Friday, December 31, 2010


I used some (actually most) of the money I got for Christmas to buy a copy of Windows 7 to replace the version I had accidentally wiped from my hard drive trying to set up a Linux dual boot. I did this so I would be able to run Windows-only software without worrying about the quirks of Wine. Since the firmware for my Belkin router only runs on Windows, this move also gives me the ability to modify the router's settings, which would really come in handy!

Tonight, when I tried to install Windows on my laptop, thinking to set up a dual boot, I found out that the Windows installer won't format a drive or partition that is already set up in a non-NFTS format. Just one more annoyance from dealing with Microsoft products. I was going to put in a Linux live CD (any live CD) just to use Gparted to format the hard drive, but something I read in the Windows 7 EULA gave me another idea. In the middle of all the ridiculous terms and conditions defining your ability to install only each copy of Windows on only one computer, on pain of having Paul Allen send a goon squad to your door to break your kneecaps, there was a provision spelling out your right to install the OS on one virtual machine.

"Aha!" I thought. "Virtualbox is in the Ubuntu repositories, right?" Sure enough, I was able to track down that program through the Ubuntu Software Center--no need to use Synaptic. After downloading the manual and reading about what the various settings mean, I was able to create a virtual machine and install Windows on it in a relatively short time. The quickness of the install probably came from my decision to use a dynamic hard-drive allocation so the initial virtual disk size is only 20 gigs. So far, everything's working well. In fact, I'm typing this post on Internet Explorer 9 on my virtualized Windows 7.

Only one minor thing annoys me. Apparently, Virtualbox can only display guest OS's in a "square" (4:3 aspect ratio) resolution, no matter what shape your monitor is. So I'm stuck with a 1024x768 block of Windows, with wide vertical stripes on either side. It's like a vertical version of the "letterbox" effect you get when viewing a widescreen movie on a square TV. Unfortunately, I can't get a screenshot because the Windows 7 screenshot tool only grabs the screen area covered by the OS. However, this is a minor annoyance, and so far all the software works, and I've successfully downloaded two programs.

All in all, this looks like a great way to keep all the good features of Linux while still having Windows at my fingertips.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Steven Erikson's Deadhouse Gates

I've read Steven Erikson's fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen out of sequence. Or rather, I've read parts of it out of sequence. I first stumbled onto the sixth book, The Bonehunters a couple of years ago and fell in love with Erikson's world for several reasons which I will detail below. After that, I read Books 5 and 7 before finally tracking down the first two books, Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates.

This out-of-sequence approach has yielded an interesting experience. I initially missed all the explanations of the world's politics, religion, and magic system that is always painstakingly reveled in the exposition of the early novels of a series. Fortunately, I've read enough fantasy with different approaches to magic to reverse-engineer some basic ideas about these things in the later volumes. It turns out that I was largely right about the way warrens work but missed the boat about the relationship between the fortune-telling Deck of Dragons and the gods.

The World of the Malazan Empire

Erikson does several things in his fictional world which make it distinct from many others.

Magic. One of the complaints about Dungeons & Dragons is that the world would look nothing like the conventional quasi-medieval setting portrayed if the magic users actually used the powers at their disposal. Erikson handles this problem in two ways. First, he makes mages in his world specialized. The source of magic in this world is warrens, other planes of existence whose energies can be drawn upon to create particular kinds of magical effects. Each wizard can only draw on one warren, and thus only cast one kind of magic. However, since wizards can also travel through their warren and take other people with them, every magic user has the ability to travel fast (but not to teleport).

Erikson does a much better job of integrating magic into his world than some fantasy authors. The role magic plays in the lives of the people of the world--from military campaigns to everyday life--is shown in a coherent way.

Time Scale. While Tolkien's Middle Earth has a detailed history of several millenia divided into three ages, the world of the Malazan Empire has a history stretching back for hundreds of millenia. Much like the real world, humans are latecomers to an astonishingly ancient biosphere in which many life forms preceded them. Imagine that the dinosaurs had also built civilizations and that a few of them are still around, and you have an idea of the history of this world.

Races. There are no elves or dwarves in the world of the Malazan Empire. Instead, Erikson makes up several unique fantasy races, both living and extinct. Each of these races also has its own distinct culture. For example, the reptilian Jaghut, though magically sophisticated, prefer a life of solitude and live in small family units rather than towns or cities. While I tend to use some version of the Tolkien/D&D list of fantasy races a lot, the existence of fantasy worlds with different paradigms is a good thing for the genre.

There is also an ethnic diversity within the human race that doesn't often exist in fantasy fiction, with its Eurocentric roots. Erikson's world features several regions dominated by dark-skinned people with fully developed and sophisticated cultures. Unlike Tolkien, in which all the important movers and shakers are white, black people hold positions of authority in Erikson's Malazan Empire.

The Book

Deadhouse Gates was the toughest read of the series for me so far. For some reason, it seemed ponderous to read at times, unlike any of the other books. I suspect part of that may be that the book carried the weight of a lot of exposition, being only the second in the series and the first to take place on the continent of Seven Cities. However, the first book, Gardens of the Moon, had even more expository duties and it was an incredibly engaging read. I think part of the problem might have been that much of the plot involves detailed descriptions of military logistics and complicated geographical formations, subjects which struggle to hold my attention.

Though it was slow in spots, the book was ultimately rewarding, with its gritty depiction of life in a war zone as rebellion against the Empire breaks out. This part of the overall story takes place in the continent of Seven Cities, as mentioned before. While some parts of Erikson's world don't remind me of any place in the real world (e.g. Genabackis, the continent on which Gardens of the Moon is set), Seven Cities is clearly the Fantasy Middle East. It's a desert land whose culture is dominated by a somewhat fanatical religion which serves as a basis for resistance against an occupying power. In this case, the religion also carries a whiff of Christian-style millenarianism to make it an even more potent incitement to violence.

We mostly see the rebellion through the eyes of soldiers and government officials of the occupying Malazan Empire. Fortunately, this practice is not too limiting, since many Seven Cities natives serve in the Malzan army. Our window into the perspective of the native culture is Kalam, a native who at one time had worked his way into a high position in the Claw, the Empire's elite band of assassins. In the process of pursuing a personal agenda shared with some of his friends, he plays a key role in helping the rebellion get under way.

