The pleasures of roller derby

On Friday in the midst of work I had two words pop into my brain unprovoked, and those were “roller derby.” I’d never been before, but I looked it up on the Internet like you do and learned that not only is there a Maryland league, there’s a team which plays very nearby to me and although they only play out of their home rink a few times a year, the next derby was literally the next day. So Saturday, I went. Can’t ignore kismet.

Most people will be unfamiliar with the sport, so here’s a quick primer¹. The sport is played by women on roller skates (not inline, the ones with four wheels and a front brake), and on a flat track running counter-clockwise. The unit of a derby competition² is the jam; one member of each team is designated the jammer, and these jammers score points by passing the members of other other team (once they have done so once). The first jammer to pass all of the rest of the other team becomes the lead jammer and has the ability to call off the jam at any point by making a motion to her hips with her hands. Both jammers can score points, however. Each team also has a member who is the pivot, who can become the jammer if the jammer hands off the equivalent of a baton — a cover that goes over the jammer’s helmet to indicate her role. Most of the time, a pivot simply acts as another blocker. Contact is part of the sport, but blocking is not allowed with hands, elbows, head nor feet and must be between thigh and shoulder, I think. Jams end after two minutes if they are not called off by the lead jammer. A derby consists of two half-hour periods with an intermission in-between.

There’s a fair amount of strategy inherent in these rules, and there are probably some rules I’m missing, but that is the gist³.

It’s quite fun to watch, which is the first pleasure. As you start to appreciate the rules and what’s going on out there, you find yourself noticing particularly nice approaches by a jammer to a group of blockers. There were a couple of jammers in particular who were quite nimble on their skates, and seeing them approach the opponent and dance around them without going out of bounds was really quite interesting once you knew what was going on.

Next up, I have to say, is the culture of punny names. Rather than compete under their own names, each competitor chooses her own sobriquet and these can be quite amusing4. From the team I was watching, the Rockville Rock Villains, quite a number stood out: there was The Oxford Commakaze, Grandma Seizure, Gin Demonic, and Too Fast Tofurious (who, I would learn later, wanted to be Artichoke-a-bitch, but was told that would have to be censored). I gather this is a hold-over from when the sport wanted to be an athletic entertainment like wrestling rather than a competitive sport, but I’m glad they kept it.

The atmosphere at a derby is pretty positive; absolutely, as with any athletic competition, people are cheering for their team. But I don’t think I ever heard anyone cuss out a ref, which was unusual for me coming from coaching youth baseball when my kids were younger5. It wasn’t for lack of passion on the part of the athletes nor of the crowd, there was tons of cheering. Just not a lot of screaming or complaints about missed calls or wrong calls. That was really refreshing.

The other thing I noticed, and this may have contributed to the positive atmosphere, is the variety amongst the competitors. There’s a wide range of women’s ages and body types represented, and any woman might participate as any of the roles. I saw women who were very good jammers turn around and serve as blockers as well (they may have been pivots in that situation, because the pivot only became clear to me if she changed role to be the jammer). Jammers tended to be the smaller competitors but not always; larger women could be very effective jammers, though they might approach a group of blockers differently. The women were racially diverse as well.

Finally, there were a couple of things that happened when the derby was over that I thought were great. First, on the rink itself, fans were encouraged to come up and line around the rink and stick their hands out for high-fives from both teams. The victors went first, skating around and slapping hands with all the spectators, and when they finished, they made a tunnel of their arms for the other team to pass through on their way to slap hands.

Second, they invited everyone to join them at a nearby barbecue joint for fun afterwards. A number of the competitors were there, from each team, and I met both The Oxford Commakaze and got the story about Too Fast Tofurious’s name directly from the source, as I had complimented each on their skating.

All in all, it was a really pleasant way to spend an afternoon. I’d encourage people to go, if they have roller derby teams nearby — I gather that there are hundreds of leagues around the world in more than twenty countries.

