Monday, 1 April 2019

Convention Survival Guide 

Amy Wright 

Conventions are a major part in the lives of many Geeks. While
they can great fun, there can also be some pitfalls hidden in these
great gatherings of Geekdom. Particularly if one is a new-comer to
the scene. Here are some useful tips to get the most out of your Con

Book Ahead
It is truly amazing how quickly most Cons sell-out. Most of them have tickets available online through the the convention web-site but even these can disappear weeks in advance, depending on the size and popularity of the Con in question. Many will say that they have tickets available at the door. This is, at best, wishful thinking on their part.

Consider the Weather
This may seem obvious to say but there is nothing like wearing all
black in San Diego in the summer or shorts or a skirt – looking at
you cosplayers – in Seattle in February to put a dampener on an otherwise lovely Con experience. Most Cons take place in the late-spring and summer - what the people in Halifax are thinking having theirs in November is anyones’s guess - and one should likely take this into account when choosing a cosplay. By all means, dress-up in a PVC body suit or 15 pounds of foam rubber if it strikes your fancy, it is all part of the fun!Though it is also a good idea to try and stay hydrated and minimize one’s time outside the air-conditioned convention venue. The first can be done by secreting a small water bottle on or in your costume. This is particularly easy in the case of costumes that come with utility-belts such as Batman, Deadpool and V. Female costumes can be a bit more challenging, many of them not leaving much to the imagination, though this can be gotten around with a bit of creativity. Even notorious vixen Lara Croft has been known to wear a backpack, a shoulder bag is standard-issue for any Ramona Flowers and, carefully worn, a hip flask in a garter belt can be effectively concealed beneath almost any length of skirt. In terms of limiting time in the sun, it is advisable to try and get accommodations as close to the Con venue as possible, if not the venue itself, should the Con be held at a hotel.

Wear Comfortable Shoes
This point really cannot be stressed enough. Cons mean walking. Large Cons mean lots of walking, usually in crowds. High-heels are a very bad idea, as are open shoes, including sandals. Closed, flats with hard soles and sturdy backs are strongly advised, as are steel-toes. You never know when mighty Thor might accidentally drop his hammer.

Remember To Shower
Cons can be a lot of fun with lots of things to do but one must still take time for the essentials, particularly if 15-pounds of black foam rubber is going to be a major part of one’s weekend wardrobe.

Find the Best Food Sources Ahead of Time
Cons offer myriad purchasing opportunities and food is no exception. All sustenance is not created equal though, which is why it is a good idea to know where you are going before the hunger strikes. A staple of most events, hot dogs are a great choice for non-vegans. Cheap, filling, tasty, toppable and portable, they are arguably the perfect Con food. Corn dogs, while similar, are not quite as good but still passable. Unless you are used to it, spicy food is best avoided. As interesting as the inside of a convention centre lavatory may be, this is not the best way to spend one’s time. On the same note, beverages out of sealed bottles are strongly recommended. High-sugar foods, while abundant, are best avoided, they are expensive for what they are and not terribly filling. If you have time to spare,many Con-hosting hotels have their own on-premises restaurants and the majority of convention centres are in downtown areas near several local restaurants. If one is more of a foodie, it would be a good idea to search the phone book ahead of time to locate the best dining establishments near the venue. Cosplayers may want to consider changing back into their civvies before attending any outside eating establishments.

Take Prop Safety Seriously
Many costumes come with props of different kinds. From medieval weapons, to magic staffs to cute side-kicks to blaster-guns and all manner of other things, it can be great fun to make and experiment with different props. Though this also one of the supposed down
sides of cosplaying at the majority of conventions: Prop checks.
While they can be annoying, prop checks really are there for your safety. There have been cases of particular people - “arseholes” to use the more specific vernacular - getting into crowded convention halls with real baseball bats, switch-blades, swords and even guns. This is not a good situation for anyone, particularly considering how argumentative those in the Geek culture can be. Don’t be that arsehole.

