Sunday, July 31, 2011

Chapter 14


Making Wine

Aidan had brought all he needed for the journey with him, so from the clearing they returned directly to The Sylph, where he began stowing away gear while Roger guided them expertly out of their mooring.

“So ...”  Johnny hardly knew where to begin asking questions.  “What exactly do you do, Mr. de Tourneville?”

Aidan grinned at him.  He had a very easy grin that lit up his whole face, although he seemed to use it much more sparingly than Roger.  “Save you from muck monsters, apparently.  And call me Aidan, son.”

This mode of address struck Johnny as odd, somehow ... perhaps it was just that Aidan seemed not so much older than he was.  He was no more than twenty-five, surely: fresh-faced and clean-shaven, barely taller than Johnny and not much heavier either.  Perhaps it was a religious thing.  “So, are you, like, a priest?”

“I’m a Guide,” Aidan replied.  “I believe I mentioned that already, didn’t I?”  He winked at Johnny, then glanced over at Larissa.  He said in a stage whisper: “She doesn’t talk much, eh?”  He stuck out his hand at her.  “Aidan de Tourneville, milady.  And you are ...?”

Larissa took his hand and shook it.  “There doesn’t appear to be enough indigenous wildlife in this area to support a predator of that size.  What does it eat?”

Aidan looked taken aback.  “Pretty much anything it likes, unfortunately.  But not us.  Not today, at any rate.  Tomorrow, who can say?  But hopefully the Goddess will watch over us.”

Larissa stared up at him with her wide eyes.  “And what goddess would that be?” she asked.

“Shallédanu, Goddess of the Waters.  She is omnipresent, in this place.”  The Water Guide looked back at Johnny.  “She’s a curious one, eh?”

Johnny nodded.  “She is that.”

Aidan didn’t seem perturbed that he had not learned Larissa’s name.  “Well, at least our journey is off to an auspicious beginning.”

Johnny frowned.  “Being attacked by a giant homicidal creature is an auspicious beginning?”

Surviving being attacked by a giant homicidal creature is, surely.  Much better than the alternative, no?”  He looked around.  “I assume this craft has a tub on board?”

section break

It seemed like skinnydipping in the boat’s hold was some sort of tradition when bringing on new crew members.  Johnny was more prepared this time, however, and had found a pair of shorts among Roger’s extra clothes which could double as swimming trunks.  Larissa just took off her shoes and rolled the loose pants up above her knees; she sat on the side of the square opening of the tub and trailed her bare legs in the brownish water.  Roger and Aidan both seemed perfectly comfortable being naked.  Aidan’s body was lean and pale, and he sported several serious scars: on his right shoulder, the left side of his ribcage, and his right hip, among others.  Johnny continued to try to avoid looking at Roger’s body, but her lack of modesty was starting to put him more at ease.

There was less washing this time and more friendly chatting and socializing.  Roger and Aidan exchanged ideas about the upcoming weather and their general course.  None of their navigation talk included any directions such as “west” or “north”; it was all “upstream” and “leeward” and “deasil.”  Johnny was only half paying attention.  Mainly he was looking more closely at the fiery columns of the tub and trying to figure out how it worked.  The fire was only in the corners; between the columns there appeared to be some sort of invisible barrier which kept out wildlife but not the current.  The water was quite warm, although he suspected that was some function of the tub more than the natural temperature of the river.  He could see shadowy forms swimming on the far side of the barrier, but nothing clearly—the barrier might seem invisible, but it did make things on its far side appear dimmer.

At some point, Roger called for Bones to fetch “some grub” and suddenly they were having a dinner party in the pool-sized tub.  There was the usual greenish cheese, dried fig-like fruits, and jerky-esque pemmican, but Roger evidently felt this was a special occasion, because she had Bones bring out several things Johnny hadn’t seen before: a type of small citrus fruit that Larissa hesitantly identified as a kumquat, some sort of crusty bread that was hard as a rock on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside, small green pea-like beans (uncooked but still quite good), and some form of pickle that looked like mushrooms and smelled like the clove cigarettes that some of the night people in DC smoked.  Bones provided cups, and they just scooped water out of the tub.  It  occurred to Johnny that he ought to be discomfited that they were drinking water they’d just been bathing in, but of course the water in the tub was still flowing past with the slow current, so it was theoretically just as fresh as the water that they’d been drawing from the river for the entire journey.

