Wednesday, May 4, 2016

It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that thing with the songs and the colors was in fact what other people call synaesthesia.

There are two broad classes of synaesthetes: Projectors and associators. "Projectors" perceive the synaesthetic experience to be outside of their own head, superimposed on the literal experience that brings it up. "Associators" perceive the synaesthetic experience to be inside, visible to 'the mind's eye', but not physically applied to the literal experience of whatever is coming in from outside. An associator looks at the Wednesday heading on the calendar and "knows" that Wednesday is feminine and solemn; a projector looks at the Wednesday heading and "sees" that although the print is physically black, it is simultaneously also a bright scarlet red. Now that I know the difference, when I read pop-sci articles I can usually pick out which kind of synaesthetic experience the interviewee is talking about, but most of the people doing the interviewing do not have synaesthesia themselves, and they tend to characterize all of the experiences as if they were projected.

This matches up very poorly with what happens in my head. Almost all of my various short-circuits are associative -- all of the stuff I 'see' when I listen to music happens on an imaginary plane between the world I physically perceive with my eyes, and my brain where all the interpretation happens. It's the same imaginary plane my eidetic snapshots display on, in fact. Also where the action happens when I'm reading a book, where graphs and transformable spaces are located when I'm chewing on advanced math, and where the wireframe reference for the design lives when I'm trying to piece together a garment from scratch. Seeing what's in front of me and 'seeing' what's in 'front' of me simultaneously presents no particular problem. I can get distracted by one and forget to pay attention to the other, the same way anyone can get distracted by a particular widget on the desk in front of them and forget to pay attention to the rest of the room, but for the most part the two screens run concurrently, and have done as long as I can remember.

[I do get the it-is-black-but-also-red thing, it's just entirely internal. Anecdotally, a lot of synaesthetes report being able to envision "impossible" colors, which is either brilliant or annoying, depending on what you're trying to do with it. Imagine something like a peacock feather, or an opal, which seems to contain many different colors within its structure at various depths and angles of incidence. You can see each of those colors in turn by making arbitrarily small changes to the angle at which you view the object. Now imagine what happens as the change in angle necessary to switch between colors becomes smaller and smaller. The limit case, where δΘ→0, is an impossible color, where all of the colors present in the object are visible simultaneously without any change in viewing angle.

This drives me fucking crazy sometimes. I have been known to go on a tare looking for a specific color of pigment or fabric, or to spend hours with colored pencils trying to work out how to shade something so it matches what's in my head, only to finally realize I am picturing a color that cannot exist in real life.

One of the few cases where I was aware it was an impossible color from the get-go was in pterry's Discworld books, the wizards-only color "octarine". I just assumed that everyone could picture the counterfactual color, even though it obviously did not physically exist. It's a sort of a pumpkin orange and kelly green at the same time, if that helps anyone.]

Because my chromesthesia is associative, it's more roundabout and less distracting than it might be. I'm not hearing a song and literally hallucinating a field of color. It's more like Proust and his madeleines -- the experience of hearing that song reminds me intensely and inescapably of the experience of seeing a particular shade of blue. Sometimes it's a more complicated visual, and sometimes it's other modalities in addition to/instead of just color, but that is the general gist of it. The color, and whatever other visuals are involved, comes up on the eidetic plane. They are vibrant and very very specific, to the point where the color temperature can change slightly but noticeably if I'm using a different set of headphones, or have accidentally fucked with the equalizer settings. I finally had a brainwave and grabbed a Munsell color picker app for my phone, so that I can just show people what color I'm 'seeing', rather than waste ten minutes of circumlocution trying and failing to explain it.

My theory on what is going on is basically accidental databending. Databending, or at least one aspect of it, is when you take a file that was encoded as a particular form of data -- like an MP3 -- and open it in an application that was meant to open a different thing entirely -- like a graphics editor. Most of the time, trying to interpret an MP3 as a JPEG is going to result in a glitched mess that looks like nothing in particular, but occasionally you get something cool out of it.

Figure that memories are encoded as literal, physical patterns of firing neurons. The odds are that the actual shape of the firing pattern looks little or nothing like the thing it's encoding. If I'm staring at a rat, my brain is probably not literally playing connect-the-dots in the outline of a rodent. So there has to be some sort of lookup table. If the lookup tables are local, then patterns can duplicate between them, as long as no one pattern is used twice in the same department of the brain. Something goes into my noggin, gets routed to the auditory processing center, sets off firecrackers in Configuration #37, the auditory processing center checks the table, it goes 'oh, that's a C chord in the guitar fill', all is fine.

If Configuration #37 accidentally gets CCd to the visual cortex as well, then the visual cortex also checks its lookup table for that particular pattern. Configuration #37 might not exist on that table, in which case nothing happens and the misrouting fizzles out there. But if Configuration #37 happens to also be on the local visual table, the visual cortex finds it and shouts back 'tourmaline!', and voilà, a color comes up to go with the sound.

