Dorothea Salo

Interview with the Text Artisan: Dorothea Salo

Dorothea Salo was born in Madison, Wisconsin 30 years ago and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. In the seventh grade she took her SAT and scored high enough to be drafted into the Duke University Talent Identification Program (TIP). She blogs at Caveat Lector using Movable Type.

Dorothea, TIP is as good a place to start as any - tell us about it…

Okay. I took the SAT in seventh grade and got 700 verbal 520 math. That was good enough — I think I had the highest verbal score that year, but I could be wrong; I do know they handed me a certificate and a scholarship — to entitle me to enroll in TIP’s academic summer camp. I did that for three summers running. The middle summer I took college-level psychology, which was great and has been useful to me ever since.

The other two summers I took foreign languages, Chinese and Russian, which in hindsight was a bad idea. There’s too much memorization involved in learning a language, and too much practice time necessary, to be able to get much done in three weeks. I remember maybe five words of Chinese and very little Russian. I don’t regret having done it, because what did have lasting value for me was being exposed to languages very different from English, but I would have been happier and had more stick with me if I’d gone for something more conceptual and less dependent on rote memorization.

What was best about TIP was being around the other kids. They were wonderful. I found plenty of oddballs to hang with — very bright, very articulate, very egalitarian.

Speaking of oddballs, you have two kitties… how did they come to be known as Goth-kitties? Is it an attitude thing?

No. It’s a fur-color thing. They’re both black. Very black.

We got them from a pair of my husband’s ISCA BBS cronies who live in Chicago. They had a baby who was diagnosed with asthma… and the first thing the doctors say when that happens is “get rid of the cats.”

I had been bugging David for months to get a cat. I grew up with cats, and delight in them. I finally got him to agree that if a cat “appeared on our doorstep,” so to speak, we would adopt. Then I got home from a business trip latish one Friday evening, and David was sitting at the computer ISCAing. He looked at me with the she-isn’t-going-to-like-this look and asked timidly, “Would two cats be okay?”

So his friends drove up from Chicago with a big cat carrier. They opened the door, I peeked in — and, look, Lewis Carroll got it totally wrong. Cats don’t disappear around their grins. They disappear around their *eyes*. All that carrier contained as far as I could tell was four big round glowing yellow-green eyes. Eerie as all get-out.

Their names had been Toby and Regan, from Shakespeare, but I am a huge Sandman fan (David is less so), and so we renamed them after characters from Sandman. “Dream” is the protagonist of the Sandman comic-book series; he is one of the seven (more or less) “Endless,” quasi-immortal personifications of vital abstractions. He is also practically the prototype skinny black-clad mopy Goth guy. His older sister Death is the prototype cute, nice, wise Goth girl; “Didi” is a sort of avatar of hers who figures in a limited series. (Even I won’t name a cat “Death”!)

David liked the idea; “aren’t they just endless cat?” he said. Besides, we have this “D” thing going in our family, so why not extend it to the cats?

Have you run them by Rebecca Blood for Goth conformity?

Oo. No. I should do that.

Speaking of standards, what the heck is an eBook?

Depends on who you ask. Common definitions include:
- a handheld electronic gadget (ostensibly) designed for reading; e.g. the Franklin eBookMan or the hiebook
- a book intended for reading onscreen (my preferred definition)
- a locked-away binary bundle of triply-encrypted “content” that you should only dare read with a phalanx of lawyers present

You are an acknowledged smart-one in the field, and I can read the OEBPS part of your website and grasp dazzling integration concepts from the Dublin core through the W3C and back, but no where did I find a clear definition or a pointer to an eBook per se. Admittedly, I have a short attention span, a low IQ and a tendency to skim difficult subject matter when I read it at all…

Your confusion is natural. Everybody’s confused, me perhaps most of all because I’ve been so close to it for so long.

After you get your MLS you will become rich and famous…

Ha. Ha. Ha. Well, okay, that’s not fair. It is true that an MLS is a passport into places other than libraries; some of these places are highly-paid spots in the corporate sphere. But if I’d wanted a highly-paid spot in the corporate sphere, I would be working for Microsoft. I have had it up to my ears with the corporate sphere, frankly. I can’t cut it there; I’m not mean enough or tough-skinned enough or greedy enough.

So we’ll see how I do in what will probably turn out to be an academic-staff, public-sector, or nonprofit world.

How do you intend to live when that happy eventuality comes to pass?

Truthfully, I don’t know. At about the same time I get my MLS, my husband should be finishing up his Ph.D. Will he want to go teach? I don’t know. Are there any linguistics departments in this country that haven’t turned into vacant-eyed Stepford Chomskybots and so would be interested in a fantastically brilliant and learned Indo-Europeanist who (as a sideline) knows darn near all there is to know about Tolkien’s Sindarin? I don’t know.

Will we move out of Madison? I don’t know. We might, though I can tell you right now I’d have to fight hard to do it, because David likes to be solidly anchored and hates to pull up his roots. (Er. Mixed metaphor there. Sorry.)

Will I go back to ebooks? I don’t know. I might. Or I might remember that the whole ebook enterprise as I participated in it had more to do with greed than text, and chuck it. A lot depends on what I learn in library school, on what grabs me there. I could end up doing any number of things and being happy with them; I’m not the kind of person who directs herself at one specific goal like an arrow at a bullseye. I’m going to library school to widen my options, not narrow them.

It’s all up in the air. One of the ways I’ve matured since I was 20 (since that question is coming up anyway) is that I can live with up-in-the-airness a little better now than I could then. Not perfectly, but better.

Oh, was this a “what-if” thing? What if I got rich and famous? Well, if I got famous I’d probably spend my time hiding in a basement. Fame, even the minuscule doses of it I have had thus far, makes me impossibly nervous.

