Geico Tells Me They Don't Care And Won't Listen To Customers

Almost three years ago, I switched my car insurance from a local agent in my hometown to Geico. In the process, I saved almost 75% on my insurance premiums, which would normally be one of Geico’s much-applauded success stories. And for most of the time I’ve been with them, they’ve been great. Until I had a claim to file.

The short version of this story is that for a solid month, I’ve been pleading with Geico over some of the damage caused by an incident that happened in February, disputing their insistance that some of the damage caused in the incident was pre-existing, when I had photographic evidence showing it was not. In that month, I’ve been called a liar, called unobservant and ignorant, and when I wouldn’t back down from the truth, subtly accused of fraud. I take these allegations very seriously, as someone who proudly works for a government agency dedicated to investigating fraud; it’s not in my character to make an untrue claim for personal gain, and even if it were, no sane person would jeopardize their entire career over something like this. Additionally, when I presented evidence and witnesses, they were ignored and dismissed, in favor of provably-false anecdotal assumptions, the sort of thing I thought I’d left behind when I moved to a real city. All the while, I was without a car for a solid month, and while that didn’t affect my ability to perform my job, it did interfere with my spring travel plans considerably.

In the end, I’ve withdrawn my dispute over the claim, because I’m so tired of fighting, and this battle has brought me to tears numerous times, due to stress and anxiety. But I will never back down from the truth, and I will never forget what happened. If you’re currently a Geico customer, or are considering switching to them, I highly recommend reading this; there are no guarantees that this will happen to you, but if they feel the need to treat a customer the way they treated me, they deserve for the world to know about it.

Full story at


Some more Niut Pet art, done for my dear friend Flo (

-a logo (which he adapted for flyers and the very same facebook page)

-location sketches

-minor character sketches with sloppy colour woohoo

Next up are two watercolour paintings, and afterwards I will hopefully be able to turn to trades and commissions! I will do interior pencil illustrations for Niut Pet, too, though. But not… now.

Transgender Game Concept

The concept behind this game is to simulate and teach what it’s like to be a transgender person in modern American society, in the form of an open-world RPG. The object of the game is to build a successful career, while also transforming into their ideal character, goals which would be interlinked in the game as they often are in real-life. If the character’s transition is ignored, their career performance would suffer tremendously. This game could also touch on sexism, gender roles, and socioeconomic inequality, among other social issues.

Character Creation
The game would open with character creation. First, the player would choose their gender identity, which should ideally be close to how they prefer to identify in real life, for a more realistic experience. Next, they can use standard character sliders to customize their character’s appearance. Lastly, they can choose a name.

This is where the twist comes in: The character doesn’t start out looking like that. Skin tone and hair color would stay the same, and the body fat percentage would be within 20%, but the character’s gender would be inverted, and other appearance sliders would be far off their chosen marks. So, if the player created a smooth-skinned female character, they’d start with a hairy male one. If they created a very masculine male character, they’d start with an extremely feminine female one. The player would then have to pursue transition to see the character they created, the one they really want to play. But, every time the player saw themselves in a reflective surface (mirror, window, etc), the reflection would briefly show the character they created, before fading into the character’s current state. It’s not a 100% accurate depiction of gender dysphoria, but it’s a pretty great way to convey it in a visual medium. There could also be a status icon, showing a bust shot of the created character alongside their current state.

Like the body shape, name would be flip-flopped too. The name entered on the character creation screen would remain, but an opposite-gendered legal name would be randomly assigned, and would be used by coworkers and shop clerks until the character comes out (more on that later).

The game wouldn’t need to reference sex or genitalia, so it’d be pretty easy to omit them entirely, aside from the way pants fit. The real struggle of gender dysphoria happens outside one’s trousers.

Read more at Lupinia Studios

How I Became Fluttershy

Among fellow fans of My Little Pony, I often describe myself as “real-life Fluttershy”. On the surface, it fits, sort of; I tend to be shy and quiet about meeting new people, I enjoy the solitude of nature, and while I’m certainly not the embodiment of kindness, I do tend to be rather gentle and kind, often described by others as “sweet”. But I didn’t start comparing myself to Fluttershy until fairly recently, and it comes from a place much deeper than simple personality traits. With what was revealed in the episode Hurricane Fluttershy about her past, I have a lot in common with the gentle pegasus, and I saw a lot of myself in her in that episode.

In the episode, the pegasi of Ponyville need to band together to create a tornado, which will send water to the cloud factory, to produce spring rainclouds for all of Equestria (thou shalt not question the physics of My Little Pony). Everypony is on board, and begins training to increase their wing strength, except Fluttershy. She’s a very weak flyer, or at least appears to be, but she gives a test-flight anyway. When the wingpower meter barely registers, to the giggles of the ponies around her, she runs off crying, away from her closest friends. It’s revealed that she was brutally teased as a young filly, so much so that even in young adulthood, she’s still traumatized by it, and can’t fly in front of other ponies without hearing the ghostly taunts of her childhood bullies.

This is the point where, the first time I watched this episode, I couldn’t continue. I was crying so hard I had to stop the video, cuddle a plushie, and collect myself. And this was while I was cuddled under my favorite blanket on a comfy couch, already clutching one of my favorite plushies. Even now, having seen it several times, and despite knowing the ending is as heartwarming as the conflict is heart-wrenching, it’s a difficult episode for me to get through.

I’ve talked about my past with friends, when it was relevant to the discussion, and written about it in old Live Journal posts, but I’ve never really put much of it out publicly. Part of it is because some of what I endured growing up is still difficult to talk about, but I feel I’m now in a better position to address it than I used to be. And, while a lot of my emotional issues stem from childhood experiences, including things I’m actively trying to fix, I don’t suffer PTSD (that I’m aware of), and I don’t really want people to feel pity or sympathy for things I’ve come a long way in recovering from. But I can’t erase things from history, and talking about it helps me move on.

I won’t say I had a hard childhood, necessarily, but I had a very emotionally troubled one. From my earliest memories, until my senior year of high school, positive points and positive people were very few and far between, with abuse and emotional assaults coming from all directions. At home, my dad was physically and psychologically abusive from my earliest memories, both to me and to my mom. He frequently hit me for flimsy reasons, contradictory reasons, or things completely unrelated to me. When he wasn’t violent, he did a lot to make me feel worthless; if I did something wrong, he bullied me for being stupid. If I did something right, he never gave praise, only told me that I didn’t do it right enough. If I showed creativity, he mercilessly criticized and put down my work. If I played, he criticized my imaginary worlds and play style (to this day, my imagination is very vivid, but heavily constrained within the bounds of the real world, and I can’t get into fantasy stories/games/movies as a result). If I watched TV, he bullied me for rotting my brain. He frequently bullied me for not knowing how to ride my bike without training wheels, but when he tried to teach me how (my mom didn’t know how, and couldn’t help at all), all he did was tell me what I was doing wrong, with zero encouragement or actual help, so I didn’t figure out how to ride a bike until I was 9. He bullied me if I brought home grades that were less than perfect; the day I brought home my first C, he nearly gave me a concussion for it. I was eight years old.

He moved out when I was 11, shortly before he violently assaulted my mom in a busy public parking lot and was arrested for it, but his influence remained until I was 16. But that alone wouldn’t have been as much of an issue, if everyone else in my life hadn’t reinforced everything my dad said and did to me.

I had no real friends in elementary school. And I mean that quite literally. I had one true friend in sixth grade, for several years, and had a couple of true friends in high school, and their place in my life helped keep me from doing anything drastic. But everyone else confirmed the worldview I had at the time; no one is actually nice to anyone. Some were outwardly hostile; in middle school, some were physically violent. I was physically attacked numerous times, with no disciplinary action brought against my attackers. I still have jaw problems from one of them. I was stabbed with a pencil in the back, deep enough to embed lead in my skin for awhile. I was assaulted by a group I couldn’t identify, because two of my attackers were immigrants who all shared the same name, and because I said it wasn’t the one who was brought to the office (they picked the wrong one), the administration dismissed the attack as something I made up, despite the bruises. But beyond that, a significant percentage of kids I went to school with openly mocked me. They didn’t need a reason, there was always something. I occasionally cried when I was hurt, my southern accent was slightly thicker than their southern accents, I wasn’t athletic (thanks undiagnosed asthma), I preferred to be quiet and read than play active games. When I wanted to play, no one wanted me. Whether I did well or did poorly in my schoolwork, I was ridiculed for it. To this day, there are certain nicknames and words that make me cringe, regardless of modern context, because they were hurled at me en masse by classmates as insults.

But what makes school bullying stick? When there’s no one to tell you that the bullies are wrong. I talked to teachers and school staff, they shrugged it off as normal. I talked to my parents; dad blamed me for everything that happened to me at the hands of my classmates, usually punished me for “starting trouble”, and typically agreed with what my bullies said. Mom was so overpowered by dad that until dad left, she didn’t have a lot of direct say in my upbringing. And it took many years after that for me to really trust her, in ways I had been conditioned not to trust a parent or a friend. I didn’t really have other adults in my life, but when I did, they generally were either completely unable to help with my problems, or as bad as the bullies. And the kids who weren’t bullies were worse than the bullies. Some simply distanced themselves from me, since I was the class punching bag, and they didn’t want to be next to me for that. Many quietly agreed with the bullies, not outwardly hostile, but I could see it in their eyes, their nodding agreement, their giggling complicity. Many were manipulative, flagrantly taking advantage of my blind desire for a reprieve from abuse for their own gain or amusement. I was invited to non-existant parties. I was invited to be part of a group, only for a more vocal member to drive me away, to the giggles of the rest. Some drew it out over longer periods of time, setting me up for bigger falls and more pain. Even the few I considered true friends occasionally betrayed my trust, albeit on a much smaller scale.

I could go on, there’s a lot more to tell, but those are the relevant parts. For the first 16 years of my life, virtually everyone I encountered made me feel worthless, and everything I did was worthless by extension. More importantly, though, almost everyone who touched my life taught me that there’s no such thing as a person who can be trusted. Countless times, I thought someone was my friend, then discovered they hated me. Countless times, I thought I could trust someone with a secret, only to discover that secret spread like wildfire. Countless times, I thought I could trust someone’s feedback on my creative work, only to discover that they actually hated what I showed them. And so on.

Unfortunately, because of this experience, I was conditioned to assume this was how normal humans interacted, and by my senior year of high school, I interacted this way as well. There were hardly any students lower on the social ladder than me, but when someone was, I was vicious. Some of the things I said still haunt me. I was often horrified at some of the jokes I made, things I said to others, or things I did, and it often felt wrong, but I was under the impression that it was normal. In the years since, I’ve quickly swung the other direction; negative humor and conversation of any sort is uncomfortable, and “trolling” humor often deeply sickens me. There’s someone I consider a close friend, who I deeply care for, but I simply can’t be around him much because he practically only communicates in self-degradation, and his only sense of humor is to get others to put him down; despite the flagrant insincerity of things said, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable, and I feel pressured to participate, bringing up a lot of painful memories.

But the biggest factor in my recovery to date has been the friends I’ve made, who I’ve learned to trust. I still have difficulty opening up to people, though past experience has made me extraordinarily good at reading people and detecting deception. I still occasionally have paranoid feelings that everyone I love and trust secretly hates me, despite evidence to the contrary; these are becoming less common, but they still happen, usually triggered by innocent things that presumably wouldn’t bother most other people. And it’s these friends who’ve helped me overcome the biggest lingering roadblock from childhood, my pathological lack of confidence, both in myself and in my creative work.

In Hurricane Fluttershy, after she runs off crying from her embarassing flight performance, Fluttershy is comforted by her woodland creature friends. They tell her the same encouraging words that she’s given them, and convince her to give it a try. But they don’t stop at just talk, they work with her, directly tackling her anxiety, and helping her overcome it. They’re right next to her through the whole process, helping her through it, giving her what she needs to believe in herself. Such was my experience in recent years. When I decided to pursue a web development career, I had little real direction, no real training, and no past experience to draw from, so if I was going to do it, I had to show my skills in a very real way, and do so strongly enough to get a prospective employer to look past the usual requirement for a university degree. I had to do all of that at a time when, no matter what I did or how I tried, I felt incompetent and talentless, with shoddy work that no one would ever look at. I nearly gave up, more than once (and not just on my career). But my true friends wouldn’t let me. Several took it upon themselves to be my personal cheerleaders, going way above and beyond what I would ever expect or hope for, in the name of giving me the encouragement I needed to overcome some extremely deep-seated confidence issues.

