I’m back. And I’m a homeowner.

So as it turns out, moving across the Atlantic and buying a house was a bit more than I had bargained for. Something had to give and that something was updating my website… And my blog!

Welp, I’m back up and running now and here to post my first blog since last Christmas (crikey!). If you were curious what I’ve been up to, let me demystify: I spend almost every weekend at home improvement stores now.

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This was on my birthday. I went to Lowe’s to buy air filters on my birthday because I had a 20% off coupon. Just let that sink in…

Between DIY repairs and upgrades, homeownership thus far has been a never-ending drama. Don’t get me wrong, I feel incredibly lucky to live in a home, let alone own one, but something I’ve always taken for granted is how much work goes into maintaining a house. I guess I had always thought as long as you swept it and mopped it the walls would take care of themselves. Oh what a sweet, summer child I was.

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Problem number 1: a leaky window well.

Upon moving in, I immediately discovered a flooded basement courtesy of an improperly sealed basement window. Sigh. At least that was an easy fix.

Then I didn’t have a washer or a dryer. An expensive problem, but not an insurmountable one. I bought a flashy Samsung model that sings to you when your clothes are done. Slight problem though…

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I swear I measured the counter and the washer multiple times, and yet there we were. Couldn’t open the detergent drawer because the crummy plastic and press-board counter was too deep.

Okay, again, not a difficult fix. Just gotta saw the countertop to fit, but dusty business…

… and I could go on. Like how long it took to hang all my retro Star Trek posters- which by the way are nicely framed because I am a grown up. (That’s the rule: It’s okay to have posters on your walls if you’re over 30 years old, as long as you frame them.)

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Or how incredibly satisfying (and simple!) it was to replace a gross, old shower head with something shiny and new.

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But I’ll spare you all the gory details. The important thing is I am back and ready to blog. In between home projects, of course.

Until next time,

Ashley

Happy Nerdy Holidays

If there’s one thing that can get me into the holiday mood, it is geeky holiday specials and nerdy spins on classic carols. I’ve complied a listicle of my favourite YouTube hits here, but by no means is it exclusive. Feel free to comment and add your favourites.

Angry Video Game Nerd Bible Games (Episodes 1-3)

Remember all those great religious games for the NES? No? Well that’s because they weren’t officially released by Nintendo (except for 1 odd Konami title which had almost nothing actually religious in it). The Angry Video Game Nerd plays Bible-related skins, bootlegs and ports of classic games in these 3 holiday specials. It is hilarious and informative of the wild west of early games’ enforcement of intellectual property rights.

“Christmas Raid Carol”- The Guild

You gotta love any carol that starts off with the line: “Dead orcs roasting in a lava pit…” A classic from the early days of Felicia Day and co’s The Guild.

“Make it So”- Captain Picard

Some genius cut TNG to make this fantastic carol.

12 Days of Starcraft

This is an animated version of the old internet classic. Enjoy.

 

A Call to Hugs

I, like most of you, am still reeling from the implications of last night’s election. Not only because of the rather bleak financial outlook and how that will impact my personal life, but also because I am witnessing history repeat and it is devastating. 2222618062_a4a451ea1f

More important than how I feel, however, are how marginalised groups are doing. The fact that we now have a Republican controlled House, Senate and President isn’t the key issue here. The key issue is that we have elected someone who was endorsed by the KKK– who are now celebrating a very white victory. If this is anything like what happened with Brexit, which it is looking very similar indeed, then many of our friends and loved ones might be fearful over the repercussions of this election. lutracanadensis_fullres

This is not a message of sensationalism or over-reaction, this is a message of love, compassion and preparedness. I sincerely hope that hatecrimes do not rise 58% this week, like they did the week after Brexit, but something in my gut tells me they might.

We need to be prepared to deal with the fallout of this election by helping others. Think of this blog post as a call to hugs*.

