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Barcoded EarthWhat Max Reckons

Sometimes I get asked to deliver talks. To school groups, university students, that kind of thing. The funny part is that nobody seems to mind what, exactly, I talk about. My wife started calling these lectures "What Max Reckons."

Displaying What Max Reckons blogs. View all Max's blogs

Wed 10
Feb
2016

Naked Wet Flour-Encrusted Tong Strangulations

What Max Reckons

Hello Max,

If memory serves me correctly, you wrote a blog about cement being your prefered way to hide a corpse quite a number of years ago. But what would be your prefered (if not favorite) way to kill someone?

Atom

In order to get away with it, or maximize my enjoyment? Because if you mean the second one, you’re a sick puppy, Atom. Get some help.

I think there must be one layer of misdirection. You want the kind of murder where people’s first reaction is, “What the hell, how did that happen,” then a minute later, “Ohhhh.” They think they’ve figured out the secret. But they haven’t. That’s when people stop thinking. No-one wants the thing they figured out to be wrong.

For example, let’s say say I just strangled you to death, Atom. The first thing I’m going to do is strip you naked. Then I’m going to drag you to the bathroom, dip your head in the toilet, put a pair of tongs in your hand, roll you in flour, and throw you off the balcony.

So the cops are in an unfamiliar environment. That’s important, too. They’re more experienced with murder than I am. They know what to look for. But they won’t have dealt with too many naked wet flour-encrusted tong strangulations. That puts us back on even ground.

Now for the misdirection. I’m leaving a suicide note signed by you. I CAN’T LIVE IN A WORLD THAT WON’T ACCEPT MY TONG-BASED SEX RITUALS. But it’s not convincing. The cops were already going to be suspicious and here it is, the thing that justifies their feelings. That’s when they find your phone, with angry messages to your girlfriend. WILL YOU SHUT UP ABOUT THE TONGS. I’M NEVER GOING TO DO THE TONG THING WITH YOU. Bang. Case closed. That girl is going to prison, because one twist is plenty.

Thu 28
Jan
2016

What I’m Angry About Today

What Max Reckons

Hey Max, what are you angry about today?

Anonymous

My newspaper offered a “life hack” for better storage of food in zip-lock bags: Put your germ-laden lips on the bag and suck the remaining air out. They had a video of a woman doing her best not to exhale a mouth full of bacteria into a bag, to demonstrate. That really enraged me. I’m no doctor but I’ll take my chances with regular air over sealing in the escaped vestiges of whatever just crawled back out of your lungs. Really, it’s the label “life hack” that put it over the top. Like they think it’s so clever. Why don’t you go save some snakebite victims by suckling at their open wounds, you barbarians.

Wed 13
Jan
2016

Dystopian Horror Wears a Hairpiece

What Max Reckons

Which dystopian horrors you’ve imagined have actually come true so far?

Meg

ALL OF THEM. Sometimes I think, “Well, at least THIS hasn’t happened,” then BAM, here’s Trump’s first TV ad. That thing is really something. It reminds me of why I got out of satire. I can’t do anything with that. It’s already a parody.

My favorite part is where it says we should ban Muslims from the US until we figure out a reason. Because at face value, there’s no reason to tack on that last part. If you were at a party and trying to make the argument for closing the borders, you would never say that, because it makes you look dumb. Instead, you would trot out some vague reason and hope you didn’t get called on it. Right? Explicitly saying “until I figure out why” calls attention to the fact that you don’t actually have a reason.

But the ad does this on purpose! It explicitly validates the idea that we don’t need to waste time identifying problems, but can skip on ahead to the part where we take action against people we never liked anyway. And this is smart, in a thoroughly amoral, civilization-eroding kind of way, because it’s so hard to logically justify racism. Xenophobia is a feeling, not a philosophy. You can’t really mount a solid, racist case for anything. But it’s a real feeling, so what you really want to hear, if you have that feeling, is that you’re completely right and don’t need to worry about why. We can just go ahead and ban Muslims. Until we figure out a reason.

And then the other side completely ignores all that and gets excited because the ad maybe unfairly implies that some footage from Morocco is Mexico.

Wed 06
Jan
2016

The Trouble With Owen

What Max Reckons

Who in tarnation is Owen, and what in the world did he ever do to you to get cursed two Christmas-times in a row?