¹Many thanks to “Fury,” from the other team, who was really patient with me and my many questions over the course of the derby. Fury had recently had a third child and was not competing that day, but was there to cheer on her team nonetheless. I would footnote the use of “Fury” above but it’s one of the pleasures, so you’ll have to keep reading the main article for that. (back)

²Derby refers both to the sport itself but is also the name of the competition between two teams. In tennis, they have matches; in derby, they have derbies. (back)

³In particular, there are fouls for inappropriate contact and for inappropriate offense (such as a jammer being knocked out of bounds and coming back in ahead of someone on the other team whom she was previously behind, that’s called “cutting the line,” if I recall correctly). These lead to imbalances in the teams at times which can be additionally exciting, but I didn’t quite get all of them and so figured I’d just throw them here in the footnotes. (back)

4They also pick their own numbers, it seems, and these were all over the place. There was a 666, a 404 (I wondered if she worked with the web), and quite a variety of others. It seemed part of the whimsy of the names. (back)

5There are any number of stories I could share about being a coach of youth baseball about parents who get a little out of control. But the one that has always stood out to me was during an “all-star” game when my older son was 8 or 9. At that age, base coaches were also responsible for umpiring the bases they were at (and coaches were in the field as well). I made a close call at first base where I called one of the kids on my team out — that was what I saw. The parents were not happy, but were happy to let me know that. I walked over and told them that since coaching was all-volunteer, they were all equally welcome to come out and coach a team. This was a totally meaningless game (which describes almost all youth competition at that age) and the response to one call was definitely out of line, but not out of character. (back)

The old blog lives

FYI, you can find the old blog from a link to the right — I had to go and write a python script to update all the links. Not going to worry if anything doesn’t work quite right (for some reason, the pictures are wrong, not sure why, oh well), certainly new comments won’t work because the back-end is gone. But the old comments are preserved, too, and all the links should work. Let me know if anything is egregiously wrong, thanks.

Oh Capitalism, You Make Everything Worse in a Glittering Array of Ways

I was texting with a friend this morning, talking about what we’ve been reading lately like we do. And I was reflecting on some positives and negatives about the book I started last evening, ending with a remark that indeed it feels like We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Gone Girl meets The Omen as apparently Entertainment Weekly described it¹.

And of those three sources, The Omen was underlined and I had no idea why. I don’t remember seeing that behavior in text messages in the past². So I tapped on it out of curiosity.

And of course, up pops an ad atop my text window, for a 2006 Liev Schreiber remake — a film whose existence I had no concept of now, if I ever did³. The only model which makes sense, given the context — in which two other films (both adapted from books) did not similarly get underlined — is that whomever was in charge of marketing this particular film splashed out some money for advertising that is only slowly being spent. Presumably the other two films were more popular and if they were similarly pushed, they already served out their marketing sentences. Apple isn’t doing this just to get the slice of money they’d get for selling or renting these to you via iTunes; no, they need further inducement. Apparently they aren’t interested in selling you the books via iBooks, either.

You can see the marketing thinking here, I guess. “When people are talking about our movie, we’ll give them the opportunity to buy it right there.” But for me, it’s a hugely unwelcome intrusion, a distraction. It’s another little slice of human soul given up to pointless consumerism. Another tiny fragment of attention stolen from a day, taking a little bit of me away from a conversation with a friend.

I do my best to avoid these things. I use an ad blocker — I used to white list sites I visited frequently but at this point, I can’t imagine doing so, what with ads out there installing trackers into your browsers and collecting data for themselves, and ads that can apparently simply grab passwords by asking for them in off-screen forms and letting the browser aid-and-abet the privacy violation. I support a handful of sites with subscriptions, and yes, I more or less freeload the rest, if there’s no alternative. Sites that won’t show you content unless you disable your ad blocker I simply don’t visit.

It’s clear from the landscape online that the only way ads have of working is by paying extremely little for each of these tiny little attention violations. It’s the model that works. And so by being part of it, we encourage it to find new ways to steal little bits of attention, as here in my text messages, an ad revenue model that didn’t exist ten years ago.

