1,001 Posts

This is our thousand-and-first post on Co-Geeking! Goodness, did any of us expect to get here?

We started off six years ago in the summer of 2015 with some ideas of what we wanted to write about. The blog has grown and developed since then as we sometimes dig into big projects together and other times just share whatever comes to mind.

Here are the most popular posts we’ve done in all that time:

  1. Do-It-Yourself Fantasy Place Name Generator – A technique for creating place names that feel authentic and lived-in.
  2. Testing Witches with Water – Digging into the myths about dunking people in water to see whether they’re witches or not.
  3. Sean Bean on the LotR Joke in The Martian – A bit from an interview with Sean Bean about his role in The Martian and the movie’s Lord of the Rings joke.
  4. Hogwarts Dueling Club Tablecloth Transformed into Wall Hanging – A beautiful example of geeky crafting if you want to add some wizarding-school flair to your home.
  5. Custom is King – A glimpse at multiculturalism in action over two thousand years ago.

Thanks for being with us, everyone. More to come!

Eppu and Erik

Announcements from your hosts.

Stupid Writer Tricks: Character Voices

Writing dialogue is not one of my strengths as a writer. I often struggle to give my characters their own voices. So I have a stupid trick to help me get the voice right for characters I’m going to spend a lot of time with: When thinking of their dialogue in my own head, I give them a distinctive accent, tone, or speaking style. It doesn’t always come through onto the page, but it helps me think about how a particular character would talk.

For an example, here’s how I wrote the voices for the main characters in my story “How I Saved Athens from the Stone Monsters.”

The story is about Mnestra and Lampedo, two flute girls working the streets of Athens who get caught in the chaos when the rich, ambitious aristocrat Alkbiades uses a mysterious artifact to make the city’s statues come to life and go on a rampage. To make the story work, it was important to convey the personalities of these three key characters.

Mnestra, as narrator of the story, was the most important to get right. I wanted her to come across as self-possessed, confident, and a little snarky. I also wanted her to feel accessible as a character, someone we felt like we knew. With a story set so far in the past, there was a danger that the characters would feel distant and hard to identify with. Mnestra’s world is certainly not like our own, even before the monsters appear. I wanted to close that gap and make her feel real. There’s also a long history of ancient Greek and Roman characters in modern fiction written as if they were stiff upper-class Brits (in no small part because Greek and Roman literature was for a long time a crucial part of upper-class British education). I didn’t want Mnestra to sound like that.

So when I was thinking about her lines, I thought of her as a jaded teenager. I wrote the first few sentences of the story almost before I really knew where the plot was going, just to make sure I had Mnestra’s voice down.

Okay, so that thing with the statues? The smashed penises thing? That was my idea. But let me explain. I had a good reason for it.

She’s a little overly blasé and vague like a teen trying to play it cool. She leads into the story gradually, like a high schooler with a bent fender sidling up to a freaked-out parent.

In the first draft of the story, there was a lot more of Mnestra’s attitude throughout, but in revising, I found that I didn’t need all of that, and in fact once the action picked up later, it just slowed things down. I edited out most of it, but kept a few sarcastic asides in where they felt appropriate.

Lampedo was a different problem. Her character changed a lot as I was writing. I originally wrote her as shy and delicate, but some good editorial feedback made me rethink her relationship to Mnestra. I rewrote the pair to be less “surrogate sisters” and more “buddy cops,” which gave the story more to work with. Lampedo instead ended up being tough and prickly.

I had a hard time writing the new version of Lampedo’s voice until I started thinking of her with a Russian accent. Not just a Russian accent but a Russian attitude: proud, prematurely world-weary, fatalistic. Here’s a little dialogue between Mnestra and Lampedo after they first get away from the attacking statues.

“Isis’ milk!” I hissed at her. “What did you think you were doing, trying to fight those things?”

“A warrior always attacks,” she answered, grabbing a wine jug. She pulled out the cork with her teeth and drank a big glug.

“We’re not warriors!” I snapped. “We’re flute girls. Don’t you get that? We have to be smart.”

“You say ‘smart,’” she scoffed. “You mean weak.”

