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On the Historicity of Tommy Wiseau's The Room

Tommy Wiseau's magnum opus The Room is a cult classic that never fails to entertain. It retains its charm despite multiple re-watchings, and its terribleness never seems to get old. One thing that strikes the viewer when watching is how personal the film is. It's clear elements of the plot reflect events in Tommy Wiseau's life. But which parts?

In order to separate likely historical events from embellishment and artistic license, we can make use of a principle called the criterion of embarrassment. The idea is that, assuming The Room is at least somewhat autobiographical, the parts that are most embarassing for the character Johnny are likely to have a kernel of truth. We'll also use some ad-hoc reasoning where it seems appropriate.

To begin with, we must assume the character Johnny is Tommy Wiseau himself. Throughout the movie, Johnny is held up as a (literally) unbelievably admired self-sacrificing paragon of virtue. The other characters receive almost no real backstory or motivation. Because of this, it's reasonable to conclude that Tommy only understood the events from his own perspective and was unable to give convincing motivations to characters representing other people.

Johnny is well liked at his job, by the florist ("You're my favorite customer") and by Lisa's mother, Claudette. No one has anything bad to say about him initially. Mark visits, but we never learn what he does for a living, or anything about his life. He seems singularly defined by his relationship with Johnny, as his best friend. Similarly Lisa has no backstory. We simply know she loves Johnny at the start, and that they are engaged. They never talk about how they met or about anything in their past together. It's never discussed whether she has a job or career or aspirations, she is simply Johnny's fiancee.

Turning to the character of Denny, things get a bit more interesting. At first glance, the character seems utterly unrealistic, likely fabricated by Tommy. He comes into the house unannounced, interrupting Johnny and Lisa in bed, and seems fantastically naive and innocent. But on closer examination, he remarkably has a backstory where the other main characters have none! Johnny took him in, and is paying his rent (another example of selfless Johnny). All of the other side characters seemingly fail the "Johnny-Bechdel Test", where they are either in conversation with Johnny or talking about him. Denny is different, because his misadventure with the drug dealer is unrelated to Johnny entirely. The scene is with the drug dealer has a clear goal of showing Johnny is a good guy, but the events of the scene are not sins against Johnny or praise for Johnny, which stands out. Given this, we have some circumstantial evidence that Denny represents a real person that Tommy Wiseau knew. Despite this scene not being about Johnny, it still does not reveal any ability by Tommy Wiseau to give a convincing backstory to a character. Denny is simply accosted by the drug dealer, and we find out he's bought drugs, apparently on credit. The lack of any insight into what made Denny want drugs is indicative that Tommy Wiseau was baffled by the historical version of the event himself.

After Denny, the other main characters that likely exist are Lisa and Mark. While neither of them have developed backstories, they are central to harm done to Johnny. Without both of them existing, the story doesn't exist. This isn't to say it's impossible, but here we're assuming the basic events in The Room has some basis in fact, and under that assumption we must also assume Mark and Lisa represent real people. Some further circumstantial evidence that Mark exists is provided by the (ever so slightly) conflicted morality of Mark. At first, he's loyal to Johnny, and resists Lisa's advances. Given Tommy Wiseau's seemingly limited ability to peer into the minds of others or create realistic motivations, there's a reasonable chance this moral hesitation by Mark indicates that Tommy didn't want to portray his friend as completely evil. Additionally, since Tommy was betrayed by Mark, and this is an embarassing admission, we get some further credence to the idea that it really happened. If Johnny was as perfect as depicted in the movie, he would most certainly have picked better friends.

By way of contrast, with Lisa we see no convincing motivation for why she turns on Johnny. As far as the movie is concerned she is suddenly and inexplicably sick of Johnny and wants Mark. At no point does she either express any moral qualms about what she's doing to Johnny, or give any reason why she's done with him. She simply states, "I don't like him any more. He's boring". This increases our confidence that any events that betray an inner life are not intentionally invented by Tommy Wiseau, but rather literal accounts of true events. Even a hamfisted attempt to give Lisa a realistic motivation would be better than what the movie provides. By inserting details from true events into the story, Tommy inadvertantly gives inner life to some if the characters, even if it is inconsistent.

This inconsistency is really central to explaining some of the Room's most famous non-sequitors. For example, when Claudette reveals she has breast cancer, only to never mention it again in the movie, we can see this as Tommy adding a real life fact, rather than indicating that Tommy wanted to add depth to the character. Since he doesn't follow up with it, it's unlikely to be a detail he invented himself for the plot. From this we have to conclude that Claudette is likely a real person. Gauging by her sympathetic treatment in the movie, she is (or was) someone that Tommy liked.

Next, we examine the event where Lisa is having a drink and invites Johnny to drink too. He protests with "Lisa, you know I don't drink." And she replies with "Oh, come on." and pours him a glass with a lot of extremely hard liquor. Immediately, he gives up his life of teetotalling and has a drink, quickly agreeing "It tastes good." This is an embarassing character failure for Johnny. In addition, he was led to this failure by the faithless Lisa. It's fair to say this is likely inspired by real events, since it's a chink in the perfect image Tommy paints of himself. But it's also clear that this is a poorly remembered or intentionally altered version of events, since the details are too far fetched to have happened exactly.

Finally, we see Johnny kill himself due to everybody betraying him, and being fed up with this world. This is likely a case of revenge fantasy. In reality, he was cheated on, tricked or lied to by people very close to him, and they parted ways after it was over. The offending parties in all likelihood never received their comeuppance, so this ending is a way of Tommy playing out the fantasy of making them regret what they'd done. Lisa thinks Johnny's death is an opening to be with Mark, but Mark wants nothing to do with her. Everything is going to be terrible for Lisa now because of her inscrutable capricious motives!