Like Fluttershy, I worked at it in small steps. I took small work here and there, slowly building a portfolio. I gradually improved my sales pitch for job interviews. I eventually started to say “yes, I really am pretty good at this”, instead of constantly tearing down and discounting my skills. And then, in a final burst, I broke through it all. I don’t need to re-tell the story of my career, but it genuinely was life-changing, and it finally brought me the validation I needed in order to get past the residual “Fluttershy can hardly fly!” chants in the back of my head.

I’ve seen enough negativity and put-downs to last several lifetimes, I have zero desire to bring anything except kindness and love into my life, the lives of those I love, and the world as a whole. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to trust new people as readily as others do, and I’m not sure I can be less high-maintenance as a friend, though I’m working on both of those things. But at least I’ve proven, to myself as much as anyone else, that I can really fly.

Las Pegasus Unicon, and Convention Overplanning

This past weekend, a new My Little Pony convention, Las Pegasus Unicon, came and went. Normally, this would be just an ordinary occurance, but this con’s mere existance turned into a large-scale problem at the end of the con, when it came time to pay the remainder of the con’s bills. The con ran out of money, very far short of what they needed, and because of this, they were unable to pay guests, most of whom have lost significant amounts of cash as a result.

I haven’t heard firm numbers, just speculation, but from what I can tell, the shortfall was well into the thousands of dollars, and possibly into the tens of thousands, purely based on how much has been raised without anyone saying “Ok, we have enough now”. Aside from saying that it was primarily caused by an attendance shortfall, I also haven’t seen much hard data about what happened, but I’ve seen some speculation about how many attendees the con anticipated having, versus actual attendance, and if those numbers are even close to reality, it shows a staggering difference that the organizers really should have seen in advance.

As a result of this shortfall, a number of people have organized fundraisers within the community, ostensibly to ensure that the guests who are owed money get paid. I can see the logic in this; if a sizeable convention defaults on appearance fee payments to guests of honor from outside the fandom (show-related talent, in this case), future conventions will have a much more difficult time securing show-connected guests, and given Hasbro’s already tenuous relationship with MLP conventions, fears that Hasbro will pull the plug on future cons are not entirely without merit.

There’s a lot to be said about this, and a lot of arguments are occurring on both sides. I’ve wanted to weigh in on this, but not without time to really give it some thought.

First, the fact that this happened at all is mind-boggling. The convention issued a statement, which is quite the train wreck to read, and sets a level of convention-organizer incompetence and gross negligence I didn’t think was possible. Waiting until the last minute to act, in hopes of thousands of non-pre-registered attendees to arrive and bail out the con’s finances, is criminally foolish, especially in a fandom where most events don’t even allow on-site registration, for reasons I don’t quite understand (aside from “Bronycon did it!”).

The fundraising efforts are troublesome to me, mostly because of the lack of transparency. There are no solid numbers on what the con’s deficit was (even from the con itself, which is downright pathetic), no information on who’s owed what, and there aren’t even any real goals in the fundraising process. Just “the con owes a ton of money, send us money to bail them out, and keep sending it until someone says stop”. For any fundraiser, that’s sketchy, but in this case, it’s absolutely unacceptable. I can accept the premise, a fundraiser to help fix the mistake of a community event, for the benefit of the community as a whole, but that premise requires an even higher standard of transparency than most. Since the community is being asked to take collective responsibility for the negligence of a few, no one should give a single penny without knowing precisely how big the mistake is, and who was affected. Picture this: If I come to you, as a friend, and say “Hey, I was expecting a big client this month, but they flaked, and now I can’t pay my rent”, your first question will be how much my rent is. If I then say “Oh, it’s not important, just give me what you can, it’ll be a big help”, I can’t think of a single sane human being who would give me anything, no matter how much they cared for me as a friend. This situation is no different.

Personally, while I won’t be contributing a single penny to the con’s bailout fund, I’ll gladly contribute to a fundraiser to assist with legal fees for those who were impacted by this incident and who wish to take legal action against the convention and/or its organizers.

Beyond all of this, though, I hope that conventions that are currently being organized, and prospective convention organizers, take some very important lessons from this. Because there are some strong lessons to be learned here, that I haven’t heard many people analyze in-depth.

For one thing, the number of MLP conventions has grown too large to be sustainable. Based on average convention attendance nationwide, the speculative attendance estimates I heard for this con wouldn’t be entirely unrealistic if conventions within this community were a quarterly occurance, on average. But there are multiple cons per month just within the US, on average, and multiple events per state for most US states. The pony fandom is large, but it’s not that large, and its numbers appear to have stabilized, instead of growing explosively like they did 1-2 years ago. I don’t think the fandom is anywhere near finished growing, but it has reached a point where growth is slowing down considerably, simply because the growth that usually happens organically for a fandom happened instantaneously.

The bigger issue, however, is that MLP conventions are too reliant on big-name guests of honor to attract attendees, and because most in the fandom have met these guests at least once, their ability to attract attendees is shrinking. I would bet money that if Bronycon 2013 were identical to 2012 in every way, their attendance would take a 25% hit, at least, because the biggest draw for Bronycon was the guest list. Las Pegasus Unicon seemed to take the same approach, and while they did make an effort to create a niche by being a Vegas-based con, there was nothing distinctive about the con other than location and guest list. The same can be said of most of the cons that are planned for 2013, and a significant chunk that happened in 2012; with a handful of notable exceptions like Trotcon, most conventions that occurred had no focus, no niche, and no real draw other than guests and location. There’s a place for that, for small local cons, and that formula worked for a few large cons at first. But the novelty has worn off, and that formula doesn’t draw bronies from all over the world anymore, or even all over the country. The questions have all been asked, the autographs have been written, the terrible “person X standing next to guest Y” cellphone photos have all been taken.

So, if you’re already planning a convention, or if you want to, take this as a solid affirmation that pony conventions need to step up their game, or back off. If your convention is in a city that isn’t already a major tourism destination, you probably shouldn’t be starting a convention there unless the area has a strong group of likely attendees within 100 miles. If you still want to create one, it needs to have an attraction, theme, or niche, outside of its guest list and/or location. The MLP fandom can take lessons from the furry fandom on this, where conventions have started and fizzled for decades. As furry conventions like Megaplex have proven (peak attendance 250-300), a desireable location alone cannot sustain a convention, it needs to serve a purpose. Furry conventions like Furry Connection North and Furfright are in terrible locations, but they have such a strong niche/identity that they’re well-attended despite that. Conventions like Rainfurrest and Further Confusion are in high-draw cities, but they’re also well-run with a strong theme, and have exceptional attendance.

There have been pony conventions that have experimented with deeper themes beyond just putting big names on their ads, like Trotcon and Cloudsdale Congress, but if the pony fandom is going to last, we need more of this. The show is a large part of the fandom, but the fandom contains so much creative work and expression that it has its own identity and content separate from the show, and that deserves to be celebrated. Additionally, part of what makes furry cons a long-term success is that the cons themselves develop their own environment organically over a period of years, and pony conventions lack that. Many pony cons are completely interchangeable at this point, and with the number of them that fizzle after one year, it becomes difficult for any con to develop the sort of attendee loyalty required for growth and success.

LPU did have a secondary draw by being a Vegas convention; presumably, attendees could have a Vegas vacation and a pony con all at once. Bronycon tried a similar approach, and it didn’t work, nor is it likely to work for any large convention. Fandom conventions have to have a relatively low pricetag to generate large numbers, but venues in cities like this tend to be very prohibitively expensive. Additionally, a fast-paced large con won’t have enough downtime for people to explore much of the surrounding city; ask any Anthrocon attendee how much tourism they did in Pittsburgh while at the con. So, while this sort of convention can work, it can never be an event with more than a thousand attendees, because the event will either be in too small of a venue to attract large numbers, or be too expensive for the masses. A new event, Big Apple Ponycon, is experimenting with being a smaller con in a big city (New York), and I’ll be attending, I hope to see how well it works out for them. But I sincerely hope that LPU is the last time we see someone trying to run a large-scale convention in a top international tourism city; it’s a disaster every time someone tries, and continuing to do it won’t make the model any more workable.

So, regarding the fundraiser, I have sympathy for the fandom personalities who were impacted by this, most of whom aren’t in a position to take the sort of loss they’re feeling from the negligence of Las Pegasus Unicon’s organizers. Depending on their individual circumstances, I’ll probably send some donations their way, especially if those funds will be used to pursue legal action against the convention, which there is a case for, without question. But I will not contribute to help the convention pay its venue, or to pay appearance fees for show-connected guests, and I urge others to do the same. The convention’s organizers created this problem, through willful negligence, they deserve to be held directly responsible for it. If it results in Hasbro witholding talent for new conventions, it will benefit the fandom as much as bailing out the con would, if not moreso. And I sincerely hope that every convention is watching closely, because this is the best cautionary tale I’ve ever seen for convention overplanning and over-reliance on guests for attendance.

"Real Artists", and Professionals

I’ve ranted about this elsewhere, but I’m a firm believer that every artist, of every medium, must develop their own style and techniques, in their own time. It’s perfectly fine to have influences, but if your reason for a creative or technique choice ever includes “because so-and-so does it”, you’re Doing It Wrong. This is generally accepted as common sense in most artistic media, but in photography, there’s an entire industry built around copying the successful pro of your choice. To put it bluntly: Screw that.

Part of the problem is that most people who pick up an SLR see themselves as potential pros. I did too, for a very brief period of time, and the thought still occasionally crosses my mind. Thus, if your photography is a business tool to you, it would make sense to follow the business model of someone doing it successfully, right? That’s what every other start-up business does. Unfortunately, that logic is deeply flawed, because it forgets that photography is an art, and creative processes cannot be copied. You can certainly try, and there are some pros who’ve put out some excellent books and tutorials that are genuinely helpful. But doing so won’t make you a better artist; in fact, it will actively prevent you from finding your style and developing your skills.

Compare it to visual artists: If you buy a series of books on drawing comic books, and buy all the right materials, and spend all your effort trying to make a comic book because that’s what professional artists do, you may come up with something that looks like a comic book. You may even be excellent at it. But what if you’re not? What if you suck at comic books? If you take this approach, it would be pretty easy (and justified) to say “Well, I’m just not an artist” and never touch it again. But maybe you’re a brilliant artist, who’s just not very good at comic books. Maybe you’re a natural at landscape painting, but spent too much time convincing yourself “professional artists are comic book artists, therefore I must become a comic book artist” to try doing something else.

That scenario is laughable to anyone who is, or knows, visual artists, because there’s no one way to draw. Everyone knows, and accepts, that pretty much every style is valid. But, hundreds of years ago, this wasn’t the case; the only accepted style of painting was photorealism, and if you sucked at that, you were generally considered a failure as an artist. Photography has a similar (but thankfully not as stifling) culture today. Diversity of style is becoming less niche, but there’s still an extremely strong perception that to be able to call yourself a photographer, you must be excellent at professional-style portraits. And, the internet is stuffed full of galleries owned by people who are desperately trying to be great at portraiture, but they just don’t have a knack for it. Usually, these galleries contain one or two token shots of some other type (macro, landscape, street, architecture), which are often spectacular, the best shots in the whole gallery. But they neglect them, instead trying to force portraiture skills that may never come, or abandoning their craft entirely.

Similarly, I’ve heard photographers talk about what “real artists” do. As in, “a real artist waits for the light to be perfect”, “a real artist only gets keepers”, “a real artist only shows the top 1% of their work”, and so forth. Pretty much any statement of what a “real artist” does is pretentious garbage, and few things irk me faster. Especially when used while out shooting. “A real artist doesn’t stretch for the shot, so I can’t get that shot without a 500mm lens”. No, a real artist tries. A real artist does whatever they feel is right, because a real artist doesn’t do things based on what they think an artist should do. If you, personally, feel you shouldn’t try for a shot, or should/shouldn’t do something, based on logic or personal experience, that’s fine. But the claim that anyone calling themselves an artist or photographer must also follow that advice is, as I said before, pretentious garbage. A real artist doesn’t listen to any statement containing “real artist”, except for these: A real artist, first and foremost, creates, or tries to create. And, a real artist finds their own way, and their own style, without patterning themselves off someone else.

So, by all means, learn from those whose work you admire, but do so with the knowledge that, when it comes down to it, you are your own artist. You must be the one to experiment, try new things, see what works and what doesn’t, and explore what makes you pick up a camera in the first place. And never, ever take someone else’s advice as The One True Way of photography, there’s no such thing. Aside from “point the lens at the thing you want to take a picture of”, the only “right” way to be a photographer is what you decide works for you and makes sense, on your own, based on your own interests and passions. Lastly, if you hear someone use the phrase “real artist” attached to any advice other than encouraging creativity and exploration above all else, ignore whatever they just said. The only people who claim anything other than that is the mark of a “real artist” have no claim to that title themselves.

