Category Archives: The Inner Geek

Museums, Mummies, and Modern Technology

For the last six months, the Queensland Museum has been displaying an exhibition entitled Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb. The exhibition is on loan from the British Museum, and “reveals the life and death of an Egyptian priest and tells his story through an extraordinary 3D film and an exhibition showcasing more than 100 ancient objects”.

As any parent of small boys will tell you, there is nothing cooler than a real, live Mummy. (Especially one that’s been dead for a few thousand years.)

I’ve been meaning to take Big Brother to the exhibition ever since it opened in April. But you know how it is, there’s always something. When I realised that the exhibition closes this weekend, I threw all the excuses out the window and packed the boys off for a grand museum trip.

And it was awesome.

The exhibition focuses around the mummy of a priest named Nesperennub. The mummy was discovered in a tomb at Luxor in the 1890s, and has been a prized part of the British Museum collection ever since.

Over the last decade, he’s been the subject of a really fascinating investigation. Scientists have used modern non-invasive techniques (like x-ray and CT scans) in conjunction with graphic technology to create 3D renderings of exactly what lies hidden under Nesperennub’s linen wraps. And we got to see it all.

The first part of the exhibition was a 3D movie. This described the techniques used to determine Nesperennub’s gender, age, occupation, and cause of death. It also showed how scientists were able to perform a virtual facial reconstruction on Nesperennub, and how he would have lived. Then it detailed the embalming process, and touched on the religious significance of the trinkets and amulets buried with him.

It was fascinating. But to be honest, the highlight for me was that the movie was narrated by Jean Luc Picard.

Oh.

I’m sorry, my husband has just informed me that referring to such a great man by one of his character’s name is insulting and potentially offensive. I apologise.

The movie was narrated by Professor X.

So there we were, sitting in a darkened room at the Queensland Museum, with the Professor’s calm voice washing over us as we watched Nesperennub’s 3000-year-old face take shape in glorious 3D based on nothing more than virtual measurements of a skull.  And all I could think was….

Holy macaroni! The Angelator is real!

Also, the exhibition was good.

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What the World Needs Now (Is a Shining Hero)

Have you noticed how many superhero movies there are at the moment?

Over the last couple of years we’ve had The Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Captain America, Ghost Rider, The Avengers, The Amazing Spiderman, and The Dark Knight Rises. Over the coming year we have more to look forward to: Dredd 3D, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Fantastic Four, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, and Thor: The Dark World. Plus probably more that my cursory web search didn’t turn up.

Almost all these movies are eagerly anticipated, not just by the comic-loving geek crowd, but by the world at large. Have you ever wondered why? What makes superhero movies “so hot” right now?

Certainly, superheroes aren’t new.  Comic book heroes have been around for almost 100 years now. And look at any culture’s history and mythology and you’ll find examples of non-spandex-wearing superheroes. Robin Hood may not have been able to fly, but he had a costume, a secret base, and a mandate to help the common folk against the unjust, corrupt ruling class. Compare the story of Robin Hood to that of any modern superhero and you’ll likely find more similarities than differences.

I wonder whether the current fascination with superheroes is based on our feelings about the world we live in. Are we, as common people, looking for a hero? Do we feel helpless, voiceless, and in need of protection from an unjust, corrupt society? Are we drawn to stories of heroism because we need that type of story in our lives right now; because we need to feel that there is a powerful force for good hiding amongst the news stories of lying, corruption, and injustice?

Thinking about superhero movies always reminds me of my first superhero movie. Back in 1986, when I was ten years old, I was introduced to a superhero movie that (I have to admit) is still my favourite: The Return of Captain Invincible.

You’ve probably never heard of it.

Apparently camp, B-grade, musical comedies about superheroes weren’t all that popular in 1983. Especially when they were made in Australia. So if you’re not one of the 25 people in the world who’ve seen this movie, let me give you a brief summary:

Captain Invincible (Alan Arkin) was a hero to the American people in WWII, but at the end of the war he found himself the subject of a congressional investigation and accused of being a closet communist (because he wore a red cape). Rather than face charges of flying without a licence, impersonating a military officer, and wearing underwear in public, he disappeared from the public eye.