The Room is a movie that has a certain kind of perfection, seemingly making every mistake a rookie writer, actor or director could make, repeatedly and without shame. Movies this awful just aren't made: it never gets funding, or the money runs out, or the director accepts at least some good advice or compromise with the actors and others involved in the film. Mercifully, none of that occurred with The Room. It is the unequivocal product of Tommy Wiseau's writing talent, directing talent, and acting prowess. This is exactly the movie he wanted to make.

  • historical analysis

Face

A big face appeared on the walkway. Jim walked right past it, he was on a mission. He dove off the walkway head first towards the floor of the city. Lights, windows, cars streaked past as he descended, accelerating at 9.2 meters per second squared.

He drew his gun, and closed his eyes. In his mind, he could imagine his target. Just walking out of their front door on the ground floor of the city. Looking left and right, they knew someone was after them. But the target wasn't trained in how to be paranoid when someone was after them. So a quick look would suffice to convince the target he was being careful, and he would continue out as normal.

Jim knew the target well. He'd studied him for decades. Jim had uploaded himself to a computer, sped himself up, and dove into the target's entire world, immersing himself in it for twenty five years of objective time. In reality, only a few days passed, during which Jim's body sat around patiently for him to return. Twenty five years of preparation, now finally he would kill what most people would consider a life's work.

Jim grabbed ripcord and pulled it, unraveling his wing suit. He just needed it to slow him down enough to get a clean shot. Now the shop would be coming into view. He'd flown this course thousands of times over the virtual years. The idea had come to him over a decade ago, but it took a lot of time to perfect the planning.

He steadied himself. Depending on the wind conditions at the time, he could get air turbulence throwing off his aim. It was consistently the most unpredictable part of his training, but he could manage it. The turbulence didn't manifest. Jim was mildly disappointed he'd spent so much time learning to compensate for something that hadn't happened. Probably spent a cumulative five years practicing his aim in uncontrollable winds.

There was the target. Just walking out the door as Jim had expected. He'd watched the target on video for years, over and over exiting the shop over the last couple of realtime days. Jim took aim, decisively, fired, and continued his flight over the target and down the street to a small open air duct. He tucked his arms in, boring as he'd done this so many times nothing about it could surprise him any longer.

Dutifully, he turned back to confirm the target was dead. It was unlikely, but possible, and he had accounted for that possibility. He would take one last flanking pass, and there was an alley he could duck into so as not to be seen.

When he looked back, the target was gone. Never in all his years of studying and preparing had he contemplated this possibility. At the very worst, the target should be running down the street at this...

"You're probably wondering where I went right about now." a voice said in his ear. A knife blade was pushed uncomfortably into the skin of his neck. "You're not the only one with access to powerful computers mate. I've spent over a century waiting for you. Now you're here, and I can do what I've been dreaming of for so long..."

The knife slid. Jim felt a tugging in his neck, and a slight pain. He suddenly noticed warm liquid was pouring down into his suit. He tried to cough, but something was wrong, it was very painful. The cough didn't sound right, a loud gurgling and sputtering. Blood spritzed onto his hands. He felt lightheaded, like he'd stood up too fast. Vision faded, thoughts became bubbly, fructim, magal mathanew... erremore, daa.

Light returned. He was back at his desk in the stark white room. The last of a headache from having his throat slit dried up like alcohol spilled on a counter. He took a deep breath. So, what if the target has computer time? It was a danger, and one he knew he needed a plan for.

The next thirty years were going to be a lot of work.

  • fiction

Recap

A whole earth exists, right near our own. It's a clear place, a logical place, everything right angles and sugar crystals. Everybody stands up straight, no slouching, they get in line quick. Nickels used over pennies, dollars over dimes.

If you go out, a clear theme emerges. Every house is a clean one, every car is unused. Never used, they don't leave the driveway. Don't touch it, you'll smudge the wax, I'll have to do it over again.

In the city, time is divided into thirteen clocks. Everyone knows thirteen clocks is better than twelve. Having a highly divisible number is confusing, a prime makes you think about what time it is. Each hour of the day is unique.

Nobody watches the clock though, they experience the world as they live in it. You'll find people stopped on the corner considering the wonder and majesty of the life they live. It's a common thought to think "this life is just so unlikely. I should be grateful".

Really, they really all think that from time to time, it's madness. They eat bread, but immediately follow it up by chewing a stick of mint gum. Exactly one stick, always mint. When the flavor is gone they trash it.

If you're stuck at an intersection and have forgotten where you're going, they have a solution for that. Just go a different way from the guy in front of you. He goes right, you go left. He goes left you go right. He goes straight, you turn right round and go back the way you came.

In this world of our world, that'll get you home. You needn't think about why, there's a mathematical identity that proves this process always terminates with you at home. It's been proven many times, no need to go over it now.

In this world its being is next to, but apart from, our world. Right there, they're standing next to you. They're bigger, taller people than you. They've got outstretched hands for helping those in need. They've got effervescent throats that refresh those who listen to them. They've got dark fur coats made from cruelty free denim, hand washed in a river by a woman who cried tears on them.

If you find yourself in this world, rejoice! Rejoice because like them, you've found yourself in an improbable place. Not much more or less improbable than our own. Slightly different perhaps. Maybe with a touch of gray where a sad pink exists in our world. Maybe with a wild blue where our cement is nearly monochrome white.

What to do in that world... Let me see.

