Lise opines: plant identification apps

Or: why I use iNaturalist.

I constantly see posts from my Facebook friends (and even in native plant communities) asking for recommendations on mobile apps to identify plants.

Inevitably someone will pop up with PictureThis, or Google Lens, or even Seek. But here’s why I use iNaturalist.org‘s mobile app.

Free

PictureThis is ad-supported if you don’t give them money. The premium version ranges in price from $30-$50/year, depending on plan.

The last thing I want when I’m in the woods is ads. And while I am willing to spend money for apps that are valuable to me, nothing I’ve seen has convinced me the IDs are any higher quality than what I can get for free with iNaturalist. It’s also more than I spend per year for, say, Zombies Run!, which IMHO gives a lot more content (hundreds, if not thousands, of adjustable length and intensity story-driven workouts).

Also, don’t quote me on this, but I would venture that PictureThis is taking an API and/or computer vision model that is available for free — potentially even the one collated by the California Academy of Sciences (see below) — and profiting off it.

I haven’t really played around with Google Lens, but I imagine it has the same problem as any Google product — if you’re not paying for it, then you are the product. Plus my experience with Google is that as soon as they decide they no longer want to develop a product, well, fuck you, even if it’s a product millions of people use. (Google Reader, I’m looking at you).

Scope of IDs

Look, you know me. If I could do nothing all day but touch plants, I’d be pretty happy.

But I also like spiders, and snakes, and mushrooms, and birds and mammals. I don’t call myself a real life druid for no reason; I observe any living thing that will stand still for long enough to get a picture of it.

(Also poop and dead things, too, because I’m classy like that).

On the other end of the scale, Google Lens will identify anything. But that has its limitations, too. It’s hard to get accurate predictions when your model includes every picture posted on the Google-curated internet. What happens when your plant happens to look like a snake — an example I came across recently? It’s not super helpful.

(In its defense have found it very useful for “hey I took a picture of this famous building in England and I have totally forgotten what it is, please help me, Architect Google!”)

Non-profit and mission-driven

Both Seek and iNaturalist meet the criteria above:

  • They’re truly free
  • They ID not just plants, but any form of life

But it’s more than that. Both are developed by the California Academy of Sciences, a non-profit organization with this mission:

The mission of the California Academy of Sciences is to regenerate the natural world through science, learning, and collaboration.

CalAcademy has a ton of different initiatives, but they are perhaps best known for their their computer vision algorithm tuned specifically to the natural world. That includes all kinds of life, from protists to blue whales!

Moreover, that model, like machine learning models everywhere, learns from user contribution. Those user observations are made available, for free, through the GBIF API, which is used by thousands of different organizations to conduct scientific research.

The way I look at it is: By using Seek or iNaturalist, you are contributing to the mission of regenerating the natural world.

Feels good, man.

Community science

So why choose iNaturalist over Seek? After all, the Seek app is definitely slicker of the two apps — it has gamification! By comparison, the iNat app looks clunky and buggy.

One big reason pertains to community/citizen science. When you observe something with Seek, it uses the CalAcademy CV model to identify your form of life, but it does not save that observation. You might learn from it — and certainly there’s value in that! — but you’re not helping the machine learning algorithm you know. Learn.

(For that matter, it’s debatable how much it helps you learn. I get a lot of value from going back through my old observations in iNat to remind myself where and when I observed something).

On top of that, Seek is pretty much just the CV model. Once you’ve made an ID, that’s it, you’re done. But on iNat, once you’ve made a preliminary ID, that’s where the fun begins.

See, once you’ve posted the observation, other people — real humans! — can come in and refine that ID. If you posted something that the CV could only ID to genus level, maybe some nice expert comes in and says, “hey you can tell X and Y species apart from the leaves; looks like X to me!”

When two other users confirm or refine your tentative ID to the species level, it is labeled “research grade.” Research grade observations are available in GBIF — helping science across the world! — and are used to train newer versions of the CV model.

And you are the expert! Know a lot about the trilliums of Massachusetts? Go identify trilliums! (That feature is website only currently. Alas). It’s yet another way you can use iNat to give back to citizen science.

Other nice to haves

  • Since iNat is community supported, you can use it to ID, say, birds by song. I’ve had a lot of luck recording birdsong in a voice memo, uploading it to iNat, tagging it as class Aves, and letting the birders have a go. Birders on iNat are an enthusiastic lot, and usually I’ll have an ID within minutes.
  • iNaturalist itself has an API (not the same as GBIF, I don’t think?) which allows you to write your own algorithm against iNat data. I’ve seen people use it to write nature quiz webapps; at one point in time I considered using it to answer the question of “how many taxa did I ID for the first time in 2020?”
  • As I mentioned earlier, iNat is a website first, and an app second. Maybe this is a con for you, I don’t know. But when I’m, you know, IDing trilliums of Massachusetts, it helps to see them on a big screen with a keyboard that allows me to write comments and use shortcuts.
  • Similar to what I mentioned above: Seek is video-based and real time; it does not save or import images to your photo app. iNaturalist can work on a live image, but most often I take the photos and ID them later.

Here’s a good comparison of the two apps.

Value to my life

This is unquantifiable, but in the early pandemic, iNaturalist saved my life. When I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything, I went to the woods. I took pictures, and I participated in socially distanced bioblitzes, and identified hundreds of species. I didn’t stop using it after the pandemic, either. I’m now up to over a thousand observations across three countries and two continents.

(“What happens when you reach 1000 observations on iNat?” my friend Scott asked. I replied: “They send you a letter informing you that you’re legally a nerd”).

Could another app have done this? Maybe. But for me, it was iNat.


tl;dr: this is why I use iNaturalist, and donate $10/month to CalAcademy, even though I absolutely don’t need to.

Have I won you over? Go download the iNaturalist app for iOS or Android!

Meet Me In the Woods: Hepatica americana

(Look, I’ve been listening to a lot of Lord Huron lately and I couldn’t turn down the chance to make a reference)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The snow has melted, spring ephemerals are… ephemering, and woodpeckers are gettin’ it on in the trees.

In my continuing effort to bring you more dumb plant facts, I figured I’d share some of the pictures of what I’ve been seeing in the woods in the past ~week or so.