Rich? I’d feel free to give my time and such expertise as I have to people and projects I admire, doing things I like to do anyway. I’d love to be able to call up Lawrence Lessig of Creative Commons (among many other things) and say “Here I am, here’s what I can do, what do you need me to do for you? — and by the way, you needn’t pay me.” Or the Virginia E-Text Center, which is doing great things. Or Teleread. Or the Open eBook Forum, if it can get its leadership issues and direction resolved to my satisfaction.

In the meantime, you are living in the shade of a non-compete clause. With whom did you sign that agreement, why did you leave them and would you sign one of those again and under what conditions? Don’t compromise yourself answering this (I’m sure you wouldn’t) but to the extent you can open up about the circumstances I think all six of us who will read this will be interested and might even benefit from your experience.

I signed the agreement with OverDrive Systems Inc. of Cleveland, Ohio, my previous employer.

You forgot a question: “how did you end up signing it?” I left the place I worked previous to OverDrive rather more abruptly than I had meant to. I had been building up to my own business, but wasn’t quite ready to get going yet. Suddenly there I was no longer employed, meaning now-or-never, so I got out my Rolodex and started sending here-I-am emails hither and yon.

OverDrive’s owner was on the phone with me that identical day (and it was a Saturday, too) asking if OverDrive could hire me. That’s tremendously flattering, of course — and for someone abruptly ex-employed with mortgage and spousal tuition bills to pay, it was such an enormous relief that I didn’t do all the homework I should have.

That doesn’t mean the non-compete, actually. On the non-compete I did my homework. I read it thoroughly and negotiated. The original term was two years; I cut that in half, and got some concessions on the kinds of work that were forbidden me. I really could take for-pay markup projects, as long as they weren’t ebook-related… but I am employed, so save the contract work for people who need it.

Why I left… well, it was a constellation of things that added up to dreading contact with my coworkers. A good day was when they left me alone; when they had something to say to me, it was never anything good.

Specific things: I came in hoping to teach their conversion people what I knew about markup and conversion. There was a lot they could have learned from me, and I from them. Smart people one and all. But the supervisor in charge of conversion was a gatekeeper, a real control freak, and she didn’t want her people knowing ANYTHING that didn’t come through her. That was wildly frustrating.

And I got in trouble over my columns for eBookWeb.

First I was asked to change my bio to spotlight my association with OverDrive more prominently. I resisted that, because I wrote on my own time, didn’t want my writing controlled by PR flacks or anyone else, and felt instinctively that I would eventually end up butting heads with someone if I tried to “represent the company.” And sure enough… one column in particular talked pretty sharply about lousy conversion practices, some of which were in place at OverDrive, though I said then and say still (because it’s the truth) that the column was not aimed solely or specifically at OverDrive. Plenty of other places did what OverDrive did, and much, much, MUCH worse.

OverDrive freaked over the article. Scuttlebutt was that I was on the point of being fired. For once, I stood up for myself, though; I reminded them that my column was independent, and that I’d warned them I might write something they wouldn’t agree with. What do you know, they let it slide — but that was the end for me. I was tired of fighting with people to do and say what was right. Anyway, I started jobhunting then and there.

The work just wasn’t exciting enough to be worth the emotional strain, too. In fact, I spent most of my work days not working; they couldn’t keep me busy (and they don’t know this, so sssssssshhhhhhh!), even though I handled a greater quantity of conversion work (and generally work of greater complexity also) than any other individual there was capable of. This was not a question of intelligence or raw ability, I hasten to say; just better techniques. OD had and has good people. When I was there they didn’t train them or let them train themselves.

Would I sign another noncompete? Not if I could help it — and I will walk away from a lot. If a company wants to ensure I don’t defect to a competitor, it needs to keep me happy. It’s honestly not that hard; I’m not a greedmonger, so I won’t defect from an otherwise happy situation just for more money.

Would a noncompete be a dealbreaker in an otherwise interesting prospect? I think it would. I really think it would. I will walk away from a lot.

Let’s shift gears here a moment. Tell me about Dorothea and music. Do you/did you play an instrument? Sing? Do you listen to pop stuff? What?

I learned to play recorder in elementary school like everyone else… unlike everyone else, I liked the instrument, and there was a good private teacher locally. I got pretty good, played the local university’s Madrigal Dinner for three years in high school. Then I messed up my wrists, and now it’s hard to play. Aside from being out of practice, that is. I can’t play the tenor (which is my favorite size because of its beautiful tone; I never learned to play bass) for more than ten minutes without ending up in too much pain to go on — you really have to stretch your fingers sideways, and I can’t do that safely any more.

I got into choir singing in middle school because of a truly exceptional teacher named Jan Steger (now Jan Steger Johnston, I believe). Imagine fewer than twenty sixth- through eighth-graders singing three- and four-part madrigals. A capella. In tune and without the pitch sliding. I don’t have to imagine it; I lived it. Jan Steger is that good.

She passed me off to Enloe high school and another truly exceptional musician, Joel Adams, whose retirement gala last year I was very pleased to be able to attend. Now imagine twenty-four high schoolers taking the bit in their collective teeth and running away with the “Dies Irae” from Mozart’s _Requiem_ because they were just *so* into it… and then imagine them following it up with a “Lacrimosa” fit to break your heart. We were good. We were damn good.

We were so good we went to Carnegie Hall to sing the Bach St. Matthew Passion my senior year. I wish we could have had more time to prepare — that is an awful lot of music, some of it quite difficult, to absorb when you’re in high school with fifty other things to do — but the performance turned out pretty well nonetheless.