  • fiction

Swamp

There I lay, on my back, eyes tickling with water half covering them. Washing in and out, blurring my vision, little islands of algae and dirt passing over my corneas. My ears, mostly submerged, every now and then peeking above the water line and I'd hear a gasping noise of the world above the puddle. When I opened my mouth, water rushed in. I could taste the putrid tang of the swampy muck in my mouth; tadpoles wriggling and fighting to escape. I breathed deeply, inhaling the water and the tadpoles in a raspy breath. Half air, half water. The tadpoles tickled as they fought to escape between the alveoli of my lungs. I lay still, fighting the nascent urge to cough out the water. I just let it sit there, right on the verge of a coughing fit, refusing to dignify it.

I could smell the tadpoles who had been unable to escape the shallower parts of the puddle. It was hot enough in the midday that they'd dried up, leaving thousands of them beached. They were rotting, their little bodies popping as their inner gasses expanded. It sounded like I lay in a huge bowl of Rice Crispies every time my ear canal breached the surface of the water. The smell nearly made me retch, but I held out.

Above me, the sky was gray with long heavy clouds. It was always just about to rain. The sun itself was an impotent pale disc. Just enough clouds in the way so that staring at it didn't hurt your eyes so much. The trees of the swamp reached above me, like bare black arms. Curling over me, as if futilely shielding me from the sky. But the sun was doing its work, even if slowed by the clouds. My skin was burnt, turning from pink to red as I cooked longer.

I lay in the shallow pool of dead or soon to be dead tadpoles, near the tall reeds in the swamp. And I thought about what had happened in the years before.

  • fiction

Stranger

The room was dark except for the buzzing of the harddrives in the computer. A blue glow envelopes the room. His blinds are open, revealing the city. A city he doesn't understand. A place so foreign to him, he never adapts to it, never becomes fully comfortable.

Freed from all constraints, he went here. No money to get, he just stays in most days, comes out when he needs food. He gets in the elevator, and heads down to the street below. There's a store nearby. It's cramped, filled with strange items.

He recognizes none of the foods, they're constantly changing. There's no pattern, no ability to get comfortable with any food. Each time he chooses something to eat, it's a bit of an adventure. Who knows what it will taste like? Each food, if asked about, has a long neverending history. The locals have eaten it for years, but he's never seen it before.

He never adapts. The city shifts on him as he lives in it. The places he discovers never re-appear. He's not a regular anywhere. There's nowhere to be a regular at.

It's not that the shops close and new ones open. He's just never able to find the same one again. Each time he enters a place, only strangers are ever there. Each time he goes somewhere, nothing is familiar. The menu is insane, but of course, the locals have been coming there for years.

He can never be a local. He can never get used to the city. If he memorizes a given path, he finds that there is some understandable ambiguity each time, and he never arrives at his intended destination. His phone has no software that works reliably. He's assured by the software that other cities have a complete and accurate map. Other cities can become known, but not this one.

He walks the streets for hours it seems, finding new stores to sift through, new diners to try, strange things to eat. Stores filled with people who all seem to know each other, but never recognize him. He's never met a person in the city twice. Long conversations late into the night, numbers and emails exchanged. Nothing ever comes of it. It's not that they're rude, it's just that they have things going on.

The non-repetitiveness itself becomes the pattern. The comforting invariant that puts his life in a framework. The mind craves order. Neverending novelty is a tough pill for a mind to swallow, but spend enough time in this city and his mind managed it.

He'd gotten used to not knowing how the subways were layed out. Asking a local was nearly always the way to go. "Where's deshtuk street?" "Oh, you're right there. Around the corner at the end" Of course. How could he have missed it? Wander the streets aimlessly for hours, and at the end you happen to be right around the corner from where you started from. A building he can't see from far off. A building he can never get comfortable with.

Never seeing the same neighbor twice.

  • fiction

Vegetable

Move your face.

Move your finger.

Move your ear.

Move your gut.

Nope. Nothing worked. He was as good as a human brick. Just useless and motionless. Laying here in the middle of Times Square with his car shattered next to him.

He'd flown through the windshield. He'd hit the ground, neck landing at a weird angle. He'd slid a few feet and come to rest near a fire hydrant.

No sirens were in the distance. Nobody was coming to take him to the hospital. He laid like that for hours, his flaming car eventually going out on its own.

Everything probably hurt real bad, but he couldn't feel it. Probably his clothes were warm with his own blood, but all he felt was cold.

He nodded off for a while, waking up again to the echo of someone laughing. It was late, probably three or four am. Nobody was walking around, not many cars on the road. The big televisions overhead flashed down at him. They couldn't see him either.

  • fiction

Marschweitzer Smithburg

It was sold as floss. Technically, it was made of carbon nanofibers that leaked hazardous radiation and microscopic silica that would corrode your lungs. Using it as floss would be a terribly deadly mistake. Floss that could kill you. Who would market such a thing?

Well it turned out, the Marschweitzer Smithburg Company would. Right next to their toxic lead baby shampoo and their skin whitening cream laden with asbestos. The MS Company was responsible for half of the "scapegoat poisons" market. Essentially, they were paid by other companies to put poisonous products on the shelves to make those companies look better.

"Oh we test on animals? Fucking boo-hoo, our competitors sell poison! We're the good guys here."

Of course, this could only come about because of the defunding of the FDA. At some point, purse tightening legislators aimed squarely at any federal regulation agencies. They claimed at the time that "The market will find a solution". Which was true of course. In the absence of regulation, customer outrage was the regulating agency. So, the market came up with a solution: create an outrage sink. Who could really spend time to worry about the cereal that had less iron in it than it ought when there was another cereal on the shelves that was literally deadly?