Look, Don’t Touch
There can be many cosplays that come across as very sexy, as according to the character upon which they are based. There has, however, been a bit of a problem in recent years with some people taking a sexy costume as an invitation. It’s not and most cosplayers dressed like that are not just doing for attention and even if they were, it is still not a justification for harassment. Looking is fine, particularly in admiration of how accurate the portrayal is. Touching, without expressed permission, will make you about as popular as Judas at a Disciples Reunion and is a great way to get bounced by security.

Friday, 29 March 2019


Amy Wright

Progress can really be a mixed blessing. For every great leap forward in terms of advancement comes with some downsides for at least some in society. A concept based on the non-cliched use of Nietzsche's sad but true observation that there is no gain without some pain. That doesn't mean we have to take it though. You don't have to “keep calm and carry on”. Transformation is possible. Both in the active, “be the change” way so often misattributed to Gandhi the Elder, as well as a subtler, create-your-own-reality form. There are volumes written and songs sung about the first approach. Both why it is absolutely vital that it be done by everyone right now lest the world be thrown into an apocalyptic nightmare and how to go about it. So I figured I would focus on the second approach.

The most obvious example of a world-changing development is the evolution of the internet from a niche curio exclusive to the academic realm to the dominant cultural force of Western civilization. The entrance of the internet into the public realm really has changed at least in terms of how things are done if not exactly what is being done. For all the rhetoric and baseless claims about the alleged negative effects of the internet, particularly on children, there are some legitimate concerns when it comes to the modern internet, particularly in terms of social media. There is a body of research done by actual scientist, as opposed to rumours and projections of their worst fears, that indicates, “prove” is not a word actual researchers tend to use, a link between the overuse of Social Media and issues such as increased procrastination, lack of motivation and anomie (fancy Social Science talk for a low-level socially caused depression).

Not all the criticisms in terms of the affect on culture entirely off-base either. There have been various impacts particularly on traditional broadcast and print media as a direct result of the move online, not all of them good, at least depending on one's perspective. Which is one of the biggest aspects. Not only does everyone now have an opinion which has always been the case, they now have the ability to tell the world about it leading to a fraught, complex social/cultural climate that can be really overwhelming, particularly for those who did not grow up in it. It can be enough to make someone want to give up entirely, particularly if one belongs to one of the groups routinely vilified in the more politically motivated quarter of of the new media kingdom. Though like I said there is a way out that does not involve the most currently popular method of “opting out.”

While often dismissed as so much New Age woo-woo, the idea of creating one's own reality is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Another bit of research produced by the Lab Coat Brigade has shown that while there is such a thing as a “concrete world”, perception of it is entirely individual, which is why people can have such different opinions based on the same objective facts. A fact that can be used to help as much as to make problems. Something else that can really help is to realize the fact that all technology, no matter how different, new or exciting, has the same purpose behind it. To make it faster and easier to to what people are doing anyway. Keeping this mind, what I do is basically pretend that the developments of the past thirteen years or so never happened and use 2005-level digital technology (I am writing this on a white Macbook with a new harddrive) to do the same basic things I would have been doing in the late-1990s that I still do now. Examples of this include email, which has changed shockingly little since 1998; listening to music, the main difference in a practical sense being format now coming in terms of MP3s files rather than CDs and buying books through mail-order which is basically all Amazon, as indicated by the fact they have been business since 1995 and were among they very first commercial public web-sites.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Grey Hats 

T.K. McNeil 

Language is an interesting thing. The English language in particular. Of all the languages used by humans, English is, grammatically,the most complicated, many native speakers getting much of it wrong most of the time, and the most lexically vast. There are more individual words in English than in any other living language. Even so, there are still many occasions when even it falls short and a single term comes to describe many different things in the public imagination. One such term is the current use of the word "hacker."