Oh, and I have to tell this goofy story: the year before Carnegie Hall, we went to New York for a choir contest during which all the competing choirs sang together — Mozart’s “Solemn Vespers,” if I recall rightly — in St. John’s. Being tall and an alto, I was on the back row. In front of me was the choirmistress of one of the other choirs, a woman with really really big hair. To avoid her hair, I edged backward on the riser, which was backed up to the dais. Unfortunately, there was no bar or anything behind me to let me know when I couldn’t go any further back — so I moved one foot back a bit too far and abruptly it fell off the riser! I would have gone with it (no big deal, two or three feet; I wouldn’t have been hurt) but for the quick reflexes of the two people next to me, who caught an arm each and hauled me back up. Didn’t miss more than two bars, and was fortunately too surprised to make a noise and ruin the music.

Though well-trained, my voice unfortunately lacks depth and resonance; it’s one of those strengthless altos that every choir has a few too many of. Its saving grace for choral singing is that it does blend well with other voices. I am useless for solo singing, except perhaps chant or other early music when a quiet, clean, vibratoless voice is a good thing. I haven’t sung since college except for a couple of audience-participation Messiahs.

My tastes in music to listen to are somewhat embarrassing. A lot of Enya, Loreena McKennitt, and new-agey stuff mostly from Narada. I do have some favorite Latin American and Brazilian performers: Ruben Blades, Willie Colon, Chico Buarque, Maria Bethania.

Okay, I so do NOT want to get you off on a rant here, but in all my reading about your grad school experiences, you never seem to address it from my jaundiced perspective. Here’s what I think, thanks for asking… I think the PhD is the most expensive product that a University has in its suite of offerings. A masters degree is usually less expensive than a PhD but to get either you have to own a bachelors degree. Bachelors degrees aren’t cheap, but prices do vary. How do you relate to this perspective of students as consumers shopping for appropriately inscribed vellum?

A lot more than I used to, that’s for sure. I absolutely believe the emptor should caveat. The problem is, we often aren’t given the tools and information we need to find out whether a school is going to give us what we need — which is more than the piece of vellum. This is especially true on the graduate level.

Since I was a kid, my attitude toward taking classes in which I had low or no interest has been “Okay, I have to do this; let’s see how much I can get out of it.” By and large, that has served me well. I think it’s a good attitude to carry toward vellum acquisition. You are investing huge amounts of time and money in this — make darn sure you get something from it.

Comparison-shopping is a fine thing. Find out how much tuition is here and there. Find out how much the school is likely to kick in. Can you justify paying extra at the more expensive places? If you can, fine. Sometimes you do get extra when you pay extra. But lots of times you don’t. It’s as true of education as anything else.

One fundamental question that needs to be asked and usually isn’t: What are my chances of walking out of here with that vellum? “100%” is the wrong answer; we can all fail. But if the answer is shockingly low, FIND OUT WHY. Don’t pay a ton of money and waste a lot of time just to lose your shot at the vellum — because I guarantee you that you are missing out on a lot more than just the vellum.

Let’s dig into your technology background… first, I understand your earliest bouts of carpal tunnel syndrome came during high school hunched over an Apple Lisa keyboard. I am pleased to meet the person who actually used the Apple Lisa.

All one of us, eh? :)

But to the point… when did you translate your tech publishing interests into a networked context? Can you give us a picture of your online evolution, maybe from an interpersonal or a projects perpective?

The whole publishing thing was a total accident. I never meant to get into publishing. It just happened. I’m glad it happened, because text artisanry speaks to my soul, but I never intended it. I was going to be a professor, don’t you know. Ask my parents. They’ll tell you.

I got online my freshman year in college. A professor of mine (geology, believe it or not) insisted that we all activate our email accounts and learn to navigate the VAXen — which doesn’t sound terribly impressive now, but was rare in 1990 still.

My first college boyfriend introduced me to the BBS that was run semi-licitly on the VAXen, called Forum. On Forum I met my second college boyfriend, to whom I am now married.

My last semester in college, I worked as a computer-lab help-desk person. One night a week — Monday night/Tuesday morning — I worked the midnight-to-8-am graveyard shift in the main computer lab and call center. Lots of time for surfing. Had to surf to stay awake; we were not allowed to do homework while on duty. This was the brief heyday of Gopher; I spent a ton of time reading Usenet (back before it became a total slime pit) and ebooks (there’s that word again) from the Internet Wiretap.

In grad school I frequented a few BBSes, including ISCA, hung out on a few Usenet groups, belonged to a few listservs, made my first web page. Got bit by my BBS participation, as something I had posted to one (not ISCA) got to ears it shouldn’t have and landed me in trouble with the university. Details are in my grad school story; not worth rehashing here. On the other hand, the alt.wedding and soc.couples.wedding newsgroups were of immense assistance when it came time for my own wedding.

And then I left grad school and landed my first real job. They taught me SGML and helped me teach myself Python and let me get into ebooks and, well, I am still angry that lousy stupid wanker management made things so bad for me there that I had to leave. For a while, I was so very happy to come to work in the morning.

Do you have any plans to complicate the understory in your house by adding a baby or two to the Goth kitty mix? Besides totally, how do you think a baby would change your life?

No. No babies. Not now, not in the future, not EVER. (This should make me popular with your other interviewees. Makes me popular with most women. Not.)

I had my tubes tied two months before my wedding. I have a long sad history of problems with temporary birth control. The sponge, back in the day, gave me strange side effects (nausea, dizziness, disorientation). The pill shot my blood pressure through the roof. Depo-Provera may have aggravated my depressive tendencies (I’m still not sure; that all went down just as the graduate school debacle was at its nadir).

So shortly after David and I actually became engaged, before we told anyone else about it, I started asking myself about kids, since it looked very much like “now or never.” Roaring from my subconscious came the immediate and resounding cry of “NEVER!”

Scared the heck out of me, to tell the truth. What kind of sicko twisted feeb doesn’t want kids? I asked myself. Then my usual instincts kicked in and I hit the library to try to answer that question. There is a pretty good sociological, historical, and pop-psych literature now on childfree women, starting with the courageous Jean Veevers in 1980. I read all of it I could get my hands on. It was reassuring. Childfree women aren’t sick, twisted, or feebs — at least, being childfree doesn’t make them so. Childfree women just are.