The Problem With Trigger Warnings

“Triggering”. Like “privilege”, it’s a word that has a legitimate place in social discussions, but has been so ridiculously overused on the internet (I’m looking at you, Tumblr) that it’s difficult to bring into a serious conversation. Attempting to do so tends to conjure mental images of whiny teenagers writing nonsensical tweets about being “triggered” by the very sight of a single word. There are even browser userscripts for Tumblr catering to this, allowing someone to filter all posts containing specific words, intended to be used as a “trigger filter”. Unfortunately, with so many people claiming to be triggered by simple word usage in an internet post, it’s become difficult to have serious discussion of serious issues on websites like Tumblr, or even to use certain keywords casually. And that’s a pretty big problem.

Triggering is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, and refers to a circumstance where someone experiences a relapse of traumatic memories due to outside stimuli. A classic, if extreme, example is a Vietnam War veteran, who’s otherwise a functional, normal adult, hearing a car backfire on a city street, and suddenly becoming terrified for his life, as if he were back in the war. In this example, the veteran is triggered by sounds that resemble gunfire, and upon hearing such sounds, he completely breaks down and is temporarily unable to keep his PTSD under control. It’s a well-documented phenomenon, and a classic symptom of PTSD in remission. But while therapeutical approaches to PTSD focus on overcoming these triggering episodes, and learning thought processes to maintain one’s control when a trigger is presented, the Tumblr approach is to simply avoid one’s triggers entirely, an approach that can actually make those issues worse.

I’m not going to question the legitimacy of anyone’s issues, because a minor annoyance to one person can be a major issue for another. But, I have a very hard time believing that someone can truly be triggered by academic discussions or simple word use. Graphic depictions of a situation, regardless of fact or fiction, can definitely do it. Videos and imagery can as well. But I’ve seen “trigger warning” notices on news posts/commentary, activism-related posts against the alleged trigger, and even posts that simply mention a specific word in passing, as part of a very different narrative. More concerning, though, is when even a benign post contains something that someone considers “triggering”, the author will hear cries to put a warning up, and people will get extremely defensive about their “triggers”, seemingly operating on the assumption that everyone should automatically know that this person has a severe reaction to certain words. This is what I take issue with.

Now, as I’ve revealed in recent posts, I have some trauma in my past, and lingering issues resulting from it. I’ve been triggered, in the clinical way; I can easily count on one hand the number of times it’s happened, but when it did, it took some pretty serious stimuli to cause it, and each episode took hours upon hours to fully recover from. Even if it happened more easily, though, it’s no one’s responsibility but my own to know how my brain reacts to certain material. For example, stories that depict relentless, brutal school bullying are almost impossible for me to read, and I’ve occasionally stumbled into such a story without realizing it had that sort of content. I drop it immediately, seek something more pleasant to read/watch, and usually seek out a hug from a friend; crisis avoided. I can’t lash out at the author for it, they don’t know me or my history, and they have zero responsibility to accomodate my issues. Now, if friends are involved, they can be helpful at steering someone away from triggering material, but it’s not their responsibility to do so. Using the above example, if a friend who knows relevant parts of my past recommends material to me that I end up having to drop, I might be a bit annoyed, but I’m certainly not going to get mad at them, they certainly didn’t do it on purpose. Something that kickstarts an adverse mental reaction for me doesn’t affect others the same way.

It’s also my responsibility to distinguish between an actual triggering episode, and other strong emotional reactions. Stories of lost love or loneliness are painful to me, horror movies utterly terrify me, depictions of rape and gore disgust and sicken me, and detailed accounts of discrimination and violence are upsetting. But none of these things are the same as triggering, because triggering specifically only refers to being overcome with traumatic memories, and reliving those memories. It’s also significantly more intense than any normal emotional reaction. So, if you feel “triggered” by something, with no traumatic memories associated with that thing? That’s not triggering, that’s empathy. Similarly, PTSD trigger episodes don’t have to reach clinical levels to be “real”, but if you’re happily making jokes on Twitter less than 20 minutes after saying “I’m triggered and shaking, I need to get away from Twitter for a bit”, I question whether you actually understand what this sort of thing is like.

Lastly, since psych disorders should only be given a diagnosis when they significantly interfere with a person’s ability to function normally in society, you should seek serious clinical assistance if you have PTSD symptoms triggered by simple one-sentence mentions of concepts like domestic violence. Because if casually reading a social media site is triggering, that pretty clearly qualifies as something that prevents you from functioning normally in society. The solution is to get help for this trauma from someone who can help you face it and overcome it, and to work through it so that triggers decrease and become less overwhelming. The solution is not demanding that everyone else should take responsibility for knowing your triggers. As I mentioned before, that approach makes them worse, because in addition to being succeptible to PTSD episodes, you give those triggers additional power by being afraid of them, and eventually, you can amplify them to the point where the simple mention of a word actually will be somewhat triggering.

So if you’ve ever asked anyone to add a trigger warning to something, or gotten upset at someone for posting something triggering, I recommend not doing it anymore. It’s your responsibility to know how your brain works, not anyone else’s, and part of actually resolving this sort of thing is learning how to defend yourself from your own psychology.

If you use the word “trigger” in this context, make absolutely certain that you mean it with the weight it’s given in clinical psychology. If what you describe as being “triggered” lasts less than an hour, or leaves you coherant enough to write full paragraphs, you may be mistaken in your terminology.

And if you are so easily triggered that you need trigger warnings on Tumblr posts, please talk to a doctor, or at least take some sort of steps toward resolving issues. There’s plenty of resources for working through this sort of thing, and they can be exceptionally helpful. It can be difficult to talk openly about those things, or even impossible, but if you can at least work on them with yourself, you’ll become a much stronger person than you ever thought possible. I promise.

The Girl With The Alternate Life, or How Fandom Helped Me

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was just starting to grow up, but she was very, very lonely, and very sad. All of her childhood friends had gone on to other things, she no longer had school, no college or university would take her, and no one would pay her to do the only thing she thought people would pay her to do. On top of that, she hated her own body and didn’t know why, and she felt like no one would ever love her. So, she spent her days bored, lonely, and sad, doing little except wasting time, waiting for something interesting to happen in her life, or for some way to escape life as she knew it. Such things never happened.

One day, she heard about something that sounded like fun, and being the bored, lonely girl she was, she had plenty of time to look into it. She expected to see a bunch of people who had a weird hobby, but what she found was so much more. She found a world where everyone wanted to be her friend, where she could be whoever and whatever she wanted, and where she could escape her miserable, dull life, creating a new one however she wanted. She might even find love in this new world!

This new world brought her adventure, as well. It took her to far away cities for exciting events, where she was absolutely overwhelmed with new experiences and spontaneity. Where she had previously lived a predictable, pre-planned lifestyle, she now had excuses to drive hundreds of miles on a whim, for all the fun she could hope for, with little more than a few hours notice. And for a time, she was the happiest she had ever been.

Unfortunately, all this adventure led her to neglect her old life. For awhile, she lived with a boyfriend she could only have meaningful conversations with when they were immersed in her exciting alternate life. She held occasional jobs to pay for her alternate life, and still went into debt to go on adventures, but mostly spent the entirety of her time entrenched in her alternate life. When she wasn’t immersed in that world, it was all she could think about, to the point that she considered leaving her real life entirely on multiple occasions.

But, her alternate life helped her through the dark times. It helped her discover why she hated her body so severely, so she could lay out a plan to fix it. It helped her meet more new friends than she could ever imagine, friends who cared only about who she truly was, and weren’t interested in the layers of masks and bravado she created in her real life over the years to make it more bearable. And, most importantly, it helped her discover that she had creative talents that were worth more than she ever dreamed possible.

Strengthened by her alternate life, she set out on the greatest adventure of her entire life, a quest to seek out the sort of real life that she thought was only a dream. Equipped with a fraction of her belongings, she took the scariest step of her life, a step away from the safety net of her home. Surrounded by the incredibly deep love of the friends she met in her alternate life, her confidence blossomed, and she put her creative work in front of wealthy people, hoping that someone would pay her to pursue her passions. And, after several months of this quest, when her resources were dwindling, her quest paid off.

Suddenly, in her real life, she had more money and power than she ever dreamed possible, with more available in the future. Her real life was no longer painful to think about, it was something she was actually proud of. She had the money to go on more quests and adventures than she had time for. And, her friends from her alternate life were so proud of her, and so happy for her, that she cried for days just from the sheer, overwhelming joy surrounding her. Her alternate life brought her so much joy over the years, brought her true love in a way she never imagined even existing, and above all, it brought her the strength, courage, and ambition to turn her real life into something that didn’t bring her pain. And it did all that without her having to pretend to be anything she wasn’t. She didn’t have to wear a mask with her friends, she could show everything in her heart, good and bad, and trust that they would love her with all their hearts, just as she loved them with all her heart.

But perhaps most importantly, she now knew that she didn’t have to escape into her alternate life ever again, because for the first time in her life, she knew with certainty that she had the power to change her real life to look like what she truly wanted. And, in time, she knew that she no longer wanted to leave her real life. Instead, she knew with certainty that she could continue reshaping her real life, until it simply became her alternate life, without sacrificing any of her fun, or any of the love in her life.

What Dining Out Means To Me

In an effort to eat out less, and learn to cook at home, my dear friend Dusk Dargent has taken on a challenge: For the entire month of February, with a small number of practical exceptions, he is not allowed to eat from a restaurant. Anything he eats must require home preparation. He’s set up a Tumblr blog to document the experience, “Dine-In Dusk”.

A few of my other local friends are also doing it, and inviting others to participate as well. As someone who eats out for almost every lunch and roughly half of my dinners per week (I don’t really eat breakfast, I simply grab a granola bar and some fresh fruit at home), I’d be a prime candidate for this challenge, and I gave it some serious consideration. While I won’t be participating directly, this has inspired me to really think about why I eat out so much, and I do plan to use February as an excuse to cook more, since it’ll be considerably easier to find friends to share it with.

The big question circulating amongst my friends is, simply, why do we eat out so much? The most frequent reason I’ve heard is convenience, and it’s a logical one, but it doesn’t entirely apply to me. It applies for lunches at work; the office kitchen is inconveniently located, not well-cleaned, and used by a massive number of employees, so it’s far more convenient to simply walk out the door and grab something from one of the many restaurants and food trucks located within the same block. But for dinners, or when I’m working from home, going out is exceptionally inconvenient. After walking a half-mile home from work, which is easier? Throwing something frozen in the oven? Or walking another half-mile to the nearest restaurants? Or driving even further for the same? Easy solution. Yet, over half the time, I choose one of the latter options.

Social influence is a big one, I’ll admit, because I can’t get enough time with my friends, and often the easiest way to arrange that is to get people together for a meal. But much of the time, when I go out for dinner during the week, I do it alone.

But the biggest reason for my frequent dining-out habits? I genuinely enjoy it, and even when I go out for convenience, I make sure it’s something I’ll enjoy, not something that’s food for the sake of food. I’ve freely admitted to being a restaurant snob, and in the last few months, this has only increased; aside from a very small number of instances where I was grabbing something on the go out of convenience, I haven’t touched fast food since October, nor have I been to many chain restaurants. For me, dining out is not primarily a means to acquire food at all, there are cheaper and often more convenient ways to do that. For me, the majority of the time, dining out is an experience, a joy I actively seek out, and sometimes, it could even be described as a hobby. I’m not sure I’d call myself a “foodie”, but I like to think I have excellent and broad tastes, and I greatly enjoy exploring the world of food as much as possible, often on a weekly basis. I could do this with a cookbook, sure, but cooking unfamiliar things carries a great deal of risk; if I don’t like it, is it because I genuinely don’t like it, or because I did one of an infinite number of things wrong?

One of the reasons cited for wanting to cut back on dining out is financial, and I understand that 110%. When I lived in Harrisonburg, I essentially had free food whenever I was in town, but when I temporarily lived in Maryland over the summer, I very quickly blew through my grocery/food budget, far faster than anticipated. And that was in an area of Maryland a fair bit cheaper than the highly-affluent areas of Virginia I live and work in. That experience taught me extremely quickly to get groceries and eat at home as much as possible, even if it was zero-prep stuff like frozen pizza and cereal. I’m no longer in a position where that’s necessary, but I empathize very well with those who are. As recently as September, I had the lowest income out of everyone in my DC circle of friends, by an order of magnitude in some cases, so while everyone saw me out at local dinner gatherings once or twice a month, sometimes at staggeringly expensive places like Melting Pot, they didn’t see me subsisting almost entirely on free or crazy-cheap food while I wasn’t in DC. Believe me, I’ve been there.