Look out for your LGBTQ friends, your friends of colour, your friends from non-dominant faith groups, your immigrant friends, your friends from lower socio-economic backgrounds, your mothers, sisters, aunts, and other ladies in your life.european_hedgehog_erinaceus_europaeus

Regardless of who you voted for, check in on your friends and see how they are doing. See how they are coping with the fact their marriages might become invalid, they might lose their healthcare plan, or they might feel unsafe. Of course I am speaking in hyperbole here. Don’t actually ask these rather personal questions. Don’t ask anything at all. Offer a shoulder, an ear, or a cuppa. Listen and provide love and comfort.

This is a moment in which we can all show how much we care for each other. We can show our humanity and that will make all the difference. It could change history.

Until next time,

Ashley

PS- Pix in this post aren’t relevant, but much needed.

 

*But also not hugs if some folks** don’t wanna be touched.

** I mean engineers.  Clearly.

CharityLOL

There’s a thing I like to do twice a year. I like to temporarily pause my vices in the name of charity. Its like Stoptober, with a twist. (Shout out to my design peeps who love the term ‘with a twist’).

The premise is simple. Rather than doing something for charity, do less. Give something up. Quit smoking, quit drinking, quit eating sweets, quit PSLs and then take all the money you’d ordinarily spend on cigarettes/beer/cupcakes/coffee/whatever and sling it to a charity of your choice. Not only does it help those in need, it also shows your concerned family members that your vice of choice is not a problem and you really can quit whenever you want.

So why am I blogging about this? To waft my smugness in your faces, of course. I’m a Good Person™ and look at all the Good™ I am doing.

Just kidding. I’m a terrible person and we all know that.

I’m actually blogging about my yearly sobriety sprints because I’m frustrated that there isn’t an app for this already. I was sitting down with a pen and paper trying to calculate how much money I have ‘saved’ from not drinking thus far and I got annoyed at the inefficiency. I ended up calculating a rough estimate of $4 a day out of pure laziness. Don’t get me wrong, $4 x 31 days= $124 which is a sizable chunk of change to donate, but now that I figured out the sum I find myself a) frustrated at the inaccuracy (type A people of the world unite!) and b) if the dollar outcome is predetermined, why not just donate the cash and call it a day?

I naturally turned to technology for help, but my app store searches came up with nada. So what did I do? I made some wireframe mock ups of what I envision such an app to be. I’m uploading my sketches here in the hopes some brilliant engineers will want to collaborate on making this app a reality.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no pretense of greatness here. I know that ideas are like assholes, everyone has 4, but I think an app like this could be successful. It’s got a lusory, competitive, tongue-in-cheek aesthetic which could make donating to charity fun. High horses not included.

Without further blathering, here are my sketches with annotations. The sketches are funny and convey the form/feel/aesthetic of the app. The annotations are dry and very ‘Ashley’.  I’m sorry.

Note that CharityLOL is a working title.

Also note scrollbars appear on screen to indicate extra content. As this is developed for mobile, actual scrollbars will not be needed.

Image 1: Sign up screen.

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The sign up screen allows the user to: set a location (to access local charities/ food and drink databases); set a start and end date for their ‘marathon’; and choose what they are giving up.

Scrolling down, the user is invited to either input average consumption and price (alcohol is used here as an example, but it could be cigarettes, sweets, etc…) or use the app’s database and barcode scanner. Like apps such as Fitbit, CharityLOL will have access to a user-generated database of consumer products. The idea behind this is to give users motivation to stay the course during high-pressure moments. For example, when at a restaurant with friends the user might be tempted to order a beer, but with the app they can opt instead to document the drink they turned down. This rewards the user for saying no, and gains more money for the charity in question.

The application will be tied to the user’s bank account/credit card for daily donations in much the same way many mobile games require a card on file for in-app purchases. Think of the daily donation as an in-app purchase which goes right to the charities they support. This is designed so that if the user terminates the application or stops using it charities will still receive the funds earned up until that point.

Image 2: Choosing charities/ daily log-in screens.

