This Week in Geekdom

Happy weekend everyone! And it's a particularly illuminated couple of days here in the Northern Hemisphere. Aside from the extended period of daylight some of us are treated to during the Solstice, last night brought us a glimpse of the so-called Supermoon, as the Moon reached perigee in its terrestrial orbit and appeared, as the name would suggest, especially large and bright to those of us down here on Earth. This celestial show has given me additional motivation to improve on my lunar missions in Kerbal Space Program which, if you haven't played it, I highly recommend. Go check out the demo here.


Sony, desperate to maintain its edge over Microsoft in the forthcoming Dual of the Consoles, attempted to make amends for its disastrous 4.45 PS3 firmware update earlier this week. The update had been blamed for bricking a not-insignificant number of PS3s. The company now claims that the issue has been identified and a solution will be available for download on June 27th.

Speaking of the Dual of the Consoles, one of the biggest stories of the week was Microsoft's reversal of its previous stance on used games/title sharing. While this appeased some gamers, others saw less favorable knock-on effects that we'll likely get down the road. 

Is death cheapened by the way it is handled in modern gaming? The guys at Games Radar try to parse out the digital blood on their hands.

Amongst the kerfuffle that was E3 this year, it was easy to overlook individual game titles that weren't on the roster of exclusive releases for one of the next-generation consoles. EA attempted to use the post-show calm to explain the name change on one of the more-anticipated titles slated to come out this year. It's not Dragon Age III, it's Dragon Age: Inquisition, and here's the official rationale as to why.  

It may already have reached its fundraising goal eight times over, but it's worth a couple clicks to head over to Kickstarter to check out the Omni, a virtual reality suite designed to give gamers the most realistic, immersive experience possible.


As the summer movie season kicks into high gear, we're going to start to see some of the biggest, most elaborate cinematic productions of the year. Aside from your traditional popcorn-fodder action flicks, the season has started to host large-scale animated works as well. This year's big animated release is Pixar's Monster's University.  The Verge sat down with some of the animators to get the latter's account of just how much technical progress has been made in the way Pixar does animation even when compared to last year's major release, Brave

Ok, we've talked a bit about the seemingly wanton destruction that Superman uncharacteristically wrecks in Man of Steel. We get it; a lot of stuff is rendered into rubble and many innocent civilians were killed. But could you guess the quantity of each? Fortunately, you don't have to. This fairly thorough analysis concludes that your favorite Kryptonian should be stuck with a $2 trillion bill and charges for the wrongful deaths of 129,000 people.

Yes, that's very cool Mr. of Steel, but it's gonna cost ya

Carbon dioxide does a lot of things. It's an essential repertory vector for both plants and animals, it plays a critical role in major planetary nutrient cycles, and it plays a substantial role in regulating the Earth's base temperature. What if it could do more? What if we could tap it as a fuel source? Researchers at Universite Laval attempted to do just that.

On the subject of atmospheric components, this week scientists posited that Mars was actually blanketed in oxygen about four billion years ago. The findings are far from conclusive, but this would explain quite a bit regarding the makeup of the red planet's soil and give us insight as to the kinds of life our solar sibling may have supported.

Finnish engineers think they may have solved the problem that has vexed the designers of ultra-tall skyscrapers by creating a type of cording that is both very light and extremely strong. If they are correct, elevators would be able to travel vertical distances of up to a kilometer!
Next step: Space Elevators!

This week's issue of Science Translational Medicine detailed the astounding work that has been done engineering adeno-associated viruses to combat retinal degeneration. Say what now? Scientists are <that> much closer to being able to reverse certain types of blindness.

Ever wondered what your outdoor cat does all day? The BBC and the Royal Veterinary College wanted to find out.