The Marschweitzer Smithburg company made a killing. Every company with a consumer product wanted to compete against them, so they had plenty of customers. Actual consumers rarely bought their products these days. At first they did, which resulted in a lot of deaths. But, when wave after wave of lawsuits failed, it became clear that MS products were here to stay, and people learned to avoid them

With no legal recourse, many angry family members of those killed by MS took to vigilante justice. Vigilante justice, of course, is just a security problem. One you can pay to be rid of. Paying for a private security army to protect the executives and product designers of the company just got rolled into the costs. The price of litigation was rolled into the costs. The cost of paying Marschweitzer Smithburg to create terrible deadly competing products was still cheaper than improving your own product. So, as any rational economic agent would do, they paid MS, and patted themselves on the back for a job well done.

Eventually, competitors to MS showed up in the market wanting a piece of the action. They promised ever more horrible, toxic and deadly products, for a fraction of the price MS would charge. They didn't need a protection budget quite as large because their executives worked over the internet anonymously. All of their supply chain was paid anonymously, through intermediaries. Digital obfuscation was much cheaper than protecting public figures around the clock.

MS saw these upstarts and began fretting about their monopoly. Their executives were already notorious, there was no way to go anonymous now and use the same tactics. So, it was decided to try to get the government to intervene. After generously donating to several campaigns, they were able to get a bill drafted that required purveyors of deadly goods to register their identities with a publically accessible database. This neatly side-stepped the problem. Unfortunately for Marschweitzer Smithburg and its executives, a rider was placed on that bill that re-funded the FDA.

The next year, the executives of Marschweitzer Smithburg were all in prison. And, since many inmates happened to have relatives killed by the company, it wasn't long before most of them had accidental slips in the shower, happening to result in broken necks. The company's profits dropped quickly, and it was bankrupt a mere twelve years later. In the meantime, it employed over 70 thousands workers and produced enormous investor value.

  • fiction

Friends

Light gleamed through the trees. Gleamed I guess. Maybe shone? Shone light grepped through the trees. Grabled, gabled. Gobbled up light.

The pit at the bottom of the forest. Charly's pit. Grain Godger's pit of filth and warnings. Signs all around. Skulls here, feral cats there. Touching snakes, half-eaten mammals of all kinds wandering around.

Grain Godger was alright to focus. The headache was crushing his brain in its socket, but he could see, which was a start. The filth all around was starting to come to his nostrils freely. Or rather, his nostrils were letting his brain in on what they'd been smelling all along. When the headache had more of a crushing grasp of his brain, it had choked off the signal from his nose.

Grain retched a little bit. What kind of a moloch hole had he dug himself into? A dark, filthy hole, with a ton of alcohol and some adrenaline. Booze and adrenaline don't mix well. Well, they mix well the night of. The next day, they fight you back, beat you up.

Jesus? How had he even gotten down here? Charly's pit was an awful hole in the middle of the forest at the edge of town. Sometimes kids came out to throw things in and hear them smash at the bottom. No one came to live here, goddammit. How long had it been? Two weeks? Two months?

It had been a while. He'd been in such a haze of alcohol and human hormones he hadn't ever stopped to think about what he was doing. This was a fine mess. He got up from his soiled floor mattress and began walking toward the door of the hut.

Then Godger saw something that made him shudder a bit. Looked like... a human femur. Bloody, sticking out of a pot.

Well alright, best case scenario, he'd made friends with someone with a gangrenous leg. They'd both decided it was time to amputate. Grain had helped him through the pain, helped him saw off his own leg. You know, and some rats, some rats or something got in here and kinda gnawed at the amputated leg. But his friend was ok. The gangrenous leg was gone, and he could survive.

Well, or Grain was a cannibal. Oop. What's that? Behind the pot. Oh, he shouldn't have looked at that. That was definitely a skull. A skull lends a lot more credence to the cannibal hypothesis.

Damn it.

  • fiction

Golgi Discussion #2

Richard: So what is it made of exactly?

Clark: We aren't... sure exactly. It has not been cooperative with our attempts to get a sample.

Richard: Not cooperative? You've had it here for a week, and it's just a big round ball of nastiness. How is it that you weren't able to get a sample?

Clark: You see that thing there that looks like a beak?

Richard: That there?

Clark: No, that. The little orifice with the sharp points.

Richard: Right ok. What about it?

Clark: That is sort of like a beak, but it's actually attached to something like a tentacle behind it. A prehensile tentacle, much like an octopus.

Richard: Alright, so you're saying a beak on a tentacle has prevented anyone from getting even a small cellular sample. I mean, just distract it and have someone come up behind.

Clark: Oh we've tried that. If we send in two people, one of them gets bitten, the other gets smacked by the tentacle before we can do anything. It's quite crafty with that thing. The Gogli has never actually injured anyone seriously, but it's come close to taking off a finger or two.

Richard: Ok, send in three people then.

Clark: Our attempts so far indicate it is being "nice" as long as we aren't too insistent. With one person, it will gently bat away our hands. With two people, it becomes a bit nippy. We sent in a robot once...

Richard: And?

Clark: It snipped the robot's arm off. Cleanly, surgically, and without hesitation.

Richard: Jesus.

Clark: Right. Now you see why we aren't trying to force its hand, or tentacle as the case may be. It knows exactly what it's doing. And I'd say it's a fair bet that it knows what we're trying to do.

Richard: Well, what do you know about it?

Clark: Ah! We know that the beak is made of some very dense metal, possible some kind of exotic metallic polymer.

Richard: How did you determine that?

Clark: The robot's arm was made of titanium coated in carbon fiber. It's designed to withstand explosions and the like, so we're fairly certain the beak is made of something much sturdier.

Richard: Wonderful. That's very useful information...

Clark: So what--

Richard: Have you been able to communicate with it?