This is round-lobed hepatica, Hepatica americana. It is a small and oft-overlooked spring ephemeral, found in the first weeks of April here in Massachusetts. For that reason, I like to call it my birthday flower, because it’s one of the few things blooming on April 6! In particular, these pictures were taken in Williamsburg, MA, on April 7th, during my annual “yurtmas” birthday trip.

The name “hepatica” — as you might guess if you’ve ever had to have a hepatic function test — refers to the liver. In some places it also has the common name of “liverwort” (not to be confused with the bryophytes of the same name) or “liverleaf.” So how did it get this name? At least according to the above Wikipedia article:

The word hepatica derives from the Greek ἡπατικός hēpatikós, from ἧπαρ hêpar ‘liver’, because its three-lobed leaf was thought to resemble the human liver.

“Hepatica” on Wikipedia, by way of the OED

*whispers* I don’t think the liver has three lobes, but what do I know.

I’d add this one to my list of “dumb common names,” but listen, the scientific name is dumb, too.

My personal experience with finding hepatica is that they are elusive. For one thing, they are really small — those plants are about 3″ high and the flowers are about the size of a penny. They grow in drifts, but you can walk right by them and never notice them. I’ve had a few instances where I found a single group and then looked down to realize I’d nearly stepped on a few on my way there.

I’m also not entirely certain about what sort of habitats they like. I have often found them growing on hillsides or at the base of trees. The hillsides make sense — they like well-drained soil — but I’m unaware of any symbiosis they might have with particular trees. And even knowing those facts about where to find them… I’ve not had luck finding them in places I might expect to find them.

I know of only one place they grow in my town, and I try to make it there every April. Here are some pics I took last year at that pilgrimage site: Robbs’ Hill Conservation Area in Lunenburg, MA.

In conclusion: stay sneaky, hepatica. If anyone caught on to how beautiful you are, you might be in danger.

Fanfic journal: Bright Future, chapter “Sarn”

(I have been absolute rubbish about posting fic journals for Bright Future in the past year or so, but I’m trying to get back into it! I have a lot of back-dating to do…)

Read “Sarn” here

Chapter Summary

She’d had this vision before, or something like it. Little details were different, but the idea was the same — a Jorlan-who-was-not-Jorlan, beautiful and empty, claimed by cold darkness at the end.

On the morning of the Menzoberranzan infiltration, Mavash is haunted by another vision from her quori.

Chapter Front Notes

I am so, so sorry this chapter took so long to get out. Unfortunately, not long after I posted the last chapter, my mom passed away. As an only child and the executor of her estate, all the estate work has fallen on me. As well as, you know, that whole grieving thing.

Anyway, four months later and I am just now getting my life back. Please enjoy this short-ish chapter, knowing I am a good 3000 words into the next one!

CW: mention of past suicidal ideation

Chapter End Notes

Sarn is Drow for “warning.”

Mavash’s dream/warning is based on an actual dream I had. After I awoke, I was like, “Wow, I bet Mavash was dreaming something like this the night she saved Jorlan’s life.” I’ve been dying to use it for a while, but I figured now was a good time?

Why Mavash needs a warning now, I leave as an exercise for the eager reader 🙂

Completely unrelatedly! If you have any interest in Pathfinder, I recently wrote a one-shot about my character in that game and her complicated relationship with her mother. If that sounds like your jam, you may find it here: “The Tide Falls Away”

Fanfic Journal: “The Tide Falls Away”

Featured image by Eric Ward on Unsplash

A Pathfinder 2e/Agents of Edgewatch fic, starring my redeemer champion Kivran.

Read “The Tide Falls Away”

Summary

It was easier to think of that than the goddess who awaited her in the dry land of death, the one she had disappointed in her grief.

Kivran Sulla, champion of Iomedae and soul warden of Pharasma, has lost three companions in the same number of months, and she’s just stopped saving Absalom long enough to grieve. The only person she can ask for advice is her mother, former adventurer and highly-placed paladin in the Seventh Church. Unfortunately, she’s just about given up hope that her mother will approve. Of anything.

Takes place in the fifth book of Agents of Edgewatch, but there are no significant spoilers.

Front Notes

All lyrics are from Dar Williams’ “The Tide Falls Away,” a song which gave me some serious Kivran feels.

This takes place in book five of Agents of Edgewatch (just after chapter two, I think?), but I’ve cagily avoided any direct spoilers, so it should be safe to read even if you haven’t played or finished the adventure.

End Notes

Behold: the closest I will ever get to writing a songfic 😉 And now I inflict this self-indulgence on you!

Some notes:

  • Aside from the song, which was the proximal cause, another impetus for this fic is how many character deaths we’ve had in this campaign — three, and one player is now on his third character. (Death effects suck). I wondered how Kivran would grieve that. Especially when she had some down time to reflect on it. Especially when in close proximity to her mother, who doesn’t take this whole “joining the Edgewatch” and “becoming a soul warden of Pharasma” thing very seriously. 
  • Way back when Kivran’s mom first appeared “on screen,” the GM asked me what I imagined her being like. My response? “Imagine a female version of Henry Spencer from Psych.”
  • If Ameredine is Henry Spencer, then Carlo is the father from Pride and Prejudice!
  • The “gang leader in the Docks” was a real NPC who Kivran became obsessed with. Kivran’s Battle Cry, appearing out of the shadows in their final conflict, was “your hair smells terrific.” It was a crit success; Frightened 2 🙂
  • Re: sensing Cedela’s alignment: that was the moment when Kivran probably said, “oh yeah, I did once have Sense Alignment before I retrained.” And also that she’s seen Cedela damaged by good/positive damage.
  • I figure Ameredine probably was involved in one of the Mendevian Crusades.

Other party members, for name reference:

  • Shep, leshy summoner. Sorry for calling her a “sentient berry bush.” I guess Kivran is a little fauna-ist.
  • Lucio Merenas, Taldan human swashbuckler (played by my husband). 
  • Zokaratz Vir, fetchling witch from Shadow Absalom. This player previously played Jabi (a kobold alchemist who retrained into inventor. And yes, he did really have an animated rope with button eyes as a construct companion). 
  • Cedela, Galtan human rogue. Who totally doesn’t have the Grey Gardener archetype 👀This player previously played Frøya (an Ulfen human thaumaturge) and Nathraak (a Varisian human magus).