Thirty years later (when the movie begins), Captain Invincible is an alcoholic living on the streets of Sydney, Australia. When his arch-nemesis, Evil Mr Midnight (Christopher Lee) re-emerges, steals a hypno-ray, and unleashes his evil plan, the US government hunts down Captain Invincible and asks him to return.

One of the great (and cheesy) aspects of this movie are the songs. Early in the movie, the President of the United States calls together his Chiefs of Staff and demands they come up with a means of beating Mr Midnight. All the suggestions hinge on some large-scale military action. This is the President’s response:

(Warning: The first 60 seconds are NSFW. Skip to 1:01 if you’re concerned about bad language.)

You know what the current spate of superhero films tells me? What the world needs now is a shining hero.

But where do we find one? Who stands for truth and justice and courage in the world today?

Our politicians are regularly exposed as liars, our sports stars are accused of using drugs, our music stars are arrested for drunk driving or theft, and Reality TV stars are pregnant at 17, yell abuse at family and friends, and glorify antisocial behaviour. We hear stories about doctors committing murder, police officers committing crimes, and church officials committing sins of the flesh.

But no matter how jaded and cynical we feel, there are still heroes in the world. In fact, they may be closer than you think.

Have you seen this picture? It turned up on my Facebook news feed a few days ago, but it’s at least a year old.

This boy last his father in the crowd, and was scared and freaked out until he saw The Flash and Wonder Woman. He went up to The Flash and asked for help, because he recognised him.

I don’t know the full story behind the picture, and all my internet searching failed to turn up anything more than the information above. But in my imagination it went something like this:

Joe Average isn’t a hero. He curses and drinks on occasions. He tells the odd lie, and maybe he even downloads movies or music illegally or take stationery home from work. Occasionally he dresses up as his favourite heroes for conventions, not because he thinks he is a hero, but because he wants to pay tribute to a character he loves.

On a normal day, Joe Average may not have even noticed a little boy, lost and crying for his Dad. And if he did, he would have “done the right thing” and taken the child to a nearby cop or the registration desk. But on this day… Well, on this day he wasn’t just Joe Average. On this day he was dressed as The Flash. And, more importantly, in the child’s eyes he was The Flash.

And The Flash would never let a child down. The Flash would be a hero. Even if it was difficult. Even it was time-consuming. Even if it was inconvenient. So Joe Average did what any hero would do: he helped the little boy find his father.

Joe Average may not have saved any lives or defeated any arch villains, but in the eyes of that child and that father, he’s a hero. All because he was wearing a fancy red suit.

What would you do if you saw someone who needed help? Would it be different if you were dressed like a hero?

Imagine what the world would be like if everyone behaved as though they were dressed in shiny red spandex, ready to leap into action and save the day. Imagine what would happen if we stopped looking for other people to step up and be a hero and instead we looked to ourselves. Imagine if we acted as though underneath our clothes there was a superhero costume just waiting to be revealed.

What the world needs now is a shining hero.

Imagine if it was you.

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My Militantly Indie Dessert

During our date night on Saturday, my husband and I had dessert at Brisbane’s iconic dessert bar: Freestyle Tout.

It’s one of our favourite places to eat. Back in the days when we were young and child-free, we lived in an apartment directly above the restaurant and would head down there whenever we wanted a sweet treat. But it had been a while.

“What are you going to have?” my husband asked me.

I considered for a moment. “I haven’t decided. I’m weighing up between the Spanish Churros with Hot Caramel Dipping Sauce and the White Chocolate Raspberry Brioche Dumplings. What about you?”

“I’m having the Berry Deluxe Sundae.”

I froze, then looked at him. “Wait. What?”

“The Berry Sundae.”

I stared at him a minute. “So… We’re at a dessert bar and I’m trying to choose between having warm spanish churros served with hot caramel dipping sauce and vanilla bean ice cream, or three brioche dumplings served with fresh raspberries, warm white chocolate dipping sauce and vanilla bean ice cream, and you’re having a sundae?”

“A deluxe sundae,” he said proudly.

“Don’t you want something a little more… I don’t know… interesting?”