“Have you ever seen an old flute girl?” I asked her. “No, there aren’t any. Most of us end up as graveyard women spreading for scraps. You only get through if you have a plan.”

“What’s yours?” she asked. “Hide in a storeroom?”

Alkibiades was a different challenge. Alkibiades is an aristocrat, and his driving motivation in my story (as in history) is that he feels he has never been shown the respect that his status entitles him to. Unlike with Mnestra, I leaned hard into the “stiff upper-class Brit” mode with him to convey that not only is he of a much higher social class than the flute girls but he’s also to an extent putting on an act of what he thinks an Athenian aristocrat should be like. If you can imagine a sinister version of Bertie Wooster, that’s what I heard in my head when writing his lines. Here’s how he intervenes when some potential clients are threatening to get violent with Mnestra and Lampedo.

But before anything could happen, a man on horseback came riding up and waved the twits back.

“I say, is that any way for an Athenian to behave?” he rebuked them. “Tussling with girls in the street? Don’t you know there’s a war on?”

Later, at his dinner party, Alkibiades tries to reassert his status after having his political position usurped by his rival Nikias. He starts a philosophical dialogue but is undermined by his own guests:

“Friends,” Alkibiades began, “let us make this a festival of the mind, not only of the body.” A couple of men near us snickered, but Alkibiades pretended not to notice. “Let me propose a subject for our discourse. What is the measure of a man’s worth?”

“The length of his cock!” a drunken voice called out.

“The quality of his wine!” another added before the laughter had faded.

“His virtue,” proposed an old white-head. A few other suggestions floated around the room. When the merriment had subsided a little, Alkibiades offered his own answer.

“I should say that the measure of a man’s worth is the greatness of the challenges he has overcome. The greatest of all men I name Leonidas of Sparta who faced the Persians at Thermopylai. When the Persian king demanded that the Spartans lay down their arms, he answered: ‘Come and take them.’”

“Then they all died and the Persians burned Athens,” someone objected. Alkibiades was undeterred.

“What more can a man ask for than to face an unbeatable foe with unwavering courage?”

“Sending Nikias out to do it!” came an answer. Alkibiades’s face went red and he sat down as the rest of the room exploded with laughter.

I have a great admiration for people who can write rich, fluid dialogue that drips with character. That’s not where my strengths lie. This is the stupid trick I use instead, and it works for me.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

The Importance of Being Spock

When I was young, there wasn’t a lot to choose from in children’s media. This was before the internet and back when there were only a few tv channels. What there was was mostly written for the “average kid.” Those of us who weren’t “average kids” (whatever that even means) didn’t have much chance to see ourselves reflected in the things we watched and read.

As a young person who enjoyed reading books, learning things, and thinking, I didn’t have many role models in my media. “Smart” characters tended to be portrayed as weirdos and outsiders. At best they could be inventive but eccentric cranks like Professor Calculus from Tintin. More often they were comically bumbling know-it-alls like Dr. Bunsen Honeydew from the Muppets or Owl from Winnie-the-Pooh. They were often insufferably arrogant about their intelligence, like Brainy Smurf. This was the image of smartness I saw as a young child: smug, generally useless, and barely tolerated by the people around them. (It’s also true that these characters were invariably male, but that’s a separate issue for another time.)

Then I discovered Star Trek. I can’t remember how old I was, but I was still pretty young when my sister and I stumbled across afternoon reruns of original series episodes on one of the local channels. I was hooked. It was my first exposure to adult speculative fiction, and it opened up a whole new world of storytelling to me, but there’s no question that there was one thing about Star Trek I loved above all else: Spock.

Spock from Star Trek

In some ways, Spock was like the other “smart” characters I had seen before. He was an outsider, an alien on a ship full of humans. He had quirks. He was sometimes razzed on by other characters (especially Dr. McCoy). But despite these things that set him apart, he was emphatically part of the crew, embraced and appreciated by them. His knowledge and intelligence were respected by his fellow spacefarers and often contributed to solving the problem of the episode. Spock was the first time I saw a smart character who was valued for being smart.