Johnny tried a little bit of everything, and it was all good.  Larissa seemed more hesitant, sniffing the offerings and eyeing them critically.  Aidan and Roger were positively festive, the former complimenting his host repeatedly, the latter calling out colorful pirate phrases such as “heave to with the hard tack, swabbies” and “belay forestalling them fungus afore I have ye keelhauled!”  Gradually the proceedings wound down and everyone became a bit more pensive.

Aidan was now leaning back with his elbows on the side of the tub, his lean body extended nearly horizontally, just under the surface of the water.  He paddled aimlessly with his feet, his toes occasionally breaking the surface.  “I think,” he announced, “it is time for some wine.”

Johnny looked around with interest.  “We have wine?”

“Not yet,” Aidan said, winking.  “Bones, my good man.  Fetch me a pitcher.”  Bones squawked and streaked over to Aidan, sitting up on his back legs in a manner more reminiscent of a dog than either avian or primate.  It cocked its head and stared at the young man, who was now giving detailed instructions.  “Your best pitcther, mind.  It must be solid silver—you have such a thing?”  This was directed at Roger, who nodded.  “Good.  The silver, then.  And fresh cups.  And then look in the left-hand pocket of my robe and bring me the gray pouch you find there.”

Bones streaked off with another squawk.  Johnny swam over to Aidan and perched on the side of the tub as he had done once upon a time in his family swimming pool.  “You’re going to make wine?  Doesn’t that take ... well, a long time?”

“And distillation equipment,” Larissa added softly, as if she were just saying it to make herself feel better and didn’t expect anyone to pay any attention to her.  She was right about that, of course.

Aidan grinned.  “The important thing to know about wine, my dear boy, is that it’s mostly water.  And I, of course, am a Water Guide.”

Johnny was starting to think that the inhabitants of this world used the word “guide” in a way that was quite different than he was used to.

Bones streaked back with a hefty pitcher nearly as big as he was and a soft gray bag with a rawhide drawstring.  Aidan took the pitcher (“thankee kindly, sir” he said to Bones) and scooped it through the water.  From the pouch, Aidan removed a handful of small round objects, like colored ball bearings.  Most were a dark blue, but several were red, and a few were white.

“What’re those?” Johnny asked, still fascinated.

“Berries,” Aidan announced.

Johnny wrinkled his brow.  “So the blue ones are blueberries, I suppose ... the red ones are cherries?”

Larissa spoke up.  “Not blueberries: juniper berries.  Although where one finds a conifer in a swamp I can’t imagine.  And definitely not cherries ... something else.  But they’re too small.”

Aidan nodded.  “I take the water out of them.  Easier to carry, and they don’t spoil this way.”

“But they don’t look like dried fruit ...” Johnny started, before realizing that this was almost certainly a futile line of inquiry.

“Dried?”  Aidan seemed genuinely puzzled.  “What, you mean like the derries?”  He gestured at the fruit Johnny had been calling figs.  “No, I just ... take the water out of them.  And the red ones are hawberries.”  Larissa looked slightly dubious, although she nodded.

“And the white ones?” Johnny asked.

“Snowberries,” Aidan said, tossing the pile of miniature berries into the pitcher.

Even Johnny couldn’t let that go.  “Snowberries?  As in, snow?  You have snow here?”

“Strictly speaking, snow isn’t required for snowberries.”  Aidan’s tone was mild.

Larissa opened her mouth, but Johnny already knew what she was going to say, and he knew they weren’t going to get anywhere complaining that people oughtn’t have words for things they’d never experienced, so he cut her off.  “Snow is made of water, you know.”

Aidan arched an eyebrow.  “Well of course I know that.  Shall I make you some?”  He scooped up a handful of water and blew on it, hard.  The water shot out of his hand and swirled around, each drop maintaining its individuality so that it was more like dust than splash.  The cloud of droplets floated upward, defying gravity, then began to sparkle.  Finally there was a puff, and then several snowflakes fell down onto Johnny’s unbelieving face.  They melted instantly of course, but there was a split-second when he could actually feel tiny pinpricks of cold against his skin.  He stared at Aidan.  Larissa’s face was neutral.  Roger chuckled in the background.