It makes me think of baseball, and how different it is to see a live game, particularly a high school game or something. You go, and the game has a sort of rhythm to it, and yes, there’s a lot of space between the actions. Maybe thirty seconds to a pitch or more, et cetera, and then the burst of activity around a play. I’ve read in books descriptions of listening to a game on the radio, and seen representations of that in films such as A League of Their Own and it used to be a listening experience itself that was filled with little silences. Now, watching on television, those spaces are carved into a million little opportunities for ad reads — “Tonight’s line up brought to you by yadda yadda yadda,” “Tonight’s umpires brought to you by and so on and so on,”4 and a new read between each batter in the line-up it seems, if they could sell that many. Each of these costing a little bit. Each cutting away a little bit of soul.

I know there’s no putting this genie back in the bottle. I’m just finding myself more fearful of new experiences because I don’t want the ads. I stay away from mobile games for the most part because I expect there will be an ad at the bottom of every page. Before I look something up on the web, I ask myself whether I really care to know, because I know it’ll mean clicking through garbage to get at what I want. Some times it’s better just not to know.

And taking a break from Twitter, at the moment, I wonder too about the unhealthy ways it’s changed me. I’m still finding myself reaching for my phone often, and then having a moment where I realize that it’s a reflex and not a need. A search for that bit of dopamine, I guess. I’ve been quitting all these things lately, and looking for the interactions with the world that enrich me. I started up an Instagram account but killed it off after a month or two; I reactivated Facebook only so I could delete my account permanently (it had been years, and the amount of digital cruft that built up in there was terrifying, a million little notifications, each another little cut). The Twitter break. I miss the people that I’d be connecting with in that way; but those connections seem so thin. Built on memories of people and not people. But a lot of that is a separate issue; the focus here is the million little cuts of advertising that I have to suffer to have these experiences.

Instead, I want the more focused experiences — the art museum, all my reading, my (ad-free) podcast, this (ad-free) blog. Those last two actually cost me — a few hundred dollars a year for hosting costs, and I pay it willingly, because it feels like a more human connection, conversations with a buddy and an audience5. All that other stuff serves a mode of being which doesn’t really serve me, and I just have to let it go. While I still have a bit of soul left.

¹The book in question is Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth, one of this summer’s crop of thrillers. I read a fair amount of thrillers, actually. Well, I read a lot of everything, to be fair. (back)

²To be entirely accurate, and this may be germane, it was actually an iMessage, since I was typing away on my iPad, an experience I find more comfortable than thumbing around on a keyboard on the iPhone. I have a USB keyboard for my iPad, much better for doing the crossword puzzle every day. (back)

³And glancing at the “Tomatometer” which accompanied the pop-up, it seems I should be glad I never did. Eesh; that is maybe not the strongest way to sell a movie, to throw a “27%” right there next to it. (back)

4I actually originally wrote this bit with the actual sponsors I hear every night watching the Red Sox broadcast, but I then realized I was doing the same thing I’m inveighing against. And not even getting paid for it. (back)

5I realize this comes from a place of privilege — not everyone can afford to spend money each year to have their little ad-free voice out there. I’m lucky. (back)

Finding the Fantastic in Fantasy Again

I’m going to talk about leaving and returning to enjoying the reading of fantasy novels¹ in a moment, but first I need to talk a little bit about my Dungeons & Dragons group. Bear with me.

I’ve played various tabletop role-playing games in my life, but D&D was the first and the one that had the most staying power. But before this year, the last time I had played had been while I was still at LucasArts, back in the early aughts. After moving to Maryland, I never really had a peer group that fit. I had a huge collection of modules and manuals and magazines in my basement, but mostly they gathered dust.

That changed this year when my elder son asked me if I would DM for a group of his friends, none of whom had played before but who were curious. It ended up being 8 kids² and so I ran two sessions over a weekend in March while they were on Spring Break. One was a one-off, and the other turned out to be a kick-off to a campaign. We’ve played every other week or so through the summer.

And they’re hooked; you can tell from some of them when they’re at the table — excited, engaged, enjoying themselves. Another’s mother told me about how much she hears about the sessions after the fact. And my own son tries to pick apart the various mysteries of the campaign over meals. They often gather after a session and discuss it together. They’re into it.

And their enthusiasm has carried back to me a bit, and mostly because of one fact: all of this is new to them. When I was young³ and playing this for the first time, we all knew too much about the game. We were in a time when there were fewer distractions, and we were all fairly obsessed; we studied the manuals when we weren’t together. When a creature was described, we’d all know exactly what it was, we’d know what we had to do with it. The game was somewhat more geared towards that at the time, to be honest, but it was also just a function of our age and the relative paucity of other distractions.

