A Life Well Lived

When I was a young child, there were two television shows I was allowed to stay up late and watch with my parents.  One was Monty Python, the other was Star Trek. That may explain a few things about me and my sense of humour, come to think of it.  As I grew older I became aware of boys and started having crushes on tv characters, like many teenage girls did.  But while most of my female acquaintances – at least the ones who admitted to watching Star Trek – fell madly in love with the dashing captain of the USS Enterprise, it was the cool, enigmatic First Officer that captured both my attention and my heart.  I, in my girlish daydreams, fantasized that I would be the one to melt that icy exterior.  Yeah, I know, get in line.  As the years went on, and my teenage crush faded, it was comforting to know that when there was nothing else on I could usually find a Star Trek episode somewhere.  I got so I could practically recite the lines with the actors.  I got into fandom, and into conventions because of Star Trek; my father took me to my first convention when I was eleven years old (held at the Royal York Hotel in 1976) and after that I never looked back.

Today we lost Leonard Nimoy.  He was so much more than just Mr. Spock but, of course, that’s the way he will be forever remembered by many people who may never have known that he did other things.  I remember, many, many years ago, my dad showing me a newspaper clipping (which I may still have) describing Mr. Nimoy playing Sherlock Holmes in a stage play in the US – how I would have liked to see that.  I remember seeing him on Mission Impossible, after Star Trek was cancelled, playing the ex-magician Paris.  I remember watching Zombies of the Stratosphere late at night – or perhaps it was in the wee hours of the morning – in black and white on a flickering television screen.  I remember watching a pre-Star Trek Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner acting together in an episode of Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mr. Shatner playing the part of the wide-eyed ingenue to  – spoiler alert – Mr. Nimoy’s nasty bad guy.  Recently I’ve been watching Fringe on Netflix, having missed it the first time around, and I’ve been enjoying him immensely as the morally ambiguous William Bell.  As someone who loves music, I remember his music – from the silly fun of The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins to his serious version of Johnny Cash’s I Walk The Line.

The thing that I think a lot of people will remember about Leonard Nimoy, aside from Star Trek of course, is how much he loved people and loved his fans.  It was evident at cons, and evident in his Twitter conversations.  In January of last year he tweeted “Any here want to make me their honorary grandfather consider it done. ”  I was one of the thousands upon thousands of fans who rushed to tweeted him back and formalise what we already knew – he was like a part of our family. And, while we knew he was mortal and – more recently – struggling with health issues, he was still so much a presence and so larger than life that we thought he’d always be there. Unfortunately it was not to be.

Goodnight, Grandpa Leonard.  Be at rest, be at peace.  My world is a slightly dimmer place tonight without you in it.

A Tale of Two Cons

So, last weekend I attended what is arguably Toronto’s largest SF/Comic/etc. convention – FanExpo. And I couldn’t help contrasting my experience there with the one I had at a much smaller, fan-run con in July. That con would be Polaris, which has been around for 26 years, starting its life at the Roehampton Hotel as Toronto Trek and which said its final farewell to the Toronto con scene this year – I suspect that will be the subject of a whole other post.

One can’t deny that FanExpo had great guests: John Barrowman, Alan Tudyk, James Marsters, Stan Lee and Matthew Gray Gubler to mention just a very, very few. And it would have been wonderful, if I could have actually seen any of them. Unfortunately in order to get into any of their speeches I would have had to line up at least an hour before the panel, which still wouldn’t have guaranteed me a seat.  Not to mention the additional lineup and extra cost (between $30 and $50 per guest) if I wanted an autograph, which I didn’t.  I did get some pretty good pictures of some of the guests but that was only thanks to the great 70-300mm lens I bought earlier this year, as I don’t think I got within spitting distance of any of them.  (You know, I’ve always hated that expression.  Even if I had gotten within “spitting distance” it’s not like I would actually spit. Drool, maybe, but that’s a whole different matter…)

FanExpo Guests

The benefits of having a big…uhm…lens.

