to fit it.

Dragon*Con was, over all, brilliant. I enjoyed everything, from the AI panel to the 2001 Miss Klingon Empire Beauty Pageant (I can’t even pronounce the name of the woman who took the title, and spelling it would be hopeless — suffice to say that she earned the title). I came away wishing I could have seen more, and that I had had time to do more, including running the playtest. I came away with questions: questions like, "How can I make the setting for our role-playing game truly horrifying?" and "Where can I find more of that guy’s books?" and — most importantly — "Since when was a Jedi lightsaber part of a Klingon armoury?"

Some questions, I guess, will never be answered.

I can’t wait until next year’s Dragon*Con. I’m sure it will be as much of a blast as this year’s.