“It is interesting,” he insisted. “Look, it’s got two flavours of ice cream! And berries! And cream! And a chocolate sail!”

“It’s a sundae.”

He looked at me a minute. “You’re one of those militantly indie chicks, aren’t you?”

“What? What does that even mean?”

“It means you only listen to the indie/alternative music radio station or nothing at all. You won’t ever listen to mainstream radio, even though you secretly like some of the Top 40 stuff, because it’s not indie enough for you.”

“… So… What’s your point?”

The waiter arrived and we ordered.

I had the Churros.

My husband had the Sundae. (Sorry — the Deluxe Sundae.)

And then we went to a bar where I loudly declaimed the mainstream music (even though I knew all the words) and sang exuberantly when the band played something retro-chic or alternative.

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Word, Words, Wordy, Wordary: A Review

I have a confession to make: I’m not a big computer game player. (Gamer? Whatever.) There are one or two games I play occasionally on my PC, a couple of exercise-based games I play on the Wii, and I once spent a few weeks addicted to playing Fable on the original X-Box. But for the most part, I would prefer to read a book, go for a walk, or play a board game/roleplaying game than sit and play a computer game.

But there are exceptions to this, and I recently came across one. Now, I’m not a game reviewer and I’m not going to pretend to be, but I do want to tell you about this game. There are two reasons for that: (1) I really like it, and I think you might too, and (2) I’d really like to give you a copy. For free. (No, really.)

Much as its name suggests, Wordary is a word game. Or, as it’s being marketed, “A word game with a spin!”. At its most basic level, it’s a word-creation game along the lines of Bookworm.:You’re given a grid of letters and you create words by linking together adjacent letters. The longer the word, the more points you get. And, of course, different letters have different point values, so QUIZ will get you a lot more points than NOTHING.

The difference is in the board itself. Rather than a rectangular grid of letters, Wordary uses a ‘flower’ design of seven hexagons, linked… wait, how about I just show you a picture?

The cool thing is, not only are the hexagons interlinked, each individual hexagon can also be rotated to realign the letters.

After playing Wordary, I’m not sure whether this feature is an amazing new concept in word games, oran addictive gimmick that  results in me playing the game for far, far too long in one sitting. You choose.

There are four play modes to the game: The standard game, a time challenge (you set a timer before you start), Follow My Lead (you’re given a letter/s you have to use to start each word you find), and Word Finder (you have to manipulate the hexagons and find the hidden word). My favourite is Time Challenge — largely because it lets me track how much time I’ve been playing!

Anyway, here’s a nifty video about the game. It only runs for a minute and a half and pretty much shows you everything you need to know to play Wordary.

Now, I just know you’re sitting there wondering how you get your hands on a copy of Wordary. So, here’s the deal:

Option1: Visit the official Wordary website where you can click through to by the PC, Mac or iPad version. (The full price is roughly $10, but it looks like there’s a few promos going on at the moment.)

Option 2: Go here, here, or here to download a free demo of Wordary — you get one hour’s gameplay before being asked to upgrade to the full version.

Option 3: I am very excited to announce that I have FIVE free copies of Wordary for the Mac to give away! Interested? Just leave me a comment that includes (1) your favourite word, and (2) that you’d like a copy. I’ll close off entries when my next post goes live (Monday 3:00pm AEST) and randomly choose the winners. Tell your friends!

I leave you with this final warning — Wordary is highly addictive and a LOT of fun. Play at your own risk.

Disclosure: I haven’t been paid for this review. Although I was offered a free copy of the game, I wasn’t able to take advantage of the offer because I don’t have access to a Mac. All opinions expressed within are my own and are shared out of the goodness of my heart  because it’s an interesting and engaging game. The giveaway copies have been provided by Wordary at my request.

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Roleplaying for Writers

Before I went on my leave of absence, I started writing about how role-playing is beneficial to writers. That was prompted by some questions I’d had from people who didn’t understand the correlation between the two subjects. I’ve always intended to get back to the question but this time I will answer it in a single post. *deep breath* Here we go.

What is role-playing, anyway?