Sometimes collisions like that happen. The phonemic sequence [da.me], exists independently in two of the languages I speak. In Japanese, spelled 『だめ』, it means "don't [do that]/stop it," and in Spanish, spelled « dame », it means "gimme". The two tongues are from opposite ends of the planet, and etymologically completely unrelated. (Seriously. Spanish is from the Romance branch of the Indo-European languages; Japanese is Japonic. Their most recent common ancestor is "humans invented talking".) That string just happens, by sheer coincidence, to be valid in both. Given that, I have no problems believing that Configuration #37 just happens to mean things to both the sound processing and color processing departments of my poor confused brain-meats.

The reason I assume this is going awry somewhere down on the hardware level is that it's possible for it to clash with my conscious expectations. If I happen to have two songs on my playlist with similar beginnings, and one of them comes up when I'm expecting the other, I have one of those ack, thpppbt moments you get when you sip from a glass expecting Sprite and find out it's actually seltzer. It tastes perfectly fine for seltzer water, but until the realization strikes, it's disorienting and wrong. I tend to go wait, why is that violet? shouldn't that be periwinkle? and then I figure it out.

I can ignore it fairly easily, the same way I filter out all of my random pareidolia. I just apply a sanity test to the inputs -- that came in via the ears, don't be daft, it can't be a color. For all I know, other people do this at the unconscious level. I've just moved a lot of stuff up to the conscious and semi-conscious levels of processing, because my basic sensory filter is fucking terrible, and I have enough capacity to compensate. (Mostly. The more exhausted I am, the less I'm able to discard extraneous stuff as quickly as it comes in, and the more I want to hide in a corner and cry.) I can also opt not to ignore it, which is generally how I entertain myself while waiting for trains. I assume I look like I'm staring idly off into the middle distance, usually at something visually boring, like the wall tile or the gravel trackbed.

This system of spurious accidental associations isn't confined to raw sensory data. If ever I draw one of those comparisons that makes perfect sense as soon as I explain it, but has you wondering how on Earth I managed to jump straight from point A to point B, I probably didn't. Somewhere around point A-and-a-half, the concept I was working with got misrouted and kicked back a spurious match to Q out of nowhere. Q generally has no logical relationship with A, especially if it's in the wrong sensory modality (or wrong semantic category, or wrong temporal aspect, or some other kind of wrong Fach), but this is probably not the first time it's been sent back as a false positive. If I rummage around for the list of other things (B, F, 23, 9782i, Wingdings fish) that have previously come up Q for no reason at all, those almost always have a logical connection to A, and actually now that I think about it, B makes a useful metaphor for the point I'm trying to make.

Overall, this is one of those things that by rights ought to make me barking, howling, completely non-functionally mad, but doesn't, because one of the few bits that is not generally broken in my brain is the reality testing. I use it ruthlessly, particularly when reading people, who trigger it no more or less than anything else in the universe does. I do know a lot of formal psychology, and I make conscious note of tics and microexpressions and vocabulary and all that, but in essence what I'm doing is creatively misapplying cryptographic techniques to everything. Using the spurious coincidental associations to quickly dig up "similar" behavior I've seen in the past gives me orders of magnitude more ciphertext to work with than I should rightfully have.

I usually figure out how and why they're "similar" about the same time I figure out what they're likely to mean. This is probably cheating. It definitely weirds people out. I have been generally trained by society to leave out the step with the Wingdings fish in it when I explain my reasoning, because getting the audience past that is more trouble than it's worth. I didn't realize other people didn't do that until rather late in the game, so it took me a while to learn how to verbalize it, too. I often write it out and then wind up hacking it off the start of blog entries before posting; if you're not in my head with me, it tends to come off like the cold starts on The Simpsons, where the first five minutes of the episode is a patently ridiculous situation which serves solely to set up the main plot, and then is never spoken of again.

Monday, May 2, 2016

I need to get myself some better drugs.

Sadly, the only trustworthy person I know who has any LSD needs to find a new supplier, and most of my friends, while perfectly lovely people in most respects, are idiots when it comes to chemistry. I'm sure they can tell me what they think they have, but none of them actually know, and if any of them have ever properly tested the interesting stuff, I will eat my hat.

I can declare this interest in getting high openly, because I'm a freelance whatever, and a writer. There's a reason they don't drug test writers. It would be counterproductive. I've technically shown up to work high before, albeit it was because I was sick and NyQuil knocks me on my ass. Reactions are generally split between 'you're hilarious' and 'jesus, go home and go back to sleep'.

I would have gotten wasted in college like everyone else, but through most of my college career I had shitty friends that I didn't want to get tipsy in front of, never mind potentially go through the total collapse of my ego. Which might have happened back then; I was not a happy kid, and I wasn't quite done being a kid until I figured out how to stop listening to my goddamn mother. Somewhere in my twenties I also discovered that marijuana does fuck-all to me, and since I was in Arizona where nobody really had anything but an assortment of psychoactive desert scrub, that killed most of my later opportunities for fun.

These days I know plenty about getting actual medical-grade drugs off the internet. I specialize in things that have been approved by safety commissions in basically any country other than the US. I still don't really speak any Russian, but I read Cyrillic like a champ. You generally get what you order, on account of it's cheaper and easier to buy the actual drugs from Eastern Europe than to go to all the trouble of finding a substitute. That's not really fun, though; tinkering with my neurotransmitters keeps me functional, not entertained.