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Integral to this app’s functionality are partnerships with local charities, which is shown on the left screen above. This is so the user is able to see the impact their donations have firsthand, and also this is how CharityLOL will be monetised- but not for profit. Following JustGiving’s 5% model, a charge is applied to charities who sign up to receive donations which is then re-invested into running and maintaining the application.

Whenever a user logs in to check how much they have given or make an entry, they will be greeted with a progression screen. The progression screen will show how much they have given, the charities they have helped, and the number of days they have gone without their favourite vice. Options to share progression on social media are offered to encourage the user to reach their goal.

Image 3: End screen.

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Upon the completion of the user-identified time period, a congratulatory screen will appear which summarises the user’s experience and awards them with an achievement. The user then has the option of sharing their success on social media, which will allow congratulations and additionally spread word of the app’s existence.

Image 4: Fail state.

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As this is not a game, there is no real fail state, but there is negative feedback to the user. Providing negative user feedback is important to encourage completion of the set timeline. It is also important to ensure there is value to the app’s badges. In the above example, the user would become ineligible for the October alcohol-free badge until next year, but they would still be eligible for other, smaller milestones such as Two Weeks without a Drink badge.

And that’s it. That’s the mock up I have. Who wants to make it?

Until next time,

Ashley

Sidenote 1: Students (who I assume are the bulk of my readership, lol) might be wondering why I didn’t use a game design document to illustrate the app’s functionality. Good question.  The short answer is: because its a UI wireframe. The long answer is: I wanted a clean, easy to read, direct depiction of the app’s UI without much detail about what the user does. There is no game design verb here. Mostly the user clicks boxes. Thus, I need to show which boxes the user clicks- not the experience of clicking. Make sense? If not, email me.

Sidenote 2: Thanks to Roger Altizer for introducing me to Basalmiq. And generally mentoring me.

Sidenote 2: The feature photo of this post has nothing to do with the content. Also, it came from The Best and Worst Photo Blog and even though it was labelled for re-use on Google images, I thought I should give them a shoutout.

Sidenote 3: This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/.

Academic Nomads

In case you haven’t heard… I’m leaving! I’m leaving my job at Brunel and the United Kingdom in general for a new life in the New World. I’ve thus far avoided most mentions of the change on social media because I wanted to say my goodbyes in person- and because 140 characters is rarely enough to discuss anything, much less a total change of lifestyle. So here we are- a blog post.

Rather than use this space to discuss my reasons for moving, which can be summed up in a single word: family, I’ve decided to use my word count to instead discuss the nomadic nature of academic life. Let’s begin with a magical example from my past, shall we?

In the third year of my undergraduate degree, I remember finding out my favourite professor was leaving our university. She was my favourite professor not only because she taught a module called Death and Dying, by which my young gothic self was totally enraptured, but also because she was straight out of Hogwarts. She wore a plain black outfit to every class and made up for the lack of colour in her garments with fabulous accessories. She would wear a ring on every finger and silver linked belt studded with matching semi-precious stones. One class it would be turquoise, the next class tigerseye, the next jasper, and so on. She had style.

One day, towards the end of term, she interrupted her usual overview of that week’s content to inform us she would not be returning to the university the following autumn. Her exact words, I still remember them, were “I’ve very much enjoyed my time here, but two years is an awful long time to live somewhere so I’m moving to Siberia”. I’m sure she qualified the last part of the statement with an explanation of what she planned to do in Siberia, but I was so dumbfounded that I forgot to listen. Two years? A long time? She couldn’t be serious… How can you do anything in two years?

Now this professor was certainly quirky, so I think the ‘two years’ and ‘Siberia’ thing are fairly unique to her, but the general sentiment stuck with me. The nature of academic life can be a nomadic one. It might not always be possible or desirable to put down roots in the city you take a job. Whilst I know plenty colleagues who have settled down and stuck to one university for the majority of their professional lives, I know an equal number who bounce from place to place. In some cases this is down to the necessity of following funding, in others it is taking advantage of opportunities to work with specific people, and in a good number of cases, it is down to an unfortunate increase in zero hour contracts and budget cuts. And, I suppose, it is also possible that some folks just like roaming the planet. I probably fall into the this latter category.