So what’s been great about this group is that I can describe the appearance of an undead troll, and they don’t know it’s a troll. They also don’t know that it regenerates or the only thing that will permanently damage it is fire. There’s mystery in it for them, and I really appreciate that sense of wonder that they have. It’s made it fun for me, and it’s also helped me realize why I’ve been able to return to reading some fantasy fiction.

I drifted away from reading fantasy maybe a couple of decades ago — I might pick up something from time to time, but for the most part it wasn’t part of my normal reading diet, and on those occasions I read it, it was more likely to be science fiction. I read more literary fiction, and I’ve always enjoyed detective, mystery, and police procedurals, with maybe the occasional espionage novel thrown in.

That was a strange departure: fantasy was how I first came to fiction, when I read The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings over a few weeks when I was fairly young. We had gone to the ocean for our summer vacation but when we first got there an off-shore storm had really roiled up the surf and I was too small to be able to get out into it safely4. My father bought me The Hobbit and long after the sea had settled I was spending all my time reading that.

It kept on. I followed adventures in Prydain and Narnia, and probably a dozen others I can’t even remember now. As I got older I read Conan and Weis and Hickman and Thomas Covenant and David Eddings’s Belgariad and whatever the other one was called, and even later Robert Jordan and Dave Duncan and just all kinds of stuff. But at a certain point, it just no longer engaged me; at the time, I put it down to growing up and putting away childish things, if I thought about it at all. I did read Harry Potter, but I skipped Game of Thrones even as it became this cultural phenomenon, even when I was surrounded by co-workers who really admired it and recommended it to me. I was just kind of done.

But over the last couple of years it has been slowly winning me back, and it’s been because I’ve sought out fantasy that isn’t primarily white and medieval. I had a year there where I read only women and I wanted to read genre fiction from them as well, and so I dug into Octavia Butler and Lois McMaster Bujold and Jo Walton. This year Ursula K. Le Guin died, and I went back to read her early Hainish novels and I loved them. I had a few that didn’t quite connect with me, but more that did.

In the last little while, maybe a year or so, I’ve especially enjoyed the work of N. K. Jemisin (The Thousand Kingdoms), Nnedi Okorafor (Binti), S. A. Chakraborty (City of Brass) and now Laura Anne Gilman is a new discovery to me (Silver on the Road). These aren’t the same medieval white fantasy novels of my youth; they’re something else. I’ve even been making my way through the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett, which treat the staples of my earlier reading life with a welcome and uproarious sense of humor.

I’ve realized that the reason I drifted away from fantasy was that it became entirely too familiar. I’m not dismissing any of that stuff5 I’ve read in the past, nor anyone’s enjoyment of that or the new stuff in that vein; I took a lot of pleasure from those books. But for me, I could no longer take pleasure in it because there was no longer any mystery in it. The familiar is never fantastic.

What I needed, I guess, was fresh fantasy. I didn’t know I needed whole new mythologies, or just stories set in mythologies with which I was less familiar. I didn’t know I wanted a fantasy version of the wild west until I stumbled upon it. But I found my way to all of that by explicitly seeking out different voices, in authors who were women or people of color (or in many cases, both).

I’m glad to be back reading fantasy fiction again, that it’s back in the mix. And I’m glad to be able to play Dungeon Master for a bunch of kids who helped me realize what I had been missing in it. What a gift. Now if I can just get some games to go out there and find some new settings….

¹Note: I use fantasy often to also include science fiction. There’s probably a better term, but I was taught that science fiction was a sub-genre of fantasy when I was a lad, and it has just stuck.

²They are kids to me, though they are 19 or 20. Those that are attending college enter their junior year a month from now.

³I started playing in ’81 or so, around the age of ten. A kind teacher used to let us use his classroom during recess to play, or after school.

4I’d get out there to body surf and just be pummeled into the sand, to the point I feared I wouldn’t be able to come up in time. I remember it well. It was the first time I felt pure terror in my body.

5Though, to be sure, some of it is a lot better than others, and some I would probably not necessarily recommend anymore.