Role-playing, at its heart, is a collaborative storytelling experience. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and found yourself thinking, “I would totally have seen that coming.” Or: “If that was me, I would have done something different.”? Congratulations! You know how to role-play.

In a role-playing game, each player takes on the role of a character and plays that character as s/he takes part in a story. The Storyteller (also called GM, DM, etc) is the sole exception to this. The Storyteller designs the plot and plays the role of every non-player character in the story.

(If you’re interested in reading my long, rambling introduction to role-playing games — as well as the experience I had introducing my parents to role-playing — you’ll find it here.)

Playing a Character

Most of the people involved in any role-playing game take on the role of an individual character throughout the story. … What does that actually mean?

1) You develop a character concept, personality and background to suit the genre of the game you’re playing.

My character’s name is Cinderella Daniels. She’s 18 years old, about 5’2″ tall, with mostly dark hair — she’s dyed one stripe a vivid fuchsia. She grew up half with her Mom and half with her Dad. Her parents are quite civil to each other, she just happened to be the result of a one night stand, and her parents don’t have anything else in common. So half of each year she spent time with her Mum in a hippy-type commune just outside San Francisco where they lived on minimal money and spent time skipping school to hand- craft goods to sell to tourists. The other half of each year she spent with her Dad in New York, where she lived in an expensive apartment in Manhattan, went to the finest school, and had everything she could ever ask for. When she graduated high school, both parents expected her to live with them — so she moved to Miami to work out what she wants to do next. Her Dad bought her an apartment and gives her an allowance (much of which she gives to charity) and she volunteers weekends at the local science museum.

2) Once the game begins, you take on the role of your character, responding to the Storyteller and helping craft the story as you go.

Storyteller: You’re walking along the street when you notice a dog staring at you.
Cinderella: I love dogs! I look around to see who owns it.
Storyteller: There doesn’t seem to be anyone else around. The dog’s not wearing a collar or a leash, but it’s definitely watching you.
Cinderella: Poor thing, maybe it’s hungry. I’ll approach it — cautiously, though. I remember one time at Mum’s place when I was 8 or 9, this dog wandered in that looked harmless enough, but attacked everyone who tried to touch it.
Storyteller: As you approach, it starts to wag its tail.
Cinderella: Awww… I hold out my hand and talk to it. “Hello, little doggy. Are you hungry?”
Storyteller: The dog says, “Yeah, I’m starving. You got something to eat in that bag of yours? Maybe a burger? I love burgers. But hold the cheese — lactose, you know?”
Cinderella: Um. Did that dog just talk? I look at the dog. “Did you just talk?” Seriously. I must be going insane. I’m talking to a dog.
Storyteller: The dog tilts its head to the side and whines at you. Then it definitely talks. “Shit. Did I scare you? I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m not s’posed to scare you.”
Cinderella: I take a few steps backwards. “Noooo…. Not scared. Um. Hi?” 
 

Playing a character in a role-playing game is quite different to writing a story because you only have control over what your one character does. You don’t control the world, or the plot, or the other characters. It’s up to you to solve the mystery, or catch the killer, or plot to steal all the money in the bank vault of one of the biggest casinos in Vegas using only the skills and knowledge of your character.

Telling Stories

In each game there is one person designated as the Storyteller (DM, GM, et al.). The Storyteller is responsible for designing the plot, describing the world, and playing the roles of minor characters that the main characters come across. … What does that actually mean?

1) Develop a premise, plot, and antagonist to suit the genre of the game you’re playing.

The Morrigan and the Dagda have had a falling out. The Morrigan knows she can’t attack the Dagda directly, but she knows Lugh has a 19 year old child named Cinderella Daniels. Even better, the girl doesn’t know her father is a Celtic God. The Morrigan sets out to have the girl kidnapped, planning to use her as leverage to force Lugh to take her side against the Dagda. Lugh catches wind of this plan, but is unable to get to Cindy, so he sends a dog — a pup sired by his own dog companion, Failinis.

2) Once the game begins, you are the character’s eyes and ears. You take on the role of minor characters and antagonists as they appear, dictate the passing of time, describe the scene, and present the plot — always making sure to give the players space to play their character and make decisions about the direction the story will take.