Back in the day, I had what was probably a healthy fear of mystery drugs doing random unpleasant things to my system. I am less concerned now that I once was. There seems to exist in my brain some kind of concierge service that reminds me, whenever appropriate, that I have taken a shitload of drugs and that as long as I am successfully breathing and have a regular pulse, I am probably fine, no matter how weird I feel. If I take something and I don't like it, I can just wait 8-12 hours for it to wear off, and not take any more of it. Nothing so far has ever made me feel any worse than my attempts at antidepressants or Vicodin, both of which came from legitimate doctors for legitimate medical reasons, and Lord knows those are not experiences I want to ever repeat.

So far the only thing I have access to that seems to work as advertised (mostly) is large amounts of dextromethorphan. The mechanism is similar to ketamine, which I can't find, but which I'd be game to try PO if I could. It's difficult getting anyone to describe what a "K-hole" is actually like, but if it's that thing where you lose radio contact with all your limbs and lie there while the heavy expanses of an alternate starfield creep over your consciousness and close softly around the nape of your neck, I am 100% okay with those. It happens on high doses of DXM. I expect I'd be fairly pissed if someone tried to shake me out of it, in fact, because then I'd lose my place in the dream and have to start over again once I got them to go away. Not really social drugs, dissociatives, but they can be both enjoyable and useful if you like knocking around the inside of your own head.

I've been pointed at this video, which I'm told is a good approximation of what an acid trip looks like, if a touch too intense. My first guess at how he made that was that it was databent, using the motion estimation data from the grocery store video with the frame rasters from some other piece of psychedelica, and intentionally deleting keyframes except at transitions. As it turns out, he actually did it by threading each individual frame through Google Deep Dream and then recompiling them into a video clip.

Deep Dream is iterative pareidolia in a box. I find that fascinating, because that's exactly what happens when I take loads of anything that attenuates my perceptions, except mine happen on a sort of jelly overlay through which I can see the real world, and I am somewhat less obsessed with dogs than DD seems to be. (Mine tend more towards scintillating abstracts and peacock feathers. It's a different kind of 'scintillating' than migraine auras; I'd call those 'strobing', à la 1960s pop art, but that wasn't around when the terminology first became common.) If I really try, and can find a quiet undistracted corner to sit in, I can access the edge of the state on purpose now that I've done it for really-reals on drugs.

I'd probably qualify for a diagnosis of HPPD except that 1) it's always happened to some degree, even in childhood long before I tried any hallucinogens, when I've been very tired, very sick or uncomfortable, and trying to ignore it all, and 2) while it's almost always latent, it's not continuous, and I can ignore it/make it go away, and 3) it doesn't bother me in the slightest.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

I spent most of the afternoon trapped on a train today. Normally, this does not bother me much. Public transit is nice. I can't be shouted at for loafing; I am on a train, so clearly I have left the house and gone to do whatever thing needs doing. But I also can't be expected to do anything about it right at that very moment, as there are a limited number of things one can tend to on a train, and I can't do anything to make the beastie get where it's going any faster. I am In Transit, and everyone can kindly fuck off for a little while.

When I feel lousy I also feel like rabbit-punching everyone around me who wears a backpack and has a poor sense of personal space, so I had my earbuds jammed resolutely in. I had a lot of Very Loud Things turned up Very Loud Indeed in an effort to ignore all this. Very loud. Louder. Why is it not getting any louder? WHY HAS MY MUSIC NOT BEEN ENLOUDENED. WHAT DO YOU MEAN THAT IS AS FAR AS THE VOLUME CONTROL GOES. THE OTHER PEOPLE ARE STILL HERE.

Ahem.

A lot of my Very Loud Things are blatantly NSFW, at least for anyone who doesn't work for cheery smut peddlers like I do. Even at home, I tend to use headphones. I still get the nagging feeling that I shouldn't let the grown-ups catch me listening to this stuff, despite knowing 1) I am a grown-up, and 2) they've heard it all before. My parents were slightly too young and entirely too nerdy, respectively, to have been caught in things like the punk movement, but I'm aware that the oldies station on the radio is not a good representation of what they listened to in their youth. There is a distinct shortage of prog rock epics about hobbits, for starters. I'm also pretty sure that Van Morrison released more than one song. My father stuck mostly with folk and swamp rock -- he was big on CCR and Pure Prairie League, he liked 3 Doors Down when I sent him some, and he thought Joan Osborne was the most adorable thing with the nose ring -- but my mother bought Like A Virgin and Rhythm Nation 1814 completely on purpose. She was probably very entertained when I learned all the words as a small child, with no idea what half of them meant.

My point is, I know perfectly well that they have all heard "Darling Nikki". They probably know enough of the lyrics to sing along when drunk.

The funny thing is, when I was in a position where I might possibly have a reason to not want my parents knowing what profanities my generation of musicians were howling about, I didn't listen to anything of the sort. My block-out-humanity-on-the-train playlist hit the Placebo section, and it occurred to me that when I was in high school, I would not have liked these guys at all.