Also! Since the last Kivran fic I wrote, I haven’t shared the art that I commissioned from Kii Weatherton. Please enjoy!

No one asked: Lise’s take on the OGL 1.1 kerfuffle

(Slightly edited from something I posted on Facebook)

For those of you (none of you) who were waiting on my hot take re: the OGL 1.1 kerfuffle, it’s a very boring, middle-of-the-road one. Merely a lukewarm take, if you will.

I am more concerned with the legal side of it than the financial one. It is unethical, if not illegal, to revoke a contract that was intended to be irrevocable. Given that this is the take of my friends who are lawyers, I sort of trust them in this.

(The fact that WotC’s defense is like “we were never gonna take away the rights of creators! This was a draft that was leaked!” when a) said contract had already been sent out to creators to sign, and b) the contract they sent out very specifically DID say they could use OGL content in any way they wanted… is disingenuous, at best).

OTOH, good points are made (by one of my current DMs, no less) that DNDBeyond is essentially a small company that was bought out by a larger one, and that by boycotting it, you are hurting the writers and developers more than you are WotC. This will always be the case in situations like this, unfortunately, because Capitalism™️. The same was said when Paizo workers were fighting to unionize, (and yes, Paizo has done some shitty things, too), or when Blizzard was staging a walkout. Generally my point of view is that it’s best to give support in the way that the workers themselves want support.

Unfortunately, the only DNDBeyond employee that I am aware of who has spoken out is the person who wrote to a bunch of TTRPG YouTubers telling them to boycott DNDBeyond, and I have heard it claimed that that letter is a fake. (Would love to see evidence either for or against — I don’t fully trust any YouTube talking head). But if you believe that letter is real, then I agree, you are perfectly in the right to cancel your DNDBeyond membership.

Have I canceled mine? No. My reason is simple — I have games in progress that depend on it, both as a player and a DM. (And uhh I happen to be writing the epic love story between a druid and a drow, based on a 5e adventure which I sometimes have to reference). Even if I were to do something like scrape the content of all the books I have access to in DNDBeyond before closing my account, I still no longer be able to use those books in what is probably one of the best character sheet generators out there.

And if I wanted to use them in, say, roll20– I say this with great dismay — the best VTT for playing 5e out there, I’d have to buy them again in the roll20 marketplace. Which also gives WotC money, if indirectly. (Or I could enter them in manually to any VTT like. If only I had that kind of time!)

(Foundry/Forge, OTOH, partners with Paizo, so all the rules are built right in and/or it’s easy to get them in there with a script. I haven’t set up a game myself, so I don’t know the details, though).

Which brings me to my next point, and the crux of the matter. D&D is the center of an ecosystem. It is the largest player in this ecosystem. It has financial, legal, social, technological, and nostalgia power. 5e is also a really good system for the type of game a lot of people want to play. Go to r/lfg (… a year ago, not today) and try finding a game that isn’t D&D. I did it, a year+ ago, when I found my ongoing Pathfinder game, and it was not easy.

There’s more. If you look to the newly TTRPG-curious, it’s probably because they watched CritRole or another popular D&D actual-play. (And yes, I know, they used to use PF1e, etc). It’s almost certainly not because they listened to Glass Cannon Podcast. Compare how many people played Baldur’s Gate III –which is still only in pre-release! — compared to Wrath of the Righteous or Kingmaker. Compare who knows about Faerun to what folks know about Golarion.

And here’s the thing. This kerfuffle is widening people’s view of that ecosystem. It is making them aware that there ARE other systems out there. That there are other VTTs, or actual-plays, or podcasts. That there are other ways of licensing Your Basic Fantasy RPG. (I am all-in on ORC, and I think it’s the best idea that’s come out of this mess).

I’ve always been aware of that; back when I played AD&D 2e with my high school friends, we also played Shadowrun and the Star Wars RPG and others that were lost to time (remember Aeon Trinity?) But we haven’t all been doing this for *cough* 25 years.

Most of the migration away from D&D has been towards Pathfinder, because they are the ones heading the ORC charge. r/Pathfinder2e has grown by THOUSANDS in the last week. It added 1,000 just on Thursday.

Paizo is, as my DM rightly pointed out, a big company, too. And Paizo has done some shitty stuff, as well — releasing an adventure about playing fantasy cops in July 2020 was more than a little tone-deaf. And certainly there were specific injustices that led the employees to unionize.

But on the whole, Paizo has taken a much stronger stance on diversity than WotC. There are no longer races; there are ancestries. The adventures contain many queer, non-cis, and non-white-coded NPCs — in fact the prototypical champion is a queer Black-coded woman. The mess with the aforementioned adventure — Agents of Edgewatch, the one I’m playing now — was followed up by an apology directly from CEO(?) Erik Mona and a reprinting of the adventure where non-lethal damage was the default and you also had the option to play as adventurers instead of cops. When Jewish folks objected to the language of “phylactery,” they changed it to “soul cage.”

People, and companies, are gonna fuck up on matters of DEI. It’s how they get back up that matters. And Paizo has consistently done a better job at that than WotC.

(Maybe it’s because they were born out of WotC fucking them over. I dunno).

While I have come to deeply enjoy playing in a Golarion, I still kind of hate the PF2e rules. And I think a lot of these D&D emigrés are going to find that Pathfinder (1e or 2e) is way too crunchy for them, too. But maybe they discover FATE, or Blades in the Dark, or Thirsty Sword Lesbians. Or, yes, Mork Borg (as my friend Alice would heckle me about 😂).

And I think that’s pretty special.

… on that note, there’s something to be said — and it’s not good — that the impetus for this migration away from D&D and to Pathfinder is licensing issues instead of, oh, you know, the continued racism in D&D products. While they’ve done some things in reparation here (like making drow less “elves in blackface”), let’s not forgot that back with Candlekeep Mysteries, they bowdlerized the work of a Black writer without his knowledge (or permission). Or that, more recently, one of the races presented in the brand-new Spelljammer book was a simian race that had some unfortunate tropes associated with.