Best wishes for a wonderful week ahead!
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Geeky Crafting: Combating Writer's Block

Hello and Happy Solstice to everyone out there in the interwebs! For many of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this time of year harkened the onset of a few months of hard-won, glorious freedom from the daily school routine. Don't get me wrong, school was wonderful for a whole host of reasons (I know, a nerd who loved school…who'd have thunk it?), but having that extra time and brainpower to spend as you saw fit seemed like a luxury. Now, as an adult with a full-time job, the concept of summer vacation may be a thing of the past (fie on that!), but it seems as though the pace of life seems to slow a bit during these few months as people try to enjoy the fleeting bits of good weather. 

Between this and the onset of yet another battle with the workish Elder Hydra, I'm trying to cram in as much enjoyment/hobby time as humanly possible. Since the GIR and I are, lamentably enough, not going to Gen Con this year, all the effort that would normally be given to a costume is instead being allocated to my other favorite creative outlet: writing. 

At the moment, the object of my scriptic affections is something I've wanted to do for many years now: GM a campaign. You might remember back to last year's rundown of releases and gaming developments at Gen Con 2012 and a brief mention of Fantasy Flight's newest foray into RPGs, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This, my friends, will be the system with which I (hopefully) will begin my GMing career. A full review of the system will be the subject of a future post, but right now I'm giddily embroiled in a tangle of plot threads and character development. 

At this point, though the campaign universe and I have a long history, the premise of developing an RPG adventure is still new enough that the novelty alone will keep me happily creating for the time being. However, I know that all too soon the ease with which the words flow will taper and perhaps even grind to a halt. It doesn't matter how engaging the subject matter is or how enthused I am about a project. At some point during the composition process my brain will straight-up rebel and those cerebral parts that are normally happy to wordsmith will pitch a hissy fit and stubbornly refuse to continue or, more commonly, will feel generally blah and in no fit state to create.

Such is the way of things. Were time and distractions limitless, I'd leave this dreaded writer's block to resolve itself. Unfortunately, that sort of luxury is not readily afforded to anyone who writes any sort of content that is intended to be consumed by another person. We're often subject to deadlines or the expectations of our readers, neither of which will stand idly by simply because new authorial ideas have become hard to procure.

Aside from this blog, my graduate thesis, and the forthcoming campaign, I write a not-insignificant amount as part of my job and, over the years, have developed a few little exercises to help overcome the writer's block malady. Though, in all honesty, this issue extends to most, if not all, creative pursuits. So if writing isn't your thing, you can probably apply these to just about any project.

First and foremost item to consider when you're at a loss for words: Why are you writing this?

Seriously. What is your intended outcome for this work? Do you want to derive anything personally from this? If so, what? Is this a story you feel needs to be told? Are you hoping to entertain an audience? Is this a brand new genre/style that you've been dying to experiment with? Are you hoping to get published?

Sometimes, particularly if you've been embroiled in a project for an extended period, we lose sight of why we embarked on this journey in the first place. It's extremely easy to do and often causes all sorts of frustration. Taking a step back and reconnecting with the intended purpose of your work can often help clear away any mental "clutter", or extraneous thoughts about the project, and set you back on a productive path. 

If that doesn't work or you feel that mental "clutter" hasn't dropped away as much as you'd like, move on to some self-diagnosis. What do you think is causing the "blockage"? The most common responses tend to be: lack of inspiration, fatigue, overwhelmed by new project/genre or thinking that nothing you write is good enough/original.

Let's tackle those one at a time.

Lack of Inspiration
You feel completely blah about any and all ideas that spring to mind. It's not that you don't want to compose, it's that you feel you have nothing to write about. There's a lot of sitting down to sketch out your thoughts and coming away with blank pages. Counter this deficiency by indulging in some of your favorite works or, ideally, a combination of well-loved precedents and content that is new to you. Stop thinking about your own project and surround yourself with pieces you admire. Don't limit yourself to the media form that your current efforts are based in. If you love some Tolkien, maybe read a few chapters from the Hobbit and watch one of the Trilogy or listen to the soundtrack. If Gaiman strikes your fancy, perhaps take in some artwork based on his prose, then flip through your favorite issue of The Sandman. As you're doing this, try to take in the material mindfully. Ask yourself questions periodically. Why are these works so good? What about them moves you? It's also perfectly ok if you can't define the answers to those in words. The responses can manifest just as nicely in your thoughts. Let yourself drift away for a bit. You'd be surprised how not actively considering your own process for a while can free up your mind.