All that said, I really would love to become a skilled chef. It’s difficult to fit into my other hobbies, but it’s certainly on the list. I have a conceptual knowledge of how it’s done, I have pretty good and sophisticated tastes (essential for good cooking), and I’ve prepared a few dishes here and there, with considerable success. And, as of mid-January, I’m no longer lacking kitchen basics that I’m aware of (it took months of incremental shopping trips to get all the tools I’d need, since I had to acquire everything for the first time). So, I reasonably could cook at home regularly. The biggest reason why I don’t? Cooking alone is a miserable experience. Perhaps it’s just me, but cooking for myself with more complexity than throwing something frozen in the oven seems like a massive waste of time. If I’m going to spend the effort and expense to acquire ingredients, research a recipe, put it all together, and create something in the kitchen, I want someone other than me to enjoy it. And, despite a number of friends being exceptionally encouraging toward my desire to cook, getting anyone to come over to my apartment for anything (not just food) has proven exceptionally difficult since I moved here. Since I also have no significant other or roommates, my kitchen is a pretty solitary place most of the time.

So, I won’t be giving up dining out, nor will I “officially” be taking the February Dine-In challenge. I will never become one of those amazing people who whips up a four-star meal almost every day. But, I have great respect for those who are doing the Dine-In challenge, I’ll do my absolute best to be supportive, and I think that for those who are participating, it’s a great way to meet their personal goals. As for my personal food-related goals during February, I hope to cook something for my friends at least once a week during their challenge, because I think once I break the culinary ice (and demonstrate that despite lack of experience, I don’t suck at cooking), it’ll be easier for me to cook at home in the future.

Years ago, when I dreamed of moving to Pittsburgh to escape Harrisonburg, I dreamed of having weekly meet-ups where I’d cook something awesome for all of my friends. I gave up on that concept when my lack of cooking experience never increased (it was borderline impossible to cook anything when I lived with my mom, for various reasons), but perhaps it’s something we can start doing among the DC locals I love. I may love restaurants, but my love for my friends and for good food is greater, so I would absolutely be thrilled to have recurring dinner parties at each others’ houses. Let’s do this.

Seeking A Photography Assistant At Conventions

As someone who isn’t a professional photographer, and actively doesn’t want to be, it seems a little weird to be recruiting for an assistant. But, simply put, I take photos far, far faster than I can do anything with them, and my usual pace for post-processing just isn’t sufficient for conventions and events. People want con photos within a week or two of the event, not six months later. This is amplified when a convention has brought me on as a staff photographer, as I discovered last spring. So, I’ll do what big-city yuppies do best, and throw money at the problem.

What I Need

Primarily, I need someone to help with the pre-processing parts of my Lightroom workflow (described in great detail here). I’d bring my laptop, which is set up to be a mobile photo lab, to the event, where shots could be worked on during the con. Or, we could get together afterwards, but the idea is to have everything done except per-photo optimization, which I would do on my own, since I consider that component of post-processing to be an integral part of digital photography. Tagging, sorting, and applying presets are chores that don’t require the original photographer’s creative input.

Additionally, help carrying gear would be awesome, like in a backpack or something, but I consider it an extra bonus; I’m physically capable of lugging my stuff around, I’m just lazy :-)

What I Can Offer

First off, I’m not looking to pay an hourly wage for this, sorry. Partly because hourly billing is the bane of my day job, and partly because it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for a convention assistant. Instead, I’m offering convention-related stuff, which is highly negotiable, but can include any of the following that you would consider fair compensation. If there’s anything you want that’s not listed here, just ask.

  • Registration: Simple, I’ll pay for a basic registration for you.
  • Lodging: If you stay with me, your share of the room is free, and as a rule, I don’t bring in more roomies than bed spaces. If you’re staying with someone else, I’ll cover part or all of your share, within reason; I don’t get an entire hotel room to myself at cons, I’m certainly not going to pay for someone else to.
  • Travel: Depending on how far away you are, I’ll either pay for your travel costs to get to the con, or to get to DC to ride with me. Within reason.
  • Food: I prefer to leave this up to you, but if you’d like it included, we can probably work that out.
  • Gear Use: This only benefits you if you have a Canon SLR camera, but if you’re good at keeping your gear clean and protected, I’ll let you use my lenses, flashes, and other stuff. I won’t pretend this is some massive benefit, but I do exclusively get top-end gear, which often costs quite a bit to rent, so this isn’t entirely worthless. On a related note, if you shoot film, I’ll chip in for that, because film is awesome.
  • Apprenticeship: I’m pretty insecure about my art, so I only consider this worth something if you do, and I’m not hurt if you don’t. But if you really want me to teach you what I know, I promise I’ll make a sincere effort at it and try my best to help you improve your craft. Techniques and skills aren’t proprietary, and when I learn something, I love to share with everyone. Plus, I’ve run photography panels at cons on a number of occasions, so I can give hands-on lessons expanding from that.

Who I’m Looking For

  • Adobe Lightroom experience is a must, or you need to have time to come visit me for a weekend to learn it.
  • A good creative eye for photography is a plus, but not strictly necessary.
  • Should be reasonably well-organized, or at least good at following an existing organizational scheme.
  • Preferably someone I already know, or someone interested in being a friend in addition to helping with my photography.
  • Someone who would be interested in going to the convention outside of this arrangement. In other words, I’ll sponsor a furry to go to a furry con, but not someone who is completely uninterested in furry cons.
  • If you’re carrying gear around the con for me, decent physical strength is needed, obviously.
  • Must be easy to contact during a con. I feel like I shouldn’t need to say this in 2013, but it amazes me how many people practically go radio-silent during an event. If you’re the sort of person who constantly misses calls and messages during a con, we’ll really need to work on that.

When I Need This

This would only be a thing during large conventions where my photography is somewhat higher-profile, or at conventions where I’m working as staff photographer. You don’t have to do it at every event, I can grab someone different each time.

  • Fur The ‘More 2014 (Baltimore, MD - March 14-16): I’ve put in an application to be one of the staff photographers at this con, so I’ll want to get my shots out as fast as possible.
  • Bronycon 2014 (Baltimore, MD - August 1-3): Along with the amazing Keithius, I’ll be running two to three photography panels, so as far as con photography goes, this is arguably my highest-profile event.
Photography Workflow

I tend to get a lot of questions about my post-processing workflow, which usually come up when I mention presets I’ve created to speed things up in Lightroom. Additionally, I’ve been seriously considering bringing in an assistant to help with my processing when I go to conventions and events, especially if I’m a staff photographer for the event. So, I’ve written up my processing workflow in detail, both for the curious who might benefit from my techniques, and for anyone who’s interested in helping me out at conventions.

  1. Import contents of memory card. I have an import preset called “5D Import”, for my current camera body, which applies the following settings:
    • Adds a tag called “Camera:My 5D mk2”, used for my own sorting purposes. Other tags can be added at import if they’re relevant to all photos on the card. This can be a time-saver later.
    • Applies a develop preset called “Enable Lens Profile”, which does exactly what it says, enables the use of lens correction profiles. In doing this, Lightroom automatically selects the most appropriate profile, if one exists. On a full-frame camera, this is vital.
    • Selects the import destination, which should be “X:Photography5Dmk2 02”. Important: If the camera’s filename counter has rolled over (9999 >> 0000), start a new folder called 5Dmk2 03 and put all images starting at 0000 there. I prefer not to have every shot in the same folder, it gets a bit unwieldy if anything ever needs to be done in that directory, so I split them up by number series, ensuring there can never be more than 10,000 files in each directory.
  2. Tag all photos. This can be done in batches, thankfully, so for each set of tags, select all appropriate photos. For example, if the card contains photos taken in Arlington, VA and Richmond, VA, select all of them to apply “Virginia” and “VA”, then work downward. A few notes specific to the way I tag photos, which can be different from other people:
    • I have tags for each of my lenses, so to apply these, use Lightroom’s metadata filtering to select photos based on lens used.
    • I have tags that do not export, for determining which photos have already been uploaded, or should not be uploaded. They start with “g2:”. Do not apply these to any photos, if you’re working with my Lightroom catalog, because they determine what’s in the Photos To Process queue.
  3. Switch to Map view in Lightroom to geotag all photos. I don’t have anything to automate this, so it’s typically completely manual, which is mostly fine. The granularity of my geotagging varies greatly, but is typically accurate at least to a specific building or area. So, for photos of a hike or walk, I usually try to pinpoint exactly where on my route I was. But for a convention or event, I’m not going to bother figuring out precisely where in the building/park I was, I’ll just put them all on the same building/park/area. If you’re processing my photos, and not sure, err on the side of greater precision, or skip this step.
  4. Probably the most “magical” step: Batch processing. I’ve automated this using Lightroom presets, and the main thing is applying noise reduction and sharpening settings, which are generally the same for each ISO settings. Thus, I’ve created a set of Lightroom presets to improve workflow, one preset per ISO setting. I urge everyone to do this, but don’t copy mine unless you have a Canon 5D mk2; every camera has a different noise profile, so these settings for one camera will not be applicable to a different model. Also, I recommend shooting raw for this, because there’s very little you can do about noise once a JPEG has been created. For example, my ISO 1600 preset is:
    • Sharpening: 65
    • Radius: 0.5
    • Masking: 20
    • Luminance Noise Reduction: 30
    The workflow for applying these is:
    1. Switch to Develop mode, and use Lightroom’s metadata filter to filter photos by camera and ISO.
    2. Select all photos of the same ISO setting.
    3. Apply preset for that ISO setting. If one does not exist, use the closest higher one. For example, if there’s no setting for ISO 125, use the one for ISO 200.
    4. Click the “Sync” button, and synchronize the Sharpening and Noise Reduction settings only.
    5. Repeat for every ISO setting in the current batch of imported photos.
  5. I often skip this next step, or do it while I’m doing other processing, but if you’re working with my Lightroom catalog on my behalf, this is vital. Flip through photos individually, and:
    • Flag any unrecoverably out-of-focus shots as “Rejected” (X key). This makes it easier to delete them later. If you’re working on my photos, do not actually delete anything, and do not mark things Rejected for being super-overexposed or super-underexposed. I rarely do anything with shots like these, but occasionally I pull something cool out of an otherwise-ruined photo (like this shot, or this one).
    • Flag any photos that could potentially be upload-worthy as “Yellow” (7 key). I use Green to indicate that a photo has been processed and is ready to have a title and description written, so Yellow indicates that a photo might be worth further processing, but hasn’t been through it yet.
  6. Sort photos into Lightroom collections. This is the last step so that if this process is interrupted, and I import more photos before it’s complete, it’s easier to find the previous batch. The way I organize my photos varies greatly, but I have top-level sets for Fandom Events (conventions and meetups, pony or furry), Major Events (concerts, campaign rallies), and Minor Events (weddings, prom/homecoming photoshoots, large parties). Within those sets, each photoshoot gets its own collection. Additionally, I have sets for Urban Scenic and Rural/Nature Scenic, where every locality gets its own collection, which are divided in a vague and arbitrary way; photos within a major metro area are “urban”, most everything else is “rural”, regardless of the actual subject material, because I don’t want to have multiple collections for the same city. So, photos of Central Park would go in Urban, while photos of downtown buildings in a small town would go in Rural. There are additional top-level sets, such as Cars, which are seldom used nowadays, but can be relevant in some cases. If you’re working on my photos, just leave them uncategorized if you’re not sure.

Those are the steps in what I call the pre-processing phase, which typically happens immediately after a photoshoot. From this point on, all that’s left to do is process the keepers to optimize them, which can’t really be automated beyond what I’ve already done, and I tend to really take my time on it, which is where my backlog comes from. I’ll pre-process the entire batch the day after they’re taken, but I rarely optimize more than a small handful of images per session, with processing sessions only happening once or twice a week. Additionally, I always write a title and description for the final keepers, as the last step before upload. It’s vital to do this to get the most exposure from your uploads, but it’s a waste of time to do it earlier in the process, since you might write about a photo that doesn’t get uploaded anywhere.

Social Networking Platforms

Where does a person go to be truly social on the internet? This is a question I find myself asking all too often, and once I settle in somewhere, I seem to have to find somewhere else to go.