I was aware that the band existed, more or less; I remember having seen photos at some point, and just to give you an idea of how miscalibrated my brain has always been about these things, I don't recall ever reading Brian Molko as anything but "unusually pretty dude" and "only mildly overboard with the eye makeup". I was born in 1981, and rockers have been wearing jewelry and eyeliner literally my entire life. My references for troweling it on were Tammy Faye Bakker and Boy George, and Molko doesn't carry himself like he's in drag in either stills or video, so you know. Shrug.

[The haircut probably helped. I don't know if he started it or if he was just wearing it for the same reason everyone else was, but that pageboy was the exact haircut you got if you were a young man in the mid-'90s, and you wanted your parents to be angry. Not because it was girly. The haircut was so popular among boys at the time that most girls avoided it if they didn't want to come off as androgynous. I think it annoyed the Olds because it was part and parcel of the slacker-grunge uniform, and God knows a lot of the older generation thinks Generation X/Y is full of entitled layabouts.]

I would have been very squicked by all the sex and drugs, in those days. It was not that I really had any objection to those things as concepts, but they were incredibly uncomfortable things to talk about. I had exactly zero people around me who would have been safe or sane about it. Most of them were teenagers, who are safe and sane about nothing, and my mother generally seemed to think she was a teenager, which was worse.

Luckily, I wasn't very interested in boys in high school, mainly because I wasn't very interested in high school boys; there was little risk I would ever have to bring a boyfriend back to Meet My Parents. I had discovered anime, and I thought the idea of pretty men was intriguing, but I knew better than to ever mention this to my mother, because she'd want to gossip about it. There are few things in this life I want to know less about than my mother's dating history, and I got more than enough even when I was actively trying to get her to shut up.

Likewise, my parents were always very clear that they didn't have a problem with us kids trying a bit of beer/weed/something else equally harmless when we got into our late teenage years, as long as we did it at home. I would rather have swallowed my own tongue than tried to get high with my friends in a house that contained my mother. She'd want to join us. The year I turned twenty-one and was home from college for the summer, I finally resorted to telling my mother I would buy her beer too, if she would just promise to drink it in the other room, where my friends and I weren't. It only sort of worked.

Beyond that, Placebo was... weird. It wasn't quite as hypocritical as it sounds, although it was exactly as screwed-up and self-loathing as you'd assume. I was so beaten down at that point that I had come to the conclusion that the only way you could be weird and still survive in peace was to just keep your weirdness very very very quiet, so it didn't annoy anyone enough to make them do something about it. It was one thing to be strange by yourself in a corner; I've no idea if I'd have liked Molko, if we'd been fifteen in the same time and place, but I doubt I would have minded him. (I suspect I wouldn't like 15-year-old him if I met him today. I'd probably want to slap him for all the same reasons I'd want to slap 15-year-old me. You can sympathize with someone and still have the urge to hammer sense into them with an actual hammer.) But being that blatantly weird on stage, encouraging other people to be weird with him -- he had to know it was going to make people angry, and I couldn't fathom him doing it unless he was trying for that. Anyone who was working that hard to make people angry, I reasoned, was probably pretty angry themselves, and I wanted no part of that.

A lot of their young teenage fans seemed to be operating on that same logic, except they did want a part of that. They tended to wander around calling everyone else 'sheeple' and being aggressively strange to get reactions. Trolling, essentially. That thing that teenagers do. (There was a fair overlap with the Goth population, as I recall, which strikes me as funny in hindsight. Molko was fairly vocal about thinking the Goth movement was full of pretentious appearance-obsessed twats; he said as much when invited to a televised roundtable on the subject, and just to make his point extra hard, he had his eye makeup done in petal pink instead of the usual gunmetal and black.) I was absolutely terrified of attracting attention, because every time I did someone smacked me down for it, and those were not the sorts of people I wanted to hang around with.

It's been a long time since then. I've grown up a lot, and I can see how Molko turned out. All the horsing around and suggestive lollipop photos and turning up in a cocktail dress looks a lot different to me now. I'm not watching an angry kid try to get back at the establishment for everything it's been doing to him. I'm watching a kid who has probably been drowning his entire life finally realize what it feels like to come up for air.

Molko doesn't generally dwell on the details, but he's made it clear that he was not a happy teenager. The other kids thought he was "queer" and "a junkie" -- which he is, and which he arguably has been at some point in his life, but probably not in high school -- and he was not well-liked. It is one of the few topics I have seen him backpedal from when he thinks he's said a little too much to an interviewer who is a little too normal to get it. Everyone knows what it's like to not get the kind of emotional attention you want from a specific person, when your crush doesn't like you back or your father tells you you're a disappointment every year at Christmas or your spouse presents you with divorce papers. That one's universal. You eat a lot of ice cream or drink a lot of beer and hang out with people who are nice to you in the way you want them to be. It doesn't exactly make up for the disappointment, but you do have something to fall back on while you hurt.

Not a lot of people have had the experience of trying to get anything from anybody and receiving only 'well, we'd probably care about your feelings if you were just someone else', as feedback. You starve. You keep attempting to fix it, but honestly, you have no idea how or even why you're trying; as far as you know, there isn't any other way to be. That's just how life works. The impulse to try and change it is confusing as fuck, because intellectually it comes off like you're rebelling against the laws of physics and that doesn't make any sense at all, but it still won't go away. You are perfectly willing to believe that the problem is you, because you feel completely fucking crazy.