Aidan ignored all this.  “Now, where was I?  Ah, yes.”  He reached into his pouch again, and took out a smaller handful of yellow powder.  He sprinkled this into the pitcher slowly, mumbling in that same liquid language he had used against the muck monster.  A luminescence began to appear above the pitcher, ephemeral, like the yellowish-green lights Johnny sometimes saw shooting off to the edges of his vision if he rubbed his eyes too hard.  And, like those phosphenes, the lights seemed to slide away if stared at directly, and yet irresistably drew the eye toward them.  Straining his ears, Johnny thought—or imagined—a fizzing sound, a muted version of bubbles escaping from soda, or champagne.

Slowly the light subsided, and Aidan poured from the silver pitcher into the simple wooden cups Bones had brought.  The liquid had changed from the brown tealike color of the river to a rich indigo, with a hint of effervescent yellow somehow buried in its core.  Aidan poured four times, and then Bones poked him with a much smaller tin cup.  Aidan chuckled and poured a dollop for Bones as well.

Larissa stared at her cup but didn’t drink.  Roger and Aidan each took a long draught and made nearly identical lip-smacking “ahh” sounds.  Johnny sipped his cautiously.

To describe it would have been impossible.  It was slightly sweet, but it definitely had the bite he recalled from stealing sips from his mother’s wine glass when she wasn’t looking.  It was fruity in a way that he had never tasted before, sort of a raspberry-blackberry-boysenberry, but wrapped up in the odor he associated with his father’s gin and tonics (he’d never dared sneak a taste of those, but the smell had always stayed with him), and yet none of that, and all of that, and more.  It was dry, and cold, and it seemed to dance on his tongue.  He stared at Aidan, amazed.

Aidan smiled back at him. “Not too shoddy, if I do say so myself.  Roger?”

Roger had adopted Aidan’s pose on the side of the tub to their left.  She arched her back, thrusting her small breasts up into the air.  “Vurra nice, me bucko.  Not artan, of course, but a pleasant enough change.  Ye make a fine cuppa, Aidan.”

Johnny started to drink again, more eagerly this time, but he stopped himself.  “Is this going to get me drunk?” he asked.  “Like the artan if I drink it too fast?”

Aidan pursed his lips.  “Well, it is wine, and it will surely make you tipsy if you drink enough of it.  But it doesn’t have nearly the alcohol content of that curious concoction that our fine captain favors.”  He looked archly at Roger, as if he’d just delivered a real zinger of an insult to her.  Roger merely pshawed him with a lazy wave of her arm.

This was good enough for Johnny.  He drank the rest of his cup in big gulps, and then he started in on Larissa’s.

section break


Sunday, July 17, 2011

It’s Just Semantics
(Except When It’s Not)

As an English major and aspirant writer, I know that the words we choose are vitally important.  As a professional programmer and longtime corporate denizen, I know that changing words around doesn’t actually change the reality of the situation.  Boy, it’s a good thing I believe in balance and paradox, eh?

The question of whether the phrase “it’s semantics” is invested with concern or derision is a delicate one.  In my role as a parent, language is most often a tool used by my children to try to get out of following one of our (very few) family rules.  For instance, rule #1 is “don’t step on things that aren’t the floor.”

“What about the ground?”

“Obviously you can step on the ground.”

“Well, what about the carpet?  That’s not actually the floor.”

“Look, don’t play semantics with me.  I ain’t raising no lawyers!”

In these types of instances, I’m nearly always fighting to make the point that the exact words don’t matter as much as the ideas behind them.  Use a little common sense, man.  Don’t try to twist the words.

On the other hand, in my role as a writer, whether that’s for work, for personal stuff, or in my delusional life where I am writing the next great fantasy series, the exact word you choose is crucially important.  The shades of meaning that separate two apparent synonyms become vital: maybe the audience will understand roughly what I mean either way, but “roughly” just ain’t good enough.  If you can’t write any better than that, you should just give it up right now.

And then there’s my role as a business programmer.  And here’s where it gets tricky, because suddenly both viewpoints are simultaneously important.  On the one hand, I have to deal with people who have technical ideas which are disastrous, but they think they’re brilliant just because they changed a couple of words.  On top of that, I work for a corporation.  It’s not full-on Dilbert by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly does happen that our corporate overlords will try to dress up a bad idea in pretty words and think we’re going to be fooled.  (All corporations do this ... they just can’t help themselves.)