I also ran into Shirley Radl’s unflinching Mother’s Day Is Over, which brought into my conscious mind a lot of the fears my subconscious had been trying to make me understand. Highly recommend it, to parents, non-parents, pre-parents, and the as-yet-unsure alike.

I then talked it over with David. I explained that I really, really, really didn’t want kids, and was considering eliminating even the possibility of doing so. I explained that I was so far over on the not-wanting-kids scale that he probably needed to decide which he wanted more: me or kids. If it was kids, fine, I could understand that; call off the wedding, and I would kiss him goodbye and wish him nothing but good. (My part of the discussion was nowhere near that calm; I was only beginning to calm down about the idea of childfreedom. This is, however, a fair statement of what I actually said; just not of how I said it.)

The only circumstance, I told him, in which I could imagine having kids would be if he made a firm commitment to be primary — practically sole — caregiver, because damn straight I didn’t want to be. Moreover, I said, I wasn’t going to follow through and get pregnant until I knew for sure that he understood what kind of commitment primary caregiving was; he’d have to do a lot of babysitting and reading at libraries and school volunteering to convince me. No bloody way was he just going to lightly promise me this and then leave me holding the baby.

He thought about it — for some reason that guy seems to love me an awful lot — and eventually confessed that while the thought of having kids appealed to him, it appealed to him in a “Kodak-moments” fashion. (His term, not mine; I quote it because I love it.) His greatest desire vis-a-vis kids was to be able to read to them; he likes to read aloud, but I don’t like to be read to (dislike audiobooks too) because it’s too slow. He sheepishly admitted, “There’s no guarantee a kid is even going to like that.” Never having babysat a very young child, he asked me if dirty diapers were really as bad as they are reputed to be. “Worse,” I told him (and yes, I have babysat real babies). He nodded. We talked a little more. If I didn’t want to have kids, he said finally, that was okay with him. Wedding still on? Wedding still on! And I went to my HMO the very next week to start the process of arranging for surgery.

Which whole process was much less traumatic than I had expected. There are absolute horror stories of paternalistic doctors refusing to sterilize women in their 20s. I was ready to throw any tantrum I had to. I didn’t have to pitch a fit. I didn’t even have to raise my voice. I don’t know whether any of the people I talked to approved or disapproved of my decision — which is exactly as it should be. The surgery itself was no big deal. Went in at 10am; left at 4:30 pm. Had 90 minutes of rather nasty post-op pain, and then was fine.)

I just ran this answer past him, and should tell you that his recollection differs significantly from mine. He doesn’t remember me saying any of this stuff; he does remember me being frank about not wanting kids “as far back as college.” He also says that I am greatly overstating the tension involved with the issue. (To which I responded, “Yeah, your tension, maybe,” and he said, “Well, I guess it depends on what you bring to it,” with which I agreed.)

The question we childfree always get asked (and parents never do) is “Why?” I never had a good answer until recently — or, I should say, I had a lot of the usual answers that didn’t really get to the meat of it. Yeah, yeah, lousy relationship with parents, which is everyone’s first assumption (okay, second assumption, right after “selfish git”); but that loomed a lot less large than lousy relationships with peers. I hated being a child; I was the child other children love to loathe, not now and then but constantly, day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out. As for the rediscovery of playfulness that many parents attribute to their children — I find it’s easier to be a playful adult without kids around, because no one in your home expects you to be The Adult, forces you into that role with its attendant humorlessness.

I do know the real reason now, though, the reason that underlies everything else, the reason my subconscious yelled at the top of its voice into the ear of my conscious mind. It’s conflict. I can’t stand conflict. Really. I can handle it only in the smallest and most necessary doses. And having a kid introduces vast new vistas of conflict into your life. Conflict with the kid, of course, which is huge; but also conflict with the mate, conflict with teachers, conflict with other parents, conflict with other kids, conflict with government, conflict with doctors, conflict with self… it never ends. I can’t know, but my hunch is that it would send me insane in one fashion or another. I would end up institution-bait.

You and your husband are gamesters. What is it like to develop a role and carry it through a game? I have never been involved in any of these role playing games (unless you count what passes for real life) but there was a time when my sons were caught up in D&D. Is there a local community of players, or is this done online or what?

Both. PBEMs (play-by-email games) are a vital and important part of RPGing these days, especially for older (= post-college) gamers who don’t have a lot of free time on their hands. There are websites and (I think) Usenet newsgroups where PBEMs get started up.

If you are looking for a face-to-face game and you’re new in town, you look at the local gaming stores (which invariably have bulletin boards with game notices, and may even provide game space) and on the local university campus if any.

Some games, particularly the White Wolf Vampire: The Masquerade series, have spawned another roleplaying genre known as the LARP (live-action roleplaying). I’ve never been a LARPer, though I’ve played tabletop Vampire. LARPs sometimes acquire unsavory reputations; it’s easier to ignore ten geeks clustered around a table than ten oddly-costumed geeks making weird gestures at each other in public hallways. Still, LARPing comes closest to live theater, and is obviously more visceral and immediate than tabletop gaming — I don’t know that I’d turn down a LARP invitation if it were issued to me.

Even if you play a tabletop game, though, PBEM comes into it. It’s easy to email the gamemaster something you want him/her to know during the one to two weeks between game sessions. It’s easy to plot something with other players, out of sight of players who shouldn’t know about it. I just finished an email exchange with another player in Rat’s campaign, in which Rat passed off a major magic item to the other player’s character because she didn’t feel comfortable having it. (It was actually pretty funny. She planted it on him while he was asleep. He woke up, found it, and promptly staged a collision involving a bewildered third character during which he could re-plant the thing on her. Then they discussed it, since neither of them really wanted it. They agreed on what to do with it — and Rat then tossed it underhand at him and walked away. Rat doesn’t play fair. She wanted it out of her life, and she bloody well fixed things so that it was out of her life.)