The former event is about when I said “… maybe I should look into what Paizo is up to lately.” But apparently racism was okay for a lot of people, but licensing issues were a bridge too far? That kind of cheeses me off. Or at least, it cheeses me off that this is what was publicized — you can’t fail to hear about OGL-gate in geek spaces right now — and not the continual racefails.

So that’s where I am. Explore other systems, question shitty legal practices, maybe (or maybe not) cancel your DNDBeyond membership. I hate to be all “both sides,” because I do generally think WotC is in the wrong here. But I respect your opinions and decisions either way.

Eulogy: Shelley Fracalossi

My beautiful mama passed away on Monday morning, 12/12/22 after a 7-year battle with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). My heart is breaking ❤️

I wrote her obituary for the local newspaper, which you can view on the funeral home webpage. I also wrote this eulogy for her, which I read at graveside. I thought I would share it here for anyone who wasn’t able to attend or just wanted to know my mother more than a mere 300 words could say.

Shelley A. Fracalossi: June 14, 1954 – December 12, 2022

I had to write my mom’s obituary yesterday. How inadequate are 300-odd words to convey the details of a human life! And a eulogy isn’t much better…

I’m sure most of you know the facts and figures – born in 1954, first in her family to attend college, two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s, married to my father Daniel for 20ish years years, tax preparer and antique dealer, Rotarian, host parent, survived by her sister Anita and her daughter Elisabeth.  You also probably know that she battled IPF – idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis – for the past seven years, outliving the typical life expectancy for that disease.  No need to rehash all that in detail.

I want to stress two of the things I loved best about my mother.

The first is the amount of intellectual curiosity she had. She was a lifelong learner, both in formal schooling and in the famed “school of hard knocks.” She loved to read, and loved to go on long Wikipedia crawls about topics such as bumblebees. She could teach you about psychology, or look at a quilt and tell you how old it was by looking at the fabrics. She was constantly, constantly looking to improve herself. She had the same therapist for thirty+ years, Jackie, and I know (because my mom told me!) how impressed Jackie was how, even with a terminal illness, my mom was still working on herself. She held a million different jobs in her lifetime, and had so many hobbies – quilting and contradance primary among them. She was always interested in travel and learning more about other cultures, and one of her last major trips was a whirlwind tour of England, France, and Spain in 2015, right before she got sick.

That intellectual curiosity is one way in which I take after her. Maybe the primary way. And I feel like that segues well into the next thing I want to note about my mom – her generosity, and the sheer number of people whose lives she touched.

When I was in my sophomore year of high school, I heard about the Rotary Exchange program, and wanted to study abroad in France. It was very last minute, but I was dead-set on applying to the program. So over the course of a couple of days, my mom pulled together everything I would need for the application, even trying to get photos of me from my taekwondo studio to illustrate my hobbies. We did it – I was accepted, and I received a scholarship to study abroad in France. And from there she did everything she could to support me in what was the toughest and yet most educational year of my life.

I was her daughter, sure, and you might expect such generosity with family, but she extended the same level of kindness to everyone in her life. She hosted and helped countless exchange students – through the Rotary, through Seton’s exchange program, and through the PICL program at SUNY. She had a wide circle of friends — from Rotary, from contradance, from her tax business, from her antique shop, from auctions, from working the polls, and more that I probably don’t know. I used to joke that she knew everybody in Plattsburgh – maybe in the North Country! She was always happy to give her time, her money, or just a listening ear and advice to anyone in her life. 

I think the number of people who are here today – and the number of people who replied to the Facebook post I made about her passing – speaks to that kindness. I want to share a few things that folks said about her on Facebook, to illustrate the number of lives she touched:

words escape me. My dear, dear friend – gone. Your mom gave me so much love, friendship., opportunities and great joy in dancing and shared the simple pleasures of a good sandwich….and a true friend to my dad too.

Marisa Goodenough

I am so sorry to hear this….my parents and Shelley shared the love of antiques for many years and she always used to share stories about them with me when I would see her. My condolences

Julie Gordon Ross

Condolences to all of you from all of us at Condo Pharmacy. She was a bright delightful person and we are saddened by this news. She did do things her way which was an admirable trait.

Jean Moore

Shelley I will miss you. Please don’t stop looking after your family and friends. Dance away my dear friend, dance away. Love you more ❤️

Nathalie Frigault

(“Love you more” is what my mother always used to say when you said “I love you” to her).

Hi Lise, you don’t know me, I’m a former Rotary Youth Exchange student from Colombia, when I was on the exchange your mom talked me a lot about you. Words are not enough to express how sorry I am for your loss, Shelley means a lot to me, she was such a nice lady with me on that year, I’m grateful with her forever because of the great things and experiences on those times. I truly believe she won a corner on heaven, because of her big heart with exchange students and people in general. I hope God help you pass through this tough times, and I send you my condolences and hugs from the distance. Shelley is a unique woman that never will be forget and she’ll live in our hearts. 🙏❤️😔

Jose David Lopez Acosta

Even the choice Shelley made with her final arrangements was generous and deliberate. Spirit Sanctuary here is a conservation burial ground, which means that the land is held in trust, and due to a conservation easement, can never be sold for development. She was aware that the funeral industry can be tremendously polluting, and was looking for a way to lower the impact of her death on the world around her. Conservation burial – which I’ve heard compared to chaining yourself to a tree for eternity – appealed to her greatly. I was honored and humbled to pick out this spot for her when she first entered hospice. I chose this spot because it was the sunny, which she would have loved – and because of this huge oak tree nearby, in memory of the “Black Oak Tree” folk song she used to sing to me as a lullaby.

Speaking of verse, I’d like to read a few poems that were favorites of my mother. The first is “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver, which is printed on the memorial card.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


Any of you who were close with my mother know that she used to quote that line: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” (She had a quote for every occasion!) I think it truly reflects how she interacted with her closest friends – always willing to share troubles and burdens.

The next poem is “Journey,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Millay is more my favorite poet than my mother’s, and this is one of several Millay poems I had memorized. But this is the one my mom loved the most of those, and often requested I recite.

Journey
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

AH, could I lay me down in this long grass
And close my eyes, and let the quiet wind
Blow over me,–I am so tired, so tired
Of passing pleasant places! All my life,
Following Care along the dusty road,
Have I looked back at loveliness and sighed;
Yet at my hand an unrelenting hand
Tugged ever, and I passed. All my life long
Over my shoulder have I looked at peace;
And now I fain would lie in this long grass
And close my eyes.
                Yet onward !