Once the rebellion starts, it interrupts the status quo for several high-profile prisoners on a nearby island, who use the opportunity to escape. It also forces the Imperial Historian Duiker to join a train of soldiers and refugees desperately trying to make their way to the last city on the continent still held by Imperial forces. While Gardens of the Moon dealt mostly with setting up static military engagements, Deadhouse Gates is all about travel. Every major character is on their way somewhere for most of the book. In fact, one of the themes of the book seems to be that the journey reveals a person's character, while the destination often disappoints. Along the way, Erikson explores the social divisions both between Malazans and the "foreign" inhabitants of their empire, and within the class structure of Malazan society. He also takes an unflinching look at the realities of war and occupation and how people treat each other under stress. Thus, the book contains frank references to sex and violence. None of Erikson's works are pornographic, but they're definitely written for an adult audience.

The strength of this book is the characters. Deadhouse Gates features several returning characters (notably Kalam) from the first volume while also introducing new compelling people into the reader's world. My personal favorite of the newbies is Duiker, a historian and ex-soldier who ends up being the combination of scholar and bad-ass that every nerd wishes to be. Then again, all of Erikson's characters, from the elites to the masses, think a lot about what's going on in their world. That may be the most fantastic thing about this world, possibly more unrealistic than the magic, dragons, undead, and shapeshifters. However, it makes for a thought-provoking work even while telling a story full of action.

Deadhouse Gates has very few weaknesses. One of those may be a tendency for some of the refugee scenes to lag as Erikson captures the tedium of the marches between battles far too well. Strangely enough, the other major weakness in the book's pacing also involves the refugee train. Toward the end of the book, the final stretches of their march toward the holy city of Aren feel summarized rather than told, as if Erikson suddenly realized his page count was way up and he had to wrap things up. For all those problems, the refugee march is still one of the best parts of the book because of its dynamic conclusion.

Another weakness is that when Erikson decides to use literary allusions, he runs them into the ground. For example, when he writes about a certain character's death, he beats the reader over the head with the fact that he's trying to symbolize him as a Christ figure. It actually takes the reader out of the feeling of being in a fantasy world and reminds them of the real world too much.

Still, despite these weaknesses, Deadhouse Gates, like the rest of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is well worth reading.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Why Is There No CSI: The Roleplaying Game?

The post title says it all. It's a serious question. It came back to me while I was inputting a bunch of notes I made a couple years ago about adapting a nascent homebrew system to the police procedural genre. To me, this idea seems like such a no-brainer that I wonder why nobody in the industry ever thought of it. There are two major advantages to being the company that brings out that game.


One of the weaknesses of the RPG industry is that most of its fans (and thus, presumably, its designers and bean-counters) are geeks who enamored of the relatively esoteric genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Thus, the industry has remained viable, though not spectacularly healthy, even in down times, due to the devotion of its fan base. However, it's never really been mainstream. Well, there were probably a couple of periods when it was on the cusp: the early 80s before the Dallas Egbert incident and the early 2000s when D&D 3e first came out.

I wonder if part of the problem is that nobody ever makes a tabletop RPG out of something that has mainstream popularity. It's not like there's no precedent for a non-sf roleplaying-type game to enjoy some success. For example, murder mystery dinner party games, which appear to still have a following due to the magic of internet downloads, were actually somewhat fashionable in the mid to late 80s. Crime and mystery (along with action-adventure) are genres with some crossover appeal to both geeks and everybody else. This has been even more the case in the last decade, with shows like the Law and Order and CSI franchises dominating fictional network TV. If mainstream culture is ever going to be convinced that roleplaying isn't something only done by the terminally weird, this is the genre to do it in. And the potential for actual profit in exploiting a popular genre is also a factor for an industry that's always short on money.

One Shots

One of the biggest hassles of roleplaying is the idea of the ongoing campaign. It's amazing how many ambitious campaigns are derailed by schedules and life changes. Something that was supposed to last for a year or more of weekly sessions often ends up lasting maybe a month. And that's with a bunch of dedicated sf/roleplaying geeks. Imagine how hard it is to get through a planned campaign with more casual players. The idea that roleplaying must be done in long, interconnected arcs covering many sessions is probably one of the biggest psychological barriers to entering the hobby.

Fortunately, using TV crime shows as source material directly addresses this concern. Every show is a one-shot, so duplicating the feel of the genre dictates one-shot scenarios. That means there are no continuity issues if a player can't make it one week. The availability of a more casual kind of tabletop gaming makes the hobby accessible to a large number of casual players, possibly increasing the customer base.

So why hasn't anyone thought of this idea before? Is the industry really that bad at marketing?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Linux Mint 10 (Julia)

Last week, Linux Mint 10, codenamed Julia, was released. I'd been using the release candidate on my laptop for a while, but waited for the official release to post my thoughts. The new release continues Mint's tradition of pushing the envelope in terms of visual theming. Further, given the direction of Ubuntu's look and feel in the last couple of releases, Mint looks more and more like the best intro to Linux for Windows users.

Look and Feel

The most notable change from previous versions of Mint is the new default theme, Mint-X-Metal. This theme takes advantage of a new feature of MintMenu, Mint's Windows-like start menu. In the new release, the menu can be themed differently from the rest of the GNOME desktop. Mint-X-Metal applies a metallic texture to the menu.

The overall theme has changed radically from the last few versions of Mint. Instead of the bright greens of previous Shiki-Wise (green version of Shiki-Colors) themed desktops, Mint-X features a metallic gray look in both the theme and the default wallpaper. There's also a new icon set heavily based on Faenza, the Linux community's favorite square icons. Here's a screenshot of my laptop screen with all windows minimized.

Modified Linux Mint Desktop      

My desktop isn't the default setup. For one thing, the default setup has the panel on the bottom. There's also no dock out of the box; that's a program called Docky, which is available in the Linux Mint reposotories. One of the reasons I prefer Mint over Ubuntu is that it's easier in Mint to get this one-panel setup I've preferred since fairly soon after I started using Ubuntu.