At some point, Molko clearly made the decision that he was better equipped to be openly weird and deal with the external punishment than try to hide it and deal with the internal pain. This sounds like a terrible choice, and objectively it is, but it's not one anybody ever makes unless they've already come to the realization that one of these two options is going to kill them. When you're in that situation, just putting your foot down and declaring that you get to choose which way you're going to break is a big thing. You do understand that you are making a choice between always being alone and always being a liar, but picking one is better than vacillating wildly between them and failing at both.

It's bewildering when you change environments and discover that that is not actually the choice you've made.

The ocean is very big, and water is very heavy when there has been a lot of it coming in from all directions and forcing you under all your life. The outside world is bigger, and air weighs remarkably little in comparison. I have seen people ask Molko why he started turning up for public appearances in dresses, and they all seem to be expecting an answer that's either political or artistic in nature. What they get in response is something like, 'I... think I thought it looked good on me?' with this baffled undertone of, 'I don't know, why do you wear things?' It implies that by that time, he had tumbled into a place where he could arrive wearing a skirt, and not get anyone pulling him aside by the elbow to hiss, "Brian, the fuck?" Suddenly, 'do I like the way this looks?' was all the thinking he had to do about it.

When you finally break the surface, you usually do it at a shallow angle. At first you figure up and out lies squarely in the direction of somebody likes me enough to put up with all the ways I'm broken. Then you adjust to thinking it's some people like my brokenness because they rebel against normal. It takes a while to figure out that straight up is actually the compass point labeled nobody much cares.

Knowing what I know now, I'm pretty sure most of the spectacle came from a kid who just wanted to feel pretty and shiny and sexy, however his brain thought that was going to happen, and not get punched in the nose for it afterwards. If you scare up some of the backstage photos from Velvet Goldmine, he looks absolutely ecstatic that someone has gone to the trouble of hunting him down and asking him to dress up like a glittery lunatic, for pay.

I would not have recognized that state of mind before I'd been in it myself. It's a lot like drugs, in that respect: It's difficult, if not impossible, to describe what it's like to have your brain turned upside down until you've actually done it once or twice. Fifteen-year-old me would probably have interpreted it as smugness at getting away with something he knew other people wouldn't like -- I'd seen that often enough in the other teenagers (and my mother, who is perpetually going on seventeen in many respects) to know what it looked like, and I generally found it uncomfortable to watch.

Now, not so much. There's probably an element of nyah nyah in there somewhere, because humans, but my overall impression is just of someone who is hugely relieved -- and kind of confused and overwhelmed, and maybe a still a little afraid -- but definitely giddy at finally being allowed to pull himself out of the water and breathe. The fact that he got very famous doing it is a complete accident, and probably the part he cares about the least.

Saturday Serial: The Count of Monte Cristo part 18

English:

69. The Inquiry
70. The Ball
71. Bread & Salt
72. Madame de Saint-Meran

French:

69. Les informations
70. Le bal
71. Le pain et le sal
72. Mme. de Saint-Méran

Courtesy Librivox.org / Archive.org

Thursday, April 28, 2016

I have the weirdest anxiety dreams. The Sandman has realized that it doesn't do any good to send me the normal ones, because I don't react right. I've never had the one where I'm out in public in my underwear, probably because I come close to that IRL on a regular basis, and don't care.

The last time I had the one where we were being chased through a mall by zombies, I just sort of looked around at the survivors and went 'welp, let's go see what we can loot from the sporting goods store'.

I've had the one where nobody tells me I'm supposed to get up and give a talk to a jillion people until right before it happens. I get up on stage, smile and say hello, tell the audience what the event crew just pulled on me, and witter on about whatever I know about the topic, which is usually not zero.

I just had one where I was back in college, and they sent someone to my dorm room to tell me that they Vehemently Objected to something I'd posted in my personal blog, and they wanted it taken down. I read it back -- it was about drugs or sex or something -- and there was nothing even remotely legally actionable in it, so I said no. The university rep implied Dire Consequences if I didn't, which annoyed me. As soon as they left, I pored over my paperwork, realized I had signed nothing that made such disciplinary threats confidential, and promptly posted to every social media channel I could access about the trouble, complete with copious links to the article they didn't want anyone to read. I woke up at that point, but I assume that the dream!internet took care of the rest.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Monday Mystery: Digital Archaeology

I'm going to be busy for the next couple of weeks, so this week's mystery is actually a lot of mysteries rolled into one. Behold, The Cutting Room Floor, an entire wikia of the various eldritch things one finds when one unpacks complicated video games and digs around in their gooey innards.

Unlike things like films and novels, finished video games often contain echoes of their unfinished selves. Sometimes things are left in by accident; sometimes, it's left in on purpose, because some other feature uses a common segment of the code or some of the assets, and removing everything the game doesn't use would break a lot of stuff that it does. Back in the olden days, when cartridge and disk space were at a premium,. programmers would leave short messages that could only be found by another programmer disassembling the source code. Nowadays, it's more common to find unused 3D models or maps floating around, and to see traces of old structures in the way files are named and grouped together on the disc.