Today, Twitter announced that they were pulling all non-web-based versions of Tweetdeck, and in doing so, they will no longer function after May of this year. This comes after a long string of Twitter API and developer rule changes, and it seems that the worst fears of many Twitter users are coming to fruition.

This move doesn’t affect me directly, in any significant way; I use Tweetdeck on my phone, but I have no real love for it, and I mostly only use it because for all its faults, it has the best notification system of any Android client, by a huge margin. But, combined with the API changes that limit what third-party applications can do with Twitter, it demonstrates pretty clearly that the Twitter actively does not want to offer a user experience better than the horrifically inferior experience of the primary official app. And that’s a problem for those of us who use Twitter heavily as a communication and content creation platform. If you’re a passive consumer of media, or use Twitter very lightly, then sure, the standard Twitter client is fine. But it can’t keep up with my Twitter usage.

My preferred Twitter app, TwInbox, is an Outlook plugin that delivers a Twitter experience far more flexible and more powerful than anything else I’ve seen available, and if/when it no longer functions as a Twitter client, I will immediately cease all use of Twitter. I’ll be looking for a mobile Twitter client to replace Tweetdeck, but I’ve never primarily used Twitter from my phone, nor do I want to. In the meantime, I’ll continue using it, but I feel I need to see what other networking options to use, as I’ve done before.

I heavily used email mailing lists, for many years, and to this day, I still greatly prefer them over other group communication methods. But I’m in the minority on that, so mailing lists are largely abandoned nowadays. Ditto for Live Journal, and its later offshoot Dreamwidth. I used both very heavily, but as Live Journal’s service degraded for non-Russian users, others abandoned it, and it lost the main thing that kept me posting regularly, interactivity. I enjoy writing, and I enjoyed using LJ to document memories, and to keep up with others who did the same. But when comment volumes dropped in LJ’s later years, it didn’t feel worthwhile to spend 1-2 hours a day writing a post, to get little to no interaction. Twitter accelled where LJ failed, with significantly less time commitment. But Twitter may lose that soon, so what else is out there?

Google Plus has come up in my circle of friends a few times, and it shows some interesting promise, but I have no interest in using it. For one thing, while Google has revised their name policies somewhat, they still clearly want to be the identity police. If I sign up on a site with a particular name or handle, that site has no business telling me I’m wrong, no matter what their standards are. I don’t care that Google+ no longer wants my legal name, I have the right to identify however I want to on the internet, and they obviously don’t agree. Additionally, Google is creepy, and while some people trust them to hold their entire lives, I do not. They haven’t earned my trust, and they’ve done quite a lot to harm my trust. I don’t want to use a service where, if I say something that isn’t PG, or they decide my name isn’t my name, my phone suddenly won’t work anymore.

Facebook, of course, is even worse than Google on every count, and most people I know won’t use Facebook because of this. I’m one of them. But just because Google’s creepiness is less intense than Facebook’s, that doesn’t mean Google isn’t creepy.

Tumblr has a great deal of popularity, and I have an account there, but I’m not interested in using it for anything more than mirroring content I create. It’s a site that isn’t trying to be the identity police, and in that regard, it’s absolutely fantastic. But, it’s a <em>terrible</em> platform, one of the worst web applications I’ve ever seen. It’s not good at long-form blogging/content creation, it’s not good at short-form messaging, there are no privacy controls, and the user experience is unusably poor. Most importantly, any sort of interaction is impossible; there are few direct messaging methods, and aside from “reblogs” (repost the entire original post and discussion thread to your own blog, with your comment added at the end), there’s no way to comment on or reply to a post. This is a dealbreaker for me, and it contributes to my other issue with Tumblr, signal-to-noise ratio. The SNR was fantastic on LJ, noise was near-nonexistant until people started posting their tweets to it, and even then, it wasn’t unbearable, especially once they added tag filtering. On Twitter, it’s pretty mid-range, but since it’s exclusively short-form, the noise is exceptionally easy to mentally filter. But on Tumblr? Every post takes up a ton of space, and it’s almost exclusively noise, with no tools whatsoever for controlling it. I follow about 6 people who actively use it, parsing my Tumblr feed takes more time and concentration than my Twitter feed (where I follow over 250 people), and yet I get less out of it. I’m not interested in a GIF clip of a TV show I already watched, I want to read what you write and see images you created or captured.

I haven’t seen many other platforms take root among my friends, and it concerns me to think that of the currently-popular options, none are usable to me. I have zero hope of Google or Facebook becoming less awful, especially since both platforms seem to exist solely to funnel personal information into the hands of the parasites known as marketing departments. I like the sound of, sort of, but I don’t see them taking root with my friends, which creates a circular problem; if no one I know uses it, it’s not worth paying for, but if I don’t buy an account and use it, others won’t either. It’s possible that Tumblr might become less awful, but since they seem to have zero development budget, I’m not holding my breath. I’d love to see a service that’s basically Twitter, but that recognizes such a thing works best as a platform, not a single application.

Regardless, you can always find me on my website, it will never, ever go away. I know having a strong presence on the open web isn’t what everyone does anymore (something that always disappoints me, and not just because I build websites for a living), but I will never stop having a strong web presence. And no matter what other services I use, my website will always be my home base, the place where I post all my content first, and where I tell you where else to find me.

Audi TT: First Impressions

As of this post, my 2009 Audi TT has been in my posession for about 48 hours. I’ve gotten to know it a bit, learned what it can do, and I love it even more than I expected I would. The drive home from the dealership was downright blissful, and while my new-car bliss with my Land Rover Freelander came with a number of caveats, there is nothing about this car that causes me significant concern.

First thing’s first, this is a sports car, so its performance is a big part of its appeal. I haven’t had anything sporty since 2006, when I had my Acura Integra, so I didn’t have a big frame of reference going into this. But as soon as I started driving it, I remembered the fun of a sports car. I remembered the adrenaline, the thrills, and the outright joy from driving a performance machine. The TT did not disappoint in the slightest. In fact, it’s by far the fastest and best-handling car I’ve ever driven, and I’m seriously interested in using it to improve my performance driving skills. I’m pretty ok at handling a car, but most of my driving skill is based on off-road and severe-conditions driving (where I’m proud to say my abilities are top-notch, getting snowed in doesn’t happen to me when I have access to a four-wheel-drive).

The transmission is disorienting, but I’m getting used to it, and as I adjust to it, I love it. It’s VW/Audi’s DSG, a computer-controlled dual-clutch manual transmission. So, its user interface is that of an automatic (shift lever with Park, Neutral, Reverse, Drive, and +/- manual shifting, and no clutch pedal), but its function is that of a manual operated better than most pros, yielding surprising fuel economy, fast, smooth shifting, and performance that doesn’t feel dampened by a torque converter. The disorienting part is that, despite being used like an automatic, it feels very much like a manual, especially at slow speeds. It’ll pull itself along at idle, but it feels a bit unsteady doing it, particularly in reverse, and it can have a hard time starting uphill, I have to be quick on the throttle to make sure it doesn’t gain any roll-back momentum. The manual even recommends using the emergency brake to hold the car in place when starting on a steep incline, like a manual transmission car, and it’s something I’ll need to practice before I visit a more hilly area, like Harrisonburg or Pittsburgh.

One thing that’s taken me by surprise, in a very good way, is how the technology in this car can make such a night-and-day difference between sport and normal driving. It’s equipped with a magnetic adjustable suspension, with a switch to toggle between Sport and Standard modes. Initially, I assumed this simply meant that the button changed how stiff the shocks were, but Audi went beyond that. The car is equipped with an entire suspension subsystem, which controls how stiff the shock absorbers are based on what the car is doing. During hard turns, the outside shocks stiffen. During hard braking, the front shocks stiffen. And when sport mode is enabled, the shocks do get stiffer in general, but from what I can tell, these responsive-dampening scenarios also increase to the point that a hard turn feels more effortless than even a car built strictly for track driving. Additionally, the transmission has a Sport mode, which changes the shift timings and clutch performance from “luxury sedan” to “track car”, and functions more like what I expected from the TT. With these two settings combined, the difference between sport and normal is like having two completely different cars, a luxury coupe and a supercar.

Beyond performance, though, this car is incredibly luxurious. Which, in some ways, is more important to me; I could’ve gotten any number of high-performance cars for this price, including some that are considerably faster, and a few that handle better. But I bought an Audi TT for its combination of luxury and performance, and I was not disappointed. When not in sport mode, it drives and rides like a comfortable, quiet sedan, albeit one that hugs the road like it’s on rails. The seats are incredibly comfortable, I could easily spend hours in them, and the heated seats are such a treat in this cold weather. The leather is soft, supple, and an absolutely joy to sit on, it’s like being hugged every time I drive. And, the climate controls are significantly better than anything I’ve ever imagined a car could have.

After the first five miles of my trip home from the dealership, I quickly decided to pull off for a long dinner and manual-reading session. For years, I’ve always told everyone to read the owner’s manual of their car(s), cover-to-cover, and following that advice has taught me many things about every vehicle I’ve owned. In the case of this car, reading the manual was an absolute requirement, because there’s just so much to this car. In a general sense, it’s a luxury car with a great deal of technology and features, but I had an additional disadvantage, since every vehicle in my family is ten years old or more, and my Freelander’s feature set was rudimentary by comparison. I was quite satisfied with the Freelander at first, having come from a bare-bones sedan and two mid-90s luxury cars, but the difference between the Freelander and this Audi is staggering. So, reading the manual led to many surprises, and also greatly increased both my love of this car and my loyalty to VW/Audi in the future, in two very big ways.

First, to put it simply, I could not imagine a more perfect car if I designed it myself. Everything that’s ever annoyed me about every car I’ve ever driven has been changed in this car to fit exactly how I’d want it to operate. Things that are normally automatic, that I’d like control over, have controls for the driver to switch them on or off, and things I do manually that I’d like to automate have been automated. A few examples:

  • The windshield wipers automatically slow down when the car is stopped, something I normally do myself, and the rain sensor has adjustable sensitivity.
  • When slowing downhill, the transmission automatically downshifts to use engine braking. My Freelander did this, but from what I can tell, the TT is much better at it.
  • Daytime running lights are present, but there’s a switch for them, so I can keep them off permanently. Ditto for the “coming home” lights, something that’s nice to have occasionally, but completely pointless in well-lit parking lots or my apartment building’s parking garage. Ditto for automatic headlights as well, something else I dislike.
  • The windshield wipers hide under the edge of the hood, but instead of having to play games with turning off the ignition while the wipers are turned on to get them in the right position to replace the blades, there’s simply a computer setting that pops them upwards.
  • There’s a power-retractable spoiler, so I can have it when I need it, but keep it tucked away when it’s not needed.
  • The heated mirrors can be easily switched off when not needed.

Second, this car is like the Linux of cars, everything is user-configurable. The in-dash menu system can control countless settings that I expected I’d need a computer interface device to adjust. I never expected any car on the market to have this level of customization available through in-car interfaces.

Generally, a car’s stereo system doesn’t get my attention, because I’ve always replaced mine in every car I’ve owned, and most of the ones my family has owned. I knew that the stereo in this car had an abnormal number of features, but replacing it wasn’t completely out of the question. I was exceptionally impressed. Not only does it do everything I want a car stereo to do (satellite radio, Bluetooth, MP3 playback that isn’t device-centric), it does everything my top-of-the-line aftermarket stereo could do, and much more. Aside from the aforementioned key features, it has auxilliary input, a 6-disk CD changer, two SD card slots for MP3s (versus 1 in the stereo I put in the Freelander), and an incredible level of control in the steering wheel buttons. It also has navigation, but it’s pretty rudimentary, especially in its text entry, so I’m not sure how much I’ll actually use it.

After all this praise, there are some negatives to mention, but they’re greatly outweighed by the positives. The biggest is the backseat; there pretty much isn’t one. I went into this purchase expecting the car to be a 2-seater 99% of the time, because it’s rare for me to have more than one passenger. But, while the TT is known to have a backseat that pretty much only exists for insurance classification purposes, I figured it would be about like my old Integra; uncomfortable for average-sized adults, unusable for large adults, but functional for short periods if needed. In the Integra, with the front seats all the way back, the back seat had 4-6" of leg room. In the TT, with the front seats all the way back, the back seat has zero leg room. Literally, the backs of the front seats sit flush against the back seat. Curious about the uselessness of the back seat, I tested it out myself. If I put the front passenger seat far enough forward to still be able to sit in it, it was physically impossible for me to even get into the back seat. If I slid the front passenger seat all the way forward, I could get in the back, but the seat couldn’t be slid back at all. So, I’ll be considering this car strictly a 2-seater, with rare exceptions. Annoying, but far from a dealbreaker.