Other Things

As usual, Mint comes with a more familiar set of default applications than Ubuntu (Thunderbird instead of Evolution for e-mail, Pidgin instead of Empathy for IM). In another advance for user friendliness, the Linux Mint Welcome Screen gives you a convenient set of links to helpful resources, including a downloadable user manual in .pdf format and tutorials and forums on the Linux Mint site. Overall, it's much easier to jump in and find out about Mint than about Ubuntu.

So far, the only drawback I've noticed is that Pidgin logs me out of Facebook chat a lot. Other than that, everything runs smoothly, making this the first Mint release that I didn't have some kind of major issue with.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


So I went to the Books & Co. at the Greene to attend an author event promoted in the store's newsletter. The book was a guide to how to pitch a book to a publisher and start collecting those royalty checks (if you're lucky). Now, I'm nowhere near finishing a novel, but I figured this is stuff I need to know, so I decided to show up anyway.

Unfortunately, the e-mail didn't mention that this event was something called "Pitchapalooza." Now, I'd read the name in a couple of places, but I hadn't connected it to this particular night at Books & Co. The concept is that these two authors listen to people pitch their book ideas and critique them, crowning a winner at the end of the night who gets a free consultation with them.

I left even though I could probably have come up with a pitch for one of my embryonic long-form fiction ideas. I can imagine something like this:

It's a fantasy novel, but instead of telling the story of how the farmhand becomes a great hero, it's the story of how the farmland becomes the dark overlord. We pervert every trope of the genre. For example, our protagonist meets a wizard who befriends and mentors him. Eventually, the protagonist kills him. The reader starts out routing for the kid then spends most of the book saying, "Oh no he didnt!" They'll be traumatized, but they won't be able to put it down!

The mainstream publishing industry is apparently so timid these days that this pitch wouldn't work for literary or popular fiction, but sf geeks love their violence, so it could have worked for the genre. In any case, now I think I should have stayed to see just how far I could have played this up and freaked out a room full of innocent people.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Writing and Work Routine

So I've decided that, if I ever want to get all the stuff I have scattered in legal pads around the house digitized, I should get back to a work routine similar to what I was doing when I had that brief freelance assignment. There's so much material that it would take forever to get it all done during my occasional nights at a bookstore cafe. So I've decided, five days a week, to make sure I spend at least a little time typing up and saving all those stories and RPG ideas. I can also spend some of this time working on things like my resume (which at this point is only hypothetical). I could also stand to work on the portfolio for my tech writing certificate. That way, I'll have plenty of time to improve things before I finally get that last class over with. I can also use some time to get some more of my classic raw cursive writing done for my newer story ideas. If I can get some kind of routine or system worked out, I could start flooding fiction magazines with material.

Anyway, today I got some work done on an original RPG system that I'd discarded a couple years ago. I also got a little more of a short story written. This story is particularly interesting to me because it lives in a sort of middle ground. The idea is that the main character hears the voices of what he believes to be "ice demons." However, even though the setting is clearly a made-up place that has nothing to do with the real world, I want the reader to wonder whether what the character experiences is real. 

The question is whether I can pull that off. And whether any market would be interested in such an ambiguous story. My guess is that, since I'm going to drop enough "fantasy setting" buzzwords early, I should be able to avoid the curse of the mistaken genre.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

DC Adventures RPG

So I picked up Green Ronin's new DC Adventures Hero's Handbook. I haven't read comic books on a regular basis in ages, and some of the Silver-Ageish conventions that DC mostly adheres to even today put me off. However, this book is the first rollout of the new Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition rules, and I was really curious about those, based on what I've heard. Once I saw that the new DC Adventures book included rules for creating new characters, not just for playing existing DC heroes, I decided to check it out. From what I've seen so far, I like the new rules, and my (minor) complaints are about the presentation and explanations rather than the mechanics themselves.

(Note: This entry uses a lot of tabletop gamer terminology and assumes the reader knows the meaning of these basic terms).


The biggest change in the M&M 3e rules is the change from D&D-based ability scores to a system more like Green Ronin's other flagship system, True 20. While D&D sets 10 as the average human score in each ability and adds +1 to the die roll modifier for every two points over 10, True20 and M&M 3e/DC Adventures use the ability score itself as the die roll modifier. Thus, the average adult human has a score of 0 in all abilities and every increase in an ability score also increases the modifier. A character can also "sell down" an ability, taking a penalty of up to -5 to die rolls involving that ability in order to gain more points for other abilities (and in M&M/DCA for other character traits).

As much as I love and respect D&D and its place in RPG history (4e aside), I much prefer a system in which your ability score is your modifier. It simplifies things and makes point-based character creation much easier. A bonus with applying this system to a superhero game is that hardly any character will need to sell down an ability, making the system psychologically more palatable.

M&M has always valued all ability scores the same in their point-based character creation system. This has been problematic because, using the traditional six d20 abilities, Strength and Dexterity have always been the most useful abilities in a combat-oriented supers game (with Strength influencing melee damage and a host of other things, while Dexterity affected the accuracy and damage of ranged attacks and the Reflex save).

Green Ronin solved this problem in the new rules by dividing Strength and Dex into two abilities. The new Strength attribute only affects the hero's ability to lift things and perform other impressive feats; the melee attack bonuses now belong to a new ability called Fighting. Similarly, Dexterity now only affects ranged attacks, while the Reflex defense bonus goes to the newly-minted Agility. This change also solves a problem inherent in most d20-based systems: ranged fighters are inherently better than melee fighters because a high Dex improves a character both offensively and defensively.

Power Design

The new M&M/DCA super power design rules move more in the direction of traditional supers games like Champions, separating flavor and mechanics completely. The Powers chapter mostly lists a series of "effects" that characters can generate, while leaving it to the player to decide what the effect is called or looks like in game.

For example, one effect is called Damage. It allows a character to make a melee attack and force the target to make a Toughness check to avoid gaining an injury. It's up to the player to decide whether this damage happens because the hero's fist turns to stone or because the hero uses special kung fu moves or for some other exotic reason.