Often, what you find is the remains of a debugging system. Games are complicated and time consuming to test. If you had to play all the way through to the last level the normal way to test your latest tweaks, it would take forever, and the extent to which your levels get debugged would be inversely related to how long it took your beta tester to slog through the prior bits of the game, which is no bueno -- people hate it when they're just about to slaughter the Demon King and the game spits up a fatal error.

It's especially a problem when testing games that are supposed to take 40-80 hours of play to complete, like most decent console RPGs. Programming-wise, most RPGs are complicated rat's nests of conditional checks -- usually called "event flags" -- interspersed with huge wadges of dialogue text. (The battle systems are not all that terrifying in comparison; they're mostly math and a random number generator, which are compact and easy for a computer to handle.) All of the flags start out set to "false" by default, and the game determines where you are in the story, and what cutscenes and blocks of dialogue to serve you, by checking to see whether specific flags have been flipped to "true".

For example: You, the Legendary Hero, meet Lord Jonathan Farthingale Plot-Relevance III, who tasks you to go find the Holy Macguffin. Every time you talk to His Lordship, the game checks the status of the flags OnMacguffinQuest, EndMacguffinQuest, and AfterMacguffinQuest, in reverse order, roughly like this:

IF AfterMacguffinQuest = true, THEN give the player the dialogue sequence from after the quest is over and the Macguffin has been delivered; 
ELSEIF EndMacguffinQuest = true, THEN give the player the dialogue sequence that happens when you hand the Macguffin over to Lord Plot-Relevance; 
ELSEIF OnMacguffinQuest = true, THEN give the player the short dialogue that reminds them that they need the Macguffin, and where they need to go to get it;  
ELSEIF all of these checks fail, THEN give the player the long dialogue that introduces the Macguffin quest and explains all about what it is and where they go and how to get the damnable thing.

The first time you meet Lord Plot-Relevance, all of the checks fail, and the game falls all the way through the loop and gives you the long intro dialogue that covers what the Macguiffin is and why you need one and where you go to get it yadda yadda yadda. The long cutscene, basically. And at the end of that dialogue, it flips the flag OnMacguffinQuest from "false" to "true".

The second time you talk to His Lordship, the first two checks fail, but the second one passes, so instead of the initial long scene, the game branches to the brief reminder text that reads like you've accepted the quest and just need a refresher on where to go.

Once you have slogged through the Forest of Death And Blood and have won a fight with Evil Boss Monster, the game activates a post-battle script that 1) puts the Macguffin in your inventory, 2) pops up a dialogue box telling you that you now have the Macguffin, and 3) sets the flag EndMacguffinQuest to "true".

The next time you go talk to Lord Plot-Relevance, the first check fails, but the second one passes, and the game branches to the dialogue chunk that happens when you present His Lordship with the requested Holy Macguffin. At the end of this scene, the game sets the flag AfterMacguffinQuest to "true".

After that, any time you talk to Lord Plot-Relevance, the first check passes, and the game will forever repeat whatever bland platitudes His Lordship gives you after you've finished your work for him and he has no further use for you.

Those of you who program, particularly if you program for the kind of end user that enjoys cheating like video gamers do, might notice that my pseudocode up there is not particularly robust. It only checks to see if the latest flag in the sequence is set, for example, without also making sure the prior flags are set as well. The event that set the flag for "I have the Macguffin and next time I see His Lordship I need to get the delivery cutscene" also puts a Macguffin in my inventory, but it doesn't check to see if I already have one, and doesn't check to see if I've been to the Forest of Death And Blood, or fought Evil Boss Monster. The flag check that happens when I go talk to His Lordship checks the event flag, but doesn't check to make sure that I still have a Macguffin in my inventory, either -- nor does it check to see if I have only one, and it doesn't remember to remove a Macguffin from my inventory. And the fallthrough case, when all of the event flag checks fail, defaults to giving me the script chunk that assumes I haven't heard about the quest at all yet, regardless of whether I have one or two or 256 Macguffins already stuffed into my knapsack.

This is where debug rooms come in.

It is a bitch to test a game as big as an RPG. The way they usually do it is by using the game engine itself to create a room or a map somewhere, populated with random characters, who use the dialogue system to build menus that let you screw with various options directly.  You find things like animation tests, where you can view character models and cycle them through all their various actions, and sound tests, where you can play arbitrary music tracks and sound effects from the game. Generally there's a video player or cutscene viewer, depending on whether the game uses pre-rendered video or scripts within the game engine for non-interactive plot scenes, and some form of map select, which dumps you directly into your choice of the various towns, dungeons, and overworld locations in the game world. Some of the menu options let you set event flags one by one, by which means you can break the hell out of lazy scripting like the stuff I did above, and give His Lordship a Macguffin you don't have, or give him 256 of them and claim your reward 256 times over.