Applied to everyone from gamers using cheat-codes to those who perpetrate system breaches on banking systems, the terms “hack” and “hacker”, particularly as deployed by law enforcement officials, has become essentially meaningless. What is more, there are alternatives and qualifiers available for those concerned enough with accuracy to use them. The people using game cheat-codes are not really “hackers” at all. While this could be considered a hack in the expanded definition which includes any sort of short-cut. They are really just savvy gamers. The teams of programmers working to take down firewalls on Chinese networks to allow freer access to information there are better refereed to as “White Hat” Hackers or “Hacktivists”, a contraction of “hacker” and “activist”. This term has also been used variously for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Anonymous.

Those using their network-breaching skills to a criminal end, such as data destruction or theft, as happened with the Ashley Madison break-in, or even just the dissemination of official looking but misleading information are usually called “BlackHats”, “Darkside Hackers” or “Crackers”, a usage similar to safe-cracker in the olden days. To be called any of these three by someone in the Hacker community is usually taken, at the very least, as a personal slight.

A bit more nebulous are those inhabiting the shades of grey between WhiteHats and Crackers. This group, while not always working for the greater good like WhiteHats/Hactivists, are also not fully nefarious like Crackers/BlackHats.

While they may use identical methods to the usually recognized groups, the purpose of the majority of hackers is simply to surf and connect. To go into a system to see if they can and snatch a random stream of data while they are there simply for bragging rights.

Despite being “criminals” in the eyes of the law and in many cases, such as that of Kevin Mitnick, serving up to nine years in prison, their actions are most often victimless.

Unless you count a few bruised egos. Though it is rather telling that this is also the type most likely to go into cyber-security after being released from prison, keeping other far more dangerous hackers from doing what they would ordinarily do.

It would therefore best to come up with a new term for the majority in the middle. Somewhere between the crusading Hactivist and shadowy cracker. In my humble opinion a term such as “Grey Hat” or “Seeker” would fit the bill nicely.

Monday, 25 March 2019

Never the Twain 

Amy Wright

“Labels.” A perfectly fine and useful concept that has fallen into some ill-repute in recent decades. “You are just labelling” and “I don't believe in labels” becoming quite popular refrains particularly among the “enlightened” and “woke” of the world. Or at least the “Western” portion of it. What such grand gestures of virtue and progressiveness fail to take into account is that the use of labels is both useful as well as natural. Before you light your torches let me explain.

The idea of “labelling” in terms of people originates with the respected social researcher Howard Becker and his creatively titled Labelling Theory. Becker noticed that categorization, far from being the roots of prejudice, was an independently occurring process that helps people understand things.
A key example of this is the plethora of genre labels applied to music. As with all great and brilliant ideas, there is a downside. At times getting excessive. At times to the point of the ridiculous. Some seeming to be under the impression that style means more than substance and music isn't something you can just enjoy.

Nearly as firm as they are plentiful, there are some genre lines that should not and have never been crossed. There have been combinations that have worked. Rockabilly for example and Folk Punk. Though they also tend to be at least similar in their origins and have something in common in terms of instrumentation and surrounding culture. There are are others, however, such as Rap-Metal which, like experiments in vivisection, did not work out all that well.

There are genres that really seem like they should not go together. The culture and ethos around them being not only opposite but often in conflict. Oi and Rap for example. Oi being most associated with White Power culture, having been lifter wholesale from the distinctly non-racist British Punk band The Cockney Rejects. Rap, on the other hand, is most associated with urban black culture. This being where it originated. Yet there is such a thing as White Power Rap. Bringing the messages of Oi to the beats and rhymes of Rap.

Another pair of genres with a less than civil history are Classical music and Heavy Metal. Classical music being most associated with snobbish high society and Christianity. Heavy Metal with devil-may-care street level culture and appeals to the trappings of Satanism. Whether this was literally true or not. So acrimonious were they that the two sides have been known to literally fight fire with fire. Metal fans in Norway having a history of burning down churches and Bible groups in America burning Heavy Metal records en masse. The flames thought to expunge the albums of their evil.