Clark: --Oh sorry. No. All attempts at communication have failed. It doesn't seem to have any facility to intentionally emit sound. The only noise it makes is the occasional gurgling of its lubrication orifices.

We're ninety percent confident they are not attempts at speech. They seem to have no correlation with our efforts to communicate with it.

Richard: What's next?

Clark: We're having a specialized FMRI built that will be flown in next week. The Golgi is two meters in diameter, so no existing machines were useable for the task. This should allow us to get some idea of what's happening inside it without coming in range of that tentacle.

Richard: I guess that's something.

  • fiction
  • golgi

Golgi Discussion #1

Beth: It's possible this is the only one of its kind.

Ryan: How would that work? Doesn't natural selection cull the old?

Beth: Not necessarily. Natural selection is simply a description of what currently is alive. It doesn't actually care if you reproduce or have others of your kind, or how long you live.

Right now, we have a creature in front of us that is potentially millions of years old. However it got here, whatever path it took must not have killed it. And that is all natural selection needs to be satisfied. It's apparently so well adapted that it doesn't need offspring for there to be a copy of it here in front of us. We're getting a live performance by the original itself.

Ryan: But nothing on earth lives that long. If all you need to do to avoid being selected against is to live a long time, why don't we see that on earth? Isn't all this procreation stuff a lot of unnecessary work when you can sit back and just not die?

Beth: We don't see individual organisms that are millions of years old, but we see organisms that are certainly thousands of years old. Giant Sequoias live in a tiny region of the Sierras where they were still well adapted after the last ice age.

The reason that's the exception rather than the rule is that you have the odds working against you. The longer you're in exactly one place, the higher the chances you'll run into something that kills you. A forest fire that gets too hot, some lumberjack comes along.

If, like animals, you store your energy in a dense easily-accessible form... Well look out. You're a target for other animals who want that energy. And while you're locked into the same strategy you were born with, the predators are evolving. Over time, the advantage of being able to evolve trumps the survival advantage of just not dying.

With offspring, your genes can be in lots of places at once, instead of just one. Kind of like making backups. This helps your genes survive freak accidents. If your offspring can communicate with each other, they can even improve their overall odds of survival by coordinating. Effectively this is a large superorganism, designed to safeguard your genes.

From that perspective, the organisms we see on earth are millions or billions of years old. We could consider humanity an organism that has survived a very long time.

Ryan: So what does that mean for this creature?

Beth: It means this creature did all of that with no help. Somehow, it survived millions of years in the same body. It out-competed all offspring looking for the same resources. It survived all predators, all freak accidents, and apparently even the vacuum of space.

Ryan: How could it ever do that without evolving?

Beth: By being very, very smart.

  • fiction
  • golgi

Seasick

March threw up over the side of the boat. Behind him, Jild laughed and shook his head. They'd been drinking, but March had had too much, and now the tossing of the waves had gotten to him.

It had been months since they'd seen land. Nothing but a vast empty desert of water. Naturally, this meant drinking and horsing around among the crew.

Jild was their leader, but he didn't want to be their Captain. Horsham was the Captain, giving orders to raise and trim the sails, and when to clean the boat. Sometimes Jild would help them, but he did whatever he wanted. Horsham was Captain because Jild wanted him to be the Captain, not because of the iron law of the sea. Not because of the undying loyalty of the crew, but because someone had to give the orders.

Someone had to give the orders and Jild wanted to do what he wanted to do.

March wiped the remaining vomit from his mouth with the back of his arm. As he turned to walk back to the others, he remembered exactly how much he'd drunk. It was much harder to walk than he'd anticipated, so he paused a moment.

Jild was already back playing cards. Despite being older than dirt, Jild was only above average at cards. Clearly good, but he could be beat. Trevor was trying his luck. Even drunk, March could tell when Trevor was bluffing.

A few short steps later, March was back at the table. Intending to genially clap his hands onto Trevor's shoulders as he walked up, instead he misjudged his control again and half-slapped, half-grabbed Trevor to steady himself. Already high-strung from the strain of putting on a bluff, Trevor yelped in surprise and jumped up, knocking over the barrel they'd been playing on.

This sent Jild into a fit of laughter. Deep belly laughs as he bent over, stamping his foot. Other men were laughing as well, but Jild was the one howling. March and Trevor had an uneasy time being shipmates, never having seen glint to gleam before. What might have been a tense moment with harsh words if they'd been alone... Well, instead it was like Jild's howls of laughter washed the tension from off their bodies.

March's shame at having heaved, slid down the deck, as Jild's laughter hosed him off. Trevor's fear of being caught out bluffing, his flash of surprise at being pounced upon felt like it just evaporated. The two of them laughed. The two of them and Jild laughed. The two of them and Jild and the ship laughed together. They laughed and laughed, the sound echoing over the water. Out into the vast black of the night over the calm waters.

They were a crew, and Jild was their leader. They were of one body and Jild was of another. Standing ten feet tall, born from the immortal sky, the boat strained to contain his life.

  • fiction
  • Jild

Goblin

There was an unspoken rule that you didn't want to interact with the goblins in the woods. Whoever had made this world had plopped a few goblins down in it, and all they did was cause chaos. There weren't a lot of them, and while they were obviously intelligent, whatever culture the species had had on its home world had been left behind. In practice this meant the goblins were crude, savage, even bloodthirsty at times.

They would set up traps for humans who came too close to their territory. Sometimes they would delight in torturing those they caught, even sending them back scarred and broken as a warning. Other times death would come swiftly, the goblins deciding some particular human would taste good filetted and fried.