And some people (like me) are obsessive chroniclers, sending email with prose accounts of the last session’s doings, or writing about events that were elided or passed over during the game session. Turning games into prose is often called “writing fluff;” if you say “fluff” most gamers will know what you are talking about. Some fantasy novels are reputed to be fluff; calling a book fluff is not a compliment to the author.

Anyway. How games work. The first thing you have to do is decide on a game system. There are more of these than you think. Your choice of game system to a large (but not always complete) extent determines the genre and milieu in which you will play: fantasy, horror, cyberpunk, goth, sci-fi, anime-like (with lots of mecha and machinery and whathaveyou), cartoon lunacy, rewritten-history, superhero, whatever. Normally when someone puts a notice about a game on a game store’s bulletin board, s/he will include the system being played; it’s that important.

Then in most games you pick a person who is going to “run” the game. This person, whether called ‘dungeonmaster’ ‘gamemaster’ ’storyteller’ or anything else, is supremely important and deserves lavish praise and much free food. S/he works out the details of the game setting (a Herculean task by itself), establishes “house rules,” figures out a scenario for the characters to be in, gets together the numerical necessities (stats of people or monsters encountered; difficulty of non-fight challenges encountered, e.g. ‘how hard is it to climb this wall?’ etc.), and then roleplays everyone but the other players’ characters during the actual game session. It is a tough thing to do, harder still to do well — the best are quick-thinking, brilliant at improv, good with numbers, able to turn on a mental dime when players do something unanticipated.

I don’t run games. I don’t think fast enough, and get rattled too easily.

Once the setting is established, everyone gets to make one or more characters. Just about all systems give characters numerical values for certain characteristics, e.g. Strength, Dexterity, or Intelligence, that govern how well a given character will manage in particular situations. In some systems, you roll dice to determine these characteristics; in others, you are given a pool of points which you assign to them as you wish. Then, you generally pick a basic template for your character to fit into. This can be a character ‘class’ as in DnD (fighter, cleric, rogue, etc.) or a more socially-oriented division such as Vampire’s ‘clans,’ but in any case it determines many of your character’s strengths and limitations. Then you work out all kinds of other things about your character, e.g. physical appearance, age, skills and knowledge she/he/it possesses, gear, history, basic psychology, and so on. This all (okay, usually not the history) gets recorded on a ‘character sheet,’ so you can refer to it while gaming.

During a typical tabletop session, the players get together and talk geek with each other for a bit — movies, books, TV, the latest gaming supplements issued, computers, web pages, and so on. Then the character sheets and the dice come out, and the game begins. The gamemaster reminds players how things stood when they left off last time, and either advances the situation him/herself (say, by throwing a monster into it!) or asks the players what the characters want to do next.

Actual talk during a game session ranges from speaking as the characters (Rat typically speaks in a slangy, shorthand whine: ‘You crazy, lizard?! Gonna get yerself killed in there!’), speaking about the characters, to describe their actions or their state of mind (’Um, Rat dives behind the door…’), resolving game-mechanics-mediated questions and finding out about the results (’I got a 23 on a Hide check. Does the ghoul see her hiding there?’), out-of-game reactions to game events (’@#$%^*!!!! Rolled another 1!’ or ‘Oh, boy, Rat is in serious trouble here.’), and occasional out-of-game chatter often laced with puns and the same geek talk that sessions open with.

There are books and books waiting to be written on how and why gaming works. I’ve seen a few attempts, but by and large they haven’t impressed me. If you want the flavor, though, become a fan of the comic Dork Tower, whose online segment is at http://www.dorktower.com/ (though you will probably get redirected to gamespy.com). John Kovalic, also a Madison boy, is a longtime gamer who understands gaming down to its core and knows how to poke gentle fun both at gamers and non-gamers. I met John in April at Odyssey Con in Madison; he’s a trip. He’d be a great blogger if he had the time.

You mentioned ICSA BBS. Your span of net use, from telnet to the web marks you as a techie for sure. Most of us are very webbie and think that’s what the internet is. Most web users think a gopher is a mammal.

I don’t get as snobbish about that as some old-timers do. Partly this is because I have a crystal-clear sense of my own technical inadequacy. There’s all *kinds* of techie stuff I can’t do or don’t understand. A lot of it I will never understand. And I’ll never be a real hacker; I’m not wired for it.

Partly, though, it’s that I don’t believe mere longevity is an accurate predictor of — well, anything much. Okay, I played with Gopher. That just means I was fiddling on the ‘net in the early ’90s. That, by itself, says precisely nothing about how good (or not) I am with technology.

Most of us remain ensconced in Microsoft products, while you work in the world of Linux.

I wish I did, but I don’t, actually. I couldn’t get Linux to work properly on my laptop. Okay, more precisely: Linux was fine; it was XWindows that totally refused to play with my SiS 630 graphics card. So my aging laptop runs Win2K and my husband’s aging G4 runs Mac OS 9. I may upgrade the latter to OS X, but I tend to skip Mac OS generations; we’ll see what comes after OS X.

My next machine will either be a Linux box or OS X. Count on it. Microsoft can go whistle.

Have you formed an opinion on Palladium yet?

Only that it scares the hell out of me and I hope it never happens, at least as planned. The open-source and free-software folks are saying that this may be an attempt to cut them off at the knees. I am leaning toward believing them.

It is also, clearly, an attempt to pander to idiots like the Big NYC Publishers who want to shut culture in a tiny tiny box and make sure that it costs plenty to peep in. I despise both the pandering and the fear being pandered to.