Anyone who knew me as a child knows how deeply I identified with Spock. I was Spock for Halloween at least once (and probably more often, though I can’t remember). When teased by my classmates (I wouldn’t say I was bullied, but kids are kids—sometimes people were mean to me, sometimes I was mean to them) I imitated his arch emotionlessness in self-defense. I devoured any kind of Star Trek trivia, but it was always Spock I loved the most.

As I grew older I gathered more role models for people who loved knowing things and whose knowledge was appreciated by those around them, from Sherlock Holmes and Brother Cadfael to Professor McGonagall and Jadzia Dax. But you never forget your first. Spock will always have a special place in my heart because in him I saw the first glimmer of what I wanted to become: someone whose love of books and ideas could become something valuable I could contribute to the world around me. I know I’m not alone in these feelings. I think a lot of the quiet, bookish kids of my generation first saw ourselves in Spock.

We’ve come a long way since then. There’s lots more to choose from for kids’ tv, movies, and books these days. I wonder if that makes a difference, or if there are other touchstone characters for younger generations of thoughtful, curious kids.

What about the rest of you? Who was the fictional character you first looked at and thought: “That’s me?”

In Character is an occasional feature looking at some of our favorite characters from written works and media to see what drives them, what makes them work, and what makes us love them so much.

On the Move

You may have noticed that we’ve been posting less often recently. Also, usually in the beginning of June we write a blog anniversary post, but this obviously isn’t one. This year, we just don’t have the requisite spoons, because we’re moving. Not just houses. Not just states. Not just countries. Continents.

My Finland in the Sky

Gosh, even saying that out loud wearies me out. A trans-Atlantic move is challenging at the best of times, never mind during a pandemic.

If you have well-wishes to spare, we’d appreciate it if you sent one our way. Please and thank you.

Announcements from your hosts.

A Preview of The Greco-Persian Wars

I am pleased to announce that my second book, The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents, is coming out in just a few days. This book tells the story of the wars between Greeks and the Persian Empire in the early fifth century BCE through translations of ancient documents.

While the wars of the early fifth century in Greece dominate modern histories of Greco-Persian interaction, they were only part of a larger history in which the main actors were not Greeks but Persians, and whose events played out not simply in Greece but across the eastern Mediterranean. Looking at a broader history allows us to put the Greco-Persian Wars into a more meaningful context. The story of Persia’s engagement in Greece is not one of East-West cultural clashes or Greek ascendancy, but of Persia’s success in adapting to the challenges of an unstable, frequently violent frontier region, and that is the history my book explores.

This book features over eighty-five separate selections translated from Greek, Old Persian, Elamite, Akkadian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Egyptian, and Lycian, each with contextual notes. They are accompanied by a short historical introduction, a glossary, a chronology, maps, and a select bibliography.

Here is a selection from one of the documents. In this text, set some hundred years after the famous battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea, we see how complicated relations between Greeks and Persians remained. This text is a useful reminder that we have to think not of relations between Greece and Persia but between Greeks and Persians. On both sides, individuals had their own motivations and interests that could lead to unexpected alliances and tricky rivalries.

* * *

Friendship and its complications

Xenophon, Hellenica 4.1.31-39

Relationships of xenia, or guest-friendship were a traditional way in which Greek aristocrats formed personal relationships across the boundaries of the polis. Similar relationships were also extended to Persians who dealt with the Greek frontier. While these relationships could be channels for diplomacy and political negotiation, they could also create conflicting loyalties. The exchange between the Spartan king Agesilaus—at that time ravaging the Persian-held territories in Ionia—and the satrap Pharnabazus in 395 or 394 BCE shows both the potentials of xenia and its dangers.

First they greeted each other and Pharnabazus held out his right hand. Agesilaus clasped it. Then Pharnabazus spoke first, since he was the elder.

“Aegsilaus, and you other Spartans here,” he said, “I became your friend and ally when you were fighting the Athenians. Not only did I support your fleet with money, but I myself fought alongside you on horseback and we drove your enemies into the sea together. You cannot accuse me of ever having played you false, like Tissaphernes. Yet despite this, you have now left my land in such a state that I cannot even feed myself, unless I gather up the scraps you leave behind like an animal. All the beautiful houses and woods full of trees and beasts that my father left me, which I used to enjoy so much, I now see either cut down or burned up. Well, if I don’t know what is righteous and just, you tell me how these are the acts of men who know how to repay favors.”