For those of us who have made career moves overseas, the constant pain of saying goodbye is a familiar one. I’m sure it is also painful to say adios to family when you live a city, state, or province away, but short-long distances have to be better than long-long distances. Living and working overseas for me has meant that twice a year for the past eight years I’ve made an absolute ass of myself at the Sky Harbor airport crying and hugging family members goodbye. Although it also sucks to say goodbye to friends and colleagues before I go on holiday, I’ve thus far managed to spare the good folks at Heathrow from my ugly-crying. When I board the plane this time, however, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to hold back.

But that’s academic life for a good number of us. We move around, we spread knowledge, we travel. And, even if our family and job are in the same city, we still experience a steady stream of greetings and farewells during conference season. When you’re an academic, you probably have a good number of academic friends, and given the probabilty they’re nomads like you, the chances of running into each other can be so slim they feel more like internet buddies than real-life friends.

So why choose this life? Because it is worth the pain. Every year is an exciting adventure which leads to the discovery of new ideas, new research, and new people. And isn’t discovery why we’re in this business?

And so dear internet friends, to paraphrase a famous professor, I’ve very much enjoyed my time in the United Kingdom, but eight years is an awful long time to live somewhere so I’m moving to Utah. Who knows, maybe I’ll even put down some roots there.

Until next time,

Ashley

The WoW Movie

I have finally gotten around to the inevitable World of Warcraft movie blog post. I know it comes a couple weeks too late (the film was released on 30 May in the UK after all), but a late review seems fitting given the film itself is 10 years too late. Had the film come out in 2006, perhaps coinciding with The Burning Crusade expansion release, it would likely have had a much bigger and more positive response and I probably would have blogged about it sooner. Blogs existed back then, right? 😉

As it is, the film has been tanking the aggro of plenty of negative reviews (27% on RottenTomatoes, FYI). In addition to proclaiming it ‘unwatchable’, Variety magazine wrote, “It shouldn’t take a mage to foresee that this pricey and preposterous adaptation of an online gaming phenomenon was preordained for artistic mediocrity.” Not to be pedantic, but mages can’t predict the future in Warcraft lore- that’s more of a shammy thing. Accuracy of game references aside, the primary critiques seem to be that 1) the film takes itself too seriously, and 2) it is inaccessible to non-players. In my opinion, and I am not a scholar of film by any means, I completely agree with the first critique and completely disagree with the second.

Let’s start with the first. The film was far too serious to be associated with the Warcraft brand. Sure the game’s lore often deals with serious themes and the Warcraft novels, which provide much more background than the game series by the way, question grave themes like racism, genocide, faith, and tradition, the games themselves do not feel somber. Blizzard’s brand has always been the lighter side of fantasy, both figuratively and literally.

When World of Warcraft launched in 2004, its aesthetics were a departure from the faux-realistic art style of Dark Age of Camelot and the high fantasy trappings of Everquest 2. Visually, it was a departure from the drab greens and browns of even its own Warcraft RTS series (although Reign of Chaos comes close to sharing WoW’s bright blues and reds). WoW allowed you to play gnomes with tufts of cotton-candy coloured hair, dance on mailboxes, and annoy fellow players with in-game items like the toy train that made everyone in the vicinity /train. Scattered among life-or-death battles in Azeroth are exclamations of “Me not that kind of orc!” or “You no take candle!” The fact characters could /silly is a testament to the cheerful feeling and form of WoW that made it so distinctive from other fantasy RPGs.

It therefore comes as a total shock that, aside from a few well-placed Easter eggs, the film feels humourless. This is reflected in all the reviews calling it boring. I won’t bother to cite them all here, just look on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is drab and lacks the bright visual stimulation of its MMO counterpart. It tries for gritty and grown up without realising that viewers have Game of Thrones for that. A huge opportunity was missed to bring the cheeky and cheerful charm of the game to the silver screen.