You are just too damned tired or stressed out. The mere thought of creating just adds one more chore to your unending to-do list. Ugh and fie on writing! <flails> First off, deep breaths. Clear your head as best you can. Once you've regained your bearings, ask yourself this: Is this actual burnout or is this ennui? At times it can be tricky to discern the two, but, frequently, the distinction is pretty clear. If you're burnt out, just physically/emotionally/creatively drained, stop actively thinking or working on the project if at all possible. Do something completely different; occupy your hours with anything but writing. Give your brain and body a chance to rest and reset. If you absolutely have to continue chipping away at your project, make notes as needed (world building exercises are excellent for just this purpose) but no further construction. For serious. Just. Stop.

Ennui, however, is a completely different matter (and a generally awesome word). This is the mental equivalent of, "I should go to the gym, but I just don't feel like it." It's what makes procrastination so easy if you're prone to such. In any case, the response is the same: force yourself to create anyway. Exert some control over that petulant mind. Rwar! Though the brain isn't a muscle, the concept of plasticity definitely applies; you'll get better the more you practice. Obviously that's not exactly what someone mired in ennui wants to hear, but it's a sure-fire way to resolve the problem (and improve your overall writing skills in the process). Get yourself revved up and back in the fight!

Taking on this project/genre seemed like such a good idea at the incept, but now you're buried under the dual-faceted avalanche of trying to create while learning something new. Since the problem is two-sided, the response should address each piece of the issue. Go back to the fundamental question: Why you are doing this? Once you've redefined why this project was so appealing in the first place, follow the steps outlined for someone lacking inspiration only, in this instance, limit yourself to the media form you hope to create. In the case of writing, look to authors you admire in this particular style. One decent way to "jump start" yourself is borrow  a section of someone else's text, then spend some time breaking it down into various components, analyze those components, then set back to your own composition. Reverse engineering works as well with writing as it does with other creative processes. Bonus: it's also a great way to introduce yourself to and gain familiarity with new vocabulary!

Nothing good/original
You've got plenty down on paper/Word docs, but it's just not good enough. Or, what you have is ok, but you feel like you've read/heard/seen this narrative a hundred times before. Well, you're technically not wrong. According to literary historians, nothing is original. Anything you come up with is one or more of the 36 Dramatic Situations (or insert any number of similar such lists here). While this may be somewhat disheartening, that doesn't imply that what you're attempting to make isn't good quality or worthwhile. By this logic, you're working with the same fundamental material as everyone else who has ever created a work of written, auditory, or visual art. That right there is pretty cool. So try not to get caught up in the idea that everything you make has to be 100% unique content. Also, be nice to yourself. The quantity and severity of self-criticism tends to correlate with the amount of emotional investment and aggregate time spent on a project. The practice is so easy to pick up that sometimes you don't even realize what your mental monologue is actually saying.  

Keep plugging away while you can; don't shy away from taking breaks as needed. Then give your work to a neutral 3rd party. It's tempting to pass your writing off to a friend for review/initial thoughts but, if you really want to know if what you're doing is any good, seek out the opinion who has no personal ties to you. Bring friends into the mix on the second or third drafts.

Best of luck to everyone wherever your creative pursuits may take you!
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This Week in Geekdom

Happy weekend and Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there! Let's get right down to This Week in Geekdom.
A most excellent Father's Day to all!

Days ago, the US Supreme Court officially ruled that naturally occurring genes cannot be patented. What implications does this ruling have? National Geographic put together this excellent summary.

Swiss researchers announced this week that, with the help of a relatively small but very powerful telescope, they were able to isolate and identify an entirely new class of stars. Check out the beautiful images that were part of this study.

While you're in a cosmos state of mind, take a look at the first 3D rendering of the known universe, an interactive video illustration that made its international debut on Friday.