Not much was known about them in fact. They seemed to have some kind of basic language, the ability to coordinate, pass on skills in trap making. But they never developed farming or domestication like humans, and their numbers were always small. The humans, for their part, were happy to leave the goblins alone. It was just known that the wilderness was full of dark terrifying things, that were best not interacted with.

Every now and then some particularly stupid (usually young) human would decide it was a good idea to try to kill a goblin. This was always a terrible mistake. Goblins were much less coordinated than a human tribe, but individually they were much smarter than an average human. In addition, they had the strength of several adult men. Combined with a territory infested with cruel traps of all description and it was clear attempting to kill a goblin was suicide.

Over time, the humans would slowly encroach on the dark forests where the goblins lived. More land was needed to farm for the growing human population. For all their natural advantages, Goblins simply didn't breed quickly, and tended to live much longer lives than humans. Sometimes hundreds of years. Perhaps on their home world, the goblins had time to build up a culture that stood the test of time, but on earth that was not a luxury they had. Individually outmatched by goblins, en masse humans were far superior. There was precisely one war between humans and goblins, and it lasted all of a week.

In the end, their bodies weren't even preserved for posterity. There was no one to say "Goblins once existed. We know this. Here are their bones. Here are the tools they used to dig up moles. Here are the rope traps they used to kill our ancestors. Here are the words we heard them use. Here are the beads they used to tie into their hair. Here are the rough beginnings of the culture they were to build if we'd given them the chance."

But at the the humans killed the goblins, writing did not yet exist. Stories were passed on, but no records were kept. Only their name remains, passed down from prehistory. Goblin.

One day, when your children reach the stars, they may find the world of the goblins. A culture thousands of millenia old, slowly grown like the gnarled roots of a sequoia. Represented on Earth only by a few stolen infants who grew up without knowing the heritage they'd been born into. Forced to grow that tree again from a seedling, but not given nearly enough sunlight or water.

  • fiction

Wexler

Drifting slowly, Wexler attempted to pull the strap of his bag from where it had twisted up. Every few moments a flash of light from the port side of the ship would blind him, but he'd be immediately blind afterward. The light didn't diffuse much in the vacuum, it was either hitting your eye straight from the source, or it was missing your eye.

It was cold, but that wasn't what he minded. He minded the way he couldn't stop himself from spinning. The last two days he'd bee spinning in place, twenty feet from the barge, but without any way of reaching it. There was air left for a week, enough to think of a plan, maybe enough for Jilly to notice he was missing and come rescue him.

Or, you know, this could be it. Maybe a seemingly inconsequential mistake during a task he'd performed thousands of times would be the end of him. There was no beacon, there were no distress calls, he'd stormed out of the desk in a huff so no one expected him back soon. Jilly was mad at him, maybe she would decide to let him cool off before trying to find him.

Well, he'd definitely cooled off. The light flashed again as he made another rotation. Perhaps he could define his own days, once every time around. Instead of dying in a week of asphyxiation and dehydration, he could take hundreds of Wexler years to die.

He should stop messing around though. It really was time to think about death now. Seriously. Instead of ducking the issue, or waiting for another time. There was literally nothing else to do. It was as if the universe had pulled him away from everything that could possibly distract him so he could focus on this one final thing.

The light flashed.

What was death? It was the absence of life. His cells could die, and he might be alive still. Parts of his brain could go, but he could still be alive. His heart could stop for a while, but irreparable brain damage seemed to be the real dividing line between life and death.

Of course, that couldn't be it. Trees don't have brains and they still died. Maybe it was a more complicated definition. A complex interacting system whose chain reaction loop stopped functioning. Was a drinking bird that had tipped over dead then? Truly dead, and not just figuratively?

Maybe dead wasn't a thing at all. Life is a continuum. Life is separated from non-life by the bearest of threads. Energy consuming, pattern replicating molecules.

The light flashed.

In all the universe, life had only ever arisen on one planet. One place. One initial replicator had kickstarted natural selection. His 10^100th great grandfather. In all the universe that replicator had only ever arisen once. Taking molecules from the environment, bending them into copies of himself. His grandfather had been dumb, but ingenious. His grandfather had inevitably died. Despite being alive by only the barest margin. By definition, the simplest thing that could be considered alive, somehow, he had still died.

It was true, that grandfather had produced offspring who lived. Whether any of his proto-genetic code still remained in Wexler, it could never be known. Whether Wexler had any of that tenacity in himself, tenacity to be alive. Imagine that hubris. Imagine the hubris of a molecule, once in the entire universe, who decided he wanted to be alive.

There was energy to consume! There were descendents to create! Descendents who would unfurl like the tentacles of a fractal octopus, extending out into time and space into the distant future. Linked by an unbroken chain of replications, all the way back to those impoverished beginnings. Beings of all manner of description, coating the earth in green pillowy leaves, slimy molds, stinking carcasses, swarms of insects, bark of trees, feathered birds, hard-shelled molusks, hairy fleshy warm blooded creatures who secreted thick white liquids to their replications. Like a kaleidoscope, the nature of these creatures were reflections of each other, of that shared genetic lineage criss-crossing its way through eternity. From a universe that was quite content to be unobserved for its entire life. The universe who would never care that nothing had arisen to observe it before all of its matter accelerated away from each other and protons decayed and entropy won the final battle.

Even if Wexler weren't going to die here, spinning twenty yards from his barge, the entropy would get him eventually. The universe would expand, and no matter how many molecules his metabolic system used to patch up the constant decay and damage, ultimately his atoms would drift apart, never interacting significantly again. One day, the very fabric of the universe would put his atoms so far away from each other, the speed of light would be too slow for them ever to send a message to one another. One day, the very notion that atoms ever interacted with each other would seem like a fevered hallucination. Ha! Molecules you say? Replicators? Life? A galaxy spanning hegemony? A species of unimaginable power and intelligence? What a waste of time! It's all going to drift apart! Didn't anyone ever tell them?

Why did the universe wake up? Why did that replicator play such a cruel trick, giving us a glimpse of ourselves, of what we were, before pulling us apart and silencing us in the infinite vast darkness.

The light flashed.

Wexler tried to sleep. He pulled his head back, stretching his weary body. The spinning kept him up. But it also kept him thinking. Spinning in the darkness.

  • fiction

Yah-hey

Maso walked into the wasteland again for the third time that week. The animals had been getting out of their pen and he needed to find the gluster cow that hadn't come in with the rest of the herd. If he didn't hurry he'd no doubt find an eviscerated corpse after the Glaivers found it.

He could feel the heat of the sun on his neck, cooking him alive. The heat was brutal in the middle of the day in the desert. There was nothing for miles except ruined husks of settlements from the times before. Big rock and metal skeletons that had been picked over by vultures for years. If the cow found its way into one of those there was no doubt he'd find it dead or maimed with a broken leg. Those places were treacherous and full of pits and holes that the stupid glusters had a special knack for finding their way into.

Fortunately, the cow had left tracks that Maso could follow for a ways. Inevitably the the wind swept away the tracks as he followed them, and they disappeared into the desert. But he had his direction now. The cow had headed towards the mountains. He would catch up with it long before it ever made it there, so his luck had stayed with him in some small way.

A short time later he passed by a metal skeleton that still had pieces of transparent rock jutting out in jagged shards from its frame. He'd seen this substance before, but it wasn't common. It had all been picked away from the skeletons in ages past. If he could pry a bit of it out, he could probably trade it for some new waterskins. But after a moment of consideration he decided against it. Losing the cow would cost him dearly, more dearly than a few waterskins could make up for.

Maso had come to this place when he'd been driven from his home. The village he'd grown up in had been destroyed by the Sistern. The buildings in the village had been set aflame, those who tried to flee were slaughtered by the laughing crows. Those who stayed were raped and enslaved. Maso had served his current master since that time, tending the animals and ensuring their safety. His master had been kind, giving him plenty of food and letting him roam freely in his tending to the animals. But that trust only extended so far. If he failed to bring back this gluster, the consequences would be dire.

As he neared the mountains, the sun sunk lower in the sky, nearing the crest of the mountain ridge. In the twilight Maso could make out a campfire in the distance. Normally he'd stay away from anyone wandering in the wastes. Strangers were as likely to be cannibals or thieves as harmless traders. It was better to give them a wide berth. But in his current situation he couldn't afford the extra time to take the long way around this traveler. The longer he took, the greater the risk the cow would be dead when he got to it. He gripped the staff in his hands tightly. If he had to, he could fight. But he hoped it didn't come to that.

The fire grew in his vision, and Maso began to see that it wasn't a campfire. It was a tree. A tree that was burning in the middle of the desert. There was no water here. There was no way a tree could be growing here. There was no way a tree could be burning continuously for the hour since he'd first seen it. Maso continued towards the tree, and could see no one near it. This was unlike anything he'd ever seen.

Why wasn't this tree burning up? His curiosity overshadowed his concern for the escaped cow and he approached the tree slowly. The tree was of a kind Maso had never before seen in his life. It had a thick trunk, with deep knobby bark. No trees in the desert had bark like that. The tree had bright green leaves that seemed more numerous than stars in the night sky. And they were on fire! Every one of them burned but did not burn up: not one leaf curled up in the heat.

As Maso got closer, a voice came booming forth from the tree: "Maso! Maso!"

Stunned, Maso answered without thinking, "Yes?"

"Don't come any closer." the voice commanded. "Take off your shoes. The place where you are standing is holy ground."

Maso obeyed without a word, placing his shoes on the ground next to him.

"I am the God of your fathers. I am the forgotten God that the mightiest rulers in the world once worshipped, but whose name has been forgotten."

Maso couldn't speak, frozen in place by terror and awe.

"I have chosen you Maso. I have seen how you have suffered Maso. I know what has become of your family and your people, and I want to help you."

Maso stuttered, "What are you? Who... Who are you?"

There was silence.

The voice whispered in his ear: "I am that I am."

"Long ago my worshippers covered every corner of the world. But man forgot about me. As the ages passed, my name was forgotten by all but the most loyal. The loyal died with my name in their hearts, never to be spoken again.

I will never tell my name to men again, but I will make a new covenant with you. I will give you the power to free your people from their slavery. I will give you the power to drive back the darkness that the vile Glaivers have brought to this land. I will give this land to you and your people, and it will grow lush with vegetation and fat with livestock."

Maso stifled a laugh. Who was this voice from this burning tree in the middle of the desert? How could the desert ever become fertile with plants?

"Why do you laugh? Do you doubt me?" the voiced boomed angrily.

"No. Of course not." Maso couldn't restrain his words, they flowed out of him as if they weren't his own. "Who am I to challenge you? I am nothing."

"What is that in your hand?" the voice asked.

"This... is my staff." Maso replied, perplexed.

"Throw it on the ground." the voice commanded.

Maso did as the voice asked. Immediately it became a snake. Maso shrieked and jumped back. The snake became a his staff again.

"Nothing is too hard for me. If I say this desert will be fertile, it will be fertile."

How had this "god" known his thoughts? He hadn't spoken out loud, but the voice had replied as if he had. What was a god? What powers did this god have?

"I created this world. I created man to serve me. You will bring me a sacrifice to prove your loyalty to me." the voice stated.

The sun was setting over the mountains, and Maso realized the gluster cow was there. On the other side of the tree, looking straight at him.

"What do I need to do?" Maso asked, fearing the answer.

"Take this gluster cow, slaughter it, and burn it as an offering to me."

A shiver rippled through Maso's body. He couldn't do this.

"WHO DO YOU FEAR MORE? YOUR MASTER OR ME?" the voice blasted, its breath hot on his face, the flames burning brightly as it demanded an answer from him.

There was no question, Maso feared this creature more than anything he'd ever feared in his life.

  • fiction

Ruby, Python and JavaScript Monkeypatching

I'd say one of the biggest differences between dynamic languages and static languages is the ability to dynamically redefine the properties of an object at runtime. Static languages can do this in the form of hash tables etc, so it isn't a difference in ability, it's a difference in practice, because as we know static languages don't use hash tables for every data structure. Python, Ruby, and JavaScript do (with some exceptions and caveats of course).

The upshot of this ubiquitous hash table usage is that just about anything can be modified. In these languages a class is just an object and an object is just a hash table, so classes can grow new methods just about any time. Similarly, modules and global objects can grow new capabilities at will. The practice of modifying these global objects at runtime is called, aptly enough "monkeypatching".

Just because monkeypatching is possible, doesn't mean it's always a good idea. It can be very hard to manage complexity when every module you import or method you run has the capability to modify how everything works. This is the same kind of objection to global variables: with great power comes great responsibility. Don't just monkeypatch for the heck of it.

While each of the 3 titular languages has the capability of monkeypatching, each culturally has a different take on it:

Python

Python shuns monkey patching in the normal course of programming. Don't modify other people's objects, don't modify other modules at runtime. Due to a quirk of CPython's root object (object) being implemented in C, it's not a target for monkeypatching, which reduces the temptation somewhat. There's no way to add a method or attribute to every existing object.

When testing however, monkeypatching becomes very convenient. The py.test testing framework, for instance, has a monkeypatch fixture that allows one to monkeypatch a module or class before a test, and return it to its original state after the test. Very convenient.

Aside from testing however, Python is the strictest about allowing monkeypatching. Even backports of libraries etc are done by distributing them in a separately imported module, rather than providing "polyfills". The fact that the practice is completely possible, but almost never used by experienced Python programmers is a testament to how much "culture" factors into the end result with a dynamic language.

Addendum: gevent is probably the largest exception to the "no monkeypatching" rule for Python. It uses monkeypatching to intercept nearly all I/O calls and to allow them to be put into a non-blocking IO loop. This is so convenient, even the Python community has begrudgingly accepted it. However, the inherent distaste for monkeypatching has led to the development of several async alternatives for Python like tornado, and asyncio which make asychronous I/O explicit. And, as someone mentions each time it's brought up, even gevent can be used without monkeypatching.

JavaScript

JavaScript culture is somewhat less strict than Python's when it comes to monkeypatching. It is used in day-to-day development, but never "just because". The primary reason monkeypatching is used in JavaScript is to provide backwards compatibility. You only patch a global object like Math or Array when you are exactly replicating the api of a new addition to the ECMAScript standard that you'd like to use in your code, but can't rely on all browsers having available.

The Prototype framework is a major exception to this. It monkeypatches all DOM elements to provide an array of new capabilities. This strategy fell out of favor, however, and was replaced by the technique (used by JQuery and underscore.js) of wrapping native DOM objects to provide more capabilities, rather than injecting them. Even Prototype is now planning on moving away from monkeypatching DOM objects in this way.

While JavaScript has a much less widespread sense of idiomatic usage than Python, its community still managed to find an safe balance to decide when to use monkeypatching. After all, if you're replicating a standard API, the risk is only that some other module will inject its own version of that same API. It's much less likely that someone will have implemented entirely different functionality.

Ruby

Finally, we come to Ruby, whose community has wholeheartedly embraced the wild world of monkeypatching in the normal course of development. This usage goes right to the core language libraries. For instance, importing the Set module monkeypatches the Array class with a .to_set method. In addition, class definitions are "open" in Ruby. You can always add new methods and attributes to a class in whatever module you want by using normal class definition syntax.

While there is some rhetoric out there in the Ruby community that monkeypatching should be done with great care, in practice it seems that it's done whenever it's convenient. Likewise, in practice it seems Ruby developers aren't bothered by the occasional name collision. If you test your code well, you can find the problems and avoid trouble. And the plethora of methods added by all sorts of libraries makes coding very concise.

The Ruby community has taken the "embrace the chaos" idea an run with it, and it seems they're able to manage just fine. Perhaps the hand-wringing about monkeypatching in other language communities is unwarranted. Or perhaps it exacts a cost, but it's one that is more than paid for by the convenience provided by ubiquitous monkeypatching. In either case, it's unlikely to vanish from Ruby any time soon.

What I'd like to see

Personally, my background is in Python development, so I lean a bit more towards that end of the spectrum in my opinion of monkeypatching. But, it's hard to take such a hard-line view when you see the extremely elegant and concise code that comes from Ruby objects being stuffed full of useful methods from every object that comes along.

What I think could be useful is a kind of "scoped" monkeypatching, to control who gets the patched behavior and who doesn't.

Consider this example:

module MyModule

  require 'Set'

  [1,2,3].to_set # works!

end

module OtherModule

  [1,2,3].to_set # method missing!

end

In this way, you could get the benefits of monkeypatching, without causing problems for libraries you import that have no idea what you're going to add to their objects. This is a lot like inheritance, and could probably be implemented as syntactic sugar for inheritance. But it's a pattern I do think could be used to strike a balance effectively.

  • coding