The only other negatives are pretty frivolous, and unlike my Freelander, there’s no high-stakes sword of Damocles hanging over it. I wish it had a sunroof, for one thing, I really enjoy having as much glass as possible in my vehicle. But it’s bigger than my Integra was, so it doesn’t feel claustrophobic without one, and with the cabin layout and window design, there’s plenty of sunlight coming in (unlike my Crown Victoria). I also find the interior lighting pretty lacking; it’s lit by strategically-placed directional LEDs, which are beautiful to look at, but pretty insufficient for actually lighting anything, unless it’s dark enough for high beam headlights, a situation difficult to find where I live. I may install a real dome light in the future, as long as I get one from another Audi of a similar year. And, there are two features my Land Rover had that I wish were present in this car; heated windshield, and rear windshield wiper. I get why there’s no rear wiper, it’d be impossible to add one in a way that doesn’t break the elegant curves of the car, but I do really miss it. I’m genuinely surprised there’s no heated windshield, though. I’m keenly aware that heated windshields are abnormally prone to cracking, and horrifically expensive to replace, but after having a vehicle that had one for two years, standard defrost can’t even compare. And the heated windshield washer fluid reservoir is helpful, but useless until the car warms up.

One other thing that bears mentioning is that, in some ways, this car doesn’t quite feel like it’s mine. Part of it is that it’s such a massive upgrade over my previous vehicles, or anything my family has ever owned, that it feels more like a rental than something that’s mine. But more than that, part of my usual car-purchasing process involves a ritual of replacing the stereo, installing other electronics like my HAM radio, and making a list of what I want to do to it. This is the first time I’ve ever had a car where I literally had no changes in mind, aside from the aforementioned dome light. There’s nothing I’m substantially unhappy with, nothing I’m in a hurry to upgrade, and especially nothing that’s within my abilities to change. I won’t be adding my HAM radio, mostly because there’s nowhere to put an antenna that isn’t hideous. There are a few things that would be nice, like an integrated USB charging system, and I’m considering getting it painted a different color in a few years, but really, it’s exactly what I want, right out of the box.

It also hasn’t presented much of a personality or gender, in my mind. It’s entirely pointless imagining on my part, but I tend to strongly personify my cars, and it’s easy to do with older used cars. They tend to have enough quirks to feel like they have an entire personality. This one feels much more like a machine, which is strange, but it doesn’t make me love it any less.

Ultimately, this car is not only exactly what I wanted to replace the Freelander with, it’s exactly what I’ve always wanted. And, it nudges me back toward my preferred two-car model; I like having a sporty car, and a truck or serious SUV, because I’d rather have two cars that are excellent at their respective tasks, than one car that tries to compromise. This car serves the sporty car slot more perfectly than I could’ve ever imagined, to the point that I almost don’t even need to fill the SUV slot. Eventually, I imagine I’ll start pining for a truck again, but I will absolutely not be parting with this Audi until something catastrophic happens. Which I hope won’t happen for a very, very long time.

Things Activists Should Know About Guns

As I’ve covered before, when it comes to gun control, I seem to largely be on the side of the gun control activists. We differ on a few things (I have no problem with open carry or concealed carry by responsible people), but at the core of it, I favor more regulation, and more importantly, more effective regulation. Unfortunately, I very often see pro-gun-control arguments, even from elected officials, that are based on some fundamental misunderstandings about what firearms are, and what different types exist. I’m not a firearms expert, but I know enough about them to try to clear up a few misconceptions.

If you favor stronger gun control in the US, and maybe even find yourself arguing in favor of it, I urge you to read this. Gun control is a good thing, but in order to argue effectively for it, you must understand what you’re controlling. Many people cried out that those who don’t understand the internet shouldn’t regulate it; anti-gun-control activists say the same thing when topics like assault weapon bans come up. You’re free to distrust this information, but it’s largely technical, and can be verified from a multitude of sources.

Automatic vs Semi-Automatic Weapons

Automatic weapons have been prohibited in the US since 1986, and ownership of full-auto weapons produced prior to that is extremely tightly controlled, requiring special clearance from the ATF. So whatever else you’re fighting for, keep that in mind. Anything in current circulation is a semi-automatic, which simply means that after pulling the trigger, it’s ready to fire another shot without doing anything else. And by this definition, even a revolver is a form of semi-automatic. In modern firearms, almost every gun on the market is a semi-automatic, and most use the same mechanism: Gas pressure from the fired shot powers a spring-loaded mechanism that ejects the spent cartridge, pulls a new one into the chamber, and resets the firing pin. All of this happens almost instantaneously, so virtually every semi-automatic weapon produced has the same rate of fire; as fast as a human can re-pull the trigger, whether it’s a hunting rifle, para-military rifle, handgun, or even some shotguns.

Assault Weapons vs Assault Rifles, vs Any Other Rifle

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 was largely ineffective at doing anything except temporarily increasing the value of pre-ban accessories and weapons, and prompting manufacturers to creatively circumvent the ban without actually changing anything about their products. There have been many calls to reinstate it, in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, but it will continue to serve only to give gun control activists a false sense of accomplishment, while ignoring the real problem (more on what the real problem is later). Calling for an assault weapons ban is a distraction from the real issue, and it’s important to recognize that, but it’s even more important to understand why. For that, we have to get technical.

First, an assault rifle is a very different thing from an assault weapon, both in a technical sense and in the eyes of the law. An assault rifle is what everyone pictures when they say assault weapon, but an assault rifle is defined as a mid-caliber rifle capable of fully-automatic or burst firing. As I established above, these are already illegal everywhere in the US, and have been for 26 years. So take them out of the equation, and you’re left with assault weapons, defined in the Assault Weapons Ban as semi-automatic weapons that can accept detachable magazines (the standard method of reloading for decades, even for non-semi-automatic weapons) and bear two or more cosmetic characteristics of an assault rifle. The list can be found here, but it mostly consists of things that are either already illegal/restricted (grenade launchers, flash suppressors/silencers), unrelated to actual use (folding stock), or have little real impact on how the weapon is used. For example, a pistol grip makes a rifle easier to stabilize against recoil, which makes the weapon more comfortable to use, but it doesn’t improve accuracy by a significant margin, and only affects endurance when the weapon is used for hours at a time, something that is impossible in civilian murder situations.

When you strip away the specific features that define a semi-automatic assault weapon, compared to any other weapon, there’s effectively no difference other than style. To suggest that assault weapons are more dangerous in any way than other firearms is like saying drivers of red cars speed more often because they look faster. Making this argument to anyone who knows something about guns is like waving a giant “I Don’t Know What I’m Talking About” flag, which hurts your credibility. And, most importantly, focusing on this takes your attention away from the real issue.

The Real Issue

So if focusing on specific gun types is a distraction, what should we be focusing on? The country’s mental health system, or lack thereof, is a huge issue that needs work, but I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t really get into details about it. Gun control reform is a big issue as well, and something that absolutely must be addressed. Restricting types of weapons won’t make a bit of difference, we’ve already tried that and proven pretty conclusively that it doesn’t work. Even concealed carry and open-carry restrictions, or lack thereof, aren’t really relevant; if someone is committing pre-meditated mass murder, a law that says they can’t carry a gun into certain types of buildings will change nothing. What will make a difference is, on a general level, making guns more difficult to acquire. Exactly how difficult it should be to get a gun is something we can figure out; some say they should be extremely restricted, I favor an approach that allows people who can prove a level of responsibility and pass a psychological screening to get weapons relatively uninhibited. But that’s irrelevant, because nothing will get done unless we focus on something that will actually matter. Because all guns are equally lethal, no matter what they look like.

Why I Left Christianity

There was a time in my life when I held very deep religious beliefs. I was a Christian, and faith played a big part in my daily life. I prayed multiple times a day, I rejoiced when Virginia schools started observing a daily moment of silence for it, I was active in my church youth group, and I even wrote a short story that was published in a Christian compilation book. Yet, today, I’m practically an atheist. I don’t actively reject the possible existance of a deity (or more than one), but I pretty much have no faith of my own. What happened? How does one make that shift? Or perhaps more importantly, how did I make that shift? It wasn’t an immediate process. I didn’t just wake up one day and say “Worship a deity? Nah”. I spent years looking for my place within the church, and when I didn’t find one, I spent years looking for a belief system that felt right to me. And there was no single thing that pushed me out, it was a collection of life changes, worldview expansions, and realizing that many Christians have some really messed-up priorities.

I first developed a strong personal faith when I was in middle school, when I was severely bullied to the point of causing psychological trauma (some of which persists to this day), and needed somewhere to turn. Years upon years of physical and emotional abuse from my dad caused me to distrust my mom by extension, something that took a long time to fix, so I didn’t tell her much. The school mostly didn’t care; there were a few isolated teachers who reached out to me, and kept me from going completely off the deep end, but the administration ignored me until I was physically attacked (which happened quite a few times), then scolded me for picking fights with kids I couldn’t defend myself against. And aside from one person, I had no friends. So I prayed. My prayers were never really answered, but it gave me something to hold onto.

My first two years of high school, my faith grew. I went to my church youth group regularly, which was far more fun than church ever was, and went a long way toward nurturing my beliefs. I didn’t evangelize, but my personal relationship with God was strong, and I was quite secure in my beliefs, and a worldview that, in hindsight, was painfully narrow.

It wasn’t until the end of 10th grade that things started to change. The first thing that happened was discovering that I liked boys (figuring out my gender identity didn’t come until much, much later, thanks to the aforementioned narrow worldview). I prayed about it, but that didn’t last long, because I was a smart kid who knew how to research, and it didn’t take much research to determine that praying would be completely ineffective in this case. But that alone didn’t shatter my faith, especially when I discovered the magic of biblical analysis. Being somewhat of a nerd, I had never subscribed 100% to the idea that the Bible was divinely written, so all it took to get past the “gay == sin” idea was a few well-reasoned, well-researched write-ups by Christian scholars, and how they contrasted with the irrational flailing of evangelists on the issue. My faith stayed strong.

As time went on, however, the people around me changed how I felt. My worldview, which was previously quite narrow, opened up considerably when I started meeting LGBT people. I travelled, I made new friends, encountered lifestyles and backgrounds I never knew existed, and expanded my horizons beyond anything I could imagine. I re-evaluated my positions on a lot of issues, and made a shift from social conservative to social liberal. But more importantly, I learned empathy, something I never realized I lacked.

While all that was happening, the life I previously knew crumbled around me. My dad was going to send me to Exodus, that horrific gay-to-straight conversion program, so I grabbed everything I could and called my mom to pick me up. I didn’t see my dad again for two years afterwards. And in the realm of my faith, I found myself constantly challenged by Christians. My youth group was relatively accepting at first, and the group leader (who I remained friends with long after I left high school) used my coming-out for a rather positive weekly lesson (with my permission and endorsement). It went relatively well at first, but over time, I didn’t feel very welcome among them. A number of group members abruptly stopped attending after that. One of them outed me to the entire high school, which wasn’t entirely unexpected. The ones who stayed, for the most part, seemed just a tad awkward around me. And everyone walked on eggshells, not because they were afraid of offending me, but because they were afraid I might pounce them, I guess; I casually made a remark that one of the boys in the group was cute when he was playing football shirtless, and everyone panicked until I lied and said I was just joking. I didn’t feel like part of the group anymore after that.

This played out on a larger scale, too. Christians everywhere seemed to be going out of their way to remind me that I didn’t <em>really</em> belong among them. I defended myself for awhile, evangelizing my own faith, but it was tiring, and I gave up after almost a year of running the same conversational circles with the same people without end. It was this defeat that finally started to rattle my faith. Because when I analyzed what had happened over those turbulent years, I got trapped in a cognitive circle, to which there were two exits: Organized religion has no merit, or the entire Christian establishment is right and I’m a terrible person just for existing. Considering that door #2 leads to suicide, and is sadly the one chosen by too many people, I picked door #1. And thus ended my trust of churches, established religious institutions of any kind, and by extension, anyone who subscribes to them.

Yet, after all that, I was still a Christian, still prayed regularly, and still attached myself to that identity. I was quiet about it, but I still believed. But in the years that followed, more life changes happened that rattled what was left of my faith. The first thing was that I continued to expand my worldview, and encountered other religions, including neopaganism, wicca, and buddhism. The second, and larger, occurance was that my life took a turn for the miserable. My bright-seeming career prospects didn’t lead to becoming a highly-paid network engineer at a mid-to-large company/institution, they lead to working a terrible helpdesk position at a terrible company with no chance for advancement of any sort. I didn’t feel like I had any peers, and when I found some on the internet, I felt more alone when I wasn’t in front of a computer. My attempts at relationships failed spectacularly. I was miserably depressed. And when I reached out to God, He wasn’t there for me. Nothing changed. Nothing ever changed in my life, except when it got worse.