Get your Turing tests ready. Using a series of extraordinarily complex models (they needed more than four dimensions in which to function kinda complex), physicists laid out potential scenarios in which future quantum computers would be able to self-correct.

In an effort to extend internet service to especially remote locales, Google has started launching small inflatable aircraft that beam wifi. The balloons, which bear a strong resemblance to giant jellyfish, were hefted into the stratosphere over New Zealand earlier today.


In celebration of this week's release of Man of Steel, here's an all-Superman comics section.

Speaking of which, have you been looking for a decent review of the movie? How's about one from DC alumnus Mark Waid?

Here are 10 science-based factoids about your favorite Kryptonian.


It's been a little while since we've had a new round of rumors about Star Wars: Episode VII. This week, we got a potential doozy. Turns out that the upcoming film might not exclude the Expanded Universe after all. Alleged casting calls for 17-year-old sets of male-female twins set the interwebs aflame with conjecture that the new trilogy just might feature Jaina and Jacen Solo. (that sound you hear would be me smothering excited SQUEEs)

General Awesomeness

Classic arcade games have been getting quite a bit of attention as of late. Aside from the Museum of Modern Art's new installation, the Neville Public Museum has opened this nostalgia-inducing exhibit for the remainder of the summer. Anyone got a quarter?

Yep, made entirely in Excel
Think Excel is only good for budgets and the occasional macro? This 73-year-old Japanese retiree has been using the program as his personal palette and canvas. See some examples of his incredible work here.

As always, best wishes for an excellent week ahead!
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Cosplay: Sucks to Your Unrealistic Standards! (Or How to Avoid Convention Trolls)

The cosplay scene has been my creative and convention-structured home for several years now and it's something I frequently receive questions about, particularly when I'm just getting to know someone. Though the conversation partners differ, the actual layouts of these dialogues tend to be remarkably similar. After a brief recap of how I came to the hobby and some of the preparations generally taken during the costume construction process, I'll try to spin the exchange about and ask my chat partner their feelings on getting into cosplay. 95% of the time the responses take the form of the world's saddest game of Mad Libs. It's a whole bunch of:

"I'd love to but I'm not (adjective) enough."
"Cosplay seems like so much fun, but I'm too (adjective) to do it."

For the first sentence, the most common fillers of that critical blank are: pretty, attractive, crafty, talented, in shape, thin.

For the second, the descriptors that appear most often are: busy, out-of-shape, fat.  

That, right there, is tooth-gnashingly frustrating, because the motivations behind most of those statements are rooted in the worst behaviors our little subculture exhibits. We've spoken before about how some of our brethren have considerable trouble differentiating the digital world from reality. Combine this with the stereotypical-but-accurate undercurrent of social awkwardness and the absurd compulsion shared by some of our peers to sniff out and expose other individuals as "fake geeks" and you've got a decidedly unwelcoming constituency.

Yeah. but Kel not every nerd/geek does that sort of thing. Most of us are at a convention to…you know…enjoy the convention.  

And that's probably true but, as we've also discussed, it only takes one thoughtless act of cruelty or mean-spiritedness to cast a terrible pall on someone else's con-going experience. We're also a group of people renowned for our demanding standards, unabashed ability to faultfind, and fervid attention to detail. Those characteristics constitute our inherent base. Furthermore, even if the (sarcasm on) Inquisitors of True Geekdom (sarcasm off) are the minority, they are also nerds/geeks. Think of them as the whacked-out fundamentalist component of our cultural denomination. They're embarrassing and seem hell-bent on creating the worst possible public image for Nerdery, but they are still us.
I spot a pattern!

Ok, even if you strip out the Inquisitors, the criticality, and the pervasive lack of…ehm…diplomatic tact you've got the stark reality that the vast majority of the characters from just about every sub sect of Geekdom are, for all intensive purposes, physically identical. Unless you're aiming to replicate something like an Ithorian or  Kosh Naranek, you're likely looking at a roster of primarily tall, white, very fit/thin, good looking characters. If you don't happen to naturally possess all these qualities and have spent more than ten minutes with even a small group of nerds it's understandable that the notion of re-creating a canon character might give you pause.