This approach to power design can be overwhelming to the novice player, who might not have any idea how effects translate into the kinds of iconic superpowers they see in comic books. Fortunately, the game provides many prefabricated powers as examples of how the process works.


The biggest problem with the book is the way that iconic characters are used inconsistently in examples vs. their stats. For example, Captain Marvel is used as an example of the Activation flaw (which lowers the cost of normally always-on powers in exchange for a requirement that the character take an action to turn the power on). The idea is that, since Billy Batson must say the magic word "Shazam" to turn into Captain Marvel, all of Captain Marvel's powers actually have the Activation flaw. It makes sense and fits with the way Captain Marvel is presented in the comics, but it's not consistent with the way Captain Marvel's stats are presented in the back of the book. There, the requirement to say the magic word is presented as part of Cap's Secret Identity complication and a Power Loss complication that kicks in if Cap ever says the magic word and turns back to Billy Batson.

For the record, I think the way they handled Captain Marvel's powers in the back of the book is the correct way. However, this dual approach also highlights the fact that there's no real guidance about when to use an Alternate Form (heroic) power vs. when to make a transformation to heroic form a mere complication. I think I can figure out a pretty good guideline, but this issue might be really confusing to others.

Overall Impression

Despite the minor issues raised in the last section, I still like the system overall. The mechanics are flexible and consistent with the source material (though the power spread of the DC characters may have been compressed a little bit, especially at the upper end). My issues with consistency of presentation are only the difference between an A+ and an A-.



Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election 2010

I had originally planned to do a post detailing my predictions for the upcoming elections. Unfortunately, my time management skills suck, and I spent a lot of time yesterday trying to deal with a bad router. So my nice detailed post with race-by-race predictions for the Senate went down the tubes. However, since I just voted and the results are just starting to trickle in (and I'm not in a place where I can watch election results coverage anyway), I figured I'd post my general predictions. 

In analyzing the elections, I'm making a few assumptions that go against the conventional wisdom. The polls seem to indicate the Democrats will end up with 51-52 seats in the Senate, a loss of 7-8, while the Republicans will take over the Senate with around 230 seats, a Democratic loss of around 50 seats. However, there are a few problems with the polls. First, Rasmussen tends to do more polls than anyone else, and he has a pronounced house effect. Second, there's some evidence that even old reliable Gallup has put its thumb on the scale. Third, this may be the first election in which the exclusion of cell phones and the use of robo-polls may be misleading, as there's a pronounced robo-poll house effect
for the first time.

In light of these uncertainties, I assume that the Democrats will do better than people are thinking. That doesn't mean they won't lose seats. It's hard not to lose seats as the party in power in a stagnant, jobless recovery.

Senate:  Conventional wisdom says the Democrats will barely hold on to a majority in the Senate. I think they'll keep their majority with a decent margin of 54-55 seats, a loss of only 4-5. That doesn't mean everything's going to be rosy for the Dems on this side of Congress. I fully expect Harry Reid to lose in Nevada. I assume that Dems will win most races that have been considered close, but Harry Reid is a known and not very well-liked quantity in Nevada. True, there are multiple ways to vote against Harry Reid. However, there are also multiple ways to vote against Sharron Angle, and followers of the party in power are more likely to cast meaningless protest votes.

House: Unlike the pollsters and pundits, I expect control of the House to be closely contested. The Republicans will pick up quite a few seats, both because of economic discontentment and the fact that Republicans controlled redistricting in most states after the last census in 2000 (a factor that never enters into Senate races). Though I think the Democrats might have a fighting chance of holding the majority, I believe the most likely outcome is a narrow Republican majority somewhere in the 220s, a wave but not the kind of wave they've been hyping. I further predict the first act of the new Republican majority will be to form the Select Committee on Dead Horse Flogging to investigate whether the defunct ACORN rigged the election to keep the Reps from gaining 70 seats.

Governors: I have less to go on in these races than in the Senate contests because I never got the chance to go over the polling trends in individual races. I have no idea how many governors nationwide will be Republican or Democratic after today. I do have a strange feeling Ted Strickland will actually pull out his race over John Kasich. Strickland's been showing a sharp upward trend in the polls over the last few weeks, and Ohio's been seeing more economic "green shoots" than other states (though unemployment still remains over 10% statewide).

Friday, October 15, 2010

Gnome Theme Engine Installation

I'm really proud of myself right now for figuring out how to install the latest murrine engine in Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE), which I'm running on my home desktop.

My previous Linux experience has been almost entirely with Ubuntu-based distros (including the standard version of Mint). In those distros, you don't have to figure out what to do with Debian packages (.deb files). You have a Debian package installer (or in Ubuntu 10.10 the standard Software Center) that does all the work for you. However, in Debian and LMDE, you usually have to do some stuff in the terminal to install from a .deb.

After 3-4 tries, I finally managed to get the dance of ./configure, make, and  make install right. It took me forever to figure out that I needed to be logged in as root for the make install command to work. The single hardest part of working with the terminal is picking through the line after line of feedback the program gives you to try to figure out what went wrong. I don't know how many times I've been frustrated by things not working because I typed in the next command without noticing the error message immediately above the prompt.

Anyway, I want to show off after this quantum leap in my Linux skills. Here's a screenshot of the Ambiance Mint theme, complete with correct murrine engine and Faenza Mint icons


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cleaning My Room

No, I didn't get the whole thing cleaned up, though I got more than I ever thought was possible in only two hours.

It all started when I had a set of D&D dice out, rolling up random stat arrays. I had my dice lying on top of my  Pathfinder core book, which was also serving as a surface for the die-rolling. Unfortunately, I managed to move in just such a way as to tilt the book, spilling the dice onto the floor--or, more accurately, onto the pile of sheets and clothes that covered that area of the floor.

I managed to recover all the dice except the d4. Thinking that I'd better find that little caltrop before I stepped on it, I started pulling stuff off the pile to check under it. As I stumbled upon old, worn-out socks with holes in them, I threw them away while I was there. I kept any socks that were in reasonably good shape, giving them a provisional reprieve until I could confirm whether or not they had a mate in decent shape.