How One Line in a Text File Changed Jedi Starfighter

There’s a bug in Jedi Starfighter. It was caused by one line of data, and although we considered the bug pretty significant, and although we knew about it before we shipped, we didn’t fix it. This is the story of that bug.

In the original Starfighter, the damage done by laser blasts was a bit of data that was specific to each ship type (more or less), defined with a single line of our data definition language¹. Laser fire was defined by four floating point values as I recall: a minimum amount of damage, a maximum amount of damage, the distance before which the maximum was applied (i.e. shots closer than this distance did the maximum damage), and a distance beyond which the minimum was applied. In between, we interpolated between the two. This was meant to be a quiet inducement to the player to engage in dogfighting — close-up fights were more exciting, showed off the ships to better effect, and also better to reflect the feel of Star Wars space combat.

One source of the bug was this: because it was perfectly mathematically valid to have the maximum damage actually be lower than the minimum damage, the idiot programmer² who coded it up didn’t think to have the game warn if that were the case. Sure, it didn’t make any sense for a laser to do more damage the further it went, but it wasn’t harmful for that to happen, and anyway, this is Star Wars, who knows what kind of space lasers they might develop.

In Jedi Starfighter, the data for the player ship³ was tweaked so that this happened, which dramatically improved the ability for players to destroy ships from long range with just their lasers, using the camera zoom. Lasers became more powerful the further they traveled, up to some maximum amount. Effectively, what was meant to be a game about close-quarters combat became about at-edge-of-visual-range combat. We went from a game we thought was about handguns and knives to a game about sniping, metaphorically speaking.

No one involved in this bug was acting improperly. The implementation was general enough to allow for as wide a number of behaviors as possible. The person who made the change did so based on personal taste. When we played the levels, we all tended to shoot things from long range anyway, and when you play these things every day you might mistake sudden changes in the data as simply being much better at the game (because you play it all the time). At some point, the vision of JSF as continuing in the legacy of Starfighter and having that close-quarters feel was not reinforced enough, but we were a short project and most folks had worked on the first. Reiterating that design goal may have seemed unnecessary, or may have simply slipped through the cracks with the other pillars we were pursuing: Force Powers, improved performance, some other stuff.

Now, as I said, we discovered the bug before ship and didn’t fix it. That was the right call then, though it might not be today, hard to say. We discovered the bug once we were either in beta or very close to it. At this point, hundreds of QA hours had been put into the game already, and the game had been balanced around the fact of how the weapons worked, whether we liked that or not, whether it led to the gameplay we liked or not. For business reasons, the game absolutely could not slip, and so… we just left it. It was too risky to change. Balancing all those numbers is so often just a house of cards, and the amount of damage the player’s weapons does are one of the ones at the bottom of the pile. You can’t just pull it out and hope the whole thing will stand.

We had other options, but they weren’t good ones. We could have put the lasers back to where they were on Starfighter, and done a round of tests, but that might have simply ended up burning a test cycle to learn that wasn’t practical, and lost that time forever. As close as we were to ship, and with real bugs that had to be fixed for cert and what-not, that was simply too costly. Today, we might have patched it after more time could have been spent with it. At the time, the best decision we had available to us was to leave it as it was. We couldn’t afford the risk of other options.

So I feel for the folks who missed a typo in some data file on Aliens: Colonial Marines. I’ve been there.


¹I hesitate to even call it a language. It had no control flow statements in the original Starfighter and I don’t think even any variable support, both of which were added in minimal ways for JSF but which aren’t really germane. I just like to digress.

²I feel comfortable calling this programmer an idiot because it was a long time ago and also I was that idiot.

³OK, technically, there are several player ships and so this bug was replicated in several places, but essentially a single line each time. <waves hands in air>

Here goes… something else

In 2005 I started blogging, and in 2017 my approach to managing my blogging software¹ finally showed its flaws. So here’s a first post to do things like testing of this new platform (finally on WordPress because it’s well-supported by my hosting company).

At some point, I’ll put a link to the old blog here, I guess that’ll probably show up in the sidebar. Thanks for bearing with me.


¹Tried and true method: ignore it until it breaks.