                          Cat-birds call

Through the long afternoon, and creeks at dusk
Are guttural. Whip-poor-wills wake and cry,
Drawing the twilight close about their throats.
Only my heart makes answer. Eager vines
Go up the rocks and wait; flushed apple-trees
Pause in their dance and break the ring for me;
Dim, shady wood-roads, redolent of fern
And bayberry, that through sweet bevies thread
Of round-faced roses, pink and petulant,
Look back and beckon ere they disappear.
Only my heart, only my heart responds.
Yet, ah, my path is sweet on either side
All through the dragging day,–sharp underfoot,
And hot, and like dead mist the dry dust hangs–
But far, oh, far as passionate eye can reach,
And long, ah, long as rapturous eye can cling,

The world is mine: blue hill, still silver lake,
Broad field, bright flower, and the long white road
A gateless garden, and an open path:
My feet to follow, and my heart to hold.

Finally, and most irreverently, a ditty that my mother always used to quote:

Love many
Trust few
Always paddle your own canoe

It’s a silly little rhyme, but I think emblematic of how my mother lived her life, and of the tremendous love she put out into the world. In her final months, that love was returned to her hundredfold, and she always had people willing to take care of her, to visit, and to bring food.

But at the same time, she was fiercely independent. She would always speak her mind and stand up for what was right, even if it made her unpopular or made her life more difficult. She was particular about the tax code and about grammar – mom, please note I didn’t use “very unique” in this eulogy. Even up until her last days, she was resistant to anyone helping her with the personal tasks that were increasingly difficult. She still talked about having to do payroll for the Peru Library or the tax returns she was going to do next year, and she was pricing antiques two days before her death. She definitely paddled her own canoe.

This is a hard time of year to lose somebody, with the holidays right around the corner. I asked my mom a few days ago if there were any holiday movies she wanted to watch — aside from It’s A Wonderful Life, which was her favorite. We watched that together last year. (It still makes me cry). I think, of course, of the famous line at the close of the film, and the lesson that George Bailey learns: “No man is a failure who has friends.” This was something my mother would often quote, and I think it ties into how critical my mother was of herself. She was by no means “a failure” – whatever that means – but I also think her friends and her generosity were a tremendous legacy that she leaves behind.

The darkest time of the year is a little darker this year. Please light a fire in your heart or your hearth to remember my mom.


Postscript: if you’re interested in learning more about conservation burial and other eco-friendly death planning options, I invite you to check out Ask a Mortician’s Eco-Death takeover video on YouTube.

Mini game review: Return of the Obra Dinn

Recently I played Return of the Obra Dinn (2018), an indie video game which bills itself as “An Insurance Adventure with Minimal Colour.” I’ve been playing so many (short) games lately that I can’t take the time to properly review them all, but I wanted to collect my Facebook musings about each game in one central place.

First, let me steal this description of the game from Wikipedia:

The game is set in 1807 with the player assuming the role of insurance inspector for the East India Company. The Obra Dinn, a merchant ship missing for five years, has reappeared off the coast of England with no one alive aboard. The player is dispatched to the ghost ship to perform an appraisal, reconstruct the events of the voyage, and determine the fates of all sixty souls aboard, providing a cause of death for those deceased or a probable current location for those presumed living. Investigation is accomplished through the use of the “Memento Mortem”, a pocket watch capable of transporting its user to the moment of death of any corpse located. The game, played in first-person perspective, uses a “1-bit” monochromatic graphical style inspired by games on early Macintosh computers.

“Return of the Obra Dinn” on Wikipedia

And here’s what I had to say about…

From June 29, 2022:

I just started playing Return of the Obra Dinn last night, the… new-ish? new-er? game by Lucas Pope, who did Papers, Please.

As usual with his games, I don’t really know how to describe them? It’s a puzzle game, I guess? You have to discover the fates (mostly, deaths) of the 60 people on board the Obra Dinn, using a magical stopwatch that shows memories of the person’s life. It’s mostly a deductive reasoning problem, but a SUPER COMPLEX one.

It’s hard! So far I’ve only solved 6 of the fates after 3hrs or so of play. It requires some careful observation skills — like: what is that accent? What part of the ship are they in? How do other people address them? How are they dressed? What manifest number is on their hammock?

Also love the early Macintosh-era graphics.

Additional things I wrote in the comments:

Since I’m bad with faces, I enjoy giving [the passengers] dumb names based on their appearance in the Life at Sea drawings. “Kicky neckerchief guy,” “tuque guy,” “tattoo guy,” etc.

I watched… an interesting video [Ars’ Technica’s “How Localizing Return of the Obra Dinn nearly sunk the game”] about how [the developers] decided on the different verbs [for what happened to the passengers], and how it made additional challenges when they translated it. (Like… some languages don’t have a verb that corresponds to “killed with a club”).

Additional notes:

  • You can actually pick what version of early computer graphics you want! I stayed with the early Mac era graphics, because it brought back memories of playing Oregon Trail on my Mac SE with a whopping 20mb of hard drive space.
  • The game is fairly lenient as to manner of death, disappearance. In many cases it will accept multiple different causes, such as “speared” “spiked” “bitten,” etc.
  • I feel like having toured the HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship, in Portsmouth, UK, really prepared me for some of these puzzles. (Like… of course all the midshipmen hang around together! Or: what’s an orlop deck?)

From July 2, 2022:

Okay, folks who have played Obra Dinn: when are you supposed to leave the ship? Because (I think) I’ve uncovered all the memories I can except for the stuff in “The Bargain,” which explicitly says “this will be revealed once you leave the ship and turn in the book.” I’ve only uncovered 36 fates, though, and I thought you weren’t supposed to leave the ship until you solved all 60. But I’m already scraping the bottom of the barrel for clues, and I have no more memories (I think) to uncover on the ship, so I’m wondering if I’ve misunderstood something.

As a friend informed me in the comments, you do have to solve 58 out of the 60 fates before you leave the ship if you want the “good” ending, i.e. where you actually figure out what happened.