And yet ...

And yet all too often I find myself in a situation where words really do matter.  The most common one is when choosing language at the beginning of a project.  You would (probably) be quite surprised at how vital it is to get definitions straight for a project.  Simply choosing the wrong word can cost a company thousands (if not millions) of dollars in lost time and miscoummunication.  How could that possibly be, you ask?  Simple—I’ve seen it happen time and again.  The business means something very specific when it uses a word, but somehow that’s miscommunicated to the technical people.  They start using the same word to mean something very different—always closely related, of course, but still different in some crucial way.  Suddenly the business people and the technical people aren’t speaking the same language.  And it spreads, and it gets all mixed up: mostly the new technical people learn what the words means from the other technical people, so they have the second defintion, but every once in a while one will learn it from a business person (or have their definition corrected by a business person) and now the technical people are miscommunicating with the other technical people.  Same thing happens with the business people, some of whom pick up the alternate definition that the tech department has given the word as a matter of self-defense for not losing their sanity when trying to talk to engineers.  Now no one is on the same page, not even the people in the same department, and specs get confused, mistakes get made, assumptions are propagated, work is delayed ... if you’re fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to realize there are two definitions, then every single time you see the word, you have to find the person who wrote it and ask them which way they meant it.  And sometimes they don’t even really know: they just meant it whichever way some other person meant it, so now you have to track down that person and ask them.  Trust me, such a little thing as what a word means in a particular context can have a profound financial impact on a project, not to mention its impact on the frustration level of the people working on it.

And words have a tendency to get stuck.  Once a bunch of people all agree on a word and its meaning, you will be using that word forever.  Doesn’t matter if tomorrow you find out that the word is completely wrong.  Doesn’t matter if what the word really means is something completely different, and will confuse anyone who happens to understand the proper definition.  Doesn’t matter if the word is already being used by someone else for something entirely different.  At the point at which three or more people all use a word to mean X, it will mean X to those people forever, and no attempt to change the word will ever be successful.  So not only is the word important for what it means today, but it’s important for a long time to come.

And because I have this pet peeve about making the same mistake twice, I do a lot of correcting people when they use the wrong word, or use the right word in the wrong context, or use a word that isn’t going to mean what they think it means to everyone else in the company (even if the people who are going to get confused don’t happen to be in the room at the time).  Because I’ve seen it go wrong before and I really don’t want to see it again.  And then I’m on the receiving end of that frustrated “it’s just semantics” lecture.

And I’m going: yes, I know.  And I agree with you.  Except for right now.  ‘Cause, right now, the words are important.

This is a frustrating position to be in, because it makes you look inconsistent, or worse: hypocritical.  “Wait a minute,” people will say to me.  “When I tried to correct your word yesterday, you said it didn’t really matter which word I used.  Now you’re up my ass nitpicking my language.  What’s up with that?” And I find it difficult to explain.  Partially because it’s a true paradox: both are true at once.  And partially because it’s a matter of balance: you need to know when to lean one way and when to lean the other.

You see, the truth is the words really don’t matter.  All that matters are the ideas underneath.  Changing the way you describe an idea doesn’t actually change the idea.  A stupid idea is always going to be stupid and it doesn’t matter how you dress it up.  A good idea is always going to be good regardless of how badly you describe it.  The fundamental nature of the idea doesn’t change regardless of the words that are used to express it.

Except there’s a problem.  An idea exists in my mind; I don’t have any way to instantly transfer it to yours.  There’s only one way that I can share my idea with you: I put it into words.  Then, as any college student of Communications 101 knows, I have become the transmitter, and you the receiver, and the idea is the signal, and there will always be noise.  Noise comes in many forms, but often the words themselves are a form of noise.  Because words are an imperfect form to stuff an idea into.  Words are slippery, and no two people are going to have exactly the same combination of denotation and connotation for every word they use in their conversations.  So if I use the wrong word, you get the wrong impression, and suddenly you have the wrong idea: it’s not my idea any more.  It’s similar—perhaps extremely similar—but not exactly my idea.  Of course, it’s not your idea either—as far as you’re concerned, it’s my idea.  It’s some shadow of my idea, mangled in transmission, not really anyone’s any more, but with a twisted life of its own.