Polaris, on the other hand, had a much smaller guest list.  This year, as it was the last year for the con and the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the guest list was rather pared down – Wil Wheaton was the headline guest, along with Tony Amendola of Stargate SG1 and Continuum, Neil Grayston of Eureka and Warehouse 13, and award-winning author Norman Spinrad.  Last year’s guests included Adam Baldwin, Ben Browder, Melinda Clarke and Armin Shimmerman.  With an attendance of around 4,000 versus FanExpo’s 80,000, it was a lot easier to get into the guest speeches at Polaris.  And by that I mean I walked in five minutes before the panel started and there were still empty seats.  Heck, one of the highlights of my 2011 Polaris visit was being called a troublemaker by Adam Baldwin after asking a purely innocent question at his panel! (L’il old me?  Never!)

Another thing Polaris had that FanExpo didn’t was great panels.  Panels that had nothing to do with the guests but were run by, and for, the fans.  Panels like Slobbering Fangirls Unite where we talked about what it’s like to be a female in fandom and how well or poorly female geeks are portrayed in the movies and TV, or A Rough Guide to Time Travel where we talked about what we would do and where we would go if we could actually travel in time.  The panels at FanExpo seemed to be mostly either Q and A sessions with the guests or marketing opportunities for publishers, producers and such to tell you about what they had coming down the pipe.  There were a few neat panels – Steampunk 101 and the Life After Twilight and True Blood stand out in my mind.  Funnily enough, the panel I enjoyed the most at FanExpo was the one on the War of 1812 with Scott Finlay of Fort George portraying General Sir Isaac Brock and talking about the graphic novel and six-part TV series commssioned by Parks Canada that is coming out later this year.

One thing FanExpo does have in spades over Polaris is vendors.  Lots and lots and lots of vendors.  Vendors selling everything under the sun – or moon, if you’re looking for vampire stuff, I guess.  To me, at least, it seems like this is the core of FanExpo in a lot of ways – get people in the door so they can buy stuff.  Books, graphic novels, tee-shirts, stuffed things (I won’t say animals, ’cause most of them don’t even remotely resemble animals), dolls action figures, more graphic novels, swords, artwork – you name it, you can probably find it in the vendors’ area.

They also have a great artists’ alley – there must have been over 100 artists selling their work.  (Full disclosure: a friend of mine, Gerry Vail, who draws the wickedly funny webcomic Remotes N Dice was one of the artists, and a big reason I decided to attend this year.  Check out his site – after you finish reading this post, though!) The quality of the artwork from these artists amazed me, as did some of the spontaneity. I picked up a fantastic sketch that one of the artists had been working on there simply because I admired it and he offered to sell it to me. There were five or six other pieces from various artists I would have loved to have bought as well, but couldn’t due to lack of funds and wall space to display them.

Another thing FanExpo has is crowds.  80,000 fans, remember?  Trying to get into most of the panels involved lining up for varying amounts of time, and trying to move around the floor of the vendors’ and artists’ area was well-nigh on impossible for a good part of the weekend.  And if you left the con on Saturday apparently there was about a 45-minute wait to get back in because they’d oversold the tickets.  Compare that to Polaris, where the worst crush seemed to be in the ConSuite at last call – which is another thing you don’t get at FanExpo, but which would be really hard to do there.

All in all, it was interesting to attend FanExpo for the full weekend once, just to cross it off my bucket list, but I doubt I’ll go back.  If I do, it will probably be for only one day, and definitely not Saturday.  And, since Polaris is no more, I guess I’ll have to find another fan-run con to satisfy my small-con desires.  Any suggestions, loyal readers?

Rediscovering a Lost Love

A Geek in High School

Me in high school…dig those glasses!