Despite troubled history, the two go together surprisingly well. Being very similar in terms of structure. Especially int terms or rhythmic and melodic construction, themes and repetition. The music theory term “coda” literally meaning “repeat.” This becomes most clear, when Heavy Metal compositions are played on more traditional instruments. Such as the plethora of piano cover versions available online.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Tartan Rage 

Amy Wright

There has been much made in recent years about the near sanctified importance of Culture. Far from being arbitrary signifiers made up on the fly and legitimized and entrenched over time, despite what those pesky “Anthropologists” might “prove,” Culture is the most important aspect of any human being. As such, it behooves all of us to be as protective as possible of our own Cultures and be as insular as possible, like the United States managed to be though most of the Second World War, only caving in at the 11th hour after being directly attacked. Rightly so too. Sod “the greater good” countries must look out for themselves. This is what Germany did in the 1930s and just look how well that turned out.

There are, of course, brainwashed negative nellies who will say that this out look is cynical or even “prejudiced” but this is only because they have been foolish enough to fall for the obvious lie that so-called “Cultural Exchange” makes life “richer.” A notion with absolutely no evidence behind it except the fact that “trade” has gone on as long as people have had the means to go to other countries and the majority of modern Cultures are at least influenced if not outright hybrids of older ones. But what was that prove?

As such, I would like to join the choir of the outraged belting out screeds against everything from saris outside the Indian community community to dreadlocks on anyone not black (despite the fact it only applies to Jamaican culture and not “black” culture in general) and stand up for my own Scottish culture, which as been exploited, abused and mocked for far too long. Not only did the Americans bastardize the proud Scottish spirit of whisky, first distilled in Scotland in 1494 before the first North American colonies were even dreamed of, they cannot even spell it correctly. “Whiskey” my royal Scottish bottom! In a perfect world, in which the principles of “cultural appropriation” are applied properly and equally, no one who is not Scottish or at least of proven Scottish ancestry, would be allowed to destill, bottle, sell, buy or consume this staple of Catalonian brilliance.

Even more egregious is the crass and callous use of plaid, particularly by the younger generation and those, ironically enough, most concerned about Cultural appropriation and critical of those who engage in it. As long as they are sufficiently melanin deprived. Plaid is not simply a pattern, like polka dots or paisleys (also Scottish). It is the way that clans used to identify and define themselves in all aspects of society. A role similar to that of familial sigils and coats of arms. Like these alternative forms, a clan's tartan is representative of a elaborate and important history and a source of deep personal pride. To see them now worn “ironically” in the form of an overpriced shirt by every second millennial and hipster, the poorly secured patterned ties only adding insult to injury, is a grave affront to my people, ourselves no strangers to oppression particularity, by the English.

Monday, 18 March 2019

A Nice Place

Amy Wright

Travel. One of the oldest and greatest of human endeavours. From the time we were able to fashion sea-worthy boats, the first of these apparently being made out of hemp (it really can be used for anything!) we have been going hither and yon on this little pale blue marble we call home.

Things have only gotten better in recent centuries, despite the best efforts of those in power. Intercontinental travel is not only possible but safe, easier and more comfortable and, most of all, faster, than it has ever been before. Something to remember the next time there is a flight delay at the airport. A few hours being rather piddling in the face of the few months endured by our ancestors (they didn't have big enough bathrooms or bags of peanuts either).

As always happens when things reach their natural zenith, there comes to be something of a backlash against it. This is partly what is behind the Renaissance in vinyl records in response to the onslaught and alleged dominance of “digital” music. Similarly, people have started either exploring within their countries of birth and even forgoing travel all together, terms such as “stay-cation” slowly creeping into the vernacular (if not yet the dictionary, thank Oxford).

One local well ahead of the curve in this respect is Victoria, British Columbia, which is on the West Coast of Canada. The capital city in fact, despite the fact the majority of the world assumes that it is Vancouver. Which is sort of like thinking that the Capital of New York is Manhattan and rather than Albany (a no brainer really) or other the national capital of Australia is Sydney, or Melbourne or Brisbane and not the obvious and logical choice of Canberra.