So obviously the words do matter.  My choice of words is crucial, because it’s the only way I have to make sure the idea doesn’t get warped out of true on its way to you.  It’s going to get warped, mind you—nothing either of us can do about that, it’s just the nature of the beast—but perhaps, if I can just find the right words, it won’t get warped too badly.  Perhaps it will still be mostly my idea ... close enough to still work.

So I suppose the trick is to know when choosing a different word will help the idea come through more clearly, and when you’re just fiddling with the window dressing.  I try to figure out which is which every day, and I bet I get it wrong a lot.  But I keep trying, because the words are important.

Except when they’re not, of course.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Demon Sony

So, it looks like I’m spending my entire weekend playing Little Big Planet.  This is because the past three years’ worth of Little Big Planet costumes, objects, decorations, and building materials, collected by three out of four humans in our household in quite serious fashion, were on the PS3 that finally broke down.  And Sony, in their infinite brilliance, designed the PS3 so that you can’t retrieve data off a dead machine.  Clever, eh?

Now, you may say to yourself, but a PS3 just has a standard hard drive in it, right?  Just pull that sucker out and hook it up to a PC.  Easy enough, but then you can’t read it, because Sony has encrypted the entire drive.  Copy protection for their games, don’t you know.  No problem, you might think.  Put the old hard drive into a hard drive enclosure with a USB interface and treat it as an external hard drive on the new PS3.  Nope, doesn’t work: not only is the hard drive encrypted, it’s encrypted with a key taken from the hardware chip in the machine.  In other words, hard drives encrypted with one PS3 can’t be read by another PS3.  Again, copy protection.  Well, you say, I heard that Sony just invented a new data transfer thing so that you can copy directly from one PS3 to another ...  Nope.  You have to be able to fire up the old machine in order to start the data transfer.  How convenient for their customers.

Not that Sony is particularly concerned about their customers.  As we can tell from the fact their security is such a joke that a handful of anonymous hackers took them down for 26 days.  Think about that for a minute.  All the press reports I’ve heard want us to be pissed off at whichever hacker group fired off this attack (although we still aren’t completely sure which one it was).  But screw that.  I want you to think about it.  A multi-billion dollar company with employees and offices worldwide got pwned by what was most likely six to ten nerds hanging out in their moms’ basements.  It’s sort of like if your bank came to you and said “Well, all the money in your account just got stolen by a couple of teenagers in ski masks.  We’re real sorry about that.  These criminals must be stopped!” Would you really feel sorry for your bank, taken advantage of like that by evil kids?  Or would you wonder why this giant institution that makes tons of money off you isn’t taking more seriously the idea of keeping your shit safe?

On the positive side, at least it probably cost them a billion or so.  Serves ’em fucking right.

So we waited for 26 days to be able to get back online, to be able to get stuff from the Playstation Store and play online levels with the world and whatnot, and then almost as soon as it’s back our PS3 goes YLOD.  Of course, I didn’t even know what that meant until it happened to me, but apparently it’s quite common.  Certainly a Google search for “ps3 ylod” turns up nearly 2 million results.  It stands for “yellow light of death” (in a nod to the infamous Windows BSOD), and it’s called that because the little light on your PS3 that’s usually either red (if it’s off) or green (if it’s on) turns to yellow and it won’t boot up.  It results from overheating, which is, again, something Sony most likely could have prevented with a little tighter quality control issues.  (And, if you think they couldn’t have, riddle me this: why is it that the newer models don’t suffer from this problem?  Obviously it’s possible to avoid it.) Sony itself offers you nothing to help with this problem.  If your machine is still under warranty, you can get a new machine, but, of course, your data is just lost.  If you’re not even under warranty, you’re really screwed.

So I went online and found someone who does electronics and specializes in fixing these sorts of problems.  And he fixed it.  And it worked ... for a while.  Then it started having a whole different problem, and now it won’t even come on at all.  I took it back to the same fellow, and he says the GPU (that’s the graphics processing unit) is fried.  And you can’t replace it.  So we’re back to being just screwed.

So we bought a new PS3 Friday night.  It’s another $350 down the drain, and now we have to rebuild all our saved stuff.  The only saving grace is that anything we actually purchased is still available for download, so at least we don’t lose all the money we’ve dropped on Sony over the past three years.  Just all the time we spent unlocking levels and collecting stuff.