By this point it was some of the tricksiest puzzles that stumped me. Looking up videos about all the clues in the game, it seems I wasn’t the only one struggling to identify the Chinese topmen, or to tell Alexander Booth apart from Hamadou Diom. There were definitely a couple of places where I had to guess, or brute force the solution. The “fates are revealed in groups of three” mechanic does disincentivize guessing, though, which was both a blessing and a curse.

From July 3rd:

Also, apropos of Obra Dinn — good goddamn I love the music in Soldiers of the Sea. Those bells! It gives me shivers.

Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation, who is known for his scathing reviews, actually liked Obra Dinn — but he did not like the music. He is just wrong.

On the same post I commented:

And apparently Lucas Pope composed [the music], too? This man is too talented.

Later that day I wrote this:

I finished Obra Dinn!… I still have so many questions.

For all that I solved the game — discovering the fate of all 60 passengers on board — at the end I still felt like I didn’t really understand the throughline of the story. Of why things had happened, and why the ship seemed to be cursed.

I won’t copy over all spoilery questions I had, but I answered a lot of them by Googling “return of the obra dinn story” and finding this. Warning: wildly spoilery. I’d only suggest following that link if you, like me, got to the end and still had a ton of questions about the plotline.

Also, fwiw, Steam informs me that it took me around 19hrs to finish the game. These Sudoku experts playing Obra Dinn on YT put me to shame.

Final Verdict

I adored much of this game — the music, the writing, the voice acting, the stylized graphics, and of course, the puzzles. Despite my confusion about the individual details of the story, the emotional impact was always clear. You could tell it was a passion project for Lucas Pope, and that he took the time to make it just so.

All that said, one thing I didn’t love was the user interface. The game gives you no guidance as to the controls; you just sort of have to discover them organically. (Don’t ask me how long it took me to figure out I could zoom in on figures to match them to their picture in the “Life at Sea” drawings). Navigating between scenes seemed clunky; I’d love a way to pull up a scene from the logbook rather than having to go to the body in question. I also wish there was a way to replay a scene from the beginning while you’re in it.

All in all, I’d give it a 4 out of 5 stars.

The only bad thing is? Now I’m in the mood for puzzle games, but there’s nothing quite like Obra Dinn. There are many puzzle games, but after surveying my friends, we couldn’t come up with one that had the same blend of logic puzzle + story-driven + unique aesthetics.

That said, I dove into a few other puzzle games after that, and — dopamine willing! — I might say a few words about them later.

In Which Lise Fails Her Will Save vs. More Drow Bullshit

So you might have seen this tweet a few days ago:

This was my reaction to my friend Will reaching out to me to say “hey, Bill [a larp acquaintance of mine from RPI] is running a drow intrigue game; you want in?”

Because of course I had to say yes.

The Premise

To quote Bill’s intro to the preparation doc:

You are members of a Drow House. Your goal? To survive…  and to thrive. But with a dagger at every back, and a noose around every neck, neither task will be simple. How long can you live, and how far can you climb? Only time will tell.

In many ways, it bears some similarities to the r/rpghorrorstories-worthy game I considered joining about a year ago now. You are playing members of a drow house, in Menzoberranzan, ruthlessly striving to climb the ladder of rank in the city, etc.

But, like… without all the red flags.

At the time, I decided that if I ever played in a game like this, it had to be with people I trust, not randos on the internet. Playing evil characters is not something you want to take on without significant safety and consent mechanics in place.

But these are all folks I’ve met in real life, and larped with, and trust to not be assholes for the sake of being assholes.

Hence I jumped at the opportunity — how often would this sort of thing come up?

Bill’s name for the campaign in roll20: “Creating Happy and Order-filled Stories”

My Character(s)

Now… the hardest part for me was deciding what to play. In the Game of Red Flags, I had intended to play an arcane trickster rogue, but I’ve since repurposed that concept (ish) for Jhevaeth, my drow rogue in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. So at first I had no idea what to play.

But that was quickly replaced by ALL THE IDEAS. I even put out a poll on Twitter, crowd-sourcing the decision between four different concepts:

Note that “ranger” here sorta became in my head “Gloom Stalker ranger,” because good goddamn is that OP.

… and then I completely ignored the results, deciding on the paladin.

At least first.

See, I came to an agreement with Bill that I’d like to play them serially, running through the sons of the Matron Mother of a house.

Because — except for the Spores druid — these character concepts were male. Roles and jobs are highly gendered in drow society, and hey, I like sad elf boys being sad playing drow males, because it’s much more interesting to me to be on the business end of a toxic matriarchy than to be perpetuating it.

Thus was born Kzandr, my Oath of Conquest paladin of Lolth.

… and yes, he has had to do some mental contortions in order to devoutly serve a goddess that demands his total obeisance. He is a zealot who has taken all his sublimated rage about his lot in life and turned it towards eliminating the enemies of the drow: heretics and other races. For the most part, it’s worked, too; he has the minor favor of Lolth.

For now.

As well as an anger management problem he has a death wish — his goal is streea, death in the service of Lolth.

Other than that? He’s elderboy and weapons master of the house, and has a rivalry with the youngest son (my Gloom Stalker ranger). He’s the consort of the first priestess of House Kenafin, which is the more religiously-focused of the two houses that merge and become Melarn in the future. (This takes place in 1325 DR, i.e. in canon, around the time Drizzt graduated from Tier Breche).

I’m also planning on rewriting the tenets of the oath, since right now it’s very uh order-focused, and that is kind of the opposite of Lolth.

… I expect he will die young and leave a fabulous corpse to be animated later on in the campaign.

I will probably play the Aberrant Mind sorcerer/wizard once Kzandr is gone — second son, product of a failed mind flayer ceremorphosis, suffering PTSD from his capture. (Oh yeah, and since he has psionics, the Oblodras probably want to kill him off as competition. Because they’re still around and #3).

The fourth son (because we don’t have third sons in Lolthite society, at least not for long, or unless they’re plot-bearing) is going to be the Gloom Stalker ranger, who definitely took the lessons of Master Hatch’net (the propaganda master from Melee-Magthere) to heart, and probably has several Underdark humanoids as his favored enemies. Also he might be a Vhaeraun worshipper?

And then the standalone one is the Circle of Spores druid. Probably female, probably works with Will’s character’s aunt, definitely has a spooder pal or three. That’s all I know for now.