I explored other churches, even other religions, but it didn’t help. And, as I met new people, I met more Christians, most of whom reinforced my decision to step away from Christianity. What ultimately made a difference in my life was taking faith out of the equation. I stepped away from all belief in any deities, from any faith-based activities, and from the idea that anything spiritual could have any impact on my life.

I was still depressed, but things slowly improved. I tried to build a career, and while brain chemistry imposed a formidable obstacle at times, I now have a senior-level position I love with a relatively prestigious employer. I’m hesitant to declare myself an atheist, mostly because of the societal weight that word carries. I don’t actively reject all religion as bunk, and I acknowledge that science has ever conclusively disproven the existance of something that, by its very nature, cannot be observed. However, I now see religion in a larger sociological context. When belief systems first emerged, they were a means to explain the unexplainable, but we have science for that now. Then, they were a means of establishing societal structure and providing for the general welfare, but we have governments for that now. One might say there’s no longer a place for religion in modern society, but I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet. We may, in the future, but it still plays a role today. Because, for all its negatives, religion still serves a purpose. It provides a moral code, hope, a place to belong, personal accountability, and a source of love to people who would otherwise lack some or all of those things. And as someone who wants to see more love in the world, that’s not a bad thing.

So if you’re a Christian, or subscribe to any other religion, I don’t fault you for it. I don’t hold it against you. I will never tell you that your beliefs are wrong, and I will never shun you for what you believe. I know very well how precious those beliefs are when you have them. What I will say, however, is that I don’t feel a need for religious beliefs in my life. And, I urge you to look at the things that almost all religious teachings in the world have in common; don’t judge, condemn, or shun your fellow humans. Love them, respect them, and embrace them, unconditionally. Because any deity worth worshipping is a deity who would want life on this planet to be as pleasant as reasonably possible, and I can’t think of a better application for religion in the 21st century.

My Gun Control Wishlist, and How I Feel About Guns

My Twitter feed has been flooded with discussions of gun control regulation today, and as much as I dislike participating in these discussions, I feel like I should say something. Despite being such a hard-left liberal on pretty much anything, I tend to take a pretty central/libertarian view on gun regulation. This usually puts me in the same camp as the conservative gun nuts when the issue comes up, which makes me rather uncomfortable, and it’s not quite accurate. But I have to write out a paragraph to explain this, so I’ll put it all here for future reference.

My hope in writing this is to give some compromise material between strongly anti-gun people and strongly pro-gun people. To the pro-gun people, I’m with you that your right to bear arms should be as unrestrained as possible. But it’s undeniable that more unstable people are committing terrible atrocities that would be simply impossible with any other weapon. And to the anti-gun people, I’m with you that guns are dangerous and have a limited place in modern society. But they should be regulated in a way that impacts individual rights as minimally as possible, while keeping guns only in the hands of people responsible enough to wield them.

For starters, I’m a gun owner. I don’t regularly carry one around (I could, since I live in Virginia, where open-carry requires no permit), but I might if I had the time to get a concealed carry permit. I’ve been around guns most of my life, I’m quite comfortable with them, and I think target shooting is quite fun. That said, I’ll be the first to stand up and say that in 21st-century America, in the vast majority of the country, there is no practical reason to own a gun for most people. The practical reasons given by gun owners include items such as:

  • Defending the country against a foreign invasion: Ridiculous. For anyone with minor knowledge about how militaries function, or anyone who’s ever played a real-time strategy video game, the reason why is obvious. If you don’t understand why this is ridiculous, I could write an entire essay explaining it, but I’ll simply say this: Citizen gun ownership bolsters defense against exactly one military tactic, which happens to be the least effective tactic any foreign source could use against the US, assuming that any country could meaningfully attack us at all.
  • In case the US government needs to be overthrown: Even more ridiculous. Everything from the above point applies 100% to this one. Additionally, no civilian, even in the US, can out-gun the US military. It can’t be done. It’s like trying to have the fastest smartphone; even if you somehow pull it off, your opponent has something better by the time you figure out how to use your new toy.
  • Self defense/home defense:There are parts of the US where this can be a valid reason to own a gun, but those places are extremely few. My litmus test consists of some simple questions:
    1. Do violent crimes occur more frequently than once every 3-6 months within a half-mile of your home or anywhere you frequently visit/do business?
    2. Do the police take longer than ten minutes to respond to those incidents, on average?
    If the answer to both of those is “yes”, then sure, go ahead and arm yourself for self defense. But the number of places where both of those are true are extremely small. In most high-crime areas, the police are nearby and respond to anything serious at the drop of a hat. In most rural areas, where police response times are exceptionally high, crime is so low that you’ll statistically never need to defend yourself against anything. And everywhere else, neither of these questions can be answered “yes”.
  • Hunting: I strongly dislike killing animals for sport, the thought of it sickens me, but it’s not my place to say it should be outlawed. However, it’s not a practical reason for owning weapons, it’s a recreational one. Nobody in this country needs to hunt wildlife for survival, and with the cost of most decent hunting gear, it’s not cheaper than buying meat either.

With all that out of the way, despite there being little to no practical need for guns, I absolutely support the right to own weapons. I’m even ok with relatively loose restrictions on them, as long as the restrictions that are in place make sense. And the key to coming up with restrictions that make sense is understanding the role firearms play in modern society. As I established above, the practical reasons that were present when the constitution was drafted simply don’t apply anymore. Hunting is no longer a necessity, personal firearms play no role in national security or balancing government power, and the vast majority of Americans do not need them for personal defense. Therefore, my basis for everything else in this post is that gun ownership, while a valid right to have, should not be unrestricted, and being a citizen should not automatically qualify you to own guns. The standard must be raised. What follows is a list of things I would like to see in gun regulation in the US.

  • Regulate at the national level, no more state-specific regulation. Simplifying the rules makes it much easier to know who’s legit and who’s not, makes it easier to close loopholes, makes it easier for gun owners to be legal, and makes it impossible for someone to say they don’t know the law.
  • Require a firearm license to own or purchase any guns.This is a big one, and one that I think would go a long way toward improving things. No license, no guns. Once a person has a firearm license, they can own and purchase pretty much any gun they want, without restriction on quantity or type, but acquiring a license would require:
    • Passing a psychological exam, for the same reason getting a driver’s license requires a vision exam. Must be renewed every five years.
    • Passing a safety and proficiency course, or showing proof of training elsewhere (military, law enforcement, security, etc). Requires refresher every ten years.
    • Full background check, evaluating criminal history, drug use, affiliation with certain groups, and psychological history.
    • Minimum age of 16. Parents may take an add-on course to get an endorsement on their license allowing them to directly supervise gun use by their children under age 16.
    • Standard gun license would allow purchase, ownership, use in authorized target ranges, and transport in locked containers. Endorsements requiring extra training exams would include open-carry, concealed-carry, hunting/sport, child supervision, and so forth.
    • Any conviction for any violent crime, even if guns weren’t involved, would result in immediate license revocation.
    A big bonus to this approach is that it would solve the problem of gun sales at trade shows, flea markets, and pawn shops. Very simple: If a person cannot show a valid US firearm license, you cannot sell them a gun. It can even be a photo ID card, and it wouldn’t take much to set up a web validation system; enter the license number, the system displays a photo of the person it’s issued to. Selling a gun to someone without a valid firearm license would carry a harsh fine, or jail time, and the business would lose their firearm sales permit on a first strike, providing a powerful incentive to enforce this model.
  • Drop restrictions on specific types of weapon (pistol, “assault rifle”, etc), replace with restrictions on calibers and ammo. Usually, when I see calls to restrict assault rifles, they’re from people who don’t know much about guns, so allow me to explain. From a functional perspective, there’s no real difference between an “assault rifle”, a hunting rifle, and any other kind of rifle. The same firing mechanisms and calibers can be found in anything. What’s typically considered an “assault rifle” is simply a regular rifle with a military-style grip. The grip doesn’t make a huge amount of difference in the way the gun is fired, and makes no difference in its accuracy, it’s mostly an aesthetic change. So calling for restrictions on assault rifles doesn’t address the problem, it creates a false target. Instead, restrict the size and type of ammunition available. The aforementioned gun license shouldn’t be required for most ammo, but anything larger than .45 caliber (used in military sidearms and by some federal law enforcement agencies) should require special endorsement to buy. And anything other than standard lead slug ammo should be heavily restricted or simply not available to civilians. This would restrict armor-piercing, hollowpoint, talon, and other types of heavily-damaging rounds.
  • All weapons must be registered, all transfers must be reported. You can’t own a car without registering it, the same should be true of guns. When you buy it, you must register it. If you sell it, give it away, or dispose of it, you must notify the ATF (or whoever handles the gun licenses). Every year, you’ll receive a report in the mail stating all firearms registered to you, and you must certify that list as correct. What would be in the database? There’s an argument to be made that it should include a test-fired shot and casing, but I’d be 100% satisfied if it simply included the serial number (or a unique identifier if there’s no serial number, like how vintage cars are handled), make, and model.
My Approach To Photography

Lately, as a result of a few of my photos getting an incredible amount of attention on, I’ve been exploring the profiles of a large number of users there (I check out everyone who interacts with my photos). And, of the profiles in English (it’s a delightfully diverse site), there’s usually information about the person’s feelings and philosophy on their craft. It varies greatly, but it occurred to me I’ve never really written anything of the sort, and when I tried to come up with a new 500px bio, I had way more to say than could easily fit there. So, here’s a compilation of snippets describing my approach and philosophy to my photography, based largely on Twitter discussions I’ve had on the subject.

First off, I freely admit that, when I’m shooting, I don’t have the best grasp on technical precision. And there are a number of purists and old-school film shooters who consider this sloppy form; in their minds, the shot must always be perfect the moment you capture it. It shouldn’t need post-processing, and “fixing it in post” is a sign of failure as an artist. I respect this approach, but I don’t agree that it’s the One True Way of photography, nor is it one I’m in a hurry to adhere to. It’s an approach that makes perfect sense if you’re shooting film: It’s too expensive to do a lot of bracketing with different settings, and unless you own a darkroom and are an expert chemist, there isn’t much post-processing that can be done. So, a successful film shooter must, first and foremost, be an absolute master of technical precision. But a digital shooter? Not so much.

Thanks to the magic of Adobe Lightroom, I can import some of the worst, sloppiest shots I’ve ever taken, and often get something useful out of them. Pretty much the only thing I can’t correct with software is focus, and even that’s negligible if it’s close enough. I’ve had photos that, looking at them on the camera, were so overexposed or underexposed that I assumed I’d just be throwing them away, but I ended up being able to recover them. Shots like this or this didn’t turn out the way I anticipated, but considering that they started as completely solid black and white (respectively) squares, the fact that I was able to get anything worth looking at from them is kinda awesome.

I don’t use Lightroom as an excuse to not learn my craft. I always shoot in full-manual mode, because I’d rather get it wrong under my own control and understand what I did wrong, than get it right because the computer picked the setting for me. And, I always attempt to take the time to get everything right; I’ve been shooting full-manual far longer than I’ve owned a DSLR, I’ve had a lot of practice. However, because I never shoot in studio conditions, I don’t have the luxury of making the world wait for me to get everything dialed in just right. Plus, I’d rather know for certain what the settings are, because I put them there, than potentially have them change on the fly. For example, if I’m shooting at an indoor event, but with highly active subjects, I’d rather know for certain that my shutter speed will be fast enough and potentially deal with dark shots, than have to read the settings at every single shot to make sure the camera didn’t randomly decide to drop the shutter speed to 1/30 because someone’s wearing a black shirt. Because I’ve seen my camera do that on the rare occasions I’ve switched it to aperture-priority mode.

More importantly, though, the act of taking the photos is an intimately emotional experience for me, not a technical one. My worst shots are often the ones where I was fiddling with settings trying to get everything right, and they’re often the most technically perfect ones. But my best shots? Those usually happen when I pretty much ignore the camera (even the meter, half the time!) and simply capture. I’m not interested in making the shot look perfect on my camera, because this is 2013, and I shoot with modern technology. It doesn’t need to look perfect on the camera. And while I’m not opposed to trying for that anyway, it’s the first thing to go out the window when I’m more interested in capturing the emotional feel of the scene.