Being a Storyteller in a role-playing game is quite different to writing a story, because you have no control over what the main characters do. You set up a scene, you provide back-up characters and antagonists, and you react to the characters as they react to your plot. Together, you tell a story.

How Does This Help When Writing?

When you’re writing a story, you take on the role of both the player/s and the Storyteller. You design the premise, plot and antagonists as well as the character/s. Then you build all the elements into a story.

Role-playing lets you practice each of those roles individually, which in turn helps you think about them as individual roles when you’re writing.

Instead of thinking:

Lugh’s dog shows up. It has a brief conversation with Cindy and Cindy agrees to take it back to her place.

I will think:

Storyteller: Lugh has sent his dog to meet up with Cindy. The dog is going to try to convince Cindy to take it home with her and then patrol the house looking for bad guys.

Cinderella (when the dog starts talking): This is totally creepy. There’s no way this dog is coming home with me. Oh, look how cute it is… Okay, it can come home — but it’s not coming inside and I’m taking it to the pound first thing in the morning.

Thinking about the story in this way helps prevent (1) characters from doing things because “it has to happen for the plot”, and (2) unrealistic plot points (based on the world and the antagonists). It helps ensure characters are always acting “in character”, and also forces you to push the boundaries of your plot.

There are a number of other storytelling techniques that I’ve developed and practiced through role-playing — such as setting a mood, rising and falling tension, and building micro-tension — and the “instant feedback” scenario of a group of people reacting to my character and/or storytelling is fantastic. But coming to understand the strong differentiation between plot and character when writing a story is the aspect that has had the largest impact on my writing.

So, all you role-players out there: What aspect of role-playing has had the largest impact on your writing?

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Tell Me a Story About Spider-Man

Photo by Roland Peschetz While we were driving to my parents’ house on Friday night, five-year-old Big Brother asked me to tell him a story.

“Of course!” I said. Because, you know, telling stories is what I do. “What would you like a story about?”

“Spider-Man,” he said.

“Spider-Man,” I repeated flatly.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. Big Brother is obsessed by Spider-Man. But I have a confession to make: I don’t know much about Spider-Man. I may be a geek but I’m not a Comic Geek. My entire knowledge of Spider-Man comes from watching the first Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movie. And that was many, many years ago. (And I may have picked up a few bits and pieces from listening to my Comic Geek Husband tell story after story to Big Brother.)

“Spider-Man,” said Big Brother. He sounded way more excited than I felt. “And Kraven has to be the villain. And I have to be in it, too.” A brief pause. “Okay, go.”

And so I did.

One day, Big Brother was riding his skateboard along the street. He was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt and a helmet because you always need to wear a helmet when you ride your skateboard.

All of a sudden, strong arms grabbed hold of Big Brother and pulled him off his skateboard and into an alley. Big Brother squirmed, but couldn’t get away. When he looked back, he saw it was Kraven the Hunter!

Kraven laughed and said, “You’ll be the perfect bait to lure Spider-Man into my trap! That fool will never be able to resist trying to rescue an innocent child.” Then Kraven carried Big Brother back to a huge warehouse full of cages. A lot of the cages were empty, but some had dangerous animals locked in them.

“What are you going to do with me?” Big Brother asked.

“I’m going to lock you in one of these cages until Spider-Man gets here,” said Kraven with a snarl.

Big Brother was quite scared, but he remembered that being brave means acting with courage even when you’re scared. So he thought very, very quickly. He knew he wasn’t strong enough to get away from Kraven, but maybe he was clever enough. So he sighed and said, “Oh, good.”

Kraven stopped. “What do you mean, good?”

Big Brother said, “I’m so glad you’re going to lock me in a cage. I was worried you were going to make me sit at that table over there.”

Kraven looked confused. He looked at the cage, then at the wooden table and chairs, then back at Big Brother. “So, you want me to lock you in a cage?”

“Yes, please.”

“Ha!” said Kraven triumphantly. “Then I’m not going to! You have to sit at that table over there until Spider-Man gets here!”