Wheeeee this is gonna be wild.


I was going to write more about the house we designed — whose ancient and traditional name is basically going to be the Drow equivalent of What We Do in the Shadows. But I must Meeting, so perhaps I’ll talk about House Vel’bol Li’Veldrin later?

The Care and Feeding of Your Artist

(Originally posted on Facebook; reposting and expanding here)

One thing I think non-artists1 don’t understand about about artists — and that can be any kind of artist, from painters to fiber artists to writers like me — is how important feedback is to us. Positive and negative, but I’m going to focus on the positive today.

1This is a misnomer, because I truly believe everyone does something that could be called “art.” But certainly some people are more invested in the creative life than others.

We need to know you see us. We need to know you read us, saw us, experienced us.

That choice of word, “us,” is deliberate. The work isn’t us, except it is.

We need to know if you felt something when you read, saw, experienced our work. We need to know if the work lingered in your head. We need to know that we don’t cease to exist when we’re not there.

That “reaching out” part is important. Putting into words that positive feedback is so important to us. A tweet, a comment on a fanfic (likes or kudos don’t quite do it), an email, something that shows effort. That the work moved you to action.

Why? Because, first, we’re control freaks. We want to make people feel and do things. Second, it’s not a lie that we want to achieve immortality with our art. (Though me, I’m also aiming for the “becoming a lich” route).

One of my favorite Millay poems — and you know that’s like choosing my favorite of my four cats — speaks to this:

Stranger, pause and look;
From the dust of ages
Lift this little book,
Turn the tattered pages,
Read me, do not let me die!
Search the fading letters, finding
Steadfast in the broken binding
All that once was I!

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “The Poet and His Book”

“Just because I didn’t comment, doesn’t mean I didn’t read it!”

I hear you. Not everyone is good with words. Not everyone has the emotional energy to do more than hit “like” or “kudos” or retweet when they see something they like. If that’s all you can do, I am grateful.

But over time, that lack of outreach and feedback eats away at an artist. It feels like screaming into the void. I begin to think, “Am I really not succeeding at my goal? My work must not make people feel anything at all, if it doesn’t move them to action.”

My ask for you today

If you have the energy and inclination, of course!

Tell an artist you love their work. Write an email telling them you read their story and it moved you to tears. Write a long comment on a fanfic gushing about every line that evoked excited squeeing noises in you. Tell someone you followed them solely because of a funny tweet they wrote. Tell a character portraitist that you love their art and would like to commission your own. Tell a friend you watched their play and it made you chortle.

(It DEFINITELY does not have to be me, but I assure you, if it IS me, I will remember it forever).

My own artist love ❤️

Lest I be accused of asking and not giving, here are just a few of the artists whose work I fangirl!

First of all, my friend and fellow VP17er John Wiswell, whose short story, “Open House on Haunted Hill,” was just featured on Levar Burton Reads!

Summary: “A sentient house, haunted by its own loneliness, exercises its powers on a skeptic.”

I heard John read this at Readercon in the Beforetimes, and it made me laugh and warmed my heart. What sticks out in my head, nearly three years later, is the little girl rejecting the tyranny of pants, and the secret room with a sewing box and spinning wheel 🙂 (Of course I remember the sewing tools).

I also want to note that John’s life is its own piece of art. He is one of the kindest and friendliest people I know, always making efforts to include folks who might otherwise be excluded. (And this happens a lot in writerly circles; we’re a sensitive lot).

Second of all, there’s my pal Phoebe Roberts, who I know feels that whole “screaming into the void” sensation as acutely as I do. She is an incredibly prolific playwright and fanfic writer (and probably some things I’m forgetting), and I regret I have not experienced as much of her oeuvre as I would like.

But I can’t say enough good things about her Mrs. Hawking series. It will appeal to you if you like the idea of an idea of a female Sherlock Holmes+Batman analog, avenging crimes committed against women and the marginalized in Victorian society. (Oh, and Mrs. Hawking is ace, which of course appeals to me in a personal way).

For something a bit lighter, I also love the “in the same universe” piece Gentlemen Never Tell, which is kind of like if you took a Wodehouse novel and made it delightfully queer. It’s made me giggle riotously, but it’s also sweetly romantic. I had a ton of fun finding all the Wodehouse references, too. (Spot the Glossops!)

And you can watch it all for free on her YouTube channel!

Lastly — for today! — is my friend Melissa Carr, who describes herself as a “Mixed media artist, mythic blogger, and general teller of tales.” She blogs at The River’s Wayward Daughter, and you can support her on Ko-fi.

Melissa is multitalented, but I love her mythopoeic storytelling best of all. Reading one of her short pieces about folklore, the clever reader will realize that –sometimes, but not always — this is folklore she has imagined herself. She can do that because she has a deep understanding of folklore and what makes it sing.

That blurring that line between “real” and “invented” folklore says something really interesting about the value of stories in our lives — things that are true but not accurate.

(Of course it’s about metanarrative to me!)

Also she draws an awesome inkcap mushroom 🍄

Featured image credit: Adam Jang on Unsplash

2021 Retrospective

What a year! Or, I suppose, three-quarters of a year, since I didn’t post my 2021 Prospective until April 2021!

2020 lingered into 2021, and it seems to be tagging along into 2022, as well. We are still living the pandemic lifestyle, which for me is also the pajama lifestyle, despite my best efforts at this year’s theme. As I write this, Omicron variant is surging throughout the U.S., and I have spent the last two weeks either hiding out in my house or in the woods.

So, without further ado, let’s talk about my 2021 theme“making my outsides match my insides,” i.e. my year-long focus on dressing up my meat car.

How’d I do?

Er… not so well.

I’m hesitant to call anything a failure — “I learned 100 things that didn’t work,” etc — but I was probably less invested than I have ever been in one of these themes.

And, in fairness, I knew it going in. After all, it took me three months to write my 2021 Prospective! I even talked to my therapist about the ambivalence I felt going into the year.

And as a result… I saw few results.

Time-lost gentlethem?

I still don’t look like a time-lost noblethem in my day-to-day life. I still routinely spend my days in pajamas or athleisure.

I did, however, pull together some cool outfits for parties!… of which there were few in 2021.

Stylebook?