I got so heavily into markup not just because it’s a natural fit with my brain (which it is), but because I strongly believe text artisans have a duty to help preserve text. One of markup’s biggest benefits is its durability and long-term readability relative to binary formats such as those from a word-processor or page-layout program. (Fifty years from now, when you unearth your memoirs from your ancient hard drive, would you rather see that they were HTML or a Quark XPress file? That’s what I mean by markup durability.)

And now Microsoft and its partners are conspiring to lock my beloved text away from me forever. Kind of thing that makes me froth at the mouth. Honestly.

In the panoply of network communication tools, from bulletin boards and chat rooms to list servs and instant messaging, where does blogging fit?

I’m not sure. I’m still thinking about that. It’s certainly on the asynchronous side of the synchronous-asynchronous line, which immediately differentiates it from chat rooms and IM. I notice that several of the gang blogs are flagging somewhat. Does a multi-author space need a synchronous environment to flourish? I wonder.

Blogging’s not a BBS or a web-board, because one blog is differentiated from another by *author*, not by *topic*, although category-based archiving vitiates that distinction somewhat, and a few bloggers go so far as to do different blogs for different topics. Moreover, there is rather more cross-fertilization among blogs than among BBS/web-board topics or BBSes/web-boards themselves. (Not a shattering insight, I know. Resist it as bloggers do, there can be no question that the blog format impacts the nature of the blog — and the LINK is a key part of the blog format.)

I am still coming to terms with the social nature of the blogsphere. I am very slow to assimilate social norms as it is — something that has caused me no end of trouble throughout my life — and I’m never quite sure what customs are obligatory, what’s just good practice, and what’s a bad idea. For example, Tom Shugart just blogged about blogroll etiquette, when to add or remove someone from your blogroll. I had no idea anyone thought there were rules to it. I instinctively grasp that removing someone from your blogroll could be seen as a slight, but rules about adding someone? Weird.

Reviewing the tools from Userland and Movable Type, and/or the services from outfits like Pyra, what else do we need?

Well, better templates, of course. If we are to fulfill the blog’s promise of ease of creation *and* ease of consumption, we need to make templates that are clean and accessible right out of the gate. I don’t mean to pick on Radio, but its templates really need work. They’re bandwidth-hogs, too; they regularly take 2-3 times as long to load over dialup as, say, my blog or Mark Pilgrim’s blog. That’s not necessary. Good-looking blogs don’t have to take forever to load; Mark’s is zippy as all get-out, and if you don’t like the way it looks, hey — he lets you switch to any of a dozen different looks.

But it takes designers with an eye for good looks *and* an understanding of good markup practice to make such templates. Rare combination. Me, I mostly grok best practice but I have a lousy eye. Best I can do is take an existing blog and fix the markup, which is what I’m doing for AKMA, and what I will do for Burningbird if I can scrape together the time.

What doesn’t your blog do for you that you wish it would?

Well, I discovered the other day that MT’s search-your-blog function will do regular expression searches but not regular expression replaces. Whimper. It would be a lot easier to add <acronym> tags retroactively (per one of Mark’s accessibility recommendations) with regular expressions.

So my geek soul wants a better post editor. Web-based text editor, that’s what I want. They kinda-sorta exist, but they’re monster Java things. I hope and believe they’ll get better.

What are some of your favorite blog sites? Who are some of your favorite bloggers?

God bless AKMA — which I say as sincerely as an agnostic can, no irony or sarcasm whatever intended. He is a rare soul, which is an awful pity as we could surely use whole legions of him. The same could be said of Jonathon Delacour, who combines erudition, clarity, and a finely-tuned writing style with immense humaneness (I originally wrote “humanity,” but it doesn’t quite express what I mean). Tom Matrullo and Joseph Duemer share this blogspace also, both thoughtful, insightful people who can be savagely incisive when faced with wrong but are invariably gentle with other human beings.

Burningbird reminds me a lot of me. When I need to be reminded that I’m not the only person who has strong opinions but nevertheless hates being dragged into a fight, who spends too much time reading W3C recommendations, who has a smart mouth (that she, like I, sometimes wishes were a little less smart, or less quick) but a sensitive heart… there she is.

And then there are my beloved techblogs. Mark Pilgrim, Leigh Dodds’s eclectic which is the first blog I ever started reading, Cory Doctorow et alia’s boingboing. The nice thing about techblogs is that they don’t have to be just techblogs. Mark’s archives, for example, contain must-read reflections on alcoholism and the intersection of blogging and work. Cory blogged recently about getting robbed, poor guy. Humanizing techies is a wonderful thing; they’ve been on a pedestal (or, alternately, shut away in lightless offices with pizza shoved under the door) much too long.

What just about all of the folks on my blogroll have in common is that I feel they can teach me something. What the techblogs teach is pretty obvious. The gaming blogs offer new ideas about gaming, which I enjoy. Some blogs teach me about writing, by their own example. Several other blogs, though, teach me things I want to know about being a decent person. Some people are just naturally decent. Some people, like me, have to work at it. I learn from both types.

In fact, I stay away from blogs that I don’t think will point me in the direction of the kind of person I would prefer to be. I love Ginger’s beautifully-named gaming blog, Turn of a Friendly Die, but I don’t read her main blog (What She Really Thinks) because the tone is often pretty negative. Ginger has a perfect right to write that way, I hasten to say, and I more often than not agree with her point of view on things. But I can all too easily be drawn into that mode of thought, that glass-half-empty perspective on the world; it’s very natural to me. Some of my own blogposts reflect it. I don’t like that in myself. If I’m to conquer it, I need to avoid blogs like Ginger’s — accepting the loss that this involves; Ginger is a smart and engaging writer — and seek out blogs like Jonathon’s and AKMA’s.