Now that I’ve been somewhat agreeable, let me disagree with the second critique that the film left non-players in the dust. To me, albeit I’ve been a WoW player since 2004 and a roleplayer at that, the film was no more ‘inaccessible’ to non-players than the Game of Thrones TV show is to non-book readers. Yes, you have to pay attention. Yes, the names are tricky to say. Yes, you might get a sense that not all threads are being tied up for you like the typical Hollywood blockbuster. Its a fantasy film based on a fantasy world which has over 35 novels written about it, its going to have a lot going on and a lot of characters moving relatively quickly.

I actually think the film was too watered down for non-player audiences. The few memorable highlights for me were when we caught a glimpse of a murloc, when a sheep spell was used, and when a cork with iconic blue and red feathers was seen bobbing in a river. The film could’ve gone further with the in-jokes and game references. I would have liked to see a mage get scared and spam arcane blast until they OOM’d, or I would have died laughing if Lothar had asked Medivh to conjure refreshments after he climbed the stairs of Karazhan. Now I’m not saying that a Warcraft film should go full Barrens chat, but a few nods to the game’s humour would go a long way.

The ultimate verdict? Although the film misses good opportunities for fan service and humour, it is entertaining enough to merit the ticket price.

Death and Facebook Messenger

Foreword: This post mixes my personal experience with an academic framework to discuss the loss of a dear friend and the mess of emotions digital lives create. It uncomfortably straddles the private/public, personal/professional divide and this is intentional- it reflects the friendship I had with the deceased. I post it publicly for catharsis and in memoriam of the lost friend. No identifying information is provided out of respect for those who are grieving, so please be courteous and respectful when leaving comments/discussing.


I had just sat down with a water bottle and a book to wait for my grandmother. She had fallen and injured her shoulder on a Monday afternoon in a (and I mean this in the best way possible) rural town in Northern Mexico. Our options for out-of-hours treatment were an emergency room or a sports therapy masseuse, so we went for the latter.

Knowing I’d be in for an hour wait, I decided to perch myself in some shade overlooking the Sea of Cortez and read about peculiar children and imaginary monsters with the sound of the tide in my ears. Exceptionally hot for May, the beach in front of the spa was deserted and peaceful. My phone auto-connected to the local WiFi (I may have been there before…) and my tranquil reading was interrupted by Facebook notifications galore. A sinking feeling settled in my gut when I saw one message was from a friend I’d not spoken to since I moved to London. Apprehensively, I touched his disembodied head on the screen and read the message. A friend, who I had also not spoken to since the move, had tragically passed away.

I won’t mention specifics or go into details here out of respect for those who are grieving. Also, I don’t think details are necessary for the point I want to make, which is, the loss of friends is inevitable, but finding out through social media is a surreal experience.

I clicked the side button on my phone to shut off the screen, sat it on the table next to me and looked out at the sea. I remember thinking what seemed like a peaceful, sunny afternoon only moments ago suddenly felt sinister. The tranquil quiet I’d enjoyed moments before suddenly seemed a deliberate, silent malice engineered so that racing thoughts could become an amplified cacophony. I remember feeling tears slide down my cheeks, but I don’t remember wiping them away. In retrospect, I suppose the breeze off the ocean took care of that for me.

After an unspecified amount of time I picked my phone back up and responded the only way I could, “I’m sorry to hear that. Fuck. Thanks for letting me know.” My response is almost amusing now. A mix of measured, reasoned and polite with raw and incredulous, and really, that’s a good way to describe communication through the medium of Facebook Messenger.

This friend is not the only I have lost, and they are not the only passing I have discovered through social media. That I have experienced loss in virtual spaces before doesn’t make the discovery of death any less strange and it doesn’t make the ensuing experience any less surreal in its painfulness. Seeing dead names tagged or the accounts of the recently-passed active through requiem posts is like seeing a ghost. A fragment, a shell, a piece of the person passes before your eyes as you scroll through your newsfeed and your heart catches in your throat and you can’t breathe because for a split second your bastard brain makes you think they’re back. It is uncanny. Literally uncanny. They’re existing, and yet not. They are trapped in a time capsule that is ever present, ever changing and ever updating itself. That you must bear witness to these updates seems cruel, even as you are sitting on a beach in the usually cheerful Mexican sun.