Usually there are some quick options that flip all the convenient godmode switches, like "give me all possible party members" or "max out my HP/MP/gold and give me all the best equipment", that are used for quickly testing out things like dungeons and battle scripts without constantly worrying about dying. These can get interesting, because they set a whole bunch of stuff at once, without regard to plot sequence. "Give me all party members" gives you all party members, including the ones who, for plot reasons, cannot end up in the same party in a normal playthrough. The game engine itself doesn't care -- "you can't get this character if you've already recruited this other character" is a thing controlled with the event flags -- but if it's a thing that can't happen in normal play, there may be no code in place to handle it.

Maybe nothing weird happens, if there's a harmless default option for the game to use when it can't think of anything else. Maybe the game crashes and you have to remember not to put them in a party together when you're screwing around with the debug room. Or maybe you discover that there is code in place to handle that combination -- you can't access it when playing the game normally, because the plot prevents those circumstances from coming about, but at some point in the game's development, it was possible, and someone sat down and wrote the code for it before the story changed and the feature was axed.

Sometimes they remember to remove most of the debugger before shipping the final game, but most often, they just disable access by removing the option to branch to the debug room from the starting menu. You can generally get in with a GameShark, or similar RAM-altering device. The debuggers in localized versions of games can be nigh-indecipherable if they were originally in kana/kanji, and the Japanese font has been removed from the export. They're almost all full of black holes and fatal errors, because getting the debugger interface to work all pretty is frankly kind of a low priority -- it's easier to just tell the testers 'well don't do that then'. They tend to be full of in-jokes and office breakroom silliness.

Mostly what you find are curiosities like test enemies, unused items, and old versions of maps, with the occasional early version of scenes that were cut from the final game. Occasionally, though, you hit the motherlode. SaGa Frontier, which is already a mind-boggling tangle of seven interconnected stories as-shipped, originally had an eighth scenario. The assets and scripting are largely still on the commercial disc; it was cut so late in development that they didn't have the time to figure out what they could delete without breaking anything else, so whatever they'd gotten done just lingers there, inaccessible, lurking in the file structure. Xenogears has remnants of what was meant to be on the second disc before time ran short, and they defaulted to exposition monologues. Fallout 3 and Resident Evil 2 both had first attempts (known to fans as "Van Buren" and "Resident Evil 1.5", respectively), completely different from the released game, that got to maybe 50% complete and then were scrapped and started over from scratch.

You guys have at TCRF while I go recover from the everything, and simultaneously try to tech a show for Watch City without falling down.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

All right. I am... mostly alive again. I had to clean for a Realtor who didn't show up on Monday, went back to bed at about six in the evening, and spent most of the subsequent 36 hours asleep.

It kicked off with oblivious injustice at a volunteer position, over which I was furious. That was a bit of a surprise. Being that angry requires a lot of energy, and even being in a state where I can look at things reasonably objectively and realize I'm goddamn right requires a lot of background resources. It's been a long time since I've been capable of doing that. I credit the L-DOPA supplements, which seem to be fixing a lot of stuff in general.

By the time I was halfway through the sequence, though, a random comment from an internet stranger immediately knocked me into a terrible shame spiral, where I was ready to believe that everything I thought about how other people probably saw me was wrong. It's one thing if people think I'm weird. I really don't care anymore. Being told that my weirdness bothers people is another matter. Sometimes I still feel like my life is an endless series of desperate attempts to not piss other people off. It brought on that horrible moment where the awfulness smacked me on the scruff of the neck and trickled into every limb: Shame for having forgotten that I'm always wrong, fear of the punishment that was about to ensue, and resignation to the idea that I deserved every minute of it all, because I was fundamentally incorrect. Not about any one thing, just as a being.

There was a time in my life where every day was just one long rolling cycle of those horrible moments, one right after another. I still remember it vividly. Perhaps now you all see why I have such sympathy for queer/genderqueer/trans kids: I am intimately familiar with the feeling that some inherent aspect of my psyche is unacceptable and inappropriate. If I ever want anyone to even pretend to be my social support, I can never let anyone find out. But it's so basic to my operation that it's impossible to conceal forever. The fact that it's my curiosity about other people and my generally caterwampus thought patterns instead of my sexuality or gender makes surprisingly little difference.

It's probably also relevant that that's about the point in the sequence where I started noticing that all the little things the L-DOPA supplements had been fixing were becoming un-fixed. My feet were back to being frigging freezing all the time, even though it's not actually been all that cold out. It took forever to get to sleep, because icy feet and because I kept twitching myself awake, and forever to drag myself out of bed again, caffeine be damned. So I think there is some actual physiological thing that gets depleted or otherwise goes wrong that causes this kind of breakdown, and if I haven't found a way to fix it by now, I'm not going to.

(It's also got something to do with me not eating properly. My appetite goes down to zero, and for the last few days I've either been balled up in bed with a migraine or at a conference that is so socially-conscious that the only practical way to accommodate all the people who have physical or ideological dietary requirements was to make all the catering vegan. I don't mind vegan food -- if you want to eat vegan and happen to be in Cambridge, Clover is excellent -- but I'm omnivorous for a reason. I put cheese and butter in everything because when you don't eat much, you need things to be calorie-dense and full of protein. Normally, I'd have fixed this by just cramming a cheeseburger into my face on the way home, but by that point I was so exhausted and people-averse all I could do was go back to my apartment and go the fuck to bed.)