Capturing Emotion

In lieu of technical precision, my highest priority in my photography is emotional precision. Every shot mean something, and must make me feel something. I’m not a documentary photographer, or a journalist, and I have zero interest in taking photos for the sake of visually documenting something. It’s why I no longer volunteer as a staff photographer for events without first talking to them in-depth to make sure they’re not expecting a documentarian. It’s also why I’m generally not very interested in doing studio portraits or becoming any semblance of professional photographer. Call it selfish, but I’m only interested in the photos that make me feel something (for non-living subjects) or that showcase someone else feeling something (people and animals). I’d much rather get an occasional candid portrait of someone in an intensely joyful, fleeting moment, than attempt to get them all the time in a controlled setting.

Convention Photography

My galleries have a large number of photos taken at fandom conventions, which most fandom photographers put in a separate gallery, under a pseudonym, or otherwise hide from mainstream eyes. Screw that. My con photos are some of the best of the best in my entire portfolio, because they’re some of the most emotionally intense I’ve ever gotten. If you’re not familiar with this sort of thing, fan cons of any sort are a gathering of people who often lack like-minded peers in real life, coming together in the biggest concentration of people sharing the same passionate hobbies they’ve ever experienced. And when you get that many people with that much passion for a single thing together in one place, the resulting explosion of creativity, social interaction, entertainment, and joy is absolutely intoxicating.

I’ve been attending these sorts of events regularly for many, many years, but it wasn’t until late 2011 that I started seriously photographing them. I bought my DSLR a month prior to a con, and brought it along, since I was still experimenting with the sudden, massive upgrade in my photo capabilities. I got some decent shots there, but I didn’t really consider the potential for brilliance until I looked through everyone else’s shots afterwards. The album was filled with hundreds of terrible cellphone photos, but there were about a dozen shots from a professional wedding photographer that captured the fun of it even better than I remembered it feeling. And, I remember seeing this guy around the con, in retrospect; he brought his assistant to hold his light rig, which made him stand out in a crowd. But, in analyzing his photos, it wasn’t the perfect lighting that made them so great. It was the emotions he captured. And even if they had been technically terrible, they still would have been the best photos anyone took at the event.

That epiphany changed the way I look at my own photography, but it also inspired me to pursue convention photography as a serious, major subject for my art. Because in looking through those photos, and comparing to my own memories, I realized that a convention is the perfect place to find the world’s greatest concentration of excited, happy, energetic people doing interesting and unique things. Music, performance art, costuming, fashion, celebrities. All of it in one place. For someone looking to improve their ability to photograph people, it’s a utopia, one that I’m grateful to be a part of, and that I love showcasing for the world to see.

HDR: The Uncanny Valley, and Instagram: Visual Autotune

HDR and Instagram-style vintage filters are two things in photography I won’t touch with a ten-foot pole. I don’t disparage them outright, I know they can be a bit controversial, but some people love them, and I can respect that. I’m just not one of those people.

Vintage/imperfection filters are probably the easiest target, because the only people who seem to like them are the people who use them. My objection pretty much just comes from their overuse; used sparingly, and with proper artistic discretion, there’s a place for these sorts of shots. I’ve done some myself, although I use an actual Holga lens for mine, instead of relying on software to do it. It can be a fun creative exercise, and yield unique, interesting results. However, they’re the visual equivalent of turning autotune to maximum in digital audio software; used sparingly, it adds a nice accent and change of pace to a song. Used for the whole song, you sound like a robot, and the only person who can pretend to make that work is T-Pain. Similarly, a vintage shot here or there in an otherwise well-balanced portfolio can be a fantastic change of pace, but using such techniques for every shot looks cheesy and uncreative, unless you’re using an actual vintage camera. Why? Because you’re not fooling anyone. Vintage-look digital processing is so easy to spot that even a complete layman can look at an Instagrammed photo next to a Holga film photo, and easily tell which one was digital. Star Wars Ep 2 and 3 had the same problem; everyone could see through the digital effects, and since they weren’t novel anymore, they didn’t hold up. Fake-vintage photos have the exact same problem for me, and when I see someone’s entire gallery filled with them, I say “meh” and move on without looking further.

HDR techniques are less controversial, and have become sort of a de-facto standard for landscapes and sunrise/sunset photos, making it tricky for someone like me who avoids them to find an audience for those sorts of photos. My gripe with them is that they’re the uncanny valley of photography; falling into the awkward, ugly canyon between “good-looking photo” and “good-looking drawing”. Some HDR shots are nice, but the ones I like tend to be the most subtle; using the technique to bring out a bit of shadow detail on a dark shot, for example. Movies use this to great effect in their cinematography. But while the intent of HDR is to mimic what the human eye sees, it falls short of this, because it’s artificial. Therefore, the more an HDR shot tries to accomplish this goal, the worse it looks. Sure, you can layer shots in HDR software to bring out the detail of a field and trees while having a nicely underexposed sunset in the sky, but it never quite looks right, and the attempt to do so results in a worse shot than if it had just been left with a dark/sillouhette foreground. Similarly, you can go to the other extreme, and practically turn your photo into a cartoon image (tone-mapping), which was sorta interesting when it had some novelty. But, it falls into the uncanny valley too, because you still know it’s a photo, one that looks terribly wrong.

So, I’ll occasionally snap on my Holga lens, but aside from my 2013 April Fools joke, I’ll never touch Instagram, or do any sort of digital vintage/imperfection filters. And, when I write descriptions about my landscape shots, they’ll be about where I was and what I saw, not about how many shots I layered into one. If that’s your thing, go nuts, but it’s not mine.

Sportscar Bonding

As I’ve covered before, a car is not just a means of getting from point A to point B for me, and whenever I acquire a new one, part of the new car experience is bonding with it. I like to take whatever its niche is, and push it to see just what it can do, whether it’s speed, handling, or off-road capabilities. Aside from being a big part of the fun of car ownership, this is also practical: Within six months of acquiring a car, I don’t wonder what it can do or how it will react in any specific situation/conditions. I know.

This process of learning and experimenting with what a car can do is also a learning experience for me and my driving abilities. I won’t claim to be the best driver in the world, that’s incredibly arrogant, but my passion for cars has made me a better driver through my desire to explore what these machines are capable of. I’ve learned new techniques and practiced my skills in ways that most people never do. I have a lot to learn, and my new Audi is good at showing me just how little I know, but I want to learn it.

In the past, my Land Rovers brought me to explore the world of off-roading. My first Land Rover, especially, was very, very much a learning experience for me, on multiple levels. By pushing my truck into more and more extreme territory, I not only learned what it was capable of, but what I was capable of as a driver, and I learned so much about driving in extreme conditions that it became a whole new passion all on its own. This is the experience I’ve been having with my Audi TT.

For the most part, since I bought it, I haven’t really left an urban environment, or ventured into truly challenging roads with it. I’ve been able to test its capabilities occasionally, taking sharp highway ramps as fast as possible, but that doesn’t really show me anything about the car, aside from a single data point, maximum turn speed. And it certainly doesn’t do anything for my driving skill; American highways are too controlled and limited to reach high speeds or exhibit precision, they’re simply a means of getting somewhere. Granted, my Audi is great at that, very comfortable and luxurious, but I wanted more. I wanted to see what a real sportscar could do. The sportiest car I’ve ever been able to really experience was the Acura Integra I had in high school, which was totalled in 2006, so it’s been awhile, and I’ve never had a vehicle this powerful or agile. I couldn’t wait to see what it could really do.

Challenging roads are hard to come by in a major metro area, so what I really wanted, since the day I bought it, was to take it to the mountain roads near where I grew up. They’re twisty enough to exceed the handling capabilities of most cars below 40mph, and when you throw in the fairly extreme grade of some segments, you get a road that’s limited solely by the capability of the car and driver, not by speed limits and threats of law enforcement. In May 2013, I finally got an opportunity to take my Audi there, and see what she could do. I was not disappointed.

I was in my hometown for Mothers Day, and before the last day of my trip, I wanted to get up to one of the high mountain peaks for sunrise photos, and do my ritual mountain drive in the new car. So, in the middle of the night, I headed for Reddish Knob, a trip I’ve made so many times that I could pretty much drive it in my sleep. Perfect.

The drive started out simple enough, I zipped through curves with ease, going through the rolling foothills as fast as I dared, warming up before the real challenge. And, as expected, it was the most exhilerating thing I’d done in awhile. I was still in my comfort zone, though. Until the second part of the trip.

I stopped at a small lake on the way up, to take a break and make sure the car was ok (having just come from a Land Rover Freelander, it still feels weird to have a car that won’t self-destruct on a whim). When I resumed my trip, I decided to step things up a notch. The steep roads and constant curves are difficult for an automatic transmission to make sense of, even a super-advanced one like mine. Plus, part of performance driving is getting the shifting right, a real weak spot for me, so I popped over to manual mode for the remainder of the trip. Instantly, I was grateful for the paddle shifters on the steering wheel, instead of having to keep one hand constantly on the shifter, it made things much easier, and when shifting can be handled with a finger-flick, it feels so much smoother and more controlled. Unfortunately, for a little while, I felt my inexperience shining through. My shifting was sluggish, I was always either too high or too low, and it distracted from my steering at a few points. Especially when I spent so much time looking at speedometer and tachometer trying to figure out which gear I was supposed to be in, or looking at the gear indicator to figure out where I already was (an unfortunate downside of paddle shifters and modern electronic shifting). But, about halfway up the mountain, I had a moment of clarity.

In one of my all-time favorite movies, How To Train Your Dragon, there’s a scene that is always both riveting and heartwarming to watch. There’s a video here, but it focuses on the main character, Hiccup, learning how to ride the dragon, Toothless, and how to work the prosthetic dragon tail he created. The dragon’s prosthetic tail has a series of positions, controlled by the rider, which mimic the dragon’s natural tail movements, and in theory, the cooperation of a skilled human rider can allow the dragon to fly as naturally as he could before the accident that damaged his tail. This scene follows the pair on their first test flight, where Hiccup has to put the tail positions he’s written down to the test. At first, their flight is a bit awkward, with Hiccup sluggishly going through varying positions, and Toothless grudgingly attempting to both lead and follow. But, after recovering from a spin, Hiccup nearly loses his reference sheet while flying straight into a complicated series of rock pillars at high speed, where one mistake will send them head-on into solid rock. He tries to read from it for an instant, then drops it, proceeding into the obstacles purely on instinct. He doesn’t make a single mistake. He and Toothless expertly navigate the rocks at dizzying speed, zipping through the exit without a scratch on them, something that wouldn’t have been possible if Hiccup had still been reading from his reference sheet.

Along this drive, I had an almost identical experience. While I knew the road pretty well, there was a particularly nasty blind turn I had completely forgotten about, followed by a series of rapid back-and-forth curves, and it came up on me while I was going way too fast (or so I thought). Instantly, all of my gauge-watching ended, as I reacted to the turn and proceeded through the harsh curves after it. I stopped thinking about whether I needed 4th or 5th, I stopped thinking about whether I should take the turn at 40 or 50. I simply listened to the engine, read the road, and shifted on instinct, the things I should’ve been doing all along. In the process, I felt more in-tune with both my car and the road than I’ve felt in a very, very long time, and I made it through the remainder of the drive far faster than I originally thought possible (still didn’t break a speed limit though!).

The experience was a truly special one for me. In the nerdiest terms possible, I felt like I just gained enough driving XP to level up, and when I made it to the top of the mountain, I had to just stop and reflect for a moment. But most importantly, it was an experience that reminded me how much joy I get from the essence of the performance driving experience. For years, I’ve been so hung up on comfort and gizmos that I’ve gotten even more disconnected from driving as an art than I was to begin with.

Much like my first off-roading trip, this trip was a driving experience that taught me a lot, but mostly showed me how much I have to learn. I’ve had a sporty car (Integra) and a fast car (Crown Victoria) in the past, but this experience showed me that I know almost nothing about sport driving. But I want to learn. I’ve now seen a glimpse of what my car can do, enough to see that the capabilities of my car exceed my own skills, and I want to increase my skills to match what my car can do. So, I plan to learn as much as I can, to get the most out of this amazing machine that’s now a part of my life.

Sadly, I no longer live in the Shenandoah Valley, so zipping away to the mountains on a whim is generally not an option. But, I can probably find performance driving classes in my area. And I’ll certainly be taking road trips to my old home from time to time, to do this sort of thing again. For me, it’s not enough to have a fast car that’ll do as much as I want it to. If my skills aren’t a match for my car’s abilities, not only am I disappointing the engineers who crafted her, I’m wasting my money on a machine I can’t properly use. Both are unacceptable to me.