After I'd cleared all the socks off the floor, I saw that there was a decent-sized bare spot. In fact, it was big enough to fit a hardcover roleplaying rulebook in. It occurred to me that I could open up a lot more floor space by putting all my RPG books in a stable stack on the floor (as opposed to on top of a shifting mound of old socks). So I rounded up my books and put all the current ones in one big stack, putting books from obsolete games like D&D 3.0 and Gurps 3e in a separate pile, to be taken to the Bookery or some similar place and sold. By the time that was done, I'd cleared up even more space. I actually had a lane of clear floor stretching halfway around my bed! All that from just a couple of little organizational tasks. If I can get such dividends from so (relatively) little investment of energy, I may be able to clean the whole mess out eventually.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Odds and Ends

The big family project this week is cleaning out the sunroom so one of Grandpa's brothers can turn it into a downstairs bathroom. There was a lot of stuff in there, including some books from my first undergrad stint and some writing I'd done back in middle school and  high school.

The biggest lesson I learned from reading a few of the old stories is that, no matter how bad you think some of your writing is now, it was worse when you were 12-14. To be fair, though, I could see the complexity of the subject matter going up in the high-school stuff, even if the writing style was still woefully bad.

Some of the old books from literature classes stirred up some memories. I came across a book containing three plays by Bertolt Brecht. The only one I had read was Life of Galileo, for a class on the depiction of science in literature. I randomly opened the book to Scene 4, in which Galileo debates a bunch of old-school Aristotelian philosophers and mathematicians on standards of evidence and the search for truth. I'd forgotten how brilliant some of the dialogue in the play is. One of the best (or most effectively translated lines) was "Why try to be clever now that we at last have a chance of being just a little less stupid?" If any utterance echoes through the decades (or even centuries, if one believes this line reflected Galileo's thinking to some extent), this is it.

I decided to keep a translation of Friedrich Duerrenmat's The Physicists. It's a great play, but my most vivid recollection of it is a mistranslated line. I had read untranslated scenes from this play in a second-year German class, and then read the full English translation for that science-in-literature class. When I saw the English line, "The world has fallen into the hands of an insane female psychiatrist" (Act Two, p. 92 of the 1991 Grove Weidenfeld edition), I cringed. It's an accurate literal translation of the line, but the literal translation ruins the spirit of the line in English. In German, you can't talk about somebody's occupation without indicating their gender. Every word for an occupation has a masculine and feminine version. Duerrenmat wasn't trying to draw attention to the crazy psychiatrist's gender; the irony is the fact that the insane newly minted dictator of the world is a psychiatrist.

Then there were several books from a class on the modern English novel (meaning the modern period in the first half of the 20th Century). My most vivid memory from that class was how everybody thought the teacher was crazy. He had some eccentric ideas about education, including a tendency to put bizarre minutiae on exams. For example, we all joked that we'd never forget what the captain in Joseph Conrad's Typhoon called his umbrella ("the blessed gamp") because of this guy's obsession with it. The class was no problem for me, since I'm the king of useless, irrelevant information, but it was problematic for some of the other students.

My biggest problem is that I'm not optimally efficient at sifting through this material at this point. Recent developments in my life have made me more likely to reexamine my past in a new light. That slows me down, even though I now have the ability to say "enough is enough" and move on after following a tangent for so long. As opposed to my early undergrad stint, when research papers took me forever because I would read all kinds of off-topic material at the library.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Thoughts on "The Decision"

(Note: This was originally posted somewhere else on July 14)

I haven't commented anywhere on LeBron James' decision about where to play next year (except to register my correct guess on Facebook the day before). A lot has been written, pro and con, since then. A lot of it has been hilariously ill-informed (sports columnists are often worse than political pundits). For example, there's this gem from Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg. Suddenly it's an incredible betrayal to want to play with your friends and win championships, and Michael Jordan's career decisions bind every other free agent until the end of time. In case  you can't tell, I have no problem with James' decision to sign with Miami. I do have a problem with the primetime special used for something that should have been a press release or, in this day and age, a tweet on Twitter. It's possible that "The Decision" was ESPN's idea, and that James only went along with it for the charity money, but there's no definitive evidence that this was the case.

The thing that actually prompted me to write about this whole situation is the news I just saw on the ESPN screen crawl. Apparently, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is signing with Miami now. Z has been with the Cavs forever and is the only current Cavs player who predates the LeBron James era. Because of his longevity, and his pre-LeBron years as the best player on a string of mediocre Cavs teams, he's beloved by Cavs fans. This signing is probably not going to improve Dan Gilbert's mood.

So now the question is, how much is Miami going to raid the Cavs' roster? After all, Miami's still got about 4 roster spots to fill just to get to the minimum of 10, and the Cavs have a lot of relatively cheap talent. Is Anderson Varejao next? Well, okay, that's not likely because Miami's front court is pretty crowded at the moment. But what about one of the young three-point shooters, like Jamario Moon? I can see this getting ugly pretty quickly. Last year, I figured that the Cavs had about a 4th-5th seed playoff team without James, just because of the number of talented players they signed before and during the season. But this off-season, the East looks to be getting stronger, and if the Cavs lose too many players off their roster, their place in the pecking order could suffer even farther. To the extent that LeBron James talks Cavs players into coming down to Miami with him, the hatred in Cleveland could only get worse.

Monday, July 12, 2010

David Brooks Gets Honest

In his latest column, David Brooks makes the case that books are better than the Internet. This is hardly a revolutionary claim, but the arguments Brooks uses to back up the claim are disturbing and indicative of the heart of the conservative movement. He begins by recounting a couple of studies that show that school children given books over the summer perform better in the next academic year and that the expansion of broadband has resulted in a decline in math and reading scores.

I'm not going to dispute the studies. There are many reasons why books may be better at intellectual stimulation than the Internet. People might spend more online time Facebooking than looking up classics at Project Gutenberg. The Internet, because it is consumed from a screen, may encourage skimming rather than long, in-depth reading. However, Brooks, while he mentions the shallow skimming theory, doesn't think that's the main problem with the Internet. We get our first glimpse of his real beef with the web in this paragraph:

A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

This sounds harmless, and even laudable. Surely some books are better than others. The trouble starts when Brooks contrasts the qualities of the Internet:

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. New media are supposedly savvier than old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, anti-authority disputation.