The thirty Spartans were ashamed and said nothing, but then after a time Agesilaus spoke up.

“Pharanbazus,” he said, “I think you understand that in the Greek cities, people also become guest-friends to one another. But when their cities go to war, such people fight on behalf of their homelands against their friends, and even kill them, if it should so happen. In the same way, since we are now at war with your king, we are compelled to treat everything of his as enemy territory. However, we would think it the best thing in the world to become your friends. Now, if it were a matter of throwing off the king to be ruled by us instead, I certainly would not advise it, but if you side with us now you will have the chance to flourish without having any master or humbling yourself to anyone. I think freedom is, after all, worth any amount of money. Even so, we are not urging that you should be free and poor. Rather, by taking us as your allies, you will increase your own power, not the king’s, and by subduing those who are now your fellow slaves you will make them your own subjects. You will become both free and rich—what else could you need to have perfect happiness?”

“In that case,” said Pharnabazus, “shall I tell you plainly what I will do?”

“That would be a good idea,” said Agesilaus.

“Well then,” he said, “if the king sends another general here and makes me subordinate to him, I will gladly become your friend and ally. On the other hand, if he gives the command to me, ambition is such a powerful force that I will fight you to the best of my ability.”

When he heard these words, Agesilaus grasped Pharnabazus’ hand and said:

“My dear friend, I hope you will be our ally! But know this: I will leave your territory now as quickly as I can, and in the future, even if the war continues, we will leave you and your land alone as long as we have other foes to fight.”

That was the end of the meeting, and Pharnabazus mounted up and rode away, but his son Parapita, a fine young man, stayed behind. He ran up to Agesilaus and said:

“Agesilaus, I make you my guest-friend.”

“For my part, I accept,” Agesilaus replied.

“Remember it,” said Parapita. He at once gave the beautiful javelin he was carrying to Agesilaus. In return, Agesilaus took a splendid decoration from the horse his secretary Idaeus was riding and gave it to Parapita. Then the young man leapt upon his horse and followed after his father.

* * *

If you’ve found some of my previous posts about Persians, life in the Persian Empire, and the complicated relationships between Persians and Greeks interesting, you may enjoy The Greco-Persian Wars.

The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents comes out February 24th from Hackett Publishing.

Hardcover: $49 / Paperback: $18 / e-book versions available

You can pre-order directly from Hackett or on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, or from your local bookseller.

Image: Greco-Persian Wars paperback cover by Hackett Publishing

Announcements from your hosts.

 

A Farewell to Cards

Back in the 1990s, in my high school and college days, I used to be into Magic: The Gathering, the granddaddy of trading card games. I’ve dabbled a little since then, but it’s twenty years since I played the game with any seriousness. I really enjoyed the game, especially the challenge of coming up with interesting decks (I was what they used to call a “Johnny” player), but it isn’t part of my life any more, so I’ve decided its time to get rid of my collection.

After doing a little research on ways of selling Magic cards (and thinking about which ones are viable in the midst of a pandemic), I decided to list my cards on Cardsphere, a website created by and for Magic fans.

So far, I’ve only sold a handful of cards, but I keep my eye on the offers and little by little I’m working the collection down. I was never much into the collecting aspect of the game, so I don’t have many of the high-value cards (although I do have a couple of old dual lands that I’m hoping to sell for a few hundred dollars apiece). Most of what I’ve sold so far has gone for pocket change, and I know I’m losing money on postage on some transactions. Still, it is a pleasure to know that these cards I no longer have any use for are going to make someone else happy.

The process of sorting, organizing, listing, and sending off my cards has meant I’ve spent more time looking at my collection in the past few months than I did in the previous couple of decades, and in a way that has been good for me. It’s nice to be reminded of happy days long ago and to say a proper goodbye to the old dears.