Since the early 2000s, cast your minds back kids, the local tourism board has been encouraging citizens of the Greater Victoria Area to “Spend Time In Their Own Town Like A Tourist” and, really, it is easy to see why. Not only does Victoria proper combine all the noise and issues of a big city with the size and lack of amenities of a small town, packing 86,000 citizens (1,387 of whom are homeless adding sum local colour in the form of pan-handlers and street musicians) into 7.52 square miles, it has some of the best weather in all of Canada with, aside from the occasional, biannual snow storm, nary a flake of the white stuff. 23 inches of rain per year but hardly any snow.

There is also all the wonderful history to investigate, embodied by the cities famous “heritage buildings”, like the Empress Hotel, built in 1901 or, up until they tore it down, the famous Johnson Street Blue Bride, designed by the same engineer behind the Golden Gate Bridge as well as the bridge at the Winter

Like to shop? You are in luck! Victoria is chock full of all sorts of commercial opportunities, most within walking distance of each other given the relatively small size of the downtown core. Parking might be a problem, there being an estimated 73 metered parking spots though the public transit system is second only to Vancouver in terms if quality and edges out the New York subway system in terms of simplicity of routes.     

Friday, 15 March 2019

In the Garden of Good And Evil

T.K. McNeil

The battle between good and evil has been a core theme of narratives nearly as long as there have been stories. From Michael casting Lucifer into the pit of Hell to Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star, there have been sides to take and characters to love and to loath. In the new Millennium however, things have gotten more complicated. Largely gone are the easy distinctions and glorious victories in narratives of the past, replaced by complicated structures and characters intentionally cast in shades of grey. A change that largely stems from a general recognition that not all systems are neatly organized and sometime people do the wrong thing for the right reasons and vice versa. One of the best examples of this new paradigm is the Game of Thrones universe.

Slightly ahead of the curve, the first of the books being published in 1996, the series is notorious for sudden, shocking deaths and a lack of an easy moral centre. There are no "heroes" and "Villains" in the traditional sense. While there is the occasional inveterate psychopath here and there, most of the characters are acting in their own self-interest and/or on what they think is right, much of the time what is called "justice" and what is referred to as "revenge" being interchangeable. So in an essentially brutal system, in which it can literally be kill or be killed the question becomes not whether a given character has blood on his or her hands but whose blood, how much and why was it spilt. This is the primary distinction between hated characters like Ramsey Bolton and Jamie Lannister and loved and missed ones like Ned and Arya Stark. Ramsey and Jamie are both men of violence as in a love of violence. It is not just something they have to do but something they like to do. Ned and Arya are nearly pacifist by comparison. They do not look for trouble and when they do kill there is almost a sense of somber duty about it, particularly in the case of Ned. There is also the fact that, in almost every case, this occurs in the context of war, state sanctioned execution and/or self-defence. Rather than killing because they like to, they do it because they have to, in many cases simply to survive. A similar case can be made for Tyrion Lannister who, despite his turn-coating ways, has never killed anyone he did not have to or did not deserve it and seems genuinely concerned for the future of the Seven Kingdoms.