Translation: The real problem with the Internet is that it encourages the questioning of traditional sources of authority like the "old media." Note that, though I linked the Dayton Daily News' version of the column, Brooks actually writes for The New York Times, the flagship of the beleaguered "old media," a formerly sacrosanct journalistic authority that is now frequently questioned from both the right and left.

And just in case you didn't get the point, Brooks doubles down:

But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

My problem with Brooks' analysis isn't a rejection of all hierarchy. I believe there is a hierarchy of ideas. Reason dictates that some ideas are better than others (e.g., more logical, more in line with observed reality). However, Brooks doesn't really believe in a hierarchy of ideas; he believes in a hierarchy of people ("greater minds" or "your teacher"). In his world, you're not supposed to respect a philosopher like Plato because of the quality of his ideas, but just because he's Plato. He slips up and admits a key tenet of conservative thought: the rabble must not be allowed to question their "betters." We can't have a world in which cartoonists/bloggers can criticize almighty authorities like NYT columnists. And naturally, the "betters" always include some group the conservative either belongs to or identifies with (in this case, "old media"). After reading this column, my hatred for all the jerks on the Internet has abated somewhat. After all, I'd rather live with idiotic commenters than the button-down world David Brooks envisions.

As inadvertent conservative confessions go, this one's not as bad as apologizing to BP or calling for higher taxes on the working class, but it is revealing nonetheless.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

First Night at the Adventurers' Guild

Friday night, I went to the Wright State Adventurers' Guild, having found out that the tabletop gaming club I'd gamed with as an undergrad had been reconstituted and that alumni were still allowed to play. I was looking forward to my first live gaming since a one-shot in somebody's Gen-Con hotel room a few years back. That didn't quite work out for this week, but I've still got my fingers crossed for next week.

I set foot in Oelman Hall for the first time since about 1989, the last time I took one of those huge, 200-person gen-ed classes in 109 Oelman. Oelman is one of two WSU quad buildings that hasn't been extensively remodeled. In fact, the floor tiles look like they're probably the exact same ones originally laid down in the 1960s. (Yes, every time I go into one of the old buildings for the first time this go-round, it always generates a nostalgia trip or comparison of how much things have changed in 15-20 years).

So I took the elevator to the third floor, and with some help from lounging Guild members waiting for the rest of their group to show up, I found the room the officers were in. Then I spent the next hour and a  half waiting and discussing things with the low-level officers who were actually present. Apparently, even though the start time is officially 6:30, few of the groups actually get rolling until about 8 (that, too, brings back memories).

I found out that only two out of the several groups at the Guild are playing 4e, much to my relief. Apparently, most of the gamers at WSU have had the bad (or at best indifferent) reaction to 4e that I've notice among sane people. Though my greatest fear was abated, I ran into the problem of the transition between quarters. A lot of the groups had wound down their campaigns for the academic year, and many didn't even show up, having decided not to try to start summer campaigns until next week. It was probably a good thing. I was in such a hurry when I packed my little RPG book bag that I just shoved in whatever happened to be lying around. Basically, I had a D&D 3.5 PHB plus the following random selections:
  • Two Mongoose Runequest books, which were already in the bag for some reason
  • The GURPS 4e Characters Book
  • The Star Wars Saga Edition core rulebook
  • The Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplay core book I bought at Half-Price Books a while back.
Unfortunately, the Guild seems to be heavy on d20 games, but not on Star Wars, so my selection wasn't a good match. The fact that I also forgot my dice would have also been an inconvenience, albeit a mild one since most gamers have a gazillion dice to lend if necessary.

Anyway, I spent most of the evening reading the Guild president's rough draft of a science-fiction novel. It wasn't bad for a beginner. There are some ways in which the guy could sharpen his writing, but he's avoided a lot of beginner mistakes (e.g., writing about ideas instead of characters, writing information dumps instead of scenes).

Odds are that I'll end up joining a d20 Modern group next week and actually get to play.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Feedback (Not the Rush Covers Album)

So I went into the workshop Monday with a fantasy story that was barely more than a rough draft. I felt like, in places, the writing was a little better than my average rough draft, but it still left a lot to be desired. I also knew there were major issues like places where I'd summarized instead of writing scenes just because I was on a deadline and in a hurry. Then there were the places where I'd forgotten to include information and written inconsistent information. Sometimes my rough drafts are little more than brainstorming sessions where I throw ideas against a wall and see what sticks, and I don't always go back and correct earlier sections with the new information. I figure I'll make sense out of this mess during revision. Unfortunately, this time all I had time to do was go back and try to fix the worst of the inconsistent information, and maybe spare the class the three different names for the village in which the story is set and the two different names for one of the major characters. I was finishing this up on Sunday about 6:00 p.m., and if I didn't get it posted in time to give my classmates Sunday evening to read it, I would basically derail everything.

My disappointment in not being able to at least edit the word choice and grammar mingled with my normal anxiety when I'm going to be the center of attention in class (see my worries about my exercise facilitation). By class time on Monday, I was too insecure about this particular draft to do a reading. I was afraid if I tried to read, I would spot some bad writing every few seconds, and my reading would would go something like this: "Lorem ipsem--D'oh!--e pluribus unum--Gah!--que sera sera--Dammit!" Basically, it would sound like Tourette's Syndrome Theater Presents: Dramatic Readings of Amateur Fiction

Fortunately, at this point in my life, I've advanced past the point where I can differentiate my writing from my own ego, so I was able to smile and nod as the critiques came in:

"Too much summarizing" (Fair)
"Love interest isn't well-developed enough for the main character to accidentally kill his whole village over her" (Totally fair)
"Main character doesn't have much of a reaction to killing off his village" (Yep, I was really in a hurry writing that last scene)
"All the magic's in the last half" (Yeah, definitely dropped the ball on that, given that one character uses magic in his everyday life)
Etc., etc., etc.