I’ve withdrawn from other online venues for similar reasons: I didn’t like what I was while I participated, didn’t like the effect that participation had on my personality. The Usenet childfree newsgroup. The Elfling mailing list I used to run. A couple of BBSes. I think I can keep blogging indefinitely, though, because I can shut out the rest of the blogsphere if I need to. Indeed, my blog is less socially integrated — no comments, no discussion forums, no TrackBack, small blogroll — than others, and this is substantially why. I need to be picky about the company I keep because of my own fallibility.

You write beautifully, with economy and clarity. Where does “creative writing” rank on your list of fun things to do and show? Do you do much with your own fiction or poetry?

My Shameful Secret is the reams of RPG fluff I write. I do mean reams. I think it would all fit on a zip disk, but it would be a nasty lot of floppies.

I can say honestly that a lot of it is as good as or better than much of the fantasy that gets published these days. Unfortunately, all this means is that much of the fantasy getting published these days is three notches below dreck. (When I was working at OverDrive, I converted a lot of backlist fantasy for a Big NYC Publisher who will remain nameless because I don’t like lawyers. I worked out fast conversion methods in record time for those, just because having to read any part of them was painful.) Occasionally I reread something I wrote and say, “That was pretty good. Wish I wrote like that all the time.” Most of the time, I reread it and wince. I’ve been writing fluff for over a decade, but just haven’t managed to get much better at it.

Quality issues, if I may put it delicately, are not unusual for fluff; most honest fluff-writers will tell you the same. We aren’t doing it to be High Literature, or even published/publishable literature. We’re doing it because we had a l’esprit de l’escalier moment, because we want to remember the highlights of the game, because there are moments we wish we could have roleplayed instead of passing over, because we want our character’s actions to be better understood, because a campaign has ended but we are still interested in our characters, because we like to write, because we want to try on particular writing styles or techniques or points of view.

Some of my fluff is pastiche; I rewrote one story from David’s and my private Al-Qadim (Middle Eastern fantasy milieu, deserts and genies and wicked sorcerers and camels and so on) campaign into a deliberate imitation of the Burton translation of the Arabian Nights and it came out pretty well. Most of it, though, suffers from what Ursula K. LeGuin would call irredeemably Poughkeepsie-esque style. (The gem of an essay in which she discusses writing style in fantasy is “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” and it is collected in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction.)

Brag about your husband David a little… you blogged about the Oscar possibilities for the Tolkien movie. What did David do on that?

Well, he has an IMDB entry, but it’s wrong. He wasn’t anybody’s assistant.

JRR Tolkien was himself a historical linguist (only they mostly called it “philology” back then). As a hobby, he invented languages out of whole cloth — not just the immediate spoken/written language, either, but the *development* of the languages from earlier forms. Several of these languages are woven into LotR.

When Peter Jackson got the LotR gig going, he knew he had to do the languages right. It mattered to Tolkien a lot, if the copious notes he wrote for LotR translators are any indication. If nothing else, one of the commonest criticisms of the cartoon version is that the names are totally mangled. A film like LotR risks the Wrath of the Geeks at its peril.

It is not easy, however, to find people with the requisite chops in linguistics who have spent enough time on Tolkien’s languages (and it does take time and work — much of the evidence is fragmentary at best, and Tolkien changed his mind about the languages throughout his life, adding yet another layer of complexity to the analysis) to be able to compose new sentences in them. I happen to be married to somebody who can do that better than just about anybody.

Back in 1998 he started putting out feelers, looking for people who could get his name in front of Jackson. It worked. We got back from househunting one day in October dead tired and ready to crash when the phone rang. I picked up, and spoke with this very nice gent with a very odd accent — not American, not Brit, not *quite* Aussie — and then I knew what it had to be and chivvied David out of bed to take the call. It turned out to be then-producer Tim Sanders.

David translated lines into Sindarin and Quenya (the two major Elvish languages Tolkien invented) for them. (Arwen’s spell that brought down the waters of the Bruinen on the Ringwraiths? He wrote that.) He wrote stuff to be sung in the (Oscar-winning) score. He wrote inscriptions for some of the weapons; the most prominent one is on Bilbo and Frodo’s sword Sting (which I bought him a replica of for his birthday). He did odds and ends of calligraphy for the designers, just as examples — they redid it all; David has a hard time doing fine calligraphy because he’s left-handed. Toward the beginning of the movie shooting, I videotaped him saying names and lines so that the dialect coaches (Andrew Jack and Roisin Carty) could get a handle on pronunciation.

One night the phone rang at two in the morning or thereabouts because they were shooting a big battle scene and needed something suitable for the Orcs to yell. I kid you not. I shouldn’t give the impression that the movie people were rude, though; they have been without exception utterly delightful to deal with (and I have taken a lot of calls from them).

Describe Dorothea at the mall.

Dorothea sets foot in the mall only when Dorothea cannot possibly avoid it. Dorothea buys some of her clothes from yard sales, some from catalogs; she only goes to malls when she has to have something in a hurry, or can’t get it any other way (e.g. buying shoes). Um, the last time was when I needed a couple of bright-colored blouses because I had yard-saled a pair of beautiful wool blazers, one black, one white, and wanted to wear them to a conference in a week. That was about two years ago.

Where do you head first?

The office supply store. Really.

What’s the closest you come to a clothing fetish?

Well, there was this one catalog called Daily Planet that I loved, because it had dresses that really work on big people. My favorite dress, on which I never fail to get compliments, is a simple long dark-green sleeveless tunic over which goes a long-sleeved overdress with a tied bodice and a tendrilly pattern in light green. It’s gorgeous. I’m also wearing it out. Sigh.

I stopped getting the catalog abruptly, and I can’t find Daily Planet on the Web anywhere, so I’m guessing they folded — which is too bad, because I can’t find anything like what they had. The Smithsonian catalog has some nice dresses now and then.