My card inventory is visible here, if anyone wants to check out what I have to offer.

Image by Erik Jensen

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

The Strange Poetry of an Index

One of the tricks of the trade in academia is: when you pick up a new book, look at the index first. Seeing what terms appear there and which ones have large numbers of references tells you a lot about what the book is about.

I’ve been working on the index to my latest book, a collection of primary sources on the Greco-Persian Wars. Most of the entries are proper names for people, places, and institutions, and their specificity tells you pretty clearly the topic of the book. If you take those out, though, the terms that are left have a strange kind of poetry about them. You could let your imagination wander and dream up some very different books that had these terms in their indices. For your enjoyment:

animals, archers

beer, bees, bread, brick, bridges, bulls

canals, cannibalism, carnelian, cattle, cavalry, chariots, childbirth, clothing, colonies, crown, cuneiform

democracy, diplomacy, disease, dreams

earth and water, earthquakes, esparto, exiles

forgery, fowl, frankincense, frontiers

gifts, goats, gold, grain, guest-friendship

hair, helots, heralds, heroes, hoplites, horses, hostages

incense, ivory

labor, language, lapis lazuli, laws, linen, lions

medicine, mercenaries, merchants, moon, mules, multiculturalism, mummification

oil, ointment, oligarchy, oracles

palaces, papyrus, phalanx, pomegranates, poultry, propaganda

racing, rain, religion, roads

sacrifice, satraps, satrapies, sheep, shields, ships, shipwrecks, sieges, silver, storms, stone

temples, tolerance, tombs, trade, translation, tribute, triremes, turquoise, tyrants

walls, water, wind, wine, wood

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Five Years of Co-Geeking

It’s been five years since we started blogging together here at Co-Geeking, and it’s safe to say those are five years we’ll never forget. Join us for a little look back at our highlights from the past year.

Our favorite posts

Erik:

The post I have most enjoyed writing in the past year is The Past is Haunted, a Halloween rumination from last October about how we often connect the sense of hauntedness and the supernatural with the traces of earlier people’s lives, even to the point of sometimes deliberately invoking that sense in artificial ways. It was fun to take the spookiness of the season and think historically about it.

Eppu:

Aah, a tough one, but I’d have to say the post on the reconstructed Staffordshire Helmet. That (plus the March 2020 post on the Essex burial chamber) were little trips to the past for me, since they reminded me of my master’s studies in Finland. Plus, the helmet and the model wearing it make such an amazing photo!

 

Our favorite geeky thing that happened in the past year

Eppu:

The release of the Captain Marvel movie! Obviously, I’m not superpowered in any way (well, perhaps, if I’m very, very, VERY lucky I may be) but the tenacity and persistence that Carol Danvers displays speaks to me a lot. (In Finland, we call the quality sisu, and it’s highly appreciated.) It was a great screen adaptation of a supe origin story. Plus, every scene between Danvers and Fury keeps getting better and better with every viewing; Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson play together so well it’s a joy to watch.

Erik:

This is a hard one for me to answer. A lot of the interesting things happening in geekdom right now are on tv (and even more so now that the novel coronavirus is keeping so many of us at home), but the two of us are always late to those parties because we don’t have cable or any streaming services, so we mostly have to wait to buy things on dvd or get them from the library. We’re old-fashioned like that. So, while we are aware of the existence of things like young Yoda and old Picard, we haven’t actually seen them yet.

So my answer is a little different this year. Not long ago I dug out my old collection of Magic: The Gathering cards. I haven’t played in years, and I decided it was finally time to get rid of them. Going through them all brought back so many memories of playing with my friends. I loved to build decks around weird cards or bizarre ideas and see if I could make them work. Often they just flopped in play, but I still had so much fun tinkering around with mechanics and combinations. Those days are behind me now, but I cherish the memories.

On another note, is anyone in the market for an old collection of nothing-special Magic cards?

We look forward to another year with you all.