However, I did get a few ideas I had never thought of. Most notably, there was the idea that the content of this story, fully realized, would be the first few chapters of a novel, not just the opening chapter or the first of a series of linked stories. Now that I think about that, I can completely see it.

The written feedback was also helpful. Just tonight, I started going through all the questions about the plot and the setting that my classmates came up with and writing answers down. This gave me the opportunity to do some more detailed world building than I'd even done before. In particular, I was able to sit down and really examine the magic system. The world in which this story is set was originally supposed to be a D&D setting, but since I'm using it for fiction first, I decided that I should go down the list of D&D conventions (I'm talking pre-4e, BTW) and decide which ones I want to keep.

When it comes to magic, the first major tropes to go were
  • "Fire and forget" Vancian magic. This system was added to D&D for game mechanical reasons and isn't found in non-D&D fiction outside of Jack Vance.
  • The planes as a source of magic power. I guess this one isn't a standard D&D trope, but I had originally had a system where my spellcasters got their powers from different planes. I decided that talking about things like the Ethereal Plane in non-D&D fiction, even though WotC doesn't claim to own any intellectual property in them, would be a little like talking about dilithium crystals in any sci-fi setting other than the Star Trek universe.
Having started to slough off the conventions foisted on the original setting by archaic game design, I'm now liberated to think about things in terms of what makes a compelling fictional universe and what works for the kind of stories I want to take place in this world. The only problem is that, once this class is over, there are still going to be at least a couple of other projects ahead of this one.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

New Old Story

So it turns out that my boot camp attendance was for naught, at least as far as generating a story for class is concerned. Though I've decided I'm going to finish that story and submit it somewhere (maybe to Nexus just for fun; it's not the kind of story that's going to make money anyway), it's probably way too short for the length guideline. And the other story I was considering for this purpose isn't revealing itself to me fast enough for the deadline. So, given the choice between two unpalatable options, I'm going for Option #3.

Option #3 would be this old story I'd started on, which was set in a world I'd tried to create as a D&D campaign setting. I'm about as far along on it as I was on the other story at the end of boot camp, but this one has so much more waiting to happen. Now I just have to finish getting it all on paper by Friday.

In other news, I apparently nailed that exercise facilitation I mentioned in my last post. Nine out of ten. Shocked the hell out of me. I have never felt less confident about anything while I was doing it than I did about that exercise.

Monday, May 17, 2010


I had to lead a writing exercise in class today. While looking for ideas about an exercise to get people writing courageously (a vague, amorphous concept not conducive to easy ideas), I looked at this self-help book for writers called The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron. While it didn't have any exercises that were appropriate for a class, I did manage to take enough inspiration to come up with a half-assed, serviceable exercise on my own.

One particularly interesting passage dealt with the role of anger in a well-adjusted person's life.

Anger is meant to be acted upon. It is not meant to be acted out. Anger points the direction. We are meant to use anger as fuel to take the actions we need to move where our anger points us. With a little thought, we can usually translate the message that our anger is sending us.

"Blast him! I could make a better film than that!" (This anger says: you want to make movies. You need to learn how.)

"I can't believe it! I had this idea for a play three years ago, and she's gone and written it." (This anger says: stop procrastinating. Ideas don't get opening nights. Finished plays do. Start writing.)

"That's my strategy he's using. This is incredible! I've been ripped off! I knew I should have pulled that material together and copyrighted it." (This anger says: it's time to take your own ideas seriously enough to treat them well.)

I would add that when you're angry about your job, the anger isn't saying, "Kill your boss" (no matter how evil and narcissistic your boss actually is). It's telling you it's time to get out of dodge and work toward doing what you really want to do with your life. And it only took me about 4-5 years after first getting that feeling to act on it. This passage represents the thing I most wish somebody had told me 10 years ago.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Wright State AIC Boot Camp

So I went to the writing boot camp event I mentioned a couple of days ago. At first, I didn't feel like it was the most productive time I'd ever spent. The first two of the three sessions I'd signed up for felt like the most tedious waste of time ever. The writing seemed to be like pulling teeth, and I was painfully aware that of how little I was actually getting done. Writing first drafts in longhand can give you the illusion of accomplishing more than you think, but I'm immune to that deception these days. I know exactly how many (or how few) words a page of my handwriting contains.

Really, the magic didn't start happening until the last quarter of the last session. That's when I really started getting into a zone and writing feverishly. At the end of the day, my output was close to seven handwritten pages for a word count of about 850. In retrospect, that's not necessarily disappointing. I was talking to one of my classmates who attended both days, and she said she got about three pages of 12-point Times New Roman on the first day and ended up with a total of eight pages over the two days. Like me, she was working on an entirely original story for class. Three pages of the required 12-point Times New Roman is approximately 1200 words to my 850. In light of that fact, I guess I didn't do too bad for one day of trying to write a totally new story.

My biggest problem is that one of my goals was to decide which of two possible stories to write for the class' original story requirement. Even though basically all the work I got done today was on one of the stories, I'm still not sure I've decided. Even though I love the way this story is turning out, I'm not sure it's long enough to submit for this assignment. The professor's 15-20 page guideline for grad student stories is just that, a guideline. However, I'm afraid this story might end up being short enough to qualify as a short-short story. If you work in that length, she requires you to submit multiple stories that add up to at least 10 pages, and I don't have any ideas for other stories I could bundle with it.

Nevertheless, I like this whole boot-camp idea. I feel like if I could do one of these on a regular basis, I could really get a lot of writing done. Seriously, this sounds like a good concept for a general writing group unaffiliated with any university.

Friday, May 14, 2010

LeBron Watch

According to ESPN, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert held a press conference to announce that he is not firing coach Mike Brown after the debacle of a series against the Celtics. I find that somewhat surprising, because when I was watching ESPN on TV at Wright State, killing time before an appointment, I assumed that the announcement of a press conference at 2:30 meant somebody was getting fired. Either that or Gilbert was going to do something really unexpected like move the team to Seattle. It'll be interesting to see what happens now, since somebody's got to take the fall when a team with this much talent loses in the second round.