Way back in the stone ages when I was in high school, I took computer science in grade 11 and 12 because I loved computers and thought that it would be really neat and fun. In grade 11 I was one of five girls in a class of 30; in grade 12 I was the only girl in a class of five.  Unfortunately my teacher that year (who shall remain nameless) told me flat-out that he didn’t believe women should be in computer science, but vowed that he wouldn’t let that affect my mark in his class. And, to be fair, he didn’t.  I got a B+ in the class, and I think I deserved a B+ for the wonderful inventory system I created in Basic for my mom’s Mary Kay business (yeah, that project didn’t really endear me to the teacher).  I often wonder, though, had he’d been a bit more encouraging would I have looked at programming as a career?  Ah well, “shoulda woulda coulda” is never a good thing…

Anyway, I loved my computer science classes in high school, especially the grade 12 class – we were mostly left on our own to work on our programs and I used to spend hours at lunch and before and after school tweaking mine.  Once I got out of high school and into university I still did a little bit of programming on my Commodore 64 but since I wasn’t in computer science I didn’t really do anything serious.  Mostly I copied programs out of various computer magazines that had those “type this in your computer to ‘create’ your own program” columns and then tore my hair out when the program didn’t work and I had to go through umpteen lines of code to figure out where I made the typo.  I did recently find the notes for one of my own home-brewed programs – an NPC generator for a D&D campaign I was creating.  Told you I was a geek…

Once I graduated and got my first job, I didn’t really do much programming anymore.  My computer geekiness shifted to learning various software applications and, eventually, to the hardware and networking side of things.  Oh, I’d do some scripting and stuff with Lotus Notes, and I learned HTML and CSS so I could play around with websites but that was the extent of it. Until last Saturday…

Allow me to digress for a moment.  Last month I was channel-surfing and came across Inner Space on the Space channel.  I’m not a huge fan of the show – in fact, I rarely watch it – but in this case the fates must have been watching out for me.  I managed to hit it just as they were doing a promo for a segment on this not-for-profit group called Ladies Learning Code. What I saw from the promo was a room full of women (and a few men – despite the name, anyone who wants to learn is welcome) learning how to code in HTML and CSS in what looked to be a fun and interactive environment.

Needless to say I had to check it out.  I watched the segment, liked what I saw and proceeded to the website, only to find that I’d just missed the very interesting looking ‘Creating a Personalized Twitter or Website Background’ workshop. (Note to the LLC people – pleasepleaseplease offer this again!)  I decided to sign up for their newsletter and a few weeks later I got notification of a new workshop – ‘Intro to Python for Beginners’.

For those of you who don’t know, and I didn’t until I did some research, Python (http://python.org) is a open-source (free) programming language.  According to the Ladies Learning Code people “…Python is a great language for beginners. Its beautiful and clean-looking syntax means you’ll spend less time being confused (it looks sort of like English!), and more time understanding and applying the fundamentals of programming…”  Based on that, I thought “gee, this sounds like fun!” and promptly signed up.  I then spent the next few weeks eagerly looking forward to my day of geekdom.

Which brings me to last Saturday.  I’ve got to say, the workshop certainly exceeded my expectations.  I haven’t had that much fun in ages!  We were at the Centre for Social Innovation, which was a great place to hold this (lack of air conditioning aside).  Essentially it’s a nice big basement with beautiful brick walls and lots of open space.  Great atmosphere for a day spent meeting new people and learning code, and easy to get to via public transit.

One of the really nice things about the Ladies Learning Code workshops is the volunteer mentors they manage to line up, which helps when you have about forty or fifty attendees. These are people who, in this case, work with Python on a day-to-day basis and who graciously volunteered their time to make sure our experience was both useful and fun. In this case, it worked out that there were two mentors per six-person table, which was a big help when I couldn’t figure out why my program wasn’t working!.  Chris and Al, our two mentors, were very knowledgeable as well as being very tactful – there’s nothing more embarrassing than finding out you’ve spelled a command using British/Canadian spelling instead of American (capitalise vs. capitalize) and that’s why your program is crashing in a blaze of not-so-awesom glory.