It also makes me hurt. Basically everywhere. I don't know if this is a direct result of whatever goes awry or just because I'm stressed out and crunch myself up in a protective ball all the time. I wake up aching and it's impossible to stretch out. Exercise might help, except I'm already dragging myself through molasses, so that's not going to happen. The best compromise I've found is foam rolling, except foam rollers and tennis balls are too squishy to do any good, so I use lacrosse balls. The basic idea is to position the knot right over the widget, and then let your body weight do the work for you. You just lie there while the knot squalls, until it finally realizes that pain is not making you comply with its demands, and just sort of sullenly gives up and untwists.

I swear. A priest would swear. It hurts. The kind of hurt that hollows out your insides and leave your diaphragm plastered, quivering, against the underside of your esophagus. The kind that results from your having, personally and individually, pissed off a nerve. Sort of like what happens when you bang your funny bone, only without the second part where the numb-tinglies take over.

There's not much I can do about it. Theoretically, if opioids worked on me, I could take some before I tried it; they don't, so I take naproxen, but it doesn't really do much about that kind of pain in the same way it doesn't really do much about migraine or dental pain. It's more so I feel efficacious than anything else. I mainly just breathe and listen to podcasts or music and do my best to ignore it, or none of the muscle knots ever get un-knotted. The fix is temporary, and if I don't get out of whatever's making me stop working right, they just recur over and over again, and hurt exactly as much every time I attack them.

This has been an excellent illustration of why I cannot handle 9-5 jobs, or any position that consists of wall-to-wall contact with people. I have just now regained enough range of movement to crack my back, and enough functionality to do things like basic exercise. That's pretty much what's always happened to me in the past when I've tried to take an early class, only since skipping classes only screwed me over, I could justify sleeping through them on the grounds that I wasn't hurting anyone else. I can't necessarily do that with a job. This is why I end up in the ER.

(I am aware that there is probably a diagnosis that covers why stress equals pain, but given all the symptoms I don't have, it's not going to be a lab-testable one like lupus or multiple sclerosis. I don't want any of the others on my paperwork. They'd all be diagnoses of exclusion, and the more of those you have in your file, the more doctors treat you like a whiny pain in the ass, and the more their hackles go up when you tell them what medications actually work. rather than let them run through the gamut of standard treatments. Since many of the standard treatments make my life much worse, I would rather just list them as "allergies" or "contraindicated" medications, and skip straight to the part where they either do what I tell them or drop me as a patient. Saves all of us time.)

Monday, April 18, 2016

I am exhausted.

In the past two weeks, I have:

  • quit a volunteer position that I used to love, because they regulated away my ability to do the job, and when I complained about this, the only person I was allowed to deal with basically told me they didn't think it was important because clearly I wasn't doing anything anyway;
  • been shouted at for quitting the volunteer position;
  • attended the Circlet Press Writers Retreat, aka #porncamp, which involves spending most of three days alternately cramming things into my head and being in the same room with a lot of people who like me very much and all want to talk to me at once;
  • developed a migraine which started out optimistically bearable and progressed to the point where I spent most of a day with a piercing pain behind my right eye that would. not. go. away. no matter what I threw at it;
  • attended a rehearsal during the initial stages of the previous point, where I spent most of my time with a hat on wishing the environment didn't reflect so goddamn much light;
  • been yelled at by an internet stranger who evidently created an account solely to tell me I was a horrible pathetic person for thinking aloud (in print) about how other people work;
  • attended CatalyticConverter, aka #catcon, which involved two days of being well into Cambridge at a time when I am normally several hours away from even waking up, in a very large conference space with a lot of people who expected me to be intelligent and interact with them constantly;
  • gone to yet another rehearsal immediately after #catcon ended, which I stumbled mostly through without falling down;
  • brought home food and cooked a mess o' different dinners, because nobody has been home for like a week now, and somebody had to make things to eat.
Good things have also happened. A lot of other people have said very nice things, a few people have come to me offering work, and a couple of them just dropped money on me. I went to both gatherings because I like the people there, and I wanted to. This does not change the fact that dealing with all that takes a great deal of energy. 

I am now at the point where anyone trying to do anything that requires me to pay attention and muster some sort of response is going to make me cry, even if the thing they are doing is 'helping' and the reaction they're trying to get is 'Ari stops feeling so lousy'. If you have sent me a thing to read, I have not read it. If you have sent me a thing to watch, I have not watched it. If you have sent me praise, questions, or another piece of scathing criticism, I saw the first four words in Gmail and didn't open it. If you have pinged me in any way at all and I have not answered you, it is only because I curl up in the fetal position and shake every time I contemplate checking my messages.

I am only being mildly hyperbolic. I am running on about five hours of sleep a night. I don't think I have managed to finish a meal in about four days. I can get half of it down, and then stare at the rest for a while before I throw it away/into the rat cage. I spent half an hour unable to get up and do the damn dishes the other day, because I deadlocked on whether to catch up with podcasts or listen to music while I shuffled around the house. That is aggravatingly nonsensical, and it means I need to lay off before worse things happen.