A few more drab sentences were exchanged that afternoon between myself and the bearer of bad news. Polite, yet raw. I remember closing my eyes tight and pressing my head against the beach chair I was sitting on and thinking ‘This isn’t real’. It was, of course, real. Unfortunately real. Catching the time when I opened my eyes, I realised I needed to collect my grandmother (who is fine by the way) from her appointment and get on with the challenges of my own reality as it was unfolding halfway across the world from where the loss occurred.

Removed by timezones, oceans, countries, and languages, I was baffled by how ‘real’ the news felt as intangible as it was. I wished I had a letter to hold in my hand. As odd as it sounds, I wished a courier pigeon flew all the way across the Atlantic (and almost to the Pacific) to drop off a piece of parchment for me to hold because that would have made the news easier to take I suppose. It would make more sense if I could feel the weight of such heavy news in my hand. It would have been nice to have a letter to crumble or clench in a fist, but I had only the ephemeral waves of WiFi going through the air and to my phone, and those waves are weightless. Unlike the waves crashing against the sandy beach, they don’t even make sound. Not that sound is tangible, but, well, it at least hints that there is something or someone there and makes you feel less alone.

As I sit in my flat accompanied by the click-clack of laptop typing almost a month later, the finality of the death has thoroughly sunk into my brain. Although the death has crossed my mind almost every day for one reason or another, the surreal feeling of loss on the beach that afternoon in May is gone. A bit of time has provided the distance necessary to reflect on how the Facebook medium is the message (you just knew I’d cite McLuhan, didn’t you?), but also to reflect on how loss is experienced in the virtual world.

As a scholar of videogames, I experience virtual loss every time my avatar misses a jump (I’m notoriously bad at platformers), but this is different. This is real loss experienced, at least in part, through a virtual medium. Typically in games, and in techno-mediated-life in general, loss is usually inconsequential. Whilst moderately annoying or inconveniencing, the on-screen death of a character or the loss of a file (with some major notable exceptions) is not an insurmountable blow. It is a setback, yes, but it is not the final end. There is always an option to restart from the last save, or system restore to last operable point, but not when it is a human who has been lost. There is no undo, no restart, no ctrl+z that can bring them back. For me this makes the situation feel even more confusing and brutal.

To wrap this piece up, let me be clear: I do not fault the medium, the message, or the sender for the delivery of bad news. That would be utterly ludicrous. I don’t fault anyone or anything for the circle of life. In the end, as Kelly has said, we all become worm food. (Oh, sorry, I should have included a spoiler alert for Life). Of course some folks believe death is a beginning rather than an end, and that’s cool, but I won’t go into that here. Rather I want to end by saying the experience of loss is a privilege (and a curse) afforded to those who live long enough to experience it. I am much more aware of the life around me, even as it occurs on virtual platforms, because of having experienced loss. The ‘Memories’, timehops, tags, and memorial posts we all witness daily are virtual gravestones which mark out life; and the ache in the chest and the sting in the eye we have when we see them is a physical manifestation of our humanity as gifted to us by these virtual reminders. There is no stronger evidence of how the virtual and real are intertwined than in the example of death via Facebook notification.

And here is where this blog post ends for my living, breathing readers. The message below is only for my worm-food friend on the assumption the recently deceased are as tech-savvy in death as they were in life.

Until next time,

Ashley


My dear comrade, this blog post comes nowhere near the commemoration I would have liked to give you. I think a stern carving of your frowning face in marble to preside over a library of under-funded, over-caffeinated postgrads would have been ideal, but alas… Funds don’t allow. I hope I have achieved the appropriate word-cocktail of scholastic, cheeky, and vulgar that I know you always enjoyed. If not, please come haunt me because I miss you.

PS- Give Molly a scratch under the chin for me.