Concerned Citizen

I don’t see what the big mystery is. I have blogged about Owen before. It was ten years ago, but still. Keep up, people.

Owen is my arch-nemesis because:

  • I liked a girl in high school and Owen sat with her under a tree during lunch a couple times. I don’t think they did anything but it’s the principle of the thing.

  • Later, a different girl I liked said she liked Owen. This was also a different Owen.

  • Owen’s surname—the first Owen, I mean—is Berryman, which is too similar to mine. People sometimes get my name wrong and call me Max Berry, so it’s like he’s laughing at me.

  • Children of Men is one of my all-time favorite films but it has Clive Owen in it, who I don’t like, so that’s annoying. The reason I don’t like Clive Owen is mainly that his surname is Owen. Similarly, I can’t enjoy Owen Wilson movies.

  • There’s this dude in my neighborhood who I cross paths with sometimes and he’s always doing something stupid, like looking the other way when I’m trying to get past. I bet his name is Owen.

So now you’re up to speed.

P.S. I just found that old blog post and his name was actually Scott. But I think that’s beside the point. It’s a little late to stop hating him now. I’m pretty sure the second Owen was really an Owen, and that’s good enough for me.

Tue 08
Dec
2015

What It’s Like To Run NationStates

What Max Reckons

Hey Max, Could you remove my copyrighted image from the banner on your amphibian distribution page. It is the cool frog you lifted from the cover of the Journal of Biogeography (far right photo in your banner). If you are going to make money from your web site, you should pay the people whose content you steal. Also, that species does not even occur in Brazil.

Thanks,

Elizabeth Everman (the person whose copyright you are violating)

This is a NationStates question. I figured that out by asking myself, “Do I have any idea what this person is talking about?” Whenever the answer to that is “no,” it’s about NationStates.

You should know I tracked Elizabeth down on Facebook and we identified the frog in question and now everything is fine. But I’m posting because I’ve been meaning to tackle an ASK MAX question on what it’s like to run NationStates, and this one came along and gave me a good answer. It’s like trying to figure out what an amphibian distribution page is and why it has an illegal frog on it.

NationStates is amazing. Don’t get me wrong. I love NationStates. I made a little web site in 2002 and poured way too much time into it and now it’s this whole big thing. It just means there’s too much to keep track of. Also, the one percent of any group of people who are trying to do something stupid or psychotic at any given moment is big enough to be a significant number. Put those things together and you have people angrily contacting me about something I’ve never heard of but which they assume I was instrumental in bringing about.

So a disproportionate amount of time goes into a small number of extreme cases, like the guy last month who felt something on the site was racist so he contacted PayPal and lodged claims against us for credit card fraud. Or people who get banned from the site for whatever reason and decide to extract revenge in poorly thought-out ways, like threats or editing Wikipedia or DDoS attacks. The site has volunteer moderators, thank God, who deal with the vast majority of this kind of thing, but if it’s weird enough, it involves me.

There’s always something, so I know if I have a spare twenty minutes and want to grapple with a highly charged debate over something ridiculous, I can check in. This week, for example, there is a 100-post discussion amongst moderators over Angela Lansbury’s bosom. A player set his nation’s flag to a photoshopped image of Ms. Lansbury with one breast on display; this was removed, and the nation deleted for violating site rules, but then the player begged forgiveness based on his five-year clean record, and the image was more comedic than pornographic, so what to do? The discussion has so far traversed the nature of obscenity, art, rules consistency, and the specific weighting of player records.

What I like doing most on NationStates is making new stuff. Programming is really satisfying. It’s like fiction-writing plus puzzle-solving for me. This kind of programming, anyway, where I get to build whatever I feel like, and there’s a community giving instant feedback. That’s fun.

I don’t really play the game for enjoyment, in the same way I don’t read my own novels recreationally; it’s kind of spoiled when you’ve seen the insides. But I do have a secret nation no-one knows about, which I check into from time to time. Most of the daily issues nations encounter today have been written by volunteers—there were 30 when I launched the site and there are over 450 now—so they’re new to me.

Oh, so the frog. On NationStates, you can issue dispatches, which are official communications from your nation. Some people use these to write about their nation, describing its history or fauna or political stance or whatever they like. There are 402,000 of these, so you can see why I didn’t notice the frog. But it was there, a hotlink in a player-created dispatch, and that was what Elizabeth saw. There is a “Report” button on these pages, which I mention in the hope of steering similar issues to the moderators, but it’s small and easy to miss.