This does NOT, however, make you a bad cosplayer nor does this preclude you from cosplaying.

Is it ridiculous that the wealth of personas from all segments of Nerdery are so sorely lacking in diversity? Of course.  Is this the unfortunate reality of most current geeky properties? Yes. That is slowly changing, but is still, lamentably, the case.

Can you have non-model looks/stature and still have an enjoyable cosplaying experience? You better believe it.

Regardless of your physique or crafty abilities, my first and foremost piece of advice to any costumer is to plan, plan, plan. Making an informed appraisal of the project and your eventual audience can not only help save you time and money, but also drastically cut back on potential encounters with convention trolls.

First, some self-reflection is in order. Why do you want to cosplay? Aside from the Inquisitors of True Geekdom, what has prevented you from making a costume to this point? You may want to format your answers in your own Cosplay Manifesto, if only to help crystallize your motivation for a project that could potentially suck up a considerable amount of time and resources. Additionally, you have to be honest with yourself about your personal tolerances. Does your source character tend to show a lot of skin? Do they wear high heels/a long train/large headpiece/a lot of makeup? Will you be toting around a large or heavy prop?

Once you get these considerations out of the way you can focus in on the actual construction process. Only you can make an honest estimation of your crafting abilities. To be perfectly blunt, cosplay is not something you can do halfway. The mantra "Go Big or Go Home" definitely applies here. A poorly made costume will make a fool of even the best-looking con-goer. Seriously, the most effective way to avoid unpleasant convention cosplay encounters is to have a solid, impressive costume.

In conjunction with all of the above (as if that wasn't enough to think about on its own), try to consider the convention at which you want to debut your finished work. About how many people generally attend that convention? Where in the convention space itself do you intend to spend the majority of your time while in costume (the dealer hall, perimeter, etc)? Are you going to wander about freely or are there events/contests you'd like to participate in?

The two most important pieces of advice I give to anyone intending to cosplay are the following:

-    Unless you are extremely familiar with the convention itself, DO NOT COSPLAY ON THE FIRST DAY. Spend that first day walking around, taking in the sights and making little mental notes like, "These halls are surprisingly roomy despite the crowds; I should have no problem getting around with my wings deployed," and, "By the Odin-son, there is not a single bathroom on this floor."  Most importantly, try to get a feel for the convention crowd. Are there many other cosplayers? Are your fellow attendees a generally gregarious bunch or are you getting a sketchy vibe? Consider your costume and consider the people around you. Full Stop; then make an informed decision about whether or not its a good idea to proceed. It is FAR, FAR better to nix a cosplay and enjoy the convention experience than to plunge ahead into a hostile crowd and potentially have an unpleasant run-in.
-  If it is at all possible, DO NOT COSPLAY ALONE. Having someone meander the halls alongside you can be both a logistical boon (especially if your costume doesn't feature any pockets) and a powerful troll-dissuading agent. The troglodytes who will try to confront you at a con tend to adhere to schoolyard bullying tactics and thus will focus their ire on easy targets, which brings me to my conclusion…

No matter what you weigh or how you look, if you've put the work in and have made a costume that you're proud of then own that experience. It sounds hackneyed and trite, but the following is wholly, entirely true: someone can only take you down if you let them.
Confidence is indispensable
A nasty con-goer draws unfavorable references to large marine mammals because you're not a US size 2? Sucks to them. An ignorant attendee uses transgender terminology as an insult because you don't adhere to an unrealistic standard of feminine/masculine beauty? Sucks to them. Spitting vitriol is easy; creating an excellent costume and walking the convention halls is not. It's no coincidence that you almost never see an Inquisitor actively cosplaying.

Your cosplay should be an expression of you; it should be something that makes you happy, gives you a creative outlet, and actively enhances your convention attendance. Though trolls and Inquisitors will likely continue to feature in nerdy gatherings, there's plenty you can do to take the sting from their would-be barbs. Follow your passions, display great workmanship and to the Nine Hells with the haters.
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