I like funky overalls, too — throw them over a t-shirt and I’m dressed. Daily Planet had a lot of them. I have found a pair or two locally, though.

Have you traveled much?

A fair bit. Mexico, Spain, Hungary with a weekend trip to Vienna, Montreal and Quebec City. A brief business trip to Paris. The summer before I started college I spent six weeks in Montana learning beginning geology.

What’s your favorite place in the world, or what do you imagine it to be?

I don’t get attached to places the way some people do, actually. There are a lot of cool places in the world; there’s no way to visit all of them, much less spend enough time to understand them. So I’m not a big traveller (most of my travel was with parents or school groups), and I don’t spend much time envisioning neat places. I spend more energy thinking about where I would want to live.

I liked Bloomington a lot. I like Madison, too, though it is at the upper size limit for a place I can be happy living in. The ideal place for me would be a large-university town with shopping (groceries at the very least) and good parks within walking distance of an affordable home. Close enough to a city that air travel isn’t a major hassle and bus travel is at least available. Train service would be a plus. Needs some restaurants with vegetarian food; Thai, Chinese, and Mexican at a minimum. A good local theatre and music community is a major draw.

Did you see “The Beach”? Did that movie speak to you at all, with its utopian, paradisiacal themes?

I haven’t seen it. Should I?

Probably not. What do you imagine it would be like to live in a constant state of delight? The biochemistry of neuroreceptors aside, would such a thing be possible or desirable?

Possible? Probably. Didn’t they do some thing with hooking up electrodes to the orgasm trigger in mousie brains?

Desirable? Not for me. Partly it’s a horror of anything quite that unvarying. Partly it’s that lazy as I am, I still have a drive to be useful, and people in constant delight aren’t going to be terribly useful to anyone else.

What’s your favorite sexual fantasy?

Wouldn’t my husband like to know.

Do you enjoy a good trash novel from time to time?

Depends on what you mean by “trash.” Too many critics use the word to mean “any genre that I don’t personally approve of,” which is bogus. I do occasionally get caught in a book that I know objectively is dreck. It happens rather less often than it did when I was teenaged; I no longer have much patience with shoddy writing other than my own. Some of the stuff I read as a teen I would fire across the room after two or three pages now. I decline to be specific, as I’d rather talk about stuff I do like than vilify stuff I don’t.

Who are your favorite sci fi authors?

I’ll assume there’s an “and fantasy” in there. :)

Ursula K. LeGuin. If I could write like that I’d give up my day job. She is phenomenal. (And the best book of the Earthsea series is Tales from Earthsea, in case you were wondering. Tehanu is a close second.) I am her drooling fangirl. I don’t love every word she’s ever written, but when she’s on there’s no one better.

I am fond of Peter Beagle, though I dearly wish he’d take a linguistics class because his nomenclature doesn’t measure up to his writing. (Hint: Peter, love, remove the apostrophe key from your keyboard. Do not use it ever again. Let your editors put the apostrophes in where English requires them.) Love Lord Dunsany; if you search my blog you can occasionally find me swearing by Mung, the universe’s coolest death god.

Golden Age authors I like include Alfred Bester (though I picked up some posthumous memoirs at the library and was taken aback and saddened at how sexist the guy was), Isaac Asimov (early and mid-career stuff), Cordwainer Smith, CL Moore.

I have been trying to expand my horizons a bit beyond the Golden Age lately, so I’ve been reading a lot of anthologies and years-best collections. Ted Chiang caught my eye. So did Charles deLint; I didn’t like so-called “urban fantasy” until I picked up a couple of his. If Rat as I described her intrigues you, check out Patricia C. Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician and its sequel, both of which are very nicely done. I picked up a sci-fi recasting of Lord Jim by Susan Shwartz (its title escapes me, sorry) that was terrific — and I never managed to get through Lord Jim, as I find Conrad’s prose suffocating.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars was pretty good, though the editors

should have shot the other two back at him and demanded that he get rid of the aging-serum biz and kill off his original characters. Nancy Kress’s Beggars series is thought-provoking, though like the _Mars_ series it gets away from its author in the later installments.

Where do you stand on what we called cyber punk back in the day (Gibson, Sterling, Stephenson, et alia)? Is it literature or is it trash?

There’s a binary distinction there? I don’t think so. I read stuff for my MA exam in Spanish that was bloody well trash, but it still gets studied on the graduate level… horrible stuff like pastoral fantasies and interminable dogmatic hyper-realism and gooey contentless romance. If I never read another pastorale it’ll be too soon.

Anyway, cyberpunk. Important because influential. Depressing, much of it. Demonstrates a hatred and contempt for “mere” humanity that I find appalling, not to mention its grotesque classism, frequent backward-looking sexism, and total disregard for the environmental consequences of the societies it envisions.

It’s a shame. There is some verbal virtuosity there that could be put to rather better use.

Not all of it is like this, admittedly. (The author of Trouble and Her Friends escapes my mind at the moment, Melissa somethingorother, but that’s a good one [Melissa Scott]. Some short cyberpunky stuff is OK too.) Too much is, though, especially by the authors you name.

You just turned 30… if you could have turned 30 sometime in the 20th century B.C. (Before Clinton), what year would you choose and (of course) why?

Hmmm. I shall have to ponder this.

I have pondered. All in all, I think I ended up with the best possible time to turn 30. How many other times in the previous century would I be able to be university-educated? Childfree? Employed? Homeowning in my own name? Married to a man who washes dishes and vacuums floors without complaint? Online?

I feel as if I ought to say “during the women’s movement in the ’70s,” but I can’t, honestly. I find it hard to guess whether I would have done the right thing then, or been scared into silence. To be what I am today, I really needed the women’s movement to have come before me, and I’m grateful that it did.


10:07:06 PM

         

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