So that’s NationStates.

Tue 16
Dec
2014

Australia gets closer

What Max Reckons On September 11, 2001, the city of Melbourne, Australia evacuated its World Trade Center. This is a short building on the banks of the Yarra River, a short distance from Melbourne’s central business district, a little over ten thousand miles from New York. It used to have a casino; before that, it hosted an exhibition of waxworks from Madam Tussaud’s. If you ran a line from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan through the center of the Earth, you would exit the planet not so very far from here—closer, certainly, to Australia than to any other country in the world.

Australia is a long way from everywhere. A flight to Sydney takes 15 hours from Los Angeles, 21 hours from London, 14 hours from Johannesburg, and 10 hours from Tokyo. There is no stopping off in Australia on the way to somewhere else, unless you’re headed to Antarctica. You can’t take in Australia as a side-trip while visiting somewhere else nearby. It is an island continent that you reach only by making it your ultimate destination and exerting a concerted effort.

This isolation is the core of Australia’s identity: it is the reason the country has an aboriginal population that existed undisturbed for 40,000 years, and some of the world’s strangest and most inimitable flora and fauna, and why, indeed, it was chosen to be a penal colony by the British in 1788. It is a place you go to be removed from the world.

But on 9/11, terrorists were attacking World Trade Centers, so Melbourne evacuated hers. This didn’t seem silly at the time; that day made all horrors plausible. No precaution was too extreme when yesterday it had been inconceivable that terrorists might take thousands of lives in New York and across the US, and today it had happened. So for a while, Australia forgot it wasn’t part of the world. “We are all Americans,” Australians said on 9/11—September 12, actually, on antipodean time, since Australia is so far away it is usually a different day altogether. And we meant it: we were deeply shocked to see acts of foreign terrorism, always previously associated with unfamiliar people in unfamiliar places, happening somewhere Over There, become suddenly intimate and recognizable.

Over time, though, the War on Terror became the War on Iraq, and the American flags on TV reminded us that although 9/11 affected the Western world, at its most pointed and personal, it was an American story. Australia, as usual, was watching from afar. We sent troops to Afghanistan and to Iraq, maintaining solidarity with our American cousins, but ultimately, we came to realize that the US was Over There, too.

In 2002, 88 Australians were killed by a radical Islamist group bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali, a popular holiday destination. Bali is a mere six hours from Sydney, and only two and a half from Darwin, the closest Australian city. It was a traumatic event, but again, it wasn’t quite Here. More recently, there have been police terror sweeps in Australian cities, with arrests made and, apparently, plots foiled. The federal government warned us that groups had developed with the motivation and ability to carry out local attacks.

You live a charmed life in Australia. The streets are safe; the weather is terrific; the people are friendly. The ocean keeps everything out. Or, at least, slows it down. We complain about that, when a car costs thirty thousand dollars, or a TV show won’t hit our screens right away, but it’s the ocean that has allowed Australia to stay Australia in the face of relentless globalization. It’s given us more than a decade in which to rethink our ideas on society and our way of life, and the trade-offs between freedom and security we’re willing to make, without having to do so in the immediate aftermath of a national tragedy.

On Monday, a man with a gun took hostages in the middle of Sydney in what he claimed to be an attack on Australia by the Islamic State. A self-described cleric with a history of antagonism toward Australian military involvement in Afghanistan, he was, by all reports, a dangerous loner rather than a member of an organized terrorist group. By the time the siege was over, two hostages were dead.

If this man had claimed to be acting for some other cause—disgruntlement at the tax code, or the high price of cars—we wouldn’t call it terrorism. We would call it what it is: a lunatic with a gun. But that would overlook the deeper trend, which is that Australia’s oceans are shrinking. Today technology allows a man to be more connected to militant extremists across the globe—in spirit, if nothing else—than he was to his neighbors in Bexley North. He can latch on to toxic ideas from the other side of the globe and bring them into Sydney, feeling he is part of a global cause.

Whether we call it a siege or terrorism, this is something that used to happen Over There. And now it’s here. It wasn’t unexpected, and arrived more benignly than it could have, and today the country will get on with business as usual. But life is becoming a little less charmed. We are no longer so far away.

This piece was written for CNN.com and an edited version can be found online here. Another piece I wrote for CNN.com a while back on office oppression is right here or here.

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