Paging Dick Tracy: Pebble smartwatch review

pebbleThe Pebble smartwatch was born on Kickstarter, raising over $10.2 million to make it the most successful crowdfunding campaign ever. It promised a watch you could customize and use with all manner of internet-connected apps via a Bluetooth connection to your phone. When the campaign ended on May 18, 2012, the company got right to work on finalizing specs and setting up manufacturing lines for the 85,000 watches that were funded during the campaign and the thousands more that would be sold afterwards. As with most new ventures, their timeline stretched out due to difficulties but watches have finally started shipping in the last few weeks and mine arrived a week before I headed back to the rig, giving me enough time to have a thorough test run before having to set it aside for a few weeks. So how is it? Continue reading

The Power of the Mask, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Be A Rock Star

Bristol Faire Front GateI started going to renaissance faires shortly after I got out of the Navy, after I met my wife. She’s been going to them since she was a child and was a regular performer at some of the ones in California for quite some time, going all the way back to the original Renaissance Pleasure Faire.

There tend to be three types of people you find at a renn faire:

  1. The Tourist: The Tourist is a regular joe. He shows up in regular clothes and wanders around spending money, eating giant turkey legs, seeing the shows, and taking pictures. The vast majority of people at a renn faire are Tourists.
  2. The Costumed Tourist: The CT shows up in costume, but they’re not really in character. They’ve dressed up to show off or perhaps to just fit in a little better, but they’re still carrying their bottles of Bud Light and wearing sunglasses.
  3. The Rennie: Rennies are into it. They’ve got the costume, they say things like “thee” and “good day sir” and “milady, if it please you” with an appropriate accent, carry themselves like the urchin or fairy or cavalier they’re dressed as, and in general act a part in the theme of the faire. These are the folks that have spent hundreds of hours (and dollars!) to tweak and perfect their costume.

The line between #2 and #3 is a pretty blurry one. At a faire you might see ninjas, monsters, knights in armor, Stormtroopers from the 501st, fairies, and a steampunk pirate gang. Some folks dress up in period-correct costuming but are just slumming, while those Stormtroopers are walking with weapons at the ready like they’re patrolling Mos Eisley. When I met my wife, she had a trunk full of costumes and a handful of personas she liked to play. I, on the other hand, was just a guy who liked to watch girls in corsets and chainmail bikinis. She tried to get me into it but I didn’t grow up with the faires like she did. Those periods of history never really interested me; we discussed character ideas and such but nothing ever really caught my interest. Eventually we ended up with matching costumes and she would turn the persona up to 11 while I would stand nearby with a stupid grin and manage a “thank thee” when I was handed change from a purchase.

There are three renn faires that are close enough for us to attend: Sherwood Forest Faire, Scarborough Renaissance Festival, and Texas Renaissance Festival (the nation’s largest faire). One of the things we like to do is browse the artists and shops. There are some people who sell cheapo gaudy blades from BudK and crappy Chinese-made kitsch but the majority of vendors are some seriously talented people, handcrafting everything from clothing to soap and perfumes to jewelry. A few months ago, during the opening weekend of TRF, I happened across the Artsmyths shop and found the Mask.

The Mask, rear quarter viewThe Mask, front viewThe Mask, front quarter view

They had a lot of masks at the shop but this one caught my eye from yards away. It was a unicorn but it wasn’t the usual sort of frilly white unicorn most people associate with fairies and rainbows. It was black with silver highlights, serious and masculine, staring down at me from a mannequin head. I’m always on the lookout for the unique and this practically had neon arrows pointing at it. I bought it on the spot.


Alphonse on the left, another costumer on the right. — picture courtesy of eschipul, on Flickr

I didn’t have any plans for it beyond displaying it at home, but my wife quickly pointed out that it’d be a pretty good basis for a costume. I’d long admired the costume of “Alphonse,” one of the “fox guys” who frequents the local renn faires. It’s a different sort of headpiece from the unicorn mask, a bit more realistic where my mask is more stylized, but the general idea was the same: dress up like a humanoid critter. I had the head, so why not give it a whirl and see what happens?

Tynan costume, version 1.0

Tynan costume, version 1.0

I put together a costume from assorted pieces I’d collected over the years, making sure to cover all my exposed skin to preserve the illusion. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. I couldn’t wear my glasses with the mask on, so anything past a few feet would be varying degrees of blurry. What would it be like to walk around like that all day? Would I get a headache after a few hours or could I go all day without a problem? A big slab of leather covering my face would reduce my voice to mumbles, so I decided to just stay silent and act out anything I wanted to get across. I decided going in that, just for laughs, I’d keep track of how many people wanted to take my picture that day, just as a fun way to “keep score.”