While Little Big Planet is the biggest loss for us—three quarters of the humans in our house are fairly well addicted to it—it’s the not the only one.  Since my friend Benny first showed me a tower defense game on his iPhone, I’ve been obsessed with that class of games, so of course I have PixelJunk Monsters, one of the best examples of the genre.  Looks like I’ll be starting over on that one too.  My elder son will be starting over on Half-Life 2, Portal (both 1 and 2), and Fallout New Vegas.  My younger son has already started fresh on Costume Quest (a very cute little game; if you haven’t heard of it, you should check it out).  And those are just the biggies.  There are countless other games in which all progress has been erased.

Now, my general attitude towards video games is that they’re time wasters.  I learned long ago (when my college roommates pointed out to me that I’d lost a whole day to Phantasy Star IV, in fact) that I can’t afford to spend too much time on them.  And I try to teach this attitude to my children as well.  It’s just a game, I tell them.  And so it is.  But it still pisses me off to lose all this time just because a greedy company cares so little for me and my data.  It reminds of what may possibly be the most awesome footnote ever written, which appears in the book Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  In it, there is a character named the demon Crowley, and he happens to have a computer.  There is a description of said computer, which leads to this footnote:

Along with the standard computer warranty agreement which said that if the machine 1) didn’t work, 2) didn’t do what the expensive advertisements said, 3) electrocuted the immediate neighborhood, 4) and in fact failed entirely to be inside the expensive box when you opened it, this was expressly, absolutely, implicitly and in no event the fault or responsibility of the manufacturer, that the purchaser should be considered lucky to be allowed to give his money to the manufacturer, and that any attempt to treat what had just been paid for as the purchaser’s own property would result in the attentions of serious men with menacing briefcases and very thin watches.  Crowley had been extremely impressed with the warranties offered by the computer industry, and had in fact sent a bundle Below to the department that drew up the Immortal Soul agreements, with a yellow memo form attached just saying: “Learn, guys.”

I mean, seriously: if demons are cribbing notes from our software EULAs, I think there must be something wrong here.

So today I’m quite down on corporations.  Not that I’m ever up on corporations, of course.  But even more so today.  And, as I’ve spent about 48 hours now trying to keep my children from killing each other as they try to work together to restore all their LBP swag, I’m a bit tired as well.  Not the way I saw spending my weekend.  Video games are supposed to be fun, right?  Thanks a bunch, Sony.  Now I’m even cursed by my gaming consoles.  Sigh.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

On Conferences, and Travel

I just got back from a conference (I was traveling this time last week, which explains why there was no post, not that you care, I’m sure (and, if you do, you aren’t paying attention to the title of the blog—wake up, people!)).  Now, I understand that there are some business folks who attend conferences regularly: salespeople, or marketing reps, or ... well, salespeople, I suppose.  Anyone whose business revolves around networking (in the social sense, not the technical sense) has a very valid reason to travel long distances to hang out with people they don’t really know, I suppose.  Us technogeeks are a slightly different story though.

On the one hand, we more than anyone have a need to stay current with what’s going on in our industry.  The tech world changes at lightning speed, and it’s hard enough to keep up with either hardware or software, much less both.  This is one reason techies are news freaks (see Slashdot) and gossip mongers: it’s not just idle curiosity—sometimes the latest news from Microsoft or Google or Oracle changes our entire job function.  A conference is excellent for that sort of thing.

On the other hand, there are all sorts of logistical issues.  Tech areas can be radically different and radically arcane, so it can be difficult to put together a set of presentations that will have mass appeal.  People at different levels of experience have radically different needs as well, so that complicates matters even further.  Often people chosen to speak are not well known, and often the people who might be well known are not great speakers.