Image: Holy hand grenade from Monty Python and the Holy Grail via tenor.com

Announcements from your hosts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 6: We Have Done the Best We Reasonably Could Have Expected

(Previous entries: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5)

And that’s the semester. The deadlines have passed, the grades are turned in, all that’s left to look forward to is celebrating our graduating seniors at a safe distance. This is not the way any of us wanted this semester to end, but I think all of us—my fellow faculty, my students, and the university administration—have done the best we reasonably could have expected.

I was prepared to be lenient in my grading this semester, but I found that (after making some basic structural adjustments to my syllabi, such as dropping some assignments and adjusting the weight of others), I did not need to. My students have continued to turn in work of exceptional quality, despite the challenges of the times. Their papers are just as strong as I could have hoped for in a normal semester, their self-reflections just as thoughtful, their questions just as insightful. I credit this result to the quality of my students and not my skills at teaching online, which are dubious at best.

Not all my students made the transition to online learning gracefully. Across all my classes, only about two thirds of students ever engaged with the discussion questions I posted online. Still, I am treating those discussions as the equivalent of our classroom conversations, and getting two thirds of a class to speak up is not bad even in person. Some of those who didn’t engage in the online discussions still showed through their written work that they had done the reading thoroughly and thoughtfully. There were a few students who just disappeared, but on the whole they were the same students who had mostly disappeared from in-person classes before the outbreak of the pandemic.

The spread of final grades came out about the same as usual: a lot of Bs, a good handful of As, a scattering of Cs and Ds, and a few Fs for those who just never turned in the required work. I know from email exchanges with a few students that some of them have been under enough stress this spring that it was all they could do to manage a passing grade, and I’ve done my best to guide them to what they need to do to get it. For the most part, though, my students have done as well as I would normally have expected of them.

This will be my last update for this spring. We’ll see what the fall holds. I hope there has been something interesting in this view into the mild chaos of teaching in a pandemic. Stay safe and well, everyone.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 5: Online Teaching Leaves Me Feeling Drained

(Read previous entries part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4)

Things are starting to get routine. My teaching day goes like this: I check my email for any messages from students and respond to individual questions and problems. If someone raises a question that I think others may be wondering about, I send out a general email to the whole class or to all my students. I try not to send more emails than necessary, because I know my students are already getting a lot of information from the administration, but sometimes important things need to be said or reiterated. I’ve been surprised by how many of my students have missed or misunderstood basic instructions about how to participate in online discussion for my classes, but I don’t hold it against them. We’re all struggling right now, and I have to be aware that just because I understand something doesn’t mean that my students do. My job is to give them the information they need, and if that means repeating the same information in different words four or five times, then I will.

Next I grade and comment on any assignments that have been submitted. Then I move on to the online discussions. Wherever there are new comments, I record who participated in the discussion so that I can give credit. To do this I have a sheet of paper, on the same model as the sheet I always use for taking attendance at the start of class, with rows for all my students’ names and columns for the different discussion topics. When a student makes a comment on a given topic, I make check mark in the corresponding box on my sheet. At the end of the semester I will put this sheet together with the attendance sheets from the first part of the spring and combine them to give participation grades.

Depending on the day, this process can take anything from an hour to the whole afternoon. When I have time to spare, I work on my current book project, which is getting close to being finished. This schedule is exhausting, but in an entirely different way than a day of in-class teaching is. After a good day in the classroom, I feel energized and alive. Even at the best, this online teaching just leaves me feeling drained.

I miss the spontaneity and verve of the classroom. I miss the way a good class takes on a life and spirit of its own. I miss the dumb jokes and pointless but entertaining tangents that help bind students and professor together. I miss the performance-art craft of leading a discussion so gently from my students’ own questions and ideas to the points I wanted to make that they feel like they got there on their own. I miss the wonder of seeing my students strike off in new directions and arrive at ideas I never expected them to come up with.

This is an emergency situation, and we all understand that this is how things have to be for now. My fear at the moment is that we will not be able to return to the classroom in the fall. I know that there are some professors who are amazing at online teaching, but I am not one of them. For all of us, the end of this spring semester has been a rickety tub held together with duct tape and twine. With a summer to prepare, I’m sure I could make my online teaching better in the fall if I have to, but I cannot be at my best for my students from the other side of a screen.

Image by Erik Jensen

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.