I quit counting after 100. I felt like a goddamned rock star.

Tynan costume, version 1.0

Tynan costume, version 1.0

Little kids would come running up to me. People would stop me to get their picture taken with me and a crowd would gather. Guys would high-five me. Some people asked me questions like I worked at the faire. Someone dressed up like some kind of nature spirit came up to me and started peering at me, in character, so I peered back until he “got scared” and ran off. At one point a gaggle of middle-school-aged girls surrounded me and started bombarding me with questions: Did unicorns live forever? Was I magic? Was it hot under my mask? (A lot of people asked me that, actually. No, it wasn’t.) As the day went on I had five requests to touch my horn and one request to dance Gangnam Style, all of which I politely refused.

It was crazy fun and surprisingly empowering. Where I was self-conscious before when confronted with someone else acting in character, now I could be bold, respond, play along, even be the one who started things with others. The Mask gave me the protection of anonymity, letting me play without fear of being judged, while it presented my persona to everyone else. I had more (and better) interactions and more fun in that one eight-hour period than in all the other times I’ve gone to renn faires in the last decade, combined.

So, my little experiment was a fantastic success. Every character deserves a name and I’ve picked “Tynan,” which the internet tells me is a Gaelic name that means “dark.” Seems a fitting name for a black unicorn. Plans are in the works to flesh out the rest of the costume over the next several months with hooves, a tail, and some more appropriate clothes. Sherwood Faire got underway last weekend and I’ll be going as Tynan this Sunday. Fun times ahead!

Speak Out With Your Geek Out 0: Origins

This week is Speak Out With Your Geek Out, an online effort to pull the curtain aside on all things geeky. As its Facebook page says:

“Let us invite those who would stereotype us to sit at our table and share our interests. Let us combat being used as pawns for internet gaffes with the reasons why we’re awesome, why we love what we love, and why it’s good to be a geek.”

Hi. My name is Steve, and I’m a geek. (Hi Steve!)

I’m old-school geek. I was a geek before computers even entered the picture. I was that stereotypical kid that didn’t fit in, got picked on in school, and got picked last in gym. I think geekery has its origins in those marginalized kids. Shunned by their peers, they retreat into books, movies, anything that provides an escape or gives them some semblance of control over their lives. Tolkien’s books sucked you in because you wanted to be there, inside that world so different from yours where even chubby little dudes with hairy feet could be heroes. When D&D first came out, I think that was its main appeal. Get your ass kicked at school? Here, you can be a fireball-slinging wizard or an axe-wielding barbarian who doesn’t take shit from anyone!

When computers started to enter the scene, it was a natural draw. Here was this new gizmo that nobody really knew what to do with, but if you could program it then you could bend it to your will. (I know the programmers out there might be laughing right now, but work with me.) You could make and do things that nobody had seen before and that was empowering.

But playing role-playing games and getting into computers only served to distance geeks further from their peers. If you were fortunate, there were other geeks and you could commiserate with them, play your games together and such, but when you were out in public you had to hide all that. You were still driven by the need to fit in and be accepted, even if you weren’t being accepted for your personal truth. It rarely worked, of course. You didn’t fool anyone, but it never stopped you from trying, from trying to hide who and what you were.

So geekery became this sort of “hidden shame.” You didn’t discuss it with outsiders. In trying to find a place for ourselves, we ended up distancing ourselves from the places we wanted to fit into most. It wasn’t until the advent of BBSes in the late 80s and early 90s that geeks really began to meet each other. Suddenly it wasn’t just you and your buddies at school. It turned out there were other geeks across town that liked the same kind of stuff, and it helped to know there were other bastions of geekery out there.

And once the internet burst onto the scene, it turned out there were other geeks across the state, then the nation, then the world. Increased communication started exposing everyone to the way of the geek. On the internet, we were finally somebody. Everyone knew Bill Gates, what he did, and how much money he made doing it. He was proof that we could be more than just skinny dudes wearing lame clothes who had our lunch money stolen, proof to others and proof to ourselves. Even today he still looks like the quintessential geek.

But language is a funny thing. It describes, and in doing so it perpetuates. Geeky things are a lot more popular nowadays, but culture changes slowly and geeky things are still strange to a lot of people. Even today, geek is still a derogatory term at times. The word geek is being reclaimed by the geeks, worn proudly even, but there’s still a ways to go. Acceptance comes from exposure. Don’t hide what you geek out on. Show it, share it. Joy isn’t something to be ashamed of. Let your geek flag fly.