Another case where this comes up is in The Hunger Games. While the world in which the story takes place is undoubtedly brutal and corrupt, when it comes to characters it is vital to distinguish between those who are part of the system and those who are trapped in it. Katniss Everdeen is clearly and firmly in the latter group. Despite this, she does not have the tone of rage so often associated with such situations. Author Suzanne Collins gives Katniss an observant, matter of fact voice, like somebody who is already deeply jaded. A perfectly realistic characteristic given the context in which she exists. What is most interesting about Katniss as a character, in addition to her heroic attributes, is how she came to possess them. Not even a reluctant hero so much as a surprise one, much of what keeps Katniss alive in the arena originates not from hate but from love. It is carefully established at the beginning of the novel that Katniss has basically been the head of her family since the death of her father. An event which made her mother emotionally distant, leaving Katniss to care not only for herself but also her little sister, Primrose. All of her skills, from her speed and resourcefulness to lethal ability with a bow and arrow were cultivated as a means to be able to hunt in order to keep her family together and alive. As a result, when she is thrown into the free-for-all of the arena, again to save her sister who Katniss knows could not survive the games, she displays more mercy and morality than anyone would have reason to expect. She keeps not only herself but Peeta, the baker’s son who jokes about his most fearsome skill being camouflage, alive but also takes on Rue, who by any definition would be her mortal enemy, Katniss having enough perspective to realize that the much younger girl is no real threat to her. That this does not end well in no way negates Katniss’s intent. Rue’s death serves as a reminder of the brutality of the system and re-establishes Katniss’s baseline personality as a caregiver. It also leads to the only time in the first part of the narrative in which Katniss kills in anger and only one of three instances overall. The other two being an act of desperation involving the dropping a nest of mutant insects on lurking enemies and what amounts to a mercy killing.

One of the main promoters of this idea of evil as a verb is, of course, Joss Whedon. From the brooding struggle for self-acceptance in Angel to the stark role-reversal in Firefly/Serenity, Whedon has become famous for morally complex characters and intricate plots. Whedon’s first and definitive statement on moral complexity goes all the way back to the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997. At the end of the the episode "Lie To Me" (2.7), Buffy and her Watcher, Rupert Giles, talk about what she has just been through, having to kill someone she used to know who made a deal with Spike, one of the season’s Big Bads, to turn him into a vampire to avoid dying of brain cancer.

One of the clearest recent examples of this overall ethos put int series form, for both Whedon and in general is in the short-lived series Dollhouse. As with The Hunger Games the question of good and bad has less to do with the system, which is shown to be corrupt, than how people act within it. This is most clearly shown by three of the most morally questionable characters, Dr. Sanders, Mr. Dominic and Topher. What a medical doctor would be doing working for an organization like Dollhouse, whose business consists of hiring out brainwashed operatives for all manner of legal and illegal activity, is potent one. Though if one looks at Dr. Saunder's actual behaviour in the show it becomes clear. Rather than being an active participant in the goings on, her role is essentially reactive. Rather than inflicting suffering she is there to mitigate it when it occurs. She is also something of an outsider in terms of the corporate culture. She does not fit it with the environment and seems to be aware of this. Dominic, despite his swagger, is little more than an employee doing his job, which is to protect the integrity of the corporation. It is easy for viewers to hate him be cause he is set up to be against the main character, Echo, whom he has correctly identified as a threat to the business. From purely functionalist perspective he is not only not evil but, in fact, correct. It is also interesting to note that, aside from his justified suspicions of Echo, he does not do much that could be considered particularly "villainous". Topher is a very interesting case. The architect of the technology used for brainwashing the operatives, referred to as "Actives" or "Dolls", it would be very easy to cast him as a cackling mad scientist. Yet he is not. Enamoured more with the fact of his achievement than what it actually does, his greatest sin is not being able to distinguish between if something can be done and if it should be done. An outsider like Dr. Saunders, Topher is also quite funny, though with a tendency to say the wrong thing. Also, if one looks at his actual conduct, he is relatively kind, if a little goofy and in no way aggressive, actively backing down from physical confrontation and treating the Actives gently, particularly in their child-like "resting" state.

 There is a scene in the episode "The Target" (1.2), showing the results of one of the Actives going insane and attacking anyone in his path, that is character moment for all three. Dr. Saunders comes off as having been traumatized, conscious but barely responsive. Dominic is in his element, all business and barking orders. Topher is shown as being sad, worried and out of his depth. There is also a large blood mark on the front of Topher’s shirt with no wound to go with it. Strongly implying that he came across a wounded Active and tried to help, speaking to his basic humanity, despite arguably being the progenitor of every thing evil that happens within the system. A prime example of how even fundimentally good people can do bad things.