On the inside, Big Brother was very happy. But on the outside, he tried to look very sad. “Oh,” he said. Then he sighed. “Well, at least you’re not going to make me eat ice cream.”

Before he knew it, Big Brother was seated at the table with a big bowl of ice cream in front of him. Meanwhile, Kraven paced back and forth in the warehouse, talking to himself. “I’m so clever!” he said. “When Spider-Man gets here, I’ll capture him and put him in one of these cages. Then no one will be able to stop me hunting whatever animals I want to hunt.”

Before long, Spider-Man arrived. He leaped down from the ceiling, shooting webs at Kraven. Big Brother watched (and ate ice cream) while Kraven and Spider-Man fought. Spidey was super-fast and kept jumping around and shooting webs, but Kraven kept breaking free of the webs and was super-strong.

Suddenly, Kraven grabbed hold of Spider-Man’s leg and threw him into one of the cages! Before Spider-Man could get back out, Kraven slammed the door closed and locked it!

Oh no! Spider-Man was trapped!

Kraven laughed. “Now you will be one of my exhibits,” he said to Spider-Man. “And no one will get in the way of me hunting as many endangered animals as I want!”

He turned around to leave, but Big Brother jumped up from his chair and threw his bowl of ice cream right into Kraven’s face! Some of it got into Kraven’s eyes, and he couldn’t see. He staggered around and blinked and rubbed at his face. Then he grabbed Big Brother in his super-strong arms.

Big Brother couldn’t move his arms. He tried kicking his feet, but that didn’t work. So he did the only thing he could do: he head-butted Kraven. And Kraven collapsed!

(“Because I was wearing my helmet!!” Big Brother interrupted.)

Because Big Brother was wearing his helmet. Kraven was out cold! Quick as a wink, Big Brother found the key to Spider-Man’s cage and let him out and Spidey covered Kraven in webs.

“Wow,” said Big Brother, looking up at Spider-Man. “When I grow up, I hope I can be a hero like you.”

Spider-Man patted him on the shoulder. “You already are.”

Big Brother loved it. I have to admit, I was pretty pleased with myself, too. I told my husband about it later, making sure to point out the cool bits. “Did you like the way I foreshadowed the helmet? And the Brer Rabbit bit? And–”

“You know,” my husband interjected. “Sometimes you really overthink things.”

 

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An Affair to Dismember

On Friday I packed Big Brother and Little Brother into the car after school and drove 500km (310 miles) to my parent’s house. (Sadly my husband had to work all weekend and couldn’t come.) Sunday morning, we climbed back into the car and drove home. By the time we got back last night, I was exhausted. It’s a really, really long way to drive for one day. Especially with two children and no other adults.

But we did it for a really important and exciting event.

Today is my Dad’s 60th Birthday. 

On Saturday the whole family (minus my husband) gathered to celebrate it in the only way we know how: with a loud, exuberant game, plenty of alcohol and not a lot of sleep.

 

We started the celebration with presents and a cake.

(The cake was delicious.)

One of the presents was the evening’s entertainment.

We’d chosen characters a couple of days in advance, and organised our costumes. (All except Dad. This was a surprise to him, so Mum had organised his costume for him.) Once dinner was mostly prepared, we all went to get ready. Then out came the drinks, the cameras, and the posing.

Allow me to introduce…

Glumda, the Wicked Witch of DePressed:

Dr. Angela Deth, Psychotic Dentist at Large:

Madame Garlique, the Flamboyant Clairvoyant:

Lizze Bordeaux, Goth and Bride-to-be:

The Mummy of King Aldrinktotat:

The Monster of Rogersandhammerstein:

and Hannibal the Cannibal:

With my husband unavoidably absent, we needed an eighth person. It wasn’t easy, but we managed to rope in a dummy.

(Big Brother was there too. He was dressed up as The Boy Who Really Wanted to Play But Was Forced By His Mean Mother to Go To Bed Even Though It Wasn’t Fair.)

We had a great time. We ate, we drank, we solved a murder. It took us until 2:30 in the morning, but by gum we did it!

(Also, we ate pavlova.)

Happy Birthday, Dad.

Sixty years young today.

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