I did add a bunch of clothes to Stylebook — 52 tops, 16 bottoms, 4 pairs of shoes, 7 dresses, and 20 accessories!

I’m not exactly predictable about using it to record or plan my outfits, though. But! I am still using it as of this week, and that’s not nothing.

Selfiegeddon 2021?

Let the record show that — until today, when I went back and added a whole bunch of forgotten photos — I hadn’t added anything to my “Selfiegeddon 2021” album since July 2021.

However, after collation, I do have 53 photos in there, which means I actually met that goal? Hooray! Here are a few I especially liked:

Snazzual Fridays (or any days)?

A partial success. I did a few of these, but I also frequently got to the end of the month, saw the item in Todoist, and hit “postpone” — especially near the end of the year. I can’t remember which of my selfies were for Snazzual Friday, and I can’t honestly recall what the last one I participated in was.

Body image?

I haven’t gotten more comfortable with having the body of a hobbit and the aspirations of an elf. I can’t say I’ve actually cut my hair as I’d planned, still worried about looking like a chubby teenaged boy. I basically never feel like someone other people would find attractive.

Wardrobe curation?

Generally a success. I got some great new clothes from StitchFix, but I recently discontinued my scheduled fixes, only because I couldn’t fit more in my wardrobe!

I did get rid of some items that didn’t make me feel great, didn’t fit well, or didn’t fit my personal style (such as it is). I also got better about doing seasonal purges.

Health, not weight?

I can’t say I remembered this goal past April 2021! Sweeteners (artificial or otherwise) and beer still have a large role in my diet. I would definitely not say that I killed my sweet tooth or that my diet got better.

But my various health measures remained stable, and I don’t want to kill anyone for a donut, so I can’t say it was an unmitigated failure.

But what did I learn?

I learned that, more important than looking like a time-lost noblethem is… being comfortable.

I can’t even stand having an itchy tag in my clothes; how am I supposed to stand hosiery, fitted suit jackets, or jewelry that clangs against the keyboard?

I also learned: I’m not doing it for myself. I put on real clothes only a) if I’m in a meeting and I’m going to be on camera, or b) in the rare event I leave the house. If I were doing it for myself, I’d do it as part of my regular routine. But I don’t.

I want people to see me and see an eccentric time-lost noblethem. But I’m not convinced that’s something I care about seeing myself; I’m fine with the vision inside my head.

… which doesn’t exemplify “inhabiting my meat car,” does it?

Also: I still struggle to see fat as beautiful. An ad for plus-size lingerie comes up in my Facebook feed, with an actual plus-size model, and I still feel revulsion. I don’t like this, and I wish it weren’t so, but there we are.

I need more positive body role models, but I’m struggling to find them at the same time as I work to cut back on the media I consume.

But! I will say this: I got a lot of joy looking back through those selfies from the year. I do see progress towards loving what I am — towards expressing myself through fashion — even if it’s not what I could have hoped.

Now, on to what else happened this year…

A year of endings

This year, we unfortunately lost two of our cats, Brianna and Burnbright.

Brianna was 15, and passed in March, to an aggressive nasal tumor. Burnbright was 17, and passed in May. He was still recovering from brain surgery to remove a meningioma when complications from diabetes and kidney failure told us it was time to say goodbye.

It’s hard to lose one cat in a year, let alone two. Burnbright was the first cat I adopted as an adult, and has a special place in my heart. Brianna was the cat we never expected to adopt, my beautiful feisty princess who we almost lost once, in 2020.

I still miss them, and it still hurts.

One less momentous ending was the end of my Out of the Abyss campaign. You know, that thing that caused me to write 80k words of emotional hurt/comfort with my character’s NPC boyfriend? That had a big impact on me — it literally felt like the end of a relationship.

A year of new beginnings

Because having merely one cat in our house seemed untenable, Matt and I adopted three new kittens in June from the local shelter. They were ~9 weeks old when we adopted them; two of them are biological brothers, and one of them was socialized along with the other two. As soon as we saw the trio, we knew we couldn’t split them up.

Nerds that we are, we named them after characters from P.G. Wodehouse novels — Monty Bodkin, Gussie Fink-Nottle, and Pongo Twistleton.

The only thing that has made the stress of this year bearable is having these kittens around; at my most bereft, I would just take a break to pet them.

Also this year? I became a manager — my title is now Engineering Manager, Frontend, and I have a team of two reporting to me. Nothing can really prepare you for management, but I’ve been studying the theory and attempting to apply that to my work. My company has also provided a great deal of training, mentorship, and onboarding assistance in this regard.

Other interesting stuff

  • I read 16 books. I did not reach my goal of 27, but honestly pandemic brain has ruined my ability to read, and reading is a habit I have to relearn.
  • My first short story publication — “The Mirrors of Her Eyes” — appeared in Daily Science Fiction.
  • I queried 10 different agents for Lioness; had 5 requests for partial/fulls, but so far no offers of rep.
  • Did a “Words in May” challenge.
  • Wrote 35 blog posts
  • Wrote 80k+ words on Bright Future, my druid and drow-fancying retelling of the Out of the Abyss adventure.
  • Started playing Pathfinder 2e, running through the Agents of Edgewatch module with some marvelous human beans I somehow met on r/lfg.
  • Traveled to San Diego for a work retreat. I stayed at the historical and haunted Hotel del Coronado, met my coworkers for the first time, and saw my friend Skye for the first time in 15 years. Of course, I also took lots of pictures of flowers and sea life.
  • Visited my mom several times.
  • Went camping with my dad in August, in some of the worst heat of the summer!
  • Hosted a visit from Matt’s parents.
  • Started my Morrowind Remastered stream and YouTube series.
  • Spent 3 nights, 4 days in a yurt in western MA for my birthday.
  • Made 249 iNaturalist observations
  • Took a Bushcraft 101 class
  • Spent a great deal of time in my garden and in the woods.
  • Grew an elderberry from a cutting. (Let’s see if it survives the winter in the ground).
  • Foraged and ate a wild mushroom for the first time!
  • Actually got to do some larping! I played two one-day events for Cottington Woods 2, and a 1-day event for Shadowvale.

All right, friends, I think that wraps it up for 2021. Let’s lay this one to rest and grow just enough in 2022.


Featured image by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash