Nostalgia, Toys, and Making Connections in a Small World

Much has been said of how the Internet has made the world smaller and more connected. So often in fact, it has now become cliche to comment on it at all. But occasionally one gets reminded of it in such a strong way, you can’t help but shake your head in disbelief …and just a touch of wonder.

Let’s go back to 1980. There’s a small boy, nine years old, sitting on the floor of his family’s living room staring with quiet intensity at what’s before him. We notice he’s small for his age, both in height and in weight (not quite at the point where he disappears if he turns sideways, but it’s a near thing). He has large blue eyes, a mop of dark blonde hair, and a head that is quite a bit larger than the rest of him. He’s been sitting where he is for about two hours, quietly doing what makes him happiest — building.

He has a Millennium Falcon and a X-Wing nearby, along with the requisite action figures. But he’s not playing with those right now. Instead he’s building an Imperial prison. Then he’s building a Rebel base. Now it’s another spacecraft, but one never dreamed of by the masters of model building and practical effects employed by George Lucas. This isn’t LEGO, ruled by right angles or poor stepped approximations of diagonals. This is something infinitely more flexible. It’s a construction set called “Ramagon” and it inspired that young boy like no other toy before or since.

Vintage-1979-Toy-RAMAGON-2000-Construction-System

It also doesn’t exist anymore. Out of production for years now, I had even forgotten the name of it for awhile.

As you might guess, that boy was me, and that Ramagon construction set was, without a doubt, my favorite toy ever. It had a unique hub and strut building system that allowed you to make beautiful and strange creations that not only were large, but looked like the very definition of “the future,” circa 1979. While you could still make right angles, you could actually make connections in twenty-six separate directions off a single piece. While the structures you built looked and felt lightweight, they were substantial and sturdy.

It was not only a fascinating toy to build with just for the sake of building, it was the perfect way to build things that you could use with other toys and action figures. With triangular and square panels, you could create platforms and give your creations heft and solidity. Without the panels you could create airy, skeletal constructions that looked very similar to the plans for a space station that NASA had been planning at the time. I built elaborate worlds for my Star Wars toys. I built towers taller than I was. But the most fun I had was just building really complex geometrical shapes and seeing what I could do with them.

Ramagon  Micro base

I got older of course, and my Ramagon set eventually disappeared – probably in some charity donation. But I played with that set for a good six or seven years. Looking back later I realized that it hadn’t been just a toy used for entertainment, but something that helped me learn problem-solving and spatial visualization. I learned how to break big problems down into smaller pieces. I learned to balance having a plan with spontaneity and imagination. And while I love LEGO too, just connecting one brick to another isn’t very exciting – the building process with LEGO felt like a grind, the focus being on what you were building more than how you built it. Ramagon on the other hand opened up a whole world of possibility — not only allowing you to think about making connections in all directions, but encouraging it.

Flashing forward a number of years, and I now had two children of my own and I wanted to give my kids the same toy I’d had and more importantly the same experience I’d had. The first hurdle was one I’m ashamed to admit: while the toy had stayed fresh in my memories, the name of it was something I’d forgotten decades and decades ago. I did a lot of web searches for “1980s construction toy” and looked at a lot of pictures. I even searched for “1970s construction toy” as, with a child’s self-centeredness, I had no idea how long it had existed before I got mine.

Finally I had my eureka moment and found references and pictures on some sites that listed older toys. It was… Ramagon. Honestly, how I forgot a name like that I’ll never know. And to be fair, the Ramagon pieces were never emblazoned with a brand name the same way way LEGO pieces are.

Well, now I had a name but my jubilation was short lived. Turns out that by the time my kids were old enough to play with them and I went looking for them, they had been discontinued. I was crushed. As a parent, we all tend to want our children to be introduced to the things we loved best from our own childhoods and it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to do that. This was especially discouraging as I thought that Ramagon was the ultimate building toy that could be enjoyed by both my son and my daughter. Especially as both of them have tons of LEGO, and the later Ramagon sets had added panels that allowed kids to integrate their creations with LEGO bricks. I knew they’d love the possibilities it represented. It was frustrating knowing the perfect toy existed at one point but now was effectively gone.

I’d occasionally look for people selling Ramagon sets and would find some outrageously priced sets on eBay, sigh dramatically, and go about my business. My kids continued to get more and more LEGO sets and other construction toys and I continued to comment “Those are cool, but back in my day, I had the perfect building set…” They would roll their eyes and go back to what they were doing.

In the second half of last year I started wondering about where Ramagon came from. Who had invented it? It’s funny – so many commercial toys are completely divorced in the public mind from the person who invented them. Big toy companies don’t have much interest in promoting creative talent the same way tech companies do (obvious break-out hits like Rubik’s Cube being the exception). But I had a feeling that it would be possible to identify a single individual as the inventor – the set, its history, and everything I’d found out so far made me feel like this was someone’s passion, not the result of corporate focus groups and demographic targeting.

I’d already learned that it was never a toy in the same league as LEGO or Erector (or the later K’NEX) in terms of popularity and I would get met with blank stares and shrugs whenever I told people about it. After a consulting job that had me researching various patents, I decided to try looking through registered patents to see if I could find the person who had created, in essence, some of the happiest moments of my childhood.

US4129975-1Thanks to the Internet and specifically Google, searching patents is much easier than it used to be. That said, trying to find a patent without knowing the inventor or even the company that originally manufactured it (I knew the license for the toys changed hands over the years), is very difficult. Especially as the Ramagon name itself likely wasn’t even going to be mentioned in the patent (though later patents for similar toys did mention the toy by name). After much searching and looking at crazy toy designs (most of which were probably never sold anywhere) I found one: U.S. Patent 4129975 A. Inventor: Richard J. Gabriel.

So Mr. Gabriel invented the toy I still thought about all these years later. My question was answered, but I didn’t know what to do with that information. However, as I sometimes do, I drafted a letter in my head, thanking Mr. Gabriel for having created something that meant so much to a quiet, shy kid who found a way to express himself by building what he saw in his imagination. I was sure it was a letter that would never be sent. How could I even find him to send it? Would he even care? Was he even still alive?

And once again we come back to the point I made at the beginning – the world is smaller than it used to be. I grew up at the end of the era of three TV networks and rotary phones, and while I’m frequently an early adopter of new technologies, I can’t say that my thinking isn’t a little colored by a worldview now several decades out of date.

I went ahead and searched using Mr. Gabriel’s name and the word “Ramagon.” I found quite a few hits, mostly the meta cruft that is often associated with business listings. Lots of information, but none of it especially useful. I paged through more results, and finally… unbelievably… I found not just a website, but his website. Fittingly, he’s been an architect for more than 25 years, and there on his website was his email address.

I typed out basically what I’d already drafted in my head and sent him an email, not really expecting anything, but just wanting more than anything to say “Thank you.” That same day I received a reply from his wife Ann letting me know he’d get back to me in a couple of days. I was astounded.

Richard (and his wife Ann) wrote back and thus began a correspondence we’ve sporadically maintained in the midst of busy schedules. Richard and Ann have led fascinating lives, and I’ve loved hearing about what they’ve done and what they have planned. I even managed to provide a little help to them involving web design and online marketing. It was literally the least I could do in return for what I’d already received from Richard. I consider myself lucky to now count Richard and Ann as friends.

This had all started with the itch of unsatisfied nostalgia. I had gone looking for an old toy, and by extension, my childhood. I wanted to find a way to express appreciation for something that gave me so much joy as a child. I found so much more than that.

I found a link to my past that gave me a new perspective. I found new friends it felt like I had known for years. And thanks to the unbelievable generosity of Richard and Ann, I found something else too. In the mail this week, I received the following:

image2(1) image1(3)

Richard had, at my request, even signed the boxes for me. And with that, I was finally able to pass along to my children that idolized toy from my childhood. And along with it, a connection to a world that is both smaller and more amazing than the world I lived in some thirty-five years ago.

From the moment I pulled the sets out of the box they were shipped in, my kids’ eyes lit up. There were appreciative oohs and ahhs from both of them. My oldest, who just turned 13 and who has begun to have a pretty good idea of the value of such things, commented “It almost seems a shame to open them up.” I answered back “It would be a bigger shame not to.” And with that, we set about building.

I may have bogarted the toys a bit at the beginning. The pieces felt comfortably familiar in my hands. The click as pieces came together providing the same satisfying completeness that it had so many years ago. We built a spaceship. We built a Martian base. We built.

FullSizeRender IMG_4357

This isn’t a story about nostalgia, or toys, or being an uber geek about something (though it obviously includes all those things). For me, this experience has been about the sort of connections possible in the small, connected world we live in, and the connections that exist within ourselves. How those connections can go off at any angle but that together, they can make something beautiful, strange, and the very definition of “the future.” It’s been about how when things click together just right, it provides a sense of completion.

And I hope for Richard that this is a story about how if you build with passion and creativity, as he did, what you built will last far longer than you could have dreamed.

I want to once again express my heartfelt thanks and deepest appreciation to Richard and Ann. Nine times out of ten, or maybe even ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if someone in a similar situation had received my email, assuming they even read it, they’d likely just smile and move on. I think it says something that they didn’t. Maybe with all their experiences across the globe, they realize that while it may be a small world, it’s full of large stories and the greatest fun comes either from making your own or from being a part of as many of them as you can.

Inauthentic but genuine: my take on a recipe for chili powder

Introduction

(if you are not interested in the how’s and why’s, you can just jump to the recipe.)chili powder

My parents are from out west and so I grew up eating home-cooked Mexican food. Now with a family of my own, we often do the same — with some differences of course. I’m much more likely to do some research and try to create more authentic dishes than my parents and of course now there is a general focus on fresh, quality ingredients. Back in the ’70s? Not so much.

Surprisingly though, “authentic” had very little to do with me creating my own chili powder. My first discovery on researching this was that chili powder, like so many “Mexican” dishes in the U.S. has nothing to do with Mexican cuisine. While there are various accounts about who invented it, and I think the best claim for inventing what most of us use goes to one Willie Gebhardt. If you read through that article, you’ll see that chili powder was basically the invention of an German immigrant to America looking for a way to preserve chilies.

First, chili was only a seasonal food during the late 1800s as fresh chilies were not available during the fall and winter months. Moreover, no known method for keeping chilies fresh existed at the time. Although dried chilies were known, they were mostly reconstituted with hot water and then diced and served in the chili. However, their texture was tough and they lost much of their flavor. Fresh chilies were preferred. Willie discovered that if he dried his chili peppers and ground them into a flavoring powder, he could keep the concoction fresh for months at a time.

And so chili powder was born. The current commercial process used to create it is, from what I’ve been able to discover, basically the same – the dried chilies and spices are soaked in a combination of water and alcohol, the liquid is expelled/drained and the cakes of spice mixture are then dried at around 125° F. Now, I’ve made a bit of an amateur study of herbs and the preservation of them (drying, extracts, etc.) and I know that if you’re trying to preserve as much of the original flavor as possible, you don’t soak plant-based materials in liquid, remove the liquid, and then subject it to more heat. What’s left over has as much in common with unprocessed dried chilies as an old tea bag has with unused loose tea. So I set about to see if I could make something better.

It should be noted that, according to some websites, the U.S. government has standards for the labeling of what can be sold as chili powder. Unfortunately, with the many reports of lead and salmonella contamination of commercial chili powders, I don’t think that makes me feel any safer. One of my goals in this was to use as many whole, unprocessed ingredients as possible, as that’s honestly the best way to avoid many contamination issues. Can spices, even whole ones, still contain bad stuff? You bet. But I try to buy from trustworthy sources and I know nothing I do in the processing of these ingredients is going to introduce something I don’t want.

In addition to the above reasons, there were a few other factors that served as inspiration for this recipe.

  1. I wanted a lot of flavor and not crazy amounts of heat. This was both to make this as general purpose as possible and to meet the needs of several “baby-mouths” in my family. If you want more heat, you can either use different peppers or just add however much cayenne powder you wish. But the focus of this is really to create layers of flavor.
  2. I’m not a huge fan of Indian cuisine, but I love the culture that’s built up around it – particularly the masala. These spice mixtures, while sold here in the U.S. in bland plastic containers with words like “Authentic!” printed on it, are in India all different based on geography and family. The preparation and ingredients are matters of familial, ethnic, and regional identity and in chili powder, I saw the opportunity to create essentially the North American version of that. So experiment with what I have outlined below and make it your own.
  3. In that same spirit, I’ve outlined a “base” recipe and then highlight some additional ingredients and preparation steps that you can look at – either to do yourself, or perhaps give you ideas of your own.

JB’s Chili Powder

Ingredients

Where possible, I’ve linked to my usual sources for ingredients, but please feel free to buy from wherever you want. Also, be aware that when I make this, it’s usually a batch four times as big, so some of my sources are geared to much larger amounts than called for in this recipe.

Do me this favor: do not buy spices from the supermarket. Even with whole spices, sitting forever on shelves under bright fluorescents in clear bottles is not a good thing. If you have access to a Latin market, try there as there will be enough turnover to help ensure some sort of freshness — otherwise, the Internet is your friend.

Chilieschilies

Lightly roast the chiles over lowish heat, being careful not to burn them. The ancho in particular may require a little bit longer. You’re trying to bake as much of the moisture out of them as possible (yes, dried chilies can and do still have moisture in them). What I often do is after grilling dinner, when the coals have burned down a bit, I’ll stick the chilies in — making sure that they are only receiving indirect heat. If you have some wood chips or there was already wood chunks on the coals, all the better in my opinion. Of course, if you hate fire and fun, all of this can be done in an oven too (but not the microwave for goodness’ sake!).

How you do you know when they’re done? Well, this is one of the other ways my recipe goes off the beaten path. Google “DIY chili powder” and almost all of them will tell you to remove the stem and seeds before you roast them. I, of course, laugh at convention – and with good reason. By keeping the stem and seeds, you have essentially a deflated balloon. When the pepper is placed on the heat, the air and water that is left inside starts expanding and re-inflating the pepper. You can see exactly what I mean in this video:

Ideally, slow roast the peppers (with smoke added if you wish) at about 250° F for about 5 minutes and then find a little bit of direct heat right over the coals (or in a skillet on high if doing this the not-fun, no-fire way) and keep turning them until they start to inflate and remove them before there’s any burning. Seriously – these are for the most part mild peppers, but you do not want to breath in smoke from burning chilies. BAD IDEA.

When done, the chilies will have softened to an almost leather-like consistency. Remove from heat and layout in a thin layer on a cookie sheet or cooling rack to cool down. As soon as they are safe to touch, remove the stem and split open to remove seeds BUT FIRST, get some gloves.

Remember, you’re not just touching peppers as you would when cutting fresh ones, you’re digging around, pulling off stems and removing seeds. Even with relatively mild peppers like these, your day will go very quickly south if you touch anywhere on your body with hands covered in chili oil. You’ve been warned! Oh, and if using the chipotle peppers, get to them as soon as you can. As they have already been roasted and smoked, when they cool off, they’ll basically be as hard as rocks. At the very least, get them de-stemmed and split in half as soon as you can – the seeds can come out after they’ve cooled more if necessary.

If you want more heat in the final chili powder, I suggest going with hotter peppers but still taking the seeds out – yes that is where the heat is, but ground up in a powder (if you can get them ground up at all) it adds an unpleasant bitterness.

For now, hold off on grinding the  peppers — we’re going to get a little help with that first. But do check to see if there are any that aren’t quite crisp all the way around yet and finish them off in a toaster oven or on the stove top. We need them as crispy as possible without actually being burnt.

Spice mix and preparationcumin

As the peppers are completed, put them aside and then assemble the following:
(and yes – these are, unless otherwise specified, all by weight, not by volume – trust me, this works much better)

Possible additions (I actually use all of these)

Before the next step, I advise toasting the cumin seeds and then, along with the sea salt and the cacao nibs, run them through the food processor, a separate small spice grinder, or a mortar and pestle (if you have one …which you totally should). Otherwise they may be a little too chunky to break down.

Bringing it all together

Now, some people use dedicated spice grinders for this and ol’ Willie Gebhardt used a coffee grinder for his, but I prefer the food processor. Most spice grinders are too small for this type of application and electric coffee grinders (yes, even the nice burr ones) tend to overheat oil-rich items (especially sticky, soft, dried peppers), imparting a scorched taste to the finished product. The food processor with its big chopping blade and ample space will work much better.

So go ahead and put your de-stemmed and de-seeded peppers in the food processor, and start pulsing the blade. After a few pulses, add about half the spice mixture above and pulse on and off for about 30 seconds. Now add the rest of the spice mixture and continue pulsing for another 30 to 60 seconds until the mixture is as fine a powder as it will get and well mixed. The idea is that the spices themselves will help break down the chilies.

Now you can go ahead and stop there if you wish, but if you want to help make sure the powder is as fine as possible, what I do is put it, in small batches, through a strainer-sifter. Take whatever is left that didn’t go through the sifter and run it through the food processor again (or a smaller spice grinder or a mortar and pestle if you have one …which you totally should). You’ll likely always end up with a few larger flakes rather than a perfectly uniform powder, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The main thing is to make sure all the seeds have been removed, as well as possible, at each step.

Storage

So we’ve completed this Herculean task of making our own chili powder! Yay! Go us! Now put it in your cupboard and be happy! Wait…

Your cupboard/spice cabinet is in your kitchen, right? Probably not too far away from your stove top, microwave, oven, etc. And there’s probably quite a bit of light in there, huh? For most spices bought from a mega-mart, that’s probably not going to do any more harm to them then has already been done. But this chili powder – it deserves better.

Here’s what we don’t want: light, heat, and air. So we need something preferably opaque, in a stable, cool environment and an air-tight container. Let’s take a page from how you should be treating your coffee: put it in the freezer. In an airtight container in the freezer, this stuff will keep at almost peak freshness for …well, a lot longer than the six months or so that Mr. Gebhardt managed, that’s for sure. And please make sure the container truly is air tight, and the container is non-reactive (so no plastics!). If you take care of it, it will take care of you.

Smoked Sea Salt

smoked sea saltIt hardly seems fit to call this a recipe. It’s just too easy. But since I continue to get questions about it, here you go:

On a large steel cooking sheet or aluminum pan, spread about 2 lbs of coarse sea salt. In your grill or smoker (again, this works really well if you start it after a normal grilling session), add in some wood (presoaked for at least 4 hours in water). I’ve used oak, hickory, maple, apple, cherry, pecan, and mesquite — and various combinations thereof. Put the cookie sheet with the salt on the grill, close the grill and go do something else for 20 minutes. Come back and with a metal or silicone spatula, stir the salt around. If you need to add more wood, do that too. Now go do something else for about 20 to 30 minutes. Or an hour. It doesn’t really matter at this point. It’s not like you can burn the salt after all! Basically, get it as smokey as you want and bam! You’re done!

So what to do with it after that? Well, you can use it in a chili powder recipe obviously. And it makes a great fancy finishing salt. On top of a quality dark chocolate, it’s pretty much divine, or a couple of grains added to a dish of ice cream with a chocolate or butterscotch sauce will rock your socks off. Basically, whatever you want. My family likes it so much, we bought one of these and put it, fresh ground, on pretty much everything — but especially on popcorn with a little of that True Lime I mentioned above. Best. Popcorn. Ever.

An Open Letter to Tim Kubart, a.k.a. ‘Tambourine Guy’

UPDATE:

And job done! Huge thanks to Tim Kubart for being an incredibly good sport about the whole thing and well, for being #TambourineGuy — because the world needs more of that.

Dear Mr. Kubart,

I invite you to view the following:

[Please note if you are not Tim Kubart, this disclaimer applies to you.]

Thank you! Now to be clear, I am asking this of you with Jess’ full knowledge and understanding – acquired while she was sober — which despite what the contents of the video above might imply, we both actually are more often than not. Continue reading “An Open Letter to Tim Kubart, a.k.a. ‘Tambourine Guy’”

Luxury Lane Soap and the Amazing Kylee Lane Need Our Help!

[Note: I don’t often ask people to support causes I believe in, and many who are reading this may have already donated and/or know Kylee, but for those who haven’t and who don’t know her, I sincerely ask you to read this to learn a little about her and consider adding your support to this amazing project. If you have already donated, please consider sharing this post!]

Have you ever met someone who not only showed you something new, but changed your ideas on what was possible? I have and her name is Kylee Lane. And I can say without hyperbole she’s also changed how I think about a great many things.

kylee_family
Kylee with her amazing family

A little over four years ago I ran across her on Twitter and saw her tweeting about her Luxury Lane Soap all-natural handmade soaps, one of which was her ‘Brain Wash Soap.’ On pretty much a lark, I bought it – truthfully not expecting much other than a cute novelty soap. But when it arrived, I was in for an epiphany. It was raspberry-scented but it didn’t smell like any raspberry-scented product I’d ever smelled… it smelled like real raspberries. Fresh, just-picked raspberries. I didn’t know such a thing was possible.

Now, I am someone who buys unscented products whenever I can – I find most commercial scents cloyingly artificial. But this was a revelation to me. I contacted Kylee almost immediately to let her know how amazing this was and ask what magic made this possible. She told me about how she mixes essential oils to make the scents and then mixes them into natural ingredients in a completely handmade process to make the soaps.

And one of the most important friendships of my life was born. A friendship that to this day has made my life a richer, more interesting thing. In that time I’ve seen Kylee produce more and more products, branching out from the geeky novelty soaps to the most amazing Organic Artisan Soaps and shampoos & conditioners, lotions, and now make-up. She makes this all by hand. Just her. And with levels of passion and creativity that are truly incredible. She is not just a crafter – she’s an artist practicing at the highest reaches of her art.

She’s also a business woman, who created this company from scratch and has continued to grow it every single year. But she needs our help! To continue growing her small business and to expand the number of amazing things she can make, she’s currently running an Indiegogo campaign to remodel space in her historic house as a new work studio. She’s figured out all the costs and she needs $5,000 to make this happen. She’s already over $4,000 and needs our help reaching her goal! And she has some really spectacular perks for backers!lls_ballroomWith this newly remodeled space, Kylee will be able to hire assistants, make more products, and create them more easily. Now, I’ve seen her produce an entire set of holiday orders (as in hundreds of orders) out of a small kitchen in her previous house. It involved lots of not sleeping, stress, and drinking coffee. With her family in their current house (which is pretty sweet by the way), she now has the opportunity to create a space where she can do the best work she’s ever done.

Now I could go on about the importance of supporting crafters, but I’ve already done that. Or I could go on and on about the importance of supporting small-businesses, but honestly if you don’t already think that’s important, then nothing I say will change your mind. So why should you – yes YOU – personally reach for your credit card and pony up some of your hard-earned cash?

Because quality matters. Because making things by hand is in danger of disappearing as a way of life. Because sometimes a thing is so magnificent or a person is so incredibly talented that it falls on all of us to help foster and support. The world needs more people like Kylee and this once, Kylee needs us.

I grew up in a world of politics and government. I’ve met Presidents, governors, senators, and congresspeople. In my various jobs, I met CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and some of the people credited with creating the Internet. And I say with all honesty that Kylee is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met and I’m honored to be her friend.

I hope you will consider contributing to this project – both because I’m hoping for the best for her, but also because it’ll be a type of investment in the type of things this world needs more of. Like her handmade products, there is a genuineness to her that can’t be faked, 3D-printed, or mass produced.

Thank you.

 

Tucking this whole Jayne’s Hat business into its bunk…

I believe this will be the last I post on this — I just want to make a few observations after my post from yesterday. Buzzfeed posted an article late last night about the whole thing, and even featured some of my tweets about it. And ThinkGeek posted a couple of responses to all this yesterday and today. First, they disavow any involvement in the cease and desist orders sent to crafters selling their own Jayne Hats and secondly they’ve announced that 100-percent of the profit will go to the “Can’t Stop the Serenity, a Browncoat charity dear to ThinkGeek’s heart that raises funds and awareness in support of Equality Now.”

Well, that makes it all better, right? After all, ThinkGeek doesn’t even own the license, they just worked with the Firefly license owner Ripple Junction on the hat, and besides we all know what kind of assholes those guys at 20th Century Fox Television are! And now that they’re donating all the profits from the hat to a worthy, Firefly-oriented charity, all is well in the land of the geeks.

But…

You knew that was coming, right? But what about the crafters? Some of whom have been selling these hats for eight or more years? They kind of got stuck with the crappy end of the stick on this one, didn’t they? I don’t see anyone donating to a charity for them. And please don’t give me any gruff about how they shouldn’t have been selling unlicensed copies in the first place. Unless you’re willing and able to make 10,000 units of something, license owners won’t even answer your emails. And it’s a damn hat — a part of a costume from the show, so not covered by copyright. It’s not like Fox owns the design of the hat. There’s no way any court in the land would back Fox’s play here.

However, what crafter in the world could afford the time and expense AND risk of fighting it in court? Not a single one I’m aware of. So who is to blame, and more important what can be done to stop a cluster like this from happening again?

Well, Fox is clearly to blame for the cease and desist orders. Or are they? Under current law, if there is the smallest sign that the owner of intellectual property hasn’t enforced its rights to the fullest, it puts their intellectual property claims in jeopardy. So yes, Fox is still being a dick about pretty much everything Firefly-related, but not especially so in this instance. It could even be argued that they’ve willingly allowed this market in Jayne hats to exist for almost a decade without going after folks. Something obviously changed in the past few months then, huh?

What about Ripple Junction, the license owner? They’ve been strangely quiet, and some have said that if the Etsy listings were reported to them, they were required to pass that information along to Fox for action. That may or may not be the case, but in my experience, the companies that purchase these merchandise licenses are very aggressive (read “way too fucking aggressive”) about pursuing non-licensed sellers. I’ve seen nothing to dissuade me from thinking that Ripple Junction wasn’t looking to instigate action against non-licensed sellers from the very beginning. One can easily imagine that when deciding to mass produce the hat, they did their due diligence to see how much demand there was for this product and cruised by lots of those Etsy listings well before any hats were even made or agreements to manufacture signed. As one troll noted to me on Twitter yesterday (in a different context), that’s just Business 101.

And lastly we come to ThinkGeek. Again, as I stated earlier, I’ve been a customer of ThinkGeek for ten years and very much a supporter of the company. They and Valve are usually at the top of the very, very short list of companies I repeatedly point to as doing right by their community and the world in general. But being a fan, like being a friend, sometimes means you have to call someone on their shit, and in this instance I believe ThinkGeek still deserves some of the blame. The mass produced Jayne hat was, as they have said, their idea and they worked closely with Ripple Junction on the design. It is likely that had they not done so, the C&Ds would not have been sent out. Maybe not forever, but not within months of having started to sell their licensed version.

Regardless of who owns the license, who sent the cease and desist orders, or anything else – ThinkGeek decided to …well, there’s really no other word for it… bully crafters out of the business of selling Jayne hats. They claim this was due to public demand, despite the fact that any web search of “jayne hat” back in November 2012 would have led to dozens and dozens of independent crafters selling them. No, what they did was that they saw a market ripe for the taking since they’d be selling the officially licensed version.

I challenge anyone at ThinkGeek to tell me, with a straight face, that they didn’t anticipate that bringing a licensed Jayne hat to market would result in crafters getting shut down. I mean the whole point of selling “licensed” products is the ability to get non-licensed sellers shutdown. Honestly, the fact that ThinkGeek would not be licensing the product themselves and would be working with another company who did own the license was probably seen as a huge benefit — if anyone complained, they could just point their fingers at Ripple Junction and Fox and say “Sorry guys, we’re not the ones shutting you down.” — a statement that is, while superficially factual, still misleading.

That’s it for the Parade of Blame, unless you want to pull in every US citizen that has never voted for candidates interested in making intellectual property reform a priority for our government. As it stands now, the system is pretty damn broken.

While the damage in this case has been done and can’t be undone, I do have one last suggestion for ThinkGeek, and it’s one that I sincerely hope they give some thought to as I still believe the company and all of its employees are some genuinely nice, geeky people:

Please don’t compete with the community of geeky crafters. There are probably a number of other licensed, mass-produced versions of products you can start selling. That doesn’t mean you should. You aren’t Aperture Science. You don’t need to do what you must because you can. There is more than enough business for you to keep on selling (and sometimes creating) wonderful products without looking to muscle crafters of handmade products out of business — because that is exactly what will happen every time you do.

What ThinkGeek *Should* Have Done (And Still Can!)

*update at bottom of the page*

So, just to start off, I like ThinkGeek — I really do. I’ve been a customer since 2003 and have literally spent thousands of dollars on their site (helped that my company used to give out prizes and I made sure to buy them at ThinkGeek. Also helped by the fact I’m a complete nerd.). I’ve bought stuff from them for my friends, my wife, and my kids. Hell, for me, they’re even based locally and I’ve enjoyed seeing them grow.

But with growth comes change — note I did not say ‘progress.’ As highlighted with the recent Jayne Hat issue, ThinkGeek has made a conscious decision to eschew crafter created pieces (which they used to carry a smattering of), and focus on mass-produced, licensed products. One can argue if it was an intended or unintended consequence, but part of the upshot of this is that FOX is now going after crafters of fan-created art on Etsy like a pack of hybrid lawyer-dementors. Reportedly this includes other Firefly-related items, but has mostly been focused on sellers of the aforementioned Jayne hats.

Sadly, the irony of mass producing a knit hat that in the show was handmade by Jayne’s mother is lost on ThinkGeek. Evidently also lost was what the impact of cease & desist orders would be on the crafters who had been selling these items for many years. (And let’s not forget the irony of FOX “protecting” the Firefly intellectual property when they’ve repeatedly done everything in their power to screw over the show itself.)

Now ThinkGeek could have done a number of things differently. They could have gone with an unlicensed hat and just called it something else — FOX doesn’t own the intellectual property of the style of hat (though I’d love to see them try and establish prior art for it!), just the association with Firefly and the character Jayne. Or they could have even said “Hey, we COULD mass produce this hat, but really part of the whole phenomenon of this is that they’re handmade, so maybe we just shouldn’t bother.” However, if they really felt there needed to be more Jayne hats in the world, as they told me in a tweet earlier today, why not think a little more boldly?

What I’m about to suggest is something I’ve tossed around as a business idea of my own for awhile and discussed with a number of friends — but let’s face it, I’m middle-aged, married, with kids and a mortgage — my days of startups are probably behind me. Instead, I’ll gift this idea to ThinkGeek in the hopes that they really do want to do the right thing (unless they want to hire me to help run it, in which case, let’s talk):

Imagine, if you will, the force for geeky goodness that ThinkGeek could be if they decided to create their own online storefront for geeky crafters? Instead of having to wade through billions of potential Regretsy items to find the real quality stuff, imagine going to thinkgeek.com and in addition to seeing Portal gun replicas and Annoy-a-trons, you could find handmade hats of an especially cunning design, handmade Chell costumes, and handmade hobbit pipes. That would be pretty fricking cool, wouldn’t?

Imagine the benefit to those geeky crafters, having their wares brought to the attention of folks already actively looking for geeky products? ThinkGeek wins, crafters win, and more importantly all the rest of us win. There is assistance and advice ThinkGeek is especially well suited to offer these small scale crafters, especially on shipping and possibly even on avoiding the traps of intellectual property infringement. Basically the only loser would be Etsy, and you know what? Screw Etsy.

For me, part of being a geek is tied into the maker culture — geeks tend to really like making things themselves or they have a lot of love and respect for those who can and do. If ThinkGeek followed my suggestion they could in essence offer the best of the entire geek world while remaining true to the spirit of what, at least to me, it means to be a geek.

Otherwise, they’ll continue to move to be a part of everything that runs counter to that spirit, and hurt crafters — the very ones who embrace that ethos with their time, energy, and hard work.

Finally, to be absolutely clear, FOX is the main bad guy here – but ThinkGeek can’t license from them without acknowledging that said license obligates FOX to pursue non-licensed sellers. That is part of the basis of a licensing agreement, part of which usually says something to the effect of “Hey, we’re going to pay you a bunch of money to be the official seller of this item representing intellectual property you own, and to protect that investment, you’re obligated to go after anyone else who tries.” That’s just what licensing is, so ThinkGeek’s fingerpointing at FOX and trying to act the innocent is disingenuous at best.

I wrote a post some years ago titled “Why I ❤ Crafters (and Other Artists) And You Should Too” in which I explained why I have so much respect and admiration for them. Towards the end of it, I wrote “…surround yourself with those who are creative and bring a little more beauty into existence, and you will find it easier to do the same.” I still very much believe that and it is advice I’d like to see ThinkGeek take to heart.

*Update April 9, 2013* So ThinkGeek has corrected themselves and now state that the manufacturer they worked with on the hats is actually the license holder. However, I still stand by what I said — the best that ThinkGeek can claim is that they decided to bring a mass-produced and inferior product to market that directly competes with what was offered by the geek crafting community. And they did so with a company that makes all of it’s money off of licenses, Ripple Junction — and I believe there is still information to be had about that company’s role in the cease and desist letters that went out. It’s extremely common for license holders to push to have C&Ds sent out to products they view as infringing on their license.

*Update April 10, 2013* See here

 

10 Ways to Celebrate Kylee Lane’s Birthday

*Revised, extended, and made increasingly silly for 2012*

As I did with birthday posts for Ruth / ChulhuChick and Jess / Toasterlicious,  I’ve done the same for my Made-Up Pseudo-Sibling (#MUPS) Kylee Lane. As today is her birthday, here are some ways to appropriately mark the occasion:

1.SOAP

Well, you could order some soap, but hopefully you already have some, because it is literally the best, most incredible stuff ever made. No, that’s not hyperbole, I used “literally” correctly – I’m just stating the straightforward truth. Even better, don’t order any right now (unless you really need some), as she is spending her birthday making soap for everyone already. But after the holidays, put in an order. The geeky soaps are fun, but really, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you haven’t tried any of her all natural, organic soaps or her shaving soaps or shampoo. Because most commercial scents actual make me nauseous because they smell so bad, I used to buy as many unscented products as I could find. Buying from Kylee now, I not only get soap that’s good for me, but often times it smells good enough to eat. But as Kylee always warns — DON’T EAT THE SOAP!

2. STAR TREK

Watch some Star Trek. Even better, spend several hours figuring out how to convert where you live into a replica of the Enterprise. You get extra bonus points if you do the planning while watching Star Trek: TOS on a used projector you picked up on the cheap. Extra bonus points if you figure out how to install some Jeffries tubes. Extra, extra bonus points if you know why they are called Jeffries tubes. Extra, extra, extra bonus points if you’re somehow watching it on VHS or watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture on LaserDisc. Creating a holodeck is optional, as is creating a working transporter. If you get the transporter working, please let either Kylee or myself know — we need it to ensure a constant flow of goods in the soap / cookies / chili powder economy in which we now live.

Oh, and if you don’t have any Star Trek, then yes, Star Wars may be substituted as she loves it as well. However, I just have to ask “What the hell is wrong with you!?” as Star Trek is all on Netflix now. So in summary: if you’re not watching Star Trek, you’re lazy and can’t be bothered. Just saying.

3. TATTOOS

Don’t get a tattoo. Yes, Kylee has tons of very beautiful tattoos and each has a story behind it. You should only get a tattoo if you have a story to tell. 🙂 However, today would be a great day to think about what kind of tattoo you’d like to get — as long as you’re comfortable knowing that it won’t be as cool as hers. Getting a tattoo of her would be sort of cool, but also creepy (so I’ve been told…repeatedly), so probably best to avoid.

4. ZOMBIES

Put together your zombie/killer robot apocalypse survival kit and go through some practice drills.  Kylee knows something like this is coming and she’s ready, so we should all be ready too — there will be a lot of downsides to such an event, but the fact Kylee will undoubtedly still be around and making soap makes it seem like a slightly less horrible catastrophe.Who ever knew washing off after a zombie attack could be so enjoyable!

Extra bonus points if, after watching Star Trek, you watch some of The Walking Dead. Minus 1,000,000,000 points though if you mention anything about the current season to her. She waits until the season is over so she can watch the whole thing at once in one big zombiegasm. [Note: “zombiegasm” may be one of the single most disturbing things I’ve ever concocted and Ruth may never forgive me for it, but trust me…for Kylee, a zombiegasm is just pure, clean, geeky fun. Really.]

5.DUDES

If you are William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, or Michael Dorn, give Kylee a call and wish her a happy birthday. Really, it’s the least you could do. Extra bonus points if you can get the ghost of James Doohan to materialize, as he looked in 1968, and wish her a happy birthday. She has sort of a thing for him. But who doesn’t. Oh, and if you’re are Rick Moranis, Kylee would like to…well, the less said about that the better. Let’s just say she’d be open to a number of offers.

scotty_bday_question

6. FIGHT CLUB

Don’t talk about Fight Club. Crap. I just broke this one, didn’t I? *hangs head in shame*

…moving on…

7. IDEAS

Live your life today remembering that ideas really are bullet-proof. Extra bonus points if you remember this tomorrow and every day after. This also obviously means that if you have lots of ideas, you can create a bullet-proof vest of ideas. (this is only guaranteed if the bullets are made out of ideas as well. Just so you know.)

Also remember a good idea is better than a belief, and no one ever made a mistake by coming up with a new idea.

We are the music makers… and we are the dreamers of dreams

8.CREATE

Create something. Doesn’t even really matter what. Just engage in the act of creation. I don’t believe there is a single more defining characteristic to Kylee than her need to create. Whether it’s making soap, creating custom stamps with her husband Rory, or using salvaged library catalog cards (and the card catalogs themselves!) , she takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. We should all try to do the same – the world would be a better place.

9. LOVE

Spend time with your loved ones. This may seem rather general, but honestly, Kylee derives more joy out of being around those she loves than anyone I’ve ever met. All the hard work and everything she does begins and ends with her family.

10. LIVE

Eat some frosting, drink some wine…in other words engage in some harmless hedonism. Everything in moderation — even (and maybe especially) moderation. And ENJOY it. That’s the key. Take whatever is in front of you and really, truly, deeply enjoy it, experience it, and revel in it. That’s life and it ain’t for the weak hearted. I can’t think of anything more Kylee than that.

Extra bonus points: Buy a mansion (you can either literally buy a mansion or just try for something everyone will think you’re crazy for doing, and then try and do it anyway)

Or if you prefer, simply wish her a happy birthday . . . but with all these other options, that just seems kind of lame.

Extra, Extra bonus points: Write nice things about her and make her blush and giggle (which is absolutely priceless to see in person!)

Oh, and a warning — you lose points and possibly forfeit if you 1) sing her Happy Birthday 2) tell her she can’t do something 3) violate Wheaton’s Rule

10 Ways to Celebrate @Toasterlicious’ Birthday

And now to complete the trilogy (bet you didn’t even know it was a trilogy, huh?!) – I bring you 10 ways to celebrate the birthday of my Made-Up Pseudo-Sibling (#MUPS) Jess (@toasterlicious). As I did with my other #MUPS Kylee Lane and the ever amazing Ruth/CthulhuChick, I’ve offered some ways to appropriately mark this happy occasion:

1. Read something good. Shakespeare would be the obvious choice, but by no means the only one. Savor the words. Think about what you’re reading. Immerse yourself in it. Jess does that sort of stuff all the time. (Optional) Either write about what your reading or talk about it with a friend. Or, if you’re very literal in your interpretations and have no new obvious insights, talk about it with an enemy.

2. Read something bad. How can you have good without bad, right? Well, it’s not like we’ll ever know —  we’re not in any danger of running out of bad writing anytime soon. However, reading bad literature does two things: 1) helps us realize what makes bad writing really, awfully, horribly bad; (Hint: adverbs) 2) it allows us to post frakking hilarious YouTube videos about how bad it actually was. Such as this, this, and this. (Oxford comma usage just for Jess! Doing it when it wasn’t necessary — well, that was just for me because I’m a smart-ass.) [Editorial Note: There used to be videos at the end of those links and now there are not, but trust me when I say that they were amazing. No, seriously, trust me.]

3. Go to grad school. I mean, it must be really cool, right? All these brilliant, smart people seem to do it, so hell, we should all probably do it. *checks price of tuition* *checks bank account* Hmmm… maybe that’s a bit too much. Instead of *actually* going to grad school, how about just for today, you work twice as long as you normally would (doing your boss’ work in addition to your own would be the most authentic approach), go home and splurge with ramen, eggs and toast, or (not “AND”) some other entree that can be had for less than $2, and then sit around your apartment having an existential crisis vis-à-vis why the hell are you doing this, what the hell are you going to do with your life, how your entire approach to your work is never going to be understood by those other idiots in the department and why the hell can’t you have a life.

On second thought, let’s leave this for the folks who can actually handle it. Instead, just drive by a local university and throw some food at the grad students. One or two might follow you home, but it’s worth the risk.

4. Sketch something. Let your mind go and your pencil will follow 🙂 As her made-up pseudo older brother, I have encouraged Jess in many things (not hard to do, she is honestly one of the single most intelligent, capable people I’ve ever met — basically my encouragement usually boils down to “Hey, all that stuff you’re doing? That’s awesome! Go do some more of that!”) but I have to say the one I think I’ve enjoyed encouraging her about the most is her drawings.  Jess continues to protest to this day that she can’t draw. I continue to tell her that’s bullshit. My dream is that someday she and I will collaborate on what will possibly be the funniest and most disturbing children’s book ever created. We’ll both write, she’ll illustrate, and possibly we would be the only ones laughing at our awesome absurdity, but I’m telling you it would be EPIC! I could point to many examples of her drawing, but that would only make her uncomfortable, so I’ll just highlight three favorites:

5. Write some crazy notes in the margin of a book you’re reading. Again, Jess does this all the time. In fact, this may be one of the reasons she is pursuing a life in academia — just so she can get paid for writing in books for the rest of her life. Extra bonus points if you go back later and have no idea what the hell you meant when you wrote whatever you did. That’s how the pros roll.

6. Watch some Battlestar Galactica…or Big Bang Theory, or really anything sufficiently nerdy. Or just anything you can be sufficiently nerdy about really. Again, if you’re looking for extra bonus points, write up the episode as you’re watching it. As an example of what you’re aiming for, may I present Jess’ “transcript” (ironic air quotes hers, not mine) of the “Happily Ever After” episode of LOST,

7. Wear a nerdy t-shirt. Again, this can be something universally regarded as nerdy (like this or this) or just something nerdy you enjoy. Also accepted: wearing a costume (“Post-apocalyptic Dorothy“). For this one, extra bonus points can only be earned by creating your own nerdy t-shirt, preferably with a partner in crime.

8. Play a video game. You all have a lot of latitude here — everything from Portal to Skyrim. BUT YOU MUST JUMP A LOT. And push all the buttons, because you never know what might happen. It is preferred that you also worry about how well you are playing the game, despite the fact that flies in the face of why most people play games. If possible, choose a game that is multiplayer or co-op, because that will be much more entertaining to your friends.

9. Use interesting swears. A lot. “Frak” is an obvious choice, but really just let your creativity fly here. Try for something on par with “blistering fuckweasels.” (which is indeed a Jess-ism) Bonus points for using them in insults when talking to your brain on Twitter, e.g. “twat waffle.”

10. Care about things, people, animals…just something. Even when it hurts, or is difficult, or other people don’t care about them. I think one of the most important things I’ve learned from Jess is that in a world that constantly seeks to define us, the best way to fight back is to define ourselves through what we’re passionate about. And if that’s not a central tenet of what it means to not only be a geek, but just a quality person in general, I don’t know what is.

Or you can just simply wish her a happy birthday. 🙂

(there is actually an 11th way to celebrate, and it is a ritual that is shared with observances of Ruth’s birthday — If you are of a persuasion to appreciate it, spend a few minutes in quiet meditation and contemplation over this: bit.ly/dropthetowel. Personally I don’t get it, but I’m told this is of almost religious significance.)

(Update 2015: And because there is no gag I love like a running gag, here’s the 12th way to celebrate Jess’ birthday: get drunk, read Shakespeare, and make a video of the proceedings)

The Latest in my “You Are What You Read: Books My Clone Should Read” – Douglas Adams

So last week saw the marking of the 10th anniversary of the death of Douglas Adams and it seemed that would be a good time to continue on my way through “You Are What You Read” and to write about how Adams not only influenced me, but actually changed my life. Of course, I’d planned to have this published last week on the exact anniversary, but when that deadline went past with a whooshing sound, I thought that rather appropriate.

more . . .

Geek Friendships and Twitter

I’ve written a bit before about Twitter and friendships, most specifically last summer in a post focusing on folks meeting up for the first time at a number of upcoming cons called “IRL is Real Stupid.” However, at the time I wrote that, I had not yet had the chance to really meet in person anyone I’d come to know on Twitter. Very happily, that has changed over the last few months, and I’ve come to realize something: geeks are fundamentally different in how we approach friendships, both in life-away-from-keyboard (I don’t use the phrase “in real life” as I don’t agree that what happens online isn’t real. Instead I use the term LAFK or “life away from keyboard.”) and online in places like Twitter.

Without diving belly-first to wallow in the swamp that is defining “geek,” I certainly feel that in general, geeks tend to have . . . hmm, how best to say this? . . . issues with socializing. Either through a natural introversion (raises hand) and/or through the experience of being ostracized for being “different” (raises hand again), we can be a little gun shy when it comes to interacting and developing relationships with others, especially in person. So why is making friends on Twitter different? Especially considering that in only 140 characters and missing all the nuanced visual, auditory communication that is possible in-person, misunderstanding and error seem so likely to throw a wrench into developing relationships with people.

I don’t know — but I have a theory. The very weaknesses of Twitter are actually benefits when it comes to geeks.

Consider the autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Common characteristics: “qualitative impairments of social communication and interaction, along with restricted and repetitive activities and interests.” To most geeks, there will probably be some application of that to all of us. Now, I am not denigrating either Asperger’s or autism as a valid diagnosis of a real disorder, nor am I implying everyone who is a geek is somehow suffering a disorder. But having established that whatever factors lead to autism spectrum disorders likely involves multiple variables, many of which are genetic, and produce a variety of outcomes, could it not be a valid argument that geeks are on on the outer fringe of this behavior? Perhaps geeks are just, through a tweak of genetics/environment,  displaying various degrees of behavior while not having to deal with the most severe consequences?

So how does this relate to geek friendships on Twitter? From the Wikipedia link above:

“Making and maintaining friendships often proves to be difficult for children with autism. For them, the quality of friendships, not the number of friends, predicts how lonely they are, despite the common belief that they prefer to be alone.”

For myself, that has always been true, and from talking with other geeks, their experiences were the same. We like whom we like deeply, and will gladly spend time with those people, while eschewing the company of others, which leads everyone else to believe we’re all introverts or anti-social. So why is this? Much of the research on ASD shows that another common characteristic is a lack of filters of information, which can lead to everything from delayed language development (with so much information coming in, a child’s language centers become overwhelmed, and must work harder and longer to do the sort of processing that allows us to learn language) to difficulties picking up on social communication and cues when dealing with others. Again, if you take that trait, and dial it down a notch or two, do you not have the prototypical geek that notices things (different builds of lightsabers flashing by on a screen in milliseconds, minute faults with prop replicas, continuity issues with films, etc.) that most people don’t?

If we accept that, than suddenly it might make a little more sense that geeks have trouble with in-person social interactions, aside from whatever influence introversion or past experience has. After all, in person, there is so much information to process — is that person really saying what I think they’re saying? — why did she look away then back at me just now? — what sort of judgment is he making about me? While there are still disagreements over exact percentages, research seems to indicate that the majority of all in-person communication is derived from nonverbal behavior, meaning body language, pitch and tone of voice, etc — essentially, everything but the words themselves.

And what is Twitter, but almost exclusively words and nothing else? Sure we have a stable of emoticons to go to for clarification, but if you’re conversing with someone on Twitter, it comes down to words and very little else. As geeks, we like this. It dispenses with all of that other stuff, and allows us to get to know someone and make judgments about what kind of relationship we might want to develop with them, without being overwhelmed with too much information. The natural affinity of geeks for Twitter really is a case of less being more, I believe.

One of the upsides of this is that I believe we form meaningful attachments more quickly on Twitter than other people, and indeed in some cases more quickly even than in LAFK. We tend to be a judgmental lot, and if we decide someone meets whatever metric we’re using, then we see no reason to play any social games in developing a relationship — they’re suddenly a friend, and we proceed normally from there. Another advantage is that throughout most of human history, people like us have been isolated from each other. Now with Twitter and other social media, we can get to know and become friends with people who are in different states, countries, and even continents. Suddenly we have more options, as we are no longer slaves to geography!

What started me thinking about all of this was my own recent experiences in finally meeting some people from Twitter I very much consider close friends. In the most auspicious way possible, it started out with Ruth (@ruthbeingruth / @cthulhuchick) and her husband coming over to our house for dinner. They got to meet me, my wife (@KatMByrne) and probably most fun for them, our kids Thing 1 (my 8 year old son) and Thing2 (my 2 year old daughter). A more enjoyable evening could not have been imagined, and literally from the moment I opened the door and saw them, it was like “Oh, there’s Ruth!” and it was just like they were friends I’d known for quite some time and just hadn’t seen for awhile. And for the record, Ruth is just as amazing and nice as you would expect if you follow her, and having seen them a few times since I can attest it was not a fluke 🙂

So what could possibly follow that? How about separate visits from Kylee (@KyleeLane) and Jess (@toasterlicious)? Kylee came to visit us in January and Jess just this past weekend. For those that haven’t followed me on Twitter for very long, these two are known as my #MUPS, a hashtag I invented that stands for “Made-Up Pseudo-Siblings” and very much means quite a bit more than that to me. I started following Kylee almost exactly a year ago and followed Jess almost as long. With both of them, once we started talking on Twitter, there was an almost instantaneous relationship that developed — quickly becoming friends, and then recognizing the amazing similarities between us, moving on to a type of sibling relationship. I truly think of both of them as my siblings and would do anything for them. Meeting them in person didn’t even make me nervous (and I am not a “social” being by any means), it just simply confirmed everything I felt about them already. Basically that they are awesome, which if you also follow them, you know already.

My point in this is not to brag about the awesome people I’ve met on Twitter (there are many in addition to the three I just mentioned), nor is it to gloat about the fact I got to meet them in person. Many of you have already met in-person far more people they’ve met on Twitter than I have (though I would argue about anyone being more amazing than these three). My point is to address something I’ve felt is still in the back of many people’s minds, though almost never spoken (or tweeted) aloud — how real is a friendship on Twitter?

My feeling is that Twitter friendships are just as real as you act on Twitter. Ruth, Jess, and Kylee are three of the most down-to-earth “real” people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Meeting them in person was just a continuation of the relationship I already had with each of them, and I credit that to them being exactly who they presented themselves to be on Twitter, IMs, emails, and phone calls. Just like in LAFK, the relationships you build are only invalid if someone acts like someone they’re not.

I feel extremely lucky to have made the friendships I’ve have on Twitter. Like many of you, I’ve traditionally only had a small circle of close friends and tended to shy away from the social games needed to be part of a larger group. Now I find myself one of many like myself, and in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, I count many of you as better friends than most I’ve met only in-person. Perhaps it’s those personal characteristics that seem to dovetail with the fringe of autism spectrum disorders that make friendships on Twitter easier to make, or maybe it’s something else. Whatever the cause, I want those of you who are my friends through Twitter to know that I consider it a privilege to know you and I hope to meet many more of you in the future. This next month I’ll be down in San Juan and look forward to meeting @GeekShui (and hopefully making it to Guavate *grin*) and I would dearly love to meet Lesley (@geeksoap), her husband Lucas (@fubbleskag) and their little geekling who is on the way! And there are so many more I want to meet beyond that — not to “validate” or “make real” our friendships, but just to perhaps deepen or expand them.

Summing up this long, rambling, and some might say ultimately pointless post: Yes, friendships on Twitter are real if you are. Yes, there may be a reason why geeks in particular seem predisposed to befriending each other on Twitter. No, I really do have some of the most awesome friends and I’m so happy I got to start meeting some of them in person. And in the words of those great sages of cinema “Be excellent to each other.”