Wednesday, 9 September 2015

On Deciphering Fandom Inside Jokes

All groups of people who consider themselves communities have inside jokes that are difficult, if not impossible, to understand if you're not a member of that community. Sometimes it's even hard to figure out a joke if you're in the community--for example, to understand the Cerulean Revolution that happened last winter on Tumblr, you need some knowledge of the system of colleges in the Gallifreyan Academy which never shows up in Doctor Who itself and is only described in detail in a couple of tie-in novels that most Doctor Who fans either have never heard of or consider noncanon.

Others can be parsed with a little bit of detective work. This post is about one of those.

I am currently a big fan of BC-based Internet comedy group Loading Ready Run, which anyone reading my blog really should go check out. (Here is one of my favorite videos of theirs.) They do a variety of video and audio formats, including podcasts, a sitcom, and a couple different types of short comedy. The short comedy includes Crapshots, which run under a minute and usually cover a single joke.

Among the many themes of Crapshots is Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy trading card game which most of the LRR cast are big fans of. I became interested in Magic by watching LRR videos about it. This morning I was wasting time in their video archive and came across this Crapshot which had made no sense to me the first time I saw it. In the video, characters Alex and James are playing Magic, and they get into an extended back-and-forth about whether James is going to let Alex play a particular card. They each play a ridiculous number of cards as part of the argument, and when I first watched the video, I didn't know what any of them were.

I still don't know most of them. But I do have access to the official database of Magic cards, so I looked up each one. Here's what happened. (Magic players: I'm simplifying the card effects.)

  • Alex summoned Storm Crow, a moderately weak creature.
  • James responded with Daze, which counters a spell unless the person who played that spell pays one mana. This would cause Alex to discard Storm Crow.
  • Instead of paying one mana (a low cost, all things considered), Alex responds with Negate, which counters any spell that doesn't summon a creature.
  • They keep going back and forth playing counter-spell cards, including six of the same card (Force of Will). One of the cards James plays is Pact of Negation, which counters a spell but causes him to lose the game if he doesn't pay a mana cost at the start of his next turn.
  • Finally, James runs out of counterspells (or maybe out of mana to cast them with) and lets all the spells that have been played resolve. Storm Crow stays in play.
  • Alex ends his turn.
  • James begins his turn, neglects to pay the cost for Pact of Negation, and plays Unsummon, which would put Storm Crow back into Alex's hand. Alex responds with another counterspell.
As I looked more closely at the cards and their effects, I realized there are quite a few jokes happening in this video. In order:
  1. Alex and James make a huge deal about whether or not Alex can summon a creature that's not strong enough to be worth the huge deal. (And Alex could have avoided all this by paying only one mana!)
  2. A friend of mine in the fandom suggested that part of the reason for this huge deal is that there's a running joke about Storm Crow being more powerful than it really is. (This is one of those inscrutable inside jokes that I don't expect to ever learn the full story of.)
  3. James forgot to pay the cost on Pact of Negation. This means that he won the fight over Storm Crow, but lost the game immediately thereafter.
I'm not sure what else there is to say about this puzzle. It was fun to solve, and I feel smarter for it. Go watch some Loading Ready Run.

Edit: I showed this post to a friend who knows more about Magic than I do. Apparently joke 3 isn't actually there: James doesn't have to play the cost for Pact of Negation because, when the stack of spells resolved, all of Alex's spells negated all of James' spells. The explanation of this made my head spin. Oh well, at least I figured out the Storm Crow part.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

On Books #1

Ursula K. LeGuin, cat caretaker and author of such wonderful novels as A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Lathe of Heaven, was once asked by some magazine to write an essay about her favorite fifty books. As she was writing, according to her blog, she realized that the question the magazine was really asking was "what books have influenced you?" and that that was a really bland and boring question. She's been waiting for years, she says, for someone to ask the opposite: What books didn't influence her?

This is the question I'm going to set out to answer today. I have been reading voraciously for nearly all of my life. There have to be some books out there (or in there, in my memory) that didn't influence me.

Let's start with the one author LeGuin says didn't influence her at all: Ayn Rand. LeGuin read Atlas Shrugged and found it terribly boring. I got the condensed version--I read Anthem in high school. It was actually pretty compelling, but I realized when I finished it that I hated the characters, hated the society they came from and the new one they were planning to build. Ayn Rand didn't not influence me. In fact, reading Anthem convinced me that I should not read any more Ayn Rand, and probably influenced my opinion of right-wingers to this day.

The Novel by James Michener was so bland and dragged so much that when I finally reached the end I threw it across the room, glad to be free of it. It made a satisfying thunk against the wall and fell straight into my recycling bin. The Novel didn't not influence me: it discouraged me from reading any more James Michener and reminded me that it was okay to not like a book.

I disliked the protagonist of Twilight intensely and stopped reading after five chapters. But even Twilight didn't not influence me: it made me a serious fandom snob, a condition I'm even now struggling to get over. *mutters* It's okay to like poorly written fantasy novels with weak female protagonists. It's okay to like what you like. I won't judge you if you don't judge me.

*clears throat*

Moving on. Jonathan Livingston Seagull calmed me down after the emotional stress of reading 1984, but had no lasting effect. I think. It may have changed what my favorite Neil Diamond song is. John Grisham's novels have taught me I don't want to be a lawyer. The few Doctor Who novelizations I've read added depth to my understanding of the characters. I did come up with a book that had absolutely no influence on me, but I forgot what it was almost immediately.


Here's a book that definitely had no influence on my whatsofrikkin'ever: my high school chemistry textbook. Other textbooks have convinced me to like a subject (Intro to Linguistics) or to dislike one (third year Chinese), or just to make me laugh during an otherwise nondescript class (my high school calculus textbook had a number of functions defined as f(u)). Chemistry, though...I remember nothing about the book except the cover. It must have been as bland as the class, and yet I'm still watching chemistry videos in my spare time. It neither encouraged nor discouraged me. It hasn't changed any decisions I've made since reading it. I think.