Of course, the big question now is where LeBron James will play next season. For some reason everybody thinks the Knicks are a top contender. I don't see why. They sucked this season only marginally less than they did last year. Bottom line, they didn't make the playoffs. The way I see it, James doesn't need the money, and he doesn't need more media exposure in the U.S., so he will want to go somewhere that offers him a chance to contend for a championship in the near future. I don't follow the NBA closely enough to know which decent teams have the cap space to sign LeBron, but I'm pretty sure New York is out of the picture unless they trade for  Tony Parker and win the lottery to get the #1 draft pick.

But since I've written this prediction on the internet in a public place, we can probably assume that the Knicks will sign Lebron on July 2 without either of those two events happening.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Writing Boot Camp

It looks like I'm going to be on the Wright State campus Saturday to take part in an annual writing boot camp. The idea is to get writers to sit in the chair for long periods of writing interspersed with breaks in which you can interact with the other writers and possibly get advice and feedback about your project. I'll be using the time to try to get as much of my original story for class done as I possibly can.

I actually decided to register at the last possible second, mostly because of some last-minute confusion about my story. The story I was originally going to try to write was having some major issues at the conceptual level. I still believe in this story, and I'll write it someday, but I'm not sure I can develop it into something halfway decent by next Friday night, when I'm supposed to post a draft to Course Studio. On the other hand, a writing exercise we did at the beginning of class today inspired me to start thinking about another story I'd toyed with writing. This one isn't my usual sf stuff, but it's a better vehicle for the techniques we're studying in class, and it doesn't have as many issues as the other one.

Since I'm still undecided, I figured I would just jump back and forth between both of them at the boot camp, depending on my mood and and that of the writer's block demon. With any luck, I'll figure out by the end which story will be my class story, and hopefully have a huge chunk of the first draft done.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Charles Baxter, Dostoyevski, and Rush

I was reading an essay in Charles Baxter's The Art of Subtext for my creative writing class. This particular essay was called "Creating a Scene." The title's a clever play on words, as the essay's really about causing a commotion in the world of your stories. The idea is that too many writers (particularly of literary fiction) have their characters avoid conflict, a behavior common in real life. Unfortunately, people read fiction for the excitement and conflict, so good fiction requires characters to be more confrontational than many people are in real life. The essay had three effects on me:

Validation: I like sturm and drang in my stories. Everything I write that isn't set in an imaginary world tends to involve getting inside the head of somebody mentally unstable and to have a body count. I didn't need anybody to tell me to have my characters say and do outrageous things that move the action along. It was just nice to have one of those authors of snobbish literary fiction endorse something I already instinctively believe in.

New Author to Read: Baxter went on and on in this essay about the famous 19th-Century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevski. Specifically, he mentioned Dostoyevski's tendency to create characters who "make scenes" and to write intense scenes that made his readers uncomfortable. This tendency caused many of his contemporaries, including Anton Chekhov, to call him "indulgent." This attitude is apparently echoed by a lot of modern creative writing professors and students. But hearing about this disconcerting intensity made me decide that I'm going to have to read me some Dostoyevski at some point. The fact that the snub of Dostoyevski is mirrored by a near universal acclaim of authors like Alice Munro only adds to this urge. We've had to read a bunch of Alice Munro stories this quarter, and I've come to the conclusion that, while I can tell she's a skilled writer, reading thirty pages of her at a time is a chore for me.

Crazy Tangent on Music: Reading about all this indulgent intensity immediately made me think of some of my favorite bands. I had the new Coheed and Cambria album The Year of the Black Rainbow playing in my car's CD player last week, so I guess I was primed to think about why I like bands like Coheed and Rush. Their styles can also be described as indulgent and over-the-top. Rush has sometimes been slammed by music critics for their "too busy" arrangements. Of course, anyone who's ever listened to "Tom Sawyer" knows that's what makes them fun to listen to. Indulgence is the point of hard rock genres. Meanwhile, Coheed and Cambria has songs like "Welcome Home," which sport indulgent, over-the-top arrangements and lyrics that can make some listeners uncomfortable. So basically, I like my literature like I like my music: with an emphasis on mythic, intense subject matter or emotional states rather than real-life monotony.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Ohio Primary

Today, I voted in a primary election for the first time since my senior year in high school (1988--yes, I proudly voted for Dukakis). This isn't because I'm politically unaware. I've voted in every even-year general election since then. The problem is that the odd years usually feature obscure races and issues. They're so obscure, in fact, that I'm lucky to even know what's on the ballot in those years. It turns out that the same holds true for primary elections in even-numbered non-presidential years.

Actually, the most notable thing about the ballot was how few contested races were on it. It was six computer screens long, and most of the races featured one candidate running unopposed or no candidate at all (presumably races the party had conceded to Republicans). In the major contested race, for U.S. senator, I voted for Jennifer Brunner, mostly because Lee Fisher strikes me as incompetent. The biggest thing I remember about the local primary coverage is this non-sequitur from the Dayton Daily News

Despite Fisher’s efforts, DHL pulled out of Wilmington and jilted 8,000 workers. Fisher calls it “the greatest tragedy of this recession.”

The central message in Fisher’s campaign is jobs. His TV ad says it, his campaign literature says it, and Fisher says it in nearly every campaign appearance as he touts his two years as state development director and his continuing work on economic development for Ohio.
That's right, this guy is soliciting donations as the jobs candidate by highlighting a huge failure to save jobs. Since there's no competence advantage for Fisher, I figured I might as well vote for the person who seems to have her heart in the right place. Not that it did any good. It looks like Fisher has won by around 54%-46%. In any case, I still have to vote for Fisher in the Fall to keep W's former OMB director out of the Senate.

I also voted in favor of renewing the Third Frontier program. Not only is investing in technology good for the economy, but it could also be good for my own career prospects as an aspiring technical writer. Selfishness and altruism actually converge in this case, so it was an easy decision.

Finally, I voted in favor of relocating the Columbus casino approved in the gambling initiative last Fall. I was tempted to vote against it and leave them stuck with the old location just to teach politicians a lesson about writing such detailed proposals into the state constitution, but I thought better of it.