Bythe end of the day, I’d made some new friends, had a couple of small programs under my belt, and I had a new challenge to go home with – get my Hangman program up and running without cheating and looking at the answers.  No, I still don’t have it working, but I will.  I’ve found an interesting tutorial on Python that will hopefully build on what I’ve learned already, and I’m looking forward to playing and seeing what I can do on my own. I have another skill that I can put on my resume and, given that a lot of the jobs I’m looking at want a ‘techie type’, that could be very helpful.  More importantly, I rediscovered my love of something geeky – programming.  And spending a day rediscovering something you love is never a bad thing.

I Am Geek, Hear Me Roar!

I recently discovered a cool site called The Mary Sue, which bills itself as “A Guide to Girl Geek Culture”. There’s a lot of neat stuff on there, and I end up checking it out almost every day. One of today’s articles, however, really hit home for me and I felt I had to share. The post, by Becky Chambers, is called What It Means To Be A Geek, and Ms. Chambers wrote it after her girlfriend’s sister pointedly denied being a geek, even though she obviously is.  Apparently there’s a certain stigma to being a geek…

I’ve always been proud of being a geek and that’s what I call myself both on the ‘net and in real life.  I have been known to wear my geek badge with a certain amount of militancy on occasion.  I got my first computer when I was 15 years old – a brand-new VIC-20, the two shows I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch were Star Trek and Monty Python (which probably explains a lot…), I still have my Grim Jack and Battlestar Galactica comic collection, and I know there are at least a couple of pictures out there of me in costume at various science fiction conventions and other events – no, I’m not going to provide links.  But I have friends who, like Ms. Chambers’ girlfriend’s sister, don’t want be labeled as ‘geeks’.  I have friends who won’t admit, outside of a very small circle of people, to any interests that might even be considered ‘geeky’.

I blame, in part, the media for this.  By that I mean the way television, movies, and the news media portray what they call ‘geeks’ – usually guys who are fixated on computers and Star Trek and have absolutely no social skills. The Big Bang Theory is a great example of this (yes, I know that two of the characters have had “meaningful relationships with the opposite sex”, but even then their complete dorkiness is played for laughs). Most non-fiction shows about science fiction or fantasy fans are limited to the ones who take their interests to the extreme – can we say Trekkies and Trekkies 2 by Denise Crosby, anyone?  If anyone out there can name a series or documentary that portrays geeks in a good light, please leave me a comment – I’d love know if my perception on this is skewed.

Even TV shows that are not about geeks fall prey to this – look at NCIS and Criminal Minds for example.  On both, the ‘girl geeks’ (Abby on NCIS and Penelope on CM) are caricatures of real people – fun, quirky, and strong, but caricatures nevertheless.  The ‘guy geeks’ (McGee on NCIS and Reid on CM) have fared a little better; they started out as stereotypes but have managed to grow a bit beyond their geeky boundaries, although the dork factor is still trotted out when they need a joke.

Back to the The Mary Sue article… The whole article is really worth taking the time to read, but what that resonated with me was this:

“The thing that all geeks have in common (other than carbon) is not what we are interested in, but how we go about consuming our interests. “Consuming” is the perfect word for it, because geeks are rarely a passive audience. We devour our interests. We are driven to know how things work. It isn’t enough for us just to enjoy something. When something piques our interest or elicits an emotional response from us, we have to know why.”

I love this description and, more importantly, I identify with it.  I recently spent hours (when I probably should have been job hunting…) going from website to website to website reading about Theodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa because it played a crucial part in a mystery story I had read and I wanted to know more about the painting and the story behind it.  Along those lines, another part of the article that really drew a visceral reaction from me was this:

“If you like something so much that a casual mention of it makes your whole being light up like a halogen lamp, if hearing a stranger fondly mention your favorite book or game is instant grounds for friendship, if you have ever found yourself bouncing out of your chair because something you learned blew your mind so hard that you physically could not contain yourself — you are a geek.”

Yup, that’s me.  I am a geek, hear me roar.