On the other other hand—which turns out to be the biggest hand in this case—technogeeks don’t generally like meeting people.  Hell, most of us got into this business because computers were much easier to talk to than humans.  I’m sure many of my colleagues look at the prospect of being alone in a room full of strangers in roughly the same light that you might look at being alone in a cage full of tigers.  It’s not quite that bad for me, but I freely admit that there’s a fairly long list of things I’d rather do than sit in an uncomfortable airplane seat for six hours (each way) in order to spend four nights in an uncomfortable hotel bed in between long sessions of uncomfortable mingling.  On the scale of introvert to extrovert, I’m a little of both.  I’m very extroverted around people I know; once you get to know me, you’ll probably find that you can’t shut me up.  But I’m not that guy who brazenly walks up to people and introduces himself.  When it comes to hanging out with crowds of strangers—even crowds of people just as geeky as me—I relapse into introversion.

And at the convention I just returned from, I was quite comfortably in the middle of the geek scale.

It’s YAPC::NA, which is the North American version of the “Yet Another Perl Conference,” which trades on the Linux tradition of “yet another"s (such as yacc and YAML), even though it’s more accurate to say that YAPC is the Perl conference, and any other such conferences are “yet another"s themselves.  YAPC::NA is, in fact, the original YAPC, so it really is a bit of a misnomer.

It was quite a good conference for all my whining above, and I’m glad I went.  This was my first time going, even though I’ve been using Perl for many years now (since ‘96, approximately).  Partially my delay has been financial (even though the conference itself is cheap, the airfare and hotel stay can be prohibitive, depending on which city is hosting), and partially just reluctance to wander off and hang out with a bunch of people I don’t know (as previously mentioned).  But this year the company I work for is footing the bill, so most of my excuse is gone.  I was hoping to present a talk, even, but my submission wasn’t accepted.  No worries; that saved me the hassle of standing up in front of a bunch of strangers and pretending I was more interesting than the next guy.

I got to meet many of the Perl luminaries, which is nice.  Among those I actually got a chance to speak to were Matt Trout, Piers Cawley, and Ingy, as well as others I saw from afar, including Stevan Little, and, the progenitor of Perl himself, Larry Wall, who was there with his wife and two of his children.  During Larry’s talk (which opened the conference, naturally enough), he said “I’ve always taught my children that it’s okay to be weird, so of course now I have weird children,” which is definitely something I could relate to.

So I chatted a bit, and learned some things there, and I attended some talks, and learned some things there, and I went to both of the “bad movie night” after-hours gatherings, where I had the pleasure of seeing the MST3K version of It Conquered the World (even though it didn’t) and the live action Aeon Flux with the RiffTrax commentary (which was far more enjoyable than the first time I watched it, when I had to actually listen to the characters speaking).  Overall it wasn’t a bad outing, and I think I got my company’s money’s worth out of it.

I am glad to be home though.  When I travel for business, I often try to arrange to take my family, but it wasn’t economically feasible this time.  You’d think I’d enjoy some time away from the family, and I admit I often think that I will, particularly when they’re all yelling at each other and expecting me to play referee.  I might say to myself, well, at least I have that week off coming up, and I’ll get some peace and quiet for a change.  But then I go off and a funny thing happens: I wish they were there.  As annoying as it is to be packed into a small room with all of them, and as even more annoying as it is to be packed into a small vehicle with them for travel purposes, I generally find that I wish they were around when they aren’t.  I suppose it helps that I don’t think of them as obligations, but more as pals.  I like hanging around with them ... well, most of the time, anyway.  When I’m on my own, I think how nifty it would be if they were there with me, and I could chat with them about all the things going on.  I’ve never actually cared much for being by myself ... in fact, I’ve never lived alone.  (In fact, the last time I counted roommates I’ve had over the years, I got to 30 without even trying very hard, not even including anyone who could be considered “family,” and, if you don’t think your family counts as roommates, you should rethink your perspective.) Now, I did share a hotel room with a coworker (who I can’t say I know well enough yet to call a friend, but I suspect that one day I will), and that definitely made it bearable a lot of the time, but I still missed having the family around.  I’m very comfortable around them.  I’m much more relaxed, and my introverted side is a bit more muted, and I think that helps me open up to people.  Perhaps next year it’ll be possible to bring them along.  I wonder how much different the trip would be with them.

Still, I’m glad I went.  If nothing else, I got to be part of Piers’ human theremin.  (The YAPC videos aren’t up yet, but you can check out the Bobby McFerrin experiment that Piers was cribbing off of.  Admittedly, Piers wasn’t able to add the melodic counterpoint that you see in that video, but then McFerrin didn’t tell me about cool ways to introduce my kids to programming either.)